The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Author: Mandos Page 1 of 5

Plus c’est la même chose


Jeremiads notwithstanding, it appears that Biden’s strategy of appealing to Trump-disgusted suburban voters worked. At the US presidential level, at least, left-populists and Sanders supporters proved to be essentially irrelevant, politically. The Democratic consultant class has had its biases confirmed. What is, haha, left to the left-wing populist is to double down on the jeremiads: to predict that in the future, the inevitable failure of now-successful beige neoliberal centrism to reinstate its heavenly mandate in the USA will result, down the road, in the election of a smart fascist/right-populist Man On Horseback, if we’re luckymerely a Viktor Orbán figure or suchlike for the American context — or worse, possibly much worse.

This reasoning seems very plausible to me. Because it is true that unless the neoliberal establishment has a change of heart, Bidenist/Obamaist US leadership will not be able to turn the ship around from an on-going trajectory of national and global decline. And insofar as that decline is felt in shrinking living standards, and insofar as “beige centrism” manages to suppress left-wing alternatives, the population will likely turn to forceful/violent right-wing populism, and all the inherent divide-and-conquer grifts that right-wing populism brings with it alongside the nationalist emotional highs and the “sugar rush.” As I said, it seems very plausible.

One of the bad habits of neoliberal intellectualism is an excessive reliance on “counter-intuitive” explanations as exemplified by the once-popular book Freakonomics.   We should be rightly suspicious of narratives that tell us that things we view in common-sense terms as bad are actually good. Sometimes counter-intuitive explanations like that are valid, but only sometimes. But we should not fall into the reverse trap and always uncritically accept simpler explanations that happen to match our moral intuitions. A common left-wing moral intuition is what I explained above: A people increasingly deprived of access to the good life and unable to access progressive responses to that deprivation will eventually provide reactionary forces a breakthrough. It has, after all, happened before.

It is the implied determinism that we should view with at least a little bit of suspicion. First of all, although we should heed history’s warning signs, history actually does not truly repeat reliably, and context matters. Trump’s senility and incompetence was, in point of fact, part of the Trump political brand. It was the riposte to a failing elite in a time when elite “competence-signalling” was part of the elite self-image. The specific trajectory to the “competent Trump” is much harder to fathom, when the incompetence was specifically a part of what he was and still is lionized for by his most ardent followers.

If we leave aside the typical and easy materialist determinism that thrives particularly on the more left end of the spectrum and accept a little bit of “counter-intuitive” reasoning, a different picture emerges. One in which the success and failure of Trump was highly dependent on circumstances over and above material discontent, circumstances that are difficult to line up again.  Circumstances in which the very competence of the future feared competent fascistoid is one of the features that prevents his (or her) rise, just to give a possibility. One in which the bad memory of Trump is sufficiently mobilizing for a long enough period of time that the mainstream neoliberal centre is protected from attempts at overcoming it.

In that world, between every election, things just keep getting worse and worse. And yet, the process of coalition building in a complex society given the American political system simply throws up Biden after Biden, Democrat or Republican. Decline centrism, unending. Like Tyler Durden’s vision in Fight Club, with people drying meat on the asphalt of a ruined highway, except they’re still arguing over whether they should choose the chieftain with the red trim or the blue trim as head chieftain, out of fear that one of them might reduce the incentives created by the fear of winter freezing by their proposed “peltfare” program.

Imagine this future: the soft, dirty sole of a comfortable white Reebok runner gently stroking a human cheek — forever.

The European Union


Both inside and outside Europe, the left is highly divided on the topic of the European Union, with a large current being firmly against it for reasons that are actually quite understandable, from multiple perspectives (not just economic). The recent history, especially the Syriza episode in Greece, does not help the reputation of the EU from a left-wing perspective, and there is a temptation to see anything that damages the EU as being good for the people of Europe.  Jeremy Corbyn’s somewhat incoherent position towards the EU can therefore be dismissed by some as the result of a circumstance impossible for him, whereby a good chunk of Labour voters were supportive of EU membership while a principled leftist like Corbyn would have to, in their inner selves at least, be against it.  The EU’s association with neoliberal economic policy has led some, including a large percentage of this blog’s own commentariat, to view Brexit as just another stick with which to beat the neoliberal dog, so to speak, and to take at best a neutral view of who and how the stick is wielded.

