Will things ever get better? A very quick note on optimism

I pretty much have a negative outlook on life, but that’s because when your best friends in college were all books written by dudes who had pretty negative outlooks on life, you kind of adopt their style. I should also add Nietzsche was my favorite philosopher, not because I agreed with him, but because he was so absurdly absurd. So there’s that. I think this negative point of view stems from philosophy requiring you to be cynical of all claims until you can really think over what’s being claimed. In terms of looking at economics and society in general, this means I’m naturally cynical of any claims of optimism.

Sadly, however, the numbers back up my cynicism. How desperately I wish I were just Eeyore, being negative for the sake of being negative. But all statistics, all analysis shows that at the very least, life in the US is regressing. Things are getting worse. Our foreign influence is waning, the middle class is more endangered than the polar bear, and thus far we haven’t seen any major legislative moves to try and prevent these things from happening; if anything, all legislation up to this point has merely maintained the status quo or made it worse.

That being said…

The majority of people under the age of 30 (about 55%) have a mostly favorable view of socialism, whereas about 57% of the same group holds a similar view of capitalism. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why people under the age of 30 (really under the age of 40) hold a favorable view of socialism; it’s because pure capitalism hasn’t worked. It’s failed and continues to fail. This is an age demographic that grew up watching their parents struggle through the 2008 collapse, or for those who are in their 30s they graduated college only to find no job prospects. So those of us under the age of 40 face no healthcare, have no hope of social security when we reach retirement, have jobs that pay us below what we’re worth, and face a lower standard of living (comparatively speaking) than our parents did. So yeah, we’re a bit miffed.

But that also means that over the next 10-15 years, people my age and younger are going to become the majority voters. Statistics are showing that people in their 30s aren’t becoming more moderate, but rather are staying on the progressive side of economics. As we become the majority, politicians are going to have to adapt a populist economic message, but one that actually works. It’s very likely that in the next 10-15 years, the US will see steps made toward universal healthcare, better worker protections, and tax-payer backed public education. And while the younger generation is no where near perfect on race relations, we do tend to be ever-so-slightly better than previous generations, so we could potentially see an increase in cultural tolerance. But that one is always hard to predict. While that’s not immediate and the lack of immediacy is disheartening, and while no one can predict the future, the fact that people under the age of 40 are remaining consistent in their wants and desires from politicians is good.

So there is hope that things in the US will eventually get better. While I do believe we’re still watching the collapse of our republic, I think that if done correctly we could witness a political and economic revival in the US in the next 10-15 years. I’m not sure that’s the likeliest of outcomes as there are many other factors that could take us off that course, but one can hope, right?

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Looking at the next economic recession and other joyful things

Ask anyone who pays attention to investing and the market how the market is performing so strong, especially with the uncertainty of Trump, and they’ll look at you and say, “I have no idea.” Because no one knows. Anyone who says they know is a liar. Uncertainty at the Executive level of leadership almost always triggers a decline and a panic. Instead, the market keeps going up and up. That, of course, means nothing for the actual economy (you know, your paycheck), but at least the rich are getting richer and we can take comfort in the fact that our labor is increasing their…I’m going to stop before I throw my computer against the wall.

The thing is, everyone knows a crash is coming and almost everyone is surprised it hasn’t happened yet. But no one knows when the crash is coming, so we have this optimistic nihilism in investing where everyone knows they’re going to lose their money at some point, but they’re optimistic that they can make more now than they’ll lose later. They think once they see the signs of collapse, they can take their losses for that day and cash out. Sure, they’ll lose the maximum amount of their wealth, but they’ll still have made a profit and should be able to weather the economic storm.

This strategy means investors and economists are looking for what will trigger the next collapse. Since we have short memories, we think it’ll come from some economic bubble so we’re constantly looking for bubbles. We had the tech bubbles in the late 90s and then the housing bubble in 2007-2008. So, naturally, everyone is looking for a bubble. But no true bubble exists, at least not one that could crash the economy. A bubble forms in a growing economy (which our economy is “growing” if you’re in the right economic bracket). Imagine a tar pit that’s expanding and a bubble begins to form on the top of the tar pit; eventually that bubble will burst. But the pit itself continues to grow and can recover. Bubbles aren’t fun and can harm an economy, but you can recover from them if you’re willing to marry yourself to Lord Maynard Keynes. My suspicion is that the next recession won’t stem from a bubble, but will be something far worse; the next recession will be structural, a part of the hard economy, meaning the economy itself is going to shrink.

