Thursday, September 30, 2010

Attempted Coup in Ecuador

(via Lenin's Tomb) Democracy Now is reporting on it, but at present it appears that there is a blackout on the issue in the US media.

UPDATE: Read and watch here and here. The coup failed and Correa has been freed.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On the "March to Restore Sanity"

What does it say about the present social and political climate in our country that marches are more or less organized and called by self-avowed "rodeo clowns" and "entertainers" on cable television?

Does anyone even realize that there is going to be a massive march on October 2nd in Washington, called by the NAACP and a huge swath of trade unions and other Left-wing groups (there will even be a socialist contingent (more on that here))? Probably not. But though I'm positive that it will be far more heavily attended, my guess is that the Stewart/Colbert stunt will get more attention.

What is the function of their stunt? It is a smug, self-satisfied gesture entirely akin to the main way in which most people engage with the show. You sit back in your La-Z-Boy and chuckle about how dumb the Right is and how you've got it all figured out. Of course, you're not wrong to think that the Right is crazy. And of course it can be funny to laugh at them. But is that all we'll ever do? Laugh and shake our heads?

The problem with the Stewart/Colbert thing is the passive, cynical orientation towards the world embodied in this whole plop-yourself-in-front-of-the-TV set up. As far as I can tell, this is more or less what this whole stunt is about: being smug and self-satisfied, laughing, and basically allowing things to go on as they are, but with the individual self-assurance that you know it sucks.

What will have changed in light of the Stewart/Colbert stunt? What, besides more endless spectacle and grist for the 24-Hour news circuit, will have been achieved? Will people emerge from that feeling more confident, more organized, more able to build a social movement capable of exerting pressure on the entire system? Or will they walk away feeling that they just lived out an individualistic fantasy not too dissimilar to their interaction with flashing images on the TV screen? It's like virtual combat with Glenn Beck. What about real struggle against real oppression?

I'm sure that cultural studies people all over the country will have a wet dream when this thing goes down. They can blather about the "hyper-real" and the virtues of mass media and the most commodified and tepid forms of cultural "resistance". But the fact is that I am deeply troubled by this march and people's orientation toward it.

For all its flaws, the October 2nd March on Washington at least draws on existing activist infrastructure and makes determinate demands on the system, most of which are worth getting behind. But it is probably already fated to be dwarfed by the ephemeral swells of the Culture Industry.

"Don't just mindlessly punch-in for the two-party straight-jacket. Do it with a chuckle and big grin on your face".

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Obama: Sit Down, Shut Up and We'll Take Care of It

Read Obama's remarks here. If you're on the Left, if you wanted to see things really change after 8 years of Bush, then his message is for you. How dare you place demands on your elected officials? How dare you demand something in return for voting for Democrats? Don't you understand that the Democrats don't have to earn your vote? They are owed it no matter what they do, evidently.

Let's be honest: this is patronizing garbage. It's a completely raw deal for his supporters, and he knows it. In what universe can elected officials get away with claiming that they get to make all of the demands and give nothing in return? That's the way the Democratic Party functions. In effect, every 2 years they say the following to progressives and left-leaning people: you'd better vote for us or else. We've got nothing to offer you except rhetoric, and we know damn well that there is no one to our Left that you could vote for instead, so cough up the money and uncritically support us.

In a way, we can't be entirely surprised that this happened, given the basically conservative role of the Democratic Party in our economic and political system. But that isn't obvious to lots of people for a variety of reasons, most of which aren't their fault. There is hardly a Left voice to be found in the consensus media. America is not a center-right nation, but it's political institutions and media are. The disconnect between people's needs and demands and the conservatism of the political system is remarkable. I don't think we should continue to put up with it and take it on the chin.

I happen to agree that we won't get more by settling for less. But that's exactly what those who are fastened into the two-party straight-jacket will try to convince you that you should do: believe that you'll get more by settling for less and less.

History is crucial here: we didn't get the Civil Rights Act by settling for less and hoping that the Democrats would do the right thing. Women didn't get the vote by sitting on the sidelines and placing all their hopes in the "benevolent will" of the so-called lesser evil. Free public education was not won in this country by mailing friendly letters to Senators and friending them on Facebook. Social Security and the progressive income tax wasn't won by uncritically turning out to punch the card for the second-most enthusiastic capitalist party in the US.

All of these gains were won against the wishes of the wealthy and powerful. And all of these gains were won by the efforts of organized social movements, independent of the two major parties and in opposition to them. That's what we need. Not more bullshit about how maybe it will be better this time if we just try to keep the Republicans from gaining ground. We need to build the movements and be part of forming new ones.

