George Orwell on why early socialists got things so wrong

In an essay from 1941, George Orwell explains why socialists like H.G. Wells failed to see the dark side of the Soviet movement or to predict the rise of the Nazis:

If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same.

On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man.

Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner.

There survives somewhere or other an interesting controversy which took place between Wells and Churchill at the time of the Russian Revolution. Wells accuses Churchill of not really believing his own propaganda about the Bolsheviks being monsters dripping with blood, etc., but of merely fearing that they were going to introduce an era of common sense and scientific control, in which flag-wavers like Churchill himself would have no place. Churchill’s estimate of the Bolsheviks, however, was nearer the mark than Wells’s.

The early Bolsheviks may have been angels or demons, according as one chooses to regard them, but at any rate they were not sensible men. They were not introducing a Wellsian Utopia but a Rule of the Saints, which like the English Rule of the Saints, was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials.

The same misconception reappears in an inverted form in Wells’s attitude to the Nazis. Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately. But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good.

The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous.

Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration.

The first thing sold on the Internet was a bag of marijuana

Online highs are old as the net: the first e-commerce was a drugs deal – Mike Power:

News in this year’s Global Drugs Survey that internet drug dealing was on the rise will have alarmed, surprised or intrigued many people. But the very first thing bought and sold on the net was a bag of marijuana – over 40 years ago.

In 1971 or 1972, Stanford students using Arpanet accounts at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory engaged in a commercial transaction with their counterparts at Massachussetts Institute of Technology. Before Amazon, before eBay, the seminal act of e-commerce was a drug deal. The students used the network to quietly arrange the sale of an undetermined amount of marijuana.

Everyone should fear the police state

Salon has an amazing piece of investigative journalism by Radly Balko about the militarization of the police force in the United States over the last few decades. It’s a bit long, so I excerpted the parts I think everyone should see. If you have the time, I recommend reading the whole story.

A 2009 G-20 summit shows us that we can be arrested for pretty much anything:

The most egregious police actions seemed to take place on the Friday evening before the summit, around the university, when police began ordering students who were in public spaces to disperse, despite the fact that they had broken no laws. Students who moved too slowly were arrested, as were students who were standing in front of the dormitories where they lived.

A University of Pittsburgh spokesman later said that the tactic was to break up crowds that “had the potential of disrupting normal activities, traffic flow, egress and the like. . . . Much of the arrests last night had to do with failure to disperse when ordered.” Note that no one needed to have broken any actual laws to get arrested. The potential to break a law was more than enough. That standard was essentially a license for the police to arrest anyone, anywhere in the city, at any time, for any reason.

“What’s that? Freedom of press you say? ‘Cuff him, Jim.”:

At the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, police conducted peremptory raids on the homes of protesters before the convention had even started. Police broke into the homes of people known to be activist rabble-rousers before they had any evidence of any actual crime. Journalists who inquired about the legitimacy of the raids and arrests made during the convention were also arrested. In all, 672 people were put in handcuffs.

I think we can all agree that matching shirts are cute. Especially when they’re bragging about beating non-violent protestors:

Perhaps the best insight into the mentality the police brought to the DNC protests could be found on the T-shirts the Denver police union had printed up for the event. The shirts showed a menacing cop holding a baton. The caption: DNC 2008: WE GET UP EARLY, TO BEAT THE CROWDS. Police were spotted wearing similar shirts at the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. At the 1996 DNC convention in Chicago, cops were seen wearing shirts that read: WE KICKED YOUR FATHER’S ASS IN 1968 . . . WAIT ’TIL YOU SEE WHAT WE DO TO YOU!

