Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Louis Proyect's Elites

I am very happy that Trump won the election--enough so that I'm at least temporarily coming out of healing hibernation to pen this article. Plus I've recovered partial use of my left hand.

On one level this election pitted the Elites against the Hoi Polloi. The case was wonderfully made in a rant by the very talented Micheal Moore, intended as a trailer for his movie, Trumpland. Mr. Moore has his facts wrong--as do my Trotskyist friends--but he certainly gets the emotion right. A vote for Trump is a big "f*** you" to the establishment.

So there is something odd about Louis Proyect's blog. As of this writing he hasn't posted any serious analysis of the election. Yes, there is this article, which ultimately is about whether Jill Stein's 1% is significant. And then there's this, a profanity-laden piece about the history of the Democratic Party. Mostly he's retreated to movie reviews. But nowhere does he explain why Trump won the election. Why did 46.6% of the electorate (and excluding California a majority) vote for a fascist/racist/misogynist/idiot? How is it that the Republicans morphed into the party of the working class, while the Democrats were endorsed by all the sophisticated, right-thinking people?

He claims to be on the side of the working class, but it sure looks like he sides with the elites. I think he's befuddled, which explains his silence.

I infer that from this movie review he authored post-election. I don't read his movie reviews--not because they're bad, but just that I'm not interested. I haven't read this one either, but the first paragraph caught my attention.
Around this time every year I begin to be deluged by DVD’s and Vimeo links geared to the sort of middle-brow films that Hollywood studios submit for consideration to members of New York Film Critics Online for our annual awards meeting in early December. If you’ve ever seen something by Merchant-Ivory, you’ll probably know the kind of movie I’m talking about.
So I don't own a DVD player, I know nothing about the December awards, and I've never heard of Merchant-Ivory. When I watch movies (seldom) it is purely for escapism. So I am (at best) a "middle-brow" movie-watcher--the very kind Mr. Proyect so summarily dismisses.

And of course he's right to dismiss. He knows much more about movies than I do, and there is no reason why he should be held hostage to my (poor) taste. Indeed, when it comes to movies Mr. Proyect is a member of the elite. And despite my disinterest, I'm very happy there is a movie elite--were there not, even the movies I watch (syrupy rom-coms) would be less good.

Even in politics one has to place value in elites. After all, you want people in government who actually know something, and perhaps are even competent. Filling the halls with proletarian ignoramuses inevitably leads to disaster, as the Bolsheviks discovered beginning on October 8th 1917. "Peasants with Pitchforks" makes for a nice slogan, but you don't really want them in power. Much better is somebody from Goldman-Sachs.

Mr. Proyect, subconsciously at least, yearns for an elite, but it's the wrong kind of elite. His elite is not competent public servants, but rather people who claim to know what we want better than we do ourselves. Because of supposed climate change, for example, the American working class is required to fork over billions of dollars to third-world kleptocrats (or at least that's what the Paris accords require). Because cities are such charming places, Mr. Proyect's elites want to force us all into denser housing (aka tenements) so as to restore the mythical sense of community of yore. Mr. Proyect's elites are against almost all technological progress, from fracking to GMO agriculture. Their goal is poverty for everybody (except for the elite nomenklatura). And worse, our movie elites, instead of just making our movies better, want to force-feed us politically correct propaganda.

So who are Mr. Proyect's elites? Certainly they include people like Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, Jeff Mackler, and--yes--Hillary Clinton. Mr. Proyect will undoubtedly complain that I put all these people in the same basket, and he is right that there are distinctions between them. Ms. Clinton, for example, is not merely elite in the sense I've described, but also claims (incredibly) to be a competent politician. As such, she's more willing to compromise with the status quo.

None of the rest make any concessions to reality. "Free college for all," insisting that American workers (e.g., Walmart employees) pay tuition for the children of the elite, is among their more ridiculous demands. Taxing the top 0.1% of the population into oblivion is not a viable way of raising anybody's standard of living. Putting the pharmaceutical companies out of business won't improve health care. Banning all technological innovation more consequential than an iPhone makes for a stagnant, poorer society.

We'll leave aside the explicit antisemitism, the rabid bigotry against religious people (especially Catholics), the unvarnished hatred of the Scots-Irish, and the deep suspicion that something traitorous is the matter with Kansas (and the rest of rural America). The fact is that Mr. Proyect's elites hate and fear most Americans. They do so because they claim to speak on our behalf, but at some level realize that we don't want to live in the way they prescribe.

