Friday, July 30, 2010

Appetite for destruction

Rev. J. Townsend, quoted in Capital:

"Legal constraint" (to labour) "is attended with too much trouble, violence, and noise, ... whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions."

Human beings have basic needs whose fulfillment lays the foundation for everything else they do. If a person wants to write a book, they need enough confidence to know that the energy they put toward their work isn't going to put their family in jeopardy because they aren't selling that portion of their vitality to an employer for the maximum wage on offer.

Men were then forced to work because they were slaves of others; men are now forced to work because they are the slaves of their necessities.1

The world is still organized in a fashion which compels some people to work for others. Wherever such compulsion is unable to threaten us on the grounds of explicit starvation, it works tirelessly at broadening our conception of what our "necessities" really are, so that we feel we "can't live without" an ever-increasing number of things -- whether they are articles of convenience or the adornments of status and reputation.

Where capitalism begins by withholding the means of life from anyone disinclined to work on its behalf, the struggle between classes alters this relation over time. Anywhere capital is hemmed in by the progressive impulse of humanity toward life and freedom, it changes shape. By the 1950s, C.L.R. James contends that capital's consolidation within the organs of the state was a worldwide trend reflecting the options available to it at the time, which found their expression in the governmental models of Stalin and FDR. Since the 1970s, capital has been freed from the constraints of the national economy, so the role of the state has been pushed back, along with those compromises capital accepted in an earlier era.

What this means for the US is the convergence of increased insecurity vis-a-vis those "rights" won through struggles of the past -- the "end" of retirement, social security "reform," etc. -- with the unabated creation of "new necessities" in the form of disposable amusements requiring constant devotion. If our attentions are monopolized by chasing after our new necessities, it will be much easier to erode the long-established "necessities" of an earlier time -- the eight-hour day, to name just one of these already endangered species.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


The circumstances in which we find ourselves may not be the outcome of who we are, but rather consist of whatever amount of compromise we have accepted within relations that we don't control.

Subsequently, many of us make the mistake of declaring "This is who I am" and attach a sense of self-worth to our success in doing it.

Men seem to suffer from this problem especially, so tightly-bound is the male identity to an occupation, whereas women are enjoined to see things from multiple roles. The retired man deflates without the identity he sustained through his association with external power; the young man drifts without direction for want of a "real" career.

Who we are as individuals must never be lost in the mire of circumstances, but advanced as a response to them. To accept something less than we would like is a choice to go on living, but to only know ourselves within its bounds is to forget the act of being alive.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Absence and presence

The best thing we can do for each other is to understand our own situation. It's not important what the situation is -- whether it is attended by x amount of "privilege" versus y degree of "hardship": everyone is in a different situation. No one will ever be in a better position to understand your own, so that's your job. The most you can ever offer anyone else is the truth as it appears to you, with the understanding that it is only a piece of the whole. It is also the most you can ever ask from another person.

Only once we know what is true about our own circumstances can we identify those points of commonality that exist in what is true about anyone else's. In this way, we look to better coordinate what we do by complementing each other.

The potential power of such self-knowledge may be deduced from the measure of determination society shows in always wanting to overcome it. Wherever we turn, there is an "expert" on hand to explain our situation to us, whether the subject is the economy, marketplace, personal finance or fulfillment. One simply cannot be "informed" without them!  It is no small coincidence that what often distinguishes the "educated consumer" from the average Joe is the extent to which such instruction is solicited uncritically: Bernie Madoff's clients can tell you a story about that!

Under the industrial conditions of its production, with all the centralizing tendencies this implies, it is often the case that the freedom to think comes in the absence of "information" altogether, in letting go of everything that is unessential to who you are.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The downloads of Dorian Gray

Ideas like "growth" and "development" mean different things depending on your perspective. For the average person, concepts like "spiritual growth" or "personal development" are often associated with the best of what human beings might pursue for themselves on an individual level. This is because what people achieve for themselves in their relationships with others ultimately forms the basis of their contribution to society as a whole.

These terms take on different meanings when we depart from the concerns of the average person and lend priority to the preferences of their rulers. Growth and development, not to mention democracy itself, meant different things to George W. Bush than they did to most of the world's peoples who experienced his interpretation first hand.

Among those subjects within the advanced consumer societies, the people of the United States know too well how the ideas of growth and development have assumed a meaning altogether peculiar when compared to the idea of full and free development for all. The necessary requirement of economic growth lords over every social possibility, from one's ability to retire to those municipal services on which most communities rely.

Just as all social development can be retraced to the sustained efforts of committed individuals, so economic growth demands the daily exertion of innumerable units of nerve, brain and brawn. Because growth in this sense predicates itself on inequality proportional to its success, most people have no choice but to submit themselves to this daily grind.

A common consequence of a life spent working for others is a life not spent developing oneself. This is true to the degree that employment points to a purpose that one cannot rightly call their own, over and above the inevitable requirements of living. Whatever can be taken from our jobs and used for the betterment our lives diminishes progressively with each unchecked advance of "growth" into the productive arena, because growth is inevitably a product made from the surrender of our lives.

Both employment and personal growth make their demands, but only one is required to live. This leaves the other an open question, to be realized at will.

Consumerism poses two obstacles to the self-development of the individual. One is employment which diverges from personal goals; the other is the market.

People who give their best energy to their employers don't have their best energy for anything else. Whatever they endure, they endure for their bosses; it is only natural that the rest of the time they are averse to pain, and structure their lives in avoidance of it. In the US, this often comes in the form of sedentary consumption.

