A Socialist Call to Action

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The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, begins: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” The Greek philosopher Heraclitus similarly observed: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” The universe is fluid, perpetually shifting and evolving, an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, creation and entropy. Just as things come into being, things fall apart. Not since 1930 have people had so little trust in central institutions, so little faith in their leaders, and so little optimism for the future.

For  many of us it is easier to imagine Armageddon than an alternative to liberal capitalism. Most of us under forty years of age have only ever known the neoliberalism that became Western orthodoxy in the 1980s. Our imagination is feeble. But a different world is possible, and indeed wants to be born; masses of people, increasingly alienated and angry, are greedy for new ideas, for an alternative fashion of living. Such a future, however, cannot be realized in the absence of salient critiques of the failing regime or an unqualified normative commitment to the care and liberation of all peoples. More specifically, agents of change must cease to define themselves by their protest, their opposition to what is, and instead rally behind a clear, comprehensive re-imagining of state and society according to principles of radical egalitarianism.

The signs of decline are apparent to those who care to look. Around the world, income inequality is growing as wealth becomes increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent “Great Recession” revealed not only that this unaccountable economic elite was irresponsible, but that it was a protected class. Despite popular outrage, none of the institutions responsible for the crisis suffered, and any attempts to curb such behavior have proved fruitless. Meanwhile, as a consequence of the now dominant neoliberal consensus, young people in the West can no longer expect the high standard of living their parents once took for granted. Instead, many now look forward to incurring crushing debt (as a substitute for wages, long stagnant in Western economies) and insecurity in housing and employment — whereas Mom and Dad could depend on the white picket fence and the Plymouth in the garage. Moreover, in the short-term, those born with the millennium must pay the price in many countries of austerity measures adopted post-2008 in response to the crisis caused by those same culpable but unpunished oligarchs. Fear and frustration at this bleak present and grimmer future has led to global unrest. In 2010, popular revolts broke out across North Africa and the Middle East. In each case, it was the working classes who challenged the preexisting settlement. Although some of these revolts failed, the grievances of economic anxiety and powerlessness are finding expression from the underdeveloped world to the developed world, from the periphery of the global economy to its very core.

As the injustice of economic inequality becomes more acute, so too do societies become more cognizant and receptive to the expressions of social inequalities too often ignored. The constant institutional racism African-Americans experience daily only entered popular consciousness via the Black Lives Matter and the moral outrage over the killings by police of unarmed African-American children. The ongoing Me Too Movement has created awareness to the harmful effects of patriarchal male culture on women, who face discrimination and harassment regularly. A historically overlooked part of the LGBT community, transgendered people, are becoming more culturally prominent. There is a pattern of recognition that our present way of life not only enriches a few at the expense of the many beyond economic life, but our social life as well, and that these lives intersect in myriad ways constantly. In other words, from top to bottom, modern life is garbage — politically, economically, culturally. The liberal default position — to believe in reform over revolution, tinkering around the edges in avoidance of clean breaks — remains the consensus, but this begs the question of how long people will “trust the process” when the status quo is so plainly and painfully corrupt and broken. In a cruel turn of tragic comedy, it has actually been the extreme right who have been the most successful in launching (and legitimating) their revolutionary demands, ludicrously predicated on the persecution of”the white race” — an imagined community suffering an imaginary genocide. As the empire rots from within, the emperor blames the barbarians. Just as the equally mythological “Judeo-Bolshevik” once rallied the disenchanted petit bourgeoisie to fascism, today the specter of the MS-13 member or Arab jihadist serves as a useful distraction for the dissenting masses (along with the usual Illuminati cliches or anti-Semitic canards). Just as the status quo weakens, the people allow themselves to be divided, until we are left with the present political condition: a weary cynicism content to constitute itself as a negation, but unwilling to embrace revolution.

Revolution is now necessary. The time of bourgeois liberal capitalism is over; its death is heralded everywhere. By “revolution,” what is meant is the social sort characterized by the two most meaningful revolutions in the Western world: the 1789 French Revolution and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The former was the fatal blow against feudalism, absolute monarchy, and the influence of the church in secular affairs. Even those absolute monarchies that sought to destroy the French Republic eventually had to undertake liberalizing reforms. Its ideas sparked revolutions in Latin America and sowed the seeds for national liberation in the inchoate colonies. Over a century later, Red October was no less influential as a challenge to the hegemony of bourgeois liberal capitalism, even if in the end it was less successful. However, the fact that socialism endures as the most popular critique of liberal capitalism speaks to how the battle of ideas is still being waged. Socialism and all deviations of radical egalitarianism (which includes anarchism) share a commitment to removing the disparities and dispossession upon which capitalism depend.  Late capitalism can no more be saved than the economist Turgot could have implemented his modernizing reforms in 1775 that would have forestalled the 1789 revolution i the environment of absolute monarchy was infertile to the change required. Reform in such times is a dead end, a cul-de-sac.

Calls to action (which the contemporary extreme right is exceedingly good at, and radical egalitarians woeful) are bound to unnerve some, but this is not a call to violence. Violence is a tactic, not a strategy, and arguably one not not to be employed until the state is at its weakest. Rather, it is a call for affirmative activity, for constituting radical egalitarian politics as providing care for all humanity, of fostering a culture of inclusiveness, kindness, and mutual respect. We must not only be skeptical of reformist measures to create a more “humane capitalism” while showing commitment to a new society, a new culture, a socialist alternative. Increasingly, liberal capitalism is steering toward providing material assurances, such as a guaranteed basic income for everyone. This will only safeguard the astronomical privilege of the elite by raising the lowest strata a little higher from the bottom. Such a basic income would only provide the “freedom” to work most of your life away so that someone else might profit from your own labor. Similarly, equipping police officers with body cameras will only provide shootings of unarmed African-Americans from new angles. Paying women actors as much as their male counterparts raises the paychecks of ordinary women not one cent.

There was a time when the West used a fraction of its lucre to mollify the masses: the welfare state, providing care from cradle to grave. The “Golden Age of Capitalism” this produced from the 1950s to the 1970s died with the rise of neoliberalism, and never will it rise again. Neoliberalism (that ideology so insidious its most stalwart defenders deny it exists) squashed this deviation, restoring that cardinal pillar of every liberal since the 18th century: guarantees for private enterprise, the supremacy of profit over public needs. Liberalism and capitalism are ideologically joined at the hip; the “liberty” of liberalism has always been an individual liberty to exercise “natural” skills and talents (along with an expensive bourgeois education). The institutions of liberalism, from Constitution to Congress, are designed to protect the property-owning class because it was their ancestors who designed them. The last significant political “revolution” in U.S. history was that of Jefferson and his anti-federalist republicans in 1801; ever since, interests have become so increasingly narrow and vested that even undoing the far-reaching and controversial legislation of a predecessor is no easy feat. Additionally, the state has retreated so much in the age of globalization that its ability to even control the economy has shrank. Precisely because unrest is spreading and alienation is becoming more pervasive more and more power is moving from the public sphere into the private sphere. This power will not be surrendered willingly; it will be defended tooth and nail.

Once the nature of the struggle is realized, it is evident that the marches and rallies that have come to dominate the expression of political expression — the Occupy Movement, the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives — are no longer sufficient. These actions draw awareness to societal ills, but that is all they do. Their problem is not the absence of concrete policies, as critics often claim, but an absence of vision. There were no ideas of what would constitute the alternative to the one-percent-versus-99-percent inequality. The Women’s March avoided tough questions about bourgeois feminism and the problem of trans-exclusive radical feminists. The broad anti-NRA campaign after the Parkland High School shooting often ignored the reality that the toughest gun laws already in place are targeted at and enforced against poor people of color. New political parties and manifestos would not have helped these movements, as that would be playing into a political system arrayed against them anyway. Instead, there needed to be an active counter-culture continually interrogating these problems while also crafting ideas, values, and concepts around these issues that could be applied in a more ideal egalitarian society. This counter-culture can still exist — and indeed it must if liberal capitalism is not to be “the end of history,” as Fukuyama famously proclaimed. Instead, like our grandparents and great-grandparents in the 1930s, they believed in either a better, more joyful future or no future at all. It was, after all, socialism or barbarism.

Relative to most of the world, the West enjoys a level of material comfort that hinders the development of a revolutionary consciousness. Yet, even if the sons and daughters of the middle class are not yet starving in the street, most people in the West are feel a sort of alienation, what the sociologist Durheim called anomie: a sense of disconnect or wrongness about the norms and values of society and those of the individual. When a person becomes aware of current events — the staggering income inequality, class immobility, the exemption from punishment of corrupt oligarchs, the institutional violence and repression women and people of color face, the breaking up and deportation of families, mass shootings with no political consequences — there is a registration of a mismatch, of a social illness, that we cannot be satisfied or fulfilled under these conditions. It falls to those who believe in revolution to seize upon this frustrated outrage and perpetual nausea and from these symptoms diagnose the disease: neoliberal capitalism as perpetrated by and for the enrichment and luxury of straight white men. Finally, it falls to us to design and promote the cure, as a collaborative project: What would a socialist economy in the 21st century developed world look like? How do we ensure a truly democratic form of government that is both demographically and substantively representative of all social groups? How might we socialize future generations to the principles of radical egalitarianism in order to foster a more diverse and inclusive culture? How do we construct not just a more just and equal order domestically in Western countries, but globally, so those countries constrained to the periphery might finally escape underdevelopment by Western states and corporations?

