Some Brief Thoughts on Political Violence

I take an absolutist line on violence: It is categorically immoral. It is immoral in war. It is immoral in criminal justice. It is immoral in conflict resolution and ethical calculus and in the name of political expediency. It is immoral under circumstances most would consider justified: Although I would likely kill in self-defense, I do not conflate the understandable with the good. I would do so because I am selfish and imperfect.

This sometimes puts me at odds with other members of the left, who may question the strategic wisdom of any violence against the modern state, but who do not in principle oppose it. They may regret it. They may seek to limit it. But as it is difficult to imagine any kind of revolution without at least some bloodshed, many accept political violence as permissible under certain circumstances, a kind of necessary evil. I do not. That isn’t to say I have a solution to the problem of political violence. I only have a moral conviction, one that comes before any political thinking at all.

I have been thinking about the problem of violence this week as I read Peter McPhee’s 2012 biography of Robespierre, “A Revolutionary Life”. I’ve read a lot about Robespierre. He interests me in part because he is perhaps the most notorious example of a man seduced by the expediency of political violence, and seduced despite his earlier and evidently sincere opposition to bloodshed. “I have demanded the abolition of the death penalty at your Constituent Assembly, and am not to blame if the first principles of reason appeared to you moral and political heresies… the death penalty is in general a crime, unjustifiable by the indestructible principles of nature,” he said, but in the same breath that went on to proclaim that “Louis must die so that the nation may live”.

Robespierre claimed the execution of Louis was a special circumstance. “You ask for an exception to the death penalty for him alone who could legitimize it?” appears in the same speech. But within a year, his conviction that in all other cases “society may always protect itself by other means, making those culpable powerless to harm it” was gone. The Terror followed.

The reasons for Robespierre’s descent into violence have been analyzed ceaselessly since the moment of his own execution. He was paranoid, he was a psychopath, he was never really against violence, he was never really in control of the Revolution: take your pick. I don’t propose to review the theories here. But McPhee’s biography focuses more than most on Robespierre’s childhood and young adulthood, as well as the summer of 1789. Reading it, I noticed something instructive in Robespierre’s response to the first casualties of the Revolution that illuminates something interesting about political violence.

On July 14th, 1789, Parisian peasants stormed the Bastille fortress. The Bastille’s governor, the Marquis de Launay, ordered his troops to open fire, killing roughly 100 Parisians. After the Bastille was captured, Launay was murdered in retribution, along with Jacques de Flesselles. McPhee gives us the aftermath:

“Sporadic cases of collective killing did not cease with the taking of the Bastille….On the 20th, the Marquis de Lally-Tollendal, one of the noble deputies for Paris, proposed disseminating a proclamation authorizing municipalities to form militias composed only of those certain to be reliable if confront with unrest. Robespierre leapt to his feet: ‘What has happened in this riot in Paris? General freedom, little blood spilt, a few heads chopped off, of course, but they were the heads of guilty people.’

“Robespierre was one of those who understood what the Revolution might entail,” McPhee goes one, “It was not that he was flippant about violence: he had a horror of the taking of life. Such was his conviction of the justice of the people’s cause against entrenched oppression, however, that he was prepared to accept that some individuals particularly detested for their own violence would be targets of retribution.”

Perhaps Robespierre’s acceptance of these murders was merely expedient: what could he do to oppose them without taking the side of the nobles? Without risking his own head? Perhaps his whole history was an exercise in this excuse: the people wanted blood, and he couldn’t deny it to them if he tried.  But I cannot help noticing how much Robespierre’s rationalization, particularly in its early, raw, unpracticed form, is tied up in the notion of individual culpability: the exceptional cases against whom violence was justified. Some individuals, particularly detested. One king, whose very life was uniquely contrary to the Revolution. Particular bastards. The ones who were really asking for it.

Robespierre’s belief in individual autonomy shouldn’t surprise us. He was a product of the Enlightenment. The sovereignty, and thus the virtue and the culpability of the individual is so fundamental to that intellectual movement that it is likely the only thing many people remember about it from high school.

