Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nice Tony Wood takedown of Michael Reid's neoliberal take on Latin America

Michael Reid's book has been a hugely lauded success in mainstream Anglo-American outlets and, among the Jeffrey Sachs's, and in the Washington foreign policy establishment. And why not -it is a lengthy articulation of a point of view they all share: that what's wrong in Latin America is a 'radical populist' movement that has swept through the region over the last decade, and the medicine is more structural adjustment, more 'friendly business climates', regimes more subservient to global Capital and Washington.

As Tony Wood points out in his deft critical review of the book, it received rave reviews in the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Economist, Wapo, the Weekly Standard, the NYTimes, Foreign Affairs, and others.

Wood's review is refreshingly radical and analytically sharp. Its hard to find this kind of stuff. I mean, you can read any of the above mentioned publications regularly and begin to think that Reid's neoliberal mantra is more or less uncontroversial or unchallengeable. In my experience, I don't think it's an exaggeration at all to say that one should prima facie doubt anything whatsoever that the NYTimes has to say about the political situation in Venezuela.

As Reid argues at one point:

"Reid’s case against the Venezuelan ‘populist’ alternative is the weakest element in his overall argument, since it does not even rest on selective deployment of facts, but rather on occlusion of the Chávez government’s actual record (though here at least Reid, unlike many others, has enough integrity not to actively distort the figures). In the social sphere, this has been indisputably positive: poverty, which had reached an astronomical 65 per cent after the implementation of the imf’s ‘Agenda Venezuela’ in 1996, has been cut by almost half since Chávez took office, from 55 per cent to 31 per cent. According to Mark Weisbrot at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, government social spending has increased significantly, from 8.2 per cent of gdp in 1998 to 13.6 per cent in 2006, a figure which does not include programmes directly administered through pdvsa or the Fondo de Desarrollo Nacional, which total another 7.3 per cent of gdp. This considerable outlay has permitted a twelvefold increase in the number of primary care physicians, and a cut in the infant mortality rate from 21 per 1,000 in 1998 to 16 in 2005. Unemployment too has dropped in Chávez’s decade in power, from 11 per cent to 7.8 per cent—a development facilitated by growth rates averaging 13.5 per cent since 2003."
It's much harder to maintain the position on Latin America cultivated by the NYTimes, et. al when one actually juxtaposes to them some real figures and facts about the social/political situation there. Why think critically about a narrative that is so common as to be banal in virtually all of our media? If a modestly 'informed' person reads in 4 different 'respected' papers that Chavez is a noxious authoritarian monster, why should they bother to stop and think twice about it?


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Public Option Bait and Switch

(Via PNHP):

"The people who brought us the “public option” began their campaign promising one thing but now promote something entirely different. To make matters worse, they have not told the public they have backpedalled. The campaign for the “public option” resembles the classic bait-and-switch scam: tell your customers you’ve got one thing for sale when in fact you’re selling something very different.

When the “public option” campaign began, its leaders promoted a huge “Medicare-like” program that would enroll about 130 million people. Such a program would dwarf even Medicare, which, with its 45 million enrollees, is the nation’s largest health insurer, public or private. But today “public option” advocates sing the praises of tiny “public options” contained in congressional legislation sponsored by leading Democrats that bear no resemblance to the original model."

Read the rest here.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Work. Why I Hate It.

From Marx's Early Writings:

With the advent of barter [the labourer's] labour became in part a source of income. Its purpose and existence have become different. As value, exchange value, equivalent, the product is no longer produced on account of its direct personal connection with the producer. The more production is diversified, i.e. the more needs become diversified and the more the activity of the producer becomes one-sided, the more completely work falls into the category of wage-labour until, finally, no other meaning is left to it. It thus becomes wholly accidental and unimportant whether the relationship between producer and product is governed by immediate enjoyment and personal needs and whether the activity, the act of working, involves the fulfilment of his personality, the realization of his natural talents and spiritual goals.

Wage-labour consists of the following elements: (1) the estrangement of labour from its subject, the labourer, and its arbitrariness from his point of view; (2) the estrangement of labour from its object, its arbitrariness vis-a-vis the object; (3) the determination of the labourer by social needs alien to him and which act upon him with compulsive force. He must submit to this force from egoistic need, from necessity; for him the needs of society mean only the satisfaction of his personal wants while for society he is only the slave that satisfies its needs; (4) the labourer regards the maintenance of his individual existence as the aim of his activity; his actual labours serve only as a means to this end. He thus activates his life to acquire the means of life.
I really hate work. I know this cycle all too well, and I felt it before I ever read a paragraph of Marx. Labor is our means to life, and so, labor becomes our life. Of course, being aware of this type of estrangement and alienation makes it all the more hard to bear, I think. Why is it, with this critical perspective of work, I can't make myself do any less work or try to think about it any less in my day to day? Why do I still feel guilty when I don't work? Why can't we shape a life or identity apart form work, once we know it has the power to overtake us? And why does society insist on praising for my annoying "work ethic," as if there were some moral triumph in wage-labor.


New Left Review exchange on South Africa

R.W. Johnson has a new article in the newest edition of New Left Review. The title is "False Start in South Africa". I've caught his articles on South Africa on the demise of the ANC last fall in the LRB, which set off a series of debates. In general there is a lot to be gleamed from the article, as is usually the case with his coverage of South Africa in LRB. Nonetheless, I have one general problem with the orientation of his approach. This complaint is shared by the author of the reply to Johnson in NLR, Patrick Bond, whose article you can read here. The objection is this. Johnson often talks of policy or government in terms of creating a 'favorable environment for foreign investors' and 'not frightening away Capital with radical rhetoric or action'. Now my objection isn't that capital flight should be disregarded as a serious threat, but rather that it is illegitimate to talk about the imperatives of international Capital as though they were facts of nature. If someone holds a gun to your head and give you a demand, you'd be crazy not to take this threat seriously when deciding what to do. But being prudent here should not obscure the fact that you are being coreced by a more powerful entity.