While the time for revolution in the West may be far off, the time is ripe for the emergence of a counter-hegemonic vision heavily based on socialism, anarchism, and other radical egalitarian movements. Liberalism is impoverished and can offer nothing new; neoliberalism was a reversion to classical liberalism, not forward progress. Fascism, as ever, remains the irrational romanticism of the “angry white men” of the petit bourgeois, and despite the privilege of this class, the crimes of fascism still linger in the popular mentality (albeit not as strongly as they perhaps should). Radical egalitarianism alone has the moral advantage, the ability to speak to the what the discontented think a fairer and more humane world would look like. Unfortunately, this potential will be wasted if we try to work within a system beyond redemption, or if counter-hegemonic activity is limited to sign-carrying and sneering satire. We have a world to win, but to begin with, we must imagine what such a world will be like.

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Heartless Romantics: Fascism and Romanticism

Twitter’s own Trillburne (aka The Discourse Lover) and the person behind the excellent Age of Napoleon history podcast recently tweeted this piece of fascist trivia:

The thing is, there’s a word for this bourgeois transgressive mentality: Romanticism.

213px-schmoll_goethe_vaThe philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, in a series of lectures (the audio of which you can find online), drew a straight line between the 18th century Romantic era and 20th century fascism. Specifically, he connects the Sturm und Drang cultural movement, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel and the usual cast of German idealists to the rise of Nazi Germany. Certainly, one can see some parallels between Goethe’s famous Young Werther and Adolf Hitler: both are impressionable, impassioned artists who killed themselves when their fanciful dreams were dashed. But whereas Werther chose suicide after rejection from the woman he loved, Hitler shot himself after the object of his desire — a grand German Empire, brutally cleansed of ideological enemies, its special destiny and supremacy manifest — fell to ashes. Werther was the quintessential sentimental fool, a sensitive soul who believed love should conquer all. Hitler, no less a fool, simply believed that, instead of love, Germany should conquer all — the culmination of a cultural faith in a “special path,” Sonderweg in German, for the sacred Fatherland and its volk, including expansionism into Eastern Europe — Drang nach Osten, the “desire for the East.”

180px-nietzsche1882Many of the aspects of Nazi ideology come straight from Romantic philosophy and culture, and those who followed after it. This is perhaps most apparent in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, a disciple of the idealist Schopenhauer, wrote about a “beyond-human,” the Übermensch, who lives to exercise his indomitable will to become an exemplar in this world, in contrast to those living for some fictional afterlife. The Nazis appropriated these concepts, twisting them from abstract metaphysical arguments to ideological justifications for applied social Darwinism. In this respect, they were aided by Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a nationalist and anti-Semite who embraced the transformation of her brother’s work in a part of the Nazi ethos (or, perhaps more accurately, mythos). After she published a fraction of her’s brother’s notes in 1901, philosophers connected to the Nazis like Alfred Baeumler and Martin Heidegger argued that Nietzsche’s thought constituted a political philosophy anchored on a natural order of hierarchy produced through conflict, a struggle for dominance between differing cultures. Traditional Christian morality and Enlightenment humanism were aberrations, false constructs created to control and constrain the dynamic heroes of the age. It thus falls to the men of remarkable skill and talent to overcome these inhibitions, to accept and fight the primordial struggle for existence, to throw caution and conscience to the wind and achieve ultimate victory. In the words of the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:

He who throws the dice for a prize also has to dare a wager, hence we have made Nietzsche’s words come true: ‘Have the courage to live dangerously.’ Obviously major projects cannot be carried out as long as dozens of parties get under one’s feet. These parties don’t make history, they only make a fuss. Today one man speaks for the Reich, and his voice echoes the voices of 66 million people.

320px-flag_of_the_legionary_movementIt this sort of romantic, theatrical approach to politics that makes it possible to understand the Iron Guard’s belief in sacrificing their salvation to achieve Romania’s special destiny. Yet there is another important element lacking from the Nazi context: clericalism. The Iron Guard was led by the fanatically Orthodox Christian Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who was referred to reverently by his followers as “the Captain.” Iron Guard followers went so far as to distance themselves from politics, framing their movement as seeking a spiritual revolution. In the words of Mircea Eliade, an Iron Guard ideologist, the movement sought “the supreme redemption of the nation, the reconciliation of the Romanian nation with God, as the Captain said… [T]he victory of the Legion will lead not only to the restoration of the virtues of our nation, of a hard-working Romania, worthy and powerful, but also to the birth of a man who is in harmony with the new kind of European life.” (The Iron Guard was originally called “The Legion of the Archangel Michael” and always referred to its members as “legionaries.”) It would be easy to say that the Iron Guard merely used theology as a political instrument, but the obvious contradiction between mercy and committing atrocities reveals something so problematic about such a pragmatic explanation. The truth is that there is no contradiction; members of the Iron Guard accepted their own individual damnation for a greater good, “the supreme redemption of the nation.” Since fascism elevates the nation, the community above the individual, a single soul is ultimately meaningless next to the deliverance of the communal spirit. If this sounds “silly,” as Trillburne put it, it is because all fascism is based on an appeal to faith over reason, emotion over logic.

163px-bundesarchiv_bild_102-04051a2c_reichsparteitag2c_rede_adolf_hitlersWhile the Nazi ideologues dismissed Christian morality, the regime nevertheless had its own faith based around Germanic paganism and the occult. There is no shortage of sensational documentaries or fantastical works of fiction on the topic, but there is basis in fact. For example, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the swastika symbol in the ruins of Troy, claiming it to be a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors” — a reference to the now widely debunked belief of 18th century European archaeologists in an “Aryan master race” which had founded all the major civilizations before degenerating into miscegenation. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the symbol as representing “the victory of the idea of creative work;” in this there are echoes of the Dionysian chaos and religious ecstasy championed by Nietzsche in tension with the order and structure of Apollo, chief tenets of the Enlightenment. One of the qualities of the “noble savage,” so admired in the Romantic era, is an innate goodness, an intuitive sense of right and wrong, who is free to realize his ambitions free from the shackles of “civilization,” “modernity,” the corrupted and decayed social structure and its values.

320px-570_wewelsburgPerhaps no other fascist figure embodies the bourgeois “edge-lord” mentioned by Trillburne as Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader of the SS and one of the primary architects of the Holocaust. From a conservative middle-class family, Himmler resented missing the chance to participate in World War I and spent most of his career trying to compensate by organizing an order of elite soldiers, essentially modern knightly Teutonic crusaders, warriors pure in blood as well as ideology. The distinctive lightning bolt runes that constitute SS insignia come from the “Aryo-Germanic” runes invented by the Austrian occultist Guido von List. Wewelsburg Castle, intended to be a holy site for the SS cult, contains a sun wheel mosaic based on the “Black Sun” occult symbol dating from the Germanic migration into Europe during late antiquity. Himmler oversaw the Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”) research society that conducted expeditions to prove the fabricated historical hegemony of the ancient Aryan master race. All this demonstrates that if the Iron Guard mixed their political ideology deeply with Orthodox theology, National Socialism to varying degrees assimilated a form of Romantic adoration for the “noble savage” — in this specific case, invented Aryan ancestors — into their understanding of the world. Moreover, Nazi “true believers” were able to spread this understanding to the majority of Germans, who (even if they did not become zealots themselves) legitimated and treated as valid Nazi claims about the holiness of the German homeland and the preeminence of the German people. They went along with the Dionysian ritual madness of Nazism, embodied in the annual Nuremberg Rallies and their grandiose ceremonies cultivating the worship of Hitler and National Socialism.

320px-donald_trump_alt-right_supporter_283245297460429It may seem facile at this point to compare contemporary widespread political unrest and the resurgence of far-right nationalist politics to the turmoil and rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Yet, there are indeed parallels between today’s “alt-right” quasi-fascists and those German Romanticists Berlin described as “socially crushed and politically miserable human beings.” Like the Germans of old, today’s Western right-wingers exalt a made-up history of their purity and greatness, an imagined notion of 1950s white suburbia substituting for ancient or medieval German dominance. They blame moral decay on ethnic “enemies” polluting society as well as sacrilegious, unscrupulous left-wingers. Critically, they both also reject the cult of experts described by John Ralston Saul in his Voltaire’s Bastards. There is a shared assault on the technocratic approach to managing politics, economics, and culture governed through insulated, unaccountable, and unethical professional elites (see “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!”). The bitter, angry shopkeeper of the Weimar Republic — so keen to persecute Jews and Bolsheviks to re-obtain national greatness — finds rebirth in the bitter, angry middle-class American eager to attack migrants and “cultural Marxists” to “make America great again.” Again, not every Trump supporter is a white supremacist ideologue, but just as many Germans endorsed Nazi ideology, so too do many Americans legitimize a worldview that sees white Christian Americans as a persecuted group, their superior status restrained by harmful forces that must be purged. Indeed, such a purge is taking place, whether it be in the mass deportations and breaking-up of families by ICE or the badgering of left-wing academics or commentators (the “secular-progressive” enemies in the U.S. “culture war” conceived by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly). Never mind that Barack Obama deported more people than any other U.S. president; never mind that many academic disciplines, like political science, are far more divided over theoretical and methodological questions than political ones. The holy wars of the contemporary far-right are no more based in reality than the Nazi crusade against “Judeo-Bolshevism” and other anti-Semitic canards and “Red Scare” tactics.

Again, not a novel observation, but there is an interesting question why today so many people — especially young people, as was the case in 1930s Europe — are turning to the irrational, impassioned politics of the extreme-right and what this says about a deeper, pervasive alienation that is fueling a fusion of liberalism and fascism: hybrid regimes with certain political freedoms and civil liberties but also pronounced nationalism, militarism, and a massive military-industrial economy oriented around endless war. Western hegemony today depends on collaborative institutions, hallmarks of liberal philosophy, but these same institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO, etc. — are funded and structured in such a way as to ensure Western (particularly U.S.) interests are protected and exploited. In a sense, it is liberalism overlaying a fundamentally fascist approach to power, the “creative victory” of the swastika masqueraded as the organic liberal social contract. Increasingly, however, the right-wing impulse to dethrone the experts, to take back the established institutions into public control to re-purpose them for ideological application, is threatening the status quo. The last time the extreme-right did so, they re-purposed the efficiency and mechanization of the Industrial Revolution from production to annihilation; they industrialized mass murder with the Holocaust. Obviously, ethnic cleansing in the U.S. remains subtle in the form of deportations, mass incarceration of poor people of color, etc. We may not yet be on the precipice of Nazi era genocide. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize where the heartless right-wing romanticism of the past has  led humanity before.

