Textual Literal-ism: The Meeting Place of Religious and Secular Reactionaries

As a teenager I spent countless hours on YouTube and in Google Hangouts arguing about religion. Atheist YouTube (pre-Gamergate) was dedicated primarily to addressing Christian fundamentalist propaganda. Figures like the deliciously named Ken Ham and the less tasty Kent Hovind produced endless shitty videos promoting creationism. Addressing the arguments made in these videos was the activity which bound together disparate atheists and agnostics. The arguments ranged from ripping off Ibn Sina’s natural theology to bizarre pseudo paleontology that claimed to establish the existence of Velociraptor riding humans.

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“My other dinosaur is a car.”

These arguments therefore took two forms: obviously and laughably pseudo-scientific arguments which preyed on the scientific illiteracy of evangelicals and sophisticated philosophical arguments that were mostly borrowed (via Thomas Aquinas) from Islamic philosophy. I started to actively participate in hangouts because as a burgeoning philosophy nerd and atheist, I felt that most of the arguments made by YouTube atheists against the later were rather weak. While the atheist community skewed towards people with at least a passing interest in scientific knowledge they mostly disdained philosophy as the fail cousin of science which spent most of its time masturbating on the couch.

My desire was to show atheists that philosophy was worthwhile by presenting (more) philosophically informed arguments that were undeniably stronger. I started to join the post-recording Google Hangouts of my favorite atheist podcast (Fundamentally Flawed). These Hangouts were just live broadcasts that continued as people on the show slowly trickled out and were replaced by random fans (and sometimes antagonists). I would politely point out the flaws in my fellow atheist’s arguments and help them to develop stronger versions.

After a while, I was invited to co-host a podcast which came to be known as Sophia Ex Nihilo where we did deep dives into philosophical and theological texts with a mixed panel of atheists and theists who were all interested in deeply understanding rather than just refuting the texts at hand. This podcast achieved my goal of encouraging atheists to be more philosophically thoughtful: I still receive the occasional comment or private message about these videos the better part of a decade later.

In my years of active involvement in the online atheist community I noticed a strange tendency towards textual literal-ism that provided a fun house mirror of religious fundamentalism. A particular virulent strain of atheist thought, known as “new atheism,” promoted the idea that not only was belief in god incorrect, but religion itself is inherently bad. This ideology is also sometimes referred to as “anti-theism.”

Broadly speaking there were two main arguments made by anti-theists. The first was that incorrect beliefs are inherently harmful, and so religion is morally wrong simply by virtue of promoting false belief. This argument has several problems, the most obvious of which was addressed by the insistence by many new atheists that they rejected all “ideologies,” of a political or philosophical nature. Not only is this profoundly arrogant, it is incredibly naive. At the same time that these “skeptics” declared their rejection of all ideology, they embraced the War On Terror as a legitimate war against Islam and the “Medieval” irrationality it embodied. Three of the four “horsemen of new atheism” were promoters of Islamaphobia and US intervention as the cure for religious extremism.

The other argument made against religion was the immoral content of religious beliefs. It is undeniable that texts such as the Torah, Bible, and Quran contain some awful claims and horrifying stories. The claim by atheists was that if theists actually took their religion seriously, they would believe horrible things and behave immorally.

I would like to suggest that the error made here is that atheists fundamentally do not understand the nature of religion. None of the major mainstream religions are, on a logical level, compatible with literal-ism. If they were, then so called “fundamentalists” would all agree. But the reality is that such people are constantly in conflict over points both minor and major. Atheists who point to the incoherence of religious doctrine as a reason for unbelief are half correct: they are correct that it is incoherent and that for some that may be the grounds for unbelief, but for many others that actually has great utility.

Religious Cymbals

If religions are understood not as coherent bodies of dogma but rather as symbolic systems where many, often contradictory, claims can be justified, then this problem of contradiction falls away. Furthermore, the lines between religion and secular society are blurred. The symbolic language of Christianity still holds a great deal of sway over the de-converted and people such as myself who were merely raised in the culture with no religious beliefs.

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Ba Dum Tss

To take one example, climate change is often framed in explicitly apocalyptic terms. Humans, having sinned against nature through un-inhibited industrial activity and growth, are now facing our judgement day. If we accept the prescriptions of environmentalism, then maybe we can still be redeemed. Much like the Biblical apocalypse, our judgement is both impending, urgent, and indefinite. We must act now because we don’t know when it will be too late to act.

To be clear, I think that equating climate change with the Biblical apocalypse is reasonable. My point here is not to argue that people are bad for using this implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) religious framing but rather to point out how powerful the symbolic language of religion is.

Neoliberalism presents another case of a secular but unmistakably Christian ideology. As individuals we have been given the free will to act within the market economy. If we choose to be lazy and unproductive, then the market will punish us. But if we are industrious and entrepreneurial, we will be rewarded. Just as in Christianity where the onus is on the individual to have faith, we must have faith in the market and act accordingly.

The Status of Secularism

So if you accept my argument that religion ought to be understood as an ultimately inescapable symbolic system, where does this leave secularism? I want to suggest an approach to secularism that approaches religion critically rather than attempting, without any hope of success, to eliminate it from the world and our institutions at large. The vast majority of the people in the world claim some religious affiliation. That religious affiliation manifests in the world in forms ranging from having a holiday meal once a year to weekly church attendance to flying to Syria to join ISIL.

