We Need Some Scandinavian Solidarity

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in our March/April 2020 print edition. Since then, as Covid-19 has exploded in the United States—particularly in Houston, Texas—and almost entirely disappeared from Norway, we find that the contrasts highlighted in this essay are more relevant than ever.

I am not used to people respecting laws. Growing up in a wealthy exurb of Houston, I know that shiny muscle cars are meant to be purchased by rich oil families to give to their 16 year-old kids to race down empty streets while drunk early in the morning. I know that taxes are a terrible sham that should never be paid. And, as a journalist based in the Middle East, I know the only way to get across the street is to weave in between fast-moving cars, since there are no real sidewalks (and also that taxes are a terrible sham that should never be paid). For much of my life, I’ve taken this kind of chaos to be a central organizing factor in civic life across the globe: laws are made by disconnected politicians and enforced by bloodless bureaucrats; laws should be broken because they are impediments to your individual success.

So the first time I visited Norwayto meet my partner’s familyI was surprised to find a world where no one operated in this way. People in cars not only followed traffic laws, but pedestrians were genuinely expected to wait their turn to cross the road. Rather than be seen as a terrible sham, taxes were considered a civic duty; a contribution to a system that helps ensure a stable, prosperous life to all. People worked 7.5 hour days, and went jogging and skiing as if it were legally mandated. They ate boring but healthy food, and lived long lives. In the winter, they lit candles, drank dark beer and aquavit liquor, and vacationed in the mountains for weeks at a time. In the summer, they switched to light beer and relaxed along Norway’s beaches, again for weeks at a time. There was a collective sense that orderliness was maintained by investing in the commons and taking plenty of time off work. It was all so damned rational and based on what seems like a scientific method of living well. I found it all sickeningly sweet. 

Since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run, talk of the ‘Nordic model’ of governance has swept through American political conversations. Leftists point to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland as examples where governments have successfully implemented lasting welfare policies, which distribute wealth more effectively than the unfettered ‘bootstrap’ capitalist wasteland America has decayed into. People in Scandinavian countries have higher life expectancies, higher wages, less working hours, more leisure time, better health care, and generally score higher on happiness indices.  “There is no question that Finland, as well as other Scandinavian countries have much to be proud of,” Sanders said in a 2008 speech. “These are models, it seems to me, that we can learn from.”

It’s an alluring set of facts, and a whole subcategory of politicians, analysts and scholars are dedicated to trying to transport the Nordic model to other countries around the world. But there’s also a contrarian army who argue the Nordic model either only works for Scandinavia or doesn’t work at all, so it’s obviously doomed to fail in the United States and we shouldn’t even try. Socialism collapsed Sweden’s economy and almost threw it into a full-blown dictatorship during a banking crisis in the early 1990s, the Federalist decries. Socialism makes people lazier, maintains CATO senior fellow Johan Norberg. Meanwhile, Jim Geraghty of the National Review asked why Nordic countries ranked in the top 12 users of antidepressants, if American capitalism is so much worse. “Isn’t it possible,” Geraghty asked, “that a generous, far-reaching welfare state depletes people’s sense of drive, purpose, and self-respect, and enables them to explore chemical forms of happiness?” Still others argue that the only reason Scandinavia can have its great welfare state is because it is racially homogenous, implying that the only way to curb the worst instincts of capitalism is to create stratified ethno-states. “Finland is as big as two Missouris, but with just 5.2 million residents, it’s ethnically and religiously homogeneous,” former Washington Post journalist Robert Kaiser writes. “A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to consensus.” 

Before visiting the region and learning its political history, I was susceptible to these types of arguments. They were so easy to point out. Scandinavia is a few tiny resort clubs compared to the big hulking mammoth of the United States. We’re too messy, diverse, and populous to look like them, I thought in passing moments. I now know this conversation gets something wrong about the Nordic model. Discussions of the model often frame it as though Scandinavian policies were made in a governance laboratory by experts tasked with calculating What Is Best. According to this myth, Scandinavian politicians figured out that welfare states simply worked well for them, so they made them happen. If this were true, then all we need to do to improve the United States is to create a list of appealing policies, have American policymakers champion them, then let a team of experts implement everything. But this frame ignores the powerful social forces that mobilized and built the Nordic model in the first place. 

Norwegian policies stem from decades of civil and political struggle, radical labor militancy and formal integration through a representative government. If Norway seems idyllic and orderly today, it’s because Norwegians, for the most part, identify themselves with a history of socialist solidarity and a collective past memorializing that struggle. By the same token, one reason why the United States doesn’t look like Norway or Sweden now is that organized labor efforts were stifled during the 20th century. Labor interests weren’t able to form parties in government and were often violently put down. It is a mistake to assume Norwegians magically relegated the market away from controlling their lives, or that they were able to spontaneously fabricate social cohesion out of their supposed homogenous ethnic makeup. On the contrary, Norwegians fought tooth and nail for their welfare state. So did the Finns, Swedes, and Danes. These policies—and the mindsets that inform them—are byproducts of a powerful, multifaceted movement which generated popular demands for more humane policies and a discourse about the good life that shaped their government for decades. 

The Norwegian Mindset

Norwegians love looking like each other. I am only half-joking. It really does seem they consciously cultivate a sense of a shared identity. One of the first things I noticed about Norwegians is how similar their attire is: it’s a lot of loose-fitting mom jeans, neutral dark colors, and chunky shoes. Standing out by wearing bright colors and flashy clothes is quietly stigmatized. And if you’re looking for a soda, there is apparently only one that is revered by the whole country: Pepsi Max. Signs for Pepsi Max saturate every major Norwegian city, and  in the aisles of every single one of Norway’s boutique-sized grocery stores, I could always find a sizable mountain of stacked Pepsi Max bottles. I do not know why this is, and Norwegians don’t seem to know either. 

Even in their food, Norwegians are trained from an early age to emphasize modesty. “In Norway, you’re not supposed to look forward to your lunch,” Ronald Sagatun, a Norwegian YouTuber focused on culture quipped to the BBC about the tradition. “It’s kind of a strict thing. [Lunch is] easy to make, easy to carry around, easy to eat, but it should be a disappointment.” Many Norwegians’ diets are based around putting small amounts of fish, cheese, and spreads on crisp  bread (Knekkebrød), and eating rationally distributed portions of well-balanced, boringly healthy food, usually in packed lunches called matpakke. 

Scandinavia’s relationship to humility and the collective over the individual was satirized in 1933 by Askel Sandemose, a Danish-Norwegian author, in his book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. Sandemose writes of a small, fictional Danish town called Jante, which lives under ten laws:

  1. Do not think you are anything special.
  2. Do not think you are as good as us.
  3. Do not think you are smarter than us.
  4. Do not imagine yourself better than us.
  5. Do not think you know more than us.
  6. Do not think you are more important than us.
  7. Do not think you are good at anything.
  8. Do not laugh at us.
  9. Do not think anyone cares about you.
  10. Do not think you can teach us anything.

These ‘laws,’ known as Janteloven, are worded as stern commands but reflect a pervasive mindset that still holds sway in Norway and its neighboring countries. Norwegian friends I’ve spoken to have a mixed relationship to the social codes, but still feel compelled by their emphasis on the collective. A few have even taken vows to give away the money they receive from their inheritance out of a personal sense that the money ought to be redistributed more equitably.

Comparatively, I spent the first 18 years of my life in what could be Jante’s nemesis: Cypress, Texas. A sprawling conservative town outside Houston, Cypress is populated by families in constant competition with one another: for the most gargantuan McMansion, for the biggest backyard pool and barbecue pit, for the best school grades and acceptance into the most prestigious, selective universities, for the role of president in the highest number of extracurricular clubs. The governing rules were a practical reversal of Janteloven: the point of every activity was to beat others, whom we were encouraged to imagine as part of a collective, sure, but an antagonistic one. Every home was built inwards, with high fences guarding their yards. A labyrinth of malls anchored social life. 

My family was poor, though. While we were once steadily middle class, the 2008 financial crisis devastated us. In my junior year of high school, my parents lost their seemingly stable jobs, and while friends skied in Colorado over Christmas break, I started working to help pay gas, electricity, and water bills. When classmates spoke of house renovations and fancy food like broccolini, I thought quietly about my microwave meals and the foreclosure letter sitting on the kitchen table staring back at me. Surrounded by Cypress’ ostentatious wealth during the Great Recession, I couldn’t help but feel that I was on the losing side of a game everyone else was winning. I was the sucker who naively thought a collective sense of responsibility would save my family: that the federal government would bail us out somehow. Even though we qualified for food stamps, we rarely used them. They signified to others that we were falling behind, and my mom was too proud to admit that. So we grew increasingly isolated as the recession deepened, and I began to steal food from local grocery stores until I got caught senior year. My only solution was to try and escape by getting a scholarship to a private school in the Northeast.

Einar Gerhardsen and Norway’s Labor Revolt

Around 100 years ago, Norway was caught in an economic crisis not too different from the Great Recession. From the mid-1870s until the eve of World War II, Norway experienced rapid cycles of boom and bust. Historically a relatively poor whaling, fishing, and agricultural economy, the country began quickly industrializing while droves of Norwegians emigrated to America. The political activist and Labour politician Einar Gerhardsen was born in Oslo during this time, to a working-class family that could barely afford food and clothes. As a young man, Gerhardsen became a construction worker and then began labor organizing efforts. In the late 1910s, Gerhardsen, along with revolutionaries like Martin Tranmæl and Oscar Torp, began taking over the Labour Party and orienting it around a socialist labor agenda. Tranmæl became the de facto leader of the Labour Party, and helped to secure Gerhardsen a national role in the party while forming alliances with communists and social democrats. Gerhardsen and his new Labour allies then worked to develop an expansive platform for workers’ rights. 

Einar Gerhardsen, archive of Bjarne Befring

In 1921, when Norway’s GDP fell by 11 percent, Gerhardsen helped plan a major strike and encouraged workers to bring dynamite. A few years later, he was thrown in jail for organizing laborers in a paramilitary fashion. Gerhardsen, Tranmæl, Torp and others were busy organizing strikes with unions while serving in the Labour Party, often oscillating between jail cells and official party roles. Untamed by his jail time, Gerhardsen then organized a campaign to “fill the prisons,” urging unemployed people to steal food from shops en masse in 1927. At one point, he threaten to ‘raise a guillotine’ against Norway’s bourgeois society, who controlled a disproportionate amount of the country’s wealth.

When the Nazis took over Norway in 1940, Gerhardsen, who happened to be the mayor of Oslo at the time, became active in the resistance. The Nazis captured him in September 1941, sending him to Germany where he was sentenced to death. Lucky for him, a Nazi officer covertly involved in the resistance helped save his life by transferring him back to Norway. During his time in the resistance and his imprisonment, Gerhardsen cultivated a wide range of political contacts including communists, antifascists, members of the Christian Democrats, and conservatives to back the Labour Party’s so-called “People’s Front Strategy,” which called for remaking Norway in a democratic socialist vein.

After the war, Gerhardsen was considered a national hero. He resumed his role as mayor of Oslo on April 7, 1945—exactly one day after he was freed by the Allies. In May, he took over as leader of the Labour Party. A few short months after that, Gerhardsen was elected Prime Minister in a landslide. At the time, Norway was a middle-income European country with nowhere near the wealth it enjoys today. Wielding the multifaceted political forces and tactics that Gerhardson and his allies had gathered before the war, Labour rebuilt Norway with socialist welfare policies. Gerhardsen held the post of Prime Minister, with almost no interruption, from 1945 until 1965. “Rather than gold streets, we would have good food,” Gerhardsen later said of his political vision. And indeed, in those two decades, the government increased public spending to account for around a third of its GDP, and ensured unemployment “barely existed,” as one economic history of Norway puts it. It also introduced sharp progressive taxation to pay for a comprehensive welfare state that encompassed schooling, health insurance, pensions, housing protections, and worker rights. Gerhardsen’s initial policies generated more demand for a socialist agenda, giving his government a democratic mandate to further expand Norwegian welfare programs. Gerhardsen’s stated view was simply that governance should always be moving “in a socialist direction.”

illustration by Jamiel Law

Though his Labour government was voted out of power following a mining accident in 1962, he was still urging Norwegians to engage in a “slow revolution” to socialism just a few years before his death in 1987. For his radical achievements, he is known as Landsfaderen, “the father of the nation.” Today, he’s celebrated as a champion not only of groundbreaking accomplishments, but also of Norway’s ideals: concern for the commons, an uncompromising moral clarity, and a tireless work ethic to realize a humane vision for society.  Of course, he was not alone in governing Norway: figures like Labour Party secretary Haakon Lie helped maintain party discipline for their broad governing paradigm. Oscar Torp, a prominent figure in Labour, also led the government from 1951-1955 while Gerhardsen took a brief break from his role as Prime Minister. And these are just the big names, the ones prominently etched into Norway’s history. The thousands who mobilized in the streets during the 1920s and the tireless union leaders, activists, and local politicians who organized throughout the 20th century were vital in securing the welfare state.

In this political climate where collectivist discourse dominated, Norway found oil off its shores. A lot of it. An initial small find in 1963 turned into a gigantic economic opportunity by the late 1960s with the discovery of the Ekofisk oil field, deemed to be one of the largest in the world. Thanks to the highly socialistic welfare state the government had created, and a mandate to bolster the commons, Norway nationalized its oil production and channeled the money into a sovereign wealth fund. To this day, management of the fund is guided by the “ten oil commandments,” designed to ensure the capital garnered from oil “belong[s] to the people.” 

In the 1970s, Norwegians saw their quality of life improve thanks to oil riches, but were keenly aware of their position relative to the rest of the world. In a hilariously revealing 1975 Gallup survey of Norwegians, 76 percent of them felt they were too well off compared to other people. An overwhelming 90 percent also thought they were eating too much, showing the extent to which the Law of Jante impacted their thinking. At the time, Norway’s per capita gross national product was only $50 more than the U.S.’s, and $1,300 less than Sweden. The same Gallup poll showed that the majority of Norwegians wanted to see oil capital strengthen social services rather than reduce their taxes. 

While these widespread sentiments illustrate how far America—and my Texan hometown—have to go before it develops as noble an ethos for the commons, there is much we can learn from this Norwegian history of struggle. It is true that Norway benefited from a deep well of oil (which, given the realities of climate change, is not a stable foundation for social well-being). But Norway’s robust welfare state predated the oil’s discovery, which made an enormous difference. Rather than lead by asking what to do with the enormous wealth they stumbled upon, Norwegians asked how to best guarantee the rights of people given their new resources. This mentality, borne from a militant labor struggle and a multifaceted anti-fascist movement crafting a national vision, still informs Norwegian politics today, and can serve as a model for other movements seeking to gain political power.

Fruits of a Struggle

Today, Norway is considered a social democracy. It enjoys socialized healthcare and virtually free public university education. Most Norwegians work 37.5 hour weeks, overtime is reliably paid, paid maternity and paternity leave is guaranteed for almost twelve months, and most workers get five weeks of paid vacation a year (most often taken during the summer). Norway has one of the lowest rates of income inequality on Earth. Concern for the commons even extends to their prison system, which emphasizes rehabilitating individuals back into society and enjoys one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. Norway is also one of the few countries on Earth with a nearly universal ‘Right to Roam,’ meaning everyone is entitled to camp almost anywhere in the country, even without permission from a landowner.

Much of the country’s economy is dominated by fully or partially state-owned corporations like Telenor, the national telecommunications company; Norsk Hydro, one of the largest aluminum companies on Earth; and Equinor, Norway’s oil and gas company. A large segment of the economy is also made up of worker-owned cooperatives like Tine, the country’s largest dairy producer; Coop Norge, one of the world’s largest retail cooperatives; OBOS BBL, one of the biggest housing co-ops in the world; and KLP, which is the country’s biggest pension company. In practical terms, the prevalence of cooperatives means thousands of Norwegian workers are partial owners of their company, ensuring a level of power that cannot be taken away. To call Norway a mixed economy is correct, but it’s fairer to say that even the capitalist parts are not necessarily owned by capitalists.

The approach to taxes is also different. In Norway, taxes are automatically processed and publicly viewable, meaning you can look up anybody’s tax returns and see how much they make. This unique tool speaks volumes about how different the Norwegian conception of taxes are compared to the United States. In the Janteloven-like social code, it is important for Norwegians to know where they stand in relation to each other economically, and this system reflects this value. With a system like this here, we wouldn’t have to depend on the strange norm of depending on politicians’ personal openness in order to view their tax records. 

In the collective imagination of Norwegian society, the worker looms large, taking cues from Gerhardsen, who wrote a letter to himself in 1922—when he left his construction job to be a union official—saying that “he must always be faithful to the workers who form the roots of the labor movement.” These economic arrangements are not mere concessions by a government or boss. Instead, they are byproducts of a working class that exercised its power to demand these concessions. The Nordic model understands the market as a limited vehicle for acquiring some goods and services, and not as a mystical ideal around which to organize hopes and ambitions. It is a proud antithesis to the American ‘hustle culture,’ where not taking a summer vacation is common. In Norway, companies must secure permission from the government before assigning any individual too much overtime.

Norway is not without its challenges, many of which come from neoliberal and right-leaning political forces that seek to degrade its socialist underpinnings. Successive right-wing governments led by Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg, with help from a consortium of center-right parties, have sought to privatize sections of its mixed economy. Parts of Norway’s extensive train routes are being sold off to private international transportation companies, to the chagrin of its train operators who went on strike in October 2019 to protest. Under the Solberg government, Norway has begun privatizing parts of its military infrastructure. Throughout the Nordic region, education is increasingly being treated more as a commodity with increasing emphasis on evaluating students and their teachers according to standardized test scores, and there’s a subtle push in the curriculum towards instrumentalizing knowledge for specific ends. “There was a shift from the concept of becoming a student for self-cultivation and truth to becoming a market-oriented customer of learning opportunities,” as one 2016 study focusing on Scandinavia’s education system notes. 

This has invited yet more privatization efforts, which have led to a steep rise in private schools across the country. More generally, the percentage of people living in poverty increased from 7.7 percent to 9.3 percent from 2013-2017, the latest year for available data. (By contrast, the poverty rate in the United States for 2017 was between 12.3 and 13.9 percent, depending on sources). Income inequality rates have also steadily risen in Norway due to the lowered taxes on income, wealth, and inheritance implemented under Solberg. Even Gerhardsen’s Labour Party have adopted an increasingly neoliberal platform since the 1980s, allowing it to be outflanked on the left by vocal socialist parties including the Red Party and the Socialistic Left Party. 

One scapegoat for the slow decline of the Nordic model is immigration. The argument goes like this: “Norway took in too many non-white migrants who didn’t share in the social vision developed by the white majority. As such, they are a danger to the social cohesion driving Norway forward.” Official party platforms are careful to word this ideology in acceptable terms, such as  calling for “strict and responsible” immigration limits and subtly linking immigration with crime and terrorism. As Cecilia Marcela Bailliet, a professor at the University of Oslo, explains, “There has been a steady rise in xenophobia within Norway—as well as Scandinavia, Europe, and other regions in the world—based in part on xenophobic narratives promoted by the media, social media, populist parties, most prominently by FrP [the right-wing Progress Party], not Høyre [the center-right Conservative Party].”  In March 2018, Sylvi Listhaug, a notorious far-right Norwegian politician and member of the Progress Party posted on Facebook, “[The] Labour [Party] thinks the rights of terrorists are more important than national security. Like and share.” The post set off a firestorm in the country, and Listhaug eventually resigned, but not before seeking  harsher prison sentences for crimes committed in mostly immigrant-heavy neighborhoods. 

The crackdown on immigrants in Norway is part of a popular racist sentiment that has made substantial gains throughout Europe and galvanized anxious voters to elect right-wing parties seeking to degrade the very welfare state that gave rise to popular conceptions of “the good life” in Europe. It has justified the current Norwegian government’s deportation of Afghan refugees to a warzone, where some have been subsequently killed. One might expect a particularly large amount of unrest and electoral backlash against migrant-friendly parties in places like Oslo, where a third of the population is either foreign-born or first-generation immigrants. But the opposite has happened. In the local elections of September 2019, leftist parties emphasized admitting more refugees and protecting the rights of asylum seekers. Voters rewarded them with huge electoral gains over the centrist and right-leaning parties that sought “strict” intake policies. So the idea that “democratic socialism only works in Norway because of their ethnic homogeneity” is false on several fronts: Norway, despite its fondness for uniformity in clothing, is not ethnically homogenous, and while it is currently experiencing right-wing backlash against immigrants, it’s no different in that respect than much of the rest of Europe, and in the meantime the most heavily migrant-settled city has reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining both the social welfare system and generous policies toward refugees.

 But Can We Do It Here?

Would it work? Can we, and should we, take all or most of the political programs of Norway and apply them in the United States? The answer is yes, emphatically, but not in a technocratic, elitist style. Rather, policies like this have to develop from below. We should focus on building a grassroots movement that can generate a collective sense of the commons, which decommodifies essential goods like education and healthcare while harnessing the government to be more humane and responsive to our collective needs. President Obama’s aborted attempt to socialize healthcare in the United States is a cautionary tale here. Dismantling the grassroots organizing apparatus that thrust him into the White House was not only a tactical mistake, but also reflected a belief that technocratic tinkering—not populism—was the way to achieve Nordic-style governance. The result was a brittle-thin program that Republicans easily sabotaged. A democratic chorus threatening to vote out any politician who weakened Obamacare would have strengthened the program, and might have even given Obama a mandate to push for more ambitious reforms. This is how leftist activist and politician Einar Gerhardsen led Norway towards its ‘Nordic model,’ emphasizing the collective consciousness that remains its sociopolitical glue today. Viewed under this lens, the myriad efforts by socialist-minded politicians should not be the end goals of those political struggles, but rather as a part of building a broader movement to be wielded by a representative government. 

The Great Recession, for many Americans, showed the terrible consequences of being atomized. Millions turned to opioids to numb the physical pain of being overworked and under-insured and the symbolic pain of feeling powerless. Thousands felt so helpless and abandoned that they committed suicide. In the midst of a new wave of deindustrialization and automation, many lost their jobs only to find out that their entire industry disappeared. Huge swathes of the population, my family included, have yet to recover from the recession; and now, thanks to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, a new recession or even depression is upon us. 

That these catastrophic effects have been experienced by millions is both a tragedy and opportunity to create a national movement towards a better democracy. While Occupy Wall Street lived only a brief life after the financial crisis of 2008, the anti-corporate movement played a critical role in shaping the discourse around equality and fairness, popularizing terms like the contrast of “the 1 percent” versus “the 99 percent,” which so often returns in the rhetoric of popular leftist politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Occupy helped make sense of Americans’ collective trauma the same way Einar Gerhardsen and his allies did in Norway when he seized on the economic depression of the 1920s to advocate for labor militancy, and encouraged unemployed Norwegians to steal food as a political statement. In the process of advocating for people to break exploitative laws, Gerhardsen created a new set of more humane rules that cultivated a cherished sense of the commons. And while Janteloven parodies this mindset, Norwegians have every reason to be proud of having integrated its socialist labor movement into law, instead of following the United States in violently suppressing it. 

Norwegian happiness can be ours, too. We can insist that politicians speak in terms of economic justice and economic democracy. We can create new rules around these ideals. We can rewrite the expectations for our politicians, ousting the disconnected leaders who serve elite interests and ushering in representatives who believe in the power of the commons. The broad support that Sanders’ campaign achieved among young Americans, even if ultimately unsuccessful, still indicates that we have entered a new era. The path to achieve the kind of welfare state that Norway was able to build under Gerhardsen will be arduous and upset by obstacles. But we have a long, transnational history to draw from. Norwegians struggled long and hard for a better life. We can do the same. 

Democratic Complacency Is Back

In 2016, many Democrats were certain Donald Trump would lose. They pointed to polls showing Hillary Clinton five points ahead even in red states like Arizona. A buffoon, they thought, could not be president. The American people would never put Donald Trump in the White House. Some warned at the time this was wishful thinking, and without an appealing candidate or an ambitious agenda, Democrats would fail to inspire people to come to the polls. But Trump’s victory was simply unthinkable, so Democrats did not think about it.

I would have thought the central lesson from 2016 was: beware complacency. There is a tendency to tell yourself the story you wish were true, to selectively pay attention to the facts that support that story, and to ignore facts that contradict it. One will be biased by how things look from the Bubble: nobody I know supports Trump. It is critical that we guard ourselves against overconfidence, because there is no downside to doing so: in an election, you should assume you’re going to lose until you’re certain that you’ve won, because then you’ll be motivated to do everything you possibly can in order to ensure victory. It does not hurt to win by too much; it only strengthens your “mandate.” 