Just one closing thought. Think about the difference in tone and demeanor that Obama employs when speaking to his supporters on the one hand, and powerful elites on the other hand. When he speaks to the latter, the aim is reassurance: please continue to fund mine and other Democrats campaigns, please don't worry because I won't rock the boat or do anything remotely progressive, you'll get your way when the bill is written, etc. When he speaks to his supporters in an election year, however, it's nothing but contempt. What does that say about Obama? What does it say about our political system? What does it say about the configuration of power in this society? What can we do to change this state of affairs? Get involved.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

AP: Record gap between rich and poor

Read about it here.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

MacIntyre on Base/Superstructure

MacIntyre's approach to the notorious base/superstructure metaphor in Marx from the 1859 Preface: it's discussed here (part 1) and here (part 2) in his wonderful essay "Notes from the Moral Wilderness". Usually, I am rather ambivalent about the metaphor, since it typically yields more confusion than anything else. It has been seized upon by both "vulgar Marxists" and Stalinists who aimed to ossify and distort Marx, as well as those entirely hostile to Marxism who have no other aim than to refute it (e.g. Popper).

MacIntyre clears the confusion out of the way and present a straight-forward reading of the metaphor that seems dead on:

"... Stalinism rested on a mechanical relation between base and superstructure. But as Marx depicts it the relation between basis and superstructure is fundamentally not only not mechanical, it is not even causal. What may be misleading here is Marx's Hegelian vocabulary. Marx certainly talks of the basis as "determining" the superstructure and of a "correspondence" between them.... What the economic basis, the mode of production, does is to provide a framework within which the superstructure arises, a set of relations around which the human relations can entwine themselves, a kernel of human relations from which all else grows. The economic basis of a society is not its tools, but the people co-operating using these particular tools in the manner necessary to their use, and the superstructure consists of the social consciousness molded by the shape of this co-operation."

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We need a new "Marshall Plan" for schools...

...according to the new, progressive, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. I think she's absolutely right. Contrast this with the anti-union austerity pedaled by Democrats in Washington.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

Safety Valves and "Door Close" Buttons

A friend tells me that Zizek has remarked somewhere that U.S. elections are rather like the "door close" button in elevators. They don't actually do anything, but they give the person pushing them the idea that they're doing something to better their situation.

The older metaphor I've heard is that of the safety valve. That's basically what elections are in a society like ours with two factions of one business party; they are a way of allowing people who are frustrated with the system, who desperately want change, to blow off some steam so that they don't actually challenge the system itself. If that isn't a perfect fit for the Obama phenomenon in 2008 I don't know what is.

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What is middle class, really?


Like its fetishism of "small business", American political culture is enamored with the so-called "middle class". Everyone, we're incessantly told, is middle class. With the exception of the destitute on the one hand, and the mega-rich on the other, everybody in the US is part of the glorious middle class.

But like many features of our manufactured political culture, the idea that "we're all middle class" is a myth which serves only to obscure social and economic reality. Buying into this illusion that"we're all middle class" leaves us without the language to discuss very real divisions and inequalities of power in our society. This effect is not unintended: in order to legitimize unequal power relations, the ruling class must speak the language of universality and rationality, not the language of petty interests.

Although we're encouraged to think of class in terms of a person's consumer preferences, in reality, it refers to economic power relations. Economic power is not a function of how much money someone earns exactly. Economic power is a function of how it is that someone earns their living: Do they employ other people? Do they collect interest from investments of various kinds? Or are they the ones being hired by others who do the employing? What kind of authority does someone have in the workplace, and why do they have it? In short, when we inquire about a person's class, we want to know the extent of a person's control and ownership of productive assets.

Importantly, then, we're now in a position to see that income level is something that the idea of class helps to explain. It is thus not a part of how class itself is defined. That is, if you have a great deal of economic power in a certain kind of society, it is likely that you are in a position to extract a large portion of the social surplus produced by society for yourself. If you are dis-empowered by the economic order, it is not likely that you will be in a position to appropriate such a large portion of socially produced wealth for yourself. Class, understood in terms of power relations, is something that helps explain why income stratification exists in the way that it does.

Think of it in this way. Suppose you were examining a feudal society. You wouldn't get very far in understanding power in that society if you only knew that Lords happened to have a large amount of resources at their disposal whereas Serfs had much less. What a political theory that takes power seriously would have to show is why Lords had a lot whereas Serfs had very little. Class is an analytical tool that draws our attention to just that kind of power, with the result we being to understand how inequality comes about.

Here's how class breaks down in the contemporary US.

If you own and control substantial amounts of capital or productive assets that could be invested to make a profit, you are a member of the capitalist class, the ruling class in capitalist societies.

If you have no substantial ownership or control over means of production (the vast majority of us fall into this category), it's likely that you only have one productive thing to sell in order to earn a living: your ability to work. If this is the case, you are working-class. You don't have to be a factory worker to on a production line to be working class. You could be doing very skilled labor indeed. Teachers are working class. Although it has been sullied and spat upon, if not completely forgotten in the US, working-class should not be a term of abuse. It is, in fact, the class that the majority of us fall into.