In general, Johnson uncritically redeploys the neoliberal rhetoric of 'creating a good business climate', which turns out in concrete terms to entail: privatization of public institutions, the introduction of de facto regressive taxes in the form of new user fees, curtailing redistributive spending, and the reduction of corporate taxes.

But Bond's piece makes this point better and in more depth.

One suggestion that Bond makes about the ANC and some of the SACP (and Cosatu) activists stood out to me and seemed poignant given the perils of electoralism in the US. Bond points out that when mass movements are mobilized in South Africa, they have the effect of exerting "powerful checks on plutocratic leaders". The larger issue, however, is to understand "how popular protests around water, jobs, housing and living standards were diverted into a fight against Mbeki, rather than Mbekism -the system as a whole".

The question here that I find interesting is this: "why does the Left remain shackled to the ANC leadership, when South Africa's pure PR electoral system offers it a good chance of independent representation on a platform that would undoubtedly resonate with important sectors of the population?"

Of course in the US our electoral mechanisms thwart the possibility of having left-wing representation independent of the two-party system. It seems to me that many of the problems that plague the South African Left are analogous to the discontents of trying to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for progressive change.


Why the Privacy Justification for Abortion Rights is Bad

Every few years (lately, at least), a new nominee comes up for a position on the Supreme Court. For a week or so, the entire country is abuzz with constitutional chatter. Old news becomes news again, simply because we are reminded of it during Senate Judiciary committee hearings like those Justice Sonia Sotomayor is undergoing (or enduring?) now. Of course the perennial Supreme Court case for massive controversy is that of Roe v. Wade. Once again, abortion talks have been the most contentious and interesting in an otherwise boring hearing, thus far, and Roe has been the focus of some of the surrounding drama even outside the committee ("Jane Roe," who has become something of an anti-choice fanatic, was arrested outside the hearings).

Anti-choicers come out of the woodwork to remind us abortion is murder, while feminists and pro-choicers prepare to defend Roe until their dying breaths. As a pro-abortion rights feminist myself, such vociferous defense of Roe is tempting to me, but as one who sees the other dimensions to "rights," that go far beyond the government act of not actively stopping you from doing something, I have to remind myself to resist this game.

It's true that Roe v. Wade was monumental in assuring some American women could have some abortions. It was a vast improvement from the conditions of the pre-Roe days. But part of Roe's failure is in the very basis for the decision, the "right to privacy," as the court at the time and since, has seen in the constitution. Legalizing abortion on the grounds of a right to privacy narrows abortion rights to a neoliberal playing field. The factors of economics, geography, and everything else neoliberalism ignores, are ignored by the Roe v. Wade decision.

The fact that abortion has been framed by pro-choicers as a private issue, plays a role in nurturing public opinion into supporting things like the Hyde Amendment, which stop public dollars from being used for abortions. It prevents people from finding the language to demand a certain number of abortion clinics in every county, rural or not. Few women are helped by a law that guarantees her right to abortion, if the nearest clinic offering abortion services is 400 miles away. If this is an issue of individual privacy, however, how can we demand that the public assist us when we need the assistance? Abortion access isn't a matter or privacy but a matter of justice.

In other words, Roe v. Wade leaves us with a landscape in which women are told, sure, you're free to get an abortion, if you can find a place to get one, leap the access hurdles we've put in place, are of an age we deem appropriate, and have the money to pay whatever subjective price anyone decides to charge you, regardless of your financial position.

Yes. Of course abortion should be legal. But legalized abortion in the privacy viewpoint of Roe alone does not mean women have reproductive freedom or a just reproductive landscape.

Does this mean we should actively campaign against Roe? Not necessarily. I mean, say you get it overturned and abortion is left to the states. You might get a few outlier states that protect abortion rights and provide some sort of guarantee for their access, but for the most part, you'd have a lot of women in states that serverely limit their access to abortion services, even more so than they are now. That doesn't sound ideal to me.

I think the key is really about the discourse we use when we defend abortion rights. Let's not defend the Roe v. Wade ruling or try to explain where the right to privacy is guaranteed in the constitution until we're all red in the face. Let's talk about why abortion must be legal, for the safety and freedom of all women. But let's talk about reproductive justice in a much wider frame. Let's talk about money. Let's talk about access. Let's talk about rights for young people and minorities. Maybe someday Roe will be replaced, not by states' rights that further limit women's rights, but by federal legislation that recognizes the actual needs women have when it comes to reproductive freedom. Changing the discourse is the first step toward that.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Why is the single mother 'typical'?

Zizek writes:

"In the rejection of the social welfare system by the New Right in the USA, for example, the universal notion of the welfare system as inefficient is sustained by the pseudo-concrete representation of the notorious African-American single mother, as if, in the last resort, social welfare is a program solely for black single mothers -the particular case of the 'single black mother' is silently conceived as 'typical' of social welfare and what is wrong with it." (from his "Multiculturalism: Or, the logic of multinational capitalism" in New Left Review in 1997).

