The Real Progressive Case for Hillary Clinton

Kevin Drum has posted what he believes is an “overwhelming” progressive case for Hillary Clinton. (Or at least that’s what the headline says — in the actual text of the post it is downgraded to a “liberal” case.) The post consists of a lengthy numbered list of things that I assume Drum thinks progressives should like — though #23, “She voted for TARP,” makes me wonder which progressives Drum is hanging out with, as do the references to debunked 90s scandals toward the end. In sum, the thing is a total hodgepodge, not at all a coherent case.

I think we can all agree that the ideal outcome would be for Bernie Sanders to ride a wave election and implement smart progressive policy because he believes in it and always has. You would have to be a fool to assume that Clinton will be as aggressive and consistent as Sanders would have been, even if she winds up controlling Congress. She is not a principled progressive, and though she has opportunistically adopted some progressive stances under pressure, there is no particular reason to believe she wouldn’t opportunistically reverse herself again if that seemed to be advantageous.

Under Clinton, then, progressives won’t be able to sit back and cheer as the president gives them everything they want. They will have to push her to do some good things that she has said she will do but might not really want to, and they will probably also have to protest when she wants to do bad things. Her very opportunism indicates that she is susceptible to such pressures, as Democrats tend to be. Even the most evil of Democrats, Rahm Emanuel, showed some responsiveness to BLM protestors.

By contrast, under Trump, activists will constantly have to be protesting against not just bad things, but stupid things that obviously shouldn’t happen. What’s more, those protests will not get any results, because Republicans habitually double down in response to protest. Bush could look at literally the biggest coordinated global protest in world history and say, “See, that’s the kind of freedom we want to bring to Iraq!” When we factor in Trump’s unique personality — not to mention the right-wing extremists his victory will embolden — things look even worse.

A vote for Clinton isn’t so much a vote for a person as it is a vote for a certain landscape. Do you want the atmosphere to be like the Obama years, which were discouraging and yet punctuated by moments of genuine progress? Or do you want to go back to a wasteland of utter despair and futility like the Bush years? Clinton is not a natural ally, but she will at least hold open the space where the left can grow. Trump might stamp it out for a generation.

speculations upon speculations

What does the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and our ongoing crisis have to do with the recent surge of scholarly interest in speculative philosophy?  How do proliferating materialisms engage with, or symptomatize, toxic collateralized debt obligations?  What is the shared terrain of speculative action, and where does political action intervene to remake that terrain?

InterCcECT is pleased to welcome Josh Robinson (Cardiff University) for a special works-in-progress session on Speculative Capital, Thursday 6 October.  Join us at 4pm at the UIC Institute for the Humanities, 701 S Morgan St (Blue Line: UIC/Halsted).  Pre-circulated paper available by request to interccect at gmail.

Josh will also be at the Poetry&Poetics workshop at UofC on Monday 10 October.

Also on our fall calendar:

Arendt’s The Promise of Politics, 3 October

Jodi Dean at UIC, 20 October (details posted here soon!)

Etienne Balibar and Veronica Gago at 3CT, 28 October

Debt Dialogues at Northwestern

Aaron Schuster at InterCcECT, 28 November (ditto)

Knox Peden at UIC, 2 December (ditto)


I feel unmoored. Only in the last few days did I turn the corner of having been home from Australia and New Zealand as long as I had been there. The first week we were back, we had to deal with our dog Max’s sudden illness, which caused him to act very differently and threw us into a state of emergency where, for instance, we felt that at least one of us had to be in the house at all times. And since we put him to sleep, the apartment still feels foreign.

My normal strategy for asserting control over my space is cleaning, and I did a lot of cleaning in the days after we lost Max. It only emphasized the absence, though. The spot where his bowl used to be cries out for the bowl — the lack is more visible than the bowl itself ever was. The same goes for the space where his dog bed used to be, for the couches with no drool spots or fur, for the pristine white duvet cover that shockingly stays that way for more than a couple hours.

