Posts from March 2013


From Jono at Mozilla Labs, Lovebird is ready for beta testing:

I wrote a Thunderbird add-on to make the email interface I’ve always wanted — one that helps me remember to stay in touch with people I really care about, instead of always distracting me with the newest incoming trivia.

The add-on is called Lovebird and you can download it here.

. . . About a year ago, I wrote a post about how much I hate email. I was frustrated that the few relevant messages from people I care about quickly get buried under a flood of distractions and nonsense. Not spam, even; just trivia.

There’s a saying that “Life consists of what you choose to pay attention to.”

Software encodes values, biases, assumptions, often unconscious, of the people who create it. The more that software becomes our filter on the world, the more that the unconscious biases of the software determine what we pay attention to.

. . . My email interface should be helping me remember to stay in touch with old friends and distant family. But instead, email buries the important conversations under a flood of auto-generated GitHub and eBay notifications, political mailing list ACTION ALERTS, charities begging for money, etc. etc.

Maybe I opened my email interface with a thought in mind about what email I wanted to write. But my thought is soon lost as the interface bombards me with distractions — all the newest, unread stuff.

Meanwhile that thoughtful, in-depth conversation from an friend I haven’t seen in years is down on the third or fourth page. I didn’t respond right away because it deserved a considered, crafted response. I starred it, sure, but… I guess I star a lot of things, most of which rapidly lose their relevance.

Unless I make a concerted effort, that conversation’s going to get buried forever and I’m gonna forget about it. Now I’m gonna die with regrets because my email interface focuses my attention on what’s new instead of what’s important!

So I decided to do something about it. I started hacking around with an idea for an email client that would put that conversation with the old friend front and center of my interface, keeping it in my attention.

I built it as a Thunderbird add-on. Since its purpose is to help me stay in touch with the people I love, I named it “Lovebird”.

Since it’s people I care about, not messages, the Lovebird UI is built around a list of people, not a list of emails.

–Jono at Mozilla Labs, Lovebird is ready for beta testing,
at Not the User’s Fault (25 February 2013)

This add-on / rewrite is really kind of a beautiful thing, and I think in more or less every way an important step in the right direction as far as thinking about user interfaces for e-mail goes. It’s strongly tempting me to spend some time back with Thunderbird again.

Occupied Territory

Day after day, our political leaders remind us of human rights violations happening all across the world, yet they often fail to recognize and stand up against the violations happening in their own backyards. In communities of color, young people feel under siege. Kimani’s murder and the resistance displayed by young people in response must be taken as a continued call to action. We must ask ourselves: why are we allowing this to happen? Where have we failed in organizing a long-term movement?

Omowale Adewale, a father and community organizer from Brooklyn has a radical solution: The only negotiation I want conducted on my behalf with the police is withdrawal of their paramilitary troops from my community, which includes community affairs, helicopters, police horses, barricades, he says, likening the need for police to turn over control of our communities to that of the US Military’s efforts in withdrawing from Iraq. His words echo the sentiment running through Flatbush in this traumatic moment.

–Rosa Clemente, Why Did Kimani Gray Have to Die?
in EBONY, 18 March 2013 (second boldface added)

What puts the “Left” in “Libertarian Left”?