As he continues: "it is at this level", that is at the level of what is to count as 'typical' or 'politically uncontroversial', "that ideological battles are won or lost". The fact that "this link between Universal and particular content that acts as its stand-in" in the case of social welfare and 'black single mothers' "is the contingent outcome of a political struggle for political hegemony".

Thus, Zizek concludes, "Etienne Balibar was fully justified in reversing Marx's classic formula: the ruling ideas are precisely not directly the ideas of those who rule. How did Christianity become the ruling ideology? By incorporating a series of crucial motifs and aspirations of the oppressed -truth is on the side of the suffering and humiliated, power corrupts and so on -and rearticulating them in such a way that they became compatible with the existing relations of domination".


What is racism?

If I inferred a definition of racism from many conversations and discussions about race that I've encountered in a casual setting among many of my white peers when I was an undergrad, it would run something like this:

Racism is 'seeing' or noticing that someone has different color skin from you and making generalizations on the basis of their skin (thus, part of not being racist is 'not seeing' or 'being blind' to the social phenomenon of race). In other words, making any decision on the basis of race just is what it is to be racist; the non-racist alternative would be to 'treat everyone the same' as though racial designations and hierarchies were non-existent. Moreover, racism is tantamount to an individual pathology: it's when some individual intentionally harbours cruel or hateful feelings about other individuals because of their racial designation. Thus someone who is a racist is a terrible person, in the sense that they are cruel and mean to other people in a concerted and intentional way. Finally, someone who is ostensibly a member of a marginalized group, or''has minority friends", cannot properly be called a racist.
Now the above is an armchair sociological observation, that is, more or less just what I've noticed. It's hardly a coherent set of beliefs (of course ideologies and dominant beliefs, like the balance of power from which they emerge, seldom are). But despite its problems, not everything about this way of characterizing racism is false (although, as I will argue, most of it is). Racism is often hateful and it is a kind of pathology (albeit a social pathology rather than an abnormality of individual psychology). But it's hardly a matter of 'seeing' some attribute of a person that ought to be ignored.

Before launching into my criticism of this cluster of observations about race noted above, I'd like to dwell for a bit on a seemingly trivial question: what is race, exactly?

The 'traditional' answer to this question offered by white European colonizers was that race was a series of genetic or biologically-defined characteristics that determined the character, culture and behavior of the members of that race.

After Auschwitz, the correspondence between particular 'racial/biological traits' and certain behavioral attributes has been shattered as a legitimate view. After the horrors of Fascism, many of the intelligentsia in dominant imperialist countries began to strongly reject the eugenics and 'racial science' that had enjoyed widespread intellectual currency in the early 20th century, particularly during the interwar period. Unfortunately,
ever since its nadir after WWII, eugenics has been slowly making a comeback. You can even read it in its new form, 'sociobiology', in outlets like the New York Times from time to time.

Yet while the correspondence between biologically-defined racial groups and predicates like "primitive" (or, alternatively, "pure") has rightly been dealt serious blows, the cogency of the idea that race can be successfully cashed out in terms of water-tight genetic/biological properties continues to enjoy purchase within public consciousness as well as the academy.

But critical reflection quickly makes this biological-essentialist view difficult to maintain.

If you start seriously asking what biological characteristics actually constitute a 'race', you are left only with a series of unanswerable questions. Every possible answer begins to look question-begging, or imprecise, or simply incoherent. Say you pick 'skin color' as the litmus test for what constitutes a race. How, then, should we taxonomize skin colors? Human phenotypes regarding traits like eye color, skin color, hair color, etc. exist on a wide and fluid scale that does not admit of quick-and-easy dividing lines. It starts to look like skin color alone won't get you a coherent, self-contained set that distinguishes people with certain characteristics as a group distinct from others. Also it's unclear what the import of successfully labeling different phenotypic traits could be: how does that get us to a purportedly 'thick' and substantive concept like 'race'?

Other attempts to provide grounds for water-tight genetically distinct races are equally unpromising routes of analysis. Unsurprisingly, its the case that certain trends in phenotype among different populations for historical and geographic reasons. But a 'race' this does not make. Instead of speaking of some amorphous notion of biological 'race' it becomes unclear why, for example, we can't just talk about wide variance in morphology, in particular, outward appearance.

In general, the alleged correlation between genetic makeup and any behavioral traits whatsoever is very poorly understood. (One would hardly know this, given the recent proliferation of pop-psychological books purporting to be able to explain nearly everything in terms of some half-baked account of human genetic makeup). Even among different breeds of dogs, contrary to popular belief, we have very little scientific understanding or evidence of correlations between breeds and traits like 'aggressive', 'obedient', etc.

Any serious look at human biology quickly leads us to the conclusion that there is no scientific warrant for coming upon necessary and sufficient biological conditions for membership in a race. In fact, contemporary genetics completely exposes the lack of intellectual and scientific rigour of purportedly 'scientific' versions of racism. Contrary to the frightening prerogatives of neo-eugenicists, we have every reason to think that genes don't determine race. Contending otherwise is precisely what at least one version of racism consists in: conflating social/cultural variations with pseudo-scientific accounts of human biology.

So much for any biological basis for racial-essentialism. (Incidentally, similar problems arise when we try to cleanly justify gender binarism (or sexual binarism) on biological grounds: we find a continuum of 'sexual' characteristics (e.g. 'intersex') and we are led on the basis of the biological evidence at our disposal to conclude, contra traditional gender norms, that biological sex is a more complicated affair than 'man' and 'woman'.)

