Monday, January 31, 2011

Redemption songs

zunguzungu:

I don’t know any of the people in the pictures and images I’m seeing from Egypt. I’m not sure what my connection to them is, or should be, or could be. But I am pretty sure that, yesterday, I was glued to Al Jazeera’s live coverage of what was happening in Tahrir Square – that means “Liberation Square” in Arabic, it seems — because I needed to be, and for me. A word like “Liberation” should not have become such a dead letter in my mind. I have become too cynical, too jaded, too hopeless. We become spiritually dead inside when we accept injustice, when we think that expecting it is “realistic,” and watching and being realistic about the world around me has made me a much more angry, frustrated, and bitter person than I would like to be, need to be. I suspect there are a lot of holy things I’ve forgotten how to dream, a lot of words for “freedom” that I’ve lost or misplaced.

Cynicism is an important tool, but you have to know how to deploy it.  You can't just shoot from the hip at everything. There are good reasons for being cynical about the world, but they aren't evenly distributed. In my view, the people who use cynicism to best effect already know where they are most likely to hit their mark.

I think we always want to draw that line between the monopolists and the people. There will always be many more reasons to be cynical about people in power than there will be about people like you and me. I'm not saying there aren't any reasons to be cynical about people like us: we know them better than anybody!  But there's an important difference: while power may chart a predictable course, we don't have to. So I believe it is always to our benefit to keep an open mind in matters concerning each other, and to try to contribute to one tendency as opposed to another.

Many possibilities evolve behind what we think we know, or what we think we can see.  In this sense, cynicism is important, but limiting: it confines us to ourselves.  I think this is why in most traditions of wisdom, salvation or transcendence happens in community with others.  We can never place on ourselves the expectation of saving others, but we should never rule out the possibility that they might be saving us.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Good news from the Middle East

The Angry Arab News Service:

Of course, the US is now trying to capitalize on the situation and to feign identification with Egyptian popular sympathies when in reality the US has supported AND funded every crackdown on the Egyptian people since 1975. That won't change. The US [wants] to control change and replace a puppet with another puppet (preferably someone with a better hair dye). But there are limits to US ability to control: Tunisia and Egypt will be undergoing a revolutionary process. Tunisia a year from now will be very different from what it looks like today. You have to [be] a Jeffrey Feltman, or a toddler, to think that Tunisia will freeze in time as it is today. And the people's pressures will produce demands for free elections (something the US has thus far NOT called for for obvious reasons -- the US never favor[ed] free elections -- or it did until Bush discovered that people favored Hamas to his puppets in Palestine). And elections in Tunisia and Egypt are not as easy to control as they were in Lebanon with the sectarian factor. I read that Kenneth Pollack was talking about the Egyptian army (and he knows about the Arab military), and that he said that top rank of the Egyptian Army are all loyalists who favor Egyptian foreign policy or words to that effect. But Pollack needs to realize that loyalties are so easily shifted and radically altered [e]specially after a regime change. Are you aware how many of the top rank of the Egyptian revolutionaries in 1952 had expressed loyalty to King Faruq in previous years (I am sure that comrade Kamal would provide me now with names and details). The US, if it is led by intelligen[ce] experts on the Middle East and Shapiro at the NSC [National Security Council] and Feltman at the State Department are far from that, to put it mildly and charitably, would realize that there are limits for US imperial powers at a time of revolutionary transformation. Things will change in a way that would surprise the US, and would surprise you and me too. Now there is a race between the various political factions to assert control. Expect to hear of new groups that we have not heard of before.

I am reminded of the syndicalist expression, "Violence is not necessary when, united as a class, all that workers need to do is fold their arms to gain the world." In other words, stop participating in that which you don't condone, and support others in doing the same.

Sometimes we forget how simple this can be -- or how effective. But the good news is that even when we forget, others will be there to remind us.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Promotions and punishments

Commenter Brian M asks: Is it mere propaganda, or do editorial pontificators really believe the piffle they rewrite?

Whether or not they believe what they say, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that in any system of concentrated power there are penalties and rewards for saying some things versus others.

We learn this at a very young age; and, for most of us, knowing the difference between what will garner us one versus the other is a more necessary survival trait than establishing "what we believe" as a matter of individual preference.

As individuals, we are dependent, whether it is on "good grades" or the employment prospects they imply, in order to "make something" of our lives; it can't very well be accomplished by thinking whatever you want, and acting accordingly -- at least not without the legitimating consent of external institutions.

