Data, Universes, and Quantum Self-Help?

"In 1952, Erwin Schrödinger gave a lecture in which he jocularly warned his audience that what he was about to say might “seem lunatic”. He said that when his equations seemed to describe several different histories, these were “not alternatives”, but all really happened simultaneously."

The number of universes is not "objective" but, following the work of Andrei Linde and Vitaly Vanchurin in 2010, is partly determined/limited by "our own abilities to distinguish between different universes and to remember our results." And if this is true, then the ability to manage larger and larger data sets, like contacts, constituents, and demographics, may actually be helping to create more universes whose results we remember by retaining and managing as data

Now, it's obvious these changes will have profound effects on our personal psychologies, our relationships, and even our minds. It's a little premature and opportunistic to try to catalog these changes and market our insights about them. For example, when Sir Isaac Newton articulated a theory of gravity, revolutionary at the time, did some other idea-peddler think he might be able to teach a course on how to use gravity to improve your love life or "attract" money. It's natural that advancements in science, especially in physics, give rise to popularized interpretations of the "metaphysical" implications of physics. But these byproducts aren’t necessarily enjoyable. 

The physics of parallel universes and realities is no exception. This physics is still easing its way into our collective consciousness; and as Marie Laure-Ryan writes, it is "not yet solidly established in our private encyclopedias . . . to suspend momentarily our intuitive belief in a classical cosmology." It was inevitable that, when the nature of quantum reality and parallel universes developed in the early 2010s, there would emerge a new subcategory of life coaches: quantum life coaches. 

The transposition of quantum theory to life coaching practice and the self-help industry rests on this foundational argument: if reality is unlimited and there are possible worlds where different assumptions or outcomes had completely redefined the parameters of the possible, we can more easily change our lives, feel less fixed and permanent, not feel trapped by our choices or that which is beyond our choice. Thus, one life coach published Quantum Jumps in 2013, asserting "that we exist in an interconnected holographic multiverse in which we literally jump from one parallel universe to another . . . In a moment you can become smarter... more confident... happier... more outgoing... more effective... in better relationships... with more willpower. Gain practical tools to achieve real change in your life, regardless of past history." Similarly, in Advanced Quantum Jumping Using Water: High Frequency Affinity to Attract Money, Love, Health and Attunement published in 2019, we learn that it's our "frequency" that makes us "emotionally or financially unstable, overweight, and unhappy . . . all you have to do is tune into a new frequency where you are happy, emotionally, and financially stable, and at a healthy state." Why? Because "there are these alternate versions of you in the universe where these things are present." The author likely means alternate universes; but in any case, "the possibilities are endless", an audacious conclusion based on a very cursory reading of the actual physics.

There is, of course, a tiny kernel of truth here that is, at least in a metaphorical sense, related to the quantum axiom that perception plays a role in shaping reality. Beyond that, though, these books don't really engage the full paradigmatic implications of quantum reality on, say, personal ethics and relationships. 

A good test for how "wooey" these psycho-populist self-help approaches to quantum reality really are is how much they hype up our "freedom" to transcend material realities. Contemporary physics may be able to get by without a notion of time (thus enabling opportunistic self-help authors to suggest we shouldn't dwell on the past), but it still retains the notion of causation (thus implying, I would think, that we can still "make mistakes"). To paraphrase a certain controversial theorist of political economy, we can make our history, but we can't make it any way we please.

So I think there are better spaces to explore ethics, self-concept, and care for others in the quantum paradigm. Here are a couple of thoughts: First, we can critically examine our very strange ideas and applications of risk. For example, we normalize driving cars, an extremely risky act. But if we act "unnaturally" responsibly while driving, as David Pearce writes, being extra careful driving is a way of "minimis[ing] the number of branches [of reality] in which one injures anyone," even if some injuries are unavoidable. The idea of the multiverse, with each subject's choices influencing other universes, widely expands our concern for "others." 

Second is a more historical and justice-oriented interpretation, which begins with an important metaphor: diaspora. In the multiverse, "diaspora" can be seen as a kind of involuntary universe-jumping. Artists from historically oppressed communities, like Stan Squirewell, see the ancestors as "ancient futurist or psycho-mystics" who encoded this universe-jumping. Squirewell's "aesthetic is in direct lineage (but not limited) to the geometric patterns of West African indigenous peoples such as the Akan and the Ndebele etc. The black protean character that pervades my work is derived from mythological water deities like the Greek god Proteus and the Caribbean water spirit Mami Wata." Visual artists can see the patterns in mythology, architecture, and other fields, myth becoming code. The coding creates the links; change the coding and we can change the links. The symbolic strategies of oppressed people link them with other oppressed people

So while it's probably not harmful that people might sell a few books deploying watered-down quantum theory to convince us that we can overcome our personal limits, it's far richer to consider larger social implications and the potential for new layers of human and ecological solidarity. Thinkers from east to west correctly predicted in the 20th century that the revelations of Heisenberg, Schrodinger and Einstein would inexorably change our ethics and politics. It's about a lot more than re-imagining ourselves getting that big raise or improving our love lives (even if those might feel very important).

One-Dimensional Man[agement]: LinkedIn and Absorbent Liberalism

Guest poster: Matt Stannard

Published in 1964, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society by Herbert Marcuse examines and criticizes both the communist and capitalist empires of the time — the United States and the Soviet Union — to examine how ruling classes create false needs, mediate public deliberation, and absorb dissent. The simple explanation for how advanced industrial societies do the latter is that they recast it as loyal opposition, watering down the revolutionary or structural implications of social criticism and creating manageable reforms which, by owing their creation to the original criticisms, appear to be fulfillments of them. But besides just re-narrating dissent as loving criticism, liberal societies also create networks that integrate subversive, anti-hierarchical ideas into existing systems. 