The market plays its part by promising two things: ease of use, and personal fulfillment through commodity exchange. The market, first and foremost, demands nothing, but rather puts consumers in a position to make demands. It is little wonder that we cannot resist the appeal, and gravitate psychologically to this sphere! Secondly, it tells us we can be effortlessly happy by purchasing one thing after another, ad infinitum. We don't have to suffer at all, we only need to buy.

Nevertheless, suffering is always at our heels, no matter what we put into our heads. Our obligation to suffer at the hands of others directly informs our desire to escape suffering through the market -- in the act of consuming to make ourselves feel good.

We have already seen a generation of human beings who have lived their lives in this fashion, and their lesson should not be lost on us, so badly have they paid its price. Too many of those elders who we might normally look to for leadership have become petty and mean, small-minded and miserable; and, moreover, confused at where their life has gone and why everyone has abandoned them. Look closely, lest their fate become your own!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Notes from the underground

Whatever you choose for yourself, make sure it is something that can be sustained. If it can't be sustained through one approach, you have to try something else. The important thing is to keep at it -- otherwise you will never know what you might have become.

This is important not just for yourself, but because others will inevitably look to you for support. You can offer them much more if you've developed something of your own from the start. Otherwise you will repeat what they have heard a hundred times -- the very thing that got us into this mess in the first place.

Don't be someone who repeats what everyone else has heard a hundred times! And never surrender all of your obligations to the outside world.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Assimilate me once, shame on you


Increasingly, the insurgency is hampering efforts to open up east India’s mineral-rich forests to business. In particular, the rebel fondness for attacking railways and roads has made it difficult for some companies to operate. Work on a $7 billion steel plant by JSW Steel, India’s third-largest steel producer, has been delayed in West Bengal, as have steel projects by Tata Steel and Essar in Chhattisgarh. In June India’s coal minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal, said the threat of Naxalite attacks was substantially curbing coal production. Land conflicts between big companies and local people have done much to boost the appeal of the Naxalites.

The popularity of the Naxalites might yet diminish if people in rebel areas got more basic amenities such as roads, water and schools.

People like to say that it's unfair to deny any country the right to develop in much the same way as the United States or any other advanced industrial nation has developed.

Interestingly enough, Hitler made this point about Germany as justification for his ambitions in Europe. The parallel he drew was to US expansion in North America and US policy toward the Native Americans.

No wonder rural Indians aren't crazy about the idea!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What the TV teaches


At the moment I caught the show, Larry was asking what passes for a profound, introspective question in this country, “Is America still one of the greatest countries on earth?” Hugh paused, thoughtfully, leaned in slightly, and then, his leering grin turned down in an expression mock seriousness for once, simply said, “Yes.”

I once saw Larry King interview something that refers to itself as an "Anderson Cooper 360."

King asked: How do you intend to get into Haiti in the middle of this unprecedented catastrophe?

This thing emitted data about Haiti's borders and topography, the position of the sun at local time, the sensibilities of its kin ... instead of just saying: "My producer's handling all that."

Meanwhile, Sanjay Gupta haunted the streets of Port-au-Prince, auditioning victims for prime time!

It's reasons like these I want to kill myself every time I am queued in a US airport.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Struggling in an age of anxiety

We have to understand this idea of class struggle. If we don't understand it, we won't understand why we are so anxious or depressed in spite of our comparative luxury within the affluent societies. Mental health problems seem to be a much bigger problem here than among people who accept struggle as a part of their everyday lives. I think this is because on a psychological level it's much more difficult to ignore a conflict, even under "ideal" circumstances, than it is to face a conflict under great hardship.

Consumerism tells us we're free, but the reality is that we are only "free" within relations of abject dependency. We can quote from Family Guy or The Simpsons, but we can't take time off from work or plan our retirement. If we want our water to be safe to drink, not filled with whatever waste local companies gain a competitive edge by dumping in our rivers, we just have to hope someone in a position of responsibility is taking care of that. We don't feel like we're in a position to do anything about these things, so the outcome is that we spend a lot of time quoting Family Guy.

All this gets reflected in the culture, where it's "normal" to relate to one another in our assigned role as consumers, but almost inappropriate to raise some serious issue, because it's not "our job" to think about them. Deep stuff is handled by people who get paid to handle it, people who go to school for it -- and unless you have a degree in that sort of thing, it's kind of presumptuous to even bring it up. The law of exchange tells us that we don't exert effort on anything unless we're getting paid for it, because that's work. These are all expressions of class struggle as it is presently being waged.

Class struggle doesn't necessarily mean that those of us who may be exposed to toxins through our water supply are actively working to undermine the incentives that companies have for putting them there. It just means that we are necessarily in a relationship with those companies, and we are reacting in particular ways to their behavior -- in this case, potential behavior that we haven't confirmed. Because we don't feel like we're in a position to do anything, our reaction is to feel anxiety for ourselves and our families.

Now, when we extrapolate this sense of powerlessness to almost every other realm of modern life, what we get is a lot of anxiety, which people are dealing with one way or another. I'm sure you can look around in your own life and see how this plays out from one individual to the next. The narrow concerns of accumulated power are trying to shape our lives around what they want -- by increasing our obligations to them without reciprocating toward us -- and we are reacting. This is class struggle.

