Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Things that aren't cheap:

- Popping out babies
- Avoiding popping out babies
- Maintaining the girlie parts, so you can pop out babies later

In other words, women's health insurance isn't cheap. The New York times has a maddening and informative article revealing that women pay more for health insurance than men do. But with good reason! We babymakers are so expensive:

Insurers say they have a sound reason for charging different premiums: Women ages 19 to 55 tend to cost more than men because they typically use more health care, especially in the childbearing years.

Which is mostly bullshit, since:

Crystal D. Kilpatrick, a healthy 33-year-old real estate agent in Austin, Tex., said: “I’ve delayed having a baby because my insurance policy does not cover maternity care. If I have a baby, I’ll have to pay at least $8,000 out of pocket.”

And the quote below mostly just makes me feel like a baby machine, but at least one that shouldn't be economically disadvantaged:

Mila Kofman, the insurance superintendent in Maine, said: “There’s a strong public policy reason to prohibit gender-based rates. Only women can bear children. There’s an expense to that. But having babies benefits communities and society as a whole. Women should not have to bear the entire expense."

I'd just like to summarize The Man's apparent position on babies:

1. Comprehensive sex education is bad because it encourages young people to have sex.
2. If you get pregnant, you better have the baby, because abortions are evil and all life is precious.
3. Once you are pregnant, The Market is under no obligation to offer you affordable health insurance, since as a babymaker you are a burden on the health care system.
4. Should your pregnancy go wrong, or become life-threatening, you aren't permitted to abort, since all life is precious.
5. Good luck with child care, maternity leave, breast-feeding access, and afforable health care for your newborn.
6. Welfare mothers are a drain on society. Entitlement programs breed dependence.
7. Bye


Thanks, Chicago election people!

Today, T and I had the happy experience of voting early at the Edgewater Public Library. Apparently early voting in Chicago is reaching record numbers, so the whole thing took a little over an hour. Waiting in line offered an opportunity to chat with friendly fellow voters and the wonderful folks working at the voting site. ("This is NOT one to sit out," the woman in front of us said emphatically.) The poll workers were wonderfully patient and helpful. They respected everyone's concerns, even helping one nervous voter fill out a paper ballot when she thought her computer ballot had made a mistake.

You aren't allowed to wear any other campaign stuff inside the voting site, and no one said a word about whom they'd be voting for. Yet somehow, the room was bursting with hidden excitement and energy: after all, this is Obama's political hometown, and so many people are thrilled about the potential of his election.

Outside the polling place, our city is certainly full of enthusiasm for Obama. As I ride the Red Line to the South Side each Wednesday, the train eventually empties itself of white riders and fills up with black ones. And I've observed that among these folks, the Obama buttons, stickers and t-shirts are everywhere. Some of my families on the South Side wear their Obama shirt to every violin lesson. There's a palpable excitement and pride that I'm glad to be a part of - whether Obama is the ideal candidate or not. In this vein, Elle Ph.D has a beautiful post about what Obama's candidacy means to her young son. (Via Feministe.)

One last thing in the Obama-glow category: expect photos from Obama's election-night event in Grant Park. We've got tickets.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Wealth Gaps

Since I don't have time to write anything substantive, please enjoy The Onion.

In The Know: Are America's Rich Falling Behind The Super-Rich?


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pre-Election Pet Peeve #2

People who have been able to access post-secondary education and build their careers and, therefore, earn comfortable livings, because of Pell Grants, but call progressive taxation socialism (like it's a bad thing).

Like ln, I totally apologize for how quiet things have been here. I can't stress enough how overwhelmed I've been with work.


Pre-Election Pet Peeve:

People who say, "I might have voted for John McCain, but Sarah Palin is a terrifying nut case."

It's not that I don't agree she's terrifying. She's anti-choice and wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, despite a basic ignorance about every other judicial decision. Her definition of "alternative energy" is offshore drilling. She wants to privatize health care. She's running around the country red-baiting like crazy and thinks a more progressive tax scheme ("spreading the wealth!") is a bad thing. Her rhetoric at campaign rallies stirs up racist, xenophobic sentiment. She's helping fuel rumors about Obama that are not only false, but also based on the idea that being Muslim ought to disqualify you from an American presidential race. So yeah, she's scary, but McCain shares her policy positions and participates in the same campaign tactics. A vote for McCain, with or without Sarah Palin, would have been a vote for continued economic inequality, nonexistent health care, and a repro-rights nightmare.

What kind of voter would accept these regressive policies when espoused by an old white man, but reject them when espoused by a woman? Voters who intuitively "respect" the war-veteran, centrist McCain of years past? Voters who just get a "good feeling" about him? I smell bullshit, and probably sexism. People need to get their mind off personality, and onto the issues. Palin's not as smart as McCain (and her church is scarier), but ideologically, she's hardly different.

As a side note, we apologize for the relative quiet around Pink Scare these days. The myriad demands of school and work are taking a toll on your faithful bloggers. If you'd be interested in writing a guest-post to perk things up a bit, please let us know in the comments!


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Big surprise.

Sly New York Times journalist Joe Nocera got to listen in on a JPMorgan Chase conference call in which all our worst fears are confirmed.

Apparently an unnamed Chase executive told employees that no, they probably won't be lending any of their $25b in government money to taxpayers who need loans. Instead, they'll be making a fuckload of 'acquisitions' which will represent 'growth' and give Chase a 'backstop' in case the economy happens to get even worse.

Insert screaming, sobbing, gnashing of teeth.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

fucking hilarious.

The Onion has done it again.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Worst Debate Ever: Lowlights

1. Arvilla beat me to it. McCain's wrinkled old-man fingers making scare quotes around the idea of a mother's "health" was the rock-bottom moment of the debate for me, too. He shows a complete disdain for the very idea of an expectant mother's health and physical autonomy. McCain thinks this idea is ridiculous enough to mock in front of millions of Americans. Apparently McCain is unaware that there are pregnancies which, in the third trimester, unexpectedly threaten the life of the woman. McCain makes no concession for such cases, but instead mocks us all as stupid pansies, whining about health. I am serious when I say he might as well tell us all to go bleed to death. (But make sure you send doctors to save the fetus afterwards.) Video here.

2. Speaking of scare quotes, I'd put some fucking scare quotes around his concept of what "health care" is. When asked to lay out his health care plan, this is what McCain offered us:

... I am convinced we need to do a lot of things. We need to put health care records online. The VA does that. That will -- that will reduce costs. We need more community health centers. We need walk-in clinics. The rise of obesity among young Americans is one of the most alarming statistics that there is. We should have physical fitness programs and nutrition programs in schools. ... We need -- we need to have -- we need to have employers reward employees who join health clubs and practice wellness and fitness. But I want to give every American a $5,000 refundable tax credit. Take it and get anywhere in America the health care that you wish.

I can have any healthcare that I wish? Oh, thank you, Mr. McCain! Thank you! I'll have BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois. Do you have a $200 premium with a low copays and a low deductible?

No? Well, that's not what I wished for.

Unfortunately, John, health insurance isn't a matter of wishing. I really wish the annual premiums for one family weren't $12k. If really wish my friend hadn't been denied three times by private insurers because of her weight and her acid reflux. I really wish I wasn't worried that I myself will be denied because of an abnormal test result two years ago. I really wish women didn't have to secure massively more expensive insurance just to pop out those babies you love so much. I wish you weren't making that face. But alas, all my wishing is in vain. Thanks for the walk-in clinic, though.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Health" of the mother lol

Tonight's debate was so infuriating on so many levels. But nothing pissed me off more than the moment when Mccain talked about health exceptions in late-term abortion bans like they're some myth that we should all mock as trivial issues the left has invented to distract us from the real issues, and even held up scare-quotes (I kid you not) when he talked about health.

"Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama. He's ... health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, health."
Yeah, quote, women's health! lulzzzz what a stretch!

My "health" is not a far left myth you fucking dick. Fuck off and leave this country's women alone already.

...Jesus...And if you saw the look on his face when he said it, omg, I wanted to destroy my tv screen. I'm still fuming a couple hours later.



Beee-yin dollrs uh big guvmit. Senrrrr Obama... big guvmit. Beeeeyins uh dollars...