It is absolutely correct to say that EU institutions have developed in such a way as to embed neoliberal attitudes and policies deeply within them. The institutions of European integration were largely built at the very same time as the neoliberal consensus’ apparent accession to the Mandate of Heaven.  (Providence does not hand out these mandates on the basis of evident goodness or wisdom.)  Starting from the late 2000s, it became obvious that neoliberalism was losing the Mandate, and no clear claimant has as yet emerged, a worrying sign.

The dilemma for those who want a more just and sustainable human future is extent to which the active dismantlement of the EU is necessary or warranted.  There is a left-wing position that is a kind of short-term nihilism which celebrates the destruction of institutions as a necessary step in creating the opportunities for beneficial change.  This position should certainly be taken seriously and becomes increasingly relevant as neoliberal institutions continue to operate in “zombie” mode, deprived of the providential imprimatur.

The ideal case is that the dismantlement of the EU would lead to a condition that was more beneficial, i.e., replacement from the ground up with, if not with a single institution, then with a collection of polities that are better empowered to serve the needs of their citizens.  The prospects for this can only be understood in terms of the forces that created the European Union (and its predecessor organizations) in the first place.  Europe as viewed from a Martian height consists of extremely unstable, contentious nation-states with badly drawn borders (as it is impossible in Europe, the birthplace of the nation-state, to draw the borders well).  A handful of these nation-states took advantage of a specific set of historical circumstances to become great colonial-imperial powers, but partly due to their own internal contradictions and external developments eventually lost their own heavenly mandates.  Present-day Europe, ex-EU, is a checkerboard of small states and middling industrial powers which had to reinvent themselves in the latter half of the 20th century.

A cursory, common-sense examination of Europe’s present-day geographic situation indicates that the checkerboard (or chessboard) analogy is more than apt.  European countries sit on geographically strategic (if resource-poor, relatively speaking) real estate between the current hegemonic military powers and become easy prey for the very colonial tactics Europe itself perfected.  The post-WWII architects of European convergence, themselves functionaries of states skilled in colonial tactics, were absolutely correct to surmise that Europe required a super-state level of organization that was at least partly independent of other power blocs in order to prevent being further carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Middle East’s current, long-standing troubles illustrate clearly what can happen in that case.

The adolescence of European institutions during the neoliberal moment presents the central dilemma, because it itself is now a major threat to a protective European unity.  The question is: what is the optimal and most feasible way to lever out zombie neoliberalism without putting European countries at risk of “integration” into the pathologies already evident in the current hegemons?  The question is not an abstract one: one of Brexit’s consequences is that the UK likely will adopt an even harsher internal economic stance with integration into the weaker, less consumer- and worker-friendly economic regulation of the USA.

My own position is that the only way to resolve the deadlock is by the boring, difficult work of building cross-border, cross-polity popular solidarity both inside and outside the current EU.  It is the only way to enshrine the benefits of European integration with the necessary reform of the EU’s economic management.  Anything else — and admittedly, “anything else” is the most likely prospect — risks that those who live in Europe jump from the frying pan into the fire, following a mirage of dead-end cultural-nationalist idylls and emotional appeals to a clean, safe world that never really existed.

Square circles


I just want to draw some attention to this post on Naked Capitalism that I thought was an excellent analysis of the dilemma of left-wing electoral politics.

They have done so mainly by convincing a layer of affluent, middle-aged professionals that the Left ultimately represents a threat to their most cherished social values: meritocratic, individualistic, cosmopolitan liberalism. In the US, this perceived threat has mainly taken the form of a repeated insistence (against absolutely all psephological evidence) that a Sanders candidacy would inevitably lose to Trump, thereby extending the life of his cartoonishly villainous regime. This same threat was used to convince older Black Democratic voters in the South that the defence of centrist liberalism was the only alternative to a perpetuation of Trumpian white supremacism. In the UK, the same effect was achieved by convincing a small but strategically crucial section of middle-class voters that Jeremy Corbyn was an advocate for Brexit and an antisemite, and that voters should instead lend support to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (or abstain).

Secondly, again in each case, a nationalist, and increasingly irrationalist, populism on the Right has attracted enough support from some of the social constituencies who we might have hoped would unite around a radical social democratic agenda to make it impossible for that programme to win a majority. In the UK this was the constituency which voted for Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’. In the US, Trump’s economic nationalism and nativist populism mobilised lots of his base.