So if 'race' actually has any meaning, it must be contingent, socially-maintained, and historically-emergent meaning. In other words, 'race' is an idea that certain groups of human beings have created as a basis for organizing and taxonomizing certain social relations and hierarchies. As the recently-arrested Henry Louis Gates puts it:

"It's important to remember that "race" is only a sociopolitical category, nothing more. At the same time ... that doesn't help me when I'm trying to get a taxi on the corner of 125th and Lenox Avenue."
I don't know the history, I would guess that race is a far less old concept than we typically assume. But despite not knowing its origins, we can be sure that its meaning and political currency has fluctuated throughout history.

Drawing on Ali Rattansi's Racism: A Very Short Introduction (which, incidentally, I'm reading at present) let's look at the example of anti-semitism. As Rattansi points out, the term 'anti-Semitism' only came into being in the late 1870s. Now this is not to say that hatred of Jews didn't exist before then: the 'new' idea embodied in 'anti-Semitism' was that anti-Jewish sentiment was a racial matter. Moreover, the pretenses of 'anti-Semitism' were scientific, whereas the justifications for anti-Jewish oppression had taken on different (not purportedly scientific) forms in the past.

So we must note that this new 'racialized' and 'scientific' way of expressing hatred of Jews was a development of the late 19th century. But although it purported to a new development, was it really qualitatively different from other forms of Christian anti-Judaism, xenophobia, nationalism or ethnocentrism? It was different in form, but there was no more scientific warrant for this new permutation of oppression than there was for older examples. As Rattansi points out, throughout the history of anti-Judaism we find that oppression always occurs in the absence of any clearly-defined biological evidence, whereas certain cultural practices are paramount in singling Jews out for attack.

What all of this suggests to me is that to accept the biological/essentialist explanation of what race is, even if you still nonetheless think that all 'races' (biologically construed) should be equal, is already to buy into the eugenicist framework. And as we've seen, it's not only scientific farce, but it's also loaded with tons of oppressive, xenophobic baggage.

One more thing to say about race is that "whiteness" problematic property. While most American's take it for granted that Jews, the Irish and Italians are all "white", this conceals the fact that "this status has been gradually achieved in the 20th century as part of a social and political process of inclusion. As 'Semites' Jews were often regarded as not belonging to 'white races', while it was not uncommon in the 19th century for the English and Americans to regard the Irish as 'black' and for Italians to have an ambiguous status between white and black in the USA". (again, I quote here from Rattansi).

The same problems occur when trying to find a coherent basis for defining 'black' as a distinct 'race', as evidenced by the social/political struggles in Caribbean colonies over the political status of Mulattoes, as well as the infamous "one drop" rule implemented in the American South for defining 'black' (as Rattansi points out, 'one drop' of 'white blood' didn't therefore make someone white, whereas the converse was true). This isn't to take up the 'post-racist' colorblind ideology; on the contrary, this is merely to point out how unstable, contingent, and political the concept of race (as such) really is. For me, recognizing this from the start is the only way to conduct an emancipatory struggle to smash racism.

So race is a complicated matter. Whatever the legitimacy of the concept of 'race' or its grounding in fact, we must not deny that the concept has widespread effects as a social phenomenon impacting relations of power in contemporary societies. Whether or not 'race' is a coherent concept, people are still oppressed on the basis of their non-membership in a dominant group, as they have been for long periods of history. As Rattansi notes, "many millions have died as a result of explicitly racist acts and the injuries and injustices committed in its name continue". Thus, as I've suggested above, to speak today as though 'race doesn't exist' is not a virtue: it is to silence discussion of real, objective hierarchies in society. This phenomenon, sometimes called 'colorblind racism', has the effect of preventing discussion of a pernicious mode of social oppression that persists, thus shielding contemporary racism from critical engagement. To my mind, concealing oppression (or denying it exists) is even worse than admiting its there but seeking to justify it.

Re: the initial sketch of what racism means to many of my peers, I agree with Rattansi that many public debates falter from over-simplified attempts to divide racism from non-racism. All too often, discussions of racism among whites turns on constructing facile ways of identifying who really is racist and who is not. Moreover, on the question of concerted intent and racism, I think its ridiculous to assume that because someone intends not to be racist, that they are therefore not implicated perpetuating racism. Racism, if we agree that it is a social phenomenon, is not an abberration or a sin committed by an invididual who simply makes bad choices. Someone is not 'rotten to the core' simply because they are complicit or directly involved in sustaining racism in any way. When someone says "hey, what you just said strikes me as rather racist", it should not be tantamount to "you are a bad, bad person and you intentionally mean to harm others!". This is not the way to talk about racism, and doing so in this way only makes the "but I didn't mean it" or "but he's actually a good guy, I swear" character defences seem plausible (when, in fact, they are totally irrelevant).


Public Housing, Racism and Class Power

Within mainstream white collective consciousness public housing is synonymous with a host of unsavory characteristics: crime, poverty, violence, lawlessness, squalor, dependency, ugly high-rise buildings, etc. The meaning of public housing is also deeply racialized, carrying with it a slew of ugly corollaries including but not limited to the image of the "welfare mother", etc.

In the United States from the 1937 Housing Act onwards, class-bias and racism have been literally inscribed into the laws, physical structures and institutions involved with implementing social housing. This was not inevitable.

Fashionable narratives privilege 'personal responsibility' and competitive individualism to the exclusion of human development, democratic responsibility, social solidarity. But taking the neoliberal line against social housing, which crudely condemns all social housing as such, fails to explain the specific, concrete problems with the implementation of public housing in the United States in the 20th century. Things most definitely could've been otherwise, and we should not allow the argument over public housing to be fought within the frame of either a) accepting the public housing status-quo or b) privatizing and destroying public housing across the board. It's not clear to me that our only choices are Cabrini-Green or no social housing at all.

