Hello listeners! This is a rebroadcast of Episode 2 of Transmissions, a new podcast I’ve been involved with lately. Transmissions is the official podcast of the Class Unity Caucus of the DSA, and I want to thank them for their permission to use this episode.
In this episode, we begin with a discussion of Francis Fukuyama’s concept of the end of history, and how many intellectuals misread it as a ‘triumphalist’ celebration of American victory in the Cold War. The better argument, according to Hoare et al., is that Fukuyama was talking not just about the birth of a new era of liberal freedom, but of the dawning of an epoch of gloom – one which would bring disappointments to many of its more enthusiastic advocates.
We also discuss the war in Ukraine. So far, in western media at least, accounts of the causes of this war seem to rest upon simplistic caricatures of Putin’s flawed personality. Yet these accounts are contested, and a well-reasoned minority opinion suggests the deeper issue is NATO expansionism. Given that the West is typically used to getting its own way, to what extent is the Russian invasion of Ukraine a kind of reality check for neoliberal technocracy? While the invasion of Ukraine is illegal and monstrous, can it be understood as marking the return of politics?
As the interview progresses, we touch on numerous core concepts from the book, including the anti-political turn – also known as the “return of dissensus.” This turn was perhaps nowhere more clearly on display that in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. For Hoare et al, this moment occasioned the breakout across the United States of what they term ‘Neoliberal Order Breakdown Syndrome’ (NOBS). However, argue the Bunga crew, it was not without its historic antecedents. And, in some ways, we can see the effects of NOBS already at play in the politics surrounding Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power in Italy, in the 1990s.
We also push back a little on Hoare in the interview, challenging some of the book’s characterizations of the limits of left-populism. While it is undoubtedly true, as Hoare et al. contend, that left-populism is anti-political in the sense that it has no theory of adequate “authority,” and that left-populist leaders like AOC and Bernie have failed thus far “to key into the agency of their own citizens,” we put it to him that this may be more of a bug than a feature. After all, as Thomas Frank and others have argued in recent times, there is a long and venerable history of left populist success, in the United States.
Other topics addressed include the applicability of the book’s arguments to the recent Canadian trucker rally against covid vaccination requirements, and contemporary debates around “techno-populism.”
We hope you’ll enjoy this discussion. If you want to find out more about Class Unity, here are some useful links:
Hello friends! Its beginning to look a lot of like Christmas, and what better way to mark the occasion than with another episode of Fully Automated! Today, we are very excited to bring you this episode with Christine Louis Dit Sully, author of the recent book, Transcending Racial Divisions: Will You Stand By Me? (Zero Books, 2021).
Christine Louis-Dit-Sully grew up in an immigrant family, in the 93rd arrondissement of Paris, Seine-Saint-Denis — an area of France known for its racial diversity, its poverty, and its complicated relationship with law enforcement. She spent nearly 20 years as an academic in the discipline of Biology. She then left the sciences, and turned to the study of politics, focusing specifically on issues of race, identity, social justice and the demand for ‘safe spaces’ in British and American universities. Today, she lives in the Black Forest region of Germany.
In the introduction to Transcending Racial Divisions, Louis-Dit-Sully writes that, for her, questions about race and racism are both a “political and a personal concern.” She goes on to discuss the common belief that the advance of social liberalism in the west has meant real progress for racial minorities. The problem with this myth, she notes, is that today we are much less likely to see members of racial groupings as distinct individuals, with their own unique identities. Instead, we have seen the rise of so-called identity politics, and a tendency to see individuals first and foremost as members of a race. Indeed, she notes, in her personal experience, she is seen once again today as a black woman, whose “opinions and beliefs are apparently determined by her race.”
Historically, racial thinking has been a hallmark of the right. However, worryingly, today it is also an increasingly common phenomena on the left. Now, some will say the left has good faith motivations in this turn. After all, given the history of racism, it is not entirely unfair to assume that the victims of racism might have something to say on the matter. Yet, she states, here we run into the problem of anti-politics. Because if we are ever to create real equality, we require the kind of power that can come only from a universalistic form of solidarity. However, the contemporary left’s embrace of standpoint epistemology — the belief that an idea can be understood only from the standpoint of a certain group identity — means that groups are seen as immutable, and immune to the passage of time. Whiteness, for example, is equated with original sin, and blackness equated with injury, and perpetual victimhood. If this is true, she says, then politics itself — that is, our very ability to imagine political change — is destroyed. Clearly then, if we are to discover a universalistic basis for solidarity, we must find new ways of understanding the world. And, for Louis-Dit-Sully, this means a return to Marx.
We are back with another great episode of Fully Automated. In this episode, we step back a little bit from the grander political themes that we are usually preoccupied with, to do an episode on the pedagogical possibilities (and challenges) presented by contemporary technology.
When it comes to online teaching in the discipline of International Relations, there are very few that can claim to have the experience or insight of Dr. Sebastian Kaempf. Senior Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland (Australia), Kaempf is a scholar of global media politics, focusing on the impact of changing media technologies on contemporary conflicts. He is also is the producer (with UQx and edX.com) and convenor of ‘MediaWarX’, one of UQ’s Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and probably one of the largest political science MOOCs in the world.
