Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Socialist Politics and the City

(This is a slightly edited version of a post from September 2011).

A while back, I got into a lively debate with some comrades about the role of the city in socialist politics. The debate seemed to dwell on the question of whether the city or the urban form (it's worth noting that those very concepts were contested in the discussion) coheres with (or makes possible) the socialist ideal of a collectively self-governing society free of exploitation and oppression. I won't try to summarize the objections or positions of those with whom I disagreed, since I wouldn't be able to do them justice. But I would like to reflect a bit more about the position I found myself defending in that discussion.

Let me begin by confessing that much of my thinking about these matters is strongly influenced by an article Mike Davis wrote a couple years back for New Left Review. Here's an excerpt that is particularly emblematic of the view he puts forward in that essay:

There are innumerable examples and they all point toward a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth. As we all know, several additional Earths would be required to allow all of humanity to live in a suburban house with two cars and a lawn, and this obvious constraint is sometimes evoked to justify the impossibility of reconciling finite resources with rising standards of living. Most contemporary cities, in rich countries or poor, repress the potential environmental efficiencies inherent in human-settlement density. The ecological genius of the city remains a vast, largely hidden power. But there is no planetary shortage of ‘carrying capacity’ if we are willing to make democratic public space, rather than modular, private consumption, the engine of sustainable equality. Public affluence—represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction—represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality. Although seldom noticed by academic urban theorists, university campuses are often little quasi-socialist paradises around rich public spaces for learning, research, performance and human reproduction.
The brilliance of Davis's argument is that he weaves together the ecological genius of urban living with the social and political importance of the city. Taking ecological concerns seriously, he argues, requires anti-capitalism. But sustainability also requires urban forms. And, independently of ecological concerns, Davis gives us reasons to think that the socialist ideal has always had a close affinity with the forms of social organization made possible by dense urban communities. All three political concerns -anti-capitalist, ecological and urban- hang together in a kind of equilibrium, each drawing support from the other. I find this to be a a highly plausible and attractive picture.

Before I say more about why I endorse this picture, let me say a little bit about what's essential to the idea of the city. Like any familiar concept, the idea of city carries with it innumerable associations and meanings, not all of which I intend to endorse. As I've noted elsewhere, the idea of "the urban" (or worse, "the inner city") is often a racialized euphemism in the United States. I've written elsewhere about the phenomenon of suburban white "fear of the city", which goes hand in hand with the racist image of black people (especially young black men) as dangerous, pathological, angry, and so on. This racist ideology, when combined with individualistic/consumerist ideologies nourished by the suburban form, yields an especially potent anti-city form of consciousness. Of course, as waves of gentrification flood into cities, expelling working class residents, most of them people of color, this generalized "fear of the city" has begun to wane among middle and ruling class whites. Still, it's fair to say that there is still plenty of animus against the urban form out there. In defending the city as an ideal, I'd like to sidestep these ideological encumbrances.

By "city", I mean nothing more than a densely populated community in which functional uses are integrated (rather than separated), that is walkable and bikable, where large numbers of people with very different backgrounds live together and share basic social institutions (e.g. libraries, parks, museums, schools, etc.). I mean an active, lively built environment that makes use of efficiencies created by density, mixed-use, and diversity. I mean a space that laid out on a human scale, not a automotive scale. Though every city fails to fully embody this ideal, big cities come the closest to approximating it. I'll elaborate more on this ideal in a moment.

Still, attractive though this ideal may be, cities continue to get a bad rap. Cities, it is often said, are dirty, cramped, polluted, dangerous, and concrete-heavy. They embody the worst of capitalist industrialization. According to this common view, if cities are gray and asphalt, suburbs and towns are green and leafy. Suburban living, the story goes, is comfortable, safe, harmonious and, most importantly for "green" politics, loaded with expansive lawns and large trees. Low density residential configurations make for a less concrete-heavy landscape, and strict separation of uses entails that residential spaces are far from industrial spaces. It follows, then, that cities, with all their iniquity, pollution and concrete, are the antithesis of sustainable living. Sustainability requires a suburban home with a Prius parked out front, a new-fangled energy efficient refrigerator full of organic produce, etc.

Though these ideas have wide currency, on reflection they have little plausibility.

As the Davis quote makes clear, we would need several additional earths for everyone on the planet to have the massive single-family McMansion with a big irrigated lawn, a couple of cars, etc. It therefore goes without saying that the McMansion lifestyle cannot be egalitarian or, for that matter, socialist in spirit since it is only possible on the assumption that the vast majority of humanity doesn't enjoy it. Now, McMansion enthusiasts might complain that I'm for levelling everyone down to shared poverty. But I'm not; I'm for privileging public wealth over private consumption. I'd rather enjoy the beauty and grandness of world-class public buildings than lock myself up in a McMansion.

Still, we know that McMansions aren't the root of the problem. The problem is one of a basic model of social/economic development that became dominant in in the postwar era. I'm talking about the low-density, use-segregated, car-heavy model of development characteristic of Postwar suburban sprawl, which has been nothing less than an unmitigated environmental (and social) disaster. It is well-known that this model was pushed by ruling classes after WWII to facilitate economic growth (think of, for instance, the impact of the suburban form on the sales of new construction homes, cars, appliances, etc.). The construction of the interstate highway system, in conjunction with huge subsidies for mortgages in low-density suburban areas, made this model hegemonic for a generation. Its dominance continues, though it is becoming increasingly contested and mired by its own contradictions.

Many readers of this blog will already know that I have no love for cars, so I'll set the issue of cars aside for the moment the problem of the environmental costs associated car-exclusive built environments. (See here for some of my own views, and see here and here for more recent socialist critiques). This leaves many other problems to be dealt with, e.g. extremely high per capita uses of energy (think of the energy spent heating a McMansion in the winter). Even the surface-level aesthetic credentials of the ideal "green" suburb are dubious. Most suburbs are monotonous nightmares where indigenous plant life is uprooted, old trees cut down to make space for useless lawns, tacky landscaping, multi-lane highways and, of course, massive parking lots. Many of the suburbs surrounding Chicago (especially the newer ones) tend to have far fewer trees than the typical street in the city. Moreover, the low density of suburbs combined with their extreme un-walkability (and un-bikability) means that you can only enjoy what green-space there is from the windows of an automobile. And let's not forget the massive, four-lane highways connecting sprawling residential subdivisions with other single-use spheres of activity. To say that these are an eyesore is an understatement.

But the problems of the suburban form aren't simply aesthetic or ecological. The social, political and economic problems are profound as well. I'll keep this point brief. The suburban form, as such, privileges individual consumption over public goods, it alienates individuals from one another, it nourishes individualist/consumerist ideologies by leaving little space for non-commercial social interactions among people. Moreover, suburbs are usually planned piecemeal in a top-down manner by developers in conjunction with national (and multi-national) corporations, they are often racially exclusive, and lots of them are little more than quasi-feudal gated "communities" meant to keep out those who aren't rich. It has also been noted (by Davis, among others) that the low-density spatial configuration of suburbs makes organization and collective action less likely to transpire (compared with a dense, urban working-class neighborhood where residents would be far more likely to unite and fight).

So much for suburbia. But what's the alternative?

The only viable alternative, I'd like to suggest, is the city. But not everyone on the Left agrees with that claim. Anarcho-primitivists, for example, argue that the city isn't the only alternative to suburbia. In fact, according to their view, city-dwellers should reject cities for similar reasons and return to pre-capitalist forms of social organization that predate the industrial revolution.

I could spend several posts saying why this view is wrong, so I'll have to be unfairly brief here. First of all, as a Marxist, I am not unequivocally negative about Modernity. I am ambivalent: modernity has brought with it all kinds of progressive possibilities for developing human potential, but it has also brought vastly increased environmental destruction and new forms of exploitation and oppression.

