Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are Campus Police Necessary?

At my college, campus police were commonplace. For most of my time as student, it never occurred to me to question their existence or their authority. Like the classrooms or the library, I assumed that the university police had a justifiable (perhaps even necessary) role to play on campus.

What led me to question their role was political activism. We're constantly told what a "free" country we live in, but you learn how deeply conditional this freedom is when you actually try to change the way things are. That is, we're "free" to do as we please on the condition that we don't... protest, demand reforms from ruling elites, organize ourselves, assemble with large groups of fellow citizens, or otherwise resist existing relations of power. That is, so long as we calmly walk through the shopping mall with a big smile on our face, we're free to do whatever we like. But the minute we gather with others to ask why we're, so to speak, locked inside of a privately-owned shopping mall with rules that we did not choose, we're faced with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Millions of people are seeing the function of the police (campus or otherwise) for what it is. And, with the recent wave of repression on campuses in particular, many are wondering whether campus police are necessary at all.

It's worth noting, before getting any deeper into this question, that universities haven't always had private police forces of their own. Indeed, many universities around the world lack them. In Britain, for example, the vast majority of colleges and universities lack campus police forces. Indeed, before 2003, Oxford had no campus cops. But how is it that Oxford was able to stop itself from sliding into a den of chaos, violence and disorder before 2003? Without a powerful coercive force dedicated to maintaining campus security, how was a war of all against all averted?

These questions are, of course, absurd. But they are part of a common rhetoric of law and order that is used by University administrators (and their loyal police regiments) to justify the need for a coercive security apparatus on campus.

This is exemplified by the interesting stories campus police often tell about themselves to justify their existence. Take the following (disturbing) excerpt from the University of Pittsburgh Police Department's website:

From the very beginning, the University of Pittsburgh Police Department has steadily progressed into a premier state of the art law enforcement agency. With the constant support of the university community, the police department has utilized educational and training opportunities to become a contributing and well-respected part of the community.

In the mid 1950's, the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, which is home to Pitt Campus, experienced the same problems as any other inner city neighborhood throughout the country. Vandalism, theft and parking problems became a concern for the university, and so, the first Pitt Security Department was created. This small group of individuals became the foundation of what is now the University of Pittsburgh Police Department.

In the 1960's, the department dealt with unrest and other civil problems that plagued America. Like all campus police organizations, the University of Pittsburgh Police Officer's were often on the front lines of the conflicts and learned to deal with the students with fairness and authority. By the late 1960's, the university became a state related institution that eventually, in turn authorized police officers with the same powers and duties as Pennsylvania Capitol and Commonwealth Property Police.

In the early 1970's, the department was restructured and grew in number. Pitt's Department of Public Safety, as it was then called was recognized as the third largest police organization in Allegheny County. In 1974, the first acting Chief was named and the agencies official title became the University of Pittsburgh Police Department. Modernization was the theme of the department as computers and state of the art security systems became an integral part of police work.

I was struck by two things in particular about this story (which, as a casual survey of other university police websites reveals, is rather typical). The first is the heavy emphasis on "modernization" and "state of the art" tactics and technology. This fits neatly within the technophilic, robo-cop rhetoric of contemporary representatives of the military-industrial complex. One almost expects Pitt cops to wander around with laser guns and hover-boards, all the better to deter would-be "bad guys" from disturbing the serenity of campus life. This rhetoric of "modernization" is also indicative of the neoliberal turn toward re-establishing structures of authority during the 1970s and 80s by technologically upgrading, militarizing, and growing police forces across the board. It's not for nothing that incarceration rates literally skyrocket starting at the dawn of the neoliberal era. In the aftermath of an era marked by urban revolts, organized revolutionary groupings, strikes and mass protests, it is unsurprising that our rulers decided to resort to increased policing and imprisonment to re-establish "discipline" and deference to their authority.

The second thing is how remarkably blunt the Pitt cops' story is about the 1960s: "In the 1960's, the department dealt with unrest and other civil problems that plagued America. Like all campus police organizations, the University of Pittsburgh Police Officer's were often on the front lines of the conflicts and learned to deal with the students with fairness and authority." "Civil problems plaguing America", huh? What might those "problems" have been? Mass protests and marches, sit-in's against Jim Crow, student occupations of campus buildings, and resistance of all kinds against war, racism and the political/economic domination of the 1%. Predictably, the role of the police was to ride in on horses and re-establish authority by meting out discipline and "fairness" from above.

Combine this view of the 1960s with what campus cops are being asked to do all over the country right now and we see their role for what it is: a bulwark against student/faculty/staff resistance meant to stabilize and enforce the power of administrators on university campuses.

And it's worth noting that college administrators aren't acting alone here. The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) was formed in 1958 in order to "discuss job challenges and mutual problems, and to create a clearinghouse for information and issues shared by campus public safety directors across the country." The IACLEA even has a corporate partnership program, which helps with "strategic initiatives" to help advance the "educational mission" of the IACLEA. It's refreshing how blunt the cops are here about their "educational mission", i.e. to instill a sense of respect for existing power, etc. See below:
IACLEA has established the Corporate Partnership Program to support the implementation of IACLEA's strategic initiatives, to further its educational mission, and to enhance the ability of campus public safety agencies to protect institutions of higher education. We can tailor a partnership program that meets your company’s values, mission, and business goals.
A couple of things come to mind here. First notice the comfortable fit between "company values", "business goals", "corporate partnerships", and the language of "educational mission", "protecting higher education" and so on. Second, on the face of it, why should corporate entities have an interest in involving themselves with campus policing? What shared interests might these two groups have? And through what lens do corporate firms see institutions of higher education? To answer the last question is simply to re-state the basic priorities of the capitalist system: profit-making and the bottom line. The university, from the perspective of capital, is two things: One, a potential factory to manufacture future employees with certain dispositions (docile, obedient, hard-working), competences and skills. Two, a potential threat to the continued reproduction of the capitalist system insofar as universities can (gasp!) lead people to think for themselves, criticize the status quo, and sometimes organize themselves to resist it collectively. Before the 1960s, the potential threat posed by the populations on campuses across the country was largely overlooked by the ruling class. But they have learned well the lessons of that era.

This brings us to the question posed in the title of this post. Are campus cops necessary?

It certainly depends on who you ask. They probably are a necessary factor in the continued corporatization of the university system. And they are surely a powerful tool in the hands of administrators intent on keeping students from rocking the boat.

But are campus cops necessary to further the real mission of universities, namely to facilitate higher learning, human development, free inquiry, and community? No, they are not.

Defenders of campus police are likely to object here in one of two ways. They might take a paternalistic line and say that students are children and, as such, require the disciplinary power of a police force to keep them in line and "on task". Without threat posed by SUV's roaming around campus filled with armed police, students will be unable to look out for their own best interests. Drunkenness, drug abuse, and lawlessness will rule. This argument, be it noted, is pitched more to parents than to the actual residents of college campuses.

Students will be unmoved by this paternalistic nonsense. College students are legal adults, they have the right to vote (and they can be drafted) even if the law restricts them from having a beer until age 21. They often juggle multiple jobs on top of a demanding set of courses. They are also deemed old enough to be saddled with massive amounts of debt. Moreover, many students take it upon themselves to get involved in political organization and "extra curricular" of various kinds. Students don't need a "stern father" looming over them with billy clubs, pepper spray and guns. We can handle ourselves just fine, thank you very much.

The second argument is more subtle than the first. Defenders of campus police can argue that campus police are needed to protect students against robbery, mugging, rape and sexual assault. In fact, they'll say something stronger: without an extensive (and "state of the art") campus police force, these crimes are likely to increase dramatically.

There are, of course, the racist incarnations of this argument that aim to convince well-to-do white parents that their sons and daughters will be "protected" from the people of color living in close proximity to their university. But let's focus here on the problem of rape and sexual assault on campus to see whether there's any merit to the pro-police claim.

First of all, very few (if any) US campuses are without a small army of "modernized" and "state of the art" university cops. Yet, for all that, rape on college campuses is at epidemic levels. The majority of rapes go unreported. Of those that get reported, few press charges against their assailants. Of those that press charges, even fewer actually secure convictions against their assailants. And of those that successfully press chargers the first time round, even fewer see that ruling upheld in a court of appeals. Often the victims of rape are ridiculed, pressured not to continue prosecuting or are forced to endure a drawn-out process that merely exacerbates the pain caused by the assault in the first place. None of that has anything to do with police tactics.