Now, if you own a small business but also do some work in it yourself, you are neither capitalist nor working-class. You are classic middle-class ("petty bourgeoisie"). If you are a professional, you are likely also middle class (e.g. a lawyer who owns a small practice, or a doctor of a similar sort, etc.).

There are, to be sure, some difficult cases where people are on the boarder lines of each class. There's also the question of those who are excluded from economy entirely and sub-proletarianized. The perverse paradox in such cases of exclusion, of course, is that "the only thing worse than being exploited by capital, is not being exploited at all". But that there are hard cases doesn't vitiate the utility of this understanding of class in the least. The vast majority of us are working class, a substantially smaller portion are middle-class, and a very small percentage of us are ruling class.

So that's it. The "glorious middle class" is basically just professionals and small business owners. They do pretty well by the system and earn decent livings. They enjoy a standard of living and an amount of security that most of don't have access to. But, at the end of the day, the middle class doesn't control the commanding heights of the economy and their economic power is nothing compared to the power of the capitalist class. Though they do well by the system, capitalism is not set up to specifically service the interests of the middle class. This is seen specifically in the fact that the middle class is far more vulnerable to effects of economic crisis than are capitalists.

But for all this, we need to be clear and resolute in stating that middle class folks are neither the most oppressed nor the majority of our society.

So there you have it. A fraction of our society, constituting no more than maybe 15-20% at most, is substituted for the entire thing. Why do we put up with it?

Because we're trained from an early age to think that "average" means a massive, 6 bedroom single-family home in the suburbs (if you're white, of course). Think of every "family" movie you watched as a kid from Family Vacation, Home Alone, Poltergeist, to Beethoven, etc. etc. Think of most sitcoms. And, importantly, if you don't meet this conception of "average" then you've clearly done something wrong (e.g. you didn't work hard enough or you aren't smart enough, etc.)

When politicians speak blithely of the glorious "middle class", they aren't creating this fantasy out of whole cloth. They are drawing on existing illusions fashioned by capitalist social and cultural institutions. Those on the Marxist Left know better than to accept and reproduce this fantasy.

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Alienation in Marx

I read Jonathan Wolff's generally excellent, short book Why Read Marx Today? (Oxford 2002) this afternoon. It's basically a short, book-length version of his lecture notes for undergraduate courses he's taught on Marx.

There's plenty to disagree with (esp. his technological-determinist reading of historical materialism that he takes from his teacher, G.A. Cohen). But I must say that the summaries of the philosophical background to Marx's thought, his early works, and the theory of value in Capital are unparalleled in their clarity and succinctness.

Below is more or less how he explains alienation in the early Marx (pp.13-47).

We begin with the common use of the word alienation. Typically we mean to refer to some sort of subjective feeling of disorientation, disconnection or disaffection of some sort or other. Now, this is part of Marx's analysis of alienation, but not the whole picture.

Importantly, Marx analyzes alienation as an objective phenomenon, rather than an individual malaise. That means, basically, that alienation isn't in the first instance an individual affliction inside the minds of particular people, but a social phenomenon that is part of the very society we live in. (Compare this with apolitical versions of existentialism which talk about alienation as part of the "human condition", rather than as rooted in a particular kind of society that could be changed).

As Wolff succinctly puts it, the "basic idea with alienation is that two things which belong together come apart". To be alienated, then, is to be alienated from something.

According to Wolff, there are four principle forms of alienation that Marx identifies.

First, there is what is called "alienation from the product". Basically the idea is this. "The worker produces an object, yet has no say or control over the future use or possession of that object". But this is basically trivial until we say more about what this means on a mass, social scale.

The two keywords here are mystification and domination. We begin with the former.

Marx noted that everything we encounter, almost without exception, has been transformed by human labor. This doesn't just include human artifacts. Wolff points out that even the "natural" landscape around us is often also the result of human endeavor (e.g. National Parks in the USA). See 3:10-6:00 of this. And if the natural landscape isn't itself transformed or impacted by human labor, usually our mode of encountering it is shaped by social labor.

But although so much of the world is "largely a human creation, we rarely think of it as such, and, in this sense, we are alienated from our products". This means that we take most things for granted, having no sense for how human labor was fashioned in their production. We mistake the artifacts of human effort for "natural" parts of the background of social life (e.g. think of how people think about the automobile in the contemporary USA... it's as though its always been here and always will be).

As Wolff points out, "the mystification is complete when we come to reflect that so few of us really have any idea how common household objects even work... we human beings have created a world that we simply don't understand; we are strangers in our own world".

We're not just mystified, however, by the products we create. We're also dominated by them. Here Wolff is excellent:

"Consider the well-worn idea that you 'can't buck the market'. We have become so used to things as 'market forces'...that you are just as likely to come to grief as if you ignored natural forces -gravity, magnetism and so on.... you'd better do what the market says or else you will be in trouble. But what is the market? Simply the accumulated effects of innumerable human decisions about production and consumption. It is, thus, our own product, from which it follows that, once more, we come to be dominated by our own product."

