James Harden and the Death of Heliocentrism

Two of the United States’ dumbest obsessions are stardom and statistics, and nobody demonstrates the ultimate emptiness of both quite like James Harden. The 31-year-old basketball player, who just forced his way to the Brooklyn Nets after spending the last eight seasons with the Houston Rockets, is a perennial MVP candidate and a three-time NBA scoring champion. He’s also a living, breathing, endlessly dribbling embodiment of everything that America misunderstands about success. 

In 2019, the basketball analytics writer Seth Partnow wrote an influential article for the Athletic titled “The New NBA Heliocentrism.” The premise was that teams now revolve around their star players to a degree unprecedented in league history. Partnow used a complex series of formulae and some colorful charts to illustrate what was obvious to anyone who’d paid attention to the sport over the past few years: a small handful of star players like Harden were doing the vast majority of the “fun stuff” (i.e., holding the ball and, eventually, shooting it). Meanwhile, their teammates’ job duties had been reduced to a glorified game of fetch. They were expected to jostle with opponents, to hurl their bodies on the hardwood floor, to run in endless circles for the singular purpose of making it easier for Harden and his fellow sungods to score. 

The logic behind the heliocentric NBA is based on the type of “common sense” beloved by mainstream economists and boomer dads. Essentially, if X is good, then increasing the amount of X will lead to ever-increasing amounts of goodness. If a basketball team gets 100 attempts to score during a game, the team will maximize its scoring potential by giving more of those attempts to its most talented player. A team will optimize its offense even further if the star in question sticks to “high value” shots. This term refers to shots close to the basket (which are valuable because they’re the easiest to make), 3-pointers (which are valuable because you get an extra point for making one), and free throws (which are valuable because nobody’s allowed to bother you as you shoot). The heliocentric model of basketball is thus a data-driven one—in the 2020 playoffs, for example, Harden averaged 1.15 points per possession while feasting almost exclusively on high value shots. By comparison, his teammate P.J. Tucker averaged 0.98 points per possession. Letting Harden use all of your team’s possessions would give you one of the best offenses in the league. Letting Tucker do so would give you the worst (by far). 

To be fair, even the fiercest proponents of the heliocentric model wouldn’t recommend letting a team’s best player take all the shots. And following the repeated playoff failures of teams (like Harden’s) that stick to the “nothing but dunks, free throws, and 3s” diet, many data nerds have begrudgingly accepted the importance of “low value” shots during crunch time. Common sense is once again invoked—if you actually let Harden use 100 percent of the possessions, his teammates would probably be quite annoyed (as a Sports Illustrated KIDS book puts it, “nobody wants to play with a ball hog”). And if other teams know you’ll only shoot from a few spots on the floor, they can safely ignore the rest of the court. It’s hard to win basketball games when you’re that predictable, or when four out of five players on your team feel like underappreciated pawns. Plus, sometimes the star will need to rest. You have to ensure that all of their hard work isn’t erased during these brief absences. Start adding up all the qualifications, and suddenly heliocentrism starts looking less like a foolproof blueprint for success and more like a “rule of thumb” that got too big for its britches. 

Harden’s tenure in Houston ended because the tensions inherent to the heliocentric model couldn’t be resolved. It certainly wasn’t because the star wasn’t given enough opportunity to shine. The team’s former general manager, a data-minded MIT grad named Daryl “Dork Elvis” Morey, “spent [years] constantly churning the roster around Harden, searching for the right superstar players to pair with him and the right role players for the supporting cast,” as a 2018 ESPN story put it. Each time Harden decided he wanted to play with a famous friend, the team moved heaven and earth to acquire that player—and to get rid of them once they tired of playing Yoshi to Harden’s Mario. The entire team was designed around catering to Harden’s desires, which mostly involved taking a lot of shots and not playing defense. The numbers said this was Houston’s best chance at reaching the pinnacle of NBA glory. After several of the most remarkable playoff collapses in league history, and Harden’s subsequent proclamation that the team “[couldn’t] be fixed,” it’s fair to wonder if the heliocentric model has been discredited once and for all. The Rockets gave Harden every perk a star could possibly want, and in the end all they managed to do was choke in the biggest moments while pissing off almost everyone else on the team (along with most NBA fans outside of Houston).  

A clever defender of heliocentrism might argue that Harden’s failure in Houston is not an indictment of the model itself, but rather the excesses to which it was taken in this specific case. It’s easy to paint Harden as a uniquely selfish and reckless star. His penchant for egregious flops (pretending to be injured) and whining to referees has made him one of the most disliked players in recent memory. Even in a league where superstars are chummier than ever, many of Harden’s fellow A-listers think he’s kind of an ass. The fact that he skipped training to party (maskless!) at strip clubs around the country seems to support the idea that Harden is Just a Bad Apple™. 

Heliocentrism can go too far, to be sure. But in more sober and responsible hands—say, like those of LeBron James—the model can still be the most efficient way to achieve success. Right?

Heliocentrism and Musk-Worship: Two Symptoms of the Same Disease

It’s no coincidence that defenses of NBA heliocentrism sound an awful lot like defenses of contemporary capitalism and its rockstar CEOs. Data nerds can find numbers to show that capitalism is the most efficient way to reduce extreme poverty, improve gender equality, or even protect the environment. If you complain that this obviously doesn’t reflect reality, the nerds insist the model is sound—it’s just that the execution sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. When Elizabeth Warren said that “capitalism without rules is theft,” the implication was that, yes, it’s bad that employers steal billions of dollars from workers each year—but if those employers were simply more honorable, the power structures of the modern economy would be fine. When sex pest Joe Biden claimed to support an end to the “era of shareholder capitalism,” the catch was even more obvious. “We must reward work as much as we rewarded wealth,” said Biden, expressing an idea as impossible as it was insincere. The average full-time Amazon warehouse worker makes just over $31,000 a year. Jeff Bezos makes nearly $150,000 per minute. There’s no way to reward the former “as much” as the latter without significantly reducing the latter’s rewards. Clearly this would require changing the fundamental premise on which the current socioeconomic system operates. 

However, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it’s difficult to get someone to accept a truth when their salary depends on rejecting it. In the political world, no amount of evidence seems capable of persuading capitalism’s defenders that the world’s problems can’t be solved by the right means-tested tax credits. Elon Musk can make $15 billion in a single day, while a seething pool of investors pushes Tesla’s stock market valuation so high it would take the company 1,600 years to sell enough exploding cars to pay up—and yet somehow, respectable shapers of public opinion like Forbes chief content officer Randall Lane can insist that “Greater Capitalism” would put an end to such absurdity. In case you were wondering, “Greater Capitalism” is functionally indistinguishable from the current version except for a slight uptick in elite benevolence. The same power structures can remain in place as long as the people at the top aren’t jerks about it. As Lane puts it, “treating employees well doesn’t mean a conflict with business necessities. It just means giving them proper respect.” 

What exactly does “proper respect” mean, though? Like Anselm’s definition of God, it can only be described in the negative. “Proper respect” is not more money. It is not better healthcare or working hours. It is not more control over workplace conditions. “Proper respect” is a vibe, more or less, that can be conjured by the occasional pizza party or a pat on the back. The boss who needs more ideas for how to convey “proper respect” will find a vast industry of consultants ready to advise him, for a fee.

It’s much simpler in the NBA. There, proper respect translates directly into a chance to compete for the title. The league has long been notorious for its “ringz culture”—the notion that only winning a championship can validate a player’s career. Even decades of sustained excellence can’t compensate for the failure to win a ring. You can break historic records like Karl Malone, win multiple MVPs like Steve Nash, or change the entire culture of the sport like Allen Iverson. But if you don’t have a title to your name, you’re doomed to spend the rest of your life being viewed as a disappointment. A real baller is expected to sacrifice anything (salary, stats, pride, proximity to family and friends, etc.) for the mere shot at a ‘ship.

The obvious question—one that the basketball media tends to avoid as assiduously as the political media avoids confronting the failures of capitalism—is why? Who decided the raison d’etre of an NBA player is to have a championship on their resume? Did millions of people individually arrive at that conclusion by observing some natural truth, or was the idea drilled into their heads by a media built to churn out stories that benefit its corporate backers? On a personal level, it would seem obvious that having legions of fans and millions of dollars would be more desirable than a piece of jewelry and some memories. It’s not as if the mere possession of a ring determines one’s future prospects. In fact, the only players more widely derided than those without rings are those who do have rings they “didn’t deserve,” like the legendary bust Adam Morrison. Meanwhile, ringless ex-stars like Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, and Chris Webber have gone on to lucrative broadcasting gigs and endorsement deals. Still, the heliocentric NBA—propped up by owners who can make billions off big-name stars and lauded by a cadre of notoriously fawning sportswriters—tells the vast majority of players they should accept their second-class citizenship in exchange for the warm fuzzy glow of “being a champion.” What tends to go unsaid is that the sacrifice is rarely worth it.

Both capitalist America and the heliocentric NBA are based on lies that have grown increasingly untenable in recent years. Ironically, “the data” show the assumptions that underpin both have been proven to be false. 50 years of trickle-down economics has not produced a rising tide that lifts all boats, as exhaustive research from the London School of Economics has shown. Maximizing the ball dominance of stars like Harden has not led to more championships for their teams (on the NBA’s all-time list of highest usage rates in a season, none of the top 20 players won a title). The sample size is big enough. These “data-driven” ideologies have failed.

The Myth of Star Power

Just as the death drive of capitalism has accelerated in recent years, so too has the NBA’s lurch into heliocentrism. In both cases, the most puzzling aspect is how fervently people have refused to acknowledge the obvious.

The birth of the NBA’s heliocentric age can be traced to 2010, when LeBron James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join forces with fellow superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. The three players’ massive salaries consumed almost the entire Heat budget, but most observers viewed that as a fair trade—such a starry triumvirate would render the rest of the roster largely superfluous. Were the Heat top-heavy? Sure. But the level of pure talent couldn’t be matched by anyone else in the league, and the prospect of riding the stars’ coattails to a title would attract seasoned veterans willing to accept minimum salaries. 

Then a funny thing happened. Almost from the moment James set foot in South Beach, there arose a chant: he needs more help. It turned out that collecting a handful of stars wasn’t the sure-fire path to success that many had thought. As the years went by and the Heat’s Big Three began to slip, the refrain grew louder. He needs more help! This was quite a conundrum, since the stars’ presence ensured there wasn’t enough money or playing time to attract the young players who would’ve provided that help. When James eventually jumped ship and returned to Cleveland—with so much leverage over the franchise he was able to pick his teammates and coaches—the song was the same. He needs more help! It wasn’t long before James’ penchant for short-term decision-making and paternalistic treatment of his teammates depleted Cleveland’s resources as well, and he decamped for the Los Angeles Lakers. Once he arrived in Hollywood, the cycle repeated itself once again. The King, as always, needed more help

Even for the brightest star in the NBA, under the most optimal conditions imaginable, a heliocentric approach has never really worked. James is a far superior player to Harden, and many consider him the greatest of all time. Yet whenever James has won a title, it’s never been thanks to his (or his fellow stars’) efforts alone. Whether it was Mike Miller draining seven 3-pointers for the Heat in the 2012 Finals or Rajon Rondo energizing the Lakers in the 2020 Finals, unheralded teammates have always been essential for James’ teams to succeed. It may be true that it’s hard to win a championship without a superstar—or two, or three—but it’s flat-out impossible to win without significant contributions from others. 

Likewise, despite the fetishization of individual “innovators” and “job creators” like Bezos or Musk, it’s become increasingly clear that a successful society is not determined by how many stars it boasts. The stock market has never been higher, and neither have our rates of depression and despair. Nearly 800 Americans now boast net worths exceeding $1,000,000,000, while over 50 million go hungry. Who can say, with a straight face, that the tradeoffs have been worth it? 

It’s always been a lie that great success comes from catering to the whims of “geniuses.” Capitalism didn’t invent the iPhone or save ordinary people from fear and destitution. Heliocentrism hasn’t delivered a single NBA title or made the game more enjoyable to play and watch. It’s time to acknowledge the obvious, and try something new. 

Inside the Incel

“I am human and I need to be loved

Just like everybody else does.” 

The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now?”

Should we have sympathy for incels? 

I hate to ask the question, but I have to get it out of the way. It’s the first—and often the only—concern people have when discussing the incel subculture. “Pity the poor young white man,” begins the scathing Rolling Stone review of TFW No GF, a lopsided documentary about incels which tilts hard to the side of sympathy. Certainly, incels—or “involuntary celibates”—began life on the internet in a very sympathetic way, as members of a support group for lonely people who had trouble finding love. It was only later that the word exclusively came to indicate a group of angry, solitary, sexless young men who enjoy bad memes and once in a while commit mass murder. In an interview with Alana, the queer woman who started the first incel forum, Reply All host PJ Vogt clarified that “because the [incels] who are angry and violent take up so much space, it feels like it’s now hard…to talk about the problem of loneliness, because what I think some people hear is ‘Oh, you’re asking me to feel bad for a bunch of violent misogynists.’” Vogt’s anxiety is understandable: the initial reaction to any conversation about incels is always to clarify if we are supposed to feel bad for them, or to neatly separate out the evil (violent misogynist) ones from the good (merely sad) ones. In this, discussions of incels tend to be very like discussions about Trump voters: are they a basket of deplorables, lost to decent society forever, or Forgotten Men who can be saved?

Art by John Biggs

This framing is really the result of a larger cultural pathology around the concepts of “pity,” “understanding,” and “forgiveness.” Human beings are complex, and any attempt to sort people into the twin categories of pitiable victims or permanent villains is inherently doomed. Yet this question—“how should we feel about incels”—suggests another—“what should we do about incels?”—which, though it sounds very practical and helpful, also has had a tendency to lead to some foolish and doomed places. If, for example, it could be fairly argued that incels are the inevitable result of the economic and cultural misery of capitalism, then would socialism be able to hand out girlfriends? Are there some problems that socialism can’t solve? Or are we still asking the wrong set of questions?

In a non-plague year, TFW No GF would have premiered at SXSW, the exciting debut of a talented young director. Alex Lee Moyer’s film is beautiful and expressionistic, relying on mashups of memes and long text scrolls to illustrate the feeling of being a lonely person with only the internet for company. Josh Gabert-Doyon’s review in Jacobin praised the film’s “tender” and “compassionate” portrait of its subjects, five young white male dropouts who are suffering from depression, boredom, loneliness, isolation, suicidal ideation, and all the other miseries that descend on those who fail out of the school-to-college-to-good capitalist job pipeline. “What makes Moyer’s documentary stand out,” says Gabert-Doyon, “is her effort to situate her subjects within a broader socioeconomic context. Incels, in TFW No GF, are not just woman-hating ‘shitposters,’ they are also complex subjects born out of a post-economic crash United States, steeped in a culture of resentment. While this contextualization doesn’t explain away the worst of incel culture, it contributes to a much richer portrait, and Moyer’s interviewees are shown to have some self-reflexivity on this account as well, analyzing their own cultural and socioeconomic identities.” 

The only trouble with TFW No GF is that it’s a big fucking lie. For one, as Rolling Stone points out, the film was produced by Cody Wilson, a 3D-printed gun manufacturer with ties to white supremacists who “[pled] guilty to injury to a child after having sex with an underage girl, a plea that required him to register as a sex offender.” The film generally downplays the raging misogyny of inceldom, explaining it away as edgy jokes for attention, and describes the few incel murderers as the sort of people who “forget that they’re playing a character. The next thing you know they end up at a place like Charlottesville.” The racism endemic to incel communities is even more suspiciously erased; beyond that passing reference to Charlottesville, you have to peer closely at the rapidly scrolling 4chan text to pick up phrases like “muscular colored kids.” One of the subjects, a denim-clad Texan named Kyle, wears a bejeweled confederate flag ring and claims that he felt alienated as a child because half his classes (in El Paso) were taught in Spanish. This usage of Spanish, he implies, drove him into the arms of video games and unsuccessful homeschooling. As an adult, jobless and depressed, he reports getting into fights in El Paso (which is, he tells us “a Mexican town” and they’re “all about the fucking machismo.”) Is Kyle a white supremacist? Moyer never appears to ask, and Kyle never says. The complete lack of follow-up here raises significant suspicion about the filmmakers’ intentions—and, given Wilson’s history, suggests that he may have had an ulterior motive in producing a documentary about incels that downplays their bigotry.

But the biggest issue with TFW No GF has to do with a little game I like to play called “who pays the fucking rent.” One of the subjects mentions that he has two jobs, and lives with his mother who has cancer; the others allude to possibly having been employed in underwhelming jobs at some point, but, as they regularly use the term NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) it’s unclear if they have jobs at the time the documentary was filmed. Initially, Kyle is unemployed and on food stamps; after moving back in with his family, it seems that they pay his bills, though this is never stated directly. None of the subjects live in particularly nice locations, but they have apartments, and internet, and desktop computers upon which they spend most of their time. Two have an impressive collection of guns, which can’t be cheap. Money is coming from somewhere, but its source isn’t really explored. It seems very likely that some relatives are taking care of or connected to these young men, but they’re completely invisible. Refusing to include the family members is more than a simple aesthetic choice, and once again casts doubt on the filmmakers’ intentions. Are these young men actually as isolated as they seem? Are they as impoverished as the narrative implies? The answer to both questions may very well be “yes,” but if so, leaving the families out makes little sense. If the intent of the documentary is to provide a full portrait of why these young men are so lonely, and to connect it to economic immiseration, surely it makes sense to simply explain who pays the rent.

And Moyer definitely spoke to the families. The documentary is littered with footage of the subjects as children: lots of photographs, and even home videos. Where did Moyer source this material? Not, I think, from the subjects themselves—what young person keeps an extensive trove of their own baby pictures, school photos, and videos of themselves at age seven looking sad? The documentary does not interview anyone besides the five young men; according to Rolling Stone, this was “per the subjects’ request.” But Moyer must have talked to their mothers, or asked the subjects to reach out themselves for the photographs and the home video footage. The absence of the mother or any other relative weighs heavily, as in a fairy tale.

Ultimately, TFW No GF, much like inceldom itself, is a fairy tale, or can be understood best in those terms. An incel that goes by “Egg White” laments “the happy family, the white picket fence—that’s on its way out, I’m afraid…women, they’re out there and they’re taking the good stuff…” He doesn’t elaborate on how exactly women have contrived to steal away an American dream that never actually existed; instead, he laments the sexual freedom of women on Tinder, hopping from hot guy to hot guy, saying that guys like him can’t “catch up.” Ultimately, the incels’ problem isn’t loneliness or economic hardship, or to be more specific it isn’t only loneliness and economic hardship. They’re sad that they’re not successful or talented, not better than other people. They feel “unnoticed” and “abandoned,” “raised with complete anonymity their whole lives.” As one who goes by “Kantbot” puts it: “People used to like, graduate from high school and go get a job or whatever, and things worked out pretty well for them. But now that’s fucking impossible. You have no experience in anything, and you’re from like a small-town background and you don’t have any connections. So you just end up back at home, and your parents are telling you to go apply at McDonald’s or something.” 

Now, in the white picket fence fantasy, someone works at McDonald’s, just not these guys. McDonald’s of course, is beneath them. They were supposed to have had the good jobs. In that ideal world they would still sometimes visit McDonald’s, as they breeze in on a road trip in the nice car purchased thanks to the good company job, accompanied by the economically dependent wife and 2.5 worshipful kids. That’s the life they’re mourning.

“Aha!” you might say. “Incels are however misguided still affected by market forces, by the crushing immiseration of capitalism. Ergo, we should feel sorry for them; ergo, socialism would fix their problems.” I am again uninterested in the question of sympathy. I am, however, interested in what we mean when we say that someone has been affected by capitalism and market forces. Wouldn’t it be stranger if incels weren’t alienated by modernity? As Gabert-Doyon puts it in Jacobin: “In part, then, the men in TFW No GF point toward the failures of a market-based logic of individual freedoms and responsibility.” Well yes, but what doesn’t point at that? Noticing that humans react to capitalism and the failures of market-based logic is a bit like saying “trees react to sunlight.” All trees do; it would be bizarre if they didn’t. These particular trees react differently though, and that’s interesting. They grow twisted branches and attempt to block out the sunlight of every other tree in a grasping, jealous rage. The differences, and those reasons, become important.

Incels have their own “market logic;” that is, they have their own economic explanation for the world and their behavior within it. The world is a cutthroat place of alphas and betas, and if you are born a beta male that’s too bad. This categorization of human beings into alphas and betas is unscientifically borrowed from the way wolves purportedly behave (and, as wolf-based imagery goes, is infinitely less creative and interesting than the wolf-based Omegaverse fanfiction community, with its knotting dicks and self-lubricating assholes). Much of what passes for theory among incels rests on pseudoscience recast as economic reality, or vice versa; in her book Culture Warlords, Talia Lavin gives an explanation of “hypergamy” as per a lonely white supremacist she was catfishing:

“[Hypergamy is the] instinctual desire of humans of the female sex to discard a current mate when the opportunity arises to latch onto a subsequent mate of higher status due to the hindbrain impetus to find a male with the best ability to provide for her OWN offspring (already spawned or yet-to-be-spawned) regardless of investments and commitments made to a current mate.” 

