Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Trump Structuralism

Fun election this year. I'm no Trump booster, but this campaign season seems to actually be using ideas I've written about for the last few years, in ways I would have found impossible when I started this blog in 2012.

I love this. I love this so much I'm pitching a tent that sleeps ten, and I will enjoy the moment before Trump is crushed. Legitimate alt-right ideas getting attention in a mainstream presidential election? Mother of God! When Hillary Clinton is calling personal friends of yours "irredeemable", then you have to feel satisfied.

Specifically, there are a number of people now openly saying that this year's election is about globalism versus nationalism. I've said big things about the death of structuralism, but because of this election, we will know much about how the gen pop feels on the subject by November.

The ideas I've been hacking through over the last couple of years aren't exactly nationalism versus globalism, as I'm not necessarily a nationalist, either. Nationalism is just a certain defined scale of social organization and social identity, but it works as a stand-in for promoting groups instead of individuals. My focus has been on deconstructing individualism in its cultural form, ie globalism, which is on the opposite side of nationalism.

What I've learned throughout this little journey is that Trump has stumbled backwards into a real divide in social philosophy, where the differences go further than skin deep, whether he knows it or not. We need an explanation for this. And as your friendly neighborhood structuralist, I think I can boil a lot of this down for the uninitiated.

Unity is Overrated

I'm a structuralist because I think groups matter and have agency, which is distinct from sovereignty. It's a purely practical definition where the group is bound only by its ability to continue to exist. These groups exist largely to compete with other groups, and everything sophisticated about humanity is the direct result of the pressures which come from this competition.

This conception has a factual basis in the distribution of attention; a group with agency is a group that holds and regulates the attention of its people.

This hold on attention is predicated on power, exercised by a hierarchy. Sometimes, it's blunt, forceful power, like violence or economic leverage, which holds a people's attention. This works - we are all descendants of groups that started this way - but it's not efficient. An efficient group wants trust and good faith from its people, so the main strategy for effective hierarchies is investing the attention of its members into common symbols, ideas, and maybe a defined mythos which can shape the mind and build a common identity.

If you get invested in a group, your emotions reflect it, through increased concern towards those who are a part of it and some comfort in its way of doing things. Commitment and loyalty become your moral watchwords.

When Jonathan Haidt built his five-channel morality and explained that liberals are only interested in harm and fairness, of the remaining three channels, two of them - loyalty and authority - are purely about maintaining faith in a hierarchical group. The convention for groups is so long-standing that we have evolved into it.

This is at the root of what liberals call discrimination. Group agency moves within a framework of rational self-interest. People pay more attention to their in-group, they care about them more and trust them more. You care more about your friends, the people in your neighborhood, the people in your church, the people at your work, and the people in your country than about those outside of these institutions. Their business is your business. That's an extension of the idea that you should care more about your mother than about someone who's name you pick randomly out of a Latvian phone book.

So, is discrimination the problem or the solution?

Bluntly put, leftists think it's the problem and conservatives think it's the solution. The Trump conservatives understand, even if they aren't fully aware of it, that morality is subjective and part of a cultural system. They also understand that any group with the prerogative to save you also has the prerogative to punish you. That's not a "should", it's a fact, as those in the group can create harm by simply choosing not to help and making you carry your own burdens.

On the other side, a globalist sees morality as universal, and divides up issues as matters of cooperation versus competition, almost always preferring cooperation as a general moral good. So their vision almost always supports helping when anyone is in trouble. As a corollary, they despise allowing any form of punishment or deprivation to cause pain, particularly for ordinary - AKA low status - people.

Practically, what this universalism means is that they don't effectively recognize jurisdiction, not really. If someone is being hurt in Orlando or Paris or Addis Ababa, they think it's their business. They are moving towards a unified global standard of governance, being "global citizens", respecting not group agency but "sovereignty", which comes loaded with all sorts of Western moral concepts about what constitutes a legitimate source of authority, and the global institutions that are being set up in the name of human rights have no problem damning and refusing to recognize a hierarchy otherwise still in power when it acts in its own interests as a group.

This is, of course, their own internal culture at work. The globalist side has its belief system and mythos, too, particularly the assumption that most conflict and separation in the world can be tracked to exploitation by powerful people, and the assumption that those without power would be only to happy to live and work in harmony with all others if those sociopaths with power would just stop.

Those are people with formal power, mind you, like businessmen and enemy politicians. They have their own power structure, but it's not formal power. It's informal: media and education do the heavy lifting, never coercing anyone but changing their minds by presenting information, exploiting their strength in gathering attention, convincing people of their perspective and gaining their trust implicitly. Democratic elections are usually downstream of this process, which is why they subscribe to democracy so enthusiastically.

