Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wall Street (still) Hearts Chuck Schumer

Politico has the story here.


Die Linke in the German Elections

Germany's genuinely left-wing party, "The Left" (Die Linke) did quite well in the Federal elections this week. 'Lenin' is calling it a breakthrough.

Before getting into why the election results might be good for the German Left, consider what a disaster it was for Germany's neoliberal 'center-Left' party, the traditionally strong SPD. The SPD suffered the worst losses in a general election since 1949. Between 2005 and this week they lost 11% of the vote. Why?

The SPD did all of the things that Obama and the Democrats have been praising since they trounced the GOP in the 2008 elections. In 2005 the SPD formed a "grand coalition" with the center-Right CDU, they spoke of compromise and gestured toward an electoral programme that pundits in the US would be quick to praise as "bipartisanship".

In 2005, the SPD's Schroder ceased to be chancellor because his party vehemently opposed forming a government with the support of the Left Party, Die Linke. Perry Anderson points out that "had the SPD and Greens been willing to do so, the three parties together would have enjoyed a robust parliamentary majority of 40." What followed was that the SPD "joined in arms with the CDU-CSU as a junior partner, unsurprisingly to its detriment".

Of course in Germany, unlike our putrid electoral situation here, the demise (or right-ward shift) of the mainstream center-left does not therefore mean more votes for the Right. Although Merkel's CDU has retained its control of government, her party received a little over a third of all the votes cast. She will form a government with the aid of the right-wing FDP (who made sizable gains since 2005), so its not the case that the CDU's victory depended on a shift of voters from SPD to CDU. The CDU didn't need a large net increase in votes to form a government.

Thus I agree with 'Lenin' that

"The media will tend to focus on the fact that Merkel can now run a right-wing tax-cutting administration in coalition with the FDP. This is hardly unimportant, but the biggest story that obtains here is the way in which the historic collapse of social democracy played out."
I think 'lenin' is absolutely right, as well, to say that the collapse of Second International social-democracy (all over Europe, from Italy, France to (soon) the UK) does not mean, necessarily, gains for the radical Left. But in Germany's case it did, and it will be important to understand why and what we can learn from their "breakthrough". It's remarkable that a party that declares it wants to overthrow capitalism is making impressive inroads and growing its ranks in one of Western Europe's wealthiest nations.

Consider how things are worlds apart in the US: should the Obama Administration shift ceaselessly to the Right and eventually lose power, Americans have at present no electoral means of challenging him from the Left. Pundits and other electioneering cretins always assume that any loss for one player in the American Duopoly necessarily entails a gain for the other. But while it's true that this does hold right now, it hardly follows that things must continue to be this way (although the assumptions of the pundits and 'experts' do a lot in the way of maintaining things as they are). I think this explains the endless apologetics from the liberal-Left about the Democrats; they feel that if they don't defend Obama at all costs that they'll therefore be aiding the Republicans.

But this need not be so. In fact, it's instructive to see, in recent cases, what many of these apologists do when there actually is a budding movement to challenge the Democrats from the Left: they balk and accuse the challengers of abetting the GOP.

Part of what's great about Die Linke's surge is that the neoliberals and compromisers in the SPD hate Die Linke, just as the Eric Alterman's of the world despise challengers like Ralph Nader. But rather than remain endlessly shackled within the tepid confines of the SPD, as do the 'progressives' in the Democratic Party, lefties in Germany are abandoning the SPD. And because many of them have voted for Die Linke, they've publicly repudiated the SPD's rightward tilt. The German Left has a means of putting pressure on the right-wing leadership of the SPD and they are using it. The SPD risks sinking into irrelevance.

Die Linke is already talkng of 'creating a broader left-wing camp', and they've got bargaining chips to make it happen. SPD will have to listen to them. There are legitimate questions about whether, tactically and politically, Die Linke should risk joining with the SPD in a coalition in the future. But, American readers, ask yourself this: what can the marginalized 'progressive caucus' in the Democratic Party do to make it's presence felt? What bargaining chips do they possess?

What's worst about the 'progressive Democrats' is that they don't even use the little clout they do have. Witness long-time supporters of single-payer like Henry Waxman repudiate his former beliefs and pull for whatever tepid bill Obama supports. Here it's always the dialectic of lesser evils. Despite the fact that the GOP was completely, totally demolished in the last 2 elections... the only licit criticisms of Obama according to the mainstream media are those that draw on the same dusty old rejoinders from the "teabag" Right. Why are they even a part of the discussion? There can be no doubt that the framing of electoral politics in the US media is consistently, fundamentally conservative, that is, in the broad sense of being preservative of existing political arrangements. With its head in the ground, mainstream media seems to always lag behind dynamic political realignments and tectonic shifts in the economy, perpetuating the same "discussions" we had about health care 'reform' in the 1990s into the present.

Yet if Obama was elected by talking about 'spreading the wealth' and fighting health insurance companies, why is his failure to accomplish these tasks immediately interpreted as a moment to consult Republicans or the Right? When Obama reneges on promises, the media suggests that there must be something wrong with the promises themselves. But why isn't the critical focus on his inability to fulfill these promises?


Friday, September 25, 2009

A Back-To-School Thought on Liberatory Pedagogy

From Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Chapter 2):

Education as the exercise of domination stimulates the credulity of students, with the ideological intent (often not perceived by educators) of indoctrinating them to adapt to the world of oppression. This accusation is not made in the naive hope that the dominant elites will thereby simply abandon the practice. Its objective is to call the attention of true humanists to the fact that they cannot use banking educational methods in the pursuit of liberation, for they would only negate that very pursuit. Nor may a revolutionary society inherit these methods from an oppressor society. The revolutionary society which practices banking education is either misguided or mistrusting of people. In either event, it is threatened by the specter of reaction.

