Nature, Ability, and Value

Perhaps nowhere do the great philosophical issues of civilization become more evident than in how society treats the disabled.

Take the current obsession with the notion of the “natural”, for instance. Human civilization is repeatedly criticized for being unnatural; the natural world is taken to be morally superior. But what would be the fate of a disabled individual in this supposedly desirable state of nature? The answer is simple: death. A disability such as blindless or abasia (the inability to walk) is, in evolutionary terms, a distinct disadvantage. The disabled individual performs its tasks less well, and will therefore be eliminated from the gene pool via natural selection. Life is perpetual competition, and value is derived solely from the ability to outcompete others.

Many who promote “natural” values would be horrified by the prospect of letting the disabled die; this points to the philosophical errors that are at the very core of a great deal of Green ideology. Nature is neither kind nor balanced; to the degree that capital-N Nature is even a useful concept at all, it is a process characterized by violence and randomness.

A common attempt at asserting the value of disabled people is to emphasize alternate forms of ability through euphemisms such as “differently abled”. Apart from the political consequences of this approach, which I’ve written about before, we must also consider its philosophical foundations. To put the emphasis on ability – even if it takes an alternate form – is to maintain the very “natural” logic so many would otherwise reject. After all, it is to argue that value is still derived from ability, which in turn implies that those without ability are without value. It is a more inclusive definition, but it changes nothing about the logic of brutal competition at the heart of this philosophy. As such, it is not surprising that it has been taken up widely by those representing the socially liberal part of capitalism, which seeks wider inclusion of a diverse workforce without altering the material relations at the system’s core.

(This is particularly important when we consider those who, for a variety of reasons, are genuinely and fully disabled, unable to produce value. Their stories are ignored in favour of more convenient stories of exceptional individuals.)

What is the proper origin of value, then? I would argue that the most foundational characteristic of human society’s understanding of value is that it is not based on ability, but is considered to be intrinsic. We do not choose to help disabled individuals because they are somehow useful, but because we assert that all human beings are inherently valuable. We take care of the old, the disabled, the sick, because we assert that it is the right thing to do, because it is the kind of world we want to live in, not because we hope to get something out of it. In other words, the basis of civilization is a rejection of Nature’s endless and meaningless optimization of the gene pool to fit constantly shifting parameters.

Capitalism, of course, takes society back towards the very logic we had rejected. In this lies both its tremendous creative and disruptive power, which undid the staid hierarchies of feudalism and drove forward human thought and productivity, and its terrible danger, which we see now as the competing factions threaten to eradicate civilization and perhaps even the species itself. Like Nature, capitalism is perpetual competition, characterized by violence and randomness, and measures value in terms that contradict the essence of civilization. This is why it is impossible to fight for the rights of disabled individuals in cultural terms; to do so will only improve the chances of those with exceptional abilities (as measured in the ability to generate a profit) to rise to the top of a system that rejects the very notion of intrinsic value.

If, philosophically speaking, we do not wish to return to a state of nature, but to continue the great human project that is civilization, the struggle for the rights of the disabled is an essential part of that project; but it is a struggle that can only be won by seizing conscious control of the system, as we once seized control of the natural environment in a way no other species had before, and asserting the inherent value of all human beings not only in cultural, but material terms. Socialism, then, is not only a political necessity, but also a philosophical one.

Far Out There

Far Out There is another short story I wrote for Phoenix Point. This one is a bit shorter, but it has a flavour all of its own. (The most important aspect of writing a story, I’ve always felt, is voice. I can’t write a story without having found the right voice. This is the reason it takes me a long time to get going, and why I write very carefully and precisely; the advantage is that I don’t need to edit as much.)

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: this story, while fitting perfectly into the game’s mythos, is partially inspired by the most terrifying dream I’ve ever had. The details are quite different, but the central experience, of the encounter that forms the story’s climax, is drawn from my own life. Except it wasn’t real. I hope.

The Tomb of the Phoenix

The Tomb of the Phoenix is a Lovecraft-inspired short story I wrote for Phoenix Point. I had a ton of fun writing it and I’m really pleased with the result. Sorry if that sounds smug, it’s just one of those stories that show up in your brain almost complete and are a real joy to work on. It’s also very encouraging to see that people are enjoying it; I do have a certain level of confidence in my work, but with how hard it is to get my kind of writing published, I sometimes fear that I was born a century too late, and that when I finally finish that novel I’ve been working on for 10+ years, nobody will want it. It’s good to be reminded that there is, at least, an audience.

If you enjoy the story, it would be great if you could share it with other people who might also enjoy it. The internet is fantastic for getting the word out, which is why it’s incredibly hard to get the word out about anything on the internet.

More Phoenix Point stories are on the way! We’re building a complex, layered world with many flavours of horror and hope. The real challenge, of course, will be to make the dynamic narrative in the game just as good.

From X-Com to Phoenix Point

I remember playing the demo for X-Com: Apocalypse. I got it from a CD that came with an issue of now-defunct Greek gaming magazine PC Master. I’d only just recently gotten my own computer; I think the only game I’d bought myself so far was Shadows over Riva. (We weren’t exactly rich.)

I immediately fell in love with the game. Everything about it appealed to me. The mix of sci-fi and horror. The RPG elements. The combat. The way it felt less like a game and more like a simulation. The sheer amount of options. It felt like a whole world had been crammed into that game, a world with complex rules, with mysteries, with behaviours that weren’t just responses to the player, but somehow happened on their own.

I bought it, and I’ve rarely been so excited. I read the manual (on the toilet, the proper place for reading manuals) and it just made the game seem even bigger and more wonderful. And then… I have no idea. Did I bounce off it at first? Did it take me a while to understand all of its systems? It’s possible, but I can’t really remember. I just remember finding myself utterly absorbed. I had favourite bases, favourite soldiers, even favourite scientists. I had opinions about the various organizations in the game, including a vicious war with one of the gangs (and, of course, the Cult of Sirius). The combination of a detailed fictional world full of specific detail and abstract, dynamic mechanics created the feeling that you were defending a real, living place. It drew me in.

