Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 16
Marxism and Modern Society
Featuring Freddie deBoer
Will the labor class change with AI? What actually is Marxism? And what, if anything, can we learn from it? Freddie deBoer, author and “Marxist of an old-school variety,” shares why he thinks Marxist thought on capitalism, labor, and societal structures is still relevant and how he applies its principles to contemporary politics.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined by my co-host for this podcast, as always, by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is our weekly podcast as we look at ideas and issues in the world today, and try to take a somewhat different tact from the noise of the internet and the media.
So today, we’re gonna take a more, I think, abstract look at some of the structural conditions of the world we live in, more of an idea discussion, not an action discussion. We have these conversations because we believe ideas matter and that the direct conversation about ideas is important and needs to have more space, even though those ideas don’t always and clearly lead to action in the way that people sometimes want, they often lead to more questions than answers. And that too, I think is something we ought to celebrate, not denigrate.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Today we’re going to speak with Freddie deBoer. He is a writer. He’s written for magazines, newspapers, websites, and currently, he’s writing for himself on Substack. He is the author of two books—the first is called The Cult of Smart, and the second, which we’re gonna talk to him about today, is How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement. But before we get there, we are going to talk a bit about Marxism, because Freddie is actually a Marxist, as he says, of an old-school variety.
ZK: Let’s do it. Freddie deBoer, what a pleasure to have you with us today for What Could Go Right? I’ve been perusing your Substack, which has gained a pretty healthy following over the past couple years now. What inspired you to dive into the Substack land?
Freddie deBoer (FD): Poverty.
FD: Yeah. I worked in administration for the City University of New York, at Brooklyn College for four years, and they let me go. And I was sort of burning the money from my first books advance, and I didn’t really have anything else going on. So Substack reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to write for them, and I couldn’t think of a reason not to.
ZK: Actually, on this question, which is really neither here nor there for a lot of the content of rewriting, but I do think is interesting as a—it’s a relatively new, maybe it’s the next chapter of blogging and the next chapter of publishing, but the whole Substack phenomenon of individuals being able to own their own slice of a platform. One of the concerns early on is that if you just open it up to—you give everybody shelf space, and it’s up to them to find people who listen. I think their business model has certainly been challenge. But if you found this to be a—has it met the promise of a liberating venue for the free flow of ideas?
FD: I mean, it certainly liberated me from poverty. the house that I’m recording this in was bought with money that I made on the platform. I don’t care about platforms in any other sense than what’s currently useful to me at the particular moment. I started out blogging at Blogger in 2008, and I switched to WordPress in I think 2012, and then I didn’t blog for three years. And then Substack was the first opportunity to really have easily integrated payments into the system. I generally like the Substack people, although I fight with them sometimes. I hate the name Substack, but I also hate the word blog and blogging and blogger. And I’ve always tried to distance myself from those things. And so when they said, you can have a newsletter instead of a blog, that sounded attractive to me. Their system just works. And so I’m gonna write somewhere, so I might as well do it here. When I didn’t blog, I just wrote into one giant Word document for three years.
EV: You’re a writer in spirit. I feel like that’s kind of hard to find these days as far as political writers go. I don’t know, I feel like you’re a rare breed where you’re a writer in spirit and you’re a political writer, that seems like. I don’t know if I can name anyone else who’s really like that.
FD: I mean, at present, now that I don’t have a full-time job, I’m typically writing somewhere on the order of 35,000 words a week.
FD: Not all for publication, to be clear, but various things,
EV: I’m curious where you see yourself in the political writing realm. There seems to be an interesting tension between how you explain yourself as an old-fashioned Marxist versus how other people see your politics. How do you see that?
FD: I will often get associated with the dissident left or with contrarianism. I just don’t see that as being true. I am a Marxist and not a liberal or a progressive or a Democrat. I’ve never written anything that I didn’t sincerely believe to be true. I never write anything simply for the purpose of contradicting what other people say. And everything that I’ve ever written politically is an expression of beliefs that I think stem from leftist first principles, in particular Marxist principles.
The reason why a lot of people would not categorize me on the left because of my relationship to politics relating to race and gender and sexuality and disability, et cetera. But the OG critics of identity politics were all leftists like Eric Hobsbawm, Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Adolph Reed, et cetera. I think it was Hobsbawm who said, “If there is no identity, only identities, there is no left.” Because the fundamental political need, but also moral imperative of left politics is precisely to transcend the boundaries of race, class, et cetera.