One of the quickest and simplest ways to gloss what Left-Libertarian, or the Libertarian Left part of ALL, means, is just to say that we are for left-wing social ends through libertarian means. This inevitably involves a certain amount of oversimplification — does through libertarian means just mean by getting rid of government controls and letting social outcomes emerge spontaneously, or does it mean something more like engaging in conscious activism and social organizing to encourage particular outcomes within the context of freed market and civil society? When we say left-wing social ends, is that supposed to mean that the libertarian means are valued only as far as they seem likely get the left-wing goods, or are the non-invasive, anti-authoritarian means supposed to be side-constraints on ends that might possibly count as worthwhile, or do the libertarian means really enter directly into the conception of left-wing social ends that we’re supposed to be for? Do we ultimately have exactly the same sort of social ends that progressives or Marxists or other state-leftists do? I’m a philosopher by training, and I’ve hardly ever met a conceptual distinction or analytical complication of a question that I didn’t like, so of course I think these are all good questions, and important ones to wrestle with.[1] But at the end of the day, I think there are some pretty clear pre-analytical ideas about what left might mean, and what libertarian might mean, that make the formula a useful guide. If you’re wondering what puts the Left in Libertarian Left, when we’re not for an activist state and when we oppose the effectiveness or the worth of any governmental responses to social or economic inequality, the answer is not just going to be some opportunistic redefinition of Left to meet our pre-existing political commitments or some obsolete French seating-chart. The answer is just going to be to point to some fairly straightforward understandings of what it is to value social justice, or what it is to be a Leftist — like this really admirable summary from Cornel West:[2]

. . . Being a leftist is a calling, not a career; it’s a vocation not a profession. It means you are concerned about structural violence, you are concerned about exploitation at the work place, you are concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, hatred against peoples of color, and the subordination of women. It means that you are willing to fight against, and to try to understand the sources of social misery at the structural and institutional levels, as well as at the existential and personal levels. That’s what it means to be a leftist; that’s why we choose to be certain kinds of human beings. . . .

–Cornell West (February 2011),
A Message from Cornel West, for left forum

Again, there’s a certain amount here that’s oversimplified and a certain amount that’s left out.[3] But it seems to me a good start. And an obvious point of contact and call to action for the Libertarian Left — for radical libertarians and radical leftists to take up, think through, express, and act on our concern about developing anti-authoritarian, counter-political, grassroots, consensual, activist alternatives against structural violence — against exploitation in the workplace — against multiple, interlocking and intersecting systems of interpersonal domination and social inequality — and to try understand the sources of social misery on multiple levels, and the intimate interplay between structural and institutional factors, diffuse cultural development, and interpersonal dynamics and existential experience. The Left is in Libertarian Left because when we work for liberation we Fight the Power. The Libertarian is in Libertarian Left because we know that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

See also.

  1. [1]In case you’re curious, my answers are: it means both of them, and the latter is quite as important as the former; it’s supposed to mean that they are both side-constraints on worthwhile ends and also — because social anti-authoritarianism is itself a left-wing commitment — itself one of the ends to be achieved; and no, at the end of the day we have a broad overlap on some goals and some distinct difference on others, but the differences that we have, we have because libertarian leftists are the more consistent and radical leftists, who don’t just drop our anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment analysis when it comes to professedly Progressive or Popular or Revolutionary authorities, establishments, parties, politicians, elites, or other monopolizations of social capital.
  2. [2]Repeated here thanks to Marja Erwin, and repeated here because its status as a commonplace usage is I think vouched for by the approximately 5,271,902 times the quotation was re-posted across Tumblr.
  3. [3]In context, West was trying to give an inspiring riff on some key themes, not to make a comprehensive statement of the definition of Leftist. (Actually, in context, he was trying to raise money and attendance for the 2011 Left Forum. But the thematic riff was, if a means to that end, not a means only…)

Toward A Really Social Safety Net

These are consolidated from a pair of comments that I made in a thread back around last November on Thaddeus Russell’s Facebook wall. The thread was originally about some silly noise that comes up about once every four years, but it branched out into some interesting discussions about the left, individualist and libertarian perspectives, and so on. My interlocutor’s questions unfortunately seem to have disappeared from the thread, and I hate leaving writing locked up in a web silo, especially in the middle of a big, gradually composting discussion thread, so I’ve tried to condense it into a post here.

