The Error of an Era: The End of Elections

8 06 2012

The failure of Tom Barrett to beat Scott Walker in Tuesday’s recall election was probably about a lot of things. For social historians of this era, though, it will be this: a miscalculation of epic proportions, an error that defines the post-Citizens United era.

The public rage after Governor Walker instituted his de facto recission of public workers’ collective bargaining rights was palpable and widespread. It was by no means universal, but it brought together lots of people who felt targeted, misled, and who saw the legislation as an existential threat to their economic security and well-being. Wisconsin’s public sector after all is storied–Wisconsin passed the country’s first public worker collective bargaining law–and public sector workers in that state came from all partisan stripes and economic classes.

The direct action that resulted, occupation of the capitol building, was a reasonable response. The decision to turn all of that activist energy into an election campaign was fatally misguided.

I argued, on the heels of the Citizens United decision, that the left could finally admit that elections are not a feasible method of obtaining particularly economic goals, and that it should begin exploring alternative, direct action methods; particularly, occupations, work stoppages, and boycotts:

With the electoral process eliminated as a viable strategy, resources can finally be diverted to organizing at the community and workplace level. All this decision does is remind us that a small number of corporations–by no means corporations generally–have accumulated much too much power and wealth.

On the single issue of collective bargaining rights, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were united on an activist level. Millions more agreed in spirit, if not enough to take any sort of direct action. The conditions were ripe for some kind of direct action that would have forced the government’s hand–a work stoppage, boycotts of public services, occupations of facilities. The millions of dollars and the thousands of hours of activist energy spent on an election campaign, if diverted to direct action, could not only have ground the machinery of the state to a halt, but would also have created a well-organized, on-the-ground organization of activists who have worked together, fought together, and developed invaluable social relationships. The attendant electoral advantage would have expressed itself naturally in November and again in subsequent elections.

Elections are no longer a fruitful means for progressive change. Citizens United cemented in fact something that was already more or less true: the wealthy, both corporations and individuals, have an outsize influence on elections that is nearly impossible to overcome. President Obama’s 2008 election campaign, soaked as it was in Wall Street cash, was not an exception to this fact but an expression of it. Public intellectuals and activists who advocate for elections as a way to achieve any fundamental reform are wrong in every instance. Increasingly, their only arguments will be negative ones–“The other side is worse”–and, with each passing election, we’ll see that even where elections are won, the power of the ultra-wealthy will be such that public relations campaigns and lobbying smother legislative initiatives in the crib.

Corporate power has purchased the electoral process. Pouring any more money and energy into it is not worthwhile at all. It’s over. Volunteering for or giving money to an election campaign is a waste of that time and money in every instance. Debate and discussion about the variable merits of candidates, the positioning of candidates on issues, fundraising, relative strength in different states and among different demographics, is not a serious use of anybody’s time or intellect.

For the foreseeable future, in other words, electioneering and election work–fundraising, door-knocking, blogging, running for office, whatever it is–is in no way progressive or left wing, in each and every instance. To the contrary; it’s essentially the political equivalent of playing the lottery, a habitual distraction predicated on infinitesimally small chances of achieving anything, and in that way it diverts resources from real change and is inherently conservative, biased towards the status quo.

Wealth, or capital, engages in direct action all the time: capital flight and strike threats are the basis for almost every piece of nasty legislation, and every corporate welfare or tax giveback, that state, local, and the federal government have passed for years. All the talk about “increasing confidence” for “job creators,” is a different way of saying appeasing striking capital. It’s the direct action that makes the change. The left for some reason has become hypnotized by chimera of electoral change, and we see the result: even when the left wins an election, they can achieve little, rebalance power not at all, and income inequality and debt peonage grows and grows.

Protests: Merging Means and Ends

21 05 2012

Ugh. There’s no good way to go about this, particularly so soon after the protests have settled and the fact and myth detritus is yet to be sifted through. Forensics at this stage are dicey.

