Thursday, March 31, 2011

How To Argue About Taxes (and How Not To)

"Myopia afflicts the contemporary legislative process in the US in a dramatic and simple way, in the form of tables that set out the distribution of tax burdens associated with various tax reforms. Most government transfers are excluded from these burden tables, including, most importantly, Social Security and Medicare. It seems clear that a tax burden that is matched by an equivalent transfer is not, in the relevant sense, a burden at all... But the problem would not be solved even if all money transfers were included in the burden tables. That too would be arbitrary, so long as we excluded in-kind benefits such as roads, schools, and police, not to mention the entire legal system that defines and protects everyone's property rights. If literally all government benefits were taken into account, however, we would notice that almost no one suffers a net burden from government. We would be forced to conclude that there is no separate issue of the fair distribution of tax burdens, distinct from the entirely general issue of whether government secures distributive justice. This might be described as a question about the allocation of different benefits of taxation, expenditure, and other government policies to different individuals; but that looks very unlike the original question." (pp.14-15, The Myth of Ownership, Nagel and Murphy (Oxford: 2002)).
The point is that it is false to claim that we can intelligibly discuss "tax burdens" as an isolated matter apart from the social/economic system of which taxation is but a small part. In particular, it is preposterous and unjustifiable to merely examine or criticize "tax burdens", conceived of as levels of taxation on whatever (income, consumption, etc.) without also looking at the way that taxes are spent.

If, say, my income tax goes up by 5%, say by $1000/yr, and I get unlimited access to higher education (which is worth much more than $1000/yr), it would be absurd to say that my increased rate of taxation means an increased "burden". I haven't been burdened in the slightest- I've just netted quite a lot of value. It would be pointless to debate whether my 5% was, in itself, fair or unfair without considering what we get from taxation: services, a functioning society, basic social institutions, a more equal and fairer distribution of resources, etc.

But that is how the conversation is set up in mainstream "debates" about taxes. It is a discussion merely about "burdens" and whether they should be lifted just a bit or quite a lot. If it's not economists going on about what's most "efficient" or "best for growth" (as though these underspecified goals were the only values relevant to the determination of tax policy), it's politicians blathering about how to distribute the "tax burden" fairly. Now I don't want to suggest that we shouldn't pay attention to the distribution of tax rates. How tax rates are distributed is an extremely important- I've argued many times on this blog that working class tax rates should be decreased while corporate taxes, estate taxes, and the top marginal income tax rate should be steeply increased. It matters a great deal whether we have, say, a flat income tax or a progressive income tax, or whether capital gains and dividends are taxed at the same rate as wages.

Moreover, I'm not saying that taxes can never end up being a burden. For many people in the US, they absolutely are. For working class and poor people, deeply regressive taxes can end up being quite burdensome indeed. But they are burdensome on the assumption that basic needs go unmet despite the fact that people's relatively low income is taxed at a high rate. When a working class person faces high consumption taxes that increases the cost of food, that is clearly a net burden. But say that this same person pays high premiums for health insurance from a for-profit provider every month for inadequate coverage. If we were to institute a single-payer system, this person's taxes might well increase. But it would be false to say that this person is now enduring a new, increased burden. On the contrary, they would no longer have to pay high premiums to a for-profit insurance agency, and they would receive far more extensive care than they received before. What they pay in taxes is less than what they paid in premiums, and they now receive more extensive care for less money. This is clearly a net gain. The language of "burden" here is a red herring. Again, we can't make sense of the justice of tax policies without examining, among other things, what goes in and what goes out. If my taxes go up 2% and I get 25% more in terms of goods and services, it would be bizarre to say that I'm now burdened 2% more than before.

Thus, there is no abstract way to say whether a certain rate of taxation, all by itself, is burdensome or not- we can only know whether its burdensome by looking at the balance of what one pays in and what one gets out of it. We have to examine someone's class position. If we operationalize this in dollar terms, we could say that a particular policy was burdensome if and only if I paid far more into the system than I got out of it. And to calculate "what I get out of it" we have to add up a long list of social goods, institutions and services: roads and infrastructure, legal systems and courts, educational institutions, public parks, libraries, fire protection, Medicare/Medicaid, and so forth.

So, for the vast majority of us, taxation in general will not be a burden in this sense at all. Conversely, for the ruling class, taxation probably will be a "burden". They will, it seems, be required to pay more into the system than they are likely to take out of it in terms of services and public goods. Again, in a narrow sense, if the system of taxation is progressive (i.e. if the average rate of taxation increases with income) the rich will pay more into the system in dollar terms then they get out of it in services. But there are three reasons that nobody except ruling class parasites should worry about this.

First, it isn't quite right that the ruling class puts more in than they put out. In order for them to earn any profits whatsoever, they need a set of basic public institutions (legal system, police, military, courts, infrastructure, anti-trust regulators to guarantee competition, etc.) that make it possible to own property and have a market economy at all. Markets aren't "natural" in any sense whatsoever: they are conventional and require quite a lot of "big government intervention" in order to exist at all. Though we are encouraged to forget this and ignore it, the obvious fact is that private property is a legal convention, not a fact of nature. "We are all born into an elaborately structured legal system governing the acquisition, exchange, and transmission of property rights, and ownership comes to seem the most natural thing in the world. But the modern economy in which we earn our salaries, own our homes, bank accounts, retirement savings, and personal possessions, and in which we can use our resources to consume or invest, would be impossible without the framework provided by government supported by taxes". All of this must be in place in order for a capitalist economy to exist at all: the basic institutional framework underwriting markets are not "free", they must be paid for by tax revenues. So, to be sure, isn't exchanging equivalent for equivalent if we add up the taxes they pay alongside, say, the value of the education they procure from a free public university. But it's a fact that the ruling class needs a lot of government intervention (to break strikes, to intimidate protesters, to thwart social movements, to intervene globally to create a good business climate, to protect property, etc.) to make the profits that it makes. And that intervention is not free: there's a sense in which the ruling class owes the government "rent" for being there to create the conditions for profitability. Of course, power relationships mean that the ruling class is often in a position to get out paying this "rent"; thus they make working people pay it for them. They are, after all, just trying to maximize profits for themselves, even if this means socializing necessary risks and costs. The ruling class way of life is as follows: evade all costs, exploit ruthlessly, externalize risks and wastes, and jealously covet all the earnings that it can get its hands on.

Second, there can be no ethical objection to the idea of taxing the rich at much higher rates. On the contrary, there is something deeply unsavory, morally speaking, about the person with massive surpluses who refuses to relinquish any whatsoever to help those with nothing. The idea of paying according to one's means is a basic ethical principle that seems rather hard to reject. Such a principle correctly abhors the vices of avarice and miserly tendencies to hoard things for oneself. Moreover, it is absurd to ask Bill Gates to pay the same dollar amount in taxes as a working-class single mother. To object to that is to depart from our ordinary moral horizon entirely, so the ethical objection to taxing the rich hardly holds water. But, as we will see below, this moral/ethical element only arises on the condition that the pre-tax income of the ruling class is legitimate. But it is not. It is already tendentious for a ruling class person to say that their pre-tax income is "theirs" in some fundamental way (it is only "theirs" under a particular regime of property relations and public institutions which they willfully ignore in discussions of taxation). But even if it were "theirs", there are still very strong, and quite uncontroversial, ethical reasons to think that the "pay according to one's means" principle is sound. Cough it up, moneybags.

Third, it is false that the ruling class receives in profits exactly what they deserve as a result of their productive efforts. That's not how markets work. Markets aren't conscious, they aren't aware of who deserves what, and they certainly aren't in the business of rewarding people. Some of what determines market distributions is brute luck, some of it has to do with allocating resources in such a way that profit is maximized, some of it is short-sighted irrational craziness (as in the buildup to the recession we're in). In principle, I needn't do anything productive whatsoever to earn profits on an investment. Arbitrage is the most obvious example: this is when someone moves massive amounts of capital very quickly to exploit a small, temporary shift in exchange rates between, say, two currencies. This is how Soros made his billions. There is nothing productive whatsoever about such transactions. This is simply a case of money making money.

So, incomes in a market economy aren't in any sense based on what one "deserves". Often, many deserving people are denied employment simply because there is no way to profitably employ all of them. For the most part, incomes in a capitalist economy are determined by the office or position one occupies in the economy. And depending on the location of that office/position you have more or less economic power- and it is primarily the degree of economic bargaining power that determines your income. For example, if you're an un-unionzed worker in a labor market in which unemployment is high, then employers have a huge amount of economic power over you. They are in a position to push wages down in part because there are many workers competing against each other for scarce jobs. Because of your powerless position as an unemployed worker (you have nothing to take to market but your own capacity to work), your income is liable to be low. On the other hand, if you own large amounts of alienable productive resources (e.g. a factory, large amounts of resources) you are in a position to command a very high income indeed. It's not how productive you are or how hard you work, in the end, but what particular office you occupy within the system that largely determines your income.