The capitalist “West” did this better than the Stalinist “East”. Critiques of the wage system manifested small wage hikes and minor worker protections. Critiques of militarism and colonialism resulted in greater integration of and empowerment of certain groups within the military ranks, and PR campaigns about benevolent soldiers or cops. Critiques of patriarchy birthed campaigns to bring more women into the executive class. 

This continues today and, in many ways, LinkedIn — the business-oriented social network started in 2003 by Reid Hoffman — is a living example of Marcuse's "absorbent liberalism" (my term, not Marcuse's), by which I mean the most noble and healthy liberal ideas are unapologetically cast as elements in entrepreneurial capitalism. In fact, one thing LinkedIn does particularly well is integrate all the sectors we have long believed to be exclusive of one another: the public and private sector, academia and the non-academic "real world," technological and intellectual labor. Everyone can create a professional profile on LinkedIn and sell themselves, even full-time anti-systemic activists. Surrounding it all, like a mesh WiFi network, is the framework of contemporary capitalism, which earnestly needs all of it: the poets and the plows, the intellectuals and the electricians, the rebels and the human resource managers. 

"Help make LinkedIn more inclusive," reads a recent demographic questionnaire sent via email. As I read through and answered the questions — my race, my age, my sexual orientation and gender identity — it occurred to me that a huge portion of the ownership, entrepreneurial, and managerial classes would probably find these questions mildly irritating or politically offensive. At any given time, it seems like 30-ish to 40-ish percent of surveyed Americans preferred the anti-woke politics of Donald Trump, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, while a smaller portion (but not insignificant; we're talking business owners and cops and such) are even comfortable with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tucker Carlson. To whom is LinkedIn directed? 

One answer may be that members of the professional class, from upper-level managers to corporate attorneys, may have accepted and integrated themselves into the techno-liberalism of the LinkedIn crowd even while spouting or silently assenting to reactionary politics outside of their work life. This is economics massaging politics, which is the function of the inclusive liberal state. And networking, like the collection of data on constituencies and clients, is an apolitical need.

What is clear is that LinkedIn is a self-consciously absorbative project. A 2015 New Yorker profile of Hoffman ties his techno-non-topianism to earlier sociological and economic templates of "Man." Hoffman believes "we can fix the problem [of inequality] through Internet-enabled networks. Work is already becoming more temporary, sporadic, and informal, and this change should be embraced. Many more people will become entrepreneurial, if not entrepreneurs. The keeper of your career will be not your employer but your personal network—so you’d better put a lot of effort into making it as extensive and as vital as possible." The article calls Hoffman a "twenty-first-century version of William H. Whyte’s . . . 1956 book 'The Organization Man'" but the same template, that sociological profile of types of "men," sparked the title of Marcuse's treatise a decade later: One-Dimensional Man, herald of comprehensive social engineering that functions to keep power structures in place, to shape-shift the closures of society rather than open spaces for genuine human emancipation. 

Thus, we note the presence of LinkedIn Learning management classes emphasizing skills and competencies along with the development of leadership attitudes and attributes. The concept of "leadership" must remain deliberately fluid and feel nonhierarchical and non-dominionist. First-time managers are told that to transition into leadership, you need to "become a better listener, and connect to your employees emotionally." 

But LinkedIn also incorporates critiques of managerialism, and even of neoliberalism. Take the writing of Michael Judd, a healthcare administrator interested in alternative models of leadership and organization in support of collaborative models of health care, writing about them on LinkedIn. In one of his essays, Judd navigates the awkward terrain between professionalism and revolutionary critique. This pragmatic reality supposes that educated workers, even managers, may learn from and incorporate alternatives into business structures reliant on the old order. Judd transitions from a concluding paragraph on neoliberal, neo-colonial exploitation of labor to calls for understanding diversity in the workplace. For him, neoliberalism's threat to diversity is in the streamlining that happens when all production, and even all intellectual discourse, is reduced to production for profit. Ultimately Judd hopes that our drive to be social beings will counter the alienating effects of neoliberal capitalism. It's not a communist vision he puts forward as his utopia, but a liberal one: "the right to question authority and the laws that govern our society. It is the right to equality, justice and liberty for all, regardless of race, class, gender, age, disability, diagnosis, or any other stratifying label."  

And you can't blame smart, well-meaning people from this manner of incorporation and cooptation, and it may be more useful to look for ways that thinking, compassionate humans can incorporate emancipatory critique in their everyday lives (than critiquing the whole system like some kind of monolith). Liberalism, the pragmatic argument goes, may be the best we can do, and rejecting it may invite authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism before egalitarian revolution. Better to build inclusive markets than invite exclusionary violence. 

It's a persuasive argument, and it will work until it stops working, which some argue it already has. 

This post was sponsored by my client Accurate Append, which provides high quality data and email append services to support organizations, empower campaigns and connect businesses with their customers.

The Quantum Computer Brain Theory

A slew of recent articles have likened the human brain to a quantum computer, including one titled, "Your brain might be a quantum computer that hallucinates math" — an article by Tristan Greene at The Next Web. Quantum mechanics has changed, continues to change and will likely still change everything. As the "math that explains matter", it has played a role in "cell phones to supercomputers, DVDs to PDFs." 

