Sunday, October 31, 2010

Laid off? It's OK, Obama's working on a narrative

More PR-obsessed "politics" in the Guardian:

"The absence of an effective narrative on the Democratic side has allowed Republicans to fill the vacuum."
Right. Narratives, narratives, it's all narratives. Makes me feel great, I have to tell you. I guess nothing matters outside of how effectively Democrats and Republicans "spin" their "message". That's probably what the millions of unemployed people in the US are wondering right now: "where's that good narrative anyway?". Yes, that's what we all need- that's what will pay my bills and assuage the social misery being visited upon millions: a good narrative.

I'm pleased to know it's that easy. That's funny because I would have thought things like this mattered. I was under the impression that it might do well to consider addressing our woefully unmaintained infrastructure, ending the costly imperial ventures abroad, taxing the rich to stop our schools from collapsing, fighting to expand public transportation at a time when cities across the country are cutting jobs and service, addressing the still unsolved health care crisis, etc. etc.

Evidently those things are beside the point: what we need now is an effective "message", a good narrative. But is that what we need? Or is that simply what a self-serving set of enablers for the existing order, i.e. the Democrats, need in order to maintain their place in the system?

Here it's necessary to quote Peter Camejo: "every major gain in our history, even pre-Civil War struggles such as the battles for the Bill of Rights, to end slavery, and to establish free public education -as well as those after the Civil War, have been the product of direct action by movements independent of the two major parties and in opposition to them".


Obama: The Rabble is Irrational, New PR Tactics Needed

From the NYTimes, here's Obama:

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared,” he told a roomful of doctors who chipped in at least $15,200 each to Democratic coffers. “And the country is scared, and they have good reason to be.”
This article exemplifies the warped conception of "politics" I described in a recent post. The idea motivating this article, and Obama's remarks, is essentially this: people are basically irrational, blown to and fro by fancy-sounding words and images... and when they aren't blown in your direction, it must be because their raw emotional energies aren't been successfully manipulated by effective PR tactics.

It can't be that people are, in fact, rational and, additionally, that they just aren't stupid enough to buy into the claim that the Democrats are a force for progressive change these days. It can't be that real people in the US are sick layoffs and austerity while the rich are showered with billions of funds and the prospects of permanent give-aways in the form of tax cuts. It can't be that those people who wanted change are frustrated that costly wars and occupations continue, that Guantanamo wasn't closed, etc. etc. No, no... they're just irrational and aren't in a position to grasp the deep "truth" that the Obama and the Democrats are the cosmic force for the betterment of human kind.

Polls, to the extent that they're useful at all, still show that the Democrats enjoy a lead in overall popularity over the Republicans. But the popularity of both parties, taken together, is extremely low. The big lie is that disillusionment with the Democrats means direct support for the Republicans. But this is obviously false; this is merely clever propaganda to "scare out the vote" on the part of the Dems. People who were (understandably) excited to vote Obama in 2008 because of the prospects of some kind of qualitative change are (understandably) disappointed because no qualitative change occurred whatsoever. These folks aren't interested in the Republicans, but neither are they thrilled about the Democrats. They shouldn't be ridiculed for feeling this way. But that they are, by the mainstream press and the Democrats, is not surprising. Complaints against the system as such simply don't register as complaints: if you gripe about the Dems, it is immediately interpreted as a point in favor of the Republicans and vice versa. But that is no stain on people's legitimate disillusionment; that is a stain on the restrictive assumptions motivating mainstream discussion of "politics" conceived in the way I described in a recent post.

But the situation facing Obama and the Dems right now is not complex. It's obvious why they are floundering in elections. They campaigned by leading people to believe that they would really be a part of instigating some kind of qualitative change. They haven't; in fact, they've done more damage than good in the last 2 years. Hence disillusionment and frustration among previous supporters.

So to think that all that needs changing are the images and tunes coming from the White House and the DNC is to deeply misunderstand the situation. Thinking that this "PR fix" is plausible requires that we pretend that the last 2 years never happened. And though public memory is truncated and distorted by our corporate media institutions... I don't think it's distorted enough for people to forget that they've been deeply betrayed by the second most enthusiastic capitalist party in the US.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Should we legislate against cat-calling: I say yes

But the suggestion in a recent post by Jill at Feministe is "no". She doesn't give reasons why not in the post, but in the comments thread her reasoning is, in part, that "the problem with trying to ban street harassment is that it’s (a) a First Amendment issue, and (b) a practicality issue".

She also suggests that since we're "talking about things that happen in public spaces, like on the street" there should not be any legislative action, whereas "in private spaces — at your office — or in places like schools, there are different rules, and there should be recourse for harassment."

I agree that the personal is political. But that doesn't mean that the public ceases to be political. The point of politicizing the personal, the private sphere if you like, wasn't in order to drain politics out of the public sphere. If harassment and sexist intimidation should be outlawed anywhere, I would have thought that the public sphere would have been the first place place to start. Public space is supposed to be that space in which we should all be able to comfortably appear as equals, free from domination, intimidation or shame.

So, I disagree rather sharply with Jill's suggestion that because the street is public, it should therefore be a space in which harassment is protected. I would have wanted to draw precisely the opposite inference.

Also, I'm perplexed most of the time when it is suggested that something is a "free speech issue". That seems to me, often, to be a way of avoiding talking about the politics of the situation. To be sure, freedom of speech --the idea that the State shouldn't coercively prevent people from making their reasoned views known in public spaces-- is worth fighting for.

But rather than too quickly assuming that such free speech is a good thing and leaving it at that, I think it's worth asking why we care about protecting the right to free speech discussed above.

There are many reasons one could give here, but the most convincing one for me is that we want the public sphere to be one of openness, free from intimidation, discrimination and domination. So if we're for freedom of speech, our main question, then, must be: how do we best foster public spheres of openness and equality?

It seems to me a deep mistake, and one often committed by liberals, to assume that we achieve this by simply removing the State from the picture. As the second-wave feminist movement uncompromisingly pointed out in the 60s and 70s: when you remove the State you don't get a realm of pure equality and freedom. You get private institutions, organizations, roles, norms, practices, etc. that are structured hierarchically. When you look at the vast majority of non-State social institutions (e.g. churches, schools, clubs, media organizations, workplaces, etc.), you see elements of patriarchy, among other things. This fact about private social institutions was the motivation for the famous feminist slogan that the "personal is political". The idea was that when you looked in places where the State proper did not reach, you nonetheless found power and domination that needed to be dealt with politically, not on an individual-to-individual basis.

So, what we see here is that fostering spaces of openness --the precondition of having freedom of speech-- isn't accomplished by simply removing the State from the picture. Instead, fostering openness is accomplished by reconfiguring basic social institutions and public spaces in such a way that people can appear before others as equals, free from domination, shame, intimidation, etc. For my part, I see no plausible reason not to use every tool at our disposal to accomplish that goal. Excluding the legal or legislative changes from our toolkit strikes me as dogmatic.

For these reasons, I don't see a good reason not to consider a legislative onslaught against street harassment. I'm not convinced that claiming that this is a "First Amendment Issue" means that we should not legislate against harassment. On the contrary, any plausible interpretation of the spirit of First Amendment seems suggest that we should legislate against it.

Moreover, if we cannot structure our own public spaces democratically, then I don't know what democracy is for. Public space is, by definition, space that is open to all of us. But it is not a space where anything goes --violence, sexual assault, oppression, and subordination should not be welcome. If democracy is good for anything at all --it is good for enabling us to collectively decide what norms we want to structure the public spaces we share in common. So its hard for me to see why we shouldn't be able to collectively decide whether or not we want our public spaces to be ones in which harassment and domination is tolerated. To reject this seems to me to reject the role of collective self-rule in a democratic society.

Jill also suggests in the post that "
I actually don’t agree with hate speech laws either." Perhaps that is the crux of the disagreement. I would have thought that hate speech was the paradigm of speech that doesn't deserve to be protected. Perhaps the thought is that the political community should be neutral about whether or not something is hateful, and thus refrain from banning it. But for my part, I don't think there's anything neutral about hate speech. Hate speech, as the name implies, is not speech that expresses some reasonable opinion or view that we might disagree with but nonetheless understand and tolerate. It is not "one contender" among many competing views about how to treat others. Hate speech is an expression of oppressive social norms that function to sustain existing inequalities of power. As such, it has no claim to being protected. There's no slippery slope here. If we have a clear idea, more or less, what is hateful and what is not, I don't see why we wouldn't want our laws to structure public spaces in such a way that puts a damper on oppressive speech.

