Cultural marxism and the Overton window

According to all accounts, Karl Marx was not an easy person. Basically, he had the habit of making the life of all around him miserable. However, as Joseph Schumpeter (himself far from being a Marxist) loved to point out, he was extremely well read. This allowed him to build a complex economic theory focused on factory workers, without ever (or almost ever, at least) stepping into a factory. Life for a factory worker in 19th century Britain was not easy, and Marx was very able in pointing that out. His economic theory, however, was a complete failure, as Ludwig von Mises aptly pointed out.

Marxism should have died in the mid-20th century when it became clear that all socialist countries are poor and oppressive. However, it survived as cultural Marxism. People like Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and everybody in the Frankfurt School were not interested in economics. Instead, they wanted to study culture. The oppressed were not the factory workers anymore, but the social minorities. Libertarians and Conservatives should sympathize with that. It is true that women, non-whites, and homosexuals suffered a great deal in the masculine, white, heterosexual West. To point out that they suffer even more outside the West is not particularly helpful. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, as with much of original Marxism, cultural Marxism is only good at pointing the problems, not at offering solutions. Modern civilization, as Sigmund Freud very well observed, is full of discontents. This is an old argument. Rousseau points out how modern civilization is cruel. Voltaire answers that, as cruel as it might be, it is still better than the alternative.

Our problem today is that cultural Marxism was successful in pushing the Overton window in their favor. That was precisely Gramsci’s objective: to fight “bourgeois” cultural hegemony with Marxist cultural hegemony. To a great degree, he succeeded. We need to fight the cultural war. As much as modern life can be bittersweet, I still haven’t heard a better alternative. Besides, as a Christian, I have to say with Saint Augustine that men have a “God-shaped hole” that no civilization – Modern, pre-modern or postmodern – can fill. But still, I enjoy the things that capitalism, capitalism that originated from the Protestant ethic, has to offer.

Time for optimism in Brazil

If you only read left-leaning newspapers, things might appear dismal in Brazil right now. But I am very convinced that it isn’t so.

With former president Lula in jail, it becomes more and more likely that Jair Messias Bolsonaro will be Brazil’s next president.

I already wrote about Bolsonaro here. To sum things up, I don’t think that he is a libertarian champion. Far from it. There are many things about Bolsonaro that will displease those who are more market-friendly. He is still too nationalistic in his economic thinking. He fails to see how awful the military government in Brazil (1964-1985) was (even though the alternative – Brazil turning into a South-American USSR – was even worse). But Bolsonaro represents something extremely important: the left is losing the culture war in Brazil. After decades of hegemony in Brazil, Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School seem to be on the ropes. People are so sick and tired of cultural Marxism that they are willing to elect someone whose agenda is to fight against it.

Maybe a world with Bolsonaro president is not the best of worlds. Maybe he is very much a Brazilian Donald Trump. But it is certainly good to know that cultural Marxism is turning against itself and that now Brazilians might be willing to elect a president that, although only moderately market-friendly, is not ashamed to call himself a conservative.

Identity Politics, the Alt-Right, and Empathy in Cultural Discourse

“Identity politics” have been an intensely large obsession of the American left or the past forty or so years. Academic leftists have devoted their entire careers and even the organizations of their departments to studying notions of identity and the specific history and interests of certain identity groups—such as women’s studies, African-American studies, and other similar programs. The Democratic Party has put special emphasis on mobilizing various minority groups based on identity, focusing on “Women’s issues” such as abortion or “the needs of the African-American community” such as police reform or “gay rights” to get a certain of segment of voters to turn out in elections.

