The tragedy of liberalism: a critique of John Michael Greer

Liberalism gets a pretty bad press these days. That shouldn’t bother me too much – as an ex-Marxist, left-wing agrarian populist now swelling the ranks of the petit bourgeoisie in my capacity as a propertied small-scale farmer, it’s not a political tradition that ought to move my soul. Yet I feel the need to put finger to keyboard and offer a few mild words in its favour in the light of John Michael Greer’s latest gleeful epitaph for liberalism. And – talking of epitaphs – I guess this post stands as an epitaph of my own for taking Greer’s political analysis seriously as anything much more than another iteration in the long and inglorious history of right-wing populism.

Let me outline a few aspects of Greer’s article. He starts by suggesting that liberalism is now in the throes of a terminal decline, after dominating US politics for two centuries. Then he reviews some historical aspects of US liberalism, focusing in particular on the abolition of slavery, the prohibition of alcohol and the improvement of women’s legal status. These, he says, shared a common theme in configuring politics as an expression of values – a new departure in politics, which hitherto had been a more instrumental business of ‘to the victor, the spoils’, in which those who were elected distributed political favours to their supporters. Greer then warns us not to be judgmental about this older and more instrumental approach to politics, because that would involve ‘chronocentrism’ (others call it ‘presentism’) – judging the past by the values of the present.

Greer proceeds to analyse the way that liberalism went about installing its more-or-less egalitarian values with respect to race, gender and class historically within the US state, despite other values-based political challenges from left and right. Then he says that the tacit US policy of allowing unlimited illegal immigration impoverishes “wage-earning Americans” – something that he claims you can’t say “in the hearing of a modern American liberal” without “being shouted down and accused of being a racist”. He postulates that this is because liberalism is dominated by the affluent classes, who “benefit directly from the collapse in wages that has partly been caused by mass illegal immigration”. Ironically, then, a movement that began by advancing values over interests has ended up using values (anti-racism) to mask interests (economic preferment of the affluent over the working class). And this, he says, is its death-knell, because such easily-detected subterfuge destroys the doctrine’s credibility.

Let me work through this. I have to begin by noting that terms like ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘progressive’ and the like are so accreted with complex and contradictory meanings that it’s very difficult to identify any coherence to them for analytical purposes, a point that Greer himself has expounded as well as anyone. But I think there’s a necessary distinction between ‘liberal’ referring to those who believe in the need for a substantial equality of all people undergirded by the state, and ‘liberal’ (or ‘neoliberal’) referring to those who believe that private markets should be free to allocate goods and services as they will. I won’t cavil at Greer’s history of US liberalism as a basic account of liberalism in the first sense – except in his claim that liberalism involved a novel injection of values into instrumental politics. Because the fact is, going right back to the first complex agrarian civilisations of antiquity, politics has always been about values. The idea that might makes right rarely works for long as a political project. Rulers have always invested their power with a larger sense of legitimacy extracted from the sphere of values, and although that process admits to a certain amount of manipulation (the ‘real’ interests behind the ‘ideological’ smokescreen of values) in truth the interests, the ‘real’, are moulded by the values, the ‘ideological’, emptying the real-ideological distinction of meaning.

Machiavelli’s The Prince was among the first ‘modern’ works of political philosophy. Its cynical view of power – rulers should do whatever works best to prolong their rule – invited almost immediate censure after its publication in 1532, precisely because it advanced interests over values. Actually, Machiavelli was a subtler thinker than his villainous reputation suggests – a large part of his analysis was devoted to political corruption, which he defined as a politics of pure self-interest. J.G.A. Pocock’s influential book The Machiavellian Moment argues that the founders of the independent USA, attuned for obvious historical reasons to the dangers of particular interests overcoming the general interest, framed the politics of the new country in terms of classical ideas of republican virtue lifted from Machiavelli’s ruminations on statecraft1. If it’s true that actual US politics quickly degenerated into the instrumentalism of ‘to the victor, the spoils’, it’s not committing the sin of chronocentrism to say that this was a corruption of the republican ideals of the time.

So prior to 1812, Greer’s take-off point for the rise of US liberalism, politics was every bit as soaked in values as it later was under a liberal guise. Much of Greer’s article is taken up with a discussion of what those liberal values were, but I think a more important point concerns what liberalism has had to say about the form of politics rather than its content. And in a nutshell, that form is – argue your point peacefully, using reason; if you lose, accept that you’ve lost peacefully, with grace; and don’t intrude on things politically that have nothing to do with public wellbeing, such as the private pursuits of the individual that affect no one else. In order to realise that political form a lot of work was needed to create a public sphere where people met as citizens and equals, and could expect even-handed treatment by the state. What united the struggles over slavery, gender, class and race wasn’t the fact that they brought values into politics but that they sought to create a universalist public sphere. And, clearly, some semblance of that public sphere must have been there in the period of supposedly instrumentalist politics Greer identifies prior to the emergence of liberalism – otherwise nobody would tolerate losing an election and not getting their share of the spoils.

Let’s now turn to Greer’s indictment of contemporary liberalism for invoking racism as a cloak for class privilege in the context of immigration. No doubt this occurs, though I suspect more among members of the neoliberal business class whose politics are ‘liberal’ only in a rather restricted sense. But the liberals I think Greer probably has in mind are more of the left-leaning, public sector salariat kind. I’d guess that these folks may be a bit insulated (though for how much longer?) from the kind of market ‘discipline’ that has ravaged the wage-earning working class, and I’d guess too that some of them may be a little unaware of their class privilege. Still, I’m not persuaded by Greer’s argument that such people invoke racism to silence debate about their class privilege. I think they invoke racism because racism is usually worth invoking whenever somebody claims that the immiseration of ‘wage-earning Americans’ has been caused (wholly or ‘partly’) by immigration. I think they invoke it because the real cause of immiseration among ‘wage-earning American’ and illegal immigrant alike is a racialized global labour process that pits different segments of the working class against each other and works against their common interest to unite against economic exploitation – an economic exploitation that has doubtless affected ‘wage-earning Americans’ more than the average liberal, but has also affected illegal immigrants more than the average ‘wage-earning American’. That is the context in which blaming immigrants for the erosion of economic wellbeing tends towards the racist.

It also tends towards the analytically vacuous. For one thing, the racialized globalization of the economy is a neoliberal project, not a project of the ‘liberals’ in the first sense of the term I outlined above who appear to be Greer’s main target. But more importantly, what is Greer actually saying – that liberal politics has failed in practice to deliver liberalism’s highest ideals? Well, no doubt – but the same is true of socialism and conservatism in relation to their ideals, and of right-wing populism too, if it has any. No modern political programme has succeeded long-term in delivering widespread prosperity and economic growth without prompting social conflict and environmental degradation. Highlighting supposed hypocrisy among contemporary liberals does not amount to a persuasive analysis of liberalism’s failings as a political doctrine, or even as a contemporary political movement.

Still, there’s no doubt that liberal politics is in crisis and, for all its partiality and superficiality, maybe Greer’s account does help explain the rise of populist figures such as Donald Trump as an alternative claim on the working class vote. So, given Greer’s empathy for the travails of the US working class, I continued reading his article, waiting for the killer paragraph that would go on to nail the fanciful idea that Trump truly represents the interests of the low waged.

It never comes. Instead, you get this: “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in stark contrast to Clinton, have evoked extraordinarily passionate reactions from the voters, precisely because they’ve offered an alternative to a status quo pervaded by the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism.”

Maybe other people can help me interpret this sentence. Donald Trump certainly offers an alternative to the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism inasmuch as he offers a rhetoric all his own. I don’t suppose you could call it a ‘moribund’ rhetoric either, if only because such proposals as to improve the lot of the working class by building a wall to keep out Mexicans were never alive in the first place. But let’s be clear – a President Trump won’t build that wall. And even if he does, it won’t keep out illegal Mexican migrants. And even if it does, it won’t significantly alter the larger forces in the global economy conditioning the situation of the US working class, which is where any serious analysis aimed at improving that situation has to start. As David Roberts has argued, Trump’s rhetoric is wholly geared to dominating whatever argument he’s embroiled in. It has no referents to real-world policy.

However, I don’t think Greer is just saying that Trump talks a better game than the liberals. In that sentence he seems to be saying that Trump (as well as Sanders) has some kind of actual political programme that will benefit the working class. Donald Trump, champion of the precariat. Seriously?

When I wrote a previous critique of Greer’s fondness for right-wing populism, I was admonished for supposing that he was any more taken by it than by liberalism – rather, I was told, he sees the whole sorry mess as exemplary of the kind of wholesale cultural decline foreseen by Oswald Spengler. OK, but then where are the articles excoriating the decline of US politics across the board? From FDR to Hilary Clinton would be one story to tell. From Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump would be another one just as good. Or bad. For me, Greer’s relentless, one-eyed skewering of liberalism alone from the perspective of a kind of working-class ressentiment places him firmly among the right-wing populists2.

But Greer’s personal politics aren’t the main point I want to stress. Though I don’t think right-wing populism has much going for it, and I’m not persuaded that Spengler’s thought has a whole lot going for it either, I agree that a ‘decline of the west’ of some sort is probably underway. The kind of words that resonate in Greer’s political writings are ones like ‘moribund’, ‘decadent’, ‘shopworn’, and I think these accurately capture something of our contemporary politics. But I suspect that in the future a lot of people will look back nostalgically to our present ‘moribund’ and ‘decadent’ politics. Because what matters more than whether right-wing populism, left-wing populism, liberalism, or any other political doctrine represents the best diagnosis of our times is the relatively safe space of the public sphere in the west within which these politics are debated – a public sphere formed to a large degree in the crucible of liberalism, and one that’s threatened when would-be politicians start suggesting that they may not respect the outcome of elections, or that it’s the ‘real people’ of the country who really matter. Populist critiques of liberalism come ten a penny. More to the point are post-liberal critiques of populism.

Greer writes that the post-liberal politics of the future is going to be a “wild ride”. The metaphor betrays a buried liberal presupposition. A wild ride is the kind of thing you have at a theme park – scary and unpredictable, perhaps, but not truly fearful because you know that ultimately someone with your wellbeing at heart is controlling the parameters, allowing you essentially to be a spectator of your fears. In western politics, that someone has for a long time been the liberal public sphere. But it probably won’t outlive liberalism – in which case post-liberal politics won’t be a ‘wild ride’. It will just be wild, and therefore truly scary. Spectating will not be an option.

Ah well, as Joni Mitchell so perceptively sang, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. And as Bert van den Brink wrote, albeit not quite so lyrically, liberalism involves tensions and conflicts which are “tragic insofar as they confront [it] with the dilemma that in trying to reach for its highest aim – letting the interests of all citizens in leading a good life matter equally – it sometimes cannot but undermine this very aim”3. That is, despite trying to uphold the equivalence of all values, liberalism has to define itself normatively against illiberal political positions. Van den Brink’s point isn’t that liberalism therefore involves contradiction and should be jettisoned. By that logic, we’d have no politics at all – doubtless a tempting prospect for those weighing up the choice between Clinton and Trump, but not ultimately a feasible position to take. His point instead is that we should learn from liberalism’s contradictions and try to create a better politics that’s aware of these predicaments. All political positions, I think, involve tragedy in the sense of plural and irreconcilable moral imperatives. As Machiavelli recognised, the better ones acknowledge their contradictions and make the best they can of them, rather than papering over them in service of particular interests. In contrast, superficial forms of populism represent a kind of political Gresham’s law – bad politics chase out the good. Which is why in the present Machiavellian moment of western politics, this particular left agrarian populist will stand with the liberals for the public sphere and against the Trumps, the Greers and all the other cheerleaders for a simplistic right-wing populism.

Notes

  1. Pocock, J. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton Univ Press.
  1. I can’t claim to have read his oeuvre in its entirety, however. If anyone can point me to a more even-handed political analysis by Greer, I’d be grateful.
  1. Van den Brink, B. 2000. The Tragedy of Liberalism, SUNY Press, p.6.

122 thoughts on “The tragedy of liberalism: a critique of John Michael Greer

  1. I just realized how hard it is to “take in” what Greer has to say when one isn’t a regular reader of his.
    The ‘wild ride’ thing I’d never have noticed, yet did when I tried to look at it from that perspective!

    He has of course written about the topics you mentioned, just not in this article, which is one in an ongoing series spanning a decade.

    If you think he rejoices in the bloodshed Gresham’s Law might cause in his country, then I do concede that he often seems surprised if commentators accuse him of this; his answer would probably be that he’s not in the business of sentimentalizing.

    Writing this, I’m looking at ‘The Machiavellian Moment’ on the bookshelf; you’re the first person I know who’s actually read it, too.
    (Though I remember reading a short essay collection of his afterwards and thinking that it would have done the trick, too.)

  2. Interesting thoughts Chris. I did read some of Greer’s article but with somewhat fitful attention.

    I saw something yesterday about an editorial in the Mail or Express describing MPs who wanted a parliamentary debate on the terms of Brexit as unpatriotic (amongst other things). It seems strange to me that these most jingoistic of British newspapers fail to understand the term “Her Majesty’s Opposition” and the implied patriotic duty to oppose. This to me seems like the essence of that public space that you characterise as the central feature of a ‘liberal’ political project. The ability to accept as genuine and good the motives of even those with whom we profoundly disagree is crucial and is being lost or deliberately undermined – a process that has proceeded further in the US than here, and which, in both places, has been accelerated by the behaviour of our political class. So perhaps I would see this liberalism as if not moribund then certainly close to being killed by those who have used the liberal arena and the language of values to promote interests that ride roughshod over those values.

    This, “But the liberals I think Greer probably has in mind are more of the left-leaning, public sector salariat kind. I’d guess that these folks may be a bit insulated (though for how much longer?) from the kind of market ‘discipline’ that has ravaged the wage-earning working class, and I’d guess too that some of them may be a little unaware of their class privilege.” reminded me of a conversation with a friend of my partner. This friend grew up on a council estate in Liverpool in the 80s – not a great start but she got to university and became a lawyer. As a lawyer she’s worked mostly in the public sector doing unglamourous work that is probably not as well paid as the work she could get in other areas of law. In this particular conversation we she was talking about how hard it was to afford things she wanted etc etc. Taken with her husband’s salary this person enjoys a household income that probably puts them in the top 1% UK households yet she can still think of herself as poor. Talk to her and she still thinks of herself as a working class scouser and she’d probably think that anti-immigrant feeling was at least partially racist. I think stories like hers aren’t that uncommon and they bring to mind some of the stars of the New Labour years, some of whom came from poor working class backgrounds, who became wealthy as the became powerful but still believed they were representative of those places they had left behind.

