Thursday, December 17, 2009

SW Review of "Precious"

Read it here.

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So this is Christmas?

I love Christmas. I really do. My love for it has nothing to do with a belief in virgin birth or any other supernatural happenings. I think it stems mostly from the nostalgia of truly happen times when I was younger during the Christmas season. I also love the promotion of things like love, and unselfishness, and giving, and peace (though why it is we have to have a holiday to promote these things rather than holding them as values year round is deeply troubling). I think it's a genuine love and one I'm mostly not embarrassed to say I have, despite my agnosticism and my issues with consumerism (see T's post below).

But I must admit, I think some of those butterflies I get in my stomach during the holidays are the creation of the profit-industry. I do like going into stores and feeling the hustle and bustle of shopping. I love getting things and I love seeing people get happy when I give them things. I can't separate my feelings about Christmas from the multitude of sentimental movies and songs out there in the world.

There are, obviously, things I hate about Christmas consumer culture: I hate that most people around the world are getting nothing while a few of us are getting loads of stuff we don't need. I hate when my loved ones spend more than they can afford to make me happy. But knowing these things doesn't stop me from also finding pleasure in the whole thing. A lot of pleasure.

I happen to love loving Christmas. But what do we do when the things we love are so deeply tainted by capital and inequality? I'm not just talking about the little things, like giving to charity or making homemade gifts (both strategies I really love), because those don't erase the major inequalities still at play. They also don't help us resist the devaluing of those basic Christmas values for the other 11 months of the year. They do nothing to challenge the structural basis of inequality and the need for charity in the first place. They continue to place ideas like equality and responsibility and sharing at the level of willing individuals, rather than at the social.

I don't want to be a Scrooge. I love Christmas. But, sometimes, when I step back and look at the whole fiasco from a little broader perspective, and wonder why it is I love certain things so much about it, I can't help but to sigh, "hum bug."

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sanders Ammendment being debated now!

(via HC-NOW!):

Bernie Sanders has introduced an amendment extending Medicare to all americans. Watch it being debated in the Senate on CSPAN right now!

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Adorno on Free Time


To elucidate the problem I would like to use a trivial personal experience. Time and again in interviews and questionnaires one is asked what one has for a hobby. Whenever the illustrated newspapers report one of those matadors of the culture industry -whereby talking about such people in turn constitutes one of the chief activities of the culture industry- then only seldom do the papers miss the opportunity to tell something more or less homely about the hobbies of the people in question. I am startled by the question whenever I meet with it. I have no hobby. Not that I'm a workaholic who wouldn't know how to do anything else but get down to business and do what has to be done. But rather I take the activities with which I occupy myself beyond the bounds of my official profession, without exception, so seriously that I would be shocked by the idea that they had anything to do with hobbies -that is, activities I'm mindlessly infatuated with only in order to kill time- if my experiences had not toughened me against manifestations of barbarism that have become self-evident and acceptable. Making music, listening to music, reading with concentration constitute an integral element of my existence; the word hobby would make a mockery of them. -T.W. Adorno, from his essay "Free Time" (1969)
If you can get past the apparently curmudgeonly veneer of this passage, there is a really interesting argument here. The first thing Adorno notes at the beginning of this essay is that the expression "free time" is itself a recent development, thus asking anything about it in abstraction from concrete developments in contemporary societies is a question without content.

What is "free time" for us? Adorno points out that in order for the phrase to even be intelligible, it must be "shackled to its contrary": free time is the opposite of "unfree time", or time "occupied by labor... [which is] determined heteronomously". In other words, the expression "free time" is meant only to mark off those time intervals in which we aren't working or laboring according to the dictates of some job or task whose imperatives issue from without.

As Marx argued, labor becomes a commodity in capitalist societies, that is, it becomes reified (i.e. it becomes thought of as an exchangeable object, rather than a contingent ensemble of social relations).

But the paradox is that free time, "which understands itself to be the opposite of reification, a sanctuary of immediate life within a completely mediated system, is itself reified like the rigid demarcation between labor and free time. This border perpetuates the forms of social life organized according to the system of profit".

Now, it's important to note here that it hasn't always been this way. Societies have been configured differently in different historical epochs, and the idea of "free time" or "leisure" would not have made sense within these social formations in the ways that it does in our society.

As sociologist James Fulcher points out:
Industrial capitalism not only created work, it also created "leisure" in the modern sense of the term. This might seem surprising, for the early cotton masters wanted to keep their machinery running as long as possible and forced their employees to work very long hours. However, by requiring continuous work during work hours and ruling out non-work activity, employers had separated out leisure from work. Some did this quite explicitly by creating distinct holiday periods, when factories were shut down, because it was better to do this than have work disrupted by the casual taking of days off. "Leisure" is a distinct non-work time, whether in the form of the holiday, weekend, or evening, was a result of the disciplined and bounded work time created by capitalist production.
But there was also another way in which capitalism was implicated in the creation of "free time":
Leisure was also the creation of capitalism through the commercialization of leisure. This no longer meant participation in traditional sports and pastimes. Workers began to pay for leisure activities organized by capitalist enterprises...The importance of this could hardly be exaggerated, for whole new industries were emerging to exploit and develop the leisure market, which was to become a huge source of consumer demand, employment and profit. [see Fulcher's excellent (2004) Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP)]
Now, although we've re-situated the idea of "free time" back into its social and historical context, we've still yet to say anything substantive about it.

The first question to ask is: what role does it play within contemporary societies?

For Adorno, the effect of contemporary capitalist societies is to "hold people under a spell", under "an existence imposed upon people by society" that is "not identical with what they are in themselves or what they could be". Now Adorno doesn't want to claim that we can or should make any simple division between "what human beings are in themselves and their so-called social roles". But the important point here is that the way that human beings behave/act under certain conditions is by no means inevitable, since those conditions could be changed. The crucial thing to note here is that social institutions could be otherwise, they could be organized according to different principles, and as a result we can imagine people in contemporary societies being very different as well. The upshot is that the generalized picture of the consumerist, egoistic subject is deabsolutized: it is not inevitable that people will behave in this way, that their desires be configured in this way, and so on.

Because capitalist processes have begun to colonized the spheres of leisure and culture, Adorno worries that "even where the spell loosens its hold and people are at least subjectively convinced that they are acting out of their own will, this will itself is fashioned by precisely what they want to shake off during their time outside of work."

In short, "unfreedom is expanding within free time, and most of the unfree people are as unconscious of the process as they are of their own unfreedom". "The irony in the expression "leisure industry" is as thoroughly forgotten as the expression show business is taken seriously."

A peculiar development of the colonization of leisure time by the dictates of profit is that consumption itself has become a pastime. Think of the phrase "consumer goods". What are these? They are goods produced for consumption, that is, goods produced for the sake of the activity of consumption. Consumption itself is the purpose of this activity.

The "Teen Talk Barbie" strikes me as the perfect metaphor for the barbarism of this process. First consider that the doll's bodily proportions are perfect distillations of a set of oppressive norms prescribing what a woman's body "should" look like (incidentally, the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, concluded that "Barbie's figure would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate"). The "beauty" norms according to which Barbie is fashioned are ubiquitous, and contribute to the reproduction of the idea that women should think of themselves according to certain prescribed criteria.

Moreover, the "teen talk barbie", itself something people are expected to purchase, is programmed to say things like "I love shopping!", "Math is hard!", "Will we ever have enough clothes?".

It's as though, on a scale larger than Barbie dolls, we're called on by inert plastic objects on a shelf to think about ourselves and consumption in ways that are sick.

Happy Holidays! I've got to go get some shopping done before time runs out.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

But what will you DO with that?!

"...at least one philosophy course, and, more adequately two, should be required of every undergraduate. Of course an education of this kind would require a major shift in our resources and priorities, and, if successful, it would produce in our students habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world. But to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought in any case to be one of our educational aims." - Alasdair MacIntyre

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Sexism, Racism and Liberal Political Thought


Consider for a moment how often we encounter "post-racist" and "post-feminist" ideologies. On the one hand, they acknowledge some version of the claim that history is marked by racism and sexism. On the other, both claim that contemporary societies are no longer encumbered by sexism or racism: we now live in a more or less post-racist, post-sexist social order.

