Russia in Western Ideologies

In the bad old days, Russia was the global exemplar of communism. Of course the left was soft on them.

In the bad new days, Russia is the global exemplar of ethno-nationalism. Of course the right will be soft on them. To the degree that it’s not, we’re seeing a holdover from the Cold War that will not last long.

But affinities for false ideologies will necessarily distort our understanding of the world. Worse, attempts to reduce the development of international relations to the struggle of competing ideologies may omit relevant information, and particularly in this case some relevant continuities.

Russia remains illiberal. It remains expansionist. It would still be happy to see liberal democracy disappear from the world. It still can’t be a friend of ours, and if it had reason to, it could wipe us off the face of the earth overnight. This is something that has never been true for ISIS or for any of the other two-bit enemies that we’ve fretted so much about since the Cold War nominally ended.

Everyone’s a Little Originalist Sometimes

Sometimes I spend a long time without consciously thinking about a topic, and then when I return to it I have ideas that are new, surprising, and not even deliberate. I’m not sure where they come from, but clearly some part of me was thinking without my realizing it.

I had that happen about originalism yesterday. It occurs to me now, as though it were obvious, that the Constitution is neither entirely what originalists say nor entirely what living constitutionalists say.

I’ll explain what I mean.

Some passages of the Constitution, including particularly the Eighth Amendment, seem to refer to a meaning that the founders themselves *knew* would change over time. I can probably point you to dozens of well-known 18th-century sources that describe how people are expected to gain a more refined sense of cruelty as they grow more civilized. It is an absolute certainty that the founders were aware of this. Any literate person of their time would have known it, and would have realized, on a moment’s reflection, that “cruelty” might mean something different in a century or so.

Other passages seem less open to such an approach. For example, consider the term of office for a Senator. If in the course of American history it happened that the word “six” came through common usage to predominantly mean “a large but indefinite number,” I trust that we would think it completely inappropriate for a Senator to use this change in meaning to hold on to a seat, unelected, for twenty-five years. No: We would say he must remain there for VI years, because VI years is what “six years” meant at the time of the founding. I doubt any living constitutionalist at all would ever disagree on this point.
So… everyone is a little originalist sometimes. And everyone is a little living-constitutionalist sometimes, including even the founders. Properly understood, we need to ask about the particular passage at hand, not the Constitution as a whole.

Notes on Nationalism as an Affective Death Spiral

Some lightly edited thoughts from Twitter.

Nationalism shares many traits with religion. For example, at most only one species of each can be true: If the members of my national group enjoy an elevated ethical value, then the members of your group cannot be their equal. Nationalisms are mutually exclusive.

It is strange, then, that intense nationalism – again like religion – seems to come in waves. It’s hard to measure this with any precision, but the 1840s, the 1930s, and today all seem to have had an outsized amount of nationalism to them. The fact that nationalism happens in waves suggests that the cause of nationalism is exogenous to the nation itself: Something is happening worldwide that coordinates the rise, and maybe the fall, of nationalist sentiment.

If the causes of nationalism are not well explained with reference to the in-group, then perhaps they are better explained at least in part with reference to the out-group: Perhaps nationalism is not best characterized as an elevated feeling of love for one’s co-nationalists, but as a mistrust of outsiders.

And if that is the case, then we have a clear mechanism for worldwide waves of nationalism: Mistrust in one group begets mistrust in another. This secondary mistrust is not entirely unfounded; after all, the primary mistruster has just signaled that they mistrust you.

But a rising mistrust that is founded on a rising mistrust is like a speculative bubble. It’s not sustainable, because eventually the mistrust begins to strain credulity. Or (much worse) it begins to cause the affected individuals to lash out, and the speculative bubble ends in a war.

There is more than coincidence here, because both our nationalist bubble and that of the 1930s had a financial crisis just before. Can it be that financial bubbles teach people to mistrust, and that the habit gets easily channeled into nationalist mistrust?

Look around: Is it not the case that this is an age of fear of Latinos, fear of Muslims, fear of almost any outsider? (No: Don’t tell me that the fear is justified. You’ll only supply an example for my point.) I remember other times. I remember patriotic times. We were patriotic as all hell at the fall of the Soviet Union. Something’s different now, is it not?