I’ve never been keen on protests as purely symbolic gestures, though I generally don’t criticize them, as speech acts have an (admittedly de minimis) inherent value in a republic. Protests qua protests typically serve as an internal act of organizing–honing organizational processes, identifying activists and leaders, developing messages, and serving the omnipresent need for “consciousness raising.” But protests as pure speech acts are ephemera–or, maybe better, phenomena–that should express organizational acumen and announce a program to the public, rather than being the program itself. In other words, an organization’s strength won’t come from protests; protests should be an expression of strength built as a result of direct action contending with the status quo.

The protests that unfolded over the weekend, particularly over the last twenty-four hours, reflect the lack of a means-ends connection. Their listing from an identifiable objective, perceived lack of focus, and disparate employment of means are a function of not having an objective–even a grand one, like Gandhi’s all-encompassing goal of an independent nation void of all forms of social violence–and thus being unable to calibrate their activities to that vision.

That said, the movement is nascent; it may well be that only through large-group action, even an amorphous action, can it begin to develop a vision through group consensus. That process will be a slow and meandering one, but its product may for that reason be a particularly adamantine one. What’s more, considered as speech acts, protests warrants evaluation on the content of the speech; insofar as the messages communicated to the public were of perverse public priorities, the immorality of endless foreign and domestic war, and the insularity of global leadership, the speech is at least reasonable, at best commendable.

Means and ends in movement building are inextricably linked. This is by no means settled, and it was a point of contention between Gandhi and his critics, between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X.

The issue is this: is there a disconnect between means and ends, such that a movement’s tactics are only important inasmuch as they create conditions for implementing organizational goals? Or is the connection a necessary one–where the conditions arrived at will inextricably look like the tactics adopted?

This was Gandhi’s key assertion for the 40+ years he spent helping build the swaraj movement in India in the face of critics from both his flanks who argued respectively for cooperation with the British for gradual independence, and armed resistance to the institutions of British repression to force independence. Gandhi consistently and passionately argued for decades that whatever independence India achieved would look like the struggle that achieved it. For a stable state where all classes could truly participate in their own governance, where British inhumanity would not merely be replaced by high-caste or military inhumanity, only firm and unwavering participatory and strategic nonviolence could be employed as a tactic.
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Quantifying Social Science Units

17 01 2012

The positional advantage enjoyed by classes of individuals–privilege–is an important factor in operation of social systems. I worry, because particularly on the left, it is considered a very important–often the most important–factor, but I don’t know exactly what it means, or, more to the point, how it works. Reified from an explanatory concept to a concrete concept, it is often little more than a rhetorical cudgel that can have a desultory effect on civic discourse, and thus become trivialized. It should go without saying that exactly because privilege in some sense or another “operates,” its trivialization is a real problem.

Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene was a revelation to me in high school, at least to the degree I could understand it. I re-read it every few years, and so when the 30th Anniversary Edition dropped* I was particularly excited, the added sections and footnotes serving something like hidden bonus tracks. When I got to the short section where Dawkins first suggests the existence of “memes,” the cultural (or social) equivalent of genes–indivisible units of learnable cultural information, I recalled for the first time really disagreeing with it when I first read the book. It was almost viscerally unpleasant. The short excursus on memetics is dissonant from the rest of the book, which while packed with thought experiments and analogies is actually pretty stolidly scientific and meticulous.

A week or so ago a Twerkuffle** broke out between various political writers and journalists on my Twitter timeline. The details of it aren’t important; the relevant portion is that the word “privilege,” as in “racial privilege,” was used a number of times, and I had a reaction similar to that I had when first encountering “memetics”. This got me thinking about what the two concepts–“meme” and “privilege”–have in common and why they strike a resonant tone with each other in my mind.

