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Brandon Istenes

Organized Democracy

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Traveling through Guatemala and learning a bit about the history of US imperialism here.

Its arc is like this: Jorge Ubico, backed by the United States, wins an uncontested election in 1931 and becomes a famously brutal dictator. All the land which had been public ally or collectively owned is sold off, mostly to large international agribusinesses. In 1944, labor power and popular protest oust Ubico. Elections are held and a moderate is elected. In 1951 Arbenz, who aside from his strong land reform policies could only be a socialist by US standards, is elected. He begins a process of redistribution of unused land, granting land to about 100,000 families disenfranchised by Ubico regime. In 1954 the CIA engineers a military coup, instating a new military dictatorship and undoing the land reforms. Dictatorship devolves into a civil war that lasts until the 1990s.

Over the course of the 1990s the political situation stabilized. But this time it was without labor power or a popular left movement, both of which were devastated during the war. In 2015, a quarter of political campaign contributions came from business interests and organized crime each. The candidates with the most support, including Jimmy Morales (who won), were those who sought to discontinue the prosecution of former military officials for war crimes.

What do we mean when we talk about democracy? Here we see two answers at war. Liberal democracy, which is what we typically mean in the US, has to do with individual empowerment. A situation is liberal-democratic insofar as it permits individuals to express their political will and organize, within the God-given constraints of neoliberal capitalism (some sarcasm here). What’s notable is that the actuality of political organization isn’t taken into account—only its potential. Actual political organization may occasionally even be opposed to personal liberty, as in the disjunction between scabbing and worker’s solidarity.

Organized labor is not, in US discourse, considered as a lever of people power constituting democracy. Guatemala under Arbenz and Guatemala now can be seen as being on similar footing with respect to democracy only with such a hobbled definition of democracy. The US has shucked off meaningful popular power from the brittle and bureaucratic thing it calls “democracy.”

Markets Love Your Independence in Old Age

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I just cracked into Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It's already fantastic. I have a beef though.

Gawande tells an interesting story about the development of old-age lifestyles. He starts by describing his great-grandfather's experience of old age. He lived to be very, very old. Throughout his latter years he was surrounded by generations of family, among whom he was held in the highest honor. He continued to conduct business and lead a stubbornly normal life just about up until he died.

This is implicitly contrasted with the version of old age that would be familiar to most US American and European readers, wherein the old try to live independently as long as possible, until medical reasons force them into the care of some institution or another.

Gawande identifies this as a shift correlating to the development of societies. One argument to this effect points out that the wisdom of the old is much less valuable in modernized labor than it is in non-industrial society. Neither I nor any of my siblings are in the same trade as my parents, or our grandparents, and even if we were those trades are probably dramatically different than they were thirty years ago. There's not a lot of useful information my grandpa can offer me about software engineering.

Perhaps more interestingly, he cites that people who have the resources to afford themselves independence in their old age have tended to do so, independently of other factors. This would appear to mean that people have some inherent drive towards greater independence. That something in our psychology makes us prefer being old and alone to being old and surrounded by family.

Of course, to stop here would be to fail to break the surface of an analysis of how economics relate to culture. It is not merely the case that economics might permit the wealthy to express their will to independence. Rather, capitalism marketizes our independence, as that independence is expressed in our own real estate, our own furniture, our own cars—our very own replica of all of the necessities of life that would otherwise be shared with others. I think it's prudent to be skeptical of claims that human nature drives us towards something, when at the same time the logic of capital is demonstrably driving us towards that same thing.

I doubt that this effect that markets have on families and independence is demonstrated anywhere more clearly than in Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has since its rise in 2002 made heavy use of construction and infrastructure development as economic stimulus, effectively as a core economic policy. As a result, roads have widened, and projects to build dams and bridges and mosques and a gigantic airport have sprung up all over the country.