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

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

The basic problem here is that the ruling class can only earn profits on the condition that there is a large class of people who do all the labor necessary to produce profits in the first place. The ruling class can only make their massive fortunes on the condition that they own and control the means of production, whereas the majority of us do not. Their social/economic power comes from the fact that they control what we need to survive- jobs on the one hand, and goods and services on the other.

And as any child can tell you, if all the workers in a society simply stop working, the whole society grinds to a halt. If they were to stop working indefinitely, the ruling class would wither on the vine- they wouldn't even be able to continue to eat and procure their own means of subsistence. What this shows is that they are plainly dependent on a system of social labor. This is why the ruling class pulls out all the stops to prevent and to break strikes. Ruling class persons, then, are hardly self-created, isolated producers who create something out of nothing. They occupy a particular place in the economic system, and it is in virtue of their place vis-a-vis production that they are able to have the power they have, and earn the incomes that they do. So to say that there is some sense in which they "deserve" their pre-tax income is absurd. To say that they it is an illegitimate intervention into their private affairs for them to be taxed is patently false: their pre-tax income is only possible because of a massive, public system of social labor (which is not ignored at production time, but is happily ignored at tax time). Their income is not a private affair- they need the rest of us who do the work if they are to earn it! When the day comes that the ruling class produces everything they have entirely by themselves, on a deserted island, without the help of anyone else, then perhaps their complaint will have some merit. But of course they wouldn't be a ruling class anymore in such a case- they'd just be some weird person on a island who makes all their own stuff. They'd have no power over us and they'd have no way of exploiting our labor for profit.

But as long as they need the rest of us to have what they have, they should dispense with the bogus talk about the "privateness" of what they earn. It is public in every sense of the word- and it is justly taxed by society in order to fund the basic institutions, services, and goods that are required if any society is to flourish.

But though socialists support the demand to tax the rich, this isn't the goal of socialist politics. The goal of socialist politics isn't to achieve an "optimum" (whatever that would be) level of taxation on the ruling class; the goal of socialist politics is to transform society in such a way that there is no ruling class. The goal is to bring the basic structure of society under the democratic control of the people, rather than leaving it under the dictatorial control of the capitalist class.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cornel West on Obama

(via Al Jazeera) See here. What he has to say about Libya in particular is quite good.


G.E. and Ruling Class Tactics

I was among many who noted the perversity of the fact that G.E. got away without paying any taxes last year. That's right, zero. That's the company who Obama lauds as providing a viable way forward for America and the global economy.

Now it turns out that G.E. hasn't yet received enough concession from the majority of us. They want more. It turns out that they now want their workers to make serious concessions (via American Leftist) regarding their wages and health benefits. Richard over at AL explores the question of how unions fit into the picture of how we should resist this brutal class war from above. I myself think the "union question" is always a contextual one- in conjunctures in which the informal economy is quite large, it may turn out that traditional trade unions aren't the most effective immediate vehicle for resistance. But in the US, I think the position taken on unions associated with the Marxist (esp. the Trotskyist tradition) and class-struggle anarchist tradition basically should still stand. The position is that unions must be important sites of struggle, organization and resistance but they have limits. They constrict the horizon of possible political action to largely defensive struggles that respect the limits imposed by ruling class institutions. Also they can be parochial in their political aims- sometimes inclined to overlook struggles against oppression that may or may not have immediate impacts on the struggle for wages, contracts, and so on. This is why I'm convinced we need more than unions- we need a radical left organization capable of putting forward arguments within the labor movement for increased militancy and strike action, but also capable of keeping the long-term perspective in view (i.e. revolutionary transformation, anti-capitalism, etc.).

But in the present conjuncture, we should be doing everything we can to protect the meager labor organizations that exist. They are being placed on the chopping block- and it seems to me that organizing militant labor action in a right to work state is much more difficult than it is in a state with a history of unionization. The left has to orient itself toward the rank and file (as in past struggles, especially MN in 1934).


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Democrats Push Austerity in New York

Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo has "struck a tentative deal" in New York that includes big tax breaks for the rich and deep cuts to health care and education:

The deal would end a temporary income tax surcharge on high-income New Yorkers, which some have called the "millionaire's tax" even though it affects incomes starting at $200,000 annually.

Mr. Cuomo’s aggressive and strategic approach to negotiations appeared to have yielded significant victories, including a year-to-year cut of more than $2 billion in spending on health care and education, the two largest drivers of New York’s ever-growing budget.
Predictably, the NYTimes paints this as a prudent move and speaks of "bloated" health care programs. This is treasonous as far as I'm concerned- to say that our already inadequate public health care and education institutions are bloated is horrifically misguided. If anything is bloated- it is the massive, record-breaking profits raked in last quarter on Wall Street amidst widespread social misery, unemployment, and, as above, steep drops in working class living standards. Chopping from the top is a perfectly fair and efficient approach to balancing budgets that were sunk by those at the top. There's nothing risky about it- it's rather simple actually. Thus we must ask: why is it that Democrats staunchly refuse to pursue such a course of action? Why are they dead set on forcing the majority of the population -who had no hand in the causation of the economic crisis- to clean up the mess caused by Wall Street? Any honest answer would have to include the fact that the Democrats are not a progressive political force. When push comes to shove, they side with their own- the ruling class. So while Democrats are busy breaking their arms patting themselves on the back for not being as extreme as Scott Walker, the rest of the country would do well to recognize that they are still pursuing a program of austerity for working people. They don't bite the hand that feeds them- when it comes down to it they'll pass the tax breaks for the rich before they preserve the schools of the poor.

As I keep pointing out, the proper way to assess the Democrats is to ask where we'd like to go and whether the Democrats are a good means of getting there. Crudely put, what the majority of us want is simple: to end the wars, to tax the rich, and to fully fund health care and education. Are the Democrats a plausible vehicle for attaining such goals? Well, they passed a health care "reform" bill written by insurance industry lobbyists when they had supermajorities in the Senate, so that's a clear "no" on the health care front. And, as we know, Obama gladly inherited two wars, sharply escalated in Afghanistan, and has now intervened militarily in Libya. Moreover, the Democrats pushed through a continuation of the Bush tax cuts and have been steadily chipping away at education and health care at the same time. Obama's "race to the top" education policy is a more aggressively conservative program than "No Child Left Behind". At the very least, liberals have to concede that the Democrats are a rather poor vehicle indeed. I would say that instead of an actual vehicle the Democrats are more like a virtual reality ride at a carnival (you know, the ones with screens inside that make you feel like you're flying but in fact take you nowhere at all). The sooner that progressives dump the aptly-described "graveyard of social movements" that is the Democratic Party, the better. What we need are independent left-wing organizations, with political clarity, that are rooted in workplaces, campuses and neighborhoods, which are organized and ready to fight for social justice.

Instead of buying into the "de-escalate and let us handle everything" message of the Democrats, what we need is precisely the opposite. We need to reject the idea that the Democrats are the legitimate leaders of Left movements and we need to embolden the burgeoning progressive fight-back that is growing out of this crisis. Wisconsin was inspiring because of the explosion of ambitious political energy that grew out of the big protests and demonstrations. It has ceased to be as inspiring of late because the Democrats opportunistically jumped on board, extinguished it, and transformed it into an electoral gain for them the next election cycle. This is instructive for the Left. If I were in an organization that dogmatically latches itself to the Democrats no matter what (e.g. like Democratic Socialists of America, Progressive Democrats of America, and others) I would be doing some serious soul-searching right now.


What's Exciting About This New Era

The axe is coming down hard. Due to the economic crisis, ruling classes are foisting austerity upon working people the world over. But there is resistance. It is in its early stages, but we've already seen a few glimpses of what could happen when the sleeping giant is awoken. As Richard Seymour eloquently puts it in a recent post:

It was something that I haven't really seen en masse before. It was something that some people had written off. They said was a bit old hat, doomed to a slow, dwindling death, if it even really existed. It was the working class. Not the working class in the shitty, nostalgic, culturally regressive sense that people invoke, not the deus ex machina mobilised to berate black people and gays for being too assertive of their legitimate rights. It was the working class as an agent of its own interests; it was a class for itself. It was the labour movement, every bit the multicultural entity that Cameron reviles. And that movement, comprising several millions of people, having lain dormant for years, is now looking decidedly up for a fight. If you're a socialist in one of those workplaces on Monday morning, you should have an easier job arguing for militant strike action now, because people now know what they could not be sure of before: that we are many, and they are few.
In some ways, this is what it felt like to be at the 200,000-strong rally in Madison a few weeks ago. It's heartening to know that working people in Britain are fighting the same fight. It's not clear what will happen in the short-term, but what's obvious is that the potential for a mass, working-class fightback is greater now than it has been at any time since the 1930s. There is a radicalization going on- whether it will be organized into a force that can shake the neoliberal edifice that's been erected over the last 40 years remains to be seen. But the potential is there, and that's exciting.