In classical Marxism, the ambivalence toward modernity (which, under any plausible interpretation of modern, has to be loosely identified with capitalism) expresses itself as follows. On the one hand, capitalism has developed the forces of production (e.g. technologies, productive instruments, productive techniques, technically useful knowledge) to an extremely high degree. But the highly developed productive forces and technology in capitalist society are not put in the service of human liberation. Though we can do so today in ways that would have been unthinkable in the Bronze Age, capitalism doesn't use the productive forces to eradicate all forms of poverty, suffering, and starvation. Technological innovation is not put in the service of developing human potential or creating green/sustainable living. Rather it is put in the service of generating ever growing profits. As far as the default mode of the system is concerned, it's all about the bottom line, all the time, and in the long run that the bottom line requires endless compound economic growth. It's not hard to see that this spells destruction for the natural environment.

But that destruction isn't the result of technology, industry, and cities as such (as primitivists would have it). Environmental degradation is the result of the social/political system of capitalism, i.e. an apparatus which generates and uses technology for purposes other than human need and ecological considerations. So the culprit is our political system, not technology or the urban form itself. A sustainable, green socialist society need not dispense with all technologies developed after the emergence of capitalism. That would be absurd. After the revolution, I'd still like to have modern plumbing thank you very much. And aside from improving human lives in innumerable other ways, many technologies enable efficiencies that reduce per capita energy consumption and waste.

And let us not even begin to list the incredible forms of knowledge, association, culture, and so forth that have been enabled by modern technological developments. There's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should radically change the uses that capitalism puts technology to. And we should radically change the way that technological innovation proceeds under capitalism, and put in the service of worthier goals. And, to be sure, many technologies currently in vogue in capitalist societies will need to be abandoned, chief among them the personal automobile as a primary means for each individual to get around. So much for primitivism.

So if I'm right, that leaves us with the city as an ideal form of socialist community. I've set this up as a negative, indirect argument for the city using the process of elimination. But I don't think that's the main thing the city has going for it.

Aside from the environmental gains to be made from consolidating space, eliminating waste, and creating efficiencies from the shared use of public institutions and utilities, there are social and political benefits that attach to city life as well. As Davis points out, the possibilities for spontaneous social interaction and the propensity to feel a sense of shared fate make the urban form an excellent accompaniment to the socialist ideal of a free community of equals, or an association of free producers. Furthermore, if socialist politics privilege the common good and public wealth over private gain and individual greed, then cities are an excellent physical embodiment of the socialist ideal. Rather than hiding our interdependence on one another, cities lay it bare in a way that other forms of structuring communities do not.

The close affinity between collective self-governance from below and the dense, urban form should not be overlooked either. To some extent, the Occupy movement has certainly born this out. If we want to affirm the fact that we are a community of equals who cooperate together for mutual gain, urban forms are the way to go. There is an implicit disavowal of community and interdependence in low-density suburban forms. The built environment in suburban forms creates an illusion of individual self-sufficiency that encourages toxic political forms of consciousness. At their best, however, cities make it hard to ignore our interdependence. There's something intrinsically valuable, I think, about being aware of the ways that we're profoundly connected and inter-dependent.

Cities also unleash human potential and creativity in ways that no other social form can. The sheer density of interesting and creative people living in close proximity to one another creates the possibility for endless combinations of different approaches, lifestyles, artistic endeavors, and projects. If socialism is about making human development, rather than profit, the priority of social production, I can think of no better means than the best aspects of dense urban spaces.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Is the Property of the 1% Legitimate?

The dominant ideology in our society would have us believe that whatever results from capitalist markets is presumptively just. The idea is that whatever the 1% gets from the market is authoritatively theirs. Thus, pre-tax income appears as something "natural" and taxation appears as something alien, which swoops in from the outside to "intervene" and "interfere" with the "natural" workings of the market.

Some accept this ideology, even as they call for increased taxation on the 1%. While arguing that the present wealth of the 1% is excessive, many continue to assume that pre-tax incomes in capitalist societies are in some sense "natural" and presumptively legitimate. This is expressed in the following thought: "maybe the rich should be taxed more heavily, but at least some of they have is legitimate theirs."

Now, within the horizons of this liberal perspective, I certainly agree that the wealth of the 1% is in some sense "excessive". I also agree that unmet human needs override any ownership claims that might be invoked to argue against re-distributive taxation in a capitalist society. But this concedes far too much to the rich and powerful. We shouldn't just say that the wealth of the 1% is excessive; we should say that it is illegitimate through and through.

To talk of redistribution, after all, is to talk of altering some prior production and distribution of goods. But how does that prior production and distribution come about? And what makes it legitimate in the first place?

It's obvious that the 1% has a vested interest in making sure that the majority of the population 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. Throughout history dominant groups always try to preserve the basis of their dominance.

Now, dominant groups have at least two (analytically distinct, but in practice interwoven) means of maintaining their 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. This explains the violent force used against the Occupy movement all over the country.

But dominant groups can't maintain their dominance through naked violence alone, at least not for long. Thus all ruling classes are compelled to stabilize their rule by telling stories to the ruled about why their power and privilege is legitimate. As Marx and Engels put it in The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.
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 justified colonial domination, or the supposedly "scientific" expertise that justifies the power of bureaucracies. The stories the rich tell about the supposed legitimacy of their wealth are part of a long tradition of lying to the masses to the protect privilege and power of the few.

What stories do the rich tell in our society? By my count there are at least four. Now, it's worth noting that growing numbers of people don't need to be told that these stories are bogus. Millions of people are coming around to the idea that the wealth of the 1% isn't simply excessive, but fundamentally illegitimate. Still, it's worthwhile from time to time to puncture the self-image and self-justifications of those in power. It's worthwhile to go through and debunk the familiar myths handed down from above that purport to show us that the wealth of the ruling class is legitimate.

One common story is that the members of the 1% deserve what they have because they earned it. More precisely, they deserve what they get from the market because it represents their just reward for productive activity. According to this story, the market rewards productive contributions. Thus, the rich deserve their wealth because it must be their proportional reward for their productive contributions to society. Unfortunately this is nothing but a fairy tale. Set aside the bank bailouts showered upon failing financial elites. Capitalists—even the ideal capitalists of the textbook—earn from owning, not from working. The pure capitalist makes precisely zero productive contributions to society and does no productive labor. They pay others to do it and reap the rewards of what they produce. So it can't be that the profits raked in by capitalists are what they deserve for productive contributions to society, since they need not do anything productive.

The second story, related to the first, is that the wealth of the rich is legitimate because it represent their reward for having taken bold risks. The thought is this: capitalists assume risk when they invest their money, so whatever they get in profits must be legitimate. They could have lost it all, but they didn't, so what they get is legitimately theirs. But though this story is told often enough, it is actually quite obscure, even by its own lights. And then there's the fact that workers are forced to assume all of the risk (and then some) assumed by their employer, even though they are entitled to precisely zero of the benefits if the risk pays off. This story is ultimately unconvincing. Rather than proving that the wealth of the 1% is legitimate, upon reflection it undermines the legitimacy of their riches.

But there's a third story that we've yet to consider. That story is that the wealth of the 1% is legitimate because it arises from nothing except free market exchanges. If a voluntary exchange between two consenting adults is unobjectionable, and the accumulation of wealth by the rich arises from nothing but consensual market transactions, it must follow that their wealth is legitimately theirs. And anyone who disagrees must think that a third party should paternalistically "prohibit capitalist acts between consenting adults". But that can't be right. So the wealth of the 1% is legitimate.

Though this argument is rhetorically powerful at first glance, it falls apart rather quickly on closer inspection. First of all, in order for anything to be transferred or exchanged legitimately, it has to already be legitimate property. The market can't create legitimate titles; it can only circulate existing titles. But how did unowned things come to be legitimate property in the first place? How did, for example, natural resources or large swaths of lame come to be private property? By what historical process did society's means of production come to be the private property at all? A quick glance at history shows that violence, brute force, conquest, war, genocide, colonial expropriation and slavery explain the origins of this property. This is what Marx called "primitive accumulation." Insofar as the wealth of the 1% rests on a history of violence and obvious injustice, it is illegitimate, even if acquired through "voluntary" exchanges.