These forms are clearly not the same, and it is foolish to ignore their differences. Furthermore, it does no-one any favors to side with fundamentalists who claim that only their reactionary interpretation is valid. It is precisely the incoherence of religions as dogmatic systems that makes them malleable and contestable symbolic systems. The favored interpretation in a given time and place is profoundly effected by the social, political, and economic organizations of that place. The major religions of the world all contain both the symbolic language to advocate for hierarchy and for liberation. In this respect, they are no different from “secular” symbolism.

Rather than being primarily concerned with whether or not someone claims to be religious, we would be better off concerning ourselves with the specific content of their beliefs. Do they believe in and act to affirm hierarchical power? Do they support systemic violence?

The same atheists who were criticizing Muslims for their treatment of women and sectarianism were not only supporting violent foreign intervention that intensified both of those problems but would go on to be key actors within Gamergate. ThunderF00t, an atheist well known for his detailed take downs of creationist propaganda, turned his attention fully to attacking Anita Sarkeesian and feminism. It is precisely their rejection of all “ideology,” including religion, that made this transition so natural. “Ideology” was understood by the new atheists to be anything counter to, or unverifiable by the scientific method.

When applied to politics this naive positivism is inherently reactionary. Anyone speaking against the status quo must be doing so from a place of ideology, except for brave contrarians who affirm hierarchy through appeals to “human nature.” New atheism, like every project which seeks to reject “ideology” in favor of pure objectivity, is deeply ideological. Many new atheists have turned to neo-fascism in the GamerGate.

Concluding Thoughts

My goals with this essay have been twofold: 1) to challenge the tendency among atheists to consider legitimate only the most reactionary and “literal” interpretation of religious beliefs, and 2) to suggest that the distinction between religious expression and secular expression is problematic. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that religious symbolism is benign. Rather, I would like us to reject the notion of a benign symbolic system. Resurgent fascism, much like it’s early 20th century version, is capable of speaking both the language of faith and that of secularism.

On a pragmatic level, most of the world’s population is religious. Rather than considering them all suspect until they renounce all faith, I suggest we try to engage with people* on the basis of our mutual interest in defeating fascism, dismantling capitalism, and managing our environment collectively. None of these goals are incompatible with religious belief, and many atheists are directly opposed to that agenda.

Try as we might, we can never truly escape religious symbolism. Let us be critical of these symbols on the basis of their form and use, not just their origins.

 

*I want to be clear here that I do not expect those who have experienced religious trauma to do this work. All symbolic systems can be used to justify and perpetuate abuse and violence and no one should be forced to deploy a system that has been used to inflict suffering on them. At this time in the US, strong religious belief is strongly correlated with reactionary politics. I am suggesting that we ought to hold the individuals who engage in the violent use of religious symbolism accountable. We should not accept that this is natural or inevitable. To put the blame on religion is to both depoliticize and depersonalize violence carried out in the name of faith.

We must also recognize that horrible violence has been carried out in the name of secularism against religious people (see: the invasion of Iraq as a project to establish a secular, liberal democracy; the oppression of Uighurs in China; the “secular” sectarianism of Assad’s government). The elimination of religious belief is neither a realistic goal nor would it eliminate the hierarchies that religion is used to support. Finally, arguing that such a thing would be desirable (with all the violence it would entail) is part of how new atheists ended up aligned with neo-fascists.

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The “Pilgrims” Were Not Immigrants or Refugees: Stop Comparing Them

In honor of Thanksgiving, a holiday central to US nationalism, I am reposting (with some modifications) a short essay I wrote last month in response to some liberal immigration discourse I was seeing at the time regarding “the caravan.” The tendency of liberals to deploy claims such as “we are all descended from immigrants,” or “the pilgrims were refugees,” in an attempt to defend contemporary refugees and immigrants to the US is the main target of this piece.

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Notice the pikes, guns, and swords?

Please Stop Comparing Refugees Trying to Enter the US to Colonization

Colonization and immigration are not even close to the same thing. No, we in the US did not “all descend from immigrants.” Some of us descended from immigrants, some from violent colonists who seized land while murdering and raping the indigenous inhabitants, and some from people who were violently enslaved and brought here against their will. Colonization is not immigration and people brought from Africa to this country in chains were not refugees.

The US is not a “country of immigrants,” it is country that has many descendants of immigrants and many more people who descend from brutal colonizers and/or the people they colonized. Recognizing the violence of that history will not make contemporary arguments for giving refugees asylum weaker. Nor will it, somehow, strengthen the position of white nationalists. In fact, equating immigrants to covert colonists is one of the main arguments deployed by fascists today to justify their violence.

Rhetorical Alternatives

If you’re struggling to make the case for refugees and immigrants today without relying on a harmful comparison to our colonial history, then here are couple.

1) refugees, be they from Syria or Central America, are fleeing violence which the US had a hand in creating and which the US continues to promote. Timber Sycamore, a CIA operation in Syria with the explicit goal of engineering a bloody stalemate, ran from 2012-2017. The program involved delivering billions of dollars in weapons to Syrian rebels, who also received training. CIA efforts have contributed to escalating and prolonging the civil war which has resulted in millions of displaced people. Hillary Clinton’s State Department supported a 2009 coup in Honduras that involved human rights abuses alongside the illegal ousting of the elected president. These interventions are only some recent examples of how US foreign policy has directly lead to the existence of refugees.

