Friday 5 March 2010

Gut Feelings

George Clooney meets Vin Diesel: For ten years Mark Ames (above) entertained Muscovites with The eXile - a magazine in the anarchic and outrageously brutal satirical tradition of Hunter S. Thompson. Forced to flee the Russian Federation in 2008, Ames returned to the United States with an even sharper satirical eye and a much heavier journalistic heart.

MARK AMES is an unusual man. When he decided to set up a satirical magazine in Moscow, in the late 1990s, most of his American compatriots regarded him as more than a little eccentric. But using his magazine to publish withering satirical attacks on the Russian Government? Most of his Moscow readers regarded that as certifiably insane.

But "that" is exactly what Mr Ames did. For ten outrageous years his dangerously provocative publication The eXile gave Muscovites a glimpse of what a genuinely free press might look like. The eXile featured the sort of fearless journalism that only a citizen of the United States, believing in the efficacy of his First Amendment rights, knows how to produce.

But not even Mr Ames could withstand the sort of pressures brought to bear on The eXile by Russia’s authoritarian President/Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. Since 2008, when he and his colleagues were forced to flee the Russian Federation, The eXile has become an online-only media phenomenon.

Russia’s loss has been the USA’s (and everybody else’s) gain. The same searing honesty and excoriating wit which once skewered Moscow’s vicious and vapid kleptocracy has now been turned on America’s own dysfunctional society – and its even more dysfunctional political system.

Just last week, Mr Ames’ s lashed the liberal establishment – represented in this case by the eminent American economist, Paul Krugman – for its apparent inability to understand the true nature of the Republican Right.

"In just a few short paragraphs," he wrote, "Krugman unintentionally reveals why liberals are still getting their asses handed to them in every serious battle with the Republican Right: the liberal establishment is still convinced it’s competing in a middle-school civics class debate."

The liberals’ fatal mistake, according to Mr Ames, is that they refuse to let go of the myth that all the American people want from their politicians is the Truth.

"But what if the Truth is that Americans don’t want to know the Truth? What if Americans consciously choose lies over truth when given the chance—and not even very interesting lies, but rather the blandest, dumbest and meanest lies? ….. If I’m an obese 40-something white male living in Ohio or Nevada, locked into a permanent struggle with foreclosure, child support payments and outsourcing threats, then I’m going to vote for the guy who delivers a big greasy portion of misery to the [liberal elite’s] dining room table, then brags about it on FoxNews. Even if it means hurting myself in the process."

It’s the last line that stings the most. Because, as Mr Ames so rightly puts it: "The left’s wires short circuit when confronted with this awful possibility."

Indeed they do, because, for all its faults, the socialist left, remains a child of the 18th Century European Enlightenment. Just like neoliberals, socialists are convinced that people are not only hard-wired to recognise their own interests, but also to pursue them rationally. Socialism and neoliberalism, as coherent ideological systems, depend upon this being true.

But what if Mr Ames is right? What if most people don’t think with their brain but with their gut?

In other words, what if most people are emotional, rather than analytical thinkers: responding to issues not on the basis of fact and logical thought, but according to the feelings those issues arouse? What if, far from being convinced by individuals with the facts at their fingertips, most people react in the same way as the American fundamentalist preacher who, in the midst of his church’s campaign to supplant Darwinism with "creation science" at the local high school, uttered this oft-quoted cri de coeur : "We feel as if we’re under attack from the educated and intelligent sector of our culture."

Wouldn’t that explain why it’s proving so difficult for Labour and the Greens to get any political traction on issues like National Standards, Climate Change, Tax Reform and Crime & Punishment?

Certainly, the Russia Mark Ames spent ten years satirising offers scant encouragement to those who put their faith in rational self-interest. For ten years Russians sampled the wares of liberal democracy – Mr Ames’ magazine among them. In the end, however, they preferred Vladimir Putin’s version of democracy: one party rule, a state-controlled media, and the ruthless repression of dissent.

When asked to nominate Russia’s greatest hero, they invariably vote for Joseph Stalin.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 5 March 2010.


Fatal Paradox said...

I fear that Ames may well be correct in his diagnosis of the reasons for liberalism's failure in Russia and the USA.

