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Guest Post - Politics: Ideology & Institutions

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.06.16

Nick S. writes: One of the things that's driven me crazy during the primary season was, roughly speaking, the fuzziness of the argument about the relative importance of ideology and political institutions. This discussion is never going to be precise because both elements are difficult to define, and the interaction between the two is hard to predict. But, broadly speaking, it's felt like Clinton supporters (myself included) have argued that Clinton was well positioned within the existing politics, and Sanders supporters have said (correctly) that the existing politics build in significant biases and that having a leader who represents a clear ideological break, would push for change and a new political direction.

Robert Reich famously said that Hilary Clinton would be a good president for the existing political system, but that Bernie Sanders would have a better chance of building, "the political system we need."

But it's hard to estimate the scale of that task; how much work would it take to build the political system that we need? A new article in Vox by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Theda Skocpol helps answer that question. Knowing that Republicans have been very successful in state and local politics they look at the institutions that support that success (emphasis mine).

How have right-wing political networks achieved such striking victories [at the state level]? Our ongoing research on the shifting US political terrain shows that the right's subnational success relies on complementary and reinforcing efforts by three key cross-state networks. These networks end up setting public agendas and shaping legislative choices:
The American Legislative Exchange Council, often called ALEC-- formed in 1973 as a means of uniting businesses, conservative activists, and state lawmakers -- is best known for drafting cookie-cutter, corporate-friendly "model bills" and disseminating them across state legislatures. ALEC also provides valuable services, including research assistance, expert witnesses, and talking points, to understaffed part-time legislators who would otherwise lack such resources. ... [It] claims as members nearly one-quarter of state lawmakers and several hundred private sector businesses and activists. ....
Conservative clout is further bolstered by a network of free market think tanks that was launched in 1986 as the Madison Group and is now called the State Policy Network. With at least one affiliate in each state, the State Policy Network coordinates research and advocacy related to many of the same policy priorities pursued by ALEC. State Policy Network affiliates produce research reports and media commentary that supports ALEC model legislation, and in many cases SPN affiliates also participate as dues-paying members in ALEC task forces and meetings.
The most recent addition ... Americans for Prosperity has expanded since 2004 into a nation-spanning federation comparable in size and resources to the Republican Party itself. Its current budget of about $150 million supports activities by some 500 paid staffers and about 2.5 million grassroots activists. Combining central direction from its Virginia headquarters with paid directors in close to three dozen states, Americans for Prosperity is well-positioned to orchestrate both legislative and electoral battles. Americans for Prosperity uses grassroots protests, lobbying, advertising buys, and local canvassing to help to elect far-right GOP politicians -- and then urges and prods those politicians to support the ultra-free market agendas promoted by ALEC and the State Policy Network.

That's a big block of text which is fairly dry and less interesting to read than most of the debates about politics (and then there are the political debates in the CrookedTimber comment sections which are just frustrating), but it's really useful information in that it gives a sense of the size of the hill to climb. For anybody wanting to see American politics move in a more progressive direction, those three organizations provide much of the weight that has to be moved. The medium- to long-term question is; what progressive forces or institutions will match that.

Heebie's take: Also gerrymandering! And gutted-VRA laws.


 

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Seinfeld update

Posted by Ben
on 08.05.16

This is funny and well done.


 

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Suburbia

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.04.16

We've stopped for a few days in upscale Denver suburbs. I have such conflicted feelings about suburbs whenever we're here. On the one hand, I have bog standard reverse snobbery and snootiness about the lack of anything of interest. On the other hand, I still feel jealous at all the rich suburban luxuries, because they really do make some parts of life easy: endless paths and parks and manicured green space. Community pools all over the place. Everyone has massive houses and basements and storage. There's a slight movie-set quality to this level of suburbia.

So much of it is the exact opposite of what the urban planners say you should do to make a community feel like a community. And yet, I'm sure the residents would snort at the idea that they weren't supposed to want exactly what they've got. I'm not even talking about environmental destruction - just the sheer tradeoff of interesting places with character versus pleasant, uninteresting but attractive convenience. A wealthy kind of trade-off to debate.


 

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Enjoli

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.04.16

There's every indication that this essay should be terrible, nevertheless I think it's actually good.

(The reason it should be terrible is that it's a write-what-you-know style essay by a person describing uninteresting aspects of UMC life. But still!)

(Also it's short.)


 

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Michael Barrett Conceptualizes The Nature Of His Duties Broadly

Posted by LizardBreath
on 08.04.16

He's the Director of the Missouri State Public Defender's office, which is in terrible trouble because of persistent underfunding: they simply can't pay enough attorneys to defend all the citizens in need of one. There is a provision in Missouri state law where the director can simply delegate a case to any member of the bar, unpaid (my guess is that the way it works is that accepting such cases is a condition of state bar membership), but Barrett has understandably been very reluctant to start doing this.

