Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More than 1/3 of Young Black Men Unemployed

Via WaPo: 34.5 percent of young African American men are unemployed.

Glen Ford over at BAR has a good post skewering the Obama Administration's indifference to serious attempts to confront this trend.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Stupak Amendment Sucks

SocialistWorker.org has an op/ed on it here.


Friday, November 20, 2009

On Claude Levi-Strauss and the Structuralists

Louis Proyect has a great post up about the recently deceased anthropologist and founder of structuralism, Claude Levi-Strauss.

Great reflections on the relationships between optimism, doubt, Marxism, and history.


California Tuition to Rise 32 Percent

That's right. The NY Times has the story here.

This is so disastrous. If the American Dream had been available before, it is certainly gone now.

Update: I should make it clear California students aren't taking this lying down. UCLA students have occupied a building on campus (Unclear if they're still in there as of today).

Updated update: Students occupying a building at Berkeley in protest as well.

H/T to Austin Thompson.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Politics of Characterizing Capitalism

My sparse posting over the past few months is mostly due to my recent immersion into graduate school, where, among encountering many new intellectual trajectories, I've encountered serious and self-proclaimed post-modernists for the first time. I've dabbled in Foucault, Butler, Lyotard, Joan Scott, and a few others. As I've done this reading I've had a critical eye for suggestions that we completely abandon the material or historical in pursuit of the discursive, and been extra critical of many post-modernists' outright rejection of metanarratives and grand theories. I am a Marxist, after all.

But I've also been interested in what these theorists have to offer in terms of interventions. It doesn't take a lot of arguing to convince me that the way we talk about things can contribute to maintaining existing structures of power. Foucault, for instance, argues that merely accepting the narrative that sexuality is repressed in our society, even if you wish to transgress that repression, is perpetuating the dominant narrative of sexuality by affording it absolute power in defining the discourse on sexuality.

But when it comes to the anti-capitalist project, knowing how the discursive might be used to interrupt capitalism is less clear. Certainly, one might try to simply de-normalize capitalism by actively challenging the naturalness or common sense-ness of capitalist values. That's a rhetorical move, yes. But how far does that go to actually challenge capitalism?

Then I read J.K. Gibson-Graham's article "(Queer)ying Capitalism in the Classroom." In the article, a la Foucault, Gibson-Graham argues that accepting the narrative of capitalism (when she teaches feminist economics, mind you) as a fully global, dominant, behemoth system reproduces the idea that capitalism is the only system possible in today's context, on the one hand, and a system one cannot resist, on the other.

Gibson Graham's rhetorical project around capitalism is tied directly to the direction of queer theory:

Of course, destabilising images of capitalist dominance is a big project, and I could not do it by myself. Nor could I do it without queer theory, that in credibly dynamic matrix of contemporary theory whose practitioners are not only theorising about queers but who are also making social theory `queer’. This latter project can be seen to involve not (or not merely) constituting a minority population based on same-sex desire, set in opposition to a heterosexual norm, but calling into question the very idea of norms and normality, calling attention to the violence entailed by normalising impulses, including the impulse to theorise a social site assumed to a hegemonic order [7].

What if we were to `queer ’ capitalist hegemony and break apart some of its consolidating associations? We could start by reimagining the body of capitalism, that hard and masculine body that penetrates non-capitalism but is not itself susceptible to penetration (this image conveys some of the heterosexism that structures contemporary social theory). One key `coming together’ (a Christmas effect that participates in consolidating a capitalist monolith) is the familiar association of capitalism with commodification and `the market’. This association, in which all three terms ultimately signify `capitalism’, constitutes the body of capitalism as dominant and expansive (at least in the space of commodity transactions). But how might we re-envision that body as more open and permeable, as having orifices through which non-capitalism might enter? We might argue, as many have done, that many different relations of production, including slavery and independent commodity production and col lective or communal relations are compatible with production for a market. What violence do we do to these when we normalise all commodity production as capitalist commodity production? Surely the market is a mobile and membranous orifice into which can be inserted all kinds of non-capitalist commodities, whose queer presences challenge the preeminence of capitalism and the discourses of its hegemony.
Certainly, since capitalism is the normative discourse in our society, even admitting as much and calling it a discourse (rather than the assumed natural order), is a radical move for many people. But what Gibson-Graham makes us question is whether the desire to portray capitalism as the defining characteristic of our society contributes to its position as such. She mentions then employing different projects in her classes where her classes explore non-capitalist models of production taking place in U.S. society. This both de-normalizes capitalism, by showing alternatives, and interrupts the idea that the normative discourse is actually normal.