So we voted for Donald Trump.

Now that's very strange. After all, far from being a Peasant with a Pitchfork, Mr. Trump is himself very proudly a member of the elite. He's made no attempt to hide it, flying around in his own plane, living in a gold-plated penthouse, and owning expensive, golf resorts. Notwithstanding the "blue-collar billionaire" moniker, Mr. Trump is just as elite as Misters Goldman and Sachs.

But that gets us back to where we started. I did say we need elites. I voted for him precisely because he isn't a peasant. He really does know something about how the system works and has connections to people who know even more. The difference between Mr. Trump and the rest of them is not his class. No, it's instead who he works for.

Because Mr. Trump can listen. He understands the plea of Middle America for some cultural stability. Not stasis, mind you, but at least a more modest rate of change. There is no question that globalization--hugely enriching overall, and in the long term good for everybody--is highly disruptive in particular times and places. One can't stop it, but perhaps one should slow it down. He realizes that the path to a richer society is to let people earn a living--be it by fracking, or mining, or trading securities, or building houses, or growing food. The obscene level of regulation prohibits citizens from earning an honest living.

Example: Does anybody remember the name Eric Garner? He was the poor fellow inadvertently killed by police officers in Staten Island. He tried to scratch out a living selling "loosies", i.e., individual cigarettes. This is illegal because the State of New York (I'm looking at you, Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio) needs the tax revenue from tobacco. So the cops went after him. Mr. Garner wasn't too bright and the scuffle led to his death.

The Left, including Mr. Proyect's elites, blamed Racism on the part of the police. But they've got the wrong "R" word. The real word is Revenue. Mr. Garner was killed for selling a legal product on a public street, not because he was Black, not because the cops are racist, but because Mr. Proyect's elites are against smoking, they need revenue, and anybody who gets in their way has to be dealt with mercilessly.

When Mr. Trump talks about deregulation, that's what he's talking about. Citizens (such as Mr. Garner) have a right to earn an honest living. The sniveling, hypocritical, selfish elites that populate Mr. Proyect's political universe don't understand that. They're too greedy, too self-righteous, too interested in some stupid cause (saving the planet, stopping smoking, overthrowing capitalism), to care about little people like Mr. Garner.

We can all be very grateful that Mr. Trump won the election.

Further Reading:

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sympathy for Jack Barnes

Yesterday I took a fall and broke my arm. So now I share the same problem as Mr. Barnes, though he has many decades experience on me. Typing for me is now ridiculously slow--I'm sure Mr. Barnes can knock out essays in a jiffy. I suspect I'll get better at one-handed typing over the next few weeks. Right now I'm still in too much pain to work at it.

Anyway, this blog will probably be on hiatus for a couple of months. I simply can't take on Jack, Jeff, Bonnie, or Diane one-handed.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Socialist Action's Convention

I'm late to the party--Socialist Action's (SA) convention occurred in mid-August, with results reported in an article dated on August 29th. Better late than never.

Unlike the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), SA provides us with no statistics whatsoever. They don't say how many people were present, nor how many visitors they had from other countries. (They do mention visitors from Canada.) Indeed, the paper doesn't list the locations of their branches--it's impossible to get in touch with them without going through the National Office.

One supposes this secretiveness is for "security," i.e., they're afraid of retaliation by the State or its irregular henchmen. But I don't think they should worry--they are not terrorists, nor do they represent any threat to our political system. Nobody cares what they do.

I think "security" is just a ruse. In fact, they are a small and shrinking organization, ashamed of their inability to attract new members.

The August 29th article broadly summarizes the Political Resolution (a summary of the current, global political situation) and the Organizational Report (the proposed activity of the Party in the immediate future). These two are supposed to mesh--that is, the Party's activities should flow from the global conjuncture. This year, at least, they barely intersect at all.

