Thursday, February 25, 2010

Soundtrack to a successful career

Special thanks to TheBaronette

Institutional intelligence

Financial Times:

[T]he same dynamic is taking place at every level. Each middle manager is a fresh obstacle to the flow of truth up a hierarchy of wastebaskets.

As I like to say, anytime one jackass makes the decisions for an entire organization, what could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Certain things are illuminated

Every commodity is the result of a process which ends for our consideration. As consumers, we are educated with a view toward the "finished product," and away from the process which created it.

The consumer approach is often misapplied in areas of process, including social relationships. Not seeing what he wants, the "political consumer" insists he must go to that place where people share his point of view. Looking upward, he sees it illuminated.

Monday, February 22, 2010

An anatomy of power

Always remember that "right" and "left" are horizontal appeals to a hemisphere that is necessarily vertical. This explains their political utility.

Much like the human body, the lower orders of the social organism may be arranged on a straight line to coincide with the higher; still, the foot will always be closer to foot than it is to the shoulder.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fortunate sons

Being a man is like being beautiful: you get credit without ever having applied yourself, and the details are usually worked out by somebody else.

Thanks to Elizabitchez

Friday, February 19, 2010

Introducing the spectacular Sarah Palin

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle:

The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification.  As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges.

In its simplest sense, the "spectacle" might be described as the industrial production of information under capitalism. Like any industrial production of this sort, it assumes particular social implications of the Marxist variety -- a dictatorship within production, an ever-expanding scope of production, and the centralization of all production -- which alienate people both from the work they perform and from each other. When the commodity produced is information, however, reality itself is something we experience as it has been manufactured, only to be reinforced by our social manner of experiencing it.

"Populism" has entered the language of our of day, understood as a popular reaction against "elites." The class character of the language is appropriate, particularly in light of the portion of the US working class from which it is presently derived. For 30 years now, those workers closest to industrial production have experienced an unrelenting assault by capital which has put them in direct competition with the most desperate subjects of the so-called developing world. US workers, unable to approximate the lack of rights or the scale of impoverishment, have been punished by losing industrial capacity to their more "competitive" rivals. Whole communities have been upended, and it is safe to say that an entire way of life for these workers has been summarily destroyed. Capital has explained it as a way to reproduce itself for the benefit of a retooled, information-based economy; but it already has its eyes trained on new victims within the IT and professional-based sectors. "Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks,” in the words of Marx.

Sarah Palin has emerged from the wreckage carrying the banner of "populist" revolt. The "emergence" of Palin is instructive in itself: At the forefront of a movement against elites, the movement endeavors to enshrine "one of its own" in the very apparatus of elitism they claim to despise as the root of all their problems: big government. Within the tea party movement, class conflict informs this contradiction, as the working class elements are solicited by capital to endorse "populism" in its commodity form. Alienated from a genuine populism of self-directed action, the tea partiers consume populism as it is manufactured nationally; and distributed to them in their homes, cars, and workplaces.

Liberals, who live at a greater distance from the front lines of industrial destruction, have watched the regression of "blue-collar" social life as an uninterrupted series of spectacles produced for their benefit, as it also happens to be produced by their kind. Liberalism, which favors the ascendancy of an educated, technocratic elite, possesses no language of populism, for it has turned its back on the working classes in order to assume elite status through a renewed alliance with capital. What this has yielded for liberalism's social mission is plain to see in the administration of Barack Obama, which is more likely to suspend the tax-supported stipends on which many Americans depend than it is to ever suspend its murderous and self-defeating "national security" efforts abroad -- though the budgetary implications are clear. Still, the distributional advantages which liberals enjoy within the working class have enabled them to forestall the wholesale destruction of their lifestyle; though with the ongoing transfer of wealth from workers to capital, the process is certainly off and running.

