Sunday, February 28, 2010

Things are more complicated than economists would lead us to believe

“The way people think about things is appropriate or not depending on the nature of the things in question; the way people think about people, themselves, is part of the reality about which they are trying to think in appropriate ways. The concepts which we employ to grasp what we are become part of what we are; or rather that we use them in this way becomes part of what we are. Thus in social theory we are using concepts to understand beings who define themselves by means of their use of concepts, in some cases the concept that we are using in trying to understand them. So to construct a theory and to propagate it is to afford people a new means of self-comprehension; to give the theory currency may well change the very behavior which the theory attempts to describe. Hence social theories can play a role in their own verification and falsification.” -Alasdair MacIntyre "A Mistake about Causation in Social Science" (1958)


Saturday, February 27, 2010

"A Culture of Indifference"

Feministing has an excellent post on the culture of indifference that enables a sexual assault epidemic to persist unchallenged at most US universities. I can confirm, from personal experience with how universities deal with these matters, that most all of the important points from the post are commonplace at many colleges. For example:

  • Many times, victims drop out of school, while their alleged attackers graduate.
  • Students deemed "responsible" for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequence for their acts.
  • 75 to 90 percent of total disciplinary actions that schools do report are minor.
  • The full extent of campus sexual assault is often hidden by secret proceedings, shoddy record-keeping, and an indifferent bureaucracy.
All of these are facts that apply to virtually every university in the country. I and others at my undergraduate institution arrived at identical conclusions just based on circumstances particular to that university. It's appalling how widespread and uniform these problems are, and even more appalling how college administrations and student culture turns a blind eye to it.

I'm convinced that it is going to take direct action (be it civil disobedience or class-action legal attacks) of some kind to force (mostly male) administrators to take steps to stop institutionally-sanctioned rape at universities. Of course, this problem is much, much larger than universities and no doubt speaks to deep problems with our (sexist) legal system and culture (e.g. as the post notes: we have college newspapers printing pieces that blame rape victims and women's magazines spreading the myth of "gray rape.")

Something needs to be done, and we can't wait for university big wigs to take care of the problem.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bullshit on stilts

said Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana. “I just believe in the disinfectant of the sunshine. The more we have got questions on both sides, gradually the American people are going to see more and more and more that we really do need health care reform.”
Complete robotic balderdash. I could be a Democratic Senator, it's easy. Just keep repeating nonsense like this over and over: "both sides" "American people" "bipartisanship" "moderation", "good ideas" blah blah blah. And for that matter, I could get a job as a political analyst with the New York Times without changing my tune. Take a listen:
"Mr. Obama will face adversaries who are well prepared to joust with him on the finer points of health policy before a large audience that will be judging both sides and looking for signs of bipartisanship."
"One way Mr. Obama could throw Republicans off stride would be to make a bold opening offer to embrace one of their health care priorities, like limiting medical malpractice lawsuits — an idea one Democrat close to the White House said had been under consideration."
Let's see what we have here. The NY Times is telling everyone that they're looking "for signs of bipartisanship". Are they? Do we have any basis whatever for this claim? If that's true, then why did so many people vote for Democrats in 2008 if they were first and foremost concerned about this nebulous idea of "reaching across the aisle"? If we don't have any determinate idea about what should be done and which party should do it, why do we even have elections?

What else is the NY Times pontificating about? Well, they've got a brilliant strategy that would enable Obama to "throw the Republicans off stride". Evidently what he should do is start off the negotiation by offering to embrace "tort reform". What a brilliant idea, indeed, one that has worked wonders for Obama throughout his presidency so far. In effect the advice is to focus on "bipartisanship" in itself, rather than the ostensible goal of whatever policy is in question.

Why doesn't he just ask the Republicans nicely and then claim that they're "mean" if they say no?

Suppose you're buying a car. In a capitalist society, buyers and sellers are pitted against one another in an agnostic relationship in which their interests fundamentally diverge. Buyers want to purchase low and sellers want to sell high.

Now, you don't walk up to the salesperson and begin by offering them some piece of "what they want" and expect them to then to reciprocate. Market transactions are not reciprocal (and this, in my view, is a knock against the market itself). What the salesperson will do in this case is simply continue their strategy of trying to get the highest price they can. That is their goal, not trying to arrive at some compromise because that has some intrinsic worth.

If you start off with a tepid demand, the effect of more compromise is an even more watered-down and tepid demand.

Health care isn't a "debate", it isn't a "compromise" and it isn't a "conversation". It is a power struggle. Whatever ends up in the final bill will be the result of the relative balance of power (broadly construed). And we forget this at our own peril.