“I don’t care about any of this, the only people who have to worry about the police are criminals.” Or, you know, small business owners:

In June 2006, Ruttenberg filed a civil rights suit alleging that, among other things, using a SWAT team to conduct an alcohol inspection was an unreasonable use of force.  In 2010, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied his claim. So for now, in the Fourth Circuit, sending a SWAT team to make sure a bar’s beer is labeled correctly is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

No, we don’t live in ‘1984’

Sorry, We’re Not Living in Orwell’s ‘1984’:

The information leaked by Snowden should cause alarm as should the loose legal oversight governing the NSA’s massive data-mining campaign. Nevertheless, the invocations of Orwell are not unlike Bush-era claims of an emerging strain of American fascism, or the Tea Party’s frequent panting that Obama is indistinguishable from Fidel Castro. A few points of similarity, like the monitoring of huge amounts of data without sufficient congressional or legal oversight, do not establish the literary analogy. The rule here is simple: If you are invoking 1984 in a country in which 1984 is available for purchase and can be freely deployed as a rhetorical device, you likely don’t understand the point of 1984.

[…]

In his 1941 essay “England Your England,” Orwell took pains to highlight this distinction. While identifying the United Kingdom’s numerous “barbarities and anachronisms”—and even declaring the country not a “genuine democracy”—he argued that these defects meant that ideas like “democracy is ‘just the same as’ or ‘just as bad as’ totalitarianism” were colossally wrong, employing fallacious “arguments [that] boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread.”

Yes, the NSA is collecting a lot of data about our communications. That doesn’t mean we live under a totalitarian state. To claim that we do is overly reactionary and keeps us from looking at realistic reforms.

Keynes was right: less than a third of our working hours go towards basic needs

How Much is Enough? Why do we Work so Much and Enjoy so Little Leisure?:

Yet the surprising fact, unnoticed by the Skidelskys, is that we already spend less than 15 hours a week, on average, working in the areas of agriculture, mining, and manufacture. In that sense, Keynes’ prediction has already come true, fifteen years ahead of schedule. Let’s look at some numbers.

[…]

Instead of starting with employment, let’s look at data for GDP. Consumer goods (including durable and nondurable, farm and nonfarm, but excluding services) account for 25.5 percent of U.S. GDP. That includes consumption of imported goods. (Imports of goods are equal to 13.5 percent of U.S. GDP and exports of goods to 9.4 percent, making net imports, including both consumer and non-consumer products, equal to about 4.1 percent of GDP.) Let’s suppose that Americans were to produce all goods consumed in the United States, at an average level of productivity, and at the same time were to drop production of goods for export. Even so, it would still only take 9 hours of our average 35-hour week to meet our demand for consumer goods in full–well below Keynes’ prediction of “three hours a day to satisfy the old Adam in most of us.”

These numbers cast a different light on the puzzle of leisure. The question is not why we spend so many hours a week producing wet suits and golf clubs that we don’t really need. The fact is that goods production doesn’t really occupy much of our working time. The puzzle, instead, is what is important enough to occupy the rest of our working hours, rather than devoting more of them to leisure?

Keynes thought that we’d all be working 15-hour weeks by now. Instead of being content, we work more in order to maintain the services that we associate with a first-world standard of living. The majority of the hours we work don’t go towards basic needs like food and shelter – they finance the government, health care, and education.

General Zod is a Krypto-Zionist

Connor Kilpatrick, in his review of Man of Steel for Jacobin:

If anything, Shannon’s Zod reminded me of an ultra-right Likudnik. The big, loud climax of the movie comes when Zod sends two gigantic robo-drills to terraform Earth into a New Krypton, which would of course end with the total extinction of the human race. But Zod’s not too worried about that. He all but says “can’t make Space-Zion without breaking a few eggs.”

For a character dreamed up by two Jewish boys in Cleveland as a kind of Moses-cum-Christ figure, it’s bizarre that no one’s made this connection yet. Which goes to show you just how off-the-radar the plight of the Palestinians is for both mainstream America as well as our circle of liberal film critics.

