Friday, January 27, 2012

Do the 2012 Elections Matter?

A common liberal argument is that Obama was "punished" in the 2010 elections because he drifted too far to the Left in his first two years in office. The argument often uses the fact that the 2010 elections brought a return of Republicans to power as a premise to argue for the conclusion that Obama went "too far to the Left".

But, of course, this argument misses the mark by a wide margin. A cursory glance at Obama's first two years in office evinces a deep conservatism, not an excessively "left-wing" trajectory. And, as far as 2010 is concerned, it's clear that the Democrats were "punished", but by whom? For what reason?

The most obvious thing to say is that turnout for the 2010 elections was abysmally low. A sizable fraction of the large, energetic crowds of people who enthusiastically voted for Obama in 2008 did not turn out to vote in 2010. The Right did not increase its share of the vote in absolute terms between 2008 and 2010. And, if you'll recall, there as a lot of talk in 2010 about the so-called "enthusiasm gap". Democrat voters were harassed and berated by high-ranking Democrats (and their apologists) for not being sufficiently "enthusiastic" about rushing out to vote in 2010. Some liberals fretted about this and participated in various "scare out the vote" campaigns.

Of course, ordinary people had good reason to be "unethusiastic". They took Obama at his word in 2008 when he said he wanted substantial change that would fund increased access to healthcare with increased taxes on the rich. But Obama's first two years were remarkably continuous with Bush's last two years in office. Nothing really changed. Hence, many people quite reasonably concluded that they didn't have much of a stake in the two-party horse race in 2010. The results bear this out.

But what of 2012? If we take the media at face value, the amount of coverage they devote to the upcoming elections should mean that 2012 is a momentous event of enormous political significance. But is it?

If polls are any indication, the American people don't seem to think so.

When asked, less than 13% of Americans say they approve of the job Congress is doing. Over 70% say they disapprove. Less than 26% say they approve of the Democrats, with 65% saying they disapprove. For the Republicans, it's even worse: 19% approve whereas 70% disapprove. Almost nine tenths of the population has no confidence in Congress, which is an indictment of both the Dems and the GOP. And disapproval of both corporate parties stands between 65 and 70 percent.

Why isn't that front-page news?

It shows that there is a massive gap between the concerns and interests of the population and the choices on offer in the electoral arena. It shows what many in the Occupy movement know first hand, namely that there is widespread discontent with the corporate two-party system. The capacity of the two corporate parties to pretend that they represent the interests of the population is being eroded daily. Yet, the media hardly takes note. Instead, it continues to barrage the population with excessive coverage of the 2012 elections, thereby grossly inflating their significance.

To shoe-horn people into pretending that they have stake in the 2012 horse-races is to do little more than paper over the widespread discontent bubbling beneath the surface of corporate media headlines. To get worked up over Obama's current populist posturing is to help aid in this effort to keep anything from actually changing.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jobs for All

In the midst of skyrocketing unemployment, it is perfectly reasonable to put forward demands such as "jobs, not cuts!" or "jobs for all!". Likewise, the call for full employment is similarly reasonable amidst a deep-seated bi-partisan consensus on the "need" for austerity. Many workers are fighting for dear life against employers who are downsizing workforces. Public sector workers, in particular, are facing brutal attacks from above. For the unemployed, the battle cry of "jobs for all" carries a burning urgency. For the precariously employed, which is a group of immense size right now, the most resonant battle cries have to do with staving off cuts, furlough days, and layoffs from above. The battle is to preserve what they've already got and beat back ruling class attempts to worsen their condition. It would be deeply abstract and ultra-Left to denounce demands such as these on grounds that they ultimately preserve the status quo and fail to fundamentally challenge the class relations that are the core of capitalism.

Nonetheless, it remains deeply important that socialists keep alive the radical critique of jobs and work under capitalism. These radical concerns should not be seen as contradicting the anti-austerity struggles already underway in the US. On the contrary, the present struggles against austerity have to be seen as a necessary condition of building the kind of movement that it would take to radically reconfigure work-life, the division of labor, and class relations. The key is to concretely link together immediate grievances with more systemic complaints against capitalism itself. The fight for reforms in the here and now need not be reformist. Even small victories can increase the confidence and courage of the working class to fight harder and ask for more. It is in the course of collective struggle--for what are, at first, no more than modest reforms--that people learn that their not alone, that they have the power to fight and win.

But it remains true that socialists have to make sure not to dilute their politics in the course of struggling for reforms.

For example, when discussions about jobs and employment operate abstractly, that is, simply in terms of who has a job and who does not, many important concerns fall by the wayside. Among other things, abstract discussions of employment tend to take the existing division of labor as given. Taking this for granted, questions are then asked about how, in Iris Young's words, "pregiven occupations, jobs, or tasks are allocated among individuals or groups." But the question is never raised as to why we should accept pregiven occupations and jobs that are handed down from above. Why shouldn't we also have a democratic say in what work is like in a qualitative and substantive sense as well?

Now, I certainly don't mean to say that the abstract way of examining unemployment is unimportant. Given how devastating unemployment in capitalist societies is, whether or not one can find work--even poorly paid and highly exploitative work--is an issue of grave importance. The fact that capitalism can't even deliver poorly paid and highly exploitative work to everyone who wants it shows that it is highly dysfunctional--even by its own standards.

But important though the "abstract" question is, it's not the whole story. As I suggest above, the abstract question leaves much unexamined and uncriticized. It's not just about who has work and who doesn't. For socialists, it also matters what the content and structure of that work is like, what kind of power you have in the workplace, and who is in a position to make decisions about what gets produced, according to what rules, and so on.

For socialists, we also have to examine the "range of tasks performed in a given position, the definition of the nature, meaning and value of those tasks, and the relations of cooperation, conflict, and authority among positions." This, in turn, requires that we consider "the corporate and legal structures and procedures that give some persons the power to make decisions about investment, production, marketing, employment, and wages that affect millions of other people." In short, it means that we have to draw capitalism itself into the discussion.

More often than not, work in capitalist societies is alienating. Most jobs do not give workers the space to cultivate their creative potential, to exercise and develop their talents, or have the autonomy or decisionmaking power to determine the character of their own work life. Most workers are simply told what to do while their at work. While on the clock many workers are determined by forces outside of their control. And despite all of the obscene mantras about "team building" and so forth, most workers have no immediate stake in the goals of their company at all. They are merely subordinate servants of some other person's bigger project to amass profits. They're along for the ride and they have no say in where the company is heading. Many service employees have to endure strict dress codes and repeat inane advertising jingles to help their boss sell more products. And, of course, the bosses don't just enjoy authority and arbitrary power in the workplace, they profit from extracting surplus value from those beneath them who do all the work.

So, in fighting alongside people struggling against brutal regimes of austerity, socialists must always push the envelope. Once people see that they can fight austerity and win, there's no reason why that confidence shouldn't lead them to ask for even more. Asking for more has to mean challenging the class relations at the sight of production. It must also entail a rejection of the alienating character of work under capitalism, where a minority ruling class determines the basic priorities or production, the basic organization of the workplace, and so on. Workers power isn't just about winning concessions from the ruling class in terms of pay, that is, negotiating the terms of exploitation. The working class movement must ultimately aim to challenge the very exploitative core of capitalism itself. The key is to find ways to concretely intertwine the fights for demands in the here and now with these more global concerns about the system itself. Doing this well, of course, requires an organization, rooted in struggle, that is capable of generalizing the experience of local struggles and linking them together with broader struggles against the system.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More on the Non-Political Character of the Presidential Race

If you read the section titled "politics" in the New York Times, the so-called "paper of record", you would be hard pressed to find anything remotely political. What you find, more often than not, is strategizing, instrumental tactical arguments and an intense focus on efficient means to electing some given candidate. You find inane debates focused intensely on the public relations management strategies employed by the campaigns of different candidates. You find talk of "branding", marketing, the manufacturing of "narratives", and so on.

What you won't find is anything remotely political.

Why is that? One simplistic, but nonetheless perspicuous explanation is given by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto: "The bourgeoisie has... since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

Accordingly, what gets discussed in the halls of power by politicians, by and large, are matters of common concern to the ruling class as a whole. This is as true of domestic policy as it is of foreign policy. Political discussions in Washington tend to presuppose, as a condition of legitimacy, that the basic goal of government is something like "economic growth", i.e. creating favorable conditions for capital accumulation. If ruling class profits are down, that's bad; if they're up that's good. Whatever else happens only matters to the extent that it affects this basic goal. The need to secure legitimation and political stability leads Democrats and Republicans to give this basic function a populist gloss, e.g. "what's good for GM is good for America", "rising tides lift all boats", "increasing wealth at the top trickles down to the bottom", "growth creates jobs", etc.

