Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When Wall Street loves reform

Read SW editorial on the health bill here. Here's an excerpt:

Indeed, for many people who are sick and tired of conservatives getting their way, the bill's passage signaled a potential shift in the political winds in Washington. So after months when it appeared that the right was making a big comeback, the health care reform could translate into a growing confidence that working people can make real progress today after all.

The question is, how are such gains to be made? If matters are left to the Democrats, we'll see a repeat of the health care reform debacle, in which widespread demand for fundamental change is diverted into weak legislation that leaves powerful economic interests unchallenged.


Drill, baby, drill!

Read about it here. Maybe Obama's "green jobs czar" can give the new oil rigs some tax breaks in order to stimulate the creation of more "green jobs" extracting petroleum.

Meanwhile... all of the public transit systems in the US are in disrepair, imposing service cuts, and hiking fares. And all of this is allowed to come to pass at the same time that Obama escalates foreign wars and proposes spending freezes on everything except the Pentagon budget.

It's not the Republicans who have forced Obama down this road. This is the road that he and the Democrats in Congress have pursued all on their own. To be sure, the Republicans would have been glad to go this route (cutting social spending, eviscerating public transit, escalating wars abroad, tipping their hat to off-shore drilling, etc.) if they were in power.

But wasn't the point of voting Democrat supposed to have been that they wouldn't simply pursue the same course as the Republicans?


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Albert Einstein: Socialist

Although ignored by most mainstream depictions of Einstein, he was a staunch socialist. Einstein even wrote the lead article for the first edition of Monthly Review in 1949, titled "Why Socialism?" Here's an excerpt:

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.


Political Questions We Cannot Raise

I just ran across this excellent video of Chomsky on the political system in the United States.

One moment of his talk that I found particularly striking was his claim that "most of the issues that the public cares about...weren't even allowed to come up (in discussion surrounding elections" (5:01).

As Chomsky puts it, "many major issues that the public cares about... are big economic issues...issues on which the public has extremely strong opinions...but none of it could be brought up in the election" (5:38).

This is a key point in making sense of politics in contemporary societies. It's not just that we are encouraged to internalize the wrong answers to political questions (e.g. we shouldn't want single-payer health insurance because that means "big government"). The most damaging problem is that we aren't even able to raise the most important political questions at all.

Some social scientists have called this phenomenon "nondecision-making":

Nondecision-making is a means by which demands for change in the existing allocation of benefits and privileges in the community can be suffocated before they are ever voiced; or kept covert; or killed before they gain access to the relevant decision-making arena; or, failing all these things, maimed or destroyed in the decision-implementing stage of the policy process". (see Bachrach and Baratz (1970: p.44))
But this analysis of politics is not one we obtain by default. If one were to simply internalize what's said about politics in, say, the New York Times, they would have an entirely different analysis of politics from the one above. The default understanding of power that we are spoon-fed in Civics textbooks and mainstream news media is as follows. The boundaries of what is to count as a political issue are set by the established political system. Politics is simply the narrow agenda discussed among elites in existing political institutions.

Now, take note of what this excludes. Among other things, this entire approach to politics completely ignores potential issues that the established political system prevents from becoming actual. As Bachrach and Baratz point out, this approach to politics totally ignores many key issues, especially issues that "...involve a genuine challenge to the resources of power or authority of those who currently dominate the process by which policy outputs in the system are determined". Merely raising certain question that pose a threat to existing relations of power is proscribed from the agenda.

This method of exclusion is precisely how our electoral system functions. We have two more-or-less pro-Business parties with minor differences (there are, of course, differences, but they are minor all things considered), and political questions are restricted to rather small set of relatively uncontroversial matters. We are asked to focus in on disputes over minutiae, whereas the big questions about which the public has strong views are frozen out of the discussion. For example, polls have shown for many years now that the idea of single-payer (or Medicare for all) is popular with the public (something like 60% support it, which is more support than Obama got in the 2008 election).

Of course, the public is never asked to vote on whether we should have a for-profit, market-based healthcare system or a public, single-payer system. What they are asked to do is to choose between a Democrat or a Republican every election cycle, neither of whom desire to challenge the powerful position of the private health insurance industry (which is what it would take to get single-payer passed). Thus there is a large gap between what the public wants and what they are able to ask for via the electoral system.

What can we do about this gap?

I'll weigh in on what I think about what we can do in a moment. But if you ask certain Democrat-friendly liberals, they'll tell you that we just need to elect a couple more "progressive" Democrats to office in a handful of states. Perhaps we could exchange a Joe Liberman for a Ned Lamont, they'll argue, and that would more or less solve the problem.

This is preposterous. Notwithstanding the utter powerlessness of the existing bloc of "progressives" in the House and Senate, the problem isn't the lack of a couple of "more progressive" individuals in the Democratic Party. The problem is a systemic one, that has more to do with institutions and practices than the preferences of any one individual in the Party. You can waste valuable resources and time trying to elect a person that starts off supporting single-payer. But in order to function within Washington and the Democratic Party apparatus that person will have to conform to protocol and the requirements of operating within this instutional backdrop.

What, then, should we do about this massive gap between public preferences and a political process dominated by elites?

I find myself returning again and again to two important examples. I'll restrict myself to the first, which is the Civil Rights Movement (or, what, at the time (according to Angela Davis) was simply called the "freedom movement"). (The other example I find particularly interesting is the massive wave of labor militancy in 1934 that led to the passage of the most progressive elements of the New Deal).

First of all, consider where the politics of race stood in the 1940s-50s in the United States. The "major political issues" defined by the agenda set by the established political process and mainstream press did not include the problem of racism as a major concern. The interests of the masses of ordinary black people were simply not on the radar of the established political system. Despite a couple of landmark events and Supreme Court decisions, the issue was by and large pushed aside by the political system.