Zod’s fervent Krypto-Zionism versus Kal-El’s pluralism and universalism reminded me of a passage from Eric Hobsbawm’s memoir:

“As a historian I observe that, if there is any justification for the claim that the 0.25 per cent of the global population in the year 2000 which constitute the tribe into which I was born are a ‘chosen’ or special people, it rests not on what it has done within the ghettos or special territories, self-chosen or imposed by others, past, present or future. It rests on its quite disproportionate and remarkable contribution to humanity in the wider world, mainly in the two centuries or so since the Jews were allowed to leave the ghettos, and chose to do so. We are, to quote the title of the book of my friend Richard Marienstras, Polish Jew, French Resistance fighter, defender of Yiddish culture and his country’s chief expert on Shakespeare, ‘un peuple en diaspora.’”

Of Liberty and Underemployment

Every summer hundreds of Irish students disembark Berkeley BART station to earn their keep for a summer in San Fran. They come with a J-1 Visa; find a job within a month or go home. These new arrivals go out in groups to drop their CV’s (Irish for resume) wherever mass transit will take them. They wander until their feet hurt, and return with sunburns to their new abodes, perhaps a room full of mattresses in a busy frat house.

Within weeks, the Irish have taken hundreds of openings in stores and restaurants within a forty mile range. Along Telegraph, Piedmont, and Shattuck, chances are you’ll hear that familiar lilt coming from your cook, cashier, or pale and pretty hostess. They are here for a good time, but they are invited to work. The area loses work when the students go home to the summer, and the Irish fill the gap and maintain the nightlife.

I am an American and I need a job. I am 23, I graduated college last year with a degree in the humanities, and I’m still hanging around the college scene. I’m not saying I don’t know other 23 year olds. Who says I don’t go out every other weekend with my girlfriend and ten other coupled 23 year olds to bars with wood paneling and craft beer specials? The point is, I am between two phases and a bit adrift on what to do next. I do know, and we all know, that I now need a job to duck destitution rather than deportation.

I’m not looking for a job in a shop or a restaurant; I’m ready for an office, just to pay my bills in between now and grad school. We all want to go to grad school. I have dress shirts, a clothes iron, and I can tie a bow tie. I try to take to the classic professional approach; it adds some charm to my quivering upstart base. I need a job that one, the Irish don’t have, and two, that pays my bills with some to spare.

Then I saw a flyer on one of the many construction sites around campus. SUMMER JOBS: ACLU canvassers wanted. The Irish can’t take it because of their type of visa. Sometimes I take the role of a college student, and sometimes a college graduate. The former got me this time. I took a tab thinking I’d hit pay dirt. I showed up to the interview all quaffed in a grey suit and discovered I’d hit dirt pay.

I was a millennial clipboard jerk. Hi my name is Eric and I’m a paid fundraiser working on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. They looked at me like I was a mosquito eater. Sure you don’t bite but go away anyways. This was a door to door job that had me in Anywhere, Oakland selling vague Utopian promises with all the credibility of a paper name tag.

The day started in an office. Pro tips: once you get to the office, choose a clipboard first thing so you can get one of the good ones. If you bring your own pens, you’ll have a pen. The shirts are damp with another’s sweat but you’re more likely to make quota with a shirt than with a name tag. We got in, practiced, slumped into a clown car and went out all day with a clipboard and a name tag. In the day it was hot, past 7:30 people were irritated, and it was cold until 9. My feet hurt and I wanted a beer, day after day.

I was good at it. I made quota and got promoted. Then I got chased by a dog. Then I trekked a mile out of territory to relieve myself in a sketchy homeless person bathroom. Then Anywhere, Oakland, was anywhere in Oakland, which wasn’t always hospitable. Then there was no real possibility of commission and it became clear that I couldn’t pay my bills with it. I fulfilled my administrative responsibilities for the day and politely excused myself from my employer.

So I am a college graduate and not a college student. So now what? Both of the roles I’m tackling agree that the ACLU is a fine organization. With our friends the Democrats presiding over a land of cameras and prisons, who else will keep the guns pointed away from us while we cloak ourselves in entitlement and dive into a brave new world? Then who did I represent: the ACLU or the company they contracted to raise funds for their political lobby? Either way, organizations with such strong ties to the labor movement should have higher labor standards. It’s part of dealing with our lot.