The National Question, Revisited

In Spain, Catalonian nationalists advocating separation from Spain are likely to go ahead320px-20set_barcelona_14 with a symbolic referendum on independence. Madrid has threatened it will seize control of polling booths if the vote proceeds on October 1. These events come on the heels of a landslide referendum victory in Iraqi Kurdistan, where allegedly 93 percent of over three million voters expressed support for independence. This is indicative of a global trend of unrest often described as populist, but which is also commonly nationalist. Throughout Western Europe, these upstart parties and politicians have tended to be of the right-wing variety, arguing for policies of exclusion and discrimination against immigrants, especially followers of Islam. These two referendums, however, involve communities are seeking the creation of two states, not the preservation of traditional polities. Catalan separatism is rooted in Castilian supremacy in Spain, starkly characteristic of the 1936-1975 Franco dictatorship. Upon the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and its former Arab possessions divided up Kurdish territory and subsequently suppressed nationalist agitators (ironically, it was the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq and the following destabilization of the region that sowed the seeds for an autonomous Kurdish government and any possible state it forms).

An independent Catalonia or Kurdistan would indubitably frustrate the hegemony of the U.S. and its Western allies, showing once again their inability to maintain the status quo. The weakening of imperialism is clearly anti-imperialist, but is it left-wing? The standard answer is that any nationalism is inherently anti-Marxist, as The Communist Manifesto explicitly states: “The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country.” In isolation, the second sentence could mean that workers have no stake in the bourgeois state, but the preceding one makes it clear that communists seek to eliminate nationality as an identifier. This makes logical sense, if one accepts that communism stems from a belief in the unity of humanity; it would do little good to obliterate distinctions of class and state power while retaining ethnic division, a keystone of discrimination through every epoch. The Marxist theorist who married Irish nationalism with socialism, James Connolly, put it so: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.” Or, as paraphrased in, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley: national liberation not based on left-wing principles will change only “the accents of the powerful and the color of the flag.”

There are also contextual factors that guided the thinking of Marx and Engels. Both men came from Germany, a country borne from the confederation of smaller states, the opposite of nations seeking to separate from unwanted unions. Moreover, their version of socialism was scientific and anti-utopian. Nationalism is inherently emotional, a moral conception not easily operationalized. Of course, Marx considered issues of nationalism in the Poland and Czech cases, for example, but through what Rosa Luxemburg called a “sober realism, alien to all sentimentalism” fixated on individual cases, rather than some vague, generalized idea of the metaphysical “rights of nations.”

Marx and Engels became more sensitive to issues of imperialism due to the 1857 Indian320px-the_sepoy_revolt_at_meerut Rebellion, wherein Indians revolted against the British Empire over issues of taxation, land annexation, abuse, and general exploitation. Marx wrote that: “However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys (Indian soldiers), it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed all organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself” (emphasis mine). This dialectical viewpoint reflects the notion that capitalism is the author of its own destruction; its contradictions cause its own collapse. He observed that the violence inherent in imperialism breeds violent uprisings in response. Neither Marx nor Engels may have had little time for patriotic fervor, but they understood anti-imperialist movements as forces for positive social progress.

In 1909, Luxemburg wrote The National Question, in which she sought to bring nationality “from the clouds of abstraction to the firm ground of concrete conditions.” She acknowledged that states should be able to choose their own paths, while asking:

“[W]ho is that ‘nation’ and who has the authority and the ‘right’ to speak for the ‘nation’ and express its will? How can we find out what the ‘nation’ actually wants? Does there exist even one political party which would not claim that it alone, among all others, truly expresses the will of the ‘nation,’ whereas all other parties give only perverted and false expressions of the national will? All the bourgeois, liberal parties consider themselves the incarnation of the will of the people and claim the exclusive monopoly to represent the ‘nation.’ But conservative and reactionary parties refer no less to the will and interests of the nation, and within certain limits, have no less of a right to do so.” To her, the pursuit of some ideal nationalist state is a farce and distraction of workers everywhere, while the capitalist empires benefit from their wasted efforts.

Lenin, writing a direct rejoinder in 1916 to Luxemburg, defended self-determination, which had become increasingly mainstream around World War I. He rejects Luxemburg’s claim that seeking statehood comes from moral rather than material motives, as separation from foreign control is required for the realization of conditions favorable to capitalism: common language and communal bonds lubricate all forms of commerce. They do this not to attain true sovereignty, as Luxembourg argues, which Lenin agrees is impossible; true economic independence is unobtainable in the capitalist world system. Nevertheless, some basic degree of autonomy is a prerequisite for any sort of fundamental economic development. Lenin argues against bourgeois arguments for national exclusiveness, advocating “the unity of the proletarian struggle” and the “international association” of all proletarian organizations, but remains firm in arguing that all states should enjoy an equality of rights, including the right of secession.

In a way, Lenin highlights the difference between hegemonic nationalism – embodied by 154px-bundesarchiv_bild_183-71043-00032c_wladimir_iljitsch_leninthe Great Russian nationalism of his time, which the House of Romanov had used for generations to justify its Imperial regime – and the emancipatory nationalism of dominated nations, be they the repressed states of the old Russian Empire or later colonial liberation movements. Lenin was acutely aware of the nationalist movements that had emerged in the declining Russian Empire as well as the draconian “Russification” policies pursued by the Romanovs to preserve their crumbling hold over the nations in the Baltics, the Caucasus, and elsewhere. Unlike Polish nationalism, which sought to overturn the status quo, Russian patriotism threatened change and revolution, and thus Lenin and the other Bolsheviks were hostile to it after taking state power in 1917. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union followed a policy of korenization or “nativization,” using traditional indigenous symbols and alphabets and promoting local cadres within governments and the Communist Party. In the 1940s, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union led to nationalism becoming resurgent, as the state extolled its soldiers to defend the “Motherland.” While this is often portrayed as a unilateral decision by Stalin, in truth it reflected conditions beyond his control: Hitler had framed the German invasion as a showdown between Western Europe and the Slavs, while the liberals of Europe had insured Soviet internationalism had bred no other socialist states in the image of the Soviet Union, save Mongolia. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s showed that capitalist powers reacted better to nationalism than internationalism.

Lenin believed strongly in national self-determination, and in many ways the Russian Communist Party he established in 1918 was the first national communist party. This was reinforced after Josef Stalin adopted the “socialism in one country” policy. Yet this was not a policy of isolationism. The Soviet Union engaged in interventions suiting its own interests (such as in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia), but it also supported colonial liberation movements in Africa, especially in southern Sub-Saharan Africa and its long-standing white-ruled governments in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. In Latin America, Moscow aligned with the Castro regime, and in the 1970s, both Soviet and Cuban support was critical to the victory of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Today, as the U.S. and its allies rush to place any number of new sanctions on nations deemed “rogue states,” there was much resistance even into the 1980s by that same West to sanction Rhodesia and South Africa. Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, a staunch conservative, introduced an amendment in 1971 that permitted the U.S. government to circumvent its own embargo of Rhodesia; trade necessary to defeat communism was more important than defeating racist regimes. Even the People’s Republic of China, before business interests replaced its ideological drive, financed African wars of national liberation. Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party, it is now forgotten, once claimed Beijing as benefactors and followed Maoist dogma.

Marxist-Leninists are entirely justified in supporting the Catalonian and Kurdish pursuits of self-determination, because it is a matter of materialist reality. These nations do not advance nationalism as a panacea, but as a necessary condition for pursuing a sort of national sublimation. In the words of the Indian communist M.N. Roy: “We want freedom, not to save the world, but to save ourselves.” Nationalism is not held up as an end, but a means to an end. States that act according to socialist principles will transcend nationalism, as the Soviet Union and early PRC did. It remains to be seen whether socialist governments would or will emerge in independent Catalonia or Kurdistan, but that is of course a question for the peoples of those nations.

Oppression shackles the aggressor as well as the victim. As Lenin said, “Can a nation be kur2017rrrfree if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.” The U.S., along with its allies, refer to the Catalonian and Kurdish independence movements as “internal matters.” Just as in the 1970s and 1980s, when anti-communism trumped anti-racism, partnerships in Europe and the Middle East surpass a right to self-determination. The Catalonians are no stranger to this; Francoist Spain, which actively repressed Catalonian identity, received support precisely for its anti-communist credentials. The Kurds, meanwhile, need only look to occupied Palestine for any guidance on the limits of Western moral authority.

The violence on display in Spain shows the high cost if states seek to squash popular movements; unfortunately, the tacit approval granted by the Western community that more concrete consequences do not accompany such abstract loss of legitimacy. It behooves followers of Marx and Lenin to denounce such tyranny and our own governments’ passive acceptance of it. Only after those nations are free can we amplify and ally with the movements within them promoting class struggle.

Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

The French Revolution: Interpretations & Causes

We are not supposed to like the French Revolution too much. We acknowledge the virtues of its founding principles, liberal notions that persist to this day: liberty, equality and 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sfraternity. When it comes to the public killing of aristocrats and royalist sympathizers, however, we condemn the Reign of Terror as an early form of totalitarianism, where the state decides who lives and who dies, who serves the common good and who threatens it. Liberalism praises the slow, organic process of evolution, of gradual reform reached through negotiation and compromise. It opposes the bloody and righteous severing of a new order from the status quo. Such a righteousness crusade, it is claimed, leads to the ends outweighing the means, inevitably resulting in purges and deliberate famines — or even outright genocide. In the popular imagination, the guillotine represents not just the specific time of the Terror, but also an early form of state-sanctioned terrorism. It is the epitome of the state using political violence to quash dissenters and silence critics. In a liberal and pluralistic society such as ours, where freedom of thought and speech are valued, the Terror stands as an aberration, a warning to us that the French Revolution ultimately betrayed its noble goals of bringing France from feudalism to modernity.