Reality is neither absolute nor predictable in the microworld: uncertainty is its fundamental condition. In fact, science is far better at predicting odds than assuring outcomes. In 1921 chemist William D. Harkins wrote: “Since it concerns itself with the relations between matter and radiation…[quantum theory]... is of fundamental significance in connection with almost all processes which we know.” 

In 1927 Werner Heisenberg's revealed “that deterministic cause-and-effect physics failed when applied to atoms.” In fact, he determined it was impossible “to measure both the location and velocity of a subatomic particle at the same time. If you measured one precisely, some uncertainty remained for the other.” This observation heralded the revolutionary change then characterizing physics. 

In many ways, quantum theory frames our physical reality in ways that sound like a philosophical or psychological thought experiment, rather than physics. The observer is inseparable from the observed. Everything seems and behaves as if interconnected even if we don't know why. You can't predetermine how a photon will behave; you can only observe it from one perspective and watch as it changes, almost in response to your observation. Things can be off and on at the same time. The ability to be off and on, 0 and 1, at the same time makes things work exponentially faster. If these were human traits, they would indicate refusal to recognize limits, willingness to live with ambiguity and openness to the dynamics of perpetual change. Recent research into the quantum attributes of our brains suggests that quantum traits are human traits — at least that our brains can be accurately described as (slightly slimy and meaty) quantum computers. 

Theories about the quantum nature of the brain have existed for a few decades. For some theoreticians, consciousness is itself a quantum process. For others, quantum concepts are more aptly understood as rhetorical or metaphorical ways of describing consciousness. Still others believe that matter and consciousness are "dual" substances in the same underlying reality. 

Most recently, research squads at the Universities of Bonn and Tübingen have tied "simple processes" to our identities as quantum computers. The researchers found "abstract codes" for processing arithmetic — specifically addition and subtraction — in the brain. They discovered that the neurons firing during addition were different from those firing for subtraction problems, and that different parts of the brain were deployed for diagnoses and solutions to problems. One of the researchers explained: “We found that different neurons fired during additions than during subtractions . . . it is as if the plus key on the calculator were constantly changing its location. It was the same with subtraction."The study shows that different neurons fire for different cognitive functions, and the brain is capable of learning the difference between those functions. 

In reviewing older research, we find further linkages between human brain activity and quantum mechanics. In learning tasks, recurrent neural networks "not only learn the prescribed input-output relation but also the sequence in which inputs have been presented." They also learn to interpret what to do "if the sequence of presentation is changed." Meaning in natural languages transcends the mere matching and calculations of symbols; the entanglement of language is quantum entanglement. 

In fact, the case is so compelling and consistent that it might be worth asking whether the brain is a quantum computer or whether quantum mechanics, our systemic perception and interpretation of quantum reality, is modeled after our own brains? After all, we've been able to perform sophisticated and nuanced calculations and synthesize seemingly inconsistent data for as long as our current brains were evolutionarily manifest. The first solid evidence of the existence of counting was about 20,000 years ago: a dead baboon's fibula bone with a series of symmetrical lines cut into it, and which archaeologists guess was used to tally something. Much later — around 4000 BC and when people were living in cities — that formal number and counting systems — mathematics — was developed to keep track of all the people, animals, and things (for example, foodstuffs). The invention of zero constructed another layer of complexity.

Our brains have long been able to tally and to keep track of things through a demarcation that we can safely call counting, whether we had a language for it as such. Our brains could already calculate, and even understand the idea of nothing without the concept of zero; and, functionally, it could perform calculations as needed. Thus, the question of when we developed numerical systems, and therefore math, is then a material, historical, collective question. 

Math isn't just counting; and even within counting, the ability to categorize and create sets implies an interpretive power that cannot be reduced to quantification. Somewhere along the way, quantifying becomes qualifying, quantity becomes quality, and that's where the quantum function comes in — the reality that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, that cause and effect might be blurred and that things can (must) be interpreted and predicted. After all, the presence of this interpretation is the criteria for designating a computer program "artificial intelligence." 

Finally, consider the set of phenomena we call communication. We interpret and exchange symbols in a web of signification that is as predictive, uncertain and inseparable from perception as photons are. We don't simply store information and then process, modify and retrieve it. (In fact, oftentimes we need help with such activities, especially when we need to organize large quantities of data. That’s why we might turn to services like Accurate Append’s data appending, which allows organizations, campaigns and businesses to fill gaps in their data.) Rather, we, as humans, figure it out through often-clumsy and always-imperfect communication. Philosopher Jacques Derrida points that all language is "problematic" in a deeply fundamental way, and that this is a "stroke of luck" for those who appreciate communication, because absent that "problematicity," we would have no reason to speak, to discuss. "How else," Derrida asks, "would what we call 'misunderstanding' be possible?" 

In many ways, likening the brain to a quantum computer could be getting it "backwards"; but as Feynman diagrams (the basis for one kind of time travel) tell us, at the quantum level there is no forward or backward. Maybe the model of the quantum brain is both cause and effect simultaneously. 

Can We Communicate with Plants?

The classification of a living being as "plant" does not exclude consciousness. In fact, most contemporary definitions hinge upon plants' particular cellular formations, and their ability to photosynthesize. Earlier definitions emphasized plants' rootedness, their inability to be mobile the way animals were – but even that definition is not precise. Regardless, there is no intrinsic reason that plants cannot, in addition to their other characteristics, also possess some kind of consciousness. Indeed, recent research continues to move in the direction of concluding that plants not only behave purposefully, but also transmit "messages.”

