10. The Disturbing Neglect of the Alt-Right’s Misogyny

[A Note on My Notes: As usual, this piece has a few footnotes, for both sources and additional commentary. You can click on the superscript to skip down to the footnotes, and the back button to return. If you have a WordPress account, the black header bar will block the first line, but you can probably figure it out.]

The alt-right has only recently come into the national spotlight, due to their vocal support for the election of Donald Trump. While the movement has existed since the mid-2000s as a constellation of far-right communications on Internet message boards, the first mention of “alt-right” in The New York Times wasn’t until an op-ed at the very tail-end of 2015.  Discussion of their activities had previously been confined to small left fringes of the Internet. In this regard, I’ve benefitted from the deep knowledge of my close friend John Michael Colón (occasional guest poster here on the anti-fascist movement and universalist multiculturalism), who has studied the inner workings and ideologies of the alt-right and neoreactionary movements for years.

Since the summer of 2016, hot-takes on this loose social movement1 have been vaulted to the mainstream. A large subset of Americans now associate the movement with white nationalism or white supremacy.2 This is important; the white nationalist Richard Spencer coined the term as a euphemistic rebranding. However, I am deeply disturbed by the extent to which the alt-right’s hatred for women has received little to no public attention, with the movement reduced exclusively to its hatred for people of color. This is dangerous because it it serves to misrepresent the movement’s internal dynamics and sources of recruits. It also tacitly condones the most poisonous views on women’s place in society that I have ever been exposed to, perhaps second only to fucking ISIS.

Millions of readers of The Nation, Jezebel, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Daily Kos, and many others have been instructed to insist on terms like “neo-Nazi” and “white supremacist” rather than “alt-right.” The Los Angeles Times was torn to shreds on Twitter for calling this movement “alt-right” without neo-Nazi/white nationalist context. The New York Times, The Washington Press, The Associated Press, and NPR have issued guidelines to their writers to at least provide some degree of ideological context for the alt-right, clarifying that they traffic in white supremacist and antisemitic points of view (the latter two of these publications which make no mention of sexism whatsoever). These clarifications are important, but reducing the alt-right primarily to its racism is a serious problem.3 Even outside mainstream publications, there seems to be consensus that the white nationalism of the movement is to be brought front and center, while its vicious misogyny is not to be mentioned at all, or if so, as a mere footnote. For instance, the quite extraordinary and widely circulated reading list “The Complete Anti-Fascist Reading List” makes absolutely no mention of misogyny (although there are two articles about how some fascists are embracing queerness to further their racist goals).

Consider the following from Ian Allen’s piece in The Nation:

 The Alt Right is not a thing; it’s a number of things, all with white supremacy at their core. Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes far-right hate groups into 11 different categories: anti-immigration, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, anti-government, Christian identity, Holocaust denial, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, racist skinhead, and white nationalist.

“The word ‘Alt Right’ is repeated too much without a true understanding of the hate involved,” Heidi Beirich, who tracks far-right groups for SLPC’s Intelligence Project, told me. She is concerned that “the frequent use of the term is giving too much power to what is essentially just a rebranding of white supremacy—and the rebranding was done by white supremacists who know being called that is not good for their involvement in mainstream media.”

Note no mention of sexism; the alt-right is “just” white supremacy or white nationalism. Hate groups that hate women aren’t even a category for the SPLC.

Perhaps most unsettling to me was the one mainstream article I’ve come across that did discuss the role of virulent hatred for women in the alt-right: Vox’s piece “How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy.” It frames sexism as a sort of gateway drug to the “real” awfulness of the alt-right, its racism. As this author would have it, the most anti-feminist spaces on the Internet—pickup artist and “involuntary celibate” (“incel”) forums—are important for alienated young men to establish community, but also expose them to racial narratives seeking the restoration of white power.4 She describes how these online communities are populated by men who “wanted to get laid and gain self-confidence… [and] boost individual male autonomy” have “found themselves embroiled in a culture war”: as if the way in which these communities provide detailed instructions on how to abuse and sexually assault women were not some kind of culture war in itself.

In this piece, the author also framed the problem of anti-feminism as a sort of back-and-forth misunderstanding between two estranged camps, while the problem of politicizing white identity remains (rightly) a clear matter of right and wrong, of basic human rights and extremism.

Of course, many feminists frequently point out that gender stereotypes about men are unfair, harmful, and need dismantling, but feminists and men’s rights activists (commonly referred to as MRAs) rarely listen to each other. “Neither side seems to accurately assess its tribalism,” he said.” [quoting a one-time frequenter of the anti-feminist and often pro-rape subreddit r/TheRedPill]

While I’m not one to deny the boundary-drawing and toxicity of Tumblr feminism,™ this false equivalence is frankly disgusting. And whether this accurately represents the author’s views or is simply a rhetorical framing to make the piece accessible and acceptable to a broader audience, it reflects a widespread sensibility that the humanity of women remains an open question. “However, nested within the alt-right’s fight against SJWs is a flagrantly radical, white supremacist element,” the Vox author writes, as if by contrast there is nothing particularly extreme about striving to turn all women into sex slaves.

The problem, in essence, is that the moral legitimacy of feminism (the struggle for women’s equality as full human beings) is treated as somehow more up for debate than racial equality. And the way the media talks about the alt-right proves it.

So let’s set the record straight. Hatred for women runs through the entirety of the alt-right movement. And it fucking matters.

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The online cesspools of particularly heinous anti-feminism are broadly classified as the “manosphere.” There are a variety of subcultures within the manosphere with different focuses. They all share in common a conviction that the quest for equal rights for women has gone too far.

The men’s rights movement is one of the key nuclei of the new America fascism. Its most prominent outlet, A Voice for Men, once assembled a wiki platform for crowd-sourced doxxing, to list women who have raped men, murdered men, allegedly made false rape accusations, or expressed “anti-male bigotry,” along with their addresses and other personal information. Although now inactive, this wiki has been used to issue mass threats of rape and violence against women who speak up on the Internet. This is typical of the men’s rights movement. The alleged victimization of men under feminist society is fetishized, and retribution is secured through making credible threats of violence at “misandrist” individuals.

r/TheRedPill is another nexus of hatred and violence against women (A Voice for Men‘s online store is also called “The Red Pill”). “Red pillers” belong to a “pickup artist” (PUA) community where men provide instruction to other men on techniques to get women to sleep with them. These techniques generally resemble emotional abuse and frequently amount to rape advocacy, by providing specific guidance on how to force women into bed with bullying tactics and date rape substances. (This is the community the Vox article characterized as a space for men to boost their self-esteem.) Beyond rapey self-help guides, r/TheRedPill and related fora engage in widespread indoctrination into a bizarre ideology of domination and reductive evolutionary psychology. Red pillers promote the idea that “everything in the world boils down to sexual strategy”: men and women are engaged in a constant struggle for sexual release (by the former) and resource security (by the latter). Despite their protestations to the contrary, women at a biological level long to be dominated by men, and by pulling the wool from their own eyes, men can recognize this and learn to seduce just about any woman in the world. Hence the symbolism of “the red pill”—in The Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo a choice between a red pill, which will reveal the truth about his existence in the Matrix that he could not otherwise see, and a blue pill, which would return him to his former life of blissful ignorance.5 Men who understand this bastardized pseudo-psychology reach a higher state of enlightenment where they can have sex with whomever they want and live their lives by an ethic of self-confident domination of others. The fascist and Nietzschean roots of this ideology are fairly obvious, and it consistently feeds alienated young men into far-right politics.

A moderator for the subreddit r/TheRedPill endorsed Donald Trump precisely because he has been repeatedly accused of rape:

When somebody accuses a powerful or famous figure like Trump of “sexual assault,” I don’t look the other way. I don’t denounce them or their behavior. Instead I run towards them, because there is no truer signal which side somebody is on, than when they’re given a bogus accusation by the establishment. This is our beacon to find allies in the war. [bolded text from original post]

One prominent figure in this movement is a man known as “Roosh V” (real name Daryush Valizadeh). He runs a well-known pickup artist blog called Return of Kings, where he advocates and provides specialized techniques for abuse of vulnerable women with low self-esteems, blocks women and homosexuals from commenting, and articulates extremist right-wing views such as the belief that people on welfare ought to be exterminated. He has proposed the legalization of rape and has described in his many books acts of serial violence he has personally committed against women that meet every reasonable definition of rape. His followers have also discussed the formation of paramilitary organizations in Eastern Europe to fight for the sexual rights of men. Roosh V describes his ideology as “neomasculinity,” which:

…combines traditional beliefs, masculinity, and animal biology into one ideological system. It aims to aid men living in Westernized nations that lack qualities such as classical virtue, masculinity in males, femininity in females, and objectivity, especially concerning beauty ideals and human behavior. It also serves as an antidote for males who are being programmed to accept Western degeneracy, mindless consumerism, and immoral state authority.

If that isn’t a neo-fascist ideology, I don’t know what is.

Related to the Red Pill are those who identify as “incels,” or involuntary celibates, who consider their sexless status as a mark of their oppression in a woman-dominated society. By refusing to sleep with incels, women violate these men’s fundamental human rights to sexual satisfaction and erode the just social order of men’s power over female sexuality.

On the reverse end are “volcels,” or voluntary celibates, who have decided to forego sexual contact with women because of their essential manipulativeness and inferiority. Too many men have been destroyed by women, with their false rape accusations, emotional abuse, and desire for respect as human beings that men should take a woman-free path in life. This is also known as “Men Going Their Own Way” (MGTOW).

One pre-2016 instance where elements of the alt-right leapt into the popular discourse was a bizarre affair labeled “GamerGate.” In essence, a controversy around a game designer who allegedly initiated a romantic relationship with a gaming journalist in order to secure better reviews for her game degenerated into organized hordes of misogynistic trolls threatening women online with rape and murder. They organized under the banner of “ethics in gaming journalism.” It became a stew of sexual hatred and doxxing so toxic that it was booted from 4chan itself, whereupon the GamerGaters regrouped in the even more extreme 8chan. Milo Yiannopoulos himself championed the online movement as one of the most important cultural struggles of the far-right. He wrote in Breitbart:

GamerGate is remarkable—and attracts the interest of people like me—because it represents perhaps the first time in the last decade or more that a significant incursion has been made in the culture wars against guilt-mongerers, nannies, authoritarians and far-Left agitators.

Social media disasters like GamerGate have provided anti-feminist fascists hands-on training in digital collective action to subjugate women and people of color who dare to raise their voices online.

The men’s rights movement organization closest to classical fascist brownshirts are the Proud Boys. They were founded by Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of VICE News (since estranged) and professional asshole. He is known as the “father of hipsterdom” and has mused his pleasure that the Hipster remains a primarily white identity. McInnes has publicly denied that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery; defended The Bell Curve, a key text for contemporary white supremacy making pseudo-scientific claims that people of color are inherently mentally inferior to whites; and advocated a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States. He has also acquired additional fame and notoriety by writing for far-right publications like Taki’s Magazine, appearing regularly on Fox News, and getting his ass whupped in a debate with University of Miami School of Law Professor Mary Anne Franks while on a Huffington Post panel about masculinity.6  The Proud Boys are an organization with chapters across the Anglophone world with the mission of re-instilling white men’s pride in their manhood and in Western civilization. They explicitly identify as “Western chauvinists” and promote an anti-feminist paternalism centered on fatherhood. Proud Boys are ranked by three degrees, which are ascended through ridiculous frat-style initiation tests.7

These chapters have the potential to morph into proto-fascist shock troops, a phenomenon for which there is building evidence. McInnes was invited to speak at NYU by the College Republicans and arrived accompanied by a large group of Proud Boys who shielded him from anti-fascist protesters and sieg heiled the crowd (when surrounded by police, of course). They have engaged in controversial debates in their closed Facebook group over the degree to which their communications should remain private should they wish to escalate their activities. In the words of one Proud Boy, “If people truly want this to be more than a TGMS [The Gavin McInnes Show] fan club, people will need to think before they speak.” A friend of a friend, an anarchist organizer in New York City, has already been jumped by a band of Brooklyn Proud Boys, who surrounded him in the middle of the night and viciously beat him. As antifa organizations escalate their tactics in the Trump era, I think we can fully expect violence between Proud Boys and leftists to spill into everyday life.

These wings of the alt-right are all reactions to feminism and multiculturalism. And I find them just as terrifying as those who come to the movement primarily through a racialist lens—perhaps more so, as more women are raped and/or killed in hate crimes and intimate partner violence every year than the number of people of color ever lynched since the abolition of slavery. But as we’ll see, there are no clear demarcations between the alt-right’s misogyny and its white nationalism, nor is it sensible to attempt to draw lines, or even Venn diagrams, between the sexist alt-right and the racist alt-right.

Is it a diverse movement? (not demographically, obviously) Absolutely. But there remain broad cross-sections of commonality. I consider three to be the most central: white identity; desire to re-establish complete male power over women; and authoritarianism, social or political (typically both), as the heart of a vision of resurgent domination. These intersect to some extent across all wings of the movement in a mutually supportive fashion.

Consider Elliot Rodger, the young man who slaughtered six people in 2014 near the UC Santa Barbara campus. He went on a murderous rampage as vengeance for women refusing to sleep with a guy as sophisticated and good and kind as himself. He was driven primarily by rage at his status as an “incel.” The perceived injustice of that status was also fueled by his racism. Rodger was disgusted that women were willing to sleep with his “inferior” Asian roommates (who were his first victims) but not him. He himself is half-Asian, and his disgust at his racial status saturates his manifesto. He wrote that, “Women should not have the right to choose who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilised men of intelligence.” His understanding of “civilised” is quite clearly imagined around a racial hierarchy. His repulsion at the sex lives of non-whites, his all-encompassing comparative inadequacy, and his hatred for free women are inextricably intertwined.

Consider alt-right discourse surrounding the wave of group sexual assaults in Germany by young men reportedly of Middle Eastern and North African descent on New Year’s Eve last year. A variety of alt-right message boards across Reddit and 4chan were practically gleeful. Many of these alt-right subgroups conventionally range from acrobatic condonation of rape to its open celebration. But here was an opportunity to call out feminist hypocrisy for largely ignoring or even (in some subreddits) actively suppressing discussion of the attacks, for fear that the events would be used to stoke racist and Islamophobic fears. As many feminists later rightly pointed out, these fascists have no real desire to free women from sexual assault; they were only taking up this issue because it served as a bludgeon with which to accomplish their racist goals of halting refugee resettlement. But there is another layer to this. The alt-right see no inconsistency between striving to protect white women from dark-skinned rapists and silencing women abused by white men, precisely because their worldview is structured around placing white women under white men’s control. As I have written elsewhere, right-wing thinkers are often horrified at rape not as a violation of a human being but as violation of patriarchal honor principles. The alt-right brings a racial lens to this.8

They are driven by a need to preserve or restore their ownership of “their” women, which comes under threat by sexual invasion on their turf by non-white men. The white nationalist slogan “diversity is a codeword for white genocide” emerges from this terror that white women will bear the children of non-whites, thus gradually eradicating pure whites from the Earth. There are also two versions of the “14 Words.” There is the standard slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” but also the alternate form, more explicitly towards the end of preserving the white male’s control over white women: “Because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the earth.” The rights of homosexuals and the rights of women to control their reproduction are denied by fascists and white nationalists in this light: because it undermines patriarchal authority and thereby weakens the white nation through population decline and feminization of Western society’s male guardians.

Consider the viciousness of their trolling, which places them in direct discursive combat with the “SJWs” on matters of race and gender, through which their collective identity is constructed.

Consider the beloved alt-right slur “cuck.” It refers originally to a man with insufficient domination over his woman, such that she sleeps with other men behind his back. In practice and intent, it frequently also conveys a disgust for weak white men willing to submit to miscegenation and who are unwilling to use the force that is necessary to bring women and non-whites to heel.

Yes, white nationalism plays a major role in the alt-right movement, and we need to talk about the movement in a way that doesn’t obscure the fact that these guys are racist shitlords. But even more universal within the movement is toxic masculinity, and a deep hatred of women and the freedoms they’ve been able to claw back from male-dominated society. There exist self-identified alt-righters who are not in favor of a white ethno-state. There are virtually none who do not believe that women are fundamentally inferior beings. Liberal discourse’s failure to properly convey this fact is unacceptable and a dangerous abdication of the journalist’s duty.

I know I am somewhat alone on the Left in my conviction that patriarchy is a more devastating and intractable social force than white supremacy. Even if others disagree, we still need to acknowledge that misogyny is regularly ignored or subordinated to questions of racism—a matter around which there is considerably greater societal consensus, even if that is a consensus we totally fail to uphold—when condemning truly reprehensible social movements like the alt-right.