In consequence, unequal societies are populated by those whose private thoughts to whatever degree diverge from their public acts, leaving them vulnerable to depression or despair; or whose lives are spent without any independent sense of self at all; or who, lastly, bear the full penalty of thinking unsanctioned thoughts when they are expressed as public acts.

It follows from this that editorial writers who are retained in highly unequal societies will fall either under the first or second description.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The rules of law

Staughton Lynd, From Here to There:

Law is like history with dessert. For instance, I'm working on a case that involves a company moving away from Youngstown after allegedly promising to the union, during collective bargaining negotiations five years ago, that it would stay. Maybe it's called law instead of history, but I'm doing exactly what I used to do as a historian. I'm ferreting out documents. I'm talking to people. I'm trying to understand why the policy changed from one point in time to another. But as a historian when you get to the last chapter, that's it, whereas the lawyer has the chance of going a little further.

I have all the questions that anybody else does about the law and whether it misleads people more than it helps them to hold out a sense that maybe you can accomplish something in the courts. But at least for me there's the satisfaction that after you get done analyzing the situation, you can have a shot at trying to do something about it. I find that very satisfying. And another thing, I noticed in looking at the E.P. Thompson interview his comment on Whigs and Hunters where, in the last chapter, he suddenly bursts forth and says, in effect, "You know, the law is not such a bad thing. Marxists have gone overboard with the idea that everything is relative. There's something about the law as a society's encapsulation of its sense of right and wrong that's extremely important." I suppose it's very obvious that he also spoke for me in saying that.

E.P. Thompson:

[T]here is a difference between arbitrary power and the rule of law. We ought to expose the shams and inequities which may be concealed beneath this law. But the rule of law itself, the imposing of effective inhibitions upon power and the defence of the citizen from power’s all-intrusive claims, seems to me to be an unqualified human good.

… If we suppose that law is no more than a mystifying and pompous way in which class power is registered and executed, then we need not waste our labour in studying its history and forms. One Act would be much the same as another, and all, from the standpoint of the ruled, would be Black. It is because law matters that we have bothered with this story at all. … Since we hold this value to be a human good, and one whose usefulness the world has not yet outgrown, the operation of this code deserves our most scrupulous attention. It is only when we follow through the intricacies of its operation that we can show what it was worth, how it was bent, how its proclaimed values were falsified in practice ... we feel contempt for men whose practice belied the resounding rhetoric of the age. But we feel contempt not because we are contemptuous of the notion of a just and equitable law but because this notion has been betrayed by its own professors.

Because social institutions are shaped by considerations of power, insofar as they fail in practice against their "proclaimed values," we should always be looking to isolate power as the culprit first, before institutions or values. Sometimes the two (or more) are bound up together; but this has to be demonstrated.

No minority opinion should be in a position of deciding -- certainly not as a measure of their radicalism -- which social institutions deserve to stay and which must go: again, not without demonstrating, as in the case of something like slavery, that what is arbitrary about power is bound up in the institution; and that by dismantling it we don't create greater possibilities for the unrestrained exercise of power.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The taxpayer's revolt

Wall Street Journal:

[T]he postal service is hoping to ramp up a cost-cutting program that is already eliciting yelps of pain around the country. Beginning in March, the agency will start the process of closing as many as 2,000 post offices, on top of the 491 it said it would close starting at the end of last year. In addition, it is reviewing another 16,000 -- half of the nation's existing post offices -- that are operating at a deficit, and lobbying Congress to allow it to change the law so it can close the most unprofitable among them. The law currently allows the postal service to close post offices only for maintenance problems, lease expirations or other reasons that don't include profitability.

The news is crushing in many remote communities where the post office is often the heart of the town and the closest link to the rest of the country. Shuttering them, critics say, also puts an enormous burden on people, particularly on the elderly, who find it difficult to travel out of town.
...
Some lawmakers say closing post offices is the wrong answer. Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) says the agency should instead cut waste in its ranks. Although the postal service has cut its work force through attrition in recent years, it is still weighed down by overly generous employee benefits, she says.

No matter how winding the journey, official tours of the nation's fiscal woes inevitably conclude by naming a specific category of persons as the culprit: those who, by working, have secured more from life than mere work, and who in consequence are costing the society more than it can bear.