Now to the extent that liberal political thought tends to hang its hat on a private/public distinction, it seems to me that it is bound up with the maintenance of the ideology sketched above. Moreover, the liberal tradition (broadly construed so as not to connote the idiosyncratic American sense of the term) has tended to focus intensely on legal and political institutions in lieu of critically engaging ostensibly "private" institutions such as the family, the workplace, the church, schools, clubs and organizations, culture, media and so on. And insofar as this is true, the relationship between "post" ideologies and liberalism should be even clearer.

We should therefore find it suspicious that the women's liberation movement and what is now called the "Civil Rights Movement" are remembered today as more or less legally-oriented and conventionally political movements. The slogan "the personal is political" couldn't be further from the way that feminism is construed today in many mainstream appropriations of the women's movement: today feminism is described as though it ought to be a politics that prizes "choice" above all else. Thus, "private choices" are once again apolitical: it is the job of post-feminism to shield ostensibly private matters from the political scrutiny they received from second and third-wave feminists.

Today, my sense is that the women's liberation movement is remembered as a movement aiming merely to achieve certain legal changes. The same is true of the way that the Civil Rights Movement (as indicated by its label) is remembered: it was just a movement aiming to eliminate certain racist laws and to enforce voting rights.

But as Angela Davis points out, it wasn't clear during the 1950s and 60s that what was under way was a "Civil Rights Movement". Davis claims that in those days, among her comrades in SNCC it was known simply as the "Freedom Movement". While certain legal reforms were obviously part of the movement's goals, it is far from obvious that this exhausted its aims. In fact, the history of the movement itself suggests that the legalistic re-reading of history is dubious.

Consider first of all that the main locus of disagreement between the ostensibly more "moderate" MLK and the more radical Malcolm X (religious differences notwithstanding) was essentially one of tactics, i.e. not in the first instance one of divergent emancipatory aims. Furthermore, even MLK's politics do not fit within the narrow legalistic reading of the movement: MLK was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, American Imperialism abroad and Cold War foreign policy, and he argued forcefully in the last years of his life that the fight against racism was also at the same time a fight against certain socio-economic conditions. We'd need to fundamentally re-think the basic social and economic institutions in capitalist societies, MLK held, in order to have any hope of successfully smashing racism.

But given that this is the case, what does this suggest about the viability of post-racist and post-sexist ideologies? As I see it, there are 3 important conclusions to draw here.

(1) One conclusion that seems clear to me is that these "post" ideologies depend first of all on a re-interpretation of the historical meaning of social struggles. In other words, a condition of thinking that these "post" narratives have any plausibility is that we first of all believe that the goals of the Women's Movement and the CRM were purely legal.

(2) Another conclusion is that the distinction between "de facto" and "de jure" oppression or domination has been obscured by the prevalence of liberal ways of thinking about politics. The point of the distinction is to distinguish between de jure forms of domination that are literally written into the word of law (e.g. aspects of Jim Crow) on the one hand, and de facto forms of domination that derive from non-legal features of social institutions and norms. Thomas McCarthy, in drawing a parallel between what he calls "neoracism" and "neoimperialism" draws the distinction as follows.

"Whereas neoimperialism is a way of maintaining key aspects of colonial domination and exploitation after the disappearance of colonies in the legal-political sense, neoracism is a way of doing the same for racial domination and exploitation after the disappearance of "race" in the scientific-biological sense... just as postcolonial neoimperialism could outlive the demise of former colonies, post-biological neoracism could survive the demise of scientific racism... and just as the shift to neoimperialism required modes of domination and exploitation that were compatible with the nominal independence and equality of all nations, the shift to neoracism required modes that were compatible with the formal freedom and equality of all individuals."(Race, Empire and the Idea of Human Development. (2009: Cambridge UP)
I believe something similar could be concluded about sexism. While some (though not all) de jure forms of sexual oppression have been repealed and replaced by important new legal forms, focusing our attention only at this legal level of analysis makes it impossible to understand gender oppression now or throughout history.

(3) And a final conclusion to draw from this phenomenon is as follows. In order to find the 'post' ideologies compelling we must also have an individualist way of thinking about society and politics. After all, the familiar post-racist claim goes something like this: in the past there used to be explicit, de jure forms of discrimination that were restrictive. But now that these de jure forms of oppression have been lifted, there is no fetter on the ability of individuals (of any gender or race) to "succeed" in making a lot of money if they simply work hard enough.

There are many ways to refute this claim, but here's a rather general way of dispatching it. Now I would not contest the claim that in principle, it is possible that any one individual working-class person of any background to become the next Bill Gates. But conceding this trivial claim about what might be possible does not obscure the fact that it must also be true (for the 'individual' claim to work) that the working class is collectively unfree to leave the working-class. In other words, while it is true in some trivial sense that any one person "could" hit it big, it must also be true in capitalism that everyone in the working-class couldn't hit it big at the same time. Capitalism requires that a large mass of working-class people whose cheap labor make the wealth of a small class of people possible. Massive improbability notwithstanding, it is also conceptually impossible within capitalism for everyone to become Bill Gates all at once, since there would be nobody doing the socially-necessary labor that sustains capitalism.

The result is that focusing on the possibilities that a generic "individual" has for social mobility says nothing of the way that the entire society, writ large, is structured. For if the "individual claim" is only true in a situation in which lots of other people are restricted from leaving an oppressed status, then it amounts to very little in the way of dispelling claims that racism, sexism and class oppression are important features of the present.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lenin on Minaret Ban

Read the post here.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More than 1/3 of Young Black Men Unemployed

Via WaPo: 34.5 percent of young African American men are unemployed.

Glen Ford over at BAR has a good post skewering the Obama Administration's indifference to serious attempts to confront this trend.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Stupak Amendment Sucks

SocialistWorker.org has an op/ed on it here.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

On Claude Levi-Strauss and the Structuralists

Louis Proyect has a great post up about the recently deceased anthropologist and founder of structuralism, Claude Levi-Strauss.

Great reflections on the relationships between optimism, doubt, Marxism, and history.

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California Tuition to Rise 32 Percent

That's right. The NY Times has the story here.

This is so disastrous. If the American Dream had been available before, it is certainly gone now.

Update: I should make it clear California students aren't taking this lying down. UCLA students have occupied a building on campus (Unclear if they're still in there as of today).

Updated update: Students occupying a building at Berkeley in protest as well.

H/T to Austin Thompson.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Politics of Characterizing Capitalism

My sparse posting over the past few months is mostly due to my recent immersion into graduate school, where, among encountering many new intellectual trajectories, I've encountered serious and self-proclaimed post-modernists for the first time. I've dabbled in Foucault, Butler, Lyotard, Joan Scott, and a few others. As I've done this reading I've had a critical eye for suggestions that we completely abandon the material or historical in pursuit of the discursive, and been extra critical of many post-modernists' outright rejection of metanarratives and grand theories. I am a Marxist, after all.

But I've also been interested in what these theorists have to offer in terms of interventions. It doesn't take a lot of arguing to convince me that the way we talk about things can contribute to maintaining existing structures of power. Foucault, for instance, argues that merely accepting the narrative that sexuality is repressed in our society, even if you wish to transgress that repression, is perpetuating the dominant narrative of sexuality by affording it absolute power in defining the discourse on sexuality.

But when it comes to the anti-capitalist project, knowing how the discursive might be used to interrupt capitalism is less clear. Certainly, one might try to simply de-normalize capitalism by actively challenging the naturalness or common sense-ness of capitalist values. That's a rhetorical move, yes. But how far does that go to actually challenge capitalism?

Then I read J.K. Gibson-Graham's article "(Queer)ying Capitalism in the Classroom." In the article, a la Foucault, Gibson-Graham argues that accepting the narrative of capitalism (when she teaches feminist economics, mind you) as a fully global, dominant, behemoth system reproduces the idea that capitalism is the only system possible in today's context, on the one hand, and a system one cannot resist, on the other.