The sort of weird place that we’ve gotten to in modern liberal politics where the way to address racism is by hyperfixating on race and emphasizing racial difference, I just think is a bizarre mistake that was made and that has been followed because of a weird kind of path dependence and people’s fear of breaking with the ordinary. For me, everything that I write is a fairly conventional and fairly orthodox expression of Marxist principles.
ZK: So let’s delve into that a little more about what does it mean to be a traditional Marxist. I mean, I think of that in terms of seeing history and culture and society primarily through the lens of class as the dominant principle. You referenced Eric Hobsbawm before. When you read his actual histories of the 19th century and all of it, it ends up just being very sober, I won’t say conventional history, but it’s definitely measured. Marxism has a ring to it, culturally, of you’re gonna be on the barricades of the Paris Commune, and not in the delightful way of singing Les Misérables, as opposed to a framework of how we understand how history and society evolves.
FD: I mean, no one could define what an actual purely Orthodox Marxist is. And there are some ways in which I’m fairly unorthodox. Probably the biggest one was that most people who identify with Marxism now, the notion of the inevitability of the dictatorship of the proletariat does not seem very confident to me right now. And certainly, capitalism has demonstrated an ability to fold critiques into it and to prevent the kind of unrest that would make Marxist revolution possible. But Marxism is a theory of history first. It is an attempt to create a science of history that’s no different from a science of biology or physics. That science of history then suggests an economic sort of reading, which was Marx’s particular obsession, the analysis of capitalism and its internal contradictions and how it worked.
Marx was fascinated by capitalism. He was one of capitalism’s great poets. He saw it as an incredible machine for producing abundance, which I think people tend to leave out because they think of Marxism as being anti-capitalist. But Marxism is in fact post-capitalist, not anti-capitalist. Then both of those things—the history and the economics—imply a political project, but the political project has always been the most contested and the least certain, in part because Marx and Engels deliberately underdrew what the political future would look like. I think it’s important to say—and a lot of people don’t realize this—there is no expression within first-order Marxism of what a Marxist society would really look like. We get to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is this transitory period in which ordinary people become dictators to become in effect people who run everything. But that gives way to a period in which that such organization is not necessary. And in that space, infinite freedom sort of flows.
The closest that people have come to a consensus Marxist future is something like semiautonomous bans of people have the right of exit in which sort of governed under the principle of from each according to his abilities, to each according to his need. But we don’t really know what the Marxist future looks like because Marx didn’t tell us, and he said specifically, well, I’m not smart enough to know that. I can’t predict that for you.
Marx’s economics is the notion that profit is derived from the work of labor and that labor then must receive a smaller portion of that profit than they have actually created. So Marx is not the inventor of the labor theory of value. Adam Smith was a believer in the labor theory of value. He’s seen as the great free-market capitalist guy. Labor theory of value just says that I have a factory, the factory itself costs X dollars, the raw materials cost Y dollars, and then the wages of the labor costs Z dollars. We add those things up. And in order for profit to exist and for capitalism to function, we have to sell that for more than X plus Y plus Z dollars because if you don’t, your company’s losing money and they can’t continue to function.
Marx says, well, how does that work? Capitalism has to rely on some sort of principle of equivalent exchange. If I go to the marketplace and you’re charging something for an apple that I see as completely inappropriate for the actual value of that apple, we’ll never have a transaction. Of course, there’s always wiggle, prices change, but fundamentally, at every point of exchange, there has to be some sort of agreed-upon idea. This thing is worth this amount of money. And if you don’t ever get there, you walk and there’s no transaction, there’s no growth, there’s no capitalism.
So how can we have an equation in which we’ve tallied up the cost of producing this good and then sell that good for more than it’s worth? Where does that profit arise from? And the labor theory of values says it comes from the workers, that the other parts of the equation are inert and they can’t possibly create anything. And so labor is the creator of value of profit. And yet when we look at the capitalist system, it’s not workers who capture the majority of the money. The people who capture the majority of the money is the ownership class, the rentiers, the bourgeoisie who owns the factory and contributes only in that way. They capture a majority of the profit while we know that that profit was the product of the labor class, and that is the root of capitalism’s, both its moral degradation, but also of its fundamental instability.
