Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Diane Ravitch Responds to Bill Gates

Here. Ravitch is awesome. It's good that there's a voice out there in the mainstream press coming from someone who cares about the right things.

Bill Gates is an arrogant prick. The idea that he deserves to have a massive role in shaping the basic structure of education in this country, solely because he happens to have shit loads of money, is preposterous. How different is this from a powerful monarch, ruling by divine right, demanding to have a say in the way that education is structured?

It's as if he's saying: "Hey, I've got a ton of money. Listen to me and do what I say!" And, unsurprisingly, his "recommendations" are firmly in step with the right-wing views that have been coming from the business community for decades: privatize, bust unions, blame teachers, etc. etc.

People spend a lot of time learning to become teachers, studying pedagogy, working with students face-to-face. The practical know-how that teachers acquire through doing, rather than sitting in a thrown above the fray, is a billion times more valuable than the neoliberal dictates of a powerful businessman who has taken it upon himself to "fix" something that big business had a hand in destroying. The new orthodoxy is that the "brilliant" "free"-market ideas, which brought us global recession and social misery, are the magic answer to education.

Let's tax the rich and bring education under the democratic control of teachers and parents. We can decide ourselves how to best structure our own education system- we don't need unqualified dictates coming from on high. No rich wankers required, thank you.


Richard Seymour on the eruption of struggle in the UK

Here, here and here.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Does Socialism Exist in the World Today?

MORE THAN a third of Americans have a positive image of "socialism," according to recent Gallup and Rasmussen polls, but I think it's safe to say that most Americans, even those who feel socialism would make a big improvement in their lives, have only a vague idea of what socialism might look like.

As a socialist, therefore, people often ask me, "So what's your model for socialism?" And more often than not, they want to know what "socialist country" I would point to as coming the closest to embodying what I'm for.

People often find my answer to this question puzzling, at least at first. When I explain that there is no country in the world today that I would describe as socialist, it seems confusing. What about Sweden or France? What about Cuba or, before 1989, the former Soviet Union and East Germany?

Read the rest of Eric Ruder's answer to this question here.


Obama's Priorities on Display

Compare and Contrast. Add in the fact that Obama and the Dems will extend Bush's tax gifts to the ultra-rich and it becomes even more lopsided. The Democrats and Republicans are clear about which side of the class struggle they're on. What about you?

A 2% windfall tax on the massive profits raked in last quarter would obviate the need for such austerity measures. Obama-led Washington would rather push down federal workers' pay, axe medicare and allow bridges to collapse before daring to tax the criminal profits being earned by the rich in midst of widespread social misery due to the recession. What does that say about their priorities?

Just keep in mind- in less than 2 years we will be in the midst of a media frenzy over PR tactics, "enthusiasm" levels, and so forth. That is to say, we'll be in the midst of a presidential election, which, we'll be told over and over, is "the most important election of our lifetimes". Let me preempt some of that myopic, insipid inanity and ask that you keep the above "compare and contrast" clearly in view. Is choosing between a turd and a shit-sandwich the best we can do?


Don't you hate it when...

(Via Feministe) Read this, and then this. Zing! What is it with this stupid genre of quasi-confessional male whining about the "conquest" of women that has generally been confined to college newspapers, but is now breaking into such "reputable" periodicals as the Chicago Trib?


Sunday, November 28, 2010

North Korea and Confusion

I'm on a bunch of different Left-wing listservs of various sorts, so I've seen a handful of discussions/debates about the saber-rattling standoffs between North Korea and the US/South Korea. Now, I have no wish to see the provocations escalate into a full-fledged war. I don't support the US imperialism in any form, and the recent provocations of North Korea are no exception.

But I am incensed by the confusion that some on the not-so-critical Left sometimes bring to issues of this sort. I observed a couple of stand-offs on message boards where one person was simply claiming that "everything the West says about North Korea is a lie", following every criticism of North Korea with a jab at George Bush and the U.S. This is pure confusion. This is complete non-sense. Luckily, people with views of this sort are a small fringe on the Left and are dwindling in numbers with the (welcomed!) demise of the legacy of Stalinism.

No sane person could say that North Korea has anything whatsoever to do with socialism. Even the North Korean government doesn't bother to claim such things! The official state ideology is far more akin to a religious founding myth --Kim Il Sung is treated like a God. His son, Kim Jong Il is merely the "de facto" leader because, officially speaking, the "Eternal President" (his father, deceased) is still the de jure leader. I'm not making this shit up. On the face of it, North Korea has more to do with feudalism than any other kind of social formation. I would claim, with little hesitation, that it is probably the most repressive country on the whole planet. The majority of the population is held in contempt by a strata of military elites, led by a quasi-monarch who rules by "birthright".

This is all a way of saying the obvious: there is nothing Left-wing whatsoever about the regime in North Korea, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with socialism. Socialists must support struggles from below within North Korea to try to bring down their own government. The government itself, however, deserves nothing but scorn from the Left.

But, and this is the crucial point, none of this commits us to saying anything positive about U.S. imperialism. On the contrary, the only progressive stance here is to unequivocally condemn both U.S. imperialism, on the one hand, and the repressive regime in Pyongyang on the other. I don't think the U.S. military can play a progressive role anywhere on earth- so my stance on intervention or provocation of any sort is resolutely negative. But condemning U.S. imperialism doesn't commit us to giving one ounce of support to North Korea. As far as I'm concerned, the quasi-feudal North Korean government is the most repressive and controlling on the planet. As such, it deserves nothing but harsh critique from the Left. But criticizing a repressive government hardly means that you therefore support a U.S.-led bombing raid against it.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Against Idealism

It is now quite fashionable to speak of the "linguistic constitution" of politics, to speak in terms of various "discourses" and their genealogies. For some on the academic Left, it is self-evident that it's all "discourse" all the way down.

In extreme versions, the view is taken to imply that "there is nothing outside the text". One exegesis of this remark could even claim that viruses are simply discursive all the way down. The painfully obvious fact that HIV, say, can kill us regardless of what our conceptual or discursive repertoire consists in seems utterly lost on these folks.

Strangely, many of the basic theses of this new orthodoxy are structurally similar to 19th century idealism. Idealism is just the view that the world, and, hence, reality itself is the mere product of our concepts, ideas or, in the presently fashionable parlance, discourses or "signifying practices". In other words, there is a one way street and it proceeds from a set of discursive practice to the world, which is itself nothing but a collection of significations.

Perry Anderson has rightly rebuked this turn for worshiping the "megalomania of the signifier" in such a way that there cease to be extra-linguistic referents at all.

This becomes extremely problematic once we start thinking about what's wrong with the world and how to change it. If you think that discursive problems are the only problems there are, naturally you're not going to worry much about collective struggle, revolutionary demands for justice, or radical reconfiguration of basic social institutions. You're not going to have much to say about the structure of social relations, economic systems, material conditions, productive forces and technology, etc. Instead, you'll emphasize certain kinds of oppositional discursive practices that aim to unseat or disrupt other discursive practices. Perhaps you'll emphasize performances of various kinds that take up and redeploy oppressive signifying practices.

Now, I don't want to suggest that such oppositional practices are pointless or apolitical. On the contrary, I am convinced of their critical potential and I support struggle at all levels of contemporary life. But let's not kid ourselves that this is all we can do. And let's not kid ourselves that such practices have the capacity, all by themselves, to spontaneously shake the foundations of the status quo.

To be sure, idealism gets something importantly right. We wouldn't want a crude, "vulgar" materialism that simply reduced ideas, concepts, practices, etc. to the configuration of say, the productive forces, or, worse, to the biological constitution of social agents. We don't want to be stuck with positivism. If it were a choice between such reductionism and idealism, I'd take idealism any day of the week (for at least there is a recognizable human element in the idealist story, as opposed to the mechanistic determinism of reductionism).