We see now what Marx means when he writes that the history of all societies has been the history of class struggle: that groups with competing interests are bound together in a way where an action by one produces a reaction by the other, and vice versa. This remains true whether we want to face the reality or not. If we don't face the reality, then we are just responding to it -- increasingly by attributing a chemical imbalance in our brains as the cause, rather than life as we are experiencing it.

The revolutionary role is to call attention to this reality of class struggle, so that anyone who is responding to it can formulate a more constructive response for themselves than becoming addicted to painkillers or walking into their workplace with a rifle. Such responses will vary, but we are always in a better place to react to something when we first gain an impression of what it really is.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Remembering why you are a revolutionary

Our task as revolutionaries is not to organize others but to organize ourselves.1 In fact, discovering yourself as a revolutionary is something that happens when you try to organize yourself independently of all the forces that conspire to organize you. That is when you will see the barriers -- when who you are and what the world demands won't align. If you want to remain who you are, you simply can't accept what the world demands: you have no choice but to work towards changing it. Otherwise the compromise is you.

Yesterday I posed an example of the kinds of everyday tendencies I face based on my own situation that work to organize my behavior around principles that I don't share. In a context that is not simple, I tried to organize myself in response, to prepare myself with a defense against what I don't condone. It may not seem like a particularly exciting example, but it provided me with a sense of liberation: I don't have to worry about being ambushed with some off-color remark in the midst of a conversation that is otherwise legitimate (which is usually how it happens). In turn, this lets me engage people more unreservedly on the topics I want, rather than resenting them on some level for always harboring this threat.

This is as much a political as it is a moral act, for several reasons. The first is that we will only achieve a better world for ourselves if we sort our own shit out first. This means tolerance for each other and intolerance for what we needlessly endure. The second reason owes to the nature of what it means to "only say about others what you would say to their face" -- namely, that our energy is reserved for constructing the kinds of ideas that we would say to their face -- the only thing that can resolve a problem between two people, anyway. The amount of time and energy that we devote to complaining about others is never less than the very resources we could be using to take responsibility for ourselves in that situation.

We might note that there's nothing particularly exceptional or selfless about this, based on how we framed the problem: It's a choice between who you want to be and who someone else thinks you should be. If anything, it's selfless to forfeit who you are for someone else's benefit! This is worth thinking about in relation to the whole idea of class struggle.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A new human manifesto

In the course of everyday life, we will encounter a range of perspectives which correspond to a greater or lesser degree with our own. Within this spectrum, we can expect that some views will reinforce who we would like to become as individuals, some will be neutral, while others will draw us away from this goal.

Because society is not organized in a way that supports the full and free development of every individual, people do not often enter our lives bearing one coherent perspective in and of themselves, but are made up of competing trends which are to a certain extent what they want, and by another measure what society promotes.

An important part of the process of becoming is choosing among the many trends in motion those which we endorse. Endorsement means advocacy which is active both in preferencing what we want, but also in opposing what we don't want, as when the two trends collide.

What we are able to do at an individual level will vary depending on the nature of the relationship. Defining oneself in the face of powerful institutions is something that can usually be accomplished only in concert with others, at least if we want to influence those institutions, not just ourselves. However, defining oneself in the face of other individuals is something which permits us greater possibility when acting alone.

Individuals often serve as a vehicle for society to promote what it wants. In this case, by "society" we mean whatever groups hold domestic power, which under conditions of inequality means some subset of society. As individuals we are all solicited in this regard -- to do the work of some narrow interest, mostly exterior to our own.

For example, as a white man, I am often solicited on topics including women and "the blacks," etc., in the mostly non-professional settings in which I reside. It is a paradox that among those for whom I have great sympathy, some of the ugliest counter-trends do thrive! But because I cannot kill the messengers, respecting them for other reasons, negotiating these trends has always been hard. Mostly I have remained silent, knowing that I cannot argue persuasively to working class people in the language of Marx! In real life, nobody likes a speech.

Subsequently, that language and frustration has expressed itself here, in the hopes it might make the sort of contribution that had proved so elusive in the workplace.

But this is no longer sufficient, as my writing and my life gradually come together in a single person.

The most practical solution I can offer, should you ever face someone you love who wants you to disrespect or hate on someone for whom you share the same affection, comes in this response: "I'm sorry: I can't say or endorse anything that is said about someone that I wouldn't say to their face."

I haven't had the chance to use it yet, but those opportunities will surely come.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The parable of the guy who said vagina

IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, I have even bigger problems than the world. One of them is this guy.

This guy, if you don't already know him, is somebody I will have to tell you about.

The first thing you should know about this guy -- something I can't emphasize enough, in fact -- is that he is a guy. Please don't let this fool you. It is a fact which warrants deep reflection.

The second thing you should know about this guy is that he is not a rich guy. Perhaps you know someone who fits this profile, who can serve to illustrate my point.

If you have ever been a guy who is not a rich guy, or known someone suspected of the same, you can probably imagine the sort of challenges this guy faces. I would like to summarize these challenges in two parts: 1) Meeting his material needs; and 2) companionship.

One of the saddest ironies of this guy may be attributed to the fact that what he shares with others in 1) is not readily translated into what he wants with regard to 2). And this is because what he shares with others in 1) are relations, whereas what he wants with regard to 2) is "vagina." Or, to better capture the depth of emotion as he relates it, "fuh-china."

Why did you interrupt me while I was talking to a fuh-china?

Somewhere on the long path to meeting his material needs, our guy took up the habit of relating to others when he has no choice, and simplifying them away when he does.