None the less, the situation is untenable. So Barrett wrote to Governor Jay Nixon, laying out Niixon's history of repeatedly cutting funding to the overburdened office, and finally proposing a solution, which I'll let him say for himself:

As of yet, I have not utilized [the provision of law allowing him to delegate cases to any member of the Missouri bar] because it is my sincere belief that it is wrong to reassign an obligation placed on the state by the 6th and 14th Amendments to private attorneys who have in no way contributed to the current crisis. However, given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief, it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it.

Therefore, pursuant to Section 600.042.5 and as Director of the Missouri State Public Defender System tasked with carrying out the State's obligation to ensure that poor people who face incarceration are afforded competent counsel in their defense, I hereby appoint you, Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Bar No. 29603, to enter your appearance as counsel of record in the attached case.


I like his style.


 

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There Won't Be Any More Kids Today!

Posted by Ogged
on 08.03.16

Not even humping. The quotes are so amazing I had to make sure it wasn't a Stephen Glass byline.


 

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This Will End Well

Posted by Ogged
on 08.02.16

Slatepitch: as has been noted, Trump is merely a more explicit Republican. The polity is polarized, and some kind of confrontation was unavoidable. The best case scenario for diffusing tensions is actually Donald Trump. He's a self-sabotaging buffoon who will not only lose, but also gin up some violence for the military that hates him to put down, thereby discrediting what will be known as Trumpism for at least a generation.


 

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Counterfactual History Says, "You Suck"

Posted by Ogged
on 08.02.16

I was reading this wacky story, and like any good Iranian, my thoughts turned to the perfidy of the House of Saud; specifically, taking a moment to contemplate the monumental scale of the fuckedupness that it is, when you consider that the proposition before them was basically this: you have effectively infinite money, what will you do? And the answer turned out to be, create a repressive, neo-slaveholding, decadent oligarchy that funds instability abroad, and will collapse the instant the wells run dry at home. Infinite money! They could have funded a mission to Mars, or eradicated malaria, and they bought Bentleys and cheetahs.


 

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This Will End Well

Posted by Ogged
on 08.01.16

 

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Deluge - Chapter 22

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.01.16

Chris Y writes:
Reinventing Communism

Tooze's thesis in this chapter is that the failure of the Communist International to expand the revolution beyond Russia was a key part of the story of postwar stabilisation. That much is undeniable, but I found his account of it unconvincing in some aspects.

By the beginning of 1919 the Russian revolution had survived its initial crisis, but Russia remained weak and isolated. At this point the First Congress of the Comintern remained focussed on Europe, and particularly on Germany, since the imminence of a German revolution had been central to Lenin's calculations in seizing power in the first place. Notwithstanding the defeat of the Spartacist revolt, the emergence of Soviet governments in Hungary and Bavaria kept expectations high, although both were crushed in short order. In Russia itself, the western support for the counter-revolution was half hearted, and in a bilateral agreement the Bolsheviks ceded substantial territories to Poland in exchange for Polish neutrality. By November the Red Army had the upper hand and Britain, the main financer of the white armies had had enough of throwing good money after bad.

However, the Polish strong man, Marshal Pilsudski now took the offensive in alliance with the Ukranian nationalists. Apparently Pilsudski had dreams of resurrecting the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and creating a cordon sanitaire with Ukraine from the Baltic to the Black Sea (I had not known this: the version of events taught here tends to suggest that Soviet aggression was unprovoked). However, the Polish/Ukrainian occupation of Kiev resulted in a backlash, because Russian nationalists were so appalled that they made common cause with the reds, retook Kiev, and joined the Red Army under Tukhachevsky in an invasion of Poland which was intended to join up with the German Communists and spark revolution across the continent.

Leaving the "miracle on the Vistula" (Spoiler: the Poles won) aside for a moment, Tooze return to the Comintern, which held its second Congress in the summer of 1920. He characterises this as chiefly concerning the "business of purifying the revolutionary forces of Europe"; this is partly true although the 21 Conditions of Admission to the Communist International adopted by it were in fact driven by the belief that the organisational qualifications for membership of a sometimes illegal agitational grouping which believed it was about to engage in civil war, had to be rigorous, even though they may appear unappealing in the 21st century. As Tooze has shown in previous chapters, Lenin did not deal in ideological purity for its own sake.