Gibson Graham's rhetorical project around capitalism is tied directly to the direction of queer theory:

Of course, destabilising images of capitalist dominance is a big project, and I could not do it by myself. Nor could I do it without queer theory, that in credibly dynamic matrix of contemporary theory whose practitioners are not only theorising about queers but who are also making social theory `queer’. This latter project can be seen to involve not (or not merely) constituting a minority population based on same-sex desire, set in opposition to a heterosexual norm, but calling into question the very idea of norms and normality, calling attention to the violence entailed by normalising impulses, including the impulse to theorise a social site assumed to a hegemonic order [7].

What if we were to `queer ’ capitalist hegemony and break apart some of its consolidating associations? We could start by reimagining the body of capitalism, that hard and masculine body that penetrates non-capitalism but is not itself susceptible to penetration (this image conveys some of the heterosexism that structures contemporary social theory). One key `coming together’ (a Christmas effect that participates in consolidating a capitalist monolith) is the familiar association of capitalism with commodification and `the market’. This association, in which all three terms ultimately signify `capitalism’, constitutes the body of capitalism as dominant and expansive (at least in the space of commodity transactions). But how might we re-envision that body as more open and permeable, as having orifices through which non-capitalism might enter? We might argue, as many have done, that many different relations of production, including slavery and independent commodity production and col lective or communal relations are compatible with production for a market. What violence do we do to these when we normalise all commodity production as capitalist commodity production? Surely the market is a mobile and membranous orifice into which can be inserted all kinds of non-capitalist commodities, whose queer presences challenge the preeminence of capitalism and the discourses of its hegemony.
Certainly, since capitalism is the normative discourse in our society, even admitting as much and calling it a discourse (rather than the assumed natural order), is a radical move for many people. But what Gibson-Graham makes us question is whether the desire to portray capitalism as the defining characteristic of our society contributes to its position as such. She mentions then employing different projects in her classes where her classes explore non-capitalist models of production taking place in U.S. society. This both de-normalizes capitalism, by showing alternatives, and interrupts the idea that the normative discourse is actually normal.

But, does this cause us to understate capitalism's real power? Do we need to portray capitalism as inescapable to relate how much power it has over the lives of those who would resist it? And, how would one implement this kind of discursive move outside the classroom (where most of us do the majority of our talking about capitalism with other people)?

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Inspiring the youth, placating the authorities

From the headline of a recent NYTimes article:

At a town hall meeting, President Obama’s answers stood out as a stark snapshot of a his efforts to reach China’s youth while not offending its authorities.
Was this not precisely what Obama did in the US as well, before and after the election?

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Four Perspectives on the Fall of the Wall

Here are three articles from a SocialistWorker.org series on the fall of the wall. Here is Slavoj Zizek's take on it in the NYTimes.

One of the more poignant moment's of Zizek's piece was when he said that:

When people protested Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the large majority of them did not ask for capitalism. They wanted the freedom to live their lives outside state control, to come together and talk as they pleased; they wanted a life of simplicity and sincerity, liberated from the primitive ideological indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy.

As many commentators observed, the ideals that led the protesters were to a large extent taken from the ruling Socialist ideology itself — people aspired to something that can most appropriately be designated as “Socialism with a human face.” Perhaps this attitude deserves a second chance.

I think this is precisely what gets drowned out in the triumphalism that continues to accompany most cheering about the fall of East-Bloc Stalinism. That, even today, we can still hardly articulate a position outside of prescribed disjunctions like "East or West", "Communism or Freedom", etc. should strike us as deeply problematic.

The fall of the wall dividing Berlin means so many things, but any critical assessment of these ramifications would not operate within the facile logic of east vs. west, communism vs. 'freedom'. Here I am tempted to recall a similarly complicated political situation that receives similar treatment in mainstream outlets: the political situation with Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Without any doubt whatsoever, Mugabe's regime is violent, oppressive, self-serving and largely ineffective. But any critical account of the entire situation in Zimbabwe would include a lot more than the failings chalked up to the actions of the current regime and its leader. It would include engagement with the legacy of colonialism, the neo-colonialism of Britain's post-Independence economic interactions with Zimbabwe, the relationship of Mugabe's regime to global capitalism, the concrete configuration of power within Zimbabwe before and after independence, the continued existence of high concentrations of economic power in the hands of colonial elites, and so on.

But complicating the political dynamics is not possible within the framework foisted upon us in outlets like the Economist or the NY Times. There we are told that the politics are simple: The West is good, Mugabe is bad... which translates to: more neoliberalism is the prescription, the ZANU-PF and land reform are the disease. This is why certain British outlets are so pleased to hear about everything going terribly wrong in Zimbabwe, for it gives credence to what they've wanted to claim all along: that Zimbabwe "isn't ready" for self-rule and needs to to be brought in line by means of neo-colonial economic domination.

Something similar, I feel, is true of our confrontation with the history of the Soviet Union. It's easy for the media to simply give us a redux of the triumphant, clamoring cheers proclaiming a new world of unbridled capitalism that followed the events of 1989. It's easy to continue to use the demise of the East Bloc (or the degenerated worker's states, state capitalist regimes... whatever you like) to cast doubt upon any alternative to capitalism. But the world has never been as simple and clear cut as "east vs. west". Today, not to feel at all ambivalent about what died with the East Bloc is to accept a kind of cynicism that, perhaps, in 1991 was forgivable, but today reemerges as one of the most suffocating legacies of the Cold War. As Adorno put it in another context: "freedom would not be to choose between black and white, but to abjure such prescribed choices".

Whatever else is true of American collective memory and the fall of the wall, it is not unreasonable that many Germans who lived in the DDR aren't satisfied with 20 years of capitalism they've been thrown into as part of their liberation. This jibes with the Zizek quote at the beginning of the post: those protesting the East Bloc regimes did not ask for economic shock therapy, criminal privatizations of public assets, or the ruthless competition of capitalist social relations. The situation was and continues to be a complicated one.

The central political question here, for me, is put well by Badiou:
Why, in the 20th century, have the most heroic popular uprisings, the most persistent wars of liberation, the most indisputable mobilizations in the name of justice and liberty all ended… in opaque statist constructions wherein none of the factors that gave meaning and possibility to their historical genesis is decipherable?... we must categorically reject the refrain of all those who imagine themselves being able to settle this question with a few evasive replies on totalitarian ideology since it is apparent that they have simply abandoned the ideas of justice and the emancipation of humanity and instead joined the eternal cohort of conservatives bent on preserving the ‘lesser evil’
But the rejoinder of the "eternal cohort of conservatives" conservative reply to any serious attempt to imagine a different kind of society makes an invalid inference. While it may be true that we are best served to accept the least worst alternative in the meantime, this bare admission does not cast any suspicion on the perpetual, unending struggle to try to find an systemic alternative to the present that is far more just, and far less violent and exploitative.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Leftists in Germany Protest Berlin Wall Anniversary

While a majority of Europeans and Americans prepared to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this weekend, some German leftists are instead protesting what they call the "freedom of capitalist competition" that came with the fall of the wall.

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Against Electoral Politics



What is politics? What is the terrain of the political? What's at stake?

Ask many people these questions and their answers will understandably point to Washington, elections, Democrats, Republicans and so on. Having an interest in politics, on this view, means watching CNN, following the inane daily hubbub on Capitol Hill, etc.

But as Alain Badiou astutely points out, "If we posit a definition of politics as ‘collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order’, then we would have to conclude that the electoral mechanism is an essentially apolitical procedure." This is a fecund observation that is worth unpacking further.

The definition of politics offered above seems, on the face of it, uncontroversial. What should the raison d'etre of our electoral institutions be, if not to facilitate collective decision-making, organized by certain principles, aiming to unfold the new possibilities currently repressed by the dominant state of affairs?

Yet this is patently not what electoral politics are about in the US. Here, elections are about an endless, narrow see-saw maneuver between Democrat and Republican parties. Consider for a moment what this narrow back-and-forth is not: it is not a struggle between different substantive political visions. Nor is it a disagreement over how a just social order would be organized. It is, for all intents and purposes, a process of narrow bickering between two pro-business entities. Politics, if it has any place in this process at all, is merely a small, incidental side-effect.