Think of the terms in which the present financial crisis is described. People in the media talk about the economy as though it were a natural disaster, completely beyond our control, laying waste to human lives in its wake. But the market is no force of nature; it is something that human beings constructed. And what we've built up, we can tear down. "The market is like a monster we have accidentally created, but which now comes to rule our lives". Capitalism is, thus, in Marx's words, "the complete domination of dead matter over men".

The second category of alienation occurs at the site of production. Due to the highly advanced division of labor in capitalism, some people find themselves doing extremely specialized tasks. Now, Wolff correctly points out that specialization as such isn't always bad. Some amount of specialization can be challenging and rewarding. Marx's concern is not mere specialization. Rather, he's interested in the ways in which capitalism "de-skills" workers by requiring them to "perform highly repetitive, mindless tasks with little understanding of their place in the total process." We think of the worst elements of Taylorism here, with a worker asked to turn one screw over and over, day in and day out.

This is a nice lead in to the third version of alienation. In the Taylorist case above, the worker is alienated from her own creative, human capacities. That is, human beings aren't meant to do such repetitive, mindless, machine-like tasks over and over. We have faculties and capacities (such as the potential for creativity, reflection, etc.) which aren't exercised at all by such inhuman, mechanistic tasks. Marx's way of expressing this thought is to say that under capitalism we are alienated from our "species being".

The idea of a "species being" sounds rather obscure, but it's really rather straight-forward. The idea here is basically an Aristotelian one: human beings have certain capacities and faculties in virtue of which they are human. And we flourish when we make use of and exercise these faculties. So, Marx endorses the basically Aristotelian idea that human beings are creative, social beings (rather than individualistic, miserly, automatons like Mandeville thought).

But, importantly, there is another dimension of the "human essence" that we must discuss. It is not the case for Marx that our "species being" is an "abstraction inherent in each single individual." Rather, Marx argues, "it is in reality the ensemble of social relations". This means, Wolff supposes, that "human beings are engaged in an enormous and hugely complex division of labor, that goes beyond the sphere of production narrowly so-called. Our artistic and cultural achievements, our material advancement, depend on cooperation that encompasses the globe and the whole of human history".

"In any one day, a given individual may use or consume objects the production of which may have required, in the end, millions of others. This, then, reveals the social aspect of our species being". The thought here is that our individual lives and things we consume in order to live are the products of a dense network of social cooperation. If human beings didn't coordinate in these intricate ways, we simply wouldn't have the things we have (e.g. culture, art, cities, things of various kinds, history, etc. etc.).

Thus we come to see how perverse the individualistic ideologies that dominate our society really are. We are inundated with talk of "self made men", the "American dream", etc. We are by now used to hearing that the super-rich "earned" what they have by sheer effort and grit. Nowhere, however, do we encounter the sober admission that nothing in contemporary capitalist societies presently held by the rich would be possible without a massive system of social cooperation and effort that goes way beyond any individual.

As Wolff points out, "it is said that no one person on earth could make a single pencil". Think about it, "it involves so many different technologies and knowledge of diverse materials that its production is beyond the ability of any one of us, taken alone".

The final, fourth, aspect of alienation is alienation from other people. This is related to alienation from our species-being. We are social beings, but this is disavowed, distorted and hidden from view in capitalist societies. "Rather than conceiving of ourselves as members of a vast scheme of social cooperation... we think of ourselves as people who go to work to earn money, and then go to shops to spend it. We are people with tunnel vision".

In other words, "the way in which we pursue our self-interest would not even possible if we did not have a communal species-essence. Yet we utterly disregard this communal aspect of our lives. We barely give a thought to the question of who will use the things we make, and even less how the objects we purchase came into existence. We screen off everything except our immediate consumption decision."

Thus we see why the typical individualist story so common in middle-class ideology is incoherent. That story teaches us that all we need to do is pursue our self-interest, work hard, and we'll "make it". But in order to even have such ideas and act in this way, we must tacitly assume that there is a massive social network of coordinated labor. In other words, individualist middle-class ideology presupposes, but disavows, a massive scheme of social cooperation. It is thus dependent on what it opposes, hence why it is incoherent.

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The Angry Rich

Read Krugman's (generally quite good) piece here. Below is an excerpt:

You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain — feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes.

And when the tax fight is over, one way or another, you can be sure that the people currently defending the incomes of the elite will go back to demanding cuts in Social Security and aid to the unemployed. America must make hard choices, they’ll say; we all have to be willing to make sacrifices.

But when they say “we,” they mean “you.” Sacrifice is for the little people.

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The Media Assault on Venezuela

Here.

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WBM Strikes Again

I'm not sure whether I'd recommend reading all of it (it's a waste of time), but skimming for gems like the following might be of interest.