Another Chavez Middle East Blunder

Here. Combined with his remarks re: Gaddafi, this is a real whopper. The contradictions within the Venezuelan revolutionary process are on full display here. To be sure, we should steer clear of a moralistic foreign policy in which the demands of international realpolitik are ignored. But this isn't mere realpolitik- this is the self-anointed leader of the Latin American Left more or less shitting on a rebellion from below. This is the "anti-imperialism" of fools. Now, predictably this will be manipulated by the bourgeois press to "prove" that Chavez is a "tyrant", "dictator", etc. because he's supporting the Syrian ruling elite (as though Obama doesn't support similarly repressive, and authoritarian regimes!). But this facile conclusion hardly follows. This doesn't "speak volumes" about the ALBA Left in Latin America. This isn't going to equip us with some "deep" insight as to the "true motivations" of the Left movements challenging U.S. imperialism in Latin America. But it does show those on the Left some of the drawbacks and difficulties facing the Chavista path to socialism. As always, the Venezuelan Left (as with the Left writ large) needs an increase in struggle from below -precisely of the sort exemplified in the (ongoing) struggles in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

GE's Tax Bill? ZERO.

General Electric, the nation’s largest corporation, had a very good year in 2010.

The company reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, and said $5.1 billion of the total came from its operations in the United States.

Its American tax bill? None. In fact, G.E. claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.
Read the rest here. Set aside the recent Democrat extension of the Bush tax giveaways to the wealthy. Just focus on the G.E. thing for a moment. When the Democrat-apologists trot out their tired arguments for why you should hold your nose and spend money, political energy, time and votes getting Democrats elected to office... just remember that this appalling class tax disparity went unchallenged by a Democrat-controlled House, a super-majority Senate, and a popular young President who talked big about change. It remains unchallenged, in fact, as the article makes clear, Obama applauds this kind of thing:
In January, President Obama named Jeffrey R. Immelt, General Electric’s chief executive, to head the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. “He understands what it takes for America to compete in the global economy,” Mr. Obama said.
That's the political face of the Democrats, folks. That's supposed to be the best we've got. Now, I would never deny that the Dems are often less offensively right-wing than the hapless Republicans. But let's not kid ourselves about who the Democrats are and who they represent. If you are truly on the Left, then you have to believe that there is a irresolvable contradiction between where we need to get to and what the Democratic Party (as a national, heavily business-influenced organization) aims to accomplish. We have to ask: where do progressives want to go, and can the Democrats take us there? You only have to think rather modest things like "we should have a national health care program (e.g. like Canada) that covers everyone unconditionally from cradle to grave" to find yourself in a position where you have to answer "no".


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wikileaks: Colombia Planned "Leaks" to Link Chavez to FARC



GOP Union-Busting and the Democrats

A disarming headline: "Buried Provision In House GOP Bill Would Cut Off Food Stamps To Entire Families If One Member Strikes." Read about it here.

By comparison, attacks like this make the Democrats look good. But let's not get carried away here. The Democrats, to be sure, are not the rabid union-busters that the Republicans are. But they are hardly a friend of labor either. They receive enough money and electioneering/get-out-the-vote support from labor that the Democrats are in no position to want to completely destroy organized labor. But there are a lot of possible positions between the poles of genuine working-class political organization, on the one hand, and union-busting corporate thuggery on the other. It's not clear that it is either prudent or plausible to identify the democrats with the former simply because they aren't full-fledged proponents of the latter.

We should be clear that the Democrats are not going to revoke collective bargaining rights as such. But they will (and, in fact, already are trying to) push through punishing wage cuts, salary freezes, layoffs, pension "reforms" (read: cuts), etc. for workers. They will (and have for generations) allow the labor movement to wither on the vine and ultimately decline into oblivion. They will (and already have) push through big tax breaks and subsidize huge gains for the ruling class at the same time that they're telling the rest of us that we need to "live within our means" and "tighten our belts". They will (and always have tended to) "play both sides of the fence" and try to make it publicly appear that they are not "biased" toward either labor or capital, but are merely neutral arbiters advocating cooperation between them (their rhetorical ploy for making this argument is to fawn over the mystical "middle class"). But close analysis of what the Democrats actually do (as opposed to what they merely say around election time) shows us that even this tepid "cooperative" maneuver is disingenuous- the party clearly favors the interests of capital over the interests of the working majority.

It should be no surprise that the Democrats are using the GOP union-busting crusade as leverage to re-establish credibility with labor. This is exactly what we should expect them to do. There is virtually no cost to doing so, since the GOP is taking such an extreme position (attacking bargaining rights as such, rather than simply forcing workers to accept austerity in bargaining situations). The Dems can join in the wide public condemnation of the attack on bargaining rights as such, while keeping in line with their national perspective regarding the need for austerity for working people. They don't have to do much in the way of passing any new legislation, they needn't even commit funds to assuaging the corrosive effects of the economic crisis on workers' living standards. All that's required of them is that they stand up and say a few fine words in defense of labor- and in return they are able to generate cheap political capital with labor and pump up a legion of willing foot-soldiers for the next election cycle. It's a great deal for the opportunistic Democrats, but its a short-sighted and ultimately futile one for labor.

Though we are under great pressure to forge the recent past in a business society whose media is dominated by the ephemeral swells of spectacle, we would do well to recall what the post-2008 election terrain looked like. Obama, a young, extremely popular, enthusiastically-supported, and allegedly progressive president had just taken office. The fact that he isn't white made his election all the more significant. The Democrats had won the largest majorities in the Senate (filibuster-proof, super-majorities) and House that we have seen in generations. They had massive public support, huge congressional majorities, and a clear mandate to put forward bold, progressive reforms of the sort exemplified in the more left-wing elements of the New Deal and Great Society. Obama, in particular, had talked tough in the campaign about the need to pass the much-needed Employee Free Choice Act. He had even said to roaring crowds of workers that he would fight, tooth-and-nail to ensure that it passed. Yet what happened?

The Democrats didn't even try to bring the bill to the floor. Obama was silent. They let it die in the early months of their rule, despite having the muscle to push it through relatively easily. Don't forget: they had the trifecta: big majorities in the House, super-majority in the Senate, and a popular young President. If you can't pass a bill designed to undo the most anti-labor laws (see Taft-Hartley) with majorities like that, when can you be expected to do it? Are we supposed to wait until the Democrats get even bigger majorities? What are we fighting for when we, as supporters of the working class, try to get Democrats elected?

This question is rarely asked. The true answer from those in the labor mieleu who soldier for the Democrats is thin gruel: we must fight for Democrats to get elected because the alternative is worse. We must invest millions of dollars (that could be spent elsewhere, say, invigorating the rank and file or on new organizing campaigns) getting tepid Democrats elected because they are not Scott Walker. These folks would have us believe that this is the best we can do- the political agency of labor is exhausted by what can be done to get Democrats elected to office. What do we do, then, when Democrats attack labor? What should labor do when the "progressive" President imposes wage freezes, attacks teachers, cuts budgets, and gives away large pieces of the social product to the rich? The rejoinder is even more cynical than the original argument: we just accept that this is basically the best we can do outside of trying to back more "progressive" candidates in the primaries.

Railroading the political visions of the working class in this way is a sure-fire way to demobilize, de-energize, and ultimately destroy the labor movement. Rather than accept this tactical/organizational straight-jacket, the labor movement needs to take a sober look at its own history: how was it built? how was the 8-hr workday won? how were collective-bargaining rights obtained? how was child-labor defeated? how did the UAW win recognition?

The answer to all of these questions is: militant direct-action by workers themselves, organized independently of the two-party duopoly. None of these gains were won by way of narrow-electioneering drives to get Dems elected. In fact, the Dems only came to sell themselves as the "party of working people" in the 1930s after a massive wave of radical militancy (general strikes in 1934 in San Francisco, Toledo, Minneapolis... factory occupations and sit-down strikes in large-scale industry, etc. ). It was only after labor established itself as a powerful force in its own right that the opportunistic politicians in the Democratic party took note and decided they could forge a formidable alliance out of it. By taming the movement, defanging it, co-opting it, and giving a few concessions to the rank-and-file FDR and the Democrats purchased a legion of enthusiastic political foot-soldiers for a generation. But this was only after the upsurge in militant working-class self-organization in the 30s. It's worth noting that the co-opting maneuver wasn't accepted blindly by the rank-and-file- in fact, the UAW had voted against alliance with the Democrats at first (favoring instead an independent farmer-labor party), but were ultimately pushed by the union leadership to join ranks with the Democrats.