Is it harder to be consistent? A mother is not uh fuh-china alone, and neither is anyone else. But when people wear a different face for each occasion, they compensate for something else. This is especially true in the company of men.

There is a lot to say about how 2) becomes subsumed by 1) -- only to reemerge as the proverbial "ball and chain!" Yes: it's a fucked-up culture we live in, and we're all a part of it!

Which brings us to my problem. How to engage him most every day!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Remembering why you are a feminist

Feminism benefits from a clear definition of its aims, so I like to use the idea of "independence for women."

Independence for women is difficult to argue against. Anyone who argues against independence for women in explicit terms is going to look like an ass. That is one thing it has going for it: it gives us an advantage from the start.

Additionally, "independence for women" lets us introduce just as much "men vs. women" hilarity into the mix as we want, without evading the issue in principle. In reality, men are one of the groups we don't want women to be dependent on. But anybody who has tried to discuss this topic in polite company knows that the whole subject can go nuclear in short order. So confronting men on this issue, particularly when many aren't aware that it is an issue, isn't something that we are always in the mood to do. Promoting independence for women allows us to make the case for feminism without too many headaches from people who may not understand the historical case for it in the here and now.

Postulating feminism in relational terms of dependence vs. independence also lets us embrace a broader range of concerns than when we restrict feminism to the relations between men and women -- when we confine it to gender. Of course, when we are speaking about women, gender is always in play, but it is not always happening along a pure male/female binary.

For instance, although many American women succeeded in gaining independence from their husbands, they have subsequently fallen into a relation of dependency vis-a-vis employers, which is fundamentally a class relation, in addition to being informed by gender.

The challenges confronting women in the workplace cannot be resolved by advocating "equality with men" when that very rule is used by employers to penalize women -- as when they "choose" to put their careers on hold while laboring with children, while men do not. Independence for women avoids this pitfall by meeting women's needs on their own terms, not in comparison with men's.

Let us also bear in mind that it is equally feminist to support independence for women who suffer the effects of illegitimate authority in the hands of other women -- whether such authority finds expression in the role of a mother, lover, a boss, or as peers. In this respect, feminism-as-independence means unequivocal support for women as they confront all obstacles to women, not particular obstacles, as in the specific case of men.

I hope that having a clear definition of feminism that works for our own circumstances will encourage us all to embrace the idea and promote its aims.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Letter to a daughter

As long as we are alive, we live in a process of choosing who we are and what we contribute towards. If we are lucky, we will identify these things, or at least intuit their direction, earlier than later, so that we may have the benefit of time to shape their development and share in their rewards. The field of possibility is only available to us for a short time before we leave the terrain to others, so we do well to begin today that which we would put off until tomorrow!

To identify a truth within one's own nature is not to make life easier. The truth of the soul and the truths of this world are not easily reconciled, but will relate as antagonists, at least until that day when the world accommodates every individual as a value in and of herself, rather than requiring her to accommodate a thoughtless conformity in the world.

Anytime the individual is denied, certain individuals will emerge as all-important bearers of human freedom, which is never anything more than the freedom of particular persons to assert themselves at the expense of every person. To step forward on one's own behalf is the first step in a challenge to this long-standing regime, for which one does not earn external affirmation but definite penalty of a material kind.

To arm oneself against a material opponent is to become grounded in simplicity and emptiness of need. This is what the prophets discerned before us, giving the spirit -- that truth within ourselves -- the greatest freedom of operation under hostile conditions.

In setting out on your own path, you will be met by obstacles on all sides. This is the challenge of your life, which is uniquely yours to meet. It will not be easy; there will always exist the temptation to move away from yourself, toward the empty promises of external power, and external rewards. May knowing the adversaries you will face, and what you stand to lose by facing them, lend greater sweetness to everything they fail to take away.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

High definitions

Now if you'll all be quiet and please pay close attention to what the Tee Vee taught.

How do paychecks make us poor?

Karl Marx, Capital:

Wages, as we have seen, imply by their very nature that the worker will always provide a certain quantity of unpaid labor. ... [A]t the best of times, an increase in wages means only a quantitative reduction in the amount of unpaid labor the worker has to supply. This reduction can never go so far as to threaten the system itself. Apart from violent conflicts over the rate of wages (and Adam Smith already showed that in such a conflict the master, by and large, remained the master) a rise in the price of labor resulting from accumulation of capital implies the following alternatives ...

Not to get all Marxist on you, but that is some crazy shit. Here we've been told our entire lives that a paycheck is a good thing, and this bastard shows up, telling us we've been robbed! The more faithful we are to chasing that cash reward for all our hard work, the more somebody else is earning money on top of the money they already have: the money and resources that make them an employer in the first place!

Now, the thing we have to understand about Capital is that Marx is writing about for-profit, private enterprise: he is writing about capitalism. However, he is approaching it as a pure theoretical model; he's saying, "This is how capitalism actually works if we let it run its course according to its own logic, and businesses don't cheat, and there's no corruption, and we give the system the benefit of the doubt -- in other words, we hold capitalism up as the ideal that it claims it is." And his point in doing this is to say: "As an ideal, capitalism means transferring value from people who have to work, to people who don't have to work because they own the process by which wealth is transferred." Among other fucked-up points he makes.