The debates among politicians, then, largely center around how best to administer growth from above. But even this non-political administrative debate is extremely narrow. These debates 100% exclude, for example, the Keynesian wisdom of mainstream, globally renowned economists at a number of elite institutions: Nouriel Roubini, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and many others. All of these folks largely accept the administrative perspective above, but argue for policies very different from those considered in Washington, e.g. a new, considerably larger public stimulus package, a massive public works program that puts people to work rebuilding infrastructure, a steep increase in the marginal rate of taxation, increased spending on health and education, and so on. For these folks, the way out of the crisis is to stimulate demand by avoiding austerity and increasing the purchasing power of the working majority. These aren't radical ideas. These were commonplace ruling class policies in the postwar (i.e. pre-neoliberal) period. What's more, all of these economists accept capitalism more or less as it is, but propose different ways of getting it running again. Yet, even these ideas aren't given a moment's notice in Washington.

By and large, Democrats and Republicans agree that the only viable way forward in the short term is austerity for the working majority. They disagree, of course, about how deep the cuts should go. But they are in firm, uncompromising agreement on the "need" to make deep cuts of some kind to public programs ranging from public transportation, roads and infrastructure, to health care, education and so on. At the same time they agree on the "need" to bail out the banks, to subsidize corporate profits through quantitative easing, to grant large tax breaks to the 1%, and so on. Their approach could be summed up as follows: austerity for the 99%, prosperity for the 1%. Of course, some Republicans talk as if they oppose the bailouts on principled, neoliberal grounds. But the truth is that these initiatives, begun under Bush and continued by Obama, already have their rubber stamp.

Anyone who, like Ron Paul, still genuinely believes in the viability of the neoliberal medicine of "small government" and "structural adjustment", so popular with elites in the 1980s and 90s, is simply deluded. They naively identify with ruling class window-dressing without realizing that that's what it is. Rather than drawing the obvious conclusion that capitalism is a highly unstable system which, when freed from even modest regulatory and counter-cyclical measures, periodically generates devastating crises, these bone-headed "free" market fundamentalists perversely draw the opposite conclusion: all of that neoliberal stuff really does work, it's just that there weren't enough tax breaks for the rich, not enough deregulation, not enough austerity, and so on. There are, of course, a number of people of this persuasion in the Republican Party (many of whom voted against TARP the first time around). But, as I say above, the national leadership of the GOP understands full well that this is mostly just talk. There is no reason to think that corporate welfare, quantitative easing, bailouts, tax breaks for the 1% and so on would end under a GOP-controlled government. As staunch advocates of the capitalist system, they realize that its stability depends for dear life on these sorts of policies.

This is all a way of saying that politics and government have been almost entirely disconnected from one another in the contemporary US. What goes on in government is largely administrative: how can we best manage the common affairs of the ruling class by promoting polices that achieve high levels of accumulation?

In a democratic society, the people would be sovereign. They would be able to have a voice in determining what goals society undertakes. But in our society, we have no say over goals. We have no voice in determining what the basic priorities of our society will be. The goals are fixed in advance, and we are asked to get worked up over various means of achieving these ready-made goals. And, what's worse, we aren't even given the full spectrum of reasonable means. As I say, the broad consensus among mainstream Keynesian economists at schools like Harvard, Princeton and Columbia doesn't even register as a possibility in Washington. So as if being locked inside the iron cage of instrumental rationality wasn't bad enough, we don't even get the freedom to exercise it fully!

Yet, despite the thoroughly non-political, administrative and fundamentally undemocratic character of our electoral system and our State, we are encouraged by the media to think that this election is the most important one of our lifetimes. We are bombarded, everywhere we turn, with the injunction to tune in and participate in the inane chatter about what's going on with the election. It is assumed that this process is the essence of politics, it is assumed that this it is a hugely significant event that warrants 24-hour television coverage. But those assumptions are not harmless. They are highly damaging and deeply conservative. They are, in effect, suffocatingly anti-political.

The media, of course, positions itself as a populist force that merely "gives the people what they want". But that is nonsense. This top-down argument assumes that what's going on in, say, the Republican debates actually reflects the genuine interests and concerns of real people. It grafts the priorities, framing and rhetoric of those approved candidates onto real people. It imposes the TV chatter about a given set of political candidates and organizations onto the people. But why should we think that entire top-down procedure is legitimate? A far more sensible procedure, would be to start with ordinary people, in complete and total abstraction from their relationship to the electoral system, and see whether or not the system actually has anything to do with their interests and concerns. Of course, this bottom-up procedure, though far from perfect, is non-existent in the for-profit media industry. The interests of ordinary people only become intelligible to the media to the extent that they fit within pre-existing rhetoric and ideology. Rather than demanding that a political party actually earn its significance and legitimacy from speaking to the needs and interests of the people, the media antecedently grants significance and legitimacy to the Republicans and Democrats because they are the status quo. They are given a free pass each election cycle and it is assumed that the population could have no needs or interests in excess of what those two parties offer. No remainder is possible, therefore no discontent with the two-party system is possible.

Though common sense tells us that they are everywhere, these contradictions between the whole political system and the interests and concerns of ordinary people are rarely visible in the mainstream media. And even when these contradictions are there implicitly, that is, when a poll reveals that super-majorities of Americans favor single-payer, they are almost never explicitly discussed. No mention is made of the fact that the political system simply doesn't register this pro-health care sentiment. Instead, it conflates what people want with what's on offer from the two-party duopoly. It's almost as if the media operates as though it's logically impossible to register discontent with the system itself, rather than with this or that politician within it.

Some readers may think that I am too extreme in firmly rejecting the 2012 elections as a genuinely political event. But I challenge them to defend a system that makes it impossible to articulate the jarring contradiction between the daily experiences of the 99% and the priorities in Washington. I challenge them to defend a discourse that robs us of the very language with which to articulate our own oppression. I challenge them to give us reason to accept the legitimacy of a system that has nothing whatsoever to do with giving the 99% a voice in determining its own conditions of life. I challenge them to explain why we should accept a list of pre-approved candidates who all, in any case, stand for the pre-determined goal of maximizing capital accumulation.

At this point, the more intensely we are asked to focus on the (ultimately marginal) differences between this or that Republican or Democrat, the more we obscure the underlying issues and foreclose the possibility of any real change.

If we are to achieve even the most modest reforms in the here and now, we have to be prepared to struggle independently of the electoral system. We have to stand up and fight alongside all those resisting foreclosure, school closures, layoffs, wage cuts, furlough days, student loan default, pension "reforms", and so on. We have to stand up, against the two parties of the 1%, and fight for the 99% because nobody else but us is going to do it.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Who Decides What Work We Do?

"Who decides what work we do and how we do it? In the industrialized capitalist countries the answer is: capital (in the person of its administrators and/or owners). Production techniques and domination techniques are... inextricably linked." -Andre Gorz


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Unemployment in Capitalist Societies

Figure from EPI

Unemployment in the US, according to official figures, stands close to 16%. Millions upon millions of people want full time employment, but are denied it. Why are they denied employment? Not because there isn't enough surplus capital laying around. The ruling class is literally hoarding heaps of it right now. Factory equipment, raw materials, and funds sit idle alongside masses of workers who desperately need work to make ends meet. Why aren't the two combined together? It can't be because the population is simply too satisfied and has no need of things that workers could produce using that equipment and raw materials. The economic crises has devastated millions. Unmet human needs abound. But how can that be? Why is it that millions of unemployed workers, desperate for work, are kept at arms length from masses of unused capital, when there are so many unmet human needs? What does this say about the basic priorities of our economic system?

Unemployment is devastating. It can entail eviction, foreclosure, going without meals, mounting debt, family collapse, deep insecurity, and health crises. In addition to the crushing effects it has on one's finances, it can also be a punishing blow to one's self esteem and sense of self-worth. That is because unemployment is often discussed as if it were a purely personal problem. If you're unemployed, it must be that you just haven't tried hard enough to find work. Or maybe you're just undeserving. You have no one to blame but yourself.