Such messages might seem to some a loose interpretation of the concept, and it does rely on the assumption that ‘communication’ of any kind requires mutual (if imperfect) interpretation, and not just a stimulus and response. Such a definition applies to human communication as well; we may not fully understand each other, but we intend to understand, interpret and ultimately derive meaning from one another's utterances, or “signs.”

We know that plants "communicate" with each other, in that they convey and receive seemingly purposeful signals. The signals are more than just reflexes – one thing moving or influencing another thing. Ecologist James Cahill says that there are obvious "strategies" in inter-plant or plant-environment communication. "Plants can’t run away, so they have to develop other strategies to stay alive," suggests one article describing his argument. The signals manifest through the use of chemicals, but the chemicals are not mere tools; rather, they are signal-tools.

The most remarkable fact to emerge from the discovery of plants communicating with other plants or with other parts of their environment is the idea that they "cry for help" or in general express "distress" over being eaten by bugs and other creatures. Although "suffering" is certainly an anthropomorphic concept, the data suggests plants do the plant-equivalent of crying for help, eavesdropping on other plants being eaten in order to strengthen their own defenses, and tell animals they can nest in them in order to benefit from animal waste. These may not be unmistakable acts of sharing meaning and interpretation, but they are more than mere impulse-motion.

So can humans ever create meaningful communication with plants? What would this entail? Communication is about signaling. Signs, signals, referrals, indications – everything is part of a complex "web of signification." For logician Gottlieb Frege, the meaning of a given sign is a function of its relationships within that web. That relationship is articulated through interpretation – the receiver receives the message and assigns it meaning. The subjects in communication, individual and collective, interpret others (and their own) signals. This interpretation is always imperfect (the late postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida believed language had to be problematic for communication to exist at all), but we do it anyway.

So while we have exchanged electronic signals with plants, I don't believe we've established anything close to "communication" with them, because although we are "interpreting" their own outward directed gestures (electrical currents, the generation of sounds) as "signals" of biological need or distress, we have no idea whether they are framing those phenomena as signals, and we can't really distinguish them from the messages they are already sending to other plants and non-human life. And do plants collect and organize data?

New research casts some skepticism: a "team of Singaporean scientists discovered that communication between plants and humans is possible by tracing electric signals diffused by plants." Since we can barely call the electric sensations "signals," and there is no evidence of interpretation going on in the plants (only reflex), we have to decide that the evidence is inconclusive. Likewise, the fact that humans can send electronic sensations that make plants do things (shrink back, move, grow faster or slower) indicates that humans have established a level of mechanical control over plants, not that we can communicate with them. The article about the Singaporian experiment goes on to say that "signals can be controlled [by humans] to broaden the plants' abilities and functions." We can interpret their signals, but our signals back to them are just attempts to technologically control them. It lacks the reciprocity of created meaning, or at least we are not seeking the plants' messages for themselves.

Some of this is definitional and some of it is biological. Brains transmit meaning through neurons, and plants don't have neurons. Plants seem to transmit electrical signals, but to what end we don't know.

But it's important to emphasize that "we don't know" is the real takeaway. We don't know that the sensations being transmitted are interpretable or convey meaning in any way similar to what we think meaning is. There are also as-yet-unexplained data that raises more questions, like the "clicking" that one writer's plants made when she was alone in a room with them (and listening to their roots through special microphones), clicking that stopped when visitors entered the room, started up again when they left, then stopped when more people entered the room. This could be a very sophisticated reflex, but could also be a purposive response of some kind. Scientists admit that to say the clicks are communicative "requires further evidence." After all, response to stimuli is only the very basic root element of communication – necessary, for sure, but not sufficient.

Although not everyone will recognize it as such, the question of whether humans and plants could actually communicate is an important one. The stakes are high both philosophically and practically. Philosophically, it makes sense to see whether we can communicate with radically different living beings here before figuring out how we'll communicate with extraterrestrial beings. Being able to "stretch" ourselves across kingdoms is the ultimate test of our adaptability. And perhaps actually communicating with plants would teach us something about how the rest of the living world orients to time. Practically speaking, "early detection of diseases in crops could result in high food security for us humans," and what better way to check for those diseases than to ask plants how they are feeling and receive an answer.

Capitalism, Labor Unions, and Strikes

A wave of labor strikes — the scope of which has not been seen for decades — is sweeping across the United States. In fact, more than 100,000 workers are either involved in strikes or will be if threatened strikes happen. And the militancy of the strikers themselves, and of the unions, is supercharged. Members are rejecting small concessions, and leaders are even talking about the system — capitalism — in their public narratives. 

All of this occurs against a background of a general rejection of traditional work structures, low wages, and expectations of loyalty or enthusiastic labor. For entry-level jobs and wages, it's now often the case that nobody is showing up to work at all, despite the federal government cutting the most "generous" of Covid-era benefits. Ultimately, people are tired of working in conditions that inhibit their humanity. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley, says that the bosses and mainstream media are trying to frame the current conditions as a "labor" shortage. "But that’s not what’s really going on," Reich writes. "In reality, there’s a living wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a health care shortage." To this, I would add a shortage of system legitimacy. People are fed up with the brutal hierarchies of capitalism and are responding en masse. 