I agree that such reductionist, positivist views miss the point, correctly identified by idealists, that we always already find ourselves in some network of intersubjectively shared meanings which forms the horizon within which we act and make sense of ourselves and the world. Marx's statement at the beginning of the Eighteenth Brumaire says as much: we make our history, to be sure, but not in conditions of our own choosing, but in conditions transmitted from the past. The traditions of past generations, he argues, weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

As Alasdair MacIntyre has put the point, "to posses a concept involves believing or being able to act in certain ways in certain circumstances, to alter concepts, whether by modifying existing concepts or by making new concepts available or by destroying old ones, is to alter behavior." That is, "if the limits of action are the limits of description, then to analyse the ideas current in a society is also to discern the limits within which action necessarily moves in that society...to identify the limits of social action in a given period is to identify the limits of descriptions current in that age". MacIntyre's view is that this is just what the Marxist critique of ideology is all about. But, and this is crucial, the Marxist view, though it gives the importance of conceptual schemes and sets of beliefs their due, does not collapse into a static idealism. How is that?

What Marxism gives us, which classic and contemporary forms of idealism do not, is a way of seeing how our conceptual repertoire is impacted by, and in turn impacts, the structural configuration of society as a whole. That is, systematic mechanisms in contemporary societies impact our conceptual "lifeworld" from "the outside". By "outside" I mean that such mechanisms aren't just another set of linguistic processes. Any approach which does not recognize this threatens to become structurally blind to the material conditions that partially constitute, and enable the reproduction of the lifeworld itself.

Succinctly put, our reproach to linguistic idealism in contemporary societies could just be: "what happened to capitalism?".

Let me drive the point home. Idealism is most implausible when looking at social change throughout history. If we're idealists, we'd have to say that even the history of conceptual change is simply "a linguistic process largely independent of political change" (see Farr (1989) in Political Innovation and Conceptual Change). As Gustav Stern put it, "the development of language largely follows its own laws". This suggests that the history of our concepts has nothing to do with political struggles, the system in which such concepts emerge, the basic structure of society, the material conditions in which social formations reproduce themselves over time, social relations, the level of the development of the productive forces, technological and mechanical capacities, the structure of the built environment, etc. etc.

Why exclude all of that from critical theory? Why think that we could use the idealist model to understand why concepts change, why people are led to innovate and create new concepts, etc.? I'm not sure. It is obviously false that we should think that structural transformations in the basic structure of societies might impact the set of concepts dominant in that society? I would have thought the negation of such a claim was obviously false, but many contemporary idealists take it as self-evident that such materialist concerns are misguided.

My guess is that such idealists, wrongly, suppose that we really are forced to choose between reductionist materialism on the one hand, and idealism on the other. In one sense, there are enough bad versions of Marxism to lend some creedence to such a mistake (e.g. Cohen's technological determinism, 2nd International determinism, Stalinist mechanistic reductionism, etc.) But the beauty of Marxism, or at least of critical, dialectical (I would say "genuine") Marxism, is that we see that such a choice is a false one. As Lukacs puts it: "Fatalism and voluntarism are only mutually contradictory to an undialectical and unhistorical mind. In the dialectical view of history they prove to be necessarily complementary opposites, intellectual reflexes clearly expressing the antagonisms of capitalists society and the intractability of its problems when conceived on its own terms".

All of this should make clear why there has been a legitimation crisis facing various idealist approaches in the wake of the global economic meltdown. What could they say about what happened? What would be their story about how to make sense of such events? Would we just track rhetoric and chains of signification? Should we simply analyze various self-standing discourses and linguistic practices? I'm not sure what it would mean to do this.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Gil Scot-Heron: New York is Killing Me

(via ColorLines):


Does Obama Want to Fight for Us?



It's the system, stupid

Dominant ideologies teach us that "personal responsibility" and individual efforts are all that shape our social and political world. All Great things, we're taught, were forged out of nothingness by Great individuals (who, it turns out, are almost always men). Accordingly, we learn American History as though it were, in the first instance, the outcome of the actions of individual Presidents. We're encouraged to admire fabulously wealthy "self-made men" at the same time that we're taught to blame only ourselves for all our hardships. These ideologies, Fredric Jameson points out, "all find their functional utility in the repression of the social and historical, and in the perpetuation of some timeless and ahistorical view of human life and social relations".

This ludicrous view is even given a "scientific" veneer in the fantasy world constructed by neoclassical economics, where we are told that the money individuals receive in market societies attaches to nothing but their marginal productive contributions. These ideas are part of the conceptual legitimation of the society we live in, and, thus, it is unsurprising that they should be ubiquitous and "obvious" to many.

Accordingly, when radicals, and Marxists in particular, criticize the capitalist class it is often assumed that the criticism is merely a moralistic condemnation of individual capitalists. For example, when those on the Left criticize, say, the dominance of multinational corporations, this criticism is often heard as an attack on "evil corporate leaders". But the Marxist complaint has never been that the individual capitalists are evil or merely in need of moral scrutiny.

The Marxist complaint isn't that the ruling class is evil. In the first instance, of course, the Marxist complaint against the ruling class consists in hostility to the fact that they are a ruling class. The Marxist complaint, therefore, is not concerned to moralistically attacking capitalists as "bad persons", it is a complaint that targets certain unequal social relations. And what grounds and structures social relations, of course, is not for any individual to decide willy nilly: human beings "make their own history, but not in conditions of their own choosing", that is, "in the social production of their life, men [sic] enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of the development of their material productive forces" (see the Eighteenth Brumaire and the 1859 Preface respectively).

Thus, the complaint isn't that we have a ruling class that is too greedy, too mean to their workers, too insensitive to human need. The complaint is that we have a ruling class at all.

But we can sharpen this further still. When Marx criticizes the actions of the ruling class, it isn't because he thinks they made incompetent or insufficiently moral decisions. It's because he thinks that the basic structure of capitalism makes it rational for those in certain institutional roles, such as the role (class) of capitalist owner, to tend to act in certain ways. Hence, in order to be a capitalist at all, given the way that economic structure of capitalist societies is set up, you have to be able to compete against other capitalists, reinvest profits in further growth, etc. In order to be a capitalist, you have to do certain things whether you like it or not, given the pressures of market competition and the way that investment is structured. To be sure, as an individual you are free to diverge from the structural pressures of the system, but only so much. The reactionary slogan that "you can't buck the market" has a slice of truth to it (the reactionary part of it being that it suggests that we can't get rid of the market itself). An excessively "friendly" capitalist might easily be pushed out of business by more ruthless and exploitative competitors.

As political theorist Alan Ryan describes it:

"Marx supposes that under capitalism, there are two sorts of oppression at work, rather than one. Capitalists oppress workers, driving them as hard as they can to extract maximum surplus value from them. But this is not because capitalists are individually brutal; they themselves are driven by their capital. The irrationality of a capitalist economy in which production is dictated by the accidents of market interaction is read by Marx as the blind tyranny of capital over its human subjects. The fact that capital is in any case only dead labor leads Marx to tremendous rhetorical flights in which he describes capital as a vampire, renewing its life-in-death by sucking the blood of living laborers...what humanity has done is create Frankenstein's monster; so far from the world submitting to human control, it has been set in motion as a blind force tyrannizing over all of us... Capital dominates all of us and turns all of us into its purposes."
Or, as I described in a recent post on alienation:
Think of the terms in which the present financial crisis is described. People in the media talk about the economy as though it were a natural disaster, completely beyond our control, laying waste to human lives in its wake. But the market is no force of nature; it is something that human beings constructed. And what we've built up, we can tear down. "The market is like a monster we have accidentally created, but which now comes to rule our lives". Capitalism, in Marx's words, is "the complete domination of dead matter over men".
Capitalism is, thus, like a car that humanity built, which we continue to fill with fuel but which we have no capacity to control or steer. Adding the threat of global warming to this metaphor would be to say that our out-of-control vehicle is steadily heading towards a steep cliff.