His failure to deliver on any of his promises (either to build a wall on the Mexican border or to bring jobs back to the rust belt) has undermined much of his credibility with that section, which is partly why increasingly deranged conspiracy theories are circulating among his die-hard supporters. There isn’t much reason left to vote for Trump, if you didn’t benefit from his tax cuts, or don’t believe he’s engaged in a secret war with the ‘deep state’.

This is exactly right, but I would cast it in another way.  There is still a large segment of opinion on the left that wants to engage in electoral politics but without taking into account voter subjectivity.  Well, of the votes meaningfully available to the left (construed as generously as possible) in Western countries, they do not conceive of the universe in the way that many people, particularly on the economic and environmental left, want them to.  If you are interested in exerting power via electoral politics, you must seriously engage with the subjective reality that these voters live in.  In the USA, one large group views Trump and all his supporters to be a critical values threat (what I’ve been calling the “dire aesthetic emergency” — keep in mind that I do not use “aesthetic” in a derogatory and trivializing way), another group (black voters) exist in a state of justified mistrust towards the rest of the electorate, and another group wants economic improvement but only if it is obtained through an aggressive posture towards those they view as an outgroup.  How these groups formed is a matter of a complex social history that is not fully amenable to class politics via “vulgar Marxism”.

Perhaps because it is, ultimately, the expression of inchoate and malleable emotional forces, nationalism can become attached to various political projects and tendencies. Its most extreme manifestation may have been in the murderous modernity of mid-twentieth century fascism, but the New Right of Thatcher and Reagan also managed to convince xenophobes and nationalists that they were on their side, willing to endorse racist and militarist projects as long as they also got to sell off public utilities and slash taxes for the rich. So the discourse of nationalist authoritarianism has proven remarkably flexible over the years, being used to justify everything from imperialist war to the destruction of the British coal industry. But the purpose that conservative nationalism always serves is to provide alternative explanations for historical events to those that would inform a progressive response: blaming unemployment on immigration; blaming union unrest on unpatriotic militant workers; blaming crime on the supposed moral degeneracy of ethnic minorities.

In the UK, the most recent and powerful iteration of this narrative was the Right-wing argument for Brexit. The Brexit story offers a compelling and plausible account of almost all of the cultural, social, political and economic changes of recent decades that many UK citizens have cause to regret, while promising an easy remedy to them. The weakening of our democratic institutions, the collapse of manufacturing industry and the consequent loss of secure employment in many places, the changing cultural composition of our cities and other communities: all could be laid at the door of EU membership. Of course a few of the people who voted Leave did so out of a hard-headed Left-wing understanding of the EU as an institution committed to the implementation of neoliberalism. Of course almost everyone who took such a view was a committed supporter of lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn. But absolutely every relevant survey suggests that the proportion of leavers who were motivated by this view, free from any nationalist fantasies of ‘recovering sovereignty’ or restoring cultural purity, was statistically negligible. A certain section of the American Left loves the idea that Brexit was in fact a vote against neoliberal policy rather than the reactionary form taken by dismay at some of its effect. The truth is, for most of its supporters and opponents, a vote for or against Brexit was the precise symbolic equivalent of a vote for or against Trump’s border wall.

There is a strong temptation, again especially among economic leftists, to see favorite leftist bugbears (e.g., the construction of European institutions while neoliberalism still seemed to bear the Mandate of Heaven) as the “real” thing that underlies the false consciousness of nationalist resentment.  Arguing this requires the kind of psychologizing that typically heralds weak armchair sociological reasoning.  Perhaps if one were already in power, one could use economic policy or withdrawal from neoliberal globalization to abate the underlying impulses that motivate proto-fascist ideation in the population.  This is putting the cart before the horse.  There is no evidence that catering to those impulses before attaining power enables you to create a cadre of voters that is more motivated by economic policy than by latent cultural resentments.

There are therefore two overall options:

  1. Accept the electorate as it is (yes, fully understanding the power of capitalist media to shape public opinion without overestimating it or imputing omnipotence to it). Then make a decision as to what are the palatable compromises in order to exert power.
  2. Set aside electoral politics as the center of available political progress and do the hard work, outside the question of elections, of raising public consciousness and reshaping the attitudes of the electorate.

This is, of course, not a complete dichotomy, since a combination of the two is possible.  The option that has not been available at this present time, however, is running on a platform that centers economic and environmental improvement, given the constraints of the electoral system and its social history to date.  This is not a circle you can square.  The prospects for this have improved (the fact that Corbyn and Sanders got as far as they did is a relevant indicator), but the world is not “there” yet.