Unfortunately, those who espouse the cause of liberation are themselves surrounded and influenced by the climate which generates the banking concept, and often do not perceive its true significance or its dehumanizing power. Paradoxically, then, they utilize this same instrument of alienation in what they consider an effort to liberate. Indeed, some "revolutionaries" brand as "innocents," "dreamers," or even "reactionaries" those who would challenge this educational practice. But one does not liberate people by alienating them. Authentic liberation-the process of humanization-is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.

Those truly committed to liberation must reject the banking concept in its entirety, adopting instead a concept of women and men as conscious beings, and consciousness as consciousness intent upon the world. They must abandon the educational goal of deposit-making and replace it with the posing of the problems of human beings in their relations with the world. "Problem-posing" education, responding to the essence of consciousness --intentionality -- rejects communiques and embodies communication. It epitomizes the special characteristic of consciousness: being conscious of, not only as intent on objects but as turned in upon itself in a Jasperian split" --consciousness as consciousness of consciousness.


No Benn-Michaels Takedown in LRB

From what I could see, there was basically no critical response to Walter Benn-Michael's most recent, confused screed against feminism and anti-racism in the newest edition of the London Review of Books (BM's tripe appeared a couple months ago). Disappointing. How many respectable publications are going to give him a forum to write polemical trash without being challenged?

In that piece BM actually argued: "anti-racism and anti-sexism have nothing whatsoever to do with Left-wing politics".

Perhaps I wrong here, tactically, about how best to deal with right-wing elements like BM within the Left (very broadly construed). Perhaps, its better not to take the 'bait' and to let his rants fade into irrelevance. But my sense is that his facile, divisive argument infects more of the Left than we'd like to admit. Hence my disappointment that someone on the socialist Left didn't step up to convincingly reject his nonsense in LRB.

The worst part of his tripe is that it obfuscates the issues it raises, making it difficult for others to put forward the the nuanced point that some struggles against racism and sexism have indeed been coopted and defanged by capitalism.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Housing Question

In reality, the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion -that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew... No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is always the same; the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else... the same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place. (Friedrich Engels, The Housing Question (1872)
This passage, which was brought to my attention by an article on urbanism and capitalism by David Harvey, very effectively highlights a deep-seated contradiction that afflicts the urban housing question in capitalist societies.

Capitalism requires, as a condition of producing spectacular wealth for some, a class of people living at or near subsistence who work wage-labor jobs. Modern cities, most of which became what they are today through an earlier process of heavy industrialization, required a large working class to build them (literally and figuratively). If Chicago got rich "on the backs of" the meat-packing and railroad industries, then the wealth of urbanization required a large, poor working-class to help create it.

But where to house these working-class folk? This is the problem.

Capitalism creates (and needs for its continued existence) a sizable quantity of wage laborers who must be located close enough to urban centers in order for capital to employ them. But land and residential property, under capitalism, are not owned by the working class but by another class for whom seeking rent on their property is most important. Worker's wages cannot reasonably be expected to keep pace with real estate markets, particularly when property speculators key in on a working-class section of a city as a potential source of big profits. Put succinctly, land use under capitalism tends to be sorted according to its rate of return for investors, not according to the needs of working-class people. But the working poor, a permanent feature of capitalist societies, have to live somewhere.

For example, at one point workers may have lived in a centralized district when a given city was still industrializing and urbanizing. But as wealth accumulates, the central districts workers occupy may become attractive to speculators. This imagined working-class neighborhood may quickly become a serious drag from the perspective of nearby land-owners and rentiers interested in seeing the value of their investments increase. There are any number of tactics, from blockbusting to eminent domain, that those wanting to purchase the property low and sell high can employ to scatter the existing population.

But as Engels pointed out in 1872, the process of displacement through gentrification doesn't solve the housing problem, it merely recreates it anew. As long as there is a working class, they have got to live somewhere. Yet while it may appear, from the local and narrow perspective of property-owners living in a gentrifying neighborhood that "things are looking up" in that section of the city, in reality the systemic problems that produced a slum in the first place have gone totally unchanged.

The "problems" that used to afflict now wholly-gentrified neighborhoods like Lincoln Park haven't gone away, they've been swept under a different rug. And in many cases, just as Engels pointed out in the 19th century, this process was (in that initial displacement) begun anew. One thinks of the displacement of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago from Lincoln Park, then southwest to Division Street, and finally further west into Humboldt Park. Today parts of Humboldt park are gentrifying due to their proximity to the popular Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods.

When a neighborhood gentrifies, it's undeniable that "good" things do happen: housing stock is refurbished and renovated, property-tax revenues flow into the ward, commercial investment increases, crime decreases, the availability of necessary institutions (banks, grocery stores, etc.) increases as well. The cosmetic features of the neighborhood are cleaned up and green spaces are often cultivated where they had been neglected during tough times.

But for whom are all of these improvements relevant? Certainly not for the working-class populations whose displacement was a condition of this "improvement" to the neighborhood.

This is the problem: in capitalism, it is a condition of the betterment of downtrodden neighborhoods that they are gradually purged of working class people. Improving neighborhoods requires that poor residents are displaced and shoved aside. Race complicates this process further, of course, but the tactic of "accumulation by displacement" is usually the same. This is precisely the contradiction inherent to capitalism mentioned by Engels in the quote preceding this post. It isn't possible, within the framework of profit-driven market forces alone, to improve working class neighborhoods as such. Improvement ultimately requires a cleansing of the poor, a process of what Harvey calls "accumulation through displacement". Because who bankrolls the improvements? Investors. And what piques their interest? High returns on their investments. And if that is our only criterion for determining how to use land, then its not hard to see why working class neighborhoods are simply moved elsewhere: they aren't fertile ground for high profits.

Why improve the lot of poor workers when you can displace them, raze their homes, build brand-new condos and charge a fortune in rent to the wealthy people who'll move in?

