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Let's Talk About Politics [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes, 9 seconds. Contains 3033 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter about weird ideas and the people who have them.
I’m your host, Stephen.
And today the weird ideas are mine and the weird person is me.
See, if I’m talking about politics then you need to know where I stand. Can’t really evaluate my opinions on, say, American libertarianism, if you don’t know that I used to be one and now find the whole ideology naive, foolish, and existing mostly to empower the worst people in the country through disinformation.
As a former believer, my former belief is a double-edged sword: I know the system from the inside, but also I likely have a chip on my shoulder about it ‘cause I had reasons to stop believing.
So today we’re going to kind of run through the basics of my politics. I’m broadly an Anarcho-communist, an ideology so far to the left in the USA that it doesn’t really meaningfully exist.
I have pretty specific ideas on what that means and we’ll, get to it. But first we need to talk about what politics is.
What Politics Is (and what it’s not)
In simple terms: Politics is the ongoing negotiation between people over who controls what in a group. It’s fluid and dynamic. Who gets a real say in what happens?
In simplest terms: Power.
Thus, politics happens everywhere people are. Wherever two or more of you gather together, I am there and all that.
It can be formal or informal. And both have their place.
Formal politics has the virtue of being very open and usually well documented. Think Robert’s Rules of Order. Informal politics is more nebulous, harder to pin down, and either much weaker or much stronger than formal politics.
You might note that this definition leaves out political theater. This is intentional. Political theater can be a tool of politics, but it can’t sit down at the table and force a change. That always takes a person who knows how to wield power.
Let’s define power too. I like the polisci definition I learned in college: The ability to compel someone to do something they wouldn’t otherwise or not do something they otherwise would.
It’s incomplete, particularly for our purposes, as influence over what they want to do or not do is itself a profound kind of power.
My views on the subject have been heavily influenced by Political Realism, the ideology of the worst people in the world. Simply put, political realists view everyone as seeking as much power as they can and takes all nobler motivations as inherently suspect.
While I have a much better view of human nature than this, I think it’s a good starting place to understand the world. Power is brokered by networks of people working in dynamic tension and this is more or less normal.
Power can be used to help or harm, to build or destroy, or just wasted. It’s a messy thing.
The point of all this is that politics isn’t passive. It’s not something you watch, it’s something you do. And we can use sports to understand people’s relationship to it.
We’ll use American Football as an example.
Here we’ve got players, teams, support, an audience, sponsors, weather, the league, and owners.
Politics is usually a team sport and gets increasingly difficult the larger the teams on the field are. This is why unions typically have specific people to negotiate contracts. Bringing an angry mob is definitely an option, but it’s one usually held in reserve because controlling mobs is hard and most things burn.
So on the field, you mostly have players, with some parts of their team & support on the sidelines but doing stuff.
Players, obviously, make plays. They try stuff to get closer to the changes they want to happen. We don’t really need to worry about the details of goals and means here, we’re mainly just getting the relationships down.
The important thing is that players are in a position to actually do stuff. In the real world, this comes from having some kind of leverage say from elected office or having a lot of supporters willing to show up.
Then we’ve got teams which are institutions of players. Different players have different skills and they all require support. It’s hard to make plays if you’re spending all of your time doing chores. They are almost by definition corrupt because they only really exist to broker power and the corruptable are usually who show up to that.
Support is a complicated category because it includes everyone from the obvious refs, camera operators, and various kinds of gofer. But also the people running the food stalls, cleaning the stadium, and if you take a broad view (which you should) the people running all the infrastructure the stadium depends on.
Individually, support roles seem very powerless because their influence is mostly extremely indirect. The guy making sure the local power plant runs without exploding doesn’t usually get to vote on new laws.
But secretly, support roles have an absurd amount of power and under the right circumstances and organization basically demand whatever they want. And they almost always know more than they really should.
In representative democracies, most of us are the audience. We have one formal power: choosing whether to go to the game (voting), watch it on TV (watching on TV), or go shopping because you know there won’t be any traffic.
Like support roles, the audience can look impotent. But even a quick look at history shows you that the audience is the WMD of politics. Get enough of them pointed in the right direction at once and empires fall.
Naturally, empires know this quite well and do whatever they think is necessary to prevent it. And now you know why riot cops exist!
Now, we’re getting into the fun meat: Sponsors. Rich assholes and their proxies who fund mostly political theater in exchange for getting players to champion their goals.
Yeah, this is a place where the analogy isn’t really 1:1 since in sports sponsors pay to have their name plastered everywhere so they can share in the player’s attention. Where sponsors in real life fund campaigns & mainly pay for advertising & other expenses of influence.