Yet there are troubling signs that some Democrats have not, in fact, learned the lesson. “Believe the Polls This Time,” wrote Democratic pollster (and architect of BP’s greenwashing rebrand campaign) Stanley Greenberg in the Atlantic. With polls showing Joe Biden five points ahead in Texas, the state was being declared “very winnable” and a “swing state,” the same kind of data that led Hillary Clinton to spend the leadup to Election Day campaigning in Arizona rather than Wisconsin. I am feeling a creeping sense of déjà vu.

Greenberg is a pollster, so his argument is primarily based on analyzing the polls. He admits that in 2016, he completely botched the analysis and succumbed to wishful thinking. But this time, he insists, is different. He has adjusted his polls to include more non-college-educated white people and is not overlooking the same things he overlooked last time. The changing demographics of his samples, he says, are “an elixir against being deceived again.” 

    Greenberg points to Hillary Clinton’s “worst blunder” in September of 2016, when she called many of Trump’s voters “a basket of deplorables.” “White working-class voters noticed the lack of respect,” Greenberg comments. Trump’s approval rating is only 41%, he adds, and the American people simply do not support Trump’s agenda. The most important factor is:

… the sustained, unwavering, and extremely well-documented opposition of the American people to every element of Donald Trump’s sexist, nativist, and racist vision… Trump’s raison d’être as a candidate and mission as president is to stop immigration… This president has created a country that is committed to defending its values. Just not his values.

    And while Greenberg acknowledges that “in the next four months, many things could put Biden’s current lead at risk,” he concludes: 

The lingering apprehension among Democrats fails to recognize just how much the political landscape has changed since 2016. We are looking at different polls, a different America, and different campaigns with different leaders.

Now, I do not doubt that Greenberg is right that Biden’s poll numbers are better than Hillary Clinton’s. Personally I used to think Biden had very little chance of beating Trump, but since then a pandemic has destroyed the American economy and the Trump administration has shown itself totally incapable of managing the crisis. Nearly 90 percent of people are dissatisfied with the direction the country is going. This changes things, and makes Trump far more vulnerable than he would have been in “normal” times. In the middle of such a disastrous failure by the president, you would think the opposition candidate would almost certainly win, unless the opposition party were just staggeringly incompetent and incapable of seizing the moment.

But that’s exactly what the Democrats are. In the American Prospect, David Dayen goes through Nancy Pelosi’s miserable record on coronavirus relief. Andrew Cuomo, the most prominent state-level Democrat during the crisis, has nothing to be proud of (his actions directly killed a man I knew and liked, which makes me personally despise him). Already, Pelosi is preparing people for a “compromise” on additional relief funding, and as Nathan Tankus has described the situation we face: 

Overall, Congress has adopted an incoherent policy mix which helps households and businesses limp along but hasn’t mobilized the economy to beat coronavirus or provision people while coronavirus continues. They haven’t adopted enough payroll protection to generate low levels of unemployment nor have they fully committed to a “households only” rescue plan which would necessarily involve greatly expanding health care coverage and regularized emergency direct cash payments to households… Establishing unemployment triggers for fiscal programs is an idea circulating among elite Democratic party economists (which is a good thing) but they appear to be dead in the water among Democratic congressional leadership. It is no exaggeration to say that life support for the U.S. economy is running out and the next few weeks are of critical importance to the lives of millions of people.

So there’s been little Democratic political leadership at a time when it’s of the utmost urgency, and while I am sure the American people are generally bitter about the situation they face, I am not sure how many people are confident that the Democrats care about solving things.

When I hear Greenberg say he has an “elixir” against being fooled again, alarm bells go off in my head. It sounds to me like “magic potion.” What troubles me is that Greenberg lists a bunch of facts that are favorable to Joe Biden beating Donald Trump. But if you’re going to do an honest analysis, you have to list the facts that aren’t as favorable. Here are a few that any serious person needs to consider:

  • Incumbents have a significant political advantage.
  • Donald Trump still has significantly more money to spend than Biden, even though Biden is gaining.
  • Biden is not very good at campaigning, and has a multi-decade reputation for fucking things up with damaging gaffes, while Trump has a powerful organizing apparatus working for him. 
  • On the issue of policing, Biden does not have the advantage that other Democrats might have, since he is literally personally responsible for the repressive carceral state, and Trump, despite a recent harsh anti-protest stance, also touts himself as a criminal justice reformer (Trump is not known for accuracy or consistency).  
  • Republicans will be ruthless in their effort to suppress the vote and disenfranchise people, because they do not care about democracy. (Trump is already pushing the idea that mail-in ballots are to be treated as fraudulent.) 
  • Trump is a very good propagandist and is flooding the airwaves with ads.

    I am not trying to be pessimistic here. I am not a pessimist by nature. What I am is extremely cautious, and because of the utter disaster that was 2016, I would encourage Democrats to take every possible step to avoid lapsing into complacency. Stan Greenberg says has taken steps to ensure that he is not fooled by the same things as he was in 2016. But what if there are different things to be fooled by this time around?

    How, you might wonder, could people not want to throw out Trump given what is happening around them? One reason is that Americans are incredibly poorly informed, and their lack of information makes it easy for politicians to sell them false stories. While I was out on a bike ride recently, I met a perfectly nice and intelligent 40-something year-old man who asked me what I thought of the whole situation. I gave some vague thoughts, and then he told me that he’d been reading a lot of interesting things lately in the the Epoch Times. You may have seen the Epoch Times advertised online: it’s a spectacularly well-funded right-wing newspaper that floods YouTube with offers of free trials. It’s staunchly pro-Trump and takes the position that Covid-19 is a conspiracy by the Chinese Communist Party to wreck America. Trump, it argues, is doing his best to keep the country together.

    The man I met had subscribed to the newspaper because it was free, and then claims he was impressed by the thoroughness of its analysis. So he believed the things it said, or at least he thought they were quite plausible. This man is not unusual. Around the country, when you meet people who are apolitical and do not really pay attention to the news, they are often not really sure what to make of the various narratives being pushed. Do not take it as a given that people will accept the story “Trump’s incompetence wrecked the country” over “Trump is doing his best to lead during a crisis that nobody could have predicted or stopped.”  

    I am not saying it’s likely that Trump will win. I’m saying it’s possible. Too many Democrats still think of Trump as completely incompetent, when the reality is quite different: he’s incompetent at governing, but he’s very competent at spinning and lying in ways that make it difficult to get to the truth. He is an absolute artist of bullshit. Do not underestimate his capacity to manipulate people. 

    We are in a completely unprecedented situation. So much could happen between now and November. I would hesitate to make any predictions about what the country will look like a few months from now. It’s true that the American people reject Trump’s “anti-immigrant” agenda, but because he’s Donald Trump, he may just bluster up a new agenda (and, if re-elected, continue his horrific anti-immigration policies). What if Biden comes across as feeble during the debates? What if Trump spins a tale about how he is trying to restore American greatness while struggling against the uselessness and incompetence of Congressional Democrats? What if by November things are looking up a bit on the coronavirus/economic front?

    The thing that concerns me most about Greenberg’s analysis is that it is not just a license for complacency (it speaks of “lingering apprehension” from progressives as if it’s irrational). It’s also a license for inaction. It seems to operate on the theory that Democrats do not need to have an agenda or a good candidate, or to actually lift a finger to get that person elected. What will determine the election is whether Trump implodes on his own. There is no real “call to action.” My worry here is that it will simply be assumed, as it was in 2016, that because the numbers look good, the numbers will keep looking good, and because Trump is unpopular, voters will turn up at the polls to throw him out. I do not intend to offer predictions, because I think the situation is too volatile to offer prophecy and anyone who does is irresponsible. But I would say that one of the most dangerous things Democrats could do right now is assume they’ve got this thing in the bag and that Joe Biden will coast to victory based on the weakness of the economy. It might happen that way. But what if it doesn’t? 

Update: I removed a link from this article to a tweet that seemed on further inspection like it might have been extremely dry sarcasm.

Taking on the L.A. Political Establishment

What’s happening in Los Angeles right now is practically biblical—but except for the plague part, our problems are the work of man. This spring and summer alone, the county has been rocked by devastating unemployment, especially among its Black and Latino populations, and briefly occupied by the national guard. Last month, the L.A. homeless services authority released a new homeless count from data gathered in January, showing that the number of unhoused people in L.A. County has grown to, at minimum, 66,000—a city within a city, and one whose population has undoubtedly only increased since the pandemic hit. Meanwhile, Covid-19 cases are mounting rapidly. And lest you forget: the biggest county in the United States is effectively controlled by two organized law enforcement gangs that treat its civilians as enemy combatants. In the past 20 years, the LAPD and LASD have killed almost 900 people; they have been held accountable for these killings exactly twice.

So who’s running the show here? L.A. politics is a strange game. The council reflects the city’s heterogeneity: Members grew up in Boyle Heights and South Central and immigrated from Seoul and Zacatecas. The council is officially nonpartisan, but 14 of its members are registered Democrats; one is a former Republican who recently re-registered as an independent because, well, it’s pretty impossible to win a city election as a known Republican in L.A. The 24 State Assembly members who represent L.A. County are overwhelmingly Democratic; the group includes members of the county’s Black, Japanese-American, Latino, and Armenian communities. The mayor, also a Democrat, speaks Spanish and antagonizes Trump at every turn. 

A liberal utopia for the 21st century, you say? Despite this veneer of diversity, the region’s politicians are fundamentally beholden to much older power structures: the police union, the real estate market, and the white, suburban owning class. Every city council member and nearly every assembly member takes money from the L.A. Police Protective League. On June 23, council member José Huizar was arrested by the FBI for his involvement in a particularly egregious pay-to-play scheme that may well incriminate other sitting council members. The liberal mayor is dead set on bringing the Olympics to L.A. in 2028, even though it’s well documented that the city’s last Olympics, in 1984, turbocharged mass incarceration and the militarization of local police. 

2020 is the first year that local races line up with national ones in L.A., which means that turnout will be high. Nithya Raman and Fatima Shahnaz Iqbal-Zubair are betting on it. Both women are progressive first-time candidates hoping to change the political game in Los Angeles County. Iqbal-Zubair is running for State Assembly in California’s 64th district, aiming to represent 466,000 residents in Watts, Carson, Compton, and Wilmington. And Raman is running for L.A. City Council in District 4, a sprawling and oddly-shaped terrain that encompasses Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and parts of Koreatown and the San Fernando Valley. 

Both women’s campaigns are underdog grassroots affairs, endorsed by Sunrise Movement L.A. and recommended by the DSA L.A.’s primary guide. Both candidates are organizers at heart, aiming to be a conduit between the activist community and the political class. And both are running against corporate Democrats: incumbents who brand themselves as progressive, touting their endorsements from labor unions, women’s rights organizations, and other elected officials, but take tens of thousands in donations from police and the major special interests in their districts. 

Both candidates made it through the primary: Raman barely trailing Ryu, Iqbal-Zubair lagging farther behind Gipson, though California’s unconventional top-two primary system means that Iqbal-Zubair can stay on the Democratic ticket and take her fight against her opponent all the way to the general election. Raman’s and Iqbal-Zubair’s greatest strength is their ground game, which has been completely disrupted by the pandemic—but the social upheaval resulting from mass unemployment and the recent uprising against police violence may just help their case.  


When we spoke in early June, Raman had just brought her young twins to a march around the Silver Lake Reservoir in memory of George Floyd. She seemed sobered by the experience, measuring her words and choosing each one carefully. “Our local government has a lot of power to move our city towards greater justice, towards greater sustainability, towards the values that you and I hold,” she said, “and yet, they have chosen over and over again not to use those powers.” 

An urban planner by trade, Raman has an astonishing breadth of work experience: She founded Transparent Chennai, an organization that uses data to advocate for people living in the slums;  started a grassroots homeless outreach organization in LA; and worked with women’s groups from the Penn Thozhilalar Sangam (Women Workers’ Committee) to Time’s Up Entertainment. In 2014, in the course of doing research for a report for the City Administrative Officer of Los Angeles, she discovered the extent of L.A.’s homelessness crisis and how erroneously the city was handling it. 

“The report found that the city was actually spending over $100 million on homelessness at that time,” Raman told me. Most of this wasn’t even considered a “homelessness expenditure,” she explained, because the resources directed at the unhoused community were so ineffective that librarians and park rangers ended up acting as de-facto homelessness services providers. And the worst part: “I found that at least 87 million of that money was going towards putting homeless [people] into jail”—in other words, to the LAPD. Moreover, the city was trying to concentrate its homeless resources downtown, hoping that it could sequester its unhoused population in Skid Row. In reality, of course, this meant that unhoused residents who chose to make their home elsewhere in the city were left high and dry.

In 2017, Raman co-founded a neighborhood coalition on homelessness, SELAH, to do outreach to the unhoused community in areas like Silverlake and Los Feliz: prosperous neighborhoods where homeless people are generally met with indifference or habitual police sweeps. The message undergirding her campaign is simple: You can’t claim to care about housing and homelessness while taking money hand over fist from luxury developers and giving the police free rein to criminalize unhoused people. Raman said that this contradiction was resonating with the district’s wealthier residents as well as its young progressives. “That inequality” —the disconnect between luxury condos being slapped up on every corner and the growing number of Angelenos sleeping on the streets below—“is impossible to ignore,” she told me. “And I don’t think it’s about ideology, I don’t think it’s about left versus right, at all. It’s really about: ‘Is this working for you?’”

photo by Skandia Shafer, courtesy of Nithya Raman’s campaign

David Ryu, Raman’s opponent, is not one of the worst people on the L.A. City Council. He isn’t currently in federal custody. He doesn’t wear his old LAPD uniform to council meetings. To my knowledge, he has never placed a dream catcher on his council podium and spoken of his Native heritage to pay lip service to Black Lives Matter while routinely authorizing brutal police sweeps of homeless encampments. (The bar, as you can see, is low.)

And yet, Ryu remains emblematic of the death grip that business and the real estate industry has on the city’s politicians. Despite vocally pledging to eschew contributions from developers, he used loopholes to keep taking their cash. Last year, he proposed a set of reforms that the California Clean Money Campaign and others called “worse than not passing anything at all.” In Raman’s eyes, this hypocrisy is particularly damning.

 “David Ryu has made a name for himself by calling out City Hall’s culture of corruption, while benefiting from this culture himself,” she told me later, over email. Ryu owns rental property, but won’t recuse himself on council votes involving tenants’ rights. In late 2019, Knock LA reported that the mother of the L.A. 2028 Chairman for the Olympic bid donated to Ryu in the months before a scheduled City Council vote on the matter. He  ultimately voted in favor of hosting the Olympics in L.A., which at the very least has the appearance of impropriety. And the council member has failed to address housing costs in his district, dragging his feet on affordable housing construction even as homelessness in the district jumped 53 percent last year. (Ryu did not return a request for comment for this article.)

There are just 15 members on L.A.’s council, which means that each member represents at least 250,000 constituents—a tremendous amount of power. So if Raman wins, she just might have the capacity to transform her district: creating robust neighborhood associations and community access centers, opening up her council office to act as a hub for residents, and treating unhoused residents as neighbors and constituents rather than undesirables. Raman is fighting for codified sanctuary city status, a housing guarantee, and a just transition to 100 percent clean and renewable energy for California by 2030. She has detailed policy plans on revising planning codes, bringing back single room occupancy housing, and changing the county’s water usage. 

Making these ideas a reality would inarguably represent a seismic rupture from the City Council’s present priorities. Raman is a rare candidate, as capable of holding a room as she is ready to discuss the boring bureaucratic details of how many times various city council planning commissions met last year (Immigration? Four. Planning and land use? 35). But can she alone hope to sway a council that has historically voted unanimously on nearly every bill? 

Raman’s response: She won’t be alone. The people of Los Angeles will be fighting with her. Normally, I’m disinclined to be too hopeful about the people’s capacity for sustained involvement in local politics. But after witnessing the events of the past month, I’m starting to feel differently. 


As a high school science teacher at Jordan High School in Watts, a historically Black neighborhood in South L.A., Fatima Iqbal-Zubair saw daily the impact of disinvestment and state neglect in L.A.’s Black and Latino communities. “That’s the first thing I noticed,” she told me. “The inequity.” High school sophomores were coming in with a third-grade reading level. Many students were undocumented; others were homeless. The school itself was built with environmentally hazardous materials, and students didn’t have clean drinking water at home. 

Anyone who’s ever driven through District 64 can tell you that it’s polluted. L.A. smog is bad everywhere, but the air quality gets noticeably worse the farther south you go. Oil wells aboundOver a quarter of the state’s refineries lie in Iqbal-Zubair’s district alone.  Remember the nightmare oil refineries from the beginning of the original Blade Runner? That’s what Carson, a city in the district, looks like in 2020. The Marathon, the largest refinery in the U.S., is festooned with a gigantic American flag, life being more dystopian than fiction. A few months ago, it exploded

A Muslim immigrant from Dubai who wears a hijab, Iqbal-Zubair is no stranger to feelings of otherness in the U.S. “At Bernie rallies people would say ‘Ilhan Omar! Ilhan Omar!’ to me,” she said, which felt tokenizing, especially coming from other progressives. (“You know, you wouldn’t like it if someone called you some random white woman’s name!” she laughed. Was this a sly Karen reference? Hard to say.) If elected, Iqbal-Zubair would be the first Muslim person to sit in the California State Legislature. Still, she is quick to acknowledge that her background is very different from those of the young people she taught in Watts.  “My experience isn’t the same as what my students went through,” she told me. “There’s more historical trauma there, more systemic trauma.” 

 “There were people in Watts organizing for good schools, organizing for clean air and environmental justice for decades,” Iqbal-Zubair added. “People have been ‘woke’ long before Bernie, people have been organizing, but their voices were not heard in the media. It’s not a sexy news story….and that’s what got me angry, that they’ve almost given up engaging with local officials and they’re just organizing on their own now. And they make these small changes.” But the big changes remain stubbornly elusive. 

That’s not because activists aren’t working hard enough. It’s because the deck is stacked against them by their own representatives. 

During Iqbal-Zubair’s years teaching in Watts, she began doing environmental organizing work in the community. In 2019, she became the education commissioner for District 64’s Assemblyman Mike Gipson. Going in, Iqbal-Zubair didn’t know much about Gipson’s record. He seemed decent: a Black Democrat who was born in Watts a year after the 1965 uprising and had been in elected office for decades, serving as a council member in Carson before his ascendance to the assembly. Hoping to use her new post to expand on her community advocacy work, Iqbal-Zubair said she quickly realized that the education commissioner position was “a very superficial and honorary role” rather than an opportunity to make change. 

When I reached out to Gipson for comment, he responded: “We worked tirelessly on education issues and fought for policies to transform our education system” and claimed that Iqbal-Zubair failed to show up for a single meeting as commissioner. Iqbal-Zubair strongly denies this accusation and provided email and text message evidence to refute it. She told me in addition that when she started asking around about Gipson’s record, she discovered that the Assemblyman was failing to meaningfully address pollution in his district. Since his election to the State Assembly in 2014, he has declined to vote on a number of bills designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, hold crude oil companies to a higher standard of caution and transparency, and make California carbon free by 2045

 Nonetheless, Gipson was adamant in his denial that his votes were not influenced by lobbyists. He said, “I will continue to stand up to the notion that I can be influenced by special interests. Money doesn’t buy me. I have received support from several different entities including labor organizations, Planned Parenthood, and even police unions, but that hasn’t changed my progressive values and has certainly not been reflected in my forward-thinking legislation.”  Though it’s commonplace in California for politicians, even those who self-brand as progressive, to take money from an array of special interests, it’s difficult to square Gipson’s central claim here with his frequent “absent” votes on environmental issues, the tens of thousands of dollars he takes from Chevron, Valero, Davita, the trade association California Independent Petroleum Association, and other oil and gas industry players who have significant financial interests in the area, and the district’s notorious pollution. 

Iqbal-Zubair told me she felt like Gipson was betraying his own community. In September 2019, she resigned from her post as education commissioner and decided to run against him. It’s a long shot for someone with no flashy connections and no background working with other elected officials, including those decidedly to her right, to enact legislation. And though Fatima has an excellent command of the issues and a strong sense of ethics, that political inexperience shows at times. With four months until the election, her campaign is still getting off the ground—and while she has gotten the support of neighborhood activists and local chapters of progressive organizations, it’s likely that most of her constituents in District 64 still don’t know her name. 

courtesy of Fatima Iqbal-Zubair’s campaign

Why not run for Carson City Council first? I asked her. Iqbal-Zubair told me that she has less of a connection to Carson, where she lives and would be eligible to serve on the council, than Watts, where she taught and still does organizing work. And at the end of the day, she’s really running against Gipson first and foremost. “It’s personal,” she explained. 

Iqbal-Zubair has a lot of big ideas: universal single-payer healthcare regardless of citizenship, free public transit, comprehensive school reform, universal pre-k and free college tuition, and a “just transition” to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Still, her first goal when she gets to the assembly is to pass campaign finance reform. She sees it as a reform that has to be made before she can hope to get things like the Green New Deal and affordable housing passed. “Everything is about money in politics,” she told me. But before she can hope to pass publicly-funded elections, she has to win—and she’s facing off against an opponent who receives the second most special interest money of the 120 members in the California State Legislature and has been known to fight dirty.


There was an LAPD chopper circling over Raman’s house in Silver Lake the night we spoke, and it was setting her on edge. “Gosh, it feels like there’s a helicopter right on top of me,” she said at one point.  

The noise of the blades churning the air overhead was just one more reminder of the ubiquitous presence and power of the Los Angeles Police—as if we could forget. In L.A. County, the police force is like a particularly cruel God: all knowing, thanks to dozens of state-of-the-art helicopters that perform aerial surveillance sweeps around the clock; highly lethal; and, if not technically omnipotent, inoculated from the consequences of its actions. It may be actually richer than God: the L.A. political class is completely in thrall to law enforcement cash. David Ryu has accepted $45,000 from the L.A. police union during his re-election campaign alone (though in light of the uprising following George Floyd’s murder, he has said he will return or redistribute the money). Gipson is a former cop; today, he takes thousands in donations from police PACs

Raman and Iqbal-Zubair told me they would spurn law enforcement donations; both recently signed the #NoCopMoneyCA pledge (Ryu tweeted about the pledge hours after Raman, in a copycat post that was roundly pilloried online). But it’s not like the police were offering up their cash in the first place. Iqbal-Zubair has taken pains to highlight the environmental racism plaguing her district, which is inhabited by predominantly Black and Latino residents due to redlining. Raman’s homelessness report identified the need to divest funds from policing long before the current moment. In recent months, she has hosted a conversation with Dr. Melina Abdullah, a leader of Black Lives Matter L.A., and been a vocal advocate on Twitter for the “people’s budget,” local activist groups’ alternative to Mayor Garcetti’s proposed spending plan, which would have granted 54 percent of the city’s unrestricted funds to policing (the LAPD’s total budget is over $3 billion, including fixed healthcare costs and pension funds; the L.A. Sheriff’s Department gets another $3.5 billion from the county budget). 

In L.A., the uprising following George Floyd’s murder has stayed hyper-focused on local policing. Black Lives Matter L.A. has highlighted entrenched police violence in Los Angeles County, calling for justice for the 886 victims of law enforcement killings since 2000. Under pressure, Garcetti and the City Council announced they would try to cut $100 to $150 million from the $3 billion LAPD budget. Activists said it wasn’t enough. On June 15, a coalition led by BLM L.A. had the opportunity to present the people’s budget before the City Council, an unthinkable reality just six weeks ago, made possible because of sustained organizing from local activist groups. These developments have happened in spite of, not because, of the City Council, as Raman has pointed out. 

After the killing of George Floyd, Mike Gipson introduced a bill to ban police chokeholds and carotid restraints, which he touts as “the toughest police officer reform in the state.” Gipson has also co-sponsored or helped write other criminal justice reform bills. But activists, and candidates like Raman and Iqbal-Zubair, believe that we need to be thinking beyond piecemeal reforms. As many have pointed out, chokeholds had already been banned by the NYPD for 20 years when Eric Garner was killed by one in 2014.

At a June 10th online meeting with Watts community leaders, Iqbal-Zubair listened as Jacqueline Badejo, an activist who described herself as an “ecological organizer,” spoke of the LAPD’s neocolonial presence in Watts. “One of my dreams, honestly, is for Watts to become its own community again,” Badejo said. She called for an end to over-policing: “So these children can have a positive future, so we can really begin to focus on the environment, on the healing process.”

