Thursday, April 30, 2009

Preference and power

Sammy Stephens got me thinking about how the most celebrated African-Americans are the ones that can be reconciled in some way with the preferences of white America.

The preference of white America when it comes to "blacks" is, first and foremost, not to be bothered with their problems. Needless to say, white America is much more comfortable with African-Americans who offer themselves as articles of consumption, to be considered at leisure, admired or discarded accordingly, rather than as people with needs who disproportionately are not having them met. African-Americans who bring some "value" to white America are exalted accordingly; African-Americans who focus primarily on African-American issues are more likely to be perceived as "divisive," even "racist."

Of course, the same argument can be made for women under male predominance: the most celebrated women are the ones who most conform to male preference -- half-naked and underfed, they are easily observed everywhere in the culture; the least popular -- e.g., the distinguished "feminazi" -- may not be outwardly concerned with men at all.

So it goes with all concerns. Those that can be aligned with the preferences of power are accorded legitimacy, while those that cannot are either attacked or ignored.
Post glacial

Barack Obama may be the most popular African-American figure among white college students, but let's not forget who placed second:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

We like our coffee, blacks

Ah, the benevolence of global capital.

Rwandans may not drink coffee, but is that any reason to stop them from growing it?

According to BusinessWeek, wealthy Westerners are committed "to [doubling] the income of poor coffee farmers" in Africa.

You remember Africa. The continent where rampant hunger almost never precipitates genocide, political instability, or high-seas banditry?

Just think of it: should the scheme prove profitable, desperate farmers can dedicate even more arable land to the cultivation of something that can't be slapped on a sandwich! After all, it's not like global coffee markets have ever dropped precipitously in the entire history of machete production!

This is the kind of do-goodery Bill and Melinda Gates really need to get in on. Fer certz.
You get what you pay for

Rightly or wrongly, for any manager to bemoan the fecklessness of his or her workers is to reveal a certain lack of self-awareness. After all, the manager is specifically compensated to have a stake in the company, whereas the worker is not. In this sense, a disparity in attitudes can hardly be surprising.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A penny short

Isn't it interesting how the notion of "financial oligarchy" can enter the mainstream just as soon as the oligarchs have tipped their canoe?

As long as the plutocrat is making money hand over fist, the word "plutocrat" will scarcely fall on responsible ears. But place an obstacle between the rich and their money, and no stone will go unturned in the attempt to find it!

Saturday, April 25, 2009


It's fair to say constitutional democracies struggle with the prosecution of their elected rulers. Naturally, rulers will break laws and treaties as they see fit; that is the point of having an executive -- not to mention a justice department which reports to it. But it's also tacitly understood that this will only be done on behalf of the "national interest," that is to say, the ruling class as a whole.

As I've already suggested elsewhere, what distinguishes the liberal democracy from dictatorship is that it aims to advance the rights of elites as a class, not just whatever portion enjoys majority control of the state. In America, this is the spirit of "bipartisanship": something that works for all rich people. In this respect, it is very important that government never serve as a seat of retribution against one's political rivals: this pledge is at the heart of every liberal democracy.

Torture is an interesting example. It's clearly prohibited in American and international law, but, like so many things, it only becomes objectionable when the costs are judged to exceed the benefits for elite concerns.

This is reflected nicely in the current "national debate" -- a debate over whether to enforce the law! -- with Republicans arguing that torture helps the republic by protecting it, and Democrats arguing that torture hurts the republic for miscellaneous reasons, including the notion that it "hurts our image around the world," thereby making the world less malleable to our interests.

(Of course, any random Middle Easterner suspected of something by US agencies who is subsequently detained and tortured would probably insist that the "image of America" is not the only thing harmed in the process, but that is not a concern which registers very high in the art of statecraft; as such, "harm to ourselves" -- to our very soul! -- appears to be the argument the Democratic Party prefers best.)

Whenever the ruling class does not enjoy consensus, the American people are treated to "debate," and solicited to support one side or the other in order to settle the concern. In this case, we have witnessed reluctance on the part of Obama start this process, presumably because it touches on principles that are dear to elites -- like the idea of holding elected officials to account for their actions after they are out of power. Suffice it to say, neither party wants to open this Pandora's box, and for very good reason. But it may be that the level of controversy this issue has stoked makes it impossible to get around; some low-level domestic prosecutions may be necessary.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Reading Capital

The biggest danger of Karl Marx is that his argument against capitalism is so powerful it evokes sympathy towards any authority that will "abolish" it.