The problem with this perspective is that it presumes peaceful pacts toward progress are the norm. The reality is that harsh departures from the past are sometimes necessary. In the context of the French Revolution, the victory of liberal republicanism was not assured; on the contrary, it was under constant and continuous assault by an array of reactionary forces. Noble émigrés, religious peasants, and foreign invaders all desired a return to the traditional feudal system. Moreover, the revolutionaries themselves competed to shape the final product of their social upheaval. Constitutional monarchists, moderate liberals and radical utopians from the middle class shifted between allegiances with aristocratic reformers, the urban poor and starving peasants as they sought to steer the revolutionary state through uncharted waters to the unknown shore of a more just and prosperous society. Unlike “the Party” in George Orwell’s 1984 that desires only power for its own sake, even the most despotic figures in the latter stages of the Revolution believed they were imposing order to lay the foundation for a better world. They wanted to wreck any chance of the old order restoring itself, and while in the short-term they failed, in the long-run they succeeded. They showed that society arranged according to the feudal era was in essence antagonistic to the class relations created by the socioeconomic and cultural changes witnessed in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution made the French Revolution unavoidable. The French Revolution in turn has undermined the ability of tyrants and oligarchs worldwide to rule, their very regimes constantly called into question.

Monarchs wielded political power after the Revolution (and inexplicably still do in many countries), but never in the same way again. Common laborers, though failing to achieve many of their demands, came away realizing the potential of people power. Most importantly, power in France shifted irreversibly to the bourgeoisie. Although many would become supporters of imperialism (under Bonaparte) or the monarchy (the Legitimists and Orléanists), they believed such regimes would be the best for France, not because they desired to exclude themselves from politics. The French Revolution taught its contemporaries and continues to teach future generations about their ability to affect incredible political and social transformations when adequately organized.

Interpreting the French Revolution

In academia, debate rages over two rival interpretations of the French Revolution. The classic Marxist interpretation, associated with historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, describes the Revolution as a bourgeois uprising against feudalism to obtain the economic freedom to develop early capitalism. Revisionist historians like Albert Cobban and François Furet argue that the Revolution did not advance the development of France into a capitalist state, and rather than a equalizing event, regard it as a precursor to totalitarianism. In their view, the Revolution was more about barbarism than progress.

It is rather comforting to find parallels between the killings of the Terror and, say, the 172px-cruikshank_-_the_radicals_armskilling fields of Cambodia. It is easy to lump the two together and condemn them both. This knee-jerk judgement rests on the fallacious presumption that, historically, liberal democracy has relatively little blood on its hands. Truthfully, liberalism was just as violent as fascism and communism in remaking the social fabric, especially in its promotion of capitalism. Marx never wrote about the French Revolution, but he wrote extensively about the blossoming of capitalism. He makes it clear that capitalism and classical liberal views about free trade and individualism did not grow peacefully out of feudalism; they destroyed it and replaced it. We remain ignorant of this fact because textbooks recount the killing of kings and nobles, but are largely silent on the main victims of early capitalism: the peasants and craftsmen who once enjoyed secure places under feudalism.  The turn to commercial agriculture and industrialization that defined the Industrial Revolution uprooted these people and removed their very livelihoods. They could either cling to the old ways or become workers in the new proletariat class. Marx writes eloquently not just about their exploitation under capitalism, but also about their alienation and creation of a false consciousness. People who had at least been connected to their labor under feudalism became unskilled wage-earners. The whole of their economic activity fell under the control of the developing bourgeoisie.

Even in places where the liberal replacement of feudalism went mostly unopposed, such as England and the nascent United States, regular people suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The major difference between those cases and France is that the bourgeois revolutionaries of the French Revolution attempted to create a new society in a matter of years, not decades or centuries. As we shall see, vested interests fought intensely to deny that. In 1800, it was possible for Jeffersonian republicans to lead a political revolution in the U.S., but in 2016, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than a major change to the political or economic system. Similarly, in 1789, the idea of challenging a feudal system that had ruled France for over 600 years was considered extremist and dangerous. That is, however, what the Revolution sought to do, and in so doing, inspired generations of people to question the present order and struggle to create a better world.

We should also consider the path France could have taken had it undergone peaceful reform rather than violent revolution. There is no assurance it would have become a liberal democracy. Barrington Moore touches on this in his seminal work on dictatorship and democracies. In Germany and Russia, the nobility allied with the bourgeoisie to organize industrialization through state-directed initiatives. When those countries underwent revolutions circa World War I, the republics that emerged were too weak to rule, leading to states of alternative ideologies. These states attempted to impose their own systems and principles as the liberal order they opposed, but with the swiftness and audacity of the French Revolution. Many observers take this to mean the French Revolution inspired fascism and Bolshevism. It is more apt to say Bolshevism and fascism were inspired by liberalism and how it forged new views of seeing the world. We often take for granted that the default ideas and systems of today were once considered radical and revolutionary.

The Absolute Monarchy

In order to understand the causes of the 1789 Revolution, it is necessary to consider both long-standing structural problems as well as more short-term crises that prompted a complete social collapse. To start, France was (ostensibly) an absolute monarchy in 1789, with power primarily centralized in the throne. While we might think feudalism is inherently dictatorial, in fact the opposite is true. The cornerstone of feudalism is vassalage: regional counts and barons ruling at the local level, but swearing their fealty to a higher lord. The king (or queen) was at the very top of the social pyramid, but his (or her) rule depended on the continued obedience of the vassals. To keep those vassals mollified, it was common practice for monarchs to extend their nobles special rights. The most infamous of these was the droit du seigneur (or jus primae noctis) that permitted nobles to have sexual relations with their female subjects on their wedding nights. There is no actual proof French lords (or any European nobles) invoked this right. French nobles did, however, exercise rights to rents from those who worked on their estates or domains, as well as a percentage of the crops harvested by peasants on the nobles’ lands.

It was not until the 17th century that the French monarchy began to erode the liberties vassals enjoyed under feudalism. These, of course, were the freedoms that protected nobles from the power of the monarchy. For example, French nobles had been able to take complaints on royal overreach to appellate courts called parlements (not to be confused with English parliaments) that would invalidate regal pronouncements if they infringed on convention. (Compare this to the unwritten constitution that still perseveres in British politics to this day.) The 16th century had closed with wars of religion across Europe, as the Protestant Reformation ruptured the glue that held the feudal order together: Catholicism. Cardinal 290px-richelieu2c_por_philippe_de_champaigne_28detalle29Richelieu, the de facto head of the French government and well-known nemesis to the Three Musketeers in Dumas’ novel, sought to keep France in a strong position on the Continent and to profit from the disorder caused by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Local lords were brought to heel and the religious tolerance of Protestants was revoked. Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, furthered these policies until the nobility tried in vain to reassert its power independent from the crown in a series of civil wars that finally ended in 1653. In the meantime, Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun King,” grew up as a child king, accustomed to unrivaled power. Under his reign, from 1643 to 1715, France was perpetually involved in wars over succession disputes, expansionism and counter-expansionism. France had become the hegemonic power of early modern Europe and behaved as such, diplomatically and militarily.

The Aristocracy & Bourgeoisie

The French nobility, although having lost some of its autonomy, remained quite powerful. The upper ranks of the military and the clergy, the pillars of absolutism supporting the crown, included only nobles. The most affluent attended the royal court at Versailles, engaged in intrigues and entertainment, living off the taxes and duties leveled on the peasants who worked their land. (Some hereditary peers living in rural areas, however, fared little better than the peasants they lived beside.) For those outside the noble class, it 197px-charles-alexandre_de_calonne_-_vigc3a9e-lebrun_1784was possible to become ennobled through the sale of judicial and administrative offices. In the 17th century, the sale of offices was so common in order to fund constant warfare that, in the 18th century, access to the nobility became much more restrictive. The hereditary nobility had contempt for the bourgeoisie “diluting” their class through the purchase of a savonette à vilain (the commoners’ soap). The bourgeoisie who had already bought their way into the nobility also had incentive to block others from reaching their level, as they wanted their titles to become hereditary as well, securing fortunes for future generations. By 1789, social climbing was still possible, but much more daunting for members of the bourgeoisie. They were paying for the operation of the state, but were excluded from participation: a form of taxation without representation. This was a huge motivation for revolution.

The very nature of the French economy also discriminated against the bourgeoisie. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, had implemented a mercantilist system that featured heavy protectionist policies meant to develop French industries by promoting exports and depressing the demand for imports. Although France never equaled the English or the Dutch in foreign trade, the French state became incredibly powerful in terms of state-led production. The early bourgeoisie were thus merged into the existing feudal structure, overseen by a powerful bureaucracy. As a result, legal defenses of property rights and private economic competition did not blossom; on the contrary, the state reigned supreme in economic matters, just as it did politically.

As discussed, members of the bourgeoisie that wanted greater power exchanged trade and 472px-new-france1750commerce for titles and fiefdoms. For example, a financial counselor to Louis XIV, Antoine Crozat, rose from peasant stock to become a wealthy merchant before purchasing the barony of Thiers in 1714. Like many other bourgeoisie of his time, Crozat was heavily involved in France’s overseas colonies. In 1712, he received a royal charter granting him dominion over all trading and moneymaking licenses in Louisiana for 15 years. Sadly for Crozat and other bourgeois colonial overlords like him, the once profitable fur trade in North America had diminished, and colonialism on the new continent never prospered for the French empire the way it would for the United Kingdom. Crozat lost around $1 million even with his trade monopoly in Louisiana. When France lost the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) with Great Britain, the peace agreement stipulated that France turn over control of its North American colonies to the British. (It would later regain Louisiana from Spain, only to sell that territory to the U.S. in the Napoleonic era.) France was humiliated, leaving the feudal system in debt and in doubt. Absolutism and mercantilism had made France the strongest country in the world, but perpetual conflict and divergent class interests had taken their toll. The government could no longer take the “commoners” for granted. Importantly, this materialistic conflict also coincided with an intellectual movement that supplied an impetus to bourgeois reformers to challenge the very character of the feudal regime.