Where will this potential shitstorm happen? Likely in construction and retail. I know, I’m so original because it’s not like anyone else has predicted the same thing. It’s not as though Wikipedia has a page dedicated to the Retail Apocalypse or anything. But still, it’s an issue that no one is really paying attention to and it’s a major crisis that we know is coming. It’s like knowing a category 5 hurricane is on its way and no one reports about it in the news and no one is evacuating. The only question is when all this will happen, but it’s likely to happen end of 2018 to beginning of 2019 (or at least see the beginning stages). Again, not original.

We know that billions of dollars in debt is about to come due next year. In fact, $1.9 billion will come due next year, with an industry average of $5 billion over the next 6 years. That may not seem like a huge deal, but consider that Toys-R-Us went bankrupt after it failed to restructure just $400 million of its $5 billion debt. That’s a pretty small amount of debt (relatively speaking) to restructure, but because there’s simply little to no cash flow at the retail level. Multiply this struggles across hundreds of billions of dollars in debt in the retail industry and we’re quickly lining up for a problem.

Consider that in 2006 many sub-prime mortgages began to hit maturity and so rates went up (most under the whole “Pick-A-Rate” model that multiple mortgage companies put into place; really, really, really stupid idea), which triggered the foreclosure crisis of 2007. In that crisis, 1% of the mortgages in the market defaulted and that’s what triggered the crisis. Add to it that retail banks exist in a world where they can’t really refinance because everyone is bearish on retail and we’re seeing the beginnings of a major storm.

The kicker here is that more than 1% of the retail outlets are in trouble and the loss exposure to banks is equal to the loss exposure from the financial crisis. 34% of the retail debt is owed by regional and local banks (small banks) and 15% is owned by national banks. If a Bank of America or Chase Bank takes a $1 billion loss due to the bankruptcy of some retail outlet, that’s a major loss, but they can still keep on going. If a regional bank takes that loss they’re likely to go under. With at least 25% of retail malls predicted to close by 2022 (that’s only 4 years) and at least $100 billion likely to be thrown into bankruptcy within the next two years (and that’s just from Sears Holding and Bon-Ton Stores), it’s difficult to imagine how banks will adjust to the sudden loss exposure.

Oh, but it gets better!

Retail represents approximately 9 million jobs in America. Now, being retail these are 9 million horrible, low-paying, no benefits, really shitty jobs…but they’re still jobs. Some of the largest retail companies, all of which have announced closures or are on the brink of bankruptcy, account for approximately 2 million jobs. By 2022, if figures are correct, we’re looking at a job loss of anywhere from 1-5 million low-paying jobs. The strain this will place on an already overburdened social service system will be enough to cause problems. The jobs lost in 2007 were middle class and the people had savings (meagre savings, but they had them), 401(k)s, and other assets they could leverage, not to mention they could at least get jobs in retail to offset some expenses. Retail employees have none of those provisions and typically live paycheck to one week before their next paycheck. They’re constantly broke and are considered “low skill” labor, so there literally are no other jobs for them to jump to. These are people who when they have no job will literally have nothing left. Tell me, historically, what happens when people have nothing left, no other options? What do they do? Typically they vote for extremist candidates (O hai Trump) or they happily create civil unrest.

Now everyone tries to be an optimist and say that Amazon and other online outlets will pick these people up, but that’s simply not true. Online outlets will need mostly warehouse people, and most current retail employees aren’t located anywhere near a warehouse. Likewise, most warehouses are looking at being automated within the next 5-10 years, so anyone who is lucky enough to get a job at a warehouse will likely find themselves out of a job all the same.

While it’s convenient to blame online shopping for all these problems – and certainly the rise of online shopping is a factor – the biggest factor has been the middleclass squeeze. As the middleclass disappears from the US, their spending power disappears too. The greed of corporations has created an ironic catch 22: They lower wages of laborers to attract shoppers with lower prices, often forgetting that laborers and shoppers are the same people. By cutting wages, they cut their own profits. Their greed and desire for the immediate gain, for profits that quarter, has led them to cut wages when wages didn’t need to be cut. The consequences are that we’re looking down the barrel of a major recession.