But Marxism and its intellectual heirs reject this notion: People are not autonomous. They do not behave rationally, or freely. There are no wholly culpable autonomous actors, only the expressions of culpable systems. The violence of capitalism, for example, is not the violence of particularly corrupt individuals but the inevitable product of a material structure. Some individuals may resist or relish their role, may err on the side of restraint or of excess, but their choices are not truly their own. One can imagine a Bastille Governor who did not order his troops to slaughter peasants, but this only reflects the routine imperfection of all systems. Such a choice would be an aberration: the historical force of the Ancien Regime was designed to open fire.

It has always seemed to me that collective theories of politics would therefore resist political violence. It is easy enough to justify the occasional murder of an actor if you believe his crimes begin and end with his own choices. But if entire classes are the engine of any political crime, then a politics that justifies the killing of those responsible does not end with an execution. It ends with a holocaust. I have always hoped that this inevitability would make collectivists wary of political violence, the ends of its logic too horrifying and too clear. But history contradicts my hope. When the left has seized power, it has always found kulaks to liquidate, great leaps to take forward. It has taken precisely the nightmare that arises from Robespierre’s excuse and applied it on a grand scale. Of course no individual is wholly responsible for its crimes, it says. That’s why we have to liquidate all the kulaks.

 I have never known what to do about this problem. I do not know now. The history of left violence has driven many away from the movement, persuaded that mass murder is its inevitable consequence. I do not believe that. I do not know what I would do if I did: I can no more abandon my moral duty to the material equality of all people than I can my nonviolence. But I do know that the Left has not yet resolved this tension. It has not yet explored how revolutionary change may be implemented without violence because it has not yet accepted that anything short of an absolute prohibition on bloodshed will inevitably give way to slaughter. It carries on imagining that next time will be different, next time we’ll be restrained and good and only do the very strictly necessary killing but stop short of the gulags. It imagines this because it is what every revolutionary imagines, and every revolutionary is wrong.

It is not a matter of simply saying “We will not be violent”. The arguable necessity of force in revolutionary change is not only a matter of bad morals: it is a real problem to be solved, and I do not know how to solve it. I don’t know how to reconcile the demands of radical redistribution with the moral imperative of peace. I do not know how to safeguard against the temptations of expediency.

The question may seem silly right now. The Left has barely any power! We’re nowhere near a place where this matter must be resolved. But that is precisely why the Left must reckon with the question of violence now, while it still feels faintly ridiculous. The hardest parts of moral life are not worked out in the moments they’re immediate. Urgent questions tempt easy solutions. We’ve seen those before. They have every time made a mockery of the very goodness the Left seeks to bring about. I don’t want to see them again.

"Fact Finding" with Jonathan Chait

My greatest frustration in the week since The Smug Style in American Liberalism was published has been how “the smug style”, as I define it, has been conflated with “smugness”, the general trait. This has led to an incessant objection: “But aren’t a lot of conservative figures smug?”

Setting aside that I say explicitly yes, there are elements of this style in most political movements, the question is beside the point. Of course individual conservatives are smug. Of course elements of conservative argument might be characterized as “smug”. But I did not argue that liberals are uniquely “smug”, or even that the trouble is general “smugness” amongst liberals. I argued that liberalism is animated by something I call “The Smug Style”.

That style has a few key elements. It believes the following things to be true:

  1. Political conflict is not moral conflict. It is reducible to differences in information and intelligence.
  2.  Liberals have a monopoly on correct information.
  3.  Liberalism has no ideology. It is only the rational response to the correct information it possesses.
  4.  The trouble with conservatives, therefore, is that they are either too stupid or too stubborn to accept the correct information, and act accordingly.

Or, as I put it in the essay:

The studies, about Daily Show viewers and better-sized amygdalae, are knowing. It is the smug style's first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from "imposing their morals" like the bad guys do.