If this all sounds scientifically questionable, that’s because it is. “Hypergamy” and “the hindbrain impetus” descend from the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology, whose conclusions regularly validate the presumptions of capitalism, despite the fact that homo sapiens is hundreds of thousands of years old and capitalism is a 500 year old baby. Within the framework of capitalist realism, it makes sense to imagine that women are simply reproductive machines seeking to maximize their ROI: a gender of mechanical harpies whose primal instincts gear them toward perfect efficiency. But when you realize this atavistic, machine-precise image is just that—an image, an assumption, and a really nonsensical one at that—then it vanishes like a nightmare, and what you see instead are humans: you and her, and billions of others just like you, just the same mix of striving and mess and jokes and needs.

What’s in fact bitterly, brutally ironic about inceldom is that it relies on the same “sexual marketplace” logic that women have long been forced to accept—that men are hunting for the most beautiful available woman, meaning you won’t land a good one unless you’re thin but not too thin, pale but not too pale, and you better not develop dishpan hands or he’ll leave you. These days, young incels obsess over their jawlines, worrying that if they don’t hit some arbitrary beauty standard, they won’t ever be loved by shallow women on the prowl for the sexiest available man. As Lavin describes young men in the incel community who have sought out plastic surgery:

“They were working toward an idealized masculinity warped by misogyny so complete it isolated them from reality. A millimeter of bone, for them, was the way to punch a particular button in the inhuman, alien female psyche that would break down sexual resistance.”

Again, this is not really different from the way women have long been told they need to trick men into loving them. Until about five minutes ago in cultural terms, men were the ones who were considered animalistic and guided by their “hindbrains,” men who only cared about “one thing.” Whether it’s men or women (or both) who are re-imagined as mindless, ROI-seeking animals, the perception comes from the same set of capitalistic assumptions: that sex, like everything else, is a market, and you are in competition, and someone can only love you for your waist, or your jaw, so it had better be maximally optimized—“looksmaxxed,” in incel terms.

The idea that sex is a “marketplace” is quietly agreed on in a remarkable number of places. Jia Tolentino, in an otherwise terrific New Yorker piece about incels, says that in America, “sex has become a hyper-efficient and deregulated marketplace, and, like any hyper-efficient and deregulated marketplace, it often makes people feel very bad. Our newest sex technologies, such as Tinder and Grindr, are built to carefully match people by looks above all else. Sexual value continues to accrue to abled over disabled, cis over trans, thin over fat, tall over short, white over nonwhite, rich over poor.” In the New York Times, Ross Douthat locates the origin of this “hyper-efficient and deregulated marketplace” in everyone’s favorite foe, neoliberalism. He writes that “like other forms of neoliberal deregulation the sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.”

Of course, rich and beautiful and socially adept and straight and able-bodied and ethnically privileged people have always been pretty good at getting laid in societies that have favored those qualities (aka most of them); what’s changed isn’t “market deregulation” but something quite different. The sexual revolution of the 1960s predates the formal advent of neoliberal deregulation in the United States, and bears no relation to it whatsoever. Thanks to the sexual revolution, American women became less economically dependent on men, and therefore more free to choose sexual partners. It’s true that our culture still favors straight, white, cissexual bodies, but gay and queer and trans people are able to love now more openly than ever before. This doesn’t indicate “a deregulated market,” but a somewhat fairer one, in which everybody is closer to participating on equal terms. 

But is sex even a market at all? The truest expression of neoliberalism is the belief that the entire sphere of human relations is naturally governed by market forces, the god that interpenetrates all. In this understanding, everything belongs to and can be explained by the market, and competition is zero-sum. This is what incels think is happening along every spectrum; that women are not only withholding sex in favor of a better market option, but also out-competing them in the workplace. A similar mindset can be found in racial anxieties, as Lavin discovered in her research. “The distance from the antifeminist ‘red pill’ [conviction that you have discovered some secret underlying unwoke truth about reality] to the racist ‘red pill’ was not so far,” she writes. “Each, in its own way, represented conspiratorial worldviews, in which the rights of women or minorities were a zero-sum game, promoted by sinister actors to deprive men and whites of their due.” The most common expressions of racism are a doubled fear of brown people taking away 1) white women and 2) white men’s jobs. It’s winner-take-all anxiety, the fear that if you (or the collective you, however imagined) can’t compete you will be replaced; in other words, the logic of the market distilled.

Market logic is part of why incels get so confused about sex—are women providing a good or a service, and if they are, then are they allowed to refuse sex, or is that like a restaurant refusing to seat someone? Again, this is the wrong set of questions. Sex is transactional because much of human life has been made transactional, thanks to capitalism and other oppressive systems before it. But sex—much like friendship, or family relations—does not, by any means, have to be transactional. The existence of sex work might seem to complicate the issue, but it really doesn’t, no more than than the existence of restaurants complicates home-cooked meals. It’s quite probable that the inequities that we see in both uncompensated domestic relationships and compensated sex work do not arise from some kind of “natural” transactional quality innate to human relationships, but from a lack of economic freedom, fairness, and respect.

What if human relationships ceased to be economic relationships? “I think a big part of the dream that many socialists have is to be released from having a life that is ruled by money,” writes my colleague Nathan J. Robinson. “The first priority, of course, is the abolition of class and making sure every person is free. But there is a certain dislike for exchange relationships generally. We want a world where you give someone something because you would like them to have it, not because you are looking to get something out of them.” As it stands, far too many people get into and stay in relationships for economic reasons. Thanks to the pandemic and concomitant recession, a staggering number of women have dropped out of the workforce due to layoffs or to take care of children; this, in turn, increases their dependence on their male partners, and makes it harder for them to leave or to have an equal say in their relationships. This is the 1950s, pre-sexual revolution model: sex as a condition of housing, marriage as a job. The dream is to liberate sex and relationships so that they are no longer fundamentally economic, to strip away the economic assumptions about reality that have fenced in our choices. This, incidentally, wouldn’t mean that sex work would disappear, any more than art or music. It simply means that none of those practices would be tied to the pursuit of making enough money in order to eat. 

Is this dream the future that incels want? Based on their own words, I don’t think so. The phrase “TFW No GF” means “that feel when no girlfriend,” and the documentary explains it as a phrase “used to describe one’s greater fragile emotional state as a result of loneliness and alienation.” This is true to an extent—it is about loneliness and alienation—but again, it’s not just about loneliness and alienation. The phrase is still no gf, after all. A girlfriend is an acquisition, a demonstration of status. In the pseudoscientific/economic sensibility of inceldom, a girlfriend is proof that one has successfully outcompeted other men. As Tolentino explains, “Incels aren’t really looking for sex; they’re looking for absolute male supremacy. Sex, defined to them as dominion over female bodies, is just their preferred sort of proof.” Possession of a girlfriend is understood as a solution and an end; loneliness mixed up in the acquisition of objects, in which women are the highest prize. But “a girlfriend” is more than that, too; a woman in your life who loves you and will listen to you is the closest that many men will get to actual social support. As sociologist Jessica Calarco recently said in an interview with Anne Helen Petersen, “other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” 

It would be unfair to hold incels solely responsible for their perception of women as prize objects or as ministering angels of sympathy. Capitalist realism, advertising, and centuries of patriarchy have insisted on these images, after all. “It is men, not women, who have shaped the contours of the incel predicament,” Tolentino writes. “It is male power, not female power, that has chained all of human society to the idea that women are decorative sexual objects, and that male worth is measured by how good-looking a woman they acquire.” This message is deeply cruel to men as well as women—if you’re unable to acquire a beautiful woman, if you’re not the protagonist of all reality, then does that mean you’re a failure? Are you genetically unacceptable and doomed to loneliness forever? What if you’re not talented, not special? What if you’re just…kind of a guy? What’s wrong with being kind of a guy, not better than anybody else, not superior, not inferior? Do you need to be superior to other people in order to matter?

If you can’t be the hero, you might as well be the villain. The villain is at least important and gets noticed; and if you can layer that up in Joker imagery, then it might even look like you appreciate this ironically and are in on the joke. In TFW No GF, the subjects are quick to explain that their frequent misogynist jokes are solely for attention. Charles, who has tweeted “I will shoot any woman at any time for any reason,” and “I’m not a misogynist I just hate women,” was questioned by local police for a gun-toting Joker meme. He insists he really doesn’t hate women at all; it’s just that misogynist or depressing statements simply do better and get more likes. Kyle says that “fucking misogyny on Twitter, it’s like anything else on twitter, fucking saying the n-word or anything else, it’s just funny because it is, it makes people mad. The people that get mad about tweets are fuckin r*tards, so it’s funny to make them mad.” 

Posting a sexist or racist tweet “as a joke” and laughing when people “take it seriously” isn’t really funny, of course. But it’s not meant to be. As the guys admit, it’s solely about and for attention. It’s the equivalent of a preteen boy running up and hitting a girl with his backpack and running away again: HERE I AM, I EXIST. NOTICE ME. It’s a cry for help, and an assertion of power; getting to be the perpetrator rather than the victim, the one who hurts and upsets and confuses people rather than the one who is hurt, upset, confused. And while it may be born out of legitimate pain, it also rests on the presumption that the world is made up of perpetrators and victims, and some should be while others should not be, and you, who were promised everything by a society that was lying to you, are owed everything. You should be one of the somebodies; you should be seen

Incel mass murderers aren’t, as the documentary suggests, an aberration, doofuses who take the joke too seriously. They’re the ultimate expression of the desire to exert power over others, to be famous, to frighten, to be noticed. The incel community may pretend to only ironically revere the mass-murdering Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian as “saints,” but that’s because they’re too cowardly to admit they’re serious.

If, of course, you were indeed a lonely person, and you wanted love, you might not spend your whole day online trying to get a reaction out of people by upsetting them and then simultaneously bemoaning how lonely and depressed you are. Moyer’s incels may want to explain their behavior as simple causation—they are alienated by society, therefore mean jokes. But it’s a feedback loop—alienated, therefore mean jokes intended to display superiority and detachment, therefore more alienation from everyone else. Tfw no gf, and it’s partly your own fault, because you’re kind of an asshole.

Here we begin to get into difficult territory as leftists; to what extent do we consider unhappy, unsupported, underemployed people responsible for their own actions? Can we neatly slice apart “alienated because capitalism” from “acts like a jerk”? This is an old debate; as Robinson calls it “the ancient sociological question of ‘structure versus agency.’ Are our outcomes,” he asks, “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.” 

At the risk of sounding like a centrist, surely there is some middle ground here. Surely people are simultaneously deeply affected by the cruelties of capitalism, yet not helpless victims before it. The fact that incels might want to be perceived as social victims bereft of personal responsibility is really an abdication of agency. In one of the great ironies of all this, it’s a desire to be feminine in its most stereotyped sense; to give up the heroic protagonist role; be helpless, to be pitied and cosseted and cared for: to be treated like a woman. As Andrea Long Chu says in her wonderful book Females: “Everyone does their best to want power, because deep down, no one wants it at all,” and “to be female is, in every case, to become what someone else wants. At bottom, everyone is a sissy.”

This is another source of incels’ vaunted irony; they’re afraid to reveal their vulnerability. They want to be treated sympathetically, as they believe women are treated. (“I’m not implying that girls can’t be disaffected, obviously,” says Charles, “but it’s so much more prevalent in nerdy young boys to just be cast to the wayside, their feelings aren’t really that [considered].”) But of course these guys would be terrified to be actually treated like women, because they know how they would like to treat women.

In some ways, inceldom is a reaction to a certain oversimplified social justice discourse, the kind which foolishly imagines that basically every white man is handed a job and a car the minute they graduate high school. There are indeed sectors of the internet where pity is doled out based on suffering and identity categories; where you might get more automatic sympathy and cosetting if you are a woman and not a nerdy young cis white man. This attitude may be partly responsible for the recent wave of white academics who have faked being POC; there can be a kind of currency in suffering, if you have the means and shamelessness to leverage it. But the popular idea that Tumblr “created” the GamerGate and alt-right reaction—as if being irritated by stupid comments about identity written by teenagers is a reasonable motivation for sending death threats to women writers—is an example of the push-pull of victimhood and responsibility. “Social justice warriors are mean/annoying, therefore I was forced to double down on misogynist cruelty” doesn’t sit well with “it’s just a bit of harmless meanness, people shouldn’t take it so seriously.” Are you a helpless victim of capitalism, simply reacting naturally to other people’s bad ideas, or are you a person with agency, who is hurting people on purpose because you enjoy their pain? Are you the only one who is allowed to respond to terrible pressures in unjust ways? 

Who is a “victim” and who is a “villain;” who is to be pitied and who is to be shamed forever—these are all political decisions, and moreover they’re also zero-sum decisions. It’s probably time to retire them entirely. But for that to work, we have to be willing to accept some basic realities: namely, that we are alienated but we still have agency; we are responsible for how we treat other people no matter how sad we are; and we are all in this together. In the documentary, Kantbot proudly claims, “You have to make the space you want in the world, it’s not going to be given to you.” This is of course, not news to many different types of people, and the mature reaction to finding out that this is true for you also, despite what you may initially have believed you had been promised, should probably not be to lash out in anger at the people who have always struggled to make the space they want in the world. You are not more deserving than others, and you never were. But you are also no less deserving. Incels are indeed victims of economic anxiety, they are lonely and they deserve love—just like everybody else.

In the truly fair marketplace of human desire (that is to say, not a marketplace at all), there’s always the chance that you might lose. Someone might not want to sleep with you for any number of reasons; someone you fall in love with might not love you back. The question for incels is whether they’re willing to accept this risk, or whether they’re still invested in the old model of capitalist immiseration as long as they end up on top. The limited peek provided by TFW No GF is not promising. Gabert-Doyon enthuses about a scene toward the end of the movie where Kyle describes an unpleasant overnight bus trip and, as Gabert-Doyon describes it, “[finds] communion with the passenger sitting next to him over how bad the bus trip is.” But that’s not quite what Kyle actually says. According to him, his seatmate said, “fuck, man, this fucking sucks, huh?” and Kyle replied, “Yeah man, but shit, we’re in it together. It’s like, fuck it, we’re all living it, try and enjoy it.” Meanwhile, Kantbot—banned from certain online mediums for his inflammatory posts—tells us that he’s decided to focus on his Patreon and his podcast. “Each tweet,” he tells us inanely, “is a moment of consciousness, and they’re all connected by your brand.” Sean, another of the documentary’s subjects, has started working out and getting attention from girls, but he says he doesn’t really want to date. He decries “grind culture” where you’re expected to “grind in your 20s and grind in your 30s and grind in your 40s and grind yourself to the bone, but it’s like there’s no character-building happening anywhere.” And yet, Sean’s solution is to embrace grind culture, keep lifting, and not seek out a girlfriend just yet, because “I don’t want to settle for something because I’m not even settling for myself, I feel like I’m always pushing myself. It’s like a full-time job to fight the effects of modernity and all the atrophy and stuff like that.” He’s aware that capitalist modernity is destroying him, and that the world is unfair, but he doesn’t think there’s much to be done about it. “It’s precisely because life isn’t a meritocracy,” he says, “that it just doesn’t faze me when someone has something that’s better than me. It doesn’t matter, it’s like, you can’t change it.”

The incels in TFW No GF don’t seem at all interested in trying to build a better world. Their conclusions are to find ways to enjoy the misery of capitalism, form friendships with like-minded dudes, focus on their careers and their workouts, and try to enjoy the physical world around them. “Normal, every-day stuff,” as one of them puts it. They don’t question the existence of capitalist hierarchy: initially, they’re mad that they don’t have a prime place in it, but by the end of the film they’ve accepted their diminished status. I can see how Gabert-Doyon came away impressed by the five subjects’ ability to “[analyze] their own cultural and socioeconomic identities”—all five of them do express a number of thoughtful, cogent insights. But just because someone is aware of the cruelty and inequity of capitalism doesn’t mean they’re opposed to it. This is one of the dangers of trying to find common ground with incels, and reactionaries in general: yes, they too have identified the problem, but they have their own answer, which is not the same as ours. Reactionaries may agree with us that capitalism is bad—Lavin notes in her book that “a persistent low-grade resentment of capitalism…pervaded the [white supremacist] chats” she was monitoring—but her subjects mostly blamed it on the Jews. The future that reactionaries long for (aka a nostalgic mostly imaginary past where men were men and lesser people knew their place) is not even close to what egalitarian socialists have in mind.

We do know that there’s a connection between material conditions and reactionary ideology; white supremacists thrive at times of massive economic anxiety, and it seems their incel cousins do as well. Would socialism save them? I think it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be rid of people like this entirely—that young men will stop dreaming into their adulthoods of being heroes, the coolest, the best, or that people will stop finding an elemental joy in hurting other people. Ultimately, socialism will not give anybody a girlfriend; it can’t hand women out as a nationalized good, because women are human beings and not a public utility. Socialism can’t make anybody likeable, or kind, or loved; socialism can’t get you laid. It’s not a shortcut. It may make certain things easier, by providing a milieu in which being kind and nurturing is socially rewarded rather than mocked and despised. In fact, it may bring about a sort of sexual revolution for men: in which, rather than having to regard every element of existence as a move in a zero-sum game for domination, it would become acceptable to simply have feelings, enjoy things, and pursue whatever makes you happy. But it will be impossible for socialism to ever free your life of all loneliness, romantic conflict, alienation, and unhappiness. You’ll still have to do all the hard work of being a person. 

For what it’s worth, I think we should have sympathy for incels, as we should have sympathy for everyone who’s struggling, and try to provide them with warmth and community. But it’s actually quite cruel to tell people that nothing is within the scope of their responsibilities or their capabilities. It renders it impossible for them to build their character and commits them to a permanent adolescence, in which they are children who must be pitied, not adults who are responsible for how they treat other people. I’m sure Moyer has sincere compassion for her subjects in TFW No GF, but there’s a sly brutality in not being honest, in not telling the full story, in treating these guys as mere victims who can’t help lashing out because they’re sad. They’re smart and self-reflexive; they can be kind, if they want to. No one’s irredeemable, but they have to be willing to do the work, and people who are concerned about the fate of incels have to stop apologizing for them in advance, or demand for them a sympathy they refuse to extend to others.

These guys are unhappy, and their loneliness is pitiable. They have few options; this is a bleak and brutal country. But this is a bleak and brutal country for everyone, including the women that incels think they are owed sexual access to, and if they just tried to see those women as human beings like themselves, struggling like themselves, who are not a cure or a prize but just more lost and confused people, they might actually find the happiness they’re looking for. But to do that, they would have to give up their childish dreams of superiority once and for all.

There’s no socialism without solidarity, and TFW No GF shows that incels have solidarity—with guys like themselves, and no one else. They believe they’re owed something, something in particular, something more than other people, something that the universal solidarity of socialism won’t ever be able to give them. But it’s always possible for them to change their minds, and admit responsibility, and decide they’re ready for real solidarity and community instead. Right now they’re standing outside in the snow, looking on bitterly through the window at the light and life inside—but they can enter any time. The door is open. They just have to choose to come in.

Boycotting Animal Products as a Collective Act of Protest

Ancient Jain texts describe the life of a prophet named Mahavira. Born in the early 6th century BCE, he abandoned his worldly possessions as a young adult and embarked on a journey of spiritual awakening. When he achieved enlightenment, the gods built him a celestial temple called the samavasarana, or “refuge to all.” Humans, animals, and gods would gather in concentric rings around a towering ashoka tree where he professed his teachings. Mahavira came from a society that practiced ritual sacrifice and consumption of other animals, but he rejected these traditions and preached the gospel of ahimsa: compassion to all living beings.

There are some 6 million Jains in the world today, but hundreds of millions more who also don’t eat animals. Estimates for global vegetarian populations in the last decade range from 375 million to 1.5 billion. Nowhere are they more numerous than India, but philosophies of nonviolence toward other animals span across the globe, with independent roots tracing back to ancient Greece, China, Japan, and other civilizations. With industrialization, objections to animal agriculture have expanded from philosophical and ethical concerns to those surrounding threats to ecology and public health. Long before COVID-19 emerged, epidemiologists were sounding the alarm about novel swine and bird viruses incubating in intensive animal farms. Climatologists have warned that on its current trajectory, the livestock sector alone will use half the emissions budget for 1.5°C warming by 2030. Animal farming is now considered among the primary global drivers of extinction, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, marine dead zones, soil degradation, antibiotic resistance, zoonotic disease, and diet-related illness. These crises demand immediate action.

The most direct and effectual response to the existential planetary threat posed by the industrial exploitation of animals is mass boycott. We cannot afford to wait for government regulation or corporate innovation. We should see this not simply as an individual choice, but rather a collective act.

In all its degrees and forms—from Jain dharma to meatless Mondays—abstention from the consumption of animal products is, in essence, a boycott. While the actions of an individual may be negligible on a global scale, they collectively contribute to a movement at least 25 centuries old and hundreds of millions strong. Regardless of the extent of an individual’s participation or how they define their diet, motivations, or philosophy, they are using what can be considered the same tactic against the same system. When the early Jain monks began practicing ahimsa, it wasn’t because they believed that changing their consumption habits was sufficient to end animal exploitation. Their goal was simple: to mitigate harm to those with whom we share our planet. This remains the most immediate aim of the boycott today. However, there is also a greater goal, in that boycott can be used—together with other tactics—to undermine the social, economic, and political structures upholding our oppressive animal-based agricultural complex and catalyze a just transition toward a nonviolent and sustainable food system.