By today's standards, we might be tempted to say: Well, so what? That's the way things are: the rich get richer, the world's a mess, those-people-over-there-have-been-fighting-for-millions-of-years! But what I want so eagerly to convey to you is the fact this jackass still gave half-a-damn about Enlightenment ideals like freedom and democracy, even if we just like to take credit for them in between episodes of Jersey Shore. Marx came much later than the Founding Fathers -- and the joke he liked to make was that it's kind of hard to "declare your independence" when you're totally obligated to somebody whose whole purpose lies in suppressing you as a cost. It's almost like the opposite of actually being independent, which for Marx was what he might call "ironic." But America never likes a smart-ass so we have a hard time getting any of this in school.

Now, you might say to yourself: "Well, fuck that private-profit shit, I am going into the public sector, or to a non-profit!" The problem in this case is that capital, by its very nature, expands, and one of the places it likes to expand most is anywhere it is not. That is what is called "privatization": when public assets are sold to private interests for the purposes of profit. Capital is always pushing for this. The other side to this is that capital doesn't like to be taxed, which means it doesn't want to support teacher's pensions or fire stations or libraries or just about anything public. If people want those things they have to pay for them out of the portion of the value they receive in their paychecks after capital takes its cut. These days, that typically means accepting less and less, because people can't afford to support these things alone, and capital punishes communities that attempt to borrow money in order to do so. Borrowing money is something governments are allowed to do only when they bail out capital, not communities -- an outcome which is reflective of their comparative power.

In conclusion, I only want to tell you this: in a world of finite resources, ours is a way of production and exchange that requires constant, never-ending growth. When growth is "good," that proportion of the value we produce to which we are entitled by law may or may not cover the costs of our survival as communities, but when growth is bad -- or stalled -- all bets are off! It's hard to look at this scenario as making sense on any level, but rest assured there are at least a few people out there who are doing very well by it, all thanks to what the rest of us are willing to give up on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Release date

Democracy in America is like that elderly relative in a nursing home that nobody visits because they're too busy being busy, and whose significance the kids never understood anyway.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ghosts in the machine

Lately I have taken to looking at crosses, strangely abundant in the land of the iPod. Where the iPod takes freedom as its point of departure, the cross refers backwards, it would seem, to suffering. I'm surprised how often the cross shows up, in every kind of place -- often around a person's neck!

Suffering relates symbiotically to consumerism, which produces and reproduces it, while never acknowledging it as its motive power!

Consumerism, we might say, is labor performed under duress for reward in the market. The reward is the market, because it is only in the market where the individual experiences power. The most abused may hate his work, but insofar as it forms an access point to the market, he requests more. Buying things approaches him as the material inverse of suffering, each time promising to make it obsolete.

Suffering is a natural part of the act of life, but consumerism sells the cure for what ails ya! What once was a normal reaction to hardship is now diagnosed as abnormal. While the hardship continues, our reaction does not: this is the new "normal."

For its part, the cross -- and not only the cross, but the Buddha as well -- always references suffering. To be alive will be inevitably to suffer. This is the truth of the cross, which lent power to whomever directed their suffering in an active, conscious way.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A word about systems

Not long ago I watched a film about middle-aged white women from the US and Canada having sex with teenaged Haitian men at a beach resort in the 1970's. The film is unselfconsciously entitled "Heading South," but I have to warn you: the plot is a lot less erotic than the Netflix description would have you believe! I attribute this to the fact that our Netflix writers have an easier time identifying the sex act than the social context in which it transpires!

What's compelling about the film is the sympathy it evokes for its main characters, while pointing to the moral problems that are apparent in their relations -- in the circumstances overall. The women, who hail from different walks of life, are lonely and face the challenges of being women in their own societies; the boys have their own problems, but being paid to have sex with doting foreigners is one that ameliorates so many others; and an older man who manages the resort resigns himself to everything he identifies as wrong with his country, powerless as he feels in the face of it.

It's difficult to pin anyone in particular as driving what's wrong with this scenario. In fact, one of the challenges of the film is trying to ascertain whether there is something wrong at the individual, moral level. The underlying premise is abominable, and yet everyone gets on reasonably well; they laugh and love under the sun. The tragedy which continues is plain to see, but obscured nevertheless.

Today someone related to me the "adult vacation" they took under similar circumstances, except that the lonesome soul in question is an African-American man, and the "escort service" he retained was a 24-year-old mother of one. Legal in the country of concern, one thing revealed among others was that she really needed the money! My associate, nearing middle-age himself, and who never before traveled outside the United States, had concluded it was time for a special sojourn away from work, which to hear him tell it in his unassuming way, ended up being "pretty good" overall. For someone who has never had a lot, whatever money he had took on a social power in another country that he had never before experienced in his own. It bought him companionship, and his companion, the necessaries of life for herself and her child, which she might otherwise lack.

In the introduction to the film, our resort manager is approached by a local woman, who asks that he keep her teenaged daughter -- being "beautiful and poor ... she doesn't stand a chance." The manager refuses, and the woman, blessing him, adds: "But be warned. It's hard to tell the good masks from the bad, but everyone wears one."

Friday, July 09, 2010

A Marxist review of the Obama administration

Wall Street Journal:

For a summary of the Administration's antibusiness agenda, consult the Business Roundtable's recent 54-page compendium. But don't read it before you go to bed because you'll wake up with nightmares if you're an employer.

Our guess is that the timing of this White House campaign has a lot to do with the Roundtable's broadside, which has shaken even some of the President's media friends. When even Newsweek columnists and The Atlantic start to turn on this Administration, you know things are bad.

