Egalitarian Ethics and the Spirit of Socialism

As he lay dying from the Spanish flu in 1920, Max Weber was preoccupied with the specter of communism. From Mexico to Russia, the whole world seemed to be in the grips of revolutionary fervor. In his own native Germany, Marxists had nearly occupied Berlin in an armed uprising. Even Munich, where the father of modern sociology finally succumbed to the pandemic, was briefly governed by a workers’ council.   

Weber rejected the left’s call to establish a society of shared prosperity through redistribution. In his magnum opus Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, he argued that a country’s economic success was a byproduct of culture: northern Europe was wealthy because Calvinists believed that vocational success was a sign of divine blessing. This chief driver of prosperity – moralization of labor – could not be spontaneously forged by simply conferring resources to the disenfranchised. Therefore, efforts to generate affluence through redistribution were futile at best, destructive at worst. 

But Weber’s reading of history was wrong. Protestant societies did not become richer on the merit of their values – they were more affluent because wealth redistribution on a revolutionary scale had accompanied their religious conversion in the 16th century. And throughout history, other societies that embraced egalitarianism have enjoyed similar economic dividends. 

As governments today look warily at the prospect of increasing civil discontent amidst growing economic insecurity, they must discard the long-standing belief that redistribution will eventually lead to degradations in the quality of life and embrace egalitarian solutions to persistent socio-economic challenges.

Consider England. The Reformation here meant more than reading the bible in English. Its material impact underwrote the country’s unprecedented economic rise. 

Economic historians have long debated why an island on the edge of the European continent achieved industrialization before other nations. Scholars like Robert Allen identified the high cost of human labor in England as the principal impetus for mechanization. Douglas North and Barry Weingast saw the government’s commitment to property rights as the foundation of increased capital investments. Other hypotheses placed a spotlight on the availability of cheap fuel (coal). 

But these factors all rely on the abundance of actors who had access to economic resources and could take advantage of these various endowments. These were not conditions that existed in feudal England or elsewhere in medieval Europe where society’s resources were perpetually held in the hands of a small and privileged class. 

In 1436, the common people of England held less than half of the cultivated land in the country. Independent peasants controlled about one-fifth of the farmland while knights owned about a quarter. The remaining property was controlled by the upper nobility and the church – a tiny fraction of the total population. 

This unequal distribution of wealth left little room for the vast majority of working people to improve their lives or meaningfully participate in the economy. Surveys from medieval England showed that even peasant households with land owned so little that they achieved subsistence only by supplementing their harvest with wages from other work. Moreover, the growing practice of “enclosures” increasingly restricted people’s access to communal properties that helped complement their meager income. 

Art by Susannah Lohr

King Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic church in 1534 became the inadvertent catalyst for change. Between 1536 and 1540, parliament transferred the ownership of all 825 monasteries and their lands in England and Wales to the Crown. Desperate to generate cash for the royal treasury, the Tudor monarchy made one-third of the expropriated land available for purchase on the market. The resulting redistribution was the economic legacy of the Reformation in England.

The shift in land ownership over the next century was extraordinary. While the share of the agricultural land held by the upper aristocracy did not change between 1436 and 1688, the portion of total cultivated land owned by knights and middling social classes grew from 25 percent to somewhere between 45 and 50 percent. Simultaneously, free peasants were also able to increase their landholdings from 20 percent to somewhere between 25 and 33 percent. England still remained a highly unequal society and enclosures continued to constrict public access to common resources, making life difficult for landless peasants. Nonetheless, the dissolution of ecclesiastical properties produced a more inclusive economy than what would have existed otherwise. 

A wider share of society having access to land corresponded with growth in agricultural output. Estimates suggest that between 1500 and 1700, the yield of wheat per acre increased from 14 bushels to 19. The surplus allowed people to shift resources to industrial production. Reflecting the rise of manufacturing during this time period, nearly half of the English labor force worked outside agriculture by 1700. These were the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

Contrary to Weber’s view, the tenets of Protestantism that Tudor England adopted was incidental to the creation of new wealth. It was the breakup of ecclesiastical property that preceded growth. Notably, Catholic countries that challenged traditional socio-economic privileges experienced similar transformations. 

Traveling through France in the late 18th century, English agriculturalist Arthur Young described the country’s rural economy as a “miserable system.” 23 million farmers – about 80 percent of the total population – toiled in the field. A significant share of these workers were tenant farmers who relied on their landlords for seed and cattle, leaving them constantly indebted with little resources to escape poverty. Just as in England before the Reformation, even paysans who had their own land often possessed so little that they barely eked out a living as subsistence farmers. 

There were other burdens that the French peasantry assumed as a subservient class. The local aristocracy had the right to collect payments for people crossing rivers, digging wells, selling goods, and other activities vital to commerce. These feudal obligations acted as further barriers to growth. 

The privileges of the largest landowning class per capita in the country – the Roman Catholic Church – exemplified the rampant inequality in the country. The institution held 6.5 percent of the total cultivated land, but paid no taxes and collected a tithe from the general population. 

Then in 1789, representatives of the working class and the bourgeoisie took control of the state. One of their first actions was to expropriate all land owned by the church. As the Revolution wore on, a significant share of the property owned by the former nobility was also expropriated and redistributed. In French Flanders, the share of land held by the clergy and nobility decreased from 42 percent in 1788 to 12 percent in 1802. Concurrently, peasant share of the land grew from 30 percent to 42. 

As was the case in England, the redistribution was done through an auction, thus excluding the poorest members of society from the process. Despite the revolutionary government’s failure to live up to its egalitarian ideals, research by economists Theresa Finley, Raphaël Franck, and Noel D. Johnson showed that regions of the country that experienced greater redistribution of church property enjoyed greater agricultural output and investments over the next half-century. 

Building on this economic foundation, France too experienced rapid industrialization in the 19th century. What made France different from other countries that did not achieve intensive economic growth during this period was not creed but politics. 

Far from handicapping economic growth, as many modern free market doctrinaires claim, redistribution helped lift Western Europe from a subsistence economy.

This was not a uniquely European phenomenon. The current economic engine of the world, East Asia, perhaps best exemplified the triumph of egalitarianism. 

The region hosted the newest adherents of Weber’s thesis. This time, however, the focus was not on Protestantism but on Confucianism. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew provided the most well-known endorsement of this view: 

“Confucian societies believe that the individual exists in the context of the family, extended family, friends, and wider society, and that the government cannot and should not take over the role of the family… [a country] depends on the strength and influence of the family to keep society orderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders and for scholarship and for learning… These values make for a productive people and help economic growth.”

It was a twist on the Weberian worldview, but an outlook that still emphasized the supremacy of culture in determining a country’s economic success. Lee’s message also implied that economic misfortune could be attributed to moral failure at an individual or familial level – diverting attention from potential structural barriers to a person’s fulfilment of their vocational aspirations. 

And yet, Lee left a key question unanswered. Why were Confucian societies like Korea so poor in pre-modern times? Again, case studies show that redistribution – not culture – acted as a precursor for prosperity. 

At the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Korea was a highly unequal agrarian society. The richest 2.7 percent of rural households owned two-thirds of all cultivated lands while over half of the population owned no land at all. 

During their brief governance of the country between 1945 and 1948, U.S. military authorities distributed about 240,000 hectares of land that was previously owned by Japanese interests. But this only represented approximately one-tenth of the arable land. Further efforts to redistribute the means of production ran into opposition, particularly from South Korean President Syngman Rhee who saw landowners as a staunchly anti-communist constituency who would support his efforts to repress leftists who challenged his authoritarian administration. 

The Korean War changed this political calculation. After being driven from the capital twice by communist forces, Rhee’s government woke up to the realization that rural poverty fostered domestic sympathies for the rival regime in Pyongyang. 

This national security imperative rallied political support behind a substantial and earnest redistribution of resources. The government restricted land ownership to three hectares and 330,000 hectares of farmland was reallocated to previously landless farmers. Furthermore, landlords directly sold 500,000 hectares to their tenants by 1952. In total, 52 percent of total cultivated land changed hands, reducing the tenancy from 49 percent of farming households to 7 percent. 

The scope of the redistribution in Korea was far larger than what had occurred in Tudor England or Revolutionary France. Consequently, the economic impact was also felt more immediately. Annual agricultural yields rose from 3 tons/hectare in the mid-1950s to 5.3 by the 1970s. The resulting increase in rural income allowed families to invest in education – creating the workforce that staffed the enterprises that spearheaded the explosive industrialization of South Korea. The new wealth also formed the basis for domestic savings that financed the acquisition of machinery and technology that pushed industries to compete in more valuable sectors of the global economy. 

South Korea’s economic breakout validated the transformative potential of redistribution. And it was not alone: Japan and Taiwan also pursued this path to prosperity.  

The opposite was true in countries where land redistribution did not take place. 

As a share of the population, the Hungarian aristocracy in the 19th century was the smallest in Europe. Nonetheless, a quarter of all arable land in the country belonged to these approximately 600 families. The imperial government in Vienna safeguarded these hereditary privileges and ensured their continued socio-economic dominance. In a time of burgeoning nationalist sentiments, the Austrian Habsburg dynasty saw the Hungarian nobility as a counterweight to the people’s demands for an independent Hungarian nation-state. 

When the Esterhazy family – one of the country’s largest landowners – faced imminent insolvency in the 1860s, Emperor Franz-Joseph personally intervened to shield their assets from creditors. When the import of cheap American cereal imperiled the Hungarian nobility’s dominance in the domestic flour market, the imperial government levied tariffs to protect their market share. Taxes on imported wheat increased by 429 percent between 1882 and 1906.

These measures led to the continued monopoly of land by the aristocracy. The result was the exact opposite of what had occurred in England, France, and South Korea. Investment in land improvements stagnated. By the start of the 20th century, Hungary’s per hectare wheat yield was below that of Romania and nearly one-third of Denmark’s. 

This backwardness in the agricultural sector also affected the country’s industrialization. As late as 1906, only 12 percent of the mills in the country had adopted steampower. Economic historian John Komlos described Hungary on the eve of the First World War as “essentially an agricultural country in which the primary sector still employed two-thirds of the labor force and produced the same share of the national product.”

Guatemala is a more recent example. In 1950, approximately 2 percent of the population controlled 72 percent of the country’s arable land while 88 percent held a mere 14 percent. With two-thirds of the population working in the agricultural sector, the gross inequality made it nearly impossible for people to break the cycle of poverty. Moreover, the resources were ineffectively used – while the vast majority of rural families lived in poverty, less than 12 percent of the total privately-held land was cultivated. 

To address this misallocation, Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman introduced measures in 1952 to split over 600,000 hectares of land among 100,000 families. There are critics today who point out that these reforms extended less benefits to farmers of Maya descent and their communities. But economic historians are in no position to analyze the long-term impact of land reform in Guatemala because Arbenz was accused of harboring communist sympathies and a U.S.-backed coup d’etat removed him from power in 1954. Much of the redistribution was reversed thereafter.

The World Bank today describes Guatemala as having “some of the worst poverty, malnutrition, and maternal-child mortality rates in the region, especially in rural and indigenous areas.” The poverty rate is estimated to be somewhere between 50 and 60 percent. Almost half of Guatemalan children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition and 23 percent from severe malnutrition. With a population that is fighting to put food on the table and very few gainful employment opportunities, the rate of reported extortion by criminals is 43 per 100,000 inhabitants. In this environment, it is not surprising that many people are choosing to take refuge in the United States.  

Both Hungary and Guatemala happen to be predominantly Catholic countries. However, the inequality that held back economic development was not rooted in their faith. The failure to redistribute resources was strictly a political blunder.  

There are many ways to ensure equitable access to a society’s economic resources. While this was accomplished through the distribution of private property in England, France, and South Korea, this is not the only path to building an inclusive economy. 

In fact, there are many cases where blind privatization created a more exclusive economy, concentrating resources in the hands of a privileged few. In El Salvador, land reforms in the late 19th century harmed the livelihood of many rural workers because it expropriated land that was utilized collectively by local communities. Moreover, the government allowed the newly privatized plots to be acquired by a handful of oligarchs who consolidated them into large coffee plantations. This dispossession prevented agricultural communities from meaningfully participating in the economy, ensuring that these “reforms” would not deliver improvements to the people’s general standard of living. Similarly, the central government’s forced privatization of shared resources catalyzed Emiliano Zapata’s insurrection during the Mexican Revolution. 

These cases show how redistribution is less effective when it does not consider the local context. Accordingly, Joe Studwell points out in his examination of successful (South Korea and Taiwan) and unsuccessful (Philippines and Indonesia) cases of land reforms in East Asia that the most successful cases of redistribution were ones that relied more heavily on community participation. Conversely, he observed that redistribution invariably failed when people in positions of privilege were allowed to dictate the process. 

Today, there is renewed support for redistributive policies. Notably, the U.S. Democratic Party has placed a spotlight on inequality in its ongoing contest to select a nominee for the 2020 presidential election. Proposals for more equitable access to public services and restraints on corporate power have entered the political discourse. 

This is a unique moment because political leaders are putting forward policies that consciously aim to enhance the wellbeing of all citizens. In Tudor England, the economic rewards of the Reformation were the unintended consequences of the monarchy’s attempt to fill its treasury. In Revolutionary France, the republican government was attacking institutions that had legitimized the Ancien Regime

In these cases, the most vulnerable members of society often bore the cost of these transformations because welfare had not been the states’ principal aim. For instance, King Henry VIII’s land grab led to the closure of hospitals that were funded by monastic orders – these had been the only humanitarian institutions in medieval England that provided medical care for the poor. In addition, a steady erosion of common lands accompanied the expansion of private property, which disproportionately affected poorer farmers. Similarly, the redistribution of land via auctions in revolutionary France privileged farmers with more means, exacerbating inequality in some parts of the country. If societies do engage in redistributive policies today, their efforts must be more conscious about dislocations. 

Furthermore, policymakers must make a clear effort to deliver real improvements to people’s lives – and the measure of these gains cannot be limited to traditional indices like industrial output. In pre-modern England and France, increased land productivity resulting from the breakup of ecclesiastical land helped many people escape from the drudgery of subsistence farming. In South Korea’s case, the astonishing rate of industrialization pushed the average life span up from around 41 at the end of the Korean War in 1953 to 83 in 2020. But unmitigated Gross Domestic Product growth in the United States since the 2008 financial crash has not translated into improvements in the quality of life – in fact, life expectancy has been in decline for three successive years. This shows that economic growth does not automatically yield tangible changes in the lives of people. Redistributive policies today must look to affect a wider set of conditions, including health, education, and leisure. 

There are still many detractors who repeat Max Weber’s dictum that redistributive policies cannot improve economic conditions. They emphatically argue that individuals succeed and fail based on their moral outlook. As evidence, they point to Venezuela and the Soviet Union, claiming that greater public investments in housing and healthcare are slippery slopes to privation. 

Yet history says otherwise. In Tudor England, revolutionary France, and post-war Korea, political decisions that widened people’s access to productive resources fostered shared prosperity. These and other historical cases ought to be more forthrightly presented to spotlight the economic merits of a more equal society.

Because, in Weber’s own dying words, the truth is the truth.

How To Be A Respectable Public Intellectual

It should tell you something about conservative intellectualism that the most memorable thing William F. Buckley ever said involved a homophobic slur and a threat of violence. In 1968, during a series of now-legendary televised debates with Gore Vidal, Vidal antagonized Buckley so much that Buckley leaned across and spat at Vidal:

“Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered!”

The debate in question had been about Vietnam War protesters raising the Vietcong flag during demonstrations. The moderator had asked Vidal whether this was comparable to raising a Nazi flag during World War II. Vidal begins to explain why the comparison is ludicrous. The exchange proceeds thusly: 

VIDAL:

You must realize what some of the political issues are here. There are many people in the United States who happen to believe that the United States policy is wrong in Vietnam and the Vietcong are correct in wanting to organize their own country in their own way politically. This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago, that is too bad, but I assume that the point of the American democracy—

BUCKLEY (interrupting):

—and some people were pro-Nazi—

VIDAL:

—is you can express any view you want—

BUCKLEY:

—and some people were pro-Nazi—

VIDAL:

Shut up a minute!

BUCKLEY:

No, I won’t. Some people were pro-Nazi and, and the answer is they were well treated by people who ostracized them. And I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care—

VIDAL (loftily):

As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that—

SMITH:

Let’s, let’s not call names—

VIDAL:

Failing that, I can only say that—


At this point, Buckley issues his memorable line about face-socking the “queer.” The network goes to break. 

The threat and the slur are, naturally, what is remembered about the exchange, but what led up to it is also interesting for what it tells us about American intellectual discourse. Vidal is first posed a ludicrous, loaded question by the ABC News moderator: prove to me that the Vietnam protesters aren’t like Nazi sympathizers. (Shades of Glenn Beck’s infamous question to Keith Ellison: “Prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”) Vidal attempts a thoughtful reply. He attempts to say, in essence: you have to understand what the actual underlying issues here are. The Vietcong are fighting for an independent unified Vietnam, not an ideology of genocidal racist mass extermination. Many around the world recognize that their underlying claim is a legitimate one and the U.S. occupation is wrong. Perhaps that idea seems novel or ridiculous in the U.S.A., but surely the point of democracy… At which point William F. Buckley, considered one of the greatest of Conservative Intellectuals, interjects the following thoughtful analysis: “Some people were pro-Nazi.” The comment is asinine and non-responsive, but it does succeed in distracting from the issue. 

The exchange, of course, devolves, and Vidal is dragged into the mud, where he tells Buckley to kindly shut up, Buckley declines to shut up and begins babbling about how we were right to ostracize Nazi sympathizers, Vidal says there is only one Nazi in the room he can think of, and then, as Vidal later put it “in full view of ten million people, the little door in William F. Buckley Jr.’s forehead suddenly opened and out sprang that wild cuckoo which I had always known was there but had wanted so much for others, preferably millions of others, to get a good look at.” Which they did; the remark followed Buckley for the rest of his life.

But even before he snapped, Buckley was showing us his true self. The Vietnam War, remember, was an abominable crime against humanity. The United States dropped more bombs there than all of the bombs dropped by every country in World War II. Millions of Vietnamese died. When Vidal tried to raise the possibility that perhaps the Vietnamese resistance to the United States had a point, Buckley’s “counterargument” was: and there were Nazi sympathizers, too. So much for the great conservative intellect. 

Buckley is long since dead, but since he was perhaps the most prominent American right-wing “thinker” of the 20th century (Reagan, of course, was the most prominent non-thinker) and is often credited with “launching the modern conservative movement,” he is worth taking a look at, because his 50-year career shows us well how the most aggressive ignorance can successfully dress itself up as Serious Thought. Buckley created a template for conservative intellectualism that is still used today: be glib, confident, and a good debater,  throw in a dash of wit and some references to the Classics. Do it all with a self-satisfied smile, and the validity or invalidity of your underlying arguments will cease to be a matter of serious discussion. Ben Shapiro, of course, is a kind of Buckley tribute act. The arguments he makes are often nonsensical from a strictly logical point of view, but this does not matter to the success of his project. It is the “theater of intellectualism,” to use the phrase of my colleague Aisling McCrea.

Buckley is sometimes looked back to nostalgically as an exemplar of the Age Of Civility in political discourse. (You know, back when before people weren’t just tossing slurs around and threatening to hit each other.) On the 1,500 episodes of his show Firing Line (1966-1999) he regularly debated those from the “other side,” even radicals like Huey Newton and Noam Chomsky. When Buckley died, even ideological opponents praised him as a man of “basic decency,” a “good man” who would have deplored the “vulgarity” of 21st century conservatism and showed a “capacity to change, adapt, and learn.” But it is worth remembering what the substance was beneath the style. 

Buckley’s gentility and civility existed atop deeply abhorrent values. National Review began its life explicitly defending segregation and McCarthyism. In an infamous 1957 editorial in the magazine, Buckley wrote that white Southerners had an inherent right to deprive Black people of the vote, because Black people were uncivilized and thus not fit for democracy: 

The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way; and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.

    Now, if you know anything about the South in the 1950s, you know that Buckley is speaking here in delicate and deliberately misleading euphemisms. When he says “if the majority wills what is socially atavistic,” he means “if the majority believes that legal segregation of races should be ended and that Black people should be treated as equal citizens.” When he says “such measures necessary to prevail” and affirms that these are anti-democratic measures, he is necessarily talking about the use of racial terrorism, which is what was “necessary” to keep Black people from exercising their rights and attain their compliance. Emmett Till had been beaten to death two years before Buckley wrote his editorial. Buckley knew about that, and while he always insisted he lamented and deplored violence, he was emphatic: White people must prevail by “whatever measures” on “any issue on which their is corporate disagreement between Negro and White.” He says the “cultural superiority of White over Negro” is a fact that “cannot be hidden” and “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” He says that “limitations upon the vote” are not exclusively the “recommendations of tyrants or oligarchists (was Jefferson either?)” but are necessary prior to “cultural equality.” Today it looks rather hilarious to cite Thomas Jefferson as an authority how to achieve equality, but we should note the chilling implications of Buckley’s editorial. Southerners had, since the end of Reconstruction, murdered those who challenged white supremacy. Buckley does not go into detail about what he means by “whatever measures,” but there is no way to separate this from the violence with which segregation was enforced. Buckley was egging on those who were determined to enforce segregation, and indeed they would go on to lynch a number of civil rights workers, using exactly the justifications that Buckley provided.