The Enlightenment & Rousseau

Political change in the late 18th century was synonymous with the Enlightenment, a philosophical revolution that sought to bring the rigor and dispassion of scientific analysis to human behavior, including theories of government. Direct experience and concrete evidence became privileged over blind faith and static doctrines. Operating according to reason and rationality, Enlightenment philosophers argued, educated men could rule themselves rather than be ruled by feudal lords or organized religion. The French philosophes included 299px-voltairecandidfrontis2bchap01-1762Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot, the primary editor of the famous secular Encyclopédie, the most famous Enlightenment publication. It embodied the desire to provide general information to the public (or, more accurately, the literate classes.) On political issues, the philosophes opposed arbitrary power or rule through fear and superstition, but fell short of unanimously endorsing participatory democracy and universal suffrage. As men of letters, they believed in their own intelligence and judiciousness, but did not extend this faith to the illiterate, “unenlightened” masses. (It should be noted that U.S. revolutionaries like James Madison, influenced by Enlightenment ideals, argued for the “protection of the minority of the opulent from the tyranny of the minority.”) Most philosophers wanted to remove the obstacles that hindered them from realizing their skills and talents as intellectuals; this was their definition of “freedom.” In terms of enabling the impoverished, uneducated working classes to obtain the same advantages and resources they possessed, the leading lights of the Enlightenment were silent. Still, their strident atheism and devotion to reason pervades all stages of the French Revolution.

The later, more radical Revolutionary period is more accurately tied to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a contemporary of the Enlightenment philosophes, but 190px-rousseau_in_later_lifephilosophically their opposite. In his Discourse on Inequality (1754), he argued that people are innately decent, but that institutions corrupt and degrade them. He admired the “noble savage,” primeval man innocent of education and the sciences, and his ability to live in harmony with the natural world. This looking backward with rose-tinted glasses was anathema to the philosophes. In his commentary on the work, Voltaire wrote: “One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours.” Whereas Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers saw higher learning as separating man from beasts, Rousseau believed that human morality in the raw state of nature was rough but organic. “Civilized” society brought with it private property, and by extension, inequality and disillusionment. People come into the world without distinctions or obligations; it is society that confers upon them different backgrounds and statuses, dividing them and driving them into competition with each other.

This viewpoint would become the foundation for Rousseau’s chief political work, The Social Contract (1762), which would have an immense impact on the French Revolution. He argued against an elective representative system, calling such a system “elective aristocracy,” and supported democratic rights for everyone, including women. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan, the sovereign for Rousseau is the sum of all individuals coming together and forming the “general will” – the conceptual manifestation of what is in the common interest. Each individual, motivated by virtue, willingly pledges himself or herself to the shared general will, as it comprises rudiments of each person’s desire. If there are incongruities about what should be the general will, these conflicting opinions annul each other, leaving the general will to arise naturally. This spontaneous direct democracy may sound utopian, but Rousseau was a romantic. His emphasis on emotion and virtue expressed an extensive estrangement with the world as it was. Rousseau craved dynamism and change, repressed in a cold and conservative feudal culture, and he yearned to restore the suppressed springs of life. Many shared his restive spirit, and it can be perceived in the sentimental novels and poems of Goethe, Pushkin, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and other Romantic artists. As we shall see, many of the most radical leaders of the Revolution (especially the members of the Jacobin Club) regarded Rousseau as their philosophical guide. His political theory was incompatible with the old order; it had to be overturned and destroyed, with a more virtuous popular democracy created in its place.

The role of ideology in social revolution is vital. It is important to consider how a new ruling class attempts to convince other classes to assent to its ethical, political and social values. It was not enough for the bourgeoisie to affirm their economic power in their historical moment; they had to transmit their mindsets through cultural power. As the educated class, 18th century intellectuals made a case for “rule by experts” that is still deployed in modern politics. It is the language of meritocracy: rule by talent, not birth. This argument omits that some people are born with more advantages than others. The thinkers who influenced the leaders of the Revolution articulated a negative liberty that suits the bourgeoisie: freedom from government regulation, censorship, and social immobility. This libertarian mentality is still the one most often deployed in our current politics, where government is constantly criticized for its invasion of our private lives, rather than as a democratic system of empowerment for the people.

Rousseau, however, was a deviation from the norm. He railed against inequality and argued for a positive freedom that would level the playing field in a sort of primitive 135px-rousseau_pirated_editioncommunism. It would be erroneous to draw parallels between Rousseau and Marx’s scientific socialism, as science and Rousseau’s romanticism are integrally conflicting. It is more accurate to compare Rousseau with the utopian socialists that preceded Marx: Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Like Rousseau, these thinkers sought to spread a “new social Gospel” (as Marx and Engels call it in the Communist Manifesto) without paying due diligence to class antagonisms or revolutionary potential. In the manner of other philosophers, Rousseau plucked his idealized republic from his own imagination, more as an intellectual exercise than a program for action. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the social aspect of the French Revolution ran into great difficulty when philosophy was put into practice. The theoretical strength of Rousseau’s work did, however, form a union of bourgeois and working class interests that would take the Revolution in its final decisive direction.

The Petite Bourgeoisie & Peasantry

Minor property holders made up the bulk of the lowest stratum of the 18th century French social hierarchy. The vast majority were peasants, emancipated serfs who owned or rented land and made up the backbone of the agrarian economy. They had to pay noble lords for the “right” to use mills and wine presses required for agricultural production. In the main, they were more concerned with the concrete duties of the state — namely, to provide them with bread and security — than the changing of their social existence. As Marx observed, peasants tended to be conservative, prone to protecting their minor holdings and not putting it at risk. It is an underappreciated fact that the French peasantry were instrumental in moderating the Revolution and bringing the Terror period to an end.

In the cities and towns, factories were still a relatively new development, and the proletarian class was small. There were, however, artisans and craftspeople that produced basic consumer goods. There were also traders and shopkeepers that sold them. Marx referred to this class as the “little” or “petite” bourgeoisie. In the context of the French Revolution, 176px-sans-culottethey are known as the sans-culottes, so called because they wore trousers rather than the knee breeches of the upper classes. In 1789, the bourgeoisie had been so squeezed by war and economic crisis that the “little bourgeoisie” was essentially indistinguishable from common urban laborers. Like peasants, their priority for joining the Revolution was greater economic security and the provision of food at fair prices. The sans-culottes saw the benefits of the philosophical principles espoused by the “big bourgeois,” but their continued support for the revolutionary government depended on whether their more immediate basic needs were met. They were willing to give their support to any government that would intervene in the economy to ensure an affordable price for food, whatever its philosophical principles. If the bourgeois members of the Revolution hungered for freedom, the sans-culottes simply hungered for bread.

Bread and Taxes

In 1774, newly crowned King Louis XVI appointed the economically liberal finance minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Turgot sought to improve France’s economic situation by liberalizing commerce, subscribing to a “laissez faire” philosophy. This included deregulating the grain industry, which was significantly monitored and policed by the state. Grain merchants tended to hoard their grain rather than sell it, inflating the price and raising their profits. They would also dilute flour with other material, including chalk and grinded-up bone. This caused the working classes to riot in 1775, in the “Flour War.” The riots were put down by force. Although the riots indicated the precariousness of the feudal regime, the negative impact of economic freedom on affordable food was a working class grievance, not a bourgeois one. As such, bread alone fell short of cutting across class differences and inducing revolution. The bourgeoisie would not be motivated to commit to insurrection until the monarchy attempted to do the most vile sin in the eyes of bourgeoisie anywhere, everywhere: the government tried to raise its taxes.

France had joined the American Revolution around the same time as the Flour War, 320px-surrender_of_general_burgoyneseeking revenge for the embarrassment England had inflicted on the French by taking France’s North American colonies. The American Revolution succeeded and humbled the English, but it cost France 520 million livres in loans, issued at incredible interest rates. A series of finance ministers all wanted to raise taxes, but French appellate courts all feared higher taxes would place more of a burden on the nobility (especially the bourgeoisie who had bought their way into the nobility precisely to escape taxation). These courts, once rendered irrelevant to royal diktat, reasserted their influence and blocked the increasingly vulnerable crown in its desperate attempt to raise more funds.

To break the impasse, the king assembled the Estates-General, an assembly made up of representatives from the three estates of the realm: those who prayed (the clergy), those who fought (the nobility) and those who worked (the commoners). It had not been summoned for over a century, and it in no way mirrored the complex and multilayered reality of 18th century French society. It did, however, provide an avenue by which the monarchy could, with the help of the old nobility, impose a greater tax burden on the bourgeoisie. The calling of the Estates-General, however, had a major unintended consequence: it gathered the bourgeoisie together and gave them a platform by which they could express their dissatisfaction with the regime. The concerns of the poor masses went unheeded; the delegates of the Third Estate were uniformly called from the “big” and “little” bourgeoisie. As such, the Estates-General was primed for a bourgeois hijacking.