But by 1964, there was enough pressure on the entire political system to force the passage of major civil rights legislation, against the default prerogatives of the ruling party (i.e. the Democrats).

How was this massive gap closed?

First, consider how it wasn't closed. The political movement for racial justice that began to pick up steam in the early 60s did not directly focus on electoral politics at all. They did not focus on creating PAC's to funnel funds to the Democrats, they did not focus primarily on lobbying elected officials, and they did not emphasize playing within the conventional political rules. They did not simply ask nicely and sit back and hope that elected officials would "do the right thing".

They formed organizations and social movements independently of the political system and by means of direct actions, marches, agitation, consciousness-raising, organizing, propagandizing, and so on they put the problem of racism on the table in a way that the political system could not ignore.

Visionaries like MLK and Malcolm X did not go on TV and talk in the narrow terms of electioneering and Congressional maneuvering. They did not accept the constraints of what was then considered "politically realistic" or prudent. They challenged those very constraints and in-so-doing altered the horizons of what was politically possible.

Malcolm X did not attenuate his own criticisms of the existing order so as to avoid pissing off elites. He didn't think of those determined to maintain racial hierarchies as potential "stakeholders" in a public discussion about policy: he publicly challenged the very legitimacy of their authority.

Yet this entire political orientation, which could instructively be applied to many other political situations, is foreign to the default conception of politics pedaled by politicans, pundits and the mainstream news media. The default conception teaches us to think of ourselves as isolated consumers, not as potential participants in a collective project. We are told to think highly of such vacuous notions as "centrism", "moderation", and "bipartisanship". Oppositional politics are shunned as "divisive" or "polarizing". The result is that any serious criticism of the status quo is frozen out of the discussion: you simply cannot raise such objections at all, no matter how much public support they may have.

Ask yourself this: If we had a vote tomorrow, a national referendum, on whether or not we should have stay in Iraq indefinitely or get out immediately, what would the outcome be? If polls and the discussions during the 2008 election are any indication, an overwhelming majority of Americans would not vote in support of Obama's extension of Bush's foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Or, take Obama's proposed spending freeze. Obama has suggested that we totally freeze all social spending, except for defense spending (which should be allowed to continue to increase). Now, if there was a national referendum asking people whether or not the United States should spend the billions slated for the Pentagon on (A) funding uncessary foreign wars and occupations or (B) on schools, public transit and public services... which do you think people would choose?

But neither of these are questions that can be raised within our political system. These questions do not map onto the disagreement between Republicans and Democrats since both of them more or less agree that we should buck the public will on both counts. That's part of what it is to have two different factions (with a small set of distinguishing features) of what is in effect one pro-Business party.

Although there were massive shifts in electoral balances of power (think of the makeup of the Senate in 2004 vs. 2008), there have not been corresponding shifts in policy. Despite the fact that the country completely repudiated the GOP at the ballot box two election cycles in a row, the Democrats have basically kept the agenda set by Bush intact. The Paulson Plan for bailing out Wallstreet was continued, EFCA was suffocated and set aside, Immigrant Rights were ignored, foreign wars and occupations were escalated, drone bombings increased, freezes on social spending were proposed, etc.

If the Democrats cannot deliever when they have control of every major branch of government, with super-majorities in the Senate, when can they deliver? What do we have to look forward to? Should we hold our breath until they finally get back to the point when they obtain a super-majority again? Isn't this supposed to be the end of the rainbow in terms of electoral power?

I think it's time to divest from the Democrats and start exploring oppositional, independent political organizations that empower ordinary people and enable democracy from below.


IL Democrats wage "all out offensive" on teachers pensions

(via Progress Illinois)

Democratic leadership, including Gov. Pat Quinn, is firmly in support of the bill. Republicans approved it without issuing major complaints. It pleased business groups like the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, as well.

Organized labor, on the other hand, is furious over the legislation -- and with good reason. Illinois' current level of benefits are modest and in line with other states in the region. The primary reason the state’s pension system is so out of whack is that state lawmakers -- instead of reforming the tax system to raise revenue sustainable and fairly -- have skimped on payments for decades, using money designated for the pension system to cover core services. In short, lawmakers misrepresented the problem instead of owning up to their own failures. And in devising a political solution, they threw their key allies under the bus. "This bill is nothing more than lawmakers shifting the burden of the state’s past mistakes onto future teachers and public employees," Ed Geppert, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, told the Sun-Times. "The problem of our pensions," echoed AFSCME Council 31 president Henry Bayer, "is not a problem of rich benefits."

My, my the Democrats are really keen on punching public school teachers in the stomach these days. The news above is another fine example of how the Democratic Party functions. You can bet, however, that if organized labor were more powerful and militant, those Democrat jerks in Springfield would have had to think twice about throwing teachers and public employees under the bus.

But instead the Democrats do what they always do: in times of crisis they shift burdens onto relatively powerless people who don't, at present, have the ability to fight back. And they use the fact that teachers and public employees have no other electoral option as leverage. As long as organized labor wants to be involved in the two-party system (although its not clear that they should want to), they have nowhere to go but the Democrats, and the Democrats know this.

The result is that Left activists, supporters and constituents stuck inside of the Democratic Party are almost in all cases a marginal appendage who merely bring votes but get nothing in return. In contrast, their right-wing "Blue Dog" counterparts have the ears of Democratic leadership whenever they voice a concern.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Kucinich Sucks

Read this, for instance. This actually isn't news to me. I thought the guy was a turd way back in 2004. Recall that he ran a presidential campaign on two planks: 1. ending the Iraq war and 2. single-payer health care. Of course, in deference to the time-honored tradition of getting progressives prepped for acquiescing to the Democratic Party, Kucinich ended up endorsing pro-war, anti-health care candidate John Kerry with a big smile.