More controversial is Tooze' discussion of the 2nd Congress' policy towards Asia, in which he argues that the Indian Communist M.N.Roy proposed a Third Worldist perspective which Lenin largely adopted. In fact Roy wrote:

"... if over-production is to be the grave of capitalist society, then the World Revolution must assume world-wide character. And, behold, it is rapidly pushing its way into the confines of the Asiatic countries inhabited by industrially backward peoples, because therein lies the most vulnerable spot of the enemy line. The disruption of Empire is the only thing that will complete the bankruptcy of European capitalism; and the revolutionary upheavals in the Asiatic countries are destined to bring about the crumbling of the proud imperial structure of capitalism. So, the awakening of the East is perhaps the fifth act of the World Revolution."

It seems curious that Tooze, who announced in beginning his book that combined and uneven development was the key to understanding this period, fails to recognise it when it's invoked by someone active at the time. This is a globalist perspective, rather than Third Worldist. Sure, Roy was an Indian nationalist as well as a Communist, and it is obviously the case that the Communist movement later went off on a Third Worldist tangent, but here he was merely arguing to support anti-colonial movements so as to weaken the imperial powers at the centre, which was an imaginative application of an idea that Trotsky had developed about twenty years previously, hardly a great innovation. This is one reason why Trotsky, who was anything but a Third Worldist, retrospectively endorsed the first four Comintern Congresses as enthusiastically as he denounced the subsequent three. Lenin, we are told, thought initially that Communists in colonial countries should form united fronts with any anti-imperialist group on the ground, but was persuaded by Roy to restrict this to "revolutionary" groupings only. In fact this distinction was a dead letter from the get-go; Communists entered alliances with anybody who claimed anti-imperialist credentials, and often paid with their lives for doing so.

Theoretical quibbling aside, the Communists threw themselves into the fray in the belief that a general anti-British alliance could be constructed including the Afghan government, Enver Pasha's Pan-Turkic forces, and a Muslim anti-imperialist army to be raised and trained by Roy. In pursuit of this fantasy, the 11th Red Army occupied Azerbaijan in the spring of 1920 and used it as a base to strike into Iran. Tooze credits this to Stalin, although other sources suggest Ordzhonikidze. Whoever, they succeeded in expelling the British, together with the white General Deniken, who was there as a refugee, from the port of Anzali, and establishing the "Iranian Socialist Soviet Republic" in Gilan province, initially under the leadership of the secular republican guerrilla Mirza Kuchik Khan, and then, following a coup, his second in command Ehsanollah Khan Dustdar, a more reliable Communist. It lasted about fifteen months. In September 1920, Baku hosted a substantial Congress of the Peoples of the East, with delegates mostly drawn from the former Turkish and Persian empires, and presided over by Zinoviev, the Chair of the Comintern, but that was more or less as far as it went. The following year Lenin sent Enver to subdue an anti-Bolshevik rebellion in what is now Uzbekistan, but he defected and spent the next year until he was killed trying to pursue his Pan-Turkic dreams. Roy's military preparations were aborted, and he turned to organising an Indian Communist Party in exile.

Meanwhile on the other side of Russia, the invasion of Poland and Ukraine stalled. The Red Army was defeated on all fronts, and in March 1921, the Treaty of Riga re-established the Baltic borders envisioned by Brest-Litovsk. Belarus and Ukraine were partitioned between Russia and Poland. Frustrated in their attempts at expansion everywhere except the Caucasus, the Bolsheviks mopped up the residual military resistance in the areas they could control, and the following December consolidated these as the USSR. Further west, a last burst of militancy across Europe came to nothing, and the Soviet Union was left isolated as one (rather odd) state among many.

Tooze has argued already at length (Chapter 19) that the primary reason for the collapse of labour militancy in the developed world after 1920 was economic: the impact of deflation on employment and business in general. It's therefore unsurprising that the revolution was postponed beyond Lenin's original expectations, and that the Soviet Union had to hunker down and hope for better times. He analyses all this from two directions. Firstly he posits that the global organisational ambition of the Comintern was unprecedented in modern times, comparable only to the Catholic Church. This gave me a WTF moment. Certainly the Comintern had global ideological and organisational ambitions, but it lasted 24 years, and for two thirds of that it was a shell. Last I heard the Catholic Church had shown a bit more staying power. Outfits with global ambitions which last a generation or less are two a penny: the Macedonian Empire (ideology: merge Greek and Persian civilizations); the Mongol Empire (ideology: keep conquering stuff); Islam under the Rightly Guided Caliphs (ideology: probably what the Prophet had actually been saying); etc. Certainly the impact of the Communist movement on the history of the twentieth century was huge, but it was arguably not even the most important single factor, and in any event the periods in which its impact was greatest came after the International had to all intents and purposes been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Secondly, he reflects on the impact on ordinary activists of the narrowing perspectives as the window for revolution in the west apparently closed. There are two issues here. The simpler one is that the Soviet government evidently had no choice at this point but to deal as one state to another with some (other) extremely nasty regimes but the casualness with which they disregarded the survival of their fellow Communists living under those regimes was particularly pernicious. The other is the question of the refocussing of the Comintern's efforts on the support of the USSR during the reaction. Tooze makes much of the impact of this on activists even where they were not immediately endangered. But here I think he overstates his case. This was understood to be a pause, not a full stop in the revolutionary process, and in those circumstances the importance of the survival of the Soviet Union until the next upswing was self-evident to militants. It is well known that the Comintern later issued some party lines which were flat out bonkers, but, apart from the occasions when parties were asked to subordinate themselves to murderously anti-Communist nationalists, which, as noted above, was seriously fucked up, this wasn't really evident until the 6th Congress in 1928. At the first four Congresses there was still a surprising amount of open debate by later standards, and party members would have understood the issues.

