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Brexit and Trump: Backlash against Globalism

In 2016, the twin shocks of the Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election lay open the fissure between the neoliberal elites and the despised working class they pretend to represent. The center-left British and American media have tried to attribute this phenomenon to mindless xenophobia, in their usual patronizing manner. In doing so, they betray the democratic principle that the people are the best judges of their own interests. The alternative would be to recognize the failures of neoliberal government.

In both cases, we see an overreaching of economic neoliberalism, which began as a series of multilateral trade agreements allowing free transfer of commodities and capital. Extending this further to the free movement of workers across national borders, without a concurrent improvement in labor rights, makes the race to the bottom for cheap labor even easier.

In the 1970s there was a similar increase in immigration, but there was no public backlash since the labor market could accommodate this. After decades of racing to the bottom, pursuing cheaper labor in the Third World, the neoliberals perform the final insult of allowing the cheap labor to migrate to the First World. It does not require any racial animus toward immigrants to see this. It is absurd to pretend that people are more racist now than 40 years ago. The difference is that there is no longer a strong labor market from the workers’ perspective. Even the more educated find they must compete with students and graduates from around the globe who come to Western universities.

From management’s perspective, the labor market is great: an oversupply of qualified candidates willing to work for relatively lower salaries (in uninflated terms). It is obvious that the cheerleading political and cultural elites generally take the side of management on this issue, all their socialist platitudes notwithstanding. This is why it was utterly shocking and irrational to them why the masses would vote for change when everything was going so well.

The media are so invested in the status quo, that they lost sight that there was ever a productive economy before neoliberalism. Various pundits proclaimed that the U.K. economy would collapse outside the European Union, which has only existed in its present form since 1992. Not only do much smaller economies than the U.K. manage to thrive outside such a union, but a free trade compact does not necessarily have to involve free immigration.

At any rate, the predictions were false, and all interpretations of facts have shown elitist confirmation bias. First, it was suggested that instances of Googling “what is the EU” proved that people voted out of ignorance, as if children don’t use the Internet. Second, they thought to confirm their own wisdom when the pound went down, though currency markets are a poor measure of economic strength. Currency trading is completely unregulated speculation based on purely subjective assessment of value. Here the market simply reflected the panicked atmosphere, and even that only briefly, since the Euro, lest it be forgotten, has not done much better. A year later, the U.K. economy has not collapsed or even done especially poorly, but this failed prediction has been ignored.

The failings of the European Union are already well documented. In brief, the Union over-expanded to countries that could not be reasonably held to the same rigid monetary policy. Further, it was over-ambitious in extending the nature of the Union from a common market to a politically sovereign institution. This ignored substantial differences of national interest and culture among Europeans. The free migration of peoples, innocuous when it was limited to the affluent European nations, proved disastrous in terms of economics and security when it was extended to Eastern Europe. Now all of Europe was at the mercy of the countries with the most lax immigration policies.

Anyone who raised these concerns was dismissed as an isolationist or a xenophobe. People were forced to pretend, absurdly, that Muslims have no greater propensity to terrorism than other groups, or to ignore that too rapid admittance of immigrants hampers cultural assimilation. Economic concerns were dismissed by pointing at overall economic indicators, promoting the “rising tide lifts all boats” myth usually confined to conservatives. While claiming to deplore inequality, neoliberals actively promoted the relative pauperization of their countrymen, forcing them to join the Third World race to the bottom.

In the United States, the non-ideological nature of this discontent was made clear by the spread of support to the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders and the inscrutably non-ideological Donald Trump. The first was thwarted in part by the bias of the Democratic Party, which had decided from the outset to anoint Hillary Clinton. She would have run virtually unopposed had not the independent Sanders decided to run as a Democrat. Even then, the Democratic National Committee favored Clinton with its human resources, its media influence, and its disciplinary authority, as proved by leaked DNC emails.  We should not be surprised that the media considers the leak of the e-mails to be a greater affront to democracy than their content.

Trump was successful not only because of his ability and energy as a campaigner (shown by his brutal travel schedule), but because the Republican primary was much more open and divided. This was perceived early, but attempts by some of the mainstream candidates to combine their constituencies proved of no avail. In fact, the more clear it became that the Trump candidacy was opposed by the party, the greater his appeal became. Here at last was someone who might refuse to take his cues from the globalist free trade crowd.

More so than Sanders, Trump appealed to nationalist sentiment, which was hardly unique, but he did so in a way that refused to apologize for preferring one’s countrymen over all others. This was timely considering the sense of disenfranchisement that prevailed. On specifics, he seemed to be out of sync with reality, repeating canards he had used for decades. His complaints about illegal Mexican immigration ignored the fact that net migration from Mexico is now negative; most of the “damage” has already been done. Concerns about foreign-born terrorists were more appropriate for Europe than the U.S. Although his specific facts were often wrong, he played the right theme. Anyone who knew anything about business understood the cost of globalization and which people were hurt most by it, “rising tide” or not. The difference is that this businessman actually seemed to care about this predicament, and would listen to those who had stories that didn’t comport with neoliberal theory.

