Sure, soaring economic inequality and our increasingly plutocratic politics have revived interest in class-based social analysis. But, the 20th century saw communism fail spectacularly as any kind of just or effective governing philosophy. Moreover, the 21st century is grounded in universal values that communist regimes were fundamentally hostile to, like democracy, constitutionally-limited government, and a mixed economy. A handful of countries still call themselves socialist in the Marxist sense (China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.). But no one thinks they mean it.
Marxism is more than just a failed governing philosophy, however. (You may not even agree it failed; we could debate that.) Marxist thought was also a very well-developed system for critiquing capitalism. Communist doctrine may be relevant today as a tool for analyzing what has gone wrong with global capitalism – and thus with democracy, even though Marx held that bourgeoisie democracy as a mere cover for capitalist greed and exploitation. Understanding the ideas behind what some call “cultural Marxism” may help us to understand some of the structural factors that let the few continue to exploit the many in society.
I propose we start the meeting by discussing what Marxism “stands for.” It might be helpful to identify four distinct historical stages of Marxist thought:
- Phase 1 (1848-1917): The purely theoretical and academic phase. Mainly Marx’s philosophy and critique of where capitalism seemed to be inevitably heading, plus his vague, Romantic ideas for how to prevent that future.
- Phase 2 (1918-1950s or so): The state-centered ascendant phase of Soviet and Chinese led communism. Revolutionary and totalitarian. A fusion of pre-modern absolutism with new “scientific” justifications.
- Phase 3 (1960s-1989): The post-colonial/anti-colonial phase. Marxist-Leninism fuses with third world nationalism and adapts to local conditions (including tribalism and local leaders’ lust for power). Per Lenin, severe critique of Western-led capitalism-based globalization.
- Phase 4: Post-modern Marxism (I made up that term). Marxism as an explainer of underlying power relationships in society that oppress marginalized groups.
The point is whether communism got anything “right” requires more than just pointing out its monstrous cruelty in power. That god has failed and likely won’t be back. Marxian ways of thinking about modern capitalism may provide insight into how we got into the economic mess we are in and how to get out of it.
On Monday I will briefly introduce the main tenets of Marxist political philosophy (I know a bit but not a lot). Then we can dive right in. Here are some readings I found interesting.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Very simple ABCs of communism.
- Marx’s core ideas remain relevant today. Recommended.
- He gives us a basic framework for understanding today’s global capitalism.
For more depth on this idea see here.
- Marx stays relevant only because we keep reinventing him to fit our needs. Long.
- What can liberals learn from Karl Marx? Recommended.
- Conservative POV:
- Karl Marx was wrong about so much that his continued popularity is baffling. Recommended.
- A more sympathetic POV. Long + dense.
NEXT WEEK: Are kids made or born?
Americans continue to bemoan our paralyzed and ineffective political system. Even when it’s 108 degrees outside. Yeech. As we have discussed, some of the problem may be inherent in the structures of our political system and the way we hold elections. One particularly intriguing idea is for the United States to adopt features of a parliamentary system of government.
To go full-on parliamentary is a bit of a pipe dream since it would entail amending the unamendable Constitution. Yet, there are ways the United States could change its electoral systems that would let us capture some of the benefits of parliamentary systems. There are many different variations of the parliamentary model around the world and other presidential systems, too. So, it is hard to directly compare a generic version of the two. Moreover, the U.S. political system has some unusual/unique features beyond anything change to parliamentary procedures could change, so we couldn’t necessarily just adopt some and expect similar results.
From what I understand, the basic arguments in favor of parliamentary government include:
- CHOICE: They tend to produce more than two viable political parties and thus offer voters more choices, and third parties can wield substantial influence sometimes.
- ELECTIONS: Campaigns are shorter and harder to buy with big money. Unpopular leaders and governments can be removed quickly via no confidence votes or snap elections.
- GOVERNANCE: Governments are more effective and accountable because the party that controls the legislature appoints the prime minister (no separation of powers), and voters can see clearly who to hold accountable.
- STABILITY: Parliamentary systems are less likely to produce authoritarian strong men, like in Venezuela or other (ahem) presidential systems.
On the other hand, some argue that parliamentary systems have their own problems. Voters do not directly elect the head of state. Coalitions can take months to form, be fragile, ad fall overnight in the middle of crises. Fringe political viewpoints get their own parties and (sometimes) outsized influence in coalition parties. There are fewer checks and balances and overreliance on permanent bureaucracies. And so forth.