This is what the slogan "the right to the city" is meant to oppose. It openly defies the market logic of capitalist urban thinking and declares, against the imperatives of real estate capital, that bustling urban spaces should be democratic and available to all, not simply playgrounds for the rich. We should not be forced to choose between the crumbling lower Manhattan of the 1970s and what is more and more becoming a massive 'gated community' for the wealthy today.
So the question isn't simply whether or not gentrification is "good" or "bad". It's both at once; although these do not cancel each other out. As Adorno might have put it, gentrified boulevards and working-class slums are torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they don't add up.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nice Critique of New Tampax 'Man Pads' ads

(Via Bitch magazine's blog): here's an excerpt:

"Tampax quietly unveiled a viral ad campaign in June that I stumbled on a few weeks ago and my feelings about it remain complicated. Despite the hours spent turning it over in my mind, my conclusion is that the campaign--documented entirely on one site, zack16.com, and chronicling the adventures of a sixteen-year-old boy who wakes up one day with a vagina--is many things in turn: edgy, challenging, steeped in stereotypes, possibly transphobic, and potentially subversive in its exploration of gender. ALL AT THE SAME TIME."
See the blogpost for an interestingly ambivalent critique of this complicated phenomenon.


Friday, September 18, 2009

"Cultural Relativism" and Orientalism

I recently heard a comment in a university setting that we should teach about "cultural relativism" and Orientalism when discussing how "we" encounter other cultures.

The view the person was trying to express, I think, was something like the following. We should teach students to think critically about the cultural and social field in which they live, so that they don't unthinkingly reinstate the imperialist gaze, common in the "West", that afflicts so much thinking about "non Western" cultures. This is a point I happen to agree with. But it's unclear that you can agree with this if you are a "cultural relativist".

Here's why. If "cultural relativism" is true, then we shouldn't quarrel with what some in the West say about other societies. For how, according to the "cultural relativist" story, could ethnocentrists and imperialists do otherwise? In succumbing to the Orientalist gaze, you might think, all ethnocentrists in the West are doing is proving that "cultural relativism" is true. They are merely asserting one facet of what they understand to be their own culture, in a plural field in which different cultures operate according to different, incommensurable paradigms. If, for instance, a defender of British imperialism claims that all Asians are barbarians, we could locate this view within a segment of historically-situated British culture and conclude that this person's belief is just a matter of their particular culture. To judge it otherwise would be a mistake.

Here's a quick and dirty account of what I understand by "cultural relativism". It is the view that "worldviews" are internal to a particular "culture", of which there are many in the world. Value has no specific meaning outside of a particular culture, and there are many cultures. To apply values from one culture to that of another, therefore, is to do something that doesn't make sense (notice that we can't say that this is to do something wrong, since then we would have to appeal to an extra-cultural value like toleration, or the like).

Let's leave aside what "culture" might mean here, and how we might go about clearly demarcating its boundaries. Let's also leave aside how this view simply assumes that we cannot critically engage our "own" culture (whatever we might mean by "culture"). Let's also leave aside who it is that actually believes this view (I'm not sure hardly anyone does, despite what they may think or say about the matter).

Let's just consider how this view jibes with Orientalism. It seems to me that if you think that former is true, then you clearly disagree with Said's thesis about Orientalism.

Orientalism amounts very roughly to the tendency not to see other societies or cultures as they are, but as the typical, historical Western onlooker wants to see them. This tendency often takes the form of imposing mystical, mythic, fantasies onto cultures outside of Western Europe, a tendency which has deep roots in European literature, politics and culture. This imposition need not always be the assignment of predicates that are ostensibly 'bad', they could be traits like possessing obscure wisdom, sexual powers, magic, etc. That these imposed traits are not obviously 'bad' (as, for example, characterizations of non-Europeans as barbarous, animal-like, uncivilized, etc.), does not make them any less imposed or false.

But this view is an indictment of a certain trend in literature, culture, politics and the history of ideas in the West. It claims that myths and fantasies (or anxieties, contradictions, desires, etc.) are simply imposed upon a foreign culture and taken for granted when subsequently talking about them and assessing them. This tendency has, as Said points out, deep roots in Western societies. It has taken on a life of its own in some respects, and may even appear to some in those societies as the way things actually are. Some may not have even considered that these myths and fantasies about "the Orient" could be otherwise.

But to be able to point all of this out, you'd need to firmly reject the crude view often called "cultural relativism". You'd need to think that the ethnocentrism of the traditional Western gaze is wrong, that it uncritically accepts falsehoods about other people and their societies, and that it imposes fantastical traits onto foreign cultures that are alien to them. Moreover, you'd need to critically engage the cultural landscape of Western societies, thus presupposing that culture is the sort of thing that can be criticized and pulled apart.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

British Trade Unions Boycott Israeli Aggression

This is already being hailed by some on the Left as a historic victory for the fight for human rights and justice in Palestine. As Lenin's Tomb points out, "this is undoubtedly a result of the criminal attack on Gaza earlier this year", as well as the recent increases in settlement. Evidently, there was a motion in TUC to 'moderate' some aspects of the boycott which was decisively voted down. This is a remarkable show of global solidarity among the working class in Britain. It will no doubt have Zionists everywhere in an absolute rage. I can already imagine what they'll say: "anti-semitism", "terrorists", "hate", etc. But as global public opinion showed during the most recent atrocities in Gaza, this cycle of apologetics is losing purchase among international observers. The events of last January made it clear that it's time to deal with the situation in Gaza and the West Bank in the same way that apartheid in South Africa was dealt with: boycott, divest and sanction.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Steaming Pile of BS

The headline reads "For Democrats, 60 Senators Is Magic Number for Health Bill".

I say bullshit.

Before Teddy Kennedy died, and they had the 60 votes, Senate Democrats never threatened to do anything that would actually warrant a Republican filibuster. They didn't push the limits, they didn't assert their authority as the party elected in a landslide election, they didn't make use of their palpable political capital.