Identity, Politics


If you’re someone who thinks that The Thing Called “Identity Politics” (I’ll call it TTCIP for short, because I think the term “identity” has been thoroughly poisoned at this point) is simply a fabrication of intelligence agencies or at minimum only lives and dies at the behest of the neoliberal leviathan, then this post is not for you, because we simply cannot communicate. It’s very likely that nefarious actors do have a vested interest in manipulating leftist divisions (duh!), but if you think what they’re manipulating is all made up, then you dismiss a great deal of what I know are real life experiences and genuine political motivation based on the genuine interests of otherwise very ordinary people. We are very liberal about these things at Chez Ian, so of course you can continue to participate in the comments of this thread, but I suggest that there is no real point in doing so and no one to convince.

So yeah, I’m pursuing this Rogan/Sanders thing yet again, or rather the issue that underlies that controversy, because the discussions on the point took an interesting turn that’s worth exploring. I thought that what would ensue was something quite predictable: “guns and butter” leftists would interpret/subsume TTCIP into class conflict and hold that once we had resolved the class conflict in favour of the working class and an economically egalitarian society, the main instigating factor for other TTCIP-based resentments would disappear. Thus, working to attract a constituency of somewhat socially reactionary working-class voters would be worth it to everyone in the long run, because allowing the left to gain power would give it the leverage to satisfy all demands at once. A candidate like Sanders could safely hold TTCIP positions alongside positions that attract everyone who lives on a precarious paycheque and while appealing separately to each subgroup.

But this is not what happened. Instead, I noticed that many people were not merely hostile to the intra-class division caused by TTCIP, but actually held that the content of all but the largest and most obvious of the claims (hard for most leftists to deny the negative effects of “classic” male chauvinism and sexual harassment, for example) were either inherently objectionable in themselves or were actually stated from a position of acquired power, even implying that they were now merely claims of the managerial class engaging in a form of totalitarian “psychological extortion,” as one commenter phrased it with what seemed a certain amount of unseemly relish. More or less explicit is the suggestion that these TTCIP claims are actually trivialities, and to sacrifice them without hope of later restitution in the pursuit of a class-conflict power coalition is actually a net positive overall.

In the not too distant past, I also used to take for granted the idea that some TTCIP claims were merely the result of neuroticism or privileged frivolity. But I don’t throw out implied claims to justice lightly, so upon deeper investigation and contact with some of the sorts of people making those “frivolous” claim, I realized that actually it was intellectually lazy to dismiss them and assume that they hadn’t thought about the consequences. I came to understand that actually, even for the “sillier-sounding” ones, there were real consequences for actual people, often in surprising and indirect ways. That some of the conflicts represented by the “petty” TTCIP claims actually have a long lineage, that what appears like inordinate power is for them a brief moment to emerge into the light of the sun, and the powerful appearance is merely that the rest of us are not used to having ever been confronted by them. And that, yes, only the ascension of some TTCIP claimants to the upper classes gave them any social capital by which to emerge into daylight, and that is why, to some extent, it looks like it is being driven by powerful people.

Furthermore, while these groups are individually quite small, together they are large enough and overlapping enough with the general population to change, e.g., electoral outcomes.

So when even very progressive politicians, left-wing both economically and socially, decide to try to embrace media figures and voting blocs that are indifferent at best or actively hostile at worst to the claims of TTCIP, it’s not irrational to worry that, in order to hold on to newfound political coalitions, they may attempt to jettison the old, inconvenient, frivolous-seeming ones. That is doubly true when it appears that some part of the online or real-life economic left does not really intend to use the opportunity to reconcile these newfound supporters with the old, now-unpopular TTCIP ones. And that for the Good of Humanity, they intend for people with TTCIP claims to, possibly forever, give up their moment in the sun and accept the consequences to themselves that they always had to do.

Perhaps this is necessary. Perhaps it is even overblown, and we’re all going to sit in the big tent, together. But this debate has shown, at the very least, that it’s not a made-up conflict, except for those of you who think TTCIP claims are only ever fabricated by intelligence agencies.