From this perspective, it is only by confining individual development to the strict requirements of work and consumption that the broader development of society is assured.

The implications are clear enough for anyone who works; which is to say, they are constituted explicitly around the idea of class. It is for this reason that the argument is instead pitched to everyone that pays taxes. "Taxpayers" is a category which encompasses all classes, so the "waste" of "overly generous employee benefits" must offend us all! Yet only some of us who feel Taxed Enough Already could regard the idea of employee benefits as redundant in and of itself.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Class consciousness

Financial Times:

[T]here are two main areas of concern within the business community about deficit reduction plans being floated around Washington.

One is that aggressive spending cuts at federal agencies, from the Pentagon to the education and energy departments, could damage the revenue stream and profitability of large government contractors, which are concentrated in the technology and defence industries.

The other concern is that any attempt at tax reform aimed at deficit reduction -- including an overhaul of corporate taxation -- could involve the loss of critical tax breaks and incentives that benefit specific companies and sectors, even if it were accompanied by a lower corporate tax rate.

It comes as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that the purpose of government in a class society is contested between classes; "class" being a concept that is buried beneath the unifying claim of "the nation" to the degree that it references power, and which is retrieved from it only in truncated form, as a measure of income.

Whatever social class best discerns its existence as a class and in turn organizes its activities to promote its interests is most likely to see them advanced, both for better and for worse, by means of "the coercive power of the state," as our observant friends at the The Economist have put it. Even if you and I are not class conscious, the possessing classes by necessity are; and this goes a long way towards explaining why the United States looks the way it does, at least when any modicum of time is spent regarding it honestly.

Alternative explanations never go so far; they leave us with equality under the law -- "even if the rich can afford better lawyers"! Subsequently, they proliferate, and gain the kind of acceptance that comes not out of an acknowledgment of what is true, but what is true in the face of class power, presently constituted.

We learn a lot by reading the most class conscious literature of any class. Consider the above example, and what it tells us about the role government must play for the purposes of one class versus another.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Monopoly!

Economist:

The elite are most likely to do harm when they rely on the coercive power of the state: for example, when they persuade it to grant them special favours. In autocratic countries such as China and Russia the most influential people devote a disproportionate amount of energy to such rent-seeking. In liberal democracies ordinary folk are better defended. Elections force politicians to take the public’s wishes into account every few years. Competitive markets force business leaders to heed their customers’ demands all the time. And the law applies to rich and poor alike, even if the rich can afford better lawyers.

Here The Economist holds liberal democracy in contrast to "autocratic countries such as China and Russia," where elites "devote a disproportionate amount of energy" to furthering their interests through "the coercive power of the state."

The line being drawn, in Edward Thompson's words, is not between "the monopolists and the people," but instead between monopolists of two different stripes: Governments that enjoy a monopoly on everything, including commerce, on one hand; and commercial interests that enjoy a monopoly on everything, including government, on the other. Both varieties are happy to reside within the political and economic continuum known as "state capitalism."

As a publication, The Economist takes a principled stand against one while excusing the other. We see how persuasive this can be when discussion is restricted to the first model; I wouldn't want to be writing this blog in Russia or China, in other words.

On the other hand, monopolies which arise out of commercial enterprise, and which also rely, ipso facto, on "the coercive power of the state" bring with them their own customary brand of harm to "ordinary folk." If our champions of "market competition" are more comfortable with these outcomes, it is no doubt because a more "proportionate" amount of energy has been spent designing them in the interest of their designers!

Friday, January 21, 2011

"Between equal rights, force decides"

Zalmay Khalilzad, Financial Times:

[A] new freedom agenda for the region [Tunisia, et al.] must be articulated. This should emphasise our shared interest in promoting liberal democracy, meaning elected governments that respect the fundamental rights of their citizens.

Let us recall the long-standing socialist critique of liberal democracy that we discussed earlier in the week. Liberal democracy is the terminology used to describe capitalism with democratic formalities like elections, "individual rights," and so on.

By definition, capitalism implies that significant parts of the economy will be privately owned, as a kind of property. Private property might be a family owning a food truck; it might also be a multinational corporation owning the water supply of a community, as was attempted in Bolivia in 1999. You have to be able to distinguish between the two if you want to have anything meaningful to say about private property. Some forms of private property may be endorsed by the broader community; others will not.