A political pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate? by Abbé Sieyès became the unofficial bourgeois manifesto. He called for double representation of the Third Estate – 320px-estatesgeneralthat is, the Third Estate having twice as many members as the other two estates combined. He also asserted that all three estates should meet together instead of separately, as was custom. With votes counted numerically rather than by status, the Third Estate would essentially control the political agenda. The nobility and clergy would essentially have token representation but little influence. Most of the representatives from the Second Estate, parish priests rather than bishops and archbishops, sympathized with the Third Estate. This was because many low-ranking priests were the second or third sons of the bourgeoisie. A handful of nobles also defected to the Third Estate, the most famous being Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans. He belonged to a cadet branch of the ruling Bourbon dynasty and supported a constitutional monarchy. When the Third Estate finally met in Versailles, in June 1789, it proclaimed itself a National Assembly. Far from semantics, the bourgeois delegates consciously distanced themselves from the Estates-General and thereby all the trappings of the feudal past. The crown was not amused. Barred from their meeting hall, the Assembly met in a nearby tennis court, and swore the Tennis Court Oath: a pledge to not convene until they had drafted a new constitution for France. Public support swung to the National Assembly, especially in the cities.

Like the 320px-le_serment_du_jeu_de_paumeAmerican Revolution, the French Revolution was posed to be bourgeois revolution. The old system depended on the fruit of capitalism but shunned capitalists. Encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy, the bourgeoisie made a case for society being constituted around them. Despite their conviction, they preferred reform to violence. The Revolution, however, would not proceed as the bourgeoisie alone wanted; they could not impose themselves on the other classes. The monarchy especially would resist the abandonment of feudalism. The nobility, with some exceptions, wanted to retain their feudal privileges and opposed modifying France’s economic orientation, as they were its main beneficiaries, along with the crown. Most nobles feared what would happen if their minor commercial investments had to compete in a more liberal economy. Some open-minded aristocrats favored a constitution to give certain bourgeois freedoms legal backing, but they did not want to be made a secondary or even symbolic element of society. They were “superior” to the “common” people by their very nature, and did not want to be subordinated to them – especially when some noble families had spent decades clawing their way up from peasant or merchant stock into the upper classes. Those nobles that did defect to the bourgeoisie envisioned some form of advisory role for themselves in the new system, similar to the oversight function of the House of Lords in Great Britain.

Storming the Bastille

In July 1789, Louis XVI sacked Jacques Necker, his reformist finance minister. Necker had not respected the Estates-General as anything other than a means toward changing the tax system. It was rumored, however, that he supported political reform if it meant coming closer to resolving France’s major economic problems. The royal dismissal of Necker indicated to the bourgeoisie that the monarchy refused to brook any challenge to its authority. For the working classes, this meant that a suppression of dissent would not be long in coming. They had experienced the pattern over numerous uprisings, including the recent Flour War. The entire Third Estate, bourgeois and laborers alike, realized that the monarchy would use its most powerful extension, the military, to quell any rebellion.

Both groups sought weapons, and it made sense that arms could be found at the Bastille, a medieval fortress prison that stood in the center of Paris. Its presence represented the antiquated, passé ideas of the Middle Ages. In function, it served a state that operated according to dictatorial measures that afforded no respect to the average person. Bourgeois 320px-prise_de_la_bastilleleaders sought to negotiate with the soldiers holding the Bastille, and even accepted an invitation to breakfast with the fortresses’ governor. Apprehension gripped the sans-culottes that were present, however, as time was not on their side. They were acutely aware that the army would start massacring residents in the poorer Paris districts at any moment. The masses fought their way forward, raging through the prison, releasing inmates and seizing gunpowder. Fighting erupted, but the Bastille governor surrendered when the rebels fixed cannon on his men. The raiders killed the governor and placed his head on the bike. Other members of the garrison also died. The Republic rewarded the original Bastille insurgents with medals, and mostly, they were sans-culottes. They had the most to lose if there was a counterrevolution, and thus were the most proactive in wanting to neutralize a potential reprisal by the state. The “big bourgeoisie” may have dominated the Assembly, but it was the “little bourgeoisie” and the urban poor who directed the Revolution from below.

In the countryside, the collapse of central authority throughout July 1789 resulted in the “Great Fear,” major peasant revolts that featured improvised farmer self-defense leagues commandeering manor houses. Peasants feared that, with all the unrest in the capital, they would continue to be ignored unless they took matters into their own hands. They also knew that by taking control of noble estates that they would be massacred if the Revolution failed. In the meantime, bandits would exploit the lawlessness of a divided France to prey on the vulnerable peasantry. All this chaos led to the hysterical hoarding of weapons and property. Bit by bit, the regular people of France were dismantling the old regime and throwing their support behind the National Assembly. The slate had been cleared; the question became what new system should be created in place of the old one.

Bibliography

Bouton, Cynthia A. The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society. Penn State Press, 1993.

Campbell, Peter. Power and Politics in Old Regime France, 1720-1745. Routledge, 2003.

Chartier, Roger. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution. Duke University Press, 1991.

Cobban, Alfred. The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Collins, James B. The State in Early Modern France. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Darnton, Robert. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. Harvard University Press, 1982.

Furet, François, and Mona Ozouf. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1989.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. William Morrow & Company, 1981.

Kaplan, Steven L. Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV. Anthem Press, 2015.

Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution Volume I: from its Origins to 1793. Columbia University Press, 1962.

Lüsebrink, Hans-Jürgen, and Rolf Reichardt. The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom. Duke University Press, 1997.

McGarr, Paul. “The Great French Revolution.” International Socialism 43 (1989): 15-110.

McPhee, Peter, ed. A Companion to the French Revolution. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Moore, Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Beacon Press, 1993.

Moote, A. Lloyd. The Revolt of the Judges: the Parlement of Paris and the Fronde, 1643-1652. Princeton University Press, 1971.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin UK, 2004.

Steel, Mark. Vive La Revolution. Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Soboul, Albert. The French Revolution, 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. NLB, 1974.

Treasure, Geoffrey Russell Richards. Richelieu and Mazarin. Psychology Press, 1998.

 

Ban the Bomb: On Nuclear Disarmament

“Behind the black portent of the new atomic age lies a hope which seized upon with faith, can work out salvation. If we fail, then we have damned every person to be the slave of fear. Let us not deceive ourselves: we must elect world peace or world destruction.” — Bernard Baruch

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit finished in Washington, D.C. today, with 240px-peace_symbol-svgvery minor achievements. The states involved made a series of commitments to increased nuclear security policies, most of which amount to sharing notes between governments and did not contain clear plans or definite deadlines for action. Critically, Russia declined to attend the summit, and security cooperation between the two countries with the largest nuclear weapon arsenal remains non-existent. This is despite the fact that both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have reason to fear a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of violent non-state actors like the Islamic State. Obviously the Crimea crisis and the Syrian civil war have soured U.S.-Russian relations, but even before recent events in the Ukraine, the focus has been on preserving the status quo, not making dramatic change. Washington and Moscow jointly threw their support behind arms reduction with the New START agreement in 2010, but effectively “only” lowered their respective stockpiles to 1,550 ready-to-use long-range nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, even this modest pledge has yet to be fully implemented, and is not set to be met until 2018 — at which time, hopefully, the foreign policy interests of the U.S. and Russia will be in good shape.

Nuclear proliferation has also become an issue in the U.S. election, with Republican 261px-mushroom_cloud-svgcandidate Donald Trump advocating that South Korea and Japan acquire nuclear weapons in order to make a world a safer place. As shocking as some media pundits thought this answer was, the notion of “nuclear stability” has long existed in academia. The scholar Kenneth Waltz has long argued within international relations that, since the world lacks a universal sovereign and countries must look after their own survival, countries should seek the capacity to defend their security concerns. From this Hobbesian perspective, nuclear proliferation is not just inevitable, but beneficial. Waltz argued in Foreign Affairs that Iran gaining the nuclear bomb would actually make the Middle East more peaceful, not less. Actual research, however, contradicts this thinking, and the official U.S. policy remains devoted to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that combats proliferation.

The U.S. is able to do this because, theoretically at least, it can project power through conventional weapons around the globe; we have army installations, air bases and carrier fleets in every region of the globe. Given our propensity for military interventions abroad, many countries have believed the guarantee that, should their territorial sovereignty be threatened, the U.S. would act against the aggressor. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the 320px-thumbnailU.S. did its best to become that missing universal sovereign: military operations in Kuwait, Haiti, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and of course Iraq, just to name a few. The American public, however, is losing its appetite for the long and bloody process of regime change. Looking at Libya and Syria, we observe that the U.S. has become more cautious in how it fights it enemies, relying more on cruise missiles and funding “moderate rebels.” When Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine, Washington sent Russia a scolding and little else. This alarmed many of those nations who have historically relied on the U.S. as their protector. If Russia could take territory from a U.S. ally without a U.S. military response, would Washington also be reluctant to attack Iran or China, or even North Korea, considering the heavy costs implied in a second Korean War — one in which Pyongyang itself has nuclear weapons that it regularly threatens to use?

To be clear, the U.S. no longer acting as a “universal sovereign” is desirable, and it is sensible that U.S. foreign policy has moved away from adventurism to encouraging other countries to look after their own security interests. The problem is that, for some countries, those “security interests” may involve nuclear proliferation. There is great public support in South Korea for acquiring a nuclear weapon like its northern neighbor. The Abe government in Japan has, to great domestic debate, increased defense spending and backed away from a position of pacifism — a hallmark of Japanese political culture, created by their past imperialist aggression as well as having the horror of nuclear weapons inflicted on them, the only people to have so far endured such suffering. Israel has long add numerous nuclear weapons, and ironically it is not the recent Iran nuclear deal that is most hazardous to peace, but the irrational reaction within Israel that it is has been abandoned by the U.S. and must defend itself against Tehran, perhaps by preemptive means. Of course, in addition to these simmering conflicts between states, there are also terrorist networks who already at war, for whom civilian casualties are not just “collateral damage,” but their actual targets. Given their tactics, nuclear weapons are arguably the most ideal form of weapon, given their indiscriminate and widespread destruction.