While the animal rights cause has been called elitist, the reality is the contrary. The prominence of white vegans in news coverage, celebrity circles, and social media has helped perpetuate the idea that the animal liberation movement is privileged, but even in the United States, polling data indicate that vegans and vegetarians are disproportionately working class and people of color. On a global scale, these trends are yet more stark, demonstrating that high rates of animal consumption are a luxury of wealthy nations. Globally, our imperialist agricultural system allocates more than 1/3 of crop yield and more than 3/4 of agricultural land to farm and feed animals, calories and nutrients flowing predominately from South to North. We use more than four times as much land as necessary to feed the planet, which could otherwise be used for purposes such as installing solar panels and wind turbines or rewilding ecosystems to conserve biodiversity and draw down atmospheric carbon. Even though annual harvests are sufficient to feed 10 billion people, we continue to allow one-in-four people on Earth to suffer from hunger. More food is lost in the process of farming animals for human consumption than all food waste combined.

Of course, not all the animals we eat are farmed. Many of them are extracted from the wild, most often the sea. Wildlife trafficking follows similar colonial trade routes, often relying on impoverished or enslaved workers to set the snares or haul in the nets. They sell their catches for a pittance compared to the prices fetched in restaurants and supermarkets of industrialized nations. International trade analyses estimate that between 1/3 and 1/5 of marine life imported to the United States is caught illegally, most often extracted from waters surrounding poorer countries. Nearly half is thrown away. Commercial fishing fleets pose the greatest threat to Earth’s marine ecosystems, leaving four times the destructive footprint of agriculture, capturing an average of 40 percent non-target species, and precipitating plagues of poverty and famine that spur mass emigration from subsistence fishing communities.

This global capitalist agro-industrial system is subsidized by governments worldwide, which undergird the power structures most directly responsible for the environmental, ethical, and public health calamities associated with animal farming and wildlife extraction—even bailing them out with public funds when they collapse. In this context, it is reasonable to feel that the actions of an individual are immaterial. As the now ubiquitous adage reminds us, “100 corporations are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions.” However, this assertion is incomplete for several reasons. First, it is an ecological oversimplification. Greenhouse gas emissions are far from the only anthropogenic shock to our planet and using emissions as a proxy for environmental impact overlooks equally urgent concerns such as air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and public health. Furthermore, it is a factual oversimplification. The 2017 CDP Carbon Majors Report from which the statistic originates does not actually analyze all global emissions. Authors estimate the study’s scope covers “about 70% of total global anthropogenic emissions,” excluding “carbon dioxide relating to land-use change, and methane deriving from farming, landfills, and other non-industrial sources.” Finally, it is an ethical oversimplification. While it may be possible to trace the origin of pollution, there is no consensus around how to ascribe responsibility.

The CDP Report itself illustrates the dilemma of discerning blame for carbon emissions. Designed as an exercise in attributing emissions to fossil fuel producers, as opposed to countries, the report offers a direct way to trace emissions to corporate power structures. However, the offenders on its list are upheld both by state subsidies upstream and distribution channels downstream. They are not lone actors, but cogs in a vast macroeconomic machine. The top offender, for instance, is the Chinese state coal industry, but its clients span across the globe. The products manufactured using energy from the coal it extracts are shipped to vendors and used by consumers worldwide. Would China burn the quantity of coal that it does were it not for the demand chains below it? The answer is complex because the system is interconnected and while the economic dynamics can be parsed in many ways, with some methods certainly better than others, consumers ultimately play a role. Most have some form of agency to weigh the external costs of commodities against one another, but their opportunities are complicated by intangible factors such as access and culture, making responsibility effectively impossible to quantify. Fundamentally, the moral liability of consumers for the conduct of corporations they finance may be more a philosophical than empirical question.

Yet would it even make a difference if we coordinated an effort to reduce consumption? Haven’t the COVID-19 lockdowns shown that changes in consumer behavior are insignificant? That assertion may be oversimplified as well. Consider that while 2020 global emissions amounted to 93 percent of those in 2019, the decrease observed over this period was 70 times the magnitude of the increase between 2018 and 2019. Plus, we must again consider more than greenhouse gas emissions alone. During the initial lockdowns, researchers around the world measured significant abatements of air, water, and even noise and light pollution—to the extent that public health experts estimate that tens of thousands of deaths were averted by mitigating pollution in addition to those that were saved from the virus.

Despite these silver linings, it should be clear that we are not going to lockdown, let alone boycott, our way out of the global ecological crisis. But what if the value of organizing collectively exceeds its immediate, quantifiable impacts? In the context of mass movements, it’s possible for boycotts to impel broader social change. In 1970, the grueling five-year Delano grape strike finally won when working people across the country joined César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farmworkers of America in boycotting grapes to show solidarity with exploited Filipino farmworkers. A decade prior, women like Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead his congregation and community in a boycott of the racially-segregated Montgomery bus system, culminating in a Supreme Court ruling within the year. The global anti-apartheid movement that brought Nelson Mandela to lead the Republic of South Africa began as a consumer boycott organized in London by exiles like Vella Pillay. Indian independence activists like Mohandas Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu stood on the shoulders of their communities, who grew their own food, harvested their own salt, and wove their own textiles in defiance of British colonial rule.

Today, boycotts are socially contentious. They invoke the agency of the consumer, who is systemically disempowered in a capitalist economy. Most of us are intrinsically averse to supporting corporations that violate our values, but we are coerced by a corrupt and consolidating market, constantly forced to compromise in the context of limited choices. Given these challenges, we generally resign to the notion that boycotts are ineffective. Even so, we don’t actually seem to find that a compelling reason to disengage from them entirely. One might passively shop Etsy instead of Amazon, ride Lyft instead of Uber, drink Dos Equis instead of Corona. It is, of course, naïve to imagine that these alternatives are infallible or that these decisions alone are an adequate solution to the underlying issues driving the monopolization of web commerce, disempowerment of gig workers, or expropriation of water resources. Yet it is the practice of this economic discipline that strengthens our solidarity with the victims of capitalist exploitation. When we suppress this solidarity, we practice a form of apathy.

At present, the growing boycott of animal commodification exerts a steady pressure on all associated industries, despite significant subsidization from national governments. Dairy, in particular, is struggling. Though sales of all milks spiked in 2020 amid coronavirus lockdowns, dairy milk sales in the United States have been steadily declining for half a century. Revenues fell $1.1 billion in 2018 and in 2019, the largest milk processor in the country filed for bankruptcy. Its CEO issued a statement, reading, “Despite our best efforts to make our business more agile and cost-efficient, we continue to be impacted by a challenging operating environment marked by continuing declines in consumer milk consumption.” While the failure of enormous, heavily-subsidized agribusinesses merits little sympathy, 2019 also saw the closure of more than 3,200 U.S. dairy farms, most of them small. This raises a complex issue for the animal rights, environmental, and food justice movements driving the boycott of dairy products. To ignore this mass loss of livelihood is to sacrifice the support of communities that depend on it.

Vegans and vegetarians cannot afford to relish the failures of small farms as karma for animal cruelty. The success of the movement in cultivating a sustainable agricultural system hinges upon its ability to demonstrate viable alternatives to commercial animal farming and build political power in agricultural communities. Visions of future food systems must articulate pathways for the reintegration of working class people who have been edged out of the agricultural economy by consolidation and automation. They must include reparations to Black farmers and First Nations. They must establish equitable models, such as co-operatives and land trusts, that can be scaled up to meet the challenge of ending hunger. They must envision a Green New Deal of careers in public service for rural folk, including not only building housing, health care, education, and clean energy infrastructure, but also reseeding endangered flora, reintroducing endemic grazers, and regenerating wildlife habitat on formerly farmed land.

There is no way to avoid it: the inevitable decline of entrenched and unsustainable industries such as fossil fuel and animal agriculture puts people’s lives in precarity. These realities must be approached with compassion, as these populations play an integral role in developing solutions, but we must also consider who is harmed when the wages of our labor underwrite these industries. In the midst of ecocidal arson to clear land for agriculture, Indigenous Amazonian peoples have called on the world to boycott products grown by destroying their forests, including soy, timber, and especially cattle—grown on both pastures in Brazil and in feedlots around the globe importing Brazilian soymeal or owned by Brazilian agribusiness. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the League of United Latin American Citizens organized a boycott against meat produced in the United States, where upwards of 280 slaughterhouse and meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19. These workers have been overwhelmingly people of color and comprise approximately 75 percent of reported COVID deaths in the U.S. food system, according to data compiled by the Food & Agriculture Reporting Network (FERN). Despite over 50,000 recorded cases in the meat sector, the majority are thought to go unreported. The industry has also played a leading role in vectoring viral spread throughout the country. Communications records show that meat industry executives ghost-wrote a federal executive order to exempt them from lockdowns, and a lawsuit filed by floor workers at one plant accused managers of placing bets on the number of them that would fall ill. Surely, if anyone recognizes the futility of appealing to consumers, it is those who are abused and exploited, displaced and disappeared to produce consumer goods. Yet they still call on us.

Those without positions of power do not bear the predominant responsibility for the state of our planet, yet we have a moral imperative to take action within our power to protect it. We cannot afford to downplay the role of the ruling class in devastating the Earth or the complicity of those in government. Yet we also cannot afford to eschew any tactic we can use to fight back, especially the collective actions we can take every day. Of course, we must vote, organize, and provide mutual aid. But we must also take every opportunity at our disposal to control the flow of our wages through the economy and support the mass boycotts against the worst polluting industries that are waging war on our world. We must divest from the multinational financial establishments that bankroll this destruction and reinvest what economic power we hold into credit unions and public institutions. We must blockade the banks, lock down the bulldozers, break into the factory farms.

For while we deliberate the nuances of consumer liability, our fellow humans are on the ground taking up this fight. They are routinely arrested and locked in cages. Often, we read their stories and express our solidarity, yet continue consuming uncritically, funding the very systems that criminalize them. Changing a routine trip to the grocer is nothing compared to the sacrifices made by those on the frontlines of historic struggles for justice, but consider that few of those struggles would have succeeded without support and participation from the masses. Boycotts are inadequate, as are electoral campaigns, litigation, and direct action—when practiced alone. But these tactics in concert can alter the course of history. Will it work? How can we know? Should we try? How can we not?

Nonprofit Workers, Unionize!

It’s been a tough half-century for U.S. labor unions, but seeds of hope are blossoming across the country in unexpected places. Even in the nonprofit sector, workers are unionizing— signaling that the modern-day labor movement is alive and kicking.

Approximately 40 years ago, 20 percent of the U.S. workforce was unionized; today, it’s 10 percent. Despite this downturn, a recent Gallup Poll indicates 65 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest level of support since 2003. In recent years, but especially since the onset of COVID-19, the U.S. has seen a resurgence of labor activism. Increasingly, employees are harnessing their power as workers (despite contrary efforts like California’s Proposition 22). In the past five years, the NewsGuild and Writers Guild of America, East, have unionized 90 newsrooms and over 5,000 journalists; according to Harvard Business Review, “the number of unionized workers in internet publishing has risen 20-fold since 2010.” Earlier this year, Google employees announced they had formed the Alphabet Workers Union, indicating a shift toward organizing in the tech industry. During the pandemic, people have also been leveraging their labor to effect change for others. Last March, General Electric factory workers who normally produced jet engines walked off the job, demanding to make much-needed ventilators instead. In August 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks staged a wildcat strike after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, which prompted teams and players throughout the sports world to follow suit. 

Surprisingly, workers in the nonprofit sector, which has historically been hostile to unions, have also been capitalizing on this moment to organize. Katie Barrows, Vice President of Communications for the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), says, “Our local union represented employees at nine nonprofits in 2017, and has grown to represent nonprofit workers at 38 organizations, adding 21 units” in 2020. As nonprofit employees ourselves, we say: it’s about time.

However, while the growing number of unionized nonprofits is heartening, context is key: data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey shows that in 2019, just 8 percent of nonprofit workers were members of unions, compared to 33 percent of federal, state, and local government employees. Though this moment is galvanizing nonprofit workers, we still have a long way to go.

Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was formed in part to protect workers’ rights to organize, has been accused of union-busting in multiple states, including Kansas and Georgia, amidst the national branch’s attempt to organize as well. In mid-December 2020, employees at the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) also informed their management that they intended to unionize with NPEU. The ALDF responded by refusing to voluntarily recognize said union, and quickly hired the notorious anti-union law firm, Ogletree Deakins (the same firm hired by the ACLU of Kansas) to quash these efforts. These examples are indicative of the nonprofit industry’s stance on unionization. This doesn’t come as a complete surprise: wealthy white people’s volunteerism and philanthropy in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to the formation of the modern nonprofit industry. In other words, the nonprofit sector was born out of capitalism, and relies on it to survive.

For many white collar employees, including those at nonprofits, the terms “union” and “labor movement” evoke images of early 20th century factories, full of soot-faced children in ragged clothing, working 16-hour days. We view the labor movement as history, rather than as an ongoing struggle. This conception is intentionally constructed via American education, which minimizes and decontextualizes labor history, if it’s taught at all. Americans’ skewed perception of the labor movement is strengthened by current anti-union laws, such as the misleadingly named “right to work” laws that suppress wages and enable discrimination in the majority of U.S. states. The time and station that separates modern-day white collar professionals from Gilded Age sweatshop workers prevents many of us from seeing ourselves as working class even though we are. To be clear, if you collect a wage for your labor, you’re a worker—regardless of your industry.

Today’s most visible unions in the U.S. exist in blue and pink collar professions (jobs historically considered to be “women’s work,” like nursing), which informs who we view as needing protection from their employers. Part of the myth of the nonprofit sector is that its employees don’t face exploitation. Many nonprofit workers have been led to believe that when an organization is pursuing a beneficent mission, it is also applying noble principles within its own walls—so why would unions be necessary?

But as journalist Corey Hill says in the East Bay Express, “nonprofit management sometimes takes advantage of employees’ desire to do good, and guilt-trips them into working long hours for low pay.” A 2013 Urban Institute survey assessing over 4,000 U.S. nonprofits supports this accusation: When money is tight, nonprofit leaders are more likely to increase staff workloads without increasing their pay than they are to cut programs. And we know that nonprofit staff are underpaid. For example, in 2017, Third Sector New England found that 33 percent of nonprofit workers in the region made less than $28,000 per year.

However, that same study found that average nonprofit CEO pay was over $130,000 annually, nearly five times as much as the lowest paid worker made. This might even undersell the problem at many nonprofits. The nonprofit sector is large and varied when it comes to organizational budget, CEO pay, and number of employees. CEOs of the largest nonprofits, like some health insurance companies and universities, make salaries that rival those of their for-profit counterparts—Peter S. Fine Fache of Banner Health, for instance, makes over $25 million a year. Executive directors of museums and other cultural institutions make somewhat less—a crowdsourced spreadsheet started in April indicates that the CEO of New York Museum of Modern Art makes approximately $5.1 million a year, but this is still over 127 times what the lowest-paid employee at the museum makes. Workers at the New Museum in New York sought to form a union in 2019 partially because of the chasm between CEO and employee pay. After negotiations, the museum agreed to a base salary of $46,000 for employees, which is still approximately 17 times less than the $768,000 [1] CEO Lisa Phillips makes.

Even the highest-paid nonprofit CEO is no Jeff Bezos. But extreme wage inequity in the for-profit industry does not exempt the nonprofit industry from examining disparity within its own institutions. 

At the end of the day, nonprofits are businesses with a bottom line. This is why we need unions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers continue to receive higher wages than nonunion workers. A 2020 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that unions mollify the wage gap—it found that there was no gender pay gap among Wisconsin teachers until collective bargaining rights were gutted for public sector unions in 2011. Considering the nonprofit sector is almost 75 percent women, this is hugely significant. During the pandemic, with the ever-present threat of layoffs, employees are seeking to unionize not just for higher wages, but also for job security, advancement, and better benefits like childcare and paid time off. Barrows says that young nonprofit workers recognize these benefits of organizing: “A lot of these folks work at left-leaning or social justice organizations and want their employer to live their values and provide sustainable careers for themselves and their coworkers. They see that the way forward is with a union.” 

A worthwhile mission doesn’t pay the rent. Organizations that insist otherwise perpetuate the expectation that nonprofit workers should sacrifice a living wage, work-life balance, and sufficient benefits in service of the “greater good.” This cruel tactic betrays the truth—nonprofits, like all businesses in a capitalist system, benefit from exploitation. 

Historically, the labor movement has been bolstered by tragedy. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, for instance, led to widespread protests and demonstrations, the establishment of the New York State Committee on Safety, and significant workplace reforms that are still in effect today. During the pandemic, there’s been no shortage of tragic events, and just as in 1911, they are spurring collective action. The political upheaval of the past four years, growing climate instability, systemic police violence against Black people, and COVID-19 have added fuel to the proverbial fire. Nonprofit workers should seize this moment, but also remember this it is always the moment. Change happens when the exploited organize on their own behalf. As 20th century labor activist Rose Schneiderman said in a speech following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, “I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.”

 [1] Phillips, whose $768,000 salary made up a significant chunk of the New Museum’s $17 million total budget in 2019, had sought to increase her compensation package in 2018. That attempt was rebuffed after a board member quit in protest. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Phillips agreed to a temporary 30 percent reduction in salary through June 2021.

Laws Apparently Just Don’t Apply to Presidents

Joe Biden’s bombing of Syria was a clear violation of both domestic and international law. The president cannot order an offensive military attack in a sovereign foreign country without Congressional approval, and Biden did not have Congressional approval for the attack. But even if Biden had had Congressional approval, the attack was illegal. The United Nations charter is very clear that sovereign countries cannot be attacked except in self-defense or by resolution of the Security Council.

This is not debatable. It’s very clear law. As Notre Dame international law expert Mary Ellen O’Connell explains, Biden committed a grave and obvious violation:

The United Nations Charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response to an armed attack on the defending state for which the target state is responsible. None of those elements is met in the Syria strike. There is no right of reprisal, right to use military force for deterrence, right to attack Iran on the territory of Syria, or right to use major military force in response to the type of violence that occurred last week.

The facts of the attack are as follows: On February 15, there was a rocket attack that killed a Filipino contractor at an airport in northern Iraq that partly serves as a U.S. military base, and wounded several others including a Louisiana National Guard member. Responsibility for the attack “was claimed by a previously unknown armed group calling itself the Guardians of the Blood.” Ten days later, on February 25, the United States conducted an air strike several hundred miles away on “a collection of buildings on the Syrian side of a border crossing with Iraq,” “destroying nine structures and partially destroying two.” According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 22 people were killed in the U.S. attack, and “most of [the victims] were members of Iraqi militias.” Reuters cited a death toll of 17, quoting a local medical source. 

The United States made it clear that the purpose of killing these people was to send a “message” to the government of Iran (not Syria, the country on which bombs were dropped, or Iraq, where the militia was from.) The U.S. government believes that those who carried out the attack on the airport were “proxies” for Iran (though NBC News says it “was unclear if Iran had encouraged or ordered the rocket attack”), and that those it killed in retaliation were also proxies for Iran. This, the U.S. government reasoned, made the attack an act of “self defense.” Of course, news headlines treat the fact that the militias are “Iran-backed” as a given, without papers feeling the need to explain what exactly the evidence is and how conclusive it is.) 

To sum up: a little-known group called the “Guardians of the Blood” killed someone in one country. The United States responded by killing 22 people, who were not members of the “Guardians in the Blood,” in a different country in order to send a message to a third country.

Here are some questions you might have about these facts: what evidence does the United States have linking Iran to the death at the airport? What evidence does the United States have that the group of people it murdered in response were acting on behalf of Iran, when they may have been “on the Iraqi government’s payroll as part of the Iraqi security forces”? The group whose members were killed, Kataib Hezbollah, “says it maintains a presence at the border crossing to prevent the infiltration of Islamic State fighters into Iraq.” What evidence did Biden have to refute the claim of the group that they are anti-Islamic State fighters who have absolutely nothing to do with the airport attack? You will not find answers in the news articles about what happened, and the Secretary of Defense offered only cursory facts before saying there was “not much more that I’ll be able to add at this point other than the fact that we’re confident in the target we went after, we know what we hit.” (Oh good, they know what they hit. To be fair, even that minimal threshold of “being aware of what you are bombing” is not always met by the United States—see, for instance, the Obama administration’s bombing of a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Afghanistan, which murdered dozens of patients.)

Were the people Biden ordered killed responsible for the attack on the U.S. base? We don’t know, because the Biden administration has not said. In fact, some of the reporting suggests that they didn’t really care, that their reasoning process was: group A is a militia we think is a “proxy” for Iran, group B is also a “proxy,” thus group B is responsible for the acts of group A and killing a few of them will send a “signal” to Iran that the actions of group A will not be tolerated and will rein in group A. 

The U.S. media is such a reliable mouthpiece for the United States government that you will find very little discussion of questions about evidence, or questions like: why does the United States even have an airbase in northern Iraq given that the Iraqi parliament voted to expel U.S. forces last year (the Trump administration, rather than complying, threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq for having the audacity to assert it had a right to decide whether to be occupied militarily)? Is an attack by Iraqis on an occupying foreign power justified? When we read reports that “the decision to strike in Syria instead of Iraq was likely to avoid causing issues for the Iraqi government,” why would it have “caused issues” for the Iraqi government? Is it because Iraqis might have resented the killing on Iraqi soil of Iraqi anti-ISIS militia members who may have been on the Iraqi government payroll? 