  1. I tend to call them a social movement rather than a political one because they broadly lacked political aims or strategy prior to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
  2. Though they probably can’t be counted on to differentiate these; there are important distinctions. I recommend this episode of Fresh Air for a clear and concise explanation.
  3. Considerably less usefully, ThinkProgress has decided to ban the term “alt-right” entirely, substituting “racist,” “white nationalist,” or “white supremacist.” Sexism, misogyny, and anti-feminism go unmentioned.
  4. As if white power ever truly went away.
  5. I’ve embarrassingly never seen The Matrix, but that’s what pop culture osmosis and Wikipedia is for.
  6. The full panel discussion is actually quite good, and relevant to this subject. On the panel, McInnes argued that feminism and liberation from household confinement have made women miserable, whereupon he was quickly dispatched by a law professor laughing at how dumb he is. Mary Anne Franks is a feminist legal scholar who is instrumental in passing “revenge porn” laws and who is a self-defense expert and Krav Maga instructor. In short, a goddamn hero.
  7. The first degree is reached by publicly declaring oneself a Proud Boy and a Western chauvinist and embracing the social consequences. The second degree is reached by having the shit beat out of you by five other guys until you can recite the names of five breakfast cereals. Allegedly, this is to develop “adrenaline control.” They also require you to quit masturbation. For the third degree, they must tattoo “Proud Boy” somewhere on their bodies. Yes, this is completely insane.
  8. I do not mean to characterize the alt-right as merely “traditional moral conservatism” plus racism. Their misogyny is often uniquely adapted to a post-sexual revolution context, where domination of women is advocated within a non-traditional/post-monogamist framework. Women-hating pickup artists trying to have sex with as many people as possible aren’t exactly the spitting image of Christian sexual morality. What remains unchanged across the evolving right wing is the fundamental sensibility that the place of women is to be dominated and controlled by strong men.

9. There Is No Paradox of Consent

[Another post from 2014 originally intended for Princeton’s feminist publication Equal Writes, which never really got off the ground. This was written in response to an article in the ever-reprehensible Princeton Tory, the campus student publication for far-right thought, propped up by a network of ultraconservative donors. They brand themselves as “a journal of conservative and moderate thought”; I’ve never once seen a piece that could be construed as “moderate,” and several trending into open social and political fascism.

Content warning: candid but non-graphic discussion of rape and sexual assault to follow]

Earlier in the fall, The Princeton Tory published a piece on rape, entitled “Rape Culture and the Paradox of Consent.” It is not a particularly comprehensible read, communicating primarily through word salads and comparisons to sex/rape spanning from coerced games of chess to consensual cannibalism, clowns in horror movies, and the Hitler oath. This, however, was not the typical anti-feminist ramble about the erosion of male rights to women’s bodies; it was an argument that resonated quite widely with Princeton’s Christian moral traditionalists grasping for a logic to frame patriarchal values in terms that are not (openly) anti-women. It was one that many feminists could ridicule for its absurdity but could not as readily pry apart or uproot. It remains an argument that draws upon and nourishes an ecology of views about sex that are destructive to both men and women and that remain an obstacle to any realizable vision of sexual justice.

I will spare readers of having to parse through Christian Say’s words, because despite its winding formulation the argument itself is quite basic. Rape culture cannot be effectively tackled by talking about consent, because if consent is the only metric of morally permissible sexual activity, then sex is meaningless. And if sex were meaningless, then rape would not be a big deal anyway. If we are to beat rape culture, we have to abandon the consent standard as our marker of sexual morality and instead reinstill sex with intrinsic value (implied to be those of reproduction-oriented monogamy). He writes, “To assume that all sexual acts are already morally permissible is to assume that there is nothing special about sex that might give it moral significance in its own right.”

The keystone of this argument is that the primary focus on consent renders sex a meaningless act. Without it, the entirety of the remaining case falls apart. My purposes here are not merely targeted demolition, however. This line of reasoning is not something that resulted from poor logic but from a series of destructive and pervasive underlying assumptions about sexuality.

I will agree with Say that sex matters. It is not the same as a backrub, a game of chess, or a wet willy (his analogies, not mine). The emotive connections forged between people evidenced in the brain chemistry of sex is testament enough to that. There are two basic reasons that come to mind why consent is elevated as the essential standard that this author is somehow incapable of grasping. This first is that, given sex’s significance and the complex, messy, and sometimes conflicting nature of the judgment to have it or not, the only people qualified to make that choice are those potentially involved in the act themselves. This is not a statement about the (in)significance of sex. It is a statement about the (in)ability of someone like their pastor, their parents, or their mansplaining congressman to make that decision for them. This is a matter of trusting people with the ownership of their bodies. Furthermore, this is in no way mutually exclusive with articulation of values about sex and about the question of whether, with whom, when, and how it should be had. The simple point is that the interpretation and application of those values is the sole object of the individual (or the pair of individuals, or the entire orgy of individuals) in question, hence the use of consent as the only acceptable universal standard.

The second reason is an important extension of the first, that bodily autonomy is an end in itself. Although we have a rather heterogenous culture in this country, usurpation of control over other’s (especially but not solely women’s) bodies is an American theme that extends everywhere from sexual commodification to chastity belt shaming. While I believe that sexual commodification is something that should be understood in conversation with anti-capitalist critique, as a particularly heinous form of alienation of labor, it can be put more simply that the entire industries of advertising, culture, pornography, and prostitution frequently place ownership of (mostly female) bodies in someone else’s hands. This is scarcely a desirable model of autonomy. Relatedly but conversely, most people in our society are taught to some degree to hate their bodies and their sexuality, which are associated with terms like “dirty,” “base,” or “obscene.” (The fact that the word “carnal” is understood to signify something bad is quite illustrative). For some people, therefore, casual sex may be personally empowering as a way to assert their freedom and enjoyment in opposition to this. The declaration of, “No, I choose this for me” can be a significant source of meaning, individual dignity, and confident self-possession. It is the affirmation of bodily integrity. To rape someone is to brutalize this.

I would invert Say’s assessment that when consent is the sole determinant of “morally permissible sex,” rape matters less. Rather, when sexuality is rigidly restricted by social norms (particularly male-centric norms), your sexuality and your body are scarcely yours to begin with. To have it torn away from you under those circumstances is less out of step with the everyday than if you live in a society that treats individual bodily autonomy as a fundamental value.

It simply does not follow that “my body, my choice” leads to the conclusion that sex is meaningless, and I furthermore adamantly insist on not conflating “casual” with “meaningless.” The fact that some people have more sex than others or with more people than others in no way implies that they think sex matters less, and to suggest such is self-righteous male condescension at its worst. For most adults, sexual expression is a central element of self-realization as a whole person, which leads to more enjoyable, fulfilling lives. This is healthiest in a culture whose sexual ethics are focused primarily on consent and bodily autonomy.

It would be a mistake for feminists to treat Say’s argument as the philosophical musings of the deranged Christian far-right. This is scarcely fringe. It is exactly the sort of thinking that leads ‘chaste,’ ‘upright’ people to shrug at sexual violence, with I-told-you-so-ish sentiments of “Well, they turned sex into a toy; it’s no wonder they got hurt.” In my experience, this is frequently paired with a darker sense of righteous retribution, of “no wonder” blurring into “they had it coming” for transgressing on the sexually acceptable (i.e. masculine prideful ownership and feminine deference within a monogamous framework). In short, this moral framework is an essential ally to rape culture.

The reason Christian Say is apparently horrified about rape is that it comes into conflict with monogamous honor principles. He approaches sexual morality exclusively through the framework of “permissibility,” a word used an almost absurd number of times. What has been violated, from the perspective of this system of thought, is not a human being, but patriarchal values about sex. Effectively responding to this worldview requires us to more effectively articulate the incredible significance of sexual self-determination, something that is an affront to both rape culture and to the monogamous absolutism articulated by Say. That sort of articulation requires more substantial cultural struggle than “Consent is sexy” sloganeering, which leaves space for patriarchal reactions like these, which do not care in the slightest about what is “sexy.”

Personally, what I find most offensive about the Tory article’s reasoning is the assumption that rape culture is somehow the product of the sexual revolution, that the supposed un-Christian meaninglessness of sex was what transformed rape from a rare but unequivocally condemned transgression into a more casual act of violence. The author states quite explicitly that the focus on consent at the expense of sex’s intrinsic value is “at the root of every aspect of rape culture.” This is framed as a break from a previous worldview of sex as relational.

Of course pre-1960s and pre-birth control sex was largely relational; it is just important that we do not forget that “relational” under patriarchy refers to “subjugator-subjugated relations.” In Western societies, historically, marriage has been a property relationship to solidify male control over offspring and inherited wealth. Even when marriage was consensual, the relationship was by no means a joining of two equals in sexual union. Rather, sex within marriage was simply (and frequently remains) another arena of domination.

Marital rape was not considered “rape,” legally or conventionally, until quite recently. Our own legal system in the United States drew extensively on English common law, in which Sir Matthew Hale’s posthumous publication in 1736 laid down quite firmly that husbands could not be guilty of rape against their wives because through marriage a woman “hath given up herself in this kind to her husband, which she cannot retract.” This was further strengthened by conservative Christian readings of 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, which is quite explicit that sexual availability to one’s spouse is a conjugal duty and not a matter of choice. The Pentateuch’s commentary on marriage is an even more primary source of matrimony as the extension of sex slavery into the family. Male rights over a woman form the very substance of the institution. In his piece, Say argued that the discourse of consent makes it very difficult to critique rape culture; I would argue that the discourse of marriage and its monopoly over sexuality made it impossible to critique rape culture.

In 1890, the anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote an open letter entitled “Sex Slavery” decrying the false choice left to women between prostitution and marriage, both of which condemned them to enslaved abuse at the hands of men. It reads:

And that is rape, where a man forces himself sexually upon a woman whether he is licensed by the marriage law to do it or not. And that is the vilest of all tyranny where a man compels the woman he says he loves, to endure the agony of bearing children that she does not want, and for whom, as is the rule rather than the exception, they cannot properly provide. It is worse than any other human oppression; it is fairly God-like! To the sexual tyrant there is no parallel upon earth; one must go to the skies to find a fiend who thrusts life upon his children only to starve and curse and outcast and damn them! And only through the marriage law is such tyranny possible.

Marriage is not an alternative to rape culture, and rape culture did not begin with sexual alternatives to marriage. The core of the problem has nothing to do with devaluing sex or divorcing it from monogamous commitment. It has to do with autonomy over one’s own body.

The first country in known history to have criminalized marital rape was the Soviet Union in 1922. In the United States, the gradual process of criminalizing marital rape did not even begin until the mid-1970s and was not illegal across the country until 1993. Sir Matthew Hale’s jurisprudence on the matter was not overturned in the UK until 1991. Given the unfortunate history of marriage across most of the world, I think I can declare with some confidence that the majority of rapes of the last thousand years have taken place within its confines. These husbands were not predominantly sexual libertines, nor did they understand sex to be “meaningless.” Their “ethical norms attached to sex” were instead a central element of their ownership of women. To speak as if rape culture stems from the weakening of these norms is to erase all of the sexual violence that has accompanied them.

This is not intended as a sweeping indictment of sexual abstinence, monogamy, or matrimony. None of these are unalterably instruments of male domination. Such sexual ethics only usurp the human right to bodily integrity when they are universalized, when they replace rather than inform an individual’s choice over their body. Redemption of these values is, I believe, possible but requires them to be decentered and embedded in a broader culture of consent and autonomy. We should talk about what sex means to us, just in a way that does not delegitimize but honors an individual’s right to choose. There is no “paradox of consent.”


8. Some Thoughts on College Syllabi and World Literature (Guest Post)

[Here is another guest post by my dear friend and comrade John Michael Colón, an anarchist and writer in New York City. This is one of the most beautiful short pieces of his that I’ve ever read.]

Students and faculty at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London recently started a drive to Decolonize Our Minds. They’ve criticized the traditional philosophy curriculum there as being racist because it’s so Eurocentric, and they are making plans to expand it so it includes philosophers from other parts of the world. Most pieces of journalism on the project have criticized it in hysterical tones, calling it political correctness gone mad and falsely claiming the goal is to remove European philosophers from the reading list entirely.

But this excellent piece of reporting and contemplation by Kenan Malik has done what nobody else has done: actually gone to the school and talked to people. In doing so it explores the complexities of the school’s imperial and colonial history, questions received narratives of the European Enlightenment in surprising ways, interviews some of the sharpest minds in contemporary philosophy and intellectual history, gives a short but excellent reading list, and in general airs out a beautiful and rich and nuanced conversation of the sort that’s been missing for forty years on this subject.

Far from engaging in tribalistic and reductive identity politics of the sort which is currently fashionable, the writer’s skeptical and philosophical approach gives us the first seeds of a real solution to a longstanding problem: how to create a humanities syllabus that reflects the wide geographic scope of our shared human history and the increasing reality of a single global culture without subordinating and reducing everything to a footnote in the history of the West.

I have long had thoughts on this question and have been thinking it through for years. I suspect I will be through to the end of my life. It is one of the great questions of the age. Here are some of my own thoughts to supplement the article.

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This is an older debate than most people realize. In the early 90s students at the University of California had a similar, more militant, and (I must confess) less well thought-out campaign to expand the general curriculum—not just that of specialist area studies departments devoted to the subject, which already existed—to include literature and philosophy from the Middle East, India, East Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The novelist and essayist Saul Bellow, a traditionalist and old fogey of the Western chauvinist variety, got picketed by these students. His reply has become a famous conservative touchstone in these debates: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? If he exists, I’d be glad to read him.”

The leftists denounced him (not inappropriately) as racist asshole. The right-wingers denounced the students (again, not always inappropriately) as little cultural dictators obsessed with shallow diversity over quality and intolerant of opposing views. The debate hasn’t really advanced since then. It doesn’t help that then as now, the “woke” identitarian brigades who most often speak in terms of “decolonizing our minds” from Eurocentrism, are almost totally illiterate in the non-European traditions they allude to. They neither know nor, I believe, care where to look for the actual roots of our shared world culture and heritage.

But what’s shocking to anyone who *is* at least passingly literate in the world’s cultures—and our numbers are few, we’re isolated, and we have very little institutional support or control over curricula—is not just the injustice of Bellow’s “Tolstoy of the Zulus” quip but its ignorance. For one thing, it’s badly formulated: the pre-colonial Zulus and Papuans would not have produced a realist or modernist novelist because they didn’t do novels, they have a rich oral tradition like Europe’s before writing. Bellow should have spoken instead of the Homer of the Zulus. And when you put it that way, it becomes immediately clear that they almost certainly do have one or perhaps several—and our knowledge and translations of them are currently locked away in some underfunded African Studies department, known to area specialists and kept from a potentially curious and always hungry reading public.

And so it is in many respects. To my shame I don’t know about Zulus, but in my own studies I have not only studied but been profoundly moved and shaped by literature from around the world, which I regard as being as important as the European literatures not out of political correctness but because their greatness and significance is simply obvious on the face of it when you read them. The non-Western world’s classics are not of simple anthropological interest—we shouldn’t value them because through them we can learn about the quaint thoughts and strange customs of alien and distant peoples. Rather, they are aesthetic and intellectual masterpieces which have no less claim to shaping our identities—your identity and mine, here and today—than the ancient Roman lawyers, the Elizabethan English poets, and the German idealist philosophers.

I am not saying this as an abstract intellectual statement. This isn’t fantastic idealism. It has been my life experience. You must try to understand the magnitude of what I’m saying. It isn’t that we need to learn about other cultures because we ought to—it’s that “our” own culture is intimately bound up with “other” cultures, and we, individually, are deprived by our ignorance of the world’s great traditions precisely because they are everyone’s traditions now. These books have shaped me as profoundly as any written by white men.