Another motivator must be this week's Washington Post story detailing that Wall Street and the financial industry have stopped writing as many checks to Democratic House and Senate candidates after two years of White House banker bashing. Big Labor can't pay for every TV ad, and nothing concentrates the political mind so much as the lack of campaign cash.

I don't write a lot about "politics" in the conventional sense, meaning "affairs of state," because I think the government is mostly a reflection of the balance of power within society. That means you have to get outside the conceptions which government sets for itself -- as a "constitutional republic," or whatever -- if you want to understand its behavior, in the same way that you wouldn't take somebody's opinion of themselves at face value, and expect it to yield an accurate picture of who they are. It doesn't particularly matter what a person, or a government, says about themselves, it matters what they do -- and this always occurs in a larger context which we must pay attention to if we want to make any sense of it.

One of the attractions of Marxism -- and not only Marxism of course, but that is the framework I've had the longest association with -- is that it doesn't attempt to explain things on their own terms, but in relation to other things that those terms often don't even acknowledge.

This is what is consistently hopeless about trying to understand the United States through the binary lens of liberal/conservatism, and what turns so many Americans off from "politics" altogether, because without any formal political education, people know it's bullshit. They know it's bullshit in the same way they know that someone bragging about themselves is bullshit: it's self-evident.

In fact, it takes many years of conditioning together with a considerable stake in the system (as through professionalization) to convince people that US politics is anything but bullshit. It isn't easy to beat out of people's heads the idea that just because somebody in a position of authority claims something to be true, that is more credible than if some random person on the street says it. Yet, if that person is elected or appointed to that position, their word is better than your own lived experience which contradicts it. And that makes the rest of us crazy when we think success means modeling ourselves after these types of people in power.

It's sad to see the number of people who are discouraged by the fact Obama hasn't lived up to their expectations of whatever it was they thought he was going to do as president -- all this on the basis of some flowery prose. On the other hand, the US business community, which is very well organized around its concerns, knows well enough that just because Obama says something which is "pro-business" doesn't mean he is going to deliver on it. So they spend all of their time lobbying to make sure he does! And that is the difference between the ordinary people who elected Obama on a platform of "change," and the corporate sector which manages to shape his every "reform" to their liking: one group participates in the act of governance, while the other doesn't. That remains true regardless of what some philosopher kings scribbled onto a constitution, and regardless of whether some poli-sci nerd wants remind us that "the United States is a republic, not a democracy." Technical trivia doesn't change power relations as they in fact exist, and the "rules" that are relevant are rarely the ones written down. This is why we have to get outside of the formal rules before we can understand the actual rules which operate within a society. This is something that Marx did well.

When people ask me what I think about Obama, I can only say that his administration reflects the pressures that are being exerted on it, and that those pressures aren't coming from the needs of people like you or me. Under that kind of scenario, what sort of outcome can we possibly expect?

Marxist feminist Fridays!

Wall Street Journal:

A new generation of Czech women is coming of age that is embracing femininity and sex-appeal while at the same time fighting for, and winning, more equal treatment in the realms of business and government.

"Women's political influence is growing. Why not show we are women who aren't afraid of being sexy?" says Marketa Reedova, a 42-year-old Prague city councilwoman now running for mayor who also appears in [her party's pin-up] calendar.

Because if one thing is certain, the Czech old boy's club wasn't born and raised in that briar patch!

Of course, there's another story here relating to women's official roles under the state socialism of Czechoslovakia, which proscribed the kind of woman-as-sex object that comes out so strongly in commercial media. Marketing campaigns and soap opera-style intrigues are a lot more compelling than state propaganda, so it's not surprising that you hear these stories about Eastern Bloc women pining for the very media portrayals that Western feminists object so strongly to. They were stuck with some pretty dull stuff, comparatively.

As political circumstances change, so do the kinds of behavior which are encouraged and proscribed. Appearing in a pin-up calendar under Communism might have been an act of defiance, associated with the decadent West. But now it's an expectation, because a woman's body is the go-to selling point when you don't have any other ideas -- to paraphrase something I overheard recently. Once you're linked into the capital circuit, everything revolves around exchange, not any particular idea about inherent worth, which is what the old regime used to legitimize its rule. So instead of a group of men in the politburo deciding what a woman's role should be, they're all on Wall Street, using women to drive whatever they're selling, whether its a commodity or political reform or whatever.

The point about the Czech old boy's club is that old boys aren't exactly threatened by the prospect of women taking off their clothes. This is something we have to keep in mind anytime stripping, etc., is sold as a feminist act. It may be feminist for other reasons, depending on the situation, but as a "challenge" to men, no. Even when men in power have explicit rules which prohibit such behavior in public, they will have others which apply to themselves in private. I can assure you this is as true for communists as it is for mullahs as it is for Christian conservatives! For men in positions of authority, nothing really changes from one regime to the next; the implications in this case relate more to the broader society, and how women's roles are being redefined under capitalism.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Why are good jobs bad for the economy?

Richard Florida, Financial Times:

[T]he blue-collar jobs we pine for were not always good jobs: we made them good jobs. When my father came back from the second world war, his poorly paid factory job had been transformed. He was able to buy a house, put his two sons through college and participate fully in the American dream. Some of this was due to the power of unions. Most of it was because of the enormous improvements in productivity wrought by improved technologies and management techniques.

The same thing can and must happen in the service sector. It is starting already. Companies such as Wegmans, Whole Foods, the Container Store, Best Buy and Zappos already account for a fifth of the top 100 best places to work in America.

The problem with posing any economic question in terms of a need for "good jobs" is that good jobs are bad for the economy, if we define the economy as private gain. That is why people who propose more of them inevitably fail, whether they are unions or elected officials. Subsequently, a consensus takes shape around the need for jobs without adjectives because "jobs" and "job creation" play a central role in the kind of capital accumulation that defines a good economy. Good jobs hurt the economy by diverting wealth to people, which, under preferred circumstances, preclude greater profits.

There are circumstances in which good jobs contribute to capital accumulation by increasing the buying power of consumers. But the advantages which come from empowering a subset of consumers in the market are trumped by those derived by multiplying the number of consumers overall. One of the ways this is achieved is by lowering the cost of consumption to a point where poorer people can participate. In order to do that, you have to produce things much cheaper. This means you are working with the incentive not to create "good jobs" because paying people enough to live is either going to take a bite out of profits, which under conditions of competition can't be endured, or it's going to make the product more expensive, constraining its market appeal.

What is called "globalization" is a specific form economic integration intended to drive down the costs of production in order to broaden the consumer base at the same time. This is really where all the corporate interest in poor people is coming from, because there are so many of them, and if you can get them to buy your 10-cent yogurt packets, like Dannon in Africa, for example, that's just the tip of the iceberg. We're used to thinking about poor people as cheap labor, but what if they can become a lasting consumer base?

What's especially promising, along this line of thought, is the notion that we'll be able to drive down the standards of living worldwide, while establishing consumer societies at the same time. In theory, that kind of scenario could be sustained for a long time, because if everyone's desperate, then "just being grateful you have a job" really might become the predominant religious attitude, since without a job, you don't have a right to live. As an entrepreneur in BusinessWeek recently said about rising costs in the Chinese labor market, "[The] Chinese don't want to work in factories any more" -- so he's moved production to Vietnam. There's a very interesting philanthropic pretense that accompanies this impulse to employ the poorest of the poor, "lifting them out of poverty," etc., which I've commented on before that deserves continued examination.

If, for Richard Florida, "participating fully in the American dream" is going to come mostly from "enormous improvements in productivity wrought by improved technologies and management techniques," well, welcome to the future! We can see for ourselves what astronomical improvements in productivity and improved technologies and management techniques are doing for us, which is to get us to produce more while enjoying a whole hell of a lot less!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Wal-Mart brings hopey-changey to Chicago

William McGurn, Wall Street Journal:

Until very recently, unions, preservationists, people who just don't like business, etc., would not have had a hard time keeping out a nonunion, big-box retailer. In 2004, at the same time the first Chicago Wal-Mart was approved, a second store for the South Side was rejected -- and organized labor responded by pushing for a "living wage" law and going after the seats of those aldermen who had voted yea. So what changed?

Most obviously, the economy did. Mayor Richard Daley, a strong Wal-Mart supporter, appreciates that the retailer will help bring relief to a city suffering from declining tax revenues, high commercial vacancy rates, and unemployment nearly a point above the national average. The Chicago & Cook County Building Trades Council came around after a promise that new Wal-Marts would be built by their members, many of whom are out of work.

But the agitation for a Wal-Mart also came from the affected community. The Chicago Defender put it well in an editorial in May: "While the nation is slowly emerging from a horrific recession," the paper wrote, "Black communities, like [Ald.] Beale's 9th Ward, are still in the throes of depression. The only thing that ends that kind of economic downturn is jobs. That is what most Black leaders keep telling Congress and the president. It is what most community activists say is necessary to stop some of the violence on our streets. This community needs jobs. And yet, we have aldermen taking the position that if they cannot secure 'good' jobs for their constituents, they would rather they stay jobless. That is indefensible."

Anytime people lack basic rights, it is only natural that they will be grateful for what they can get. That's our "just be glad you have a job" culture coming through for us again: You have to be glad to have a job, because it's not as if you automatically have some right to live! Life is earned by working for others, liberty is the opportunity to do so, and pursuing happiness is something to consider once these prior obligations are fulfilled!

Of course, it's easy to point out what people should be grateful for when they don't have a right to anything in the first place. That is a very old game, played by those who always begin with the assumption that people don't have rights. Communities don't have rights; investors have rights. If communities want jobs, they have to respect the right of capital to basically run the entire show, set the terms, and get the community to pay for as much of the enterprise as possible, whether that means tax incentives, or infrastructure, or paying employees the legal minimum -- or as Wal-Mart's recent past would have it, not even that. The "community" becomes a vector for profit, nothing more, and the least objection to how capital conducts itself is met by a lecture on the importance of gratitude in all things!

Naturally, it's "indefensible" to ask whether people have a right to live in health and security independently of the quarterly expectations of large investors. That just means you don't want a job at all! This is how working people lose to capital every time they attempt to confront it on terrain that is not their own, because the rules are not their own. It's "indefensible" because they have no defense. This is why you have to take a revolutionary stance toward any system that is run by it. Otherwise you just lose and lose, and you watch things get worse and worse.

My parent's generation had the benefit of socialist initiatives, like the social welfare state, which created, for the first time, something known as the "middle class." Capital has spent all its time since working to undermine and dismantle it, so that even something as accepted as the 8-hour day in their time is now a distant memory. You work 4 hours, or you work 14 hours; meanwhile your parents don't understand why you can't just get a full-time job in the sense that they understood it when they were growing up. It hasn't really hit them that there are no good jobs, because the constraints that were placed on capital in the late 20th century have been undone, and it was the constraints that made jobs good, in the sense that jobs didn't exist only for the benefit of investors, which they do now. So my point about a revolutionary stance is that it is the only thing that has ever even produced reforms that had any meaning within the system. It's plainly obvious what 40 years of Democratic Party liberalism gets us, which is just bad to worse.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

More on the variable humanity of women

The gradual integration of American women into "the world of work" is interesting to think about when we put the needs of business first.

