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Base and Superstructure

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United States, Iowa

 

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  • Matt Drabek
  • August 02, 2019 02:52:20 PM
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A Little About Us

Wherein an Iowan writes about leftist politics, philosophy, and maybe baseball.

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5 of My Favorite Sci-Fi Book Series

So, I read lots of science fiction books, and therefore lots of sci-fi book series. After all, the sci-fi book series forms of the core of the genre. An author writes a good book, leaves enough on the table to allow for more, the book gets popular, and then: Bam! It’s a series. It’s happened … Continue reading "5 of My Favorite Sci-Fi Book Series" The post 5 of My Favorite Sci-Fi Book Series appeared first on Base and...

So, I read lots of science fiction books, and therefore lots of sci-fi book series. After all, the sci-fi book series forms of the core of the genre. An author writes a good book, leaves enough on the table to allow for more, the book gets popular, and then: Bam! It’s a series. It’s happened hundreds of times.

But I don’t often write about science fiction in this blog. I did write about the curious implications of one book in the era of COVID-19, and another in the era of automation. But I’ll go a little bigger in this post. Here are some of my favorite sci-fi book series.

5 Favorite Sci-Fi Book Series

I’ll try to cover as wide a range as possible with this list. So, I won’t just write about robot books or galactic empires from the 1940s or 1950s. But there will be one series that fits this description. Which one? Let’s find out.

Isaac Asimov – The Foundation Series

Oops, it was the first one. But these books about a galactic empire do not peddle shoddy goods. For a bit of trivia, the first three books in this series won a special Hugo Award in 1966 for the Best All-Time Sci-Fi Book Series.

And deservedly so. In these books, Asimov perfected the style of ‘future history.’ He focused less on characters – no characters make it through even a large part of the series – but rather on the broad historical plot. Foundation is about a collapsing galactic empire and a new science of ‘psychohistory’ designed to fight it.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because countless sci-fi authors used it as a model. But Asimov does it best.

What to read: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation

Frank Herbert – The Dune Chronicles

It’s almost impossible to describe the plot of Dune to anyone who doesn’t know it. It’s…the story of a futuristic conflict between a totalitarian empire and a group of religious fanatics who overthrow it? It’s…about the battle of a giant sandworm-human hybrid to save the universe from robots?

It’s both of those things. But, more than anything, Herbert provides a ton of useful lessons about society.

What to read: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Hainish Cycle

Le Guin’s Hainish sci-fi book series is really less a series than a collection of stories in a common world. Her worlds usually aren’t at war, and she doesn’t rely on gimmicky plot moves or tricks. The format fits very well her theme of exploring deeper social issues.

She portrays highly technological, futuristic societies that suffer from issues we could just as easily find in Plato’s Republic. She does all this more effectively than perhaps any other sci-fi author. Readers can begin from any story in the series and hop in.

What to Read: The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest

Cixin Liu – Remembrance of Earth’s Past

We’ve seen lots of recent sci-fi work from China. And Liu gives us here one of the best Chinese sci-fi book series. On the surface, Remembrance of Earth’s Past tells a story about humanity’s first encounter with alien life.

There’s nothing unique about that. Many sci-fi books tell that story. Liu puts a unique spin on it by telling the story in a particularly…gloomy and dystopian way. It’s not that alien civilizations turn out to be warlike. Rather, Liu presents the universe as a dark forest, where civilizations hide from one another because each civilization that announces its presence is promptly destroyed.

Beyond this, Liu situates the politics of Earth within Chinese communist history – particularly the history of the Cultural Revolution.

What to read: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End

Kim Stanley Robinson – The Mars Trilogy

Robinson tells a story centering on the settlement and terraforming of Mars. What he does better than anyone else is give scientific and social details about how this process would go. He traces it from first contact to land formation to sea formation.

As he traces the politics of the new world, he bases political parties and movements on the traditions of the U.S. left. It’s an approach like no other.

What to read: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars

Addendum

It’s not easy to make a list like this. I left off the list several recent sci-fi book series worth checking out. For anyone into military sci-fi or space opera, I’d place John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series and James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse at the top of my Honorable Mention list.

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Solidarity, Not Self-Flagellation

I’m not big on prayer. I’ve been an atheist since about age 15. That’s more than 20 years ago, so it’s something that probably won’t change. But here’s one situation that comes close to driving me to prayer. It pops up from time to time from social justice activists who take perspectives like this one … Continue reading "Solidarity, Not Self-Flagellation" The post Solidarity, Not Self-Flagellation appeared first on Base and...

I’m not big on prayer. I’ve been an atheist since about age 15. That’s more than 20 years ago, so it’s something that probably won’t change. But here’s one situation that comes close to driving me to prayer. It pops up from time to time from social justice activists who take perspectives like this one from DiDi Delgado writing in Medium.

Let’s take a look at what’s wrong with this perspective.

