Joe Biden Is Not Winning

Joe Biden, most experts say, is beating Donald Trump. If the election were held today, we are told that Biden would win comfortably. Biden’s lead is “the steadiest on record,” says Harry Enten of CNN: “Biden’s up 52 percent to 42 percent over President Donald Trump among likely voters nationally, and he has a 50 percent to 44 percent edge over Trump in the key battleground state of Wisconsin as well.” Biden’s lead is so strong that some are saying Biden may simply “coast to victory.” The Biden campaign has not opened field offices in battleground states and is not doing in-person canvassing, but they do not appear worried. After all, they have the steadiest lead on record. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times cautions people against “freaking out,” saying that while “as of this writing FiveThirtyEight gives Trump a 24 percent chance of winning” (in 2016 they gave him 29 percent), and while some on-the-ground organizers are “terrified” at the campaign’s inaction, party officials and the Biden campaign have offered assurance that a “digital” strategy will work. Donald Trump’s campaign may be knocking on a million doors a week to Biden’s 0, but Biden is winning in every poll.

I haven’t been nearly as reassured by this, because in 2016 everyone was telling me Trump couldn’t win and I thought they were delusional. I’ve recommended that the Biden campaign get its ass in gear and step up the fight, because after all, it never hurts to have too many votes. But when I’ve said this to people, they’ve responded to me with the signature piece of data: the polls. The polls. And, admittedly, I hadn’t really scrutinized the polls closely, so I assumed they were right that Biden’s lead was comfortable and steady.

Well, now I’ve looked at the polls. And I’m far more worried. So worried that I don’t think it’s even responsible to say that “Biden is winning.” Our working assumption should actually be that Biden is losing.

First, every single time you see a “national” polling average of Biden versus Trump, put it out of your head. It’s meaningless, or at least on its own it can’t tell you whether he’s likely to win the election. This is because we do not live in a system where the person who gets the most votes wins. Instead, we have the Electoral College, which is massively unfair and totally indefensible on rational grounds (people use absurd arguments to stick up for it). But those are the rules under which the game is played and thus the ones which will determine who wins. Hillary won the popular vote. She did not win the election. Biden could lead Trump 60-40 in the national polls and still lose the election if his voters were concentrated in deep blue states.

So what we actually need to look at is states. Specifically “swing states,” the ones where the outcome is fairly uncertain and which might contribute significantly to turning the Electoral College result one way or the other. Let us, then, open up the New York Timeslatest results from critical swing states and see what we find: 

How reassuring! Blue blue blue blue blue blue. +7 in Michigan! We got this. Don’t freak out. Except: what’s the column with some red in it? “If polls were as wrong as they were in 2016.” Hmm. What the Times is saying, then, is that the deep blue column on the left is only a reliable predictor of the result if we make one specific assumption, which is that the polls will not be wrong by the same amount in the same direction as they were in 2016.

And if they are as wrong as they were last time? Well, the Times shows us what the result would be: 

The map on election night would therefore end up looking like this: 

Biden gets Michigan, Minnesota, Arizona. Trump squeaks by in Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin. Trump wins a second term. 

So this is the outcome that, via the Times’ calculations, will occur if current polling stays the same but is off in exactly the same way as it was in 2016. You’d better hope to God that doesn’t happen, then.

How concerned should we be about this? Every time I voice a worry, I am deluged online by a class of people I call “Poll Guys.” Poll Guys do not suffer from doubt. They know statistics, and you do not. They laugh at you when you wonder if the polls could be off. No. You dummy. That was 2016. The polls are better now. We’ve fixed them. And then they tell you why the polls can be relied upon this time, why the same thing cannot happen again, because there are fewer undecided voters or the sampling is better or whatever. 

(Actually, to be more precise, that is Poll Guy Type A. There is a second type, Poll Guy Type B, who responds: “Well, of course we think Trump could very well win, Nobody Says Otherwise, we have always said it is a probability. This is Nate Silver-ism. As I have pointed out before, Silverism is where you give a very strong impression of one thing, but then you also say that the opposite could happen too. What happens is that people are left thinking you are reassuring them one outcome can be pretty well relied upon—especially since sometimes you drop the caveats entirely or bury them in the body text—but if it doesn’t, you get to say that you also told them the opposite thing was possible. It is a good way to never technically be wrong while also being functionally useless and giving a dangerously misleading picture of reality to people who will act according to the impression you give while overlooking just how important the caveats were because you did not frontload those caveats or put big flashing emergency lights next to them like a responsible commentator should have done.)

It is not productive to argue with Poll Guys of Type A, because Poll Guys do not allow the submission of evidence other than polls. So, if you have some concern about sampling technique, they will discuss it with you. But if you say something mushy and qualitative like “I’m a little concerned about the fact that I see a billion Trump flags in Florida and hardly any Biden signs, and the lack of canvassing seems troubling,” you will be told that this is not statistics. Which, indeed, it isn’t.

Let me give you a list of three assumptions, though:

Assumption A:

We can confidently assume that the polls will not be wrong in the same direction and degree as they were in 2016. Biden is therefore winning and winning comfortably.

Assumption B:

We cannot assume that polls do not have the same bias as 2016. But we also should not assume that they do. Perhaps the polls are off in Biden’s favor, or perhaps Trump’s. We should therefore be cautious about making any assertion about who we think will win, even if we think it probably favors Biden. 

Assumption C:

We should assume that what happened in 2016 is likely to happen in 2020. Last time the polls underestimated Trump, so we should treat them as if they will do it again. 

Poll Guys, at least those who have called me a fool on the internet, tend to hold Assumption A. Their faith in state-level presidential polling has actually increased since 2016. This is because they believe that polling gets better when we notice the errors, and adjustments are made to ensure the same oversight will not occur again. Thus 2020 Democrats need not have 2016 Democrats’ worries. 

I, however, tend to favor Assumption C. But this is not actually because I believe it to be the “true” or “correct” assumption. Rather, it is because I believe it is the assumption you should work from when you’re running in an incredibly high-stakes election. You want to be extremely cautious and conservative, and it is a perfectly sound form of reasoning to say: “In this election, we will operate on the basis of the assumption that what happened last time may happen this time. This is because we do not want to risk making a terrible mistake. The stakes are too high. Last time we relied excessively on the comforting predictions of pollsters and it was a horrible idea. This time, the pollsters offer us reassurance that everything is fixed. But given what happened last time, that reassurance is insufficient to stake an election on.” (This is also why “existential risk” matters so much. We may think the chance of a nuclear war is on the lower end but if it happened it would be so catastrophic that we must be proactive in trying to prevent it and operate on the assumption that it could very well happen.)

I want Joe Biden to win the election. I have made that very clear, even though I despise Joe Biden and think he will suck as a president. The consequences of Donald Trump’s reelection for the climate, immigrants, electoral democracy, and nuclear proliferation are far too severe for us to contemplate letting it happen. This means that I do not want Biden to screw this up. 

Not screwing up means assuming worst-case scenarios. It means fighting like you think you’re going to lose. That’s especially the case if there is actual hard data showing that all it would take is for the same fuckup to occur twice in order for Biden to lose. 

Ok, but how could the polls be wrong? Why specifically would they have underestimated Trump? Simple: Biden has made a decision that no other presidential campaign has ever made. He’s not running in-person campaign operations in critical swing states. No offices. No door-knocking. No tabling. Nada. Polls might have corrected for whatever errors led pollsters to underestimate Trump against Clinton, but there might be an entirely new error. Certainly, I think the decision not to have a ground operation is a huge X factor that could definitely bump things a few points in the direction of Trump. I don’t know that it will, of course. But unlike Poll Guys, I try not to be too confident.

We must also recognize that everyone is prone to bias. People who don’t admit that they have bias should never be trusted, because bias is most dangerous when it is unexamined. I freely admit that I was biased in favor of Bernie Sanders in the primary. This led me to underestimate Joe Biden’s chances of winning at the time. I endeavor to interpret facts accurately rather than the way I would like them to be, but it’s hard. 

The most important thing is not to be overconfident. After all, the world is extremely complicated. Are you sure there’s nothing you’ve missed? Are you sure your increased faith in polls this time around is warranted? Or do you perhaps want Joe Biden’s “do very little and hope Trump implodes” strategy to work, thereby influencing which numbers you put stock in and which you set aside? Michelle Goldberg’s “don’t freak out” article begins by quoting a ground-level organizer with a lot of experience at voter persuasion, who is deeply alarmed by Biden’s absence from Pennsylvania. But then she talks to lots of party officials, who say that they are confident and we should not be so troubled. Is it obvious, however, that they are right? And is it so obvious that we are willing to gamble everything on it?

I hope I am wrong. I hoped I was wrong in 2016. People don’t think I mean that, because there’s often satisfaction to be had from being right about things. Actually, what I found out in 2016 was that there is no satisfaction whatsoever. That’s the worst part, actually. It feels like warning someone they’re about to get hit by a train, and they don’t listen, and then you watch them get hit by the train. Only a psychopath enjoys that. No, when you’re right about something horrible, you don’t feel good; you just feel sad and scared. I keep having nightmares lately about watching the map turn red on Election Night. If that doesn’t happen, I will be absolutely elated. I will send Michelle Goldberg a big basket of cookies that say “I’m sorry I doubted you!” on them (although I won’t be sorry, because doubt is critically important and it’s far better to doubt too much that you’re winning than to be over-assured of victory). 

In 2017, we published this little cartoon about Poll Guys by Pranas Naujokaitis and I still like it: 

In other words: be careful. The fact that your data said you could never be attacked simultaneously by a bear, an octopus, three crocodiles, a snake, and a shark will be small comfort to you the moment it happens. “My certainty was rational” is not a reassuring statement if it turns out to be your last words.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Don’t wander into the deadly swamp confident you won’t be eaten by animals. Don’t assume Joe Biden is winning. The data suggests that actually, he might very well not be winning at all. If Trump’s past electoral performance is an indication of what his upcoming performance will be like, Biden’s solid lead is a mirage. 

The Biden Campaign Needs To Get Its Ass In Gear Right Now

This is a winnable election for Democrats. The centerpiece of Donald Trump’s reelection pitch, his “beautiful” economy, is in ruins. He almost certainly caused over 100,000 needless deaths from a horrible disease, one which he deliberately lied to the public about (and then lied about lying about). He has failed to provide necessary relief for people who need it and denies the very existence of the giant climate catastrophe that is the most important issue of our time. He should be universally loathed and chased from office by a united populace. 

And yet: Trump could get reelected. The seemingly unthinkable could happen, just as the seemingly unthinkable happened in 2016. Joe Biden’s lead over Trump has been slowly eroding, even though he remains comfortably ahead in the polls.

Comfortable? Never get comfortable. Because when you’re comfortable you screw up. Hillary was comfortable in 2016. She felt confident enough to campaign in Arizona instead of Wisconsin. Biden feels comfortable enough in 2020 that he has canceled all in-person campaigning, even though Trump volunteers are knocking on a million doors a week. Biden and the DNC “aren’t sending volunteers or staffers to talk with voters at home, and don’t anticipate doing anything more than dropping off literature unless the crisis abates.” Biden has no ground operation whatsoever, even in critical swing states. Consider this report from TIME about Biden’s “invisible campaign” in Michigan:

The reason Sabbe [a voter looking for a place he can pick up a sign] can’t find a dedicated Biden campaign field office is because there aren’t any around here. Not in Macomb County, the swing region where Sabbe lives. It’s not even clear Biden has opened any new dedicated field offices in the state; because of the pandemic, they’ve moved their field organizing effort online. The Biden campaign in Michigan refused to confirm the location of any physical field offices despite repeated requests; they say they have “supply centers” for handing out signs, but would not confirm those locations. The campaign also declined to say how many of their Michigan staff were physically located here. Biden’s field operation in this all-important state is being run through the Michigan Democratic Party’s One Campaign, which is also not doing physical canvassing or events at the moment. When I ask Biden campaign staffers and Democratic Party officials how many people they have on the ground in Michigan, one reply stuck out: “What do you mean by ‘on the ground?’” 

Now, before we get to the question of whether public safety necessitates abandoning all canvassing, can we at least admit that declining to confirm the locations of the places where swing state voters can pick up a sign is extremely not good? (The exact same complaints were made about the Hillary campaign.) A friend of mine drove down the west coast of Florida last week and said that every community he passed through had one of these Trump stores located prominently: 

You know what Biden should do? Go rent the stores directly opposite and put up a big sign with the death toll from coronavirus and the wildfires, and big quotes from Donald Trump lying about the virus. Will they do that? No. Do they have any of these places? Well, if they did, I bet they wouldn’t confirm their locations!

Let us talk about the coronavirus pandemic. You and I both know that the coronavirus is a serious public health crisis that also can provide a convenient all-purpose excuse for things. “Sorry, coronavirus” is a useful get-out-of-jail-free card. The Biden campaign can respond to any criticism of its ground operation (“What’s a ground operation?” a Democratic official literally told TIME) by invoking the pandemic. 

But it is not enough to mention coronavirus. We also have to think about whether and how the public health explanation works. It does not, for instance, work as a defense for lacking places to pick up campaign signs. If you can get a Starbucks coffee during a pandemic, you can get a Joe Biden campaign sign. AOC is organizing regular census tabling events in her district, volunteers all masked and socially distant, because they’re important. 

How about in-person canvassing? As I say, the assumption is that it’s nuts, but we need to question our assumptions. Indoor campaign events with crowds are obviously unsafe, which is why it’s totally irresponsible for Trump to keep doing them. Knocking on doors isn’t nearly as dangerous. When canvassers wear gloves and masks, and step well back from the door, short in-person interactions actually pose very little risk. Not zero risk, of course, but some activities are so important that we believe small amounts of corona risk make them worth it. This was true for street protests and it is true for canvassing. (It should be noted that during the primary, Biden was perfectly fine with encouraging people to do far more dangerous things than distanced canvassing, making the claim that he sees this as necessary for public health seem absurd.) 

Let us remember the stakes of this election, please. It is the real last chance to do anything about climate change. Trump would end democracy if he could. He’d prefer there not even be elections anymore, and he will certainly do everything in his power to keep them from being free and fair. The brutal immigration system will get far, far worse. Trump is a nightmare, and there are seriously deadly human consequences that will come from his re-election.

Those consequences must be weighed against the risks that come with canvassing. Some down-ballot Democrats have started doing door-knocking (as safely as possible) since they realize that if the election is lost because we fought it with one hand tied behind our backs, the knowledge that we had a principled opposition to canvassing will not be much comfort when Trump ends democracy. If someone doesn’t want to open the door to anyone, they won’t, but it is critical that candidates’ representatives actually show up if they expect voters to show up for them. Otherwise plenty of people who might have voted for the Democrat will be lost. 

Let us recognize something else: the fact that the Biden campaign is doing no in-person campaigning should make us very wary of the polls. We have never before had an election in which one candidate simply gives up on canvassing. There is a chance it might affect turnout, don’t you think? Perhaps it will turn out that while more people said they’d vote for Biden, they don’t actually end up doing it. On election day in Wisconsin, do not be surprised if giant busloads of Trump voters show up at the polls. “But where are our people? There are more of them! The polls!” Democrats will say. Ah, but you didn’t actually get them out. Pollsters cannot actually tell you whether this will have an impact because it’s never been tested before. We will actually have a very interesting bit of political science data after this election on how much “ground game” counts. Unfortunately, we might also have a catastrophic second Trump term.

Do not underestimate Donald Trump. I have tried to say this over and over since 2016. Donald Trump is wilier than you may think. He doesn’t know anything, but he is an absolutely merciless fighter who will pull every possible trick to destroy you. Biden is not just trying to win the game with an arm tied behind his back, but to win it against a person who cheats every way he can. Assume Trump is likely to win and then do whatever it takes to change that. He can be beaten. The circumstances are very favorable to the challenger. But if anyone can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it’s the Democratic Party, and I remember 2016. 