I go on to argue that the Smug Style's premises are untrue. Politics is about competing moral visions. Liberalism does possess an ideology: like all political movements, ideology is how it determines its goals. The trouble with conservatives isn’t that they’re stupid, it’s that their moral vision is wrong (so, for that matter, is liberalism’s). A consequence of the Smug Style is that liberals fail to understand the world (by incorrectly ascribing political conflict to information and rational asymmetries ), and fail to understand themselves (by incorrectly maintaining that they have no prior moral commitments). These misapprehensions have combined with a number of historical forces in order to produce a liberal elite that does not prioritize the needs of the poor and justifies it on the basis that poor people’s petulant stupidity merits their abandonment.

This came up earlier today in an exchange I had with Jonathan Chait, one in which Chait explicitly defended the four premises I named above. I respect him for it: Jonathan Chait doesn’t play with typical liberal defensiveness. He doesn’t pretend the Left’s goals are ideal but not realistic. He doesn't think much of ideology at all. He believes liberal technocracy is the only way to govern, and he’s willing to defend that belief frankly. It’s admirable.

In order to clarify his position, Chait sent me his own 2005 New Republic essay “Fact Finders”. That essay, he said, would make clear his position on ideological politics and the merits of liberalism.

Chait’s essay is worth reading in full. I regret enormously that I did not find it while I was writing Smug Style, because it is that style’s Platonic Form.

Chait begins with a thought experiment: Imagine God descended from on high, and demonstrated irrefutably that all conservative beliefs about economics are true. Chait says that while this would surprise him, he would only have one rational course of action: He would immediately accept these new facts about the world and act accordingly.

But, he goes on, imagine the same scenario in reverse:

God appears in order to affirm liberal precepts: Current tax levels barely affect economic incentives, social programs provide tremendous economic security at modest cost to growth, and most regulations achieve their intended effects without producing undue distortions. Would economic conservatives likewise abandon their views? Some certainly would, but a great many would not. Economic conservatism, unlike liberalism, would survive having all its empirical underpinnings knocked out from beneath it.

He goes on to explain why:

And not because conservatives are necessarily more stubborn. (Indeed, on an individual level, liberals may well be just as stubborn as conservatives.) Rather, conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy--more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition--than conservatism. 

In other words, Liberalism isn’t an ideology, it’s just an adherence to Good Facts.

In other words, what’s wrong with conservatism is that it has a moral philosophy. Not that its moral philosophy is wrong.

In other words, liberals have a monopoly on reason.

Liberalism, according to Chait, has no ideology. Only a desire to use data in order to produce “beneficial outcomes”. How do we know what outcomes are good? Unanswered. Irrelevant.

In practice liberalism’s commitment is to capitalism (but nicer!). Its moral question is “How can we grow GDP, but in a way that isn’t quite so brutal as the conservative plan?”. I believe that these are not especially good moral goals, but the more immediate frustration is that liberals by and large do not want to admit that they are moral goals. Just the results of Good Facts in a vacuum.  

This, at bottom, is the trouble with The Smug Style. If you do not admit that you have ideological commitments, you will be blind to the harm caused by those commitments. If you believe the trouble with others is that they don’t share your dedication to Facts, you will tend to believe they are either willfully ignorant or stupid. You will fail to defeat your ideological enemies. Worse: you will fail to understand the nature of the battle itself. Chait's essay shows us not only the fundamental nature of the smug style, but also its consequences.

It is not a coincidence that Chait's account of liberalism as a non-ideological fact finding mission quickly becomes a defense of welfare reform. "Clinton also recognized the failure of welfare, previously a cherished liberal goal, to accomplish its stated purpose, and he enacted a sweeping overhaul," he writes, "Many liberals complained, but the main objections centered around the details--certain punitive provision and the lack of adequate job-creation measures--not the concept of welfare reform."

Such is the consequence of Good Facts before good morals. Who cares that welfare reform devastated the poor? The numbers added up! What will the facts justify next? Who knows! Who the fuck even cares? What I tried to demonstrate by a dozen examples, Chait achieves in one essay: A liberalism that rejects prior moral commitments, that just "follows the facts" where they lead, will rapidly become a liberalism that punishes poor people.