Consider for instance how the poetry and longform narrative of Eurasia begin not with the Greek epics but with the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Atrahasis, and other ancient Mesopotamian classics. These are works which, despite their distance from us in time and the alienness of the culture they embody, deal with a shocking directness and purity with so many of the most modern questions—the conflict of economic classes in society, the destruction of the ecology, even the social effects of labor-saving technologies—as well as with eternal questions of life and death, of friendship and love (even same-sex love!), of the passing of generations and our complex relationship to the natural world in all its mystery and sublimity. The tradition of lyric poetry in China and Japan epitomized by writers such as Basho and Li Bai—so influential to the modernist imagism of Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and William Carlos Williams—trained me to pay attention to the visual aspect of poetry as carefully as Shakespeare taught me to see its rhetoric and Baudelaire its symbolism, and created a whole new and globally important mode writing that uses simple juxtaposed images to indirectly conjure an atmosphere or suggest an emotion. Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji (which I adore despite the fact, I’ll confess to my embarrassment, I’ve only read small parts so far) is a gorgeous and multi-layered and intimate and shockingly psychological examination of Japanese society. It is not only one of the first prose narratives which can fairly be called a novel, but is also one of the earliest and most sublime examples of a surviving major work by a woman artist in the agricultural civilizations of the patriarchical and pre-industrial world. And the beautiful modern novels of Gabriel García Marquez, in their synthesis of European modernism with the oral storytelling traditions of Latin America, were the first time I connected the heritage of my parents with universal questions of modernity, colonialism, the erasure of history by its victors, as well as a lifelong model for writing which is clear and direct and true to the rhythms of daily life even as it engages with the deepest mysteries and flows in page-long sentences that rival the world’s great rivers in their scope and majesty and power.

In philosophy and the broader realm of ideas the record is no less clear. If anything it is more obvious, since achievements in general intellectualism build and depend upon each in ways that are more concrete and obvious than literary greatness.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi for instance is one of the most humane and brilliant in all of human history. His skeptical and non-teleological process philosophy (which we usually refer to by its Chinese religious appellation, “taoism”) is a model for us as we try to navigate a universe we now know has neither design nor purpose, for it teaches us not to think of things in the world in terms of static essences or fixed labels but as moments in a united process of directionless becoming. This is a similar position to that of the marginalized tradition in Western metaphysics which begins with Heraclitus and culminates in Hegel and Alfred North Whitehead, before becoming the common sense of much social science and even to an extent our current models in physics. The ethical and psychological dimensions of his thought, which are too extensive to get into, have literally changed my life and behavior, at least as much as any ethical philosophy can be expected to do. The Indian political theorist Kautilya wrote a book called the Arthashastra which is essentially Machiavelli and Adam Smith weaved seamlessly together and more than a thousand years early. A monumental—as in, literally quite enormous—book which weaves theory with practical advice and is rooted in long historical experience of the many independent polities of the ancient Indian subcontinent, Kautilya’s masterpiece is essentially a unified theory of politics, both on the practical level of how to run things effectively and the philosophical one of what one ought to direct one’s political efforts *towards*. This mature and deeply wise writer overcomes the usual division between cynicism and idealism in political thinking, and he can legitimately lay a very strong claim to having been the first person in the world to invent both economics and political science. The medieval Arabic historian and political philosopher Ibn Khaldoun has a similar and genuinely world-historical role, not just in his contributions to the history of his own people but in his revolutionary method of writing that history. A sort of missing link between Thucydides and Marx, Khaldoun’s analysis of the underlying structures of human societies, their class struggle, and the way economic factors and cultural norms shape individual human behavior moved historiography away from the useless chronicles of battles and kings which would pollute and debase historical thinking in Europe until well into the nineteenth century, and he can genuinely be said to be the progenitor of (like Kautilya) economics, sociology, anthropology, rigorous history, and social science more generally. WEB Dubois, the son of American slaves (does that make him a Western thinker or a non-Westerner?), was not just an activist or a famous black American but a major philosopher and social scientist—a great historian of the civil war, a theorist who was among the first to trace the history and origins of the invented concept of race, and a scholar who more than anyone else, black or white, was responsible for the importation of modern sociological techniques from Germany into the United States and thus the founding of that discipline in this country. The Trinidadan historian and intellectual CLR James not only wrote the greatest history of the Haitian Revolution in his classic the Black Jacobins, but tied it to broader trends in world history which frankly cannot be understood without it—whether it’s the way the genocidal monstrosity of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is inseparable from the rise of industrial Europe or how the revolutions of the modern period are inseparable from the colonial resistance to European imperialism.

And on and on and on it goes, across all the continents. I’ve only named a few favorites off the top of my head. But even these only reflect subject matters of interest to me in the humanities and social sciences. And even these are just from the world traditions I’ve familiarized myself with—I’m absolutely terrible on India and Africa, whose cultural traditions I’ve only just barely started to learn about. And above all I am limited to those works which have been translated, studied, and somewhat (badly) popularized in my native language.

Do you see the importance now of what I’m getting at? The obscenity of both the Western supremacist position and the philistine identity politics position on this question of literary canons is that both reveal a deep provincialism that believes you should stick to reading those texts that “belong” to “your” tradition. But as the son of Latino immigrants born and raised as a citizen of the United States I find myself (and I know this for a fact to be the case with others) in a position where I have no idea what belongs to me. This has led me to doubt the idea that anything belongs to anyone. Is Cervantes any more mine than anyone else’s, when I’ve never lived in his country? Is Walt Whitman any less mine—is Toni Morrison?—despite the color of my skin and the native language of my parents? Is it any less absurd to feel as attached to Confucius as I do to Plato, and to Spinoza far more than both, despite the fact that they come from three parts of the world which have had nothing to do with “my” ancestry for as many generations as I can trace back? Why do Germans and Brits and French people have an organic connection to ancient Greece and Rome anyway? The actual denizens of that civilization would have regarded their ancestors as distant and exotic as we regard the Japanese today. And so much the worse for us.

It had been my firm conviction for several years now that such fundamentally stupid opinions as that such a thing as a unified “Western culture” exists or that the art of non-European peoples should be segregated in specialist academic departments or that all cultural diffusion is “cultural appropriation” are superstitions, and furthermore, they are obstacles to the work of translation, popularization, and republication necessary to bring the world’s classics to people around the world and do justice to our understanding of our shared world culture. Philosophers and artists and the works they create do not belong to anyone—not the artists themselves, and certainly not the societies or ethnicities that produced them—because they belong to everyone. What we think of as separate cultures have all grown up together, have constantly influenced each other, have merged and split in bizarre ways, and cannot even be neatly defined at all in any consistent way. To say otherwise is to be illiterate of intellectual history and to spit in the face of that cosmopolitanism which is the only thing which can save us from the horrors of nationalism and ignorance.

In short, it’s our duty to see as our own the diverse and vast world culture we inhabit. Ideas are the most naturally communistic thing in the world and cannot be stopped from being spread and distorted except through the barbarism of erecting walls and burning books.

Culture is the common inheritance of the whole human race, or it’s nothing.


7. On Economic Criminality and the Opportunity Costs of Corporate Restraint

[During my junior year of college, in the spring of 2014, a band queer radicals calling themselves Praxis Axis threw together a performance arts demonstration/day of action, presenting a variety of demands to the university. This included a “guerrilla paper” swapped out for the student newspaper The Daily Princetonian and distributed around campus. Before the day of action, they solicited polemics from some students in far-left circles, myself included, for anonymous inclusion in their paper (though I played no role in organizing the event). I submitted the following under the pseudonym “The Lorax”—I’m the cheesiest person in the world, I know. So here’s to coming clean.]


On March 31, ExxonMobil released a report to its shareholders on “managing climate risk.” Although they were assured that ExxonMobil believes that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions” is “essential,” the report insisted that “all of ExxonMobil’s current hydrocarbon reserves will be needed, along with substantial future industry investments,” and that none of ExxonMobil’s existing petroleum reserves would become “stranded assets.”  A stranded asset is one that becomes non-performing (ceases to make money), which is recorded as a loss of profit.

opportunity cost of an economic decision: the economic value of the best alternative not selected, when an actor must choose between mutually exclusive options. The “cost” is incurred by not enjoying the benefit that would be had by another decision.

Gregory Mankiw, that guy who wrote your econ textbook, defines it succinctly as “whatever must be given up to obtain some item.”

ExxonMobil also announced that it replaced 103% of its 2013 production with new proven reserves. Oil reserve discoveries come faster than we can burn them. This expanding available supply of climate destabilization hovers around 2,800 gigatons worldwide: nearly five times what we could emit without guaranteeing ecological and geosystemic breakdown. Read: if we’re going to survive, four fifths of these reserves have to become stranded assets.

Think about how much money that is. I don’t even know. It doesn’t even matter. The technical term in corporate jargon is a shitload. It is, by ExxonMobil’s own implicit admission, worth far more than the survival of huge swaths of humanity that will perish with its burning.

No matter what happens, we will do everything we can to ensure it is extracted and burned, says the petro-capitalist through veiled speech. We can’t afford to not burn it. Do you have any idea how expensive that is? That will cost us trillions of dollars.

“Expensive” is a funny word to use. A word used like this all the time, by people from CEOs to free market ideologues to environmental economists. How much will it cost to halt catastrophic climate change? Can we (narrowly defined) afford to cut emissions? It would be just so expensive to shut down coal plants, pay workers more than starvation wages, use steel instead of depleted uranium in our tank shells, stop filling our rivers with poisons, abolish slavery…

What they mean by all of this is that they can’t afford to not drown island nations and coastal cities. (“They” being capitalists in exploitative, violent industries. Let’s not hide behind tamed and technicized euphemisms like “externalities”; when you cause suffering or death in pursuit of profit, that’s violence.) They can’t afford to not butcher the Amazon, to not accelerate the worst mass extinction event in 65 million years, to not spill mercury and arsenic and cadmium out into our soil, air, and water. They can’t afford to not kill children. They can’t afford to not kill the planet.

It’s not that they would become beggars in the street if they didn’t pull the carbon trigger. They can’t afford it because there’s just so much money to be had (read: to take) otherwise, and in a competitive market system, you’re shunted to the side when you leave profit on the table. The very idea that this could be framed as a cost is at first glance odd, then comical. Then it’s morally obscene.

I’m walking past you down a deserted alleyway.You’ve got a nice watch, probably a fat wallet, and I’ve got a handgun in waistband. It’s simply too expensive for me not to mug you. The opportunity cost is at least a couple hundred dollars, so what can a rational self-maximizer do?

I’m walking past you down a deserted alleyway. You’re a gorgeous woman walking alone. I value spontaneous sex with you at, say, $100. That’s twice the cash in my wallet. It’s too high of an opportunity cost for me not to rape you, so what can a rational self-maximizer do?

I own the sweltering Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan. The girls working here sometimes slip away for fresh air in the stairwell, meaning less profit tugged from their prematurely arthritic fingers. Blocking staircases is hazardous, but safety “costs” money. What can a rational self-maximizer do?

One hundred and forty-six people—including girls as young as 14—consequently burned to death or jumped from the windows to pavement ten stories below.

I’m the CEO of PetroChina, a corporation that is literally expelling indigenous peoples in Ecuador to drill for oil in the Amazon rainforest. I couldn’t afford to do otherwise. To not indulge in ecocide-genocide-all-rolled-into-one, to not take money I have the power to take, would be a monumental cost. And I can’t be expected to take a hit like that.

Why is this language “morally obscene”? What exactly is wrong with economic orthodoxy on the subject of what a “cost” is? Why is it so destructive to treat “don’t hurt people” as a loss, as some sort of deviation? Because it takes the bloody advance of force as its moral baseline. Because it assumes, at the bottom of all things, that might makes right.

When you consider how combatting climate change or halting egregious labor practices would be expensive, how you don’t want to make “sacrifices” for the environment, for human rights, for justice, stop. Invert. Try considering the fact that you don’t have the “right” to these things at all. You don’t have the “right” to cheap jeans cheapened by the exploitation of young women and children in southeast Asia. You don’t have the “right” to massacre forests, commit rape, or slaughter sentient creatures by the billions. You don’t have the “right” to automobiles, fancy Ivy League educations, Wall Street jobs, iPhones, etc. when they come to you through systemic exploitation and violence. Doing what’s right isn’t a “cost.” It’s the absence of abuse. It’s accepting that the powerful don’t have the right to steal, rape, and murder because they are powerful. And that ain’t charity, it’s justice.


6. Anti-Fascism Beyond Antifa (Guest Post)

[This is a guest post by my dear friend and comrade John Michael Colón, an anarchist and writer in New York City.]

The disturbances outside an event at NYU yesterday where there was a speech by Gavin McInnes—VICE co-founder and neofascist ideologue—have once again brought the anarchist antifascists or “antifa” into the national spotlight.

Who are these people who set fires and threw smokebombs at Milo’s appearance at UC Berkeley and pick fights with Trump supporters in the streets? Are they paid professional subversives in the service of shadowy forces, perhaps the liberal billionaire George Soros? Are they agent provocateurs sent by the fascists themselves or the cops to delegitimize peaceful protests against the far right and entrap leftists in criminal activities?

Well, no. They’re anarchists—usually penniless and disorganized, often very brave, sometimes very stupid. And whatever you may think of their tactics, this important piece of journalism by Nathan Tempey in Gothamist will help you understand a little better why they do what they do.

It is important to understand that, their protestations about free speech aside, people like Milo and McInnes are each in their own way a part of a real flesh-and-blood fascist revival. Their movement is avowedly anti-democratic, believes in the biological deficiency of “lesser” races and the natural submission of women, and would, if it were given the chance, utterly sweep away the civil liberties and meager economic gains of marginalized groups and the working class in the name of a masculininity-worshipping white supremacist nationalism. As the article gets into, MicInnes himself has written articles on all these topics from a fascist angle for far right publications such as Taki’s Magazine and VDARE, His gang, the Proud Boys, have committed unprovoked assaults on journalists and activists, including one of my own friends.

This is the violence which antifas are responding to in kind and refusing to give a platform to. The factions of which Milo and McInnes are a part (like the fascists of the 1930s) have never hesitated in joining up with the militarized police and the capitalist class in crushing the movement for real, radical democracy that was rejuvenated in this country in 2011 and continues to this day. It’s no coincidence they’ve hitched their cart behind an oligarch rapist president and his cabinet of billionaires. Their opposition to “the elite” is skin deep, as is their commitment to the democratic principles they invoke when under attack—liberal ideals they’d dispense with utterly if it furthered their fundamental goals of restoring “traditional values” and the white ethnic/cultural integrity of the country. The article gets into the long history of the antifascist struggle and the proud role of anarchists in forwarding it.

All that said—and it must be said, for the benefit of those liberals too arrogant to listen for years to warnings of the coming far right tide—there is no doubt that antifas can be blisteringly stupid. It’s long been an inconvenient truth that the violence of antifa events and other actions such as black blocs often attracts irresponsible thrill-seekers and nihilists (and, yes, occasionally, agent provocateurs) who are more interested in smashing a window or a face than in being strategic or thinking about how their actions affect the big picture. In the case of the recent Milo protests, especially—where there are reports that antifas largely undercut the more peaceful student-organized without really coordinating with them at all—antifas may have done more harm than good to their own antifascist cause.

This is for three reasons.

The first is that violent actions like these, whatever good they accomplish, create an excuse for fascist government suppression of dissent—potentially bringing down the heat not just on antifas but on the whole radical democracy movement. As the article notes, it was a young leftist communist setting the Reichstag on fire which gave Hitler his immediate justification for a purge of the whole Left. Similarly, I’d add, the first authoritarian purges of the Left in this country, the Palmer Raids, had as their immediate justification a string of very stupid anarchist bombings (which many anarchists and other leftists at the time weren’t so keen on—though they got deported and imprisoned just the same).

Second, there is a logic of escalation created by these acts of violence. Already we’ve seen evidence of this: an IWW and antifascist activist in Seattle was shot at a Milo protest a few weeks ago, and today’s shooting at the Red Emma’s anarchist bookstore in Baltimore may also have had a political motive. It’s bad news even if the government doesn’t crack down on dissent. These reprisals hint at the not-so-distant possibility of right-wing paramilitaries doing the job a Trump government might not be able to get away with itself, possibly with government approval. And the brute fact is this: if civil order and liberal society break down and there’s a shooting war with the far right, it’s they who have the training and the weapons and the ex-military supplies and the numbers, not the Left. And the public’s sympathy for radical antifascists in a situation where they’re gunned down or thrown out of helicopters with relative impunity is anything but guaranteed.

Last, and most importantly: the usual argument for antifa tactics is that letting them speak in the open without opposition will embolden their movement and help them grow; even Hitler himself, after all, famously said his movement could have been crushed with a decisive burst of violence when they were still marginalized. This may well have been the case at some stage, or with past fascist movements in different situations. I’m unconvinced it’s the case now.

This is crucial and warrants being examined at length. I believe that far from being good for propaganda purposes, the violence of antifas may well be playing into the propaganda line precisely of the fascists themselves. After all, much of today’s neofascism grows not just through a classic narrative of white supremacism and masculine imperial glory but through self-victimization—their story about themselves is that they are sad, broken people precisely because feminism and multiculturalism and other leftist (sometimes Jewish) evils have corroded the traditional values and organic social ties by which they could have become something besides losers. This fetishization of being on the margins—and their propagandizing towards social outcasts—means that what “emboldens” fascism and what “crushes” it may be very different from what the antifas suppose.

