Saturday, December 31, 2011

Left Talking Points on Ron Paul

"Ron Paul 2012" signs are seen at Occupy-related events from time to time. This seems to happen more in the South. By and large, these forces seem marginal and have little hope of achieving wider influence in the Occupy movement, given the movement's basic politics (i.e. class-conscious, anti-austerity, anti-racist, radically democratic, generally skeptical of the two-party system, critical of capitalism, etc.). Still, there are many newly politicized folks who have questions about the relationship between Ron Paul-style right-wing politics and the movement. This is by no means a central question facing the movement today. But, to the extent that there are questions of this kind arising in certain local contexts, the following may be useful. Here are a couple of suggested talking points that the Left can draw on in clarifying the politics of Ron Paul:

  1. Paul is out of touch. Occupy stands for taxing the 1%, resisting all cuts and austerity, reigning in the unchecked economic and political power of the financial sector, among other things. In sharp contrast, Ron Paul's position is that the 1% are over-taxed, that we need even more cuts and austerity, and that big banks and corporations are over-regulated. This is not a marginal political disagreement. This is a fundamental divide between those who genuinely want to stand up and fight for the interests of the 99%, on the one hand, and those who want to cede even more power to the system—capitalism—that empowers and enriches the 1% on the other.
  2. Paul stands for the two-party system. Occupy is a grassroots social movement that has taken to the streets in order to challenge the political and economic dominance of the 1%. It has used general strikes, direct actions, mass marches, speak outs, and general assemblies as its tools. It has empowered millions of ordinary people to stand up and fight for their own interests. It has not begged for crumbs from above, it has not placed its faith in leaders on high, nor has it confined itself to pandering to the existing political system. At its best, it has been fiercely independent of our broken electoral system and the two-party straight jacket. But Ron Paul is operating 100% within that broken system, as a candidate for Palin and Perry's Republican Party—with whom he votes more than 80% of the time. Those who support him in this journey miss the entire point of Occupy, which is to empower people themselves—not high and mighty leaders—to fight for their own liberation. We do the work in this society, we make it run. The 1% doesn't pick up their own garbage, they don't pilot their own private jets, and they don't produce the necessities of life they need to survive. The 99% produces all of it—and when we stop doing what we do the system grinds to a halt. That's all the power we need to topple the system that enriches the 1%.
  3. Paul's politics are racist. This is not a moral judgment about his character (that is another matter). This is about politics. For example, his position on the Civil War is that it was unjust because it infringed upon the "legitimate property rights" of slave owners. Instead, he claims, the Federal Government should have compensated slave owners for their lost "property". Paul is also a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Act which, he claims, is an unjust incursion on the right of big business to discriminate against blacks. Noticing a trend? Paul doesn't, at the end of the day, really care about freedom and liberation for all--he cares about the property and privileges of business owners. Paul has also made numerous racist anti-black public comments, and he put out a newsletter, The Ron Paul Political Report, which regularly printed far-Right racist commentary. Don't take my word for it, read the newsletters for yourself (see here). Even Paul's most calculated and measured remarks on race evince colorblind racism. Paul is also a staunch defender of draconian, xenophobic anti-immigrant laws. Paul also regularly refers to undocumented people as "aliens". The Occupy movement, in contrast, stands in uncompromising solidarity with black people and immigrants in their struggle for freedom and equality. Tolerating Ron Paul's politics in the movement is an insult to working-class people of color who are being hit harder than anyone else by the global economic crisis.
  4. Paul is anti-education. Occupy has challenged the profiteers who are hijacking public education and lining their pockets on the backs of heavily indebted students. The movement has called for a moratorium on student debt and free, quality public education for all. But Ron Paul, like most of his Republican brethren, fiercely opposes the stands that Occupy has taken on these issues. He stands for abolishing the Department of Education and slashing education spending. He stands for cutting all Pell Grants, all Stafford Loans, indeed all public financial aid, since these programs "discriminate" against the wealthy. He is for privatizing and corporatizing public education. He stands against teachers and opposes their right to collectively bargain. He claims that education is not a right, but a commodity that should be bought and sold for a profit in the marketplace. His position on health care is the same: health care is not a right, but a luxury commodity that should be sold by private corporations for profit. In other words: if you can't afford to buy it, well fuck you. Capitalist property relations matter more than human life.
  5. Paul is anti-choice and homophobic. Paul has attempted to ban abortion at the federal level (see the Sanctity of Life Act). Paul also wrote a bill called the "Family Protection Act" that starts with talk of abolishing the Department of Education and ends with a proposal to "prohibit the expenditure of Federal funds to any organization which presents male or female homosexuality as an acceptable alternative life style or which suggest that it can be an acceptable life style." In 1990, a Ron Paul Political Report newsletter complained about President George H.W. Bush's decision to sign a hate crimes bill and invite "the heads of homosexual lobbying groups to the White House for the ceremony," adding, "I miss the closet." "Homosexuals," it said, "not to speak of the rest of society, were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities." Comments of this ilk abound in the Ron Paul Political Report.
  6. Ron Paul will not end the wars. Only a movement will end war—in particular a mass movement from below that has the power to challenge capitalism, the political and economic system that produces war and imperialism in the first place. Moreover, the mere fact that Paul is against the wars doesn't entail that he deserves the support of Occupy. Pat Buchanan and David Duke are also against the wars. So are the editors of the hard-Right journal The American Conservative. But none of those bigoted reactionaries deserve an ounce of support from Occupy, and neither does Paul. Furthermore, isolationist nationalism--Paul's basic foreign policy—has no place in a movement that is global and fiercely internationalist. Occupy stands in solidarity with the global 99% in its struggle against the global system—capitalism—that holds it in contempt. We oppose war and imperialism not because they violate the principles of right-wing isolationism, we oppose them because they oppress and brutalize our sisters and brothers in the global 99%.
There are plenty of other things to say here. But these points really make clear how wide the gulf is between Ron Paul conservatism and the radicalism of Occupy. Readers interested in more detailed refutations of the sort of politics pedaled by Paul and other so-called "libertarians" should consult the following: why the wealth of the rich is illegitimate (1, 2, 3); capitalist property rights vs. freedom (here and here); how "libertarians" oppose liberty (here and here); the "free" market as illusion (here). For a socialist analysis of how power works in our society, see here.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Marx Against "Crude Communism"

I can still recall some of the first things I learned about "Communism" in elementary school. According to what we were taught, "Communism" was supposed to be a system which did not reward hard work. We discussed the parable of the ant and the grasshopper, where we were encouraged to conclude that the upshot of the story was that the productive should flourish and the lazy should perish. Since capitalism allegedly exemplified this moral principle of just reward for hard work—never mind that this is totally false—we were supposed to prefer it to "Communist" systems that rewarded the lazy and stultified the diligent.

A close corollary of this teaching was that socialism is little more than a "politics of envy". That is, since socialism is the institutionalization of the principle that the lazy shall be rewarded and the productive shall be punished, it follows that the main motivation to adopt socialist politics must be envy. The poor, the oppressed, the exploited masses of workers are just jealous of what their allegedly hard-working wealthy counterparts have amassed. Everyone wants the same thing, the story goes, and that thing is rather simple: maximum consumption. The only difference, then, between workers and the ruling classes is that the former is denied high levels of consumption whereas the latter is not. Socialists and defenders of capitalism therefore agree that the basic goal of society—whether its socialist or capitalist—should be maximum production and endless consumption for its own sake. Socialism appears here as little more than a leveling down maneuver that aims to realize a certain patterned distribution of material goods. Equality—or, more specifically, possessive equality—appears to reign supreme.

But what has this to do with genuine socialism as Marx himself described it? Nothing whatsoever. In fact, this picture is precisely what Marx excoriated as "crude communism".

Now, to be fair, this image of socialism as conforming to the basic goals of capitalist society, as aiming at consumption and possession, does describe the basic contours of the Stalinist system rather well. But that is no stain on the socialist ideal—it is simply one further reason to think that those state capitalist regimes had nothing to do with socialism properly understood.

Marx weighs in against "crude communism" in many different places, among them in the Manifesto, the Critique of the Gotha Program and in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Let's examine what he says about "crude communism" in the latter text:

"[In crude communism] the domination of material property looms so large that it aims to destroy everything which is incapable of being possessed by everyone as private property. It wishes to eliminated talent, etc. by force. Immediate physical possession seems to it the unique goal of life and existence. The role of worker is not abolished but is extended to all men. The relation of private property remains the relation of the community to the world of things. Finally, this tendency to oppose general private property to private property is expressed in animal form; marriage (which is incontestably a form of exclusive private property) is contrasted with the "community of women", in which women become communal and common property. One may say that this idea of the community of women is the open secret of this entirely crude and unreflective communism. Just as women are to pass from marriage to universal prostitution, so the whole world of wealth is to pass to the relation of universal prostitution with the community. This communism, which negates the personality of man in every sphere, is only the logical expression of private property, which is this negation. Universal envy setting itself up as a power is only a camouflaged form of cupidity which reestablishes itself and satisfies itself in a different way. The thoughts of every individual private property are at least directed against any wealthier private property, in the form of envy and the desire to reduce everything to a common level; so that this envy and leveling in fact constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism is only the culmination of such envy and leveling-down on the basis of a preconceived minimum. How little this abolition of private property represents a genuine appropriation is shown by the abstract negation of the whole world of culture and civilization, and the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and wantless individual who has not only not surpassed private property but has not yet even attained it. The community is only a community of work and of equality of wages paid out by the communal capital, by the community as universal capitalist. The two sides of the relation are raised to a supposed universality; labor as a condition in which everyone is placed, and capital as the acknowledged universality and power of the community."
This critique of "crude communism" is as much a searing indictment of contemporary capitalism as it is an indictment of the state capitalism of the Stalinist regimes. Let's take a close look at specific passages to get clearer on what Marx's socialism is and is not.