    I’m not sure what I’m trying to say – but I do think liberal politics, as in a shared space where open debate can occur is in difficulty across the world, or at least those parts of the world that have experimented with it. I’ve always liked Frank Herbert’s advice to always vote against the incumbent regardless. His point was that leaders come to power often with genuine desire to work for the common good but quickly come to identify the common good with what is good for them and those like them – the result is an aristocracy/plutocracy. In the US it seems like the political system is systemically unable to halt or undo that process and given the power of vested interests in our political system (I recently saw Jacob Rees-Mogg saying he thought Jeremy Corbyn didn’t get a fair hearing in the British Press) it seems we also might already have arrived at a post liberal politics

  3. Oh dear – only 2 replies? I’d better add another one.

    I’m a regular reader of Greer’s blog (I was originally brought to your blog by one of the comments, a year or so ago), and will admit that he has influenced my thinking on some issues (though not actually reversed my opinion on anything, nor induced an opinon where non existed before. Or so I fondly imagine ;-). I’d reckon that his main influences on me have been stylistic: how to conduct oneself on the internet without being sucked into either shouty-sweary oversimplication or nicey-nicey kittencentricity, how to present reasonably sophisticated non-mainstream arguments to a general internet audience. His analyses of contemporary politics do leave me rather bemused though – and fascinated by how different the US and the UK are – something that both sides are often unaware of. I simply don’t know enough to have any take at all on the type of post that you’re talking about.

    (Also quite bemused by your remark that you’re an ex-marxist. Is there an interesting backstory here?)

      • I think you have slightly misread my comment because didn’t intend to suggest that Greer is particularly unaware of UK/US differences – on the contrary he is far more acute than most. (One of the pleasures of his blog is that he is very aware of a whole world outside the US). What I meant was that the blog and its comments provide a type of window into the US that I haven’t come across elsewhere.

        As to what the differences are – well, we really are two different places, despite having more-or-less the same language. A glaring example is that Democrat-Republican does not map directly on to Labour-Tory, not even ‘sort of’. I don’t think everyone realises this.

  4. Thanks for the comments & apologies for not responding – it’s been a hectic few days.

    Well, maybe you’re right Michael but I’m not yet convinced – throughout the presidential campaign Greer has repeatedly criticised Clinton on his blog but hasn’t said a word against Trump. Maybe that’s because Trump’s failings are obvious, but if we’re going to talk about sentimentalizing I think he’s sentimentalizing Trump’s campaign and the nature of his support, as well as ducking political commitment. And since Trump’s supporters are on average wealthier than Clinton’s, I’m not sure how plausible his disenfranchisement arguments are – maybe this really is about racism: http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/10/15/13286498/donald-trump-voters-race-economic-anxiety

    Good to find another Pocock reader BTW – though I have to confess I skim-read sections of it. Quite large sections…

    Bruce – thanks for those thoughts. Yes, I don’t dispute that something like a ‘post-liberal’ politics seems to be emerging – partly, as you say, through the appropriation of the liberal public sphere for illiberal ends. Well, liberalism certainly has its failings – some of them pointed out by Timothy Garton Ash here in a typically liberal piece of self-laceration: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/13/liberal-internationalists-populists-globalisation. But I think many like Greer who are so keen to dance on its grave may later find themselves mourning it.

    Martin, thanks for taking it upon yourself to boost the numbers in the comment column! Agreed there are major differences between the US and UK. A backstory about being an ex-Marxist? Certainly. But I’m not sure if it’s an ‘interesting’ one. I’ll be writing a post or two soon about the influences of Marxism, liberalism, conservatism and populism which may provide a few jigsaw pieces.

    • Trump’s supporters are on average wealthier than Clinton’s? Are you sure? His median supporter, too? I don’t know that I’ve seen any surveys, but the media give the impression that Trump draws his support primarily from blue collar folk and Clinton primarily from white collar folk and people with skinny jeans (whatever color collars they have.)

      • Oops. Hadn’t gotten to Brian’s very similar comment when I posted mine. I’ll add, though, that it’s not just what I gather from the media but also anecdotal evidence similar to what Brian cites.

          • The leading counter-narrative in that link was that, “As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off.” That makes me think the whole piece is a misleading spin story, because as compared with most Americans, Clinton’s, Sanders’, Cruz’s, Kasich’s, and Trump’s voters were ALL better off. Even in the article’s very selective list of states, which curiously doesn’t include a single state from the whole western half of the country, there are still a few states where the median Clinton voter had higher income than the median Trump voter.

            But I think you’ve helped me to see that part of my failure is that I’ve overlooked differences between class and income level. A college student from a wealthy family and a wealthy community working as a barista while attending an expensive private college or a graduate assistant on his way to an advanced degree might be low income but certainly shouldn’t be classified as working class. Nor is the same kind of student, who after graduating, temporarily works an organic farm internship for minimum wage before finding his way to the kind of work that his parents did. On the other hand, a coal miner married to a full-time nurse could together make an income well into six figures, depending on their stage in life perhaps even padded by additional investment income, and that kind of household would seem to me much more “working class,” especially if they fit within a multi-generational pattern, than families that were just “down and out,” forced to work lousy retail jobs. In any case, looking at the income categories in the link you provided, I don’t think the <$30,000/yr bracket would be very typical of what I'd call the working class, especially not stereotypical coal miners, factory workers, plumbers, even more especially not if they also have working spouses, which I think would be very common. There are also plenty of relatively low to modest paying office jobs, sales positions, and other white collar positions typically held by liberal arts college graduates that don't really fit with the understanding of "working class." So I think when, as in the link you provided, Trump is drawing nearly equal support in the $30,000-49,999 bracket as Clinton, and exceeding her support by the greatest margin in the $50,000-99,000 bracket, there's plenty of basis for the idea that Trump has especially strong working class support, especially when his numbers come from a more divided, not just two-way, primary contest.

            Obviously Trump has done things to alienate Hispanics and Muslims other minorities, but I don't think it's all accurate to dismiss his appeal to the working class by saying it's rather significantly about race. Trump's very poor support from normally extremely Republican white Mormons is an especially good indication that his support is not significantly about race.

          • Well, Silver has quite a good track record for not being misleading but as I said before I’m inclined to wait and see. You’re right that income can be a misleading indicator of class. In fact all indicators of class can be misleading indicators of class – such is the tragedy of social science. I’m not convinced that the Mormon vote tells us anything much about the racial character of Trump’s overall support, though. It seems to me that a racial dimension is pretty clear, but doubtless there are other demographic dimensions to it. It’ll be interesting to see.

  5. Greer merely recognizes Trump as a Caesar-figure that the turbulent times have pushed to the top of the heap. He never glorifies him, but merely see him as a personified set of questions to the nation. Should these questions remain unanswered for another 4 years because of Clinton2, he sees that populist assembly line spitting out someone more dangerous than Trump.

    The immigration issue is an interesting one.
    What if he, like a good Leftist, stated that mobility across borders serves as Capital’s backstop against rising wages and convenient strategy to stratify and divide the working class along racial lines?
    You may argue that that’s were the Left has its political place and “rally the troops”, and at that point he’d ask you to please attempt to do that under circumstances as difficult as these.

    As for the Vox article, well…let’s just say that I found my own country mentioned in it as well, in a way that closely aligns with our present topic, and if I wanted, I could get about as angry about that clueless misrepresentation as all those poor white folks the author says all vote for Hillary Clinton. I wouldn’t.

    • I guess I’d have more sympathy if he also saw Trump as a set of questions to his own politics, and made some kind of effort to answer them. He is, at best, spectating – a comfortable, but ultimately pointless place to be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he glorifies Trump, but the tone is lenient and justificatory.

      If he explained the wage collapse in terms of the labour dynamics associated with global capital it would be a whole lot more convincing than saying that it’s partly been caused by immigration. And if he asked me how I was going to build a movement to combat those dynamics I’d concede that it’s damned difficult but I would talk about slowly trying to build a left agrarian populism. Then I’d ask him the same question – I’m doubtful that he has any better answers.

      On the Vox article, well I’m no psephologist but it strikes me as plausible that the alienation of the poorest is not the only story to be told about Trump’s popularity. It is, however, the only story JMG wants to tell. I think Matthews makes a respectable case for the role of racism – more respectable at any rate than JMG’s one sentence dismissal of it.

      • He is, at best, spectating – a comfortable, but ultimately pointless place to be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he glorifies Trump, but the tone is lenient and justificatory.

        Well, I think you have misread the ‘tone’ (much as Greer often misreads George Monbiot). In fact it’s this ‘tone’ that ‘bemuses’ me (by which I mean I don’t know what to make of it). However, but I suspect my bemusement is because it’s a US blog, I’m a baffled Brit who doesn’t have the background to really know what’s going on.

        The thing is, in the broadest terms of ‘what should we expect from the future, what might an individual do?’, I’d put yourself and Greer in the same (valuable) category.

        • “Well, I think you have misread the ‘tone’…”

          As an American who self-identifies as progressive/liberal, I respectfully disagree, Martin. I find Greer’s tone to be infuriatingly smug and dismissive (which is rather ironic, of course, since that’s how he often characterizes liberals) and his contemporary political analysis to be simplistic and, often, absurd. That ridiculous sentence that Chris pointed to, for example (“Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in stark contrast to Clinton, have evoked extraordinarily passionate reactions…”). To echo Chris, “seriously?”

          • I was really referencing the sentence in its entirety and the implication that Chris teased out — that Trump has “some kind of political programme that will benefit the working class.” Nonetheless, I think you’ve hit on another buried implication in Greer’s sentence that should be questioned. How does one define a “passionate” reaction to a politician? For obvious reasons, I think the way that we measure passion and enthusiasm (rally attendance, for example) privileges certain types of individuals and certain demographic groups at the expense of others. So, in a sense, I’d argue that the supposed “enthusiasm gap” is an observational bias of sorts.

        • Well, I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who struggles with Greer.

          But, yes, maybe I’m misreading his tone – I’m certainly happy to self-identify as a baffled Brit, and I can imagine that Greer might consider himself much more critical of Trump than is apparent to me from reading his posts. Still, the two main points I wanted to make in my post are that politics always implicates values, and that people across the contemporary political spectrum tend to take the (liberal) public sphere for granted. I don’t think Greer sufficiently appreciates this, and I agree with Ernie that his class analysis is simplistic.

          • “…people across the contemporary political spectrum tend to take the (liberal) public sphere for granted.”

            This is very, very good point, and I, for one, really appreciate your thoughtful defense of modern liberalism.

            As an aside, I read Greer for little else than entertainment value at this point, and I can’t imagine that’s going to be enough to keep me reading much longer (it’s just not worth the spike in my blood pressure). Your blog, on the other hand, is at the top of my list and I don’t see that changing. Your posts are consistently thoughtful, interesting, and insightful, whether you’re talking about permaculture or politics, and I appreciate the time and effort that you put into this project.

          • I can assure you he does appreciate it, and the consequences of losing it.
            But you do get a sense that he gave up admonishing people to not let it go to waste long ago.

          • I struggle to accept the assurance because if it were true I don’t think he could have written a piece like that. But I’ve pretty much made the points I want to make about this now – time for me to move on.

  6. My thinking around immigration has become increasingly conflicted (as were my feelings about the EU in the run up to our referendum). I tend to see the focus on immigration and the downward pressure on wages, upward pressure on public services that it apparently creates a convenient trope that keeps the focus away from the offshoring of jobs and the erosion of the tax base that leads to a lack of funding for public services. Who benefits and who loses from that focus is obvious. Trump has at least brought offshoring into the debate although his position on tax is exactly what one would expect from someone with his background. Personally I think we ought to be open to refugees, especially when we have a role in creating them – I’m thinking war in the Middle East, climate change. However the scale of the problem and the stresses that places on the societies seeking to assimilate those refugees creates real problems. As climate change bites this problem is only going to get worse.

    Going back to Chris’s idea of liberalism as a shared public space in which open debate can be had and in which opposition can be robust without being divisive; in this context I see immigration as much more of a problem. It seems to me that that shared space and that sort of debate require a shared culture, so the debate is about different ways to be “us” rather than to whether we should be “us” or become “them”. I think in America there was a conscious decision (and probably also an appetite in the population) in the 80s to move politics into the cultural arena. In part this had to do with the removing of economics from politics – the a-political market was taking care of economics don’t you know. It seems ethnicity, and so immigration, has now been (explicitly) added to that ‘cultural’ politics. Watching the US election from the UK it seems that the two sides barely recognise the other as being ‘American’ – they are deplorable, or, they should be in jail. How is politics possible in circumstances such as these?

    • Interesting. I wouldn’t argue that there are no problems around immigration – especially when the focus shifts for a change onto the problems people face in their home rather than destination countries (I liked Jahi Chappell’s point on here a while back about ‘the right not to have to migrate’). However, I’m not persuaded by the ‘clash of cultures’ trope for numerous reasons. As you point out, there seems to be a ‘clash of cultures’ between different fractions of the wealthy, white and western over the public sphere. The real action is elsewhere…

  7. “And since Trump’s supporters are on average wealthier than Clinton’s”.

    Not to cherry-pick, Chris, on a thought provoking piece, but you are off in the weeds on that comment. The unusual theme of this election is the abandonment of the conservative elites, and by that I mean the financial and business class, of the Republican Party presidential candidate. His primary support in poll after poll are high school educated white working class voters. Hardly the class of voters who are “Masters of the Universe”. There is hardly a mobile home between our farm and Kingston that does not sport a Trump sign. This is not the country-club set. Although he is not my choice, I understand the real cultural and financial reasons that are driving that support.

    There are couple of excellent books out recently (coincidentally) that really get to the heart of this election: Hillbilly Elegy, and Strangers in Their Own Land.

    • Great to have an American talking about your election – we are (perhaps I should only speak for myself) somewhat baffled by the Trump phenomena even when the financial and to a lesser extent cultural reasons for it are obvious to us.