    Buckley’s defenders cite his ability to “grow” and “change.” He eventually abandoned his belief in outright segregationism and stopped encouraging Southerners to resist integration by any means necessary. But, like Strom Thurmond, Buckley only evolved as his position became politically unacceptable thanks to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Like many conservatives, as soon as 1950s racism became unacceptable, he “grew” into 1960s racism, which talked of “law and order” and deplored the violence of inner city Blacks. After Bloody Sunday in 1965, when the police of Selma, Alabama had beaten civil rights protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (giving John Lewis a fractured skull), Buckley criticized the “excesses” but wondered why the excesses of the protesters weren’t being criticized: “…but were ever the excesses criticized of those who provoked them beyond the endurance that we tend think of as human?”

    Buckley’s 1965 campaign for Mayor of New York explicitly made defense of the police and resentment of the poor his core issues. On the subject of cops, Buckley vowed that “under no circumstances must the police be encumbered by such political irons as civilian review boards.” He demanded “a much larger police force, enjoined to lust after the apprehension of criminals.” And “resentment of the poor” may sound extreme, but I don’t think the point is even debatable. In speeches Buckley explicitly encouraged voters to be bitter about having to pay for public school for the destitute: 

There are 500,000 people on relief in New York today… what do they contribute materially to New York? It costs a minimum of $700 to furnish public school education for a child in New York. It costs about $500 per year per person for those on relief; and that much again for public housing. What is the residual benefit to New Yorkers of the sacrifices they endure in order to attract to this city men, women, and children who, in this city—as distinguished from elsewhere—are unemployable, and become structural welfarists?… [H]aving got their vote, the politicians let them institutionalize themselves as social derelicts, at liberty to breed children who, suffering from inherited disadvantages, alternatively seek surcease in hyperstimulation—in crime and narcotics—and in indolence—as school dropouts or as poolhall conscientious objectors to work…

    The speech could have been written for Ebeneezer Scrooge himself, save for the trademark ostentatious display of learning (“surcease in hyperstimulation”).

    Buckley had an intense distaste for James Baldwin, whom he debated at Cambridge University in 1965, commenting that “the moment is long overdue for someone who speaks authentically for the Negroes to tell Mr. Baldwin that his morose nihilism is a greater threat by far to prospects for the Negroes in America than anything that George Wallace ever said or did.” “How long,” Buckley asked, “…before the Baldwins will be ghettoized in the corners of fanaticism where they belong?”

    He was none too fond of Martin Luther King, either, who was “more sensitive, and so more bitter, than the average Southern Negro, and hence unqualified as a litmus of the Southern Negro’s discontent.” Buckley said as late as 1967 that he was “convinced that Martin Luther King belongs behind bars along with everyone else who conspires to break the law.” “Repression,” he said, “is an unpleasant instrument, but it is absolutely necessary for civilizations that believe in order and human rights.” After King’s assassination, Buckley appeared to speculate that it may have been done by “leftists,” reasoning that it would not be in the Ku Klux Klan’s interest to arouse sympathy for King. (He had similarly pondered of the 16th St Baptist Church bombing “whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur—of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro.”) Shortly after King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King was in talks with the Nixon administration about establishing a memorial to her late husband. When the administration proved indifferent, she chalked it up to racism. Buckley was incensed and chided Ms. King in his column: 

What to do posthumously about Martin Luther King is becoming a Cause…Mrs. Martin Luther King, who clearly learned from her husband the uses of the press, is omnipresent; saying, some useful things, saying, other times, most unfortunate things. But she has now said she has abandoned the negotiations, on the grounds that has detected an “indifferent attitude” toward black and poor people… [One] can imagine what Mr. Nixon and his lieutenants and the leaders of Congress are saying privately about Mrs. King’s intemperance, it isn’t good. The notion that “racist attitudes” motivate Nixon is paradoxically correct. Because Mr. Nixon would never have paused to negotiate with Mrs. King concerning a national memorial to her husband except for the fact that Dr. King was a Negro… If he had been white, the suggestion of raising a monument to him would have been presumptively ridiculous, not because a white man carrying the message of Dr. King on into martyrdom would be less than an object of national honor, but because there is a long line of men who are deemed to have been national benefactors who have not yet been memorialized in concrete, and some of them have been dead (Andrew Jackson, say) for more than 100 Years…. [King] was the spokesman for a point of view on citizenship which in the opinion of some—e.g., me—is mortal to civil society… Above all, Mrs. King should be counseled to stop the racist talk. Because more of that, and she will antagonize those whom there is no purpose in antagonizing. It is time to mute the memory of one Martin Luther King, the advocate of civil disbedience who once likened America’s foreign policy to Nazi Germany’s and stress instead the qualities that made him admirable—his courage, his moral strength, his great eloquence. That is not accomplished by attributing racism to the Nixon administration. 

    “If Martin Luther King had been white,” there would be no memorial to him, reasoned Buckley, therefore a memorial to him is racist. After all Andrew Jackson didn’t get any monuments. (In fact he got a slew, I live a block away from one of them.) Buckley shows in this passage that he simply did not understand the civil rights movement or King. King’s “eloquence” and even his “courage” Buckley could praise, but the actual issues at stake confused him, and he thought that King’s “view of citizenship” was “mortal to civil society.” He could not seem to understand why King was so incensed by U.S. foreign policy or so ardent in his insistence on achieving racial equality sooner rather than later. 

    In fact, you will learn a great deal about Buckley by reading the text of a speech he gave shortly after King’s death. It is, supposedly, a reflection on King, but have a look through it (I do not ask you to read it all) and see if you find it appropriate for the occasion: 

William Butler Yeats, the Hollandaise Sauce at Maxim’s, Conrad on the sea, the relationship of columnist and editor, mutatis mutandis, the journalistic tendency to think ill of America, the discomposure of the saints: it is chock-full of signals that Buckley is well-read and well-off, but what it is about? Certainly not Martin Luther King, about whom he has virtually nothing to say. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to reassure Americans that they should not feel guilty over King’s death, calling any white person who says it makes them feel shame and loathing of their own race “genocidal.” The lesson Buckley draws—again, mere days after King’s killing—is that America should give itself a big pat on the back for publicly grieving King to begin with, and we should use the moment to “profess our continuing faith in this country.” 

    One might be tempted to excuse all the rambling about editors and columnists by the fact that this was an address to a society of columnists. But, again, supposedly these are reflections on the assassination of Martin Luther King. Does Buckley talk at all about the role of columnists during the civil rights movement? (Including perhaps trying to make amends for his own column encouraging segregationists to keep up the fight.) Does he even touch on Martin Luther King’s values, except to use them to chastise anyone who feels his death indicts the country as a whole? Does he say a word about civil rights or racism? I present this speech to you as a clear exhibit of eloquent idiocy, although even “eloquent” is high praise for a speech that doesn’t even touch on its ostensible subject until four pages in. The death of King was one of the most significant events of Buckley’s lifetime, and what did the Greatest Of 20th Century Conservative Intellectuals have to say about the matter? Nothing of any substance whatsoever, except “I love America,” which tells you all you need to know about the depth of moral seriousness to be found on the right. 

    In fact, I have been generous to Buckley, by showing you only the lengthy speech he gave “about” King after he had had some time to reflect. Buckley’s first reaction, in a column penned just a few days after the assassination, was to suggest that King might partly be to blame for his own assassination:

Dr. King’s flouting of the law does not justify  the flouting by others of the law, but it is a terrifying thought that, most likely, the cretin who leveled the rifle at the head of Martin Luther King, may have absorbed the talk, so freely available, about the supremacy of the individual conscience, such talk as Martin Luther King, God rest his troubled soul, had so widely, and so indiscriminately, engaged in. 

    It is not worth going through every issue on which William F. Buckley had a horrible opinion, since it was most of them. Chris Orlet documents at length his public support for the Pinochet regime and the Apartheid government in South Africa, and some of his more offensive remarks on the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis. On the latter, Buckley proposed in a 1986 New York Times op-ed that every person with AIDS should be forcibly tattooed on the forearm and the buttocks. He abandoned the proposal under protest, suggesting that people were being unreasonable by complaining, but then revived it in 2005, writing that he had been “treated as though he had been schooled in Buchenwald, and the idea was not widely considered, but maybe it is up now for reconsideration.”

On Vietnam, Buckley pondered why the United States, which was already responsible for millions of deaths, didn’t go further and use nuclear weapons. 

[W]are not permitted to talk about the use of tactical nuclear weapons… The time to introduce the use of tactical nuclear arms was a long time ago.. The use of limited atomic bombs for purely military operations is many times easier to defend on the morality scale than one slit throat of a civilian for terrorism’s sake; and yet, incredibly, the Vietcong seem to win all the propaganda victories, and the moralizers’ inveighing is against us, not against them. 

After the My Lai massacre happened, Buckley produced a column wondering how it could possibly be that good American boys had done such a thing. He considered, but discounted, the possibility that the indiscriminate killing inherent in the Vietnam War itself had something to do with it. Instead he—incredibly—blamed egalitarianism and Berkeley: 

The twenty-year-old who, under the press of circumstances, can easily murder, after only a few months in uniform, is most likely a twenty-year-old whose ethical equilibrium was unbalanced well before he came to Vietnam. Unbalanced by a society which in quite other contexts we all have been criticizing over the years. A society deprived of the strength of religious sanctions, a society hugely devoted to hedonism, to permissive egalitarianism, to irresponsibility, to an indifference to authority and the law. Such a society as-dare we say it?—produced the kids who are attracted to the iconoclast of the day. I would contend that a better explanation for what happened, according to this analysis, is—not Vietnam but, to reach for a symbol—Berkeley. 

In fact, as I have written about at length before, Vietnam draftees were specifically encouraged to view the Vietnamese as subhuman “g**ks” whose lives did not matter. It was exactly the opposite of egalitarianism, which stresses that no person is more important than any other. The United States military viewed its own soldiers as being vastly more valuable than the peasants of rural Vietnam, and therefore reasoned that it was justified to kill many Vietnamese civilians if it saved the life of one American soldier. 

There is nothing “intellectual” about these opinions of Buckley’s. He doesn’t provide any evidence to support his claim that Berkeley led to My Lai. “Intellectuals” are supposed to think through their arguments, but his opinions on race and Vietnam showed that he was incapable of understanding the other side’s argument or thinking through the issues in a serious way. 

Buckley was considered an intellectual in part because he was erudite, and he was considered erudite in part because he used big words, had gone to Yale, and was quick with a retort. But he was clearly a pundit rather than a political philosopher. Look, for instance, at how he wrote about the Republican Party’s failure to embrace a radical “free market” agenda: 

To begin with, I see the issue primarily as one of freedom or non-freedom. To the extent that a fraction of the individual’s time, which we will for convenience equate with his earnings, is a priori mortgaged to the government and against his will, then he is to that same extent not free. Since there is no money except the individual’s money, and since his money represents his labor or his savings or the product of his tools, the assessment of that money by the State represents a direct levy on that individual’s freedom. If it is true, as the liberals would have it, that the Republican Party could not evoke any support for a program that calls for extracting from the individual only that money necessary to carry on the minimum functions of government loosely, defense, courts, and conservation, then it must follow that the American people no longer value maximum individual freedom. 

This looks like “logic” (“a priori,” “it must follow”) but it’s not actually any more intellectually serious than the content of a screed by Sean Hannity or Ben Shapiro. Buckley argues that by necessity, anyone who does not believe that the government should be shrunk to the minimum size possible does not believe in maximizing freedom, because taxes are a “levy on freedom.” This an extremely simple and satisfying way to look at freedom, until we consider the implications, namely that a person who is working 80 hours a week at backbreaking work, with no free time, but who earns so little that they pay no taxes, is “free,” while a billionaire who pays a fraction of their income in taxes is having their freedom encroached upon. The libertarian capitalist vision of freedom simply doesn’t work in practice, because it means that situations that look extremely “un-free” are defined as free, while people who can do virtually anything they want are not free. (For more, see Rob Larson’s excellent Capitalism v. Freedom.) Buckley, like other pundits, simply acts as if the serious and compelling criticisms of his position do not exist.

 It is fair to say that Buckley was a TV intellectual rather than a writer, though he wrote prolifically. The books have mostly dated bady and are little-read today. God and Man at Yale, written when he was 26, made his name, and invented the whole “colleges are being ruined by relativists” genre. (Variations on the same book have been rewritten over and over again for decades: Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind). All accepted the basic picture of the university forged by Buckley, which is that it is a place where leftist professors are waging a war on Traditional Values. But Buckley’s book is a long analysis of Yale specifically in the late 1940s and early 50s, scrupulously parsing the public writing of its professors, analyzing columns in the Yale Daily News and Yale Alumni magazine, looking at the bylaws of the Yale Corporation, to show that the university has become stuffed with “those who seek to subvert religion and individualism.” Buckley’s evidence for this is sometimes comical. In attempting to prove that the university has been taken over by “collectivists,” he cites the syllabus of a lecture course in American Studies: 

Lectures and readings on religious, social, political, and constitutional thought. Folk literatures and music of the frontier and the importance of American thought to the rise of science are considered. 

Innocuous, you might think. But no: Buckley says that the description is “accurate” in conveying the course contents “but in no way does it attempt to persuade the student to line up on one side or the other of the collectivist issue.” Instead of folk literatures and music of the frontier, the professor should have been instructing on the virtues of free-market capitalism. Buckley also combs through the scholarship of each member of the Economics Department to prove that each is a Keynesian. Today, the whole thing looks tiresome and paranoid. 

Buckley mastered the performance of knowledge. He released a book of all the words he knew that other people didn’t, and said things like “digression is your synonym for confutation.” Even directions to his Connecticut home instructed visitors to  “turn left on debouching from I-95.” (A love of using obscure words as a sign of superior knowledge survives in intellectual conservatism to this day; witness Dinesh D’Souza calling Obama a “faineant.”) But Buckley’s “erudition,” dropping Latinate phrases and words most people would need to look up, did not actually make him a good writer or speaker, which is one reason that no Buckley book or essay has attained classic status. (His potboiler novels about a Yalie-turned-CIA man called Blackford Oakes are apparently quite good, though.) Witness a snippet of the Buckley style: 

“The non-combativeness of Bush in terms of the matter of congressional extravagance is an aspect of acquiescence of a political figure utterly engrossed in the Iraq business. Yes, the kind of consolidation of a thoughtful conservatism that might have happened if he’d lost isn’t going to happen on account of his winning.”

That first means: Bush is so engrossed in the Iraq business that he has acquiesced to extravagant congressional acts he should have combated. I don’t think anyone can justify his use of “in terms of the matter of.” But the Buckley rule of writing and speaking is “never use a short word when a long one can be found.” It is a very easy way to remind people you went to college.


The best thing Buckley put out was his long-running television show Firing Line, which hosted some of the most interesting conversations of its time. Buckley was willing to have on leftists, and guests included such figures as Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Jesse Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Saul Alinsky, and Norman Thomas. Now, it is often said that Buckley’s willingness to engage with the other side was “to his credit,” but that may only be partly true. In the 1960s, the contemporary conservative movement had only just been born, and any lively discussion of the issues of the time—from racial justice to Vietnam—required engaging with radicals, because radicals were ascendant. From the mid-70s to the 90s, as his movement grew, Buckley began talking more and more to other conservatives, and Heather Hendershot concedes in her admiring book on Firing Line that the show gradually “became less compelling.” Where once one saw Buckley tangling with the chairman of the Black Panther Party, one would instead see him “debat[ing] right-wing economist Milton Friedman on how to best make American youngsters feel a stronger sense of gratitude toward their country.” Still, the Firing Line archives are fascinating to dip into, and Buckley did give leftists a chance to speak at length on television, something even MSNBC won’t do. He even let them get some good lines in. Witness this exchange between Buckley and Black socialist Paul Boutelle

BUCKLEY:

Put it this way, Mr. Boutelle. I’m sure if I ran for office in Mississippi I’d have more Negroes voting for me than for you. How many votes did you get last time you ran?

BOUTELLE:

I’m sure of one thing, if you went down to Mississippi and told black people they were free, you would be running, and it wouldn’t be for office.


We should not mistake Firing Line for serious discourse, though. Buckley was putting on a show, and he was not so much concerned with getting to the root of an issue as with having a verbal tennis match. A serious thinker could dispose of him rather quickly, as Noam Chomsky proved in a 1969 appearance. The exchange is worth watching in its entirety, although it is frustrating. Here is a representative excerpt, in which Buckley says that the U.S.’s motives for invading Vietnam were “disinterested” and Chomsky points out that every single aggressor convinces themselves that they have noble motives:

WFB:

And what brought us to South Vietnam in the first instance, in my judgment was clearly an uninterested, or I should say disinterested concern for the stability and possibilities of a region of the world…

NC:

What period do you feel that we had this disinterested relationship with Vietnam?

WFB:

Well right now!

NC:

No, at what period did we have it – did it begin, let’s say? 1951 for example, when the State Department Bulletin points out that we must help the French re-conquer their former colony and we must eradicate all Vietnamese resistance down to its last roots in order to re-establish the French in power – was that disinterested…

WFB:

Well, I personally wish—to increase my vulnerability—I wish we had helped the French.

NC:

We did. We supported…

WFB:

Well not sufficiently, not sufficiently. There’s no point in helping somebody insufficiently…

NC:

But it was hardly disinterested when we attempted, you know, with tremendous support in fact to reinstate French imperialism in South Vietnam.

WFB:

It was disinterested in this sense, and I think this is an important distinction which you do touch on in your book—it’s a disinterested act if my attempt to help, or your attempt to help a particular nation is in order to spare you the possibility of a great ordeal in the future, which will harm you, your family, your children…

NC:

In that sense, Nazi Germany was also disinterested. Because after all, Nazi Germany was conquering Eastern Europe only in order to advance the values of Christian spiritual civilisation, and to restore the Slavs to their rightful home and so on and so forth…

WFB:

Look, I follow you, I follow you. But if you want me to pursue that digression I will, but let’s suspend it for a moment. I’m distinguishing that kind of disinterestedness with the kind…

NC:

But that’s not a kind of disinterestedness. You see, that’s something which includes as a special case every case of military aggression and colonialism in history. It’s all disinterested in your sense.

WFB:

Well, alright, let me simply rest my case by saying that there is an observable distinction by intelligent men between a country that reaches out and interferes with the affairs of another country because it has reason to believe that a failure to do so will result in universal misery, and that country which reaches out and interferes with another country because it wants to establish Coca-Cola plants there, and Chase National Banks, and whatever, and exploit it. Now, that is an observable…

NC:

It is a conceptual… well, let’s distinguish between a conceptual distinction and a factual distinction…

WFB:

OK. I’m prepared to do that…

NC:

Alright. It is a conceptual distinction, but in actual fact the history of colonialism shows that these two motivations coincide. That is, practically every – I mean, there are exceptions, you know, probably the Belgians in the Congo are an exception – but by and large, the major imperialist ventures have been in the economic, in the material interest – or in the perceived material interests of…

WFB:

Yeah, I’m not interested in the mathematics of… I’m interested…

NC:

Let me finish…

WFB:

You have already conceded that it is not merely a conceptual difference…

NC:

I say it is a conceptual difference…

WFB:

…because you say that there are exceptions…

NC:

There are a few exceptions…

WFB:

Alright – OK, OK, well, let’s talk about the exceptions then.

NC:

Well no, but the exceptions are at the difference… no, wait a minute. The exceptions – I mentioned for example the Belgians in the Congo. There, they didn’t even pretend to have a civilising mission. There, it was pure material self-interest. These are the exceptions. There are, as far as I know, no exceptions on the other side. I mean, maybe I’ve left out a case of history, but as I see the history of colonialism, the great mass of cases are cases where a powerful country was working in its perceived material self-interest, and was covering what it was doing, to itself and to the world, with very pleasant phrases about preserving Christian values, or helping the poor benighted natives, or one thing or another. 

Chomsky ensnares Buckley in a delightful trap here. Buckley insists that invasions can be for disinterested reasons, purely because one country cares about the well-being of another country. Chomsky replies that this never, in fact, happens, that while we can imagine it happening conceptually, as a matter of historical fact, what happens is that the invading power covers its self-interest with rationalizations and pleasant phrases, though Chomsky concedes that there are one or two exceptions. Buckley, excited, thinks he’s found an opportunity to set aside all the cases of self-interest covered with pleasant phrases, and instead focus on the exceptions. But Chomsky informs him that the exceptions are just cases where they don’t even bother to use the pleasant phrases or pretend that their conquest is in the natives’ self-interest, such as the Belgians in the Congo.