I should add one more thing to stave off a misunderstanding. It's not that I think that individual members of the ruling class should be exempt from moral critique qua persons. On the contrary, I think many of them are reprehensible in many respects. But we shouldn't confuse such moral criticism from the political critique we need in order to properly place their behavior in its institutional context. Suppose some individual capitalist was won over by such moralizing critique and then sold off their productive assets to become a revolutionary. This is all well and good, but the way the system is set up it is certain that someone else will fill this person's "empty seat" at the ruling class table in no time. The Marxist argument is that we need to get rid of these seats and this table itself, not just the particular individuals who happen to sit there at any one time.

I also hardly mean to suggest that because we're all dominated by capital, we're all somehow in the same predicament. We're not; capitalism is a class society and the ruling class dominates and exploits the majority of us for their benefit. But we won't get very far if we think that capitalism is a highly coordinated, planned system that is ruled by a small, highly organized and conscious class whose intentional actions shape the system all the way down. This is not a left-wing critique, but a conspiracy theory that draws on the individualist ideology I impugned above. This kind of line suggests that the ruling class deliberately drove the world economy into the dumps, since whatever happens would have to be intended by the all-powerful rulers.

But this isn't Marxist in the least; the most interesting part of the Marxist critique of capitalism is that we get a dialectical interpretation of the relationship between structure and agency, between system and individual, such that neither is wholly reducible to the other. The actions of the ruling class do matter and need to be critiqued, but always in the context of the pressures of capitalist system which shape and structure their motivations and actions. In the case of the recent economic meltdown, for example, this analysis allows us to see how capitalism makes certain actions appear locally rational for individual capitalists, but collectively irrational even for the entire capitalist class writ large! It is an chaotic system that structurally requires myopic individual (or firm-level) profit accumulation.

Marx says on many occasions things to the effect that "human beings make their own history, but...". As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, the goal of socialists is to remove that "but...".


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Nostalgia Film as Ideology

"...Nostalgia art gives us the image of various generations of the past as fashion-plate images that entertain no determinable ideological relationship to other moments of time: they are not the outcome of anything, nor are they the antecedents of our present; they are simply images. This is the sense in which I describe them as substitutes for any genuine historical consciousness rather than specific new forms of the latter." - Fredric Jameson, Interview (1986) in Flash Art.

"Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire- not merely the stability and prosperity of pax Americana but also the first naive innocence of the counter-cultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs. With this initial breakthrough, other generational periods open up for aesthetic colonization (e.g. Polanski's Chinatown, Bertolucci's Il Conformista)... [Nostalgia film] approaches the "past" through stylistic connotation, conveying "pastness" by the glossy qualities of the image, and "1930s-ness" or "1950s-ness" by the attributes of fashion, as for example, some Disney-EPCOT "concept" of China."

"Every position on postmodernism in culture—whether apologia or stigmatization—is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today." -Jameson (1984), "Postmodernism; Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism", in New Left Review

I must confess that I had an early (ages 8-12) fascination with nostalgia films about the 1950s before I had any inkling that they were, in the sense described above, nostalgia films. The Sandlot (1993) was a film that my family owned growing up, which I watched more times than I can count. Grease (1978) and Stand By Me (1986) were staples as well. Or, take Back to the Future (1985): think of the contrast between downtown Hill Valley in the 1980s (run down, with homeless people lying about) versus the 1950s. My thinking at the time was that the 1950s and early 60s was an era of "cleanliness", tight-knit communities, small neighborhood shops, block parties, stability, innocence and all the rest of it. I recall often wishing that I'd grown up "then".

It is striking, then, how much films of this sort shape contemporary consciousness of what we take to be the past. I'm not sure, but I wager that schools didn't have "decade day" before the 1980s. Would it have been possible, or even made sense, in the 1920s to hold a "decade dress-up day"? Could there have been intelligible, ostensibly distinct, stereotypes corresponding to "1910s-ness" or "1890s-ness"? My guess is that the answer is no. So what is it about the present state of affairs that makes possible the reification of decades into "glossy images" that track shifts in fashion? It seems to me that any answer we give must take seriously the third Jameson quote above.

There is, to be sure, a serious question here about how to critically understand the post-war era (e.g. as arising out of the reconfiguration of global capitalism and power relations after WWII, the emergence of a "consumer society", changes in the forces of production, a decline in class struggle, ruthless repression of the Left, violently enforced conformity, elimination of the memory of the 1930s, etc.). But critically understanding nostalgia film requires that we ask a different question: what was it about the ideological/political pressures of the early 1970s (and, to some extent, the decade and a half that followed) that cultivated this need to retrieve a "lost past"? Moreover, in what ways can we understand the objects of desire in nostalgia film as a projection of such pressures and needs?

Succinctly put, the question cannot simply be: were the 1950s/early60s really like that? Neither should it be: should we want to return to it? Our question must be: what is it about contemporary societies such that this nostalgic image, whatever its historical veracity, is the American "privileged lost object of desire"?

There are a couple of obvious things to say. The global economic landslide of the early 1970s marked the decisive end of the "long boom" of the postwar era. It marked a rupture, a tectonic shift in the conditions that grounded the social formations and cultural configurations of the 1950s and early 60s. If the active, conscious revolt of the late 1960s was a determinate negation, the early 1970s represented a structural, subterranean shift in the basic center of gravity. Suddenly the arrangements upon which postwar prosperity had been built no longer created the conditions for continued profit accumulation. Stagflation set in, and unemployment skyrocketed. The 1973 oil crisis struck at the heart of the manufactured obsession with ostentatious automobiles.

Unsurprisingly, this shift in the global conjuncture meant that the old ideological repertoire of postwar American capitalism went into crisis. The old ideological stabilizers were being undermined by new events; the old legitimating devices weren't able to do their work when faced with the landslide of the early 1970s.

But as Marxists are aware, ideological shifts don't immediately, mechanically accompany shifts in the economic structure of society. As Zizek noted after the 9/11 attacks, "On September 11th, the USA was given the opportunity to realize what kind of world it was part of. It might have taken this opportunity -but it did not; instead it opted to reassert its traditional ideological commitments: out with feelings of responsibility and guilt towards the impoverished Third World, we are the victims now!" Something similar accompanied the erosion of the postwar era (although I would want a less univocal and more internally conflicted analysis of "America" than Zizek offers). Rather than question the very ideological coordinates of the postwar era in light of counter-veiling evidence; the temptation was to cling hopelessly to the manufactured objects of desire appropriate to that anachronistic ideology.

But, and this is where the Jameson bit above is particularly interesting, the mode of interaction with this "past" is one in which the "image of various generations of the past as fashion-plate images... entertain no determinable ideological relationship to other moments of time: they are not the outcome of anything, nor are they the antecedents of our present; they are simply images". Here, Marx's analysis of the fetishism of commodities is operative in the background. Rather than encountering the past in all of its material complexity, we see only various objects on a shelf, shorn of history or ties to social relations. This is only more perverse when we note that the objects in questions are ostensibly about the past.

Another interesting question for me here is how race fits into this picture. It's clear that there is something deeply racist about the entire ideology of nostalgia here, insofar as it wears its white-exclusiveness on its sleeve. That is, the ideology simply couldn't be a fantasy for black people- it isn't even aimed at convincing black people to want such a return to this "idyllic past". The result is that the ideology doesn't even see black people as subjects in need of convincing here; they are non-persons who are best blotted out of this fantasy entirely. Seeing them as subjects to whom white American must justify themselves would be to accept the gains of the struggles of the 1960s; but this nostalgic ideology, of course, in part seeks to forget such struggles entirely. So, it's not that the ideology has an active anti-black theme per se, the ideology entirely erases and blots out blackness.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Wallstreet Regains its Swagger"

Watch here. Whew, I must confess that I was worried about whether their swagger was being threatened. I guess I can stop staying up at night now, assured that Obama's embrace of the Paulson Plan did what it set out to do.