For some, MOOCs seem to represent a sort of ultimate form of “democratized” education whereas, for others, they seem to herald the dawn of a new dystopian age. For Kaempf, now a longtime veteran of online teaching, its important to bring some nuance to this conversation. Pedagogy can make a difference. And, as you’ll hear in this conversation, Kaempf and his partners at UQ put a lot of thought and material resources into their approach, pushing the medium to the very edge of what it can accomplish.
Here then, Kaempf discusses the minutiae of how he and his colleagues actually built and delivered the course. On the one hand, they avoided the traditional lecture form in favor of what they call “spaced learning” — because research shows that human beings kind of struggle to concentrate that long. On the other, and in a break with the usual stereotype of dry pre-recorded lectures, a central theme of MediaWarX is the seriousness with which they approached the class as a kind of media production. So, for example, portions of the course are presented in a kind of ‘road movie’ or documentary style, blending diverse archival footage with on-site discussions from locations all around the world, and interviews with well-known academics and experts (including Glenn Greenwald!).
We’ll also hear Seb discuss the ethos of “Hacktivism” that he tries to bring to his online teaching. Thus, he uses discovery assignments to teach about everything from how search algorithms work, to how we are addicted to being online, to the power of big data and surveillance. In this way, the course develops a kind of “crowd sourced” content.
Finally, I ask Sebastian about Covid, and where and how it has changed the fate of MOOCs and online instruction in general. After 18 months of more or less totally online instruction, how does his experience of working with, and thinking about, MOOCs effect his perception of the future of online education in a post-pandemic world?
Sebastian Kaempf can be found on Twitter @SebKaempf and his podcast, Higher Ed Heroes, can be found on all leading podcast apps. And his International Studies Perspectives article with Carrie Finn, discussed in the interview, can be located here:
Hey everybody! Its your old pal, “Dr. Nick” here (Simpsons heads will get that reference pretty easily). This episode features the return of Chairman Moe, your favorite Fully Automated regular guests. Last we heard from them, they were interviewing Keir Milburn on his book Generation Left (see Episode 19). This episode sees them returning to Fully Automated, for a long chat on Adam Curtis’s recent documentary, Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Yes, true enough, this is hardly the first time you’ll have heard a discussion about this documentary in a podcast. But it is the first time you’ll have heard it discussed quite like this. Here, we adopt a unique take on Curtis, reading him through the lens of an eclectic group of texts drawn from our own readings, over the last year or so. These include, tho by no means exclusively, Gilles Dauvé’s Crisis and Communization, Thomas Frank’s The People, No, and Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology.
Our goal, as one quick whip put it on Twitter, is to “figure out what in the hell Curtis’s politics are in 2021.” In the end, we conclude that Curtis is an important and necessary commentator, but that he comes to some unhelpful conclusions. This, we think, can be attributed to his tendency to ignore the lessons of materialism and blame idealism for the flaws of the left. For us, Marx, Frank, and Dauvé can each bring something unique to the task of patching up the missing parts of Curtis’s framework. Dauvé, despite his weird normative focus on localism and simplistic low-tech authenticity, provides perhaps the greatest insight into why only a materialist critique can work in our effort to assess the flaws of the contemporary left. Whereas, perhaps more controversially, Frank provides the antidote to Curtis’s occasional tendency to fall into anti-populist cynicism.
I want to thank Chairman Moe (who are, in real life, Columbus OH-based independent scholars Charlie Umland and Jim Calder) for sharing his valuable time with us, and also Darren Latanick for so patiently indulging the Chairman’s antics, and producing a great show for us.
We’ll be back quite soon, with an interview with Sebastian Kaempf on MOOCs in Higher Ed. And then we have a number of other guests lined up, between now and the end of the year. Thanks for listening!
The episode features a roundtable on Philip Cunliffe’s latest book, The New Twenty Years’ Crisis (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020). And, in a bit of a break with tradition, this episode also sees me jump out of the host’s seat, and invite Shahar Hameiri (University of Queensland) to take over the reins.
Joining me in the panel to discuss the book is the author, Philip Cunliffe (making his third appearance on the show), and Patrick Porter (University of Birmingham). Tara McCormack (University of Leicester) was also scheduled to join us but had to withdraw at the last minute, due to illness.
It was great to have Phil back on the show, to discuss this important book. The last time he was on, we talked about his previous book, Cosmopolitan Dystopia, which was a survey of human rights discourse on global politics since the end of the Cold War. The new book takes the theme of liberal war-making from that book, and attempts to read it through the lens of E. H. Carr’s classic 1939 text, The Twenty Years’ Crisis.
On the eve of World War Two, Carr described the politics of his time as a kind of interregnum, or a time of passage between two regimes of world order. For Carr, the great tragedy of his time was that the normative commitments of the intellectuals of interbellum period — namely, to the power of public opinion, to sovereign self-determination, and to international law and institutions — were incongruent with the kinds of mass-mobilized politics that were rapidly sweeping away their world order, and undermining the very conditions of possibility for securing those commitments.