But, of course, all of the above problems have to do with the inability of existing institutions to successfully deal with rape once it has occurred. This to say nothing at all of the campus organizations, norms, and conditions that encourage rape on a wide scale. What do I have in mind? I wont get into all of it, but surely fraternity culture is high on the list. We all know the drill: frat parties invite women with the understanding that the drunker they get, the better. Date-rape drugs are commonplace. All of the norms that prevail in these well-funded and entrenched institutions at US universities tend to reproduce this sordid state of affairs. Another related feature of campus culture that reproduces this problem is the typical media (campus or otherwise) reaction to rapes. The typical response is dismissive, even accusatory, and involves the usual litany of bullshit questions: "what was she wearing?", "how drunk was she?", "did she lead him on unfairly?", etc.

The bottom line is this: rape is a social and political problem, not a law-enforcement problem. Through mass emails detailing crimes on campus, universities often suggest that rape only occurs when a stranger jumps out of a bush to attack a woman walking alone on a dark street. But, in fact, the vast majority of rapes are committed by fellow students and co-workers. That is, the vast majority of rapes occur between people who already know one another.

So how do we make war against the rape crisis on U.S. universities?

Not with campus cops. The first step might be to abolish the Fraternity system. If that's too ambitious, then we could also institute mass education campaigns in which incoming students are taught about rape statistics and how sexist campus culture contributes to them. I'm not talking about giving women prudential advice about how they must always walk in groups at night or whatever. I'm mostly talking about how to educate everyone--especially freshmen--about the social and political causes of the problem and how the victim-blaming "what was she wearing?" nonsense perpetuates it. SlutWalks across the country have already raised many of these issues so that they are fresh in many people's minds. It only remains to pressure universities to change their ways. Another step would be to actually punish rapists on campus. "Yes means yes" policies are helpful in shifting the burden of proof off of women and onto the offender. I can't emphasize enough: none of these changes have anything to do with campus cops. If anything, the discretionary powers of campus police create the possibility of more rapes, not less. If you think I'm being cynical, take a look at the statistics on police sexual assault. The cops are more a part of the problem than they are a part of any viable solution.

So why not abolish campus cops altogether? Their main function is to do the bidding of those empowered by the corporatized status quo of US universities. They exist to prevent the legitimate organization and protest of students, faculty and staff. When struggle escalates enough to actually threaten the power of administrators, the campus cops will be called upon to brutally repress democratic forms of social protest. They do almost nothing to serve and protect students. The fact is that they simply aren't necessary (unless you're a university administrator looking for shock troops to stabilize your power.) Students, faculty and staff simply don't need campus cops. (We don't need a layer of bureaucrats and administrators looming over us either). We can run the university by ourselves, in our interests.

And, let it be known, campus cops ain't cheap. In an era in which we're told that tuition hikes, scholarship cuts, layoffs, and all the rest are "inevitable", I think we'd do well to look at the "state of the art", ultra-modern police forces roaming around campus. The London Review of books reports that the cop that sprayed mace in the faces of protesting students at UC Davis made himself $110,000, which is more than all but the most highly-paid professors. UC Davis employs over 101 police personnel, which is bigger than any university department. Let's leave aside here the related problem of bloated administration and non-academic bureaucracy. Just think about the scholarships that could be funded with the money saved by axing the police force.


UC Davis Police Force

Like most US universities, Davis maintains its own police force, employing (as of 2009) 101 people (including administrators), far more than the largest academic departments. The officer wielding the spray is on record as earning $110,000 in 2010, more than all but the better paid full professors.
Rest here.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Basis of Middle Class Ideology

"Market returns are to a certain extent affected by a person's effort and willingness to take risks. Since that is so, it can seem preposterous to those [read: middle class professionals, small business owners, managers, etc.] who are both better-off and very hard-working to suggest that they do not deserve to be paid more than others who may be lazy and unadventurous. And... because people care more about what unjustly harms them than about what unjustly benefits them, they can easily ignore the fact that some of the other factors contributing to their economic success are not in any sense their responsibility and therefore can be said to have produced advantages that are not deserved. The natural idea that people deserve to be rewarded for thrift and industry slides into the much broader notion that all of pretax income can be regarded as a reward for those virtues. Here... a normative concept is being taken beyond the context in which it legitimately applies." (Nagel and Murphy, The Myth of Ownership).
Of course, nobody denies that in order to be a successful doctor, or lawyer, or small business owner (or whatever), one needs to be hard-working and disciplined in certain ways. Often, success in any of these fields depends on deferred gratification of various kinds. To be sure, many people have a far easier time, given a wealthy family background and all that that entails, making their way into these walks of life. But it must be conceded that some degree of effort, hard work, and so on are key to being successful in these middle-class endeavors.

Still, members of this social class tend to have a distorted picture of society (along the lines described in the quotation above). This isn't universally true of all members of this roughly coherent (though, to be sure, internally differentiated and complex) class. But as a sociological generalization that explains a good amount of the data, I think it's more or less true.

Middle class people, because they worked hard to get where they are, assume that it must be true that all offices in society (including their own!) are more or less awarded on the basis of "merit" alone. They are tempted to generalize from their own specific social location and apply the values of hard work, thrift, individualism, and deferred reward to the entire social system. Many of the "professions" in question (especially Law and Medicine, but also Academia) are pre-capitalist in many respects and have well-defined profession-specific values and norms of excellence. Thus, it's easy for many middle class people to get lost in their specific mode of social existence and to generalize from it. It's also easy, given the often (but not always) individualistic character of their work lives, to forget that their own well-being depends upon a massive network of social labor that draws the entire working population (excepting the industrial reserve army) into its operation.

It's also easy for professionals to assume that because they satisfied the qualifying procedures internal to their profession, that they are 100% responsible for their economic "success". Thus, they are encouraged (by their social location) to overlook structural and biographical contingencies that helped land them where they are. They overlook structural features of capitalism that determine the total number of jobs available, the funding for professional education, etc. They also overlook any familial advantages, social connections, and so forth that helped give them an edge over those without such informal means of personal advancement. But everything "good" (i.e. everything that connotes social prestige or "success" conventionally defined) is due to nothing but their hard work and ingenuity. Accordingly, those worse off than themselves deserve their plight. Or, perhaps, they deserve paternalistic acts of charity from above.

What I'm describing is an ideal-type. It's not as if everyone in such a social location is mechanistically determined in such a way that they can't but exemplify the ideal type. The point, however, is that there are structural pressures that encourage people located in this role within the system to adopt this picture of the world (because, in many ways, it looks plausible from where they're standing).

So what is to be done about it?

Let me first of all say that I'm not advocating for increased middle-class guilt or acknowledgement of "privilege". In general, I don't think the Left is well-served by adopting the language of "privilege". When I hear people talk about "underprivileged groups" I feel nauseated. "Underprivileged" suggests that a person is only suffering from a lack of "privileges" that others enjoy. This language fits neatly with talk of "social mobility" and individual achievement and all the rest of it. It's primary function is to individualize social injustices. It's secondary function is to make it sound as though we only need to make it possible for some fraction of the "under-privileged" to be able to fight their way into the camp of the "privileged".

I reject this kind of talk wholesale. Let's not individualize what are, in fact, social and economic forces occurring on a macro-level. Let's not talk about "lack of privilege" or the "less favored". Let's talk about what social reality is actually like. This, of course, requires a different vocabulary that often offends the delicate ears of the well-to-do "bleeding heart liberals": exploitation, oppression, domination.

But let's tie this back to the middle class and the question of middle class ideology. If I'm not calling for an acknowledgement of "privilege" on the part of the middle class, what is the political upshot? I don't begrudge people who, as individuals trying to make a life for themselves in this system, navigate it as best they can and work hard. So I'm not saying that lawyers, doctors, academics, small business owners, and so on should all feel really guilty or something like that. The political upshot is that they must resist the fact that they are encouraged to adopt a false picture of what capitalism is like. They must resist calls to side with the ruling class by means of subtle mechanisms of social control that trade on cultural capital, prestige, and the ideology of merit. But many don't buy into this. Many professionals--particularly in periods of escalating social struggle such as what we're seeing today--are won over to the idea that the system is fundamentally flawed. Professionals are open to revolutionary politics when they see that--despite their relatively cushy social existence--their interests are not prioritized by a system bent on accumulating profits for the 1% at any cost. Moreover, some of the pre-capitalist values and norms internal to the practices that define their profession--medicine is a great example--lead them to criticize capitalism for distorting their craft for the sake of profit. The interesting thing about the middle classes is that they can be pulled either way in period of struggle.

But the key to any successful social revolution is the level of organization, confidence and militancy of the working class majority. Not because workers are more virtuous people, or more morally deserving, but (primarily) because they have a social power unlike any other class to shut the entire economic system.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Repressive State Apparatus at Work

Many will have already seen this. And, of course, there are tons of other recent examples.