But there's an even deeper problem with this argument. Even if the historical legacy of "primitive accumulation" didn't undermine the legitimacy of the origins of existing property, the idea that capitalism is nothing but an aggregation of genuinely "free" market transactions is ludicrous. Unequal relations of power are constitutive of market exchanges. The equality of citizens deliberative together in a democratic general assembly is never reproduced in the market place. If I, for example, gouge you for a bottle of water during a drought, and you relent because there's nothing else for you to do but cough up $200 for the water, that is a "free" market exchange. You consent to buy the water and I consent to sell it. There are, to be sure, massive asymmetries of power between us, but the transaction satisfies the criterion of "consensual capitalist act between adults." But it is clearly illegitimate for me to profit from the misery and vulnerability of others. Less extreme cases bear the same problems. Workers, who by definition own and control no significant means of production, are forced to work for a capitalist to earn a living, even if they can choose which capitalist work for. But that mere fact gives capitalists a large degree of social power over workers. The labor contract struck between the individual, atomized worker and the employer, then, is hardly free or fair. But it fits the bill of "consensual capitalist acts between adults", because what other choice does the isolated, individual worker have except to consent to her exploitation so that she can earn a living? So much for the virtues of "free" market exchanges as a way of conferring legitimacy on the wealth of the 1%.

The fourth story is that the wealth of the rich is legitimate because it is necessary to produce the greatest overall amount of beneficial economic consequences for all. That is, massive wealth for the 1% is a necessary precondition for economic growth and prosperity. Without it, they would have no incentive to do all of the allegedly marvelous things that they do which, we're told, tend to produce jobs and prosperity for all.

For my money, this is by far the weakest argument of them all. As we've seen, capitalists don't need to do any work at all. They need not do anything productive to earn their profits. So, this argument doesn't even get off the ground, because it assumes that we actually need capitalists to have prosperity and a functioning system of social production. But the fact is that we don't. We do all the work: the boss needs us, but we don't need the boss.

The most obvious objection to this argument, however, arises out of the fact that we're in the midst of a protracted global economic crisis right now. And, perversely, profits have soared to record levels amidst sky-high unemployment and economic misery for the 99%. What's more, the misery of the 99% is directly tied to the record profits which have been largely reaped through bailouts and austerity. But this argument suggests that the cause of our misery is necessary to produce something the 99% does not presently enjoy, namely prosperity and economic security.

A more specific version of the above argument is that the wealth of capitalists is necessary to incentivize innovation. But this argument rests on nothing. It's not as if we have experimental data that prove that all non-capitalist means of generating innovations are flawed. Open-source software is an obvious counter-example, and there are too many others to name. Moreover, as I've already explained, capitalists don't actually do the innovating. That's what they pay R&D departments for (if, in fact, they pay them... often corporate R&D is public subsidized through universities). So the innovation incentive argument simply doesn't show us that the wealth of the 1% is legitimate.

Things aren't looking so good for the idea that the wealth of the 1% is legitimate. It is being undermined daily. After all, the mere fact that the State has to resort to acts of violence to repress resistance and protest from below shows that it's ideological hegemony is fractured and incomplete.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What's the Point of Education?

If you ask Chicago's Rahm Emanuel—known locally as "Mayor 1%"—the point of education is to provide for the specific needs of the owners of big corporate firms. The owners sketch up the job descriptions, they decide what will be produced, according to what modes of organization, when and where. Schools, then, are nothing more than publicly-subsidized training centers whose curriculum matches the fleeting demands of profit-hungry corporate leaders.

In their classic, must-read book on the topic, Schooling in Capitalist America (2011, Haymarket Re-issue), radical economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis elaborate more on this perspective:

How can we best understand the relationship between education and the capitalist economy? Any adequate explanation must begin with the fact that schools produce workers. The traditional theory explains the increased value of an educated worker by treating the worker as a machine. According to this view, workers have certain technical specifications (skills and motivational patterns) which in any given production situation determine their economic productivity. Productive traits are enhanced through schooling...

...The motivating force in the capitalist economy is the employer's quest for profit. Profits are made through hiring workers and organizing production in such a way that the price paid for workers time—the wage—is less than the value of the goods produced by their labor. [If the price paid for the worker's time (i.e. the wage) wasn't less than the value of the goods the worker produces during her shift, the boss would have no reason to hire her in the first place -t]...

...Schools produce workers...Schools foster types of personal development compatible with the relationships of dominance and subordination in the economic sphere, and finally, schools create surpluses of skilled labor sufficiently extensive to render effective the prime weapon of the employer in disciplining labor
—the power to fire and hire.
In short, according to the 1%, the basic goal of education—which includes everything from curriculum to methods of student and teacher evaluationshould be to foster and sustain corporate profitability. Considerations such as human development and flourishing are irrelevant. Developing the talents of students and enabling them to lead free lives doesn't even enter into the picture.

Moreover, to the extent that music, arts, and the humanities fail to provide corporate owners with the sorts of traits that the 1% is looking for, they should be completely eliminated. (Although they're less commonly the object of direct ruling-class ire, I note that the natural sciences are distorted and abused by this educational program as well—especially on the question of how grant money is allocated and so forth). This is just a way of saying that the knowledge and skills woven through disciplines such as literature, philosophy, history, art, anthropology, languages, culture and so on are—as far as the 1% is concerneduseless at best, and dangerous at worst. What's needed, instead, is a surplus of people who empathize with orders, defer gratification, respect the authority of bosses, come to work on time, who possess the technical skills needed to do whatever the boss needs them to do. (For more on this see this (esp. 6:40-onward) as well as this (as yet unreleased) book Capitalism and Education)

It's clear that there is no space in this educational vision for the interests of educators, parents and students to be voiced. Their job is to take orders from above. The goals are set for them in advance. Their only use lies in efficiently maximizing those ready-made goals.

It comes as little surprise, then, that more and more of the people charged with running school systems and universities are drawn directly from the corporate world. For example, in the case of the Chicago City Colleges (which used to be called "Peoples' Colleges") a corporate business executive with no specific expertise in higher education, Cheryl Hyman, has been charged with overseeing their "reinvention." In this task, Hyman been assisted by a slew of corporate consultants. As the Reader reports:
[Hyman] was assisted by consultants from McKinsey & Company and the Civic Consulting Alliance (the consulting arm of the Commercial Club of Chicago) who worked, initially pro bono, to "dig into the metrics" with her. By midsummer she'd hired former McKinsey consultant (and Renaissance 2010 Fund official) Alvin Bisarya as vice chancellor of strategy and institutional intelligence. In March 2011, Donald Laackman, a principal at the Civic Consulting Alliance, was installed as president of Harold Washington College. And last January, McKinsey was awarded a half-million-dollar contract for work on City Colleges changes this year.
The idea is that educational institutions should be completely subordinate to, and take their orders from, corporate "experts". Accordingly, the "ignorant" public—students, teachers, and parents—have no meaningful role to play in determining how schools are run. After all, as far as the corporate "experts" are concerned, the students, parents and teachers are noting more than the passive objects of "reform" rather than agents whose interests the school system should serve. For those parents, students or teachers who dare to dissent from this ruling-class consensus, the reply—which is actually a threatis something like this:
Look, if you're going to survive in this society, you need a job. But to get a job, you have to do what exactly we say. We—the "job creators"—decide what jobs there are and who gets them. If you disobey us, we'll freeze you out of the system and leave you with nothing. So it's either a life of obedience to ready-made goals and (if you're lucky) precarious employment, or a life of destitution and marginalization.
This goes for students and parents as much as it does for teachers. Students and parents are denied a voice and threatened with marginalization if they don't do what the system asks of them. And if educators themselves speak up and try to resist the corporate re-structuring of their curriculum, they are scapegoated, threatened, attacked and punished. Rahm Emanuel and his brutal assault on the Chicago Teachers Union is a case in point.

