Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Here's a Cookie: I Like My Women Natural Edition

Dear Sexist Sticker Guy, 

On my walk home from the train, there's a telephone pole that you decided to use as your soapbox. You took a US Post Office sticker, slapped it on the telephone pole, and wrote the following in graffiti-style text: 

I can't see your face underneath all that makeup, girl. 

Maybe you think you deserve a cookie because you like your women natural. Maybe you think you're sending a liberating, woman-positive message. Never mind the use of "girl" to get this point across. Never mind your male gaze bullshit in which the proverbial woman's (oops, sorry, "girl's") makeup prevents you from seeing what YOU want to see (i.e., her face). Never mind the fact that I, who never wear makeup anyway, am subjected to your stupid little scolding every time I walk around the corner of Lawrence and Clark.

So fuck you, sexist sticker guy, wherever you are. Women neither apply nor remove makeup for your benefit. And they certainly don't give a shit whether you can see their faces. You're a tool.

An Unwilling Reader in Chicago

P.S. You want a cookie? Here's your cookie. In fact, you don't even deserve this cookie, but I'm really excited about this recent initiative, Feminist Cookies, put together by the 52 Acts Blog. Go check out this neat cyberfeminist project! Especially you, Sexist Sticker Guy. 


Monday, April 27, 2009

Mike Davis on Swine Flu

Read it here.

Also, The Guardian reports that Congressional Republicans nixed $900 million for Pandemic prevention measures from the Stimulus bill. Right now, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins has an article on her webpage boasting of her opposition to the proposed stimulus spending on pandemic response and prevention mesures.

Also, wack-job secessionist governor of Texas Rick Perry has asked the oppressive, out-of-control, tax-loving Stalinist bureaucracy known as the 'US Federal Government' for help in dealing with the Swine Flu outbreak, in particular, for reserves of Tamiflu. I'm sure we can expect him to rachet up the anti-Washington rhetoric again once this outbreak blows over.


Adapt universities to the demands of multinational capitalism

That's Mark C. Taylor's thesis, anyway, in his recent addition to the trash-heap of shoddy Op/Ed's published by the NyTimes. The fact that the article is poorly organized and argued notwithstanding, Taylor's entire approach begins by uncritically (or worse, unknowingly) accepting the demands and coordinates of contemporary capitalism as the basis for 'reforming' universities. Little is said explicitly about the role of the university in society or the way in which current university arrangements and departments are the sedimentation of past (and ongoing) economic and political struggles.

The university, he warns in a moment of anti-intellectualism, is "producing products for which there are no markets." Let's pick this sentence apart. First of all, why should we accept that the aim of graduate education in universities is primarily to produce products, and moreover why should the goal of universities be to sculpt these sorts of products in a way that accords with the demands of multinational capitalism? Why not ask instead, as any critical intellectual would do, what is it about contemporary societies (and the role of intellectuals and institutions of higher learning within them) such that there isn't a "high demand" for much of what intellectuals do? Why not critically 'deconstruct' the social/political functioning of the markets in question, rather than taking them as given, authoritative and requiring that we subordinate ourselves to them?

What's abundantly clear throughout Taylor's piece is that he has little grasp of how economic and political power is diffused throughout contemporary US universities or what place they have in society more broadly. Quoting an obscure bit from a minor Kant text without developing it isn't going to cut it. Moreover, since when is Kant (writing in 1789 in Taylor's example) the authority on 'mass' anything? Taylor lambasts colleagues for studying Duns Scotus, but nonetheless cites a quote from Kant that's meant to pertain to the particulars of a topic about which Kant couldn't have said anything interesting since he died long before the coordinates of mass markets and multinational capitalism came to define social life. (I'm hardly saying we've nothing to learn from Kant in navigating contemporary states of affairs, but let's not pretend he got the last word on mass market culture or finance capital).

Taylor frames a lot of his suggestions in terms of the fact that Universities are facing an economic crisis. But he offers no analysis of how the ways universities get their money might affect the way that they function. In short, he offers no analysis of the role institutions of higher learning play in contemporary capitalist societies. It's a pity he doesn't inquire as to why his Religion department, for instance, has 10 measly faculty members while the economics department probably has 25-30. Or ask why does the business school get oodles of cash while the humanities wither? It has little to do with the predispositions of academics as such, but rather with the place of intellectual life within contemporary societies ruled largely by the demands of profit margins. Taylor is either painfully ignorant of this relationship, or chooses to remain silent on the central problem of intellectual life today.

Contra Taylor: why should Universities simply accept the cuts that are being implemented? Why not fight them? Taylor assumes they are as natural as the onset of spring weather, so he asks "why not adapt?"