Walk-in clinics, fitness clubs, stickers, puppy clinics, walk-in clinics, fitness and weight loss, beeeyins uh dollars. And choices. Yes, big guvmit senrr obama. Yes, senrr obama. Choices, an tax increases senrr obama. Sit down and reach around ac'rss th' aisle... beeyins uh dollrs. An vouchers.

I'ma free trader. Beeeeyins uh dollars. You'll see. Hard working 'mericans know this well. Beeeeeyins.

senrrrbama. hehe *snort*


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Yeah, NOW you notice.

I personally didn't need a roundtable discussion to tell me that the NYTimes (and all other mainstream news sources) have failed to fulfill their obligations to the public in this election.

But apparently, the Times did hold a roundtable, and that's exactly what they found out. Since the national tickets were formed, only around 10% of their election articles have focused on policy substance. You know perfectly well what the rest of the articles are about: strategy, polls, spouses, "messaging," mudslinging, Wasilla, and electoral "offense and defense."

It's not too late, media friends! You could actually give front-page coverage to a comparative study of the candidates' health care plans, or talk to experts about how each candidate might change the future of reproductive health in our nation. Hell, it needn't be fair and balanced! This article about economically struggling voters in Indiana is sort of a decent start.

In the meantime, Pink Scare -- with a readership just slightly smaller than that of Times -- will continue to (try to) bring the goods, both electoral and not.


Ridiculous Stuff Men Say in the Office: Clueless boss

Inspired by ln's post, I'll share the most obnoxious things said to me at the office:

My clueless boss while standing by my cubicle making small talk about our families:
Clueless Boss: You should have a talk with my daughter and tell her to study something like English in college.
Me: Oh really? What does she want to study?
CB: She's always wanted be a dancer. But I do NOT want her studying dance at a college level. It's bad enough in high school.
Me: (laughing nervously) Why do you say that?
CB: It has turned her into such a liberal thinker because there are so many gays in dance.
Me: Oh, yeah?
CB: Yeah, she brings these gay friends of hers into my house and they touch my things and stuff. It makes me sick to be quite honest with you.
Me: (not wanting to agree but not wanting to step on any toes) Oh, geez, I doubt they're contagious or which schools is she looking at right now?

Ughhh. I hate that. He can say whatever dumb homophobic thing he wants to me, and I can't do anything because he's the boss and my livelihood depends on being on his good side. So awkward I just had to change the subject.


Ridiculous Stuff Motorists Do on the Road

During our extremely brief bike ride on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, T and I were harrassed by a motorist ... again. As we rode with traffic in a shared bicycle lane marked with a giant picture of a bicycle every 100 feet (!), some ass hole veered around me and nearly clipped my left side. Guess he didn't feel like waiting to pass. I pretty much screamed, and T all-too-easily flipped him the bird.

Of course, his dick move proved unrewarding, and he ended up waiting at the same goddamn red light we were. We gave him some disappointed-looking headshakes, and he began to mouth off loudly through his open window. I'm fairly sure he said "Get a motor vehicle!" Stay classy, dude.

Anyway, check out this interesting conversation between cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists in San Francisco's Mission Hill. It's a pretty respectful discussion, sparked by a driver who didn't understand some cyclists' aggressive, lawless behavior. Asshole cyclists who run around disobeying basic traffic rules are a serious problem. I've repeatedly witnessed cyclists blowing through stop signs and red lights. Not only are they seriously endangering their own lives, but they're creating anti-bike resentment among rule-abiding motorists who might otherwise share the road nicely.

Still, I can't blame people who respond with some level of militancy. As a biker on the road with cars, your life is in danger. You can key somebody's paint job or ruin their morning - and they could end your life in retaliation.


Fox News conversation turns weirdly tragic

A couple of Fox News pundits have their undies in a bundle about Sarah Palin's photograph on the cover of Newsweek. It's a close-up, full-page photo of Palin's face -- which some people claim is deliberately unretouched. I really don't care to speculate about what "flaws" they're referring to. There are some small lines and wrinkles under her eyes, and some slightly blotchy color variation in her makeup.

Yes, it's a cheap attempt by Fox News to generate a little partisan drama. But as a public moment in the women-and-beauty discussion, it's fascinating. In the clip, three female pundits discuss Palin's photograph: a stunning, Barbie-like anchorwoman, a skinny brunette GOP analyst, and a slightly overweight, exasperated-looking woman from American University. As they bat back and forth the question of Palin's right to look perfect on the cover of Newsweek, one can't help but think of the pressures to be beautiful that they themselves are under - particularly as women who appear frequently, or even daily, on television. The media has told us repeatedly that many women look at Sarah Palin and see themselves. Apparently, these women looked at Sarah Palin's closeup and saw their worst career nightmare.

GOP analyst Andrea Tantaros practically bares her soul here. She makes her own insecurity - and that of all women - another talking point:

Julia, this is mortifying ... this is mortifying. Any woman who would look at this cover, or if this were me, or if this were you - if this camera would zoom in on me right now, the viewers, I can tell you right now, it ain't pretty. And I tell you what, I'd be pretty upset. Any woman who would see this cover would be shocked and horrified.

Does this remind anyone of certain passages from Gulliver's Travels? Jonathan Swift's novel, adored in high school literature classrooms, is known for deep misogyny, particularly in his depiction of women's bodies and bodily functions. In one large section of the text, Gulliver is a miniature man living in a world of giants. And the breasts of giant women, seen from this zoomed-in angle, are described with categorical disgust. He sees every ugly freckle, crevice, discoloration, and hair. And Gulliver says he's never seen anything so "monstrous" as the up-close breast of his caretaker.

But, uh that was Jonathan Swift, hating on women's bodies in 1726. Centuries later, are we still telling women that the most mortifying, horrifying, shocking thing that can happen to them would be the revelation that they have pores, wrinkles, and facial imperfections? Andrea Tantaros is revealing more than her disdain for Newsweek. She's revealing disdain for her physical self, and by extension, ours.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Video: A socialist look at the current crisis

Video: UMass economist Rick Wolff (also an editor of the journal Rethinking Marxism) on the crisis.

Some excerpts from his intro:

what I’m going to do, is going to explain how I see this crisis… and then to offer a socialist response to it… this is not because of my abstract interest, its because I am one”


"this isn't a financial crisis... this doesn't have to do with executive pay (which has been outrageous for years)... this doesn't have to do with greed... we need to consider this in terms of the system as a whole... this crisis didn't begin with only the financial industry and it wont end there"


Friday, October 10, 2008

"Free Market" as chimera

"Lenin" has a good post on the relationship between "free market" ideology and actually-existing neoliberalism. I found this a refreshing read, because it keyed in on a couple of things I'd been thinking lately about the chorus on the Right whining about the "death of the free market", "the end of American capitalism", etc.

There's something truly pathetic about the dismay of those who identify "the free market" as a founding paradigm of the economic/social order and consequently feel as though it now being viciously assaulted by 'government intervention'. This view doesn't need to be refuted (which is easily done), it requires something else. It needs to be critiqued not as the rational basis for neoliberal policy, but as ideology.

Of course, actual capitalism has never had much to do with this ideological notion of "free markets". Concretely, "government intervention" is not new, but part of a long-standing history of how capitalism functions. The rationale for neoliberalism is far more perverse than the "pseudo-pragmatic claim that 'markets work', that they're the most effective delivery system for goods and services", etc. The rationale is usually some version of the view that markets are natural feature of reality, that human beings are genetically disposed qua species to be the self-interested rational-misers that many economists want us to believe we are.

But, as "Lenin" points out:

A large number of "people have spent a great percentage of their adult lives believing that the alternative to a perpetual liberalization of the markets was the restoration of serfdom. Capital and its managers were always more pragmatic: their aim was to hegemonize the state, to make it a powerful instrument of their interests, not to diminish it."
This is key. Reality has never conformed to the absurd "intervention vs. free market" disjunction imposed upon it by libertarians. Capital relishes these stooges when they preach 19th century dogmas requiring the retreat of the State in areas of taxation, social spending, services, regulation, etc. Of course, these same stooges seem utterly speechless when ever-pragmatic Capital also opts for using the State apparatus to further its own ends. Why would we expect a class for whom there is no such thing as 'enough' wealth or power, to do anything other than ruthlessly pursue profits ad infinitum?