The combat was completely fascinating. In games, I have a strong tendency to look for unusual solutions, and X-Com: Apocalypse offered so many of them. I remember an alien shooting at my soldiers from a balcony, and instead of killing the alien we just shot the balcony away from under it. I remember repeatedly raiding the same gang over and over to ruin their finances and enrich myself, using a truly devious strategy: find a room with a destroyable floor that contains a smaller room, use incendiary ammo to destroy the outer part of the room, then use teleporters to turn the room into a floating fortress of safety. Man, those teleporters were overpowered, but they were fun. I did the last missions with just one or two soldiers. Teleporting guerillas.

There were real moments of horror, though, especially when you encountered a new type of alien. The sound design was superb – you learned to identify the enemies by the sounds they made, which made hearing an unknown sound doubly terrifying. And there were even a couple of surprises in the late game.

(Side note: my computer at the time had an extremely peculiar property, which I discovered while playing X-Com: the sound card would randomly pick up signals from passing taxis. Suddenly hearing the loud voice of a taxi driver shouting through my headphones while I was in the middle of a tense mission literally made me jump.)

All of the brilliance of the tactical combat (best enjoyed in real-time mode) wouldn’t really be half as much fun without the strategic layer, though. Managing your base, equipping your soldiers, making alliances with other organizations – these provided a context and a feeling of freedom to the whole thing that other games just couldn’t match.

After X-Com: Apocalypse, I went back and played the first two games, and enjoyed both very much. Even later, reading up on the history of the games, I found out that Apocalypse was essentially unfinished, and had been something of a nightmare project for its creator, Julian Gollop. I still think it’s a brilliant game, though, and even all these years later I still tremendously enjoy it. The last time I replayed it was a couple of years ago, and it was still properly exciting. I frequently feel like games from that period represent a lost branch in the evolutionary tree of games, before the desire to simplify and streamline everything. (My holy trinity of strategy games is X-Com: Apocalypse, Master of Orion II, and Master of Magic. I replay all three regularly.)

I played the demo for X-Com: Interceptor, but just couldn’t get into it. It wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t X-Com. Its only influence on my life ended up being a running joke with some friends about future sequels being increasingly unlike the original, until X-Com 27 was a toaster or something. That joke was revived when the game that eventually became The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was announced, which like many others I felt to be a cheap attempt to slap a franchise name on something barely related to sell a few more copies. Then XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announced. And you know what’s really ironic? I ended up enjoying The Bureau a lot more.

Not that XCOM was bad. It really wasn’t. It was a very solid, very well-designed (except for those satellites) game. It took the original X-Com and evolved it in a different direction. But it wasn’t for me. Too many of the things that I really loved about X-Com were missing. The world didn’t feel alive, the base-building didn’t feel strategic. I enjoyed the time I spent with it well enough, but it didn’t grab me. (The Bureau, weirdly, did. Mainly because of the superb atmosphere and surprisingly solid combat. If only it had been more dynamic, or at least longer. It was like one third of a brilliant game.)

There are two things I spent years looking for, slowly acquiring a huge collection of bargain bin CD-ROMs: a good follow-up to X-Com and a good RPG. There were a few attempts at mimicking the formula, but to be honest all of the results were pretty terrible. That’s changed recently, with games like the very solid (and surprisingly well-written) Xenonauts and a fairly impressive X-Com modding scene, but none of those existed in my own personal Dark Age. (I still have trouble finding satisfying RPGs.)

Which brings us to Phoenix Point, the new game by Julian Gollop, a return to the genre by its very creator. When it was announced, I immediately asked whether I could work on it. I don’t normally do that; I’m not fond of trying to sell myself to others, it just feels crass. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and with some highly acclaimed games under my belt (which would have sounded pretty amazing to the version of me who’d just gotten his first PC and was thinking of learning how to program so he could make games) I thought I might actually get this gig. And I did! Holy shit.

I’m both excited and terrified to be working on Phoenix Point. In many ways, Phoenix Point is intended to be the game that X-Com: Apocalypse was never allowed to become. It has a detailed setting, but it’s also very dynamic. It has tense and challenging tactical combat, but also a proper Geoscape. It has distinct factions, scary aliens, oodles of atmosphere. It’ll draw players into its world, make them feel like they’re fighting for something that matters… if we do it right.

It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to be a ridiculous amount of work. Phoenix Point will be a game with a lot of narrative content, but also a lot of systems. The narrative isn’t something you just slap onto the systems, or even worse, something you force the systems into. The narrative has to be grounded in ideas that have depth, so that the player’s actions have a context that gives them meaning, but it also has to be dynamic, capable of responding to those actions. Of course, that’s precisely what’s interesting about games as a medium: the kind of writing required to make something like Phoenix Point work is entirely unlike any other kind of writing.

Some of the things I’ve written as background material are already available on the website: The Hatch is a short story about the Phoenix Project in the 1970s, and there’s also a Phoenix Project file on one of the factions, the Disciples of Anu. More will be posted soon. Finances and time allowing, I want to help make this game as rich and rewarding as possible. Maybe Phoenix Point will be to someone else what X-Com: Apocalypse was to me. Wouldn’t that be great?

Notes:

  • I didn’t generally keep game boxes when game boxes were still a thing, but I still have my X-Com: Apocalypse box.
  • Julian Gollop is very nice. He also sounds and looks like an older version of Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance.
  • I can’t remember who it was (Terry Cavanagh? Gregory Avery-Weir?), but someone once commented on the influence of X-Com on my unplayable, broken masterpiece Phenomenon 32. They were correct, even though it’s a totally different type of game.
  • I once couldn’t finish an X-Com: Apocalypse UFO level because I couldn’t find the last alien. But I kept hearing gunfire. Eventually I discovered that it had attempted to cut its way through the hull. Seriously. It had carved a freaking tunnel into the hull! Was it an accident or was the A.I. really thinking it could avoid my soldiers that way? Even Julian wasn’t sure.

