Can Hierarchy Be Justified?

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of some assholes telling everyone else what to do. There are people “at the top,” who rule, and there are people “at the bottom” who have to clean up those people’s shit. The people at the top always come up with some reason why they deserve to be at the top. Their powers were bestowed by a divinity. They have the correct blood. They worked the hardest. They are Great Innovators whose wisdom and creativity is the source of all wealth. They are Atlas carrying the whole world on their backs, and if they disappeared, society would fall apart.

All of these justifications, needless to say, are myths. They are exactly what you would say if you were a person in charge who didn’t want to feel any guilt. And nobody wants to feel like a bad person, even the assholes giving the orders, so they need to come up with some picture of reality in which they are right for reasons beyond their might. As Max Weber put it,

“The fortunate man is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced he ‘deserves’ it and above all that he deserves it in comparison with others… Good fortune thus wants to be legitimate fortune.”

There are a million stories you can tell to legitimize your status, using everything from cranial science to graphs showing a strong statistical correlation between “you having all the power” and some imaginary measure of social well-being (e.g. “GDP”). The explanations don’t have to be very convincing, because one of the nice things about being in charge is that few people in your circle will dare to call you out when you are talking rubbish. Some people will be afraid to get on your bad side, while others will be looking to flatter you into dispensing favor. But hardly anyone is going to rudely pop the sycophancy bubble by pointing out that your rationalizations for having more than everybody else are blatantly fallacious.

For instance, King James, of Bible fame, anonymously published a book in 1598 called the True Law of Free Monarchies which laid out what seemed to him like a sound argument for the Divine Right of Kings. He argued that “the state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth” because kings are “God’s lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God’s throne,” and thus, while “a good king will frame all his actions to be according to the Law; yet is he not bound thereto but of his good will.” The relationship of the king to the people was, James thought, like that of the head to the body, and he  pointed out that while sometimes we cut off a limb here and there if it gets gangrenous and unruly, few diseases lead us to cut off our heads:

And for the similitude of the head and the body, it may very well fall out that the head will be forced to garre cut off some rotten members (as I haue already said) to keep the rest of the body in integritie: but what state the body can be in, if the head, for any infirmitie that can fall to it, be cut off, I leaue it to the readers iudgement. 

The phrase “motivated reasoning” comes to mind when considering James’ treatise arguing in favor of his own absolute power and exemption from the law. The British people were evidently not persuaded, as James’ successor Charles I was indeed treated as an infirmity curable by the removal of the head. 

But the king was not the only one with a fixed position in the hierarchy. A Great Chain of Being ordered all matter, living and nonliving, from top to bottom. God, of course, was the Supreme Being. Next came angels, but all angels were not created equal, and there was a hierarchy of sub-angels; St. Thomas Aquinas divides them into 9 “choirs”: “angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, ophanim [alias thrones], cherubim, and seraphim.” After the angelic choirs came the humans, where kings stood highest, followed by princes, nobles, etc., with peasants taking their place at the bottom. The other animals followed us, and had their own rankings of greatest to least, with immobile do-nothing creatures like oysters at the bottom. (There were sub-categories within sub-categories, with worm-eating birds the superior of seed-eating birds, possibly due to winning a worm-eating bet.) Plants and vegetables followed animals, in a descending order from oak trees to moss. Lowest of all were the minerals, which had their own ranking from gemstones down to soil, dust, and sand. 

Art by Nick Sirotich

All of this may sound rather risible, but before we laugh, we should reflect on just how much of this mindset we have retained into the present day. Animals are still considered lesser beings, most of whom can simply be slaughtered at will, without any moral calculus whatsoever. Factory farming, despite the scale of suffering it inflicts, does not trouble most people’s consciences enough to spend much time thinking about it. And the hierarchical orderings of human societies are still so accepted as to seem like natural law. 44 countries are still outright monarchies, but even the Chief Executive of the supposedly democratic United States is endowed with such huge power that most of our political discourse seems to revolve around a single person’s conduct. Workplaces are often strict hierarchies, the justice and propriety of which cannot be questioned by those at the bottom, even though the justifications for the difference in power between Jeff Bezos and Amazon fulfillment center workers are little more persuasive that appeals to the Great Chain of Being. 

Anarchist thinkers have always put “hierarchy” at the center of their diagnosis of what’s wrong with everything, because so much of what is unjust about every society does seem to boil down to this one simple fact: there are some people who give the orders, and some people who have to take the orders, and the people who give the orders are generally cruel, stupid, and/or greedy. Sometimes they got their position by birth, but even when they got it by “merit,” the main “merit” that usually distinguishes them is that they were more willing to trample on everybody else. Noam Chomsky describes the core of anarchist thinking as being based around a “presumption of illegitimacy” toward hierarchies, a principle that says if a hierarchy is based on tradition rather than reason, it needs to be gotten rid of: 

[Anarchist thinking is] generally based on the idea that hierarchic and authoritarian structures are not self-justifying. They have to have a justification. So if there is a relation of subordination and domination, maybe you can justify it, but there’s a strong burden of proof on anybody who tries to justify it. Quite commonly, the justification can’t be given. It’s a relationship that is maintained by obedience, by force, by tradition, by one or another form of sometimes physical, sometimes intellectual or moral coercion. If so, it ought to be dismantled. People ought to become liberated and discover that they are under a form of oppression which is illegitimate, and move to dismantle it.

Peter Kropotkin, too, put hierarchy at the center of his analysis, saying that anarchism meant “refusing hierarchical organization” and authority, while embracing cooperative social customs: 

Anarchy, when it works to destroy authority in all its aspects, when it demands the abrogation of laws and the abolition of the mechanism that serves to impose them, when it refuses all hierarchical organization and preaches free agreement—at the same time strives to maintain and enlarge the precious kernel of social customs without which no human or animal society can exist. Only, instead of demanding that those social customs should be maintained through the authority of a few, it demands it from the continued action of all. 

Hierarchy is common to bad governments, bad workplaces, bad relationships, and bad schools. When we look at societies throughout history and feel disturbed, the reason is usually something to do with hierarchy: some people were priests doing human sacrifices, while other people had to be the sacrifices. In our own country, some people have been slaves, others masters. Some people have been prisoners, others cops. Some are “non-citizens,” without basic rights, others are “citizens” who are Legitimate People. (Yes, the distinction between the citizens and noncitizens should be thought of as a formal caste system, whereby some people are more entitled to rights than others. It is only because we are used to it that we don’t comprehend how appalling it is to divide society into a hierarchy of “non-people” and “people” based solely on where they happened to be born.) 

Wherever you find distinctive ranked orders of social status, and some people with vastly more power and liberty than others, you find a situation that should be revolting to anyone who cares about universal justice. (That is, revolting to the sort of person who wants everyone to be served by our social arrangements, rather than having categories of “winners” and “losers.”) A truly just world has to be a democratic and egalitarian one, where hierarchies are minimized.

But is there a case for hierarchy? According to a new book from the Princeton University Press (which previously brought you such elitist classics as Against Democracy), there is indeed. Just Hierarchy by Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei argues that while explicit racial and gender hierarchies may be bad, some hierarchies are Actually Good and worth preserving. Bell and Pei believe that hierarchy as a concept has been unfairly maligned, and they seek to show that there are circumstances in which it is not only morally unobjectionable, but “can and should govern different spheres of our social lives… including our relations with loved ones.” 

Bell and Wang list five kinds of hierarchies they seek to defend: hierarchies within intimate social circles, hierarchies amongst citizens, hierarchies of nations, hierarchies amongst animals, and hierarchies between human beings and robots. (We’ll note the curious absence of workplace hierarchies from this list: beyond a brief discussion of the relationship between employers and their nannies and housekeepers, the book does not discuss this topic at all, even though the workplace, for many people, is where petty tyranny is most keenly experienced.)

Each subset of hierarchies is defended with different arguments. Hierarchies amongst “intimate persons”—that is, in relationships between partners, between parents and children, and between employers and domestics—are viewed as morally acceptable by Bell and Wang so long as there is some changing of roles over time. This would suggest something quite radical in the case of domestic workers—namely that the rich would have to take care of their nannies’ children sometimes—but Bell and Wang wriggle out of this by saying that this reciprocity “may be asking too much of the employer.” Instead, the only actual “changing of roles over time” they envision is generational: perhaps the housekeepers’ children will be rich and the rich people’s children will end up housekeepers. (Extremely unlikely, but a good way for the rich to reassure themselves that the hierarchy is fair.) Their ultimate conclusion is that it’s fine to have a full-time housekeeper—who, notably, doesn’t get to keep their children in the same house with your children—so long as you pay them well.

Bell and Wang have a difficult time explaining why hierarchies within households are actually desirable, compared to the alternative of rough social equality. In the sphere of “intimate persons,” the justification for “hierarchy between partners” seems to boil down, laughably, to “it’s cool to periodically switch who’s on top during sex” (which sure, fine, maybe that’s the kind of entry-level sex advice that people who read political science textbooks desperately need to hear), while the justification for the hierarchy between parents and children is based on the observation that elderly people are more appreciated in societies where elders are owed deference within the family structure. The authors seem unable to grapple with the fact that “hierarchy,” fundamentally, is about the right to command obedience from others by simple virtue of one’s social role. That family members should appreciate each other, listen to each other, and divide difficult tasks fairly amongst themselves is an obvious good, but why these characteristics should be optimally actuated by “hierarchy”—by investing certain people with some specific right of command, even a temporary one, over their loved ones—is not really explained. At best, hierarchy seems like a very roundabout manner of promoting warm familial feeling, and, at worst, a great way to keep people guiltily obligated to family members who do not respect them.

Meanwhile, although their examination of “hierarchy amongst citizens” emanates (by the admission of the authors, who are both professors at universities in China) from a specifically Chinese context—drawing on the “Confucian” principles of imperial Chinese bureaucracy and modern Chinese administration—it’s nonetheless pretty much indistinguishable from the arguments in favor of meritocracy that are made by centrist commentators in the United States. The authors argue explicitly against democracy and in favor of governance by unelected experts. (Bell has written a separate book called The China Model defending the enlightened despotism of the Communist Party as superior to liberal democracy.) Too much democracy leads to populism, which is bad (cf. Donald Trump), hierarchical meritocracies are better because—once you get past pesky little problems like “nepotism” and “corruption”—they elevate people with talent and expertise, who are temperamentally suited for public life. 

Bell and Wang concede that this framework does exclude most human beings from formal political participation in decisions that affect them. But since the decisions that will be made on their behalf will be good ones, because wise rulers naturally know what they are doing, this will not matter. The authors suggest that people’s resulting sense of disenfranchisement can be combated through a) grassroots efforts to influence policymakers through suasion, and b) encouraging people to feel fulfilled by “non-political” things, such as pictures of cute dogs exchanged on social media. (We shit you not, this was the actual example they used. There is even a photograph of a cute dog reprinted in the book, as an example of the sort of thing we can look at to distract ourselves from our political powerlessness.) Here, as opposed to Bell and Wang’s flimsy justifications for hierarchy in the home, it’s a little bit more obvious why the idea of hierarchy amongst citizens is at least attractive, in a patronizing sort of way. Who wouldn’t want to sit around looking at pictures of animals all day while a group of highly virtuous public servants ingeniously and invisibly disposes of all boring policy matters?The only problem, of course, is that it is ludicrous: these Virtuous Policy Fairies do not exist in reality, and so what is in fact being proposed is not even a hierarchy between “good bureaucrats” and “indulged masses,” but fundamentally unchecked power in the hands of the sort of people who excel at standardized tests and subtle self-promotion. 

Hierarchy amongst nations—the third of the supposedly justified hierarchies—evidently involves major world powers politely paying “lip-service” to the sovereignty of smaller nations, while gradually drawing those smaller nations into their direct sphere of influence and control through the use of diplomacy and social ritual. This, Bell and Wang argue, is morally justified so long as there is some meaningful reciprocity and fellow-feeling in the relationship between the stronger and weaker nations. There’s of course a strong element of “might makes right” here—big, powerful countries may justly rule because they are big and powerful. The recurring pattern we begin to see, in these justifications of hierarchy, is that the “morality” of these hierarchies relies heavily on the notion that the person or decision-making entity in the higher hierarchical position will not be incompetent, thoughtless, or sociopathic, but suggests no actual mechanisms for ensuring that this is the case. Like King James, they say that these hierarchical arrangements will be good for the least well-off, but also like King James the argument is less based on appeals to evidence than appeals to tradition and religious text (in his case, Biblical authority, in Bell and Wang’s case, frequently Confucian ethics). 

The sections of the book on animals and robots are significantly weirder, which is saying something for a book that has already used sex positions as a philosophical justification for social dominance. The animals chapter aims to show that animals and humans are not moral equals and that there is a hierarchy of concern for different animals:

…[I]t is morally justifiable to care more for humans than for animals, as well as to distinguish between different levels of moral concern for different kinds of animals, depending on their capacity to suffer and their relations with human beings. Ugly insects such as mosquitoes and cockroaches that reproduce in the billions and carry diseases that harm human well-being should be at the bottom of the hierarchy.

It is not clear with whom Bell and Wang are arguing here, since few people (even among radical animal rights advocates) see killing a mosquito as equivalent to killing a human being, and distinguishing between animals on the basis of their capacity to suffer is broadly uncontroversial (though the deprioritization of “ugly” animals is obviously more questionable). Bell and Wang present a multi-page anecdote about the time Bell adopted a cat that ended up jumping out of a 22nd story window, after which he subsequently replaced the dead cat with another, which had diabetes, as part of an argument that people are morally permitted to regulate their pets’ activities so long as they treat them well—which is, again, a fairly widely-held position. But there’s a reason Bell and Wang include this strange chapter: by offering rigorous argumentation for a widely-accepted kind of “hierarchy,” they want readers to think that a general principle of hierarchy is justified. In other words, if we can show that people accept the “humans over animals” part of the Great Chain of Being, it will be easier to get them to accept the “humans over other humans” part.

The robots chapter, similarly, argues for a hierarchy most people would agree with: that of humans over machines. Bell and Wang make the case that artificial intelligence should be made to serve human ends, rather than human beings being made to serve artificial intelligence. Then things take a turn: they suggest that the Chinese government alone is correct in its understanding of the purposes of artificial intelligence, that it is building a post-scarcity kind of communism in which robots will do all the labor. By contrast, Silicon Valley capitalists are reckless in their development of new technology: “the libertarian culture of Silicon Valley militates against any serious attempt to curb research that threatens to develop… malevolent AI.” The final sentence of the book (it has no formal “conclusion”) is: “If we are unlucky, the last war involving humans will be a clash between the Chinese Communist Party and Google’s unfriendly creation, and for the sake of humanity we need to pray for the victory of the CCP.”

Thus, the book Just Hierarchy does not necessarily offer the best material for inquiring into the question of when hierarchies are just, for there are parts that make one suspect it is mainly intended as an elaborate apologia for the Chinese Communist Party, published, again, by the Princeton University Press. (Possibly, we should have abandoned our review of this book once we realized how bizarre it was, but by that point we simply couldn’t tear ourselves away.) Many of the hierarchies the book defends are China-specific, and the writing can be digressive and the examples off-the-wall. Most of the evidence provided is laughably unsound. For instance, the authors note that in a study, “an abstract diagram representing hierarchy was memorized more quickly than a diagram representing equality, and the faster processing led the participants to prefer the hierarchy diagram.” This might be a compelling case for the aesthetic superiority of pyramids over lines, but it has very little to do with justice, ostensibly the subject of the book. Bell and Wang also say that “the populist backlashes against elites empower strongmen such as Donald Trump” thus showing that “the effort to combat all forms of hierarchy will not only fail; it may lead to something worse from a moral point of view.” But surely if the backlash is against “elites,” what we have is an argument against hierarchy; without a division into elite/non-elite, there is no grounds for a populist backlash to begin with. If people are resentful of “elites” who are above them and control them, then a more egalitarian society would help reduce resentments. 

If we’re evaluating the main question, though, which is “have these five hierarchies been justified?” the answers would seem to be: 1) hierarchy between intimates—no, not at all, because sex positions don’t legitimize the giving of commands to family and domestics; 2) hierarchy between citizens—also no, seems like a recipe for an unjust dictatorship; 3) hierarchy between nations—no, seems like proof by assertion; 4) hierarchy between humans and animals—sure, bugs are not people; 5) hierarchy between humans and robots—sure, but not so sure we can sign onto VICTORY TO THE GREAT CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY as a valid ultimate conclusion. 

So how should we evaluate what the legitimate and illegitimate hierarchies are? It seems easy to say that there should be no “intimate hierarchies”: friends, partners, and family members should meet each other on equal footing, and should give and expect mutual respect as individuals. Trying to treat other people well is a dynamic struggle, and one always littered with daily failures. Hierarchical relationships and pre-assigned roles within households are not a realistic shortcut for avoiding these inevitable difficulties. That’s not to say that people don’t fall into patterns or roles in their close relationships, but this seems like something that people should figure out one-on-one with their loved ones, according to their needs and temperaments. (To the extent that “respectfully figuring out relationship roles on a case-by-case basis” is what Wang and Bell mean by “intimate hierarchy,” this doesn’t really seem like a hierarchy at all, in the way the term’s conventionally understood.) As leftists, we can also say with some confidence that global hierarchies in which wealthier states exercise authority over poorer client states are normatively bad, although it’s much less clear how to stop that from happening (short of a revolution for disarmament and global labor reform, of course).

But when thinking about smaller political units—workplaces, neighborhoods, municipalities, states and provinces, perhaps countries—the question of whether hierarchies are “good” or “bad” does start to feel more muddled. Certainly, there should be a high burden to justify the existence of hierarchies, which inherently involve one person having power over another, or over many others; certainly, bland appeals to tradition are not sufficient justification. But even if you are an absolute egalitarian, practically speaking, there’s a lot of shit going on in the world at any given time, and it simply isn’t possible to hold referenda on absolutely everything.

The idea of a hierarchical system that elevates the most talented and trustworthy people to decision-making positions is one that many people find deeply attractive, and in the United States, we’ve often conceived of electoral democracy as the best way to achieve this end. In the U.S. conception of political “meritocracy,” the general theory is to elect political leaders with the right “vision” or “values,” whom we then trust to surround themselves with people of appropriate “expertise.” Of course, as we all know, this frequently goes horribly wrong: the pool of candidates that voters choose amongst, and the pool of experts from which those candidates then choose their advisors, staff, and other appointees, are both shaped by a whole host of factors that have nothing to do with goodness or talent, and a lot more to do with things like wealth, ambition, and luck. Elections produce better results on average than pure nepotism because they contain some limited element of randomness—the system undergoes a shake-up at fixed periods during which new people, potentially, can enter. But in this country, elections still haven’t managed to produce governments on the national or state level that resemble the composition of the general population in any way: lawmakers and executives are mostly rich (as well as mostly white, and mostly male), and their choice of expert staff reflects their own interests and biases. In this way, our governing hierarchies are static in form and also frequently static in content.

Some people, admittedly, think that this is a feature, not a bug: the “steady hand at the wheel.” But if climate change, vast economic inequality, mass incarceration, and a precarious, unfranchised immigrant population sound like a bad status quo, then these stable hierarchies in which power is always concentrated in the hands of the same type of person, over and over, are clearly harmful. One way around this problem is to dismantle the hierarchy itself as much as possible, and create processes for participatory decision-making that involve the people affected by a given problem. However, there’s always a problem of scale: as the number of people affected by a single policy or decision becomes larger, direct participation becomes more and more unwieldy. In that case, to the extent we think that some decisions do need to be made at such a scale, it may be hard to get around having some hierarchy of decision-makers.

Staffing these arguably necessary hierarchies through non-electoral “meritocracies,” as Bell and Wang suggest, means reposing a naïve level of trust in the goodness of unaccountable bureaucrats; but we also concede that elections (of nominal decision-makers, who then choose bureaucrats that are accountable only to them) tend to not produce brilliant results, either. A third option, which we submit to be the least of these three evils, is to make the appointment of decision-makers as random as possible, with a strictly fixed term limit. We’ve previously written about “sortition”—random selection by lot—from the general population as being the best conceivable way to create a demographically representative senate, one that’s slightly less susceptible to monied interests than previous elected senates. In the same way, sortition could be used to fill a variety of decision-making positions.

But one reason hierarchy is so enduringly appealing is that the creation of effective non-hierarchical institutions is incredibly difficult, and even institutions that start off being egalitarian have a tendency to turn hierarchical over time (the sociological concept of the “iron law of oligarchy” is that an oligarchy always emerges no matter how much you try to do to prevent an oligarchy emerging). Occupy Wall Street, which operated on an anti-hierarchical structure, was in many ways phenomenally successful in the face of extraordinary state challenges and repression, but also struggled with the difficulty of trying to organize without leadership. Many of the internal disputes that have riven the left, like the conflict between Marxists and anarchists, have involved arguments over the legitimacy of hierarchy, and whether it is possible or desirable to pursue the socialist project without it.