What about questions like: is it legitimate to kill nearly two dozen people to “send a message” in response to the death of one? (It is worth pointing out that “responding to the death of one person by killing ten” is the same method the Nazis used to “send a message,” and it is very effective but is also sociopathic.) How certain should we be that a country is responsible for an attack before taking lives in response?

These are moral questions, which hardly ever get asked about U.S. foreign policy. The legal questions don’t even need to be dwelled on, because it’s so clear that what the U.S. did was illegal under both domestic and international law. Biden has no authority to launch a strike like this without Congress. Biden’s own press secretary, Jen Psaki, pointed out when Donald Trump struck Syria in 2017 that the administration had cited no legal authority for striking a sovereign country.

 There was no reason Biden could not have gone to Congress for authorization. The retaliatory strike was ten days after the airport attack and the administration did not even attempt to argue that the U.S. was trying to stop an imminent threat. But Congress might have demanded a greater case be made than just “killing some members of this group will successfully persuade Iran that we are not afraid to commit senseless acts of murder.” (Although if Congress had declined to authorize the use of force in Syria, Biden might well just have gone ahead and used it anyway, like Obama did when Congress declined to give him new authority to wage war.) 

To the extent that Biden’s actions have been criticized by some Democrats, it has mainly been because he lacked Congressional authorization for the strike and acted unilaterally. But it’s even more important to note that Biden violated international law, meaning that even if Congress had approved it, it would still have been illegal. Countries cannot just bomb other countries to send messages. The international community has to react very strongly against any power that tries to do this, because if it is not universally condemned and those who do it are not punished, all international law will become meaningless.

In the U.S., there is often cynicism toward international law, and I can already hear people laughing “Become meaningless?” I would strongly discourage people from succumbing to the temptation to treat international law as already dead, however. The most serious problem is that some outlaw countries (mostly rich and well-armed ones like the U.S., U.K., Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, or Israel) feel like they can violate it with impunity and don’t even consider it serious enough to be worth discussing, and the worst offender here is the United States. If U.S. politicians started actually taking international law seriously, and we cared whether presidents respected it, it would vastly increase the prospects for global peace. 

In fact, if we are being honest and consistent, Joe Biden should be impeached over this. Do you remember what the first impeachment of Donald Trump was about? It was about Trump threatening to withhold military aid from Ukraine over his demand that the country investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. This is a far more serious offense, because at least 22 people are dead and a sovereign foreign country has been attacked. 

The Biden administration’s claims that the attack was in self defense cannot be taken seriously. The U.N. makes it clear that all peaceful means of resolving conflicts have to be exhausted before resorting to violence, and no attempt was made here. Syria, the country attacked, did not attack the U.S. It did not threaten the U.S. The militia that was attacked did not attack the U.S. either. Biden’s own administration’s statements admit that this was an attempt to put pressure on Iran by showing that We Mean Business. Biden’s theory of self defense is the same one deployed by the Bush administration in characterizing the offensive Iraq war as a defensive act. If this qualifies as “self defense,” then the term becomes meaningless. It was a retaliatory strike meant to communicate a message. Retaliatory strikes are illegal, and the U.N.’s declaration of principles of international law is very clear that “states have a duty to refrain from acts of reprisal involving the use of force.” (In fact, it’s even questionable whether the U.S. was justified under law in attacking Syria in response to actions by the Syrian government against Syrians. But this violation of Syrian sovereignty was not even in response to anything done by Syria.) The U.S. likes us to think of Russia as the international criminal syndicate and ourselves as the hero-state, but it’s hard to argue with the Russian foreign ministry’s statement on the U.S. strike, which “call[s] for unconditional respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria” and “reaffirm[s] our rejection of any attempts to turn Syrian territory into an arena for settling geopolitical scores.” A settling of a geopolitical score is essentially what the Biden administration admitted this was. 

The only reason that this isn’t being treated as a grave offense by the Biden administration is that this kind of lawless violent action by presidents has become so normalized over the past decades that “bombing the Middle East” now seems like part of the job description. As law professor Anthony Gaughan notes:

For the last 25 years, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have repeatedly bombed countries (and, in the case of Iraq in 2003, invaded and occupied a country for nearly a decade) without a basis in international law for doing so. In each case the public displayed complete indifference to the lack of legal authority for the military operations.

Gaughan goes through and shows that U.S. actions are plainly illegal, but because international law is treated with contempt and indifference here, “presidents do not even bother anymore to make serious legal arguments for dropping bombs on other countries.”

The Biden administration is clearly not going to change this. They are going to disregard the law when they like. In fact, there was another example of that this week, as the administration made it clear that it believes Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) ordered the murder of Saudi dissident (and Washington Post columnist) Jamal Khashoggi, but declined to enforce U.S. law placing travel restrictions on those known to have ordered extrajudicial killings. The Biden administration openly said that it believed this would harm relations with Saudi Arabia—yet again, the law is treated as meaningless when it conflicts with our preferred geopolitical strategy and would require us to irritate despots we like. It’s particularly twisted because this attack on Syria occurred nearly simultaneously with the administration’s announcement that it would stop trying to get a $15 minimum wage into the COVID relief package, because the unelected Senate parliamentarian said this would violate Senate rules. Biden cares about the rules when they come from the Senate parliamentarian and prevent a rise in the minimum wage, but apparently not when they come from the United Nations and the Constitution and prohibit murder. 

The attitude of the public toward these criminal acts needs to change. I am tired of lawless attacks on Middle Eastern countries being treated as something a president is just entitled to do whenever it interests them. If the U.S. gets to do this to others regardless of law, what moral right do we have to tell other countries not to do it to us? Biden is doing very serious harm to the cause of global peace by twisting the term “self defense” to capture calculated retaliatory strikes that occur without any attempt to use peaceful means. He is affirming a view that can be used to justify totally gratuitous acts of mass murder (where you kill 20x as many people as were killed of your own forces) in the name of “defense.” This is truly Orwellian stuff. 

If there is no outrage about this now, Biden will understand that he can do precisely what his predecessors did, without consequence, and people will die. When the administration wants to communicate something to a rival power, the Pentagon will suggest a series of targets from a list, and he will go through and pick one to blow up, and no evidence will have to be presented to anyone other than Biden that it’s wise or justified. There will be zero accountability. 

A few Democrats have questioned the Biden administration over this. Ilhan Omar demanded that the administration justify the strike’s legality—though her statement emphasized the lack of Congressional approval rather than the violation of international law. There need to be hearings and protests over this. If we do not shake ourselves out of passivity here, if we hear “the president launched an airstrike on X” today and do not raise our voices in opposition, the “forever wars” will never end. Just because this has been done for decades does not mean we have to continue to accept presidential criminality as unavoidable.

Biden’s offense, ordering the deaths of 22 people in sovereign foreign territory in violation of the Constitution and international law, is much worse than the Ukraine call Trump was impeached over. This is a serious abuse of power and needs to be treated as such.

How NGOs Abandoned the Middle East’s Radicals

Keeping up appearances is hard work. I learned that when I worked for a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Amman, Jordan. As Jordan’s only government watchdog, this NGO is a favorite of the international donor scene. Much of its money comes from powerful countries like the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union member states, and its biggest task is parliamentary election monitoring. 

Every time an election is called, the organization sends droves of volunteers to polling places to ensure the voting process runs smoothly. At polling stations across the country, these volunteers meticulously document every small irregularity for the NGO’s employees to analyze. Staff at the office work 12-hour shifts, joke about sleeping under their desks as they draw up shiny graphs on voting, and film informational videos to be shared online. It’s a gargantuan undertaking in the quest to ensure Jordan’s parliament is democratically elected.

The only problem is that Jordan’s parliament is basically powerless. Though it’s nominally in charge of passing laws, the King has veto power over any bill, and parliament rarely proposes a law the King disagrees with. On top of that, the King controls the armed forces and holds decisive sway over its courts.

Parliament’s function, which is universally understood in Jordan but rarely explicitly acknowledged, is to be a pressure release valve for the King if the going gets tough. When an ill-fated policy, like austerity, begins to impact people in adverse ways and they take to the streets, the existence of parliament allows them to march to the Prime Minister’s office instead of the King’s palace. The King then dissolves parliament through a Royal Decree and calls a new election. The new Prime Minister is given the unsavory task of being the face of yet more unpopular policies. This happens every couple of years.

It’s the King who rules Jordan, not parliament. If Jordan’s NGOs, and by extension their powerful Western donors, were serious about promoting democracy in Jordan, they’d simply call for the transfer of power from the King to parliament. 

Of course, this never happens.

Making that call would unsettle the political landscape of Jordan, and the role of NGOs within it. NGOs would have to meaningfully side with the people, and against the government. They could lose their funding if they did this; their workers could get deported during the revolt, their leaders arrested. Some may wind up dead. A democratic Jordan may then do outrageous things like roll back the gutting of its public sector, nationalize key industries, or be more outspoken against American imperialism in the region. Wealthy NGO donors can’t have that.

Instead of working toward democracy, donors and NGOs will extol the virtues of democracy without ever seriously committing themselves to it. In the process, they give the appearance that democracy is alive and well while silently ensuring that power stays firmly in the hands of the monarchy and far away from the people. Problems of poverty and powerlessness are handled as apolitical tasks that can be solved through thousands of small projects, and not broad class struggle.

This happens in poor and exploited regions all over the world.

Scholars were warning against the destruction of Kenya’s public health sector by ‘NGO‐isation’ as early as 1998. Throughout the 2000s, feminists and academics were decrying the damage NGOs were causing in Palestine by undermining popular movements for national sovereignty with neoliberal projects under the guise of “development.” In the Appalachian region of the United States, keen observers have noted that the poor are left jobless and alienated while millions of dollars flow into NGOs which do basically nothing. After the explosion in Beirut’s port destroyed much of the city in August 2020, international NGOs rushed in, derailing local activists and unions’ own organizing efforts.

But ringing alarm bells about NGOs’ perilous impacts have apparently done little to stop their rapid growth. Making sure never to seriously offend their donors or the host governments that allow them to operate, NGOs rake in billions selling themselves as motors of civil society and “development” while sapping power from radical grassroots movements that could  leverage demands against the state. 

I saw this happen in real-time in Jordan. Throughout the country, labor activists risk their lives to provide a better future for their communities and are ignored by NGOs, whose staff live and work in a sequestered bubble—far away from the struggles of the people they claim to be empowering. 

A Segregated Outlook

The first thing I learned about Amman was that an invisible line divided it into two parts: West Amman and East Amman. 

In West Amman, walled-off villas feature wrap-around gardens growing limes and oranges. Boutique cafes serving cappuccinos to its wealthy residents flourish while armored personnel carriers idle across the street. Here, highly educated expatriate workers intermingle with local elites who are collectively tone deaf to the material struggles of the underclass. There is no such thing as solidarity or liberation in West Amman. But in the underclass’ world, these concepts are crucial to their survival.

In East Amman, unfinished buildings are piled onto each other, and large families fit multiple generations of members into single flats. Narrow streets weave between poor and working class neighborhoods that sprawl into the desert. Many inhabitants are refugees from Syria, Palestine, and Iraq who oscillate between unemployment and underemployment in Jordan’s informal market. In some of these neighborhoods, like the Palestinian-dominated Wehdat, there is little to no police presence except on days where Wehdat’s professional soccer club is scheduled to play.

While West Amman is quiet and spacious, East Amman is stifling and claustrophobic. This type of class divide is replicated in cities throughout West Asia and North Africa that have a heavy security-development presence, from Baghdad to Juba and Nairobi.

For those living in West Amman, there is little reason to ever step foot into East Amman except to work on an NGO project designed to help the poor or marginalized in some way. And for those living in East Amman, there is little reason to venture into West Amman except to work as a gardener or cook for the wealthy, or as a construction worker building the next Starbucks. 

After the 2003 Iraq War and Arab Spring revolts of 2011, countless NGOs relocated their headquarters and field offices from wartorn countries into Abdoun, Weibdeh, Jabal Amman, and al-Shmaisani—neighborhoods in West Amman. Arabic language schools closed their doors in Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo, and reopened in those same neighborhoods in West Amman. Finance capital and humanitarian aid flowed into Jordan, which began taking in huge waves of refugees. Jordan’s dependency on foreign aid deepened, and it began looking more and more like a “Republic of NGOs.” 

Poor neighborhoods, like Al Qayseyyeh, that stood in the way of new residential and diplomatic buildings were quickly demolished; their inhabitants getting next to no compensation for their displacement. As West Amman expanded with brand new glass buildings and mansions guarded by security, East Amman gained more dense networks of concrete blocks and metal signs letting passers-by know the rusty playground across the street was, in fact, funded by USAID—a U.S. agency often engaged in soft imperialism—in a collaboration with a local NGO that may not exist anymore. The split between West and East Amman ossified.

By the time I arrived in Amman to study Arabic in 2016, the divide had become so naturalized that local news outlets I read offered different weather forecasts for each wing of the city.

I, like so many others from Europe and the United States who ventured to Amman, thought the best way to make a difference in the region was to gain employment in a nonprofit NGO. Surrounded by their offices and immersed in the West Amman world of nonprofit workers, it seemed the most intuitive thing to do. It didn’t hurt that the only kinds of organizations that paid expatriates to stay in the Middle East were the ones well-connected to powerful donor agencies like USAID, the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID), the European Union, and Western embassies.

Once I entered the nonprofit world, I noticed terms like democracy, equality, empowerment, and civil society were buzzwords the NGOs used to advertise themselves outwardly. Inside, most are stuffed with labyrinthian mazes of bureaucracy, specialization, and intractable hierarchy. There are project managers operating within proprietary project management software, grant application writers gaining fluency in flowery NGO-speak, separate staff using expensive geographic information systems (GIS) and customer relations management (CRM) interfaces, donor relations specialists, logistics, monitoring, and accountability officers, and flocks of jet-setting consultants who recycle pitches and presentations freely between wildly different organizations. Most of these positions and the senior-level management jobs are quietly reserved for the multiple-degree-having white expat worker, while underpaid local staff are relegated to the field with few opportunities to get promoted.

Far less emphasis is put on striving for “democracy” than quantifying “key performance indicators” and accounting for “deliverables” in glossy reports that nearly always give the impression every project is a towering success—never the dismal failure they often are. 

Any semblance of horizontal organizing disappears as massive donor agencies are catered to by large international NGOs who capture much of the money on offer in the international development and humanitarian world. Meanwhile, smaller local NGOs are stuck scavenging for scrap grants to do micro-scale projects. Internal communication breakdowns run rife, staff are constantly rotating between projects and countries, and coordination between different organizations is virtually nonexistent. A dedication to neutrality and an apolitical concept of “human development” informs the process and end-goal of large NGOs’ projects, which take the form of short-term programs whose scope is determined by finances. 

In Jordan, humanitarian projects aimed at helping refugees and under-served communities sometimes look like direct assistance in helping with food provisions and hygiene. However, there are countless more attempts to alleviate the impacts of being powerless by offering them feel-good ways to fill time. Refugees in Jordan can take classes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu fight-dancing, “trauma-informed” yoga, drama and theater, and painting. Some can even learn how to skate. With any luck, these activities can build lasting social bonds among the poor, and give them something to look forward to.

Many of these programs are advertised to donors as easy ways to relieve the stress of being a refugee or exploited child laborer. The sources of this stress, such as being a powerless refugee without rights, remain unsolved. The success of these programs is measured in how many refugees they can involve, rather than how effectively they defend those people’s rights. Refugees’ livelihoods are gamified—the scope of their activities and suffering packaged into statistics and testimonies read by no one.

Development-minded projects that are designed to have a sustainable impact involve integrating vulnerable populations into neoliberal wage labor regimes in the form of vocational skills training. Refugees and women living in poverty have an endless stream of sewing and cooking workshops to give them a way to sell their labor on the extractive market. Perusing West Amman shops, expats then get the opportunity to buy pottery, purses, jewelry, soaps, mosaics, and jackets made by the vulnerable with the promise that a portion of the funds will go back to those who made the handicrafts.

But even these projects are rarely designed to succeed.

To give an illustrative example, after I stopped working at NGOs and became a journalist, I investigated economic inequality in southern Jordan. In one small and impoverished Beduin town, local aid workers tried to train women in culinary skills to make food for markets. The project got a $5,000 grant from a USAID program aimed at promoting small businesses, but the town didn’t have a kitchen to start the training. When the community and aid workers tried to contact USAID about providing technical expertise to build the kitchen, they were ignored, so they resorted to building the kitchen themselves. To get help with training and moving food into markets, the workers again asked USAID for help, and again they were ignored. After a few months, USAID abruptly ended its small-business program in Jordan entirely, and the effort was abandoned.

“USAID just throws money into the hands of these people, and they don’t follow-up,” an aid worker involved said to me at the time. 

Another aid worker agreed, adding “we felt it was really unfair that in some database somewhere, it would be documented that this village had received a grant, where in fact no one really followed up with where the money went.” 

In the absence of a functioning economy in this town and dozens of others in southern Jordan, a growing number of desperate youth are pushed into smuggling drugs—an extremely dangerous job since border troops in the region shoot smugglers on sight. Even more attempt to numb the pain through drug use. Either way, poor families are left to helplessly watch their prospects dwindle and their children die.

For the few development projects which do get off the ground, when it comes to ensuring equality in worker protections like a living wage or residency status for refugees—things that would require confronting corporate and state power—the NGO world goes silent. The hyper-professionalized experts suddenly have nothing to offer, and market whims determine the fate of those integrated into it. There is never a project proposal to take to the streets, to occupy strategic buildings, to get arrested in front of the international press, to unionize the precarious workers, to agitate for mass politics. 

The pro-democracy facade of NGOs is wiped away, and the vulnerable are thrown to the wolves. 

The Radicals Ignored by NGOs 

Inside the exclusive realm of West Amman, NGO leaders and elite human rights advocates sometimes get together for fancy meals. Over soufflés, hors d’oeuvres, and the occasional glass of wine, they brainstorm about future projects and take turns congratulating each other on what a great job they’re doing. If the NGO I worked for hosted one, I was expected to stand, smile, and hand out gift bags to our esteemed attendees. I tried my best to hide from sight. 

In one such gathering of wealthy feminists in 2010 hosted by the Jordanian government, the elite nonprofit sector was forced to temporarily confront one of the people they plaster on their brochures but abandon in the real world.

A middle-aged man, who no one at the meeting recognized, stood up. “Where were you?” he asked the elites in a thick accent that told them he was from the rural areas of Jordan. The man was Mohammed Snayd, and he was the leader of the Day-Waged Labor Movement (DWLM), which was a collection of day-waged laborers who had been protesting for better working conditions since 2006. They staged sit-ins and had developed a decentralized telephone network to coordinate and mobilize. Most who were involved in the movement were women working for the Ministry of Agriculture. Because they were day-waged workers they were paid for daily work as opposed to receiving regular monthly salaries, they weren’t protected by the country’s minimum wage law and weren’t given retirement funds or health insurance. 

Underpaid, overworked, entrapped by debt, and living in poverty, day-waged workers began organizing for better labor protections. Their primary demand was for the abolition of the category of “day-waged labor” entirely, and for all day-waged workers to be treated as permanent employees. They also demanded a living wage. 

After years of struggling to be heard by the government, the DWLM had just done the unthinkable in the culturally conservative country of Jordan: they had staged a mixed gender sleep-in demonstration outside Jordan’s Royal Court. The move was enthusiastically supported by the workers’ families in spite of the stigma and danger around the protest tactic. It was one of the most ground-breaking forms of protest the region had seen in a century, and the elites of West Amman never knew it happened. “Where were you? Why didn’t you support [the women]?” Snayd asked the wealthy activists. They dismissed him and his cause as irrelevant to them. 

Awareness of the DWLM spread through word-of-mouth at the time, and the West Amman activist crowd evidently did not have enough contacts within the country’s working class to know what it was or what it was accomplishing. 

In NGO-speak, the DWLM could be a dream come true for nonprofits. Here was a women-led, horizontal grassroots movement mobilizing in search of empowerment. It was everything local and international NGOs describe their primary missions to be about. But the workers weren’t looking for wealthy donors to finance a project, or to be taught how to make rugs. They wanted solidarity in a class struggle. Their empowerment came from confronting the state and the market, and demanding concessions. Their type of feminism wasn’t the liberal, representational kind espoused by the NGOs, it was imbued with labor radicalism.

Agricultural workers like Mohammed Snayd had already witnessed the failures of elites and NGOs to help them. In fact, Snayd’s activism came in part from suffering through the government taking away his livelihood and replacing it with the false promise of an NGO project. In the central region of Dhiban, where Snayd and many of his fellow DWLM members are from, breeding livestock and working on small-scale farms were the primary economic lifelines. To support them, the Jordanian government heavily subsidized livestock feed. However, facing pressure by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to implement austerity for the public sector, Jordan began cutting back on these livestock feed subsidies. This raised the cost of keeping livestock so much that it became financially untenable. Herds shrank and eventually disappeared.

In a half-hearted attempt to intervene against the steady impoverishment of the region, a government-organized “NGO” run by the Queen at the time, Noor Al Hussein, set up an almond tree farm. Locals derided the project, and predicted it would fail because the region didn’t have enough water to sustain the cultivation of almonds. This is because in 1992, the government began directing the region’s water supply to the rapidly growing metropolis of Amman, which dried up the land. The NGO did nothing to get the region’s water supply back. Locals pleaded for more investment, but were ignored. Their prediction turned out to be correct: the farm could not sustainably grow crops, and was soon shut down.