The existence of a tendency to mistrust outsiders likely had an evolutionary origin; outsiders could be dangerous, after all. But now we exist in a huge and complex web of commerce, one that extends far beyond the small bands in which we first evolved. We have developed various methods of extending trust beyond our evolved comfort zones; the nation itself can be understood as one of them. The market of course is another, and a much more important one for delivering high standards of living. But these mechanisms are a layer that sits uneasily atop some very dangerous instincts. Politics exploits the instinct to mistrust, and the result is a nationalism that feeds on itself, from one nation to the next.

A Perennial Politics

As a historian, I am sometimes asked why communism grew so popular in the 19th century. I always say that communism promised stability. Not only that, but it promised stability soon, and it did so in a contemporary idiom. Marx did the best of any of the communists at tapping into the conservative disposition, and in channeling that disposition into a form that spoke to both workers’ and intellectuals’ fears about the sudden, violent disruptions taking place around them.

My take tends not to go over too well.

Weren’t Marxists revolutionaries, and not conservatives? Indeed they were. But read their founder again. Read him with an eye to stability. Consider how badly he wants to restore it:

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.

Marx did not promise to arrest this process of change just where it stood, of course. Rather he predicted that there was a light at the end of the tunnel: following one last great revolution, the stability we craved would finally return.

The nineteenth century welcomed his prediction for reasons that were entirely understandable. Marx was not wrong when he wrote that the bourgeoisie was upending everything. They were.

In a sense they still are, because we have never truly left the era of the Industrial Revolution. That’s one reason why in the modern era nearly all political promises are promises of stability. You rarely get far in politics without making such a promise.

Programmatic politics just about always promises a general stability. A modest politics will arrest our development. A radical politics will return us to a time when things were better. Politics at its very most radical – like Marxism – will neither arrest our development, nor return us to a bygone era, but will – such radicalism! – bring us a new stability, a still more stable stability. A millennium, as Christian critics of Marx correctly noted.

Thus a perennial political theory is that politics brings, or should bring, stability. The only question is how. The desire for stasis is not new, of course. It’s Platonic. As Plato wrote in the Laws:

Any change whatever, except the change of an evil thing, is the gravest of all the treacherous dangers that can befall a thing – whether it is now a change of season, or of wind, or of the diet of the body, or of the character of the soul. This statement applies to everything.

Even today’s radical right-wing politics can hardly think itself past this perennial desire for stability, at least in some senses. Modern radical right-wing voices have always denounced our current instability – the instability of liberalism, of capitalism, and of Jewishness interfering with the ancient Aryan order.

On the one hand, I can’t quite believe that I’m typing a sentence like that. And on the other: Dang it, people, if you’re gonna end our decadent bourgeois civilization, can’t you at least come up with something new to think about while you’re at it?

The radicals of the right see the worst excesses of the French Revolution et cetera and declare that eventually all of this will pass away. Which of course is true. All things pass away.

Then comes the perennial fantasy: a kind of order will reassert itself, because that’s what orders do. The endgame is stasis. The 1,000-Year Reich, or the imagined timelessness of dynastic monarchy (which was never timeless in practice, actually, but always timeless in its own propaganda), or perhaps they just imagine a return to the evolutionary primitive, which constitutes a kind of stasis when compared to the rapid change inherent in capitalist orders.

I don’t think they consider that even if Cthulhu always swims to the left, the retro-future is unlikely to take the forms that they envision. The reason why we always dream of stability in politics is not because we used to have it, but because we have never had it, least of all in the capitalist order.

Against this perennial politics, a liberal dynamism is a much harder sell. If you go by Plato, to be a dynamist is to embrace and accept a role for evil itself. I might say rather that dynamism is realistic. Rather than raging, implausibly, against the fact that all things pass away, it incorporates this fact into its picture of the world. And thus at every step it admits that the order we know is flawed and provisional. In this a liberal dynamism is more like ordinary life than it is like high political theory.

Jacob Levy on Identity Politics

I never like disagreeing with Jacob Levy, but here goes. Jacob writes:

There’s a hypothesis afoot that identity politics or “political correctness,” particularly on the left, generated a backlash that elected Trump. This backlash is sometimes understood as a self-conscious turn to white identity politics, and sometimes as just sheer middle-[white-]American irritation with cultural elites and an attraction to Trump’s willingness to ignore their taboos and pieties. Part of the claim about identity politics is that it is self-undermining and so needs to be discarded, regardless of its substantive merits. In the language of political philosophy, the claim is that attention to the concerns of minorities violates a requirement that norms or ideals demonstrate stability when acted upon. Given the prominence of this idea in post-election commentary, I think it’s important to show that it’s wrong before turning to the actual merits of identity politics.