Needless to say, harboring a priori sympathy for authority is very bad; it should also go without saying that the newer varieties are always cultivated in response to their older, better understood peers. Marx felt and understood the immorality of capitalism very well, but apparently did not anticipate the raw recruiting power this put in the hands of political agents likely to construct an analogous monopoly within the state. Looking back, this seems kind of dumb.

To their credit, this is one score the anarchists got right, even if they precipitated little more than their own slaughter and persecution by sticking to it. A cynic might say this is what anarchists do best; an idealist that "do no harm" is no small accomplishment in Bolshevik Russia. Remember that someone is always ready to advance their career unreflective of the authority which facilitates it: I mean, it's a job, dude. Humans are quick to learn which way the wind blows, but few are resolved to oppose it on principle.
You say communist, I say trade agreement

In China, human rights are secondary to economic ties.

In Cuba, human rights come first because there are no economic ties.
Murphy's craw

I recently read that while nature is full of redundancies -- two eyes, two hands, two mammary glands -- business always wants to get by with none.

Yet another reason why business is not sexy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Nicholas Kristof:

If the Islamic world is going to enjoy a revival, if fundamentalists are to be tamed, if women are to be employed more productively, then moderate interpretations of the Koran will have to gain ascendancy.

Dear Mr. Kristof,

Most Muslims are not fundamentalist. Therefore, "moderate interpretations" of the Koran are already "ascendant," even if your preference is to reduce the whole of the "Islamic world" to whatever minority elements preoccupy your attention.

Like most Westerners, you seem uninterested in Muslims per se; they are only interesting insofar as they carry a criminal potential. You know, kind of like "black people" before they proved their worth in sporting and other culturally valued events. If only some kid from Palestine would win the Masters, we might worry about whether there's any food getting into Gaza -- you know, because there are "people" there.

Additionally, I would love to know how women are "employed productively" in your society. Is it mostly through underpayment or by making maternity leave an employer-sponsored crapshoot rather than a reproductive right? Please let me know; I expect you are as much an authority on your own society as others.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Statecraft haiku

Torture hurts our image around the world.

If only we could get some information out of our image,

there's no depravity we wouldn't subject it to.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Financial Times:

[A]ny honest observer knows that executive pay in America is, in fact, set largely by rigged systems today. What is needed is a new group of “CEOs against CEO greed” to model better behaviour and speak out against these scams.

"CEO greed" has no meaning except in relation to large shareholders. Executives are supposed to manage productive enterprise on behalf of the wealthy investors who pony up the dough for them to do so. Simply pocketing the cash and walking away as the ship goes down in flames abrogates this compact and ultimately harms the super rich who can't escape.

Hence the concept of "CEO greed" -- i.e., greed that is dysfunctional to the institution -- and the heightened profile it presently enjoys.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What Washington means

New York Times:

To defeat the forces of oppression, Washington must promote and protect the ideals of democracy and human rights.

In Washington, the locus of power shifts between competing groups of investors who hire the government for private objectives, at home and abroad, which they wouldn't be able to pull off otherwise.

The explanation gets to the heart of why the modern nation state ever developed at all: because the average person does not jump into harm's way or consent to less than they deserve on behalf of privileged concerns absent some elaborate pretext.

Needless to say, "democracy" and "human rights" do not figure prominently in this equation, except as code words to describe the "constitutional" right of elite groups to compete more or less fairly with each other in pursuit of the throne, and to not be too put out in the event that they lose -- indeed, the only meaningful difference between "democracy" and "dictatorship" in contemporary political discourse.

Far from denying the "forces of oppression" of which no group will ever exert a monopoly, we are much better served by an honest appraisal of our own complicity in systems where resistance and disruption might render a defensive effect for those on the receiving end.

For example, this could mean putting an end to the bombing of civilians for whom we claim repeated concern in the rhetoric of "human rights."

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Primo Levi, If This Is A Man:

If we were logical, we would resign ourselves to the evidence that our fate is beyond knowledge, that every conjecture is arbitrary and demonstrably devoid of foundation. But men are rarely logical when their own fate is at stake; on every occasion, they prefer the extreme positions. According to our character, some of us are immediately convinced that all is lost... that the end is near and sure; others are convinced that however hard the present life may be, salvation is probable and not far off.... The two classes of pessimists and optimists are not so clearly defined, however, not because there are many agnostics, but because the majority, without memory or coherence, drift between the two extremes, according to the moment and the mood of the person they happen to meet.