For Cunliffe, however, the lessons of Carr’s study of the 1919-1939 period must today be applied in a kind of inverted manner. For where it was mass politics that ultimately frustrated and undid the political project of the utopian idealists, we do not today live in such a massified moment. To the contrary, as scholars like Peter Mair have described, we live in a demassified moment, where the agendas of college-educated neoliberal Brahmins dominate, unchecked. Worse, as Cunliffe explores, these new elites are kind of anti-utopians. They detest the values of the interbellum period, deriding public opinion and breaching sovereign self-determination in the name of so-called responsibility.
Cunliffe explores this argument through a number of fascinating case studies, taking us from the salons of International Relations conventions, which have been overtaken by ‘critical’ theorists (a group of scholars whose methods are singularly symptomatic of the “imaginary” of our unipolar moment), to the hallways of Brussels, capital of that grandest of examples of “de-massified,” neoliberal democracy, the European Union. The overarching theme that emerges is one of a shocking lack of self-awareness on the part of our political and intellectual elites.
As you’ll hear, the panelists are on the whole friendly to Phil’s diagnosis, but they do push back on some of his normative suggestions. Despite these disagreements, however, I will say that I think this is one of the more important episodes we’ve done on this show. Diagnostically, Phil is one of the sharpest commentators around, on the contradictions of our postmodern moment. I want to thank Phil, Patrick, and Shahar for their time and effort in helping to make this conversation happen.
Hello friends! Its been a while. Sorry about that. Its been a busy semester, teaching an overload class, and wrapping up some publishing projects (here and here). But we are back, and we have a ton of new shows coming your way this summer! Coming up in the next weeks, we have another episode with our Columbus OH friends, “Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction” on Adam Curtis’s new documentary, ”Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” We also have panels coming up, on Clyde Barrow’s new book on the Lumpenproletariat, Phil Cunliffe’s The New Twenty Years’ Crisis, and an interview with Christine Louis-Dit-Sully.
For this 31st episode of Fully Automated, and to help us break the dry spell, our guest is none other than legendary podcast figure “KMO”! KMO is the host and producer of the C-Realm Podcast, a cartoonist and author of the book ‘Conversations on Collapse.’
On KMO’s bio, there’s a great quote from Doug Lain, creator of the Diet Soap podcast and now the Zero Books podcast (and previous guest of this show!):
KMO was once a winner in the capitalist game. He had high tech dreams and plenty of ambition, but somewhere along the line KMO dropped out, spent what he had, and started over in a simpler way. No longer rich and no longer so enamored with the technocratic fantasies of the prevailing order, he squeaks by in this world while seeking another. More than anything KMO is a broadcaster and interviewer who has a gentle and amiable way of challenging and inspiring interesting conversations with authors, artists, psychedelic gurus, sociologists, NASA scientists, economists, and more on his weekly podcast called the C-Realm.
Now, to be sure, KMO is not exactly what you might call a ‘typical guest’ for this podcast. Yet, as you’ll hear, he is a widely read reader on all things to do with the politics of technology, and science fiction.
I first met KMO a few weeks ago, in the Politics and Science Fiction room, on Clubhouse that I started earlier this year, with Giuseppe Porcaro, Jamie Chipperfield, Sarah Shoker, and Nicholas Barrett. It became clear we had some overlapping interests on the topics under discussion, so we stayed in touch and found out that we have a lot of mutual friends in the leftwing podcast universe.
KMO recently invited me on his show, the C-Realm, for a discussion of science fiction and the politics of technological change. And this episode of Fully Automated is kind of a Part 2 of that show, where KMO responds to my arguments.
In this episode, you’ll hear us discuss a wide range of topics: Clubhouse as a phenomena; recent remarks by the pop star Grimes on whether communists should be interested in Fully Automated Communism; the rise of PMC ideology, and why its so hard to discuss the topic of class on the left anymore; Thomas Frank’s recent claims about Wuhan lab leak theory, and its significance for the already tarnished reputation of mainstream media; and, finally, we chat about politics and science fiction — you’ll hear KMO talk about why and how science fiction is (and isn’t!) for him political!
For those interested, here are the links to the couple of items KMO mentioned in the show:
His written response to my views on FALC, as I expressed them during my appearance on C-Realm (see my brief rejoinder below).
Rejoinder: Reading KMO’s published remarks on Patreon, he offers what I find to be a rather wild and somewhat bad faith interpretation of my views on Walmart and FALC:
“You invoked WalMart as an example of a very complicated system of production and supply chain management and then suggested that it needn’t be labor-intensive. You could just set it up and let it run for long periods and just check in on it from time to time. That’s not how WalMart works. WalMart’s operations require constant attention and tweaking by an army of highly-specialized, highly-trained and very-highly compensated individuals. They use a lot of what could loosely be described as “artificial intelligence” but it also involves constant human toil.”
