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Technocrats Aren’t Socialists: Good Riddance, Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang has dropped out of the Democratic Party primary. How should socialists be making overtures to his base?

Renato Flores

February 17, 2020
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Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Andrew Yang has dropped out of the presidential race after disappointing results in Iowa and New Hampshire. Yang stood out in the Democratic primaries as a candidate with an original platform, and was one of the few who cultivated a dedicated following. Yang has focused on the decimation of the American middle class, has argued that automation is largely the culprit, and has promised a Human-Centered capitalism. To address this, his key proposal was a universal basic income of $1000 per month, something that definitely raised eyebrows. 

Because he seemed to understand intuitively that something was wrong with the current political zeitgeist, and he appeared to care for the average American, some on the left have been quick to call on his supporters to join “the political revolution of Bernie Sanders.” However, Yang’s proposals—not to mention his tacit support of American imperialism and his anti-Palestinian stances—are antithetical to a socialist program.  A product of “the Californian ideology,” Yang’s politics combine the worst of Silicon Valley liberalism with some all-American racist tropes which have made him palatable, even attractive, to right-wing libertarians.

The origins of the Californian Ideology

The “Californian ideology” is a term introduced by Barbrook and Cameron in an essay in 1995. An obvious play on Marx’s “the German ideology,” Barbook and Cameron set out to explain the new cosmovision of ‘dotcom liberalism,’ which was pervasive in Silicon Valley at the time. In their own words, it was “this new faith” which had “emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley…the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies.”

In summary, the Californian ideologues firmly believed that technology could provide an easy pathway for liberation, and that computer technology in particular was a new mode of production which made the state obsolete. By deregulating the economy, progress would be accelerated as tech came in to bridge and substitute the inefficient structures of the state, and this would make us all free from domination. It was a thoroughly capitalist ideology from a section of the bourgeoisie, a pioneer-libertarian dream made for US consumption. The new tech world would be an eternal frontier where we could repeatedly reinvent and recolonize new digital grounds to make us all rich pioneers. The Far West was in Cyberspace. Of course, this is far from what happened. Tech allowed the concentration of power into fewer and fewer hands. The Californian ideology was proved bankrupt with the crash of the dot-com bubble, and even more so by the 2008 crisis. 

As Alain Curtis put it, “The original promise of the Californian Ideology, was that the computers would liberate us from all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes, in control of our own destiny. Instead, today, we feel the opposite—that we are helpless components in a global system—a system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change”. Despite the advances of technology, the ranks of the working class, who have nothing to sell but their labor has continued to increase; and the rate of exploitation has grown enormously at a global level.

The Californian ideology today

Despite its initial failure, some elements of the Californian ideology have been preserved, recast in new terms. One of the best known exponents of this ideology is Elon Musk, who envisions himself as a modern day Randian Hero—an indefatigable tech entrepreneur who is able to constantly reinvent himself using the newest technology. Of course, we know that this is a lie, and Musk is at worst a predatory entrepreneur, a mere charlatan at best. But Musk is simply following the logic of the Californian ideology, which states that tech can solve all our problems and make us all individual heros. This is pervasive in Silicon Valley, with apps constantly being reinvented that appear to solve standing problems, but in reality just serve to deskill and further reduce workers rights in the “gig economy”. 

The inherent bourgeois individualism of the Californian ideology, and the faith that all our problems are really simple and can be solved easily is evidently shared by Andrew Yang. Yang is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and presents a more refined view of the world which is adapted to today’s problems. He is aware of the problems technology can cause, in particular, those of automation and deskilling which destroy the better-placed sections of the working class. Yang’s idea to combat this in the present and future destruction is very simple: the “Freedom dividend”, an all-American universal basic income of $1,000/month. But Yang’s discourse hides the class character of the way technology is used. It is not just automation that deskills and displaces workers, but the purposeful way that it is deployed by capitalists to maximize their profit, be it here or in Mexico and other countries that have become producers of cheap labor for imperialist transnationals.

In a Californian manner, Yang ignores the power structures of capitalism and sees the solution to government bureaucracy and “inefficiency” through a simple solution that claims to empower the individual. Welfare would be replaced with a check for everyone who so chose. While some benefits, such as disability, or veterans benefits would be maintained, the basic idea remains. It has an innate libertarian/free-market appeal: there is no need to conduct additional research, or check the papers on everyone. Red-tape is gone, just hand out the checks! And for Yang, this solution extends to all others. Climate change is coming? Everyone now has $1000/month to move out of their places. Rising health care costs? You have money now! 

Even if the amount of $1000 is by all means insufficient and would amount to welfare destruction, the fact remains: the economy is a stubborn problem. If UBI were implemented tomorrow, living standards would of course temporarily increase. But in the long term, UBI barely questions the logic of the market or of capitalism. It cannot adequately deal with capitalism’s declining rate of profit or its destruction of the planet. Within the confines of the free-market, UBI is bound to trigger “the iron law of wages” down the line, if nothing else is regulated. Landlords would surely increase rents, and the prices of other basic necessities would go up. UBI would barely be a blip in today’s decaying capitalism, and must be followed by more radical alternatives.