Yet, with the election of Trump, many moderate leftists are questioning the utility of identity politics. Mark Lilla had a prominent recent piece in The New York Times declaring the “end of identity liberalism.” Lilla’s main criticisms of identity politics focus on it as a “strategic mistake” in electoral politics and how it has made liberals and progressives “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside of their self-identified groups,” particularly white, middle class, working men in the Midwest. Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, responded by sounding off that all politics is identity politics, people always organize themselves in interest groups, writing that “any plausible account of political behavior by actual human beings needs to concede that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity rather than detailed policy proposals.” The left, he says, can’t abandon identity politics because “[t]here is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”

Those on what is traditionally considered the “right” end of the political spectrum (ignoring the specific phenomena of Trump voters and alt-righters, that is) tend to be dismissive of the whole project of identity politics. This approach is embodied by Robby Soave’s recent article in Reason claiming that identity politics is just a form of tribalism that seeks to subvert individual rights and overall social welfare to  the tribalist demands of some salient group people self-identify with. Soave also sees the rise of Trumpism as itself a form of identity politics for white men, a claim which I’ll address at length in a moment.

What is one to make, then, of identity politics in the Trump era? First, it seems there is considerable confusion about what identity politics even is in the first place. Lilla, for an example, seems to imply that the left’s obsession with appealing to minority political coalitions is merely a strategy for winning elections. Soave thinks it’s pure tribalist and collectivist ideology, and Yglesias defines it so broadly that any political mobilization at all is considered identity politics. How are we to understand what operative definition of what is commonly called “identity politics” is most useful, or at least is closest to how its commonly used in political discourse?

Lilla and Yglesias understanding, it seems, misses the point about why so many leftists are so passionate about identity politics. People who are interested in cultural dramas and issues related to group identity are not just Democratic strategists in campaign war-rooms, but, as I mentioned earlier, academics, and “true believer” bleeding-heart progressive activists. It seems to me that identity politics—at least at first (and still is in the minds of the true believers post-1960s progressivism)—is not about an election strategy. It’s certainly become that for Democratic strategists, but it originally was motivated by the old liberal concern with ending the misery for stigmatized groups. Identity politics is not merely a political strategy, but a strategy the left used for getting rid of racism, homophobia, and otherization of outgroups in society at large.

The idea is like this: try to get, for example, white people to sympathize with black people by getting whites to recognize that black people have their own meaningful web of cultural associations which is just as valid as those of the dominant culture. Its roots are in cultural studies academia, such as the writings of Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser. Essentially, identity politics is rooted in philosophical attempts to end prejudice through emphasizing “cultural recognition” of despised groups. As Richard Rorty wrote in describing this strategy:

It helps, when trying to recognise a common humanity in a person of another gender, class, or ethnicity, to think of them as having as rich an inner life as one does oneself. To picture such an inner life, it helps to know something about the web of memories and associations which make it up. So one way to help eliminate prejudice and erase stigma is to point out that, for example, women have a history, that homosexuals take pride in belonging to the same stigmatised group as Proust, and that African-Americans have detailed memories of the battles which make up what Russell Banks calls “the three hundred year War Between The Races in America” – the sort of memories whites are currently learning about from Toni Morrison’s novels. It helps to realise that all such groups wrap a comforting blanket of memories and traditions, customs and institutions, around themselves, just as do classical scholars, old Etonians, or members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Thus treating identity politics just as a way to get electoral coalitions out to vote, and also (as Soave does) as simply tribalism ideology when it was started as a strategy to mitigate tribalism, misses the point about why the left is so passionate about these cultural issues. It isn’t simple collectivism nor Machiavellian political strategy, but (hopefully) genuine concern for stigmatize groups that mobilizes this obsession.

Of course, as Rorty well-recognized, this way of ending prejudice is not the only way nor is it the most effective. First, it does make the left appear as this overly sensitive “politically correct” group of elitists who care little for the concerns of working class whites. As Rorty wrote that the left’s preoccupation with cultural identity politics would mean “the straight white male working class in America may find it tempting to think that the leftist academy is uninterested in its problems.” Indeed, most of why Lilla is concerned that identity politics has failed so spectacularly as an electoral strategy is that it has isolated progressives from middle America.

More importantly, however, is that emphasizing cultural difference has failed spectacularly at its initial aim of ending prejudice. The whole point of Soave’s Reason column is that leftist identity politics has become its own form of tribalism and have given rise to the right-wing identity politics of Trump. Not only have leftists often gotten so caught up in the identity politics language game that they call their own (such as Bernie Sanders) white supremacists for not playing along, it has created its own prejudice backlash. If your way of getting straight white males to recognize non-straight white males as worthy of equal treatment is to say “Those who are unlike you have different cultural values that are worth being celebrated and protected,” the response of straight white males is to say “Do not I also have a different culture worthy of being celebrated and protected?”