And core to this is the understanding that if you wanted to be the good business owner, give your workers appropriate wages, then that would be amount equal to all of your profits, and you would therefore have no business. So it’s not like the owners of the business can be appropriately redistributive because they’re good people. It is a structural relation. The problem is that his position within the structure of capitalism is fundamentally exploitative. And in fact, the rate at which these businesses are capturing profit that they did not make, but that rather the worker class made is called the rate of exploitation. This has some consequences.
One of the big things is that an NBA player who makes $20 million a year is a worker. He’s not the bourgeoisie. He’s the proletariat. A guy who earns a wage for Google, let’s say some project manager who’s way up at the top of the totem pole, and he makes $2.5 million a year, in every way his life might appear to be totally different from somebody who works at McDonald’s, but fundamentally, they are producing value that they do not capture, and so they are part of the working class. Working class in proletariat versus bourgeoisie has no relation to the size of the income that you’re drawing. It’s whether you are living off of rents, meaning are you drawing a percentage of a given transaction through the process of owning means of operation, or are you being paid a wage in exchange for your work? In which case, you must necessarily be paid at a way that’s insufficient.
So that’s the moral critique of capitalism and that is the structural critique of capitalism, that it does not distribute earnings in a way that is equitable to the amount of work or the control of the value that’s going in.
ZK: Let me ask the contemporary question. So Marx and Engels are writing in the midst of the first industrial revolution. So they were aware of the fact that machines, to some degree, could replace—although at that point it was more augment—human labor. But in a world of AI and digitization and technology, couldn’t you foresee a future, or even a present for that matter, that is extremely worker-light, somewhat capital-heavy, although much less capital intensive than building a factory, but is essentially capital generating without workers? So it’s capitalism without labor.
FD: It’s important to say. I mean, look, AI specifically is a tool that is owned by Google. It is owned by Facebook, right? In other words, it is not fundamentally different from a loom on which textiles are made if it is producing these sort of things. The question of a workerless future is interesting to talk about, but it is very distinct from where we are right now. I think it’s important to say, I think people don’t grasp this, we have been working in a period of de-automization of many parts of the economy. In some automotive factories, for example, it is the case that the factories are now less automated than they were 30 years ago. There has been a rehiring relative to automation.
We tend to think that automation is this linear process where we’re this automated now, in the future we’ll be that automated, and automation only goes up. In fact, there are all kinds of facts that go into this. Part of the reason why automation flowed to the degree that it did, was that we discovered that offshoring was cheaper than automating. In other words, you could exploit child labor in China for cheaper than you could build the robots. A more sort of immediately salient question is like me, right? Where am I in the equation? Because I am not a equity holder in Substack. I don’t draw a portion of their earnings as a shareholder. I am not living off of the rents of what has been created. I’m sort of an independent contractor. I am using the machinery provided for me by Substack to create value, and they give me a portion of that value that is insufficient relative to the amount that I’m creating. And it’s a 90/10 split. It’s not 100% split where I get all the money. So those kind of questions are interesting.
But fundamentally, across the economy writ large, talk of AI and assumptions about driverless cars, the last hundred years actually had been a vastly more complicated story about when you use automation and when you use human workers, and it’s been revealed that very often, companies decide that it’s in their financial best interest to hire people rather than to continue to automate, in part because if you automate to a certain extent, you have a growing pool of labor of people who want a job that necessarily depresses the wages that they expect until you get to the point where they’re cheaper than the robots anyway. Because it’s like a cyclical relationship between those two things. Which is why, for example, OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT, this incredible AI device was trained by thousands of human users, human employees of OpenAI I think in places like the Philippines where you can pay very little in order to fix all the problems and to look out for things that would get them in trouble. So even the examples that we have of the most intense automation, if you want to call it that, in these large language models depends upon a pool of cheap labor.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
How do you see the Marxist expression of principles as far as coalition building goes? ‘Cause it strikes me that theoretically, I understand the argument you’re making structurally about there’s not a difference between a worker at Google who makes $2 million and somebody who is serving pancakes at Denny’s. But when it comes down to what those people really have in common as people, their purchasing power, how their lives are, the level of comfort, all of that, I mean, how do you build coalitions to form a political movement that has real-world impact?