What they said ad nauseum, if you'll recall, was that we must reach across the aisle, make compromises with Republicans, and seek bipartisan solutions. We heard this when the 'magic number' wasn't an aspiration, but a concrete reality resulting from recent elections.

Yet whenever the Democrats fail to do what they were, quite obviously, elected to do, the excuse that they most frequently offer is that they just lack the 'magic' number of seats. "Give us more votes and then we'll really get things rolling".

Reading only the NYTimes, you would come to think by default that if Democrats fail to enact real reforms, it's always due to the meddling of Republicans, teabaggers, talk-radio hosts, or George Bush. Or, perhaps, in slightly more honest moments, it's only due to the Kent Conrads and Max Baucuses. But the idea that the Democratic Party itself, even at its most 'progressive', is an unremittingly preservative (rather than transformative) force in politics never enters the discussion. The idea that our political institutions themselves are deeply flawed, does not get a second thought. And how can it, if the only meaning 'politics' has is defined by the dialectic of lesser evils and a choice between two capitalist parties?

Does anyone really believe that the problem facing health care reform is just that Democrats in the Senate need to get that 'magic number'? When they had the 60 votes a couple weeks ago, the fact that they did not need Republican support whatsoever in the Senate seemed not to be valid topic of discussion. But now that they need at least one GOP blowhard to join their 'cause', it's all about getting that magic 60.

The opportunity to reemploy the facile "democrat vs. republican" frame of understanding is too irresistible, it seems, for mainstream media... because things start to get complicated when you have to explain how a party, elected in a landslide, that campaigned on sweeping change and health reform (in particular), can fail so miserably to enact even the most modest reforms when there's no electoral opposition standing in its way.

Talking about our political institutions as such is too great a task for newspapers. It's far easier to lump political writing in with the style and depth of sports analysis, focusing instead on the eternal struggle between two well-defined 'teams' in a game whose rules themselves are not open to contestation.


Excellent Selfa op/ed on Health Reform

The point Selfa makes well is that the issue of mandates has been lost in all of the furor over health reform. Socialist Worker has been doing an excellent job of keeping an eye on this feature of the 'reform' proposals, but it has been virtually left out of much of the mainstream debate over the issue.

For example:

"However flippantly, he at least made clear what has been obscured in the health care debate so far--that "universal health care" is a euphemism for forcing people, under penalty of law, to buy health insurance.

In all the tumult over "death panels," the "public option" and Medicare funding, hardly anyone has even commented on whether requiring people to buy health insurance is fair or feasible. Even the "don't tread on me" tea-party types--always ready to object to the oppressive hand of government--have hardly raised an objection to this. Why?

In the main, the prospect of a new, 40 million-strong, government-created "market" for its defective product has kept the insurance industry--though it has nevertheless helped to fund some of the opposition to health reform--on board with the administration's overall approach.

The industry is willing to furnish propaganda against the "socialism" of allowing the uninsured to have the choice of buying insurance from a publicly funded vendor--the so-called "public option. But it has no problem with the government forcing people to buy its product, no matter how expensive or insufficient it is."


Richard Wolff on Health Care.

Listen to the audio here. Extremely clear, straight-forward account of what's wrong.


Monday, September 14, 2009

More on the Origins of Private Property

"The first man [sic] who, having enclosed a piece of land, took it into his [sic] head to say, "This is mine", and found people simple enough to believe him [sic], was the true founder of civil society. The human race would have been spared endless crimes, wars, murders, and horrors if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled the ditch and cried out to his fellow men, 'Do not listen to this impostor! You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone, and the earth to no one!" - (Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality)
A while ago, I posted on the origins of private property and aired out a couple of broad questions raised by the sort of thoughts articulated above by Rousseau: why was the original privatization of parts of the earth not a theft of what rightly should (have continued to) be held in common?

As Cohen puts it, "in the history of anything that is now privately owned there was at least one moment at which something privately unowned was taken into private ownership." Thus, if "someone claims a right so something they legally own, we may ask, apart from how they in particular came to own it, with what right it came to be anyone's private property at all".

Now most of the time this is a topic that the Right does well to avoid. When topics like the nationalization of natural resources are broached, the Right-wing response is to cry 'theft!', since those who own them today supposedly came to own them by just means (i.e. they bought the titles to them). But this obscures the question of why certain natural resources should be thought of as potential objects of private property at all.

Interestingly, those concerned to defend private property under capitalism have tended to focus most all of their energies on circulation, acquisition, trade and transfers. But very little of their energies have been spent explaining how the institution of private property with respect to certain resources, for example, was originally justified. If, as Cohen points out, the "market is merely a redistribution of titles which buying and selling are themselves unable to create", then we have to know how "the titles which necessarily precede market activity acquire legitimacy in the first place".

One historically important account of the creation of private property is given by John Locke. Locke argued that "an agent may appropriate (as private property) what he [sic] mixes his labor with, provided that he [sic] leaves enough and as good for others and does not waste what he takes".

I think the interesting part of this account is the thought about "leaving enough and as good for others". But this is not, in general, the part of Locke's account that you hear most frequently from those on the Right who actually talk about this stuff. They prefer to focus on the "mixing one's labor" part. But a quick glance at this part of Locke's theory reveals that it is the most dubious aspect of his account.

Even Robert Nozick, probably the smartest defender of capitalism to date, ridicules this aspect of Locke's theory. For example, in Anarchy, State and Utopia Nozick notes that:
"Locke views property rights in an unowned object as originating through someone's mixing his [sic] labor with it. But what are the boundaries of what labor is mixed with? If a private astronaut clears a place on Mars, has he mixed his labor with (so that he comes to own) the whole planet, or the whole uninhabited universe, or just a particular plot? Which plot does an act bring under ownership? The minimal area such that an act decreases entropy in that area, and not elsewhere? Can virgin land (for the purposes of ecological investigation by high-flying airplane) come under ownership by a Lockean process? Building a fence around a territory presumably would make one the owner of only the fence (and the land immediately underneath it)."
He continues:
"Why isn't mixing what I own with what I don't a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I dont? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules (made radioactive, so I can check this) mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?"
Clearly this isn't so simple and, as Nozick points out, there are a lot of aporias facing the Lockean idea of 'mixing labor' with an unowned object.