Is the Wealth of the Rich Legitimate? Part 3

In previous posts (here and here) I've examined two stories that the rich tell to explain why their wealth is legitimate. Or, more precisely, I've considered and rejected two arguments meant to show that the wealth of capitalists is legitimate. The first was that capitalists deserve their wealth because their incomes are exactly proportional to their productive contributions to society. The second was that the wealth of capitalists is their reward for taking risks. We saw that neither argument succeeded in showing that wealth of the rich is legitimate. But another important argument, which we have yet to consider, still looms large. That argument is that wealth of capitalists is legitimate because it flows into their hands by way of voluntary market transactions between individuals.

Before we look at that argument more closely, let me situate it within the overall context of attempts to justify capitalism. As I see it, there are three main strategies: consequentialist, rights-based and desert-based. We've already seen two desert-based attempts at justification. Desert-based arguments claim that the wealth of capitalists is legitimate because they can be said to deserve it (e.g. because it matches their productive contributions or because proportionally rewards some risky activity that yields a productive contribution). I examined two desert-based arguments already and argued that they were untenable.

Consequentialist arguments, on the other hand, claim that capitalist wealth is justified because it is a means to desirable consequences (e.g. overall economic growth, socially useful innovation, etc.). Most consequentialist arguments for capitalism focus on incentives (not on what we can be said to deserve or have a right to). We have seen at least one consequentialist argument already within the post on risk-taking, namely, that some capitalists need big shares of wealth in order to incentivize or motivate them to take risks to innovate. That particular argument is consequentialist because it says that big cash rewards (for capitalists) are a necessary means to good overall consequences (i.e. generating socially useful innovations). I'll examine consequentialist arguments in more detail in part 4, which will be the final installment of this series on the wealth of the rich. The main focus of this post, however, will be to refute rights-based justifications of capitalism. Rights-based arguments claim that capitalist wealth is legitimate because they acquired it through a series of legitimate, voluntary individual market transactions.

The typical rights-based argument for capitalism goes something like this: Provided that there is "no force or fraud", everything a capitalist can get from the market is legitimately theirs. Or, put another way, because the market is nothing more than a space for free individual exchange, everything that results from it is legitimate. Why should voluntary exchanges between individuals yield legitimate holdings? Because voluntary market exchange, it is argued, tends to exemplify individual freedom. On this view, people are free if they enjoy certain rights of non-interference. But because the market is (allegedly) no more than an aggregation of free, voluntary individual exchanges, it follows that any third party interference with market activity would curtail freedom (and violate the rights) of market participants.

The most famous statement of this argument was given by right-wing philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia. In that book, he puts forward a thought experiment involving Wilt Chamberlain that purports to show that capitalist market distributions are just (and that any interference with them is illegitimate). The gist of it is this. Suppose that lots of people want to see Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. Suppose that they are each more than willing to part with $5 to see him. So, Chamberlain collects a $5 admission fee from each person who wants to come see him play. Each person, let us suppose, is freely and voluntarily making the choice to pay $5 for a ticket to see him play. At the end of the day, Chamberlain has amassed quite a fortune from ticket sales. But it looks as if he's done so in a way that is 100% unobjectionable. After all, hasn't he done no more than transacted with hundreds of individual persons, all of whom were very pleased to pay $5 to see him play?

Nozick's point is two-fold. First, it appears as though any interference with this process would be wrong. After all, would a third-party be justified in paternalistically judging that the fans shouldn't spend $5 on a ticket? Would it be fair if someone prevented Chamberlain from individually interacting with any of the fans who purchase the tickets? Nozick's point is that any interference with this process would be tantamount to "prohibiting capitalist acts between consenting adults." Put more plainly, it would interfere with the freedom (and the right to non-interference) of those involved. Second, it looks as if any redistribution of Chamberlain's earnings would unjustly tinker with his legitimate holdings. After all, if he acquired all of his earnings fair and square, and if each individual transaction freely gave them to him through a market exchange, what gives some third party the right to interfere? Wouldn't any redistribution, or social system that prevented such free exchanges, curtail the freedom of people like Chamberlain and his fans to come together for mutual gain?

Before I show why Nozick's argument doesn't work, let's get even clearer about what it attempts to show. Notice that Nozick is not saying that Wilt Chamberlain deserves the money he receives. Neither is he saying that the fans deserve to see him play. Desert doesn't enter into it. Nozick's own view--and other hard-Right defenders of capitalism are with him on this--is that it would require a lot of third party interference to actually have a society in which we could be sure that everyone got what they "deserved". In other words, he thought there would have to be some agency charged with monitoring whether someone was industrious, thrifty, lazy, etc. in order to see that they got what they deserved. So, unlike many a defender of capitalism, Nozick isn't naive enough to think that capitalism simply gives each what they deserve. What he does think, however, is that capitalism is the only system in which freedom from external interference reigns supreme. The Chamberlain example is supposed to show us that allowing voluntary market exchanges typically produces inequalities of wealth that are fully justified. Any other kind of social system--or any redistribution of Chamberlain's wealth--would, for Nozick, require that we sideline individual freedom for the sake of something else.

There are number of well-known problems with the argument. I make no claims to being original here--a good number of the most convincing criticisms are made by G.A. Cohen in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality.

One problem is that it is far from clear that a "voluntary" market exchange is therefore one that is freely entered into. This problem is simply not addressed by the WC parable. Take the case of price-gouging during natural disasters. Now, if I sell you a bottle of water for $100 in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and you're really thirsty, there's a sense in which I'm not coercing you to buy the bottle. You could walk away and try to find water somewhere else. So if you buy my $100 bottle of Aquafina, there's a sense in which it is voluntary. But are you free in such a case? Hardly. You are disempowered, desperate and vulnerable to exploitative treatment from people like me. Moreover, I'm in a dominant position with respect to you because I have some crucial thing you need to survive, and I am under no duress to give it to you whereas you are under a lot of pressure to get it. Lots of market exchanges, while not quite as vivid or extreme as this, are very similar. Market transactions between buyer (capitalist) and seller (worker) of labor-power are lopsided. And, of course, the worker is forced (and thereby made unfree) to sell her labor-power to a capitalist on the market because she has no other means to earn a living. Prenuptial agreements are often lopsided in favor of men because they have more bargaining power (maybe because of sexist social norms, maybe because they are the "bread winner", etc.). There are any number of examples here. The point is that market exchanges--from the perspective of freedom alone--look a lot less innocent than the WC example lets on once we examine the real world. Nozick isn't for the greatest overall amount of individual freedom in society. He's simply against certain restrictions on the property rights of owners of property. Accordingly, he rejects redistributing wealth from the 1% to the 99% in order to increase the aggregate amount of freedom in society. As I've noted elsewhere, this is one reason that the epithet "libertarian" simply cannot reasonably apply to those who defend capitalism.

Another problem is the following. The fans in the example are imagined to want nothing more than to see Chamberlain play. But there will surely be a gap between what they think they're getting and what will actually result from their aggregated transactions. The fact that they want to see WC play doesn't mean that they want him to individually amass a huge fortune. Neither does the fact that they're willing to pay $5 to see him play mean that they voluntarily consent to the power over others that a large mass of wealth might grant WC. Holdings in capitalist societies are, after all, not simply means of consumption, but sources of power. Suppose everything is put up for sale on the market, and that someone uses his wealth to purchase what were previously public streets in a particular city (I borrow this example from Elizabeth Anderson's paper "The ethical limitations of the market"). This quite obviously leaves open the door for a great deal of tyranny. When roads are publicly owned, I need not ask anyone for their permission to use them. I am free to move about where I please and I need not bow or scrape before some particular owner. But when the roads are the private property of another person, Nozick thinks the guns of the State must be used to protect whatever arbitrary decisions the owner makes regarding their property. So if, for example, the owner forced everyone to get his explicit permission to use the roads, that would be protected by the coercive power of law. Or, if he only allowed roads to be used on Tuesdays, that would fly as well. Or, he could charge an exorbitant fee. The point is that all the non-owners of the road would be subject to arbitrary restraints on their freedom of movement and association by owners. They would be forced to subject themselves to whatever crazy terms the owners demand. Nozick could have no complaint about any of this. Stronger still, Nozick would staunchly oppose any democratic decision-making process that aimed to regulate or reclaim ownership of the roads. Thus, we see what side he's really on: property owners come first, even if the vast majority is made less free as a result of their actions.

But Nozick wants us to think that the resulting consequences of the market transactions in the WC example are legitimate because each person voluntarily willed them into being. But, in fact, they didn't. All each fan did--from their individual perspective--was consent to pay a small sum to see WC play. They didn't consent to all of the macro-level economic consequences that might follow from allowing one person to amass large sums of wealth. Nor have the explicitly given WC their blessing to buy up public roads (or whatever else WC might do with his holdings).