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First Contact


In his excellent piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, Gerry Canavan says, “The Idea of Star Trek is that the future might be good; we might be good; we might find a way, somewhere far beyond the stars, to become our better selves.” And much of the article is taken up with how shockingly little of “actual existing” Star Trek lives up to that Idea or even seriously tries to.

It seems to me that among the films, First Contact does the best job of living up to the Idea, even as it complicates it and potentially undermines it. Gerry emphasizes that in Star Trek mythology, the utopian future is not a natural outgrowth of our present. The progress of liberal democracy and individual liberty does not lead to the Federation, but just the opposite: it collapses into the horror of endless war, and only on the other side of that horror do we finally start building something new. And First Contact dramatizes how fragile that transition really is, because it turns out to hinge on an independent inventor, Zefrem Cochrane, testing his new warp drive technology while a Vulcan ship is around to notice him. This leads to the titular “first contact” with the most iconic Star Trek aliens, and it is this momentous event that the Borg seek to prevent by traveling back in time.

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The Real Problem with the Clinton Foundation: It’s the neoliberalism, stupid!

I grow weary of the vague gestures about how the Clinton Foundation “raises questions” about Hillary Clinton and the influences she is subject to. It’s not that the concerns are unwarranted, though they often seem to be exaggerated — which of us would appear righteous if a hostile observer had access to our e-mail archives? The problem is that they miss the forest for the trees. What makes the Clinton Foundation appear potentially corrupt — its combination of state and financial interests in charitable projects — is not fixable by disproving any individual accusation of influence-peddling. The problem is the model of neoliberal governance that the Clinton Foundation embodies.

The Clintons are “reaching out” to various “stakeholders” to solve problems, without being overly fussy about the line between the public and private sectors or other traditional divisions of power. Secretary Clinton could prioritize donors at the State Department because her donors are the people who are contributing toward causes that she would pursue whether in or out of office. No matter what her official role is, she’s taking a classical neoliberal, ostensibly post-ideological, “problem-solving” approach that “leverages” all available resources.

We need to remember that Clintonian Democrats are meritocrats above all, which means that they trust that both traditional authoritative institutions and markets favor the “smartest” people. And in the neoliberal model, “smartness” is transferable, so that someone who made a fortune off of clever licensing models for a knock-off operating system is a natural fit for fixing education, for instance. Why wouldn’t you “reach out” to tech billionaires or accomplished financiers? Who else would you want at the table?

From the outside, it looks like corruption, but from the inside, it’s best practices. If you’re worried about the Clinton Foundation, you’re either really worried about neoliberalism or else you’re in bad faith.

A Note On the Concept of Neoliberalism

On Facebook today, Adam noted a strange issue that appears repeatedly in David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism. Harvey insists that financial bailouts, of the sort that would later follow the 2008 crash, contradict neoliberal theory despite the fact that these sorts of provisions are manifestly consistent with the work of a number of neoliberal theorists, given any reasonably charitable standards of interpretation. In other words, Harvey insists on a contradiction between neoliberal policy and neoliberal theory where none need be posited. The question that arises then is why? Adam raised the point that Harvey’s Marxism may be part of what’s in play here: squaring theory and policy isn’t crucial here because Harvey is beginning from the assumption that neoliberal theory can’t be more than a superstructural factor. I wonder, though, if there’s a more basic issue in play though, one that gets to the heart of some of the ambiguities in the concept of neoliberalism itself.

I’ve been thinking lately that there’s a fundamental semantic confusion in play with regard to the concept of neoliberalism. In recent theory, the term neoliberalism is often used in order to name not one, but at least three more-or-less distinct notions. First of all, it names [1] a set of theoretical positions in economic theory or political economy. In this sense, it is a position primarily associated with members of the Walter Lippmann colloquium, the Mont Pelerin society, and—most specifically—the ideas of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. Second, it can name [2] a policy orientation, and third [3] a generalized ‘situation’ or ‘dynamic’ in ‘late capitalist’ society. In the first two senses, we may refer to neoliberal ‘theories’ and neoliberal ‘policies’ or ‘movements;’ each of which are things that could be said to act ‘on,’ for instance, markets, societies, and institutions. Only in this third sense, however, does it make sense to specify ‘markets,’ ‘societies,’ and so on as themselves neoliberal.