Of course, there are many nuanced points to make about the problematic (and arbitrary) nature of departmental distinctions and how they obscure the sort of interdisciplinary work that challenges prevailing assumptions rather than taking them as immovable starting points (e.g. try talking about 'social justice' to a hardcore rational-choice theory PoliSci department). But Taylor doesn't really have anything to say here that is interesting or helpful. Suggesting that we create a "Water Studies" program isn't anything but an exemplification of his ignorance of all the concrete, institutional and economic conditions that impact the university in contemporary societies. How will changed curricula impact the money that universities get? How will, for example, making all departments fair game for abolition not simply expose them to the punishing logic of neoliberalism (i.e. keep only those disciplines which are 'useful' or are amenable to capitalism and profit-maximization)? Also, who will get to decide what all of these 'problem-oriented' disciplines will be? State legislatures doing the 'regulating' that Taylor speaks so highly of (without filling out in concrete terms)? Back in the 1960s, those on the Left used to critically engage the University itself as an 'ideological state apparatus' and make radical calls for the democratic self-management of universities by faculty and students (i.e. not by a caste of administrative bureaucrats and ex-capitalists). But Taylor seems to be saying instead: "embrace the role of ideological state apparatus and don't ask too many pesky questions about this role."

An example of this tendency is when Taylor proposes that "consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses". But why should we, as critical intellectuals, accept that 'real life' is merely a matter of adopting a post at any old business? Its only for the neoliberal that 'real life' consists of the fluctuations of finance markets and the demands of corporate capitalism. Taylor appears quite happy to enlist himself up with this way of proceeding. Why not, alternatively, challenge the existing order rather than lapping it up as given?

Taylor's pot-shots at tenure seem like little more than anti-intellectual posturing, a favorite hat of academics writing nonsense about academia in the NyTimes (see: Stanley Fish).

Mandatory retirement? Abolish tenure? How about crushing what few graduate student unions there are as well! Let's subject all of those lazy academics to market forces! He seems to completely misunderstand the fact that tenure is primarily about the relationship of the intellectual to society, and its justification is largely political. What alternative does he offer that serves this purpose? None. He only takes shots at older academics who crowd out younger ones by maintaining their posts for a long time. This is a problem, to be sure, but it is completely unclear why the facile proposals of ending tenure and enforcing retirement are warranted as solutions. What about Eric Hobsbawm, for example, who is in his 80s but has been publishing important books like crazy for the last 10 years? Should he be forced into retirement and stripped of tenure? What about Habermas? Should he get booted from his university post in Frankfurt because he's quite old, even though he continues to write dense philosophical texts as well as teach and lecture?

Taylor's suggestions belong at a Religion departmental meeting, not in print. Certainly not in the NYTimes.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Some good news about the economy

Via the NY Times.

That's some comforting news, for those of us who were panicked about the dipping salaries of Wall Street billionaires.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How could such a nice, upper-class white man do such bad things?

(This post contains potentially triggering descriptions of violent crimes against women.)

Philip Markoff is white, upper-middle class, highly educated, and engaged to be married. There is also strong evidence to suggest that he's committed some deeply misogynistic crimes. Why are these two realities so difficult for some folks to reconcile?

Prosecutors have alleged that Markoff prowled Craigslist for vulnerable women (who'd posted services as masseuses or sex workers), made appointments with them, and then robbed them. He allegedly tied up one of his victims inside a hotel room, binding her to the inside of the door, after robbing her. When his second target Julissa Brisman put up a fight, he allegedly killed her. She had three bullet wounds and a massive head injury when her body was found.

In the NBC news video available with this article, the anchor expresses incredulity that a man with Markoff's background apparently has the capacity for misogyny, violence, and -- in an aspect of the case that has particularly fascinated our media -- that he fooled his fiancee into believing that Markoff could never hurt a fly.

I know it's a really predictable narrative: good boy gone bad. Markoff isn't the first white man to kill a woman and be the subject of armchair psychological analysis of "what went wrong," or how he "snapped." Indeed, it's interesting how Markoff himself - instead of Brisman, his victim -- is the object of such intense fascination. We can only imagine how differently this case would be treated if Markoff were a young black man, or from a poor background, or an immigrant. And his victims' status as sex workers reinforces their invisibility.

The Markoff case isn't being framed as an issue of violence against women. But why shouldn't it be? If we're going to psychoanalyze, why not start with the patriarchal field of medicine in which he's being trained? Why not start with the culture of date rape on college campuses, where Markoff has spent the last six years of his life? Why not ask why Markoff selected these victims -- women doing sex work, women living somewhat on the margins -- to rob and terrorize?

Most of all, it is a dangerous assumption that a man who looks nice (in this case, "nice" means young, white, and educated) could not be a predator. Nice-looking, affable men may beat their female partners every day. Nice-looking men may be misogynists. Nice-looking men may abuse prostitutes, or rape their dates. Unfortunately, violence against women crosses race and class lines. As a culture, we must recognize that the dehumanization of women, particularly sex workers, is an equal-opportunity social phenomenon.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Class Power

In recent posts I've claimed that certain actions and economic arrangements are indicative of the class power of certain groups. I'd like to be more specific about what I mean by class and the relevant forms power exercised in virtue of this feature of contemporary capitalist societies.

By class, I mean the technical sense of the term such as we find in Marx's writings on political economy. I say that its 'technical' because the way of using 'class' that I'm interested in deploying differs from how the word is often used. In common parlance, class often describes the income bracket of a particular person as well as all of the attendant social marks, tastes, consumer tendencies and dispositions commensurate with that income level. According to common usage, class can refer to the well-off, the extremely rich, 'old money', nouveau-riche, the (amorphous and often-invoked) 'middle class', the poor, etc.