Frankly, I am at a bit of a loss as to how KMO comes to this interpretation. To be clear, in my discussion with him, I never said that WalMart isn’t labor intensive. That wasn’t the point at all. Indeed, I re-listened to what I said, and it is very clear that what we were discussing was what is referred to sometimes as the Socialist Calculation Debate. Hence my referencing cybernetics, Stafford Beer, and the Chilean Cybersyn system. My discussion of WalMart was very obviously a reference to Leigh Phillips & Michal Rozworski’s book, The People’s Republic of WalMart. This is an important pillar of any discussion of FALC, because it shows how we might begin to overcome narrow assumptions about the limits of socialist economics, and ‘leap frog’ the pace of technological development to hasten the day when full automation displaces labor, and finally explodes the capitalist value system. Of course, we could equally just sit around and wait for the scenario Marx outlines in the Grundrisse (in the famous ‘Fragment on Machines’) to happen all by itself. But the question of socialist strategy was something that preoccupied Marx too, quite apart from his quest to grasp capitalist political economy. Clearly our arrival at capitalism’s point of ultimate contradiction was not something Marx was content simply to sit around and wait for. And neither should we!
Final note: apologies, but the audio quality is a bit over-produced in this episode. I have been trying to up my game with Adobe Audition, and I think I added too much gain to my own track here. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch this the next time.
This is not only our 30th episode, but it is the first episode of our fifth year bringing you the most fully-automated space-aged communist podcast around! And, to mark the occasion, we are returning to an old theme for this show: the politics of technology and space exploration! Our guest for this discussion is Daniel Deudney, Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. In this episode we will be discussing Prof. Deudney’s new book, Dark Skies, Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics & the Ends of Humanity (Oxford University Press).
For non-academic audiences, Prof. Deudney is not a fully-automated space communist like myself — but he is kind of a big deal when it comes to thinking about the politics of world order and space exploration. He has published extensively on world political theory and globalization, focusing especially on the environment, and nuclear weapons. His book, Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village (Princeton, 2007) received the Book of the Decade Award (2000-2009) from the International Studies Association, and the Jervis-Schroeder Prize from the American Political Science Association.
As you’ll hear, Prof. Deudeny and I certainly don’t agree about everything, but we one thing is for sure — we have a shared disdain for Silicon Valley boosterism! In this interview, you’ll hear Prof. Deudney talk a bit about his intellectual background, and his earlier work on how nuclear weaponry creates the need for world government. Then we get into his current book, where you’ll hear him talk about the disconnect between the optimism of our space imaginary and the thin record of accomplishments in actually existing space exploration. Part of the problem, says Deudney, is that we take our cues too much from the realms of science fiction and space futurism, and not enough from science.
For me, one of the real accomplishments of the book is that it brings together a genealogy of space imagination from an extraordinarily diverse range of sources. One particularly important important figure here is the nineteenth century space futurist, Konstantin Tsiolokovsky. But there are others. What they all seem to have in common is a tendency to predict a kind of organic destiny of man to expand out into the solar system and beyond, and to engineer and denaturalize everything he sees. They also pose a universe of plenitude where there will be no need for war, and an eventually suppression of the human species itself. For Deudney, there’s a lot of hubris on display in this discursive record, not least in terms of its naive grasp of the limits of our planet’s ecology (in the book, Deudney evokes the prosaic style of Kim Stanley Robinson, with clauses such as “the turbulent earth and its unruly life”).
With his map of our space imaginary laid out, Deudney closes the book by suggesting a new set of coordinates by which we might imagine the use of space exploration. However, as we enter “the astrocene,” he notes that we seem stuck with hopelessly archaic and impractical forms of political management. Our future survival, he contends, will demand the emergence of new kinds of world-governmental institutions — these will preferably be of a democratic nature, but he doesn’t rule out something akin to what Marx termed “hydraulic despotism.”
So what exactly is the choice on the table for us here? Staying within the realm of closure and archaic forms of interdependency, or something like the movie Elysium? Or is there another option? These and other questions preoccupy us as the discussion concludes. We hope you enjoy the program!
Special thanks to Phil Davis for the new theme music!
With the inauguration of Joe Biden just around the corner, many are pondering what new approaches his team might bring to US foreign policy. Despite President Trump’s penchant for bombast and bellicose rhetoric, it can’t be gainsaid that his reign has been more or less dovish in comparison to those of his more recent predecessors. One huge exception to this rule, of course, has been Iran.
Early 2020 US forces assassinated the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Then, in November 2020, we saw the assassination of military scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — a hit apparently green lit by Trump himself. In response to this latest provocation, the Iranian parliament introduced a law that will require Biden to renew the Iranian nuclear deal, or JCPOA, effectively within a month of taking office. The law also requires Iran to produce at least 120 kg of 20-percent enriched uranium annually. What does it all mean? On the one hand, as former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter has been arguing, Iran’s response has been remarkably calm. The amount of higher enriched fuel to be produced is still very low, arguably not for military purposes, and is “in conformity” with the limits proscribed under the JCPOA. Nevertheless, as Ryan Grimm reports, even on the way out the door, the Trump Administration has been plotting military strikes against Iran.