Tooze returns to narrative mode to address the important Comintern intervention in China. The situation in China following the Washington Conference certainly appeared to offer grievances enough to provoke a revolution, but the Communist presence there was restricted to a small layer of the intelligentsia, who showed up on the international stage in 1922 at the Congress of the Toilers of the Far East, organised as a counter-Washington by the Comintern. While the Soviet government used China's renewed vulnerability to claw back some of the concessions they had made during the civil war, the Comintern- often the same people- told their comrades to go and propagandise among the workers. Later that year, the 4th Congress formulated "Theses on the Eastern Question" which included, as Tooze emphasises:

"The revolutionary movement in the backward countries of the East will not succeed unless it bases itself on the activity of the broad peasant masses. This is why the revolutionary parties in all the Eastern countries must formulate a clear agrarian programme that includes the demand for the complete overthrow of feudalism and its institutions. To draw the peasant masses into an active struggle for national liberation, revolutionaries must advocate a radical change in the basis of land ownership, and as far as possible must force the bourgeois-national parties to adopt this revolutionary agrarian programme."

but also this:

"The workers' movement in the colonial and semi-colonial countries must first of all establish itself as an independent revolutionary factor in the common anti-imperialist front. Only when its importance as an independent factor is recognised and its complete political autonomy secured can temporary agreements with bourgeois democracy be considered permissible or necessary. Similarly, the proletariat supports and advances such partial demands as an independent democratic republic, the abolition of all feudal rights and privileges, the introduction of women's rights, etc., in so far as it cannot, with the relation of forces as it exists at present, make the implementation of its soviet programme the immediate task of the day. At the same time the proletariat seeks to put forward slogans which further political links between the peasant and semi-proletarian masses and the workers' movement. Explaining to the broad working masses the need for unity with the international proletariat and the Soviet republics is one of the most important functions of the anti-imperialist united front. The colonial revolution can triumph and defend its gains only if accompanied by a proletarian revolution in the advanced countries."

Critically, the Comintern identified the KMT, then still led by Sun Yat-Sen, and a very different thing to what it became later, as the only serious revolutionary force in China, and redirected its energies towards it. Tooze doesn't go into it, but this was actually a very successful alliance until Sun's death in 1925, and actually resulted in a restored KMT government for a while. Sun and Lenin had a good understanding and while Sun was never remotely a Communist, he shared many of Lenin's views on development. Meanwhile, the Communists, in line with the 4th Congress theses, worked to agitate in the countryside as well as the cities, unfortunately recruiting Mao Zedong in the process. In 1923 the Comintern added a Peasant International to its roster of front organisations. Tooze makes much of the pro-peasant speeches made at its inauguration, but in fact it was of little significance, abandoned by the leadership after the turn to the Third Period in 1928, and formally wound up in 1939.

By way of a coda, Tooze returns to the economic disaster area that was the USSR. Aside from the appalling direct casualties of the civil war, the command economy that had been imposed during the it had resulted in mass abandonment of the cities and a reversion to subsistence farming in the countryside. In 1921, the Soviet government introduced the "New Economic Policy", which remonetised the economy and permitted private property and small business activity. Tooze associates this with the Kronstadt mutiny and its appalling repression, but it would have been necessary anyway. That autumn, harvests failed and actual famine was added to the list of catastrophes. The government sent Maxim Gorky to appeal for aid from the west, a move which Tooze regards as symbolic, but which really only proves that the Soviet leadership were not (yet?) completely insane.



 

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Metal S

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 07.31.16
I think he was on to something. Most nine-year-olds can't draw, so when someone hands them a magical recipe to create something fairly cool, on demand--that'll go viral. Especially when the shape has the sophisticated, mathematical lineage of a Moebius strip. Yes I'd learned the term ten minutes earlier, but whatever. Moebius strip.

IT'S NOT A MOEBIUS STRIP.


 

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