Of course, that is bullshit. At any given time, there are fixed number of jobs and a fixed number of people looking for them. The number of jobs is always smaller than the number of job-seekers. Even during boom periods. It's simple arithmetic. The main issue isn't whether some individual person "tried hard enough" to find work. The main issue has to do with the total number of jobs available at any given time.

Of course, if it's not the moralizing "personal responsibility" line on unemployment, it's the fatalistic "weather" perspective that dominates. According to the "weather" perspective, unemployment should be thought of as if it were the same as bad weather. Just as the shifting of temperatures or the movement of destructive storms is beyond our control, so is the unemployment rate. Maybe we can learn to better predict when and where it will increase or decrease, but by and large we have to accept that it is largely a process beyond our control. Human intervention in both meteorological and economic matters boils down to an apolitical process of "scientific management" from which we can expect very little.

But this image of unemployment as a "natural" process we can neither understand nor control is not just false. It plays a particular political function: it obscures the fact that unemployment is persistent feature of economic systems based on profit.

As I noted above, we are witnessing a situation in which masses of surplus labor sit idle side by side masses of surplus capital amidst a world of human need. For Marxist theorist David Harvey, this is the definition of a capitalist economic crisis: "surplus capital and surplus labour existing side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together".

But why aren't they put together? If there are tons of unmet human needs, tons of people willing to work, and tons of machines, raw materials, etc. what's keeping them from being combined to meet those human needs? The answer is simple: profitability.

Our society is one in which there are masses of capital, unused, sitting side by side masses of labor, which are unemployed, simply because it is not sufficiently profitable for the ruling class to combine them at the present moment. Right now, those with vast resources and millions in assets are, in effect, waiting for more profitable investment opportunities to come along. They can afford to wait, after all, because they don't have a mortgage to pay, a family to feed, or bills to pay. There's no urgency. They're under no duress to hire anybody or invest in anything. They are perfectly happy to sit and wait until they can get the kind of return on their investments that they've come to expect. Meanwhile, millions of people are forced to endure escalating degrees of economic misery and all that accompanies it, with little hope of anything changing in the short run.

The same system that over-works people to the bone f0r poverty wages when its profitable to do so, casts workers aside and denies them employment when exploiting them is no longer lucrative. Either workers are exploitable or they are redundant and expendable. If the capitalist doesn't want to buy their labor-power they do not find work. For the worker in capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited, it seems, is not being exploited. At no point in this process are the goals of human development or meeting human needs paramount. Profit is the law of the land.

Accordingly, for both of the major capitalist parties, the answer to this calamity, to the extent that it is discussed as a calamity at all, is to restore profitability to the system. Both parties think that the way to reduce unemployment is to once again make it profitable for the ruling class to invest their masses of capital. Of course, they disagree about how to do that. But they agree that that's the way to fix the problem. All we need to do, they tell us, is to find a way to induce the ruling class to invest their huge surpluses by making it worth their while. If we can just get the big profits flowing back in the direction of the ruling class everything will be puppy dogs and ice cream.

To say that this is remarkably short-sighted is a massive understatement. As we know, capitalism is a highly unstable system in which devastating crises (with high unemployment) are frequent. But set that aside. How are the politicians from the two major parties going about trying to restore profitability?

One strategy is to bailout corporations by injecting billions of dollars in public funds into them. The Federal Reserve revealed that more than $3.3 Trillion has been spent doing just that since 2008. That means that toxic assets were purchased by the government, thereby allowing private losses to be transformed into public losses.

A related strategy is austerity. Austerity is required because of the massive amounts of toxic private assets were transferred to public rolls. This massive increase in public indebtedness, combined with sinking revenues from taxation, has unsurprisingly caused public budgets to tank. But rather than asking the ruling class to pick the mess that it made, governments are forcing the masses of the population to pay for the crisis by accepting cuts to our standard of living (e.g. cuts to public transit, housing, health care, education, unemployment benefits, basic city services, utilities, you name it).

Another strategy, related to the austerity, is to weaken the bargaining power of labor. Because the ruling class won't budge, the thought is that the State should try to force labor to give up ground. That means some combination of union-busting, layoffs, wage and pension cuts, and so on. If wages can be driven down low enough to make it profitable enough for the ruling class to invest again, then this strategy will have achieved its basic goal. This is what lies behind the assault on the stronger public sector unions in the US right now.

Of course, even from a ruling class perspective, these strategies are deeply contradictory. First of all, as the example of Greece has clearly shown, austerity only further depresses the economy. By eviscerating the living standards of ordinary people, their purchasing power takes a hit as well. And by gutting unions and imposing wage cuts and salary freezes on workers, demand is similarly pushed down. This, of course, means that there is nobody to buy all of the shit that capitalists sell on the market. The old solution to this problem, popularized in the 1970s, was to pick up the slack in demand by giving everybody a credit card. But, for obvious reasons, this isn't a solution available to the ruling class at the moment. Austerity is not a viable way out of this crisis. To be sure, the ruling class can eek out a meager existence for 10-15 years or so amidst stagnant growth rates and high unemployment. But austerity provides no path to short term recovery.

Austerity, however, is what the ruling class knows best. It is rooted in a theory and practice that has been the bread and butter of economic policy for more than 40 years: neoliberalism. Whereas that set of ideas and practices is experiencing a deep crisis, it is not the case that the ruling class has decided to abandon it. It is still the ruling dogma, even if voices calling for a return to Keynesian demand-management are more frequent today than they were in the 1980s and 90s. The ruling class is not a well-oiled machine that learns quickly from what's going on around it. It is still convinced that austerity, which is no more than good ol' IMF-style structural adjustment, is the only way forward.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Joe Moreno: A Fighter for Chicago's 1%

Joe Moreno is the Alderman of Chicago's 1st Ward. Now, anyone who knows anything about Chicago knows that the City government isn't exactly a bastion of grassroots democracy. Typically Chicago city government calls to mind corruption, collusion with the rich and powerful, strong-arm tactics, and police violence. We think of the "Chicago Machine". Still, despite all of this, Moreno wants you to think that he's different. If you take his word for it, he is something of a progressive who stands up for justice, freedom of expression, and the interests of the 99%.

But Moreno is no progressive. He's a dogged fighter for the privileged and powerful.

Moreno, like the vast majority of his obedient colleagues on the Chicago City Council, recently voted for an ordinance that cracks down on the rights of protesters in Chicago. The intent of the ordinance is obvious: it is designed to criminalize and discourage legitimate protest. Rahm doesn't want there to be any dissent or protest this May when he is planning to host two of the foremost representatives of the global 1%: NATO and the G8. To make sure that there's no protest, Rahm is using a combination of fines, brute intimidation, and red tape to severely curtail Chicagoans ability to organize demonstrations. Like the recent austerity budget Rahm proposed which made punishing cuts to the living standards of ordinary Chicagoans, Moreno enthusiastically voted "yes".

Moreno recently penned a self-serving article in the Huffington Post offering a defense of his vote for the crackdown. It is a litany of half-truths and irrelevant fist pounding from start to finish. No matter what he says, his actions make it clear whose team he's playing on. Moreno is a staunch fighter for the 1%.

According to Moreno, it's OK that he voted to crackdown on protesters because "almost everyone agrees that having these two summits in our city is a great opportunity to solidify our rightful place as a world city."

That's just false on two fronts.

First, neither Moreno nor Rahm ever asked Chicagoans whether they wanted to treat the global 1% to a $65 million dollar party. I don't recall ever being given the opportunity to have a voice in whether or not the City would spend those resources on NATO/G8. In classic Chicago Machine form, Rahm and his lackeys on the Council just did it, just like they did with the infamous parking-meter privatization deal. They could care less what the rest of us actually want or need—the NATO/G8 summit isn't about us. Of course, Rahm and Co. have self-serving reasons to pretend as if the decision to host the summit was sparked by some grassroots initiative. But we know better.

Second, it's far from obvious that the NATO/G8 summit is going to do anything good for ordinary Chicagoans. As I say, it isn't intended to help out the 99% in Chicago—it's little more than a get-together for the 1%. Even some bourgeois economists are claiming that it will be a financial disaster. And it's absolutely criminal that Moreno thinks its better to spend $70 million (and counting) on a big party for the 1% when the city is laying off librarians, closing health clinics, cutting transit, closing schools, and cutting back on a number of different basic city services. If Moreno and Rahm actually cared about making Chicago a "world class city", they'd fully fund our public schools, fully modernize and expand our aging transit system, open new health clinics, and so on. But instead they are letting all of those basic social goods wither on the vine. And more cuts on are on the way. So it's ludicrous to think that a big party for NATO and G8 is what Chicago needs. Powerful groups like NATO and G8--which stand for the interests of the 1%--are the source of the misery of ordinary Chicagoans. They are stalwart defenders of the system that is forcing austerity down our throats.