For example:
Eight years into the world capitalist crisis—the Great Depression of the modern era—no nation on earth can boast anything resembling a recovery. Stagnation and continued decline are the norm the world over, with the broad imposition of austerity measures taking an ever-increasing toll on the working masses and oppressed, while imperialist wars for domination and plunder in all their manifestations proceed seemingly without end on every continent.
This does not seem generally true. While growth has been much slower than desired, there is no question that there has been growth. People with employable skills are doing very well, are getting pay raises, and have a rising standard of living. The current US unemployment rate of 4.9% is not just a propaganda number--it reflects a real labor shortage in significant parts of the economy. Trends are similar in Europe and Japan, especially if you account for stagnant or declining populations. Then the statistics systematically overstate inflation, which means real incomes have been growing faster than is believed. SA's assessment of "ever-increasing toll on the working masses" simply does not reflect reality. Their own newspaper proves as much.

Nevertheless, for unskilled workers the picture is much less bright. Many of them are dropping out of the labor force. So there is a problem, but it's not the problem SA thinks it is.

The report presents five areas where workers are (supposedly) "fighting back."
The fight against increasingly harsh austerity and union-busting attacks on U.S. workers, reflected in the strike of Verizon workers, the on-going fight around a new Chicago Teachers Union contract, and other struggles. [See my post on the Verizon strike.]
The battles of low-wage workers for a $15 minimum wage and a union. [Comments here.]
The fight against racist cop murders and the growing strength of the Movement for Black Lives and other anti-racist groups and coalitions emerging in Black and other communities of oppressed peoples. [BLM helps Trump make a winning Law & Order case.]
The growing struggle against climate change and for a quick and just transition to 100% renewable sources of energy—a struggle that includes the demand for an immediate ban on fracking. [Banning fracking immediately puts hundreds of thousands out of work!]
The movement against deportations and extending the rights of immigrant workers. [Surely they're joking. Illegal immigration is very unpopular these days.]
These are, at least, big issues. Every Trotskyist movement is engaged in them one way or another (possibly excepting the SWP and climate change). So big issues should come with a big, audacious program. If you think that, then you'll be disappointed with the Organizational Report.

The lead activity is to sell more print copies of their newspaper, the eponymous Socialist Action. I was under the illusion that the print version had mostly gone away, for which I previously complimented them. Its resurrection is a sure sign that SA is losing members--they are now following in the footsteps of the moribund SWP.

To support their media they're starting a $25,000 fund drive. If the average comrade contributes $250, then they have about 100 members, or not much bigger than the SWP (albeit without the long list of sympathizers).

However, "[t]he most pressing task in the coming months is to expand the 2016 Socialist Action campaign of Jeff Mackler for U.S. president and Karen Schraufnagel for vice president." This includes "organized national tours" (as opposed to disorganized ones) in September and October. Checking their Events Calendar (per their suggestion), as of this writing they have (had) six events scheduled for September and one for October.

This hardly rises to the occasion: an unprecedented capitalist crisis yielding unrelenting economic misery. Beyond which Mr. Mackler is a terrible candidate (even worse than Hillary), and Ms. Shraufnagel is an avowed anti-Semite.

The last part of the article is about their "antiwar" efforts. They talk around it a bit, but ultimately they support Bashar al-Assad in Syria. They're against any and all of his opponents because 1) they might receive some paltry aid from the United States, and 2) SA still can't bring themselves to support ISIS (though I bet that's coming).

I have long since given up on following the situation in Syria--it's much too complicated. I refer my SA friends to fellow blogger, Louis Proyect, who definitely knows something about Syria. Further, whatever else Mr. Proyect has to say, he is absolutely correct about Assad--he should not be supported under any circumstances whatsoever. I definitely agree with that conclusion.

Of course backing Assad is completely consistent with SA's support for Kim Jong-un and Hamas. Their mantra is to find the very worst characters on any block, notice that those assholes are not backed by the USA, and accordingly offer SA's backing. It's that simple. And that disgusting.

Further Reading:

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book Review: Are They Rich Because They're Smart?

Are they rich because they're smart?

Oddly, Jack Barnes in his book of that title does not answer that question, though the implicit answer is No.

It's a very strange little book, though I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. It consists of three talks that Mr. Barnes presented to Socialist Workers Party gatherings, with portions updated to reflect the world in 2016.

The first segment, with the same title as the book, is a meditation on The Bell Curve, a famous book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (H&M) published in 1994. It reproduces some apparently off-the-cuff remarks (also delivered in 1994) in answer to a question from the audience. He admits that he hadn't read the whole book, insisting "I don't intend to read any more." It's obvious that in 1994 Mr. Barnes didn't take H&M seriously. So it is ironic that the salience of Mr. Barnes' essay today derives entirely from the continued relevance of that book. Indeed, The Bell Curve has generally withstood the test of time and is probably still worth reading even now.