    • That assertion was based on the evidence cited in the Vox article from the likes of Nate Silver, Gallup, and exit polling from the primaries. I’m not in a position myself to judge, but I do think people (including me) have a tendency to accept “as everyone knows…” type assertions in politics, which often turn out to be wrong. Clearly, Trump has a lot of support, and not all of it is from the poorest. I’d imagine there could be a significant patterning of support by race, region, urban/rural residence and so on, as well as class. I don’t doubt that class is an important part of it, but – unlike Greer – I’m not persuaded that it’s the only part of it. Presumably it could be true that the majority of poor rural Tennesseans support Trump, and also true that nationally Trump’s supporters have a higher average income than Clinton’s?

  8. When you say “clash of cultures trope” I’m not sure we have thing in mind with regard culture. That sort of idea seems to be of the “The West v Islam” sort of thing; for me culture in any meaningful sense of the word occurs in a much smaller arena. Of the many things that seem able to splinter cultures I’d add scale to the list. I think many modern nation states are probably bumping up against this problem and so turning toward enemies, both real and imagined to provide a cohesive narrative for the nation.

    I was thinking about the immigration thing last night and the most extreme example I could think of was Tibet, where the immigration of large numbers of Han Chinese is being pushed by the Chinese government for both economic and cultural reasons. Tibetan culture has proved remarkably resilient to half a century of persecution but might now fall prey to dilution and the arrival of a consumer economy. That culture undoubtedly has an ethnic component and also a strong connection to a particular place, but is also built around shared philosophy/ world view/ values, these being passed on through formal education but also through ceremony, ritual (much of that I would guess is built around the rythmn of life in a low tech, agriculturally based society). It seems to me that its these shared components that create a culture. None of them are fixed. Orthodox Jews have a very strong culture in which exile takes the role of place; religious communities may well be ethinically diverse etc.

    I’m interested in this because I’ve recently read ‘Communities that Abide” by Dmitry Orlov. I’d been reading Orlov describing various cultures and the energy they put into, and the strategies they use, in passing them on to the next generation when I walked into the kitchen and caught a bit of ‘The Bottom Line’ on radio 4 where they were talking about education but only in the context of work/career.The juxtaposition was jarring. Apparently our ‘culture’ has nothing to teach our children except how to be better workers (what would one expect from a country that built nothing more than a big tent to celebrate the millenium?). And liberal democracy arises of its own accord in the prescence of free markets and happy workers?

    Back to liberalism. It seems to me that for much of what I’ve said about Tibetan culture could also have been said about the culture in which the proponents of liberalism grew up and in which many of those that followed lived. The Church, whether one held with its doctrines or not, still provided a framework that extended from the intellectual, to rituals celebrating the passage through life and to high days & holidays still largely linked to seasons and the rythmn of work on the land. For the educated the syllabus was largely lacking in the intense specialisation we now find and so there was a common intellectual heritage. It was inside this common space that politics occured.

    Finding such a common space is perhaps the challenge liberalism now faces, but, as you point out, the very word is the subject of contested meanings. This last is a quote from Lane, ‘The Solace of Feirce Landscapes’ which, when I read it, seemed to speak to how liberalism can work to eradicate the common space in which it stands: “Modern Western culture is largely shorn of attentiveness to both habitat and habitus. Where we live – to what we are rooted – no longer defines who we are….We have, in the end, realised the “free individual” at the expense of a network of interrelated meanings.”

    • The rather baffling consequences of having all the ‘space’ you want, yet no anchor to make any meaningful use of it is portrayed in Adam Curtis’ ‘HyperNormalisation’ – I trust you’ve all watched it by now 🙂 ?

  9. Bruce, there’s a lot I agree with in your comments. I guess what I’m driving at is a common tendency to define through the lens of ‘culture’ things that are really about power and political domination. Your Tibet example is a good one: as you correctly imply, what’s really at issue there is not the different ‘cultures’ of the Tibetans and the Chinese, but Chinese political domination – though culture is often appropriated to serve political ends in such circumstances. I’m pretty much signed up to the whole idea of local place-based (and, I think more importantly, work-based) cultures, but I’m not at all signed up to seeing them as ethnically exclusive (which, apart from anything else, would I think be anachronistic). Writers like Wendell Berry make a compelling case for local, work-based culture without (so far as I’ve noticed) ever making it ethnically exclusive. Not so with most right wing populisms, where words like ‘local’, ‘community’ and ‘work’ are highly charged with racial and class significance. I don’t think those populisms are ultimately very interested in the local, the community, or in work for their own sake, but they ought to be. So…I’m not sure that we’re in disagreement, but maybe that helps to explain myself a little more?

    • I wasn’t really writing to agree or disagree with anything that’s been said – more to clarify my own thoughts – sorry perhaps I should start my own blog for that rather than appropriating yours for the purpose.

      With regards Greer – I listened to an interview with him the other day. He described Obama’s election campaigns, particularly his first as exercises of incredible cynicism, and his time in office as basically a failure in terms of the promises he had made. He also said he’d voted for the man. I wonder to what extent this personal experience colours his thinking/writing on the current election cycle? That sounds like a defence and its not meant to be. I think populism of any sort is incredibly dangerous and needs to be challenged, preferably by a credible alternative and not with business as usual.

      • Feel free to keep using mine…

        Personally, I identify with left-wing agrarian populism, but not really with any other kind. I’ll be writing more about it in due course.

  10. I question the need for culture to be “place-based.” If people in very different places listen to the same music, get their news from the same source, live in houses that are indistinguishable from one side of the US to the other, shop in strip malls with almost all the same brand names (or at best a different branding of the same inputs from the same sources), follow the same Common Core curriculum in school, etc., etc., however shallow and crass that culture may be, why can’t form the basis for a common, unifying culture even across a nation the size of the US (or in slightly different ways, and perhaps lagging just a little behind, the EU)?

    • It’s for those kind of reasons that I emphasised ‘work-based’ over ‘place-based’, in the sense that what matters more I think is figuring out how to make a livelihood from the locale. ‘Culture’ in its more mental and artistic manifestations is inherently more fluid, open and less place-based. But for that reason I balk at the notion of a ‘common, unifying’ culture, which I see mostly as a modern nation-building ideology. Part of that ideology precisely has to do with creating things like common school curricula, standard house designs, media outlets and the like. Which perhaps pushes me back towards ‘place-based’ culture, but in an ‘open source’ sort of way…

      • Hi Eric – my recent thinking about culture has all been in the context of resilient cultures, the sort of cultures that are likely to have a chance of persisting and so carrying their heritage through the upheavals that I think climate change and resource (esp fossil fuels) depletion are likely to visit upon us. So in our current energy rich societies the sort of culture you describe is possible and could even be said to exist – although looking at the EU and the US it seems that such a culture is so shallow and crass that lots of people are desperately flailing around looking for an alternative that offers more meaning/belonging.

        I think as fossil fuels become scarcer and more expensive things will inevitably become more localised – as Chris has pointed out in such a scenario there may well be little distinction between place and work. Place based cultures may well develop ethnic dimensions – although there’s no intrinsic reason for that to create closed communities. Roma culture is ethnically based and nomadic but its possible to marry into it – although complete assimilation into the culture might be available the children of that marriage rather than the person marrying into it.

        • Place based cultures may well develop ethnic dimensions – although there’s no intrinsic reason for that to create closed communities.

          I have just begun following this excellent discussion weeks late, but I must comment on your assertion quoted above.

          The “intrinsic reason” why placed-based cultures develop ethnic dimensions, different languages, and walled villages is resource competition. When access to food becomes a competition resulting in life or death, localized populations close ranks, reject newcomers and defend their foodshed with tenacity. They may have so little to do with neighbors only a few miles away (other than fight with them) that they develop completely different languages.

          Tribalism is an evolved adaptation to food competition with other nearby humans. It has persisted for all of human history. It has been lightly papered over by the fabulous wealth that fossil fuels have allowed. As that wealth starts to fade away, tribalism will return in full force, most likely with horrific effect.

  11. Your website was inaccessible to me for a couple days, but has now returned. This is now late in the discussion, but still wanted to chime in.

    I’ve been reading Greer’s ADR for a while now, and have also noticed a slant toward more pointed critique of the left. I have a couple theories that might explain it beyond his simply holding a right wing populist stance.

    First- JMG is a druid, and a practitioner of magic, or thaumaturgy. I believe that his posts attempt to work on several levels, one of which is to persuade, not just educate. I suspect he also thinks that the majority of his audience is liberal, so he targeting that specific audience, and is taking the opportunity to shock them awake, to try to create paradigm unease, if not downright change in his readers.

    Let’s not forget one of his central themes is the myth of progress, which liberalism has integrated on several levels, so in the attempt to get people to transition to his offered alternative, he needs to break down liberalism.

    Second- I think deep down, he has liberal leanings, but like any of us, sees our own faults most easily, and is most frustrated and critical of liberalism’s failings. In a way, he is trying to sound an alarm, and get people riled, as opposed to truly writing it off.

    Dunno, just speculating.

    To your second footnote- There are a few posts in the past that took passing swipes at the right, but not to the depth that he reserves for the left.

    • Thanks Steve – interesting. The ideology of progress is so widely shared across the political spectrum, though, that I don’t see the need to single out liberal politics for the critique. I just read JMG’s latest post on deep time, which I thought was great. If he’d just steer clear of politics, I’d probably be a fanboy.

  12. Chris,
    Interesting piece, thank you.
    I’m not sure that John Michael Greer’s tone on Trump is, as you say, “lenient and justificatory”, but it is possible that, as you pointed ou in your post of 31 May, his views on the US presidential election – or his recent post on the dawn of the post-liberal era – may “involve more schadenfreude at the discomfort of established opinion in the face of Trump’s rise than any kind of sober analysis of what a Trump presidency might entail.” Actually Greer has not – or not yet – written anything about what a Trump presidency might entail, but if he does I am pretty sure it will be well worth a read. As you said yourself, Greer is a perceptive and thoughtful writer – in my opinion one of the most perceptive and insightful contemporary thinkers. I may sometimes disagree with some of his views or his tone, but his essays are almost always thought-provoking. You seem to believe that he is only “spectating” and that this is “ultimately pointless”, but in fact he sees himself as a “historian of ideas” and a “student of current events”, not as a political analyst or an activist. He is not in the business of finding “solutions” or even of appraising options, but only of studying current events in the framework of his own narrative – i.e. what he calls the “long descent” or the “catabolic collapse” of industrial civilisation. His starting point is that industrial civilisation is by essence unsustainable – something that is becoming every day more difficult to deny – and that we have already missed the opportunity in the 1970s to choose the path of sustainability. As what cannot be sustained has to end, civilisational collapse is now inevitable and, according to Greer, is already underway. This collapse is global but is most acute in the U.S., which Greer sees as the epicenter of industrial civilisation and of a dual empire, an “empire of space” that tends to extract wealth from the world’s confines and direct it towards the imperial core, and an “empire of time” that extracts very cheap and concentrated energy from the distant past (in the form of fossil fuels) for the benefit of a handful of nations in the present. As this dual empire collapses, its benefits (in terms of wealth and opportunities) stop accruing to a growing part of the population, which inevitably falls into some form of political resentment and anger that populist demagogues can easily exploit. In Greer’s narrative, something like Trump was always meant to happen. In his book ‘Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America’, which was published in early 2014, well before Trump entered the presidential race, he pointed out that “As the decline accelerates, anyone who offers Americans a narrative that allows them to pretend they’ll get the shiny new future that our national mythology promises them will be able to count on a large and enthusiastic audience. The narratives being marketed for this purpose need not be convincing; they need not even be sane. So long as they make it possible for Americans to maintain the fiction of a brighter future in the teeth of the facts, they’ll be popular.” For a section of the American population, the fiction of a brighter future now takes the form of a return to a mythical past – « Make America Great Again ». In his book “The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World”, which was published in 2009, Greer wrote the following: “Too many Americans have fallen into the seductive but disastrous habit of blaming their political adversaries for their own feelings of shame and resentment. Even the briefest glance at history shows where that sort of scapegoat logic leads and it’s no place any sane human being would want to go. A good deal of what happened during Germany’s ordeal between 1933 and 1945, as Jung pointed out in a prescient essay, can best be understood as the end result of this sort of projection, with a grand Wagnerian Götterdammerung as finale. It’s entirely possible that some similar madness could grip America in the years to come.”
    So yes, there may be in some of Greer’s recent writings on the U.S. election some some sort of schadenfreude at the cluelessness of most of the mainstream opinion in the face of something that was entirely predictable. I am however pretty sure that Greer very well knows that Trump is a demagogue who proposes no credible way of solving the problems of the working class – actually he probably thinks that there exist no credible ways of solving these problems. He does not seem to focus on Trump’s failings though, maybe because everybody else already does, and maybe also because he has forecasted Trump to win the election – and unconsciously doesn’t want to be proven wrong. But his body of work still provides what I think is the most convincing explanation of the Trump thing – as well as of what is likely to follow. And I believe it is fundamentally wrong and mistaken to say, as you do, that Greer’s critique of liberalism “places him firmly among the right-wing populists”. Not only because he defines his political philosophy as “Burkean conservatism”, which is fundamentally opposed to any kind of political radicalism, but also because his arguments are always thoughtfully (and lengthily) exposed and thoroughly researched, which is the opposite of the simplifying and inflammatory rhetoric used by right-wing populists. His post on the decline of american political liberalism does not make him an apologist of illiberalism either. He doesn’t criticise liberalism as a political philosophy, and even expresses gratitude to the liberal movement for its accomplishments. He however explains why and how the historical conditions that made this movement successful and its accomplishments possible are now fading away – making the emergence of a postliberal politics inevitable. He nevertheless doesn’t seem to be keen to dance on the grave of liberalism as you seem to imply, and never says that what will follow will be any better – on the contrary.

    • Very perceptive, but as his most recent post shows, Greer is firmly and emotionally attached to the Trump candidacy. Despite your astute consideration of Greer’s views, I still wonder why?