“All of the development projects are neglecting the core elements of Dhiban’s economic history that have always been its strengths,” Snayd said. “The government is neglecting agriculture and breeders.”

Many of Dhiban’s farmers, including Snayd, were pushed into precarious day-waged labor. In this context, the DWLM represented a resounding call from Jordan’s agricultural workers to reclaim a sense of dignity and economic self-determination. Their campaign was a groundbreaking success in two ways.

First, they were able to secure permanent employment for tens of thousands of workers and day-wage laborers. Second, through their innovative tactics and unflinching demands for workers’ rights, they catalyzed a new wave of popular movements centered around economic demands. DWLM organizers in Dhiban were the first in Jordan* to begin protesting in the so-called “Arab Spring,” on January 7, 2011. This made them among the first in the region to mobilize after Tunisia began its own revolutionary movement a few weeks earlier. 

*Sadly, those curious about the DWLM’s role in the Arab Spring will find little information available online. There are precious few written accounts of radical Jordanian labor movements and their impact. There was virtually no contemporaneous reporting on the DWLM or the network it formed which then activated in early 2011, and so information regarding it has come mostly from oral interviews conducted years later. 

In Dhiban, which was quickly gaining the reputation for being a bastion of labor activism, Snayd helped to establish the “Dhiban Youth Committee,” organizing new youth-led protests around the country. Veterans of the DWLM drew thousands into Jordan’s streets to demand an end to austerity and corruption, and for the government to raise the minimum wage. Named the Jordanian Popular Movement, or Hirak for short, the demonstrations temporarily brought life in Jordan to a near halt. In a rare move, protest leaders bypassed the farcical parliament and called out the monarchy directly. 

Inspired by the day-waged workers’ success as well, phosphate miners struck several times in 2009 and port workers in Aqaba went on strike in December 2011. Protesting school teachers asked DWLM organizers for advice on how to build a formidable movement, and launched a barrage of protests including sit-ins and a strike. By the end of 2011, their union, the Jordan Teachers’ Syndicate (JTS), was recognized by the government. It represented nearly every teacher in the country, garnering about 140,000 members. In a country of about 10 million people, the JTS thus spoke for a sizable part of its entire labor force. In total there were over 840 labor actions in 2011, including strikes, walk-outs, and protests by nurses, doctors, construction workers, water and sanitation workers, and service workers. The labor movement in Jordan had been revitalized.

When the government started a new round of austerity-minded cuts to the public sector a few years later, protests again erupted throughout Jordan. Most prominently, teachers demanded an increase of their wage, which had remained stagnant for years and stood slightly above the country’s poverty line. Because the size of the union was so large, such a demand would have effectively raised the living standard of nearly every single Jordanian family in the country, since almost every family has at least one teacher in it. 

An obstinate government intent on meeting the recommendations of the IMF rebuffed the teachers. Talks quickly broke down, and the JTS began an indefinite strike in September 2019, closing nearly every school in the country for a month. 

Teachers and students held daily rallies where they persevered through beatings and other intimidation tactics by riot police. To end the strike, the government agreed to a series of wage increases. But by the spring of 2020, the government announced it was back-tracking on the deal. The JTS immediately began preparations for a new nationwide pressure campaign, which would culminate in another indefinite strike. The government wouldn’t have that. 

Before the campaign could get underway, security forces raided every JTS office branch in the country in July, arrested its leadership, and announced the union was now illegal. The move shocked Jordanians, who turned out in nearly every city and town to protest. Marches in solidarity with the union overtook major city highways. Protesters gave passionate speeches from the frontlines of police barricades.

“I am the country, I am the nation. I taught you how to love the nation. I taught you the national anthem! I taught you how to draw the flag. How do you dare to raise an arm at me?!,” one teacher was filmed saying.

Videos of police brutality against the teachers spread through social media networks while the government banned reporting on the crackdown. About 1,000 teachers were arrested. Journalists caught covering it were also targeted by the state. 

These were the largest protests in the country since the DWLM-inspired uprising of 2011. The JTS was possibly the largest civil society organization in the entire nation: over 100,000 members strong standing together in solidarity, defending themselves and their communities. Its dissolution dealt an irreparable blow to exactly the types of civil power NGOs boast about empowering. And where were the NGOs? Even though their senior staff hadn’t heard of the DWLM, they surely noticed the JTS’ historic strike, the crackdown, the police riots, and the mass arrests even from their palaces in West Amman.

Humanitarian-focused NGOs could have handed out water and food to the protesters. They could have organized medical treatment for those beaten in the streets or tortured in Jordan’s detention centers. Development-minded NGOs could have backed the beloved union, since its demands related to the financial wellbeing of the entire country and the integrity of its public sector. 

Every NGO could have helped organize resistance with the union, sent its senior staff in front of police barricades, raised money for the strike fund, ran international media campaigns for the workers, or pushed donor countries to stand with the union. Wouldn’t the donors love to hear about a client NGO taking such initiative to empower “local beneficiaries”? Apparently not. NGOs’ conspicuous silence proved they were ultimately beholden to the Jordanian government and their wealthy financiers, who themselves are preoccupied with ensuring Arabs stay out of Europe, and were not concerned with the people’s wellbeing. The nonprofit scene mostly ignored the plight of the teachers, save for Human Rights Watch who collected stories of police brutality and condemned the crackdown.

By September the teachers were crushed, and the JTS was obliterated. 

Both the Day-Waged Labor Movement and the teachers’ revolt tried to beat back an inhumane capitalist market enforced by state power. But because NGOs rely on the state and market, they end up functioning as counterrevolutionary obstacles standing in the way of these popular movements. At best, they soften the blow of being rendered powerless and disposable. 

Living in Amman, I got the sense many seasoned NGO workers know this.

Isolating ourselves in fancy, overpriced bars in luxury hotels, a conversation among expats and rich locals inevitably arises around midnight when a few drinks have relaxed the atmosphere. The project is falling through, the dance class isn’t helping an impoverished family in any meaningful way, the donors don’t look interested in giving another grant. The colorful reports we enthused over in the beginning feel ridiculous now that we’re the ones writing them, and we know how much of it mystifies the situation on the ground. A sense of defeat looms over us.

Sometimes this feeling is bitterly projected onto locals in racist tirades declaring them lazy or not yet ready to have the kind of democracy the West enjoys. Other times it comes out as a quiet, resigned sadness that our hopes of transforming lives will never be realized, that projects will never be enough. We glance at a table of young and excited-looking expats practicing Arabic and give them a wry smile. Their dreams will be dashed like ours were, or they’ll leave before this realization ever sets in. These moments come and go. More drinks bring conversations back around to the latest office gossip. 

For the cynical NGO worker who sees the futility of projects and feels the sense of adventure being replaced by a desire for comfort, the only thing left to do is try to simulate the feeling of being home while knowing at least they’re doing something, anything to help. Muttering “it’s better than nothing,” the NGO worker lulls himself to sleep.

But as we sulk, gossip, and accept awards on behalf of our organizations at mansions with pools, the real heroes—radical labor activists—are getting arrested, interrogated, and even tortured by the secret police. There will be no ritzy award ceremony for the Mohammed Snayds of the world, at least not until they die and their movements against capitalism cease to be a threat.

The cause of labor goes on without the backing of the NGOs. 

Texas Republicans Discover the True Meaning of Free Markets

If I were to write a bad satire of 21st century capitalist greed, it might involve something like this: there is an app called “Griddy” (get it?) that is connected to everyone’s bank account. When something bad happens to you, Griddy adds interest to injury by sucking your account dry. “Why would anyone connect to this thing?” you might ask. Because without it their utilities are cut off. There is no limit to Griddy’s greed. It is an “apparasite,” a parasitic app whose job is to slurp up the contents of your bank account and send you cheerful messages about how it is creating value for you. 

A characteristic feature of our time is that you cannot satirize it, because anything you come up with already exists, or is about five minutes from existing. Griddy is a real app that connects Texans to their deregulated power grid and aims to “disrupt” the power market. Certainly it has disrupted the lives of Texas energy customers, who are having their savings accounts drained to pay the exorbitant bills they are being charged for keeping their lights on during the storm. The New York Times reports on the case of a veteran who has lost his entire savings thanks to the price hikes, as well as the travails of Griddy user Katrina Tanner: 

Katrina Tanner, a Griddy customer who lives in Nevada, Texas, said she had been charged $6,200 already this month, more than five times what she paid in all of 2020. She began using Griddy at a friend’s suggestion a couple of years ago and was pleased at the time with how simple it was to sign up. As the storm rolled through during the past week, however, she kept opening the company’s app on her phone and seeing her bill “just rising, rising, rising,” Ms. Tanner said. Griddy was able to take the money she owed directly from her bank account, and she now has just $200 left. She suspects that she was only able to keep that much because her bank stopped Griddy from taking more.

The extreme price hikes after the storm, hitting people whose only crime was trying to keep their power on during a freezing winter, outraged Texas senator Ted Cruz upon returning from his attempt to scurry away to Cancun in the middle of the crisis. Cruz tweeted

This is WRONG. No power company should get a windfall because of a natural disaster, and Texans shouldn’t get hammered by ridiculous rate increases for last week’s energy debacle. State and local regulators should act swiftly to prevent this injustice.

Cruz’s demand for regulation of the utility companies was a remarkable shift in tone from previous public comments. Cruz has previously described himself as someone who had “spent my whole life fighting for free-market principles” and said that the “success of Texas energy” was built “on principles of free enterprise and low regulation.” He had said “regulated public utilities” were not “bold” or “innovative.” 

But it’s very clear that the deregulation of Texas’ energy market, the free market for power that Cruz championed, directly precipitated the price gouging. A Wall Street Journal investigation put blame squarely on the state’s excessive trust in corporate benevolence. The Journal calculated that “deregulated Texas residential consumers paid $28 billion more for their power since 2004 than they would have paid at the rates charged to the customers of the state’s traditional utilities.” The paper noted that champions of deregulation had told stories about how “competition” would miraculously create wealth and innovation for all: 

None of this was supposed to happen under deregulation. Backers of competition in the electricity-supply business promised it would lower prices for consumers who could shop around for the best deals, just as they do for cellphone service. The system would be an improvement over monopoly utilities, which have little incentive to innovate and provide better service to customers, supporters of deregulation said.

(Incidentally, the Journal notes that in the debate over Texas’ deregulation, “leading the charge was Enron, the Houston energy company and champion of free markets that went bankrupt in 2001 amid revelations of widespread fraud.”) 

Price gouging is a feature, not a bug, of free markets. Libertarian think tanks (and the Wall Street Journal’s own op-ed page) are constantly churning out articles on why price gouging is Actually Good because it allocates goods to those who want them the most and incentivizes greater production. But faced with the reality of extreme post-disaster price hikes, as opposed to the “speculative fiction” of free market economic theory, even die-hard capitalists like Ted Cruz pronounce themselves horrified.

The Journal reports that now, in the aftermath of the storm, companies are “trying to figure out how to pass on the billions of dollars in costs to customers.” The paper quotes an energy economist who says that the crisis is going to be “an incredible transfer of billions of dollars from Texas consumers to generators” with some “spectacular winners and losers,” the biggest loser being “the state of Texas.” (Strangely, this quote about how the crisis will be a windfall for corporations appeared in the paper’s print edition but appears to have been cut from the online version of the article.) The CFO of a natural gas company was giddy in reporting to investors how much money the company was making off the tragedy: “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices… Frankly, we were able to sell at super premium prices for a material amount of production.”

To fund that jackpot, the city of Denton is “now looking to borrow up to $300 million to cover fuel expenses from last week,” and on one day alone the “municipal utility racked up a $75 million power bill, more than it spent on electricity for all of its last fiscal year.” So cities are faced with the prospect of taking on debt to pay off power corporations, all because they needed to keep the lights on, while those same corporations will be “spectacular winners.” 

This is your free market: the entity with control of something people need during a crisis can use their unique position to reap those “spectacular” wins and transfer wealth to themselves. It is akin to a person who sees another drowning and offers to throw a life preserver for $75,000.

Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, echoed Cruz. “Texans shouldn’t have to face a spike in their energy costs,” he said. Indeed, they shouldn’t. It’s deeply unfair. But can Abbott admit that this discredits all the utopian prophecies about what the Invisible Hand would do? Cruz explicitly calls for new regulation, which is a direct abandonment of the laissez-faire capitalism he professes to stand for. The Wall Street Journal shows that the “let corporations charge what they like” system has resulted in a giant transfer of billions of dollars in wealth from customers to the companies, and it hasn’t even improved the grid, with “little incentive for companies to spend cash on infrastructure that could protect power plants during sporadic severe cold snaps.” Customers are not doing better through this system. Profiteers are doing better. Griddy is giddily siphoning bank accounts, but municipalities are going into hundreds of millions of dollars of debt that will take years to pay off and will result in austerity measures being imposed on other essential government services. What if firefighters’ pensions now have to be cut to make sure energy companies get their windfalls from the disaster? 

We can see very clearly here how free market myths run up against the reality that regulation is necessary to serve the public interest, and government cannot “stay out” of the economy without it going haywire and hurting people. Now that even Ted Cruz admits this, let us hope a few more people will abandon the laissez-faire mythology that sees markets as miracles and every regulation as a burden. That’s just not how it works, as Texas has found out the hard way. 

Mike Duncan on History, Revolutions, and the Future

Few people have done more to make history interesting and accessible to the layperson as Mike Duncan. A wildly successful podcaster and New York Times-bestselling author, he’s tackled topics ranging across space and time. Current Affairs was lucky enough to get him on our podcast for an interview with editors Lyta Gold and Sparky Abraham. If you missed it the first time around, here’s the perfect opportunity to see what Duncan has to say about how history can help us understand the present—and perhaps what comes next, as well.

The following transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Lyta Gold 

Hey Bird Feed, this is Lyta Gold, your amusements and managing editor. I’m joined by Sparky Abraham, our finance editor. 

Sparky Abraham 

Hello everyone. 


Today we have an extremely special guest. We’re super excited about this guest because Sparky and I are huge geeks, and we’ve been fans of this guy for a long time. It’s Mike Duncan who’s joining us. 

Mike Duncan 



You may know Mike from a couple of podcasts. There was one called The History of Rome, which is finished up and is excellent and really, really worth getting back to. There’s one going on right now called Revolutions, which is thrilling. It’s amazing. It starts from the English Revolution, and has gotten as far as the Russian Revolution—but we did the French one on the way, Haitian, Mexican, the whole thing. It’s incredible. There’s also a book out called The Storm Before the Storm, which is about the Roman Republic. And it’s fantastic. Thanks, Mike, for joining us. 


Thank you for having me. 


So, we wanted to talk mostly about the Revolutions podcast, because it’s the one that we’re both really, really obsessed with right now.


Me too.


Haha, I can tell. This is great. I mean, it’s such a deep dive into these very specific details, these specific chunks of history, but it’s really easy to follow, and it’s just a really incredible work of popular history. The first question I want to start with is: why did you pick revolutions as a topic?


It goes back to my first loves in history. When I was a teenager, I got really into the American Revolution. This is in, let us say, the mid ‘90s. I also got really into the Russian Revolution, and it was one of the first time periods that I really honed in on and fell in love with. I did a lot of reading when I was 16, 17, 18 years old about the Russian Revolution. So, it’s cool that I’m finally able to talk about the Russian Revolution in the capacity that I’m talking about it now, because it’s one of my first loves.

But then I wound up moving on to ancient history. I spent so much time doing The History of Rome and so much time studying the ancient Mediterranean world, that when I finished up The History of Rome, I didn’t want to be typecast as just an ancient historian or just able to do one particular set of time. So, I wanted to move into the modern world, and I wanted to move into some different topics. 

I was kicking around ideas that I might possibly have, and eventually landed on this notion of covering different revolutions in discrete seasons, to move through them. And the idea too was that it would be a shorter project than The History of Rome, because each one of these would be 12 or 15 episodes long, and then it would be about three years is how long I had mapped it out now. Of course it wound up being longer than The History of Rome was—this is how I run my career, apparently. And whatever next project I do, I will no doubt say I want it to be shorter than Revolutions, and then it will actually be probably twice as long, and it will take me 20 years to do. But that is what it is. 


And your background—you’re not an academic, really. You don’t have a PhD in history, right?  


Correct. I’m a grad school dropout.


That’s very cool. We’re very much in favor of that.


So my degree was political science with a minor in philosophy. And then my concentration for political science was political theory. What I was actually studying in school was a lot of political theory. And that necessitated all of this study of political events and political history. I mean, if you’re going to learn Plato and Aristotle, you have to learn about the Greek city-states. And if you’re going to study Cicero and Seneca, you have got to learn about the Roman Empire. If you’re going to study Machiavelli, you have got to study the Roman Empire. It’s all of the piece. 

So, when I came out of school, what turned out being the thing that I most wanted to keep going with was the history part of it. I kept wanting to teach myself about the who, what, and when of history because I had spent so much on the theory part of it. I wanted to get re-grounded on what actually happened, what these people were actually talking about. And so that is how I wound up carrying it forward.


One of the reasons that we’re so cranky about academic history is that it tends to be very siloed. It’s not universally true, but it’s often very siloed from popular education, and it’s these very little JSTOR articles about a very specific topic and that kind of thing. I mean, you’re playing a really important role in popular education. Do you see that as being part of a trend?  

There are other history podcasts, I know—like the History of Byzantium, which started up after you stopped The History of Rome, and it’s a really fun podcast too. This does seem like it’s becoming a bit of a trend. It’s a really fun way to teach history and a really fun way to absorb it for people at home who are just interested amateurs, who aren’t in school studying and don’t have JSTOR access.


There are two aspects of this. The first is the relationship between the academy—the universities—and the academics, who are, most of the time, just talking to each other. That’s part of what they want to be doing: talking to each other about very specialized things. And then there has always been a place for popularizers. Even though podcasting didn’t exist 50 years ago, there’s always been a popularizing tradition. There have always been people out there who want to fill in that role between what is going on in the universities, and what the general public is actually able to learn. 

And I think that’s my job—to facilitate the transfer of information from often-dry sources, like those JSTOR articles, which I read because I enjoy them. I actually enjoy reading those articles. But the general public isn’t going to enjoy reading those articles, and they aren’t written for the general public. So what I can do is take all of that information that I’m really interested in and convey it to the people, and that’s a part of a longstanding tradition. I believe that it’s a good thing for society, for people, for citizens, to know as much history as possible. I think it makes us better, more well-rounded people. 

I mean, people should also learn music, and people should also learn about art, and there are many things people should learn about. But I do think that history is one of those things that people should really have inside of them. To have a sense of how long humans have been at this. To have an idea of the kinds of events and personalities and trends that have happened before us. Why our society is actually running the way it is. It didn’t just appear like this, unless you want to get into really deep philosophy and say, “The entire universe was invented five minutes ago and we all just arrived here,” which I do not think is true. I actually do think that there was some kind of history that backs all of this up. 

But if you study the history, you’ll understand your own present society much better. So, I think all of that is good, and I think I’m in that tradition of popularizing it. And then the podcasting part of it: it’s a new medium. It’s a new technology. It’s a great way for people to access this information because reading a book does take your whole physical body, in a way. You can’t walk around reading—you see people walking around reading books, I don’t quite know how they do it—and then if you are going to watch a TV show, if you’re going to watch a documentary, you have to sit and watch the screen. But you can listen to a podcast when you’re crammed into a subway. You can listen to a podcast while you’re driving your car. You can listen to it while you’re doing chores. There are many different places that you can take audio-only content. And if you are the kind of person who’s sitting there saying, “Gosh, I don’t know a lot about history,” I can go, “Find these podcasts.”  

And during these mundane, often terrible parts of our days—like when you’re doing chores, and commuting, or exercise, nobody likes doing any of these things—we can turn those periods of time into learning opportunities. And so, podcasting as a medium, I think, has served the popularization of history and the popularization of many different more academic fields in general. I think it’s been a great addition to how we interact with each other.


I listen to you when I’m cooking.


Perfect. I listen to podcasts when I do dishes.


There’s this interesting thing in the Revolutions podcast, especially, but also in The History of Rome: what you’re talking about is really the apex of politicalness. Right? You’re talking about revolutions. It doesn’t get much more political, divisive, whatever. This is not some kind of dry, neutral history. 

But one of the features, I think, of your podcast that is really interesting is that you have a lot of fans across the political spectrum. I imagine that takes some work to try to present this stuff in a way that is not…  I mean, I don’t know; how do you do that? Is this an intentional thing that you are doing? And I also want to ask if you’re willing to talk about your personal politics, although I know that every side of Twitter has a project of projecting their own politics on to you. How do you deal with this?


I will probably be cagey about my own political beliefs. 


Yeah, that’s fine.


Yeah, yeah.


I will say, however, that when the MAGA people find me, they are profoundly disappointed. Especially coming out of The History of Rome, because there are lots of people that do listen to The History of Rome, and ancient history, classical history, is something that is often appropriated. There’s a colonization project amongst, let us say, proto-, crypto-, and out-and-out fascists, to use the Roman Empire to their own political advantage in the modern world. And so they’ll listen to The History of Rome and they’ll be like, “This is great, this guy must be one of us.”  

And they find my Twitter feed, and they’re like, “Oh my god, he is one of them.”  So, at a minimum, if you were talking to a MAGA person, I am one of them, not one of us. Now, when it comes to actually presenting this material, my focus  has been to focus on the who, and the what, and the when. Point being, that as long as I focus on the actual concrete events, I’m on pretty safe ground in being able to present it in something resembling an objective way. 