So how does Mr. Barnes criticize H&M? First are ad hominem attacks. Mr. Murray is described as a "political propagandist." Both authors are accused of not being "geneticists." He makes fun of them for using the word penultimate.

Then he charges them with not being scientific. They don't really claim to be scientific. Mr. Murray is a superb writer and an excellent science reporter. Mr. Herrnstein was a professor of psychology at Harvard. Their book is ultimately about public policy, not science. If you remove the pejorative connotation, Mr. Barnes' description political propaganda isn't bad.

Finally, he just claims they're wrong, offering no evidence whatsoever. Indeed, you will never really learn anything about what H&M actually say. But never mind. You can read it for yourself: The Bell Curve is superbly written and very clear.

One thesis of The Bell Curve is the existence of the Herrnstein centrifugenamely a segregation of society by IQ. H&M predicted that smart people will tend to congregate in "smart" cities, e.g., Boston, New York, and San Francisco. The less smart will stay put in places like Kokomo, Topeka, and Fresno. Since income varies by IQ, the smart cities will become richer. Mr. Barnes quotes H&M to describe the consequences of this phenomenon.
An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution. (p. 23)
These predictions have largely come true, as Mr. Murray demonstrates convincingly in his recent treatise, Coming Apart.

The second part of the book concerns the "enlightened meritocracy." These are professional people--Mr. Barnes picks on lawyers as an example. The essay, written in 2009, champions Barack Obama as a classic representative of this social layer.
The aspiring social layer the president is part of is bourgeois in its class interests, its values, its world outlook--in who it serves. But it's not a section of the capitalist class in becoming. It's not "entrepreneurial," aside from a handful of technology and "social media" billionaires. It's not composed of the owners, top managers, or large debt holders of rapidly expanding new businesses--factories, farms, or financial or commercial enterprises. (p. 52)
People in the meritocracy, who in Mr. Barnes' telling contribute nothing productive to the American economy, are essentially bought off by the bourgeoisie to serve as foot soldiers in the class struggle. The "handful of billionaires" rather contradicts his thesis. There aren't that many billionaires to begin with, and any group with even a handful is certainly entrepreneurial, and includes owners and top managers, etc.

Mr. Barnes assigns not just lawyers to the "meritocracy," but probably also teachers, professors, engineers, most civil servants, accountants, etc. This new class, he says, number in the millions or even tens of millions of people. Perhaps we can roughly equate this professional class with the college educated part of the labor force--maybe 40 million people.

Here's what these people supposedly do:
While the existence and expansion of these strata are largely divorced from the production process, they are very much bound up with the production and reproduction of capitalist social relations. They have a parasitic existence. To maintain their their high incomes and living standards, they are dependent on skimming off a portion of surplus value--"rents"--produced by working people and appropriated by the bourgeoisie. Yet the big majority contribute nothing themselves to the creation of that value, even in wasteful or socially harmful ways.
Or put another way, it's all a big conspiracy theory. The few thousand bourgeoisie bamboozle the millions of professionals into doing their propaganda work for them. For this they get to live in nice houses and eat fancy food.

So he accuses the "meritocracy" of running a con game and of being despicable. But nowhere does he actually say that they're stupid. Indeed--it's hard to imagine they are. After all, running such an effective scam for all these generations requires some smarts. So Mr. Barnes' book is mistitled.

Mr. Barnes puts much to big an emphasis on "production workers." These, in his view, are the only people who actually produce value. Service workers apparently contribute nothing.  To make his case, he reproduces a chart very similar to this, taken from the Economic Policy Institute.

Mr. Barnes' interpretation of this chart is that production workers are getting screwed. Their surplus value is being siphoned off by the "meritocracy" and bourgeoisie.

But this is wrong. Production workers are not the only creators of value, or even the primary ones. The manufacturing cost of an iPhone is $8, or perhaps 2% of the total cost. This is partly because it's made in China, but mostly because most of the value was created in Silicon Valley (engineers and designers), Taiwan (hardware), Israel (software), and Corning, New York (touch-sensitive glass). Among many other things, the "meritocracy" organized the supply-chain logistics--very complicated for a product assembled from all over the world.