On foreign policy, the enigmatic Trump at first seemed to be an anti-interventionist, with his criticisms of the debacles in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and of the needless provocations of Russia. Perhaps we might have the first non-imperialist president since Hoover. It would be a mistake, however, to look for a coherent foreign policy from Trump, who is guided more by instinct than ideology. Consistent with his aggressive style, he soon turned toward calls for “carpet bombing,” fell in line with Zionism, and promised absurd increases in military spending. This militarist trajectory would continue into his early presidency.

I did not expect Trump to win the election, agreeing with most pundits that the electoral math made this exceedingly unlikely. Basically, he would have to sweep the key battleground states and steal some traditionally Democratic states. Faltering in even one of these states would assure a Clinton victory. Instead, he made a clean sweep of the key battlegrounds, and stunningly picked up historically Democratic Michigan and Wisconsin, completing a sweep of the Rust Belt with Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These are areas that Hillary Clinton infamously took for granted and under-campaigned. Yet mere canvassing would be ineffective unless accompanied by a substantive agenda addressing the devastation these areas have experienced due to neoliberal globalization of trade and immigration. Anyone who has visited coal country, as I have recently, finding Confederate flags (in the North) and Trump banners in dilapidated, semi-deserted towns, making “white privilege” an absurdly ignorant epithet, should not wonder why they voted for Trump. Instead, we should be amazed that they have not stormed the cities in armed revolt against those who have sold out their country.

The Aesthetics of Psychics

Is there such a thing as being psychic? After a century of failure to validate any claims of telepathy, clairvoyance, fortune-telling, and the like, it might seem daft even to raise the question. Yet this would be to ignore the reality from which the modern notion of “being psychic” emerged. There have always been people who are acutely sensitive to nature and to other people. They may pick up on nearly imperceptible signals and are attentive to the spiritual or mental states of others, or even that of nature, being raised to ecstasy or troubled with pain. Though there might not be anything properly supernatural about this, it is far from an ordinary ability. This is something real, like having rhythm, but there is a temptation to make this into something intelligible, thereby falsifying it.

When you try to make “being psychic” something intelligible, like telepathically receiving words or images, you take whatever was real about such sensitivity and turn it to something false. The modern notion of “being psychic” incoherently flounders between nature and supernature. Is it a natural power? If so, then it would be something intelligible under our notions of physics and biology. It would be something measurable, testable, with some genetic or molecular basis. Is it something beyond our nature? In that case, there is no sense in speaking of someone “being psychic,” as the supernatural phenomenon belongs to something other than the person. When you try to make it something intelligible, following a fixed rule, you make it into something that will be proven false, since you have denied what was real about it.

Do the empirical falsifications of psychic claims mean there is no such thing as psychics? Only in the sense of having determinate powers following some fixed rules. If we return to the original conception of someone who is sensitive or in rapport with his fellow creatures, or with the reality that underlies them, we can no more say that this is unreal than that there is no such thing as having rhythm. A person who “has rhythm” goes by feel, knowing when to speed up, slow down, hesitate, or keep two times at once. If he were to try to write this in musical notation, or to turn his gift for improvisation into a fixed set of rules, he thereby would falsify the gift, producing something other than his art.

Ancient cultures recognized that certain people had a sensitivity to nature, a rapport with the fundament of reality. This was manifested as a sense of harmony, balance or peace. In cultures with more ethical conceptions of the Divinity underlying nature, those who had a rapport with goodness, wisdom (not intelligence) or justice might be trusted to speak for God. Again, attempting to render this intelligible falsifies it. We intuitively apprehend, for example, that it is good and beautiful to save life, while it is evil and ugly to murder. If you try to rationalize it, saying that it is to your biological advantage or in your enlightened self-interest to abstain from murder or to prefer a society where people aren’t allowed to go around killing each other, you have taken the virtue out of virtue. You are saying that the only reason you don’t kill is because it is not expedient to kill, which is hardly distinguishable from the soul of a murderer. The assumption that reality is always improved by making it more intelligible is repeatedly falsified in art, morality and religion. Those who are wedded to this assumption will have a low appreciation of these aspects of human existence.

Psychics represent a segment of the population who are not ashamed of their subjectivity, and recognize it as a basic reality that needs no extrinsic justification. They go astray, however, in modern society, starting in the nineteenth century, when some psychics thought they needed to make their abilities into something objective, in order to be respectable. This naturally failed. If we are surprised at why psychics persist in their self-belief even after empirical falsification (setting aside the shameless charlatans), we must recognize that they still retain some sense of subjectivity as a value in itself. Indeed, without such self-belief, their aesthetic sensibility would be impossible. An artist must have confidence in every stroke, every beat, or his work will lose the quality of art, making it something too labored, too constructed. Those who lack the ability to feel a Negro spiritual well enough to sing it are incompetent to judge this area of existence. Instead of looking down upon the lack of technique or understanding, they should look up to the noble genius that reveals a glimpse of deepest reality, if only as a flash to be seen, not understood.