How much of the post-war, "50's housewife" idea of modern womanhood was driven by the need for uncompensated labor in the home, as well as a new market in "housewife wares?" In addition, confining women to the domestic sphere let men go to work knowing that they were that much more like the boss than merely subservient to him. Identification with "the people that matter" is one of those perks that never costs Wall St. a dime! Men at least had that much going for them: Just think of how many times you've heard people gripe about women doing "men's work" -- like being president or something. Is there nothing men can hold onto as their own? Actually, this is less the case now that most jobs been homogenized to the consistency of "sucks," with the "man's job" evaporating in the process. Men are much more progressive about women in the workplace now!

It's funny to think about this period arising without an explicit business connection, as if the 50's housewife could exist without an advertising industry prescribing her every need. I don't think society came out of World War II with the belief that women needed dish detergent that was "delicate enough" for the female constitution: No, somebody just made the shit up, because they were being paid to persuade people to buy their crap. What happens when you have an industry of people getting paid to "make shit up" and then broadcast said shit by every popular means is you get a culture that reflects all this shit. And that's not really very surprising when you think about it. After all, no one else is in a position "define womanhood" in prime time quite like advertisers or the programming they endorse.

The economic benefit of relegating women to domestic work came out of a situation with a particular historical profile. The work women did was viewed as necessary, but not to be compensated. US business would make concessions to their husbands, to some degree, if they had to make concessions at all -- which they did, thanks to unionization. So you got a kind of racist, sexist compact between white men on the factory floor and white men in the office suites: Yeah, we'll pay you so you and your family can buy our whole line of explicitly gendered products -- so you have to buy two of everything, and so on.

What's interesting is how this whole 50's ideal of womanhood broke down. On the one hand, it was challenged by brave women, and whatever allies they had among men -- which in the 60's is kind of a sad story, and I think continues to be a sad story, but more about that later. Anyway, that was called "feminism." On the other hand, the requirements of American business were changing, because the whole economic landscape was changing. Technology was changing the way products were made, which in turn changed the relationship between the people making those products and the interests that employed them. The white man's compact starts breaking down, with employers seeing an opportunity to beat the "labor aristocracy" back to the status of undifferentiated "worker." If you ever wondered what the "angry white man" phenomenon was all about, and why you get these people who think white men are oppressed by affirmative action, etc., you have to think about it in terms of working class white men being betrayed by those bosses they thought they had so much in common with.

Jumping forward to the present day, an awful lot has changed, but we can still understand a good deal by identifying in business its prime directive, which is to make money for investors. What business produces under capitalism is money for investors: it produces capital. It happens to do this through commodity production and exchange; but the point of capitalism is not to make products we can all enjoy or be proud of. Sometimes it does this. But that is not its point, and we see this all time, in the many ways that our economy produces things that are actually quite harmful. Capitalism doesn't care, because its purpose is not to conform to public expectations, but to investor expectations.

The relationship between women and business has to be viewed in this light. There is a lot of interest right now, converging in a variety of ways, on the question of how women can be integrated into these economic institutions which only care about investors. And that's why you get these op-eds which ask, "Why should we care about women in business?" -- because in and of themselves, women are not compelling. Business is the priority, so how can women contribute to that? If you can produce some study which shows that women can make some special contribution to investors, well then you have everybody's attention. But it's very important that you avoid the language of "rights." Women don't have a "right" to participate in economic decision-making; investors have the "rights." Women have to sell themselves as accentuating investor rights -- that's how they "earn" a place at the table. So we have to remember how these institutions are designed, and what purpose they serve.

As a man, I come to feminism from a unique perspective -- not as a man who is somehow especially clued into women, but as someone who is solicited both by women and by interests inimical to women for allegiance one way or the other. Within feminism, there is a real benefit to understanding how the "other side" works on men, and women can't always see this. So men have something to bring to feminism, which is different from what women bring. They don't need to be the same thing; I don't really understand how they could be.

Feminism means that we want women to participate in business because we want women to be a part of social and economic life. In fact, if we believe that women are people, and subsequently have "rights," then women have a right to be there just as much as other people do. And this ties into the larger point, which is that communities should be participating in business, with "investors" diffused into "stakeholders," not crystallized as a class. This is what we mean by "classless": responsibilities are diffused. If we are faced with institutions that preference class rights over human rights, then we need to decide which rights are more important, and throw our allegiance behind them.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Holiday celeinebriate

Off to celebrate independence with my state-sanctioned life partner and fistful of meaningless IOUs -- but remind me not to make a withdrawal until 12am. In your face Great Britain!

See youze Tues with a lot less booze!

The variable humanity of women

Sharon Vosmek, BusinessWeek:

Why do we care so much about the future of women in business? There is a robust body of research demonstrating women's impact on job creation and economic growth. One Babson College study I find particularly compelling in today's recessionary climate shows that if female entrepreneurs started with the same capital as their male counterparts, they would add 6 million jobs to the economy in five years -- 2 million in the first year alone. How's that for an economic recovery?

Why do we care so much about the future of women in business? Oh, yes: business.