But, he continues:

Trump got a lower share of the white vote than Romney did (58% vs 59%). There was some change in both directions within the white vote: college-educated whites shifted toward the Democratic column by a few points (though a plurality still voted for Trump), but non-college-educated whites moved in larger numbers toward Trump (he got 67% of their votes, versus 62% for Romney). White men shifted toward Trump by 1% relative to 2012, white women in the other direction by 3%. This back-and-forth of course meant that Trump eked out victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and therefore the presidency, by a combined 80,000 or so votes across the three states. But fundamentally, voting patterns didn’t change enough between 2012 and 2016 to justify big claims about new national moods or about Trump’s distinctive appeal. I believe the consequences of this election will be deeply abnormal. But the voting behavior that brought it about was, in the end, very normal.

An 80,000 vote margin in a 137 million vote election, about .05%, is susceptible of almost endless plausible explanations. The number of different factors that might well have moved that many votes is very large. So there are a lot of different true but-for explanations: but for Clinton’s failure to campaign in Wisconsin, but for the Comey letter, but for stricter voter ID laws and reductions in the numbers of polling places, but for Jill Stein, and so on, ad infinitum. A Democratic party strategist has good reason to take lots of them very seriously. But anyone trying to generalize about popular beliefs or the electorate’s mood should be very wary of any of them. Grabbing a plausibly-true but-for explanation of 80,000 votes, as if it says something big and true about the whole electorate, will over-explain the outcome. An explanation that is one of the many valid ones for those 80,000 votes, and thus for the Electoral College outcome, but that implies some large shift in opinion or mood toward Trump, is a bad explanation overall.

This seems both right and wrong to me.

It’s lazy, and wrong, to say that there’s a white identity politics majority out there. But it may be right to say that there’s a white identity politics governing minority out there, and that we can infer something about the next four years based on the desiderata of white identity politics, which has captured (or re-captured, or really never let go of) the Republican Party. The existence of a plethora of “but-for” counterfactuals out there can’t really erase the months and months of calculated anti-PC rhetoric from the Trump campaign. That rhetoric seems a lot more informative of where we are headed as a nation than does the campaign of Jill Stein, and the counterfactual of where we might be without her, doesn’t it?

No, most Americans are not siding with a white-identity backlash against political correctness. But it seems like whistling past the graveyard to suggest that such a backlash won’t be a major force in the political culture of the next four years. It clearly will be. It’s by design that minorities are empowered to govern in our system; our incoming governing minority might have won power while enunciating other arguments, but the fact is that it did not.

The stated motivations of Republican voters are not trivial because they are in the minority. Nor are Republicans’ stated motivations trivial simply because most of them would have voted for some other Republican anyway, and for other stated motivations. Those things might both be true, but both are now irrelevant: The Republican Party might have nudged voters away from white identity politics, but in our world the party once again nudged voters toward white identity politics.

Nor are the excesses of political correctness confined to campus hotheads, as Jacob also suggests. Would that it were, but it’s all over our social media too. Indeed, it’s hard not to see the rise of the alt-right, also a social media phenomenon, as a reaction to a stimulus that remains localized to the environment of the stimulus itself. But for all that, it’s no less real, and it’s likely increasingly important.

Let’s look at just my yesterday on Twitter, because it’s representative enough: Yesterday I learned of the evil of “manthreading,” in which – I shit you not – men oppress women by threading Tweets.

Oh I wish I were joking.

I mean, come on, people. Every moment we talk about manthreading, we’re ignoring harassment, stalking, doxing, and all kinds of other genuine manifestations of sexism. In fact, the charge of manthreading is so stupid that it makes me almost want to change my vote: Credibly promise to destroy this… and I might just join you. Even if you are Donald Trump.

This makes Jacob’s praise for identity politics puzzling to me: An equivocation is occurring here, between good and bad, both claiming to be “identity politics.” In cases like that, it’s morally imperative to differentiate rather than to lump together. I fear the equivocation is being fomented by people with a vested interest therein, and I fear he’s fallen victim to it. The fomenters stand to ruin everything good about – just for example – Black Lives Matter – for the sake of preposterous, separatist, self-righteous clickbait.