Do not tell me that the polls are better for Biden than they were for Clinton. This is the party line, and TIME quotes party officials giving the usual sunny assessment before reporting that “top Democrats believe the race is closer than the polls suggest, and some are privately urging the Biden campaign and state Democrats to reconsider physical canvassing.” The fact is that if the Democrats lose this time, it will be for different reasons than they lost last time. Biden might not make Clinton’s errors, but he can make his own. Perhaps not realizing how quickly polls can change in a moment of chaos will be his error. Perhaps Trump’s numbers will start to shift as if by magic during October, and nobody can figure out why, until they remember that Trump has a massive ground operation trying to find every person in America and convince them to vote for Donald Trump while Biden has none of that. A new error, discovered far too late. 

Election tip: if you want to win an election, assume you are probably going to lose, and act like you need to change that. It never hurts to win by too much, but it’s devastating to lose knowing there was more you could have done. In this election, everything that can be done must be done. The stakes are very high. Biden may well “coast to victory” and I hope he does. But why take this reckless gamble when there’s no such thing as getting too many votes? (In fact, Biden should want to win by as much as possible to make it harder for Trump to claim the election was rigged and remove any chance he might try to cling to power.)

  The Biden campaign says it can “compensate for the lack of in-person canvassing with phone calls, texts, new forms of digital organizing, and virtual meet-ups with voters.” I would be more inclined to buy into the wisdom of Biden’s digital-only campaign if Biden’s digital campaign was impressive, but it isn’t. Susan Sarandon recently pointed out that the campaign’s online volunteering tools didn’t work. I myself became worried when I saw a voter tweeting to Joe Biden that she wanted to donate money and seemingly not getting a response from the campaign. An oversight? I hope so. 

This election is winnable. I cannot emphasize that enough. Pessimism, the feeling that Trump will definitely win, only makes that outcome more likely by demoralizing people and keeping them from fighting. If the Democrats manage to lose under these conditions despite how winnable it is, this will be the political fuck-up of the century. It will show that not a single lesson was learned from 2016, that they will do the same damn thing over and over again until they are devoured by the flames. I do not want this to happen, even though I hate Joe Biden. But in order to avoid disaster, the Biden campaign needs to get its ass in gear and start fighting this campaign like the fate of the country is on the line, because it is. 

Any Politician Unwilling to Act on Climate Is an Enemy of Humanity

The inferno in the Western United States has once again thrust a terrible reality into our lives which we have been trying our hardest to ignore. At the beginning of this year, climate-fueled wildfires scorched nearly the entire continent of Australia. Hurricane Harvey smashed Houston in 2017, and in 2013 typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people. Record heat waves are killing thousands at a time (as many as 70,000 died in a European heatwave in 2003), and the death toll from excess heat alone could surpass all infectious diseases combined by the century’s end. For all of our collective efforts, we have not succeeded in making Climate Change disappear by wishing it away. The problem is not on the horizon. The problem is here. The evidence is extremely clear: climate change is making wildfires much deadlier and more widespread. It is making hurricanes and flooding more common and more deadly. As temperatures continue to increase, this will only get worse and worse. The record-breaking disasters of recent years will appear mild decades from now.

A rapid transition away from fossil fuels is perfectly possible. Yet both liberals and the Right do nothing. Last year, Nancy Pelosi mocked climate activists by calling the Green New Deal the “The green dream or whatever they call it”. Democrats acknowledge as a rhetorical matter that climate change is a problem but have made no serious effort to deal with it. Donald Trump, who on Monday smirkingly told a California official who begged him to take seriously deadly impacts of Climate “It’ll start getting cooler,” and “Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” has led the Republican Party to a position of joking half-serious denial. In reality, Republicans know that climate change is a scientific fact. (Trump’s own federal agencies quietly acknowledge as much.) But as usual, they simply reflect the attitude of the fossil fuel industry and broader big business forces—they’d rather cook the planet than sacrifice profits or pay higher taxes. Left to their own devices, our ruling elite will do nothing to save us.

But as the series of climate-accelerated disasters turns what was an abstract problem into something painfully real, a new window of opportunity is opening. The movement for Climate Justice has finally gained its footing, and the urgency of the situation demands we rise to the occasion. 

We Have a Plan: The Strengths of the Green New Deal as a Political Framework

The politics of the climate crisis have changed markedly in the past two years. Yes, the UN Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change made the alarming announcement in 2018 that we had just 12 years to avoid permanent catastrophic damage (this countdown clock is now at just ten years). But even more impactfully, the progressive movement finally established a powerful framework for what must be done. Not yet even sworn into office, incoming freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first Socialist elected to the House of Representatives in over a decade, captured national press coverage by addressing a sit-in of Sunrise Movement activists in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding action on climate. Working together with the youth-run Sunrise Movement, Ocasio Cortez’ Green New Deal quickly seized the high ground in the public debate over the climate crisis. The concept of a comprehensive Green New Deal was then taken up by Bernie Sanders, who fleshed it out into a detailed policy proposal that would do nothing short of overhauling the U.S. Economy. Sanders made the plan a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. 

It is worth taking a moment to examine the strengths of political framing included in the Green New Deal demand. The most important aspect of the Green New Deal is its successful fusion of economic justice and racial justice demands with climate imperatives. Any program capable of reducing emissions at the pace and scale necessary will require a massive mobilization of resources and restructuring of the economy. How can we talk about remaking entire sectors of the economy without discussing who will benefit? Will the jobs created be low wage employment with private contractors, or dignified high quality unionized jobs at publicly owned utilities?  Will billions and trillions in spending go straight into the pockets of the rich and megacorporations, as per usual? Or will we direct the historic investments necessary towards those who desperately need it  – for example reinvesting in Black and Native American communities who had their wealth violently extracted as a matter of government policy or ravaged West Virginians left to die from addiciton and suicide after generations of toiling in coal mines? 

Indeed, questions of economic redistribution and social justice are part and parcel of any major public policy, and none so much as the huge task of transforming our entire energy and transportation systems. Pretending these elements are not intertwined is simply a way of masking who benefits and who suffers. And if we don’t transition in a way that ensures justice, climate action will lose popular support (or never gain it in the first place). If measures to address climate change exacerbate other kinds of injustice, they will stall. We know that the Yellow Vest movement in France arose in part because taxation to reduce carbon emissions was placing the financial burden on working people while leaving the wealth of a tiny elite to multiply. (Hence the demand for a wealth tax.) The Obama administration’s legislative push for cap-and-trade failed, as its authors sought a constituency among big business, instead of among the public. The “conflict” between the labor movement and the environmental movement occurs principally when environmentalist proposals are neoliberal in nature – for years environmental activists saw renewable energy companies, not workers, as their go-to allies.

Sanders’ version of the Green New Deal resolves these contradictions, combining pro-labor and pro-environmental policy, investing more than 16 trillion dollars, creating 20 million jobs, many in publicly owned utilities, enough to virtually end unemployment. It dedicates $300 billion to expand public transit, creating the hope that so many poor and elederly people might actually be able to get around. It targets investment in the poorest areas, urban and rural, and to poisoned and polluted “frontline” communities, often predominantly black, brown, or Native American. Just as with the New Deal of the 1930’s, the scope of the crisis justifies a policy program broad enough to address many of the most burning needs of working people. What is so powerful about the framing of the Green New Deal is that it gives working people something to hope for, something to fight for. The Green New Deal fuses action on climate to the issues that are among the most important impacting people’s lives, doing so in a way that is practical and makes intuitive sense. 

Despite the radical nature of the Green New Deal, it has gained political traction. Even some moderate long-time politicians have been won over to the plan. Ed Markey’s decision to co-author the Green New Deal initiative with AOC may have saved his Senate seat. It looked like Markey was facing certain defeat against Rep. Joe Kennedy III before being rescued in part by the growing strength of the Sunrise Movement. The list of senators who co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution included not only progressives like Bernie Sanders and Ron Wyden, but also party establishment figures like Chris Van Hollen, and tellingly all of the most prominent Senators who were presidential aspirants at the time: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and even Amy Klobuchar.

The Green New Deal now stands as the only viable option for climate action on the political landscape, with failed “cap-and-trade” style schemes fading from memory, and the admittedly inadequate Paris Climate Agreement lying in ruins. Even the Biden campaign is drawing heavily on the Green New Deal to formulate its public position on climate (though they can be trusted to take no decisive action of their own volition). Successfully framing the issue is a major victory in and of itself. The climb may be steep and treacherous, but at least now the path is clear. 

On Thursday, September 10th, a group of progressive lawmakers, unions, and racial justice organizations, coming out of the “Green New Deal Coalition,” announced a renewed program based on the GND, branded the THRIVE Agenda. Strikingly, this group included Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is rumored to be very nervous about a possible primary challenge from AOC in 2022. As with any initiative including powerful Democrats, duplicity should be anticipated. Any fight for a GND-type program will be beset with attempts to pull out its guts and whittle down its bones until all that remains is a nub. There will be a colossal lobbying effort to make sure the program looks good without actually being good. But the coalition assembled is a positive sign that the demand for large-scale action is strong enough to force a national fight over the issue. Whether a Green New Deal can be sidelined or narrowed beyond recognition will depend heavily on the nature of the mobilization behind it.

For years, environmentalists framed the climate challenge as something that “demanded sacrifice.” Turn off the lights, don’t travel, modify your consumer patterns, feel guilty about your “carbon footprint.” They implied that the days of fun are coming to an end, living standards will have to fall, as if in some kind of cosmic punishment for your overindulgence. This was foolish. As the response to the Great Depression showed us, a crisis can be an opportunity to create a better, fairer society. Transit, retrofitted housing, local food, good unionized public jobs can mean improved quality of life for everybody. And if there’s got to be sacrifice, it had better be shared sacrifice, starting first and foremost with the rich.

How The Democrats Have Failed On Climate

The Republican Party has adopted an openly omnicidal policy that is so comical it could have been mouthed by a Bond villain. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele chanted “Drill, Baby, Drill” at the party’s 2008 convention, a phrase then infamously embraced and repeated by the party’s Vice Presidential nominee. In the Trump era, the de facto Republican climate platform is “emit however much carbon you like and let the cards fall where they may.” But more often than not, despite their rhetoric, Democrats have been just as unwilling to take the action necessary to avoid deadly catastrophe.

In a grand speech characteristic of his campaign, Barack Obama declared upon clinching the Democratic nomination that future generations would tell their children “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” But in the crucial Copenhagen Summit (COP-15) the following year, in December of 2009, the Obama administration sabotaged the talks, surprising the participants by issuing a meaningless voluntary side declaration outside of the UN process, ending any hope for a binding treaty at a crucial juncture in the history of the climate negotiations. The Snowden revelations later showed that the NSA was actually spying on European allies in order to know how best to torpedo efforts led by Denmark to save the negotiations. This was the moment, in the midst of a global crisis and at the height of their power, that the Obama administration could have made good on their promises. But that was not their intention. From a Guardian article at the time:

“Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries, said the deal had ‘the lowest level of ambition you can imagine. It’s nothing short of climate change scepticism in action. It locks countries into a cycle of poverty for ever. Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush.’”

After returning from the Copenhagen Summit, the Obama administration proceeded to do nothing to achieve voluntary goals the media has obediently branded “The Copenhagen Accord.” Instead, the Obama administration pursued what it called an “All of the Above” Energy Policy, actually aiding in the expansion of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, with full knowledge that doing so would result in the deaths of millions. The Obama administration wasted funds subsidizing research into natural gas cars, even though it was already patently obvious that zero-emission electric vehicles were perfectly feasible. Even in Obama’s second term, he appointed fracking advocate Ernest Monitz to be Secretary of Energy, a man who bolstered industry propaganda talking points about so-called “clean coal,” advocating for continued burning of coal in this, the 11th hour for the future of our species. Incredibly, Obama appointed the chief scientist from BP, a climate change denier, to be Undersecretary for Science in the Energy Department. 

David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club’s former Chief Climate Counsel, concluded in assessing Obama’s legacy: “President Obama’s climate policy in his first term was largely indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s” Only once into his second term did Barack Obama begin to take any action that could be even generously characterized as serious on climate. But the administration had waited so long that its emissions reducing programs had barely begun to be implemented by the time Donald Trump took office. Perhaps Obama’s signature emissions reduction program, his Clean Power Plan which imposed the first carbon dioxide emission limits on power plants, was implemented so late that the legal challenges against it were still pending when he left office, allowing for its easy eventual reversal. If a Biden administration is allowed to follow a similar path, we are almost certainly doomed.

A Prescient Ad by Greenpeace in 2009 

“It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Nancy Pelosi told POLITICO in February 2019, “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?” Pelosi’s dismissive comments about the Green New Deal have since become infamous among progressives. California Senator Diane Feinstein, whose investment capitalist husband’s net worth has been valued at more than a billion dollars, also predictably opposed designing a climate plan which would benefit poor and working people “My view of climate change legislation is that it should stick with climate change, and not involve education and guaranteed jobs and paid-for health care.” The wealthy liberals at the top of the Democratic Party are constitutionally opposed to the kind of redistribution of economic good that would be necessary for a successful transformation away from fossil fuels.

Speaker Pelosi was jarred into action by the Green New Deal resolution, bringing her own alternative to the house floor. But the Democrats’ “Climate Action Now” bill was not a serious alternative—it simply called on Donald Trump to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, with its modest goals, and actually asked Trump to propose the plan on how to get there! Democrats will claim that they are “just as committed” to action on climate, with Nancy Pelosi sometimes calling climate her “flagship issue.” This is hollow posturing. Democrats will only take sufficient action to avert disaster if a massive popular mobilization forces them to do so.

Some attention has been given to Biden’s unity task force on climate, co-chaired by Ocasio-Cortez and including Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement, both chosen by Senator Sanders. This task force backed elements of the Green New Deal such as creating millions of union jobs to build a “carbon zero” energy system by 2035. But just as notable as what this non-binding statement included was what it did not. The Biden campaign has consistently refused to support bans on fracking, major pipeline development, or on new oil and gas exploration projects. Clear cut bans are the cornerstone of effective environmental regulation—a straightforward ban on the most dangerous activity is easier to understand and enforce, and harder to wiggle out from. When Joe Biden seemed to back a ban on new gas fracking projects (“no new fracking,” he yelled), his campaign quickly issued a statement clarifying that was not actually his position. Resistance to setting any firm limits on fossil fuel extraction tells us plenty about the true intentions of the Biden camp.

Even in areas where “commitments” have been made, progressives should harbor no illusions that a potential Biden team has any intention of implementing those policies once in power. Biden’s staff selections serve as a better indicator of what is to come. And as the Intercept has reported, Biden has surrounded himself with former Obama administration “climate” advisors currently on the payroll of fossil fuel companies or private equity firms more than happy to reward them for their industry friendly service when Biden was last working in the White House. It will require nothing short of a tectonic political upheaval to force a President Biden to follow through on the “commitments” it is currently making.

In full view of the severe deficiencies of Biden, Pelosi, and the Democrats on Climate, it should remain obvious to all that Donald Trump cannot be reelected. Our slim remaining chance to save hundreds of millions from being driven from their homes by the climate crisis would be all but extinguished by a Trump re-election, which would be viewed as confirming Trump’s position that fossil fuel usage should be accelerated and that renewable energy is anti-American. With Trump re-elected, nothing short of immediate revolution would avert catastrophic nation-destroying effects. Even if some glorious revolution was realized in 20 or 30 years, it would be too late. We still burn. We are burning already. This reality should be chilling enough to send even a black bloc anarchist scurrying to cast a ballot for Uncle Joe in the swing states.

How Can We Mobilize Around The Green New Deal?

How should we speak about elected officials who refuse to support the necessary action to avoid climate catastrophe? We should condemn them in the strongest of terms. Only a sociopath is polite about the impending deaths of millions and the destruction of whole cities, entire nations. The savvy tacticians of the Civil Rights Movement understood the need to “dramatize” an issue in order to create moral and political pressure to force those in power to act. These strategies were sometimes surprisingly successful, forcing rapid shifts among elected officials’ positions on civil rights policy and legislation.

We must not be afraid to dramatize the issue. We cannot afford to be polite about what it means for Nancy Pelosi to mock the solution to a problem which may well drown much of the city of San Francisco which she “represents” in congress.

We must be ruthless and unforgiving towards those politicians and other powerful figures who continue to prevaricate. We should interrupt their speeches, conduct sit-ins at their offices, mock and ridicule them. We must boo them at polite functions, disrupt their galas and wine cave fundraisers. The world should turn hostile to them, their reputation should suffer, the pressure continuing to mount so long as a politician does not endorse the Green New Deal. Importantly, we must take the emotional risk to believe that even the most soulless corporate imperialist Democrat can be moved. This will be difficult for some leftists who are so entrenched in their studied cynicism. But cynicism looks a lot like resignation, even capitulation, and we can afford none of that right now.

As smoke blots out the sun here on the West Coast, let’s resolve: the fight against climate catastrophe and for a Green New Deal can not be left to the environmental organizations. The Sunrise Movement is doing indispensable work, but the climate is everyone’s “lane.” So let’s ask ourselves the questions “What is our union doing to raise hell for the Green New Deal? Our church? Our student body?” Many DSA chapters are struggling to figure out what is next, suffocating under the wet blanket of quarantine and still reeling from Bernie’s sudden defeat. What could be more urgent than mounting an aggressive campaign for the Green New Deal? Ultimately a successful push will require coordination at the national level. But on an individual level, just a handful of people could launch a bird dogging campaign against your centrist congressman that could start to make that person feel the heat.

It may make sense to continue or accelerate some of the more successful strategies already being employed by climate activists. The strategies of divestment and disavowal allow us to act within the places and structures where we find ourselves – every school, municipality, or pension fund can divest in fossil fuels, every elected official or non-profit can pledge to refuse fossil fuel funding. These localized campaigns win hearts and minds, build political pressure, complimenting and dovetailing with national political demands while offering individuals a more tangible and immediate reason to engage. As momentum grows, we should look to more ambitious action. Can we organize large scale civil disobedience actions? Are work stoppages possible? What are ways to harness the most power, seize the most leverage, engage the most people in actions and organizing? We do not have time to “vote them out” (a dubious strategy to bring about system change in the best of times), so we should be thinking in terms of direct action and mass campaigning, rather than over-emphasizing electoral strategies.

The issue of the Green New Deal holds the potential to speak to a vast spectrum of the population—anyone who can understand the implications of the science, those suffering from shitty jobs with low pay or no job prospects at all, people living in areas of concentrated poverty fenced in by racism, the mounting numbers of families suffering directly from the increasingly serious storms, fires, floods, and heatwaves intensified by the greenhouse effect. For those of us on the left, though, it can do something more: it can serve as a window onto the way we could mobilize our resources if a tiny elite did not own and control our economy and our society. This is what we mean when we say socialism: a system of government responsive to the demands of its people, a fair distribution of a nation’s wealth according to the needs of regular people. 

Under a Biden-style government, even a highly optimistic vision of what we may achieve in such a fight would necessarily fall far short of the vision we’ve laid out for the Green New Deal. Bringing about anything close to the levels of carbon reduction necessary would mark high in the history of achievements of popular movements. And while important relief can be wrung from a Biden administration, the redistribution of wealth and income envisioned by the Green New Deal is virtually inconceivable while they remain in power. It should be clear to us now that a sustainable society is impossible so long as major industry and the financial sector remain in private hands. Capitalism has proven the enemy of the planet as well as its people.

But in addition to being necessary for survival, a mass campaign for immediate action could leave the left in a much stronger position than where we begin. Properly organized, such a campaign will swell the ranks of any organization on its forefront. Winning victories draws people in who want to make a difference, and nourishes and validates past activists to keep fighting. Material gains can help raise expectations, a crucial ingredient for future organizing. Even the disappointment of what is not won can radicalize as the wholly inadequate nature of the liberal political order is revealed again.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

The issue of climate change has a special power to render us feeling powerless. To make us feel utter futility. Despair and inaction are the inevitable human response.

But 2021 offers us a fresh opportunity to insist on immediate action. The first year of a new Presidency offers its best chance for bold policy. The nation and the world will lay in economic ruin in the aftermath of COVID19—even relatively conservative economists will agree on the necessity for large scale economic stimulus. The Green New Deal offers just the kind of jumpstart needed. Climate is the issue, like it or not, which dwarfs and overshadows all others, and the next presidential term coincides with the last feasible window for action to save vast swaths of the earth from being rendered uninhabitable. 

This could have and should have been dealt with 40 years ago. ExxonMobil’s own research confirmed fossil fuel driven warming back in 1977 (they lied about it for years). The first World Climate Conference was held in 1979, with many expecting a global treaty to limit carbon emissions to be forthcoming. The entire world was on notice after The New York Times’ front page blared “Global Warming has Begun” following Dr. James Hansen’s testimony to the Senate in 1988. The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997, but the United States never signed it. And yet, globally we continued to emit more carbon into the atmosphere each year, knowing that doing so would likely condemn hundreds of millions to their deaths. To make excuses about cost or indulge further delays now is an absurd farce.

The Biden administration can take dramatic action, indeed they must. They will do nothing on their own, however. On the contrary, expect administration officials to employ all sorts of duplicity and trickery in their best efforts to sabotage climate action. But if we bring enough pressure to bear through organizing and direct action, are willing to dramatize the shame of their inaction, and find the courage to believe it is possible, we can force their hand. It’s up to us.

Debt Strike, Employee-Owned Businesses, and Other Surprisingly Simple Tech Fixes

A few years ago, at the peak of both TED talk techno-optimism and Occupy Wall Street, I attended a conference put together by writer and futurist Doug Rushkoff. The theme of the conference was simple, but ambitious: address the ways in which the internet had fallen short of its original utopian vision. During a brainstorming session, the person sitting next to me raised his hand and suggested organizing some kind of debt strike. It was something I’d thought about before, but dismissed as unlikely. With the ongoing protests in Zuccotti Park, however, the time felt right: a Democratic president had bailed out the banks while leaving ordinary Americans to hang, making it clear that 1) debts could be forgiven and 2) we could not rely on elected officials to have our backs. That day at the conference, I jumped at the chance to work on the project.

The plan was to create a platform for organizing a student debt strike, based on the Kickstarter model which had recently become popular. The reasoning was this: if one person does not pay their loan they face financial repercussions, but if enough people stop paying, then it would go very differently. As the saying goes, if you owe the bank $100 dollars, that’s your problem; if you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem. (As of this year, the combined amount of student debt in the United States is over $1.6 trillion dollars.) We didn’t expect every single debtor to strike, but we hoped to get people to pledge to stop paying their loans once the campaign had reached a certain threshold of debtors or debt. Even if only a sizable portion of people with student loans committed to this pledge, it would give significant bargaining leverage to drastically slash this debt, if not cancel it outright. We tentatively called the idea Debt Striker. 

Immediately, the project hit some snags. We didn’t know how we would set the threshold for when to strike, or how to verify that people had stopped paying their loans. However, Thomas Gokey, the thoughtful artist who had raised his hand at the conference, came up with a different idea: cancelling medical debt. It turns out that creditors and debt collectors trade medical debt on an open market for pennies on the dollar. So you could buy someone’s medical debt and cancel it for a fraction of what they owe. Although this fell short of the original idea, on the surface it seemed like a great way to exploit capital’s shady system for the benefit of human beings. 

The project pivoted, as tech entrepreneurs say. Gokey created a charity called Rolling Jubilee that accepted donations which it used to buy up and cancel medical debt, an idea later used by John Oliver. Rolling Jubilee did this for a while before it became clear that this approach could not function as a solution to a lack of universal healthcare any more than, say, GoFundMe. Although Rolling Jubilee erased people’s debt, it could not change a system in which many can’t get care in the first place. But more fundamentally, the debts in question were being traded for such a bargain because they were unlikely to be repaid. So cancelling these debts actually benefited the parasites trading them, while not really changing the situation that much. Having drifted so far from the initial idea, I became much less interested and involved with both Rolling Jubilee and the projects that grew out of it. By the time Rolling Jubilee shut down, it had raised $701,317; and with it, cancelled $31,982,455.76 in medical debt. However, I realized that while this looked good on paper, and certainly benefited some people, it really did not move the needle much. 

When it comes to technological solutions to systemic problems, the left has generally been skeptical. We’ve seen too many overhyped tech startups and political campaigns paper over the same failed policies with promises of “connecting” people digitally. And projects like Rolling Jubilee have, as we’ve seen, good intentions but an ultimately limited ability to force real social change. Still, I think it would be a big mistake to ignore the possibilities inherent in tech tools entirely; they have qualities which make them uniquely suited to organize people and create a more cooperative world.

Over the past few years, some of the people who worked on Rolling Jubilee have started tackling the problem of student debt—with some success—through organizations like Strike Debt and The Debt Collective, which have created online platforms to help fight student debt. While initially they applied the same Rolling Jubilee approach, they clearly listened to some of their critics, and managed to leverage a relatively small debt strike (a few hundred people) against the for-profit Corinthian college into a real victory which gave $480 million in debt relief to victims of that predatory institution. Although the dollar amount of debt withheld by strikers was not substantial, the bad press and a related lawsuit against Corinthian worked in the Debt Collective’s favor.  

Recently, the Debt Collective has launched two campaigns aimed at a nationwide debt strike: one for people who have already decided to stop paying their debts, and another for people who pledge to do so in the future. Running multiple campaigns, of course, is complicated, and the former project here leaves strikers open to the kind of financial repercussions that come from not paying your loans, and the latter has no clear goal for when those pledging would strike. 

I’m beginning to think it’s time to return to the Kickstarter-like Debt Striker approach. It was hardly perfect, but under its model nobody would ever strike alone, or wait for pledges that never come. Everyone would strike at the same time. Solidarity lessens the risk to individuals, thereby encouraging more people to sign up. Potential strikers can see the threshold for a strike and how close the campaign has gotten to their goal, further encouraging them to join. It is a way of mitigating the “prisoner’s dilemma,” encouraging people to help both themselves and others simultaneously. 

In order to try the Kickstarter model again, we need to solve the same problems we ran up against years ago. The barriers to pulling off a debt strike are not strictly technical; a competent web developer could certainly build the website and app in question. Nor are the politics of programmers that big an obstacle; although many coders skew liberal or even libertarian, there are plenty of lefty programmers. The problem comes from the fact that nobody has really done this before. No model exists for pulling off this kind of strike. And there are some key questions to answer: what is the threshold for striking, and would it be a dollar amount of debt or a number of borrowers? What percentage of people with student debt would need to stop paying their loans to make the strike effective? What amount of unpaid debt would get lenders’ attention? 

About $1.5 trillion of the total $1.6 trillion in student loan debt is owed to the federal government, not private lenders. Before coronavirus and the temporary student loan freeze, about 44 percent of borrowers were not making payments on their loans. We don’t have a clear picture of how much of this debt will get paid back, but we can reasonably assume that it will be a good deal less than the $1.5 trillion owed. Given that the government already eats a big chunk of this cost, the calculation becomes less about the number that will hurt them financially (as would be the case dealing with private lenders) and more about settling on an arbitrary number that is both achievable and high enough to make headlines, highlighting the absurdity of making people pay back money that the government has effectively already accepted losing. 

The threshold for striking seems like the most prominent question, but there are other logistical concerns: once the campaign reaches its goal, how would the site verify that debtors had stopped paying? Who would build the site, maintain it, and pay web hosting fees? How would the organization be structured? Could union organizers collaborate with web developers to create a governing body that meets the challenge of representing people from across the country? What kind of safeguards would the website need to protect the privacy of those pledging so that the government does not spy on them? But all these seem like solvable problems we can figure out, not immovable barriers.

A debt strike isn’t the only possible collective socialist action that can be made possible through relatively simple websites. The internet can help workers organize in ways that would allow them to actually seize the means of production. Take the example of companies that file for bankruptcy, such as Toys R Us. Contrary to the popular narrative, the company did not go under because of online retail or more savvy competitors. It went under because Bain Capital, the private equity firm started by Mitt Romney, ran it into the ground, using its credit to pay Bain executives huge bonuses while not investing in competing with other retailers. (It’s a slightly more sophisticated version of the way organized crime “busts out” businesses.) Bain did the same thing with KB Toys; the practice is common in the vulture capitalist world. In 2018, 17 major retailers went under; in 2019, 23 filed for bankruptcy. But the workers at these companies need not suffer, just because their place of employment has been sold out from underneath them. Instead, with help, they could turn it into a workers’ co-op.

In the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn has advocated giving workers the right of first sale if a business goes bankrupt or the owner wants to sell it. Bernie Sanders has introduced similar legislation in the United States. Under these laws, the government would give workers a loan to buy a company, just as they give loans for other businesses. Of course, it would be great if both countries passed these bills. But the left can also find a way of helping employees buy businesses without having to wait for the government to sanction it. The next time a big retailer is facing bankruptcy, people with experience setting up cooperatives could get in touch with the workers at that company and start a crowdfunding campaign to help them purchase the company. An existing crowdfunding platform might work, but it probably makes sense to create one tailored to this purpose. Perhaps it could give contributors some kind of discount or other perk at the retailer. 

Workers organizing to buy a bankrupt company isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Capitalists with little knowledge of a particular business have bought failing companies and turned them around. Workers who actually deal with the daily operations of a business understand it in ways that make them potentially more capable of taking a company out of the red, especially if that business mainly finds itself in bankruptcy because the executives running it have used the company’s credit to pay themselves huge bonuses. We already have lots of successful examples of employee-owned businesses in the United States. King Arthur Baking Company and New Belgium Brewing Company are two worker-owned businesses whose (excellent) flour and beer you can find in most grocery stores. Democratizing workplaces improves wages and conditions for employees. Even the mainstream business press acknowledges that ESOPs (employee stock ownership plans, the most common kind of worker co-op) provide incredible retirement benefits. This approach to reviving bankrupt retailers could very quickly expand the number of worker-owned businesses and give the idea some much-needed attention. Of course, many major retailers have supply chains with terrible labor and environmental practices. But a large cooperatively-owned retailer, (or if this trend really gets going, a number of retailers) could put pressure on their suppliers to change. Companies that do not need to satisfy the demands of external shareholders who only want a profit would have a much better chance of making this shift. 

Gig economy jobs look ripe for getting turned into co-ops too, especially as regulators in some states seem poised to classify Lyft and Uber drivers as employees instead of contractors with no organizing rights. Having to treat drivers as employees would undermine the ride-share business model to the point that these companies would likely stop operating, and, perhaps become willing to cut their losses and sell their platforms to their workers for a (crowd-funded) song. From there, this model could democratize businesses in better financial shape. Organizing workers to create worker cooperatives like this has incredible potential that, with necessary tweaks, organizers could adapt to a wide range of businesses. Capitalists could sell us the rope to hang them with, if we can get the money together. 

We should take advantage of the fact that apps and websites are comparatively cheap and easy to develop, as well as good at coordinating large numbers of people. The Bernie Sanders campaign, with its novel Bern app, recognized how these tools can be used for organizing. The simple fact that pieces of software have become so important should actually worry capitalists. Uber has a brand, but the drivers have the cars, so it’s quite easy to imagine a driver-owned rideshare app. An important part of the “means of production” is therefore already in the hands of the workers, but the capitalist still succeeds in extracting profit because they own a small thing (an app) that the worker needs in order to utilize the means of production. The less significant, and more easily replicable, the thing the capitalist uses to keep workers from getting the full benefits of their labor, the more of a chance we have of creating a socialized alternative—provided we can act collectively. 

The left still faces lots of challenges in the digital realm. Powerful network effects make it hard to start, say, the Wikipedia of social networks. Facebook has so many people on it that you will find it almost impossible to compete, because nobody wants to join a small network when the entire benefit of the platform is that its network is large. The way these mediums employ psychological research to keep us addicted also presents problems. Could we create social networks that keep us engaged, but foster better conversations? Can we use the same hijacking of our brain’s pleasure and reward systems to get us to engage online more productively and compassionately? Or is any foray into this kind of activity inherently manipulative, deceptive, alienating, destructive, and just plain toxic? Would a more sensible social network lose out to established platforms that keep people hooked by generating conflict, spectacles, and appealing to the lowest common denominator? Or would people recognize the value of a social network that does not fill them with distractions and petty rage for their fellow humans? Launching a debt strike via a Kickstarter-like platform, or using crowdfunding to help transform businesses into worker co-ops, or starting a new form of social network—tactics like these present challenges and questions. But they have tremendous potential, and the truth is that we need new forms of organizing and democracy. In the past, workers organized unions with people they worked alongside everyday. Today, many of the people who need to organize around a specific goal are spread across the country. Or, even if they live in the same zip code, they work for a company that does everything possible to keep workers from getting to know each other well enough to organize. The current pandemic and physical distancing have only increased this alienation. As much as those in power have used tech to exacerbate our atomization, we still can use it to connect people with common goals across distances and barriers. To some degree, this has already happened with crowdfunding campaigns like the one used to start this magazine, but we can take the concept much further. Given that people with student loans are spread throughout the country, a debt strike may be the place to start. If we could pull that off, we could do almost anything.

You Can Heal Your Life

A few weeks ago, when a student from the university book club asked me to recommend an autobiography by a “successful person,” I immediately knew, without needing an explanation, what he meant. By “successful” he meant wealthy, preferably a Silicon Valley CEO, the likes of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or sundry other titans of disruption. As with other books that promise to reveal the secrets to fortune, happiness, productivity, and what passes for “success,” these kinds of tech billionaire tell-alls are extremely popular worldwide. But they’re especially well-regarded among the students who attend the university I work at in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and in much of the post-Soviet world. The ubiquity of self-help books—particularly among young people—struck me immediately when I first moved to Central Asia: walking through the halls, eating lunch in the cafeteria, or attending talks on campus, I would hear students eagerly sharing tips they had read on how to optimize their mornings and develop their “soft skills,” to think more positively and set better goals. These students enthusiastically read Rich Dad, Poor Dad and How to Win Friends and Influence People and (yikes) Jordan Peterson books. There’s even a special club devoted to twice-monthly discussions about self-actualization, where students can share tips and compare notes on their favorite self-improvement guides.

American-style self-help books, as any of these students could attest, command an international readership. The first Japanese self-help book, Fukuzawa Yukichi’s 1868 An Encouragement of Learning, quoted from the Declaration of Independence and drew upon the ideas of Benjamin Franklin, whose Poor Richard’s Almanac and The Way to Wealth are often considered early examples of the genre (though it’s worth pointing out that many histories of self-help are beset by Americentrism). In China, the genre’s ascent began in the 1980s and paralleled the country’s move towards liberal economic policies. In Latin America, some estimates put self-help books’ share of the publishing market at 20 percent.

Yet despite the international reach of the self-help movement, much of the writing on the subject focuses narrowly on its instantiation in the United States. Even books critical of the genre—such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided and Steve Salerno’s Sham—focus only on the self-help industry’s impact in the United States. Indeed, many authors go further and assert without evidence that the self-help movement is mainly—or even solely—an American phenomenon, an idea perhaps nowhere more succinctly expressed than in the title of Tom Tiede’s book Self-Help Nation. For many writers on the topic, the key to the industry’s popularity lies in some unique quirk or flaw in what they assert to be America’s national character. In Self Help, Inc., Micki McGee writes that the genre embodies the idea of rags-to-riches self-fashioning that has historically been at the heart of the American mythos. A piece for the Organization of American Historians argues that self-help methods like positive thinking are “distinctly, if not uniquely, American,” linking it both to the “pursuit of happiness” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and to a certain American skepticism of those in power. And another piece in The New York Times dubs self-improvement “a deeply embedded American trait, something other cultures find both admirable and amusing.” For these authors, the notion of college students in Kyrgyzstan devouring The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People would be not just surprising—it would be all but unimaginable.

These authors are certainly not wrong to observe that the genre is booming in the United States—in 2019 alone, the self-help industry raked in some $11 billion in America, largely from a Boomer-age readership. But they err in assuming that America is exceptional in this way. When other countries are brought into the picture, the easy assertions about self-help as a fundamentally American phenomenon quickly become untenable. What also becomes clear is that explanations rooted in generalizations about “Americanness” (which are in any case specious at best) rarely dig beneath assumptions about readers’ values and beliefs to address the material circumstances of the people who buy these books. The United States and post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan might not share the stories of Horatio Alger or the enshrinement of “the pursuit of happiness” in foundational legal documents, but they do share pervasive labor precarity, a lack of social safety nets, and flaws in their democracies that make it understandable for working people to doubt their ability to effect meaningful change in their lives via the electoral process, and to search for more individualized means of improving their lives.

As other authors—including those mentioned above—have noted, self-help (while it precedes the advent of neoliberalism itself) is deeply connected to the way neoliberalism celebrates the individual, lowering readers’ aspirations for the future from system transformation to personal benefit. Steven Covey instructs readers in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “If I really want to improve my situation, I can work on the one thing over which I have control—myself.” Dale Carnegie comes to the same conclusion in How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Everybody in the world [italics mine] is seeking happiness,” he writes, “and there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts. Happiness doesn’t depend on outward conditions. It depends on inner conditions.” Self-help’s emphasis on positive thinking and changes within effectively depoliticizes discontent, instructing readers not to analyze external factors or seek a redress of grievances but merely to adjust their attitudes. Readers might be encouraged to pray, to visualize themselves attaining their goals, but never to agitate, organize, or strike. The cruel flipside of these books’ chirpy insistence that any obstacle may be overcome through changes in mindset or habits is that those who do not ascend the rungs of the economic ladder must have only themselves to blame.

As a result of self-help’s focus on individual happiness and individual gains, the social world they lay out is one of competition instead of collaboration. Many books of this type uncritically embrace the accumulation of wealth, laying out instructions for readers on how to get rich and gain power over others. Carnegie instructs readers to smile, to drop the name of their interlocutors into the conversation as frequently as possible, to let others do the majority of the talking—all in the name of being more persuasive, likeable, and professionally successful. Here, social interactions are reduced to eerie games of influence, and autonomous people become prizes to be won. In giving instructions on how to join the elite rather than critiquing the inequality upon which the idea of an elite is premised, self-help books serve only to normalize existing unjust power structures.

The neoliberal ideas these books mirror have been shipped to Kyrgyzstan like so many copies of The Secret, propagated by the bevvy of pro-business development agencies that have set up shop along the avenues of central Bishkek since the fall of the Soviet Union. Viewed in this context, the self-help guides so popular among young people here serve as apologias for the economic policies and political restructuring for which these agencies are advocates—and which the United States promotes abroad for its own gain. 

Prior to the breakup of the USSR, those self-improvement books and pamphlets that were available to Soviet citizens focused on the cultivation of traits such as industry and self-sacrifice, values seen as crucial to the project of building communism. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a commercial publishing industry emerged that was no longer governed by Soviet aesthetics, ethical principles, legal strictures, or censorship codes. Private publishers began favoring light, poppy, entertaining reads, the kinds of books that would fly off the shelves and turn a profit. Interest in positive thinking and pop psychology began to shoot up (so too, interestingly, did interest in magic and faith healers). When How to Win Friends and Influence People was first translated into Russian in 1989, it quickly sold out. 

But the embrace of a recognizable “self-help” genre in the post-Soviet world owes itself not just to ease of reading: at a time of profound upheaval and uncertainty, such books promise a sure, straight path to a brighter future. More to the point, they also claim to provide solutions to problems engendered by the very transition to capitalism itself. In her research into the popularity of self-help literature in post-Soviet Russia, sociologist Suvi Salmenniemi argues that part of the appeal of these pop psychology books lies in the fact that they are far cheaper alternatives to conventional mental or physical healthcare after the collapse of the Soviet health system. In addition, she suggests, the desire to turn inward and change the self may reflect a deep pessimism at the ability to change the system. This idea points to the fact that self-help is neither an American genre nor a global phenomenon but specifically a capitalist one.

Art by Skutch

In a similar manner, the ideas espoused by many self-help gurus intersect not only with individualistic ideas in general but specifically with the kinds of neoliberal policies (privatization, deregulation, and the slashing of government spending) that have hobbled the public sector in the countries they are professing to aid. But while many critics have noted the way in which neoliberal ideas of individualism have been adopted by the self-help industry, the opposite phenomenon—whereby institutions that promote neoliberal economic policies take on self-help jargon—has garnered little attention. Yet traces of the vocabulary and logic of the self-help genre can be seen in the writing of aid and development programs that work in Central Asia and elsewhere. Words like “self-sufficiency,” “maturation,” “prosperity,” “resilience,” “entrepreneurship,”—even the concept of “development” itself—echo the kinds of language one might find in a self-help guide. Indeed, USAID has been referring to its projects abroad as “self-help” since the 1960s. These could not function as catchy buzzwords if the self-help industry and its logic had not already won popular acceptance among the donor class and those who work in the “development” sector.

A closer examination of many of these development programs reveals that self-help words and phrases are deliberately used to make pro-privatization agendas more appealing. In 2018, USAID announced that it was adopting the “Journey to Self-Reliance” as one of its core principles. One tenet of this journey, USAID’s website reads, is “collaborat[ion] with the private sector to co-create and co-design market-based and enterprise-led development approaches…. Given the growing and vital role the private sector has in solving global development problems, private sector engagement is essential to building resilient and lasting self reliance.” Expanding upon this last point, USAID Administrator Mark Green writes of the organization’s commitment to “market-based approaches across all areas of our work, from economic growth, power, agriculture, and global health to humanitarian assistance, women’s empowerment, education, and addressing crisis and conflict” in order to “provide greater opportunities for American businesses.” A look at USAID’s “roadmaps” to self-reliance reveals that countries are assessed and ordered based on categories such as “business environment” and “trade freedom,” while metrics for things like wealth inequality are left out.

USAID is not the only such organization to adopt the language of self-help for the promotion of what are essentially neoliberal programs. Multiple World Bank research papers write in praise of so-called “self-help groups” that provide microloans and are often run by and for women. As a number of economists critical of such programs have pointed out, in addition to being of questionable efficacy in the long run, microfinance institutions are ultimately premised upon the idea that bettering one’s quality of life is an endeavor to be undertaken at the level of the individual entrepreneur rather than through collective struggle—the very same logic undergirding so many self-improvement regimens. What’s more, here and elsewhere, using the language of “self-help” erases the role of development organizations themselves in pushing certain agendas and working towards certain goals, instead putting everything on the communities themselves. When projects are framed as self-help, the implication is that their success or failure depends solely on the local people involved, with no mention of the international actors involved or the overarching economic systems in which they exist.

How have neoliberal international development agencies “self-helped” Central Asia? Attempts to make Kazakhstan’s education system “more efficient” in the 1990s led to the closure of thousands of preschools and smaller, “inefficient” schools in the countryside. In one of the areas of Tajikistan most affected by the country’s Civil War, the introduction of a steep new fee system for medications left many who were already barely surviving on aid unable to afford direly needed medication. And in Kyrgyzstan, which has adopted more of these types of policies than anywhere else in the region, the privatization of what were formerly collective farms after the Soviet Union’s collapse decimated rural economies and spurred a massive exodus of laborers from the countryside to the capital in search of work. Meanwhile, Bishkek’s move from building social housing to high-rise apartments has forced many of these poor migrants to build their own make-shift homes on the city’s periphery, sometimes adjacent to health hazards. Viewed in this context, self-help books’ exhortations to “think positive” and “practice gratitude” seem like paper swords in a fight against massive and systemic problems. 

Far from revealing the fundamental flaws in self-help dogma’s uncompromisingly individualistic approach, the current pandemic has in many cases only strengthened people’s faith in the ability of such methods to tackle problems. “Let’s stay positive,” my Russian teacher says to me at the end of each Zoom lesson, or “Sending you positive thoughts”—even as cases in Bishkek skyrocket, reports come out of patients dying outside hospital doors because there aren’t enough beds, and calls for the government to reveal what they have done with the millions in emergency aid they received have gone unanswered. In the worst instances, this embrace of positive thinking goes beyond a search for comfort and becomes actively harmful: a friend of mine who works as an English teacher recounted the story of a pupil who laughed off the threat of the virus because she believed her inexhaustible reserves of optimism rendered her invulnerable even as the incidence of infection spiked. 

In an ever-growing crisis such as this one, it’s understandable when people cast about for any philosophical plank to keep themselves emotionally afloat. But these modes of thinking exist within the same moral ecosystem that has fostered the conditions for the pandemic in Central Asia. They have created an environment in which contingent workers—some indebted due to high-interest microloans from “self-help groups”—must forego social distancing and continue working to put food on the table for their families, and in which many living in “illegal” peripheral settlements lack access to hospitals

The self-help genre’s narrow-minded focus on the individual contrasts with traditional Central Asian models of community betterment. In Kyrgyzstan, the concept of ashar (known as assar in Kazakhstan and hashar in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) denotes communal mobilization of resources and labor, either to help individual community members (by pitching in to erect a home, for instance) or to create public utilities such as irrigation channels. While these terms are sometimes rendered in English as “self-help,” they differ markedly from the narrow individualism usually associated with the term and might more accurately be rendered “mutual aid.” It’s a concept that has survived despite the major upheavals in Central Asian society over the last century, from the forced settlement of nomads by the Soviets to mass internal migration in more recent years. Without romanticizing the practice or positioning it as a cure-all to modern social ills, we might see within ideas like ashar some inspiration for modes of life improvement that decenter the individual and avoid monetizing social goods.

In 1989, a movement calling itself Ashar arose in Bishkek to combat housing discrimination against migrants from the countryside, who were primarily ethnic Kyrgyz and non-Russian speakers at a time when the city had a Russian (and by extension Russophone) majority. In solidarity with migrants unable to obtain land or housing through official channels, members of Ashar seized land in the south of the city and squatted, setting up their own encampment. Today, the legacy of Ashar’s squat lives on in the neighborhood of Kok-Jar, about twenty minutes’ walk from where I live, which in the intervening 30 years has transformed from an informal squat to an officially incorporated part of the city. Now its residents not only have housing but have also gained access to municipal utilities and services and won the right to vote in city elections. These victories would not have been possible without the Ashar movement’s dedication to collective—and not merely individual—betterment. Kok-Jar is a reminder etched into the fabric of the city of the improvements that can be gained not through positive thinking or goal visualization but struggle—and an invitation to consider how the Kyrgyzstan of 30 years from now will look if that struggle for a better collective future continues.

There are many who stand to profit from the success of self-help philosophy in Central Asia, readers not included. But as I listen to students talking about the latest pro-productivity tome they’ve read over our weekly Zoom book club meetings each Saturday, the difficulty of pushing back against the individualism that these books have helped inculcate in Central Asia’s young people hits home. When these students graduate, when they pack their things and return to Tashkent, to Dushanbe, to Osh, to Kabul—what ideas about the world, about what constitutes a just society and what we owe our neighbors, will they bring back with them? If self-help books are premised upon the idea that the only thing we have the power to change is ourselves, perhaps as educators our first step in the fight against the pernicious influence of How to Win Friends and Influence People might be fostering the imagination that these authors lack: the imagination needed to understand the emotional and material needs of others, to link effect to structural cause, and to create a brighter future together.

The Last-Ditch Talking Point on Climate Change

Faced with a giant inferno consuming Oregon, California, and Washington which has turned the skies an apocalyptic orange, those who insist that climate change isn’t a big problem are faced with a somewhat awkward situation. How do you explain that? Coincidence? Aberration? But explain it away they must. In fact, anyone who supports Donald Trump is locked in to climate change denial. They have to keep denying it no matter what facts present themselves, because if they were to admit that climate change is a serious and deadly problem, Trump’s approach to it would seem massively irresponsible. In fact, he would seem incompetent and stupid. But what does that mean when the hottest week on record produces a towering wall of flames that starts destroying entire towns? 

There is a right-wing talking point for every situation, though, and the one they’ve come up with for this one is: it’s not climate change, it’s the government. The government has badly managed the forests. If private enterprise had managed the forests, we would be okay. Hence Donald Trump told his supporters to “remember the words—very simple—‘forest management.’” The words are a shield one can use to fend off uncomfortable facts. Without some alternate explanation for the fires, people might be forced to concede that they were wrong, or at least become very uncomfortable at their inability to explain the stubborn reality in front of their faces. The talking point offers an alternative story, relieving one from the risk of having to think: it’s not climate change, the government just managed the forests badly. 

Have a look at this incredible clip from Tucker Carlson’s show. Carlson doesn’t deny that the fires are horrible and out of control. What he says is that anyone who blames climate change is doing so for “political” reasons. They are exploiting a tragedy, he says. “It took no time at all for the usual vultures and parasites to swoop in and try to make a political advantage,” Carson says, outraged that anyone could use a natural disaster to make a political point. Showing clips of Barack Obama and Gavin Newsom saying that climate change was responsible, and an MSNBC anchor calling the fires the “direct result of climate change,” Carlson says that these people are “lying on television” and that there’s “no evidence” climate change is responsible. “In fact,” Carlson says, “we know that a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party” set off one of the largest fires. Carlson also blames “state regulations preventing deforestation” and cites the fact that Oregon “sent a number of its [firefighting] helicopters to Afghanistan” for a “neocon” war that “Donald Trump is attacked for trying to end.”

Carlson then brings on “environmentalist” Michael Shellenberger, who has made a reputation as a skeptic of the environmental movement and recently published a book called Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. Shellenberger tells Carlson it’s irresponsible to talk about climate change. Instead, the fires on the West Coast happened  because there are “more people and more electrical wires that they’ve failed to maintain because we’ve focused on other things like building renewables” and we’ve been “so focused on renewables, so focused on climate change.”  He further tweeted that it is “gross misinformation to blame climate change for our fires.” (Elsewhere Shellenberger chastises those who show “pyrophobia”—fear of fires—like, I suppose, the residents of Paradise, California.) 

The posture of Carlson and Shellenberger is that alarmists do not care about facts or the science, but instead are doing politics instead of rationally thinking about the problem. It is a very effective posture; now, no matter how bad the fires get, your Fox News-watching relatives will simply blame renewable energy and bad forest management. This will be done for every single climate catastrophe; hurricanes, we can expect, will be blamed on people living in hurricane-prone zones. 

If Fox is your sole source of information, this segment may actually seem persuasive. After all, some of it is even true. Oregon did send helicopters to Afghanistan (though Carlson manages to blame neocons and Oregon for this rather than the Trump administration’s Defense Department). A gender reveal did spark one of the larger fires. But Carlson and Shellenberger are propagandists; they deliberately bury every single piece of evidence that does not fit their narrative. They want you to think it’s alarmists and politicians who are blaming climate change, all to deflect attention from the government’s bad policies. In fact, let’s hear from some people who actually know what they’re talking about: 

  • “This is climate change… This increased intensity and frequency of temperatures and heat waves are part of the projections for the future. . . . There is going to be more morbidity and mortality [from heat.] There are going to be more extremes.” — Susan Clark, heat expert and director of the Sustainability Initiative, University at Buffalo.
  • David Romps, director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center “[told] the MIT Technology Review we are living in a fundamentally climate-altered world. Said Romps: “To cut to the chase: Were the heat wave and the lightning strikes and the dryness of the vegetation affected by global warming? Absolutely yes… Were they made significantly hotter, more numerous, and drier because of global warming? Yes, likely yes, and yes.”
  • Here’s a paper by six climate scientists: “Since the early 1970s, California’s annual wildfire extent increased fivefold, punctuated by extremely large and destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018. This trend was mainly due to an eightfold increase in summertime forest‐fire area and was very likely driven by drying of fuels promoted by human‐induced warming. Warming effects were also apparent in the fall by enhancing the odds that fuels are dry when strong fall wind events occur. The ability of dry fuels to promote large fires is nonlinear, which has allowed warming to become increasingly impactful. Human‐caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California, particularly in the forests of the Sierra Nevada and North Coast, and will likely continue to do so in the coming decade.” 
  • Here’s a paper that came out just last month from seven climate scientists called “Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California.” UCLA’s Daniel Swain says there’s been a “really big increase [in high fire-risk days] over a relatively short period of time that can be attributed directly to the changes in climate.” 
  • Here’s Friederike Otto, acting director of the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute: “There is absolutely no doubt that the extremely high temperatures are higher than they would have been without human-induced climate change. A huge body of attribution literature demonstrates now that climate change is an absolute game-changer when it comes to heat waves, and California won’t be the exception.” Then here’s Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, on the connection between that heat and the fires: “As a fire scientist, I can say fires are really responsive to warming… With just a little bit of warming, we’re seeing a lot more burning. We have twice as much burning now as we were seeing in the early 1980s.”
  • “Fire, in some ways, is a very simple thing… As long as stuff is dry enough and there’s a spark, then that stuff will burn… This climate-change connection is straightforward: warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.” — Park Williams, bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Okay, I can throw many more experts at you, but you get the point. When Shellenberger says it is “gross misinformation to blame climate change for our fires,” he is not sticking up for science against politicians, he is deliberately ignoring the testimony of fire scientists and climate researchers. He is simply generating propaganda. Joan Conrow of the Cornell Alliance for Science has gone into great detail on this, refuting Shellenberger’s specific claims and citing several other scientific papers showing the impact of climate change on the severity of wildfires. 

But Shellenberger is stuck in his climate denial. He has to downplay the connection between the West Coast fires and climate change, because his book just came out, and anything titled Apocalypse Never is going to look a bit silly in the light of distinctly apocalyptic occurrences. If Shellenberger were to admit that climate change played a significant role in creating this situation, his whole attack on “alarmist” environmentalists and the media would seem completely misplaced. Unless he’s planning to repudiate his book, and retitle it “Ooh, looks like I spoke too soon,” then regardless of the circumstancesshould, for example, temperatures rise even higher next year, and the wildfires grow twice as largehe has to keep insisting that “focusing on renewable energy” is the real culprit, and climate change’s contribution is negligible. 

Importantly, none of this means that poor forest management did not contribute, or even contribute significantly, to the escalating severity of Western wildfires. Any event that ever happens has many contributing causes. The increasing concentration of people in fire-prone areas and the failure to effectively manage forests are indeed factors—this National Academy of Sciences paper cites “the warming and drying climate, the build-up of fuels, and the expansion of the wildland–urban interface” as major contributing elements. The New York Times reports that the Forest Service hasn’t done a good job thinning out forests, in part because it is underfunded (austerity!) and in part because “forest-thinning programs can be poorly targeted… as they often support logging efforts, rather than effectively reducing fire risk.” But what people like Trump, Carlson, and Shellenberger do in order to downplay the threat of climate change is seize on the non-climate-related causes and ignore every piece of scientific evidence pointing to the influence of climate change. One reason this is so insidious is because it means much of what they say is factually correct, but they select only the facts that allow them to create a narrative about the problem in which climate change doesn’t matter much. If, say, there is a buildup of fuel on the forest floor, and it is also much hotter because of global warming, and the two factors together cause fires to be more likely, they leave aside the latter and fixate on the former, calling anyone who talks about climate change an alarmist who won’t focus on the real cause.

Let us briefly examine another exhibit. We expect Fox News and Donald Trump to be climate change deniers, and while Shellenberger has been treated as reasonable by mainstream publications, he has made it clear that he has no interest in presenting the science fairly. But look at this op-ed that the Washington Post chose to run, called “Bad forest policies and political indifference kindled Oregon’s wildfires.” The writer, Julie Parrish, is a Republican former Oregon lawmaker and a board member of the “Timber Unity Association,” a lobbying group. Parrish’s argument is that Democratic governor Kate Brown is blaming “weather” for a failure of government: 

Gov. Kate Brown (D) blames a “wind event” and climate change for the conflagrations. I’m a seventh-generation Oregonian, and like others who’ve paid attention to what’s been happening here for a long time, I know better. Our state is ablaze for reasons much deeper than weather. For years, we’ve suffered from misguided priorities and dramatic failures of leadership… Consider, for example, the gross mismanagement of Oregon’s forests. Under an 80-year-old contract, responsibility for most forest lands falls to the state. The understanding is that the state’s sustainable harvesting and replanting of timber on these lands would provide long-term income for rural counties…But in recent decades, political power in Oregon has accumulated in urban Portland and its surrounding suburbs. Residents of these areas—insulated from the dangers of land mismanagement—have insisted on preserving the forests as untouchable playgrounds. Since 2001, the state has overprioritized recreation and environmentalist concerns such as ecotourism. As a result, Oregon’s forests were allowed to become overgrown, creating fire hazards. The state has screwed up so badly that, in November last year, it was ordered by a jury to pay Oregon’s rural counties $1.1 billion for failing to uphold its contractual obligations for responsible forest management. In February, I joined fellow members of the Timber Unity movement—representing more than 62,000 loggers, truckers, ranchers, miners, farmers and other working Oregonians who rely on the land—who met with Brown in Salem, the state capital. We made it quite clear that the state’s management failures with forests and rural lands would lead to a catastrophic, carbon-releasing fire event. Our warnings went unheeded.

Now, if you’re a casual reader of the Post you might wonder if there is something to Parrish’s argument. But it’s important to actually think carefully about what Parrish is saying and how she supports it. When you click the links, what you discover is that the state of Oregon was accused of “mismanagement” because they allegedly violated a contract that required the state to maximize “values” from its forests and give the money to certain counties. Maximizing revenues would have meant doing more logging than the state thought necessary. Instead, the state interpreted “value” to mean something broader, and with the purposes not just being to maximize revenue but to provide for “lean water, fish and wildlife habitat, timber supply, revenue, hiking and camping and hunting, off-road vehicle use, and carbon storage.” It was a lawsuit “all about economic development and jobs,” and Oregon lost because a court decided that it was contractually required to maximize strictly economic development rather than a mixture of different public interests.

Parrish wants readers to think “responsible forest management” was all about fire protection. In fact, that’s a propagandistic euphemism. In the context of the lawsuit, “responsible” meant “most financially lucrative.” The Timber Unity Association, which as she says, represents trucking, mining, and logging interests, naturally wants to see forests maximally devoted to logging rather than preserved for the enjoyment of the public and as wilderness habitats. 

But wait: Parrish says that she and the logging companies warned Brown about fires but the governor didn’t listen. Try clicking the link, though. You’ll find that what actually happened is that they were lobbying against a bill to cap carbon emissions! There is no mention of fire anywhere. The Timber Unity Association was vigorously trying to stop an effort to control carbon emissions, arguing it would kill Small Businesses. (Generally a euphemism for “eat into corporate profits.”) In other words, Parrish’s group is literally trying to stop efforts to control climate change. No wonder she just waves it away as “weather” and wants to pin responsibility on Forest Mismanagement. If she were to admit that climate change was responsible, the logging interests she represents would have far less of a case against the emissions control scheme. (Note that there is no “free market” case for opposing carbon caps, since emissions are an externality—a harm that companies inflict without paying for the consequences.)

Parrish is, then, another propagandist. She tries to mislead readers about the core disagreement in the case where Oregon was accused of “mismanaging” forests. And she declines to disclose the fact that she has aggressively lobbied against emissions restrictions. Of course, none of that is surprising from an industry lobbyist. What we should be surprised and upset by, and what tells us a lot about why climate change action has been stalled for so long, is that the Washington Post chose to print this, without examining whether the linked sources supported any of the claims being made in the article. The Post, a supposedly liberal bastion, is printing sheer baseless climate change denial as legitimate commentary. 

Climate change denialists will never run out of talking points. You know the phrase “It’s hard to get someone to understand something when their job depends on their not understanding it”? Well, people like Carlson and Shellenberger could probably find themselves burning alive and they’d still be insisting the environmental “alarmists” were wrong. Of course, as the effects of climate change become ever more apparent, the talking points will become ever more absurd. Trump is now blaming exploding trees; his supporters are blaming Antifa arsonists. Whatever story they need to come up with to avoid rethinking their viewpoint, they will insist upon as Scientific Fact. All we can do is endeavor to expose how the trickery works, and help people to avoid being misled by these increasingly desperate forms of denial. 

Abolition as a Project of Deep Democracy

Since the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, a stunning uprising against state violence has spread to more than 2,000 American cities. As protests continue across the country from Seattle to Washington, D.C.—and even in smaller cities like Kenosha, Wisconsin and Stamford, Connecticut—the political momentum endures. Thanks to continuous direct action, decades-old conversations on police abolition have been revitalized, led by both the contemporary abolitionist and Black Lives Matter movements. Misguided efforts at police reform like #8CantWait—criticized for faulty data science, among other issues—have been countered by meaningful, explicitly abolitionist ones such as #8toAbolition.

Recent events like California Democrats’ rejection of mild police reforms and the Justice in Policing Act have made it clear that reforming the criminal punishment system is doomed to failure. To be sure, this has long been obvious: the prominent abolitionist Angela Davis has been speaking out against the failures of prison reform for decades. In her book Abolition Democracy, she stresses the need for a different criteria for democracy: one with “substantive as well as formal rights, the right to be free of violence, the right to employment, housing, healthcare, and quality education. In brief, socialist, rather than capitalist conceptions of democracy.”

Here, Davis is highlighting an older conception of democracy—one with uniquely American roots. As she says, “When I refer to prison abolitionism, I like to draw from the DuBoisian notion of abolition democracy. That is to say, it is not only, or not even primarily, about abolition as a negative process of tearing down, but it is also about building up, about creating new institutions.”

The term “abolition democracy” was originally coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in his highly influential book, Black Reconstruction. Abolition democracy describes the interacting politics of the labor and civil rights efforts during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, as well as the potential that abolition holds for transforming American democracy. As professor and sociologist Brendan McQuade writes in Lessons of Rojava and Histories of Abolition: “Abolition democracy challenged the fundamental class relations upon which historical capitalism stood: a racially stratified global division of labor, which, starting in the sixteenth century, tied Europe, West Africa, and the Americas together in a capitalist world-economy.” McQuade reiterates Du Bois, noting that the revolutionary moments of abolition democracy were briefly achieved during Reconstruction, powered by mobilizations and direct action of Black workers as well the temporary class alliances between Black workers, poor southern whites, middle class abolitionists, and northern industrialists.

But for such transformations to endure, they need to be planted in more fertile soil. “DuBois pointed out that in order to fully abolish the oppressive conditions produced by slavery, new democratic institutions would have to be created,” says Davis in Abolition Democracy. Du Bois’s observation—that abolition as a negative process on its own was not sufficient—deeply resonates with contemporary approaches to abolition democracy.

Abolition democracy then, says Davis, is the “democracy that is to come, the democracy that is possible” through the continuation of the great abolitionist movements in American history and around the world. Abolition democracy requires us to radically reimagine the institutions that shape our lives, and to take an active role in building them anew.

What would creating these new institutions look like? As grassroots abolitionist collectives like MPD150 have put forth, it would entail building a society that fosters collective life where everyone’s basic needs are met. It means engaging in policy work that prevents crime, rather than punishing it. Abolition necessitates the “transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence,” as described in the anarchist zine, what about the rapists? The writers argue for a reexamination of what we consider as “crime” and “justice.” In their view, we should understand these concepts within the context of power and systemic oppression, with an eye toward developing transformative models that offer genuine conflict-resolution and healing for victims.

Prison abolition is often derided as idealistic or utopian, but it’s more achievable than some might think. In fact, decentralized communal defense models and widespread restorative approaches to justice already exist in Rojava, the Kurdish name commonly used to describe what is formally called North East Syria. As many activists have noted, this autonomous region in northeastern Syria provides a striking modern example of how democratic solidarity in resistance to growing authoritarian power worldwide can inform present-day political efforts within the United States.

“Not long ago, few observers could have foreseen the emergence of a democratic revolution in northern Syria, or even believed it could happen. So in the spring of 2011, when the Kurdish freedom movement declared its aim to build a society around a concept called ‘Democratic Confederalism,’ few noticed,” write Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, and Ercan Ayboga, co-authors of the book Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in the Syrian Kurdistan. The popular uprisings in July of 2012 that liberated Kurdish-majority cities and villages from the Ba’ath dictatorship were largely overlooked by the West, which was slow to realize that a remarkable contemporary revolution was taking place.

It wasn’t until January 2014, when the three cantons of Rojava, Afrin, Kobane, and Jazeera issued a declaration of Democratic Autonomy—or perhaps around a year later, when the coalition triumphantly defeated the Islamic State at Kobane—that “the world finally noticed,” as Knapp et al put it.

Originally born out of the movement to free Kurdish people from sustained repression, Rojava became a revolutionary project to build a society around what is called democratic confederalism. In a democratic confederalist society, a “social economy” is implemented and all resources, including factories, are collectively owned and self-governed through communes and cooperatives (this differs in obvious ways from the “market economies” that currently dominate the world, in which private actors vie for control over resources and influence). Against all odds, under global scrutiny and pessimism, the political structures of Rojava have functioned and endured at a level that has surpassed expectations.

But how did they first come into being? A little over 40 years ago, the Kurdish movement, catalyzed by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its figureheads Abdullah Öcalan and Sakine Cansız, sought to free the Kurds from deep-rooted oppression in Turkey. As Knapp et al describe, anti-Kurdish racism had long been an integral part of Kemelism, the Turkish “modernization movement” that sought to stamp out Kurdish language and culture. However, Rojava’s vision has evolved beyond Kurdish independence, and today it encompasses culturally diverse communities, including Arab-majority regions liberated from Islamic State control. (The autonomous Rojava region is large and diverse, home to 4-5 million people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, including Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Turkmen, Syriac-Assyrians, Yezidis, Circassians, Chechens, and nomadic Dumi.)

Since its declaration of autonomy, Rojava has witnessed prolonged conflict in its violent campaigns against the Islamic State, other jihadist groups, and the ongoing Turkish invasion. Surrounded by rival nation-states, Rojava has also suffered from their imposed political and economic embargo. At the same time, thousands of both Syrian and international activists have flocked to the region in support of the movement and its unprecedented experiment in radical democracy and self-governance.

As Ercan Ayboga, co-author of Revolution in Rojava and a longtime activist in grassroots organizations like the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, said in an interview with Current Affairs: “Democracy in our view needs active [contributions] from everybody. Each person in the society should be able to organize at the lowest level possible and take part in the decision-making process.” 

In contrast, Ayboga said, a parliamentary democracy where elections are only held every four to five years opens up room for secrecy and corruption by powerful interests. A democratic confederal structure doesn’t preclude corruption, but minimizes it with continuous, active discussions among all members of society. In Ayboga’s view, “People become more aware of what’s going on and which decisions are being made. Everybody who takes part in discussions, even at the lowest level, should be able to make their proposal and discuss with others or request transparency.”

Continuous social engagement is a key component to democratic confederalism. It’s an essential element of abolition as well, since it helps sustain political awareness at the local level. Greater civic engagement can also make life more enjoyable in many ways by bringing together community members of all backgrounds and age levels.

“I like to go to the communes often to speak to people there. You could find a way to join meetings,” Ayboga said. “In the streets it was very relaxed to walk around. It was a nice atmosphere, quite peaceful, and you could go to every shop and speak to everybody.”

Rojava’s pursuit of deep democracy grew from a major shift in the ideology of the PKK and subsequently the Kurdish rights movement. The PKK, which had its roots in traditional Marxism and nationalism “much like many of the anti-colonial liberation movements of the second half of the 20th century,” evolved over time “in response to the profound failure of state based socialism as embodied by the USSR,” as Ayboga details in Revolution in Rojava.

By the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the movement experienced a paradigm shift away from the top-down Marxism-Leninist approach in favor of grassroots alternatives. This was to avoid reproducing patterns of oppression seen in capitalist and nation-state systems. Within a few years, the PKK largely gave up on the notion of building a Kurdish nation-state in favor of focusing on equal rights and Kurdish autonomy within the Turkish state.

Yet the movement didn’t give up the basic socialist vision of radical egalitarianism, Ayboga says. Rather, it embraced the idea of working at the given moment “wherever we are, whatever time it is” to develop alternative forms of governance within the existing state structures in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, where most Kurds resided. The PKK also actively collaborated with other Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, anarchist, and feminist forces, and was one of the ten revolutionary socialist organizations to form the Peoples’ United Revolutionary Movement—whose stated goal was to overthrow the “collaborative fascist AKP [Justice and Development Party] and TC (Turkish Republic) system of sovereignty”—in 2016.

The theories that guided the development of democratic confederalism can largely be credited to PKK figurehead Abdullah Öcalan, who to this day remains a political prisoner in Turkey. His life has been a distinguished yet turbulent one: on February 15, 1999, Öcalan was abducted in Nairobi, Kenya by Turkish intelligence forces with the help from the CIA. He was brought to Turkey and sentenced to death, which eventually was negotiated to a life sentence.

In his decades of incarceration, Öcalan has abandoned his former Marxist and Stalinist beliefs as he became exposed to social theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein, Fernand Braudel, Friedrich Nietzsche—and most importantly, libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin’s concept of communalism, which places emphasis on collective ownership and “demands the formation of popular assemblies and their confederation,” heavily inspired Öcalan’s theories on democratic confederalism

Both former Marxists, Bookchin and Öcalan have a dialectical approach to developing revolutionary theory. Yet instead of trying to predict an inevitable future revolt, they studied historical development “for ethics—to derive, from what has happened in the past, what ought to come next,” in the words of Janet Biehl, who co-edited the journal Left Green Perspectives with Bookchin. Thus, Öcalan’s solution to freedom for the Kurdish people hinges on a sort of libertarian municipalist revolt: abolishing the nation-state system under which racial and patriarchal violence proliferate. There could be a number of different means to this end, whether through a Marxist-Leninist vision of a “cataclysmic revolution” or one of “transcendence” as conceived by Öcalan. The latter requires cultivating a deeper, more authentic form of democracy—the type that is envisioned by contemporary advocates of abolition democracy.

Such a transformation doesn’t happen overnight, or by accident. In fact, one of the biggest challenges facing activists in Rojava—and in the United States, or anywhere else for that matter—is what activists described as a “lingering state mentality” where people are not accustomed to seeing themselves as part of the political process. Building a participatory-democratic approach to politics, whether as part of the struggle here in the United States or in Rojava, is not only done through a pure installation of new political and economic structures. Instead, as Öcalan writes, it requires a society “to [institutionalize] the communal and democratic identity.” 

To understand what this means in practice, it’s helpful to look at a concrete example. In Rojava, communes are the basic level of social organization—these are then federated into people’s assemblies and people’s congresses focused on specific issues, like women’s liberation, multiculturalism, and ecological consciousness through economic systems that collectivize natural resources and land. Each of these groups are aimed at helping members develop a deeper personal understanding of the issues at hand: some women’s assemblies, for example, hold workshops where attendees can discuss books on the topic and explore its role in the revolutionary agenda.

This type of active participation is essential to democratic confederalism. As Öcalan puts it in his book Democratic Confederalism, “Each community, ethnicity, culture, religious community, intellectual movement, economic unit, etc., can autonomously configure and express themselves as a political unit.” To him, democratic confederalism is a simple and implementable tool “with which to [politicize] society” and overcome the problems originating from the nation-state system.

Overcoming those problems requires more than a nostalgic retreat to “simpler times.” It demands that we imagine new ways of relating to each other—and the umbrella women’s movement in Rojava is a prime example. Rather than merely returning to an antiquated model of local patriarchy, Rojava has made efforts to address the systemic inequalities faced by women, and to ensure that women are represented and protected. A comprehensive 2019 report conducted by the Rojava Information Center (RIC) notes that while there have been “challenges in establishing a shared vision and practice of women’s liberation across all of society,” there have also been “numerous tangible successes” like the establishment of the Women’s Economy Committee of the Autonomous Administration and Kongreya Star which has helped create women’s cooperatives and supported women in developing skills to become financially independent. In addition, “Women’s Houses” were established throughout cities in Rojava dedicated to addressing gender-specific issues such as domestic violence, marriage and divorce, and oppression within family structures.

In order for the system to sustain itself, however, the report says, addressing tensions between the Kurd and Arab populations (and minority Assyrians) is crucial. There’s been some progress on this front: as noted in the RIC report, work has been done to bring together community leaders of different ethnic and religious backgrounds across the autonomous region. Despite challenges, numerous achievements have been made to improve the general standard of living. This includes standardizing the multilingual education system, providing people with bread and diesel through the commune system, and creating cooperatives that help empower people to open small businesses.

While Rojava does still have prisons—they’re part of the criminal justice institutions inherited from the state—the vast majority of social disputes are resolved at the commune level between involved parties where even a single member can obtain the dismissal of a top official. The death penalty has been abolished, and detentions and custody locations can be openly accessed, as Human Rights Watch has confirmed. The overall justice system has been re-oriented towards re-socialization and education, writes Knapp et al, and once the means are available, the aim is that prisons will be transformed into rehabilitation centers.

“The wish of the revolutionary society, at least in Rojava, is that there shouldn’t be the need to resort…to a judge nor to a people’s jury, nor to muster hundreds of people in order to evaluate if a person is guilty, and ask the attorney for how long the person will have to stay in prison,” writes Italian journalist Davide Grasso in Rojava: Has Revolution Eliminated The State?

In the communes where people know and are more trusting of one another, conflict resolutions can be made in the majority of cases. “The communes are thought out ‘against’ the boards at the top: they limit their power and exert in turn a power from below, which is predominant compared to the one coming from above. This is the difference from the state system,” explains Ghalia, a member of the Amude People’s House in a conversion with Grasso.

Communes are also where laws are proposed for the region’s legislative board and where volunteers are selected for the civilian defence forces (HPC) who organize at the municipal level, intervening in violent conflicts, patrolling neighborhoods and guarding public buildings and events. They are not entirely unlike police, but each person, including women and seniors, is encouraged to volunteer in the HPC through a roster system. This more decentralized model of communal security, explains Kurdish academic Hawzhin Azeez, reduces the possibilities of authorities monopolizing power. The HPC supplements the Asayish, the region’s professional security forces whose predominant role is to man checkpoints between cities and contain intelligence services and anti-terror units in response to foreign attacks.

Despite these successes, it’s an unfortunate fact that Rojava’s remarkable experiment in radical democracy is likely near its end. In October 2019, the United States terminated its alliance with Rojava, essentially clearing the way for Turkish invasion of the region. Yet the possible end of Rojava does not mean that it is a failed project—or that we can’t apply its lessons in the United States, however different the political context may be.

Advocates of democratic autonomy are well aware that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the world’s current political woes. “Öcalan, and our movement—the Kurdish freedom movement—proposes democratic confederalism to the four states where the Kurds live, but we don’t claim that democratic confederalism is the solution,” Ayboga said. “We say that for the Middle East, it is an option. In every state, region or country, the implementation of democratic autonomy of course is different given the different conditions. At the global level, [democratic confederalism] can be a contribution to the search for democratic alternatives, to develop a more democratic society free of patriarchy, class structures, ecological destruction, exploitation and so on—that’s a big aim.”

While the term “democratic confederalism” might sound strange to American ears, its principles of communal identity and widespread political education are not new. Rather, they have much in common with the ideas that have animated decades of struggle for racial and economic justice in the United States. We can see similar principles at work when we examine the legacy of the Black Panther Party, whose chapters across the nation advocated a 10-point socialist program and launched social projects like the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which expanded to providing medical and legal support in Black communities.

Nor do we have to look solely to the past to imagine what deep democracy might look like in the United States. Ambitious projects like the Jackson-Kush plan put forth by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement are examples of the municipalist endeavours taking root in recent years. Its aims—to build people’s assemblies, an independent Black political party, and a broad-based solidarity economy—share similar ideological undercurrents that inspired the Kurdish freedom movement.

Revolutionary leaders, like Öcalan himself, have generally recognized that politics must become a part of daily social life. Each of us must commit to a continuous, inclusive vision of society where we can work as political actors ourselves at the grassroots level. And while Rojava is not an anarchist utopia, completely free of prisons, police, and state violence, its movement, as Grasso emphasizes, is one that “neither should be uncritically accepted nor arrogantly dismissed but considered useful for all those articulating a critique of the state.”

As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write in their critical essay, The University and the Undercommons, “[Abolition is] not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.” [Emphasis added.]

Abolition, based on principles of communal solidarity and informed by both historical and international struggles for deep democracy, is a vital tool for building and sustaining models of self-direction. It provides one of the best available frameworks for fostering internal peace and tolerance. Ultimately, abolition—and the deep democracy that is essential to its functioning—may be the only way to transcend the exploitation that arises from capitalism.

Living in the Time of Gender Revelations

The last book of the Bible is called Revelation, and it describes for us mortals the end of the world. At the beginning of the book, a prophet named John (classic boy name) narrates the visions he has experienced, in which many-eyed angels and a wrathful horned lamb commence the destruction of the human universe, scorching the grass, poisoning the water, and blocking out the sun with unbearable smoke. The book is called Revelation because Protestants are lame; alternate translations call it Apocalypse. We tend to think of these words as having quite separate meanings, since apocalypse has now come to mean the end of the world, but the two words are actually synonyms. Apocalypse is a Greek word for “the uncovering of that which was hidden”, or to put it more simply “the reveal”. 

Heterosexuality has always been bolstered by strange rituals, although we don’t always tend to think of them that way. A few years ago I attended the wedding of a couple who were staunchly Christian, and the priest began the ceremony by reminding us that a wedding was a joining of a man and woman “in sexual union”. This made me feel a little squicky: announcing to everyone the couple knows, including their closest relatives, that they’re probably going to have sex later? Isn’t that a little weird? But I was forgetting that even secularized weddings keep much of the ritualised aspects that enforce cultish patriarchy, even if they’re not as explicit: the woman wears an elaborate white dress to symbolize that she has not been “spoiled” by other men, her father “gives her away” to her new guardian, she takes a new name to confirm that she is now part of her husband’s family instead of her father’s family, and so on. (The man, I don’t know, wears a slightly more expensive tie than usual.) 

Even non-traditional couples, and even non-hetero couples, often adopt many or all aspects of these rituals, and what’s more, these rituals have a tendency to multiply and metastasize, often egged on or outright cut out of whole cloth by corporations. Once upon a time it was normal for an engagement ring to be a plain band. Then De Beers started a campaign claiming that diamonds were the ideal stone for such a ring, which eventually morphed into the norm that they were the only acceptable stone for such a ring. After that, De Beers promoted the idea that an engagement ring should cost “two months’ salary”, which in many quarters has become three months’ salary. Anything less would suggest you are not paying the adequate price for your bride; not showing deference to the twin pillars of society that are “traditional values” and irrational capitalism.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to engagements, but spreads into all rituals of heteronormativity: anyone who’s read a bridal magazine can tell you the absurd prices napkins suddenly reach when they’re “wedding napkins”, or balloons when they’re “wedding balloons”. Bachelor and bachelorette parties have grown from single nights of debauchery into entire weekends or destination vacations, supported by an industry that grows stronger by the decade. Pregnancies are no longer a medical state but a signal that hordes of your fellow cis women must start dictating to you the ever-growing number of correct rituals to follow: whether to play Mozart or whalesong to the baby, whether to ingest flaxseed or acai, whether you should be in a bed or a pool or a pit of imported French soil when the baby is finally pulled from your screaming, exhausted body. (All of this, of course, is an acutely class-based phenomenon, pioneered and promulgated mainly by well-off white couples; a lot of people are too broke to even consider any of this shit.) Every year new rituals seem to pop up related to reproduction of the human species: babymoons, “push presents”.

Which brings us, of course, to the gender reveal.

Ultrasound technology has allowed us to see a fetus’s genitals since the 1960s, but “gender reveals” have only been around for about ten years. (One of the women who popularized the concept, Jenna Karvunidis, has since expressed regret that she was ever involved with such a thing, especially since her own child is actually gender-nonconforming and wears suits better than any cis man could ever.) The initial wave of “gender reveal” parties relied on simple if reductive gimmicks, such as cakes that would show themselves to be either pink or blue on the inside once cut. Just like many other expensive and unnecessary rituals of heteronormativity, these parties were mainly popular amongst white and relatively affluent couples, and spread like an uncontrolled fire on social media. Prurient fascination with fetal sex is nothing new; every culture has its superstitions that claim to predict it, and I don’t think any of Henry VIII’s wives would have said “I don’t mind if it’s a boy or a girl, so long as it’s healthy!”. But we’ve had the ability to determine fetal sex for a long time, yet the phenomenon of publicly ritualising and celebrating the discovery of the fetus’s genitals does appear to be new—and not only new, but new at a time when binary divisions of sex and gender are more contested than ever. This might not be a coincidence.

The engine of culture war is backlash: rarely does a vigorous retrenchment of cultural values come from nowhere, instead rearing its ugly head in response to the mildest hint of threat. Liberals say SUVs are bad for the environment, let’s buy even bigger ones just to fuck with them. A woman complained about videogames, let’s start a movement driving as many women out of gaming as possible. These people criticised our society, let’s say whatever we think will “trigger” them. And the increased visibility of trans and non-binary people in the last few years has prompted an intense and vicious backlash, one that has trickled down from media niches and obsessive ideologues into the more general mainstream. People who never thought about other people being trans until about 2014 are suddenly joking about pronouns, and glancing nervously at the door whenever a woman over five foot seven enters the ladies’ room. One has to wonder why “gender reveals” became popular just as society was being introduced to the idea that gender isn’t about a baby’s genitals.

This is not to say that everyone who has a “gender reveal” party is a virulent transphobe, though even the name itself is inaccurate and transphobic. (Wikipedia prefers to coolly classifiy it as a “fetal sex reveal event”.) Rather, the creation of the “gender reveal”, as well as its deadly mutation, has grown out of a society that is in the midst of a backlash, a desperate scramble to hold on to “traditional” norms, especially in the white rich suburbs considered the finest bastion of American society. This backlash is not just about gender, either, but about “the American way of life” in general—the perfect heteronormative family, with the little boy or girl who fits the image their parent had of them before they were even born; the luxurious party in the beautiful house that you’re proud to put on your Instagram; the ability to buy an enormously expensive cake that can be customised any way you want no matter how ludicrous, the right to set off pink or blue fireworks in your enormous backyard that has a bright green lawn even though you live in Arizona and the planet is dying. This is the life that American culture war is being fought over right now, and as the situation gets more urgent, the reveals only get more violent.

The past two or three years have seen “gender reveals” go from parties to increasingly expensive, elaborate and extreme rituals. In Dubai, perhaps the world’s epicenter of profligate luxury and absurd inequality, two Youtubers announced the sex of their baby by projecting it on the Burj Khalifa. Many now involve explosives, often seeming more like military exercises than celebrations. At least one person has died in a gender reveal gone wrong. This guy got hit in the crotch with a flare. A gender reveal in Australia led to a car bursting into flames. And two have caused massive wildfires that have damaged the ecosystem and endangered lives. The cult of the gender reveal is increasingly showing its face, not as a symbol of love for a new child, but as part of a violent assertion of the right of wealthy families to do whatever they want, to label their child what they want, to spend their money on what they want and launch their rockets wherever they want. I’m sure this is not the conscious intention of most parents who practice “gender reveals”, even the ones who go to extremes. But I have to ask you: when you’re willing to start a 50,000 acre fire just to tell the world that your fetus has genitals, what exactly do you think you’re revealing?

It’s hard not to think of the world ending these days. The sky is literally blood-red. Fires and floods everywhere. Plagues. It’s not exactly subtle. But despite the cartoonish obviousness of the symptoms, the world isn’t ending immediately. We still have time to change things, to radically reorder our society. But it appears our society is not in full agreement on this matter; as we fight for our planet and for our most vulnerable people, those who fight against us seem to grip even more tightly onto the right to live white, rich, normatively favoured and perfectly ordered lives. The “gender reveal” is just a symptom of a dying society trying to reassert itself, even as the grass is scorched, the water is poisoned, and the sun is blocked out with unbearable smoke. 

Activists are correct when they say the term “gender reveal” is wrong. Might I suggest: gender apocalypse?

The Possibility of Life Without Money

A while back, I wrote an article on the decommodification of the toilet. In Europe, people often have to pay to use public toilets. I was surprised on a visit to England when, in a country that offers totally free public healthcare, I had to fumble in my pockets for coins just to take a “wee.” (As the expulsion of urine is known in my home country.) In the United States, this experience is unknown, because there was a successful, unsung social movement to abolish paid toilets. I pointed out in my article how wonderfully freeing it is not to have to think about money when you go to the bathroom. “Decommodifying” the lavatory means your relationship to the lavatory is no longer transactional (I pay money, I am given permission to urinate). You just go. 

Public libraries operate like this, too, and many parks, and fire departments. You do not have to pay per book at the library. You just go and check out what you need. The fire department does not send you a bill. It just comes to your house and puts the fire out. At a good park, you just go to the park, rather than having to purchase a ticket.

Healthcare in the United States, unlike healthcare in Britain, does not operate this way. You do not simply go to your doctor, get treated, and leave. There is money involved. You must pay for what you receive, and often you must spend time negotiating with your insurance company to get them to pay. As a result, a person’s thinking about their medical care is bound up with thinking about their personal finances. They must ask questions like: is it worth going to a doctor over this, or can I afford an ambulance? We take this for granted, but it’s helpful to think about how absurd this would seem if it was how we ran fire protection. If it cost $50,000 to have a housefire put out, people would hesitate to call firefighters. They would probably try very hard to put out fires themselves, and many people without much money would die trying to avoid an expensive bill. This is a good reason why fire departments no longer operate on the private model that they used to, and are now a free-at-point-of-use service.

Conservatives sometimes point out that when we lefties say we want something to be “free,” it is not really free, because it must be paid for by the government. This is correct. It is not free, it is “free at point of use,” meaning that it is funded out of a collective pool of wealth rather than by individuals when they use the service. A good reason for making things free at point of use is that it makes them less stressful, and people can focus on fulfilling their needs and desires rather than on thinking about money. One reason universal free college would be a wonderful thing is that it would let prospective students think about the question “What am I interested in studying?” rather than “What can I afford to study?” Free healthcare lets people’s healthcare decisions be based on their healthcare needs rather than an equation involving both their needs and their bank account. Free public transit means that when you want to get on the subway, all you do is go and get on the subway. We can take out all the turnstiles, forget swiping MetroCards. 

There is something very appealing about not having to stop all day to make micro-level financial decisions that take time and energy away from what we are actually trying to do. (How many times have you missed a bus or train because you were still fiddling with the ticket machine?) The same is true in every relationship of exchange. When I go to a coffee shop, the time I spend having my card swiped and having to enter the tip and sign the thing, and the time the barista spends processing my payment rather than making coffee, is unproductive. It is a “transaction cost.” It is a means to an end. I find restaurants immensely stressful places because of how much time I spend thinking about The Check. Have they brought it yet? Are we going to split it? Oh God, what if my card is rejected? How much of a tip do I leave on this? Sometimes you need to leave, but you can’t leave, because of The Check. In a hypothetical “free restaurant,” you would simply go, eat, and leave. But restaurants are not free at point of use. 

When I wrote my article about decommodifying toilets, I pointed out what a bothersome nuisance it is to constantly be having to undergo the process of exchange. Putting coins in the door of a toilet is absurd, and as the American example shows, unnecessary. You could just let people walk in. But a techno-libertarian type challenged me on this. He (you knew the gender when I said techno-libertarian) said Well, Actually technology is taking us toward a “cashless” society. Payments are getting easier and easier. Yes, fumbling with coins is ridiculous. So is having to swipe a credit card and punch in your PIN. But payments are getting swifter with things like Apple Pay. We can imagine that in the near future, you would simply be able to tap your phone on the bathroom door and be let in, the money deducted from your account. Pay toilets could therefore be convenient to pay for.

Now, my libertarian comrade (they hate when you call them that) did not sell me on the virtues of paid toilets. He did, however, get me thinking about the increasing ease of payments. I got my first smartphone recently, after holding out for many years, and I was immediately impressed with how easy it was to pay for things. I do not have to put in my credit card information every time. I simply look at the phone, it identifies my face (creepy and worrisome, but convenient), and I press “pay.” Use DoorDash or Lyft and you do not have to enter any bank information after the first time. In fact, so long as you know you have plenty of money in your bank account, you just pick what you want and order it. You do not even think about the money. The prices are not changing your decision, because you know can afford whatever you pick. Therefore: for you, the person who can afford any of the various options among which you are choosing, the prices are virtually superfluous information. You need them there to make sure you aren’t being bilked. But they almost cease to matter.

I have a very different relationship with money now that I am not poor. (I was only ever student-poor, meaning I had no money, not poverty-poor.) When I go to the grocery store, I simply pick out the things I want and take them to the checkout. I do not even look at their prices, because even if one yogurt costs $2 and one costs $4, the difference does not make a difference to me, as I can afford either yogurt and prefer to pick the most satisfying one over spending my time doing a mental cost-benefit analysis of whether the extra $2 will bring $2 extra of satisfaction. It won’t, but I also do not care, because what does give me lots of satisfaction is choosing yogurts purely out of desire. 

At the checkout, they ring me up, and I see the price, and they hand me a receipt. I throw away the receipt. I glance at the price, but usually it’s somewhere around what I expected it to be. But I don’t have to think about the specific amount very much, because I know that I am only ever buying “a reasonable amount of groceries” and that my bank account can accommodate “a reasonable amount of groceries,” so there is never going to be an issue. When I had no money, things were different. I was thinking about every additional banana and whether I could afford it. Money was the central thing I thought about at the grocery store, because when you have little of it, you need to make decisions like “is the more expensive yogurt worth it?” Penny-pinching adds up over time, and if you make hundreds of decisions that help you save $1 or $2 on each transaction you may have hundreds more dollars each month, enough to make the difference between being able to pay a bill and not being able to pay it.

Personally, I am lucky. I have a steady job that covers my bills. So they are all on auto-pay. I don’t think about my bills. I try to conserve electricity and to keep the air conditioner at a reasonable temperature and not amass a giant data bill on the phone, but so long as I am reasonable and prudent I don’t need to think very much. I’m noticing more and more that, given cashless transfer technology, money is playing a smaller and smaller role in my everyday life. When I order things online, the price is helpful to tell me that they’re not unreasonably expensive. There are $800 table lamps and I don’t want to order one of those by accident. But if I turn on a filter that says “only show me table lamps under $150,” the variations within the category don’t necessarily matter to me. If it’s in my budget, I can have it.

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. 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. William Morris, in News from Nowhere, depicts a utopia in which an artisan spends months crafting a gorgeously painted smoking pipe, only to give it away to someone who saw it and admired it. For Morris, there was something beautiful in this. If you want it, it’s yours, no questions asked.

The interesting thing is that for people who are wealthy, it is already almost possible to be released from a life in which thoughts about money play a significant part. Of course, the rich actually think constantly about money. But it’s not because they have to. You can pay people to think about your money and just go and enjoy your life. They “never have to worry about money again.”

Let me describe to you an imagined place where money has virtually disappeared from people’s lives:

Pleasant Acres is one of those awful Florida retirement villages full of Trump supporters where everyone plays pickleball and does salsa dancing. We are not here interested in the cultural vibrancy of Pleasant Acres or the politics of its residents. Instead, we are concerned with the internal economy. Residents pay $100,000 per year to live in Pleasant Acres. That price secures them access to the following:

  • A condo
  • A golf cart  
  • Golf equipment, if they do not have it already
  • Access to the tennis courts, swimming pool, and gymnasium
  • Dance classes
  • Academic classes at the “university” (unaccredited but with excellent instructors)
  • 3 meals a day at any one of the 6 “restaurants” in the village, plus unlimited snacks
  • 2 baskets of groceries per week at the community “store” 
  • Rental of whatever art they would like from the art warehouse, to put in their condo
  • Art supplies if they want to make art at the studio
  • Medical care at the clinic and on-call nursing
  • Use of the library
  • Unlimited cocktails
  • Protection by a private security firm
  • As many plants as they would like for their condo, from the nursery
  • Up to 3 pets from the pet repository (residents may also bring their own pets. If they would like to leave Pleasant Acres and keep a repository pet they must pay $500). 
  • Maintenance of their condo
  • Water, electricity, and internet for their condo
  • Participation in the full social life of the village including game nights, film screenings, visiting lecturers, community hoedowns, speed-dating
  • Up to 10 subscriptions to newspapers and magazines of their choice
  • A certain number of guest passes for many amenities

I am sure you see already where I am going with this. It is possible to live in Pleasant Acres, have your $100,000 deducted annually from your bank account, and go through your day to day life without thinking about money at all. I do not mean “not thinking about money because you have so much that the cost of each transaction doesn’t matter to you.” I mean that there are no internal transactions taking place between the residents and the management. Getting a newspaper isn’t deducted from your $100,000. It’s inclusive. The facility might track internal usage of the amenities, or it might not. It might have an internal pricing system, deducting the cost of a pet or newspaper from a person’s $100,000, but it also might not, and could just look at the income coming in versus the total expenses going out in each category. 

The system here is not communism, because there is private property. The residents do not own the facility, which is run by a private company. The “means of production” are in private hands. But within Pleasant Acres, there is no “market.” Now, the case of art supplies is quite interesting, because what happens if a person makes a painting that they then want to sell? Of course, Pleasant Acres could say that use of their art supplies means they own any paintings that are produced, but they don’t say that. The gentle seniors of the village may sell each other whatever they wish. In practice, however, nobody has ever sold a painting to another resident. Usually they just give them to someone who seems to want it. This is because getting money for your painting would not have much of a point. All of your needs are taken care of. You are satisfied. You want for nothing. What would you buy with the money? A big television? They have those at the Electronics Station, and if you call, one will be brought to your condo. 

Now, some people drink more than their fair share of the unlimited cocktails, so that if everyone guzzled as many mimosas as Norma, or as many martinis as Walt, the place would swiftly have to start cutting costs elsewhere or face ruin. But some residents don’t drink, so it averages out, and the facility adjusts its annual fee to make sure that its total income covers the total amount of its expenditures. Within a single institution, then, market relationships and commodification have been functionally eliminated as part of day to day life. Yes, there is the $100,000 coming annually from people’s bank accounts. But people who come here know they have enough to cover the rest of their lives. The $100,000 is something they thought about once, for ten seconds, before signing up. 