Iqbal-Zubair told me that organizers like Badejo have taught her that people in marginalized communities already know about what their communities need. “For how many years have people been telling you the solutions?” she said, addressing Gipson. “ Listen to the people on the street, listen to what they’re saying. They’re telling you what the state could do, which is demilitarize police, defund police!” She paused. “What if you had someone listening to you and actually implementing these [policies], what change could happen?”


If Iqbal-Zubair and Raman had the time to knock on every door in their respective districts, they’d probably have their elections in the bag. But both campaigns, already long shots, have been disrupted by the pandemic, which has rendered canvassing impossible for precious months on end. The inability to go door-to-door right now is a major loss, and their opponents have deep pockets and name recognition on their side. 

“There’s never been a point in my campaign where I’ve questioned why I’m running,” Iqbal-Zubair told me. “But I remember there was one night like two weeks ago…and it scared me that I even thought this, but I was like: ‘Should I continue this race?’ It’s hard for an underdog to run. This race is in Mike Gipson’s favor.” At the end of the day, though, she says she’s doing it for her students. She was still able to get 32.5 percent of the primary vote out of nowhere, and expects to have more volunteer support and a more robust campaign structure as the summer progresses. 

Raman appears more confident. “Obviously we’re at a different moment now, because of the pandemic and because of the Black Lives Matter protests,” she said. “But even during the primary, I think we were very easily able to make a case to people that what we have been doing in Los Angeles wasn’t working for the majority of residents.” She came within 3 percentage points of Ryu in the primary, and that was with another progressive challenger in the race. The March vote already saw significantly higher turnout than usual for municipal races in L.A.; dissatisfaction with the status quo, heightened focus on the inner workings of City Hall, and the desire to elect progressive down-ballot candidates in the absence of a main course option just might conspire to tip the race in her favor. 

Raman and Iqbal-Zubair are similar candidates in many ways: charismatic and driven women of color who come to electoral politics with a sense of moral outrage at the status quo, an earnest desire for change, and the policy initiatives to enact it. But the districts they’re running in are as diametrically opposed as you get in L.A.—and their respective campaigns prove that the term “grassroots” can contain multitudes. 

Raman’s district, one of the city’s wealthiest, is also the center of cultural production for the entire nation. Raman herself is not exactly unfamiliar with that culture. In 2019, she briefly served as the Executive Director of Time’s Up Entertainment before stepping down to run for City Council. With personal connections to the industry as well (her husband is a writer and executive producer on Modern Family), a number of campaign staff who are current or former industry players, and what can only be a formidable rolodex, she was able to tap into L.A.’s powerful entertainment world for her campaign, snagging endorsements from the likes of Jane Fonda and Natalie Portman and building a sizable online following.

Among young progressives in L.A., Raman is spoken about as a sort of celebrity. Volunteers I spoke to about her campaign gushed over her charisma, her sense of purpose, her uncanny ability to remember people’s names. Though it’s incredible that Raman’s campaign was able to attract around 600 unique volunteers (by her estimate), it seems unlikely that a candidate running to represent South Los Angeles could generate this level of attention. “Fatima’s district is dealing with so much systemic racism, and it’s invisible for Hollywood,” Nicole Levin, a hub coordinator with Sunrise Movement L.A. who’s worked on both campaigns, told me. “I worked in entertainment for a few years. No one knew there was oil drilling in L.A.” That disparity has, unsurprisingly, been reflected in media coverage: Raman has received plenty of attention from local and some national press, while Iqbal-Zubair has attracted virtually none.

Both candidates are hoping that their constituents will see them as a link between grassroots organizing and the electoral system. But that’s a tougher pitch to make in South L.A., where generations of residents have been betrayed by officials at every rung of elected office. Today, between Trump, the economic and health disparities produced by the pandemic, and the most recent state-sanctioned killings of Black Americans, people living in wealthier, whiter districts are beginning to have the sense that politics is their everyday life. People in poor and disenfranchised neighborhoods, of course, have always known that. 

This isn’t to dismiss the radical potential of Raman’s campaign.  If anything, her strength of messaging has made an incredible feat of organizing look almost preordained, an idea whose time has come. In a race where she’s still the underdog—Ryu raised a record-breaking million dollars for the primary fight and outspent her three to one—harnessing the cultural capital associated with her candidacy seems like a savvy move more than anything. But at the end of the day, the uphill battle that Iqbal Zubair’s fighting is an even steeper one. And for true progressive change to happen in this country, Watts needs good representation just as much as Hollywood does. 

How Should Values Influence Social Science Research?

I recently wrote about an incident in which a data scientist, David Shor, allegedly lost his job for tweeting about the efficacy of violent versus nonviolent protests. I certainly don’t think anyone should be fired over that—and whether he was actually fired because of the tweet remains unclear—but I mentioned in a parenthetical that I did not think highly of the academic research on protests that Shor was citing. The research, by Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, looks at the effects of different kinds of protests in the 1960s, and Wasow’s takeaway point is that if protesters want to achieve their political goals, they need to be nonviolent, because violence “tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.” My critique was not that I disagreed with Wasow’s empirical findings, but that I felt his research frames the issues badly, resulting in misleading scholarship that obscures more than it illuminates. I said that I thought it was “bad.” 

    My critique of Wasow’s research received some very negative feedback. VICE columnist Zeeshan Aleem suggested that I was advocating a form of anti-intellectualism, and “left intellectual discourse is going to fail in a very, very serious way if it deems research as ‘bad’ because it opens up a line of inquiry that might not jell with perceived political priorities.” New York contributing writer Jesse Singal asked: “What the fuck is happening with Nathan Robinson and Current Affairs?” And Wasow himself forcefully defended his work, affirming Aleem’s suggestion that I reject results that do not conform to my political priorities, saying that I made errors in my analysis, that I “do not care about facts at all,” that I misstate Martin Luther King’s beliefs, and that ultimately to “folks like Robinson, Black people appear to be useful only inasmuch as they serve him well.”

    These charges are very serious, and deserve a thoughtful reply. I also admit that I did something wrong here, which certainly predisposed Wasow to be angry with me. I should not have waved away his research so quickly and casually in the article. What I wanted to do was give a very brief explanation of why the criticisms of Shor were not simply censorious social justice warriors trying to shut down scholarship that contained a finding they didn’t like. Instead, there were reasons why some activists felt his work was frustratingly incomplete on its own, or that the presentation of this single study outside of other contextualizing information was unhelpful and counterproductive. But if I was going to indict Wasow’s research I should certainly have been more thorough. A scholar has the right to feel insulted when his years of careful empirical work are simply scoffed at in an aside.

I think there is an opportunity here to productively discuss some important questions around the purposes of social science research, and how moral and political values should or should not guide the search for scientific truth. Even if you are not interested in a dispute between me and a professor at Princeton over a paper in the American Political Science Review, there is a much deeper debate here over what kinds of questions are worth studying, how we frame these questions, and how our choice of the questions we ask about the world influences our ultimate perceptions. 

*    *    *    *

Let me try to explain the basics of why Omar Wasow is mad at me. Wasow is a highly qualified and skilled political scientist, whose paper “Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion and Voting” seeks to answer the question: How do the subordinate few persuade the dominant many? His paper looks at the efficacy of protest tactics, how different types of activism produce different types of political results. His central conclusion focuses on “violent” versus “nonviolent” protest, and he finds: 

Evaluating black-led protests between 1960 and 1972, I find nonviolent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, congressional speech, and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to nonviolent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share increase 1.6–2.5 percent. Protester-initiated violence, by contrast, helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse, and public concern toward “social control.” In 1968… I find violent protests likely caused a 1.5–7.9 percent shift among whites toward Republicans and tipped the election.

So: violence by protesters “tipped the [1968] election to Richard Nixon over Hubert Humphrey” and “protester-initiated violence contributed to outcomes directly in opposition to the policy preferences of the protesters.” This is for reasons that will not surprise you: news coverage of violent protests is negative, elites react badly, white people become terrified and want someone who will restore Law And Order, etc. By contrast, nonviolent protests produce more positive coverage, public sympathy, etc. and there are fewer panicky white people driven into the arms of the Republican Party. 

    Now, here is something that might make you wonder why Wasow and I could possibly end up disagreeing so much: I don’t dispute the empirical truth of this finding. My argument wasn’t that Wasow’s paper is poorly-researched or that its math doesn’t add up or that it fails to prove the cause-and-effect relationship between protests and election results. In fact, let’s assume for the entire purpose of the discussion that it’s all accurate. It makes sense to me. It’s certainly a new finding that the difference between violent and nonviolent protests may have been so consequential that it could have literally changed a presidential election result. But I think it’s relatively uncontroversial to think that the white majority reacts with hostility and anger to violent protests by people of color, and that they become less sympathetic to protesters and their authoritarian instincts come out. Violence begets violence. 

    Why, then, did anyone object to this? Why could stating it possibly be controversial? How could well-done empirical research showing it not be worth doing?

The argument I made, albeit quickly and too dismissively, was as follows: by looking the effect of riots in isolation, we place outsized causal responsibility for the outcome on some of the least well-off, most oppressed people, and present their choices as “the thing that caused” a bad political outcome, when in fact their choices were only a very small part of a gigantic tangled web of causes. And by choosing to zero in on the decisions made by rioters, without looking at the causes/logic behind those decisions, we end up overlooking parties that are far more responsible for the ultimate political outcome. The end result is a misleading picture of reality, in which a comparatively minor thing—protester violence—is given outsized importance, and more time is spent critiquing the protesters than the thing they are protesting against. 

Let me break down a few of my specific critiques. Essentially, Wasow’s framing of the situation is that in the 1960s, protesters had a choice between violence and nonviolence, and if more of them had chosen nonviolence, their interests would have been better served. But there are a few problems with this. 

Conceiving of protesters goals’ in terms of electing Democrats and then judging protests by whether or not they do, in fact, elect Democrats.

Wasow’s conclusion is that “tactics matter” for protesters seeking to “assert their interests,” and that while “an ‘eye for an eye’ in response to violent repression may be moral… this research suggests it may not be strategic.” From a rigorous application of several statistical techniques, he concludes that “in [the] counterfactual scenario [in which 1960s Black protest was strictly nonviolent], the United States would have elected Hubert Humphrey, lead author of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” He also says that “the ‘transformative egalitarian coalition’ identified by Rustin (1965), King and Smith (2005) and others was fragile but, in the absence of violent protests,would likely have won the presidential election of 1968.”

    But should the success of Hubert H. Humphrey be the metric by which we define the success of a movement, or the “political consequences of violent protest”? And should we attribute the failure of Humphrey’s campaign primarily to the choices of protesters? I’d like you to take a look at three passages from the book An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968, a thorough 1969 book on the election. The first is a statement from a Humphrey campaign manager about the weak position the campaign was in after the disaster of the Chicago convention:

Here was our situation right after Chicago… We had no money. We had no organizations. We were fifteen points behind in the polls. We did have a media plan, but we didn’t have the money to go with it. And we were  going to have to change our ad agency anyway. The worst thing was that we didn’t have enough time. The candidate approved the campaign plan in Chicago on August 30. That was the Friday before Labor Day, which is the day the campaign begins, traditionally,. Instead of having three or four weeks to mount a campaign, we had three days. And so the candidate went on the road, and he was a disaster. 

The second is about the way Humphrey betrayed black voters by embracing segregationist governor Lester Maddox:

Nothing that Humphret did in 1967 caused more distress and anger among the liberals and the blacks than a picture that was taken of him arm-in-arm with Lester Maddox, the abusively segregationist Governor of Georgia. Apparently this came about not through cynical political contrivance but on a sheer impulse of Humphrey’s. The next morning his press secretary, Norman Sherman, pointed out what a disastrous reaction there would be.

“What are you talking about? I never did that. I was just polite to him, that’s all,” said Humphrey.

“Yes, you did, Mr. Vice-President.”

“No, damn it, I did not.” 

Sherman said nothing, but placed the New York Times in front of Humphrey. There on page one was the picture of Humphrey with Maddox.

“Gee,” said Humphrey after a minute, “I guess I did, at that.”

The third is about how Humphrey, who Wasow describes mainly as “the lead author of the 1964 Civil Rights Act” had actually become a symbol of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party: 

    Yet by 1967 the arch-disarmer [Humphrey] had turned into an arch-apologist for the war, who was given to trotting around Vietnam looking more than a little silly in olive-drab fatigues and a forage cap. The man whose name had been a by-word in the South for softness toward Negroes had taken to lecturing black groups about how the Irish and the Jews and even the Cubans had made it in America without Federal grants, so why couldn’t they? The wild-eyed reformer had become the natural champion of every conservative element in the Democratic Party.

    Humphrey’s friends and apologists argue that he was trapped by his position as Vice-President. This is untenable. For one thing, his dicta, particularly on the war, went far beyond what solidarity with an Administration or loyalty to a President demanded. Again and again Humphrey insisted that he believed in the war. One should do him the credit of believing him. 

Surely we are beginning to see a problem with the framing of the research, then. It is the job of protesters to elect this man, and if their actions do not elect him, they are behaving in a counterproductive and irrational manner. By zeroing on the variable of “how much you helped Hubert Humphrey in 1968,” Wasow does what the Democratic Party is still doing today, namely treating “having more members of the blue team than the red team in power” as the measure of the success of progressive organizing, no matter how reactionary the particular “blue” officials we elect might be. Personally I do not think a scholar who is trying to be neutral should treat Hubert Humphrey as the ambassador for a “transformative egalitarian coalition.” Treating Johnson-Humphrey as the political friends of the disenfranchised is perverse, especially given Vietnam—which astonishingly goes unmentioned in a paper about the causes of 1968 political outcomes, perhaps because it severely damages the case that electing Democrats is good. We also see here a bit of reinforcement of the idea that the Democratic Party does not need to earn people’s votes, that Hubert Humphrey was worth supporting even if he was chums with Lester Maddox because he was the “lesser evil.” 

The narrow focus on the election of Humphrey also means not looking at other potential consequences of violent and nonviolent protest. For instance, it’s been suggested that the absence of uprisings in the 1970s actually meant there was less pressure against policies of economic austerity policies. Wasow concedes that there is scholarship suggesting that, separate from the 1968 election, violent protests may advance different kinds of protest goals such as catalyzing “increased investments in social policy and other re-distributive policies” to quell unrest. Ryan Cooper notes that “when Martin Luther King was assassinated, sparking days of chaos in many American cities, only a week later Congress passed the Fair Housing Act.” White people might have been more inclined to vote for Nixon, but Nixon also felt the need to expand affirmative action. There are many more outcomes than a single presidential election, and by seeing the ultimate end of “politics” as “which party gets elected to the presidency” we miss a whole host of ways in which protests could be effective or ineffective.

Conceiving of violence as if it is decided on tactically by committees rather than breaking out spontaneously once oppression reaches a boiling point.

When Wasow talks about the political effects of violence in 1968, he is specifically referring to “the expected allocation of electoral votes in the 1968 presidential election under the counterfactual scenario that [Martin Luther] King had not been assassinated on April 4, 1968, and 137 violent protests had not occurred in the immediate wake of his death.” It is worth thinking about the particular violent protests he’s talking about. They came about after Martin Luther King, the leading philosophical exponent of nonviolence in the country, was brutally murdered on a trip to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers. A white supremacist had just killed the person who had been arguing the most strenuously that nonviolence was effective as well as moral. It’s easy to see how King’s death produced a wave of cynicism about nonviolence. From the perspective of uprising participants, King had been scrupulously dedicated to restraint, and what had it gotten him? Here’s Kathleen Neal Cleaver talking about the aftermath of the assassination:

“The murder of King changed the whole dynamic of the country. That is probably the single most significant event in terms of how the [Black] Panthers were perceived by the black community. Because once King was murdered in April ‘68, that kind of ended any public commitment to nonviolent change. It was like ‘Well we tried that, and that’s what happened.’ So even though there were many people, and many black people, who thought nonviolent change  was a good thing and the best thing, nobody came out publicly and supported it. Because even nonviolent change [had been] violently rejected.” 

Wasow does not talk about the kinds of raw emotions that people felt after King’s death. Instead, he suggests that the uprisings were a “choice” made by protesters, a choice that ended up hurting them at the ballot box, denying them their goal of having Hubert Humphrey rule over them. I do not think this is fair in its understanding of how the people who participated in these uprisings conceived of themselves. I suspect that if you had tried to explain to them that they were “hurting their goal” of electing Democrats they would have looked at you in astonishment. They already had a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, and he was forcing Black people by the hundreds of thousands to go and get shot and psychologically scarred in the jungles of Vietnam.

Here, for example, is Edward Vaughn, a Black Power activist at the time of the 1967 Detroit uprising, describing the feelings behind it:

“During the riots, the people who were looting or taking, the people who were in the streets, the people who were making the rebellion, by and large, were people who lived in the community, just average people. I came across a group of brothers, for example, who said they were just fed up and that they did not want to live like they had lived before, and every night they went out with their guns and they shot at police, shot at National Guardsmen, and of course, went back into their homes… Most of the people were just community people who just had a sense that they were fed up with everything and they decided that they would strike out, That was the way that they would strike back at the power structure… [I]t was the lack of power that caused the rebellions around the country. People did not see any hope for themselves… and I think the masses of people made a decision that they would do something, and I think they did. We felt that we had accomplished something, that the riots had paid off, that we finally had gotten the white community to listen to the gripes and to listen to some of the concerns that we had been expressing for many years… After the rebellion was over, there was a strong sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We saw more and more sisters began to wear natural hairdos, more and more brothers began to wear their hair in the new natural styles. More and more people began to wear dashikis. We saw a very strong sense of camaraderie in the community—that was all very good for us. We enjoyed that feeling.” 

What they didn’t see, of course, was more white electoral support for Humphrey, but how can a social scientist declare unilaterally that that was actually what the protesters wanted, that the dignity and solidarity gains Vaughn describes didn’t matter? Hubert Humphrey likely represented the continuation of things exactly as they were. If their grievances hadn’t been addressed under Johnson, why would electing Humphrey be helpful? The violence in 1967-68 occurred partly out of pure exasperation with a country that just proven that even if you are on your “best behavior” and “play nice” and are overflowing with sweetness and a love of Jesus, like King, you would still get a bullet in your head if you dared to challenge the white power structure. Wasow treats these protests as if they were the product of a committee sitting around trying to decide what the best way to get Humphrey to beat Nixon was, but for most participants, the “tactical” thinking was probably quite limited, and the decision to participate in violence was probably the result of a completely justified anger at a country that persistently denied Black humanity no matter what people did. 

Placing protester violence at the center of a story that is about much, much more

I am not sure how applicable the politics of 1968 even are today, given what a unique and complicated time in American history the late 1960s were, and drawing lessons for contemporary activists from the era of Laugh-In and the Beatles seems like something we should be cautious about in general. But zeroing in on the Personal Choices of protesters in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination seems especially bad because the discourse around riots in this country has long placed blame on the rioters for things that happen as a result of them. (It has a “See what you made me do” quality.) It may sound intuitively logical to say “we should blame rioters for things they cause,” but it’s not: if we have a causal chain in which A causes B, and B and C combine to cause D, focusing on B might be arbitrary, or might be driven by people’s strong interest in not examining A and C. If the thing being “caused” has more than one precipitating factor, or the causal chain started long before the riots, the assignment of responsibility might not be justified. 

That might sound confusing, so let me get more specific. Let’s say that we know from observation that if a city’s population is deprived of its rights for a long enough time, and its government is failing its basic functions, there is almost always a social upheaval, usually a violent one. And let’s say that we observe that when these violent upheavals occur, the authorities usually react with repressive measures, which precipitates more violence, which often spirals out of control. 

Now let’s say, given these facts that I, a social scientist, decided to zero in on the question “Does the oppressed population’s choice to use violence ultimately make them worse off by encouraging greater repression?” and framed my work around discovering the answer to this. If I did this, there is a very strong sense in which I would be asking the wrong question and my research would give a misleading picture of reality. Of course, conservative newspapers would pick up my research in order to prove that people’s choice to be violent was ultimately making them worse off. But attention would be taken off far more important causes: why are we examining the choices of a population that reacts to oppression rather than exposing the circumstances that led to that reaction? Why aren’t deprivation and lack of services considered the chief “causes” of the ultimate spiral into violence? I, the researcher, may insist that all I am doing is presenting facts, and I do not mean to “blame” people for what they do, I am merely saying that what they do has consequences. But a person who reads my work will be missing crucial context, and I will not be making a useful contribution to public understanding of the social situation.

To give some more parallel examples: let us say that, during the Vietnam War in 1967, while Lyndon Johnson was dropping napalm on babies, I had chosen to publish a study showing that if the Viet Cong put down their guns and adopted nonviolent civil disobedience instead of resisting the Americans by force, there was a much higher statistical chance that Lyndon Johnson would stop depositing bombs on their villages. Or, perhaps during the Iraq War, I could have argued that if Iraqis waved American flags, they would be less likely to be shot by American troops. Or perhaps I could publish a study showing that Palestinians who don’t resent Israel end up better off. At the extreme end, what if, in 1860, the data had shown that enslaved people’s choice to be deferential made them better off than if they were defiant? 

The expression that comes to mind here, of course, is “victim-blaming.” I think people who did these studies would loudly insist they are blaming nobody, but are merely pointing out facts. And the first thing we might say in response is: yes, this is true, you do not say you blame them, but by locating a particular party’s agency at the center of your narrative of what is going on, you are implicitly treating them as the most responsible entity. The research could be correct, in the sense that the statistical modelling and data-collection is scrupulous and accurate. But your work will be taken as the only relevant data necessary by people who wish to exonerate the oppressors and direct focus onto the decisions of the oppressed.

These are moral objections, and I think the instinct of researchers is to recoil at moral objections. This is the part where Zeeshan Aleem decided that I do not care about facts, and that I think science should serve political/moral ends rather than Pure Reason. Here’s the thing about this: it’s very complicated. Let’s say I tell you:

“Science should be independent of political considerations. Our understanding of the world should be guided by an independent pursuit of the facts wherever they may take us, not by ideology. It is not for scientists to think about the “political consequences” of their research. A scientist wants to know the truth. If other people misuse their work to promote bad ends, that is on those people, not on the scientists. Facts themselves are completely neutral.”

You might agree with this. It all sounds very nice. It would be nice if it worked. Unfortunately, a moment’s thought should tell us that things aren’t so simple and clear-cut. Truth is multi-faceted: there are multiple ways to look at issues, and many different variables to consider. “Facts” may be neutral in theory, but in practice they are chosen and selected by people who are not neutral. 

I suspect you may be getting the jitters to hear me say this, because suggesting that there is an ethical component to the selection of facts suggests that there is “forbidden knowledge,” knowledge that we keep at arm’s length because we don’t like what we think they will do. This is a recipe for censorship, for curtailments of academic freedom. Who is to say what the Bad Facts are? 

I don’t think there are inherently bad facts. But I do think there are inherently bad selections and presentations of facts. To take an extreme and controversial example (to which I am not comparing Wasow’s work, just using to illustrate an analogy), Charles Murray writes extensively about observed differences in behavior and “cognitive ability” across racial groups, but chooses not to talk about or think about the hideous multi-century history of racist terrorism that forms a significant part of the factual story. He selects facts that tell a certain narrative, and the problem is with the tale he is choosing to spin, and the way it emphasizes certain facts (which appear to show Black people as personally responsible for their own social outcomes) while obscuring or excluding others (the historical and structural factors that make this story a bunch of bullshit). 

I think social scientists have to be honest about what they are doing when they are critiquing activists’ effectiveness. They choose which stories to tell and which ones not to tell. Someone who spins a story about protesters causing Democrats to lose the 1968 election is not telling a story about the way Lyndon Johnson’s disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War destroyed his popularity and made what could have been a relatively successful presidency a moral stain on American history. I dismissed Wasow’s research too hastily, and it was rude, but I do not think the story he has decided to tell is the one we need people to understand. 

*    *    *

By saying that Wasow’s research could be bad “even if being empirically true,” then, I want to be clear: I was not saying that empirical truth doesn’t matter. But we select the truths we disclose. We make choices of emphasis: how much time do I spend talking about factor A versus factor B? Will I mention factor C? Activists object to those who spend more time critiquing activists than critiquing the injustices against which the activists are protesting. 

Which brings us to Martin Luther King, who had a very serious problem with people who focus on rioters more than on the things they are rioting about. I mentioned this in my original article, and Wasow says I quoted King’s beliefs “selectively.” I want to be delicate here, because Wasow is Black and I am not and I do not wish to be the person who King-splains my Correct Interpretation of MLK to an academic of color. But I think Wasow and I are actually both quoting King incompletely, and that when we put the two parts of King’s views together, we get something powerfully insightful.

