Unions, liberalism, and a tragic age

Last week, labor organizers finally won a vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse. Amazon, of course, spent multiple fortunes attempting to bust the union before it began (and is still trying to get the election result thrown out).

Organizers are, justifiably, very proud of their effort. They have fought and fought, losing again and again, with the unionbusting abuses by Amazon growing more and more outrageous. It is quite understandable they should feel like this is their achievement.

Yet as people celebrate victories like this, I keep feeling like something is getting left out. Even as working Americans are becoming eagerly pro-union, in relative terms, the whole foundations beneath organized labor are under an assault which has little standing in its way.

Our political system, including too much of the Democratic Party, has either dismantled collective bargaining protections or permitted their dismantling for decades. It is, again, very understandable that a lot of people fighting for these unions feel like they’re doing it on their own, without help from government, without allies among politicians. The fight is unreasonably hard, the elections are absurdly unfair, corporate employers violate rules basically with impunity.

But the very existence of rules at all, of elections which can be won, of the specific prize for which they judge the fight to be worth it—all of this is policy infrastructure which was created by politics and which politics is taking away.

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How our fight is and isn’t like Ukraine’s

I definitely think there are connections between Ukraine’s fight against Russian attacks, and liberal democracy’s fight against Republican attacks. I have written as much, a number of times.

There are direct links, for one thing; long before Trump began flaunting Putin as his own modern day ring-giver, the American right has had partnership with Russian oligarchs. The NRA is just one example among countless.

There are also the conceptual similarities which motivate that partnership. Not only are the politics of Putin and of Republicans oppressive, predatory and definitely antidemocratic, they point toward complete intolerance of anything which exists independent of their faction. (Putin is definitively there, but there’s no reason to think Republicans won’t catch up.) Not just me saying that, either.

But there are differences which are at least as important.

Looking at the surprisingly effective resistance by Ukraine and seeing an example for Democrats anxious about midterm elections really, badly, misunderstands a lot.

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Extermination

March 23, 2022, stands out somewhat from the standard of this ongoing nightmare, for various reasons which I will go through in a moment. There have been worse single days, and really, when the standard is as bad as it has become, it feels somewhat meaningless to measure one day against another. But an important theme connects a number of notes from Wednesday.

The theme is organized extremism with absolutely fanatical intolerance for anything independent of it even existing—and a larger community which just remains unable to process such fanaticism.

One of my first reads, Wednesday morning, was a fascinating letter to the editor, in which a retired British defense attaché denounces the flabbiness and corruption which led his country to ignore and even enable the monster of Putin’s government for so long. While this has broader applicability than just Britain, the inclusion of a quote from Sherlock Holmes naturally caught my eye as well. From “His Last Bow,” it’s just about the last thing, chronologically, which Holmes says in the entire canon, spoken just before the start of the carnage and devastation of World War I.

Overnight, Politico Europe published an essay on “The failed world order” which makes a very effective bookend, essentially surveying more broadly the failings of the “Western” alliance and its institutions, which resulted in them ignoring and even enabling the monster of Putin’s government for so long. Mentioned within the essay, Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., likened Russia to a poisonous mold, spreading rot through the structures of the international body.

In between, the day delivered now essentially standard news and analysis from Ukraine, where there seems less and less to be any credible purpose to Russian attacks besides injuring and, to the greatest extent possible, simply destroying Ukraine. The day also delivered multiple demonstrations of the similar fanaticism within the United States, and the failure and flab within America’s own liberal order.

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Re: “Socialism or Barbarism”

This is a sketch idea still taking form, but it occurs to me that Russia’s shattering of (what we thought of as) the post-Cold-War world order may be the era’s most popular argument against the accompanying exploitative economic policies. This may have long-term significance, but in the short term I mostly just have to marvel at the historic joke that (at least in the US) the socialists want nothing to do with this argument.

I’m not sure how much time to spend on something which possibly no one besides me would appreciate, even if they read it.

But, Democratic Socialists of America has, I guess, for some time called for the US to withdraw from NATO. DSA has actively reaffirmed this stance since Russia launched its assault on Ukraine, along with finding other reasons to bothsides the unprovoked invasion which is turning into a spite campaign of plain destruction. I regard this as gross, though not really more stupid or disqualifying than all kinds of more mainstream politics and culture. I would basically just “whatever” it.

Except that as I start thinking about the prospect of a long-term disconnection of America’s and allies’ economies from Russia, and the re-engineering which ought to accompany that, it occurs to me that the proximate motivation to “stand up for Ukraine” amounts to a very popular argument against capitalism.*

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Cato, Tacitus, and Ukraine

This weekend I concluded, in tandem with various neighbors in the twittersphere, that Ukraine has very probably thwarted Russian ambitions to impose vassalage. It looks like Putin’s government is, instead, increasingly focused on simply reducing Ukraine to a desert.

The invasion has been taking on such a character for some time. Russian activity has gradually looked less and less like an invasion for conquest or regime change, and more like a punitive expedition. I have thought repeatedly of Tacitus’s remark that “they make a desolation and call it peace.”

Tacitus aside, I’m not sure that history includes many major, really close parallels with what’s unfolding in Ukraine. Armies destroying what they can’t hold is by means new, as a tactic. But the scale, here, is eye-opening. A large nation so rotten that it launches an unjustifiable invasion, without achieving any really credible pretext, then fails badly to impose its will upon a smaller neighbor, but has and is using automated destructive tools so extensive that it can level the neighbor even though the invading troops lose. The potential for that has existed for generations, at least, but I think examples of such a revolting spite campaign at this scale are few.