The ideological fantasies pedalled by the NY Times under the guise of "analysis" obscures the basic facts about how politics functions in a society like ours. The Republicans (even less than the Democrats) don't care about health care reform: their goal is to derail it and forestall and serious change. Does anyone really doubt that this is true?

The Democrats realize something has to change, but their goal is to "change" it in such a way that nothing important really changes. This is, admittedly, less obvious to many people, but no less true. Of course, is the paper of record actually stuck to gathering the appropriate facts and scrutinizing the statements of politicians.... perhaps it would be more obvious than it is at present.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

In doing some research/writing I came across this (evidently famous) 1971 essay by Linda Nochlin (feminist art historian/theorist) entitled "why have there been no great women artists?". For Nochlin, the question itself is a problem:

The question "Why have there been no great women artists?" is simply the top tenth of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception; beneath lies a vast dark bulk of shaky idees recues about the nature of art and its situational concomitants, about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this.
Once I'm through reading it, I'll post a little something on it, but I thought I'd pass it along to any who are interested.

As I understand the main argument, Nochlin is hostile (as am I) to the entire notion of a "genius" as it has been traditionally understood in history writ large. In fact, this notion is a product of the late 18th century, and took off in the 19th, when Romantic theorists talked about a (gendered, male) person as a "fountainhead" of creation... someone unencumbered by history and society... reliant on nobody but themselves, who creates "great" things.


Monday, February 22, 2010

SW Reviews CBS's "Undercover Boss" -- Calls it a "capitalist fantasy"

Have you caught any of this fabulous new weekly 30-minute commercial (I mean TV show)? America's top CEOs go undercover as regular workers to get the scoop on what life is really like for their lowly exploited laborers, and then they have great epiphanies about how they really should appreciate those workers more and then decide to change their ways, leaving CEO and proletariat to live forever in peace. tells us what it's really all about here. Here's an excerpt:

By the end of the 7-11 episode, for example, Waqat, who had described his job as a "dead end," is now telling the camera that DePinto "cares about me," because he has offered to be a mentor to him. "Only in America" could a boss care so much, says a delivery driver named Igor--who, we are informed at the end of his show, was given his own 7-11 franchise and "continues to live the American Dream."

Nowhere is there a hint of words like: union, strike or benefits. Instead, the underlying, insidious message of the show is that getting through a shitty job--literally, in the case of Fred G., a worker at Waste Management, whose job is to remove human waste from porta-potties--is all about having a "positive attitude."

It's really enough to make me queasy.


Utah Republicans Reject Only Logical Solution to Education Deficit

Utah Democrats proposed a 5% tax hike for the wealthiest 2% of Utahns in order to cover a 400 million dollar hole in Utah's higher education and public education budgets. Utah currently taxes its citizens at a flat rate. That's right. People earning more than $750,000 a year pay the same rate as people earning $20,000 a year.

Of course, Utah Republicans rejected the proposal...'Cause it sounded like Communism to them...


Saturday, February 20, 2010

"How Communism Brought Racial Equality to the South"

Listen to the NPR segment here.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Distortions in the health care "debate"

In the past, I've written on this blog about the discourse of "soaring prices" in the health care debate. These ideas about "soaring prices" are again circulating in the discourse as people in California are hit hard by steep increase in premiums.

Absurdly, Paul Krugman (who certainly knows better) claims that "we need comprehensive, guaranteed coverage — which is exactly what Democrats are trying to accomplish". Of course he's right that we need comprehensive reforms and universal, guaranteed coverage. But even the left-liberal reader of Krugman's own columns should be well aware that this is not what is on offer in the Democrat bill in Congress.

The entire way that this "issue" is thought about and discussed in mainstream outlets reeks of deeply-seated ideological distortions. The most obvious example of this distortion lies in the fact that we are continually prodded to think of ourselves primarily as consumers. In the health care "debate", we are asked to assume the role of consumer, and then to think about what creative institutional reforms we could implement that might help make our object of consumption, health care, less expensive. In this way, the entire debate is reduced to technocratic price tinkering.

We are continually encouraged to focus our attention solely on consumption; but we never reflect back on the conditions of production. Thus, the realm of circulation rather than the control of the means of production are the subject of scrutiny. The result is the sterile debate about how to remedy "soaring health care prices", where the real underlying economic issues are not even considered. The basic configuration of power in our current system remains uncriticized.

The crucial question here (which is frozen out of the discussion altogether) is whether we should accept as legitimate the entire idea that health care is a mere commodity, and that health and well-being is merely a consumer preference. To drive the point home: why should we think that the best way of organizing health care institutions is along the axes of consumption, markets, and capitalist enterprises at all? Is a "preference" for health really analogous to a "preference" for Gucci?

My view is that the above ways of organizing health care institutions is ludicrous. This way of configuring the health care system is only attractive from the narrow perspective of investors and stakeholders in the (extremely lucrative) for-profit firms that dominate the "industry".