Socialists criticize liberal democracy for deliberately confusing the two kinds of property. For example, you will often hear mainstream politicians using the language of the "small" (small business, etc.) in order to promote the interests of the big and powerful. Political operatives can't come out and say they are in favor of further centralization of power in the economy, because this would be unpopular. So they use a coded language of "individual rights," the implication being that even if you and a multinational corporation enjoy the same rights in principle, you sure as hell won't enjoy the same rights in practice. As far as the powerful are concerned, that is all that matters; moreover, they hardly object to regarding themselves as exemplars of enlightened societies where everyone has rights!

That's the scam of liberal democracy as far as socialists see it. "A new freedom agenda for Tunisia" will mean pushing property rights for the big and powerful within the country (because, you see, they are best positioned to "push" in the first place!). The post-revolutionary difference is that big western firms will be able to monopolize what matters in Tunisia, as opposed to an autocratic domestic government. This is how men of principle, like Mr. Khalilzad, choose to distinguish themselves in the world.

Tunisians

Financial Times:

That a regime was toppled through a peaceful civic uprising is extraordinary in the Arab world.

Seriously! Who put them in charge, anyway?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Obamacare revisted

Wall Street Journal:

Researchers at Goldman Sachs Group estimate that the top four publicly traded [health] plans will show earnings increases averaging 21% in the fourth-quarter of 2010 compared to the year-earlier period. UnitedHealth could see profit rise in the fourth quarter by 17%, according to Bernstein estimates. Aetna Inc., which reports its numbers in early February, could see a 65% jump in the quarter just ended, says Goldman analyst Matthew Borsch.
...
In 2014, insurers will need to begin accepting applicants with pre-existing illnesses, and new health-insurance exchanges will increase competition. Insurers will get millions of new customers from the law and that could counteract any negative effects, since individuals will be required to buy coverage.

Health insurance profits come from whatever revenue isn't spent on providing patient care, relative to the total pool of customers. Because profit is the name of the game, you can't ask the US health system to treat sick people if it means taking money away from deserving executives and investors. They'll just move that money into their legislative war chest, and produce the bill they want.

In the case of "Obamacare," that's pretty much what happened. Insurance companies will spend more on patient care because the government has legally guaranteed them millions of new customers. The relative relationship between the insurer's expenditure and profit has likely changed, but in their favor. This brings with it political and economic consequences (the power of insurers and overall cost of health services, respectively) that are worth thinking about, even if we concede the importance of this reform for many patients.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Notes on socialism

New York Times:

Relative to the situation in most other countries -- or in this country for most of the last century -- American employers operate with few restraints. Unions have withered, at least in the private sector, and courts have grown friendlier to business. Many companies can now come much closer to setting the terms of their relationship with employees, letting them go when they become a drag on profits and relying on remaining workers or temporary ones when business picks up.

Socialism, in a nutshell, is the idea that companies should be owned and operated by their employees, rather than dictating the terms by which they live.  Communities, in other words, would exert popular control over economic decisions -- what gets invested, what gets made, how it is distributed, and so on.

That's old school socialism, and it evolved out of an acknowledgment that "employers" should be the community, not some minority element that tells everyone else what to do because they are rich enough to buy what's important.

Socialism was aimed squarely at this question of making the economy democratic; it opposed the dictatorship of bosses in the workplace, from whom life itself must be "earned."  Being able to live decently was always assumed to be a human right by socialists, because threatening someone's livelihood if they don't do what you want isn't an acceptable foundation for liberty in any context.  That's just a fucked-up relationship -- and we know this because that's exactly what we call it when it happens anywhere else in life, whether the relationship is a marriage or between adults and children or whatever.  You can't ask people to make choices in a context where one of the outcomes is that they could very well starve, only to congratulate them on their "freedom" to choose.

The idea that you can have a "political" democracy when many of the most important decisions never even enter the political arena because they are "economic" (and therefore private) is perhaps one of the longest standing criticisms of liberal democracy by socialists -- "liberal democracy" meaning capitalism with democratic formalities.  If you read Volume 1 of Capital, for example, Marx spends a lot of time on this; even defending Enlightenment conceptions of private property against their industrial counterpart; and ultimately advancing them as communism: he keeps the large-scale industry while jettisoning any "private" claim to it.