I want to use class in a different way. According to the Marxist-inflected approach that I'd like to resuscitate, class refers to a person's relation to the way that economic production is organized. In capitalism, most economic production is organized in such a way that one group owns the productive machinery, property and raw materials while another group, who does not own any productive machinery or raw materials, is employed by the former group and paid a wage to work.

The first group, capitalists, are so designated based on their specific role within economic production. They own factories, they make the major decisions about where money will be invested, how it will be spent, they create jobs, etc. They also have exclusive rights to the profits generated from the products produced in factories that they own. They are further distinguished as capitalists because they purchase (employ) labor for a price (a wage) in order that their companies can operate. Capitalists are a rather small fraction of the population of contemporary societies.

Workers, in contrast, make up the majority of society. They do not own productive machinery or possess large amounts of capital that could be invested for a profit. The only thing workers have to sell is their ability to labor (what Marx called 'labor power'). Therefore, they are dependent on capitalists to employ them in order that they can earn income and subsist.

Stepping back now and looking broadly at the organization of economic production in capitalist societies, we can make a couple of generalizations.

First, from the perspective of capitalists labor is a cost of running a company which is best kept as low as possible. This is analogous to the way that capitalists also seek to acquire any raw materials they need as cheaply as possible. Thus we should hardly find it surprising that capitalists virulently oppose unionization, labor organizing, minimum wage ordinances, laws establishing the 8 hour workday/40hr work week, and so forth. All of these either increase the price capitalists have to pay for labor, or restrict their ability to most efficiently accumulate profit.

Second, we should note that when capitalists have their way, workers have no say in major economic decisions. Capitalists make virtually all of the major decisions about where to invest capital, what to produce, how to organize productive efforts, where to set up operations, etc.

Now the point I'm trying to make isn't that everyone in society is either a capitalist or a worker. Contemporary societies are far more economically complex than that. Rather, my aim is to redeploy class as a concept that relates an individual to the way that production in society is organized. The reason for the focus on workers and capitalists is that those two classes are products of modern industrial capitalism and represent the most antagonistic economic classes in society. The payoff of understanding class in this way is that it enables us to examine and highlight asymmetrical relationships of power in the economic and social field that aren't simply a matter of disparities income inequality. Certainly it is relevant to the pursuit of social justice to ensure that people's life chances and access to basic social goods (health care, education, housing, etc.) aren't circumscribed by the amount of money that they (or their family) earn. But focusing only income inequality (as many liberals often do) scrutinizes only the effects of a capitalist economy; it doesn't offer any analysis of how differential incomes come about, it doesn't offer any analysis of how employment works (i.e. who does the employing).

US left-liberals frequently focus on the State as means to redistribute goods and resources in order to attenuate the social ills of capitalism. But this focus often fails to account for the fact that the State is always already an institution located within capitalism, and therefore subject to the market and the class which wields the most economic power. I'm not referring to the way that those with big money can influence elected officials via lobbying and campaign contributions, although this phenomenon is widespread. I mean something broader and more fundamental to the way that capitalist societies function. While there many other ways that such an analysis could proceed (e.g. the way that capitalist production impacts culture, education, language, etc.), I want to focus only on the way that class power impacts how the State operates in capitalist societies.

To get a sense of what I'm talking about, consider any number of examples of progressive/center-Left politicians who've been elected because they pledged to push through certain reforms that the majority of the population wanted, but that threatened the profits and clout of capitalists in the economic realm (e.g. see Mandela and Lula's respective first terms). Even when these left-minded politicians have uncontested electoral majorities and the intent to push through social reforms, they still have to fight against the inertia of capitalists who have enormous economic power. But why should that be? According to the standard liberal way of thinking about politics, representative democracy means that all political power is concentrated in the hands of the State, which is under democratic control. But if that were true, why would democratically-elected majorities in control of the State have to fight against anyone to exercise their democratic mandate?

Just as workers can use their role in production to wield power if they are organized (i.e. they can strike), so
can capitalists threaten to use their control over production as leverage since society is thoroughly dependent on capitalist production for most all basic necessities (and we should also note here that the government relies on tax revenue collected largely from profits generated by capitalists).

For example, capitalists can threaten to say: if you raise taxes on us, we will produce less and then everyone will be worse off because the economy will stumble.

They can also threaten to close up and move their businesses elsewhere (i.e. leave the US, or leave a particular state, or a particular city).

They can say: if you impose rent-controls or rent-freezes, we will stop renting out the properties we own so there will be a housing shortage.

They can say: if you try and raise the minimum wage, we will lay off workers creating unemployment since we don't want to give up our current profit margins.

What can the government do about these sorts of threats so long as it relies upon capitalist production to ensure that society functions? Well, according to neoliberal orthodoxy, what you do is systematically give in to the demands of the class making these threats. According to this logic, if you want economic growth you cut taxes, if you want employment you slash wages, if you want rentiers to provide lots of housing you make conditions conducive to them getting filthy rich. More often than not, these measures are prescribed as necessities, as though the laws of nature required that if wages rise then employment must decrease as a result.

But if it is true that increasing wages will lead capitalists to employ less people, this isn't because of "nature". This is because greedy capitalists (i.e. people in our societies who make conscious choices) do not want their profit margins to decrease. They, in effect, 'make it true' that increasing wages decreases employment in the cases where this actually happens. The fact that they get to decide (i.e. not workers, not democratic bodies) whether or not to employ people is an example of class power. When politicians have to make public policy decisions based on what capitalists will do in response, they are making decisions based on the class power of capitalists. When capitalists claim that 'unionization is bad for the economy', they are implicitly referring to their class power insofar as what they mean is that increased wages and benefits for workers is something they don't want to see. Capitalists could, of course, share power and profits with the workers, but instead of sharing a sliver of either capitalists typically opt for moving their operations elsewhere or for a head-on fight. In both cases they use their role within production to force others in less powerful positions to do their bidding.

I'ts crucial to note that the above example isn't really a matter of income levels. Often very well-paid 'white collar' individuals in large companies have little more actual power than wage-earning workers do. They have little more say in whether they have a job, and often they are just as expendable when the ownership's profits are on the line. Of course, these individuals may lead more luxurious lifestyles and have less unmet basic needs, but this is not the same as class power. In some cases, salaried managers find themselves in a no man's land between a unionzed workforce and powerful capitalists above them.

When the ownership of Fedex threatens to cancel orders that they've arranged with Boeing if the EFCA passes, the capitalists in charge of the company are utilizing class power to pressure society into giving in. They are, in effect, threatening to send a torpedo into an already weak economy by cancelling a major order. Succinctly put, they're saying "don't even try to think about making unionization possible or we'll fuck up the economy even more than it already is and we'll be just fine because we won't be the ones losing our jobs." This threat is serious because it could effect a lot of people's jobs both in and well beyond Boeing. And the capitalists in charge of Fedex are capable of making these threats because they hold a lot of economic bargaining chips, in short, because they wield class power. Remind me again what a 'free' market is supposed to be...?


Bernie Marcus on EFCA

(via Huffington Post). Here are some zingers, in case you missed them:

"If a retailer has not gotten involved in this, if he has not spent money on this election, if he has not sent money to [former Sen.] Norm Coleman and all these other guys, they should be shot. They should be thrown out their goddamn jobs," Marcus declared.
"As a shareholder, if I knew the CEO of the company wasn't doing anything on [EFCA]... I would sue the son of a bitch... I'm so angry at some of these CEOs, I can't even believe the stupidity that is involved here."
But then, there's also:
"This bill may be one of the worst things I have ever seen in my life," he said, explaining that he could have been on "a 350-foot boat out in the Mediterranean," but felt it was more important to engage on this fight. "It is incredible to me that anybody could have the chutzpah to try and pass this bill in this election year, especially when we have an economy that is a disaster, a total absolute disaster."
Preach it, Bernie. I wish you would air these statements for the ridiculously-named "Center for Union Facts" ads.

Then there's also the case of Citibank, who is using their $50 billion in TARP money to help combat the EFCA. Money well spent. It's like ransom tactics are an essential part of how big banks deal with society: Give me big $$ otherwise we'll sink the goddamn economy! Wait, now that we have the money, now we're going to screw workers and claim that if anyone tries to make unionization possible for the myriad workers who want it, then we'll... threaten to sink the economy and spend our TARP money combating the legislation! Another splendid case of this, of course, is that Fedex has claimed that if EFCA passes they will cancel a bunch of large orders from Boeing for more planes. Not because of anything financial, simply because they want to use their class power to threaten to send a torpedo into a crippled economy unless they get their way and keep unionization at bay. They don't even make a secret of it, they brazenly declare in the open that they will try to sabatoge the economy unless they get their way.

Where is the coverage of this in the big media outlets?


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Business leaders hold conference call on how to crush the EFCA

(via HuffingtonPost), So if you are wondering what the EFCA is really all about, listen to what the class of people up in arms about it have to say about it. They sound off in public about how they are for 'workers rights' and how the EFCA is really only a debate about maintaining the 'secret ballot' (i.e. 'company-dominated elections'). But they know that the EFCA really boils down to class power, and this is why they are so up in arms. They don't want unionization because that means that workers have both more say about how the job gets done and more bargaining power to demand a larger share of the profits that they produce for the company. Over the last 40 years productivity has soared yet wages have stagnated, and the difference (increased profits) was appropriated by the ownership of businesses, not their workers.

(graph from EPI: more here)

And now the class who has absorbed that increase in profit doesn't want to have to give any of it back. Hence their worry about the possibility of more unionization.

So this transcript has nothing new to tell us, but is a perfect exemplification of why the EFCA debate is, at bottom, a matter of class antagonism. You can listen to what they say at length, but here is a gem:
"This is the demise of a civilization," said Marcus. "This is how a civilization disappears. I am sitting here as an elder statesman and I'm watching this happen and I don't believe it."
At one point, relatively early in the call, Marcus joked that he "took a tranquilizer this morning to calm myself down."
(Bernie Marcus is the founder of Home Depot... I'm still wondering how that makes him an elder statesman...). Lisen to what he's saying: "civilization is threatening to disappear". This comes after the VP of the US Chamber of Commerce (which has promised to spend up to $10 million to defeat the bill) declared that the EFCA was tantamount to "Armageddon". I mean, how can any honest person listen to these proclamations and really believe that the EFCA is about the current pro-employer NLRB system and the 'maintenance of the secrete ballot'? This is about the class who owns the largest businesses potentially losing some of their class power and being forced to share some of their profits. And we aren't talking here about the expropriation of the expropriators, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie qua class, worker-controlled production, etc. We are talking, merely, about the ability of workers to form a legally-recognized organization in which they can choose to exercise their right to lay down their tools and not work, all so that they can get job security, benefits, modest income increases, and a more respected say in how the jobs they do should get done. This is what Marcus is losing sleep over. This is what he sees as the destruction of "civilization"; the loss of a small fraction of class power is tantamount to the destruction of the social order as he knows it.

And this bit about the "Starbucks Problem" coined by the capitalist conference-call is well covered in this recent article at

More on this to follow...


Thursday, April 16, 2009

International Right-Wingers Attempt to Assassinate Morales

BBC reports.

Bolivia's President Evo Morales has said the country's security forces have broken up a plot to assassinate him.

Three alleged international mercenaries in the city of Santa Cruz were killed, after Mr Morales gave the order to thwart the attempt on his life.

And the silent American press remains completely disconnected from from developments in leftist Latin American politics.


Elizabeth Warren on the failures of the capitalist cycle

Amazing we're seeing this kind of thing on a comedy show. This recession has brought that critical eye to the free market back to the mainstream, and that's pretty cool, even if what she's recommending is very reformist in nature.

Warren is professor at Harvard Law, heading up congressional oversight of the bank bailout.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A fat tax for flights?

Apparently, United Airlines received more than 700 complaints last year from passengers whose overweight neighbor "spilled over" into their seat space. So now, according to today's Chicago Tribune, United has a new policy. If you don't fit into one seat -- with the armrests down -- the flight attendants will try to find you 2 seats in a row.

But if the flight attendants can't find 2 seats in a row for you, you'll be bumped from the flight.

I always fly Southwest -- which, as the article points out, has a similar policy -- and I can hardly remember a flight that wasn't completely full. Two seats in a row can be mighty hard to come by during busy travel times. It seems to me that really overweight people are going to be shit out of luck during Thanksgiving, unless they purchase two seats. Which is the point.

For me, this definitely raises some serious concerns about discrimination and disability, but I'm no expert. I've gathered that the whole "fat people riding airplanes" thing is a much-discussed topic in the fat blogosphere.

Big Fat Blog has a few posts on the issue: one which questions whether thin passengers should get a $250 voucher because they had to sit next to a fat person, and another describing a "one person, one fare" policy law recently passed in Canada.

Kate Harding has written about the issue of weighing passengers, which is a big fucking can of worms. But it's not THAT different from eyeballing people and trying to decide whether they'll fit in one seat or not. Will the attendants check the airplane for any human flesh spilling over into space they didn't purchase? How can any such policy be enforced without serious embarrassment and inconvenience?

One thing's for certain: in virtually every story, the comments section is a horror show. People ask rhetorical questions like "Why should I have to sit next to a fat ass?" and "Must we bear the consequences because that person has eaten too much pizza and fast food?" There is a lot of vitriolic hatred of fat people, and it's deeply disturbing. We all know someone who's tiny and eats a lot of fast food; we all know someone who's NOT tiny and who eats healthfully and exercises a lot. The contempt and hatred on these threads is pretty ridiculous.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Around the world for 80 grand!

I'm emerging from a long-running hiatus to do what I do best: sigh about the New York Times' coverage of rich folks. The most recent installment is about a law firm which offered some of its associates a deal: take a year off - don't show up for work - and we'll pay you a third of your base pay. That's $80,000.

So of course, the article is about one woman who chose to take the offer and is going to take a trip around the world. For a year. She's considering Tanzania, Rwanda, India, and other exotic places. How do I know this? Because her dining room table is covered with Lonely Planets. My breakfast table, however, is covered with (proverbial) puke.

Could this paper be any more tone-deaf? This irritating theme -- that the recession is turning out to be a perfect time for upper-class, secure people to do some soul-searching and globetrotting -- offends me. Does this law firm's policy really constitute a 'trend' worth mentioning to millions of Americans? Given the employment and income situation of MOST Americans, isn't this article sort of like putting a big, chocolate-covered strawberry under the nose of a starving man and then eating it in front of him?

That being said, I think I'll email this woman and see if she needs a Swahili translator to come along for the East Africa section of the trip. I'm pretty rusty, but it's worth a shot.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Urban life, planning, and mass transit in wide context

I have a kind of fascination with public transportation. There are so many things about it that I believe in: sharing space and seeing the faces of your fellow city-dwellers; the egalitarian spirit of everyone getting on the same trains and buses and sharing moments of inconvenience and convenience alike; being able to relax and retreat from the cut-throat mentality of drivers; never having to worry about parking; the environmental benefits. The CTA (train and rail), which I typically ride every single day in one way or another, is in many ways an example of these virtues. I feel invested in its future and the condition its in; when someone trashes CTA literally (e.g. vandalism) or figuratively (e.g. a disparaging remark), I take it personally. Despite all its problems and shortcomings, it is a resource that I've never really had access to in any other place I've lived. Unless they live in San Fran, New York, Boston or D.C., most every American doesn't have access to this kind of resource. I feel really fortunate.

But laying on the table what one is fortunate to have should in no way impact their propensity to demand more from their current situation. Like some liberal's posture toward Obama, I sometimes sense that people mistake bold calls for more audacious reform than the present exhibits as "not being thankful for what we are getting now". For instance, I can recall making a critical comment about the poverty of current ways of funding higher education (e.g. heavy reliance on loans and lotteries instead of progressive taxes and grants), for which an Obamahead mildly chastised me since my criticism suggested that I wasn't sufficiently 'thankful' for the low-hanging fruit Obama snatched by massively increasing education spending on Pell Grants and so forth. I am pleased that Obama did that, it is a huge improvement over the outlook of the last 30 years which has been cut taxes, cut education spending. But, it should go without saying, that doesn't meant that there aren't MUCH more audacious reform measures that could be undertaken were the current outlook not so circumscribed by our country's relatively business-leaning conservative political culture. This becomes very apparent when, contrary to the inclinations of most American commentators, you take a look at policy in other countries.

The two most heavily used and largest systems in the Europe are the Paris Metro and the Moscow Metro. The world's most heavily used system is the Tokyo Subway and 8 of the top-10 most heavily used systems in the world are outside of Europe. The complete list is here, and although the CTA has the third busiest rapid transit rail system in the USA (behind NYC and DC, although when you add buses, CTA is a close second to NYC in terms of overall use), it doesn't even make the top 30 worldwide. That's crazy. But not totally unbelievable when you consider how much of the metro area surrounding Chicago is car-centric, strip mall, parking-lot heavy suburbs. Nonetheless, the Chicago area does (at least) offer commuter-rail service to these areas, which is more than can be said of most US cities.

Compare this to the Moscow Metro. The Moscow Metro is the world's second most heavily used rapid transit system. Moscow has about 5 times the population of Chicago, so its really not fair to compare gross transit use (although, Chicago's metro area is roughly equal to Moscow's population, which makes me wonder what things might've looked like if greater-Chicagoland had developed in a less haphazardly suburban-centric way in the 50s and 60s which peaked with the intense 'White-flight' of the late 60s).

Structurally, the Moscow Metro is very similar to the way the Chicago "L" is set up. It has a center and spoke layout, although just glancing at the map of the rail system you can gleam that the Moscow Metro is far more comprehensive (there are more spokes and less gaps between spokes) and it has a crucial connecting rail running in a circle which links up all of the spokes with one another. Since I've lived in Chicago, I've heard murmurs about how such a development (a spoke-connecting ring) is on the distant back-burner somewhere, but there is basically no possibility of this happening any time soon. The CTA has annual budget crises (despite increases in ridership) due to an unjust funding scheme and the fact that CTA pays ever year for upkeep and deterioration allowed in years past, although funding works on a year-to-year basis. If you didn't maintain something during 1975-79, for example, and you continue to rely on it today... there is a sense in which the current yearly budget is being hit by a particular instance of neglect that occurred many years ago. I'm sure there are more recent examples, and this can become really tough when the CTA is expected to keep things running at the same time it struggles to keep up with snowballing maintenance needs.

So, my first impression glancing at the Moscow rail is that it is extremely well-planned and comprehensive, in a way that Chicago's system aspires to be.

Began in 1931 with the first line opening in 1935, the Moscow Metro still bears many of the aesthetic characteristics of Stalinism and the ideology of that era. The Moscow Metro has a large number of excellent examples of socialist realism, and is world-renowned for its astoundingly ornate stations. It's not difficult to place these characteristics within the logic of Stalinism (traditionalist reaction against modern forms of architecture, regression to neo-Baroque and neo-Classical forms, etc.). But I will say that there is something impressive about the unabashed exaltation of public space (setting aside the ways in which this facade function under conditions of Stalinist oppression) and the almost opulent decorative quality of the stations. You could almost mistake some of the stations for pictures from the halls of a 18th century palace.

Its as though the idea was that, in repudiating the privatization of this sort of opulence (inside the guarded walls of the Palmer House, or the Waldorf Astoria, etc.), the stations were meant as an intense reminder that what was supposed to matter was people sharing these spaces together in public settings. I'm not trying to defend any sliver of Stalinism on its own terms, only pointing out that (despite the opulence Stalin surrounded himself with while many others suffered) when we compare the ethos of theses structures (I mean, quite literally, the stations themselves) with capitalist counterparts of the same era (especially in the US) there is not the same audacious push to celebrate public space as the pinnacle of where the social surplus should be invested. Probably the only time that we see similar developments in the US were during the New Deal (take a look at a post office built during this era, or a school, and tell me it doesn't strike you as a building struggling to win over public enthusiasm and cast itself as a monument to civilization itself). But we shouldn't forget that this was an era when the US lived under the shadow of the USSR in the sense that it felt it had to compete economically and socially with a regime that was basically immune to the Great Depression and was, by means that were brutal and savage, able to provide full employment, comprehensive health provisions and education services for free.

I don't think you have to accept any aspect of Stalinism as such to look at some of the things (technologically, logistically) that the Soviet regime was able to accomplish in the 30s and 40s in terms of public amenities and structural urban planning and wonder in an exploratory spirit, if these things were accomplished then and there, why couldn't they also be accomplished here and now? Why can't we have full employment, unconditional and universal provision of health services and comprehensive education as well as a system of public space and transportation that is commensurate with the best technological and productive capacities civilization has to offer? Many people wondered similar things in the 1930s in the US, and most of them weren't Communists or committed Leftists but rather, like the caste of bureaucrats who ran the Soviet Union at the time, technocrats and economists who were after any instrumental value embodied in the Soviet economic/technological model.

To make sense out of the Soviet system, we have to totally abjure the Cold War logic of good/evil and take a sober look at the economic details of different sytems (different worlds?) that had elements of overlap. I'm not calling for some crude 'half-way' between Soviet-style Communism and the US captialism of the 1920s, I'm only pointing out that on the side of technical organizing and producing schemes, there are important lessons to be drawn from the experience of the Soviet economy, particularly for anyone interested in the possibility of an alternative to capitalism.

Whatever else we may say about the Soviet system, the social surplus was not siphoned off by capitalists and reinvested in frivolous consumerist undertakings (e.g. Coke, Pepsi, Hersheys, et al. who spend billions each year in advertising alone) in order to make as much profit as possible. Despite the myriad inefficiencies and misallocations that comprised the Soviet model, the social surplus was invested heavily in social institutions that corresponded to social needs (education, transporation, housing, healthcare, etc.) rather than the imperatives of proit maximization. One thing that frustrates me about US Cities is that all too often, our government allows them to crumble and deteriorate, after which the haphazard opportunism of private developers and gentrification are billed as the only path to economic and structural recovery. In what comprised a nation-wide pattern in the 60s, nearly every single major US city experienced a peripheral suburbanization and "White flight" from urban centers which meant in concrete terms that money, tax revenue, capital investment, and economic activity fled from urban centers to the white-washed, detached, sprawling Suburban dystopias such as Levittown and the like. This also meant that housing stock, roads, municipal institutions, schools, infrastructure, and mass transit declined in major cities while crime and economic hardship rose. The result is that much of the lifeworld in the US underwent a structural transformation that changed the way people get around (i.e. during the same period the personal car was billed as a 'must have' for every American), the way we conceive of public space (if there is any... the closest thing in many locales are shopping malls), the way we interact with other people and view our fellow human beings, the way we consume, even the aesthetic and visual landscape of our surroundings. Is it any surprise that Suburbs are, by electoral standards, bastions of reaction, conservatism and individualistic 'me-first' types shouting at each other from their Suburbans and Tahoes? Is it surprising that there is basically now an entire genre of films dealing with the deadening social landscape of the American suburb and the alienating circumstances they create? The draining of life and particularity out of every corner of the US is a process that is well underway, leaving a suffocating trail of Wal-Marts, McDonalds, Applebees and massive parking lots in their wake.

We can't explain this phenomenon on locale-by-locale basis, nor can we rectify it on such a basis. This is a widespread transformation that has fundamentally altered the social, cultural and political landscape of life in the US. As Mike Davis explained in a different context, one reason that the sort of labor militancy of the 1930s is so unfathomable today is literally physical: the working classes are no longer to be found living in tight-knit urban communities in dense areas where the sort of quick-mobilization and organizing tactics of that era were part of daily life. In other words, there is something thoroughly disempowering about the actual way that suburbs are physically constructed.

Sticking to this theme about seeing these trends as part of larger economic and social forces occurring over long periods of time, this suggests to me that any deep changes will have to have a similar kind of breadth (although this hardly precludes local struggles against gentrification, zoning parks for parking lots, etc.). One thing that hurts city governments all around is that they are at the mercy of state governments for funding, and they face the threat of "White flight" tactics by the rich should they try and raise city-taxes (consider what happened when Chicago tried to institute a living-wage ordinance and Target claimed it would simply move all of its stores a half-mile outside city limits). There has to be a commitment from the Federal Government to support cities and urban development, so that the threatening tactics ("we'll close factories and leave if you don't do what we say") of capitalists and the wealthy lose their sting.

Whew. I guess I've rambled on long enough.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Historians for EFCA

(via Dissent magazine) The following is a letter sent by a large number of prominent historians, to Congress petitioning for the passage of the EFCA. It was sent on March 10th. (Also, check out this recent article in Dissent in favor of the EFCA (i.e. against company-run elections)).

To the Members of Congress:

We, the undersigned historians, feel a special obligation to speak out on behalf of the Employee Free Choice Act. In our courses, we describe how freedom of association became a prized American right and how, for working people, freedom of association became a reality when the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 granted them a protected right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. Students know this. It’s in the New Deal chapter of every textbook. So for them, it comes as a shock to discover when they enter the working world that they don’t dare exercise the rights the law says they have. And it’s up to us, as historians, to explain why they have been so badly let down.