  13. As a complement, I would say that there are undoubtedly a variety of factors contributing to the decline of liberalism, the Trump phenomenon, and the rise of populist movements in general. I personally believe that these factors can however all be related, directly or indirectly, to the dearth of economic growth. This slow disappearance of economic growth at global level mostly results from rising biophysical constraints, in particular concerning the quantity and quality of the energy supply. In the West it is feeding a ‘populist’ uprising against the ‘elites’. Yet the elites are probably not much more responsible for what is now wrong with the economy than they were responsible for what was perceived to be going right – or to be normal – in the past. What is going on is largely beyond their control.

    Even beyond the end of economic growth, what the populist surge across the West may reveal is that we might have entered a ‘crisis of complexity’, caused by rising biophysical constraints and characterised by diminishing returns of investments in societal complexity. Industrial societies might in fact have reached the point, identified and analysed by American anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter, where our standard way of solving the problems we face – i.e. investing in organisational and technical complexity – is yielding diminishing returns. As a consequence, more and more of our complex economic, technical, political and social systems are showings signs of stress, or even early signs of failure. As our capacity to invest in further complexity continues to get eroded by energy-related and other biophysical constraints, we should expect more stress to develop across the board, potentially leading to some sort of systemic breakdown and forced simplification. The growing popular revolts against globalisation, the EU, or multiculturalism are signs that Western societies are already struggling to uphold their level of complexity and are subject to strong forces that are pulling towards a break down to a lower complexity level (i.e. localised economies, national governance, homogeneous societies, etc.). These trends are largely obscured, however, by our habit of thinking about the problems we face in purely political terms, i.e. in terms of governance, leadership and policy choices, regardless of the historical circumstances in which they are made. This habit now increasingly constitutes an impediment to understanding what’s going on.

    I’ve tried to explain this in more details here:
    https://paularbair.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/brexit-the-populist-surge-and-the-crisis-of-complexity/

  14. Paul – thanks for that detailed and illuminating comment. I only have time to reply briefly at the moment, but a few thoughts:

    On liberalism – yes, I think Greer is probably right that we’re entering a post-liberal political phase. But the critique of liberalism he offered in that post was silly and superficial, as indeed was the faint praise he accorded it. And his periodisation of politics in terms of interests – values – interests is flawed and inaccurate.

    On spectating – I don’t really have a problem with people spectating, or with not feeling the need to suggest solutions. Being a ‘historian of ideas’ is fine. But if, as JMG does, you single out one political tradition for an (unconvincing) historical critique, while happily standing on the political ground it has prepared (the liberal public sphere) with a signal lack of self-reflexivity, then I think you’re doing a poor job as a historian and you will invite a deserved critique from those who are more invested in trying to steer that political tradition as best they can. For me, his post on liberalism remains complacent, self-regarding and superficial however loftily contextualised it may be.

    On the ‘long descent’ – here I think you’ve nicely characterised the context of his thought, and put your finger on something that troubles me about it. I see a parallel with Marxism inasmuch as both offer grand historicist theories which, plausible and thought-provoking as they both are in many of their details, are unfalsifiable and self-reinforcing and therefore ultimately problematic. Basically, anything that happens can be slotted smoothly into the theory without disturbing its transcendent beauty. If Clinton gets elected it just goes to show how the complacent, corrupt conservatism of our politics is hastening our decline. If Trump gets elected it just goes to show how Caesarism and demagoguery is hastening our decline. Sure, there are plenty of reasons to agree with such an analysis but the lack of any sense of contingency or complexity turns the whole enterprise into a kind of self-legitimating religious ideology, or an intellectual plaything, or both.

    On right-wing populism – maybe you’re right that Greer can’t simply be pigeonholed with the right-wing populists but, quite honestly, anyone who can write a sentence like the Trump and Sanders ‘passionate reaction’ one I cite above is really inviting it. Perhaps there’s another parallel with Marxism here, or at least with that vulgar kind of Marxism which reserves far greater contempt for the socialists or social democrats who share a good deal of its own politics without being fully signed up to the programme in all its rigorously doctrinaire radicalism than it does for the capitalists and reactionaries who, after all, are only puppets for the working out of its grand historical plan. I think Greer’s writing leaks a desire for a Trump presidency not so much because it’s what he predicted as because it would fit more neatly into his pre-ordained historicist schema. While a lot of what he says is interesting and plausible, for my taste he’s a bit too trapped inside that grand and ultimately airless intellectual framework.

    • Chris,

      I’d like to come back to this sentence in JMG’s post that you particularly dislike:
      “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in stark contrast to Clinton, have evoked extraordinarily passionate reactions from the voters, precisely because they’ve offered an alternative to a status quo pervaded by the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism.”

      There are three elements in this sentence:
      1/ The campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have generated more “passion” than the campaigns of other candidates, in particular Hillary Clinton.
      2/ The reason why this has occurred is that both Sanders and Trump have campaigned against the so-called “status quo”.
      3/ This status quo has come to be seen as being associated with what has become of the “liberal” tradition.

      Concerning the first element, I don’t think it is a very contentious one. The word “passion” here has no positive or negative connotation, it simply refers to a strong and barely controllable emotion. The rise of passionate supporters behind Sanders and Trump, particularly among working-class Americans, has been analysed at length by think tanks and the media over the last year or so. “Passion”, by contrast, seems to have been missing in the Clinton campaign – there again this has been recognised and discussed at length in the media for a long time. Clinton’s campaign has been appealing to reason rather than passion. The only thing that seems to be generating some “passion” among her supporters is the urge to prevent Donald Trump from entering the White House – and that’s probably only the case for her hardcore supporters; for the others, preventing a Trump presidency might rather be seen as a totally “reasonable” thing to do.

      The second element of the sentence is also something that seems to be pretty obvious: Sanders and Trump have triggered such “passionate” – or emotional – reactions is that they have both campaigned as opponents to a status quo that many people see as benefiting only an “elite” at the expense of common people. Once again, this is something that has been discussed at length over the last few months. As Michael Moore puts it, a lot of people in America are in a “fuck you” mood and believe that electing Trump would be “The Biggest Fuck You Ever Recorded in Human History”.

      Concerning the third element, there is a growing recognition even amongst self-proclaimed “liberals”, in the US and elsewhere, that internationalist liberalism has come to symbolise the status quo. “Yes, this is the world we liberal internationalists built”, as Timothy Garton Ash says. And there is a growing recognition even amongst self-proclaimed “liberals”, that a lot of people have legitimate reasons to be unhappy with this state of affairs. Garton Ash again: “the grievances nonetheless have a foundation in reality and it behoves us to recognise that the causes do lie, at least in part, in free-market, globalised liberal capitalism as it has developed since its historical triumph in 1989.” In response to these legitimate grievances, some want to double down on globalised liberal capitalism. Garton Ash once more: “To remedy the unintended consequences of globalisation we need more liberal internationalism, not less.” This may or may not be a “rational” way forward – time will tell. The people who hold these grievances, meanwhile, seem to be more inclined to shout a big, “passionate”, emotional “fuck you” in the face of the liberal internationalists.

      There is nothing in this sentence that suggests, as you seem to imply, that Trump’s rhetoric is convincing, coherent or even sane, or that Trump (or even Sanders) has some kind of actual political programme that will effectively, if enacted, benefit the working class.

      There are surely things to criticise in JMG’s post, but I think the sentence you point out as a sort of symbol of what’s wrong with JMG’s thinking does not have the meaning you suggest it has.

      • Thanks for that Paul. I asked for help interpreting that sentence and you’ve given it, so I appreciate that. But I’m still not really convinced.

        Point 1 – Yes agreed. Political passion has its upsides and downsides (mostly the latter, I think). But I agree that what Greer is driving at here isn’t very contentious.

        Points 2 & 3: what Greer says is that Trump & Sanders have “offered an alternative to a status quo pervaded by the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism”. It’s a pretty ambiguous phrasing, but I can only read it as suggesting that they both have real alternative political programmes to liberalism. I think technically you’re right that Greer expresses no opinion about the benefits, if any, of these programmes to the working class. But that’s partly my problem. Given that his piece is an onslaught against contemporary liberalism for its failure to benefit the working class adequately, an even-handed assessment really needs to examine the prospects that Trump or Sanders will do a better job. The fact that he doesn’t do that leaves the impression that he thinks they will…or else that he’s being disingenuous in singling out liberalism.

        I agree with you that there’s a “fuck you” mood abroad among voters. It was the same here in Britain with the Brexit vote – given that all three of the main political parties were in favour of remaining, the temptation to vote leave was strong for that reason alone. The problem is that right-wing populist politicians are happy to cash in on the “fuck you” mood without spelling out that a vote for “fuck you” probably means a vote for “fuck me” as well. Responsible commentary really ought to highlight this, but Greer’s silly remarks about immigration further obscure it.

  15. Chris, Advocatus speaking.

    Could it be that the most troubling aspect of Greer’s view of the future is that what you conceive of as a radical political project (thereby believing in “Progress Towards Peasantism”, if you will), is something entirely different for him?
    Is he perhaps taking the fun (or ‘contingency’ in your words) out of working the land because that’s what’s left to do once the oil runs out?
    When I started commenting here I said at one time that I was intent on working without explaining what I was doing to anyone, and you said you hoped that would change one day.
    What you deride as his theory’s ‘transcendent beauty’ might well be the very lack of it:
    Going back to the land, becoming part of the Common Stream, disappearing.
    Because that’s what ‘hard limit’ in terms of energy could mean, and I’m not seeing many others spell it out as well as he does.
    Yes, there is also the danger of an a-political view of history, but the energetic facts of our time still apply, and they can be changed only in deep time.

    • Nah, I’m not biting. I don’t have a problem with the notion that we’re probably all screwed and there’s probably nothing anyone can do about it – a notion that becomes ever more incontrovertible the further into the future you’re prepared to project it.

      But if you develop a priori a historicist notion that we’re definitely all screwed and there’s definitely nothing anyone can do about it, things get more dicey philosophically, even if you’re able to marshal some evidence to show that you might be right. I think Paul Arbair’s post helps to identify this problem in Greer’s thought, its lack of contingency, and the attendant problem of it becoming a just so story in which absolutely anything can be interpreted in one way or another as confirmatory of the theory.

      In the face of the possibility that we might all be screwed, personally I think it’s worth plodding on with the program that one thinks is most likely to get us out of the mire, however improbable it seems, which is what I see myself as doing. I don’t assume that anybody else should do likewise, but I think criticising such efforts by reading backwards from a historicist commitment to an inevitable future catabolism, climacteric, collapse or whatever you want to call it is philosophically flawed. OK, so I’ll admit that it’s smug and annoying too, but it’s the conceptual flaw that really matters. To my mind, there’s a reaching for transcendent structure in the historicism of thinkers as otherwise diverse as Spengler, Greer, Marx or indeed Leigh Phillips that becomes self-legitimating. What appeals to me about agrarian populism is its lack of dependence on transcendent structure, its openness to the contingency of the political now (including the contingency of what you call the ‘energetic facts of our time’) . Up to a point, there’s something to be said for affecting the transcendent wisdom of the other-worldly sage. But only up to a point. Anyway, I plan to write a bit more about this in due course.

      • Yet…JMG devotes a whole website (Green Wizard) and a couple of books to laying out what he says are reasonable steps one could take to deal with the long emergency (pick your term).

        • Hmm, interesting. I guess I was responding to the inferences about JMG’s historical philosophy in Paul & Michael’s posts. An alternative way to go with this one would be to wring an admission from his fanbase that on this occasion he wrote a pretty rubbish blog post, and then move on. Is there perhaps a bit of a cult developing around the man – rather like the one around permaculture – such that while it’s OK for him to criticise whatever or whoever he pleases, any return fire has to be neutralised as an imperfect understanding of the depth of his wisdom?

          • Perhaps, I for one find him a bit too smug for my taste. I simply wanted to point out that he does have a fair amount to say on the subject of possible responses to climate change and peak resources. He does have an annoying writing style that often starts “I was quite amused” by the dolts who responded. Personally, I’m still plumping for the Small Farm Future swag.

          • Ah, thank you Brian. I wasn’t intending to level the accusation of cultish fandom at you personally – it was a more general remark. I’m sure he does have interesting things to say about responding to climate change etc. Certainly, I’ve found a lot of his writing very thought-provoking. But some of his recent political commentary is pretty poor stuff.

          • About JMG. Old news. The man is smug, and has an authoritarian streak… which should not be surprising for one who moved in on a practically defunct “druid” organization so that he could elect himself the archdruid. A shrewd move, but not admirable. But he is worth reading, here and there, as are some of the comments. I’ve also heard he has Aspergers, which may on occasion push him into a disconnect with other people. All in all, I am glad he is around.

  16. Eh. Looks like I missed most of the discussion. Interesting reading. Since I live Stateside, I’d like to pitch in a bit. I am going to make it, er, subjective. My impression is that there is real rebellion against the D.C. elites afoot. Not only are Wikileaks a threat to the chosen candidate enough that TV stations have been shown to interrupt (with pretend signal disconnect) people who are being interviewed and are launching into a Clinton critique. Not only have secretly taped vids surfaced (Project Veritas) of people linked to the Clinton campaign and the Dem. Party boasting about finagling electoral fraud. Not only have people taken to publicly excoriating the media for its blatant bias. Not only have the Democratic politruks been shown on video to “share” that the brawls at Trump rallies have been engineered by them. There is unprecedented interest in things political at the moment. Every day, there are new disclosures. Today, for example, it seems that the stable of reporters that Clinton lugs along on her plane are actually fed permitted questions via their phones. And of course Wikileaks have smashed the faint hope that the debates would be fair – at least some of the questions were given to the “chosen one” in advance!

    It feels like America is waking up. Many people have gotten the massive corruption behind what used to be called the establishment. They have also gotten the blatant near-admission of those people on top that they are not really fighting ISIS, they are helping it. The utter distrust of the “mainstream media” is at over 90%. And of course another thing this campaign has made witheringly clear is the contempt of the current elites and their fellow travelers for Americans who will not be cowed into obediently and meekly voting for Hillary. They are the deplorables – and boy, have the right wingers made hay out of that one! I particularly loved the moment in the second debate where Hillary is asked to explain why she says one thing on the campaign trail and the opposite when talking to Wall Streeters (thanks again Wikileaks) — she claimed she was like Abe Lincoln! Ah… the moment when brazen lies she hopes to get a lift from, become a lead balloon.