Indeed, the chart is readily explained by the obvious fact that production workers play an ever smaller role in actual production. They're replaced by robots, manufactures with fewer moving parts, or bits of software. Since 1980 manufacturing employment has decreased from 19% to 12%, while since 1982 manufacturing output has increased by 131%. Clearly production workers are not the primary actors in this drama.

The final chapter in the book is the only one explicitly about education, and it is by far the least compelling. Mr. Barnes reveals his profound ignorance of even elementary economics, stating that
In fact, higher wages and better working conditions won in struggle by the labor movement put the working class as a whole--together with working farmers and other toiling allies--on a stronger footing to fight for better living standards and conditions of life and work. (p. 93)
He's apparently never heard of labor markets, nor the connection between wages and productivity.

He also claims that education in a capitalist society is completely useless. All, that is, except for "learning to read, learning to write, learning to compute, practicing to increase our attention spans, learning the discipline necessary to study and use our minds." (p. 95). Except for all that.

I'm no great fan of the modern college (as readers of this blog surely know), but Mr. Barnes' comments are so over the top that I can't take them seriously.

I don't know who is supposed to read this book. It certainly isn't scholarly--there is no bibliography, and apart from Herrnstein and Murray, along with a couple odd references to Marx and Engels, there is no serious engagement with any literature. It's hardly a popular book. I can't see hair stylists or former coal miners reading it. Indeed, with references to the likes of James Burnham, it will be mostly incomprehensible to them.

Only Comrades, present and former, will have any interest in this. Apart from my former sympathies I should never have picked it up. It is, I think, silly to go on a drive to sell this door to door.

But if you are a former Comrade, then Mr. Barnes is a good writer, and this is a fun if completely uncompelling read.

Further Reading:

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Women Are From Venus; Trotskyists Are From Pluto

It's usually rude to comment on somebody's appearance. An unspoken rule among college professors is to never do that, especially to women and not even when it's complimentary. That's professional courtesy augmented by a dose of political correctness. The pretense is that appearances aren't important--it's what shows up in a person's soul that counts.

Of course the pretense is wrong. We are all physical beings, and our lives depend crucially on what we look like. My life's chances are significantly reduced because I'm not a 6'5" NFL football player. Similarly, most women aren't beautiful enough to be a movie star or a famous fashion model. Those are extreme examples, but tall, handsome men earn more money and have more beautiful wives and more successful children than us shorter, fatter fellows. Similarly, beautiful women are more likely to snag the tall, handsome, wealthy husband.

So when Trotskyists knock on doors politicking, they think it is only the issues that count: low wages, unemployment, evil cops, etc. But of course that's not true. Whenever two people meet, especially when they are of the same gender, there is a status competition. And who wins depends very much on appearance, whether Trotskyists realize that or not.

They obviously don't realize it, as illustrated by the cover article in this week's Militant. Entitled Socialist Workers Party: 'Defend Voter's Rights!'it's obviously intended to further working class politics. It tells the story of Comrade Ellen Brickley, who knocked on the door of Miss Renee,* identified as a hair stylist. They're shown in the picture, reproduced below. Zero points for guessing who Ms. Brickley is.

Of course it's risky to judge an interaction based on a still photo--that's a millisecond slice easily taken out of context. Yet The Militant's editors saw fit to publish this photo, so presumably it represents something they think is both typical and flattering.

The obvious irony is Ms. Brickley--who has likely not visited a hair stylist in years, if ever--is now soliciting one. It's not clear what she expects to accomplish. The Trotskyist view (explained by Evelyn Reed) is that women doll themselves up only to entertain men and for no other reason. Miss Renee, by this account, is totally in hock to the patriarchy, completely hypnotized by us evil guys.

Of course that's not true. While men are certainly part of the picture, fashion is as much a status competition among women as anything else. Beautiful women have every reason to flaunt it, and even less attractive women do their best. Most people call it self esteem.

So Miss Renee wins this status competition hands down. Not only is she naturally more attractive, but she obviously takes care of herself and looks as good as she can. She emphasizes her femininity to the point of provocation. Ms. Brickley, meanwhile, has just thrown in the towel.

So now it's easy to write a caption for this picture. Miss Renee (who as a hair stylist is only rarely the high-status female in the room) is definitely the top dog in this encounter. That's why she's enjoying it so much, smiling broadly as she looks down, patronizingly, at her visitor. She's doing her best to extend the encounter for as long as possible, which is why she feigns interest in Trotskyist politics.