If Moreno were, in fact, a "progressive", he could easily have put his foot down and fought for the basic interests of ordinary Chicagoans. Yet, rather than standing up against Mayor 1%, Moreno has decided to regurgitate Rahm's talking points about how the summit is such a "blessing" for all of us here in Chicago. Maybe it's a blessing for Rahm's resume. But it's a nightmare for the rest of us.

A progressive would have stood up against Rahm and his plan to spend millions entertaining organizations responsible for war, occupation, and economic exploitation. Moreno, however, did what the vast majority of his other obedient, conservative Council Members did: he did Mayor 1%'s bidding and betrayed the rest of us.

Rather than actually explain, in plain words, why he is so fond of the crackdown ordinance, in his article Moreno patronizes the vast numbers of people who opposed the bill (2,000 of whom, by his own admission, sent him emails urging him to vote no). According to Moreno, the thousands upon thousands of Chicagoans who criticized the bill just don't know what they're talking about. As Moreno puts it, there seems to be a big gap between "perception and reality." Translation: "C'mon guys... there's really nothing to worry about! The city government and the Chicago Police have a great track-record. They're trustworthy and I can assure that they how to "handle things". Or maybe you're just too dumb to understand the facts because you have some "special agenda"."

Wait, so you're not convinced by Moreno's suggestion that you're just too ignorant to see the facts for what they are? Well, don't worry. Moreno's still got more up his sleeve. He wants you to know that he's actually a big fan of protesting. That's right! He loves protests. Freedom of speech is something he absolutely treasures. So don't worry. His vote for the crackdown doesn't mean you can't still be pals. He loves the idea of protesting injustice!

It's just that he, like Rahm, doesn't want you to actually do it. Especially not this May when NATO and G8 are in town.

OK, so you're still not convinced by Moreno's apologetics? Well, not to fear: he's got one more piece of shit to sling against the wall in the hopes that something sticks:
It would have been easy for me to vote no on this ordinance. I know that I disappointed many of my supporters today. But, I don't want to be someone who refuses to compromise and doesn't give any ground. I'm not interested in beating my chest and becoming someone who can't get anything of substance done for my constituents.
Yes, it would have been easy. But Moreno didn't want to "beat his chest" and stand up for what's right. Instead he gave in to Rahm and the Machine because he wanted to continue to be someone who can, as he puts it, "get things of substance done for his constituents". Translation: "Look, if you didn't buy any of my other bullshit, then at least blame the Machine and not me. Because if I had opposed Rahm, then Rahm would have punished me. I'm weak: don't blame me, blame the Boss."

Still not convinced? Well, just fill out hundreds of pages of paper work a week in advance, pay a hefty fee for a permit, send in details on your proposed placards, prepare a detailed list of which contingents will be marching with you, and Moreno and the City will consider whether they feel like granting you the right to protest. In the event that they don't give you the permit, you can, well, shove it. Oh, yes, and don't forget to fund and publicly support your local Democratic Party in 2012 because without it we wouldn't have progressives like Moreno to stand up for the people!


Mayor 1% and Allies Crackdown on Free Speech in Chicago

See here for background on the anti-protest ordinance that Rahm and his lapdogs on the City Council recently passed. The bill jacks up fines for peacefully resisting arrest in an effort to scare away protesters during the NATO/G8 summit planned for May. It also institutes a series of draconian polices designed to discourage protest: increased fees for obtaining a city permit to march, rules requiring that a permit be received over a week in advance, ordinances requiring protesters to specify in advance which contingents will be marching and in which order, as well as a heap of red tape involving the content of protesters signs. Of course, these measures don't just apply to traditional protests and parades, they apply to any large gathering on a public sidewalk (including picket lines). Here are some more details of the bill:

Surviving measures include: more surveillance cameras; parks and beaches closed until 6 a.m.; sweeping parade restrictions and higher fees for those events and empowering Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to “deputize” out-of-state law enforcement personnel in the event that demonstrators overwhelm Chicago Police.

The mayor would also be granted sweeping authority to purchase goods and services for the summits — without City Council approval or competitive bidding — provided those items cannot be purchased under existing contracts.

The intent of the measures is clear: they are designed to strongly discourage protest through intimidation. It is not surprising that Rahm—aptly dubbed "mayor 1%" by Occupy Chicago—has taken such a hard line against protest for the upcoming NATO/G8 summit. He cracked down on Occupy Chicago from the very beginning and used mass-arrests to try to disperse the movement on more than one occasion. He also said, after arresting hundreds of Chicagoans attempting to exercise their right to free speech, that he was using this as a "dress rehearsal" for NATO/G8.

Now, Rahm and his obedient followers on the City Coucil recently passed a cruel budget that punishes ordinary Chicagoans with austerity and lavishes the local 1% with cash. This, we were told, was necessary because there just isn't enough to go around.

Yet, he and the City Council are spending untold sums bringing the global 1% to Chicago for a party that the rest of us aren't invited to. Estimates already range from $50-70 million, and the City Council has already given Rahm a blank check to spend as much as he pleases.

The message is clear. For ordinary Chicagoans, Rahm and his minions offer nothing but school closings, library closings, health center cuts, layoffs, transportation cuts and other forms of austerity. For the rich and powerful of the world, Rahm and his crew have unlimited amounts of cash to fork over.

What if the majority of the population doesn't like it? Rahm's answer, which he's put forward on more than one occasion, is simple: "fuck you".


Monday, January 16, 2012

Where is the Occupy Movement Heading?

By any measure, the impact of the meteoric rise of the Occupy movement on the media was substantial. Suddenly, talk of the 1% versus the 99% had, at the very least, bled into mainstream discussions which, for the first time in ages, tackled questions of inequality and power. Now, we could also compile a long list of complaints about the way in which the Occupy was being covered (or, rather, distorted) when the movement was white hot in October. But it's undeniable that the movement had a huge effect on the content and tone of discussions in mainstream media outlets. In the space of a few weeks the inane dead-end chatter about deficit reduction was swept aside as people talked about grassroots democratic self-governance, the role of the police in capitalism, the economic and political dominance of the 1%, and so on. Millions of people were electrified and catapulted into militant political action for the first time in their lives.

But, in the wake of a violent counter-attack from above, co-ordinated eviction efforts by Democrats and Republicans alike, and other less blatant forms of repression, the movement has come back down to earth. That is not to say that it has dissolvednothing could be further from the truth. The movement proper is still going strong in numerous cities accross the nationand not just in New York: struggle in Chicago, in particular, has been propelled forward by repression from above, hard-edged austerity and the upcoming NATO/G8 summit in May. But, though the movement has by no means been defeated, it is also undeniable that it has been dealt a momentary setback. Occupy has entered a new phaseone that is characterized by regroupment, reflection and local-level struggle against austerity and repression. That is not due to any inherent failure. On the contrary, all movements experience an ebb and flow in terms of the intensity of struggle. With the hard-nosed repression from above, it could not have been otherwise. And the movement has learned a lot of lessons along the way that will inform the future trajectory of struggles from below against a political and economic system dominated by the 1%.

But with the momentary ebb of struggle and mass mobilizations, the bourgeois media has, predictably, reverted right back to business as usual. In doing so it gives us no doubt as to its basic social function: to preserve status quo conditions, legitimize the way things are, and discourage any discussion that might involve imagining alternatives.

If there is an unspoken message to mainstream media writing and TV production right now, it is this:
Forget about Occupy. Pretend as though it never happened, and forget about inequality, power and all the rest of it. Sit down, shut up, and tune in to the horse race. Pick your favorite contender from the list of approved candidates, and cheer from stands. We'd appreciate it if you remain calm at all times and purchase plenty of concessions while you're waiting. We'll keep you filled in on what all the experts say about the racedon't bother asking yourself whether you have a stake in it at all. Just get excited, focus on the innane chatter about which horse has got the "goods" and bet accordingly. It will be fun. This is what living in a free society is all about.
Of course, I exaggerate slightly. But only slightly. The way in which the politically meaningless 2012 elections are aggressively shoved in my face by the media is not a figment of my imagination. I should also say that I don't think that this media phenomenon represents some kind of conspiracy from above to try to control people's minds. I think we are just seeing the for-profit media industry for what it is: a conservative force that does not reward critical thinking or speaking truth to power. On the contrary, it generally panders to advertisers and "received wisdom" and bows before the alter of greed. Think about it: why shouldn't Big Media cover the election in such an aggressive way? It's what they know best: it's predictable, they know the lingo, and its an ever-ready source of sensationalist, gossipy tid bits about so-and-so's sex life, etc. What's more, the election is talked about in a way that is familiar to a business culture in general: the ways that candidates "market" themselves, "brand" their "narratives" and so on are fodder for an industry whose lifeblood is advertising and consumption.

