Thursday, December 30, 2010
Read Cecil Adams's response to my post here.
I appreciate the response from Cecil. It is far more measured and charitable than my post was. Still, although I would be the first to admit that my initial post was a touch on the polemical side, I stand by what I said there. For example, I still disagree, as Cecil said in the original post that "The lesson many drew [from the "Time of Troubles" when Washington was mayor] is that meaningless elections = peace and prosperity, whereas democracy = bad". Perhaps the 25-30% who supported the Two Eddies crusade against Washington would endorse this claim. But I doubt that the majority of ordinary Chicagoans would.
That said, I felt partially vindicated after reading how much clarification there was in Cecil's response. I felt vindicated in the sense that the response largely argues that Cecil agrees with what I was saying (for the most part), whereas I'd construed him as disagreeing. I'm pleased to see that we're in agreement on more than I'd previously supposed, but I'm not convinced that we agree on everything.
Although this wasn't perhaps clear in my initial critique, part of the problem with Cecil's column on non-partisan elections had to do with what it didn't say. What I mean is this. If you didn't know the facts about Washington, race and politics in Chicago, you wouldn't walk away with a very accurate view after reading the column. Absent Cecil's recent clarifications and qualifications, the original column would leave you with the impression that Washington was a "problem" best avoided in the future. Compare and contrast Ira Glass's excellent piece on Harold Washington with Cecil's original column and tell me that the latter doesn't miss the mark.
Some of Cecil's points are well taken. I wouldn't want to argue that non-partisan elections are inherently racist. However, in certain contexts, when put to certain uses, they may absolutely be an instrument of perpetuating racial subordination. And in our case in Chicago, they are such an instrument. Using them cynically in order to prevent a non-Machine-sanctioned Black reformer from taking office again seems to fit the bill here. Cecil seems to agree with this much.
But Cecil's "second point" is that despite this unsavory history, non-partisan elections have their own merits as well. But what are these merits? This is where I get a bit confused.
In the original column, Cecil argued that the merit of non-partisan elections is that they force candidates to appeal across racial lines, whereas the older procedures didn't. I don't think this is true. To be sure, the old procedures had plenty of problems. But it isn't true that the old system didn't require candidates to appeal for support across color lines. The story of Harold Washington, as Cecil himself agrees, invalidates that worry. Furthermore, it isn't even obvious to me that "non partisan elections" encourage candidates to appeal across color lines. I don't see how eliminating primaries is a step in the right direction here, but I'm open to changing my mind. I do think that the non-partisan procedures were implemented to dilute the black vote, and I don't think they were ever drawn up to increase democracy. But I concede that the one-party Machine domination of Chicago politics may have been aided by the previous set-up (though it remains to be seen whether the new rules will have any effect on the health of the Machine... my own thought is that it will take a grass-roots struggle from below to really shake things up in Chicago).
One final thought about the idea of "appealing across racial lines". There is a reasonable sense of this idea and there is one that is problematic. The reasonable version is this. People of different races should be fully equal co-legislators, and should relate to one another on terms of respect. I myself endorse this rather abstract and idealized version.
But the problematic version is sneaky. It trades on the appeal of the idealized version above, while actually apologizing for already existing oppression. The problematic version basically interprets "appealing across racial lines" as "appealing to the prejudices and existing privilege of white people". In other words, "appealing across racial lines" means "appeasing those sitting atop the existing racial status-quo".
Thus asking white and black people to appeal to one another is not an identical request. Asking whites to appeal to black people means asking the historic oppressors to listen to, and take seriously, the needs and interests of the oppressed. Asking black people to avoid talking frankly about racism in order not to alienate mainstream whites is a different requirement entirely.
Of course, the most fundamental reason to combat and fight racism rests mostly on the "reasonable version" of the idea that I laid out above. You fight it because you care about the bigger struggle of fighting for an egalitarian society in which human beings encounter each other as equals in the fullest possible sense.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Richard Seymour has an excellent post on the allegations against Assange here, which makes similar arguments to the claims I put forward here. Seymour's analysis is spot on. His criticisms of Wolf and Counterpunch are also fitting.
It has been infuriating to see so much muddled, basically sexist responses to the Assange allegations. To rule out a priori that Assange committed rape is ludicrous (and sexist). Rape happens all of the time, and most of the time the crime goes unpunished entirely. To defend the organization called wikileaks is one thing. To claim that you know beyond on the shadow of a doubt, simply because you support the organization wikileaks, that Assange couldn't have raped anyone is preposterous. Perhaps he didn't- I myself don't know. But I don't pretend to have a priori knowledge of his innocence. I also don't go around regurgitating falsehoods about laws in Sweden that define rape as "consensual sex with no condom". It's disgusting how many supposedly "Left" defenders of Assange have made these two blunders.
Of course, the US war machine could care less whether he did or not- they want to get him by any means necessary, for reasons completely unrelated to rape. Even if he did commit rape in Sweden, there is no real reason for extradition- yet we know that the US will try to capitalize on what happened in order to bury wikileaks.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Saturday, December 18, 2010
All societies, no matter when or where, must have a way of reproducing themselves over time. In order to do this, there must be some organized way of socially producing the things people in the society need to survive. This is the heart of any economic system: the way that production is socially structured and organized.
In the US we live in a capitalist society. Although people associate all sorts of things with capitalism (e.g. consumerism, greed, stock markets, etc.), we need not concern ourselves with all of these in order to really understand the basic structure of capitalism. As I said above, the heart of any economic system is production. We will therefore need to say something about how production is structured and organized in capitalism in order to get a grip on how the U Seconomy works.
In capitalism, production is for the profit of those who own and control production. The basic motive for all large-scale production is accumulation for accumulation's sake. But who is it that owns and controls production in capitalism? The answer is obvious: capitalists do. Production is owned and controlled by investors who possess all but one of the key ingredients necessary to produce (capital, equipment, raw materials, etc.). The only factor of production they don't own outright is labor-power, i.e. the capacity to work. In the not-so-distant past, of course, Slave owners did own this outright.
Now it doesn't much matter whether individual capitalists desire to produce for the sake of profit or not- they are forced to do so by competition (i.e. by the way the system is configured). If a particular firm doesn't reinvest profits in expanded production, often the result is that competition will push it out of business. In order to even be (and remain) a capitalist, then, one is forced to grow one's firm and accumulate rapidly. If you don't, you're liable to go under.
At the level of an individual firm, there is a great deal of conscious rational planning. All sorts of cost-cutting and allocative decisions are made in order to maximize the profits of the firm in question. But at the system-wide level, there is no plan at all: there is merely the anarchic head-butting of various firms who fight for market share and profits. The completely ludicrous idea pedaled by apologists for this system is that all of this irrational greed-driven competition will deliver the best possible consequences for all.
Any society needs to produce certain goods in order to reproduce itself over time. Just about all of the things we need to survive are dependent on the process of production in our society. (The idea that society could shut down tomorrow and we could all grow our own food in our back yard is a utopian fantasy).
Importantly, in order to be a capitalist society at all, production must not be under the control of the people. "Free enterprise" requires that the "entrepreneurs" have exclusive ownership and control of it. And worse still- what they do with their exclusive ownership and control is wield production exclusively to enrich themselves. Profit is the sole motive for investment and production.
Because of this, we can get the things we need (e.g. jobs, income, goods, food, etc.) from the system only if certain conditions obtain. That is, production only occurs when it can be done in such a way that capitalists turn a profit. When sufficiently high profits are not on offer, capitalists do not invest. This is the reason why "free market" health care systems leave the old and sick out in the cold: such persons are not "good investments" since they will need more than they will pay in. They are not potential sources of profit, so profit-seeking capitalists do not transact with them. The result is that their needs are liable to go completely unmet by the market.
Our entire economy, then, is like an engine that only runs when the ruling class is accumulating profits. This frames and circumscribes the space in which policy makers in the State make decisions. For Democrats as much as Republicans, the basic question is the same when it comes to sculpting economic policy: what can we do to create the conditions in which the accumulation process can resume? They are committed to using this particular engine, so their only real disagreements are over how best to fuel it.
All of the major economic policies implemented since the onset of the recession have been aimed at trying to solve this problem: they have all aimed at trying to secure the conditions for resuming profit accumulation for the capitalist class.
The stimulus bill, for instance, which was a Keynesian-inspired idea, aimed to solve this problem by trying to prop up effective demand. In other words, it was aimed at trying to increase the purchasing power of ordinary people so that they can go out and buy the things that capitalists sell, thus trying to solve the problem of overproduction and resuming capitalist economic activity.