"But if you look at the history of the idea of neoliberalism you can see fairly quickly that neoliberalism arises as a kind of commitment precisely to those things [i.e. anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc.]."
This man is a charlatan. If you want to understand where neoliberalism came from and why it emerged when it did, read David Harvey. To say that it arises "precisely as a commitment to anti-racism" is preposterous, and politically reactionary to boot. It's classic blame-the-victim. Neoliberalism began to emerge in the early 70s as a class project to reconsolidate power and roll-back the gains from the period between 1935-1970. What was happening in 1970 in terms of anti-racist struggle? Well, prominent members of the anti-capitalist Black Panther Party were being murdered in their sleep by the State. In what universe could that, or the eruptions of black rebellion all over the country in the late 1960s, have in fact represented a "commitment to" neoliberalism. It's quite obvious that WBM's not interested in a serious confrontation with historical facts; on the contrary, he's happy to rewrite events to fit his "anti-racists and anti-sexists caused neoliberalism" fantasy.

Here's another gem:
"The truth is, it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party. The Tea Party represents in my view, not actually a serious, because it’s so inchoate and it’s so in a certain sense diluted, but nonetheless a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right. It’s a striking fact that what the American Left mainly wants to do is reduce the Tea Party to racists as quickly as humanly possible. They’re thrilled when some Nazis come out and say “Yeah, we support the Tea Party” or some member of the Tea Party says something racist, which is frequently enough. But you can’t understand the real politics of the Tea Party unless you understand how important their opposition to illegal immigration is."
Wow. The only problem with the tea-baggers is that they are "inchoate" and "diluted". Hmm. Interesting...

I can't even say that 2% of that quote above is true. Maybe 1% insofar as some tea-baggers' angst derives from legitimate grievances (e.g. social misery visited upon them by capitalism) which then manifests itself as racism or xenophobia. But, in a way, isn't that true of WBM as well? Isn't he toeing the classic Right populist line, i.e. "soft" complaints about capitalist inequality coupled with a vitriolic hatred for struggles against racial or sexual oppression?

Also, to say that a group dedicated to liquidating government's role in public life is dedicated to fighting neoliberalism is to wear one's ignorance on one's sleeve. Hasn't WBM read about the Koch brothers and the obvious astro-turf "roots" of the Tea Bagger edifice? Hasn't he paid any attention to real Left movements of late against neoliberalism, such as teachers and students struggling to stop school closings, or this for example?

WBM's point about dismissing the tea baggers as racists reeks of utter disdain for the entire idea of criticizing racism. Of course, there is a facile way of calling a person "racist" in such a way that it seems to just mean "you're an evil person", where that has some important connection to that person's intentions. But all of the politically sharp and critical ways of fighting racism give a more nuanced story here. The manifest content of the Tea Bagger phenomenon is racist; they are in the business of scapegoating and slandering people of color and blaming them for the crisis we're in. Now, what's interesting is that there is a substantial contingent of Tea Baggers who voted Obama; clearly, there are interesting things to say about how the impotence and powerlessness of some of these confused folks is finding an outlet in the false promise of racist hatred. But WBM doesn't pursue this thought; he follows the Tea Bagger thought and gives it an academic veneer.

Also, what he says about immigration is completely inept. The populist attack from the Right against "illegal immigration" is not, as we have seen with SB1070, an attack on the merely "illegal" part. That is already to paint the whole thing in "law and order" terms and basically accept the Right's dubious frame hook, line and sinker. Ask any tea bagger if they think we should make immigration legal and accessible and they'll start whining to you about "amnesty". What they want (ask Joe Arpaio, for example) is for "all those people" to "get out". They want to ethnically cleanse large parts of this country and make it "pure American" again. And many have rightly said that this kind of politics is proto-fascist. The anti-immigrant Right in this country is xenophobic to the core. It's no accident that they often pursue english-only policies, and strongly support police harassment and repression of people with brown skin (whether or not they are documented). And then there are the "Minutemen" who shoot people (women and children included) on the border to stop them from "breaking the law". Perhaps they are renegades against neoliberalism as well?

Now, of course the spike in xenophobia and anti-immigrant (as well as islamophobic) racism has something to do with the crisis. But WBM botches that point (see above) so badly that it verges on an apologia for tea-bagger racism. I remind you that anti-immigrant fascist movements in Europe have also been galvanized by the crisis and have been picking up steam in recent years. These are interesting questions, but WBM has no nuanced understanding of them.

Check out the passage where he claims that Glenn Beck is in fact unconsciously a left-winger who has an "important" position on immigration. Who knew?

Again, his complete lack of understanding of immigration, racism, class and ideology is staggering. Do we need any more proof that this man is not really on the Left? This man's facile scapegoating is politically corrosive, and isn't going to help build the kind of broad movements we need to fight against exploitation and oppression. This is a smug, old white man complaining about things that have never mattered to him: fighting sexism and racism. Of course neoliberalism (and, I might add, even more "friendly" versions of capitalism) are bad. But do we really need WBM to tell us that? And can we really make sense of that claim with all of WBM's Right-wing garbage tacked onto it?