It’s too hot to ask folks to binge read on political theory, IMO. So, here are just a few background articles that argue the advantages and disadvantages of the two systems. I will summarize the main arguments to open our meeting
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Very short pros and cons of presidential v. parliamentary systems. From Canada.
- For parliamentary systems as superior:
- Against parliamentary systems:
- The case against by a conservative.
- There are also “semi-presidential” and “competitive authoritarian” systems.
- How can which system we have solve our worst problem? No democratic political system can accommodate today’s Republican Party – and this is from 2012
NEXT WEEK: Was communism right about anything?
This month we will pick the next group of topics. If you have ideas comment here, on the meet-up site, or contact DavidG. Politics & public affairs, history, religion, culture/society, foreign affairs, philosophy, etc. This post will stay at the top; see below for Monday’s Mtg weekly post.
What unites Americans on this polarized, pessimistic 4th of July? Unlike many other countries Americans are not a single people purportedly based on blood or soil or language. At least that’s not what they teach us as the being the American character or the American creed.
Instead, Americans are supposed to be bound together by (depending on who and when in our history you ask) a set of common civic and cultural values. You all know them: Love of individual liberty, pluralism, equal opportunity, mutual tolerance, among others. Some of these are laid out in our Constitution; others aren’t but are said to have developed organically. Either way, American unity is said to be an achievement, not a built-in identity.
We all know there is a huge asterisk, of course. American identity has always had some far earthier and even ugly components, especially white supremacy and, periodically xenophobia and authoritarianism. Trump’s rise and 90% level of support in one political party may require us to focus more on the permanence of that asterisk. Moreover, all of our national values are constantly being contested, as befitting a democracy (within limits).
So, what can we say binds Americans together in times like these? After you enjoy your holiday weekend, join us on Monday for a Civilized Conversation on this subject.
Here are some light readings that might spur your thoughts on this subject. As always they are optional.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Public opinion on –
- American democracy and democratic values (shorter summary here) an on what makes U.S. democracy flourish. Recommended.
- Our growing racial and ethnic diversity.
- BTW: Most of us think USA is among the greatest countries in the world.
What divides us –
- Identity politics – practiced by everybody BTW.
- “Epistemic closure” among partisans, especially conservatives.
- Social trust is declining. Long, skim.
- A map of our regional differences.
What binds us together –
- These nine core American values. Recommended albeit optimistic.
- A shared commitment to the American experiment.
- Obama explained what unites us in his masterful 2015 speech on patriotism and American ideals. Recommended. Or try his 2008 speech on what is patriotism.
NEXT WEEK: Parliamentary systems – Do they make better governments?
Here’s a hot issue. We discussed the problem of monopoly power a few weeks ago. But lots of people are starting to agree that giant technology companies are a special, and more worrisome, case. In less than twenty years a handful of gigantic, globe-spanning companies (like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) have come to dominate key industries that are vital to our economy — and democracy. These include internet search engines, retail sales and on-line advertising, social media, news distribution, book publishing, and many major forms of entertainment.
The benefits to consumers these firms provide are of immense value to our economy, of course. We use them practically every most waking moment. Moreover, a lot of what they supply is free to consumers (at least at the point of sale) and the companies provide the necessary backbone of the internet, services like convenient search capability, transaction processing, and interoperable applications.
But, as with other monopolies, there are big concerns that Big Tech abuses it market power and its political influence in ways that harm us all. They restrict competition, retard innovation, finagle with prices and supplier wages, etc. This is before even considering Big Tech’s enormous lobbying clout that they (allegedly) use to lock in their market power via friendly laws and regulations.
Below, is some optional background reading on this topic. The articles favor the view that Big Tech is a Big Problem, but there are other ways of looking at the situation and how carefully public policy should tread in trying to regulate such a fast-moving industry.
Anyway, I will give the usual brief opening on Monday. I guess I will sum the basic idea behind the enough-is-enough argument. I know some of you have tech experience and the group I’m sure could benefit from hearing what you think in particular.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The basics –
- “The Challenge of Big Tech.” Recommended.
- How to fix Facebook before it’s too late. Recommended but 15pp.