The macro-level consequences of this are apalling. Think about what's happened in the last 6 months. The peopleunpredictably and semi-spontaneouslyerupt in anger over the injustice of our system. And, after doing its best to ignore the phenomenon, the media is forced to weigh in and pay attention. But, at the first available opportunity, the media coverage recedes sharply. And what replaces it is exactly what the movement opposed: the ossified, politically meaningless, broken electoral system and its exploits.

It's hard not to feel that the message here is that we should keep our heads down, stay isolated from others, and buy into the self-image of the age: that we live in the "best society in the world", that our system is vigorously democratic, that "things are getting better every day". The trouble is that this deeply conflicts with the daily experiences of the vast majority of Americans. More and more people are everyday seeing this system for what it is. Confidence in the major electoral parties is at an all-time low. Young people tell pollsters they are more sympathetic to socialist ideas than to capitalist ones. For this reason and many others, we can expect that Occupy (just like Wisconsin) was not a flash in the pan. People are going to fight backin larger numbers than we saw at the height of Occupyand the only question is when and where. The task of the Left is how to organize in the meantime, participate and strengthen Occupy, and join arms with millions facing wage cuts, layoffs, school closures, austerity, and police repression. There is nothing less political than the scripted 2012 horse race that is thoroughly administered from above.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Politics of Elizabeth Warren

The following quotation from Elizabeth Warren, who's running for office in Massachusetts, seems to surface again and again in liberal circles:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Now let me say that it is, in a sense, refreshing to see a genuine left-liberal, or even social-democratic, argument being put forward in these circles. Genuine liberals are hard to come by these days. Most apologists for the Democrats don't even bother to argue for liberal views anymore--they simply wax poetic about the virtues of the "free market".

But, refreshing though it may be in certain respects, this argument is deeply flawed.

Warren's argument, expanded a bit, is this: all of the profits that a capitalist firm earns are premised upon a huge system of social labor that they benefit from but are not obliged to pay for unless they pay taxes. The pre-tax income of a capitalist is not really "theirs" in some natural way, because it takes for granted a huge system of institutions, laws, and goods without which their earnings on the market would be impossible. No profit is possible without roads, infrastructure, a repressive security force capable of maintaining "order", a standing army capable of defending business interests abroad, a system of schools that train the labor force, etc. Without social stability, in particular, capitalist business cannot thrive. In periods of struggle, say, when workers refuse to accept the authority of capitalists in the workplace, the profits of capitalists are threatened. When workers go out on strike, the income of business owners is strangled momentarily. As history shows, capitalists therefore require a force capable of "restoring order" if they are to continue on earning profit. In short: without a set of institutions and organizations that create a "good business climate", no profit is possible. On this much I can agree with Warren.

But Warren, and left-liberals and social-democrats in general, draw the wrong conclusions from these facts. They conclude that the rich should see that they in fact owe society rent. Because all of the things the ruling class needs to survive aren't free, they should actually take responsibility and "pay their bills". That means accepting higher levels of taxation and higher levels of social spending on these pre-conditions of profit.

There are too many problems with this approach to count, but I'll offer four criticisms.

First, it's not just that private profit is premised upon a State that performs certain functions (e.g. maintaining "order", repressing protest and strikes, "educating" the labor force, building infrastructure, etc.). Those who work for a living create all the value, and those who live by owning create nothing. If workers stop doing what they do, nothing is produced, no profit can be had. But if the bosses stop doing what they do, there is no reason in principle why anything needs to stop. To be sure, the bosses could call in the State to coercively force workers to respect the owner's authority over their means of production. But failing that, there is no reason why workers couldn't simply continue on as they were before without need of the boss. "The boss needs you, you don't need the boss."

It's therefore wrong to say that the owners of Capital deserve a huge "chunk" of anything, even by typical liberal criteria (e.g. "productive contributions"). To the extent that capitalist earn by owning, rather than working, they don't deserve even a thin slice. The succinct way to put this complaint is to say that Warren's argument assumes that the wealth of capitalists is legitimate. It is not. In suggesting that it is, however, Warren lends support to capitalist social relations, which is tantamount to rejecting the idea of genuine democratic self-governance.

Second, Warren, like everyone persuaded by social-democratic ideas, has no plausible analysis of how power is distributed in our society. She assumes that a nice, neat compromise between capital and labor is possible, such that the ruling class will be content to "pay its bills" through high levels of taxation that are used to fund social spending. All we need do is elect the right people and the ruling class will happily go along. But, as the history of the welfare state, and of social democratic regimes in general, has shown, such arrangements are inherently unstable. They depend, first of all, on a strong, politically organized labor movement capable of forcing Capital to the bargaining table. As soon as the possibility exists to undermine the political and economic power of labor, Capital wriggles off the hook and breaks the compromise. Thus follows a period of cuts to social spending and a lowering of regulation and taxes on the ruling class. This is more or less a concise history of what happened all over western Europe (and in the US) from 1973 onward.

What's more, Warren lacks a viable analysis of how we could even win the modest reforms she and other liberals favor. The New Deal is unthinkable without a mass, militant, extra-electoral revolt by the working classes in the 1930s. The fact is that to win even modest reforms--e.g. higher marginal tax rates, increased spending on health and education--we'll need a movement capable of forcing concessions out of the ruling class. Electing officials like Warren, one by one, is not going to cut it. Even if we could do that, which we can't, it's not guaranteed that, once elected, these officials would pass reformist policies. Recent history suggests otherwise. Her approach is a non-starter.

Third, Warren's argument amounts to a wonderful justification of the repression that Occupy has endured as well as the daily repression and violence that people of color endure every day at the hands of our enemies in blue. Of course, I assume that she would want to resist such a conclusion. But her liberal politics entail it. After all, she explicitly praises the police and treats them like a basic social good that we should be thankful to have. What she doesn't realize is that the police, as an institution, are there to prevent the sorts of struggles that make possible the modest reforms she favors. Her argument is addressed to the ruling class: "don't you know that you need the police to protect your own profits? why, then, won't you pay the bill for them by accepting higher taxation?". I reject this wholesale. The ruling class won't be moved by it, and everyone else shouldn't care whether they are or not. The more important question is how we can organize our side to fight back--by way of demonstrations, strikes and occupations--against austerity, even in the face of brutal police repression.

Fourth, Warren's argument assumes that education should basically serve to train the workforce. After all, her argument is that because public education trains workers and thereby adds value to the products capitalists sell on the market, the ruling class should pay the bill for education. But if you don't think that the basic aim of education is to foreground profitability, then you're at odds with Warren. I'm sure she would reject the idea that education should be subordinate to profit, but her argument forces us to endorse just that conclusion. Whether or not the ruling class pays the bill for education, there is still the question of what the point of education should be, what the curriculum should be like, etc. If we accept the profitability imperative, it looks like we should be friendly to high-stakes testing, math/science curricula that exclude art and humanities, etc. What's more, we should have no quarrel with schooling techniques that encourage passivity, deference to authority, etc. I would dissent from this view and argue that education should first of all serve to fully unfold human potential and promote flourishing and critical thinking. It should help us learn how to live well as free and equal citizens among others.


The 2012 Elections Are Not Political

If, as Alain Badiou puts it, politics has to do with "collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed" by the status quo, then it is clear that our existing electoral system is an essentially apolitical procedure. Rather than offering us the possibility to changing things, the election accepts things as they are and asks us to adjust our expectations.

Rather than giving the people a genuine voice, it silences them and encourages them to sit down passively and choose between tweedle dee and tweedle dum. Rather than allowing the 99% to have a say in decisions of momentous importance that affect everyone, we are told to join in supporting one or other of a list of approved candidates who all share the basic aim of furthering the interests of the 1%.