The conclusion we should draw is that libertarians simply do not have the theoretical resources to understand what's at stake in politics. What's more, the Left shouldn't respond to their ideological fantasies as thought they were rational arguments, but should understand these blatherings for what they are. If the Right wants to argue about real capitalism, we can argue about capitalism. But as far as the ideological fantasy sustaining some people's attachment to the status quo, the most progressive response may be to refuse to legitimize it as an argument.


Žižek on the Crisis

Some excerpts:

"Faced with a disaster over which we have no real influence, people will often say, stupidly, ‘Don’t just talk, do something!’ Perhaps, lately, we have been doing too much. Maybe it is time to step back, think and say the right thing. True, we often talk about doing something instead of actually doing it – but sometimes we do things in order to avoid talking and thinking about them. Like quickly throwing $700 billion at a problem instead of reflecting on how it came about..."


"If the bailout plan really is a ‘socialist’ measure, it is a very peculiar one: a ‘socialist’ measure whose aim is to help not the poor but the rich, not those who borrow but those who lend. ‘Socialism’ is OK, it seems, when it serves to save capitalism. But what if ‘moral hazard’ is inscribed in the fundamental structure of capitalism? The problem is that there is no way to separate the welfare of Main Street from that of Wall Street. Their relationship is non-transitive: what is good for Wall Street isn’t necessarily good for Main Street, but Main Street can’t thrive if Wall Street isn’t doing well – and this asymmetry gives an a priori advantage to Wall Street."

Read it all here.


too atrocious for comment



Thursday, October 9, 2008

Interesting perspective on the crisis

From Charles Post over at Solidarity (i.e. the socialist, feminist, anti-racist political organization).


The Poverty of Liberalism

In his now largely-forgotten 1968 book, The Poverty of Liberalism, political philosopher and self-described Left radical Robert Paul Wolff had the following to say about American electoral politics at the time, which I found to be particularly poignant right now:

"It is instructive to compare liberals' criticisms of the loyalty investigations with their attacks, during the same years, on the foreign policy of Dulles and Eisenhower. A great deal was made of Dulles' moralizing, Eisenhower's lack of intellectual graces, and the embarrassing failure of new ambassadors to remember the names of the prime ministers of the countries to which they were assigned. This critique of technique was put forward as fundamental analysis of policy, with the expectation that all our state department needed was to promote career officers to ambassadorial posts, learn some foreign languages, and act a bit less like fundamentalists loose in the big city. John F. Kennedy was greeted by liberals as the answer to their prayers. He was young, bright, and was married to a woman who spoke fluent French. Consequently, it came as something of a shock when this paragon of liberal virtues invaded Cuba and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. In the aftermath of the Cuban adventure, liberal ranks split into two unequal groups. The majority, confronted by the refutation of their confident faith that technique was all that American foreign policy had lacked, retreated into the brittle cold-war belligerence of the Roches and Rostows. The remainder were forced into an examination of the roots of American policy in an effort to discover where it had gone wrong. This radical turn of the American left was of course considerably aided by the death of Kennedy. Yet so suceptible is the ordinary American liberal to beguiling personalities and the superficies of sophistication that many who were disenchanted from JFK had already began to reenchant themselves with Robert Kennedy."


Why Marx's conception of class still matters (continued)

In my previous post I roughly sketched what Marx's conception of class consisted of, keying in on the fact that it primarily has to do with the relationship of a group to the means of production. Now, I want to look at some examples of how this understanding helps us make sense of our current state.

To the extent that our society is still capitalist (based on wage labor, private ownership of the means of production, etc.), there is still a fundamental rift between workers and capitalists. Michael Zweig, in an article for Monthly Review, summarizes nicely one way to think about what the capitalist class looks like today:

The capitalist class are the corporate elite, senior executives, and directors of large corporations, whose job it is to give strategic direction to the company, who interact with government agencies and other corporate executives while leaving the day-to-day operation of their company to intermediate levels of management and the workforce. In this they are different from small business owners, who tend to work beside their relatively few employees and manage them directly. Capitalists make up roughly 2% of the population.
Zweig defines the working class as:
...those people with relatively little power at work -white collar bank tellers, call-center workers, and cashiers; blue-collar machinists, construction workers, and assembly-line workers; pink-collar secretaries, nurses, and home-health-care workers -skilled and unskilled, women and men of all races, nationalities, and sexual preferences. The working class are those with little personal control over the pace or content of their work and without supervisory control over the work lives of others. There are nearly 90 million working-class people in the US labor force today, thus the US has a substantial working-class majority (more than 62%).
Finally, Zweig understands middle class in the following way:
professionals, small-business owners, and managerial and supervisory employees. They are best understood not as the middle of an income distribution, but as living in the middle of the two polar classes in capitalist society. Their experiences have some aspects shared with the working-class, and some associated with the corporate elite. Small business owners share with capitalists an interest in private property in business assets, defeated unions, and weak labor regulations. But they share with workers in the work itself, great vulnerability to the capitalist market and to governmental power, and difficulty acquiring adequate health insurance and retirement security.

...Professionals are also caught in the middle of the cross fire...professionals closely intertwined with the working-class: community college teachers, lawyers in public defender offices or with small general practices, doctors in working-class neighborhoods, public school teachers...their economic standing have deteriorated along with the class they serve. But if we look at those whose lives are more fully involved in serving the capitalist class -corporate lawyers, financial service professionals, Big-Four CPAs, and doctors beyond the reach of HMO/insurance oversight -these professionals have risen with the class they serve.
Class, understood in this way, is an important critical tool because it scrutinizes the fundamental economic organization of society, rather than merely taking it for granted. It's not that we should not care about income disparities (and wealth polarization... which is far worse than income), but rather, that we must ask how such disparities arise. Moreover, income disparity cannot be the only metric. If we are concerned to understand fundamental political categories like emancipation, freedom, autonomy, power… we need to engage the fundamental structure/organization of the economic and social order.

This is what Marx was getting at, in the German Ideology when he said, “any distribution whatever of the means of consumption [i.e. income, material wealth] is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself.”

In other words, Marxists and radicals criticize left-liberals for only focusing on issues of distribution, or rather, only on re-distribution. That is, left-liberals focus on how best to re-distribute resources/incomes more justly given that the default allocation of the market is unjust. But, this leaves the question of the distribution came about entirely untouched… the liberals have nothing to say about production, social/economic relations as such, class power. Thus, liberals have no qualms with capitalism as such (to the contrary, they are supporters of it), but feel that justice requires ameliorating some of its ‘flaws’ (as though capitalism were a system set up to do anything other than create inequalities).

Alienation (estrangement) in the early Marx is a bit more difficult to make a short summary of, owing basically to its roots in Hegel. I think we can leave it aside here, because it’s not really central to the analysis of class in contemporary capitalist societies.

The current economic crisis is an excellent example of class power. There is a lot of legitimate resentment for the financial elite that has mismanaged huge institutions on which society currently depends (for better or worse... i would say for worse) a great deal. Even some nihilistic Leftists are taking the idiotic “Ron Paul” position on the bailout, claiming that these bankers “have made their bed, and now they should have to sleep in it”. But this crude position ignores the actual reality of how our society is organized.

As terrible a setup as it is, in our society capitalists (not democratic institutions) are put in charge of major economic institutions that determine the well-being of crucial sectors of the economy that aren't ostensibly related to the ‘financial industry’ proper. Worker’s jobs, pensions, savings, loans, mortgages, municipal budgets and college endowments are all tied to the health of the financial sector. Like it or not, this is an inescapable fact of our economy. Workers have no say in how these 'big' economic decisions get made, no way to demand that such decisions consider their interests.... yet they are totally vulnerable to the ramifications of these decisions in ways that capitalists are not (worst case scenario, corporate elites leave their powerful post with golden-parachutes). The answer can't be simply to 'punish' those who ran these institutions into the ground by letting these crucial institutions take everyone down with them.

We must make a crucial distinction between these institutions, and the class who runs them. The relevant ‘fuck you’, in this scenario, isn’t the one in which we flip off the institutions as well as the capitalists who own and control them… the only just 'punishment' would be to seize bank assets as well as these institutions under democratic authority, given that so much of society is forced into dependence on them.