Ms. Brickley, meanwhile, looks very uncomfortable, even angry. At some level she knows she's being had.

It is inconceivable to me that somebody like Miss Renee would ever join the SWP. At very least she'd have to shave her head and give up her career as a hair stylist. She'd have to voluntarily renounce whatever status she has and become an ugly bitch. Of course she's not going to do that! Ms. Brickley, apart from humiliating herself, has also wasted her time.

You think I'm kidding about the haircut? Ms. Brickley's coiffure is similar to the Trotskyist comrades of my youth. Women comrades tended to be homely, and accordingly disavowed any interest in beauty, as less attractive women are wont to do.

It holds true even today. This picture dates from 2013, and shows Margaret Trowe campaigning for Des Moines city council, visiting Miss Essie* sitting on her porch. Miss Essie is a retired hotel cleaner.

The status gap between the two women is not quite so obvious. Still, at least Miss Essie is recognizably female, which is more than one can say for Ms. Trowe (at least from the picture). Further, Miss Essie was likely quite attractive in her younger years. I'll hazard that she has children and grandchildren, unlike Ms. Trowe. So I'll count Miss Essie as the more successful, higher status woman. Ms. Trowe's subservient posture suggests as much.

Ms. Trowe has the same Trotskyist-style haircut as Ms. Brickley. She's obviously a low-status woman, and it's not clear to me why higher-status folks would want to join her organization. People want to move up in the world--not down.

*The Militant cites full names for Miss Renee and Miss Essie. I choose not to include those to save them any further embarrassment.

Further Reading:

Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Author J.D. Vance's older half-sister, Lindsay, has a successful life: stable marriage, three children, a house in the suburbs.

Hardly the stuff memoirs are made of. Mr. Vance has been more adventurous: after a stint in the Marine Corps he got a law degree from Yale University, though again that's not material for a best-seller.

Yet best-seller is precisely what Mr. Vance's autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, has become. The tale is not in the outcome but rather how they got there. Mr. Vance (and his sister) endured the Childhood from Hell. Their mother was a drug-addict, and J.D.'s father--one of a long succession of men who passed through his life as one of Mom's boyfriends or husbands--was an alcoholic.

So normally this book wouldn't interest me. Count me hardhearted, but tales of troubled children are not generally on my reading list. Tearjerker memoirs don't rank high, either. But Mr. Vance's book is not that, or at least not just that. It is a serious effort to understand the hillbilly culture in which he grew up. That I found fascinating, besides which it is beautifully written.

Mr. Vance credits his grandparents--Mamaw and Papaw--for his success. They were born in Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky, even today known as one of the poorest counties in America. As young adults Mamaw and Papaw traveled north along the "hillbilly highway" to look for work in the industrial Midwest, settling in Middletown, Ohio, where Mr. Vance was born. He has fond childhood memories of trips back to Jackson to visit his great-grandmother, Mamaw Blanton, along with other relatives.

It's a matriarchal world. The men come and go, and the women get pregnant as teenagers. Mamaw (a heavy smoker) lived only into her mid-seventies, but survived long enough to supervise a whole passel of great-grandchildren.

"Hillbilly" (the word used freely by Mr. Vance) is a slightly pejorative synonym for Scots-Irish. If you believe Scott Alexander, that term is also misleading, as there's no Irish blood involved at all. Instead hillbillies descend from the Scottish Borders, that lowland part of Scotland that was fought over for a thousand years ending in the 18th Century. Every summer one army or another would pass through, doing, I suppose, what armies of that era did: looting, raping and pillaging.

So no wonder the Borders people were clannish, deeply suspicious of outsiders, exceedingly sensitive to insult, and prone to violence. In North America they initially settled as far from authority as they possibly could, in the mountain fastnesses of Pennsylvania, Western Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. In the 19th and 20th Centuries economic deprivation forced them to wander--to Arkansas, Oklahoma and California, and then to the industrial Midwest along the trail that Mamaw and Papaw followed.

From a demographic viewpoint they are a successful people. And no surprise since they possess positive character traits as well: loyalty, courage, self-reliance.