At this point, the 2012 elections aren't even political--they fail to even register as an instance of democratic self-governance. They don't provide us with an avenue to change things. They don't even offer us an opportunity to discuss what's wrong with our society. The elections are a little more than a cynical performance, already scripted from above, which shoehorns us into certain courses of action we did not choose.

Now, some left-liberals will strongly disagree here. They may acknowledge that the analysis is basically correct. But they'll argue that the Republican candidates are substantially worse than Obama. And they'll talk about how Obama has done the best job possible under the conditions: he passed a stimulus bill in 2009 that had good elements, he fought for health care reform and "succeeded" in a way that no other past Democrat was able to do, he "ended" the war in Iraq, he has a great plan for jobs, etc.. They'll concede, of course, that it would have been better if Obama had passed single-payer, if the stimulus had been bigger, etc. But they will counter that we must, nonetheless, loudly and publicly support Obama in 2012. Because to fail to do so would be to let the "best be the enemy of the good".

Let's leave aside the lowly Republicans since liberals and radicals can agree on their reactionary character. What about Obama and the Democrats? All things considered, does the balance of "good" that they've accomplished outweigh the bad?

Context is needed here. The economic meltdown that began in 2007 was threatening to drag down the entire global economy in late 2008. The crisis had origins in the speculative activities of the financial sector, most of them enthusiastically encouraged by the Clinton Administration in the 90s. Profit-hungry financial institutions had systematically engaged in a huge orgy of reckless speculation that left them holding massive heaps of toxic assets in 2007. The whole system seemed on the verge of collapse. In October of 2008, Henry Paulson (Bush's secretary of the treasury) stepped in with a hastily thrown-together bailout plan that aimed to inject the nine biggest banks--all in dire straits--with billions of dollars. Paulson's plan was pieced together through behind the scenes negotiations with the CEO's of the nine largest banks. The Treasury didn't ask for anything in return for this massive $700bn bailout and, predictably, the financial sector did not resume lending and did not give relief to homeowners facing foreclosure. Instead they dolled out massive bonuses to themselves, invested offshore, etc.

Now, $700bn is a lot of money. But the actual bailout figure stands closer to $3.3 Trillion. And add to this "quantitative easing", i.e. the practice of printing money to lend to the banks at interest rates close to zero. The banks, of course, don't use this cheap credit to invest in production or lend to small businesses. They don't help restructure mortgages and create jobs. Instead, they use it to buy up US government bonds (which give them a return of 4-5%) or high-grade consumer debt (which pays as much as 12-18%). This is what explains the record-high profits reported by the financial sector in 2009 and 2010--despite soaring unemployment, low growth, and general economic misery for the 99%. Through quantitative easing, the Federal Government has been, in effect, heavily subsidizing their profits by giving them huge piles of cash at low interest rates which are used to by government bonds that pay higher interest rates. Add all of this up over the period of 2007-2010 (including the TARP bailout) and you get a figure of $3.3 Trillion given away to the US ruling class--i.e. the group who led us into this crisis to begin with.

To sum up, the response of the State in the US was to shift massive amounts of private debt onto public rolls, thereby enabling the ruling class to resume profitability in the short run.

Now, this policy began under Bush with Henry Paulson. But it was continued, consolidated and extended under Obama at a time when the Democratic Party had a super-majority in the Senate and crushing majorities in the House.

Of course, once the public absorbed such a massive amount of private debt, it threatens the solvency of the government itself. Obama and the Democrats have a simple solution here: let's make deep cuts to basic social programs and force the 99% to foot the bill for the bailout of the banks. In order to erase the massive amounts of public debt that were incurred through a bailout of the ruling class, we should force the 99% to pay for it through cuts, layoffs, and austerity. The Republicans, of course, agree wholeheartedly with this solution. Their only disagreement concerns how deep to cut and where to stick the scalpel.

Predictably, the news media exaggerates this disagreement and tries to make it appear that the overblown sabre-rattling between Democrats and Republicans evinces serious differences in "political philosophies". This leads confused idiots to step in and call for "reconciliation", "dialogue" and "post-partisan civility", thereby giving a vigorous defense of the status quo while purporting to criticize it. Of course, the idea that the Dems and Republicans sharply disagree over fundamental matters couldn't be more false. They disagree over minutiae. They agree 100% on the idea that the government should bailout the banks, subsidize their profits, and then force the majority of the population to pay for it with unemployment and reduced living standards.

Obama himself, of course, has lead efforts to slice and dice working class living standards through austerity. He hasn't just been pulled along for the ride. He pieced together the "Bipartisan Commission on Deficit Reduction" which had such great recommendations as raising the age limit for Social Security, cutting Medicare and reducing the marginal rate of taxation on the 1%. What's more, Obama's "deficit deal" with Republicans ended with pledge to cut more than $4 Trillion in spending--the biggest austerity plan in history--in order to pay for the give-aways to Wall Street. Obama has even offered up cuts to Social Security as a bargaining chip with the Republicans. Along the way, he has defended a pay freeze for Federal workers, given massive tax breaks to the wealthy, and chastised us for getting upset about the massive bonuses given out on Wall Street.

But what about Obama's stimulus bill from 2009? Didn't that do a lot of good? Here I basically agree with many liberal economists (e.g. Krugman and Stliglitz) who argued repeatedly that the Obama stimulus was far too small and included too little spending and too many tax breaks. This has been proven true over and over again (although I disagree with Krugman and others that a Keynesian stimulus would have resolved the contradictions that produced the crisis in the first place). After the extremely brief economic boost that the 2009 stimulus spending made possible, unemployment began soaring again as municipal and state budgets plummeted. And the tax-breaks in the bill have done virtually nothing to boost demand--if anything all they've done is drain public finances of much-needed funds (thereby exacerbating crisis by priming the pumps for public layoffs and austerity). The economic crisis continues unabated and it shows no signs of letting up in 2012.

In stark contrast, Obama need not have continued the Paulson bailout, he need not have subsidized the profits of Wall Street, he need not have extended the Bush tax breaks, and he need not have lead the charge to force austerity on the 99%. He could have nationalized failing banks, raised taxes on the 1% (or at least demanded that they pay what they already owe), spent money rebuilding infrastructure thereby creating jobs, forgiven household debt rather than ruling class debt, and so forth. Obama could have forgiven the massive amounts of debt held by students who can't find jobs because of the bad economy that was wrecked by bailout-recipient bankers. At the very least, he could give students the same interest rates on their loans that he's giving to the ruling class, who pay interest rates near zero. He and the Democrats could have decided to stop spending billions more on war and occupation. They could have used that money to give us single-payer. But they did none of it.

Instead, they decided to more or less exactly what we could've expected a Republican regime to have done. Obama, from the very beginning, has surrounded himself with forces drawn directly from the 1%. When it was revealed that GE paid no taxes last year, Obama appointed a high-ranking official from GE to be his "jobs czar". To be sure, the public legitimacy of the Democrats depends on convincing their "base" that they actually believe in things like Medicare and Social Security. So it is possible that the Republicans might have been more assertive in attacking those programs than the Democrats have been. Or maybe not. The Republicans understand as well as the Democrats that Medicare and SS are extremely popular and are difficult to attack directly. The difference between the two parties is minuscule when set across the backdrop of everything they agree on. This makes it obvious that we're going to have to fight if we want to win even modest reforms.

And what of the crown jewel of Obama's "legislative achievements", the so-called healthcare reform bill? First off, it is hardly reasonable to call it a "reform". It's not even much of an adjustment. Aside from snatching low-hanging fruit by nominally opposing recision and denial of care on the basis of "pre-existing conditions", the bill made things considerably worse for the 99%. It consolidated and further institutionalized the role of the for-profit health insurance industry in the US health care system. It provided subsidies to these goons at the same time that it cuts funding for Medicare under the banner of "efficiency". Worse still, it includes an individual mandate which forces citizens to purchase a product from one of these for-profit parasites, without a public option. The plan also solidifies the tie between health care and job benefits--contributing to job-lock and punishing the unemployed. The health care crisis continues unabated as the for-profit health care industry continues to reap big profits on the backs of ordinary Americans. And let's not forget that Max Baucus (D-Montana), who oversaw the committee that wrote the bill, was the #1 recipient (in all of Congress) of campaign contributions from the health insurance industry in 2008.