"Largest Student Rebellion Since May 68"



Corporate Profits Were the Highest on Record Last Quarter


Just keep this in mind the next time you hear some (rich) asshole in Washington telling us "we" all need to "live within our means", or "tighten our belts". The politics of austerity, as we know, is based on the false premise that we live in a condition of scarcity. But, and correct me if I'm wrong here, I have a hard time seeing how "our" condition is one of scarcity when the ruling class is able to appropriate "profits at an annual rate of $1.659 trillion".

Make no mistake where the battle lines are drawn here: Obama and the Democrats are already pushing to extend ruling class tax giveaways while imposing harsh austerity on the rest of us. Their disagreements with the Republicans are over marginalia. Their operating assumptions are identical: privatize the profits and wealth, socialize the risks and fall-out.


Monday, November 22, 2010

New Materials on Zimbabwe Land Reform

Read them here. Haven't gone through yet, but it appears to be a welcomed corrective to the mass of intentional misinformation out there about land reform efforts in general.

Zimbabwe, as I've argued elsewhere, puts those on the critical Left in a difficult position given the way the terms of debate are constructed in mainstream forums. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that Mugabe's regime is corrupt, anti-egalitarian in many respects, and self-serving. But on the other, it is absolutely imperative that we understand this regime in the context of the interrelated phenomena of colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism.

It's not that we should let Mugabe off the hook by attributing all of his regime's problems to the legacy of colonialism and the effects of continued neo-colonial oppression. But there is something extremely suspicious about attempts by, say, British newspapers to demonize Mugabe as the sole ill plaguing Zimbabwe. This to say, there is something covertly racist about claims of this sort insofar as they insinuate, albeit without directly saying so, that it might have been better to let the "experts" (i.e. colonial elites, be they British or White Rhodesian) maintain control rather than to allow the "incompetent natives" to take matters into their own hands. To fail to mention global capitalism or colonialism is to fail to mention the main cause of human misery and oppression for the last 300 years, which is, needless to say, a bit of a problem.

In cases in which white elites acquired property through the brutal exploitation of colonialism, it's absurd to argue that there's anything prima facie unjust about tinkering with existing property holdings. Absurd though it is, many seem to have no problem getting idignant when the matter of land reform is raised. Just imagine, for example, the vile sorts of things that would go on in the heads of many old, white commentators in the newspapers at the mere mention of such re-distributive reforms. Such vileness is hardly vitiated when clothed in neoliberalism ("but we merely want to maintain firm property rights to encourage development", etc. etc.).


Racist Border Patrol Murders Immigrant, "Details Sketchy"

Article here. This is the reality of xenophobia and nativism when it drives border policy. There is little difference between the Border Patrol and the proto-fascist, murderous Minutemen.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Couple of Thoughts Re: Charles Blow's Op/Ed

Read Blow's piece, titled "Let's Rescue the Race Debate" here. In general, the piece makes quite a few important points that are often obscured in the racist echo chamber that is the mainstream media.

Although Blow doesn't explicitly mention the phenomenon of "color blind" racism, he offers a number of persuasive arguments that expose it for the sophistry that it is.

Nonetheless, I am bothered by a couple of things that are going on in the article. First off, although Blow can hardly be blamed for this, the cautious "bad people exist on all sides of the debate", we need to seek "common ground" language employed toward the end of the piece evinces an important way that racial domination functions in the contemporary U.S. What I have in mind here concerns the fact that the white establishment is still uncomfortable and resentful when confronted with politically organized, confident, and critical black voices. That's precisely what all the blathering about "reverse racism", "culture of victimization", etc. is about. It is a pre-emptive strike against confident black social critique. By creating the stereotype of the "angry black voice", those concerned to defend white supremacy have a convenient way of dismissing any and all criticism of existing society authored by black people. It is, in effect, a way of saying to the oppressed: shut up and stop complaining, your grievances are illegitimate... your voice simply doesn't, indeed couldn't, matter. Note, also that history is inadmissible because it upsets the a priori assumptions built into this ideology (e.g. that the US is the "greatest" country on earth with a divine mandate, etc.).

The upshot of this preemptive strike is that anyone who wishes to criticize white supremacy is meant to always feel like they're on the defensive. The norm created by the preemptive strike is this: so as not to ruffle the feathers of whites, black social critics must tread lightly in public. The same problem faces feminist critics, as well as socialists who wish to make the argument that we should redistribute wealth by taxing the rich. In the case of the feminist critic, even soft-core feminists who merely aim to make extremely modest critiques of things like the wage gap, there is a pressure from above to avoid sounding like a "bitch" (this is, incidentally, one reason why I love the title of the feminist magazine Bitch, which basically redeploys this sexist epithet by throwing it back in the face of sexists as if to say, "yeah, I'm not fucking around about women's liberation, what's it to you?").

I digress. Back to the Blow piece.

I groaned when I first read the Booker T. Washington bit at the beginning of the piece, but was relieved when Blow noted how laden with irony it is that conservatives are so fond of using the quote. To be sure, there are ironies here worth commenting on. But I think Blow radically misses the mark when says that "W.E.B. Du Bois [was] an Obama-like figure who advocated a more broad-based, activist movement for racial equality to be led by an erudite black intelligentsia." Ummmm... what??

This is a disturbing and politically conservative comparison. To be sure, we know that Obama wants politically active black people to buy into the myth that he "advocates a more broad-based, activist movement for racial equality." We know that this is the self-image that he cultivates when he needs support from ordinary black people. But the trouble here is that creating a broad-based activist movement of any kind, and one for racial justice in particular, is simply not what he's about.

Recall his statements to $1,500 a plate dinners during the Midterm campaigns. Recall his public statements in interviews about "folks that weren't serious in the first place". Recall Axlerod's patronizing, vitriolic attacks on progressives for not being "enthusiastic" enough. Recall, in effect, his entire first two years in office: the priorities are clear.

Building a broad-based activist movement means convincing ordinary people to organize themselves independently of the "proper channels" in order to make their demands heard by those in power, whether or not those in power care to listen. It doesn't mean brow-beating ordinary people from above after you've promised them modest reforms and given them nothing.

Nothing can come of the comparison between Obama and DuBois except political confusion. In reality, Obama is far more like Booker T. Washington than he is like any serious activist against racial oppression. Obama has found many occasions to make Cosby-style complaints about "personal responsibility" that jibe with the conservative intuitions of white conservatives for whom Booker T. Washington is a "breath of fresh air". What you won't hear is a word reflecting the tradition of oppositional voices of folks like MLK, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, or Cornel West.

One more thought here. Although Blow makes some reasonable points regarding the differential experiences of whites and black people, one gets the sense from the article that racism is, at the end of the day, simply a matter of intentional attitudes that an individual has.

This, as I've pointed out elsewhere, is a narrow and ultimately unhelpful rubric for understanding racism.

Racism is not "in the heart". It's not in the first instance about the intentions or attitudes of individuals. Racism has both a material and ideological existence, both of which can come apart from the intentions of individual actors. For this reason, we should entirely abjure discussions about whether so-and-so intends to be racist or not. As I wrote in a previous post:

On the question of concerted intent and racism, I think its ridiculous to assume that because someone intends not to be racist, that they are therefore not implicated perpetuating racism. Racism, if we agree that it is a social phenomenon, is not an aberration or a sin committed by an individual who simply makes bad choices. Someone is not 'rotten to the core' simply because they are complicit or directly involved in sustaining racism in any way. When someone says "hey, what you just said strikes me as rather racist", it should not be tantamount to "you are a bad, bad person and you intentionally mean to harm others!". This is not the way to talk about racism, and doing so in this way only makes the "but I didn't mean it" or "but he's actually a good guy, I swear" character defenses seem plausible (when, in fact, they are totally irrelevant).
This is a needed antidote to Blow's view that "prejudices can be found among all races". Racism isn't in the first instance about individual-level attitudes or prejudices. And it isn't just a matter of some individual not liking another individual who has different phenotypic characteristics. We can't make sense of what the idea of race is, let alone racial hierarchies, without understanding history and macro-level social dynamics. To pretend that racism is an individual-to-individual problem, measurable by asking respondents questions in polls, is misguided.