Then what is the lot of my age group? We are more educated than our parents, yet we approach a world that demands us to be ever more refined cogs. Broad interests are no interests at all. Office software familiarity is as common as typing skills. You have no skills, no network, and wipe that smirk off your face. While I’m betting on being presentable and capable, will this land me work or land me in the same situation as millions of college graduates who move back in with their parents until they are twenty six and find a job that will be twice as specialized as it is now.

Now I’m a young man. I want to find love, have friends, and have the sense of freedom that comes with taking care of oneself. Then I went home on Father’s Day and hear thirty is the new twenty and life is only going to get more demanding. Do I take a college student job and tough it out like the Irish so I can return home to poverty and a bit of fun, let the mounting abyss of indecision paralyze me, or supplicate myself like a company man to squeeze a job I won’t be qualified for in three years? If you’re saying the world is bleak and I am meek now, don’t despair.

We will inherit the Earth. Clipboard jerking for the ACLU reminded me I’m capable and willing to work hard. We struggle for a place that we will eventually take for ourselves. We are more educated than our parents. Last week two of my friends went bust and are moving back with mom. They had jobs and came home worn and hungry from them to a nice house in a bad neighborhood. They’ve still got time but whose patient? The man has a towering intellect and the woman has the qualifications to run her own theater. Too bad for now, but their abilities remain. We’re all taking the same beating.

Your parents took the beating. The beating has always been around. Your backwards ancestors wanted creationism taught in schools because they felt evolution and the implied competition in that philosophy would subject us to a level of dehumanization not fit for their Christian social progress. The ACLU fought against this in court, most famously in the Scopes trial, for the same reasons you’d favor science today. While you wouldn’t call the current face of Christian politics progressive, we might take that a feeling of dread and dehumanization is and has been universal no matter which political umbrella one cowers under.

So then don’t cower. Are you feeling alienated in your own homeland? The Irish are foreigners and yet they are able to make their own place every year. Remind yourself, this is our land and we are the most able bodied, and the most educated. The coveted youth vote is still ours to be diverted into any project whatsoever. The technology and culture of tomorrow is ours to invent. Our work is valuable, desirable, and innovative. We’ve navigated the most dynamic time in human history our entire lives and will handle it better than our predecessors. Keep producing work, and aim for the work you are entitled to.

The Representatives who voted against the Patriot Act, then got booted out of office

In light of the recent leaks regarding the NSA’s PRISM program and its seizure of Verizon phone records, this video at the Huffington Post has been making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.

The video portrays then-Senator Russ Feingold predicting in 2001 the extent to which the PATRIOT Act would authorize the federal government to snoop into people’s private lives. Feingold later lost his seat in the Senate in his 2010 race against Tea Party-favorite Ron Johnson – who voted in favor of reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act in 2011. 

What makes the video so notable is that Feingold was the only Senator to vote against the act at the time (later reauthorizations received more resistance). This wasn’t the case in the House, where 66 Representatives voted ‘Nay’ in 2001.

Of these 66, the vast majority are still in office. A handful of that group have passed away or retired from public office, but most have stayed in office or gone on to become Senators or Governors for their respective states. Only eight have gone on to lose elections in the years since.

Georgia’s Cynthia McKinney was booted out of office twice. In 2002 she lost in the Democratic primaries after speaking in favor of Arab causes and claiming that President Bush had prior knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (her father making anti-Semitic remarks on television certainly didn’t do her any favors either). Despite being re-elected in 2004, McKinney lost in a 2006 primary election due to striking a Capitol Hill Police Officer earlier that year for stopping her and asking for identification.

Pro-Israel opposition also led to the defeat of Alabama’s Earl Hilliard in 2002. In 1997, Hilliard had made a trip to Libya and voted against a House resolution condemning Palestinian suicide bombing. Four years later, he voted against a bill increasing military support to Israel and criminalizing Palestinian politicians. These factors led to national Jewish organizations backing Hilliard’s opponent, Artur Davis, who took up the issue, stating: “My opponent, Earl Hilliard, has not been a strong supporter of Israel. I have been a very strong supporter of Israel, and if I am elected, Israel will have a friend.”