Essentially, there is a thing that always happens whenever a violent protest erupts and people want to consult MLK’s ghost for his opinion on the matter. Those who oppose the violence will cite King’s radical nonviolence, his insistence that violence begets violence and that nothing fruitful can come of riots. Then, those more sympathetic to the people committing violence will remind the first set of people that King called riots the “language of the unheard” and was careful to condemn the conditions that led to the riots just as much as he condemned the riots themselves. King quotes are tossed back and forth like a game of social justice table tennis, with everyone insisting he would have agreed with them were he alive today.

I mentioned King’s insistence that before we condemn riots we need to understand their causes. Wasow suggests this is selective by pointing out that while King did indeed forcefully defend riots, Wasow’s research fully validates King’s ultimate conclusion, which is that violent protests are futile and cause backlash. The exact point that King made over and over to advocates of violence, that it would hurt their goals and set back the movement, is one Wasow says he has rigorously proved empirically. He is frustrated with me, then, for quoting King in criticizing research that is ultimately exactly in line with King’s own perspective.

It’s true that I did not specifically mention that Martin Luther King was an advocate of nonviolence and produced philosophical arguments in favor of the same position for which Wasow produces empirical evidence. But I was not quoting King in order to suggest he condoned rioting; I think everyone knows where King stood on this. I was quoting him because King’s condemnations of rioting contain a hugely important caveat that I think is missing from a great deal of contemporary discussion around violence/nonviolence, including from Wasow’s paper. 

In 1964, riots broke out in New York City after a black teenager was shot by a white cop. Here is how historian Philip Goduti describes what happened: 

The New York Times reported that people were “shouting at policemen and white people, pulling fire alarms, breaking windows, and looting stores.” The riots were the results of the people speaking out against the death of fifteen-year-old James Powell, who was shot by Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan, a white police officer. The police sealed off a block in Harlem where over thirty people were arrested and five hundred police officers responded. The Times reported, “there was no estimate of the number injured. Scores of persons with bloodied heads were seen throughout the eight-block area… where most of the rioting occurred. Cars were beaten, glass bottles thrown, landing on civilians and police officers. There was a rumor that the police beat another African American, adding to the violence and racial tension already palpable. The crowds were yelling “killers” at the policemen after the officers went to help a young African American girl who was struck by a hit-and-run driver. The crowd continued yelling, “Killer cops must go. Police brutality must go.”

Martin Luther King, the nation’s leading advocate of nonviolence, was asked what he thought about this. And naturally, he condemned it: “The use of violence in our struggle is both impractical and immoral.” But he added: 

“I must affirm that the important question confronting these communities and our nation as a whole is not merely that there be shallow rhetoric condemning lawlessness, but that there be an honest soul-searching analysis and evaluation of the environmental causes which have spawned the riots.” 

This is consistently how King talked about violence. He always exhorted people frustrated with unjust conditions to be nonviolent, but what he didn’t do is put the actions of those frustrated people at the center of his analysis. 

“I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impracticable for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. — from “The Other America

For me, the key phrase there is “as vigorous.” It is not enough to say “Yes, yes, of course social conditions produce riots et cetera, but let’s discuss what riots do.” If we are not spending as much time talking about the causes of riots as the consequences of riots, we are helping America ignore facts that it has consistently “failed to hear.” How many people have ever heard from a resident of Watts in 1965 about what led to the confrontations with police? Where are their voices? Here is a photo of a man being arrested during the Watts uprising: 

Where is the discussion of the brutality of the arrests during the riots? To me it seems strange to pursue academic research around the question: “What could that man have done differently in order to better advance his goals and keep the police from being violent toward him?” As I understand King’s speech, that focus frustrated him, too. He condemned violence, but he understood that violence does not take place in a vacuum, that if a country is living up to its basic responsibilities to its citizens, they will not be tempted to burn the whole place to the ground. 

*    *    *    *

Wasow replied specifically to my objections and to those of others. He came to the conclusion that I only like Black people who are useful to me, which if true, is something I want to know about myself, because it is disturbing. So I’d like to go through the arguments he gives that led him to this conclusion. He says there are three primary errors: “treating prejudice as immovable, ignoring black agency and treating black leaders, thinkers & activists as monolithic.” Now, I do not think my criticisms of his work do these things, but let me see if I can fairly represent these replies.

    Wasow explains what he means by “immovable prejudice” here

Groups like African Americans & people with disabilities or AIDS have been subject to far-reaching discrimination over many, many years. If the bigotry is deep-seated, then attempts at persuasion are likely to fail… For example, in 1967 Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) said “Dr. King’s policy was, if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart…” That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption. In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” Carmichael’s pessimism about racist attitudes could be supported by centuries of hard-won evidence. 

But, Wasow says, Carmichael was mistaken, because the empirical evidence shows that racial attitudes among white people can be shifted, and protest can be very effective at causing that shift. Decisions by protesters thereby do matter and have political consequences.

I hope it won’t sound too rude if I say that this seems more like an argument against Stokely Carmichael than against me. Wasow seems here to be defending his empirical claim that differences in types of protest have consequences that shape politics, but I have not disputed the factual reality of his claim, only that the framing of the finding’s significance is misleading and unhelpful. I do not agree with Carmichael that the people of this country have no conscience and cannot improve, so the idea that I subscribe to “immovable prejudice” theory is false. I agree that protesters can move the public, and I think we have very strong evidence of that in the shifting public perception in favor of Black Lives Matter.

Second and thirdly, Wasow says that I ignore Black agency and treat Black people as monolithic. This critique is the most important. Here he elaborates:

Even people who are incarcerated under terrible, brutal circumstances have agency to resist domination. Any story that centers white supremacy so totally that black agency is erased from the story is itself ahistorical… More importantly, erasing black agency replicates a certain kind of profound disregard in which marginal groups are not seen as fully human and capable of independent thought and action even against often overwhelming constraints… If white domination and white backlash are the beginning, middle and end of the story, where do black agents of change fit in the story? 

    Wasow’s argument is that by criticizing him for focusing on the choices made by Black protesters, I am suggesting that Black people are subjected to history rather than making it themselves. I think here we have the crux of why Wasow is so deeply angry at what I said, because to him I was not just calling his research bad, I was advancing a line of argumentation that implicitly dehumanizes Black people. This is because, he says, I essentially think that white people are the ones whose decisions matter: to him, I have a crude picture of the world in which white people choose to oppress Black people, Black people’s responses are predetermined (some respond with violent protest, some do not), and then white people can choose how to respond to that violence. Because I suggested that the focus should be on the conditions that cause riots and the media/public/state response to that violence, rather than the choice of rioters to riot, I am seeing white people as the motor of history. 

    Here I would like to apologize to Wasow, because I believe any argument I made that seemed to suggest this was clearly badly framed on my part. I do not believe that protesters do not make choices. Nor do I see them as passive. By saying that there were “causes” to the Watts uprising, I do not mean to imply that the people who rioted in Watts were essentially like billiard balls, who do not decide where to go and what to do but whose trajectory is determined by whatever bumps into them. Instead, I am trying to emphasize that people’s choices occur within a context that is not their choice, that they “make their own history but not under circumstances of their own choosing,” that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” And by saying that the Watts rioting was not decided by a committee, but was a spontaneous act, I do not mean to suggest that people cannot decide how to react to a situation, but that decentralized decisions made by people in desperate and trying circumstances need to be understood empathetically and with a full appreciation of why and how those decisions were made. 

    Something interesting about the divide between Wasow and myself has to do with how we see ourselves and our roles. Neither of us seems to disagree on the necessity of racial justice protest movements. Wasow wishes protesters to succeed and so do I. But Wasow sees himself as contributing to an intra-protest conversation around tactics, while I am concerned about the conversation that goes on externally to the protests and the effect that certain framings have on that conversation. And one of the reasons Wasow is so frustrated with me is that I appear to be trying to lecture him on how to have an intra-Black conversation around Black protest. 

I am reminded here of a different, but somewhat related, century-long intra-Black debate about whether “personal responsibility” and “bootstraps” rhetoric is helpful or harmful. This debate is found in the divide between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, it is found in Michael Eric Dyson’s harsh critiques of Bill Cosby’s lectures to young Black men, it is found in Adolph Reed taking Barack Obama to task for “affirm[ing] a victim-blaming ‘tough love’ message that focuses on alleged behavioral pathologies in poor black communities.” 

This debate, and many “left-right” debates about the social world, is in one way about the ancient sociological question of “structure versus agency.” Are our outcomes determined by the social structure in which we find ourselves or by the choices made by us as free individual agents? This question can become extremely contentious, because the “all agency” perspective (anyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps) seems a cruel lie that blames people for a failure to overcome impossibly unfair barriers, while the “all structure” perspective seems to treat people as pure victims with no agency. When Wasow says that I deny Black agency, this is what he means: I am dehumanizing people by denying their power to change their circumstances. And when I say Wasow focuses too much on protester choices, I mean that he has neglected structure, reinforcing the idea that the most important thing is to get the oppressed to make better choices. 

You will see, of course, as sociologists generally do, that both structure and agency matter and that the difficult question is just how much each one matters and in what ways. But because there are political implications to which one we emphasize, we need to think carefully about how we present things. Agency-focused stories do tend to help convince conservatives that they don’t need to worry about structure; the National Review, of course, happily cites Wasow’s research to tut at protesters for their bad decisions—and like Wasow does not feel the need to talk about the structures those decisions come out of.

One reason that I think Wasow and I differ so passionately, though, is because he sees me as intervening in a conversation that is not mine to engage in, and I see him as ignoring a conversation that he is engaged in whether he likes it or not. He doesn’t particularly like a suggestion that a Black scholar is attributing excessive agency to Black activists, but I feel that he’s not seeing the way the stories told by his scholarship will have important political consequences that it is irresponsible to ignore.

To go back to a hypothetical I mentioned before: let’s say there was a paper showing empirically that fewer bombs would be dropped on Iraq if the Iraqis were nonviolent. If an American academic put out that paper, I would suggest it was absurd. But what if it was put out by an Iraqi academic in Iraq, who saw it as part of the intra-Iraqi conversation about what to do about a fixed external circumstance? It might seem less absurd then, and the American (me) who warned that the paper would be fodder for Americans to blame the Iraqis for their misfortunes might be treated as a meddling outsider whose opinion was unwelcome. Wasow politely suggests that I should shut the hell up about agency and structure, and perhaps I should, but it remains that if the only story being told about protester agency and violence is Wasow’s, then many of the facts will be missing. In the Iraq example: the American dissident should perhaps not tell the Iraqi academic what to study, but the American should certainly work hard to show fellow Americans that the picture presented in that study is incomplete, and to fill in the gaps. The study may be useful as part of an in-group conversation among resisters on how to resist, but when it becomes a tool for the American media to treat “resister agency” as the relevant issue, we have to expose its limitations.

Whether my criticism of Wasow’s research is valid, then, depends in part on what you think that research is supposed to be doing. Is it an attempt to provide a tactical guide for protesters, by zeroing in on the one thing they can control? Or is it an attempt to provide a broad understanding of who has power and is responsible for what outcomes? If it’s the latter, it’s woefully misleading and incomplete, whereas if it’s the former, it’s doing exactly what King did, but with more statistical evidence, though I am not sure violence is “decided upon” the way Wasow suggests. Personally, I think there is a way to do both, by never leaving out the structural context in which agents’ decisions take place, and I think social scientists always ought to be asking the questions: “How is the story I am telling going to be used?” and “In what ways is the story I am telling presenting an incomplete picture of reality?” 

*    *    *    *

Let me end by coming back to the question of “politics” and academic research, because the central criticism of my own position on protest scholarship is that I supposedly believe “ideology” rather than “facts” should be the driver of academic inquiry, and that facts that do not serve the goals I like should be downplayed or suppressed. I hope you see that this is not, in fact, the divide between Wasow and myself, because both of us think of protest scholarship as having a purpose beyond the mere discovery of facts. We both think in terms of consequences: he wants to produce research that helps protesters decide which tactics to use, while I want to make sure academic research does not end up handing the right a stick with which to whack protesters while not actually offering constructive advice to protesters. Neither of us is concerned purely with “facts” divorced from “values.” The whole reason Wasow is choosing to study this particular question is that his values make him interested in it. He is guided by a commitment to racial justice, and his desire to uncover empirically the most expedient ends toward achieving that justice. This is good. It is not “unscholarly.” 

Our debate is over whether the facts as he presents them end up being misleading and inhibiting the pursuit of the goal. It’s a matter of how we pick facts to assemble stories, and which of those stories are more or less accurate and useful. We are both grappling with extremely difficult questions, and I regret that my casual dismissal of Wasow’s work led us to such a heated conflict, because I do not think there are clear right or wrong answers here. Focus too much on structure and people become disempowered, dehumanized victims. Focus too much on agency and you become a bootstrapper who thinks people are responsible for crimes committed against them by others (while those others are let off the hook). In part, the differences between Wasow and myself do spring from differences in our identities: as a Black scholar he believes in examining and emphasizing Black agency, and as a white social critic I want to call white Americans to task for constantly shifting responsibility onto others without taking any themselves. I believe we are both engaged in the pursuit of facts and truth, guided by intense social commitments. And we both wrestle with that age-old question of the relationship between scholarship and human values, without either having reached a fully satisfactory answer. 

What To Do Once We’ve Defunded The Police

In 2016, when the city council of Durham, North Carolina, proposed to invest $81 million in a new police headquarters, the Durham Beyond Policing coalition held an unusual protest. “Activists,” writes Brandon Jordan of Waging Nonviolence, “…handed fake money to protesters to put into buckets that represented different priorities for the community.” Durham Beyond Policing’s demand was for a participatory budgeting process—a clunky phrase that refers to people directly and democratically deciding how public money is spent, as opposed to politicians or bureaucrats making budgetary decisions. Their ask was clear: what would you do with $81 million dollars? Spend it on an institution that harms Black communities? Or spend that money on schools, mental health services, and free public transportation, among other options? What would a “People’s Budget” look like? 

The new Durham police headquarters was ultimately built despite the protests, but the question has not gone away. What if we could all participate in deciding how to spend our public money? And how would the process work?   

These days, defunding the police seems increasingly within reach. The Minneapolis city council has voted to move forward on abolishing its police department and develop a “transformative new model” of public safety. Municipal governments of all sizes around the country are likewise facing demonstrations demanding the defunding and abolition of police departments. Whether cities are simply cutting police budgets or literally abolishing the police, they will have to decide what to do with the money that is no longer being spent on policing. Depending on the city, defunding the police could mean the reallocation of tens of millions, hundreds of millions, or upward of a billion dollars toward other services. What would it look like to “divest” from the police and “reinvest in the Black and Brown communities they unjustly target”?  What would it mean to assert “Black power through participatory budgeting?” And how can we make sure that budgets stay responsive to our communities’ needs even when we’re not in the streets? 

Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre 

A common place to start with participatory budgeting is to look at Porto Alegre, a city in Brazil with a population of over a million people. In 1989, Porto Alegre launched a wide-ranging participatory budgeting program. Due to constitutional changes at the federal level in Brazil, money was pouring into cities, and there was opportunity to experiment. The center-left Workers’ Party, which controlled much of the city government, led the drive to create a people’s budget. 

For the first few years, the participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre was messy and unwieldy. But once processes were established and people became engaged, the city entered into a sort of participatory budgeting golden age, which lasted from 1992 until a right-wing resurgence took over city government in 2004, mostly in response to mishandling of government affairs outside of the budget process. During this golden age, however, Porto Alegre demonstrated a level of sustained working class political participation and power rarely seen within a capitalist country, all centered around the city’s budget process. (PB still exists in Porto Alegre, but it has been chipped away at by the right in an effort to curtail access and reduce the amount of money allocated through the process).

For a Porto Alegre resident in the 1990s, participating in the city’s budgeting was a multifaceted and vibrant process. While there were many meetings, the process itself did not amount to something like attending a city council or public agency hearing. As portrayed in the documentary Beyond Elections, the annual process would kick off with festivities. It was a carnival-like atmosphere, with commissioned art, live music, dance numbers—a big civic-minded party that engulfed the city. The nitty-gritty of the process would begin with a recap of the status of the projects selected in years prior, discussed and debated in different neighborhood assemblies always attended by the mayor and city administration. When the mayor came to their neighborhood, residents would take the mic and demand answers. Why hadn’t the programs yet been implemented? Who was holding things up? Every year the city government would have to go on tour, taking the sorts of direct questions most city officials try desperately to avoid, and answering them to their constituents’ faces right in their own neighborhoods. 

Porto Alegre residents dancing at a participatory budgeting event. ORÇAMENTO PARTICIPATIVO 2007/2008 – 08/May/2007. Thematic Assembly : Social Assistance. Foto: Ivo Gonçalves/PMPA

The radical differences between these neighborhood assemblies and the public hearings we may be used to cannot be overemphasized. This wasn’t a meeting about priorities set by city hall. The very residents demanding answers were the ones who had proposed, debated, and decided on the programs in previous years’ meetings. They had a direct stake in these programs and their outcomes. 

Following the kickoff and accountability meetings, imagine yourself in a next round of neighborhood assemblies, designed to brainstorm programs and set priorities. What’s your pet issue? Is it sanitation? Housing? Transportation? Arts and culture? Something else entirely? You and your neighbors get to propose ideas and establish what should be top of the list in your neighborhood. These discussions, facilitated by non-voting City Hall-appointed facilitators, are tense but meaningful, and lead to concrete lists of ideas with ranked priorities. Neighborhoods could decide, for example, “to divide available funds into many small projects, such as paving 100 meters of dirt road in each of the 20 settlements, or spend them all on a major collective priority, such as a thoroughfare or a school.” 

Upon priorities being set, the elected delegates from the thousands of participants and the added layer of elected “councilors” begin to construct an investment plan based on the countless hours of deliberations, taking part in their own continuous and intensive rounds of discussion. By the end of many months of debate and proposal development, the delegates and councilors complete their investment plans. Then the projects are voted on by everyone. Street committees monitor their status and progress. The process flows into and repeats the next year. 

Now, imagine this is happening simultaneously in multiple neighborhoods within your district, and also in all the neighborhoods comprising the fifteen other districts. Everyone is in this together. There are billboards and ads on buses encouraging participation. The whole city understands that there are dollars to be spent, their dollars to be spent, and they feel responsible for what happens with that money. There are big signs proclaiming that implemented projects were funded through the people’s budget; after all, as a participant in PB expresses, “we were the ones that demanded, prioritized, and achieved them.” 

In this scenario, you are also not just setting priorities for your neighborhood. You are setting them for the city. By the early 2000s, more than 30,000 people in Porto Alegre participated in the budgeting process each year. Participatory budgeting is such a universal activity that even your children get to set their own resource priorities. Every school in the Porto Alegre turned to its students to determine how to allocate funding. 

In Porto Alegre, this broad community participation in the nitty-gritty of governance had knock-on effects well beyond the budgets themselves. As academics Emil A. Sobottka and Danilo R. Streck note, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre “proved to have unforeseen consequences like questioning the traditional model of representative local democracy, widening the circle of people interested in political affairs, allowing the residents to question bureaucratic structures and to exercise a bit more control over their rulers.”

The results in Porto Alegre were stunning. Between 1990 and 2004, eighty-two percent of projects were implemented on time. Through participatory budgeting, access to running water increased from 75 percent to 98 percent of households by the year 2000. In that same period access to sewage lines increased from 46 percent to 98 percent. In 1988, there were 29 public schools, and by 2000 there were 86. In terms of housing, from 1986 to 1988, 1,714 families were provided with housing, whereas from 1992 to 1995, 28,886 families were housed. (The city population grew during this time, but the amount of infrastructure still increased dramatically even relative to that increase.)

Porto Alegre, Brazil. Wikipedia.

Participatory Budgeting and Community Control

The Porto Alegre example is impressive, but could it be accomplished in the United States, and in the context of defunding the police? It’s clear the issues are closely interlinked: demands to defund and abolish the police have a long history extending back into the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, and activists have long called for Black community control over local governance. While in the sixties these calls were typically aimed at public education, community control has more recently also been linked to public budgeting. Since 2016, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) has featured participatory budgeting as a central component of their community control platform. Organizers and officials have put forward demands for participatory budgeting in Seattle, Dallas, Memphis, Los Angeles, Durham, El Paso, and a growing list of other cities. The Portland City Council just voted to reduce the police budget and reinvest some of it through participatory budgeting. The Phoenix Union High School District recently decided to eliminate funding for school resource officers, and reinvest this $1.2 million through PB.

More than 3,000 cities around the world now have some sort of participatory process for budgets. There are even nationwide processes. In countries such as Portugal, people can pitch project ideas online and in-person. After developing projects that are regional and national in scope, Portuguese residents get to vote on two different categories of projects: those for their respective region and those pertaining to the entire country. 

Advocates who initially met in Porto Alegre brought participatory budgeting in small steps to North America. The first system was introduced in Toronto public housing. Chicago rolled out the first process in the United States, and later on, New York City piloted participatory processes for portions of the budget within council districts. In recent years, participatory budgeting has increasingly been used in public schools, with K-12 students taking democratic control over their schools’ money. Examples like the Phoenix School District show that this can result in over 90 percent of the student body participating, with comprehensive school curricula that enable every child to suggest ideas, develop proposals, and vote. Today, New York City may be on the cusp of a citywide participatory budgeting process. Before the pandemic, New York City advocates were pressuring city hall to let residents directly allocate $500 million annually. In the context of the movement to defund the police, it could be much more. 

Participatory budgeting processes in the United States generally start by holding what are called “idea-collection assemblies.” Here, members of a community generate ideas for what they would like to see in their neighborhood, city, school, or whatever they are budgeting for. In New York City, these assemblies have been driven by formerly incarcerated persons, and have seen  “overrepresentation” by women and Black residents. In recent years, an online component has been added, where people can submit ideas online, with submissions mapped and made transparent to the public. 

After the idea-collection assemblies, someone must develop proposals. In the United States, proposals are most often developed by “volunteer budget delegates” rather than elected delegates as in Porto Alegre. These volunteers are often people who, from their experience in an idea-collection assembly, are driven to develop their own and others’ ideas into full-blown plans. In this phase, laypeople meet with the relevant experts, such as administrators of an institution or city agency officials. In processes outside of the United States—such as in France, Australia, and Taiwan—budget delegates or those with similar roles are selected through sortition (i.e. the delegates are selected randomly by lottery, reminiscent of government in Ancient Athens). A sortition process is meant to ensure a fair cross-section of the affected community in developing the projects. It also ensures that technocrats and politicians cannot dominate the process. Whatever the project development phase looks like, it results in a ballot upon which the entire community will vote. 

PB-Process-Cycle-Diagrmo.png
Courtesy of The Participatory Budgeting Project, from here, with video presentation here.

The next step is exactly this: a direct democratic vote. But it’s not a winner-take-all-vote. Rules for participatory budgeting almost always ensure that there is more than one winning project. People are able to vote for multiple projects, and multiple projects end up being funded. Projects that have won in New York City include funds for a “nonprofit Sakhi for South Asian Women to lead sewing circles for survivors of domestic violence.” Others have included “[a] series of workshops for immigrants, Muslim women, and their allies focused on self-defense techniques and empowerment.” Many infrastructure projects have been implemented over the years, allocating $210 million in total in New York City since 2012. These have ranged from installing rooftop greenhouses at schools, to bus time transit countdown clocks, to street resurfacings and new tree plantings.

As it stands, these projects are relatively minor. Participatory budgeting in the United States is a long way in scale and scope from allowing people to seriously define the priorities of a city, state, or country, as we saw happen in Porto Alegre. Now may be the moment to implement something like Porto Alegre’s system in the United States, with funds formerly allocated to police departments as the starting point.

Divestment from Police, Reinvestment in Black Communities by Black Communities

What happens if, say, New York City decides to implement full participatory budgeting—and residents still vote to keep paying the police six billion dollars per year? This is always a danger of democracy: sometimes people vote for bad things. And New Yorkers have, in the past, voted in favor of NYPD surveillance cameras. But votes like that one may have been driven by a misunderstanding of how surveillance program worked—for example,who would have access to the data—and ultimately lacked any meaningful alternative programs for that money. It’s one thing to be presented with a choice between cameras and no cameras. It’s another thing entirely to choose between surveillance cameras on the one hand, and jobs programs or school funding on the other. 

There are two types of process controls to ensure that participatory budgeting doesn’t formalize oppression. First, the process itself can mandate that funds available be used only for restorative purposes. For example, M4BL recommends in its toolkit that activists and organizers “[c]reate participatory budgeting processes that allow communities to designate funding to public and community-based public safety infrastructure and programs outside law enforcement.” The Participatory Budgeting Project also has a recently-released toolkit designed to move forward with participatory budgeting in the specific context of divesting from police.