First, Marx is not arguing for a leveled, conformist society in which personality and individuality are obliterated. Neither does he stand for a society in which people are not able to develop their talents, cultivate their natural powers, and develop their full potential; on the contrary, the basic aim of a socialist society would be to fully realize these goals. For Marx, it is a profound problem with capitalist societies that "immediate physical possession seems to it the unique goal of life and existence." That is, rather than placing human development at the center, capitalism privileges having and possessing capital at the forefront. Profit trumps human flourishing whenever the two come into conflict (which is often) in capitalism. But Marx's argument against crude communism here is that it doesn't depart from the basic aim of capitalist societies. It merely reproduces them in a slightly different form.

What's more, Marx argues that in "crude communism", "the role of worker is not abolished but is extended to all men. The relation of private property remains the relation of the community to the world of things." There are two deep insights here. First, Marx didn't think that socialism had to do with increasing workers' standard of living, winning better working conditions, shorter work hours, etc. Of course, Marx was for all of these reforms, but he didn't think that they were enough. For Marx, socialism is about full working class self-emancipation—which is equivalent to the worker's self-abolition of her status as worker. That means abolishing the division labor characteristic of capitalism—especially the sharp division between mental and physical labor—and fundamentally restructuring the organization of socially necessary labor. A socialist society, for Marx, is precisely not one in which workers are simply treated better by the bosses than they are in capitalist societies. On the contrary, a socialist society is one in which there are no bosses, no workers as such, indeed no classes at all. No group would enjoy exclusive ownership and control of the social means of production and no group would be dispossessed from it. No propertied group would be in a position to rule over those without property. In short, socialism would not mean leveling-down all to the status and social position of the worker in capitalist societies. It would be a qualitative break from the present in which human development and genuine individuality were possible for all.

The second deep insight is that crude communism preserves the possessive, reifying tendency of capitalism. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels complain that capitalism has torn asunder traditional (i.e. feudal) social relations, norms, practices and rituals with the result that the fundamental bond between individuals consists of little more than cold cash transactions. The point isn't that we should be nostalgic for feudal social formations; the argument is that capitalism tends to colonize human relations, leisure, recreation, even family and "private" life. These spheres come to be ruled by the basic coordinates of capitalist property relations, with money as the mediator and accumulation of profit as the basic aim. To be sure, the colonization and commodification of these domains isn't total or all-encompassing. But one only needs to think of the ways in which Christmas has been packaged, commodified and transformed into a orgy of consumption to see that Marx was on to something here.

Neither is genuine socialism (or genuine communism—I draw no principled distinction here) about "abstractly negating" (a Hegelian concept) all culture and "civilization". On the contrary, it would represent a "determinate negation" within the history of culture and civilization, a dialectical maneuver that takes stock of what is good and true in the present while negating what is false in the act of going beyond it. It would draw on the promise of the elements of existing progressive culture as leverage to forge something new.

This brings us to envy. Envy usually has the form of resenting someone for having something (a good, a status, an ability, an office, etc.) that you wish you had. It is not to be confused with wishing that you had your needs met—envy is about resenting a particular person (or group of persons) who have something you lack but wish you had. Thus, it's often enough, as far as the envious impulse is concerned, that that person is cut down to your level. This kind of sentiment surely simmers underneath those workers who resent other workers for having better pensions or wages. On the other hand, to envy a capitalist, from the perspective of a worker, would be basically to wish you were in their shoes. But the goal of collective working-class liberation is incompatible with the individualist urge to leave the class to join the small clique of rulers. Envy, then, is certainly not a revolutionary impulse. It does not brush against the grain of exploitation and oppression. Nor is it like the sort of righteous anger that we feel toward oppressors of all kinds. Envy is a self-regarding, possessive impulse that is based on avarice. It is a police concept—something that is essential if one wishes to artificially ensure that everyone is off in their own respective corner consuming equal amounts of stuff.

But socialism is not in the first instance about ensuring that everyone earns exactly the same income or possesses exactly the same amount of stuff. Negatively, socialism is a society in which there are no social relations of domination: no exploitation, no oppression, no high and mightiness, no bowing and scraping. Positively, socialism is a free community of equals, or, if you like, freely associated producers who, through organization and democratic self-governance, put human development first. Socialism is about making the flourishing of all human beings the basic priority of social production—not private profit.

This is all a way of saying that envy has no basic place in the argument for socialism. We shouldn't want to be socialists because we're jealous of the nice cars and mansions that the ruling class lavish themselves with. We should be socialists because we cannot tolerate a system in which a small class dominates, oppresses and exploits the majority—all for the sake of the endless accumulation of capital. Envy presupposes the competitive, possessive mindset we are encouraged to adopt in capitalism. Thus, it has no legitimate place in a socialist society.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hedge Your Bets

From the latest Harper’s Index:

Amount employees of private-equity firm Bain Capital have donated to the campaign of its co-founder Mitt Romney: $69,500

To the Obama campaign: $119,900

(hat tip to Proyect).


Friday, December 9, 2011

Proyect on Cynical Lesser-Evilism

The Nation Magazine’s Ari Berman wrote:

"You’re likely to hear elements of this speech over and over as the campaign heats up, as the Obama campaign attempts to stand with the 99 percent and paint Gingrich or Romney as core defenders of the 1 percent. None other than Chuck Schumer, one of the senators who represents Wall Street, told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent that Democrats would focus on income inequality “like a laser” in 2012."

This is the same Chuck Schumer that the NY Times described as embracing the financial industry’s “free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis.” The December 13, 2008 article added:

"He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent."

None of this matters to liberals who tend to have a short memory. As long as you toss them a bone, stroke them on the chin, all is forgiven.
Read the rest here.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Occupy Xmas? Consumerism or Struggle? has an (in general) excellent article (see here) on why this is a bad idea. The bottom line is this: "focusing hostility against consumers instead of the 1 percent only serves to mystify the circumstances that create such [Black Friday shopping] frenzies." Moreover, the article makes the important point that:

...#OccupyXmas accepts the very logic of consumerism that it decries at a time when millions of people are open to looking at the world in a new way. After all, it's the 1 percent that relentlessly encourages us to think of ourselves only in terms of what we consume, to measure ourselves by what we can buy, and to define our identities in terms of the products we possess.

What the Occupy movement has succeeded in doing was taking the discussion beyond a focus on the consumption choices that we as individuals make, and creating a new focus on how those decisions are embedded in a larger social framework--one that benefits the 1 percent at every turn, from individual and corporate tax policy, to the drive to privatize public institutions, to the outsized political influence that the 1 percent wields.

This is the key problem with "Occupy Xmas". It works 100% within the framework of consumerism that it purports to criticize. That is, it reinforces the capitalist principle that "you are what you buy/possess" and merely encourages us to buy different stuff (or make it or whatever). It also reinforces the capitalist myth that our only power is to be found as atomized consumers floating around alone in market forces. Adbusters is, in effect, encouraging us to give up on collective struggle and to think of our primary power in terms of what we have in our pocketbook. That is reactionary, as far as I'm concerned. Particularly after a year like 2011 when collective struggle--the world over--has been steadily increasing in a way that it hasn't done in a generation. To tell us to go home, put down our placards, and look to our pocketbook for salvation is to stand against everything progressive that the Occupy movement has achieved thus far.

To illustrate the bankruptcy of the "progressive consumerist" argument, let's examine one incarnation of it in the environmental movement. It has been pointed out time and again that brow-beating everyone into buying all organic food is not just ineffective, it's also racist and pro-capitalist if you push it to its logical conclusion. It often evinces a "personal responsibility" paternalism that focuses more criticism on individual consumer choices than on the structural conditions that lead to poverty, unemployment, that produce food without nutrients, neighborhoods without grocery stores, etc. That's pro-capitalist insofar as it both papers over the role capitalism plays in these social problems and emphasizes that the solution is a capitalist one that the "free market" will fix for us if we just "vote with our dollars" for the right goods. Never mind whether you actually have the dollars--the middle class liberals who typically push this argument certainly have enough to prop up their consumerist fantasy world. The racist version of this argument might, for instance, take the form of scolding working-class black people for not purchasing organic alfalfa sprouts from Whole Foods. This sentiment surely lies behind those well-intentioned (if paternalistic and, ultimately, racist) white folks who sometimes come into the neighborhoods of these "ignorant" people in order to lead them to the "light" of "progressive consumerism". But, of course, the problem with "food deserts" isn't one of poor individual choices. Neither is it basically a lack of education about what nutritious food is. Nor is it an effect of a so-called "culture of poverty". The problem is economic and political. Blaming individual black people for structural forces that work against them is, perhaps, the most common form of contemporary racism (notice that "colorblindness" does exactly that).