Because you are more likely than not a contemporary US audience, when you hear the word socialism, you know it is vaguely bad; perhaps you think it means that the government owns everything instead of individual firms.  I'm not going to get into a whole discussion about government here (read: the state) except to say that there is a distinction to be made between democratic and totalitarian forms.  The socialist argument has always been that liberal democracy isn't democratic enough: the people who own what matters will inevitably dominate the government, using it for their purposes against whatever the general populace might prefer.  This blog and many others comment on that phenomenon nearly every day.

However, it follows that if the people who own everything are the government, and these people aren't "the people" but some privileged minority, you end up with the same problem.  Remember how Marx begins his discussion of class: the "haves" are the people who possess their own independent means of survival, the "have-nots" are anybody that doesn't.  If you look at a country like North Korea, which is nominally communist, you basically have one guy that possesses every means of self-sufficiency while everyone else is dispossessed.  It might call itself "Marxist," I don't know.  But the class antagonism is more pronounced than in most capitalist societies.  Marx postulated a scenario like this in Capital, with his idea of having one big company ultimately hold a monopoly on all economic life in society.  That is basically what totalitarian governments adorning themselves with the label "socialist" have produced.  You have to regard them accordingly.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What's my motivation?

Poor people frighten us more than dictators.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Let's be reasonable

"American political discourse" is optimal when it hovers just above intolerance for each other as human beings, without quite spilling over into shooting our leaders in the face.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Renewing a working class propaganda

Hello. I would like to call your attention to something you may not be able to do if enough of your day is spent working a dead-end job for the national prosperity; that is, writing criticism in the manner of a professional academic.

Professionals have time to do research and substantiate their claims. They also have time to read the kind of lengthy arguments they produce. Even if you produce something in your free time that approximates the professional standard, this doesn't mean that I have the time to read it. That in itself is a problem, insofar as one working stiff hopes to communicate anything to another.

Of course, some things need to be researched and substantiated. But there is a whole universe of primary experience that you can draw from that doesn't require 1000 words or elaborate referencing. A lot of what we go through on a daily basis is shared, but unmentioned. Those are good things to talk about, even with a couple words. Many people will know what you are talking about; they don't need an article from the New York Times to corroborate it.

Personally, I think an entire category of working class propaganda needs to be renewed. The left has come to see propaganda as somehow inferior to professional studies that the working class doesn't read. Propaganda -- brief, accessible media that promotes a specific perspective (namely, ours) -- is a format that was once widely embraced because it suited working class requirements. In the case of the IWW, it often took the form of songs.

I know a lot of you are talented bastards who could come up with all kinds of ways to do this, whether it's coining slogans or, I don't know, knitting revolutionary yarn bombs. At one of my jobs we used to wind down managerial enthusiasm by replacing their acronyms with ours. The "Total Service Plan" became "Time to Smoke Pot" -- and soon we were bigger advocates of "TSP" than they were. That is a small, situation-based example -- and I don't smoke pot -- but thoroughly rewarding nonetheless. The important thing is what we are communicating to each other.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The prosperous few and the restless many

Wall Street Journal:

While difficult for individual workers, lower wages can make U.S. industries and companies overall more competitive and allow employers to hire more workers than they would otherwise. In the long run, that may make the nation more prosperous.

A "nation," in this case, made up of employers, not individual workers.

Union yes

Economist:

In the United States several rising Republican governors are keen to turn the short-term struggle over pay and benefits into a bigger battle about trade-union power. New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty have both eagerly taken on the new “privileged class” of public-sector workers. Do the public exist to serve public-sector workers with their high pay and inflated benefits, they ask, or do public-sector workers exist to serve the public?

Unions and their extravagant compensation! Good pay, health benefits and time off from work! Being able to retire! What a drain on the economy, that people should be able to live at the same time they are employed -- not to mention after! Unionized industries are out of step with the private sector, where no such thing is guaranteed. This, we are forever reminded, is their gravest error.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The making of the socialists

E.P. Thompson, quoted in From Here to There:

[S]uch a revolution demands the maximum enlargement of positive demands, the deployment of constructive skills within a conscious revolutionary strategy -- or, in William Morris' words, the "making of Socialists." ... Alongside the industrial workers, we should see the teachers who want better schools, scientists who wish to advance research, welfare workers who want hospitals, actors who want a National Theatre, technicians impatient to improve industrial organisation. Such people do not want these things only and always, any more than all industrial workers are always "class conscious" and loyal to their great community values. But these affirmatives coexist, fitfully and incompletely, with the ethos of the Opportunity State. It is the business of socialists to draw the line, not between a staunch but diminishing minority and an unredeemable majority, but between the monopolists and the people -- to foster the "societal instincts" and inhibit the acquisitive. Upon these positives, and not upon the d├ębris of a smashed society, the socialist community must be built.