Links:

2017: The Year Shit Got Finished

I’ve just taken a few days off for the first time since Christmas/New Year, and wow, I really needed it. I have to learn to stop working myself to the point of exhaustion. I always realize I’m totally burned out way too late. Of course, the main reason this keeps happening is that I so desperately want to get The Council of Crows out of the way, but the amount of effort it takes to work on a Lands of Dream game can’t always be sustained like you’d think. The Sea Will Claim Everything was created in an insane rush of nonstop work that went on for several months, but if I want to make a game that’s equally good, and more elaborate in a lot of ways, I just can’t do it like that. Sometimes I need to stop and recharge my batteries, do some research, find some inspiration. I need this more with the Lands of Dream games than with other work, because of the sheer amount of references and links embedded into each game.

I retrospect, as I’ve said before, something like Patreon would have been a much better model for supporting the Lands of Dream. Much better than Indiegogo, not because there’s anything wrong with Indiegogo, but because this particular type of game is just too unpredictable.

Speaking of Patreon, since it’s taking me so long to finish the game (and it’s mainly me, at this point, as Verena’s health problems that made drawing difficult are getting better), I’ve decided to keep treating the Indiegogo backers like other people do their Patreon supporters. Which means that since Omegaland is finished and greenlit and coming to Steam in the next few weeks, backers will receive keys for that game too. Please make sure to keep your Indiegogo email up to date, or let me know if there’s a problem.

The good news is that old projects are finally getting finished, and there are new projects to look forward to. Games may always take longer to finish than anyone expects, but this year they are getting finished!

In terms of new projects, there are several that haven’t been announced yet, but you may have heard about Phoenix Point. That’s the strategy game from Julian Gollop, the creator of X-COM. And, umm, do I need to say more? X-COM has been a huge influence, and I think this is the first time that I heard about a project and immediately said “please hire me!” I’m co-writing this game with Allen Stroud, and the first couple of stories (background material, but can be read on their own) are already available on the website. Mine is called The Hatch, and there are more to come.

I’ll write more in a separate post soon, but this is obviously ridiculously exciting.

The other projects I’m working on are games I’m co-writing with Verena, and I can’t wait to tell you more. Hopefully I’ll be able to do so soon.

In general, it looks like 2017 will be the point where a lot of the hard, exhausting work of the last few years pays off, and you all finally get to enjoy the stories that have been haunting my brain for so long. Now, if the world could refrain from ending while I finish this stuff, that would be good.

The Entirely Ordinary Victory of Donald J. Trump

The election of a deeply reactionary representative of the American plutocracy – and political outsider – to the office of President seems to have caused a major intellectual crisis in American liberalism. Or perhaps not so much a crisis as a panic – a sudden desperation to deflect any and all political responsibility or criticism. This has led to these two narratives in particular:

  1. Trump won because of a sudden upsurge in racism and sexism among “white men.”
  2. Trump won because of a Russian conspiracy.

The second narrative is so ludicrous that it’s hard to argue against, as it bases itself on a purely propagandistic worldview. It’s shocking that this tangle of conspiracy theories, racism, and outright invention has survived the decades since the end of the Cold War intact to this degree, although its function as a distraction from internal political crises and systemic economic crises is sadly entirely predictable. That representatives of liberalism in the media and politics can seriously portray Russia – a regional power at best, with vanishingly little industrial or military power compared to the United States – as some sort of cartoonish nation of moustache-twirling spies, and Vladimir Putin (a deeply conservative ruler with strong autocratic tendencies, like so many others) as some sort of Machiavellian evil genius speaks to a profound desperation.

At this point, no meaningful evidence has been presented of any Russian interference in the election; but it’s worth noting that this anti-Russia hysteria is intentionally conflating a series of vague possibilities to create a sinister feeling of infiltration, much as was done in the McCarthy era. At no point has Russia actually been accused of interfering in the electoral process, that is in the casting of votes, although journalists and politicians will frequently use phrasings that imply this. Nor do the “Russian ties” Trump and his people (a genuine cabinet of horrors) are accused ever turn out to be anything unusual. It’s entirely possible Trump has ties, alliances, friendships, even certain obligations to other plutocrats; but it is entirely clear, even without the extensive confirmation provided by the leaks (and reports detailing the activities of the Clinton Foundation), that the same is true of Clinton. Yet one suspects few liberal pundits would argue that Clinton’s close friendship with, for example, the former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, or her financial ties with various non-American donors to her foundation, should be taken as a sign of treason.

Even if it turned out that many of these accusations were true, they amount to very little in terms of electoral interference, and certainly cannot be used as an excuse for the rise of Trump. The Russian narrative is ultimately more notable as a post-election phenomenon than anything to do with the actual process of how Donald Trump assumed power.

Which brings us back to the first narrative, the one that blames the nebulous category of “white men” (generally taken to refer to the non-coastal poor) for Trump’s victory. This narrative frequently imagines a sudden surge of racist, sexist rednecks sweeping the country – a reflection not of reality, but of a profound fear of the masses of humanity common to liberal elites in many time periods, with obvious parallels in propaganda going as far back as the Roman Republic.

This narrative already falls apart under basic statistical analysis. Trump was, if anything, remarkably unpopular. He got fewer votes than previous Republican candidates, not more. He did not enjoy widespread support in the white working class. He did not enjoy widespread support anywhere, in fact. The most remarkable thing about his campaign was that Clinton did not manage to beat him. The narrative of a sudden surge neatly explains away the fact that Clinton acted as if the presidency belonged to her by virtue of birth, not even attempting to campaign in significant regions of the United States. It also explains away a more significant fact: the collapse of the Democratic vote, beginning with the profound disappointment that Obama’s presidency represented to the masses of Americans who voted for him on the basis of his anti-war, pro-worker rhetoric.