2) Even if (1) were not the case, a country, such as our own, which has hoarded so many of the globe’s resources, owes those from whom we have stolen at the very least the basic protections of law. The US has sat at the center of a global empire since the end of World War II, and a regional one since long before then. This empire has facilitated a large transfer of wealth from countries already ravaged by colonialism to US corporations.

3) It is morally despicable to treat any human being as we have treated those seeking asylum in our country, and therefore it is a moral imperative that we treat them better in the future. US treatment of refugees has violated not only our own, and international laws, but more importantly moral imperatives.

4) As for economic migrants, not necessarily fleeing violence or seeking asylum but rather permanent residence or citizenship, we must also recognize the role our economic and political institutions have played in devastating, for examples, rural economies in Latin America. Structural adjustment, imposed by the US via the IMF and World Bank, has forced even the poorest farmers to compete, without subsidy, against the wealthiest corporations in the world, which enjoy the further benefit of domestic subsidies in the US.

5) Climate change has also affected both communities and economies all over the world and, as the biggest historical contributor to climate change, it is our responsibility to deal with the externalities of our actions which have forced so many already to leave their homes. It is the absolute least we can do in righting this injustice to provide immigrants with basic protections and to welcome them into our country.

There are many other reasons that we should treat immigrants with the respect that their human dignity demands and why our country’s punitive response to refugees and immigrants is a crime of the worst kind. But none of them are because “we are a country of immigrants.” In righting one injustice, it is not acceptable to paper over another.

Bush vs. Obama: an Intro to Neoconservative and Neoliberal Foreign Policy

Conservative detractors and liberal fans of Obama have both argued that he carried out a less aggressive foreign policy than his predecessor. But if one examines their records, this position becomes harder to defend. People in the US remember the stark difference between Bush’s nationalism and Obama’s technocratic humanitarianism while not recognizing that this distinction is more about domestic framing than it is about foreign policy.

Before examining the differences between those two presidents in terms of foreign policy approaches, I want to explicitly set aside the question of who was “worse.” Both carried out immensely destructive policies that will continue to have repercussions through the next century.

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Neoconservative Platonic Lies

Bush’s administration fits clearly into the mold of neoconservative foreign policy. Neoconservatives believe in framing foreign policy in terms of a global conflict between good and evil. Military interventions serve the dual purpose of advancing “American” interests abroad while generating a domestic moral consensus. Individual neocons vary to the extent which they embrace this approach cynically: some low level neocons probably actually believe this framing, while people with more power generally act more cynically.

Neoconservativism advocates for the continuous production of nation building myths. Plato’s The Republic offers a very early example of a lie intentionally propagated by the ruling class for nationalist reasons. In The Republic, the ruling elite are to institutionalize a myth of common origins: everyone in Plato’s city will be told that they are part of a single family created by the gods. This myth is meant to produce unity within the city and form part of the basis for the authority of the ruling class. The philosopher-aristrocrats are to be the best of this community: elevated not on the basis of blood relations (which are common to all) but on individual merit.

Neoconservatives recognized that nation building must be an ongoing process: a founding myth is not enough to maintain longterm stability. The narrative of the US as  the ultimate champion of good in the world, facing down dictators and terrorists, must be constantly produced through perpetual war. At the same time as this myth is produced by foreign policy, it also creates the conditions of public support necessary to maintain a state of perpetual war.

The Invasion of Iraq

Understood in terms of Platonic myth making, the deceit which served as the basis for the Invasion of Iraq begins to make sense. Neoconservatives know they are lying and don’t care: they believe that their lies will help them accomplish their own goals while bolstering the moral rectitude of the nation. The overwhelming support for the invasion speaks to the great effectiveness of this approach, especially in the wake of 9/11 and in a climate of carefully stoked nationalism.

Bush’s interventions are collectively remembered in dramatic terms because they were supposed to be. The neoconservative vision of the US empire is as the focal point for national unity. However, as we saw in the case of Iraq, public approval dropped rapidly from 72% to a low of 45% three years later. But this isn’t a problem for neocons because of the immense amount of inertia within the US foreign policy establishment. Once the US is involved in a conflict, public debate about whether or not we should continue to be involved does not generally make it to the floor of the Senate.

Neoliberal Managerialism

When Obama was campaigning in 2008, he explicitly ran on his opposition to the ongoing War In Iraq while simultaneously claiming that he supported “smart wars” such as the War In Afghanistan. However, Obama continued US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout his presidency (even after the wars were officially declared “over”). In addition, he championed the disastrous bombing of Libya and began US involvement in the Syria civil war and the Saudi-Emirati-Qatari war in Yemen.

What distinguished all three of the Obama initiated war efforts from the Bush era interventions was 1) rhetorical, and 2) a focus on airstrikes, logistical support, and special forces raids instead of full blown occupation. Rhetorically, Obama also engaged in a form of moral nation building. His neoliberal managerialism emphasized the role of the US as a guardian of international institutions and norms. Humanitarian interventionism, for the purpose of protecting human rights and enforcing international arms treaties, was the publicly promoted reason for the interventions in Syria and Libya.