Two of the Representatives who voted against the PATRIOT Act and lost primaries against popular Democrats due to redistricting. Michigan’s Lynn Rivers found herself running against John Dingell, who had also been a ‘Nay’ on the surveillance law. Dingell won the primary with an overwhelming 64 percent of the vote. Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich was forced to run against incumbent Marcy Kaptur (who had voted in favor of the PATRIOT Act) in 2012 due to his district being eliminated after the 2010 election cycle and lost by a whopping 24 points.

West Virginia’s Alan Mollohan lost his 2010 primary due to his district moving to the right. His opponent, Mike Oliverio, was a conservative Democrat who ran on a platform of aiming to reduce the national debt, being pro-life, and opposing gay marriage. Oliverio won 56% of the vote in the primary and then went on to lose the general election to Republican David McKinley.

Virginia’s Rick Boucher also fell victim to an Appalachian district moving to the right in 2010. Unchallenged by another Democrat in the primaries, he went on to face competition from Republican Morgan Griffith. Griffith brought down Boucher by tying him to President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, running ads with claims like “Obama loves Rick Boucher.” Griffith won the seat with 51.3% of the vote.

Minnesota’s Jim Oberstar faced Tea Party newcomer Chip Cravaack in 2010. Cravaack attacked Oberstar for voting in favor of health care reform, earmarking funding for local infrastructure products, and for voting in favor of cap and trade legislation. Cravaack’s victory was extremely close – 48% to 47%.

California’s Pete Stark faced a rather peculiar situation last year’s election. Under California’s new “nonpartisan blanket” primary system, anyone – regardless of party affiliation – can participate in the primary. The two candidates with the most votes go on to the general election. For Stark, this meant running against fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell. Stark had a higher percentage of the vote in the primary but lost the general election 53% to 47%.

Just as the USSR discredited communists, 1800s America discredited libertarians

Libertarianism’s Achilles’ heel:

The strongest political support for a broad anti-statist libertarianism now comes from the tea party. Yet tea party members, as the polls show, are older than the country as a whole. They say they want to shrink government in a big way but are uneasy about embracing this concept when reducing Social Security and Medicare comes up. Thus do the proposals to cut these programs being pushed by Republicans in Congress exempt the current generation of recipients. There’s no way Republicans are going to attack their own base.

But this inconsistency (or hypocrisy) contains a truth: We had something close to a small-government libertarian utopia in the late 19th century and we decided it didn’t work. We realized that many Americans would never be able to save enough for retirement and, later, that most of them would be unable to afford health insurance when they were old. Smaller government meant that too many people were poor and that monopolies were formed too easily.

The Republican Party needs more than rebranding: conservatism is the problem

Conservatism Is The Problem:

“Redistribution” is not a matter of first principles and anyone who tells you otherwise is mistaken. All fiscal policy is redistributive, in that it involves collecting taxes from someone and spending money on programs that benefit someone else. And the question of how progressive that redistribution ought to be depends on outside factors, such as the relative economic cost of various kinds of taxes and the level of pre-tax inequality.

Changes in economic conditions should change people’s preferences about the level of fiscal progressivity. For example, if returns to economic growth increasingly accrue to people at the top of the income distribution, we should become more favorable to progressive redistribution. If the economy becomes more fragile, with more risk of recessions that lead to years-long spells of high unemployment, that calls for a more robust and progressively-financed safety net. And if top income tax rates are well below the peak of the Laffer Curve, that creates more room for added progressivity.

As it happens, these are all conditions that have manifested over the last thirty years, and especially the last five — and they’re why I favor a more redistributive fiscal policy than I used to. Conservatives are wrong on this issue, and outside conditions have shifted over time in a way that has made them much more wrong than they used to be.

As Barro notes, the The Republican Party today is in a situation very similar to the British Labour Party back in the ’80s. Being too extreme made the socialists in the Labour Party ineffective both at winning elections and at enacting policies. If the GOP can become more moderate, it can again be an effective opposition party to the Democrats going forward.