Clinton campaigned specifically as someone who would continue the very policies that had caused support for the Democratic party to collapse over the eight years prior to the election. It does not require a conspiracy theory to see how this could lead to defeat, even against an extremely weak candidate like Trump.

The term normalize is frequently used in discussions of Trump’s far-right and outright fascist associates. We are frequently told not to normalize the sudden presence of fascists and neo-Nazis in the media and in government. That request is certainly legitimate in some senses, in that such people were not long ago rightfully banished to the fringes of society. That individuals with such political views could hold power is extremely telling about the current situation. However, there is also a significant danger of treating cases like Trump as exceptional, when in fact they are not.

It is worth looking back at the Republican presidential primaries. Here several narratives quickly fall apart. Trump’s major opponents included Ben Carson and Ted Cruz: one African-American, the other Hispanic-American. In a country that had previously twice elected Barack Hussein Obama, the argument that Trump’s victory is based on “whiteness” is extremely unconvincing. But Trump’s supposed uniqueness is also a sham: both Carson and Cruz (despite being members of historically oppressed groups) hold extremely reactionary views comparable to those of Trump, or even more extreme in some ways (Carson believes in a literal reading of the Bible, while Cruz notably wanted to carpet bomb ISIS to find out whether “sand can glow in the dark”).

Trump, then, is not an aberration. He is simply the face of one half of America’s political system. (Clinton, meanwhile, surpassed Cruz with her terrifyingly psychopathic reaction to the brutal murder of Muammar Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.”) Another individual in the same spot would not be terribly different.

A list of US presidents in the post-WWII era provides some insight into how the two-party system works:

  • Democrat
  • Republican
  • Democrat
  • Democrat
  • Republican
  • Republican
  • Democrat
  • Republican
  • Republican
  • Democrat
  • Republican
  • Democrat
  • Republican

This is not a system with a huge amount of variety. Power bounces back and forth; voter turnout tends to stay between 50 and 60 percent; landslide victories are extremely rare (even Kennedy, now the most popular President, beat Nixon only by 0.2%). When one group of voters is disappointed with their party, as happened with the Democrats in the Obama years, the other side wins. Neither party really has popular support.

So here is how Donald Trump became President of the United States.

The people who always vote Republican voted Republican, even though many of them didn’t even like Trump. Most of the people who always vote Democrat voted Democrat. Some of the people who voted for Obama because of the policies he promised didn’t vote for Clinton because she scoffed at those policies, instead supporting the actual policies Obama implemented, which had already lost the Democrats a huge amount of support. In the entirely normal ping-pong between parties that is characteristic of the two-party system, the ball went the other way.

It’s what has happened over and over for decades. It’s entirely ordinary.

What seems a lot less ordinary is the level to which the available candidates have sunk. Certainly when compared to the norms of the post-WWII political order, someone as crude and mad as Trump (or Cruz or Carson) appears unusual. On the Democratic side, too, the economic policies promoted by Clinton would have seemed very right-wing to a Democrat of fifty years ago, and the brag about Gaddafi’s murder would once have raised more than a few eyebrows. That time was longer ago than one might think (Madeleine Albright thought the deaths of 500.000 Iraqi children were “worth it” in 1996), and no ruling elite was ever innocent – but to a man like Dwight D. Eisenhower, it would be shocking to see both Republican and Democratic politicians openly boasting of their affiliation with and support for the military-industrial complex.

But this is still far from being a unique phenomenon. The moment you put the United States into a global context – something both American liberals and conservatives tend to very rarely do – the election of Donald Trump becomes part of an obvious pattern. Trump-like figures are on the rise everywhere, opposed by weak liberal entities that make vague noises about culturally progressive issues but steadfastly support brutal austerity and an imperialist foreign policy. In country after country, people are told they must support the centre-right candidate to prevent the far-right candidate from taking power; that “more of the same” is the only answer to what led us here in the first place. Unsurprisingly, this does not work very well.

This development itself is far from abnormal, however. It is, in fact, the entirely ordinary response of capitalism to a crisis it cannot overcome by other means: the creation of a pseudo-revolutionary movement aimed at the middle class, with support from the most backwards layers of the working class, bankrolled and run by capital, with the goal of removing all restrictions on itself and renewing capitalism through creative destruction, i.e. war. Liberal political entities are particularly bad at opposing this development because, while progressive at a social level, they support the same economic and therefore political logic. All they can offer, in the end, is the promise of a lesser evil.

It would be good, at this point, to remember that the German Social Democrats supported Hindenburg in 1932 with the purpose of preventing Hitler from coming to power; Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor in 1933. The lesser evil tends to lead straight to the greater evil.

If Trump and his ilk are to be effectively opposed, then, it must first be understood that they don’t represent an abnormality, a glitch in the system. They are the system, much like their liberal counterparts in the great ping-pong of doom. Picking sides is pointless when both sides are playing the same game. What must be opposed is the game itself, with its underlying rules that consistently produce such hateful entities.

Omegaland on Greenlight

So, there’s this game I’ve been making for freaking years. I actually started it before Ithaka of the Clouds/The Council of Crows was even an idea, and I’ve been working on it in the background ever since. This was never my main project, only something I switched to when I was exhausted from writing mushroom descriptions all day. But it’s done now, and I’d like to get in on Steam.

(I am back to writing mushroom descriptions all day now, or rather to trying to finish the wonderful monstrosity that is The Council of Crows. Finishing this helped me clear my mind after I’d reached an extreme level of burnout, and now I feel like I know what I’m doing again. I wish making games was easier.)

I don’t want to hype Omegland too much, because I really would like this to be a small, unassuming game, the kind you pick up because it’s cheap and looks like it might entertain you for a while, and then it turns out to be more fun than you expected. (I actually strongly considered releasing it anonymously, just so people would approach it without expecting anything, but ultimately that seemed excessive.) Not unlike the Lands of Dream games, really.