*One clarificatory note here: when I speak of private property I am not, in the first instance, referring to someone's private collection of baseball cards, their bedroom, their 'personal belongings' and so forth. I'm interested first of all in the big picture, i.e. the large-scale institutions, natural resources, energy, land, etc. that we all (even under the divisive, competitive pressures of capitalism) rely upon for survival.

Today, just about everything we need to survive is private property, with a few notable exceptions. But the exceptions are extremely instructive. Why, if private property is simply the most just and efficient way of organizing society, isn't everything private property? Surely neoliberalism has made a strong go of trying to succeed in privatizing everything, but what's the story with those notable exceptions that seem off the table even to the most brazen Right-wingers?

What are some of the examples? For starters: roads, water, Fire departments, police, libraries, parks (municipal and otherwise), the majority of the military, a large percentage of schools.

In the U.K., access to health care is not commodified and hospitals are public institutions. To convert from the U.K. system to the disastrous scheme we have in the U.S., would be to relinquish democratic, public authority over a vital social institution and hand it over to private interests. No matter what those unhappy with the NHS in the U.K. may say about their own system, the prospects of this transformation (from public to private) in the U.K. are slim to none. Even under Margaret Thatcher, there was never a moment when the complete privatization of the NHS was even on the radar. When minor changes are made to the NHS that threaten to introduce fees of any kind, public outrage follows.

In U.S., we have the opposite situation, in a way. We have a mostly free-market health care system, with the exception of Medicaid and Medicare. As it stands, Medicare is basically the only part of our system that works right, and has been proven over many years of reliable functioning.

But the majority of the system is dominated by for-profit insurance companies. And uproar ensues whenever any part of it is slated to become public. Instead of complaining about the introduction of fees (which we can think of a form of regressive taxation), in our country the outrage from the political establishment is over the possibility of making any part of health insurance public or democratic.

Republican senators regularly complain that the Public Option would have been unfair, since the private insurance industry would not be able to compete. Obama's bone-headed response to this objection, of course, is to reaffirm the GOP's reverence for the private insurance industry and claim "no, no... its not going to make it so they cannot compete, it will just keep them honest... they're still going to be making money, dont worry for second about that!"

But this business about "not being able to compete" obscures the bigger question, namely why should our health insurance institutions be allowed to be in private hands at all? Why should something we all depend on and need be subject to the profit-driven interests of speculators and capitalists? Why shouldn't these institutions be entirely public, and designed ONLY to best serve those who need insurance, rather than to primarily serve the profit-interests of those who have investments in the insurance industry? In short, why is it legitimate to even think of these institutions as potential objects of private property? How is the acceptance of private ownership in this case not an acceptance of a kind of theft, or usurpation, of what should rightly be held in common by all?


Friday, September 11, 2009

Liberalism, Freedom and "Totalitarianism"

Liberal political theorist Isaiah Berlin is famous for a paper, "Two Concepts of Liberty", in which he distinguishes what he calls "negative liberty" from "positive liberty" and concludes that the latter inevitably leads to "totalitarianism". Preserving "negative liberty" is the task of a liberal society, whereas fostering "positive liberty" cannot but lead to oppression. The point of the conclusion is to proscribe any politics other than liberalism, on the ground that it plants the seeds of "totalitarianism".

I, for one, find that the closer you look at the distinction between negative and positive liberty, the more confusing it becomes. Raymond Geuss (2005) gives us a helpful rough shot at summarizing what Berlin thought he meant by the distinction:

  1. Negative Liberty means that somebody is free to the extent to which there are no (external) obstacles to the action of that person (in some particular domain).
  2. Positive Liberty means that somebody is free to the extent that they are self-governing or self-legislating.
I'll leave aside whether this distinction is clear or exhaustive. Let's say it is.

Now here's how caring about positive liberty is supposed to lead to 'totalitarianism' (I will always place this term in scare quotes, because I don't think its legitimate; historically it derives from a Cold War politics that simply equated Fascism with Communism, which lives on in contemporary neoconservatism... we have plenty of other, more specific, terms to describe oppression under Stalinism, Nazism, etc.).

Berlin's argument, as summarized by Geuss:
  1. To be negatively free means simply to be in a state in which one has unobstructed opportunities for action, but to be positively free means actually to live and act in a certain way.
  2. If freedom is a way of life, someone else might know better than I do what constitutes that way of life.
  3. Anyone who knew (better than I did myself) in what my positive freedom would consist could legitimately force me to adopt that way of life and in so doing would be forcing me to be free.
And of course, 'forcing someone to be free' is the hallmark of 'totalitarianism' and oppression. Berlin wants us to conclude from this that liberal capitalism is the best we can do, and anything else just inevitably leads to oppression.

But, as Geuss points out, there at least 3 main problems with this argument.

First of all "it would be a mistake to assume that freedom in a positive sense must be an exercise concept, just because it is not a mere opportunity concept. Positive freedom might designate the possession of a faculty or capacity which may or may not be exercised."

Second, Berlin's argument could not hold true for "all positive conceptions of freedom" since we could have a positive conception of freedom which consisted of "individual autonomy", and according to "such a conception it would be an integral part of the free way of life that the individual living it has chosen that life rather than being forced to adopt it."

Third, step 3. in the argument is dubious. It is not obvious that simply because "I know what would be good for you... that I have a warrant to coerce you, especially not if the good in question (say, autonomy) is one which has value only if you chose it freely, so that in using coercion I destroy it".