This is all a way of saying that we shouldn't be hoodwinked into embracing the Democrats simply because the Neanderthals in the GOP are so intent on smashing labor to smithereens. We should instead ask: where is it that the labor movement is heading, what are its goals? And then we ask: is merely electing Democrats to office going to get us there? I think the answer is quite obviously no. If you want to vote Democrat, vote Democrat. But when it comes to big, collective questions about what kind of organizations and unions we need... I think there needs to be far more resources devoted to rank-and-file militancy and organization. Rather than funneling billions to the Democrats, labor would be much better off using that money to grow its own ranks and energize, educate and mobilize it's own membership. Moreover, the Left needs to reflect on how struggles in the past were won and what we can do to learn from those moving forward. What it is obvious is that we need powerful, well-organized and politically sharp social movements that can put us in a position to change the entire framework of debate, pressure elected officials into action, and bring new people around to the ideas and arguments germane to the Left. That is not a goal compatible with the narrow electioneering approach advocated by the likes of, PDA, DSA, HRC, etc. etc. It is antithetical to it- it brushes against the grain of the idea that there is something irrational, illicit, or brash about independence from the Democrats.

It's not for nothing that many on the Left call the Democratic Party the "graveyard of social movements". After being co-opted by opportunistic, top-down Democrats its not for nothing that social movements go into decline. The most recent example is Wisconsin. The struggle there continues, sure, but nobody would say that it is as vibrant, energized, or forward-looking as it was only 3 weeks ago. Why is that? The energy was extinguished, the struggles wound-down, the movement dispersed by the Democrats who co-opted it and transformed it into a re-election campaign. From the podium they told crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands to lay down their placards and pick up petitions for recall. They poo-pooed the idea of further mobilization or strike action. They took something organic, progressive, and bottom-up and defused it. Far less attention is being paid to Madison now because far less is going on. Much of the euphoria and enthusiasm and organizational energy has subsided, precisely because of the cooptation (favored by union leadership) by the opportunistic Democrats. People bought into the Democrat mantra because they believe that this is the best they can hope for. But that is false. A quick glance at history (not even- just look at Egpyt and Tunisia!) shows that we have the power to ask for a lot more when we're organized together. The defeatist, cynical soldiering for the Democrats has to stop. It is nothing but a recipe for the long-term decline if not eclipse of the Left.


A Couple of Thoughts Re: Libya

Since the intervention began, I have been having some difficulty figuring out exactly what the imperialist powers think they are going to gain from it. What exactly are their specific goals? One thing is clear: they haven't even attempted to do much in the way of offering a specific set of "official" goals. To be sure, Washington has draped itself in a generalized language of "humanitarian intervention" and has argued that the basic goal is one of preventing slaughter. But that is an imprecise goal at best (how will it be prevented? what are the short and long-run means of doing it?), and, as we know, there is always a massive gap between the "official" and actual foreign policy objectives of Washington. One reason to suspect a gap here is that the imperialist powers have been silent re: the atrocities being visited upon protesters within the pro-imperialist regimes of Yemen and Bahrain. Why? Because they (the U.S. in particular) have a lot to lose if the repressive regimes in those countries are overthrown by democratic movements. Moreover, let us not forget that "Officially", the 2003 Iraq invasion was waged in order to preemptively destroy an "imminent threat" to U.S. national security owing to an alleged stockpile of WMD (which never materialized). The actual goal, however, was strategic and political/economic; the basic task was to pulverize an uncooperative regime and replace it with a structure more favorable to U.S. interests in the region. To say that the invasion had nothing whatsoever to do with the massive oil reserves in Iraq would be ridiculous.

But, as I say, even the "official" justification for intervention in the case of Libya is imprecise and underspecified. It is unclear exactly what the intervening nations, according to their own advertisements, are trying to accomplish, and this is just what has been baffling me of late. I've ventured a couple of guesses as to what might be going on- and I'm firmly convinced of the more general claim that U.S. foreign policy tends to track the strategic interests of the U.S. ruling class. But that more general claim doesn't enable us to simply deduce what's going on here- we need to work back and forth between the general claim and the particulars of this situation in order to reach a suitable conclusion.

So, the case for intervention is unclear, the goals underspecified, the arguments and debates rushed. But rather than be baffled by this (as I've been for the last few days), we should see this as itself significant. We already know that imperialism has nothing to gain by announcing its goals openly. But what we should also have noted by now is that imperialism also has nothing to gain by being specific about even it's "official" goals. The more specific and explicit the goals, the easier it is for criticism to get off the ground since this makes it easier to identify failures or divergences from the stated objectives. It suits the P.R. needs of imperialism far more effectively to offer underspecified, vague goals that can be re-interpreted, massaged, stretched, and spun in various different ways to meet various different legitimating demands. So we should expect that the "official" goals (themselves nothing more than window dressing for power plays) are vague and unclear.

As always, the U.S. is doing its best to spin this as a broad, cooperative effort among many different nations so as to stave off the suspicion, common around the world and true enough, that the U.S. is pursuing narrow strategic interests rather than genuinely humanitarian ones. This is to be expected. But one of the arguments deployed in defense of this P.R. move, which I've been reading everywhere, is that "even the vast majority of the "Arab powers" have signed on to the intervention" so it must be legitimate. But so far as I know, only the UAE and Qatar have signed on in full. They make up 1% of the Arab world population-wise. The Arab League endorsed the no-fly zone, but is already criticizing the intervention. Moreover, Egypt (which has a large army bought and paid-for by the US) is refusing to intervene (a fact that has everything to do with the massive political transformations occurring there in spite of the fact that the military is basically trying its best to preserve the old order).


More change we can believe in



Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Detroit and Bourgeois Coldness

Capitalism is an inhuman system. It is a system in which the demands of capital accumulation act as the steering mechanisms for investment, employment and production. Resources are haphazardly shuffled around in the pursuit of profitable investment opportunities. Human needs as such are not registered by the system's internal logic. The call to rectify historical injustices (e.g. slavery and its afterlives) registers as little more than noise to an economic mechanism that only speaks the language of profit. Accordingly, where there are no short-term profits to be made, there is no investment or employment. As G.A. Cohen puts it, "The same system that overworks people in the interests of profit, also deprives them entirely of work when its not profitable to employ them."

Enter Detroit. For many, Detroit is synonymous with urban decay, failure, economic misery, and crumbling infrastructure. Large parts of Detroit are in such bad shape that they appear as though they've been bombed out. Think Europe post-WWII. As TNR notes, "Unemployment in Detroit stands at a staggering 28 percent. And, in key measures of economic vitality in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions, Detroit finishes dead last." Moreover, as we've recently learned, 25% of the population of Detroit left the city in the last 10 years. The population is now roughly 700,000 (identical to its 1910 levels, before the auto industry really took off), down from its peak in the 1950s at nearly 2,000,000. Of course, population loss is but one of the many problems facing Detroit and, indeed, it is more a symptom than a cause.

What is the problem? The basic problems are the decline of manufacturing due to capital flight and rapid suburbanization over the last 50 years, but especially after the early 1970s. Why did this happen? Who is to blame?

Global capitalism went into serious crisis in the early 1970s. The long post-WWII boom during which living standards grew modestly for many had come to an end. As David Harvey has pointed out in various places, from a ruling class perspective the crisis of the 1970s was caused in part by the "excessive" power of organized labor. Labor was "too powerful" and was able to bargain too effectively. In other words, labor's power was getting in the way of profitability insofar as trade unions were able to win decent contracts with relatively high wages, good benefits, pensions, and all the rest of it. The power of labor and social movements meant that the state was, relatively speaking, under pressure from below to meet some degree of human needs it had ignored in the past. Moreover, the relative power of the nation state in the global system meant that it was not easy to move capital around globally.

The big problem for the ruling classes in this situation was that they were being taxed too heavily and made to negotiate with labor on terms that were far too close (for the taste of the ruling class) to equality. Mind you it was never anything like "dual power" between labor and capital --capital was always firmly on top-- but even this modestly equitable arrangement was not to the liking of capital once a global recession set in and profits were down across the board. Something had to give.