- (What makes tech platforms so powerful? A bit technical)
- Europe is trying hard to tame Big Tech.
- Digital news is dying except when it’s feeding Facebook and Google.
- Wrong: Facebook does NOT have a “monopoly on news.”
- Media concentration favors the politically conservative POV.
Broader issues –
- The new curse of bigness:, Monopoly problem goes far beyond technology sectors.
- Privacy versus security: Can we have protection from both foreign attacks and big govt surveillance?
NEXT WEEK: What binds Americans together (…anymore)?
It’s a tough time to aspire to have civilized conversations about anything related to American foreign policy, obviously. Since a president has more control over it than over domestic policy, Donald Trump has been able to take us into radical new terra incognito. He is openly wrecking our traditional alliances, realigning us with authoritarian powers and their dictators, and implementing Russia’s foreign policy wet dreams. He has pulled us out of long-standing international agreements and started trade wars. More broadly, Trump seems to view all international relations (and thus negotiations and crises) as zero-sum, with a dominant winner and a dominated loser.
[Update: To be fair, Trump also might be able to accomplish some things, like an opening to North Korea that has to be done by somebody, sometime. Putting “America first” doesn’t have to be belligerent and counterproductive, at least in its long-term effects.]
All of this is a profound departure from the consensus foreign policy that was the postwar norm. Yeah, yeah. We dominated the West, not always for the better, perhaps. But ther3 was also a strong consensus in favor of a multilateral and positive-sum approach; a belief that we needed other countries’ cooperation to help maintain U.S. security and prosperity and would prosper best in a rules-based commerce system.
To be sure, Trump’s precise goals and strategy are a bit unclear underneath all of the bluster and tweeting. But, one POV is that if Republican voters and elites continue to back him to the hilt Trump may take the GOP – and all of us – back to its pre-Cold War foreign policy rooted in mercantilism, belligerence, and xenophobia. Who cares about a little brinkmanship?
We all should. Brinkmanship is inherently dangerous and requires very careful attention to both short-term tactics and long-term goals – and empathy with how adversaries think and what they feel. Sound like Trump to you? Worse, bullying and making wild threats until the other side backs down has been Trump’s core negotiating tactic all of his life. He likely will use it as a first resort in almost every situation. The agreement he just cut with North Korea is only going to feed his confidence that making dire threats work like a charm, just like in real estate. Ooh, boy.
Moreover, it’s not just Trump. At least some foreign policy brinkmanship is as American as apple pie. Kennedy used it in the Cuban missile crisis. Nixon and Kissinger played good-cop, madman-cop in Vietnam. Both George Bushes relied on showdown-style tactics in Iraq, with (ahem) varying results. The aforementioned postwar consensus was based on the threat of instant, massive nuclear retaliation after all, as we discussed a few weeks ago. Brinkmanship will always be with us, at least as a tool to pull off of the shelf by any president.
I will start off our meeting with a brief introduction. Then we can discuss whether Trump really is this radical departure from the norm and/or these questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is brinkmanship? How differ from a strong diplomacy backed by a willingness to act?
- When has brinkmanship worked for the United States? Why? When did it fail? When was it not used when it almost/could have been used?
- Are there any general lessons about when brinkmanship might be necessary or foolhardy?
- How out of control is this guy re threat-making? Who can get him to dial it down? What would the country lose if they don’t?
- Will the public and GOP keep supporting his risky foreign policy? Why are they willing to do so?
- After Trump? Will brinkmanship go back in the bottle?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- [Way late UPDATE: This is the core of Trump’s new foreign policy.]
- ABCs of brinkmanship as used in the Cold War.
- Trump: Bullying IS the strategy. Under Trump nuclear brinkmanship is the new normal.
- But his blustering/bullying could lead to some good outcomes.
- Putin loves to use brinkmanship, too. (Meddling in our election an news media is exactly that – a dangerous high-wire gamble.)
NEXT WEEK: What binds Americans together?
This topic idea and its wording are blatantly stolen from a memorable 2012 cover story in the Atlantic Monthly. (In 2 parts, links below.) But, scientists all over the world are racing to find new ways to prolong the human lifespan. The idea that they could one day succeed has such enormous implications that a lot has been written on the subject in recent years. General interest magazines and popular science websites have been all over it, as have, obviously, more technical scientific publications.