Now if you believe authors like Nicholas Wade and Gregory Clark, then the concept of gene/culture co-evolution comes as no surprise. That states that cultures select for certain genes, and/or genes favor particular cultural attributes. Either way, over time (and a thousand years is certainly long enough) cultural attributes become inscribed in the genome. Thus hillbillies are, in some sense, born that way, at least as predisposition.

Mr. Vance, born a hillbilly, definitely shows the personality traits of his tribe. He is fiercely loyal to his family (insulting his mother is the surest route to a fistfight), served as a combat Marine in Iraq, and (justly) takes great pride in his ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Reading between the lines, I infer he has a tendency toward alcoholism (he drinks throughout the book).

But in one very important way--not mentioned explicitly in the book--he is very different from most Scots-Irish. He is very smart.

He is smarter than I am. Despite my upper middle class upbringing, I could never have aspired to attend Yale Law School. Even if I survived the IQ cutoff, I simply don't have the ability to work 16 hour days. In this he differs, not just from most hillbillies, but even from most people.

So Mr. Vance did inherit something from his grandparents: a high IQ. It's pretty obvious from the book that Mamaw and Papaw, however uneducated, certainly were not dumb. Even Mom, helpless though she was, had some serious smarts about her. While his grandparents clearly rescued him from absolute disaster, his stunning success in life is less due to what they did, but more on what he inherited from them.

There are simple tests given to toddlers that measure an ability to defer gratification. The archetype is known as the marshmallow test. A child is offered one marshmallow now (placed on a plate in front of him while the tester leaves the room), but if he can wait 15 minutes then he will get two. There is a strong correlation between passing the marshmallow test and future success in life, e.g., SAT scores, time spent in jail, future earnings, etc. The marshmallow test also correlates with IQ.

So Mr. Vance clearly would've passed the marshmallow test, even as a child. But many in his family wouldn't have. His Mom would've failed. Maybe even Mamaw would've failed. The stereotype for hillbillies is precisely that they're impulsive and undisciplined. Which implies that on average they're not very smart (I don't know if that's true).

Mr. Vance and his family are obviously a huge exception.

Toward the end of the book Mr. Vance stops talking about "hillbillies," and begins to identify more with the "working class." These groups overlap, but they are far from being the same thing. "Hillbilly" refers to an ethnic group, while "working class" is an economic entity not defined by genes. "Working class" does not denote a cluster of personality traits.

Hillbillies, successful in many contexts, are dysfunctional in the modern, urban, service economy. Mr. Vance is right to be skeptical about various government programs to help them. But I don't think he's skeptical enough. For if you take the above arguments seriously, there is no way a bespoke pre-school program or some special third grade curriculum is going to magically give ornery hillbillies a personality transplant. A thousand years of gene/culture co-evolution can't be undone that easily.

The poor will always be with us

Further Reading:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Principled Presidential Campaigns

Trotskyists put great store on principle. It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, that all of the grouplets I follow are principled in their attitudes toward the 2016 presidential election campaign. Despite the invective they'd likely throw at each other, all of them are loyal to the ideals of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of my youth.

In 1936 the SWP took the French Turn, imitating a tactical innovation first used by comrades in France. This entailed joining the Socialist Party (SP), an organization that today has evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America, among other splinter groups. But in the 1930s the SP was the premier, non-Stalinist exponent of Marxism.

The SWP maintained this was a tactic to recruit cadre to revolutionary socialism, which is what I always believed as a comrade. Hence this claim comes as a surprise:
Although party leader Jim Cannon later hinted that the entry of the Trotskyists into the Socialist Party had been a contrived tactic aimed at stealing "confused young Left Socialists" for his own organization, it seems that at its inception, the entryist tactic was made in good faith.
Whatever the truth, The Militant suspended publication for a couple years until the Party reemerged as an independent organization in 1937, having doubled its membership.

In the interim my ancestral comrades must have supported and/or voted for Norman Thomas for President in 1936. Or at least not opposed him.

I recite this history because the modern analog to Norman Thomas is either Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, or both. What is unprincipled is support for the candidate of a bourgeois party, e.g., the Democratic Party. But none of the grouplets advocate a vote for Hillary Clinton.