The identification of the working class with competing elite groups divides and conquers any possibility of an authentic American populism emerging in the near future. Alienated from each other, we are all the more susceptible to "uniting" around "that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges." We can believe in "change" just so long as there is a public relations extravaganza which supports our impressions of it, and so long as those impressions are corroborated by others experiencing it at the same time. We believe in it insofar as it is a product, not of our own activity, but of accumulated capital pursuing its own ends.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Notes from the spectacle

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle:

The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.

Something that's good to appreciate about the market economy, as Marx would say, is that it amounts to a dictatorship within the realm of production. Anybody who's ever had a boss understands what this means.

The same can be said for anybody who's never owned a solar-powered car.  Wouldn't you like to own a solar-powered car?  That's too bad, because the consumer isn't in a position to decide what gets made; the consumer is only in a position to consume what gets made.  And, as anyone who has ever contemplated a telephone, internet, or cable bill can tell you, even the terms of consumption are set in accordance to the whims of the producer.  After all, what are you going to do?  Attempt to live without something over which a particular industry exerts a complete monopoly?  Why, that just wouldn't be modern -- post- or otherwise!

You, the individual consumer, have no power except to ratify those choices already made within production.  In the vernacular of our day, this is called freedom; and, in fact, the principle can be seen hard at work in our political system as well.  No doubt Karl Marx is laughing very hard about it -- but don't get sore, there's more!

Just as we are forced to choose between commodities not of our choosing, that which has become commodified is also a heady trip when you get to thinking about it.  Guy Debord, that bastard Frenchman who wrote like an ass, wrote lyrically about what happens when reality itself is transformed into a commodity, which we must take on somebody else's terms if we want to experience it -- not to mention remain connected to that community of consumers who now make up the modern world.  In this case we are talking about mass media as it informs consumer culture more generally.

I have a younger colleague at one of my jobs.  When I am able to speak authoritatively on some matter of commercial urgency -- the release of a new movie or electronic product -- we enjoy a warm working relationship.  The rest of our time, however, is comprised mostly of crickets and tumbleweeds.  It is a sad testament to the fact that we don't consume enough of the same things with the same enthusiasm, for it is only in consuming things that one exercises that degree of individuality to which others can relate.

Divorced from its commercial utility, individuality does not translate well.  In fact, it is often met with silence and a horrified expression.  Anything which lacks its own promotional budget cannot be communicated intelligibly without enormous effort, because nobody enjoys a preexisting familiarity with it.  As Guy Debord would say, our social relationships are mediated by the Spectacle:  we can talk to each other about Haiti as long as it is made real by the TV.  The rest of the time Haiti does not exist, so we can't talk about it.  And that's because nobody will have anything to say about Haiti unless it is on the TV.  If you had something to say about Haiti before it was on the TV, then you are a very odd bird, indeed, because nobody else shared that experience.  Nobody knew it could exist, or why it should.

More to say on this.

Take this job and comprehend it

Ladypoverty's sidebar portal to all things refreshed informs us that David Harvey has published A Companion to Marx's Capital, Vol 1, which just might make for some of the best work-related reading since the internet.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Financial Times:

The Naxalites feed on deprivation and the marginalisation of India’s forest-dwelling tribal people. They are canny at identifying local grievances. Well over three quarters of India’s 660,000 villages, for example, are not connected to a road and many have no drinking water, power, school or clinic. A new focus is on mining companies that extract rather than create local wealth, often at ruinous environmental cost.
The original Naxalite problem in West Bengal was largely resolved by (communist-led) land reform.

Little wonder that India's rural population is now considered the state's greatest security threat, what with their "canny" knack for "identifying local grievances" by, you know, experiencing them.

Farmland is for investors

Financial Times:

[Indian] security forces are slowly pushing into Maoist-held areas to battle the rebels, though local human rights groups accuse them of slaughtering innocent civilians then branding them as Naxal rebels.

Something tells me that when it comes to living within the sights of Indian developers, there is no such thing as an innocent civilian!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fresh insights from the 19th century

Paul Craig Roberts, How the Economy Was Lost: The War of the Worlds/CounterPunch:

If Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin were alive today, they would be leading contenders for the Nobel Prize in economics.