But, does this cause us to understate capitalism's real power? Do we need to portray capitalism as inescapable to relate how much power it has over the lives of those who would resist it? And, how would one implement this kind of discursive move outside the classroom (where most of us do the majority of our talking about capitalism with other people)?


Monday, November 16, 2009

Inspiring the youth, placating the authorities

From the headline of a recent NYTimes article:

At a town hall meeting, President Obama’s answers stood out as a stark snapshot of a his efforts to reach China’s youth while not offending its authorities.
Was this not precisely what Obama did in the US as well, before and after the election?


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Four Perspectives on the Fall of the Wall

Here are three articles from a SocialistWorker.org series on the fall of the wall. Here is Slavoj Zizek's take on it in the NYTimes.

One of the more poignant moment's of Zizek's piece was when he said that:

When people protested Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the large majority of them did not ask for capitalism. They wanted the freedom to live their lives outside state control, to come together and talk as they pleased; they wanted a life of simplicity and sincerity, liberated from the primitive ideological indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy.

As many commentators observed, the ideals that led the protesters were to a large extent taken from the ruling Socialist ideology itself — people aspired to something that can most appropriately be designated as “Socialism with a human face.” Perhaps this attitude deserves a second chance.

I think this is precisely what gets drowned out in the triumphalism that continues to accompany most cheering about the fall of East-Bloc Stalinism. That, even today, we can still hardly articulate a position outside of prescribed disjunctions like "East or West", "Communism or Freedom", etc. should strike us as deeply problematic.

The fall of the wall dividing Berlin means so many things, but any critical assessment of these ramifications would not operate within the facile logic of east vs. west, communism vs. 'freedom'. Here I am tempted to recall a similarly complicated political situation that receives similar treatment in mainstream outlets: the political situation with Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Without any doubt whatsoever, Mugabe's regime is violent, oppressive, self-serving and largely ineffective. But any critical account of the entire situation in Zimbabwe would include a lot more than the failings chalked up to the actions of the current regime and its leader. It would include engagement with the legacy of colonialism, the neo-colonialism of Britain's post-Independence economic interactions with Zimbabwe, the relationship of Mugabe's regime to global capitalism, the concrete configuration of power within Zimbabwe before and after independence, the continued existence of high concentrations of economic power in the hands of colonial elites, and so on.

But complicating the political dynamics is not possible within the framework foisted upon us in outlets like the Economist or the NY Times. There we are told that the politics are simple: The West is good, Mugabe is bad... which translates to: more neoliberalism is the prescription, the ZANU-PF and land reform are the disease. This is why certain British outlets are so pleased to hear about everything going terribly wrong in Zimbabwe, for it gives credence to what they've wanted to claim all along: that Zimbabwe "isn't ready" for self-rule and needs to to be brought in line by means of neo-colonial economic domination.

Something similar, I feel, is true of our confrontation with the history of the Soviet Union. It's easy for the media to simply give us a redux of the triumphant, clamoring cheers proclaiming a new world of unbridled capitalism that followed the events of 1989. It's easy to continue to use the demise of the East Bloc (or the degenerated worker's states, state capitalist regimes... whatever you like) to cast doubt upon any alternative to capitalism. But the world has never been as simple and clear cut as "east vs. west". Today, not to feel at all ambivalent about what died with the East Bloc is to accept a kind of cynicism that, perhaps, in 1991 was forgivable, but today reemerges as one of the most suffocating legacies of the Cold War. As Adorno put it in another context: "freedom would not be to choose between black and white, but to abjure such prescribed choices".