Couldn't he at least have tried to make some demands? Joe Lieberman just about single-handedly axed the provision in the Senate bill that would have lowered the age requirement for Medicare. Couldn't Kucinich at least have exacted some compromises in return for rolling over like a docile old Labrador?

The Democrat establishment loves Kucinich. He gives the people who believe in, say, education and health care fodder for nourishing their illusion that the Democrats are actually a progressive force in US politics. Kucinich is a marginal force in the party, and he always has been. But the worst part is that he (and his ProgCaucus counterparts) are content being marginal. They are comfortable being irrelevant and co-existing with the forces that demand that they stay irrelevant.

The Dems have got to have a clown like him around, just to keep up appearances. And it's important that he's a clown... because they need someone who folds easily and makes no fuss when it's all said and done. Can the same be said for the right-wing of the Democratic Party? No. It seems to me that when those blue-dog fuckers talk, the Party bosses listen. And my sense is that when your politics are in step with Big Business (as the blue dogs and all right-wingers very much are) you have a lot more power and influence with Democrat leaders.

My view is that progressives need to divest from the Democratic Party. Even the most cursory glance at history tells us that real change does not happen merely at the ballot box. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed reluctantly when there was a large Democratic majority in both chambers and the most leftwing President ever to hold office. It was passed because the people in Washington did not have a choice: they were faced with a massive, independently organized social movement that was demanding (not sending checks, not asking nicely) that things change.

The same can be said of the militant, labor activism that paved the way for the Wagner Act and Social Security.

Progressives need to stop:

  1. apologizing for the Democrats on blogs and in op/ed columns
  2. self-censoring in writing in order to "be realistic" about the Democrats
  3. sending money to organizations that are not independent of the Democrats
  4. volunteering for and funding Democrat candidates
  5. defending center-right measures (like the health care bill) from far-right critics (like Tea Baggers)
  6. heavily investing themselves in the short-term success of the Democrats
Notice what I'm not saying: I'm not saying that we need to be stubborn "purists" who never support any measure unless it is 100% in-step with their preferred political solution. I am not against assessing a concrete situation and deciding what's possible and what's feasible: on the contrary, I think that we need to divest from the Democrats because I think this is the most realistic, feasible way to get even the modest reforms that most Americans want.

What's unrealistic, is electing a massive numbers of Democrats to office and then sitting back and just hoping that they will do the right thing. It's not going to happen.

Notice also that I'm not claiming that we should simply stop voting, or vote for some non-Democrat. I am making an entirely different kind of claim. What I am claiming is that we need to stop putting so much emphasis on elections when it comes to organizing, activism, and funds. We need to direct our energy, time, creativity and money elsewhere: the Democrats are a political black hole.

We need to build the social movements and be involved in starting new ones.

There are plenty of existing organizations, movements and fights that are already underway that we can be part of. Look around. No matter where you are there are struggles going on. For example:

Health Care:
Education (fighting school closings, cutbacks, etc.)
Campaign to End the Dealth Penalty
  • Here's the IL org, but I'm sure there are others.
Immigrant Rights
Housing and Tenant's Rights
Fighting for LGBTQ Equality
All-around Left-Wing Organizations
This list doesn't even begin to cover the ground. There are many, many more excellent, independent organizations I'm forgetting.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More on housing and racism in Chicago

Two great articles from here and here.


Consumers, Commodities and "Reform"

A month ago, I responded to a NYTimes article by criticizing the tendency in their "analysis" to presuppose that we should think of ourselves as consumers in the context of health care "reform":

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.
Now, check this out. Before, I responded to what I took to be an implicit injunction to think in consumer-product terms... now the NYTimes has switched to an explicit deployment of that ideological set of concepts.

If you yell "consumer" at people enough, and they learn to respond in kind, you've already accomplished a good deal, ideologically speaking. In the health care context, in effect, you rule out institutional reforms like single-payer, where all residents of the US (i.e. not just the right consumers) would be unconditionally covered. In the case of single-payer, the consumer-product relation drops out completely, because we would no longer be purchasing a commodity for a market price at all under such a system.

Under single-payer, the service would be distributed according to human need and the price would be determined by one's ability to pay (i.e. via a graduated income tax), which is precisely not the way that market prices function: in a "free" market your access is strictly limited according to how much money you have, and the flat-rate, one-size-fits-all prices are set by the demands of profitability for owners of the insurance companies. And they can yank them up any time they please, in order to ensure profitability is sufficiently cushy.

Anything worthy of being called health care reform, would have to challenge the idea that private, for-profit companies are to provide "consumers" with a "commodity" (in principle exchangeable with any other) that is sold on a market of some kind. At least the public option, however tepid and problematic it was, purported to challenge this state of affairs in some way (although it left much intact). But the present bill actually takes all of this for granted. It cements and further funds and institutionalizes the for-profit, market-based consumer mentality.

And what's worse, Obama and Co. conceded even the ability to regulate these fuckers at the Federal level. So, we're being forced, on pain of legal penalty, to purchase the products of a for-profit industry... and our "progressive", "visionary" leaders in Congress couldn't even bother to push for the ability to regulate this industry who've now got a captive market of consumers.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Krugman's Prescient 2006 Words

(via New York Review of Books)

A mere shift of power from Republicans to Democrats would not, in itself, be enough to give us sensible health care reform. While Democrats would have written a less perverse drug bill, it's not clear that they are ready to embrace a single-payer system. Even liberal economists and scholars at progressive think tanks tend to shy away from proposing a straightforward system of national health insurance. Instead, they propose fairly complex compromise plans. Typically, such plans try to achieve universal coverage by requiring everyone to buy health insurance, the way everyone is forced to buy car insurance, and deal with those who can't afford to purchase insurance through a system of subsidies. Proponents of such plans make a few arguments for their superiority to a single-payer system, mainly the (dubious) claim that single-payer would reduce medical innovation. But the main reason for not proposing single-payer is political fear: reformers believe that private insurers are too powerful to cut out of the loop, and that a single-payer plan would be too easily demonized by business and political propagandists as "big government."