In the case of Yemen, the Obama administration simply didn’t talk about US involvement in public, a policy facilitated by a near complete media blackout about the US in Yemen. No public case was made for the intervention, and therefore no justification or defense of the administration’s actions was required. The neoliberal approach, one of technocratic management, either seeks to justify intervention in terms of an institutional consensus or to facilitate silent elite management.

The former approach narrates interventions as not morally productive in themselves: the bombing of Syria in response to chemical weapon attacks by the Assad government was justified in terms of upholding rather than generating an international moral consensus. On the other hand, unjustified acts of policy making, done in silence, need not be narrated because they are matters which concern only elite experts.

Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian intervention is one of the key rhetorical points where neoliberal and neoconservative foreign policy meet. Bush promoted the Afghan war in terms feminist liberation for Afghan women, while the invasion of Iraq was a punitive action for Saddam’s human right’s abuses and also as a pre-emptive attempt to prevent the illegal use of weapons of mass destruction.

Where the moral vision of these two philosophies diverge is in how they articulate American exceptionalism. Neoconservatives narrate the US as a moral beacon which transcends institutions: the UN is good insofar as it follows the lead of the US, while not itself being a source of moral legitimacy. Neoliberals, on the other hand, believe that the unique role of the US is as the enforcer of an institutionally legitimated moral order: the moral authority of the “international community” is what provides the US its moral authority to intervene violently.

In practice, the distinction between these two approaches is more important for domestic reasons than it is in determining actual policy. Bush advanced a nationalist narrative where the US was the champion of good battling against evil forces around the globe. Obama promoted a more institutional nationalism: the US had to engage in these interventions to uphold a global moral order. Both are in fact morally productive and are based on the notion of American exceptionalism.

Visions or Paths

While the moral and institutional rhetorical logics of neoconservatives differs from those of neoliberals, they both essentially endorse the use of US military force for “moral” reasons. Both support regime change against “evil” or “rogue” states. Either can be used to advocate for aggressive and immensely destructive foreign policy. These two ideologies are not so much competing visions of how the US should act in the world but rather two pillars deployed for the same purpose of justifying US imperialism.

One can certainly be argued to be more destructive than the other, but such an argument ignores the fact that both models coexist in the minds of policy makers. These models mutually reinforce the essential assumptions of unique US moral authority and the potential for US military force to be used to make the world better. This hegemonic consensus is much more significant than the distinctions between these approaches which serve ultimately as separate paths to the same conclusions.

Why Anarchism?

As a self identified anarchist I typically receive a great deal of skepticism when I tell people about my political inclinations. Conservatives and liberals are shocked and assume my politics is reducible to wanting a bloody free-for-all, while other leftists tend to challenge me more coherently in terms of leftist theory. I want to break down some of the basic misconceptions about anarchism that are pervasive among non-leftists and explain why I came to my conclusions regarding some disputes within the left.

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What Is Anarchism?

Anarchist thought has a long and remarkably diverse history. Since it is first and foremost a leftist ideology concerned with how to best carry out class struggle, I do not consider anarcho-capitalists to have a historically legitimate claim to the title. Furthermore, a very strong case can be made that capitalism and the state as we know it are inextricably linked, which makes anarcho-capitalism an oxymoron.

But then what do anarchists believe? The one thing most people know about anarchists is that they oppose the state. Where the debate immediately becomes more complicated is when one tries to define precisely what it means to be or have a state. Is a state merely a collection of people who collectively organize resources? If so, then most anarchist thought, excluding radical individualism, would actually endorse some form of a state. In fact, for most anarchists community and the collective are essential concepts.

Unlike  a voluntary commune, the state is a collective entity which uses violent coercion to control people, the use of space, and resources. It is the violently coercive nature of the state, and the inevitable injustices that produces, that anarchists object to. Chief among those injustices is the production of class, race, gender, and other hierarchical identities. From this perspective, the police are not the protectors of the community as such but rather the enforcers of numerous hierarchies. They exist to protect the interests of the rich, of white people, and of men, and are deployed against those who seek to undermine the system of domination that structures our society.

Similarly, the military serves this same function but externally: it is deployed to preserve global hierarchy between countries. Imperialism and domestic policing are two sides of the same coin of state function. Of course, these are not the only two functions of any state. However, they are both essential to the modern nation state as we know it, and as the funding allocation within states has demonstrated, economic stress can easily lead to the cutting of welfare programs but rarely leads to contractions of military and police spending.

What Happens After The State Is Abolished?

It is not uncommon for people to accept this critique of state power but then turn around and ask what is proposed to be done without the state. A key question that is often raised against anarchists is what to do about crime without a state and without prisons. The answer to this question is complicated and depends a great deal on who you ask. More radical individualists put their stock in self defense, but I do not find this terribly compelling (although I am not a radical individualist to begin with). On the other hand most community oriented anarchists suggest that the abolition of these hierarchies and the redistribution of resources on more democratic terms would eliminate categorically much of what we consider to be crime: drug crimes would cease to exist and theft would be radically de-incentivized. Those crimes which still occurred could then be handled by local communities through restorative justice.