FD: It’s important to say that that class is described in first-generation Marxism, which is the petty bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie are the ownership class who actually owns the factory. The petty bourgeoisie are the upper middle class, own some stock, have some rents, but they still derive a majority of their income from somebody else’s wage, a wage that someone else is paying them. Crucially, they have ownership mindset. They are stuck in a what Marxists call false consciousness where they believe that their interests are associated with the ownership class rather with their own class. And again, these are amoral distinctions. A member of the rentier class of the bourgeoisie in Marxism is not a bad guy. Good and bad is irrelevant. It’s the process itself that doesn’t make sense, is inherently unstable in society.
But in the broader sense, Marxism helps us to understand the world. I would not go out to a union hall and try to get people to sign up for my Marxist party right now. That’s not how I would approach it. I mean, look, for a really Orthodox Marxist, and I still know people like this because I grew up surrounded by Commies and has spent my whole life like that. For a really Orthodox Marxist, there’s essentially nothing to do because the revolution emerges from internal contradictions. One of the things Marxism predicts is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which is that over time, as capitalism enters into its most mature stage, rather than getting more and more profitable, companies find themselves in tighter and tighter competition with each other. And as that happens, their profit levels fall, which eventually leads to certain inevitable social instabilities, including the inability to pay people more who expect to be paid more.
So if you just told every computer programmer in the country right now, how much are you making right now? That’s it for the rest of your career. That would lead to social unrest. Nobody predicted the 2008 financial crisis better than Robert Brenner, who more than two years before it happened in a book called The Economics of Global Turbulence, described exactly what was going to happen using Marxist economic principles and laying out the case that this bubble, its crashing, the plunging of the world into a potential new Great Depression, were all inevitable consequences of where we are.
The basic argument is always this—number one, you don’t need the boss. The boss needs you. Making people understand that they are the engine that makes it all happen. Making people understand that fundamentally, the power is in the hands of the workers. So look at the UPS strike that was narrowly averted. They got extraordinary concessions from UPS. Did they do that because UPS leadership are such good guys? Did they do it because UPS leadership was like, yeah, we probably could get away with paying them less but let’s pay them more. No, of course not. The UPS workers were able to demonstrate to UPS, we will cost you hundreds of millions of dollars a day if you force us into a strike posture. And it’s real easy to steal the keys to a UPS truck. They were able to insert themselves into the machinery of UPS and say, we have the ability to shut this whole operation down and we will make it more expensive for you not to pay us than it is to pay us. And that first thing is just that the centrality of workers and the actual worker power that is embedded in all of these things is really core. But the other thing is understanding that the appeal of politics is not to like people who are different from you. The appeal of politics is to pursue your own self-interest by working with people who are also pursuing their self-interest by recognizing what you share.
So the UAW, United Auto Workers, they just got 25% raises from any of their workers at American factories and plants. The UAW has traditionally been a very powerful union that has often been driven with ethnic conflict, racial conflict, different sectors and sects within the union battle for leadership, battles over the left unionism and the right unionism that are both within it, et cetera. It organizes both this blue-collar, socially conservative guys who work on the factory line and also grad students at a ton of universities who have wildly leftist politics. Why does that work? Because when the time comes to have the strike, they have the strike and they all benefit. So, again, looking beyond the idea of, of course, I want racial harmony, but if you can convince people, hey, Black voters, this is good for you. Hey, white voters, this is good for you. Hey, Hispanic voters, Asian voters, this is good for you. They don’t have to like each other. It is a vision of left politics and cooperative politics that is independent of any fundamentally moral consideration. A strike is not a moral force. A strike is a force to secure the best interest of people who want stuff.
ZK: But on this, these are examples of capitalism saving itself as opposed to the revolution drawing nearer. So the ability for whether it’s under threat to meet demands that workers and accept keeps the system stable and fluid. Just like if you’re Marx and Engles in 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, anticipating the growth of a very robust social safety net, predominantly Western Europe, the United States has its own inept version of it, was a very, I think, conscious way of frankly capitalist elites when there was a perception of a threat from the Soviet Union of saying, what do we have to do to satisfy worker needs and demands sufficiently to maintain a system of capitalism and prevent a communist revolution? It was not a beneficent move of we think this is right or not. It was a much more, I think, calculated, as long as people have enough of what they think is essential, they are not likely to engage in all-out rebellion and try to overthrow the political system. And the examples you gave of UPS is an example of functioning capitalism where the allocation of rewards is continually up for contest and debate.