Of course, the stimulus bill had side effects for ordinary people that truly were beneficial: increased spending on infrastructure, increased education spending, new jobs, protection of some old jobs, etc. But at the end of the day, these were just side-effects of the bill: the basic goal of the policy was to resume profit accumulation for the ruling class by propping up effective demand. If the basic goal was actually to help people in need for its own sake, this would beg the question of why so many needs (even the same needs addressed by the much-too-small stimulus) go entirely unmet by policy in general.
Or, take a few other examples. Take TARP. The goal there was simple. It had nothing to do with fairness, justice, or the best interests of the majority. It was rather obviously a massive transfer of toxic private assets from financial institutions to public rolls. The reason for it was simple: it was aimed at resuming the conditions of profitability as quickly as possible for the biggest and most powerful financial institutions which were teetering on the verge of collapse. You have to get that engine running again, right? If it was unfair or unsavory to ordinary people, that's because it had nothing whatsoever to do with what ordinary people should find fair or just. It had one basic goal and it succeeded marvelously. Everything else that was said about it was merely the massage-work of PR.
The same goes for "quantitative easing". The interest rates are near zero because the technocrats at the Fed think this is the best way restore profitability to the commanding heights of the economy.
Or, if you like, take the present regime of austerity. The reasoning behind this strategy is, as I recently noted, the same reasoning as the "structural adjustment" nightmares forced upon the populations of numerous countries in the global South and elsewhere. This is classic IMF-style neoliberalism. Massive sums of public money are mobilized to bail out financial institutions who've driven themselves into the ground- and in order to finance the bailout, a program of austerity for ordinary people is implemented. It's nothing personal- it's not as though the primary aim of the system is screw ordinary people, though this is often the practical consequence of how it functions. It's all about restoring the conditions in which the accumulation process can resume.
Now, it should be quite clear what I'm not saying by this point. I'm not claiming that there's some conspiratorial clique of elites who just want to screw us and do nothing but. No, the claim is quite the opposite: it doesn't much matter what bureaucrats and government officials think in a certain sense. As individuals, they can choose to operate within the logic of capitalism, or they can decide to resist it. But as occupants of a certain institutionalized role which is itself lodged within the logic of capitalism, they have no say. Even if they are leftish liberals who actually care about working people, so long as they are to work within the logic of capitalism they are forced, whether they like it or not, to care about the basic goal of profit accumulation. Because when the accumulation process stops, so does all of the cherished liberal programs that are funded by it. Thus liberals are stuck with a contradiction they can't erase so long as they operate within capitalism. All efforts, then, to try to massage away the worst effects of capitalism will be brushing against the grain and unstable over time.
Left-wing reformists have tried quite hard to try to deal effectively with this contradiction. Some have tried to nationalize certain sectors of the economy in order to bring some of the most crucial industries under democratic control. Some have tried to heavily tax and regulate capital; others have tried to hang their hat on strong trade unions who are, for a time at least, formidable enough to exact some compromises from capital. But at the end of the day, all of these putative solutions prove unstable over time for one reason: they leave the ruling class intact. As long as there is a ruling class, as long as the basic structure of the economy is under the control of capitalists, they will never be satisfied with concessions. They too can go on strike. They can (and have, in many different historical instances from the Paris Commune to Chile in 1973) appeal to foreign powers to intervene (directly/violently or economically). They can threaten capital flight. Sometimes they can just use the existing state apparatus to repress social movements demanding that the system change. They've got a whole goody-bag of tricks they will use if it their power is threatened.
For this reason, the basic analysis of capitalist societies provided by Marxism lends itself to revolutionary demands for justice. Surface level tweaks won't do. We need to change the basic priorities of the system and bring production under democratic control. Only the most radical form of democracy can succeed in bringing about such a state of affairs.
In the not so distant past I was fortunate enough to see David Harvey give a talk on the global economic crisis. What follows is a summary of some of the key points he made.
Mainstream analysis of the crisis is totally inadequate on at least two fronts. First, it has no historical depth. It hardly even bothers to connect recent events with things that went on in the 1990s, let alone the 40-year global economic trend known as neoliberalism.
Second, there is no sensitivity to the geographical dimensions of the crisis. It's important to see where the crisis has been concentrated and where it has been felt most acutely. Globally, skyrocketing unemployment is most acute in the US. Compare this to China and Argentina, both of whose economies are still growing steadily. Though China has been growing, however, there are many signs of overproduction there. There's a question about whether the crisis will hit there next.
The center of the crisis has to do with the banking systems that were plugged into collateralized debt obligations in the US. Banking systems that were insulated from that dirty business have largely been able to weather the storm so far.
Importantly, capitalism doesn't solve it's crises, it moves them around geographically. For example, consider the East Asian Financial crisis in the late 90s. Loads of profits went to those who speculated on it- but the crisis, at the end of the day, was not solved. It was moved around geographically.
In Vol. 2 of Capital, Marx talks about the flow of capital in a "healthy" capitalist system. In his view, a "healthy" capitalist system is one which is growing via the exploitation of labor. Any blockage of capital flow, he notes, can cause crisis. Capitalism must, in order to function, constantly expand. If you're a capitalist, for example, you must reinvest constantly in order to remain a capitalist (i.e. in order to compete and stay afloat in the market).
When capitalism cannot expand it goes into crisis. This creates a deep problem for the system. As more and more capital is accumulated, more and more profitable investments need to be found to absorb all of this surplus. When there are not enough profitable investments to absorb this surplus, the system goes into crisis because the flow of capital, the expansion and growth necessary for capitalism, have ground to a halt.
It doesn't take a lot of reflection to see that this process cannot continue ad infinitum.
But the system isn't rational: it isn't self-aware and it does not "learn" from its mistakes or reconfigure itself to be sustainable. It is like a car driving towards a cliff with no one at the wheel. Thus, the pressures to expand and accumulate that drive investment and production create increasingly irrational processes. The huge turnover in consumer products created by "planned obsolescence" has been steadily increasing over the last 30 years- this is a desperate way to try to prop up profits (because if you sell someone a blender that lasts for 50 years, they won't need to buy another one for a long time).
Another "bellwether" here is Olympics opening ceremonies (probably the same is true of Super Bowl halftime shows). They get progressively more and more costly, spectacular over time. There is a push to make the NFL season longer and longer and it is well known that the Super Bowl itself is being pushed back further and further to allow even more TV build-up and ad dollars to accumulate.
Looking at the crisis in broad historical context requires, first of all, that we say something about the crisis of the 1970s. This seems to have dropped out of the popular discussion of economics and finance entirely, but it's important to compare and contrast our present situation with that of the early 70s.
The view from the top holds that the crisis of the 1970s was caused by the "excessive" power of organized labor. Labor was too powerful and was able to bargain too effectively. In other words, labor's power was getting in the way of profitability insofar as trade unions were able to win decent contracts with relatively high wages, good benefits, pensions, and all the rest of it. The power of labor and social movements meant that nation states were, relatively speaking, under pressure from below to meet some degree of human needs. Moreover, the relative power of the nation state in the global system meant that it was not easy to move capital around globally.
The big problem for the ruling classes in this situation was that they were being taxed too heavily and made to negotiate with labor on terms that were far too close (for the taste of the ruling class) to equality. Mind you it was not anything like "dual power" between labor and capital- but even this modestly equitable arrangement was not to the liking of capital once a global recession set in and profits were down across the board. Something had to give.
One strategy was to loosen up immigration. This was passed in the US in the 60s in order to try to undercut the bargaining power of organized labor thus driving down wages. It didn't work. Thus the ruling class pushed for the "liberation" of the financial institutions so that they could more easily move capital all over the globe. This enabled off-shoring and outsourcing so that capital could get access to the global "reserve army" of labor. This enabled it to avoid dealing with the social power of labor in the advanced capitalist nations.
But ruling class praxis was not entirely indirect. The late 70s and early 80s were a time of intense attack from above on the power of labor. Thatcher and Reagan were elected to break the back of labor and they largely succeeded in doing so.
All of the above factors lead to a stagnation of the living standards for working people, which had been steadily on the rise during the period from 1945-1973. The gap between what labor was earning and what it could purchase (because prices continued to rise) began to be covered by credit cards and other forms of debt from the early 80s onward.
It was true, from a ruling class perspective, that the power of labor was "too strong" in the early 70s in order to keep profits rolling in. But nobody could really say that labor is the problem this time around. In fact, labor has been so thoroughly beaten back by the last 40 years of neoliberalism, it would be laughable to try to blame this crisis on the excessive power of labor. As everyone seems vaguely aware, the present crisis was caused entirely by the reckless speculation of financial elites.