Now some are bound to disagree here because they think that leaving "hate" open to interpretation is dangerous. Because we can't specify what all cases of hate share ex ante in a "fully directive" law, this kind of legislation leaves the door open for abuse. I think objection misses the mark. Lots of laws can't be fully directive, and we wouldn't always want them to be if they could. To be sure, some interpretation and deliberation will be required to parse out serious cases of oppressive street harassment, but is that a problem? I would have thought that laws which, as legal philosopher Seana Shiffrin puts it, "induce deliberation" would have the advantage of sparking public discussion and critical reflection. And since when has it ever been the case that we didn't need to think critically and reflect on how generalized laws apply to specific cases? I don't think the law is ever that simple. The slippery-slope worries here seem rather empty when you think through how unfounded they are.

Perhaps there are better reasons for recoiling from legislative action here, but I cant see what they are.


On De-politicizing Politics; Or, More on Enthusiasm

You cannot report on politics neutrally. To think that you can do so is naive, to declare to others that you are, in fact, doing so is disingenuous.

There are many reasons for this, but one of the more obvious is that reporting on politics requires that you have an idea of what it is that you're reporting on. That is, reporting on politics presupposes some view or other about what politics is, and what it is not. And deciding what politics is requires that you allow some possibilities in and exclude others, which cannot but be a contentious move.

Now, the mainstream newspapers and cable TV stations in the US all purport to "cover" or "report" on politics. Some of them even, laughably, purport to do so neutrally (which is always a sure-fire way to spot underhanded political maneuvering).

But all of them, without exception, have an idea of what it is their reporting on. That is, they all have some tacit conception of what politics is. What is it?

If we go on what's said in the big newspapers (e.g. NYTimes, WaPo, etc.) and TV stations, I think we get a definition of politics something like the following. Politics is a game of rhetorical strategies and public relations. This game is only to be played by one or other of two well-defined and recognized teams: the Democrats and the Republicans. Thus, when we analyze "what's happening politically" in this society, we look at various institutionalized "matches" between the two teams, who compete by hurling different rhetoric and P.R. tactics back and forth at one another. Of course, it is acknowledged that money also plays a role, so perhaps we could add that another element of the game being played is that one team has to try to out-fund-raise the other (by, presumably, constructing a more cleverly packaged P.R. game plan, etc.). [Sidenote: this is where the ideology of "apathetic voters" emerges from... perfectly rational people feel excluded and alienated by this stupid PR game, and they are subsequently penned as "apathetic" cynics who don't see the point of "making freedom count".]

I'll comment on why this conception of "politics" is deeply conservative and delusional in a moment. But first, I want to say something about how this conception is tied up with all the blathering about enthusiasm of late.

Most of the coverage of "democratic disillusionment" or the "lack of enthusiasm" takes the form of clueless hand-wringing: how is it that people are so unenthusiastic? What's wrong with them? Why can't the Democrats effectively "mobilize their base"?

But although these aloof questions are posed often enough, they are not answered forthrightly. The idea that Obama campaigned to the left and has governed from the right doesn't appear as a possible explanation. Why not? Because the conception of politics at work in mainstream coverage, as I noted above, reduces politics to the narrow PR maneuvering of corporate candidates for the major parties. So the question is not: what is it that people wanted to see happen and why didn't Obama do it? The question is: what PR strategies are the Democrats failing to employ here? Why can't the Democrats put together the "right message" to get their "base" energized? How can Obama effectively reduce high expectations?

These are bullshit questions to ask. And whatever else they are, they sure aren't political questions. They are questions relevant to the inner-circle of paid campaign bureaucrats working to get their blow-hard of choice in office. But they are not salient questions for the vast majority of us. What the fuck do I care, in itself, whether Harry Reid stays in office or not? The only question should be one of means and ends: is supporting Harry Reid an effective means of winning the progressive changes we need so desperately? The answer is quite obviously: absolutely not.

Politics is not about the narrow PR maneuvering of blowhards funded by the ruling class. I much prefer Alain Badiou's definition: politics is "collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order". And, as he points out, if we take this extremely plausible definition seriously, we see, in fact, that our present electoral mechanism is basically apolitical. What's therefore needed is struggle and organization outside of the ossified system of electoral politics. We need to rebuild Left political culture, be part of existing movements and build new ones. It's not that the Democrats are already doing this, but simply failing to do it well. They are flatly opposed to this strategy: they are obstacles rather than vehicles for change.


Friday, October 29, 2010

On the Politics of "Enthusiasm"

If you ask people swept up in the desperate scramble to keep Democrats from losing seats, the most important thing that needs to change right now is "enthusiasm". If you ask the Democrat politicians themselves, "enthusiasm" levels are the only thing that needs changing.

No, we don't need a change in the basic structure of society. We don't need to change the political trajectory of this country. We don't need a break with the more or less continuous set of neoliberal policies running through the presidencies of Reagan-Bush-Clinton-W-Obama. No, it turns out that we don't need to change anything whatsoever about the system itself. Everything is as it should be in the contemporary USA.

The only thing that needs to change is people's levels of enthusiasm.

This is, quite obviously, the position of the Democrats and those who apologize for them. But surely any reflective person must ask here: what kind of politics underwrites this injunction to "be happy" and get pumped to vote for Democrat politicians? It seems to me that there are two important components to the political ideas underwriting the fuss about enthusiasm.

The first is the idea that "the problem is not the system, it's you". This is an idea that has become firmly entrenched in social and political life in the United States over the last 40 years. This is the ideology of "personal responsibility": for any large-scale social problem whatsoever that may afflict you (e.g. wide-scale layoffs, economic turmoil, wage repression, etc.), we can safely say that it is not really a social problem at all. It is merely an individual level problem that has to do with you (e.g. you didn't work hard enough, you didn't try hard enough to get a job, you aren't talented enough to get hired, etc.). This is not a "conservative" idea in the sense that it is only accepted among hard-right think tanks like the Cato Institute: this is part of the basic fabric of mainstream political life in the US and it is a set of ideas firmly shared by both of the major parties.

Here's how this idea applies to all the fuss about "enthusiasm". You might have thought that politicians only deserve the support of their constituents to the extent that they share and attempt to implement political goals that their constituents endorse. In other words, you might have thought that representatives of the people should be held accountable based on what they do (or don't do) in office. But, as Obama is fond of telling us these days, this is dead wrong. It doesn't matter what they do in office. That is beside the point. The job of the supporters of the Democrats isn't to make demands on them whatsoever: their job is to be "enthusiastic" no matter what they do.

In other words, the problem isn't that Obama and the Democrats haven't done anything remotely progressive. The problem has nothing to with the Democratic Party at all: the problem is all with the damned voters. Why aren't they more enthusiastic? What's their fucking problem anyway? How dare they not be prepared to re-elect tepid Democrat incumbents with a smile on their face?

What to do? One solution has emerged already. Why not use the funny-men on the picture-box to get them to turn out? If "enthusiasm" can't be restored by actually giving people something concrete to be enthusiastic about, why not trot out the comedians to get them prepared to do what their better judgment tells them isn't worth a damn?

The second component is even less plausible than the first. It is the idea that the only "realistic" thing we can do is to resign ourselves to the way things are. If we feel righteous indignation at a society that forces austerity onto working people in one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression amidst fabulous wealth and profits for the few... we're simply not being realistic. If we think that our deeply irrational and unjust for-profit healthcare system, far and away inferior to the systems of comparable advanced capitalist nations, ought to be changed... well you're just a dumb utopian.

"Politics", these boneheads will tell us, is supposed to be the "art of the possible". But who decides what is possible and what is not? Deciding where to draw the line is an extremely delicate political move. And what's possible in part depends on what people think they are capable of doing at any one time. If people are led to think that they can't do something that it is in their power to do, this is a sense in which they are oppressed. For instance, the belief that we must either vote for the Democrats or the Republicans reinforces the idea that our only means of political agency are to accept the terms of this choice and operate within its parameters. But that belief itself demobilizes people, resigns them to existing states of affairs, and convinces them that they couldn't possibly ask for mer. And when that belief is widely held enough, it becomes self-fulfilling... the belief itself actually circumscribes the realm of possible actions that could take place. Radical politics thus begins when circumstances and experiences of various sorts shatter that belief: be they active struggle, political argument, historical shifts, or otherwise.

A quick glance around the world, and at our own history, shows how utterly false this restrictive, oppressive injunction to "be realistic" is. What is said to be "utopian" in the US is commonplace in other parts of the world. And what is said to be "utopian" today was, in many cases, an inspiring and widespread phenomenon throughout our own history (e.g. the struggles for the 8hr day; the sit-down strikes that erupted in the 1930s; the movement in the 50s and 60s to push for racial justice and an end to Jim Crow, etc. ). Thus this demand for "realism" shows itself for what it is, a demand that we resign ourselves to the way things are (even though history and other national contexts show us that they could be different). This "realism" is the worst sort of cynicism and political apathy possible.