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A Hot Mess

So, the article I linked above is a hot mess. But not uniquely so. It represents a way of thinking among some social activists that has grown all too common.

To be clear, much of Delgado’s critique of SURJ is on point. She’s right that groups like this have their problems. Like Delgado, I don’t see much getting done when a room full of whites talk in circles about whiteness.

But when you pull out to take a broader look, you see a masochistic vision at best and a nihilistic one at worst. Delgado appears to call on guilty white liberals to engage in endless self-flagellation, with no real goal in mind other than petty comeuppance. And so, the article moves from insightful critique to directionless, dilettantish politics.

That’s no way to build a movement.

The Opposite of Solidarity

There’s a quote in the article that represents the core of its politics:

An ally should be personally gaining NOTHING through their activism. In fact, if you are an ally, you should be losing things through your activism; space, voice, recognition, validation, identity and ego.

Indeed, that quote gets at the heart of the particular brand of social justice activism that I’m drawing attention to here. Quotes like this are recipes for failure – every time – if the goal is to build a functional movement that gets things done. Perhaps it’s a cathartic quote. Perhaps it helps establish a sense of control (for better or for worse).

But, politically, it’s a big, big loser. No one except a few liberal-minded, highly-educated and/or wealthy people ever join movements explicitly aimed against their own interests. And even they don’t care that much for self-flagellation. They just don’t do it. The world dooms these movements to fail, if racial justice was even the goal in the first place.

But we can make a further point here. No one – white or black – benefits from a world where nearly everyone – white and black – is dragged down, kept in low wage work, forced into endless self-doubt, and browbeaten into Maoist-style self-flagellation. I haven’t met a single person who finds those things genuinely inspiring or worth fighting for. The people into it try to spread their own misery to others or take advantage of those struggling with issues of self-doubt.

On the contrary, good racial justice activism involves people of color and whites working together to build collective power and popular organizations. You don’t get there by manipulating and browbeating your colleagues.

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Unions Aren’t A Vanguard

Many leftists propose some form of vanguard theory of socialist change. From the Leninist idea that a vanguard party will form working-class consciousness to the identitarian view that certain identity groups will lead the way, leftists have long looked for shortcuts to change. Some – most recently, various DSA caucuses – propose unions as a … Continue reading "Unions Aren’t A Vanguard" The post Unions Aren’t A Vanguard appeared first on Base and...

Many leftists propose some form of vanguard theory of socialist change. From the Leninist idea that a vanguard party will form working-class consciousness to the identitarian view that certain identity groups will lead the way, leftists have long looked for shortcuts to change. Some – most recently, various DSA caucuses – propose unions as a vanguard. This calls to mind older ideas like workerism or certain forms of class reductionism.

But, whether new or not, is it right? Can unions be a vanguard for socialist change?

No. At least, not in anything like their present form. Nor in any form they’re likely to take in the near future. Let’s talk about why.

Unions and Rank-and-File Members

We’ve seen several great labor actions from ‘unions’ in recent years. The 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike tops the list.

But – like many recent labor actions – West Virginia teachers worked around their unions, not through them. Draconian state laws limit what union leaders can legally do, and their decades long ties to Democrats and electoralism take care of whatever the law fails to do. Many unions also commit to anti-democratic, anti-strike, tech-driven (rather than people- or base-driven) methods.

And even when unions stay grounded and adopt better methods, they’re often wedded to the narrow interests of their members rather than to the working class as a whole. Let’s say, for example, that a developer wants to build a new luxury housing project in a city. It’ll raise housing prices and enrich developers and landlords at the expense of the people who live nearby. In many cases like this, unions come down on the side of the developers and landlords.

Why? “Jobs, jobs, jobs!” In other words, the short-term, narrow interests of members over the working class.

For these reasons, unions can’t serve as a vanguard until we build mass, base-driven organizations that look beyond the often narrow, myopic interests of mere slices of the working class. It remains to be seen what these broad groups look like.  But we know we need a group like that in place before unions can take the historical role many people suppose they have.

The Politics of Union Members

Unfortunately, the data show rank-and-file union members often don’t advocate for good politics, either. This limits the DSA’s idea – or the idea of some in the DSA – that current rank-and-file union members could serve as a vanguard apart from their leaders. The rank-and-file simply isn’t yet a bastion for a radical vanguard.

We have extensive exit polling data showing that union members are only modestly more liberal than other people. And we have new polling data confirming these results. Let’s take a brief look.

At a broad level, union members are slightly more Democratic than the general population. And active union members are less Democratic than retired ones, probably showing a general shift in the politics of unions.

But the polls reveal deeper concerns. Union members aren’t more favorable to the term ‘socialism’ or to policies like Medicare for All than most other people. In terms of their ability to serve as a vanguard for socialism, this seems like the much larger problem. Perhaps union rank-and-filers could get to the vanguard point, but we’re pretty far away from that now. We need, for a start, new political education and broader base-building.