Think about it this way. With the exception of the top 1% of earners, nobody in the contemporary United States can afford to pay out of pocket for all of their medical needs. Even the very-well off (those making, say, $350,000/yr) would quickly find themselves bankrupt if they had to pay entirely out of pocket for cancer treatment.

Thus, for the vast majority of people (99% of us) insurance of some kind is required in a society such as ours. All of the talk of "just you and your doctor" is pure fantasy. Some kind of collective financing (i.e. insurance) for health care is unavoidable for everyone except for the super-rich. And we should not forget that insurance, by its very nature, is necessarily collective. Risks, costs, and so on are always weighed and calculated in large, collective contexts. Every premium, co-pay, deductible and so on is indexed to a host of collective considerations that the insurance company has.

So given that insurance is a necessity in a capitalist society such as ours, the question then becomes: what kind of insurance do we (as a society) want?

The obvious answer is that we (i.e. everyone) would want the most extensive, efficient, stable and guaranteed access to health care that is possible.

Now, nobody claims that institutions of this kind are "free", so a question then arises about how to best collect the necessary funds from a highly unequal society to pay for it. The answer to this question is simple: people should be required to pay according to their means. We should not ask people making $20,000/yr to pay the same flat rate as those earning $220,000/yr. That would not make any sense.

The simplest, least bureaucratic way of collecting these funds is by simply increasing the marginal tax rate. Notice that this would mean no more premiums, no more deductibles, no more copays. As long as you'd paid your taxes for the year, you would therefore have already paid every single health bill as well.

Notice also that simply increasing marginal taxation as a way of collecting funds means that we wouldn't need any new health insurance paperwork. We could just use existing paperwork. That is to say, this would entirely eliminate all of the atrocious wasteful bureaucracy associated with filing claims and determining patient eligibility. Under the current for-profit insurance regime, most doctors, for example, have to pay full-time staff whose only job is to sort through the labyrinth of different complicated forms associated with thousands of different insurance plans.
Our current system is a bureaucratic nightmare whose fragmented, tangled mess of plans, policies, deductibles and copays are a constant source of frustration. This need not be so.

Notice also that this needless bureaucracy and billing is a waste of social resources: we should be spending that money on covering more people, building more hospitals, and training more doctors and nurses. We should not waste important dollars of our insurance payments on needless bureaucracy, advertising and silver lining for investors.

What we need is one large institution, one set of forms, and one huge collective pool of people in order to streamline paperwork and spread risk as widely across the population as possible. Everybody in, nobody out.

But the way current institutions are organized, all of the criteria above are subordinated to the demands of profit maximization. For instance, the person in need of medical attention is simply not recognized as a person in need at all: they are a merely unit of production from whom profits may or may not be effectively extracted. They are numbers on a screen. This is the reality of health care organizations whose operating principles are indexed to profits rather than to human needs.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Alasdair MacIntyre on "Bourgeois Democracy"

"Marx himself had taken bourgeois democracy to be a sham because he believed that you could not distribute political power unless economic power were also distributed. A bourgeois society could not distribute economic power because it is an industrializing society; and an industrializing society is one in which a few men dispose by their decisions both of capital and of labor. It follows that an industrializing society cannot be democratic. Since Marx never envisaged socialism as anything other than the most radical form of democracy, he could only envisage it as coming into being in an already fully industrialized economy."


Diluting Political Discourse

If you muddy the discursive waters enough, you can convince people of some pretty wild propositions.

For example, if you can convince people that Bill Clinton was a "progressive" or a "man of the Left", then this speaks to the sense in which "progressive" and "Left" have been evacuated of any substantive political meaning at all.

Richard Seymour has a nice post on this matter, pertaining to the present electoral situation in Britain. There, the Conservatives, under the leadership of David Cameron, are on the up and up and threaten to squash New Labour in the next election. But, as Seymour points out, the strange part about this is that many left-liberal voices are claiming that Cameron "isn't that bad", and even that he's a "progressive". For instance:

The question is how did such claims even become vaguely intelligible? How did 'progress' as a discourse become a byword for reaction? The obvious answer is that New Labour made this possible. On every theme I've mentioned above, every objectionable facet of Tory policy, there is a New Labour counterpart - not exact, and not necessarily as extreme, but very real nonetheless. You want a party that baits immigrants, cuts taxes for the rich, allies itself with European reactionaries, trucks with neoconservatives, and calls all this progressive? It's been the ruling government for thirteen years. You want a party that prefers free markets and 'meritocracy' to 'the old structures', 'the old class systems', etc? You want a party whose matey populism abets an elitist agenda that adulates the rich and the unelected, pampered, scum royals? You want a party whose approach to crime is to sensationalise, and blame the poor, and ethnic minorities? You want a party of moralising and social authoritarianism, hedged with a modest concession to gay rights? And calls all that progressive too? Yeah, well, I think you've got the point by now. Tony Blair and New Labour systematically marketed every crackpot Tory idea they could lay their hands on as "progressive". And now David Cameron is a "progressive".
And the same is true of the US case. One hears often about "moderate" Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) as though this were something that should meet with immediate praise. But what is the political content of "moderate" right now? If it means: for further privatizing health care, cutting taxes, constricting spending and escalating foreign wars... then this speaks to how out-of-wack our political vocabulary is. We lack even the common language to articulate our own oppressive situation. For example, if Obama really were "the Left", a "socialist", full stop.... then what could one possibly say that was critical about the status quo? If that were true, then we really would have to conclude that maybe the Right "alternative" (hah) was the way to go... but of course Obama is neither Left nor progressive, and we need not choose between the narrow pro-Business agenda of either the Democrats or the Republicans. But it isn't clear that our political vocabulary leaves us much room to make this critical point.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why the Marginal Productivity Theory of Distribution is False

First of all, what is the "Marginal Productivity Theory of Distribution"? Before explaining what it says, I should mention briefly who it is that puts it forward and what they take it to justify.

Those on the Right (e.g. neoclassical types as well as the deceptively self-anointed folks that call themselves "libertarians") often claim that if we have markets that are "free" and competitive enough, then the distribution of wealth and income they generate will be just. The marginal productivity theory was developed by neoclassical economists who had this view, and most thought that the theory was a good reason to think that "laissez-faire" capitalism is the most just social formation.

Now here's what the theory says (the account that follows tracks the summary given by John Rawls in his lectures on the history of political philosophy). Very roughly speaking, the theory claims that the main factors of production (land, labor and capital) contribute a share in producing the total social output. And given that this is the case, the theory is then taken to imply that "it is just that those who contribute their land and capital should share in the output along with labor". In other words, capitalists, landlords and laborers should all get to share in the social output according to their contribution.

There are many problems with this picture. The first is that the three members (capitalists, landlords and laborers) in this "economic trinity" (as Marx put it) appear in the above as "three co-equal partners in the process of production... as co-equal partners each of whom receive their share of the out according to their contribution". In other words, this formula pretends that each of the three factors of production are "on a par", i.e. that they are "uniform and symmetrical".

But Marx's claim here is that if we understand exactly how a capitalist economy actually works, then we'll notice that landowners, capitalists and wage-laborers are clearly not on a par. What does this mean?

Capitalism is a society in which the ownership of the means of production is concentrated in a small fraction of the population's hands. The majority of people in capitalism do not have large amounts of capital or land that they could invest for a profit; the only important productive asset most people have is their ability to labor. Now this means that those who own the means of production are in a strategic position vis-a-vis others in that society, and thus they are in a position "to demand returns in the form of profit, interest, and rent". Since most people aren't strategically placed in this way, they are not in a position of economic power such that they may extract profit, interest and rent from others.

Let me say a bit more about this to drive the point home. Marx is not claiming that capitalists and landowners never derive any income from, say, improvements to their land or labor they expend managing their firms. What fraction of income landlords and capitalist receive as a result of their labor is not, strictly speaking, what angers Marxists. What Marxists see as problematic is that fraction of income that capitalists and landlords receive, just because they are owners of capital or land. Their complaint is about "money making more money" in a society in which most don't have such a luxury and must work for every dollar they earn.

In Capitalism, land (resources) and capital are scarce factors of production (relative to labor, which is more abundant), and this is why those who happen to own land or capital are in a strategic position of power in a competitive market such that they may command an income just for being in their position. As Rawls describes it, since Mother Nature is not around to collect her share of the productive contributions of natural resources... the landlord comes to claim it in her stead.

Notice that the above is not true of people who earn their income from working a job: all of working peoples' wages owe, in the last instance, to work they do. Since they do not have the same economic bargaining power as capitalists or landlords in a market economy, they are not able to draw an income just for being laborers. But notice here that it is just for being the owner of something that capitalists are able to draw the lion's share of their incomes. Thus it is hardly the case that those who own major productive assets are on equal footing, even in an ideally "free" and competitive market, with those who do not.

Another problem with the marginal productivity picture is that it implicitly suggests that the economic structure of capitalism is somehow natural, having "existed since time immemorial". Marx's project was in part to show why this illusion is perpetuated by the methodology of neoclassical economics. That is, by means of an accurate analysis of the way capitalism actually works, Marx wanted to show that what traditional economists take for granted as "natural" is in fact a contingent arrangement that owes to the actions of certain concrete economic agents. This means that we could arrange economic institutions differently, such that it would not be the case that some were strategically placed with respect to the means of production while other were not.