These are the same political calculations that led Bill Clinton to reject a single-payer system in 1993, even though his advisers believed that a single-payer system would be the least expensive way to provide universal coverage. Instead, he proposed a complex plan designed to preserve a role for private health insurers. But the plan backfired. The insurers opposed it anyway, most famously with their "Harry and Louise" ads. And the plan's complexity left the public baffled.

We believe that the compromise plans being proposed by the cautious reformers would run into the same political problems, and that it would be politically smarter as well as economically superior to go for broke: to propose a straightforward single-payer system, and try to sell voters on the huge advantages such a system would bring. But this would mean taking on the drug and insurance companies rather than trying to co-opt them, and even progressive policy wonks, let alone Democratic politicians, still seem too timid to do that.

Compare this with his claim yesterday that the bill in congress represents a "triumph for the American soul".


National Network Of Abortion Funds Slams Obama

(Via TPM)

Stephanie Poggi, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, released the following statement on President Obama's executive order on abortion funding.

"At this very moment, a woman is rationing the food left in her pantry, further delaying her electricity bill, and facing heavy penalties on her late mortgage payment -- all because she cannot pay for an abortion she needs. This is the cruel legacy of the Hyde Amendment, a legacy that President Obama renewed yesterday by signing an executive order to appease a handful of legislators who represented no one's interests but their own. As a nation, we demanded that health care reform address the inherent inequality and unfairness in our existing system. But with the stroke of his pen, President Obama expanded the Hyde Amendment's guarantee of inequality and unfairness. Because of the Hyde Amendment, every year nearly 200,000 women who cannot afford abortion care must make extreme sacrifices in order to pay for a basic health care procedure. By singling out abortion care, Congress and our President have betrayed their obligation to protect the interests of all people living in this country, not only those who already have every advantage. Our nation deserves much better.

The National Network of Abortion Funds has been leading efforts to dismantle the Hyde Amendment and ensure that every single woman in the United States has the ability to make important life decisions for the health and wellbeing of herself and her family. We are absolutely committed to educating Congress, the Administration, and the public about the devastating impact of the Hyde Amendment and yesterday's executive order and continuing the work to restore fairness.

Every week, our local abortion Funds help at least 400 women obtain abortion care they could not otherwise pay for. While we cannot meet the need created by our discriminatory health care system, we will continue to provide this essential service until every woman is treated with respect and dignity by her government."


Healthcare "reform" passes: Roundup

It has passed. Well, something has passed, at least. It isn't single-payer, it doesn't even contain a public option, and it doesn't even pretend to insure everyone. Here's a look at today's opining (sans the expected Republican hysterics which will only get your blood boiling):

Timothy Noah at Slate gets hopeful about the future of healthcare, based on the student loan reforms in the bill, which cut out private banking middlemen.

Jon Walker at FDL details the six greatest flaws of the bill.

Jos at feministing breaks down the good (more people will have insurance) and the bad (anti-woman, anti-immigrant).

Ezra Klein is doing some hard work over at his WaPo blog, trying to explain the ins and outs of the bill and when they go into effect. Particularly interesting is his effort to put the size of what is being called the biggest social policy bill ever into some real perspective.

Dana Goldstein at The Daily Beast on what a betrayal Obama's last-minute executive order is for reproductive rights.

HuffPo lays out ten immediate benefits you might get from the bill.

And Dr. Margaret Flowers at Monthly Review calls this "a step backwards"

And former Bush speechwriter David Frum says healthcare reform will be Republicans' Waterloo, lamenting:

No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Racism and Exploitation in Housing in Chicago

Read the NYTimes review of a recent book by Rutgers historian Beryl Satter, the daughter of civil-rights attorney Mark J. Satter. Here's an excerpt:

Ms. Satter, chairwoman of the history department at Rutgers University, balances personal stories, including moments of great bravery, with painstaking legal and historical research. She persuasively and devastatingly argues (turning conventional wisdom on its head) that the true cause of black ghettoes in Chicago was financial exploitation — not the “culture of poverty” or white flight. She goes further, linking this kind of financial exploitation to today’s subprime mortgage crisis, an earlier example of greedy lenders pushing people “to take on more debt than they could handle” and charging inflated interest rates.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Latoya on feminism and the wealth gap

Latoya Peterson (usually of Racialicious) makes a compelling case for why feminists should be talking more about the wealth gap, and maybe less about the pay gap.

She cites recent statistics from the economic development organization Insight that indicate women of color in particular enter adulthood with zero wealth, while almost all other demographics come into the job market in the positive. Here is the core of the (pretty shocking) statistics:

Wage equity is still a large problem for women—while the gender wage gap is widest for white women compared to white men, black, Latina, and Native American women take home far less than their white counterparts. But earnings are only a small part of overall financial stability. What matters more than income in the long run is the accumulation of wealth. As lead researcher Mariko Chang explains in her presentation summarizing the data, “wealth confers benefits income doesn’t.” While income is vital for day to day survival, only wealth can generate further income, provide collateral for loans, be passed from generation to generation through inheritance, and provide the individual with the means to survive without a paycheck. Sadly, for many of women of color, the wealth gap is even wider than the income gap. Most women of color have no assets except for their cars—once the blue book value of the vehicle is removed from the calculation of median wealth, black women are left with a scant $100 in assets, while Latinas can only claim $120.
While income disparities are important factors in determining quality of life, wealth disparities can have devastating long-term effects, prohibiting the accumulation of retirement funds, extended unpaid job leave in personal crises, and investment, like in property or in other long-term assets. And we are talking about MAJOR gulfs between demographics here, economic gulfs that get lost when we stay on the terrain of wage gaps.