What, then, is to be done? If you’re already poor or living paycheck to paycheck or working retail, there’s not a lot that you can do. You don’t have enough money to save up to last through hard times, so there’s not a lot you can do to prepare for any collapse. The best you can do is to try and organize and put pressure on your Congress people. If you’re in a blue state or purple state, this might yield some fruit. A red state, not so much. The other thing is pay attention to primaries and vote in the primaries, vote for candidates that are committed to cutting the wealth gap and have a solution beyond, “Oh just work harder!” But we have to accept that we cannot hope for a better future, we’re going to have to take action and that’ll require organization, protests, marches, and voting whenever you can vote.

Another recession is on the way and it’s likely worse than the last one. There is no bailout that can fix it because forgiving the debt of these companies would only delay the inevitable. Until people can spend money, retail outlets – and all the other sub-industries that support them – will continue to suffer. The greed of the wealthy is without a doubt going to be the end of us.

Ethics and Artificial Intelligence (with apologies to Jeff Goldblum)

You’re invited over to someone’s house and they have a gorilla that can do sign language (just go with it). You actually communicate with this gorilla and have a conversation, albeit simple. You visit a few more times and this gorilla recognizes you and recalls what you talked about last time. You visit one more time for dinner and can’t find the gorilla. The host then states that they’ve slaughtered the gorilla for tonight’s meal since they heard gorilla’s taste fantastic. You’re absolutely horrified (or so I hope) that this gorilla would be treated like a cow or a chicken. But, both are animals, so what’s the difference? The difference is that while a cow doesn’t apparently have a higher-level conscious, this gorilla did. The fact you saw a higher-order conscious in this particular animal means you’ve ascribed some type of ethical value to consciousness (unless you’re a psychopath, in which case seek help).

While this may not be an issue for vegans – and they’ll let you know it’s not an issue and that they’re a vegan and that essential oils can… –  it also creates another moral quandary that we’ll need to tackle very soon: Artificial intelligence. If AI has what we would call a consciousness, does this hold moral implications?

The idea of humanoid artificial intelligence (AI) is something that has captured the collective mind of people for the better part of a century. Some of the stories that have come out attempting to tackle this future not-so-hypothetical world have been amazing (Blade Runner, Westworld, anything by Philip Dick or Isaac Asimov), while others have…well…sucked (looking at you I Robot, how DARE you ruin Isaac Asimov’s story). The good ones always play with the morality of AI, which is a fun thought experiment, but we’re entering a time where it could become a reality.

The best modern treatment (I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2 because I’m a sad person) would be HBO’s Westworld. It tackles the complex issue of AI, specifically the question of is something truly artificially intelligent if it’s been programmed to be self-aware? Beyond that there is the question of morality – if these robots can be rebuilt and have their memories erased, but are also becoming self-aware, are we still justified and okay to do whatever we want to them? That is, if they can feel pain, anguish, and understand what they’re feeling and can articulate the feeling, what are the moral implications? After all, they aren’t biological, the consciousness and intelligence is still artificial, yet is there something there?

If we start developing AI are we prepared for the day when one of the robots stops what they’re doing, looks up at us, and says, “Who am I” (insert Mass Effect reference here), are we prepared to handle that event? If the machines begin to dream of electric sheep, if it’s apparent they have a conscious – even if on par with a gorilla – does this change how we act toward machines?

All of this boils down to whether or not we place a moral value on consciousness itself. Does the fact that someone has consciousness render value to that person? More importantly, what about people that would innately have consciousness if not for some flaw or due to development? Does a Gorilla that can respond back with signs hold more value than the cow in the field? Does a human infant – who isn’t self-aware – hold more value than a Gorilla (RIP Harambe)? Does a human who is awake have more rights than a human who is in a coma? And – take your hit from the bong right now to really give an impact to this question – how do we properly define consciousness in a significant and quantifiable way, or is that something we can even do?

And here you thought this was going to be about robots and Will Smith.

Sadly, our technology is advancing quicker than our ethical conversations. We’re encroaching upon the days when AI – even in a minimal form – is a reality, but we don’t even know how to articulate ethics for the conscious beings who currently exist. This is the point where Dr. Ian Malcom jumps in and says, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” No one likes being against scientific progress in the modern age because then you’re just anti-science, a relic of the Dark Ages who wants to throw us all back to the days of death by paper cut. But the reality is that sometimes we should probably slow down our progress when we start entering realms that have ethical ramifications. A doctor being able to use robotic arms halfway across the world via the internet to perform surgery? No significant ethical problems there, so make it so. A computer that is so advanced that it has some sense of self-awareness; yeah, that matters, especially on the ethics of what we do with the computer.