All of this is concealed in Nozick's thought experiment. He asks us to blindly jump from the micro-level ("what could be wrong with parting with $5 to see WC play?") to the macro-level without asking how it is that the decisions within the former should justify consequences in the latter. More often than not, the large-scale consequences of market transactions are opaque to individual actors. And, what's more, often the choices of some market actors curtail the choices of others by impacting supply, demand, employment, investment, etc. So it would be absurd to say that the narrow perspective of the individual consumer lends legitimacy to the macro-consequences of the aggregation of millions of uncoordinated individual actions. When I purchase a can of soup, I may be said to have made some voluntary exchange with the owners of the grocery store. But I haven't freely consented to all of the consequences of that transaction, since I may not even know what they will be (or what they are likely to be). Yet Nozick wants to confer legitimacy on the large-scale outcomes of market transactions by appealing to our free consent in small-scale individual transactions. There's a massive gap in the argument here. Everyone knows that capitalism is arranged in such a way that individually "rational" actions produce collectively irrational outcomes that no particular individual endorses. Why should the individual attractiveness of buying a ticket to see WC for $5 grant legitimacy to those macro-level outcomes, particularly when it's hard to see them from the perspective of an individual consumer? It's almost as if Nozick is simply blotting out any critical analysis of the social system itself, preferring instead to keep us focused on small-scale transactions. The ideological effect of keeping us on the micro-level is profound.

Another problem is the following. Just because I'm willing to pay $5 to see Wilt Chamberlain play doesn't entail that I'm willing to pay Wilt Chamberlain that money. I might be willing to part with $5 to see him play, but I might not want him to acquire a disproportionate share of resources (because that would give him unjustifiable power over others, say). Maybe I'm willing to throw into a public pot to see WC, but I'm unwilling to allow one person to amass all of the earnings. Nozick simply glosses over the difference between these two--which clearly adds to the rhetorical power of his example.

There are deeper problems with the WC parable, however. Nozick wants to generalize the WC example to all of society. But once the market rules all spheres of public (and private) life, there's no space left for democracy at all. This doesn't bother Nozick himself, or many so-called "libertarians", because they aren't fans of democratic self-rule.

But suppose that Nozick had swallowed his disdain for democracy and argued instead that markets are democratic since, as in the WC example, people can "vote with their dollars." Notwithstanding the obvious undemocratic fact that "voting with dollars" means that those with more money get more votes, there are still other more fundamental reasons why markets are not democratic. The trading floor of a stock exchange is not like a public forum for deliberation and debate among equals. The market, as André Gorz describes it, "is a place where huge production and sales oligopolies...encounter a fragmented multiplicity of buyers who, because of their dispersed state, are totally powerless... [the consumer] is only able to choose between a variety of products, but he has no power to bring about the production of other articles, more suited to his needs, in place of those offered to him." The problem here is that markets respond to unreflective individualized wants--consumer preferences--expressed by buying or not buying something. Genuine democracy, however, is not fundamentally about unreflective individual wants. Democracy is about the exchange of public reasons between free and equal citizens about matters of collective concern. We could rephrase this in terms of exit vs. voice, consumer vs. citizen. Markets give the consumer (or the seller) freedom of exit. The buyer can simply walk away without buying, just as the seller can say "take it or leave it". But the consumer has no freedom of voice. That is, consumers have no power to shape the background conditions that structure the choices before them in the marketplace. Moreover, they have no say or voice in decisions about what gets produced, how it gets produced, etc. All they have is the freedom to buy or not buy--as consumers they lack any other means of having a voice in the basic structure of the economy. Notice that workers--if they are not organized--also lack freedom of voice and only have the power to quit their job (but no genuine say in their work conditions, what gets produced, etc.).

Freedom of voice, however, is central to any plausible notion of democracy. Democracy means that we collectively base our decisions on collective reasoned argument, not on unreflective individual consumer preferences. For example, if I'm in a convenience store looking to buy a candy bar, it would be absurd for the store owner to come and criticize, question and debate me about my taste in candy. I would be perfectly justified in saying, "look, I don't have to justify myself to you, I just want the goddamn snickers." But the same is not true of relations between citizens in a self-governing society. Democracy requires that we give public justifications--that others could in principle accept--when we advocate for doing this or that. When we democratically decide what to do, it must be based upon free discussion among equal citizens where nothing but the force of the better argument prevails (e.g. not power, not domination, not threats, etc.). Moreover, democratic processes require that citizens be able to hold one another to account. It wouldn't make sense to say that I "prefer" or merely "want" to cut the Pentagon budget in the same way that I prefer or merely want a snickers bar. Similarly, if you were working in a small group on some project, it would be ridiculous if you said "look, I just want to do X" and then followed all questions from your fellows with "look I just do, OK?". What this makes clear is that there is a profound difference between being a consumer and being a citizen in a self-governing society. Defenders of capitalism often generalize the model of the individual consumer to all spheres of life, thereby eliding more important roles such as that of the citizen.

Let me raise one further objection to the rights-based "entitlement" defense of capitalism. In order to transfer ownership titles through voluntary market exchanges, there have to be things--commodities--that can be bought or sold. But the market cannot create commodities--it is only a mechanism for transfer and exchange. Thus, the rights-based defense of capitalism is incomplete without a story about "just acquisition", that is, a story about how previously unowned things can legitimately become commodities (buyable and sellable on markets). I note, in passing, that any consistent advocate of the rights-based argument for capitalism would have to concede that massive redistributions of wealth and reparations would be necessary to correct for the enslavement, expropriation, violence, colonial domination and oppression that was a central part of how the riches of contemporary capitalism were created. Let us set that inconvenient fact aside, however, and ask a different question: how could unowned things in the world come to be legitimately owned by someone? Rousseau had an answer to this question: "the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, took it into his head to say, "this is mine", and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. The human race would have been spared endless crimes, wars, murders and horrors if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out with his fellow men, "Do not listen to this impostor! You are lost if you forget the fruits of the earth belong to everyone, and the earth to no one!". In other words, why wasn't the "original acquisition" of previously unowned parts of the earth not a theft of what should be rightfully held in common? And there are further problems here: aren't some things distorted or degraded if they they are turned into commodities? Take friendship. Friendship, properly understood, may not be bought or sold and still remain friendship. Love is the same way. It also seems wrong to allow (as Nozick does) human beings to be bought and sold as property. Moreover, isn't there something wrong with allowing rights to free speech to be bought and sold on markets? And isn't it wrong to allow people to purchase and sell political influence, justice in the courts, political offices, fire protection, honors (e.g. the Pulitzer Prize), etc.? If this is true--and I think it's obvious that it is--we see quite clearly that generalizing the model of "voluntary market exchange" to all spheres of life makes no sense. It generates irrationalities, unfreedom, lack of democratic voice, and oppression.

So where does this leave us in terms of the rights-based defense of capitalism? What we've seen is that entitlement on the basis of voluntary exchange cannot be generalized to all spheres of life without giving up on the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy. But does that mean that a socialist society would forbid all voluntary exchanges? Of course not. The defining feature of socialism, after all, isn't located within the sphere of exchange or distribution but within production. Socialism has to do with who owns and controls society's means of production. Socialists argue that the people should democratically own and control them; capitalists argue that a small class should own them and all others should be excluded. So, socialists need not deny that there is a role for voluntary exchanges (whether they be in the form of gifts or in the form of market exchanges). What socialists do have to say, however, is that certain goods should not ever be treated like commodities. Political power, access to education, the means of production, human beings, etc. should never be bought and sold through market transactions. Let candy bars be bought and sold, but leave the important features of our shared life together under the jurisdiction of democracy from below.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chicago's Democrat Machine Votes Unanimously For Austerity

This is a declaration of war by the 1% against the 99% right here in Chicago. The bill cuts over $400 million out of city services: It shuts down 6 of 12 Chicago Dept of Public Health clinics, it cuts $63 million from Family and Support services (which has already eliminated 63 full-time jobs this year alone), slashes full-time public library staff by 32% (on top of the 10% cuts last year) laying off more than 300 librarians, reduces hours for libraries, makes cuts to firefighter pay and closes fire-stations, etc. Meanwhile Rahm is pushing hard for big tax breaks (e.g. $23 million for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) for the wealthy as well as public transit fare hikes.

If the Occupy movement is for taxing the rich, Rahm is for taxing the poor, cutting services and giving big tax breaks to the 1%. No wonder he spends most of his time fraternizing with millionaires. But let's not forget that he's one of them. Rahm made over $10 million during a brief two-year stint as an investment banker in between being a "public servant" of some sort or other.

The bill passed unanimously. This wasn't hard to see coming, but given the increasing levels of struggle in Chicago, one would have thought that were would at least be some hesitation. The City Coucil, like the rest of the city's government, marches in lock step with the Democrat Machine in general. And of course, when they aren't actually members of the 1% themselves, the leaders of the Machine march to the tune of the 1%. Sure, some of the so-called "progressives" on the City Council like Joe Moore made a few critical remarks before hand to keep up appearances. But in the end, they all voted for 100% of it (just like the infamous parking-meter privatization deal). Cuts, tax breaks for the rich and all. As Moore himself put it, “it's an honest budget." Yes, I agree. It's nothing if not honest. It's a ringing endorsement of the status quo. It's a huge gift to the 1%.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Is the Wealth of the Rich Legitimate? Part 2

In a previous post I argued that the wealth of the rich (more precisely: of capitalists) could not be justified by reference to the principle that "each person deserves that amount of wealth that reflects her productive contributions". Capitalists need not do anything productive in order to be capitalists. The pure capitalist earns everything from owning and nothing from working (that is, to the extent that a capitalist can be said to earn from working, she is to that extent not a pure capitalist).

But, as I discussed in the previous post, this story about desert and productive contributions is only one among many. Another (perhaps the most popular?) story that's told to legitimate the wealth of capitalists is that their wealth is a reward for having taken bold risks. Or, put another way, since the capitalist risks her capital when she invests it in some business venture, she deserves exclusive rights to all of the returns above and beyond costs paid out for raw materials, wages for workers, etc.

This story is told so frequently that it almost seems odd to question its plausibility. But how plausible is it?

Let's try to first figure out exactly what its saying. Is it saying that people should be rewarded in proportion to how much risk they take on? That can't be right. That would mean that the riskier I behave, the more I should be rewarded (whether or not the risk pays off). But, of course, it's a fact about risks that they can turn out for better or for worse (otherwise they wouldn't be risks). Risks always involve some element of luck and chance wherein the risk could turn out badly. But nobody in their right mind would say that the mere fact that I've taken on some risk (whether or not it pans out) means that I should be rewarded. For example, no one would say that some particular capitalist, just because they take on risks, deserves a return on their investment. If I, for example, invest in a business that has a 10% chance of succeeding, and it doesn't succeed, nobody thinks that this entitles me a cash "reward" of any kind.

But if that's not what's meant by "reward for risk", what is? Perhaps what's meant is that the capitalist's riches are her reward for having taken a risk that ended up panning out. If I bet against the odds and win, then it looks like what I get is my reward. Why not say the same about capitalists whose investments pay off?

There are several things to say here. First, it's just false that risky capitalist activity actually gets higher rewards when it pays off. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. And lots of capitalist activities aren't risky at all. An investment need not be risky to be very lucrative. If some public asset (a natural monopoly, say) is privatized and I get ownership of it, I may be able to charge fees and earn big profits even though there is virtually no risk. Or, consider that many financial institutions are, and they know that they are, "too big to fail."

We must also take into account that risk context sensitive in various respects. What may be risky for me (given my situation) may be less so for you (given your situation). Imagine a working class person who saved money for years to open up a small coffee shop. This is surely a risky activity since she will need to take out big loans on a project that could very easily go bust (and it's not as if they have millions to spare if it does). Now, imagine that I invest $40 million of a $140 million fortune in relatively low-risk securities that turn out to pay out big dividends. Instead of risking my capital on start-ups, I put it all in well-established, multinational corporations. So, I'm reaping large cash "rewards" from my investments, much larger (even in proportional terms) than the returns a successful small coffee shop owner will ever earn. But I am taking on very little risk whereas the newly petit bourgeois coffee shop owner is taking on a great deal of risk. There are innumerable examples of this sort. What they show is that capitalism doesn't, as a matter of fact, distribute wealth in accordance with the principle that riskier bets (that pan out) receive larger cash rewards than those that involve less risk.

But this isn't likely to satisfy defenders of the "risk and reward" view of why the capitalist's earnings are legitimate. They will probably reply by offering two different objections. The first has to do with the idea that capitalism is a fair game where the winner deserves to take all the spoils of victory. The second has to do with incentives and innovation. I'll examine (and refute) each in turn.

The first objection is as follows. Capitalism can be thought of as a fair game in which everyone (legally speaking) has a chance to be a successful capitalist. As long as the rules of this game are fair, then whatever outcome results from it is legitimate. So, for example, when I play blackjack and the casino hasn't rigged the game in their favor, and both the casino and I have consented to play the game, whatever I take home in winnings is legitimately mine. Capitalism, you might think, is the same way. If I risk $10 million on a risky investment and it pans out, why aren't I entitled to (or deserving of) all of the cash returns in the same way that I'm entitled to the cash returns of the game of black jack? In fact, wouldn't taxing the capitalist's profits be similar to stealing a gambler's winnings, even though she made a fair bet in both cases?

There are a number of things to say here. We might ask whether the "game" of capitalism really is fair (I shall argue that it isn't, and that the gambling/investing metaphor is misleading). But even if it is fair, we might still ask whether it makes sense to structure our economy like a winner-take-all casino game. I shall argue that there are deep problems (both structural as well as normative) with allowing the economy to be run like a casino.

Let's examine the fairness of the "game of capitalism." First, recall where capitalism comes from (read Part 8 of Capital for a detailed historical analysis): the expropriation and killing of indigenous peoples and European peasants, the forcible seizure and enclosure of commonly owned land, colonial domination and forced labor, the enslavement of human beings, and so on and so forth. And we could add that capitalism didn't leave imperialism, violence, oppression, racial domination, coercion, theft, and expropriation behind after the 17th and 18th century: these have been permanent features of the system throughout its existence. So the "game" is rigged from the start. There has never been a "level playing field" from which to begin the game.

But, suppose that there was a level playing field. Would that fix capitalism's problems? Would that mean that the "game of capitalism" is actually procedurally fair? I think not. First of all, not everyone can play the game of capitalism. In order to play, you must have something to invest (because that's one of the rules of the game). Now, defenders of capitalism will say that nobody is legally excluded from playing the game. But that's clearly a flawed argument. First of all, it's a fact that lots of people, indeed the vast majority of people, do not have the discretionary funds to play the game. David Schweickart makes the second point forcefully as follows.

Suppose you and I flip a fair coin; we each bet a dollar per round; heads I get your dollar, tails you get mine. The game is "fair" in the sense that we both face the same odds at any toss of the coin. However, a complication arises when we look at the game in light of its initial conditions. If I enter the game with $20 and you with $10, you are twice as likely as I to go bust. If you do go broke, and another player enters with $10, he will be three times more likely to be cleaned out than will I (because my initial stake has been supplemented by your losings)... So the large investor, although he has more to lose, is less likely to lose than is the small investor. Add to this that wealth gives one access to information, expert advice, and opportunities for diversification that the small investor lacks, and we see that the balance between magnitude of loss tilts toward the wealthy.
What this shows is that even textbook "ideal" capitalism isn't a fair game.

But there are further problems with this game, even if it was "fair". First of all, it presupposes that some people are playing the game--the capitalist investors--while others, who own no capital to invest, do the work--the workers. And while the capitalists are busy playing the casino-like game of capitalism, workers have no say in what is going on. Yet, and this is key, they stand to lose even more than the capitalists if the bet fails. That is, if a capitalist investor loses $10 million on a deal, but still has $3 million back at home, it's not as if he will be going hungry any time soon. But if 2,000 workers lose their jobs, we can be sure that they don't have million dollar nest eggs sitting at home waiting to be spent. Unemployment, as millions of Americans know first hand, can be absolutely devastating--particularly when wages and benefits are so meager even during periods of full-time employment. Capitalists, of course, stand to lose more in absolute dollar terms, but because of the diminishing marginal utility of money, it means much less to them. Think of the way that the economic crisis has gone thus far. The reckless, profit-driven investments of the financial sector produced a global crisis that has had devastating effects on working class living standards at the same time that it has primed the pumps for austerity administered from above. The point is this: casino capitalism is unfair because it presupposes a class of working people who can't play the game but, nonetheless, stand to lose a great deal if the capitalist's gambles don't pan out.

Imagine a capitalist who replies to a labor union as follows. "I risked all of my capital on this business, so who are you to collective bargain to get a piece of it? That's unfair because I assume all the risk, yet you want to share in the rewards." Now, we've already seen that this doesn't work because the workers do share in the risk--the risk of losing their job--even though they are guaranteed none of the winnings. But we can also add that it's not as if the workers were asked to share in the risk. It's not as if the boss will ever say: look, if you like, we can make this a worker-owned and worker-run collective in which we all share the risk (and the profit) equally. So it doesn't make sense to complain that workers share none of the risk.