I’ve often been asked — by friendly-but-skeptical leftists, and even sometimes by fellow anti-capitalist anarchists — why market libertarians — who may be opposed to the government war machine, police, prisons, and all the other obviously destructive and repressive and regressive things done by the state, for fairly obvious reasons — are also so opposed to, and so hard on, social programs, like TANF, food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, Social Security, etcetera. (The question is usually posed in terms of contrasting government programs that hurt and kill people with government programs that, at least in principle, are supposed to be helping people.) And there are different ways to think about this. To a great extent, left-wing market anarchists don’t spend a lot of time focusing on social programs, and generally insist on prioritizing the core state violence and primary interventions of war, police, prisons, prohibitions, borders, and bail-outs as categorically more important than, say, opposing Medicaid or complaining about government spending on food stamps. And as a matter of strategic priorities, I agree — opposing the crowbars will always be more important to my idea of liberation than imposing the crutches. But I don’t think that means that there is nothing to say about problems that are inherent to the welfare state and government social programs, or that they ought to be considered as neutral or benign. Left-wing market anarchists have important reasons to oppose them — reasons to oppose governmental social programs, not from the economic Right, but from the radical Left.

So when I am asked, what I can say is that this doesn’t have all of the reasons, but it does have some of them:

. . . The key to an understanding of relief-giving is in the functions it serves for the larger economic and political order, for relief is a secondary and supportive institution. Historical evidence suggests that relief arrangements are initiated or expanded during the occasional outbreaks of civil disorder produced by mass unemployment, and are then abolished or contracted when political stability is restored. We shall argue that expansive relief policies are designed to mute civil disorder, and restrictive ones to reinforce work norms. In other words, relief policies are cyclical–liberal or restrictive depending on the problems of regulation in the larger society with which government must contend. Since this view clearly belies the popular supposition that government social policies, including relief policies, are becoming progressively more responsible, humane, and generous, a few words about this popular supposition and its applicability to relief are in order.

There is no gainsaying that the role of government has expanded in those domestic matters called social welfare. One has only to look at the steadily increasing expenditures by local, state, and national governments for programs in housing, health care, education, and the like. . . . But most such social welfare activity has not greatly aided the poor, precisely because the poor ordinarily have little influence on government. Indeed, social welfare programs designed for other groups frequently ride roughshod over the poor, as when New Deal agricultural subsidies resulted in the displacement of great numbers of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, or when urban renewal schemes deprived blacks of their urban neighborhoods. . . . As for relief programs themselves, the historical pattern is clearly not one of progressive liberalization; it is rather a record of periodically expanding and contracting relief rolls as the system performs its two main functions: maintaining civil order and enforcing work. . . . But much more should be understood of this mechanism than merely that it reinforces work norms. It also goes far toward defining and enforcing the terms on which different classes of people are made to do different kinds of work; relief arrangements, in other words, have a great deal to do with maintaining social and economic inequities. The indignities and cruelties of the dole are no deterrent to indolence among the rich; but for the poor person, the specter of ending up on the welfare or in the poorhouse makes any job at any wage a preferable alternative. And so the issue is not the relative merit of work itself; it is rather how some people are made to do the harshest work for the least reward.

–Francis Fox Piven & Richard A. Clower (1970)
Introduction to Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare

The left-wing market anarchist addition to this leftist analysis is, first, to point out the extent to which the forms of structural poverty, deprivation, marginalization, concentrations of wealth and ultimately the desperation and civil unrest that social programs are designed to mute, are not simple or inevitable offshoots of market profit-taking, but rather themselves manufactured by the political entrenchment of capitalism and constantly reinforced and sustained through precisely the core state violence and primary interventions — the war, police, prisons, prohibitions, borders, bail-outs, military-industrial complex, monopolies, and other regressive and repressive functions of government — that we prioritize. (On which, see Markets Not Capitalism, etc.) And, second, to insist on the essential importance of positive grassroots, community-based alternatives rather than trying to save or liberalize institutionalized government programs.

Social programs administered by government are a weak and alienating substitute for the grassroots, working-class institutions of mutual aid, labor solidarity and fighting unions that they were largely designed to crowd out, replace, or domesticate. Grassroots social movements aimed to provide relief and person-to-person solidarity by creating alternative institutions that would be in the hands of workers themselves, so that they could better take control of the conditions of their own lives and labor. Government social programs have systematically aimed to monopolize the relief while abandoning any effort at worker control, instead transferring power into the hands of a politically appointed bureaucracy, and largely leaving working folks’ interests at the mercy of party politics. See, for examples, David Beito’s From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State and Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business, or, more recently, scott crow’s Black Flags and Windmills or Occupy Sandy, etc.