For Marxists, "all members of society have an equal claim to full access to and the use of society's means of production and natural resources." The reason why is that, even in capitalism, all wealth is socially produced by means of a complicated network of social coordination and cooperation. Nothing in contemporary societies is produced by one individual alone. Now, if we didn't live in societies built around social cooperation, then perhaps the issues of justice raised by Marxism wouldn't be relevant. If someone really were to produce something entirely in abstraction and isolation from all social labor, perhaps there would be no just re-distributive claim on that product. But as long as we participate in a massive system of cooperation and coordination to socially produce wealth, we should accord to everyone that is part of that system of cooperation an equal right of access to ownership of the means of production.

We already think this has got to be true of certain public institutions. We don't think, for example, that something like roads or sidewalks (given that everyone has to use them no matter what they do) should be the sorts of things that one person could purchase and own as private property. Why? Because that person would be in a position to exploit their strategic placement by demanding that everyone pay them tribute for something that everyone needs to use.

Now, those on the Right will sometimes respond here that the sidewalk case above is a special case, since it describes a monopoly. If there were more competition, they'll point out, perhaps the prices on sidewalk use might fall and the situation might be optimal.

This reply misses the point. First of all, certain kinds of infrastructure like roads and railroads, are not the sorts of things that competition can reasonably be expected to make more efficient. Railroads are a natural monopoly, given the sort of technological, physical thing that they are.

But the bigger picture here, is that even if there were several capitalists, rather than just one, owning the sidewalks and roads, this wouldn't change the fact that every non-sidewalk owner would still be forced to purchase their sidewalk use from a capitalist. They may be able to choose between two or three different capitalists, true, but they are still forced to transact with a capitalist. (Think here of recent healthcare debates: does it much matter that Aetna and Cigna compete with one another if, at the end of the day, I'm forced to choose between capitalist A and capitalist B? As Adorno put it, "freedom wouldn't be to choose between black and white, but to abjure such prescribed choices".)

Moreover, it will still be the case that some groups, because of their strategic position as owners of means of production, are in a position of power vis-a-vis everyone else such that they can exploit and draw income from the fact that they occupy this position. Thus it remains to be seen why this asymmetrical relation of power, generated by unequal ownership of the means of production, is justified. And it is worth point out that most "libertarians" or neoclassical-types don't have an answer here, because this isn't a question they think critically about. Far more often, they merely assume that the institutional "rules of the game" in capitalism are quasi-natural laws, and for good reason. Because if most ordinary people (who work for a living) were asked if they thought it was just that some people are able to get paid just for, as it were, already being rich... it's hard to imagine them unequivocally saying "yes".


David Harvey Quote

(see his talk at Marxism 2009 here).

"The irrationality of the system right now is fairly clear. You have masses of capital and masses of labor, unemployed, side by side, in the midst of a world that is full of human need. How stupid is that?"


Where did liberalism come from?

I have recently been surprised to find that many people don't share my (basically Marxist) belief that early liberal societies didn't, as a matter of historical fact, emerge as the result of a groundswell of popular demands for negative rights, liberal ideas, and so on.

Most of my left-liberal colleagues, it turns out, have an anachronistic view of liberalism that floats free from economic and social dynamics. I call the view anachronistic because it attempts, as Raymond Geuss puts it, to "narrate the history of liberalism from an endpoint in the present that is positively valued and assumed teleologically as the natural goal of the historical process". The result of this anachronism is that history itself is reconfigured and reinterpreted retrospectively in light of dominant ideologies today.

OK, so what is this anachronistic view that I'm attributing to many contemporary liberals? The view amounts to a certain understanding of how liberal capitalist societies emerged from feudal social formations. The story goes something like this.

Feudal societies were "totalitarian" and did not respect individuals rights and freedoms. Eventually, "people" (i.e. all of the different classes in late feudal societies?) got really fed up with not having rights and freedoms. And when "the people" couldn't take it any more they rose up, copies of John Locke's Second Treatise in hand, and demanded a tolerant, liberal constitutional state so that they could finally be free.

Now, I concede that this is a caricature. But it's not too far from what people actually say: I think this basically is the story offered by many liberals (see, for instance, Rawls's gloss on this question in the introduction to the 1996 edition of Political Liberalism).

The trouble with this story, of course, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with real history.

The first error to point out in the liberal-anachronistic view is that it mis-characterizes feudal societies. To be sure, they were oppressive, exploitative social formations in which people lacked equality of legal status (and no Marxist would ever say otherwise). But to bring the Cold War notion of "totalitarian" to bear here, is to bring something that has literally zero explanatory value in terms of explaining feudalism.