Obviously, I take immense pleasure in watching Noam Chomsky thrash Buckley on his own television show. (I also enjoy the withering comment Chomsky gave after Buckley’s death.  Asked what he thought of Buckley, Chomsky said that he didn’t really think of him at all: “He was considered—not by me—to be witty, articulate, knowledgeable, and so on… [He was] much respected—again, not by me, but I’m giving the general impression.”) But I think it’s also quite clear that one learns very little about the Vietnam War from this exasperating exchange, since Buckley is more interested in litigating the conceptual question of disinterestedness than understanding the grievances were fueling Vietnamese resistance to American military action. Trained in the Yale Political Union, Buckley enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate but had no sense of the underlying human stakes to politics. It was all tremendous fun, as one can see in his two books of diaries about his life as a magazine editor and television host, Cruising Speed and Overdrive, which portray Buckley running from meal to meal and speech to speech, a happy warrior for the conservative cause but completely morally shallow.


Buckley would have been horrified by Donald Trump, and would have been one of the loudest voices among the “Never Trump” Republicans. I believe we can say this for certain, because Buckley was devoted above all to making conservatism respectable. At the time he came on the scene in the 50s, there was still a post-Roosevelt consensus that the job of the government was to sort out problems, and the “drown it in the bathtub” types were considered cranks. “When William F. Buckley burst onto the national scene in 1955, conservatism was a dead letter in American politics,” concluded NPR. There is a strong argument made that through his columns, speeches, and television appearances, he was the person most responsible for changing this. Biographer Alvin Felzenberg concluded that “the role Buckley played in advancing [Ronald] Reagan’s career… cannot be overstated.” He was Reagan’s “most trusted adviser outside his official family.” Buckley is also credited with “producing the mix of ideas we recognize today as conservatism: free-market capitalism, support for American military actions, libertarianism and social conservatism.” He has been called “the major conservative public intellectual of the postwar years,” and that is probably right. 

    But if Buckley is the major conservative intellectual, we can judge conservative intellectualism by him. The verdict is not a favorable one. Buckley was prejudiced and ignorant, and passed off monstrous ideas such as nuking the Vietnamese and tattooing AIDS sufferers as Thoughtful Discourse. He was a racist, and only became less racist as racism became unacceptable. But he did not stop issuing grotesque opinions even into this century, and in 2005 was defending President Bush’s record on Katrina, suggesting that if residents had wanted protection they shouldn’t have lived in the city. ( “The critics have not yet charged that movement away from New Orleans was prohibited by George W. Bush.”) 

Buckley is seen as a representative of a time when people had serious and thoughtful conversations about politics on television. Hendershot’s Firing Line book contrasts the show with The McLaughlin Group, which came after it, with its “barking, squawking, ideologically split pundits.” “Even if you are opposed to [the conservative] movement, it is right to praise [Buckley] for his thoughtful televisual interactions with liberals,” says Hendershot. Indeed, Firing Line was a more intellectually nourishing program than anything on Fox, and the liberals got a chance to talk. But all we can really say for Buckley is that he was better than what came after him. 

But then again, was he? He has been praised for “polic[ing] the boundaries of conservatism, casting out extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites, and racists,” and Feltzenberg says he wishes the Republican Party had a “Buckley figure to purge these ‘kooks.’” What Buckley actually did, though, was cover the same extremist opinions with the thinnest patina of intellectual seriousness, thereby making them less obviously “kooky.” Whether in his support for McCarthy, the Vietnam invasion, the segregated South, the police who beat the protesters at Selma, or his belief that the poor were parasites and the universities were crawling with secularist collectivists—all Buckley added to the politics of the John Birch Society was a few witty retorts and the phrase mutatis mutandis. It is very dangerous to think that this is a “better” conservatism, because it wasn’t. It was a less honest conservatism, because Buckley would only let the slurs come out if you really got him riled up. But there was no moderation in policy, only in tone. We need to beware of this, especially now, because we can see that there are those who wish Donald Trump would disappear in favor of a more genteel, Buckleyesque right wing. This is just a more insidious right wing, however, and nostalgia for Buckley, Bush, and Reagan is deeply misplaced. 

William F. Buckley bequeathed the right the ability to disguise cheap, fallacious talking points as reasonable arguments. He is best remembered as the creator of contemporary pseudo-intellectualism. His model is not one we should wish to see revived. 

Trump’s Corrosive Values Will Spread

On September 3rd, 2020, the Atlantic ran a story entitled “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’.” For once, they did not bury the lede. The article alleged that the real reason Trump had ducked out of visiting the war dead while on state visit to France was because the fallen soldiers were “suckers.” It also claimed that the President had wanted to exclude wounded veterans from military parades because “nobody wants to see that.” In a conversation with staff on the day he was supposed to visit the memorial, Trump allegedly said“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” 

  My first reaction to these revelations was “Could it possibly be true?” After nearly four years of Trump’s occupancy in the White House, the press has lobbed so many hyperbolic attacks on the narcissistic chief executive that it’s fair to question whether the latest media hysteria will turn out to be a fevered exaggeration along the lines of the worst excesses of the media’s Russia obsession. The statements Trump is supposed to have made are so over-the-top cruel and absurd that they seem like the sort of thing nobody would ever actually say.

But Trump has already made comments expressing the same general sentiments, on the record. He repeatedly mocked the late John McCain for being tortured as a prisoner of war, suggesting that McCain was a loser for being captured. (“I like people who weren’t captured.”) Trump has a history of hideously insensitive comments and this apparently thoroughly substantiated story does seem to add up. Nobody seemed especially surprised. 

My second reaction, I will admit, was to laugh. Trump is funny, and there is something undeniably refreshing about dismissing the whole enterprise of war and saying people who die in them are “suckers.” Suck on it, losers. It’s horrible, but horrible in a “shock comedy” way; can you believe he…? Trump’s willingness to thumb his nose at every self-serious person and convention—even in the crudest and most tasteless ways—is perhaps his greatest political asset. We love people who make us laugh, and Trump makes Americans laugh.  Unfortunately, he wields real power as President and routinely uses that power to inflict suffering on others. And all of a sudden we’re no longer laughing.

With so many morally monstrous characters strutting about, it’s hard to take the one hundred thousandth declaration of Mr. Trump’s supposed singular moral horror very seriously. This is especially true considering who is usually making the charges. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic and the author of the “suckers and losers” report, was “one of the leading media cheerleaders for the attack on Iraq,” loudly trumpeting falsehoods–including the outrageous claim that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda–used to justify the invasion and destruction of that nation. Goldberg was rewarded for his criminal journalistic malpractice with lavish enticements to join the Atlantic which reportedly included gifts of ponies for Goldberg’s children. The former Israeli prison guard, who even conservative hawk Andrew Sullivan has mocked as a mouthpiece for Bibi Netanyahu, has since continued to serve as flatterer-in-chief for the violent imperial urges of the day, and as court scribe writing with grandiosity about the “Obama Doctrine.” How are we to receive Jeffrey Goldberg’s moralizing tone about respect for the war dead when he himself played a key role in condemning thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians to their deaths? 

But the fact that Trump’s critics are such nauseating sanctimonious hypocrites can keep us from appreciating just how deeply and disturbingly vile Trump actually is. There is endless caterwauling and hyperventilating about Trump by corporate media liberals and barely reconstructed neoconservatives, but much of it misses Trump’s actual serious crimes. While the media excoriated Trump for supposedly damaging the U.S. alliance with Canada and Germany, his government curtailed labor rights and transferred enormous sums to the hyper-wealthy. As the press fretted over misspelled and outrageous tweets, the Trump administration expanded the U.S. role in the murderous bombing of Yemen. The media has told us that we should hate Trump because he is a puppet of Vladimir Putin, not because he is doing everything in his power to burn the planet and render entire nations uninhabitable by deliberately accelerating climate change. The outrage machine has whirred on such a high setting that it has distracted many from the most potent reasons to oppose him.

Although the press and the nation as a whole have spent so much time over the past four years agonizing about what terrible moral example Trump sets (Think of the children!), the dominant interpretation has danced around what is actually dangerous about Trumpian morality. Trump isn’t some historical deviation forced upon us by malevolent foreign actors. Trump’s values are the most base and vulgar articulation of the logic of the “American system” itself: “grab what you can get and fuck everybody else”. Trump has a kind of atheistic cosmology of meritocracy: the law of the universe is that good things happen to “winners” and pain and suffering happen to people who are “losers”. Women are good if they are attractive with big breasts, but can be discarded if they’re fat or old. Men are “winners” if they’re rich and powerful, but “suckers” if they’re disabled or injured or ever admit they might have been wrong. If I had been a fighter pilot, I never would have been shot down in the first place. (But I was smart enough to buy a medical deferment unlike that sucker McCain.)

This moral perspective is the cartoonishly juvenile thinking of an eleven year old boy bullying his peers. But the fact so many eleven year old boys end up sounding like sociopathic egomaniacs isn’t an accident–those children have absorbed fundamental values reflected in our society. It’s this fact—that Trumpism emerges from the mainline of American economic and political traditions—that MSNBC liberals find to be so unutterable. To admit it would force an examination and repudiation of every precursor to Trump—Obama’s cruelty towards immigrants and endless wars abroad, Bush’s massive tax cuts and shameful use of torture, Bill Clinton’s narcissism and opportunistic racism, the hair-dyed and makeup-caked Ronald Reagan’s explicit racism and clichéd lines (which Trump then stole nearly verbatim).

Trump’s worldview allows for the unapologetic declaration of capitalist interests as correct, no longer constrained by the pretense that human life or human dignity have value. There are implications of carrying this pure Social Darwinism through to its conclusions. If a billion people die as a result of Trump’s policy, they are losers by definition. There is something undeniably fascist about the underlying ethic: strength is virtue, weakness is pathetic. It is no wonder Trump wants to eliminate any and all emissions standards, as well as protections on endangered wildlife. Nature is to be conquered and destroyed, not preserved. There is a common thread running through Trump’s indifference to Covid deaths, escalation of nuclear arms production, rollback of environmental regulations, use of office for self-enrichment, shameless lies, cuts to Medicaid, war on immigrants, and empowerment of cops. It is not any loyalty to “the free market.” It is a belief the powerful deserve to get more powerful and can do whatever they want to achieve that power. There are no rules they are bound by. The powerless, on the other hand, are losers who deserve nothing. 

Trump’s elevation of raw selfishness to a political creed makes him more forthright than many previous politicians. Where past leaders have made noises about “democracy’ or “human rights,” Trump declares the U.S.’ right to seize Iraq’s oil and keep the profits because “to the victor belong the spoils.” Just as fallen soldiers are “losers” and “suckers,” so too are nations who have been victims of history. Hence Haiti and formerly colonized nations are “shithole countries,” countries that we can bully or exploit without compunction. While both parties have delayed or downplayed the seriousness of climate change, Trump can simply declare climate change is a “hoax” and that “windmills cause cancer.” Conservative governments in the UK made a show of taking action on climate, but Trump’s Republicans are now free to simply accelerate towards the precipice. 

The administration’s gleeful climate arson and ‘let the weak perish’ coronavirus response in particular signal that their worldview is even darker than self-interest alone. It is outright suicidal. They are willing to cook the planet that they live on, spread a virus which infects them as well. While other ruling class factions may see some restraint to be in their self interest, Trump’s apparent belief that reality can be ignored, and a lie becomes truth if you only you say it enough, reinforces the most self-destructive drives already present in our economic system just as we approach the last turnoff before total climate and ecological disaster.

The Republican party’s now near-total embrace of Trump has made his worldview the explicit morality of the party. If he is re-elected, it will become much harder to argue that his worldview does not represent the nation. This is dangerous not just for how it makes us feel, but because it is likely to have a serious impact on policy and the course of global events. 

The prospect of Trump’s re-election in November is so alarming in part because of its power to reshape what all of us believe or expect others to believe. Trump’s worldview reinforces every psychopathic assumption of capitalism while undermining values of human solidarity. With Trump in office, every petty tyrant, every bad boss or landlord, every sexual harasser has felt empowered and vindicated in their worst urges. Trump stands at the head of the nation and says to them all: “It’s okay to give into your worst instincts. I’m behind you.” Whether it’s grabbing women by the genitals or stealing from your own employees, Trump sets the tone: do what you want, what matters is what you can get away with, the rules are all fake, morality is a sham. Why shouldn’t an employer just decline to pay people for their work? Trump is living proof that you can do that over and over and still be supported by millions and become the president of the United States. His reelection will only further prove that in this country, hurting other people is rewarded, not punished. Those inclined toward cruelty and exploitation will take note.

So begins a process of moral decay. Each of us began to question if so many other humans even have empathy or if maybe everyone is just out for themselves. Your liberal-leaning family members began excusing even the most vile behavior with the facile “well it’s still better than Trump.” Katha Pollitt of the Nation said she’d vote for Joe Biden even if he “boiled babies and ate them,” because Trump has moved the standards for what is acceptable so far, so fast. The echoes of Trump’s election helped bring like-minded dim-witted fascist Jair Bolsonaro to power in Brazil, gave ample cover for the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to proceed apace with a program of mass extrajudicial killings, for Viktor Orbán to attack minorities and political opponents in Hungary. Trump’s re-election would serve as proof that those regimes too will persist, that the abusive boss will triumph over the worker.

I am particularly concerned about the potential impacts that a vindication of Trumpism may have on organizing. While there has been an upsurge of activism under Trump, that activism has been primarily defensive—delaying the implementation of the Muslim ban, defeating the adminstration’s repeal of Obamacare, keeping DACA alive or the government open, teachers’ clawing back a 5% raise and keeping their healthcare. Going on the offensive to demand changes we want to see has been almost entirely unthinkable. Even in the brightest spot of Trump-era activism, the demand to defund the police, the focus has largely been on liberal controlled municipalities where victory is at least conceivable. And while the Left has grown substantially, this has been achieved primarily through the opening created by the Sanders campaigns’ successful rupture of liberal intellectual hegemony and disaffection with the Obama era among the younger generations.

So much of organizing is about creating hope of something better, of raising expectations. Collective action is also about forging “solidarity” —meaning getting people invested in the wellbeing of others to fight for their benefit as well as their own. In labor organizing, we work hard to build this solidarity. I remember the look on the face of a non-union catering chef when he discovered visiting the house of a lead cook who worked at his side for 16 years that she made only half what he made. Or the pity he felt visiting the flimsy trailer where another co-worker lived with his family in poverty conditions. After those visits, his relationship to the unionization campaign changed. When you’re asking someone to put their livelihood on the line, the “material conditions” aren’t enough—you need compassion and human connection. If Trump is good at anything, he excels at making us feel that the world is out of control and that such things as “improvements” or “making things better” are hopelessly out of reach. If Trump symbolizes anything, it is extreme selfishness and individualism (does anyone believe he even loves his own wife?). Trump is the antithesis of hope and solidarity made flesh. Demoralized on the one hand, and facing greater state repression on the other, how much harder could bringing people together to fight side by side become?

While the first Trump term was filled with instability and contestation for the President—his net approval ratings dropped as low as -20% during the failed healthcare repeal push—a second Trump term could be much darker. Re-election will bring vindication for the crass “might makes right” ethos in the eyes of many. The risk is real that another unexpected electoral triumph by the right will produce more despair than outrage, inducing working people to capitulate to the go-it-alone individualist ethos and abandon hope in solidarity and collective action. Resistance may seem futile. For all the predictions of accelerationists, the history of authoritarian consolidation has more often seen the left extinguished than rise up leading revolution. A new government under the weak and uninspiring leadership of Joe Biden, on the other hand, creates an opening, a political vacuum in which progressive and left movements may seize the initiative if we can muster the force and focus to do so.

It is not just Americans on the left who respond to all this by saying “but the Democrats are the same.” Many who will vote for Trump do so under the same logic. It is undeniable that on the issues of war, and deference to the interests of corporations and the wealthy, Biden is nearly as bad as Trump and the Republicans, just with a goofy smile. But as Nathan Robinson has persuasively argued in this magazine, the differences between the two possible administrations remain significant both in terms of impacts on human suffering and in prospects for the continued growth and organizing of the left. Biden and the Democrats are hypocrites who are bound to betray their high-minded progressive rhetoric. But as the author and essayist Arundhati Roy has explained, hypocrisy has its benefits: 

“There is something to be said for hypocrisy, you know, for doing things by night, because there’s a little bit of tentativeness there; there isn’t this sureness of, you know, ‘We want the Hindu nation, and we want the rule of the corporations,’ and so on”. 

Such an insight applies as well to the U.S. context as it does to Indian politics. Hypocrisy presents organizing opportunities. It is far scarier when even the pretense of a standard is abandoned. No explanation or justification for anything has to be given. Hypocrisy, by at least affirming the existence of some kind of code of values, gives us something to point to, and sometimes a rallying point from which to push back against the worst abuses. It is impossible to argue against someone whose “philosophy” is that they are going to destroy you by any means necessary and do whatever they please no matter what the consequences are. 

The problem with Trump’s controversial comments is not that they violate the “norms” of polite society. Politeness is overrated. The problem is that they serve to justify horrific actions and reactionary policy carried about by his office and countless others who wield power. They send a nihilistic message that will reverberate around the country, telling people they no longer need to care about anyone else. That is chilling, because the President sits atop incredibly powerful bureaucracies and systems of authority which he incites daily to greater brutality while promising impunity for abuses yet unnamed. Whether we like it or not, and I certainly do not, the perceived values of a national leader can have profound impacts on the culture and sense of the possible of an entire society. This election represents the last real chance to deliver a decisive rebuke to the worldview Trump represents. For that reason alone, every person who still believes in decency and human solidarity should wish to see him defeated.

Against Prevailing Winds

It’s early October 1930. Rain thunders down on open umbrellas. Strong winds and ever-increasing gusts send autumn leaves tearing through the air as waves crash on rocky shores. Through the deafening rain, a gentle hum arises, getting louder and louder until it becomes a steady drone, and finally the roar of huge engines passing overhead. Travelers stop and look up, and through the rain and dimly lit sky they see a silver behemoth, gliding slowly through the storm as if the wind and rain are, if anything, a mere inconvenience. The flying giant pushes against the headwind, not without effort, but within minutes it’s passed, the roar reduced to a faint murmur as it fades into the darkness over the English Channel. 

Should you, by some strange fortune, find yourself catapulted back to such a dismal evening to see this strange sight, you would be one of the final witnesses to Britain’s last airship, the R.101. The grace and strength that the airship seemed to possess that night would prove to be an illusion. In reality, the ship’s crew struggled the whole time to keep it level and flying through the gale. The R.101 carried on until shortly after 2:00 a.m. on the morning of October 5th, 1930, when it crashed on a French hillside, exploding and killing all but six people onboard. From that fateful night began a decade of airship disasters that would culminate in the Hindenburg

The question that naturally arises is simple: why did the airship crash? What brought the R.101 down on her maiden voyage from Britain to India? A court of inquiry held afterward      suggested that the combination of high winds and a fault in the airship’s outer canvas cover created a long tear in the ship, which forced the R.101 into a sudden dive from which it could not recover. The subsequent sudden contact with the ground broke a water ballast pipe in the control car, spraying water onto phosphorus navigation flares which ignited, and with them the hydrogen lifting gas.

This is, in a very literal sense, what brought down the R.101, but it’s not what actually caused the airship to crash. The disaster was not solely due to some technical fault, or the predictable result of a large, hydrogen-filled, lighter-than-air vessel losing control in the middle of an autumn storm. It was, in fact, the culmination of over ten years of political compromise, ignorance of facts, and the weaponization of the entire project—both literally and figuratively—by Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties. It was the result of acquiescence to the pressure to do something quick and dangerous in the hopes of a modicum of success. And, as the government-designed R.101 came to be nicknamed “the Socialist airship” (and its privately-designed rival R.100 “the Capitalist airship”) the R.101 came to serve in the 1920s as a referendum on the perceived viability of British socialism itself. It was felt that if the airship could rise to the occasion, so to speak, then it was proof that socialist principles could succeed; and if it crashed, then socialism would invariably do the same.


The Imperial Airship Scheme, of which the R.101 would be the ultimate product, began as an attempt to physically link the spreading, bloated British Empire. In an era where steamships couldn’t reach the farthest corners of the empire fast enough, and airplanes couldn’t yet reliably cover any significant distance, the airship concept filled a specific niche allowing for relatively rapid transit from the London metropole to Egypt, India, Australia, and every other conceivable colony, protectorate, or commonwealth. With the benefit of hindsight, it may seem clear that having a large quantity of flammable hydrogen floating perilously above passengers’ heads as a means of transporting them a mile above the earth was maybe not the smartest idea in the world, but it’s important to remember that this was ground-breaking technology for the time and place. The ability to fly commercially to North America was unprecedented, and the Imperial Airship Scheme’s ultimate goal of flights to Australia was revolutionary. In spite of our current sentiments on the merits of lighter-than-air travel, in the 1920s the airship appeared to be an untapped source of industry, profit, job creation, and a means toward increased globalization. 

It was within this framework that Britain’s first Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald began experimenting with military airships shortly after the First World War. The emphasis on “military” cannot be stressed enough: these airships were not meant to carry passengers. They were built to reach the extremes of humanity’s flying capabilities in speed, altitude, and bomb-carrying capacity—and yet, they resulted in a series of light, fragile, delicate objects. During a training exercise, the R.38 cracked in half and exploded mid-air because the captain tried turning the ship a little too rapidly and a little too sharply.