As those in power are well aware, convincing people that the set of "realistic" possibilities is a small one is a fantastic way of keeping them docile. And once you've done the work of cementing that view their mind, the only question becomes: how do we make them happy and cheerful about accepting things as they are? How do we force them out of the disillusionment and alienation that it's natural to feel in the face of an inconsequential choice between conservative party A and conservative party B? That is the meaning of the present obsession with enthusiasm.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

NOT Wating for "Superman"



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

David Harvey video on Marx's Method



Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More on Walter Benn-Michael's Favorite Movement



Must-Read Rip of "Waiting for Superman"

I really encourage everyone to read and widely disseminate the article posted below entitled "The Myth of Charter Schools". Read it here.

The majority of what's out there re: education right now is misinformation, and I think Diane Ravitch is absolutely right that Waiting for "Superman" is a massive P.R. coup for the movement from above to crush public education:

Waiting for “Superman” is the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far. Their power is not to be underestimated. For years, right-wing critics demanded vouchers and got nowhere. Now, many of them are watching in amazement as their ineffectual attacks on “government schools” and their advocacy of privately managed schools with public funding have become the received wisdom among liberal elites. Despite their uneven record, charter schools have the enthusiastic endorsement of the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Dell Foundation. In recent months, The New York Times has published three stories about how charter schools have become the favorite cause of hedge fund executives. According to the Times, when Andrew Cuomo wanted to tap into Wall Street money for his gubernatorial campaign, he had to meet with the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a pro-charter group.

Dominated by hedge fund managers who control billions of dollars, DFER has contributed heavily to political candidates for local and state offices who pledge to promote charter schools. (Its efforts to unseat incumbents in three predominantly black State Senate districts in New York City came to nothing; none of its hand-picked candidates received as much as 30 percent of the vote in the primary elections, even with the full-throated endorsement of the city’s tabloids.) Despite the loss of local elections and the defeat of Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (who had appointed the controversial schools chancellor Michelle Rhee), the combined clout of these groups, plus the enormous power of the federal government and the uncritical support of the major media, presents a serious challenge to the viability and future of public education.
Importantly, we cannot challenge this movement to corporatize education by voting Democrat. The Democrats, as nobody could fail to notice right now, are behind this movement 100%. This is not a hold-over from days of Reagan, Bush, and Gingrich: this is a Democrat project now. Voting isn't going to solve this problem: direct intervention by independent social movements is the only way to alter the political landscape here.

Just ask yourself this: how is our for-profit health care system working out for you? How do all of our "market based", purportedly "efficient" private health insurance solutions sit with you? How well does the for-profit, corporate health insurance industry serve your interests? Any sane person can see that it isn't working, that the system isn't efficient, and that the entities in charge of the system don't serve our interests (in spite of the so-called "reforms" passed last year).

Yet this is precisely the model that Arne Duncan and Obama are pushing in the realm of education. They want to use all of the old top-down, corporate tricks: force workers to speed up, work for less pay, to see fellow individual workers as competitors/threats, to seem themselves as isolated individuals, etc. In short, they want to apply the industrial techniques of for-profit corporations to our education institutions. They, in effect, want to smash the idea of public education entirely. They want to privatize education and allow for-profit businesses and fabulously wealthy individuals to determine the future of U.S. schools. Yet we are made to think that teachers, not these forces of destruction coming from above, are the problem.

What is the motivation for this onslaught on public education? It is clear that their reasons are cynical. Why, after all, should capitalists care about education? We know that the only thing they care about is profits, so that is where we must look if we are to properly interpret their intervention in this issue. As the documentary itself makes clear, and as many are generally aware, there is anxiety among the ruling class about the global competitiveness of the American labor force. That means that capital wants to more effectively churn out units that are useful for maximizing profits: "units" which have certain technical know-how re: math and science. Whereas capital might have been persuaded in earlier epochs to take care of this problem via Keynesian methods of public subsidy, today the ideology and praxis of the ruling class is hard-neoliberal.

We must also note that the powerful entities who see charters as a business opportunity are extremely adamant about further colonizing public education and weakening the union. Another (related and often overlapping) force at work here is the hard-Right, who have been pushing for vouchers and privatization for 30 years. As I note above, this group is by no means confined to the Republican Party. These ideas are now commonplace among the Democrats. And why shouldn't they be? The Democrats are every bit as much of a pro-Wall Street party as the Republicans (the arguments between them these days seem mostly revolve around who is the more competent "true" friend of Wall Street).

And amidst all of these extremely powerful groups and institutions... Guggenheim would have us believe that the only villains are the "overly powerful" teachers themselves. The teachers who are routinely shat upon, under-appreciated, and underpaid to do one of the most important jobs in our entire society.

Make sure to get the word out about the sophistry at work in Waiting for "Superman".


Why France Matters Here Too

Read Rick Wolff, writing for MRZine, here.


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Myth of Charter Schools

Nice rip of "Waiting for Superman" here in the New York Review of Books. The second paragraph makes an obvious point seldom registered in all the hoopla re: this documentary: "[The film] presents the popularized version of an account of American public education that is promoted by some of the nation’s most powerful figures and institutions." In other words, this isn't some novel, "fresh" case for "reform". This is, quite literally, an expression of what the most powerful figures and institutions in the US have to say about education. And one of the few impediments in the way of this enormous "wave" of pressure from above is the American Federation of Teachers. Unsurprisingly, they are the primary target of the film, the so-called villains thwarting "reform". Of course, the article makes far more detailed and nuanced points about the charter school issue. But I think keeping the configuration of power in view here is crucial; and it is completely absent from the way education is being discussed, to the detriment of the vast majority of us.


Complete Bullshit

From the NYTimes:

Before Mr. Obama and Republicans can secure each other’s cooperation, people in both parties say, they must first figure out a way to secure mutual trust.

After two years of operating at loggerheads with Republicans, Mr. Obama and his aides are planning a post-election agenda for a very different political climate. They see potential for bipartisan cooperation on reducing the deficit, passing stalled free-trade pacts and revamping the education bill known as No Child Left Behind — work that Arne Duncan, Mr. Obama’s education secretary, says could go a long way toward repairing “the current state of anger and animosity.”

“I’m a big believer in less of singing ‘Kumbaya’ together and going on retreats than in rolling up our sleeves and doing work together,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview. “That’s how you build respect, that’s how you build trust, that’s how you build relationships. I think it’s a way to move beyond some hurt feelings on both sides. Do it through the work.”

If all they care about is "mutual trust", "respect" and "bipartisan cooperation" why are the Democrats even concerned about losing seats? If it's all about singing "Kumbaya", what's the worry about having the Republicans gain more power? If politics is just about pretending there's no disagreement, what's the problem? This blathering about "trust" is delusional.

Consider the following. "They see potential for bipartisan cooperation on reducing the deficit, passing stalled free-trade pacts and revamping the education bill known as No Child Left Behind — work that Arne Duncan, Mr. Obama’s education secretary, says could go a long way toward repairing “the current state of anger and animosity.”

Allow me to translate. This means: the Republicans and Democrats already agree that Bush's NCLB was good and needs to be extended; they agree on forcing austerity on working people in order to make them pay for a crisis caused by Wall Street; and they agree on pushing through "free trade" agreements like NAFTA. Great. I can't wait for them to get to work on all of that.

So, keep sending those checks to I'm sure the money will be well-spent punishing teachers, privatizing schools, and slashing social spending. I mean, at least the Democrats and Republicans will be "transcending their differences" and cooperating when they do it.

In all seriousness, I think liberals would do well to consider more closely the region of genuine consensus among Democrat and Republican politicians. They agree on doing quite a lot, particularly when it comes to excluding various progressive possibilities. This region of agreement constricts the questions that can even be raised within official political chambers.

And if liberals are frustrated with Obama and Co. for handling the Republicans with kid gloves, they might inquire as to why this might be. I don't think it's merely an expression of incompetence or naiveté. To be sure, when Obama says he's happy to cooperate and "trust" Republicans, a good amount of that is over-the-top and has got to be bullshit. But in a way (and this is what liberals continue to miss) he's not just making a strategic error here. This is, I think, an expression of the political trajectory of Obama and the Democrats. If you can agree that budget-cut fatalism and austerity for working people is the only way, which D's and R's certainly do, that's a real reason to think you can work together in the future. That's an obvious strategic move if your politics are obstinately pro-business.

But although there is certainly closeness between the politics of the two major parties, there is no comparable closeness between these parties and the interests of the vast majority of people. In fact there's a massive gap between people's consciousness and our ossified political institutions. The way forward for progressives can't be to keep flushing their time, energy and resources down the massive toilet known as the Democratic Party. The way forward has got to be to speak to people's frustrations with the system and to organize this energy into a force for change. And the only way to do this is to grasp that such a movement would necessarily have to be free from the chains of our electoral mechanism.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

This is what democracy looks like

here. (via Louis Proyect)


Tariq Ali - The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad

See Tariq Ali interviewed on his new book on Democracy Now here. Get the book here. This is a message that people on the Left desperately need to consider right now, as the Democrats ratchet up the P.R. campaign to "scare out the vote". Here's a little excerpt:

AMY GOODMAN: ...right now we’re staying with Tariq Ali. He has a new book out; it’s called The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad. Some might say that’s a little harsh.