And, critically, huge apartment complexes. The claim is that Turkey is way behind in housing, that it has nowhere near enough housing for all the young Turks coming into the world. Of course, the birth rate in Turkey has been going down just like everywhere else in the world, and this has never been a problem before. The splitting up of extended family structures, which have been the atom of Turkish society since forever, is a necessary part of using massive construction projects as economic stimulus. Independent people require more independent units in which to live, requiring more money to pay for them. So people have to make more money, so that they can pay it to the developers (who are making buckets of money), and this is what we call economic stimulation, and the end result is that everyone lives alone, and dies alone. Maybe somewhere deep down that really is what we want, but I'm hesitant to reach for that conclusion.

Name-Calling

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Somehow we've found ourselves categorizing groups of people in the most reductive ways first. People aren't anti-racists; they're protesters. They aren't male chauvinists; they're trolls. They aren't Kurdish leftists; they're terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on who you ask.

This is a result of the ideology of tactics essential to liberalism. This ideology says  that tactics are ethical only when they are legal. So of course Antifa are on the same moral footing as Neo-Nazis. They're both Protesters.

When we talk simply about rioters, guerrillas, or terrorists, and fail to ask about their context or perspective, we reproduce the language of liberalism. This hegemonic language is not just biased toward liberalism. It is politically reductive, and impinges on the analytical, contextualizing, and humanistic possibilities of discourse at large.

The Middle East as Ideology-Free Zone

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Popular media largely treats the Middle East as an ideology-free zone, excepting Islamism and racial nationalism.

Two big reasons for this spring to mind.

The first is US foreign policy. Our allies in the gulf are dominated by political ideologies that US media elites can only turn a blind eye to, except when kissing ass for MBS. To talk about the fact that the Kurdish movement in Syria, who besides being our allies (a fact that is widely bandied about) are working vigorously for women’s empowerment, pluralism, and local governance, would be a betrayal of our cohort in NATO, Turkey. Let alone the left resistance in Turkey itself. And regarding Iran, I have this funny feeling that toward socialism (c.f. Mosaddegh) is not the direction the US is hoping that someday regime change might go.

The other is the lingering flavor of Orientalism. It’s a discourse that reduces humans and peoples to narratives on a few longstanding themes. Islamism and racial nationalism are ideologies that admit readings as fanaticism or tribalism, which neatly fit these themes.

This tendency to ignore meaningful political differentiations in the Middle East played out particularly tragically in the Syrian Civil War. As mentioned before, now that Turkey has started making motions to invade North Syria, any mention of the profound humanism of the North Syrian project is off-limits for the popular presses. But beyond that, this tendency elided, and by elision eroded, the left wing of the Syrian revolutionary movement, as chronicled beautifully and tragically in Burning Country by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. The war may have panned out differently if the media hadn't painted Syrian revolutionaries as homogeneous Islamists.

Liberation Teleology

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A block away from my workplace in the small town of Jaltenango de la Paz, Chiapas, a new community center just opened. It's called, in Spanish, "The Effect of Soma." If that seems like a funny name, it is: the literary function of Soma in Brave New World is that it aids in pacifying and isolating people to facilitate totalitarian control. But it is also pure pleasure, hence the name of the community center.

On a recent trip home my brother mentioned that he's skeptical of the possibility of an objective ethics. Along with the community center thing, these two little stimuli prompted the biggest breakthrough in my own thinking on the philosophy of ethics in a long time.

I apologize in advance to those with little background in philosophy for being technical. I apologize in advance to those with much background in philosophy for being sophomoric.

I've subscribed for years to a sort of adapted utilitarianism. The idea is that we can construct an objective ethical system using a function that takes as input the happiness and suffering of everyone concerned, across all future time. The biggest problem with this (other than that it's useless as a tool for making ethical decisions, ironically enough) is the Soma problem: there's no way to tally happiness and suffering such that a Soma-fueled authoritarian dystopia is unethical.

So what I'm drawn to now is a Teleology of Liberation. The idea is that an action is moral insofar as it increases the capacity of people to pursue self-actualization.