The other alternative, as seen in Porto Alegre, requires that the communities most harmed by police violence be given power over a greater proportion of the money formerly used to fund the police. The NYPD has a six billion dollar budget. Defunding the NYPD could do what Brazilian constitutional changes enabled in the late 1980s: open up massive resources for use in education, housing, and infrastructure. Briefly put, Harlem should receive a far greater proportion of money in a citywide PB process than the Upper East Side. This alone wouldn’t guarantee a turn away from policing, but it would ensure that the most affected communities would be the ones to choose policing or a form of it themselves, and that they would have the tools to keep the police accountable through the possibility of further defunding and reallocation.

The money is there. Our money is there. Countless infographics from cities of varying sizes depict police budgets towering over nearly all other budget categories. Communities United for Police Reform has put together the numbers for New York. Why should New York City have a budget where, for every dollar spent on police, only 29 cents is spent on homeless services, 25 cents on the Department of Health, 19 cents on housing preservation and development, 12 cents on youth and community development, and 1 cent on the workforce? Right now, cities across the country are asking this same question, and, moreover, the question of who is setting priorities and why. In U.S. city budgets, police have been a priority for the small set of powerful officials and wealthy donors who, for many decades, have been able to set priorities. To change this carceral state of affairs, we need to change who sets the priorities. We need to set the priorities.

What passes for democracy in the United States has long been an outsourcing of governance to small groups of people with specific interests and limited worldviews. But, little by little, in elections and in the streets, people are claiming the power that has been rightfully theirs all along. The business of government is not a boring pastime for wonks and technocrats, nor need it be the province and playground of the wealthy and powerful. Anyone who thinks public budgets are dull is misunderstanding their power and overlooking their role in our day-to-day lives. Deep democracy requires us to participate in power, and to draw meaning from that participation. Few places contain more power than the public budget. It’s time for us all to participate. In defunding the police and reinvesting via participatory budgeting we will have the opportunity to do just that: participate, at last, in power.


Alexander Kolokotronis is a PhD Candidate in political science at Yale University, where he researches participatory democratic schooling. He is on the Steering Committee of the Central Connecticut Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, and an organizer for Concerned and Organized Graduate Students. He is on the Advisory Board of The Participatory Budgeting Project, and has designed and coordinated participatory budgeting processes. Prior to arriving at Yale, he worked in advocacy and development of worker cooperatives. 


Cover image via Daniel Latorre on Flickr.

What Gets Lost

I’m not much given to ranking such things, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank my favourite sitcoms, The Likely Lads would easily make the top tier. It aired three seasons on BBC between 1964 and 1966—which, because it’s British television, means twenty episodes and a Christmas sketch—following Terry and Bob, two young men working in a factory in the north-east of England. It was commissioned because The Beatles were big and that made someone at the BBC want a show about young northerners, even if they ended up in Newcastle instead of Liverpool. 

Terry and Bob are instantly, vividly realized: they are united in their shared ambitions of getting drunk, picking up girls, and watching football, but there is always a tension between Terry’s pride in being working-class and Bob’s ambitions for social mobility. Bob will always blame Terry for his bad behavior, but the phrase “pushing an open door” was invented specifically to describe Bob. While many 1960s sitcoms are warm, wholesome and full of wacky misunderstandings, The Likely Lads is vulgar, realistic and incredibly modern. Season one’s “Older Women Are More Experienced”—in which Terry dates an older woman and Bob dates a younger one—ends on a punchline that wouldn’t feel out of place in Peep Show. It’s a show I adore, that I will evangelise for any chance I get.

Of the twenty episodes produced, only ten survive. 

The BBC had no official policy on archiving until 1978. Well into the 1970s, it routinely destroyed recordings of its programmes: to wipe and reuse the tapes, to free up storage space, or just because they thought it had no further value. Tapes sent abroad for broadcast in other countries were expected to be destroyed, or returned to be destroyed, after the programme was shown the number the times for which it had been licensed. 

There was definitely a hierarchy to what was saved and what was destroyed, although one that’s only intermittently recognisable from fifty years’ distance. The BBC’s wiping of its own archives is a case study in not knowing what will turn out to be important. The Madhouse on Castle Street, a 1963 teleplay featuring a then-unknown Bob Dylan, was junked – in 1968, after Dylan had become famous. Most of the episodes of music programme Top of the Pops that aired before the mid-1970s are lost, including a 1966 performance by The Beatles. Most of Till Death Us Do Part, the sitcom that was adapted in the US as All in the Family, is lost. 

According to Terry Gilliam, the only reason the BBC didn’t wipe Monty Python’s Flying Circus is because he bought the tapes before they had the chance. Peter Cook wasn’t so lucky: he offered to buy the tapes of his and Dudley Moore’s seminal sketch show Not Only… But Also, but the BBC wiped them anyway. What little survives of Not Only… But Also is some black-and-white kinescope copies – that’s when a film camera is synchronised to record the television screen – even though the show was originally broadcast in colour, as well as some 16mm film inserts. Around a hundred episodes of Doctor Who are missing – why would a sci-fi show meant to teach kids about history be worth saving, after all? These lost Who episodes exist in audio form, not because the BBC decided to save audio versions, but because of fans at home recording the audio off-air. The BBC even wiped their coverage of the moon landing

But most of the programmes destroyed are not famous, or obviously important and worthy of preservation. Many black-and-white programmes – like The Likely Lads and Till Death Do Us Part – were deemed irrelevant with the introduction of colour broadcasting and destroyed to make room for colour tapes. Sitcoms and soap operas – the lowest, most ephemeral forms in the low, ephemeral art of television – were of course among the worst victims: no episodes survive of United!, a twice-weekly soap about a second-division football team, 199 Park Lane, a soap set in a luxury block of flats in London, or the sitcoms Abigail and Roger, The Airbase, and The Gnomes of Dulwich

It’s easier to grieve for shows if you personally feel their loss. Saving The Likely Lads would be one of my top priorities if I had a time machine, but I can’t imagine watching United! even if every episode was free to stream in HD right now. But it’s not really about what shows I’d like to watch. It’s about huge chunks of television history that are missing, never to be recovered. If there were misunderstood masterpieces among the wiped, we will never get the chance to rediscover them. If there was dark, disgusting shit that reveals the worst of what was considered acceptable in society, we will never get to examine them with a critical eye. If all of it was bland, boring nonsense that doesn’t matter at all, we will never get to find out for ourselves. Not because of some tragic accident, but because the choice was made to destroy it. “Reams of paperwork indicated a large chunk of their content was rubber-stamped into destruction using just three words,” Jake Rossen writes, “’No further interest’.”

Wiping was in no way unique to the BBC. The UK’s main commercial broadcaster ITV operated by awarding regional licences to independent private companies, and the quality of archiving varied widely between regions. All of The Prisoner – Patrick McGoohan’s extraordinary and brilliant allegorical sci-fi about a British intelligence officer kidnapped and trapped in a mysterious village – exists, but even in the narrow field of “shows about spies that aired on ITV”, all but two episodes of The Rat Catchers and the whole first season of The Avengers are missing. All of Coronation Street, the long-running soap set in a fictional town in Greater Manchester, survives, but Crossroads, a cheaply-made but popular soap set in a Midlands motel, is missing 2,850 of its original 3,555 episodes. ITV wiped their coverage of the moon landing too. 

Wiping wasn’t quite as widespread in the United States as in the UK, but a huge amount of television was still destroyed. Almost all of The Tonight Show under the reign of host Jack Paar as well as the first ten years hosted by Johnny Carson is lost, because NBC recorded over the tapes. Although footage – mostly from other sources – survives of the early Superbowls, the telecasts were all wiped until Super Bowl VII in 1973. Most of Walter Cronkite’s newscasts between 1962 and 1968 are lost, with a few exceptions, such as his coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination and his criticism of the Vietnam War. Game shows, soap operas and daytime television were routinely destroyed. 

DuMont Television Network broadcast in the US from 1942, when television was in its infancy, to 1956. They aired what is considered the first TV sitcom – Mary Kay and Johnny – and America’s first TV soap opera, Faraway Hill. Jackie Gleason got his start there, debuting The Honeymooners as a recurring sketch on his variety show before developing it into a sitcom for CBS. They aired music programme The Hazel Scott Show, one of the first TV shows in the US to be hosted by a black person, during the summer of 1950: despite good ratings and critical acclaim, it was cancelled when Scott was named as a communist sympathiser in anti-communist pamphlet called “Red Channels,” and the show found itself without a sponsor. They also aired The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, starring Anna May Wong as a detective, which became the first US show with an Asian-American lead. 

Anna May Wong. Photo by Getty Images.

None of these shows survive intact. DuMont preserved most of what it produced as kinescopes, but money troubles meant they began melting down these film copies to recover the silver content. In the mid-1970s, well after its collapse, DuMont’s remaining library was loaded onto a couple of trucks and dumped in the East River. Of all the many, many programmes that aired on DuMont – roughly 20,000 episodes – only a small fraction, about 350, survive. 

American and British shows have the relative advantage of being more likely to have been exported to other territories that might have held on to a copy. Broadcasts of the Oscars in the 1950s and into the 1960s were wiped by the American stations that aired them, but kinescope copies made for European broadcast survive. Many of the episodes of Doctor Who we have only survive because overseas broadcasters kept hold of their copies instead of returning or destroying them. But for most countries—lacking either the institutional expertise to produce television programmes on the scale of Britain and America, or the imperial cultural capital to export their media worldwide—overseas distribution was effectively non-existent. 

Gay Byrne. Photo by Getty Images.

It’s hard to describe the role of The Late Late Show in Irish society, but the death of Gay Byrne, its first and longest-serving host, sending the entire nation into mourning should give some indication. Ireland’s first television station—the public broadcaster Telefís Éireann, now called RTÉ—was launched in 1962, and The Late Late was one of its flagship programmes. Byrne was twenty-eight when it debuted, and would host it until his retirement in 1999. The show discussed subjects that were hugely taboo in Ireland, from contraception to homosexuality to divorce to the influence of the Catholic Church. He was an immensely talented broadcaster—famously handling a phone-in competition winner revealing that her daughter had just died with extraordinary deftness and grace—but his effect on the nation is far beyond any equally talented broadcaster anywhere in the world. For an entire country for nearly forty years, he was the man on television, practically television itself. And yet. RTÉ wiped almost everything for the first fifteen years of its existence. “TV then was live, ephemeral and disposable,” Hugh Linehan writes for the Irish Times, “so all the early Late Late Shows and much more got wiped.”

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation had a policy of wiping and reusing tapes well into the 1970s, and so almost all their broadcasts from the 1950s and 1960s are lost. According to Bob Ellis in the Sydney Morning Herald, a collector once posed as a silver nitrate dealer in order to buy kinescopes marked for destruction. The collector sometimes rented out these copies to schools, and when a student recognised her father, an actor, in a Shakespeare production, the actor lodged a complaint, believing that ABC still owned the tapes and was making extra money out his performance. Warned that the police were coming, the collector destroyed almost all of the material, like the police raid in GoodFellas but with episodes of Six O’Clock Rock instead of cocaine. 

Almost all Greek television from before the 1980s is lost. Only nine out of 185 episodes of Flemish sitcom Schipper naast Mathilde survive. A bunch of Japanese anime programmes are lost or incomplete. Destroying television was such a widespread practice all over the world that it seems like a hopeless inevitability. Sure, the BBC wiped their coverage of the moon landing, but NASA wiped the master tapes. The only footage we have of the moon landing is kinescope recordings. If the original tapes could be found, we could now yield a much higher quality transfer than was possible in 1969, since recording technology has always been ahead of playback technology. But they were wiped, probably in the 1980s. 

Wiping basically never happens anymore. The cost of both recording and storage steadily plummeted, and broadcasters realised the value of reruns, then home video, then streaming rights. But the fundamental values and beliefs that enabled wiping remain unchanged: that art is the property neither of the public in general nor the artists specifically, but of copyright holders, free to do with it as they please. 

All art rightfully belongs to the commonwealth of humanity: this is true when it comes to critical interpretation, but it’s also literally true. It is our heritage, our history, a lineage stretching back to when humans first told each other stories and sang each other songs and painted on cave walls. The function of copyright should be to protect the rights of artists as workers, ensuring they receive fair compensation for copyable works. It doesn’t really work that way—Taylor Swift is planning on re-recording her early albums because Scooter Braun bought up her back catalogue—but in theory, it’s a good idea, perverted by work-for-hire arrangements and ever-extending expiration dates that corporations like Disney lobby for. But regardless, copyright is about the right to reproduce and distribute a work, not about ownership. The ultimate destiny of all copyrights is to expire, and for the work to enter the public domain. Copyright holders are just temporary custodians. 

And they have proven themselves unfit custodians. Capitalist economies are hostile to art preservation, because it’s expensive and time-consuming and provides little monetary return. When TV wiping ended, it wasn’t because everyone realized it was wrong, it was because the financial calculus of archiving changed. Although some of the worst offenders, like the BBC, are public bodies, the scarce resources they are provided incentivize the same kind of mindset, especially when there is pressure to perform along the same metrics as their for-profit equivalents. The BBC wouldn’t have needed to free up storage space or reuse tapes if they had sufficient storage and enough tapes. 

Preservation isn’t just a matter of not destroying, it means actively saving. Physical media degrades, digital media becomes corrupted or incompatible. As Heather Alexandra wrote about video games, “It’s not enough to keep our old games in a box at the back of the garage. Exposed circuit boards and EPROMs are damaged by dust and bright light. Humidity eats away at magnetic media.”

According to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, 90% of American films made before 1929 are lost. A big part of that is willful destruction—particularly of silent films, considered worthless in the talkie era—but a large part is that nitrate film, which was standard until the 1950s, can spontaneously combust if it’s stored improperly. A huge amount of culture has been lost in fires: the 1937 Fox vault fire, the 1965 MGM vault fire, the 2008 Universal Music Group fire in which the New York Times estimates between 118 and 175,000 master recordings were destroyed. Digitization can feel like a cure-all, but that has its own problems: when Toy Story was going to be put out on DVD, it was discovered that as much of a fifth of the original digital files had been corrupted, and a film print had to be used for the DVD instead. Even if digitization was a cure-all, the proportion of analogue copies of film, television and especially music that has been digitized is shockingly small. In 2013, it was estimated that “less than 18 percent of commercial music archives had been transferred and made available through streaming and download services.” 

The other side of the preservation coin is accessibility. It isn’t worth much for something to exist if it’s locked away, misfiled in some giant warehouse, never to be stumbled upon again. Corporate copyright holders have always been hostile to accessibility, because artificial scarcity creates demand. Before the launch of its streaming service Disney+, Disney spent decades purposefully limiting availability of its animated films on home release to increase their market value, placing the films in the “Disney vault” for years at a time. On the flip side, tons of media has been buried because its existence is embarrassing to the brand—Disney refusing to release Song of the South in North America, or the Censored Eleven Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that Warner Bros. still haven’t released—despite announcing a decade ago that they would—or more often, because it would just not be worth the cost to release. 

“Over in England, there are thousands of formerly-labelled tape boxes in warehouses that are now un-labeled because the Sellotape that was used to attach the track sheets to the boxes disintegrates after a few decades and the sheets fall off, leaving the boxes completely devoid of information,” according to music historian Andy Zax, “No one is ever going to spend the money to play the tapes back to find out what’s on them, so they just sit there.” But nothing that stupid and dramatic needs to happen for stuff to just sit there. After winning an Oscar for directing Rocky, John G. Avildsen made Slow Dancing in the Big City, an unabashedly corny romance that polarized critics and fared poorly at the box office. It’s never been released on home media since its run in theatres in 1978, even though its soundtrack was rereleased on CD in 2005. Fist of Fun, Stewart Lee and Richard’s Herring delightfully anarchic 1990s BBC sketch show, was only released on DVD and download because Lee and Herring bought the rights from the BBC. Their follow-up sketch-variety show, the gloriously strange and breathlessly funny This Morning With Richard Not Judy, has never been released since its original broadcast, and the only reason you can watch any of it is because of fans digitising and uploading their VHS recordings. 

There are so many shows that aren’t lost or missing or destroyed, but just aren’t available. Tons of these were unsuccessful at the time but seem valuable in hindsight: a decade before The Sopranos, David Chase created Almost Grown, a drama following the same couple in different time periods from the 1950s to the 1980s. It got good reviews, but had poor ratings—competing directly with Monday Night Football—and was canceled after airing nine of its thirteen episodes. The show has never been rerun or given a home release, even after the opportunity came along to slap “from the creator of The Sopranos” on the box. 

Asylum, a sitcom/stand-up hybrid that aired one season in 1996, seems to hold the seeds for at least half of British comedy in the 2000s. Most notably, it was created by Edgar Wright, who went on to direct Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, marking his first collaboration with Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes, three years before they would create cult sitcom Spaced. It’s never been released on DVD or streaming. The last time I checked, it existed in low-res YouTube uploads of VHS recordings, but they could disappear at literally any moment. Just because a copyright holder isn’t doing anything with their copyright doesn’t mean they won’t rigidly enforce it. 

The argument is that there isn’t any real demand for these shows or films to be released. And that’s pretty much true: old television, especially, has basically zero cultural cache outside of a handful of super-popular behemoths, almost all of which are from the last twenty years. But demand is something that’s cultivated. You can’t demand something if you don’t even know about it, and nobody is doing a multimillion dollar ad campaign and a media tour and a PR blast to promote The Dick Van Dyke Show. We’re constantly bombarded with the hot new shows you just have to watch, while the older and obscure programmes that are available quietly disappear. 

One of the big reasons films and TV shows sit in warehouses gathering dust is the cost and complexities of managing the different copyrights involved. Frank’s Place, a character-driven dramedy about a black Ivy League professor inheriting a New Orleans restaurant, aired one season in 1987-88, and has never been given any kind of home release thanks largely to music rights: the show had a distinctive soundtrack of jazz and R&B. SCTV was unreleased for decades thanks to music copyrights. When it was finally released by Shout Factory, music had to be edited or even entire sketches left out. Daria originally aired with a soundtrack of contemporary pop songs, often with a particular relevance to the events of the episode, but on VHS and DVD almost all music was replaced. 

We’ve been sold the myth that everything is available online. It’s a myth that buoys entertainment companies designing the market so they have complete control over access. If you buy something on DVD or Blu-ray, it’s yours to have and to own, but if you buy a film on iTunes, it can disappear without warning if it’s removed from the iTunes store. Entertainment is moving more and more towards streaming services, which means monthly subscriptions, which means paying a continual fee for access without ever actually owning anything. 

We’re in the era of Peak TV. More and more television is being produced—channels formerly focused primarily on reruns of The Love Boat pivoting hard into original content and seemingly every entertainment company launching a bespoke streaming service—while less and less of it is released in any kind of “permanent” physical format. Netflix, for example, has moved more and more towards original content, with exclusivity as the primary selling point, not breadth and depth of catalogue. But if something is exclusively distributed by one platform, what happens if that platform ceases to exist? Some of Netflix’s early original series like Orange Is the New Black were definitely released on DVD or broadcast traditionally in international territories, but the vast majority of Netflix’s originals haven’t been. If Netflix collapsed, the rights to a lot of its programming would be bought up by other entertainment companies. But—though they mostly don’t release viewership numbers—Netflix pumps out so much content that there’s guaranteed to be a lot of stuff on there that basically nobody has ever watched and no-one would bother buying the rights to. 

And that’s on Netflix, the aspiring monopolist. What’s going to happen to shows produced for Crackle or DC Universe when they collapse? Right in the river, next to DuMont.

So much of the history of television’s survival is the history of home recordings and eccentric collectors, of dusty mislabeled film canisters found hidden away or thrown in a skip. But in the streaming era, there are no archival traces. Pirated copies could survive—it’s how we held onto Nosferatu and the Star Wars Christmas Special and Todd Haynes’s experimental short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story—but quite apart from the ethics and legalities of it, piracy is an inefficient archival tool, generally privileging the popular and well-known that is least at risk anyway. What needs to happen is a sea change in values, in how we think about art and archiving and ownership. 

In 2018, two lost episodes of The Likely Lads were discovered in a private collection. They hadn’t been seen since 1967. They weren’t aired on the BBC, or put up on streaming anywhere. They were included as a special feature on a restored DVD rerelease of the 1976 spin-off film. Both episodes are delights—“A Star Is Born” is about Terry and Bob entering a talent competition despite their lack of any discernible talent, and “Far Away Places” is ostensibly about the lads going on holiday but is mostly about them not having the money to go on holiday—but quite apart from the merits of the episodes themselves, they feel sort of miraculous. A window into the past that had long been boarded up. An hour spent with old friends I thought I’d never see again. A melancholy reminder of all that was lost but the joy of a lost thing found. 

These lost episodes are a piece of culture willfully destroyed only to be rescued from the abyss by pure chance. The mass wiping of television history should be a cautionary tale, making us realize the value of maintaining a complete, accessible, universal public archive. But instead, the same attitudes that enabled wiping stay put. The lost episodes of The Likely Lads were released on DVD, a format fast becoming antiquated, as a bonus feature, by a niche distributor that specializes in restored classic television. It’s not hard to imagine a similar case where a kinescope recording might be found, and left on a shelf to gather dust, right alongside Slow Dancing in the Big City and Almost Grown

Specific policy changes to ensure preservation and access—reform of the copyright system to the benefit of workers and the public, nationalizing broadband and ensuring full coverage in rural areas, making as much of existing archives as possible available online—are important, but more than that, we need a revolution in perspective on art. Too often, copyright is treated as a way to extract rents: intellectual property to be exploited, not public property to be protected. But public property is exactly what it is, and we need to start thinking about art that way: as something that needs to be decommodified. Something precious to human life, not just to the market. 

The Right-Wing Myth of the Left-Wing Mob

Donald Trump’s Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore was a call to arms to take on the evil mob destroying our beloved country’s values. It was a thunderous condemnation of the political left, and a promise to seize the country from the “totalitarian” proponents of “social justice” who are destroying our culture of “free and open debate,” replacing it with “cancel culture and speech codes”:

In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.  If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished… One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America. This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.  We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.

Trump’s picture of what is going on in the country is totally detached from reality. Totalitarianism involves guns and concentration camps. The “radical left” in the United States has two members of Congress, Bernie Sanders and AOC. (Perhaps Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.) This is the same conservative persecution complex we have heard for decades; some of the richest and most powerful people in the world complaining that the “far left” are totalitarians. The left is permanently tarred as Stalinist thought police trying to put dissenters in the gulag—even as the contemporary left is trying to dismantle both police and prisons and reduce the power of the carceral state. 

It should be clear what’s going on here. Trump’s much-vaunted economy has tanked. Well over 100,000 people have died of coronavirus and cases are on the rise. Eight out of 10 people report that they are dissatisfied with the direction the country is going, and Joe Biden is outpolling Trump consistently. Americans have only gotten more sympathetic to immigrants over time, so he can’t run on scapegoating Mexicans like he did in 2016. Trump has one approach left: try to reignite the culture wars and convince people that a censorious P.C. left is trying to destroy our freedom. 

But Trump is not the only one who sees the left as a threat to freedom. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi has said that the “American left has lost its mind,” and that “leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation.” Yesterday, Harper’s magazinewhich previously fired an editor for criticizing an anti-MeToo essay, and gave the world a 7,000 word self-pitying rant from an NPR host dismissed for sexual harassment and incompetence—published a short open letter on “Justice and Open Debate” co-signed by a motley assortment of luminaries, arguing that free speech is under attack: 

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. 

When I say the collection of co-signers was motley, I mean it. Included were: 

(Ironically, several of the signatories have previously been publicly involved in efforts to get people’s careers ruined over their speech.) 

The statement itself is framed as a vague and unobjectionable endorsement of free speech, and several signatories had evidently assumed that’s what they were endorsing. But it is very clearly mainly a warning about censoriousness coming from the left. This is clear not only from the it’s not just the right anymore framing, but from the examples the letter uses to support its case. These are vague (“editors are fired,” “journalists are barred from writing,” “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature,” “a researcher is fired”), and the letter specifically declines to litigate the facts of individual incidents. But a book attacked for “inauthenticity” is probably American Dirt (though it was not withdrawn and is a bestseller), an editor fired is probably James Bennet, who resigned from the New York Times op-ed page after printing an op-ed by far right politician Tom Cotton calling for crushing protesters with military force. (Though it could also refer to Ian Buruma, a signatory to the letter, the New York Review of Books editor who had to leave the publication after publishing a serial rapist’s excuses for his crimes.) The “professor investigated” might well be the UCLA professor investigated for reading the n-word aloud in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after his Black students asked him not to say it. The “researcher fired” was almost certainly David Shor, who may or may not (he has never claimed he was) have been fired for posting a study encouraging protesters to be nonviolent. 