TARIQ ALI: I know some of his supporters might feel it’s a little harsh, but I think that we’ve had two years of him now, Amy, and the contours of this administration are now visible. And essentially, it is a conservative administration which has changed the mood music. So the talk is better. The images of the administration are better, the reasonable looks. But in terms of what they do—in foreign policy, we’ve seen a continuation of the Bush-Cheney policies, and worse, in AfPak, as they call it, and at home, we’ve seen a total capitulation to the lobbyists, to the corporations. The fact that the healthcare bill was actually drafted by someone who used to be an insurance lobbyist says it all.

So, it’s essentially now a PR operation to get him reelected. But I don’t think people are that dumb. I’ve been speaking to some of his, you know, partisan supporters, and they’re disappointed. So the big problem for Obama is that if you do nothing and promise that you would bring about some changes, you will not have people coming out to vote for you again. And building up the tea party into this great bogey isn’t going to work. It’s your own supporters you have to convince to come out and vote for you, as they did before. I can’t see that happening.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Democrats in Denial

Here. See Gary Younge at 4:32. Interestingly, all of the criticisms he makes of the Democrats are immediately interpreted as arguments for the Republicans. I think denial is a rather accurate way of describing how the Democrat-apologists respond here.

One of the biggest whoppers had to be that the candidates facing off in Colorado had "extremely different philosophies". Sure. One believes in cutting taxes for the rich by 25% and other believes in 50%. Or one believes in closing 100 schools and the other believes in closing 300. That evinces a great deal more agreement and consensus on key points than most Democrat-apologists seem to grasp. When you just stop and think about what's really important on the one hand, and what the two major parties stand for on the other, you realize that the gap between you and the two parties is far larger than the gap between them.

Let's just add up the best arguments that the Democrat-apologists put forward in the piece:

-It's all the Republicans fault because they stone-walled Obama, they're the "party of no", etc.
-"Progress takes time"
-The Republicans are even worse
-Everything bad about legislation passed in the last 2 years is fault of Republicans

These claims don't even have surface-level plausibility. We all know that in 2008 the Democrats had a popular new president, a super-majority in 2008, and crushing majorities in the House. Moreover they faced a divided, demoralized, and marginalized Republican opposition. If the Democrats didn't seize the initiative and pass sweeping reforms, it's because they had no intention of doing so (confirming the basic conservatism of the Party) or because they were not competent enough to get things done (less likely, but still a criticism not to be deflected onto the Republicans).

Obama enthusiastically expanded the war in Afghanistan, thus inheriting and further entrenching us in Bush's war-mongering in the Middle East. And one of his first actions as President was to embrace Bush/Paulson's plan to bailout the banks. When health care finally came up for discussion, the President was so intent on pleasing corporate "stakeholders" that he shut single-payer activists out of meetings, and dashed hopes for the (already weaksauce) "Public Option" early in the game. Obama's education plan is more conservative, and a good deal worse, than Bush's No Child Left Behind. And deportations and raids on immigrants have increased substantially under Obama.

The Republicans had very little role in any of this. This is more or less pure Democrat. It's not for nothing that Kevin Phillips calls them "America's second most enthusiastic capitalist party".

The other argument, that "progress takes time", might be translated into: sit down, shut up, and let the elected officials "do what they do". In other words we might translate it as "stop trying to hold elected officials accountable". Imagine someone telling civil rights activists to stop with the civil disobedience: "hey, relax, progress takes time! just vote Democrat!". Complete bullshit.

Why is it that so many people have bought into the lie that politics is merely about is stopping the worst of the worst from taking office? Isn't it reasonable to expect that in a real democracy, the needs and interests of the vast majority would be registered by basic political institutions? Is that really too much to ask? When I am coerced into checking the "D" or the "R", I'm not expressing my needs or interests. I'm caving in to one or other of two factions of one business party. Separated from others, alone in that ballot box, I'm powerless. But when working people, the vast majority of society, get together and organize there is no way to stop change from moving forward. Real freedom and political agency wouldn't be about effectively lobbying some elite to let some crumbs fall from the table... real freedom and political agency would be about the people themselves collectively running society in their own interests.


Krugman on Austerity

Here. I generally agree with his rejection of deficit-hawking and the fetishization of "balanced budgets". But the first paragraph assumes a premise which is seriously problematic:

In the spring of 2010, fiscal austerity became fashionable. I use the term advisedly: the sudden consensus among Very Serious People that everyone must balance budgets now now now wasn’t based on any kind of careful analysis.
The tacit premise is that balancing the budget "now now now" is something only achieved by way of austerity. That is quite obviously false. The Bush tax cuts for the rich have cost public coffers over $3 Trillion over 8 years. That sum alone would wipe out the deficit. And other sorts of taxes on the assets of the super-rich could easily enable public services to increase their operations at a time when more and more people need them. Of course, keeping this premise implicit, rather than explicit, is a key part of how budget-cut fatalism functions as an ideology.

Krugman has (correctly) suggested elsewhere that "chopping from the top" is the way to go. Here he just seems to be suggesting that more deficit spending is what's needed. I'm not ruling out that he wouldn't agree that we should still "chop from the top". But I think it is worth pointing out that the contents of this most recent article seem to omit the possibility of taxing the rich to forestall cuts.

As he himself points out in the article, the official way that the cuts are sold to the public is precisely as I described in recent posts about budget-cut fatalism: the Tories are simply saying "there is no alternative". And to make that sell, one needs to assume that the most obvious alternative, taxing the rich, is not even a logical possibility.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Obama's Jobs Plan



Thursday, October 21, 2010

different context, but still relevant

This is aimed at a very different situation from the one we have here, to be sure. But just about everything that is said about the Lib Dems in that post could very well be said about the Democrats in the US. And it needs to be said, especially now that we're in the midst of the "shut up and give us the votes" season in which the hapless Dems use the carrot and the stick to corral their "base".

The message is particularly important for those who still find themselves under the illusion that the Democrats are "progressive" in any meaningful sense. I think "the most craven power-licking integrity-less liars" in government, describes rather accurately what the Democrats are about.

When the Republicans slash and burn our public sector, we're supposed to get angry and send checks to But when the Democrats do it, we're supposed to smile and..... send checks to

Something is awry in this strange positive feedback loop. It needs to be broken. Because it's us or them: either the rich and powerful are going to balance the budget on our backs, or we're going to have to find a way to create the kind of pressure that wins the change the vast majority of us are looking for.


Monday, October 18, 2010

The Eruption of Struggle in France

Here. And also here. And here.


"Scientific" Racism 2.0

While the eugenics morons doing "evolutionary" psychology are busy finding ways to explain away social injustice with pseudo-arguments about genetic determination of social hierarchies... the ostensibly more progressive (and, typically, more empirically sound) discipline of sociology is seeing a resurgence of racist "culture of poverty" ideas.

Switching gears to more respectable sociological research programs, I don't happen to think that the sociology of knowledge is complete. That is, I don't think it is able to give a full account of it's own conditions of possibility, or of the extent to which it also produces knowledge of the social determinants of what's already recognized as knowledge, etc. But it's pretty damned useful for politics, and the above is a case in point. That is, we should be asking the following sorts of questions about the "culture of poverty" ideology: whose interests are served by it? What is the functional role of this ideology in maintaining and stabilizing existing hierarchies and inequalities? In what institutional and political context did this ideology develop? What political or historical shifts are to explain its decline and subsequent reemergence?

There is no place for the disinterested, neutral gaze of natural science in the discussion of the "culture of poverty" ideas. They've been refuted several times over. Their genetic properties, so to speak, (i.e. their lineage, where they emerged from historically) are damning, as the article above makes clear. So to present these ideas as possible contenders among other neutral ways of making sense of deep social inequalities is already to do something ethically and politically suspect.

The fact is that in the face of the continuing oppression of non-white peoples, the idea of a "culture of poverty" is a convenient way of blaming the victims and tabling demands for justice. It says, in effect, that there is no racism, no oppression, no unequal relations of power, no historic injustice: only "pathological" groups who have a faulty culture, who need to "pull their pants up" and "act white". That's got to be music to the ears of conservative, white suburbanites. But any critical program would take that fact as grounds to reject the ideology entirely.


More on Obama's Legislative (Non) Accomplishments

Check this out. As Henwood points out, the already tepid public option was more or less taken off the table because the "stakeholders" (i.e. the for-profit insurance industry, hospital industry, etc.) were virulently opposed to it.