By any reasonable measure, Obama and the Democrats have done far more harm than good. They have fought tooth and nail to lower the living standards of working Americans to finance a ruling-class bailout. They have attacked teachers, called in the cops to brutalize Occupy protesters, and deported more immigrants than Bush did. They have expanded wars and drone attacks. They have kept Guantanamo open for business. They insulated BP from any liability for one of the worst environmental catastrophes in recent memory. They have placed Pell Grants and Stafford Loans on the chopping block. They have made cuts to Medicare and other vital social programs. They have made attacks on civil liberties that would make John Ashcroft blush. They are a menace to the 99% and staunch allies of the 1%.

As the Occupy movement has decisively shown us, we can and must ask for more than what the lowly Democrats are able to offer us. We do not need to profoundly scale back our demands. Neither should we sit back passively in hopes that Democrat politicians will do the right thing when we know they won't. And what's more--we have to organize ourselves to resist the attacks that Democrats--just as much as Republicans--are launching against us. We have to stand up together and build collective struggles capable of exerting pressure on the entire system. Rather than buying the lie that the 2012 elections are the most important thing on the horizon right now we have to be clear: they are not political at all. They are a charade. Politics right now is on the streets, at mass demonstrations, on the picket lines, in workplaces and schools, in rooms where powerful figures are getting mic-checked, at GA's held by Occupy movements around the country.

The 2012 elections, on the other hand, are nothing but a mass of confusion, disorientation and cynicism meant to convince us to forget everything that's happened since the Occupy movement burst on the scene. They are nothing more than a way of making our broken system appear as if it enjoys democratic legitimacy. It is meant to corral us back into the "proper channels" that are neatly organized to insulate the power of the 1% from any challenge from below. The 2012 elections offer us neither a voice nor a genuine choice: they offer us two different avenues to place a stamp of legitimacy on the bailouts, on austerity, on repression, on war and occupation. As such the elections are not political: they are merely an occasion to choose which hack is going to misrepresent us for the next 2-4 yrs.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Against "Selection Theory"

Titles announcing a coming revolution in the study of cultures and societies have poured from the presses in recent years. A new evolutionary approach promises not only to introduce quantitative rigour and objectivity to social science, but also to gather its disparate elements—psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, economics—into one unified intellectual enterprise. Conferences at major universities, special issues of social-scientific journals, a veritable library of treatises and theoretical outlines announce an impending perspectival shift: in the future, social and cultural change will be understood as resulting from a selective-evolutionary process. The higher peaks of this vast output would include, in economics, Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter’s Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change; in sociology, W. G. Runciman’s Treatise on Social Theory and Theory of Cultural and Social Selection; in anthropology, Pascal Boyer’s study of belief systems, Religion Explained; in comparative literature, Franco Moretti’s Signs Taken for Wonders and Graphs, Maps, Trees. Growing numbers of specialists in the social sciences and humanities have set about reinterpreting their previous work in social-evolutionary terms, or at least speculating on how this might be executed, while citing with approval the research agendas of the social evolutionists. The activities of scholars send reverberations down the intellectual supply chain: public intellectuals champion the approach in the broadsheets; journalists weave references to the concepts into their columns; in due course, airport bookstores flog intellectually diluted popularizations.
Read the rest here.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Samuel Scheffler offers what could be the most incisive and succinct of what moralism is:

To describe a person as "moralistic" is to say that that person is too prone to make moral judgments: that the person relies on moral categories to an excessive degree, invoking them prematurely or in contexts where they are out of place, or using them in a rigid and simplistic way which ignores the nuances and complexities of human predicaments... Moralism is the enemy of insight and illumination, and one of its most common functions is to place obstacles in the way of genuine understanding. There are critics of moralism who think, in effect, that all moral judgment is moralistic, but moralism is in fact a moral flaw: a deformation or disfiguration of the moral. it is a moral failing to neglect the often complex reality of people's circumstances or to subject them to unjustified criticism.
I think this is spot on. Not only does Scheffler nicely characterize the usage of "moralistic" in Left circles (more on that below), he makes the important point that criticism of "moralism" does not entail a wholesale rejection of morality. Moralism, in Left circles, usually refers to the mistake of judging a political question to be a moral one (or judging a political failing to be a moral failing). It is, in other words, to invoke moral concepts in contexts where they are out of place, where what we really need are political concepts. Morality, however, is another matter. Morality has to do with what we owe to others, how we ought to treat them, etc. A critique of moralism, then, does not entail a critique of morality, the idea that we have obligations to other people, that their interests give us reasons for action, that we shouldn't treat them in certain ways, etc.

Moralism is simply the mistake of bringing moral concepts where they don't belong. And, as Scheffler points out, bring moral categories where they don't belong often hast he consequence of thwarting genuine understanding of the social and political factors at work. They obscure the political dynamics at work and thereby distort what's really going on. Ideology often (but not always) functions in just this way.

I recall reading something that Alex Callinicos says in Making History about moralism. I can't remember what he said, and I don't have the book on me at the moment, but I remember thinking it was good. I suppose his remark deserves runner-up for most concise accounts of moralism.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Democracy and the "Tyranny of the Majority"

The Right has never been a friend of democracy. Pick any period of history you like. Examine any struggle from below and you will find a slew of Right-wing arguments attacking the idea of collective self-rule. Mostly, these arguments seek to insulate or protect some powerful group from any democratic challenge by the people. Early liberal thought is concerned to defend the freedom and power of the rising mercantile class from threats from above as well as from below. The main goal of liberal politics was to restrain the State, as much as the people, from negatively interfering with the capitalist economy. On the one hand, liberals wanted to protect the business interests of the emerging capitalist class from the old Aristocratic elite. But, on the other, liberals wanted to protect those same propertied businessman from any challenge from the majority of the population who quite obviously had no basic interest in maintaining the capitalist status quo. This dual attack on both feudal power as well as the democratic power of the people gestures toward the sense in which Marx saw the anti-feudal bourgeois revolutions as both progressive as well as regressive. They tore asunder the repressive contours of feudalism at the same time that they created and consolidated new forms of exploitation and elite rule.

The American Revolution was no exception. It was progressive in rejecting many of the feudal aspects of Old Europe. But the new "republic" was by no means an experiment in genuine democracy. Nor was it intended to be. On the contrary, the founders were explicitly skeptical of democratic self-governance and sought to insulate themselves from any challenge from below, whether from unpropertied whites, indentured white servants, white women, or black people. After all, if a majority of the human beings in the US had been allowed to have a genuine voice in government, neither slavery nor the existing distribution of property would have survived for long. The early American ruling class was every bit as hostile to the monarchical power of England as they were to laboring majority of the population.

This is a clear theme among the authors of the Federalist Papers. The authors aren't worried about some abstract majority that could impose its will on some abstract minority. They weren't in the business of designing ideal societies in the realm of pure theory. They were talking about concrete groups of people, with conflicting interests borne out of their conflicting class positions, colliding in the political arena. In good bourgeois fashion they were worried that the majority of the population, over whom they presided, could overpower them if allowed to have unrestricted democratic power. Hence the need for all sorts of restrictions on what democratic bodies may do, restrictions on the pace of change, "checks and balances", etc. All of these fundamentally undemocratic measures were put in place to stabilize and consolidate a particular distribution of power, resources and control. The ignorant rabble must not be allowed to have too much of a say or else the power, expertise and "superior knowledge" of the propertied minority would be threatened.

So, there is a long Right-wing tradition of skepticism about democracy. The masses were either too dumb, too immature, too beholden to base/irrational impulses, too uneducated, or too inferior to be genuinely equal co-legislators in the process of self-rule. For these reasons, some version of elite rule was necessary. The wealth and power of a minority is thereby made "legitimate".

This is the tradition out of which the idea of the "tyranny of the majority" arises.

One version of the argument is as follows. Democracy, if left unfettered, will produce tyranny. In particular, the allegedly sacrosanct property rights of the owners of capital, who are a minority of society by necessity, will be threatened by the envious masses. The wealth of the rich will not be safe if the majority, who has no interest in protecting the power and wealth of the 1%, is allowed to decide matters of public significance. Hence, democracy cannot be unfettered. At the very least, it must be severely constrained by a set of inviolable rights (e.g. the right to property). Or perhaps the economic sphere needs to be walled off from democratic energies entirely. But it's also possible that the threat democracy poses to capitalist property relations is so great in certain periods that democracy itself has to be eliminated or severely restricted. This is the lesson on Chile in 1973. See Friedrich Hayek for versions of this anti-democratic argument, as well as for various harebrained schemes which aim to empower a "wise elite" to insulate capitalism from any democratic challenge.