It’s very much inspired by classic platformers, particularly my beloved Super Mario Land 2, although it’s a little more relaxed. It doesn’t require an insane level of skill to enjoy, although it does have its challenges. Mainly I wanted it to be fun, to make you feel good, and to have a few surprises along the way. In many ways it’s the kind of game that I once would have made for Newgrounds, except a lot bigger.

I feel happy about this game. I’m fond of it, its silly world, its characters, its monsters. Making it let me get back to certain areas of design I hadn’t touched in a while. I approached it without thinking of anything except what I think is fun.

I have no major expectations, but it would be nice if it reached a few people. It would be extra nice if it helped us pay for the costs of marketing The Council of Crows when it’s done, because promoting the Lands of Dream games is hard and I’d like to get some help to do it better. Thus the whole Steam thing.

Anyway, all votes/retweets/shares/hugs are appreciated. I hope this will be the first of several long-term projects to be completed in 2017.

[Edit: I made some changes to the title and Patrick’s appearance, to distinguish him a bit more from a certain Italian. Patrick and Patricia are Irish, of course.]

Things Are Not OK

Once upon a time I was talking to an old German man.

“The government is blaming foreigners for everything,” he told me. “All these politicians, they’re completely corrupt! Taking money from corporations, doing whatever they’re told by the rich. They don’t care about ordinary people anymore. They don’t care about jobs or healthcare. They just line their pockets. And then they blame other countries for our problems, the problems they caused themselves. It’s not the fault of foreign people! They’re getting ripped off just like we are by their own politicians. It’s exactly the same. The politicians and the media are just trying to distract us from what’s being done to all of us.”

I nodded along.

“None of this would have been allowed,” he said, “under Hitler.”

“How can anyone vote for Trump? How can anyone poor or oppressed vote for Trump? How can women vote for Trump? Latinos? Black people?”

I’ve seen a lot of variations of that question being asked in tones of despair these last few months. And before I continue with my main point, let me note that pretty much nobody voted for Trump. There wasn’t a huge surge of support or anything like that. Mostly the people who vote Republican just voted Republican again. Most Americans don’t vote at all. To say that Trump is somehow representative of the majority of Americans is not just offensive, but downright silly. Clearly the majority of Americans care neither for Trump nor for Clinton. But let’s talk a bit about the people who did vote for him, who did have some kind of hope that Trump could “drain the swamp.”

Most ordinary people, particularly poor people, do not have a political education. I don’t say this with contempt. Where the hell are they supposed to get one? Schools certainly don’t teach anything even resembling meaningful political analysis; they don’t even provide the basic tools to help someone think about politics in a complex way. And what else is there? Newspapers? Television? We’re all aware of how terrible Fox News is, but are there alternatives? Look at the liberal side of the media right now, frothing at the mouth about evil Russians and exploding with outrage at Trump’s suggestion that the United States may have used shady methods to accomplish its goals in the past. (Incidentally, if you’re wondering why most of the world was terrified of the United States long before Trump, it may have something to do with a history of overthrowing democratically elected governments, invading countries, and assassinating those Americans who oppose such policies.)

Above all, the one concept that is truly taboo in all mainstream discourse is that of a material understanding of historical processes. Whether liberal or conservative, ideology is king, and the economic foundation of life must never be examined.

But the material, economic foundation of life is the one objective fact that everyone experiences. People work and their bosses prosper. Wages decline and bonuses soar. Banks get bailed out, people get kicked out. No matter what anyone wants to believe, this is what happens. This is the objective reality the majority of people experience. This is what they know with absolute certainty. The question is… what now? How do they react to this reality?

People are consistently and insistently told that they have two choices: liberal or conservative. This is true in most major capitalist countries; in the US, it takes the shape of the Democrats and the Republicans, two parties that pride themselves on their dedication to capitalism. No alternative to these two parties is permitted; even the suggestion is generally treated as heretical. (Even months after the election, liberal pundits are raging at the Green Party, although it demonstrably did not cause Clinton to lose the election. Their hate is so intense that even major journalists with millions of viewers will suggest that third-party candidates are actually Russian agents, the kind of position once associated with the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party ranting on talk radio.)

So, in the end, people are told that they must choose between two options or be considered fools or traitors. But what do these two options mean to them?

Let’s not think about what the policies of the two parties actually entail in the real world (the near-perfect continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations should say it all); let’s instead consider what people were offered in this last election. People tend to focus on the various details of what each candidate was speaking about, but I think it’s far more instructive to look at the overall direction of their message and its relation to the objective reality described above.

  • Trump campaigned on the promise to Make America Great Again. At its core, this message said that things are not OK. That’s the baseline. Things are not OK.
  • Clinton countered Trump’s claims with America Is Already Great. Unemployment, police violence, terrible healthcare, stagnating wages, constant war – but actually, things are OK.

Yes, Trump’s campaign was full of appeals to hate, whereas Clinton spoke about diversity and inclusiveness (though she does not really have a history of standing for these things). But the basic premise of Clinton’s campaign was a big fat lie, whereas Trump’s was a truth that is rarely acknowledged. That everything Trump built on that truth was sheer horror isn’t the point, because he started with something that reflected the reality people were experiencing. Even poor people, oppressed people. And with Clinton, it doesn’t matter that on average she probably would have been less horrible and destabilizing (although “we came, we saw, he died” will never not be the profoundly psychopathic statement of a war criminal), because the moment she told people that things were OK, they knew she was lying. Things are not OK. People know that.

So just look at the situation that the mainstream political forces have created. They don’t allow anyone to think in systemic terms, to question why capitalism is not producing widespread wealth as it once did (to some degree). They present them with a binary choice. One option says that everything should continue as it is. The other says that change is necessary.