Understanding the crisis in this light reveals a great deal of class power in this economic arrangement. Those who work for wages and have no say in the major financial decisions (made unilaterally in the speculative interests of capitalists), but they are also those who are hit the hardest when the capitalist's gamble doesn't pay off. And what's worse, the fact that capitalists own and control these crucial institutions translates to political power which they can use to pressure government into bailing them out of the mess they've made, leaving the vast majority of society out of the picture. The only sense in which the working majority is invoked in the deliberations among elites about 'solutions', is when the viability of these financial behemoths is endangered enough to threaten negative ramifications far beyond Wall Street.

So here are two instances of massive class power:

1. Capitalists, who own and control these financial titans, have power that derives from the leverage that comes along with controlling an institution on which the fate of society in large measure depends.

2. The State, light-years from being an institution that represents the majority of working people, is already predisposed to side against workers in favor of Capital.

It’s true, the old caricature of a top-hat wearing capitalist factory-owner beating down a bunch of soot-covered production-line workers is not the image we have of most working Americans today (although this situation is still hardly passé for a very real number of factory workers in the US, and far more in the Third World). It’s also hard to see how machinists and bank tellers have much in common, when we think of consumption habits, style and ideology. But taking a broader view of society makes it clear how disempowered both are.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"On the Bank Crisis" Flashback

March 12, 1933:

I hope you can see from this elemental recital of what your government is doing that there is nothing complex, or radical in the process.

We had a bad banking situation. Some of our bankers had shown themselves either incompetent or dishonest in their handling of the people's funds. They had used the money entrusted to them in speculations and unwise loans. This was of course not true in the vast majority of our banks but it was true in enough of them to shock the people for a time into a sense of insecurity and to put them into a frame of mind where they did not differentiate, but seemed to assume that the acts of a comparative few had tainted them all. It was the Government's job to straighten out this situation and do it as quickly as possible -- and the job is being performed .

I do not promise you that every bank will be reopened or that individual losses will not be suffered, but there will be no losses that possibly could be avoided; and there would have been more and greater losses had we continued to drift. I can even promise you salvation for some at least of the sorely pressed banks. We shall be engaged not merely in reopening sound banks but in the creation of sound banks through reorganization. It has been wonderful to me to catch the note of confidence from all over the country. I can never be sufficiently grateful to the people for the loyal support they have given me in their acceptance of the judgment that has dictated our course, even though all of our processes may not have seemed clear to them.

After all there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work.

It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.


Why Marx's conception of class still matters

It is certainly true that the class structure of capitalist societies has changed a great deal since the 1840s (when Marx was writing his early works, such as the bit quoted by Arvilla which comes from his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). There is also no doubt, any meaningful Marxist analysis of capitalism as it exists today, would look a great deal different than the critique offered by Marx in the 19th century.

Nonetheless, Marx’s definition of class is no less relevant today than it was in the 19th century.

As Gwen notes in the bit Arvilla quotes, there is a marked difference in the Marxist understanding of class, and the way the term is used in North America. Let me try to critically distinguish them. In most American discourse, class is roughly equivalent (if not reducible to) the amount of money one earns in terms of income. Class, on this view, also has to do with the attendant consumer preferences, cultural convictions and styles that often accompany the amount of money one has. In its most crude formulation, this conception of class boils down to the ‘gap between rich and poor’.

In contrast, the notion of class that Marx developed was not at all reducible to earnings. Marx defined class in terms of one’s relationship to the means of production. While class in this sense is correlated with wealth/income, it is not reducible to it. One simple contrast between the crude American conception and the Marxist conception, is that for Marx, class is to be understood in terms of power (rather than income). It has to do with the distribution power in economic relationships relative to the way that production is organized. (Note, this is also how many radical thinkers [I'm thinking Judith Butler, for instance] understand gender: not in terms of essential characteristics, but as a power relationship).

Capitalism, is a form of social production dominated by wage labor, that is, the use of labor-power sold by those controlling no significant means of production.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx gives the most rough and ready summary of his definition of the two most opposed classes in capitalist society, proletariat and bourgeoisie. There, the proletariat is defined as “those who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.” The bourgeoisie, in turn, is defined as “a group whose income derives from the sale of commodities produced with the purchase of labor-power”. Labor-power is the capacity to do work. Notice, in the labor market, this is the only thing the wage-laborer has to offer in seeking to earn a living.

Another way to understand this is the following. Capitalists are the purchasers of labor-power, the working-class (the proletariat) are those who sell themselves to capitalists by the hour in order to earn a wage from their capacity to labor, to produce for the capitalist.

These two classes are of particular interest to Marx, because they are relatively new; features of industrial capitalism and not previous societies. Before industrial capitalism came into its own, there were still middle-classes (i.e. professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, etc.) and petty-bourgeois (those who own means of production, but on a small scale, where they usually end up doing a lot of the work themselves… think newspaper-stand or convenience-shop owners). Most professionals have “bourgeois” lifestyles, but this is only in rough terms of their levels of consumption. The interests of professionals (the middle class), despite their consuming habits, are often threatened by capitalist/corporate control of government institutions. Were they to stand up and demand something contrary to the desires of capitalists, they would be little better off (though, obviously still in a better position) than workers in trying to exact concessions and compromises from the ruling class. The middle classes and petty-bourgeoisie are better off than workers, but they aren’t therefore in a position of power in terms of their relation to the means of production. They aren’t in charge of the big cogs on which the economy runs, they aren’t able to move enormous amounts of capital at the drop of a hat, the yaren’t entrusted (as capitalists are) with providing employment or ruling the major productive and financial institutions in society. They are in a better position than workers because of their affluence, but let us not forget their position relative to way that production is organized in capitalism.

Marx is interested primarily in the proletariat and the bourgeoisie because they are new developments, and what’s more, because their interests are fundamentally conflicting.

Why is this? Because the capitalist seeks only to do one thing: maximize their profits. Labor is only one of the costs of running their business, and if profits are to be made as high as possible, it is best purchased at the lowest cost. This is very intuitive: under market conditions, buyers (capitalists) want to buy cheap, and sellers (workers) always want to sell high.

But contrary to the assumptions of neo-classical economics, this market transaction is by no means a free and fair one. Many of these points are astutely noted by Marx in the 1844 manuscripts. For instance, the sellers (the working-class) are burdened with special inequalities:

-they are forced to sell their labor power to survive

-they cannot manipulate technology (as capitalists can) to reduce their need for steady employment

-capitalists are under no urgent pressure to employ workers, they don’t fear going hungry or losing a home.

In contrast, capitalists not only are free from these burdens, they have all sorts of benefits at their disposal:

-they have purchasing power that far exceeds what is required for individual consumption

-they have greater access to credit than workers

-they have reserves against future losses (in contrast, when tough times hit, the working class does not have such reserves, because they are forced to spend most of their meager earnings in order to subsist)

-they have funds at their disposal for research and development

-they have resources for underselling and advertising

Thus, the interests of these two classes are fundamentally opposed, but they are not therefore equally empowered (as we’ve seen). Capitalists, under pressure of competition, are compelled to reduce the cost of labor as much as possible, thus the tendency of capitalists production is to sink the average standard of wages. (notice, that since the rise of neoliberalism in the early 70s, real wages have not only stagnated, they’ve actually dropped from their 1968 high water mark). The trouble is, laborers are human beings, not reducible or exchangeable with other raw-materials and commodities which capitalists purchase in order to create products to sell for a profit. But capitalism is not a system fundamentally concerned with human development as such, it is a system fundamentally driven by callous accumulation of profits.

Marx, in his analysis of the capitalism of his day, by no means thought that there were only two classes in society; rather, he emphasized the two classes that he felt made capitalism distinctive, that were most fundamentally opposed. Against the views of the classical economists and early liberal political theorists, Marx saw that although the replacement of feudal class arrangements with liberal capitalism was an improvement, capitalist society was nonetheless still a class society (although of an altogether different sort) which made it fundamentally opposed to a free society.

Capitalism has changed, however, and therefore so must our conception of class. I can’t finish this post right now, but sometime soon I will try to finish this thought by looking at how much of the Marxist conception of class is still worthwhile, by looking at a few examples (such as the current crisis, for instance).


Not exactly dead white guy stuff, but another artsy interruption nonetheless

As a product of the American West, and a confessed biophiliac, I have something of a soft spot for naturalist artists from the West and Southwest. While many people are probably passingly familiar with the brilliant Edward Abbey, and I too love his writings, no naturalist seems to speak to me and my experiences in the West more than Terry Tempest Williams, a Utahn, a naturalist, and a gifted poet and essayist.

Williams was on my local NPR affiliate's morning talk show Radio West this week, talking about her new book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Even listening to her on the radio was lovely enough to almost lull me to a pleasant sleep at my cubicle (and I don't just mean when she was giving readings directly from the book), so I went to the nearest bookstore afterward to see if I couldn't pick up a copy for myself. Well, lame ass Borders that it is, did not yet have the book. So instead, I walked away with Williams' most highly acclaimed book to date, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

Here's the back-of-the-book blurb:

In the spring of 1983, Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. Tht same spring, Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and with it the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had to come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mother, and Terry herself, had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying and accommodation, Refuge transforms tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace, resulting in a work that seems certain to become a classic in the literatures of women, nature, and grieving.
Yeah, I know, how can we possibly resist? The product between the covers doesn't disappoint. It's just beautiful and painful and then beautiful again.
The light begins to deepen. It is sunset. I open the shutters, so Mother can see the clouds. I return to her bedside. She takes my hand and whispers, "Will you give me a blessing?"

In Mormon religion, formal blessings of healing are given by men through the Priesthood of God. Women have no outward authority. But within the secrecy of sisterhood we have always bestowed benisons upon our families.

Mother sits up. I lay my hands upon her head and in the privacy of women, we pray.


It's the Fourth of July, and the family decides to celebrate in the Tetons. Mother says she is sick of lying in bed and needs a change of scenery. I wonder how far she can push herself.

Brooke and I, with Mother and Dad, hike to Taggart Lake.

The Taggart-Bradley fire of last fall has opened up the country. It is a garden of wildflowers with fireweed, spirea, harebell, lupine, and heart-leaf arnica shimmering against the charred bark of lodgepole pines.

I have never been aware of the creek's path until now. It feels good to be someplace lush. The salt desert is too stark for me now because my interior is bare.

We reach the lake, only a mile and a half away, but each step for Mother is a triumph of will. She rests on her favorite boulder, a piece of granite I have known since childhood. She leans into the shade of the woods and closes her eyes.

"This feels so good," she says as the wind circles her. "It feels so good to be cool. I feel like I'm burning up inside."

A western tanager, red, yellow, and black, flies to the low branch of a lodgepole.

"Look, Mother! A tanager!" I hand her my binoculars.

"You look for me..." she says.


I am retreating into the Wasatch Mountains. I cannot travel west to Great Salt Lake. It is too exposed, too wicked, and too hot with one-hundred degree temperatures. The granite of Big Cottonwood Canyon invigorates me as I hike from Brighton to Lake Catherine. Glacier lilies blanket the meadows. Usually they are gone by now. I pick one and press it between the pages of my journal.

"For mother--" I say to myself, rationalizing my act, when I know it is for me.

Hiking the narrow trial up the steep slope massages my lungs. I breathe deeply. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

I climb up the last pass and break down into the cirque. My lungs and legs feel strong. I hve the lake to myself. My ears begin to throb with the altitude. My eyes water in the wind. I take off my rucksack, pull out my windbreaker and lunch. I can see the rock I am going to sit on. I hike down a little further and settle in.

Peeling an orange is a good thing to do in the mountains. It slows down. You bite into the tart rind, pull it back with your teeth and then let your fingers undress the citrus. Nothing else exists beyond or before this task. The naked fruit is in your hands waiitng for sections to be separated. Halves. Quarters. And then the delicacy of breaking the orange down to its smallest smile.

I lay out these ten sections on the flat granite rock I am sitting on. The sun threatens to dry them. But I wait for the birds. Within minutes, Clark's nutcrackers and gray jays join me. I suck on oranges as the mountains begin to work on me.

This is why I always return. This is why I can always go home.
It's all I can do to make myself stop excerpting at some point, and not just go straight on to transcribe the entire thing for you to read. If you want more TTW, check out one of my favorite of her essays, which you can read for free here at her site.

There are a few things I can name about what I love about (and so maybe this is a justifiable "interruption" in a way) this kind of writing: 1-The high standard of justice naturalists hold themselves and our world to. 2-The recognition that community and relationships--not just with other humans but with the world and with non-human creatures--are important to achieving that justice and peace. And 3-The escapism from capitalist relationships, the ability of naturalists to connect people and animals and nature to one another independent of capital and profit. Sure, they eventually have to climb down from the mountain and go back to the exploitation, but I still think this sort of escapism can play an important role even by envisioning for us another way of living and coexisting.


Defining "working class"--why the Marxist definition seems so strange now

Gwen at High on Rebellion has a thoughtful post about her understanding of working-class as an economic state, as opposed to the traditional Marxist understanding, which suggests one is working-class defined by the worker's lack of ownership over the means of production. This Marxist notion seems a little irrelevant to Gwen:

One thing I find really interesting and sometimes really upsetting about Britain in general and the British Left in particular is that everyone but me and Tony Benn identifies as working-class. At the Marxism conference a few years ago, I attended a session discussing “non-productive labour”, which I interpreted to mean people working in call-centres and similar areas. Imagine my surprise then when university lecturers and senior civil servants start discussing the difficulties they face as non-productive labourers and members of the working-class generally.


I don’t think the traditional Marxist definition is very useful today, because it erases the genuine economic privilege held by a lot of people who don’t own the means of production. There is no comparison between lecturers and call-centre workers. Solidarity is not going to spontaneously appear between those two groups. Furthermore, it’s not clear that those two groups HAVE much in common. Is a middle-class lecturer going to vote to increase her taxes to provide cheap housing for a call centre worker? We know for a fact that a lot of them don’t.

The reason for the dissonance between my idea of class and the Marxist definition is a great example of this. Most radical leftist North Americans would use my notion of class. The cradle of parliamentary socialism in Canada is the Prairies - farmers who could only make ends meet if they all worked together started a political party. Socialised medicine in Canada basically started as towns pooling their resources to pay for a doctor who would then see anybody as required - because no one in town could afford a doctor by themselves. But by the Marxist definition of class, these farmers - who were up to their ears in debt, and there was a depression and a drought happening simultaneously - were petit bourgeoise, ‘cause they “owned” the farms and farming equipment (usually heavily mortgaged) and as such did not sell their labour but owned the means of production. The fact that they were dirt poor doesn’t seem to matter.

Being a relative newbie to Marxist theory myself, I'll admit I have trouble making sense of the resonance of talking about working class (as defined by means of production). It's not that we can't still divide people up based on their relationship to the means of production, it just seems a little pointless. Sure, in the industrial revolution there really were two major classes that mattered: those that owned the means of production, and those who lived tedious lives by producing capital for those who owned the means of production. The tragedy of being the proletariat isn't just about the living conditions the proletariat faces by not owning the means of production, but it's about a metaphysical problem created by this relationship to capital. The argument, as far as I can recall (and I may be doing it a great injustice here) is that the tragedy of not owning the means of production isn't just poverty in the sense we know it, but because it leads to objectification and estrangement: (From Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts)
Labour not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

This fact simply means that the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labour. The realization of labour is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy, this realization of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the realization of labour appear as loss of reality that the worker loses his reality to the point of dying of starvation. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects he needs most not only for life but also for work. Work itself becomes an object which he can only obtain through an enormous effort and with spasmodic interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital.

All these consequences are contained in this characteristic, that the worker is related to the product of labour as to an alien object. For it is clear that, according to this premise, the more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, and the less they belong to him. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains within himself. The worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. The greater his activity, therefore, the fewer objects the worker possesses. What the product of his labour is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The externalisation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

Let us now take a closer look at objectification, at the production of the worker, and the estrangement, the loss of the object, of his product, that this entails.

The workers can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material in which his labour realizes itself, in which it is active and from which, and by means of which, it produces.

But just as nature provides labour with the means of life, in the sense of labour cannot live without objects on which to exercise itself, so also it provides the means of life in the narrower sense, namely the means of physical subsistence of the worker.

The more the worker appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, through his labour, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: firstly, the sensuous external world becomes less and less an object belonging to his labour, a means of life of his labour; and, secondly, it becomes less and less a means of life in the immediate sense, a means for the physical subsistence of the worker.

Now personally, I'm never particularly compelled by arguments like this. And I'll admit, I can't really defend why it is that I wouldn't be moved by this argument, when I certainly can't reject the logical rigor or make a good argument for why this wouldn't happen to a laborer and wouldn't be a problem. It could and it might be. This was a good argument at the time, because the poor people were the same as those who had no access to the means of production and the wealthy or bourgeois people were the people who owned the means of production. So not only were those without the means of production suffering from material deprivation, but they were also suffering alienation and estrangement as a result, which made these spiritual problems more to compound the horror of the material problems for laborers. It was an industrial economy so the lines were much more clearly drawn.

But nowadays, as Gwen points out herself, dairy farmer friends of mine or my friends who own a glass cutting firm, yet barely scrape by, control the means of production, whereas, the accountants in my office make a quarter million dollars a year, have a lot of leisure time, take their families on vacation, are by Marx's definition, proletariats, because they don't own the fiber optic network we operate on.

This isn't to say the problems of estrangement and alienation aren't still a problem for even these accountants, because they have an estranged relationship to the product (in this case, as us the case in our late-capitalist economy, a service) their labor provides. And this isn't to say that having these relationships to the means of production, even if the laborer makes a comfortable income, isn't worth a revolution simply because of the estrangement and alienation. But when it comes to a scenario like Gwen mentions where she's listening to academics talk about what it's like to be "working class," I too have to wonder if this reliance on Marx's definition isn't an attempt to throw a pity party for privileged people and isn't more than a little offensive in light of the very real and very starkly different material conditions academics have as opposed to, say, my roommate who has worked as a fruit sorter for 5 years and just got a raise to $12/hour...

Something about it strikes me as sort of...well...who cares all that much about estrangement and objectification when there is such stark material inequality. In the case, as it is now, when Marx's classes don't line up with level of access to resources, I have to question the use of Marx's definition any more.

But, I have to wonder if Gwen and I haven't misunderstood something about the use of these terms and Marx's definition and how it would apply today...

I'm hoping T or some other friendly Marxist passerby can shed some light on this for us.


We interrupt this radical blog to bring you some dead white guy stuff.

Last night the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter performed in Chicago with the Camerata Salzburg. Mutter hit the international music scene when she was very young, and has been a sought-after soloist for thirty years. She is one of the most respected virtuoso violinists alive today. She's performed in every major venue, and collaborated with the greatest living conductors and composers. As with every classical music superstar, there are those who adore her playing, and those who think it's overrated, but it's without question that she is one of the greats.

Mutter is no musical conservative, either. In the second half of her career, with her wunderkind past behind her, she has become a passionate advocate of contemporary music. Many great living composers have dedicated works to her, and Mutter has played these pieces for audiences around the world, challenging their ideas of what the violin can and should do. She speaks about the composer Lutoslawski, whose eerie, ear-stretching soundscapes are far outside the canon, with warmth and enthusiasm.

As a young violinist growing up, I listened over and over to her recordings of the Brahms sonatas and the Mozart concertos. For me, her sound is shimmering, electric, alive, and full of ever-changing color and texture. She's a serious, intellectual, brilliant performer whose interviews reflect a warm spirit and a deep knowledge of her craft.

This morning, in an excited post-concert Google search, I was reminded that because Mutter is also a beautiful woman, there are all kinds of swipes directed at her. She is called "classical music's attempt to attract the 18-34 male demographic." One columnist recalls that her "gravity-defying strapless gown ... caused outbreaks of fast breathing in elderly subscribers." She has been said to mix "virtuosity and va-va voom."

Other beautiful women performing in classical music are sometimes subjected to claims that it's their appearance that has allowed them to succeed. But the intense leadership and energy that Mutter radiated last night -- which her collaborators and audience alike responded to so keenly -- wasn't the sheen of her Dior gown, but the powerful energy of a great artist.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Those East African work permits are a bitch.

Believe me, I know: my nonprofit employer tried for nearly a year to secure the right kind of documentation for me while I was living and working in Tanzania. We were foiled repeatedly by incompetent lawyers, incomprehensible (nonexistent) application procedures, and yes, corruption. I once watched my employer hand over 50 USD in the hopes that it would help our applications succeed. Tanzania's reasons for making this so difficult will always be somewhat obscure, but they're certainly making sure that any foreigners earning money in TZ's strained economy have jumped through a shitload of hoops to do so.

In Kenya, Tanzania's slightly better-off northern neighbor, the situation is pretty similar. But it looks like the frustrating government bureaucracy has finally ensnared a deserving victim: Jerome Corsi, American author of The Obama Nation!

Obama Nation is Corsi's second election-year-slander book. The first was Unfit for Command, which managed to influence 2004 election coverage by planting seeds of doubt about Kerry's military record.

Now, I've know several wazungu (white people) who've gone to East Africa on a tourist visa and overstayed their 90-day permit, or did some volunteer work undetected, or sold bootleg Tom Cruise DVD's by the thousand. But a prominent conservative shit-writer, showing up at a big hotel in downtown Nairobi to give a press conference? That, my friends, is a new one.

Had he crossed all his t's, Corsi may very well have found a receptive audience for his "ideas" in East Africa. I spoke with many Kenyans and Tanzanians who have reservations about Obama's candidacy. The prevailing wisdom in Tanzania is that Kenya is full of violent tribalist criminals. (My exaggeration is only slight.) And among Kenyans, of course, there's the fact that Obama's father was a Luo, and the dominant tribe in Kenyan politics since independence have been the Kikuyu.

I can only imagine what kinds of experiences Corsi would have had if he'd managed to secure a work permit and could travel the country unfettered by pesky immigration rules. East Africans have a political style all their own, and they're certainly not afraid to take the gloves off. But I'm not sure they're ready for Swift Boat stuff.

So thanks, Kenya Immigration! Hongereni sana (many congratulations).


More Chicago gun violence

This is an extremely sad story about gun violence occurring not outside a CTA vehicle, but inside. Another young person has been killed by gunfire not intended for her.

I can't imagine the explosive anger and stupidity it would take to draw a weapon on a public transit vehicle. Nor can I imagine the helplessness of knowing that this is your community, your bus route, your neighborhood. Where is city leadership, telling us they're going to tackle the problem?


Sunday, October 5, 2008

More on "Against Diversity"

Prompted by T's post on "Against Diversity" below, I decided I'd check out the article in question myself, hoping it couldn't possibly be as bad as T framed it. After all, it's the New Left Review! Well, it's maybe even worse than I thought. And while T's monstrous post was a delightful tear-down of this non sense, there were a couple more gems from the article I thought everyone should be aware of. And well, to be honest, we could probably each write about 300 pages about what is wrong with this article. So, I decided that in homage to my beloved English professors, I'd perform a close reading of just the first paragraph (trust me, it alone has much to offer) to get at just what's wrong with BM's (thanks for the nickname T, ha!) world view.

The importance of race and gender in the current us presidential campaign has, of course, been a function of the salience of racism and sexism—which is to say, discrimination—in American society; a fact that was emphasized by post-primary stories like the New York Times’s ‘Age Becomes the New Race and Gender’.1 It is no doubt difficult to see ageism as a precise equivalent—after all, part of what is wrong with racism and sexism is that they supposedly perpetuate false stereotypes whereas, as someone who has just turned 60, I can attest that a certain number of the stereotypes that constitute ageism are true. But the very implausibility of the idea that the main problem with being old is the prejudice against your infirmities, rather than the infirmities themselves, suggests just how powerful discrimination has become as the model of injustice in America; and so how central overcoming it is to our model of justice.

Okay, first sentence itself pisses me off, because it's so flip about racism and sexism as such: "the current function of racism and sexism--which is to say discrimination." Uh, no. Back up, guy. One says racism and sexism to address particular systems of oppression and hegemony, because they're specific and different systems of oppression which warrant, not only their own names, but a lot of thought and a lot of unpacking. If one intends to say, simply, "discrimination" one ought to say discrimination, which means something entirely different and does not have the same history of decades and decades of serious thought from activists fighting the very specific systems of oppression which are racism and sexism.

Okay, next sentence, where suddenly he's grouped not only discrimination and sexism and racism and false stereotypes and ageism into one big umbrella of what he'll come to note as the plague of diversity. Notice how he has to bring another form of discrimination in just to show you how exhausting this whole diversity and not believing false stereotypes can be on a person? Kind of him, of course, to note that it's hard to say ageism is a "precise equivalent" to racism and sexism. Notice again, that he apparently thinks racism and sexism themselves are precisely equivalent. They aren't. If other systems of oppression like ageism, or homophobia, or classism, or hey, neoliberalism, were precisely equivalent to racism and/or sexism, we'd simply call them racism and sexism. But they aren't. So we don't. If they could all just be reduced to "discrimination," we'd call them discrimination. But they can't, so we don't. Good. Glad we've established that.