Metaphors don’t have to be perfect to be useful.
This brings us to the weather: All those obnoxious circumstances outside of human control. Raining? Supply chain fuckups? natural disasters? Glorious People’s Compromise? Whatever.
As long as nobody can really choose to prevent it, it’s weather.
The league make rules, mediate disagreements between teams/owners, and just kind of manage the process. If we’re talking US national politics this is probably a combination of congressional committees and the judiciary.
Which at last brings us to owners. The owners of US national politics are somewhat messy to understand because they’re dressed up as democratic institutions. Technically “the people” own the federal government, but the people can’t make unilateral choices for it.
So we’re not exactly talking about owners in the way sports franchises are owned, but more the people who’ve been delaged formal power to make decisions. So that’s party officials in the DNC & RNC, leaders of government agencies elected or not, leaders of state-defined but not state run entities like the Federal Reserve or Fannie Mae, and arguably congress.
It’s every bit as chaotic as it sounds. Which is why a lot doesn’t get done.
Then you’ve got medias watching the game and commenting on it who, somewhat happily, are just themselves in our metaphor here. They don’t influence anything directly but they can amplify information that can push other groups to move in different directions.
The other group who just play themselves in this metaphor are the slew of off-field experts, specialists, consultants, hatchet men, trainers, recruiters, ratfuckers, and so on. The specialties change and their effects can be negligable or critical depending on the moment.
Knowing the options here is important because most political theater is geared towards a specific group and it’s not always the obvious one. Ex. Presidential debates are on paper aimed at the public/audience, but are really about sponsors and owners. With audience/public reactions turned into sales pitches between team fundraisers and their marks.
The basic strategy to change any of the norms is deceptively simple: Find some leverage, grab it, and fucking push. But execution varies with infinite variety and no two situations are exactly alike. This trips lots of players up.
Lots of fringe conspiracies pop up because understanding the chaos is very hard & we lack critical information about much of it. It’s way easier to posit some secret group doing bad stuff behind the scenes to scapegoat. And if you’re group is already in social competition with them anyway, it’s easy to sell that scapegoat.
The really important thing here is that if you’re in the audience just watching or talking about politics, you’re not doing politics. You’re part of a fandom. And fandoms are just what rubes call marketing demographics to deny they’re being developed for commercial exploitation.
(especially mine, but still give me money though lol #SharpenTheContradictions)
Or at least engage in it on your terms, rather than capital’s.
Anyway, that’s way the fuck more about politics 101 than I intended to write. Let’s talk about
trains I mean communism!
Glorious People’s Compromise!
I call myself a communist.
Obviously that’s not an accident. I do so for a few reasons: First, I think it’s about the least bad ideal anyone’s come up with for structuring a complex society.
But that’s not really the important thing.
See, I build my politics around two interrelated concepts: Agency and self-determination. The world I’d like to live in extends the full measure of of both to every person alive.
That’s a high bar and may even be impossible. I certainly don’t know how to get there.
It’s deeply fucked up that we live in a world where most people alive are commodified and used as Human Resources for the global ruling class. And a decent chunk of the rest work to make those human labor extracted resources & products more profitable.
I’d rather see people working for themselves and their communities.
But let’s go back and define communism. The word has a complicated history but we’re not interested in that yet.
If you extrapolate a bit from Engels, the core of communism is a stateless, classless, moneyless society.
And that’s about as good an end goal as I’ve seen. It’s easy to get obsessed over dogma and doctrine within leftist schools but I don’t really care about that.
I want to live in a world where people aren’t left to die over nothing or forced to do work that destorys their minds and bodies.
Like I said, this may not be possible. I don’t expect it in my lifetime.
(climate change is something of a specter haunting my politics because it’s a singularity: We can’t see past what it’ll do because we don’t know the details we just know it’ll be transformative)
There’s a more practical reason to call yourself a communist: Anticommunism has been one of the most brutal ideologies of the last hundred years, used as an excuse for all manner of atrocities around the world.
And no matter what you want the world to be like, if you don’t want it to just be more of what it is now, you’re going to have to fight anti-commuinsm to get to it.
The right in the US calls everyone who isn’t onboard with the far right communists. Joe Biden, for example, is a center-right politican. He’s pro capitalism, pro military inudstrial complex, pro wall street, and pro mass incarceration. His hands have been on most of the worst policies for the working class in the US for something like 40 years.
So if you’re going to be accused of something, and it fits your values, you might as well just run with it. Own the label.
I’m not going to be winning any elections but that’s not really what I care about doing anyway.