Personally, I like to promote the maximum enlargement of positive demands. That way, when somebody wants to share their excitement about a promotion, I can say: "That's awesome, you deserve to be recognized for all your hard work" -- because that much is true. If what they are being recognized for happens to contribute to the death of the planet -- and lots of things do, you can't always help it -- you have to find a way to support people on an individual level while "drawing the line, not between a staunch but diminishing minority and an unredeemable majority, but between the monopolists and the people." Do you see that? We have to support each other while drawing the line, not between each other, but between the monopolists and the people. That is fundamental for me.

So if you know someone who is excited to be going into a particular field, you have to zero in on the motivations which are admirable and promote those over and above -- and inevitably against -- the short-sighted motivations which are always pimped out by power, like the fact that they'll make a lot of money, or whatever. People are going to aspire to these things anyway: you have to lend weight to some but not others.

"These affirmatives coexist, fitfully and incompletely, with the ethos of the Opportunity State." This is a brilliant sentence. The affirmatives coexist with the prevailing power structure. In other words, people don't merely chase money -- not even in the cases where they mostly do. That means something else is happening at the same time. We chase money, but we also spend a lot of time telling ourselves that we are basically good people; we aren't engaged in a 100% evil occupation, and so on. We would prefer to take pride in whatever it is we are already doing ... because there it is. For anyone else around us, there is an opportunity to affirm that part of who we are, and encourage us in the more difficult, if ultimately more fulfilling, direction. If we could figure out a way to do this for each other on a lasting basis, that could very well be the start of a better society within the shell of the old.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Power and the left

I should add to yesterday's post that "the left" isn't a meaningless category. But it describes an orientation toward, not a category of, power. You might have lots of power, or very little power, and be "of the left" -- in other words, favor a more equitable distribution of power.

Many admirable proponents of social change come from privileged backgrounds, and what often makes them admirable is what they choose to do with their privilege. They find themselves in a particular situation -- for example, due to their skin color -- and they have to make a choice about how to respond. Too often I think people condemn others for falling into the "wrong" category of power, rather than judging them on the basis of their response -- or, orientation.

Individuals can't always control the kinds of power they are implicated in, but they can acknowledge their situation and orient themselves in one direction or another. To the extent that their choices prove useful to people in other, lesser categories of power is in my view the most important basis for evaluating their work. So the value in "being of the left" is something that can only be realized in our relationships with other people.

Class, on the other hand, is a category of power. If you are working class -- i.e., you work for others to survive -- this puts you at an objective disadvantage vis-a-vis the ruling class. You don't know if you are going to have a job tomorrow, and you don't know if your health coverage will meet your family's needs today, etc. There are all kinds of stresses and demands that seem to grow with each passing year. Meanwhile, the owning, and by extension the ruling classes are sitting on top of untold fortunes which they won't invest unless they are guaranteed whatever return suits their fancy. They are in possession of the wealth of the society, which they use to write laws and elect representatives, while the rest of us are "just lucky to have a job" and subsequently spend most of our waking hours working them.

So there is an importance difference, as well as an important relationship, between occupying a particular position of power, on the one hand; and advocating for a more equal distribution of power, on the other. The first might be "class" or "gender," while the second is usually called "the left." Problems can come from either department: whether, as in yesterday's post, the working classes pursue a rightward position; or when lefties abandon them in response, and prefer to condemn them as idiots or racists because they are reacting to their relative powerlessness in destructive, socially prescribed ways.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Class conflict in the Republican Party

Financial Times:

[T]ranslating the Republicans’ campaign ambitions to cut $100bn from government this year into a budgetary reality will be a difficult task. Top Republican lawmakers backtracked on that promise on Wednesday, saying they were likely to push through only less than half of the promised cuts.
...
The speaker will have to juggle the expectations of conservative activists, who are dead set against political compromise, with the demands of many in the business community, a crucial constituent that is at odds with the Tea Party movement on issues such as trade and immigration.

This is a very good example of class conflict. Working class communities want to seal the border between Mexico and the United States, because they bear the brunt of an illegal immigrant-based economy, at least in relative terms (their standard of living declines the most). The business community is opposed, because illegal immigration affords them workers without rights. Between working class and business objectives, "force decides" to use Marx's expression.