Chait’s essay is instructive. If you’ve had trouble understanding the difference between “smugness” and “The Smug Style”, I would encourage you to read it. It is the clearest articulation I have ever seen of The Smug Style, and, to Chait's credit, an admirable attempt to defend it.

What do we mean when we say "elites"?

Jamelle Bouie has a critique of my Vox essay  out in Slate. I think Bouie is operating in good faith and makes several good points, even if I think his case is ultimately misguided. I responded to it a bit on Twitter, but I wanted to provide a more organized response to his argument for reference.

Bouie appears to have two major objections: (1) He argues that my essay elides the role that racial animus played in the break between the white working class and the liberal coalition. (2) He believes I’ve mistaken a relatively small, elite cohort within liberalism—essentially, the educated, the coastal, the professional, the media—for the whole of liberalism.

Race and Realignment

On the first point, Bouie is correct. Racial animus that had threatened to destroy the liberal coalition as far back as the early twentieth century was a major driver of the realignment that culminated between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t something I deny in my own piece. In fact, I’d go further and say that the racial tantrum which drove realignment wasn’t limited to the working class. Among the most critical errors in the history of the American labor movement, the racially motivated defection of union leadership to Nixon in 1968 surely ranks near the top. Subsequently exploited and encouraged by the GOP, racism has continued to animate reactionary populism, from Reagan’s “young buck”, through the reaction to the Barack Obama presidency, and now in the Trump movement.

That I didn’t explicitly address this my piece is a fair critique by Bouie, but I don’t believe it fundamentally undermines my point. The fact that the white working class embraced and continues to embrace racial resentment does not actually constitute a good reason to deny them economic justice. It isn’t a reason to insist that they’re idiots or hicks. The possibility that these people can be persuaded to abandon racist attitudes is only frustrated by the fact that they have very few other things to hold on to. At any rate, it isn't dispossessed workers who perpetuate systems of racial inequality. Elites do. No matter what bigoted attitudes they possess, the working class lacks the power to shape society.

Moreover, Bouie goes too far by treating racial animus as the sole driver of realignment. In conversation, he told me that he didn’t think the causes of white working class defection were “that complicated”, and specifically claimed that race will get you “90% of the way there”. Even if we limit ourselves to issues where liberals were right and the reactionary working class was wrong, the 10% of explanation Bouie admits might not be racial must somehow include feminism, the sexual revolution, popular culture, and the anti-war movement, to say nothing of real economic decline. That’s a lot to squeeze into a mere tenth of our causes.

Still: I ought to have devoted a section of my piece to addressing the causes of realignment, rather that beginning with the fact of working class defection and focusing on the ways in which liberals have helped perpetuate it.  That said, I don’t think liberal smugness—“These rubes are just ignorant backward hicks who deserve their fate”—is taking a nuanced view of history either.


Do Elites Matter? 

The second of Bouie’s arguments—that elite liberals in media, on twitter, etc. don’t really matter as much as I think—is a lot less defensible.

First: Bouie cites viewership numbers for The Daily Show and other metrics of elite liberal cultural reach to argue that not many people actually consume smug content. He writes:

Maybe this represents an important liberal constituency—an integral part of the Democratic Party. Or maybe it’s a minor and unrepresentative group of affluent people, likely clustered in a few major cities like New York City and Los Angeles. You can say the same for liberal users on Twitter (just a small minority of people use Twitter to talk about politics) and Gawker readers and perhaps even people who write for websites like Vox and Slate.

This is bafflingly beside the point. It reminds me more than anything of Jon Stewart’s perennial insistence that he was “just a comedian”. Sure. But people, (and vitally, people with power) do learn their politics from you.