And, aside from the fact that teachers unions are the most powerful organized labor force in the contemporary United States today—which makes them a clear target for an employing class on a warpath to smash the union movement entirely—unionized educators are also in a position to resist commands from above demanding that they teach only what corporate leaders want them to teach. Hence, the corporate elites have a clear interest in bludgeoning,discrediting and otherwise attacking teachers unions.

The most perverse part of this is that ruling elites use the threat of unemployment to make it appear as if they're performing some kind of philanthropic service by using educational institutions to shoehorn people into low-paying, precarious jobs. By exploiting high unemployment and the economic misery of the 99% (caused by austerity and the global crisisboth forced upon us by the 1%), Rahm and his goons are attempting to sell themselves as "job-creating saviors" of the 99%.

But it's not hard to see through this sham, even by their own lights. If Boeing wants 100 more workers to enter the labor market today (because, say, they want to drive wages down in order to make hiring new people maximally profitable), there's no guarantee that they'll want those 100 people next year. Maybe they'll change their mind because their profit margins aren't high enough, or maybe they'll leave Chicago in search of a more easily exploitable labor force. Though educational institutions are being forced to serve corporate interests, it's not the case that corporate elites are being asked to reciprocate. There is nothing to stop corporations from benefiting in a one-sided way from public funds in the short-run, only to pack up and leave thousands unemployed at a later date.

Often, political struggles within the sphere of education are struggles over the question of access: who is granted access to which schools, who isn't, and why. The struggle over access is the struggle against school closures, against teacher layoffs, against tuition hikes and user fees. It is the struggle against a university system financed through the exploitative—and fabulously profitablestudent loan industry. Traditionally, working class people and oppressed minorities were completely excluded from the university system. Struggles from below created inroads for previously excluded groups to get a foothold in the university system. But today, the ranks of those being entirely excluded is growing by the day as austerity causes living standards to plummet and tuition and fees to soar. The question of access is a key question. In the context of cruel regimes of austerity being imposed from above, it is perhaps the central question facing millions of ordinary people in the 99% right now.

But the question of access, taken by itself, is only one part of the struggle. After all, what is it that we are fighting to gain access to?

The only way to answer this question is to put forward a perspective on what the point of education is. We already saw the 1%'s answer: educational institutions should either be made to subsidize corporate profits or they should cease to exist entirely. But what kind of answer should the 99% give?

Human beings flourish when they are able to cultivate their talents and exercise their capacities for imaginative thinking and creative activity. Living a rich and meaningful life requires that we have the space to reflect and figure out who we are and what we really care about. Leading a free life means honing one's capacity for critical thinkingfor seeing the world as it really is rather than the way our leaders want us to see it. Living a free life also means learning about our own history, that is, the often untold stories of groups women and men who struggled against forms oppression and exploitation in the past—in contrast to history-as-seen-from-above which focuses on the alleged "heroics" of a small group of "Great Men". These important—indeed necessary—goals can only be accomplished through education. I don't say that education is sufficient to accomplish these goals, since that would play into the hands of those who argue that teachers and educators should be made responsible for solving all the world's problems. The only way to fully realize human potential is to fight for a different kind of society—a socialist societywhere the material conditions for human flourishing could be secured for all. Nonetheless, though hardly sufficient, I do claim that education is a necessary part of fully realizing the promise of such a society.

I stress that these goals I describe above are not "luxuries". They do not describe a life that should only be available to a select few. On the contrary, the goals described above speak to basic human interests that exceed the the narrow goals imposed on us from above by capitalism. As G.A. Cohen puts it:
We have needs beyond the needs to consume and these aren't recognized by capitalism. We have a need, for example, to develop and exercise our talents. When our capacities lie unused, they don't enjoy the zest for life that comes from having one's capacities flourish. People are able to develop themselves only when they get good education. But in a capitalist society, the education of children is threatened by those who would contort education to fit the narrow demands of the labor market....We shouldn't stake our children's future on the hope that the capitalist market will need what's good for them.

...There's a lot of talent in almost every human being. But in a lot of cases that talent goes undeveloped, because people lack the time, energy, resources and facilities to develop it. Throughout history, only a leisured minority has enjoyed this fully. And they did so (and continue to do so) on the backs of a toiling majority...

...The ruling class wants education to be geared toward restoring profitability to the system... But it's dangerous to educate the young too much, because they will become cultivated people who are likely to be less satisfied with the low-paying jobs the market offers them. This might create aspirations that capitalism can't match.... Therefore, people must be "educated to know their place"...
This is a powerful diagnosis of the problem and a vision for how things should be different. The most basic claim is that we shouldn't cater to the tendency in capitalism to view people only as sources of profit, and when they can't be profitably exploited, as redundant and expendable.

Even the members of the ruling class cannot deny the power of this argument. That is why, by and large, the arts and humanities are well-funded and relatively protected at elite colleges and universities. If Rahm and the 1% in Chicago are openly and publicly calling for the complete corporatization of the City Colleges—largely populated by working-class people of color, a large number of them recent immigrants—they are not suggesting that the University of Chicago be transformed into a training facility in which professors and administrators are the mere servants of corporate leaders.

Of course, there are trends—even in the halls of so-called "elite" institutions—toward corporatization. And they need to be rooted out, criticized and fought against. The systematic underfunding and debt-financing of graduate programs in music, creative writing, visual art and film (among other endeavors) is a grave problem even at the "top schools".

But it remains true that the "plan for transformation" of the City Colleges in Chicago
—and elsewhere—evinces racist and anti-working-class assumptions on the part of those at the top.

After all, Rahm isn't sending his own children to the corporatized charter schools or public military academies that he favors as models for the Chicago Public School system. He sends his kids to an expensive private school where students have full access to art, music and other "luxuries". And we can bet that he isn't going to send his children to the City Colleges when they graduate from high school. So, for the children of wealth and power, there's one kind of education. But for the children of working class people
—and especially working class people of colorthere's another kind of education. For Rahm and his buddies, the people at the bottom should be "educated to know their place" so that they can effectively and willingly fill the role that the 1% has selected for them—whether it's as a temporary part of the corporate workforce or as member of the unemployed industrial reserve army.

There's a profound contradiction between what the capitalist system—premised as it is on profitability for the employing class—requires and what flourishing human beings require. As long as the basic priorities of society are determined by forces outside of our control, we will be faced with this contradiction. The proponents of the system as it is will say that education should be a mere means for efficiently satisfying ready-made goals determined by the employing class. Proponents of the human interests of the 99% will insist that education be part of putting ordinary human beings in a position to decide for themselves what the basic goals should be.

As long as the priority of the social system is shackled to the ready-made goal of profit maximization for the rich, it will always be possible to paint "non-productive" forms of knowledge as "useless", "irrelevant" or, at best, mere "luxuries" available only to the children of the rich. It will possible to make high-stakes testing and corporatized school structures look necessary and unavoidable.

But right now these market ideologies that are regularly used to legitimize the system are ringing hollow for millions of people. Masses of people rose up and took to the streets last Fall in the US because they are sick and tired of living underneath an economic and political system dominated by the 1%. The Occupy movement awoke a sleeping giant which, although disturbed from its slumber, has yet to realize the full extent of its power to change society. Millions of people are coming around to the idea that the system doesn't serve their interests—and they are hungry for alternatives. The only way to resolve the contradictions plaguing education in a profit-based society is to fight for a different kind of society—one in which the social forces of production are controlled democratically and made to work for human ends rather than for the iron laws of profit accumulation.


Friday, February 10, 2012

The Importance of Movement Democracy

I think it's good that there is so much debate ensuing around tactics and strategy within Occupy right now. Movements only move forward if they are able to vigorously deliberate about their own strategy and goals. Avoiding debate and discussion means leaving our views unexamined and uncriticized. It means allowing the inertia of the status quo to set in and dampen progress. When this happens, movements wither on the vine. To the extent that the arguments about Black Bloc tactics have ignited discussions of this sort, they are productive for the movement as a whole.