Indeed, this type of rhetoric is at the heart of the rise of the alt-right. It isn’t mere hatred of others that is animating this new populist, fascist movement (though that is certainly a concerningly large part of it), it is that they are making this hatred seem legitimate by couching it in terms of advancing “white interests” in a very similar rhetorical manner that the left has pushed the interests of minority groups. Richard Spencer’s “mantra” for the alt-right is “race is the foundation of identity” (emphasis mine) and calls himself an “identarian.” Even outside the small niche of the alt-right, average Trump voters often say they want a way to express and defend their identity—whether it is in the form of white nationalism or in forms of defending Christian “religious liberties” as its own identity coalition against gay rights.

Soave is correct that left-wing identity politics has given us this right-wing identity politics, and it is something Rorty himself saw as a potential consequence of this approach. In his 1998 book Achieving our Country, he explicitly predicted that the white working class would become disconnected from the academic left, and would “start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots[.]” He also predicted that when this strongman assumes office, “gains made over the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.” It is no coincidence that this sounds quite a bit like Trump.

It’s not surprising that emphasizing differences between the majority and a scapegoated group would mean that the majority group would start taking “pride” in its difference from the scapegoated. Of course, anyone who understands systemic power structures or how sociological hierarchy works understands why this response is not the same. There is a difference between cherishing the cultural differences of a scapegoated minority and using institutional power to coercively protect the cultural interests of the majority group at the expense of the minority. But you can’t expect a white adolescent basement-dwelling troll on 4-Chan or even a working class white voter from central Michigan to understand and fully internalize that difference, and they are likely to be very reluctant or overtly hostile to acknowledging it. All the alt-right has done is take identity politics and turn it against its original aim to advance the exact tribalism leftists have been trying to use identity politics to end.

A better strategy the left could have used was the strategy the old left used through classical feminism, abolitionism, the sixties Civil Rights movement, or some new progressives through the more pop-culture current of the gay rights movement. Rorty describes it beautifully:

Another way is to get the prejudiced to see the stigmatised as having the same tendency to bleed when pricked as they themselves: they too worry about their children and parents; they are possessed by the same self-doubts, and lose self-confidence when humiliated; their difficulties in moving from one stage of life to another are much like everyone else’s, despite the fact that their life-chances may be minimal. These ways of emphasising commonality rather than difference have little to do with “cultural recognition.” They have to do with experiences shared by members of all cultures and all historical epochs, and which remain pretty much the same despite cultural change.

There’s no real way for bigots to co-opt this approach to advance their bigotry. In fact, it explicitly avoids framing the discussion not as some necessary “culture war” between an oppressive majority and an oppressed minority as current identity politics rhetoric implies and alt-right identitarians have assumed as their rallying cry. Instead, it emphasizes the need to end culture wars in the first place by progressing people’s sentiments to stand in solidarity with an ever-growing chunk of humanity—it seeks to replace simple identity with empathy.

Is this approach still in the vein of “identity politics” as we currently understand it? If we take Yglesias’ understanding, sure it still “concede[s] that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity,” but it seeks to make salient aspects of group identity as banal as possible, to make people stand in solidarity based off empathy for everyone’s common human shortcomings rather than based off who they happen to be culturally similar to, to make one’s ingroup as inclusive as impossible. It certainly isn’t tribalist or collectivist as Soave is concerned. Though it still recognizes diversity as important, Rorty still explicitly says that we should see this diversity “as a diversity of self-creating individuals, rather than a diversity of cultures[.]” This liberal (and classical liberal as I see it as drawing off of Hume, Smith, and Mill more than anything) vision is one that is both pluralistic and individualistic.