Now, notice what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that people who shop at Whole Foods, or who buy organic milk (like me, incidentally) are the problem. To interpret me in this way is to reiterate the consumerist model I've been attacking. I'm not hating on a particular consumer group or milieu for making choices I disagree with. I'm not siding with some other consumerist bloc against the Whole Foods shoppers. On the contrary, I'm criticizing this whole conservative framework of thinking of oneself (and one's political power) solely in terms of consumption choices. You miss the whole point if you take me to be saying that problem is just a group of consumers that makes "snobbish" choices or something.

In fact, the basic problem lies in thinking that buying organic milk is going to change the world. The problem lies in discouraging collective struggle and replacing it with individualized capitalist consumption patterns. The problem lies with seeing the primary locus of struggle as existing solely in the sphere of consumption, rather than production.

Still, there will probably be at least one person who reads this post convinced that I just have it in for those who drink organic milk, buy fair trade coffee and buy free-range cage-free eggs. In fact, I don't. I do all of those things myself. But I don't think that I'm doing anything political when I do. I don't substitute my atomized actions as a consumer for my political power as a person who has the capacity to link arms with others in struggle. Nor do I scold those who may not have the luxury of choosing to buy this or that at the grocery store.

Is consumerism a capitalist disease? Yes, it is. Has capitalism colonized a large amount of leisure activities and culture? Yes it has. Does capitalism manufacture certain "needs" ("beauty" products come to mind) in order to create new markets and maximize profit? Of course it does.

So, how do you fight the ideology of consumerism and the commodification of leisure? Not by accepting it 100% and operating entirely within its logic. You fight it by fighting the system that produces it. You fight it by linking arms with other people in struggle against that very system. Consumerism, after all, is hardly the sole problem--it is merely one feature of a global political-economic system: capitalism. It is but one ideology (and an accompanying set of practices and norms) that serves to stabilize and reproduce the system. It also serves to discourage the true weapon in our arsenal--collective struggle. To single it out as the sole problem is to misunderstand what it is (and what function it plays in the system). Moreover, to single it out misses the crucial fact that in capitalism choice is only an illusion. Even if you have the money to acquire whatever you want from what's on offer--the majority of us don't--you still lack the power to determine what the possible objects of choice are. A choice between A or B in capitalism is still a prescribed choice: we have no democratic say in what's produced, so we have no say in the qualitative features of A or B (nor, for that matter, do we have a say in whether or not there should also be a C and a D, etc.). The range of choices before us is out of our control as consumers. Our only power, as consumers, is to walk out of the store and not buy anything. We lack a democratic voice in the conditions of production. Buying different things from the capitalist's shelves will never change that.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

As Arab Spring Goes Forward, Israel Goes Backward

Here (obviously not the only such example)


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sober Look at the Legacy of Judt



Friday, December 2, 2011

Obama's Immigration Policies in Action

See here. Raids and deportations have drastically increased under the Obama administration.


The Conservatism of Liberal Pundits Revealed

This excellent article is a great starting point for beginning a discussion of the recent political positions on the occupy movement staked out by many "progressive" or, if you like, "liberal" politicians and pundits. The thesis of the article is that the radicalism of Occupy has provoked a counter-attack from liberal pundits and politicians, thereby evincing their underlying conservatism.

The article explores a variety of Chicago-specific examples. But this problem is hardly specific to Chicago.

My favorite incarnation of this phenomenon is the following story: Occupy is bad for "progressive" change in this country because it is going to alienate mainstream voters--particularly working class voters--who are repulsed by its radicalism and "counter-cultural" rituals. The Occupy movement, in fact, is "bad" in exactly the same way as those crazy anti-Vietnam War protesters were back in the 1960s. Those long-haired dirty hippies alienated all manner of working-class voters and provoked a conservative reaction that landed Richard Nixon in the White House! So, if these smelly Occupy kids don't get their act together quickly--and stop criticizing Democrats who back austerity and police violence--this country is going to get really bad, really quick because Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann are going to take power! Conclusion: be afraid, stay home, turn on the TV, forget about Occupy, don't criticize the Democrats, and drastically lower your expectations.

This is the "bad cop" strategy used by the Democrat political machine. The "good cop" strategy is one of co-optation and merely rhetorical support. But both aim at the same goal: winding down protest, lowering expectations, getting votes for Democrats who defend the status quo, and, ultimately, dissolving elements that could develop the power to criticize the Democrats from the Left.

As pointed out in the In These Times piece linked above, we sometimes see interesting shifts between these two strategies. Whereas allegedly "progressive" Aldermen in Chicago gave rhetorical support to Occupy Chicago (which at one point had the support of 79% of Chicagoans) at one point, they quickly withdrew that support when the movement started targeting them for voting for a cruel austerity budget that favors the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Instead of sweet-talking Occupy, they switched gears rather quickly and adopted all of the verbal bile of Right: the protesters are smelly, they are all white trust-fund babies with no idea what's going on, they are idiots, etc. The ease with which they adopt the same language as Newt Gingrich is astonishing, isn't it?

But what of the scare tactics? Do they hold any water? No. I think they are evidence of desperation among Democrat politicians and their lackeys.

First, this thing about the anti-war movement being to blame for right-wing backlash is preposterous. The same thing has been said about the black freedom movement of the 50s and 60s by racists in the Democrat Party: it "divided" the country and caused the Southern Democrats to jump ship and abandon the postwar Keynesian consensus. According to these ridiculous stories, we should come away thinking that the Civil Rights and anti-war movements were bad. It's as if they single-handed caused a conservative reaction and therefore deserve all the blame for what followed.

This is nonsense through and through. First of all, the black freedom movement won huge concessions from the powers that be (who were Democrats) because of extra-electoral struggle. That movement shattered Jim Crow (something that couldn't have ever happened by working exclusively through the ballot box), dealt a series of blows to de jure racism, and won Federal legislation that attempted to dismantle some of the worst forms of legal and institutional racism. They reconfigured the politics of race in this country for generations to come. The movement's impact extended far beyond the ephemeral swells of the election cycle. To say that the civil rights movement--or, for that matter the anti-war movement--produced nothing but right wing reaction is nonsense.

This bogey-man strategy is extremely self-serving as far as Democrat politicians are concerned. What they're afraid of is a serious challenge--from the Left--to their tepid, ultimately conservative and pro-corporate party. They want their "base" of voters to shut up, sit down, and robotically support and vote for them. They don't want pressure from below to actually enact policies that benefit the majority. That could hurt, among other things, their clout and fund-raising potential.

But what of holding up Richard Nixon and the "silent majority" as a scare tactic? Two things must be said. First of all, Richard Nixon was a more conventionally "liberal" political figure than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. He, for example, expanded Medicare, whereas Obama is cutting it. Notice that I'm not saying anything good about Richard Nixon the person. He was a reactionary. But he was more or less forced by the conditions of the time to continue to fund and expand programs like Medicare. This shows that the party who takes the White House matters a lot less than the extra-electoral conditions. So the scare tactic here misses the point that genuine changes come when pressure is exerted from below through extra-electoral struggle and resistance.

This scare tactic also uses an old trope--familiar to the Democratic Party as much as the Republicans--that Americans are fundamentally conservative people who simply don't like anything "radical" or Left. Because that is supposed to be so, Democrats are justified in being "cautious" and thereby defending the status quo.

That this is bullshit is obvious for any reasonable person to see. First, people's ideas and political beliefs are constantly in flux. It is absurd to say that Americans are fundamentally conservative for all time. People are pissed off and feel that our economic and political system does not serve the interests of the 99%. The slogans "banks got bailed out, we got sold out" and "how to fix the deficit? end the wars, tax the rich" resonate deeply with a significant portion of the population. But, of course, Democrats are for the bailout of banks, for selling-out homeowners and debt-encumbered students, for the wars, and for giving tax breaks to the rich. They're also for austerity, layoffs, school closures, and all the rest of it. So, naturally, Democrats want to sell us the lie that Occupy's demands are "too radical".

Second, Occupy has consistently had (and continues to have) higher levels of support among the public than Congress. This has been true across the board in every single poll, which hasn't been hard to accomplish considering that Congress's approval ratings are regularly lower than 25%. If anything, these self-serving politicians should be asking why what they're doing is alienating 75% of the public, before they dare to criticize Occupy. Third, Occupy has--quite obviously--electrified millions of Americans who have either directly participated or indirectly supported the movement in various ways. Many have said that Occupy was the first time they ever took to the streets to protest and fight for their interests. Organized labor has come out strongly in support of the movement, showing a great deal of working-class interest in the politics of Occupy. Moreover, Occupy has forced the discourse in mainstream media to shift to, occasionally, deal with issues of inequality. To say that it is alienating people is false on many levels.

The key is to recognize the "tactical advice" given from above by Democrat politicians is 100% self-serving. They aren't on our side. They aren't our allies. They want us to be docile and blindly supportive of their efforts to "take care of things for us." They don't want a challenge to their authority. They don't want pressure from the Left to fight for the 99%. So, naturally, they don't want Occupy to exist as an independent, Left force in American politics. They either want to control it and convert it into blind support for whomever the Democrats put up for election, or they want to destroy and discredit it in order to stop it from undermining the authority of the corporate-backed Democrat Party.