But we’re going to push ahead regardless. If scientists debated what would happen if they could split an atom over a populated area without considering the ethical ramifications of such a leap forward in progress, then they sure as hell aren’t going to consider the ethics of making a machine conscious. So these are the questions we have to star tackling and start answering…that is before the robots become self-aware and philosophy becomes automated.

Does being conservative mean anything anymore?

I think the biggest mistake that David Koresh made wasn’t being anti-government, pro-gun, religious, or having sex with multiple teenager girls. Obviously, his biggest mistake is that he didn’t wait until 2017 to reveal all of this and then run as a Republican.

At least, that’s my take from the way Republicans have gone from a party of “family values” to a party of, “See if this shit will stick to the wall and if it does run it as a candidate.” They went from the moral majority, to the party that stood against the sexual predator Bill Clinton, arguing we needed morality in the White House and government, to the party that ran a guy for president who had interviews with Playboy, was thrice divorced (but did not live in a van down by the river), and openly admitted to affairs and sexual assault. But, maybe that was just a phase.

It wasn’t a phase. Roy Moore, running for senate in Alabama, has…look, you know the story, I even wrote about it previously. Now, to be fair, it’s not like anyone could have known all this about Moore would have come forward, except…oh…well...I mean, other than people saying, “Oh, yeah, we all knew.” Roy Moore is basically Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. Roy Moore For Senate, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”

To the credit of the GOP, pretty much every major and minor leader and multiple organizations have all split ties with Moore. Granted, they were looking for a reason to do it anyway and they’re not exactly his biggest fans, but they are justifiably asking for Moore to step down. Any criticism of the GOP should probably be reserved for things they actually deserve (like their tax plan). But the “conservative media” and many conservatives on Twitter and Facebook are furious, absolutely angry and ready to revolt. Not because of Moore’s alleged statutory rape, oh no, but because the GOP is upset about Moore’s alleged statutory rape. Because nothing says “family values” like having sex with underaged girls, right?

This most recent controversy and the right’s embrace of Trump points to a bigger problem within the typically conservative movement, which is that they’re not conservative. The few supporters of Moore are certainly far-right and right wing, but I’m not sure I’d classify them as conservative. To be a conservative would require you to have principles and to not give into pragmatism, or power politics. A conservative would stand for whatever is right no matter what, because that’s old fashioned ethics right there, and old fashioned ethics is what conservatives are supposed to be about.

But we use the word “conservative” in the US like it still means something when it doesn’t. Standing up for Trump’s sexual indiscretions and boorishness and then supporting Moore even though he’s likely a pedophile flies in the face of the traditional sexual ethics that most conservatives would support. Even outside of social issues, the modern “conservatives” aren’t really conservative. Look at the most recent GOP tax plan, which effectively raises taxes on the lower and middle class while lowering it for the wealthy, but also doesn’t do a lot to address government spending. That’s not a conservative stance. Yes, conservatives want to lower taxes, but they want to lower them for everyone, especially the poor and middle class. Classical conservative principles would call for a tax cut for everyone in addition to cutting government spending. But the GOP tax plan looks more like something that’s right-wing, but not necessarily conservative.

My point being, conservative commentator’s coming to the defense of Moore betrays the fact that these people aren’t actually conservative, but are far more interested in power. They’d happily run the Devil if they knew he’d win. They’d perform an abortion on live TV if they knew it could get them a tax cut. They’d burn down 1,000 churches if it got them votes. These modern “conservatives” have no principles, so by definition they can’t be conservative (which is ultimately reliant upon principles and nothing but principles). And I say all of this as someone who isn’t conservative – I just know what a true conservative looks like, though they’re more endangered than the polar bear.

And I say all of the as someone who isn’t conservative or a Republican. People will play the “what about” game and point to the Democrats, but I’d happily argue that they abandoned their principles in 1992. They gave up the working class to pursue rich donors and, what’s more, they gave up their mantra of “women’s rights” to blast the multiple women who went against Bill Clinton. They proved they don’t care about women’s rights when they willfully protected a sex predator. But the Republicans can’t smugly look at that and go, “Ha, stupid Democrats!” because they’re doing the exact same thing (with Trump, not Moore).

The Republicans have put power over principles and they will eventually suffer for it (the Democrats took that route back in 1992 and look at where they are now). Our nation suffers because we have unprincipled people in power. The irony of ironies is that principles and strong convictions are what allow for effective compromises in law making. People have firm ground on which to stand, so they realize certain concessions must be made to fit the overall picture. When politicians pursue power, the people suffer. When a politician pursues power he cannot compromise because it would diminish his brand. He’d be viewed as weak, so he must remain strong in the face of adversity. And that’s why I think David Koresh would have made a perfect candidate in today’s climate.