So when you hear liberal apologists for Obama asking that you forget recent events and join in endorsing empty propaganda about how successful Obama's presidency has been for progressives, recall who was calling the shots when health "reform" was being decided. Recall that nothing substantial changed at all, and that the "weak sauce" Public Option was proscribed because Obama cares more about placating powerful capitalists than about the well-being of the American people. And we should be clear not to place all of the blame on him as a person, of course: the entire Washington political system, and especially the Democratic Party, represent Wall Street, not the majority.


Friday, October 15, 2010

NYTimes to teachers: subordinate yourselves to the "Historic Wave of Change"

I quote:

She has acted out of a fear that teachers’ unions could end up on the wrong side of a historic and inevitable wave of change.
Here's more:
“She has shrewdly recognized that teachers’ unions need to be part of the reform,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, an education research group.

Christopher Cerf, a former deputy schools chancellor in New York City who has sparred with Ms. Weingarten, offered a similar, if more skeptical interpretation.

“The earth moved in a really dramatic way,” he said, “to the point that a very successful strategist like Randi has to know that teacher unionism itself is in jeopardy, perhaps even in mortal jeopardy.”
So here's the argument of this atrocious article:
  1. The only way to change or reform schools is to privatize them, bust unions and blame teachers for the social ills of our society.
  2. Since teachers' unions disagree, with 1. they must be mercilessly crushed as "opponents of change".
  3. While you might have thought that the leader of the country's largest teachers' union would disagree with 1. and 2. , in fact she is a "reformer" and appears to be at least minimally rational and "shrewd" enough to recognize that she must keep in step with the blinding light emitted by the "historic waves of change" being pushed through by the likes of "CEO" Arne Duncan.
This is complete bullshit. And the language it uses to make the point is completely batshit insane: "historic and inevitable wave of change"... "movement of the earth"? What's with all of this cosmic imagery? It's almost as though the NYTimes would have us think that the forces scapegoating teachers, smashing public education, and bleeding our schools dry are inevitable forces of nature. Fucking crazy.

As with everything we read in the NYTimes, we need to place all of this bullshit in context. There is a broad attack on public sector employees across the board right now. The attack proceeds by blaming them and making them pay for a crisis that was caused by Corporate America (who, we must recognize, are precisely the folks that are so thrilled about the idea of charter schools, privatized education, "market based" education policy, etc.). The attack on teachers, and thus on one of the most visible and organized public-sector unions, is part of a broader attempt to force austerity on working people in order to make them pay for the crisis. This is just one of the contextual factors left out.

Another is that we've had a neoliberal, market-based education policy has been in place for some time now. As many have pointed out, the Obama administration's education policies have been not only continuous with Bush's NCLB, but, in fact, more stridently Right-wing and anti-union (precisely because the Obama administration has more leeway since progressive groups (wrongly) assume that this administration is less likely to the same things as the Bush administration).

The ideas were cooked up by people who know nothing about education. And the ideas emerge in the context of a global doctrine and political practice, neoliberalism, which holds that we must extend the logic of financial markets to all facets of life. The privatization of education, or more precisely, the corporatization of education, by means of charters is thus part of a larger trend that includes deregulation, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, union-busting, privatization, destruction of the welfare state, etc. In other words this is all part of the infamous package known as "structural adjustment". As David Harvey has pointed out, that is more or less what the US is undergoing right now (minus the IMF).

What is called "reform" these days in education discourse is, in fact, anything but. It is reactionary. It is part of the destruction of the institution of public education. And if we were taught history in this country at all, we'd know that free public education was something for which we had to fight tooth and nail to win. The powers that be didn't grant it willingly. And when they're holding all of the cards, as they appear to be right now, we shouldn't expect that they'd do anything other than attack it.


Against Budget-Cut Fatalism

One of the most damaging and conservative ideologies in circulation right now is what we might call "budget-cut fatalism". The basic (overlapping) propositions that constitute this ideology are as follows:

  • We are in a severe recession right now and sacrifices must be made.
  • Either we cut services or the government goes further into the red.
  • Although we'd like expanded services (who wouldn't?), it's unrealistic to hope for any expansion in social spending right now.
  • Since the deficit is a major problem, perhaps the most pressing problem (for reasons connected to nationalist anxieties about losing super-power status), we should focus all our energies in reducing the deficit and getting the government out of the red.
  • We must cut social services, the only question is which ones and how deep the cuts should be.
Importantly, there are a couple of tacit premises at work here, for example:
  • Since the government is in the red, the only feasible fix is to cut social spending.
  • Tax increases (on the rich) simply aren't an option.
  • The only budget-related variables we have the ability to change include things like public worker's wages and pensions, funding for schools and infrastructure, etc. Military spending, the amount of wealth appropriated by the rich, etc. all remain fixed variables in our calculations. The only "moving parts" on the table here are worker's living standards, social services, etc. The rest is fixed.
Now there are plenty false claims in the first set of propositions discussed above, but there are also many true ones as well. Ideologies are never entirely false: they often draw on plausible claims which they then distort in various ways to license political conclusions friendly to the status quo. For example, it is true that we are in a recession and sacrifices must be made. But who is to shoulder the sacrifices? And what kind of sacrifices are to be made?

This is where the ideology begins to court incoherence. Let us leave aside for the moment the patent absurdity of exempting military spending, corporate welfare, etc. from the picture. It assumed above that expanded social spending (e.g. constructing new rail systems, renovating public transit infrastructure, expanding education spending, building new hospitals, etc.) would, other things being equal, be a good thing. But yet it is concluded that our only course of action is to make cuts, the only questions being where and how deep (hence the fatalism).

This conclusion is hardly forced. It only appears natural when we accept the set of tacit premises I note above.

Here's an alternative way of thinking about the present situation that makes clear just how tendentious and conservative the ideology under examination here really is. And before discuss alternatives, let me note in passing that this budget-cut ideology is by no means confined to the followers of the Republican Party. As I've noted on this blog many times, it is every bit as much a part of the ruling doctrines in the Democratic Party as it is in the GOP. The most insidious part about this ideology is that it convinces even those progressive-minded people committed to expanded social spending that such demands are impossible right now. That is, it convinces people who want change that they are wrong to ask for it, and that they should gladly accept the austerity measures being forced upon them.

Here's the alternative story, and I'll try to keep it as accessible and succinct as possible:

Our society produces far more than it needs to reproduce every individual over time. That is, our society produces a great deal more goods, services, etc. than it needs to be maintained at subsistence. Call that the social surplus.

Now the social surplus, in order to be produced, requires the involvement of the great majority of persons in our society. Without a massive, coordinated system of labor, this surplus would not be generated. Though the rich like to pretend they're responsible for all the wealth in this society, they know as well as anyone else that if every working person simply sat down and stopped working this entire system would grind to a halt.

Yet, though the surplus is socially produced, ownership and control of the surplus is private and anti-social. A small class is in a position to appropriate the lion's share of the surplus, whereas most are not in a position to do so.

Now, a modest portion of the surplus is taxed and this is what enables the government to spend. But note that this modest chunk still leaves most of the surplus produced in our society in the hands of a rather small class of persons. We're talking about massive sums of money here. In the UK, the top 10% own nearly half the national private wealth - that's four thousand billion dollars. It's even more concentrated at the top in the US. The Bush tax-cuts have cost $2.74 Trillion dollars over 8 years. That means if tax rates for the rich had remained at the level they'd been during the Clinton years, the Federal Government would have nearly $3 Trillion more than it has at present.

So how is it that budget cuts are inevitable? Why is it that the only things up for negotiation are worker's pensions, wages, and jobs? Why do we have to cut anything at all?

The answer is that we don't. So why are discussions about the crisis dominated by budget cut fatalism? Why are ordinary people being forced to shoulder the entire crisis? Because ordinary people have no voice in our political system. The needs, wants, and desires of the vast majority simply do not register.

To be sure, we have the freedom to choose between two factions of one pro-business party, but if neither of those organizations represents our needs, what can we do? In the electoral arena there isn't much we can do at all. But that doesn't mean we can't fight back. On the contrary, fighting back only has any real content today if it means extra-electoral struggle and organization.

Both of the major parties represent the interests of the most powerful class in our society. Corporate donors flood both parties with funds every election cycle; they've been hedging their bets for a long time, this isn't new. They're trying to make us pay dearly for a crisis we weren't even allowed to have the opportunity to cause. We're barred from having a say in how the commanding heights of the economy are run, and we're frequently told that ordinary people are just too stupid to be able to run society themselves. But though the "best and the brightest" brought the entire world economy to its knees in their chaotic pursuit of short-term profits, we are being saddled with the entire cost of the crisis.

They make the mess, and we are told we have to clean it up.