To make this third probelm with the argument even clearer, Geuss proposes we add a forth step to the 3-step argument above:
4. There is a social agency (e.g. the State) who is really me (or: who is the "real me") and thus all of whose actions are really mine so that none of its actions against me can even in principle count as coercion.
Now if we simply omit step 3. in Berlin's original argument and add 4. instead, we get the "strong and unpleasant conclusions" Berlin wanted to draw. But if that's right, we don't need 3. to arrive at his conclusion about 'totalitarianism'.

In other words, the problem here isn't 'positive liberty'.

The real culprit, it turns out, is a belief about the "relation between individuals and some social agency -something like 4., or like what Berlin calls the 'organicist' conception of society".

As Geuss points out, Hobbes held a "relentlessly negative conception of freedom, but given his theory about the construction of social agency, the Leviathan, he arrives at strongly 'totalitarian' conclusions".

On the flipside, Hegel and Marx (both of whom Berlin wanted to marginalize) "specifically reject the 'organicist' conception of society if by that is meant the view that human individuals are no more than accidents of social substance or organs of a social whole".

What I take away from this is that one way liberalism makes a case for itself is by making a boogey-man of anything that isn't liberal. It's an indirect argument: it's not that liberal capitalism is awesome, it's just that everything else is really bad, so you should be a liberal.

But if you take seriously the thought that capitalism is not the best that we can do, this indirect argument really begins to lose its force. This is why neoconservatives have a vested interest in occluding questions like this by trying to equate the objectives of the Left with the horrors of Fascism. That the Left, and not centrist liberals, have historically been the most strident opponents and activists in the fight against Fascism is merely an inconvenient fact of history for these folks.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dear NYTimes, I'm Confused

When certain ideas are prefaced in mainstream media as being 'conventional wisdom' or 'common sense', its a sure bet that whatever follows will be perplexing.

Here's an example, from this morning's NYTimes, listed as "News Analysis":

WASHINGTON — The conventional wisdom, here and around the country, is that the centerpiece of President Obama’s domestic agenda — remaking the health care system to cut costs and cover the uninsured — is on life support and that only a political miracle could revive it. Here’s why the conventional wisdom might be wrong: While the month of August clearly knocked the White House back on its heels, as Congressional town hall-style meetings exposed Americans’ unease with an overhaul, the uproar does not seem to have greatly altered public opinion or substantially weakened Democrats’ resolve.
So the first question I ask when reading this is "what is conventional wisdom supposed to be here?". Evidently it's not equivalent to "public opinion", since the author claims a couple sentences later that 'public opinion' hasn't shifted against health care reform, despite the fact that "conventional wisdom" has.

I happen to agree that they're absolutely not the same. But what, then, is "conventional wisdom" in this specific case? The content here that fills out the invocation of the concept of "conventional wisdom", is a narrative about health care being on its deathbed. But why? Where does this come from?

Thankfully, this "News Analysis" article suggests an answer. When the author imagines why the "conventional wisdom" might be wrong she says: "While the month of August clearly knocked the White House back on its heels, as Congressional town hall-style meetings exposed Americans’ unease with an overhaul..." So here's more information about what current 'conventional wisdom' consists of in this article: health care reform is on its deathbed because it faced a series of setbacks in August, when "Congressional town hall-style meetings exposed Americans' unease with an overhaul...".

Now hold it right there. Things are getting really complicated here. Now we read that a spectacle involving a very small percentage of the population "exposed Americans' unease with an overhaul". Yet we read a sentence later that "public opinion hasn't changed", meaning "public opinion" has been steadily in favor of reform. So now we have "conventional wisdom", "public opinion" and a general "unease" among "Americans" writ large. And they are all marching to the beat of a completely different drummer, even though they ostensibly refer to the same exact thing, namely, what most people (say a majority of people) in America think about health care reform.

My hypothesis is that the "conventional wisdom" here and its corollary about "unease" are really just free floating bullshit bouncing off the walls of the echo chamber of mainstream media. In contrast, maybe 'public opinion' here refers to some Rasmussen poll that reflects some sliver of reality.

To call this news article "New Analysis" is a bit like calling a pile of unassembled bike parts "ready to ride".

I'm particularly troubled, here, about the way that the NYTimes and others have handled the "Town Hall" incidents. This article baldly claims that the antics and veinpopping tirades at the events "exposed Americans' unease with health reform". This false on many levels. To make the NYTimes claim about "exposing Americans' unease" true, we'd need to be able to say that the people who showed up at the "Town Hall" meetings were representative of American public convictions in general. But we can't. It's rather obvious that the meetings were an opportunity for the most vocal, deranged, and crazy Right-wing people (who feel like their voices about birth cirtificates aren't being heard, etc.) to come out of the woodwork and make as much noise as possible. It's a smart political tactic, and they succeeded marvelously in causing an 'uproar' by chanting that "Obama is a Nazi", etc.

So why, then, does an article in the NYTimes titlted "News Analysis" claim that this exposed a general unease among Americans?

Analysis here is badly needed. First of all, its now banal that the event damaged the health care reform efforts lead by Obama. But why? Analysis, i.e. critical reflection, suggests not that the events themselves exposed anything about public sentiments, but that the way that the events were appropriated and disseminated in the media involved the positing of certain narratives deployed to make sense out of those events. A dominant narrative that has emerged in the media is that those "Town Hall" freakshows spoke to larger reservations "Americans" have with health care reform. The NYtimes author here is correct to note that this perverse narrative does NOT accord with 'public opinion' (which probably still states, as always, that people want universal health care!). But she only really 'notes' it insofar as she says two apparently contradictory things, of which any thinking person would want to say more. Unbelievable. And we read this in what is, I fear, Americas best newspaper.

Before I wrap this up, I'd like to share the next sentence in the article with you:
"Critical players in the health care industry remain at the negotiating table, meaning they are not out whipping up public or legislative opposition."
Ah. Very nice. In logic we call this an invalid inference. It's a little bit like making the following bad argument:
If I have the flu, then I have a sore throat.
I have a sore throat.
Therefore, I have the flu.
No matter what we call this fallacy, however, its obvious that the point the sentence above tries to make just doesn't add up.