As Jason Hackworth points out in his book The Neoliberal City (Cornell UP: 2007), public housing in the US "never reached the levels of provision in Western Europe and has always been sensitive to the needs of real estate capital". The first major piece of public housing legislation was the 1937 Housing Act, which ostensibly aimed to respond to serious scarcity problems in housing during the Great Depression. But due to "the successful lobbying of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Savings and Loan Association, the act was kept from being a central part of FDR's New Deal agenda". Moreover:

"Roosevelt was persuaded that public housing was "too socialist" a remedy to the existing scarcity of homes, and kept it out of the Administration's legislative agenda until the mid-1930s. After a bitter ideological debate in Congress, the act was finally passed in 1937, but not without significant concessions to the private sector. Among the most significant were requirements that public housing schemes include "equivalent demolition" of housing in the surrounding community (and compensation to the owner) so that no new units were added to the overall stock". [scary how most of this more or less deftly describes recent events in Washington regarding health care 'reform']
Of course, the reason for this was that property-owning classes and real estate capital did not want public housing to compete with them (a development which would have lowered rent prices and made housing more affordable all around). Yet the most compelling rationale for implementing public housing, according to the Keynesian line, is precisely to do just that: eliminate severe housing scarcity and thus force the market into competition with public institutions, which drops prices and combats slum-lording. But this path means lower profits for rentiers and property-owning classes, hence their opposition and hard-lobbying efforts to prevent this from coming to pass.

As Hackworth points out, most every major piece of public housing legislation in US history included features designed to prevent a serious public challenge to real-estate capital from ever coming to pass. The 1937 Housing Act, as I noted above, had written into it the stipulation that increasing the supply of total housing available was to be made illegal; public housing could only replace already existing housing stock. In effect, lowering prices and undercuting slum lording is proscribed from the onset. If this isn't an excerize of narrow class power I don't know what is.

After WWII with the passage of the 1949 Federal Housing Act, public housing was prohibited from competing with the private housing market through
"(a) rent ceilings that were set at a maximum of 20% lower than the lowest nearby private housing, (b) stigmatizing, austere physical aesthetics due to design limitation created to make public housing stand out from average housing stock; and (c) low operating budgets for the Public Housing Authorities charged with managing the facilities."
The private house construction lobby, Hackworth notes, emerged in the postwar era even stronger than they had been in the 30s and exerted considerable influence in the legislative process in late 40s. Rapid, haphazard suburbanization and the construction of a nation-wide interstate system (instead of, say, a modern network of high-speed rails) further reinforced this influence in subsequent years.

The trend continued with the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act, Section 8 of which began the privatizing onslaught characteristic of the neoliberal turn by "providing housing vouchers for tenants to redeem with participating private-sector landlords" and "providing incentives for private sector and nonprofit real estate developers to construct low-income housing".

The 1998 QHWR Act further consolidated this trend by enabling public housing authorities to turn over management to private managers.

Now, social housing does not have to be like this. As I argued earlier, the alternatives are not (a) have public housing on the model of the institutions set in motion by the 1937 Housing Act and its progeny or (b) private everything and simply have no social housing at all. To criticize (a) is not therefore tantamout to agreement in any shape or form with the race-baiting, conservative business-interests that so loathe the entire ethos of public amentities and collective institutions.

There is no reason, in principle, why social housing must be any of the following:

-aesthetically austere, unsightly high-rises (i.e. physically distinguishes itself from other housing stock in a negative way)
-haphazardly constructed and under-maintained
-plagued by crime and violence
-created in such a way as to maximally avoid competing with the for-profit housing market
-designed only an amenity aimed at providing for the very poor (rather than a more holistic undertaking aimed to wrest larger sectors of the housing market from profiteers).

One more thought -if history is any indication, creating social programs designed to only provide for the most vulnerable, poor or elderly Americans are the easiest to cut in times of crisis or Right-wing reaction. Or, put another way, they are the easiest to let die a slow death due to underfunding and neglect. Pissing off the cordoned-off residents of Cabrini-Green is a far less intimidating affair for government than pissing off real-estate capital. This is to say, it is difficult for already marginalized populations to generate the sort of pressure necessary to ensure that these programs are maintained and continue to function properly. Think of underfunded schools in poor neighborhoods.

But, alternatively, if we had social institutions in which all of society had a stake, the wealthy and powerful would not be so quick to right off them off. A good example here is public education in parts of Manhattan. I've read a dozen or more articles about well-off middle class families in Manhattan sending their children to public schools for the first time because of the recession. The result was widespread protest and outcry over structural problems that have plagued public schools in New York for decades. The only difference in this recent case is that a relatively well-off class of people with more voice were the ones complaining, so the New York Times, et al. took note.

Suddenly, there was a 'visible' outrage over a problem that has been around for many years. The moral is, when politically active and influential (i.e. relative to marginalized populations... obviously the middle classes are still far from being major holders of political power) classes are part of a shared social instituion, suddenly it's not so easy for lawmakers and the ultra-wealthy to shrug off the maintenance and development of those institutions.

PS: I can't recall at the moment, but I remember reading about some explicitly racist provisions of the 1946 Housing Act. Can anyone point me in the direction of where I might read about these provisions? Did they in effect give legal sanction to redlining?


Thursday, July 9, 2009 apparently thinks that all hetero men are manipulative abusers.

Via Shapely Prose comes this article from Top 10 Subtle Ways to Tell Her She's Getting Fat.