Turning to another national 'case study', I recently blogged a similar observation with regard to the failure of Enlightenment rationalism to fully eradicate the lingering remnants of reactionary Catholicism in the hearts of Spanish workers, as well as the failure of the political modus operandi I like to call 'secular evangelism' in general:

"Like 19th century Social Democracy, Catholicism achieved hegemony not so much through evangelical fervour but rather through the slow permeation or co-option of every facet of mass, popular culture. Possibly this is why evangelism (in both its [protestant] religious and Leninist variants) has been unable to offer anything other than the most fleeting of challenges to the Old Religions - of Saint Peter and of Kautsky and Bernstein - despite the obvious deficiencies and internal contradictions of both. Perhaps the best option for the anti-capitalist left in its efforts to capture the imagination of the working class is also to cultivate...a sense of the irrational and marvelous - as opposed to the standard devices of logic and reason."

RedLogix said...

"Perhaps the best option for the anti-capitalist left in its efforts to capture the imagination of the working class is also to cultivate...a sense of the irrational and marvelous" other words, maybe a sane religion has its place after all.

Sadly most of the modern left seems to have long parted company with that original company of Christian radicals who led the fight against the capitalism's early and virulent evils in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not to neglect of course the various churches own slip sliding away from the front-lines of social justice into either a inward looking senescence, or a nutty frenetic fundamentalism.... or despite idealistic endeavour, honest, sincere clergy peer out over a congregation each Sunday dwindling inexorably year by year.

Looking beyond the familiar bounds of Christianity there are precious few oasis of light either... mired in medieval backwardness, cultural backwaters or an angry sullen resentment against the Western hegemony. Not too many embrace at their heart universal emblems of justice, dignity and equality... but perhaps the logic of this conversation makes a compelling argument for holding up the hope of one.

Anonymous said...

It is well researched fact that people will prefer $50,000 if others have $40,000 than to get $100,000 if others have $150,000 for example.

The mid wester recognises that by punishing the elite more he will relative to the elite be better off even though he may be directly impacted.

It does not suggest much for liberal analysis of human nature if they all believe that humans are analytical rational creatures.

Olwyn said...

One thing you need to ask is what, if anything, Liberalism has to offer working class people, especially if it is unshackled from socialism, or offered in lieu. Back in the seventies, when Bernadette Devlin had a child without being married, one newspaper commentator noted that this was all very well for Bernadette,but working class girls following her example, would find themselves burdened with very hard lives. The point was that the overthrow of middle class prejudices did not carry much force if you were not middle class in the first place. Here in NZ you might ask what the anti-smacking law had to offer the working class. From the liberal middle class POV, it was expressive of an enlightened attitude; from the working class POV it represented another interference, another accusation an alienated relative could hurl at you, etc. It may be that the mid western man feels he has to choose between being bullied or patronised, neither being to his advantage, and is slightly more comfortable with being bullied. So very nineteenth century!

Tiger Mountain said...

There remain objective causes of “turkeys vote for early xmas” syndrome. Junk food, junk media, a surveillence society, atomised communities, alienated individuals.

The answer unfortunately is just to keep on truck’n. Organise, rebuild fighting unions, and campaigns. For example in one well known union 100% of members on a collective agreement received a wage increase in 2009. 50% of new zealanders overall got NO wage increase in 2009. The alternative to organisation is defeatism and defeat.

This prescription will not suit many, but is joining the numb barbarians at Burger King the answer? International capitial sailed rather close to the wind in 2008 and that plus environmental issues could see rapid shifts in the next decade way beyond where the the NZ parliamentary parties position themselves.

Olwyn said...

Me again. RedLogix: I have seen a TV documentary on the Spanish Civil war in which an old man said, "Many of these people were against the church, but I am for the church. At least with the church you don't get buried like a dog." The underlying value here seems to be the desire not to be degraded, and one has to ask if the logical arguments of the liberals can come close to addressing this sort of thing.

Victor said...


You have a point. Liberalism, shorn of its original largely Deist base, is short on ultimate values.

On the other hand, the ultimate values of most forms of illiberalism tend to be ridiculous, dangerous or both.

I wish there was a way out of this conundrum. Let me know if you have one.

Olwyn said...

Victor: I was not suggesting that Liberalism come up with a competing absolute, so much as take note of the limits of its reach and effectiveness. People are situated, have histories, and high-minded arguments can fail to speak to their real concerns. If you are struggling to put food on the table, for example, the colour, gender or sexual orientation of the president makes no difference to you. And if something gives your life meaning, to lose it is to be robbed of meaning, not liberated.

Victor said...

Olwyn, I agree with you entirely

Scott said...

I can't understand this claim, Chris:

'socialists are convinced that people are not only hard-wired to recognise their own interests, but also to pursue them rationally'

Surely the Marxist tradition, at least, has been premised on exactly the opposite assumption?