Whatever else is true of American collective memory and the fall of the wall, it is not unreasonable that many Germans who lived in the DDR aren't satisfied with 20 years of capitalism they've been thrown into as part of their liberation. This jibes with the Zizek quote at the beginning of the post: those protesting the East Bloc regimes did not ask for economic shock therapy, criminal privatizations of public assets, or the ruthless competition of capitalist social relations. The situation was and continues to be a complicated one.

The central political question here, for me, is put well by Badiou:
Why, in the 20th century, have the most heroic popular uprisings, the most persistent wars of liberation, the most indisputable mobilizations in the name of justice and liberty all ended… in opaque statist constructions wherein none of the factors that gave meaning and possibility to their historical genesis is decipherable?... we must categorically reject the refrain of all those who imagine themselves being able to settle this question with a few evasive replies on totalitarian ideology since it is apparent that they have simply abandoned the ideas of justice and the emancipation of humanity and instead joined the eternal cohort of conservatives bent on preserving the ‘lesser evil’
But the rejoinder of the "eternal cohort of conservatives" conservative reply to any serious attempt to imagine a different kind of society makes an invalid inference. While it may be true that we are best served to accept the least worst alternative in the meantime, this bare admission does not cast any suspicion on the perpetual, unending struggle to try to find an systemic alternative to the present that is far more just, and far less violent and exploitative.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Leftists in Germany Protest Berlin Wall Anniversary

While a majority of Europeans and Americans prepared to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this weekend, some German leftists are instead protesting what they call the "freedom of capitalist competition" that came with the fall of the wall.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Against Electoral Politics

What is politics? What is the terrain of the political? What's at stake?

Ask many people these questions and their answers will understandably point to Washington, elections, Democrats, Republicans and so on. Having an interest in politics, on this view, means watching CNN, following the inane daily hubbub on Capitol Hill, etc.

But as Alain Badiou astutely points out, "If we posit a definition of politics as ‘collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order’, then we would have to conclude that the electoral mechanism is an essentially apolitical procedure." This is a fecund observation that is worth unpacking further.

The definition of politics offered above seems, on the face of it, uncontroversial. What should the raison d'etre of our electoral institutions be, if not to facilitate collective decision-making, organized by certain principles, aiming to unfold the new possibilities currently repressed by the dominant state of affairs?

Yet this is patently not what electoral politics are about in the US. Here, elections are about an endless, narrow see-saw maneuver between Democrat and Republican parties. Consider for a moment what this narrow back-and-forth is not: it is not a struggle between different substantive political visions. Nor is it a disagreement over how a just social order would be organized. It is, for all intents and purposes, a process of narrow bickering between two pro-business entities. Politics, if it has any place in this process at all, is merely a small, incidental side-effect.

Today we're trained to think that the highest form of political activity possible is voting for either a Democrat or a Republican. We're encouraged, then, to think that politics itself is an individualistic practice in which we go, alone, behind a curtain to decide to cave in to one or other pro-business organizations. I think it's fair to say that things haven't always been like this. At other periods in world history, there have been serious debates about big questions, about what kind of society we want to live in. It is helpful here to revisit some of the debates from the early 20th century on the Left about tactics, strategy, and elections.

At the very beginning of the 20th century, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the strongest Marxist, left-wing party in the world. The labor movement in Germany had been growing steadily in membership and in power, and it looked for a time as though the SPD was leading the charge for another, more just kind of society. The SPD's leading theoretician was Karl Kautsky, a fiercely dogmatic defender of Germany's existing parliament as a strategic means for constructing a socialist society.

An interesting debate was instigated by a polemical brochure entitled "Terrorism and Communism", penned by Kautsky, directed at discrediting the tactical and strategic trajectory of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Trotsky wrote a reply in 1920 with the same title, that was later published as a book (republished recently by Verso, and introduced by Zizek).