One strategy was to loosen up immigration. This was passed in the US in the 60s in order to try to undercut the bargaining power of organized labor thus driving down wages. It didn't work. Thus the ruling class pushed for the "liberation" of the financial institutions so that they could more easily move capital all over the globe. This enabled off-shoring and outsourcing so that capital could get access to the global "reserve army" of labor. This enabled it to avoid dealing with the social power of labor in the advanced capitalist nations. And, of course, another strategy was direct assaults on organized labor (e.g. Thatcher vs. the Miners, Reagan vs. Air Traffic Controllers), many of which were very successful in breaking the back of the labor movement for years to come.

Also, suburbanization (which is bound up with this process of de-industrialization) played a role. There is a strong racial and class element to the growth of suburbs. Roughly speaking, suburbanization and all its attendant spin-offs (cars, refrigerators, interstate highways, etc.) underwrote a large degree of the post-war economic growth from 1945-1973. This meant depopulating urban areas (where there were relatively few places to absorb large amounts of surplus capital) and reconfiguring large swaths of people in low-density, single-family homes. Of course, Federal law as well as extra-legal coercive enforcement mechanisms ensured that this new reconfiguration would be closed to black people entirely. Federal law also consolidated and reinforced racist attitudes and norms by staking the value of white homeowners' property on there being near-zero levels of black people living in proximity to them (Federal law used a home appraisal system when subsidizing mortgages in which an "A" or "B" rating could only be given in the event the area surrounding the house was less than 2% black... more than that was automatic cause for a low rating). In the context of widespread struggles against racism in the 60s and early 70s, many racist whites decided to flee to the all-white suburbs. To be sure, "white flight" was also a result of the devastating effects of de-industrialization. But there could have been no "black flight" since black people were barred by racist laws, white violence as well as various economic barriers from leaving the city for the suburbs.

Now this is the context in which we must understand Detroit. Due to economic factors (both nation-wide and global), the ruling class saw fit to abandon manufacturing investments and move their capital elsewhere. Suburbanization further accelerated population loss and capital flight, at the same time undermining the city's tax base.

None of these problems are "internal" to Detroit. As I say, they are national and global factors. And for this reason, the solutions to Detroit's woes cannot be wholly internal; they must come from without. Cities don't rebuild themselves, nor do jobs materialize out of thin air. These things require capital investment. Private investment, so long as we're in a capitalist system, is essential. But large public investments are necessary here as well- what Detroit really needs is a Marshall Plan.

As TNR notes,

"Institutions developed at the height of Detroit’s postwar prosperity remain--and provide the city with advantages that similarly depressed industrial cities cannot claim. It has educational institutions in or near the city (the University of Michigan, Wayne State) and medical institutions (in part, a legacy of all those union health care plans) that are innovative powerhouses and that currently generate private-sector activity in biomedicine, information technology, and health care management. And there is already a smattering of examples of old industrial outposts that have reacquired relevance. An old GM plant in Wixom has been retrofitted to produce advanced batteries. There’s a new automotive-design lab based in Ann Arbor."
This is just to say that the infrastructure and productive forces in Detroit, dilapidated though they are, are nonetheless developed to a relatively high degree given the city's past. The biggest problem is that this productive capacities lies misused or unused entirely.

What Detroit needs is a massive influx of public funds. Some will say: but how could we afford this? This is a silly question. We can afford to blow shit up and kill people in the Middle East every day of the week, but somehow we're supposed to believe that we can't rebuild things and help people here at home? This isn't even to speak of the fact that our society still produces enough of a surplus to fund both the imperialist adventures and a far more ambitious domestic spending agenda (that's just to say how large the surplus is, not that we shouldn't want to end the wars).

Perhaps the biggest problem facing Detroit is indifference. This has both racist as well as capitalist overtones (to the extent that we can disentangle the two). The racist dimension lies in a tendency for whites to gawk at black misery in such a way that poor blacks become dangerous, dark "others". This tendency undermines bonds of solidarity between whites and blacks, since many whites tend to see black misery as "their problem" and not a social problem of wide significance to all. Black people aren't seen as fellow compatriots in many respects, so when a city as heavily black (81%) as Detroit is in deep trouble many whites see that as a problem that doesn't concern them. This was true in post-Katrina New Orleans as well as in other cases. There is a profound lack of solidarity here: the suffering of the black population of Detroit is not internalized and identified with enough by whites. What's needed is a Left politics grounded in uncomprising solidarity.

The capitalist dimension is similarly dehumanizing. Capitalist investment is blind to human needs as such. It only aims to maximize profit. So human suffering that cannot be exploited profitably simply doesn't register. The system doesn't take note of it- and capital is not invested to assuage it. As far as the "Free Market" is concerned, Detroit is invisible. It doesn't matter how talented or deserving residents are- capital investment is not an ethically sound process in which the deserving get their just deserts. It is thoroughly impersonal, and has no regard for human development. This is reification at work- the tendency to see ensembles of social relations and even human beings as mere exchangeable objects to be exploited when its profitable or cast aside when its not. This is what Adorno called "bourgeois coldness". Clearly it is to blame if we're to understand why the people of Detroit have been allowed to undergo such steady decline and misery for the past 40 years.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

US Imperialism and Democracy Abroad

The architects of US foreign policy aren't dumb. They're extraordinarily clever and, if nothing else, deft public relations managers. A month ago, the notion of "humanitarian intervention" (itself a re-packaging of earlier colonial and imperialist concepts- see this) was dead in the water. Now imperialism has seized upon a golden opportunity to rehabilitate it while pursuing other regional geopolitical goals.

Why is Libya a "golden opportunity"? First of all because Gaddafi is so roundly despised in the Arab world and elsewhere. Of course, it wouldn't be quite right to say that he's been roundly despised among Western elites for some time- just a month ago the likes of the IMF were still singing his praises as a neoliberal reformer and friend of the West. Still, Washington and others have reason to think that they could fine a more willing client in Libya than their present business partner. Another reason that this is a "golden opportunity" for imperialist powers is that Gaddafi's regime is brutal. He has beaten back the uprising with ruthless military might and has promised to do terrible things to those involved if he triumphs. In the context of the region-wide uprisings, imperialist powers can couch themselves as the saviors of opposition leaders rather than the forces of reaction. Let us not forget that the Egyptian state used weapons produced and paid for by the US government to try to stop its own people from rising up. Mubarak's regime was defended by Washington in the face of mass revolt. Now Washington can sell itself as a progressive force in the region while doing what it has been struggling to do all along: re-establish control of a region where democratic uprisings have been tearing asunder the old regional order that the US (and others) had helped to create.

I must say, from where I'm sitting it feels as though the imperialists are winning the war of ideas at the moment. They've managed to hoodwink handfuls of liberals who opposed the Iraq War into believing that, this time around, Washington really has shed its recent imperialist encumbrances and intends to do nothing but selfless good for an oppressed people. They ought to know better.

Just recall, for example, the defense of Mubarak that many Administration officials gave. "He's no dictator" they said. We're worried about "stability" in the region, they said. They're prepared to say things about Gaddafi's authoritarian reign that they wouldn't dream of saying about Yemen, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Let's stick with Yemen for a moment: there has been an almost total media blackout of Yemen in the english-speaking press for the most part of late . Yet there have been atrocities there recently, with military firing on protesters and killing and wounding hundreds. I've also heard almost nothing about the Bahrain- where the Saudi's put down protests with brutal military force recently. If the Saudi's had not intervened, the US would have had to consider doing so themselves- Bahrain is an extraordinarily important strategic outpost for the US in the region and they have massive military bases there. In this case, two of the biggest allies of the US (Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) are the most authoritarian. So much for the tight link between Washington and democracy in the region.

Another comparison: take Israel's brutal assault on Gaza in 2009:

To take an obvious example, when Israel spent three weeks pummeling Gaza's 1.5 million residents, there was never any talk among U.S. political leaders about "stopping a massacre" or "protecting civilians from a deranged dictator." That's because unflinching support for Israel's war on Palestinians is part of the long-term objective of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
And for the liberals who want to believe that US foreign policy has undergone a radical shift since Obama took office, recall that this was after Bush had left office.

The evidence just doesn't sit well with the "humanitarian intervention" line overall. I can't simply forget about the prolonging of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, brutal drone attacks in Pakistan, the sponsoring of coups, imperialist bullying in Latin America, assaults on democracy in Haiti, and too many other historical examples to count (from the Balkans to Somalia). Any plausible theory of international relations must contend with the data, and liberal interventionist gloss on the actions of capitalist states in the global arena does not capture even a sliver of the available evidence. It only looks plausible on the condition that one blot out the past entirely (even the recent past of a few weeks ago!). And although the effacement of memory and the sense of the past is a hallmark of social life in contemporary capitalism, this elision is never complete or totalizing. Recent data is still to fresh to push aside completely, no matter how quickly the ephemeral swells of mass media coverage shift.