Today we're trained to think that the highest form of political activity possible is voting for either a Democrat or a Republican. We're encouraged, then, to think that politics itself is an individualistic practice in which we go, alone, behind a curtain to decide to cave in to one or other pro-business organizations. I think it's fair to say that things haven't always been like this. At other periods in world history, there have been serious debates about big questions, about what kind of society we want to live in. It is helpful here to revisit some of the debates from the early 20th century on the Left about tactics, strategy, and elections.

At the very beginning of the 20th century, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the strongest Marxist, left-wing party in the world. The labor movement in Germany had been growing steadily in membership and in power, and it looked for a time as though the SPD was leading the charge for another, more just kind of society. The SPD's leading theoretician was Karl Kautsky, a fiercely dogmatic defender of Germany's existing parliament as a strategic means for constructing a socialist society.

An interesting debate was instigated by a polemical brochure entitled "Terrorism and Communism", penned by Kautsky, directed at discrediting the tactical and strategic trajectory of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Trotsky wrote a reply in 1920 with the same title, that was later published as a book (republished recently by Verso, and introduced by Zizek).

For Kautsky, the debate between reformists in the SPD and Bolshevik revolutionaries is one of "democracy" versus "dictatorship". He casts his own reformist view as the "democratic" alternative to the allegedly violent, impetuous and "authoritarian" strategy endorsed by the Bolsheviks. The crucial question here, however, is what does Kautsky mean by "democracy"?

He means a representative parliamentary system coupled with capitalist control of industry and social life. In other words, he conflates democracy as such with a certain kind of electoral procedure situated in the context of a particular configuration of capitalism. In short, he reduces democracy itself to the parliamentary mechanism such as it was in early 20th century capitalist Germany.

Trotsky's reply (and we might add here that Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxembourg, Lenin and others shared this view) is that we cannot speak of democracy at all unless we talk about the conditions it would require to realize it. The view is simple: you can't speak of "democracy" (or freedom and equality) in the legal sphere if workers are in chains in the social and economic spheres. You can't institute true democracy by legal procedures alone if such procedures are instituted against the backdrop of massive inequalities of power. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in the foreword to the recent Verso edition of Trotsky's text:

"For Trotsky the true stakes of the debate are not simply democracy versus dictatorship, but the class 'dictatorship' which is inscribed into the very form of parliamentary dictatorship.... the true question is... how the very field in which the total political process takes place is structured."
In other words, our question here must be: what extra-electoral conditions would have to obtain in order for democracy to be realized?

Now, surely some will object here that if this is Trotsky's view, he'd do well to eschew the language of 'dictatorship'. This objection, however, misses the mark. What Kautsky blithely dubs "democracy", Trotsky calls a form of dictatorship. In other words, parliamentary democracy under capitalism is, for Trotsky, a form of class "dictatorship". This is analogous to Rosa Luxembourg's distinction between "bourgeois democracy" and "socialist democracy", the main difficulty with "bourgeois democracy" being that there's not enough of it. It not extended to the social and economic sphere; those spheres are under the control of the capitalists who own the commanding heights of the economy.

Let me try to spell this out a little more clearly. If Trotsky and other Marxists are correct to define capitalism as a mode of social organization in which the major productive resources and institutions are privately owned by a specific class (rather than democratically, by all), then we must conclude that parliamentary procedures are compatible with a high concentration of undemocratic economic power. Another way to put the point is to lean on Marx's distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation. For Marx, the transition from feudalism to liberal capitalism represented a great step forward in that it granted a larger degree of "political" (read "legal", "electoral") equality and freedom than feudal societies allowed. But, Marx held, merely political emancipation is not enough; the bourgeois revolutions that overthrew feudalism didn't go far enough. Democracy, he argued, had to be extended not only to political/legal institutions, but to social and economic institutions as well.

Thus, if you're committed to human (rather than merely legal) emancipation, if you're committed to radically rethinking economic and social organization,
Trotsky's worry is that you cannot accomplish this within the parameters of parliamentary procedures under capitalism.

Here's the argument for why this might be the case. Holders of large concentrations of economic power can make use of this power outside of the electoral arena. Capitalists can make threats. They can lay off politically active workers that are 'trouble makers', they can close factories, they can threaten democratically-elected governments with disinvestment, layoffs, etc. They may purchase and privately control and own media institutions. Often, after hundreds of years of capitalist development, they've managed wield military institutions to serve their interests.

The point here is that economic power is not relinquished without a fight, and we have no reason to expect that fight to be waged "fairly", within parliamentary bounds, by the ruling class. Even when regulations and limits are imposed upon capitalists by governments, capitalists will relentlessly deploy their economic power to game the system and find ways to get such limits and regulations repealed. In extreme cases, when it appears that a government will make real, systemic changes... the ruling class has been known to support right-wing coups and reject parliamentary democracy entirely. An instructive case study here is socialist head of state Salvador Allende in Chile circa 1970-73.

Allende was elected by a broad coalition of center-left and left-wing parties in Chile amidst uproar from the landed elites and ruling classes in Chile. When Allende tried to reform economic institutions and put land reform into law, his efforts were stonewalled and sabotaged by economic elites who used their power to "go on strike", lay off workers, suffocate the economy and try to bring the country to its knees.

Multinational corporations in Chile such as the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) set to work quickly to fight against Allende, and they weren't interested in trying to win the battle over electoral terms (a battle, the company's owners realized, they'd have little way of winning in the face of a broad popular mandate for Allende's policies). We now know from memos circulated amongst elites in ITT and the American-owned Kennecott Copper Company that their goals were to "“to strangle the Chilean economy, sow panic, and foment social disorder in order to encourage and create the opportunity for the armed forces to step in and replace Allende". Also- their influence convinced the US and related institutions like the World Bank to impose an economic blockade on Chile to help the destabilization effort.

The point of this is that all of these efforts were effective against a democratically-elected government precisely because of the concentrations of economic power under capitalism. Admittedly, "dictatorship" somewhat overstates the case, but the case of Chile in 1973 makes the point that capitalist's stranglehold on economic power must be challenged directly in order for real democracy to be possible.

So, either you are open to the reconfiguration of social/economic organization or you are not. If you are, as socialists purport to be, then you cannot be dogmatically committed to the narrow strategy of merely trying to elect certain people within predetermined parameters (e.g. Democrat or Republican). You must be committed to a broader conception of political activism, one that embraces extra-electoral struggles (
strikes (conventional, sit-down, wildcat, etc.), community organization, grass-roots protest and demonstration, sit-ins, etc.) as a means to alter the entire political center of gravity. In other words, the goal of a progressive social movement is not to merely operate within narrowly circumscribed procedures prescribed by the existing order, but to dynamically create the conditions for its own success.

We've recently lived through a massive change in electoral holdings of power. In 2004, people were talking about a "permanent Republican majority". Four years later, the GOP has lost control of both chambers of Congress and the Presidency, while the Democratic majority in the Senate sky-rocketed to 60. But for all this massive changing in electoral terms, the political content of the change (as we see today) is extremely thin. The continuity between the last days of the Bush government and the Obama administration is extremely discouraging. Foreign policy has essentially stayed the same. Regulation of financial markets is about as forthcoming under Obama as under Bush in 2008. The response to the crisis of giving spectacularly large amounts of welfare to Wall Street was virtually the same under Paulson as under Geithner, in fact the "Paulson Plan" was implemented lock stock and barrel under the latter's tenure. After all of these massive interventions to save the assets of powerful economic elites, Obama even had the audacity to talk of the importance of "market solutions" and the "private sector" when discussing health care. The message was clear: massive government spending for economic elites will be forthcoming and plentiful, but all we've got fo the majority of the population is the thin gruel of laissez-faire.

Aside from snagging a bit of low-hanging fruit (raising the minimum wage, redirecting some much-needed, overdue funds into education and infrastructure), the Obama administration has not deviated from the course taken by Bush. For all the talk of change, this has been a rather smooth transition from 8 years of Bush compared to what, in electoral terms, was a major alteration of course.

What further proof do we need that the end-in-view must not be "getting Democrats elected"? Whatever else is true, the Civil Rights Act was not passed by a drive merely to "get the right people elected". Neither do not have Social Security or unemployment benefits because of electoral fetishism.