The letter appeared on the surface to be a fairly uncontroversial statement in support of tolerance and open discussion. Fredrik deBoer even argues that anyone who objects to the letter must be objecting to free speech itself, because all the letter is is a statement that free speech is good. But the letter actually goes further: It implies that the theory of a widespread culture of repression and censoriousness on the left is accurate, and there is a serious issue with people being persecuted in the name of social justice.

Anyone should be able to agree that openness is good, due process is good, and arbitrary firings are bad. The more controversial question is whether there is, in fact, a dangerous leftist “cancel culture” that threatens our liberty of thought. The American right believes there is. Trump is staking his reelection on the hope that the public agrees. And if it’s true, there is a serious problem with the left.

But when you look at the actual incidents, usually the case swiftly begins to crumble. There’s a reason the letter kept the charges vague and did not provide links. Most of the actual incidents are more complicated than the “political correctness gone mad” framework suggests. If I tell you a professor was investigated for reading a historical document aloud, you might be outraged. But if I add some more facts, namely that the professor had been told by his Black students that they’d prefer he not say the n-word, and he disregarded them, the complaint seems slightly less insane. If I tell you that Ian Buruma was fired over “printing the wrong article,” you might cry “censorship!” But I haven’t told you that the article in question was a sex criminal lying about his crimes in an effort to manipulate the public into sympathizing with him—a strange piece of writing to appear in the New York Review of Books

Critical facts are almost always left out. In 2017, Third World Quarterly pulled an article called “The Case for Colonialism,” after a petition calling for its removal. The writer said a “Maoist” “hate mob” had “tried to silence me,” and in the conservative press he was presented as a victim of  the Pervasive Liberal Bias on campus. Left out, though, was the fact that the article was appallingly bad as a piece of scholarship. Even an article from the libertarian Cato Institute  said it was “empirically and historically inaccurate” and “misuses existing postcolonial scholarship.” The arguments it made were really, really bad. It was like publishing an article denying the Holocaust. If a peer-reviewed journal had published an article denying the Holocaust, would calls to retract it be seen as “politically correct” “Maoist” thought policing, or a reasonable demand for scholarship to conform to basic intellectual and moral standards? 

Frequently, there is far more justice in the charges made by “social justice warriors” than their critics want to admit. There was, for instance, always good reason why students thought Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos were not figures worthy of the honor of being invited to speak at a prestigious college. But just as importantly, the “outrage mobs” that “come for” people are usually relatively powerless. Charles Murray, after all, ended up getting to speak successfully at Harvard and Yale. As Osita Nwanevu documents in an excellent essay on the myths around “cancel culture,” generally speaking the main thing the “social justice mobs” can do to people is yell at them on Twitter. And while nobody likes getting yelled at on Twitter, invoking the specter of “lynch mobs,” “Robespierre,” and “Maoism” is an insult to the millions of historical victims of actual violent repression by actual powerful oppressors. Nwanevu shows that generally, the “problematic” people end up doing just fine. They suffer reputational consequences sometimes, meaning part of the public doesn’t like them. But the actual people who end up being “silenced” tend not to be those who say “politically incorrect” things, but rather leftist dissidents who question the power structure. The suggestion that “both sides” are Totalitarian is willfully oblivious to who really has power in this country. We hear constantly from anti-P.C. types who are Just Asking Questions about the Forbidden Issues. The voices that vanish from discussions, on the other hand, are immigrants in detention facilities, or incarcerated men and women in Covid-ridden prisons. Far more Orwellian than anything the left does is the way the American media presented a right-wing coup in Bolivia as a restoration of democracy or the assassination of an Iranian official as something other than an international crime. 

Conservatives do not want us to talk about the actual “manufacturing of consent” in this country, so they spin a tale about a topsy-turvy world in which college students, Black and transgender people hold all the power and rich white men are persecuted and sent to the gulag. This story should be easy to see through, because it’s so laughably at odds with reality. But when “liberal” academics sign onto it, as with the Harper’s letter, the “moral panic” around P.C. culture is given new legitimacy.

Of course, there is a problem in this country with “people getting fired over speech,” like the Black Lives Matter supporter recently fired from Deloitte over a TikTok video. But the big problem here is at-will employment, not “cancel culture.” American workplaces are dictatorships, meaning your boss can fire you for any reason. So, if there’s even a slight controversy around you, no matter how small it is, your boss may well just can you to avoid the headache. This means that even if it’s a misunderstanding and the person accusing you deletes their accusation, you will still be let go and have no recourse, because capitalism does not give a shit whether you live or die.

The solution, of course, is unions. The way to prevent arbitrary firings is to make arbitrary firings impossible, by ensuring that all workers receive due process and can’t be let go except for just cause. A person’s livelihood is incredibly important, which is why the unequal bargaining power between employers and the employed is so unfair. Arguments that “P.C. culture” is the problem blame the left for problems that result from institutional hierarchies and imbalances of power. Our side should not accept the blame, because we are the ones who are trying to reduce the reach of police, prisons, and bosses.

It is frustrating when people who are not right-wing lunatics echo the language used by Donald Trump about the left. Donald Trump has risen to power by spinning tales about an America that doesn’t exist, one plagued by marauding hordes of immigrants, vandals, and Stalinists. He promises the public that he will restore a better America, one that also never existed. It is our job to expose these fictions for what they are, and provide a better vision of what could be. Having liberals and leftists endorse the right-wing myth about Totalitarian Leftist Mobs feeds into Trump’s culture war re-election strategy. We should refuse to concede, then, that the grotesque caricature of social justice movements is true. We should demand that the full facts of these “canceling” incidents, rather than vague innuendos and selective details, be put on the table and evaluated fairly. And we need to point to the real problems in this country, which do not come from angry anti-racists on Twitter—who mostly just tweet—but from a government that is letting its people die, and a class of oligarchs that couldn’t care how much ordinary people suffer so long as the stock market keeps going up.

What’s New About Free College?

There was once a New England politician with an idea. Social and economic changes had made education more important than ever, but access was stubbornly limited to the children of the rich. The answer, this politician thought, was simple: more years of public education, universal, free for all, and provided by the government. 

Of course, this idea didn’t go over well. “How are you going to pay for it?” snarled its opponents. “Isn’t the idea that ordinary people needed extra years of schooling elitist?” they said.  And, of course, the perennial complaint: “Why should I pay for someone else’s child?”  

Sound familiar? It should. Behind Medicare for All, free college was the brightest dividing line of the 2020 Democratic primary. It proved so popular that Joe Biden—not originally a supporter—adopted a watered down version of the plan for his general election platform. But this story isn’t about the 21st century; it’s about the 19th. The New England politician isn’t Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren; it’s Horace Mann. And the idea isn’t free college; it’s free elementary school

We’ve been at this for a long time….

Public education has always been controversial. Free elementary school may seem perfectly natural to us today, but it was once the subject of vicious and intractable political debates, as was the establishment of free, universal high school. 

In the face of this resistance, however, activists and reformers persevered and won. Thanks to their efforts, the story of public education in America, until recently, has been one of continuous expansion. In the late 18th century, when the United States was first created, there was almost no public education at all. By the mid 19th century, just a few generations later, free elementary school was nearly universal. Just a few generations after that came free high school. 

By the mid 20th century, free college looked like the next logical step. Scholars confidently predicted that college and university would soon become as common and freely provided as elementary and high school. 

But it didn’t happen. The one-two punch of stagflation and the Reagan Revolution buried hopes for free college so deep that for a long time we forgot all about it. Now that the free college movement has been revived and picked up by politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren it is treated like a strange new idea. But really, free college is just the next step in our long American tradition of expanding public education. 

It all started with free elementary school

The story of public education in the United States begins with the “common schools” movement. In the decades after independence, political leaders in the early Republic were worried. Democracy required ordinary people to do more than dumbly follow the commands of their social betters; they were expected to actively take part in the decisions of government. This caused no end of anxiety among elites. Could “the people” really do this? Could a political system that depended on the opinion of “every citizen who is worth a few shillings,” as Noah Webster put it, really survive? 

The answer, according to figures ranging from the abolitionist Webster to the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, was yes—just as long as “the people” were properly educated. The educational “system” of the era—characterized by private academies, individual tutors, and the occasional charity school—was not up to the task. This need for democratic education was the driving motivation behind the establishment of “common schools”—publicly funded, free elementary schools that were available to boys and girls through eighth grade. 

The real founder of the common school movement was Horace Mann, a wealthy lawyer who was appointed as Massachusetts’ first Secretary to the newly created Board of Public Education in 1837. Mann was an extraordinary character: a canny backroom politician, a talented community organizer, a brilliant orator, and a messianic true believer, all rolled into one. He dedicated his strange personality entirely to the creation of common schools (following his own personal edict: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity”).

His first move as Secretary was to visit every one of Massachusetts’ ramshackle ad hoc schools⁠—on horseback⁠—in his first few months on the job. He used the same playbook in every county he visited. First he would make contact with the county’s leading citizens, and lobby them behind closed doors for his common schools system. Then he would hold a countywide convention, open to the public. These conventions were well-attended: since Yankee puritanism was still uncomfortable with the theater, lecturers like Mann were the only entertainment available. At these conventions he would bring his oratorical skills to bear and was often successful in convincing much of his audience. Then he would move on to the next county, leaving behind him a nucleus of organizers, just as committed to the common schools movement as he. These organizers would mobilize their communities against inertia, against those who couldn’t stand to see their taxes go up, and against people like Franklin Dexter, one of the leading men of Massachusetts, who told Mann to his face that the scheme of common schools risked upsetting society’s eternal division between the “commoners who were destined to support themselves from the sweat of their brow” and the “aristocracy of birth and position who were obligated to guide and govern the less fortunate.” 

Mann’s events weren’t just about preaching; he was also listening and learning. At the conclusion of his whirlwind circuit, Mann returned to Boston and started to write a series of reports to the Board that summarized his findings and made recommendations on everything to do with common schools: funding, teacher training, curriculum, and even architecture and design. (Mann helpfully included illustrations of a new type of chair he thought would help students’ learning.) These reports made a huge impression. It was largely thanks to their persuasiveness⁠—and Mann’s diligent, state-wide organizing⁠—that over the following few years, Massachusetts became the first state to set up a system of public elementary school.

Mann’s success in the Bay State inspired a nationwide movement. His reports were distributed across the country and served as the basis for new common school systems in states like Iowa and Wisconsin. His personality and fervour inspired other reformers like Henry Barnard in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and Catharine Beecher in Ohio. 

These reformers believed that education should be the “great equalizer,” as Mann put it, given to every child, “whether male or female, black or white, rich or poor, bond or free.” This was a beautiful sentiment, but the reality was, as ever, at odds with the theory. The common schools movement was mostly led by Protestant, white, bourgeois men, and it reflected all their characteristic vices. Boys and girls, for instance, had dramatically different curricula, with the latter emphasizing domesticity and preparation for motherhood. Children of color did not get an equal education to their white peers. Even a relatively progressive state like Massachusetts did not integrate its public education system until 1855 and, of course, vicious racial inequalities persist in every state to this day. 

Catholicism and non-Anglo immigrants were treated harshly by the curriculum as well. Leaders of the common schools movement saw Catholicism as a menacing, alien ideology, and many of them wanted to use religious indoctrination in the common schools as a way to stamp it out. As common schooling spread to other states, Catholics in cities like New York rioted, forced the creation of elected school boards, and used their newfound political power to start removing religious bias from the public school curricula. 

The common school movement also faced more familiar sounding opponents. Before the invention of common schools, the children of the wealthy received a privately funded education, either at home or in private schools called “academies.” Suddenly being asked to pay taxes so that other people’s children could go to school rubbed these wealthy parents the wrong way. They argued for “rate bills” that would charge tuition for public schools, sometimes with a provision for subsidizing poor students—essentially the 19th century version of means testing. This was “access” to education for those who couldn’t afford it, tuition for those who could, but importantly meant that people without children in public school would not have to pay into the system. Some wealthy opponents of common schools went even further, categorically opposing common schools on the ground that educating working class people at all would lead to sedition and dissent.  

The opposition had traction. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, as the battle raged back and forth, common schools were created, abolished, and then created again, all in the space of a few years. In New York, taxpayer opposition stalled the common schools movement for 20 years. In Massachusetts, opponents of common schools almost had Horace Mann fired. In the words of public education historian Carl Kaestle, opponents of public education were so powerful that the outcome of the common schools movement  was “far from certain.”  

Thankfully, in the face of this opposition, Mann and the other middle-class reformers had a powerful ally: the early labor movement. Workingmen’s associations—the forerunners of organized labor—enthusiastically supported common schools. Mann and the other high-minded reformers wrote pamphlets and lobbied, but it was early labor unions that lent the movement crucial grassroots muscle. 

Which is not to say labor leaders and common school reformers agreed on everything. While the reformers acted out of noblesse oblige, workingmen’s associations often took a much more radical line. “Give us our rights,” bellowed the Mechanics’ Free Press, “and we shall not need your charity.”  The system of common schools would, according to the Albany Mechanics Society, wrest control of “immense sums now perverted to the aristocratical nurseries of a wealthy few” and put that money to the “useful instruction of all.” As is the case with so many of our public goods, we have labor unions to thank for our system of free elementary schools. 

This alliance between bourgeois reformers and grassroots activists bore fruit. By the 1870s, the last Northern state had abolished its rate bill, and the principle, if not quite yet the reality, of free elementary school education had taken root. 

Next: free high school

The next great transformation of American public education was the establishment of near-universal public high school. Thanks to the success of the common school movement, there was no real attempt to stop the spread of public high schools through the political process; the precedent of common schools proved too popular to argue against. Instead, opponents of free high school tried to sabotage the movement in the one place the will of the voters didn’t matter: the courts.  

Thankfully, the court-based strategy was defeated decisively in the 1874 Michigan Supreme Court case of Stuart v. Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo, Michigan had established a public high school in the 1850s—relatively early. But in the 1870s, a clique of wealthy locals decided they didn’t feel like paying taxes to support it any more. Charles Stuart, a high-powered attorney and former U.S. Senator, backed by two wealthy bankers, sued. He argued that the Michigan Constitution only allowed taxes to establish primary schools, and that establishing secondary schools was unconstitutional. 

Rather than deciding the case on narrow legal grounds, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cooley—one of the best-known legal scholars of the era—penned a monumental paean to public education, “not merely in the rudiments but in the enlarged sense.” The “enlarged” education, according to Cooley, was not just for “those whose accumulated wealth enabled them to pay for it,” but must be “supplied to rich and poor alike.” The opinion galvanized reformers, who set about lobbying state legislatures, at first to encourage, then later to require, local governments to begin setting up free high schools. 

Most historians, like Gerald Gutek in his An Historical Introduction to American Education, agree that just as the common schools movement was driven by political changes, the free high school movement was driven by economic changes. The rapid industrialization characterizing the beginning of the 20th century increased the nation’s store of wealth, meaning there was more available to spend on education. And the new large, bureaucratic corporations needed workers with new skills: as organizations grew larger, written directives replaced verbal understandings and mathematical calculations replaced rules of thumb. The private sector needed workers with skills beyond those taught in elementary school, like enhanced literacy and mathematics.

Big Business may have supported the free high school movement to get better trained workers, but like the common schools movement, the political coalition supporting free high school was broad. In addition to large business owners, socialists supported free high schools to counteract the injustices of capitalism. Middle class reformers of the more high-minded type supported free high schools as a way to broaden the horizons of every child, viewing culture and learning as the common birthright of all. These factions (and many others) often clashed over the structure and curricula of the new schools, arriving at the current model through a process of debate, activism, and compromise (which is still going on to this day). 

By far the most powerful group supporting free high schools, however, was the parents of the new industrial middle class in this era who supported free high schools, as they increasingly recognized that high school was their children’s ticket to higher-paying jobs and a better, more fulfilled life. (Interestingly, it was the parents who most effectively pushed the academic, less market-oriented side of high school. One technocrat in 1900, irritated that job training was not a bigger part of the high school curriculum, sniffed that the “uncultivated parents” who were pushing the scholarly side of high school must be oblivious to the “practical concerns of life.”)

Thanks to the free high school movement, the United States led the world in public education. Economic historians Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz point out that by the middle of the 20th century, over 80% of American teens attended high school full time, while “no European country” had a rate over 25%. Immigrants from all over the world raced to enroll their children in the United States’ unusually generous system and, just as with the common schools, these new arrivals soon exercised their rightful political power in shaping and governing the emerging school system. 

With opponents of free high school defeated in the courts and with broad support from diverse segments of American society, high school enrollment doubled every decade starting in 1890 until the 1930s, when high school became the nearly universal experience it is today. Historian William Reese notes that between 1890 and 1920, there was on average one high school built in America every day. The momentum of the free high school movement was poised to move to the next logical phase.

Free college was supposed to follow

With free elementary school and free high school firmly established in the American social landscape, reformers set their sights on free college. In the 1960s, it was widely and confidently assumed that college would be free and universal in the very near future. Martin Trow, a scholar of education, wrote in 1961 that “There is no reason to believe that the United States will stop short of providing opportunities and facilities for nearly universal experience of some kind of higher education.”

Trow and others had every reason to think free college was around the corner. In 1944, the GI Bill of Rights made higher education possible for eight million veterans. There were a lot of them at the time: World War II was just ending and a huge number of soldiers, sailors, and marines from all walks of life were demobilizing. Even so, the G.I. Bill helped ten times more new students than policy makers expected, dramatically expanding the population of American college graduates. State governments got in on the act, spending unprecedented sums to make higher education available to civilians, just as the federal government had done for veterans. California led the way with the Master Plan for Higher Education: a unified system of research institutions, graduate schools, four-year universities (with free tuition for residents), and community colleges. This system represented an investment of many hundreds of millions of dollars, and key components of it were funded from local taxes in the same manner as the existing high schools and elementary schools. It was around this time as well that New York created its SUNY system, and other states like Virginia founded their community college systems. And in 1965, President Johnson pushed Congress to pass the Higher Education Act. This law dedicated vast amounts of money to college aid programs, many targeting women and racial minorities. (Despite these new resources, Marshall Steinbaum argues cogently in the Boston Review that this law was in fact the death knell for education as a public good, because it funded students individually rather than collectively in institutions.)

The period from the passage of the GI Bill to the early 1970s was the closest the U.S. has come to free college (so far). The 1970s brought “stagflation,” economic stagnation combined with inflation. Suddenly under economic pressure, states and the federal government backed off spending on higher education. College costs went up, family incomes went down. Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, ushering in a new ideological paradigm that would ultimately halt two century’s worth of social progress in free education. 

The “Reagan Revolution” was fuelled in large part by animosity towards higher education. Reagan himself had it in for colleges and universities ever since he read a report by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that accused the University of California of facilitating “communist infiltration” in the 1960s. As an actor he could do little except offer to make a documentary version of the FBI report. (Hoover declined.) But once he was elected Governor, one of his first acts was to fire Clark Kerr, the President of the University of California who, more than anyone else, had been responsible for that state’s exemplary and egalitarian approach to higher education. 

The movement conservatives who finally brought Reagan to the White House in 1980 were well aware of the political threat posed by higher education. According to Christopher Newfield, author of Unmaking Public Higher Education, the culture war as we know it today—with its fights over college campuses, “tenured radicals,” and “political correctness”—began in earnest around this time, a product of the right’s effort to discredit mass higher education. By attacking higher education, conservatives set the stage for a fundamental shift in how Americans approached the concept of public education itself. 

From Horace Mann in the 1830s up to the 1970s, the dominant way Americans thought about education was as an equalizing public good: something that was, in principle at least, equally available to all and equally controlled by all. The Reagan Revolutionaries successfully replaced this “public good” theory of education with a “market forces” theory. Under this new regime, education was thought of as a privilege, not a right, available only to those “successful” enough to deserve education, and useful only to the extent it produced willing, well-trained workers. 

Unsurprisingly, financial support for public higher education began to decline during this time. After all, under the new dominant ideology, investment in public goods wasn’t just impractical because of temporary economic pressure, it was considered bad on its own terms. This decline got much worse during the 2008 financial crisis, got a little better during the recovery, but never really stopped. In 2018, for the first time the majority of funds going to public colleges and universities came from private tuition payments, rather than government appropriations. 

Where we are now

Even today, Reagan-era ideology works to erase our tradition of public school expansion. In a world where “markets good, government bad” serves as the animating principle, the idea of universal government-provided college seems alien. Meanwhile, public elementary school and high school, though they are too popular and ingrained to take on directly, are systematically sabotaged by funding cuts, charter schools, and voucher schemes. 

This ideology blinds us to the fact that the political, social, and economic necessity of free college has never been greater. The political and social case for free college today is just as strong as it was for the common schools of the early 19th century. Now, just as then, our society is rapidly changing: the racial and sexual hierarchies that have previously structured society are subject to unprecedented, widespread criticism. Our politics are changing too, as old dogmas are crushed under the weight of their own failures. The new social and political landscape will be more volatile than before, but hopefully it will be more equal too. Navigating it will require open-mindedness and critical thinking—traits which the right kind of free college can impart.  

Economically, the historical case for free college is cut-and-dried. The economic benefits of a college degree today correspond roughly to the economic benefits one would receive with a high school degree in the early 1900s. Compare Goldin and Katz estimating the 1915 return on a high school degree at 11% with a study from the New York Fed estimating the return today of a college degree at 14%. The fact that this alone hasn’t already produced a system of free, universal college shows just how successful Reagan-era market fundamentalism has been in shifting our ideological priorities.

Free college is an idea firmly rooted in American history, a continuation of a tradition that stretches back to the very founding of the United States. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have promised to keep fighting for  this tradition no matter who wins in November. And yet, mainstream pundits have proved unable to see free college as anything other than a fantasy. Their smirking dismissiveness—“how are you going to pay for that?”—represents a profound failure of political imagination. 

If only they knew their past, perhaps they could imagine a better future. 


For readers looking to learn more, the following books are terrific sources of information on the history of public education in the United States. They are also the sources for most of the information in this article:

As a general resource: America’s Public Schools, by William Reese; An Historical Introduction to American Education, by Gerlad Gutek.

On common schools: Horace Mann: A Biography, by Jonathan Messereli; Pillars of the Republic, by Carl Kaestle; Democracy’s Schools, by Johann Neem. 

On secondary education: The Second Transformation of American Secondary Education, by Martin Trow; The Race Between Education and Technology, by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. 

On higher education: A History of American Higher Education, by John Thelin; Unmaking the Public University, by Christopher Newfield.

Cover image: The Horace Mann School, 1894. Image from Boston City Archives courtesy of Flickr.

The Fake Nerd Boys of Silicon Valley

Would you like to own a working lightsaber? For a few hundred bucks, you can buy a realistic customizable imitation, made from plastic and LEDs. What about a Delorean, a.k.a. the time travel machine from Back to the Future? Starting in 2021, you might finally be able to buy a brand-new version of the classic 1980s car (flux capacitor not included). Would you like to hear a Silicon Valley luminary complain about the lack of real laser swords, time travel, flying cars, teleporters, or spaceships that can travel faster than light? Congratulations: that’s free, and it’s everywhere. Peter Thiel, the infamous libertarian-authoritarian investor, may have invented this trend a decade ago when he complained that the future—his present, now our past—didn’t measure up to expectations. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” is a statement often attributed to him. In a 2011 New Yorker profile, Thiel expanded on his frustrations:

“One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction…Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’”

In 2020, probably everyone not named Steven Pinker would agree that the “future” has been disappointing. Whether or not you were raised on a steady diet of whiz-bang heroic science fiction, the current dystopian hellworld of plague, economic depression, and looming climate disaster is nobody’s fantasy. Both Brianna Rennix and I have written about how the current run of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) tends toward stressful dystopias, mostly via the placid acceptance of capitalist realism (though to be perfectly honest I would probably read that planet-killing story.) There does seem to be a particular imaginative lack both in our popular fiction and in our reality, as we parse through the uncertainty of the next few months and the treacherous years to come.