What is the story with the bailouts? Bailouts are not a new concept. When, for example, Mexico was threatening to declare bankruptcy, this scared the shit out of New York financial institutions. They were scared because if Mexico really did go bankrupt, they would have been fucked because of all the money they had tied up there in investments. Thus, the ruling class pushed for the US to bail out Mexico. They pushed for the bailout so that they didn't lose out on their investments.
Let's be clear: the bailout wasn't administered for the protection of the well-being of the Mexican people. On the contrary, it was purely a move aimed at protecting the investments of New York financial institutions. Thus, the bailout came with conditions: it would be administered only if the Mexican government promised to implement punishing austerity measures, so that the investors can make their $ back as quickly as possible.
This happened in various different ways, all over the globe. The process came to be known as "structural adjustment". The IMF would give massive loans to cash-strapped developing countries on the condition that they consent to structural adjustment (i.e. austerity).
That is more or less what the US is undergoing right now. We are undergoing structural adjustment. The ruling class is using the power of the state to create a "good business climate", i.e. a situation in which corporate taxes are low, toxic assets are moved from private to public rolls, interest rates are near zero, labor is docile, etc.
Why is this happening? Because this whole rotten system only works when it is making handsome profits for capitalist investors. It only works when capitalism is growing and expanding. And given that it is clear that the State is not an enemy, but an enabler of profit accumulation, we shouldn't be surprised that everything the State is doing right now has to do with attempting to jump start the process of profit accumulation again. If that means punishing ordinary people, cutting living standards, wages, and jobs for the masses.... so be it. The State isn't set up to meet human needs- it's basic function is to create the conditions for profit accumulation, what the bourgeois press calls "growth". So when the contradictions are laying out in the open for all to see- we shouldn't in the first instance find fault with the State itself, but with the whole rotten system of which the state is but one element.
Friday, December 17, 2010
From "Straight-Dope Chicago":
The idea of a nonpartisan mayoral election with a runoff if no one got a majority was first bruited in 1986, during the runup to the 1987 mayoral contest. The intent clearly was to avoid splitting the white vote again and letting Washington be re-elected. Richie Daley among quite a few others supported the plan, but an attempt to put it up for a city referendum failed...Straight dope my ass. Straight racist crap is more like it. Here's some bits from earlier in the article:
A 1988 effort to push nonpartisan elections through the state legislature died, but the idea came up again in 1995, when Republicans took control of the General Assembly and the governor's office for the first time in 25 years. They used the opportunity to push through a long list of cherished measures that had gone nowhere while the Democrats were in control, one of which was nonpartisan mayoral elections in Chicago.
...Pretty much everyone else was in favor, and how could they not be? David Axelrod, who had worked for both Washington and Daley, told the Tribune, "It forces you to appeal to a broader constituency than to one ethnic or racial group."
Hard to argue with. Governor Jim Edgar signed the measure into law, and it's what we're using now. Is it fair? Yeah, it's fair. The fact remains that had nonpartisan elections been the rule in 1983, Harold Washington wouldn't have been elected, and breaks like the one that enabled him to become mayor are precisely what the system is intended to prevent.
For many Chicagoans, [democracy] is a frightening prospect. Those who've been around for a while recall that the last seriously contested elections took place during that brief period in the 1980s when the mayor of Chicago wasn't named Daley. This is now widely thought of as the Time of Troubles. The lesson many drew is that meaningless elections = peace and prosperity, whereas democracy = bad...Before I rip this article apart, just ask yourself this: to whom is it written? Who does the author mean when he talks about "most Chicagoans"? Who is "a lot of people" in Chicago?
...However virtuous the system may look now, it wasn't put in place because of saintly considerations. Rather, it was meant to ensure that an electoral outcome a lot of people weren't too happy with never happens again.
The most famous mayoral election in Chicago history … well, I shouldn't say that; all the inter-Daley elections were pretty memorable. But certainly the one with the most dramatic consequences took place in 1983...
...white Chicagoans may not have been wild about the city's first woman mayor, but better her than the first black one.
[For a far more accurate account of the Harold Washington election in 1983 please listen ot the following excellent edition of This American Life on the subject here.]
Though the gloss given in "straight dope" suggests otherwise, the fact of the matter is that the way that most of white Chicago reacted to Harold Washington, who won the mayoral election fair-and-square (with far more grass-roots organizing and support than any Daley could ever hope to obtain), was absolutely outrageous and self-consciously racist. The way that the white-controlled City Council tried to thwart his reformist agenda was criminal and reprehensible.
But the tone of the straight-dope piece expresses none of this obviously unsavory truth. It adopts a tone of faux-objectivity that paves over the very real, disgusting attacks that Washington faced. It tacitly endorses the disgusting attacks by giving the voice of white outrage a veneer of credibility and universality. You'd hardly know from reading the article that white people make up only 1/3 of the population of Chicago- the article makes it sound as though "most", "many", "a lot of" Chicagoans are white, whereas a small fringe aren't.
Strangely, at one point the article complains that Harold Washington "split the white vote", but later on it defends the new (quite obviously racist) "non-partisan procedures" on the grounds that they force candidates to "appeal to more than one ethnic or racial group". This is flatly contradictory.
If Harold Washington indeed "split the white vote", then in what sense didn't he already have to "appeal to more than one racial group"? Moreover, if the "problem" for those wishing to maintain white political hegemony in Chicago was that Washington won by "splitting the white vote", in what sense were "non-partisan" procedures (which, if we believe Cecil Adams, are supposed to split the white vote) the "solution"? This is obfuscatory non-sense. On the one hand, the "straight dope" story is that Washington committed the sin of "splitting the white vote" and was, therefore, attacked by the Machine for having done so. On the other, we're told that the "solution" to the Harold Washington "problem" was the "non-partisan" mayoral procedure, which, we're told, has the virtue both of solving the Washington "problem" and forcing candidates to appeal to voters across racial divisions.
The fact is that the "power brokers" that the article seems to side with did not want there to be a Black mayor and they used every available means to try to thwart his plans and have him removed.
The article also suggests that most white Democrat Chicagoans voted for Washington, whereas some voted for the white Republican. In fact, 90% of white Democrats defected from their party to vote against Washington for the (white) Republican, whose campaign slogan was "Epton for Mayor: Before it's too late".
The bottom line is this. As I've noted elsewhere, the typical white racist line in Chicago is a Hobbesian one. Their paranoid, irrational view is that Chicago can either have (a) a chaotic, disastrous "rule of barbarians" if it allows full democracy, or (b) it can have an autocratic white ruler who "maintains order". Though some white apologists for the Machine may reproach Daley in certain respects, most consent to its top-down domination of politics insofar as it ensures the political subordination of the "barbarians", i.e. the people of color in Chicago who make up 2/3 of the population (1/3 Black, 1/3 Latin@). This is the politics of white paranoia playing itself out (listen to the This American Life episode for more details here.)
Despite the actual divisions, inequalities, and the demographics and history of Chicago, most of the mainstream white population in Chicago thinks it deserves permanent domination over the municipal and county government. Thus when a white candidate runs for Mayor, that's just "normal". But when a person of color runs it's "divisive" and "racially exclusive". As the "Straight Dope" article suggests, it's a "problem", it's "an outcome a lot of people weren't too happy with", which they want to make sure "never happens again".
This "analysis" of recent Chicago electoral politics seems rather nakedly racist. And it appears in affiliation with Chicago's so-called progressive publication no less. While The Reader is easily the best leftish news and analysis one can find in Chicago (certainly it's many, many light-years ahead of worthless tripe like the Trib or Sun-Times), I'm always bothered by how goddamn white (in the pejorative sense) the publication is. What I mean is that it is consciously written by and for a slice of the white population in Chicago but nonetheless understands itself to be a publication representative of the city writ large.
In reality, The Reader does not really express the needs or interests of people of color in Chicago. Indeed, even when it adopts a sympathetic attitude towards the other 2/3 of Chicago, it typically does so from an outsider, observer perspective, rather than from the perspective of fellow city-dwellers and comrades. It's not that I'm arguing that the Reader should focus exclusively on the topic of race and nothing else --but I think it's problematic how little it reflects the social or political interests of black Chicagoans. That can and should change.
Most of the time, there is not a lot of discussion of race in the Reader. So far as I'm aware, there is no regular input from a person of color in the paper about issues facing people of color. In a city so segregated that sociologists had to invent a new word to describe it ("hyper-segregation"), you'd think that the allegedly progressive publication in the city would be a bit more sensitive to the historic and ongoing subordination of black people in the city of Chicago. But apparently not. Hence you find ridiculous "maps" of Chicago among some of these folk which don't even bother to include much of the west-side or south-sides on the map of the city.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
The basic argument is that the ruling against the mandate is part of one "tradition" of views about U.S. economy, whereas the defense of the mandate represents another. The first "tradition" is laissez faire. The second is a reformist and progressive. The author of the article would have us believe that ObamaCare is part of the reformist tradition of ideas that lend support to Medicare and Social Security.