The elite are, by definition, a rather small slice of the population, and arguing that their absolute size means that they are not particularly important seems to ignore their capacity to drive the national political conversation. Bouie attempts to address this, conceding that smugness “influences” the conversation but doesn’t “constitute” it. (In fact, he says this of The Daily Show specifically. Throughout his piece, Bouie pushes back against the total effect of smug by arguing against the capacity of any given part of it to wield great power.)  He writes: “Rensin has mistaken this segment of national political dialogue for something that actually drives political activity”

But on this point he appears basically mistaken. The opinions, preferences, priorities and culture of elites do, in fact, have a massive outsize influence on policy. The fact that they merely “influence” but do not literally constitute the whole of “the conversation” elides the fact that they influence it quite a bit. Surely Bouie believes that elite media has some influence—otherwise, why expend so much energy writing in it? That this influence has resulted in the further abandonment of the working class is plain to anybody who has watched the past thirty years of Democratic Party priorities.

Are the majority of Americans watching The Daily Show and reading Twitter and taking their cues accordingly? No. But the people who make their policy and write their media do, and they decide which issues get attention, and which don’t.

Bouie might argue that the choices are not “total” influence or “no” influence. I agree. But I believe elite circles have enough influence that they may be held accountable for the role they play in American policy. For Bouie’s argument to make sense—for him to maintain that it’s a mistake to devote time to a long critique of elite liberal attitudes toward the working class because those attitudes doesn’t have much power—you must believe the opposite. You must, at least, think that whatever influence it does have is vanishingly small.

The truth is I do not believe that Bouie actually thinks the attitudes and influence of cloistered elites are too narrow to matter much. It is liberal consensus that the way in which minorities and women are shut out of and variously disrespected by elite culture has had a materially harmful effect on them. No doubt Bouie agrees, and so do I: when elites don't take you seriously, even in their private culture, it hurts you. It makes it harder to wield power. It makes your issues take a back seat to whatever elites do deem important. If they’re actively insulting you too, it’s even worse: they are giving their permission for others to do the same. Media attitudes and elite influence matter.

But not, evidently, in the case of the working class. You could argue that reactionary working class whites deserve to be shut out and scorned in a way that others do not. But that is not the same thing as saying that being shut out and disrespected doesn’t have much effect.

A Sick Burn

Finally, Bouie ends his piece with a burn somebody was bound to attempt. He writes:

This is blinkered. And the result is an essay that doesn’t criticize “liberalism” so much as it positions Rensin against other members of his cultural cohort. It’s what you might write if you’ve mistaken the consumption habits and shibboleths of your tribe for a politics that drives one of two major political parties in a democracy of over 300 million people, if you’re convinced of your own centrality to the currents in American history. I can think of a word for that.

In other words: But aren’t you being smug?

My essay defines “the smug style” very precisely. It does not mean “having an opinion” or “arguing forcefully” or even “believing your politics are right”. The smug style is about how a large segment of elite liberal culture has come to believe that political differences and political arguments are errors, in the strict sense. That they are ultimately reducible to differences in knowledge (and therefore differences in intelligence). It has accordingly developed an entire culture of tribal signals and jokes predicated on reinforcing this dogma.

The consequence is that elite liberal concerns have been blinded to a whole host of economic issues. It has made liberals worse at combatting reactionary forces. If you believe the main problem is that your opponents are dumb hicks, you do not understand them well enough to fight them, much less persuade them. For example: The smug style made it impossible for liberals to take Trump seriously until very late in the game. It has made a large part of their response to him counter-productive. Even if Trump is defeated, this pattern will continue.

So no. Inasmuch as I do not believe the problem with my political opponents is that they’re just ignorant and not very bright, I am not actually the one being smug. I believe my political opponents—be they reactionaries or meritocratic liberals—are on the other side of a moral battle, one that can’t be won by way of ridicule.

As it happens, the actual meaning of the smug style and what it has done to liberalism (which is to say the actual thrust of my argument) gets no mention by Bouie. That’s fine. He doesn’t have to engage with it. Why bother, if elite culture doesn’t really amount to much to begin with? If the rubes started it and asked for it and continue to be vile about it? Well, maybe they did. So what?