And to add insult to injury, these fabulously intelligent and motivated individuals, these "fountainheads" of entrepreneurial greatness and ingenuity, are only still around because they received trillions of dollars in bailouts. In fact, the bailouts are best thought of as a transfer of toxic assets and debt from the private financial sector to the state. And as picking up the tab for global crisis, unending war and occupation, and ongoing tax-breaks for the rich weren't enough, the vast majority is asked to suffer in order to pay for the financial sector's massive credit card bill (i.e. TARP).

This is a clear case of us against them. Either we are going to be forced into austerity, living standard cuts, school closings, bridge collapses, etc. Or the rich are going to pay for the mess they created. We know whose side the entire political system is on. The only question is what ordinary people are going to to do fight it.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Political Function of Strawpersons

"One of the ways in which societies avoid the reality of dissidence and revolt is by encouraging imitations of rebellion. The licensed rebel is encouraged to huff and puff a great deal, both satisfying himself and annoying the less discerning defenders of the status quo. But the more intelligent conservatives know very well that the provision of straw men to be attacked is a useful device to divert attention from the more important social targets." -A. MacIntyre, from "The Straw Man of the Age" (1959)


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The King and the CEO

There is an interesting post about the new "Sun King" of education policy in the UK over at Lenin's Tomb.

The US analogue, no doubt, is Arne Duncan, who dubbed himself the "CEO" of Public Schools when he was in Chicago. And his pedigree as CEO is no doubt also based on his expertise in union-busting, cost-cutting, scapegoating and blaming teachers for social ills, etc.

This no doubt explains his embrace of "shock doctrine" neoliberalism when he said of Katrina that it was "the best thing ever to happen to the New Orleans school system".

The "Sun King" in the post above cut his teeth as a big wig in BP. He has no specialized knowledge or experience relevant to education whatsoever. And Arne Duncan, of course, lords over our entire public education system, although he has never spent a day in his life in a public school as a student.


Monday, October 11, 2010

MacIntyre on Hegel and Marx

"Hegel without Marx is unrealistic, and in the end obscurantist. Marx without Hegel would have been rigid, mechanical, inhuman." - from "The Algebra of Revolution" (1958)


Hands off our medicare!



Socialist approaches to the recession

Infrastructure is crumbling all over the country, states are slashing education budgets, public workers are being scapegoated, forced into accepting pay cuts, or being laid off. Working people, all across the board, are being forced to shoulder the consequences of a crisis that they had no hand in creating. Unemployment is very high across the board and show no signs of improving in the immediate future.

Yet, in the midst of the worst crisis since the Great Depression, ours is still an extremely rich society. Our society has the surplus capital and resources necessary to wipe out all of the unmet human needs, gaping holes in municipal and state budgets, etc. Yet the economy is discussed as if it were bad weather, that is, something we could not actively change or alter, which we can merely plan to shield ourselves from (if we're lucky enough to have shelter) when the time comes. Yet the economy is nothing other than a massive accumulation of human actions over time, in the form of coordinated actions, institutions, laws, etc. But how can something created by human beings be so completely out of our control? What's to explain the irrational warpath of capitalist recessions and crises?

Within a Marxist framework, the root problem here is this: capitalism is inherently crisis prone, and during periods of recession massive gluts of capital are hoarded by capitalists since there are no profitable places to invest it. Marxists call this the problem of over-production or over-accumulation.

Why are there so few profitable places to invest in recessions? Part of it has to do with long term problems of capitalism, which we can set to one side here. But at least one reason why profitable investments are not forthcoming now is that effective demand is lacking. In short: because so many people are being laid off, evicted, foreclosed upon, forced to accept furloughs and pay cuts, a large percentage of the population is not in a position to consume in such a way that the commodities capitalist firms sell can be purchased. Most people are short on cash to spend right now, and are cutting back on their level of consumption accordingly. Think of the massive glut of houses and condominiums on the market right now with no potential buyer in sight.

Worse still, if the set of profitable investments is drying up because effective demand is shrinking, many capitalist firms are likely to downsize and operate well below capacity, which, in turn, leads to a further erosion of effective demand. It's not difficult to see that these are mutually reinforcing problems.

It is a peculiar thing about capitalism that it makes it appear rational for individual capitalists to fire workers right now. From their own narrow short-term perspective, it is indeed rational for capitalists to slash the rolls, and cut wages and jobs, although it is completely irrational for all capitalists to do this at a system-wide level all at once. That is, the cumulative result of their individually "rational" decisions to cut jobs cause society's unemployment level to rise considerably, and, hence, effective demand is further eviscerated. And, as we've seen above, further eviscerating working people's living standards means further reinforcing this whole sorry state of affairs in which capitalists find it "rational" to layoff more workers. So, even from their own narrow, exploitative perspective, what's going on right now is eroding the conditions for capitalists to be in a position to reap profits in the future.

If this irrationality isn't a reason to reject capitalism, I don't know what is. Why is it that the functioning of our entire economy is conditional upon a small class of investors making handsome profits for themselves? Why are all of us (and all of our jobs, social institutions, etc.) held hostage by this small class?

Take a step back and think about the big picture here. We have massive amounts of capital on the one hand, and massive amounts of willing human labor on the other. What good reason could be given to keep them separated apart from one another amidst a world of human need? And who is keeping them separated?

The answer to that last question is easy: capitalists. In a capitalist economy, capitalists determine where and whether to invest capital, and whether to employ labor.

So why aren't capitalists employing labor and investing capital in order to meet the massive amount of unmet human needs created by this crisis? Their answer to this question is also easily deduced: capitalists won't combine their capital with labor unless it means they can earn a rate of profit cushy enough to meet their requirements. We forget at our own peril that there is only one thing that motivates capitalists to invest: profit.

For these rational misers, the extent of social misery, poverty, want, suffering, etc. visited upon large swaths of the population just doesn't matter, unless, that is, it negatively impacts their profit rates. If using our society's productive capacity to end misery and suffering is not profitable for the small class of people who own and control our economy, it simply doesn't get done. If changing the conditions people in impoverished ghettos isn't a profitable activity, it doesn't happen. If medically insuring chronically ill people isn't profitable, which it isn't, capitalists won't insure it.

If you find this repulsive, you're not alone. The socialist intuition here is that this system represents an irrational, unjust and therefore indefensible state of affairs.

Everyone, even sober apologists for capitalism, will agree that poverty, vast inequality and want are not objectively necessary in a society as technologically advanced and productive as ours (though suffering, poverty, and vast inequality may have been objectively unavoidable in, say, the Bronze Age). The socialist thought is that if vast inequality and social misery aren't objectively necessary, why are they still a central feature of contemporary societies?

Contra defenders of capitalism, socialists think that the productive forces of society should be made to work for goals worthier than profits for the few. The socialist claim is that our society's technological and productive capacity should be mobilized to meet human needs and to cultivate the conditions in which people can live free and flourishing lives.

What this makes clear is that the problem of capitalism, among other things, is a problem of profoundly misplaced priorities. Rather than subordinating all human beings to the demands of profit, as is the case in capitalist societies, socialists think that economic institutions should be subordinated to human beings. Is it really a radical idea to think that the basic function of social institution should be to maximize human freedom and well-being, rather than enriching a small few at the expense of the many? If everyone were in a position to freely choose either option, I find it difficult to believe that the majority would opt for a society in which they were exploited by a small gilded elite.


Is Social Spending Out of Control in Washington?

Of course not. It has always been fashionable for those on the Right to complain hysterically of "out of control spending", which translates roughly to "we must slash and burn all public entities with the exception of the Pentagon". But this hysterical line has been particularly popular in recent weeks.

Paul Krugman does an excellent job of exploding this bone-headed myth:

Here’s what you need to know...There never was a big expansion of government spending. In fact, that has been the key problem with economic policy in the Obama years: we never had the kind of fiscal expansion that might have created the millions of jobs we need.

Ask yourself: What major new federal programs have started up since Mr. Obama took office? Health care reform, for the most part, hasn’t kicked in yet, so that can’t be it. So are there giant infrastructure projects under way? No. Are there huge new benefits for low-income workers or the poor? No. Where’s all that spending we keep hearing about? It never happened.
It's obvious that he's correct, though this obvious fact is obscured by all of the hysterical deficit-hawking that we get from Republicans and Democrats alike.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

"Rahm the Reformer"

The first sentence of an article about Rahm's run for Mayor in the Chicago News Cooperative:

"Rahm Emanuel, who boasts tight relationships with President Obama and Mayor Richard M. Daley, could credibly portray himself as the mayoral candidate most able to continue Mr. Daley’s legacy of avoiding legislative gridlock and getting things done."
"Avoid legislative gridlock" and "get things done", huh? That's certainly one way to put it. Another would be that Daley used an elaborate patronage system to circumvent democracy in order to enrich himself, his friends, and corporate elites to the extent that these are distinct groups.