For Kautsky, the debate between reformists in the SPD and Bolshevik revolutionaries is one of "democracy" versus "dictatorship". He casts his own reformist view as the "democratic" alternative to the allegedly violent, impetuous and "authoritarian" strategy endorsed by the Bolsheviks. The crucial question here, however, is what does Kautsky mean by "democracy"?

He means a representative parliamentary system coupled with capitalist control of industry and social life. In other words, he conflates democracy as such with a certain kind of electoral procedure situated in the context of a particular configuration of capitalism. In short, he reduces democracy itself to the parliamentary mechanism such as it was in early 20th century capitalist Germany.

Trotsky's reply (and we might add here that Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxembourg, Lenin and others shared this view) is that we cannot speak of democracy at all unless we talk about the conditions it would require to realize it. The view is simple: you can't speak of "democracy" (or freedom and equality) in the legal sphere if workers are in chains in the social and economic spheres. You can't institute true democracy by legal procedures alone if such procedures are instituted against the backdrop of massive inequalities of power. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in the foreword to the recent Verso edition of Trotsky's text:

"For Trotsky the true stakes of the debate are not simply democracy versus dictatorship, but the class 'dictatorship' which is inscribed into the very form of parliamentary dictatorship.... the true question is... how the very field in which the total political process takes place is structured."
In other words, our question here must be: what extra-electoral conditions would have to obtain in order for democracy to be realized?

Now, surely some will object here that if this is Trotsky's view, he'd do well to eschew the language of 'dictatorship'. This objection, however, misses the mark. What Kautsky blithely dubs "democracy", Trotsky calls a form of dictatorship. In other words, parliamentary democracy under capitalism is, for Trotsky, a form of class "dictatorship". This is analogous to Rosa Luxembourg's distinction between "bourgeois democracy" and "socialist democracy", the main difficulty with "bourgeois democracy" being that there's not enough of it. It not extended to the social and economic sphere; those spheres are under the control of the capitalists who own the commanding heights of the economy.

Let me try to spell this out a little more clearly. If Trotsky and other Marxists are correct to define capitalism as a mode of social organization in which the major productive resources and institutions are privately owned by a specific class (rather than democratically, by all), then we must conclude that parliamentary procedures are compatible with a high concentration of undemocratic economic power. Another way to put the point is to lean on Marx's distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation. For Marx, the transition from feudalism to liberal capitalism represented a great step forward in that it granted a larger degree of "political" (read "legal", "electoral") equality and freedom than feudal societies allowed. But, Marx held, merely political emancipation is not enough; the bourgeois revolutions that overthrew feudalism didn't go far enough. Democracy, he argued, had to be extended not only to political/legal institutions, but to social and economic institutions as well.

Thus, if you're committed to human (rather than merely legal) emancipation, if you're committed to radically rethinking economic and social organization,
Trotsky's worry is that you cannot accomplish this within the parameters of parliamentary procedures under capitalism.

Here's the argument for why this might be the case. Holders of large concentrations of economic power can make use of this power outside of the electoral arena. Capitalists can make threats. They can lay off politically active workers that are 'trouble makers', they can close factories, they can threaten democratically-elected governments with disinvestment, layoffs, etc. They may purchase and privately control and own media institutions. Often, after hundreds of years of capitalist development, they've managed wield military institutions to serve their interests.

The point here is that economic power is not relinquished without a fight, and we have no reason to expect that fight to be waged "fairly", within parliamentary bounds, by the ruling class. Even when regulations and limits are imposed upon capitalists by governments, capitalists will relentlessly deploy their economic power to game the system and find ways to get such limits and regulations repealed. In extreme cases, when it appears that a government will make real, systemic changes... the ruling class has been known to support right-wing coups and reject parliamentary democracy entirely. An instructive case study here is socialist head of state Salvador Allende in Chile circa 1970-73.