As one SP commenter put it: Shit like this makes me terrified to date. And who wouldn't be terrified, when popular men's magazines train their readers to be abusive, lying misogynists? It doesn't exactly make you want to get a profile on eHarmony, when this is apparently the air we breathe.

My favorite suggestion is this:

Ask any man and he’ll tell you that he instinctively flexes his biceps whenever a woman touches them. The same thing goes for a woman when you make contact with any unwanted flab: She recoils and feels embarrassment.
Right! It's the same phenomenon, like, totally! Men want to show their strength and enjoy being touched, and women ... hate themselves and their bodies! The parallel here is remarkable!


So many lobbyists.

During a recent Congressional hearing on health care, an NPR photographer decided to turn his camera not on the lawmakers, but on the lobbyists sitting in the listening area. The photograph is here. NPR used the photograph as an opportunity to "crowdsource" and glean the identities of some of these people. Some work for psychiatrists' associations; others for pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare clients. Like one NPR listener I heard quoted today, as I look at this group of people, I feel strongly that there's no one there to represent me.


excellent A.O. Scott review of "Bruno"



Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Calling torture, "torture," and the problem of false balance

If you have a moment in the next couple days, listen to Monday's Radio West (a brilliant interview show produced by Salt Lake City's NPR affiliate), which centers around the recent controversy over the NPR ombudsman's declaration that water boarding cannot be referred to as torture (a characterization accepted by 140 of the world's nations) by NPR reporters, for the sake of supposed objectivity.

The program provides an interesting discussion about journalism, ethics, and the power of language. The best moment comes when guest Bob Garfield, of On the Media, talks about this as an example of the media's insistence on what he calls "false balance," or the idea that anybody who has a different view than the majority, should be represented as a legitimate voice, even if it is completely irrational. Sometimes there are not two legitimate points of view, he argues, sometimes there is the truth and there is a lie. Knowing which is which requires a journalist's judgment and is a sign of good journalism, not of bias.

I truly think this false balance problem is a symptom of the ridiculous clammering about the "liberal media" that has been going on at least since the Reagan era (at least that's what I always hear was the beginning of this claim). Moves like the ombudsman's, especially from such a respected news outlet like NPR, can only be read as desperate attempts to appear nonpartisan or ideologically neutral.


Garrison Keillor on Healthcare and Civility

Via Salon. Here's an excerpt:

In the past two weeks, I've attended two benefit concerts to raise money for musicians to pay their medical bills, and that is just ridiculous. Why should anyone, least of all a valuable contributing member of society, have to pass the hat to pay the doctor? But there I was, watching one of America's few true-blue cowboy singers hoist himself on crutches onto the stage to sing "The Old Chisholm Trail" as we put our twenties in the pot to pay for his pelvis, broken when a horse threw him. A cowboy singer can only afford the $10,000 deductible health plan and that means that he must sell Old Paint or become a charity case.

Meanwhile, a friend visiting London forgets to look to the right while crossing the street and gets whacked by a taxi and is scooped up and taken to the hospital with a broken leg where -- wait for it -- nobody ever asks him for an insurance card, they just go about doing what needs to be done. A civilized people, whatever you may think of the beer, that they treat a fallen American the same as if he were one of them.

Health insurance is the business that Congress is taking up this summer with the help of hundreds of high-paid lobbyists, many of them former congressmen or congressional staffers, all of them arguing for schemes that will be good for the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance companies and not necessarily good for the cowboy or the careless pedestrian. Reports the size of Sears catalogs will be circulated, and smart men and women smelling of citrus and sandalwood will argue persuasively and extensively for all points of view.

Our representatives will face pages and pages of statistics, acres of numerals, and even as they wander in the great fog of data and expertise, they will be at least as confused as the rest of us. Somehow out of this dance hall and sausage mill will come legislation that must stand the light of day, a miracle if it should happen, and then we shall see if the common good was served or if we have been sold down the river into the hands of cheats and scoundrels.

I think we've already been sold down the river...I only wish Obama and this congress could have served the six months previous to this in a way that would leave me at least a little surprised at what this healthcare reform is becoming. File healthcare under Tepid Democratic Hackery.


Current State of the UAW

(via Lee Sustar's article on labor in the newest International Socialist Review)

"It was during that 1930s crisis that the United Auto Workers (UAW) stormed onto the scene with dramatic factory occupations led by communists, socialists, and other radicals. Today’s UAW, though, is a vastly different organization. It has followed its long-established strategy of partnership with employers to an extreme conclusion by becoming, through health-care trust funds, a major shareholder in GM alongside the U.S. government and the majority (55 percent) shareholder in Chrysler. To achieve this bizarre form of employee ownership—the union trust fund will get just one seat on the company board—the union agreed to ban strikes for six years, eliminate work rules negotiated over decades, cut overtime pay, and further concessions.The result of all this is the virtual elimination of the difference between UAW-organized plants and non-union ones. The UAW, which once steadily raised the bar for wages and benefits for the entire U.S. working class, is now leading the way down."

This is indeed a sad state of affairs. It was difficult not to have relatively high hopes months ago in November as a new President and an increased Democrat majority in Congress entered Washington, both of whom touted their resolve to pass EFCA loudly and often. But given the way things have turned out, it's difficult to imagine how much different things would be for labor had Obama and the Democrats lost the election.