When Milo says, “The Left has to censor me because they’re afraid, they have no arguments against my brutal inconvenient truths,” and the antifas attack his speaking arrangements without addressing his propaganda at all (“I’m done arguing,” “It’s not my job to explain things to you,” “Their views are obviously wrong,” etc), very often the result actually backfires and both Milo and his ideas grow in their popularity. His book is now on the Amazon bestseller list, and the feeds of many apolitical and conservative and even liberal people are full of disgusted reactions to videos of antifas beating unconscious dudes wearing Trump hats with metal rods. It’s impossible to prove this definitively, but those of us who have been monitoring fascist activity for years have often noted that the Left’s unwillingness to engage with the frankly not terribly impressive arguments for the far right and its softness on free speech issues actually feed a lot of the resentment that drives neutral observers into the alt-right orbit.

I think serious antifascists, whether they’re down with antifa tactics or not, have to make a strident effort to go beyond the narrow-minded and reckless notion that you can suppress these ideas by force. That’s something I’m personally only rarely okay with in principle, depending on the immediate danger presented by the situation and kind of force used—but whether censorship and violence are ever okay or not in principle, I think I’ve made a good argument as to why in this case it’s not working and potentially very dangerous to the Left itself. Trump’s base of support is about a third of the country, and persuasion is going to have to play some role in moving enough of a critical mass of those people away from fascism to make the movement marginal again. In my view antifas, black blockers, and other radicals willing to employ more militant streetfighting tactics should limit these to cases when it’s absolutely necessary (immediate cases of self-defense seem to me like the most likely instance) and will “play well” with a neutral audience. At the very least they ought to coordinate with other socialists and protesters, for instance the the way more responsible black blocs have done in the past in places like Montreal, so as not to co-opt or bring the heat down on their own movements.

More importantly, comrades who are down with antifa should make at least as much of an effort to be intellectual warriors for the cause, and actually learn a thing or two about sociology and anthropology and evolutionary biology and economics to explain such things as why race doesn’t actually exist, why multicultural societies are possible and necessary, why the biology of sex doesn’t place hard limits on gender equality and sexual freedom that trap us in traditional family structures as the only ones that “work” for society, etc. Because if when presented with these questions you stutter and fume and have nothing coherent to say, it will look to an observer like you’re too ignorant of the facts and afraid of the potential consequences for your ideology to actually make a reasoned argument for your position—that, in other words, Milo and his ilk were right about you after all. And that’s no way of helping anybody.


5. Reasonable Precautions

[This piece was written in the spring of 2014 for an attempted restart of Princeton’s feminist student publication Equal Writes. Unfortunately, we didn’t get enough writers to actually launch, so I have all of these feminist rants lying around that never got any circulation, which I may post here from time to time. A somewhat sloppily abridged version of this piece was published in The Princeton Progressive for their first print issue. The context for this piece was that Susan Patton (the “Princeton Mom”) was all up in the news for various idiot rants about how college women need to tie down a man ASAP, how they lose their value if they sleep with those guys too soon, and how it’s at least partially their fault if they get raped while intoxicated. Generally infuriating stuff. Thankfully, we don’t hear much from her anymore. Even so, the argument made below is still unfortunately relevant. Content warning: non-graphic but frank discussion of rape and sexual assault.]

Patton-bashing has become far too easy a pastime. There is, to put it mildly, a lot of material. So rather than focusing on her specifically, I only wish to use her as an illustration of a particular sentiment that is not just limited to a group of “blast from the past, ’50s edition” social reactionaries, but is widespread even among the most well-meaning liberals and self-proclaimed pragmatists.

Susan Patton, as was widely (that is, excessively) publicized, has been rather vocal about her opinion that women who are sexually assaulted while heavily intoxicated or while dressed suggestively bear some (perhaps much) of the responsibility for the assault because of how their choices led to that outcome. This has been condemned by pretty much everyone, including the Daily Princetonian editorial board, the Daily Show, and what looked like half the Princeton faculty. I feel no need to regurgitate their important arguments that such sentiments are victim-blaming or contribute to a culture where it is difficult to prevent sexual assault from happening. More interesting, in my opinion, was the dissent from the Daily Princetonian editorial written by Zach Horton and Sergio Leos.

Their read of the argument, with Patton’s sensationalist rhetoric cut away, is that this is not a matter of guilt or blame, but of common sense. “Rape prevention strategies” such as sobriety and conservative dress are simply pragmatic ways to deal with the hazards of being a woman. This is not an exceptionally monstrous argument. There are many decent, progressive people who very much want rape to end who accept this basic wisdom. Of course it isn’t a woman’s fault, flows this view’s logic, but we should be practical as well. Not drinking or flirting when there are people around who might take advantage of you is just a “reasonable precaution.”

There is a single word that sums up everything that is wrong, misguided, and toxic with the “reasonable precautions” approach to sexual violence: depoliticization.

The political nature of rape is quite straightforward. Rapes are political in that they come from a sense of entitlement to another person’s body and to a position of power and control. Decades of sociological and psychological research have determined that rape is not an act committed out of hunger for sex but out of hunger for power. Sex is simply the mediating context for the infliction of that power. Serbian troops who raped Bosnian women with rifles did not do so because they were men who wanted sexual release. Lesbians being “cured” by “corrective rape” in South Africa are not attacked because men want sex and are stronger and take it: these attacks are inflicted upon women because their behavior does not conform to the standards required by male supremacists. Due to the sexual violence of our prison system, we may now live in the first society in the history of the world where men are raped as frequently as women, and prison rapes do not happen with such frequency because there are so many horny gay men behind bars. Prison rape serves to enforce hierarchies, as a weapon of social control. Rape is not sex that is violence, but violence that is sexual. Furthermore, rape as an assertion of individualized power takes place within the confines of a much larger hierarchy, whereby an entire class of human beings (men) holds power over another (women). Rape is political because it is an expression of power on the personal level that functions to maintain power at a societal level.1

Obviously, not everyone committing these acts recognizes that they are political. An unsolicited grope or a roofie tablet are rarely preceded by reflective, premeditated, conscious intent to maintain an oppressive social order. But neither did every person who spat at a black person or attended a minstrel show or called someone a nigger have conscious, political intent to maintain such hierarchies. Neither often do men who use misogynistic humor to defend themselves from sexual equality or watch violent pornography that eroticizes female subordination or call women sluts. This does not make such things any less about politics. To the contrary, it is of primary political importance for racist and sexist perpetrators to not recognize the politicality of their behavior, to be convinced that the systems of hierarchy they are defending is the natural order.

Imagine if one out of every five black people in the United States was a victim of a lynching, beating, or other racial attack by American whites. It would be a national crisis of violent white supremacy (one that people who think like Horton and Leos would probably describe as a problem of “crime at the hands of morally depraved whites,” to paraphrase their editorial dissent). To fall back on an imperfect but useful analogy, rape (roughly speaking) does for patriarchy what lynching did for white supremacy. Like white violence, rape works to keep all women in a state of intimidation and fear. Whether unconsciously or consciously, rape functions as a psychological weapon. In all other contexts, we have a word for this. It is called terrorism.

My point here is not that drunk guys who have sex with people who don’t want it are terrorists, at least not really. It is that even when we are not talking about an explicitly political situation steeped in terrorist violence—say, Pinochet’s secret police training their dogs to rape political prisoners—sexual assault from public buses in India to an eating club bathroom works to keep women in fear, with the consequence that sexual hierarchy stays intact.

This brings us back to the friendly advice offered by pragmatists who just think women ought to take “reasonable precautions.” By adopting the “women, change your behavior so you don’t get raped” framework, we depoliticize rape while playing precisely into the hands of its politicality: women’s behavior kept under male control, enforced by the threat of violence. Don’t walk alone, because you need to have a man you trust to protect you. Don’t get drunk, because you must remember your place in a world where any vulnerability is an invitation for attack. Don’t wear a short skirt like that, because your body is not your own.

If we were to transfer Susan Patton, these nice liberals, the dissenting voices of the Daily Princetonian editorial board, and all of their “realist advice” back to the 1920s, I imagine they would advise blacks under Jim Crow to always be polite and display deference when in the company of whites, to never smile at a white woman if you were a black man, to keep your eyes down at all times. Even worse, this advice would be devoid of any politicality. It might even be clad in a narrative of normalization, implying throughout that this is simply nature, that white people cannot really help themselves and are simply programmed to burst into frenzies of premeditated and carefully calculated murder of blacks who were stupid enough to forget their place, blacks who therefore “bear a certain responsibility for the consequences they faced.” Worst of all, this “advice” serves the purpose of further enforcement of white supremacy: by placing the burden for containing white violence on blacks, it reproduces the dynamics of black submission to white force. The only way out, apparently, is through subservience, which is all white supremacy wanted in the first place.

I do not want to be interpreted as saying women should reject “reasonable precautions” by drinking maximally and dressing minimally. I am saying that women should be able to do whatever the hell they want. I am saying that adopting such “precautions” comes with a tradeoff of playing straight into the demands of patriarchy and rape culture (whatever happened to not negotiating with terrorists?) in exchange for whatever semblance of personal safety that obedience provides. There are ways that women can protect themselves that more closely resemble fighting back than submitting. Organizing together to watch out for each other is one. Pepper spray is another. But I have no right to tell women how to make that decision because I myself do not have to plan my nights out with considerations made for my personal safety. I can walk alone in cities at night without fearing that I will be attacked because of what is between my legs. I have never had to pay any serious attention to the possibility that I may become that one in five. Without knowing what that feels like, I cannot say whether taking “reasonable precautions” for self-preservation makes sense.

But I do question whether it’s worth it.



  1. 2017 addition to this piece: Rebecca Solnit offers a definition of rape culture in Men Explain Things to Me (which I only just now got around to reading, I strongly recommend it if you haven’t yet) that understands the broad social effects of rape in similar terms.

    “Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape culture affects every woman. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape.”


4. Dealing with the Deranged Left?

[A Note on My Notes: This piece has a few footnotes, for both sources and additional commentary. You can click on the superscript to skip down to the footnotes, and the back button to return. For some reason I can’t figure out, footnote 4 doesn’t work as a link so just scroll down or something. If you have a WordPress account, the black header bar will block the first line, but you can probably figure it out.]

On Monday, I attended Detroit’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rally and march to rep for the Motor City Freedom Riders, the organization I work with building bus rider power. The event began in Central United Methodist in downtown as a pew-seated rally. At the door, people passed out materials and leaflets and such. The People’s Tribune—enthusiastic, irate, and breathless as ever—was of course thrust into our hands, but more important to the content of the MLK Day gathering were the event fliers for upcoming anti-Trump events and classes on (for example) “Lenin and the National Question,” sponsored by the Workers World Party.

While the speakers at the event were for the most part superb and addressed everything from the parallel water crises afflicting poor communities in Detroit and Flint to Wayne County’s wave of tax foreclosures, the rally was certainly a mixed bag. Mildly concerning hints of ultra-left posturing were scattered throughout, but it came to a head with the final speech at the rally, which left me feeling physically ill. A young man stepped up to the mike to give a speech on Syria and Western imperialism.

He made the case that Western powers have colluded with media establishments to spread a false narrative about a brutal dictator slaughtering Syrian civilians to justify American military intervention on humanitarian grounds. “This is,” he said, “the same Western mainstream media that told us there were WMDs in Iraq.” The truth, his counter-narrative says, is that the forces of global imperialism have unleashed a wave of reactionary jihadis against a progressive, secular nation that is valiantly defending its autonomy. He described Syria as “the last independent Arab state in the world,”1 struggling against all odds to preserve that independence. The West is, he declared, aligned against the people of Syria and their government, in a glaring example of colonialism alive and well today: “If the United States and its allies succeed in bringing Syria to its knees, this will be a blow to oppressed people across the world.” Implicit in his presentation of the conflict is a complete erasure of the Arab Spring as a revolutionary democratic movement.

Protesting in the streets against a totalitarian regime is Western imperialism; gunning those protesters down is anti-colonial resistance and struggle for self-determination.

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

This is the official Syria position of the Workers World Party, a Marxist-Leninist organization with chapters across the country, running candidates in multiple races in every election.

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I am not going to spend enough time going over the extraordinarily complex situation in Syria to do it any justice. The available numbers do speak volumes, however. Between the outbreak of pro-democracy protests in March 2011 and November 2016, 93% of all civilians killed in the conflict have been killed by Syrian government forces or their Russian allies. The remaining 7% are divided among the various moderate/democratic armed forces, jihadist opposition groups, Kurdish forces, and ISIS.2 The war began because protesters inspired by the revolutionary upheavals of Tunisia and Egypt came out into the streets to call for the end of the neoliberalism and authoritarianism of the Assad regime, where they were slaughtered in cold blood by Assad’s armed forces. Despite insane claims that Assad is an “elected” leader,3 he rules with virtually no Sunni support (a demographic  that composes 70-75% of the Syrian population). He has maintained his grip on power with a constant flow of weapons from Russia, China, and Iran, which see his regime as an essential regional puppet. This is not a matter of a plucky anti-colonial holdout withstanding the machinations of the big bad West, but of a popular revolution tragically devolving into an international proxy war.

Those on the Left often have difficulty with occupying positions of ambiguity about complex situations—which the Syrian Civil War necessarily demands of us. This particular instance, with communists attempting to force the situation into the boxes of “good liberators” and “bad imperialists,” is the most deranged extension of this tendency. We so often spend more mental effort attempting to sort political actors into good/woke/comrade status or bad/reactionary/enemy status than of assessing our collective situation and developing a strategic, winning response. Part of radicalism is often about positioning oneself in opposition to everything, and I understand the urge for people like members of Workers World to pretend that they have a clear solution to the conflict which the United States is obstructing. But this also leads to an insane conclusion. No matter how many people you get to chant “The only road to peace: US OUT OF THE MIDDLE EAST,” the Syrian people will not stop suffering if the US stops dropping bombs and financing jihadi organizations.

There are a range of dissenting opinions on the situation in Syria, and we should be able to debate these in good faith. One can maintain a position of support for democratic revolution against the regime while being wary of military intervention by an imperial power with a history of using humanitarianism as a pretext for achieving its geopolitical interests. One can want the war to end at all costs and recognize that Assad’s government is the only one that can possibly make that happen. But I’m not going to pretend that an ardent and uncritical supporter of a merciless dictator butchering children with sarin gas and barrel bombs can ever be my comrade on questions of peace and human rights.

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This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade is a major annual event in Detroit, and has been for thirteen years. The emcee for the rally was a Workers World organizer. The speaker on Syria (who also led the chants in the march itself) was a Workers World organizer. Presumably a number of others running the event were as well. The Detroit MLK Day Committee’s listed address is the address for the headquarters of Workers World Party Michigan. As far as I can tell, this major event and its program are primarily of their creation.

Despite Freddie deBoer’s protestations that the specter of a “pro-Assad Left” is nothing more than warhawk libel to smear principled anti-war activism,4 this position – that the Syrian Revolution was no revolution, but an imperialist assault on Arab socialism – has become dominant in far left organizations across the United States. And this lunatic fringe of the socialist left has positioned itself as the center of anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggle in multiple cities, including Detroit.

What is particularly bizarre about deBoer’s analysis and the pro-Assad “anti-imperialism” of Workers World and “independent journalists” like Rania Khalek (in reality just support for Russian and Chinese imperialism) is that this much anticipated “humanitarian intervention” is never coming. Clinton lost. The outcome of the Syrian Civil War became a foregone conclusion on November 8. The United States will partner with Russia in fighting ISIS while halting all support for our proxy forces fighting Assad, as joint Russian and Syrian regime forces systematically slaughter all remaining holdouts of opposition support. The revolution has failed, and so have American imperial ambitions to oust the last Ba’athist.

The rally speaker acknowledged and then quickly dismissed this very basic fact. He was convinced that such an intervention is still assured because Trump (the incoming Commander-in-Chief of the American military) would lack the power to reign in the unstoppable militarism of the deep state. This makes absolutely no sense, but it’s unclear when this disconnect between reality and “anti-imperialist” analysis of Syria will come to a head.