Read the whole thing.


The Racist, Sexist Rhetoric of "Population Control"

A friend linked me to this facebook photo album (cool use of web 2.0 for activism) from the Population and Development program at Hampshire College.

The album takes a critical look at the rhetoric and imagery employed by population control movements that seek to blame ignorant, poor, brown women for environmental degradation and for the scarcity of resources.

For instance, the album begins with this image:

The caption that accompanies it reads:

Some population, environment and anti-immigrant interests are blaming climate change on population growth as a way to gain support for population and immigration control and divert attention from the real causes of global warming.

Rather than considering the negative role of overconsumption, large oil companies, and militarism, they are raising fears of potentially violent "climate refugees" threatening Western security. Note this exoticized image of a Bangladeshi woman drowning as sea levels rise on the cover of OnEarth magazine. The article implies that poor Bangladeshis displaced by global warming are potential Islamic terrorists.
Check it out. It's an interesting way to take in a lot of information and a complicated analysis, and hopefully, to learn more about what feminists are saying about population hysteria..


A Solidarity Tax?

Just to get a grip on how tepid and worthless the Democrat Congress and Obama are, consider the following.


Right now, state governments across the country are facing major budget crises as a result of the economic downturn caused, crudely speaking, by bankers. Working people are being hit the hardest.

California is the eye of the storm, where there is a $42 billion deficit that grew out of a convergence of decades of regressive taxation, crashing financial and construction industries, and the bursting of the housing bubble.

Across the US, all 50 states are facing a combined $180 billion budget gap . What that means is that if they don't get that amount of money, they won't be able to maintain their (already inadequate, as the result of three decades of attacks from Democrats and Republicans alike) public services.

Teachers are being laid off, schools are being closed, public transit is being massacred, tuition is being hiked, public workers are being fired, patients are being thrown out on the street, libraries are being boarded up, infrastructure is rotting. There is mass unemployment all over the country, but the jobless rates for people of color are heart-stopping.


At present, the top marginal rate of taxation is 35%. President Reagan lowered it from 70% to 30% from 1980-83. George H.W. Bush raised it slightly, and Bill Clinton raised it a touch more so that it was 40% in 1993. And W. lowered it in 2001 to 35%.

The current holdings of wealth (not income) of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans adds up to $21.9 trillion.

Just for the sake of argument, ignore the $1 trillion in military spending alotted for 2010.


Obama campaigned on the "radical" program of reinstating the pre-Bush Jr. tax rates (top marginal rate of 40%) for the rich in order to pay for more extensive public spending on health care. People turned out in droves to vote for him.

Now, I'm told that a small windfall tax on corporate profits or a one-time 3% tax on the wealth of the wealthiest 1% would more than double the amount of money that state governments have on hand right now.

Moreover, we can do a little mental math and quickly see that a, shall we say, "solidarity tax" that increased the top marginal rate of taxation by 5% would raise the money to stave off all cuts to public services, infrastructure and employment. An increase of 10% could even expand and shore up already anemic services in a time when more and more people are falling back on public services.

This is not even a radical proposal. It's simple math: we could slice and dice public services (education, healthcare, infrastructure, etc.) or we could simply raise the marginal tax rate on the very very wealthiest of the wealthy.

Yet voters are not asked to weigh in on these issues (except in Oregon, where they supported it).

Instead, they are asked to support one of two pro-business parties, both of whom are happy to eviscerate public goods and bow down to the wealthy and powerful.

It is the heavily Democratic Congress who are cutting public transit, slicing the social safety net, busting teachers unions, laying off public workers, raising tuition and closing schools. And before the much-hyped and overblown "Scott Brown Incident", don't forget that the supermajority-wielding Democrats couldn't even put together a stimulus bill that covered the state budget shortfalls since they were so keen on including tax breaks in the bill. And don't forget: Obama has proposed a freeze on discretionary spending (except for, of course, military spending).

I ask you: what is the purpose of supporting the Democratic Party? This is what they do when they wield the largest Congressional majorities I've seen in my lifetime.

What progressive and left-leaning people need to do right now is, first of all, completely divest from the Democratic Party and organizations subservient to it. The next goal has to be to build on (and forge new) movements already under way against budget cuts. If we ever hope to see important reforms like single-payer or fully-funded public transit in our lifetimes, we're going to have to form independent social movements to place demands on the existing order. Asking nicely and sending money to isn't a case of "not doing enough"; on the contrary, this kind of "activism" is precisely what's preventing meaningful change.

Can there be any doubt, even among liberals, that the function of the Democrats, intentionally or not, is to keep existing political arrangements intact?


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mike Davis on the promise of the city

Here's a little taste:

There are innumerable examples and they all point toward a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth. As we all know, several additional Earths would be required to allow all of humanity to live in a suburban house with two cars and a lawn, and this obvious constraint is sometimes evoked to justify the impossibility of reconciling finite resources with rising standards of living. Most contemporary cities, in rich countries or poor, repress the potential environmental efficiencies inherent in human-settlement density. The ecological genius of the city remains a vast, largely hidden power. But there is no planetary shortage of ‘carrying capacity’ if we are willing to make democratic public space, rather than modular, private consumption, the engine of sustainable equality. Public affluence—represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction—represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality. Although seldom noticed by academic urban theorists, university campuses are often little quasi-socialist paradises around rich public spaces for learning, research, performance and human reproduction.
This excerpt comes from his new piece,"Who Will Build the Arc?", in the most recent edition of New Left Review.


Ideological State Apparatuses

Question: "How do oppressive social/political systems maintain and reproduce themselves over time?"