Obama has done little to make good on his promises to pass EFCA and his Administration has been more interested in bailing out bankers and placating Capital than in better the condition of working people. Sustar points us to a damning public statement from January in which the Obama Administration bragged that it was tougher on the UAW than the Bush Administration had been. Indeed, it touts the fact that "in virtually every respect, the concessions that the UAW agreed to are more aggressive than what the Bush Administration originally demanded in its loan agreement with GM."

But, of course, Obama is not solely to blame for the demise of what appeared to be an ascendant moment for labor in the US.

As Sustar points out, inter-union clashes coupled with problems in union leadership have been detrimental as well. Arguably, the follies of union leadership are a large reason why EFCA hasn't been passed. The UAW leadership, in particular, seems most in need of indictment at this point. I understand that they are trying to keep GM from going under, but the meagre scraps from the table they've settled for are tantamount to major defeats in the short and long term. Again as (via Sustar's article) former Canadian Auto Workers economist recently wrote: "the UAW's GM membership is down to 64,000 (from 450,000 at the end of the 70s, when major concessions first began to be extracted). If GM is 'successful' in its current restructuring, that will be further reduced to 40,000. Thirty years of concessions and a 90 percent loss in jobs. If ever there was a failing strategy for workers, this was it." And I think Sustar is right on when he argues that the concessions and defeats forced upon the UAW recently are tantamounts to defeats for the entire US working class (and, ipso facto, gains for capitalists).

In more ways than one this purportedly 'new era' in the US is looking more and more like a newly-packaged version of the same old. I don't think the Obama-Hoover comparison is out of place. This is a serious disappointment. It remains to be seen how deep the contituities will go or how apt the analogy will prove to be, but there is little concrete evidence that Obama intends to do anything like what FDR's administration began trying to do in 1933.

At this point, we'll be lucky if the already-compromised 'public option' gets through the filibuster-proof Democratic Congress.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

David Harvey speaks at Marxism 2009

David Harvey's speech from Marxism 2009 can be viewed free here.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Venezuelan opposition, WSJ, backs coup

Ideological match made in heaven: the good old reactionaries at the Wall Street Journal and their brethren in the Venezuelan opposition.

Unsurprisingly both of these groups have come out in favor of the recent coup in Honduras, criticizing their own respective governments for failing to aver that the coup was a boon to democracy. If you ask the editors at WSJ or in the opposition/corporate media in Venezuela, they will tell you that the coup was justified, they will defend the currently sworn-in 'president', and they'll argue that Zelaya was a power hungry tyrant bent on destruction.


U.S. "Pauses" Aid to Honduras

In a step toward legally halting aid to the nation, the U.S. State Department has paused aid to Honduras while it consults its lawyers about the legality of halting aid entirely until the OAS and Zelaya can negotiate his return to office.

Better late than never?


U.S. Unemployment Reaches 9.5 Percent

That's almost one in ten Americans who are unemployed. Nationally, another half a million jobs were cut in June. There really isn't anyone untouched by this recession. Anyone I speak to can list the people close to them who have lost their jobs, those who have taken pay cuts, those who have taken cuts to their benefits (That's me. I now have to pay half of my premium, which is really nothing compared to what people are facing when they lose their employer benefits altogether, but it does end up being a significant difference in your monthly take-home, and is even a greater difference for those who have to insure their partners and children in addition to themselves.)

This was the facebook status of a married friend of mine today:

14 applications and temporary insurance later, I've got my fingers crossed that we get accepted by at least one provider.
Pretty difficult to feel that glow of American pride this weekend when this country has failed us so thoroughly in providing basic healthcare to all of its citizens. Think how much less devastating this unemployment surge would be if we all had the comfort that we could have the care we needed, employed or not.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

You're Invited!

Evidently, the WaPo was trying to host a "salon" for high-rollers to get "off the record access" to Senators, Congressman, Administration officials, and WaPo reporters and editors of relevant sections (e.g. politics, business, etc.) The cost of a seat the table was reportedly somewhere in the neighbourhood of the low, low price of $25,000.


Worse than no bill at all

Nice critical piece on the ACES "climate bill" from Chris Williams for

DESPITE OBAMA'S vow to oppose any free permits--the one significant advantage over the European system if one is prepared to accept the extremely dubious logic of carbon-trading in the first place--the ACES bill nevertheless allows for 85 percent of them to be given away for free!

Is it any wonder that the bill was backed by some of the most polluting fossil-fuel-based corporations on the planet: Shell, Duke Energy, Rio Tinto, DuPont, ConocoPhillips, Dow and BP? According to the Wall Street Journal, Wall Street traders called the bill's carbon markets a "huge playground" where "bucks [will] be made" and are similarly backing the bill.

read the rest here.


David Harvey on 1970s New York

I'm currently reading David Harvey's excellent, clear, and politically sharp A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005: Oxford University Press). I couldn't help but share a little bit of what I'm getting out of the book.

While I might post later on more holistic considerations raised by the text, I'd like to just focus this post on some of the facts and analysis he offers regarding 1970s New York city and the trajectory the city (and many others) have taken since.

To put some background in place, I should mention that (as Harvey notes) the early 1970s were marked by a global economic crisis of capitalist accumulation (i.e. profits were down across the board). Unemployment reached levels not seen since the onset of the Great Depression, and it was clear by the mid 70s that the "long boom" of the post-War era was over. The OPEC oil embargo, and the spike in oil prices, put an exclamation point on all of this.

Now to New York. We must recall that New York had a severe fiscal crisis which arose from "capitalist restructuring and deindustrializaion" which had for several years steadily eroded the economic base of the cit. Moreover, the rapid suburbanization and "white flight" of the 60s had "left a good deal of the city impoverished". The result, unsurprisingly, was social revolt and unrest among marginalized populations in the city in the late 60s.