This disconnect from reality is sustained by the insularity of ultra-left discourse on war and peace. The role of “fake news” in crafting far-right narratives has been widely discussed in liberal circles over the past several months. Less acknowledged is a similar dynamic on the far left. The label “mainstream media” (often prefaced by “Western” for ultra-leftists) renders a source of information illegitimate for many conservatives and communists, in a manner that divorces “truth” from any attempted objective standard, thereby substituting the nonsense ramblings of ideologues and conspiracy theorists for factual reporting. This allows them to dismiss all information contradicting their narrative. There is no threshold of evidence sufficient to convince someone ensnared in such a discourse. For the Assadist far left, echo chambers cultivated by outlets like World Socialist Web Site, /r/antiwar, and Counterpunch drive this process, facilitated by a well-resourced alternate narrative disseminated in Syrian and Russian state media (itself transparently propaganda). The crux of this impregnable fake news discourse is the comparison to the media’s cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq – a comparison that fails at a very basic level. The misinformation that brought us to invade Iraq was not invented by journalists; their failure was in accepting the Bush administration’s “intelligence” uncritically. It is much harder to argue that the widely documented atrocities of the Assad regimes are pure inventions. This is not to say that capitalist media conglomerates are objective sources of information, but that we can hold ourselves to high standards of evidence and rigor to answer their distortions.

One would think that a crisis as complex and heart-wrenching as the Syrian Civil War would force people on the Left to embrace a nuanced geopolitical analysis. Instead, it appears to have driven many completely insane.

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Whether or not to collaborate with Workers World in any capacity has been an ongoing debate in Detroit’s Jacobin Reading Group. Several of the older members who have interacted with Workers World in the past have declared that they will under no circumstances attend their events or work with them in any way. But with the imminent need for rapid response networks for anti-hate crime work and immigrant defense (and the speed with which Workers World has been able to assemble such a network), others feel a pressure to engage as an intelligent response to a state of emergency. In a discussion over dinner this past weekend, one of my comrades said, “We shouldn’t have to agree with someone on everything to join forces on matters where we do agree. If they try to pull me into the North Korea stuff, I’ll say ‘Hell no.’ But we can’t afford to shut them out, not right now.”5

Usually, I agree. My philosophy on things like this is the Alinsky mantra of “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies.” But with openly authoritarian ultra-left organizations like the Workers World Party, I think it’s simply more complicated than that.

First, their authoritarianism cannot be just neatly compartmentalized into their “foreign policy.” (How Workers World is typically discussed is “they’re fine except they have a crazy foreign policy.) An organization that proudly declares its solidarity with totalitarian regimes clearly has a comfortable relationship with authoritarianism. This necessarily influences their organizing work and how they conceive of social transformation and revolution. I have no direct experience with their organizing, but I can’t imagine this makes for a very good movement-building partnership.

Second, this organizing work is an opportunity for them to build their power and influence. It’s hard to say “I’m only going to work with you on immigrant defense” if that collaboration raises their platform and their profile from which to spew tankie propaganda.6 The Michigan Coalition for Human Rights and other groups which involved Workers World in organizing the MLK Day rally may have seen them as allies with respect to racial and economic justice, but they also provided them with a platform to disseminate misinformation and propaganda, unopposed, about the most devastating humanitarian crisis since the Rwandan genocide to a large audience likely filled with many people with little understanding of its particulars. If we as individuals join their organizing efforts on their terms, we grow their power and thereby indirectly spread their message that the desired alternative to capitalism and imperialism is not democracy and communalism, but mass-murdering dictatorships.

Third, this is poor strategy. It is fundamentally discrediting to anti-war, anti-capitalist movements if they champion the most reprehensible governments on the planet. Getting working-class people to associate the struggle for socialism with the Assad regime is only going to damage the cause in the long run. Imagine Fox News or The Detroit News getting to put “pro-immigrant, anti-Trump rally organized by militant communist group in support of North Korea” as a headline. The Left still struggles to shed the Marxist-Leninist baggage of the twentieth century to be received as a viable mainstream alternative. Joining forces with those who want to revive that failed and despised model of socialist transition is not exactly a winning political strategy.

To put it simply, this is really messy and something we need to discuss going forward. In the short term, I would say that we should be open to collaborating with individuals who are members of Workers World on particular projects, but reject official affiliations or partnerships with the organization itself (and similar groups). But the real solution is harder than that. The only resolution to this dilemma is to pass it on to tankies: build enough power that they become the ones forced to decide whether they attend our events and join our networks, not the other way around.



  1. It is unclear to me how a Russian-Iranian vassal state is somehow more “independent” than, say, Lebanon or Tunisia.
  2. See the Syrian Network for Human Rights’s report from November 14, 2016: http://sn4hr.org/blog/2016/11/14/29132/.
  3. Kim Jong-un is supposedly an elected leader as well.
  4. Fredrik deBoer, “1953-2002-2016: Syria and the Reemergence of McCarthyism,” Current Affairs, November 3, 2016, https://www.currentaffairs.org/2016/11/syria-and-the-reemergence-of-mccarthyism. For an extremely snarky but well-argued response, see Charles Davis, “Disagreeing on the Internet: The New McCarthyism?”, Muftah, December 19, 2016, http://muftah.org/disagreeing-internet-new-mccarthyism/#.WIE-3LYrJbU

  5. The Workers World Party has an official position of support for the North Korean government.
  6. “Tankie” is an epithet dating back to the Hungarian revolution of 1956, from circumstances unsettlingly reminiscent of the Syrian Revolution. Students and workers led a radical democratic uprising against the Soviet satellite state in power in Hungary. Soviet tanks then rolled into Budapest and crushed the revolution. The event divided socialists around the world; those who sided with the Soviet Union’s decision were derogatorily labeled “tankies.” Today, the word is used to describe authoritarian socialists (especially Stalinists) who believe that dictatorial violence to defend the goals of so-called “revolutionary” states (or even just those perceived to be enemies of the United States) is justified.

The Weekly UpDayt – 1/8/2017 – “Time for a New Underground Railroad?”

Last month, I read Eric Foner’s 2015 book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. Naturally, this makes me an Expert on All Things Underground Railroad, and eminently qualified to impart its lessons to eager readers such as yourselves.

(Okay, maybe not quite, but here are some things I thought were interesting and relevant, and I hope you also think they are interesting and relevant!)

First, on ideological squabbling within the Left: It appears to have always been a thing. In this instance, you had the largely New England-based Garrisonians against the largely New York-based non-Garrisonians. The key differences were that the former actively supported women’s equality and refused to work within the electoral system, as they saw the Constitution as a fundamentally pro-slavery document and thus the government as fundamentally corrupt. They also were highly critical of organized religion’s role in maintaining slavery and embraced pacifism, advocating “moral suasion” as the only way to end slavery (hence, perhaps, all the newspapers). Also, William Lloyd Garrison was known to “denounce” even his Garrisonian allies from time to time.

The main New York abolitionists were less supportive of women in leadership roles, but they also, sometimes successfully, ran antislavery candidates for office. So, deeply problematic but in certain ways more effective? Foner says that black abolitionists were less interested in these partisan debates, which makes sense because they were, for obvious reasons, more personally invested in just getting the job done. Foner does not say if this was equally true across genders.

My takeaway, I suppose, is that I wish the ideologically pure wouldn’t be so difficult all the time. We should be less afraid that getting our hands dirty will mean dirtying our minds: One can maintain moral integrity—in this case, feminism and the conviction that the government is rotten—while still not rejecting any participation in corrupt systems. And maybe “moral suasion” should involve less denouncing. (For better or worse, though, my personal sympathies were with the Garrisonians, even if I found them frustrating.)

Second, on militance and radicalism: there were some early (mostly white) anti-slavery groups that were still pretty moderate and paternalistic in their agenda—the 19th century version of “pull your pants up and stop rioting” anti-racist advocacy. When the more militant groups (those that called for abolition and equal rights immediately, and weren’t afraid to break the law to help fugitive slaves) first sprung up, they were quite small in membership and generally frowned upon by the moderate elements. Yet, in this book and in the history I remember in school, it’s these radicals who are celebrated for pushing slavery into the national agenda, for hastening abolition, and for helping rescue thousands of people from slavery. In the years ahead, radicals shouldn’t shy away from civil disobedience and boundary-pushing demands.

So, while we shouldn’t fetishize irrelevance, the fact that our movements may be tiny, that our publications may not have as many readers as the New York Times, need not be disheartening. With committed organizers and a smart strategy, we too can grow and, eventually, win.

Last, a few thoughts on what this may mean for three contemporary movements:

  1. Immigrants’ rights/anti-deportation: One of the most striking things about the book was being forced to confront that horrible reality, that you could just be living your life as a free person for years, accused of being a fugitive slave, and almost instantly spirited away to the South. (Sometimes, even if you weren’t actually a fugitive slave.) The obvious connection is to undocumented immigrants, who have been under increased threat of deportation in the Obama years and who, under Trump, are posed to become even more at risk. The lesson I took from Gateway to Freedom that might apply here, I think, was don’t let anyone go without a fight. Offer homes and public spaces as sanctuaries and hiding places; provide detained immigrants with legal representation; make each deportation into a drawn out public battle. We won’t win all these battles, but we will win some, and we’ll draw attention to the inhumanity of it all.
  2. Prison abolition: This is perhaps the movement that has most consciously claimed the legacy of the slavery abolition movement (in part, because it literally is a slavery abolition movement). It’s less clear what the lesson here would be, as something akin to the underground railroad (UR) may be more difficult to pull off given the scope of the security state. However, I think the general point about being open and public about the radicalism of one’s demands could apply (as I think many in Black Lives Matter are doing a good job of). And maybe it suggests the creation of autonomous spaces free of the police—after all, the UR only worked because not everywhere had slavery.
  3. Animal liberation: First, a disclaimer—I know many are wary of direct comparisons between these two issues, my point here is not to wade into that debate but merely suggest that any movement can learn from a prior one. At the time, some abolitionists criticized the UR for spending a lot of money helping a relatively small number of people; they thought it would be more efficient to focus on a more general abolitionist mission than helping individuals. This parallels a current debate within the animal lib movement over whether “Open Rescue” (entering places of exploitation and absconding with animals) and animal sanctuaries are as efficient as, say, vegan leafletting.

Foner doesn’t purport to answer the question in the slavery case, and I don’t purport to answer it as it applies to nonhumans. But certainly the UR’s impact was outsized (even beyond the thousands of people it helped save). It directly challenged the legitimacy of the “peculiar institution” in a way that other forms of action couldn’t, and controversial court cases helped garner public attention—and support—more broadly. Neither the UR nor Open Rescue are enough by themselves, but I think there’s an important place for them.

That was far from a comprehensive take on the book, of course—I recommend reading it yourself—but I’m trying to keep these UpDayts brief-ish. Until next time.

– DM
P.S. In other news—Tilikum the orca, of Blackfish fame, died on Friday. As a child, I loved SeaWorld for its aquatic life and marine mammals shows, but it’s also part of how I came to believe animals didn’t belong in captivity. SeaWorld is now phasing out its orca breeding program, but its other prisoners—seals, bottlenose dolphins, penguins, etc.—have been less lucky. So RIP Tilikum, and may SeaWorld be next.

The Weekly UpDayt – 12/20/2016 – “I Smell It in the Air”

On November 28, thousands of geese—blown off course by a snowstorm—landed in a lake at the site of a former open pit copper mine. The water, contaminated by toxic chemicals, poisoned the animals, burning their insides and killing them.

On December 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would prevent Energy Transfer Partners from building the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath Lake Oahe, the water source of the Standing Rock Sioux. Instead, it will conduct an environmental impact assessment to look for alternate routes. This is a short-term victory—the goal is to stop the pipeline, not reroute it, and who knows what the next administration will do—but at this point we take the victories we can get.

On the morning of December 13, Donald Trump officially confirmed that his pick for Secretary of State would be Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon. At a time when governments should be aggressively taking power away the fossil fuel industry, one of its most horrid representatives will be shaping foreign policy for the most powerful nation on Earth.

On December 14, the international animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (with which, full disclosure, I am somewhat peripherally involved, though I have no formal affiliation) released a video sharing the rescue of a piglet from a North American farm—exact location undisclosed, although the activists are from Toronto. This is the group’s first “open rescue” planned and executed without input or guidance from the California-based leadership team; they hope other chapters, too, will begin autonomously waltzing into farms and carrying vulnerable animals to sanctuaries.

What’s being contested here, though it’s rarely framed as such, is what sort of creatures we aim to be in this world. Will we leave behind poison lakes, put the worst polluters in positions of authority and wreak havoc upon the biosphere in pursuit of power and profit? Or will we embrace the “water is life” ethos of the Standing Rock water protectors,” the radical interspecies equality of the animal liberationists, and actually fight for something better?

These questions aren’t new, of course, and the various answers that have been posed over the years are far too complex to distill into a single paragraph. What’s changed, however, are the stakes—namely, the loss of a human-habitable climate and a mass extinction of the likes we haven’t seen in 65 million years. And with these heightened stakes, both the scale of destruction itself and the energy of the people fighting back have grown more dramatic.

In these UpDayts—which may or may not actually be weekly—I’ll offer analysis of this drama from a left green perspective. Because I don’t know what could be a more important question right now than how we are to exist within a complex biosphere, and it’s a question I feel too few progressive politicians and publications have sufficiently grappled with—even the one I work for, though I think we’ve been better than most.

Even before the election—when I foolishly thought Trump would lose—I had felt as if something were slipping. A barrage of devastating wildlife news conveyed ecosystems under siege; I found myself increasingly anxious over the fate of the living world.

Now, to quote the Lady Galadriel, “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the Earth. I smell it in the air.” But the operating assumption of these UpDayts will be that the world can change again, and for the better. I believe in a world of equality, democracy, and wilderness. I hope you’ll help me get there.


3. Reflections on the 2016 Election

[A Note on My Notes: This piece has quite a few footnotes, for both sources and additional commentary. You can click on the superscript to skip down to the footnotes, and the back button to return. If you have a WordPress account, the black header bar will block the first line, but you can probably figure it out. I tried to make notes run down the side of the page instead, but turns out I don’t get WordPress.]

I’ve been doing a lot more thinking than doing these past few weeks. I try to tell myself that this is because now is the time for reflection, to really get right what went wrong, but the honest truth is that I have felt utterly paralyzed. Even if I knew what could and should be done, I have been in no position to do anything. The feeling is fading, though; I may not have moved much, but paralysis is giving way to resolve.

I have waited to write down my thoughts on the election until I had allowed myself both sufficient time to ruminate and for reliable election data to come in. Many have leapt to “hot take” conclusions on shaky grounds which later gave way, treating exit polls as equal to county-by-county data or simply deciding what this election was “about” without reference to more than their own arrogantly inflated experience. I have no aspirations to punditry, and it seems to me that a significant feature of that job description is making premature declarations based on limited and shifting evidence. So I have waited. As in any close election, there are many factors that “caused” the outcome. And perhaps now more than ever, people are looking for something or someone to blame. I’m going to do what I can to avoid such oversimplifications, but I do think there are several broad conclusions that can be drawn from this nuance-ridden clusterfuck and the many factors that “caused” it—to really get right what went wrong.

Blame is always a weird and sorely tempting moral construct.1 I am with everyone grasping for it now—the rage and desperation and powerlessness of that night had many of us looking for something to hit, and all the better if it were the face of someone we could hold responsible. Even so, it would be useful for us to grapple with, even internalize and embrace, how the blame is shared. This is a political tragedy, a political failure, and politics is the duty of all of us.

This is on the Republican Party, which spent the last 60 years pushing a strategy of race-baiting, developing a voting base convinced that social democracy was their enemy because it might help non-whites. Donald Trump is the logical outgrowth of the Southern Strategy, a re-channeling of white resentment, so carefully cultivated by Republican strategists, towards something other than neoliberalism. Suited conmen had spent the previous two generations convincing middle class white voters that “individualism” means handing authority to economic elites. It is quite incredible that they could be taken so off guard by another half-baked conman redirecting that resentment towards something less ridiculously contrary to those voters’ economic interest—nativism and economic nationalism—and leave them impotently bleating about “real conservatism.” The Never Trumpers who worship Reagan, the greatest race-baiter American politics has ever seen, but spit on Trump for his remarks about minority groups are either self-deluding idiots who know nothing of the history of their own politics or cynical bastards who see Trump as a threat to their economic interests. Join the anti-fascist resistance, sure; I even respect those of them sacrificing their political careers to oppose his regime. But know in your hearts: ye have reaped what ye have sown.2  And they are a tiny minority within the party (a minority that notably includes both living Republican presidents, plus Romney, except for his SecState flirtation, probably because they no longer have to worry about their electability). I was hopeful in the early summer that Trump’s victory would split the party, either by neoliberals jumping ship or by them robbing him of his nomination, leading to a likely Trumpist third party. But instead the careerist slugs sucked it up, putting their individual political futures and the party’s viability above all else. I’ve never spoken to an influential Republican, but it seems that they adopted the attitude of “try again in four/eight years,” swinging some Supreme Court seats and an Obamacare repeal in the bargain. His cabinet, which I hope to write about in more detail later, is furthermore shaping up to be a motley collection of extremists all hoping to get a chance at unleashing their vicious pet projects (the end of public education, nationwide right-to-work, ensuring global ecological catastrophe, etc.) upon the public so long as they pledge fealty to Emperor Trump’s ego. The Grand Old Party is in lockstep with their new leader, their qualms stifled to sessions with their therapists. For all that the spineless Paul Ryan speaks of Republicans as a party of ideals and ideas, they have proven themselves to be opportunistic toadies to power [flagged as weird] even beneath my own dismal expectations for them. 