Perhaps he should just stick to writing facile polemics against literary theory to the effect that texts simply mean what their authors want them to mean (making WBM the literary equivalent of Antonin Scalia).

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Obama's Legislative Accomplishments

Here's one of them. The amount of US homes lost to foreclosure hit record highs last month. But, although Obama and the Democrat Congress continued the Paulson/Bush plan of throwing billions of dollars at unaccountable financial elites, there has of course been no comparable effort to relieve the social misery and loss of wealth visited upon vast numbers of Americans.

The priorities are clear. The only question for me is what ordinary people can do to change them. My guess is that sending checks to Democrat candidates isn't going to get the job done.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Chomsky on America

here.

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Chomsky refutes capitalist apologist

Listen to the first minute or so of this, if you can make it through the long-winded, and rather unlettered question from the audience that begins the clip.

The guy in the audience basically ends with the thought that capitalism has been triumphant because it has enabled rising standards of living (the clip is from 2006, so most of us will be scratching our heads when we hear this today in the midst of the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression).

Chomsky's response is excellent: slave societies, overtime, often saw a rise in the standard of living, but that doesn't suggest that slave societies were just by any stretch whatsoever. After all, black slaves in the United States were, in some respects, "better off" in the 19th Century than they had been in the 18th Century, but at the end of the day slavery was just as deplorable and horrifying in both centuries. As Malcolm X put it in a different context, "you don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress".

So whatever else is true, the mere fact that capitalism has enabled some modest increases in the standard of living is no argument in its favor, not unless we allow that the argument above is an argument for slavery.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

excellent analysis of SB1070

Here.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Priorities

The Democrats may lose their control of Congress in November. But they've had firm control of the White House, the House, and have held filibuster-proof supermajorities in the Senate for two years. This is not counting the fact that the Democrats had control of Congress from 2006-2008 as well.

During the time that the Democrats have had crushing majorities in the Congress, military spending has increased, while deep cuts and layoff have been made to the public sector all over the country. Democratic leaders, we do well not to forget, have recently been mulling over making deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

Just think about the following for a moment.

Obama's 2010 budget, titled "Restoring Responsibility" increased "official" military spending by over 6% from the bar set by Bush's 2009 budget.

That brings the total official military spending to $680 billion for 2010. If we include "defense related" spending, totaling over $300 billion, that brings the grand total very close to $1 trillion.

But wait, there's more.

As everyone knows, the US government spends billions each year in military/economic aid to, by and large, three countries: Israel, Egypt and Colombia. In the last 10 years, Israel has averaged about $2.5 billion a year, Egypt about $1.7 billion/yr and Colombia $1.5 billion/yr. Egypt and Colombia, of course, are ruled by repressive right-wing regimes who ruthlessly use state violence to insulate their governments from democratic challenges.

So add about $6 billion more to the bill. But this isn't the end of the story.

Let's not forget about the "National Endowment for Democracy". Created by Reagan in 1983, and ostensibly administered by private institutions, the NED is entirely funded by allocations from Congress, to the tune of a couple hundred million dollars a year. Obama increased the funds that the NED receives. Eva Golinger has done an excellent job of tracking the expenditures of the NED in Venezuela, where the US government routinely allocates millions of dollars to right-wing opposition candidates and oligarchs seeking to topple the Chavez government. This is basically the name of the game for the strangely named NED: destabilize societies abroad that challenge the dominance of the US empire and do the dirty-work previously undertaken by the CIA under the auspices of privately-administered "democracy building".

All of this money is spent while we're told that there is no money to spend on the things that matter. We're routinely told to accept cuts and layoffs as though they were facts of nature. We're encouraged, at every turn, to focus on the national debt and worry so much about the deficit that we are prepared to accept punishing blows to living standards, social services, public infrastructure, schools, transportation, and so on.

But we're told all of this while the US government, no matter which of the major pro-business parties holds power, spends non-negotiable sums totaling over $1 trillion each year on foreign war, occupation, weapons of mass destruction, anti-democratic aid to tyrannical governments, empire, and imperial activities abroad.

Shouldn't the people the United States, not a small ruling class of elites for whom imperial ventures abroad matter quite a deal, have a say in how this chunk of the social surplus is spent? If our society was democratic in any meaningful sense, wouldn't we have a way of impacting whether or not our government spends $1 trillion on war and occupation at the same time that it makes punishing cuts to already inadequate social institutions?

Our electoral mechanism gives us literally no say in this matter. Go ahead, select the one with the "D" or the "R", but either way the figures listed above are taken as givens.

If the Republicans take back Congress in November, what is really going to change? What will we have lost? What do the answers to those questions say about the Democrats and our system in general?

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

FaultLines interview with Cornel West

video here.