The basic fact we must confront is this: US foreign policy tends to serve the interests of domestic elites. US foreign policy aims at securing more control and power abroad. Moreover, the US ruling class is in competition with other ruling classes and states. The basic goal is to secure access to resources, favorable terms of trade and bargaining, dominance and hegemony. The refreshing thing about the hard-right is that they are quite up front about this, whereas the "dovish" liberals tend to dress the same policies (or slightly less bold versions of them) in the language of human rights, cooperation and democracy.

We forge at our own peril that for our foreign policymakers, it is a necessary condition of any and all interventions abroad that they further the geopolitical interests of the wealthy and powerful. That is the meaning of "the National interest". This is not a humanitarian enterprise in the slightest. And where the US is involved in humanitarian crises it nonetheless exploits them to further dominant interests. Sure, in some cases food and medicine is dispensed here and there- but the necessary condition of furthering strategic interests is always at the same time satisfied. Let us not forget all of this in the case of Libya.

Evidently, Administration officials are already talking about partitioning Libya in the event of a stalemate. That is unsurprising- partition is step 1 in the imperialist/neo-colonialist play-book. It is part of a more general ruling class tactic known as "divide and conquer".

So although the rhetoric is one of a "gamble", make no mistake: foreign policy-makers have run the cost/benefit analyses and they have some kind of plan. Of course, they'll continue to say this is a "huge gamble", and in some ways it is, but in reality they've intervened at a time when they feel they are on rather secure footing. They waited until the opposition was on the ropes, thus ensuring both that they could (a) favorable bargaining terms with opposition leaders (many of whom are former regime officials) and that (b) they would look more like saviors than aggressors meddling in foreign affairs. What will the concessions that Washington and others have exacted amount to? Will it mean more access to Libyan oil resources? Military bases? A quasi-client regime subservient to Washington that is internally oppressive? These are all distinct possibilities and well within the range of options acceptable to imperialist powers. To suppose that they are losing sleep praying for real democracy from below is to abscond from earth entirely. Though that's what they'd like you to believe, that's not at all what the facts on the ground suggest.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Which Way Forward in Wisconsin?

There have been massive demonstrations numbering in the hundreds of thousands. There have been occupations of the Capitol building. There have been wildcat strikes ("sick outs") by public school teachers and there have been walkouts by high school students. 14 Democrat lawmakers took leave of the state for days in order to deny Walker quorum to pass punishing budget cuts designed to force working people to pay for the recession caused by the ruling class.

Still, Walker appears to be on top at the moment. Despite his unpopularity and embattled status, he was able to (potentially illegally) force through a bill that effectively revokes the right to collectively bargain for public sector workers. This makes obvious what many of us knew all along, namely that this so-called "budget repair bill" is nothing but an attempt to smash organs of workplace democracy in an effort to streamline austerity for working people. But the worst is still to come. Walker's budget is a complete disaster for working people. To name just a few of its provisions: it hikes up tuition (up to 25%) for state universities at the same time that it makes space for big layoffs and punishing wage/benefit cuts, and it also does serious damage to WI's "Badger Care" health program. Of course, this is after Walker and the Republicans handed big tax breaks to corporate elites and the rich. The plan is classic neoliberalism, and it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that WI is undergoing IMF-style "structural adjustment" at the moment: smash the unions, eviscerate public services and vital social institutions, privatize, slash taxes for corporations and the rich, layoff public workers and force those who remain to accept speed-ups and wage cuts, etc. This supposedly all part of creating a "favorable business environment" in order that normal profit rates can be re-established.

But there is also another dimension here: this is a way of forcing working people to clean up a mess created by the financial sector of the ruling class. As everyone knows, we're still in a global economic recession right now, and this is the reason why state and municipal budgets are in such bad shape. Whereas some municipal and state budgets were directly tied to the health of the financial sector by way of investments that went sour due to the 2008-09 global meltdown, almost all are indirectly tied to the financiers insofar as a bad economy means a sharp drop in tax revenues. High unemployment caused by massive layoffs simply adds to this problem by forcing more to seek unemployment benefits while contributing less in taxes owing to their lack of income. All of this was caused by reckless, profit-seeking actions from the business class.

Yet, the inclination of our rulers isn't to assign blame to those who deserve it. They are not fair or neutral arbiters among competing interests: they are bought and paid for by, if not outright members of, the wealthy investing classes. Thus the people being forced to foot the bill for the crisis are those least able to fight back, namely those with the least amount of power in this society. Hence the assaults on working class living standards from Madison to California to Washington (and, it's worth noting, this is hardly an American phenomenon).

So what is to be done in this context? How can ordinary people fight back to defend the rights and gains won through hard-fought struggles in the past?

If we're to successfully defend collective bargaining rights now, we've got to do it in the same way that our forerunners won such rights in the first place: through strike action. Collective bargaining was not won by phoning representatives or writing letters encouraging elected officials to make the right decision. Nor was it won by way of petition and legal maneuvering. Workers won the right to union representation by showing the ruling classes (i.e. the classes who own the vast majority of alienable productive assets such as factories and so on) that they have a power that no government or corporate elite can stop: the power to stop working and bring the economy to a grinding halt.

Of course, strikes aren't automatically successful. They don't always end pretty. One of the bargaining advantages that capitalists always have is part of what makes them capitalists in the first place: large reserves of capital on which they can comfortably subsist in order to weather the storm for a decent amount of time. Another is that elected officials and state law enforcement typically come to the defense of property owners rather than workers when push comes to shove. Yet another is necessary glut of labor on the market that enables employers to bring in scabs. Even with high levels of community support and class solidarity, determined strikes can still go down as horrible defeats for those involved in them (the Tyson strike is an example of such a defeat).

Yet for all those advantages, strikes are without doubt the most successful way of bringing about ambitious progressive changes. As an IWW pamphlet on the idea of a general strike (when workers across various industries and trades all strike at once) notes, some of the most successful general strike actions include:

· Chicago, New York, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, 1886 – First victory in the fight for an eight-hour day

· Toledo, OH, 1934 – First successful unionization of the auto industry.

· San Francisco, CA, 1934 – Unionization of all West Coast ports of the United States.

· Poland, 1980 – Began the process of democratic reforms that led to the end of Stalinist control over the country.

· Egypt, 2011 – Brought the 30-year reign of an autocratic despot to an end.

There are many other such examples.

This is the American tradition that we must look to if we're to move the struggle forward in Wisconsin. The idea of a general strike may be a long-shot at the moment, but there is no reason to think that it is objectively impossible. Of course, it won't happen all at once. It could only come about as the result of a chain reaction of strikes and job actions set off by one ambitious action that sparks others. The rank and file militancy and presence of political radicals in the labor movement in past struggles (e.g. the Teamsters Rebellion in MN in 1934) is lacking today- and there is reason to think that this will make it more difficult than in the past for arguments for strike-actions to get the light of day in many of the big unions. As is to be expected, the union leaders are playing a basically conservative role at present and will not be the spark that sets off an escalation in struggle.

So, what's next in Wisconsin? What's the way forward?

The thing that has inspired people the world over has been the massive outpouring of solidarity of hundreds of thousands of protesters who've braved cold conditions to occupy, march, and demonstrate in support of workers rights. This is the basic raw material that we must use to move the struggle forward. Whereas Democrats and union leaders are asking that we chill out and lay down our placards, we need to do precisely the opposite if we're going to win this thing. We need more demonstrations in conjunction with strike actions. Most of the pieces of the puzzle are already in place: deep bonds of solidarity among hundreds of thousands of people, a wide sense that "we're all in this together", and well-formed public anger at the wealthy classes who are attacking us with austerity and union busting. The only thing that is lacking is the kind of rank and file militancy and organization that could successfully make the argument within the unions that, contra union leadership, more militant strike action is what we need right now. But although this organization infrastruture is lacking as the result of a 40-year-long one-sided class war (i.e. neoliberalism)... consciousness is developing at such a fast pace that this could compensated for in a context of rapidly escalating struggle.

But the only way that escalation is possible is on the condition that someone makes the first move. It need not be big- it could be as small as a librarian walk-out, or a Grad Student wildcat strike, or a barista day of action. Everyone would get behind such a brave move- and this could even force a discussion of wider strikes and job actions. It remains to be seen whether this will occur. But it is far from impossible right now. There is more chance that such a thing could happen now than at any time in the last 20 or 30 years. People are enraged by what is happening, and they've got their backs against the ropes. Let the recall efforts continue, but the rest of (all 200,000 of us or so) have a fight to win. There is no reason why our demands should be anything less than "No Cuts, No Concessions!".