So what we need to really destroy both contemporary racism and the historical legacies of past racism is serious structural change to the economic structure of society. That isn't going to be accomplished by playing nice with the ruling class. Nor will it come from pandering to the racist ideologies in circulation in American political culture. It will come only from struggle from below. The serious blows to racism in history have all been won when the oppressed organized themselves, often in solidarity with white allies, to strike a blow against status quo relations of power.

Playing nice with power doesn't win anything for the oppressed, as Fredrick Douglass made clear. When Kanye said "George Bush doesn't care about black people" he was absolutely right. But he could have generalized. Those in power at present are indifferent to the historic and contemporary oppression of black people. They are indifferent to black suffering. They are defensive and indignant when anyone suggests that some institutions are systematically implicated in brutalizing and terrorizing people of color.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stop Street Harassment Blog



Two SW.org Pieces on Race and Class

Here and here.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More on Obama's Austerity Commission

Krugman on Obama's Austerity Commission here.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Michael Yates: Change we were foolish to believe in

Before the elections, I kept getting emails from moveon.org telling me that this would be the most important election in my lifetime. Those nasty Republicans, led by the crazy people in the Tea Party, were intent on overturning everything that the good Democrats had wrought. Now Ms. Vanden Heuvel is telling me that this is going to happen unless we “fight for a real debate . . .”

Here is what I think. Thanks to government largesse, banks and other corporations are now awash in cash, and profits have soared to record levels. Yet, the banks are not making loans, and the corporations are not buying new equipment and opening new facilities. Despite gross misconduct, no top corporate officials have been prosecuted, and many of the very companies that put the economy in the ditch are as flush as ever. Were those nasty Republicans in power when this happened? No.
Read the rest here.


Reactions to the Mersherle Sentencing

(via ...Or Does it Explode?)


Friday, November 12, 2010

This is what Democracy looks like (part 2)



Mills on Materializing Race

A materialist critique of race--one that situates race with material social life--is the kind of understanding that leftists desperately need today. Rather than discussing race within the rarefied realm of "pure discourse", we see that race is historically concrete and inscribed within the basic set of institutions that make up modern capitalism.

Another bonus provided by this way of understanding race is that we get (yet another) means of unmasking the preposterous blathering of charlatans like Walter Benn Michaels for what it is (PS: Jacobin- I harbor no hard feelings about your generally interesting and thoughtful magazine. But WBM is a charlatan and I'm (respectfully) disappointed that you gave him a forum to further disseminate his views on the Left).

Mills's introduction to the talk lays out the existing political terrain of contemporary racism well. As he puts it, today we have both traditional and nouveau racism. Traditional racism, rooted in the racial "science" of the 19th and 20th centuries (phrenology, eugenics, Nazi Rassenwissenschaft, etc. etc.), held the scientifically false view that distinct "races" existed by nature and could be biologically demarcated. Although "scientific" or "traditional" racism received serious blows during the 20th Century (especially in the wake of Auschwitz), it is making a steady comeback. The idea is that the human species can, on the basis of inherited biological properties, be carved up into clearly demarcated subgroups (i.e. races), who have distinct behavioral patterns, mental capacities, drives, sexual tendencies, moral beliefs, cultures, etc.

But modern science has consistently shown that such views are incoherent: there is no biological warrant for using certain phenotypic characteristics to assign people to clearly distinguished racial groups. Note that this isn't yet to dispute the additional step of concluding that "Race A" is superior to "Race B", this is to undercut the entire process of "biologically" or "genetically" assigning human beings to races at all.

Still, the blows struck against traditional racism did cause racist ideologies to shift and reconfigure themselves. Hence, we have the emergence of nouveau or "colorblind" racism. This is the view that since race isn't natural or biological, it simply doesn't exist at all. And, furthermore, because it doesn't exist, it cannot be a meaningful political concept that helps us make sense of the contemporary social world.

Since the term "race" allegedly has no real referent, its usage is always a mistake. Because there is no such thing, colorblind racists will argue, all talk of race should be expunged from our vocabulary. In this way, colorblind racists are able to claim that anyone who so much as utters the word "race" in political contexts is real racist. According to colorblind racists, "racism consists in talking about race as though it matters".

This colorblind position is precisely view staked out by Walter Benn-Michaels, but it is frequently trumpeted on the hard-line Hayekian Right (this is a favorite talking-point of the racist blowhard Ron Paul). Hence, WBM thinks he has grounds for claiming that any talk of fighting against racism today is just an illusion that serves to blind us to what really matters. His position is, if nothing else, extremely simple: if you think that racial oppression is real, you are a dupe. If you so much as mention race, you are simply defending an increase in the Gini coefficient.

Thus, the clear upshot of Mills's talk is that we come to see, among other (more interesting) things, how the WBM view is complete bullshit. Race is a social and political concept. The choice between the two positions above (traditional biological vs. colorblind racism) is a false one. Just because something is not determined by heritable biological properties, it hardly follows that it isn't real. Simply because something isn't natural and inevitable, it doesn't follow that it doesn't exist. Money is clearly something that is contingently constructed by human beings for concrete social and practical reasons. But it doesn't follow that because money is constructed it is less real. Likewise, because mountains are natural and, hence, not socially constituted, it doesn't follow that they are "more real" than currency. That the contemporary United States has a top marginal tax rate of 35% is a fact. But it is not a fact explained by biological facts about the natural world or the constitution of human beings. It is a contingent, socially determined fact, and as such it is in our power to change it.

So, once we reject faux-scientific traditional racism, it's not as though we must conclude that race doesn't exist. It clearly does, but it is neither natural nor inevitable. That we are divided into so-called racial groups on the basis of certain phenotypic characteristics is a contingent fact, i.e. one that could have been otherwise. So, the decision to arrange human societies into different subsets on the basis of phenotypic traits was a contingent one, indeed a political one. We have not always been so designated our divided- so the question naturally arises: how, concretely and historically, did racial designations emerge and why?

In order to answer this question, we have to talk about social relations, the level of development of the productive forces, the mode of production, distributions of power, geography, culture, the basic structure of political institutions, in short all the things that make up the bread and butter of the Marxist analysis of society and history. This is, in a loose sense, the point of Mill's argument: race must be understood materially and historically, i.e. in terms of the material conditions of society in its historical context.

This is why we can't disentangle race and class (or race and gender, for that matter). This is precisely why we cannot say that race is a mere epiphenomenon that is only to be found in our language and discourse. Race isn't just an idea or concept which we can critically analyze by solely examining the genealogy of its movement in thought and language. Mills's point is that racial divisions are materially inscribed in the basic institutions that constitute modern capitalist societies. We therefore can't properly understand those societies without understanding race. But neither can we properly understand race without understanding how racism is entangled in other relations of power, the economic structure of society, etc. That is, we don't understand what the roots of racism are unless we understand the historical development of contemporary capitalist societies (including their imperialist and colonialist projects).

Racism has both material/institutional as well as ideational existence: and we can't grasp what that means for fighting oppression unless we have a historical materialist approach to the critique of modern social formations.