Photo via Getty Images.

After this devastating 1921 event, the founding principles of the Imperial Airship Scheme became focused on building something vastly more solid and capable. Yet between 1921 and 1924, testing continued on outdated and rotting airships. Before work on new development and construction could really proceed, Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government gave way to Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Party. 

This transition caused enormous setbacks. The original testing fleet of five (already dilapidated) airships had dwindled to two largely experimental ones; the R.36 (a failed and forgotten first attempt at a British passenger airship), and the R.80 (a small and unique design whose characteristics would be emulated in World War II bombers). The facilities required to construct, house, and maintain newer models had not been built. Even the new experimental airship designs themselves were still in the most preliminary stages of planning, with no significant work done on any of their component pieces. From this chaos, these new iterations of airship development were eventually granted names: the R.100 and the R.101. 

These ships were intended to be the most advanced flying objects ever built, each reflective of different aspects of aeronautical engineering. The R.100 was designed with traditional, proven, conservative elements, while the R.101 was, from the outset, a testbed for all possible forms of innovation in flight control and passenger comfort. Reflecting these varying approaches to development, the design processes for both ships were assigned to two different groups respectively: a private engineering firm for the R.100, and a specially created government airship organization for the R.101. This was, again, the source of their popular nicknames: the Capitalist and Socialist airships respectively. Since the creation of a fleet of airships to encircle the globe had initially been the project of the Labour Secretary of State for Air, Christopher Thomson (and he was the only member of Parliament for whom it was ever a top priority), it was always considered a Labour Party project, and any failures were naturally set upon by the Conservatives. Likewise, the successes—few though they were—and (more importantly) the promise of successes were often thrown in the faces of Conservative critics. 

The stakes were high. Sir Phillip Sassoon, the Conservative Under-Secretary of State for Air under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, in discussing the Government’s commitment to the two-fold scheme of private versus state enterprise, said ironically on the floor of the House of Commons: “In fact, I think if the Government had wanted to demonstrate to the country the superior advantages of Socialism over private enterprise (that is to say, whereby the greatest sum of money is spent with the least possible result), I think they could ​not possibly hit upon a more convincing instance.” 

Construction of what was to become known as R.101 was slated to begin in 1925, with trial flights to India in 1927. But neither the R.101 nor the R.100 would begin construction in 1925, let alone to fly to India in 1927 due to delays in funding, a lack of attention by the Conservative Secretary of State for Air Sir Samuel Hoare, and a generally apathetic approach to the airship concept. In fact, neither would fly until 1929, just in time for the second MacDonald ministry and the return of Christopher Thomson as Labour Secretary of State for Air. 

Facing a program that was approaching its third year over schedule, several million pounds over budget, and potentially symbolic of the success or failure of the entire socialist project, Thomson was pressured to produce results, which is when his fatal errors and devastating compromises began in earnest. Elements of this appear in the parliamentary record. There are questions directed at Lord Thomson seeking information on what the new airships would be used for, whether they were really necessary, or, as one member asked of the R.101 specifically, if  “she would ever fly at all?” Thomson, generally considered unflappable and charismatic, batted away most of these questions, but he had a tendency to do so by making rather impossible rhetorical concessions. The R.101 itself was really intended as an experimental testbed, a functioning proof of concept rather than a commercially viable product. Yet throughout many debates in parliament, the airship’s capabilities evolved from into an actual commercially-operating air liner, a sometimes freighter, an as-needed troop transport, and an occasional aircraft carrier, a commitment that Lord Thomson never detracted from. [1] 

In addition to quelling naysayers on the floor of Parliament, Thomson also sought to use the new airship as a means of swaying skeptical members who felt that the program was a waste of time and resources. But this involved some risky stunts. To appeal to the skeptics, Thomson proposed a scenic airship flight for 100 members of Parliament. Yet the R.101 was so enormously overweight that the first officer found it necessary to remove all unneeded crew, all the ship’s ballast, and all of the parachutes before the ship could even host a sedate dinner for 100 people. Even then, and perhaps rather ironically, the airship was only able to host the dinner event because the high winds of a stormy day kept the ship upright and unable to leave its mooring mast. 

Thomson further endangered the airship when, at his insistence, it took part in an airshow: the RAF Display at the Hendon Airfield north of London. This, in theory, sounds innocent enough. However, feeling the need to create spectacle and prove its capabilities, the order was given for the R.101 to fly as if bowing to the Royal Box at the airfield, and only after emerging dramatically from a cloudbank [2]. It is unclear if this was Thomson’s doing, but the airship’s presence at Hendon rather than being employed in training exercises is certainly his responsibility. Perhaps, you may be thinking, this is still not terribly bad. It should be noted at this point, however, that the dinner with 100 members of Parliament (and the days spent preparing for it), and the airshow (and the days spent practicing for it), all came at the expense of actual, verifiable training flights and proving trials. The R.101’s first officer observed that “all these window dressing stunts and joy rides during the ship’s trials… are quite wrong, but there is no-one in the [Royal Airship Works] executive who has the guts to put their foot down and insist on trials being free of joyriders.” 

After a year of similar stunts, it was finally accepted that R.101, as it was then constituted, could not possibly make it to India. It was far too overweight, in part due to Thomson’s insistence on using the newest technology, such as heavy servo motors, diesel engines, and automatic gas valves [3], whether they were necessary or not. When it was clear that these heavy technologies would make it impossible for the R.101 to make it to India, the ship was dramatically reconstructed to such an extent that, in terms of its flying characteristics, it was an entirely new ship. This ship-of-Theseus R.101 was lengthened, additional hydrogen gas cells were added, the faux-opulent cabins and public spaces were gutted to the most basic necessities, and the ship’s fragile outer cover was worked and reworked into something the builders considered passable. In this new form, the R.101 emerged from its shed on October 1, 1930, and that evening embarked on an intended 24-hour endurance flight which, by some stroke of mathematical genius, lasted less than 17 hours total. As Nevil Shute Norway of the R.100 design team commented of the R.101’s flight, “flying conditions were dead calm and so perfect that it was hardly a trial at all, and in these circumstances nothing in the ship gave trouble but [a burst] oil cooler.” 

The record suggests that the endurance flight may have been cut short to begin prepping the ship for its maiden voyage to India. Lord Thomson exerted a great deal of pressure on the project prior to the ship’s test flight, writing: “So long as R.101 is ready to go to India by the last week in September, this further delay in getting her altered may pass. I must insist on the programme for the Indian flight being adhered to, as I have made my plans accordingly.” In spite of the dangerous, politically-motivated rush, and in spite of the fact that an essentially new ship was pulled from the sheds at Cardington for the trip to India, a Certificate of Airworthiness (which proclaimed that the ship was tested, tried, and ready for any and all flying circumstances) was issued the next day. Three days after emerging from its shed, and two days after its half-attempted endurance flight, the R.101 slipped from its mast in Cardington and set course for India, with Lord Thomson aboard. The rest of the story is well known to us now. 

Photo via Getty Images.

The blame for the failure of the R.101 rests almost entirely with Lord Thomson, who was one of the forty-eight killed in the crash. He was from the beginning wholly unsuited for the job, having no understanding of the basic fundamentals of airship operations, and he was pushy with his status and position. As pilot and historian Robin Higham wrote of Lord Thomson in his work The British Rigid Airship, 1908-1931, “[He] was one of those disastrous political choices, a professional soldier turned radical politician. He added dangerously to his lack of knowledge of aeronautical matters an unbounded enthusiasm for the new technology. His complete failure to comprehend the nature of experimental work led directly to his death in the flaming wreckage of his greatest ambition, R.101’s journey to India.” Thomson, rushing the program along for political ends, failed to respect the expertise of his crew. He failed to accept the limitations of the technology as it existed and wait for more favorable innovations; he failed to put trials and training above popular acceptance; and he failed to ask some questions about the wisdom or appropriateness of Britain having imperial possessions at all, not to mention realms that were so far away it was difficult to reach them safely.     

Whether Lord Thomson personally viewed the success of the R.101 as an analogy for the success of British socialism, or was invested in the project as a means of protecting and furthering his own career, is not known. What we do know is that he loved airships themselves; and airships, however fantastic and unrealistic they may seem to us now, were at the time an elegant and beautiful symbol of the impossible made into reality. Thomson’s efforts gave the R.101 life from a void, but by cutting corners, curtailing trials and testing, and cajoling the crew into a dangerous course of action, Thomson gambled the dream of the Imperial Airship Scheme for the hopes of a half victory, of the ability to say “we did it” when the dream was still physically out of reach. 

Would airship technology have worked if the R.101 had not crashed? Probably not: lighter-than-air travel had always been a dangerous and potentially impossible business. In the years between the initial conception of the airship in 1900 and the fiery death of the R.101, dozens or even hundreds of military airships crashed with significant fatalities, and a dozen or so German passenger airships had crashed with minimal injuries. Germany would end up building the most successful airships, including the Graf Zeppelin, which was the first manmade object to circumnavigate the globe by air. But the Graf Zeppelin seemed to be the only passenger airship to fly without issue, and her passenger trips were curtailed in May of 1937 when the Hindenburg went down in flames over Lakehurst, New Jersey. The Graf Zeppelin and her intended replacement, dubbed the Graf Zeppelin II, served out the remainder of the 1930s as Nazi propaganda machines, with one attempt at airborne espionage very early in the war, before both were hung up, deflated, and scrapped to make airplanes. 

A few other countries tried to use airships. In the United States, airship development was confined to purely military purposes. Two of the three American airships flying in the 1930s crashed in violent storms, and the third—the very small USS Los Angeles—did not exist for long before the American program was scrapped, and the Los Angeles with it. The French and the Italians each operated one airship, both of them former German liners that had been handed over after World War II, and neither of which crashed. 

In Britain, the entire Imperial Airship Scheme was scrapped within a year of the failure of the R.101. This included the “capitalist’ R.100. The loss of the R.101 and the death of the greatest advocate of British airships, Lord Thomson, left no one willing or able to continue the airship program, no matter their political leanings. The “capitalist” R.100 was deflated and scrapped, having only made one flight of any significance, and it has remained in the shadow of its better-remembered counterpart. 

Art by C.M. Duffy.

It would be easy, and even tempting, to regard the R.101 and airships more generally as an embarrassing symbol for the socialist project. The crash of the R.101 is not just the story of a disaster, but the story of an unfortunate end to a concept that could, in theory, have changed the world, but would, in practice, likely never have worked at all. However it’s important to understand why the R.101 failed: not because it was state-made and state-funded, but because it was a project of personal vanity and drive by a single-minded aristocrat who didn’t listen to his crewmen and engineers, and who cared more about innovation as a thing in itself than in everyone’s safety. The ship, along with its passengers and crew, were victims of political ineptness and of the pressure to produce material success at the expense of principle. And furthermore, the whole Imperial Airship Scheme was a tool of empire for the maintenance of empire, as were the short-lived German and American airships. Despite its branding, the R.101 was never a “socialist” airship in any sense we would recognize: just a top-down, failed, rushed, undemocratic imperial government project.

Regardless, after the crash of the R.101, the use of the airship as a rhetorical point of comparison for socialism versus capitalism continued. Yet there were still some, including conservatives, who called for a renewal of government efforts toward building viable airships. One of these was a Mr. Wellwood Johnston, a Conservative MP and member of the Scottish Unionist Party. In a speech in the House of Commons, he said:

 “I proceed on the footing that airships are not a proved failure. After a failure in an enterprise which is not a proved impossibility the natural instinct, the human instinct, and particularly the British instinct, is not to give up, as we seem rather to have done in connection with airship construction… Mankind has not been deterred from further effort… towards the conquest of the air, by the fate of Icarus who flew too near the sun so that it melt[ed] the wax by which his wings were attached to himself.”

Johnston himself had been elected in 1931, part of an absolutely crushing Conservative victory over the Labour Party. The Conservatives had previously held 260 seats to Labour’s 287, but when the 1931 election was over their share increased to 470 seats compared to Labour’s miserable 32. Nonetheless, Johnston said in the same speech, grudgingly but respectfully, of his opponents:

“Honorable Members of the Opposition [Labor] and their political associates in the country do not appear to have been diverted by what was for them the disaster of the last General Election from a continued advocacy of Socialism in our time, and while I cannot predict their ultimate success, I can at least admire their pertinacity.”

This is, perhaps, the more workable R.101-based metaphor for socialism: sometimes we fail, either from difficult conditions, individual intransigence, moral compromises, or all of them combined. Sometimes we fly too close to the sun. Sometimes the socialist airship plummets to the ground. But one single, or even multiple failures, does not prove that socialism is impossible: it proves that we need to, and we will, keep trying to fly.


[1] It should be noted that, as ridiculous as that last point sounds, the use of an airship as an aircraft carrier actually was a possibility, one that the United States Navy briefly utilized in the early 1930s in the airships USS Los Angeles, Macon, and Akron. It was not, however, a physical possibility for R.101.
[2] During the course of practicing this particular stunt, it was intended that the airship would enter a shallow, gentle dive, but the elevator controlman lost control when the airship suddenly, unexplainably entered a steep dive from which it was brought back under control only with great difficulty. 
[3] As an airship rises, the gas within its lifting cells expands, and requires that some lifting gas be vented into the atmosphere to prevent the lifting cells from bursting. Traditionally, manually actuated valves would be mounted on top of the ship to allow the crew to vent gas as necessary. However, on the R.101, Thomson insisted that new gas valves which could automatically vent gas in response to a given pressure should be mounted on the sides of the ship. This not only added unnecessary complication and weight to the airship, but the valves also showed a propensity to open before their set point, venting much-needed lifting gas from an increasingly overweight ship. 

Why You Matter

[content warning: suicide]

One of the most tragic aspects of suicide is that those most inclined to take their own lives are often the people whose presence society benefits from the most. I do not mean this in a patronizing way, but in a very serious and real sense. A person inclined to take their own life often feels that they are not in any way important. If they felt that the fate of nations depended on their continuing to exist, it is less likely they would consider ending that existence. The likelihood that, say, Donald Trump, would contemplate removing himself from the world is very low. The same is not true of extremely humble people who are aware of their own insignificance and do not want to hurt other people. 

As a professional editor, I have noticed a phenomenon I call the Confidence Paradox: those who are the least confident in their own writing are the best writers and those who are the most confident in their own writing are the worst. It is not actually a paradox, since the explanation for it is quite obvious. To be a good writer, you have to be self-critical. You have to spend ages tweaking and refining your prose because you are unsatisfied with it. In fact, you have to be more critical of yourself than anyone else will be. On the other hand, if you are extremely confident in your writing, you will not hate your first drafts, even though first drafts are always bad. You will not scrutinize your arguments carefully to find their flaws. An editor will have to do that for you and convince you that what you are sure is purest gold is actually fecal matter.

The Paradox is not absolute but it is extremely common. I spend a lot of time trying to convince amazing writers that their work isn’t total dogshit and middling writers that they need to let us edit them. (This does not mean that if you find me trying to convince you to accept edits you are necessarily a middling writer—even great writers need editors—merely that if you were a middling writer it is more probable that this would happen.) You have probably seen it in other areas of life; the most brilliant people you know are also probably some of the most modest about their own contributions. 

There is a supposed psychological phenomenon that I have never really liked conceptually called the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which says that people who are bad at something overestimate how good they are at it because they do not even know what it means to be good. I have always been uncomfortable with this, because I see it used to mean “stupid people are so stupid that they don’t know they’re stupid,” said by people who are dead certain that they are not members of the group at whom they are laughing. (In fact, there is a more important version of the Dunning-Kruger argument, which is that those most convinced of their own superior rationality, such as Sam Harris and Steven Pinker, make some of the least rational arguments of anyone. Their certainty that everyone else is illogical prevents them from seeing their own mistakes or understanding critiques.) 

However, what I do believe is true, and important, is that a great many people whose abilities are needed are not confident enough, because they are decent and modest human beings. This is one of the reasons why the people you know who would be the most trustworthy and competent in political office have never even thought about doing such a thing, because it seems so arrogant to put yourself forward like that. Whereas those who feign modesty but think they’re hot shit, and are certain that they were “born to be in it,” or those who think their last name makes a Senate seat their personal birthright, have never even had the question “What makes you special enough to hold power over others?” cross their minds.

    To ask that question of yourself means you are (1) more thoughtful and self-aware than the group who would never ask it and (2) more likely to answer the question correctly, by concluding that you are not special enough to hold power over others and that anyone who thinks this has dangerously arrogant delusions of grandeur. You can see how the problem arises in which the person most needed for the job is the person least likely to seek it. 

    In terms of getting qualified candidates for political office, there is a possible solution: instead of elections, just have people selected to serve like they do as jurors, so that you get a random mix of normal people rather than using a sorting mechanism that picks the most ambitious and least scrupulous. But the method is crude, as it involves simply roping people in against their will. At the same time, we have to find ways of convincing the people who least think they matter that they do in fact matter.

    All else equal, depressed people know more than people who have not been depressed. I do not mean that more intelligent people tend to be depressed. I mean simply that a person who is depressed has had an experience that a person who has not been depressed has not. They know the depths of human misery, and this is important, because it means they know that misery exists and what that means for a person. This does not automatically make a depressive more empathetic. But it does make them aware that all is not right with the world, that there is a terrible darkness in it. It helps them see through cheerful lies about how wonderful everything is and how we should all just appreciate it and be happy. 

A problem is that the people who think they matter the least are unlikely to think they have the capacity to do anything vital and important. (Unlike Trump, who thinks everything he does is vital and important.) But with so great a gap between human potential and the world we have actually made, every single human mind that can be put toward the project of improving the world needs to be. The brutal Social Darwinism embodied in Donald Trump will triumph unless the modest and compassionate assert themselves and believe in their importance. Every last person is needed for the mission of resisting the descent into cruelty; all forces that can be mobilized must be mobilized.

As we know, Spiderman was told that with his great power came great responsibility. Uncle Ben was correct, but we can’t think that this only has relevance to those with great power. With even the smallest level of power comes great responsibility, because we have an absolute duty to use whatever powers we do possess. I generally try to refrain from telling people what they ought to do, or to shame them for not living up to their obligations unless it is very clearly obvious that they could easily do something useful and are deliberately choosing to do something harmful. Just to stay alive can be a struggle that consumes all of one’s energy, and I do not think it serves anyone to feel guilty about all the things you ought to be doing but simply can’t. 

Yet we all do possess power, whether infinitesimally small or colossal. The power to write a letter to a lonely person in an elder care facility is a power, and the small act of a single person can make a massive difference in another life. I am haunted constantly by the last words of a man who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, who said that if anyone smiled at him on the way from his house to the bridge, he would turn back. A tiny act of friendliness toward a stranger, of caring in an uncaring world, would have preserved a human life. This should show us very clearly that every single person’s choices can matter even if they do not seem to.

I’m sorry if I sound corny and as if I am lapsing into Mr. Rogers “You Are Special” territory. But Mr. Rogers’ message was extremely important, and there is a reason Fox News despised him and called him “evil.” Maintaining the existing power structure requires convincing people of their powerlessness. If they are told that their problems are their own fault, that they are losers and failures, they will be demoralized, especially since, as modest human beings, they would find it difficult to place their own judgment of their worth above the assessment of others. But things could start to happen if they are told that actually, there is no such thing as an insignificant person, only a person who has accepted what the idiotic bullies who run society would prefer them to think about themselves. 

The word “empowerment” is about the most vacuous imaginable term at this point. But here is one meaning: to give a person a full awareness of the extent of their capabilities. Personally, I have always been empowered in this sense, because I was fortunate enough to have parents who told me ceaselessly that I could do things that would matter, and, credulous child that I was, I believed them. This background level of confidence that I can have a life that matters has gotten me through bouts of depression. I have had to be professionally treated, but I have never truly approached the brink, because so many people were making it clear to me all the time that I meant something to them and my life had consequences. I have been very, very lucky in this respect.

Many people are not. Some, like the man who sought only a smile, are completely isolated. Nobody will rush to them if they are in danger. Nobody has noticed their pain, nobody has shown they are willing to fight for this person even though they do not know them. In such circumstances, how could you not feel you were insignificant and that your disappearance would be no loss? You would have what you took to be proof. It is, in fact, literally true that there are deaths that nobody has noticed, people who have been entirely alone during their last months or years.

Now, everyone who has the capacity to do so has a responsibility to help fix this situation. Because there is an error made by those who assume they do not matter simply because we live in an isolating society that tears us apart from each other and makes it hard to notice one another. They have within them a tremendous ability, because it does not take any special talent to be incredibly meaningful and helpful to other people in ways that transform their lives. The only way not to matter is to decline to use your vast powers.

I am not here saying that anyone can do anything. I am not talking about the American Dream. I am not saying that people who suffer a grinding miserable existence should feel differently than they do. I am not telling anyone their particular responsibilities, because your life may be extremely hard and you may be at your limits already, and you should not feel bad about that. I am making no comment on how your life is or trying to delegitimize anyone’s feelings. 