To discuss the current situation, and the release of their new co-authored book, Understanding and Explaining the Iranian Nuclear ‘Crisis’: Theoretical Approaches (Lexington: 2020), our guests for this episode are Drs. Hal Tagma and Paul Lenze Jr. Tagma is Assistant Professor at the Department Politics and International Affairs, at Northern Arizona University, where he teaches Middle Eastern politics, the political economy of international conflict, and critical approaches to international relations theory. Lenze Jr is Senior Lecturer in Politics, also at Northern Arizona University. He teaches International Relations and Comparative Politics with a focus on Civil-Military Relations, Middle East politics, and US National Security. Lenze can be reached on Twitter @DrPaulELenzeJr
This is a rich book, which I think will appeal both to IR theorists, and those looking to gain a sense of the debates around US-Iran relations. On the one hand, it contains a rich meta-commentary on contemporary IR, and the theoretical possibilities it contains for dialogue between its various theoretical paradigms. Second, its a very detailed and reasoned analysis of the state of US Iran relations, and the idea that there is a ‘crisis’ (and what it even means to speak of crisis).
Before we get started, the authors make strong claims in the book in favor of what they term eclectic pluralism, and they are critical of the idea that there is only one truth, or one story to be told, about International relations. That might seem to imply they see all truths in IR as somehow equal or equivalent. Nevertheless, as you’ll hear, the book is doesn’t hesitate to land some punches. In the chapter on Marxism and World Systems Theory, for example, they write that, from the perceptive of Marxism:
Modern academic Realism is a superstructural tool that legitimizes and naturalizes the exploitative and violent polito-economic order of global capitalism. Modern academic Realism is not outside of history nor is it ‘timeless wisdom.’ Instead, Realism is caught up in constructing the violent, capitalist World-System that it is hopelessly trying to make sense of.
Thanks for listening. We don’t ask for any financial support, in bringing you this show. But if you like what you hear, please leave a kind review on your podcast app. If you have any feedback, you can DM us @occupyirtheory on Twitter and Instagram. Thanks!
Today, we’re bringing you an interview with Dr. Vanessa Bilancetti, Lecturer in Political Sociology at UniNettuno University, in Rome. Vanessa is one of those rare scholars who can bring together Foucault and Marx, and apply them both to the interesting empirical questions of our time. In this episode, she’ll be talking with us about how we can approach their scholarship as a toolbox for analyzing European Governmentality in the context of post-financial crisis political economy.
Vanessa’s research interests include the European Union, financialisation, feminist political economy and critical European studies. I had the good fortune of meeting Vanessa at an online conference this summer, held by the Critical Political Economy Research Network. Vanessa was presenting a paper, called ‘How to study the commodification of social services following a gender perspective.’ Between sessions, we got talking about Foucault and how he is used in political economy, and I found Vanessa’s take on the inherent compatibilities between Foucault and Marx to be really interesting. She later sent me some of her research, which I read, and .. well, that’s when I decided I had to have her on for an interview!
Vanessa is an advocate of allowing the methods of Foucault with that of what she calls, “an anti-essentialist Marxism and a critical feminist political economy approach.” So, in this interview you’re going to hear me ask her to elaborate on that. We’re also going to talk about the case studies she presents in her published work, on the European Fiscal Compact. I’m very grateful to Vanessa for coming on the show, and I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Before I sign off here, just wanted to thank everyone who shared and commented on last week’s “special commentary episode” on the prominence of the K-Hive, in academia. Hope to do more of those “essay”-style pods, in the future.
We never ask for money for this show. However, if you enjoy it, please feel welcome to leave a rating on Apple Podcasts, or the podcast app of your choice. The ratings help improve the standing of the show, and help me book future guests for the show!
This episode is coming to you on Wednesday, November 11, 2020, just a few days after the media called the 2020 US presidential election for Joe Biden. Its an unusual episode for this show, insofar as it doesn’t feature an interview (we have a great interview coming very soon, with Vanesa Bilancetti, on Foucault and Marx). Instead, its just going to be me, offering a few remarks on the election results, and what they mean for American academia. In the below, I’m going to focus on two key aspects of the discussion. The first is the strange prevalence of the so-called K-Hive, in American academia. The second concerns the role of racial essentialism in early academic analysis of the election.
Just a caveat here. I want to make it clear from the outset that I think on balance its probably a good thing that Donald Trump is no longer going to the president. The problem is that I’m not sure how much better the Biden presidency will be. Now I agree, I think, that there are probably real and important positives to a Biden administration, such as the likelihood that Biden will put more labor-friendly appointees on the National Labor Relations Board. Equally, Biden will probably do a better job with the coronavirus. Yet, as many good faith leftists will point out, the Biden administration will likely do very little to address the core rot at the heart of the pandemic-stricken neoliberal hellscape that is America today. Similarly, these good faith critics will point out, there are real and extremely worrying indications that, from a foreign policy perspective, the Biden administration will be loaded with neoconservative ghouls left over from the Bush “W” administration. As Derek Davison and Daniel Bessner discussed on Monday’s paywall episode of Chapo Trap House yesterday, Trump didn’t do much to challenge the national security blob. But neither was he a competent whip for US empire. Biden, on the other hand, looks set to present a far more vicious and bloodthirsty face of the American war machine to the world.