Before the coronavirus crisis, Thiel and other Silicon Valley luminaries already had a solution: escape. Thiel personally favored seasteading, the art of building your own country on the high seas (a venture, as Aisling McCrea has chronicled for this magazine, that often ends in complete disaster). Jeff Bezos has set his sights on the moon, or pods in space, depending on the year. His space-faring company, Blue Origin, has been declared exempt from mandatory stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus crisis—not because the quest to colonize the solar system is considered “essential” to human flourishing, but because Blue Origin, like most other aerospace companies, has ongoing contracts with the U.S. government (Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also operational and intends to conduct tests in the near future). In fact, Blue Origin attempted to move forward with its scheduled April 10th launch of the New Shepard rocket, despite its Washington-based workers’ stated concerns about traveling to the Texas launch site and potentially carrying the virus with them to an under-resourced rural area. The New Shepard rocket, incidentally, is not intended for the salvation of humankind through multiplanetary homesteading, or even for some disturbing U.S. military project. Its purpose is “to eventually carry wealthy thrill-seekers to space where they’ll experience a few minutes of weightlessness” before returning back to earth. The tech outlet Verge quotes an anonymous employee, furious and frightened that they might be forced to travel to Texas and launch New Shepard during a pandemic: “What is essential about a vehicle that flies…billionaires to space?”

Elon Musk, famously interested in settling Mars, has also used the coronavirus crisis to engage in petty billionaire showboating. Having initially downplayed COVID-19 (he called early concerns “dumb”), Musk pressured his Tesla workers to report to their California factories despite the stay-at-home order. Since then he’s pivoted wildly to promoting hydroxychloroquine as a cure based on a faked scientific paper, and boasts of having delivered “ventilators” to stricken New York and California hospitals. These devices, as it turns out, were really sleep apnea machines capable of being cobbled together into makeshift second-rate ventilators, which to be fair is slightly better than nothing. Musk also claims that Tesla factories are hard at work making real ventilators, or ventilator parts, but as of the time of this writing they have yet to be finished or tested.

While the whole ventilator stunt is clearly another brand-building event for Musk, even in the most charitable interpretation it’s merely scrappy. He’s not building a better ventilator, some thrilling innovation that will save hundreds of lives, just giving away already-existent medical devices and (maybe) churning out some parts. His recent announcement of further SpaceX rocket tests—for the SN4, which had to be built after the SN3’s fuel tank dramatically failed in a previous test—feels similarly stunt-like and insufficient. “Elon Musk is determined neither the coronavirus nor anything else will stop him from making humankind a space-faring species,” an opinion columnist scribbles desperately in the Hill. “…It is by such determination that we shall defeat the virus and then go forth to the stars.” It is? How? We’ve built rockets before, including ones that didn’t explode. It doesn’t sound like any of our tech overlords’ efforts, from Tesla/SpaceX to Blue Origin, are remotely revolutionary, or futuristic, or even that exciting. None of it seems likely to get us much closer to building a civilization in outer space, or curing the microscopic virus that has crippled this one.

What went wrong? Why has the future been such a disappointment? It’s not the coronavirus itself; after all, the sense of future-failure has been present for the last decade or more. Peter Thiel, having seemingly given up on seasteading some years ago, is rumored to have moved to his bunker in New Zealand to wait out the virus, once again slightly ahead of the curve. In 2018, NASA released a report about the unlikelihood of settling on Mars, gently warning that Elon Musk’s plans to terraform the red planet are science fiction at best. We don’t have anything approaching the necessary technology, NASA reminded everyone, and we’re unlikely to develop it any time soon. Musk, while revising his Mars plan into domed cities for wealthy tourists, said rather plaintively, “You want to be inspired by things. You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great. And that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past.”

Honestly, I do want to wake up and be inspired by things. Right now, living in Queens in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, I would really, really like to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great. In fact, right now I would settle for “not a complete fucking nightmare.” But Elon Musk’s vision was clearly never going to get us there. His dreams have always been dystopian. In Salon, Keith A. Spencer gamed out what Musk’s rich-people resort on Mars would actually look like:

“Imagine signing away years of your life to be a housekeeper in the Mars-a-Lago hotel, with your communications, water, food, energy usage, even oxygen tightly managed by your employer, and no government to file a grievance to if your employer cuts your wages, harasses you, cuts off your oxygen. Where would Mars-a-Lago’s employees turn if their rights were impinged upon? Oh wait, this planet is run privately? You have no rights. Musk’s vision for Mars colonization is inherently authoritarian.” 

In a previous article for this magazine, Nathan J. Robinson pointed out similar truths about Jeff Bezos. Should the Amazon overlord succeed in his desire to build Moon colonies or space pods or orbital stations—rather than just send billionaires up and down in thrill rockets—he’ll have made another corporate dictatorship, Amazon in space. It’s already rather obvious if you look at Blue Origin. When workers expressed concerns about testing the New Shepard rocket during coronavirus, executives threatened to fire them. Jeff Ashby, the ‘senior mission assurance director,’ reportedly told employees, “I would say that you should ask yourself, as an individual, are you acting as a toxin in the organization, fanning discontent, or are you really trying to help our senior leaders make better decisions?” It does not appear to have occurred to Ashby that the senior leadership itself is the toxin in the organization, the virus, the heartless robot issuing orders that could get human beings needlessly killed. Utopia never arrives, despite all their dreaming, and management still doesn’t understand why.

Ironically, if Silicon Valley CEOs and the tech writers who adore them took a closer look at the science fiction and fantasy they profess to enjoy so much, they might find the answers right on the page. In a 2017 article for the New York Post, journalist Stephen Carter enthuses about Musk’s plans for Mars. He says they remind him of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (which may be better known as the source material for the Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall.) The first line of the story is, famously: “He awoke—and wanted Mars.” Carter says he first read this in an anthology in high school, which is reminiscent of Thiel’s nostalgia for that 1970 anthology with its robot pals on the moon. However, if you go back and reread Dick’s story, the out-of-context first line takes on very different qualities.

“We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” is the tale of a “miserable little salaried employee” who desperately wants to travel to Mars but can’t afford the trip. Consumed by his desire, he goes to a memory implantation center, hoping to be instilled with the memory of being a cool secret agent who’s been to Mars. In a classic Dickian twist, it appears that the protagonist is in fact a secret agent who already went to Mars (for the purposes of assassinating someone) and his deep-state former employer has succeeded in erasing his memory of the event except for his vestigial yearning to recover his past. Behind the scenes, the government is working with the memory-implant corporation to try to suppress the agent even further. Of course, if you haven’t read the story in years, you might only remember that first sentence and the protagonist’s desire for Mars, not the revelation of why he wants to go there, or the dystopian, paranoid, and psychologically distorted nature of Dick’s writing. That is, you might have forgotten what the story is really about.

Dystopian narratives like Dick’s were common in the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of utopian science fiction dates from this era as well, and it wasn’t all, or even mostly, “cool robot friends on the moon.” To start with, there are a number of excellent 1970s feminist utopias. But the best-known utopia of the time is, of course, Star Trek. The many iterations of Trek’s space-faring future are popular in Silicon Valley, but Thiel himself happens to not be a fan. When Maureen Dowd interviewed Peter Thiel for the New York Times, he revealed why he prefers Star Wars to Trek:

“I like ‘Star Wars’ way better. I’m a capitalist. ‘Star Wars’ is the capitalist show. ‘Star Trek’ is the communist one. There is no money in ‘Star Trek’ because you just have the transporter machine that can make anything you need. The whole plot of ‘Star Wars’ starts with Han Solo having this debt that he owes and so the plot in ‘Star Wars’ is driven by money.”

Thiel is likely being somewhat cute here (the Star Trek machine he’s referring to is a replicator, not a transporter, which could have been a mental error on his part but is probably a dig at pedantic nerds.) But, at the risk of being a pedantic nerd, it’s worth unpacking the rest of what Thiel said, because “the whole plot” of Star Wars is not, in fact, remotely driven by money. The original Star Wars movie begins with a long shot of the terrifying Star Destroyer, a gigantic piece of Imperial technology shaped like an enormous spearhead, which is chasing down a tiny ship of desperate rebels carrying the secret which can destroy the Empire’s greatest weapon. Capitalism is certainly present in the story—the smuggler Han Solo does have a debt that he owes—but it’s a minor element in the narrative at best. Star Wars is generally not much interested in political economy; its conflicts tend toward the political-philosophical-familial. And even when capitalism does appear, it doesn’t come off too well. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo is frozen into a slab of carbonite and shipped off to Jabba, his creditor, to be displayed like a trophy in Jabba’s palace. In the opening of the next movie, the heroes stage a brave rescue, and Jabba is strangled to death by one of his employees/slaves. The prequel and sequel Star Wars movies rarely reference capitalism at all, but in one of the more intelligent moments from The Last Jedi, a character points out that no matter who’s winning the war, the rich profiteers will always get their cut. It’s hard to imagine watching any of the Star Wars films and concluding, “You know what’s great? Capitalism!”

In general, capitalism does not make for plausible utopian, the-future-is-great fiction [1]. When capitalist societies appear in SFF, they’re usually a backdrop for dystopia or epic conflict. The obvious counterexample you might offer would be Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—another favorite of both Thiel’s and Musk’s. But Galt’s Gulch is not a closed society, like most utopias; it’s dependent on capital derived from the labor of many other people who are still living outside, in a dystopian civilization. This, for Rand, is perfectly fine; the poor, as far as she’s concerned, are undeserving grotesques. Atlas Shrugged is essentially the flip side of a capitalist dystopia like The Hunger Games or Altered Carbon—there are the rulers, and the ruled; a utopia for a few, and a dystopia for most.

This accords perfectly well for someone like Thiel, who is not a fan of equality. An open supporter of Donald Trump, Thiel has stood by through the worst of Trump’s immigration restrictions, voter disenfranchisement, and environmental degradations. In the New Yorker, George Packer explains Thiel’s mindset: “In Thiel’s techno-utopia, a few thousand Americans might own robot-driven cars and live to a hundred and fifty, while millions of others lose their jobs to computers that are far smarter than they are, then perish at sixty.”

Beyond science fiction and the disturbing dreams of billionaires, capitalist utopian schemes are not particularly functional in real life. An attempt to build Galt’s Gulch in Chile—a “completely transaction-based community”—ended up being an immediate grift and a fraud. People “bought” pockets of land that were not actually available for purchase, and lost thousands of dollars in the process. But, given the nature of capitalism, this is hardly a surprise. If, as capitalists insist, greed and selfishness are the human condition, then there can be no cooperation, no democracy, no utopia—only a permanent, rugged battle for survival. In a “completely transaction-based community,” you’re either the cheater or the cheated. The great RJ Eskow points out that “Atlas Shrugged actually celebrates fraud—at least against those whom Rand despises. These [fraud] charges [in Galt’s Gulch Chile] aren’t an aberration. They’re the inevitable outcome of Rand’s own philosophy.” 

Rand’s philosophy is marked by an unresolvable tension between its own vaunted utopianism and its actual, predictable outcomes. For all that socialism is the ideology derided as dreamy utopianism—and authoritarian communist states the inevitable outcome of such radical schemes as universal healthcare—it’s capitalism that positions itself as the true promised land that can never be reached, the ever-distant American dream. Neoliberalism, capitalism’s current flavor and direct descendant of Rand’s philosophy, is particularly guilty of this. Neoliberals, as George Monbiot writes, believe in a “utopian, millenarian faith describ[ing] a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Witness Steven Pinker, the high priest of neoliberalism, telling us over and over that the world is constantly getting better thanks to capitalism and development. The New York Times ran an article titled “Steven Pinker Thinks The Future is Looking Bright” in 2018, the same year Vox praised Pinker in a syrupy interview titled “The Case for Optimism.” This was all infuriating at the time, but now, mid-COVID, it’s bitterly hilarious. The neoliberal utopia of the past three or four decades was one in which many people were permitted to suffer, as long as the suffering was slowly being reduced according to cherry-picked data points such as access to cell phones, clean water, and nominal democracy. It seems that neoliberalism is a system that cannot weather crises, either a pandemic or the weather itself, which is still slowly and inexorably turning on us, and taking those cell phones and clean water and nominal democracy with it.


The days are growing darker. I would guess that after nostalgic space dreams, the next imaginative phase for Silicon Valley will be neo-feudalism. This is an easy prophecy to make, because it’s already begun. The best-known proponent of neo-feudalism in Silicon Valley is Curtis Yarvin, a “mouthbreathing Machiavelli,” as Corey Pein described him in the Baffler. Voluntarily writing under the pen name “Mencius Moldbug,” Yarvin advocates an anti-democratic ethos known as the “Dark Enlightenment,” which “oppose[s] popular suffrage, egalitarianism and pluralism.” You might expect Moldbug to be just some internet crank, but he’s relatively wealthy and influential—largely thanks to Peter Thiel, who has invested in several of Moldbug’s ventures. As Pein points out, “there is definitely a whiff of something Moldbuggy in Thiel’s own writing. For instance, Thiel echoed Moldbug in an infamous 2009 essay for the Cato Institute in which he explained that he had moved beyond libertarianism. [Thiel wrote] ‘I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.’” Thiel also said that the extension of voting rights to women plus the existence of too many “welfare beneficiaries” makes “capitalist democracy” impossible (after public outcry, he walked back his comments about women’s suffrage at least.)

Thiel does not often write directly about his ideology; Moldbug, on the other hand, once churned out lengthy purple-prose screeds about the glories of authoritarianism. (He took a long hiatus, but recently returned to publishing on the right-wing site The American Mind, a project of the conservative think tank known as the Claremont Institute.) Moldbug’s interminable posts—which somehow, even through a computer screen, carry an odor of mildew—involve a lot of tired references to The Matrix and are also “heavily informed by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas.” It’s not hard to imagine Thiel reading this tripe with an approving nod. Thiel, as we already know, loves Star Wars. Beyond his affection for its latent capitalism, that 2011 New Yorker profile noted that a building housing several of Thiel’s venture capital firms is “decorated with statuary of Darth Vader and Yoda,” and the London offices of his company Palantir features at least one stormtrooper in a bullet-proof vest. Capitalism can’t buy utopia, or happiness, or rockets that don’t explode, or even kingship (yet), but it can absolutely buy fiberglass statues of pop culture characters.

But it’s Tolkien that Thiel is really fascinated with, and you could make the argument that the Lord of the Rings is the ur-text of Silicon Valley, even more so than Atlas Shrugged. While basically everyone who loves the polemical Atlas Shrugged cites its politics as the chief attraction, the politics of Lord of the Rings are somewhat more ambiguous. Tolkien variously described himself as an anarchist and an “unconstitutional monarchist,” and his books are simultaneously a critique of power and a celebration of monarchy. Rather than tease out these interesting and often contradictory themes, the Tolkien superfans of Silicon Valley seem to have a somewhat shallower appreciation of the books. Alex Farr, the CEO of a startup called Zammo, told CNBC, “It just is a great story…It’s just a beautiful story of which direction in your life you can go.” The CNBC article—titled “Why Silicon Valley Is Obsessed With ‘Lord of the Rings’”—mentions that Farr has named his cars after Legolas, his horses after Gandalf, and his own home after the Shire. “[Farr] also frequently attends and hosts LOTR [Lord of the Rings]-themed dinner parties and events with others in the tech industry.” He’s hardly the only one in Silicon Valley to express his fandom through property names or themed parties. Sean Parker—the founder of Napster and a friend of Thiel’s—had a Tolkien-themed wedding on Big Sur, spending $4.5 million to turn sections of the California park into “a wooded fantasyland.” And Thiel himself has named at least five companies after people, places, and artifacts in Tolkien’s works.

The best known of these companies is probably the aforementioned Palantir, the all-purpose surveillance and “data processing” corporation. In Tolkien’s legendarium, a palantir is a “seeing-stone,” a sort of crystal ball that can reveal things far away in both space and time. There are seven in total, and they can communicate with each other. Since the chief villain Sauron possesses a palantir of his own, and anyone who attempts to use one of the other palantiri is almost certain to fall under his control, this ends up being a fairly serious problem. “Maybe Palantir didn’t really think through the connotations that come with that,” said Andy Ellis, yet another Silicon Valley Tolkien fan interviewed by CNBC. “But maybe when you look at the company and its clients, it might be an appropriate name.” 

You may be familiar with Palantir from such scandals as: Operation Laser, a Minority Report-esque project of the LAPD “to identify and deter people likely to commit crimes”; a similar predictive-policing tool used in New Orleans; and, most infamously, Palantir’s contract with ICE. Palantir helped ICE “build profiles of immigrant children and their family members for the prosecution and arrest of any undocumented person they encountered in their investigation” and provided data support for other acts of cold-blooded cruelty that were deemed “mission critical” by ICE. Palantir CEO Alex Karp (another massive Tolkien fan who refers to the Palantir office as ‘the Shire’) refused to stop working with ICE even as employees reportedly begged him to end the contract. As detailed by the Wall Street Journal, Karp reassured his employees that “Palantir helps stem the cross-border flow of drugs, not separate families.” This, according to internal documents obtained by the Intercept and the immigrants rights organization Mijente, is a bald-faced lie. Thanks to Palantir’s data work, “unaccompanied children were taken by border agents, sent to privately-run facilities, and held indefinitely. Any undocumented parent or family member who came forward to claim children was arrested by ICE for deportation. More children were kept in detention longer, as relatives stopped coming forward.”

You can see why Thiel, who at least once identified as a libertarian, and Karp, who has variously described himself as a socialist and a neo-Marxist (whatever the fuck that is) might be uncomfortable with admitting to having aided and abetted ICE in separating families, if only for—as the Wall Street Journal puts it—Palantir’s “public-perception problem.” But working with organizations like ICE is part of Palantir’s original mission. In 2011, Thiel said “civil libertarians ought to embrace Palantir, because data mining is less repressive than the ‘crazy abuses and draconian policies’ proposed after Sept. 11.” He argued that “the best way to prevent another catastrophic attack without becoming a police state…was to give the government the best surveillance tools possible, while building in safeguards against their abuse.”

Incidentally, this sounds like something straight out of Lord of the Rings. In fact, it sounds like a very specific scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, where the wizard Saruman—fresh from using his palantir and being ensnared by the evil Sauron on the other end of it—tries to convince Gandalf to join them, claiming that Sauron’s victory is inevitable:

“As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order…”

A number of Tolkien scholars have pointed out that this particular speech of Saruman’s may be a riff on Neville Chamberlain’s arguments for appeasing Hitler. Whether or not art initially imitated life, life has once again imitated art: Tolkien superfans Thiel and Karp have ended up parroting their favorite book’s second-rate villain, aiding ICE in work that would make an evil wizard blush.

“Whatever else you might think about Peter Thiel,” writes Maria Bustillos in New York Magazine, “he is a terrible literary critic. The Lord of the Rings is his favorite book, but he has apparently got no earthly idea what it is about.” Tolkien’s work is thematically complex, and there’s plenty of racism, feudal nostalgia, and reactionary sentiment mixed in, but it’s pretty clear that however much these Silicon Valley nerds like to attend Lord of the Rings-themed parties or name their prized possessions after its characters, they don’t really understand the larger meaning of the books at all—especially the clear warnings against allying with evil, the corrupting influence of power, and the negative effect of greed on the natural world. Sean Parker, the Napster founder with the Tolkien-themed wedding, had to pay the California Coastal Commission a legal settlement of $2.5 million because of “potential destruction to old-growth redwood forest from all the digging, bulldozing and building of fake ruins.” Destroying ancient trees for some tacky Lord of the Rings wedding! It’s hard to imagine anything less in keeping with the story’s themes, or more hateful to Tolkien himself.

We’ve all known the sort of geeks who will quote at length from their favorite pop culture movies, and make constant, out-of-context references to the stories they love. You may have once been this geek yourself. But you probably left it all behind in high school, retaining your fondness for these stories but developing a more critical, nuanced understanding of these narratives and why you love them so much. Not so our tech overlords. As George Packer noted for the New Yorker, “[Thiel] seems uneasy with the world of grownup feelings, as if he were still a precocious youth.” Packer goes further:

“Thiel and his circle in Silicon Valley may be able to imagine a future that would never occur to other people precisely because they’ve refused to leave that stage of youthful wonder which life forces most human beings to outgrow. Everyone finds justification for his or her views in logic and analysis, but a personal philosophy often emerges from some archaic part of the mind, an early idea of how the world should be. Thiel is no different. He wants to live forever, have the option to escape to outer space or an oceanic city-state, and play chess against a robot that can discuss Tolkien, because these were the fantasies that filled his childhood imagination.”

Contra to Packer, I think there’s actually a lot of value in retaining childish wonder, and never losing your ability to imagine a different world. This specific Silicon Valley obsession with pop culture objects is certainly a function of immaturity, but it’s not really about imagination. In fact, it’s something of the opposite.


A few years ago, David Rose, an inventor and proponent of “the Internet of Things” made headlines for what he termed “enchanted objects.” The reason, he said, that people were reluctant to adopt Google Glass and smart fridges and wifi-enabled toilets is that these devices lack a sense of drama and enchantment. Rose argued that these objects needed to feel magical. Inspired by—you guessed it—Lord of the Rings, Rose created such useful inventions as an umbrella handle that glows when it’s about to rain, and an orb that displays the weather. (The specific reference point from Tolkien’s legendarium is the sword Sting and other blades from Gondolin, which turn blue when people of a hated race get too close.) Rose’s light-up umbrellas and glowing orbs sound quite pretty, but so is the view out your window. The “Internet of Things” still remains less popular than projected, not because the objects that comprise it lack enchantment, but because no matter how nice the design, none of this shit is really that imaginative, or useful. The Juicero ended up being a $400 substitute for ordinary, unenchanted human hands that can squeeze a smoothie packet. Nobody has ever needed the “Internet of Things”: it’s always been a catalog of ain’t-it-cool garbage for unhappy nerds with more money than sense.

As long as we live under capitalism, new hardware and software will only have two real purposes: to collect data, and to sell it. Inventors and investors can claim whatever specific inspiration from Tolkien they like, but every single one of the enchanted objects in our midst is a palantir. Suburban neighbors use Google Nest or the aptly named Amazon Ring to spy on each other (and to let the police spy on them); employers use a variety of techniques to monitor their employees’ every move. As Nicole Aschoff writes in Jacobin, “Microchips, mobile spyware, and perpetual, individualized monitoring are all part of capital’s fantasy of twenty-first-century scientific management—a future in which our movements, impulses, and rhythms are perfectly adapted to the needs of profit-making.” ‘The future’—our present—is capital’s fantasy, and that’s why it’s a nightmare. We live in a hell of black magic, and it’s not even composed of original or imaginative spells: just random objects dragged out of previous works and remembered for us, half-sale. 

“I think it is important that we become a space-faring civilization,” said Elon Musk in 2019, “and be out there among the stars… We want the things that are in science fiction novels and movies not be science fiction forever. We want them to be real one day.” Notice what he wants to be real: the things. The objects. I am sure that Musk and his fellow Silicon Valley nerds’ love of science fiction and fantasy is genuine, but they appear to love it for all the wrong reasons: for its trappings, its gadgets, its settings, its stuff. Lightsabers and spaceships, time travel and epic battles, magic swords and magic stones.

Art by Chris Matthews

Science fiction and fantasy, of course, are not simply stories about being in space, or possessing enchanted objects (which, in most stories, invariably comes at a cost). And they aren’t really stories about what is going to happen, or should happen, in the future. Ursula K. Le Guin claims in the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness that novels set in the future aren’t actually about the future at all. She writes:

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary lifescience, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel…

To be fair, it would probably be easier for Silicon Valley luminaries to understand the metaphoric qualities of fiction if they didn’t have such contempt for the humanities. Thiel is openly opposed to higher education for most people: he offers a paid fellowship for kids who will skip college in favor of launching startups. In 2018 he said on Dave Rubin’s podcast, “One of the downsides of too much education is that you get the most brainwashed.” Musk too has recently scoffed at higher learning, saying, “You don’t need college to learn stuff.” I agree this may be perfectly true for some people, but Thiel and Musk themselves could stand to take a middle-school literature course.

The problem, ultimately, is not what these men have read or how they read it, but that they possess the capital to try to launch their misunderstanding of SFF into reality. And when that reality fails to materialize—as it always will, because capitalism forbids real utopia, and, as Vanessa A. Bee has explained, also inevitably stifles innovation—they become frustrated and either retreat with all their billions, or simply set about conquering humanity.

Jeff Bezos is one of these would-be conquerors. He also happens to love science fiction, and Star Trek in particular. According to a recent, slavish Atlantic profile, Bezos identifies particularly with Captain Jean-Luc Picard, although he’s enamored with the entire property and all its spinoffs. “[Bezos] has a holding company called Zefram, which honors the character who invented warp drive. He persuaded the makers of the film Star Trek Beyond to give him a cameo as a Starfleet official. He named his dog Kamala, after a woman who appears in an episode as Picard’s ‘perfect’ but unattainable mate.” Again, names, references, objects, even deep cuts from bad episodes: but not anything resembling meaning, theme, purpose. Star Trek, as Thiel said, is the communist one—and Bezos is the living antithesis of communist ideals. He’s currently worth $139 billion. He has fired workers who organized to protest the unsafe conditions in his warehouse, both during the pandemic and before it. He has been trying, through Amazon, to achieve complete market dominance in every sector. “The man who styles himself as the heroic Jean-Luc Picard,” Franklin Foer writes nervously in the Atlantic, “has thus built a business that better resembles Picard’s archenemy, the Borg, a society-swallowing entity that informs victims, You will be assimilated and Resistance is futile.” 