And what's not to like about the things that Daley "got done"? How about the "hundreds and hundreds of millions of property tax dollars intended for the poor that he showers on the rich (yes, I'm talking about tax increment financing again). And [how about] the way he's fired teachers while giving raises to central office bureaucrats and farmed out charter school contracts to acolytes like the United Neighborhood Organization. [Or how about] how he bleeds the police department through attrition while telling us he's adding more cops to the force." (for more on this see the Ben Joravsky's "Me and My Mayor" here).

Or, how about Daley's obsession with privatizing public assets by selling them off to rich friends at criminally low prices? How about how he used his clout to force through midnight deal to privatize all of Chicago's parking meters, costing the city billions? How about his fight for a multi-billion dollar, taxpayer-funded throw-away party (i.e. the Olympics) amidst infrastructure, schools, and municipal institutions in dire need of adequate funding? Or, how about his way of "getting things done" as Cook County State Attorney? During his tenure in that position, the Jon Burge torture scandal went down, where (aside from the fact that people were tortured) hundreds of (mostly black and brown) Chicagoans were sent to prison (or Death Row) for crimes they didn't commit, for which there was no incriminating evidence. Is that "getting things done" as well?

This CNC article is complete drivel. It is a view from the top. But it's not just a view from the top -it's a view from the top that purports to be something else, i.e. a universal, common view appropriate for the mass of Chicagoans. But the view from the bottom looking up is much different. It doesn't have to do so much with the P.R. tactics of moneyed politicians or the back-and-forth between various Aldermen and other rip-off artists associated with the Machine. Such trivial blathering among elites is of little consequence to the vast majority of us. Yet, this is constantly held up in front of us as though this was the be-all-end-all of politics. We are encouraged to think that such blather is important, worthy of being studied and internalized by any person "up" on recent events.

But what falls out of this picture is the massive gap between the interests of ordinary people and the conservatism of our political institutions. Instead, ossified political institutions, such as they are at present, appear as a neutral backdrop to reality itself. Something so complicit and unreflective should not be able to pass for journalism.


Is the door locked?

More Geuss (same article):

"If I have a certain belief, this can constrict the space of possible actions I can envisage myself as performing. If I believe I am locked in a room, this belief can be construed as a limitation on how I can (reasonably try to) act. I think I know that I cannot simply turn the handle and exit in the usual way. I may, of course, not have full confidence in my belief and try the door handle to see if it is really locked, but that is another issue. It is not that I cannot "imagine" that the door is open, even if it is locked, or cannot imagine that I am powerful enough to break the lock and bolt simply by "effortlessly" turning the handle and pushing, although I am not actually strong enough to do that. Of course, I can "imagine" all these things, but this is a kind of idle counterfactual speculation rather than the concrete imaginative planning out of a realistic course of action before I embark on it. If my belief that the door is locked is true, and if I have adequate grounds for believing it to be true, then there can be no serious internal objection to the limitation it imposes on me- in fact that limitation could be seen as a liberation, as freeing me from pointless exertion which is doomed to failure".
"Thus, people who grow up in a commercial society are likely to think that a tendency to "truck and barter" is natural and inherent in all humans, not something acquired only by people in a society with certain socioeconoimc institutions and a certain history. To say that a tendency to "truck and barter" is natural and inherent is to do more than merely to announce the result of a sequence of observations; it is tacitly to accept it as part of the unquestioned framework for thinking about society."
"Anything that reduces the knowledge [people] have of their own power to structure their social world in a different way, to change what exists, contributes to their oppression".


Revolution and Reform

Here's Raymond Geuss (from his generally excellent "Dialectics and the Revolutionary Impulse" from the Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory) on the distinction:

"First, reform is distinguished from revolution in that a reform is construed as a change in relatively superficial rather than very basic structural features of society. Second, a reform is thought to be a process of gradual transformation in contrast to abrupt revolutionary change. Finally, a reform is a transformation carried out by mobilization of forces not merely endogenous to the given political system, but recognized by it, that is, with an acknowledged place in it, whereas a revolution often, or even usually, depends on the action of forces that are in some sense not recognized as legitimate."


John Lennon interview with Tarqi Ali and Robin Blackburn (1971)



John Lennon: I've always been politically minded, you know, and against the status quo. It's pretty basic when you're brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army as something that takes everybody away and leaves them dead somewhere.

I mean, it's just a basic working class thing, though it begins to wear off when you get older, get a family and get swallowed up in the system.


Saturday, October 9, 2010


Watch socialist filmmaker Ken Loach lay waste to Lord Heseltine.

What's interesting is that all of the conservative arguments that Lord Heseltine puts forward are basically the bread and butter of the Democrat playbook in this country. How long will progressives allow themselves to be shackled to an organization that endorses and perpetuates this rubbish?

Here's a quote from Loach:

“The top 10% own nearly half the national private wealth - four thousand billion. A five percent charge on that, tax on that, would wipe out the debt, so let the richest, the ones who have benefited from this bonanza, from the banks’ failure, let them pay. Why not? That’s fair. The rich should pay, shouldn’t they?”


Thursday, October 7, 2010

White fear of blackness on trains

The NYTimes had an interesting, if brief, commentary piece on a phenomenon I've observed many times riding trains, subways, and buses all over the city of Chicago: white people tend, on average, to have an aversion to sitting next to black men.

I've pointed this out and thought about this many times on the CTA in Chicago. I can't even count the number of times I've clawed my way into a jam-packed subway car at rush hour, only to find an empty seat (or two, or three) where a young, black man is sitting. Amazed to have found a seat on a packed train, I sit down. And like the author of the article I do actually appreciate the free seat on crowded trains, since, as I say, I tend to eagerly snatch up the free space to sit down where many riders, strangely, fear to tread. But though there is a small, individual-level silver lining, we need to be clear here that the context is an oppressive one. This phenomenon is due to racism.

When I say this is due to racism, note that I'm not insinuating that every single white rider consciously decides that they just hate the black person on the train and therefore avoid sitting next to them. Notice that I'm not calling all these fearful white passengers "bad, mean people", though it is no doubt true that at least some of them are. No, instead, I'm describing an oppressive set of social norms, practices, and forms of consciousness in our society which devalue and subordinate blackness (note that I do think that racism has an institutional and material element as well, but it's not as prominent or directly relevant in this case).

As the political philosopher Tommie Shelby has pointed out, racist ideology shifts throughout history. As he puts it, "in the present phase of capitalist development, blacks are often viewed as parasitic, angry, ungrateful, and dangerous" (whereas they'd been characterized as "docile, superstitious, easily satisfied, and servile" under the conditions of plantation slavery). This seems to me accurate. But I would add to this description of the newer forms of racist ideology the contributions made by the "culture of poverty" non-sense that has wide informal currency among white folk, and which is also still passed off as scientific in some sociology departments. At any rate, this cluster of ideology no doubt underpins the aversion and anxiety white people have in sitting next to a black man on a train. Rather than seeing black passengers as fellow city-dwellers getting from A to B... black passengers, and black men in particular, are treated like pariahs. We should be part of dismantling this phenomenon, and calling it for what it is.


Soaring profits made possible by austerity for working people

U.S. companies are rebounding quickly from the recession and posting near-historic profits, the result of aggressively re-tooling their operations to cope with lower revenue and an uncertain outlook.

An analysis by The Wall Street Journal found that companies in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index posted second-quarter profits of $189 billion, up 38% from a year earlier and their sixth-highest quarterly total ever, without adjustment for inflation.

Read the WSJ article here.

The long and short of it is this: the U.S. ruling class is eeking out near-record levels of profit amidst the worst recession since the Great Depression. As unemployment soars, social misery increases, and savage cuts are made to vital social institutions like education... the capitalist class is finding ways to make record profits.

These two phenomena are not unrelated. The list of blows to working people above are the condition of possibility of this corporate bonanza. That is, the surplus appropriated by corporate elites in the form of profit, amidst a global recession when profits are generally low, is coming from downward pressure on wages, cuts to benefits, layoffs, austerity, and so on. In other words, the "aggressive re-tooling" (i.e. the punishing blows to working people discussed above) is the cause of the bonanza.

In the Marxist tradition, there is a word for this process: exploitation. And more exploitation means higher profits. A just society would be one in which this process ceased to be the basis on which production is founded. A just society would be one in which the vast social surplus was mobilized to maximize human potential, rather than to enrich a small class of elites.


"White House Squelched Release of BP Oil Spill Estimates"

"WASHINGTON - Government scientists wanted to tell Americans early on how bad the BP oil spill could get, but the White House denied their request to make the worst-case models public, a report by the staff of the national panel investigating the spill said Wednesday."
Read the article here.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Free" Market Fire Protection Services

Here. Didn't someone once write something about how capitalism tends to erode the relations between human beings to the point at which there is no bond between them other than cold cash payment?