We know that extending human lifespans by even another half-decade or so would have profound consequences for our society – because it already has. Since 1840, U.S. life expectancy has increased on average by about three months every year (source). Having longer, healthier lives (and far lower infant mortality) has vastly increased Americans’ health, wealth, and happiness. But, it also has required many changes to the way we live, work, and govern ourselves. What new changes will be necessary if Americans (and people around the world) one day routinely live to 100, or 125, or 164?
Here are a few general interest articles that discuss the promise and pitfalls of radically-enhanced lifespans. I also added an excellent one on how big a change it would be just to raise it to 100 years. Please see if you can read/skim/get the gist of at least the recommended readings. I will start us off on Monday with a brief overview of some of the major issues that are likely to arise if lifespans either continue their slow, steady rise or suddenly increase.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- “When I’m 164:” Atlantic Monthly, 2012. Both recommended, at least part 2.
- Forget 164. Just living to 100 will change our country in profound ways. Atlantic 2014 different author. Excellent survey of the topic.
- More on how a widening rich/poor ”longevity gap” could reinforce our large economic inequality gap. NYT.
- More on “trans-humanism,” the quest to enhance human beings to the point where we become a different species (or maybe live forever in machine form). We discussed this topic last year.
- Do Americans want to live a long, long time? They say they don’t.
NEXT WEEK: Big Data – Privacy and Power in a Brave New Age.
How can nuclear war be thinkable? Everybody knows these weapons are unusable. Their only purpose is to deter other countries from nuking us. Trying to stop other countries from getting the technology has been a top global priority for decades, as we have discussed recently. But other than that isn’t “nuclear strategy” an oxymoron?
Not really. The absence of nuclear wars may have been an intrinsic feature of mutually assured destruction (the infamous MAD). but, we have always had a formal deterrence strategy. The Trump Administration has updated it. Our nuclear posture has many moving parts and the basic concepts underlying deterrence are a bit complicated.
In short, U.S. nuclear weapons strategy involves:
- Maintaining the stockpile: Keeping our nuclear arsenal in working order and able to survive a first strike, so as to keep a credible deterrent.
- Managing crises: Minimizing the risk that nuclear war could break out in a crisis or by accident, and maximizing our ability to stop one once it starts.
- Stopping proliferation: Preventing other countries from developing nuclear weapons programs and stopping those that have them (like North Korea and Pakistan) from helping other countries or terrorists to get them.
- Managing deterrence: Keeping the threshold for using nukes very, very high and NOT doing anything stupid that would lower that threshold, like flirting with the idea of using them ourselves in a preemptive strike or in a conventional war, or weakening the global commitment to non-proliferation.
On that last one, funny story. President Trump has taken steps to do all the dumb things. There is also (1) his high-wire brinksmanship with North Korea and Iran and the increased risk of regional nuclear arms races if his gambles fail; and (2) serious concerns over this president’s mental health, impulsiveness, and the quality of the advice he is getting. Worse, as a key article below explains the march of technology is edging closer to having an impact on nuclear strategy – notably in missile defense and cyberwar – and no one is really sure how.
To be sure, the danger of nuclear war is small and likely will remain small. After all, despite some close calls deterrence has worked for 70 years. One might even argue that Trump’s foreign policy could end up lowering the risk of a nuclear war, at least one involving the United States. (I wouldn’t.) Still we’re talking about nuclear war here. So, even though nuclear deterrence is a surprisingly complicated topic it a timely and appropriate one for our Memorial Day.
Plus, there’s coffee.
I am supposed to know a fair amount about this topic. So I will open with a short explanation of how deterrence functions and some of its weirder and paradoxical qualities. Then I will summarize recent developments in this area with a focus on the steps the Trump Administration is taking/not taking. I will leave the astonishing Trumpian moves towards North Korea and Iran for our discussion.
Here are the usual optional background readings. Some are a little technical, so skim for key ideas or just stick to the recommended ones.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- FYI: Which countries possess how many nuclear weapons? Did you know this?
- Has nuclear deterrence worked?
- How Russia and Putin think about nuclear weapons and how it complicates our choices.
- Trump’s rhetoric on nukes has swerved from reasonable to naïve to disturbing.
- Our new strategy:
- “The World Doesn’t Need Any More Nuclear Strategies.” Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Pros and cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI).