Friday, February 27, 2009

Newsweek on Olivier Besancenot and France's New Anti-Capitlalist Party

Surprising to see this in Newsweek. I suppose its a sign of changing times that this sort of thing gets coverage in our domestic media.

"Anywhere but France, the cartoonish spokesman of the Communist Revolutionary League, a Trotskyite political party, would be relegated to the fringe. But in France, Besancenot, a postman in his day job, is a star. And as storm clouds gather, he has become the country's most influential opposition figure. Besancenot has achieved a 60 percent popularity rating, with 45 percent of those polled saying they want to see him have more influence in the future, ahead of mainstream leaders like the centrist François Bayrou (44 percent) and new Socialist leader Martine Aubry (42 percent). Among Socialist sympathizers, 62 percent want him to have more influence in French politics, ahead of many other figures, including the Socialists' own heavyweights. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, in a December poll—for the fourth month in a row—he was deemed the "best opponent" to face center-right French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which is no less than a humiliation for the Socialist Party."
Read the full article here.

Of course, there is some typical aloof American ignorance running through the piece: all of the developments in French politics are mentioned as though the reader would otherwise have no interest or knowledge of what's happened there for the past 50 years, there is the typical American "the French are so far Left of everyone else!" blathering (which, incidentally is not really very accurate: Gaullists had a strangle-hold over almost all of postwar French parliamentary politics and the French electoral Left, at least, has been in consistent decline and disarray since the collapse of main Left party, the PCF, in the 80s... and the persistent inability of the centrist Parti Socialiste to win elections (aside from Mitterrand's brief stint as premier) doesn't support the American stereotype either). Also... "cartoonish"? Besancenot is the most attractive man in French politics!

The article makes plenty of attempts to 'distance' itself and 'leave outs', presumably, in order to forestall right-wing accusations that Newsweek is 'soft on communists' (although Newsweek did recently run a sensationalist headline claiming 'we're all socialists now'). As a consequence of the tone of much of the piece, the reader gets the feeling that Besanceno is being quasi-caricatured in a way that seems to suggest that his relative 'fame' must be yet another reason to think less of the French (e.g. "anywhere BUT France, Besancenot would be relegated to the fringe"... which is spectacularly provincial and manifestly false).

Nonetheless, the coverage is not entirely unflattering for Besancenot or for the French far-Left writ large. The thought that Newsweek would consider giving that sort of air-time to an anti-capitalist political figure would be unfathomable in a purely American context. For all of the vitriol that the US media-industry spews at Hugo Chavez for being so high-profile and flamboyant a leader... these same media outlets virtually require, as a condition for airtime, that a political movement have a confident, 'fresh' TV-friendly leader/spokesperson around whom they can frame the entire movement. I suppose that's what it takes to get pages of Newsweek talking about far-Left politics in France.

Many leftists in the States have been closely watching the newly-founded "Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste" with excitement, and in this respect I am no exception. It will be interesting to see what comes of this development. Similar things are happening in Germany with the rise of Die Linke, and the last I checked, the SPD was only edging out Die Linke by 5-10% of the vote. Political realignments are clearly accompanying some of the structural changes occurring in the way the global economy is functioning.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Bloggers and Unions Join Forces to Push Dems Left"

From the NYTimes:

Organizers of the new group, called Accountability Now, said their intention was to enable Mr. Obama to seek more liberal policies without fear of losing support from the more conservative members of his party serving in Congress. But they did not rule out occasional friction with Mr. Obama, as well.

“We’re going to be about targeting incumbents to make space for Obama to be more progressive,” said Glenn Greenwald, a blogger on the online magazine Salon who is part of the effort.
Unsurprisingly, this new PAC "Accountability Now" has grown out of the efforts of, DailyKos and SEIU. The logic of their intervention seems to be this: if money and energy is invested in 'progressive' challenges to centrist Democratic-incumbents in primary elections, then more 'progressive' Democrats will hold office. As this goal nears completion, Obama will have "more space" to operate in so that he can assertively follow the 'progressive' policies he would, in the absence of intra-party centrist opposition, be pursuing right now. In other words:
"By empowering the grassroots, Accountability Now will help create the political space needed to enable President Obama to make good on the many progressive policies he campaigned on - such as getting out of Iraq, ensuring access to affordable health care for every man, woman and child, restoring our constitutional liberties and ending torture.”
First of all, the contention that Obama campaigned on "getting out of Iraq" and "universal health care" is false. His Iraq redeployment plan (which keeps at least 50,000 troops in Iraq) was virtually indistinguishable from McCain's and we mustn't forget that Obama has pledged to escalate the war in Afghanistan and has already begun a fresh wave of bombings in Pakistan. Furthermore, Obama's 'health plan' is light years away from the kind of reform we need, that is to say, it is far from anything like Single-Payer. Rather, his plan strengthens the for-profit catastrophe we have now by injecting public dollars into private insurance corporations rather than doing away with for-profit insurance altogether.

Thus we see right off the bat that Accountability Now assumes as a founding premise of its mission that Obama is 'truly a progressive at heart' and that the only thing preventing his 'progressive' inner nature from coming to fruition is obstruction from his own party's establishment.

Such a development is, in some minimal sense, a welcomed alternative to Right-wing pressure groups like the Club for Growth and the Democratic Leadership Council. Nonetheless, there are several fundamental difficulties with this strategy.

1.The idea that Obama has underlying 'progressive' propensities is disconfirmed by all of the available evidence. From his policy proposals as in the Democratic primaries, to his voting record, to his public statements, to his speeches, to his advisers, to his campaign contributors, to his choices for cabinet posts, Obama has consistently proven himself to be a mainstream Democrat. Objectively, we have literally no reason to believe that the 'underlying progressive' thesis is true. But more importantly, the entire strategy of banking on an elected official's "conscience" or "inner political tendencies" is preposterous. History is littered with examples of center-Left candidacies promising robust Left reform who, despite their 'progressive' credentials, were part and parcel to the enactment of swaths of neoliberal/conservative policies (for example, see Nelson Mandela, Lula di Sivla, Tony Blair and the entire record of the center-Left Prodi government in Italy during the 90s).

2. The idea that Accountability Now "hasn't ruled out friction with Obama" is laughable. In what universe would 'ruling it out' be a real possibility?! It's almost as though maintaining critical distance from the President is something to be avoided if possible; a strategy of last resort. But how else does AN suppose that the strategy (itself rather suspect) of 'pushing the Democrats Leftward" is to be accomplished? By asking Obama nicely and bringing him a few more 'progressive' congressional members? Furthermore, how do they plan on creating such last-resort friction? By challenging congressional seats held by 'centrists' and replacing them with 'progressives' in the mold of businessman Ned Lamont?

3. Electioneering within the Democratic Party is a hopeless way to push them Left. This is why: consider the 'progressives' already in the party and the role they play within the current apparatus. Take the Progressive Caucus, for example. They are largely marginalized, have little voice, and have virtually no effect on the big descisions about who to nominate for President, etc. More often than not (check their voting records if you don't believe me) they cave into mainstream party opinion or are whipped into line. Are they critical? Hardly. When have you heard Maxine Waters or John Conyers publicly deriding Obama's opposition to single-payer? Obama and the mainstream Democratic establishment spend more time paying attention to whether the Republicans are happy than they do considering the 'progressive' elements in their own party. The most infamous example is Kucinich, who ran in 2004 as an anti-war, single-payer candidate.... only to give a wholly uncritcial endorsement of pro-war anti-healthcare John Kerry months later. The bottom-line is that any effective 'pressure group' intent on pushing the Democrats Leftward must keep independence from the party apparatus. Accountability Now basically has it written into their mission statement that they are going to vote Democrat come hell or high water. They haven't threatened the Democratic Party writ-large with losing votes. On the contrary, these groups (DailyKos,, etc) are militantly, dogmatically opposed to third party challenges from the Left. That is to say, they are vehemently against any serious attempt to threaten to take votes from the Democrats. How much pressure can they reasonably hope to put on the Democrats if they've tatooed on their foreheads at the onset "I WILL ALWAYS VOTE DEMOCRAT"?

4. Getting people elected should not be the primary mode of pressuring the Democrats. Now I don't mean to say that electing more 'progressive' candidates has no effect. Instead I'm arguing that, absent any extra-electoral organizing and mobilization, such elections mean very little. The Civil Rights Act did not pass simply by means of an electoral strategy aimed at 'getting the right people elected'. It was a broad-based, extra-electoral social movement that altered the landscape of possible political change and made the passage of the legal reforms in the Act a pressing demand upon those in power. We will never see single-payer in this country as the result of a campaign intent merely to elect 'the right people'.

This is an old strategy. Michael Harrington and the group surrounding Democratic Socialists of America and magazines like "Dissent" have held views of this nature for decades. (Incidentally, I dont know for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if red-baiting accounts for the absence of DSA's public presence in this effort...) But it seems to me that if the strategy is the "pressure group" model, then the best way to proceed would be to play one's cards closer to the chest and create a legitimate threat to limit votes and dollars going to the Democratic Party. Moreover there must be critical space and independence from the Party apparatus for any such strategy to succeed.

It continually amazes me the lengths liberals will go to preserve their fantastical apotheosis of Obama. How many times will his actions betray their projections for them to wake up? I'm fine with commending the 'good' things that Obama has done and plans to do, especially when we understand 'good' relative to what a moronic reactionary like John McCain would be doing right now. Nonetheless, any cap or foreclosure of critical scrutiny of Obama is nothing other than a conservative suppression of attempts to think beyond the prescribed limits of 'what is possible' or 'politically feasible'. Despite recent developments, it seems like self-proclaimed 'progressives' should be among the first to champion this belief.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

El Salvador's Growing Leftist Movement

Exciting story from NPR.


Obama on education and "responsibility"

Dana Goldstein, education guru of TAPPED, is impressed with something Obama said tonight about education, namely that all Americans should committ to one year of post-secondary education as part of a patriotic duty. He also said dropping out of high school is not only failing oneself, but failing one's country. Here's Obama:

It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

And here's Goldstein:

This is an historic statement on the centrality of education to the American economy, and indeed, to the American character. A lot will be said about the meaning of such a statement coming from the first black president. But this is really broader than that; a full embracing, after the know-nothing Bush years, of intellectual engagement.

I'm not so convinced. Is it refreshing to have our president value education? Absolutely. But I'm really not going to call it "radical" to suggest that Americans' failure to educate themselves is about not understanding how important it is to their own or to the nation's well being. This is about money. I know a few people who dropped out of high school to start working. I know a lot of people who can't finish college because of financial reasons. Hearing from a president that this is bad for them and the country doesn't pay bills and tuition. It's more insulting than helpful or "radical." It's no different than telling someone they're irresponsible to not have health insurance. Well no shit? Why don't they get us some then...


On the Street: "We're moving in with my parents"

That's what a married, late-20s coworker of mine told me today. The reason? She and her husband have some hospital bills they have to pay off and they can't do it while they pay rent. And yeah, she gets full benefits through our employer, which includes relatively good health insurance.

Also...I hear there was some kind of important speech tonight? I'm glad healthcare is back on the docket, but just what does he mean when he says healthcare reform? He doesn't give us the faintest idea, and it really worries me they'll pass a few minor bills off as the first-year healthcare reform they promised.

p.s. I'm convinced that Bobby Jindal couldn't speak more obnoxiously if he tried. So.Condescending.And.Insincere. And is it just me, or does volcano monitoring sound like a fairly worthy investment?


Against balanced budgets

"Think how many times you have heard conservative politicians say that since businesses and households have to balance their budgets, government should do the same. But individuals and businesses separate out their current expenses from their capital outlays; people don’t define themselves as running a deficit this year because they bought a new house for $200,000. No, they finance capital expenditures like houses, new kitchens, and automobiles by borrowing, and they count themselves as living within their means as long as they have income to cover all their expenses including interest payments." - Fred Block (UC Davis sociologist) in Dissent
Obama has vowed recently to halve the deficit. Now this isn't necessarily as bad as it sounds: it depends on whether steps taken to accomplish this are sensitive to both 1) whether such steps take into consideration fixing current economic conditions and 2) whether such steps would lay the groundwork for extending the increases in spending indefinitely. As Block points out, we are already hearing Republicans blathering about how we are 'deferring the cost of this stimulus to our grandchildren' blah blah, etc. But its important to note that this sort of blathering is about 4% true. If the current attittudes and policies toward taxation remain unchanged then it is true that any ambitious spending regimen will be threatened in the long term unless changes are made. This does not meant that the government needs to 'balance its budgets' at some point in the future. However it does mean, at least, that budgets must be restructured in order to put spending initiatives on firmer political ground so that deficit-hawks and other 'free market' zealots will have a much harder time assaulting the social spending when/if economic conditions improve.

As Block puts it: "one essential issue has yet to be engaged or discussed: changing budget procedures to facilitate a long-term increase in government investment spending." 'Balanced budgets' are the reason "why we have a $2.2 trillion backlog of needed repairs to our decaying infrastructure...why our vital research and development machinery is generating fierce battles between different interest groups fighting for a piece of a shrinking pie....why our education system... is increasingly threadbare, dysfunctional, and ineffective in facilitating upward mobility." Glaringly omitted here is "this is (one reason) why we have decaying public health insurance programs (medicaid, medicare) and the worst health insurance system among all Western capitlaist nations because public money is not spent guaranteeing universal access".

Block proposes creating two different Federal budgets: a 'current account' and a 'capital account', where the 'current' acct would be kept in balance (except during reccession) and the 'capital' acct would be financed by borrowing. I'm not sure whether this is a good idea or not, but such a plan's raison d'etre (facilitaing large spending initiatives) is far more attractive than that of deficit-hawking (i.e. strangling the ability of the government to spend).

Concretely, Block proposes the following:
"First, the Obama Administration needs to begin right away developing plans for big ticket infrastructure projects to assure that they will be “shovel ready” over the next three to five years. Now is the time to map out, prioritize, and secure public support for multi-year projects of building high-speed rail lines, modernizing mass transit systems, and facilitating the replacement of coal and oil with green energy. Second, there needs to be an “all hands on deck” offensive to persuade the public of the urgency of this budgetary reform."
While Block's criticism of the current stimulus is (correctly, in my view) that it 'doesn't go far enough', perhaps the same should be said of his propsoals. Nonetheless, the general trajectory of his plan sounds infinitely more attractive than what the Administration seems currently interested in doing. Both parties typically cannot restrict themselves from gushing over the virtues of 'balanced budgets' as though they were glorious ends in themselves. Block is wrong to say 'conservatives' are the only ones pushing them, unless he meant to include a large amount of Democrats under the designation 'conservative' (a move I wouldn't resist in the least).


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Perry Anderson on Italy

Wonderful piece on Italy by Perry Anderson in the newest LRB. As usual, the analysis is historically informed, politically sharp and erudite.

Haven't read yet, but Eric Hobsbawm has a piece in the new LRB as well.


Peter Dews quote.

"For while there has often been a de facto alliance between the intellectual Left (in the US) and recent French theory, with post-structuralism providing tools of analysis which have been widely applied, there has sometimes been little attempt to think through the ultimate compatibility of progressive political commitments with either the dissolution of the subject, or a totalizing suspicion of the concept of truth." - Peter Dews, from Logics of Disentegration , Verso (1987)


"I could gone to a major university for a year. Instead, I went to the hospital for two days."

Are you in your twenties? Know anyone who is? Feel like tearing your hair out and spending the day fuming about the horrors of our capitalist health care system? Cool, read this.


Rupert Murdoch-owned NY Post prints racist cartoon


Editor-in-chief Col Allan recently defended the cartoon with the following statement:

"The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington's efforts to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist."
It broadly mocks Washington's efforts? By comparing the President to a dead monkey? What the fuck?

I found the tone of Sharpton's comment unhelpful:
"Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?"
Why all of the tip-toeing? I don't think there's any reason to use all of this "is it not a reach to wonder" language. The cartoon is brutally clear: the bullet-riddled monkey is supposed to represent Obama. Short of putting a nametag on the corpse of the animal, I'm not sure how much more clear it could be. The Editor-in-chief openly admits this ('the cartoon broadly mocks Washington's stimulus efforts').

This wasn't a 'mistake' that some editor made. This wasn't a 'slip-up' that someone should apologize for. This is a warning shot, so to speak. This is pushing the limits at the same time that it is a disgusting attempt to seize the worst sort of publicity. Tip-toeing, giving the NYPost the benefit of the doubt (they hardly deserve it at this point) and insinuating that perhaps the cartoon might not be racist is preposterous. Worse yet, it plays into the NYPost's stupid game. I don't care what the cartoonist thought he was doing, nor do I care what the intentions of the editors were (stated or otherwise). The cartoon speaks for itself... and the punchline is the that a dead monkey shot by white police officers is Obama. I'm not the one to ask about what the best tactics are (boycott, protest, demanding public apologies, etc). But its beyond me why the NYPost deserves anything except straight-forward, totally uncompromising condemnation.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reaping the fruits of "reaching across the aisle"

"SO WHY does the stimulus legislation contain so many half-measures? After all, Obama's inauguration four weeks ago was celebrated by huge numbers of people, and his popularity remains high.

For one thing, the Republicans presented a virtually united front against the stimulus bill, and the mainstream media reported their every slander of the proposal without hesitation. "One might have expected Republicans to act at least slightly chastened in these early days of the Obama administration, given both their drubbing in the last two elections and the economic debacle of the past eight years," wrote columnist Paul Krugman.

But no. The GOP trotted out every tired complaint about "big government" and wasteful spending--this from a party that ran up a staggering government debt over eight years of George W. Bush, thanks to the astronomical sums wasted on the Pentagon war machine.

Still, the Republicans shouldn't have been able to gain the upper hand in this debate. They did because of the new Obama administration's insistence on cooperating with the GOP in the spirit of "bipartisanship."

For at least the first several weeks after Obama's inauguration, while the White House was talking about how much it valued their input, the Republicans were able to define the stimulus legislation on their terms. That meant depicting it as stuffed with "waste" and "political pork" to reward Democratic "interest groups"--rather than a collection of measures that could create jobs and bolster working people's living standards."

-From the ISO's excellent breakdown of the Obama Stimulus Plan.

The NYTimes has a nice breakdown here. And here.


Phil Bredesen as Heatlhcare Czar?

Yep. That's what I've heard anyway: he could be on the shortlist for the job.

No, I'm not joking. The Obama Administration is considering appointing the man who, as governor of Tennessee, took a chainsaw to TennCare and made savage cuts to medicaid, leaving hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans suddenly without any access to medical care. In fact, as Ezra Klein notes, Bredesen overemphasized cuts so much so that he actually had money leftover the following year to restore coverage for a small percentage of those who had been previously stripped of access to medical care. Politico reports that during that same period Bredesen received $150,000 from Blue Cross/Blue Shield to renovate his Governor's Mansion. Now that's change we can believe in. I wonder if Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich are next in line after Bredesen.

It's probably also worth mentioning that Bredesen made his fortune as a private health-insurance industry entrepreneur. That such a person could even be mentioned in the same sentence as 'reformist' or 'progressive' (or whatever liberal Democratic activists are calling themselves this week) is preposterous. I'm sure that the DLC applauds his tenure as governor for its 'moderation', 'bipartisan spirit' and willingness to promote 'pro-growth' policies and balanced budgets.

There is also indication, according to BAR, that the slimy right-wing fraud, Harold Ford Jr., could be up for some cabinet appointment as well. (My most memorable recollection of Ford dates back to his 2006 bid for the Senate when he debated Bob Corker in Nashville and stood up from his seat to scream at Corker, yelling 'you haven't cut anywhere near as many taxes as if I have!'... what transpired for the next 10 minutes was a pathetic pissing match between Corker and Ford over who loved tax cuts more).

In Tennessee, apparently, they don't throw away their garbage... they elect it to state-wide office.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

You don't think she's a terrorist sympathizer? Then YOU must be a terrorist sympathizer!

At Feministing, Samhita wrote a fairly emotional (which is to say, not entirely fact-based or scientific) post about her unease with the NY Times even referencing the idea that M.I.A. might be a terrorist sympathizer...of course, it didn't take long before a commenter suggested Samhita herself is a terrorist sympathizer (not just for the Tamil Tigers, but the PKK as well).

The accusation is absurd and such a threat to reasonable dialogue, and well, kind of a threat to Samhita as well, as she rightly points out in the thread.

But look, here's the thing: This conversation has repurcussions far beyond the details of the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan Civil war and M.I.A. The fact that we in the West feel the need to identify who is right and who is wrong in international conflicts, and then if we decide someone is wrong, completely disengage from their politics, is a serious problem.

If we can't, in a feminist space no less, distinguish between the tactics of a group and their cause, or between people who can humanize those involved in a cause, even if their tactics may be violent, and those who approve of violence against innocent people, then seriously, how can we ever have reasonable transnational discussions?

There's just a certain degree of rationality that has to be involved in order for conversations to not be complete failures, and if it includes deeming anyone who shows any interest in understanding the political goals of even the most vicious looking groups a "terrorist sympathizer," it's a failure.

For the record, here's M.I.A. herself distinguishing between the cause of the Tamil people and the tactics of the Tamil Tigers, and pointing out the danger of conflating the two and neglecting the interests of both.


Benicio del Toro on Playing Che Guevara

Watch the Guardian video interview here.


Peanuts and Profits

(Via The recent salmonella outbreak caused by contaminated peanut products, it turns out, was "let loose" on the population in a naked attempt to keep profits flowing for the Peanut Corporation of America. The recent outbreak, which resulted in one of the largest food recalls in history, was responsible for 600 illnesses and 9 deaths across the US.

Stewart Parnell, the owner of the company, has a history of evading health inspections and knowingly sending contaminated food products out into the market. According to the piece:

Parnell complained in e-mails that salmonella tests were costing him business, ordered a plant manager to ship products once identified as contaminated, and pleaded with health inspectors to let his employees "turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."
Other internal memos sent by Parnell complain that Salmonella testing and inspections are "costing the company huge $$$$". Apparently, Parnell discontinued relations with one inspecting company because they found "too many cases" of Salmonella. Other reports indicate that "inspectors found roaches, mold and a leaking roof" at the Blakely, GA plant now believed to be the source of the contaminations.

What's astonishing is that Parnell is not facing any legal ramifications for this. He didn't face any charges or fines the last 3 times his company was involved in contaminating food products (toxic mold in some cases, dangerous pesticides in others). In fact, he "was recommended to serve on the U.S. Agriculture Department's Peanut Standards Board." That's right.

Recently he has refused to testify in Congressional hearings about the outbreak, opting to take the Fifth. As of the 13th, his company has filed for Bankruptcy (chapter 7). It is unclear whether this will have an effect on the ability of civil lawsuits to extract compensation from the company for knowingly selling contaminated peanut products.

Meanwhile, foodbanks are throwing out tons of products containing peanut butter -at a time when foodbanks are becoming more crucial to enabling people facing hard times to eat. If this world was just, Parnell and his cronies would be forced to eat all of the food that these foodbanks are being forced to throw away while at the same time being required to compensate these foodbanks so that the necessary purchases can be made in order to replace their stock.

This whole situation is atrocious. This is a case of naked capitalist greed costing people their lives and maligning the heatlh of hurdreds more. Not to mention, this crisis will have calamitous effects for the (likely) thousands of workers employed by the company. At present, the company is liquidating all of its assets in order to pay off creditors, but is there any serious problem with the machinery and the production of peanut products such that the factory should no longer exist? The whole "everything is instrumental to producing profits" game is so wasteful: if there is machinery there that can be rehabbed and fixed, if there is a need for peanut products, if the workers there want to keep their jobs... why shut the factory down? Of course, the reason (within the explanatory logic of capitalist production) is clear... but it seems so ridiculous in many ways that a productive effort like this should just collapse, leaving creditors and investors taken care of while everyone else is shit out of luck.

Clearly, the answer must be that the 'free market' would have efficiently prohibited such events from happening, and Big Government has contaminated the mind of the heroic entrepreneur (Parnell) such that he acted against the imaginary hand of His Holiness Milton Friedman and consequently did bad things that simply betray the triumphant ethos of capitalism.


Reminder: Cars kill people.

According to an article in today's RedEye (an outlet of the Chicago Tribune), there were fifty-six pedestrians killed in traffic accidents in Chicago in 2008. As the article points out, there are a LOT of pedestrians in this city. Chicago was named the 4th most walkable city in America by the organization Walk Score, and I can vouch for the awesome walkability of my own neighborhood.

But even at the small intersection I have to cross to reach the El, or the Asian groceries nearby, motorists don't give a damn about pedestrian safety or the right of way. When pedestrians get their long-awaited walk signal, cars taking left and right turns hover like panting dogs, waiting for you to cross, inching closer and closer to your fragile human body with their giant steel-framed monster. And those are the nice people. Many motorists decide to take their chances, and dash out for a screeching left turn before you've taken three steps.

And don't get me started about the Garfield Red Line, where commuters determined to catch the next bus have to cross literally six lanes of expressway-bound traffic.

Yeah. So it's not difficult to imagine people getting killed. As the Department of Transportation spokesman said, "The most difficult part of this is changing driver behavior."

The article is informative and lays out several ways the city is working on reducing pedestrian deaths. Check out the particularly sneaky move in which undercover police officers, posing as pedestrians, pulled over and issued warnings to motorists who failed to yield to them. I would have paid money to see that shit.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Well -- Chavez for life?

You've probably heard elsewhere that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has won his bid to override a two-term presidential limit and let him continue running for reelection for the rest of his life. I've expressed my dislike for this path in the past.

Here's some of what the internet is saying about this:

William Mora at Hands off Venezuela calls it triumph for democracy and a step toward long-term revolution.

Ian Williams at the Guardian says these unlimited terms allow Chavez to continue lazy economic policies and to continue wasting his time with political games to be reelected continuously instead of cleaning up economic messes.

Steve Rendell and Isabelle Macdonald at Venezuelanalysis point out the double standard in U.S. coverage (shocking, I know) of the referendum and coverage of Columbia similar referendum in 2005.

They are right to point out that most major news sources here probably aren't actually concerned about Latin American democracy, and are more about being a "propaganda arm" of U.S. foreign policy. But I don't think that means sincere concerns about this as a threat to Latin American democracy aren't valid concerns...

Now I know there are really complex arguments to be had here about revolution and democracy and sustained progress, but what if all I can really muster at the end of the day is something like, "This isn't what I imagine a long-term revolution should look like..." Call it a vulgar analysis, but it just doesn't feel right.


Katy Perry Syndrome?

For a fascinating read on sexual orientation, bisexual politics, and the media, check this out. Editor-in-Chief of, Sarah Warn, details a recent dispute with former L.A. Times journalist, turned novelist Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez.

It appears Valdes-Rodriguez tried to pull a fast one and "play gay" to please Warn's largely queer audience in an interview last year, and has since accused the publication of lying, as her coming out as bisexual has begun to receive mainstream attention. You can read all the exchanges between's a real display of heterosexual privilege and ignorance, on the one hand, and a seriously smart, passionate editor on the other.

Update: Valdes-Rodriguez has written (and personally directed us to) a clarification/apology of sorts at her blog. Check it out to hear both sides of a story that should never have been played out in the public of the internets like this...


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Marx on Money -- and Love

A most cynical, and yet hopeful post-Valentine's Day excerpt:

That which I am unable to do as a man, and of which therefore all my individual essential powers are incapable, I am able to do by means of money. Money thus turns each of these powers into something which in itself it is not — turns it, that is, into its contrary.

If I long for a particular dish or want to take the mail-coach because I am not strong enough to go by foot, money fetches me the dish and the mail-coach: that is, it converts my wishes from something in the realm of imagination, translates them from their meditated, imagined or desired existence into their sensuous, actual existence — from imagination to life, from imagined being into real being. In effecting this mediation, [money] is the truly creative power.

No doubt the demand also exists for him who has no money, but his demand is a mere thing of the imagination without effect or existence for me, for a third party, for the [others], and which therefore remains even for me unreal and objectless. The difference between effective demand based on money and ineffective demand based on my need, my passion, my wish, etc., is the difference between being and thinking, between the idea which merely exists within me and the idea which exists as a real object outside of me.

If I have no money for travel, I have no need — that is, no real and realisable need — to travel. If I have the vocation for study but no money for it, I have no vocation for study — that is, no effective, no true vocation. On the other hand, if I have really no vocation for study but have the will and the money for it, I have an effective vocation for it. Money as the external, universal medium and faculty (not springing from man as man or from human society as society) for turning an image into reality and reality into a mere image, transforms the real essential powers of man and nature into what are merely abstract notions and therefore imperfections and tormenting chimeras, just as it transforms real imperfections and chimeras — essential powers which are really impotent, which exist only in the imagination of the individual — into real essential powers and faculties. In the light of this characteristic alone, money is thus the general distorting of individualities which turns them into their opposite and confers contradictory attributes upon their attributes.

Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy.

Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and confuses all things, it is the general confounding and confusing of all things — the world upside-down — the confounding and confusing of all natural and human qualities.

He who can buy bravery is brave, though he be a coward. As money is not exchanged for any one specific quality, for any one specific thing, or for any particular human essential power, but for the entire objective world of man and nature, from the standpoint of its possessor it therefore serves to exchange every quality for every other, even contradictory, quality and object: it is the fraternisation of impossibilities. It makes contradictions embrace.

Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return — that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent — a misfortune.

From the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844


Moment of Zen: 3 Questions I've Been Asking

1. I've been noticing lately how new friends seem to relate to me and my partner differently because we're together. There's an assumption that we're always together, or would rather be with each other, or that we don't need as much outside social engagement as single people might. Are long-term monogamous relationships a fundamentally anti-social institution? Do they create the perception of separation between Us and Them? Do they box us into our apartments and homes, and keep us from relating to the rest of the world with any true freedom? What about the nuclear family?

2. Chicago has seen a few warmer days in the past few weeks, and I've noticed how different it feels to walk around without a bulky winter coat on. Namely, people around me are noticing my body again. Is there a kind of freedom in covering ourselves up for winter? Leaving, as some Muslim clothing does, only the eyes exposed?

3. All this talk of material excess seems to have everyone reassessing our priorities. For the first time in a while, our culture is asking questions about how much money is enough money, whether a salary can be too high, and how much material wealth we really ought to possess. Is this a good thing? I don't want to sound like a certain blogger who suggested that all this job loss is going to lead people towards better lives. In most cases, job loss just leads you to pain and suffering. But is there any way that our recession can build a healthier society in the long term? How can we make that happen?


Saturday, February 14, 2009

On the Street: Calorie Counting Edition

Surprise! A Valentine's Day cupcake to give you pleasure, guilt, and social anxiety.

So, here's a question. Should be it be socially acceptable to, in the middle of a work gathering at which everyone is eating food, whip out your iPhone and start recording your food consumption in an application called Lose It!? In front of one co-worker who struggles seriously with her weight, and myriad others who may or may not have a history of eating disorders, body image issues, food-related guilt, and other human phenomena?

I'm going to go with no. I guess it's an example of thin privilege that you can publicly discuss your new calorie-counting, exercise-recording, weight-loss software, but you'd better not overeat in public if you're fat.

Delicious image courtesty of


Thai dissident professor speaks out

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai professor who was forced to flee his country because of his politics and publications, recently spoke in Britain (where, as of February 2009, he lives in exile). Ungpakorn's official crime was "Lèse majesté", which amounts to 'disloyalty' to the royally-assented Thai head of state. He is a member of the Thai trotskyist party "Workers' Democracy" which is affiliated internationally with the IST.

Read a manifesto he issued recently, which republished here.

Like most unfolding international developments, the most recent coup and anti-democratic overthrow of a popular government in Thailand received very little critical coverage in US media. Most of what I read was depoliticized glosses that focused mainly on theatrical elements of the protesters and the occupation of airports. Its an interesting experience to have some general idea of what's happening in the world independent of what's covered in the US media, and then to consider everything it is that they misconstrue, gloss over, or simply don't cover at all.


Race problems are "not as big as we think"

Check out this excellent, quite troubling article by the New York Times' James C McKinley Jr. As the article reports, already terrible race relations in the town of Paris, Texas have been inflamed by the recent murder of a black man by two white friends of his. Brandon McLelland was struck by a pickup truck and dragged 40 feet before he died; the two accused initially lied to investigators and still deny their involvement.
The article is a rude, brutal awakening from the daydreams of racial harmony that have pervaded our media since Barack Obama's election.

his gruesome death has reignited ugly feelings between races that have plagued this small town for generations, going back to the days 100 years ago when it was the scene of brutal public lynchings. Blacks complain that the justice system is tilted against them; whites complain about the crime, teenage pregnancy and drug use ravaging black neighborhoods.

[Isn't it wild that white people are allowed to complain about horrific living conditions in black neighborhoods? As if that's some kind of retort against accusations of institutional racism? Black people say, "There's institutional racism." White people say, "Yeah, well, your neighborhoods suck!" Presumed response from black people: "Yeah, we know, ass holes."]

Mr. McClelland’s death comes a year after another incident stirred up accusations of racism here. Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old black girl, was sentenced by Judge Superville to juvenile prison after she shoved a hall monitor into a wall. Three months earlier, Judge Superville had sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for burning down her family’s house.National civil rights groups protested what they called the unequal and harsh treatment of Miss Cotton, who spent a year in a West Texas juvenile prison.

Here's what mayor has to say:

The mayor of Paris, Jesse James Freelen, who is white, dismissed such complaints as the result of “a lack of communication.” He pointed out that the town previously elected a black mayor and now had a black mayor pro tem.

“Once we start communicating,” Mr. Freelen said, “I believe we will find out the problems we believe we have are not as big as we think.”

Communicating? Yikes. And we wonder why people start burning shit.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Popular finance: It isn't the system, it's you.

Look out evolutionary psychology, popular finance may be overtaking you as the most egregious contemporary movement that prides itself on explaining powerlessness and inequality with status-quo loving pseudo science.

Take this delightful Slate article on entertainer/finance guru Suze Orman:

Orman is that most modern breed of capitalists, the human-industry, self-mythologizing. "Suze has a unique grasp of the role money plays in our lives, as well as the gift of timing: she tells us exactly what we need to know, precisely when we need to know it." So, at least, claims the jacket copy of one of her books. She addresses her fans either as "my friends" (learned from John McCain, perhaps?) or as "girlfriend." Although she published a comprehensive—and very useful—guide to personal finance in 2001, her first two best-sellers focused on the "emotional roadblocks" to financial freedom. Suze has a lot to say about emotional roadblocks, among other things: "Falling in love is simple—or so it often seems in retrospect"; "Tears are God's way of forgiving you"; "You will never achieve a sense of power over your life until you have power over your money"; and "The stock market is like a pot of soup."

She has less patience for statistics. Although study after study has shown that personal bankruptcies are caused primarily by catastrophic events like divorce, job loss, and, above all, medical bills and that most of us are struggling with a gap between our income growth and the soaring cost of necessities like housing, Suze tends toward psychological causes that invariably blame the victim. Who is struggling these days, according to Suze? "People who grew up without much money and later earn a comfortable living sometimes spend too much to make up for what they didn't get as children. ... People who feel entitled to the good life, or are unconsciously copying a mother or father who lived beyond her or his means. ... If you feel the need to impress people with what you have rather than with who you are, you are at high risk for credit card abuse." This from a woman who spends $500,000 a year chartering private jets and who sells "Cruise With Suze" packages on an Italian luxury liner.


Suze, my friends, has been lying to us, and we know she knows she's been lying because she herself tells us that she ignores her own advice. (Apparently, it's more important to brag about how many books you've sold than to hang with your peeps.) Which brings us to the awful truth: What we're supposed to love about Suze Orman is not her knowledge and certainly not her prescience, but her ability to turn circumstances to her advantage, the resilience of a waitress-turned-bank-vice-president who squandered a great gig only to make a fortune off of you and me by having the courage to be rich. We are to admire her, just as many of us secretly admire Bernie Madoff (who promised remarkably similar returns to Suze Orman's 11 percent stock market) and the equally smarmy CEOs of those crooked banks that she tells us to trust for their gumption. Despite her obvious flaws, we admire Suze so much that millions of us will fork over more of our dwindling dollars for her new FICO kit—co-branded with Fair Isaac Corp., the largest credit-scoring company in the country—because she now assures us that a high FICO score is the key to our financial future. True, her previous book promised us that we would never be a financial victim again. Not only that, but we would receive the life we deserved, which sounds suspiciously like one of those insidious credit card offers, but whatever. When was the last time an evangelist predicted anything correctly or the phone psychic told you something that you didn't already know? So what if we cannot retire because Suze has been telling us to buy stocks and trust the fat cats? Suze, my friends, possesses the courage to be rich. The rest of us are suffering from a collective emotional roadblock.
Like evolutionary biology, popular finance relies on the illusion that there is some advanced science for understanding why things aren't as good as they should be. But worse than evolutionary biology, popular finance also tells us we are the reason for our own economic "failings," that there is a science to it, but we could change the result if only we really wanted to.


'America's most miserable' magazine: Forbes is the winner!

Alright, so I'm quite aware I'm being baited on this one. Also, I understand that responding to anything in the magazine[sic] 'Forbes' is basically the equivalent of tee-ball when it comes to exposing it for the moronic, tight-wad bourgeois drivel that it is. Nonetheless I have to say something about their recent "10 most miserable cities in the US" list.

Chicago, according to this list is #3. Why? Well because Chicago is the capital of "lousy weather, long commutes, rising unemployment and the highest sales tax rate in the country".

Rising unemployment, last I checked, was a nation-wide (global, to be exact) trend that is increasing rapidly due to macroeconomic factors. Find me a large city that is not experiencing increasing unemployment. Read about NYC lately? I'm sure Boston, San Fran and LA are surging right now in terms of job creation.

Lousy weather. Alright, point taken. It's cold here. But its fucking cold in Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and NYC as well. I hardly hear anyone say "I'm moving to Boston (or Philly, NYC, etc) just for the winter because its fucking beautiful up there this time of year!". The only place that has good weather in the winter is Florida and Southern California. Is this news to anyone? The summers are gorgeous in Chicago, and the fall and springs can be quite nice as well. But I guess I should move to a retirement home in a resort-town in FL so that I can enjoy the good weather and the tax shelter.

Which brings me to the next source of 'misery' in Chicago: the high sales tax. Yeah, its fucking high. It should be exchanged for a progressive city income tax (or better yet: federal funding allotted relative to federal tax revenue generated from the city, so that rich tax-evaders can't simply to try to move away from city taxes). But that's not what the idiots at Forbes would say: They give '#4 most miserable' Memphis 'extra points', for instance, because TN has no state income tax. Bwahaha. Didn't Forbes himself run for President as a Republican on a platform to scrap the federal income tax and replace it with a sales tax on the order of 28-35%? According to this moronic logic, Forbes should be rejoicing at the highly regressive city sales tax in Chicago and praising the city for having no income (or other, more progressive) tax. At least Chicago exempts food purchases from its exorbitant sales tax, which is not something I can say for other 'tax shelter' states like TN, for example, who hits their residents with a whopping 9.25% sales tax on all FOOD puchases. But TN gets 'extra points' from Forbes for having no state income tax. I'm sure the real beneficiaries of TN's lack of an income tax (the schmucks who live in the plantation-mansions in Bellemeade) really sweat paying an extra 9.25% on their food purchases.

Finally, Chicago is miserable because of 'long commutes'. This has got to be the worst complaint o this pathetic 'top ten' list. Long commutes for who, exactly? The morons who drive themselves from the loop to Glencoe (40 min north of city limits) every day? I thought we were talking about the CITY, not the stupid cookie-cutter suburbs surrounding it. Getting around town is extremely easy using trains and buses in Chicago, even if you are going from one end of the city to another. Also -if you are one of the douchebags that actually reads Forbes regularly, then likes are you have the cash to live virtually whereever you like, which means you could very well live quite close to your cushy place of employment. Where's the commute there?

The article also mentions that Chicago is trying to get the Olympics which, they suggest, might help improve transportation in the city. But that's rather vague, isn't it? I certainly hope the anti-tax zealots at Forbes aren't insinuating that the transportation infrastructure (which is all publicly owned) will improve with more funding (i.e. higher taxes). Also -which infrastructure are they talking about? Mass transit (rails, buses), the roads, the prevalence of bike-lanes, the interstates? They don't bother to say. That's because this isn't a serious article... its a largely a thinly-cloaked jab at the city "where one if its own just became the most powerful person in the world". It's almost as though Obama is the reason Chicago is so high on the list, and the rest of the 'knocks' against it are contrived to fit this end. Nonetheless, I dont want to suggest that anything about the criteria that Forbes uses is legitimate: its crude, suburbanite white conservative crap.

In fact, if we apply the criteria Forbes seems to rely upon consistently, it seems to me that the #1 most miserable city in America is clearly New York City. After all, unemployment is on the rise there, the city budget is in trouble, its not warm and tropical, commutes are 'long' and busy if you're trying to drive your Bentley from lower Manhattan to the Hamptons every day, the city has much higher taxes than Chicago, and its pro sports teams didn't win championships last season (the Giants just went 0-1 in the playoffs and the Yankees stunk).

But the only thing, however, that is really miserable here at all is this criteria used by Forbes to evaluate 'cities' (nevermind that they hardly discriminate between alpha world cities and small towns). According to their logic, the place to be right now (assuming you are an old, crusty, filthy rich straight white man) is some unincorporated tropical island that has no taxes whatsoever, nice beaches, no minorities (except for servants, of course) and is conducive to effortless drives from the country club to the beach mansion.

I guess things like the following are not relevant when evaluating a city:

-How walkable it is (fyi Chicago is the #4 most walkable in the US)
-How good the schools are (k-12, amount of Universities in area)
-Intellectual climate (public lectures, events, symposia, etc.)
-Culture (music, art, theater, film, museums, etc.)
-How cosmopolitan and diverse it is
-Natural beauty (umm... like natural bodies of water, for example)
-How Bike-friendly the city is
-Amount of space allotted for public parks
-Political climate
-Safety factor for non-heterosexuals
-Race relations
-Cost of living
-Comprehensiveness of public transit
-Food possibilities
-Pollution factor

Etc, etc...


On The Street: This Sucks! Edition

Here we begin a series in which we share snapshot moments that matter: the little day-to-day interactions that reveal political, social, and economic forces at work in our communities.

We stood at the Grand Red Line station in downtown Chicago. The paint was peeling, the ceiling was leaking, and the bare bulbs dangled from their chains. They haven't quite gotten around to repairing this station yet. Tonight, there were significant delays, as both Northbound and Southbound trains had to run on the same track.

When our long-awaited Northbound train arrived, and passengers hurried off the train, a sweaty, crazed-looking white man could be seen and heard shouting: "CTA sucks! THEY SUCK!" Presumably he'd been stuck on that train for quite awhile.

Just another frustrated advocate for capital funding for mass transit.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

You're privileged; now what?

Courtney Martin was certainly brave to post her "Day in the Life of a Feminist Writer/Activist" this week. Why? Because, as the New York Times Style section has pointed out repeatedly, it's in poor taste these days to flash your privilege on the street. You're supposed to wrap your recent Kate Spade purchase in brown paper and get it home as fast as you can. The blogging parallel is that you're supposed to hide your morning yoga class, takeout sushi, and relaxed work schedule from your readers. Maybe you're also supposed to hide the fact that you can to rent a house with a yard in Queens, or that your parents have a nice vacation home, or that you took a trip to Thailand after you took the bar exam, or that you can afford to attend happy hour gatherings in Manhattan ... you get the picture.

I don't think living a privileged life makes you evil. Indeed, I understand Courtney's impulse to take the "secrecy" off of privilege and reveal her own lifestyle for what it is. I could do a similar unveiling of my own lifestyle. For example: I go to the Symphony, eat Asian food out regularly, cook nice meals at home, and sometimes buy overpriced drinks in coffee shops. I do work that I really enjoy and that's reasonably well paid. I have so few financial obligations that I was able to work in Africa for virtually no money, and have the experience of a lifetime. I have the financial freedom to be an aspiring professional violinist, and to write songs. My student loans would be twice what they are if my parents hadn't been able to help finance my education. My partner and I both have jobs. We're healthy. We're college educated.

But there's a reason that the above paragraph is so boring. Identifying your own privilege is important, but if you're going to call yourself an activist -- a term I have come to bristle at sometimes -- you have to do more than that.

Courtney goes too far when, in the comments, she asserts that "privilege comes from secrecy." That is decidedly not where privilege comes from. If privilege came from secrecy, some of us could reveal our salaries, mortgage payments, trust fund balances, etc. while others revealed their long work hours, low wages, and total lack of financial resources -- and then somehow things would be better. In some ways, this is what Arvilla is talking about when she critiques a representational approach to feminism: include certain voices, include certain stories, and feminism will magically do its work of Making the World Better.

Privilege comes from whiteness. It comes from generations and generations of economic advantage. It comes most of all from a racist, exploitative economic system that leaves entire populations to perpetually subsist on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Taking that system apart -- for ourselves and for each other -- is perhaps one of the most important ways we can actually become "activists," and that we can move beyond sheer representation into real analysis. Like Lauren, I'm frustrated with the lip service to class issues. I resolve to do better.


Mike Davis repoliticizes riots

Read it here.


Praxis. Let's take that ideology debate and try to apply it

Lauren at Feministe has a post on "Feminism and Class and Context," (posts on class and feminism are so rare that they often get extremely general titles like that, so that one who wasn't already familiar with the blogger might think she was just barely sensing class might have anything at all to do with feminism).

She's concerned that the emerging class of "professional feminists" around the blogosphere will insulate themselves from other feminisms and feminists. Her concern is primarily about being able to find representation of working class women in mediums that only seem to cater to middle class, successful, "professional" types.

Class issues are abound in feminism as they are everywhere else. In today’s economic hierarchy some of us will be stuck on Maslow’s lower rungs while others celebrate their own impending self-actualization. This isn’t a debate. But only the climbers get the microphone, and their world is pretty insular. As a friend wrote via email:

The problem with hearing the voices of working people is structural. Even if folks have the time and energy to write, it’s a lot to expect folks to self-educate so that they have the tools to express something about their experiences, even if they had the time. Some folks do; my mother was incredibly widely read coming from poverty and with only a high school education. But broad references and eloquence are going to be much more common among folks trained for them. That leaves the intelligentsia to speak for everyone else; but they’re not so good as seeing past their insular class experiences. I have no idea how to fix this.

Neither do I.

And part of this is why I’m bothered with some aspects of the feminist movement, specifically the feminist blogging movement, as so many of the people who take part in it are beginning the tricky business of quitting their day jobs and monetizing their writing. Most feminists are not Professional Feminists — they are Professional Something Elses and have to hang their feminism along with a whole host of other political beliefs at the door to pay the bills. And I wonder too if those making feminism their career change the message to remain marketable? Will the new Professional Feminist have to set aside some of her feminist beliefs to keep the paycheck rolling in? Will she self-censor? Will her experiences, now that she’s begun the insular work of writing, continue to resonate with non-writers? I don’t know. I know I sense a disconnect.

The old argument was that Professional Feminists, aka academics, were out of touch with non-Professional Feminist women. Feminism has long been criticized for its inability to get off campus, and now that it really has, thanks in part to the work of bloggers and writers reviving feminist media, now what? We’ve widened our feminist economic circle, as it were, to include a whole host of actual jobs that actual feminists can fill to perform actual feminist work and get an actual paycheck. But most stable, paying work isn’t that. Will the professionals remember us?

Let's make sense of this from the perspective of all the posting we've been doing lately on ideology and identity and subjectivity.

1-This post includes an approach to critiquing feminist politics taken straight from the playbook of cultural criticism--like I mentioned earlier--by focusing on representation instead of say, justice.

2-It relies on identity to frame its concerns and its demands. Working women are the subjects Lauren is concerned about. She fears that middle class or professional feminist women (she even creates her own identity class, in order to make sense of the difference she senses) will contribute to their marginalization.

But again, what she demands for the working-class women is not an economic system that will provide for them a room of their own, but instead representation by their professional feminist counterparts. Take the below quote from T's post on Butler, and where it says 'women,' think instead, 'working-class women,' for the sake of considering Lauren's post.
The idea that representation of 'women' (uncritically accepted as an unproblematic category, unmarked by power) is all that is necessary to facilitate emancipation, overlooks the structures (legal, educational, cultural, economic, etc.) which actually produce the subjects in question. In other words, merely quibbling over the Senate's gender makeup is not going to cut it. Butler acknowledges, though, that such concerns are hardly reactionary, indeed by and large we inhabit a world where the pervasive social/cultural condition is such that women's lives are "misrepresented or not represented at all". Nonetheless, 'representation' must not go uncriticized as the goal of feminist politics. For Butler, feminist political practice requires a "radical rethinking of the ontological constructions of identity appears to be necessary in order to formulate a representational politics that might revive feminism on other grounds." What this means more specifically, is that "the identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation."
So, Butler is sympathetic to the desire to want representation, since there is indeed a notable lack of representation. But that can't be the goal of our class-conscious feminist politics, not if the formation of that working-class woman as a subject takes place in the very field(s) of power in which we're seeking representation. If capitalism has created the working-class woman, then a feminist with her very feminism tied up in capitalism cannot liberate her by representing her (this isn't my opinion, just what happens if I try to apply Butler's logic to actual apparatuses and subjects)...

If Butler doesn't like Lauren's identity-based, representation-seeking approach, what does she prefer? That's where I'm stuck.

I'm tempted to say, stop worrying about whether your experiences are going to be represented, and start fighting whatever it is you think is forcing this experience of working-classness on you to begin with. But as I noted earlier, talking about and altering representation are a lot easier than talking about and altering the material conditions behind those representations. So? How do we perform this subjectless feminism?


Monday, February 9, 2009

lol Althusser

I think that should put the old structure/subjectivity debate to rest...


Just to reiterate....

There's been a lot of hubbub surrounding the Obama administration's decision to cap executive pay. As has already been noted on this blog by all of its contributors at some point or another: this move by Obama is, to paraphrase arvilla, "a tepid crowd-pleaser" meant to obscure any criticism of capitalism, as such.

I think it's worth re-posting some of Krugman's breakdown of the issue:

"So banks need more capital. In normal times, banks raise capital by selling stock to private investors, who receive a share in the bank’s ownership in return. You might think, then, that if banks currently can’t or won’t raise enough capital from private investors, the government should do what a private investor would: provide capital in return for partial ownership.

But bank stocks are worth so little these days — Citigroup and Bank of America have a combined market value of only $52 billion — that the ownership wouldn’t be partial: pumping in enough taxpayer money to make the banks sound would, in effect, turn them into publicly owned enterprises.

My response to this prospect is: so? If taxpayers are footing the bill for rescuing the banks, why shouldn’t they get ownership, at least until private buyers can be found? But the Obama administration appears to be tying itself in knots to avoid this outcome."
Right: because they think public ownership is the devil. But they shouldn't they be hard pressed to say, as they have been saying, that this whole 'solution' about 'keeping private enterprise private'. If that were truly what it was about, then the private enterprises would be privately fuct. Were they truly the private, ebullient beacons of free-market glory that the Administration wants to pretend they are, they would be imploding and collapsing before our eyes. If private investors give the banks capital, then they demand partial ownership. If the Federal Government gives the banks hundreds of billions of dollars, they demand nothing except (after some public criticism) that the really, really fat cats keep their compensation under a half million. Is this a joke?

It's also worth re-posting an excerpt from a Willem Buiter column in the Financial Times from a while back. While Krugman suggests that the banks should be taken into public ownership "at least until a private owner is found", Buiter wonders why certain types of banking should be privately-run affairs at all:

Is the reality of modern... capitalism that large private firms make enormous private profits when the going is good and get bailed out...when the going gets bad, with the tax payer taking the risk and the losses?

If so, then why not keep these activities in permanent public ownership?There is a long-standing argument that there is no real case for private ownership of deposit-taking banking institutions, because these cannot exist safely without a deposit guarantee and/or lender of last resort facilities, that are ultimately underwritten by the taxpayer.


...either deposit-banking licenses should be periodically auctioned off competitively or depostit-taking banks should be in public ownership to ensure that the tax payer gets the rents as well as the risks.


Badiou on Althusser: "Subjectivity without a Subject"

To complicate matters more, here is another critical account of Althusser's Marxism and the role of 'the Subject' within it. I will forgo any introduction of Alain Badiou, first of all because I feel totally unqualified to do so (I know nothing of his 'philosophy' proper, only of his concretely 'political' writings (on Sarkozy, for example) and his radical/activist personal history and his involvement with Maoist organizations). This critique of Althusser appears in Metapolitics (2006) put out in English by Verso. Don't ask me what the title of the chapter "subjectivity without a subject" is supposed to mean.

On Badiou's account, in Althusser no theory of the subject is possible, nor could there ever be one. He summarizes the point:

"For Althusser, all theory proceeds by way of concepts. But 'subject' is not a concept. This theme is developed with utmost clarity in his work. For example: the concept 'process' is scientific, the concept 'subject' is ideological. 'Subject' is not the name of a concept, but that of a notion, that is, the mark of an inexistence. There is no subject since there are only processes."
For Badiou, the question we should ask of Althusser is: What does eliminating the subject from theory mean for politics?

The danger is that politics collapses into ideology, because in Althusser there is always a hard and fast distinction between science and ideology. For Althusser, (social) science is the project of parsing out ideology from objective features of political, social and economic processes. Yet this conception of science, as Badiou emphasizes, is only about 'processes', not 'subjects'. But if we're only left with analysis of the 'processes' by which economic/political structures overdetermine the social field, where does this leave the possibility of purposive political action?

Now Althusser is a self-proclaimed Marxist, that is, a radical committed to changing the world, not merely interpreting it. But what room is there for political action in the anti-humanist Althusserian framework?

Of course, Althusser doesn't want to commit himself to leaving no room for political action. He, after all, conceives of philosophy itself as only properly undertaken as part of the 'class struggle in theory'. But I'm not interested in merely what he said or in what conclusions he deigned to avoid: I'm interested here in how his theory actually functions with respect to politics.

Althusser says on many occasions that politics is neither science nor ideology. As Badiou charts it: "In 1965 Althusser distinguished political practice from scientific and ideological practice. In 1968, he explained that every process is 'in relations'... Finally Althusser posits that only the 'militants of the revolutionary class struggle' really grasp the thought of 'the process'... that is, only those engaged in political practice genuinely understand the 'processes' by which the social/political field operates."

But who are these militants? I'm not sure I understand.

For Althusser, Bourgeois ideology is characterized by "the notion of the subject whose matrix is legal and which subjects the individual to the ideological State apparatuses: this is the theme of subjective interpellation." Thus, Badiou concludes, in Althusser's sense the subject is a function of the State (where 'State' is construed broadly to include 'Ideological State Apparatuses' (e.g. Churches, Schools, media institutions, etc.) that extend beyond of the coercive State proper).

But if subjectivity is itself a function of the state, there cannot be a political subject for Althusser, because any properly revolutionary politics ipso facto cannot be a function of the state since it consists of a commitment to the overthrowing of the State altogether.

But if there aren't any political subjects (since 'subjects' are ideological), then where does this leave politics in relation to the science/ideology distinction? Science, as we've seen, consists entirely in uncovering what is objective (the concrete functioning of ISAs, the processes by which ideology clouds the reality of the economic/social field). But politics, Althusser says, is not about objectivity; which is to say, politics is not a science. Where then, in the Althusserian universe, is politics?

Althusser uses terms like 'partisanship', 'choice', 'decision', 'revolutionary militant', etc. which all lead in the direction of subjectivity. They all presuppose or indicate that there is someone for whom 'partisanship' and 'militancy' inhere as predicates or actions. Badiou asks here, somewhat enigmatically, whether we should attempt to read Althusser as trying to 'think subjectivity without a subject'. I'm not sure I understand what that means.

Badiou ends the chapter abruptly by making some remarks indicating some of Althusser's worthwhile contributions to radical political theory while trying to salvage some of his insights. For example, Badiou argues that we read "overdetermination" in Althusser as a limitation on the politically possible. But possible for whom? I'm again unsure what to make of any of Althusser's insights at all unless we risk reinstating some conception of the subject. After all, who is it that authors texts that are purportedly scientific, that aim to show the functioning of ideology? I don't want to say that either subjects are located within ideological structures or they are completely outside them. Nonetheless, we must be careful not to close off the possibility within our theorization of ideology of explaining how it is that we, as subjects, came to theorize about it in the first place.

It seems to me to be a serious problem that Althusser's project cannot account for its own conditions of possibility. Moreover it seems obvious that the choice between homo-economicus and the ultra-functionalism of Althusser's approach are not exhaustive possibilities. Yet since
Claude Lévi-Strauss and subsequent 'structuralists' in social science introduced the idea of the subject, as such, as a product of determinate social processes, this problem has persisted in French thought. My limited engagement with some recent French theory suggests to me that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, such that vague invocations of 'subjectivity' or 'singularity' are taken to be obviously good.


Butler, Structure and Subject

Since I'm reading Gender Trouble right now (for the first time) and recent posts have been focusing on the interepellation of subjects and feminism, it seems timely to relay some recent insights I've gleamed from Butler on this topic.

Butler's project takes its point of departure from politics: the aim of the book is, at least in one concerted sense (i.e. this isn't an exhaustive aim), to critically evaluate the assumption among some feminists that a unified conception of 'woman' is a necessary condition of political action for feminists. The point of doing this, for Butler, is to locate ways in which the feminist project is in some ways complicit with oppression, thus enabling her to gesture at ways we might more effectively (and fully) resist or subvert the oppressive regime of sex/gender.

The opening sentence of the book is as follows:

"For the most part, feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued."
Instead, Butler wants to complicate and criticize the idea that representation (which requires an antecedent conception of 'woman') should be the goal of feminist politics. Part of her reason for pursuing this goal is that she sees subjects as produced, as interpellated by oppressive structures. Her point of departure owes much to Foucault, who held that "juridical systems of power produce the very subjects they subsequently come to represent." Of course, Foucault was a student of Althusser's who is very much a part of the tradition of 20th century French philosophy which emerged from 'structuralism' and held 'anti-humanist' views about subjectivity.

She continues:
"The question of 'the subject' is crucial for politics, and for feminist politics in particular, because juridical subjects are invariably produced through certain exclusionary practices that do not 'show' once the juridical structure of politics has been established. In other words, the political construction of the subject proceeds with certain legitimating and exclusionary aims, and these political operations are effectively concealed and naturalized by a political analysis that takes juridical structures as their foundation."
This seems to jibe with a point Arvilla made in the previous post. The idea that representation of 'women' (uncritically accepted as an unproblematic category, unmarked by power) is all that is necessary to facilitate emancipation, overlooks the structures (legal, educational, cultural, economic, etc.) which actually produce the subjects in question. In other words, merely quibbling over the Senate's gender makeup is not going to cut it. Butler acknowledges, though, that such concerns are hardly reactionary, indeed by and large we inhabit a world where the pervasive social/cultural condition is such that women's lives are "misrepresented or not represented at all". Nonetheless, 'representation' must not go uncriticized as the goal of feminist politics. For Butler, feminist political practice requires a "radical rethinking of the ontological constructions of identity appears to be necessary in order to formulate a representational politics that might revive feminism on other grounds." What this means more specifically, is that "the identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation."

'Identity' is also regularly invoked as a concern within feminist politics. But for Butler, to return to this theme about the social/discursive-constitution of subjects, we must ask "to what extent do regulatory practices of gender formation and division constitute identity, the internal coherence of the subject, indeed, the self-identical status of the person?" She answers: the "coherence and continuity of 'the person' are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility." Thus, she continues: "Intelligible genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire." Accordingly, "the very notion of 'the person' is called into question by the cultural emergence of those 'incoherent' or 'discontinuous' gendered beings who appear to be persons but fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined."

For Bulter,
"The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of 'identities' cannot 'exist' -that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not 'follow' from either sex or gender. 'Follow' in this context is a political relation of entailment instituted by the cultural laws that establish and regulate the shape and meaning of sexuality."
Later in the book, Butler undertakes an immanent critique of Monique Wittig's revolutionary 'lesbian materialism' (see Wittig's marvelous short book of essays titled The Straight Mind). Butler's main bone of contention with Wittig is the alleged humanism underlying her theoretical writings. Butler accuses Wittig of putting the project of feminist politics in the following way: either you accept the prescribed normative regime of heterosexuality (and by this she means the traditional marriage of 'man' and 'woman' with all of its patriarchal, violent and oppressive qualities) and you are complicit, or you radically reject this regime and refuse it. To refuse it means, concretely, to destabilize the regime of heterosexism and lesbianism seem to be, for Wittig, the only serious means of resistance. Because according to Butler's reading of Wittig, the goal of the latter's politics is to explode from within and eliminate the compulsory norms of heterosexuality and to thus recover some prior-existing "I" which had been oppressed and weighed down by dense layers of ideology (sexual dimorphism.) Unsurprisingly, Butler takes aim at this supposedly pre-discursive "I" which must be recovered and freed within Wittig's emancipatory project.

But I'm unsure of what to make of Butler's critique. I suppose this unsureness really speaks to my uneasiness with the whole 'anti-humanism' of the tradition of French thought from which Gender Trouble in some sense emerges. Are we really stuck choosing between the "humanism" of classical liberalism (the pre-social, unencumbered, 'homo-economicus' rational chooser) or the "anti-humanism" of post-Althusserian French philosophy in which there simply are no 'subjects' at all, where the notion of 'the subject' is always already an ideological category? My sense is no. But don't ask me for a third alternative yet. I dont think one necessarily has to have that figured out in order to find problems with the structuralist/poststructuralist animosity toward 'the subject' as such. Their critique of the bourgeois conception of agency is well taken, as is Butler's elaborate and very compelling deconstructurion of gender/sex. But are we really left with no subjects at all?

Here I'm tempted to think here of Adorno (paraphrased here by Gillian Rose) who held that "any theory which sought completely to deny the illusory power of the subject would tend to reinstate that illusion even more than one which overestimated the power of the subject".

I must also admit that my acquaintance with French theory (particularly Structuralism and Poststructuralism) is highly influenced by Perry Anderson's account in his short book (itself based on a series of lectures) called In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. (Incidentally, his other short book Considerations on Western Marxism is probably the best summary of 20th century Marxist theory there is). The chapter on "Structure and Subject" is particularly relevant to this discussion. There, Anderson situates French structuralism/poststructuralism historically and politically as a mode of engaging the 'structure versus subject' problematic, in other words, the "nature of the relationships between structure and subject in human history and society."

This has always been an insoluble problem within the Marxist tradition. As Anderson points out (and as I alluded to in my post on Althusser, when describing the controversies over the precise nature of the 'economic base' in the theory of ideology), "there is a permanent oscillation in Marx's own writings between his ascription of the primary motor of historical change to the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production, on the one hand (think Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)... and to the class struggle (think of the Communist Manifesto) on the other."

So, for Anderson, Marxism (in France, at least) was challenged on its own turf by structuralism/poststructuralism (that is, the turf of structure vs. subject) and the latter has obviously supplanted the former as the dominant intellectual force in France today. But what is to be said of the anti-humanist 'solution' to the structure/subject problematic offered by structuralism/postructuralism? Anderson identifies a few key aspects of the way it has been fleshed out among theorists associated within this intellectual milieu (e.g. Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, Kristeva, etc.). First, there is the 'exorbitation of language'. In poststructuralism, there is a huge emphasis on language, on the linguistic, on 'discursive practices', on the symbolic and the circulation of signifiers. Put succinctly, there is a "fundamental expansion in the jurisdiction of the linguistic" in structuralism, a "speculative aggrandizement of language". The result, for Anderson, is the "gradual megalomania of the signifier" in which we are left with "a system of floating signifiers pure and simple, with no determinable relation to any extra-linguistic referents at all".

As Anderson points out:
"High structuralism was never more strident than in its annunciation of the end of man. Foucault struck the characteristically prophetic note when he declared in 1966 that 'Man is the process of perishing as the being of language continues to shine ever more brightly upon our horizon.' But who is the 'we' to perceive or possess such a horizon? In the hollow of the pronoun lies the aporia of the program."
I am tempted to agree with Anderson who concludes that structure and subject are 'interdependent categories', that must be understood with a 'dialectical respect for their interdependence.' But where does this leave us? This post has meandered on long enough, from Butler's denunciation of 'identity politics' to her rejection of 'the Subject' and the alleged underlying humanism in Wittig, through Althusser and structuralism/poststructuralism and eventually to a sort of dialectical proposal to engage the subject/structure problematic.

I've spent a lot of time sorting through theory here, but what I'm really interested in is what it means for political practice. Perhaps a proper appraisment of this aspect of the above theoretical musings will have to wait for a later post. What I'm really interested in is what the tension between Butler/Wittig means for feminist political practice. More on this to come.