It's not controversial, I think, to predict that these mass labor actions will win immediate gains for workers and their families, including for those workers who aren't participating in strikes. Unions make everyone better off, except the bosses. If the dominant paradigm of contemporary capitalism is neoliberalism — a widespread assertion by the powerful that markets are always better, economic hierarchies provide benefits that "trickle down" to make everyone better off, and government policies should actively maintain such conditions — the strike is the ultimate repudiation of neoliberalism. The strike asserts that maintaining and reaffirming worker power should take precedence over maintaining "free markets”, and that egalitarianism — material equality — is more important than profit. It does all this through coordinated work stoppage, because control of work translates into political control. 

Granted, there are still barriers to the widespread success of strikes (most of which would go away if the PRO Act passes). These barriers include the simple fact that there is no right to strike guaranteed by law, that bosses can, in many instances, hire replacement workers (“strikebreakers”) without running afoul of labor law, and that the National Labor Relations Board's ban on "secondary activities" (boycotts and strikes against companies that support the companies against which workers are striking) renders strike action much weaker than it would otherwise be.

But even with these limitations, the ability of labor to flex its muscles in the American political playing field is impressive — particularly as not long ago, economists were predicting massive permanent layoffs as a result of automation. For the foreseeable future, however, workers have leverage because of their scarcity and their militancy. Unions may even help usher in widespread climate change-inspired reforms concerning how entire industries and labor are structured.

It's an open question and somewhat controversial, however, whether unions and strike actions can fundamentally transform the economy. The answer depends on who we ask.

The stakes could not be higher. The climate crisis is an existential one, portending widespread death, grueling refugee crises, and potentially irreversible damage to the biosphere. And Marxists believe that the working class, the most important class in history, is the agent which will address it. "[I]n the face of a worsening climate crisis," the Trotskyist faction of the Fourth International recently posted, "we know it is necessary to develop a program based on class independence with a strategy for ending the root cause of the ecological and social catastrophes we face: the capitalist system itself . . . Only the working class and its allies have the power to build a new system which operates in the interest of all of humanity." 

But if fixing the climate requires a wholesale restructuring of society along anti-capitalist, cooperative, and explicitly sustainable lines, it's still somewhat of an open question whether labor unions as presently structured have an integral role to play. The reason for such ambiguity lies in the essentially reformist nature of unions. In fact, that’s why critique of trade unions and labor unions in general can be identified in the earliest iterations of Marxism. 

Take, for example, arguments by anarchists like Partisan Review editor Dwight McDonald, who a century ago argued that in England, "the great dock strikes of 1889 led by socialists like Tim Mann and John Burns" ultimately evolved into the milquetoast British Labor Party. And in Germany, "the mighty Social-Democratic trade union movement, on which Marx and Engels placed their main hope for socialist leadership" — like the CIO in the United States — went from "rebellious youth to bureaucratic senility." Unions, the argument goes, exploit anticapitalist sentiment to gain power, then collude with the ruling class to control workers: "in each case the early struggle to establish unions had an anti-capitalist character which more and more disappeared as time went on," observes McDonald.

Perhaps this is another way of expressing Ahmed White's thesis in his article "Its Own Dubious Battle: The Impossible Defense of an Effective Right to Strike," positing that labor actions are only truly revolutionary if they occur as part of a revolution — that is, at the very least, if labor refuses to stay in the narrow NLRB lines and instead engages in illegal, wildcat, and forbidden actions. White's main argument is that "an effective right to strike is not only an impossible distraction but a dangerous fantasy that prevents labor’s champions from confronting the broader, sobering truths that this country’s legal and political system are, at root, anathema to a truly viable system of labor rights and that labor’s salvation must be sought elsewhere." 

But I think this is ultimately a kind of question-begging argument. All influential movements in capitalist society are in some way institutionally embedded, and such groups also, quite naturally and consistently, provide the rope of their own criticism and (sometimes radical) transformation. While most socialist and communist organizations in the U.S. support unions, few do so uncritically, and some groups have gone to great lengths to democratize unions, play decisive roles in strikes, and play strong roles in union locals while explaining their structural and ideological limits. Others have done nothing but criticize labor hierarchy and invite workers to form new labor organizations, explicitly anti-capitalist and indifferent to NLRB politics. Those "outsider" theorists also have a role to play in the mosaic of the radicalization of labor.

In order to empower unions as political forces, unions need to communicate with their own set of "constituents," and engage in campaign outreach based on an understanding of a kind of "voter base" in the politically conscious public. There are effective tools — like the email appending services offered by my client, Accurate Append — which can make this outreach easier. Ultimately, if more workplaces are unionized and more community members belong to unions, these ideological arguments will take on new form and life, and socialists, anarchists, and communists can work their differences out in common praxis against capitalism, rather than primarily against each other.

The History of Antifa

Guest post

Contrary to the narrative pushed by conservatives like Donald Trump, Antifa is not an organization. Indeed, to describe Antifa as an “organization” would directly contradict its inherently decentralized character. To “be Antifa” (anti-fascist) is to recognize the existential threat posed by fascism to vulnerable communities. This means committing to stopping the encroachment of fascism by any means necessary. Importantly, this is not a progressive definition of Antifa and anti-fascism— it is the only definition. 

Anti-fascism is as old as fascism itself. In 1920s Italy, left-wing resistance group Arditi del Popolo took to the streets to fight Benito Mussolini and his Italian Fascist Party. The group united leftists of all banners, from revolutionary communists to anarchists, for the common cause of hitting fascists where it hurts. During Adolf Hitler’s far-right Nazi regime, left-wing resistance groups such as Antifaschistische Aktion took to the streets in an effort to prevent further atrocities from taking place. After World War II, left-wingers in Germany regrouped, with new anti-fascist movements such as the Außerparlamentarische Opposition forming.