This is a contentious issue within anarchist thought with some people, for example, suggesting that banishment from a community is a reasonable punishment for certain particularly heinous crimes while others contend that banishment is in fact approaching a death sentence in severity. If you are genuinely interested in exploring this topic, then there is a great deal of debate between anarchists that you can read on this topic. More broadly the answer to what happens after we abolish the state is equally contentious. Some anarchists suggest the creation of democratic bodies, others place their faith in the community as a decision making unit, and still others advocate for the abolition of all formal organization.

Personally, I find the question inherently flawed. Politics is the process of collective making, and as such to start from this point in that process and proscribe an end goal is not only foolish but immoral. But then, you might ask, then what is the point of believing any of this? Simply put, I approach anarchist theory not as a utopian philosophy but rather as a realist critique of politics which suggests not specifically what the ultimate end of politics should be but rather how we ought to go about politics. It is my view that the state serves as violently coercive mediator of political conflict between groups and that through dismantling state power we can carry out political dispute with less violence.

This leads to the seemingly age old question of what to do about the violent anarchy of statelessness. In fact, this question is not age old and can be traced back to specific thinkers. Thomas Hobbes popularized the notion of the stateless society as one which is engaged constantly in a war of “all against all.” However, Hobbes derived this conclusion not from the observation of stateless but from his experience living through the English Civil War. The English Civil War consisted of a rapidly escalating constitutional dispute between King and parliament that eventually lead a violent conflict over how state authority should be structured. This is in fact the opposite of what anarchists suggest we should do: a civil war of this nature is the result not of the abolition of state power but of its multiplication.

Hobbes notes in Leviathan that we can learn about how individuals treat one another by examining how states interact in the international sphere. States are always fighting one another for power and resources and remain in a sort of semi-war even while at peace. But there is little reason to assume that this applies equally to the individual in part because (most anarchists) do not claim the individual as the only significant theoretical unit. Rather, they understand the individual as necessarily entangled within a community: perhaps an unwilling but inevitable member of a collective.

On a basic level, the requirement of human children to undergo a long period of adolescence where they are incapable of providing for themselves eliminates the possibility of even thinking the individual by itself. Altruism and sacrificing oneself or one’s interests for the collective good are behaviors we see even in a capitalist world that conditions us all to be capitalist subjects: individuals out for our own interests. In fact, the anarchist would point out that we understand as human nature is rather the product of how capitalism informs our behavior. A change in political economy, therefore, requires and necessitates a change in humanity. In other words, we cannot predict what human nature will be understood as in a hypothetical future society without capitalism or the state.

Finally, as a non-utopian anarchist, I would contend that anarchist critique is still valuable even if we accept a priori that states as we know them will never be abolished altogether. Prison abolition, anti-imperialism, and other efforts to liberate people and communities from state violence remain worthy enterprises even if the state remains. As far as I am concerned, I will even support the expansion of state in such programs as national healthcare because they limit suffering and make it easier for people to resist the state insofar as it tries to control them.

Why Not Communism?

Communists and many anarchists share in common a belief that the abolition of capitalism and class structures are essential to any political program. Furthermore, they share in the conviction that the state ultimately must be abolished to achieve this aim. Where they differ is on how the state is related to class hierarchy and therefore how exactly it should be abolished. Both agree that the state as is in liberal capitalist countries supports class hierarchy.

However, communists maintain that the state can be captured by another class, the proletariat, and weaponized against the current dominant class. Following this destruction of the bourgeoisie, the state will set about addressing other forms of hierarchy and injustice until it inevitably withers away.

Anarchists are skeptical of this for both historical and theoretical reasons. In the case of the USSR, the local democratic councils which were supposed to eventually take the place of the centralized state were in fact subverted and made clearly subservient to central authority. Theoretically, anarchists would contend that the very existence of a state is predicated on, at the very least, a division between those with active positions within it and those without. A class of bureaucrats can turn out to be just as oppressive as a class of property owners if those bureaucrats have enough power.

Personally, I find this approach to class much more compelling because it posits class as a dynamic phenomena that can shift and reshape according to the specific power dynamics of a given time and place. One’s relationship to the means of production is but one aspect of class. And of course, class is not the only important hierarchy that the state maintains (although to be fair to communists, they also recognize this).

In Conclusion

I want to end by pointing out, once again, that anarchist thought is extremely diverse and that I am certain there are anarchists who vehemently disagree with aspects of what I have written here. I am not an anarchist in the abstract but one with specific commitments and positions I reject. I am not a radical individualist and so my views are very different from those of someone who does ascribe to that strain of thought. This piece is highly theoretical and doesn’t treat in detail any of the many arguments it touches on.

Keeping It Loose and Some Context Surrounding the Saudi-Canada Spat

If I were to be honest I would be forced to admit the undeniable fact that I am a terrible blogger. I have made three posts in over a year on what I hoped would be a weekly blog. There are 20 drafts of posts sitting in my archives at various states of unfinished. These range from a sendoff of Obama that celebrates his many warcrimes to a review of Apocalypse Now Redux. None of these pieces will ever see the light of day because I am chronically incapable of finishing anything due to a mix of perfectionism and perpetual despair.