The author claims that "critical players in the health care industry remain at the negotiating table". Let's grant that this is true, although we should reasonably ask why they are 'critical' to the success of reform, and what the political dynamics of the 'negotiating table' are.

But because this is true, we are told that something else follows, namely, "they are not out whipping up public or legislative opposition". According to the author of the article, this is just what the first part of the sentence 'means'.

But we can easily imagine a world (this world, as it turns out) in which 'critical industry players' both 'sat down at the negotiating table' AND 'whipped up public or legislative opposition'. So we need an independent reason, separate from the comment about 'negotiation', to show that the 'industry players' aren't involved in 'public opposition' as well. But we don't get one. We get slight of hand.

This is especially eggregious, because OF COURSE the Industry is "whipping up public and legislative opposition" to real reform. There are many examples. Ironcially, one primarily locus of their opposition is at that "negotiation table" that the author refrers to. But why should the "industry players" have a "critical" say in anything regarding reform? Did we ask the Tobacco "industry players" how best to prevent people from getting lung cancer? I'm sure, though, that there were some 'negotiation tables' somewhere along the line there, so I guess we should conclude that the Tobacco industry was logically prevented from "whipping up opposition" to Tobacco policy reform efforts.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009


(via NYTimes)

"WASHINGTON — Democratic Congressional leaders voiced optimism Tuesday afternoon after meeting with President Obama to plot strategy on health care legislation, while a key Democratic senator wooed Republicans with a compromise plan a day before the president’s address to the nation."

Oh boy!, oh boy!, oh boy!, oh boy!, oh boy! Woo those Republicans!


They're not 'libertarians', follow-up

I posted recently on the fact that some on the hard-line pro-capitalist Right call themselves by an epithet that suggests, wrongly, that liberty or freedom has some privileged place in their politics.

I argued that their claim about privileging liberty was tendentious, and that what they really cared most centrally about was defending capitalism and private property. Hence why I suggested that they stop calling themselves 'libertarians'. It's sort of like taking whatever your political view is and slapping a label like "freedomitarian" on it.

I'm sick of people on the Left granting the absurd wish from these people that they be called 'libertarians'. Call them something that reflects their fetishization of neoclassical economic theory and their love-affair with capitalist social relations. 'Libertarian' is ridiculous.

So this got me thinking. These so-called 'libertarians' are completely hostile to the idea of democracy. What I mean is that they consistently complain when democratic institutions (i.e. the State in a representative democracy) make policies, when they ought to just let private market forces work their magic. Democratic institutions should be ultra-minimal and small, whereas capitalist institutions should be extensive and hegemonic. Markets and capitalists should make all of the big decisions. Letting everyone have an equal say leads to 'irrational' outcomes that markets, thankfully, avoid.

This is the view defended by a long line of hard-Right 'Austrian economists', but most recently in Bryan Caplan's "The Myth of the Rational Voter".

The basic thrust of his argument is simple. Most people are basically irrational and don't know what's best. Markets, on the other hand, are rational and do 'know' what's best. To the extent that people who vote don't know this (that they're irrational, that markets are what's rational), they cause democracies to be irrational. The conclusion we should draw is that democratic institutions ought to have far less of a role in the basic structure of society, and market-based institutions ought to have the lion's share.

Caplan, who took inspiration to study economics from reading Ayn Rand, has produced an argument of great interest to the ardent Right-wing Cato Institute, as well as the perhaps more extreme Von Mises Institute. In fact, according to the linked article from VMI above, the problem with Caplan's argument isn't that he is anti-democratic, but that he's not anti-democratic enough. Power, after all, belongs in the pocket-book, not at the polling station.

So as I said earlier, this has got me thinking.

Since we've seen that liberty does not have a privileged place in 'libertarianism', and that, alternatively, these folks are strongly against democracy, why not incorporate the latter insight into their public label?

Why not be upfront about their anti-democratic convictions? I know "anti-democratarian" doesn't have a nice ring to it, but it's at least more accurate. Or how about the (redundant) label "capitalist anti-democrat" or some Latin phrase that means "lover of markets, hater of the people". I leave it to others more witty than I to iron out the details, but it seems to me that the basic framework is in place to correct the situation...


Monday, September 7, 2009

Bipartisan, Moderate, Independent, Fair-minded good solutions for Middle-class American Patriots

In other words, "maverick" centrist patriotic Democrat Max Baucus has submitted a "compromise" health 'reform' bill.

The virtue of the bill is that it is "a compromise aimed at helping draw support from some Republicans and moderate Democrats." The proposal will "get a response from the bipartisan group that includes five other senators when they meet Tuesday." It has no public option, but that's the reason that it's "Congress's best hope for reaching a bipartisan agreement on sweeping legislation to overhaul the health system."

I, for one, am very convinced by all of this. Given the results of the last two election cycles, it's very clear to me that the electorate fervently believes in hearing what Republicans have to say about health care. Its clear from the results of the 2006 and 2008 elections that Americans don't prefer one party over the other, they just want as much 'bipartisanship' as they can get their hands on.

With control of the White House, crushing majorities in the House, and a filibuster-proof majority of 60 senators in the Senate, what the Democrats need first and foremost is to actively seek out the views of Republicans and see that their concerns are met. Voters didn't give the Democrats the largest majorities in a generation because they wanted them to change things. And they certainly didn't vote to give Democrats majorities because the Democrats talked about health care reform during their campaigns.

Think about it: Democrats can't just use the majorities they were given by voters to pass legislation. Instead, what Americans need are solutions that pander to the pathologies of a party that was hammered into the ground by voters two election cycles in a row. It's obvious that we need maximal 'reaching across the aisle'.