At the end, the collector’s mania for the objects of science fiction deepens into a desire to literally become an object, to absorb all life into itself; to become, like the Borg, an extended living thing. The quest for eternal life, or brain-uploading, or to have a perfectly optimized body—all popular Silicon Valley obsessions—are really about controlling the messy unpredictability of fate, the future that can’t be predicted or directed. When it comes to Amazon and the “Internet of Things,” we’re told by the tech press that “resistance is futile” precisely because it isn’t. If it were, why insist on it? If there’s nothing to be done, why bother to tell us that all hope is lost?

In the third volume of Lord of the Rings, Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, looks into his palantir and tries to see the future. Thanks to Sauron’s subtle manipulation of his perceptions, Denethor sees his city burning. This is a true event that will happen, but one that has been decontextualized; it’s not the end of Gondor’s history, just one event that will happen. However, convinced that the city will be destroyed and the future is lost, Denethor commits suicide, nearly taking his son with him in the process. Power always tries to convince us that the future it sees is inevitable, but it rarely ever is, unless we allow it.

I’m obviously very fond of science fiction and fantasy, even if these fake nerd boys keep trying to ruin it for everyone. These are, again, complex works open to varying interpretations, including disturbing and reactionary ones. But at the end of the day, stories are about things, not merely receptacles for things. Looking at Thiel’s best beloved Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, we see a shared plot element in both narratives. The heroes are trying to destroy the most dangerous object in their respective universes: the Ring of Power and the Death Star. What these objects represent metaphorically is complicated (as Le Guin says, if it could be summed up easily there would be no need for the stories.) But, in oversimplified form, the Ring stands in for the seduction of absolute power and authoritarian control; the Death Star is a similar ultimate weapon of empire. You can, of course, buy a replica One Ring off the internet, or a Lego Death Star (the first Death Star or the second, and even Starkiller Base from the rehashed new films) but there is no getting around the fact that within these narratives, these powerful objects end, and they are supposed to end, and their ending causes or dovetails with the destruction of a cruel authoritarian regime. This is not a minor plot point like Han Solo’s debt to Jabba. It’s not the cool ornamentation of less important objects like shiny blue swords. This is the entire thrust of these stories. But the fake nerd boys of Silicon Valley don’t want the objects to end. They want it all to continue forever. And so the future will always be, for them, terribly disappointing. 

In his 2009 Cato Institute essay—the same one in which he said democracy was incompatible with freedom—Thiel wrote: 

“…we are in a deadly race between politics and technology. The future will be much better or much worse, but the question of the future remains very open indeed. We do not know exactly how close this race is, but I suspect that it may be very close, even down to the wire…The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.”

In 2020, the question of the future still remains open. The race is now closer than ever; we stand, maybe, on the edge of a knife. “Making the world safe for capitalism” is even more laughably impossible now than it was in 2009; thanks to the coronavirus it’s clearer than ever that capitalism is a system that can only devolve into destruction and death. This either hasn’t occurred to Thiel, or he doesn’t mind so long as its costs are borne by people who are not himself. He doesn’t also seem to notice or care that there is no such thing as “the machinery of freedom” and that utopia is only meaningful if founded for everyone and not just for some. In The Two Towers, Gandalf explains to the other heroes that they have an advantage; Sauron would never assume they would try to destroy the Ring of Power. He would expect them to use it as a weapon, destroying Sauron and replacing him at the top of the social order. Gandalf says, “That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream.”


[1] The only real exception to the rule of capitalist utopias that I know of is Nancy Kress’ underrated—and deeply disturbing—Beggars in Spain (1993). Operating under a slightly less cold-blooded version of Rand’s ideology, Kress posits a utopian society of genetically sleepless, hyper-efficient elites ruling over a mass of stupid citizenry made passive by drugs and entertainment (yes, this is portrayed as a good thing). It’s a well-written and functional story, but only if you accept its basic meritocratic-feudalistic premise that some people are simply born smarter and more deserving than others.

How Do We Actually Build Solidarity?

At the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, solidarity took a hit. Pictures emerged daily of people flouting calls from scientists to wear masks, practice physical distancing, and stay indoors to protect vulnerable fellow citizens. A perpetual stream of videos show angry white shoppers throwing a tantrum for being asked to wear a mask. Anti-solidarity selfishness seems to have peaked with armed astroturf protesters storming state capitols to demand that businesses reopen and risk another deadly wave of coronavirus—and the tens of thousands of deaths that must accompany it, simply so people can get shitty bangs at Supercuts. 

But then, in a remarkable proof of Newton’s third law of motion, we’ve seen an equal and opposite display of almost unimaginable solidarity in the uprisings that have followed the police lynching of George Floyd. Squads of armed thugs employed by state and federal government agencies have driven armored vehicles into the middle of these overwhelmingly peaceful uprisings (contrary to mainstream reports, the police have been primarily responsible for instigating violence). Cops have also tried to subdue peaceful protesters by firing tear gas, a chemical weapon banned by the Geneva Protocol, and “rubber” bullets, which are only slightly less hard and lethal than metal bullets. When that’s not enough, police have used batons, shields, and mace to terrorize non-violent protesters. 

The original “rubber bullet.” 37 mm British Army projectile used in Northern Ireland. Wikipedia

Hundreds of videos depicting police violence have emerged from the protests. The brutality has ranged from battering protesters with batons, pushing elderly people to the ground resulting in serious head injuries, breaking bones, shooting rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at protesters’ faces to blind them (several people have lost eyes), and at least one recorded death that may have resulted from tear gas-related asphyxiation, though a full autopsy report is pending. Grim images of injuries have been piling up on social media. 

In response, protesters have rushed to each others’ aid, dousing faces of strangers with water to flush out the cops’ toxic chemicals. First-aid tents and supply tents with basic necessities popped up to freely hand out medical attention and food. Strangers have placed their bodies in front of others to shield them from police attacks. Seattle residents closed off a part of the city to police, calling the space Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), distributing free food, access to basic healthcare, and cultural events, though this work was marred by reports of violence in and around the area. Police forcibly dismantled CHOP on July 1 and made thirty-one arrests, and yet other mutual aid projects have popped up in cities throughout the country. 

Such solidarity has spread beyond the street, and has made for some truly unexpected alliances. 

In a world so full of atomized individuals frequently acting out anti-social competition, callous indifference, and even casual violence against one another, such displays of selfless solidarity inspire both awe and hope. It’s hard to look at the seemingly spontaneous and natural mutual aid practiced by protesters without feeling a surge of faith in our ability to confront the many existential challenges massing on the horizon. But it’s equally hard to look at the deadly cohesion of heavily-armed police units and determine which side will prevail in the long run. After all, we have also seen rather grotesque displays of solidarity between elected officials and police forces, as well as between the police and white nationalist groups. 

While they are deeply inspiring, solidarity projects must be sustained beyond beautiful spectacle amidst flare-ups of righteous anger. They must also become a long-term strategic tool that the left cultivates outside the context of protests, demonstrations, and riots, one that is capable of holding together a long-term class project of egalitarian resistance in the face of what will surely be a chaotic century, full of aspiring authoritarians and crumbling political orders.     

The people who protesters oppose have tremendous class solidarity. Rich people and their lackeys in the cultural industries they own—the classes who built and strive to maintain the conditions that led to this popular anger—enjoy a certain social cohesion conducive to a perverse “mutual aid.” There are many examples of this kind of class solidarity, but one very brazen example that got a lot of attention last fall was when noted asshole Ellen DeGeneres went to a football game with war criminal George W. Bush. After controversy erupted, particularly given Bush’s terrible LGBT record and DeGeneres’s self-promotion as an LGBT advocate, she put out an insufferable video praising herself for being so gracious, and dozens of rich celebrities hopped online to join DeGeneres in patting herself on the back:

While the ruling classes have lots of practice exercising solidarity with each other, they also are skilled at breaking down solidarity between different groups of working class and marginalized people, particularly through the instrumentalization of race. As Courtland Milloy put it succinctly in the Washington Post, “How did wealthy landowners thwart the efforts of enslaved Africans and European indentured servants to join forces in a common struggle for economic justice? Divide and conquer through the invention of race. Make the white servants feel superior to black slaves by virtue of skin color; manipulate poor whites into believing that any perceived gains by blacks had come at their expense.” One glaring recent example of this divide-and-conquer strategy was the concerted narrative shift by many prominent  liberal and right-wing commentators to divide Black and white protests by blaming white “outside agitators” for any violence or property destruction. (This is not a new move, either: “white outside agitator” rhetoric was also used to attempt to delegitimize the Civil Rights movement). 

Not only does blaming all “bad” forms of protest on supposed white outside agitators remove agency from Black organizers on the ground, all of whom are perfectly justified in burning down police stations and artifacts of gentrification in response to their long-endured repression, it also enables both liberals and fascists to justify militarizing the response while seeking to avoid charges of racism. Trump has used this justification as a means to potentially classify anyone affiliated with “antifa” as a terrorist and traitor. While it’s true that a small contingent of white nationalist “Boogaloo Boys” have reportedly been charged with stoking violence amid some protests to provoke a race war in their quest to establish the United States as a white ethnostate, such stories are more notable for their sensationalism than their frequency.  

With narcissistic TV show hosts, war criminals, mayors, police, and cells of armed right-wing terrorists all showing disciplined group cohesion, we’re up against opponents with enviable solidarity. And the only way we will defeat the ruling class solidarity that keeps murdering black people, locking people up in cages, and keeping us all living precarious, overworked, unhealthy lives—not to mention destroying the habitability of the planet—is by building our own long-term projects of class solidarity.  

Of course, that’s no revelation. Among the left, solidarity is very often held up as a virtue, to the point of cliche. But it is less commonly discussed as a particular strategic tool that must be deliberately and systematically cultivated. While spontaneous displays of solidarity are encouraging, these kinds of bonds will need to be sustained long-term, outside the street battles, if they are to hold workers together. The real difficulty in building class solidarity in the midst of a militarized, laissez-faire, social Darwinian culture has been woefully underestimated. The general understanding of how to build it and nurture it is too superficial given how important it truly is to achieving the aims of building long-term racial and economic equality. 

Some of the first mass movements of the modern era, like those for abolition, women’s suffrage, and labor rights, started with solidarity between members. It wasn’t an afterthought. The causal relationship didn’t go “movement, then solidarity.” It was the reverse. Solidarity was the genesis. 

From The BNA: Derbyshire Miners Coal-getting at the Bolsover Face. Drawn by D Macpherson. The Sphere | 22 March 1919

If solidarity was absolutely essential to the success of popular movements, how did people build it? Part of it was due to the nature of the physical spaces in which they lived and worked. Abolitionists in increasingly dense cities could congregate together, and many former slaves had the chance to meet up and discuss the traumas and experiences of toiling in the fields. The kind of work done in new factories and coal mines required workers to collaborate closely—often away from the eyes and ears of bosses. Close collaboration often creates an esprit de corps, a sense of working together on a shared project in opposition to hostile forces. 

Solidarity depends on the social cohesion that can be readily built when working in groups with a shared purpose, shared challenges, and shared opposition. An essay in Current Affairs lays out some excellent examples from social psychology research on how to build ingroup cohesion, which is basically a fancy term for solidarity without the explicit class connection. For example, in Muzafar Sherif’s Middle Grove experiment, researchers sought to pit groups of teenagers against each other, but the kids ultimately defied the artificial competition and cooperated with each other against the more powerful adults. Having a clear shared project, opponent, and physical space allowed in-group cohesion to flourish.

But creating these sorts of conditions today is not easy. That’s especially true in an era of social fragmentation and alienation, during a time in which corporations have gotten very effective at preventing workplace solidarity. Beginning in the 1970s with assaults on unions and the offshoring of   manufacturing jobs, employers have developed complex systems and strategies to prevent employee solidarity. A whole industry of “unionbusters,” lawyers and consultants who aid companies in “union avoidance,” employ a deep bag of tricks. They use divide-and-conquer tactics, isolating employees from one another and attempting to pit them against each other, often along lines of race and ethnicity. They also use propaganda and deception to prevent workers from unionizing. Many jobs rely on irregular scheduling, which keeps work precarious and makes it difficult for hourly wage workers to get to know their coworkers and build lasting bonds with them. Managers seek to manufacture competition with rewards meant to pit workers against each other, or they’ll overwork and overstretch workers so they have no time to spend with friends. Or, they make conditions so miserable nobody wants to see anyone from work anyway. 

Our living spaces, too, are designed to atomize: whether lonely apartments or single-family homes, the spaces we inhabit discourage building bonds and strong relationships with people outside our kin groups. (The age of coronavirus has only made this clearer). Think about your town: how many spaces are open to members of the public and don’t charge money to inhabit them? How many make it easy for people to congregate? Cities are almost entirely shaped by private real estate markets in which developers attempt to profit from the elimination of as much public space as possible. Only about a quarter of New York City is public green space, and about a third of London and a seventh of Shanghai. 

Meanwhile, because we’re so drained from the many stresses of the world—unfair or nonexistent jobs, unaffordable healthcare, crushing debt, and existential crises like the global pandemic and ecological collapse—we spend a lot of our free time getting addicted to entertainment that’s meant to ensnare our attention. Around 164 million Americans play video games, and the World Health Organization considers “gaming disorder” as an illness that affects between 1 percent and 10 percent of gamers. This doesn’t mean that video games themselves are to blame, exactly, but that people are so unhappy that they lose themselves in deliberately addictive entertainment. Plus, many of the stories we consume are about lone heroes fighting against collective foes and reinforcing the individualistic myth of the ubermensch. On top of all this are the culture wars very competently manufactured by propaganda networks like Fox News, MSNBC, and talk radio. These attempt to sow division among workers based on surreal disagreements over things like saying “Merry Christmas,” believing the scientific fact of climate change, or wearing a mask to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic. 

For all these reasons and others, there aren’t as many of the same kinds of opportunities for building worker solidarity now as at the beginning of the modern labor movement. Our work is more alienating, our lives are more isolated, and cultural obstacles are more deeply ingrained. So if we can’t rely on close working conditions like the justice movements of the past, how can we build more long-term solidarity within the working class? How can we assemble forces capable of dismantling the big demonic systems now driving us toward collapse? 

While we could spend a lot of time daydreaming about the perfect paths to utopian solidarity, there are a few activities that are not particularly difficult and can have outsize roles in building effective class solidarity. That is, they’ve got a big bang for the buck. The three activities below are already happening, but we’re still far from maximizing their potential. Putting more collective energy into the following areas could go much further toward building more real solidarity on the left.

1. Clubs 

In the face of catastrophic, existential crises, it may appear naive to suggest starting a leisure club. But it’s hard to overstate how deeply social trust has declined and how vital trust is to building solidarity. Spending leisure time building rapport with people we’d like to bring into our movements is essential to rebuilding trust, and with it, solidarity. While a lot of energy goes to more direct political and community organizing (which is good), too little goes into organizing groups and events that are not directly utilitarian or explicitly geared toward a particular political outcome. Not everything we do for the cause must be predicated on achieving some specific end. 

As history shows us, there’s a lot more we can be doing to build solidarity through a diversity of clubs and community groups. From the 19th century onward, networks of women’s clubs were essential in building relationships, solidarity, and standing in communities by hanging out and doing fun things. They had more “serious” purposes too: Black women played a critical role in organizing clubs to pursue antislavery and universal suffrage movements during this time. Later, women’s movements of the Progressive Era emerged from such clubs and ultimately won voting rights for women. (It shouldn’t go without noting that many of these clubs and the white women’s suffrage movement in general were often racist as hell.)

Book clubs, religious clubs, music clubs—or, uh, “bands”—knitting clubs, gun clubs, and even Fight Clubs (the kind that are not sweaty and vaguely fascist) are all ways to build class solidarity. This kind of thing is happening all over the place, though not nearly often enough (yet). In addition to clubs, projects like starting community gardens, community solar projects, housing coops, and other means of generating basic necessities in a cooperatively-owned and cooperatively-run way are another way to build solidarity. All these sorts of group leisure activities help build interpersonal solidarity that can then be directed toward more political purposes when the moments present themselves. The right wing knows this, and has many sorts of clubs that have often bolstered the in-group cohesion of their movements, whether it’s backwoods ethnonationalists LARPing as Vikings, groups of grown men who call themselves “Proud Boys” and “Boogaloo Boys” doing whatever it is those types of people do, or just some respectable suburban racists going down to the shooting range. 

Of course, given that COVID-19 is unlikely to go away or be easily contained in the near future, and given the high likelihood that more such pandemics will continue to emerge due to our farming and development practices, organizing these sorts of clubs will be increasingly challenging. Figuring out how to enjoy them remotely or in ways that minimize exposure to infectious diseases is necessary. But since it appears the Black Lives Matter protests have not led to a spike in COVID infections, there is good evidence that people can congregate safely outdoors taking proper precautions. 

2. Inter-movement Alliances 

Nonprofits like to build coalitions and networks. But they tend to stay in their lanes: environmental groups create environmental coalitions, LGBT+ groups create LGBT+ coalitions, etc. DSA has a bunch of working groups all collaborating together (theoretically). But there’s a lot of room for groups from wildly different issues to be working more closely together, building more solidarity within and between their groups.

Here’s one illustration:

On the same day that the climate action group Extinction Rebellion (XR) held their Declaration Day in October 2018 in London, the Yellow Vest (YV) movement was born across the Channel. While YV has sometimes been caricatured in the media as opponents of climate action, this is a gross misunderstanding. The protests were in part a response to French President Macron’s implementation of a carbon tax that was ultimately regressive, harming workers for a problem overwhelmingly caused by the rich. But in fact, YV has shown support for more justice-based climate action and would be a valuable partner to XR in sharing tactics and building power. 

A month after their Declaration Day, Extinction Rebellion launched a Rebellion Day in London. At the same time, Stand Up to Racism was holding an even larger event, a “national unity demonstration against fascism and racism.” Again, this was a missed opportunity for collaboration. Why were these groups in different parts of the city doing different demonstrations? They’re both aimed at building power to overthrow a violent ruling class. These groups and their battles are always portrayed in the media as fragmented, and even seen by many of their participants that way. But they’re not: ultimately, they’re just different manifestations of the same movement. One obstacle, of course, is also that these groups sometimes see themselves as siloed. XR, for instance, has caught flack for insisting on promoting themselves as “post-partisan” or non-political, which obviously hampers their ability to see themselves as part of a larger political movement.

If you’re curious what cross-issue collaboration might look like, try the movie Pride (2014), which dramatizes the true story of a coal miners’ union joining together with an LGBT rights group in solidarity and mutual effort. In the movie, the LGBT group goes out of their way to raise money for the coal miners, for no other reason than the fact that they believe in the miners’ cause. Even though some coal miners are openly homophobic, and significant cultural differences exist between the two groups, this one selfless act builds a foundation of trust. This facilitates more time spent together, which grows into mutual fondness, which creates the solidarity that allows both groups to achieve many of their goals, while simultaneously reaffirming for everyone a sense of shared humanity. 

The right has long been engaged in a project of division: separating blue collar workers (particularly white men) from movements that conservative pundits like to describe as effete, effeminate, liberal, coastal SJWs. The culture wars, at their heart,  intentionally fracture the working class along petty divisions to prevent worker solidarity, and have given rise to the myth (remarkably popular on the online left) that the “real” working class is white, straight, and anti-woke, when in fact the American working class tends to be ethnically diverse, and trans and disabled people are far more likely to be poor. 

One classic example of a deliberately constructed anti-solidarity divide has been between extractive workers and environmentalists. While coal miners have had a huge historic role in building labor power, there’s a lot of cultural animosity between them and environmentalists today in the United States. While the environmental harms caused by extractive workers are certainly an issue, it’s really more of a cultural division stoked by elites, and not always those on the far right. One of Hillary Clinton’s more famous campaign gaffes was her callous comment about coal miners losing jobs (part of her long pattern of showing disdain toward workers). 

But this extractive-environmentalist division is not necessary. Some groups like the BlueGreen Alliance have claimed to bridge the divide, but they have so far failed to connect with workers and grassroots greens (in part, I believe, because they lack a theory of power and a commitment to anticapitalism and, like XR, have tried to remain “non-political”). The process of building solidarity between seemingly disparate movements must start with one group reaching out, doing something selfless, spending time with each other to forge friendships, and helping each other build power. Imagine it: police and prison abolitionists working with Climate Justice Alliance; antiracists groups and firefighter unions; anarchists and K-pop stans. There are so many crossovers possible, and many have already happened during these recent demonstrations. It would be a shame not to continue building those networks and relationships, finding shared projects between them that outlast the current crisis. In some cases, it might become clear that vigorous actions will have to be ongoing to continually stoke the fires that forge such connections in the first place. 

Classic Twitter Meme. Original creator unknown to author.

3. Stories

Something the left hasn’t been good at lately is building a mythology. Marx did a great job of telling a compelling story about how the world works, and the left is still (ironically) resting on his labor. The left has been so focused on getting the facts right and building theory based on difficult scholarly work that it has abdicated an essential facet of winning power: controlling and constructing narratives. This isn’t really the “control the narrative” Machiavellianism you hear in vapid Aaron Sorkin dialogue about manipulating voters or whatever, it’s about creating fictional stories that show the possibilities of leftist victory. 

A study by Calvert W. Jones and Celia Paris found that fiction plays an incredibly important role in shaping peoples’ notions of what’s politically possible (and desirable). Fiction has an outsize role on what people believe to be true about the world, even when they know what they’re consuming is fictional. 

People order their lives according to material realities, but also according to narratives and mythologies. Those on the right have a huge mythology built by the fact-free narratives constructed by Fox News, talk radio, and a vast YouTube network of Nazis and quasi-Nazis. The right-wing mythology is like a sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe for the fearful lovers of hierarchy and authoritarianism (a description that might apply to the actual MCU.) Yet the far right also has a huge literary canon. Ayn Rand is probably the most famous example, but a recent piece in The New Republic details the vast fringe literature undergirding an apocalyptic right-wing mythology. Nor is the right’s influence limited to QAnon websites and self-published Amazon e-books. Last year, a Milosevic-defending genocide apologist won the Nobel prize for literature. 

Even many mainstream films and stories pander to a right-wing view of the world. To name just one example, Batman is the story of a heroic billionaire beating up poor people. The Dark Knight Rises, the final iteration of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, features bad guy populists who sound suspiciously like Occupy Wall Street activists (OWS, incidentally, coincided with the movie’s filming in New York City), while an army of cops heroically run to the rescue. 

Contrary to the right wing’s hysterical claims that the entertainment industry is too left-wing (to be fair, they might be right about it being “liberal”), the left doesn’t really have this. The literary world today, from low-brow to high-brow, tends to be either depoliticized, right-wing friendly, or (most frequently) some flavor of boring liberalism. It’s rare to see leftist values depicted in mainstream films or captured positively in literature. 

Integral to building solidarity is a set of shared images, stories, characters, and archetypes—a mythology—around which people can bond, understand the world, and come together from different backgrounds to apply a shared sense of meaning and purpose to their lives. Dull grey reality, or even beautiful vibrant reality, isn’t enough. We need the frames of mythology around the vast confusing maelstrom of information and the random tragedies of the world to build relationships, meaning, and a sense of what is possible. There are some recent examples, whether V for Vendetta’s Guy Fawkes masks or Joker makeup, that provide a few stirrings of quasi-leftist mythic aesthetics. But it’s not nearly enough. 

There is a lot of work to be done cultivating solidarity systematically so that it may be used as a strategic tool for building class power. But, perhaps more importantly, feeling solidarity is simply a vital part of being human. Building selfless bonds of camaraderie gives meaning, brings joy, and makes our time on earth more rich. Organizing clubs, alliances, and mythologies may be vital for building movements and ensuring the capacity for life to continue into the future, but they’re just as necessary for ensuring that life remains worth living. The increased isolation experienced by those of us in COVID lockdown reminds us how important solidarity is, but also how difficult it can be to build given our current physical circumstances. While much pain gathers on the horizon, and the future carries with it inevitable catastrophes, we can take heart that doing the work of solidarity is still extremely possible: and moreover, it’s what makes us human. 


If you enjoyed this article, check out the author’s related YouTube video.