Antifa: As American As Apple Pie

In the United States, Antifa can be considered merely one in a long line of decentralized movements dedicated to the elimination of fascism. In the late 1980s, Anti-Racist Action (ARA) was founded in Minneapolis from a radical punk group known as the Minneapolis Baldies. The group spread across the Midwestern cities of Chicago and Columbus and later found its way throughout the country. Anti-Racist Action would establish a meaningful presence in the West Coast cities of Los Angeles and Portland, and even “crossed the border” into the Canadian metropolis of Toronto.

The rise of Antifa as a radical political force can also be partially traced to the creation of Redneck Revolt, formerly the “John Brown Gun Club” in honor of the famed abolitionist. The group was founded by white southerners committed to the cause of anti-racism and anti-fascism. The core principles of Redneck Revolt provide a strong summary of what guides anti-fascists in the United States:

  • “We stand against white supremacy
  • We believe in true liberty for all people
  • We stand for organized defense of our communities
  • We are working class and poor people
  • We are an aboveground militant formation
  • We stand against the nation-state and its forces which protect the bosses and the rich (police and military)
  • We stand against capitalism
  • We stand against the wars of the rich
  • We stand against patriarchy
  • We believe in the right of militant resistance
  • We believe in the need for revolution”

Following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, anti-fascists wasted no time taking to the streets to resist his right-wing extremist agenda. From the beginning, Antifa activists were on the frontlines resisting Trump’s agenda, which included building alliances with religious groups in the interest of protecting migrants. Almost two hundred anti-fascist activists faced criminal charges after protesting Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017. 

Praxis: Antifa in the Real World

Despite the media’s depiction of Antifa organizers as troublesome young people committed to violence at the expense of making a meaningful impact, this could not be further from the truth. Following the devastation brought on by Hurricane Harvey, Antifa activists took to organizing mutual aid efforts to help those displaced. Outside of the United States, the cause of defeating fascism in any form remains the goal of activists across the world. From India to Brazil, activists are putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others at risk from the rise of the far-right. The fact of the matter is that you can’t simply vote out fascism: defeating fascism means breaking it at its very core, and this means organizing on every front.

Eugene Debs: Political Communicator

It would be interesting to see how the public—even the left public—would respond to Eugene V. Debs if he were alive today. Debs was so morally sentimental and personally vulnerable in his rhetoric that it is difficult to predict how audiences would react, especially in a present during which vulnerability is often heavily tempered with irony, sarcasm and even nihilism in order to be digestible. In many ways, such irony and nihilism emerges from an explicit rejection of "liberalism," or soft center-leftism. Ronald Lee and James Andrews explain how Debs has been reappropriated by liberals (as distinct from socialists) as one of their own precisely because of liberal attachment to moral sentiment. By using "the historical narrative's definition of virtue," liberals crowd out radical change. Thus, Lee and Andrews argue that Debs' moralism better serves a contemporary agenda of "business-labor reconciliation" instead of the class war and unapologetically anti-capitalist ontology Debs actually possessed and espoused.  

Another critic points out that, ranks Debs' speech to the jury following his conviction under the Alien and Sedition Act for his Canton, Ohio anti-war speech "as the 34th most influential and memorable speeches of all time." It is widely acknowledged that "the speech in the courtroom failed at the legal level given the complicity of law and politics in reinforcing the power of the state.” Yet, something greater was at stake, and it is that very higher idealism which might succeed as political rhetoric right here and right now if someone emerged possessing Debs' ethos, which he himself had gained via creating "tropes of working class rhetoric that resonated with a wider audience." Indeed, losing in court was a huge rhetorical advantage to Debs' own movement at the time, and it is likely that the same events today would have been similarly appealing to audiences, given unprecedented and contemporary cynicism about the legitimacy of courts under neocolonial capitalism. Yet, an important difference to consider is that, "Debs never doubted that justice was on his side, despite the contrary conclusions of a closed political and legal system." In 2021, even committed leftists and progressives are hesitant to believe if not outright disbelieving that even a hypothetical court would provide true justice. What Debs might have treated as an aberration of capitalism is now seen by a significant section of today's society as an irredeemable feature of governance generally. 

More than one rhetorical scholar has highlighted that Debs understood messaging. One article even suggests Debs used what we might recognize as "modern" campaign tactics, and specifically in his 1912 presidential race where he utilized easy-to-communicate messaging, a non-condescending simplification of complex German political theory suitable for Americans. Debs was different from other radicals: "He was able to translate the Marxist idea of socialism into traditional American language; he used Lockean language as a tool to explain to common Americans socialist thought."  This included appeals to individualism and natural law. Capitalism, he argued, was a threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

The results of Debs' messaging are clear. Third party candidates generally struggle to get more than a few thousand votes, even for president. Only three third party candidates have ever exceeded five percent of the vote. Debs was one of them, attaining six percent of the vote in a race against Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, and Teddy Roosevelt—a crowded and notoriety-saturated field. Debs had nearly a million votes campaigning both as a free man and as an incarcerated one. He had a devoted following and even his enemies acknowledged his virtues and how tough it was to go up against him. Above all, Debs' deep faith in humanity, and his abiding loyalty to the marginalized and downtrodden, made him a living argument for socialism rather than simply another firebrand with a manifesto. Debs had ethos, forged through his kinship with the least powerful people including the incarcerated. 