The facts suggest otherwise. ObamaCare is not a reformist push against the entrenched power of elites... it is a further entrenchment of the power of those very elites. Rather than tampering with capitalism, ObamaCare expands and institutionalizes the for-profit insurance industry and, at the same time, mandates that all Americans purchase their products or face a penalty. Medicare, on the other hand, is an ambitious program that actually displaced private interests for the public good by guaranteeing seniors access to health care.
So, it is just false that we must either defend the individual mandate put into law by ObamaCare, on the one hand, or concede defeat to the laissez faire lunatics on the Right. Putting the point that way obscures what's at stake by making Obama appear as a progressive facing down conservative opposition. In reality, he's basically a conservative defending a conservative idea against conservative opportunists that happen to be in a different faction of the single pro-business party which monopolizes the political process.
It hardly needs to be said that this notion of "two traditions of thought" is basically bullshit for at least two different reasons. First of all, from the perspective of pure intellectual history, these two "traditions" are neither perennially competing nor coherent paradigms unto themselves. The notion of "laissez faire" obscures more than it explains in the real world. It is mere ideology (in the pejorative sense). It is but one idea, marshaled in certain circumstances when others weren't so effective, used to legitimate certain unjust social arrangements. Capitalist economies have never really operated on the basis of "laissez faire", nor could they. Defenders of the inequalities of capitalism have been far more creative and dynamic than the facile idea of a "tradition of laissez faire" suggests. And the supposedly competing "progressive" paradigm is no better. Speaking purely in terms of ideas, views as different as the technocratic reformism of Keynesian economics, the agrarian radicalism of the populists, and the socialist egalitarianism of the early labor movement could all potentially be the referent of such a "paradigm". It is no help to subsume them all under one heading and claim that they were all after a "social minimum" or "safety net".
Second, it's unclear that we should think of the political struggles over reforms in purely ideational terms. We must also talk about material conditions, unexpected historical or economic shifts, organization and struggle, changes in configurations of power, etc. etc. In short, it won't do us any good to talk about the historical change a series of passages from one idea to the next. We forget at our own peril that the dominant ideas in a capitalist society are not the outcome of a free rational discussion open to all; they are often the congealed effects of a certain configuration of power. Marx's sociological way of putting the point is that the ideas of the ruling class are often the ruling ideas. That means that if you control the means of production and distribution of information, you're likely to have a strong impact on the currency of ideas.
Thus, the entire framework of analysis posited in this article is obfuscatory and ideological. Even worse, it misapplies it's own ideological framework and attempts to incorporate ObamaCare into a contrived paradigm to which ObamaCare does not belong.
A U.S. District Judge in Virginia, Henry E. Hudson, has recently ruled that the individual mandate in Obama's health care bill is unconstitutional. When I first read this, I was ambivalent. On the one hand, I've got no love for the Republican boneheads for whom this is a way of trying to assault the entire idea of health care reform. But on the other, I've long felt that the individual mandate is an oppressive, basically conservative idea.
No wonder, then, that the individual mandate was an idea hatched by the Right. As I've noted elsewhere, it emerged as an idea in the early 1970s from Richard Nixon as a response to Ted Kennedy's push for single-payer. As Ezra Klein notes:
The individual mandate began life as a Republican idea. Its earliest appearances in legislation were in the Republican alternatives to the Clinton health-care bill, where it was co-sponsored by such GOP stalwarts as Bob Dole, Orrin G. Hatch and Charles E. Grassley. Later on, it was the centerpiece of then-Gov. Mitt Romney’s health-reform plan in Massachusetts, and then it was included in the Wyden-Bennett bill, which many Republicans signed on to.So, before sympathizing with apologists for Obama and the Dems who will, no doubt, jump to the defense of ObamaCare against the recent ruling (by a conservative, Bush-appointed judge), it's important to understand what's at stake.
It was only when the individual mandate appeared in President Obama’s legislation that it became so polarizing on the right. The political logic was clear enough: The individual mandate was the most unpopular piece of the bill (you might remember that Obama’s 2008 campaign plan omitted it, and he frequently attacked Hillary Clinton for endorsing it in her proposal). But as a policy choice, it might prove disastrous.
The individual mandate was created by conservatives who realized that it was the only way to get universal coverage into the private market. Otherwise, insurers turn away the sick, public anger rises, and, eventually, you get some kind of government-run, single-payer system, much as they did in Europe, and much as we have with Medicare.
The range of choices before us is not either (a) Republican non-sense, or (b) whatever Obama puts forward. No, on the contrary, justice itself recommends certain health care ideas and impugns others, regardless of what Obama does or says. Contrary to the beliefs of some of his apologists, he's not God and we're not theistic voluntarists.
Everyone who has spent any time considering the issue of health care can see that single-payer is the most rational and just arrangement. Why, then, should we shed a tear at the demise of a mandate that forces everyone to buy the for-profit health insurance industry's product? I agree with Ezra Klein that we shouldn't shed a tear, because this anti-mandate ruling could even turn out to be a blessing for those who actually believe in real health care reform:
If Republicans succeed in taking [the individual mandate] off the table, they may sign the death warrant for private insurers in America: Eventually, rising cost pressures will force more aggressive reforms than even Obama has proposed, and if conservative judges have made the private market unfixable by removing the most effective way to deal with adverse selection problems, the only alternative will be the very constitutional, but decidedly non-conservative, single-payer path.I'm tempted to say that conditions with or without the mandate will, in the long run, create pressures for more aggressive reforms. But the point is well-taken, the removal of the mandate erodes even the dubious idea that somehow the market could be made to provide "universal coverage".
This may be a setback for Obama, but it is not a setback for progressives who believe in real health care reform.
DEMOCRACY IS supposed to mean popular sovereignty, not the unimpeded rule of a no-mandate government. It is supposed to mean that the will of the majority governs, not the interests of the rich. It is supposed to mean at minimum that people get the policies they vote for, not those they are overwhelmingly hostile to.Read the rest at SW.org.
In liberal democratic theory, the people are sovereign inasmuch as their aspirations and prerogatives are effectively mediated through a pluralist party-political state. They may not get all that they want all of the time, but the decision-making process will be guided by the public mood, which rival parties must compete to capture and express.
Yet this system has only ever been effective to the limited extent that it has been when it has been supplemented by militant extra-parliamentary pressure--by the threat of disruption to stable governance and profit-accumulation. To the extent that the parliamentary system is ever really democratic, it is parasitic on a much more fundamental popular democracy.
Frances Fox Piven (along with her late partner Richard Cloward) has long argued that the electoral-representative system is most democratic when the working class and the poor are deliberately disruptive--when they are organized, but not institutionalized.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is getting really good at it. His new schtick is basically just that: don't criticize Obama and the Democrats... criticize the Left for "not working hard enough". As he put it in his piece on "enthusiasm" during the 2010 midterm campaigns:
Unfortunately, the main problem rests neither with the Obama administration nor the Democrats in Congress. It rests with the failure of the social forces that elected them to keep the pressure on. Too many of us expected results without continuous demand.Now, in a sense he's absolutely right. It was a mistake in 2008 to think that Obama would implement progressive reforms absent pressure from the Left. Moreover, it continues to be a mistake to think that we'll win even modest reforms without a left-wing social movement capable of making demands on the system.
But Fletcher's position is a contradictory one. Coupled with this emphasis on social movements and protest (and, sometimes, on "independent formations") is an injunction to submit to the Democrats. I say "submit" because I think that most accurately captures the relationship Fletcher encourages us to take vis-a-vis the Democrats. That is, he wants progressives and leftists to enter the Democrat apparatus, such as it is, and accept all its constraints and limitations without argument. Only then can we begin to agitate. Hence, he makes suggestions like the following:
A number of people, in the midst of justified outrage, have suggested that there needs to be a candidate or candidates to run in the Democratic primaries against President Obama as a way of challenging him. While I understand this view, I think that it does not work as good, progressive political strategy. Progressives are in a position of weakness. It is unlikely that a good, multi-racial, progressive challenge - that has credibility - can be mounted against Obama. I might be wrong. But what is the case is that progressives can mount Congressional challenges and, in that sense, mirror some of what the Tea Party has done on the political Right. I am talking about going after both the Republicans but also the right-wing of the Democratic Party.Again, the message is that we must work within the Democrat apparatus. But his advice that we try to steer the Democrats leftward by playing their game is not sound. Several points need to be made here.