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pseudoscience in NY Times

The NYTimes pseduo-science bureau reports that "Taller people are Happier, Especially if they're Male". The article ends on this note: "I’ll let the sociobiologists among you out there theorize about why."

Two things.

First, the article makes a typical, ideological mistake common among neoclassical economists regarding "happiness" and "well being". Though such charlatans rarely explain what they mean by "happiness" in newspaper pieces like this, economics as a discipline is far more blunt about its assumptions, and they're not pretty. Since money is easily measured and quantified, economists typically let it act as a kind of stand-in for happiness as such. The more sophisticated way of explaining their view is to speak in the bogus language of "revealed preferences". The basic gist of their view is this: whether or not you are flourishing, whether or not your life is going well, is just a matter of whether your present consumer preferences are being satisfied. That is to say, your life is going well if only if you have money to purchase things to satisfy your preferences. But this is just to restate the (typical pro-capitalist) myth that you are what you buy. It makes it sound as though you should be fully satisfied if you have a TV and car and refrigerator (never mind whether you're exploited, alienated, oppressed, etc.) It elides the structural imperative within capitalism to continually generate new markets, manufacture new wants, and make people feel constantly unsatisfied so that they feel pushed to continue working and consuming in such a way that the system can reproduce itself. Now, to be sure, material resources (and, in capitalist societies, money in particular) are necessary in order to flourish. I don't want to make it sound as though an oppressed person living in dire poverty could be flourishing/well-off/happy in the fullest sense. But material resources that give one the capability to exercise her talents and natural powers are not the same as satisfied consumer preferences. There's much more to genuine happiness and human flourishing than that.

At the end of the day, economists work with an utterly anemic, implausible conception of human flourishing/happiness/well-being/etc. Any plausible conception of well-being would have to account for much, much more, e.g. meaningful relationships, non-alienation, fulfilling projects, the exercising of one's talents and natural powers, freedom to move about as one pleases, not being exploited or dominated by others, having free time to oneself, being healthy and working in a safe environment, etc. But it's clear why neoclassical economists can't accept this more robust conception of well-being: they are fundamentally committed to capitalism and capitalism simply cannot deliver if this more plausible conception of happiness is used. It would be too obvious that the working majority is denied the opportunity to flourish in the fullest sense. After all, if your basic goal is to continue to propagate the myth that capitalism is the best of all possible systems... then clearly you want a minimalist, money-based consumerist model of well-being so that you can make it seem as though most people are satisfied with things as they are.

Of course, it may be that the "data" in this "study" is nothing but an answer to a "yes" or "no" (or 1-10 scale) phone questionnaire in which respondents were asked whether they were happy. But what do such data actually show? "Happiness" without further specification is a highly vague concept- and there are deep problems with dominant ideas re: happiness in capitalist societies. Ruling class versions of what happiness is should not be confused with happiness itself. Also, isn't there strong pressure in our society not to admit when one's life isn't going well? Aren't we taught to blame ourselves for economic misery caused from without according to the mantra of "personal responsibility"? If that's so, we should expect the self-reporting of happiness levels to be distorted based on respondent's unwillingness to admit to the interviewer that things aren't going as well for them as they would have liked. Finally, we have to account for adaptive preferences. Clearly any scientific study of well-being must have more concrete, objective criteria than a simple yes/no response that elides people's reasons for saying whatever it is that they say.

Second, suppose that tall men really are happier in contemporary societies. Why on earth should the explanation for this be found in biology, as the article suggests? Why not talk to economists, sociologists, or political theorists? Why assume that differential levels of well being are in the first instance natural rather than social phenomena? This is pseudoscientific bullshit. It's a bit like thinking that physicists or meteorologists are the people we should go to first if we want to understand why women in the U.S. got the vote in 1920. This is bass ackwards.

If tall men are in fact happier, it is far more likely that it has to do with the ways in which our current (sexist) society rewards men in certain ways that reflect unequal relations of power among the sexes. Given the dominant norms that specify how women and men are to behave, interact, divide up domestic labor, and so forth, it is not hard to see how we should arrive at such a conclusion. The idea that our explanation must be based in immutable facts of our biological constitution is both unwarranted here and floating on thin air. This kind of determinism is at odds with all of the available evidence: if true, how on earth could it explain the vast changes in gender relations that have been brought about throughout the 20th century as the result of political struggles? Plus, deterministic move has a long and unsavory history. Everyone from slave-owners, to kings and lords, to colonial elites, to capitalists, to sexist corporate leaders have used this argument to claim that their dominance was justified by unchanging facts about our constitution. Every single one of them have been shown to be dead wrong by history. Once we've actually overturned all of the contingent, human-constructed forms of exploitation and oppression in the world... perhaps then I'll entertain such discussions about how talent and natural abilities might be unequally distributed. But until we reach such a state of affairs- there is no scientific way to know what we're truly capable of. To say otherwise is to manipulate natural science into apologetics for the status quo. That is not science but pure ideological distortion.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On the Uprising in Libya

On the whole, the global Left seems more or less united in thinking that the overthrow of Gaddafi would be a step forward for the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East. But not all agree. There is some disagreement on the Left as to how to react to the recent events in Libya. For example, there is a very small set of folks (e.g. here and here) who are clinging to a pro-Gaddafi argument that runs as follows: Gaddafi is a progressive champion of African solidarity and liberation whereas the opposition is racist and pro-imperialist. The trouble with this line is that it simply has no basis in fact. First off, Gaddafi has cozied up to imperialism in recent years in various ways. He has joined in participating in the "War on Terror", he has unsavory ties to Italy's Berlusconi, and he's been at pains to prove to world imperialist powers that he has "seen the light" and deserves to be integrated into global capitalism. Multinational capital has obliged and foreign direct investment has soared in Libya since the 1990s. At the same time, unemployment has soared and wages plummeted. Moreover, as Immanuel Wallerstein has pointed out, until recently Gaddafi was getting nothing but good press in the Western press (from the likes of Giddens, Blair, etc.). To say that Gaddafi stands for anti-imperialism, African solidarity and global emancipation is to say something that has absolutely no basis in fact.

Though this facile pro-Gaddafi position is not widely endorsed, there are still some on the Left who seem to be on the fence as to how we should adjudicate the civil war between the opposition and Gaddafi's regime. The arguments from those on the fence seem to run as follows. The political character of the opposition is unclear at best, and reactionary (even Monarchist) at worst. In this context, the argument goes, the least worst option for progressive may be to side with the Gaddafi regime against the revolt, unless it turns out that the opposition is more progressive than it appeared at first blush.

Let me say why I think this argument misses the mark. First of all, it seems to assume an unduly narrow scope of analysis. To genuinely be a Leftist today is to be an internationalist. And right now, we're living through an epoch of revolutions in the Middle East generally, and in North Africa in particular. We can't even grasp what's happening in Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen and Libya without talking about Tunisia and Egypt. This is an international explosion of struggle. Our assessment and evaluation of each uprising must at the same time answer to this international context.

Of course, each national conjuncture has its particularities, and Libya is no exception. I'm not saying that we should crudely paint each uprising with the same brush. Still, our evaluation of the struggle in Libya must not be narrowly national- ours isn't simply a question of Libya vs. Imperialism. The global Left must also confront the relation between this uprising and the context of the revolutionary upsurge sweeping the Middle East writ large. What happens (or doesn't happen) in Libya will have effects elsewhere in the region.

And it is in this context that Leftists should have no qualms about rejecting the Gaddafi regime root and branch. Whatever might replace it in the event that the opposition prevails (which is looking less and less likely, unfortunately), the Gaddafi regime has proven itself to be a permanent roadblock to the kind of robust, participatory democracy from below that socialists fight for. Even from an anti-imperialist standpoint he is a roadblock. In a word, his regime is an obstacle to further revolution in the region writ large.

Let us not forget that Gaddafi's response to the heroic (and ongoing) Tunisian uprising was that the masses were "foolish" for rejecting the "admirable" Ben Ali. Nor should we forget Gaddafi's ties to the Mugabe regime (which has said it would take him if were he to be ousted), which has recently jailed and tortured socialists for holding mass meetings discussing Egypt and Tunisia. The deep conservatism of figures such as Mugabe and Gaddafi is on full display here. There can be no doubt that they are stalwart obstacles to continent-wide revolutionary struggle. In the long-run, nothing good will come from the continuation of the Gaddafi regime- any destabilization of the regime that creates space for increased struggle from below is to be preferred (some will retort that this seems to give cover to imperialist intervention- but I register my deep skepticism that such intervention would actually create space for increased struggle from below). The regime is so ossified and repressive that a new configuration would very likely be more favorable from the standpoint of the possibility for mass struggle. The sooner the dictatorial, top-down regime in place is unseated the better for leftists in Libya.