Life or livelihood, future or family -- if you deliberately place what is dear to the individual at any distance beyond their reach, then you're just playing the same game with different stakes.

This is why I recommend Holocaust literature to people facing layoffs.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Identity politics

Then she was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by demons. And when she had fasted forty days and forty nights, she was afterward ahungered.

And when the tempters came, they said, If you are who you think you are, prove your usefulness to the world.

But she answered and said, It is written,

I am much more, and less, than this.

Then the demons took her into the holy city, and set her on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto her, If you are who you say you are, prove that you are not mistaken, and come toward us.

She said unto them, It is written again,

You are welcome to remain unpersuaded.

Again, the demons took her up into an exceeding high mountain, and showed her all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and said unto her, All these things will I give thee, if you will fall down and worship me.

Then she said to them, Get thee hence, tempters: for it is written,

You shall only submit to truth,
and only truth shall you serve.

Then the demons left her, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto her.

Friday, April 17, 2009


The Republican Party is mad Congress won't extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich, so they are portraying their automatic expiration as "taxation without representation."

You would think they might be glad: the increase in government revenue actually contributes to a smaller budget deficits in the years ahead.

It's instructive that the Republicans choose to frame the country's problems this way. If tax paying Americans can be convinced that "government spending" is bad, then the government will just spend it on whoever thinks it is good. It's not like the Republican objective is to end taxation, or big government, or even big government spending. The objective is to minimize public expenditure on the public, because the government's role is to serve the rich at the tax payer's expense. Convincing working people that getting anything in return for their taxes is wrong is a central component of this.

Nobody at any level of power or influence in our society has any illusion that ours is not a system of big government, and, by consequence, a system of big government spending. The practical effect of arguing against "big government spending" within a system of big government spending is that it inevitably preferences certain kinds of spending over others.

This is why when the Republican Party rails against big government spending, it just highlights spending it disagrees with. Assistance to the unemployed is socialism, but the military-industrial complex -- in which the public guarantees the profits of private corporations -- is a patriotic necessity. So it is important to be able to discern between spending that benefits us versus spending that does not.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The highest calling

Political parties appeal to the public with they say, and they betray the public with what they do. This is why it is important not to become enraptured by what they say.

Barack Obama can make a speech to piss your pants, but he can also kill kids no older than his own because his job demands it. This is the same person who, alone, inspired, and, elected, wields the bloody scepter of the state and carries on its mission with aplomb.

Isn't it strange the national impulse to enlist decent people into the service of power, only to question to their responsibilities after it is too late?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Conservatives say government is too big; they cut what the people need.

Liberals say government is too important; they keep what the wealthy want.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tru value

At my retail job I am prompted to pimp the company's "values." One of the values is "creating prosperity through profits and growth," which tickles my better cynicism mightily. I submit the "prosperity" is more evident in the property than among the employees: a cashier described to me standing on a swollen foot through her shift in spite of having a doctor's note for rest at home. For whatever reason, she didn't feel she could miss work. And if pregnant cashiers aren't permitted to sit down, how could she?

Our first company value translates as "employee happiness." But happiness is relative; most employees are just "happy" to have a job, compared with the alternatives.

And this is how the employer arrives at their most cherished "value."
Selective reading

If we take as our point of departure the idea that every human person needs to be fed and cared for, then we can dispense with the elaborate arguments of those who already are as to why everyone cannot be.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

In an unequal world, violence protects property

There is a lot of high-minded concern that Africans don't respect private property rights -- but don't Western companies own most of what is valuable in Africa, anyway? Why should desperately poor Africans respect this?

I appreciate the Western impulse to impose by force that which could almost always be resolved peacefully by another means; for example, by taking the concerns of Africans seriously. When it comes to government by the privileged few, every problem looks like a nail, and requires a hammer.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Inevitable as it may be, it's still hard to watch a man so admired make common cause with the dead machinery of the state.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Just be glad you have a job

Nobody is glad they have a job. They are glad they have some way to live with dignity.

Suffering indignity is not something to be glad about, even if you are deemed useful to an employer. People are used all the time -- but it is not because they are lucky. More often than not, it is because they are desperate. Desperation is not something to be glad about.