Rogan Joshing

MaNdOs PoSt

I have even less truck with political YouTube than ordinary TV. But it has come to my attention that there is someone named “Joe Rogan” who has achieved a certain level of fame and popularity by doing independent online interviews of politicians, so much so that Democratic primary candidates feel the need to appear on his show.  Another thing I have learned is that this Rogan person appeals to a particular demographic that is, at present, not considered a reliable source of votes for the Democratic Party–or indeed any party that is perceived by television media as being accommodating to any concern considered “left-of-centre” by the prevailing dispensation.

But what brought this Rogan person to my attention was the fact that the current left-wing Democratic primary star, Bernie Sanders, gave an interview on Rogan’s show and obtained some kind of positive review (endorsement?) from him, and this has led to a certain degree of consternation and argument in the online left that has broken down on the usual lines: roughly speaking, “guns-and-butter” leftists vs. “woke” identitarians. I haven’t seen the interview and probably never will. So I guess I can’t really take a side, as I’m not willing to do the basic research of watching Rogan’s show. However, watching the meta-show, so to speak, has proven moderately illustrative about the meta-issues that divide the online left.

The conflict is basically this: As Sanders is the nominally “socialist” candidate in the US presidential elections, and circumstances have (like Corbyn?) coalesced to give him at least a plausible shot at the Oval Office, his appearance on Rogan’s show as well as apparent endorsement can be seen as a necessary step at accessing support from demographics that, as I mentioned above, are not seen as easily accessible to left-wing candidates. Without increased support from this group, left-wing Democrats are forever doomed to failure as an identity-purist bastion representing marginalized groups, who, alas, can never form a political majority that takes power. Consequently, if Sanders is serious about taking power, he has no choice, and in some sense, it would be practically immoral to refuse to appear on this widely-viewed show when the platform is being offered to him under friendly conditions.

At this point, we must examine why someone may expect Sanders to refuse an appearance on a show like Rogan’s. Again, from discourse that surrounds it, I gather that not only does Rogan appeal to demographics deemed to have generally retrograde views, he does so by publicly sharing some of those discriminatory opinions. (I haven’t bothered to figure out what those are but I’m guessing stuff like a little light racism, and transphobia, and so on.) Consequently, Sanders’ presence on the show may be construed as prima facie evidence of complicity with these oppressive discourses. The counterargument is obvious: Sanders is being given a friendly opportunity to draw in support from groups who live in a media environment that predisposes them to retrograde views, and thereby eventually mitigate (by winning power) the harm done by those viewpoints.

But this counterargument does not satisfy the critics of Sanders’ actions. Some of them are motivated by sheer hypocrisy, because their own preferred candidates often participated in the stigmatization of minority groups or associated with those who do. Other critics, however, have more sincere personal motivations motivated by experience or feeling towards Rogan’s target demographic. That is, they see Rogan fans as representative of a group that has collectively made their lives more difficult or acted in a manner harmful to them. The association of the principal left-wing candidate with Joe Rogan awakens an old fear: that this is the point at which they and their concerns are dismissed as inconvenient, unhelpful, or corrosive to the holy grail of a power-taking electoral politics motivated by class interest.

This is not an empty fear. Quite a lot of “economic” leftists have a lot of difficulty taking the justice claims of (for example) gender identity seriously, as opposed to subsuming them into a general concept of economic well-being and ignoring the bits that don’t fit:

This and other reactions are precisely what many people who object to Sanders’ participation in Rogan’s show fear is already happening — that once again, the claims to justice that they finally felt were being recognized were again going to be sidelined or dismissed as frivolous or luxurious*, faced with the pressing need of recruiting the “down-to-earth,” “alienated” Real People.

I don’t know if this is true. It’s possible that a sort of political contagion will take hold, such that the stereotypical Rogan listener will start to care about women’s pay equity or cultural appropriation by increased affiliation with Sanders’ politics. I suppose it largely depends on how Sanders ends up running his campaign, should he win the primary. But I do know that this is an instance of a larger issue that cannot easily be swept under the carpet of unity.

* For example, pronouns and the like. Once upon a time, I myself might have seen English gendered pronoun issues as frivolous until I actually discussed the matter with some of their proponents and found that to them, these and related issues of recognition have tangible consequences.

TINA trauma


I have been thinking about writing another post about Britain and Brexit for some time, but every time I’ve started it, there’s been literally another new dramatic twist, so I stop. But now it seems like a corner is being turned. What the corner really is, we’ll still have time to find out. Even today, I thought I would wait until the real British election results had come in. But the exit poll gives such a wide margin for the Tories that it seems a little pointless. Even if a miracle happens, and the Tories are reduced to a minority…in what world does it make sense that the result should be so close?