Once upon a time, it could be argued that nuclear weapons were an unpleasant relic of the Cold War, a necessary deterrent to a potential antagonist from using nuclear weapons first. As proliferation continues and, worryingly, becomes the norm, nuclear arms may become common, while still luxurious, features of countries that could be caught up in global flashpoints. The taboo surrounding nuclear weapons has weakened over time, and 187px-no_nukes_tidymanthe default position of disarmament is taken more and more for granted. What is needed is not just non-proliferation (especially in the form of Western finger-wagging at non-Western states) but actual, meaningful efforts by countries already with nuclear weapons to eliminate their stockpiles. Speeches and summits are not enough; ordinary people need to be involved in a resurgent disarmament movement that pressures decision-makers to accept abolishing nuclear arms. After all, even the ineffectual terms of New START barely passed conservative opposition in the U.S. Senate, and as long as nuclear weapons are perceived as required to be taken seriously in foreign policy matters, there is going to be stubborn resistance within the U.S. to nuclear disarmament.

There are a number of practical arguments to be made toward disarmament. Firstly, Russia and the U.S. by far have the most nuclear weapons, with around 7,000 each; France has the third most, with 300. If Russia and the U.S. could agree tomorrow to eliminate all save 300 of their nuclear weapons, that would be a substantial reduction. By doing so, they could then draw in other nations, such as France as well as Britain and China, to reduce and eventually safely destroy their nuclear weapons. Bringing Pakistan and India into the fold would be more difficult, given their respective history, and it would have to be a negotiation involving both. It is reasonable to presume that North Korea would not bend to international pressure to join a disarmament campaign, but the consequence would not be different than the status quo: the political and economic isolation of Pyongyang. We could even arrive at a time when the mere possession of a nuclear weapon is a violation of humanitarian law, which is not far from the International Court of Justice position. Granted, the U.S. has not traditionally needed legitimate reasoning to justify a war to remove “weapons of mass destruction,” but in a world where such weapons are earnestly deemed too dangerous to possess, we can imagine a scenario where a coalition of countries could indeed come together to forcibly disarm countries seeking the apocalypse.

What about stopping terrorists? The U.S. nuclear deterrent did not prevent al-Qaeda from attacking the World Trade Center in 2001, and even in the wake of that attack, the U.S. did not drop a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan — knowing that it would, quite rightly, be denounced for sacrificing countless civilians to take out a handful of terrorist cells. The same logic applies today: even though the Islamic State may claim to “own” a state, the U.S. will not slaughter millions of Iraqis, Syrians and Turks to attack a movement that exists more as an idea than as an institution or set of institutions. If anything, the only way to ensure that nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists to destroy all existing nuclear weapons and the material needed to create such weapons.

anti-nuclear_protest_at_the_nts_3While climate change is a huge threat to human existence, it seems strange that ecology and environmentalism should be more of a mainstream issue than nuclear disarmament given the unsettled times we live in. The tragic truth is that we will likely not see another major disarmament campaign until a nuclear weapon (or “dirty bomb” variant) is actually used in anger for the first time since 1945 — much in the way nuclear energy suddenly becomes an issue in the wake of disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. The question is, sadly, how many hundreds or thousands will die when the unthinkable happens. The threat of nuclear holocaust, much like the dangers of climate change, is one all of humanity faces, and one that we must act on to secure the planet for future generations.

 

Choosing the Lesser Evil: The Candidates

For political junkies like myself, this election year has been like passing a 42-car pile-up 320px-uspe16-svgon the highway. We feel repulsed, scared, worried for ourselves — and yet we cannot turn away. Nothing about this election makes sense. A bombastic billionaire who commits gaffes that would typically kill a major campaign is doing incredibly well. A self-described socialist has garnered a wide coalition of support in a country known for intense hostility to anything remotely anti-capitalist or radically left-wing. We were promised “Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush: Dawn of Justice,” a mundane showdown between two political dynasties, and instead we are getting something totally wild and unexpected.

The lazy answer to all this is that “people are angry!” No kidding. But why are people angry? Why are establishment candidates doing especially poorly this year? Why does fear and intolerance seem to be playing so effectively this year, when just two elections ago, a candidate who ran on hope and unity performed so well? These are all questions that should be considered, if for no other reason than to get a sense of where we are as a country. It is pretty much common knowledge that we’re a deeply polarized and jaded electorate, but studying the current field of candidates illustrates just where we’re at.

Donald Trump166px-donald_trump_march_2015

Advantages: Not an establishment politician

Disadvantages: Is Donald Trump

Cinematic Equivalent: Birth of a Nation (1915)

Typical Supporter: A working class white man whose job was just outsourced to Mexico, who loves racist jokes and aspires to soon own a flamethrower

I am not being mean. The data really does indicate that most Trump supporters never went to college and come from parts of the country known for racial resentment. The most telling feature about Trump voters, however, is how impotent and vulnerable they feel. These are the American reactionaries who worry about white genocide and believe “anti-racist” is code for “anti-white.” They worry that sharia law will soon be used to decide U.S. court cases. They fear that there is a “war on Christmas,” which is just the first battle in a covert campaign to wipe out Christianity entirely. They scoff at “political correctness” as repressive and tyrannical, when in actuality it just promotes sensitivity to traditional victims of discrimination. Their anxiety stems from the idea they are losing the “culture war” against “cultural Marxism,” and that their primary source of power — the white Christian patriarchy — is under attack from phantom “feminazis” and “Islamo-Leftists.” On the cultural front, Trump promises to go after these enemies: he will ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he will stop the “flood” of Mexican immigrants, etc.

It is on the economic front that Trump supporters have grievances grounded in reality. The truth is, less-educated American men have hard it rough in terms of work and wages. According to a 2014 poll, 85% of unemployed men lack bachelor’s degrees, while 34% identified as former felons, making it hard to find any work. Thanks to globalization and technological innovations, it is more difficult than ever for unskilled laborers to find work. Due to union-busting and the loss of collective bargaining power, less-educated workers find it impossible to unionize or take industrial action that could help them increase their wages and fight income inequality. Unlike the “culture war” that exists only in the minds of reactionaries, the war on the working class in the United States is very real. Trump offers them an economic nationalism, promising (without specifics) to get the U.S. better trade deals. In contrast to the typical Republican line, Trump does not advocate laissez-faire economics or tax breaks for “job creators.” Instead, he promotes a sort of autarkic vision that could be best summarized as “American jobs for American workers.”

(For all the Republican whines that Trump is betraying the Ronald Reagan legacy on free trade, let’s not forget that Reagan implemented protectionist policies to safeguard the U.S. steel industry from those “market forces” Republicans love to celebrate.)

You might wonder why these irate working class Americans do not rally to progressive causes, like raising the minimum wage or creating a federal jobs program. To paraphrase a disputed quote by John Steinbeck, this is because working class Americans do not see themselves as exploited proletarians, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. They still hold on to the American Dream, which states that success comes from hard work, and the main enemy is not the ruling class, but bureaucratic red tape. Donald Trump is the embodiment of the American Dream: a millionaire who is never embarrassed, who never apologizes no matter how racist, sexist or inappropriate he is. He is not a populist, because populists possess the common touch; there is nothing “common” about Trump.

178px-ted_cruz_february_2015Ted Cruz

Advantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says

Disadvantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says (possible serial killer)

Cinematic Equivalent: God’s Not Dead (2014) or Zodiac (2007)

Typical Supporter: A church-going, Longmire-watching grandmother who could be a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel

Ted Cruz is a jerk. No one really disputes this. Everyone hates him. He is smug and condescending. He loves to lecture people, especially other U.S. senators. He has no qualms attacking other Republicans, including the Republican leader in the Senate (in violation of Reagan’s 11th Commandment). People who knew him in college hated him. Those who trusted his lead in bringing about the short-lived government shutdown felt betrayed by him. Yet, his in-your-face style of doing things is exactly what many Republicans want from a party they see as having been too passive in resisting the Obama administration and assorted progressive triumphs over the last eight years. Remember when House Republican leader John Boehner stood on the House floor in 2010 and shouted, “Hell no, you can’t!” in response to the passing of the Affordable Care Act? Many Republicans want more of that. Ted Cruz is just the sort of right-wing ideologue who will give them that breed of impassioned, unwavering, Goldwater-style traditionalism.

If there is one voting bloc Cruz is relying on, it’s evangelical Protestants. The Cruz campaign believes there is a silent majority of deeply religious voters who failed to turn out for Mitt Romney in 2012 because the former Massachusetts governor was not tough enough on issues like abortion and “the defense of marriage.” Consequently, Cruz has taken pains to point out that he is the son of a pastor, to highlight his faith and to contrast himself against the “New York values” of Donald Trump.

His strategy hasn’t worked. As Elizabeth Bruenig has pointed out, evangelicals are not the monolithic entity the Cruz campaign counted on. Cruz does well among deeply religious Protestants who attend church regularly, but among those who are perhaps patriots first and Christians second, Donald Trump does better. In other words, for some evangelicals, with Trump they can have their Christian cultural war and their jingoistic nationalism, too. There’s also the fact that the Religious Right has grown disenchanted with the lack of progress on its more grandiose goals: Roe v. Wade is still standing, Planned Parenthood hasn’t folded, the “gay agenda” marches on, and so forth. In fact, in recent years, there has been a libertarian current in the Republican Party that opposes the blurring of the line between church and state. Many zealous evangelicals seem demoralized, and those that aren’t are focusing on restricting abortion access at the state level, where (unfortunately) they have had incredible success.

Plus, to return to my original point, Ted Cruz is a jerk. His win in Iowa was tainted by claims he had engaged in dirty tricks to steal votes from Ben Carson voters. More recently, Cruz had to fire a staff member for spreading lies about Marco Rubio. Typically, “good Christians” are known for at least the appearance of integrity and honesty. Cruz, however, is better known for being shrewd and conniving, with a take-no-prisoners mentality that is not troubled by moral qualms. Unfortunately for him, Christian martyrs are defined by losing honorable fights rather than winning dishonorable ones.