One further thing to say regarding the idea that our economy is best thought of as a casino-like game in which the winner takes all. It is not clear that it makes any sense to structure basic economic institutions in this way at all. The economic system should exist to draw on the mutual benefits that we get from social cooperation. What we can accomplish together is far greater than what we can accomplish alone: that should be the basic organizing principle of any just economic system. The casino-style setup, however, exploits the fact that an economy requires mass participation, takes this mass participation for granted, and then haphazardly doles out lump sums to individuals who happen to get a good roll on the dice. That makes no sense to me. Let's use the power of economies of scale and increased productivity to maximize human capabilities, to meet socially recognized needs, to do great things together that we couldn't have done alone. Rather than being trapped inside a casino that I never asked to enter in the first place, I'd rather be a member of a self-governing community in which the condition for the free development of each individual is the free development of all.

But there is one last objection to my argument--which has to do with incentives and innovation--that I mentioned above. It goes as follows. A flourishing society requires that people take risks, innovate, try out new methods and techniques, and produce new things that may not ever pay off. I agree so far, but the objection isn't finished. It continues: in order to get people to take risks and innovate, they must be motivated by large cash rewards. And that means that capitalism is the only system in which innovation and risk-taking can flourish, because without the big cash rewards that the market hands out to successful businesses people wouldn't be motivated to innovate.

First of all, we've seen that capitalists don't need to do any innovating at all. They can pay someone else to do it. Capitalism--where there is private ownership of the means of production which are run in order to enrich the owners--does not distribute wealth in accordance with who is the most innovative or who takes on the most risk to make some socially useful good. There is no close connection between being a capitalist and being an innovator. R&D departments--many of them subsidized by public funds (this is called "externalizing costs")--do that. Much R&D is located within universities--which are more feudal, guild-like institutions than they are capitalist.

Second, it is demonstrably false that people need huge cash rewards in order to innovate and do great things. Great scientists, great novelists, great musicians and artists, and so forth rarely do what they do out of a single-minded focus on cash reward. Think of those who develop open-source software. I think it is true of a lot of people that if they were guaranteed a basic standard of living, they would be happy to spend a large portion of their time developing open-source, free software for the betterment of all. There are too many examples here to count. People, of course, want an adequate standard of living in which they don't want for any basic necessities, in which they have adequate leisure and a degree of discretionary spending. But that doesn't mean they have to have huge million-dollar rewards to socially-useful things.

Finally, capitalism thwarts a ton of really important innovation while it privileges others. Many know about the strange murder of the electric car. There are other examples of this kind --particularly green technologies that aren't profitable or undermine the profitability of natural resource extraction. In fact, we may never know how many great ideas are out there that haven't been given a try simply because capitalist production can't earn a profit off them (or because they take too much long-term planning or upfront investment, as is the case with much green technology). To be sure, there is a place for competition to determine who should win socially-produced funds for some new innovative project. But that doesn't require capitalism. Despite encroachment from corporations and moneyed interests, grant funding for scientific projects doesn't involve capitalist markets or profits.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Is the Wealth of the Rich Legitimate? Part 1

Is the wealth of the rich in contemporary capitalist societies legitimate? Of course not. But the rich have a vested interest in making sure that the majority of the population --who aren't rich-- think that their wealth is legitimate. It hardly matters whether it's aristocratic privilege, family lineage, racial or sexual supremacy that makes a group dominant. It remains true that dominant groups almost always try to preserve the basis of their own dominance.

Dominant groups typically have two (analytically distinct, but in practice interwoven) means of maintaining dominance. The first is obvious. Dominant groups typically monopolize control of the means of exerting physical repression. If you push too hard against the status quo, dominant groups will always (if possible) push back with physical repression in order to protect their dominant status.

But dominant groups never maintain their dominance through naked violence alone. They have another means at their disposal: ideology. That is, dominant groups stabilize their rule by telling stories about why their rule is legitimate. Think of the "divine right" of Kings, the "positive good" doctrine that purported to justify the dominance of Slave owners, the so-called "civilizing mission" that Colonization attempted to carry out, the supposedly "scientific", technical expertise of bureaucrats. The stories the rich tell about the supposed legitimacy of their wealth are a key part of this long tradition of lying to the masses to protect privilege and power.

What are those stories? The most common one is that the rich deserve their wealth because they work hard to produce it. Because the wealthy (the "job creators"!) make such important productive contributions to society, the story goes, they deserve every cent they earn. Another story is that the rich deserve their wealth because they undertake a great deal of risk when they invest it. Yet another story that is told, perhaps the least plausible of all of them, is that the rich deserve their wealth because they sacrifice more than others (by saving and foregoing consumption). Finally, there is the claim that the wealth of the rich is legitimate because they are legally entitled to it in a regime of private property where ownership titles are distributed by way of voluntary exchanges.

Now, in practice these legitimating narratives are often run together and interwoven. The war of ideas is never as clear cut and organized as academic discourse aims to be. But for our purposes --that is, for the purpose of showing that all of these stories are pure fiction-- we'll examine them each separately in a series of blog posts (of which this is the first). In examining each, I'll follow closely along the lines of the arguments put forward in David Schweickart's excellent book Against Capitalism. Anyone interested in seeing a detailed, rigorous refutation of every familiar argument in favor of capitalism would do well to pick up a copy. In what follows, we'll just examine the first. The other stories will be taken up in subsequent blog posts.

The first story says that the wealth of the rich is legitimate because it is their reward for making productive contributions to society. A more technical way to say this would be the following: in a "purely competitive free market" what the wealthy earn directly corresponds to their marginal productive contribution in the economy. In neoclassical economic theory --which is little more than an elaborate way of cheerleading for (rather than critically analyzing) capitalism-- this is called the "marginal productivity theory of distribution." As an early defender of this view puts it, "the natural effect of capitalist competition is... to give each producer the amount of wealth that he specifically brings into existence."

Before we show why capitalism is not a system in which each receives according to what each produces, we need to do a bit of table setting. In order to produce anything at all, two things are required: labor and means of production (e.g. factory equipment, instruments, technical knowledge, land, space, etc.). It is a fact about capitalist societies that the vast majority of those who labor for a living do not own the means of production they use at work. The owners of the means of production are usually distinct from the group uses those means. Up to this point we've been talking about "the rich" or "the wealthy" --but to be more precise we're actually interested in capitalists (i.e. that group who earns a living by owning, rather than using, the means of production).

Now, everyone knows that those who labor (by using means of production) to produce goods make productive contributions to society. Auto workers, for example, use their own two hands to build cars that wouldn't have existed if they hadn't built them. Their productive contribution is clear, and so it is with all workers in society. But what we want to know is whether capitalists actually make any productive contributions to society in order to receive their income. If they did, and if capitalism rewarded their productive contributions proportionately, it would look like their wealth was pretty legitimate.

But what is the productive contribution of capitalists in our economy? Notice that we can't just define their productive contribution in terms of what they receive from the market, since that is circular. We want to know whether the market actually gives each what they deserve. So we can't very well say that what people deserve is what the market gives them --that begs the question. What we're trying to figure out is whether the market actually distributes according to productive contribution.

Some will say that the contribution capitalists is their entrepreneurial spirit and innovating attitude. Others will say that capitalists do a lot of work co-ordinating and managing the productive process. No doubt ingenuity and creativity are required to make a capitalist firm successful. Even a socialist society would require ingenuity, innovation and "entrepreneurial" spirit of some kind or other. Likewise, co-ordination and workplace organization are essential. But notice that capitalists can simply pay someone else to do all of the innovating, all of the managing, and all of the co-ordinating. And they often do. If I'm a capitalist, I can hire a management consultant, an industrial engineer, and a research and development team to do all of the managing, organizing and innovating. But I'm still a capitalist --and I'll still earn handsome sums of cash for myself (indeed, I'm in a position to earn far more than anyone else in the entire firm even though I don't do any real work). So in this case, where's the productive contribution that supposedly legitimizes my massive sums of wealth?

Some will say that what I'm doing is "providing capital". After all, we said that two things --means of production and labor-- were needed to produce goods. We know that workers make contributions by laboring to produce things. But it is, of course, true that the means of production (e.g. capital, the factory space, instruments, etc.) add value to the final product. And capitalists, by definition, own and control the means of production. So aren't they performing an essential productive function by providing it? Couldn't we say, then, that this is productive contribution that justifies capitalist wealth?