A Broader Vanguard or No Vanguard

All these facts lead me to conclude that we either need a broader vanguard – made up of working class people, unions, tenants, racial justice groups, et al. – or we need to just quit thinking in terms of ‘vanguard.’

The post Unions Aren’t A Vanguard appeared first on Base and Superstructure.


The Lincoln Project and the Democratic Party

Let’s follow up on one of those lessons from the Trump Administration. The Lincoln Project – a group of Republican ‘Never Trumpers‘ – ran a ton of anti-Trump ads during the 2020 campaign. Specifically, let’s look at how the Lincoln Project might influence the future of the Democratic Party. Many mainstream Democrats believe they won … Continue reading "The Lincoln Project and the Democratic Party" The post The Lincoln Project and the Democratic Party...

Let’s follow up on one of those lessons from the Trump Administration. The Lincoln Project – a group of Republican ‘Never Trumpers‘ – ran a ton of anti-Trump ads during the 2020 campaign. Specifically, let’s look at how the Lincoln Project might influence the future of the Democratic Party.

Many mainstream Democrats believe they won in 2018 and/or 2020 because they won those mythical suburban, college-educated white voters who just love squishy, bipartisan moderates. We see this in, among other sources, the public words of Nancy Pelosi. We also see it in local candidates like Abby Finkenauer and national ones like Joe Biden.

The Lincoln Project and Never Trumpers

The Lincoln Project launched an operation in 2020 with the apparent goal of convincing Republicans to abandon Donald Trump. It appears the project failed. Republicans overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2020.

But a flood of ‘Never Trump’ Republican columnists touted the Lincoln Project. They loved it. And they used it as a wedge to push Democrats to the right. Consider, for example, David Frum’s efforts at pushing Biden toward bipartisan policy.

This stuff serves as catnip for liberals and progressives who want to lead us into the bipartisan future. And they play professional-managerial class liberals like a fiddle. Police departments in liberal cities do exactly the same thing – pretending to be high-minded while warding away liberals from supporting ideas like ‘defund the police.’

The Future of the Democratic Party

And so, it looks like the Lincoln Project will likely succeed at pushing the Democratic Party to the right – or at least at preventing it from turning to the left. The problem is that Democrats didn’t win in 2018 or 2020 because they moved to the right. They won because voters hated Trump.

In the short term, this probably won’t harm Democrats too much, at least electorally. But the long term tells a different story. The more Democrats marginalize its electoral left – politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Squad – the more difficulty Democrats will have in keeping their younger generation interested in voting or serving in office. And Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer – and the older, more moderate voters they represent – won’t live forever.

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Afropessimism: From Identitarianism to Nihilism

The ideology of identitarianism – the reduction of political issues to issues of identity – formed one of the earliest focuses of this blog. Mostly we find this view on the far right, specifically with Trumpism in a U.S. context. But we find a milder, less offensive version on the ‘left’ – in the work … Continue reading "Afropessimism: From Identitarianism to Nihilism" The post Afropessimism: From Identitarianism to Nihilism appeared first on Base and...

afropessimism

The ideology of identitarianism – the reduction of political issues to issues of identity – formed one of the earliest focuses of this blog. Mostly we find this view on the far right, specifically with Trumpism in a U.S. context. But we find a milder, less offensive version on the ‘left’ – in the work of, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates. As I’ve pointed out, identitarianism tends to lead to nihilism. Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the view called ‘Afropessimism.’

What is Afropessimism?

As a starting point, Afropessimism looks to the book Slavery and Social Death by the sociologist of race Orlando Patterson. Patterson’s work concerns how slavery forms a total institution of control over a person’s life. His work wasn’t limited to American slavery. Rather, it concerned slavery in general. And Patterson himself doesn’t really follow Afropessimism in his work.

Theorists like Frank B. Wilderson III – see his book Afropessimism – argue that the same total domination under slavery still exists in post-slavery societies like the U.S. He argues that humanity itself is defined in terms of anti-blackness. Slavery, on this view, is simply an expression of U.S. society’s hatred for black people. Once it tossed out slavery, it expressed the same hate – to the same degree – in new ways.

I won’t take much time here to argue against Wilderson. I think he’s clearly setting aside the fact that the hate he describes is a result of slavery rather than a cause of it. We see this in, for example, his dismissal of comparisons to white theft of Native American land. And I’ve argued much along those lines elsewhere, as have authors like Ibram X. Kendi.

Rather, I’m using the example of Afropessimism to point to where identitarianism leads when people take it too seriously. This is a few steps beyond, e.g., privilege theory. It lands more as the pessimistic take on Killmonger. When one tries to interpret every political issue as always driven by race, one ends up in a state of paralysis and despair.

N.B.

Aside from the flawed theory it contains, I’d highly recommend Wilderson’s book. It’s mostly an autobiographical work. And he has led an interesting and compelling life. In addition, for more information on specifically Trumpist versions of identitarianism, readers might want to check out my ebook, A Primer on Trumpism!

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