The idea behind much though not all of identity politics is that no actions of the out-group are ever innocent in principle. So, for example, as a gay man, I must always read Jacob Levy’s writings as a presumptive attempt to oppress me. He is not of my tribe. I can only ever trust gays and lesbians, and maybe not even them, because a lot of them are not sufficiently woke.

To this way of thinking, a failure to find clear evidence of oppressive intent does not and cannot ever fully exonerate anyone of the suspect class. Doing identity politics in this vein requires the intellectual and social subordination of all who don’t share the identity.

On questions of race, it requires whites to sit down and shut up, not to affirm that Black Lives Matter. And it finds the most sinister motives whenever a white grandmother from Duluth refers in passing to “the blacks.” (To my mind: It’s gauche, but it’s not apartheid.)

The worst sort of identity politics denies that whites can play any constructive role at all, asking for example for “black villages,” described as follows:

disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.

If my many black neighbors really thought that I were being so unhelpful, I’d be moving out. But that’s not a good way to go, whether for a neighborhood or for a society. It does fail the stability criterion, and it fails good and hard. It would produce the apartheid that it proposes to destroy. There are sound reasons to reject that kind of politics, and that kind of semiotics, from which it is inseparable.

That said, I do hope we un-woke and hopelessly western white people can still support much of the activism that Jacob praises elsewhere in his essay, although it would be naive to say that the two forms of identity politics don’t usually blur together. They do: The “black villages” passage I quoted is from the website of Black Lives Matter. The movement has done a lot of good, but I can’t say I endorse everything that’s ever been done under that name, and I don’t think Jacob can either.

Now, if we whites ever propose to distinguish good from bad here, we are in for a lot of grief. As whites, we’re a suspect class. We can never escape that designation, and that hardly seems fairer than the treatment that (yes!) whites constantly gave to people of color in the past, and that whites still give people of color today.

I am sorry that the current backlash against minority identity politics has taken the form of white people doing identity politics, but now even harder, and using the vehicle of a demographically typical winning Republican presidential coalition to do it.

But that is where we are. Isn’t it?

I note this video:

And this fact-rich reply by Cathy Reisenwitz. Excerpt:

It’s not that marriage makes people richer. Instead, wealth makes people get married. In fact, marriage actually cuts a woman’s earnings. In her book All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister cites sociologist Michelle Budig, who found that the average man sees a 6% wage increase after having kids. The average woman sees her wages decrease 4% for each child she has. Traister found that unmarried, childless women in cities between 22-30 earn 8% more than their male counterparts. Nationwide, the wage gap is almost nonexistent for childless, unmarried women, who earn $.96 to that average man’s dollar. Married mothers make $.76 for every dollar a man makes in the same job. Women who marry in their thirties earn an average of $18,000 more per year than women who marry in their twenties. Early marriage is associated with bigger paycheck for men.

The facts speak for themselves. But that video stuck with me.

It apostrophizes “family, vocation, community, and faith” as “tradition.” (2:41) Untraditional as I am, I would say that I have at least the first three of those. This though is contested: By conservative lights, I perhaps have at best one of them – the weird, sad, just-this-side-of-despairing vocation of being a guy who writes stuff on the Internet. If you’re being properly conservative, I have neither family, nor community, nor faith in any authentic sense at all. I may have facsimiles of each, but that’s more like an admission of guilt, isn’t it?

So am I unhappy? That’s an interesting question, but not one I find seemly to dwell on in public. (Are the people who do dwell on it in public the target audience? Are they appealed to more easily, owing to what they’ve already declared?) I have to wonder whether the video is really meant as a conservative-punk guide to being happy – or is it more like a reassuring pat on the back to the people who were already living the lifestyle it describes, and who were wondering whether this was as good as it gets? If so, Cathy’s sure being a bummer to a whole lot of people right now.

It seems clear, at least, that the prescriptions in the video would be unlikely to help me. Here is this perky, disarmingly confident young woman telling me how much happier I would be if only I had a woman to boss around. Benevolently of course. I try to imagine myself as a conventional heterosexual patriarch, and I have to laugh.

Meanwhile I look at her and I think: the Maoists were never such social engineers as this. What freakish self-assurance. What hubris, like the sent-down youth teaching farmers how to farm, except a lot of them didn’t do it voluntarily.

Dial It Back – By How Much?

Tearing up our civic institutions is a bad way to go politically, but it’s particularly ill-suited for opposing someone who, just for the sake of argument, may actually want to tear up our civic institutions. Robin Hanson urges Trump-panickers to “dial it back,” which I think in general is good advice.