The result, for blowhards like WBM, is that we see that he has neither a serious analysis of modern capitalism, nor a serious analysis of racism. He misunderstands each, and thus has no means of understanding how both are intertwined. In this way, we come to see what his procedure really is: he takes the language of ruling class ideologists who care nothing for fighting racism, and then attempts to drag political radicals through the mud by associating anti-racism, as such, with ruling class ideologists. Why might someone do this? Because they care nothing for actually fighting oppression, and they have no fucking clue about history or how contemporary societies are organized. "Neoliberal anti-racism" is, at the end of the say, an oxymoron.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Target of Obama's Austerity Package



More details on Obama's austerity package


"Highlights" below.

  1. Raises the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare to 69.
  2. Cuts Social Security benefits.
  3. Ends the mortgage tax deduction.
  4. Ends the tax deduction for workers' health benefits.
  5. Freezes salaries for federal workers for 3 years.
  6. Establishes co-pays for veterans at VA health services.
  7. Raises fees to visit the national parks and the Smithsonian.
  8. Merges the Small Business Administration into an agency (Commerce) that has always prioritized helping bigger businesses, and cuts their budget.
  9. Eliminates the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.
Liberals take note: the composition of this committee is the result of the 2008 elections, not the Midterms. This is a bipartisan group that Obama himself created! This awful, punishing right-wing austerity package is coming from the Democrat leadership as much as it is from the lowly Republicans on the committee.


White House gives in on Bush Tax Cuts

Here. As others have pointed out- this is not surprising. But even this is a rather quick and premature surrender.

Liberals will console themselves by claiming that there is no other way- that this is inevitable. But such fatalist narratives evince serious desperation. And I think liberals are right to feel desperate right now. They, like millions of other Americans, wanted to see real, qualitative change in 2008. But they've seen more of the same. They've even seen a great deal of betrayal. They've even had the White House flip them a bird a couple of times for daring to speak up or criticize the record of the Administration.

When is enough enough?

Progressives want to see real health care reform (i.e. single-payer), they want us to end the occupations and wars, they want to see an attempt to rein in the power of corporate elites, they want to see much higher taxes on the rich to expand public services (not cut them), etc.

But how do we win these reforms? This is where I think most liberals have got to re-think their views. We won't win these reforms by working within the Democrat Party such as it is. In fact, previous gains (e.g. Social Security, The Wagner Act, Civil Rights Act, Women's Suffrage, Free Public Education, etc.) were not won by playing nice with the Democrats. They were won through independent struggle against both of the major pro-business parties. And that is what we need to focus on now- building the movements, building independent organizations, creating the activist infrastructure that we need to collectively demand things that our electoral system gives us no voice to demand.

If you want to tax the rich and end the wars, who should you vote for? How can you vote in such a way that that political goal is given voice? At present you cannot. At present the electoral mechanism doesn't register such voices. It only hears two words: "Democrat" or "Republican". To all other human concerns it is completely deaf. We can do much better- and we don't have to settle for this demoralizing, conservative process. When people join together from below to challenge those at the top, there is nothing that we can't do.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

It's On

Obama's Deficit Commission is proposing massive, deep, punitive, cruel cuts to the living standards of the vast majority of us.

This is to be expected. All capitalist governments in the Western world are doing the same, be they center-left or center-right. They're all more or less caving in and trying to force working people to pay for the crisis caused by bankers and capitalist speculators. They are trying to balance the budget on the backs of working people, precisely those hit hardest by the recession. They are insulating the rich and powerful from having to pick up the mess they've created for humanity. The function of our "representatives" in the system is thus laid bare.

Why is this happening?

The global economy is in severe crisis. The crisis was fomented by the reckless, dogged pursuit of profit. But what exactly is a crisis? What is the problem? To identify why a capitalist economy isn't working, we need to understand what makes it run in the first place. Capitalism is about the uninterrupted accumulation of ever greater profits for the small class of persons who own the means of production in the economy. It is a system that is conditional on capitalists making lots and lots of money in profit; when that condition isn't satisfied, the system grinds to a halt.

So what's the problem right now? Isn't there just a lot of scarcity and not enough to go around?

Hardly. Quite the opposite, in fact. The problem is not one of not enough, it is one of too much. If this is paradoxical, it is because capitalism is laden with contradictions, and this is clearly one of them. There's clearly not "too much" in the sense that every single person has more than they need. There's "too much" because this is a crisis of overproduction. This means that the owners of vast amounts of capital are hoarding large surpluses because there aren't profitable places to invest it. Potentially productive wealth is sitting idle because the capitalists who own it cannot make highly profitable use of it.

Think small for a second. Think of those who invested in condominiums. Now, capitalists invested in housing not because they cared about condominiums. They weren't coordinating with each other to quench human need. No, there was a mad scramble to invest in condominiums purely because investors thought that's where the money was. With property values soaring ever higher, partly because of this mad scramble, it seemed like a great opportunity to make big profits. So what happened? Why didn't this pan out?

Right now, there simply aren't enough people with the money to buy those condos. To be sure, there are tons of people who need homes. There are even people who are being thrown out of their homes as we speak at the wishes of the big banks. Capitalism isn't responsive to human needs as such- it only recognizes cold, hard cash. And there are not enough consumers with the money to purchase the condos, so the condos sit idle and unused.

We can generalize from this example. Lots of rich investors, who have massive amounts of capital at their disposal, are not investing it right now because there are no profitable investments that can absorb all the surplus capital they're sitting on. Hence, our economy is running at about half of its capacity. In other words, hence the recession. The owners of capital are waiting until conditions of profitability re-emerge so that they can invest- until then they will just sit on what they have. And why shouldn't they? It's not as though they can't live it up in the mean time given the enormity of the surpluses at their disposal.

But, of course, the opportunity to "live it up" isn't available to all of us. It's certainly not available if you're out of work and desperate for a job to pay your bills, like millions of Americans right now.

So we have the following situation. We have massive amounts of idle capital and massive amounts of unemployed labor, sitting side by side, amidst a world that is full of human need. As David Harvey has remarked: "how stupid is that?"

The politicians who represent capital in our political system don't see it that way. Obama and the Democrats don't see anything "stupid" about this situation at all. According to the way they tell it, this is the natural way the world works. This is capitalism in all its glory. Accordingly, the Democrats, like the Republicans, have only one basic policy goal right now: we must re-establish the conditions in which capitalists can earn high profits so that the system will start functioning again.

This goal can't but be unfair to the vast majority of us. Why is it that we must bribe the rich with high profit rates in order to reduce unemployment and have a functioning society? Why is it that capital must be pleased in order for basic social institutions to have the funding they need? This is absurd. This is a one way street, an unjustifiable dependence relation.

But, again, the Democrats don't see it that way. They only see one problem: how can we restore the system to previous levels of profitability? In other words, what can we do to make rich capitalists happy again by creating the conditions in which they can earn high rates of return?

This last was the question for which the infamous $787 billion bailout was supposed to be the answer. The woefully inadequate stimulus was implemented for the same reason: to restore conditions of profitability. To be sure, the stimulus did some limited amounts of good, and I would have liked to have seen a far more ambitious spending regimen that actually faced up to the realities of the problems at hand. But it wasn't implemented with the intent of satisfying unmet human needs. It wasn't implemented for the betterment of all. It was implemented only because fiscal stimulus is one way of attempting to solve the problem of effective demand, i.e. the problem of having nobody with the money to buy all of the things that enable capitalists to turn a profit.

But, of course, throwing that kind of money around when you already have two unpaid wars going on isn't cheap. Between all of these expenditures and the massive loss of tax revenue due to sharply reduced profits, incomes, etc., the deficit has risen considerably. Enter the language of austerity and budget cuts. This is what we're being told: If the government is in the red, then something must be done. But if the basic goal is to restore high rates of profit for the capitalist class, then clearly we can't solve the deficit problem by taxing the rich. Where, then, will the money come from?