I am only making a very particular kind of point to those who lack a strong sense of self-worth and have low confidence. It is fine and justified to be sad because the world sucks shit and everything is going down the tubes. It is fine and justified to be unable to get out of bed and to focus on fixing your own life before you help other people fix theirs (although if yours is fixed, there are others who need you). I am pointing out that it is never true, under any circumstances, that your absence would be negligible. This is a mistake. It is hard to persuade someone of this who is convinced of their worthlessness. But we must be emphatic: the project of building a better world is going to be difficult. Every single person who can participate is needed. There are no exceptions. 

Sports on Strike

As historic protests occurred across American sports in late August, the media reacted as it always does when athletes speak out: entirely without nuance. Before you could say “organized labor,” the event was dubbed a “boycott,” much to the chagrin of sports-loving leftists. The message the players wanted to deliver—that the police must stop murdering people—is infinitely more important than the distinction between these two terms, but one must understand that difference in order to fully understand the strike. Calling the strike a “boycott” isn’t as egregious as Jared Kushner calling the players “fortunate” to be able to “take a night off,” but it requires the same fundamental misconception of pro athletes’ lives and place in the social hierarchy. It’s the same misconception that allows some of the laziest, most spoiled people in America to routinely criticize pro athletes as lazy and spoiled. To not challenge it is to cede a huge amount of territory in one of the prime theaters of the Great American Culture War.

First, let’s look at what happened. As the nation roiled with protests after police shot an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to sit out their playoff game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, August 26th. As news of their protest spread, the players of every other NBA team decided to join them, as did the players of the WNBA, every MLS team that had not yet taken the field, and even several teams in the more-conservative MLB. Within a few hours of the conversation in the Bucks’ locker room, player actions had called off nearly every professional sporting event in the country. 

At first, a significant number of players wanted to shut down the season. Eventually, they decided they would try to strike a deal with their bosses to let the playoffs continue. As the other leagues returned to play in the following days, the players’ union (the National Basketball Players Association) sent representatives to meet with NBA management. The result of the meeting was an agreement by NBA owners to institute several changes the players had requested, in exchange for the players’ assurance that they would return and finish the playoffs.

It’s true the NBA players’ protest didn’t start as a strike. It began with the Bucks’ George Hill quietly telling his coach that he didn’t feel he could play in the wake of yet another police shooting. Hill didn’t even intend to convince his teammates to join him, but he eventually participated in the team sitdown that set off similar discussions around the country. The first time NBA players gathered together to strategize appears to have been Wednesday night, and it wasn’t until Thursday that they reached the decision to bargain with the owners instead of unilaterally ending the season. 

It’s also entirely legitimate to argue, as I would, that the players’ strike could have accomplished more if they hadn’t gotten terrible advice from Barack Obama, who spoke with Lebron James, union president Chris Paul, and others after the Wednesday night meeting. Given the enormous spotlight they had earned and how desperate the league surely was to finish this already-abbreviated season, it’s a shame that the players settled for the formation of a committee and a league-wide “get out the vote” initiative. But one really can’t argue that the players’ action was anything other than a strike, even if its execution was a bit haphazard and the bargaining was bungled. It certainly wasn’t a boycott. So why did so many people, including most of the mainstream and sports media, use that term?

It might have something to do with Americans being far more familiar with boycotts, historic and recent, than strikes—strikes tend to be covered in history books as something that only happened in the Gilded Age, while we know boycotts both as a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement and as the reason your uncle threw away his Goodyear tires. A big part of the equation is likely America’s innately consumerist mindset, which allows us, as Andrew McCarthy did in National Review, to refer to a strike as a boycott even while referring to players themselves as consumer products whose “saleable value lies in giving the rest of us a unifying escape from our personal struggles and social divisions.”

Of course, some people called the NBA protest a “boycott” because that’s what some of its most prominent participants called it. Lebron, a key powerbroker in the strike and one of the most influential people on Earth, used the term “boycott” on the day the strike began. In context, it’s obvious James’ point was that the games had been shut down by the players, not “postponed” by the league. When a group of people decides not to engage in something, Americans seem to reach for the word “boycott” first, and professional athletes are no exception.

James’ and other players’ hesitance to use the word “strike” might also have been motivated by the “No-Strike and No-Lockout” clause in their collective bargaining agreement. They are, after all, workers, with a union contract and bosses who are constantly looking for new ways to claim a larger chunk of the revenue they generate. Lebron’s status as one of the most famous human beings alive notwithstanding, it’s crucial to recognize that this dynamic is the one that governs NBA players and their fellow professional athletes. Yes, many of them make exorbitant, possibly infuriating amounts of money, but in terms of their relationships with their employers they are undeniably workers, not management.

As I’ve written before in Current Affairs, the history of labor negotiations in American professional sports is one of athletes slowly chipping away at a system designed to limit their freedom and drive down the price of their labor. Of course pro athletes’ wealth gives them power and puts them in the upper class, generally speaking, but they’re still subject to the whims of their bosses, commonly referred to as “their owners,” who almost uniformly come from immense generational wealth much greater than any one player could hope to achieve. 

It takes a singular figure like Lebron, a perfect storm of talent, longevity, and financial savvy, to come close to rivaling owners’ wealth and influence, and even he is bound by his contract. For every elite player, there are dozens of journeymen and hundreds more who will never find a foothold in the league at all. Nearly everyone in the NBA makes six figures, and a majority make seven or more, but as in all pro sports, the average career is short (4.5 years in the NBA, 3.3 for the NFL, 2.7 in professional baseball). Injuries are a constant and largely unpredictable threat—one study showed that every MLB player faces at least a one-in-ten chance of ending his career in any given season—and in many cases, players either skipped college or were made to take the academic path of least resistance, leaving them ill-equipped to embark upon another career once they’ve bowed out of the game. A famous Sports Illustrated article from 2009 found that over half of all retired NBA players went broke within five years of leaving the league, and that nearly 80 percent of former NFL players were in dire financial straits within two years of retirement. 

Faced with a window of just a few years to cash in on their lifetime of training, and with the constant threat of injury, most pros aren’t immune from financial concerns. That’s particularly true in this shortened season, where COVID-related losses have already forced players to take a pay cut. They may be making a whole lot of money, but their position is exponentially more precarious than that of the Kushners of the world, and they certainly do not take the prospect of shutting down the source of their income lightly. 

For Black players, a majority in the NBA, there’s also the fact that, as G’Ra Asim recently wrote, “the subordination and vulnerability to state violence that come with being Black is something most Black people expect to contend with from cradle to grave.” It may not have been a coincidence that the NBA’s strike began with the Bucks, whose roster includes a player who had the police called on him for entering a jewelry store in 2015 and another who was arrested, beaten, and tased for a parking violation in 2018. Fame and material wealth do nothing to stop players of color from suffering from the exact kind of profiling and abuse that they were protesting after the Kenosha police shooting.

“Boycott” doesn’t come close to describing what happened in the NBA—participants in a boycott suffer the inconvenience of using a different product, at worst, while participants in a strike risk losing their livelihoods, homes, and more. Although the NBA now presents itself as America’s most open-minded professional sport, it wasn’t so long ago that the Chicago Bulls’s Craig Hodges was frozen out of the league for having the audacity to write to President George H.W. Bush about racial justice. One need look no further than Colin Kaepernick for a reminder that “woke,” 21st century professional leagues are still perfectly capable of blacklisting a player for insubordination.

We’ll never know what might have been achieved if the players had organized more effectively, made more radical demands, or ignored the advice of the man who brought you such lose-lose solutions as warmed-over Romneycare and the Beer Summit. Creating more polling places is all well and good, but it’s obvious that increased voter turnout isn’t the panacea liberals imagine it to be. Same goes for a committee devoted to racial justice within the league, although similar groups like the Player’s Coalition and MLS’ Black Players for Change have done meaningful things like stage highly-visible demonstrations, lobby against qualified immunity, and force leagues to donate to underserved communities.

That being said, the players could have dreamed much bigger. Why not demand that Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta donate to bail funds instead of cutting seven-figure checks to the Trump Victory PAC and the RNC? Or ask that Orlando Magic owner Dan DeVos call on his sister-in-law Betsy to stop gutting our nation’s public school system? The players could have simply demanded that Fertitta, DeVos, and other right-wing owners sell their teams, as the racist owner of MLS’ Real Salt Lake and the NWSL’s Utah Royals FC is currently being forced to do. If that sounds like a reach, recall how quickly the league pushed out former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling once his decades of racism became public knowledge.

Many on the left came away from the NBA players’ brief strike disappointed, and I sympathize. It wasn’t fun to watch, for the second time this year, as Obama’s intervention scuttled an exciting progressive project. For some, it may be tempting to dismiss what happened entirely, or to read it as proof that sports is nothing more than a distraction from “real” political issues. But there are two good reasons not to do that, the first of which is: that’s exactly what conservatives are saying. If there’s one thing that the outright sickos in the Proud Boys, the learned sickos at the National Review, and every conservative in between can agree upon, it’s that athletes are spoiled, ungrateful dullards who have no business injecting their opinions into the politics-free “oasis” that is sports. If you ever find yourself agreeing with these people, stop and think about what you’re doing.

Moreover, there’s absolutely nothing that says that the Obama-brokered “resolution” to NBA players’ political awakening is the end. In fact, there’s evidence it was a beginning. Athletes across the country realized the power of their collective action, and they clearly have some people scared of what they might do next. As the great Dave Zirin recently pointed out, the NFL is terrified that its players will follow in the footsteps of their NBA counterparts and derail football season. The players themselves seem fully aware that there’s much more to be done, and they’ve talked about striking again. The notion that pro athletes could “solve racism” is absurd, but it’s entirely within their power to make material gains for the antiracist cause—league owners are awash in money, and players are becoming more and more involved in determining how that money gets spent. And while there’s no accounting for intangibles like the strike’s effect on the national psyche, it’s undeniable that 72 hours of wall-to-wall coverage of a labor action counted for something. According to Zirin, it’s gotten labor talking about strikes again.

The sports strike did not happen in a vacuum. It was part of both a nationwide protest movement and an encouraging trend of athletes taking political risks. From Kaepernick to the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team to the WNBA players who campaigned against their anti-BLM boss in a Georgia senate race, recent events have dealt blow after blow to the notion that sports is, has ever been, or should be apolitical. This was the first time that the movement for racial and social justice in professional sports has operated as such a cohesive unit. It will not be the last. The next time players strike, they’ll be more confident, better organized, and more ambitious. This prospect has all the right people afraid. Even if it goes down in history as a “boycott,” the sports strike was an exciting and high-profile example of labor action, the closest thing we’ve seen to a general strike in 2020. So far.

Was Jesus A Socialist?

If you were to ask most people in the United States what the Christian scriptures teach about wealth, they would probably tell you that the Bible is very suspicious of riches. Even people with no religious upbringing could probably quote sayings like “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25; Mark 10:25; Matthew 19:24), or “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), which would seem to position Christianity very much against the excessive accumulation of wealth. This poses a problem for Christians on the American right, because American conservatism has long been dominated by a right-libertarian ideology that sees wealth accumulation as an inherent good, venerates those who amass sickening quantities of money, and seeks to remove every obstacle that might stand in the way of amassing even more. One of the time-honored ways to draw attention away from your own moral failings is to attempt to discuss someone else’s, which is where Lawrence Reed’s Was Jesus a Socialist? comes in. Reed is both a Christian and a libertarian, and has spent the last 12 years as president of the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian think tank. His book attempts to show that Jesus was not a socialist and would not have approved of socialism, because socialists, much like the Bible, are also highly suspicious of wealth accumulation.

In my last essay  for Current Affairs, I reviewed a book by Matt Walsh that, I thought, displayed genuine but deeply misguided fear about what contact with contemporary American society means for Christians. It was a political book—in the sense that it positioned itself on the political right through being published by an avowedly right-wing press and relied on its author’s reputation as a columnist for the Daily Wire—but it was not directly concerned with political systems. Reed’s Was Jesus a Socialist?, by contrast, tackles the question of political Christianity head-on. Unfortunately, it’s also precisely the kind of book with which no real dialogue is possible, because it does not see itself in dialogue either with its audience or with Christian traditions. Its vision of religious life is nothing but a series of propositions: it poses the question of whether Jesus was a socialist and answers it in simple, modern terms. But Jesus is not a modern person, and it is not immediately clear why it matters whether he subscribed to a modern political ideology.

In one sense, then, the question around which Reed frames his book is trivial. Jesus was obviously not a socialist, because he lived in first-century Palestine under Roman occupation, about 1600 years before the first stirrings of capitalism and 1800 years before the European industrial revolution gave rise to socialism. This is not mere pedantry: socialism is a very historically specific response to social conditions that did not exist in Europe prior to the development of mass production. Among the contributing factors to these social conditions was the development of a legal concept of inviolable private property rights, which would have been inconceivable even two centuries prior, let alone nearly two thousand years: even English nobility, for example, often had no power to sell or transfer their hereditary estates without resorting to complex legal fictions until as late as 1833. The response of Christians to the contemporary social order must necessarily look very different from our responses to previous ones: it must account for the particular evils of the present order and for our social capacity to rectify them.

But Reed wisely decides not to pursue this line of discussion, and instead opts for the traditional libertarian definition of socialism: “No matter which shade of socialism you pick—central planning, welfare statism, collectivist egalitarianism, or government ownership of the means of production—one fundamental truth applies: it all comes down to force.” (Apparently, a libertarian regime in which homeless people are shot by private security forces for camping on a vast private estate has nothing to do with force.) Since Jesus is opposed to the use of coercive force (that is, the threat of prosecution and punishment), then, in Reed’s view, he must also be against using force for the purposes of reducing inequalities of wealth or resources. Given Jesus’s own quite specific announcement that his return in glory would involve literal damnation for people who had refused to feed the hungry, water the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick or imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-48), I am not sure that Reed’s definition of coercive force holds water.

This myopia around a nebulous and incoherent concept of “force” carries through to Reed’s exposition of several of Jesus’s parables, among which his treatment of the parable of the workers in the vineyard stands head and shoulders above the rest for its exegetical crudity and moral infantilism. The parable, which begins chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel, likens the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who hired laborers to work in his vineyards at a standard day’s wage. Throughout the day he hires more workers, promising to give them “whatever is right,” and even hires more workers at the very last hour. At the end of the day, he gives all of them a full day’s wage, no matter how long each worked, and tells those who object to his generosity that he may dispose of his money as he pleases. Like all of Jesus’s parables, and like the Jewish allegorical tradition out of which they arise, its combination of simple narrative language and slightly off-kilter logic invites deep thought about how this exemplifies the kingdom of heaven and how human beings should conduct themselves on earth. Reed, however, declines to take up the parable’s invitation to thought. Instead, he glosses it as follows:

The ingredients of this parable are: A private individual who owns the land; workers whom he hires and who willingly accept his compensation offers; employment terms that involve a wide disparity of hourly wage rates; an implicit assumption that work is good and idleness is bad; claims of unfairness and inequality, though no dishonesty or breach of contract; and an unequivocal assertion of the rights of private property and contract.

Supply and demand probably come into play here, too. As the day wore on, the landowner offered an ever higher hourly wage. He probably had to do so to attract additional workers and bring in the harvest.

None of that reads like a tract on socialism. Everything is voluntary and market-based. Jesus never mentioned government, and he never suggested greed or exploitation. The kicker is the landowner’s response to the workers who complained about their higher-earning comrades: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?”

This parable, of course, is explicitly an allegory for the kingdom of God, not a business manual. Reed acknowledges this, but contends that “[the allegorical] view is not inconsistent with the more economic interpretation I’ve provided. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that Jesus’s story rests on fundamentals of private enterprise, not socialism.” But his “economic” view is, in fact, wildly inconsistent with the basic structure of the parable, and the hypothetical reader’s objection to Reed’s casual steamrolling over the content of the Christian scriptures is not, in fact, hypothetical. Interpretation of this parable has a long and storied intellectual lineage, articulated most famously and beautifully in the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, which is read every year to inaugurate Easter in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches. Its first portion borrows heavily from the structure of the parable, but interprets it very differently:

If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay. For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.

This is a far cry from Reed’s obsession with contract and property. Through Chrysostom’s preaching we read the parable with new eyes as a story of unconditional welcome, of God’s total disregard for who is “worthy” and who is not. It shatters the logic of contract and property, because the very idea of “earning” becomes meaningless: for Chrysostom, the parable illuminates the joy of Easter precisely as a picture of a divine generosity that draws no distinctions between those who have long pursued the work of holiness and those who have just begun. By transposing the structure of the first, third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours, his homily illuminates the parable’s moral logic, and the image of the severe and inscrutable landowner is transformed into the master of the house whose generosity needs no explanation, only celebration. This is not socialism—it is something far beyond socialism, a foretaste of the society of perfect love that Christians call the Kingdom of God. But it is clearly something totally alien to Reed’s vision of a legalistic paradise in which the angelic choirs and the orbits of the stars are set in order by the sovereign might of Contract, and the ceaseless cries of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts” are rendered as our eternal rent due to the landlord of heaven and earth.

Reed’s glib refusal to put himself in dialogue with this ancient and traditional reading of the parable is, in many ways, essential to the success of his argument: if he were to place the two expositions side by side, it would only underscore the sheer ineptitude of his reading and reasoning. The ease with which his argument falls apart in the face of this contrast means that he absolutely cannot engage in a substantive way with competing interpretations, even when those interpretations are central to the worship and belief of hundreds of millions of Christians around the world. By refusing serious dialogue with the enormous tradition of literary and theological commentary, Reed is able to construct an intellectual greenhouse in which his cultivar of mutant Christianity can thrive despite its severe allergy to sunlight and oxygen. But there is a reason that a walk in the woods is far preferable to a tour of a greenhouse: a greenhouse, even a large one, is not a true ecosystem, and an argument sealed against outside considerations is not true thought.

As Reed moves on to treat the “values” of Jesus, his book becomes progressively more dishonest. For example, he discusses chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel, which comprises three famous parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, all of which are part of Jesus’s response to the charge that he associated with sinners. The first parable tells of a shepherd who loses a sheep, tirelessly searches for the lost one, and celebrates with his neighbors once he’s found it; the second tells of a widow with ten silver coins who loses one and does the same as the shepherd; the third and most famous is the story of a young man who demanded his inheritance, spent it all, and was nonetheless welcomed back by his father with a great feast. These parables, Reed says, “emphasize the critical value of the solitary individual.” I invite readers to glance through these parables themselves and decide whether that is a tenable reading. In fact, they seem horrified by the idea of the “solitary individual” cut off from a community: the rejoicing of the shepherd, the widow, and the father celebrate the lost and alone being reconciled and returned. This is not libertarian individualism: it models the sort of deep concern with each member that communities ought to have, and the kind of love that recognizes our collective duty even to people who have severely wronged us—the love that sees someone realize their wrongs and says, as in the parable of the prodigal son, “It [is] fitting to make merry and be glad, for this [our] brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” How can anyone be concerned with property and debts and finely-printed contracts when faced with such love?

There is a kind of individualism and solitude, much valued by libertarians, that views one’s own life as property, as a bounded and finite thing that can be shared or withheld at a whim. Reed’s paean to the virtues of private charity celebrates this: “No one is compelled to provide assistance. No one is coerced to pay for it. No one is required to accept it. All parties come together of their own volition. That’s the magic of it.” But what a bleak and terrible worldview this is: the presumption that we are ultimately alone, that lurking underneath our joys and friendships is a deeper reality of final isolation, that even sharing a community and living day to day with someone creates no real bond between you. It grieves me to see this passed off as a Christian way of being in the world, because even the creation story rejects this solitary picture of humanity. In the second chapter of Genesis, God looks upon Adam and says “It is not good that the man should be alone,” and in creating Eve allows Adam the chance to live a fully human life. Contrast libertarians’ near-solipsism with the example of Julian of Norwich, a great spiritual writer and the earliest known woman author in English. She was an anchorite, a kind of urban hermit who consecrated herself to God and then was sealed up in a cell attached to the local parish church. There she lived out the rest of her life, given food by her community and offering them prayer and spiritual counsel in turn. This is a solitude that finds its fullest expression amid a community, that recognizes our radical dependence on one another and resolves to embrace and live out that dependence. In putting herself in her city’s hands, Julian saw more clearly than most one of the deep truths of Christianity. In the Shewings, the record of her mystical visions, she writes of seeing creation itself:

And in this he shewed a little thing, the quantitie of an haselnott [hazelnut], lying in the palme of my hand, as me semide [“as it seemed to me”], and it was as rounde as any balle. I looked theran with the eye of my understanding and thought: “What may this be?” And it was answered generally thus: “It is all that is made.” I marvayled [marveled] how it might laste, for me thought it might sodenly have fallen to nawght for littlenes. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it. And so hath all thing being by the love of God.”

Julian saw directly what most of us only catch in fleeting glimpses: that we do not sustain ourselves, and our lives are not truly our own. Capitalism pushes all of us, even those of us on the left, to value “self-reliance” and “independence,” but these are some of its greatest lies: anyone who has taken part in a labor action or in mutual aid knows that the “weakness” of dependence is the foundation of solidarity, and that reliance on one another is the pillar of strength.