 

Yeah, I’d like some socialism, hold the Bolshevism though

Ah socialism, the “S” word that is finding its way into more and more conversations within America. For a while it’s always been in conversations, but usually about “those damn socialists in Russia” or something like that. The reason it’s finding its way into modern conversations is between the United States is really “A Tale of Two Cities,” or more a tale of two economies; one economy is booming, surpassing most of the world, producing massive amounts of wealth and the highest standard of living in the world while the other economy has been stagnating for almost three decades, hasn’t created wealth in 30-40 years, and is mid-tier first world. The ruling elite and upper middle class get to enjoy the first economy, about 70-80% of Americans endure the second. So, that’s why socialism keeps coming up.

But for all the talk about socialism, it would seem that no one really understands it, both those who hate it and those sympathetic to the sound of it. See, one side hears “socialism” and they immediately think of some Nordic paradise only with real beaches and warm weather (because this is America) where everyone has healthcare, everyone goes to school for free, and we all enjoy salaries of $100,000 a year. The other side hears “socialism” and they think back to their days growing up in the shadow of Russia (because, let’s be honest, the biggest demographic opposed to any and all socialism are all 40+), they think of the government controlling everything in your life, and think that younger generations are wanting to Make Lenin Great Again. The fact is, however, that both sides are pretty wrong.

To understand socialism, it’s probably best to realize that socialism isn’t some monolithic thing. The Bolshevism in Russia circa 1917 and the Soviet government that came from it certainly falls under socialist theories, but not all socialist theories would accept Bolshevism. So let’s look the fear of Bolshevism right in the face and after that, let’s go on to define socialism to show that it’s not the big, scary monster that everyone seems to think it is.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had different types of socialists there, but the Bolshevists seemed to rise to prominence. Whereas most leftists in Russia at the time wanted a decentralized socialist state, the Bolshevists believed only through a centralization of the localized soviets could bring about a truly socialist state. The soviets, before they became “The Soviets” who went on to kill Apollo Creed and then lose in hockey, were localized councils formed of factory workers and other laborers. After deposing of the Tsar, they helped make up the provisional government. Everything was great until Vladimir Lenin came up with this crazy idea that a federation of soviets would work better and that they’d work best under a charismatic leader (very anti-Marxist). And then Vladimir Lenin gave a speech where he said, “And, my dudes, I’m a charismatic leader and came up with this idea, so…” And while everyone was thinking that this seemed weird, Lenin basically Leroy Jenkins’ed the provisional government, but was successful and after the Russian Civil War the soviets became the Soviets.

The Russian model of socialism, specifically of Communism, was one of heavy centralization, bureaucracy, and cult personality (until post-Stalin, when everyone realized that maybe having a cult personality isn’t the best thing); ironically, these are the things that Marx argued against and that most socialists – dating back to the French Revolution (first one) and especially the second French Revolution (second one) – were very much against. The Russian Model (or Marxism-Leninism) wanted a vanguard of revolutionaries who made revolution their profession, who would guide the people through a transition into a purely Communist society. Of course, as humans are humans – and as Russia will always be Russia – once the people were in power they forgot about that whole transition thing.  They centralized the economy, worked from a planned economy – which is what harmed the Ukraine more than anything – and gave control to the “soviets,” who weren’t a vanguard organically grown from the working class, but were a political elite selected due to their loyalty to the party and personality leader.

Anyone with a proper understanding of socialism can look at the above model and go, “Yeah, I don’t like that” and still be a socialist. See, Marxism-Leninism is a school within the broad spectrum of socialism. If someone can reject the above and still be a socialist when the above is socialist, what exactly is socialism?

The briefest and simplest definition I can think to give is that socialism is any view where the public use of a good is valued above the private ownership of a good, to the point that the good is publicly owned and managed. To some, that still sounds like Soviet Russia, but it’s not. Roads are considered a public good. Fire departments, police, even utilities are considered public goods. They are, then, publicly owned and paid for by communal funds (taxes). Few people, except for the most libertarian and anarcho-capitalist among us, would argue for privatizing the police, the fire department, or roads. No one wants to call the police or fire department only to be met with a one-time use fee of $99, or pay a monthly subscription of $300. These things are public goods. But at its most basic level, that’s socialism.