A few notes:

  • To act out your own liberty is neither inherently moral nor immoral. The question is about the impact of your actions on the liberty of others.
  • We can apply a progressive metric to tally liberty, much as we can for utilitarianism. i.e., the liberty to eat weighs much more heavily than the liberty to fly around the world.
  • A moral social order is then an equitable one, one in which everyone has a similar capacity to pursue self-actualization.
  • Whereas Nietzsche and Rand's liberty includes the liberty to dominate, this precludes it. Domination is immoral. A Soma-prison is immoral. Oppression is immoral. Check check check.
  • I think it's healthy for ethical systems to be robust to a loss of the noumenon. That is, they should function similarly if we deny that an objective reality exists. I mostly like this stipulation because a lot of my friends are postmodern-ass anthropologists who think the idea of objective truth is colonialist. An intersubjective utilitarianism is easy to construct, since people have a sense of their happiness (and suffering) that they can communicate. I hear Sartre constructed an intersubjective deontology, but I can't tell you much about it. Anyway, an intersubjective liberation teleology also seems straightforward, since I have some sense of the constraints on my life. But it would be fair to point out that liberty is much squirrelier than happiness and suffering.

I have no doubt that this idea has been thoroughly expounded, probably a long time ago. I'd be interested if anyone can point me to where I can read more about it (brandonistenes@gmail.com).

Some Background on Ethics

Don't read this if you already sort of get what I said above. It is not good.

One way to divide up thinking on ethics is into deontological ("it's what you do") and teleological ("it's what results"). A point of notable contrast is The Trolley Problem. They both get in trouble in certain tricky (or not-so-tricky) situations. Kant, deontology's MVP, would have told Nazis where his Jewish neighbors are because lying is bad, so don't do lying. John Stuart Mill, the guy who invented utilitarianism (the Bacardi of teleology), would have pushed someone out of an airplane, provided doing so was necessary to ensure the arrival of medicine that would have saved two lives. Most people are uncomfortable with both of these.

This problem with deontology can be circumvented with what I call an "information hack." Kant's dictum was "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." So if your maxim is "don't lie," you're going to be a shithead snitch, and you deserve to get beat up. But if the maxim you apply to the above situation is "don't tell state-appointed murderers where the people they want to kill are," you'll be in much better shape. However, this might require an arbitrary amount of context to resolve—you might have to describe the present scenario in an arbitrary amount of detail to figure out what the moral thing to do is. What exactly is the moral decision might change depending on how much context is provided, as happens with Kant and the Nazis. And who's to say what's the right level of detail to provide in a maxim?

This is similar to a problem that much closer to the heart of teleology, which is that you might have to know an arbitrary amount of stuff to an arbitrary point in the future in order to fully measure the ethical import of an action. This makes it pretty useless for figuring out what the moral thing to do is. But at least it's obvious how ethics should ultimately be measured: taking the whole universe from that point forward forever into account. There's no such easy answer for deontology.

I don't really mind either of these problems, since I don't think this kind of ethical theory is actually useful for living ethically. I think normative ethics is a more relevant body of thought for that kind of stuff, but I'm not very familiar with it either. Mostly I just wing it.

But there's trouble! Some people don't think that there is a single, fixed, objective world that we can refer to. I complain about these people a lot; some of them are close friends of mine. For me it's a very productive tension. I'd rather not know exactly how they feel about it. In any case, I think it's productive to ask which of these theories stay standing when we pull out the rug of reality from under them.

The vanilla statement of utilitarianism presumes that there is an objective (or "noumenal") reality in which happiness exists in objective, if unmeasurable, amounts. What happens if we remove the objective, leaving the intersubjective? By the intersubjective I mean minds and the things they communicate with each other, allowing the possibility that they perceive genuinely different things and that neither perception is more "right" than the other. Utilitarianism survives in style – people have some sense of their own happiness and suffering that they can communicate with others.

How might we construct an intersubjective deontology? I'm sort of at a loss, but some folks say Sartre figured it out. I gotta read Sartre one of these days.

Libertarianism is Great, a priori

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Long conversation last night with a “classical liberal / libertarian.” It struck me how much he was arguing a priori.