I wish that I could give a step-by-step method for engaging with arguments like Reed’s; certainly it helps to know both the subject matter and the kind of moral language that the other person understands, and this is where religious leftists can do important work. But we have not been given a roadmap into other selves: this is the greatest frustration and the most wonderful mystery of being human. Evangelism of any kind does not proceed by arguments and propositions, but by attempting to see someone’s needs, whether spiritual or material, and meeting them. In the rule laid out for his new order of poor friars, St. Francis of Assisi exhorts “all the brothers” to “preach by their deeds,” even those who could not give public sermons. This seems to me to be a much more reliable guide for all of us. The love that will break open the most determined solitude is not something we decide to show or feel: it shows itself through us, in those moments of coincidence or grace when we really want the best even for the person we oppose.

Jesus was not a socialist. But socialists, I think, understand something about Jesus that libertarians, even Christian ones like Lawrence Reed, do not: that the world at which we aim, the kingdom whose coming Christ proclaimed, will not settle our debts and contracts but abolish them completely; that even those who didn’t join the struggle until the eleventh hour will be welcome at the feast; that the moment at which love appears utterly defeated, when it looks to the world like a victim crucified by state violence, will in the end be revealed as love’s final, all-embracing triumph. In the capitalist logic of debt and property, there is nothing more foolish than the love that gives all for one’s enemy. But remember what the Apostle Paul says: that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” Our struggle is not to raise ourselves above our enemies, but to love them fully, because to abolish class means abolishing what makes them our enemies at all. This is a hard task, demanding of us a revolutionary discipline that puts the most hardened Leninist to shame; it is always easier to entertain fantasies of violent retribution in which those who oppressed us finally face the other end of the gun or the other side of a prison bar. But the world that we want to build, the society of love, calls us beyond these impulses. It demands that even rapacious billionaires not be sent to prison. It demands that the children of those billionaires go to good schools for free. It shames those impulses, which we often see as a desire for justice, because it shows us that justice demands not the reversal of exploitation but its end. And in rising to those demands, however briefly, we work toward that day when we can truly say, with the anchorite Julian, that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

What David Graeber Noticed

David Graeber noticed things. Everyone notices a few things here and there, but David Graeber noticed things other people did not. This was partly because he was an anthropologist, trained to shed presumptions about how human societies work and figure out how they actually work, to see people both through their own eyes and through the eyes of others. It was also, however, because he was an anarchist, instinctively inclined to reject the existing order of things and think for himself about what could and could not be justified. But Graeber did not simply see; he was a committed activist, participant as well as observer, who turned his intelligence to practical questions about how to make people more free to enjoy the brief, wondrous gift of getting to be alive.

David Graeber died this week, and with it Planet Earth lost one of its most fertile and original minds. His loss is a tragedy not just for his family, colleagues, and friends, but for everyone who wants to understand what is going on around them, because for many more years David Graeber would have continued to notice new things, everywhere, all the time. Without Graeber to point out what isn’t obvious, fascinating and troubling elements of our world may now go completely unnoticed. Unless, of course, many of us learn from him and follow his example. 


To see how Graeber’s thinking was original, let’s look at his successful book Bullshit Jobs. The book, based on a great little essay, examined jobs people hold that don’t seem to have any social value or point, even for the person doing them, but somehow continue to exist. Now, Noam Chomsky—an anarchist like Graeber—has talked about how one of the most important ways to find novel insight is to be the “willingness to be puzzled,” especially by things that do not seem puzzling at all. Everyone else is busy trying to figure out things that do already seem puzzling. But what about the things that don’t? What about things that are just sort of assumed as uncontroversial?

In the case of jobs, there is an assumption that if a job exists, there must be some rational reason for it. But Graeber noted that many people work jobs that they themselves cannot see the purpose of. He interviewed many hundreds of workers who told him that while they didn’t think their job needed to exist, it did exist. There were receptionists who sat at a desk all day doing nothing, because the company didn’t need a receptionist but seemed to think not having one would be a mark of illegitimacy. There are people whose job it is to fill out paperwork that has been created for seemingly no reason, that no one would ever read or check. There are people who create reports so that their boss can hold up a report in a meeting and say that they have a report. There are people who are in charge of managing teams that are perfectly capable of managing themselves. There are people who spend their time doing work that they themselves have made up so as to convince someone their job is necessary.

How can this happen? Standard accounts of how capitalism works say that a capitalist employs workers because the worker creates value for the capitalist above and beyond what the worker is paid. Both Milton Friedman and Karl Marx treat the capitalist as a ruthlessly rapacious profit-seeker, who does things only to the extent that they benefit him. Workers are assumed to be useful to creating economic value for the capitalist; if they were not, he would not hire them. 

If you’re a leftist, you might nod at this rough description of how the economy works, but simply have a few different feelings about it than Milton Friedman. As an anarchist, however, Graeber refused to accept anything just because everyone else assumed it to be true. That is not a rational way to think. So he asked the question: is it true? Is it true that if workers did not create value the company “would not” hire them and “would” fire them? Perhaps in the world of theory, where a capitalist has only one motivation. But what about in our world? And so Graeber, the anthropologist, investigates the question that Graeber the anarchist was intrigued by.

If you start from the position that the “capitalists only hire workers who create value” theory is true, you will try to find ways in which the facts can still be explained by the theory. Well, the workers in question may not recognize the value they create, but it’s still there. Or, these jobs can’t last, the rational capitalist is always trying to maximize efficiency and produce an ever more efficient profit machine, and soon someone is going to get wise.

But Graeber does not start from the position that the theory is true. The theory makes an assumption about the nature of capitalists that needs to be justified by factual observations. The anarchist refuses to accept consensus assumptions until the data of reality justify them. We should look at what we see (a bunch of bullshit jobs), and see what other theories might exist.

Graeber asks: what if some workplaces operate a bit like a feudal manor? The lord surrounds himself with flatterers and hangers-on, who receive support. These people do not produce economic value for the lord, they simply make him feel important. In the workplace, a manager who oversees a team of six people might feel very important. The manager may realize, on some level, that their six people do nothing of worth to the company. But they, and all six people, have a personal interest in faking it, so that they may preserve the miniature kingdom consisting of the Boss and the people whose only reason for being at the company is that they make the Boss feel like they are of high status (and keep the Boss from losing their job, if they are found out to be useless). Perhaps the pursuit of status and the feeling of importance, or the pleasure of exercising power over others, is just as important in determining the structure of the workplace as the pursuit of financial profit. 

 Bullshit Jobs is a rich book, as my colleagues Nick Slater and Oren Nimni discussed in their review of it. Graeber brings up endless important questions, such as: What makes a thing socially valuable and who is to say? What makes a job meaningful? Why do people feel like they have to pretend to be working even when there is no work to be done? How do unnecessary jobs emerge? Why do inefficient bureaucracies seem to flourish even in the private sector? Why do the most seemingly socially valuable jobs get paid the least money? Why is doing pointless work seen as more virtuous than doing no work at all? What is the financial industry for and how much of it is truly necessary? What is it that makes a bullshit job so unsatisfying? 

On this latter point, as Slater and Nimni note, Graeber posits that the unsatisfying nature of bullshit jobs may have something to do with the fact that we have an intrinsic desire to cause things to happen, and to feel responsible for having caused them, and that bullshit jobs make us feel as if we have caused nothing whatsoever, and are thus “a direct attack on the very foundations of the sense that one even is a self.” He calls this “the pleasure of being the cause,” and elaborates:

Children come to understand that they exist, that they are discrete entities from the world around them, largely by coming to understand that ‘they’ are the thing which just caused something to happen—the proof of which is the fact that they can make it happen again. Crucially, too, this realization is, from the very beginning, marked with a species of delight that remains the fundamental background of all subsequent human experience.

Now, I don’t know if this is true. But it’s provocative and interesting and it makes you think. This is an important aspect of Graeber’s work. He hazards his own answers, but he wants us, the ordinary reader, to do our own noticing. 

I know no writer who cared about their reader like Graeber did. Astra Taylor reports that, when she complimented his writing, he told her he believed in “being nice to the reader,” and said it was an “extension of politics.” Be nice to the reader is one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard. (Incidentally, how are you doing? Okay, I hope? Well you look good, at least.) What he means by that is that when you are writing, you should be thinking about the experience of the person reading the writing. Are they bored and confused? Have you made them feel stupid? Or have you made them feel smart and engaged and satisfied? I think what he means by this being an “extension of politics” is that “accessibility” in the writing sense is the same as “accessibility” in the general sense, meaning that your writing should be designed for the broadest possible range of people to read and understand. There is a common perception that this means your writing must be “simplistic” or “dumbed down,” but that shows that you view average people as incapable of grasping complex ideas. No, it just means that when you are presenting ideas, you need to be thinking about people who have differing backgrounds and abilities and what their experience of the encounter with your work will be. That is an extension of politics because it is demonstrating a commitment to democratizing sophisticated knowledge by making it as widely understandable as possible. 

So Graeber’s books are highly readable, even if sometimes his bubbling enthusiasm for telling his reader endless fascinating tidbits could make them a bit unwieldy. (A Jacobin writer skewered his Debt: The First 500 Years as “Debt: The First 500 Pages,” but the review was so one-sided that the magazine commissioned a second one that was much fairer to Graeber.) Graeber could be an incredibly funny writer (a rare skill) and he used humor to help make concepts in anthropology, social theory, and economics go down a bit more easily for the non-academic reader. There is a diagram in Bullshit Jobs that I absolutely love, showing the process of how an exam is created in a university governed in a corporatized, managerial way (as opposed to something that would make rational sense):

How can you not love someone who sat down and made this, who did such a deadly serious chart designed to illustrate a comical absurdity? Bullshit Jobs has subchapter titles like “About One Young Man Apparently Handed A Sinecure Who Nonetheless Found Himself Unable to Handle The Situation,” and “On The Effects Of Bullshit Jobs on Human Creativity and On Why Attempts To Assert Oneself Creatively or Politically Against Pointless Employment Might Be Considered A Form of Spiritual Warfare.” He was not afraid of being called frivolous; Graeber did not give a damn whether people saw him as a Serious Academic, even though he was a very talented academic anthropologist. The very idea of producing an elaborate “theory of bullshit jobs” seems like a joke, but it wasn’t, because the phenomenon is real and needs explaining.

Graeber took joy seriously. In a beautiful and compelling essay for the Baffler called “What’s The Point If We Can’t Have Fun?” he talks about how reluctant biologists have historically been to acknowledge the possibility that wild animals like to have fun, to just enjoy the nice bits of being alive. If an animal is seen to do something, the question is: what rational end does this serve? Is this for mating? For protection? Graeber talks of watching an inchworm dangling from a stalk of grass, twisting around, then jumping to another blade of grass and doing the same thing, over and over around in a circle, “with what must have been a vast expenditure of energy, for what seemed like absolutely no reason at all.” I myself am always fascinated at the aquarium, watching giant schools of fish go round and round in a circle, never stopping. What are they doing? Where do they think they’re going? What are they trying to get out of this? Why? We can immediately, of course, start coming up with theories about the end that this behavior might serve, but Graeber says we should not be afraid to consider the possibility that many activities have no point beyond the fact that they are enjoyable ways to interact with the physical world, to “be the cause.” He asks the question:

“Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious?”

In other words, why do the fish need some kind of rational ends/means calculation in order to swim around in a circle all day? Graeber’s essay is a defense of fun and play for their own sake. The point of life is to enjoy it, and a lot of other animals seem to get this. This of course connects to Bullshit Jobs, which attacks the way people are made to do things they do not enjoy, sometimes for no reason other than the fact that it is considered shameful not to be doing some kind of labor. (“I’m not paying you just to stand around,” says the manager, even if there is nothing to be done and standing around seems perfectly reasonable.) Graeber cites a great Buckminster Fuller quote: “We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everyone has to be employed at some sort of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist.” Graeber did not believe you had to justify yourself, especially not through needless work and “making yourself look busy.”

You can argue with many, many things Graeber said. But he did not present himself as having found The Correct Answers. He was exploring ideas and encouraging you to, as well. His essay on joy includes such striking quotes as:  

Evolutionary psychologists claim they can explain—as the title of one recent book has it—“why sex is fun.” What they can’t explain is why fun is fun.

Physicists are more playful and less hidebound creatures than, say, biologists—partly,  no doubt, because they rarely have to contend with religious fundamentalists challenging the laws of physics. They are the poets of the scientific world. If one is already willing to embrace thirteen-dimensional objects or an endless number of alternative universes, or to casually suggest that 95 percent of the universe is made up of dark matter and energy about whose properties we know nothing, it’s perhaps not too much of a leap to also contemplate the possibility that subatomic particles have “free will” or even experiences. 

Such passages are characteristic of Graeber’s writing. You might disagree with them completely. Are physicists more playful than biologists? How would you find that out? But the point is, he’s got you thinking. (Graeber even got Jacobin to argue with itself about him.) Joanna Bujes, an internet friend of mine, posted a few quotes she remembered from him, including: “there are two kinds of societies: those who animate objects, and those who turn people into objects.” Which is enough to get you thinking for a few hours. Oh, and she gave his signature method of dealing with cops: “Agree with anything they say, and then do what you’re going to do anyway.” Resistance to rules was an important part of his philosophy. Graeber has a funny anecdote about how he once worked as a research assistant to a Marxist professor who researched “workplace resistance.” Graeber asked his boss, in all seriousness, how much he could get away with lying on his timesheets. The professor was horrified, and Graeber had to pretend he was joking. But he couldn’t understand it: what happened to resistance? 

The theme of human freedom is everywhere in Graeber’s writings. It is in Bullshit Jobs, of course. It is in Debt, too, which deals with how people are imprisoned by formal relationships of lawful obligation. It is in the joy essay, which talks about how scientists, of both the social and natural persuasions, have treated both animals and people like they are programmed robots instead of free beings who live life for its own sake. And it is in The Utopia of Rules, his book about bureaucracy. Graeber, in another instance of being puzzled by something others accept, wonders why we don’t talk as much about bureaucracy anymore, even though there seems to be more of it than ever. It used to be that people studied bureaucracies, but Graeber noticed that people now seem to take them for granted. In fact, even reforms supposed to make things more efficient seem to cause bureaucracies to proliferate even further, in what he called the Iron Law of Liberalism: 

The Iron Law of Liberalism states that any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.

Once again: silly, but rings true, although I’d change “the government employs” to “employed in total,” because sometimes market reforms simply push bureaucracy into the private sector. But there I am starting to argue with Graeber, and to try to think about whether he’s right, and so he’s already got me. I’m thinking, damn it; he forced me to. In fact, the Iron Law of Liberalism isn’t meant to actually be a law, as in an inevitable fixed feature of the universe. It is meant to be an observation that provokes us to examine things we are failing to examine.

When you hear critiques of “red tape” and “regulation,” they usually come from the right. But Graeber, as a leftist anarchist, understood that dealing with red tape actually does suck. The problem with the right’s critique is not that excessive rules and regulations are somehow good. It’s that the right actually wants corporations—artificially constructed legal entities—to be liberated to exploit people and destroy the earth. But when actual people run up against bureaucracies that do not understand how to solve problems or adapt to individual needs—as my colleague Brianna Rennix recently discussed— “bureaucracy” is in fact a huge problem, one the left should care about. Graeber is articulate in trying to figure out precisely why the problems with bureaucracies tend to arise: 

Bureaucratic knowledge is all about schematization. In practice, bureaucratic procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence and reducing everything to preconceived mechanical or statistical formulae. Whether it’s a matter of forms, rules,statistics, or questionnaires, it is always a matter of simplification. Typically, it’s not very different from the boss who walks into the kitchen to make arbitrary snap decisions as to what went wrong: in either case it is a matter of applying very simple pre-existing templates to complex and often ambiguous situations. The result often leaves those forced to deal with bureaucratic administration with the impression that they are dealing with people who have for some arbitrary reason decided to put on a set of glasses that only allows them to see only 2 percent of what’s in front of them.   

Bureaucracy, bullshit jobs, debt, and the play of inchworms. On each subject, Graeber was a mixture of curious, angry, and determined. He was curious (as an anthropologist) about how things work, about beginning to find ways to talk about mysterious processes that operate in the background and are tacitly accepted. He was angry (as an anarchist) about the way institutions, whether academia, government, or corporations, put roadblocks in the way of people living the lives they ought, by right, to be leading. But he was not just a critic. He was determined (as an activist), to begin putting things right, which is why he was heavily involved in Occupy Wall Street, a movement that arguably touched off the great rebirth of the modern left. Graeber actually suffered professional consequences for his radical politics, losing a plum job at Yale (contra conservative myth, the university is not actually a hotbed of radical leftist academics, but a very much lukewarm bed of timid liberal professionals). Graeber spoke with refreshing bluntness about the bureaucratic bloat in universities, the administrations populated with “flunkies.” He was no mincer of words, as you can hear in his wonderful interview on the Srsly Wrong podcast: 

[The administration is] only accountable to trustees. Trustees are familiar with the standards of the corporate world, so for them this is totally normal. If you hire someone to a major post, of course you’re going to give them five flunkies, and only then figure out what those flunkies are going to do. So here you get a Vice-Dean or Vice-Chancellor or Provost and you give them five people they say ok, you’re in charge of time-allocation studies, you’re in charge of synergistic strategizing and those guys make up all this paperwork, and then the people who have to do the paperwork is, of course, ME!

The deans and provosts would be appalled at this kind of blunt language from a respected academic anthropologist, who is loudly calling bullshit on about half of campus activity. But how refreshing it is to hear someone speak with this kind of bluntness in a world full of euphemisms and passive aggression. He had the courage to say things everyone else often secretly suspects to be true but do not feel confident enough to say. Graeber said: you are smart. The ideas are not beyond you, they are just being written by people who do not care about whether you understand. And you are not just smart, but you are right, and we must speak honestly about how to fix this. 

Anarchists are stubborn and they are impertinent. The child in the Emperor’s New Clothes who goes “But I can literally see his penis,” to shocked looks from everybody within earshot—that child is an anarchist. The core anarchist slogan is: “no gods, no masters.” We will play when we want to play, damn it. No, I will not fill out the forms, the forms are stupid and unnecessary. I have cited before the incredible scene in Dr. Zhivago, in which Klaus Kinski steals the whole movie in the role of an anarchist who is being transported as a chained prisoner on a train. When the guard announces that the train contains “voluntary labor,” the anarchist says “Liar” aloud as everyone else stays silent. “Lickspittle! Bureaucrat!” he shouts at the guard, refusing to put up with what he knows to be unjust, even as he is chained in place. 

This is what I have always loved about anarchists: the spirit of defiance. Every society needs anarchists, because they are like “canaries in the coalmine” for freedom. An anarchist sees violations of freedom even in situations where other people do not sense anything wrong. An anarchist has a hyper-sensitivity to unjust hierarchy. Even if not everybody is as noisy as an anarchist, every person ought to at least think like an anarchist, because as an analytic tool it can be extremely helpful in becoming a better “noticer of things.” 

Anarchism is, however, not terribly useful as a philosophy of political practice. (Anarchists say practice, Marxists say praxis.) Graeber demonstrates the usual weaknesses of his anarchist comrades in this respect; his book The Democracy Project celebrated Occupy Wall Street’s radically transformative democractic structure, but to learn the right lessons, Occupy needs to be analyzed as a noble failure, a movement that inspired us and has lasting implications, but one that also turned out to be incapable of organizing people for the long term. It was deliberately disorganized, in a rather beautiful way, but I no longer share Graeber’s fondness for anarchist consensus process now that I would like to be part of a left that gets stuff done. 

That may seem like a bit of a mean jab, so let us note that while anarchist practice is not usually very politically effective, this does not mean anarchism is theoretical or abstract. In fact, Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology discusses the way anarchism distinguishes itself from Marxism by being interested in ethical and practical questions:

Anarchists have never been much interested in the kinds of broad strategic or philosophical questions that have historically preoccupied Marxists—questions like: Are the peasants a potentially revolutionary class? (Anarchists consider this something for the peasants to decide.) What is the nature of the commodity form? Rather, they tend to argue with each other about what is the truly democratic way to go about a meeting, at what point organization stops being empowering and starts squelching individual freedom. Or, alternately, about the ethics of opposing power: What is direct action? Is it necessary (or right) to publicly condemn someone who assassinates a head of state? Or can assassination, especially if it prevents something terrible, like a war, be a moral act? When is it okay to break a window? To sum up then:1. Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy. 2. Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice. 

Now, it is not necessarily a point in their favor that anarchists “tend to argue with each other about what is the truly democratic way to go about a meeting,” though I certainly agree they do this. But Graeber is right that this is a much more interesting and useful question than “what is the nature of the commodity form?” Here, you can see the way that anarchism’s concern with individual freedom leads it to focus too narrowly on questions about the ethics of a single individual’s unorganized actions (breaking windows) rather than “How do we build a large-scale functioning political organization?” Yet by putting “small things” back into the discussion—what should a meeting look like, what should I do—these anarchist “preoccupations” do serve as a useful corrective to political philosophies that treat individual ethics as essentially irrelevant to politics. 