It may be true that we are living in an age which does not grant you well-being merely because you are a human being who, by nature, requires it. But we have lived through many ages -- and more than a handful rank pretty fucked up. Some people recognize this at the time -- for example, that slavery was not "cool," even if it was the basis of a preindustrial economy comprised of large landholders. This doesn't mean the sentiment always wins, or that it doesn't take a very long time for it to do so; but in any event it begins.

What this suggests is that now may not be the best time to start mistaking what is majorly fucked up about our own circumstances as "a fact of life," or anything to be grateful for. Everyone gets hit by issues of health and well-being in varying degrees; nevertheless, everyone gets hit.

The routing of every great crime begins with a culture of nonacceptance. It begins with a thought and ends with action.
Pirates and mass shootings

Take away somebody's livelihood, replace it with a quizzical grin and upturned palms, and see how long it takes before they "go criminal."

Or just save yourself the trouble and rent Trading Places.
Blood from a stone

New York Times:

...[T]he Obama administration is encouraging several large investment companies to create the financial-crisis equivalent of war bonds: bailout funds.

The idea is that these investments, akin to mutual funds that buy stocks and bonds, would give ordinary Americans a chance to profit from the bailouts that are being financed by their tax dollars. But there is another, deeply political motivation as well: to quiet accusations that all of these giant bailouts will benefit only Wall Street plutocrats.

There's something to be said for an even playing field. That's why I like this scenario better:

1). Wall Street pays off all my debts with their money.

2). The government -- funded by Wall Street -- sets me up with a business, and sells my "services" back to Wall Street via placements in the New York Times on the idea that nobody should miss out on the fun. I then "charge healthy fees to investors for taking part" in this exciting opportunity.

If this sounds too good to be true, it is only because the class roles are reversed.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Yet one more old white dude talks about class

Monday, April 06, 2009

3. Conclusion

What we can say about the Democratic and Republican parties, then, is that they constitute a spectrum of concerns bracketed within the American ruling class.

I have argued that the Democratic Party reflects the management side of this class, while the Republican Party reflects ownership.

Above all, ownership concerns itself with preservation first, and all other considerations second. This lends itself to conservative notions of tradition, defense, self-reliance, even divine providence. It also informs the "libertarian" flavor of conservatism, insofar as libertarianism rejects the de facto authority of the state.

Because the variety of large-scale, centralized ownership patterns of the private sector find their only plausible rival in government, it is not surprising that private ownership remains terrified of "nationalization" and the precedent that might be set by efficiently-run public enterprise.

It is only due to this anxiety that the ownership class has made common cause with libertarian sentiments of the pre-industrial age, as though the modern corporation has the same right to privacy as the yeoman farmer of Jefferson's era.

This is how we arrive, perversely, at Reagan's "government is the problem" declaration 200 years later, which would become the rallying cry of the conservative movement going forward.

Management, on the other hand, is concerned with efficiency, which implies a foundation in higher education, which in turn lends itself to liberalism.

Of course, managers are employed by, and legally obligated to, owners. But because the utility of their skills is not limited to the private sector, managers may not share their employer's wholly negative estimation of the state.

Many private sector managers move to the public sector after growing tired of jumping through hoops for their bosses, particularly in the absence of any socially-relevant pretext. They may also see a role for government in advocating on their behalf vis-a-vis owners.

In any case, managers pride themselves on professional achievement, which presupposes a strong educational foundation, requisite accreditation, and so on. And this in turn forms the basis for liberalism in systems of private enterprise.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

David Harvey on class struggle

Riddle me this, bankman

People sometimes tell me I am wasting my "talents" by not pursuing some obvious route to greater influence, or monetary reward -- as though the world needs more people motivated by these concerns, from which the rest of us can take our cue.

But what is so wrong about doing something worthwhile for its own sake? Isn't that the point of living?

I submit the best route to influence is not always obvious.

This note brought to you by: boxed wine, friends, family events

Saturday, April 04, 2009

2. Democrats as "managers"

In contrast to the "self-made" mythology of the entrepreneur, liberalism emphasizes educational advancement and compliance with professional standards as the most practical path toward success. In this respect, liberals in the Democratic mold are at ease with the technocratic aspects of both business and government: given the right knowledge and credentials, is there any realm of human affairs liberalism would not surrender to the prevailing "experts"?