Moreover, in the context of region-wide revolution, there is good reason to think that opening up the society to mass struggle is the most progressive way forward(within and without Libya). There is already a large gap between the ideals of the masses of people involved in the opposition and the embodiment of such ideals in the practices of the leaders of the opposition. That gap can only grow in the context of increased struggle. The future of struggle in Libya depends upon an opening that will not obtain so long as Gaddafi retains his grip over the nation.

Of course, it should go without saying that none of this commits us to enabling or otherwise supporting Western intervention. The whole point is that the Gaddafi regime is a fetter on the region-wide revolutionary surge, so it stands to reason that Western intervention would be an even more cumbersome fetter on that revolutionary energy. So it's not as if unremitting opposition to imperialist intervention commits us to defending the Gaddafi regime one iota- the whole point is that we should oppose both Gaddafi and intervention insofar as both deeply impinge upon the capacity of poor and working-class Libyans to rise up and fight for their own liberation. There is no reason that we should think we must choose between Gaddafi or imperialism- this is a false dilemma. We should be uncompromising in standing with the masses of Libyans who share neither the interests of the elites on either side of the Civil War, nor the interests of the imperialist powers looking to get a foothold in a region that is quickly slipping out of their control. There is no plausible argument for intervention- that is something leftists cannot endorse. But refusing to endorse intervention says nothing of whether we should give cover to Gaddafi- that is an entirely different question. And if the analysis above is sound- the answer to that separate question is obvious: Gaddafi is a repressive, conservative force that is a roadblock to the escalation of the region-wide revolutionary upsurge.

The basic question for Leftists is this: What is the best way forward for poor and working-class people in Libya and the region writ-large? I'm firmly convinced that the answer has to be: revolutionary mass struggle. The context created by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions (which are still underway) has spilled over into heretofore unthinkable locales, provoking strikes and direct action in Saudi Arabia of all places. This cannot be underestimated- and one has to believe that the momentum in the region is such that the old "stability" of years past is precisely what we don't need right now.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bike Lanes and Gender Politics in New York

“When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing?” Mr. Weiner said to Mr. Bloomberg, as tablemates listened. “I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”
(NYTimes article here). That's "progressive" Rep. Weiner (Dem) of Queens and Brooklyn, mind you. Unsurprisingly many speculate that "the backlash against Ms. Sadik-Khan has become unusually ferocious and personal in part because she is a woman". And when we add the highly masculinized/testosterone-pumped social meanings attached to driving a car, it's plausible to read this backlash as partly growing out of a sense of emasculation by some. After all, the facts speak strongly in Sadik-Khan's favor:
DEVOTEES refer to her as “J. S. K.” and lionize her as the brave and forward-thinking city planner who ushered in a golden age for bicyclists, pedestrians and environmentalists. Two-wheeled ridership has doubled during her tenure; European-style rapid-transit buses now ply exclusive, camera-enforced lanes; and fewer people have been killed in traffic accidents on New York’s streets than at any time in the past century, according to city records.
And, moreover, it's not as though the original transition from a built environment favoring non-car transit to a car-hegemonic model was a rational/democratic one. The decision to slash and burn New York's old pre-car character was undertaken by the maniacal tyrant Robert Moses without the consent of those whose lives he uprooted and smashed. So, if there is a concerted effort to move away from this model toward a model that values human life, walk-ability and alternative transport... what's the problem? The ruling class only complains of lack of democracy when they don't get their way. When they're not consulted they whine of "big labor" or "populist tyranny".


Friday, March 4, 2011

On the Politics of Black Vernacular

I am white, and I grew up in a half middle-class, half working-class white milieu in which Black vernacular was snickered at, made fun of, and looked down upon. I've since encountered this attitude in too many (white) contexts to count.

The gist of this typical racist attitude is as follows. Black vernacular is an "imprecise" way of speaking and expressing oneself. It is a less clear, less "correct" way of talking that flaunts (or evinces ignorance of) the timeless laws of grammar and syntax observed by "civilized" whites. Moreover, black vernacular signifies the "low", the uneducated, a lack of tact and "civility" and so forth. Finally, insofar as black vernacular is meaningfully black at all, it is taken to be bereft of genuine value and accordingly deserving of no respect (because, of course, things only have value at all insofar as they borrow from or give a nod to that which is marked out as "white"). "If they were more only more educated, they would just learn to speak like us".

Now, this is hardly a peculiarly American phenomenon. Accents, dialects, and other modes of expression have long served as markers for various sorts of social and political distinctions. The tight connection between accent and class in Britain, for instance, has long been noted. But the particulars of the case of Black vernacular in the United States are, like any such asymmetry of power that is partially expressed in cultural spheres, a product of the precise history and politics of race in America.

Before tearing the above racist attitude to shreds, I'd like to note a paradox at the heart of this white scorn. First off, it is plainly obvious that black culture, and black vernacular in particular, has for some time been a fresh source of material for mainstream white culture to appropriate and gentrify. Words that are by now commonplace in many different white contexts (e.g. "cool") are examples of how this process functions. The paradox I'm trying to bring to light here is this. That which is taken to be white is constantly appropriating, colonizing and redeploying various gestures, styles, and modes of expression found in black culture. But at the same time there is this inbuilt disdain for blackness, a patronizing attitude that follows the contours sketched above. But this paradox shouldn't be taken to be a strange side-effect or problem of interpretation here. A properly dialectical analysis brings contradictions to light rather than explaining them away. One such contradiction is the fact that whiteness itself comes into being and defines itself against that which is non-white, paradigmatically (but not entirely) that which is black.

But let us return to the set of attitudes expressed above. Is there no truth to what is said there? I want to say that the entire way of thinking about black speech expressed in this set of attitudes is misleading and ideological (in the pejorative sense). First off, it is just false that black vernacular is a somehow less clear, less expressive or less precise than other more conventionally "white" modes of expression. In fact, sometimes expressions in black vernacular can be more efficient and effortless ways of expressing certain thoughts.

Now, there may be some truth to the claim that it is "less clear", but that could only mean "less clear to those unfamiliar with it as a mode of expression". And that is true of any mode of expression whatsoever. I am often baffled by various Australian turns of phrase or colloquialisms, but it's not as though I take that to be a problem with such modes of expression themselves. So it can't be a problem for black vernacular as such that those unfamiliar with it are less able to grasp it easily and quickly.

Second, to say that black vernacular flaunts the "timeless laws of grammar" is bullshit. There are no timeless laws of grammar. Grammar, syntax and other features of our modes of expression have always changed over time and have always been sensitive to various dimensions of the present situation (whatever that is). Modes of expression are a moving target, and though they shape our sense of what the social world is like, they are also shaped by the way the social world is. It is not an exaggeration to say that the vast material reconfigurations that followed the emergence of industrial capitalism inaugurated an entirely new set of concepts and expressions (e.g. "revolution", "industry", "capital", "consumer", "wage labor", "globalization", etc. etc.) needed to make sense of that radically new conjuncture. Today, texting, social media and so on are inflecting and changing our modes of expression as well.

So grammar is always in flux and our "sense" of what is grammatical and what is not is constantly changing as a result of new uses and other linguistic innovations. To say that black vernacular doesn't respect a timeless, embalmed view of how wealthy whites were supposed to express themselves in the 1950s, say, is not a knock against black vernacular. Who is it that cares about preserving certain contingent linguistic tropes from ruling class white ideology anyway?

So all that's left of the complaint against black vernacular is the claim that it's "deviant" or "low" insofar as it doesn't express how an upstanding white (ruling class) conformist should think and express herself. But that's no complaint at all. That just is a certain form of racism, viz. the systematic and irrational devaluation of all things deemed black (because they are black). That this kind of racist devaluation is bullshit is even something that white racists seem forced to concede, since they themselves make frequent use of "black" expressions, cultural norms and practices, etc. Southern culture itself, however much the racist ideology of Jim Crow tried to deny it, is partly constituted by non-white cultural norms and practices. Elvis, Johnny Cash and the Rare Earth are nothing if not gentrified expositors of a tradition that was born in the black community. The whole structure of conventional "whiteness" falls apart if you ignore the contributions of black culture and practices that constitute it. A more consistent version of this devaluing, anti-black attitude would force many whites to abandon cherished practices and cultural allegiances that constitute who they are. Their own practice of systematically devaluing that which is marked out as "black" is, in fact, inconsistent with their basic mode of being.