Still, there are several unfortunate consequences of the framing of many of the debates raised by Chris Hedge's polemic against Black Bloc tactics. Some of the debates appear to have devolved into a shrill, abstract and moralistic back and forth about non-violence/violence. Others ignore matters that deserve a lot more attention than they're getting from the media. As a result of the framing of the "Black Bloc debates", a number of crucial questions have been lost in the fray.

What do I have in mind? The question of movement democracy, on the one hand, and the related question of how consciousness changes, on the other, are two deeply important questions that are not well-served by the debate instigated by Hedges's polemic.

As many have pointed out, the "Black Bloc" is a tactic, not an organization. Many who employ the tactic seem to have a roughly similar set of politics, but there is nothing like political homogeneity among the Bloc's participants. Different people employ the tactic in different contexts for different reasons. I'm inclined to say that any sweeping, abstract assessment of the Black Bloc as a tactic is bound to get things wrong. Only by conducting, as Lenin puts it, a "concrete analysis of a concrete situation" can we hope to get things right here. But what would a more concrete assessment of the tactic look like?

In order to answer this question, we have to back up for a moment. Who is it that's supposed to be doing the assessing here? And what method or practices for assessment should be used? There has been a lot of general debate over whether Black Bloc tactics are effective or justifiable. But the question of who should make this decision (and how they should make it) has been largely ignored. Before we can know which tactics are the right ones, we have to be clear about who should make that call.

One perspective here would be the following: the question of Black Bloc tactics is a matter best handled behind closed doors by activists already committed to using such tactics. According to this perspective, Black Bloc tactics should be employed whether or not the rest of the movement is won through dialogue and debate. Perhaps an attempt to win the rest of the movement should be tried, but if, in the end, that argument isn't won at a G.A., those who prefer Black Bloc tactics should simply go ahead with their plans anyway. Thus, activists of this persuasion see movement democracy as a mere means to achieving their pre-deterimined goals, rather than a genuine deliberative process where their own minds might change in the course of collective discussion with their comrades. Ultimately, this perspective assumes that decision-making power about movement tactics should rest with a relatively narrow group of people who decide internally what to do. I use the example of Black Bloc tactics, but this perspective could just as well be employed in support of any tactic whatsoever.

I'd like to suggest that this is a deeply problematic position.

A far better perspective would be one in which movement democracy is central. It is deeply undemocratic to use democratic bodies (like a G.A.) as mere means to achieve pre-determined goals (which can be discarded if it proves to be an unreliable means). The person who approaches movement democracy in this way says, in effect, "I'm for democracy only if it means I get my way, otherwise I'm against it." In the end, this person will say "I don't care if most people disagree with me about what this movement should do, at the end of the day I don't have any obligation to justify myself to fellow activists." This is not a democratic approach in the least. This individualistic/strategic perspective brushes against the grain of the cooperative and deliberative attitudes necessary to the flourishing of movement democracy.

But why is movement democracy important? It's worth going through the most significant reasons why effective mass movements have to be internally democratic.

First of all, an internally democratic movement draws everyone involved into active participation in the determination of the goals and tactics of the movement. Rather than allowing a self-appointed clique of "experts" to issue orders from on high, vigorous movement democracy mobilizes and activates all participants and enables them to be the co-authors of the movement (rather than mere followers or sympathizers). People have a much stronger stake in a movement when they are actively involved in running it. Mass participation goes hand in hand with genuine movement democracy.

Mass participation is key because it fosters that crucial element of all successful social struggles and revolutions: self-activity. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once put it, a "vibrant and active democracy" is needed within movements so that all members can "participate actively and consciously in working out its views and in determining its course of action." The point isn't that democracy is the most fair procedure in some abstract sense; rather, the idea that democracy is an essential political element of active social movements from below. Mass participation generates political energy and an anti-conservative spark that cannot be achieved in any other way. All of the most successful and inspiring social movements in history have created radical new forms of democracy from below that draw everyone into active participation (the revolutionary workers council is a key example). The success or failure of Occupy depends on its ability to draw the masses of people into active participation in determining its course of action.

Furthermore, a movement that eschews vigorous internal democracy risks running aground on the shoals of substitutionism. Substitutionism is the political mistake of substituting oneself (or one's small group) for a mass movement. Without vigorous movement democracy, where everyone debates publicly and openly what their common course of action should be, the door is left open for a group (or competing groups) to substitute their own perspective and goals for the perspective/goals of the movement writ large. Substitutionism is problematic for at least two reasons. First of all, it it elitist. Rather thank seeing liberation as a process in which the masses collectively emancipate themselves through their own self-activity, substitutionists assume that a minority must step in to grant the benighted masses liberation from on high. Second, substitutionism has the effect of de-mobilizing people. By drawing a sharp line of demaraction between themselves and the rest of the movement, substitutionists give others the impression that their active participation lacks value and importance. Substitutionist posturing does not win new people to the struggle. It doesn't radicalize the masses and encourage revolt from below. It tends to be perceived as top-down, insulting and de-mobilizing by those outside of the substitutionist clique.

Substitutionists aren't always self-professed radicals, although many are. Gradualist, conservative groups who have a stake in the status quo (esp. groups close to the Democratic Party) can step in and substitute themselves for the movement just as easily as ultra-left radicals. The key to preventing substitutionism is unfettered, vigorous movement democracy. That way, the direction of the movement is, ideally, determined by nothing except the unforced force of the better argument in mass deliberative bodies like G.A.'s. Of course, organized radicals can and must participate in those debates and deliberations. The experience and depth of politics they bring has a lot to offer the movement. But they must do so as participants in the collective-self governance of the movement, not as "experts" standing above and outside of the movement purporting to show the "ignorant masses" the unvarnished truth.

Finally, direct participation of the masses in intra-movement democracy is essential because of the collective learning process that it makes possible. This brings us to the question of how consciousness changes and how people are radicalized.

According to some, the best way to radicalize people is through provocative, small-scale actions that suddenly shake ordinary people from their "dogmatic slumbers". By witnessing daring examples of the "propaganda of the deed", people are radicalized and drawn into participation in struggle.

Now, I think it would be abstract and unhelpful to say that small-scale, bold actions have no progressive effect on consciousness. Everything depends on the form and content of the action and the context in which it occurs. But if there are examples of successful political interventions of this kind, there is also a long list of examples in which this approach resulted in spectacular failure. And even the most successful examples of the "propaganda of the deed" pale in comparison with the radicalizing effect of direct participation in collective struggles against the 1%. People are radicalized in the course of actively fighting back in concert with others. In a society in which people are bombarded everywhere they turn by advertisements and injunctions to buy this or that, it is unreasonable to expect that a mere slogan or image will be enough to win people to joining the fight for their own liberation. Drawing people into participating in struggle is the key to changing consciousness.

But how are people drawn into mass action and participation in struggle? Worsening material conditions and discussion/direct-engagement are essential here. Peoples daily lives are being shaken by brutal austerity from above, worsening living standards for the 99%, mass layoffs and unemployment, foreclosures and school closings, etc. They don't need a small clique to tell them that something is wrong with society. What they need is someone to engage them critically, to talk to them, to challenge them in discussion to link arms with others in struggle. Radicals need to talk to people in their own communities, to meet them half-way and engage them directly. This is all the more important if the Occupy movement is going to successfully collaborate and integrate itself with communities that face racial oppression, residential segregation and police intimidation. It's not enough to pull off creative political stunts that, in effect, fly the flag and demand that people rally to it. Direct political discussion with the 99% is essential to building mass movements.