What I think has often been lacking, and this goes back to what I feel like my role is here in the popularization of history, is that people often lack a kind of barebones narrative of what happened. People know a lot about the French Revolution, or they think they know a lot about the French Revolution, or they have an interpretation of how the French Revolution dips into world history, or how it should be interpreted. But then if you actually start poking them a little bit about the details of what actually happened during the French Revolution, who did what when, that is a part that starts to get real fuzzy for people. 

So what I’m hoping to provide here is that narrative of who and what and when. Like when you see, for example, guillotine memes going around on Twitter, this is often because people have a basic understanding of the French Revolution. You have these revolutionaries who rose up, and they rounded up the aristocrats, the bad people who had done all the bad things during the ancien régime, and they chopped their heads off, and this must be a good thing. But when you actually get into what the Reign of Terror was, and who the victims of the Reign of Terror wound up being, it is not usually the case that it is some hateful aristocrat who had the crimes of history, the blood of history, on their hands. Those people all fled to the Netherlands, and then to England, or to Germany, or to Austria, most of those people actually survived the French Revolution. 

The people who were killed were mostly peasants in the June Days uprising, it was federalists who had risen up in revolt against Paris because they simply disagreed with the course of revolution after the Committee of Public Safety took over. These are just facts. And as long as I’m presenting what happened, I think I can pretty much walk the line. Having said that, I’m never going to be able to avoid my own bias, and it’s clear who I can be sympathetic to and who I am not—I am not sympathetic to Metternich, for example. 


I did notice that. 


I do want to, as much as possible, empathize with whoever it is that I’m talking about so I can try to understand their perspective on the world. Why is this person behaving the way that they are behaving? What is their motivation? What are they trying to get out of this particular moment?  

And one other thing that I think I have done well on this front, and I’m doing this with the Russian Revolution—I’m forcing myself to do this—is when we know how the revolution turned out, then we start to back up and write a straight-line history of the event knowing how it is going to end. 

But let’s just stay in the French Revolution, people were banging into each other in 1790, 1791— they don’t know that 1793 is going to be what it was. They don’t know about Thermidor, they don’t know about Bonaparte. History is usually a mess of people whose motivations are running into each other. And as long as you can stick to trying to explain each person’s motivations from their own perspective, then I think you can listen to it without being like, “Oh, this just Marxist analysis,” or, “He’s just some reactionary scumbag who is trying to say that Robespierre was the devil.” 


So, I think you started to answer this, but I think one response to what you are saying is: well, yes, but that’s what every historian thinks that they are doing. Right? I guess that is not true, some historians think they are doing a political project. But I think that a lot of what you see when you are talking about history as a political project is that it’s all about which people you choose as being important and which events you choose and whose motivations you get into and whose motivations you do not. Is there a particular way that you deal with that? I mean, one possibility is that you just do as many people and things as you possibly can, and that’s why you have such long and excellent and in-depth seasons.


Sure. I do acknowledge that I’m coming from some kind of liberal bias here, because if we’re talking about liberal civil rights, I am going to be on the side of the liberal civil rights as opposed to the perpetuation of feudal ignorance and despotism, for example. Because I’m coming out of this, I’m a white guy from Seattle, Washington in the 21st century, so the society that I grew up with is going to inform my worldview on all those fronts. And I do agree that there are probably people out there that just listened to that last answer that I gave about trying to present something resembling an objective chronology of information and just rolling their eyes and saying, “Well, this guy is absolutely full of shit because nobody can actually do that.”  And I actually agree with that. 

But, and as you just said, as long as you keep moving around and talking about it from the perspective of Louis XVI and then from the perspective of Robespierre, and from the perspective of Lafayette, you can cover most of your bases. Or look at what I’m doing right with the Russian Revolution. As we go through it, I’m going to be constantly hopping between the perspectives of the anarchists, of the socialist revolutionaries, of the SRs, and then the left SRs, and the right SRs. Then I’m going to be talking about it from the perspective of the Bolsheviks, and the Mensheviks, and I’m going to be talking about it from the perspective of Nicholas and the czars. Then, the nationalities are going to come into it, like what Polish nationalists think about all this. 

So again, I think that it’s not a matter of ever believing that you can step away from yourself or step away from history to create something that’s objective, but you can bounce around enough. And if you empathize enough with the various actors, then, as you have noticed, I have fans from many different political backgrounds who can listen to the show and not be turned off about it, or think that I’m just advancing one particular point of view. 


Yeah. And I did not mean that as a criticism, I think you do it really well. I mean, probably my favorite season so far is the Mexican Revolution season, and one of my favorite parts of that is that I had the sense, “Oh, I know about the Mexican Revolution.” I have the people who I understand as being important and who I agree with or disagree with. And you just blew that up—the Mexican Revolution season just blew up that universe and introduced me to so many new people and perspectives and situations that I had no idea about. And it made me think about the events from their viewpoint, instead of working backwards.


That is one thing that I do think—because I do keep this in the forefront of my mind—the people in history don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Actually, one of my favorite episodes that I ever wrote was in the Haitian Revolution…  I am now, of course, blanking on the title of this episode even though I’m saying it is one of my favorite episodes.


There have been a lot of episodes, to be fair to you. 


I think it was 1794 or 1795, when there was this pause in the middle of this conflagration that was the Haitian Revolution, and there were five different ways that it could have gone. It could have gone to some of Louverture’s way, it could have gone André Redouté’s way, it could have been that the British actually wound up conquering San Doming and reimposing slavery and San Doming becomes a British colony, or it could have re-fallen to the French and gone back to being French, but then it’s going to be under Napoleon’s rule. 

So, I just spent an entire episode talking through the different ways that this could have actually gone. And yes, it went this one way where Toussaint Louverture winds up victorious, but there was nothing that said that it was going to have to be that way. And certainly nobody knew it at the time. You know, it’s not like Toussaint Louverture is going around with a magical “W” over his head that stands for “winner.” Nobody knows that he’s going to be the winner in the end. So, always keeping that in the forefront of my mind does help keep things grounded, I think, in a really healthy way. 


I mean it also makes it, I do not know, maybe Lyta you can weigh in on this too. And also, I find it very–




It’s relatable because we, in the present day, also don’t know what’s going to happen, and taking this approach makes it clear that the position that we are often in is really similar to the position of people at previous points in history. It makes this stuff feel less like disconnected history that leads inexorably to this moment and more like, “Holy shit, it’s always been a mess, and things can kind of happen at any time.”


Right, that is 100 percent true. Anything could happen at any time, and we have no ability to predict it. I mean, one of the things that is very noticeable about studying all of these revolutions is that nobody has ever successfully predicted a revolution. There have been a few times where a coup or some kind of uprising has worked, but was the French revolution planned? No, it was just a huge, unfolding series of accidents that people then were able to hop on board with and steer certain ways for a certain amount of time. But that has really been one of the themes of all of these episodes about revolutions: nobody sees them coming, and then they erupt, and then they unfold. There is no guiding hand here, it does not exist. 


And when I’m listening, I tend to oscillate really widely between hope and despair, because there are all of these different groups of people who. A lot of them have good intentions and they’re working toward good things, and then here’s the way that all of these things just go wrong and don’t work out, and people end up killing each other over extremely silly differences of opinion. 


Right. Or that you start hoping to accomplish something, and then it’s a bit by bit thing, where everyday you do a small course correction and a small course correction and you do something in that day for that moment that you feel like you have to do. And then the next thing you know, you’re completely turned upside down, and the opposite of where you even wanted to start. I think that is going to happen with Lenin quite a bit. What those guys thought they were up to in the 1890s is not where they wound up in 1920. 


It’s really relatable, which I think is how you know that’s right. Because as you’re describing this process or this experience, it’s like, “Oh yeah, that is kind of what my work life felt like this week.” You have a project and you have got to just make adjustments as you go to correct things, and then suddenly you end up somewhere completely different. I feel like this is just a universal fact of life. 


It is very much just the human condition. 


You mean the people in history are people? That’s crazy. 


Yeah, you really do a great job of avoiding the great man of history thing. And you also do a great job of avoiding seeing people as these masses that just move with these—I guess it would be kind of a Marxist perspective—very specific interests, and then this group of people does this thing because they have these interests. That’s something that you’ve really done a good job of avoiding, and I really appreciate that.  


Well I appreciate that. That’s something that popped up with The History of Rome when I got started. When you’re dealing with the Roman Empire, and you’re dealing with the sources from the Roman Empire, I’m constantly talking about history about kings, emperors, and popes. That sort of vein. And I’m talking about Aurelian did this, and Aurelian did that, and Diocletian did this, and Diocletian did that, and it can appear, at times, to be great man history. 

I hoped that it did not, because I think that it’s not so much great men do great things that change the world, so much as these are human beings who are close to the levers of power, and the decisions that they make do in fact have a rather large impact on the societies within which they live. 

One of the formative books that I ever read was the March of Folly. The basic thesis of that is four case studies about how mistakes lead to history unfolding the way that it does, far more than just some brilliant work of a genius.  I mean, even a lot of Napoleon’s career is built around mistakes and luck far more than him having some genius plan and pulling it off. So, I do believe that there is human agency inside of the unfolding of history. I do like what Marx said: that history is made by men, but they do not decide—I botched the quote—but they do not decide the circumstances within which they make their history. I think when you come into the world, all of human history has happened before you, so you can’t just go off and do whatever you want. But I do believe that human agency does play a role in history. 


I think we wanted to ask you about some broader lessons or commonalities that you’ve drawn out between revolutions. I think that one of the ones in particular that I wanted to ask about is: it seemed like, at least in the earlier seasons, sovereign debt was a large driver of a lot of this stuff–  


Sparky is a debt guy. 


I mean, I’m a personal debt guy, not a sovereign debt guy. 


But you’re a guy who cares about debt. 


I do care about debt, that is true. I guess I wanted to get your view on that. And also, it plays interestingly into this modern monetary theory debate that are going on right—which, of course, is about what it means for the United States to have debt as a sovereign, which is of course a very different situation from what it meant for the king of France to have debt as sovereign. But I wondered, have you thought about that at all?  How does this connect? 


My answer to that is: having done Revolutions, it makes me want to go back and get a master’s degree in finance with a particular interest in the history of banking. I am truly not 100 percent qualified to answer some of these questions. But what I do know is that it has far less to do with out-and-out debt or the size of the debt or what kind of deficits you are running, as it does with confidence in the regime. There’s a very famous thing where the debt load that Louis XIV left upon his death was greater than the debt load that was facing Louis XVI in 1786, when they said, “Sir, the monarchy is broke. We cannot get any more money.” And the reason they could not get any more money is because the bankers in Paris would not lend them any more money. 

The regime, back in the early 1700s, was able to continue to draw loans and pay its debt and get back on its feet, in a way that Louis XV couldn’t—even though, in objective nominal terms, it was a lower debt load than Louis XIV had left. And so it comes down to both: how confident people are in the regime’s future ability to pay back these debts, and then also, is there a clique of bankers who think that they can use this to their advantage? What was going on with Louis XVI—and also what was going on, for example, with Charles I in England when he went off and started the Bishops’ War—is that the guys who had the money realized that they could use this to leverage the monarchy to their own personal, political advantage. 

So, I think a lot of the debt crisis, as such in 1786 and 1787, was not just some act of God or some objective fact of finance or economics so much as a group of people, possibly surrounding the Duc d’Orléans and Jacques Necker, who said to themselves, “Hey, we’ve actually got ourselves a way to maybe leverage the Bourbons out of power and bring in the Orléans. And if we can get the Duc d’Orléans in on the throne, then he’s going to want to bring in a British-style constitutional monarchy, which is going to elevate landowning and banking class into some kind of parliament where now we’re going to be able to call the shots.” And the Duc d’Orléans is happy with that because he just wants to go watch racing and gamble.

So, I do think that there is a connection between debt and the finances of an empire or a kingdom or a republic. But there are political aspects to it, and political motivations to how that objective financial situation then leads to a revolution. Because there are plenty of times where these same sorts of problems pertain, but there’s nobody out there who is looking for it to be something that they can play to their political advantage. 


That sounds like a very MMT type answer to me, which is that sovereign debt is basically a question of power and confidence. But somebody who knows more can correct me on Twitter, I’m sure.


What I will say to these people—especially when it comes to current events and modern financing of modern states—that is well, not just above my paygrade, but somewhere on another planet. It’s not an issue of where I am in the org chart, it’s a completely different set of people. But I can analyze it from a historical, political perspective, and everything I said I do believe in. So, if that puts me on some side of some debate that I don’t know anything about, hi friends and hi new enemies that I’ve just made, I guess. Apparently, I’ve just made a lot of friends and enemies at the same time trying to answer why it is that Louis XVI went down when he did.  


We will see.


And Charles I, and soon to be Nicholas. And you know, you get into 1848, and it’s exactly the same scene. After the “hungry ‘40s,” there were a variety of debt crises in all of these little German kingdoms. It happened in Prussia, it happened in France, it happened down in Italy. What the banking class is saying to the sovereigns is, “If you don’t call the parliament, we’re not going to give you any more money.”

Why do you want parliament involved? Partly you want a parliament involved because they tax themselves at a higher rate than just the despotic regime often does. When the British started taxing themselves in the latter 1600s, suddenly their tax tripled after they came out of the Stuart dynasty. So, the resources that they were going to be able to marshal with the parliament in place was far greater than just with some rickety autocrat, which is another observation I can make and has probably just made me enemies and friends simultaneously. 


You have to look out for those guys. It’s interesting to talk about debt because we just had, in 2008, a large, sudden debt crisis. And it’s looming, it could happen again at any time. Even predicting the Silicon Valley bubble is going to burst at any point, and then it could be this huge problem. 

So, that’s the question. Have things changed so much since the Russian Revolution? I mean, we still have a lot of the same trends. That’s something that I really notice when I’m listening to these various revolutions—some issues are passe now, but a lot of things are really familiar.

There’s a silly debate going on right now about whether the professional managerial class has revolutionary class consciousness. Like, not even joking, that is a real debate that leftists are having. And so, what I’m trying to figure out, is time a flat circle? Are there going to be more revolutions? Or have larger social structures changed too much to really have them anymore? Or will we just have revolutions in a different style? 


Wait, are you asking if it’s the end of history, Lyta?


Yeah, I’m asking if we’re going to see these patterns of the revolutions that Mike has talked so much about, or are they going to just be different?


No, I think that is a fair question. My answer, of course, to “have we reached the end of history?” is no. 


I wasn’t really–


But that was not actually the question, and I do understand that. For the record, history has not ended. Probably the greatest meme that I have seen going around in the last year or two is Moe throwing Barney out of the bar. It’s Francis Fukuyama throwing history out of the bar, and then he turns around, and history is back at the bar. 

But it’s a worthwhile question: are revolutions in the future going to look like revolutions in the past?  Especially if you say that what we understand as “revolution,” the archetypical picture that you have in your head of what a revolution looks like, really gets going after what we would consider to be the Renaissance. You have the Dutch overthrowing the Spanish rule, and then you move very quickly into the English Civil Wars as a revolution. I consider those to be a revolutionary event, and I find it odd that revisionists managed to talk themselves into the English Civil Wars as not being a revolutionary event. That was a weird thing that happened in the ‘80s. 

But they now do play out in a very certain way. And that has been going on for, let’s say, 500 years. Five hundred years is not that grand a chunk of human history. It’s a chunk, but not an enormous amount. And if you talk to geologists or you talk to physicists, it’s like no time at all, it’s a little sliver of a fingernail. I do believe that there will continue to be revolutionary upheavals for the foreseeable future, for the next couple hundred years. I don’t think that things have changed so much that we will not continue to get the same kind of recurrent challenges from below to various existing regimes. 

I think that we’re watching it happen right now. I mean, you just flip on… well, do not flip on the TV, I don’t know why I told anybody to turn on the TV to try to get news. You guys don’t work in TV, right? 


Oh god, no.


Okay. Alright. So we’re not offended. Do not turn on the TV to get news, guys. Stick to Facebook. 


A reliable source.


Oh man, we’re doomed. No, the point being is that in Hong Kong, in Chile—I’m here in Paris, and we have the gilets jaunes thing that just came through—there are mass protests, there are people staging revolutionary challenges, there are disaffected elites who would like to see various regimes overthrown and are happy to finance and underwrite various challenges to various regimes. I think, unfortunately, what is actually driving a lot of this is not “liberty and justice for all” kinds of movements. 

What we are seeing right now is the return of ethnonationalist populism. It’s one of the major drivers if you’re talking about groups of individuals who are ready to steamroll over what we would consider to be the legitimate state apparatus of any given state—the people who are looking to just throw it all overboard to install their own vision of what a state ought to look like. A lot of that is being driven from the populist right rather than the working class left. Especially in the United States of America, which is why I would be skeptical to the point of being pessimistic about any kind of left-wing revolution ever succeeding in the U.S. I do not think that the country is primed for it in any way. It is far more primed for authoritarian fascism than it is for left-wing communism.


Great. Our listeners are going to love that. 


I’m Mr. Happy Fun Guy over here. But there are some people who will say that because of technology, the state now has weapons and technological abilities at their disposal that would make what we use to think of as a revolution impossible. I don’t think that is the case. 

Most of the time, when you’re talking about if a revolution from below succeeds or doesn’t succeed, it has very little to do with whether or not the sovereign can bring full force to bear. Like Charles X or Louis Philippe I or Napoleon III could have rolled out cannon after cannon, after cannon of grapeshot. Right? They could’ve just blasted these people into submission. They did with the commune. 

But the difference here isn’t “do you have the technological ability to murder tons and tons of people in order to suppress a revolution,” but do you have the will to do it? Many, many people do not. I mean, this is Auschwitz stuff, this is On War stuff. The object is not to necessarily just destroy your enemy’s forces, it’s to destroy the will of your enemy to mobilize those forces. 

Because you can blow up every single tank, and every single plane, and take out every single gun, but if you’ve left your enemy with the will to keep fighting, they’ll figure out a way to pick up sticks and rocks and rebuild themselves and come back at you. 


Ah, see American foreign policy. 


Yes. So, it’s not so much about removing your opponent’s ability—and this is true in war and in revolution—it’s not so much about the sovereign that is going to be overthrown or not overthrown, it’s not about whether or not they can marshal forces to napalm an entire city, it’s whether or not they are going to do it.


Another aspect of this is the period of time in which these events are happening is relatively short in terms of human history. There are these particular dynamics. But there’s also the case that these revolutions take a long time. Right? There is something that you really need in terms of historical perspective. If you were to try to do a season on the French Revolution in the 1860s, it wouldn’t have worked. The Paris Commune really seems like a continuation of the French Revolution in a way that we just don’t know what is going to happen yet. Plus, you just have to talk about the CIA a lot for anything after Russia. 


Right. That’s true, speaking of history being driven by mistakes rather than out-and-out genius. One of the things getting back to what I think my purpose here is, what my role is as a popularizer of history, is if you take the French Revolution, people say, “Oh, yeah. I know the French Revolution. The monarchy went broke, so they called the Estates General, then the Bastille came down. Then they chopped the king’s head off, and then Napoleon. And that took some amount of time. Maybe a couple of years to get from one end of that to the other.”  

I mean, there are probably people out there that don’t even realize that Louis XVI was not beheaded at the end of 1789. You just think that it all must have taken place, as you said, in some very short amount of time. That a revolution is a very discrete, quick, violent event. When, in point of fact, the French Revolution was something that went on for 10 or 15 years, depending on where you want to mark the beginning and the end. And if you’re sitting around in 1790 and 1791 (let’s say you are, for example, Marquis de Lafayette—you can look for my book Hero of Two Worlds coming out in August 2021) there was every single reason to think that in 1790 and 1791 that the French Revolution, as such, was six months in the past. It was eight months in the past, nine months in the past, now a year ago. 

As it turns out, they were practically still in the beginning of the revolution, far from it being in the rearview mirror. So, to your point, I think when we look around at what is happening these days, it is impossible to ever plant your flag on something and say, “Oh, well that was the end of that,” or “This is the beginning of that.” I think that we, in our own times—I speak even as a historian who has some experience with looking for places to plant flags and divide—say, “Oh, this is when it started, and this is when it ended, and this epoch divides from this epoch.” Even in the modern world, we have no ability to figure that stuff out. 

I remember when Barack Obama was elected president, that was basically the end of racial divisiveness in the United States, and we were now launching a new ship of a multiracial democracy that was going to sail into the sunny waters. That is it, we’re in post-racial America. We did it! We came out of World War II, we had the Civil Rights Movement, and this is the end of all of that. And it turns out that that was not the end of anything. It just restarted something that has been an ongoing conflict in American history since the very beginning.


Not again to be accused of saying the “end of history,” but it does seem like one of the big differences now is this factor of climate change, and that that does seem to put a time limit on everything. How do you think that it’s going to affect revolutionary movements? 


So, when I talk about this stuff, I often talk about what future historians are going to say about such and such an event. This is like a game that I like to play. It’s a fun experiment more than anything else. And I, just in conversations with my wife and with friends, you always have to talk about, “OK, are we talking about climate change division or non-climate change division?”

Because you can talk about non-climate change division history unfolding as it does. But yes, it is becoming increasingly pointless, really, to talk about what the next 50 to 100 years are going to look like unless you are talking about climate change. And I am somebody who believes that climate change is real. I would like to say for the record that I think it is happening, and that I think that humans did it. I know that I am really going out on a limb here. I have made some more enemies here today.