Allende was elected by a broad coalition of center-left and left-wing parties in Chile amidst uproar from the landed elites and ruling classes in Chile. When Allende tried to reform economic institutions and put land reform into law, his efforts were stonewalled and sabotaged by economic elites who used their power to "go on strike", lay off workers, suffocate the economy and try to bring the country to its knees.

Multinational corporations in Chile such as the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) set to work quickly to fight against Allende, and they weren't interested in trying to win the battle over electoral terms (a battle, the company's owners realized, they'd have little way of winning in the face of a broad popular mandate for Allende's policies). We now know from memos circulated amongst elites in ITT and the American-owned Kennecott Copper Company that their goals were to "“to strangle the Chilean economy, sow panic, and foment social disorder in order to encourage and create the opportunity for the armed forces to step in and replace Allende". Also- their influence convinced the US and related institutions like the World Bank to impose an economic blockade on Chile to help the destabilization effort.

The point of this is that all of these efforts were effective against a democratically-elected government precisely because of the concentrations of economic power under capitalism. Admittedly, "dictatorship" somewhat overstates the case, but the case of Chile in 1973 makes the point that capitalist's stranglehold on economic power must be challenged directly in order for real democracy to be possible.

So, either you are open to the reconfiguration of social/economic organization or you are not. If you are, as socialists purport to be, then you cannot be dogmatically committed to the narrow strategy of merely trying to elect certain people within predetermined parameters (e.g. Democrat or Republican). You must be committed to a broader conception of political activism, one that embraces extra-electoral struggles (
strikes (conventional, sit-down, wildcat, etc.), community organization, grass-roots protest and demonstration, sit-ins, etc.) as a means to alter the entire political center of gravity. In other words, the goal of a progressive social movement is not to merely operate within narrowly circumscribed procedures prescribed by the existing order, but to dynamically create the conditions for its own success.

We've recently lived through a massive change in electoral holdings of power. In 2004, people were talking about a "permanent Republican majority". Four years later, the GOP has lost control of both chambers of Congress and the Presidency, while the Democratic majority in the Senate sky-rocketed to 60. But for all this massive changing in electoral terms, the political content of the change (as we see today) is extremely thin. The continuity between the last days of the Bush government and the Obama administration is extremely discouraging. Foreign policy has essentially stayed the same. Regulation of financial markets is about as forthcoming under Obama as under Bush in 2008. The response to the crisis of giving spectacularly large amounts of welfare to Wall Street was virtually the same under Paulson as under Geithner, in fact the "Paulson Plan" was implemented lock stock and barrel under the latter's tenure. After all of these massive interventions to save the assets of powerful economic elites, Obama even had the audacity to talk of the importance of "market solutions" and the "private sector" when discussing health care. The message was clear: massive government spending for economic elites will be forthcoming and plentiful, but all we've got fo the majority of the population is the thin gruel of laissez-faire.

Aside from snagging a bit of low-hanging fruit (raising the minimum wage, redirecting some much-needed, overdue funds into education and infrastructure), the Obama administration has not deviated from the course taken by Bush. For all the talk of change, this has been a rather smooth transition from 8 years of Bush compared to what, in electoral terms, was a major alteration of course.

What further proof do we need that the end-in-view must not be "getting Democrats elected"? Whatever else is true, the Civil Rights Act was not passed by a drive merely to "get the right people elected". Neither do not have Social Security or unemployment benefits because of electoral fetishism.

Rather than being a means of change, current Federal elections in the US are a way of staving off real change. We must not forget that the large swells of community energy, activism and volunteerism that was poured into getting Obama elected reflected real needs and real discontent with the existing order. The heartbreaking reality, however, is that the election of Obama siphoned off all of this important energy and defused it.

The question we are confronted with is: now that this swell of energy and excitement has been betrayed, what can be accomplished within the parameters of electoralism? Do we have an electoral means of holding those in power accountable? However we answer, no honest response could have anything to do with getting more Democrats elected or with staving off a Republican backlash.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Lee Sustar on The Escalating War Against Public-Sector Unions

Read it here.