This is on the Democratic Party, which helped to usher in this tragicomic conclusion with its total abandonment of the labor movement and the poor (working and unemployed) in the 1990s, wedded to the corporate donor class as surely as the Republicans. Neoliberalism, austerity, and state brutality against those left behind by capitalism became bipartisan with Bill Clinton’s Third Way. Democrats intensified the US’s participation in the race to the bottom with NAFTA, decimating high-wage employment across the country while destroying the livelihoods of millions of Mexican campesinos. They escalated the drug war, embraced draconian punishment as a replacement for social uplift at every level of government, and redirected billions of dollars from public assistance programs to killing and caging human beings. They cast off key financial regulations as New Deal period pieces, doing more to cause the 2008 financial collapse than any bill George Bush ever signed. They shifted to a new partisan common sense that support of ruling class elites was essential and that the votes of the people those elites exploited, fucked, and sucked dry could be counted on so long as Democrats wore the vestiges of liberalism and remained marginally less bad than the Republicans.3 The plutocratic structure of the party—no mass membership base, with all major internal decision-making restricted by fundraising thresholds—and its influence’s center of gravity in a small class of neoliberally inclined, urban cultural elites ensured the nomination of the most right-wing4 and unpopular Democratic candidate in the last century. The constant refrain of Clinton’s inevitability (ouch) and electability (double ouch) from the liberal punditry despite the evidence to the contrary did as much damage to the Sanders insurgency as the active conspiring between the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Would Bernie have lost if the Party’s wealthiest talking heads had spewed less nonsense and the DNC had actually acted as a neutral officiator of the primary process? Possibly. But the data is quite clear that Sanders’s popularity soared with increasing public exposure, even into the summer, despite continual Republican and Clintonite red-baiting. The most illustrative dynamic of the primary election is that almost every single union whose leadership endorsed a candidate without membership consultation chose Clinton, while almost every single union that instead held a membership vote chose Sanders.5 The fact that union leadership by and large endorsed an ex-Walmart board member and free trade cheerleader over the most pro-labor candidate in the Party’s history is indicative of other problems in today’s labor movement, but that is a discussion for another time.6 And this year, record numbers of organized labor’s membership base voted for the Republican.

Unions, the working poor, immigrants, sexual minorities, environmental organizations, and people of color form the “big tent” of those who would somehow have it even worse when Democrats lose. The Party is utterly dependent on exploiting this structural flaw of our insane first-past-the-post election system, and with that they’ve bred elite complacency.7  The words of Emmett Rensin—“the wages of smug is Trump”—should haunt the sleep of every liberal claiming to be “shocked” by the election.8  To my quiet fury, I mostly saw this piece shared (smugly) by right-wing Never Trumpers thinking they can wipe their hands of Trump and place culpability at the feet of liberals alone as they slip into political hiding, leaving the stink of racism and misogyny behind them like a heavy perfume. But here’s the thing. This is the American Right. Of course they’re part of the problem. They’re supposed to be big and bad and horrible: that’s why they exist, like Smaug or Cruella DeVil. Even the allegedly “principled” anti-Trump rightists have “deprive poor people of the basic means of survival” among their core political principles. I’m not writing this for them. The moral of the story is never “the antagonist should have been less bad,” but “this is what the moment demands of the protagonist to defeat them.” If there are right-wingers genuinely aghast at the monster they have created and wish to join the struggle against our growing fascism, by all means. But it is the center and the left which has failed, and which must seize the day.

By extension, this is on a cultural left which has never lost an opportunity to prioritize identitarian and symbolic fracturing politics over a sweeping social vision to uplift us all. Comfortable in their middle class insularity, as self-proclaimed spokespeople and wokespeople, they convinced themselves that it is only cis straight white men who want to have food and housing and healthcare—what blacks and queers and fat women want are “representative” fashion lines they can’t afford, ironic TV shows starring their commercially lucrative identities, and “movements” more focused on policing a shifting and arcane terminological discourse than on changing people’s lives—and congratulated themselves for it.9 After all, how are we going to achieve corporate diversity if we insist on fighting corporations?

This is on the media, which spent the first half of 2016 treating Trump as a ratings machine, skyrocketing his political prospects from clown to frontrunner, and the second half drizzling on half-concealed moralizing about personal reprehensibility, out of the utterly baseless and self-aggrandizing assumptions that the public had any remaining respect for the dithering talking heads claiming the mantle of “journalism” and that they could craft the narrative of the nation.

This is on Clinton’s primary supporters, tone deaf to the angst of the nation (70% of which has no affiliation with the Democratic Party) that what we’ve endured isn’t working. I won’t paint this bloc with a single brush, as I recognize that this coalition has diverse motivations. Nevertheless, the mix of shortsightedness, complacency, inertia, lack of political vision, blind trust in figures who turned out to be wrong about almost everything, conservatism, especially idiotic abuses of identity politics/cultural leftism, and groundless assumptions about the wider public blinded Clinton’s supporters to what the present moment made possible and demanded of us. The consequences of this widespread failing among older American liberals will be devastating and enormous.

This is on the Clinton campaign, awash in arrogant complacency and wedded to an “everything is fine” democratic centralism strategy despite all evidence that this was a change election, to the point of disbelief. They banked on flipping centrist and neoliberal Republicans when every strategist knows that wealthier voters are more partisan than the underclass. Drunk on data modeling from their base in Brooklyn, they disdainfully ignored the cries of alarm from on-the-ground organizers across key swing states.10 They treated the “blue wall” as gospel, under the belief that Obama’s sweeping victories across the Rust Belt were the new normal instead of an anomaly. It is unclear to what extent Trump—the most widely hated major party candidate in the history of polling—“won” this election. But there can be no doubt that the Clinton team lost, in what should have been the easiest general election for Democrats since 1964.

This is on white voters, especially working class white voters, who were so willing (in some cases eager) to offer up the vulnerable to the altar of privation and state violence for a half-assed fuck-you to the political class. They traded the future of their children and grandchildren for a Cheeto-hued foam middle finger.

This is on older voters, who overwhelmingly voted to destroy the planet for future generations well after their own anticipated deaths, over the terrified protestations of youth of all races and classes. This is especially on those older voters who experienced all the benefits of social democracy in their youth who have the nerve to sneer at millennials’ alleged narcissism and “participation trophy” ethic because we dared to demand a living wage and a stable biosphere, which they’ve been able to take for granted their entire lives.

This is on much of the Left, so convinced of Clinton’s inevitability (which I suspect was as much an intellectual crutch as anything, because shifting gears from “neoliberal warhawks are the enemy” to “proto-fascists are the enemy” is hard) that they felt comfortable spending general election season making the case against her. Many of us downplayed the very real risk of a Trump victory as a way to self-justify trading our political power for vain political purity.

This is on the 46% of the public who didn’t bother to vote at all, especially younger voters, with the most to lose. One hundred thousand votes decided this election across three states, between which 6,778,103 eligible voters did not show up.11 

This is on those of us who did vote for Clinton who inadequately made the case that Trump 1) was a real threat and 2) had to be stopped at all costs.

This is on all of us.

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The esteemed “commentators” of Vox and CNN are talking themselves in circles about something called the “white working class.”12 What we’re calling the white working class is 42% of the country, and they broke for Trump by a 39 point margin, most importantly in Rust Belt swing states where they had been a core constituency of the Obama coalition that elected him in 2008 and 2012. Clinton lost the electoral college because of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania: a cumulative loss by 107,330 votes (0.08% of the electorate).

Before going any deeper into the weeds, we have to clarify and problematize our terms. The analysts are mostly defining ”white working class” in terms of education: white voters over 25 without a four-year-degree, a metric with serious problems. Yes, white people with less formal education voted most stridently for Trump, but education is not the full class story. I am pretty fucking poor, have to sell my labor to survive, and am not a career-track professional, but I have a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, both billionaire college dropouts, fall under this “white working class” designation. Older generations earn significantly more than millennials, despite being far less likely to have college degrees. Many of those traditionally labeled the petite-bourgeoisie (is 19th and early 20th century Marxism “traditional”?)—basically small business-owners—would be classified as “white working class.” Millions of downwardly mobile millennials are low-wage laborers with degrees (and the mountains of debt that come with them). Especially when it comes to rigorous statistical analysis, using Marxist categories in a post-1945 world of class fragmentation becomes messy, even distortionist. We have to recognize that education is at best a clumsy proxy measurement for our complicated and varying relationships to the means of production.

Another of the other problems associated with using the phrase “working class” to refer to people without college degrees is that it summons up visions of blue collar workers in industrial manufacturing, a rapidly shrinking subset of America’s proletariat. The American working class today looks a lot more like food service workers, Walmart greeters, cashiers, sales reps, and Uber drivers than it does longshoremen and the assembly line. Even working class militancy, long nurtured by industrial unions and activated on the shop floor, now has its center in the Fight for Fifteen and service industry organizers like SEIU than, say, the UAW or the Teamsters. This phantom of industrial proletarianism played a major role in the electoral mythology of 2016: disgruntled autoworkers (or ex-autoworkers) turning towards Trumpism or democratic socialism for an alternative to deindustrialization and outsourcing. The problem is the disconnect between this occupational group’s small size and the extent to which it is considered representative of American white working people.

This is further unhelpful because most of those unionized workers still voted for Clinton (which is not the impression a casual media observer would have gotten from the wave of “what the hell just happened” election analysis in November). The problem was not that most blue collar union voters went for Trump, but that enough of them who had been staunch Obama supporters were so fed up with Democrats on labor issues (the Clintonite wing especially) that they switched sides, and that was enough to swing a handful of the Rust Belt states that brought Trump his victory. Clinton won the union vote nationally by only 8 points, the smallest margin of Democratic victory since 1984.13 This fall in union support was especially bad in the Rust Belt. In Michigan, Obama had won by 33 points. Clinton won by only 13 points. Obama had won Ohio union voters by a full 23 points in 2012. Four years later, Clinton lost the Ohio union vote by 9 points.14 It’s also worth investigating why certain union blocs not directly affected by outsourcing voted more for the Republican than before. For instance, over a third of teachers with the National Education Association (the largest union in the country, with over three million members) voted for Trump.15 The International Association of Fire Fighters didn’t endorse at all, being evenly divided.

There have been two conflicting narratives on why working class white voters overwhelming cast ballots for Trump. The first is that they, many of whom voted for Barack Hussein Obama in 2008 and 2012, were so racist that this time around they wouldn’t vote for a white woman (“it’s racism, stupid”). The second is that they were willing to look past Trump’s hateful rhetoric because their communities have been devastated by outsourcing, and it’s understandable for them to prefer him to Clinton on those grounds (“it’s the economy, stupid”). The most nuance I have seen on this question from anyone who gets paid to talk/write is “I’m sure for some people it was because they’re racist and for others because they’re economically hurting.” I hope by the time I finish here, it will be clear why that’s inadequate.

The former is illustrated by T.R. Ramachandran’s (@yottapoint) fallacy- and logic leap-ridden, yet widely shared, tweetstorm, making the case that economic issues were of minimal impact on the white working class’s electoral swing.16 I don’t have the space here to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal (his argument is long, and fairly complex), but there are some broad strokes of inaccuracy and poor reasoning that I can point out briefly. First, he consistently conflates the dynamics of how poor white Southerners became reliable Republican voters (the Southern Strategy) with the political decisions of white working class voters in the Rust Belt, an entirely different context, without evidence, and that informs his “voters have multiple influences ” framing throughout. Second, that framing is selectively applied. He does not acknowledge the possibility that these voters could become drawn to someone like Trump, whom they may agree with on matters of immigration and terrorism, only in the context where the Democrats are not meaningfully working for their economic interests. Instead, he uses this selective framework to argue that they must only be motivated by racism and sexism, and that bringing them back into the progressive fold by an economic platform appealing to non-millionaires is unlikely to succeed. This comes paired with completely ignoring the fact that millions of working class whites didn’t switch to Trump, but stayed home. Third, he takes “Trump winning for economic reasons” to mean that working class whites made policy assessments that he was better on the economy for them. I’ll go into detail later on about why this is sort of insane/a straw man. Lastly, he willfully ignores differences between the 2012 and 2016 elections in a manner of logical acrobatics that can be difficult to follow. For instance, he cites as evidence the fact that these people didn’t vote for Romney in 2012, even though the economy was worse in rural areas and smaller metro areas then.17  This was probably the stupidest point in the entire tweetstorm, for the obvious reasons that Obama is much more adept at appearing to be an economic populist than Clinton and that Romney is not Trump. Romney was not exactly a protectionist attempting to shield American industry from global competition, nor was he condemning mistreatment of working folk by ruling class politicians. (Remember “I like being able to fire people”?) The author then goes on to ignore this key fact that Obama did much better by claiming that data shows the white working class is motivated only by race-baiting rather than economic nationalism. Nothing is mentioned of how Trump did better with both Latino and black voters than Romney did, despite being allegedly fueled only by racism.

A second prominent example of this argument was Derek Thompson’s piece in The Atlantic, “The Dangerous Myth That Hillary Clinton Ignored the White Working Class.”18 He asserts that Clinton is in fact a social democrat (something she has never claimed to be, nor something she comes even close to approximating), as she said the word “jobs” a lot. He denies that she is a neoliberal by putting the word in quotes. His only real piece of evidence, beyond the plethora of Clinton “plans”, is the lone data point that Clinton did better among voters who listed the economy as their primary concern. This tells us absolutely nothing about why millions of working class whites didn’t vote at all or why they carried Obama to victory twice, nor is it strong evidence against the idea that class consciousness crumbles in a political environment lacking any significant class politics. The author fundamentally fails to explain what was different in 2016 from 2008 or 2012, and that failure undercuts the entire narrative. Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley (basically Scranton), once the site of anthracite coal mines and heavy industry, went for Trump. Obama won it by double digits.19 Old industrial counties throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin that Obama had won by ten, fifteen, twenty points went for Trump by similar margins. And let’s again be clear: Obama is a far, far better embodiment of “pluralist social democracy” than Clinton. Nothing about this election suggests a necessary or natural antipathy to its ideals by that demographic.

Many commentators have implied that Trump winning these Obama strongholds was mostly due to white workers switching allegiances. This is deceptive. Across these five states, Trump gained only 334,498 additional votes from those making less than $50,000 over Romney in 2012 (a 10.6% increase). Clinton, on the other hand, received 1,174,362 fewer votes in the same income bracket across these states than Obama got in 2012 (a 21.7% decrease). Third parties gained an additional 259,605 votes from those making less than $50,000. A net of nearly 600,000 lower income voters withdrew from the political process entirely, evidently repulsed by the available options (which the boost in third party votes suggests as well). The point is, Trump made a compelling case to the Rust Belt’s working class and was moderately rewarded for it, but far more significant was the catastrophic collapse of Democratic support in this income bracket.20 And there’s really no way to argue that white working class voters (and around 267,000 people of color in these states) ditched the major parties because they’re racist.

The racism explanation clearly has some major factual shortcomings. But perhaps more importantly, it offers us absolutely nothing about how to proceed. “They’re just racist” is anti-political posturing. It is virtue-signaling through the embrace of collective doom and the denial of our responsibility to win. I hope this attitude is short-lived venting, because it absolutely must be purged from the anti-Trump movement if we are to have any chance of victory.

An example of the second explanation (“it’s the economy, stupid”) is from my friend Luke Allen, a community organizer for whom I have great deal of respect, in “Congratulations Liberals: We Have Only Ourselves to Blame for President Trump”.21 I agree with much of what he says here, but this analysis glosses over a number of details inconvenient to the narrative. Rustbelt working class whites aren’t the only ones suffering, and nor are they the only ones who are angry; the black working class has borne the brunt of the pain from deindustrialization across the country. The only reason we associate blacks with urbanity in the first place is the massive migration towards industrial jobs in (mostly) Northern cities in the first half of the twentieth century. Black independence from serfdom in the South is almost entirely due to industrial development, and the jobs of black workers were the first to go with advances in automation and (later) globalization. The inner city ghetto is as much the product of manufacturing’s shift to suburban production in the ‘60s and ‘70s22 (outsourcing round 1) and globalization (outsourcing round 2) as it is of redlining and federal transportation policy. The movement for black lives has been fueled across the country by black anger against the existing order. If anger at the system is all Trump that had going for him, we would expect to see many more black voters turn a blind eye to his race-baiting and cross party lines. And yet he received only 8% of the black vote.