That’s not why Trump won. But it is why many people who have absolutely nothing to gain from his presidency voted for him. Because they know – objectively – that the system isn’t working. They know it needs to break, to be shaken up, to change in some profound way. They lack the political education to understand how capital functions in times of crisis, but they know something needs to be done, and even inside the framework offered to them by the opposition (there are two capitalist parties and you must pick one), it makes sense for them to support the candidate who at least has the right premise. They don’t need to be racists or homophobes or misogynists. There are immigrants who are pro-Trump. Trump has gay supporters. Plenty of women voted for him. But just like many people held their noses and voted for Clinton, because although they disagreed with many of her policies (especially her strongly pro-war history), they thought she at least got some of the social basics right, plenty of people held their noses and voted for Trump, because at least he got the economic basics right.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Trump does actually represent anything anti-systemic. Of course he doesn’t. If anything, he’s a part of the plutocracy seeking to bypass the traditional managerial political class and seize direct control. But looking at the facts above, from the perspective of certain people, he may well have seemed like the lesser evil, or even like a tiny sliver of hope.

Speaking of hope, if you think of Obama, it’s not hard to understand Trump’s appeal. Obama’s first campaign really disproves the liberal narrative which depicts the majority of poor Americans as reactionary hicks. Obama, a black man with a foreign-sounding name, who campaigned on a pro-worker and anti-war message, drew an incredible amount of support and enthusiasm from all over the country (and beyond). That Obama, the Obama of Hope and Change, was what Americans really wanted. Not racism, not sexism, but someone who acknowledges the great problems that plague society and promises to do something about them.

They never got that Obama, of course, and so the enthusiasm waned. Some of it came back during the Sanders campaign, but he was pushed aside in favour of Clinton. But Clinton did not run as the Obama of Hope and Change, she ran as Realpolitik Obama. She ran as a proud representative of a system that has left the majority of people behind. It is not a coincidence that polls showed Sanders winning decisively against Trump. People want change.

Trump’s campaign, on an abstract but important level, resembled Obama’s campaign more than Clinton’s did.

If one thing is characteristic of mainstream liberalism worldwide, it is a rabid anticommunism. Inequality can only ever be condemned as insuffiently equal access to market forces; exploitation, in the sense of the appropriation of surplus value, cannot be questioned. The struggle can only be conceived as the effort to create a capitalism whose results are not distorted by prejudice, creating a ruling class that is as diverse as the general population. Capitalism is holy.

For decades, there has been a global liberal consensus, best expressed in Fukuyama’s idea of capitalism as the end of history. Now, as capitalism sinks deeper and deeper into a crisis it cannot recover from, more extreme forces are necessary to maintain the economic and political status quo. They are the exact same forces the system deployed last time a major crisis occured: various flavours of fascism and authoritarianism, ideal for suppressing dissent caused by inequality and perhaps even jump-starting capitalism through all-out war.

The bitter irony for those who value liberalism’s social values, which will be sacrificed to ensure the division of working-class people as the role of capital becomes more openly dictatorial, is that it is precisely liberalism’s dogmatic insistence that there is no alternative to its own brand of socially-acceptable capitalism that enables the rise of fascism.

On Punching Nazis

There’s been a lot of debate about the use of violence to oppose various manifestations of the far right lately. Both sides of the argument are frequently indignant. How can it be OK to punch anyone? How can it not be OK to punch a Nazi?

What’s missing from most of these debates, I think, is the distinction between the different ways in which political violence can be evaluated. The main two sources of confusion are two of the great dogmas of contemporary liberalism: “nothing is ever solved by violence” and “the personal is the political.”

The former, of course, has a long history, which is primarily defined by hypocrisy. The opposition to the use of violence to achieve political ends is only ever applied to those seeking to change the system. The most famous case is probably Martin Luther King Jr., praised widely by liberals for his commitment to nonviolence, then condemned as a traitor by the very same people for opposing the war in Vietnam. (Read some articles and statements from political leaders of the time, even from inside the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll be shocked by the degree of venom directed at MLK over not differentiating between violence against Americans and violence against the Vietnamese.) Wars and police repression are necessary; protests and other forms of direct political action are destructive, divisive, unhelpful, and so on.

The influence of “the personal is the political” is perhaps equally insidious. By erasing the profound difference between individual and organized/collective action, it conflates lifestyle with politics, leading to the extremely dangerous delusion that the one can substitute for the other. It gives individuals the feeling that their personal behaviour, divorced from any greater movement, somehow amounts to meaningful political action. This encompasses everything from throwing rocks at cops to writing articles about how women having short hair is actually truly politically radical. It gets a response that makes the individual feel that they have transgressed, but changes nothing about the nature of the system.

If we rid ourselves of these two dogmas, we can look at the question with a little more complexity.

That political violence is useful, in the sense of being able to accomplish goals, is proven by history. From the defeat of fascism to the world-changing effects of the great revolutions, violence has played an intrinsic part in changing the political order; we live in a material world, where most conflicts have material roots, and naturally they also play out as conflicts between material bodies. That doesn’t mean that a political movement should choose to initiate violence, mind you; but no ruling class has ever given up its authority without employing violence against its opponents, and sometimes that means using violence in self-defense, even if it is deeply unpleasant, even if our goal is a world without such violence. Every modern democratic right we have, every freedom we cherish, was only made possible through the use of violence. That includes the violent overthrow of the feudal system by capitalists.

But acknowledging the power of political violence does not mean that all political violence is useful. We must distinguish between violence – and nonviolence – as ideology and as strategy. Those who embrace violence or nonviolence in ideological terms will frequently find themselves trapped. Nonviolence only works against an opponent who doesn’t have a problem just slaughtering you; violence has a huge array of side-effects and consequences that can easily derail a movement.

Therefore, it makes sense to consider violence in strategic terms. That means considering a specific situation and weighing the consequences of using violence as a political tool. For example, when various fascist types organize street gangs that attack immigrants and immigrant-owned establishments, violence can be immensely useful. Many lives have been saved by the political response of beating the living shit out of such people. Note, however, that this type of action – even when performed by anarchists – is usually organized. It’s a response to a situational assessment, followed by planning, executed collectively with a highly specific goal in mind. It may have negative consequences (lawsuits, negative media depiction) but it also has quantifiable, material positive consequences: shops saved, people protected.

Not all uses of political violence are effective. When the public perceives the violence as unnecessary – that is, the goals as unsound or simply not worthy of the damage caused – then it can turn even deeply oppressed people against the movement, strengthening the position of the police and allowing them to use more extreme tactics themselves. This is why the police employ provocateurs.

If your actions cannot be distinguished from those of police provocateurs, they are probably not politically useful.

We must here also distinguish between violence as employed by individuals or small groups and violence as employed by a mass movement of the people: this is the difference between a terrorist attack and a strike. The latter is a great collective action that represents the will and interest of an organized populace struggling against an oppressor; the former is an action taken without any consultation, without any support, in a way that isolates the acting individuals from the people and usually accomplishes little more than to tarnish the entire movement and give those in authority a good excuse to crack down.

Trotsky wrote the following in regards to individual terrorism:

A strike, even of modest size, has social consequences: strengthening of the workers’ self-confidence, growth of the trade union, and not infrequently even an improvement in productive technology. The murder of a factory owner produces effects of a police nature only, or a change of proprietors devoid of any social significance. Whether a terrorist attempt, even a ‘successful’ one throws the ruling class into confusion depends on the concrete political circumstances. In any case the confusion can only be shortlived; the capitalist state does not base itself on government ministers and cannot be eliminated with them. The classes it serves will always find new people; the mechanism remains intact and continues to function.

But the disarray introduced into the ranks of the working masses themselves by a terrorist attempt is much deeper. If it is enough to arm oneself with a pistol in order to achieve one’s goal, why the efforts of the class struggle? If a thimbleful of gunpowder and a little chunk of lead is enough to shoot the enemy through the neck, what need is there for a class organisation? If it makes sense to terrify highly placed personages with the roar of explosions, where is the need for the party? Why meetings, mass agitation and elections if one can so easily take aim at the ministerial bench from the gallery of parliament?

In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission. The anarchist prophets of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more ‘effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organisation and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy.

All of the above allows us to consider the political aspects of punching a Nazi. We may also consider the personal aspects, as long as we remember that these are entirely distinct.

A dedicated fascist of any kind is a vile human being and an enemy of the majority of humanity. Far worse than any royal who merely happens to have been born into an unfair system, a fascist is someone actively working to reverse all the progress our species has made. These are simply facts. How one responds to such a person is a matter of personal morality.

The pleasure many found recently in watching a Nazi get punched is an entirely positive, healthy sign. It’s not a sign of political understanding of any great depth, but it does tell us people’s hearts are in the right place. That does not mean, however, that those who find all individual violence truly abhorrent are wrong or would not support a greater struggle against fascism. As I said above, it is merely a matter of personal morality, and does not necessarily have political implications. It is only when someone actively seeks to support such an individual that we enter the political realm once more.

In any case, it is entirely too easy to get caught up in questions of individual punchworthiness. The vile Nazi who got punched in the face was certainly scum; but what is he compared to a liberal President who has killed tens of thousands of people with bombs, including citizens of his own country? Or a conservative President who has killed a million after using lies to illegally invade a country? What about this supporter, or that collaborator – and so on? Such debates inevitably become moralistic, missing the greater systemic issues at hand.

People often cite World War II when it comes to punching Nazis, but wars are not won by individuals punching Nazis in the face. They are won by armies. And revolutions are won by the organized masses of the people. Every great political transformation is won through power.

Is it OK to punch a Nazi? The answer to your question is ORGANIZE.

Deplorables

I’ve experienced racism as long as I can remember. As a small child in Greece, it was because I spoke German to my mother, so other children would mock me, screaming “Hitler! Hitler!” on the playground. As an adult living in Germany, it’s because I’m Greek, and Greeks are supposedly lazy and corrupt leeches. Racism and xenophobia have always been with me, and it’s not really gotten much better, especially with the economic crisis pushing all ideologies towards their extremes.

Now, with Brexit and Trump, I’ve seen a lot of people get very angry at the perceived “white working class” responsible for these things. That a lot of it actually comes from middle-class voters – and that non-white and non-male people also voted for these things – is a different issue; let’s stick with the racist underclasses for now.

I happen to know a lot of German working-class racists. I know even more who are so poor that they don’t qualify as working class, but as lumpenproletariat. I’ve heard them discuss their ideas, sometimes with me present. They think Greeks are crafty, greedy foreigners just looking to exploit honest, hard-working Germans. They think Greeks are lazy, living in luxury. They think Greeks work few hours, retire early, and get huge pensions. They think Greeks literally owe them money, which they are very angry about, because they are genuinely poor and struggling. They think Greeks should be punished for their crimes against Germany. The only thing they hate more than Greeks is those refugees, who are actually lying economic migrants, coming here to steal their jobs and rape their daughters.

“So, what, you want us to like these people? This is the working class you want to build socialism with?”

To answer your questions: 1) no 2) yes.

I mention my personal experiences – due to a sarcastic article I once wrote, this site still gets hits from people searching for “kill all Greeks” and meaning it – because these days the identity angle is frequently used to dismiss any solidarity with people whose voting habits we detest. But I’m not talking as a member of the “dominant majority” who has never experienced racism, I’m talking as a member of a group that has been relentlessly vilified by the system.

And that vilification is part of the reason. Where did those people who hate me so much get these ideas? Were they just born that way, genetically reactionary? Did they choose these ideas after long and careful consideration, so that we can say they truly represent their innermost beliefs? No, of course not. They are just bombarded with these ideas 24/7. Every tabloid is overflowing with that stuff. But where the tabloids are overt in their racism and perhaps easy to dismiss, others are much more subtle. On TV and in the fancier newspapers they might use the term “mit Migrationshintergrund” (with a background relating to migration), but it’s still a codeword for “filthy foreigners!” Government announcements deplore racism in one sentence while appealing to it in the next.