202px-marco_rubio_by_gage_skidmore_9Marco Rubio

Advantages: Programmed to be hip, young and Latino

Disadvantages: The Republican establishment doesn’t elect presidents

Cinematic Equivalent: I Am Number Four (2011)

Typical Supporter: A wealthy Republican donor

Marco Rubio is like a film adaptation of a popular young adult book series that flopped. In 2012, after Mitt Romney’s defeat, the Republican Party published a report — an “autopsy” — that called for greater inclusion of ethnic minorities and increased outreach to young people. Like most young adult novels, the idea of Rubio did very well, as only a fantasy could. However, as sometimes happens, something got lost in the transition from conceptual framework to the live-action version. Some fans refuse to stop believing, and Rubio’s tendency to give victory speeches when he loses indicate that he hasn’t given up on his cult following of rich patrons and the conservative cocktails-and-cigars set.

Rubio sometimes seems to have been designed in a Republican lab, and not because of his infamous robotic debate performance. In 2010, he was one of the rising stars of the Tea Party movement, endearing him to the radical right, but has since shown his ability to cross the aisle on issues like immigration, winning over moderates frustrated by the GOP becoming the “party of no.” He’s proudly Cuban-American and bilingual in a party stereotyped as being full of racist whites. He’s young and purports to like dance music. The cherry on top: he comes from Florida, a swing state known for deciding presidential elections. He’s the perfect answer to the 2012 Republican autopsy: sellable to historically alienated demographics, but still firmly grounded in conservative principles.

The problem? He hasn’t won a single caucus or primary. Not one.

The reason is that the Republican rank-and-file doesn’t want to coalesce around the marketable, moderate candidate. They did that in 2008 and 2012, and what did it get them? Substantial losses to Barack Obama. They don’t want to concede to multiculturalism and embrace diversity; they want to fight it tooth and nail. They do not want a “path to citizenship” on immigration; they want “their” (white) country back. From a personage standpoint, Rubio’s youth has proved a double-edged sword. John McCain, as a war hero and foreign policy expert, had the capacity to be a statesman. Romney, with his business background, was seen as America’s potential CEO. Rubio is a parvenu, an inexperienced baby-face whose mere presence does not inspire confidence. In ideas, he is out of touch with the Republican base; in image, he is the broad-minded and cosmopolitan candidate of a party that is, for the most part, neither of those things.

169px-hrc_in_iowa_apr_2015Hillary Clinton

Advantages: Not Donald Trump

Disadvantages: Is Hillary Clinton

Cinematic Equivalent: The Iron Lady (2011)

Typical Supporter: A white Prius-driving, Good Wife-watching professional woman

You cannot talk about the Clinton campaign without acknowledging the long-standing and completely understandable desire to elect our first woman president. As a man, I’ll never be able to completely understand the immense frustration generations of American women must have felt about being underrepresented in politics, and to have issues that impact them decided almost exclusively by men. Hillary has long been the best path to the realization of the dream of a woman POTUS, and more than that, she has been successful in a number of prominent political roles: First Lady, a U.S. senator, and most recently Secretary of State. It is hard to think of a more qualified candidate (much less an actual president) in recent memory. Just in terms of name recognition alone, she has a massive advantage that any candidate, Republican or Democrat, would be envious of.

The downside of being a household name since 1992 is that she has accumulated a lot of baggage along the way. Republicans, for the most part, loathe her, for everything from Vince Foster to Benghazi. Progressive Democrats, meanwhile, criticize her (and her husband) for joining forces with Newt Gingrich in 1996 to advance welfare reform, her support for Hosni Mubarak, her practically unconditional support for Netanyahu’s Israel, and her support for the 2003 Iraq War. With the Occupy Wall Street movement still fresh in peoples’ minds, Hillary’s cozy relationship with the financial industry is a big liability. These are more than just accidental handicaps; Hillary has a record of intentionally aligning herself with military adventurism and Big Business. In an election where class stratification and race relations are big issues, Hillary does not possess much credibility when it comes to pontificating about income inequality or institutional racism.

In response, Hillary and her supporters have sought to downplay her Wall Street connections. She has sought to portray her rival, Bernie Sanders, as a one-issue economic populist, telling a crowd that “breaking up the banks” would not end racism or sexism. The problem with this, as eloquently argued by Roqayah Chamseddine, is that it falsely separates gender discrimination from exploitation under capitalism when the two are not mutually exclusive, and indeed are often related. It does, unfortunately, fit into modern liberal feminism, with its emphasis on “leaning in” and “breaking the glass ceiling” — which, as Nancy Fraser argues, is only about enabling women to climb the corporate ladder. When it comes to achieving true social equality for women, white liberal feminists have been notoriously silent on feminist issues that do not impact women of color, such as police violence against women of color (be it Sandra Bland or the victims of Daniel Holtzclaw). By buying into the Clinton’s campaign partition of gender identity politics from anti-capitalist arguments, Clinton supporters are endorsing a form of feminist “equality” where women are “free” to be as overworked and underpaid as men, and where women of color remain regular victims of economic violence (such as the draconian welfare-to-work programs Hillary herself signed off on in the 1990s).

While Hillary has taken some punches from Bernie Sanders, 2016 does seem to be “her turn.” Once she secures the nomination, her next major hurdle will be her Republican opponent, who is likely to be Trump. Can she beat him? The very fact that this is even a question demonstrates how bizarre this election is. On the one hand, it’s a no-brainer. Warts and all, at the very least she’s not a lewd narcissist who caters to racist reactionaries. On the other hand, there may be more Americans who actively dislike her than Americans who passionately want her to be president. It may be that the greatest thing working in Hillary’s favor is the two-party system and voters’ limited options.

192px-senator_of_vermont_bernie_sanders_at_derry_town_hall2c_pinkerton_academy_nh_october_30th2c_2015_b_by_michael_vadon_01_28cropped29Bernie Sanders

Advantages: Integrity

Disadvantages: Bernie who?

Cinematic Equivalent: La Chinoise (1967)

Typical Supporter: A Jacobin-reading, Democracy Now-watching college socialist

Bernie Sanders has been a failure.

I do not refer to his seeming failure to win the nomination. That was never in the cards, although no shortage of optimistic progressives seemed to believe he would, like Barack Obama in 2008, prevent Hillary from cruising to the nomination. For all his uprightness and intensity, however, Bernie never had the charisma or the appeal to minority voters that Obama used to such effect when he defeated Hillary. In fact, Bernie has a reputation for being, like Ted Cruz, a caustic jerk — as shown by his “side eye” at Hillary during one debate, his shouting, his finger-wagging, and so on. Bernie Sanders is a firebrand, an attack dog for the progressive left; he does not have the gravitas and poise one normally associates with a head of state or a head of government. I think he suspects this.

I call Bernie a failure because I think the point of his campaign was purely to challenge Hillary from the left-wing of the Democratic Party and, subsequently, push her to adopt more left-wing positions on a living wage, socialized medicine, education costs, and so on. This theory makes sense, because Bernie himself talked in 2011 about how Obama had moved so far to the right of the political spectrum because no one was attacking him from the left. If this was Bernie’s goal, it didn’t work. Hillary may have added her support for a health care public option to her campaign Web site, but that is not inconsistent with what she already supported in 2008. For the most part, she considers health care reform settled for now. She doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage to $15. She has mocked Bernie’s plan for free college tuition. As noted above, rather than cave to this challenge from her left, Hillary and her campaign has used the language of feminism and social justice to dodge and evade any attacks from Bernie, keeping her platform more or less intact as it was when she first entered the race: in favor of the status quo and business-friendly.

The Bernie bandwagon was always doomed, but it’s total deflation on Super Tuesday was its death knell. Why did Bernie perform so badly in Southern states? Many pundits have pointed to black voters as “Hillary’s firewall,” crediting the “engagement” of the Clintons with black communities in the past. In my opinion, there is a much simpler explanation: no one besides progressives, political junkies and Vermonters knew who Bernie Sanders was before 2015, and most people today probably think he’s Larry David. Where has he done well? New Hampshire and Vermont, which are literally his backyard and his home state, respectively. He also did well in Iowa and Oklahoma, no doubt because of his appeal to poor working class whites. He’s done poorly generally, however, not because of some ambiguous solidarity between black voters and the Clintons, but because Hillary has been a national political icon since Yugoslavia still existed on maps. I get really frustrated when Sanders supports whine that “black voters voted against their own interests” on Super Tuesday. Newsflash: people vote against their own interests all the time. In fact, I do it in most elections myself. I vote for the Democrat, even though the Democratic Party has not come close to representing my principles in my lifetime. However, like many people who vote Democratic, Republican politicians are even further divorced from what I care about. It does not surprise me — at all — that Democrats, whatever their age or race or gender, vote for a candidate whose name they recognize and who they believe will win in a national election, if for no other reason than to keep a Republican out of office.

To his credit, Bernie hasn’t smeared Hillary, only calling her out on her record and her policies. He didn’t use any dirty tricks against her, and quite appropriately called out the investigation into Hillary’s e-mails a Republican-orchestrated circus. He won’t make an independent run for the White House, which would only split the Democratic vote. This whole episode will likely mean Bernie going out of politics in a blaze of glory, his one last contribution to the progressive moment. It is just too bad it will have been unsuccessful.

Still, there is hope in the fact that a self-declared socialist ran for the Democratic nomination this year and had some success. It just goes to show that, while the status quo may triumph in the end (with a Hillary victory in November), we still live in an unsettled world. As long as that remains true, there is still hope that we can, from the ruins of the old one, create a better and more equitable world for ourselves and future generations.