Rather than being a means of change, current Federal elections in the US are a way of staving off real change. We must not forget that the large swells of community energy, activism and volunteerism that was poured into getting Obama elected reflected real needs and real discontent with the existing order. The heartbreaking reality, however, is that the election of Obama siphoned off all of this important energy and defused it.

The question we are confronted with is: now that this swell of energy and excitement has been betrayed, what can be accomplished within the parameters of electoralism? Do we have an electoral means of holding those in power accountable? However we answer, no honest response could have anything to do with getting more Democrats elected or with staving off a Republican backlash.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Lee Sustar on The Escalating War Against Public-Sector Unions

Read it here.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Excellent Paul Krugman article on Health Care

It's an oldie but a goodie. Read it here.

Here's a basic statement of one fundamental irrationality in our private health insurance system:

[T]he only way modern medical care can be made available to anyone other than the very rich is through health insurance. Yet it's very difficult for the private sector to provide such insurance, because health insurance suffers from a particularly acute case of a well-known economic problem known as adverse selection. Here's how it works: imagine an insurer who offered policies to anyone, with the annual premium set to cover the average person's health care expenses, plus the administrative costs of running the insurance company. Who would sign up? The answer, unfortunately, is that the insurer's customers wouldn't be a representative sample of the population. Healthy people, with little reason to expect high medical bills, would probably shun policies priced to reflect the average person's health costs. On the other hand, unhealthy people would find the policies very attractive.

You can see where this is going. The insurance company would quickly find that because its clientele was tilted toward those with high medical costs, its actual costs per customer were much higher than those of the average member of the population. So it would have to raise premiums to cover those higher costs. However, this would disproportionately drive off its healthier customers, leaving it with an even less healthy customer base, requiring a further rise in premiums, and so on.

Insurance companies deal with these problems, to some extent, by carefully screening applicants to identify those with a high risk of needing expensive treatment, and either rejecting such applicants or charging them higher premiums. But such screening is itself expensive. Furthermore, it tends to screen out exactly those who most need insurance.

Can you see how these deep-seated structural problems with private insurance will be solved either by the current 'reform' bill, or by a 'public option'? Neither can I.

The often-repeated mantra on the "center left" that we need to sit down, crunch numbers, and try anything and everything that might "work" is disingenuous. All of this faux-pragmatist garbage from Obama is not only false, but patronizing. We don't need to sit around and listen to 'all the best ideas' and continue to be 'open minded'. We need to realize that the 'conversation' going on right now isn't a discussion among fair-minded participants all aiming at getting things right; the 'conversation' is merely a proxy for a political struggle between divergent interests (e.g. maintaining the economic power of some vs. realizing universalizable interests like securing universal coverage).

The "pragmatic" truth here is that it is obvious what a rational, just, efficient health care system would look like. Despite the complications introduced into the discussion by Obama and co., this is not a complicated issue whatsoever. The only complicated question here should be how to most effectively fight against powerful industry interests and free-market fundamentalism.

Here's a simple question that we are publicly barred from asking: what purpose should our health care institutions serve? In other words, what should be the raison d'etre of insurance as an institution?

Answer: to provide the best quality health care to the greatest number of people for the lowest cost.

This seems painfully obvious. But think about what this 'purpose' is not: ensuring that doctors and hospitals earn maximally high amounts of money, ensuring that the interests of health industry investors are put above all else, etc.

The first principle of insurance is that the larger the pool of people inside, the lower the risk for all. A trivial feature of market exchanges is that when you buy in larger quantities, you get lower prices because you have more bargaining power as a consumer. Whole-sale is cheaper than retail.

The obvious next step would be to conclude that a rational and efficient health insurance scheme would include everyone (to minimize risk) and would use its massive purchasing power to get better deals with health providers. In other words, the obvious conclusion is that single-payer is the most rational and efficient means of attaining the ends identified above as the purpose of health insurance (to cover the most people for the lowest cost). The fact that single-payer would completely eliminate the absurd bureaucratic waste (from screening, advertising, unnecessary forms, overhead, etc.) required by having tons of different private insurers is only icing on the cake.

Here's another question: what is the purpose or raison d'etre of the massively fragmented web of private insurance companies that constitute a large bulk of our system?

Answer: they exist to make profit for those who own them, full stop.

The incentives driving the organizational structure and actions of these institutions are reducible to a drive to make money. Everything else is instrumental in realizing that obvious goal. What benefits the system may yield for some are merely incidental.

Why then is anyone surprised that our health system does such a terrible job? It isn't even designed to do what any reasonable person agrees is the raison d'etre of health insurance. But what it is designed to do, it does quite well.

Getting upset that our health insurance system is 'flawed' is like getting angry at pencil sharpener for not being a toaster.

Our system is irrational, inefficient, unnecessarily labyrinthine, and unjust. A 'reform' effort that countenances any of these profound problems is anything but. As Krugman put it in 2006:
So what will really happen to American health care? Many people in this field believe that in the end America will end up with national health insurance, and perhaps with a lot of direct government provision of health care, simply because nothing else works. But things may have to get much worse before reality can break through the combination of powerful interest groups and free-market ideology.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Free" Market Health Care

Read all about it here.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Richard Seymour on Royal Mail Strike

Excellent post on the strike and what's at stake here.

Seymour ties it to a larger context toward the end:

These myths - about union intransigence, about the economic necessity of job losses, about the superior efficiency of private competitors, etc. - are being deployed for the purposes of turning a low-cost public service provider into a marketplace of competing providers in accordance with the extraordinarily resilient neoliberal orthodoxy. This brings with it the usual problems - soaring costs, as companies seek to make a profit, duplication of capacity as they fight for market share, and poorer service as low paid, casualised and de-unionised workers are less committed to the job, and less likely to have the time and training necessary to develop their skills. Royal Mail, for all its faults, is one of the last bargains in town. Less than forty pence for a first class letter to anywhere in the UK is nothing. What else would you spend that money on? You couldn't even buy a pint of milk or a Mars bar with that money.

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More evidence that today's global capitalism is 'frictionless'

Haven't you heard? The language of class antagonism is outmoded, and capitalist social relations bring freedom and development for all.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Superfreakonomics" Quackery

Call it hokum, drivel, tripe, balderdash, bs. Call it what you like. My biggest problem is that a lot of it is just false.

Here's a nugget from "Superfreakonomics" (no, I'm not joking about title).

"Then there's this little-discussed fact about global warming: while the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased..."
But as economist Brad DeLong points out, this is baloney:
As best as I can see from http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/Fig.A2.txt, this year is:
  • 1/5 of a degree F warmer than last year
  • the same temperature as 2007 and 2006
  • 1/7 of a degree F cooler than 2005
  • 1/10 of a degree F warmer than 2004
  • the same temperature as 2003 and 2002
  • 1/7 of a degree F warmer than 2001
  • 2/5 of a degree warmer than 1999 and 2000
  • the same temperature as 1998
  • and warmer than every single other year since the start of the Industrial Revolution--a full degree F warmer than 1960, for example.

How do you get from that temperature record to the statement that "over the past several years... average global temperature... has in fact decreased"?
Right. And my next question is: are we going to be stuck walking by this on display tables as we enter Borders for the next 5 years? Ugh. In the long run, though, I feel like we can rest assured that ephemeral swells of the publishing industry such as this will probably just be fodder for garage sales in, say, 10 years time.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

G.A. Cohen's "Why Not Socialism?"


Amazon.com has been telling me via email for months that I "should" buy G.A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism (2009: Princeton UP). I recently gave in and ordered it.

The format is similar to Harry Frankfurt's (surprising) bestseller On Bullshit: very short, elegantly concise and "small enough to fit in a coat pocket."

I found it to be a quick, enjoyable read. I felt that it captured the ethical core of what has, in general, animated and moved the socialist complaint against market society. But passionate and committed as Cohen's account is in putting forward the case, he is still quite sober about the challenges facing the feasibility of socialism. But for me this only makes his case more strongly that the "the question that forms the title of this book is not intended rhetorically".