Importantly, political discussion has to begin from where people's heads are at; if it abstractly sweeps in from elsewhere it is unlikely to get any traction. What's more, this dialogue has to draw on people's concrete experiences. Take the question of the role of the police. It would have been abstract to aggressively scold and berate new activists who were sanguine about the police in the early days of the movement. To be sure, raising objections to their attitudes toward the police was necessary, even at the beginning, because the cops never have been, and never will be, on our side. But things have changed drastically since then. After all of the repression from the police that the movement has faced, radicals are now very well-positioned to draw on those people's experience in arguing that the cops aren't on our side. Without a democratic forum for debate and dialogue that can draw on the collective experience of the movement, we can't expect to win fellow occupiers to the perspective that the police aren't a force for social justice. People's views are not set it stone; they are liable to change rather quickly on the basis of political debate and concrete experience through struggle. There's no substitute for engaging people in critical political dialogue in a way that draws on their own experience and concerns.

Now, critical dialogue doesn't mean that activists should leave people's existing views intact or simply pander to what they already think. This would be conservative and ultimately antithetical to the entire spirit of activism itself. Activists try to change the world, not merely interpret it as it is. Critical discussion and dialogue should be a combination of listening to people's concerns and questions, on the one hand, and challenging them to be more militant and active on the other. In the context of escalating attacks on the 99% from above, people's consciousness can develop extremely quickly. Seeing others engaged in mass struggles is a radicalizing force as well, which is all the more reason to build a mass, vigorously democratic movement from below.

This kind of critical discussion and debate can only flourish in the context of a democratic mass movement. If everyone simply does their own thing, without discussing among one another which way forward is best for all, these discussions may never transpire. If some groups, under the guise of a "diversity of tactics", simply opt out of democratic deliberation when they feel they won't get their way, this thwarts the capacity of the movement debate out and discuss tactics effectively. As a result, we can't generalize from each other's experience or learn from each other's mistakes.

The collective learning process that mass movement democracy makes possible is impossible to experience any other way. As socialist Norman Geras describes it, with mass movements:

"...the end must already be operative in the means employed, the liberation of the masses can only be their own work, and it it is in this very process of achieving it that they must develop those qualities which will sustain a socialist society. Thus, for Trotsky, mass participation in the political forms thrown up by a revolution is not only a manifestation of the widespread desire to assume more active control over political and economic life, it also promotes and consolidates that desire. Revolution is consistently seen as an educative process, in which the same mass actions which are necessary to destroy the existing economic and political structures, also have the effect of delivering the working class from bourgeois ideology, of making it conscious of its interest as a class, of raising its confidence in its own ability to organize and decide, and of providing it with the experience of these activities."

This educative process, where we learn from each other and radicalize through the course of struggle and collective self-determination, is impossible if some groups regularly opt out and decide that tactics are best determined by small groups who separate themselves from the movement.

So, the question of "Black Bloc: Pro or Con?" is not one that can be answered abstractly. It should only be answered by direct participants in a mass movement who collectively debate and deliberate together in an open, democratic spirit. To think that a few self-apointed "experts" could answer this question for everyone in a couple of widely-publicized internet debates misses this crucial point.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Against Hedges on the Black Bloc

Many readers will have seen Chris Hedges' polemic against the Black Bloc titled "The Cancer in Occupy". It's getting a lot of play on the internet, so I figured it would be worth joining in the fun and offering a few of my own unsystematic, incomplete remarks on the topic. What follows is more a critique of Hedge's polemic and less a thorough analysis of the Black Bloc phenomenon:

  1. Socialist critics of the Black Bloc (and, to be clear: I consider myself one of them) should recognize the basic tone and method of criticism employed by Hedges right away: it is closely analogous to red-baiting. I'm unsettled by this language of "cancer", "beasts", "criminals" and so forth. This strategy is a hop, skip and a jump away from classic red-baiting tactics used by mainstream elements to purge and denigrate radicals from movements. To be clear: I'm not accusing Hedges of red-baiting in this particular polemic. But this strategy of argument lends itself rather easily, with a few changes here and there, to red-baiting and anti-radical hysterics. That should give socialists pause. Sure, there are plenty of political criticisms which need to be made, which target the ultra-leftism and adventurism of some of the Bloc's participants. But let's set aside the language of cancer and disease, beasts and criminals. Many of these folks are comrades in struggle, and their ideas aren't fixed in stone. To the extent that it is possibleand it may not be, given the way that the Bloc often operatesrevolutionaries should be in critical dialogue with them about how social revolutions happen, why we have to build internally democratic mass movements, why the working class is key, etc. Neither the Bloc nor their sympathizers in the movement are persuaded of anything when it is derided as a "disease" or a "cancer".
  2. Hedges blames the Bloc where he should blame the cops. This comes out rather clearly when he says that "this is a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police) who are possessed of a conscience. It is not a war. Nonviolent movements, on some level, embrace police brutality." After everything that's happened, I find it absolutely incredible that Hedges has the chutzpah to say that the Occupy movement is presently engaged in a mission to win the "hearts and minds" of the cops. This perspective completely misunderstands the function of the police as an institution in our society. Are white Occupiers supposed to encourage their black comrades to go up and start polite moral discussions with the legion of armed thugs in blue who regularly brutalize and murder people in their communities? Are white people supposed to tell people of color in the movement that they should embrace police brutality? Moreover, are we to think that the cops are a more worthy political audience for the movement than the "disease" that is the Bloc? Hedges misses the mark here by a wide margin.
  3. There is a moralistic thread running through Hedges's piece regarding the issue of non-violence. It is patently absurd to say that there are only two positions here: one of fetishizing violence for its own sake and one of fetihsizing non-violence. I absolutely agree that it's bone-headed to think that Occupy can go toe to toe with the State in a physical confrontation and win. It can't. And I completely agree that the strength of the movement lies in mass character, and especially in its capacity to mobilize the working majority to use its special social power to disrupt the profit system. So, I agree that it's important to challenge elitist insurrectionist ideas within the movement. It's important to distinguish genuine social revolutions from coups waged by small self-appointed elites. Whether or not it is possible to engage a group that appears to place no stock in intra-movement dialogue and debate, it's certainly not the case that we should have to adopt Hedges' abstract and ultimately fetishistic perspective toward non-violence. Moralistic injunctions to "obey the law" are not left-wing criticisms.
  4. Hedges's critique of ultra-leftism is ham-fisted. He makes it sound as if it is a crime to offer radical critiques of mainstream "left" elements and institutions. It would be easy to contort his arguments against ultra-leftism to serve the purposes of a soggy reformist apologia for the conservatism of the Democratic Party and the higher-ups of the AFL-CIO. Although I disagree with his generally warm embrace of the Hedges piece, Louis Proyect usefully compares the ultra-leftism of many of participants in the Bloc to the sectarianism of Stalinist parties during the so-called "Third Period" in the 1920s and early 30s. (I also think the Weathermen and Red Army Faction comparisons are apt as well, but I won't discuss them here). During the so-called "Third Period", Communist Parties under the direction of Stalin's Russia were instructed to view all non-Communist groups on the Left (e.g. reformists, other revolutionaries, trade unionists, etc.) as "social fascists", on par with groups on the far Right. Everyone who wasn't in the Communist Party was to be viewed as a class traitor and a tool of the system. Of course, this was a disastrous policy and it eventually gave way to its equally problematic opposite, the sycophantic tailism of the "Popular Front". The "Third Period" perspective, it seems to me, accurately captures some of the rather abstract and highly sectarian dismissals of groups on the organized Left with whom the Bloc evidently disagrees (e.g. the Zapatistas, organized labor, etc.). But the problem with ultra-leftism isn't that it offers criticisms of mainstream Left forces such as the labor movement or Left parties elsewhere in the world (e.g. the Zapatistas or Bolivia's MAS or the PSUV, etc.). That criticism is necessary and it underscores why we should steer clear of lesser-evilism and tailism. Instead, the problem with ultra-leftists is that they are abstentionist, abstract, and ultimately sectarian. They are incapable of understanding what "critical support" means at crucial conjunctures, and they fail to grasp that fighting in the here and now for reforms doesn't necessarily make one a reformist. Many are elitist and cynical about the possibility of mass revolt. Most have an un-dialectical and implausible perspective when it comes to the concrete question of how movements are built and how peoples' consciousness changes in the course of struggle and self-activity. So, I'm all for critiquing ultra-leftism. But let's not do so in a way that lends itself to easy co-optation by lesser-evilists and liberals.
  5. Hedges is probably at his best when discussing the need to build mass movements that are internally democratic. But this argument needs to be closely tied to an analysis of how successful social transformations occur. And this requires bringing the centrality of the working class into the picture. But so far as I can tell, this is not a major part of Hedges's analysis. He seems to think that the movement is trying to win the support of "the people" plus those in power with a conscience. But the politics here are soggy at best, and conservative at worst. The 1% is not our audience. Occupy is at its strongest when it draws the masses of working people into self-activity with an eye to engaging in industrial actions such as strikes, sit-downs, factory occupations, walk-outs, and all the rest.
  6. Hedges derides the Bloc for sectarianism (rightly), but takes himself (wrongly) to be non-sectarian. In fact, his polemic is highly sectarian. Sometimes he makes it sound like the enemy isn't the capitalist state or the ruling class, but rather the "cancer" within the movement. He sometimes makes it sound as if the Bloc is a bigger threat to the movement than the State, the ruling class and the organized Right. But that is to merely reproduce the sectarian mistake of those in the Bloc who label everyone who isn't a BB'er a "tool of the system" or a "sellout" and, therefore an enemy of the movement. He, like Bloc ultra-leftists, makes it sound like the main enemies are within the Left rather than without. To be fair, Hedges says plenty of things that brush against the grain of this sort of sectarianism. But too much of what he says in the piece is at odds with this non-sectarian impulse. I'm not saying that the Left should handle the Bloc with kid gloves. But let's not single them out as the single most significant challenge that the movement faces. Surely the 1% and the State have that distinction.
  7. The language of "criminal" is useless to the Left. When Hedges follows a discussion of property destruction with the charge of criminality, he might as well have said "and get a damned job!" next. To be an anti-capitalist is to think that the institution of property as its configured in capitalist societies is illegitimate. Of course, that doesn't mean that one should steal from other members of the 99%; ethical and political considerations here overwhelmingly speak against such an opportunistic and ultimately selfish conclusion. I don't destroy the property of my neighbors because it would be ethically wrong and politically useless; considerations of "legality" don't enter in to it. Moreover, socialists think that the working class should own and control the means of production. That is a sharp objection to the legitimacy of capitalist property rights. So, the rebuke to the Bloc isn't "But you don't respect capitalist legal institutions!". Rather it should be: "hey comrade, you aren't doing anything to advance the cause of winning a socialist society", or "what you're doing is opportunistic and individualistic; it's not a political strike against property but a selfish orgy of appropriation and abstract destruction". "Criminality" does no critical work here. It makes it sound like Occupy should call the cops on the Bloc. For all I know, that's what Hedges thinks we should do.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Clint Eastwood and "Halftime in America"