Answer: Like this.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism

Read the entire article here, at Monthly Review's website. It's long, but worth the read. It's also totally one of those articles that is worth skimming through, since there are many discrete sections comprising the whole.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

NYTimes to Mexico: Give US corporations back your oil

Read the NYTimes screed against nationalization here. Man, the Times is terrible when it comes to Latin America. The "argument" in this article is pathetic. It's the same old shopworn right-wing rhetoric about nationalizing resources: "those dumb Mexicans are happy that they booted out the foreign oil companies... but they are too inept to know how to properly extract it... better invite the US corporate experts back in to take the oild back".

As readers of their foreign coverage have come to expect, the Times conflates an important issue of political/economic power with one about efficiency and instrumental virtues. But we can separate these matters. The issue of efficiency of extraction is separate from the issue of whether or not the Mexican people should collectively own their natural resources. If the problem is merely with the former, why not suggest ways in which the extraction could be more efficiently undertaken? Of course, the whole point of the article is not to solve this problem, but to offer us the facile conclusion that the only problem is nationalization. The obvious solution, the article seems to leads us to believe, is that privatization and control of the oil by a small group of wealthy foreign investors is the only way to go.

Of course, nationalization as such is not necessarily a good thing. It matters who "owns" the national state and it matters how the revenues are spent. But even with all of the problems with the Mexican state apparatus, I'll gladly take public ownership of that sort (and the loads of money it provides for education spending) over private ownership by a small clique of foreign capitalists.


Guestpost: Is Our Children Learning? The Poverty of Educational Social Science

GUESTPOST by pinkscare comrade "Joe Hill"

Like many other public institutions in modern western society, the educational system seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis. The lack of qualified or effective teachers, students who — for whatever reason — are often unmotivated and distracted, and the chronic lack of capital endemic to all public services are perhaps the primary factors contributing to this situation, though if one were so inclined it would be easy to break down these three main elements into a myriad of smaller and more contextually embedded factors, each of which varying in its negative effects depending on the specific social context in consideration.

And why is this the case? Political and cultural elites rail constantly about the degraded state of public education, and they never cease to be utterly shocked when the latest statistical data emerges inevitably showing a decisive academic achievement gap between American and, say, Chinese youth per capita. This nationalized achievement gap becomes more and more disconcerting for globalization's most fervent supporters, for instance, whose anxiety about the future of America's cultural capital fuels what Perry Anderson has referred to in a recent essay as “Sinomania.” In this rapidly escalating global economic arms race, so to speak, the ability of the American educational system to crank out the ideal economic subject— industrious, enterprising, and, most of all, unquestioning of the social validity of market logic— assumes paramount importance.

Enter the social scientific study of educational practices and institutions. The question informing the academic study and training of educational professionals has always been a perplexing one, not unknown to Plato 2500 years ago, which is simply this: how is one to educate the educators? A recent article by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times magazine tells a story about an individual, a Doug Lemov of the northeast's Uncommon Schools charter school system, whose professional career has been devoted largely to theorizing and implementing novel pedagogical ideas. Lemov, who graduated from Harvard Business school and believes in “putting his faith in market forces,”unreservedly subscribes to the idea that in contexts riddled by pervasive racial achievement gaps, the “smarter” path to boosting student performance is “to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.” Now, to return to our cardinal question, how does this man propose to educate the educators?

By creating an exhaustive taxonomy of effective pedagogical techniques, of course. “Lemov's Taxonomy,” a 300 + page treatise which evidently entertains “hundreds of underground fans” among the community of educational professionals, contains over 40 teaching techniques supposedly universal in their applicability, no matter the context. Any aspiring teacher can flip through Lemov's tome and learn the basic skills underlying successful teaching for any possible setting, no matter the time, place, socioeconomic makeup, or whatever other demographic variable one may wish to bring up. Based upon hundreds of hours of fastidious classroom observation and documentation, Lemov's work represents the distilled essence and final result of a comprehensively designed institutional experiment, combining the insights of dozens of the country's most effective teachers and educational researchers into a set of resources available for any would-be public educator.

And such is the logic of the social sciences in action: human beings are observed behaving, interacting, acting out, and otherwise existing in a variety of more or less 'controlled' settings; observations are made in relation to these phenomena; and, by drawing on commonalities across diverse experimental settings, a set of inductive inferences are made to arrive at generalizations about what 'works' for the already given purposes of human life — in this case, improved performance on standardized tests, among other modes of school ranking. It is this underlying, broadly positivist orientation, though, that contributes significantly to the persistent failure by professionals to actually grasp the root of the problem in modern public education.

For instance, the very method of educational social science forecloses certain avenues of inquiry. The constitution of each individual student as a 'subject' of the experiment, that is, as an individual participating in the controlled and closed environment of the classroom, relies on the erasure of the very histories of experience that have shaped and formed the 'subjects' under scrutiny. The assumption is simple: in order to test for what pedagogical techniques work best, one must control for certain external variables — in this case, the individual social histories of the students. While the assumption has always been that this provides a more science-like approach to understanding human behavior, it is premised upon the abstraction from particular historical and social contexts necessary to constitute the analytic elements of the experiment.

These assumptions can only underlie a research program which forbids itself from asking questions regarding the structure of society as a whole. And as long as this continues to be the status quo, the social scientific study of education, “Lemov's Taxonomy” included, is doomed to repeat the failures of the past. The argument could be put like this: as long as educational researchers do not know how to ask the question of why the racial achievement gap never seems to get better, they will never sufficiently understand how to improve it. Without taking a step back and thinking through the ways in which the situation of the controlled experiment is itself an effect of a larger structural cause, so to speak, the diagnoses and remedies offered by educational social science will be limited to only grazing the surface of this problem.

It is no surprise, then, that so “few properties of teachers can be shown to directly affect student learning.”