Marx predicted the growing misery of working people, and Lenin foresaw the subordination of the production of goods to financial capital’s accumulation of profits based on the purchase and sale of paper instruments. Their predictions are far superior to the “risk models” for which the Nobel Prize has been given and are closer to the money than the predictions of Federal Reserve chairmen, US Treasury secretaries, and Nobel economists, such as Paul Krugman, who believe that more credit and more debt are the solution to the economic crisis.

While this may not be not something you often hear from former associate editors of The Wall Street Journal or Reagan administration treasury officials, occasionally we do find specimens near the top who, because they have a basic idea of what is going on, are only a few short analytical steps away from reaching the obvious conclusions.

What's remarkable to me is how those who have thought most deeply about contemporary economics are so successfully excluded from social awareness that every time someone hits upon some 150-year-old insight, it is as if we have reinvented the wheel. Last night I listened to a breathless NPR interview with an author who drew on "50 years of research" to support the view that people have an innate need for meaningful, creative work and that modern jobs are more or less at odds with this impulse -- so treating people like human beings might be a very good thing for productivity!

Classy repartee

Wall Street Journal:

"The fundamental aspect of globalization is urbanization, which is spreading everywhere. There isn't a single country in the world that isn't getting more and more urbanized, even the ones that are already quite urbanized, like this one and America," [Stephen Green, chairman and former CEO of HSBC] says. "Last year was the year when we crossed the point where more than half the world's population is in big cities. By 2050 it will be 80% of people who live in cities."

This is called a "Churchillian defense of markets" by the Journal. Do you know what a Churchillian defense of markets is? It is when you take Winston Churchill's quip about democracy being the worst form of government except for every other kind that's been tried, but attribute the undemocratic character of markets to "democracy." This then becomes your classiest rejoinder in any debate with humanity.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Vote for your class

Every political movement not explicitly based in class will have a class character which deserves to be understood. This is often true of movements which appeal to class, like the US labor federations, or political parties which claim to represent the working class, like the socialist and communist parties of many countries. Whatever their pretensions, the "communist governments" of the world are easily reducible to class; often in ways that are much more straightforward than their capitalist counterparts: you are either a member of the ruling party class or you are not.

What all of these examples share in common is the pursuit of state power as a political goal. Because the modern nation-state is a hierarchy which protects and reproduces ruling class power, the working class cannot help but to enter this arena at a disadvantage, if only because the vehicle for doing so -- the political party -- is always comprised of different classes. In the context of class conflict, this means party policy will always be set in accordance to the desires of the advantaged class.

This unholy alliance between working people and their rulers within competing political hierarchies, better known as electoral politics, is perhaps the most unexamined religious tendency within the United States today. Liberalism has facilitated the biggest wealth transfer from communities to the financial sector in US history, all while escalating imperial war aims and delivering zero to a population which lives, and regularly dies, with no right to medical care in the world's richest nation. Conservatism, meanwhile, has blossomed into an incoherent reaction to its own innate incoherency, trying as it might to reconcile a "free-market" of government contracts with Jeffersonian claptrap about less government and individual liberty.

In keeping with this tradition, a full year has been lost in empty speculation on why Obama has done this or hasn't done that, what he does or doesn't need to do now, and all manner of ludicrous counsel which willfully ignores the class character of virtually every adviser who staffs the White House. There is no reason to believe we can't expect seven more years of it.

The working class has one option to further its interests, and it is not in finding common cause with the ownership caste of the country, but in reconciling the differences within itself and striking at the economic heart of its enemy -- in the workplace and within communities -- where all class power is fundamentally derived.

See also BroadSnark

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Of note on the blogroll: Machete 408, Poumista

Planning your day

Tough love

New York Times:

Q. What’s your view of fear as a management tool?

A. Fear is the best motivator.

Q. Are you a tyrant?

A. I’m sure many people would view me as difficult. If I ask you to do something and you say, “Geez, I don’t have enough time to do that.” Well, maybe I don’t have enough time to sign your check this week.