Perhaps more importantly, completely aside from tone, the “facts” that are presented, the reality that is constructed by both media and government, would logically lead you to believe horrible things about other people. The lies are so shameless and so pervasive that questioning makes you seem like a conspiracy theorist. During the EU-Greece negotiations, German politicians would come on TV and announce things that were literally the exact opposite of what had just happened. Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble have held long, condescending speeches about the Greek people describing a situation that is 100% false, contradicted by every single statistic produced by independent agencies. They lie right to people’s faces, and they do it so much that it seems like it must be the truth, because no-one would be so crazy as to repeat such nonsense over and over while millions of people are listening.

(Does that sound familiar? And yet these are the exact sort of serious technocrats that everyone wants to hand power to in order to avoid Brexit, and who we are told would have been so much better than Trump, because they know how to run the system. The only thing they know how to do better than Trump is sound coherent while lying.)

Now think of these working-class people – people who, I must remind you, personally hate me for being Greek – and consider how many chances they’ve had to be exposed to something else. Their education is minimal, their political education even less so. They certainly don’t teach anything politically useful in school, and some of them haven’t even finished school. They know how to use Facebook, but aren’t that familiar with the internet. The places where you are supposed to get “serious” information all spout versions of the same ideology. Meanwhile, their lives are constantly getting worse. Austerity in Germany is not what it is in Greece, but it’s nevertheless real. They struggle to get jobs, and when they do get them, they are terrible. They are constantly unsafe. They have little access to culture or anything uplifting. And the system is brilliantly calculated so that they stay just there, always surviving, never thriving, always available as a cheap workforce.

Sitting in a room with these people, hearing them talk about foreigners (like myself, unless I’m lucky; then I’m the exception, “not like the others”) is pretty disgusting. I have a temper when it comes to these things, so it’s a bit of a miracle I haven’t screamed at anyone.

But that’s a personal, emotional response. Those are all well and good, but they’re not the same as political analysis. Confusing the two is the basis of identity politics, and that’s part of why things have gone to shit as they have. The personal is not the political.

You may be familiar with a famous phrase from the last paragraph of the Communist Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” Look at that phrase carefully. Nothing to lose. The basis of socialist thought isn’t that the working class is socially and spiritually better. The goal isn’t to uplift the people who somehow magically deserve it more than others, because they are more advanced, more progressive, more hip. The proletarians have nothing to lose because they have nothing. To be more precise: the foundation of socialist thought is the systemic relationship between workers and capital, in which workers are exploited to produce profit, resulting in their economic, cultural and spiritual immiseration.

Reactionary ideologies are the result of immiseration. They are the result of the atomization of society, of life lived under pressure and in competition. They are also a tool, a method employed by the system to preserve itself. The hate towards Greek people promoted by the German government doesn’t have social or cultural roots; it is a way of dividing the international working class, a way of preventing German and Greek workers from understanding that they are both being exploited, that both their governments represent the same economic interests. It’s not necessary for a politician to hate a group of people to promote hatred against them. It only needs to be politically useful. And when it is politically useful, either those politicians will go with it, or politicians with more useful beliefs will take over their positions. I’m not describing a conspiracy here; it’s just how the system works. In many ways, it’s impersonal.

Despite what we are taught in schools, being determines consciousness: material conditions, not personal philosophies, determine the rise and fall of ideologies. The goal of socialism is to break that cycle, to assert human control over the economy, rather than the other way around. But for that we need the working class.

Why? For one thing, because the working class comprises the large majority of people. In many ways, it is the people – it is humanity. For another, because of what makes it the working class: the term does not denote a cultural group, but an economic relationship to the means of production. That is significant in two ways. One is that the majority of people have common economic interests, from which a huge coalition can be built, which in turn has profound social and cultural implications. The other is that the working class represents the beating heart of the system. Capitalism cannot operate without the working class. We’re frequently told that this is no longer true, because a handful of programmers and designers and artists are making a lot of money, or because of the stock exchange, or even more laughably, because robots will be doing all our jobs by next year. But the truth is that the vast majority of work, the work that actually keeps civilization going, is done by people. And if those people banded together, having understood the nature of their exploitation, they could change everything.

None of this implies compromise with reactionary political movements. As both liberals and traditional conservatives are supporters of capitalism, there is a politically logical tendency for some people from both camps to normalize various far-right movements once those have gained enough power. In Greece there was an attempt to make Golden Dawn (a neonazi criminal organization responsible for multiple deaths) seem respectable; in Germany many will point out that Alternative für Deutschland (a thinly-disguised fascist party) “does have some valid points” about migration; in the US, many will say that “he is our President after all”; in the UK… actually, the UK is such a mess that it deserves a separate article. In any case, the point is that there are those who are willing to adopt the reactionary ideologies that the system requires to preserve itself in order to gain more power inside that system.

Such people should be opposed without mercy. As should those who, despite their class, become so deeply dedicated to destructive ideologies that they become enemies of the people. That’s tragic, but such people exist, and they will have to be defeated. A better world will have to be created for them in spite of them.

However, to actually win against these people will require far more than just the most socially progressive individuals expressing their collective contempt for the misled downtrodden. It will require an analysis of why people are misled, and that analysis must include not just ideology, but economics. And then, on the basis of understanding how material conditions affect the totality of human experience, as many people as possible must be shown where their common interests lie.

The majority of working-class people are not actually reactionary; statistics show that over and over, and the Bernie Sanders campaign recently showed it again. Sanders is not a socialist, and the Democratic Party will never represent anything except the ruling class, but the enthusiastic reaction in poor regions to a Jewish self-proclaimed socialist says a lot. But there is a part of the working class that has fallen prey to deeply reactionary beliefs. I am not asking you to like them. I don’t like them myself. They are not my friends. But they are my comrades – or they could be.

If you want to win, you need people, even people you don’t like. If you want to get those people on your side, you need to fight for them, even if you don’t want to sit at the same table with them. History shows that if you fight for them, they’ll realize you’re not the enemy, and they’ll fight for the common cause with the determination of people who have nothing to lose. It also shows what happens when you look down at them and dismiss them.

Solidarity does not require friendship, but change does require solidarity.