Yet while hierarchy is an enduring feature of societies, and it is not yet possible to envision a perfectly non-hierarchical world, a fair starting point is to treat social hierarchies as presumptively illegitimate. If we now recognize that King James was full of shit when he claimed a divine right to be exempt from the law, we should suspect that there are plenty of justifications for hierarchy in our own time that might fall apart under scrutiny. Bell and Wang’s weird-ass book shows how empty many of the justifications for hierarchy are; they often come down to “the boss is the boss because he’s the boss, do you think you could do a better job than the boss?” Hierarchical social orders are asserted to be superior without any examination of what the non-hierarchical alternative would look like, or much evidence (beyond anecdotes and a generalized terror of “the mob”) that such an alternative would be less functional. The hypothesis we should work under is that hierarchies tend to be great for people endowed with the power to give the commands, and less great for those whose job is to obey. The elimination of hierarchy would tend to improve the lot of the vast majority of us, but especially the millions of human “minerals” at the bottom of our present-day Great Chain of Being.

“Mythic Quest” and the Pursuit of Anti-Capitalist Media

There’s an idea—passed down from Adorno in a game of telephone—that products of the culture industry must necessarily reflect capitalist values. This is superficially very convincing: if I were a capitalist, I would probably fund works that reassert the status quo, even subconsciously, since if I were a capitalist the status quo would be going pretty well for me. You can find lots of supporting examples if you look around: the valorization of ragstoriches stories that obscure the near-impossibility of real-life social mobility, particularly in the United States; the entire cop show genre, which essentially functions as propaganda for the police; even the original Ghostbusters, which has a plotline about how the EPA shouldn’t investigate unlicensed nuclear reactors. 

But if you take a broad look at mass media, instead of cherry-picking examples, it’s hard to see any coherent ideology at work, even within specific media companies. Columbia Pictures and Relativity Media produced both The Pursuit of Happyness and The Social Network, two biopics about young entrepreneurs that couldn’t be more different in their relative skepticism towards the idea of the self-made man. There’s mainstream, capitalist-made art that espouses anti-capitalist principles, from It’s A Wonderful Life to Robocop to The Big Short. The evil businessman is such a deeply embedded trope that, with the exception of a few billionaire superheroes, it’s a bit weird to see a businessman in a movie who isn’t evil. The villain in Tim Burton’s live action Dumbo remake is a very obvious allegory for Disney. WWE boss Vince MacMahon is a union-busting, Trump-supporting, coronavirus-spreading supervillain, but rich guys on WWE are always heels—Vince MacMahon included. Lots of cultural products—maybe most of them—are internally ideologically ambiguous or just incoherent. The Lego Movie is in no small part an advertisement for Lego and its bad guy is literally called President Business.

The truth is much simpler than a vast effort to indoctrinate. The culture industry only sporadically produces works that correspond to apparent “capitalist” values—competition, individualism, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—because the only actual capitalist value is generating and accumulating profit. In his 1979 defense of disco, Richard Dyer writes that rather than capitalist modes of production simply reproducing capitalist ideology, capitalists’ interest in cultural commodities is generating a profit, which they can do just as well from something ideologically opposed to capitalism as something supportive of it. 

This means that it’s possible for fresh, challenging, weird, fun art to be produced under capitalism, even within extremely corporate environments. As Dyer puts it, “As long as a commodity makes a profit, what does it matter?” But because nothing matters but making money, corporations are at best indifferent and frequently hostile to the actual “art” part. Making things that are fresh and challenging and weird and fun is easily sacrificed to the bottom line, because everything can be sacrificed to the bottom line. Film critics frequently romanticise the 1970s as a period of artistic quality and integrity in Hollywood filmmaking, and justifiably so: the Hollywood studios spent the 1970s letting young, visionary directors—like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, or Robert Altman—make strange, highly personal and frequently brilliant films. But it’s not like the studios suddenly cared a lot about art. Their appetite for risk-taking didn’t expand to women directors, no matter how visionary, as Elaine May can attest, while black directors mostly worked outside the studio system. When antitrust cases (remember those?) against the studios meant they no longer had a vertical monopoly, which combined with competition from television created a perfect storm of flops, films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider still managed to make profits, and so the studios tried to emulate their success. When Jaws and especially Star Wars revealed a new, more profitable business model, the director-driven filmmaking of the 1970s collapsed. The studios’ motivation—making as much money as possible—remained constant. The profit motive both enabled a great period of creativity and innovation in film and brought it to an abrupt end. 

Television is a basically unique artform in that it is definitionally made only in corporate environments. There’s public television, sure—although shows on public broadcasters are usually made with a private production company at least involved—but unlike films or music, there is no indie television. It’s hard to even imagine what independent television would be like, because if it’s not distributed through a TV station or a streaming service, it’s not television. It might be a webseries, which is fine, but that’s a different medium with different conventions. This is partly why TV had a reputation for conservatism—both politically and aesthetically—for so long, at least until The Sopranos and the supposed Golden Age of TV. But the history of television is full of artists making politically and aesthetically significant work, frequently battling corporate overlords to do it. Sometimes those fights have been about censorship, or sometimes they’ve been about a lack of time, money and resources to do their work. Working in a medium where they have to wage those battles doesn’t negate their art. Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone feels as urgent and incendiary as ever. Star Trek feels like a more important socialist reference point for me than anything Marx wrote. I think about the scene in M*A*S*H* where Hawkeye explains why war is worse than hell probably once a week. 

Earlier this year, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-creators Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day, along with It’s Always Sunny and Community writer Megan Ganz created the sitcom Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet for Apple TV+. It’s set in a video game development studio, working on a World of Warcraft-style massively multiplayer online role-playing game of the same title. McElhenny plays Ian (pronounced eye-an), Mythic Quest’s megalomaniac, would-be auteur creative director, with Charlotte Nicdao as overworked and underappreciated lead engineer Poppy. (Thankfully, Poppy isn’t Ian’s put-upon disapproving straight man, as is so common with female characters in these types of roles; she’s a real weirdo in her own right.) F. Murray Abraham plays C.W., a washed-up sci-fi writer who once won a Nebula Award and is now stuck writing for a game he’s never played. Danny Pudi plays Brad, head of monetization and soulless monster. David (Always Sunny veteran David Hornsby), the game’s executive producer, weakly insists that he “backs creative” while living in fear of calls from “Corporate” in Montreal. 

It takes Mythic Quest a little while to find its groove. It’s a much more conventional show than It’s Always Sunny—hitting the warm, familiar beats of the workplace sitcom that Sunny would only approach with irony and cynicism—but they are, thematically, nice companion pieces. Where Sunny has spent a decade and a half in a dive bar in Philadelphia, exploring how people at the bottom of society are crushed, Mythic Quest is about the dissatisfying limitations of capitalist success. 

Critics have sometimes described Mythic Quest as being about “women in the gaming industry”, and that’s definitely there—in one episode, a Girls Who Code group visits on a day when Poppy happens to be out of the office, and David struggles mightily to find a female employee to tell them something inspirational. But framing it that way makes it sound as if the gaming industry is an otherwise neutral entity unfortunately afflicted with sexism. It matters that Poppy is an Asian woman and Ian is a white man, but their conflicts aren’t reducible to that dynamic. Underlying everything is that Ian treats Poppy like a mechanic, not a creative partner: Poppy tells him she feels like she’s his favorite paintbrush, rather than a creative person in her own right. (Later, he repeats it like it’s a compliment.) Their conflicts are about much broader themes: the nature of artistic collaboration, for one, and the relationship between art and commerce. It’s easy to watch Mythic Quest as being about video games in some significant way, but it just uses the video game industry as a setting to explore the problems of making art in a corporate environment. It’s about video games, but it’s also about TV, and about any kind of art made primarily as a commodity. 

This comes to the fore in “A Dark Quiet Death,” a standalone episode halfway through the season. It follows two characters with no obvious connection to the show’s main plot, played by Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti, for over a decade. They meet in a video game store in the early 1990s: budding video game producer Doc (Johnson) strikes up a conversation with goth girl Beans (Milioti) in which she trashes all the games he suggests. He asks if she’s ever thought of making her own game, and she says yes so quickly that he’s a bit taken aback: he clearly thought the question would blow her mind. 

From there, the episode drops in on these characters once every couple of years. Doc and Beans create a game called Dark Quiet Death: it’s a survival horror game, where you can use a flashlight to push the monsters back but you can’t defeat them. Somewhere along the way, they fall in love. It initially seems like a “visionary at the wrong time” story, because that kind of no-win, walking-simulation horror game is a lot more common and popular now than it was a decade ago. 

But they do succeed. And it’s so much worse. 

The first Dark Quiet Death game is modestly successful, and Doc and Beans hire out an office to work on the sequel. The building was the site of a sweatshop fire a hundred years ago, and it will one day be, we later find out, the offices for Mythic Quest. Doc and Beans carve their names in the wall. 

Once they move into the office, more and more people are involved in building what Dark Quiet Death will become, and Doc and Beans’ relationship becomes more and more fractured. Beans is an uncompromising artist and Doc is open to collaboration and compromise, for good or ill. Beans is dismissive of focus groups while Doc insists they should at least consider what marketing has found; Doc listens to what their brand manager has to say while Beans is scornful and rude. Corporate gives them a commemorative flashlight as a gift, and Beans uses it to hold flowers, no matter how many times Doc asks her not to. 

Slowly, Dark Quiet Death starts to resemble less and less anything like Doc and Beans’ original vision. Every time Beans voices her objections, the brand manager makes it sound like they’re agreeing, even though he’s clearly not taking in a word. She says they’re like the frog being boiled alive: she agrees to add a gun that would weaken the monsters but not kill them, and then suddenly they’re watching an advertisement for the game where the monster’s head gets blown off. Suddenly there are so many weapons that there’s no room for the flashlight. Suddenly Doc is taking calls from Disney. Suddenly they’re divorced. 

Doc justifies each compromise by pointing to how many more people they can bring to their game. And it’s true: DQD becomes one of the biggest games in the world. It launches a film franchise (Doc dates the starlet who plays the lead.) Then we see the brand manager showing him Roscoe, a cutesy, fuzzy purple character who is squarely aimed at appealing to small children. Corporate wants Roscoe added to the next DQD game since he “tests through the roof”. When Doc says that DQD isn’t for children, the brand manager points out that lots of children play it anyway, as if that’s a justification. Doc gives a flat “no” for the first time in the episode. He repeats what Beans said about the frog being boiled alive, and the brand manager says that Doc’s not the frog in that analogy, he’s the chef. 

He makes the case that they’ve always done whatever Doc wanted, because he’s the boss. There’s a moment of horror, as Doc realizes he believes he was helplessly pulled along through compromise after compromise when he wasn’t helpless after all. But this time he puts his foot down. “It’s Roscoe or me,” he says.

Hard cut to an advertisement for a cuddly toy. “Iiiiiiiiit’s Roscoe!”

What’s so brilliant about this episode is that it sets up the conflict between uncompromising artist and compromising collaborator, then reveals it to be bullshit. It doesn’t matter how much Doc is willing and eager to bend: if it’s any amount less than completely, totally, and utterly, he’ll be tossed aside. Doc becomes a company man—treasuring presents from Corporate and ceding to their every demand—and it still doesn’t buy him enough leeway to object to marketing a game called Dark Quiet Death to four-year-olds. The brand manager says Doc is the boss, but he never was, not really. Corporate has always been in charge. The conflict between him and Beans was fundamentally artificial, because they both end up the same way: forced out for asserting a creative vision. The episode puts a bow on this by having them literally end up in the same place: back in the video game store, trying to find something to play that doesn’t suck. Beans has remarried and is getting some awful game to occupy her kids. There’s a whole display of Roscoe merchandise, but Doc finds the original DQD in the bargain bin. He recommends it to a passing customer. 

The episode ends with Ian pitching Mythic Quest to the same publisher that made Dark Quiet Death. He says that what’s special about Mythic Quest is him. The show has already displayed skepticism of the idea of Ian as an auteur, showing how that mythos erases his creative partners such as Poppy and the other coders. But ending “A Dark Quiet Death” on Ian pitching Mythic Quest as an auteur project lends the whole affair a very different, darker tone. Ian has creative control of the game for now, maybe, but we have no reason to think Corporate has changed. In fact, Ian pitches Mythic Quest to the exact same guy that Doc and Beans pitched DQD to, symbolizing the fact that they literally haven’t changed

Ian’s auteurism is shown to be a lie: both because lots and lots of people work together to make Mythic Quest, and because he only ever has as much control as Corporate allows him. This double-inflected critique manages to expose the myth of pure auteurism without lapsing into, like, arguing that it’s actually really progressive that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are produced on an assembly line

When Poppy is considering leaving Mythic Quest, Ian appeals to her to stay by comparing their creative partnership to The Beatles. She’s initially charmed—although Ian insists on explaining who The Beatles are—until he reveals that he thinks she’s Ringo. Poppy, annoyed, asks why she couldn’t be “one of the good ones.” It’s funny, but also sort of perfect. Poppy rightly takes the comparison as a minimization of her contribution to the game, but Poppy is the Ringo. Ringo’s unique-as-a-fingerprint drumming is literally the sound of The Beatles; you can recognise Beatles songs from Ringo’s drum parts alone. And like lead engineer Poppy, people think of Ringo’s role in the band as mechanical—“somebody has to keep the beat,” Ian says—rather than creative. Like Poppy, Ringo’s shunted off to the back somewhere. 

In the final episode of the season, the coding staff announce that they’re unionizing. Michelle (a wonderfully deadpan Aparna Nancherla) sits down for negotiations with executive producer David. She asks for overtime pay, and there’s a pause where David waits for her to list more demands. But she doesn’t have any. It’s frustrating to watch: a rare workplace show where staff forms a union and only asks for the bare minimum that they should obviously be getting already. David is surprised, too: he sighs in relief because he thought they were going to ask for profit sharing. (“Could we get profit sharing?” Michelle asks, but the chance is already gone.) David agrees that they should get overtime pay, and asks her to leave the room so he can call Corporate. 

The workers have asked for the bare minimum, and the profit sharing gag demonstrates that the show knows that. So David calls Corporate to ask for the bare minimum—and gets fired immediately. 

The episode ends in a banal way—Ian rings Corporate off-screen and fixes everything. It feels like a real cop out: a shortcut to a happy ending that isn’t earned. But the memory of “A Dark Quiet Death”—brought to the forefront of our memories in the finale episode when Ian asks Poppy to carve her name in the wall next to Doc and Beans—gives it a ring of darkness. The workers are relying on the whims of Ian—whose whims are also why they’re working so much overtime in the first place—and relying on Corporate valuing Ian enough to care about his whims. 

Corporate does value Ian, in no small part because his image as the lone artist is an integrated part of Mythic Quest’s marketing. The image of the lone artist is deliberately cultivated, in no small part because it keeps the vast majority of workers anonymous and invisible. It accrues power to Ian, but only to sap power from the rest of Mythic Quest’s workers. It’s very hard to imagine that he’d be able to make a fix-everything call to Corporate if Michelle had actually asked for profit-sharing. 

Mythic Quest—the TV show—is a product of capitalism that criticises capitalist modes of production. It focuses on how capitalist production affects art, but it’s more expansive than that: What really matters is how capitalist production affects people. Even though Ian wins basically every creative battle in the season, the conditions of the game’s production are still terrible. Mythic Quest’s staff are overworked, underpaid and essentially made invisible to the rest of the world. The woman who moderates complaints and comments (enduring constant harassment in the process) is clearly suffering from PTSD. Predatory monetization underwrites Ian’s creative control: in one episode, Brad, the head of monetization, creates some in-game weapon you can buy for a quarter of a million dollars, and then a player immediately buys it. Brad spends the rest of the episode demoralized: if, no matter what he dreams up, some rich guy is going to immediately buy it, then his job is meaningless. Towards the end of the episode, David tells him that he wasn’t actually a rich guy who bought the weapon, but a middle-aged man living in a trailer park. Brad’s eyes light up. He has a renewed sense of purpose: it’s not about the big money transactions, it’s about taking a player’s last dollar.

Brad’s story here isn’t just a metaphor for capitalism; he’s the avatar of capitalism in the show. Motivated entirely by capitalist ideology, he talks about how his dream is to have a Scrooge McDuck money bin. But this isn’t just because he wants to accumulate Scrooge McDuck wealth: he explicitly states that he wants money as a means of controlling people, of owning them. Part of the appeal of the Scrooge McDuck money bin, for him, is having enough money to make someone build a Scrooge McDuck money bin. 

But Brad, notably, doesn’t spend the whole series trying to make the game’s themes more capitalist. He spends it ruthlessly, successfully, making the game more profitable. The cruelty inflicted upon the game’s accumulation-addicted players is just, for him, a personal bonus.

Mythic Quest understands that the capitalist class’s primary motivation will always be the pursuit of profit as its own end, rather than any ideological commitment to capitalism itself. It’s a perfect meta-example of its own possibilities: an anti-capitalist television show released by Apple. But its sharpest insight as anti-capitalist art is its acknowledgement that there are deeper, more material issues at stake in the capitalist mode of production than its effect on the content and character of art. Ruthless pursuit of profit requires exploitation of workers on one end, and exploitation of consumers on the other. Brad wants to accumulate wealth so he can control people, and one of the darkest things about his character is that his personal delight in controlling other people is not just his only humanizing quality, but it actually makes him less evil than the invisible hand of Corporate. All the characters in Mythic Quest, from our protagonists to the countless unseen players, have key parts of their life controlled by Corporate, and by capital itself. For the staff it’s work; for the players it’s leisure; either way, their behavior gets filtered through a stranger’s profit-loss calculation. Ian is the only one who seems to have control over his destiny, but, as with Doc, this is an illusion. Ian thinks Mythic Quest belongs to him, and he spends the season learning that it belongs to Poppy, too. But it’s Corporate’s game. They just make it. 

Is Socialism Evil?

Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book United States of Socialism is subtitled “What It Is, Why It’s Evil, and How To Stop It.” As the author of a book called Why You Should Be A Socialist, I object rather strenuously to the suggestion that I, along with my friends and editorial colleagues, am “evil.”

It is hard for me to think of myself as evil. Flawed, yes. Possibly even “intolerable” occasionally. But “evil” is an epithet I cannot accept. Still, one must remember that very few of the world’s evil people thought of themselves as evil. They thought of themselves as good. So it is entirely possible that I am delusional.

I have tried, then, to consider D’Souza’s case fairly.

And so: does it articulate a compelling critique of socialism? No. In fact, substantial parts of D’Souza’s book are almost completely irrelevant to a discussion of socialism. Long passages attempt to vindicate Trump associate George Papadapoulous and show the Mueller investigation was groundless. Whereas I end my own book with an appendix offering other literature and resources for those interested in the study of socialist ideas, the appendix to D’Souza’s book is an excerpt of a court brief from his 2014 criminal case on felony campaign finance violations. It contains various legal precedents and is meant to show that D’Souza’s one-year prison sentence was unfair. 

Most leftists, reading this part of the book, will think:

“But I couldn’t give a crap about any of that. I want to eliminate class division. How is this a refutation of anything I believe?”

We on the left have generally been fairly uninterested in the “Russiagate” stuff, and in fact have been critical of liberals for obsessing over aspects of Trump’s presidency that have fewer consequences for working people’s lives, instead of talking about his cruelty to immigrants, his elimination of workplace safety rules and labor protections, his assault on abortion rights, and his catastrophic rollback of environmental regulations and worsening of the climate crisis

But D’Souza, like many conservatives, does not grasp the gulf between liberals and leftists, because he lumps them together as part of the same ideological tendency. He uses the phrase “Democrats,” “the left,” “progressives,” and “socialists” basically interchangeably. To explain away the fact that people like Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi declare themselves proud capitalists, D’Souza says that this is essentially false. They are socialists whether they know it or not. For D’Souza, there is simply a spectrum, with Bernie Sanders being “very” socialist and Pelosi being “socialism lite,” but the differences are very small. I am not sure how to square D’Souza’s theory with the fact that the institutional Democratic Party hates Bernie Sanders and did everything it could to keep him from getting the nomination; D’Souza’s best explanation is that Democrats are embarrassed by Bernie because he says openly what they all mostly believe privately. (“Their protest against Bernie Sanders seems to be against his candor.”)

D’Souza has developed, over the course of several books, a theory of what the left/socialism/the Democratic party/progressivism is. He argues that “Progressivism, Communism, and National Socialism” were all “variations on a single theme” pushing us “away from free market capitalism and toward a collectivist society with the state as the instrument of the common good.” To socialists, this is ludicrous beyond belief, because while Nazi nationalism and Sanders socialism could, in the most abstract possible sense, both be said to care about “the collective,” one of those dreamed of building an anti-Semitic militarized ethostate filled with Aryan ubermenschen, the other is trying to institute a universal health insurance program and reduce the reach of militarism and the police state. D’Souza always tells people to read the NSDAP’s original 1920 platform, but if you follow his instructions you find that it’s actually full of the kind of racist, nationalist horrors that socialists loathe. (“We demand that all non-Germans, who have immigrated to Germany since 2 August 1914, be forced immediately to leave the Reich”)

To say Nazis and socialists are similar because both believe in “the collective” is like saying “Hitler and Martin Luther King were part of the same tendency because they were both leaders who spoke to crowds,” or that D’Souza’s book and my book are indistinguishable because they are both printed on paper, or that George Clinton and Tony Blair are functionally identical because they both led parliaments. You can identify a feature that two entities have in common (doorknobs and limes are both round) while they are still complete opposites (i.e. one is racist and one is anti-racist, one is for mass incarceration and executions while the other is for prison abolition and eliminating the death penalty).

I am sorry to treat you like a child by reminding you that all round things are not alike, but this book has five stars on Amazon and it’s the #1 bestseller on its subject so some substantial number of people clearly do still have to work on their capacity for differentiation and categorization.

D’Souza frequently defends his batty thesis by pointing out that pivotal progressive figures from FDR to Wilson to LBJ were actually racist. Social Security was originally “deliberately crafted to exclude domestic workers and farm workers, the two occupations in which blacks were the most heavily concentrated,” and FDR praised Mussolini (that “admirable Italian gentleman) and put ex-Klansman Hugo Black on the Supreme Court. This, in his mind, is evidence progressivism, racism, fascism are all part of the same thing. (And the relevance of D’Souza’s own criminal prosecution is that it shows one more example of “the left” behaving thuggishly: to him, it is Barack Obama wielding the state against his political opponents in the same way that an authoritarian communist regime would.)

The first thing I would point out to D’Souza, as I did in my review of his Big Lie is that he is totally ignorant of the nature of the conflict between socialists and liberals, or between Sanders supporters and Clinton/Biden supporters. It’s no surprise to leftists to find out that Roosevelt praised a fascist; you’ll also find these critiques in the works of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. His lumping together of neoliberals and socialists leads D’Souza to bizarre comments like “typical of the new type of socialist is Stacey Abrams,” even though Abrams is someone who has listed her favorite book as Atlas Shrugged and came out to publicly defend Michael Bloomberg’s campaign spending. D’Souza even cites Pete Buttigieg “appear[ing] on talk shows bashing Christians for taking seriously the biblical passages disputing homosexuality” as an example of contemporary socialism, even though the Venn diagram of “people who like Pete Buttigieg” and “people who are socialists” is a pair of non-intersecting circles, several miles apart.

He really tangles himself in some knots as he tries to show that contemporary socialism  is no longer rooted in class” and would be “unrecognizable to Marx” because it is a kind of “identity socialism,” and “it’s all about identity politics now.” As an example of this, he cites Hillary Clinton’s “jibe at Bernie” that “ ‘if we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” Today’s socialism, he says “seeks to demonize white male heterosexuals” and so “poor Bernie and Joe Biden” seem “out of place.” 

I don’t encourage you to try to follow this argument. Hillary Clinton’s criticism of breaking up banks was an example of socialism? Pete Buttigieg, despised by socialists for being a McKinseyite who bashes universal healthcare, is a socialist? Bernie Sanders, the most famous politician in a contemporary socialist movement constantly criticized for being too white and too male, is “out of place” in it because he is a white male? But you can see why D’Souza gets himself into this mess. He needs there to be a left conspiracy, with all Democrats part of an evil socialist plot. So even though many socialists (see, e.g. Adolph Reed, Briahna Joy Gray) are strongly critical of politics that prioritize identity and neglect class, D’Souza has to say that today’s socialism is all about identity. This way, identity-emphasizing politicians like Buttigieg and Kamala Harris can be put in the box, and the conspiracy theory can be salvaged.

Of course, when D’Souza turns to attacking Bernie Sanders, once again socialists are supposedly driven by all of the old Marxist economic dogmas. He adopts the working definition that socialism is when “the economic affairs of society belong to the public and not to the private sphere,” saying it has been “embraced by virtually all self-described socialists” and its most “recognizable historical application” is “nationalization of industry.” Now, I do not in fact embrace this definition, because it leaves out a key aspect of socialism, which is against having a hierarchy of economic classes. You could have fully nationalized industries in a monarchy but that wouldn’t make them socialist. (Actually, funnily enough, even though D’Souza places nationalization at the center of socialist ideology, at one point he actually under-states what socialists want here. He says he “ha[s] not been able to find a single socialist in America who advocates a government takeover of grocery stores, or retirement homes, or urgent care centers… nor can I find a single voice calling for the nationalization of, say, mail delivery or the phone companies or even space travel.” I for one certainly think that space travel and urgent care should be state-run, and as for nationalization of mail service, nobody tell him about the radical institution known at the United States Postal service.) 

Just Compensation 

But let’s leave aside D’Souza’s esoteric definition of socialism and concentrate on an argument that forms a core part of his book: the defense of free markets as producing just outcomes. D’Souza criticizes some other conservatives here, because he says they seem to admit that capitalism isn’t fair. He cites Friedrich von Hayek, who said:

“In a free system, it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit, and… an individual’s position should not necessarily depend on the views that his fellows hold about the merit he has acquired.” 

For D’Souza, this is unacceptable. If material rewards don’t correspond to any common standard of “what men recognize as merit,” the system is failing. D’Souza says that whether capitalism is defensible depends on showing that it gives people what they deserve. If he can prove this, he says, he will have shown that it is justified. But if he can’t, he will have to concede the socialists are right: 

“The central question for me is whether capitalism truly distributes its rewards in proportion with what people actually deserve. If it does, it’s just. If it doesn’t, it isn’t… If it fails to give people their due, it fails the basic test of justice… it must be reformed or abolished.” 

D’Souza’s way of proving that capitalism gives people what they deserve is to attempt to show that it hands out economic rewards in proportion to people’s productivity. To show that it does this, he gives the example of a parking attendant at a Trump hotel. The parking attendant may be miffed that he only earns $100 a day to park cars, when the hotel makes $3,000 a day on parking and Donald Trump himself is a billionaire. 

“We have to show where the other $2,900 went. If other words, we have to show that he is being paid commensurate with what he is producing. If we can, we will have shown that the rewards of the free market system are not only efficient but also fair. If we cannot, some socialist-type redistribution becomes not only plausible but also irresistible.” 

D’Souza then says that what the parking attendant does not realize is that the capitalist makes vital contributions to a business. Recounting parts of Trump’s career in the hotel industry, D’Souza shows how a hotel impresario selects a location, purchases a building, staffs a business, and builds a brand. A parking attendant does none of this. So, he concludes, because Trump made the greatest contribution to the hotel having its high prices, and the parking attendant did not, Trump deserves his money:

“Someone—in this case Trump—had the idea for that resort. He organized it… His brand attracted the clientele. He took all the risk. The parking guy did none of this. So Trump, not the parking guy, deserves the lion’s share of the profit. Both of them—the boss and the menial laborer—are getting their just deserts.” 

Let us zero in on the word “so,” because it’s where the sophistry is happening. D’Souza argues that Trump did a bunch of things to aid the success of the enterprise. He concludes that therefore, Trump “deserves” to be a billionaire and the parking guy deserves $100. But this is merely assuming the conclusion. Why does being the one who built the brand create this entitlement? A person earning a hundred bucks a day may struggle to pay their rent and raise their children. A billionaire could easily help them by taking less of the profits. The hidden premise here is that you deserve to live in obscene luxury if you can be shown to have contributed the most to the market value of an enterprise. But I don’t accept that premise at all, and D’Souza does not make an argument for it. 

Often, the first instinct leftists have when they hear arguments like “the CEO contributed more to the profits, so the CEO deserves their share,” is to show as an empirical matter that the CEO or capitalist did not in fact make such a contribution, that workers are the true source of value. But I think we need to emphasize that even if “productivity” determines what material rewards people get, we will not have shown the system is justified. This is because “distribution based on productivity” is a totally indefensible principle. 

Think about what it means to say that “people’s material rewards should be distributed in accordance with their relative contribution to the production of those material things.” It means that the disabled, the sick, children, and the elderly do not deserve any portion of the collective wealth. Anyone who cannot generate market value is, if we apply this principle consistently, left to starve. It is a Social Darwinist mindset that says the weak can suffer and die while the healthy and productive should reap the rewards. One could go further and say it sounds outright fascist: to the Strong, Healthy, and Productive go the spoils.

Now, I am sure if you are a defender of the principle, you will say “Oh, no, of course I believe that we have an obligation to take care of the weak and old and sick.” But this means that you do not subscribe to the principle that productivity should determine compensation. You subscribe to at least one other principle, one that says that if people need things, they should be given them, even if they cannot produce. So some things should be given “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” rather than “to each according to their marginal contribution to the social product.” (You are, in other words, a little bit socialist.) 

D’Souza simply takes his Social Darwinist, let-the-weak-perish distributional principle as a given. But there is no reason that we should, because accepting it would lead to a monstrous situation in which the weak all ended up in poverty. In fact, that is precisely what happens in the United States, where most of the poor are disabled people, children, students, old people, full-time carers, and sick people. (According to the Brookings Institution, less than 30% of the American poor are working-age adults who could be in the labor force.) Even if American capitalism does compensate people in accordance with their productivity, that would mean an impoverished underclass of involuntary non-producers, which is revolting to the basic moral instincts of every compassionate person. 

Let me illustrate further with an example from my own experience running a “business,” namely this magazine. (It’s funny, because D’Souza says that one reason leftists have disdain for capitalism is that they do not understand what it takes to run a business or what entrepreneurs do. Well, I actually have done precisely the thing D’Souza says I have not done, so I know exactly why all of this is bollocks.) If I co-founded Current Affairs and hatched a good deal of the early creative vision, it might be true as a factual matter that without me, the present-day income of Current Affairs would be much lower. Why, though, does that justify me getting rich if the other employees of Current Affairs struggle? If making a product requires both somebody to come up with the idea, and somebody to actually make it, why does the one with the idea deserve more? It is not enough to say “because without the idea, there would be no product.” Without my parents there would be no me but they are not entitled to my life savings. We are not in search of an argument that I did things, we need an argument that my doing things justifies a vast wage differential. 

Now, the empirical claim about productivity determining compensation also happens to be false. Having had to set salaries, I know that in many enterprises it is almost impossible to actually figure out what each employee produces. Our own employees’ salaries are set according to a murky combination of what we feel we can afford and what seems relatively fair. David Graeber, in Bullshit Jobs, writes about how objectively even completely unproductive jobs can persist; for example, one publisher hired a front desk secretary not because they needed one, but because having one made them feel important. The story told by free market types is that these inefficiencies “will not” continue to exist, because the market will punish those who waste money on nonsense. But the story is speculative fiction, a hypothetical capitalism of the mind. It is at odds with reality. 

Even if productivity could always be determined, however, the relative amounts people are paid would still be a choice, and that choice needs to be defended. Let us say we can figure out exactly how much an employee contributes. The people at the top are still deciding how much to take for themselves versus how much to pay their employees. They could make a different decision. That is, after all, what Dan Price, CEO of the payment processor company Gravity, did in 2015. He decreed that all of his employees would received a minimum annual salary of $70,000 and cut his own pay from $1 million annually to $70,000. Price had been moved by a conversation he had with an employee who said that he was being “ripped off” by Price, who was then paying him $35,000. Price had responded with the classic free market argument: that he was paying the market rate for the employee’s labor, and thereby giving him what he was worth. But the employee pointed out, correctly, that Price was making a choice to give himself far more. Nothing was forcing him to pay only the market rate. The conversation haunted Price, who then decided on his “radical” experiment in pay equity.

Tellingly, some conservatives were enraged by what Price did. Rush Limbuagh commented:

Pure, unadulterated socialism… I hope this company is a case study in MBA programs on how socialism does not work, because it’s gonna fail.”

I am fascinated by this statement, because what Price did occurred purely within the context of a free market. He was a CEO making a voluntary decision about the contracts to offer employees. But I understand why conservatives would be horrified: Price showed that choosing to take more for yourself because you are the CEO is voluntary, and that there is no reason it has to be that way. (Five years later, according to Price, “revenue is up, attrition is down, and we’ve been able to grow headcount by 75 percent.” He says that the difference it has made to his employees’ lives has been well worth the cut to his own pay.) 

D’Souza concludes of the parking attendant: “If he wants to know why his work isn’t being paid more, the answer is that his work isn’t worth more.” But this ducks the entire question, which is whether the choice of CEOs to pay themselves more and employees less is morally justified. Market worth is a measure of how little employers can get away with paying. You can produce just as much in April as you did in January but your employer might give you a pay cut because unemployment is higher in the economy at large and you fear losing your job more. When a person will work for a slice of bread and some soup so as not to starve, is it justified for a millionaire to pay them nothing more? Under D’Souza’s framework, the answer is “yes, it’s justified,” because the wage an employee is willing to work for determines what they are “worth.” I do not see any compelling reason to accept this. 

Far from seeming to provide “just deserts,” rewards under capitalism run completely contrary to human moral instincts. The people who work the hardest often get the least, and wealthy heirs who produce nothing can live off capital income while dishwashers and fruit pickers work from sunup to sunset and can barely survive. The only way D’Souza can possibly hope to defend any of this is by asking us to suspend our morality and embrace the circular reasoning that if people are paid in accordance with their market value, which in a market they are (by definition), justice has been done. 

So D’Souza has failed in his attempt to justify capitalistic distribution. In fact, he has not even attempted a justification: he has simply defined price as value, and thereby made the justice of capitalism true by definition. And since he told us that if he couldn’t justify it, capitalism would need to be abolished or reformed, we have no choice but to conclude that capitalism must be abolished or reformed. 

The Nordic Countries

One of the interesting things about The United States of Socialism is that D’Souza notices how muddled other conservatives are when they talk about the economic system in Nordic countries. Some argue that Norway, Sweden, and Finland are “actually capitalist” and have low taxes, limited regulations, and no minimum wages. Others say these economies are “actually socialist” but are failures, and have very high taxes that Americans would never tolerate. D’Souza is perceptive enough to realize that if conservatives say these societies are “capitalist,” they open themselves up to being challenged: “Well, if they’re capitalist, why can’t we import their model and have universal healthcare and paid family leave and such?” So D’Souza encourages his fellow conservatives to for the love of God stop saying this in case people start to realize welfare states are reasonable and also compatible with productivity, and say that the Nordics are socialist instead.

Interestingly, D’Souza does not then do what you might expect him to do, which is to try to show that Nordic socialism “doesn’t work.” Instead, he says: 

“I’m not denying the existence of Nordic socialism. Nor do I deny that this type of socialism works to a point. What I deny is that it can be imported here. We cannot have Scandinavian socialism because we don’t have the conditions for it. Our type of society doesn’t permit it. 

So it exists, and it at least partly works (D’Souza admits that “Finnish healthcare costs less than American healthcare” but says it is “inferior,” offering nothing to justify this contention.) But even though it is good, we just can’t have it. D’Souza does not make an argument that the benefits Nordic countries offer their citizens do not make them better off (he is smart enough to realize that they do). So he resorts to the peculiar argument that it is simply impossible for Americans to have nice things. The Nordics, he says, are able to have socialism because they are ethnically homogenous. It was “developed for people named Sven.” The United States is not ethnically homogenous. Fewer of our people are named Sven, and “no American socialist wants America’s racial landscape to resemble that of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, or Finland.” Thus we cannot have socialism. 

This seems awfully convenient; why would ethnicity make the difference over whether a certain kind of healthcare system works? What does “percentage of Svens” have to do with economic policy? D’Souza says that the important thing to understand is that the homogeneity is not just ethnic, but ethical: there is a nationwide “imagined comradeship,” a “sense of solidarity among the citizens.” “The operating principle of Scandinavian socialism is that we’re all in this together.” He says that their type of socialism has nothing in common with the identity-based socialism of the United States. Theirs is “unification socialism” whereas ours is “division socialism”:  

“The motto of unification socialism is that we are one people; we are all in this together… Socialism in America means forcing groups defined as ‘oppressors’ to submit and pay up to groups defined as ‘victims.’ Nothing could be more alien to the spirit of Scandinavian socialism… The whole template of leftist politics that we are familiar with in this country, rooted in identity politics, is pretty much inapplicable to Scandinavia.” 

I am going to be generous and assume that this poor man is simply confused. In fact, if you watch Bernie Sanders’ campaign ads, you will see exactly the kind of appeal for an “imagined comradeship” that D’Souza says today’s socialists do not have. They are striking calls for solidarity across all identity groups. Sanders tried to cultivate an ethic of unity and condemned those who seek to divide working people against one another. I would encourage Dinesh D’Souza to pick up a copy of Jacobin magazine and see where he finds “identity politics” that “demonizes” white people. It isn’t there.

Of course, talking about the 99% and the 1% is kind of inherently “divisive,” because it points out a difference between what two different sets of people possess. But the only reason there isn’t as much of a class struggle in the Nordic countries is that it was already waged long ago. Interestingly, D’Souza comments at one point that there is no “literature of leftist political pilgrimage to Norway and Sweden” and says it’s “striking” that we do not see “reports” from Nordic countries by leftists. I find this funny, because one such report, by Ty Joplin, appears in the exact same issue of Current Affairs as this article. Joplin notes that in Norway, it took labor militancy to achieve the kinds of gains today’s socialists seek for the U.S. Yes, it’s true, there is a national ethic of solidarity and mutual aid. But there is no evidence to believe that is only possible because they are white. It is because generations of people tried to build that collective spirit, to bring to their country what American socialists are currently trying to bring to the U.S. 

What I like about D’Souza’s commentary on the Nordics is that it essentially admits we are right. These countries work, their models are good, and the only difference between us and them is that we do not have the necessary spirit of solidarity… yet. But so long as you do not believe that solidarity is only possible among Svens, this is an argument for pressing forward, not for giving up. 

Ignorance on Every Subject: Identity, Climate Change, Immigration

I have thus far treated D’Souza’s arguments quite seriously, but it is worth noting that much of the book is far more ignorant than I have conveyed. He makes idiotic misstatments (Socialism “dates back to 1917, when Lenin founded the world’s first socialist state”) and his arguments are frequently absurd. (He says that if Walmart workers thought CEOs earned too much they could leave and start their own Walmart, which shows stunning ignorance of the way concentrated corporate power operates to crush potential competitors.) He says that “the central principle of democracy is majority rule,” which is false, and then proceeds to show how absurd strict majority rule is (the central principle of democracy is participation in power, which is different). He compares being transgender to thinking you are a toad, repeating the usual conservative mistake of thinking that transgender people are denying biology rather than denying the value of existing conceptual categories. He is a climate change denier, who delights in posting individual news stories about particular glaciers that are growing rather than shrinking in order to mislead people into thinking that glaciers as a whole are expanding. He flat out lies about the accuracy of climate models. He says that “if the climate change literature was persuasive one would expect the prince of coastal properties worldwide to plummet…. But, in fact, nothing like this has happened.” In fact, there is research from the not-exactly-socialist McKinsey & Co. on the effect of climate change on coastal asset values. 

He says that “the consumer votes with his dollar bills” making the market a pure direct democracy, though the entire critique made by the left is that the market is like a democracy where some people get 0 votes and some people get fifty billion. He says that “we live in a society of black and brown privilege” in which it is “now customary, if not obligatory, to tiptoe around blacks and other people of color, to express deference if not subservience to their demands,” ignoring gigantic piles of social science research on racial inequality. He cites Jussie Smollett and Emma Sulkowicz as somehow representing socialism. Online, naturally, D’Souza has bordered on outright Covid-is-a-hoax material, retweeting things like “the Left is FRANTIC this morning to keep the economy shut down, because wrecking the economy has been their premise all along.” 

There are enough bad arguments in this book to write four more books refuting them. You may ask: “Why bother?” to which I’d give my usual answer. People read this stuff, and it’s important that we understand what conservatives are going to say and exactly where it goes wrong. I promise you this book will sell more copies than my own, which is sad, but socialists need to know what our counterarguments are, because D’Souza is an intelligent sophist whose works are often fun and loaded with footnotes, and can appear superficially persuasive to the politically naive. 