Now, let's skip his charming little personal insight about how now as an old white dude he too has started to see how unfair some stereotypes are, and let's move onto his last point in this opening paragraph.

But the very implausibility of the idea that the main problem with being old is the prejudice against your infirmities, rather than the infirmities themselves, suggests just how powerful discrimination has become as the model of injustice in America; and so how central overcoming it is to our model of justice.
First of all, uh, this sentence is really difficult to follow. It's honestly so poorly constructed I had to read it a few times to get an idea of his point. But here's what I've got: He's saying that because people claim there's ageism in America while he has seen stereotypes about old people to be true, this is evidence that discrimination is now central to our models of injustice in the world, which he will then spend the remainder of the article supposedly showing to be a bad model of injustice. False premises much? Can someone diagram the logic here? Because I can't. That's not what sexism and racism are and that's not what feminism and anti-racism are about.

And just because talk of discrimination has been central to the dialogue on the presidential campaigns doesn't mean it's central to anything else in the world. No seriously, what the fuck? To whom is it implausible that the main problem with being old is prejudice? Whose model of injustice? To me? To The New York Times'? Implausible to the entire American population? Honestly, just who the fuck is he talking about. I don't think there's any model of justice dominant in U.S. minds. But I can certainly tell him that as a feminist and someone who cares about racial justice, fighting discrimination is no more central to my model of justice than is fighting for equality in all forms, absolutely including economic equality and a fight against neoliberalism. Oh, see how fighting inequality and neoliberalism and sexism and racism and even discrimination as such are not mutually exclusive?

But he really doesn't see that. Look at this sentence later on, "Why? Because it is exploitation, not discrimination, that is the primary producer of inequality today. It is neoliberalism, not racism or sexism (or homophobia or ageism) that creates the inequalities that matter most in American society;"

Oh, right, because sexism and racism have NOTHING to do with exploitation, huh? And neoliberalism has nothing to do with racism or sexism or homophobia or ageism. He's not just wrong, he's ignorant. It's as if The Feminine Mystique were the only piece of feminist literature he ever read, and he doesn't know anything about the connections feminists have been making between exploitation and sexism for the past few decades now. Don't mind the race and gender disparities folks, there's nothing but exploitation at work here!

Note to Ben Walter Michaels:

UGHHHHHHHHHH. These arguments have been made before. Smarter people have pointed out why this thinking is so flawed and that it is based on many misinterpretations feminism and anti-racism. The literature is out there for you to read it, so you can catch yourself up on what's already been said about what sexism is, what racism is, and what people are doing to fight it. And then, STOP WRITING THESE ARTICLES THAT CRITICIZE SOCIAL JUSTICE ACTIVISTS FOR ERRORS THEY AREN'T COMMITTING AND SUGGESTING OUR MODELS NEED TO CHANGE WHEN YOU'VE MADE NO EFFORT TO EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT THE MODELS WE USE!



Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cool Things: Harlem String Quartet

I'm lucky enough to be a teacher at a program that offers high-quality string instrument and general music education to a 100% low-income, 90+% African-American community.

Today the kids got to watch a presentation and performance by the Harlem String Quartet, an ensemble that's managed in part by the Sphinx Organization. The mission of Sphinx is to advance racial diversity in classical music audience and performance, and it focuses on young Black and Latino musicians. (According to Sphinx, these groups account for only 4% of membership in American orchestras.)
The quartet gave a lively presentation to the children. They're great players in their own right, who have attended some of the most prestigious schools of music in the world. They're a cool group with a cool mission. Thanks for the treat, Harlem!


"Against Diversity"

I am a regular reader of the journal New Left Review. Its one of the few places where you find unflinching radical politics combined with sharp academic rigor. The short polemic in the most recent volume entitled "Against Diversity" by Walter Benn Michaels, however is neither radical nor rigorous. Frankly, it's an embarrassment to the entire journal.

The short, rambling article is summarized in the "programme notes" at the beginning of the journal as follows: "Tears and triumphs for race and gender have dominated the discussion of the 2008 US election. Benn Michaels argues that the Obama and Clinton campaigns are victories for neoliberalism, not over it -serving only to camouflage inequality"

The baffling mention of "tears and triumphs for race and gender" notwithstanding (that will be addressed shortly), the idea that Obama and Clinton represent victories for neoliberalism despite their promiscuous use of the language of "change" is indeed an interesting topic. In my view at least, there are necessary critiques to be made of the Obama/Clinton campaigns (and the Democratic Party writ large) on the basis of their entanglement with Capital and their commitment to neoliberalism and capitalism. Undertaking such an anti-capitalist critique, however, is not Benn Michaels's aim.

Benn Michales's target in this polemic isn't neoliberalism, capitalism or the absence of American Left in the electoral arena, it's a blunt attack on anyone concerned to fight racial or sexual oppression. This sort of complaint is hardly new. Class exploitation and staggering social inequality persist, the old argument goes, precisely because too much emphasis is placed on ‘identity politics’ (an amorphous and often unclear umbrella that threatens to be so broad as to include any critical politics aimed at fighting forms of oppression other than class).

Of course, Benn-Michaels (BM) never puts the thought in quite this clear and direct a formulation. His article is, after all, a polemic: littered with exaggerated rhetoric, false dichotomies, straw-person accounts of his enemies and facts assembled in order to imply conclusions that simply don’t follow.

The first example of the above is the opening sentence of the piece, which equates “the salience of racism and sexism” with “discrimination” and “prejudice”. The move being made here is to define racism and sexism in terms of “prejudice”, “discrimination” and “the perpetuation of false stereotypes”. But it's ridiculous and downright dense to assume that the contemporary social/economic/political dimensions of racism and sexism, as they exist today, are merely a matter of personal prejudices and “false stereotypes.” Thus, BM's polemic begins with a false conception of what the phenomena of racial and sexual oppression actually are. This is classic straw-man argumentation: assume a weak and inaccurate version of what you intend to argue against, and then contrast it with (what you think) is the strongest version of your own view.

Any serious examination of, for instance, racism would take seriously many things that BM seems intent on hiding from view, e.g. critical engagement with history, serious analysis of social movements and struggles against racial oppression, the ideational/ideological features of racism, the institutional dimensions of racism, etc. If BM is right, all of these matters are simply not relevant to Left politics. That is a frightening and false position.

So, having assumed a rather anemic and unrealistic conception of what racism is, BM moves to show us how faulty such "anti-racist" politics are. In contrast to the narrow focus on “discrimination” and “prejudice”, BM points our attention to toward the "noble" concerns that have been lost amidst the alleged preoccupation with gender and race: "equality, justice and openness". In his own words:

“The US today is certainly a less discriminatory society than it was before the Civil Rights movement and the rise of feminism; but is not a more just, open and equal society. On the contrary: it is no more just, it is less open and it is much less equal.”

He continues:

“In 1947 –seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before The Feminine Mystique –the top fifth of American wage-earners made 43 percent of the money earned in the US. Today that same quintile gets 50.5 percent. The bottom fifth got 5 per cent of total income; today it gets 3.4 percent. After half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the US today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow. Furthermore, virtually all of the growth in equality has taken place since the Civil Rights Act of 1965- which means not only that the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor.”(My emphasis)

Whoa, whoa. Hold it right there for a second. Let’s try to make sense out of this.

It’s certainly true that income inequality has increased since 1947. It’s also true that virtually all of the most dramatic growth in income inequality occurred after 1965; it began in the early 1970s. But what has any of this to do with Brown v. Board of Education, Betty Freidan, anti-racism and women's lib? Very little. The relatively low measure (by US Standards) of income inequality in 1947 was a reflection of gains won from past struggles in the 30s, post-War Keynesian (left-liberal) policies and the broad economic circumstances of that era. The increase of inequality to which BM draws our attention, actually began with the global economic landslide of the early 1970s and the concurrent revival of the Right and laissez-faire economic policy (i.e. neoliberalism). This had nothing to do with 1960s social movements or the Civil Rights Act (which was passed and signed into law in 1964, not 1965). The economic downturn that began in 1973 was a global phenomenon, as was the concomitant rise of neoliberalism as a global political/economic movement. To blame that on, say, the Voting Rights Act is downright crazy.