FD: I mean, Marxism is correctly identified as a revolutionary politics, but at the front of it, it’s all reformism. The idea is that labor militancy that fundamentally acts eventually as a form of reformism within capitalism, eventually creates the kind of labor discipline where if the collapse of capitalism happens, as is predicted by the idea of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, if that happens and you’ve been working for many years to build labor militancy and to make people understand what they are capable of when they band together under labor organizing principles, that then becomes the vanguard, which begins the revolution.
You know where the word sabotage comes from? So French women workers would drop their shoes into the machinery and their shoes were called sabo, sabotage. The plan here is to make people understand that if you control the machinery, if you control the apparatus, then you have a remarkable ability to force things out of capital. At the individual strike level, sure, it’s reformist in the sense that you’re just getting more within capitalism, but it trains people to understand that when the moment comes, they have the ability to use these tools to force amazing concessions from people. The people who run these companies don’t think that it’s capitalism saving itself. There’s plenty of people in leadership in the UAW who say, these contracts are not sustainable, we can’t do it anymore, the company’s gonna go down in flames, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, which they say for any contract negotiation, but they signed the contract anyway because they were forced to, because the workers had the power to stop it.
Now, I think a common critique is that it’s a lot easier to do that when you work in an actual factory. If your workplace is a laptop, labor militancy is a lot harder. That being said, there are labor unions in places that have 100% digital production from places like digital media that have enabled to win important and real concessions from their bosses. There was a strike, I think it’s St. Louis, it’s a city that the major thoroughfare is one really big highway, like a four-lane on both side bridge that goes into the city. The Teamsters were in a dispute with the city, so they took eight tractor trailers and stopped them on the bridge and threw the keys into the river. If you are willing to be militant, there’s always ways to move things forward.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
Freddie, I wanna ask you about your book that came out last year, How the Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement. It tells a story of what happened after the murder of George Floyd during the BLM protests. And at the time, there was this shining moment, like, something’s gonna happen, there’s a lot of momentum for reform and change, but then I think nothing really happened. So that’s my question, really. Did anything actually come out of all of that unrest?
FD: I mean, this is the pushback I get a lot, is they’ll say, well, this city did this, this town did this, whatever. There have been some worthwhile criminal justice reform efforts in individual states and cities in the United States, and I don’t dismiss them. However, that was not the demand in June of 2020. The demand was not let’s have some small-bore local municipal and state-level criminal justice reform efforts. The demand was we’re gonna turn the whole system upside down. The demand was defund the police. The demand was tear down the prisons, and none of that happened, certainly. Nothing happened that matched the fervor and the demands.
And the degree which things that happened that are durable is in elite liberal-coded organizations and employers and academic institutions, there’s been the creation of a new layer of jobs that are specifically devoted in some way to diversity, which has functioned as a hiring program for talented young Black and Brown workers. I don’t have any problem with that, but as a affirmative action program, it’s kind of backwards because those people are all among the most upwardly mobile members of Black America anyway. The people who were getting hired by the Ford Foundation for some new seat where you do vague policy work in the realm of anti-racism, the kind of Black person who gets hired into that job already has the college degree and is already in the top 10% most upwardly mobile black Americans anyway, so that was kind of a bust as far as I’m concerned. So, no, there hasn’t been a lot of real change at all.
ZK: I do wanna ask, as we enter this political year, I’m sure you’ll have a lot to say about it, which I suppose circles back to the Marxism discussion, but it does raise this question of increasingly around the world, it seems like people are channeling their discontent into wannabe authoritarians or actual authoritarians to say what people wanna hear without creating any real structural equity rather than in genuine social reform and progressive or Marxist directions.
FD: I think it’s important to locate all of this in history. The millennium turns, we’ve had the stability of the Clinton years. From my perspective, from many people’s perspective, Bill Clinton was a Republican in all but name. In 1996, Bob Dole complained openly and bitterly that Clinton had stolen his agenda. That’s how far to the right Clinton had moved,
ZK: Of course, compared to the contemporary Republican party, they’re both like left-wing Democrats, Dole included.
FD: Yes, definitely. I think that’s important. George W. Bush gets elected under extremely contested circumstances. 9/11 happens. As someone who was just turning 20 when that happened, it was real grim if you had sort of a left-wing bent, right? The country explodes into nationalist paranoia, and there’s a ton of militarism, there’s a ton of Islamophobia, the president’s secretary when asked about protests of the president said, you need to watch what you think and watch what you say, which is very frightening in basic democratic principles. And then the financial crisis happens, et cetera, et cetera.