Social scientists, and the journalists/essayists (I’m just going to call these people “writers” from now on) who synthesize social science for public debate, have always had trouble with this kind of thing. From the Enlightenment until probably around Marx’ time, political philosophers and other intellectuals had a sort of tic where they would reify concepts to explain observable behavior or historical conditions–you know the tic I’m talking about; it was usually expressed by Capitalizing the first letter to make it seem Big and Important and deserving of a Proper Noun. This is actually a kind of logical fallacy, and it makes reading a lot of the early modern philosophers so grating. I don’t believe in an Over-Soul that can actually act on the natural world. It’s like when you meet someone who says they don’t believe in a god but they do believe in an “energy” that we’re all a part of. That’s nice, but it’s also either meaningless or just employing a synonym for god.

Dawkins raises and moves on from the idea of memes in just a handful of sentences, but the “work” on them has been plentiful, and the concept has certainly entered popular consciousness. What bothers me is when they are treated as actual, concrete entities that can be studied somewhat quantitatively, but they haven’t been properly defined. Remember that in The Selfish Gene Dawkins was advocating for the “gene-centered” view of evolution by natural selection. A debate then raging (and still on-going) in evolutionary biology was at what “level” natural selection operated: are “traits” selected? Individual organisms? Groups? Entire species? Dawkins and his fellow travelers were arguing that in fact natural selection is unconcerned with anything of a “higher” level than genes–he famously said that bodies are nothing more than machines meant to ferry genes around. Evolution is the process of differential survival of competing alleles in a genome.
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Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” & His Defense of Protesting Rubes

14 03 2011

It’s useful to take the time to look into history sometimes. Particularly when details of that history are shorn of context and held bare in a spotlight as proof of current righteousness.

We get it.

I don’t begrudge the tea party activists their protests; though I get the sense they feel that only their protests “count,” that theirs is true populist rage but nothing else is. If you want to protest taxes you perceive as too high, hey, that’s a long tradition in America. Go buck wild. But don’t then look at the massive protests for immigration reform, labor rights, against the war, and pretend they’re less meaningful because they’re somehow un-American or not “real.”

We get it.

The Tea Party campaign has taken the powerful and expansive ideas of the revolution and dulled their power by limiting them to being “anti-government.” The Founding Father’s weren’t “anti-government.” They were anti- lots of different things. Some were practically monarchists, others French-style Jacobin democrats. There was one thing common to almost all of them, though: they were radicals. By the measure of the time, they were progressives and they were radicals. This is a bald fact. They wanted to engage in social engineering, to undo the entire social, political and economic system and rebuild it according to commonly-held principles. They wanted to form the first republic in the history of civilization to officially forbid government interference in religion and vice versa. It is not at all a debate that within the at-time “modern” world, America’s revolutionary leaders were radicals–revolutionaries, after all.

Guess what we get?

And Jefferson, who provides right-wing activism with some of its most potent rhetoric, was on the radical end of that radical group. Jefferson rested his theory of government on a foundational need to formally limit the power of three classes (said another way, he really fucking hated the following groups of people): aristocrats, clergy, and creditors. He wasn’t a fan of slave traders either, but coming from a slave owner that’s not really compelling.


Aristocrats to Jefferson were not a political class as much as an economic class. They were the landowners. They weren’t powerful because their title was a magic word; their title was powerful because it represented ownership of property that was impossible to dislodge from their grip. As to clergy, he said once there would have never been a single infidel if there had never been a single clergyman. He used the phrase “monkish ignorance.” You get it. That one’s obvious. Creditors–sometimes “bankers,” some times other wacky 18th century nicknames for them, like “stockjobbers,” though that one is specific to London–he loathed probably because he was in debt his whole life. But also he saw the hold of debt by one free person over another as a threat to democracy. Prior to industrial economies of scale, the creditor was most responsible for the economic misery of the working class husbandman or tradesman. It was a vacuous freedom to Jefferson to work all your days for the benefit of another who expends no labor.

Which brings us to his “Tree of Liberty” letter to William Smith, Read the rest of this entry »

The Brutal Story of Women in Afghanistan

13 02 2011

Mother Jones has an absolutely shattering story about a female prosecutor in Afghanistan fighting assassination attempts to prosecute men for beating their spouses.