    So… what I am trying to say, is that Trump is just a very imperfect vehicle for this rebellion. No, of course he does not have a clue if the economy is fixable, etc etc. But the enthusiasm is there… not for Trump, it’s more of a hunger for that “and now for something completely different” moment. Trump fills stadiums while Clinton has a hard time to fill an auditorium, is what I hear. He is the “fuck you” candidate. People don’t like him much, deep down, but are very grateful for his willingness to speak some truths openly. Finally. And they are grateful to him for not being the warmonger Hillary Clinton.

    The political energy is palpably shifting. I have not seen anything like this before in the U.S. It’s as though the steaming pile of lies has grown so massive that almost everyone can smell the stench.

    • Hi Vera, well from an ocean away a lot of that sounds pretty plausible to me. The only major point where I’d differ is in calling Trump an ‘imperfect vehicle’ for the rebellion. I don’t think he’s a vehicle for it at all – he’s a vehicle for a kind of revitalization myth which seems likely to leave the country far weaker, more divided and fearful than it already is if he gets a shot at power. The article linked above by Ernie suggests alternatively that it’s Clinton who’s an imperfect vehicle for the hopes of minorities to avoid demonization and the poor to have some kind of claim on collective resources – certainly she seems to be getting a lot of support from those quarters.

      Ah well, I’m not in that frying pan – instead I’m in the fire of a crazy British right-wing populism, with MPs calling for dental checks to verify that refugees are children and therefore worthy of our sympathy. Troubling times.

      • Strictly speaking, we don’t know why Trump is running at all. I have wondered from the beginning whether he is in it to help the hugely disliked Ms Clinton elected. Then, on the other hand, he could be just as sick of many aspects of the status quo as the rest of us. But that’s just wildly guessing.

        Ms Clinton has been caught calling vast numbers of her fellow Americans irredeemable deplorables. A few days ago, she was caught demeaning Catholics. She is the one demonizing! And we know, that in her view, being poor is not having the gazillions she has now — she said once they left the White House “poor.” This is the woman who will defend the rights of the downtrodden? She’s lived in the echo chamber of her sycophants so long that I am not sure any of this has any meaning to her besides useful sound bites. With Clinton, there is no guessing. She has a definite record, and it’s begun to weight heavy on her.

        There are many groups of minorities endorsing Trump. especially of late. And I am not sure why the working class families that have been dispossessed by globalism aren’t worthy minorities? They have been completely marginalized.

        Both candidates are running on a version of the revitalization myth. Both have reality against them, IMO.

        The woman is likely a psychopath, from all I’ve seen. So we have three choices. To not vote at all, to vote for a psychopath who shattered Libya and lied and laughed about it and who seems to be itching to start a war with Russia (as Obama is doing), or to vote for a loose cannon. That is the choice in front of us as I see it, and it sucks.

    • While I would agree the notion that there’s a rebellion against the elites within the Republican party, I don’t see that extending to the Democratic party or the electorate as a whole, and I’m not yet convinced that it represents more than a largish minority within the Republican party. I don’t think we’ll know just how extensive or persistent that rebellion is until this election is behind us. Trump certainly didn’t give rise to the issues that have buoyed him, but it’s entirely possible that he will prove somewhat unique in his ability to successfully exploit them. As for the Democrats, yes, Sanders did attract a large, vocal following, but it’s important to point out that Clinton received the majority of votes overall and an overwhelming majority within key constituencies of the Democratic coalition — women and minorities. Moreover, despite all of the attention to Bernie-or-busters, etc., the vast majority of Sanders supporters will be voting for Clinton in November.

      I see nothing at all damning emerging out of the Wikileaks document dumps. Just politics as usual. Sometimes a little disappointing, sometimes a little crass, but not all that remarkable really. As for the Project Veritas videos, I’ll simply note that James O’Keefe has established a clear pattern of producing heavily edited videos in which he and others use deception and leading statements to create the perception of fire when, at best, there might be matchbook in the room.

      Moving on, I want to challenge your assertion that “the utter distrust of the ‘mainstream media’ is at over 90%.” It’s certainly at a high water mark, but 90%? According to the latest Gallup poll, it’s approaching 70% in the electorate as a whole, but Republicans play an outsize role in the decline. Among Democrats, 51% have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the mass media. Among Republicans, the number is 14% (down from a high point of 52% in 1998). Given the change in the right-wing media landscape in the last couple of decades, with the rise of highly partisan television networks, blogs, talk radio stations, etc., I’m not at all surprised by that decline.

      Finally, I want to address your claim that the enthusiasm among Trump supporters is not for Trump himself but is “more of a hunger for that ‘and now for something completely different moment.” I’ll be frank – all that I’m seeing is a hunger for a return to a previous moment in American history. It’s reactionary, pure and simple. Trump’s campaign slogan – Make America Great Again – is predicated on his very shrewd realization that he could capitalize on this desire. When I look at the most vocal Trump supporters in my only family, what I see is very revealing (and very much in line with the polling data that’s emerged about Trump supporters in general). My father, stepfather, and father-in-law, all white, all in their early 70s, have been solidly behind Trump since he announced his candidacy. Two of the three are college educated, all earned relatively high incomes before retiring, and none of them have ever lost jobs or suffered in any direct way from globalization, trade policy, etc. They’ve also lived most of their lives in racial isolation, and all share the casual racism and sexism that are all too common in men of their generation. What I see in them, and in Trump’s supporters overall, is a reaction to the changing demographics and changing dynamics of power that are embodied, in obvious ways, by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

      • Ernie, Well, yes, the whole partisan thing does not make sense. The democrats say that the system is rigged when they are running against GOP, but when a GOP candidate is running against them, he is a conspiracy theorist for saying the system is rigged! While I don’t know O’Keefe, I think there was plenty of damning stuff in those vids that were not manufactured. And other people were caught saying that busing voters from precinct to precinct has been going on for a long time. I have never understood why every time someone wants to fix voter registration and polling procedures so only citizens can vote, they are accused of racism. Now I know why.

        My comment about “over 90%” was based on this poll.
        https://www.rt.com/usa/340124-americans-trust-media-plummets/

        Changing dynamics of power embodied by O and C? There we see it diametrically opposed. I see Obama continuing Bush, and Clinton will continue Obama, and these politics are total status quo, not to mention disastrous in many ways, for Americans as well as many other countries.

        And finally, aren’t you concerned about continuing the expensive and failed policies of meddling abroad, the stupid and bullheaded destruction of regimes that are followed by failed states, the hate America provokes by babbling about exporting democracy while delivering… something quite different? When Assad agreed to torture America’s prisoners, he was our friend. But when he said no to Qatar’s gas pipeline, suddenly he became a dictator who must be unconditionally deposed. I am so sick of this! Aren’t you, and what do you suggest we do differently?

        • “The democrats say that the system is rigged when they are running against GOP, but when a GOP candidate is running against them, he is a conspiracy theorist for saying the system is rigged! ”

          Sorry — I’m not buying that. I’m sure you can come up with examples of individuals on the left who have advanced conspiracy theories about voting rigging, and I’m sure you can also find examples of thinkers and analysts who argue that there are structural factors in our electoral system that privilege certain groups. What we’re seeing in recent years, though, is a whole other thing — widespread claims of voter fraud based on no credible evidence whatsoever that are adopted by a significant portion of the Republican electorate. On top of that, this year you have the the top of the GOP ticket advancing these discredited conspiracy theories on a daily basis.

          As for the specific claim of busing voters in, here’s a very good back of the envelope calculation of how truly absurd this kind of claim really is:

          http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2016/10/the-hollow-earth-theory-was-not-going-over-well-in-the-quarry

          The story that you cited for the 90% figure doesn’t seem to back that up. Am I missing something?

          With regard to Obama and Clinton, I was pointing to the race and gender factors. White men, especially older white men, are accustomed to occupying privileged positions in our society, and Obama and Clinton represent the inescapable fact that their power and influence are waning.

          I don’t agree with your characterization of Obama and Clinton being a continuation of the status quo of the Bush administration, especially with regard to domestic policy. There are also some important differences in foreign policy, as well, but I do agree that the way the US projects power abroad is often deeply disturbing. Short of continuing to advocate for change from within our political system, though, I don’t know what else I can do to change that.

          • Not buying that? See this rant. It actually shows Hillary and Obama and some other people saying the system is rigged, in the last election cycle. When the claim served their agenda.
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpLAzAZXi2A

            Oh and yeah, they are coming on a daily basis now, I saw another story filmed, about dirty tricks against Sanders at the Dem. convention. (Although that surfaced in July first. DNC paying people hired off Craigslist to grab the seats of Bernie delegates and clap loudly.)

            Why would you disbelieve “rigging” when we both know that the loopholes in election registration and the process at the polls makes cheating easy? No dead people voting in your America? And I won’t even go into the whole “voting by computer” can of worms.

            Thanks for the link, but I abandoned it with this opening sentence: “I know they’re all grifters, but man are they stupid, too.” Beginning with ad hominems always improves one’s credibility, eh?

            What to do? I think voting out those that caused the latest foreign outrages would not be a bad idea. And speaking up loud about what we think about their barrage of lies, on Syria, on Ukraine.

            Oh and one more point. When O’Keefe released his latest, the man caught blabbing, Foval, was immediately fired. Um… does that suggest to you that he somehow did not say what the vid shows him saying, how they set their agents on Trump’s supporters in Chicago. etc.?

            My impression, Ernie, is that you are a bit too willing to sweep under the rug way too much of what is going on. And we still have two weeks to go! Whee… 🙂

          • I’m going to forego further discussion of electoral fraud, Vera — we’re clearly too far apart to find any real common ground, so I don’t see much point in continuing the back and forth. It’s been an interesting discussion, though, so thanks for sharing your opinions. I will do you the courtesy, though, of taking a closer look at some of the things you allege. That video, though…good god! I wanted to strangle that guy the moment he began to speak! 🙂 Nonetheless, perhaps I _am_ willing to sweep too much under the rug, and having a better understanding of the opposing point of view is always worthwhile.

          • Ernie, bless you for your very civil, nay, even inspiring, reply. I am feeling encouraged that perhaps talking across the abyss that divides us these days (when the heck did it open at our feet?) is possible, and we shall overcome, some day. Please share here what you find, perhaps? I too want to keep on learning and moving.

  17. Been thinking, Chris, about what you say in your critique regarding immigration’s effect on wages. What you say does not make sense to me. It sounds like something one says for ideological reasons, not for rational and experiential reasons. I mean, if anything econ and history has taught me, is that if you oversupply the labor pool, ceteris paribus, wages and working conditions take a hit.

    On the other hand, if labor supply falls, like it did after the Black Death, wages shoot up because labor has leverage. You can see it on micro level in the history of strikes. If the factory owner successfully managed to flood the pool of available workers with newcomers, he took away the factory’s workers leverage and broke the strike. But there is a reason why those newcomers were called scabs.

    The American slaughterhouse/meat packing industry was reformed followed by Upton Sinclair’s disclosures; for many years, they were unionized, solid jobs with excellent pay, and working conditions much improved. Then, the unions were broken with the help of Mexican illegals. Now we are back to horrible working conditions and poor pay — and when the workers get hurt, they are unloaded on the taxpayers because the owners do not pay for health insurance.

    Since JMG said “partly”, where is the problem?

  18. Based on my admittedly fairly cursory following of the US election (though a bit less cursory than it was before I published this post – thanks, everyone) I have my own view about who’s doing most of the demonising, but dammit Vera I’m not going to allow myself to be drawn into defending Hilary Clinton. I agree with you that both candidates are pursuing revitalization myths and that the choice before you sucks. To be honest, that’s pretty much always true with elections, but you do seem to have a particularly bad case of it before you right now. Regarding which of them is pulling in most support from minorities and the marginalised, various different views have already been aired on this thread and I’m now inclined to wait and see. I’ll be fascinated to look at the breakdown of support by race, gender, age, income and place of residence.

    To answer your point about immigration, I guess I’d want to start by unpacking your statement “Then the unions were broken with the help of Mexican illegals”. The passive voice in that sentence masks the agency. Who decided to break the unions? Was it the Mexicans, whose political opposition to unionised labour in the USA burned so strongly that they decided to emigrate there illegally in order to break it? I don’t think so. And it’s an important point in terms of policies and politics. If you decide that the immiseration of the US working class has been caused by Mexican immigration, you’ll spend fruitless years trying to keep Mexicans out, you’ll poison community relations (incurring untold economic and emotional cost), you’ll punish the Mexican economy, and at the end of it all you’ll be in the same (in fact almost certainly a worse) boat – in the short term, an ever renewing body of migrants finding ways to get into the US, and in the long term jobs and investment leaking away from it until the migrants no longer want to come. And at that point your problems will really begin, especially if you’ve been pursuing a revitalization myth all that time about making America great again by keeping out migrants. Sometime after that, US citizens would probably start feeling the need to migrate to other countries to find work. And at that point I think a lot of them might see that the bad economic conditions that folks had blamed on migrants were, in global terms, pretty good ones – and they were pretty good mostly because the US and a handful of other rich countries had dictated the terms of the global economy.

    That fate may await anyway, but if we recognize that the breaking of unionised labour by illegal immigrants is merely a symptom of neoliberal globalization I think it gives us a better chance of making some good political alliances that will unite people into working for more humane economies rather than divide them into scrabbling for their piece of the pie.

    Or to put it another way, if JMG had said ‘proximately’ rather than ‘partly’ and then warned against the mirage of racism and anti-immigration as causes of working class immiseration, then I wouldn’t have a problem. But no, I don’t think working class immiseration is even ‘partly’ caused by immigration, unless you ditch all considerations of politics and history and look at it merely as an issue of labour ‘over-supply’ (in which case, why would it matter where the labour came from?). To my mind, doing that would be truly ‘ideological’.

    What countries like the US and the UK are now experiencing as a result of our taste for capitalist globalisation is pretty much what we inflicted on other countries in the past. I’m inclined to think, well you reap what you sow. But I recognise that the people who experience most of the suffering are not the ones who have most actively pursued this course. And I’m not opposed to ‘progressive’ forms of trade and labour protectionism or economic relocalisation. In that situation, I think many of us might be surprised at how many of the comforts of life were based on the exploitation of others. But it’s probably a necessary surprise. To start moving in that direction, I’d suggest that we think more in terms of limiting the free flow of capital rather than the free flow of people. If we did that, I think the flow of people would start abating. That would probably leave us with a surprising amount of work to do. But maybe it would be another necessary surprise.