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How not to criticize the two-party straightjacket

When I criticize the Democrats from the Left, I want to make clear what I'm not saying.

  • I'm not claiming that we simply need to vote a different way.
  • I'm not claiming that simply withholding a vote from the Democrats is sufficient.
  • I'm not claiming that withdrawing from politics is the best course of action.
  • I'm not claiming that our primary task should be to build an electoral alternative to the Dems.
  • I don't think that defying the Democrats and withholding a vote (or voting Green or something) is a radical act.
On the contrary, I think the entire problem is the assumption (which we're encouraged to believe from day one) that the nexus of our political power is exercised by voting and writing checks to campaigns.

When I criticize the two-party straightjacket, I'm not recommending that we opt for "less relevant" politics and retreat from the public political sphere.

On the contrary, I think that the only way to be relevant, the only way to make a difference politically is to build grass-roots organizations and movements and win people to the idea that even modest reforms are often won by hard-fought struggle.

The claim is that we need a more appropriate conception of what "political" means so that we can break free of the constricting straightjacket imposed by the Democrat vs. Republic disjunction. We need to stop self-censoring and settling for tepid crums so that we can begin organizing and demanding that things change.

There are no shortcuts here and I don't have the experience or know-how to say exactly what form such struggles and movements might take (and I'm inclined to believe that anyone who says they do have all the answers here are cheating you). But the basic idea here was put well by Fredrick Douglass many years ago:

"The whole history of the progress of human a
liberty shows that all concessions yet made
to her august claims have been born of
earnest struggle.... If there is no struggle,
there is no progress. Those who profess to
favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation
are men who want crops without plowing up
the ground, they want rain without thunder
and lightning. They want the ocean without
the awful roar of its mighty waters. The
struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a
physical one, and it may be both moral and
physical, but it must be a struggle.

Power concedes nothing without a demand.
It never did and it never will."

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Means and Ends

It is obvious to anyone remotely "left wing" that the Republican Party is not an agent of progressive change. But if this is straightforward, the issue of how to assess the Democratic Party from a left-wing perspective seems to perplex many liberals, "progressives", left-leaning people, etc.

A common problem with most left-leaning assessments of the Democrats is that they run together two importantly distinct (but nonetheless related) matters: fundamental goals and tactical strategy. Or more simply put, ends and means are not distinguished from one another. The result is a distortion: "politics" itself is transformed into narrow electioneering strategy and PR rather than a subject about how to change the status quo.

This is what I mean. At best, the Democratic Party could only ever be a mere means for progressive change. That's it. Ostensibly, we elect representatives because we think they are most likely to carry out changes that we want to see. We don't elect representative or parties for their own sake, but for the sake of what they do.

Thus, the ascendancy to power of the Democrats should never be taken to be an end in itself; it must be seen merely as a potential means to achieving other goals. And, of course, it is always an open question whether or not some particular means are actually effective in bringing about some particular ends. There is no a priori way to know whether some X is a good means of bringing about some Y; the only way to know about such things is to try and see.

So, if left-leaning people should support the Democratic Party at all, it should be because it acts in their interests to bring about the sort of society left-leaning people endorse. In other words, left-leaning people should support the Democrats only on the condition that it acts as the best means available for bringing about left-wing change.

Now it should never be taken to be self-evident that the Democrats are the best means to winning left-wing change. It would be extraordinarily conservative and dogmatic to claim, in defiance of any evidence to the contrary, that the Democrats must always be and remain the best means of progressive change. Unfortunately, whether or not they realize it, many liberal pundits are conservative and dogmatic in precisely this way.

Rather soon, if not already, many liberals and "progressives" will begin to panic about the possibility of a Republican victory in the November elections.

We'll hear a lot about the Tea Baggers, Republican idiocy, and the dangers of allowing Republican majorities to re-emerge in Washington. The basic idea is that our fear of the Tea Baggers should carry the day here: no further reflection or thought is required to assess our present political situation.

But notice what's missing from the demand above that we go all out to aid Democrat incumbents attempting to dodge anti-incumbent anger. There is nothing said about the rather straightforward claim above about means and ends. It is merely assumed that the Democrat's control of Congress is good thing in itself. But should we really just assume that this is so? Is this really self-evident?

As I said above, the only way to know whether or not some entity is a good means to achieving some end is to try and see how it works. Here, recent events are indispensable. The Democrats won crushing victories over the Republicans in 2006 and 2008. By January of 2009, they had a popular young President in the White House, punishing majorities in the House, a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, and millions of Americans who were extremely eager for things to change.

But what happened?