If you watched the Super Bowl last night, you couldn't have missed the nationalistic theme running through all of the commercials for the "Big Three" US car manufacturers: Ford, GM and Chrysler. A particularly striking example of this was Chrylser's halftime advertisement which consisted of little more than a two-minute monologue by Clint Eastwood. View it here. A Chicago Tribune article described the halftime ad as follows:

Is what is good for Chrysler good for America?

The auto maker courted controversy and won kudos for a two-minute Super Bowl advertisement that was less a car sales pitch than a political message in a presidential election year.

Rugged Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood proclaimed it was "Halftime in America" in the spot that did not mention a Chrysler car or truck but intoned that the automaker's successful turnaround could be used as an example for the United States as it struggles with high unemployment and a slow economic growth rate.

"Detroit's showing us it can be done," Eastwood said.

Traffic on Twitter showed overwhelmingly positive comments for the advertisement. The "Dirty Harry" star and Academy Award-winning director spoke to Americans as if he were a football coach making a halftime speech encouraging his team to work together to win in the second half.

"This country can't be knocked out with one punch," Eastwood said in the ad. "We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it's halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin."
The beginning of the ad says little specifically about cars but describes the sense in which it is "halftime in America", adding that "people are out of work and they're hurting. And they're all wondering what they're going to do to make a comeback." Later, Eastwood adds that "the people of Detroit know a little something about [hardship]...they almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again." Eastwood also toes the post-political bipartisanship-consensus line, adding a few remarks impugning "the fog of division, discord and blame" which prevent us from "coming together as one".

What should we make of this? Various hysterical right-wingers are upset by the advertisement (e.g. evidently Karl Rove is "offended") since it appears to give cover to the Obama administration's bailout of the auto manufacturers in 2009 (which, of course, the Republicans would have carried out just the same had they been in power). Although some Obama apologists—as well as car industry higher-ups—will counter this charge by dismissing the idea that the advertisement is political at all, the right-wingers actually have a point here. The ad is deeply political. And it is also—despite numerous claims to the contrary—still very much a car advertisement. The politics go hand-in-hand with the hard argument to buy what Chrysler is selling.

The right-wingers are wrong, of course, to object to the content of the politics of the ad since they are basically right-wing politics (more on that below). If the Right thought twice about it, they'd realize that the message is in fundamental harmony with their outlook (even if it it appears to lend support to the "wrong faction" of the ruling class). But the claim that the ad has political significance is quite right. In fact, the ad is simply unintelligible unless it is set against the backdrop of political ideas of such as the Nation, of being "American", or the "National interest" and so on. If you weren't already familiar with these political concepts you would not have understood what was going on in the ad at all.

On the surface, the ad strikes a populist note. It begins by noting that lots of ordinary people are hurting, that the economy is bad, that jobs are scarce. All of that is, of course, quite true. But rather than connect the source of the economic misery of the 99% to the actions of the 1% (and the policies of their servants in Government), the advertisement takes a stridently nationalistic approach to these problems. Suddenly the 1% is no longer the culprit and its time for us to link arms with our wealthy rulers and unite for a "better America".

The basic premise underlying this nationalistic message is that all living in the US—the very richest and the very poorest—have the same basic interests. The idea is that everyone does well when the 1% does well, so we all have an interest in learning to love and trust the 1%. The only obstacle to success becomes, as Eastwood puts it, "division, discord and blame". The message is clear: stop complaining that the 1% dominates the political and economic system, stop creating discord and division by fighting against racism. Embrace your corporate overlords and unite under the banner of "the Nation" and then "we" can rise up together and "win the game in the second half."

According to Eastwood, America's "second half" is just beginning. It's time for "The Nation" to bounce back and start scoring some goddamn touchdowns. This sports metaphor transforms all US residents to equal teammates, all engaged in a common project, all agreeing that we want to "win" (as if it's clear what that means).

But there's more to the sports metaphor: we are also encouraged to think that the interests of the 99% coincide with the interests of the ownership of the Big Three. As the Chicago Tribune article points out, the idea is that "what is good for Chrysler is good for America". Of course, it's no secret that from the perspective of the US auto industry, the "team" has not been doing well for the last 30 years. "We've" been knocked down and "beaten by competing teams". The obvious solution, then, jumps out at us: "our team" needs to get back up, unite, and pull off a come-from-behind win. "We" have to set aside our "petty differences" and stop "blaming" other "teammates" with all these complaints about the dominance of the 1%. "We" have to stop "pitting Americans against other Americans". "We" have to come together and "win the future" before the Chinese beat "us". This is a line toed by the Democrats every bit as much as the Republicans.

Of course, this whole nationalist message is rotten to the core. It rests on a fundamental fantasy: the myth of the "Nation", an imagined community of people who all more or less have the same basic interests, who all live in a closed society designed to enable everyone in that society to flourish equally. The only real threats to the "National Interest" are in-fighting and "attacks" from without. Thus a "strong" Nation pushes other nations around and demands unity at home.

Watch the ad and you'll notice that Eastwood, on behalf of the Chrysler Corporation, talks a lot about "us" and "we". But who does this "we" refer to? And who the hell authorized him, or Chrysler for that matter, to speak on behalf of everyone? Evidently the "we" refers to everyone who is properly considered "American" (we can leave aside for the moment the question of who decides who's "American" and who's not).