Barack Obama gets elected and he comes in with the rhetoric of sort of hopey and changey and I’m gonna come in and I’m gonna sort of fix the country. And liberals felt emboldened again. There’s been a lot of debate since then about to what degree Obama actually ran as a lefty. I would argue that his rhetoric was deliberately drawn to suggest that he was going to be a fairly radical president, but we can disagree about that. What nobody disagrees about is that he gets into office and reigns as a moderate. I mean, Obama has described himself as fundamentally a centrist guy who wanted to make some incrementalist changes. And I think one of the—for me, my generation—I’m an elder millennial—was the Obama administration was a endless reestablishment of the notion that this does not work, that technocratic liberalism of the Obama variety, we’re gonna have a bunch of academics who solve the problems and we’re gonna work reach across the aisle, and we’re going to solve problems with pragmatic American can-do optimism that just fundamentally failed to solve any of these deep social problems that we have, conspicuously racism.
Obama was the first Black president, and I think a lot of people got their hopes up that American racial inequality was going to start to really decline, and it did not on pretty much any metric. And so that led to a lot of disillusionment, but also, many people would argue that it led directly to the conditions that allowed Donald Trump to win an electoral college victory. And so you’re just looking around at just the carnage of what we were sold by Democratic Party apparatus as the means through which positive change happens. And you just have a generation like me who goes through the horrors of the Bush administration, comes into a Obama administration that brings “normalcy”, but unfortunately, normalcy also includes the fact that the Black-white wealth gap didn’t go down, the Black-white income gap didn’t go down, the Black-white life expectancy gap didn’t go down, et cetera. And so Trump gets into office, we have Trump as president, everything seems really fucked up and weird, and then George Floyd gets killed.
And so you had a perfect moment for people who had come to reject the incrementalist Democratic approach, having lived through an extremist Republican administration, followed by a moderate Democratic administration, followed by an extremist Republican administration, and they felt fairly justifiably that we needed to be extremists in turn. The problem was that only their rhetoric was extreme because over the prior decade, you had the takeover of left rhetoric and ideas, the heart of where left ideas were coming from had migrated fully to elite university departments and humanities departments at elite universities and come up with this really abstract vocabulary that was hard for ordinary people to understand, spread through Tumblr and into Twitter.
There were so many people who I had known who had been working in journalism and media for a long time, and they were one way, and then suddenly they were a very different way, and every word out of their mouth was toxic masculinity or white supremacy. I can remember the specific day that media Twitter discovered the term BIPOC, and then they were all using it. The stage was set for a racial reckoning when we did not have anything like an actual grassroots anti-racist movement. And where the organizing committee were people who were overeducated, lived in elite spaces, and didn’t know how to talk to normal people.
EV: Yeah, I would agree with that anecdotally. The people I know, for instance, who are Obama, Trump flip voters, their main gripe with the Democrats at this point is they’re annoying and patronizing and they don’t do what they say that they’re going to do.
FD: Joe Biden’s been the best president in my lifetime, by the way, which I would not have guessed. And it hurts to say that. It hurts for me to give credit to any Democrat or any president, but he’s been the best president in my lifetime.
EV: Why do you say that?
FD: He has been really unexpectedly aggressive in a redistributive regulatory, pro-government domestic policy, being willing to bend to the federal government to accomplish important social tasks and to spend money to do it, and to raise taxes if we can. My context is Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, who said the error of big government is over, Bill Clinton who signed the bill that made getting gay married a federal crime, Bill Clinton, the guy who gutted the social welfare state and increased Black extreme poverty by three times, Bill Clinton, the guy who moved in a right-wing direction, then George W. Bush horror show, Barack Obama consistently disappointing technocrat who for whatever reason was addicted to the idea that he could work with Republicans but meanwhile, the Republicans were burning him in effigy in the village square, and then Donald Trump. But yeah, I mean, he has been a real pleasant surprise in terms of his domestic policy and its aggressiveness.
ZK: Yeah, I mean, again, I would argue that things like antitrust legislation applied much more rearranges deck chairs than it does achieve much in the way of structural reform. I’ve written about this over the years. I frequently get attacked for being anti-regulatory. I’m definitely not a big fan of certain aspects of the administrative state. I mean, for instance, one reason to be concerned about a Donald Trump presidency is that we’ve made the administrative state very powerful. So you wanna be careful about who you give the keys to that particular car, meaning that’s an argument for not having such a powerful state as democracies are fickle. And if you elect someone who’s willing to abuse those tools, those tools can be used for good and for ill.