It will come from forcing punishing cuts down the throats of ordinary people. It will come from slashing and burning schools, public transit, public health care, and other programs. As I've pointed out elsewhere, this austerity is making profits possible right now.

But this isn't the message we will hear from Obama, the Democrats and the Republicans. They won't sell it this way, they're smarter than that. We'll hear nothing but budget-cut fatalism from them. But that is to be expected. They are the enemy of the vast majority of people in this country- they stand for the interests of the few, not the aspirations of the many. They'll try to say that "spending is out of control" in Washington, but we know better.

The way to resist this process can't be to go in for the Democrats. The Democrats are the agents pushing through the cuts. They are precisely the ones insulating the system from real change.

And make no mistake, the system is what needs changing. What's the point of going all-in for the reformist Keynesian fix, if it leaves the culprits who dragged the whole system down in power? Why continue to allow the commanding heights of our economy to be in the hands of an unelected, unaccountable elite who care nothing for us and everything for their private gain. Why tolerate a system in which the minority profit at the expense of the majority?

Many aren't tolerating such a state of affairs. The inspiring mass resistance in France, Greece and also, now, the UK is the model that progressives must look to. We won't get more by asking for less. We've got to ask for it all- and we've got to be convinced of the power we all have when we act together in concert.


What is the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform?

It is the brainchild of Obama and the Democrats. Soon enough we'll be aswim in tall tales from unthinking Obamaheads and other apologists for the Democrats that will try to persuade us that the punishing budget cuts on the table are the sole work of Republcians. Don't believe it.

This commission, let us call it the "Deficit Commission", was created during a period in which the Democrats had supermajorities in the Senate and crushing majorities in the House. This is what we get when America votes Democrat in massive numbers.

The Commission has a large majority of people who believe that we must privatize Social Security and make punishing cuts to Medicare. Who put them there? Are they all Republicans? Nope. They're representatives of both parties and Obama put them there.

To be sure, there has been some push-back from within the Democrat party to the sharp conservative tilt of the Commission. But anyone who knows anything about the House Progressive Caucus in the Democratic Party knows that they are clowns. At times they seem full of sound and fury, but ultimately they do nothing but cave in to the corporate-friendly Democrat leadership. They are a marginal force in the organization of which they are a basically passive appendage.

My point in saying all of this isn't to hammer away at the Democrats because I have something personal against them. The point is that we, i.e. ordinary people who have the "crazy" view that Medicare and Social Security shouldn't be slahsed and burned, have to know who the enemy is. It is not just the Republican Party. It is both the Republicans and the Democrats, although I must admit that right now the Democrats are certainly giving the GOP a run for their money. If pushed I would say that the Democrats are a bigger part of the problem than the Republicans. At least most people know the Republicans suck. The trouble with the Democrats is that they try to sweet talk you. They mislead plenty of good people who care about admirable things (e.g. stopping climate change, beating back the advance of the Right, stopping wars and occupation, etc. etc.) and siphon off legitimate oppositional political energy and defuse it. They manipulate legitimate anger about the system and use it to do essentially the same things that the Republicans do. That's perverse. We deserve better.


Obama's Early Embrace of Austerity

Although few liberals took note, Obama and the Democrats began soon after the 2008 election to discuss the idea of doing what George W. Bush himself couldn't do after he won in 2004: eviscerating and privatizing social security. This was Obama's message right out of the gates: "we'll need to make tough choices", "we need to start living within our means", etc.

Millions of Americans probably wondered, "who the hell is we?"

Of course, what Obama and the Dems meant was that ordinary people would have to have austerity forced down their throats. Ordinary people would have have to bear the burden of the global capitalist crisis that has dramatically dried up tax revenues.

But whereas the vast majority of us were being told how we would be screwed, there existed another group to whom no such imperatives applied. That group was the rich and powerful, the very group that nearly brought down the entire world economy. I'm talking about the financial elites and owners of the commanding heights of the economy. These folks were never told by Obama that they had to live within their means. They were never told that they would have to face tough choices. Instead, their dominance was taken as a fixed point- the unquestioned starting point for all further policy decisions.

Accordingly, Obama enthusiastically continued the bailout program put in place by Bush and Paulson, refuse to hold the recipients accountable, allow them to dole out massive bonuses, etc. In effect, Obama's government, like Bush's before him, transferred private capitalist debt from banks and corporations to the state: massive private losses were socialized for the public to pay for. But while Obama was showering the rich with funds, he was also telling the vast majority of us to brace for a punishing blow. He was telling us that we can expect austerity measures and cuts in the near future.

Scour the globe if you like, but you won't find a single society on the planet where ordinary people take kindly to austerity and cuts. The vast majority of people grasp what the drill is with austerity and budget cuts. Their living standards will be pushed down, their jobs will be cut, their public services slashed and burned, their schools forsaken or closed, their transportation networks scrapped. It's no surprise that they don't take it lying down.

Powerful politicians in both factions of the US's single business party know this. They know that while their misleading talk about tax cuts might seduce some who'd do well to know that they were being misled, talk about slashing and burning public spending is not popular.

So they don't do the slashing and burning right before elections. This is true of Republican and Democrat alike.

OK- back to the leading question of this post. I've pointed out Obama's "liberal" use of the language of austerity, his innuendo lending credibility to privatizing Social Security, etc. This is all just a way of saying that Obama didn't embrace the politics of austerity as a result of Republican pressure. And if he is more aggressively pro-cut after the midterms, we should not assume that the reason has to do with Republican pressure either. The point I'm making is that he and the Dems have been floating the idea of punishing cuts to Medicare and Social Security for a while, and now that the election has past they have some space to do it. No politician, Republican or Democrat, was screw over the majority of the population with cuts right before an election. This is especially true of the Dems in recent years- since their crushing majorities would have made it rather difficult to blame on the Republicans (though many dogmatic Obama apologists would no doubt have tried to do so).


Revolt Erupts Among Students in the UK

Revolt among UK students erupts amidst proposals to introduce punishing cuts to education.


Must-See: What has Obama done so far?



Monday, November 8, 2010

"Fiery Leftist Opinion"

Bad News for Liberals May Be Good News for a Liberal Magazine

"Other than perhaps the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, there were few places as despondent on election night as the Manhattan offices of The Nation, the 146-year-old journal of fiery leftist opinion."

See the NYTimes article here.

Yes, "fiery leftist opinion". They said it. I bet Louis Proyect fell out of his seat when he read that. I nearly did.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tea Party: New Whine in Old Bottles

Read Gary Younge's article here. He makes an excellent point: the "Tea Party" is not a coherent, organized group. Its apparent coherence, organizational power and grassroots support is merely the effect of the media. And to the extent that such an entity does exist, it is a loose group of assholes that have existed for quite some time. Dick Armey is, for example, described as a "tea party activist" these days.

It's important to point out here is that the tea baggers represent something like a fifth of the American electorate. The way the media froths at the site of tea baggers would lead you to think that that they are much more widely supported. But though the Democrat Party has found an excellent campaign tool in the Tea Party (don't worry, I'm sure they'll use it again in 2012), the 2/3 of Americans who didn't bother to turn out to vote in the Midterms likely see through this shallow "scare out the vote" tactic.


(More of) Obama's Legislative Accomplishments

Here. Some context here is helpful. Obama used to tell progressives that he believed in single payer, a position which he subsequently would come to reject. Having rejected the idea of single payer, Obama started off the Democrat primaries in the run-up to the 2008 election with the most conservative health care proposal in the field.