The subjectivity and individual histories of students, especially in America's urban centers, are conditioned and shaped by the economic and cultural contexts of a liberal capitalist social formation, and any idea that they could be adequately viewed as abstract test subjects apart from the kinds of sociality that this engenders is myopic, to say the least, and hopelessly misguided, to say the most. Working and lower-class neighborhoods in American cities generate particular forms of subjectivity based upon the ways that commerce, violence, and social identities circulate within an overall economy unique to those contexts; these social contexts, in turn, are the product of a specific way of economically organizing society in which capital inevitably tends to flow one way (upward) on the social ladder. Naturally, this leads to systemic social dynamics that both restrict and enable certain forms of social agency — notably, for this context, with regard to public institutions. It is, of course, the most basic methodological prerogative of modern social science to isolate itself from all such considerations, in order to emulate the controlled experimental environment of the natural sciences. This makes the experiment manageable to design and run, but it also effectively renders it blind to the possibility of addressing itself to the actual causes of the problems it seeks to redress.

Now, obviously this is not meant as a polemic against the social sciences per se, which obviously has many useful and beneficial roles to play in modern society. Nor is it meant to register surprise at the fact that someone like Lemov, a no-doubt proud graduate of Harvard business school, should be fundamentally blind to the ways that capitalist societies form subjects at a structural level, as well as how such considerations might impinge upon the explanatory value of his theories. But it needs to be recognized how the methods of the social sciences may be more appropriate for certain subjects as opposed to others, and relatedly, how it may serve to systematically obscure the path to answering the questions that it presumes to address. It may be hard to imagine such a disciplinary shake-up, but it may be that only under such a condition could we genuinely ask, and get a satisfactory response to, the question, “is our children learning?”


Monday, March 8, 2010

SW on the Central Falls attacks on Teachers

Read about it here.


Ranciere on the Egalitarian Myth of Schools

From On the Shores of Politics:

"It is intended to show further that school creates inequality precisely because it promotes belief in equality; in having the children of the poor believe that all who are there are equal, that pupils are marked, classified and selected only on the basis of the talents and intelligence each has, it compels the children of the poor to acknowledge that if they do not succeed it is because they have no talents and are not intelligent, and it would therefore be better if they went somewhere else. The school thus becomes the theatre of a fundamental symbolic violence which is nothing but the very illusion of equality. In order to convince that success is linked only to the talents of the pupil, the school privileges everything which goes beyond the simple transfer of knowledge, everything which is supposed to call upon a mode of being which is in reality a style of life, a form of acculturation which is not learnt at school -- that of the 'inheritors'. It thus reveals itself as false to its promise and faithful to its hidden essence: the Greek schole, which gave school its name and whose initial meaning is the condition of persons of leisure, who as such are equal and able on account of their social privilege to devote themselves, should they so desire, to study."


Just a thought

From the recent NYTimes Magazine piece on Rahm Emmanuel:

After the debacle in Massachusetts that cost Democrats their supermajority in the Senate, Washington has engaged in a favorite exercise, conducting the autopsy before the body is actually dead. How had it come to this? How did the president’s legislative drive drag on for so long that the surprise loss of a Senate seat could unravel it? Did Obama make a mistake by disregarding his top adviser’s counsel? Or was it Emanuel who failed to execute the president’s strategy? Was it both, or perhaps neither?
There is an important question to be asked here: why has Obama's presidency, initially buoyed by a groundswell of enthusiasm and excitement, been such a fucking disappointment? Notice, however, that this is not the question asked in the quote above.

There are two questions above, both of which presuppose that something interesting was underway until it was derailed. But before scrutinizing those very questions, we must ask: why should we accept that presupposition? When, since taking office, has Obama ever been on the track to put together a legislative agenda like the Great Society? What did his administration or the Democratic supermajority do aside from snagging a bit of low-hanging fruit that even Bush might have grabbed if he'd stayed in office a bit longer? For something to be derailed, it had to have been on some track in the first place. Aside from soaring campaign rhetoric, what about Obama has any recognizably "progressive" tinge?

What the magazine piece has to say here has no grounding in reality whatsoever.
For 14 months, the president has struggled with the balance between that pragmatism and the idealism of his campaign. At times, he disregarded Emanuel’s advice to scale back his goals, particularly on health care.
What struggle? The quote imagines an "idealist" pole to a tension in Obama's presidency that doesn't seem to exist. If it does actually exist, where's the evidence? I'm at a loss. And is the bit about "not scaling back his goals on health care" not a complete joke? Is it just me, or has Obama's entire strategy re: health care been one massive compromise after another from the very beginning? Let us not forget that Obama's health care plan itself began, even in the primaries, as a tepid half-measure. In what universe could we construe Obama's health care plan or strategy as "ambitious"?

Now to the questions raised in the quote. The first asks whether the Scott Brown thing in Mass marks the end of the energy elicited by the 2008 election. The second asks whether or not the pitiful legislative record of the President can be chalked up to Rahm's lack of strategic prowess (or Obama's unwillingness to listen).

Both of these seem to me the wrong questions to ask.

Now, to be sure, there is probably something interesting to say about how Rahm's maneuvering has not yielded the results Obama & Co. were looking for. But it would be facile to attribute the manifest failures of the Democrat Congress and Obama to the strategic maneuvers of electioneers in Mass or to Rahm Emmanuel. It would also be deceptive to do so. Because in the liberal squabbling over strategy and tactics (understood in a suitably narrow liberal way), we lose track of the bigger picture, for instance: What, in terms of political content, were the goals and interests of the President and the new Congress? What are their priorities? What are the ideological guidelines within which they are thinking about the issues at hand?

We can't answer these (big) questions by searching for some small strategic mistake or faulty advisor here or there. These questions track deep-seated institutional features of the Democratic Party machine itself, which in turn depend on the way that our two-party electoral system is configured.

Now, there are no easy answers to why it is that we can't seem to get things like full employment, single-payer health care, or an end to occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But whatever the answers are, they are not narrow tactical questions internal to the ongoings of the Democratic Party. What we need to talk about is how to organize people independently of the Democratic Party in such a way that we can make demands on the electoral system itself.