Luke’s take also has a tendency to obscure distinctions between the rural poor and the urban/suburban white working class. Many poor rural communities have it considerably worse than the downwardly mobile, metropolitan white working class, but the fact that they vote Republican is nothing new. The biggest change from past elections is that they participated more than before.23 

Furthermore, the implication of the argument that working class whites were willing to look beyond Trump’s racism is that they made a policy assessment that Trump would be better for them economically. This assumption is weak, which is why so many of the racism-explains-all crowd have seized upon it. The vagueness of Trump’s economic proposals and the broad dissatisfaction with the effects of neoliberal technocracy suggest that the pivot was more of a “fuck this” working class response to the status quo. And “fuck this, we’ll vote for the proto-fascist” suggests the resurgence of ethnonationalism under conditions of economic precarity and downward mobility. This isn’t about whether white people are racists or class warriors: it’s about the necessity of a broad, mainstream class politics in the face of racial nativist revival, of solidarity as an anti-fascist bulwark.

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My diagnosis is somewhat different from that of these opposing camps (and rather more than “a bit of both”). In my opinion, there is a generalized, even near-universal, anxiety in the American public about our democratic crisis: the basic fact that our political system does not translate popular will into public policy, but instead remains captive to the interests of economic elites. Both parties saw a powerful backlash against this arrangement in their primary elections. For Trump’s side, this anxiety forms the backbone to both his racial and economic appeals in a unified narrative grounded in popular discontent.

Political science professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, at Princeton University and Northwestern University respectively, rigorously demonstrated how policy decisions by the US government are in no way independently affected by the policy preferences of the lowest earning 90% of Americans, but instead respond exclusively to the preferences of corporations, the wealthiest 10%, and (to a relatively minimal extent) well-organized and well-funded advocacy organizations.24 In my experience, the vast majority of Americans understand this implicitly, having been screwed by their alleged representatives for decades on end. When tens of millions of people express the view that their vote doesn’t count, they aren’t just saying that their vote has no impact on the election’s outcome (although the electoral college makes this true for the vast majority of voters). They are also relating the fact that “their candidate” (assuming they have one) winning does not translate into policy outcomes they want. With only a handful of exceptions (Obama’s run in 2008 and Sanders’s primary bid), electoral campaigns are completely dependent on the goodwill of a wealthy and well-connected donor class, who are mostly leveraging their power for the interests of capitalists. Corporate lobbyists exert a stranglehold over the legislative process at federal, state, and municipal levels. Our abysmally low turnout is embarrassing, but more importantly it is a legitimacy crisis for American representative governance. The dominant narrative is that this is nothing more than lazy Americans passing up on their potential power, which of course has a measure of truth to it. But the vote is still not sufficient to secure the interests of the public when the ruling class monopolizes access to the halls of power.

Was I excited that a real social democrat was running this year? Absolutely. But I was never deluded into thinking that so many Democrats leapt to support Bernie out of a desire for free college. It was about this democratic crisis, and the fact that he was the one of the very few politicians talking about it. The heart of Bernie’s campaign was his focus on the power of billionaires to buy elections and leverage their position in the political process to protect their interests at the expense of the wider public, and the need for a surge of grassroots popular engagement in politics to seize our democracy back for the people—what he termed the “political revolution.” Even people like my anti-immigration, union- and welfare-hating father could get behind this. This message of the political revolution was of far greater importance for his base than the particular redistributive policies this revolution would enable.

The problem is that anxiety about our collective powerlessness isn’t a political consciousness. The Sanders campaign channeled that anxiety into class consciousness, with real explanatory power for many of the systemic problems we face. The Trump campaign steered that anxiety into false consciousness, with scapegoating, horizontal hostility, and deception. Trump ran on a very simple argument: Americans have gotten the short end of the stick with neoliberal globalization and open borders,25 which can only be rectified by projecting American power for better economic returns for ordinary people, which can only be achieved by throwing out the lot of incompetent, corrupt career politicians who are bought and paid for by special interests. This includes, for Trump and his primary supporters, the GOP establishment, who then controlled all of Congress, most state legislatures, and thirty-one governorships.

This was what Trump was able to beat Clinton over the head with. She is so easily represented as out of touch, careerist, beholden entirely to the interests of donors. His final television ad, entitled on Youtube as “Donald Trump’s Argument for America,” can be watched here. I’ve copied out the text, because I think it’s extremely important to understand the coherence and force of his argument in a year when everything suggested the public was angry and looking for change. It is the audio from a Trump speech at a campaign rally over a variety of video clips spliced together. Italics indicate his emphasis:

Our movement is about replacing the failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people. The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people [cuts to clips of Hillary Clinton] who don’t have your good in mind. The political establishment that is trying to stop us is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration [cuts deceptively to footage of Syrian refugees in Europe, implying that it depicts events in the United States], and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country dry. The political establishment has brought about the destruction of our factories, and our jobs, as they flee to Mexico, China, and other countries all around the world. It’s the global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities. The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you. The only force strong enough to save our country is us. The only people brave enough to vote out this corrupt establishment is you the American people. I’m doing this for the people and for the movement, and we will take back this country for you, and we will make America great again. I’m Donald Trump, and I approve this message.

As with the Bernie campaign, Trump skillfully wove this narrative of democratic crisis into his take on widespread economic anxiety. Wage stagnation, deindustrialization, automation, weak job growth, and the casualization of labor have shifted millions of people into conditions of precarity. My generation is the first in a very long time that should expect to have worse economic prospects than our parents. By casting these woes as a matter of foreign encroachment (unlimited immigration, China,26 trade deals) rather than class divisions at home driving outsourcing and the dismemberment of organized labor, the campaign was able to integrate this part of his message with Trumpism’s racial narrative, of white middle America under attack from all sides. This, in my opinion, is why immigration was the central focal point of racial dog-whistling,27 although the traditional racial referent of inner city crime made a comeback during the general election.

The integration of Trump’s economic narrative with his racial narrative (“these Mexicans are taking our jobs”) needs to be understood as scapegoating, along similar patterns of Nazi narratives about Jews treacherously bleeding the economy dry in Germany’s moment of disgrace.28 I also find it particularly fascinating that illegal immigration has been seized upon by neo-Nazis and white nationalists (and many mainstream Republicans) as their core issue. The number of undocumented immigrants in the country is now at the lowest point in thirteen years. We’ve seen a steady negative rate of illegal immigration, with more undocumented people leaving the country than entering, over all of Obama’s time in office.29  Furthermore, we can rigorously demonstrate that the number of undocumented immigrants living in the US has increased dramatically as a result of increased border enforcement. Rather than a seasonal flow of male migrant workers across southwestern states, we have over ten million people in permanent families across all fifty states. Border enforcement makes it much more dangerous to cross back and forth, so those who need to cross the border will only do so once, and settle in the US for good.30 Our militarized border regime fails in its stated goals and wastes a tremendous amount of public resources in order to increase the number of poor people who die in the Sonoran Desert. Legal immigrants commit considerably fewer crimes per capita than native born citizens, and undocumented immigrants commit the fewest crimes of all (obviously—they have to stay out of trouble to not get deported). And virtually every economic study of undocumented immigration has concluded that it has had a positive or neutral effect on American wages and employment for all but the worst paid unskilled workers. The point is, there is actually no good reason to make an enormous deal out of immigration in the last five to ten years. So why is it centerstage for the far right? Because, senseless as it may be, it lays out the whole picture of the white nationalist vision. Whiteness is under threat by waves of non-white criminal elements, turning the country into something we hardly recognize. They are easily blamed for our economic woes, can be hated in public discourse by reference to the “illegality” of their actions, and ground white nationalist goals in a respectable policy framework that funnels their ideas into the mainstream. Undocumented immigrants cleanly facilitate the misdirection of white consciousness. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that a public facing greater economic anxiety is more receptive to scapegoating narratives, which is part of why we cannot and should not attempt to neatly distinguish between Trump’s message winning because it is economic or winning because it is racial. The racial appeal largely has force only because of the economic context and in connection to his macroeconomic argument. More importantly, however, the use of a racial narrative to explain economic conditions is a means of obfuscating America’s internal class structures that are the real drivers of precarity and our collective dispossession. It is what enables the cross-class coalition of Trumpism, what cements the unity between white working people and the white upper middle class under his banner. I cannot emphasize enough that the white nationalist and economic nationalist features of his movement are not divisible or able to be understood in isolation from one another.


Many on the left have been discussing over the past year whether Trump and his movement are legitimately fascist. When trying to be precise, I describe him as proto-fascist. Prevailing definitions of fascism have shifted over the decades, and that’s not a discussion I want to get into here. But it is worth comparing Trump’s coalition to that of Nazism and Italian fascism, as there are some key differences we need to appreciate. The traditional Marxist analysis of fascism was that it is a violent and authoritarian response by economic elites in reaction to the threat of a more powerful industrial working class agitating for its interests. Democracy and the labor movement put forth real challenges to bourgeois interests, and so democracy and the labor movement were attacked. This is what is meant by the quote often falsely attributed to Lenin: “Fascism is capitalism in decay.” For better or for worse, Trumpism is not a response to a radical labor movement’s threats to upper class interests.

Such a comparison between the demographic bases of these far right movements can actually tell us quite a lot about Trump’s weaknesses. The constant focus on the white working class in the Trump coalition creates the false impression that they are his core constituency. As with all fascist movements bigger than skinhead gangs, Trumpism’s base is in the petite-bourgeoisie, the white upper middle class.31 Forty-four percent of them reported having a bachelor’s degree or higher, well above the national average (29%) and the average for white adults (33%).32 The median income of his supporters is well above that of Sanders’s or Clinton’s (though below that of his Republican rivals). But the upper middle class is small—his modest support among the poor and the working class is what pushed him into the realm of electability. This is what sets Trumpism apart from earlier fascist movements: beyond the petite bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat, ours includes, to an extent, the worker. In my opinion, it is important to understand this as stemming from anemic organized labor, the absence of any real socialist movement, and the shuddering contradictions of neoliberal capitalism. Furthermore, transnational capital has also received Trump mostly as a threat and allied themselves with centrist neoliberalism (the Clinton wing), a stark contrast to Italian and German fascism, which retained the support and cooperation of each country’s economic elite. Whether this will continue remains to be seen. I don’t believe anyone—perhaps not even the man himself—can state with confidence how Trump will govern, economically. Prior to the election, I imagined it might move towards corporatist/Peronista lines, where he attempts to integrate and co-opt the labor movement into a centralized authoritarian structure to provide for their interests through state interventions while strengthening a national capitalism and buying the elite’s consent with tax cuts. His cabinet, on the other hand, is shaping up to be such a motley collection of neocon, neoliberal, and alt-right ghouls—less “draining the swamp” than uplifting the most terrifying swamp monsters existing—that I think it is more likely for him to be an April Fools candidate. His “vision for America” may have simply been an extraordinary bait and switch, as he hands off power to the most anti-labor, anti-everything-worth-having rightwing extremists willing to kiss the rings on his tiny, tiny hands. He may be that sort of vanity president, whose only ideology is ego, easily influenced by any fellow billionaire with a penchant for flattery. Or he and his team may end up being so incompetent33 that the ruling class turns against him to protect the economy from disarray. But it seems most likely to me that American economic elites will be mostly focused on adapting to his regime. They will do what they can to move him in the direction of serving their interests (class interests which he personally shares). The essential point is, we cannot count on elites, even the ones who strongly backed Clinton, opposing him as our defense against fascist power in America. The divided ruling class is not his coalition’s weakness. Rather, it is his shaky hold on white working people, many of whom can quickly alienated by his administration given likely policy outcomes, especially if the oppositional center is in a social democratic movement to take our government back for the people.

To return to the matter of Trump’s effective weaving of layered political narratives, I would like to offer up one final example that illustrates how the narratives of democratic crisis, economic woe, and racial threat34 are integrated into an internally consistent (if insane) core message, in the most bizarre of places: Sarah Palin’s endorsement speech. She was his first high-profile endorsement, timed right before the Iowa caucus. It was a moment of great political and comedic significance. From start to finish, her speech was borderline incomprehensible, even coining a never-before-seen word (“squirmishes”). But meandering as it was, this speech also contained a moment of clarity, that brings it all together.35

Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic ramifications of that betrayal of the transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, okay? Well, Trump, what he’s been able to do, which is really ticking people off, which I’m glad about, he’s going rogue left and right, man, that’s why he’s doing so well. He’s been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system. The way that the system really works, and please hear me on this, I want you guys to understand more and more how the system, the establishment, works, and has gotten us into the troubles that we are in in America. The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able suck off of them. It’s why we see these lousy trade deals that gut our industry for special interests elsewhere. We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again…36 Yes the status quo has got to go. Otherwise we’re just going to get more of the same, and with their failed agenda, it can’t be salvaged. It must be savaged. And Donald Trump is the right one to do that.

The manner in which the three narratives of the democratic crisis, economic stagnation, and white nationalism lite were interwoven is why “race or economic concerns?” is the wrong question. These are mutually supporting facets of an internally consistent political message, appealing to huge swaths of the public in variable ways. The “race or the economy” axis of disagreement presents these as distinct dynamics while effacing the central role of the demos’s political disempowerment altogether. If we are going to beat Trump, we have to understand how all three work together; minus any of them, and the message and the coalition fall apart or transform completely.

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There was a tendency performed across my newsfeed of outrage at media personalities wondering (presumably for the first time in their lives) about the pain white working people were feeling. After all, black and Hispanic working poor are suffering too (more, for the most part), and they were able to suck it up and vote for a candidate that doesn’t care about them. But by refusing to interrogate the white working class betrayal of all things bright and beautiful, this tendency precludes the possibility of changing that outcome.

Equally troubling, this sort of posturing meshes neatly with ongoing liberal narratives about rural people and other varieties of “white trash,” whose sufferings are not just to be ignored but in fact to be scorned as evidence of their reactionary inferiority. I was flooded with thinkpieces, some of them quite excellent, in the aftermath of the election on how the narrative of “coastal elites” being out of touch with “real America” is bullshit—that it is rural America which is out of touch and isolated from the diversity of the country. Of hick roots myself, I can say that this is without a doubt largely true. The problem is that liberals (and “radicals” who couldn’t give a damn about class, especially not when it comes to those seen as bigots) often blur this into a far more vindictive framing.

The Democratic Party establishment has suffered from classism for a long time, but this has also undergone a qualitative shift since the 1990s. The relationship between the Party and movements of the rural poor to constrain elite power, expand democracy, and secure the material basis for a decent life for most people (by and large limited to whites, of course) is long and historically powerful. Other American rural movements lacked Democratic backing, but were nation-shaking forces nonetheless. These include, but are not limited to: post-revolutionary debtor movements that so terrified elites that they scrapped the Articles of Confederation; the popular movement towards the abolition of property qualifications for white men to vote between 1792 and 1856, mostly during the Jacksonian era; the Populist movement, which is largely responsible for laying the groundwork for the Progressive Era’s achievements; the most powerful (and violent) labor uprisings in American history, climaxing with the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921; the mass movements of urban and rural poor that made the New Deal a reality; and the interracial struggles in the 1960s (of which rural whites played a major role) to transform the United States into a democratic socialist society.

Today, however, the most prominent liberal narratives on the rural poor are unabashedly prejudicial. They are considered electorally useless, of course, now being generally staunch Republicans. They are punch lines,37 or worse. Rural people are widely considered to be slower, stupider, impediments to a modern democratic society, less deserving of respect and fair treatment. The political wing that supposedly concerns itself with poverty is apparently indifferent when that poverty falls outside of metropolitan areas. This is even to the point of sneering down their noses at the rural poor, a group uniquely deserving of its circumstances, even (in a bizarre twist) responsible for the backwardness of the country as a whole. They face some of the highest levels of police killings and brutality in the country.38 Over the course of my lifetime, death rates for white Americans have steadily increased, mostly due to spikes in alcohol abuse, drug overdose, and suicide among lower class whites, especially women.39 The response by middle class liberals (towards a very real public health crisis) has been a mix of apathy, condescension, and spite. Many have framed the problem in terms of the diminishing returns on whiteness: that is, that poor rural whites are putting bullets in their brains more, dying of heroin overdose more, working for starvation wages more, and having children outside of wedlock that they can’t afford to feed more because they’re entitled racists resentful of the steady gains made by minorities.