Marxists argue that workers have an interest in getting rid of capitalism, and yet they have to contend with the obvious fact that in most times and places most workers support capitalism in one or another form. The result of this problem has been a series of theories - Marx's account of commodity fetishism in Capital's first volume, Lenin's discussions, in State and Revolution and other texts, of the role ruling class propaganda plays in misleading workers, Gramsci's theory of hegemony, the Frankfurt School's notions of repressive tolerance, Althusser's theory of ideology - which try to account for the gap between the objective interests and actual consciousness of workers.

About the only Marxists whose views conform to those you ascribe to socialists are the rational choice mob who appeared in the academy in the '70s, and who have never had any real political influence.

Outside the Marxist tradition, there are plenty of discussions of why workers often don't act in their own interests - liberal Thomas Frank's 'What's the matter with Kansas?' is a good example, as is anarchist Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent.

I don't think the lack of the success of the US left necessarily holds many lessons for the rest of the world, because the US is such a peculiar country. Look at the difference between the way the workers of European countries like Greece and Spain and the workers of the US are responding to the global recession. The Europeans flock to unions and demonstrate, the Yanks turn rightward stock up on ammo...

Anonymous said...

"Wouldn’t that explain why it’s proving so difficult for Labour and the Greens to get any political traction on issues like National Standards, Climate Change, Tax Reform and Crime & Punishment?"

NO Chris, Labour and Greens got punished in 2008 election for pushing their own social liberal ideals onto NZ which didn't agree. Bradford & Clark's insistence that if you didn't agree with them, they would just speak slower and louder was eerily reminiscent of Jim Bolger's similar proclamation that 'more education' was needed for Kiwis to understand his 'poor card' (Community Services Card).

Labour's problem is that they are liberal capitalists (as are all other parties in Parliament now), and Kiwi worker's do not want liberal capitalism. Which is why we stumble between parties looking for someone with a true alternative (not a 3rd way).

This explains why New Labour, then the Alliance and NZ First all shot up in the polls massively (before discrediting themselves) when they preached against liberal capitalism, and for public ownership, full employment, saving public hospitals, etc.

Your problem is - Goff wants to keep Labour firmly liberal capitalist. Roger Douglas must be laughing. We're not.

Lew said...

Chris, with due respect to him, much smarter people than Mark Ames have been saying this for decades -- and not based on anecdata, but on huge volumes of both clinical and real-world research into political decision-making behaviour. Drew Westen and George Lakoff are two of the best-known and most public on the left. But most of this work has been done behind closed doors on the right. Notable examples in recent memory are Frank Luntz and the "Contract for America", which is a masterclass in how to make policies appeal to people despte the policies themselves being inimicable to those peoples' interests. The Republicans in the US and the right in general almost everywhere else have been putting this research into practice routinely since Reagan well before the end of the Cold War. They're still doing it.

The Democrats (and wider left) tend to struggle to win hearts and minds despite having a policy programme which objectively benefits a larger proportion of voters because they thinkt hey only have to win the battle for minds, and are dogged in their insistence that appealing to peoples' feelings and their gut values and their identity is somehow dirty.

This isn't a lack of philosophical grounding or a symptom of the drift away from some sort of original deist high ground; it's a failure for the political movement with the strongest claim to genuine policy rationality to embrace science at the electoral level. Westen says the Republicans campaign using the best available science and govern using faith and instinct, while the democrats campaign using faith and instinct and govern using the best available science. That's exactly right, and it has to change.


Chris Trotter said...

Well, Anonymous, I was there when the NewLabour Party was formed. I even coined its tag-line: "Voice, Choice, Security".

We went into our inaugural conference with the polls indicating somewhere between 9-13 percent popular support.

After the conference, where dozens of young communists declared their implaccable hatred of Roger Douglas' new neoliberal order, and issued stirring calls for a New Zealand revolution, the NLP's support plummeted to between 2-4 percent.

So, maybe you should think again about your use of the first person plural.

Chris Trotter said...

In order for Marx's proletariat to become a "class for itself", Scott, it is surely axiomatic that it must first see through the bourgeoisie's propaganda; construct its own hegemonic ideological project; and challenge head-on the repressive tolerance of late capitalist society.

But to achieve any of these breakthroughs it is surely equally axiomatic that individual proletarians must be convinced that the most sensible way of securing their own, individual, welfare is by lending their support to the struggle for the proletariat's collective welfare? Or, as Marx, himself, expressed it: "an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".