Locke’s social contract seems like a fine way to conceptualize the state in society, a priori. A bunch of abstract pre-civilizational humans come together and make some agreements about how to live together. The trouble comes in when you notice it’s not just ahistorical, but it doesn’t at all describe the relationships people have with the state and society, as we observe them empirically.

So, in Lockean tradition, it seems that the guy I'm talking to attempts to understand different political worldviews as different ways of answering what the gang of abstract pre-civilizational humans above ought to do. I suggest that they hold resources in common and allocate what must be allocated according to need. And he's very concerned about people overstating their needs, and about impropriety on the part of those doing administration.

What I'm saying is that libertarians conceive of political theory as something that can be reasoned out a priori, like mathematics, and then applied to reality post hoc. We contrast this with Marxism, which sees political theory as a process of analyzing reality and finding the points of tension, the contradictions, which we expect to drive the process of politics.

This explains the inability to really grapple with inequality. The problem of inequality is always an afterthought, the encroachment of reality on a pure, abstract, a priori theory of economic ethics.

When confronted with the question, I think the interesting response is “inequality is the state’s fault.” I don’t think it’s a strong argument historically, but at least it admits that there’s a problem.

Last night it was “poverty’s not that bad, and besides, extreme poverty is declining.” The first part I, uh, don’t find terribly compelling. But this second claim, that extreme poverty around the globe is in decline, is an interesting one, and warrants further discussion. I think it gets at the split between social science and economics as disciplines broadly.

The economist says that the purchasing power of the poorest of the poor is going up.

The social scientist points out that the process by which this has happened has involved mass displacement into cities and into more precarious living situations, the transition from family business to factory labor (which creates social alienation, isolation, and juvenile delinquency), business-backed violence in Mexico and Colombia... in short, poverty is numerically lessened but empirically aggravated.

I think the split between social science departments and economics departments has something to do with the fact that the former actually listen to what the poor have to say about their situation. Social scientists are concerned with empirical reality. They are interested in doing political ethics a posteriori.

This also gets at a concept that Ivan Illich mentions in Deschooling Society, which is the modernization of poverty. His definition has to do with education, buy I take it to be the idea that “development” makes life more unpleasant given a constant purchasing power. I find this idea compelling and would like to read more about it.

The Present US Electoral Moment from 10,000 Feet

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This is not a very original analysis, and not very deep. But I figure I should state it somewhere.

I’m going to use “fascism” and “socialism” in very loose terms. I’m going to be excessively general. If this all seems obvious to you, read something else. If it's surprising to you, read this blog more.

Bad times yield disillusionment with the status quo. At present, the status quo is liberal capitalism. This, the aftermath of the Great Recession, is a bad time.

In the history of liberal capitalism, this disillusionment has yielded two strong movements in reaction, pulling opposite directions: fascism and socialism.

Trump won because he spoke to this disillusionment, with the spirit (if not the letter) of fascism. Hillary lost because she did not speak to this disillusionment at all. Fascism and socialism speak to disillusionment and dispossession. Neoliberalism and centrism are incapable of doing so.

Since the Red Scare, the US political establishment has being fighting to suppress socialism. There are now few countries in the world where communism is less understood and taken less seriously than in the US. So now that we arrive in a moment where people are looking for radical change, and public discourse is weighted toward fascism.

The worse everything gets, the more people will look for radical answers.

The Earth is warming. Mass environment-driven migration is on the horizon. The future is not looking rosy.

So there’s a race to see how the remains of our ravaged planet will be divvied up: so that everyone can survive with some kind of dignity, or so that the übermenschen can achieve all the power they will themselves to. A humanistic ethic against a Nietzschean one. Right now, as socialists, as humanists, we’re both losing and fighting an uphill battle.

If Democrats continue trying to pose as the bastions of normalcy, defenders of the respectable and moderate, they will either continue to lose or trend rightward. The only answer is the reintroduction of socialism as a real political possibility. Its discourse is already finding purchase. We have a choice: we can make the Democratic party the political vehicle of socialism, and in doing so normalize this discourse. Or we can watch it spiral in a miserable death-embrace with Republicans into Bolsonaro-esque neoliberal fascism.