But let's think about this for a moment. What exactly is going on when a capitalist provides capital? They are doing nothing more than "allowing it to be used". They are doing no more than granting permission to make use of an already existing material thing --e.g. factory equipment, raw materials, etc. But, as Schweickart points out: act of granting permission, in and of itself, is not a productive activity. If laborers cease to labor, production ceases in any society. But if owners cease to grant permission, production is affected only if their authority over the means of production is respected. If it is not, then production need not diminish at all. Workers can continue doing exactly what they were doing before --producing corn and bread and steel and machine tools and all the other commodities required by their society. Whatever the owners are doing when they grant permission for their assets to be used, it should not be called 'productive activity'.
To drive the point home, consider the following example.
Suppose a government suddenly nationalizes the means of production, then does nothing else but charge workers a tax to make use of it. We wouldn't say, would we, that the government is engaging in productive activity, or that the tax is a return for the government's productive contribution? Not even if the tax rate is exactly equal to the marginal product of the productive labor.
But some will reply here that there's a difference between providing physical means of production (e.g. raw materials, tools, factory equipment, etc.) and providing capital investment funds to finance a productive endeavor. Surely providing an already existing material thing --whether it be factory tools, land, etc.-- is not a productive activity. It is no more than granting permission. But isn't financing production by lending capital a productive activity that takes a great deal of skill? Schweickart gives us an excellent example here: "Consider a person with a chest full of cash, eager to invest. How he acquired it need not concern us. We want to understand how his disposal of it will increase production. To produce something, there must be brought together equipment, raw materials, and laborers. Let our investor lend his money to an entrepreneur who purchases these necessaries. The laborers are set to work with the machinery and raw materials, and soon goods are produced. It is all quite simple. But notice, this is also a matter of granting permission. The workers, the raw materials, and the machinery already exist. The workers could begin production themselves, except that property rights intervene. They cannot gain access to the machinery and raw materials, for these things are the property of others. To use them, one must have permission, which the entrepreneur secures by means of her borrowed capital." But permission is only needed if one respects the authority of the legal titles to ownership of the things needed to produce. So the workers could produce just as well without permission if they didn't respect that authority. It follows, then, that permission is in no way a productive contribution.

Take another of Schweickart's examples:
Suppose, instead of relying on our friend with the chest full of money, the government simply rolled out its presses to produce the same quantity of crisp bills and gave them to our entrepreneur. Exactly the same production would result. But would we want to call the printing of the money a productive activity? That would surely be misleading, perhaps dangerously so, tempting officials to believe that rolling the presses longer and longer would miraculously generate wealth.
The point of all of this is that "providing capital" is not a productive activity. But if that's true, then we are forced to conclude that capitalists, qua capitalists, make zero productive contributions even though the market gives them the lion's share of the surplus created by society. As even John Kenneth Galbraith put it,
No grant of feudal privilege has ever equaled, for effortless return, that of the grandparent who bought and endowed his descendent's with a thousand shares of General Motors or General Electric. The beneficiaries of this foresight have become and remain rich by no exercise or intelligence beyond the decision to do nothing, embracing as it did the decision not to sell.
Or, if you'd like another example, examine a graph showing real wages for workers and worker productivity from 1973 to the present. What you'll notice is that productivity goes way up whereas wages stagnate. Someone reaped all of the difference and got filthy rich, but it wasn't the workers who were producing more and more each year. Again, we see that market distributions don't reflect productive contributions.

So what explains the fact that capitalists own the vast majority of wealth in our society? They don't receive this wealth as a result of any productive contribution they make. When they earn interest or dividends on their invested wealth, they need not do anything productive at all. When they make millions from arbitrage, they haven't done anything productive whatsoever. So in virtue of what do they earn such vast sums of wealth? In virtue of their ownership. Whereas the vast majority of us have no choice but to earn a living from the work that we do, capitalists earn their riches merely by owning things. But if the vast majority --the 99%-- does 100% of the productive activities in society, how could be legitimate that the unproductive 1% owns and controls the lion's share of the wealth produced? Good question.

So, what I've shown is that a certain argument, i.e. that capitalism distributes wealth according to productive contributions, is false. In a series of upcoming posts, we'll look at other fairy tales told by the rich to protect their wealth and power.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Greek Capitalism's Safety Valve

It would have been an understatement to say that Papandreaou's government was hemorrhaging legitimacy and credibility in its final weeks.

The task, then, for the Greek ruling class (and the EU) is to ensure that this massive loss of legitimacy attaches only to Papandreou (and PASOK), and not to the entire Greek state as such. This is the function of the electoral mechanism in Greece. Only 2 years ago, Papandreou and PASOK rode into power, winning in a landslide due to the growing unpopularity of the Right in the context of deep economic crisis. Now, 2 years later, the Right, indeed the very same morons who were rejected when Papandreou took power, stands poised to do the same thing. The consensus seems to be that the current "unity" government in Greece is little more than a face-saving device meant to by time until general elections are held (when, it is expected, the Right will re-gain power due to the (justifiable) unpopularity of PASOK).

What we see here is that the electoral mechanism in Greece, far from giving the Greek people the opportunity to self-govern, is little more than a safety valve for the Greek status quo. When the steam builds up to such an extent that an explosion of social struggle seems on the horizon, the safety valve ensures that some of that pressure is released and dissipated. Thus, when the government looks on the brink of collapse, when it has squandered the confidence of the vast majority of the working population, it does not immediately amount to a loss of confidence in the system as such; it only seems to immediately impugn the sitting government.

In the midst of the rule of any particular government, of course, it is clear that real democracy is non-existent. The government --whether Right or center-Left-- will push through austerity measures meant to protect the assets of the EU ruling classes. They don't care what the population thinks --they'll pursue austerity one way or another. Of course, it behooves a sitting government to at least try to convince the population that austerity is necessary, or to scare them with doomsday talk of what would happen if Greece were to leave the EU. So they'll do that because it's prudent --but when push comes to shove they're going to ram through austerity whether or not the population consents to it.

The media discussion of the appointment of Papademos is interesting. The consensus seems to be that he is, in some thoroughly apolitical sense, the "most qualified" for the job. But who is it that is supposed to be convinced that he is "most qualified"? And what job, for whose benefit, is he supposed to be doing? Papademos was chosen because he would win the backing of the the EU's ruling class (what's euphemistically called "the market") and its political leaders (particularly Sarkozy and Merkel). Hence there has been a "collective sigh of relief" among political elites and ruling class investors. Papandemos's "job" is to find a way to ram through austerity in order to avoid a default so that the profit-seeking investments of the EU ruling classes (in Germany and France in particular) are protected. What are Papademos's qualifications? "Papademos, 64, was seen by many, both inside Greece and internationally, as the best choice to steer Greece through its worst post-war economic crisis due to his technocratic credentials and perceived financial expertise."

So let's take stock of what's been said above. Papandemos applied for a job and won it. His employer is a conglomeration of the EU ruling classes and their political representatives. The description of his office is to find a way to ram through austerity in order to protect the assets of his employer. His (ostensibly non-political) qualifications are that he is a deft technocrat with lots of "financial expertise".

So, democracy doesn't even enter into it. When Papandreou called a referendum on austerity, he was excoriated by business, the business press, and the business-backed politicians alike. The ruling classes panicked (i.e. "markets plummeted"). But now that democracy is off the table, everybody's happy. Now that a technocrat trusted by EU Capital is at the helm, it's all good.

But just imagine: what if the system couldn't simply switch out different ruling class representatives, dumping one as a fall out guy and picking up another who promises "change", when the going gets tough? It's clear that the system would have a far more difficult time legitimating itself. We get to "decide once in three or six years which member of the ruling class is going to misrepresent the people in parliament...", but we don't --if we play by the rules of established electoral procedures-- get to actually decide whether we should be dominated by a ruling class at all. For my part, I'm hoping that the growing extra-electoral political struggles --in the streets, in the public squares, in the universities, in the workplaces, in government ministries-- continue to grow. That's the only hope the Greek people have of conquering for themselves the power to meaningfully self-govern.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Occupy Paris (1871)

"The Commune, they exclaim, intends to abolish property, the basis of all civilization! Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land and capital, now chiefly means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labour." -Karl Marx "The Civil War in France" (1871)


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thomas Friedman: "Imperial Messenger"

I love it.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Papandreou Steps Down; "Unity Government" Formed

Papandreou set the ball rolling on Monday with a shock announcement that Greece would hold a referendum on the terms of its October bailout deal which calls for further fierce austerity measures.

The move stunned fellow European leaders, sent global markets into a tailspin and earned the Greek prime minister a humiliating dressing-down by France and Germany on Wednesday ahead of a G20 meeting.

Hastily retracting the proposal, Papandreou then turned disaster into temporary victory by winning a nail-biting confidence vote early Saturday by offering to step down in favour of a unity government.

The Greek people, meanwhile, battered by two years of stringent austerity measures that have crippled the economy and sent unemployment soaring, appear to have had more than enough of their squabbling leaders.

"The people are suffering at the moment and they [politicians] are not budging," said Marianna, a shopkeeper.

"A unity government with whom? With the same people? We will have the same results," she said gloomily.

"Papandreou. Samaras. They are all the same," said Takis Karalambos, as he sipped coffee outside a market in Athens.
Read the rest of the Al Jazeera article here.

The call for a referendum on the brutal EU austerity proposal set off a firestorm among EU leaders, all of whom have severe cases of "demophobia". The European ruling class made their disgust known as well as markets plummeted after the announcement of a referendum was made.