As you reading of E.P. Thompson's work must surely have taught you, this identification held solid in the United Kingdom (and in many other parts of the world) right up until the 1970s, when the global dispersal of manufacturing broke up and atomised a large chunk of the Western proletariat.

The vast expansion of the service sector in the mature capitalist democracies, and the dramatic changes in electoral strategy it necessitated, fundamentally disoriented the traditional parties of the working-class, leading to a fatal weakening of the identification of individual and class prospects.

Add to this the brutal effects of the neoliberal ideological counter-revolution, not to mention its full-scale assault on all the institutions of collective working-class advancement and defence, and the disorientation of the traditional Left becomes complete.

This does not, however, negate in the slightest the proposition that in order for the lives of individual workers to be improved they must be able to discern the wisdom of acting collectively.

Abandon that proposition and socialism is reduced to something academics talk and write about: something far too difficult for mere workers to understand - let alone implement themselves.

Once workers pick up on that kind of lofty condecension, Mark Ames' "obese, 40-something white male living in Ohio" starts getting mad - and even.

That it's all too often at his own expense matters less than knowing he is preventing those "effete snobs" in the ivory towers from getting their hands on the power he and his brothers are denied.

Victor said...

Scott is surely correct in denying that Marxism posits a rational individual inherently aware of his or her own interests.

He is also right in pointing to the differences between the US and Europe. Frank on Kansas should be a seminal text.

However, I'm not sure that the European approach represents a norm and the US approach a variant.

Even if it were true, I suspect that our dispossessed majority thinks more similarly to that of the US.

Perhaps its the fact that we're a new country without a hereditary aristocracy. Perhaps its our Anglophone heritage. Most likely, a mixture of both.

But I also think that Chris is pointing to something deeper, more obvious and more troubling than mere 'false consciousness', viz: the fact that we actually enjoy being prejudiced and seeing those we are prejudiced against suffer or at least being put in what we conceive to be their place.

You don't have to be a doctrinaire Freudian to recognise the power of Schadenfreude. Rationalist accounts of human behaviour typically fail to take it into account. Yet it's crucial to an understanding of much that goes on.

In one of his late 1960s bits of reportage, Norman Mailer suggested that working class males (e.g. union 'hard hats' as much as Mayor Daley's cops), tend to be inherently prejudiced against the schoolteacher types who proliferate in liberal and left-wing movements.

His argument was that most of these guys hated school and underperformed at it. So, as adults, the last thing they want to do is give time of day to schoolteachers (particularly women schoolteachers).

Victor said...

Part of the paradox of American politics is that you get deep group solidarity around an abstract and totemistic ideal of individualism.

The problem for US liberals is that they and their ideas are excluded from this sodality. It's cultural, not economic let alone philosophic.

There's no need to convince Middle America's underprivileged of the need to think and act collectively. They do it all the time. They don't, however, vote that way, because it means voting for people they don't like.

George W Bush instinctively understood this. Hence the homely, Texan gladhanding, so different to his dad's Patrician Yankeeness.

Chris Trotter said...

Hmmm, Victor, I'm still not convinced.

If the English agricultural labourer and/or hand-loom weaver, forced from his rural village and into the "dark satanic mill" of the local capitalist in the new manufacturing town, was unable to discern, individually and unaided, that he was a lot worse off now than before, why would he turn up to hear the Chartists when they called amass meeting? (Or have travelled to St Peter's Field for that matter?)

The answer, presumably, is that he was capable of recognising his own self-interest. Had he not been, he would simply have lowered his head in dull bovine acceptance and got on with it.

Yes, he has to struggle against the ideology of his masters (and sometimes he will succumb) but if you say he can't make the counter-hegemonic connection between the Parson's words and the Overseer's actions, then there's simply no way the Revolution can get started.

Unless, of course, like a good Leninist, you subscribe to the notion that revolutionary political consciousness is actually something exogenous to the proletariat: something that has to be brought to it from the "outside" by the steely-eyed sons of school inspectors, or, dare I say it, academic poets ;-)

Victor said...


As Marx and Engels understood, Victorian factories were great schools of solidarity.

Self-interest,collective benefit and mateship all came together to provoke a sense of permanent collective opposition to the interests of the bosses.

The conditions of factory labour made the connections obvious. The bosses were on your tail all the time, you were probably in debt to the company shop and the overall conditions of your life normally contrasted badly with the village world you had lost. You were also working cheek by jowl with others facing identical challenges and you had the only waepon available, the Strike, in your collective hands.