Is this, however, a winning electoral strategy, as Lilla is concerned? I’m not sure. Tribalist urges of racism are certainly very powerfully woven into how humans have psychologically evolved, and perhaps in our current broken discourse of race relations it isn’t the best electoral strategy. There is, however, some reason for optimism; popular support for gay rights is at an all-time high, after all, and this was probably more a function of the victory of emphasizing the similarity of love between gays to that of straights then getting straight allies to march in gay pride parades. Regardless of electoral outcomes, shouldn’t the goal of civil discourse not be to win elections, but to ensure the most just, peaceful, and prosperous civil society—the zero-sum game of coercive politics be damned? Leftists should try to change the current broken discourse, rather than try to work within it to gain political power.

How to split up California?

The idea of splitting up California has been previously discussed on NOL (see here, here, and most recently). In this post I wish to consider how California could be split up.

California has a large population of 38.8 million. For comparison Canada has 35.1 million residents distributed among its 10 provinces and the New England states house 14.7 million yankees in six states. With such a large population it is not surprising that the state has several regions with distinct cultures. This in itself is not sufficient merit to split up the state. One of the wonders of a liberal republican form of government is that diverse populations can coexist so long as they are treated equally before the law and have the freedom to exercise their various cultures. The problem is when these cultural differences lead to different public policy demands.

Consider for example the issue of abortion. In most matters of religion it is sufficient to allow different faiths to practice their beliefs so long as they keep to themselves. Why should non-Jews care if Jews must follow kosher dietary restrictions? The same cannot be done with abortion though. Those who believe, often due to their religious inclinations, that abortion is murder cannot tolerate its practice among those of other faiths or atheists. What is to be done?

One option would be to break up California. Although those on both sides of the abortion debate exist across California, there is also quite a bit of spatial correlation. See here. The Central Valley and Inland Empire counties both have significant portions of their populations favoring abortion limitations. Both regions also have low support for same sex marriage, see here, so it is safe to assume that their cultural differences with the rest of California is not on just one issue but several important public policies.

I would caution those who propose splitting up California between its inland and coastal regions. Both the Central Valley and Inland Empire may be culturally conservative, but the inland northern counties do not seem to fall in line. Nor would I recommend the Coastal/Inland split for those concerned about partisanship, see here. The San Francisco Bay Area, Northern Coast and Los Angeles are liberal strongholds but the Central Coast and Orange-San Diego region aren’t.

Similarly a North/South split would do little to help address regional cultural differences. The North/South split would usually split the state apart at San Luis Obispo-Kern-San Bernardino county lines. This would lead to the conservative Central Valley being lumped into the same state as ultra-liberal San Francisco. Meanwhile the Inland Empire and Orange-San Diego counties would find themselves sharing a state with blue Los Angeles.

What would be a good split then?

I personally favor the creation of four new states. Jefferson (the northern coastal and inland counties), San Francisco (the bay area states), Los Angeles (LA County), Central Valley (everything between Fresno and Bakersfield roughly) and the rest of southern California.

Given that any division would have to be approved by Congress the new states of Jefferson, San Francisco, and Los Angeles would have to be gerrymandered in such a way as to ensure they are blue states and maintain as many electoral votes from old California as possible. The Central Coast would likely be gobbled up between LA and San Francisco.  This gerrymandering would be needed to get Democrat votes who would otherwise be against losing all those electoral votes. Although Democrats would get two more seats in the Senate the Republicans could favor the deal in order to sweep extra electoral votes from the Central Valley and Southern California.

Although the split would be less than perfect, it would still grant greater say over public policy to the conservation counties.

Thoughts? Further maps on Californian public policy opinions can be found here.

P.S. In regards to the water issue, I like to think that the split of California would lead to a revision of the Colorado River Compact and related laws in order to create a more market oriented process for water allocation. I can dream can’t I?

The Almost Turk and the Jew

Note to my overseas readers: Recently a bright woman who has her own show on a television network reputed to be conservative stated in a sarcastic manner that Santa Claus is white and so is Jesus. “Live with it,” she added meanly. The liberal media have been in a rage ever since. They don’t quite know how to accuse others of racism toward a person (Santa ) who may not exist. Below is my own poisonous contribution.