In the end, the fact remains that Trump is an insufferable narcissist and, while perhaps he is too dumb to ever deserve the accusation of fascism often thrown at him by academics and the liberal left, its probably just better on balance not to have a shameless used car salesman in the White House. As Matt Taibbi put it in a recent Substack post:
Donald Trump is so unlike most people, and so especially unlike anyone raised under a conventional moral framework, that he’s perpetually misdiagnosed. The words we see slapped on him most often, like “fascist” and “authoritarian,” nowhere near describe what he really is, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s been proven across four years that Trump lacks the attention span or ambition required to implement a true dictatorial regime. He might not have a moral problem with the idea, but two minutes into the plan he’d leave the room, phone in hand, to throw on a robe and watch himself on Fox and Friends over a cheeseburger.
The elite misread of Trump is egregious because he’s an easily familiar type to the rest of America. We’re a sales culture and Trump is a salesman. Moreover he’s not just any salesman; he might be the greatest salesman ever, considering the quality of the product, i.e. himself. He’s up to his eyes in balls, and the parts of the brain that hold most people back from selling schlock online degrees or tchotchkes door-to-door are absent. He has no shame, will say anything, and experiences morality the way the rest of us deal with indigestion.
So, good riddance to the used car salesman! Even if the evidence is flimsy, its certainly hard to dismiss the argument that a Biden White House will be at least marginally better. Yet, in a way, that’s precisely the point. It will be only a marginally improvement. Certainly nowhere near a major improvement, and certainly nowhere near the sort of level of improvement as would warrant the totally fawning reaction of many otherwise sensible and intelligent people, including a number of academics (and even friends of this show!), to the election of Kamala Harris to the Eisenhower Building.
In the last few days, usually sensible people — people who I would usually regard to be quite sober-minded and intelligent — have been posting memes lavishing praise on Harris, as not only the first female VP in US history, but also the first woman of color VP in US history. This double whammy of specialness is supposedly a ‘big deal.’ Harris is going to be an inspirational figure, the memes declare, for a whole generation of young women of color.
And you might say at this point, well, where are you going with this, Kiersey? Its no small thing, after all, given America’s problematic racial and gendered history, for a woman of color to be in the White House. But honestly, I genuinely don’t understand the impulse. To pick perhaps an obvious example, few of us would look back and celebrate the election of Margaret Thatcher, who despite being the first female British Prime Minister, hardly elevated the cause of women’s emancipation. Well, same here. There’s a non-trivial amount of evidence that Kamala Harris is an awful human being and that, on balance, she deserves to be called out much more than she deserves to be celebrated.
In the course of her career as a prosecutor in California, Harris did very little to deserve the admiration of anyone on the left, let alone that of young black women. In a 2019 piece in the NYT, Prof. Lara Bazelon of the University of San Francisco School of Law offers just a few highlights of Harris’s shameful career: she withheld information about police misconduct; she championed an an anti-truancy initiative that criminalized noncompliant parents and threatened them with jail time; she appealed a judge in a case who ruled against the death penalty on constitutional grounds; she opposed marijuana legalization (and then laughed about smoking up, on the debate stage in 2020); she opposed the use of body-worn cameras by police officers; and, finally, and perhaps most worryingly, she is associated with a string of wrongful conviction cases. From this review, its not hard to make an argument that Harris made a practice of throwing innocent people under the bus to build up a “tough on crime” brand, and cultivate her political career. She failed to prosecute “foreclosure king,” Steve Mnuchin. She also arrived in the White House with a fat rolodex of Silicon Valley donor names (some speculate her post-primary largess towards the Biden campaign to be one of the key reasons she got the VP nod, in the first place).
Despite the weight of evidence, however, the last 3 days we’ve seen numerous self-identifying serious critical theory types blowing up on social media over criticism directed at Kamala Harris. So what’s going on here? What’s with the cognitive dissonance? The only theory I can come up with is that the rage serves a sort of displacement function. Let me explain. The results of this election were actually pretty unambiguous. They clarified certain trends that were seen as ambiguous and contestable, in 2016. One of the more famous analyses put forward in 2016, was the so-called deplorables hypothesis. This was a controversial idea, as former guest Lee Jones explained in a blog post at the time. But the basic gist is that was the poor, white racists in flyover states who put Trump over the edge.