Ruling Class Education Policy

Here. It's the same medicine being prescribed around the country by Democrat and Republican alike.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are Campus Police Necessary?

At my college, campus police were commonplace. For most of my time as student, it never occurred to me to question their existence or their authority. Like the classrooms or the library, I assumed that the university police had a justifiable (perhaps even necessary) role to play on campus.

What led me to question their role was political activism. We're constantly told what a "free" country we live in, but you learn how deeply conditional this freedom is when you actually try to change the way things are. That is, we're "free" to do as we please on the condition that we don't... protest, demand reforms from ruling elites, organize ourselves, assemble with large groups of fellow citizens, or otherwise resist existing relations of power. That is, so long as we calmly walk through the shopping mall with a big smile on our face, we're free to do whatever we like. But the minute we gather with others to ask why we're, so to speak, locked inside of a privately-owned shopping mall with rules that we did not choose, we're faced with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Millions of people are seeing the function of the police (campus or otherwise) for what it is. And, with the recent wave of repression on campuses in particular, many are wondering whether campus police are necessary at all.

It's worth noting, before getting any deeper into this question, that universities haven't always had private police forces of their own. Indeed, many universities around the world lack them. In Britain, for example, the vast majority of colleges and universities lack campus police forces. Indeed, before 2003, Oxford had no campus cops. But how is it that Oxford was able to stop itself from sliding into a den of chaos, violence and disorder before 2003? Without a powerful coercive force dedicated to maintaining campus security, how was a war of all against all averted?

These questions are, of course, absurd. But they are part of a common rhetoric of law and order that is used by University administrators (and their loyal police regiments) to justify the need for a coercive security apparatus on campus.

This is exemplified by the interesting stories campus police often tell about themselves to justify their existence. Take the following (disturbing) excerpt from the University of Pittsburgh Police Department's website:

From the very beginning, the University of Pittsburgh Police Department has steadily progressed into a premier state of the art law enforcement agency. With the constant support of the university community, the police department has utilized educational and training opportunities to become a contributing and well-respected part of the community.

In the mid 1950's, the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, which is home to Pitt Campus, experienced the same problems as any other inner city neighborhood throughout the country. Vandalism, theft and parking problems became a concern for the university, and so, the first Pitt Security Department was created. This small group of individuals became the foundation of what is now the University of Pittsburgh Police Department.

In the 1960's, the department dealt with unrest and other civil problems that plagued America. Like all campus police organizations, the University of Pittsburgh Police Officer's were often on the front lines of the conflicts and learned to deal with the students with fairness and authority. By the late 1960's, the university became a state related institution that eventually, in turn authorized police officers with the same powers and duties as Pennsylvania Capitol and Commonwealth Property Police.

In the early 1970's, the department was restructured and grew in number. Pitt's Department of Public Safety, as it was then called was recognized as the third largest police organization in Allegheny County. In 1974, the first acting Chief was named and the agencies official title became the University of Pittsburgh Police Department. Modernization was the theme of the department as computers and state of the art security systems became an integral part of police work.

I was struck by two things in particular about this story (which, as a casual survey of other university police websites reveals, is rather typical). The first is the heavy emphasis on "modernization" and "state of the art" tactics and technology. This fits neatly within the technophilic, robo-cop rhetoric of contemporary representatives of the military-industrial complex. One almost expects Pitt cops to wander around with laser guns and hover-boards, all the better to deter would-be "bad guys" from disturbing the serenity of campus life. This rhetoric of "modernization" is also indicative of the neoliberal turn toward re-establishing structures of authority during the 1970s and 80s by technologically upgrading, militarizing, and growing police forces across the board. It's not for nothing that incarceration rates literally skyrocket starting at the dawn of the neoliberal era. In the aftermath of an era marked by urban revolts, organized revolutionary groupings, strikes and mass protests, it is unsurprising that our rulers decided to resort to increased policing and imprisonment to re-establish "discipline" and deference to their authority.

The second thing is how remarkably blunt the Pitt cops' story is about the 1960s: "In the 1960's, the department dealt with unrest and other civil problems that plagued America. Like all campus police organizations, the University of Pittsburgh Police Officer's were often on the front lines of the conflicts and learned to deal with the students with fairness and authority." "Civil problems plaguing America", huh? What might those "problems" have been? Mass protests and marches, sit-in's against Jim Crow, student occupations of campus buildings, and resistance of all kinds against war, racism and the political/economic domination of the 1%. Predictably, the role of the police was to ride in on horses and re-establish authority by meting out discipline and "fairness" from above.

Combine this view of the 1960s with what campus cops are being asked to do all over the country right now and we see their role for what it is: a bulwark against student/faculty/staff resistance meant to stabilize and enforce the power of administrators on university campuses.

And it's worth noting that college administrators aren't acting alone here. The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) was formed in 1958 in order to "discuss job challenges and mutual problems, and to create a clearinghouse for information and issues shared by campus public safety directors across the country." The IACLEA even has a corporate partnership program, which helps with "strategic initiatives" to help advance the "educational mission" of the IACLEA. It's refreshing how blunt the cops are here about their "educational mission", i.e. to instill a sense of respect for existing power, etc. See below:
IACLEA has established the Corporate Partnership Program to support the implementation of IACLEA's strategic initiatives, to further its educational mission, and to enhance the ability of campus public safety agencies to protect institutions of higher education. We can tailor a partnership program that meets your company’s values, mission, and business goals.
A couple of things come to mind here. First notice the comfortable fit between "company values", "business goals", "corporate partnerships", and the language of "educational mission", "protecting higher education" and so on. Second, on the face of it, why should corporate entities have an interest in involving themselves with campus policing? What shared interests might these two groups have? And through what lens do corporate firms see institutions of higher education? To answer the last question is simply to re-state the basic priorities of the capitalist system: profit-making and the bottom line. The university, from the perspective of capital, is two things: One, a potential factory to manufacture future employees with certain dispositions (docile, obedient, hard-working), competences and skills. Two, a potential threat to the continued reproduction of the capitalist system insofar as universities can (gasp!) lead people to think for themselves, criticize the status quo, and sometimes organize themselves to resist it collectively. Before the 1960s, the potential threat posed by the populations on campuses across the country was largely overlooked by the ruling class. But they have learned well the lessons of that era.

This brings us to the question posed in the title of this post. Are campus cops necessary?

It certainly depends on who you ask. They probably are a necessary factor in the continued corporatization of the university system. And they are surely a powerful tool in the hands of administrators intent on keeping students from rocking the boat.

But are campus cops necessary to further the real mission of universities, namely to facilitate higher learning, human development, free inquiry, and community? No, they are not.

Defenders of campus police are likely to object here in one of two ways. They might take a paternalistic line and say that students are children and, as such, require the disciplinary power of a police force to keep them in line and "on task". Without threat posed by SUV's roaming around campus filled with armed police, students will be unable to look out for their own best interests. Drunkenness, drug abuse, and lawlessness will rule. This argument, be it noted, is pitched more to parents than to the actual residents of college campuses.

Students will be unmoved by this paternalistic nonsense. College students are legal adults, they have the right to vote (and they can be drafted) even if the law restricts them from having a beer until age 21. They often juggle multiple jobs on top of a demanding set of courses. They are also deemed old enough to be saddled with massive amounts of debt. Moreover, many students take it upon themselves to get involved in political organization and "extra curricular" of various kinds. Students don't need a "stern father" looming over them with billy clubs, pepper spray and guns. We can handle ourselves just fine, thank you very much.

The second argument is more subtle than the first. Defenders of campus police can argue that campus police are needed to protect students against robbery, mugging, rape and sexual assault. In fact, they'll say something stronger: without an extensive (and "state of the art") campus police force, these crimes are likely to increase dramatically.

There are, of course, the racist incarnations of this argument that aim to convince well-to-do white parents that their sons and daughters will be "protected" from the people of color living in close proximity to their university. But let's focus here on the problem of rape and sexual assault on campus to see whether there's any merit to the pro-police claim.

First of all, very few (if any) US campuses are without a small army of "modernized" and "state of the art" university cops. Yet, for all that, rape on college campuses is at epidemic levels. The majority of rapes go unreported. Of those that get reported, few press charges against their assailants. Of those that press charges, even fewer actually secure convictions against their assailants. And of those that successfully press chargers the first time round, even fewer see that ruling upheld in a court of appeals. Often the victims of rape are ridiculed, pressured not to continue prosecuting or are forced to endure a drawn-out process that merely exacerbates the pain caused by the assault in the first place. None of that has anything to do with police tactics.

But, of course, all of the above problems have to do with the inability of existing institutions to successfully deal with rape once it has occurred. This to say nothing at all of the campus organizations, norms, and conditions that encourage rape on a wide scale. What do I have in mind? I wont get into all of it, but surely fraternity culture is high on the list. We all know the drill: frat parties invite women with the understanding that the drunker they get, the better. Date-rape drugs are commonplace. All of the norms that prevail in these well-funded and entrenched institutions at US universities tend to reproduce this sordid state of affairs. Another related feature of campus culture that reproduces this problem is the typical media (campus or otherwise) reaction to rapes. The typical response is dismissive, even accusatory, and involves the usual litany of bullshit questions: "what was she wearing?", "how drunk was she?", "did she lead him on unfairly?", etc.