Am I ok with the fact that the folks I grew up with routinely and adamantly cast ballots against their interests of survival and just turned out in record numbers to make a reality TV fascist Commander-in-Chief? Obviously not—heartbroken, really. But cutting ourselves off from white pain, where children are raised hungrier and unhealthier than they have been in quite some time, because it fits our hip and edgy politics to spit on any attempts to understand the appeals of white nationalism through a compassionate lens is the worst possible response. By pretending lower class white angst has no material basis, all we do is help along the process of translating that pain into the embittered white consciousness that got Trump elected. We have long failed in this regard for rural folk, and we now appear to have failed for the metropolitan white working class as well. In the words of Jacob Bacharach,

“You don’t have to like it or excuse it, but you have to understand it. If, indeed, there can be no hope for Trump voters; if the divide is unbridgeable; if no politics exists that can reach even a few percent of them and turn them toward a project of mutual, shared well-being, justice, and fairness, then there is no hope. They’re lost, and we’re fucked forever. If the people who stayed home are offered nothing but some vague promise of innovative jobs in an endlessly new economy, then there is no hope. They’re lost, and we’re fucked forever.”40

But we don’t need to fail forever.

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Another issue that needs to be addressed as a real cause of the election’s outcome is sexism. While accusations of misogyny are frequently invoked to derail any mention of Clinton’s extraordinary rap sheet of flaws as a “progressive” candidate, that doesn’t mean that sexist attitudes aren’t playing a major role in her public perception. She lost by a narrow enough margin that we should be able to state with confidence that an identical male candidate would have beaten Trump. The general hysteria around her as uniquely power-hungry, corrupt, and dishonest reflect common patriarchal narratives about women seeking authority over men. This is made especially apparent by the gleeful shadiness of her opponent, who also appears to be a pathological liar. However, I think we can also state with some confidence that a better candidate who was a woman would have been able to wipe the floor with Trump—speculatively by a greater margin than any male Hillary could have. It is worth keeping in mind that Clinton performed even worse with women than Obama did, against the backdrop of Mitt “Binders Full of Women” Romney being replaced by Donald “Probable Serial Rapist” Trump. Like the claim that Trump won because most white people are irredeemably racist, limiting our explanation of the election’s outcome to the virulent sexism of American society is politically paralyzing. It offers us an opportunity to condemn our opponents for their moral failings, not develop a winning strategic response. Unless the solution you’re offering is “never have women be presidential candidates,” which is clearly not a justifiable reaction, this explanation offers us very little to work with. One would be as politically well-served by pointing out that Trump would never have won if the American public were swapped out for millions of Marxists.

There are some fringe explanations of the outcome which have weak/non-existent evidence. Some have argued that voter suppression in the form of new voter ID laws removed enough people from the rolls to flip close states. The only state where it is mathematically possible for this to have happened is Wisconsin, and even that is fairly improbable. At any rate, Wisconsin going to Clinton would not have been enough to change the overall outcome. Another is that third party campaigns spoiled the election in Trump’s favor.41 That appears to be true in Michigan, where Jill Stein received over 50,000 votes and where Clinton lost by less than 11,000. Gary Johnson received enough of the vote in all key swing states to flip the election the other direction if all of his supporters voted Clinton. The spoiler effect explanation relies on a good deal of pure speculation, however. It’s fair to assume that many of these voters wouldn’t have cast ballots at all if Clinton and Trump were their only options, and many would have voted for Trump. It is true that Johnson’s candidacy net harmed Clinton, but not by much, and (disturbingly) a number of Green Party voters consider Trump to be the lesser of two evils, given Clinton’s Syria platform and the general hysteria about her being uniquely corrupt. It is probably fair to say that third party candidacies increased overall turnout but slightly reduced the number of votes both Trump and Clinton received. A third, idiotic to the point that it shouldn’t be dignified with a response, is that the Sanders primary challenge cost her the election.

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So what, the wayward and uncertain Lenins of today ask, is to be done?

I won’t pretend to have perfect answers. What I believe ought to (even must) be done—libertarian municipalist revolt, grounding anti-fascist resistance in deeply rooted confederations of participatory democracy and communalism—is almost certainly beyond what we are organizationally capable of in the present moment.42 Our window of opportunity is narrow, and I think the conditions will never be riper for the progressive Left to seize control over the leadership of the Democratic Party.

I have been agnostic on the party question for quite some time. This election cycle, however, has cleared most of my uncertainty. I’m absolutely committed to the principles of pluralistic, multi-party democracy and hope to contribute to a movement of electoral reform to open up the field beyond our present political polarity. I remain registered as a member of the Green Party, though I’m increasingly skeptical of their potential as a vehicle for ecosocialist political struggle.

Unless we are first able to implement reforms doing away with first-past-the-post elections, all third party organizing efforts outside of urban centers where Democrats easily win more than two thirds of the vote are doomed to fail and will likely backfire. Furthermore, election law is designed to restrict third party ballot access far beyond any other election system on earth, excepting actual single-party states where opposition parties are illegal.43 Major party control of state legislatures would allow them to easily restrict third party opposition further, with corrupt impunity. It may be important for the organizational structure of embryonic third parties to be in place, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that those parties will ever be positioned to change the rules of the game to make multi-party democracy possible. And the era of Trump is not exactly an ideal time for trailblazing the spoiler effect from the left.

The Democratic Party establishment has never in living memory been more disgraced, nor more vulnerable to ousting by opposition from the Left. This unprecedented failure is an opportunity to marginalize or expel the neoliberal center from the Party altogether, engage the popular base, and fashion it into a real social democratic party committed to returning democratic control of our government to the people. Progressives and leftists of all stripes should engage directly in the Democratic Party itself at all levels, that den of mediocrity and betrayal, brush the cobwebs from the ideals of the Great Society and the New Deal and the Freedom Budget, and infuse our own fresh visions of socialism, racial and sexual equality, and participatory democracy. 

As my comrade John Michael Colón is constantly harping on me about, we should also have no illusions about this task being straightforward or likely to succeed. There are serious structural problems within the Democratic Party, most notably the oligarchic relationship between donors and its decision-making apparatuses and the absence of a mass party membership with any authority outside of primary elections. And even that authority is constrained by superdelegates and the power of donors. What I’m suggesting is a sort of left Tea Party rooted in grassroots organizing and popular movements, retaining organizational and financial autonomy within the Party itself.  We would pursue the formation of a mass dues-paying membership, to whom the caucus/bloc/party-within-a-party leadership would be accountable. This both gives us a seat at the table (by becoming major fundraisers) so that we can restructure the Party as a whole, as well as an exit option as a potentially viable third party. The exit option serves two related purposes. First, it’s an insurance policy should the neoliberals betray us, which we should operate under the assumption they will attempt to do. Second, it’s a threat, a bargaining chip to ensure that that betrayal is less likely. This bloc could agitate and wrangle to reframe the Party in democratic socialist (or, at the very least, social democratic) terms: a force of populist, principled politics for working class folk. There was a time when the Democrats were something approximating this, but racist and patriarchal. Playing party politics intelligently over the next two years is perhaps our best shot in history to create an engine of progressivism worth fighting for.

There is more about what is to be done than party realpolitik. We can organize coalitions of local movement organizations to fashion a popular front (spanning liberals to the radical left) to resist the federal government at the local level and ousting irresponsive municipal officials. We can upscale this into statewide coalitions and, with the right relationships and gutsy leadership, into a national resistance movement. Over the next four years, we must also craft and disseminate the coherent narrative that only a leftwing populism of this sort can beat Trumpism. If we’re going to win back Congress and some of the states in 2018, and the White House in 2020, this has to become the new commonsense for American liberalism. And it will require the radical left’s engagement with American liberalism to make it a better version of itself, rather than a continuation of our past impotent disgust for its unacceptable failures. I have little faith that any of this will come from the punditry or commentariat of yesteryear. This will take all of us. So will battening down the hatches for a perilous four years and beyond.

These are dark, dark times, and not just on the home front. I am reminded of Tolkien’s words in The Fellowship of the Ring, written during the ascendant power of the Third Reich and the unspeakable destruction of World War II:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 So we think carefully, and we fight. Brace yourselves, love yourselves, love your comrades, and godspeed.



  1. For a particularly cathartic blamefest, I recommend Alex Pareene’s piece “Fuck Everything and Blame Everyone.”
  2. For a thorough history of the Southern Strategy and how Republican messaging became dependent on coded racial appeals, I strongly recommend the book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, by Ian Haney-López.
  3. For an excellent overview of this party transformation, I strongly recommend Matt Stoler’s recent piece in The Atlantic called “How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul” (October 24, 2016). It places this shift in the wave of New Left reformers who came into office in the mid-seventies after Watergate, rather than post-1991 Cold War triumphalism for the Washington Consensus, which was the narrative I was more familiar with. This piece is extraordinarily well-researched and is so fascinating in part precisely because it is explicitly non-socialist. This comes with some problems (I, for instance, fiercely object to calling the prevalence of small business “economic democracy”). Nevertheless, it has a lot to offer the radical left with respect to grounding a uniquely American socialist politics in a long intellectual and political history of populist vision.
  4. Excepting social issues, obviously.
  5. Andrew McGill, “Bernie Sanders, Union Buster,” The Atlantic, April 27, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/bernie-sanders-union-local-endorsement-labor/478527/. ; Zaid Jilani, “Bernie Sanders Gets Group Endorsements When Members Decide; Hillary Clinton When Leaders Decide,” The Intercept, January 22, 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/01/22/bernie-sanders-gets-group-endorsements-when-members-decide-hillary-clinton-when-leaders-decide/.
  6. Unions are the party’s biggest fundraisers but are largely excluded from party decision-making—there wasn’t a single representative of labor on even this year’s historically progressive platform committee.
  7. This is, of course, a doomed strategy—negative partisanship (voting because you hate the other guy) simply does not turn out as many people as having something to vote for. This election had better have seared that fact into our memories until the days we die.
  8. Emmet Rensin, “The smug style in American liberalism,” Vox, April 21, 2016. http://www.vox.com/2016/4/21/11451378/smug-american-liberalism.
  9. What has gotten really hip lately is declaring that any emphasis on poverty and class struggle is actually just identity politics for cishetero white men.
  10. Edward-Isaac Devore, “How Clinton lost Michigan—and blew the election,” Politico, December14, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/michigan-hillary-clinton-trump-232547.
  11. Some of this math is my own, like 98% sure this is accurate. Data gathered from the following: Daniel S. Levine, “Over 90 Million Eligible Voters Didn’t Vote in the 2016 Presidential Election,” Heavy. http://heavy.com/news/2016/11/eligible-voter-turnout-for-2016-data-hillary-clinton-donald-trump-republican-democrat-popular-vote-registered-results/ ; “Presidential Election in Pennsylvania, 2016,” Ballotpediahttps://ballotpedia.org/Presidential_election_in_Pennsylvania,_2016 ; “Voting & Election Statistics,” Pennsylvania Department of State. http://www.dos.pa.gov/VotingElections/OtherServicesEvents/VotingElectionStatistics/Pages/default.aspx. (Download the “Current Voter Registration Statistics” file.)
  12. Probably the first time many of these liberals have uttered the words “working class” in their lives.
  13. Keep in mind that “winning by 8 points” means 51 to 43 percent, not 54-46. Third parties got a lot of union voters this year.
  14. Ted Hesson and Marianne Levine, “Unions investigate their poor showing for Clinton,” Politico, November 10, 2016. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/labor-unions-hillary-clinton-mobilization-231223.
  15. Greg Toppo, “Teachers unions smarting after many members vote for Trump,” USA Today, November 23, 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/11/23/election-unions-teachers-clinton-trump/94242722/.
  16. “2016 Election: White Working Class and Trump Support.” November 14, 2016. http://electionado.com/canvas/1479173071893.
  17. Looking closer at how rural areas and smaller metros went stronger for Trump than Romney and how Trump actually lost ground relative to Romney in major metros (those with more than half a million people) in fact gives us one of the simplest and most effective arguments for an economic explanation. Most major metro areas have recovered from the recession, while smaller metros and rural areas have not. Rural unemployment remains two percent higher than pre-recession levels. (source: Richard Shearer, “The small town-big city split that elected Donald Trump,” Brookings Institution, November 11, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/11/11/the-small-town-big-city-split-that-elected-donald-trump/) The fact that they are marginally better off now than in 2012 is a cherrypicked data point that obscures the more significant trend of these areas of lower population density trailing well behind the rest of the country.
  18. Derek Thompson, “The Dangerous Myth That Hillary Clinton Ignored the Working Class,” The Atlantic, December 5, 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/12/hillary-clinton-working-class/509477/.
  19. Nate Cohn, “Why Trump Won: Working-Class Whites,” New York Times, November 9, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/10/upshot/why-trump-won-working-class-whites.html?_r=0.
  20. See Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, “The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt,” Slate, December 1, 2016. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/12/the_myth_of_the_rust_belt_revolt.html.
  21. Luke Allen, “Congratulations Liberals: We Have Only Ourselves to Blame for President Trump,” We Can Only Become All the Places We’re From: Inner City Redneck Stuff, November 13, 2016. https://lukejallen.wordpress.com/2016/11/13/congratulations-liberals-you-have-yourselves-to-blame-for-president-trump/.
  22. The federal government’s economic strategy of “industrial decentralization”.
  23. I should point out that rural areas did go for Trump by 3.5 points higher than they did for Romney. (Richard Shearer, “The small town-big city split that elected Donald Trump,” Brookings Institution, November 11, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/11/11/the-small-town-big-city-split-that-elected-donald-trump/.)
  24. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, September 2014, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 564-581. https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf.
  25. If only *sigh*
  26. It’s pronounced “JIIIIIIIIINNNNAAA.”
  27. Maybe megaphoning, now.
  28. A careful listener will also detect anti-Semitic dog whistling in the Trump ad, with its fearful references to a spooky and conspiratorial global cabal of special interests, controlling world governments.
  29. Robert Warren, “US Undocumented Population Drops Below 11 Million in 2014, with Continued Declines in the Mexican Undocumented Population,” Journal on Migration and Human Security, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2016): 1-15. http://jmhs.cmsny.org/index.php/jmhs/article/view/58.
  30. Douglas S. Massey, Karen A. Pren, and Jorge Durand, “Why Border Enforcement Backfired,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 121, No. 5 (March 2016): 1557-1600. http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/684200. ; Belinda I. Reyes, Hans P. Johnson, and Richard Van Swearingen, “Has Increased Border Enforcement Reduced Unauthorized Immigration?”, Research Brief for the Public Policy Institute of California, Issue 61 (July 2002). http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/rb/RB_702BRRB.pdf.
  31. According to Five Thirty Eight, Trump’s primary election voters had a median household income of around $72,000, well above both the national average and the average for non-Hispanic whites. (Nate Silver, “The Mythology of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support,” Five Thirty Eight, May 3, 2016, http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-mythology-of-trumps-working-class-support/.)
  32. Lance Selfa, “Trump’s Middle-Class Army,” Jacobin, September 7, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/trump-voters-populism-middle-class-education-gop/.
  33. Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, anyone?
  34. Beginning to see why Trump always sounds so negative?
  35. I don’t mean to imply that the ideas this passage conveys are “correct.” This is clearly divorced from reality.
  36. We have to keep absolutely clear that this speech was given during a moment where he was first waging a political insurgency against Republicans.
  37. Honey Boo Boo, a reality TV show that tried to market itself as a way for suburbanites to point and snicker at white trash, peaked at around 3 million viewers.
  38. Kate Schimel, “Why Westerners die at the hands of cops,” High Country News, December 19, 2015, http://www.hcn.org/issues/SecretsOfTheDeep/why-westerners-die-at-the-hands-of-cops.
  39. Victor Tan Chen, “All Hollowed Out,” The Atlantic, January 16, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/01/white-working-class-poverty/424341/.
  40. Jacob Bacharach, “Who Lost the White House?”, November 29, 2016, http://theconcourse.deadspin.com/who-lost-the-white-house-1789443349.
  41. See Matthew Rosza, “Jill Stein spoiled the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton,” December 2, 2016, http://www.salon.com/2016/12/02/jill-stein-spoiled-the-2016-election-for-hillary-clinton/.
  42. For a superb discussion of how aspects of a libertarian municipalist strategy can become core features of popular struggle against the Trump administration, I recommend Alexander Kolokotronis’s “Is America ready for a municipalist movement?” (ROAR Magazine, November 27, 2016, https://roarmag.org/essays/us-anti-fascism-municipalism/).
  43. Seth Ackerman, “A Blueprint for a New Party,” Jacobin, Issue 23 (November 21), https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party-ackerman/.