But that sounds awfully dull, so instead of being honest with myself and the world at large I’m going to soldier on, never admitting my mistakes. This is a brave new chapter in my blog: the phase where I completely relax my standards and just make a post a week regardless of length, quality, or even baseline coherence. You’re fucking welcome.

This story is weird enough that I couldn’t come up with a pithy section heading

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A screenshot I stole borrowed from Al Jazeera America of a Saudi non-profit threatening Canada with a hijacking based attack.

Earlier this week Infographic KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) launched this bomb of a Tweet at #Canada. This story is funny on several levels. Infographic KSA’s website describes the organization rather suspiciously as a “voluntary non-profit project.” Their website is filled with bizarre infographics explaining how Qatar is in the wrong for rejecting the terms Saudi Arabia has been trying to impose upon them since last year, a topic which deserves its own blogpost. This non-profit is at least state sanctioned, if not outright a propaganda outlet for the royal family.

At first glance, this now deleted Tweet appears to simply be in very poor taste. But the truth is a little more sinister. The obvious reference to a 9/11 style attack is much more menacing coming from the country that supplied 15 of the 19 hijackers and which bares significant responsibility for the proliferation of global Sunni extremism. The extremely murky relationship between Western arms exporting countries, Western intelligence agencies, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Sunni jihadists is an important one to understand.

Maple Syrup and Blood

Saudi Arabia serves four important roles in its relationship with Western countries: 1) as a massive oil exporter, 2) as one of worlds the largest arms importers, 3) as a central pillar of the world financial system, and 4) as a local ally for Western intelligence. Saudi Arabia’s oil based economy is so well known as to have become proverbial, but their role as a weapons buyer is lower profile.

Just this year Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth over 11 billion USD. While the deal was originally negotiated under Canada’s previous Conservative government, Trudeau has unapologetically chosen to move forward with it despite the brutal war the KSA is currently waging in Yemen. Arms companies are not only important to Western economies but typically wield disproportionate political power. More technically, the arms industry is a key part of the political economy of many of the world’s richest and most powerful nations such as the US, Russia, and Great Britain.

Since weapons manufacturers are important and Saudi Arabia is second only to Indian in arms imports, the Kingdom is also very important to Western countries politically. It’s worth noting that India imports only 50% more in weapons than Saudi Arabia while having a population over 40 times as great. At the same time, Saudi Arabia can be a very temperamental ally: absolute monarchies always are.

The current spat between Canada and the Kingdom began when the Canadian Foreign Minister made a Tweet calling for the release of a Saudi activist and her brother from prison. The official response to this provocation (as the royal family sees it) was to expel the Canadian ambassador and recall thousands of students studying in Canada. If this response seems extreme then that’s both because it is and because the monarchy is extremely sensitive to any perceived challenges to their authority. Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and effective leader of Saudi Arabia has been testing the international influence of his country since coming to power with mixed success, and this spat fits into the general pattern. But that is a story for another day.

9/11, Saudi Arabia, and Redacted Documents

Until 2016, 28 pages of the official Congressional report on 9/11 were redacted. These pages, now released, include several possible connections between the 9/11 hijackers and Saudi officials and intelligence officers. These leads were never investigated by the FBI or the CIA, and have been dismissed as inconclusive ever since. While we will probably never know whether the Saudi government was directly involved in 9/11, the US coverup of possible connections is significant.

Saudi Arabia has been an important US ally for the better part of a century and 9/11 only increased their importance. The US was willing to sweep under the rug even the possibility of Saudi involvement in 9/11 because, if the leads brought to light anything, it would have been damaging to US economic and strategic interests. At the same time, it was advantageous for the Bush White House to pin the blame on Saddam Hussein despite the fact that not even tenuous connections have ever been proved to exist between him and the hijacking.

This is not to say that Bush masterminded 9/11 with the help of the Saudis: the evidence for that claim has never surfaced. Rather, the point is to illustrate the importance of Saudi Arabia to US and to add context to Infographic KSA’s Tweet. Finally, the redacted 9/11 report demonstrates how willing Western states are to forgive and forget major Saudi transgressions in the interest of preserving a vital business partner and ally. It would not be surprising if the relationship between Canada and Saudi Arabia was quickly mended with the help of their mutual allies the US and Great Britain.

There is a lot more to discuss on the topic of recent events involving Saudi Arabia from the war against Yemen to the spat with Qatar and that is without diving into Saudi Arabia’s historical significance.

Why Cryptocurrencies Will Never Overtake Fiat Money (Not Boring, I Swear)

Bitcoin has been in the news incessantly for the last few years, primarily for several reasons: meteoric rises in value, dramatic falls in value, the many attempts to dox the creator of Bitcoin and harvest his super genius brain, and the fact that Bitcoin mining is now a massive environmental problem. Many people are now regretting not buying or mining Bitcoin early, and those who didn’t sell their Bitcoin at the height of its value are now wishing they hadn’t lost half of their extremely productive investment. A small number of people hold out hope that cryptocurrency will destroy state currency monopolies. Today I want to talk about why cryptocurrency revolutionaries are horribly misguided.