Feudal societies, like capitalist societies, must be understood in terms of how things like production, social relations, technology, and the relation to the environment were configured in those societies. That is to say, in order to even explain what feudalism is, we need to say something about its economic structure. (Notice, however, that I don't say that the categories of the "economic", narrowly construed, exhaustively explain feudalism).

Here, John Roemer's account (from Free to Lose (1988)) of fedualism is exemplary:

"In feudalism, a lord owned a large amount of land and had the rights to certain amounts of labor provided by serfs or peasants who lived on the Estate. Each serf family had its family plot of land, on which it produced its subsistence needs. In addition to working on the family plot, the serf was required to provide labor to the lord: corvee and demesne labor -working a certain number of days a year on the lord's land. The quid pro quo between serfs and lords was complicated, in the sense that the property rights of the peasant plot were not well-defined from the modern point of view".
He continues:
"The surplus above subsistence consumption was produced by serfs, and almost entirely during the time when they worked for the lord. The huge castles in which the lords lived in and the extravagant consumption they enjoyed were the product of serf labor... A large class of serfs produced the feudal surplus product which was the property of a small class of lords".
This is the sense in which Feudal societies were exploitative (if we wanted to talk in a more general sense about why they were oppressive, we'd need to critique it along different axes as well (e.g. gender)).

But before saying anything about the transition to liberal capitalism, we need to mention a couple of other important features of feudalism. Consider the English case. Fedualism there also included large Commons, which referred to land owned by no individual, but by God (and therefore held in common by everyone). When there were Commons, the yeoman peasant had access to this land and could keep livestock on it and perhaps even a small plot.

But one important precusor to English capitalism was the Enclosure Movement. As Roemer puts it:
The enclosure movement made it impossible for large numbers of disenfranchised peasants to survive without selling their labor power... Most historical episodes of rapid concentration of land in the hands of a few are accomplished either by direct force or at least by deals in which political power is used in unprincipled ways. The history of capitalism is replete with examples of the accumulation of wealth through clearly unethical means.
The Enclosure Movement proceeded by usurping what had been held in common by all, designating it as the private property of certain individuals who, collectively, came to make up the beginnings of a new class.

Eventually, this process of enclosure was intertwined with two other (related) processes: industrialization and urbanization. Eventually, this complex of processes lead to an emerging business/mercantile class (the bourgeoisie) as a center of power in feudal social formations.

For example, consider the period in France just before the French Revolution. There, the bourgeoisie was a particular "legal, political and social group, an Estate or Order, which was distinguished from two others: the feudal aristocracy and the clergy" (see Geuss's Politics and the Imagination, p.169). Traditionally, the aristocracy and clergy were the main elements of the ruling class in feudal societies, but in many late feudal regimes there was also an emerging bourgeoisie being created by the concentration of land and capital, the commodification of land, and industrialization.

Eventually, as the bourgeoisie and industry grew, this configuration became unstable. As Marx might have put it, the forces of production (e.g. industrial techniques, modes of organization, market pressures, etc.) increasingly came into contradiction with the relations of production (i.e. the feudal configuration of class power).

Crudely put, this source of instability caused the breakdown of traditional forms of legitimation and feudal societies crumbled under the weight of the rising bourgeoisie. Now, to be sure, there were working-class or peasant participants in these struggles to bring down monarchy. But we should not assume that these participants understood themselves to be struggling for the same goals as the bourgeoisie (on this point you must read Christopher Hill's incredible The World Turned Upside Down).

Even from a cursory glance, it should be obvious that the tumultuous, early years of liberal capitalism were anything but an era of widespread freedom. For starters, even formal rights such as voting were, in Britain, restricted according to property qualifications. Moreover, even where the working classes were able to get these rights, they were repressed in many other ways, consigned to working long hours, in atrocious conditions, for meager pay, so that they could live in urban squalor. Meanwhile the fruits of industrialization were appropriated by a small class of owners of capital.

Now, as I've said, this wasn't a period of universal freedom. The emergence of this new kind of society, liberal industrial capitalism, wasn't the result of a wide, rational discussion about how to make societies more free than they had been in feudalism. It was brought about as the result of a complex of economic, social, and cultural shifts, none of which can be completely disentangled from industrialization and the emergence of a capitalist class. Power and violence was the deciding factor, not rational argument.