If this theory sounded dodgy in 2016, the 2020 election results really smashed it to bits. As Matt Breunig noted in a Tweet on November 4, Trump “did better in 2020 with every race and gender except white men.” To flesh that out a bit, Trump gained 4 points from black men (who already trended red, in 2016) and black women (a doubling of his 2016 performance), gained 3 points among Latino Men, and gained 3 points among other non-whites. He lost support from white male voters by 5 points. Now, white male voters were still his main support group, followed closely by white females, but there’s no doubt that the non-white vote confounded expectations. Given how close the election was, these are not trivial numbers; overall, as Bruenig further noted, “women and people of color make up the majority (59.6%) of the Trump coalition again in 2020.” And Trump made serious inroads in the non-white vote, increasing his share from 21% in 2016, to 25% in 2020. Given these figures, and the crazy tight margins in many contested states, the notable decline in white male support is arguably the only thing that saved Biden’s campaign. But all of this just begs the even bigger question: how could Trump, the ignoramus, racist, fascist, misogynistic, Cheeto-faced science denier, increase his votes among non-whites, in the highest turnout election in US since 1900?!
This is a fascinating question, to be sure, but its actually not the one I want to focus on, in this commentary. Instead, I want to go a little deeper into what I referred to earlier as the displacement function. As we’ve talked about on this show before, a lot of Critical Theory types engage in racial essentialism. Arguably, many don’t know they are doing it. But they do it. And what is racial essentialism? Simply put, its the expectation that demographics are a kind of moral destiny. Its the belief that non-white voters have fixed political preferences, which remain the same no matter what other variables beyond racial experience might be effecting their lives. Black Marxists have long lamented this kind of analysis, common among liberals, as condescending towards people of color. As scholars like Touré Reed and Cedric Johnson note, racial essentialism tends to instill in the mind heroic stereotypes about black subjectivity, and the moral clarity of black voices. In the same breath, it also papers over the fact in the decades since the civil rights struggles, economic mobilization has decreased black poverty from 60% to 25%. Thus it occludes how black voting preferences are being distributed increasingly along class lines (see 1:15 mark, in this video).
Now you can understand why this narrative might not fit well with the worldview of critical-liberal academics, who have built their entire careers upon the idea that whiteness is the original sin of modernity, and that the only real way to create political change is through a purging of so-called white logocentrism.For a particularly fascinating example of this mindset, we can look at an interview that was posted on Novara Media this week, with the economic historian Adam Tooze. Pondering the racial politics of the 2020 election cycle, Tooze noted that the exit polls might not be a good indicator in a coronavirus year because the numbers would not factor the preferences of the unusually high number of mail-in early ballots in this election. The early ballots, Tooze claimed, would likely tend to skew progressive in the 2020 cycle because, in the months leading up to the vote, Trump had repeatedly warned his supporters away from trusting postal ballots. Yet, while this might seem a reasonable point, the NYT reports that the poll in question, which is the Edison Poll (the gold standard exit poll for US politics), did actually account for mail-in votes.
But, even forgetting the polls for a minute, its hard to imagine someone like Tooze would not have already looked deeper into the actual results. Its unlikely, for example, that he would have been unaware, that Trump had radically increased his margin in the near-homogeneously hispanic border counties of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), in Texas, where he even flipped Zapata County from blue to red by 30 points — the first time the county voted Republican in 100 years! Granted, of course, that Hispanic voters are not a homogenous bloc — the Cuban vote in Miami, for example, has long been conservative. Yet the Mexican vote in the RGV was solid blue for Hillary, in 2016. Considering the tight results in many states, and the very high national turnout, the significance of these voting patterns for the final result is clear. Equally clear, however, is the fact that these patterns refuse explanation in racial terms. Allegedly the Latino note was instrumental in handing Biden a thorough shellacking in Florida, for example, yet the same state also passed a referendum to institute a minimum wage! (Similar examples of local “socialist” ballot initiatives could be seen in “near miss” states like Nevada and Arizona, too, as this tweet by Bernie Sanders attests).
So, what does this all mean? Well, on the one hand, its important not to overstate the case. As the data presented in the NYT shows, white voters were still Trump’s number one supporters. Nevertheless, the results undermine a key assumption which seems to underpin the analysis of folks like Tooze. Namely, that racism plays an unambiguously massive determining role in US electoral politics.
As the NYT data shows, 40% of 2020 voters belonged to the $50-100K middle income bracket. Of these, 57% voted for Biden, thus constituting the highest concentration of support for any candidate among any income bracket (see image below). Numbers from CNN add some further nuance, suggesting the possible emergence of a new battle: middle-class, urban and college-educated on the one side, with poor, rural and non-college on the other. The former largely went into the 2020 election believing the primary issues were identity and the handling of the coronavirus, while the latter appear to have voted primarily on the basis of economic concerns. Further confirmation of this analysis is provided by Derek Thompson, of The Atlantic. And, indeed, all of this merely confirms what was already indicated in the 2018 midterm cycle: the real divide in the data is the one between the middle class and college-educated, on the one hand, and a sizable cohort of rural and non-college educated, on the other.
Hence the displacement function. We are beginning now to get a hint as to why supposedly progressive thinkers appear to be so incapable of handling any criticism of Kamala Harris, and why they so frequently demand that white leftist critics “stay in their lane.” Similarly, we are beginning to get a sense of how it is that an expert figure like Adam Tooze can so casually overlook already widely available data on racial electoral preferences, and hand-wave what are in fact obvious patterns in these election results. Indeed, we might even be beginning to get a sense of how it was exactly that the Biden campaign managed to fritter away what was supposed to be one of its key strengths: its innate appeal to black voters.