I see no reason to compromise in the current culture war (“Kulturkampf“): Santa Claus is obviously white because he comes from pre-Turkish Asia Minor where everyone was white. Santa was almost a Turk, just a little too early, that’s all. Along the way, he got redesigned in Bavaria, white too. Jesus was also white although he looked suspiciously Jewish. I mean by “white” that both would have easily sat in the front of the bus in Alabama in 1950. Now, to be fair, one of the magi (so-called “wise men”) visiting the baby Jesus from Persia may have been black, as in “African.” Go figure!

And no, he was not depicted as a servant as a way to demean people with sub-Saharan African ancestry. Don’t even go there! He was one of the “rois-mages” in French; that means “king.” That’s all there is to it. In fact, I am pretty sure he brought baby Jesus gold as a gift. Not bad!

In my view, if other racial groups want to claim either a Santa or a Jesus, they will have to invent their own. I look forward to an Asian fat man who brings presents, for example. (But what will he ride?) And we could easily use another Savior, perhaps a girl with African features. They are all welcome to borrow both Santa and Jesus in the meantime but they may not (NOT) change their identity by force. (When your neighbor lends you his plate, you are not supposed to paint it over.)

Homosexual Marriage

I don’t care much if homosexuals, a small percentage of the population, gain the right to marry. (The right to marry? What kind of a right is this?) In general, I don’t like the idea that an activist minority can use the armed power of the state to force a cultural change at all, on a well identified majority. (Why no thave a court decree that lies are now included under the definition of “truth,” subject to fines and even to jail terms for recidivism?) I also don’t get all that agitated by the realization that civil union contracts can achieve the same objective, concrete ends, as marriage without hurting deeply the many.

At the same time, I think that both fear of the new and a simplistic reading of the Bible motivates many opponents of homosexual marriage. (By the way, given the California large majority vote on Proposition Eight, it has to include many Democrats, not just Republicans.) I am no theologian but I have trouble imagining a God who loses sleep over the fact that some men love men (and act upon it) or that some women love women (and act upon it). After all, that was His indifferent design that did it.

I am not much concerned either about the example it will set if the right to homosexual marriage becomes the law in the whole country as it is already in several states. I don’t think we are on the eve of seeing a woman marry her two Chihuahuas, one male, one female, for example. The spread of polygamy is a greater possibility. One form, polygeny, might turn out to be OK because there is a shortage of functioning males, I hear. I do believe in slippery slopes though. I have to because I am a three-times former smoker.

Whichever way the Supreme Court decision comes down, I will easily live with it. My friendship for the homosexuals of both sexes I have known and who care about the decision makes this acceptance even easier. (That’s the way it is: Principles regarding abstractions tend to melt a little in contact with the warmth of flesh and blood of real people.) Homosexual activists are not, however making friends with me by their insistence of having the Court (or the courts) overturn the results of a well established democratic process. I mean California Proposition Eight (against which I voted).

Deep inside my brain, there is also a vague notion that the issue does not reduce to morality or to tolerance. It has to do with some very basic structures of human thought based on dualities. I don’t have a good grasp of this. I will wait until I do to discuss the topic (unlike some visitors on this blog who will say anything twenty seconds after it comes to mind.)

Abortion, the Conception of Life, and Liberty

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. – Thomas Jefferson, 1816

My blog post on freedom and feminism prompted a number of short but informative dialogues in the comments section, and I thought it would be a good idea to draw some of these arguments out a little more and really delve into the implications of what it means to be free.

My original post was meant to serve as a general outline of the major rift within libertarianism (and, by implication, the American Right) today: the cultural one. I think that the rift between libertarians on cultural issues is actually much less serious than the one between libertarians and conservatives, and the comments section highlighted this important disagreement. Instead of a mutual mistrust based upon suspicion of authoritarian tendencies hiding in plain sight, libertarians actively fight conservatives when it comes to the struggle between liberty and power.

Two key arguments will be exploited on this blog for the sake of showing Ron Paul Republicans and other, newer members of the libertarian movement just how nakedly aggressive and barbaric anti-abortion laws really are. Continue reading