The book begins by drawing attention to the way people interact on camping trips, which, Cohen argues, is a case where we strongly favor a socialist form of life over feasible alternatives. On a camping trip,

There is no hierarchy among us; our common aim is that each of us should have a good time, doing, so far as is possible, the things that she or he likes best (some of those things we do together; others we do separately). We have facilities with which to carry out our enterprise: we have, for example, pots and pans, oil, coffee, fishing rods, canoes, a soccer ball, decks of cards and so forth. And, as is usual on camping trips, we avail ourselves of those facilities collectively: even if they are privately owned things, they are under collective control for the duration of the trip, and we have shared understandings about who is going to use them and when, and under what circumstances, and why.
To drive the point home, Cohen imagines what it would be like if we were to run a camping trip according to market principles and strict private-ownership. Here's one example:
Following a three-hour time-off-for-personal-exploration period, an excited Sylvia returns to the campsite and annouces: "I've stumbled upon a huge apple tree, full of perfect apples." "Great," others exclaim, "now we can all have applesauce, and apple pie, and apple strudel!" "Provided, of course," so Sylvia rejoins, "that you reduce my labor burden, and/or furnish me with more room in the tent, and/or with more bacon at breakfast." Her claim to (a kind of) ownership of the tree revolts the others.
Cohen's point is that most of us would hate this. We'd correctly complain that Sylvia, in the case imgained above, was being a schmuck.

Now this isn't yet to mount a serious argument for socialism on a wide-scale; it's only to make plausible the principles that we seem to strongly prefer on camping trips (but also, when there are natural disasters and in other cases as well...). But what are theses principles that are implicit in the camping trip?

Cohen argues that there are two: an egalitarian principle (a radical version of equality of opportunity) and a principle of community.

By radical equality of opportunity, Cohen means, simply, that social justice abhors the arbitrary. In other words, factors that limit (or expand) a person's life chances or opportunities on the basis of arbitrary circumstances or chance are unjust; one's relative standing with respect to others should (on the basis of justice alone) owe to nothing except that person's choices and preferences. A person's opportunities should be in no way be limited on the basis of the family she is born into, her initial class status, her race, her natural endowments and talents, etc.

But this version of equality of opportunity, Cohen points out, is consistent with certain kinds of inequality. Importantly, it permits inequalities that result from (1) regrettable choices that people make as well as (2) from what philosophers call "option luck". The familiar case that explains (1) is the parable about the grasshopper and the ant. But (2) is a bit more complex. "Option luck" is tantamount to a deliberate gamble: imagine a case in which two people with equal opportunities both deliberately gamble on something that has 50/50 odds. They both make a similar choice but one ends up with a lot more than the other as a result. Call this "standard gambling".

Now (2) is called "option luck" because it's a deliberate, chosen gamble which was avoidable. But Cohen points out that "market gambling differs strongly from standard gambling" in that the "market is hardly avoidable in a market society... The market, one might say, is a casino from which it is difficult to escape, and the inequalities that it produces are tainted for that reason." He continues:
Whatever else is true, it is certainly safe to say that the yawning gulf between rich and poor in capitalist countries is not largely due to luck and the lack of it in optional gambling, but is rather a result of unavoidable gambling and straightforward brute luck, where no kind of gambling is involved.
So that's the "egalitarian principle". The other principle, community, is characterized by the anti-market norm whereby you serve somebody not on the basis of fear or greed (the dominant characteristics of purely market-based relations), but on the basis of serving them and being served by them in a reciprocal way. "Communal reciprocity", Cohen notes, is a "committment to my fellow human beings as such", not a kind of interaction based on instrumentally maximizing your own benefit by using people most efficiently.

The remainder of the book is devoted to showing that these principles are both desirable and feasible on a wide scale.

Importantly, Cohen makes the point that there are two senses in which socialism might be infeasible: (1) because 'human nature' is allegedly fundamentally selfish and/or because we lack the proper "social technology" to make it happen, or (2) because "any attempt to realize the socialst ideal runs up against entrenched capitalst power".

It's (1) that he's interested in here, since (2) is a question of tactics and strategy about which it is difficult to say anything general.

What Cohen has to say about (1) is honest and convincing. He's not convinced by the "we're too selfish" objection, but he is convinced that we (socialists) don't yet have an institutional scheme that fully fits the principles outlined above. There are plenty of options more desirable than laissez-faire, to be sure. But there is no magic fix, no easy solutions to how to organize a society according to socialist principles. But, and this is crucial, this does not mean that we, in principle, cannot ever devise such technological/institutional arrangements. In fact, the technological/prudential considerations here say nothing of the worthiness of the principles outlined above, so if we really do find them convincing we ought to keep trying, no matter how hard, to realize them as long as we believe they are more desirable than the instrumental reason and fear/greed motivations of markets.

Timely as this is, I've yet to see it on the shelves at Borders or Barnes and Noble. Hopefully that changes. It would certainly be biting if Americans went crazy over a tiny book (by a philosopher) about bullshit, but yawned and failed to even notice a comparable book about justice.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

More on Obama's tepid centrism

From Greenwald @ Salon, here's a nice follow-up on the issue Arvilla draws our attention to and comments on. And here's another bit on Rahm, Obama and the issue of pressure and organization.

In passing, I think it's important to point out that the recent march on Washington for equality was probably the most significant progressive political event in the U.S. during Obama's reign so far. If nothing else, what the Obama phenomenon has made clear for me is that the Democratic Party is not a progressive force in this country; it is by and large an institution that will only enact significant reforms when there is organized pressure from the Left to do so.

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As if we needed more proof that he's a moderate

Next time one of my friends on the left tries to tell me Obama is a leftist hiding in center-left clothing for the sake of political pragmatism, I'll show them this quote from a White House official, which came out yesterday in an NBC report about the White House's response to critics of Obama's handling of LGBT issues (via Pam's House Blend):

Barack Obama is doing well with 90% or more of Democrats so the White House views this opposition as really part of the Internet left fringe.

For a sign of how seriously the White House does or doesn't take this opposition, one adviser told me those bloggers need to take off the pajamas, get dressed, and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult.

This man is not our ally.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Long article on Die Linke in ISJ

Read it here.

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Newsmax lunatic calls for US Coup

Read about it here. Evidently Newsmax backed off the article and has since retracted it. Here's a nice chunk:

There is a remote, although gaining, possibility America’s military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the “Obama problem.” Don’t dismiss it as unrealistic. [...]

Military intervention is what Obama’s exponentially accelerating agenda for “fundamental change” toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America. A coup is not an ideal option, but Obama’s radical ideal is not acceptable or reversible.

Unthinkable? Then think up an alternative, non-violent solution to the Obama problem. Just don’t shrug and say, “We can always worry about that later.”

Yup. There you have it folks. This waco-type violent paranoia is definitely gaining ground with Obama in the White House, which is as painfully clear an indication as any that reactionary forms of racist hatred still animate substantial sectors of the United States.

All McVeigh-type lunacy aside for a moment, what's most frustrating about this totally absurd narrative about Obama as a radical, 'Marxist', etc. is that it isn't even a recognizable exaggeration of what his presidency is about. If Obama were another FDR or LBJ, it would be an absurd exaggeration to say that he was a radical leftist. But at least it would be identifiable as an wild exaggeration of the character of some policies those presidents put forward (e.g. social security, Medicare, etc.).

I'm not even sure I'd want to say that calling Obama a 'radical' is a wild exaggeration in the above sense. For that to be true, it would have to be an exaggeration of something recognizably progressive that he's doing... but what is that?

What is it about Obama's policies that is pissing these lunatics off so much? What has he done that is so radical or 'fundamental' or 'irreversible'? I wish that he had even tried to do anything that fits the bills above, but it's not even clear that that's true. In so many ways, his presidency has been continuous with Bush, but the Fox News coterie of wackjobs certainly wasn't pulling this teabagging coup garbage while W was in office. What's going on here? What are they so angry about?

I suspect that much of this violent day-dreaming about the 'Obama Problem' has little to do with policies. Most of this is just racism pure and simple. No one needs any reminding about the 'birther' stuff and how much traction that got.