    • Thank you Chris! No, defending Hillary… ugh. Thank you, really. I wish Brian Miller would come back and tell his perspective from upstate NY.

      We could have a discussion about immigration, but my point was about the effect supply of labor has on wages and working conditions. Until you tackle that, I think Greer’s statement stands.

      There are obvious other factors, some of which you mention, and I would add mechanization/robotization as well. Captain Ludd, where are you? 🙂 And I don’t think that we need to have an argument about the Mexicans whose cheap labor made possible the breakup of the meatpackers’ union. Nobody is blaming them for it, they were useful pawns, and suffer themselves in the deplorable conditions the meat industry has returned to.

      “I think many of us might be surprised at how many of the comforts of life were based on the exploitation of others.” Spot on.

      “I’d suggest that we think more in terms of limiting the free flow of capital rather than the free flow of people.” I suspect it’s both. Your farm would not survive if the “free flow of people” applied to it. Can you point us to more info on limiting the free flow of capital? I don’t know what it means, practically speaking.

      • Vera, there’s a conceptual problem with saying that ceteris paribus an increased labour supply causes decreased wages and thence inferring that immigration, since it increases the labour supply, therefore ‘causes’ the decrease in wages. The problem is that immigration status is exogenous to the quantity of labour. If you want to look at the issue as a purely economic model of the relation between labour supply and wages, that’s fine and I’ll agree with you that ceteris paribus an increased labour supply will decrease wages. But then there are no grounds endogenous to your model for according priority to any particular type of labour. Split the labourers up anyhow you wish (immigration status, hair colour, star sign) and there’s no logic to saying whose labour is ‘causing’ the over-supply. In such a model, it makes as much sense to say that Americans are driving down Mexicans’ wages as vice versa. You might invoke all sorts of more or less convincing reasons to accord priority to the Americans, but none of them would be intrinsic to the definition of labour in your model. They would inevitably be political and historical factors. That’s fine too, but now we’re talking about something different, which is much less easy to define universally agreeable variables around to model. If you invoke historical priority of residence, for example, we’d likely get into a whole series of arguments about (neo)colonial power, Native American land rights, state territorial monopolisation and so on. So no, I don’t think JMG’s ‘partly caused’ argument stands logically. You might agree with it as a matter of politics, but that’s a whole different ball game.

        Regarding my farm, whether it would survive or not given the free flow of labour would depend on how many people wanted to move to this area. To address that issue, we’re better off focusing on what makes people want to migrate at source rather than obsessing about border control.

        Which brings us to capital flows. What happens if the USA sells corn in Mexico at prices subsidised by fossil fuels and government payouts that are much below the price of production of Mexican farmers? Probably a lot more Mexicans working illegally for low wages in US meat-packing plants. So I agree with you about Ned Lud. That, in microcosm, is the problem with the free flow of capital and the restricted flow of labour. If the owners of capital can send their money wherever in the world it earns the best return and get that return back, while people themselves are prevented from going wherever in the world they can get the best return, then what you get is a few very rich people, an awful lot of very poor people who would be delighted to work in a rich country for a pittance by local standards, and quite a few relatively poor people in those rich countries who are very keen to stop them. Pretty much the situation we’re in today described by Greer, in fact. But the problem is not immigration (except perhaps inasmuch as immigration restrictions keep living standards in rich countries artificially high). But suppose the US couldn’t send Mexico its corn, or extract value from cheap labour and natural resources in other countries. What then…?

        • So, ok, but how do you put it into practice? How do you make sure that the US can’t send Mexico its corn, as an example? And how do you make sure that people can’t manipulate currencies so that they profit just by moving money around? And then, there are all those farmers making a living from selling Mexico their corn, or more to the point, selling Egypt their wheat without which Egyptians would starve… I can’t quite get a handle on this. How do you picture it working? I am a bit overwhelmed just thinking about it.

          • Yes, it is quite overwhelming just thinking about it – which is why I posed it as a question, in the hope that someone else might fill in the gaps for me. But it’s no more overwhelming than the present crazy global economy, and it has precedents in the economic policies that were pursued before we were gripped by neoliberal delusions.

            How do you put it into practice? Are we talking policy or politics here? The former is easy. Broadly, with economic policy instruments like import and export tariffs, exchange controls, financial transaction taxes and the like. Specifically…well, I’m not an economist, so I’d be very happy to leave it to the economists to wrestle with all the complex minutiae. What I’m not happy to leave to the economists is designing the broad outlines of society in accordance with the spurious sociological theorising of their discipline, as is currently the case.

            And this of course is the big problem here. Because putting it into practice politically would require dismantling the EU, WTO, the IMF and all the other paraphernalia of global economic governance which has been designed pretty explicitly to prevent anywhere from following its own political or economic agenda. The sort of institutions, in fact, that people like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump tend to criticise as they go after political power. If I thought they were remotely serious, I might even consider supporting them. But they’re not, and I won’t.

            So, in such a world, if Egypt was in need of grain it could choose of its own accord to go looking for it on the global market. But the incentives would be for it to grow its own. Which would be a good thing, I think – Egypt would stop burying quite so much priceless Nilotic farmland under concrete, and a grain exporter like the USA would stop accidentally exporting quite so much of its priceless soils and harmful fertilisers into the Gulf of Mexico.

          • I see. You know, I remember the prof in my econ classes ranting against tariffs in no uncertain terms. Blaming the Depression (partly) on a tariff war, etc. I suspect there are logistics of that legislation could be really screwed up, producing unintended consequences.

            But of course I find regulation that protects the local, regional and national very attractive. You are basically talking about changing the financial incentives to protect the local economies. So on that aspect, we are in synch. So I’ll have to think how it all fits in with the stuff you say about the free movement of people. Isn’t local human culture just as much of a treasure worthy of protection, as is the local economy? (More to come as I digest.)

        • Well, I’m glad to be put in the right location, here in Tennessee (upstate New York, indeed, Vera). The three of you (Chris, Vera and Ernie) have covered a lot of useful ground. But I’m hesitant to be drawn in and out on politics. I am aware, leading a rural farm life, how that work has shaped my outlook on work and responsibility, eroding the outlooks of my youth. I’m aware more of a growing cultural void between rural communities and urban communities. And I find, politically, that no one, left or right speaks for the great mass of rural white and black residents. Indeed, I find that any description of my politics seems to have no compass bearings on the current political landscape. I’m appalled that my primary choices are between a demagogue-narcissist and the choice of the financial elites and the military industrial complex. I prefer to work within my rural community to build resilient bonds and food hubs that sustain, as much as possible, a framework of civility and nurture.

          We just returned tonight from the type of small town civic meeting that gives hope. Our local bee keeper association had their annual harvest dinner. It was made possible by a shared commitment and shared cultural values. Traits worth celebrating and determining how to grow.

          • Nicely put as ever Brian. It’s interesting hearing about the US situation, where it seems like a rural/urban divide is a genuine political issue. I’m not sure you can say the same here in the UK. But there’s still a divide. Here’s an interesting statistic: people living in rural areas in lowland England earn on average £90/week more than those living in urban areas, whereas people working in rural areas in lowland England earn on average £90/week less than those working in urban areas.

            Anyway – Tennessee and New York are basically the same, right? They’re both just states in the eastern USA…

          • Oh piffle. My only sin is that I heard Brian talk about Kingston, and jumped to the assumption it was Kingston in the Hudson Valley! I know American geography better that many Americans, partly because Americans don’t really teach geography in schools. I always thought that a strange decision, from way back. And partly because in my younger years, I traveled over most of America looking for European climate. Never did find it, although upstate NY does have some similarities…

            And btw, it’s interesting to speculate how much of the vituperation against Trump overlaps with urban to rural prejudice, and Yanks vs the South prejudice. After hearing bloggers rant over the years against southern crackers and cornpone nazis and of course the confederacy flag which is common in rural south… well.

        • “But the problem is not immigration (except perhaps inasmuch as immigration restrictions keep living standards in rich countries artificially high).”

          I don’t understand how Greer is saying anything other than what you just said, namely that immigration restrictions can keep living standards artificially high in rich countries. Is that not all that’s necessary to for Greer to make his point?

          • Well, my whole problem is that I’m not really sure what Greer IS saying, except that he doesn’t much care for liberals.

            But I’m not sure we’re saying the same thing. I said that immigration restrictions keep core country wages artificially high, he said that lack of immigration restrictions are lowering core country working class wages. Perhaps you could say that those might be two sides of the same coin, but they have pretty different implications. Especially if, as Greer does, you go on to make a causal link between immigration and core country working class discontent – and then use that to belabour leftist liberalism.

          • I guess the discussion has veered off to leveling. If you want to equalize things across the board for everybody… isn’t that rank utopianism, and in its consequences usually pretty draconian?

            I believe in equalizing, but neither the old communist kind, nor this “open borders” craziness. Would not be opposed to the old fashioned lamp-post equalizing for some people, though. 🙂 Too many rich psychopaths around.

  19. This discussion — thank you all! — has led me to a refreshment of what classical liberalism is (was). I thought I’d share it. Any additions welcome. (And I would argue that JMG is not a classical liberal (even of the Burkean type) because he is unable or unwilling to tolerate robust discussion of his ideas in a public forum. Hence his glee over its demise?)

    Classical liberalism is a political philosophy and ideology belonging to liberalism in which primary emphasis is placed on securing the freedom of the individual by limiting the power of the government.

    Main features: freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and markets; rule of law and equality before the law; government by consent (constitution, checks on power, a measure of autonomy to local governing bodies); property protection; commercial and industrial activities of citizens not subject to “undue restraint” – (which led many, but not all, to fight protectionism and collective organizations (guilds, unions, et al.)

    “but I think a more important point concerns what liberalism has had to say about the form of politics rather than its content. And in a nutshell, that form is – argue your point peacefully, using reason; if you lose, accept that you’ve lost peacefully, with grace; and don’t intrude on things politically that have nothing to do with public wellbeing, such as the private pursuits of the individual that affect no one else. In order to realise that political form a lot of work was needed to create a public sphere where people met as citizens and equals, and could expect even-handed treatment by the state. What united the struggles over slavery, gender, class and race wasn’t the fact that they brought values into politics but that they sought to create a universalist public sphere.” — Smaje

  20. Yes, economists don’t like tariffs and trade barriers. I think that has a lot to do with their rather spurious notions about market equilibria. But I’m sure it’s true that it’s possible to get them badly wrong – as is the case with any economic instrument, not least the ones we’re presently encumbered with. For those who truly believe in free markets, however, there is no logic to immigration control.

    On the question of protecting cultures as well as economies, my answer would probably be a very guarded ‘yes’ – but cultures don’t work the same way as economies, so the kind of protection they need is different. I’ll be writing more about that soon. But in any case, a more localised economic world would almost certainly be a more localised cultural world.

    Thanks for the take on classical liberalism. I’m not that comfortable identifying myself with it, but a lot of the things in your list resonate, and they’re what JMG ignores. ‘Undue restraint’ nicely captures the internal contradiction by which liberalism morphs into neoliberalism – the kind of thing that Michael Sandel explores in ‘What Money Can’t Buy’.

    • Yes, that “undue restraint” phrase jumped out at me too. Making me aware of the necessity for “due restraint” which earlier politicians understood to some extent and globalists have forgotten. For example successful efforts to break up monopolies, whether banking or otherwise, by presidents Jackson and Roosevelt.

      I will be looking forward to your thoughts on the protection of local cultures. It seems like that is the next step in our discussion, now that we’ve cleared some of the underbrush. 🙂 I am also writing a post for my blog on some thoughts on populism this discussion has provoked; will link as soon as it’s done.

      • I realized that there is an unfinished bit in all this for me, Chris. You argued that paying heed to the fact that, ceteris paribus, oversupply of labor depresses wages and working conditions, and apply it to immigration, would do all sorts of bad things as a consequence. For me, paying heed to it is important because it is part of reality. Immigration policies ought to pay attention to what the law of supply and demand may in fact cause, look at the likelihoods, see what can be done to prepare for, and ease such an effect, and incorporate it into the proposed legislation. And no, it does not matter where the outsiders are from, whether they are nearby scabs coming into a small town with a strike at the factory, or whether they are people from half the world away, the law of supply and demand plays a role, and I consider all this part of the conversation about immigration. It does not invalidate all the other angles.

        So then you correctly pointed out that eventually we get into issues of defense of local cultures and the consideration of priorities. I look forward to picking it up soon, when you get a chance to flesh out your thoughts. You and I have danced and tiptoed around this for some time! 🙂

        • Vera, I’ll write some more soon about the question of culture, and also about left agrarian populism. Not immediately. But soon.

          Meantime, just off the top of my head, what we’re getting into with your unfinished business is looking at relative economic prosperity within and between nations, its causes and its prospects. The way I see it, albeit oversimplifying, countries like Britain and the USA which industrialised early used their economic and political muscle to break the economies of other places (that was what 19th century British policy in India and China was all about). These latter economies became increasingly impoverished peripheries to the industrialised cores. Their millions of poor people were (and still largely are) prevented from migrating to more prosperous places in the core areas, and this is largely why working-class people in the core have much higher living standards than working-class people in the periphery. Migration of less skilled labour into the core (or migration of jobs out of it) perhaps does increasingly pit core & peripheral working people against one another nowadays. The response of right-wing populism is basically to blame immigration and seek to cap it. This tends to divert attention from the unequal distribution of wealth: the unequal distribution of wealth between rich and poor within the core country, and the unequal distribution of wealth between rich and poor countries. It also tends to divert attention from the declining economic fortunes of old-core areas like Europe and North America. In that context, any type of populist programme of economic relocalisation, left or right, would result in a huge contraction in the size of the economy (note how the post-Brexit British government desperately wants to stay in the European single market, but without the free movement of people, while the ‘hard Brexiters’ are happy to quit, claiming that Britain will prosper selling its products on the world market: it’s all pretty delusional). A right-wing populist programme that paid no attention to the relative distribution of the greatly reduced wealth within its society would quickly reduce its working class to the same situation as the working class of the periphery. In summary, putting a stop to immigration would not make the local working class richer long-term in the present core or ‘developed’ economies in any political and economic scenario that I find plausible. Or to put it another way, while I agree that ceteris paribus reducing the supply of labour will increase its price, in the real world ceteris never is paribus. The core economies are trying to hang on to their economic power through a path of job casualization and economic financialization which seems unlikely to work in the long-run and will probably only be hastened by right-wing populist measures like immigration caps.