But no sooner than Papandreou had announced the referendum, he'd retracted it in favor of an arrangement favored by the EU, particularly the French and German governments: form a "unity" government with the Right-wing parties in parliament in order to more effectively push through the brutal austerity measures recommended by the EU proposal.

Of course, Greece is a capitalist country. That is to say, Greece is not democratic in any genuine sense --the control of the means of production (and all of the social and political power that this ownership and control entails) is private rather than democratic. But even the political realm --where ostensibly democratic parliamentary processes prevail-- recent events prove that there is no real democracy.

Think about what's happened. The EU ruling elites, who are looking first and foremost to protect their profit-seeking investments in Greek debt, were horrified when they learned that their favored policies would be submitted to the Greek people for approval by way of referendum. They were horrified both because the masses of Greek workers would have a voice in policy and because they knew that Greek workers, quite reasonably, would value their own standard of living more highly than the profit margins of the EU ruling class.

The vitriol of the EU ruling classes has now been translated into concrete consequences. Papandreou called off the referendum after being openly and explicitly excoriated by the political represntatives of European Capital, particularly Merkel and Sarkozy. And, following their lead, a "unity" government is being formed with the Right (who, predictably, is far more aggressively pro-austerity than PASOK).

Here we see the capitalist system for what it truly is. It not a system sensitive to the needs and interests of ordinary Greek working people, for it is administering deep cuts to their standard of living. It is not a system that allows the majority of the population to have a voice in decisions that have huge effects on their lives, because the recent strong-arming of the EU proves that the will of Capital prevails over the will of the Greek people. Read the financial papers --in Greece, democracy is the enemy and the rule of technocratic EU elites is the solution. And neither is capitalism a system that is rational, since it is undermining itself by eroding the conditions for future capital accumulation by pursuing austerity.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Voluntarist Currents in the Occupy Movement

Check out American Leftist for an excellent roundup (and commentary) on recent events relating to Occupy Oakland. I won't weigh in specifically on anything that's going on there, simply because I don't know enough about the situation on the ground there. I would, however, like to make a rather general argument about the occupy movement as a whole and what it needs to do push the struggle to the next level.

First, all eyes were on Oakland because of the size of the protests, the numbers of people drawn into the movement, and the explicit call for a general strike. As countless commentators have reminded us, the last gen strike in the US was in Oakland in 1946. We've clearly entered a new era of class struggle not seen in a generation or more. Class struggle, on order to be such, has to draw large numbers of working people into a fight against some segment of (or, better, against the entire) ruling class.

Likewise, OWS was able to defend itself from Bloomberg's bid to destroy it because it mobilized huge masses of people, many of them union workers, to defend Zuccotti Park in its moment of need.

Succinctly put, the most exciting thing about the entire occupy movement is that it is --quite explicitly-- about drawing the whole 99% into the fight against the 1%. It's primary strength is that it is a mass movement against a political and economic system of, by, and for the 1%.

It goes without saying that this is an exciting time to be on the Left (and I mean the real Left, i.e. the anti-capitalist Left). Finally, a movement has broken through and challenged the legitimacy of the system through direct actions of various sorts, unpermitted protests and marches, occupations of public space, and now strikes and labor actions.

Still, countless challenges and obstacles remain. How, for example, can the continued occupation of a public space help us to win the changes we're fighting for? And, in cities where the authorities have physically prevented an encampment from taking hold, to what extent is it important to continue trying to occupy a public space on the model of OWS? Or, if occupations are meant to be a spring board for growing mass demonstrations (and, potentially, even mass strikes), how do we get from here to there? Finally, how do we build successful general strikes that have the potential to shut down entire cities? These are not easy questions to answer.

However, in a context where newly radicalized people have had their expectations about what's possible raised astronomically, there are bound to be folks who think that must be easy answers to these questions. There are bound to be folks whose legitimate excitement is driving them toward a position of impatience. This is understandable. All of us surely feel this way to some extent or other. I can say, for one, that this movement has electrified me politically in a way that no other movement has.

Nonetheless, I think we need to focus on how we got where we are in order to see where we need to go. As I described above, we didn't get where we are by way of small-scale provocations attempted by folks who feel that they can, through sheer will-power, force the movement into a more radical direction. That is, we didn't get here by way of voluntarism. Voluntarism is a politics that takes it to be possible for a small group, or even an individual, to more or less will a large-scale social change into existence through clever actions or provocations.

The trouble with voluntarism isn't that the individuals attracted to it lack motivation, political energy, or enthusiasm for changing the world. They have all of that and more --and that is not what I aim to criticize. The trouble with voluntarism is that it presupposes a perspective on social change that is problematic. As I described above, progressive social change happens when masses of people --in open defiance of the powers that be-- pour out onto the streets, occupy parks and factory, blockade capital flow, etc. In short --it happens because of some accumulation of people power that has the potential to threaten the powers that be. The 1% in Chicago, for example, isn't afraid that a small group of activists might roam the city performing street theater, banner drops, or other spontaneous or unpredictable actions. The 1% in Chicago is afraid of a mass movement drawing tens of thousands of working class people into the streets to oppose its continued dominance. That is why Rahm cleared out Grant Park by force and arrested hundreds of protesters.

But, and I'm speaking exclusively about the movement in Chicago at the moment, I think some occupiers have drawn the conclusion that because mass actions aimed at occupying Grant Park were met with police repression, they were failures. Because those actions didn't successfully "take the horse", some are now beginning to wonder whether mass movements are actually the way to change things. Understandably, this has led some to veer toward voluntarism, wherein the way forward involves pulling off unpredictable, small-scale and spontaneous actions (rather than public, mass actions drawing in as many participants as possible). In other words, this sense that we were defeated has led some to lower their expectations about what is possible. I think that perspective is understandable, but it should be re-thought. We have no reason, given what's happening all over the world right now, to doubt that a mass movement is both possible and worth fighting for.

I think we have good reason to be excited about the two failed attempts to take Grant Park. Those attempts weren't unqualified failures at all --both actions drew out more than 5,000 people to march, without a permit, through the heart of Chicago's financial district. Both actions won the movement international attention and coverage. And both actions, where over 300 people were arrested in defiance of the police order to clear the park, have elevated sympathy for movement among ordinary Chicagoans. A crew of nurses got arrested in defiance of the City's hard-line refusal to grant OC a space. A poll after the second attempt to camp at Grant Park revealed that 79% of Chicagoans stood in support of the movement, with only 8% opposed. Those actions were not failures. We should not lower our expectations in their wake --we should collectively assess them so that we can learn from their mistakes.

But why didn't those actions succeed in winning Occupy Chicago an encampment? It's hard to say exactly. For one, we would have needed more people there to actually force the cops to back down from mass arrests. The second attempt to take the horse was voted on 4 days before it went down --and as of the Friday before the action there was still no official flyer, no official Facebook group, no organized publicity or outreach. And nonetheless 6,000 people turned out. It could have been much bigger if we'd have had more time to consciously build the event by handing out leaflets at subway stations, making posters and flyers, etc. One lesson we should learn from the second attempt to take the horse is that the more time we get to build an event the bigger it has the potential to be.

We need the movement to be big if its going to succeed. OWS didn't hold Zuccotti Park because it was the perfect strategic location in all of Manhattan. It held the park because a hundred thousand people turned out to defend it. The cops, and the powerful billionaire mayor who called on them to attack OWS, were forced to back down by the sheer numbers of people who turned out to defend it. That is our fundamental strength as a movement of, by, and for the 99%: we are the vast majority of society!

So, whatever we decide to do to take this movement to the next level, it has to take stock of this fundamental fact: our strength is in numbers. If some folks want to organize small-scale, spontaneous actions meant to raise awareness and critical consciousness, they should go for it. If some want to do banner drops, small-scale bank protests, street theater, public guerrilla art projects, etc. etc. they should be cheered on for their enthusiasm and fighting spirit. But we also have to be clear: these actions are only worthwhile if they encourage more people to join and participate in the movement as a whole. Any action meant to substitute itself for a mass movement is a step in the wrong direction. Any action that discourages mass participation, is a waste of precious time and energy. Any action that isn't building toward the kind of mass 99%-strong occupy movement we all need is counter-productive.

We can't let discouragement or impatience get in the way of fighting for the kind of movement we need. Voluntarism is tempting, but revolutionary patience is what we need. Not passivity, not complacency, not conservatism. Just a sober, patient perspective that enables us to see that building this movement will not be easy. I'm not suggesting that we set aside our sense of urgency. On the contrary, I think we have to be patient in order to think through and discuss precisely how we can convert all of the excitement, energy, and urgency into a victory for our side!

Neither I am saying that we must "work within the system" or ask for modest demands. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we need to think through how to build this movement as big as possible so that it has the power and militancy to challenge the foundations of the system itself.