These ideas have been developed in a more left-manner to avoid the pitfalls of the free market. A more advanced version of UBI is a universal guarantee of services, like that proposed by Aaron Bastani in Fully Automated Luxury Communism. To provide this guarantee of services, the government would have to ensure the services are made available to all—and this does require some significant reshaping of the economy and control of the market, with workers eventually seizing the means of production to avoid capital strikes, abandoning the individualistic appeal of UBI. However, the guarantee of universal basic services is still somewhat agnostic to technology, and promises a future of petit-bourgeois consumerism. FALC supporters miss what comes after in the steps necessary to build a socialist future. Beyond seizing the means of production, technology must be reshaped as it is not neutral. Instead, it is fundamentally biased towards a particular hegemony in the way it is deployed and structured. The relationships of production and the way we relate to technology in a socialist society must shift if we are to achieve something that looks like our imagined communism.

A cosmovision antithetical to socialist values

Yang’s appeal was ultimately very limited. Even if while he toured Iowa, he seemed to intuitively grasp the suffering of middle America, his solutions were ultimately very out of touch with what would appeal to most potential voters. He personifies a libertarian-managerial worldview that is in decline. While he was able to grow a dedicated following it ultimately was bound to be small because the interests he aspires to represent are those a small minority of the US population.. Because Yang appears to be anti-establishment, it is easy to think that the Yang gang will immediately join the progressive camp. Yang’s worldview, while flawed, does represent those of a bourgeoisie that realizes that capitalism cannot keep screwing over working people if it is to survive. His promises of “Human-Centered” capitalism, which explicitly states that humans are more important than money, would put him not far from Warren on a left-right scale. 

This makes it a natural target for people like Eric Blanc, who want to grow Bernie’s coalition by incorporating elements that appear to be only slightly to his right. His view, which is shared by others within the Bernie campaign, is to absorb whatever is possible, without scrutinizing their worldviews into a vaguely left-populist campaign that hopes to realign the Democratic Party. Yang’s supporters, however, do not easily fall into the left-right category, and for them to join even the mild social-democracy of Sanders would require them rethinking a lot of their basic commitments and their understanding of the state.

Yang’s commitment to a UBI is not a “universal right” analogous to the welfare state, as Connor Kilpatrick claims. In no way does it challenge the exploitation of surplus value, nor is it a program of redistribution. UBI is inherently individualistic and in many ways anti-welfare and anti-state. It does not mesh well with the collectivity expected from a socialist program. But this isn’t a problem for Blanc and others who just want to unite people inside the Democratic party to push for a fictitious realignment. They just see supporters of “an anti establishment figure” and run towards them. Rather, what is needed is to fight for an actual class program, something that will never happen within the Democratic Party. But even conceding that point, finding allies to fight for a class program involves asking the hard questions: what is Yang’s class base, who is he trying to talk to, and why is it worth engaging with.

Once those questions are asked, there is no doubt that the Yang Gang is not worth chasing. Some of them might come to socialism on their own. But aside from the libertarian supporters, there was significant support from members of the black community. In Yang’s UBI, a section of the black petite bourgeoisie see a lifeline for the decaying black local economies, which are being forced out of the market by immiseration of their consumers and gentrification. UBI would be less politically charged than reparations, while providing similar income flows. But this is another group that will not be prone to accepting socialist ideas because of their class interests.

Yang’s accommodation to White Supremacy

Another piece of Yang’s platform that made his coalition broaden his appeal in the worst kind of ways was the way he accommodated White Supremacy. The most obvious place to start is that he called his UBI a “Freedom dividend.” But that charge of American Chauvinism, antithetical to any serious socialist program was actually described by Kilpatrick as a “stroke of genius.” In no way is this a wink to collectively generated wealth as Kilpatrick tries to claim, but instead a nod to the bourgeois values that “make America great.”

Furthermore, Yang heavily played into the stereotypes of Asians and of the “model minority.” He said in many debates that Trump’s opposite was “an Asian that is good at math,” or that he “knows a lot of doctors.” By doing this, he helped reinforce the stereotype of all Asians as scientists—an obviously absurd caricature cast, no less,on a population as large and diverse as “Asians” who happen to make up 60% of the world’s population. He also sets himself apart as a “good immigrant,” one of the ones “we” want, especially when compared to the other immigrants who are racialized and stereotyped in very different ways. The model minority myth has been widely recognized to be very damaging to all immigrants.

Yang’s inmigration program plays heavily into the “good immigrant” stereotypes. Yang does recognize that immigrants are being scapegoated by politicians, and blames automation for the loss of good jobs. But by valorizing the immigrants that make the US stronger through their labor, and providing a pathway to citizenship to those who pay their taxes and have no felonies, he supports a very pernicious idea that separates the “deserving” migrant from the “undeserving.” Trump’s discourse in which he blames Mexico for “not sending the good ones” is Yang’s discourse spoken in a different tone. Yang also does not significantly challenge tropes of “human trafficking” and “drug cartels,” and calls for increased border security. With all this, it is hardly a surprise that overt white supremacists find themselves comfortable in his coalition.

Not the support we want

To sum up, it is barely surprising that now that Yang has abandoned his campaign, his supporters are not considering voting for another Democrat, and are even defecting to Trump. His cross-coalition is barely coherent, and will splinter in several directions due to its diversity. Some may very well end up in the Bernie camp, but it is worth asking the questions Blanc and Kilpatrick aren’t asking. From their opportunistic perspective it is just necessary to bring together factions of the Democratic Party to win the primaries and attempt a realignment. For this, they just need numbers in the polls, without questioning the reasons for the votes. Of course, they never ask what comes after, and how even the mild program of Sanders will be achieved through this. As socialists, we have to ask how will this be achieved, and who do we expect to fight with us in the long run. And this starts by asking about the class composition of the Yang Gang. When answering, one would be hard-pressed to think that this is a group socialists should focus on winning over. A day will come when we will have to trust them to be in our trench.

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