My friends in Solidarity are the most consistent in following the former SWP's lead. In a recent editorial they strongly endorse Jill Stein. The piece contains a stunningly clear statement of Trotskyist principles:
Looking not only toward November but also beyond, especially to Bernie Sanders’ supporters who reject the dead-end option of Hillary Clinton, we urge you to consider that you need more than a different candidate: you need a different party. Hillary Clinton, after all, did not “hijack” the Democratic Party. She represents exactly what the Democratic Party really is: Wall Street connections, militarism, and all. There was no way that Bernie Sanders was going to be the Democratic nominee.
A way to phrase this is that Solidarity is making a French Turn into the Green Party. There is certainly nothing unprincipled about this, nor is it inconsistent with Trotskyist history.

Solidarity was certain that Bernie would never be the nominee, and it turns out they were right. In their editorial they go out of their way to be as friendly to Bernie supporters as they can be, e.g., in the lede:
Bernie Sanders' campaign for a “political revolution” lit up the 2016 primary election season like a meteor across the sky. Contrary to conventional wisdom that he’d peak and fade early, Sanders’ challenge to the Democratic party machine lasted throughout the primaries. Surpassing all expectations, he won 23 primary and caucus contests, raised an astonishing $222 million almost exclusively in small donations, and gathered over 1800 pledged delegates.
Louis Proyect (not a grouplet, but a blogger of some renown) gives no credit to Mr. Sanders.
After it became clear that the Sanders Political Revolution was history, the pro-Clinton propagandists redirected their fire at Jill Stein. The contrast between Sanders and Stein could hardly be greater but that made little difference to those who not only favored the two-party system but the hegemonic role of ruling class politicians like the Bushes, the Clintons and Barack Obama within it. Even though Sanders never had any intention of making a breach with corporatist Democrats, he was considered a trouble-maker for pointing out the obvious, namely that the system was rigged in favor of Wall Street.
It's not clear to me what the programmatic differences were between Bernie and Jill--indeed, Jill even offered to give up her candidacy if Bernie would run on the Green Party ticket. Bernie's sin was never programmatic--instead it was his commitment to the Democratic Party.

Solidarity understood this, and may even have supported Mr. Sanders during the primary. However confident they were he would lose, had he won they would've dropped him like a hot potato. Fighting for socialism and supporting the Democratic Party are incompatible no matter what flavor of Trotskyism you subscribe to.

Socialist Viewpoint, very oddly, has almost nothing to say about the 2016 election. The only relevant article in the July/August issue is a very weird piece by Robert Meeropol, entitled Trumpophobia. He is completely convinced that Trump is the second coming of Hitler, but nevertheless he can't bring himself to support Hillary.
A willingness to vote for the status quo because Trump is worse is also a subtle form of cognitive dissonance. It is a refusal to acknowledge, or to act on the knowledge, that we are about to run out of time and so must make climate change the number one priority. Instead of confronting a longer-term, but qualitatively deadlier, environmental impact, some progressives propose we vote for Clinton, a candidate whose policies make that end result more likely, in order to avoid the more immediate sociopolitical threat of Trump. I admit this is not an easy choice, but choosing the latter over the former could be our worst mistake.
Fine. That is consistent with Trotskyism. But nowhere does he tell us who he will vote for--there is no endorsement of Jill Stein or anybody else. And while I have not read every article in the magazine, I detect nothing but abstentionism.

So if Solidarity and Louis Proyect advocate a French Turn into the Green Party, then Socialist Action (SA) and the SWP do not. Of course the French Turn decision is totally tactical--there are no principles at stake. So I accuse nobody of violating their historical consciences.

The SWP's strategy is perhaps a riff on the French Turn theme. They certainly are not supporting Donald Trump, but they are cozying up to his supporters. Their candidates, Alyson Kennedy and Osborne Hart, are specifically addressing the concerns of White, working-class Americans. For the Left this is a very unusual and risky strategy, but the potential payoff could be large. The risk is that they cross a line of principle, though I see no indication of that happening. At least they have a more accurate assessment of what the Trump campaign actually represents, unlike, say, Mr. Meeropol.

The SWP has an advantage in that it's the only grouplet to disown the climate crackpottery enthusiastically embraced by the other comrades. And further, they've rejected antisemitism, which is more than you can say for Jill Stein.

The silliest instantiation of Trotskyism (perhaps barring Mr. Meeropol) is the tactic followed by SA. They are running their own fearless leader as president. This is doubling down on being a really tiny, little, insignificant sect. No intelligence. No leverage. No outreach. It's a complete zero.

Further Reading: