We Do Need Governance, But Can Do Without Sovereignty

I just finished reading my friend Bernie Wills' book Believing Weird Things. I’m writing a review of it at Social Epistemology, but today’s monologue will work through some of my initial reactions to what he had to say. As well, I’m going to see what can come out of playing Bernie’s ideas off some arguments from Antonio Negri’s latest book Assembly, available in intelligent bookshops and online stores near you.

So the last two essays of the fourteen in Believing Weird Things were published on the open-access side of Social Epistemology early this year. They confront different aspects of the resurgence of nationalist politics in Europe and the Americas. 

I’ll expand a little more on this in my official review, of course. But the last essay, “Conservatism: The End of An Idea” made me think of a curious idea. It wasn’t something he said, but something he never said.

The essay identified and explored the nihilism driving all the most radically destructive forms of extremism. 

Since the show is called Radical Democrats Radio, I thought I’d at least consider the implications for the brand. 

If I can distill the argument to a single sentence – Bernie saw the nihilism of nationalist right and anarchist left ultimately leading to the same ends. The radical nationalist replaces rule of law with fascist kleptocracy. The radical anarchist replaces rule of law with social chaos.

Here’s my problem with this idea. I think it departs from the material situation we’re in, veering a little too conceptual. 

In the actual political situation of Europe and the Americas in 2018, our popular political conflicts are realigning into a new order. 

The general right wing blends two ideologies: 1) economic libertarianism that enables cronyism and kleptocracy, 2) xenophobic nationalism. The particular flavour of xenophobia in a country, is usually cobbled together from what’s available. 

For example, xenophobes in the United States are deepest dedicated to being anti-Hispanic and anti-Black, and Islamophobia is a bold new vector of aggressive racist paranoia. They’ve resurrected their fear-mongering anti-communist messaging to describe anything in favour of a welfare state, environmentalism, or social liberalism in general. The most extreme xenophobes are more marginalized Nazis.

I say more marginalized because you can’t say k-i-k-e on FOX. At least not yet. So I’m speaking relatively.

Bernie’s right about that designation. So what about the left? 

Well, I’ve hung out in some pleasant anarchist communes. But they aren’t exactly networked into the new progressive mainstream. Because the conservative mainstream includes open dedicated racists like US Representative Steve King, FOX News’ Tucker Carlson, Presidential Advisor Stephen Miller, and President Donald Trump.

Today’s new alignment in the progressive left is toward a new social democracy that includes ecological priorities in its economics, and a cosmopolitan ethnic, religious, sex, and gender freedom in its cultural liberalism. 

An essay that seeks to diagnose our times leans too heavily on a concept instead of the real. That’s my main problem with that last essay in the collection. 

Yet. I have to say yet. There is a very subtle kind of opposition to the state that the 21st century social democrats of the West share with the most nitrous-addled anarchist shack-dweller. It’s the opposition to sovereignty.

Sovereignty is a conceptual framework of what governments are for. But a government can be organized according to a lot of different conceptual frameworks. Sovereignty is an ideology that unites two principles – 1) Borders become sanctified; 2) A state’s borders create a united social entity, the nation.

This is what Negri diagnoses. Sovereignty ideology defines the purpose of the state as maintaining the population in order. So the primary institutions of the state are the police and military.

The new social democratic vision defines the purpose of the state real economic and personal freedom. Everyone has the capacity and opportunities to make a decent living and avoid indebtedness. Everyone has the right to live however and wherever they want. 

What are the institutions of a state with those priorities? It’s not keeping order. It’s about preserving the lives and dignity of the population. Those institutions would be public health infrastructure, social security, schools and universities. 

This wouldn’t be a sovereign state that prioritizes social order. It would be a people’s state that prioritizes social dignity. 

Political Strategy Without Leaders, 04/12/2018

When Occupy first blew up, the most tiresome, empty-headed critique was that one question, over and over. “Who are their leaders? What is their concrete agenda?”

Exactly the wrong question, I realized after maybe a week of thinking on it myself. I never participated in an Occupy movement as a member. I was a visitor, happy to see that we still had space for rebellion. And I knew from my experience that the space itself was the point.

It was a movement to bring people together, exchange ideas and philosophies, and make a space where rebellion was possible. The point was to assert the possibility of rebellion in the West.

Never forget what I mean when I talk about the West: the lands and cultures of globalizing colonial empire, that started in the 1500s. It’s an entire set of cultures and institutions that have been shaped by the desire to justify worldwide conquest.

Can you transform a culture so radically in a single generation, a single place, a single organization led by one person? We make statues of individual people – Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Ho Chi Minh. We celebrate what they achieved, and how they inspired people. We call them leaders.

They changed laws and governments. But it takes more than the organization of just one social movement to transform the moralities of a population of millions. The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not end racism in America.

Imagine the force you'd need to transform a culture that had been developing for hundreds of years, to have a totally different character. Turning a concept of virtue as conquest and superiority all over the West into mutual inclusion and equality. That task is way beyond the work of one generation, let alone one person. One leader.

That was the ontological point of Antonio Negri’s concept of assembly, which he writes about with Michael Hardt in the book called Assembly. An assembly is a social force that can grow in power and longevity enough to transform the morality of an entire culture.

Even when the institutions of that culture – police, security forces, spy agencies, churches, governments, laws, schools – turn against such a social force, that force has the potential to overthrow and revolutionize those institutions.

Does it always, every time? Oh hell no! Individual political movements are crushed, but the force itself can survive as a story, an idea, a few books that still sell really well. The single biggest corporation in the world sees no need to censor Marx from the online store. They sell everything just shy of the Turner Diaries too.

So ideas continue in all directions, in favour of a lot of different moralities. Moralities of conquest and freedom are always in conflict. An assembly, in its loosest form, is a morality – the concepts that channel our desires into action, action that crafts our desires.

One of Negri and Hardt’s tasks in Assembly was working out how to channel that resilient social power of the mass movement in thought and action. Leaders, it’s said, are needed to formulate strategy. Generals overlooking the map. And the ordinary people of their organizations are the soldiers. Leadership meant plotting from a position detached from the action.

That’s a dualist way of thinking about the nature of political and social movements. It separates action from thought.

Assembly merges them. So when you think about social movements as self-directed, leaders aren’t your generals. They become figureheads, spokespeople who follow the moral directions that are developed among the ordinary people.

Regular activists develop strategies for outreach and conversation (and moral conversion) specific to the needs of their own territories. Who knows a place better than the people who live there?

Certainly not some egomaniac game show host. Certainly not some over-insulated multi-millionaire career political party leader.

I’m talking in that last example about Hillary Clinton. I now have one more Festivus grievance against her as a politician, and that’s her new advocacy for caving to the white nationalist movement on immigration in the hopes that they’ll leave the rest of us alone.

Clinton’s 21st century update of appeasement ran in the Guardian last week. It’s appeasement by focus group. Having identified what message encourages the most enthusiasm from the supporters of nationalist parties, she says that we can win their votes by also becoming nationalist parties.

It’s an absurd, ridiculous, and frankly stupid idea. Do you really think that someone who hates Hillary Clinton as much as a dedicated anti-immigration Republican would vote for her? Even if she personally suffocated a four-year-old Honduran girl with tear gas, he’d call it a false flag. Just like the Sandy Hook massacre and the moon landing.

Even beyond this, the real problem with Clinton’s approach in that Guardian article is that she thinks that her DC focus groups can tell people what to think so that they will vote for who they want to. The ones who pay for the focus groups.

That’s not how you lead a democratic movement. Here’s how.

You don’t. The movement is the leader – ordinary people percolating ideas through society that change our culture’s entire morality, one social network node at a time.

Revolution Is Automatic for the People, 28/11/2018

Hey, everyone. So I'm returning to the blog as a place to store my old monologue scripts for Radical Democrats Radio in a single publicly accessible place. My blog served as a place where I could examine ideas and pass through them again, refining them and better understanding their implications and relationships. 

When I started the podcast, these scripts tended to vanish into the ether. So I'm throwing them up here now, for my reference, and your perusal. 
• • •
Lenin on the Rostrum, by Aleksandr Gerasimov, 1929
From 21/11/2018

I'm doing some interesting philosophy reading at the moment. Downloaded a pdf of Vladimir Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, and it has me thinking about methods of social change. 

Democratic revolutions are always anti-elitist in some genuine sense. Unfortunately at the moment, Western nationalist messaging has gotten a tight hold on the word. So it’s difficult to talk about “the elites” without people hearing you say “liberals” or “the Jews” anymore.


When I say “elites” and “elitism,” I’m literally talking about the hyper-wealthy class – individuals and families whose personal wealth numbers in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and whose properties and businesses have revenues of billions. Plus the groups of politicians and bureaucrats who govern states and international organizations, who do the bidding of this hyper-wealthy class.

Oligarchy is the word.

Basically, the modern left is about organizing against oligarchy. The open question is how you do it. 

Over the next few episodes of Radical Democrats Radio, I’ll explore a theoretical approach to the practical work of organizing that aligns itself to our contemporary technology and communications media. This will be a walk through some of the concepts in the latest book by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Assembly.

If this segment is mostly about Negri, why did I bring up Lenin at the beginning? Because What Is To Be Done? is a classic work of radical socialist activism that unites theory and practice in an analysis of what methods work for which goals, and which of those goals are genuinely the best means of ending oligarchy in our economy and society. 

In some ways, Lenin is a productive complement to be reading while I’m writing monologues for the show about Negri. Among many of the traditional communists I’ve interacted with over the years, Lenin’s theoretical works – in particular, What Is To Be Done? – have been important touchstones for their own activism. 

And a lot of that activism has failed.

What Is To Be Done? was written, in part, as an instruction manual – arguing for what to do and what not to do. You can adapt the conceptual arguments about that to the present, very different, world of communication we live in today. But the manual itself is a study in historical irrelevance.

That’s why my turn to Negri as I read Lenin works in a pretty trippy way. Negri and Hardt, in their collaborations, have developed a complex set of concepts to understand how social movements develop without leaders. Assembly tackles the problem of leaderless activism directly.

Lenin makes such a great contrast because, despite his emphasis on empowering and educating the entire population of workers to join the anti-oligarchy movement, he still emphasizes the necessity of leaders. Guerillas. The hardest of the hard core.

An elite within an anti-elitist movement. Can you overcome the viciousness of this paradox? That’s what Assembly tackles.

For a political movement to succeed, it needs to institutionalize itself. It has to change governance and economic institutions, or straight-up destroy them and replace them with new ones. But leaderless movements have a really hard time building institutions. Horizontal organizing creates swarms in protest, mobilizes a population to destroy institutions. 

Horizontal organizing most easily organizes an explosion. When that political explosion is powerful enough to topple a government, a regime, an entire institution, we have a revolution. When it falls short of that energy . . . well, as a Syrian or an Egyptian what happens.

Creating institutions requires channelling the energy of a successful revolution to build new institutions. New ways of running society. Institutions that can encourage, enforce, educate, and accustom people to new norms. New moralities of thinking about and interacting with government, with political leaders, with those very institutions. 

Here’s the paradox of democracy. Pure democracy is a revolution that constantly rebels against established order in the name of more freedom. Yet we need institutions to teach us that if we shout for freedom, we’re shouting for more than its name. Quite often, a shout for freedom is a shout to be enslaved. 

Democracy always stands against sovereignty. It stands against violence and coercion that expects its authority to be accepted universally. But building and maintaining institutions requires leadership – requires authority, coercion, keeping membership in line. Even a virtuous institution is an authority.

Is pure democracy possible if it permits no authorities? If not, then is it best to give up on democracy entirely? 

Resignation or revolution. 

New Project! Radical Democrats Radio

Wow. I totally haven't been here in a while. That's because I've been working on my new project, Radical Democrats Radio, a podcast that combines progressive political activism in the (broadly) autonomist and communitarian tradition, with philosophical reflection and analysis. The main website is still under construction, so while you can go there, you won't see much.

Most episodes will run about 30-40 minutes, and consist of a monologue and an interview. My interviews usually run for 60-90 minutes, and cover a variety of discrete but related topics. So a single sit-down with an interview subject will produce multiple podcasts.

The monologues are rather like my blogs – me talking about different topics. Sometimes, they'll be related to the interviews, sometimes not. Most of the time, I'll contrast the two parts of each show. If the interview leans more philosophical, then the monologue will be more directly political, and the reverse. As for whether the monologue or interview comes first, I'll probably decide that by the tones of both.

I'll also occasionally try out more experimental types of episodes as new ideas occur to me. Best (and only) example so far is my reading + commentary on Jian Ghomeshi's attempted comeback essay in the New York Review of Books. I cut some segments of a few seconds where I stumbled over the occasional word, but I recorded it all in one take.

Here are the most important links for Radical Democrats Radio.

Subscribe! Here's the podcast at iTunes, so you'll get new episodes as I throw them up. This is the best way to access the show, not only because it takes the least effort, but we're still early days, so the publication schedule remains a little sketchy.

We're on SoundCloud too, so you can follow the podcast there.

Support! Here's the Radical Democrats Radio Patreon page, so if you like what you hear after subscribing, you can throw a few dollars (pesos, euros, lira, shekels, rupees, yen) every month. The page's income goals describe key improvements in the production of the show that I'll make as our audience of patrons grows. More rewards will come as patronage grows, and as I think of them.

Finally, here's a transcript from my monologue on the 14 September 2018 show, on the constitutional crisis that Doug Ford's extremist government in Ontario created.
• • •
Notwithstanding Norms

When Doug Ford was elected Premier, I knew he was going to be a jackass, a crap Premier, and probably very destructive and harmful to vulnerable people. I cried on election night for the people I know who are going to suffer from his cuts – efficiencies.

I didn't think he was going to cause a constitutional crisis before Autumn Equinox hit.

What is this constitutional crisis? I’m not going to get into the legal details because I’m not a legal expert. I may have a legal expert on soon, as this mess develops a little more to get some real analysis on what’s going on.

Canada in constitutional crisis, 2018. Brought to you by Deco Labels. Deco! Here at Deco, we make labels.

The notwithstanding clause is the shorthand for Section 33 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It says that, for situations of incredible danger to the security of the people, a government can overrule particular Charter Rights.

Think of an armed uprising against the government. It’s plausible these days. If Ammon Bundy could occupy an American National Park office for weeks, some fastidious Albertan Three Percenters could set off some organized political violence in Edmonton if the NDP gets re-elected. If there was a clear, present danger, Rachel Notley would be justified in overruling Charter Rights temporarily.

But those suspensions would be rightly temporary – the notwithstanding clause is our constitutional mechanism for emergency rule.

Doug Ford is using this mechanism to pass legislation.

Put to the side Ford’s reasons behind Bill 5, whether you think it would improve or degrade Toronto’s governance. Those aren’t important to the question of Canada’s constitutional nuclear option. What is our nuclear option? The constitutional off-switch on the government’s recognition of its citizens’ basic human rights.

Using the nuclear option to pass legislation makes the suspension of citizens’ basic human rights normal. In this case, the notwithstanding clause suspends the basic human rights of about three million people, with no expiry date.

Even worse than when Pierre Trudeau sent tanks to the streets of Montreal in 1970, Doug Ford’s suspension of Torontonians’ Charter Rights to the exercise of democratic governance has no withdrawal time. Toronto’s electoral districts won’t revert to the map of 47. The change to 25 seats is permanent.

It gets worse. Premier Ford made clear in his initial press conference on Monday that he’d have no problem using the notwithstanding clause whenever there was any substantial opposition to his government’s policies.

That means, he sees the constitutional mechanism that suspends the Charter Rights of Canadian citizens a perfectly ordinary, reasonable thing to do in pursuing a legislative agenda.

I have two fears here. One fear is that Doug Ford legitimately doesn’t know how government works. That’s plausible, and I think true.

As a city councillor, he never appeared at committee meetings. He often said that no work happens in committees. Actually, committee work consists in reading reports, hearing from experts on policy, logistics, and city management, or meeting with community groups about planning city ordinances. Mr Ford has no idea that any of this went on.

In an interview on 11 September, Ford said that he was genuinely shocked that a judge in a constitutional court had the power, on hearing a case regarding some particular laws, to declare laws or legislation unconstitutional.

Ford also often talks as though everything he does while in office is entirely legitimate, proper, and merits no serious opposition. The reason is because he won the election. Winning the election, according to Premier Ford, gives you a mandate.

I think he believes that “having a mandate” means “being able to do whatever you and your core supporters want until the next election.”

Which brings me to my worst fear. That Doug Ford legitimately believes that his job is to use all means required to bring his core supporters’ agenda to fruition as fast as he can. He said on 10 September that he would suspend citizens’ Charter Rights whenever they got in the way of his agenda.

Doug Ford’s core supporters include extremist Christians, extremist misogynists, and extremist white nationalists, especially anti-Muslim extremists. Some of them, like extremist Christian Sam Ooesterhoff, are MPPs in the Ford government.

The power to suspend citizens’ Charter Rights can be invoked at any time. Doug Ford did it to pass a municipal governance bill. What prevents Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms from losing all power to regulate Canadians’ relationships with our state, is how terrifying our officials find the prospect of revoking those rights.

Revoking the basic rights of citizens is a terrifying thing to do. Doug Ford believes that revoking the basic rights of citizens is a totally normal and ordinary way for a government to advance their legislative agenda.

Maybe he’s ignorant. Maybe he’s an extremist. I think it’s something of both. Either way, it’s very dangerous.

Effacing Solidarity II: Propaganda Disguised as Philosophy, Research Time, 09/08/2018

Today, I want to write about what yesterday’s post was supposed to be about. As often happens with my blogging, what was supposed to be a preamble turned out to be long enough to justify its own post. That’s how my two-parters happen.

Understanding common frameworks among very different phenomena* is an essential aspect of any empirical approach to philosophy. In this case, those different phenomena are the propaganda of nationalist mobilization, corporate public relations, journalism, and philosophical thinking.

* And the real differences obscured by superficial common features.

Here’s the conceptual continuum that runs through all four – the relation of language, message, and truth in political movements, how societies constitute themselves.

My hatred of Uber has only grown over the last few years, as its
driving principle seems to be reducing our economic life of taxi
service to a dangerous shit show without rules. For one thing, I know
how poorly paid Uber drivers are. I don't use the app myself, but I have
several friends who do, and I'll ride along with them. I slip a driver
cash after as many rides as I can
Propaganda removes truth from communication, making messaging into the transmission of orders. Corporate PR uses messaging science to shape public perception of actual events, organizations, and people. Done ethically, PR messaging emphasizes some real aspects of a company’s client, de-emphasizes others, and generally puts its subject in the best possible light, given circumstances. Done unethically, PR messaging promotes outright lies.

Journalism and philosophy critique both. That’s not all they do, of course, but it’s what they do relative to propaganda and corporate PR. When done ethically, they both reveal the full truth of a situation that powerful actors would often prefer obscured. Journalism does this through empirical investigation. Philosophy does this through analysis and argument.

This four-sided distinction came to me as I reflected on some later chapters of Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have space or context to fit this exploration into the main review. A couple of chapters work through some new economic and business ideas that – ostensibly at least – discourage modern capitalism’s fragmentation of community solidarity into disconnected warring individuals.

Unfortunately for their subjects, these business models are slight of hand moves. You think a new system is correcting some terrible harm, until you’re able to put yourself in the position where you can see all the worse injury that this system is doing.

In these chapters of false solutions, Sassower makes some solid critiques. But I think he tends to give too much quarter. Best example I’d say is Chapter 13 from The Quest for Prosperity. It’s about the sharing economy.

The corporate culture of Uber and pretty much every other sharing
economy and Silicon Valley industry leader encourages
mercenary hostility and paranoid anger more than any kind of
community-building solidarity. The most famous image is of
Travis Kalanick himself losing his temper at a driver who had the
gall to question the company's pricing policy. But when I was
briefly a student affairs manager at a private college, the
students who had the most trouble with their programs were the
part-time Uber drivers. They had to work overnight almost
every day of the week to survive.
Sharing economy companies pitch becoming a service provider with them by promoting the job’s flexibility and your own autonomy from corporate control of how you do the job. Sassower explores the promises of the sharing economy from an even more profound booster than Uber’s PR and recruitment departments, Arun Sundararajan.

Sundararajan himself is a professor of operations management at NYU’s Stern School of Business. The book is the ostentatiously titled The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism.

I can understand how your first instinct on hearing about the “end of employment” is to reach for medication to prevent heart attacks. But Sassower does Sundararajan the benefit of the doubt. Sundararajan describes the sharing economy as having the potential to restore community to capitalism.

Sharing economy companies, he says, give people who would never otherwise have found each other a platform to build a community of mutual support. Platforms take advantage of internet connectivity to return to the informal, decentralized networks of commerce and relationship building as in the medieval market squares.

The industrial revolution, says Sundararajan, brought authoritarianism to markets and production. It’s an authoritarianism of the factory floor’s automation, the demands of oligarchs to beg for the least crumbs of productivity as wages, and government police suppression to maintain those oligarchs’ power.

Heavy industry flattened and crushed the friendly truck and barter of small communities. Sundararajan expects the sharing economy to restore it. As people become linked through networks of sharing goods and services, they come to trust each other. Since the platforms network people without regard to ethnic or cultural boundaries, our networks will become more diverse.

But it gets worse. There are many examples of Uber drivers
assaulting and robbing their customers. This actually happened
to a former partner of mine: a (now former) friend left her in an
Uber after getting her too drunk to speak. The driver physically
threw her out of his car at her destination, cracking the back
of her skull on the parking lot and robbing her phone and cash.
As brutal and unforgivable as acts like these are, I can
understand why people might be driven to that desperation if
this is their only means to live..
Sassower critiques this cheap utopianism as far from inevitable, and in fact quite unlikely.

When the platforms set to work, the result isn’t an end to authority, but the stress of being subject to an app provider’s whims. As any Uber driver knows, drivers shoulder all the risks and costs of daily business – fuel, insurance, upkeep – but with no control over such business essentials as their rates.

TaskRabbit is the sharing economy company that came closest to this model. It began as an auction platform for handyfolk workers – plumbers, carpenters, appliance repair people, renovation workers would bid on jobs, schedule tasks around existing jobs, and build relationships with repeat clients that would get them regular business, referrals, and friendships. Clients and contractors were all happy.

An acquisition in 2014 saw it become an Uber for home repair. The auction forums and ability to schedule were gone. Instead, clients posted a job to be done now, and the nearest available contractors decided in the moment whether they’d take it, then grab the required tools and get to it.

Life for TaskRabbit contractors became hell. They could no longer schedule tasks, but had to have their day free of any work whenever they wanted to log on and look for gigs, which kept them from optimizing their income. It became impossible to build relationships with clients, as there was no guarantee you’d ever connect again. So there goes your repeat business or referrals.

Things only picked up for the company when IKEA bought TaskRabbit last year, and began using its platform to schedule furniture assemblies in the cities where the company was active. After all, it had to restore the scheduling function to do so. Now contractors could plan their other jobs around TaskRabbit assignments.

The sharing economy can only function when its platforms encourage workers to take control of their own working lives, and the platform is a proper communication tool that opens the space needed to build thick relationships.

But the developers and investors in sharing economy companies have no interest in this. Because it’s easier to maximize revenue with a fleet of desperate, under-employed contractors incentivized to tie themselves to the rhythms of the app instead of a working life that would improve their own prosperity.

Effacing Solidarity I: Their Language Is Absurd, Composing, 08/08/2018

Four years ago, when I trained in corporate communications, there was a brief introductory lecture in one class about the history of public relations. One discussion that seemed very anachronistic at the time was distinguishing between public relations and propaganda.

It went over strangely because propaganda seemed quaint, something no longer done. A horror of the past.

I wish that had stayed true.

Anyway, the definitions of propaganda and public relations that we discussed in that lecture were ultimately a little flaccid. It ended up amounting to “You know it when you see it.” Let me illustrate this with a hard case.

When the powerful laugh, they're usually mocking ordinary folks.
When we laugh at the powerful, it's a means of self-defense.
In our Ethics of Public Relations class, one of the main presentations we covered was the contract between the Hill & Knowlton PR agency with the American government to help convince United Nations leaders and other international influencers to go along with the war against Iraq in 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The Hill & Knowlton team developed a comprehensive public relations plan. They regularly monitored the American public through opinion surveys to test the strength of their messaging. They helped dress the Kuwaiti ambassador for his public appearances in styles that Americans would find charismatic. Those public relations techniques are ethically reasonable.

Where things get freaky is in the most harrowing message. Testimony from a young Kuwaiti woman, presented to the US Congress as a hospital nurse, that Iraqi soldiers occupied a hospital and killed an entire ward of infants in a maternity ward by throwing them out of their incubators.

None of it was true. Iraqi troops never committed massacres in Kuwaiti hospitals during the occupation. The woman who testified to Congress that they did was actually a daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador. Members of the Hill & Knowlton team had done a great job of training her in acting.

Would you call it propaganda? I’m not sure that’s quite appropriate. I’m looking for a conception of propaganda that’s a little thicker than “public relations actions that I don’t like.” It works fine as a designation, an insult, a way to tell people my own feelings. But it isn’t actually useful to learn anything about the world.

Some speculations. I think I could characterize the stupidity of United
States geopolitical strategy this way: They rely on alliances with
ruthless people, groups, and factions around the world to do their
dirty work for them, so United States leaders can continue to defend
the country's international and domestic image as virtuous guardians
of democracy and freedom. Since the Reagan era and with
increasing frequency, this strategy has backfired, causing spirals
of cascading political violence as ruthlessness compounds on
In that way, I appreciate Trump for his honesty. He never
pretends to be anything other than ruthless.
See, while Hill & Knowlton’s incubator strategy was built on lies, there was still one aspect of respect for truth in their strategy. They wanted you to believe in the truth of what they said. They were trying to convince you to support a military action by convincing you to believe a set of propositions. They maintained respect for the logic of reason.

Doesn’t propaganda try to do this too? Well, it doesn’t if we’re going to make a useful distinction between public relations and propaganda. Why make the distinction? So we can use our new conception of propaganda to understand a real difference

That’s a key part of what philosophical creativity is – developing concepts to understand real differences.

Propaganda looks like public relations but differs because it doesn’t concern truth or whether the content of its propositions and messaging is believed as fact. I’ll offer two quotes from a pair of French thinkers of the last century. First, from Gilles Deleuze, discussing a kind of language he calls “order-words.”
 “Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.”
Propaganda messaging isn’t about encouraging people to believe what’s said as fact, or truth. It’s about transmitting orders and how to give signs to your leaders that you’re following their orders.

That’s why Trumpists continue to repeat Donald’s blatantly false statements, even when you physically demonstrate their falsity in front of them. They don’t believe and follow Trump because they think what he says is right. They repeat what he tells them to repeat and believe what he tells them to believe because he is their leader.

You know what my problem is with Sartre scholarship in the
university sector? They rarely, if ever, discuss Sartre as a fundamentally
political thinker. I think that would clear away a lot of the confusion
that I see about his own flavour of existentialism.
Now for a longer quote. It’s going to lock down for sure the kind of communications I’m talking about with the term propaganda. It’s from Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’ve seen it floating around my Twitter circles lately.
“Never believe that [propagandists] are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.
“The [propagandists] have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors.
“They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”
He was talking about the anti-Semites of Europe in the days and years laying the conditions for the Shoah. At the time he wrote it, within months of France’s liberation from German occupation, Sartre – as well as most of the everyday population of France – didn’t know that the Shoah had happened.

Today, we call it by the silly, defanged name of trolling. But these words describe the bullying indifference to truth and amusement at others’ pain and confusion that freed people’s minds to create the Shoah.

Change Is Why We Exist, Composing a History, 06/08/2018

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting quite as frequently lately. This is because I’m in the process of amping my philosophical social media beyond a new threshold. Can’t say anything at the moment because all the infrastructure isn’t yet in place, but it’ll be a pretty radical project.

The blog itself will keep going. I’m not sure if I’ll port all the entries over to the new main home of my online philosophy and activism. For one thing, I kind of like the retro feel of continuing to publish first-draft versions of some content that will appear in a more high profile place.

For another thing, there are nearly 1300 posts in the entire history of this blog and I suspect porting all that content to the new site will be fucking hard.

Yes, I know. Even lower overhead than this. Have you seen my apartment?
I started this blog with a specific purpose of simply motivating me to write something creative every day. At the time, I really needed that motivation. The conventional paths of a university career were shutting down for me, and what I thought was decent preparation to find decent work outside that sector turned out to be incredibly inadequate. I had no idea what to do.

Short version – I was mad depressed. There was a period of three days in May 2013 where I literally didn’t leave my bed except to go to the bathroom. I hardly ate. All I knew was that I still loved creative work, I still loved philosophy. Philosophical thinking, writing. Same with narrative storytelling. So I needed something to focus my mind and keep me feeling like I was doing something more than treading water.

Since then, Adam Writes Everything has been an essential centre of gravity that my creative life could orbit. It was a machine that kept me thinking, that kept my brain active. It became a tool that helped transform my own thinking and research process, and make it a lot better.

Blogging introduced a kind of recursiveness to my thinking, encouraging me to experiment with how concepts and techniques could fit together. It helped me refine my writing style into something less burdened by academicians’ conventions. It helped me figure out what kind of writing I could do that I hadn’t tried before. It helped me learn how to write for the internet.

It’s taken a long time, and there have been a lot of setbacks along the way. But I’m now at last in a situation where I can centre myself, feel confident in what I’m doing, and have enough financial security that I can put a small investment into a business like the media project you’re about to see by – I hope – Labour Day weekend.

I’m not the first with an idea like this, and I won’t be the last. But it’ll be good listening, and a strong model. My overhead is lower than my predecessors, and we can reach more people than ever before.

Playing Games in the Street – Free Rider! Jamming, 01/08/2018

Funny little things crop up in the small margins of a book worth reading. Distilling the core arguments of a 300-page book and juxtaposing some critical perspectives in about 3000 words, you lose some details.

Which is why I like to revisit some of those discarded but interesting points on the blog.

One of those casual moments is Sassower’s critique of the free-rider problem, which amounts to a flippant rebuke. At that moment, I cackled.

As someone who was educated for the academy in a philosophy department, such a thing is blasphemy. The Free-Rider Problem is a central example in Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, and has gone on to become a standard model for pumping intuitions to understand moral truths.

Now that's a fare inspector who takes his job to heart.
Okay, after writing that paragraph, I’m cackling again.

See, the method of pumping hypothetical or artificial scenarios to intuit universal moral principles or foundations is utterly barmy. It presumes that every person is going to think morally in the same way you do. And that’s just not the case.

Maybe Kantian morality conforms to the intuitions of a lot of people raised in an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. Maybe Kant derived the principles that his philosophical reasoning justified from the mainstream culture of his time. Maybe Kant’s work was so influential that it affected the popular moral development of European and broader Western culture.

It was probably a combination of all three. But the problem with the Free Rider Problem is that it just isn’t necessarily true that it describes a problem, just because some folks who uncritically absorb individualist Christian-influenced morality or work as Kantian moral philosophers say it is.

So what is it? Someone rides a public bus without paying for a ticket.

Dear God, the terror!

Seriously, though. Analysis of the Free Rider Problem takes up a lot of space in Western moral philosophy, especially in the academy. Conceptual problems like this are a gold mine for academic philosophers – you can change your take only slightly to generate a new article for the paywalled journals with little effort, but great reward. See also, the Trolley Problem, the Gettier Case, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

The best buses are the ones for freedom.
The intuitive outrage at the centre of the Free Rider Problem is what you should do with the cheater on the system. As someone who benefits from a common good without directly contributing to it, he’s conceived as a cheater of the system.

A common conclusion to the Free Rider Problem is that only those who can themselves directly contribute to public goods have the right to make use of them. That sounds very fair in the abstract, but in real life, that results in actions that sound morally upright, but are in fact terribly destructive.

So if someone is too destitute to contribute directly to the upkeep of the public good, the typical conclusion to the Free Rider Problem is to deny them the right to use the system. Throw the homeless woman off the bus, even if she’s on his way to an interview about a housing opportunity. She didn’t pay her $3.25.

There’s a mainstream approach to morality that puts all evaluation of praise and blame on the isolated act of an isolated individual. Did you steal that food? Did he skip that line? Did she kill that man?

As for the approach to communitarian moral thinking that Sassower articulates when he wonders if Free Riding is even a problem? It’s empirical – you examine the situation, history, and network of causes that constitute that entire situation. It’s dynamic – you take account of how wider situations and institutions constrain and liberate potential actions.

You were hungry. Everyone was skipping the line. She was 14 years old and that man was sexually assaulting her in their house. Culpability never rests with one.

Not every $3.25 is worth a life.

Why Does Anyone Do Anything For Anybody? Research Time, 31/07/2018

Here’s the thing about revolutionizing your entire culture’s values. It’s much easy to think about than to achieve. That gap is even more frustrating because so many of those values already exist in society – it’s just that they don’t predominate.

You see, this appears to be a pretty common theme in all my philosophical writing. At least the big projects. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity started with problems of environmental ethics, moral philosophy, and ontology. It ended with an imperative to develop better methods of changing people’s moralities and self-conceptions.

Knockoffs do have some merits on their own terms.
Utopias is a sequel of sorts, in that it revolves around the methods, tendencies, and directions for revolutions in moralities and self-conceptions throughout a culture. And I think I’m just about ready to start diving into the manuscript now that I know how that book is going to end.

Once you’ve worked out the mechanics of how to revolutionize moralities and ethics, you have to ask what your endpoint is. For me, that endpoint is an anarchist-flavoured communitarianism.

It makes Raphael Sassower something of a fellow traveller, since he's also exploring the potentials of communitarian political economy and morality. His work will probably be quite influential in how I come to think about how communitarian values work in a civilization like ours – industrial, high-technological, in a state of global ecological reorientation (if not outright collapse).

Here's one example of how communitarian values end up creating quite a lot of prosperity. Sassower discusses the knockoff economy, particularly China’s dominance of trade in knockoff goods. He argues that the knockoff business sector offers an empirical rebuke to one of the unquestioned presumptions justifying intellectual property rights.

Not all forms of intellectual property need be respected to encourage innovation. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about art – I’m a writer and I like to be paid for my work. At the same time, I don’t exactly need every payday to be $5-million. It wouldn’t even be all that nice – it’d be too much.

Not this Gucci, no. Although he is my favourite Gucci.
But I’m talking about product designs – fashion products like clothing and handbags, personal appliances like dvd players and watches. Knockoffs don’t detract from the sales of the top label products because of the social status of actually having the proper product.* Knockoff economy businesses, meanwhile, are creating fashionable goods and appliances that working class people can afford.

* It’s a doubly elite status. Not only do you have the status of owning the proper product, but in a knockoff-dominated economy, the only ones who can tell on sight that you have the genuine article are connoisseurs of the product. Cash and hipster cred.

Preventing knockoffs actually harms the prestige of the brand, especially in the fashion retail sector, where the prevalence of knockoffs is a sign of the brand’s prestige. In all these ways, the knockoff and elite markets support each other.

This is a context where a supposedly universal principle – that innovation can only occur when patents and intellectual property amount to a practical monopoly. At least temporarily, to incentivize them with exclusive profit from that property.

Knockoff symbiosis shows how the prestige economy can thrive and fuel popular trends in fashion. It also shows that thirst for the maximum profits is not the only driver of economic activity. A demonstration for communitarian values.

Teaching Prosperity in the Underground, Composing, 29/07/2018

So it’s been almost a week since the last post. I didn’t mean to do this on purpose – it’s just been a busy week. Thankfully, it’s mostly been busy with some promising business opportunities starting to come together.

And sometimes, just some incredibly long days. So long that I’d run out of energy before getting down to write. At least to write this, as I’ve mostly been working on other things that I actually get paid for. The blog is meta – a writing project about my writing projects – meta takes a back seat to actual.

I'm one person, not a mechanical writing machine. I'm powered by
food, coffee, and serotonin.
I’ve started work on a small media project that will involve interviews, and I’m starting to line those up for later in August. More updates to come.

But there are some other interesting developments in my teaching job as well. As you might remember, I published my review of Raphael Sassower’s book The Quest for Prosperity last week. I read it months ago, and only got around to writing it all now.

But that means I’ve had a few months to stew over its arguments and ideas. I think the book does come up short in some areas. But its critical chapters on the political economy of the 21st century global economy are wonderfully insightful.

There's a lot going on in those early chapters of The Quest for Prosperity that I couldn’t fit in all their detail into the main review. I only had so much space and so much time to write the thing. But in working over the ideas, I've begun incorporating them into my teaching work.

To give you an update, I’m the head of a program in Business Administration at a small private college. We’re using a standard set of textbooks, but I’m working on lecture content that itself goes beyond just those lines.

For example, I’m not about to present uncritically a map from Freedom House ranking the economic freedom of different countries around the world. I’m not going full communism in there. I’m just asking students questions about what economic freedom means to them, whether they ultimately agree with Freedom House’s terms, and how to articulate their differences.

The marketplace should be a friendly place.
Actually criticizing some aspects of business school orthodoxy as part of the program is turning into a pretty effective value proposition for the place. Unfortunately for the rest of North American civilization, this is how we stand out from the crowd.

One idea of Sassower’s that I’ve incorporated into my program’s business lectures is how he distinguishes between markets and capitalism. Markets are a matter of what Adam Smith called “truck and barter,” small exchanges among community members that add up to mutual benefit.

Capitalism as an ethical attitude is a spirit of competition, where you can all too easily see another person’s benefit as a potential loss for you. Worse yet, you expect others to see your benefits the same way you see theirs. So you become paranoid, aggressive, and suspicious.

Solidarity is broken. Friendship is impossible.

Manuel DeLanda covered the differences of markets and capitalism in a book published more than 20 years ago. But he had an ontological focus on the macroeconomics of the massive capital flows that industrialization and colonialism powered.

Sassower’s emphasis on political economy foregrounds moral principles and ethical attitudes, so we can see the transformation of a society’s values along with their economic system. Good is no longer giving benefits to your community, but leading your community as a function of your wealth. You don’t want to be part of a community – you want to own it.

Conceiving Prosperity Again, Composing, 23/07/2018

If all goes well, this is going to be a very different kind of website in a few months. It’s why I might not post here as frequently as I have before. It will be the first good reason behind any sustained pauses in blog updates I’ve had in nearly a year.

So I came home from the gf’s place Sunday afternoon and after I unwound, I started work on my review of Raphael Sassower’s book, The Quest for Prosperity. It’s not quite finished yet, though I wanted to get it done by now. But I don’t have much longer, and it should still go live by Thursday at SERRC.

A key idea I’m writing about in that review is the notion that civic institutions aren’t sufficient to prevent the rapacious activities of oligarchs. I think our current political moment seems to be demonstrating that. What American Trumpism shows is that institutions – despite all the structural precautions that may exist – can always be corrupted somehow.

Shepard Fairey drew this image of Ronald
Reagan on a wall in the Little Tokyo
neighbourhood of Los Angeles in 2011, as
part of a public art initiative called the
Freewalls Project. He had the support of
the city's Museum of Contemporary Art.
Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr /
Creative Commons
I think it’s a bit of shortcoming in Sassower’s analysis. But only in the sense that landing a crew on Luna is a shortcoming in that we eventually need to get to Mars.

Sassower, in the latter chapters of his book, asks what kinds of civic institutions can best guide people to socialize each other into communitarian moralities, where oligarchical personal greed is less likely to develop. He identifies several key ethical principles, and a few very intriguing examples among existing institutions and organizations.

I can probably add to his list of example institutions, given what I’ve been reading lately as well. I’m thinking of how Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes the ethics and socialization paths of Ontario’s Indigenous societies.

It’s a life that’s called Nishnaabewin, and I’m going to talk about my own engagements with these ideas, including how I want to use them in my own work, later on. As you can imagine, it’s probably going to get awkward.

So we have our guidelines and we have our models. But those guidelines and models aren’t enough because institutions alone can’t do anything when power imbalances grow.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I’m trying to say. Because I’m at the point in the review where this is what I’m trying to say, and I’m having a tough time articulating it.

Let’s say you’re a claimant in a civil case. Doesn’t matter if you’re technically in the plaintiff’s or defendant’s chair. All that matters is that you’re making a claim with the help of your legal defence, and the other side is making their claim too.