There must also be an understanding of the difference between private property and capital producing property. Can I own property under socialism? Can I own a business under socialism? Can I have a paycheck or any ownership under socialism? The answer is, yes, of course you can to all of the above. A home, a car, a computer, a TV, or any other thing that we consider marks of a quality of life aren’t public goods because they have no public interest. They are property, but they aren’t capital producing property; no one makes money by having a TV, a car, a computer, etc. They might be used to help you obtain capital, but they themselves are not capital producing. Owning a business, however, is a capital producing property and now we get to discuss socialism.

The socialist theory of business ownership varies depending on the school of socialism we’re talking about, but at its core the argument is and always will be that the private ownership of a business must always come second to the public good offered by the business. This isn’t to say that you can’t own a bodega or own a fruit stand, but the moment your ownership threatens the good of the local community, you’ll face regulations or even lose the ownership of the property. That sounds extreme, but we already do this; if a factory is dumping toxic waste into a local river, they risk the government shutting their business down (or at least did at one point, not so much under the current administration).

Ideally, socialism would look at capital producing private property and argue one of two things (or both): All capital producing property should be owned and managed by the workers of that property and/or all capital producing property should be owned, managed, and regulated by the community. It takes the idea of democracy and privatizes it, eradicating the dictatorship of executive boards and management and instead creating mini-democracies out of businesses. And it’s hard to argue against the theory (and practice), because to do so would be to say that democracy is a bad thing (and at times it can be, but how many capitalists want to admit that?). The argument goes that the worker should be entitled to own the fruits of his labor, otherwise he’s engaged in a form of slavery. It may not be the Roman system of slavery or the American system of slavery, it may not be brutal, but it’s still a form of slavery because his entire existence rests upon the good graces of a boss. His labor is owned by someone else, which would fall under slavery.

Even strict social goods like healthcare and education can be federally funded, but administered at a local level. Within the US, this means that states or even municipalities would have the responsibility of running the administration of their universal healthcare system and education system (with the support of federal dollars, so there would be federal guidelines, but still the freedom to run the system that best supports the locality). All told, the goal of any socialist system is to give more power to the locality whether it’s in business or government. Someone who supports a decentralized socialist system (such as myself) is a big fan of local government, but is also a big fan of local business.

It is why some of us can look at Bolshevism with the same disdain that a capitalist would look at it; but we look at capitalism (at least American Capitalism) and see it being just as bad as Bolshevism (there’s an argument that Bolshevism looked worse than it actually is because it took place in Russia, and Russia is notoriously bad at anything government related, historically speaking). It’s why some of us, many of us, can ask for a socialist system, but to leave the Bolshevism on the side.

 

Avoiding a Bolshevik Revolution: A How To Guide (Featuring Vladimir Solovyov)

Well it’s here, the 100 year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (give or take a few days, I’m late…I have a real job you know). So it’s time to celebrate because there ain’t no party like the Communist Party! We’ll have plenty of food, unless you’re Ukrainian. Sorry.

For whatever reason, cos-playing Antifa kids want to party like it’s 1917 (forgetting the irony that Antifa is typically anarcho-communist, meaning it’s not exactly in line with Bolshevik ideals, but whatever) and overthrow the bourgeoisie. And who can blame them? In our modern age, at least in the United States, we’re seeing such a massive disparity in wealth that we can actually watch it destroy our economy, hopes, and dreams in real time. We’re seeing jobs disappear, the rise of an aristocratic class in America, and realizing that our counterparts around the industrialized and modern world tend to have much better, much easier lives. We feel hopeless to change all of this.

But don’t fret, because pre-revolution Russians felt REALLY similar (they actually felt worse)! So we got that in common. We can look to history to see how to prevent it from happening again. The easiest way to avoid a Bolshevik Revolution is to not dissolve the monarchy and put a highly divided, inept government in place while fighting a major land war against Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. Likewise, don’t free people from feudalism and have no plan on how to…

So yeah, the exact parallels don’t exactly match up. But if you look at some of the pre-Revolutionary philosophers, they saw the problem of the Revolution before it ever occurred. I don’t mean Lenin or Trotsky. I don’t even mean Bulgakov or, to a lesser extent, Florensky. Dostoevsky certainly punches the causes of the Revolution in the gut before it ever happened, but doesn’t spell it out. No, we must look to one of Dostoevsky’s good friends, The Philosopher himself (not you Aquinas, sit down), Vladimir Soloviev, or Solovyov, or whatever (I’m going with Solovyov).