I think understanding Debs rhetorically and politically requires analysing his statement to the court from a point earlier than that chosen by most. Debs statement begins with "kinship," or relatedness. "Your Honor," he says, "years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free” (emphasis added). In these opening lines, Debs is emphatically acknowledging that he is not any better than anyone else. And that, unlike some of the more flowery morality often identified in his rhetoric, remains an acceptable sign of virtuosity even today. 

Similarly, Debs' very important statement on race relations critiques whiteness in a way that intentionally and decisively lifts up the agency of Black voices. "The whole history of the Negro race in America is one to make the white race blush scarlet with shame," Debs writes, before continuing on to point out that the seizure of humans from Africa for the sake of chattel slavery had so dehumanized Black people as to render them free from any debt to the white race, even the old cannard of "gratitude" for those white people who fought for emancipation. Debs had been a railroad worker and so he used the phrase “'Jim Crow' car" to describe the post-emancipation treatment of Black people. In the end, "for the improvement [African Americans have] been able to make under such inhuman and degrading conditions he is certainly under no obligation to his former white slave-drivers—his present white persecutors." Ultimately, Black people do not owe white people anything in the context of race relations; instead, Debs said, we owe each other solidarity as workers.

Debs as a political communicator would, perhaps, do better today than some might initially expect. Yes, he was at times excessively sentimental in the language he chose to use, but he was also self-deprecating, critical of both his race and gender and clear in his admittance of his own moral weaknesses, all in an effort to lift up the working class in its entirety. In 2021, marginalized communities and poor people—those living most precariously—might appreciate Debs' combination of utopian hope, commitment to struggle and solidarity and clear criticism of whiteness and cis-gender patriarchy. 

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In Political Communication, We Always Seem to Be Fighting a War

This article is sponsored by my client Accurate Append, a quality email append and phone append service working supporting organizations, political campaigns and companies.

Communication specialists are often employed to guide their clients through problems and obstacles, whether personal, professional, political or otherwise. Given the demands of such moments, it is understandable that rhetoric is used (especially in political communication) to invoke a sense of urgency, that threat or promise which must be addressed quickly and powerfully. Very often, this rhetoric utilizes the metaphors of war and fighting and constructs an enemy who is imbued with a power and ruthlessness that designates them as a threat. This threat is then used to motivate collective action. 

One academic paper notes: "The domain of war is employed metaphorically for all types of human struggle and conflict. War metaphors have become an indispensable part of the English language over hundreds of years, since more and more war terms like besiege, fight for, win out, attack, battle and fend off are widely used by ordinary people in everyday language." 

Many scholars and activists are unhappy with the ubiquity of war metaphors. In particular, they are unhappy with how the metaphors (as expected) apply descriptions of warfighting to non-war contexts in a way that supercharges them and riles up audiences. Much has been written about the use of those metaphors, for example, in health care. Particularly in "biomedicine, including HIV research," the language reflects a "mindset that regards pathogens as enemies to be defeated." Philosopher Susan Sontag is especially critical of the use of the military metaphor in health care, saying “It overmobilizes, it overdescribes, and it powerfully contributes to the excommunicating and stigmatizing of the ill." 

But while the vast majority of analysis on military and warfighting metaphors concludes negatively or at least pessimistically about the practice, some scholars push back against that generalization. Several of the authors both critical of and in defense of military metaphors point out the usefulness of those metaphors in motivating people in times of adversity. What differs, however, is their judgement on whether the use of such figurative language in this way is problematic, and whether it necessarily demonizes or dehumanizes an actual enemy. 

In a research paper released in January of this year, Eunice Castro Seixas takes on the use of war metaphors in political communication around the Covid-19 crisis. Seixas notes that many others have taken on that metaphor critically, suggesting that its use, and the militarization of discourse in general, is a negative thing. Seixas doesn't necessarily disagree that in general, war metaphors probably connote aggression and negativity, or at least the demonization of an enemy. But Seixas concludes a little differently, urging "caution against previous generalized criticisms of the war metaphor as inherently dangerous and damaging." Instead, in certain contexts, the metaphor is constructive and even optimistic without being dehumanizing towards an enemy subject: "the war metaphor is often used for the pursuit of specific goals of crisis communication and management such as: preparing the public for hard times, persuading the population to change their behavior and bolstering resilience and self-efficacy. These are messages that, while using the war metaphor, place the emphasis on adaptation to hard times, rather than on fighting an 'invisible enemy.'" Seixas also acknowledges that it matters where such discourse is used and lands. Germany might reject the use of war metaphors because it is sensitive to being labeled a warlike nation after its role as aggressor in the First and Second World Wars. States rising up out of colonialism, or overcoming apartheid, might be more comfortable with the metaphor because it connects to the optimism of recent liberatory victories. 

Thus, using militaristic language to mobilize people doesn't necessarily mean vilifying an enemy, encouraging violence against specific people, or painting all conflicts as only resolvable through the use of force. What is clear, though, is that war metaphors underscore urgency. In urgent situations, therefore, is it okay to use language that alludes to war? And, does it serve us to use urgency as the starting point of so much discourse, particularly political discourse? 

Asking these questions pushes us deeper into the foundations of our rhetoric than the question of whether we need an enemy. The object of concern now becomes, why do we feel a need to construct everything as urgent? Why do we always feel the need to mobilize ourselves and others? Is this a carry-over from the fight-or-flight patterns that developed in our prehistory? Obviously some things really are urgent, but when we use that urgency as a template for all political activity and progress, is that cause for concern?