Either way, I repeatedly tried to suggest, gently at first, but eventually more strongly, that Labour’s strategy has been based on a set of misconceptions driven by a certain kind of well-intentioned, passionate left-wing politics that has briefly managed to get a little bit of its day in the sun, with its perhaps now-declining control of Labour. From this viewpoint, the issues that drive the rise of right-wing politics are really just matters of economic self-interest. Questions of identity, ideology, and anything that is in the sphere of the political that cannot be traced (even through an imputed, popular subconscious) to an economic or class conflict are just distractions–un-things. One can see this painfully in the way that Corbyn and his team have handled Brexit — despite words, constantly signaling ambivalence about the issue, wanting to talk about other things, wanting to treat Brexit as though it were just another extension of a wished-for popular economic uprising.

This strategy has pleased no one. It’s now nearly a cliché to say that Brexit is the matter at hand, the only truly salient object. And Brexit is not reducible to economic matters, even through the “false consciousness” route of tracing identity conflicts to latent economic conflicts.

But this fact put Corbynite Labour on the horns of a dilemma. Full-throated rejection of Brexit, and endorsement of the emotional core of the Remain argument (the view that the Brexit referendum was a frontal attack by Nazis, more or less), yields up the economic reductionism and requires diverting attention from the emotional core of the economic left, compassion for the welfare recipient, compassion for those in need of hospital beds, and so on. Full-throated acceptance and support of Brexit, on the other hand, while superficially aligning with a traditional Labour constituency, also comes at a steep price: There is no credible way to support Brexit that does not also traduce the cultural direction of the Labour left, because the traditional Labour voters who support Brexit are not only doing so for economic reasons, but for reasons of cultural identity apart from economic need and in solidarity with people from classes with otherwise antagonistic economic interests.

Labour has failed to transcend this dilemma. Their “strategy” has been to signal that membership in the EU is something that they reluctantly accept–if they can’t get a better deal outside the EU. Implicit in this is the belief that there is a “place” for Britain outside the EU that is better than inside, but merely one different from what the Tories envisions: a post-neoliberal nirvana, freed from the (somewhat hypothetical, in the non-Eurozone-UK’s case) chains of the EU’s neoliberal bureaucracy. This is not a credible message, because it is extremely difficult to envision what that would look like in the big picture, under any kind of plausible terms of an EU departure. It pleased no one and alienated both Remain and Leave-now-ex-Labour voters.

Why is there no credible halfway position? The reason why is that, actually, the EU is a neoliberal institution. Its main bodies were formed during the the rise of the neoliberalism, and its staff are trained in neoliberal ideology. It just happens that, as a neoliberal institution, it is designed to accommodate the residual aspects of European social democracy, and, crucially, it exists in the context of an international order that is even more neoliberal. That is, any departure from the EU involves getting drop-kicked into a variety of neoliberal systems that are not designed to accommodate European social democracy– quite the opposite. The neoliberal EU, with its free movement and Excessive Deficit Procedures, is a buffer against a more neoliberal global order.

At this point, on this blog, when somebody points out that there is no solution to this problem that involves treating it as an economic conflict or a battle against neoliberal ideology or whatever, there is often a chorus in the comments section cynically needling, “There Is No Alternative, amirite?” This whole Labour situation gives me an opportunity to propound a theory about this: “TINA trauma,” an affliction that prevents much of the economic left from doing anything other than make a surprisingly conservative demand to roll back neoliberalism to a pre-neoliberal halcyon idyll, in one form or another.

When Margaret Thatcher propounded TINA, at the time she was making a normative or aspirational claim. The success of that program has traumatized the left into a kind of mental/strategic paralysis, which finds them eternally trying to prove her wrong, posthumously. Yet, decades later, the hegemonic control of the neoliberal gestalt has transformed that claim from an aspiration to a mere statement of fact. What can anyone think it means for an ideology to become “hegemonic”? It means it has successfully constrained the future to pass through its institutional bottleneck. TINA is now fact. We are all neoliberals now, and whatever comes next, if anything is there to come next, is going to bear some of the features and some of the scars of neoliberalism.

If UK Labour–and indeed the global left as a whole–is to recover from the UK Tory victory, it needs to accept that the only way out is “through,” or not at all. The left needs to get over its TINA trauma.