The viscerally grossest part of gender discrimination is that it begins in the family, by parents. Fathers, mothers, and grandparents all contribute to various forms of conditioning, conforming their kids to certain roles and behaviors. Of course this isn’t limited to girls, but the difference is that in extremely patriarchal societies, this extends past childhood–daughters remain “fictional children” until another man claims them. The fact that this authority extends into adulthood means that the structure of the family reaches into civil society–thus, just the one female prosecutor in all of Afghanistan.

No society is free of this problem, but there can’t be any reasonable objection to the claim that the phenomenon is significantly weaker in “the West” and other advanced industrial societies.

This is what I mean: in Afghanistan, the only means of protest available to many women is self-immolation.

At the bottom of the power structure, they don’t have control over anything but their physical body, and even that only in the literal sense. It defies the imagination, a predicament so desperate, so frustrating, so absolutely brutal and devoid of any love or support, that you would not even merely take your own life–but do so as a form semi-public protest in the most painful way imaginable.

This is an absolutely intolerable state of affairs.

Modeling an Open Chicago: Taking The City Back

4 10 2010

This is the first in a series.

They know what’s best for you.


With an open Mayoral seat, Chicagoans a generation removed from the last competitive election for that office are unsure of their footing. The media is either causing or reflecting that confusion, unsure where to start an analysis of what this election “means,” what will determine its outcome, who the players are. Path of least resistance: we focus on the personalities running, the staff they’re hiring, the money they’re raising. Is this a new chance at democracy? Have we had democracy all along? Does Chicago need a strong hand? Or are we looking for the next Harold? White? Black? Latino? Man? Woman? Gay? Straight? Machine? Progressive?

The cat’s away. The mice are frantic.

“Progressives” are eager to make this election a change election, to “take the city back” from what they perceive as decades of corporatist policies under Daley’s leadership. Their archenemy is Rahm Emanuel, the insider’s insider who has openly mocked progressive leadership nationally and who made a curious insta-fortune on Wall Street after his years in the Clinton White House. And, it should be noted, who made his bones raising money for Mayor Daley. Whet Moser of the Reader directs us to a painfully prescient piece by David Moberg from those days, wherein Moberg by simply looking at Daley the Younger’s fundraising deduces that the “new Machine” will be run by big money rather than neighborhood patronage:
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“The Guide To Being Brown”, By Everybody Else

11 08 2010

I had a clashing of two worlds that happens to brown people, particularly first generation brown people; this is when different groups of your friends collide. In this case it was some friends from work meeting some Assyrian friends of mine. Afterwards, one of my friends said I didn’t act like myself around my Assyrian friends.

“How do you know I’m not not acting like myself around you?” I asked. It wasn’t snide; I was honestly asking. To me, both selves are equally me.

This issue has been flogged to death; suffice to say that if you are white and have brown or black friends, please never tell them they’re “basically white.”

This is more common than you’d imagine, particularly for brown people of my ilk; I belong to a tiny ethnic group (less than 4 million worldwide) with no nation-state and who aren’t that phenotypicaly distinct from descendants of Europeans. There aren’t enough of us to generate stereotypes (except parochially–talk to people from West Rogers Park or Sodertalje). A creepy anthropological study of the people of northern Iraq (called “Southern Kurdistan” in the study) from the 1950s cataloged the Assyrian tribes and provided things like the average size of their skulls and chests, and the authors noted that many Assyrians are often “very light complected” and “could pass as Northern Europeans”. My mom for example has blonde hair, greenish eyes, and milky fair skin; my dad on the other hand is dark, has a prominent Semitic nose, and deep-set dark features. I’m undeniably brown. But because I skateboarded and listened to punk rock as well as hip hop, and shed my accent, when push came to shove people would be kind enough to inform me that I was “basically white”.

How cool is my mom? Studying science in Basra in the 60s.

I don’t want to discuss a struggle with identity or the prejudice (or advantages) I’ve had because I’m brown and working class. Again, that’s a boring story, boo hoo, sometimes things are hard. That’s not my point.
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