I’d like to finish with one final D’Souza argument that I think exemplifies what conservatives are oblivious to that the left understands. Here, after talking about why the Founding Fathers were wonderful, he once again turns to lambasting identity politics: 

It may seem surprising that, in this account of the American founding, I have given so little emphasis to what the founders thought about race, gender, and sexual orientation. In other words, I seem to have neglected “identity” issues all together. For progressive historiography, this is something of a scandal. Progressive scholars across a range of disciplines talk of little else. They write as if the founders cared about little else. Yet the truth is that the founders gave little attention to the politics of race, even less to the politis of sex, and none whatsoever to the politics of sexual orientation. Why? Not because the founders were racists and sexists. Rather, they were concerned with the norms of society, and in constructing these, they emphasized the typical or normal case. They were not unfamiliar with the anomaly of race. They understood that their wives and daughters were part of the novus ordo seclorum… So why not build a society keeping minorities and outliers foremost in mind?… For the same reason that a dinner host organizes a party keeping the general tenor of the guests in mind. The basic principles are those of normalcy and inclusion. Now imagine that one of the invitees is a dwarf.

D’Souza says the dwarf will be “annoyed to discover that the chairs are too high for him to climb into” and that he cannot see, but it’s 

“…very hard for the dwarf to understand that the guests are actually indifferent to height. This is not a party organized by dwarves for dwarves…. The organizers have made room for him to be part of the festivities like everyone else. But the operating principle is one of universality, not of difference. This is the aspect of the American founding that identity socialists hate.” 

One could start here by pointing out that the Founding Fathers were, in fact, racists. (Jefferson: “The blacks… are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of body and mind…) But D’Souza is also illustrating exactly why conservative “color blindness” rhetoric is so wrong. The Founding Fathers didn’t let women and people of color vote! This wasn’t “universality”! The failure to “see” race means overlooking colossal racial injustices! D’Souza’s dwarf example shows this quite well. The party organizers think that by treating everyone “the same”  they are creating equality. But one person is having a miserable time, because their differences are not being accommodated. That is because the party is being organized by someone like D’Souza, i.e. a complete dick who cannot even be considerate enough to get a little person a higher chair, and instead comments that “it’s very hard for the dwarf to understand that the guests are actually indifferent to height.” D’Souza’s hypothetical ends with the little person getting enraged and screaming at the other guests that they are being inconsiderate (perhaps this has happened to D’Souza before), and he chooses to see this as impoliteness on the guest’s part, rather than an illustration of how ignorant you become if your philosophy is to ignore identity and difference.

Socialist dinner parties are less likely to end with differently abled people becoming upset and offended, because we actually care about everyone’s experiences. We pay attention to injustices and we give to each according to their need rather than according to their productivity. D’Souza’s arguments are nearly always bad, but his book shows exactly the ways in which conservative philosophy is oblivious to the conditions of people’s lives and the changes necessary to improve them. 

Why “Crime” Isn’t the Question and Police Aren’t the Answer

A few weeks after the murder of George Floyd, the commentator Matthew Yglesias announced to his four hundred thousand Twitter followers that he was about to deliver (through a now-deleted Twitter thread and a Vox article): “Some thoughts on police.”      

When a person like Yglesias, with no expertise in prison and police abolition, offers his general wisdom during a revolutionary political moment that threatens racial and economic privileges from which he benefits—on a website run for profit—it raises questions about what interests the analysis will serve.

Revolutionary moments like this one are exciting because they explode previous conceptions of what is possible and produce new consciousness. But these are also situations in which status-quo moderates burst into action, telling us that the demands of marginalized people seeking change are “too much, too soon,” radical, infeasible, and unsafe.      

As if on cue, in the weeks following nationwide uprisings against racist policing, an army of moderates have attempted to make the idea of defunding and abolishing the police seem like a dangerously naïve fantasy rather than a natural rejection of a discriminatory, expensive, and catastrophic bureaucracy that serves the class of people who own things.      

The claim made by Yglesias—and the claim often made by moderates—is that “police reduce crime.” In this article, I want to explain why this premise is mistaken and how it is designed to distract us from having the conversation that really matters.

We Have Bad Data

It is important to note up front that the data available about the punishment bureaucracy is terrible. Scientifically determining causal inferences for complex social phenomena is inherently difficult, but one of the scandals of mass criminalization in the United States since 1975 is that politicians have cared so little about whether the bureaucracy actually serves its stated goals that they have not invested in collecting data or studying it. Think of it like this: every few years, we are told that a new study says that drinking coffee is bad, but then we’re told that another study says coffee is good. Same with eggs. Or coconut. The social science around the effects of police on heavily politicized concepts like “crime” is far less studied than food. Anyone like Yglesias who tells you confidently that “more police = less crime” should be viewed with skepticism. 

As with Nathan Robinson’s excellent recent critique of the lack of rigor in drawing conclusions from social science generally, my goal here is not to nitpick the studies that Yglesias relies on, or cite the research that says the opposite—although I do find it odd that Yglesias doesn’t acknowledge that contrary research, or even note that the studies he cites explain their conclusions as a debatable part of a contradictory literature. I have read the studies on both sides of the debate about “crime” and find many of them to be methodologically questionable and of almost no use in answering the most relevant questions. 

Here, I’m interested instead in looking at what moderates are doing when they invoke this research. For even if one accepts the findings Yglesias cites about “crime,” they say almost nothing about the ultimate question of whether to significantly defund or abolish the police. Yglesias is simply having the wrong conversation.

Reducing “Crime” Misses the Point

Writing in a format he calls “explanatory journalism,” Yglesias frames his Vox article as a challenge to abolitionists who call for the end of policing as we know it and who advocate for a society that doesn’t need what we now think of as the police. In reality, he offers neither a critique of abolition nor a defense of contemporary policing. Rather than addressing abolitionist arguments head-on, he merely criticizes several supposed factual claims and omissions in a single book, The End of Policing by the professor Alex Vitale. Yglesias’s thinks research shows that deploying more police reduces what Yglesias calls “crime.” He claims this research rebuts Vitale’s conclusions about whether police have positive effects overall.       

So, the heart of Yglesias’s argument is “police reduce crime.” Vitale is not primarily concerned with that question. Vitale argues that the most important function of police has never been to reduce “crime” but instead to enforce white supremacy and preserve wealth. For Vitale, the social costs associated with the real functions of police outweigh any benefit they provide. More police might reduce what they call “crime,” but how much violence and misery do they preserve and create? 

To understand why Yglesias’s argument is weak and mostly irrelevant to the question of defunding police, let’s look at its main flaws.

First, Yglesias’s piece is all about “crime,” but he never explores what that word means. The concept of “crime” is constructed by people who have power. Throughout history, powerful people have defined “crime” in ways that benefit wealthy people and white people. For example, cocaine, marijuana, and opium were made illegal to target specific racial minorities. And even within categories of acts that are classified as “crimes,” powerful people decide where to look for those acts, when to look for them, and which ones to ignore and which to document. Students at universities, for example, frequently violate underage drinking, drug, and sexual assault laws without carceral punishment while Black people who live down the street are surveilled, searched, arrested, beaten, jailed, and rendered homeless, jobless, and traumatized for similar behavior. A schoolyard fight at a wealthy private school may mean a call to parents but the same fight at a school filled with poor children is recorded as a “crime” and prosecuted, ending with a child kept in a cage away from her family. The entire system is filled with such examples. 

Second, the data and reporting about “crime” that Yglesias cites comes from police themselves. Police are not some objective body neutrally “enforcing the law.” Not only do they choose to look for some crimes, committed by some people, in some neighborhoods, some of the time, but they have political incentives to manipulate the data they collect, and not to collect other data at all. To take one example, depending on the political winds, police have an incentive to either under or over report the number of various types of crimes in order to promote particular campaigns or narratives. To take another example, police do not record as crimes all of the illegal stops, searches, and assaults that they themselves commit, even though counting these would likely increase overall “crime” dramatically by adding thousands of additional physical assaults to the record books in every major U.S. city each year.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, what constitutes a “crime” in the United States is divorced from what causes harm. The standard narrative of police as central to “public safety” rings hollow when one considers actual causes of injury and death. For example, tobacco kills 480,000 people every year in the United States, including 41,000 from second-hand smoke alone. This dwarfs police-reported data on deaths from the drugs that police call “crimes.” The same is true of water pollution, air pollution, and fraudulent home foreclosures, all of which are linked to astronomical mortality rates, and are perpetrated by large corporations and the wealthy people who own them. Wage theft by employers is almost never investigated by police or prosecuted, and yet it costs low-wage workers an estimated $50 billion per year, dwarfing the cost of all police-reported robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts combined. But this narrative of what constitutes “crime” is how local news can declare that crime is “soaring” after a month with a few dozen more car burglaries and how a newspaper can declare that a city became “safer” because there were 34 fewer homicides one year without considering how many people there died preventable deaths due to unstable housing, lack of access to health insurance, race-based pollution, or malnutrition. 

Not all human tragedy is preventable, but quite a lot of it is, and accepting conceptions of “crime” and police data about that concept as a proxy for holistic public safety is the original sin of most writing in this topic.

What About “Violence”?

But what about what Yglesias calls “violent crime,” a concept one might initially believe less susceptible to social construction? On this point, it’s interesting that Yglesias does not engage with the historical literature demonstrating that the rise of modern U.S. policing had little to do with “violent crime” and more to do with catching enslaved people who had liberated themsleves and crushing organized labor actions by low-wage workers. For present purposes, I’ll ignore that Yglesias mixes research on generic “crime” to make his argument about “violent crime” because the “violent crime” argument is so pervasive in moderate commentary and should be addressed head-on.

Here too Yglesias never explores the basic concept he’s discussing. What constitutes violence? True violence is more than physical assault and murder: there’s the everyday violence of structural poverty, lack of access to health care, forced homelessness, children forced to drink water poisoned with lead, a pregnant woman unable to afford proper nutrition, or a family (often illegally) evicted from their home.

And there is another glaring flaw in Yglesias’ argument: the pro-police studies he cites make no attempt to count the “violent crimes” committed by the police and prison bureaucracy itself, or the other deaths in custody like the death of Sandra Bland. They leave out millions of illegal police assaults each year[1], and hundreds of thousands of sexual and physical assaults in jails and prisons alone[2]. Given the small margins of the supposed reductions that Yglesias cites, the results of the studies would likely be reversed completely if they included crimes and physical violence committed by police and prison guards.

Not only do police not report their own crimes, but the vast majority of sexual assault and violent incidents are never reported to police at all. This is a profound problem for Yglesias and the studies he relies on, because one of the central features of abolitionist theory and practice is creating a society where harm rarely occurs because we are devoting resources to tackling its actual causes, like cycles of trauma, mental illness, lack of deep relationships with one another, lack of investment in children, environmental pollution, and toxic masculinity. Abolitionists seek structural solutions that, by building something in place of punishment bureaucracies that actually meets people’s needs and helps them flourish, end all of that unreported crime as well.

Thus, the things police and Yglesias call “violent crime” cause significantly less injury and death than structural violence in our society. So if our concern is overall safety, life, and well-being, a focus on “violent crime” in the narrow sense that the police calculate it is inadequate, as well as a political and rhetorical choice designed to get you to focus on some harms and not others. 

Moderates Don’t Want You To Think About The Alternatives

On top of these core flaws, the research moderates usually cite does not support their conclusions. Yglesias’s studies, for example, do not support larger police budgets in the aggregate: they only purport to speak to particular police strategies at particular moments in particular places.  Most of what police do is respond to non-criminal calls—“violent crime” amounts to only about 4 percent of their time. And even when they do deal with criminal incidents, only 5 percent of all police arrests are for what the FBI considers serious “violent crime.” The vast bulk of what police do is execute physical violence and surveillance against disproportionately poor and Black individuals for low level offenses like driving on a suspended license (11 million people have suspended licenses because of unpaid debts), trespassing, “disorderly” behavior caused by mental illness, technical probation violations, and owing debts. Tens of millions of people have been caged and separated from families for drug possession—in 2015, more people were handcuffed and caged for marijuana offenses than for all “violent crimes” combined. All of this forcible arresting would itself be seen as the “violent crime” of “kidnapping” if people who own things in our society had not given police permission and money to do it. 

In a single throw-away sentence, Yglesias praises what is actually the bulk of Vitale’s argument. He notes that the book “contains some good ideas about the potential to use housing and mental health policy to address certain classes of problems that are now largely dumped on the criminal justice system.” Yglesias doesn’t acknowledge that these “certain classes of problems” are mostly what police spend their time on! Far from agreeing that police budgets are largely wasted on unnecessary surveillance, military weaponry, criminalization of poverty, low-level arrests, arresting the mentally ill, and the waste, fraud, and abuse of the police overtime system, Yglesias never even contemplates that police might need less funding. This is despite the fact that reducing budgets and redirecting police priorities toward high priority geographic and subject matter areas is a clear implication if one takes his studies seriously. Yglesias never acknowledges that he could largely maintain his faith in those studies while also dramatically reducing much of the rest of what police do.

Most importantly, though, none of the studies Yglesias cites examines what kind of “violent crime” would happen in a society that was properly investing in communities. In other words, they do not ask whether other interventions (i.e. not police, guns, tasers, handcuffs, prosecutors, lawyers, jails, judges, probation officers, prisons, prison guards, parole officers, etc…) would be more effective than police in reducing “violent crime.” There is a body of research on how other alternatives reduce even what police call “crime,” and the studies cited by Yglesias do not control for those interventions when they study the supposed effects of more police. Yglesias’s studies basically take as a given the current structural systems and cultural attitudes and examine police data about what happens in the short term when fewer or more police arrive in a particular geographic area subject to all of those larger forces and in a community already used to being forced to use police to manage conflict. That flaw makes them useless as a rebuttal to abolitionists.  

I therefore suspect that not even several of the pro-police researchers Yglesias cites would agree that their research supports his generalization (in a section heading no less!) that “police officers reduce crime.” The short-term studies themselves say nothing about the complex generational effects of policing and imprisonment on even the police-controlled “crime” data they use. They do not study long term “crime” effects of heavy policing given the trauma and mental health of residents, the criminogenic effects of arresting and jailing people who later then lose their housing or their jobs and become more likely to commit “crime,” the effects on Black children growing up with an incarcerated parent, and so on. These studies, whatever their value, are operating with limited, distorted variables and in a different universe from the social and economic changes that abolitionists envision. 

The Costs of Police

The existence of this different universe is clearest in Yglesias’s failure to mention the costs of policing. To his credit, Yglesias acknowledges inequality.  But it is revealing that Yglesias uses the metaphor of the police as a “Band-Aid” to mitigate the harms of social inequalities. This metaphor subtly suggests that policing is actually an attempt to alleviate the damage caused by harmful systems rather than working in tandem with them to accomplish their unequal goals. Band-Aids aren’t typically one of the causes of a wound.

One of the most important moments of Yglesias’s article is therefore when he argues that the reason we should not pursue defunding or abolition is that we have not yet tried “reforms” that would hold violent “bad apple” cops accountable. This argument is predicated on a claim that the only significant cost of police is what Yglesias calls the “excessive force” caught on video in the George Floyd murder. But none of the abolitionists I know are concerned only about overt physical violence by police that is already nominally illegal. The abolitionists I know are more focused on what the “good cops” are doing every day. It’s those “good cops” who enforce the massive punishment bureaucracy.      

The only other point at which Yglesias quantifies social costs is when he mentions a study that purported to find that every $1 spent on police brings $1.63 in “social benefits.” Yglesias’s conclusion from the study is, apparently, that we should hire infinitely more police officers because every additional cop adds marginal value to society. Setting aside that this study shares the fatal conceptual problems I have previously described, notice two aspects of it: first, the study decided that every murdered life was worth $7 million and that every sexual assault caused $142,020 in damage. The absurdity of Yglesias passing off judgments like this as science is self-evident, and different estimates of the relative financial value of rape and murder could have just as easily yielded a conclusion that police cost more money than they are worth. Second, as with the other studies, this one does not include violence by police or prison guards. Using the study’s own numbers, if there are 1,000 deaths from police shootings every year and 95,000 yearly sexual assaults against people arrested by police, that would be more than an additional $20 billion in social costs—reversing the finding of the study. More broadly, the study does not include the costs of other police harm: millions of stops, searches, arrests, beatings, chokeholds, and taserings; interference with community-based efforts to combat violence; lost jobs, homes, and separated families; interrupted medical and mental health care; spreading of infectious disease in jails; deportations; and harder-to-quantify effects of things like widespread surveillance on human relationships and privacy. Presenting the supposed benefits of something without counting its harms is not objective science.

Thus, even if one believed that police marginally reduce “crime” such that we should hire enough police to station one officer inside every person’s bedroom and outside every person’s home, one might still conclude that the costs of living in such a police state would make that undesirable. It is astonishing that a public figure would argue for more police based on a few flawed studies less rigorous than studies about whether olive oil is good for your skin without attempting to confront these costs.

Yglesias and other moderates also ignore alternative less costly ways that we might obtain the benefits they tout. To take one blatant example, none of Yglesias’s studies control for unique features of police—as far as the studies are concerned, we don’t know whether the same results could have been obtained by flooding “high crime” areas with priests or poets. Or Black Panthers.

One of the academics Yglesias (mis)cites, sociologist Patrick Sharkey, explains the even more robust empirical literature showing that community-based investments have dramatically beneficial effects on “violence.” (I suspect Yglesias read Sharkey’s widely-shared recent Washington Post op-ed, which he linked to, but not Sharkey’s academic work.) Unfortunately, although Sharkey is a more rigorous thinker than Yglesias and comes to some better conclusions about alternatives to police, his work on this issue is pervaded by nearly all of the flaws I discuss with Yglesias. The key paragraph on police and “crime” in Sharkey’s op-ed relies on the same flawed studies as Yglesias. It also contains several bizarre moments that reflect biases toward power and a lack of interest in focusing on the important structural questions. For example, when talking about the supposed benefits of police on “violent crime,” Sharkey says without explanation that “violence is the most damaging feature of urban inequality.” This claim strikes me as unfounded: many people I know and work with in those communities think that more harm is caused by the far greater number of deaths associated with other features of “urban inequality”: eviction; lack of medical care, nutritious food, living wages, physical exercise, and stimulating education; lead poisoning; air pollution; mental health disorders and lack of treatment; predatory financial practices that trap people in cycles of debt and poverty; drug use; disproportionate infant mortality and cancer rates; mass family separation caused by the criminal and child welfare bureaucracies, etc. And even though Sharkey makes statements of disputable fact favorable to police narratives with confidence, he is only willing to say on the other side that “one can argue” that police are an “authoritarian institution” that has historically targeted Black people. This equivocation correlates with his calls to maintain police funding while only “piloting” investments in alternatives using non-government funds. Like Yglesias, Sharkey appears to be unwilling to confront, at a structural level, the symbiotic relationship between policing and racial capitalism or to understand “violence” in a holistic way that would challenge the existing racial and economic order.

Yglesias’s interventions on this point since his Vox article are just as puzzling. Although Yglesias deleted his original tweet thread introducing his “thoughts on police,” he keeps tweeting about the issue in even less justifiable ways: his latest tweet proclaims that he is “very skeptical” about calls to reduce police budgets, but cites only his Vox piece. He never publicly acknowledges that he has not weighed the costs of the “crime” reduction he touts or empirical analysis of whether investments other than police could lead to greater reductions in what he calls “crime.” Thus, although Yglesias says that the United States needs more police instead of their defunding, he does not ever even try to make the case for that view. 

Introducing People to Abolition

Yglesias mentions abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Mariame Kaba up front as if he is familiar with their work, but he does not discuss their ideas. And he doesn’t mention the other abolitionist theories, principles, or empirical evidence that I have engaged with for the past 12 years working in and studying the punishment bureaucracy.

To me, the crux of the abolitionist body of literature, thinking, and revolutionary struggle which those three Black women and many others (check out Derecka Purnell’s brilliant recent essay on police abolition here) have given us is that the main function of police and prisons in a society of pervasive racism and hoarding of wealth is to serve the interests of the white owning class. 

In any modern capitalist society, police are what protects the private property of people who own it. In the United States, this means something specific: white elites stole the labor and land of Black and indigenous people for centuries and then continued to break their own laws (with the help of police) to extract more of their wealth once formal law supposedly ended legally sanctioned atrocities. They did this through the state violence of enforcing slavery, racial terrorism and lynching, busting organized labor actions, race-based lending and foreclosures, and widespread academic and employment discrimination. One of the main functions of police is to preserve that distribution of wealth, land, and resources that resulted from that pillage.      

To take one example linked to this history, police are the reason that people who now own all of the extra vacant houses and apartments in every U.S. city can call upon the force and violence of the state to prevent people who have no place to live from taking shelter. 

And today, police are the reason wealthy moderates can afford to not treat homelessness as a crisis: it may be killing people, but it won’t affect them much. Police are the mechanism by which some people can live comfortably with a spare bedroom or three, knowing that if a houseless person showed up at their door, they could bring down metal handcuffs and a jail cell on that person if the person refused to leave. The threat of police intervention is the reason Jared Kushner can forcibly evict people from properties he owns.   