There are seemingly ample good reasons for such campaigns to be few. It looks monstrous, and it looks weak in important ways when such a maximalist punitive campaign is obviously resorted to as a Plan J or something, after every hope for imposing control or influence has failed or stalled. Much of the world will react to this, harshly, despite shrugging off lots of “ordinary” atrocities. Despite which, in this case, deterrence seems ineffective.

I’m not sure how many people are really processing that, yet, but if the upper levels of Russian government are set on leveling Ukraine out of spite, regardless of cost, it is in their power to do so. We need to think more about how to respond.

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Flag-waving for Ukraine

In a direct, practical sense, I generally know what I think about Ukraine. Whatever the purpose or expectations of Russian government, the invasion of Ukraine is barbarism and butchery, by what has been a criminal rogue state for years anyway. I don’t support America starting a war over it. I definitely support sanctioning the criminal rogue state, and its crime bosses, into oblivion. I think the Biden administration has performed credibly, here, and that European* governments have surpassed very low expectations. I think Republicans are scum who have, directly and indirectly, enabled Russia’s crime bosses and placed Ukraine at risk for many years.

I think we definitely didn’t “win the Cold War” in any permanent sense 30 years ago. I think Europe has become too flabby, generally, while the United States has been more than excessively bellicose in a lot of the wrong directions while enabling Russia and many other criminal rogue states.

My thoughts and feelings about the reactions by American society, and to some extent the rest of the “Western” world, are more complicated. But I’m definitely getting really embarrassed by the volume of conspicuous yellow-and-blue flag-waving.

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Morality Plays

I think a lot of people have a need for human affairs to be a morality play which far exceeds the extent to which they really are. COVID has got me thinking about this, but so have a number of things.

As regards COVID, I think part of the screaming for permanent lockdown measures reflects morality-play thinking. I have already written that I think it’s partly denial of the fact that it is no longer February 2020 and can never be again. Realities which seem unjust are very hard to deal with (don’t I know it). People turn to denial, to conspiracy theories, and I think to morality-play interpretations.

I should explain here that by “morality play” I mean a belief that events have a moral, and often that this operates at an individual level; we tend to prefer a system in which cause and effect are just, and to prefer a system in which individual actions and their consequences are just. But reality is frequently not such a system in either regard.

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Freedom is just another word for…

When I re-read Dead Memory last year, one of the bits which stuck with me was this: “if you could only learn to read the present, your memory might be of some use to you. Telling you what the future holds won’t help you. Change occurs when systems reach their breaking point, and then it’s too late.”

I feel like I can read the present, but the problem is processing what I know.

America and the world are really scary right now. Reflecting on my adult life, the last time things felt this scary was maybe the 2004 election, when it seemed like America would either evict Republicans from power, or lose democracy, and the first one didn’t happen. As it turned out, within two years things were falling apart for Republicans, but that now seems either illusory or a wasted opportunity, and now it looks like we have lost democracy after all.

This is all stuff that I have been writing for a while, I know. More and more I’m probably just posting here as an attempt to step back from the ritual and shouting which seems to obscure the present rather than read it.

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Alternatives and belief

I had an argument, today, with someone who offers a very swell model of the belief that America’s electoral politics are some sort of fundamentally fair-ish game which democracy advocates can win, if we just perform a checklist of the same activities as always.

I am convinced that this is naive and blockheaded verging on delusional. It is not completely outside the realm of all possibility that something might turn the current political environment, and the prevailing pattern of three decades, completely upside-down between now and November. It is very, very unlikely, and it is nonsensical to assert that the same things which have failed so thoroughly can be much more successful in 2022 because they “must.”

I have drafted a book exploring this premise, but perhaps the aspect about which I have the least to offer is that which most interests a lot of individuals: “what do I do?”

I feel like this is really a wrong question. I mean, World War I was an appalling immolation of lives to no point, even by the standards of war; if you had a choice about whether or not e.g. to go fight in the battle of Verdun, doing so would be absolutely stupid even if you wanted with all your heart to win/end the war. It would be absolutely stupid regardless of whether or not someone else, besides the war leaders, was proposing an alternative contribution you could make to help win/end the war.

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Le vent se lève

Whenever it was, a year and a half ago or 30 years ago, I titled a post “Improv pandemi-coup-cession” which I think was a pretty credible impression of the multiple car pileup of alarming events and chaos. Right now I don’t even know where I would begin to attempt the same thing.

A big obstacle to bothering, with lots of things, is a high degree of confidence that the disruption right now is scarcely more than a brief sketch of the immersive 3D which is on its way.

A nuclear-armed state is moving toward mass invasion of a U.S. ally, accompanied by a global barrage of socioeconomic sabotage, gaslighting and brain-bending trolling.

It is difficult even to comment on the political crisis in America, which except for brief and pretty much meaningless jolts, is continually hypernormalized even as it deteriorates further and further. I actually have a more or less complete manuscript of a book of comment on this, yet it is difficult to do anything with it. I never saw much point to the project, anyway, in the sense of belief that circulating it would really change anything. But now it feels kind of like completing a manuscript on the fragility of Europe’s 19th-century long peace, in August 1914.

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