First, he's wrong about the Tea Party. Though the media has massively overblown and exaggerated their importance and strength, they are not a serious source of power in contemporary American politics. They are more spectacle than substance. And, though this wasn't well understood in the media following the midterms, the "Tea Party" did not do particularly well in the elections. For all the spectacle surrounding nuts like O'Donnell, few of those kinds of wackos actually won elections. The "movement", to the extent that there is one, is bankrolled by billionaires and run by such "grass-roots activists" as Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich. Though the denizens of the Tea Party talk endlessly about being "anti-Washington", they are, in fact, mere tools of the Republican Party. They have no serious power over the GOP itself, but they do help to turn out the party's "base" to try to oust Democrats. This is the most interesting part about Fletcher's interest in this "model": he doesn't seem to grasp that the Tea Baggers are, politics notwithstanding, more or less analogous to PDA, except that the latter receive much less media coverage. That is, both the Tea Baggers and PDA are impotent organizations that are full of sound and fury but which, at the end of the day, signify nothing in the way of serious pull. They are willingly subordinate to one or other of the two major corporate parties.
Second, I don't understand how Fletcher can seriously believe that challenging the Democrats in Congressional primaries is a reasonable way forward. First of all, it is quite difficult to even mount such a challenge: it requires a lot of money and effort, often in the face of better-funded and well-connected candidates. Also, working within the Democrat apparatus means playing by their rules and accepting some of their political terms of debate. Given that progressive organizations have scarce resources, throwing money at primary challenges seems an unwise expenditure (better to spend it on alternative media, grass-roots organizing, movements, etc). For even if a "progressive" Democrat wins the primary, there's still the question of the general election where, in order to receive funds from the DNC, the candidate may have to make further compromises. But say that a progressive Democrat like Schakowsky wins a primary challenge and gets elected. What should we expect to change in Washington? The Prog Caucus is a completely marginalized force in the Party and it is well-known that they cave-in on everything that matters. They are under the thumb of the leadership and have little pull. And, as is well-known, in exchange for the pull they do get they make further and further compromises. The career of Paul Wellstone is a nice case study here.
At the end of the day, the ProgCaucus is a safety valve for the Dems. Their subjective intentions aside, their objective function is to keep progressives from leaving the Democrats by occasionally bubbling up with leftish rhetoric. I'm not convinced we need more of these folks. We need a qualitative alternative.
Third, I don't understand all of the emphasis on elections when Fletcher's whole schtick is that we need to build the movements to pressure elected officials. He spends a lot of time talking about electoral strategizing, the need to hold one's nose and support conservative Democrats, etc. He has a lot to say about what we shouldn't do (support third party candidates, criticize Obama and the DNC, etc.). But what has Fletcher done to build the movements? How do his suggestions help us understand how to build an independent Left?
The Fletcher of the last few months seems more like a critic of the Left than a comrade in struggle. He seems more likely to blame progressives and leftists than to blame those in power. That is a shame. Because he wants to fight for many of the right causes (against the wars, for taxing the rich, and so forth). But he's suggesting that we throw our resources and political energies into a black hole. The Democrats take and take, but they give nothing in return. We need a real alternative, and that means getting outside of the two-party straightjacket. Movements don't emerge out of thin air- they grow out of organizing work and conditions that require struggle. But organizing work doesn't pay for itself- if Fletcher would urge progressives, trade unions, and activist organizations to put all of their resources into building the movements and getting out critical media... the "weak" state of the Left that Fletcher loves to criticize might actually grow stronger. I'm not convinced that a strong Left is possible within either of the two pro-Business parties we have. The Democrats siphon off political energy and defuse it. We need movements that sustain and build the confidence of the Left, and that can only be accomplished outside the ephemeral swells of the televised, corporate election spectacle.
The five largest U.S. firms by investment-banking and trading revenue -- Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and Morgan Stanley -- will likely have a better fourth quarter than the previous two periods, driven by equity underwriting and higher volume in stock and bond trading, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Even if this quarter only matches the third, the banks’ revenue will top that of any year except 2009.
The surge has come after the five banks took a combined $135 billion from the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program and borrowed billions more from the Federal Reserve’s emergency-lending facilities in late 2008 and early 2009 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. Since then, the firms have benefited from low interest rates and the Fed’s purchases of fixed-income securities.
Read the rest here.
Can somebody please get these people some big tax breaks right away? I'm deeply worried about their well-being. It's not enough that they received gargantuan sums of public money through TARP. It's not enough that they're breaking records with the highest profits ever. So it's clear that they're desperately in need of huge tax breaks.
Good thing Obama and the Democrats are here to help them out. I'm sure the Dems will brag about having done so when they're running for re-election in 2012. This will surely make them more "competitive" in vying for corporate funds once campaigns get rolling.
Monday, December 13, 2010
See here. I hope none of those quoted here are breaking their arms patting themselves on the back. I agree wholeheartedly with the basic politics of the letter, and I'm all for organizing the Left to confront and oppose the Democrats. But "I told ya so" is no way to win over new recruits.
It doesn't make sense: you don't begin by creating a wedge between yourself and those you're trying to win over to progressive politics. You begin by staking your arguments commitments people already have, but which cannot be fulfilled by the means they presently endorse (i.e. giving resources and public support to the Democrats). It is a strength of the letter itself that it does precisely this: it documents the right-wing tilt of the Democrat's two years of crushing majorities in Washington. But this "what we were saying" page misses the mark, as does the "who we are" page.
You don't start a conversation with on-the-fence Obama supporters by telling them what dupes they are. You don't win them over with "told ya so" bragging.
You win them by showing them how the causes to which they're already committed (e.g. ending the wars, fighting for single-payer, taxing the rich, etc.) cannot be won without a left-wing movement independent of the Democrats. You win them by showing them, concretely, how the Democrats have opposed and thwarted progressive initiatives. You win them by talking about the history of struggle and how past gains were really won.
This "what we were saying" page reeks of "told ya so" bragging. The quoted parties should save it for a cocktail party. Organizing isn't about tooting your own horn- it's about working with commitments people already have and convincing them that such commitments are part of a bigger struggle for freedom and justice.
To be clear, I'm not saying that we, on the Left, need to play nice with the likes of Tom Hayden and Thomas Frank. They should be held accountable for what they said and did. What I'm talking about here is what's at stake in writing this whole letter in the first place: winning progressive minded people to the idea that their political convictions don't register in the two-party system.
Evidently, the Senate is poised to vote on Obama's "deal" with the Republicans in which massive tax breaks are extended to the richest of the rich in the midst of massive budget shortfalls at the state and municipal level. Obama and Co. are also entertaining the idea of extending the retirement age and slashing Medicare as they stand poised to deliver this massive Christmas gift to the ruling class.
Let's be clear. Though both of the corporate parties are talking about the "economic benefits" of these cuts, this is utter bullshit (and trust me, they know it is). This is what's really going on. The ruling class has a difficult time directly attacking social programs (though they are making quite a go of it right now). Thus they attack indirectly by eviscerating public social institutions with massive tax breaks for the rich. Now, as I've suggested elsewhere on this blog, they can't do this directly either: more cover is needed. That is, they can't sell tax breaks for the rich in the way that they'd really like to, e.g. "let us take everything we can get our filthy hands on and leave nothing for the vast majority!". They can't speak the language of petty interests; they must talk about "we" and "us" and justify what they do in general, universal language. Enter bullshit about "economic growth" and tax breaks.
Now, I think that every single word about economic stimulus and tax breaks is ideological in the pejorative sense; it takes our eye off of what matters and focuses the debate on an apolitical, dubious point of detail. But let me say a bit about why tax breaks for the rich and economic stimulus are, basically, topics that are best discussed separately. As Krugman recently put it:
The point is that while the deal will cost a lot — adding more to federal debt than the original Obama stimulus — it’s likely to get very little bang for the buck. Tax cuts for the wealthy will barely be spent at all; even middle-class tax cuts won’t add much to spending. And the business tax break will, I believe, do hardly anything to spur investment given the excess capacity businesses already have.This is obvious. If you wanted bang-for-your-buck for each dollar spent (and, make no mistake, these massive tax breaks are tantamount to "government spending" in a sense, to the tune of $850 billion, all of which will be added to the deficit), you'd fucking build roads and hospitals and schools and train tracks and wind-power turbines. You'd actually do something with that chunk of change that really met ordinary people's needs and propped up effective demand.
The actual stimulus in the plan comes from the other measures, mainly unemployment benefits and the payroll tax break. And these measures (a) won’t make more than a modest dent in unemployment and (b) will fade out quickly, with the good stuff going away at the end of 2011.
These tax breaks have nothing to do with stimulus: they are part of a strategy hard-line class warfare from above. The priorities of those in Washington are clear: punish the people and shower the rich with extra funds (as though they haven't done well enough already).