The respect for what it feels like to be a person who encounters a confusing world and seeks clarity and peace is a characteristic of anarchist thinking. Graeber, like Chomsky, tells his readers that they should listen to themselves rather than to Authorities and Intellectuals who try to get people to accept things they don’t fully understand, the sort of things that are classified as Smart even if inscrutable. (Graeber: “The role of intellectuals is most definitively not to form an elite that can arrive at the correct strategic analyses and then lead the masses to follow.”) Graeber once observed that while Marxists often name their sub-tendencies after some “Great Thinker,” (there are “Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyites, Gramscians,” and of course the Marxist label itself) anarchists tend to name their tendencies “either after some kind of practice, or most often, organizational principle” (Anarcho-Syndicalists, Anarcho-Communists, Insurrectionists, Cooperativists, Individualists, Platformists.) The anarchist is extremely dubious about any one person’s claim to drastically greater insight than the rest of us. But they do believe that each individual person is capable of seeing things as they are, and developing political practices accordingly.


I want to return to the subject of noticing, because I think Graeber’s legacy will be that he noticed more than other people, and he picked up on the small things and got you interested, from “Hey, have you noticed what that worm is doing?” to “Hey, have you noticed nobody seems to care when I am only pretending to work?” 

What does it mean to notice small things? It means taking mundane events—or lack of events—and interrogating them to see if there is something concealed. Who owns this place anyway? Why are we learning this? Why does that guy get to tell me what to do? 

Once there’s a small David Graeber living in your mind, which there will be if you read his books, every trivial experience will spark questions and send you down rabbit holes. A few days ago I noticed that I hadn’t been pooped on by a bird for many years. I feel like I used to get pooped on by birds semi-regularly. Is my memory fooling me? Are the intervals statistically unlikely? Is this because of a change in my location? Or is it the localized manifestation of the massive nationwide decline in bird populations? What are birds doing anyway? Why are there pigeons in the park? Where do they all go? Why are they here? 

A bird poop example may sound silly. (Why? Why do we think of bird poop as silly?) But in England, if you noticed you haven’t seen as many hedgehogs in your garden as you did twenty years ago, it almost certainly would be because their numbers have been cut in half. People who have lived in the Bay Area a long time may have noticed that the butterflies have gone away. (Of course, the next generation will not notice, because they will never have known a different world. This is terrifying.) Plenty of people do not notice these things, or if they do notice them, they do not wonder about them, or attribute them much significance, or demand answers, or attempt to alter them. If we are to act rather than to be acted upon, then we must notice what is going on to shape the world we see in front of us.

Now, David Graeber was a storyteller with a million stories to tell, and it often made his written output far too long, so to honor his work in spirit, allow me to tell you a story. It will not at first appear to be about David Graeber. But it will be, I promise. 

Over the past few months, I have noticed signs springing up in the French Quarter of New Orleans (where I live) that say “NO PEDESTRIAN MALL.” At first it was only a few. Now there seem to be more. I barely noticed them, really. I have more pressing political issues to worry about than whether the French Quarter is made more pedestrian-friendly. My default assumption was that it was probably just some kind of NIMBY-ism, stubborn opposition to something reasonable because it is new. I did not think about it, though.

But today I went to the hair salon (correctly following all due COVID procedures and wearing my mask). The woman who cut my hair was talkative, and we chatted about many things. How she had a tourist from New York sincerely ask her “Could you recommend anywhere I can go where I won’t have strangers try to talk to me?” (To which she replied, “Back to New York.”) How she’s starting a coffee shop called “The Belt,” because it’s in what used to be called the city’s “Tango Belt,” the specific district where people once went if they wanted to tango. How she’s tired of these hypocritical government officials who tell us all to wear masks but don’t follow the rules themselves, and how all this burning and looting of cities is so terribly destructive and needless. (I said nothing. I just took note. I do not get into political arguments with those who have a pair of scissors near my neck.) And finally, how the pedestrian mall was a sign that everything was going to pieces and the Quarter was changing for the worse.

The pedestrian mall! Finally an opportunity to ask someone what the hell that was all about. What is it, first off? She told me they’re closing a single street to cars. But why is that so bad? And then my hairdresser, whom I had thus far taken for a bit of a political conservative, told me this:

Rich real estate developers are just itching to transform the French Quarter, because so many tourists come to it. If they had their way, it would be a literal mall, full of chain stores. The French Quarter still has almost no chains, and is full of quirky small independent businesses. This is in part because residents have had a militant preservationist attitude: no changes. None. Keep it the way it is. Of course, the Quarter still has changed. What used to be a multi-ethnic bohemian neighborhood is now extremely touristy, and perhaps the majority of residences are kept empty as investment properties. But, my hairdresser told me, things could get much, much worse. She said that she thinks lots of older residents might be willing to sell their homes to developers. With fewer and fewer residents to fight the fight, there will be less resistance. Soon you’re going to get a Whole Foods in the middle. Whatever was left of the neighborhood’s culture and charm will have disappeared. It will be another corporatized Anytown, USA, but with a few nice old buildings to look at. 

My God. I could see the future. She was right, of course, about what would happen. Hell, if developers could make a billion dollars by sticking a modernist skyscraper in the middle of the French Quarter, they’d do everything they possibly could to bring the outcome about. And, my hairdresser warned me, COVID-19 would be used to crush resistance. City politicians, who she said (accurately) were in the pockets of developers, have pushed the pedestrian mall as neutral. They’ve had the plans in the works for years, and are now using the pandemic to argue that more outdoor seating, and therefore a pedestrian mall, is needed. In fact, the local paper portrayed residents just as I had initially thought of them, as obstinate old cusses getting in the way of the Progressive Car-Free City. (Headline: “French Quarter residents rally against proposals to make historic neighborhood more pedestrian friendly.” Clearly, they must hate friendliness!) Actually, the proposal will hurt workers, because it will make it more difficult to drop people off at work (there’s hardly any parking), and the paper reports that there is a worry that tipped employees will now have to walk for blocks at night with rolls of cash, which is a safety issue. 

So: my hairdresser hated the idea because she feared the encroachment of giant corporations on her small business, and knew that “if you give an inch, they take a mile,” so even the smallest and most innocent-seeming initial changes need to be fought, as they’re the start of a process. I, on the other hand, had not noticed any of this, because I was not observing the forces around me that were shaping the things in front of my eyes.

That was not the only thing to notice about my conversation with her. I noticed she was exactly the sort of person Bernie Sanders might have successfully courted in the general election: staunchly anti-corporate but disgusted with the hypocrisy of elite liberals. I noticed what her New Orleans identity meant to her, how talking to strangers was considered an indispensable cultural habit. I noticed little things that will stay with me, and perhaps someday be useful. 

There is lots to notice everywhere. Of course, when you start to notice certain things, you also need to notice whether you’re failing to notice others. The Pedestrian Mall, terrifying symbol of the bleak, bland corporate future as it may be, is a “French Quarter problem.” It is low on the list of injustices in New Orleans and Louisiana generally, where thousands of refugees from a hurricane are looking for shelter and often finding none. If you just talk to the people in your neighborhood, you’ll only notice their concerns. What about the fact that people in the city cannot afford to live in a house? What about the absolutely pathetic wages of the service workers who keep the tourist industry humming? What about the system of mass incarceration? Let us not open our eyes to the small things only to miss the large ones. 

When we follow the spirit of David Graeber, we ask questions about the mundane things that surround us, but that we do not think about enough. “I’ve noticed that people always tell me X neighborhood is dangerous and I shouldn’t go there, but how do I know whether it really would be dangerous for me to go there? When they say “dangerous” what does that really mean?” “I notice that all the servers in this restaurant are white, but everyone in the kitchen is Black. Why?” “I notice that while I am told the ‘cities are on fire’ with burning and looting, and I see pictures of buildings on fire on the news, my city does not actually appear to be on fire. How much fire is there exactly, and how would I be able to know?” Demand answers, and do not be satisfied until you find them. 


As I biked from the salon to the office, I thought about David Graeber, and I thought about not noticing the first signs of gentrification as the developers plot to destroy everything you love, and I thought about all the things that are deliberately arranged so we will not notice them—the prisons hidden far away, the exploitative work environment in the “back of house” kept from view of the “front of house,” the pain kept behind closed doors. And I became deeply worried and afraid, because stopping things like the slow rise of an authoritarian state requires us to pay attention closely to small, seemingly insignificant changes. And I felt devastated to lose Graeber, because this is exactly what he did. He did not accept anything anyone told him without interrogating it to see whether it satisfied him. His works can be criticized fairly on methodological grounds, and anarchism may be limited as a framework for political action, but he asked questions nobody was asking before. He was puzzled by the unpuzzling. 

Losing Graeber is difficult, because having people with his attitude is so essential to preventing horrors and improving the world. But the good news is: David Graeber’s framework rejects the idea that David Graeber is unique. It does not assume that knowledge and insight are handed down from intellectuals. It treats people as intelligent, and respects them rather than talking down to them. 

I’ll confess something to you: on my bike ride to the office, I began to cry a little bit, because everything fucking sucks so much already this year, and things are getting so bleak and may get bleaker, and now it’s David Graeber this time, really? And I realized the only way I’m ever going to be able to keep myself from lapsing into despair if I can get myself to truly internalize the anarchist attitude of limitless defiance. To keep David Graeber’s death from being a total devastating loss, I will have to ensure I learn his lessons. I made a vow to myself through my tears: I will always notice things. I will notice what I am not noticing. I will help others to notice things. I will expose the criminal squandering of human potential. I will be nice to the reader. I will see joy as an end in itself. I will try to cultivate the kind of intelligence and humor that David Graeber showed. And I will fight, because that is what anarchists do. They do not put up with bullshit or bureaucracy. They refuse to accept the inevitability of tedium and the squandering of the gift of life. They dare to demand the “impossible.” 

Rest in power, David Graeber. 

Michigan’s Left

A few months back, my home state of Michigan was dragged under the country’s dizzying and bizarre circus lights, with all of a circus’ terrors and none of its thrills. Conservative protesters stormed the Capitol, some of them armed for what looked to be a strangely intense video game, demanding that we “reopen” as a deadly virus was still hulk-smashing its way through largely poor Black communities like mine. Most establishment figures saw the anti-lockdown protests as dangerously divisive at a time when, as Governor Whitmer stressed, “we are in this together.” But many on the left knew we didn’t have the luxury of rolling our eyes as examples of right wing outrage—some small and exaggerated, others worryingly large with the potential for Tea Party-style astroturf mobilization—continued to mount. As Ben Burgis correctly argues in Jacobin, if the left isn’t “prepared to fight for bold measures…much more sinister forces will flourish.” 

Michigan has taken on strange symbolic power in recent years. Since shattering elite forecasts by breaking for Trump in 2016—the first time a Republican won here since 1988—my home state has periodically been shoved under the world’s sloppiest spotlight. And, I gotta say, the show stinks. For the better part of four years, the mainstream media has been wandering around Michigan’s suburbs and former industrial centers, dazed and confused, painting a portrait of an uncertain land torn apart by “suburban trench warfare.” Many moons and much ink have been wasted on an unbearable quest to unlock the supposed mysteries at the heart of the “Midwest sensibility.” It’s all poorly thought-out of course, and shows no interest in the Black and brown Midwesterners who have every reason to reject both parties as deeply unserious about addressing their material suffering. But this kind of reporting fits the pre-approved conclusions about plaid-covered midwesterns torn between their hatreds and their self-interests (as if hatreds aren’t an interest people fight to preserve). 

Nationwide, unemployment is “literally off the charts,” with tens of millions filing for benefits as the country gallops toward a second Great Depression. Food insecurity is spiraling upward. Millions are needlessly losing medical coverage, exposing the obvious and cruel stupidity of attaching healthcare to private employment. While the Center for Disease Control’s new eviction moratorium will help to protect some tenants who are unable to pay rent, it won’t help tenants whose landlords cite other reasons for eviction, or who are thrown out in informal evictions that never see a courtroom. Housing advocates are predicting a “tsunami of evictions” if we don’t move swiftly, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, to “cancel the rent.”

None of this is the natural result of economic collapse. Mass suffering is a choice, made every day by the people who rule the country and could do different things. We know because other countries exist and some of these different things are done in them. Instead of adopting “disastrous programs” where “money is not going” to the working-class communities “where it’s needed most,” as economist Joseph Stiglitz told Foreign Policy back in April, we could have “directly reimbursed businesses for maintaining their workforce during the shutdown, as was done in Europe.” As Vice reports, we also could have avoided the “uniquely American” “issue of healthcare” in which “people who lose their jobs are also losing their insurance” by adopting a Medicare for All style system present in other countries where no one has to ask themselves “‘Can I go to the doctor or not?’”

But because establishment media and political discourse is so polluted with garbled nonsense about what can and can’t be done, the choir of progressive voices must continue to rise and tell better stories about the “portal” this pandemic provides for remaking the world. The Michigan section of that choir is growing. Take groups like MI Covid Community, of which I am a member. Formed in the shadow of COVID-19, we’ve brought more than 100 grassroots organizations together under this single banner to connect people to mutual aid while also joining forces to make concrete demands on our political institutions. As my comrades Art Reyes and Betsy Coffia spelled out, at the exact moment the media was “fixed on the threatening actions” of a cartoonishly armed few, “another gathering [of thousands of] Michiganders was taking place” just as our Stay Home order was set to expire. 

“Rather than fanning the flames of fear and division” write Reyes and Coffia, our democratically-run crew gathered online to share “stories, art and music, mutual aid resources” and demand that “policies provide real relief and keep all our communities safe.” Spanning eight hours on April 30, and marking the climax of a seven-day week of action, many of the ingredients of a basic egalitarian agenda were there, including an absolute right to things like healthcare, housing, water, and education “regardless of citizenship status or ability to pay,” and, of course, a habitable planet to enjoy them all. Thousands of people tuned in to hang out in our virtual auditorium of passionate and very cool leftists, with special cameos from progressive faves like Naomi Klein, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, and Kerry Washington. Our goal was simple: to paint a picture of the world as it could be, and provide people a toolkit for hammering those demands into their elected officials. By the end of it all, our call to action led to thousands of petition signatures, emails, and tweets being sent to local officials, a stadium’s worth of bulletins highlighting our demands in bright and unmistakable colors. 

These are all longstanding demands of the left anyhow. And our choir—of economic, immigrant, environmental, and racial justice organizations, to highlight just a few—come from communities across the state where they’ve spent years doing the thankless, grinding work of fighting for a better world. Thanks at least in part to public pressure and encouragement, Governor Whitmer has repeatedly extended the state of emergency. Meanwhile, our groups have continued to organize together in neighborhoods and communities across the state to fill the gaps in human need that wouldn’t exist in saner nations, while still pushing the state’s decision-makers to extend and deepen the meager relief provided up to this point. Our next challenge, and current subject of deliberation, will be to bring a little imagination to Michigan’s budget battle, because of course our state’s ghoulish Republican Senate Majority Leader is telling people on the brink of starvation and eviction that we must “suffer through” these hard times.

Luckily, the left has some ideas about strengthening the common good. We could, for instance, do reasonable things like snatch healthcare and housing and other basics out of the luxury goods aisle and place them in the public commons as one of the things you get for being a human. And while we haven’t won each and every one of our deepest egalitarian aspirations, alliances of everyday people in Michigan have flexed real muscle and won real victories by guarding against further abuse from the elite, and showing us all what a future governed by the priorities of everyday people might entail. 

Take water. Over the last several years, Detroit has carried out more than 140,000 water shutoffs in spite of UN declarations that this constitutes “a violation of the most basic human rights” as well as widespread outcry that blocking the flow of water to poor families is unconscionable bullshit. As the pandemic sunk its teeth into Detroit, our “water warriors” successfully pushed the governor to halt and reverse shutoffs. Recently extended through the year, organizers and activists have dug their heels in for a fight to make the changes permanent. Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People of Detroit put it potently when she urged popular movements to “make sure that every policy recommendation…becomes life. That it grows legs.” 

“Those legs and arms,” she thundered, “are your legs and your arms…We’re not going to let this moment of harm and death and destruction define us.” Instead, “we’re gonna make it a catalytic moment that takes us from trauma to transformation.” Besides its role in extending the moratorium on water shutoffs, We the People of Detroit continues to fight for a basic water affordability plan and a public water utility that serves the needs of everyone instead of demanding ransom payments for basic necessities.

Because what kind of sociopathic society makes luxury items out of basic necessities? Early on in Michigan, as in many other corners of the country, a web of tenants’ rights groups rose to demand that no one be forced from their home because they’ve lost their job to the plague. Their first victory was a modest eviction moratorium. But they didn’t stop there. Organizers kept the fires of outrage burning, circulating petitions and staging car caravan protests until the governor extended the ban again and again. Though the state’s moratorium lapsed in July, and the city of Detroit’s expired August 15, activists I’ve spoken with are nowhere near relenting. Just the opposite: they are now carefully deliberating how to make the pandemic-related eviction bans permanent by cancelling rent altogether. In the meantime, organizations like Detroit Eviction Defense have experience blocking the path of dumpster trucks that get menacingly left outside of people’s homes before court-appointed goons arrive to throw people onto the street. Organizers I spoke with have looked to cities like New Orleans for inspiration, where dedicated, ordinary people jammed up eviction courts the day the city tried to restart them. Elsewhere, known Midwestern icons with Kansas City (KC) Tenants have been really flexing lately, disrupting eviction court proceedings and exposing cruel slumlord fraudsters. They also won a Tenants Bill of Rights late last year, which, among other things,  “affirms tenants’ right to organize,” a critical protection as experts warn “an eviction crisis of biblical proportions” is about to rain down on our heads. 

Detroit organizers are getting in on this. Thanks to a network of racial, environmental, immigrant, and disability justice advocates, a Detroiters’ Bill of Rights is making its way through the local arteries of power. If adopted by the city’s Charter Commission, the progressive policy package could strike an important blow against the city’s towering racial and economic inequality. Its demands are clear and bold, establishing an absolute right to things like food, water, housing, recreation, and transportation. It’s a powerful reminder of what’s possible as elected leaders everywhere shake their heads in anguish and pretend to be powerless in the face of disasters they absolutely have the power to address. 

Michigan’s left is also making electoral noise. As The Intercept documents, our August primaries saw a strong chain of progressive wins. For the state legislature, Abraham Aiyash, a Sanders campaign surrogate, won the 4th district primary in Detroit to replace another Sanders veteran, former State Rep. Isaac Robinson, who died tragically of COVID-19. Over in another section of the city, the 7th district, former Jobs With Justice organizer Helena Scott also prevailed. And adding to the growing nationwide march of progressive prosecutors, reformers Karen MacDonald and Eli Savit won closely watched races against more establishment figures, while Victoria Burton-Harris ran a thoughtful and staunchly progressive campaign against longtime Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, despite falling short. And lastly, and so very satisfyingly, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib convincingly thumped her establishment-backed challenger, erasing any doubt that the Left has some staying power in a state that has so puzzled centrist observers. These are important victories. Not because they mean the revolution is finally nearing the gates, but because it reflects the left’s increasing potency in the land that birthed Reagan Democrats

One of those prosecutorial races, in fact, was only the second most important showcase of progressive power in the region it took place in. Oakland County is one of Detroit’s wealthy suburbs. Karen McDonald won the primary there by running on increasingly mainstream leftist ideas like ending cash bail and no longer prosecuting marijuana possession. 

When ProPublica broke the story of Grace, a 15-year-old student who was imprisoned for not doing her homework, one of the most forceful voices was Michigan Liberation, a group dedicated to building “a long-term movement” to transform the criminal punishment system. After they organized the first rally, communications director Marjon Parnham tells me, it was “just like a domino effect.” More rallies followed calling for Grace’s release, as more and more people were stirred with “the courage” to “do something.” In one especially courageous and kickass show of solidarity, Black Lives Matter in All Capacities, a group established by Black teenage girls that stepped into a prominent leadership role and “organized an overnight occupation outside of Oakland County Children’s Center,” where Grace was being held. For Parnham, it was a testament to the power of grassroots action. “If we would’ve had to wait for this person running” based on “what they may or may not do…oh, my goodness, can you imagine? We would be waiting forever.” It was the perfect split-screen lesson: on one, a progressive challenger is elevated by grassroots leaders to dislodge a status quo incumbent. On the other, that same grassroots movement demonstrates that they will be there every step of the way, prepared to move swiftly and aggressively if that challenger should fail to follow through. After nearly three months—and relentless public outcries of “how fucking dare you?”—Grace was released

Grace’s story is just one infuriating window into a much wider reality. Michigan ranks near the top for coronavirus deaths behind bars. As Ricardo Hart, who’s incarcerated in Michigan, put it in a recent report, “There is no such thing as social distancing in Michigan prisons, only the death penalty.” Titled “I Don’t Want to Die in Prison,” the report pulls together firsthand testimony from hundreds of incarcerated Michiganders, and rightly concludes that the only appropriate response is rapid and dramatic decarceration, and the eventual abolition of a system that cages human beings.

We must be clear about this: both the virus and capitalism have the vast majority of us on a death march. And, as Arundhati Roy writes, “the pandemic” can be “a portal,” and we can decide to emerge from it and live differently. Imagine all the pie-in-the-sky we could have if our national priorities looked more like the demands of working-class communities across the country. Wherever possible, the left should be marching in to fill the void. The “how” of this isn’t a mystery. Jane McAlevey puts it plainly when she states that “only the slow and steady work of smart organizing” can save us. That means expanding our base by kindling and igniting the imaginations of everyday people in workplaces and neighborhoods everywhere we can, building unity and solidarity that can withstand the backlash of the super-wealthy and powerful. If we don’t, as Burgis notes, the most vile narratives will take root and blossom. 

This is what nearly happened when the phony populist protests came to Michigan. A deadly pandemic is on the rise, the economy is totally sunk, and people are left to doggy-paddle through oceans of uncertainty. In that context, it makes perfect sense that some would object to only being given janky life rafts to float around on. Whatever the motives of the protesters, many people who are genuinely concerned about their material lives are looking for explanations. The right will enthusiastically provide them. It was the Michigan-based DeVos family (as in Trump’s public school-hating Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos) who funded institutions that helped bring those protests to life, representing a real core of diabolical economic power in the state that couldn’t care a lick about what happens to working people. 

To be clear then: the real issue here isn’t that this pandemic, and its many avoidable horrors, has opened up new and hotly contested theatres of conflict. It’s the way the battle lines have been drawn and which side of it people find themselves on. In Michigan, we’ve been making the argument that, as another comrade Maria Ibarra-Frayre writes, “More is possible when we work together.” Not only to get people the things they immediately need, but to fight against the enormous forces of private power and their pals in public office who have made life so desperate for so many. 

It’s important that we give them hell. As lefties often stress, the country’s ruling class has been warring against working-class people since this bloody story began. Take founding father John Jay, who reportedly loved saying, while no doubt thinking he was hot shit, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” He meant it, and so do his ideological heirs. 

As any hope that we can “return to normal” without simultaneously triggering enormous human suffering continues to fade far far away, the left desperately needs a persuasive answer for how we can secure people’s well-being without throwing them in front of the plague. In order to do that, we can’t pretend that those in executive suites and private villas have basically the same interests as those surviving off of food pantry rations or who ride the bus to work every day terrified that they won’t make it out alive. The ruins of market capitalism, and the horrific human costs of tying public fate to its whims and incentives, are all around us. And it has again made clear that our best shot at a sensible, humane world lies with everyday people demanding a full menu of social democratic policy.  

This is why the Michigan example is important for the Left. As organizers here know too well, ours is one of the most viciously segregated states in the country. And with plenty of economic despair to go around, the ground is fertile for classic divide-and-conquer politics that drives deep wedges between communities that should be building lasting solidarity. After all, the multi-racial working class is rich with shared adversaries, but also with shared aspirations. The latter has become increasingly clear thanks to the tireless dedication of everyday organizers here, proving that people in the rustiest of states still have lively and kinetic imaginations, and that we can “go into difficult terrain” and raise “people’s expectations that their life can be better.” If only, as Reyes and Coffia write, we reject the “shadowy billionaires who seek to stoke fear and paranoia” and instead decide “to have each others’ backs.” 

Enduring the Bureaucracy

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. ‘It is possible,’ answers the doorkeeper, ‘but not at this moment.’ Since the door leading into the Law stands open as usual and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man bends down to peer through the entrance. When the doorkeeper sees that, he laughs and says: ‘If you are so strongly tempted, try to get in without my permission. But note that I am powerful. And I am only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other. Even the third of these has an aspect that even I cannot bear to look at.’ 

Franz Kafka, The Trial

I freely admit that I am a bad driver. I have that exact combination of distractibility and lack of spatial awareness that makes someone a complete disaster on the road. I try to drive carefully, but Texas highways are a demolition derby, and it’s hard not to get carried away. And so, given how many times I likely should have been pulled over, and wasn’t, I probably had no real reason to feel affronted that day when a cop flagged me down a little outside San Antonio. I still managed to muster a sense of righteous indignation, because on this particular occasion, I was barely going seven miles above the speed limit.

The cop pointed out that I was speeding, and I gave him a faintly incredulous look. People regularly did 90mph on this stretch of highway, and we both knew it. The cop wrote me a ticket with no dollar amount. “How much is it, though?” I asked. I don’t know, the cop told me, you have to call the phone number listed on the back. I dragged myself home, posted the ticket on my fridge, and forgot about it until a week before the payment was due.

That I would eat the cost of the ticket, rather than fighting it out in court, was a foregone conclusion. I told myself that this was because of my overweening pride and haughtiness, refusing to prostrate myself before The Man, and not because I’m lazy, impatient, and intermittently terrified of strangers. Nonetheless, I was still pretty shocked when I called the number as instructed, and a voice on the phone told me that I owed the city of Von Ormy a whopping $430 dollars. “I was seven miles above the speed limit!” I exclaimed. Yes, and that was $230, the voice told me patiently, plus an extra $200 for an expired registration. Still on the phone, I angrily googled Von Ormy and immediately found a number of news articles dubbing it a “libertarian experiment,” where residents aren’t charged taxes and which, consequently, seems to be in a constant state of economic freefall. That certainly explained why they have traffic cops stationed right on the part of the highway where the speed limit changes from 75 to 70, looking for passing cars to shake down. I asked if I could pay the ticket online, and was told no—the only way to pay was by money order.

One day before the deadline, I called the court in Von Ormy to confirm that they received the money order I’d mailed them. “Where did you mail it to?” the voice on the phone asked me. “The courthouse,” I said. The voice told me, pityingly, that I shouldn’t have mailed it to the courthouse. I was supposed to mail it to a mysterious P.O. box, obviously. At this point, it fully dawned on me that a money order is not like a check, where the funds won’t be drawn if they don’t reach their intended recipient—I had basically just sent a $430 wad of cash off into some kind of postal abyss. And now the deadline for paying by mail had passed, the voice on the phone told me, so I would have to come settle my ticket in person.

I said something incoherent about how libertarianism was literally highway robbery, and hung up.

In the end, I got my ticket paid, leapfrogging an entire roomful of fellow-miscreants at the courthouse who were all anxiously waiting to try to bargain down their tickets with the prosecutor. My ability to circumvent that specific, time-consuming part of the process was purely a privilege of wealth: I had enough money in my bank account to cover the sticker price of the ticket, notwithstanding my earlier fuck-up with the money order, and so I bought my way out of the room as quickly as possible.

This anecdote, apart from being a classic showpiece of my unremitting administrative incompetence, is, I think, a pretty good example of how we mortals usually interface with bureaucracies, both the government and private bureaucracies which exercise control over important parts of our lives. Bureaucratic processes have lots of rules; some of those rules are unwritten; some are written down, but not consistently followed; some are written down, but not in a place you have access to; random officials determine which rules will be invoked at which times; and, usually, there are a series of escape-valves where, if you have enough money, you can just bribe yourself out of the remaining hassle.

Bureaucracy, of course, looks very different when viewed from the perspective of those who govern (or those who sympathize with those who govern), as opposed to those who are governed. For political scientists, bureaucracy is a normal and unavoidable feature of large states. No executive can single-handedly administrate a large polity, and so the development of systematized decision-making procedures that can be delegated downwards is the inevitable outcome. (That bureaucratic systems would develop within private enterprises seems even less surprising, since there’s no pretense of drawing authority from any kind of public mandate.) And in many polities present and historical—from imperial China to the Carolingian Empire to 19th-century Britain—bureaucracies have been imagined as a meritocratic alternative to pure nepotism, the idea being that individuals without significant wealth or family power could enter a bureaucratic system and advance within it, based solely on talent.

In the United States, where our political consciousness is mostly limited to elections, and few of us have any cognizance of how bureaucrats are chosen and elevated, this rosy view of bureaucracy isn’t nearly as widely-held, but some recent media has romanticized bureaucrats and civil servants. Think of The West Wing, dramatizing the behind-the-scenes labors of White House administrators, or Parks and Recreation, where main character Leslie Knope is presented as the quintessential virtuous bureaucrat: eccentrically delighted by regulations and procedures, tirelessly hard-working, and ambitious in the service of the public good. Bureaucrats are, in these shows, imagined to be the epitome of responsible, effective governance, separate from and more high-minded than the rat-race of electoral politics.

This, however, is a vision of bureaucracy from the perspective of bureaucrats themselves. The vision of bureaucracy from the perspective of those who are subjects of bureaucracy is simply: paperwork. There is a thing I need, and I cannot get it unless I fill out a million incomprehensible forms. There is something I have done wrong, in the eyes of the state, and in order to correct it, I must perform a series of bizarre tasks, like a rat in an experiment. Miniscule irregularities in my compliance with these administrative rituals confer immense power on the bureaucrat tasked with evaluating me: such an error gives that bureaucrat untrammeled license to reject my request if they so choose. If the fictional face of the bureaucrat is Leslie Knope, the fictional face of the bureaucratic subject is Josef K., the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial, who finds himself trapped between a nebulous court and a shadowy Committee of Affairs as he struggles to navigate something he knows only as “the process.”

Art by Tiffany Pai

My most nightmarish encounters with bureaucratic systems, unsurprisingly, have occurred in connection with my work as an immigration lawyer. When people think about why our immigration system is bad, they often think about armed patrolmen at the border, prison guards at detention centers, ICE agents conducting workplace raids, etc. But our immigration system is also, at its core, an extremely large and intricate bureaucracy, and many of the bad decisions that affect people’s lives within this system are not made by, say, racist immigration cops going rogue in the field, but by immigration bureaucrats calmly reviewing paperwork in an office. It’s hard to convey the extent to which the rules of this system are deliberately set up to ensure that most immigrants are unable to follow the law, no matter how hard they try. This, in turn, then gives the government handy anecdotes and statistics to trot out in order to suggest that immigrants, much like Josef K., are not Complying With The Process.

Let me give you an example of a problem that I encounter frequently. I work primarily with immigrant mothers and children who are imprisoned at a family detention center in Dilley, Texas. One of the ways that moms and kids end up in that detention center is because they were picked up by ICE for having an order of deportation that was entered against them automatically when they failed to show up for their scheduled hearing in immigration court.

Now, you might well suspect that people who miss their immigration court hearings are skipping them on purpose, knowing that our court system is incredibly hostile, and fearing that they’ll lose their case. I certainly wouldn’t blame any immigrant for doing this, since it’s exactly what I would do in their shoes, without hesitation. However, this is not why the vast majority of the families I’ve worked with have missed their hearings. In fact, the #1 reason that people miss their hearings is because they never knew they had a hearing. How do I know that these families are telling the truth? Because most of them were arrested at their required check-ins with ICE, to which they continued to faithfully report even after their deportation orders had been entered. Why the hell would you keep attending your scheduled meetings with immigration officials if your intention was to go into hiding?

In fact, the story I hear from these families detained at their check-ins is almost always the same: “I did everything I was supposed to do. I checked my mail every day. I went to all my meetings with immigration. I answered all of immigration’s phone calls. I always complied with the law. I don’t understand why my children and I were arrested.” When I would dig further into their history, I would usually find out that the family, at some point, moved to a different address than the one they registered with immigration when they arrived in the United States. They had, of course, dutifully informed ICE of their new address at their check-in, and an ICE officer had written it down on an official-looking form right there in front of them, and the family had believed, quite reasonably, that they had successfully updated their address with “the government.” Little did they know, of course, that “immigration” (a.k.a. ICE) is housed under a completely different department than the immigration court system, which is responsible for mailing their hearing notices. To change their address with the court, there is a completely different piece of paper they have to fill out and mail to several specific locations within five days of relocating. ICE, with whom these families meet every month, doesn’t give a shit whether the families get their hearing notice at the correct address, so they don’t go out of their way to let the families know that there are additional steps they need to take. And so then, of course, the family shows up at their scheduled check-in one day, never having known that they even had a court hearing scheduled, only for immigration to gleefully inform the family that they’ve lost their case and take them into custody. (Other times, the family’s registered address is entirely up-to-date, and the government just fucks up sending the notice in the mail—this happens with some frequency, too.)

So let’s suppose you’ve missed your hearing in immigration court, and you’ve automatically been issued an order of deportation—what can you do next? Many immigrants in this situation, I assume, simply get carted off and deported without fanfare, because most detention centers are remote and it’s hard to get legal services. If you happen to be detained at a center where there are lawyers on hand to help you, you could perhaps get assistance in filing a special motion to reopen your case with the immigration court. Courts are generally pretty stingy about granting these, but if you were prevented from attending your hearing for reasons that a particular judge views as sufficiently credible and legally compelling, they might decide to give you another chance.

Now, you might think: okay, sure, a very poor, recently-arrived, non-English-speaking family can’t reasonably be expected to navigate the immigration bureaucracy on their own. But if a trained immigration lawyer were right there, guiding them through each step of the process, surely everything would go fine! Well, not so much. We’ll leave aside the substance of the lawyer’s arguments, and how absurd the judge’s ultimate decision can be: I’ve had motions to reopen denied for families who were literally kidnapped by drug cartels on the date of their scheduled hearing. Let’s just focus on the bureaucratic considerations: can the lawyer even manage to get the damn motion filed in the right immigration court? When an immigrant you’re trying to help has been shipped to a detention center for processing prior to deportation, there’s a very good chance that the court in which their proceedings took place is located clear on the other side of the country, and also that you’re looking at a same-day window of time to get the documents filed with that specific court before your client is put on a plane. Can you file documents electronically with an immigration court, in This Year Of Our Lord 2020? OBVIOUSLY FUCKING NOT. You need to file in hard copy, which means either mailing the thing overnight—very expensive, and possibly not fast enough—or finding an actual human in the city where the court is located, who can drop everything they’re doing and run to deliver documents for you.

Okay, let’s suppose you manage to find someone who’s available to file the motion. You may still be screwed. Everything depends on the government clerk at the court filing window. The clerk can choose to accept your filing—thus temporarily pausing the immigrant’s deportation, and possibly giving you a chance to reverse their deportation order (which again, I can’t stress enough, was probably entered against them for the most bullshit reasons imaginable)—or reject your filing, thus ensuring their immediate removal. A lot is riding on this decision! Surely, a clerk wouldn’t reject a filing for some reason that makes no goddamn sense! Reader: they would. I’ve seen clerks reject emergency filings because they didn’t contain “wet” ink signatures, when, again, the person was detained thousands of miles from the court and couldn’t have transmitted an original signature to the court in time with anything other than actual wizardry. I’ve seen clerks reject filings because they weren’t hole-punched at the top, when a hole-punch was sitting right at the clerk’s elbow at the moment of the rejection. I’ve endured agonizing phone calls with clerks who rejected filings for reasons they were entirely unable to explain, or who pretended to accept filings at the window and then quietly rejected them later without telling anyone. 

The consequences for these administrative decisions can be huge. We are talking about people getting deported because the government never told them they had a hearing, imprisoned them so far from the courthouse that they couldn’t send their documents in time, and rejected the documents that strangers rushed to file on their behalf. Lots of individual actors within the system had to make lots of little decisions, based on mysterious rules, for this insane result to be possible.


What kind of a person becomes a bureaucrat? Honestly, part of the reason that I dislike bureaucrats so intensely, I think, is because I have certain personality traits in common with them. I prefer rote, repetitive, predictable work-tasks to complicated, highly context-dependent work-tasks. I don’t really like having direct authority over others, nor do I enjoy subjecting myself to the personal whims of an individual boss, so making decisions independently but based off a tree, so to speak, is comfortable for me. I’d like to have a job that I didn’t have to think about very hard, where I felt like my responsibilities were pretty clear-cut, and where my mind would be freed up for my own imaginative and creative pursuits. In the right setting, I would probably be a reasonably contented pencil-pusher.

I also have some of the characteristic flaws of bureaucrats. When someone asks me a question I don’t know how to answer, or wants something from me that I don’t know how to give them, I have a tendency to bluster, shut down, or try whatever else I can to prod the problem away from me. When I was in high school, I worked as a cashier at a toy store, and I dimly recall that there were many times where I couldn’t figure out how to find some item, and I sort of just… played dumb until the customer gave up. Those were low stakes, of course: other than a modicum of lost revenue for my employers, and I don’t know, the tears of disappointed children, there were no negative consequences. There are some bureaucracies that are like this, too, where the work is low-stakes, and incompetence and lack of problem-solving initiative has limited consequences (or it seems that way, because the consequences are attenuated or invisible). Then there are other kinds of bureaucracies, where the bureaucrats who work within them are constantly exposed to the suffering, despair, pain, and anger of the people who are subject to these bureaucracies. I think I share some of the flaws of these bureaucrats, too. I know how it is to feel like the system you’re working in is monstrously large, and your hands are tied; to feel irrationally angry at suffering people, who presume to think you have the power to do something for them when you simply don’t; how it feels when a person becomes a problem for you, and you want the problem to go away, and you experience a certain psychological relief when that happens, regardless of whether it went away because you solved it, or because you failed to solve it, so long as you don’t have to hear about it again. I know all these feelings intimately, and I think they’re evidence that these kinds of rule-governed systems warp the minds and empathetic faculties of the people who are forced into contact with them.

Of course, it’s hard to get around the need to have something like a bureaucracy in many areas of life. After all, if our goal is to have something approaching a world where resources are justly apportioned, that entails some sort of system for tracking how many resources are going where, and what uses they’ll be put to. Misuse of resources, whether from human error or calculated graft, feels inevitable if there are no systems for tracking what’s going where. Keeping things efficient is impossible without set procedures on set issues that lower-level functionaries of the system can implement without needing to do a complicated moral and logistical calculus every single time. “Efficiency” is, of course, an overused term, and valueless when it describes—as it so often does—means without reference to ends. But a healthcare system, a food distribution system, a sewage system, or any other complex system that carries life and death consequences for those who rely on it, ought to be efficient. A multitude of small calculations must be made in such a system, and it’s hard to imagine how anything like direct democracy could accomplish it, or how you’d get around the need to have decisions made primarily by people with expertise in the subject area. And so I am not quite proposing that the whole notion of bureaucracy—in the sense of systems whose day-to-day functioning is largely determined by procedures—should or could be eliminated in their entirety.

But I think there are a few things that need to be considered when it comes to bureaucracies. One is that no bureaucracies should exist that are not absolutely necessary. To me, the immigration bureaucracy is—not shockingly—a prime example of a bureaucracy that has absolutely no justifying purpose and should be ripped up by the roots and replaced with precisely nothing. There is no good reason to be tracking and evaluating and fining and imprisoning and exiling a subset of the population that happens to be living in a different place than the one where they were born. Many bureaucracies are merely fronts for resource extraction (such as the DMV and traffic courts) or data-mining and public surveillance (such as the NSA), and could be eliminated with no ill effects, and many benefits. But other bureaucracies are harder to imagine away. For example, even if you get rid of the health insurance bureaucracy, some kind of healthcare bureaucracy must necessarily exist, since a healthcare system must involve extensive decisions about and tracking of the diversion of critical resources, lest we run out of something we need.

So what about necessary bureaucracies—what do we do with them? Firstly, it seems important that any bureaucracy that retains a significant level of power should have its officials directly elected by the people whom the bureaucracy exists to serve. The president’s ability, for example, to wield direct power through opaque executive agencies is one of the chief reasons why our nominally democratic government is forever spiraling into various forms of executive tyranny. Sure, there’s a slight check in the form of congressional approval for the heads of agencies, but presidents, including Trump, have gotten around this requirement without much trouble. Bureaucrats should not be allowed to be invisible. Any person who holds significant power should have direct accountability to—which effectively means some direct mechanism for removability by—the people whose lives are affected by their decisions. Secondly, interjecting more direct public participation into bureaucracies that theoretically serve public interests is probably the only means of ensuring that these systems remain remotely intelligible and functional. Tools like public referenda, for example, could be required to endorse significant policy shifts within bureaucracies, and help ensure that their functions are optimally useful to the public, not optimally useful to unseen administrators.

The reality is that it is unwise to simply trust bureaucrats, as it’s unwise to simply trust anyone with unaccountable power. While civic-minded, virtuous bureaucrats do sometimes exist in real life, they are not the norm, and are more often characterized by their willingness to bend or break procedural rules than their commitment to following them. (Think of Chiune Sugihara or Raoul Wallenberg, diplomats during World War II who, at personal and professional risk, issued thousands of unorthodox travel documents to European Jews so that they could escape transportation to concentration camps.) Most bureaucrats you encounter in day-to-day life obey the rules, and they are awful. When right-wingers invoke the specter of Big Government Bureaucrats Coming Between You and Your Doctor (or Children, Guns, Soda, etc.), their rhetoric is frequently effective, and that’s because it reminds people of their actual, painful interactions with bureaucracies. Rather than trying to convince people that government bureaucrats are actually great, and that people are stupid for not appreciating public service—as The West Wing and Parks and Recreation attempt to do—the left should concede that 1) bureaucracies are bad; 2) at their best, they are necessary evils; 3) they will always be compromised of ordinary humans clumsily implementing best-fit rules; and 4) that constant public collaboration is necessary to prevent them from becoming burdensome and exploitative. Otherwise, bureaucracies won’t facilitate service to the public. They will instead continue to impose impossible obstacles between the public and what it needs.