Frying Pan versus Fire

The other day, Scott Alexander called on voters in the USA to cast ballots for presidential candidates who are not Donald Trump. Scott Alexander himself will apparently be voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton, though the title of his post is “SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, or Stein.”

I agree that Mr Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, is not suited to the presidency.  I do have a number of demurrers to Scott Alexander’s piece, however.  Let me share one of these.

Scott Alexander writes:

[O]ne of the central principles behind my philosophy has been “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out”. Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.

Donald Trump does not represent those best parts of conservativism. To transform his movement into Marxism, just replace “the bourgeoisie” with “the coastal elites” and “false consciousness” with “PC speech”. Just replace the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of the workers, with the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of “real Americans”. Just replace the hand-waving lack of plans with what to do after the Revolution with a hand-waving lack of plans what to do after the election. In both cases, the sheer virtue of the movement, and the apocalyptic purification of the rich people keeping everyone else down, is supposed to mean everything will just turn out okay on its own. That never works.

“Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out” is “one of the central principles behind my philosophy,” as well. That’s precisely why I won’t be voting for HRC.  On the one hand, the hyper-warlike approach to foreign affairs that informed her support for US-led wars in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya, and now for the Saudi-led war in Yemen represents a strong tendency to destroy all existing systems in and hoping that some mysterious force replaces them with something good. For that matter, the economic policies of the Bill Clinton administration- for example, deregulation of the financial sector, gutting of the “welfare as we knew it,” and the erection of an industrial policy that subjects all other economic interests to the transnational mobility of capital and the defense of intellectual property- whatever may be said in their favor, have been all about destroying previously existing systems, with very little specified as to what was supposed to replace them. For that matter, measures such as warrantless wiretapping and the presidential “kill list” represent a disruption of the system of judicial oversight called for in the Bill of Rights and codified in centuries of legislation and court rulings, a system that has long guaranteed civil liberties in the USA. HRC has been deeply involved in all of these acts of destruction, continues to support them, and does not propose anything that might bring an end to the age of destruction.

On the other hand, when systems that directly benefit the world’s ruling elite face a crisis, that elite has consistently tried to defuse those crises before they could force any change in the way those systems operate.  It hasn’t always been this way; 95 years ago, when President Warren Harding faced a financial crisis that would put many major concerns out of business, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon spoke for his fellow financial titans when he advised against bailouts, arguing that “the recession will find what the auditors miss,” purging bad practice from business and leaving the economy stronger in its aftermath.  The sharp downturn and even more dramatic recovery during the Harding administration would seem to be a clear example of a system strengthened by crisis.  Compare that with the Wall Street bailouts of 2008 and 2009, with the fear that financial concerns had become “too big too fail”- and with the fact that those same concerns have now been allowed to grow even bigger. By 2012, the US Justice Department was openly admitting that it was afraid that the financial system had grown so fragile that HSBC would have to go unpunished for its crimes, lest a prosecution bring the whole house of cards crashing down.  Thus the fear of the fragility of the financial system, leading as it has to bailouts, acts of impunity, etc, has served as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Vacillating between reckless interventions to destroy systems with little thought of what will follow and equally reckless interventions to prop systems up by stripping them of the parameters that regulate them, the Bushes and Clintons and their colleagues have, these last 30 years, created a political moment  in which it is very likely that Don John of Astoria will receive between 220 and 280 electoral votes for the US presidency. If, as seems likely, that number is below 270, then HRC will become president, accompanied by a Republican Congress. They will together continue the policies which have brought us to this pass. Electing Don John to the presidency this year would precipitate a catastrophe; protracting our current political arrangements for another four years might precipitate a still greater catastrophe.

I can understand why people would vote for HRC, hoping perhaps that things will somehow improve sufficiently between now and 2020 that in that election the country will not face another choice between apocalypse now and apocalypse later. That hope would be an example of hoping that the “build a better one” step will “happen on its own,” however. Such a vote, however defensible it might seem in the eyes of the one casting it, would certainly not be a sufficient response to this situation. Voting for the Green Party isn’t a sufficient response either, but at least it is a step towards building a set of movements to adjust the relationship between mass and elite to a more sustainable balance and enable a new departure in our political life. Failing such a new departure, the next few years are likely to be very dark indeed.