Some will dismiss this as obscurantism, but even the most plodding intellectual endeavors in science and philosophy are subservient to this aesthetic desire for insight. Without this, no one could take any joy from his work. Scientists themselves do not criticize the idea that Truth is a positive value to be sought. The worthiness and nobility of their endeavor is something presupposed, and any attempts to justify science in terms of expedience, i.e., for its technological and economic benefits, reduce it to something unspeakably profane and bourgeois. No one could revere a science for such mundane reasons. If it is shameful and falsifying to rationalize scientific pursuits, let us not rationalize the overtly aesthetic.

Obama: More of the Same

When Barack Obama campaigned for president in 2008, he postured as an outsider who would bring real change to Washington. Those of us who paid more attention to his policy prescriptions than his racial background noticed that in fact he was just another fiscal moderate / social liberal in the mold of John Kerry. His one distinguishing trait from Hillary Clinton was his apparently non-imperialist foreign policy, exemplified by his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq. Between the election and his inauguration, he debunked his own mythology by finalizing Bush’s bank bailout and nominating Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, thereby defeating the purpose of choosing him over her. Once again, the imperial establishment won.

The center-left news media, being a propaganda organ of the neoliberal elites, who gleefully dole out freedoms in sexuality and narcotics in place of any real political or economic power, continued to burnish the Obama mythos, despite all evidence against it. He was praised as an agent of peace and a man of the people even as he continued the American imperial project and defended the financiers who ruined the economy. He was actually praised while doing the exact same things for which Bush had been vilified. Here are some of the more pertinent similarities to his predecessor.

Both Bush and Obama lowered corporate taxes and increased U.S. energy production. In the 2012 campaign, Obama boasted of having eliminated 77 government programs and having cut $1T in discretionary spending. “More importantly,” he said, “cuts will help us grow,” accepting GDP growth as a categorical imperative. He cut $716 billion from Medicare, ostensibly from overpaying insurers and providers.

In his second debate with Romney, Obama postured as being pro-oil and gas production, and did not challenge the dogma that the economy trumps other social criteria. He claimed that Romney’s “social extremism” (i.e., the values that were the norm of Western civilization until yesterday) was “bad for the economy.” At the same time, he bragged about small businesses and tax cuts for the middle class, while claiming that Romney’s cuts “won’t help us grow.”

In counter-terrorism, he evinced the same vengeful attitude that was deplored in his predecessor, saying, “When you mess with Americans, we hunt you down.” He liked to boast that national security is not political, only confirming that U.S. foreign policy is dominated by a power elite straddling both parties.

For all his supposed sophistication, he shared with Romney the simplistic mercantile canard that a country needs to have a “favorable” balance of trade by increasing exports.

In foreign policy, the similarities are most striking. Obama kept military spending high, in fact above the Bush-era peak. He openly claimed the right to depose heads of state at will, even when they posed no immediate threat to the U.S. He remained pro-Zionist, while engaging in anti-Iranian rhetoric, using the deceitful claim that Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the map” as though they had genocidal intentions. His pledge to stand by Israel if attacked binds the U.S. to whatever aggressive policy Israel exercises toward her neighbors.

He boasted about his war of choice against Gaddafi, and claimed there was no “mission creep.” He bragged about killing Bin Laden without obtaining permission to enter Pakistani airspace. In a word, he showed the same contempt for the sovereignty of other nations’ as his imperialist predecessors.

In 2012, Obama recast his opposition to the Iraq war in imperialist terms, claiming that the fault was not the lack of just cause to invade a sovereign nation (he could claim no such high ground after Libya), but because, absurdly, this supposedly “took our eye off the ball” in Afghanistan, as if the U.S. military couldn’t do two things at once. He claimed he could focus on Afghanistan after the war in Iraq ended. The withdrawal actually was completed on Bush’s schedule, despite Obama’s attempt to get the Iraqis to allow U.S. troops to stay longer. He actually increased the use of drone strikes compared with Bush.

Like other American imperialists, Obama proclaimed the objective of promoting the free market system everywhere. He also espoused “nationalism in trade,” which means protectionism if it means anything, and making sure that everyone else plays by the rules. In other words, when it was time for re-election, he played to the same economic populism and nationalism for which he later disparaged his successor.

In view of these broad outlines, my readers may perhaps be less than surprised when I fail to get caught up in U.S. partisan politics. They are both halves of the same imperialist whole, or at least that has been the case until the unthinkable happened in 2016. More on that to come.

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