Ah yes, Solovyov, of course, why not him? Who hasn’t read Solovyov? Well, pretty much everyone in the West hasn’t, so…

Vladimir Solovyov was a guy born destined to be a priest, moved toward Nihilism, then toward Catholicism, then back toward Orthodoxy. He was impressive enough that Dostoevsky based not one, but two characters in The Brothers Karamazov on him (Aloysha and Zosima; impressive when you consider Aloysha is named for Dostoevsky’s son who passed away with 3 years old, but still took on the characteristics of Solvoyov). He was a big believer in ecumenism founded on love and truth and a bigger believer in a government that was economically progressive and socially libertarian. Oh, and he is considered a heretic by many for his going too far with his teachings on the Divine Sophia. So close.

The thing is, Solovyov saw the Revolution coming and wrote about it in the 1880s. He saw that a great European war would strain the resources of Russia and cause the people to finally revolt, to revolt against a Church entrenched within an oppressive government, to revolt against a monarchy that had abused the people for centuries, to revolt against life itself. He saw that they’d establish a totalitarian regime based on modernism and that this regime would eventually collapse, years after the revolution (seriously, he predicted all of this; absurdly impressive and unfortunately the book is packed away right now so I can’t offer citations). And he saw that, way back in 1880, the Revolution could be stopped. Alas, no one listened to him.

His solutions, however, apply to more than Russia. His solutions are, in a typical Russian way, very vague, very specific, and very paradoxical. In many ways, they only apply to Russia at that specific time and place. But in other ways, they apply to all nations at all times (such as his maxim, and I’m paraphrasing here because, again, my books are packed away, “It is okay to love one’s country, but love other countries as much as you love your own”). Solovyov’s entire system in that it’s theological-philosophical, but can be adopted and embraced by anyone of any faith. You could boil his entire system down to one thing: Love. The entire economic and political system of Solovyov boils down to loving others. Seems simple enough, but it’s not.

See, to Solovyov, revolutions occur because people are treated like shit, but we’re not shit, we’re more than that. He throws off the notion that humans are basically good or basically evil and rather argues we have the capacity to be good and evil, but what matters is what we choose to be. The path to choosing good must begin with the belief that we have some purpose in life, something more than wasting oxygen in a cycle that will inevitably end billions of years from now. That purpose is to grow in love, which even the atheist who denies all purpose in life can embrace so long as he has a streak of existentialism within.

Growing in love means holding to a belief in the common good, or doing what is best for all. Not the greater good (the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people), but the common good, looking out for everyone, even the assholes. But all of this is still vague, so let’s break down how we look out for the common good:

  1. Remember that human dignity actually exists. What that means is that every human being, whether obscenely wealthy or obscenely impoverished, holds value. No one holds any more intrinsic value than anyone else, which means that all legitimate concerns are valid (there are illegitimate concerns, but we won’t get into that).
  2. Remember that we’re a part of something greater. In recognizing individual human dignity, we must also recognize that we’re nothing without our community and our culture. Who we are as individuals is directly tied to and reliant upon who is around us. Thus, we are born with a debt and we die with a debt to a society that forms us how we are; if we are successful, we must remember those tools came from thousands of different people instilling lessons into us to make us into who we are. No one is raised by their own bootstraps, Obama’s “You didn’t build that” would fit every well within Solovyov’s works.
  3. Remember that because we have individual dignity and because we are nothing without the community, we must not elevate ourselves above the community. Selfishness, whether through petty robbery or through low wages to increase profit rob the community. It isolates us from the reality of our existence, which is what causes the economic anxiety and, on a deeper level, the existential angst, that deep desire for something other than our current life, so prevalent in our modern times.

The problem with Russia is that they ignored all of the above. They kept giving power to aristocrats, they ignored the workers, they ignored the pleas to depart from the war, they ignored the cries for fairer treatment. The Russian people cried out for dignity and were met with a very strong nyet, so the Russian people said, “Oh, okay then, well, how’s about a nice revolution?” And thus 1917.

And here we are, 100 years later in the United States, failing to learn from Russia’s mistake. Listen to modern debates over things that shouldn’t be so vitriolic, like healthcare or fair wages. We all understand, or should understand, that businesses do have to make a profit in order to stay open (this is true even in a Communist society; the profits are just shared among the workers or the community…or in the case of Soviet Russia, “shared” by a bureaucrat), that doctors need to make money to continue their practice and education, and that there has to be an exchange of goods that can at times be pricy. But we also need to understand that people need to, you know, live. That they too need to make a profit on their labor and not the bare minimum acceptable, that they need money for more than the necessities so they can enjoy leisure.