Yeah, all of our extremely right-wing climate change-denying Current Affairs listeners. The ones who love to listen to the libertarian socialists. 


So, I think it’s happening, I think it’s going on. I have two kids, they’re seven and four. I’m not thrilled with the world that they are about to have to live through. I think that what we are going to see is much closer to Rome’s “Crisis of the Third Century” period, which was a huge moment of state breakdown.

I do actually think there was a climate shift aspect to what happened in the third century. I do have some suspicion, though I have not actually investigated this fully, that there was some kind of climate shift event that happened around 200 A.D. Because the Han Chinese, the Parthian Empire—which was running Persia at the time, which gave way then to the Sassanid Empire—and the Roman Empire, as it had existed before the Crisis of the Third Century, all dealt with very similar state collapses, and much of it was brought on by shifting of people. The shifts happened because, “We used to be able to grow wheat here, and we can’t grow wheat here anymore.” There are diseases that start getting introduced into this. 

I think that one of the other great fears, which is entirely legitimate on top of climate change, is that we’ve been pumping ourselves full of antibiotics for the last 50 years. We already know that there are drug-resistant super viruses out there and bacteria out there that can race through the population. We’re basically talking about The Stand. So, those things can and do happen in human history. Looking forward, I am not entirely optimistic about what this is going to mean for us. 

I think that there are two ways that we can approach this as human beings. One of them you can already see manifesting itself, and it is this right-wing xenophobic populist nationalism that is going to try to say, “Nobody can come here. Wherever we are, we are going to be a people.” This is happening in France, this is happening everywhere. “We have to lock it down. We have to build walls. We have to keep people out. We have to say, ‘No, we are going to protect this historical culture that we have. Whatever our identity is, our imagined national identity, we have to protect it at all costs.’” And if everybody goes rigid, then I think that that is going to lead to a lot of conflict and violence. I think that is a very natural progression. 

The other thing that we could do is if we loosened up a little bit and said, “Ok, things are going to change. Things are going to move around. People are going to have to live in different areas.” We can accuse the people who are mass migrating out of Florida. We can call them the new Okies, right? The people from Florida are going to be in settlement zones in 50 years. We know this. Do we accept them and reconstitute our societies to build something and keep building something to protect people from climate change and disease? Or do we try to go rigid and maintain what we have, and build the equivalent of sea walls around everything?  

I would hope that we would lighten up a little bit, but again, I’m not very optimistic about it. Especially when you can already see how much panic is sparked by just little, teeny changes—they’re talking about refugees from Honduras and Central America being like the Goths. They are not the Goths. 


Different outfits. They don’t wear black. 


They don’t even speak the same language. So how can they be the Goths? But truly, when you look at how much people from a different area can be demonized so easily for the smallest things, that when this shit actually gets real, I think that is only going to blow up even further. But I do think that there is an alternative. I do think there is an alternative strategy for dealing with all of this that will maybe see us come through it.  


Is there a historical precedent for that alternative?


The Roman Empire survived the Crisis of the Third Century.


Oh, yeah. Okay.


Maybe I’ll write a book about it called The Restoration of the World: Rome and the Crisis of the Third Century. Look for it in like 2024. Not that I don’t have the next 15 years planned out. I have got to get everything out of me before the flood waters come open and swamp us, and we get picked up by the monks of Leibowitz. 


That is a great book, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Sparky, is this our most terrifying episode ever?  It’s pretty close.


It’s pretty close. In terms of conflict, I would say our immigration episodes with Brianna are probably our most depressing. We’re not even getting close to that.  


Yeah. But just in terms of terror…


I’m curious to ask our podcast host, Pete Davis, whether he thinks Mike Duncan is a prophet, a mystic, or a sage. But I think, in any case, this is bad news.


Prophet, a mystic, or a sage? Or a bullshit artist who is really just looking to sell you razors, and I’m just a hoax? I don’t know any of this stuff, I’m just in it for the razor blade money. 


This is the downfall of the prophet, mystic, and the sage theory, is that it does not deal well with people who are just full of shit. 


The thing I do get accused of, though, sometimes on Twitter, is that people think that I doomsay because either I enjoy it on a psychological level, or I think it plays well to an audience. People have accused me of being a doomsayer. I’m not, for the record. But they’re like, “This is the greatest time in human history to be alive.”  

And there’s a lot of truth to that, but that doesn’t mean things are just going to… Pollyanna is the one who doesn’t think anything is going to go wrong, right? 






Also, Steven Pinker.


Yeah, you get Pinkered.


Yes. I do think that there are some Pollyanna-ish tendencies out there, especially among the tech bro elite who think that this is just going to keep being great forever. But those guys, those guys think that they are going to interface with Fibernetics and upload their consciousness to a cloud and beam themselves to Mars so they don’t actually have to worry about any of this stuff. Although, they have got compounds in New Zealand. 


And extremely stupid looking trucks to drive to them. 




Do you see much reason for hope? I mean, you said that there’s an alternative. Do you think it’s remotely likely that we’ll move more toward an open borders, more accepting society? What do you think would cause that? 


So, I do have some hope, okay. Because I think kids are all right. This is a thing that I do actually believe. There’s a generation who has, let us say, been in power for a significant period of our lives who should probably be relinquishing power by now. I won’t name this specific group or this generation, you may have heard of them. We will leave them nameless, for the moment. But these are my parents, and I love them dearly. I’m a , whatever, an elder millennial of the Oregon Trail generation.


Oh, I love the Oregon Trail. That’s a great term. 


So, what’s my hope? My hope is that society won’t be so rigidly admitted to protecting a deadend path against what’s going to be inevitable for us to do in the next century or so. You do mass surveys with the kids who are 14, 15, 16 years old and they’re baffled about homophobia, about racism, about trans issues, about immigration issues. They’re baffled by all of this stuff. They just can’t quite wrap their heads around why it’s so important. 

And if you look at the United States, I do think that there is a growing acceptance of pluralistic democracy being a good thing that people approve of. I think you can actually look at any of the polls today and find quite a bit more support out there in the general population for these sorts of open-minded, welcoming, and accepting policies. The rigid, postural, conflict-driven policies of the Republican Party currently represents a shrinking minority of political opinion. And that’s part of their entire political strategy, when it comes to voter suppression, when it comes to how they want to manipulate the Senate. They need to manipulate the greater power that rural whites have inside of the American electorate, compared to other groups of people who live in cities or the suburbs.

The Republican Party knows for itself  that it’s representing a shrinking demographic. So, there’s some hope that if something resembling a democratic backlash—a small “d” democratic backlash—can happen and finally swamp the ship and send the modern Republican Party to the bottom of the fucking sea, then maybe we can have something that is good in the future. 

However, they’ve been quite successful at holding onto the levers of power at all costs and forcing through policies that are not actually that popular—that are in fact quite unpopular and are not representative of what the citizens of the United States of America actually want. So, I think that there is some hope in the demographics. I think there is some hope in the population. I think there is some hope among the younger generation. And I would be thrilled, just thrilled, to look back at all of this and be like, “God, you were really depressed, weren’t you?”  

I would prefer my doomsaying could come for naught.


Well, that’s the funny thing about being in the middle of a historical event–you have no idea how it’s going to turn out.


But I very clearly just laid out something that I would like to happen. Just got to be cagey about my politics. I do think the modern Republican Party should be sunk to the bottom of the ocean. 


You’re not going to say abolish the Senate, but we’ll say abolish the Senate. 


Yeah. I mean it’s really difficult to justify the Senate. If you’re into, again, small “d” democracy, or you’re a small “d” democratic individual, which I consider myself to be, the degree to which the Republican Party is embracing anti-democratic talking points is really, really, really, something. 

They’re saying that it’s good that the president received three million fewer votes than his opponent, and that is what the Founders wanted because they were afraid of democracy. It’s like: what you’re saying right now is that we’re still going to have an election, but the person who gets fewer votes wins, and that’s good?  

I just do not get the argument except that they want their Supreme Court seats, so they’ll say anything. And you know, we want our Supreme Court seats too, but—  


Because we want to save people from the estates. But they, of course, would make the same argument, I’m sure. 


And that brings us back to what’s going to be depressing about the future. Even if you have that democratic—again, small “d” democratic—swamping of the current Republican Party, and you have the Democrats take the presidency and the House and the Senate and start turning bills into laws and start doing all of these things to address the major issues of our time, they’re going to wind up on the doorstep of the Supreme Court or the federal judiciary that has been packed for a generation with right-wing judges out of Federalist Society. They’re just going to strike it all down as unconstitutional, and then where are we going to be?  


Pack the court with more justices. it might be the only solution, which we have written an article about in Current Affairs




Several, even. 


Yeah, that’s true. 


I’m on the 64 justices kick right now.


Why 64? 


I think if we’re going to have a Supreme Court, it’s just a nice number. 


But shouldn’t it be an odd number?


It’s the number of squares on a chessboard.


Yeah. It’s also a perfect square, kind of, yeah.


But shouldn’t it be an odd number for tie breakers?


No, no. They’re not all going to decide everything. 


Right. It’s like what they do in the Ninth Circuit.


OK, you rotate people in.


Yeah, you have seven people working on this, and then five people over here, and 13 over here. But then inevitably there’s going to be nine wise old ones who have the final, final, final say.




The final boss. 


Yeah, the final boss. 


Alright, it sounds reasonable. We’ll just do that. We’ll be fine. 


That’ll solve everything.


God, I feel terrible. 


We’re supposed to be the hopeful leftist podcast. What are we doing here, Lyta? 


It’s clearly me, come on. I always find myself in this situation, because people want to talk to me about history, and you just see people go ashen faced by the time I’m done talking to them.


I think it’s important, even though we’re the hopeful leftist podcast, to be realistic about the challenges that we face. And I don’t think that we gain anything from hiding from that.


I haven’t ever written this up, but I do have something resembling a manifesto for a new society in my head, that I think would be really important. I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands after Revolutions, and at some point I don’t know exactly what I am going to do with myself. 

But this idea that we can just hunker down behind walls and hope for the best is, I think, at best, so horrifyingly bad. We have to abandon that mentality entirely. We have got to be water. We can’t be rock. 

See, obviously I haven’t even written it. I don’t even have my metaphors worked out right. 


Certainly interested to read it when it’s done. 


Be Water: A Case for Open Borders


Let’s Blow Up the Camp of the Saints, by Mike Duncan. Something like that.


Again, extremely interested in reading that. 


Can we get the interview for this on the books now?


There’s a guy who hands out Camp of the Saints as something that people ought to read. And this guy is making immigration policy in the United States of America. 




Offensive does not even begin to capture it. 


Yeah, Stephen Miller has to—I’m not going to make a guillotine joke, because it’s not appropriate—but he has got to go. 


He should never have a moment’s peace in public ever again, I think.


I agree. 


I think that’s the minimum. 


That’s a nice prescriptive statement. Of course, if American history has taught us anything, we’re going to be dealing with him for the next 30 to 40 years, continually recycling into circles and everybody acting as if he’s fun and has never done anything wrong. 


Yeah, what will be really fun is in like 20 years, when everything has gotten much, much, much worse, and then even Stephen Miller is like, “Wait, I don’t like this.” And then we are going to be like, “Oh, Stephen Miller is good now.” 


Right. #Resistance hero. 


People like us will be sitting there like, “Why is Stephen Miller good now?” He is not good now. Because we all watched this happen, with the previous administration. G. Gordon Liddy is Oliver North just being rehabilitated as a fine statesman.


George W. Bush. Somehow it’s all forgotten. 


Everybody is going to make the statements about Trump that the Democrats now make about Reagan. Like, “Oh, even Reagan said this.” 


Well, that’s depressing.


Well, a little off topic, and a little depressing, and also out of time, I think.


We really appreciate you joining us, though, and going to these dark places with us.


Yeah. Was I successfully cagey about my political opinions? I do not think I was. 


As you said, the Twitter speculation is like, is Mike Duncan a liberal or a leftist?  And I think you’ve maintained your veil on that. 


Oh, thank you. 


But we really know, don’t we?  Anyway, thank you so much for joining us. 


Thanks for having me.

Barack Obama: International Problem Solver

All Barack Obama wanted to do was relax in his $12 million mansion on Martha’s Vineyard, writing more memoirs and pitching the occasional Netflix series with his family. It’s the simple things in life, after all. But when he caught wind that people around the world were—gasp!—beginning to question the neoliberal consensus he’s spent his entire career defending, he knew there was no time to waste…

Catch more exciting, gorgeously illustrated adventures when you subscribe to the Current Affairs print magazine! A full year’s subscription costs a mere 0.04 percent of the Biden administration’s COVID stimulus check you haven’t received yet (and likely never will)!

Art by Mike Freiheit

Nationalize the Movies

For lovers of cinema, casual or besotted, the pressures of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have brought long-simmering anxieties to a boil. While the major studios, with their massive catalogs, mega-franchises, and ever-proliferating streaming platforms will likely come through the crisis intact, the smaller players—independent artists, producers, programmers, exhibitors —are facing much longer odds. With the discussion of government bailouts once again attracting heated discussion, it might be worthwhile to look at an obvious (if often overlooked) resource for the art and business of making movies: the deep pockets of the U.S. government. 

Although there are countless examples across the globe, and even some local precedent, the idea that we might directly and publicly subsidize movie production in this country gets little attention. Take an example from a couple years ago: in late 2019 the New York Times published an op-ed by Martin Scorsese, who was on a publicity tour for his latest opus, the three-and-a-half-hour crime epic The Irishman. He was seeking to clarify statements he’d made a few days earlier during an interview with Empire magazine, where he’d opined that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema,” and that he thinks of them more like “theme parks.” These remarks were brief and measured, so it was probably somewhat to Scorsese’s surprise when they incited a furor on the internet. Offended fans rushed in to defend the honor of their beloved Marvel Entertainment, itself merely one tentacle of the multi-billion dollar kraken that is The Walt Disney Company. 

The controversy escalated quickly, as often occurs online, swiftly reaching the height of disingenuous (or merely ignorant) woke-ness: Marvel movies, some claimed, were superior in their diversity, with special mention given to Black Panther, against which Scorsese’s back catalog of white male antihero films literally paled in comparison. Never mind that the charges were bogus—besides having directed Kundun (a biopic of the 14th Dalai Lama written by Melissa Mathison) and The Age of Innocence (an Oscar-winning adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel), Scorsese has also founded two organizations—The Film Foundation and the World Cinema Project—that preserve and promote independent and international cinema. He has also been a producer on films like Clockers and Shirley that were directed by people who aren’t white or male. Nevertheless, Scorsese had poked a sleeping dragon, and was now enduring the sulfurous rage of the fans.

In his op-ed, Scorsese stood his ground and elaborated his views. His general point was that cinema, at its best, is an art form, and while art has always had a vexed relationship with commerce—perhaps nowhere more so than in Hollywood—cinema has shown remarkable resilience as a mode of creative expression. Scorsese’s own brief list of recent examples included the work of Spike Lee (whose Chi-Raq, a ribald and hilarious musical adaptation of Aristophane’s Lysistrata, was a recent triumph), Claire Denis (a longtime critical darling, she had recently made her biggest international feature with High Life, starring Robert Pattison), and Wes Anderson (probably the most original stylist in American cinema of the last 30 years). But the future was looking bleak: more and more of the business, and with it the creativity, was being dominated by a few mega-conglomerates whose imperatives were about as far from aesthetic excellence as strip-mining is from backyard gardening. 

The gold standard of franchise world-building is the Marvel universe (known by fans and flacks alike as the MCU), in which a vast tapestry of copyrighted commodities are spread across multiple platforms over several years, the “phases” of which have seem to have the scope and grandiosity previously reserved for the 5-year plans of Stalin’s USSR. It’s unsurprising that Scorcese was unimpressed by the spectacle. In his view, movies should delight but also challenge; at best, they could be revelatory. Nobody familiar with the director’s body of work could fail to notice the spiritual overtones of his argument, which were of a piece with the harrowing trials of the human soul depicted in his films. However technically accomplished the Marvel (and other mega-franchises) movies were, they were mostly devoid of spiritual content. They didn’t reveal but obscured, concealing the human in a maelstrom of digitally-rendered chaos.

All of this isn’t to say that the franchise extravaganzas are entirely without merit, as Scorsese himself was quick to note, praising those who make them as having “considerable talent and artistry.” But the cinephile with eclectic taste finds herself in a bind: the inexorable consolidation of media entities renders one’s options increasingly zero-sum. Market logic runs roughshod over other considerations, even what it claims to be preserving—i.e. choice—by following the ruthless dictates of winner-take-all competition. A war of all against all rages, and it is unmistakable which side is winning. The percentage of domestic ticket sales earned by Disney movies alone was 40 percent in 2019 (that’s $3.09 billion in sales), as well as 80 percent of the top-grossing films’ receipts, an astonishing figure in an industry once rocked by an historic antitrust case that decisively severed production from exhibition. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the studios, who also owned many of the theaters in which their movies were shown, were guilty of anticompetitive behavior. That decision may soon be at least partially reversed, as studios increasingly court subscribers for their exclusive streaming platforms.  

To those who care about the overall health of our cinematic ecosystem, as measured by diversity, volume, and the fostering of artistic risk-taking, Scorsese’s words were gratifying, even galvanizing. But towards the end of the piece, he included an odd caveat: “I’m certainly not implying that movies should be a subsidized art form, or that they ever were.” 

Factually and ideologically, given what had preceded it, this was a disappointing turn. For one thing, movies are indeed subsidized, most obviously and commonly in the form of tax credits. Domestically, the past couple of decades have seen frenzied expansion among states and cities offering sizable tax breaks to film and TV productions. Where domestic production was once largely divided between California and New York (which set aside $330 million and $420 million per year, respectively), it is now common for productions to shoot in any number of cities. Atlanta, Portland, Austin, New Orleans—to name only a few— have all seen surges in production activity, thanks to the willingness of local governments to essentially subsidize significant chunks of the projects’ budgets. The same is true internationally. Overseas production has been a rising trend for years, with American studios increasingly taking advantage of tax breaks and other perks offered by eager (some might say desperate) countries in Eastern Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. Foreign or domestic, the argument for this outsourcing is pure neoliberal ideology: increased “investment” in new markets will supposedly grow local economies, with added value to the American consumer. And, of course, there’s the modest fringe benefit of bigger profits for the parent corporation.

The problem is that this is all a fairly obvious scam. Deep-pocketed studios are relying on the pliancy of states, who, under the long shadow of austerity, are forced to engage in a frantic Hobbesian struggle over what amounts to a pittance of public benefit, if any. Most of these subsidies are in fact little more than bribes to the studios and producers. State officials can claim some positive PR about jobs and growth, and the saccharine prestige of show business helps the medicine go down the gullets of the public. Maryland is a recent case in point. In 2014, a study conducted by the state found that out of every dollar spent on tax credits for film production (97 percent of which went to two big-budget shows, HBO’s Veep and Netflix’s House of Cards), only 10 cents was recovered. So much for growth—when the state’s legislators pushed back against the obvious lopsidedness of the arrangement, Veep decamped for sunny California. As a 2019 story in the New York Post observed, because of the blight of balanced budget amendments in most states, money spent on tax incentives for movies is money that can’t be spent on other (likely more sustainable) public goods. In an interstate and international race to the bottom, the owners of capital make money hand over fist, while wages remain stagnant or falling, and insecurity worsens. But at least the next entry in the Star Wars canon is right around the corner, provided one has the disposable income to buy a ticket.

Beyond the tax credit schemes exist additional layers of state subsidy. From copyright protections (effectively, government-granted and -enforced private monopolies), to trade agreements that favor U.S.-produced movies in foreign markets, the entertainment industry benefits enormously from the firm, sheltering hand of the state. Internationally, American movies and TV shows are more than lucrative export commodities. The formulation of U.S. “soft power,” as conceived by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, noted that U.S. culture “from Hollywood to Harvard has a greater global reach than any other.” And then there’s the activity of the Department of Defense and the CIA, who have been shown to exercise considerable influence over the content of Hollywood movies having to do with the military or intelligence services. This includes script “consulting” (often, official vetting of the script, as occurred in 2003’s Hulk), use of equipment and expertise, and access to shooting locations. While rarely an area of direct state funding (which would likely entail negative PR for the film and the government) this nonetheless constitutes a significant degree of indirect subsidy to films, many of which operate quite effectively as vehicles of pro-state force propaganda. Top Gun and Independence Day are notorious for their cartoonish jingoism, but the more recent, self-serious example of Zero Dark Thirty, with its apologia for U.S. torture and imperialism, may be more insidious. After the film had its Oscar-nominated moment in the sun, a VICE article exposed the extent of the filmmakers’ collaboration with the CIA in the crafting of the film.

The problem, then, is not an absence of subsidy, but one of scale and discretion. Which projects are getting protected and promoted, and which films (and film artists) are getting left in the cold? It’s true that small, so-called independent films (the designation, always imprecise, has become increasingly meaningless in the era of private high finance, where a billionaire can fund a vanity project and call it “independent”) do benefit from tax credits and copyright law.  Indie stalwart Todd Haynes’ recent films, including Carol and Dark Waters, both benefited from Ohio state tax credits, as did the Oscar-winning American Factory.  