In terms of your civil rights, you’re both equal. That’s what equality before the law means – the institutions regard you as equal claimants whose dispute will be settled according to reason. But in terms of your material resources, you aren’t equal.

You can tell how unequal you are when you see your opponent walk in with Alan Dershowitz as his counsel, and you’re sitting next to a snot-nosed, freshly graduated, already-drunk part-timer.

Material power dynamics overcome nominal equality in the context of civic institutions. This fact is a powerful reason why it’s so difficult to overcome greed – no matter the law, money is always power. Now what do you do about that?

Demonstrating Any Alternative At All, Composing, 19/07/2018

Another quick meditation. I polished off about half of my official review of The Quest for Prosperity over the last couple of days (as well as the draft of a policy paper I’m writing for the think tank). That’s why I didn’t have time to write a blog entry for Wednesday.

One of the leftover ideas from Raphael Sassower’s dense yet accessible book regards the different ways we try to create new forms of life. Now, this is a major concept in my own political philosophy – the utopian drive to build a new society.

The Occupation left Wall Street, but it never failed. It's still
succeeding, because Occupy was the uprising that generated the
ethical energy of anti-oligarchical politics in the 2010s.
Art by Eric Drooker
I’ve mostly been concentrating my historical eye on those creative revolutionary processes that have had real success. Maybe they’ve overthrown a government or two, like the Arab Spring or the Maidan protests. Maybe they’ve inspired an entire generation – on average – to reorient their deepest ethical and moral beliefs about what kind of political economy we want in our society.

Sassower, in a few remarks late in chapter one, makes me wonder what I can learn from the unsuccessful cases.

We’ve got to be careful about how we understand success and failure here, though. Remember that success is more complicated than having a succinct list of demands that are fulfilled. That was the complaint I often remember levied at Occupy – how to make change without specific demands.

But we’re talking about a social movement – not an election campaign or a collective bargaining session. So a utopian uprising’s focus must be general as it generates. The uprising is the social movement in embryo – the flurry of energy that focusses people’s thought and minds, and dedicates their lives, to the hard work of actually changing society.

The hard work of transitioning Tunisia to democracy, or overthrowing Bashar Assad. The hard work of restoring social democratic principles to governance in a globalized civilization and economy.

Actual material success in a specific task isn’t necessary to whether a particular utopian impulse is a success. It’s also difficult to tell when such a project is a material success. The Tunisian democratic government, for example, is still only a few years old and still embattled. Is a democratic Tunisia that lasts only a few more years a success?

Let me put this to you, to demonstrate that asking about persistence of an institution isn’t the right question here. Would you consider the Abbasid Caliphate a failure as a pluralistic society because it lasted only 800 years?

The energy of the uprising is not the same as the institutions people create with that energy. What remains when you bracket the material achievements of a social movement is the energy of the movement itself.

From one of the few long-term successful hippie commune farms.
The Stephen Gaskin Farm began as a community of radical utopian
Americans, who moved to Tennessee to drop out of industrialized
society. It still exists today as a scientific and political research
centre and charity. Its energy, creativity, and practical intelligence
continues to renew itself for more than four decades now.
If the energy of the movement, the revolutionary dedication and drive in a society – or at least a fairly significant number of people in it – is what matters, then we know what success and failure of a social movement is.

A social movement succeeds when the energy of its uprising is sustaining and renewing itself – when people join and contribute to its creative processes, as different contexts to do so appear. There is no point when a social movement has succeeded – that would imply that the movement is finished, and so no longer sustaining itself.

So the death of a social movement is its stoppage. Once people’s creative drive dies, the institutions that movement built immediately ossify and become authoritarian. Their only justification is their existence, which is no justification at all.

Now we have a conception of how to know the success or failure of a social movement on any scale. Success is sustaining its vibrance. Failure is dissipation.

I worked this out Wednesday night as I wrote this post, thinking about Sassower’s example of a failed, small-scale social movement – an experimental agrarian community. These are the farming communes to which frustrated Vancouver office workers retreat when the alienation of their corporate lives becomes too much for them.

That they go is a demonstration of their creative drive to develop a new way of life – a living demonstration that their old lives were obsolete. Not many get too far, though.

The utopian energy of their small group’s social uprising against the constraints and blandness of corporate life isn’t strong enough to overcome even their first challenge. When everyone arrives at the experimental farming commune and they realize that none of them know how to grow food.

Rising Tides Lift Only Boats That Can Pay for Maintenance, Research Time, 17/07/2018

So yes, the conception of prosperity as abundance has all those problems I talked about yesterday. Ultimately, the concept can’t escape the perennial problem in human history – the conflict of the powerful and powerless.

I'm wondering – Do they all have to wear the shirts?
Lords and peasants. Nouveau riche and factory boys. Oligarchs and Taskrabbits.

Society is always much more complex in all the dynamic processes and knit us all together, of course. But this question of distribution always comes up because of the disastrous results of extreme inequality. When so much of a civilization’s wealth is locked up and never returned to the market, there’s a mass slide into poverty.

When the bulk of a population slides into penury while a small elite become earthly gods from their extreme wealth, you have a potential revolution on your hands. Oligarchy’s survival mechanism is to bring all the counter-revolutionary powers of the state – both military and messaging – to bear.

The counter-revolutionary state is a fascist one, because its purpose is to suppress and deceive the desires of its people. That’s why such an important message in democratic organizing is “fight the real enemy.”

I was lecturing in my Business class today about how inadequate general measures of a country’s wealth – like Gross Domestic Product – are to understand how that economy actually functions. Pure aggregates of economic measurement collapse too many distinctions to make the world comprehensible. They measure nothing about how many people in that society are comfortable and who is not.

So what does the concept of prosperity as abundance show us? It does lead us, productively, to focus on the phenomenology of economic anxiety. Abundance is the image of the world’s perfection for the economically insecure.

It’s what you dream of as you weigh how much you can fill up your car today against how many groceries you can buy that week. Progressive political philosophy could use a few more phenomenological accounts of that state of consciousness.