The focus on race as the overarching determinant of American politics belies I think a major issue facing progressive and academic thought, as we head into a new era of coronavirus-driven economic crisis and austerity. Simply put, its a class problem. Matt Christman has been commenting on this in some of his recent video blogs, on YouTube. We are living, he says, through a period of major political realignment. The Democratic Party — the traditional party of the working class in the US — has been studiously working to reorient itself as a party of the college educated urban elite. The Republican Party, on the other hand, appears yet unaware of what Trump and Bannon perhaps intuitively grasped: there is a gap in the market for a real working class party.
And its worth pondering what this realignment might mean for academia — or, at least, those in the humanities and social sciences. Because academics are not people who are used to seeing themselves as anything other than the unbiased servants of truth, and the advancement of the Enlightenment project. Even in their more post-structural and Frankfurt School iterations, the identity of the college professor remains that of the iconoclast, seeking in the classroom those “teachable moments” that would challenge the student to engage in self-critique, so that any political instinct they might have towards class solidarity might be purged in favor of more constructivist intuitions.
Let’s be absolutely clear here. This is a political project! To understand this, one need only reflect on the stakes of the project for Marxism, for example, which teaches that there are real and fundamental material structures at work in our world, that these structures have massive pressuring effects on our political outcomes, and that these structures can be overcome only by means of the organization of the working class. The fawning over Harris, and the refusal to see how class is increasingly overriding race as a force in American politics, is instructive in this sense. It points to a blindspot not just among the college-educated elite in America, but among those responsible for their intellectual formation. The awful paradox here is that the critical-constructivist college professor is generally unaware of their own moral exceptionalism. This is why they get so offended when their role in class politics is pointed out to them. This is why they prefer to prescribe the existence of lanes, and urge us to stay in them, rather than call attention to the facts of Kamala Harris’s problematic career. To be fair, they seem to mean well. But functional outcome of their intellectual blindspot is the continued fetishization of the heroic epistemological standpoint of racial minorities — something that functions necessarily to judge in advance any solidarity that might emerge among the multiracial, non-college educated voters that compose the American proletariat, today.
It is worth recalling that Critical Theory mega-stars like Judith Butler and Donna Harraway were both donors to Kamala Harris’s primary campaign. When this information first surfaced in December 2019, it didn’t seem like much more than a mildly instructive piece of “silly gossip.” Looking back on it now, however, it seems far more ominous. Because it speaks to the ideological function both of a college education, and of the progressive, identitarian college professor who’s job it is to offer that education. And here, ultimately, is where you get in trouble. This is where you’ve said the unspeakable thing that the college professor must not hear. This is where they put their head in their hands and say, “you just don’t understand.” “I am a Marxist!,” they might even say. “I teach Deleuze, for God’s sake!” But it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that the primary function of their job is to teach upwardly-bound bourgeois and lumpen students that THOUGHT is the central axis of politics. So, they say, if you want politics to change, you have to change thought. But again, what goes unspoken here is the stake of the claim. If we accept that thought is the central axis of politics, then the very possibility that material interests motivate power at all, or that the real and decisive events in human history have not come about through discursive engagements, but through eruptions of materially-motivated groups, becomes nothing more than a curious historical thought artifact; an antique idea, to be entertained, but only as a somehow vulgar or less than fully sophisticated world world view, when it comes time in the syllabus to discuss The Communist Manifesto.
Whatever people like Adam Tooze, or his interlocutors on Novara Media like Dalia Gabriel, or Ash Sarkar, or Judith Butler, or any of the legion of other American K-Hive critical academics, might tell you, the election results are devastating news for the left. We have just seen the victory on a razor thin margin of a Democratic candidate fully married to the politics of identity performance, and with no economic message to speak of. All Biden offered was the promise of return to civility, and the possibility of a less buffoonish management of the coronavirus. Equally, it seems clear that no small measure of Trump’s surprising success in this election should be attributed his explicitly economic messaging, and the resulting inroads made among a poor, rural and anxious multiracial working class.
This sounds like heresy. And I admit its genuinely hard even for me to accept. But the facts speak for themselves. Identitarian academics clearly have a selection bias when it comes to analyzing increased minority support for Trump, in the 2020 election cycle. Yet their error is only symptomatic of the deeper issue, which is their own complicity with a class project that is actively undermining the very possibility of economic liberation in America, today. This is what I mean when I say that identity politics has a displacement function. Whether in its neoliberal or left guise, identity politics is the perfect shield to any kind of class-based criticism. “Stay in your lane,” is a disavowal of class privilege disguised as a critique of identity privilege.
Turning this around will be hard. And there’s no magic bullet, except the slow, patient work of class-based organizing. Academics will need to reflect on their role in this, and recognize that they are partisans in the emerging new class conflict. Except right now, they are partisans for the wrong side. And its not clear what can be done about it but it is my hope that, with commentaries like this one, we can at least begin a conversation about class and higher education.