But these are crumbs compared to the massive sums reaped by the major studios, who also increasingly crowd the distribution slate, ensuring that the chances of a genuinely independent crossover hit are slim. By way of example: American Factory received $119,500 in tax credits, while the upcoming Netflix feature Gray Man, starring Ryan Gosling, will receive $20 million. This comparison isn’t meant to obscure the commensurate differences in these (very different) films’ budgets, but to highlight the amount of public money that’s flowing through this system.  Netflix, which until very recently has relied upon massive private debt financing to grow its library, is gaining an immediate windfall from Gray Man’s state subsidy. Meanwhile, the producers and makers of American Factory (which was picked up at Sundance by Netflix after early awards buzz) had to scramble mid-production for financial assistance when their project’s scope grew beyond its original conception.  

A just response to this state of affairs would be, at minimum, a reordering of priorities towards smaller, more artistically and socially diverse films. This could be done through a modification of current tax codes that favor lower-budget films for a greater piece of the subsidy pie (in California, it stands now at 5 percent) or it could be accomplished by the creation of funds to directly grant money to filmmakers and filmmaking collectives. Local tax break initiatives could favor local artists making local films, instead of luring a predominantly LA and NYC-based workforce to sojourn in the hinterlands, only to pull up stakes when filming wrapped. Other, more creative solutions exist, such as the Artistic Freedom Voucher, an idea from economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. In brief, Baker imagines a democratic approach to arts funding in the form of refundable tax credits—say, $100 yearly— that people could use to support artists or arts organizations of their preference. The recipients of this money would be ineligible for copyright protection for a period of time after accepting it, creating a class of makers, crafters, and artists whose careers would benefit from free digital proliferation while making a sustainable living.

A more straightforward model of state subsidy, or what remains of it, can be seen in the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Initiated as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, it embodies the principle, however modestly, that a society’s investment in its members’ creativity is a worthwhile endeavor. Although its budget has increased slightly in the past several years, funding for the NEA still lags behind the 1980-90s levels of $160 to $180 million. For a quick comparison, in 2015, the NEA received just over $146 million, or .04 percent of the federal budget. Over in the U.K., the Arts Council of England (ACE), spent just over £449 million, and the French Ministry of Culture spent €3 billion. In case you were wondering, our economy is nearly four times larger than the U.K.’s and France’s combined.  

The current meagerness of our public arts funding has a complex history, but the basic principle of government sponsorship is hardly unknown. The NEA’s founding clearly recalled earlier eras of federal support, the most notable being the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under FDR, which included the Federal Art Project. As a central plank of FDR’s New Deal, the lives and work of thousands of artists were essentially underwritten by the state. It’s no exaggeration to say that this subsidy contributed greatly to the flourishing of modern art in America, effectively jump-starting the careers of Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and many others. There’s no reason why this same model couldn’t be applied to filmmaking, providing at the very least a robust alternative to the major studios and private financiers.

And then there’s the international scene, where—not to pick on Marty, but he is surely aware —the explicit state subsidy of cinema is ubiquitous. Whether in France, where the famous “French exception” protects and support French film artists and the industry as a whole, or in virtually every other European country (not to mention Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, etc.) there exists some combination of direct and indirect subsidy, often focused on supporting young and emerging filmmakers, and frequently specializing in projects that for one reason or another might lack immediate box office appeal. This focus on the uncommercial is crucial, if infrequently articulated. It takes for granted that the market alone is an insufficient arbiter of value. Popularity and quality intersect only occasionally, and artistic value is an elusive, contentious, and complex designation. Appeals to the Tomatometer and the box office returns only give us a snapshot of a particular work, a sliver of information that must be considered against a much wider spectrum of opinion and assessment, both personal and collective.

This is an essential truth about art and commerce, and one that can offer a proactive response to Scorsese’s lament. Movies have long been, and ought to be, subsidized. That hasn’t changed in decades, and shouldn’t now. What is in contention is what to subsidize, and how to go about it. How do we, as a society, value creative work (in this case, cinema, although the question generalizes to any creative endeavor), and how can that value be put into practice? There are few who would defend the current trends—even the most ravenous Marvel fans are, at least in principle, not in favor of the extermination of all other kinds of filmmaking. However trenchant Scorsese’s complaint, it remained precisely that: it was decidedly not a call to action. But we aren’t powerless over the media giants and their multinational masters. At the most basic level, we can choose what to watch, and how to watch it. That’s the role of the consumer, though it doesn’t go very far. 

On a societal level we need to be more energetic and creative, as well as more militant, in finding other models of financing and distribution. Acting alone as individuals, we are essentially relegated to a strategy of petitioning rich people to invest in our creative dreams. Acting collectively, with a clear awareness of our social and artistic priorities we can realize new possibilities. We can make more movies, and better ones, that reflect our own complicated humanity. Such a fusion of the practical and the esoteric sides of creativity ought to be embraced, by everyone from eminences like Scorsese to aspiring artists who lack rich parents or industry connections.

Satanic Panics and the Death of Mythos

A while back, I read a book called Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds by one Joseph P. Laycock. The book covers, in extensive detail, the creation and rise in popularity of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games in the 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent backlash against them led by the religious right in America, who viewed the players of such games as participants in Satanism. I’m actually not a fan of tabletop games—I have the nerdy disposition for it, but not the patience—but I will read anything about the Satanic Panic that’s put in front of me, and I enjoyed the book a lot. More importantly, there was one line in the book that stuck with me; not even a pivotal line, for that matter, more of an aside than anything, but an observation that I have thought about countless times ever since.

The book quotes Karen Armstrong, a writer on comparative religion, on the difference between what the Greeks called mythos and logos. Logos is, roughly speaking, knowledge gained through the world of science, reason and observation, through which we can understand the material world and the things in it, the laws of cause and effect in our environment, and how to navigate the more literal aspects of our world. We know, for example, that if we are feeling hungry, it is because of certain chemical processes in our brain and our digestive system, signalling that our bodies are in need of physical sustenance, and that if we eat, the chemical processes will stop and the hungry feeling will go away. We know that if we drop some of the food while eating, gravity will cause it to fall into our laps. On the other hand, mythos has been described by Armstrong as having to do with “the more elusive aspects of human experience”: all of that which cannot quite be explained in terms of the literal, mundane, or rational. It covers stories of supernatural events and experiences—the actions of a god or gods, if you like—which are not literally true by the standards of logos, but are meaningfully true in some other sense: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. 

So how did mythos and logos explain evangelical Christians’ hatred of spooky monster games? According to Armstrong, fundamentalist forms of religion—such as the schools of Christianity that dominated the Reagan years—collapsed these two worlds of understanding into one. One might think that mythos was the preferred realm of evangelicals, since they believe so strongly in God. But no—it’s logos that they love, and mythos they have no use for. For example, other schools of Christianity could understand Genesis as truth without it being literally true; God could have handed down to mortals a story about the Earth’s creation that imparted some kind of divine meaning, without negating everything logos told us about evolution and cosmology. But to fundamentalists, the Bible being true meant the Earth must have been made in seven days, because the Bible is the Word of God and every word of it is true, and true means materially and logically and scientifically true. The laws of our mundane world had to be the laws through which God was seen, too. Every piece of proof that the Earth was older than 6,000 years old which had been found through logos had to be “debunked” in the world of logos, or at least an imitation of it; hence the building of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, the arguments about whether or not dinosaurs were in the Garden of Eden, the attempts to explain the dimensions of Noah’s Ark and exactly how a pair of every animal on Earth managed to fit in there. (This also goes some way towards explaining the prosperity gospel, the belief that material wealth is proof of God’s favor and flows towards the righteous—after all, money is how we value things in the material world, so why not in the next world, too? What other measure of value could there be?) 

Laycock, the author of Dangerous Games, draws on Armstrong to explain why fundamentalist evangelicals were frightened and suspicious of Dungeons & Dragons, along with any other form of art that played heavily on supernatural themes and gathered an intensely invested fanbase (such as heavy metal music). Since all things magical and mythical had to be interpreted in literal terms, they could not understand why people would feel so drawn into alternative worlds and be so fascinated by talk of summoning spells and pentagrams unless they were actually talking about summoning literal demons, the actual demons with the horns and everything. This belief was bolstered by a few tragic cases of suicides by teenagers with interests in these types of artforms, a shamefully reductive understanding of what had happened to these young people. Of course, people with all kinds of interests suffer from mental health issues, and deal with difficult circumstances that drive them to take their own life. It was too complicated for many to imagine that games might have been an escape for them, or dark music a way of hearing and expressing truths they already felt. 

In fundamentalist forms of religion, the stories from the sacred texts are true, and anyone else’s form of mythos is at best nonsense that should be forbidden, and at worst an existential threat to the real truth. But anthropologists and sociologists have long pointed out that belief and action inspired by mythos are not only entirely compatible with the world of logos, but provide multiple important social functions. (Please note that while Armstrong tends to use mythos in a narrower sense, to refer more specifically to pre-modern mythologies, I will be using the term in a broader sense, to refer to all non-literal or non-rational parts of our understanding of what is true: rituals, customs, superstition, storytelling, art, and transcendent experiences.) In her seminal 1966 book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Mary Douglas describes how societies around the world have historically built their own concepts of the “clean” and “unclean” alongside myths and rituals which maintain and enforce social boundaries. They do this not necessarily out of ignorance of how things “really” work, but because these concepts fill the margins between what can be literally accounted for and therefore fully controlled. The book also explains how rituals and symbolism give meaning and order, help us mentally find a place for complex or murky concepts, give direction when we are unsure of what to do, and provide comfort after death and tragedy. Sometimes it can be as big as partaking in a ritual that feels powerful and utterly transformative; sometimes it can be as small as helping you pick out what kind of breakfast you should eat when you’re hoping for a good day.

If you are reading this thinking you’re not really a mythos kind of person—because you are not religious and have never had a supernatural experience—you are incorrect. Do you support a sports team, and do you feel ecstatic when “we” (the players you have never met or played with) win? Do you have an old shirt you should really throw out, but you refuse to do so because it feels “special” in some way? Do you feel people should treat you especially nicely on your birthday? Do you avoid stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk? Have you ever been moved by a piece of art in a way that can’t be put into words? Do you get excited when you find an unusually large potato chip? Have you ever stopped on a perfectly ordinary street, in the rain, looked at the ordinary houses or a certain whorl of tree-bark, and thought “my god, the world is here, and it really is alive”? 

Not only do we need mythos to help us find these moments of deeper meaning, we need mythos to give shape to the total mess that is our lives. If you look back on your own life, you probably mentally separate it into different phases, considering certain moments to be “turning points” or classifying some phases as happier or more miserable. Realistically, our lives tend to turn from happy to sad to neutral in periods of hours or days, not in overarching seasons, yet we tend to think of our lives in terms of constructs of different sizes: our childhood, adolescence and young adulthood; spring when we clean, New Year when we go to the gym, and fall when we drink pumpkin spice lattes (even if we live in climates where the seasons don’t actually feel clear-cut). As Douglas puts it in Purity and Danger:

There are some things we cannot experience without ritual. Events which come in regular sequences acquire a meaning from relation with others in the sequence. Without the full sequence individual elements become lost, imperceivable. For example, the days of the week, with their regular succession, names and distinctiveness: apart from their practical value in identifying the divisions of time, they each have meaning as part of a pattern. Each day has its own significance and if there are habits which establish the identity of a particular day, those regular observances have the effect of ritual.

We need these kinds of rituals and segmentations so we can understand our own life as more than just a jumble of events. People generally do not have the power to remember every single day with its events and its moods and transitory thoughts, and if we did, it might make it more difficult to tease out the greater meaning of our lives, not less. In the short story by Borges, Funes el memorioso (“Funes The Memory Man”), a man wakes up from an accident with the ability to remember everything he has ever encountered in microscopic detail. Rather than elucidate things, his ability becomes a massive hindrance to his life, because he loses all ability to see the forest for the trees. When he tries to think of “a flower,” he cannot—he can only think of every individual constituent part of every individual flower he has ever seen. It is not the near-infinite facts of our lives which grant us meaning, but the larger patterns, the ideas, the rituals, the feelings. Without wider ideas, patterns, and symbols beyond the individual items we see in front of us, we have no way to understand what is important and why; we cannot fully think, and we are lost.     

While Armstrong is by no means the only person to identify different categories of truth, and the strength of her categorization has been debated by classicists, I was struck by her ideas more than anything else in Laycock’s book. Indeed, in the years since I have been thinking about mythos and logos in relation to all sorts of shit; it has become a lens through which everything suddenly appears to me in a new light. It helps to explain the Satanic Panic, yes, but this rejection of mythos didn’t die with the 1980s. In fact, the denial of mythos is everywhere in our culture, and it can partially explain why so much of our approach to everything artistic, challenging, or mysterious seems reductive, dull, and unimaginative. It also offers an explanation for why, when evangelical Christianity came under heavy criticism in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the critics themselves formed a culture (the so-called “New Atheism”) that now seems unbearably trite, revelling in arrogant nitpickery and skilled only in missing the point. While the New Atheists’ concerns about the influence of religion in government might have seemed refreshing to many in the 2000s (including myself and, I’d wager, many of the readers of this magazine), in retrospect, the worldview they espouse now seems incomplete—not false, necessarily, but simply unequipped to deal with the more complex and unanswerable questions about our world, leading many to the conclusion that two-dimensional appeals to “science” and “reason” are not enough to create a deep and satisfactory knowledge of our universe. Think of Richard Dawkins berating Mehdi Hasan for believing Muhammad ascended to heaven on a winged horse, and unable to do anything but sputter “oh, come on!” in response to the idea that yes, a highly educated man could believe in miracles, or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s complaints about the inaccuracy of descriptions of the moon in the lyrics of love songs. 

This rejection of imagery, symbolism, or any higher meaning that cannot be reduced to the literal, has become especially pervasive in contemporary art criticism.This is not to say that there isn’t still great art criticism; it’s just that the internet has led to a much greater volume of all criticism, and much of it is dominated by a worldview that seems to reject metaphor, symbolism, mood and tone, or at least render them secondary to “plot.” (By “plot” here I mean “the literal events that happen to the characters and no more,” ignoring the possibility that other aspects of the creation can comprise essential parts of our understanding). One of the most popular genres of movie “criticism” on the internet right now is the “ending EXPLAINED” video, where any ambiguity or multiplicity of meaning you felt at the end of the film you’ve just seen can be cleared away like spilled popcorn. How did Jack Nicholson get into that old photograph at the end of The Shining? Is Travis Bickle dead at the end of Taxi Driver? Is Deckard a replicant? Surely these are the discussions such movies are supposed to raise, and if enough nerds puzzle over screenshots for enough time, the definitive answer will be found and the movie will be solved.

The video essayist Dan Olson made a video for his Youtube channel, Folding Ideas, called “Annihilation and Decoding Metaphor,” expressing his frustration at this complete refusal to countenance the themes of a film as an integral part of its meaning (although he is far from the first or only person to comment on this troubling trend). In particular, he looks at Annihilation, a horror film with strong and unsubtle themes exploring how people are changed by trauma, which also happens to be the subject of endless “Annihilation EXPLAINED!” type videos. Says Olson:

The reason I dislike these [videos] so much is that they are often a form of anti-intellectualism operating on the attitude that ignorance is purity; that an understanding of culture that rejects metaphor, that rejects the symbolic and clings to the literal is more true. It is part of the process of denying art the capacity for meaning.[…]It is rare to find someone who will entirely reject the idea of approaching film broadly from a thematic or metaphorical point of view, but all too common to find people who will lightly sneer at the actual attempts to do so, and suggest that it’s overthinking things…This is a consistent feature within modern film criticism which, taken on the whole, is in a distinct phase where the loudest voices in film discussion are incurious, proudly ignorant, and approach plot as a problem to be unpacked and solved.

As Olson notes, this is not to say that no-one who makes these “explainer” videos is completely unfamiliar with the concept of metaphors. It is more that metaphors are considered more of a secondary matter or bonus feature—an extra level one can consider if one is “into that sort of thing”—but not something that may displace the “real” truth, the primary truth, of whether the spooky alien dies at the end or not. An earlier video of Olson’s, “The Thermian Argument,” excoriated the tendency of genre fans to excuse problematic content by referencing justifications from the lore, as if the fictional worlds they loved were literally real and not the deliberate constructions of an author with intentions. (“No, it’s not weird that the house elves are slaves! The books explain that they like being slaves!”) 

These two video essays target slightly different phenomena, but phenomena which are manifestations of the same root problem: by getting bogged down in the literal objects, characters, and rules that populate the world—the “lore,” the “canon”—the fan loses sight of why the author chose to populate the world that way in the first place. All of this creation, real as it may feel to an enthusiastic audience, was the product of ideas that are worthy of discussion. The literal-minded fans are Funes the memory man, able to identify every Star Wars character and their backstory in perfect detail, with no ability to step back and ask themselves why a story about rebelling against an empire makes people feel so good, and whether they should think about that next time they put forth an opinion on Black Lives Matter. 

Not only that, but if someone tried to connect the two within their earshot, this sort of fan might be dismissive or even indignant. The Star Wars characters live in another universe, where Black Lives Matter does not exist. They can’t “symbolize” or draw comparisons with anything in our world because they’re not of our world. It’s almost as if the fans believe they are actual people, and not artistic creations within a larger history of creation. Just as evangelicals imagined D&D players picking up the cards and going into the literal world of wizards and monsters, when certain kinds of fans consume entertainment, they see themselves as entering the literal world of their favorite franchise, learning more and more “facts” about the world, and the only thing that problematizes its existence is when the “reality” breaks—for example with an inconsistency in the lore. (Apart from “ending EXPLAINED” videos, one of the most popular kinds of movie-related videos on Youtube is the “everything wrong with” video, where a person blithely points out every “plot hole” they can find in a popular movie, no matter how small or irrelevant.) Not only is this a reductive way to understand individual stories, but it leads to a bleaker artistic landscape. The executives who commission new media know that this obsession with filling in the details of stories is popular, and easier to present to an audience than something new and risky, which is why almost no big movies are brand-new creations any more, but every popular media property now has a sequel, a prequel, and a Netflix spinoff where you can see your favorite character’s “origin story.”

Art by Skutch

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with geeking out over details, or pondering the minutiae of a fictional world. The issue is when the details are all an audience can see, at the expense of everything else that makes art meaningful. One of the most captivating art projects to come out of the past five years is a Youtube series called Petscop, which went viral in 2017 and held the attention of its fanbase until it ended in late 2019, despite frequent months-long gaps between the videos. Petscop is a creative project to which it is impossible to do justice in the written form, but I’ll try. It consists of 24 videos, each showing a clip from a fictional videogame called “Petscop,” sometimes narrated by a mysterious player named “Paul.” Petscop at first seems to be an innocent ’90s-era Playstation game about catching various creatures, but soon begins to turn strange, making enigmatic references to dark and traumatic subjects, and forcing Paul to wander the ominous landscapes of the game, puzzling out meaning from eldritch symbols, and confronting troubles that seem to relate to events in his own life, or the lives of people he knows. 

If a story about an evil videogame sounds a little goofy to you, that’s unsurprising, as Petscop was clearly inspired by the oft-goofy “creepypasta” genre of internet-era horror stories, which often feature such things. However, Petscop elevates the trope of the haunted videogame into something much more complex and terrifying. Without ever having a jumpscare, it slowly builds a near-unbearable dread, not through telling you what is going to happen, but merely through tone, aesthetics, and blood-curdling implications. It also undoubtedly conveys thematic meaning, and on very difficult subjects, exploring childhood abuse, trauma, and memory through a highly complex, non-linear storyline that refuses to give any easy answers. (And how could there be any easy answers, given such a subject?) Rather than ending with a neat wrapup of the highly cryptic plot, Petscop appeared, enveloped its audience in fear and confusion, then quietly announced its conclusion, deliberately denying its viewers a simple resolution and leaving them with an unsettling experience rife with unspoken and multiplicitous meanings. I cannot describe for certain what happens in it at all, and it is one of the most phenomenal experiences I’ve had with art in some time.

As soon as the creator confirmed the series had finished, scores of fans seethed in rage and disappointment, mad that there was no “explanation” of what it all meant. They felt their time had been wasted: people had written entire documents on the windmill time-travel theory, the hypnotism theory, the rebirthing theory, whichever theory would take the enthralling, upsetting, utterly profound experience they’d had with the series and break it down into a series of coherent plot points. Many called the sudden ending a copout, declaring the creator must have just got stuck or messed up somewhere. If there were no clear answers, then as a series it was useless; if it didn’t have a sensible plot, with a character doing things and experiencing events in a literal, coherent order, it couldn’t possibly have any meaning. Many Petscop fans are young, and it is possible that this short-sightedness is just a matter of inexperience with difficult media. Nonetheless, I wish I could pin this message to their Reddit threads: the parts you can’t explain? That’s where the art is.

All the stories in humanity’s history that have had a lasting impact on us, from the Bible to Greek myths to the X-Men franchise, have been rich in meaning beyond the literal words and events they offered us. Whether it’s striking the right emotional note, enveloping us in a fantasy world, making us reflect on our own lives, inviting a search for meaning, provoking discussion, or giving us experiences we can’t explain, the role of art has always been so much more than laying out a linear “plot” complete with all the mundane details of exactly how character X got to location Y in a way that feels “realistic.” The undercurrent of excessive literalism and obsession with story mechanics that plagues modern fandoms and criticism is pernicious, and it denies us the tools we need to find meaning in art. To understand art, we need mythos—which means we need mythos to live.