Things like antitrust, one of the challenges there is if you broke Google and Amazon up tomorrow into 15 companies, I’m just picking a number, Facebook into another five or six, you’d simply create 25 mega billion dollar companies. It’s not clear that would do anything for any of the issues that you’re passionate about. I mean, if anything, it would have the unintended consequence of seeming to have done something while simultaneously have structurally done nothing. I’m actually much more negative about it for those reasons that it is a fix that is not a fix to a problem that is much different than it’s being construed as. It’s not corporate-sized.
And I’m sure you’re aware of Jaron Lanier’s work many years ago of what would it look like to have people license their individual data, given that data is the raw material for Facebook and all ads and all of it. None of our data would be worth that much, but even the very act of that transaction would establish a precedent of it is worth something. It is not free. It’s something we license for free and we get stuff in return. I’m just saying, I think that there’s—while I respect—I’m just pushing back on what you’re saying. I respect the perspective.
Even though many people respond to some of these conversations as too theoretical and too abstract, there isn’t the heated debates over class and Marxism that there were throughout the 20th century, many of which were con and not pro, but it was a much more of an animated time. The essential questions of what’s the allocation of gains between capital and labor, between individuals and corporations, between the very wealthy and the less so, remain essentially at the core of everybody’s social and political life. What I mean by social life in terms of where do you live and how do you live and how do you allocate your time between whatever we call work, play, or family and relationships. All these things are at the heart of what human beings, 8 billion souls on the planet, are grappling with. And I don’t think we talk about it enough. Whether or not I agree with your framework, we need to talk about these issues in a more direct way than we do so. And there’s a dearth of it in writing, there’s a dearth of it in how we all communicate it with each other, and so everybody ends up talking around it or talking elliptically or talking about it in code.
And I’ve really appreciated the conversation. Again, as you know, I may not agree with all that you’re saying, but I absolutely welcome the dialogue. And everyone should check out Freddie’s Substack. It’s a distinctive name. You won’t confuse him for everyone else. It’s just Freddie deBoer. You can sign up. Thank you for joining us today.
FD: Thanks for having me.
ZK: At the risk of this being a backhanded compliment, I enjoyed that conversation more than I thought I would, maybe ’cause I thought it was gonna be more contentious or maybe ’cause I thought it was gonna be abstract in a less interesting way. I’ll leave it to people listening whether or not they found the abstraction interesting. I just thought these are the kinds of things that I wish we would talk about more, and maybe that’s the academics egghead part of my persona that enjoys the desiderata of who are we and what does it mean to be a capitalist, and what does it mean to be a worker, and how is society actually structured? Because, look, most of us spend most of our time living in the world as it is and not living in the world as it might be.
But, again, I feel like there were other points in time where these issues were a little more on the cultural surface, maybe when unions were more powerful and there was an actual argument going on in the public sphere between labor and capital in a really self-conscious way, contesting how the rewards were gonna be divided. Maybe when all those social safety net systems, whether it’s the National Health Service in Britain or Social Security in the United States or the Great Society programs, there was a more active debate about how are the rewards of a wealthy society being distributed more fairly? And there was actual nitty-gritty conversations about it, which questions of the budget deficit and interest rates don’t even begin to get to at the same philosophical way. So count me as somebody who wishes we would have some more of these conversations. I know they can spin off into pedantic abstractions, but I’d rather take some of those risks.
EV: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s this big gap in modern-day journalism. Maybe it’s not even the role of modern-day journalism, but I do feel like the basic principles underlying, let’s say, classic liberalism or Marxism or conservatism, they’re not well understood or talked about by people. And I think it’s because it can get easily pedantic and abstract, but you do have people like Freddie that are able to explain things well outside the confines of a university education on the internet, on Substack, on a podcast. I do think it matters because I’m a really big believer that no idea is too complicated for anybody to understand. It just needs to be explained well.
ZK: Look, the whole endeavor here is that ideas matter greatly. They are the building blocks for a lot of the laws and institutions, social mores, and all the things that structure our society these days more than they’re built on brute force, more than they’re built on just hierarchies of control. That doesn’t mean that ideas cannot be their own form of a hierarchy of control, they can be, but we live in idea-based worlds now insofar as someone first had to conceive of a world and a reality, and then we construct society in a way that is profound, it’s as if we’re all in a machine that we’ve forgotten the handbook for.