Still it puts many progressives in the odd, awkward position of acting like conservatives: It forces them to insist on the proper channels and forms whereby power is exercised in ordinary political life. I don’t expect progressives to be credible here, or be good at it, or to keep perspective. What follows are some notes on how to keep perspective anyway, in light of the fact that we don’t actually know what we’re headed for.

Which scenarios are we likely to get? Which ones would be cause for “panic,” and which would not? And what would that mean? Let’s start with the worst and least likely.

If Trump is on track to be Hitler – which I have certainly heard – then the next items on the agenda will be a Night of the Long Knives – political extrajudicial killings of opponents within and outside the party – and then Gleichschaltung – the wholesale, forcible subversion of the institutions of civil society.

I have to say: That really, really doesn’t feel like where we’re headed. It just doesn’t.

Of course, either of these steps would be reason to panic. If there were political extrajudicial killings, or if the freedoms of the press and of private civic association were directly attacked, then we should all rise up in bloody revolution. At that point we have nothing left to lose.

That’s interesting, but it’s not interesting because it’s likely. It’s interesting because it fuels a lot of political agitation despite its being wildly improbable.

And not just on the left: Those who listen to the extreme right inevitably hear that the left has already done exactly this stuff. Conspiracy theorists already believe that the Clintons are happy to murder any and all who get in their way, starting with Vince Foster and running all the way to Seth Rich. And even the mainstream right wing believes in a kind of Gleichschaltung, in which leftists came to predominate in the academy, pop culture, and the bureaucratic elite of Washington.

In this they are not completely wrong. The left really does dominate in those places. And although it hardly happened through state violence, it seems silly to quibble about this with someone who also believes that the Clintons just bump off anyone who happens to displease them.

Anyway. Key here is that some share of the political right believes that we already live in the nightmare. For them, both sides doing it wouldn’t be a radical departure. A lot more could be said about the left-right disconnect here, but for the moment the key fact is that it makes the nightmare a whole lot easier to realize.

The very worst sorts on both sides of the political spectrum have a strong interest in making the present look exactly like 1933. Everyone else ought to deny them the pleasure. We should seek to disappoint rather than validate an individual like Richard Spencer, just for example:

By the time Richard B. Spencer, the leading ideologue of the alt-right movement and the final speaker of the night, rose to address a gathering of his followers on Saturday, the crowd was restless…

He railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. America, he said, belonged to white people, whom he called the “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were “awakening to their own identity.”

As he finished, several audience members had their arms outstretched in a Nazi salute. When Mr. Spencer, or perhaps another person standing near him at the front of the room — it was not clear who — shouted, “Heil the people! Heil victory,” the room shouted it back.

“Heil victory” is just “Sieg heil” translated for American consumption, but you probably knew that already.

Let’s circle back around, though, because I don’t believe that this is the path we’re taking. Spencer is as capable of misreading the signals as anyone else – more, probably, because he would appear to hold sincerely some very silly beliefs that the Nazis cooked up about themselves – the children of the sun legend &ndah; except that Spencer thinks they apply to white Americans, whatever that means, and not Germans. This simply has to do a number on one’s foresight.

So the risks that this is the path we’re on may have gone up, but if so they’ve gone up from essentially nil to essentially nil times two, if that. Let’s consider more realistic scenarios, because many otherwise unmitigated disasters fall short of literally electing Hitler. Too much Hitler talk makes us not pay attention to the rest, and the rest can be plenty bad.

What would be the appropriate response, for example, to someone who governs like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and who engages in the mass internment of first- and second-generation Americans whose ethnicity he considers suspect?

What would be the appropriate response to someone who brings back waterboarding, and who adds “much worse,” as Trump has promised to do?

What would be the appropriate response to someone who governs like Silvio Berlusconi? That is, someone who is overtly venal, frequently embarrassing, and apparently interested chiefly in enriching his own business?

None of these things requires Night of the Long Knives or a Gleichschaltung. All of them have happened, either here or elsewhere. All have been causes of enduring national shame. I’ve listed them in what I think is an ascending order of probability; none are mutually exclusive. I would bet on the last two, but not yet on the first. All would be catastrophes as far as I’m concerned.

How much worry, exactly, should I have about these other, vastly more plausible scenarios? How much am I supposed to be comforted by the idea that panicking isn’t yet in order, and that it might not be in order at all?