Critical Review of "The Coming Insurrection"

Read it here.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

IS article further demolishes mainstream interpretation of German politics

Months ago, I commented on the (predictable) distortion of the results of the German elections in outlets like the NYTimes. Despite the concrete details of the election (e.g. the fact that the right-wing CDU didn't increase their vote tally), the NYTimes spun it as a big win for Merkel and the Right in Germany.

This excellent article in the most recent edition of the British journal International Socialism, further exposes the NYTimes-style narrative as bogus. As the article aptly points out in its opening paragraphs, the CDU actually had a mediocre showing in the recent elections, and its victory owed only to the complete collapse of the "centre-left" Social Democratic party (SPD).

The election of 27 September brought to power a conservative-liberal government—the most right wing combination possible in German politics. But this does not represent a rightward shift in German society. The conservatives of the CDU and Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) had their worst showing since the Second World War. The conservative-liberal camp actually lost a total of 300,000 votes.

The coalition came to power on the back of a collapsed social democracy. The losses of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) are dramatic. The support for the SPD has halved since 1998. This is a legacy of the so-called Agenda 2010 reforms—a general attack on the welfare state started by SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder and furthered by his successors.

But you wouldn't know this if you read only the NYTimes. They would have led you to think that the election represented a sweeping victory for the Right, a general nod to neoliberalism, and a repudiation of socialism. Indeed, something closer to the opposite is true. The Left Party (Die Linke) had its strongest showing to date, and the majority of the population oppose many of the current government's policies. For instance:
The coalition of the CDU and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) won despite the majority of the population’s rejection of their core projects. For example, 77 percent of people are for a legally enshrined minimum wage, which the new government rejects. 61 percent want a shift away from nuclear energy, while the government wants to give nuclear bosses a longer running time for their plants. 55 percent are for an immediate military withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the government wants to send more troops.
To be sure, the Left faces many challenges in Germany, but it's important to poke holes in bullshit narratives about the "meteoric rise" of the Right in Germany.


Death Penalty for Marxists

I recently read in Brian Jones's article in the most recent ISR that Tennessee passed a law in 1951 mandating the death penalty for anyone espousing revolutionary Marxist ideas. That's right.

For more info check out Belfrage, Cedric. (1973) The American Inquisition or Caute, David. (1978) The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

President Barack Reagan... oh, I mean Obama loves busting unions

(via American Leftist) Barack "Hoover" Obama applauds the mass firings of teachers in Rhode Island. Yes, we can (bust teachers unions), evidently.

At least the Republicans don't try sugar-coating the fact that they are pro-Business assholes.

"But deep down, he's really a progressive in his heart of hearts". Yeah, right. And I'm Frank Sinatra.


Cornel West: "Obama is for Wallstreet, not the Jobless"


Hilarious anti-feminist letter in LRB from 1992

The following is a letter to the editor of LRB regarding a book review by G.A. Cohen:

Vol. 14 No. 12 · 25 June 1992

From E.J. Mishan

Much as I enjoyed Professor Cohen’s review of Thomas Nagel’s Equality and Partiality (LRB, 14 May), it was hardly possible to avoid noticing his recourse to ‘she’ and ‘her’ instead of the standard ‘he’ and ‘him’ to indicate either sex. Is this departure from grammatical convention a bid to establish enlightened credentials, or is it part of his private campaign to add the weight of his authority to the promotion of peripheral women’s lib desiderata? The traditional usage of ‘he’ as an alternative to ‘one’ goes back centuries and – notwithstanding the exigencies of fashion – is wholly unambiguous. In contrast, the self-conscious departure from common usage in this respect invariably imparts something of a mental jolt to the reader.

Perhaps the editors will agree that occasional recourse to this practice does nothing to realise the goals of the women’s liberation movement. These goals, in any case, are being realised chiefly through economic forces: with the growth of mass affluence in the West, affordable domestic labour-saving innovations have made housewives all but expendable. And while such innovations push women out of the home, so do other innovations facilitate their employment in industry and commerce.

There is really no call, then, for our hyper-conscientious progressives to subscribe to the more eccentric tactics of those ‘conscious-raising’ zealots scattered along the fringes of the feminist movement.

E.J. Mishan
London NW11

This is hilarious. This guy is really pissed off because G.A. Cohen didn't unreflectively adhere to a traditional, sexist norm of language use.

But I actually agree with some of what Mr. (presumably, right?) Mishan has to say. I agree with him when he writes that "the traditional usage of ‘he’ as an alternative to ‘one’ goes back centuries and – notwithstanding the exigencies of fashion – is wholly unambiguous." This is true. The traditional use of "he" and "mankind" is unambiguous: male pronouns, and perhaps men in general, are alleged to be the appropriate stand-ins for humanity as such. This is why we should unambiguously oppose this practice.

I also find it hilarious that Mishan claims that "this practice does nothing to realise the goals of the women’s liberation movement" (as though he cares). The funny thing is that one frequently hears this refrain from opponents of feminism: "but it doesn't really matter whether or not we say 'mankind' or 'humanity'... so why bother?". My reply here is always the same. If it doesn't matter, if it's not important one way or the other, then why are you so angry and disgruntled that we're departing from traditional practice? It seems to matter quite a lot to the likes of Mishan that I say "him" and "mankind" and so on.

I should note as well that I also agree that "the self-conscious departure from common usage in this respect invariably imparts something of a mental jolt to the reader." This is precisely the fucking point. If it didn't ruffle the feathers of doddering old sexists like Mishan, it wouldn't be worth the effort. The point is precisely to destabilize a traditional practice, "that goes back centuries", which contributes to the reproduction of sexism. The more acute the "mental jolt" that this elicits from misogynist wankers like the author of the letter, the better.