Although many - hell, most - conservatives buy into this as well, Trump's people are essentially saying "no" to this arrangement, and they have their reasons.

Political Economy

It's easier with an example, so here's the obvious one: Trump supporters and their economic nationalism.

In this country, we have an extremely complex system of employment law. We have overtime, health insurance legislation, COBRA, 401k's, Social Security, subsidies of all kinds, some of it paid for over generations, much of it developed by the political left and, whether we like it or not, pushed onto American workers and employers at serious cost. Many people on the left have noted that Trump supporters are good with most of these programs. They got used to them a long time ago.

Enabled by communication technology, globalization has pushed the workers covered by this legislation into direct competition with people in other countries which have little or none of these costs, largely Mexico and China, often without even bothering to collect taxes on the imports. So Trump's people also know that, when an employer has to pay for the higher cost of living and social programs here, but not there, the other side has a comparative advantage.

The globalist side has seized on this as an opportunity to present the "real" problem: asshole greed from the rich has disenfranchised these people, who are then manipulated by a right-wing Fox News narrative into resentment against foreigners, similar to their racial arguments. And they believe this resentment is an ugly moral side of America that needs to be rejected.

For them, the real America promotes human rights, not American prerogatives, and wants to see everyone do better across the planet. So they are loathe to take away the economic development that American investment brings to other countries. Americans, they say, should be competitive in a global marketplace, not a national one, and should become competitive by spending increasing amounts of time in college. This plan requires that almost everyone in the country become a white collar professional, which requires large doses of government assistance. Education and health care are a good start, paid for with taxes from - you guessed it! - the rich greedy assholes in the 1%. It's all their fault anyway.

In other words, when leftists look at the situation, they see the need for a more organized global governance. They've been saying this for years about environmental legislation; climate change requires action everywhere to be effective, not just in one country. With trade imbalances, it's the same deal, although the lack of international oversight bothers them more when you bring up exploitation of the working class in other countries. They worry that national governments won't protect their people enough. And of course, there's no way they will tolerate rich people running off to tax shelter countries like Luxembourg instead of turning their "fair share" over to their people in the government.

They've been scaling up this way for a long time. Communities and states couldn't handle the pressures created by national corporate power after Rockefeller, so regulation of those corporations became a national issue. And now, the national government says it can't handle multinational corporations, so we've created free trade zones, the WTO, and the TPP.

It's a safe bet to assume that nations will be subject to supranational governments soon enough. It's already happening in Europe, where the Euro currency has bound everyone together in ways that defy even basic sovereignty. Germany is now subsidizing Greece, and simply because Germany is rich and Greece is poor, there's mounting pressure to just write off hundreds of billions in loans for the sake of preventing systemic shocks from Greece leaving the Eurozone. It's never really accepted that Greece's pathetic working culture simply sucks, that they really do owe every lender they've taken on, and that they have no business sharing an economy with a country like Germany.

In a similar way, American labor policy amounts to a subsidy for foreign labor, benefiting them at the cost of American workers. Whether it benefits corporations who have to compete with each other on labor costs and invest billions outside the country to stay competitive, or consumers who get cheaper goods at the cost of living in an economy with far less blue collar labor demand, is questionable at best.

Underneath all this, I think that as far as Trump's people are concerned, you don't need more managed redistribution to make the economy work for them. Regulated markets are the game here, how we distribute resources in this country. They aren't afraid of a market... so long as the other people they compete with for jobs have a similar cost of living, expectations, and legal situation as they do. Mexican and Chinese workers do not. Trump is not an eloquent man and he hasn't made this case clearly, but that's obviously what's going on.

These people want more discrimination, namely the discrimination of a national government prioritizing the people within their nation over the people outside of it.

Trump's people are sick of this upscaling that leaves them with less power and a greater dependency on government. They are sick of the prerogatives of in-group belonging being challenged at every step by liberals.

They are sick of what is supposedly their territory being turned into a revolving door for outsiders.

They are sick of traditions, and traditional views on everything from rights to religious holidays, being treated like decorative options in the name of bringing outsiders into the fold without compromising their views.

They are sick of the way leftists try to co-opt their complaints about wealth distribution and power in the global economy into their typical leftist complaints against corporate greed.

They are sick of accountability always being subordinate to altruism.

And above all, they are sick of the constant low-level propagandizing, how it marginalizes their perspective, how it uses pop psychology to make them out as disturbed bigots. The left can't sneeze without referring to any sense of obligation towards one's own group over other people as a form of hate or fear when it is obviously neither.