          My view is that we in countries like the US and the UK do actually need to experience this huge economic contraction for ecological reasons, and also for equity reasons – it isn’t fair that the core economies of the global north gobble up so much of the world’s wealth and resources. But as I see it the only feasible way of doing that is having a much more equitable distribution of resources within countries as well as between them. And ultimately it has to be based on what can sustainably be produced from the land and its agriculture. That, in a nutshell, is why left-wing agrarian populism makes sense to me, and few other politics do.

          • I love our Brexiteers – in true populist fashion they assure everyone that they can have their cake and eat it, and if they can’t it must be the fault of Jonny foreigner. And they hark back to a glorious age when little old Britain was so so great we could march around the world and all these other people just gave us raw materials for free (we made them an offer they couldn’t refuse) – its the only bit of free trade that really really works if you want to get rich and its the bit they completely miss.

            I agree with you Vera that contraction is necessary for reasons of both ecology and equity. But that argument is almost impossible to make (or make heard) while others are shouting that we can be great again, while never acknowledging that our prosperity has always come at the expense of impoverishing people and environments elsewhere.

          • Bruce, that wasn’t me. That was Chris speaking.

            Chris, I added a link in my blog comments to the worthy agrarian populists of the late 19th century (U.S.). Very interesting stuff, and I wonder whether it intersects with your ideas.

            You are of course right about the “relative prosperity” among nations. But not talking about certain impacts of immigration on the more prosperous countries does not help any. Behavior has consequences, and reality demands we look at them all.

            To make a quick point, I don’t think it is in the interest of anyone — and particularly not in the interest of those who were once harmed by colonialism and wish for greater prosperity and freedom et al — to turn the more prosperous countries and more democratic countries into failed states by flooding them with poorly managed migration. It sure would equalize things… to the levels where the more prosperous countries have little to offer anyone anymore, democracy gives way to chaos, the social safety net collapses, and colonialism, instead of eradicated, is enshrined in its reverse form, where immigrants turn the guest country into the “hell they came from” as some people are want to say.

            American immigration policies have tried to balance the need for a large measure of openness with the continuation of the American republican experiment. At times, this has meant restricting in-migration which past a certain point brings too much social conflict and pain overall. Europeans like Swedes thought they knew better than that. Now they have begun paying the price… barely begun.

          • So far in the discussion of relative prosperity, it seems you are framing it in terms of nation states and describing symptoms ( like immigration pressure) rather than causes. I would argue that it is capital chasing the best return that is the cause, and the corporations that run the economic engine facilitate this. While corporations are supposedly creations of the state, it appears to me that the transnational corporations have gotten out of control, and their interests no longer overlap as well with the host nations. Add the resultant effects of corporate money on the political process, and the large population everywhere creating less leverage for labor to get its fair share, and we have the mess we are in. I see no solution without radical reduction of capitalist corporate power.

          • Bruce wrote: “…while never acknowledging that our prosperity has always come at the expense of impoverishing people and environments elsewhere.”

            I don’t think that’s exactly true, although the impoverishment of peoples and environs elsewhere has, I think, certainly come at the hands of our (US/UK, etc.) quest for prosperity and has added to our superficially/normally defined prosperity. I think the ability of the UK and the US to engage in the economic imperialism that we have, however, was founded on advantages that came from a largely homegrown prosperity that was then leveraged for further advantages abroad. (Slavery is, of course, a very notable factor of the early prosperity of the US, but slavery in the US was relatively homegrown in the sense that it didn’t depend on continued importation of slaves in the ways and to the degree it did elsewhere in the New World, and so I don’t think US slavery was so much about “impoverishing people and environments elsewhere” as it was about impoverishing people domestically.) I think the US and UK began with a kind of prosperity that would have a lot of similarities to Chris’ Neo-Peasant Republic of Wessex., and so I think there’s a kind of greatness that the US and UK had prior to major industrialization (coming and ending earlier in the UK, of course, than the US) that we can aspire to. To be sure, “greatness” as most people listening to and resonating with Trump think of it, isn’t something I believe is compatible without exploitative economic imperialism, but I think if we do a better and more careful job of defining prosperity, that don’t need to think of our prosperity as necessarily exploitative.

    • “For those who truly believe in free markets, however, there is no logic to immigration control.”

      You almost make it sound like people are just interchangeable units of labor and consumption.

        • Ok now I am confused again. You said, Chris, that you don’t believe in the current logic of capitalism, and think that protectionism should be applied. But now you quip back… If protectionism should be applied to goods/money etc then why not people? People are the ones who actually get hurt by being moved around like skittles.

        • I’d like to plunge into this whole new twist on slavery, economic development and colonialism, but I’ll be writing more about that soon anyway and maybe it’s time for this thread to wind down (though I’d appreciate it if someone wrote just one more comment so we make our century, a first for SFF).

          But let me try to clarify that comment:

          No, I don’t much care for capitalism and its reduction of people to blank metrics of labour and consumption. But that is its logic.

          At present, capital gets much easier passage around the world than labour. For all the talk of uncontrolled immigration, there is nothing remotely resembling open borders in countries like the US and the UK. The free flow of capital and the restricted flow of labour creates immense human misery, which is overwhelmingly concentrated in poor countries. To my mind, redressing that is the primary humanitarian imperative, and it shouldn’t be muddled up with a (well-founded) resentment against elites within wealthy countries.

          Yes, I think a world in which both capital and labour were less mobile would be a good thing. I agree with you Vera that people get hurt by being moved around like skittles – I also agreed with Jahi Chappell when he talked on this site about ‘the right not to have to migrate’ (a better way of looking at it, I think, than the need to prevent immigration). But here in the UK at any rate there is an increasingly punitive and nasty public sentiment about migrants, which even encompasses traumatised and destitute war refugees. I don’t want any part in it. The key thing to control is the flow of capital – migration patterns will follow on from that. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be any immigration control. But I am saying that it’s not the key issue – the key issue is building solid local economies, and if we focused on that we could start thinking about immigration in a way that avoided the present scapegoatism.

          I’m also saying that in a world of localised finance and labour, a lot of people in the richer countries will most likely be pretty shocked at how tough economic circumstances are – circumstances that previously their countries foisted upon others. I think one way or another that’s the direction many of us are headed in whether we like it or not – but there are some reasons why perhaps we CAN like it, especially if it’s managed well. I don’t really see it as being about some utopian global levelling (though ultimately I can’t see any ethical reason why human wellbeing should be determined so comprehensively by place and class of birth, so yes I guess I’m a leveller) – it’s more about building just and sustainable economies on firm ground.

          • Having recently just read a little about the Second Boer War for the first time, the fate of the Transvaal and Second Orange Republic comes to mind when I think about the potential destructive influence of immigration, particularly on their culture and ability to protect the interests of their own agrarian societies through their politics. In their case the immigration was chiefly by Englishmen in what from my extremely limited reading of their history was effectively a free and open market in labor. Could immigration controls have helped to maintain their agrarian countries? Are there no valid parallels to the UK, even though the UK is no agrarian society, when it comes to the potential cultural and political destructiveness of immigration. I’m perhaps more sympathetic to the ideas of the Brexiters than you are. Perhaps those are questions you’ll address when you deal more directly with culture.

          • I don’t know how “Second Orange Republic” came out of my fingertips. I meant to say the Orange Free State. That shows how recent and cursory my knowledge of their history is.

          • Yes, let’s pick it up again when we come to the concept of culture. The Orange Free State – gosh what an interesting and complex example.

            It’s been an interesting discussion. There’s a point on the spectrum of Brexit opinion which engages my sympathies, but this discussion has made me see more clearly how narrow it is, and how difficult it would be to realise politically.

          • A metaphor for the controlled movement of capital and labour that I’ve always liked is the semi-permeable membrane, a fundamental feature of all cell biology. The cell creates structures that foster an imbalance of essential molecules between its inside and its out. This leads to an energy gradient which the cell can then exploit to thrive and ‘prosper’.
            Although you can only take it so far, the metaphor helps me to understand the semi-permeable nature of the borders of the nation state-cell that I live inside of (the UK) and the fact that easy movement of capital and restricted movement of people are not only intimately linked, but also an essential feature of the cell (state) system – they are not an accidental consequence. They are actively sustained in order to maintain an energy (power/wealth) imbalance.
            In this way the current toxic media and political discourse around immigration isn’t just a right-wing populism, it is about bolstering a capitalist project which is having problems (as has been alluded to in many of the excellent comments on this thread).

          • Hyvel, yes, I too have been thinking about the cellular metaphor. What happens when the imbalance made possible by the membrane is “equalized”? The cell dies.

            As you say, metaphors can’t be taken too literally. But it’s food for thought.

          • Yes, interesting metaphor. I’ve thought of it before in relation to the flow of things on farms, but not really the economy as a whole. I wrote a piece in Dark Mountain where I used the somewhat similar idea of differences in electrical potential in a circuit as a metaphor for the economy. When the potential is zero the circuit is dead. But maybe that’s what we need to move towards…

  21. Well, a bit late to the party, but wanted to add my two cents…

    Cent 1: Chris, what I wouldn’t give to see an online debate between you and Greer on this topic. Have you by any chance reached out to him to let him know you’ve presented a critique and to offer him a chance at rebuttal, etc? That would be truly valuable.

    Cent 2: Interesting that you discuss the issue of the ‘public sphere’ which you’ve stated is being ironically undercut by Greer’s attack on liberalism, inasmuch as it is responsible for the platform from which he issues said attack. I recently decided to go back and do some more digging into ex-Marxist, ex-anarchist Murray Bookchin’s political philosophy, and in the forward to his ‘The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism’ we have this:

    “Across the American political spectrum, a wide variety of thinkers are lamenting the evisceration of the civic sphere…not only the left but but the center and even the right are bewailing the decline of community life and civic participation. On this issue, too, Bookchin’s municipal approach offers a radical left perspective….

    Around the world, transnational capital is creating a giant market in which incalculable profits are reaped by the few, plunging the many into poverty and despair, obliterating traditional societies and poisoning the biosphere. Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism explores the institutions that could potentially arrest this rapacious system of exploitation and biocide.”

    Thanks for this post – I’m honestly unsure exactly where I am politically these days, and thoughtful offerings like this critique you’ve posted are very helpful in considering the issues.

    – Oz

    • Thanks, Oz. No, I haven’t reached out to him – a debate might be interesting, though my fear would be, as others in this thread have suggested, the tendency for critics who enter Greerworld to be summarily dismissed as idiots who fail to appreciate the full splendour of the man’s vision. Still, if his people want to talk to my people and initiate some talks about talks, well, who knows…

      And thanks for the Bookchin reference. He was ahead of the game on a lot of things. I probably ought to read more of his stuff. But there’s quite a lot of it…

      • Chris, I hear ya – in fact, I think one of the most valuable things to come out of such a reaching out might be to find out if Greer himself has become lost in Greerworld! That would be useful information.

        Is he drinking his own kool-aid, or is he capable of engaging in a genuine dialectic – when, say, confronted with the example of Machiavelli you used, which I think is a solid hit on his thesis? Ironically, one of his best posts, IMO, was the one he did on the trap of binary thinking, and the political realism vs political idealism dichotomy he’s advanced and that you are critiquing seems to me to have fallen into precisely that trap.

        Re: Bookchin – the book I referenced comes in at a slim 181 pages, and Biehl notes explicitly the reason she put together this ‘concise and abbreviated exposition’ was because she realized his works were “massive enough in scope and execution to be formidable to many readers.’

        The political tradition I’ve mostly identified with for some years now is anarchism, but I have serious doubts about whether an anarchist system could come to exist in anything like the near term, and I’m finding Bookchin’s ideas – especially his distinctions between the State realm and the political realm, and his focus on ‘urbanization (which he calls ‘the immense, formless blight of capitalism’ which ‘swallows up the definable human scaled entities that were once cities’) and on the necessary decentralization of existing cities into ‘smaller municipalities of manageable size’ which are based on direct democracy and connected in confederations – to offer a sort of middle way that is not wholly ungrounded in historical experience, which is one problem I’ve had with the anarchist vision. This also seems highly aligned with the neo-peasant vision you’ve been advancing. It’s much easier, for me at least, to see your vision being realized in such a political environment than in one where monster cities continue to dominate the political, social and economic landscape.

        Anyway, I certainly wish he got a wider readership, as he does seem to me at least to offer some ways of thinking and some concrete ideas that could be extremely useful in the days to come as our current system of ‘politics’ continues to disintegrate.

        After all, I find it difficult, in light of present circumstances, to dispute Spengler’s notion of Caesarism – which Greer describes this way “the rise of charismatic leaders who discover that they can seize power by challenging the plutocrats, addressing the excluded majority, and offering the latter some hope that their lot will be improved.” And here’s how Spengler saw things proceeding from there:

        “The prototypes of Caesarism will soon become more clearly defined, more conscious, more brazen. The masks surviving from the parliamentary age of transition will fall away entirely. All attempts to determine the shape of the future within political parties will be quickly forgotten. The fascist formations of these decades will turn into new ones as yet unpredictable, and even nationalism as we know it will disappear. Everywhere, not just in Germany, the only formative power left is the warlike “Prussian” spirit. Destiny, once confined within imposing institutions and weighty traditions, will make history through amorphous and unique expressions of force. The legions of Caesar are reawakening.

        Here, perhaps even in this century, the final decisions are waiting for the man to take them. In front of him the petty goals and concepts of today’s politics count as nothing. Whoever holds the sword which wrests victory now will be lord of the world. There lies the dice of this monstrous game. Who dares to cast them?”

        Nearly as chilling a view as Orwell’s.