One of the most important functions police serve is enforcing who can be where and with what—if police were not willing to enforce wealth hoarding, people who own things could not maintain their claims to land. Restaurants and grocery stores who sell food could not deny it to the hungry, and our society would be forced into a different set of relationships. This is a violence of a kind, and it is the constant threat of this state-sanctioned violence that allows for so much more structural violence associated with poverty and inequality to exist. But this isn’t what moderates notice about police.

Most of the writing and organizing around abolition is thus about something broader than Yglesias’s conception of “crime”: it’s about how the U.S. has caged people in numbers unprecedented in history, surveillance that has changed how we interact with each other, and the separation of tens of millions of families. It’s about the trillions of dollars that have been spent constructing new “crimes” in the “war on drugs,” and billions of dollars in poor people’s property have been taken by the police through “civil forfeiture.” It’s about the cash bail system and the privatization of nearly every component of the punishment bureaucracy, including how all of these systems fit together; for example, in thousands of jails across the country, people who are confined solely because they cannot pay cash bail are now prohibited from seeing or hugging their children because police have signed contracts with multi-billion dollar corporations to require them to pay for phone and video calls with loved ones instead. Those who cannot pay cannot speak to the people they love. And it’s of course about racial disparities—by 2002, the police bureaucracy caged Black people at a rate six times that of South Africa at the height of apartheid, and those disparities haven’t changed in the decades we have been talking about “reform.” 

Most fundamentally, abolition is about transforming a mindset of individualized blame and punishment into a society that invests in the kinds of bonds and relationships that not only effectively prevent harm but that also enable meaningful accountability when harm does occur.      It’s about whether to accept structural violence or to create truly safe places to live, learn, and love.

Why Focus On the Bad Arguments of Moderates?

It is hard to overstate the urgency of this moment for the people whose bodies and minds are on the line. Police surveil, harass, brutalize, and kill Black people. The things happening to human beings in our jails and prisons are unspeakable. And police are about to enforce millions of evictions, disproportionately of Black families. Police and prison abolition has been around for some time, but this is the first time in decades that there has been a widespread movement dedicated to actually reducing the size of this bureaucracy because of the threat that it poses to Black people.

And so the political and media establishment has mobilized against serious change with misinformation and misdirection. Among the most dangerous of these counter-revolutionary interventions are a wave of articles like last month’s “news” report in the New York Times praising the “reforms” of the Camden, New Jersey police department. The celebrated “reformsresulted in more police, more low-level arrests of poor Black people, and more Black children being separated from their parents. The role of such articles (and a similar New York Times story about Seattle published while this article was being finalized) is to narrow the conception of what is possible—to re-calibrate public expectations about which kinds of changes are appropriate and which are out of bounds. While the Camden story included evidence-free empirical assertions about the Camden police department’s effects on “crime,” cherry-picked quotes from supportive residents (but none from those organizing against the police in Camden), and cute anecdotes of police leaders marching with protesters and watching children play basketball, it did not contain a single word implying that some people have a structural critique of police in an unequal capitalist society built on white supremacy. Rather than informing its audience about that issue, the article’s denouement was a scene seemingly out of an Onion article in which a cop let kids stay on a playground past curfew and agreed with the happy children that “Black lives matter.” Such “news” articles (part of a long history by the New York Times and other moderate media) share the biases, lack of rigor, and flaws of Yglesias’s piece but parade as objective journalism. The media’s scrutiny of factual claims and the assumptions underlying those claims, and its willingness to contextualize claims in a broader truth, is inversely proportional to how much those claims and assumptions adhere to the interests and preconceived beliefs of people who own things.

Moderate arguments in favor of the status quo are popular: the hagiography of the Camden police department was featured on page A1 of the New York Times Sunday edition. And none other than Barack Obama—whose “Department of Justice” funded the hiring of 7,000 new police officers in 2009 with over $1 billion—tweeted Yglesias’s article to his 120.7 million Twitter followers. Famous moderate Steve Pinker sent out Sharkey’s article to his 655,000 twitter followers, ironically (mis)using a careless paragraph by Sharkey to quip that we should not abolish the police. Moderates with reputations to bolster, institutes to run, and money to make in corporate-owned media who tell you that more funding for police reduces “crime” are like the factory farming corporations touting the benefits of pork.

More deeply, the people in corporate media who claim that “police reduce crime” are generally not among the several billion people forced by profit-protecting state and corporate violence to starve each day around the world and not among the tens of millions of people in the United States forced by elite-controlled state violence to barely meet the basic necessities of life. As people who don’t experience police lynching and don’t worry each day about whether their children will have enough food or will be jailed by police because they cannot pay cash bail, it makes sense that they are largely comfortable with the way the world looks.

And so people talking to you about police-reported “crime” focus on the wrong conversation for a reason. Moderates don’t actually want to attack what police call “violence” if that would mean housing, healthcare, food, and theater classes for everyone’s children; they want to attack “violence” only if it means brutalizing, surveilling, and controlling powerless people. Most journalists and academics understand that Barack Obama and Steve Pinker won’t retweet you for making those points, and you won’t be able to brag about getting onto page A1. The incentives for career advancement, prestige, and profit are linked to not upsetting people who own things.

The flaws and timing of these arguments reflect the moderate groupthink that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned about in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: 

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

Unfortunately for the most vulnerable people in our society, moments like this activate a lot of these moderate counter-revolutionaries, and they are in a battle for our hearts and minds.

[1] Take the City of Newark, New Jersey alone: the DOJ found that 93 percent of the tens of thousands of police-pedestrian stops lacked justification—every unjustified police stop, search, and arrest is a legal assault.
[2] The Department of Justice estimates that about 4 percent of prisoners are sexually assaulted each year (excluding all other physical assaults), meaning about 95,000 individuals—the majority of sexual assaults by government officials.   

Alec Karakatsanis is the founder of Civil Rights Corps and the author of Usual Cruelty.  Sam Rosen, a third-year student at Harvard Law School, and Medha Swaminathan, a second-year student at Yale Law School, contributed exceptional research assistance.

Coronavirus and Socialism

In the Atlantic and the New York Times this week, there are long and thorough analyses of why the coronavirus pandemic has hit the United States so badly. Neither, of course, explicitly states “the socialists were right about the systemic problems facing the country.” Yet when we actually list out the causes of the failures, many of them are exactly the problems that the left has long identified as causes of dysfunction and misery. This is important to point out not because the pandemic is an “I told you so” moment—there is no satisfaction to be found amid tragedy—but because we need to understand how the problems exposed by the articles can actually be fixed.

Ed Yong, in “How The Pandemic Defeated America,” relates his findings from over 100 interviews with experts. Let’s look at a number of the factors he notes in trying to understand why the number of deaths, and the amount of general misery, has been so much higher in the United States than anywhere else. 

  • Austerity in Services for the Vulnerable — Yong cites “Chronic underfunding of public health,” and a “bloated, inefficient health-care system.” He notes that “today, the U.S. spends just 2.5 percent of its gigantic health-care budget on public health…. Since the last recession, in 2009, chronically strapped local health departments have lost 55,000 jobs—a quarter of their workforce. When COVID‑19 arrived, the economic downturn forced overstretched departments to furlough more employees.” Yong also says that before the pandemic three in four nursing homes were understaffed, and four in five had recently been cited for failures in infection control,” so it wasn’t surprising that COVID-19 ripped through so many nursing homes. 
  • Racism — Yong cites: “Racist policies that… left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19…” Yong says that over a century-long period the white leaders of former slave states “built hospitals away from Black communities, segregated Black patients into separate wings, and blocked Black students from medical school. In the 20th century, they helped construct America’s system of private, employer-based insurance, which has kept many Black people from receiving adequate medical treatment.” 
  • Market Approach to Health — Capitalism has screwed up the incentives for hospitals: our “profit-driven system has scant incentive to invest in spare beds, stockpiled supplies, peacetime drills, and layered contingency plans—the essence of pandemic preparedness. America’s hospitals have been pruned and stretched by market forces to run close to full capacity, with little ability to adapt in a crisis.” The PPE bidding war was a clear example of a free market disaster: “The federal government could have mitigated [the problem of PPE shortages] by buying supplies at economies of scale and distributing them according to need. Instead, in March, Trump told America’s governors to “try getting it yourselves.” As usual, health care was a matter of capitalism and connections. In New York, rich hospitals bought their way out of their protective-equipment shortfall, while neighbors in poorer, more diverse parts of the city rationed their supplies.”
  • Workers Facing A Choice Between Risking Health and Poverty — Yong: “The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood.”
  • Environmental Destruction — Yong: “The biggest factors behind spillovers [of viruses from animals to humans] are land-use change and climate change, both of which are hard to control.”
  • Self-Interested Behavior By Nations Yong: “To avert a pandemic, affected nations must alert their neighbors quickly… The Chinese government downplayed the possibility that SARS‑CoV‑2 was spreading among humans… The World Health Organization initially parroted China’s line…” 
  • Trump Prioritizing Border Controls Over Testing Infrastructure, and Failing to Wield the Power of the State to Direct Production — Yong: “Trump could have spent [the] crucial early weeks mass-producing tests to detect the virus, asking companies to manufacture protective equipment and ventilators, and otherwise steeling the nation for the worst. Instead, he focused on the border.”
  • Having The Government Run By People Who Hate Government — Yong: “It is no coincidence that other powerful nations that elected populist leaders—Brazil, Russia, India, and the United Kingdom—also fumbled their response to COVID‑19. [NOTE: My personal opinion is that Yong’s definition of populism is a mistake.] “When you have people elected based on undermining trust in the government, what happens when trust is what you need the most?” says Sarah Dalglish of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies the political determinants of health.”
  • Mass Incarceration — Yong: “The hardest-hit buildings were those that had been jammed with people for decades: prisons… Many American prisons are packed beyond capacity, making social distancing impossible.”
  • The Link Between Employment and Healthcare — Yong: “More than 26 million people lost their jobs, a catastrophe in a country that—uniquely and absurdly—ties health care to employment. Some COVID‑19 survivors have been hit with seven-figure medical bills. In the middle of the greatest health and economic crises in generations, millions of Americans have found themselves disconnected from medical care and impoverished.”

Yong says that there was ample warning about the possibility of a pandemic; he himself had written an article pointing out the risks. Yong is not a radical, but he concludes that “normal” led to this, and that we need a “full accounting” not just of “every recent misstep” but of every “foundational sin.” He says that COVID-19 is a “teacher” as well as a “tragedy” and should be a “referendum on the ideas that animate [American] culture.” We must have “radical introspection.” His particular recommendations are: 

  • “America would be wise to help reverse the ruination of the natural world, a process that continues to shunt animal diseases into human bodies.” 
  • “It should strive to prevent sickness instead of profiting from it.” 
  • “It should build a health-care system that prizes resilience over brittle efficiency…”
  • “It should rebuild its international alliances, its social safety net, and its trust in empiricism.” 
  • “It should address the health inequities that flow from its history.” 
  • “Not least, it should elect leaders with sound judgment, high character, and respect for science, logic, and reason.”

The New York Times analysis by David Leonhardt covers much of the same ground. Some additional observations include from it. It also talks about mixed messages on masks, Republican governors thinking they could save their economies without controlling the virus, and the failure to test sufficiently or quickly enough. It also cites the fact that while Trump supposedly imposed a ban on travel from China, he didn’t really, because American citizens, permanent residents, and their families escaped it. What Trump did was more like a ban on Chinese people, but because the virus isn’t racist, and does not care whether it infects an American in China or a Chinese person in China, allowing nationality-based exemptions to the ban made no sense. 

    I’d like to also note one passage on the relationship between charging for healthcare and the spread of infections: 

“By the time the virus became a problem in Germany, labs around the country had thousands of test kits ready to use. From the beginning, the [German] government covered the cost of the tests. American laboratories often charge patients about $100 for a test. Without free tests, Dr. Hendrik Streeck, director of the Institute of Virology at the University Hospital Bonn, said at the time, “a young person with no health insurance and an itchy throat is unlikely to go to the doctor and therefore risks infecting more people.”

What then, should we conclude? Yong’s advice on radical introspection is good, but I want to spell it all out a little more clearly. Look at what caused problems. Take austerity, for example. Contact tracing was stymied by a lack of staff, and that’s because public health departments have been hollowed out. Abdul El-Sayed writes in his great book Healing Politics about his efforts to rebuild the Detroit Health Department, which had been almost completely destroyed when he arrived. Because the office had been privatized thanks to budget cuts, it could do almost nothing to serve the people of Detroit long before the pandemic hit. Or look at the way profit-driven healthcare disincentivized pandemic preparedness. Even the Wall Street Journal admits that “the hospital industry, in a bid to increase profit, slashed inventory of all supplies.”

A huge problem here is that markets cannot deal with pandemics, because pandemics are a collective problem requiring collective solutions, and it’s not profitable to stop them. If a bunch of unhoused, uninsured people are sick, there is no money to be made in treating them. Left to the “free market,” not only will they suffer, but the infection will not be controlled. The private sector will not, and did not, step up, because when something requires the coordination of a bunch of different interests and institutions, the orders have to come from government. In the United States, however, both Democrats and Republicans have embraced neoliberalism, the philosophy that the government is best that governs least, and private business can sort most things out. Unfortunately, the government that governs least is failing to do its basic job. The government is best that governs well, not least. 

Look at Cuba and Vietnam (officially socialist countries, though there is significant debate about the extent to which the term applies). Here’s a Guardian report on what Cuba did: 

The state has commanded tens of thousands of family doctors, nurses and medical students to “actively screen” all homes on the island for cases [of] Covid-19every single day. That means that from Monday to Sunday, Dr Caballero and her medical students must walk for miles, monitoring the 328 families on her beat. “There’s no other country in the hemisphere that does anything approaching this,” said William Leogrande, professor of government at American University in Washington DC. “The whole organization of their healthcare system is to be in close touch with the population, identify health problems as they emerge, and deal with them immediately. We know scientifically that quick identification of cases, contact tracing and quarantine are the only way to contain the virus in the absence of a vaccineand because it begins with prevention, the Cuban health system is perfectly suited to carry out that containment strategy.”

Cuba has long had a strong public commitment to healthcare—it has the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world and sends doctors around the world to help other countries in crisis—and as such, it has dealt well with COVID-19. You may, of course, point out that Cuba, being an island, is easier to seal off. But Vietnam, with a tourist economy and proximity to China, has had only ten deaths so far from COVID-19, which experts affiliated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (not exactly known for radicalism) attribute to “several key factors, including a well-developed public health system, a strong central government, and a proactive containment strategy based on comprehensive testing, tracing, and quarantining.” (Vietnam has recently seen a spike in cases, but still nothing on the scale of the United States.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has, as Yong pointed out, exposed and exacerbated all the social dysfunction that was already present in the United States. We shunt old people off into facilities where they are neglected, because money is not spent to ensure that there are adequate staff to care for them. We pile people into prisons by the millions. We disincentivize people from seeking medical care because they know it will be costly. 

    This is fixable. Yong and Leonhardt don’t say it, but it’s obvious what the United States needs: a universal national healthcare system that is free at the point of use. Then nobody would lose their insurance (and thus their access to care) because they’ve lost their job, and nobody would have to make the decision about whether or not to get tested for a disease based on whether they’ve got a spare $100. Profit doesn’t belong in healthcare, because profit creates terrible incentives to cut costs and corners. 

Of course, just because you have socialized medicine does not guarantee your healthcare system will function perfectly. The National Health Service in Britain is one of the most effective systems in the world, but a Guardian investigation shows how privatization under Conservative and “New Labour” governments has damaged its functioning: 

The government’s reliance on private contractors during the public health emergency comes after a decade of public sector reorganisation, marketisation and deep cuts to services and local government in England. The Guardian has interviewed dozens of public health directors, politicians, experts in infectious disease control, government scientific and political advisers, NHS leaders and emergency planners about the years leading up to the pandemic. They described how an infrastructure that was once in place to respond to public health crises was fractured, and in some places demolished, by policies introduced by recent Conservative governments, with some changes going as far back as Labour’s years in power. “The undermining of our responsiveness to a pandemic was one of my major concerns,” said Gabriel Scally, a professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a former regional director of public health in the NHS for almost 20 years. “There has been a destruction of the infrastructure that stops England coping with major emergencies. It absolutely explains why you’re now seeing private companies being brought into these functions.”

    How are we going to reverse all of this? Who is going to seriously cut the prison population in the United States? Who is going to stay committed to healthcare that is free at the point of use? Who rejects “personal responsibility” and “bootstraps rhetoric” in favor of a renewed commitment to the public good? Who has a sufficiently collective-focused philosophy? (Yong cites as a problem “a national temperament that views health as a matter of personal responsibility rather than a collective good” and Leonhardt quotes Dr. Jared Baeten, University of Washington epidemiologist,” saying that while “there is a lot of good to be said about our libertarian tradition” it means “we don’t succeed as well as a collective.”) Who talks about caring for those you don’t know, decoupling insurance from employment, ending the kind of mutually suspicious nationalism that means countries are “competing” to produce a vaccine rather than cooperating? Who believes that the rich should not be able to buy their way to the front of the line while everyone else is neglected? Who talks about how working people of all lands must unite because their problems are ones they face together rather than apart? 

    The problems that have made this crisis so severe in this country are easy enough to identify. As former CDC and New York City official Dr. Thomas Frieden told the Times “this isn’t actually rocket science… We know what to do, and we’re not doing it.” The question is why we’re not doing it, and this is more complicated. Because as Yong documents, it’s not just a matter of Donald Trump being the president. The rot is far deeper, and few of the problems Yong describes can be solved simply by changing the occupant of the White House. We can come up with “road maps to reopening,” but unless we actually have a functional and efficient government, it’s never going to be implemented well. Preventing healthcare from being distributed according to the profit motive is a mammoth task. So is ensuring racial equality in health services provision. So is overhauling the way we treat old people and those convicted of crimes so that they are not warehoused in neglected, cramped facilities. The hardest talk of all might be creating international solidarity, so that U.S.-China tensions decrease, rather than increase, when a problem affects us both. It is very clear though that the current leaders of the Democratic and Republican party are incapable of pulling anything like this off—they can’t even provide the most basic relief to get people through the economic crisis, and both parties are stoking tensions with China. Without an organized left and a powerful, radical social democratic agenda, everything that has elevated the levels of suffering and death during this crisis will still be here when the next one hits.

Photo of Medicare for All rally, 2017, by Molly Adams.

The Path to a Progressive America Runs Through The Cities

In an era where the far-right controls all three branches of the federal government, lackluster municipal governance may seem like a minor concern. Since Trump’s inauguration, “Vote Blue No Matter Who” has become a rallying cry for liberals, a plea for unity among the opposition with the goal of removing Trump from office. But we already have good proof that voting blue without regard to “who” is insufficient. The wave of protests following the state murder of George Floyd have exposed the failure of American cities, mostly run by Democrats, to respond to the crises of police brutality and other injustices. 

Trump’s disturbing response to the protests has been met with justified scrutiny. What has gone largely undiscussed, however, is why Democratic-controlled cities feature phenomena the party claims to oppose: Rampant police violence, unaffordable housing costs, general material deprivation, and government corruption. While many mainstream liberals have used this moment to urge protestors to vote, what is “Vote Blue No Matter Who” supposed to accomplish for the Black Lives Matter movement?

In New York City, the location of Eric Garner’s murder, a whopping 48 out of 51 city councilmembers are Democrats along with the city’s mayor. In Chicago, the number comes out to a similar 46/50; in Los Angeles, 14/15. With a handful of exceptions, like Jacksonville and Fort Worth, virtually every large city in America is firmly controlled by the Democratic Party. As a result of its dominance in city elections, almost every candidate irrespective of ideology runs under the Democratic banner. This can be best illustrated in the case of the New York City Democratic Party, which features everyone from right-wing billionaires like Michael Bloomberg to socialists and tenants rights organizers with politics similar to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While the need for leftists to run for office at both the congressional and state legislative level has been established, little attention has been given to the pressing need for progressives to run for mayor and city council.

Municipal socialism in the United States has a long tradition. The “Sewer Socialism” that dominated Milwaukee’s government during the early 20th century yielded major gains for working-class people. In the 2010s, arguably starting with the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, the Left has slowly but surely established itself as a force in municipal politics in many major cities. For instance, despite not having a single member on the body just five years prior, the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) now comprise more than a tenth of the powerful City Council following the 2019 elections, firmly establishing the city’s Left as a major force in local politics. The wave of decarceral district attorney candidates getting elected in cities like Philadelphia (Larry Krasner), San Francisco (Chesa Boudin), and Austin (José Garza) is another promising sign of the Left’s viability in municipal politics. 