Generally, it’s hard to talk about more than two of these at once without losing hold of neoliberalism as a name for anything specific, so a theorist is forced to pick. Harvey emphasizes [2] and [3], insofar as it’s policy (2) as a response to inherent contradictions in post-Fordist production (3) that drives neoliberalism. As a result, he can’t integrate [1] without losing resolution, but that causes the aforementioned slips. Other theorists make different choices of emphasis. Wendy Brown, e.g., really pushes [3] in Undoing the Demos and ties in [2] and [1] as loose subordinates. The concept, in other words, is tasked with pulling together such a wide variety of referents that it doesn’t seem to be able to support them all. Brown, in fact, recognizes the issue explicitly, calling the term’s expansion across difficult to connect spheres a “paradox.” (Undoing the Demos, 21) What Brown doesn’t do, however, and what I’m increasingly suspicious that we should do, is question this situation, and the pertinence of a catch-all concept like neoliberalism that has a tendency to expand to include new data rather than to specify. To use an Adam-ism: what do you think, readers?

How I do reading notes

A Facebook friend asked how I go about taking reading notes, and I thought it might be worth a blog post. At a certain point in my academic career, I noticed that I was wasting a lot of time flipping futilely through books looking for the quote I just knew was on the left-hand page, etc. When it came time to write the Zizek book, I realized that my previous “method” of “just remembering” was not going to work. So I went through all the Zizek books I planned to use and transcribed quotes, with some notes about why I thought something was significant, how I might use it, how it connected to other points, or whatever. The result was a searchable text that I could largely use to write without referring back to the physical books — and even better, the result was that I had thoroughly digested the arguments in each book in a way that I never could have otherwise.

My goal in taking reading notes is to generate a similar document on whatever I’m reading. I do not do them for everything I read, but only for things I plan to draw heavily on or anticipate making repeated use of. One of my most systematic projects was generating reading notes over the classics of “political theology,” for instance, and I have used them many, many times. I literally have not cracked open The Kingdom and the Glory to look for a quote in three years, thanks to those notes. I don’t transcribe literally everything I underline, and in many books I wind up just describing what they talk about on given pages or ranges if it’s not something I anticipate making fine-grained use of. If I turn out to be wrong, I at least have a guide to where to look in the text.

My original Zizek notes were divided into four Word documents, corresponding to the main chapters in which I planned to address each book. Now I use Scrivener, and in fact it’s the only thing I use Scrivener for. The text editor in the PC version is clunky and not very full-featured, and the footnote functionality is simply unacceptable to me, so I don’t find it helpful for actual composition. What it brings to the table is the ability to group together an arbitrary number of texts (as long as they’re part of the same “project” — I just put everything into one big “project”) and search them all at once. So let’s say I remember Schmitt said something but don’t know what book. I can just group together my pages for each of Schmitt’s books and search them in one go. I guess I could solve this by putting all of the Schmitt stuff in one file, but then I lose the ability to easily search each text in isolation. I don’t know of any way to duplicate this functionality in any other program.

Depending on how much detail I want to go into, I can usually get through 50-100 pages of the original book in an hour. It’s tedious and in many ways mechanical, and for me that makes it the perfect research activity for the school year. It doesn’t take the energy and creativity of original writing, but it allows me to systematically prepare for writing, for both the short and long term. I don’t do it for every text I plan to use — especially for pre-modern primary texts, I tend to prefer to have the book out in front of me, though I’m not sure why that difference exists — but I always find it a helpful exercise whenever I wind up doing it.

What about you, dear reader? Do you have a note-taking system?