The Politics You’ve Got


Take a look at Joe Biden: He appears to have, for now at least, considerable staying power in the Democratic primary opinion polls (although, of course, this may change as the actual primaries come through). If your model of political psychology can predict a strong core of popular support for Trump without also predicting a strong core of party grassroots support for Biden, you should really rethink it from the ground up. For a core of US voters, the presence of Trump in the White House is an unprecedented emergency and an enormous well of anxiety and real, day-to-day stress.

You can call it Trump Derangement Syndrome or whatever, but the feeling is there, and implicit in this feeling is that Trump is an anomaly, a hiatus in the proper march of American institutions, that should by rights have gone to Clinton, and if not, to one of Trump’s Republican primary competitors. And the advantage of Biden, from this perspective, is precisely that Biden presents an opportunity to force the recalcitrant portions of the Democratic party and, yes, the American left (insofar as it plays electoral politics), to once again choose explicitly whether it will acknowledge and ratify that feeling, or whether it will die on a hill of particular material policies to the neglect of vital institutional decorum.

But for many left-wingers, it seems that even to admit that this is the dynamic is too much to bear. It requires admitting that the Neera Tandens of the world do not merely represent a type of think tank class traitors in cahoots with the rich, but they are actually the genuine grassroots representatives of a large portion of American society, large enough to make a big difference as to who will win the primary and the presidency.

A similar dynamic is taking place in British politics. In its Corbynite incarnation, Labour sits now on the horns of dilemma, or worse: It is perceived as too “Brexity” by enough Remain voters to make a difference, and too “Remainy” for enough Leave voters to make a difference. (As of this writing, the votes for the EU parliament elections haven’t been counted yet, but it is likely that this dynamic will remain stable until any sort of general UK election.) No matter what it does, it is very likely now that the prospect of a truly left-wing prime minister of Britain is galloping off to the distance, when it once felt so close. Let us leave aside the issue of whether Brexit itself is or can be good policy with a good outcome for most people in the abstract; it’s rather fascinating how the Brexit issue is precisely designed to press on the most divisive and ambivalent internal left-wing wounds.

I get the impression from looking at Labour’s representatives online that there exists a core of them who really, desperately wish to change the channel, to austerity and the environment–but especially austerity–but however many “deaths of despair” there may be, that is not the issue. Brexit is. And future policy outcomes, even if not directly related to EU membership, have nevertheless (and for a long time) driven through the underlying cultural cleavage represented by Brexit. Only by choosing a side at the outset, rather than engage in constructive ambiguity (Brexit, but not too much, please), could Labour have avoided the current electoral dilemma and had a shot at dealing with austerity.

A Customs Union is not the issue. How soft or hard the “deal” is–is not the issue. Nationalization is not the issue. How the Eurozone treated Greece is not the issue. Not even Ireland is the issue. Rather, immigration, free movement, and Britain’s self-perception are the issues. That remains true even if austerity and economic breakdown may be one cause of the Brexit phenomenon. The issue is a deep cultural, social cleavage of worldviews.

But who knows? Perhaps information may come to light that disqualifies Joe Biden. Perhaps on a hard Brexit, Remain voters will quickly forget what they protested against, and rejoin the Labour austerity–reversal cause in a Britain hemmed in by closed borders. Perhaps they will do so even before Brexit, giving in to the referendum in the hopes of fighting for…rejoining the EU? Restoring free movement? These seem both risky assumptions at the moment. (Admittedly the former is less risky than the latter!)

So now, what my readers may tell me is that they want to deal with austerity and they want to fight the environmental crisis and save lives and so on. And I agree! But the road to those goals runs through co-operation with parts of society that may have a different listing of priorities. They are always going to exist in some form or another; true, full social unity of purpose will never exist. We’re going to have to find a modus vivendi with those for whom Trump represents a fundamentally-threatening aesthetic emergency (as well as a material one but that seems to be secondary here). And with those for whom Brexit is not a hurdle to be gotten over in pursuit of a more urgent domestic agenda, but rather both a pressing question of material well-being and an even more pressing question of cultural priorities. The alternative is to throw up one’s hands as say, “My way, or the highway to the apocalypse,” that the world is too emotionally decadent to be saved. That, too, is a choice. But not necessarily a good one.

You go with the politics you’ve got, not the politics you want. Some of you might complain that that is simply acquiescence. No, it isn’t–it’s about recognizing first where you are, before you figure out how you’re going to get where you want to be. And folks, you’ve taken too long to figure that out.