The bottom line is this: rape is a social and political problem, not a law-enforcement problem. Through mass emails detailing crimes on campus, universities often suggest that rape only occurs when a stranger jumps out of a bush to attack a woman walking alone on a dark street. But, in fact, the vast majority of rapes are committed by fellow students and co-workers. That is, the vast majority of rapes occur between people who already know one another.

So how do we make war against the rape crisis on U.S. universities?

Not with campus cops. The first step might be to abolish the Fraternity system. If that's too ambitious, then we could also institute mass education campaigns in which incoming students are taught about rape statistics and how sexist campus culture contributes to them. I'm not talking about giving women prudential advice about how they must always walk in groups at night or whatever. I'm mostly talking about how to educate everyone--especially freshmen--about the social and political causes of the problem and how the victim-blaming "what was she wearing?" nonsense perpetuates it. SlutWalks across the country have already raised many of these issues so that they are fresh in many people's minds. It only remains to pressure universities to change their ways. Another step would be to actually punish rapists on campus. "Yes means yes" policies are helpful in shifting the burden of proof off of women and onto the offender. I can't emphasize enough: none of these changes have anything to do with campus cops. If anything, the discretionary powers of campus police create the possibility of more rapes, not less. If you think I'm being cynical, take a look at the statistics on police sexual assault. The cops are more a part of the problem than they are a part of any viable solution.

So why not abolish campus cops altogether? Their main function is to do the bidding of those empowered by the corporatized status quo of US universities. They exist to prevent the legitimate organization and protest of students, faculty and staff. When struggle escalates enough to actually threaten the power of administrators, the campus cops will be called upon to brutally repress democratic forms of social protest. They do almost nothing to serve and protect students. The fact is that they simply aren't necessary (unless you're a university administrator looking for shock troops to stabilize your power.) Students, faculty and staff simply don't need campus cops. (We don't need a layer of bureaucrats and administrators looming over us either). We can run the university by ourselves, in our interests.

And, let it be known, campus cops ain't cheap. In an era in which we're told that tuition hikes, scholarship cuts, layoffs, and all the rest are "inevitable", I think we'd do well to look at the "state of the art", ultra-modern police forces roaming around campus. The London Review of books reports that the cop that sprayed mace in the faces of protesting students at UC Davis made himself $110,000, which is more than all but the most highly-paid professors. UC Davis employs over 101 police personnel, which is bigger than any university department. Let's leave aside here the related problem of bloated administration and non-academic bureaucracy. Just think about the scholarships that could be funded with the money saved by axing the police force.


UC Davis Police Force

Like most US universities, Davis maintains its own police force, employing (as of 2009) 101 people (including administrators), far more than the largest academic departments. The officer wielding the spray is on record as earning $110,000 in 2010, more than all but the better paid full professors.
Rest here.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Basis of Middle Class Ideology

"Market returns are to a certain extent affected by a person's effort and willingness to take risks. Since that is so, it can seem preposterous to those [read: middle class professionals, small business owners, managers, etc.] who are both better-off and very hard-working to suggest that they do not deserve to be paid more than others who may be lazy and unadventurous. And... because people care more about what unjustly harms them than about what unjustly benefits them, they can easily ignore the fact that some of the other factors contributing to their economic success are not in any sense their responsibility and therefore can be said to have produced advantages that are not deserved. The natural idea that people deserve to be rewarded for thrift and industry slides into the much broader notion that all of pretax income can be regarded as a reward for those virtues. Here... a normative concept is being taken beyond the context in which it legitimately applies." (Nagel and Murphy, The Myth of Ownership).
Of course, nobody denies that in order to be a successful doctor, or lawyer, or small business owner (or whatever), one needs to be hard-working and disciplined in certain ways. Often, success in any of these fields depends on deferred gratification of various kinds. To be sure, many people have a far easier time, given a wealthy family background and all that that entails, making their way into these walks of life. But it must be conceded that some degree of effort, hard work, and so on are key to being successful in these middle-class endeavors.

Still, members of this social class tend to have a distorted picture of society (along the lines described in the quotation above). This isn't universally true of all members of this roughly coherent (though, to be sure, internally differentiated and complex) class. But as a sociological generalization that explains a good amount of the data, I think it's more or less true.

Middle class people, because they worked hard to get where they are, assume that it must be true that all offices in society (including their own!) are more or less awarded on the basis of "merit" alone. They are tempted to generalize from their own specific social location and apply the values of hard work, thrift, individualism, and deferred reward to the entire social system. Many of the "professions" in question (especially Law and Medicine, but also Academia) are pre-capitalist in many respects and have well-defined profession-specific values and norms of excellence. Thus, it's easy for many middle class people to get lost in their specific mode of social existence and to generalize from it. It's also easy, given the often (but not always) individualistic character of their work lives, to forget that their own well-being depends upon a massive network of social labor that draws the entire working population (excepting the industrial reserve army) into its operation.

It's also easy for professionals to assume that because they satisfied the qualifying procedures internal to their profession, that they are 100% responsible for their economic "success". Thus, they are encouraged (by their social location) to overlook structural and biographical contingencies that helped land them where they are. They overlook structural features of capitalism that determine the total number of jobs available, the funding for professional education, etc. They also overlook any familial advantages, social connections, and so forth that helped give them an edge over those without such informal means of personal advancement. But everything "good" (i.e. everything that connotes social prestige or "success" conventionally defined) is due to nothing but their hard work and ingenuity. Accordingly, those worse off than themselves deserve their plight. Or, perhaps, they deserve paternalistic acts of charity from above.

What I'm describing is an ideal-type. It's not as if everyone in such a social location is mechanistically determined in such a way that they can't but exemplify the ideal type. The point, however, is that there are structural pressures that encourage people located in this role within the system to adopt this picture of the world (because, in many ways, it looks plausible from where they're standing).

So what is to be done about it?

Let me first of all say that I'm not advocating for increased middle-class guilt or acknowledgement of "privilege". In general, I don't think the Left is well-served by adopting the language of "privilege". When I hear people talk about "underprivileged groups" I feel nauseated. "Underprivileged" suggests that a person is only suffering from a lack of "privileges" that others enjoy. This language fits neatly with talk of "social mobility" and individual achievement and all the rest of it. It's primary function is to individualize social injustices. It's secondary function is to make it sound as though we only need to make it possible for some fraction of the "under-privileged" to be able to fight their way into the camp of the "privileged".

I reject this kind of talk wholesale. Let's not individualize what are, in fact, social and economic forces occurring on a macro-level. Let's not talk about "lack of privilege" or the "less favored". Let's talk about what social reality is actually like. This, of course, requires a different vocabulary that often offends the delicate ears of the well-to-do "bleeding heart liberals": exploitation, oppression, domination.

But let's tie this back to the middle class and the question of middle class ideology. If I'm not calling for an acknowledgement of "privilege" on the part of the middle class, what is the political upshot? I don't begrudge people who, as individuals trying to make a life for themselves in this system, navigate it as best they can and work hard. So I'm not saying that lawyers, doctors, academics, small business owners, and so on should all feel really guilty or something like that. The political upshot is that they must resist the fact that they are encouraged to adopt a false picture of what capitalism is like. They must resist calls to side with the ruling class by means of subtle mechanisms of social control that trade on cultural capital, prestige, and the ideology of merit. But many don't buy into this. Many professionals--particularly in periods of escalating social struggle such as what we're seeing today--are won over to the idea that the system is fundamentally flawed. Professionals are open to revolutionary politics when they see that--despite their relatively cushy social existence--their interests are not prioritized by a system bent on accumulating profits for the 1% at any cost. Moreover, some of the pre-capitalist values and norms internal to the practices that define their profession--medicine is a great example--lead them to criticize capitalism for distorting their craft for the sake of profit. The interesting thing about the middle classes is that they can be pulled either way in period of struggle.

But the key to any successful social revolution is the level of organization, confidence and militancy of the working class majority. Not because workers are more virtuous people, or more morally deserving, but (primarily) because they have a social power unlike any other class to shut the entire economic system.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Repressive State Apparatus at Work

Many will have already seen this. And, of course, there are tons of other recent examples.


Is the Wealth of the Rich Legitimate? Part 3

In previous posts (here and here) I've examined two stories that the rich tell to explain why their wealth is legitimate. Or, more precisely, I've considered and rejected two arguments meant to show that the wealth of capitalists is legitimate. The first was that capitalists deserve their wealth because their incomes are exactly proportional to their productive contributions to society. The second was that the wealth of capitalists is their reward for taking risks. We saw that neither argument succeeded in showing that wealth of the rich is legitimate. But another important argument, which we have yet to consider, still looms large. That argument is that wealth of capitalists is legitimate because it flows into their hands by way of voluntary market transactions between individuals.

Before we look at that argument more closely, let me situate it within the overall context of attempts to justify capitalism. As I see it, there are three main strategies: consequentialist, rights-based and desert-based. We've already seen two desert-based attempts at justification. Desert-based arguments claim that the wealth of capitalists is legitimate because they can be said to deserve it (e.g. because it matches their productive contributions or because proportionally rewards some risky activity that yields a productive contribution). I examined two desert-based arguments already and argued that they were untenable.