Another version of the "tyranny of the majority" argument, which is far more plausible on the face of it, is the following. Democracy means that the will of the majority prevails over the minority. But if that is so, what is to stop a dominant group from using democracy to further entrench the oppression of minority groups? Worse yet, how will the interests of oppressed minorities ever be taken seriously if they can always be overruled by the votes of the majority?

The two different versions of the argument are worlds apart. The first seeks to insulate the power of an already dominant group from any democratic challenge by the majority. The second expresses a worry that currently dominated and oppressed groups will not be well served by majority rule. Still, although the motivation for both versions are extremely different, the reply to both will be the same.

First of all, democracy is not mere majority rule. The mere fact that a majority of people support something does not mean that democracy endorses it, nor does it mean that its the right thing to do. Everything depends on why people support something, what their reasons are, and who is allowed to participate in the discussion. Democracy is an arrangement in which citizens collectively self-govern themselves through reasoned discussion and deliberation. For that to have any meaning at all, citizens must be substantively equal to one another. That is to say, there cannot be any social relations that exhibit domination, exploitation, subordination or oppression. Otherwise, democratic self-governance is not possible. Exploiters and exploited cannot participate together in a reasoned process of democratic deliberation. Their interests, being diametrically opposed, prevent them from having a reasoned discussion as equals. The arguments of the exploited will fall on deaf ears, and the exploiters will be in a position to issue threats and throw their weight around. Collective self-governance between such groups is impossible. The only way forward is struggle. Since the exploited are the only ones with an undistorted interest in entirely overturning relations of exploitation, they are the group most likely to bring such a social change about. The exploiters, on the other hand, having no interest in altering the status quo, will fight to keep things as they are. The task of those committed to democracy in such a situation is to organize alongside the exploited to fight for a militant, internally democratic movement capable of overturning social relations that exhibit exploitation.

In virtue of what is someone an exploiter? In virtue of her social position in the economic structure of society. A person who owns and controls means of production is in a position to dominate those who don't. Moreover, the owner of means of production has influence and power over society insofar as that person has disproportionate control over such important matters as employment, investment, workplace organization, wages, and so forth. It is a farce to say that the 1%, given their concentrated economic power, are equal co-legislators alongside the rest of us. Collective self-governance is impossible if an unelected group enjoys exclusive control over the basic structure of society. The basic concern of those who defend socialism from below is "who decides?" If the answer is: an aristocratic elite, the capitalist class, the military brass, or state bureaucrats, then we don't have democracy (and neither do we have socialism).

The same goes for other relations of domination. Suppose that a majority of people vote in favor of a racist policy in the contemporary US. Would that be a genuinely democratic outcome? Hardly. Democracy means collective self-governance among equals. If a segment of society push for the exclusion and oppression of another segment of society, that is fundamentally undemocratic. For it means undermining the ideal of collective self-rule in favor of a situation in which one group lords over and dominates another. Real democracy means that citizens participate together as equals in determining what their shared life together should be like. But that equality is impossible in a society marked by racial oppression. Reinforcing racial oppression
by whatever meansis tantamount to increasing the undemocratic character of a social formation. As long as some group is oppressed, its members cannot be said to be equal with others. So, the second version of the argument is correct to worry that oppressed minorities may be ill-served by majority-rule, but majority-rule is not necessarily democratic.

Any action which undermines continued collective self-governance among equals is undemocratic. Thus, restricting free speech isn't wrong because it violates some "natural" right; it is wrong precisely because it makes genuine collective self-governance impossible.

Second, democracy is not identical to voting. Voting is simply one possible way of trying to institutionalize democratic decision making. But the mere act of voting is not the most important part of democracy. Far more important is the discussion that preceded a particular vote. This should be evident to anyone who has participated in a General Assembly at an occupation. A vote is really only as good as the discussion that preceded it. If that discussion was distorted by asymmetrical relations of power and threats by more powerful groups, then the upshot of the vote is unclear. If the discussion was dominated by a powerful misconception propagated from above, the results are similarly dubious. Or, if the voices and concerns of certain groups are not heard or taken seriously in the discussion, this can similarly devalue a vote. Only a discussion which generalizes from the experiences of all, which proceeds on the basis of reasoned deliberation, which takes seriously the interests of all those participating, is likely to produce an outcome with genuinely democratic credentials.

The point is that democracy is not something that happens merely in the act of voting. It occurs in and through the arguments and deliberations about what to do. To the extent that those deliberations are skewed by threats, self-interested bargaining, private gain or by certain groups throwing their weight around, what results from them is not democratic. To the extent that those deliberations exclude parties that are affected by a decision, they are similarly undemocratic. Moreover, if those deliberations proceed on the basis of ideological manipulation or deception, they are similarly undemocratic. Democracy happens when substantively equal participants collectively and openly discuss together—by exchanging reasons among one another, not by appealing to unexamined "preferences"—how to settle matters of common concern. Thus, a vote may or may not, in this sense, be democratic. The mere fact that a majority supports something does not make it democratic.

It should be clear, then, from what has been said above that democracy is not identical with existing electoral procedures. Democracy, properly understood, is antithetical to these illegitimate procedures and to the society in which they are situated. Democracy is general assemblies, workers' councils, consciousness raising groups, strike committees, mass demonstrations and public speak-outs. The ossified electoral structures in the US—which revolve around around two massive corporate-backed party organizations—are anything but democratic. US elections—especially presidential elections—are little more than opportunities for us to choose which wing of the ruling class will misrepresent us for the next couple of years. To encourage us to choose between the Democrats and Republicans is to do nothing more than attempt to cast a system of, by and for the 1% in a favorable light by making it appear as if it enjoys democratic legitimacy.

One closing thought about "consensus" procedures in social movements. I think those who defend these sorts of procedures do so in part for democratic reasons. That is, the goal of every deliberation should be consensus. Consensus is not compromise. Compromise occurs when parties who have different interests, or at least different views, agree to disagree and bargain rather than try to convince the other of what they take to be correct. Consensus means that a group of people are won to a position because they agree that it is best supported by the relevant reasons.

In democratic deliberations and discussions, consensus should always be the goal. We shouldn't start off the discussion by strategizing about how to bargain, threaten, deceive, or frighten people in to voting one way or another. We should begin by trying to convince them through reasoned argument
—and we should be open to having our minds changed by the arguments we encounter in the discussion. Genuine democracy means that all of the relevant arguments are heard, all of the reasons for and against considered. No voices are silenced. After all of that, the hope is that the view best supported by reasons will win out. Of course, real life is hardly ever so clean cut. Sometimes group deliberations about what to do yield deep disagreement. Sometimes that disagreement is over what's best supported by reasons, sometimes not. Sometimes certain groups refuse to seriously consider certain arguments because they threaten their authority or power.

What's more, we never have an unlimited time frame in which to discuss and deliberate. At some point, the need to act intervenes and cuts short the ideal of unconstrained, endless deliberation. So, in the absence of a real consensus, working democratic bodies need a decision procedure that best captures what the will of all is at that moment. Some version of majority rule (whether that's simple majority or super-majority) is unavoidable here for practical reasons. First, genuine consensus is one thing, but so-called "consensus procedures" are another. "Consensus procedures" endow each individual with veto power. That individual need not have good reasons for her veto. She need not convince others that her views are correct. In order to derail a collective discussion all she need do is veto it and the whole thing is shot. This hardly encourages reasoned argument and collective deliberation among equals. Neither does it encourage aiming to achieve real consensus. On the contrary, it encourages threats, raw bargaining (which is not the same as arguing), foot-stomping, and other non-deliberative interactions.

One final thought, just so that the above is not misunderstood. I am not saying that we need "more dialogue" and discussion between oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited. Reasoned argument from below tends to fall on deaf ears when it is aimed at convincing those in positions of power. In these cases, only struggle can carry the day. An all-encompassing democracy isn't possible in social conditions marked by systemic oppression, exploitation and marginalization. The system must be changed in order to lay the groundwork for such a possibility. But, among those organized to fight for a better society, democratic self-governance is key. The movement for a better world has to embody many of the attributes that the future world must exemplify. So my comments about democracy, discussion, deliberation, reasoned argument, etc. should be taken to apply to movements from below that bring together people concerned to fight against all forms of oppression, domination and exploitation. I'll sit down and have a reasoned discussion with the ruling class when they give up all of their wealth and power.