By now it should be clear why I think the liberal-anachronistic view outlined above misses the mark. But I'd like to add one more thing here: contrary to popular (mis)characterizations of Marx, it is not the case that he rejected rights (even merely formal, legal rights) as mere "ideology". Read the Communist Manifesto: there Marx and Engels spend pages praising some of the emancipatory consequences of the bourgeoisie's struggle against the aristocracy. And neither do Marx and Engels completely reject all of the values that animated bourgeois revolutionaries. Rather, Marx's point is that these revolutions did not go far enough. They tore asunder certain kinds of "estates" and legal status restrictions, to be sure, but they did not finish the job. They only went as far as was necessary so that the bourgeosie could throw off the old Aristocrats and clergy in order to be the uncontested ruling class of modern societies. When the Crown, the Church and Fedual property relations became a fetter on the ability of the ever more powerful bourgeoisie to make profits... the bourgeoisie waged a war to crush everything that stood in its way.

Capitalism, we'd do well not to forget, is not about rational, good ideas: it is primarily about profit-making. If the system associates with different sorts of ideologies and configurations in the formal-political realm (e.g. witness contemporary capitalist China, or compare with Pinochet's Friedmanite dictatorship), we shouldn't be surprised: the system itself has no principled views about the State, it merely selects the configuration most conducive to profit-making in any particular circumstance to the extent that it is possible.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Far Left Obama in Action


The Obama administration is promising that it will regain momentum on the issue of health care up even more to the Republicans in the spirit of "bipartisanship." Asked if he was willing to start from square one, Obama told CBS's Katie Couric that he wants to sit down with members of both parties and "look at the Republican ideas that are out there."


Is Obama too far Left?

Yes, according to self-serving wanker Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Indiana). I quote: "Whenever you have just the furthest-left elements of the Democratic Party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country, that's not going to work too well."

I don't have a TV, but I'd be curious to know whether he was able to tell that bold-faced lie with a straight face. Since it's his job to say shit like this with a straight face, I suppose I'm naive to think that he'd have any problem pulling it off.

"Furthest left elements"? Like who? Firebrands like Ben Nelson, Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman?

Or maybe Bayh is referring to all of the "radical Left" Goldman Sachs alums that staff the Obama cabinet?

First of all, it's news to me that there even is a Left in the Democratic Party. But to the extent that there's anyone remotely progressive in the party at all, they are a marginalized minority who rarely make any trouble for a party who's willing to concede to the Right on everything that matters. The House Progressive Caucus, for example, briefly toyed with the idea of refusing to vote for a bill that didn't have a public option... but of course they all caved on that "threat." And don't even get me started on how all of these "life long single-payer advocates" suddenly sat down and shut up when the "reform" discussions began (i.e. the ones in which "all options were supposed to be on the table").

The fact of the matter is that Democrat leadership has been talking about "moderation", "bipartisanship" and "caution" ever since 2008. Democrat apologists have been clamoring for "centrist" policy all along. Moreover, right-wing hacks like Bayh himself have been the ones with the most influence on policy.

Of course, in a way I'm wasting my time in taking Bayh at his word, when he knows full well that he's bullshitting. Bayh is simply trying to increase his leverage and individual power by weighing in against his own party. He's regurgitating Fox News talking points in order to try to piggy-back on whatever steam the GOP has picked up since Scott Brown. And what's more, like the majority of the complacent members of his party, he probably feels that there is very little at stake in taking this tack (i.e. I doubt very seriously that he's losing sleep over whether or not there are cuts to education, large numbers of uninsured and unemployed, and so on). has an excellent editorial on this phenomenon, here. The analysis here is, in my view, right on.

If millions of people are furious with Obama, it can't be because his Administration and the Democratic supermajority are "too far Left" and are "imposing their agenda against their will".

People voted for Obama in droves because he said he was going to tax the rich and spend it on health care. Polls routinely show that people want the government to provide a national health insurance plan. Oregon recently passed a referendum designed specifically to tax the rich.

If people are furious with Obama, it's because he's not Left enough. That is, because he and his Congress are sitting back passively while education and transportation are cut, public employees are laid off, 50 million are uninsured, unions are busted and black unemployment reaches double digits.

What have the Democrats done since 2008 that Bush didn't already do? Aside from the stimulus bill, which was tepid (i.e. much smaller than the situation required) and conservative (i.e. loaded with tax breaks), what the fuck have they done? Escalate the war in Afghanistan, consider privatizing Social Security, propose spending freezes (exempting Pentagon spending of course), and spend months on a "health reform" bill that at the end of the day looked more attractive to health insurance corporations than to ordinary Americans.

Did we even need to elect Democrats in 2008 to get all of that? There's reason to think that even Bush would have been convinced to pass a modest stimulus bill like the one Obama put forward, if his last months in office are any indication.


Monday, February 8, 2010

"Don't get too upset...and keep supporting Democrats"

That is the message coming in loud and clear from the likes of Dissent these days. I can't imagine a more hopelessly deluded and impotent political position.

On the one hand, liberals like Walzer and Gitlin surely want reforms like single-payer, robust funding for education, higher taxes on the rich, a WPA-like public works program to create jobs, etc.