The labor law, although amended and interpreted over many years, is still conditioned by a grand bargain made in 1935: the state would rule with a light hand if employers complied in good faith. That bargain once worked reasonably well, but no longer. In recent years, employers have taken to fighting the law at every turn. They have, in effect, withdrawn their consent, and it is no longer true that workers can exercise the rights the law says they have. NLRB elections have fallen by half in the past decade, and only a trickle of workers—about 30,000 in 2007—now gain collective bargaining through NLRB certification. The law is grinding to a halt. And, what is equally bad, we have a major act on the books that dishonors the rule of law in this country.

The remedies, however, are easily within reach. First: increase the penalties on employers who commit unfair labor practices and provide swift injunctive relief for victimized workers. Second: make employers who flout their duty to bargain (which they do, successfully, in nearly half of all first-contract negotiations) subject to a mediation/arbitration process. Third: enable workers to demonstrate their support for collective bargaining by signing authorization cards and thereby insulate them from the employer coercion that accompanies—and is given a platform by—the representation election.

These three provisions constitute the Employee Free Choice Act. It is legislation that deserves the support of every Senator and Representative who believes in the purposes of our labor law, which are, as it said 1935 and still says today, to protect “the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.”

We quote these words to our students. We’d like to believe they have meaning today. So we, the undersigned historians, support the Employee Free Choice Act and urge Congress to pass it this session.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Note to CNN: Rape within marriage is not 'rape,' it's rape.

AGHHHH. Lose the scare quotes, bastards.


Friday, April 3, 2009

EFCA under fire has a nice update and critique of present state of the Employee Free Choice Act, which is stalling out in the Senate to the point of appearing dead in the water.

I am very much sympathetic to the ISO's line on the strategic question of how to get the EFCA passed. Organized labor, particularly Change to Win and the AFL-CIO have spent a lot of time, money and human resources trying to 'lobby' members of the Senate and run TV ads. Adam Turl, the author of the piece, hints that because Big Business will always have more money and access to the halls of power, that perhaps labor shouldn't have embarked on the lobbying route at all. I disagree with that conclusion, although it is undeniably true that Big Business will always be on top in that fight. While its true that labor's emphasis ought to have been elsewhere (grassroots campaigns, etc.), I don't think this necessarily precludes any lobbying efforts whatsoever.

Indeed as Turl points out, the lobbying must be done right. That is to say, it must be conducted with the assumption that virtually nobody in the Senate is going to simply listen to 'good arguments' and vote accordingly. Pressure of some sort or another is what moves them. That, and maintaining their seat. Hence why Arlen Specter (R-PA), who co-sponsored EFCA in 2003 and voted against a GOP filibuster to kill the bill in 2007, has pulled a complete 180. He now staunchly opposes EFCA. Do you think he heard some good arguments and simply realized on the basis of reason alone that he had to change his views?

The worst part about the Change to Win, et. al lobbying effort is that it placed disproportionate attention on pleading with conservative Democrats (like senators from Arkansas), thus focusing public discussion and media debate on their terrain. It still feels too much like labor is tugging on pant legs pleading for later curfew or something. I dont see how this galvanizes the rank-and-file, nor does it create a situation like we saw in the 30s when labor militancy was, quite literally, a force that Capital and the White House alike could not ignore.

But labor's strategic failings are maybe 20% of the problem here. The real tragedy is that Democrats are jumping ship now, joining the ranks of Arlen Specter. Right-wing jerks like Ben Nelson (D-ND) show their true colors in a moment of struggle. Now, under intense pressure from Big Business, the Democrats are folding. What does this say about the Democrats? What does this say about Obama, who as I far as I can tell has been laying low on this issue? (recall back during the campaign he said: In response to a question about EFCA from a worker, Obama replied, "I won't just wait for the bill to reach my desk. I will work actively as part of my agenda to make sure that it reaches my desk...)

They had to know this was going to be war. I mean, the Chamber of Commerce told them it would be "Armaggeddon". We saw Walmart gearing up about a year ago in preparation.

Can the Democrats really claim "they tried"? Can they really defer this to a time when they will purportedly have more influence, more seats and more political capital? I'm not sure I can imagine when that would possibly be.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Obama at the G20: The "human dimensions" of the crisis

Watch this starting at 1:28.

Speaking alongside British PM Gordon Brown, Obama spoke of the urgency of the global financial crisis and the urgency to act quickly, resolutely, and globally... so he gave examples about how the 'human cost' of the depression is taking tolls on people's jobs, their businesses, people are losing their homes, their... uh... health care... well, in "the United States people are losing their healthcare" says Obama in an awkward moment.

Shame. Speaking to Germans, French and British leaders... Obama stands up and talks about the "human cost" in those countries (as well as the US) and almost said their problems had to do with people losing their health care in a time of financial crisis, when in fact all of the citizens of those countries are unconditionally guaranteed public health insurance and access to care. Whoops.

The US marketized-system of health insurance is a laughing-stock (and one, we should add, that Obama and his cartel of economic advisers appear unwilling to let go of).