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"How pervasive is Democratic dissatisfaction?"

Read Glenn Greenwald's generally excellent post here.

Can there be any doubt that the Democratic Party's apologists think that Democrat power is a good thing in itself? That is, these hacks don't claim that Democrats in power means we get good consequences (progressive legislation, etc.). They just baldly suggest that there is some self-justifying sense in which Democrat majorities are good for their own sake.

Since Obama has taken office, the only thing he and his fellow Democrats have insisted on is lowering expectations, extinguishing demands from their supporters, and generally pushing for a conservative acceptance of the status quo. The results of the Democrat's conservatism are clear to everyone: continually rising unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, social misery, massive losses of wealth due to foreclosures, skyrocketing evictions, etc. The Republicans are irrelevant here: the Democrats, with massive majorities and control of all levels of government, failed to do anything that might actually address these problems. Would the Republicans have done better? Of course not. But that's irrelevant. The question is whether we should continue to accept such tepid, conservative policies from what we're continually told is the "only choice" for those of a Left persuasion.

Throughout the first two years, Obama has bowed before power, before Wall Street. He's kissed the asses of the elite, he's even done a fair amount of "reaching out" to the Republicans.

But for the masses of people who really wanted to see change, who voted enthusiastically for Obama and the Democrats in 2008, the man has nothing but disdain.

Although there are objective, concrete reasons why people are rightfully disaffected and frustrated that Democrat super-majorities have produced more of the same old garbage... the strategy from the White House seems to be: attack ordinary Americans who want real change. The message is clear: "buck up, fall into line, shut up, and just vote for us."

This is complete bullshit. You can't shit all over progressive and left-wing people, court the Right and big-business with smiles, and then expect that a bit of rhetoric months before election day should be enough to "mobilize" the so-called "lethargic base".

The sad truth, which Democrat officials are never likely to grasp, is that the last two years of Democratic hegemony have made crystal clear that the American people don't have a real choice in our electoral system. They are made to choose between two factions of one pro-business party every two years. And no amount of sugar-coating, sophistry, or patronizing rebuke from Democrat apologists can obscure that fact.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bernstein's Hegelian Argument for Regulation Misses Mark

Setting aside the absurd framing of the TARP bailout scheme at the beginning of the article (i.e. either bailout or do nothing), there are interesting things to say about the Hegelian argument J.M. Bernstein examines in his recent NYTimes article for "The Stone".

But first, let me say why the framing of the issue at the beginning of the article misses the mark. It insinuates that we had only two choices: a) undertake some kind of bailout scheme or other, or b) do nothing and let the "market take care of itself". This is absurd: it rules out so many other things we might have done at the time, especially nationalization. Many commentators, not all of whom were on the Left, considered the possibility of nationalizing some of the banks. Even Bush was entertaining the idea. One of the most emailed NYTimes articles at the time was this. This isn't a far-Left idea, though I wish more of those were on the table. Paul Krugman's proposal was for short-term nationalization, which is a pretty standard procedure in Western Europe. The idea is simple: if the public is going to bailout a bank that has driven itself in the ground, the people who drove it into the ground should be shown the door and the company should be placed under public control (this includes the company's assets). And at some point the company may be re-soled to capitalists and the public coffers see a net gain as a result of this transaction. Yet in the US, our ruling class likes to pretend that we have the distinction of "maintaining private ownership" in cases like this, so such options weren't pursued.

So, setting aside the manifest stupidity of the "do nothing and let markets work their magic" option, there were plenty of non-bailout options on the table that are blotted out of the analysis in this article. Yet, despite all of the other options, Berstein's whole piece is about whether the bailout was good qua bailout (and I agree, that even qua bailout it was a fucking lemon).

This leads us into our first objection to the bit about Hegel. I like very much Bernstein's rather clear and succinct summary of some of Hegel's arguments in the Phenomenology. But his application of these ideas here seems imprecise.

Take Bernstein's own summation of one of Hegel's arguments, and you'll see what I mean:

What makes the propounding of virtue illusory — just so much rhetoric — is that there is no world, no interlocking set of practices into which its actions could fit and have traction: propounding peace and love without practical or institutional engagement is delusion, not virtue. Conversely, what makes self-interested individuality effective is not its self-interested motives, but that there is an elaborate system of practices that supports, empowers, and gives enduring significance to the banker’s actions. Actions only succeed as parts of practices that can reproduce themselves over time. To will an action is to will a practical world in which actions of that kind can be satisfied — no corresponding world, no satisfaction. Hence the banker must have a world-interest as the counterpart to his self-interest or his actions would become as illusory as those of the knight of virtue. What bankers do, Hegel is urging, is satisfy a function within a complex system that gives their actions functional significance.
I endorse most all of this. And I endorse the Hegelian claims about practices, the dialectical relationship between agency and institutional structure, the sense in which actions come to have meaning only in certain institutional contexts, etc. But here's the rub: it is not clear that upshot of Hegel's arguments is that we simply need more regulation.

If the problem is the "interlocking set of practices" and institutions that constitute contemporary capitalism, then it is unclear that a modest change within those very institutions could resolve the problems Bernstein draws our attention to. It seems like the obvious inference to draw after reading the summary of Hegel here is that the basic institutional structure of capitalist societies are the problem. And if that's right, then we can't very well accept a putative solution to the problem that begins by accepting the very legitimacy of those institutions.

In fact, the idea that a couple of regulatory tweaks could solve the problems raised by the present crisis seems as delusional as the moralistic "knight of virtue", for similar reasons. The moralist is delusional precisely because she fails grasp that without institutional reconfiguration, her pleas for different practices have no possibility of being effective. But in a similar fashion Bernstein expects a couple of regulatory tweaks to do the trick, without even so much as giving a passing thought to serious institutional reconfiguration of the basic structure of contemporary capitalism. This evinces a misunderstanding of the real upshot of the Hegelian claim here: that as long as we have a set of interlocking institutions and practices that make it rational for capitalists to continue doing what they're doing, we will continue to face instability, crisis, social misery, overproduction, and system-level irrationalities.

Bernstein's argument tacitly assumes that financial regulation (helpful thought it would be as opposed to doing nothing) is all that can be done to curtail the instability of capitalism. But even Hegel, who certainly had lapses in political judgment, gave us reason to think that the deep problems of modernity could not be solved within the liberal state. This thought also emerges in Hegel's Aesthetics, where he rejects early bourgeois societies as "prosaic", non-beautiful, and alienating. Marx drew heavily on these arguments when he wrote some of his most brilliant early works, particularly "On the Jewish Question".

The argument in "On the Jewish Question" is Left-Hegelian through and through. One of the most interesting arguments is that the liberal state is a form of alienation. The argument runs as follows. Human beings are social, and we have lived for most of our history in various kinds of social formations. But in liberal capitalist societies, our social aspects are disavowed, even as they are manipulated and relied upon to make capitalist societies function (i.e. they require elaborate schemes of social cooperation and coordination). In liberal capitalist societies, we bifurcate society into two realms: public and private. We think that the public realm of the state is the realm of the social, of politics, etc. In this realm we are citizens, equal before the law, etc. But in our "private" existence, our actions take shape within the interlocking set of capitalist institutions and practices that Bernstein describes in his article. That is, in our "private" lives we are encouraged to be all the things capitalism encourages us to be: self-interested, competitive, exploitative, etc.

But it turns out, Marx argues, that although this is the way things appear in capitalism, they are really upside down in this picture. In fact, the so-called atomistic private level of our society is the level of our "real existence". The public realm, on the other hand, is the alienated form which our social nature takes in capitalism. That is to say, the State is merely an abstraction, a collective fantasy of sorts. To think that our actions only have political or social weight when acting in our capacity as citizens, in and through the institution of the state, is to radically misunderstand contemporary societies.

To carry forward this critique, Marx draws a distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation. Political emancipation refers to a catalogue of individual rights, that is, a series of legal provisions that weren't applicable to all in feudal societies. But political emancipation, Marx argued, wasn't enough. In short, political emancipation was merely emancipation on paper. Marx didn't think that we could really be emancipated as long as the basic configuration of institutions in capitalism remained as they were. Political power could not be equally distributed unless economic power was equally distributed. Thus, human emancipation meant somethings far stronger than mere political emancipation. Human emancipation means an end to the institutions and objective conditions that produce alienation. It means an end to an irrational system marred by deep internal contradictions.

If the problem is really the basic structure of social institutions in our society, as Bernstein suggests, it is unclear that regulation is the obvious remedy. I am with Marx here in thinking that the basic upshot of the Hegelian setup that Bernstein describes is that we need radical transformation of the basic structure of capitalist societies, rather than superstructural tweaking.