Consequentialist arguments, on the other hand, claim that capitalist wealth is justified because it is a means to desirable consequences (e.g. overall economic growth, socially useful innovation, etc.). Most consequentialist arguments for capitalism focus on incentives (not on what we can be said to deserve or have a right to). We have seen at least one consequentialist argument already within the post on risk-taking, namely, that some capitalists need big shares of wealth in order to incentivize or motivate them to take risks to innovate. That particular argument is consequentialist because it says that big cash rewards (for capitalists) are a necessary means to good overall consequences (i.e. generating socially useful innovations). I'll examine consequentialist arguments in more detail in part 4, which will be the final installment of this series on the wealth of the rich. The main focus of this post, however, will be to refute rights-based justifications of capitalism. Rights-based arguments claim that capitalist wealth is legitimate because they acquired it through a series of legitimate, voluntary individual market transactions.

The typical rights-based argument for capitalism goes something like this: Provided that there is "no force or fraud", everything a capitalist can get from the market is legitimately theirs. Or, put another way, because the market is nothing more than a space for free individual exchange, everything that results from it is legitimate. Why should voluntary exchanges between individuals yield legitimate holdings? Because voluntary market exchange, it is argued, tends to exemplify individual freedom. On this view, people are free if they enjoy certain rights of non-interference. But because the market is (allegedly) no more than an aggregation of free, voluntary individual exchanges, it follows that any third party interference with market activity would curtail freedom (and violate the rights) of market participants.

The most famous statement of this argument was given by right-wing philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia. In that book, he puts forward a thought experiment involving Wilt Chamberlain that purports to show that capitalist market distributions are just (and that any interference with them is illegitimate). The gist of it is this. Suppose that lots of people want to see Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. Suppose that they are each more than willing to part with $5 to see him. So, Chamberlain collects a $5 admission fee from each person who wants to come see him play. Each person, let us suppose, is freely and voluntarily making the choice to pay $5 for a ticket to see him play. At the end of the day, Chamberlain has amassed quite a fortune from ticket sales. But it looks as if he's done so in a way that is 100% unobjectionable. After all, hasn't he done no more than transacted with hundreds of individual persons, all of whom were very pleased to pay $5 to see him play?

Nozick's point is two-fold. First, it appears as though any interference with this process would be wrong. After all, would a third-party be justified in paternalistically judging that the fans shouldn't spend $5 on a ticket? Would it be fair if someone prevented Chamberlain from individually interacting with any of the fans who purchase the tickets? Nozick's point is that any interference with this process would be tantamount to "prohibiting capitalist acts between consenting adults." Put more plainly, it would interfere with the freedom (and the right to non-interference) of those involved. Second, it looks as if any redistribution of Chamberlain's earnings would unjustly tinker with his legitimate holdings. After all, if he acquired all of his earnings fair and square, and if each individual transaction freely gave them to him through a market exchange, what gives some third party the right to interfere? Wouldn't any redistribution, or social system that prevented such free exchanges, curtail the freedom of people like Chamberlain and his fans to come together for mutual gain?

Before I show why Nozick's argument doesn't work, let's get even clearer about what it attempts to show. Notice that Nozick is not saying that Wilt Chamberlain deserves the money he receives. Neither is he saying that the fans deserve to see him play. Desert doesn't enter into it. Nozick's own view--and other hard-Right defenders of capitalism are with him on this--is that it would require a lot of third party interference to actually have a society in which we could be sure that everyone got what they "deserved". In other words, he thought there would have to be some agency charged with monitoring whether someone was industrious, thrifty, lazy, etc. in order to see that they got what they deserved. So, unlike many a defender of capitalism, Nozick isn't naive enough to think that capitalism simply gives each what they deserve. What he does think, however, is that capitalism is the only system in which freedom from external interference reigns supreme. The Chamberlain example is supposed to show us that allowing voluntary market exchanges typically produces inequalities of wealth that are fully justified. Any other kind of social system--or any redistribution of Chamberlain's wealth--would, for Nozick, require that we sideline individual freedom for the sake of something else.

There are number of well-known problems with the argument. I make no claims to being original here--a good number of the most convincing criticisms are made by G.A. Cohen in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality.

One problem is that it is far from clear that a "voluntary" market exchange is therefore one that is freely entered into. This problem is simply not addressed by the WC parable. Take the case of price-gouging during natural disasters. Now, if I sell you a bottle of water for $100 in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and you're really thirsty, there's a sense in which I'm not coercing you to buy the bottle. You could walk away and try to find water somewhere else. So if you buy my $100 bottle of Aquafina, there's a sense in which it is voluntary. But are you free in such a case? Hardly. You are disempowered, desperate and vulnerable to exploitative treatment from people like me. Moreover, I'm in a dominant position with respect to you because I have some crucial thing you need to survive, and I am under no duress to give it to you whereas you are under a lot of pressure to get it. Lots of market exchanges, while not quite as vivid or extreme as this, are very similar. Market transactions between buyer (capitalist) and seller (worker) of labor-power are lopsided. And, of course, the worker is forced (and thereby made unfree) to sell her labor-power to a capitalist on the market because she has no other means to earn a living. Prenuptial agreements are often lopsided in favor of men because they have more bargaining power (maybe because of sexist social norms, maybe because they are the "bread winner", etc.). There are any number of examples here. The point is that market exchanges--from the perspective of freedom alone--look a lot less innocent than the WC example lets on once we examine the real world. Nozick isn't for the greatest overall amount of individual freedom in society. He's simply against certain restrictions on the property rights of owners of property. Accordingly, he rejects redistributing wealth from the 1% to the 99% in order to increase the aggregate amount of freedom in society. As I've noted elsewhere, this is one reason that the epithet "libertarian" simply cannot reasonably apply to those who defend capitalism.

Another problem is the following. The fans in the example are imagined to want nothing more than to see Chamberlain play. But there will surely be a gap between what they think they're getting and what will actually result from their aggregated transactions. The fact that they want to see WC play doesn't mean that they want him to individually amass a huge fortune. Neither does the fact that they're willing to pay $5 to see him play mean that they voluntarily consent to the power over others that a large mass of wealth might grant WC. Holdings in capitalist societies are, after all, not simply means of consumption, but sources of power. Suppose everything is put up for sale on the market, and that someone uses his wealth to purchase what were previously public streets in a particular city (I borrow this example from Elizabeth Anderson's paper "The ethical limitations of the market"). This quite obviously leaves open the door for a great deal of tyranny. When roads are publicly owned, I need not ask anyone for their permission to use them. I am free to move about where I please and I need not bow or scrape before some particular owner. But when the roads are the private property of another person, Nozick thinks the guns of the State must be used to protect whatever arbitrary decisions the owner makes regarding their property. So if, for example, the owner forced everyone to get his explicit permission to use the roads, that would be protected by the coercive power of law. Or, if he only allowed roads to be used on Tuesdays, that would fly as well. Or, he could charge an exorbitant fee. The point is that all the non-owners of the road would be subject to arbitrary restraints on their freedom of movement and association by owners. They would be forced to subject themselves to whatever crazy terms the owners demand. Nozick could have no complaint about any of this. Stronger still, Nozick would staunchly oppose any democratic decision-making process that aimed to regulate or reclaim ownership of the roads. Thus, we see what side he's really on: property owners come first, even if the vast majority is made less free as a result of their actions.

But Nozick wants us to think that the resulting consequences of the market transactions in the WC example are legitimate because each person voluntarily willed them into being. But, in fact, they didn't. All each fan did--from their individual perspective--was consent to pay a small sum to see WC play. They didn't consent to all of the macro-level economic consequences that might follow from allowing one person to amass large sums of wealth. Nor have the explicitly given WC their blessing to buy up public roads (or whatever else WC might do with his holdings).

All of this is concealed in Nozick's thought experiment. He asks us to blindly jump from the micro-level ("what could be wrong with parting with $5 to see WC play?") to the macro-level without asking how it is that the decisions within the former should justify consequences in the latter. More often than not, the large-scale consequences of market transactions are opaque to individual actors. And, what's more, often the choices of some market actors curtail the choices of others by impacting supply, demand, employment, investment, etc. So it would be absurd to say that the narrow perspective of the individual consumer lends legitimacy to the macro-consequences of the aggregation of millions of uncoordinated individual actions. When I purchase a can of soup, I may be said to have made some voluntary exchange with the owners of the grocery store. But I haven't freely consented to all of the consequences of that transaction, since I may not even know what they will be (or what they are likely to be). Yet Nozick wants to confer legitimacy on the large-scale outcomes of market transactions by appealing to our free consent in small-scale individual transactions. There's a massive gap in the argument here. Everyone knows that capitalism is arranged in such a way that individually "rational" actions produce collectively irrational outcomes that no particular individual endorses. Why should the individual attractiveness of buying a ticket to see WC for $5 grant legitimacy to those macro-level outcomes, particularly when it's hard to see them from the perspective of an individual consumer? It's almost as if Nozick is simply blotting out any critical analysis of the social system itself, preferring instead to keep us focused on small-scale transactions. The ideological effect of keeping us on the micro-level is profound.

Another problem is the following. Just because I'm willing to pay $5 to see Wilt Chamberlain play doesn't entail that I'm willing to pay Wilt Chamberlain that money. I might be willing to part with $5 to see him play, but I might not want him to acquire a disproportionate share of resources (because that would give him unjustifiable power over others, say). Maybe I'm willing to throw into a public pot to see WC, but I'm unwilling to allow one person to amass all of the earnings. Nozick simply glosses over the difference between these two--which clearly adds to the rhetorical power of his example.