His proposal, essentially a watered-down version of Romney-Care from Massachusetts, has a history that is worth noting. The idea of an individual mandate to purchase private or public insurance emerged in the early 1970s from Richard Nixon as a response to Ted Kennedy's push for single-payer. The idea of a "health care marketplace" was hatched by the right-wing American Enterprise Institute as a response to Clinton's (already weak-sauce) proposal for health care reform. The idea of using a public plan (itself modeled on private plans) to pick up the slack left over after the for-profit plans have cherry-picked all of the least costly individuals to insure, was first put into action by Republican governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. So there you have it- basic components components of Obama's proposal emerged from the likes of Richard Nixon, AEI, and Mitt Romney. Progressive indeed.

Now, this is just a brief history of the ideas included in candidate Obama's proposal. The actual bill itself is actually a great deal less ambitious than the Republican-drafted proposal described above. Obama gave up on the public option when it became clear that industry "stakeholders" weren't having any of it (that's funny... I don't remember voting in elections in 2008 determining who the industry "stakeholders" with veto-power over legislation would be, do you?). Moreover, the Democrat's point-person for drafting the bill, Max Baucus, received the most contributions from the health insurance industry of any congressperson in 2008 (don't forget that the industry has something like 5 lobbyists for each member of Congress). All told, the industry spent millions trying to exact concessions from the Democrats, and so far it has proven to be money well-spent.

At every single stop along the way, Obama and the Democrats have compromised and given concessions to the powerful for-profit insurance industry. The priorities of Obama and the Democrats are on display here for all to see.

And, as if all of this wasn't frustrating enough, now it turns out that the Federal Government isn't even interested in enforcing the already tepid bill it passed, as the SW.org article above makes clear.

But just hold on one second- it actually gets worse. Obama and the Democrats signaled even before the Midterms that they are interested in making punishing cuts to Social Security and Medicare. It seems now, in the wake of the Midterms, that the Democrats are going to be even more aggressive in pushing through austerity measures. That means, in short, forcing the majority of the population to pay for the mess caused by reckless financiers and bankers who got bailed out by the Bush and Obama administration. Again, the priorities of the Democrats are on display for all to see. They sold us out to protect the assets of the rich and powerful. This has become something of a guiding theme since the Democrats took back Congress in 2006.

The task of progressives is not to apologize for this kind of right-wing treachery, but to fight it. Voting for the Democrats has little to do with democracy. This is what democracy looks like.


Friday, November 5, 2010

More Inept Garbage from the NYTimes

This is so confused it's hard to know where to begin. Here's how this heap of bullshit begins:

Keith Olbermann, the pre-eminent liberal voice on American television, was suspended Friday after his employer, MSNBC, discovered that he made campaign contributions to three Democrats last month.

The indefinite suspension was a stark display of the clash between objective journalism and opinion journalism on television.

Hold it right there. How is it that someone can be the "pre-eminent liberal voice on American television" and then be rebuked for making campaign contributions to Democrats? If Olbermann's TV persona is, quite literally, one of "pre-eminent liberal voice" then why should we expect that he wouldn't make contributions to campaigns that are, ostensibly at least, left-liberal? Why are we surprised?

Then there is this obscure crap about a "stark display of the clash between objective journalism and opinion journalism on television". First of all, what the fuck is this distinction anyway? Second, how is it supposed to be relevant here?

Are we really to believe that journalists don't have political views of their own? How could journalists not have political views? Everyone already knew what Olbermann's politics were, in fact this is part of who he is and why people watch him. So what has changed? Why is this predictable fact supposed to impinge on his journalistic work? People don't flip on Bill O'Reilly because they think it's possible they might get a Maoist analysis of U.S. politics; they watch precisely because he's got political things to say that resonate with them.

The distinction between "objective journalism and opinion journalism" is a red herring. It only muddies the waters, since the distinction doesn't pick out anything real at all. As I argued in a recent post, it is impossible to report on politics neutrally. It simply cannot be done. Reporting on politics requires that you have an idea of what it is you're reporting on, i.e. you must first have an idea of what politics is and what it isn't, what is political and what's not. Unfortunately, the determination of what's political and what's not is itself a political battleground. Concrete struggles determine what's "normal" and what's "controversial", what's legitimately "political" and what's not up for contestation. For example, the feminist slogan "the personal is political" was subversive precisely because it declared that an entire sphere of modern life (e.g. housework, marriage, the 'private' realm, etc. etc.) was political, whereas it had hitherto been deemed apolitical.

The idea of what politics is in much contemporary mainstream journalism is preposterous. It is a narrow conception that takes our eyes off the real targets and focuses our attention on trivial bullshit. It is a conception of politics that helps to preserve and stabilize the status quo.

So, the idea that there is "objective" journalism and "opinion" journalism is not a well-founded one. All journalism, even mere reporting of fact, requires that the journalist decide what's of significance and what's not. The set of possible facts that one could report on at any one given moment is massive, nearly infinite. The only neutral course of action would be to report on everything all at once (e.g. the roaming habits of zebra, the price of tomato paste, the chemical composition of toothpaste, etc. etc.). But reporting on everything all at once is impossible, and even it were possible it would be practically useless to us. The unavoidable fact of journalism is that some judgments about what's worth reporting on and what's not must be made. Some decision about what's of significance and what's not are a necessary precursor to any journalism whatsoever. And like it or not, judgments about what's important, what's significant, what's relevant, etc. are political. Such judgments are evaluative, i.e. they invoke ideas about value, political ideals, what ought to come to pass, etc. etc.

Our task must not be to pretend we're doing "objective" journalism. Our task must be to understand and criticize the judgments about significance and value that guide journalistic practices. If an article presupposes a narrow, implausible conception of politics, we should criticize and reject this conception. But we can't even have a public discussion about what's important if we aren't aware that such judgments are being made. You cannot criticize what you don't see as a possible object of criticism. We can't argue about something that is hidden, implicit and never brought to the fore.

This is often how it goes: the evaluative/political infrastructure of culture and media is never made explicit. The article under examination here makes impressive headway in concealing the evaluative judgments that structure it. It muddies things up so thoroughly, that it's difficult to know what's at stake in the politics of media at all. The article itself has such fallacious presuppositions about what politics is, that we cannot hope to find anything but garbage there.

Finally one point about the supposed contrary of "neutral" journalism: so-called "opinion journalism". "Opinion" is another bullshit term. I think we should expunge our vocabulary of it entirely. It is an individualist term that makes it appear as though our political convictions are like our preference for chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Our political views aren't like mere "tastes". If there are any beliefs for which we should be expected to give justifying reasons, political beliefs are the leading candidates.

Politics necessarily involves other people. It is the least personal thing there is. So how could beliefs about something that involves everyone possibly be the same as individual tastes or preferences for one flavor or other? Political beliefs must be thought of as claims that we endorse on the basis of reasons that we could give to others in order to justify ourselves. They aren't mere "opinions" or individual "tastes" we can hide behind when someone challenges them.

When someone prefaces statements with "well, this is only my opinion" I cringe. If it is merely your "personal preference", why bother disclosing it to others at all? If it could not in principle have a claim on someone else, why even utter it in a public situation?

The moral of the story is this: all journalism is political. The only questions are what are the politics involved? and are the politics justifiable, i.e. can they be backed up by convincing reasons?


Obama: From Hope to Hopeless



Inept, Patronizing Garbage

Big heap of it, right here.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Vote or Die"

Turnout all over the country hovered somewhere near 40%. That means 60% of the country probably didn't feel that they had anything at stake in the elections. Given that our "representatives" in government are either rich business people themselves, or subservient to business interests, do you think they're upset by this low turnout figure? Hardly. They count on a large chunk of the population sitting out of the political process. They understand that doing things the way they get done in Washington requires the exclusion of 2/3 of the population given how antithetical public policy is to the interests of the many.

To moralistically bash people with stupid slogans like "vote or die", or "don't be apathetic" is to add insult to injury. Many people, indeed super-majorities (!) of Americans, grasp that the present electoral mechanism gives them no real choice- and to demand that they accept this lack of choice with a smile and go through the motions is absurd and politically reactionary.