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Rare image of a freshly mined Bitcoin

Inflation, Growing Economies, and Monetary Policy

If you have discussed the price of college with anyone from a different generation, then you are familiar with the concept of inflation: an increase in prices over time that reduces the buying power of currency. To give an example of long term inflation, 1.00 USD in 1917 had the same buying power as 19.15 USD in 2017, meaning the relative value of a dollar has decreased by around 95% in one hundred years. While not the topic at hand, inflation is why the lack of wage growth (coupled with increasing productivity) in recent decades has led to such massive increases in wealth inequality.

One of the important effects of inflation is that encourages the continued circulation of currency. Held dollars will lose value over time whereas spent dollars can be redeemed for their current value, and currency invested in capital produce profits that potentially more than offset loses from inflation. Capitalist economies rely on inflation to carry out three key functions: 1) creating pressure for investments that will grow the economy, 2) encouraging immediate consumption, which also grows or sustains the economy, and 3) the constant redistribution of wealth from wage earners to capital owners.

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Originally, I was going to put one of those famous pictures of a German in the Weimar Republic paying for a bread loaf with a wheelbarrow filled with money, but it turned out that all of those images had restrictive copyright. I decided that the next best thing would be a picture of a dog licking its own balls, but it turns out all of those images are restrictively copyrighted as well, so here’s a picture of Colonel Gaddafi looking cross.

Much of economic policy is dedicated to the careful control of induced inflation because too much inflation reduces the relative value of a nation’s goods and capital in international trade. States control inflation by control of the money supply through two main mechanisms: printing currency and setting interest rates. By increasing the money supply the value of a currency will decrease relative to goods and services by the principle of supply and demand. The literal printing of money achieves this in the most straightforward manner. When a state lowers interest rates then, at least in theory, money becomes more accessible to people in the form of debt, thereby indirectly increasing the money supply.

Deflation, and Boring Section Titles

What might be less familiar is the related concept of deflation: the increase of a currency’s buying power over time. You probably haven’t heard of deflation because no modern states pursue deflation as a matter of monetary policy and, to the contrary, assiduously avoid it. Where inflation discourages the hoarding of currency because held currency is always losing value, deflation encourages it.

Since nation states are directed towards economic development, which is to say growth, deflation is a potentially mortal threat to their economic goals. If people are hoarding rather than spending money, then they are going to be consuming and investing less, but simultaneously sitting on ever increasing piles of wealth. The only way to sustain deflation over time is either for economic growth to consistently outpace the growth of the money supply, which is inherently unlikely due to the economically constrictive nature of deflation, or for the money supply to be actively shrinking.

From my radically anti-capitalist perspective, deflation is really bad because wage earners will still be forced to spend their money immediately in order to survive whereas the rich will continue to get richer by doing literally nothin with their money. This is one area where I cannot help but agree with capitalist economists, even though my reasons are not the same.

The Deflationary Strategy of Cryptocurrency

Turning now to cryptocurrencies we can examine how advocates expect to replace state controlled fiat currencies with them. States compel the creation of markets using whatever currency (or currencies) they wish by demanding the payment of taxes and fees in that currency. This creates universal demand for that currency in whatever territory a state can enforce control. It is through the implicit threat of violence that a state can compel everyone to adopt an inflationary currency which demands consumption and growth by not retaining value. The violent capacity of the state is what ensures that the currency loses value only slowly, rather than all at once.

Cryptocurrencies lack the ability to levy taxes and as such must find another mechanism to encourage the use of their currency. Almost all cryptocurrencies, most notably Bitcoin, use some sort of de facto strategy of deflation to achieve this goal. Bitcoin does this by making the mining of each subsequent Bitcoin more processing intensive than the last, to the point where Bitcoin mining, which used to be doable by people with home computers, is now almost exclusively carried out by massive server farms in China (hence the environmental issues with Bitcoin).

What this means is that early adopters could feasibly acquire substantial quantities of Bitcoin, keeping the value low due to relative abundance. Bitcoin has gained value essentially for no other reason than a mix of currency speculation and planned deflation. The circular human centipede of Bitcoin’s rising value begins with cryptocurrency boosters hyping up their pet pyramid scheme leading to speculators buying up Bitcoin and increasing its value, thereby setting off another round of hype. Because the value of Bitcoin is based on nothing but the confidence of currency speculators, it is extremely volatile and can rapidly lose value.

Cryptocurrencies which are inflationary will struggle to be adopted at all because early adopters will be in a situation where their currency is losing value and simultaneously they cannot spend it because it will either be entirely unrecognized or recognized as not being able to hold its value and therefore not being worth accepting. But deflationary currencies will never overtake inflationary fiat currencies as the basis of market exchange because their very nature discourages their use as currency since spending an appreciating currency now is a loss of future value.

It is a classic confidence game presented as a techno-social revolution against state control of currency. But what the overwhelmingly pro-market cryptocurrency crowd fails to understand is that markets and states are inextricable. Severing the state from the market so that it can be more free is like cutting your head off so that your body is free from carrying the extra weight.

What About Accelerationism?

Despite being an avowed anti-capitalist the arguments I have been making against cryptocurrencies have been centered on pointing out the problems they cause in market economies which raises the possibility that someone who opposes markets might support cryptocurrency as a form of accelerationism. Leaving aside more general critiques of accelerationism, I think that it is sufficient to point out that market instability, and particularly deflation, overwhelmingly hurts the least economically powerful, particularly in a globalized economy where many of the poorest do not even directly control their food supply.