There are deeper problems with the WC parable, however. Nozick wants to generalize the WC example to all of society. But once the market rules all spheres of public (and private) life, there's no space left for democracy at all. This doesn't bother Nozick himself, or many so-called "libertarians", because they aren't fans of democratic self-rule.

But suppose that Nozick had swallowed his disdain for democracy and argued instead that markets are democratic since, as in the WC example, people can "vote with their dollars." Notwithstanding the obvious undemocratic fact that "voting with dollars" means that those with more money get more votes, there are still other more fundamental reasons why markets are not democratic. The trading floor of a stock exchange is not like a public forum for deliberation and debate among equals. The market, as André Gorz describes it, "is a place where huge production and sales oligopolies...encounter a fragmented multiplicity of buyers who, because of their dispersed state, are totally powerless... [the consumer] is only able to choose between a variety of products, but he has no power to bring about the production of other articles, more suited to his needs, in place of those offered to him." The problem here is that markets respond to unreflective individualized wants--consumer preferences--expressed by buying or not buying something. Genuine democracy, however, is not fundamentally about unreflective individual wants. Democracy is about the exchange of public reasons between free and equal citizens about matters of collective concern. We could rephrase this in terms of exit vs. voice, consumer vs. citizen. Markets give the consumer (or the seller) freedom of exit. The buyer can simply walk away without buying, just as the seller can say "take it or leave it". But the consumer has no freedom of voice. That is, consumers have no power to shape the background conditions that structure the choices before them in the marketplace. Moreover, they have no say or voice in decisions about what gets produced, how it gets produced, etc. All they have is the freedom to buy or not buy--as consumers they lack any other means of having a voice in the basic structure of the economy. Notice that workers--if they are not organized--also lack freedom of voice and only have the power to quit their job (but no genuine say in their work conditions, what gets produced, etc.).

Freedom of voice, however, is central to any plausible notion of democracy. Democracy means that we collectively base our decisions on collective reasoned argument, not on unreflective individual consumer preferences. For example, if I'm in a convenience store looking to buy a candy bar, it would be absurd for the store owner to come and criticize, question and debate me about my taste in candy. I would be perfectly justified in saying, "look, I don't have to justify myself to you, I just want the goddamn snickers." But the same is not true of relations between citizens in a self-governing society. Democracy requires that we give public justifications--that others could in principle accept--when we advocate for doing this or that. When we democratically decide what to do, it must be based upon free discussion among equal citizens where nothing but the force of the better argument prevails (e.g. not power, not domination, not threats, etc.). Moreover, democratic processes require that citizens be able to hold one another to account. It wouldn't make sense to say that I "prefer" or merely "want" to cut the Pentagon budget in the same way that I prefer or merely want a snickers bar. Similarly, if you were working in a small group on some project, it would be ridiculous if you said "look, I just want to do X" and then followed all questions from your fellows with "look I just do, OK?". What this makes clear is that there is a profound difference between being a consumer and being a citizen in a self-governing society. Defenders of capitalism often generalize the model of the individual consumer to all spheres of life, thereby eliding more important roles such as that of the citizen.

Let me raise one further objection to the rights-based "entitlement" defense of capitalism. In order to transfer ownership titles through voluntary market exchanges, there have to be things--commodities--that can be bought or sold. But the market cannot create commodities--it is only a mechanism for transfer and exchange. Thus, the rights-based defense of capitalism is incomplete without a story about "just acquisition", that is, a story about how previously unowned things can legitimately become commodities (buyable and sellable on markets). I note, in passing, that any consistent advocate of the rights-based argument for capitalism would have to concede that massive redistributions of wealth and reparations would be necessary to correct for the enslavement, expropriation, violence, colonial domination and oppression that was a central part of how the riches of contemporary capitalism were created. Let us set that inconvenient fact aside, however, and ask a different question: how could unowned things in the world come to be legitimately owned by someone? Rousseau had an answer to this question: "the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, took it into his head to say, "this is mine", and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. The human race would have been spared endless crimes, wars, murders and horrors if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out with his fellow men, "Do not listen to this impostor! You are lost if you forget the fruits of the earth belong to everyone, and the earth to no one!". In other words, why wasn't the "original acquisition" of previously unowned parts of the earth not a theft of what should be rightfully held in common? And there are further problems here: aren't some things distorted or degraded if they they are turned into commodities? Take friendship. Friendship, properly understood, may not be bought or sold and still remain friendship. Love is the same way. It also seems wrong to allow (as Nozick does) human beings to be bought and sold as property. Moreover, isn't there something wrong with allowing rights to free speech to be bought and sold on markets? And isn't it wrong to allow people to purchase and sell political influence, justice in the courts, political offices, fire protection, honors (e.g. the Pulitzer Prize), etc.? If this is true--and I think it's obvious that it is--we see quite clearly that generalizing the model of "voluntary market exchange" to all spheres of life makes no sense. It generates irrationalities, unfreedom, lack of democratic voice, and oppression.

So where does this leave us in terms of the rights-based defense of capitalism? What we've seen is that entitlement on the basis of voluntary exchange cannot be generalized to all spheres of life without giving up on the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy. But does that mean that a socialist society would forbid all voluntary exchanges? Of course not. The defining feature of socialism, after all, isn't located within the sphere of exchange or distribution but within production. Socialism has to do with who owns and controls society's means of production. Socialists argue that the people should democratically own and control them; capitalists argue that a small class should own them and all others should be excluded. So, socialists need not deny that there is a role for voluntary exchanges (whether they be in the form of gifts or in the form of market exchanges). What socialists do have to say, however, is that certain goods should not ever be treated like commodities. Political power, access to education, the means of production, human beings, etc. should never be bought and sold through market transactions. Let candy bars be bought and sold, but leave the important features of our shared life together under the jurisdiction of democracy from below.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chicago's Democrat Machine Votes Unanimously For Austerity

This is a declaration of war by the 1% against the 99% right here in Chicago. The bill cuts over $400 million out of city services: It shuts down 6 of 12 Chicago Dept of Public Health clinics, it cuts $63 million from Family and Support services (which has already eliminated 63 full-time jobs this year alone), slashes full-time public library staff by 32% (on top of the 10% cuts last year) laying off more than 300 librarians, reduces hours for libraries, makes cuts to firefighter pay and closes fire-stations, etc. Meanwhile Rahm is pushing hard for big tax breaks (e.g. $23 million for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) for the wealthy as well as public transit fare hikes.

If the Occupy movement is for taxing the rich, Rahm is for taxing the poor, cutting services and giving big tax breaks to the 1%. No wonder he spends most of his time fraternizing with millionaires. But let's not forget that he's one of them. Rahm made over $10 million during a brief two-year stint as an investment banker in between being a "public servant" of some sort or other.

The bill passed unanimously. This wasn't hard to see coming, but given the increasing levels of struggle in Chicago, one would have thought that were would at least be some hesitation. The City Coucil, like the rest of the city's government, marches in lock step with the Democrat Machine in general. And of course, when they aren't actually members of the 1% themselves, the leaders of the Machine march to the tune of the 1%. Sure, some of the so-called "progressives" on the City Council like Joe Moore made a few critical remarks before hand to keep up appearances. But in the end, they all voted for 100% of it (just like the infamous parking-meter privatization deal). Cuts, tax breaks for the rich and all. As Moore himself put it, “it's an honest budget." Yes, I agree. It's nothing if not honest. It's a ringing endorsement of the status quo. It's a huge gift to the 1%.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Is the Wealth of the Rich Legitimate? Part 2

In a previous post I argued that the wealth of the rich (more precisely: of capitalists) could not be justified by reference to the principle that "each person deserves that amount of wealth that reflects her productive contributions". Capitalists need not do anything productive in order to be capitalists. The pure capitalist earns everything from owning and nothing from working (that is, to the extent that a capitalist can be said to earn from working, she is to that extent not a pure capitalist).

But, as I discussed in the previous post, this story about desert and productive contributions is only one among many. Another (perhaps the most popular?) story that's told to legitimate the wealth of capitalists is that their wealth is a reward for having taken bold risks. Or, put another way, since the capitalist risks her capital when she invests it in some business venture, she deserves exclusive rights to all of the returns above and beyond costs paid out for raw materials, wages for workers, etc.

This story is told so frequently that it almost seems odd to question its plausibility. But how plausible is it?

Let's try to first figure out exactly what its saying. Is it saying that people should be rewarded in proportion to how much risk they take on? That can't be right. That would mean that the riskier I behave, the more I should be rewarded (whether or not the risk pays off). But, of course, it's a fact about risks that they can turn out for better or for worse (otherwise they wouldn't be risks). Risks always involve some element of luck and chance wherein the risk could turn out badly. But nobody in their right mind would say that the mere fact that I've taken on some risk (whether or not it pans out) means that I should be rewarded. For example, no one would say that some particular capitalist, just because they take on risks, deserves a return on their investment. If I, for example, invest in a business that has a 10% chance of succeeding, and it doesn't succeed, nobody thinks that this entitles me a cash "reward" of any kind.

But if that's not what's meant by "reward for risk", what is? Perhaps what's meant is that the capitalist's riches are her reward for having taken a risk that ended up panning out. If I bet against the odds and win, then it looks like what I get is my reward. Why not say the same about capitalists whose investments pay off?

There are several things to say here. First, it's just false that risky capitalist activity actually gets higher rewards when it pays off. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. And lots of capitalist activities aren't risky at all. An investment need not be risky to be very lucrative. If some public asset (a natural monopoly, say) is privatized and I get ownership of it, I may be able to charge fees and earn big profits even though there is virtually no risk. Or, consider that many financial institutions are, and they know that they are, "too big to fail."

We must also take into account that risk context sensitive in various respects. What may be risky for me (given my situation) may be less so for you (given your situation). Imagine a working class person who saved money for years to open up a small coffee shop. This is surely a risky activity since she will need to take out big loans on a project that could very easily go bust (and it's not as if they have millions to spare if it does). Now, imagine that I invest $40 million of a $140 million fortune in relatively low-risk securities that turn out to pay out big dividends. Instead of risking my capital on start-ups, I put it all in well-established, multinational corporations. So, I'm reaping large cash "rewards" from my investments, much larger (even in proportional terms) than the returns a successful small coffee shop owner will ever earn. But I am taking on very little risk whereas the newly petit bourgeois coffee shop owner is taking on a great deal of risk. There are innumerable examples of this sort. What they show is that capitalism doesn't, as a matter of fact, distribute wealth in accordance with the principle that riskier bets (that pan out) receive larger cash rewards than those that involve less risk.

But this isn't likely to satisfy defenders of the "risk and reward" view of why the capitalist's earnings are legitimate. They will probably reply by offering two different objections. The first has to do with the idea that capitalism is a fair game where the winner deserves to take all the spoils of victory. The second has to do with incentives and innovation. I'll examine (and refute) each in turn.

The first objection is as follows. Capitalism can be thought of as a fair game in which everyone (legally speaking) has a chance to be a successful capitalist. As long as the rules of this game are fair, then whatever outcome results from it is legitimate. So, for example, when I play blackjack and the casino hasn't rigged the game in their favor, and both the casino and I have consented to play the game, whatever I take home in winnings is legitimately mine. Capitalism, you might think, is the same way. If I risk $10 million on a risky investment and it pans out, why aren't I entitled to (or deserving of) all of the cash returns in the same way that I'm entitled to the cash returns of the game of black jack? In fact, wouldn't taxing the capitalist's profits be similar to stealing a gambler's winnings, even though she made a fair bet in both cases?

There are a number of things to say here. We might ask whether the "game" of capitalism really is fair (I shall argue that it isn't, and that the gambling/investing metaphor is misleading). But even if it is fair, we might still ask whether it makes sense to structure our economy like a winner-take-all casino game. I shall argue that there are deep problems (both structural as well as normative) with allowing the economy to be run like a casino.

Let's examine the fairness of the "game of capitalism." First, recall where capitalism comes from (read Part 8 of Capital for a detailed historical analysis): the expropriation and killing of indigenous peoples and European peasants, the forcible seizure and enclosure of commonly owned land, colonial domination and forced labor, the enslavement of human beings, and so on and so forth. And we could add that capitalism didn't leave imperialism, violence, oppression, racial domination, coercion, theft, and expropriation behind after the 17th and 18th century: these have been permanent features of the system throughout its existence. So the "game" is rigged from the start. There has never been a "level playing field" from which to begin the game.

But, suppose that there was a level playing field. Would that fix capitalism's problems? Would that mean that the "game of capitalism" is actually procedurally fair? I think not. First of all, not everyone can play the game of capitalism. In order to play, you must have something to invest (because that's one of the rules of the game). Now, defenders of capitalism will say that nobody is legally excluded from playing the game. But that's clearly a flawed argument. First of all, it's a fact that lots of people, indeed the vast majority of people, do not have the discretionary funds to play the game. David Schweickart makes the second point forcefully as follows.

Suppose you and I flip a fair coin; we each bet a dollar per round; heads I get your dollar, tails you get mine. The game is "fair" in the sense that we both face the same odds at any toss of the coin. However, a complication arises when we look at the game in light of its initial conditions. If I enter the game with $20 and you with $10, you are twice as likely as I to go bust. If you do go broke, and another player enters with $10, he will be three times more likely to be cleaned out than will I (because my initial stake has been supplemented by your losings)... So the large investor, although he has more to lose, is less likely to lose than is the small investor. Add to this that wealth gives one access to information, expert advice, and opportunities for diversification that the small investor lacks, and we see that the balance between magnitude of loss tilts toward the wealthy.
What this shows is that even textbook "ideal" capitalism isn't a fair game.

But there are further problems with this game, even if it was "fair". First of all, it presupposes that some people are playing the game--the capitalist investors--while others, who own no capital to invest, do the work--the workers. And while the capitalists are busy playing the casino-like game of capitalism, workers have no say in what is going on. Yet, and this is key, they stand to lose even more than the capitalists if the bet fails. That is, if a capitalist investor loses $10 million on a deal, but still has $3 million back at home, it's not as if he will be going hungry any time soon. But if 2,000 workers lose their jobs, we can be sure that they don't have million dollar nest eggs sitting at home waiting to be spent. Unemployment, as millions of Americans know first hand, can be absolutely devastating--particularly when wages and benefits are so meager even during periods of full-time employment. Capitalists, of course, stand to lose more in absolute dollar terms, but because of the diminishing marginal utility of money, it means much less to them. Think of the way that the economic crisis has gone thus far. The reckless, profit-driven investments of the financial sector produced a global crisis that has had devastating effects on working class living standards at the same time that it has primed the pumps for austerity administered from above. The point is this: casino capitalism is unfair because it presupposes a class of working people who can't play the game but, nonetheless, stand to lose a great deal if the capitalist's gambles don't pan out.

Imagine a capitalist who replies to a labor union as follows. "I risked all of my capital on this business, so who are you to collective bargain to get a piece of it? That's unfair because I assume all the risk, yet you want to share in the rewards." Now, we've already seen that this doesn't work because the workers do share in the risk--the risk of losing their job--even though they are guaranteed none of the winnings. But we can also add that it's not as if the workers were asked to share in the risk. It's not as if the boss will ever say: look, if you like, we can make this a worker-owned and worker-run collective in which we all share the risk (and the profit) equally. So it doesn't make sense to complain that workers share none of the risk.

One further thing to say regarding the idea that our economy is best thought of as a casino-like game in which the winner takes all. It is not clear that it makes any sense to structure basic economic institutions in this way at all. The economic system should exist to draw on the mutual benefits that we get from social cooperation. What we can accomplish together is far greater than what we can accomplish alone: that should be the basic organizing principle of any just economic system. The casino-style setup, however, exploits the fact that an economy requires mass participation, takes this mass participation for granted, and then haphazardly doles out lump sums to individuals who happen to get a good roll on the dice. That makes no sense to me. Let's use the power of economies of scale and increased productivity to maximize human capabilities, to meet socially recognized needs, to do great things together that we couldn't have done alone. Rather than being trapped inside a casino that I never asked to enter in the first place, I'd rather be a member of a self-governing community in which the condition for the free development of each individual is the free development of all.

But there is one last objection to my argument--which has to do with incentives and innovation--that I mentioned above. It goes as follows. A flourishing society requires that people take risks, innovate, try out new methods and techniques, and produce new things that may not ever pay off. I agree so far, but the objection isn't finished. It continues: in order to get people to take risks and innovate, they must be motivated by large cash rewards. And that means that capitalism is the only system in which innovation and risk-taking can flourish, because without the big cash rewards that the market hands out to successful businesses people wouldn't be motivated to innovate.

First of all, we've seen that capitalists don't need to do any innovating at all. They can pay someone else to do it. Capitalism--where there is private ownership of the means of production which are run in order to enrich the owners--does not distribute wealth in accordance with who is the most innovative or who takes on the most risk to make some socially useful good. There is no close connection between being a capitalist and being an innovator. R&D departments--many of them subsidized by public funds (this is called "externalizing costs")--do that. Much R&D is located within universities--which are more feudal, guild-like institutions than they are capitalist.

Second, it is demonstrably false that people need huge cash rewards in order to innovate and do great things. Great scientists, great novelists, great musicians and artists, and so forth rarely do what they do out of a single-minded focus on cash reward. Think of those who develop open-source software. I think it is true of a lot of people that if they were guaranteed a basic standard of living, they would be happy to spend a large portion of their time developing open-source, free software for the betterment of all. There are too many examples here to count. People, of course, want an adequate standard of living in which they don't want for any basic necessities, in which they have adequate leisure and a degree of discretionary spending. But that doesn't mean they have to have huge million-dollar rewards to socially-useful things.

Finally, capitalism thwarts a ton of really important innovation while it privileges others. Many know about the strange murder of the electric car. There are other examples of this kind --particularly green technologies that aren't profitable or undermine the profitability of natural resource extraction. In fact, we may never know how many great ideas are out there that haven't been given a try simply because capitalist production can't earn a profit off them (or because they take too much long-term planning or upfront investment, as is the case with much green technology). To be sure, there is a place for competition to determine who should win socially-produced funds for some new innovative project. But that doesn't require capitalism. Despite encroachment from corporations and moneyed interests, grant funding for scientific projects doesn't involve capitalist markets or profits.