  22. Chris,
    You seem to use two phrases recently to describe your politics: left-agrarian (ism) and left-agrarian populism. Is the latter an error or an evolution in your nomenclature? They seem to describe different paths.
    My best,

  23. Goodness, this discussion is getting a whole new lease of life! Well, a few brief responses:

    Excellent point from Steve on the way that capital, originally a vehicle for state power, has now slipped its reins – David Harvey argues along these lines in ‘The Enigma of Capital’. Hence the understandable rise of a populist politics attempting to reassert political self-determination. But some of those attempts are better than others, and few are worse than Trump’s. But I guess I’d still reiterate my point that immigration control in the core countries has essentially been a statist policy which increases returns to the dominant nation states, and not necessarily to capital as such. As capital wrests greater control from the core states, so the economic conflicts within and between states sharpen. But most of the TNCs are still based in the core countries, and repatriate most of their money there. If we think that unbridled capital is tearing down the wellbeing of ordinary people in the wealthy countries, I’d say we ain’t seen nothing yet. So I agree with Bruce that currently there’s a delusional ‘having our cake and eating it’ discourse around Brexit. And I also agree with Vera that we need populist programmes to recharge local economies and communities – such programmes would result in less mass global migration, because the global economy wouldn’t be so polarised into cores and peripheries. I think we’d agree that that would be a good thing. Perhaps we can leave it there until we pick up the cudgels again around the issue of culture. I’d agree that rapid immigration can cause a lot of social problems in certain hotspots. I wouldn’t agree that immigration is a key issue to focus on in general in core-country politics, or that it’s at root what the problem is here.

    Thanks for the Bookchin reference, Oz – yet another one in the inbox. From my fairly vague and not very recent acquaintance with his work I’d agree with you that his municipalism meshes well with the kind of neo-peasant vision I’m trying to outline. I’m sympathetic to anarchism, but not really persuaded that spontaneous non-state organisation is feasible. We do need a state – but one that’s committed to egalitarian local agrarianism. Trouble is, I’m not really persuaded that’s feasible either…

    Brian, I guess I identify with populism in the sense that I support various aspects of the self-described agrarian populist thought that emerged around the world from the 19th century in places like Russia, Eastern Europe, Mexico, India & the USA. Plus I like to meet up occasionally with my urban lefty friends, announce that I’m a populist and gauge their reactions. But of course there are things I’d want to change in a contemporary left agrarian populism – I wouldn’t exclude black farmers, for example. So maybe I’d also be happy to go with left agrarianism. I plan to write some more about all this soon – but I’d be interested to hear your views on the two different paths you perceive.

    PS. Thought for the day/sign of the times: having recently obtained my first ever (Korean-made) smartphone, I was trying to text my son today the phrase “went into town”, but the phrase it prompted was “went into administration”.

    • “We do need a state – but one that’s committed to egalitarian local agrarianism. Trouble is, I’m not really persuaded that’s feasible either…”

      Heh. You put the finger on it. Perhaps there are times when one can learn a lesson from, gasp, the Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups. Completely cut off from power after the fall of the Ottoman empire, they invested themselves in grassroots and guerrilla-type efforts, hoping that in time they would bear fruit in the larger sense. I think they were right.

    • Chris, smartphone keyboards programmed by weapons manufacturers tend to make non-subtle corrections to a target area.

    • “We do need a state – but one that’s committed to egalitarian local agrarianism.”

      Well, not entirely sure I agree, but note that Bookchin left the anarchist movement prior to the development of social ecology and considered himself henceforth a ‘communalist’ – thus, his notion of libertarian municipalism is not an anarchist structure, but a communalist one – it explicitly presumes (‘dual power’) the ongoing presence of a State and offers the notion of a confederation of local municipalities whose role, in part, is to provide opposition to the inherent domination-based nature of the State. Basically, the system of checks and balances in this scheme is not limited to branches of federal government, but also works between State and municipal level due to the highly active engagement at the local level via direct democracy.

      Looking at the imperial presidency and the sad wreck of federal checks and balances in the US, exploring the establishment of local governmental structures that are not mere water carriers for the feds seems like an eminently sensible idea to me.

      • I think the municipalist system you/he describes chimes with the kind of politics or state that I’m driving at – no real tensions between my vision and his. The problem is that dominant conceptions of sovereignty and/or the will to power do tend to turn the more local levels of power into ‘water carriers’ as you nicely put it. Among modern wealthy countries I’d say that the USA historically has done a better job than most at retaining genuine local power – albeit not always with very ‘progressive’ results. From my distant vantage point, your view that this situation is now a ‘sad wreck’ seems quite plausible, though I’d be interested in hearing more from you about the nature of the wreck.

  24. Um. My apologies for continuing to run with this… but this is another question I have badly wanted to ask someone.

    Chris said: “the ‘hard Brexiters’ are happy to quit [the European common market], claiming that Britain will prosper selling its products on the world market: it’s all pretty delusional.” Bruce seemed to agree.

    So I say: Iceland seems to be doing pretty well remaining its own nation (not in the EU or euro) and selling its products on the world market, including Europe – why not Britain? And the Icelanders have managed to rein in its banksters, a feat nobody else has even attempted. Any comments?

    • I would just point out that a big difference between the two is Iceland having very rich energy resources. They provide 85% of their primary energy needs from domestic hydropower and geothermal. This gives them a big leg up that filters through to all aspects of their economy, and enables them to be firmer negotiators for any multilateral agreements they might consider.

      While energy prices globally are down a bit now, they are a drain on any nation that is importing, and will inevitably be going back up if the recent demand destruction is not permanent.

    • I’ll bite.

      Iceland has managed to rein in it’s banksters – It actually sent some to jail I believe. Iceland’s flirtation with international finance was relatively brief – the UK’s reaches much further back in our history and is more systemic. Beyond banking Iceland’s economy is based on primary production – it’s two major industries are fishing and aluminium smelting. According to Wikipedia it’s the 11th largest producer in the world but has a population of less than half a million. It’s smelting industry is largely powered by very cheap hydro and geo-thermal power and as electricity is the major cost in a smelting operation this is significant. The Icelandic economy operates with a small surplus.

      The UK economy on the other hand is based largely on services. Banking is huge but this is directly threatened by Brexit. The loss of “pass-porting” rights would mean that international banks would need to move some of their operations out of London in order to access the EU. We have very little manufacturing and what we do have is less making and more assembling. I saw some figures for JCB (they make diggers, tractors etc). In the late 70’s 95% of a JCB digger was manufactured in the UK, today it’s just 35% – so 65% of the parts are imported and assembled here. So the fall in the value of the £ has far less benefit to UK manufacturers than might be expected. Our car industry is in a similar position, as is the plane manufacturer Airbus. Should we end up trading with Europe under WTO rules expect all these companies to rethink their investments in the UK. The UK economy trades with a huge deficit.

      There were all sorts of things wrong with the EU. But its our largest trading partner. As a % of GDP its our largest export market. Leaving may have been the right thing to do but leaving without serious preparation was idiotic.

      Many of the Brexiteers are smart people, so it seems foolish to simply write them off as delusional. But I can’t help it. It seems to me that they live in a little bubble – in the heart of the British Establishment, with constant reminders of the “Great” in Great Britain, where the very buildings are from an age when Britain was the most powerful nation on earth. This must shape one’s perceptions of the world.

      There’s a debate in education here about the teaching of our imperial history. The Brexiteers probably sit on the side of that debate that would teach it as a glorious time in which a tiny island nation, through hard work, uncommon inventiveness, courage etc etc came to dominate the world. The Brexiteers rhetoric suggests a belief that recapturing that spirit will lead us back to wealth and power. The other side of that debate would look to accidents of history, slavery, appropriation of foreign lands/resources etc to explain the same story. The truth of empire may be an amalgam of the two sides of that debate, but in focusing on only one side of it – Britain as a wonderful, global, free trading nation – the Brexiteer’s vision seems woefully inadequate and lead into a dead end where the only resource that the UK can really use to leverage its position in the world is an impoverished labour force working for third world wages.

    • Yep, I’d echo Steve & Bruce here. And also add that Iceland is part of the European single market, and has exclusive access to an incredibly abundant fishery. So it kind of gets the best of both (or several) worlds, and has the advantage of small scale.

      Don’t get me wrong – I think there’s a lot to be said for countries pursuing more autonomous economic agendas. But I think we need to avoid the mistake of assuming that the wealthier countries can opt out of the disadvantages of global free markets while retaining the advantages. If Britain banned all significant labour migration and opted for bilateral trade agreements I think a lot of people here would be pretty shocked at the consequences for their income and employment prospects. Though on the plus side there’d be a lot of work going in the civil service. And I’d probably never have to pick the vegetables on my farm myself ever again…

      • Thank you for all the thoughts, and helping me understand the econ part better. Yes, the Icelanders have significant advantages, esp. the energy, not only in terms of the economy, but also about being shielded from extortion by oil rich countries. Britain used to have a rich fishery, what happened to it?

        It seems that like America, Britain has been abandoned in terms of having a future. Can’t feed itself, can’t make the stuff it needs, fisheries are gone, it’s put its economy on the bedrock of financial shenanigans and outright swindles… I say, fiendish conspiracy! Oh wait, no, just globalism. But Brexit might provide the incentive to change things. Switzerland, Iceland, Norway. All can be learned from.

        About history education… well, you Brits spend a lot of time yelling at each other over the righty/lefty divide. This is another example. The lefties have had the textbook agenda of constant blaming of the imperialist – colonialist past. While the righties want to go back to the old days when celebrating the empire was just the thing. There is only one cure: don’t bite when the “polarizing, divide and conquer rhetoric” worm comes dangling by. Demand (and start) real conversations. This is something that can begin here and now where we live. We have the same problem in America now. Each side views the other as wicked fiends. I have asked many people what makes Trump a fascist. No answers. It’s an invitation to fear and hate the other side.

        The left and the right were once viewed as needed and valued opposition shadow governments when the other side was in power. Now it’s all about insults and blame and chronic outrage. Sickening, no?

        • Much to agree with there. You’re right that it’s good to talk rather than demonize (that liberal public sphere again…) So I for one am happy to reach out to right-wingers…so long as we’re clear that it was them that started it…

          I think you’re right that colonialism is a key point of contention. I’d say that the dominant mode of thinking in Britain – as for example in Niall Ferguson’s TV series ‘Empire’ – was that British colonialism did the world a favour. Whereas it seems to me that it mostly did Britain a favour. And the same is true of other increasingly powerful economic centres through modern history – Venice, Genoa, the Netherlands, Britain, the USA and now perhaps China? There’s probably not much progress to be made in left/right debates until there’s some kind of concord on that issue.

      • And I’d probably never have to pick the vegetables on my farm myself ever again…

        This leaves me scratchin’ the noggin on two counts:
        1.You don’t like picking vegetables?
        2 (and more salient) – I’ve missed the connection between the future economic prospects of the Brexit and vegetable harvest economics on the island.

        • 1. Oh I love picking vegetables. Especially when they’re ones I’m going to eat. But when they’re ones I’m going to sell I’ve got to admit that a certain ennui has begun to creep in over the years…

          2. Not surprising, it was rather elliptical. I guess I was alluding to the fact that a lot of commercial veg picking is done by migrant workers under conditions that would send local workers running home screaming. The same process really that Vera described in relation to US meat packing plants. On the one hand, you could say that it would be a good thing to repatriate such work with improved labour conditions. But relocalising the economy to do that would result in its vast contraction – so, ‘ceteris paribus’ any kind of local work would then be at a premium.

          • Ahh, but not all other things ARE equal… in the sense of a small community such as the Wessex of your previous posts there should be far more folk actually picking their own veges and picking those few extras for the rest of the family/neighbors. A few extras for barter shouldn’t rack up the ennui factor as quickly as having a modern day business relying on such labor.

            I imagine the toughest part of a transition toward a new (read different) economy or system of any sort is the freshness of the memory for what has been put in the past. And when dreams of sugar plums run up against sore muscles – ennui ensues.

            Great to be back…

          • >Ahh, but not all other things ARE equal

            Quite so, a point I made above somewhere in this thicket of comments. And perhaps therein lies the nub of the debate. Managed badly, relocalisation means a lot of people miserably picking someone else’s crops. Managed well, it means a lot of people happily picking their own crops. Or something along those lines…

  25. In regard to Joe, who said:

    “…as his most recent post shows, Greer is firmly and emotionally attached to the Trump candidacy. Despite your astute consideration of Greer’s views, I still wonder why?”

    I think this is a blatant misreading of Greer, or more accurately a serious distortion of his position. As he states quite explicitly in response to two comments this week:

    “Patricia, I’m not saying that Trump’s a good choice. As I noted quite some time ago, there are tens of thousands of Americans who would be a better president than he will. It’s just that, to my mind, Hillary Clinton is not one of them.

    Tolkienguy, I certainly didn’t mean to present Trump as a panacea! Quite the contrary, he’s nearly as problematic as his main adversary, and you’re quite right that no matter who wins, we’re in for a period of bitter polarization and quite probably political violence. Reconciliation, I suspect, is still a long way away — at least as far as it was in, say, 1860…”

    This hardly supports the notion that Greer “is firmly and emotionally attached to the Trump candidacy” – in fact, having followed Greer for some time, I’d suggest that what he is firmly attached to (and has made a pretty compelling case in regard to), is the reality that the working class has been thrown under the bus for the past several decades, not just by Republicans, but in particular by the liberal elites who have hijacked the political Left. I for one, agree with that analysis; in fact, having read my share of Joe Bageant, who warned of the consequences of this reality for years, I consider it close to irrefutable.

    That is a very, very different thing than being “emotionally attached to the Trump candidacy.” In fact, stating this seems clearly to be a straw man fallacy.

    To be clear, I think Chris has done an outstanding job in pointing out flaws in Greer’s historical analysis of ‘interests vs values’ in the political sphere, flaws significant enough to call into question Greer’s basic argument on that topic, but for my money, Greer’s latest post is on target, and I’ve not seen a genuine and *reasoned* critique of the logic he presents in it – what I’ve seen are out-of-hand dismissals and straw men like this one. And that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it?

    Rather ironic, as one of the things Greer talks about quite a bit is the inability of a culture to discuss certain taboo topics and how attempts to discuss them invariable get hijacked and coerced into more ‘acceptable’ channels, especially when the subject of class comes up – as in this case.

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