Institutions like this exist. In fact, the funny thing is, many modern corporations are kind of like this internally. In People’s Republic of Walmart, Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski talk about how giant corporations are actually “market-free” zones on the inside. If I am an employee and I need office supplies, I go to the supply closet, not the supply store. If a department needs resources, it puts in a request for them. Of course, the upper levels will often evaluate the cost of those things in determining whether to grant the request, depending on what those things are. But we have something much closer in structure to a centralized “command economy” than a marketplace. In fact, Phillips and Rozworski note that when Sears tried to introduce an “internal market” whereby different departments had to compete with each other rather than simply taking from the communal resource pool and working for the collective good, the project was a disaster. A corporation instead works more like a military, supplying people on the basis of need. You can think about these Silicon Valley “campuses,” where amenities and even food are supplied gratis. Here’s a description of the “Googleplex”:

One of the most often cited perks of working at Google is the food. Google feeds its employees well. If you work at the Googleplex, you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner free of charge. There are several cafés located throughout the campus, and employees can eat at any of them. The main café is Charlie’s Place. The café takes its name from Google’s first lead chef, Charlie Ayers. Before creating meals for Googlers, Ayers was the chef for the Grateful Dead. Although Ayers left Google in 2005, the café still bears his name. The café has several stations, each offering different kinds of cuisine. Options range from vegetarian dishes to sushi to ethnic foods from around the world. Google’s culture promotes the use of fresh, organic foods and healthy meals. But when everything is free and you can eat whenever you want, it’s easy to go overboard. That’s where the Google 15 comes in. It refers to the 15 pounds many new Google employees put on once they start taking advantage of all the meals and snacks.

You can eat whatever you want! For free! Of course it’s not free at all, because you’re a servant of an evil corporate behemoth. But it’s free at the point of use, and for good reason. It’s nice to just be able to go and eat without having to think about money. Google could pay its employees extra by the average amount that each costs them in food, and then charge them at the point of use. But they have decided that there is no point to this. And employees seem to like this a lot, judging by how much they use it.

Now, the “Google 15” actually usefully brings us to a serious objection to free-at-point-of-use goods and services. When people don’t have to make cost-benefit calculations, they tend to use more of a thing. Mainstream economics often assumes we have “unlimited wants” and that the things we want are scarce, meaning there’s not enough of them to satisfy our wants. Pricing things helps keep us from having to “ration” them. Thus the British NHS has to decide how to give out scarce healthcare through having a central body decide how resources are apportioned, whereas the American “free market” healthcare system uses the magic of prices to decide who gets what. One fear about Medicare For All is that it will lead people to consume “too much” healthcare, because there won’t be any cost to them for doing so. The Google 15 shows that if food is free, people will eat more of it.

But the fact that “free at point of use” makes people use more of something is not actually a bad thing. I talked about how if fire departments charged people, homeowners would be disincentivized from calling the fire department, which would actually be very bad. In healthcare, it’s bad that people are discouraged from calling ambulances. If the public library charged to check out books, fewer people would read and learn. And in Pleasant Acres, the whole point is that seniors are liberated from the bother of having to think about transactions and get to simply enjoy things.

A funny thing happened at Pleasant Acres after a few years. First, management realized that full-time workers in the facility were costing about $110,000 each. So a program was introduced whereby you could have all the amenities of the facility, plus $10,000 annually, if you were willing to work full time. Many seniors therefore did not even engage with any direct financial transactions with the facility. They gave according to their ability, and took according to their need, in addition to having a “Basic Income.” A greater and greater percentage of residents started to do this to the point where the entire workforce, other than the company’s management, was composed of residents. Eventually, Pleasant Acres was so pleasant that it attracted many visitors, who liked to take its classes and attend the movie nights. The visitors were charged money (unless they were from elsewhere in the Pleasant Acres Network), and eventually the intake from visitors became substantial. At this point, Pleasant Acres did something interesting: it cut the workweek in half, and it entirely eliminated the $100,000 annual fee, instead simply requiring 20 hours a week of work from all residents. Supplies the facility needed to purchase from outside (new lawnmowers, electronics, food, medical equipment) were paid for with the tourist revenue. But much was made inside the village, and all the work was simply done by the village residents. Performing the work guaranteed that when you eventually became unable to do work, you were still allowed to live and use all the amenities as before.

There was, of course, eventually a labor uprising, because the seniors of the village realized at a certain point that upper management was extraneous. They refused any longer to let extra tourist revenue go to the company’s profits, and insisted it be split among the workers equally. Because the company had made the mistake of becoming dependent on the village residents, it was forced to democratize. 

And thus was Socialism In One Retirement Village achieved. 

This is a silly story, with many implausible aspects, and I am not asking you to believe that rich old Trump voters are going to become syndicalists and make a little socialist utopia. Instead, I am only trying to show that eliminating markets, money, and exchange within certain spheres is quite readily conceivable. There is an empirical question about whether, in any given sphere, it is possible to do so without unacceptable rationing. But free market economists tend to cast doubt on the possibilities for market-free resource allocation, because they start with the assumption that people have “infinite wants” and are selfish rational maximizers. This is plainly false, or at least true only in the aggregate (if you have one person who does have “infinite wants,” such as Jeff Bezos, then you might say “humanity as a whole” has infinite wants even if most of us could be satisfied with a modest amount). The assumption is that if you give endless free cocktails, you will swiftly run out of cocktails. But that is not always true. Google did not run out of food by offering free food. People got a bit heavier, but they didn’t gorge themselves to death. Yes, you may have to establish a theoretical upper bound of what people can take, which is a form of rationing. (Pleasant Acres rationed newspapers and magazines, by limiting subscriptions to 10.) But if that boundary is higher than what any individual person will want, then in practice you will never have to “enforce” any rationing. (In practice, if your limit is set too low, i.e. it turns out many people want 12 magazines and nobody wants pets, you might alter your resource allocation so that you still aren’t actually depriving anyone of anything they desire.)

There is an old criticism of “socialist” planning called the “economic calculation problem” developed by right-wing economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The idea is that “rational” allocations of resources cannot occur without market prices, which are used to give information about how much people prefer what, and thus direct production. “Central planners” simply do not have the information necessary to decide what to produce. Centrally planned economies have been seen to vindicate this idea. Now, as we have seen, centrally planned institutions without “internal markets” are plainly possible; a library’s acquisitions and distributions are centrally planned based on the information given by what books people ask for, not by the prices they pay. But the whole problem was posed 100 years ago, and we live in a very different world now. The assumptions need to be reevaluated. What was true for the industrializing Soviet Union is not necessarily true of a world with near-instantaneous means of conveying giant quantities of information across the world. Technology and material abundance might actually massively alter the feasibility of non-market means of producing and distributing goods and services. Even at the time, capitalist economist Joseph Schumpeter said Mises was flat wrong to say planned, non-market economies “could not” work, and Schumpeter concluded that “there is nothing wrong with the pure logic of socialism.” (Schumpeter used socialism to mean central planning, which is a bad definition, but nonetheless the point remains that even this free market economist thought the free marketers’ critique was unsound.) In a society of abundance, or at least a society where individuals’ desires can all in principle be satisfied because there is more than enough to go around, it may be possible to operate without prices, or to have prices operating silently in the background for the benefit of planners but never seen by individuals, who do not have to think about money. (A technical treatment of the implications of today’s “Big Data” for the “calculation debate” can be found in a long article by Evgeny Morozov for the Monthly Review.)

  Now, of course, Pleasant Acres was a very limited kind of place. It did not have to allocate giant amounts of industrial capital, it did not have to invent new products. All of that was “imported.” I am not here commenting on the need for money and exchange relationships within the wider economy. I do not know how large are the domains that can be sealed off from the market without negative consequences. What I am asking us to do is think about how we now live in a very different world from the one of a hundred years ago, and Karl Marx may have been completely correct that capitalism is actually creating the conditions that make socialism more and more possible. We know that decommodification is possible, because it has happened and worked well. What we do not know, and what can be found out only through experimentation, is just how far it can go. Perhaps our imaginary retirement village, with its 20-hour work week, Universal Basic Income, vibrant social life, and free-at-point-of-use access to all of life’s essentials, is not so far from the realm of the possible as we are told. 

What Markey’s Victory Meant For The Left

Recently, a septuagenarian old white man and longtime fixture of the swamp of D.C. politics—a politician who voted for the disastrous War in Iraq; who supported the vicious 1994 crime bill; who repeatedly opposed federal funding for abortion; and who has toed the generic Party line for a good deal of his career—achieved an unlikely win in his Democratic primary. I’m speaking, of course, about the victory last week of Senator and newly-rebranded progressive heartthrob, Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

There was much discussion and consternation over the airbrushing of Ed Markey’s record and his newfound status as the Bernie Sanders of Boston—particularly from disgruntled supporters of his unfortunate opponent, Joe Kennedy III. “This goes to show you that the left doesn’t do their homework and they’re easily won over by bright shiny objects,” one Kennedy aligned Democratic insider told Politico post-election. Kennedy had pitched himself as an ideological twin of Markey’s who would have nonetheless done something, er, differently, if he had been elected. But Kennedy and his inner circle were perplexed and frustrated by how impervious Markey proved to be from attacks to his left, despite holding decades of right-wing baggage that the short-serving Congressman did not. In fact, aside from a couple odd Congressional Progressive Caucus members, the American left largely backed Markey with tremendous enthusiasm. 

Obviously, the evolution of Ed Markey from bog-standard liberal into Green New Deal champion of the Zoomer Left has been more dramatic than Joe Biden’s slow slog towards adopting basic moderate ideas like support for a $15 federal minimum wage, or his begrudging acknowledgement that the Iraq War was a disaster. But the truly interesting way of viewing the Markey v. Kennedy contest is as an election wherein the combined force of the insurgent progressive media and activist machine bent an old, sitting Senator left. In doing so, it proved its ability to protect sitting incumbents who demonstrate a willingness to do the same. 

The emerging American left, youthful and encompassing everyone from progressive left-liberals to members of the newly-invigorated socialist movement, will still need to swat down literally hundreds, if not thousands, of ordinary liberals and Democratic Party stalwarts from the state House to the U.S. Senate in order to exert the type of influence over American politics that we would like. But incentives will need to be in place for opportunist electeds to slink leftwards if we offer them that path. Proving that we can and will defend incumbents when they do so is an essential message to send to elected Democrats everywhere.

In this sense, the double standard that exists between how the left forgave Markey’s poor votes but actively loathe Biden’s isn’t just about which politician has leaned further towards elements of the progressive movement—although it is about that, and Markey has obviously bent quite far, while Joe has bent little. Rather, much of the organizational left has now been able to provide proof of concept in a statewide campaign. We’ve shown that we possess not only the muscle and tenacity to defend our favored politicians at high levels of government, but also the willingness to forgive and embrace run-of-the-mill liberals who pivot hard to meet us.

While some insist that this contest was overblown, and that Markey and Kennedy would have voted identically in the Senate, that’s a narrow way of viewing what the race came to represent: it mattered for the left’s influence because the left decided to make it matter. Senator Markey is not simply a politician shifting positions to meet the chaotic moment we’re living through—he’s one whose very political survival is now hugely indebted to the defense offered by progressive media commentators and the tireless work of energized youth activists like those of the Sunrise Movement, who have rewarded the co-author of the Green New Deal with unmatched zeal in their quest to protect his seat.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), who introduced the Green New Deal with Markey, also stood by him through the race. One campaign ad, which aired statewide for weeks, did not feature Ed Markey for even a second—just half a minute of AOC speaking directly to the camera, telling voters that in politics, your age matters less than the age of your ideas. Had Kennedy been savvy, he might have tried to drive a wedge early by sharpening his attacks on Markey’s record even further, and courting AOC’s neutrality by making the Green New Deal an essential, loud element of his image. This seems to be the tactic used by Rep. Lacy Clay that mistakenly led AOC to snub Cori Bush in her rematch against Clay this year. Alas, Kennedy didn’t think this necessary, and AOC helped make Markey’s newfound progressive bona fides unquestionable in the eyes of many. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, could not help a Kennedy win Massachusetts, while a first-term democratic socialist was able to help turn a race toward the progressive with her star power. 

Markey’s final full-length ad, one of the most captivating of this cycle, casts him as a pragmatic Senator, but one who is unafraid to crusade against the status quo and fight for a renewed social democratic contract. The closing moments of his video, now viral, features footage of young climate activists in the streets as Markey’s voiceover deliciously twists an iconic JFK line: “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it. With all due respect: It’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.” It’s a fresh image for Markey, one for which he has only very recently been lent credibility.

Early polls out of Massachusetts at one point showed Markey in such a hole against Kennedy that commentators speculated he should announce his retirement to save himself some dignity. Markey ultimately won with double-digit breathing room. When his unlikely victory was sealed, Markey knew perfectly well who rebranded him as the True Progressive in the race and allowed him to serve another six years. Speaking to his supporters on election night, the Senator declared emphatically: “The time to be timid is past. The age of incrementalism is over.”

One could argue that this race was a very rare instance: insurgent challengers with name recognition and established political ties like a literal Kennedy don’t come along often to primary sitting Senators with mixed records and a willingness to cozy up more to progressives. But in the coming years, as the left knocks out more and more of the particularly odious Democrats, we will also need to convince left-curious (and left-frightened!) incumbents at every level of government that there is more to be gained by joining us than trying to distance themselves from us. The left offers you its protection—if you can earn it.

Additionally, we must be wary of a further, conscious drift towards the right at the national level of Democratic politics. As Joe Biden welcomes disaffected white suburbanite Republicans into the Democratic Party while asking they relinquish none of their existing right-wing views on austerity and imperialism, we can be sure that a Kennedy scion primarying Ed Markey on spurious grounds won’t be the last or most egregious attempt by the Democratic Party’s right flank to take out or intimidate incumbents who are looking too chummy with the left. Now, such incumbents can be sure they’ll have muscle backing them up if they’re targeted.

Ed Markey seems to have always been a well-meaning, if flawed liberal—but electoral victory for the left is going to look like “progressive” Democrats much more fickle than him deciding they need to get with our program to survive. The left isn’t historically burned by politicians because our ideas are unpopular election-losers (many of our ideas are very, very popular). The left is burned by politicians because they’ve always correctly seen us as a joke, capable of neither electoral protection nor retribution under any circumstances. Most of them knew that progressives had no oomph to discipline them for transgressions, and perhaps even more critically, no power to protect them when attacked viciously from their right flank.

This is clearly no longer the case: money, rising progressive media, and endless hours of phone calls by young activists across the country came together to completely reshape what was initially seen as an unwinnable U.S. Senate race for Markey, competing against a man with a family name that has literally never lost in Massachusetts. Blind triumphalism should be rejected: the left is still very, very weak as a national electoral force. But it’s clear we can put up a real fight for politicians who work with us, just as terrible House incumbents are seeing that if they draw our concentrated, targeted ire, they’re no longer safe. Future politicians who tact towards progressives in primaries and then look for re-election down the line will need to keep our emerging strength very much in mind. 

Which is a first! While our favorite heroes may always be the Bernies and Ilhans of the world, whose principles never waver, a government full of Bernies and Ilhans is not what victory in politics tends to look like. It looks like plenty of fair-weather allies who feel emboldened to stick with us, know we’ll back them up in kind, and understand the consequences next election if they don’t.

An example to keep an eye on will be the conduct of establishment New York City council members in their upcoming 2021 municipal elections. Ever since the near-sweep that NYC Democratic Socialists of America led this primary cycle with the victory of state Senator Julia Salazar, soon-to-be state Senator Jabari Brisport, and soon-to-be state House members Zohran Kwame Mamdani, Phara Souffrant, and Marcela Mitaynes, the word is out in the New York political scene: if NYC DSA wants to unseat you, they can. While most of the machine will dig in their heels in the face of this challenge, some will almost certainly attempt to jump ship and ingratiate themselves with the young, emerging socialist powerhouse. 

It will be up to NYC DSA to determine how to deal with these electeds looking to curry favor with them, but as a general rule, progressives should be mindful of opportunities to make perhaps well-meaning but wishy-washy liberal incumbents indebted to us for their political survival.

Senator Markey hopped on the bandwagon. Tell your representatives there’s plenty of room.