This is what Washington called the "urban crisis" at the time, which afflicted nearly all major US cities in the late 60s/early 70s. As Harvey points out, "the expansion of public employment and public provision -facilitated through generous federal spending- was seen as the solution". But when the crisis of the early 70s hit, tax revenues dropped sharply and with it Federal aid.

Now this is where the deep fiscal crisis in New York emerged from. Due to the above, "the gap between reveunes and outlays in the NYC budget (already large because of profligate borrowing over many years) increased". The city was tanking.

But in the midst of this crisis there emerged a cabal of NY investment bankers and leaders of major financial institutions (led by Walter Wriston of Citibank) who refused to roll over the city's rising debt. This, as intended by the leaders of finance, forced the city into technical bankruptcy.

In the wake of the crisis and the subsequent bailout that was required to upright the capsized city budget, entirely new institutions were set up that attempted to blot out the sediments of social struggles that had shaped the old.

The financial elites now in control of city finances "had first claim on city tax revenues in order to first pay off bondholders: whatever was left over went to essential services". The effect, Harvey argues, "was to curb the aspriations of the city's powerful municipal unions, to implement wage freezes and cutbacks in public employment and social provision (education, public health, transportation), and to impose user fees (tuition was introduced into the CUNY system for the first time). "

Now I dont think Harvey is out of line when he suggests that this development represented a "coup by the financial institutions against the democratically elected government of New York City, and it was every bit as effective as the military coup that had occured earlier in Chile".

Meanwhile, Gerald Ford's Tresury Secretary, William Simon (a supporter of the military coup against Allende in Chile, and later a head of the super-conservative "Olin Foundation") strongly advised the president to withhold federal support to the deep fiscal crisis in New York City. ("Ford to City: Drop Dead, was the headline in the New York Daily News"). The idea here was that if any bailout of the city should occur, it should be seized upon as a political opportunity to restructure it in ways amenable to those who were appalled by the gains made by social movements in the city throughout the 20th century. Thus, any bailout must be made "so punitive, the overall experience so painful, that no city, no political subdivision would ever be tempted to go down the same road".

The result was that "within a few years, many of the historic acheivements of the New York working class were undone" and much of the city infrastructure (e.g. the subway system) "deteriorated markedly for lack of investment or even maintenance". Thus life in New York became "gruelling and the civic atmosphere turned mean". "Working-class and immigrant New York was thrust into the shadows, to be ravaged by racism and a crack cocaine epidemic of epic proportions in the 1980s that left many young people either dead, incarcerated, or homeless, only to be bludgeoned by the AIDS epidemic that carried over into the 1990s."

Thus, "redistribution through criminal violence became one of the few serious options for the poor, and the authorities responded by criminalizing whole communities of impoverished and marginalized populations".

"The victims were blamed, and Giuliani was to claim fame by taking revenge on behalf of an incresingly affluent Manhattan bourgeoisie tired of having to confront the effects of such devastation on their own doorsteps".

Of course, conventional wisdom has it that "(non-white) criminals took over New York in the 1970s" and the righteous Mayor Giuliani came in and "cleaned the city up". Of course, no one will dispute that the economic climate changed drasitically in New York from 1979 to 1999, but this is not tantamount to 'progress' in some holistic sense. The change from 1979 to 2009 perfectly exemplifies the contradictions internal to the logic of gentrification. Certain concrete features of the city improved (infrastructure, tax revenues, saftey, investment, etc.), this cannot be denied. But the condition of this resuscitation of the city was that poor and marginalized populations would be displaced and forced elsewhere, that city political and economic institutions would be restructured to the liking of capitalists (i.e. "to make a good business climate in the city"), that much of the city was evacuated of 'undesirables' to make room for a new set of professionals, fianncial technocrats, capitalists, and others able to afford preposterous rents and costs of living.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On the Street: Brosif cat-caller gets owned

So I saw something awesome the other day on the street.

I was walking to the Redline in River North in Chicago (an area with a lot of shopping and touristy stuff, e.g. the "Miracle Mile", etc.) and I came across a (from the looks of it) drunk, slightly overweight frat-boy fellow with a teal-blue polo shirt, crokies, and a camoflauge baseball cap. I'd wager he was a tourist, but there's no way to know. He was standing against a building not too far from the subway station smoking a cigarette when I walked by him.

Traveling the opposite way on the sidewalk was a young woman, wearing skinny jeans and a tight-fitting tank top walking alone. She was drinking a McDonalds shake of some sort.

After I pass the frat-boy I pass her. I thought nothing of it at the time.

Next I hear a loud shout: "BIG TITS!!"

I turn around and see that the frat boy was yelling at the young woman whom I'd just passed by. At this point I'm only, maybe, 10 paces past the frat boy. She turns around and approaches him.

She walks up to him and asks "what did you just say to me?"

He yells again at the same volume in an identical cadence: "BIG TITS!!"

Without hesitation the woman, who was a good 1-2 feet shorter than this asshole, unloads her (chocolate, evidently) McDonalds shake onto the fratboy and non-chalantly walks away.

Fucking awesome.

Totally stunned, the frat-boy stands silently in shock as she walks off. Part of his face and the chest of his teal polo shirt are covered in chocolate something (who knows what McDonalds makes the stuff out of). Passers by start to chuckle. I, for entirely different reasons, am also too shocked to know what to do. If only this could have been caught on video somehow. For fear of fratboy retaliation I declined to snap a camera photo, but I've decided that was a mistake.