Yes, people talk about political reform and they talk about how things need to change, but more cohesive discussion of what are we trying to do here? How are we structuring the societies that we’re living in? What’s the goal? What’s the point? What’s the outcome? What’s the history of it been? What have we learned or not learned from it? Those conversations are absolutely essential because they are the raw material that we will all use to build the next stage of our collective existence. So shall we turn to some less portentous, maybe quirkier news? I’m looking to leaven the sobriety of the conversation with things going on in the world that most of us hadn’t noticed.
EV: I have a good one for us today. Okay. Something very pedestrian in that it’s going to affect people’s lives immediately before I get to the quirky one because I forgot that I had this in the lineup, Google Chrome is killing cookies, and I’m so excited about it. So everyone should have this by the end of the year, apparently already 1% of users are experiencing this cookie-free world already. So if that’s you, I would love to hear about it.
Audio Clip: Google disabling cookies for 30 million users of its web browser Chrome today, the first step in its plan to stop all use of the website tracking technology by the end of the year.
So it’s gonna be rolled out slowly over the year. But for the digital ad landscape at large, this is ultimately another monumental change. And it comes just a few years after Apple did something similar. Now, Google getting rid of cookies will make it harder for third parties to track users across the internet. Here’s what I mean by that. You might have Googled pajamas to gift over the holidays and searched for specific brand. Cookies are the technology that knows, remembers, and tracks that search and then follows you all around the web, continually serving you ads for those pajamas, maybe slippers and robes, months after the holidays, even if you already bought that item that you needed.
EV: Obviously this is not the kind of cookies that help you remember your passwords. So we’re not gonna have to reenter our passwords every time we go onto a site.
ZK: That is wild. How are people gonna track?
EV: Apparently, the advertisers are kind of clueless about how to respond to this and how much that’s gonna affect business and all of the run-on effects of that are very unknown at the moment.
ZK: All right, well, I’ll look forward to that. And that will also avoid all that annoying when you go to Europe and you’re constantly clicking on accept cookies, don’t accept cookies, manage cookies, decide your cookies.
EV: Imagine doing that in Greek. The worst.
ZK: And the bigger picture?
EV: Yes. Okay. This is fun and quirky and bigger picture. So people probably don’t know that in Iceland, 90% of all homes are heated with geothermal energy. 70% of all the energy used there comes from geothermal sources, and now they have this really fun, hopefully one day made into a movie, plan that by 2026, they’re gonna tap into a volcano, specifically the magma that’s inside a volcano and get geothermal energy from there. So it’s a plan. It’s not happening right now. They have to figure out some important details, for example, how their machines are not gonna get-
EV: -melted by the—
Audio Clip: Active volcanoes are proving to be a hot commodity in the global race to transform to renewable energy as regions all over the world that reside near these natural wonders work to harness their heat. Geothermal energy—the process of using the heat from the inner cores of the earth to create power—is one of the most sustainable forms of energy, experts told ABC News. The technology works by pushing hot water from the reservoirs of volcanoes and geysers toward the surface, which then turns to steam due to the reduced pressure. There are virtually no carbon emissions from this process once the infrastructure is in place other than the diesel-powered pump required to bring the water and steam to the surface. Pete Stelling, a retired geology professor, formerly at Western Washington University, told ABC News.
ZK: That’s very sci-fi. I mean, all these volcanoes keep exploding. There was the recent one in Iceland, which had that dramatic seas of lava going down. I think Iceland’s already a leader in geothermal as a production of energy. So it’s a natural next step for them to try to tap the volcanoes.
EV: The article where I read this, which was ZME Science, the article took pains to quote a volcanologist. They took great pains to say that’s not going to lead to an eruption of the volcano, which is a pretty understandable concern if you think about tapping into that thing. Like, are we gonna cause an issue here? Apparently not. We are capable of doing some fantastic scientific things.
ZK: All right. Well, volcano power, here we come.
EV: Fingers crossed.
ZK: All right, thank you all for joining us again this week. We’ll be back next week with yet another hopefully stimulating conversation. Thank you, Emma. Please send in comments as always. Sign up for the newsletter, What Could Go Right? at theprogressnetwork.org, and let us know what you think.
EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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