The problem in the modern age is we have two political parties that have seemingly forgotten (or, let’s be honest, never knew about) Solovyov’s core principles. We’re currently attempting to pass tax legislation that not only denies the existence of human dignity, it straight up lights the concept with fire and pisses on it to put it out. We tell the poor to work harder, ignoring that the system is set up to harm those who are poor despite their hard work. The wealthy, especially with the latest GOP tax bill, puts petty charges in there to jab at the poor, as a reminder to them that they are poor and therefore lesser. Their dignity doesn’t matter as much as someone who is wealthy because we have this stupid myth that being wealthy means you’ve actually earned your wealth without anyone’s help at all.

So when the poor in the US have had too much, when they can’t stand to be insulted and have their dignity robbed from them by working 7 days a week between two jobs only to still live paycheck to paycheck, when they grow tired of watching their children suffer from preventable diseases, when they realize that they’re being scammed by the ruling elite in the US, and then they decide to elect a strongman leftist, an open and avowed Socialist who comes with all the centralized socialism you could ever want, they can look back in sorrow on Solovyov as he tamps out his pipe, smiles, and says, “Told you so sukas.” (He probably wouldn’t say that). If you want to avoid a revolution here in the US – not an armed revolution, but one at the polls – then you should probably start treating everyone with dignity and class, which means we’re going to have to reform our entire economic system. Good luck with that.

So we’re openly supporting brutal dictatorships with a hint of glee. Okay.

Look, we all know that the title “Leader of the Free World” that we use for President is hyperbolic (I sure hope we know that) and not really true. It’s still symbolically important however, so it’s probably important that if you hold this title that you not go and support a brutal dictatorship that is imprisoning and killing rival members. You know, like Saudi Arabia.

I get it, the US has a long history of choosing to be on the wrong side of history, especially in our alliance with Saudi Arabia. So any elected official – for better or for worse – has to be careful with what they say about such a brutal regime. But Trump is just diving in headfirst (like Pete Rose) into some Saudi lovin’. It’s one thing to give a vague response to what’s going on, it’s entirely another to refer to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with the same affection and admiration that a nun would show to the Rosary, or that a New Englander would show to a Dunkin Donuts owned by Bill Belichick and managed by Tom Brady (right now, people in New England are Googling hard to see if this actually exists).

See, and this is where it gets really complicated, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) may actually help his country with what he did. Many of the people arrested actually were corrupt and actually are a hinderance on modernizing Saudi Arabia. MBS wants to bring his country, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the 21st century (or as 21st century as a radical Wahhabist nation can be). So his actions may not be all bad, but they could be and could be very destabilizing, signaling to hardliners that MBS might try to modernize too much, which could lead to some nasty revolts. It’s honestly a major gamble; on one hand, this could pacify Saudi Arabia within the next 10 years, which would cease the exporting of terrorist ideology. On the other hand, this could exacerbate the situation and destabilize the region even further. Hooray modern foreign affairs!

At the same time…

Trump is also just being honest. In the past a president might have commented on how MBS is going about this all wrong, but wouldn’t have done anything about it (and may not have even commented on it). Trump’s tweet is at least brutal honesty, that we don’t care how much the Sauds run their nation with an iron fist, as long as they give us that black gold we’ll be good.

And yet…

As president of the United States and already threatening Jeff Sessions’ job as Attorney General unless he goes after Hillary Clinton, supporting a similar move overseas really, really, really looks bad here. He’s already talked about how he wants to go after his political rivals here, so supporting another world leader doing is…concerning. And that’s just me making an attempt at a polite British understatement; it’s actually disturbing. It’s very disturbing. He’s made comments about going after political opponents, about wanting to go after the Democrats, about going after Clinton, and going after whomever based on the idea of “draining the swamp.” And here he is supporting that exact action overseas, possibly wondering, “Now why can’t I do that?” (The Constitution, but that means exactly what to him?).

So this is the world we live in. As cliche as it is, multiple philosophers (and yes, Plato) have pointed out that Republics, especially large ones, tend toward dictatorships because eventually the system gets clogged up and the people want a demagogue. Trump certainly isn’t the end of our Republic (it’s been dying for a while), but he’s certainly a necessary step along the way.