This idea of the "National interest" is part and parcel of this message of "let's all band together as Americans
regardless of class positionand pull together." The trouble, however, is that the idea of a "National interest" is a myth. The concept assumes that everyone who is properly called an "American", regardless of class divisions, shares some core set of interests so that what's good for the 1% is good for the 99%. It'd be nice it were true, but it's "radically false" as Noam Chomsky puts it:
The whole framework of discussion is misleading. We’re sort of taught to talk about the world as a world of states, which, if you study international relations theory, there’s what’s called “realist international relations theory,” which says there is an anarchic world of states, and states pursue their national interest. It’s all mythology. The interests of the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same. There are a few common interests, like we don’t want to be destroyed. But for the most part they have very different interests. Part of the doctrinal system in the U.S. is to pretend that we’re all a happy family, there are no class divisions, and everybody is working together in harmony. But that’s radically false.
The Chrysler ad pushes this radically false claim to its breaking point. It conflates the interests of the ownership of Chrysler with the interests of ordinary working people. It also pits those considered "American" against "foreign competitors" rather than against our own 1% right here at home. The effect is to make it appear as though those in power are benevolent parental figures—like NFL coaches—who just need our cooperation so that we can pull together and just fucking win goddammit.

Of course it's not hard to spin xenophobic, racist (esp. sinophobic and islamophobic) and anti-immigrant conclusions from this outlook. Moreover, the close identification of the interests of "the Nation" and the interests of Big Business, combined with this xenophobic element, is reminiscent of Fascism. This isn't to say that the Chrysler ad is fascist; it is not. It is an opportunistic employment of the language of the "Nation" to put a positive spin on the interests of the owners of the Auto Industry. But it is no exaggeration to say the basic drift of this nationalistic political approach, if taken seriously, points us in the direction of fascist politics.

The most insidious part of this nationalist argument is that gathers surface-level plausibility from its sober acknowledgement of the economic suffering of the 99%. It's not false that the people of Detroit have been hit extremely hard by the decline of the auto industry. But this decline isn't the result of anything the 99% did or didn't do. The decline, disinvestment, layoffs, and economic misery that has plagued the Rustbelt is 100% due to the choices of the 1%—at home and abroad.

The bottom line is this: the Chrysler ad turns our ire away from the 1% and, cloaked in the flag, advises us to love and trust our oppressors.

The fact that the Big Three are exploiting the economic misery of the Rustbelt in a multi-million dollar ad designed to strengthen their political and economic clout is more than just a little twisted. After all, the ultra-rich investors of the 1% who own the auto industry are the ones to blame for all of the Rustbelt's economic misery in the first place. They are the ones who decided to downsize, close plants, and disinvest
—all in an effort to keep profits high so that they could continue to line their pockets. And let's not forget that even amidst declining profits, the owners of the Big Three have been doing quite well—at the same time that the living standards of everyone living in the Rustbelt have sharply plummeted. Even during their worst quarters as business owners, the owners still live in fabulous wealth, 100% insulated from the decline and economic misery forced upon millions of working people. They don't deal with the reality of hospital bills, unemployment, school closings, soaring crime rates, foreclosures and lots retirement. Even when things look "bad" for the industry, they live lives of plenty. It is sickening to think that these assholes can get away with selling themselves as humanitarians in the struggle to help "America win in the second half". They are the cause of the misery they say they want to help mitigate.

Of course, the reasons for the decline of US auto manufacturing are complex, but it is no exaggeration to say that the decline has everything to do with ruling class missteps and anxieties about profitability, and nothing whatsoever to do with ordinary working people. But, predictably, the industry's owners have an interest in externalizing all culpability and blaming everything on "high labor costs" forced on owners by the UAW. Never mind that auto workers everywhere else in the world are better paid and enjoy stronger unions than in the US (we can also set aside the fact that the Chrysler ad evidently edited out Wisconsin pro-union signs from one of the clips in the montage). It's nuts to think that the Big Three would do anything except try to manage public relations to their benefit by hammering away at was once one of the strongest unions in the US.

The "high labor costs" argument is repeated over and over by industry ideologues in the Wikipedia article on the auto industry. The narrative coming from the self-serving owners of the auto companies is simple: If only those pesky workers had just given in to the owners' violent campaign against unionization back in 1937, then the Big Three would be sitting on top of the world right now!

But, of course, the answer to our economic woes, to mass unemployment, to the sharp decline of once prosperous industrial centers, isn't to put our faith in the 1% and the imaginary community of "the Nation". The answer is for ordinary working people to take direct control of our massive industrial capacity and put it to use meeting human needs and developing human being's capacities and talents.

For example, it is far from obvious that the US auto industry needs to be producing more cars right now. Set aside the fact that effective demand does not exist right now for an expansion of car sales. What's more, environmentally speaking it simply makes no sense to continue to manufacture tons of cars (most of which aren't even designed to last more than 4-5 years) in a world where global temperatures are rising and oil reserves are shrinking. Building millions of personal automobiles a year is wasteful, inefficient, and unsustainable. The workforce in Detroit would be far better employed building buses, train cars, wind turbines and other green technologies that the country desperately needs. Every single city in the United States has a substandard and inadequate fleet of public transportation vehicles. Equipping every city with a vastly enlarged fleet of modern, state of the art hybrid buses manufactured in Detroit would be a huge step forward for everyone. This would put surplus labor and surplus industrial capacity together to meet human needs in a sustainable way. It seems like a no-brainer although, to be sure, it is hardly a feasible short-term goal.

Of course, the owners will retort: but none of this is profitable. All of the research and long-term planning brushes against the grain of our stock-holder's demand for short-run profits. These measures would also require big capital investments up front, which could cut into short-run profit. What's more, these projects would require a larger paid workforce, but employing more people increases labor costs and reduces profit. Moreover, if we build buses and vehicles that are made to last, this will reduce yearly sales and cut into profits as well. The owners therefore have every incentive to resist doing this.

My response to the owner's complaints are simple: I don't care what they think, because we really have no use for them. They do nothing except skim off the top for themselves and keep willing workers from using existing capacity to meet human need.

It's true that profit-seeking owners have no interest in combining excess industrial capacity and excess labor to meet human needs. But that's not an argument against my proposal. That's an argument against private ownership of the auto industry. Cut out the owners 100% and let those on the shop floor hire new co-workers to work on this project with them. All of the worries about profitability melt away.

By letting workers run production democratically, pay scales become more egalitarian. By cutting out profiteers, wages may be raised and the working day can be shortened. In order to maintain high productivity alongside shortened work hours, more workers are brought aboard and employment levels soar. Previously unemployed workers are brought back into the fold. And instead of producing overpriced shit that we don't need, we would be able to efficiently meet human needs in a sustainable way. Rather than wasting surplus labor and surplus industrial capacity, both would be utilized their fullest extent.


While doing a bit of research for this post, I wanted at one point to find some figures on how rich the owners of the auto companies are. First, I searched "Chrysler CEO wealth" in Google. The first 20 results were scary. They all offered different links to articles with the title "Business must address wealth gap, Chrysler CEO says". Next, I searched "Chrysler CEO rich", and the first 30 hits all had the headline "Rivals' UAW deals too rich for Chrysler, CEO says". It's not easy to stumble upon any facts about how much money the owners make. If you search "Chrysler CEO earnings" the first hit is "Chrysler CEO receives no salary for 2010: filing | Reuters". They have clearly invested a lot of money and energy manicuring their online image so that enraged citizens can't look up how much money they're raking in (much of it tax-payer subsidized) at a time when we Democrats and Republicans are harping on the "need" to tighten "our" belts and accept austerity. The ruling class is clearly worried about the class consciousness raised by the Occupy movement. We should see ever imaginable aspect of their public image as calculated moves to mitigate the effects of the political atmosphere created by Occupy.