But when it comes to the question of what it would take to actually achieve these reforms, the Dissent liberals are content to sit back and claim either (1) that "the country isn't ready for them", or (2) that we simply need to ask those in power more politely. In either case, Walzer, Gitlin, et al. are committed to a never-ending apologia for whatever the Democrats do.

Thus it was no surprise to read that the headline for Walzer's contribution to the Dissent forum on Obama's first year was titled "It Could Have Been Worse". Can you imagine a more conservative assesment of the status quo? The message Walzer is articulating is clear: resist the urge to be realistic or sober about Obama's first year. Just keep whispering to yourself the lie that the Democratic Party is a progressive force in contemporary politics. Keep consoling yourself with the fantasy that simply voting for Democrats, supporting "consumer organizations" and so on will be enough to win the reforms people are demanding. But don't expect Walzer to even be too involved in those activities. His conception of political action seems to consist solely in writing tepid, apologetic opinion pieces for Dissent. The less one actually does, the more one implicitly endorses Walzer's politics.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Political Power of the False Dilemma

Consider the following argument:

1. Either 1+1=5 or 2+2=5.
2. It is false that 1+1=5.
3. Thus, 2+2=5.
Obviously this is a bad argument. The second premise is true, but we'd need some reason to think that the parameters of the choice offered in the first premise was legitimate for the argument to be convincing. Of course, we know that both of the choices offered in the first premise are false.

The moral of the story is that arguments of this kind (where a dilemma is posed, and one of the disjuncts is negated in order to make the other disjunct look plausible) are tricky. They are never legitimate unless we can be convinced that the choice offered in the either/or is exhaustive of all possibilities.

Now, this isn't just a point about logic or inference. Exposing the false pull of this fallacy is a political necessity. For example, consider the following two examples.

Consider the following dilemma about budget cuts that we're hearing every day from the media:
1. Either we cut public services or the government goes into the red.
2. The government can't be allowed to go into the red.
3. Thus, public services must be cut.
This bait-and-switch operation is obviously bullshit, but one hears it all the time in the media.

Notice that options presented in the first premise are not exhaustive, and the force of the conclusion trades on this deceptive feature of the premise. We must ask: why is it that we must only choose from these two options?

The "choice" presented to us in the first premise obscures the fact that there are other courses of action that could be pursued (e.g. raising taxes on the rich) in order to assuage the problems raised by budget crises. Of course, the argument above says nothing whatsoever about raising taxes, and in this way proscribes this option by omitting it from the set of possibilities at the start.

Here's the second example, a jab at Howard Zinn from the LA Times:
To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great. That can't be true. A lot of people on the left spent their lives apologizing for one of the worst mass-murdering regimes of the 20th century, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. You wouldn't know that from Howard Zinn.
The argument here that I want to focus on is as follows.
  1. Either we accept that American Presidents aren't as "bad" as Howard Zinn says or we must apologize for the atrocities committed by Stalin or Mao.
  2. Apologizing for Stalin is insane.
  3. Thus it follows that we must accept that American Presidents aren't really as bad as Howard Zinn claims that they are.
Now this is an old Cold-War conversation-stopper. It can be deployed to cut-off any conversation in which someone wants to make a highly critical remark about capitalism: either we accept capitalism full stop, or we must accept the atrocities of Stalinism. This "argument" is deployed so frequently that it has become an unreflective truism for many people.

But notice that it's an invalid inference just like the 2+2=5 example above.

It says nothing about the soundness of Zinn's critique of American Presidents. The question of whether or not American presidents committed war crimes, lied, owned slaves, etc. has nothing to do with Mao or Stalin. Either Reagan did or he didn't fund murderous right-wingers in Nicaragua. Either Jimmy Carter did or he didn't have a hand in selling arms to those involved in the massacre of the East Timorese. These questions have nothing to do with Stalin or Mao.

Moreover, there's no reason in principle why we couldn't condemn both Stalin and, say, Reagan for the atrocities they're responsible for having signed off on. I think this is the position any sane person would want to take.

But this isn't what hacks like the anti-Zinn gentleman above want you to notice. They have one goal: to shield certain features of the status quo (e.g. the foreign policy of US Presidents) from radical criticism. He wants to change the subject in order to focus our attention on something other than the question of whether or not there is something radically wrong with US Foreign Policy.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Perry Anderson skewers "Sinomania" and "Sinophobia"

In a wonderful article in LRB, Perry Anderson skewers the facile "Sinomaniac" (or, sometimes also at the same time "Sinophobic") narratives floating around in Western (particularly US) discourse. The piece is politically sharp, as always, and the soberness of the assessment is refreshing. If you're suffering a headache from making the mistake of perusing through one of Thomas L. Friedman's hackjobs... this is precisely the prescription you need.