Meanwhile, the bosses were highly visible. This was once brought home to me with startling clarity when wandering around a group of Victorian streets in Sunderland in NE England and finding, amidst the back-to-back tenement houses, what I can only describe as a nineteenth century gated community, replete with large albeit excessively vulgar villas.

I suspect that factory conditions have a similar impact wherever they arise (c.f. Shenzen Economic Zone). And,to the extent these conditions are an inherent part of economic development, they will continue to have such an impact.

But I don't see this overiding sense of solidarity arising naturally in many other situations.

And, if it does, it is just as likely to be projected against groups other than the bosses (e.g. well-meaning if inept social workers or people of another faith or colour).

Yes, some will still make the counter-hegemonic connection. But most won't. That doesn't make them stupid, just too busy getting on with their lives, feeding their kids and surviving to read your excellent pieces in the ODT et al.

I'm also tempted to ask how much more inherently rational were, for example,the followers of Arthur Scargill, struggling to keep open coal mines that had literally consumed their ancestors than are, to cite another example, "the guys in the pick-up trucks with Confederate flags on"?

Both groups were acting on the basis of traditional loyalties and long-held but vulnerable senses of identity. It's just that they had different traditions and different myths.

I agree this means that the prospects for Revolution aren't looking good. But they haven't looked good in the English-speaking world since about 1850. That hasn't stymied progressive reforms that, at least up till about 1975, greatly improved the lives of the majority.

And, no, I'm not a Leninist. I don't want to spread revolutionary consciousness. If I did, I accept that I would be more likely to find it in the proletariat than anywhere else. But it would still(thank goodness) be hard to find.

As to academic poets, you, it transpires, are a very good one, as I discovered, after pressing the poetry link on this site.

Scott said...

'In order for Marx's proletariat to become a "class for itself", Scott, it is surely axiomatic that it must first see through the bourgeoisie's propaganda; construct its own hegemonic ideological project...'

That is only one of many ways in which different Marxist thinkers have imagined workers could overcome capitalism. It probably owes more to Kautsky's German Social Democrats and to the Italian communist Togliatti, who took Gramsci's concept of hegemony and used it to justify the party's pursuit of a long march through the institutions after WW2, than it does to Marx, who frequently seems to have thought in quite a spontaneist way about working class revolution. Marx's writings are full of predictions of imminent revolutions which will be caused by economic crises. For better or worse, he didn't talk about spending decades constructing counter-hegemonic projects.

After the failure of the European workers to rise up in defence of the Paris Commune in 1871 Marx loses a lot of his optimism, and starts to look closely at peoples on the fringes of capitalism - the Russians, the Arabs, and the Iroquois Indians - for clues as to how socialism might be achieved.

I don't think the British labour movement can be held up as some sort of counter-hegemonic movement. It's notable that the people who imported Gramsci and his notion of hegemony and counter-hegemony into Britain after WW2 - Hamish Henderson, EP Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and later and more famously Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn - did so because they thought the British workers' movement was so moribund and so devoid of ideas that it needed outside stimulus.

Anderson used the term 'negative hegemony' to describe the way the British working class was at once very class-conscious and very disinclined to challenge the class system. Workers would defend their patch, but not fight to change society. The importance of shop stewards and small-scale or even wildcat industrial action in Britain meant that many industrial disputes started without much debate and ended before wider political issues could be raised.

EP Thompson was by no means enthusiastic about Britain's postwar labour movement. He wrote The Making of the English Working Class partly to wake workers from their slumber by showing them their great and half-forgotten history! In his New Left writings Thompson is always looking for some group outside the working class - often it is students, or intellectuals more generally - to stir up the quiescent and apolitical proles, though he maintains that workers, once awakened, should have the leading role in a mass movement for radical change.

On the subject of the whole revolution versus reform debate, surely if we look at Greece and possibly Spain at the moment we see a classic example of the way in which social democracy, by pledging to work within the boundaries of capitalism even when a profound crisis strikes, is unable to represent the interests of the workers who vote for it? Greece's social democrats have sided with the Tories to pass sweeping austerity measures; a vacuum has opened to the left of them, which the old Communist Party seems to be filling by rediscovering radicalism.

Victor said...


I was unaware of Anderson's phrase 'negative hegemony', but it describes very well the attitudes of the left wing of the British Labour movement prior to disaster of Blairism. Thank you for the insight.

Your strictures on how reformism falls apart in times of economic crisis are well founded. However, merely to make a case against reformism is not the same as making a case for revolution.

There are also, of course, examples where reformism didn't flinch at the whiff of financial crisis but used it as a spur to changes that benefited working people. The names Roosevelt and Savage come to mind.