Moreover, we need solutions that are 'realistic', 'feasible', and very cautious. Our 'free market' health care system basically works great for everyone, so why fix what isn't broken?

What this really makes clear for me is that 'bipartisanship', 'moderation', 'independence', 'fair-mindedness' and 'centrism' are all timeless values in and of themselves. Specific political content has no relevance to politics.

It's not like elections shouldn't have consequences. So I was thinking, perhaps we should stop having them. Just appoint 50% republicans and 50% democrats to sit in Congress permanently and we can ensure that 'divisive' 'partisan' politics are gone for good. In this way we could invest forever in the timeless values of moderation, bipartisanship, centrism, reaching across the aisle, and so forth.



Saturday, September 5, 2009

Krugman on the state of Economics

Krugman has a long article about "How the economists got it so wrong" coming out in the NYTimes magazine this Sunday.

There's a lot to say about it, but I guess the most striking thing for me is how batshit crazy the neoclassical hardliners sound. e.g:

Edward Prescott, who was then at the University of Minnesota (you can see where the freshwater moniker comes from), argued that price fluctuations and changes in demand actually had nothing to do with the business cycle. Rather, the business cycle reflects fluctuations in the rate of technological progress, which are amplified by the rational response of workers, who voluntarily work more when the environment is favorable and less when it’s unfavorable. Unemployment is a deliberate decision by workers to take time off.

Put baldly like that, this theory sounds foolish — was the Great Depression really the Great Vacation?
Foolish is a polite word for what it sounds like. Make sure to check this out as well:
Thus Chicago’s Casey Mulligan suggests that unemployment is so high because many workers are choosing not to take jobs: “Employees face financial incentives that encourage them not to work . . . decreased employment is explained more by reductions in the supply of labor (the willingness of people to work) and less by the demand for labor (the number of workers that employers need to hire).” Mulligan has suggested, in particular, that workers are choosing to remain unemployed because that improves their odds of receiving mortgage relief. And Cochrane declares that high unemployment is actually good: “We should have a recession. People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.”
No joke. Jobs aren't scarce, and neither were they scarce during the Great Depression. People just didn't want to work, so they willingly became unemployed. That seems to accord perfectly with everything we know about the Great Depression... er... what!?

Didn't any of these people ever read Grapes of Wrath?

It's amazing to me, as someone outside the economics world, that these neoclassical hardliners have spent the better part of 60 years arguing that all unemployment is voluntary. Crazy stuff. I suspect that there is no such thing as involuntary employment, according to these dogmatists, because admitting there was would license the modus tollens: if all unemployment isn't voluntary, then markets are not inherently efficient and rational. Of course, those premises about inherent efficiency and strategic-rationality are the founding pillars of their whole intellectual edifice. One doesn't even really bring them up to talk about them, much less question them. They are to be worshiped not trifled with. That's how you come up with nuggets like this:
In 2004, Alan Greenspan dismissed talk of a housing bubble: “a national severe price distortion,” he declared, was “most unlikely.” Home-price increases, Ben Bernanke said in 2005, “largely reflect strong economic fundamentals.”


But there was something else going on: a general belief that bubbles just don’t happen. What’s striking, when you reread Greenspan’s assurances, is that they weren’t based on evidence — they were based on the a priori assertion that there simply can’t be a bubble in housing.
Right. Because you can't say there's such things as bubbles lest you expose those magical pillars about efficiency to empirical questioning. As Krugman explains:
But it was inevitable that freshwater economists would find themselves trapped in this cul-de-sac: if you start from the assumption that people are perfectly rational and markets are perfectly efficient, you have to conclude that unemployment is voluntary and recessions are desirable.
Krugman insinuates (but leaves it at the level of insinuation) that some of the currency that this moronic dogma has in the Economics profession owes to its instrumental value (esp. in the 80s) in aiding financiers in landing massive profits. This isn't really very surprising, when you think about it. If you said something critical about the stock prices in the late 90s, if you threatened the neoclassical dogma with talk of recessions or bubbles, you were cast aside as a cook. And not just in the 'academic world'. In industry, people often don't want to seem to listen to nay-sayers when everyone seems to be having a good time and making a ton of money. This is how massive deceptions like Enron and Madoff go down. People are told they're making great returns, and they don't really bother to see if that's sustainable or even really true. Just keep the $$$ flowing. Some rational system indeed.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

NEWSFLASH: workers often get cheated

According to a cutting edge study in the NyTimes, "Low-wage workers are routinely denied proper overtime pay and are often paid less than the minimum wage, according to a new study based on a survey of workers in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago."

Who knew?


Pictures of fat(ter) women? Revolutionary.

Thanks to Shapely Prose and Jezebel, I've come across a couple of posts recently about plus-size models. These models, of course, are not the people we'd consider plus-size in real life: sometimes they're as small as a size 8. And they're still models: nicely proportioned, with beautiful faces and skin and all the rest.

But I'm emerging from my blogging hibernation to register just how powerful these images are. As I look at them, I think: she is really sexy! And then I think: wait, is it possible that I could look that sexy, too? Even though I have a belly pooch, flesh on my hips and thighs, and slightly unwieldy breasts?

Click 'em and weep.

This photo in Glamour magazine made a huge splash because it shows the model's little belly pooch. The same model also has much more generous thighs than most of her colleagues.

This photo shoot from Harper's Bazaar Australia did not airbrush away the cellulite on Crystal Renn's thighs.

I'd never heard of plus-size model Kate Dillon before, had you?

In all these comment threads, I think women are truly moved to see a female body that looks "real" to them: one they can identify with, one that rings true with their own experience of having a body. (Even if, as so many women are, they're larger than these supposedly plus-sized women.)

And these are beautiful, able-bodied white women who are making such a splash. I can only imagine how much women with disabilities, women of color, and unusual-looking women may be longing (perhaps unknowingly, as I was) to see images of themselves -- somewhere, anywhere -- in our media.