  1. Rather than a rupture with the politics of the Bush Administration, the first order of business was to continue its financial policy. The Bush Administration's Paulson Plan of funelling billions of dollars to financial institutions was adopted whole-heartedly. Wall Street got billions in aid whereas ordinary people got the tough medicine of "free markets" and austerity. Given that Obama's cabinet is basically composed of Goldman Sachs alumni, this shouldn't be entirely surprising.
  2. Consider the healthcare bill. As Doug Henwood has pointed out, "the individual mandate has its origins in the Nixon administration’s response to Teddy Kennedy’s single-payer bill in the early 1970s. The insurance marketplace has its roots in the American Enterprise Institute’s response to Bill Clinton’s healthcare scheme." Rather than allowing ordinary people a say, Obama proscribed single-payer from the onset and allowed industry lobbyists to craft the legislation. The Democrat leadership in the Senate empowered Max Baucus to oversee the bill, the man who received the largest dollar amounts of campaign contributions from insurance companies in 2008.
  3. Take education policy. Obama has continued and expanded the ideas underpinning Bush's disastrous corporate "No Child Left Behind" policy by entrenching standardized testing, charter schools, and attacking teachers unions. Again, as Henwood pointed out, "Arne Duncan, his education secretary, has declared in terms indistinguishable from Milton Friedman’s that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to the New Orleans school system because it furthered that quasi-privatisation agenda."
  4. Rather than tax the rich and spend on the things that matter (as Obama hinted in the campaign), Obama and the Democrats have presided over punishing cuts to vital social institutions and have even led the charge to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare. As if that wasn't bad enough, Obama even had the audacity to propose spending freezes on everything except military spending. Now it is unclear whether the Democrats will even allow the egregious Bush tax breaks for the super-rich expire.
  5. On the environmental front, the ACES bill passed, but only after industry loaded it up with goodies and removed all of the provisions that might actually do the environment some good. Many environmentalists correctly took it to be worse than no bill at all. Worse than this, however, was Obama's 180 on offshore drilling, which came, unfortunately for him, right before the worst offshore oil disaster in recent history. And to put the icing on the cake, Obama and the Democrats couldn't even be bothered to make BP pay for the mess they made.
  6. Despite loads of support from organized labor, Obama and the Democrats reneged on their promise to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Contrary to the spirit of his electrifying campaign speeches to union members, Obama didn't even try to get the bill to pass. The Democrats comfortably let the bill die, in deference to anti-union, corporate laws already in place. If the Democrats are comfortable allowing unionization to continue to be illegal in large parts of the US, it's because they care more about their support from business than they do workplace democracy. If they know labor won't vote GOP, why not just continue to screw them and compete for campaign dollars from viscously anti-union corporations?
  7. Despite the fact that record numbers of black Americans turned out in support of Obama in 2008, black unemployment figures are reaching heart-stopping levels and show no signs of letting up. The social misery visited upon people of color was also made more acute by the massive loss of wealth due to the predatory subprime mortgage scam. Again, no resolute Federal intervention to protect the assets of homeowners was pursued, although more than $787 Billion was spent protecting the assets of the largest financial institutions in the country.
  8. Rather than curtailing American imperialism abroad, it has expanded under the Democratic congress, particularly in Afghanistan where drone bombings have increased substantially. Wikileaks, which has quickly passed from the mainstream media's short attention span, confirmed many of the grim impressions already gleamed from the situation there. Although hardly mentioned, the escalation of American military presence in Latin America has increased under Obama.
  9. One of the only positive things to come out of the Democrat ascendancy has been the Stimulus Bill, which was described almost uniformly by economists as tepid and much too small. This isn't quibbling over "ideological purity"; the fact is that if you have a 2 foot wide hole in your wall, you don't cover 4 inches of it and say you've finished the job. The fact that unemployment has continued to grow speaks to the inadequacy of the stimulus, as states continue to lay off workers, cut public transporation services (the first step to a green society), slash library and education budgets, and close schools. And also let us not forget that the stimulus bill included tax-breaks for the wealthy that was included to appease the most right-wing elements in the Democratic party. If you don't think that the money existed for more ambitious public spending see 1. above.
Given everything that has happened in the best of all possible circumstances for the Democrats (massive majorities, filibuster-proof senate, popular president), how can anyone really believe that voting for, supporting, and funding the Democrats is really all there is to politics?

When do we say "enough is enough"?

The rational conclusion to draw here is that the Democrats are part of the problem, not the solution. The rational conclusion is that channeling all of our efforts and resources to the Democrats is a bit like casting our efforts into political black hole. The answer isn't to simply vote a different way; the answer here is that we need to look at other means of struggling for the things that matter, like fighting for a green society that might allow us to avert ecological catastrophe, or getting single-payer health care.

History is instructive here.

As Peter Camejo observed, "every major gain in our history, even pre-Civil War struggles such as the battles for the Bill of Rights, to end slavery, and to establish free public education -as well as those after the Civil War, have been the product of direct action by movements independent of the two major parties and in opposition to them".

Even if the Democrats were to hold onto every single seat in November, the task of the Left remains the same: build the movements and struggles capable of demanding (of the entire political system) that things change, whether or not those atop ruling institutions like it or not.

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