But there is a grain of truth to the conviction that something 'irreversible' has occurred with Obama, a black man, taking office: it was a massive blow (although hardly the final knockout) to the racism that this country was founded on and continues to be deeply infected with. And surely the paranoid bigots slurping up this sort of Newsmax tripe sense that their 'cause' is losing a long-term battle here.

Still, as someone staunchly on the Left, however, it's beyond frustrating for me to watch an emerging Right-wing backlash with no Left-wing stimulus that seems to be provoking it. It's like we're getting all of the bad reactionary baggage and none of the good that actually comes out of having a movement truly aiming to enact radical change. We get the teabagger backlash on the one hand, and a phantom "left" threat on the other. We get a Congress so tepid that it isn't even fair to call them paper-dragons, meanwhile the marginalized GOP has basically adopted Sen. Joe McCarthy's rhetorical playbook.

But why is it that in America it's as though you're always being made to navigate between reactionaries and tepid centrists? The only repose to this proto-fascist lunacy cannot just be a wholesale defense of Obama and the Democrats. But that's the either/or we're always been contorted to accept when politics only appears to us as the dialectic of lesser evils.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize

The story is developing here.

But really, wtf has this man done for peace, aside from talk?

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

NYTimes Steaming Pile: Follow Up

Socialism dying a slow, horrible death in Europe.

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Will California Become the US's First Failed State?

That's the title of a sharp article penned recently in the Guardian. As the author points out:

From its politics to its economy to its environment and way of life, California is like a patient on life support. At the start of summer the state government was so deeply in debt that it began to issue IOUs instead of wages. Its unemployment rate has soared to more than 12%, the highest figure in 70 years. Desperate to pay off a crippling budget deficit, California is slashing spending in education and healthcare, laying off vast numbers of workers and forcing others to take unpaid leave. In a state made up of sprawling suburbs the collapse of the housing bubble has impoverished millions and kicked tens of thousands of families out of their homes. Its political system is locked in paralysis and the two-term rule of former movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen as a disaster – his approval ratings having sunk to levels that would make George W Bush blush.
But the most striking image in the article is the following:
Outside the Forum in Inglewood, near downtown Los Angeles, California has already failed. The scene is reminiscent of the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, as crowds of impoverished citizens stand or lie aimlessly on the hot tarmac of the centre's car park. It is 10am, and most have already been here for hours. They have come for free healthcare: a travelling medical and dental clinic has set up shop in the Forum (which usually hosts rock concerts) and thousands of the poor, the uninsured and the down-on-their-luck have driven for miles to be here.
And, of course, California is in the process of cutting its "healthy families" program which enrolls millions of the poorest children in the state.

Now the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of California, for many, is "It is the Golden State: a playground of the rich and famous with perfect weather. It symbolizes a lifestyle of sunshine, swimming pools and the Hollywood dream factory."

California is a rich state.

In California, as in every capitalist economy on the planet, the amount that's socially produced by all far exceeds the amount needed to meet the subsistence needs of everyone in the state. This is called a social surplus, because it's socially-produced through a massive web of coordinated social labor that involves nearly everyone in the entire state.

Yet, given that there is a large surplus, how is it that so many Californians continue to go without the most basic needs? Why are institutions designed to meet those needs (healthcare, education, and so on) being placed on the chopping block when, despite a deep recession, there continues to be a very large (indeed much larger than most economies in the world) social surplus?

As it currently stands, a fraction of the surplus is taxed, while the majority of it is appropriated by a very small percentage of the population. Note that the state budget only pertains to that (relatively) small fraction of the surplus which is taxed and used for public spending.

But the obvious question here is: why are very, very well-off Californians allowed to sequester themselves in their gated communities and, in effect, hoard large swaths of the social surplus while so much widespread misery ensues throughout the state?

Why is it that the rich are so keen on participating in society in boom-times when they're earning large sums of cash, but when hard times hit they suddenly withdraw and claim independence?

To take a rather extreme example, imagine that there are three households in an isolated small town. Due to a serious crisis beyond the control of the town, two of those households (through no fault of their own) are facing a serious shortage of food. But the third household has a massive surplus of food stored up that far exceeds the needs that they will ever need in a lifetime to sustain themselves.

Now from the standpoint of community, say a discussion involving all three households about how best to arrange social policy in the town, the obvious thing to do is for the household with a massive surplus to cede some of it to meet the needs of those facing starvation. The thought is that although the household with the surplus may have attained it through legitimate market transactions, the human needs of the community trump the preservation of market distributions of property. In other words, the community should ask: what is more important at this moment, property titles or human well being?

California's 'budget cut fatalism' answers strongly that property titles are its priority, not human well being.

But, some will object, why should property titles be weighed against anything at all? The reason that we should weigh property rights against general welfare is because property rights are only created and made possible through social cooperation, through having a community that recognizes and legitimates them.

The people that have large surpluses of capital today, could not have amassed it apart from a massive scheme of social cooperation. Given that everyone's help was needed, in a broad sense, to make all of this possible, everyone should have a say in what the most important priorities and values of that society are.

We are already doing this implicitly, insofar as we tax the surplus, but this fact is often ignored in favor of illusory, mythical rhetoric about how "in America, we don't spread the wealth".

All governments, in virtue of what they are, redistribute the social surplus in some way. Even if we had the Newt Gingrich-favored "flat tax", it would still be redistributive (i.e. spreading the wealth) because the wealthy would pay more in real terms than the poor (i.e. 10% of a million is a lot more than 10% of 10,000/yr).

We're already cooperating and coordinating our actions on a large scale. We're already redistributing part of the social surplus. So given what's already going on, why can't we have a discussion about whether this is done effectively or fairly? Why is it that this concrete fact of our social life is masked, while we are bombarded with endless fatalist laments about how we "must" cut education budgets, throw students out on the street, lay off millions of workers, let infrastructure crumble, etc. ?

Again, California is a rich state. The fundamental egalitarian thought is that there is something absurd and profoundly unjust about a situation in which some have massive stockpiles of the surplus (far exceeding what anyone could ever need) while a large number of others go without the most basic human necessities. And, for me, it's not just that the wealth are 'failing to do their duty' in not giving more.... it's that they are actively doing something socially harmful in hoarding what they've got and refusing to cede any of it to ameliorate a massive amount of suffering.

Laying more people off, cutting more essential services, strangling one of the most effective and prestigious university systems in the world, in short causing untold amounts of misery, is not the only course of action here.

When there are natural disasters, "price gouging" (i.e. undertaking legitimate market transactions and cashing-in on human suffering) is an illegal act in many states. Although price gouging is a run-of-the-mill market transaction in most respects, it is banned precisely because the human costs of the practice far outweigh the alleged benefits (i.e. keeping markets and property rights sacrosanct). Price gouging bans, in effect, are a case of existing law in which social welfare trumps market imperatives, and human needs trump property rights. This isn't a foreign idea: there are many more "American" examples.

So given that this is already happening in so many different situations today... why not have a broader, more inclusive discussion about what our social priorities should be writ large? Why not have a big discussion about whether in hard times, the property-rights line really should trump the social well being of many members of our community? This is supposed to be a democratic society.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Revealed: millions spent by lobby firms fighting Obama health reforms

The guardian's got the story.

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Real Sustainability

Yes, of course individual choices matter and we should not let individual consumption habits off the hook.... but changing the basic infrastructure of food production, transport and the physical organization of living spaces and is what's going to have to happen if we're ever going to have a sustainable society.

Buying organic milk is an important step that has concrete consequences... but this mere act alone is hardly going to shake the structural problems that are destroying the environment. And that organic consumption, as a "niche market", has so comfortably adjusted to the current coordinates of capitalism should make us suspicious. The problem isn't merely 'lifestyle choices' or consumption habits. It's literally, as Owen points out, the physical organization of our lives: exurbs and suburbs, low-density developments that require heavy car usage, centralized corporate food production, huge single-family homes with massive irrigated lawns, etc.

Owen's absolutely right: if we're ever going to have a sustainable society, we're going to have to radically reject the post-war fantasy world of single-family homes with white picket fences with huge garages, family cars, suburb and exurb life as 'typical', etc.