Death Throes?

I've written on structuralism before. I support the prerogative of people to separate themselves however they want, by nationality, family, business interests, race, class, religion, Miley Cyrus fandom, anything you value. Whatever you can turn into a symbolic high ideal, whatever lets you organize a social system with incentives and accountability, you can make that your thing, and when it comes to allowing you to try it out, the burden of proof should be on the skeptics if you want to stop them from trying. Better yet, make it impossible to stop them without their consent. They should all be treated like the Amish or the Seminoles, as long as the taxes are paid. This is insulted as "tribalism" in polite liberal circles.

The Trump campaign's nationalism is already a sign of bad things from where I stand as a general structuralist. The upscaling continues apace, and the idea of any authority below the national level being taken seriously as exercising real power is vanishing before our eyes.

The world is getting smaller. America was designed as a federalist system. The states once had real power, as evidenced by the electoral vote, which views states as legitimate structures representing real cultural differences. But few people think of the electoral college as a good thing now; most prefer a straight popular vote. Meanwhile, block grants have made fiscal independence for states a thing of the past, and recent state level initiatives from gay marriage to pot legalization are seen as "trends" which all states will eventually have to get on board with before federal court decisions or legislation forces them to do it. Since the Civil Rights movement and the destruction of the 10th Amendment, the trajectory has been clear: no more "state's rights".

I can tell you from personal experience that local governments are no better. I recently spoke at a city commission meeting here, and our commission is keenly interested to see what other cities in the state and beyond are doing. They feel safe following the trends, and I've heard similar sentiments coming from other cities and townships.

So, this is the time of the nation-state as the peak of all formal government legitimacy. And that's why Trump has to be a nationalist. Saying "leave it up to the states" is not a viable option anymore, let alone leave it up to the community. Federalism is dead. Nation-size is as small as you can go with real power.

And then there's family. Family used to be the ultimate in legitimate social organization: when this country was first established, the family and the individual were considered inseparable, a hierarchical order, with the householder - pretty much always a male of productive age - exercising power as protector and provider. The family was the social safety net, the first line of discipline, care, socialization, and identity, absolutely necessary for human development, from birth and childhood through old age, a wellspring of purpose, so independent it was very nearly a functional Von Neumann machine.

Not anymore. Bernie Sanders' campaign touted his family values early on to great appeal, and proved the point: today we see family as a purely emotional attachment that needs to be cared for by the government in order to remain together. They assume families are held together by love, and instead of needing each other for practical economic reasons, they are torn apart by economics. This has the happy side effect of rendering the male role in the family irrelevant, not ultimately responsible for the financial welfare or safety of the family - that's the federal government's job - but responsible for the happiness of the children and the mother, a subservient position. No one on the Sanders campaign would question the no-fault divorce or the prerogative of social services to take children away from an "unhealthy" household. The old school idea of the family as an independent, self-sustaining unit is dead as fried chicken.

So it is with all group agency. This is the real fight. People who value the prerogative to form groups that are internally accountable and truly autonomous are standing against those who don't.

There aren't as many of us as the opposition thinks. Others in the alt-right think there is, but in a populist country, everyone seems to think that others have the same thoughts they do.

I don't think Trump will win. The man is an idiot. Quite the opposite, I expect a replay of the Goldwater campaign in 1964: this coming landslide will crush the Republican party for many years. It would be hilarious if he won, or even made it close, but he won't.

The question is, what comes next? You can expect the irredeemables to be plenty pissed when they lose, but the rest of the country - or at least its media - will be overjoyed at how we didn't elect someone who basically represents a repulsive combination of stupid and evil. So those who supported him can expect something between scorn and pity. Since the media has long explained away those people as discontented workers who are getting screwed by corporations, Clinton might leverage the animosity into taxes on the rich, more support programs, and whatever boilerplate leftist economic drivel she wants to push through Congress. It might work, too.

What's certain is that the majority will not come away from this with respect for right wing ideas. Never mind that Trump's failure doesn't actually say anything about the quality of the ideas he happens to have latched on to. The man smears the movement, and while the alt-right might be in paradise right now, they will probably be even more reviled after all this is over, because they've stimulated a touch of fear.

Trump's movement never created a systematic case for what it was going for and allowed it to be seen as simple, knee-jerk reaction with no method to its madness, which invited this kind of patronizing. So when Trump loses, that might really end election-scale opposition to that order, dead almost as soon as it was born. If it wants to survive, the alt-right and the nationalists are going to have to stay away from electioneering for a while, accept its own hated minority status, and focus on types of communication that make their perspective less disgusting.

If it happens, it will be worth it. I hope it does.