It's also completely ignorant and unfair to the actual history of the struggle against Jim Crow as well as the early 1970s swell of feminist activism; both of these struggles were hardly indifferent to or supportive of capitalism. On the contrary, both struggled mercilessly against the imperatives of Capital. Some obvious examples, on the anti-racist front, include MLK's 'poor peoples' campaign and his explicit turn against capitalism, Malcolm X's late arguments against capitalist exploitation, the Black Panther Party's staunch anti-capitalist platform, etc. It's almost as though BM wants to wipe out the memory of these movements. Surely he is old enough that he should be able recall what they actually stood for.

Now, BM takes a couple of swings at neoliberalism by referring to the Gini Coefficient and arguing that the American Dream is ‘no longer a reality’ (can anyone say “fucking duh?"). It seems that some have been so glib as to take this to be a Left-wing argument. But any true Leftist here would ask: when was the so-called "American Dream" ever a reality in capitalism? Could BM perhaps give us a date, a "golden era", a point in time to which we should attempt to return? And what was the "American Dream" anyway? Was it the suburban, white, reactionary patriarchal family structure characteristic of much of post-war America? Was it the so-called postwar "affluent society" marked by its unrelenting endorsement of over-consumption, single-family homes, and large gas-guzzling automobiles? Is this what is no longer a reality for some sectors of the population?

Now there are interesting, critical, nuanced things to say about the politics of postwar America and the rise of neoliberalism. For example, we could talk about how struggles of the 1960s were derailed in the early 1970s. We could talk about how militant anti-racist organizations were dismantled, infiltrated and slaughtered by the Federal Government. We could talk about 1973, the global economic crisis that followed, and the re-consolidation of class-power by elites that followed. We could talk about how capital crushed organized labor across the board. We could examine how all of these factors lead to a reconfiguration of policies and institutions that resulted in steadily rising inequality for the next 40 years. None of this, I repeat, none of this, however, is part of BM's analysis. His answer is that anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles are to blame for our problems.

So, we've seen that BM is big on pointing to the one statistic he seems to understand: income inequality. But what, precisely, does a rise in income inequality have to do with concerns for racial and sexual justice?

Not much. But again, we have to remember that BM isn’t interested in the actual features of neoliberalism or the economic/political history of the 20th century; his target isn’t capitalism at all, and the end of the day his target is it’s feminism and anti-racism, as such.

Some of his defenders seem baffled when I make this claim, but this speaks more to their imprecise reading of the article than to BM's actual position as stated in his writings.

What else are we supposed to make of his absurd claim that “a half century of anti-racism and feminism” (wondering what the hell he means by "anti racism" and "feminism"?... yeah, so are the rest of us) has not just been compatible with radical expansions of inequality, but has “helped to enable” it? This is preposterous bullshit.

He tells us that income inequality increased "in spite of" the CRM and the Women’s Movement. So what? Income inequality increased in spite a lot of things. Income inequality increased and the Right surged back into prominence despite the efforts of the Left everywhere (in spite of the struggles of labor, in spite of the anti-capitalism of New Left movements, in spite of every radical effort and struggle of the 1960s). It hardly follows that these struggles were therefore compatible with what followed (i.e. with Ronald Reagan, deregulation, privatization, the destruction of the welfare state, union-busting, etc.).

So what is BM’s justification for his claim that feminism and anti-racist movements help “enable the increasing gap between rich and poor”? Well, it is due to the fact that sex and race are merely “sorting devices” (yeah, he actually said it). He tells us that the real inequalities “that matter most in American society”, aren’t due to racism, sexism or homophobia: they’re due solely to neoliberalism. Read this as: the only inequality that’s relevant is income inequality, that is, sexism and racism just don’t matter.

This is far worse than the imprecise, vulgar-Marxist understanding of sexism and racism as wholly reducible to a particular stage of Capital. BM's essay is a full-fledged denial that sexual and racial oppression matter for the Left at all. What he’s suggesting is that racial and sexual oppression today are merely chimeras; myths that serve to take our eye off the real culprit: neoliberalism. That isn’t just false, it’s dangerous.

But this still doesn’t explain how BM can think that “the Clinton and Obama campaigns… are victories for a commitment to justice that has no argument with inequality as long as its beneficiaries are as racially and sexually diverse as its victims”. Why on earth should we conflate feminism with the Clinton campaign, or assume that Obama is the defender of radical racial equality par excellence? Clinton, leaving aside her own anti-feminist commitments, faced all sorts of sexism from the opponents and the media during her bid for the presidency. Moreover, part of Obama’s message and appeal has to do with his avoidance of race as an issue, his denial of the gravity of racism and his Cosby-like claims that blacks take ‘personal responsibility’. If anything, Obama has put far too little emphasis on race throughout his campaign. Taking racial justice seriously means seeing Obama's candidacy as simulatenously a truly important milestone (which would bave been the case even were he a conservative Republican), as well as an opportunity for 'colorblind racists' to affirm their false belief that our society has finally overcome racism and thus silence any further discussion of racism.

Obama and Clinton no more represent a victory for neoliberalism than do Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry. But again, BM isn’t making a point about the poverty of American politics or its absence of a Left voice. He’s writing a polemic against anyone who takes racial and sexual oppression seriously.

It’s true that neoliberalism doesn’t have any necessary connection with an explicit and assertive racism. But it’s also true that neoliberalism doesn’t have any necessary connection with racial justice or the liberation of women either: ideologically, it is totally indifferent so long as the goal of capital accumulation is accomplished. But this is a sense in which neoliberalism is a horrifying ideology: it understands us only as reified exchangeable units; commodified subjects which are equivalent to a quantifiable set of consumer preferences.

So, if BM thinks that race and gender are merely ‘sorting devices’, this can only be because he has succumbed to the reifying logic of neoliberalism of which he claims to be an opponent.

This article is atrocious. It takes a truth about inequality caused by neoliberalism, and tries to weave it into a false narrative about the "evils" of feminism and anti-racism. It paves over deep, systemic injustices by reducing struggles against racial/sexual subordination to a narrow, soft-core obsession with ‘prejudice’ and ‘discrimination’. It doesn’t even provide a coherent argument against neoliberalism, but rather uses some of the ravages of capitalism to justify a racist and sexist denial of the political relevance of race and sex. Rather than seeing the complicated, intricate ways in which different forms of oppression are woven together, BM offers us a crude scapegoating tale about the sources of injustice. In this sense, BM is basically a less aggressive Pat Buchanan.

The dirty secret of the piece is that it attempts to cover up an unjustified disdain for feminism and anti-racism by pointing to a few statistics about income inequality. If you want a trenchant critique of neoliberalism, read someone else because BM's lukewarm assessment isn't blowing this anti-capitalist's skirt up in the least. He would do well to drop the flimsy critique of inequality (which reeks of reformist-liberal baggage), and simply join the ranks of David Horowitz in espousing his hatred for feminism and anti-racist politics. Or why not, on this view, join up with colorblind racists like Ron Paul who argue that Rightist libertarians cannot in principle be racists because when they look at society they "don't see" race, only individuals (i.e. atomized, egoistic, utility-maximizing robots shorn of any relation to history, politics or culture).

In fairness to BM, I do think there is a point to be made about the poverty of a feminism that embraces neoliberalism, or an anti-racism that did not also make a critique of capitalism part of its project. However, BM doesn't make any nuanced points here, perhaps because he's not sympathetic to these projects. After all, why think seriously about feminist theory if sexual oppression is merely a myth that serves to blind us to income inequality? I've got a serious problem with even placing BM's argument on the Left at all. His argument is so easily appropriated by the Pat Buchanan Right it's not even funny.

Perhaps I've got the wrong idea, but I thought being a socialist meant more than just thinking that income inequality was wrong. I thought being a socialist meant thinking that oppression was something worth fighting against, whatever its form. I thought Marxism was about critiquing production, not some moralistic objection to the more egregiously unequal distributions that capitalism yields.

Reading this in NLR, of all places, was a serious disappointment. This isn’t what you expect to find in a journal where one reads the likes of Nancy Fraser and Judith Butler. This isn’t even a serious, coherent or innovative piece: its polemical trash.