I love these guys who think they can just tell the truth about a situation without any imagination for how its unwilling participants might respond. Yes: threaten their livelihood. That always leads to predictable outcomes!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Taking on new responsibilities

Full size

Officer Friendly's guide to class conflict

Santa Fe Reporter:

“Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources,” [economist Samuel Bowles] says.

[I]n a very unequal society, the people at the top have to spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and productive.

Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor.” In a 2007 paper on the subject, he and co-author Arjun Jayadev, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, make an astonishing claim: Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.

The job descriptions of guard labor range from “imposing work discipline” -- think of the corporate IT spies who keep desk jockeys from slacking off online -- to enforcing laws, like the officers in the Santa Fe Police Department paddy wagon parked outside of Walmart.

I find the easiest way to judge the inequality of a community is to note how its law enforcement personnel are dressed and equipped, among other tendencies.

If police look like they stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, this suggests that they have nothing to fear but blacks and the errant white ne'er-do-well.

On the other hand, if cops begin to take on the appearance of storm troopers, requiring military-style armor and weaponry because "the criminals have become more sophisticated" this tells you something about the declining status of the white working class majority from which cops are recruited.

As inequality becomes more equal, greater ubiquity of force is required to protect the gains of the rich. This is what leads the police of many societies to take on the appearance of their army, or for the army to take on this role themselves.

Thanks to BLCKDGRD and The Angry Arab News Service

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Something that is cool about having a job in the United States is that it brings you that much closer to having something to eat in the evenings. As a point of personal pride, this is something that I have aspired to for most of my adult life. Having a job helped make it happen -- I have to admit it. However, something that is cool about having two jobs in the United States is that you are pretty much set financially, unless you have reproduced into more than one person. As George Bush once said, isn't it great to live in a country where you can have three jobs?

Something that sucks about having a job in the United States is that you have go to it. This is probably the number one pet peeve of people with jobs. On top of that, there are many responsibilities which are placed on you with the expectation that you will care about them. Why anyone believes you will care about them is a very funny thing to discover, particularly if you don't care about them so passionately that you forget what they are. I have seen this happen so many times it makes me proud to be an American -- normally I am not a very patriotic person -- because the reason is always that you don't have any choice. Not having any choice is a very good reason to care about something, and this logic forms the basis of our very economy.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Olympigs are here!

Women Wobblies organize first Starbucks in right-to-work state

Liberté Locke, Industrial Worker:

It was exactly one week before Christmas, which is Starbucks' busiest time of year. More importantly, the store manager, Lindsay Karsh, had declared it Partner (Employee) Appreciation Day. In past years, Partner Appreciation Day was when the manager would use company money to purchase pizza for all the workers as a sort of holiday gift right before Christmas. This year, on top of cutting hours, delaying raises, forcing baristas to work with H1N1 ("swine flu") [symptoms], and disrespecting workers, [Karsh] decided to save the store money and make the day a potluck. [The] workers -- who are struggling to survive and are making just above minimum wage -- were forced to buy their own food in order to participate.

Strangely enough, these women didn't act on their "freedom" to pursue another employer in the middle of a recession. Maybe they weren't the ones who deserved to be inconvenienced, after all!

Consider their example.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A note about class

The Existence Machine:

Many of us —- perhaps the majority of us who are relatively privileged enough to be salaried professionals —- are even constrained from describing our own situation as a form of slavery, so completely have we internalized these ideological biases, so narrowly have we defined freedom for ourselves. Yet how free do we really feel?

Probably one of the greatest misconceptions when it comes to Marx relates to the way he understands class and everything which proceeds from it: class conflict; class struggle; and the goal of a classless society.

Most of this misunderstanding owes to the prevailing use of "class" as a comparative measure of income within the liberal democracies: There are "upper," "middle," and "lower" classes.

For Marx, this conception of class as a specific location in an income hierarchy has little usefulness because, in contrast with economic liberalism, "having lots of money" is not the defining measure of human freedom. Human freedom means having control over your life.

The reason why "having money" is the loftiest goal in capitalism is precisely because capitalism doesn't offer anything else, and that is the point Marx is getting at when he frames his notion of class. For Marx, class is a relationship to those things required to have control over one's life -- and you either have possession of these things or you don't. This is what Marx meant by the "haves" and the "have-nots"; in his view, the history of human society is best understood in terms of the conflict between them.

What is useful about the Marxist understanding of class is that it is principally concerned with power, not outcomes. If we accept the liberal definition of class, then, as above, being a "salaried professional" imparts "privilege." Needless to say, this is true in some ways. But Marx would merely point out that what is given can just as easily be taken away, and that makes one a slave to circumstances; not to mention the whims of an employing (read: possessing) class.

Friday, February 05, 2010

How we roll


Jetting off to Europe isn't exactly Genevieve Repsher's style. As a single mom earning $9 an hour in the cafeteria at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., "I struggle to pay my bills," she says.

As a single mom earning $9 an hour in the cafeteria at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., being able to pay her bills isn't exactly Genevieve Repsher's "style."

Freedom isn't free

Wall Street Journal:

At a swearing-in ceremony marking the start of his second four-year term, Mr. Bernanke said the central bank's independence serves important public objectives.

"Critically, it allows the Federal Open Market Committee to make monetary policy in the longer-term economic interests of the American people, rather than in the service of short-term political imperatives," the Fed chief said.

Because "short-term political imperatives" might include knowing what the Fed is doing -- for example, through an accounting practice known as "an audit" -- the Federal Open Market Committee must strike down this threat to the "interests of the American people" with the sword of "independence" and the hammer of forgetting everything that has transpired in the past 15 months.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Earning the right to live

Michael Barone, Wall Street Journal:

Why has the politics of economic redistribution had such limited success in America? One reason is that Americans, unlike Western Europeans, tend to believe that there is a connection between effort and reward and that people can work their way up economically. If people do something to earn their benefits, like paying Social Security taxes, that's fine. But giving money to those who have not in some way earned it is a no-no.

I've always enjoyed business narratives that ascribe the average American's inferior working experience to some intrinsic preference -- as if the fact that we don't enjoy as much vacation time or paid parental leave can best be explained by our "national values," not merely the values of our employers as they are administered nationally.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Equality under the maw

New York Times:

Critics argue that the presence of gay service members makes the military less unified and effective. There is strong evidence that this is not so, including the experiences of nations, such as Canada and Britain, where gays serve openly. A policy of driving out good and talented people -- including ones with much-needed skills in Arabic, Farsi, and other languages -- makes the military less effective.

Insofar as we have institutions, it would be a very nice gesture if they didn't discriminate.

Having said that, it might be a welcome change if we began to discriminate -- at least insofar as we have institutions.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Friends to the rescue

From each according to their ability

Raymond A. Joseph, Wall Street Journal:

Imagine what it would be like if, in a flash, all the centers of political and economic power, as well as the security apparatus of Washington, D.C., were completely flattened: no White House or Capitol Hill, no F.B.I. headquarters, and certainly no banks or restaurants. That's what happened in Haiti. The earthquake epicenter was a mere 10 miles away from the national seat of power.

Yes, imagine what it would like if, in a flash, all the centers of political and economic power, not to mention the "security apparatus" which sustains them, were completely flattened. Imagine what it would be like if there were no centers of political and economic power; if power was diffused.

Odds are we'd still have restaurants and credit unions. But remember how people from all walks of life behaved in the aftermath of 9/11 or Katrina -- or, in this case, Haiti -- by doing whatever they could to help people in need?

Now imagine if that were happening all the time, not just in the moments when the "centers of political and economic power" are knocked off balance.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Between friends

Financial Times:

[A]s the United Nations announced it would take decades for Haiti to recover from the massive January 12 earthquake and other natural disasters, there is a growing debate as to whether long-term prosperity will only come by giving up the pretence of independence.

Doesn't everyone deserve a little honesty between friends?