It's one thing to moralize and blame individual people for not giving up their cars in a place in which driving is encouraged or required by 99% of the infrastructure. It's another to talk about creating concrete alternative modes of transportation on a large scale, that would facilitate the phasing out of the car. It's another to talk about rethinking car production, and gradually re-deploying the workers in the auto industry into new productive efforts directed towards making the things that a sustainable society would need (tons more buses, trains, wind-power turbines, etc.).

Americans didn't become addicted to cars by some strange accident: they were slowly hooked and forced into it by a convergence of factors (marketing, government subsidy, creation of interstate system, etc.), but the most important one was the massive proliferation of sprawling post-Levittown suburbs from the 50s onward. Before the 50s, the vast majority of Americans did not own a car... and our infrastructure reflected that fact. Towns were walkable and things people needed (food, entertainment, bars, stores, etc.) were close by. It wouldn't have made sense in the 1920s to build the kind of sprawling nightmares we see today: most people wouldn't have been able to get anywhere.

Taking a look at the recent past would do the sustainability movement a lot of good. It sounds like a pipe-dream to think that our society could make the changes necessary to be sustainable. But the fact is that for the most part the technology and know-how is already there to make it happen, and it's not cutting edge stuff that I'm talking about. Most of what we need to do is simply give up the wasteful excess that we've come to expect from the 50s onward. A lot of what needs to happen is that we need to forgo certain 'technological advances' that have done little else except manufacture new 'needs' and place convenience above all other relevant considerations. We managed fine for most of the 20th century without heavy reliance on the automobile, and many people all over the world do just fine today without a car at the center of their lives.

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A Steaming Pile in the NyTimes, part zwei

Take a ganders at this monstrosity.

There's so much loaded into this inept assemblage of bullshit that it's difficult to know where to begin.

The article begins:

A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Socialism’s slow collapse."
Don't you love the nuanced treatment of political conditions in Europe? Or the detailed treatment of "socialism"? Who knew... apparently socialism is just the vote tally of social-democratic (or, as the case may be, soft neoliberal 'third-way') parties.
"German voters clobbered the Social Democratic Party on Sunday, giving it only 23 percent of the vote, its worst performance since World War II."
My my. It's as though the SPD has no history, no recent political past, no identity at all. It's a lot easier to just call them "socialist" and say that because they got clobbered, people in germany must hate socialism. In reality, the SPD got clobbered precisely because they are so pathetically right-wing; they lost support precisely because their strategy of trying to be CDU-lite has alienated their constituents. Yes, Conservatives have shed their SPD coalition partners, but its crucial to note that CDU (the "union") did not radically increase their vote tally since 2005. What's changed is that the SPD got hammered, while the Left Party (Die Linke) and the right-wing FDP made impressive gains. Because the right-wing FDP made sizable gains, the CDU is able to form a wholly right-wing coalition without the SPD.

Before the article bothers to finish up with the German situation, we get a nuanced, detailed analysis of Spain:
In Spain, the Socialists still get credit for opposing both Franco and the Iraq war.
Ugh. Is this all the NYTimes has to offer in the way of political analysis of spain's current conditions? And they say this like opposing the Iraq War and trashing fascism are bad things... If there actually was a party in the United States who opposed the Iraq War I'd give them credit too. Wow, those poor anti-war dupes in Spain. Don't they read the New York Times? Don't they know that socialism is passe?

All we hear about Die Linke is:
In Germany, the broad left, including the Greens, has a structural majority in Parliament, but the Social Democrats, in postelection crisis,must contemplate allying with the hard left, Die Linke, which has roots in the old East German Communist Party.
Right... the "hard" left, who, evidently, are all really just a bunch of Stalinists. Whew. Glad we don't have to think seriously about what they have to say. Who knew that "hard" left had to do with:
-- A safety net for everyone
-- Put people's social interests and needs first
-- For a just and future-oriented society
-- Protect democracy and civil rights
-- Peace and social justice
-- Consistently social for democracy and peace
That was Die Linke's "Six Point Program" that they ran on in the election. Scary shit, isn't it? Sounds like a bunch of silly Stalinist garbage if you asked me... I'm just glad we have real "change' coming to America from the sensibly centrist Obama Administration.

The best part of this article, however, has got to be this line:
Asked this summer if the party was dying, Bernard-Henri Lévy, an emblematic Socialist, answered: “No — it is already dead. No one, or nearly no one, dares to say it. But everyone, or nearly everyone, knows it.”
....no, no. You read that correctly. No joke. Benny Levy is an "emblematic socialist", according to the folks over at the NYTimes. Doesn't anyone bother to edit this shit?

Hey, wait there's more:
The Socialist Party, with a long revolutionary tradition and weakening ties to a diminishing working class, is riven by personal rivalries.
Yes, the Parti Socialiste in France... paragon of revolutionary passion. What?!

The current PS in France was never a revolutionary force in French politics. Aside from a brief stint in power under Mitterand in the 70s/80s (which was formed as a coalition government with the participation of the French Communist Party), the PS has also never been a dominant party in France.

The PCF, on the other hand, was the main party of the Left in France for the entire post-war period up until its decline in the late 80s. Is it news to anyone that the Parti Socialiste can't seem to accomplish much of anything? The PS has been a consistent loser for the last 20 years straight (particularly embarrassing for this 'center left' party was the recent election when Lionel Jospin failed to make it to the second round of the presidential election, losing to fascist Jean-Marie LePen).

This hardly says anything about socialism as such, let alone the political situation in France. The NPA is an interesting development, but I suppose that doesn't fit the facile american "two party" frame of reference that the author of this article seems to prefer. Or maybe the NPA is just too 'hard' left to be worth commenting on.

So as though the BHL bs wasn't enough, the NYTimes felt it had to go in for another 'expert' with a semi-radical past who has since gone right-wing. According to the virulently anti-communist Tony Judt:
The French Socialist Party “is trapped in a hopeless contradiction,” said Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. It espouses a radical platform it cannot deliver
Right, right... the problem with the PS in France is that it is "too radical". In reality, they've been veering further and further right to the 'center' for the last 20 years. They find themselves in the position today of being nearly indistinguishable from Sarkozy. Where Sarkozy opts for deep cuts, they stand for slightly less intense, more 'pragmatic' and 'centrist' cuts. But of course, none of these facts stops the 'third wayist' hacks from complaining every single election cycle that the problem with the neoliberal PS is just that they aren't sufficiently 'centrist'.

Next on the agenda of complex political situations to ineptly misunderstand and blather about: Italy. Now it's no surprise to anyone who follows these things that Italy's electoral left is in complete disarray. But there's a story to be told here. And it's got little to do with socialism, and a lot more to do with the increasing neoliberal turn on Italy's 'center-left'.

But who does the NYTimes talk to about this issue? Someone who any learned person could actually recognize as "left"? Nope, sorry... here's another third-wayist hack:
“We have to understand that Socialism is an answer of the last century,” Mr. Letta said. “We need to build a center-left that is pragmatic, that provides an attractive alternative, and not just an opposition.”
Noticing a trend? We hear a lot of the following buzzwords and phrases: pragmatism, socialism=dead, future-oriented, modernized, "new", "third way", centrist, etc....... I mean this isn't new language. This is a redux of the 1990s. All of these recommendations were already tried by the 'center left' Prodi government in the 90s, and look how well it turned out for Italy's electoral left.

But yeah.. right, it's clear that all the left in Italy needs to do is accept a little dose of 'reality' and try to 'modernize' and imitate Berlusconi, so that they can claim the mantle of "pragmatic" and "centrist". That's the future. That's where the new century is heading.

And just like the triumphant capitalist tone of the opening, the article ends with another hooray-for-capitalism bang:
Not an easy syllabus. But without that kind of reform, Mr. Judt said, “I don’t think Socialism in Europe has a future; and given that it is a core constitutive part of the European democratic consensus, that’s bad news.”
Yes, thanks for that Tony. Socialism in Europe has no future. Well, that's good enough for me...

Geez, NyTimes. Could you have found a more cynical old jerk to discuss the future of socialism with? Complete bullshit. Ahistorical, lazy, fatalist, tendentious garbage. American newspapers are a joke.

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