The question is salient in the wake of the global meltdown in financial markets, in which the most respected economists, business journalists, credit ratings agencies, industry regulators, and risk-management professionals consolidated their authority essentially by being "wrong" on behalf of the "right" interests. But this is hardly the first example of a liberal failure to ask the obvious questions -- e.g., the Iraq war; and now the Afghanistan escalation -- in exchange for the rewards of power.

This is also notable in popular culture, where expert tutelage seems an increasingly popular substitute for the independent thought and action of individuals -- especially among the wealthy and well-educated. This extends to areas of life where one might not previously think an "expert" possible, as in the case of "life coaching," which judges all human activity by the same authoritarian assumptions of the management structures from which it springs: it cultivates that which can be rendered useful to power at any given moment, thus maximizing potential "benefits" for the client.

As an ethos, liberalism amounts to little more than technical expertise in the service of power, and the deference to professional authority which this implies. Higher education -- liberalism's house of worship -- is dedicated to producing knowledge workers who will prove useful to power, with greater compensation awarded to those who are deemed most useful -- indeed, the way it works in any system. This is holds true whatever we think of the relationships.

The Democratic Party appeals primarily to the educated middle and upper classes. As a group, managers and other professionals, because of their educational background, tend to skew liberal, especially on social issues. This is due to their status as wage-workers, rather than "owners" or majority shareholders: white collar workers want successful careers, but are wary about selling their "soul" to employers in order to do it. Subsequently, they see a legitimate role for government in advancing worker's rights generally, and those pertaining to their professional class specifically. They also view government as a career track for knowledge workers who are willing to exchange potentially higher compensation in the private sector for a "public service" mission.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Why liberal, why conservative?

I have a hypothesis that the American political system basically reflects an institutional split within the private, or corporate, sector. Republicans are like owners, Democrats are like managers.


1. Republicans as "owners"

Owners tend to be conservative because they are primarily concerned about the bottom line. Their ethos is "individualist" in the mold of the American pioneers. In this sense, they view success as resulting from innate qualities -- fortitude, dedication, work ethic -- as opposed to university or specialized training. Subsequently, they view government as valid only insofar as it defends ownership rights; they do not want anyone else telling them how to run their enterprise.

The Republican Party appeals to voters -- mostly working class -- by inviting them to share in these "values," in large part by conflating industrial or financial ownership with owning a home or car -- in other words, fostering a unitary conception of "private property." This prompts the very people who suffer most from their dependency on wage-work to rally to the defense of their own exploitation whenever the government makes an appearance on the scene: if the rights of "property" are not sacred in the workplace, then surely they will not be honored in the home! Even the most pitiful attempt at industry regulation is portrayed as "creeping socialism" -- not as a public attempt to address public concerns, but as a totalitarian move to confiscate your PlayStation and your rifle for the communal/egalitarian/altruistic/politically correct good of all. In such nonsense the heady careers of many right-wing "personalities" are moored, and the Republican Party continues to induce many of its worst victims to pull the lever on its behalf.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Chief engineer favors greater buoyancy on the Titanic

The old Marxist saw that capitalism destroys itself could use a little more action these days.

Instead, we are treated to lectures about "living beyond our means" -- because the average person turns to credit for lack of income; or because home ownership seems smart when real estate is appreciating faster than any other sector of the US economy.

Now that the game is over, the public is blamed for playing the very part the rich had constructed for them. By this logic, the average family should have known that what every expert and industry chucklehead said was a good investment, wasn't really a good investment.

This "everybody is to blame"-style rhetoric deliberately glosses over the distribution of power in society. When the fundamentals of our economy are entrusted to unaccountable institutions which make investment decisions privately for their own gain, it is hard to comprehend how the public can be in a position to second-guess what is going on. As such, these kinds of arguments are designed to devolve responsibility from the top to the bottom, thus rationalizing the publicly-funded rescue of those at the top.

The argument that capitalism requires rules -- and therefore rulemakers -- for the sake of its own stability is endlessly repeated in times of crisis. The problem is that it is handily ignored in times of "prosperity." It should hardly be surprising that a system premised on the notion of maxim profit for the profit-maker will tend toward the elimination of any legal obstacle placed in its way. After all, with the wealth of the nation already in their hands, the writing of law in one's own favor is best categorized as a business expense.