Additionally, investment bubbles pyramid schemes eventually come crashing down and when they do the people who lose the least are the already wealthy who have a diversified portfolio of pyramid schemes investments. Those poor, but mostly middle class, people who end up riding the bubble to momentary, and almost entirely meaningless, wealth end up being crushed by the weight of their own desperate desire to ascend the capitalist ranks. While greed should not be treated as a virtue, we should be compassionate with those who, in their desperation and desire to escape the constant anxiety of economic lack, try to escape the grinding hell of capitalist necessity.

What the Fuck Is Happening In Britain? (A Guide to the 2017 General Election for Clueless Americans) Part 1: The Basics

You may be aware that a general election took place in Britain on the 8th of June and that it didn’t turn out how anyone expected. If you don’t know anything else about British politics or even if you were totally unaware that there was just an election in Britain, then you are in the right place.

What the Fuck is Parliament?

The modern British Parliament was founded at the beginning of the 19th century when the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland were joined into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (Spoiler alert: not everybody was entirely pleased by this development). Like United States Congress, parliament has two houses through which all legislation must pass: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. As the names imply, members of the House of Commons are elected by the people while members of the House of Lords acquire their seats through inheritance or appointment.

The House of Lords was originally superior in power but it turned out that most people didn’t want Nigel Foxstrangler or Alistair Habsburgjaw making laws just because their grandpapa bayoneted a French drummer boy during the Battle of Waterloo. Successive generations of liberal and socialist reformers have reduced the power of the House of Lords and have done away with most of the inherited seats.

In the early 20th century the Liberal Party pushed through a bill that took away from the House of Lords the ability to veto legislation: the aristocracy could only delay legislation, and for no more than a year. Around the same time control of government ministries became the sole responsibility of the House of Commons. And so, with minimal guillotine use, the British bourgeoisie slowly wrenched legislative power away from an increasingly pointless aristocracy.

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(Pictured: some non-British bourgeoisie seizing politic power from their aristocracy.)

What the Fuck is a Prime Minister?

Since presidential elections are among the most expensive and pointless national ordeals imaginable, the British did the smart thing and opted to keep their monarchy. This might seem bizarre to Americans for whom the concept of a monarch is synonymous with tyranny and incompatible with democracy. But the British have solved this problem by stripping their monarch of all but ceremonial power.  The Queen is instead kept busy opening Tescos and occasionally giving speeches that the ruling party writes for her.

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(Pictured: one of the boxes the Queen is stored in when she is not in use.)

So then who wields executive power if not an inbred monarch or a super wealthy president? Whichever party wins a majority of the seats in the House of Commons forms a government on behalf of the Queen with the party leader as Prime Minister (or PM). The PM is charged with appointing and leading a cabinet of senior ministers who will lead the various government departments of the UK. It is the cabinet collectively, not the PM, which wields executive power on behalf of the Queen.

Is a Hung Parliament as Sexy as it Sounds?

You may know that GE 2017 resulted in a ‘hung parliament’ and may be wondering what that means. Unfortunately the term refers neither to parliamentarians with large members nor the practice of collectively hanging all MPs. What it means is simply that no party achieved an outright majority within the House of Commons. Since the House of Commons has 650 seats and the largest party, the Conservatives (or Tories), won only 318, the UK currently has a hung parliament.

But Britain still needs a PM to appoint a cabinet and so there are three ways that one can emerge from a hung parliament. The first two possibilities both involve two or more parties with a collective majority of seats joining into a coalition together. This can either be a formal coalition which leads to a cabinet filled with members from all coalition members or an informal “confidence and supply” agreement where one or more smaller parties only agree to back a larger party on the budget and other key issues.

Finally, if neither arrangement can be reached, then another election is simply held. If you have just uncontrollably spat your drink onto your keyboard, then I apologize. But you read that correctly:  the British do not exclusively hold their elections on a cyclical basis. In fact, a general election can be held either as a result of the ruling government losing a no confidence vote or if a two-thirds majority of parliament votes for an election to be held. If an election isn’t called for five years, then one happens anyway.

So What The Fuck Happened?

The short version is that Theresa May, the leader of the Tories, had a small majority in parliament and called an election because she thought she could expand that majority. Labour, a leftwing party and the second largest party in the UK, was polling very badly. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was near universally regarded by the media to be too leftwing to do well in a general election, and the polls appeared to back this up.

But what happened instead was a Labour surge: they gained 31 seats when only months before they were predicted to lose 50 or more. The Conservatives lost their majority in parliament and are now scrambling to make a confidence and supply deal with the far right Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland. Such a deal risks alienating moderate Tories who are fiscally conservative but socially liberal.

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(Pictured: Theresa May and Vladimir Putin trying to incinerate one another with their minds.)

There is another far more troubling repercussion of a deal with the DUP: it threatens the Good Friday Agreement, the bedrock of the peace in Northern Ireland. There is already an ongoing political crisis in Northern Ireland. In Part 2 we will take a shallow dive into the history of Ireland, by the end of which we all hopefully know enough to understand this paragraph.

The first two photos are from Wikipedia Commons, and the third is from the Kremlin’s website. All were found using free use filtered Google image search. I don’t actually know how to do photo credits: please don’t sue me.