Philosophers like Paul Virilio have questioned Western metaphysics and technology and our obsession with speed, acceleration and efficiency, the way everything is defined according to use value. This necessitates further questioning about why everything in politics is so urgent, why we have to solve every problem now. Different thinkers have different answers. For Martin Heidegger, it's "technological thinking" that trades off with a more meditative view of the world. For Marxists and other theorists of capitalism, it's the mechanization and commodification of time as well as alienation of human activity

All of this analysis seems to suggest that we shouldn't reject out of hand any particular metaphorical strategy in political communication, except, of course, strategies that really do dehumanize or degrade other humans. Military mobilization may be appropriate if it doesn't put other people in danger. Calling our struggle against a disease or an economic crisis a "war" might be inelegant, but pragmatic and appropriate. What we should keep an eye out for, though, is whether we are being urgent and alarmist as a default, rather than in response to genuinely urgent and alarming problems. It's okay for us, as political communication practitioners, to point out the times when the drive to urgency is not appropriate. Because sure, our communication strategies are driven by our clients, but there's a reason they come to us for advice. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Chicago Police Department, and Public Communication

When a Chicago cop shot and killed 13 year-old Adam Toledo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially supported CPD's and States Attorneys' declaration that Toledo had been armed. But Adam Toledo did not have a gun in his hand when he was shot, which the video makes clear. Lightfoot's blunder tells us a lot about the difficulties in leaders' public communication when having to speak for, cheerlead, or otherwise defend powerful police forces and their way of doing things. 

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio's struggles with NYPD are the stuff of legend, and have raised questions about what police are allowed to do in response to criticism from elected officials. Policing itself is political, and the politics of the police clash with the policies of municipal governments in major cities throughout the United States. Lightfoot's relationship with CPD isn’t any different. 

It's unlikely that the Mayor would deliberately lie about this even if she had wanted to appease the CPD. But her response was about as bad as it could be in the wake of such a genuine tragedy. That the murder and Lightfoot's public misstep happened atop a sharp upswing in especially offensive police killings and near-killings, all during the trial of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, only added fuel to the fire. 

Though not the primary issue within this breakdown — policing, generally — it is notably that political communications specialists have continued to fail so atrociously throughout the past year. Importantly, this is related to, rather than separate from, the failures going on in U.S. policing. 

A 152-page report released just eight weeks ago described, as the Washington Post put it, "a plague of communication breakdowns" in the Lightfoot administration. And a brand new story by ProPublica's Mick Dumke describes Lightfoot as impatient and overly critical of well-meaning and admired city leaders like Andre Vasquez, a first-term alderman with a pressing agenda to help homeless and soon-to-be-evicted city residents. In one meeting, the Mayor attacked Vasquez for over a minute in order to minimize his request for emergency rental assistance. Lightfoot said the issue wasn't "a good use of our time," a statement of remarkable arrogance and aloofness coming from someone who ran on a progressive agenda.

But Mayor Lightfoot may be turning a corner after hitting rock bottom on both the shooting of Adam Toledo and another matter: the inexcusably brutal and mistaken police raid at the home of social worker Anjanette Young in 2019 which occurred before Lightfoot took office as Mayor. Cops raided Young's home based on incorrect information. Naked and then partially covered, Young kept insisting they had the wrong place, and they did. A series of misjudgments and mishandlings in the city legal department — which Lightfoot says she was "blindsided" by — soon followed. City attorneys tried to block the video from being shown to the public. Top attorney Mark Flessner was forced to resign. Eventually Young sued both the police and the Mayor, alleging a (very believable) "conspiracy and cover up between the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Office of Police Accountability and the Mayor’s Office.”

In many ways, Lightfoot's initial response to the police assault of Anjanette Young presaged her response to the shooting of Adam Toledo. But with the Young catastrophe, she has changed course and done so even though she is getting sued and would likely be better off if she were to simply stop talking about it. Skeptics might say that this apology only came when it became clear that Ms. Young intended to sue the city and the CPD. That lawsuit has now commenced. Perhaps this strategy was created to place blame on CPD, which it certainly has coming given its history. Lightfoot has also "falsely said her administration had not received a Freedom of Information Act request from Young." Still, I'm noticing in Lightfoot's language a more open level of contrition. Using words like "deeply sorry" and "humiliation and trauma" make clear the Mayor's intention to read the incident as reality. "It simply should not have happened," Lightfoot said, conceding some ground that might even be used against the city in the lawsuit. 

The Mayor also describes her own interpersonal reaction to the video, which she says she watched "in absolute horror. I showed it to my wife. We both thought about what could happen to us if we were in her circumstance." Even if that's not true, it builds a sense of empathy. Most importantly, Lightfoot says "this happens to Black and Brown people disproportionately." This is an acknowledgement that police brutality is systemic and racist, something that even liberal mayors in large cities have been reluctant to say historically. 

In many ways, the tasks and skills of a successful municipal political candidate don’t always translate to skills in office. For example, being able to effectively communicate with potential voters — maybe with the help of data append services like Accurate Append — doesn’t automatically translate to transparency and accountability during times of crisis or atrocity. What Lightfoot needs is advisors and staff who can keep her accountable to both macro data on the Chicago electorate and micro situations like "reading the room" on fundamental moral issues like policing. 

Importantly, at the root of this all is not Lori Lightfoot’s own investment in changing how policing is done, or how to help struggling Chicagoans, or anything else. It's about whether her constituents can effectively pressure her to advocate for their interests regardless of her own.