What I want is to see people doing stuff that interests and enlivens them and those around them. Not to say I dislike work, quite the opposite. My chronic back injury only happend because I ignored warning signs from my body and pushed myself to do more than I should have. The last 5 years have been a rather ruthless lesson in pacing myself and resting.
The world we live in now is built on numbness to cruelty that is poison to the human soul and usually to the body and mind as well. I mean that directly.
I would very much like to see if we don’t have to do that. Because it seems pretty bad actually. Like, we’re poisoning the biosphere in ways that could end marine life.
This isn’t even a climate change or pollution issue: We’re killing huge chunks of oceanlife. And we’re too good at it now to pretend that there isn’t a real risk of us going too far and driving the ocean we’ve known for the last few thousand years extinct.
It seems pretty clear to me that the school of hurling yourself in the machine to stop it didn’t really work for the hippies and sure as hell didn’t work for the Unabomber.
So what’s our alternative? Dance while we wait for the other shoe to drop or try and build a society that doesn’t cause mass extinctions or enslave huge numbers of people.
And since the conditions that enforce both the ecological damage & the human damage are profit-optimization, a decent chunk of this rests on capitalism as the dominant economic system of the industrial age.
So if we want to do something different (and I think that’s a big question with a no at the end of it broadly), capitalism can’t stay the dominant system.
I could gripe about the many ways capitalism extracts resources & value from the earth and from workers, but that’s all pretty obvious.
The short answer is maximizing profit means raising revenue and lowering costs. In a dynamic system where firms compete for access to cheaper capital, lowering costs becomes a gospel. This is why amazon can buy whole foods and have their stock price raise by more than they spent on the purchase: Wall street knows Amazon runs a tight ship and will bring them great returns.
And sooner or later that means cutting wages, benefits, and jobs.
Creating worse working conditions and making the workers pay for it.
An obvious solution to this is giving workers a real share of ownership in the company. Much of the issues with motivating workers simply comes from them looking rationally at their incentives and behaving accordingly. Making sure they get both a say in how the company is run and what the company does with any surplus/proit they generate means they’re invested.
It’s not perfect, but it distributes power and agency more.
And anything that moves us away from monarchy/dictatorship or their knock offs is going to require lots of people developing lots of new skills. So what I’m mostly looking to do is broaden access to the learning curves of self-management, cooperation, and competence.
A really reasonable question to ask at this point is what does my opinion matter? Who really cares?
What am I doing to build communism?
Not much would be a reasonable answer. I spend most of my time trying to see if there’s an exit to the imperial death spiral I’ve been watching the US do since 2001.
Seems like the worst case ways that could go could get… pretty goddamn bad. But I don’t think we’re going to see the kind of “The Event” most survivalist preppers are looking for.
But our economy is built on a series of increasingly tenuious sleights of hand and that seems… unsustainable.
I dont expect my POV to be particularly well represented. And my views will probably always be against the wishes of most people in the US. But there aren’t really alternatives that don’t involve some kind of collapse into full tyranny.
Well deserved perhaps for all the imperialism and colonialism (not to mention the genocides), but still, as one of our pop stars put it:
But sometimes you’ve got to play whatever bad hand you’re dealt anyway.
Anyway, there’s a bunch of other shit I could talk about here that I’ve glossed over. A mess of history and philosophy. Intersectionality around race, sexuality, class, gender, ethnicity, religion and so on. The messy ongoing legacies of imperialism and colonialism.
To say nothing of who the teams currently are in our metaphor or where they seem to be going.
The bottom line is I think we’re going to have to see a lot of networks of local support deal with shit while the state continues to try and chug along and becomes increasingly unable to address its issues.
(Ask if you’d like a bunch of resources for doing exactly this)
That’s what I mean by rejecting fandom. Getting out of our seats and standing up for a world worth living in.
So that was a little more than I expected it to be.
What to expect going forward is two emails a week. Today (10/2) will be getting two emails, because I want to get done with the Psychedelic Thunderdome material.
We’ll probably be looking at 1k-2k words/ email. With two essays each.
That was I can get this politics stuff out of my system without throwing away the content I started folks on.
Anyway, looking forward to seeing where this goes.
Oh, wait, I almost forgot to hit y’all up for money. Every one of these takes between 2 and 5 hours to write depending on how much research is involved. Right now I’m making an average of $215/mo from it, Which isn’t an hourly rate I want to think about.
If you find value in my writing and can do it, I’d appreciate a subscription. If you can’t, no worries times are hard I’d appreciate it if you could comment or share the newsletter. I love feedback.
Anyway, thank you for your time. I promise not to waste it.
See you soon.