Friday, January 29, 2010

Gods of state


Obviously the swiftest and easiest way to make up federal budgetary shortfalls would be to reduce the amount of money we spend each year on killing people in other countries, which now accounts for nearly a trillion dollars a year . . . if, that is, we account for our unaccounted-for wars. As a matter of perspective, this means that our annual killing people in other countries budget is roughly the size of the South Korean GDP.

If science is skepticism in the absence of evidence, anarchism is skepticism in the absence of justification.

Hungry crowds make handing out food unsafe

Wall Street Journal:

Trucks conked out. Communication with the U.S. military broke down. Traffic snarled the streets. Hungry crowds made handing out food unsafe.

In disaster relief, as in life, things happen. But if there is a lesson to be taken from the Haitian experience, it is that hungry crowds make handing out food unsafe.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What you can do

Whatever it is you are good at, marshal those forces against the things you hate in defense of the things you love.

Class and the state

FW de Klerk, Financial Times:

The concept of nation states, bringing full political rights to everybody through the nation state concept, is morally defensible.

Unfortunately, having "full political rights" does not mean much without an economic corollary. Old man de Klerk understood this when his National Party negotiated control of the South African central bank right out of the hands of Mandela's African National Congress. This was done under the banner of "central bank independence," which just means independence from the political process citizens have a "full right" to.

The United States, for example, prides itself on "political freedom" -- which is the freedom for rich people to disagree with each other, and the freedom for everyone else to watch it on CNN; to "take part" in the manner of sporting events. In short, it is the freedom not to "waste your vote." However, "political freedom" does not include the freedom for poor people to disagree with rich people, at least in cases where they try to express it politically, as this invites the Martin Luther King, Jr./Malcom X/Fred Hampton-style "solution," to say nothing of the many forms of creative disruption a government will employ up to that point.

Smart is good, but crazy is winning

Thomas Frank, Wall Street Journal:

Instead of knifing your allies, try fighting for the principles of your party. It's true, that's not what Mr. Clinton did. But it's what Franklin Roosevelt did, and Harry Truman, and John Kennedy -- and it worked for them. In those days, "working-class revolts" helped Democrats, not Republicans.

The difference is, "in those days," "working-class revolts" were organized by socialists.  Today they are organized by Glenn Beck. 

Woody Allen has an expression: Eighty percent of success is showing up.  Glenn Beck shows up.  Meanwhile, "progressives" sneer.  This brings us to a point I made often over the summer: Who the fuck do you think the white working class is going to listen to when we have no more socialists and progressives don't even bother showing up?  The answer: whoever does.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A nuanced and highly principled argument against lifting restrictions on corporate lobbying

Mark Roe, Financial Times:

[I]f a populist Washington decided to attack the foundations of capitalism directly, business interests would better be able to defend themselves now. But even if there are whiffs of populism in the air today, none of it threatens core capitalist institutions. With the corporate campaign finance ruling, it is even less likely to do so. In that dimension, the Court’s decision is good for American capitalism.

Can you imagine a day when the American people demanded a government that represented them? It sure would take a lot of money to stop that!

Thankfully, there's not much chance of anything like that happening soon. So: How best to divvy up the spoils?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Marxist Mondays

Karl Marx, Capital:

In the place of the pompous catalogue of the "inalienable rights of man" comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which at last makes clear "when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins."

As much as people like to contrast Karl Marx with the Marx brothers in order to underscore his seriousness, Marx is actually very funny. In this case he calls the "inalienable rights of man," as enshrined in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the US Declaration of Independence -- Marx calls these a "pompous catalogue." Hilarious! But how does he get away with it? And why should we think it's funny?

C.L.R. James takes a shot: "[Marx] says the working-day, that battle -- the day begins at 7:00 and ends at 3:00 -- that is one of the greatest victories for human life and human development that has ever been won. I can tell you something, Mr. Alfie -- it takes time to get that in your head, the habit of looking at things that way."

Talk about "inalienable rights" all you want, but if your everyday "freedom" is the freedom to work for others in order to survive, that is not a very great freedom. Marx is trying to tell us that while private property in the age of Jefferson may have been compatible with high-flown ideas about democracy and freedom, the industrial era puts all those small farmers and craftspeople out of work. The bulk of the population is left propertyless, dependent on the new "owners of production" in order to live. By definition, this creates conditions of servitude, not liberty, for a majority of the people.

Marx is laughing at the expense of economic liberalism (basically, the philosophy of capitalism), which makes a really big deal out of the fact that the people who own nothing and the people who own everything are "free" to enter into relations with each other on a "voluntary" basis. In other words, economic liberalism congratulates itself on the fact that the former is not legally enslaved to the latter, and by this standard defines "liberty" in the marketplace, regardless of other considerations.

Marx's point is that even imposing a "modest" restraint on this market in the form of a 12-14 hour working day, or certain prohibitions on the employment of children -- forcing these, the most basic concessions, from employers is an enormous victory in the everyday lives of average people, and in the ongoing struggle between two distinct classes with conflicting interests.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Political reporting in Lebanon and the US

The Angry Arab News Service:

There is at long last an interesting, original, fresh, and entertaining newspaper for the secular left [in Lebanon]. The traditional left is not as excited about it as they should be perhaps because they are accustomed to putting out the most tedious, Soviet-style publications that are only useful for wrapping falafel and Shawirma sandwiches. Communist leaders want a communist publication that only cater to the whims of party leaders, and which publishes every utterance and sneeze of party leaders. But then again: that’s their problem. The atmosphere of Al-Akhbar is different from the atmosphere of other newspapers that I have visited: in Lebanon or in the US. Al-Amin and Saghiyyah are often criticized for not socializing and for not interacting with the media. But I belief that their approach is successful: they don’t socialize with politicians and they established strict rules for their reporters regarding the need to keep a distance from politicians. It is probably the only newspaper in Lebanon that has strict rules against accepting cash from politicians. And to turn down cash from politicians is considered quite unprofessional in the corrupt country of Lebanon, as Ibrahim Amin had learned when he turned down a cash offer from Rafiq Hariri when the former was a reporter for As-Safir. I can tell you that Saudi Arabia is not pleased with my attacks on its ideology and policies in my articles for the newspaper but I will not elaborate here because I was told to not blog on the matter. Use your imagination.

In the US, any news outfit which offends the political class will likely suffer for want of "access." This is because US political coverage is 99.999% the uninterrupted reporting what politicians say. What politicians say is important to the organizations which report on them; but it is particularly important when those organizations are integrated into the same corporate concerns which bankroll the entire political process. Politicians say what corporations want to hear, and corporations provide a national platform for them to say it. For either side to deviate too far from the script means losing direct access to important figures on the one hand, or access to a broader audience on the other.

Of course, the idea that one needs to hang out with politicians in order to do political journalism is only true when you have no other function but to repeat what they say.

Corporations are people too!

"While liberal and conservatives will continue to debate the hollow question of whether this denigrates democracy or elevates free speech, almost no one will ask the only important question: why the fuck are we debating the scope of a Corporation's free speech? Just like the question of whether wheat grown for personal consumption is commerce among the several states, the answer to the question of whether Corporations are persons, and therefore endowed with the freedom of speech, is fucking obvious. Neither a piece of paper, some words, a collection of liabilities, or a group of people, is a person. And yet."

-- Frog (via Stump Lane)

Throw the bums in

Gillian Tett, Financial Times:

In the last 48 hours, or since the Democratic party suffered a shock defeat in Massachusetts, e-mails have been circulating among key Democratic party support groups demanding that the Obama administration aggressively clamp down on the banking world, to regain voter trust.

You might think that in a country where the average citizen is

1. Mad at bankers

2. Under- or unemployed; or overworked and underpaid

3. Without any guarantee they will be able to get the medical care they need

that such concerns would find political expression in some way other than support for those parties which

1. Are financed by Wall Street

2. Are financed by employers

3. Are financed by for-profit health insurance companies

This would explain why voters keep voting against them.  If only it didn't mean electing them back into office at the same time!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The questions behind The Question Behind the Question

6th or 7th:

[I]n the real, non-corporate fantasy world, and away from the sad delusions of understandably angry and confused white people, actions take place in a context, and that context is one of vast inequality. For people who live their entire lives on the bottom rungs of our economy, "Why is this happening to me?" is one of the most empowering questions to ask.

Ethan continues his investigative report on The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Responsibility at Work and in Life by professional author/speaker/husband/father John G. Miller. Now featuring guest commentary by professional author/speaker/husband/father John G. Miller!

"Our Long-Term National Security"


Taken for a ride

Financial Times:

In his bid to become a Massachusetts senator in Washington, Scott Brown portrayed himself as a man of the people.

“I’m Scott Brown, and this is my truck,” he began his campaign ads, standing next to his green GMC pick-up with 200,000 miles on the odometer. He even drove up to the polling booth on Tuesday in his now-famous vehicle.

Last night I attended a local branch meeting of the Industrial Workers of the World, which must come as close to summarizing my political outlook as any US organization I know.

I'm a relative newcomer to the group, but in a short space of time I've found the process of "running one's own affairs" to be unlike anything else I've experienced in a "democratic republic" such as ours, particularly in the skills and expectations it instills participants over time.

Suffice it to say, if anybody stood up in a meeting and said, "I'm Scott Brown, and this is my truck, so let me be your leader," it would not go over very well. It is instructive that such a thing could ever be taken seriously in a society which prides itself on governance by the people.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Life in the shadow of property: hunger


New Yorkers with children are among the most vulnerable to food poverty. Almost half of all New York City households with children have difficulty affording enough food. A staggering one in five of the city’s children, 397,000 small people, rely on soup kitchens -- up 48% since 2004.

"Measured like this, capitalism is not necessarily a highly developed form of society; it is perhaps less developed than egalitarian tribal societies. The achievement of a powerful industrial base is meaningless in itself. Indeed, unless the majority of people benefit directly, by having their scope for individuality and ability to meet their needs increased, it may even be a retrograde move. Given the class character of capitalism, the rise of newly industrialized countries really means the rise of powerful new ruling classes; it is by no means a necessary step toward popular emancipation. That a previously oppressed country develops into a world power would, in other words, not break the cycle of class rule but simply reproduce it in new ways." -- Black Flame

Strangers in the homeland

Wall Street Journal:

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano extended temporary amnesty to Haitians who were illegally inside the U.S. before Tuesday's earthquake, but warned that the Coast Guard would turn back any new refugees fleeing the devastation.

At Christmas dinner, one of my relations used the expression "A stranger in the home is Christ in the home" which I thought remarkable considering their apparent opinion of Christ.

The transposition of what is regarded as "holy" onto unpopular categories of humanity, like the powerless, is a tendency which sustains my interest in the Gospel message. Taken to heart, it would appear to undermine every power system.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Taking charge at work"

"Even if you're one who has kept your job amidst massive layoffs and record high unemployment, you may still dread going to work every day and long to improve your situation.

One way to renew your motivation and quell boredom is to take on new responsibilities."

-- Wall Street Journal

Fellowship of the bling

"Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken -- the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

-- MLK

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Red tape

Dan Senor, New York Times:

If we are going to have American military units deployed in Haiti — and we should — it would be invaluable for the unit commanders to have access to the Commanders’ Emergency Response Fund that was established for Iraq. This is a discretionary fund that American officers can dip into for development projects and crisis response without constantly looking over their shoulders at monitors in Washington.

Really! If the American military isn't accountable to the Haitian government, why should it be constrained by ours? Generally speaking, money was handled very responsibly in Iraq: You almost never have to worry about corruption in any post-calamity reconstruction scenario.

And who better to carry it out than our dedicated combat forces, whose relevant training far exceeds anything on offer from any of these woefully unarmed "relief agencies?" In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I know I would have preferred to see foreign military units deployed in New Orleans, rather than the Red Cross, et al. As an American, I understand instinctively that the presence of foreign troops in disaster-struck US cities is always in the best interest of the local population -- which is precisely why they are always welcome.

So let's get practical. If history teaches us anything, it's that the less oversight there is of state intervention in foreign lands, the better off everyone is in the long run.

Friends in deed

Stephen Johnson, Wall Street Journal:

For now, a coordinated rush of international humanitarian assistance is needed to save lives and support Haiti's fledgling government. But once that process is in place, no time should be lost in encouraging Haitian officials to set ambitious goals and take charge of the country's recovery. Psychologists tell us that the best time to change minds and mobilize people is when they have experienced a traumatic event. Once things begin to turn for the better, the incentive for substantive change will be lost.

Stephen Johnson, formerly of the Heritage Foundation. If you haven't already heard of HF's hope for "opportunities amidst the suffering" in Haiti, see Naomi Klein.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friends like these

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle:

Another aspect of the lack of historical life in general is that the individual life is still not historical. The pseudo-events that vie for attention in the spectacle's dramatizations have not been lived by those who are thus informed about them. In any case, they are quickly forgotten, thanks to the precipitation with which the spectacle's pulsing machinery replaces one by the next. At the same time, everything really lived has no relation to society's official version of irreversible time, and is directly opposed to the pseudo-cyclical rhythm of that time's consumable by-products. Such individual lived experience of a cut-off everyday lived life remains bereft of language or concept, and it lacks any critical access to its own antecedents, which are nowhere recorded. It cannot be communicated. And it is misunderstood and forgotten to the benefit of the spectacle's false memory of the unmemorable.

We can focus on Haiti for a week or two -- and that is good -- but Haiti has been a humanitarian disaster for a long time. And it will continue to be long afterward, when the "precipitation" of our media spectacle is falling from some new height.

Could the fact that Americans weren't paying attention to Haitians when our military charted their path of development have any relation to the country's building codes -- or the fact that there aren't any? Would we have thought that the cost of lateral reinforcement beams weighed too heavy on the US consumer's wallet, or the price of Disney stock?

How can a people whose "everyday lived life remains bereft of language or concept" ever hope to offer the best of themselves to anyone else? It is not something that can happen with three mouse clicks and a donation after the fact. It is something that has to happen all the time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The religious roots of rebellion

Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism:

[T]he anarchists ... understood [capitalism] as the transfer of resources from a productive class to a dominant but unproductive one.  Exploitation in the capitalist system took place at work and through the wage system.  The worker was paid a wage that in theory covered one's basic needs.  Yet the actual value produced by the worker at work was always higher than the wage received by the worker; a baking worker, for example, might help produce several hundred loaves of bread per day, but would receive the cash equivalent of perhaps two loaves of bread per day.  The difference went to the capitalist who owned the bakery.

Something I have learned from my religious friends is the importance of ritual. Whenever society is not organized in a way that respects your values, it takes willful repetition to remind oneself of what those values are. They are easy to forget, since daily life is organized in a way that undermines them.

This conflict between identities -- the one you have and the one you are assigned -- is a source of great psychological stress for anyone forced to "deny themselves" on a regular basis. In the face of total dependence on employers for a way to live -- what capitalism always demands -- we need a way to remember ourselves.

Friends with benefits

Wall Street Journal:

... President Obama said the earthquake was a "cruel and incomprehensible tragedy" for the people of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and a longtime recipient of extensive U.S. financial, political and military assistance.

US policy toward Haiti, on the other hand, has been cruel and comprehensible.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Abuse of power comes as no surprise

What's a girl got to do to get invited to a congressional inquiry?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How dare you not be me?

I find that people are most angry you are not them when they have long since sacrificed whoever they might have been for whoever they have become. They aren't angry you aren't them; they are angry you aren't "us." And that is because "we" were never sure of ourselves in the first place, having never developed as individuals. The sentiment best reads, "How dare you become yourself?"

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Chinese land reform from above


[Chinese] city and provincial governments have been gladly cooperating with developers: Economists estimate that half of all local government revenue comes from selling state-owned land.
In early December five professors at Peking University wrote to the National People's Congress calling for changes to a land seizure and demolition law and accusing developers of usurping the government's role when taking land for construction. The law is leading to "mass incidents" and "extreme events," the professors warned.

The modern "state" is as much a hierarchy as anything else. Whatever values one wants to ascribe to it -- democracy, pluralism, egalitarianism -- it interprets from the top and bludgeons all below. Like every hierarchy, whatever vitality it has, it has stolen from the creative impulse of that social intercourse not yet subordinated to its needs. Among these, self-preservation ranks first.

Such is the lasting irony of China's "communism from above," which was at first a land reform movement from below, but lost its popular character as China's people gradually came to know their state better than they knew themselves. What began as a mass movement of the dispossessed repelling fascism both at home and abroad now sees the dispossession happening all over again, this time in the name of "the people."

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Awake in the dark, stocking shelves; asleep in the cold, jockeying cargo. The real value of this varies, but the wages paid do not. In either case, the company can do very well; in either case, people congratulate you for your association with its success. Now here's a company that lets you come back each week for a fleecing; and what you forfeit is nothing less than your art and your ambitions and your health, cloaked in the fraud of adult responsibility! Relatives often ask: how is your company doing? But I am much more concerned about me.

Monday, January 04, 2010

With honors

New York Times:

“The phrase drives me crazy — ‘What are you going to do with your degree?’ — but I see increasing concerns about that,” says Katharine Brooks, director of the liberal arts career center at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of “You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career.” “Particularly as money gets tighter, people are going to demand more accountability from majors and departments.”

Even if the university system fashions itself as little more than a "good jobs" broker,  "demanding accountability" from it doesn't change the fact that employers aren't under any obligation to "supply" them.  "Good jobs" cost shareholders money; subsequently, they permit fewer of them.  Just because Americans are willing to pay the broker more for a degree doesn't change this.  Yet the "consumer" will go into debt for the rest of their lives for the chance at a tolerable occupation before they will ask why there aren't enough for everyone in the first place.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The most profitable gender


The economic empowerment of women across the rich world is one of the most remarkable revolutions of the past 50 years. ...[M]illions of people who were once dependent on men have taken control of their own economic fates.
Women earn substantially less than men on average and are severely under-represented at the top of organisations.

So the "economic fate" of women has passed through the hands of the husband into the hands of the boss -- who profits by explicitly discriminating on the basis of gender! Meanwhile, The Economist celebrates women as a rapidly growing portion of "the workforce," yet somehow fails to connect these trends.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

No disrespect

Karl Marx, Capital:

The [Factory] Act of 1844 certainly "robbed" the silk manufacturers of the "liberty" of employing children under 11 for longer than 6.5 hours each day. But as against this, it secured them the privilege of working children between 11 and 13 for 10 hours a day, and annulling in their case the education which had been made compulsory for all other factory children. This time the pretext was "the delicate texture of the fabric in which they were employed, requiring a lightness of touch, only to be acquired by their early introduction to these factories." The children were quite simply slaughtered for the sake of their delicate fingers, just as horned cattle are slaughtered in southern Russia for their hides and fat.

Do you think the silk manufacturers harbored special ill-will toward children? Of course not! Doubtless many had children of their own, and loved them profoundly. More likely, manufacturers only did what their industry required, in order that they could each captain a successful, productive enterprise. The fact that this destroyed children was just part of doing one's job as well as one possibly could; surely we can appreciate the "virtue" of that!

What other industries contribute negatively to human health and liberty without overtly intending to do so, but merely as a function of the "productive" process? An illustration: one my employers lays off personnel when products assembled in one part of the world are not shipped long distances by jet aircraft for consumption on the other side of planet. Bad for people who depend on employment, good for the environment. When "the economy" booms, it's just the reverse.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Hindsight is 2010

Financial Times:

“We’ve had people in our office who were qualified for a mortgage based on their Ebay earnings or their gambling income,” says [Anne Balcer Norton, director of foreclosure prevention at Baltimore’s St Ambrose Housing Aid Centre]. “Things that you just scratch your head and say, ‘And no one thought these were going to fail?’ ”

Not if home prices went up forever! But since you practically needed an Ivy League degree in economics to understand why, it's not for the evicted family to pass judgment on industry professionals. Why, even the smartest people make mistakes; is that any reason to challenge their beliefs? With the right credentials, all is forgiven; and, more importantly, forgotten. Here's to a brand new year!