Even in cities that overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders like Minneapolis and Seattle, however, the Left has thus far failed to win power outright. Despite the boost Sanders’s 2016 campaign gave to America’s progressives, just a year later both cities elected centrist mayors allied with their cities’ developers. While progressives mounted major campaigns for the mayoralty of both cities, the failure of national groups to coalesce around a candidate led to the elections of Jacob Frey and Jenny Durkan. Fortunately, 2021 provides a major opportunity for the Left in Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, and Boston. As such, national progressive groups should make sure not to let the opportunity in these cities go to waste. 

Seattle has a reputation as one of the most left-wing cities in America. The passing of a $15 minimum wage bill in 2014 thanks in part to the efforts of socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant was a historic victory for the Left that foreshadowed the potency of the first Sanders campaign two years later. Seattle politics is hardly a left-wing monolith, however. The growth of giant companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing in the region has given rise to a corporate-infused brand of liberalism that disguises its defense of the status quo with a progressive veneer. Amazon attempted to effectively buy a city council election in 2019 versus Sawant, and ended up losing by a hair. However, the local chamber of commerce was able to elect an anti-homeless, pro-corporate candidate over high-profile socialist insurgent Shaun Scott

The 2017 mayoral election was a mess. Jenny Durkan, a millionaire former U.S. Attorney most notable for failing to pursue the prosecution of Washington Mutual despite strong evidence of criminal misconduct, was elected with the help of $350,000 from Amazon. The nonpartisan primary for the post featured a plethora of candidates vying for the “Left” mantle. These included a former mayor, a state senator, a state representative, and a very impressive organizer by the name of Nikkita Oliver who received third place in the election.

Going into 2021, Durkan is absolutely beatable with the right challenger. After spending four years in office fighting attempts to tax Amazon, fumbling the city’s response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and engaging in factional war with the city’s Left councilmembers, Durkan is weaker than she was in 2017. Given how polarizing of a figure Sawant is, it is unfortunately unlikely that she would be able to defeat Durkan. Instead, the Left should look to progressive city council president Lorena González or labor activist-turned-councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda for 2021. Seattle hasn’t reelected a mayor in almost fifteen years, and either Bernie-supporting councilwoman would have a solid chance at unseating Durkan.

Similar to Seattle, Minneapolis is an ostensibly progressive city that nonetheless is controlled by moderate Democrats beholden to the interests of developers. In the 2017 mayoral race, centrist city councilman Jacob Frey emerged victorious over a field that included progressive state representative Raymond Dehn, who would’ve been the second formerly incarcerated person to serve as mayor of a major American city, . Despite Frey’s triumph, that year saw the election of multiple progressives to the city council.

It’s unclear how vulnerable Frey will be in 2021. Despite the wholly undeserved national liberal fanfare he’s received for his spats with Trump, he’s received criticism from progressives in Minneapolis for being beholden to the city’s real estate developers. 

Ilhan Omar’s election to Congress in 2018 is a display of the potential of Minneapolis’s progressive infrastructure. City council president Lisa Bender, generally considered a political progressive, received national attention for her support for abolishing the Minneapolis Police Department. Were she to mount a mayoral bid in 2021, Bender would likely prove a formidable opponent to Frey, though many progressives groups have taken issue with Bender’s support for some of Frey’s more controversial initiatives. Thankfully, Bender is far from the only formidable would-be challenger to Frey from his left. Someone like Councilman Jeremiah Ellison, the son of Attorney General Keith Ellison, or Councilwoman Alondra Cano, could also be viable progressive candidates for mayor. 

New York City last held elections for mayor and city council in 2017. The degree to which the municipal Left in the nation’s largest city has grown since then really can’t be overstated. A year before Ocasio-Cortez shocked the nation with her primary win and leftists like Julia Salazar won legislative seats, socialists struggled to achieve any notable victories in the city’s local elections. The New York City DSA invested heavily in the City Council campaign of Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian-American pastor who raised significant funds but lost by about 8%. With many members of the 51-member City Council being term-limited in 2021, an organized effort by the DSA, the New York Working Families Party (WFP), and national groups could result in major victories for progressives in the city. 

The 2021 mayoral race will be a crucial test for the city’s emergent Left. As of now, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of the early favorites in the contest, is the most likely major candidate to try and claim the “Left” plank. A supporter of Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential run, Stringer has spent the last few years trying to court the ascendant Left. Stringer endorsed decarceral Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, one of the highest profile elected officials to do so, and this year lent his support to left-wing insurgent Jamaal Bowman’s congressional campaign. 

The biggest variable for both the Left and the general dynamics of the race regard the plans of Jumaane Williams. Williams is a longtime progressive activist and elected official who ran a serious candidacy for lieutenant governor while a sitting city councilman. In 2019, he was elected to the position of Public Advocate, a largely symbolic but high-profile citywide office that often serves as a springboard for future mayoral candidates. Williams is a self-identified democratic socialist who supported both Sanders candidacies and would surely be a formidable mayoral candidate should he run. As of now, he intends to run for re-election to his current post, but it’s entirely plausible that he will choose to forgo it and run for mayor. 

Boston will be challenging terrain for progressives in 2021. Mayor Marty Walsh, a conservative Democrat and ally of Republican Charlie Baker, was handily reelected to a second term in 2017 over a progressive city councilman. The one potential progressive candidate who could prove to be a serious challenger to Walsh is City Council president Michelle Wu. Wu is a staunch progressive supportive of universal housing and mass transit. Wu is considered a very possible, if not probable, candidate for mayor and would surely prove formidable against Walsh. 

The biggest problem progressives face in the realm of municipal elections is that the rhetoric of both leftist and moderate candidates are remarkably similar. It’s all-too-common for city council candidates backed by big developers to talk about “affordable housing” while opposing zoning reform. It’s all-too-common for city council candidates backed by police unions to talk about “community policing” while neglecting to do anything to challenge the carceral status quo. It’s all-too-common for city council candidates backed by wealthy restaurateurs to talk about “opportunity for all” while opposing attempts to raise the minimum wage for waiters. 

In recognizing this, it’s all too easy to approach municipal politics through a lens of cynicism in despair. While understandable, this is simply not the right approach for the Left to take. Municipal governments wield an enormous amount of power, especially in the realm of transit, housing, and policing policy. 

We must ask, then: what should a Left-run city government be reasonably able to accomplish? While the statutory powers of mayoral offices and city councils vary greatly by state, we can look to the platforms put forward by Left municipal candidates to get a sense of how differently cities might operate under progressive administration. 

Nithya Raman, a democratic socialist running a formidable campaign for Los Angeles City Council, has released a viable plan for rent forgiveness at the municipal level that is both legally and politically achievable. Shahana Hanif, a leading left-wing candidate for a New York City Council seat in Brooklyn, has released a comprehensive policing platform with the potential to revolutionize the way the city treats community safety. This program takes into account limitations to changing policing at the municipal level and proposes an array of attainable policies, such as new citywide legislation to prevent police union contracts from including provisions that shield killer cops and the repeal of laws that effectively criminalize survival. To make up for shortfalls in the city budget, progressives on the Chicago City Council broke with City Hall to push for a corporate head tax in the place of proposed regressive tax measures.

Just as we ought to take inspiration from the leftists shaking up municipal politics across the country, we should consider the gains made by the “Sewer Socialists” of early 20th century Milwaukee. Once in power, the Socialist Party under the leadership of mayors Emil Seidel and Daniel Hoan emphasized public health reform and were remarkably successful in their efforts to improve sanitation in Milwaukee. Seidel’s modernization of the Board of Health led to the transformation of the city’s sewage and water filtration systems. Mayor Hoan and his appointed health commissioner led Milwaukee during the 1918 flu pandemic, and largely as a result of infrastructure put in place by Seidel the city had one of the lowest death rates of any city in the country

The municipal socialism of 1910s Milwaukee allowed the city to weather one of the great crises of the 20th century. In the wake of COVID-19, rampant police brutality, and historic economic inequality, social reformers would be mistaken to disregard the role municipal politics has the potential to play in tackling the biggest challenges faced in modern-day urban America. With the mayoralties and city councils of some of the nation’s largest cities on the ballot next year, national progressive organizations seeking real change can’t afford to sit on the sidelines.

This article has been updated to note that Raymond Dehn would have been the second formerly-incarcerated person to serve as mayor of a major American city. The first was Marion Barry, who was incarcerated for 7 months in 1994, prior to his re-election as Mayor of Washington D.C.

Photograph of Kshama Sawant by Shannon Kringen.

Aidan Smith’s Progressive Cabinet Project report is now available from Data For Progress.

The Patterns of Florida

I usually tell people that my favorite nonfiction book is Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power, but this is a lie. My actual favorite nonfiction book is far odder, but it is more difficult to explain, so I usually don’t mention it in conversation. It is called A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, and it provides a blueprint for how to build perfect places.

A Pattern Language is over 1,110 pages long and was published in 1977. It is credited to six authors, Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and, Shlomo Angel. But Alexander was the most prominent driving force behind the thing, and has written a number of other volumes expanding on his unique architectural philosophy, including the four-volume Nature of Order series and a fun shorter book called The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth, which describes his attempt to apply his philosophy to the real world by building a school in Japan in the 1980s. (The school he built is gorgeous and strange.)

Alexander is a staunch critic of contemporary architecture, which he thinks has lost sight of human values. In The Timeless Way of Building, the prequel to A Pattern Language, he says that there is an eternal art of place-making, and that places can either succeed or fail. They succeed when they feel alive, when they possess what he calls “the quality with-out a name.” The quality, he says, is difficult to describe precisely, but it can be felt, and people know what you’re talking about when you point it out. A Target parking lot lacks the quality. A hammock in a garden has it. Some places are simply better than others to be in. They live. Alexander talks of “order” more than “beauty,” but the thrust of it is that aesthetic bliss is “objective” in a certain way, in that we either experience it or we do not. It is intrinsically pleasurable to be in some places and less so to be in others, and the proof is that people travel thousands of miles to visit Sorrento or Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, but they do not travel to visit random strip malls in the suburbs just for the pleasure of looking at them.

Alexander does not think we should be content to have so many places that do not delight us. Why shouldn’t an ordinary place be beautiful? Why, even though we know we have the ability to create structures of breathtaking beauty, do we have so many EconoLodges and CVSes? The answer has a lot to do with the processes by which things are built these days. Alexander says it is now “virtually impossible for anybody in our time, to make a building live.” This is in part because people do not build their own buildings; they do not shape their spaces:

“Towns and buildings will not be able to become alive, unless they are made by all the people in society, and unless these people share a common pattern language.”

Patterns describe repeating properties in the places we build. Alexander says that there are patterns that work, and those that don’t, and what we can do is take all of the patterns that we know work, and these should form the language of built space. The patterns in A Pattern Language are often pretty simple, and they are not all strictly architectural, but more like “things that make people feel good.” At the micro level, they are things like: having bedrooms in the east so sunlight enters in the morning, hidden gardens, street cafes, common land, adventure playgrounds, animals everywhere, pools and streams, balconies, gateways, bike paths, carnival celebrations, outdoor rooms, fruit trees, trellised walks, alcoves, green streets, arcades, window seats. Some are eccentric but appealing, like “child caves” for kids to explore and separate cottages designed for old people and teenagers. Some are quietly radical, like “worker self-management,” which is somewhat funny to see on a list of ingredients for building well-functioning places, but is also correct. At the more macro level are things like “country towns,” “mosaic of subcultures,” “identifiable neighborhoods,” and “webs of public transportation.” I agree that all of these, taken together, would create idyllic communities indeed, but Alexander stresses that he’s only offering one possible pattern language and each society must develop uniquely. The important insight, though, is that we should be conscientious in looking around us and seeing what “works,” what creates life and what does not, what induces feelings of bliss and what is boring and forgettable.

Alexander suggests that the more “living patterns” in a place, the more it “glows” to the point where it becomes “part of nature,” and says that regular people, not developers and building companies, are capable of “repairing the world” and giving it these transcendent characteristics. It is a bit mystical, really, and I am not sure I buy the whole thing, but it has certainly caused me to look around me and mentally note when I feel I have found “timeless” patterns that I wish were more common.

photos by me

I am back in my Florida hometown at the moment,* because of the pandemic, and I recently went wandering around, reacquainting myself with some of the lovelier bits, taking photos, and thinking about patterns and the “quality without a name.” I took hundreds of photos of places I thought possessed the “quality” and some of places I thought did not. When I was growing up here, I do not think I would have said I lived in a beautiful place. I knew that our beach was highly-regarded among enthusiasts (professional beach blogger “Dr. Beach” had given it a top ranking), but I did not go to the beach, for I was pale and turned pink within minutes, plus I did not like to get sand in my toes. Plus the Sarasota I knew was mostly suburban. You had to drive to get anywhere, and most of the places I went were built in the 1990s, by people for whom aesthetic considerations were secondary. I associated the place with sprawl, with highways, with malls. Now I live in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which I think of as far more beautiful.

But since I left Sarasota for college, my parents have moved. They are now closer to downtown. The Sarasota I have come back to does not feel quite like the one I grew up in. It is more lush. It is older. Less artificial. (The streets around the neighborhood where I grew up were named after Robin Hood characters in what was clearly an effort by a residential developer to cultivate some elevated associations with Englishness.) Wandering around downtown, I saw gorgeous things all over the place. And I wondered why the whole world couldn’t be like that.

The main thing I’ve noticed is that the natural world is so much more beautiful than anything human beings are capable of producing ourselves, and our own spaces are enriched to the extent that we integrate them with wild plant life. Every leafy place I photographed was gorgeous, and every non-leafy place was less so. Residential streets that were beneath a canopy of oak trees were beautiful, and ones that were treeless were not. The design of the houses mattered little compared to whether the places felt like part of nature or felt separate from it. This is such a simple and obvious observation that one would think it didn’t need to be said, but the crazy thing is just how many places we build that involve demolishing or extracting all visible wildlife. 90 percent of the places I went were not beautiful at all, and did not “feel alive,” because they quite literally weren’t alive.(See the two photographs below, which show what most of Sarasota looks like:

I took pictures of all the sights that were pleasing, and I ended up with so many that you might think I lived in a stunningly beautiful paradise. But photographs are misleading, because you don’t see anything outside the photograph, and most things will always be outside of the photograph. These are highly selective slivers; I took great care to get these shots and excluded everything dull and dead.

I am mystified, though, by why we can’t make everywhere feel “alive” like this. And certainly, we seem to be doing it less and less. The places I photographed that most possessed “the quality” were all parts of Old Florida, the bit that has been here for a century and has changed the least. Nothing built in the last 20 years was worth taking pictures of. It is just gigantic condo blocks, mall parking lots, acre after acre of treeless housing culs-de-sac, the “little boxes that look all the same.”

In trying to understand what makes a place work, I do think we have to “get political,” and that Alexander’s “worker self-management” principle is an important piece of it. Places often seem to have life to the degree that their occupants have been involved in making them. Or rather, the best places seem to have been made by people who cared about them, rather than prefabricated by people who were just doing their jobs. Weird sculpture aside (I actually want you to focus on the boring stores rather than the sculpture, though it was too interesting not to get in the picture), the places in the above pictures do not seem to have been designed with the intention that anyone spend time looking at them and enjoying them on an aesthetic level. Certainly they were not made to be loved. By contrast, the lighthouse below—which is not an actual lighthouse, by the way, just a house somebody has built to look like one—was built by a person who had, at the very least, a bit of whimsy and originality.

Spanish moss, seen on the right, is ubiquitous in Florida. I love it because it is a harmless, friendly, dangly moss that adds a great deal of atmosphere. Three cheers for Spanish Moss.

Or look at this gate:

That’s an abandoned elementary school that I attended 25 years ago. I went back to poke around and reminisce, but I can’t remember anything about my time there except that they taught me to sing the song “On Top Of Spaghetti.” It was a tiny school, in a building the size of a house, located in a 1920s-era neighbor-hood. My parents tell me the education I got there was pretty terrible, which makes sense given how much I can recall of the curriculum, but as a place it is ideal. I don’t know if the trellis was that overgrown when the school was in operation (it probably did not have nearly so many spiders as the number I had to evade when I went back), but what a perfect entrance to a school that is. A Pattern Language talks of the importance of entrances. You shouldn’t see a place all at once; it should be revealed to you, and you should pass through some-thing that makes it feel like you are entering a different zone. When Alexander was building his school in Japan, he built a big archway at the entrance and set it at an angle so that you did not see the school until you passed through the archway.

The school itself

One of the critical points emphasized in the book is the importance of subjective feelings. Architects today often look at their renderings in a “view from nowhere” or “God view,” rather than through the eyes of the people who walk through and in-habit spaces. (They even fill their physical building models with little fake people known as “scalies”; it should seem insane to view people from the outside rather than taking a “scalie-eyed” view of the world, but such is the profession.) What is it like to be a child coming to school? What should a school feel like? What does a place called “home” feel like?

Small touches give a place its feel. Personally, I think the lawn flamingos in this house are just as important as anything else about the house:

They make people feel good. They turn a mere building into a place clearly lived in by humans, humans who have tastes. (Perhaps questionable tastes, but tastes nonetheless.) The shame of it is that so much built space doesn’t seem to have been produced with questions like these in mind. How will it make people feel? Will they come from all over to look at it? Will they never want to leave?

Alexander talks a lot about the “quality without a name” being “objective,” which will surely make people upset because the word “objective” implies taking one’s personal opinions for universal truths. But the word is actually misleading, because this way of thinking actually prioritizes the subjective. By “objective” it simply means that people’s subjective opinions are themselves an objective fact, meaning that we either enjoy a place or we do not. If the subjective opinions of a building’s users are that it sucks, the architect has objectively failed. A pleasant song is one people like to listen to, and a beautiful building is one people want to visit just to look at. Architectural democracy is about building places that are for people to be in (not “scalies”), and making sure that the lives they live in these places are good.

You might not have constructed a personal pattern language of all the good things, or know yet how to build utopian cities and towns. That’s okay. We’re still working it out. But there are bits and pieces left of Old Florida that offer some hints. The basics are simple: keep things human scale. Make it walkable. Lots of color. And plenty of trees.

* This was true when I wrote this article for the print edition, but no longer.

Movement in Palestine

On my way to the 2019 Palestine Festival of Literature, the flight presents me with a unique opportunity. In a precious interlude between hassles, I get to exist in close proximity to people without them knowing about my disability. Most passengers are too distracted or too bleary-eyed to notice a wheelchair user’s early boarding, so when they take their seats they see the person next to them as a frustrated equal, nothing less and nothing more than a fellow repository of bones and flesh who would rather still be in bed. But to a lifelong paraplegic, the cabin of an airplane is the stage of a poignant, if somewhat cramped, ballet: the determined young woman sliding her lithe frame past a rudely sprawled teenager without complaint, the volunteer firefighter placing a heavy gift for a child in the overhead compartment as gently as if it were a baby bird, the arthritic retirees tenderly steadying themselves against each other as the impatient crowd presses forward. 

PalFest, which began in 2008 as a link between creative communities normally thwarted by the occupation, had made an effort to bring in people who were routinely forced by professional or family obligations to deal with the global apartheid of borders. I was the first disabled person to make the trip. I knew Israeli bureaucracy hindered Palestinian society’s capacity to create livable spaces, and I also knew disabled Palestinians tend to be hit particularly hard by the obstacles to travel and health care imposed by the occupation. My worst-case scenario for PalFest was being stranded at every significant cultural landmark of antiquity while the rest of the group got around unimpeded. 

Making our way from the Allenby Bridge Terminal on the Jordan border to Jerusalem, we saw the monotonous Israeli settlements perched on hilltops adjacent to the highway, chains of blocky white buildings established in violation of international law. For new arrivals, the divided roads in the West Bank make up the carefully composed overture to a more comprehensive symphony of exclusion. The human rights group B’Tselem reported that Israeli route closures enacted to suppress purported incidents of stone-throwing or the use of Molotov cocktails severely inconvenienced working class Palestinians at the same time that we had gathered for the festival. In March and April, Israel used these allegations as grounds to close the gates to four villages: ‘Azzun (20 days), Kifl Hares (8 days), Deir Istiya (5 days), and Tuqu’ (17 days). When the declaration of a national emergency in response to COVID-19 a year later kept Israelis at home, the government was essentially giving its citizens a taste of the same treatment it had long meted out to the Palestinians. 

Fortunately, getting around Jerusalem was less daunting than I feared. The Old City, which contains the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall, is largely accessible by paths for vendor carts. The festival’s organizers and the other participants gave me a push when the alternative would have been me trundling up steep inclines and having to pause to catch my breath every few minutes. Our tour guide pointed out buildings and apartments that had been seized by Israeli authorities from the original Palestinian residents. 

Photos provided by author.

On the second day, we visited Hebron, which is divided in two sectors, H1 and H2. The Palestinian Authority is in charge of H1, the larger zone. It also carries out civil administration for Palestinian residents in H2 while the Israeli military handles everything else. The Palestinian population in H1 has climbed in recent years, but the opposite has occurred in H2 as settler violence and IDF harassment have worked in tandem. The Ibrahami Mosque, built atop the Cave of the Patriarchs, was the site of a vicious 1994 massacre of Muslim worshippers. The fanatic Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 people and injured more than a hundred others with an automatic rifle before being subdued and killed by the survivors. His tombstone at the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba doesn’t mince words: “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah, and the nation of Israel.” Goldstein is a popular figure among hardline Israelis. His legacy remains visible in Hebron. Look up: In the main Palestinian thoroughfare, metal netting catches whatever trash Israeli settlers feel like throwing from the street above.

Photos provided by author.

I was at the bottom of a hill in H2 with another PalFest participant when the rest of the group, a short distance behind, called us back. Something was going on. Israeli soldiers were talking to the PalFest contingent, and between them stood an irate settler woman. I couldn’t immediately tell what had transpired, but there was a heated disagreement between the settler and a PalFest author. After a few minutes, the soldiers relented and said we could move on. Moments later, however, more soldiers arrived and the argument with the settler was revived. This time, the author was taken away, and two PalFest organizers went with her to expedite her release. 

The woman who had started all this trouble was Anat Cohen, the settler movement’s Madame Defarge. Animated by the same frightening ruthlessness of the slighted villain in A Tale of Two Cities, the sixtyish Cohen is a motormouth who has spent years patrolling Hebron on behalf of her gnarled Zionism, a cause for which her brother gave his life and her father spent time in jail on terrorism charges. She had accosted a member of our group to ask where she was from. 

All things considered, it could have been much worse. Cohen, who keeps a photo of Goldstein with a reverential inscription in her home, is an evergreen menace to foreign visitors to Hebron. On YouTube, the videos of her attacking passersby mark her as an unstable and dangerous force. But there is no doubt she is in sync with Israel’s hard-bitten policymakers. In late 2019, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced Hebron’s fruit and vegetable market would be destroyed to make way for a Jewish neighborhood. The market’s Palestinian residents had been pushed out after the 1994 massacre. Hebron’s 800 settlers among approximately 200,000 Palestinians compelled Israel to overcome a major demographic hurdle. And that is precisely what Israel did. Where Goldstein had sown death, the authorities had reaped displacement of Hebron’s Palestinians in the short term and appropriation of valuable real estate in the long term. The PalFest author Samia Henni calls this “the architecture of counterrevolution,” the manipulation of natural and artificial environments to crush subjugated groups.

On the first of three stalemated election days Israel would muddle through in the next year, I interviewed Muhannad Shafi, a buildings inspector and accessibility project officer for the municipality of Ramallah. I thought there must be a typo on his business card, but it’s Muhannad and not Muhammad. As it turns out, the name means “sword made in India,” proof of how multiculturalism is seeded even where people seem most isolated. Shafi, a wheelchair user, says the main obstacle to helping the disabled is enforcing laws, which officials tend to see as a humanitarian cause rather than a juridical obligation. If you perceive disabled people as objects of charity, you’ve already placed them in a category outside the bounds of a foundational esteem. 

Undeterred, Shafi wants to set things right. The municipal council has said all new buildings must be accessible. Now the goal is to bring about a change in old buildings as well. Ramallah is poised in the liminal zone so common to a disabled American. Outside our hotel, I didn’t notice significant modifications, but I also didn’t come across much that was downright hostile. A lack of curb cuts could be managed with some help from friends. While most buildings lacked ramps, the steps and doorways were wide enough that my wheelchair could be lifted into a restaurant after the fashion of a palanquin. And the summits of hills situated atop paved streets made you forfeit only your punctuality. People with my needs were clearly an afterthought in Ramallah. On the other hand, American habitats as different as New York (population: 8.6 million) and the complacent liberal arts college I attended (student body: about 1700) were only marginally more welcoming. 

Photos provided by author.

The next day, I went to nearby Birzeit University to speak to students who had temporary or lasting disabilities as consequences of encounters with Israeli security forces. The Middle East Monitor reports that “occupied Palestinian territory is one of the highest places with persons with disabilities compared to the size of its population,” with nearly 100,000 disabled residents. In 2018, Israeli soldiers killed disabled activist Fadi Abu Salah with an exploding bullet to the chest, after he had already lost his legs to an Israeli drone strike. 

The campus was modern and tidy, which I didn’t expect. As with so much else in the West Bank’s more populated areas, the university’s placid outward appearance conceals profound adversity. Serving roughly 15,000 students with classes in Arabic and English, Birzeit connects young Palestinians to bigger possibilities even as the school is beset by arbitrary restrictions. Just getting to Birzeit is a struggle thanks to checkpoints. Twenty years ago, Gazans accounted for about a third of the student body. Now Israel forbids them from entering the West Bank. Birzeit attracts the majority of its students from Ramallah and its environs, yielding a campus lacking the dialogue that could be fostered among Palestinians with more diverse upbringings. Combined with the red tape imposed on foreign professors trying to obtain visas and the university’s precarious budget, Birzeit’s persistence is a microcosm of Palestinian resilience under military rule.

So, too, were the testimonies of the students I interviewed. Twenty-four-year-old Ahmed Walid Hamed explained how he lost an entire academic year due to the arduous process of recovery. During an October 2015 protest against Israeli abuses, undercover soldiers started attacking students. One of them shot Hamed at point blank range and detained him for two hours without medical attention. Hamed didn’t give up on his studies despite the severity of his injury. Eventually graduating with an electrical engineering degree, he now works at Birzeit. 

Raghad Diab Mousa Nasrallah, a 21-year-old Arabic literature major, acquired her injury from inexperience instead of political scruples. Three years ago, she went to Jerusalem for the first time. At the notoriously congested Qalandiya Checkpoint, there was a track for people with West Bank permits and a track for Jerusalem ID holders. Hesitating in the bustle, she ended up in a lane for cars. Soldiers shouted at her in Hebrew, which she couldn’t decipher. The bullet wound she suffered leaves her unable to feel her foot. I thought about my delay at Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem, where a soldier had advised using the lane for cars because wheelchair access was not available any other way. When one of the festival organizers and I took that route, the guards didn’t seem to know we were coming despite the assurances their colleague gave us. If we had crossed paths when they were fractionally more irritable, I could have easily gone through what Raghad did. Documents—even an American passport—are not a shield against exhausted teenage conscripts with state-of-the-art machine guns.

Mohammad Ammar Khdairi, an 18-year-old finance major, recounted a similar incident. A soldier on a watchtower fired at him as he made his way to a protest. The bullet went through his stomach and hit a nerve in his left leg, a severe trauma for a still-growing 14-year-old. Lifting the front part of his foot is a chore these days. He has to forgo the soccer matches he used to enjoy and grapple with pain at the onset of winter. I noticed Khdairi wore a green armband indicating an affiliation with Hamas in the upcoming student council elections. The party had won at Birzeit four years in a row. Through a translator, I asked Khdairi about the armband without revealing I knew what it signified. He said he didn’t want to talk about it. It was a savvy response. Anglophone journalists are deeply wary of Hamas. Hamas, in turn, does a great deal to earn that wariness. Yet even the most righteous liberation movements have never been uniformly virtuous, and Khdairi’s qualms make sense in light of the predatory scrutiny that hovers over Palestinian affairs. If the Western press directed its vigilance toward the bigotry in the upper echelons of the conflict’s other major extremist group—the far right led by Netanyahu’s Likud party—maybe Khdairi would have been more open.

Maath Musleh, one of the festival organizers, took me to visit Ahed Tamimi and her family. In December 2017, Tamimi took part in a protest against settlements during which her 15-year-old cousin Mohammed was shot by Israeli troops at close range with a rubber-coated steel bullet. She fought back by slapping two soldiers outside her home. The soldiers didn’t retaliate during this incident, which was videotaped by Tamimi’s mother, but three days later a nighttime raid put her in custody. She spent the next several months in jail as part of a plea bargain. Although granted the chance to study in Britain, Tamimi was unable to secure a student visa and has instead opted to train as a lawyer at Birzeit. (Western governments can’t claim any moral high ground when it comes to offering Palestinians the freedom to travel.) While she was going through all this, her cousin Mohammed’s medical treatment proved arduous. The nearest clinic in Ramallah didn’t have the necessary equipment. He traveled to South Africa for reconstructive surgery, but his problems continue to haunt him. Mohammed gets tired more quickly now, and he can’t stay up as late as he used to. Nor is his ordeal with the Israeli military at an end. A few days after I met him, Israeli forces detained Mohammed on suspicion of “popular terror,” an extravagant term for stone-throwing. Unsurprisingly, the authorities still claim Mohammed’s head injury came from a bike accident even after the Tamimi family presented a CT scan to prove a bullet was responsible.

The number of Palestinians who are disabled due to ostensibly nonlethal Israeli actions dispels the mirage of restraint upon which an entire public relations apparatus—vegan! gay! fabulous! your friendly IDF!—has been constructed. A 2019 World Health Organization report noted that 29,130 Gazans were injured by Israeli forces between the beginning of the Great March of Return in March 2018 and February 2019. In 89 percent of the cases, the victims suffered wounds to their lower limbs. A Doctors Without Borders clinic in Gaza City has relieved some of the stress put on local medical infrastructure, but the situation is dire because of the constant Israeli harassment. The injuries don’t heal quickly, which means patients with open fractures run a risk of infection that could end with amputation or death.

At the Qattan Centre in Ramallah on PalFest’s closing night, we were invited to speak about what we had gained from the trip in front of a mixed crowd of the organizers’ friends and curious locals. Still reeling from my cold, I volunteered to deliver impromptu remarks. It might not have been the most prudent choice given my fragile state. I provided a sketch of my family’s peripatetic credentials, the strife between my parents, and my apprehension about my disability. So many of the people I had gotten to know in Palestine were also misfits in one way or another. Which passport they held, what history had done to their ancestors, or who they slept with conferred upon them the eerie feeling of looking in from the outside. Seeing their eyes fixed on me in that moment, I was roused by a mingling of fury and solidarity. Here was the breakthrough I had in Palestine, I said. Exiles can’t, by their very nature as a community, be cut off from exile itself. 

“Insofar as a rational politics has no place for anger, I am tempted to think: so much the worse for rational politics,” the philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes. “But we should query the premise. If anger is rationally evaluable—if it is something we do for reasons, good and bad—then it has at least a prima facie place in a rational politics.” Having practiced laughing with a mouthful of blood my entire adult life, I simply couldn’t be ashamed of the raw feelings PalFest quickened. What I had seen was worth summoning anger. I had begun the trip overwhelmed by an envy of movement. For now, I was content to be moved.

A Youth Climate Movement Rises in Northern New Mexico

Seventeen-year-old climate activist Artemisio Romero Y Carver has the androgynous features of an aristocratic youth one might see pictured in the National Gallery, intense and unsmiling–jet black hair, broad forehead, sensitive intelligent eyes, and full lips brimming to speak monstrous truths, part Oscar Wilde, part Langston Hughes. Truths about the climate future bearing down on his generation, and more personally, concerning the hellscape of extreme poverty on Santa Fe’s south side, where he has lived half his childhood “among the people who do not bring in the tourist dollars, where the people are not represented by our government.” 

Furthest away from the historic downtown plaza and amenities like parks and teen rec centers, it’s the part of Santa Fe decidedly not at risk for gentrification. The families that live in the mobile homes, apartments and townhouses in the poorer tracts are survivors from several persistent waves of gentrification since the 1970s. Or they’re first generation immigrants from south of the border. Per U.S. census data, a third of the south side’s roughly 4,000 people are living below the federal poverty line, and the remainder are not wealthy, at least not materially. The zip code encompassing the south side has been testing highest by far for COVID infection, with more positives than the other four zip codes in Santa Fe County combined.

Romero Y Carver is a poet, and in his work, he illustrates common experiences of growing up in poverty–an unheated home in the wintry cold of the high desert, or baking his own cakes for his dinner meal, at times with no milk–an ersatz life with his desperately unhappy mother who holds him close in her arms and whispers: “You don’t deserve love.” To cope he trains his mind on inventorying the details of his reality. In Vanilla Extract, he writes of the:

…cheap lock, the only protection I’ve gotme and the dogs sound the same when we whimpermy room is a meat lockermy reflection looks back at me and I still can’t convince him that I’m not just her victim… 

In April, he became Santa Fe’s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate. 

“You see bad things happening to people you care about—drug abuse, mental illness—the kind of issues that are going to happen when you treat people that way for generations,” he told Current Affairs. “You’re a kid, and you don’t have access to socio-economic theory and you just ask, Why?”

The year Romero Y Carver was born, New Mexico was ranked 46 out of 50 states in overall child well-being by the Anne E. Casey Foundation. Last month in its 2020 Kids Count Data Book it was announced that the state is 50th, dead last, for the third consecutive year.* The blighted economic prospects of the approximately 124,000 children living under the federal poverty line in New Mexico have been aggregated into a kind of tithe to the oil and gas oligarchs. The stasis has endured through three Republican and three Democratic governors since 1990, the year the Casey Foundation began its rankings. Then, 27% of the state’s children were living below the federal poverty line; in 2020, it’s 26%. There has been only one year–2010–that there has not been a full quarter of New Mexico’s children living below the line, and that ranking was just on its other side, at 24%. 

The picture becomes even more unsettling when New Mexico is compared to the other 49 states: There has never been a year since 1990 that the state has not been ranked in the bottom ten. Even before the pandemic there were 166,000 children in New Mexico whose parents do not have secure employment and 122,000 living in families with a high housing cost burden. Both were contributors to receiving a ranking of 49th state for economic well-being, a subheading of the overall ranking. 

Oil’s been flowing in New Mexico since 1922, and the state budget has long been a roller coaster that ascends and plummets along with industry’s booms and all-too-frequent busts. The rough ride routinely ejects children from under the lap bar. Each dollar in price per barrel of oil, up or down, translates into a $9.5 million impact to the general fund, and in 2020 oil and gas revenues in New Mexico account for 39% of general fund revenue, recklessly exposing the state to extraordinary fiscal risk. When busts happened, New Mexico’s answer was to cut, every year from 2008 to 2018, slashing programs, services, and children’s chances of surviving, much less transcending poverty

Just weeks after the state finalized its 2021 budget, fat with projected revenues, oil prices tanked. It left lawmakers with an empty promise instead of a workable plan, which James C. Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Kids, likens to “an education moonshot, but with no rocket or fuel.” Jimenez, a former tax and budget policy analyst for the state, was for a time former Gov. Bill Richardson’s chief of staff, and has been tracking New Mexico’s economic fortunes for over 30 years. He says the current crisis offers an opportunity to do things differently from the 2008 bust, and the one before it in 1986.

“What is the kind of state that we want to create for our children now and our grandchildren and great grandchildren?” he said. “What are the ways we need to invest in New Mexico’s people in order to make that desired future happen?”

Jimenez is a wonk and advocate, not a philosopher, so his questions are accompanied by proposals—health, education, economic development, serious tax reform—with the goal of supporting healthy child brain development and wellness from cradle to adulthood. 

“One of the ways is by ensuring that they have the income they need to support their families’ needs whether that’s housing or healthcare or transportation,” Jimenez said. “We’re talking about the basics here. We’re not talking about the ‘nice to haves.’ It’s those fundamental things that all American families want to provide a prosperous future for their children so they can reach their potential.” 

Romero Y Carver located an answer of his own in the Green New Deal Resolution, which he calls “a manifesto for a New American Left.” In it he found an argument against environmental racism, generational poverty, wealth accumulation and environmental desecration—some of his main concerns—and a way around “a continuation of colonialization, white violence and white genocide.” 

It was the first piece of legislation he ever felt was written for him. 

Artemisio Romero Y Carver performing “Vanilla Extract” at the
Lensic Performing Arts Center in May of 2019 / Sean Johnston

He started attending and speaking at some Earth Care New Mexico climate justice events last summer and found kindred GND enthusiasts; then he met another larger group, many queer, Indigenous and POC, some from his school, New Mexico School for the Arts. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, together they formed Youth United For Climate Crisis Action, or YUCCA, to move an action in Santa Fe as part of the Global Climate Strike, September 20-27, 2019. 

It has a core group of about two dozen members, and many more who come to their events and participate in their actions. The more their discussions illuminated how child poverty is structured in colonization, they realized that without their intervention, the fossil fuel industry’s dominance over their state’s politics and budgets would not change.

Earth Care’s Josue Damian-Martinez, 23, has worked with YUCCA since its beginnings last summer as a mentor. He doesn’t just “look like” the youth organizers, years earlier, he was one of them. 

At high school in Santa Fe, his classes often had 30 pupils, and one English class had a substitute teacher for an entire year. A year he could have been reading poetry, learning to analyze literary works in fruitful discussion, thinking critically and accessing inspiration in literary art, was spent reading a chapter in a crowded classroom, answering canned questions on a worksheet. 

“In the past if I saw any kind of climate change movement, I would always ignore it, because I thought…oh…white people are angry about the climate,” he said. “But now we’re shifting the conversation to its economic sphere; this is what it means to our community and this is how we can make a just transition to renewables.”

As a DACA recipient, Damian-Martinez cannot vote in November’s election. But he has helped guide the YUCCA organizers’ electoral strategy.  YUCCA developed a candidate questionnaire from a youth climate justice perspective, held three virtual candidate forums, and endorsed candidates in 14 primary races at the federal, state and county levels. Though he now resides in DC, he stays connected to YUCCA and continues to work with the youth climate activists remotely.

When YUCCA steering committee member, 18-year-old Seneca Johnson is feeling hopeless about adult inaction on climate change, she reaches for music and podcasts as a way to be part of a totally different reality.

“There are a few bands and artists that help me feel understood, and uplift me,” she told Current Affairs. Her favorites are BTS, Hosier, and 21 Pilots, and she loves Welcome to Night Vale—a fictional podcast where “the terrifying becomes normal in a desert town,” she says. 

This year she graduated from the Santa Fe Indian School, and is bound for Yale as a Gates Fellow. She plans to come back to New Mexico after she gets her degree, but while she’s in New Haven, she wants to establish a two-way communication.

“I want to let people over there know how things are here,” Johnson explained. “Our perspective is so devalued, they don’t know what’s going on here. New Mexico is left out of the conversation.”

Johnson’s tribes are Muskogee and Seminole based in Oklahoma, but her dad’s an artist so she was raised in Santa Fe, a town where Native art is on offer. She draws strength for all the challenging conversations ahead from her Indigenous roots.

“I have the knowledge that my people have been fighting this for hundreds of years at this point; they’ve given everything to give me the life that I have today,” Johnson said. “It can be heartbreaking to see how slow change is. As you know, we’re running out of time to create any concrete change, it’s really scary knowing there’s a time limit to all this.”

She has no “off” button when it comes to advocating for climate mitigation. Though most of her friends, even outside of YUCCA, are likeminded, one girl, a best friend since kindergarten, was a climate change holdout. Johnson says she was shocked at the discovery, and it changed their relationship to each other.

“Over the next several months, I was trying to explain to her both with science and my own experiences and experiences of marginalized people how that’s not correct,” Johnson explained. “It was very hard to do without alienating her. 

“At one point I got so emotional about it I started crying, and she was like ‘oh wait, this is more than just a political opinion.’ Having a friend that I really wanted to keep, but wanted her to understand my perspective as well, was really helpful in learning how to defend the positions I’ve taken.”

Prior to YUCCA’s formation, Johnson was often the only young Native woman in organizing spaces and very much felt the burden of having to represent everybody. Now she’s one of several on YUCCA’s Steering Committee, which fluctuates between 10-15 members, and makes group decisions by consensus.

“Something I really appreciate about stepping into the space in YUCCA is my identity is not only respected, I’m a voice that people will listen to when it comes to my experiences and my perspective,” Johnson said.

The steering committee called a climate emergency in New Mexico and then a climate “school strike” on September 20, 2019, that saw more than 5,000 students from across Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Silver City, Española, Taos, Farmington and Indigenous Nations in the region walk out. Five demands were put to the state lawmakers (all unmet to date): a formal declaration of climate emergency, the creation of a fund from Oil & Gas Revenues to commence a just transition to renewables, a fracking ban, community solar legislation by 2020 and 100% renewables no later than 2030. 

On January 21, 2020, they brought a guillotine to the Round House, the state capitol building in Santa Fe, to enforce their demands.

“I don’t think we intended the guillotine as any kind of death threat to members of the New Mexico state government,” Romero Y Carver deadpanned. He identifies as a “queer Chicano Norteńo person,” and his sense of humor, inflected by a healthy appreciation for the absurd, runs as deep as his instinct to self-preservation.