So (as a left-wing market anarchist) I am all for social programs and a social safety net — but I should like them to be really genuinely social, rather than governmental. So in my view, a libertarian view on markets needn’t, and shouldn’t, have anything to do with economic Rightism or corporate power; it can just as easily mean advocating militant industrial unions, strikes, sit-ins, Food Not Bombs, neighborhood mutual aid, lodge practice contracts, Panther breakfasts, women’s self-help clinics, Common Ground, Occupy Sandy, etc. as models of grassroots social change. And — holding that these are models that are preferable to the politically-controlled, professional-class-dominated and highly paternalistic bureaucracies — OSHA, TANF, WIC, EEOC, Medicare, PPACA, FEMA, etc. — that political progressives are too often inclined to treat as the non-negotiable defining commitments of the economic Left.

* * *

In the original conversation that inspired this note, a friendly-but-skeptical progressive said that she appreciated the focus on grassroots, community-based forms of mutual aid, labor solidarity, and participatory safety nets; but wanted to know whether government programs might have a role to play given that grassroots organizing is always going to demand a very high level of social participation, and sometimes people might be looking for institutions that can handle some problems without everyone in the community constantly having to be constantly involved in everything that anyone might need. It was a good question, and I definitely understand the desire to be able to take a step back in some cases. (It’s certainly something I’ve often felt, as I’m sure anyone who’s ever done a lot of participating in a community effort or an activist project eventually does feel.) But what I’d want to say is that the important thing about grassroots, non-governmental group is not so much the fact of constant participation (I sure hope I don’t have to do that!) as the constant possibility of participation. And the possibility of withdrawal is if anything just as important (so if the local Food Not Bombs or Common Ground clinic becomes completely dysfunctional you can always leave and start devoting your efforts to something else more worthwhile. But if a county social-services office becomes completely dysfunctional, they typically stay paid regardless, since you don’t have any way to redirect how your personal tax dollars are allocated. That’s controlled by a political process and a fairly elaborate set of rules for evaluating civil-service performance, which are an awful lot of degrees removed from the people most aware of and directly affected by the dysfunction.)

In any case, as far as participation goes, sometimes you want to take a step back and let others do a lot of the work, and of course that can happen. (The lodges had officers and divided up organizational work among the members, Panther breakfasts and FNBs and free clinics served a lot of people in the community, some of whom volunteered to help out, lots of whom didn’t, and lots of whom would spend some time on and some time off.) But all of this is an important difference from the politically controlled programs, where there’s no opportunity to step up and take a participatory role, even if you want to; where if they are seriously underserving or misserving or treating their clients in manipulative or exploitative ways, there isn’t any real remedy because they hold all the power in the relationship and the only voice you have in the proceedings, if any at all, are the incredibly attenuated processes of trying to vote in different political parties, etc.

I don’t know how much that answered the question, in the end; but I hope it at least points in a fruitful direction for thinking about what an answer would look like.


Into the Briar Patch

Subject line and opening message from a recent fundraising e-mail sent out by Joe Arpaio, Sheriff of Maricopa County and Vaquero Supreme of the High Sonoran Desert, who is campaigning to keep himself in office in spite of an upcoming recall referendum. Apparently being circulated this month through conservative mailing lists:

From: Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Sent: Friday, March 22 2013
Subject: Sheriff Joe Arpaio can’t continue to fight without your immediate help

I normally do not write you emails this personal — but today I’m making an exception.

We are in trouble. . . .

And while I will never give up the fight for justice and to protect American citizens… I can’t continue to fight without your immediate help.

. . .

Oh lordy, how I hope that could be true. I would never be happier to stand right by and keep my immediate help exactly where it is.