Punishing the people is something Obama is getting quite good at. Now, some Democrat apologists will try to convince you that Obama's having "won" the measly extension of the unemployment benefits somehow represents the best of all possible worlds. Some of these jerks even cheering on the "deal". This is bullshit. As Malcolm X put it, "You can't drive a knife into a man's back nine inches, pull it out six inches, and call it progress." I'm not even sure if it's fair to say that the small, measly extension of unemployment benefits should count as "six inches".
In order to insulate their fantasy world from encroachment by reality, these apologists must convince themselves that Obama has no agency, that the Democrats are always 'forced' by the Republicans to do all of the shitty things they do, etc. But it's about time these apologists faced the music.
The Democrats, at the Federal and local level, are overseeing massive austerity measures at the same time that they are finding creative ways to lavish the richest of the rich with extra cash. They are cutting public transit at the same time that they lower taxes on corporations. They are for raising the retirement age while simultaneously lowering the top marginal income tax rate. They are for Wall Street, not the vast majority of us. They are for the ruling class, not the jobless.
We, the vast majority of ordinary Americans who make up the bottom 95% of the population, can do a whole lot better than this. Those who think we can't are cynics. Progressives need not pay attention to such conservative dullards, whose allegiances lie more with a corporate party apparatus than with the interests of the vast majority.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
"The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term." - Wilfrid Sellars "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man" (1960)
Just keep in mind, amidst all of the inane debate over Obama's "strategic" moves, that the Democrats had two years to deal with the Bush tax cut fiasco. Two years in which they had, at one point, a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate and massive majorities in the House. House Democrats refused to vote on the tax issue before the November elections. Senate Democrats didn't even publicly agree amongst themselves about whether to give more tax breaks to the rich. Obama, as usual, concedes 90% of his ground up front and expects to get lucky and win 10% of what he was after in the first place (which is usually itself weaksauce). Obama won in 2008 in Indiana and West Virginia, in particular, because he campaigned on the idea of taxing the rich and using it to fund expanded health care coverage. It now turns out that he's not going to follow through on either.
There should be no doubt that the tax cuts should expire for the richest of the rich. The conservatism of the Democrats on this question should be a wakeup call to progressives who still feel compelled to apologize for Obama and Congress.
Friday, December 10, 2010
Sanders, as usual, gives a full-throated defense of social-democratic values. It's heartening to hear someone, anyone, in the Congress say something remotely progressive. I wouldn't have said everything exactly the way that Sanders says it, but he's on target here: we're experiencing a one-sided class war from above and we need to fight it.
(See the Economic Policy Institute for the above images and more facts/figures).
As the first graph makes clear, the fifth of earners in the US have made staggering gains between 1979-2005. The disparities only get more extreme when you climb up the ladder within the top 1/5: the top 0.1% experienced an average $6 million increase in annual income whereas the bottom 1/5 of Americans experienced a mere $200 average increase. Make no mistake, this trend of increasing inequality amidst increasing growth represents a relentless class project of redistributing wealth from the bottom up to the top. By relentlessly pushing for cuts and privatization coupled with massive tax gifts for the super-rich, the ruling class has managed to redistribute wealth embodied in public goods to private coffers. The last 40 years have been a testament to their success.
Now, as the second graph makes clear, the Bush tax breaks for the rich only served to further increase this trend. These tax breaks were basically just decorative icing on the cake. Bush's cuts dropped the top marginal rate from 40% to 35%, but it had been 70% under Nixon and Carter's presidencies before Reagan dropped it to 30% in the early 80s. It's worth recalling that during Eisenhower's presidency in the 1950s the top marginal rate was 91%. This makes it clear that it's just plain false that a high top marginal rate of taxation is incompatible with capitalist expansion: the "long boom" from the 1945-1973 was probably the most stable, prosperous period in the history of US capitalism. The talk about an obvious connection between growth and top marginal rates, however, is almost always a red herring. The real issue is political and grounded in class interest: those in the top brackets have a strong interest in lowering their marginal rate and they'll marshal any rationalization (even obvious bullshit-on-stilts like the "laffer curve"... see image here) they believe is effective in order to do so.
They can't just say, baldly, "hey I want to get even richer so stop taxing me to pay for bridges and schools!". As I've noted elsewhere, the ruling class knows that it cannot address the population in the language of petty interests. In order to be effective it must speak the language of universality and rationality.
So to recap: the top marginal rate of taxation has dropped all the way from 91% in the 1950s to 35% today. Do the math: that's quite a gift, especially when you add in the fact that the majority of Americans have seen their real wages decline or stagnate during the same period (despite vastly increased productivity from 1980 to the present).
All of this, we should note, is just background. The real question we're supposed to be addressing is whether to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the rich. Once we have the facts on the table, however, the choice should be obvious unless your a self-serving, ruling class tool: we should repeal the gratuitous gifts given to the wealthy and bring the top marginal rate back to realistic rates. Why, when the Federal budget is such bad shape, should we give them $67 billion in gifts over the next two years when they're already rolling in more cash than they'll ever know what to do with?
To hear the ruling class and their political mouthpieces speak of "shared sacrifice" right now is laughable. They've been sacrificing the majority of us for 40 years as they've reaped more and more each decade. Last quarter, for instance, corporations posted the highest profits on record, even though the majority of us are still suffering the effects of the recession. On top of what they've been able to accumulate themselves, the ruling class has also pushed down our standard of living considerably during the last 40 years by breaking unions, cutting social services, privatizing and so on.
Now, after they've been punching us in the stomach for 40 years straight, they have the chutzpah to ask us to entertain the idea of "shared sacrifice". The only proper response to their suggestion is "fuck off". The ruling class loves the language of "we" and "us" when we're talking about risk and losses. But when it comes to profits and gains, they aren't so keen on including "us" in the equation, are they? When it's about money to be gained, it's all first-personal language about getting the "government off their backs".
If "shared sacrifice" has any meaning at all, it must mean that all parties share a burden according to their means to do so. So let the rich, who've amassed surpluses for themselves larger than the world has ever seen, do a bit of sacrificing. Let them at least pay the top marginal rates they paid under that "radical leftist" Richard Nixon for godsake. It's the least they can do, considering they've waged a one-sided class war against us for the last 40 years while wrecking the global economy with their reckless pursuit of short-term profits.
In fact, if we just eschewed the language of "sacrifice" entirely and simply asked the ruling class to clean up the mess they've made of the economy, they'd be paying much, much higher rates than they would under a regime of "shared sacrifice". A simple cost-benefit analysis, something the ruling class is fond of, quite clearly suggests the rich cost that the majority of us a lot more grief than they bring us in benefits. The entirely reasonable socialist intuition here is this: why, then, do we need to have a ruling class at all? They need us but we don't need them.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
As usual, I'm tempted to chuckle whenever I read anything put out by the PDA. They sort of remind me of George McFly from Back to the Future: "Now, now, now Obama...". On the one hand, they have it tatooed on their foreheads that "we will dogmatically, till death do us part, always cave in and vote for Democrats". On the other, they expect the big wig Dem leaders to take their "threats" seriously. You've got to be kidding me. It's as if they're saying "Obama, you'd better not be so right-wing, or, or... we'll get really good and mad at you!".
Everyone and their brother knows that the Democratic primary is a race among a small crew of people who have raised the big money from the big donors. How the hapless, powerless PDA thinks they can actually challenge Obama, or any of the mainstream candidates, within the corporate-stymied presidential primary cycle is beyond me. It's delusional. I'm sure that many of the rank-and-file PDA members feel that they're doing the right thing, but at some point they've got to realize that they are wasting precious resources and political energy. They're doing more harm than good at this point. Whether they realize it or not, they are simply part of the effort to close the "enthusiasm gap" and corral frustrated progressives back into prison of the American duopoly.
And worse still, when the PDA doesn't get their way in the primary, everyone and their brother knows that they'll just cave in a vote for whoever the Democrats run for president. I'm sure they wouldn't think twice about spending all their time and energy getting out the vote for Erskine Bowles if he was up against Alan Simpson. They'd probably write letters to, say, The Nation exhorting us to believe that the Bowles/Simpson "face off" was the "most important election of our lives". Delusional.
When Obama created the commission in early 2010, he mandated it to consider various options "designed to balance the budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, by 2015," including "changes to address the growth of entitlement spending and the gap between the projected revenues and expenditures of the federal government."Read the rest here.
Translated into everyday language, this meant two things: One, that closing the deficit would depend on some combination of increased revenues and lower government spending on many activities; and two, that Obama himself was putting a big bull's eye on entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
To make sure that the commission produced the kind of result that official Washington was looking for, Obama used his six appointments to put two well-known budget "hawks," Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, in charge as commission co-chairs. Obama also tapped two business executives, as well as Alice Rivlin, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration. With the game already rigged, Obama then tossed a bone to organized labor with the appointment of former Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern.
When Andy Stern is the only "progressive" representative of labor on the commission... that's not a good sign. Jan Schakowsky released an "alternative plan" recently which, on the face of it, says all of the right things (e.g. "deficit reduction isn't an end in itself", we should tax the rich, etc.). The trouble with this alternative plan is that nobody else on the commission gives a shit. 11 of the 14 members of the committee, including the "liberal" Dick Durbin, voted for the doomsday ultra-conservative plan last week. If 11 of them are OK voting to kick the majority of us in the teeth while lavishing the rich with further tax breaks, it's not likely that they would even bother to read Schakowsky's proposal.
Like Kucinich in the presidential elections, Schakowsky is a token who is only there to assuage the frustrations of disgruntled liberals who still support the Democrats. She has no real power on the committee, and that was part of the plan from the start. The fact is that Obama loaded the commission up with business elites (as if they should have any say whatsoever!) and right-wingers from both parties...then he sprinkled one faux-progressive (Stern) and one lone liberal.
Contrary to the apolitical way it is described in the media, deficit hawking is not some technocratic matter of finding creative or "smart" ways to solve a hard math problem. Deficit hawking is one-sided class warfare from above, and both the Republicans and Democrats are on board with it. This entire panel wants to do what governments in Ireland, the UK, Greece and France have tried to do recently: push through punishing cuts that force ordinary people to pay for a crisis that was caused by financiers and capitalists. When push comes to shove, we in effect see the true owners of economy; we see who really has power and what the priorities of governments really are. Perhaps that's what the (bipartisan!) ruling-class technocrats that chair the panel meant by "moment of truth".
We shouldn't sugar-coat what's going on. Austerity is the redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top. That is what this commission is there to do, and their proposal makes doesn't hide this. They want to slash and burn Social Security and Medicare while, at the same time, giving the rich massive gifts in tax reduction. Now if there are still some apologists for the Dems who would say that we should support the panel, they can at least be clear about what they'd like us to support: one-sided class warfare from above. My sense, however, is that such a blunt portrayal wouldn't win many folks to the cause.
Monday, December 6, 2010
It hardly matters. The mistake here is to think that the subjective intentions and dispositions of particular individuals is what makes social change. Although we're taught in high school to divide up American history according to presidential terms, as though historical changes cleanly mapped onto the prerogatives of the President himself, this has little to do with how contemporary capitalist societies reproduce themselves over time.
It would not be an unfair generalization to say that the Federal Government in the US has, throughout its entire existence, played a two-fold role at the domestic level.
On the one hand, the State has always been committed, first and foremost, to securing the conditions of capital accumulation. No matter which of the two major pro-business parties is in power, this has been the basic goal of policy. The contemporary economic crisis is hardly an exception.
On the other hand, the State has also tended to, at some times but not at others, compensate in various ways for the dysfunctional excesses and bad consequences of capitalist economic activity. Hence, we see the State intervene to break up trusts, build up infrastructure, quell social unrest by mitigating some extreme degrees of inequality, and, most recently, by shifting massive amounts of private debt to the public rolls. Again, this has been the other side of the first function no matter which party has been in power.
Now, I concede that these are only broad generalizations. They are systemic tendencies that derive from the basic structure of social institutions in capitalism. They are not inevitable, inexorable laws of nature. Sometimes the State, for various conjunctural reasons, has been compelled to buck these functions. Social struggles of various sorts have forced the State to enact some reforms that it would never have enacted otherwise (e.g. the Wagner Act and the Civil Rights Act come to mind, but there are many more examples).
But we forget at our own peril what the default tendency of the State is in capitalism. We forget at our own peril that the prerogatives of Government aren't set by the individual preferences of particular legislators. What they think or "feel" about politics is usually highly irrelevant, though the media obsesses over such trivial facts. The injunction to focus on what, say, Obama "really thinks" is, coming from liberals or conservatives, always obfuscatory rather than clarificatory. It doesn't matter what he thinks "deep down", as though we could actually know this. What matters is how the institution of which he is a (small) part functions in the massive, complicated capitalist system we live under. This institution, the State, was there before Obama and will be there long after he's left office. It has a certain structure, a set of guiding norms and practices, and a systemic function that have literally nothing to do with what Obama, the person, thinks or does. Worse still, it is often a condition of even being able to vie for the Presidency that you accept the basic coordinates of how the presidency already works (i.e. that it is a small part of the larger function I describe above).
Speaking in terms of the "deep" desires and hopes of Obama, the person, only disorients us and takes our eyes off of the real material conditions of contemporary political life. As I wrote in a recent post, it's not all about the intentions of individual politicians... It's the system, stupid.
Don't you feel bad for them? I mean they worked so hard for their bonuses on top of bonuses didn't they? They selflessly work for the benefit of others, so it's only fair that they should be rewarded by the rest of us, right? It's clearly worth the price (see below), isn't it?
Extending the tax cuts for all Americans with taxable income over $250,000 for joint filers ($200,000 for single filers) would cost the country about $40 billion next year, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, and it would cost $700 billion over the next decade.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
I think Zizek does reasonably well in this venue. He sets himself apart from facile crisis-mongering, and he handles the questions about greed and tolerance very well. Al Jazeera, as far as I can tell, seems to be the best mass TV station on the planet. Their programming has more substance and, unheard of in the West, a certain amount of sympathy for oppressed and exploited peoples, particularly in the global South. I'm not saying their politics are perfect, but, as I say, for mass commercial TV, they are reasonably good.
Julian Assange, the spokesman for Wikileaks, stands accused of sexual assault in Sweden. It is well-known that U.S. officials have been scrambling to find something, anything to charge him for in order to try to stop him from doing what he does.
The mere existence of Wikileaks is a threat to the integrity and continued dominance of the U.S. military-industrial complex. To be sure, the whistle-blower website hardly has the power to topple this punishing machine on its own -for that we'd need a mass movement in the belly of the beast. But it is still a serious threat- a threat to the smooth functioning of the U.S. military machine. It is not for nothing, then, that elites are livid. If I were Assange, I would fear for my life- the U.S. government has a long tradition of carrying out political assassinations.
So in this context, it is a bit unsettling that Interpol has issued an international warrant for Assange based on the allegations he faces in Sweden. Whatever it is that is alleged to have occurred in Sweden, and I'll get to that in a moment, you can bet that Interpol and international power brokers don't really give a shit. They just want to bring Assange down by any possible means, solely because of his political role in Wikileaks.
But it is a separate question whether Assange committed rape. I myself have no idea whether he did or not- but I will tell you that much of the response to the question has been dismissive and sexist. For example, from Counterpunch:
Perfect for the job, huh? Because she worked in a Gender Studies department and was involved in work enforcing gender equality? That sounds to me like feminist-baiting. The caricature is well-known enough: feminists are always women, they are always "man haters" and they are just out for "revenge". They might as well have just called her a "bitch".
"Ardin has written and published on her blog a “revenge instruction”, describing how to commit a complete character assassination to legally destroy a person who “should be punished for what he did”. If the offence was of a sexual nature, the revenge also must also be sex-related, she wrote. Ardin was involved in Gender Studies in Uppsala University, in charge of gender equality in the Students’ Union, a junior inquisitor of sorts.In other words, she was perfect for the job."
Now, I'm not really interested in Ardin the person, what her politics really are, etc. I'm just noting that she's been impugned for allegedly being a feminist, etc. as in the above quote from Counterpunch. It might turn out that she is a CIA agent, and it would hardly matter for the point I'm making here: there should be nothing illicit or suspicious about being a feminist, fighting for gender equality, and so on.
The other layer of the sexism here has to do with the talk about the legal dimensions of rape. It seems to be a favorite line of many sexists that, somehow, all cases of rape are the fault of the woman, on the one hand, or simply malicious acts of "defamation" waged by bitter women that "hate men" on the other. I've read bits about this issue on several websites that more or less invoked these very tropes.
I've also seen character defenses of Assange to the effect that "he simply couldn't have committed rape... he's a great guy who does a lot of good political work!". That's non-sense. As I note above, he is a great guy who does a lot of good political work, to be sure. But that is not a defense in a court of law for a good reason: it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether he did, or did not, sexually assault someone. They don't call it the ad hominem fallacy for nothing.
I've also seen complaints about the allegations that are so general in their attacks that, if generalized, they would to rule out the possibility of conviction in any rape case whatsoever. That's clearly reactionary. As is well-known, the U.S. legal system is woefully unable to address the problem of rape. It's not surprising, then, that a very small percentage of rapes are even reported, and a far small number ever conclude in a conviction. The system is set up against the interests of women.
As far as I can tell, none of this has anything to do with imperialism, the politics of whistle-blowing, hacktivism or global power plays. That is, none of the business in Sweden, whatever the facts are, has anything whatsoever to do with the politics of Wikileaks.
Now, the powers that be want us to think that it does. They want us to think that the allegations in Sweden are a knock against Wikileaks itself. They want us to, irrationally, let the U.S. war machine off the hook because of something Assange, the man, did or didn't do in his personal life. That's clearly bullshit.
So let's not buy into the imperialist narrative. Whatever did or did not happen in Sweden is a separate issue- let's not shit on feminism because the U.S. war machine sucks. And let's not use this as an excuse to further the oppressive myth that rape accusations are always about some "vindictive" feminist scholar looking to castrate some innocent, angelic man.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Cabrini-Green occupies a strange place in the public imagination of many (especially white) Americans. The mere existence of the 1992 horror film Candyman, most of which was actually shot on location at Cabrini, is a nice metaphor for this phenomenon. On the one hand, it is the object of scorn. But on the other, one finds a persistent, voyeuristic fascination with the Cabrini phenomenon that seems aptly filed away in the same genre as detached-observer crime porn TV-shows like Gangland.
Lately we've seen quite a bit of coverage of the fact that the last Cabrini-Green high-rise is slated to be demolished soon. Since the implementation of the CHA's "Plan for Transformation" in 2000, more than 1,700 residents have displaced as the high rises have been torn down one by one. This is a nation-wide phenomenon that began in the 90s, which, I think it's fair to say, is part of a larger neoliberal trend to privatize, cut public services, and so forth.
As I've written elsewhere on this blog, US public housing is shot through with contradictions of various sorts. In order to be able to say anything illuminating about the present situation concerning the demolition of the Cabrini-Green high-rises, we need to say a bit about their history.
The first major piece of public housing legislation in the US was the 1937 Housing Act, which ostensibly aimed to respond to serious scarcity problems in housing during the Great Depression. But due to "the successful lobbying of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Savings and Loan Association, the act was kept from being a central part of FDR's New Deal agenda". Moreover:
"Roosevelt was persuaded that public housing was "too socialist" a remedy to the existing scarcity of homes, and kept it out of the Administration's legislative agenda until the mid-1930s. After a bitter ideological debate in Congress, the act was finally passed in 1937, but not without significant concessions to the private sector. Among the most significant were requirements that public housing schemes include "equivalent demolition" of housing in the surrounding community (and compensation to the owner) so that no new units were added to the overall stock". (see J. Hackworth's excellent book, The Neoliberal City)Of course, the reason for this was that property-owning classes and real estate capital did not want public housing to compete with them (a development which would have forced them to lower rent prices to remain competitive in a market with more housing supply). It has been the same story with every subsequent housing bill passed after 1937: every measure would include provisions designed to prevent a serious public challenge to real-estate capital.
After WWII, the mass influx of soldiers returning to major cities led to a severe housing shortage. Landlords began installing "crash panels", illegally, to turn a two-unit building into an overcrowded 8 or 10-unit cash cow. This severe shortage gave landlords a substantial amount of economic bargaining power and led to a great deal of dirty dealings and exploitation. This vulnerability and exploitation was particularly acute in the case of black people, who, in Chicago for instance, were confined to small ghettos whose borders were strictly enforced by white violence (see Beryl Satter's excellent Family Properties for an in-depth analysis of how racism and exploitation shaped the housing scene for black Chicagoans 1945-the present.)
It was in this context of severe shortage that the 1949 Federal Housing Act was passed. Like the 1937 bill, landlords and real estate capital fought hard to make sure that the Act wouldn't endanger their economic power. They succeeded marvelously. Again, the letter of the law would require that public housing be prevented from ever competing with private landlords. The bill required that:
"(a) rent ceilings were to be set at a maximum of 20% lower than the lowest nearby private housing, (b) structures were to be stigmatizing and aesthetically austere in order to make public housing stand out from average housing stock; and (c) there would be low operating budgets for the Public Housing Authorities charged with managing the facilities."There's a bit more context to put in place here. The idea of building large high-rises in the manner of the Cabrini towers was part of an international trend. After the Great Depression, a new configuration of capitalism emerged under the influence of Keynesian ideas about fiscal policy. The old ideas of "laissez-faire" were almost universally discredited by the Great Depression. Understandably, it was pretty difficult to buy the old myth that the "free" market would solve all problems after the devastation caused by the Depression. It was clear to everyone that, left to its own devices, capitalism was prone to serious, recurring crises and instability. Thus, a consensus formed at the top of society to the effect that much larger measures of state regulation and intervention would be required to sustain steady profits and economic growth. This postwar "managed" capitalism came to define the era from 1945-1973.
Though many reforms came about through this change of orthodoxy which benefited ordinary people (vastly increased public spending on infrastructure, education, health care and housing), we should not be mistaken about the power dynamics involved. Capitalist social relations were hardly up for reform, and most of the beneficial policies of the era were implemented in a technocratic, top-down manner. This was social-engineering from above, not a serious reform program from below.
Public housing policy between 1945-1973 exemplified these trends. Some of the ideas that would influence US public housing, to be sure, had predated the Second World War (e.g. the top-down, technocratic ideas of Le Corbusier which were implemented to clear slums in Paris). In either case, however, the basic forces driving public housing were all coming from above rather than below.
This is, then, the context in which the high-rise towers at Cabrini-Green were built. They were, from the very beginning, part of a top-down plan that sought more to deal with a "problem population" than to empower those on the bottom of society. The structures were built to facilitate social control, not community or the satisfaction of human need. This is evident in the aesthetic properties of the buildings.
They created intentionally austere, bare-bones and basically anti-social built environments. The community and solidarity that did arise in Cabrini did so in spite of the built structures themselves. The buildings were spaced out, far away from one another, and all of the towers prioritized automobile-scale development over human-scale development. They were all single-use and included no mixed-use development at all. Rather than looking like inviting places conducive to community interaction, the high-rises were in many ways uninviting and unsettling to they eye. I don't say this because of the building materials themselves- I actually think very highly of reinforced concrete as a building material (aesthetically, environmentally, etc.) Moreover, I don't entirely endorse the Jane Jacobs-style critique of Brutalism and other Modern experiments in reconfiguring space- there was some, albeit often botched, progressive content to movements like the Bauhaus. Still, to be sure, much of what Jacobs had to say about "deductive" urban renewal (what black activists described as "negro removal") is absolutely right on. This inhuman, technocratic nearly destroyed urban life as we know it. I just wouldn't take the conservative view that everything about the Modernist experiment was misguided, adventurist elitism.
This is all a way of saying that I agree that the high-rises were basically a failed model from the very beginning. So what light does this shed on the demolition of Cabrini today?
So far I've mostly spoken of buildings, structural considerations, and macro-level policy. But the question of Cabrini has to do with real, living human beings. What will become of the former residents who will be displaced and what other options will be made available to them?
The residents themselves appear to be under no illusions about the way the system works. They understand that it does not work to serve their interests. Thus, they are entirely justified in being skeptical about whether there is a viable alternative waiting for them when the high rises are all torn down. They are rightly suspicious of neoliberal Section 8 policies as an alternative to real public housing. They are, for good reason, angry that they are being displaced not "for their own good", but because of the potential profits to be made by dispossessing them and gentrifying the area. They are aware that they are being forced to choose between a turd and a shit sandwich, and they justifiably want a more desirable alternative. And they deserve a better alternative. If mainstream America looked at the residents of public housing as fully equal citizens worthy of respect, rather than deviant subhumans who are more "problems" than fellow comrades, then perhaps it would be more obvious than it is that society owes them a better alternative. This isn't a matter of "charity", but of justice.
To be sure, some news reports will see this as a human interest story (rather than political) and will express some sympathy for the displaced residents. However, many news reports will try to cast the resident activism and opposition as irrational. Why, the news reports will ask, would a rational human being want to continue living in such squalid conditions? But that's the "nice" way of putting their point. Underneath that "innocent" head-scratching attitude is often a kind of anti-"welfare mother" racism that abhors the alleged slothfulness and deviance of those who reside in public housing.
But the only thing that is irrational in this situation is the false choice forced upon us: either choose the failed top-down public housing model of the 50s/60s, or have no public housing at all. In effect, we're told that we have to accept under-maintained, under-funded, crime-infested structures like Cabrini, or we have to accept that public housing itself is a rotten idea. This makes no sense.