“We wanted to make visible the way that the New Mexico state government is making our lives forfeit,” he said. “If they’re going to kill us, they should be able to handle seeing the consequences of their very real actions.”

Artemisio Romero Y Carver chanting with the crowd during the
September 2019 Climate Strike at the Round House in Santa Fe / Josue Rivas

“What you’re able to do with direct action is show politicians that there’s pressure on them,” Romero Y Carver explained. “It’s about preparing a government to hear protesters and protesters willing to stand up and be heard by that government.”

YUCCA’s power analysis led them to embrace a dual strategy, pairing direct action with electoral engagement. They decided to hold candidate forums and endorse candidates in key races in northern New Mexico. 

“We formulated a questionnaire,” Damian-Martinez explained. “Would you pledge to not receive oil and gas lobby money and to solarize the state? Once we developed the questionnaire, the candidates filled it out, we reviewed them and ranked them, and finally voted in person. Someone was assigned to make the statements, it was all very detailed.”

Johnson said their aim was not to provide a platform for candidates to say what they thought young people wanted to hear, but to make sure that young people would hear what they needed to be informed. 

“We wanted to dive deep into where do they get their information, how do they interact with community members, are they involved in Indigenous consultation,” she explained.

They focused on sources of contributions, climate voting history (if any) and diversity.

“We were not giving endorsements just for the sake of giving endorsements,” Damian-Martinez explained. “We want to move towards an increased political influence, so we wanted to establish a good process.” He was listening for candidates who pledged not to take oil and gas money, which said to him, ‘I’m going to fight for you!’”

And a fight it will be, predicts Linda Serrato, who did not accept oil and gas money, was endorsed by YUCCA in her primary race in NM House District 45, and won. She told Current Affairs that as she was campaigning pre-COVID, she talked to people who’ve lived on their land for generations, observing the natural world all their lives from their porches, backyard gardens or hunting grounds in nearby forests, and they confirm, “yes, it still snows, but it’s not like it used to be.” She thinks YUCCA’s climate fears are justified, legitimate, and as a mother of a two-year-old, she shares them.

The cratering of the state budget is important context for YUCCA’s rise, and Serrato points specifically to the fact that three of the four active candidates in her own race participated in their forum. “I do think that signals some change,” Serrato said. “In another year people might have ignored them as ‘just a bunch of kids.’ It speaks volumes.”

Their questions grabbed her. “They said our future is on the line, our future is in your hands, what are you going to do about it?” 

Similarly, Roger Montoya, an out HIV+ gay man was endorsed by YUCCA for the NM House seat in the 40th District, and won his primary. The governor had recruited him to run after he brought honor to the state by winning a CNN Heroes Visionary Award for his work with Moving Arts Española

He’s frank about the steep learning curve and vows not to show up green. At present, he’s involved in the intake of a lot of information, wrapping his mind around transmission lines and energy infrastructure. He’s doing it for the young people, who are “vessels of creativity and goodness.”

If elected, he hopes the YUCCA members will frequent his office.

“I’m going to need that cutting edge to remind me to propel.”

YUCCA organizers brace for more struggle.

“There’s always a moment, it’s hard to escape,” Carver said. “Those moments when you’re on a bus, or taking a drive somewhere, talking to a friend, and it hits you, we might not live past 50. I might never have kids. I might never have that option. These moments hit you like trains. Like a punch thrown at your face. And it’s impossible to ever feel the same after having that thought and knowing that it could be true.

“For me I don’t feel anger, I just feel at core a sense of mobilizing fear. I know that myself alone stands no chance against these institutional failings, but us as a society, as a collective, as a movement, I do believe in that. I think there is a chance for real progress.” 

HEADER IMAGE: Seneca Johnson (far left) at January 2020 action at Round House to remind legislature of the Youth Climate Strike demands / Josue Rivas

* The rankings are based on 2018 data that predate Michelle Lujan Grisham’s governorship, but she hasn’t used that power to fundamentally challenge and change the budget process she inherited. No stranger to structural inequities, Lujan Grisham represented New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2013 to 2018, which includes Albuquerque and Santa Fe and a number of Pueblos.

The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free

Paywalls are justified, even though they are annoying. It costs money to produce good writing, to run a website, to license photographs. A lot of money, if you want quality. Asking people for a fee to access content is therefore very reasonable. You don’t expect to get a print subscription to the newspaper gratis, why would a website be different? I try not to grumble about having to pay for online content, because I run a magazine and I know how difficult it is to pay writers what they deserve. 

But let us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free! You want “Portland Protesters Burn Bibles, American Flags In The Streets,” “The Moral Case Against Mask Mandates And Other COVID Restrictions,” or an article suggesting the National Institutes of Health has admitted 5G phones cause coronavirus—they’re yours. You want the detailed Times reports on neo-Nazis infiltrating German institutions, the reasons contact tracing is failing in U.S. states, or the Trump administration’s undercutting of the USPS’s effectiveness—well, if you’ve clicked around the website a bit you’ll run straight into the paywall. This doesn’t mean the paywall shouldn’t be there. But it does mean that it costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free. 

Now, crucially, I do not mean to imply here that reading the New York Times gives you a sound grasp of reality. I have documented many times how the Times misleads people, for instance by repeating the dubious idea that we have a “border crisis” of migrants “pouring into” the country or that Russia is trying to “steal” life-saving vaccine research that should be free anyway. But it’s important to understand the problem with the Times: it is not that the facts it reports tend to be inaccurate—though sometimes they are—but that the facts are presented in a way that misleads. There is no single “fact” in the migrant story or the Russia story that I take issue with, what I take issue with is the conclusions that are being drawn from the facts. (Likewise, the headline “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest For A-Bomb Parts” is technically accurate: the U.S. government did, in fact, say that. It was just not true.) The New York Times is, in fact, extremely valuable, if you read it critically and look past the headlines. Usually the truth is in there somewhere, as there is a great deal of excellent reporting, and one could almost construct a serious newspaper purely from material culled from the New York Times. I’ve written before about the Times’ reporting on Hitler and the Holocaust: it wasn’t that the grim facts of the situation were left out of the paper, but that they were buried at the back and treated as unimportant. It was changes in emphasis that were needed, because the facts were there in black and white. 

This means that a lot of the most vital information will end up locked behind the paywall. And while I am not much of a New Yorker fan either, it’s concerning that the Hoover Institute will freely give you Richard Epstein’s infamous article downplaying the threat of coronavirus, but Isaac Chotiner’s interview demolishing Epstein requires a monthly subscription, meaning that the lie is more accessible than its refutation. Eric Levitz of New York is one of the best and most prolific left political commentators we have. But unless you’re a subscriber of New York, you won’t get to hear much of what he has to say each month. 

Possibly even worse is the fact that so much academic writing is kept behind vastly more costly paywalls. A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access. (I recently gave up on trying to access a scholarly article because I could not find a way to get it for less than $39.95, though in that case the article was garbage rather than gold.) Academic publishing is a nightmarish patchwork, with lots of articles advertised at exorbitant fees on one site, and then for free on another, or accessible only through certain databases, which your university or public library may or may not have access to. (Libraries have to budget carefully because subscription prices are often nuts. A library subscription to the Journal of Coordination Chemistry, for instance, costs $11,367 annually.) 

Of course, people can find their ways around paywalls. SciHub is a completely illegal but extremely convenient means of obtaining academic research for free. (I am purely describing it, not advocating it.) You can find a free version of the article debunking race and IQ myths on ResearchGate, a site that has engaged in mass copyright infringement in order to make research accessible. Often, because journal publishers tightly control access to their copyrighted work in order to charge those exorbitant fees for PDFs, the versions of articles that you can get for free are drafts that have not yet gone through peer review, and have thus been subjected to less scrutiny. This means that the more reliable an article is, the less accessible it is. On the other hand, pseudo-scholarhip is easy to find. Right-wing think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Hoover Institution, the Mackinac Center, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation pump out slickly-produced policy documents on every subject under the sun. They are utterly untrustworthy—the conclusion is always going to be “let the free market handle the problem,” no matter what the problem or what the facts of the case. But it is often dressed up to look sober-minded and non-ideological. 

It’s not easy or cheap to be an “independent researcher.” When I was writing my first book, Superpredator, I wanted to look through newspaper, magazine, and journal archives to find everything I could about Bill Clinton’s record on race. I was lucky I had a university affiliation, because this gave me access to databases like LexisNexis. If I hadn’t, the cost of finding out what I wanted to find out would likely have run into the thousands of dollars.  

A problem beyond cost, though, is convenience. I find that even when I am doing research through databases and my university library, it is often an absolute mess: the sites are clunky and constantly demanding login credentials. The amount of time wasted in figuring out how to obtain a piece of research material is a massive cost on top of the actual pricing. The federal court document database, PACER, for instance, charges 10 cents a page for access to records, which adds up quickly since legal research often involves looking through thousands of pages. They offer an exemption if you are a researcher or can’t afford it, but to get the exemption you have to fill out a three page form and provide an explanation of both why you need each document and why you deserve the exemption. This is a waste of time that inhibits people’s productivity and limits their access to knowledge.

In fact, to see just how much human potential is being squandered by having knowledge dispensed by the “free market,” let us briefly picture what “totally democratic and accessible knowledge” would look like. Let’s imagine that instead of having to use privatized research services like Google Scholar and EBSCO, there was a single public search database containing every newspaper article, every magazine article, every academic journal article, every court record, every government document, every website, every piece of software, every film, song, photograph, television show, and video clip, and every book in existence. The content of the Wayback Machine, all of the newspaper archives, Google Books, Getty Images, Project Gutenberg, Spotify, the Library of Congress, everything in WestLaw and Lexis, all of it, every piece of it accessible instantly in full, and with a search function designed to be as simple as possible and allow you to quickly narrow down what you are looking for. (e.g. “Give me: all Massachusetts newspaper articles, books published in Boston, and government documents that mention William Lloyd Garrison and were published from 1860 to 1865.”) The true universal search, uncorrupted by paid advertising. Within a second, you could bring up an entire PDF of any book. Within two seconds, you could search the full contents of that book. 

Let us imagine just how much time would be saved in this informational utopia. Do I want minute 15 of the 1962 Czechoslovak film Man In Outer Space? Four seconds from my thought until it begins. Do I want page 17 of the Daily Mirror from 1985? Even less time. Every public Defense Department document concerning Vietnam from the Eisenhower administration? Page 150 of Frank Capra’s autobiography? Page 400 of an economics textbook from 1995? All in front of me, in full, in less than the length of time it takes to type this sentence. How much faster would research be in such a situation? How much more could be accomplished if knowledge were not fragmented and in the possession of a thousand private gatekeepers? 

What’s amazing is that the difficulty of creating this situation of “fully democratized information” is entirely economic rather than technological. What I describe with books is close to what Google Books and Amazon already have. But of course, universal free access to full content horrifies publishers, so we are prohibited from using these systems to their full potential. The problem is ownership: nobody is allowed to build a giant free database of everything human beings have ever produced. Getty Images will sue the shit out of you if you take a historical picture from their archives and violate your licensing agreement with them. Same with the Walt Disney Company if you create a free rival to Disney+ with all of their movies. Sci-Hub was founded in Kazakhstan because if you founded it here they would swiftly put you in federal prison. (When you really think about what it means, copyright law is an unbelievably intensive restriction on freedom of speech, sharply delineating the boundaries of what information can and cannot be shared with other people.) 

But it’s not just profiteering companies that will fight to the death to keep content safely locked up. The creators of content are horrified by piracy, too. As my colleagues Lyta Gold and Brianna Rennix write, writers, artists, and filmmakers can be justifiably concerned that unless ideas and writings and images can be regarded as “property,” they will starve to death: 

Is there a justifiable rationale for treating ideas—and particularly stories—as a form of “property”? One obvious reason for doing so is to ensure that writers and other creators don’t starve to death: In our present-day capitalist utopia, if a writer’s output can be brazenly copied and profited upon by others, they won’t have any meaningful ability to make a living off their work, especially if they’re an independent creator without any kind of institutional affiliation or preexisting wealth.

Lyta and Brianna point out that in the real world, this justification is often bullshit, because copyrights last well beyond the death of the person who actually made the thing. But it’s a genuine worry, because there is no “universal basic income” for a writer to fall back on in this country if their works are simply passed around from hand to hand without anybody paying for them. I admit I bristle when I see people share PDFs of full issues of Current Affairs, because if this happened a lot, we could sell exactly 1 subscription and then the issue could just be copied indefinitely. Current Affairs would collapse completely if everyone tried to get our content for free rather than paying for it. (This is why you should subscribe! Or donate! Independent media needs your support!) 

At the end of last year, I published a book on socialism, and at first some conservatives thought it funny to ask me “if you’re a socialist, can I have it for free?” They were quieted, though, when I pointed out that yes, they could indeed have it for free. All they needed to do was go to the local socialized information repository known as a public library, where they would be handed a copy of the book without having to fork over a nickel. Anyone who wants to read my book but cannot or does not want to pay for it has an easy solution.

I realized, though, as I was recommending everyone get my book from the library rather than buying it in a bookstore, that my publisher probably didn’t appreciate my handing out this advice. And frankly, it made me a little nervous: I depend for my living on my writing, so if everyone got my book from the library, it wouldn’t sell any copies, and then my publisher wouldn’t pay me to write any more books. We can’t have too many people using the socialized information repository when authors are reliant on a capitalist publishing industry! In fact, a strange thing about the library is that we intentionally preserve an unnecessary inefficiency in order to keep the current content financing model afloat. Your library could just give you DRM-free PDFs of my book and every issue of Current Affairs for free, but instead they make you go to the magazine room or check out one of a limited number of copies of the book, because while we want books and magazines to be free, we cannot have them be as free as it is possible to make them, or it would hurt the publishing industry too much. (Libraries preserve the fiction that there are a select number of “copies” available of a digital book, even though this is ludicrous, because abandoning the fiction would hurt publishers. They could offer every book ever written to anyone at any time. They just can’t do it legally.)

I also realized, however, that I wouldn’t care how many people got my book for free if my compensation operated on a different structure, where I was paid by the number of people who read it rather than the number of people who bought it. “Impossible!” you say. “Where would the money come from?” We can imagine such a set-up quite easily, though. We have our universal public knowledge database, and anyone who wants to can type in the title of any of my books and read them for free.** But the number of people who read the book is tracked, and I am compensated two dollars for every person who reads it (a pittance, but that’s about what authors get for their sales). Current Affairs, likewise, is granted a budget proportional to its readership. Compensated from where? Budget from where? Why, from the universal public knowledge database of course. But from where do they get their money? Why, from taxes.* Free at point of use services are not some alien concept. The NHS compensates doctors while charging patients nothing. (Of course, compensation for producers wouldn’t even be that much of an issue in a society with a Universal Basic Income and where the basics of life were guaranteed. I wouldn’t care about making any money on my books if I could live decently regardless.)

Now, I am sure there will be those who argue that any universal knowledge access system of this kind will inhibit the creation of new work by reducing the rewards people get. But let us note a few facts: first, dead people cannot be incentivized to be creative, thus at least everything ever created by a person who is now dead should be made freely available to all. The gatekeepers to intellectual products made by the dead are parasites the equivalent of a private individual who sets up a gate and a tollbooth in the middle of a road somebody else has already built and starts charging people if they want to pass. Actually, since parasites latch onto the living, they are better compared with corpse-eating worms.  

Second, creators are already exploited: Spotify is very much like the universal searchable information database for music, it just operates for profit rather than for artists, and rights-holders get a fraction of a cent per Spotify play, an amount that must itself split between the label, the producer, the artist, and the songwriter. The CEO of Spotify has said that if artists want more money, they should make more music. (He is worth $4 billion.) And if you ever want to make a professor laugh, ask how much they make from royalties on their published academic articles. As Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor for research at the University of Johannesburg explains, academic publishing is a “completely feudal system”: 

“The costs of the research production are borne by the universities, and as a result, by public monies, in most cases. Then, private companies publish the research, and charge the universities and public institutions for the very research outputs that they paid for. This is effectively the subsidy of the private sector by public money. There is a myth that this is an example of entrepreneurialism. In my view, all it does is facilitate enrichment at public cost with huge consequences for those most disadvantaged.”

This problem has not been fixed by the rise of “open-access” scholarship, because it hasn’t removed the profit motive, so poor countries are still getting screwed by the existing publishing model. 

Third, when considering the free information repository’s effects on content creation, you cannot look only at one side of the equation. The question of how much productivity would be inhibited by the state declining to enforce the copyrights of academic journal publishers and Getty Images must be weighed against the phenomenal unleashing of human productive power that universal free access to all human knowledge would create. You must add up how much researchers could do with the time that they now have to spend trying to track down and access things. No more would a certain thing only be in a certain library and accessible through an inter-library loan request. No more would librarians have to spend any time managing subscriptions rather than helping with searches. Researchers in the developing world would no longer be utterly unable to compete with American libraries that can afford vast fees. (I can tell you, personally, that as someone who is constantly having to find obscure used books for research and then order them and wait sometimes weeks for them to arrive, I could produce far more quickly if I could see the full content of the book in ten seconds, and I am constantly exasperated by Google Books’ “snippet view.”)

Furthermore, we would have to consider what would happen in a society where the relative accessibility and cost of truth versus lies was adjusted. What if every online course was free? What if textbooks cost nothing instead of $200? What if we made it as easy and cheap as possible to find things out and were guided by the desire to create the greatest possible access to knowledge rather than by economic considerations? I do not know what would happen, but I hope some rogue state (or microstate or seastead) that doesn’t mind pissing off the world’s most powerful corporations and governments tries to storm the Bastille of information and free every bit and byte from its artificial prison. The only thing stopping them is law, and what is law but a threat? 

The good news about our times is that the possibilities for democratizing knowledge are greater than ever. We could not have started Current Affairs in 1990 unless we had about ten times more money than what we actually had. Sharp left YouTubers are fighting hard to combat propaganda and debunk bad arguments, there are tons of great podcasts, and even Twitter has its uses. (Where else do you get to yell at powerful and influential people and personally tick them off?) But it is still true that Fox News and PragerU and the American Enterprise Institute have a hell of a lot of money to blast out their message as widely as possible. There is nothing on the left of remotely comparable size and influence. 

But we are working on it. We are a long way from the world in which all knowledge is equally accessible. Hopefully someday our patchwork of intentionally-inefficient libraries will turn into a free storehouse of humanity’s recorded knowledge and creativity. In the meantime, however, we need to focus on getting good and thoughtful material in as many hands as possible and breaking down the barriers we can. At Current Affairs we have no paywall, even though this might cost us some money, because we are trying to make it as easy as possible to hear what we have to say. This is what the right does. They tell people what to think, offer them books and pamphlets and handy five-minute YouTube videos. On the left we are not nearly as slick.

We can’t afford to keep our reach to those who like us so much that they are willing to pay money to listen, because then the free bullshit wins. It’s hard for small media institutions to figure out the right balance of depending on ads, paywalls, and donations. The money has to come from somewhere, after all. A lot of the times, that means a heavy dependence on ads—the traditional model of magazines has been ad-revenue based, not subscription-based—so that paywalls are actually the less corrupted model; a podcaster who sells their product on Patreon rather than giving it away but filling it with mattress and “box-of-shit-a-month” ads has an important kind of freedom: they only have to please the audience, not the sponsors. At Current Affairs, we sell subscriptions to keep the lights on, but even one person who could have read an article and doesn’t is a loss. (I wish I could give my book to everyone too but my publisher won’t let me. I did make another one free, though.) The Guardian and the Intercept provide a lot of valuable material to the public for free because they don’t have paywalls, but the Guardian is funded by a trust and the Intercept by a benevolent billionaire. (Such funding sources make things much easier. Attention benevolent billionaires: we have a donate page.) Perhaps paywalls can help publications like the New York Times and the New Statesman from having to partner with “branded content” suppliers like Shell Oil and Cigna, but at the expense of limiting reach. More reason to have publications funded by the centralized free-information library rather than through subscriptions or corporate sponsorship. 

Creators must be compensated well. But at the same time we have to try to keep things that are important and profound from getting locked away where few people will see them. The truth needs to be free and universal. 

* I will not be reading angry emails from Modern Monetary Theorists. I am assuming a country without a sovereign currency, so there.

** You could, of course—and I am sure many people would want to—offer the universal database with a paywall and something like an “allowance” each month (e.g. 5 books, 100 newspaper/magazine articles, 50 scholarly journal articles, 20 films, and as many court records as they like) above which there would be a cost, and waive that cost for anyone below a certain income level. But this would involve means-testing, which makes everything needlessly complicated and inevitably means that some people will not access things who otherwise would. We do not means-test the public library and we should not means-test the universal public knowledge database.