Rising and Falling


In several recent threads on this blog, we discussed (i.e., argued passionately about) the current goings on in Europe (Brexit, Greece, Italy, etc.) as signs of the impending decay and demise of the European project. I used to share this view to some extent, because I too am sometimes in the grip of a moral fallacy that haunts left-wing discourse: that things that are good, work, and things that aren’t good, don’t work. I actually think that in the bigger picture, this is true, but only in the largest temporal and spatial frames. In the medium term, lots of things that are good, are not stable enough in context to work (as in, be sustained for more than a short period of time), and lots of things that are not good, are nevertheless stable enough to last decades and even centuries.

Predicting whether, when, and how some particular set of events will cause large institutions to rise or fall cannot be done lightly or easily, and such predictions, when done in the moment, are more likely wrong than right. You should expect unexpected things to occur; there are too many variables. Some people are better at it than others, but you should take even the best track records with a grain of salt. Even two to three years ago, I would have predicted that the build-up of “bad karma” in the European system would have caused the EU to break apart by now. Even a few months ago, the rise of Euroskeptic populists in some countries suggested to me that the situation is increasingly desperate for European unity. However, over that time, and somewhat unexpectedly to me I must admit, it appears that some sort of inflection point has been reached.

The EU, as it stands now, was designed by a set of people that had different attitudes and goals over time. Therefore, it is a mixed bag, when it comes to good, not good, works, doesn’t work. A good chunk of its institutions were designed at around the peak of the neoliberal revolt against state management of the economy. In the EU, this took its expression in an approach to the economy that militated against state attempts to protect or bolster industrial employment in both public and private sectors. Because Europe does not suffer so much from the “moralized” version of libertarianism from which the US suffers (essentially, that your bank account is a virtual extension of your physical body), there is a stronger commercial regulatory apparatus developed even in the neoliberal era than what other developed “capitalist” countries tend to have. The neoliberal bits, especially the most recent ones like the Eurozone, have increasingly showed themselves to be not good and not working.

But this cannot be taken out of the context of the whole. It’s increasingly clear to me that Europe is still not that far off from the overall intended trajectory of the two generations of designers of European convergence. It is absolutely true that those who built the system had, for a number of different reasons, a deep suspicion of the public and popular sovereignty, even while they were also against outright dictatorship. I generally consider this to be overall not good and probably won’t work in the long run. (But I must note that the designers of the EU also recognized that they might need to legitimize popular sovereignty at a European level and built in provisions for systems to implement it.) However, they believed both in the necessity of European unity (in the modern world, a disunited Europe is structurally, deeply vulnerable), and the difficulty in getting a multilingual, multicultural subcontinent of fallen empires to accept the necessity of unification, so they constructed a system of what are effectively one-way traps to ensure that the cost of departure is always greater than the cost of endurance, even when the system in some matters doesn’t work. The goal is therefore for this endurance to eventually result in a crisis whose only positive-sum resolution is the Europeanization of authority.

With Italy’s effective capitulation to the Commission, and yes, with Greece’s previous compliance, and yes again, with a Brexit that is already providing the necessary object lessons, it appears that the crisis-and-trap strategy is still operating, or rather, it cannot be said to have failed at this point in time. That is, it remains that case that the strategy of making a series of systems that don’t work is working.

Considering that this game of deliberate historical manipulation has real human costs and indeed a known death toll in itself, one may well choose to designate it as not good. But, the evidence is that it still works.

So what would the decline of the European project actually look like?  Well, there are, of course, phenomena that are hard to predict directly, like, sudden environmental cataclysms. If I were forced to make a prediction, however, the political coming-apart would probably have to look like one of the following options:

  1. A situation comes to pass where it is immediately more materially beneficial to leave than to stay (this has not yet happened).
  2. One or more countries decide to leave a major institution/treaty despite the costs, and they do economically better in the relatively short run after departure. (Brexit under the Tories is not likely to be an example of this.)
  3. A consensus develops in several countries that long-term economic suffering is more desirable than staying in the EU, even if that suffering is greater than what they might have experienced inside the EU, and they sustain this consensus even after feeling that suffering.

All of this may lead you to consider projects like the European unification, designed explicitly around creating consequences that override popular will, to be not good. I have given you at least three possibilities for it to not work. So I would say, as before, that it is a mixed bag.

Political theodicy is dead. Long live political theodicy.

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