The important point here is that all of this is happening within the Republican Party. It is a class conflict. On the one hand, we have Republicans who own productive wealth and decide how it is used; on the other, we have Republicans who have no way to live except to work for the former group. Between the two, the working class Republicans take the hits and absorb the betrayals, because that is the role assigned by all rulers to their working class.

If we want to understand how anything happens in human history, we have to begin by examining the capacity of different groups to produce an intended effect: our political categories must reference power. In and of themselves, the categories "Democrats" and "Republicans," or even "left" and "right," tell us zero about power, because they imply a spectrum. They obscure what is meaningful, the conflict between classes, in order to elevate what is not, the "conflict" between ruling parties.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Time bandits

Anybody who spends most of their life on somebody else's time won't have much to spare for anyone else -- much less if they require a modest amount for themselves!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Thinking freely

Commenter Marcus asks whether we can't dispense with -isms (e.g. Marxism) and try to think freely.

Thinking freely will always mean engaging on some level with organized bodies of thought, especially prevailing ones. Personally, it would be dishonest not to acknowledge what I have taken from where: I certainly did not come up with all of my ideas by myself. And besides, others might be interested in knowing where they came from.

Of course, no body of thought is "necessary" to have an informed opinion about your own circumstances. Our relationship to ideas should in and of itself be "free." In other words, whether we take from established traditions or develop our own will vary, appropriately, depending on the circumstances we are in.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Interview with a reader: Jaded Sixteen

JRB: Describe the hate mail you receive in response to your writing.

Jaded Sixteen: Most of the critique I get is focused on my gender and 'nationality'; specifically to not conforming to expected standards. Other bloggers in the Indian Blogosphere think I get these awesome haters because I'm noticed 'internationally' on Womanist Musings and SexGenderBody. I'm not too sure about that, because I have another anonymous blog too, and that gets trolled along similar lines. As long as dusty ladies speak up in a manner threatening to the world pecking order, we're going to be despised, I think.

JRB: What is "dusty?"

JS: 'Dusty' is a neologism I came up with a while ago. I saw this ridiculous fairness-cream ad on TV and they said something along the lines of 'dusky' skin. Only, I kept on hearing it as 'dusty'. Plus, we Indian people ALL squat in the mud, (if I'm to go by the most sticky and determined stereotypes about us). So I figured all the dust has to stick somewhere, no?

JRB: "Fairness cream" isn't a reference to social justice?

JS: Oh crap. I forgot you're not dusty. So you probably don't know about fairness creams. Okay, this should help. And this too.

HA! Fairness cream as 'social justice', that metaphor is genius. Can I borrow it sometime?

JRB: I hope you will. To prepare for our interview, I chose Emily Bronte, instead of bullfrogs and plutonium, as a subject for discussion. I have read the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights; you submitted this poem for consideration. What makes Bronte significant for you?

JS: Colonial texts have always fascinated me, even as a child I've loved the whole canon of lady writing, from Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Emily Dickinson. What interests me is these ladies were writing against the 'male' canon and form of literature, and 'colonising' their own spaces, so to speak. More often than not, the protagonist or the author gives a rationalisation of the Empire that was doing the literal colonising Out There. So within each plot, there is another war to occupy, possess, punish spaces and sometimes even people. Jane Eyre or Villette is a good example of this trope, where the protagonists -- Jane and Lucy -- are introduced in male-dominated spaces and standards, and both manage to subvert the practice as well as colonise the 'space' -- both literal and metaphorical. George Eliot's protagonists somehow can't 'colonise' their spaces, but the narrative remains firmly imperial, so the Mary Evans writing the novel still in a way has 'possessed' space, so to speak. I'm not saying these lady writers are to be condemned for such space-politics, but rather we acknowledge that to become these famous authors or to birth one of the earliest feminist heroines, they too had to step over and oppress others, namely the Third World Woman (Maggie from Mill On The Floss or Bertha from Jane Eyre).

Now, Emily Bronte -- whose text is imperial too -- she does more than just 'occupy' spaces. I read Wuthering Heights as a novel with a single protagonist, which is Catherine-Heathcliff or Heathcliff-Catherine. They occupy, embody, imprint over, and dislocate each other's spaces continuously in the narrative; sometimes they destroy each other, each other's 'spaces' and each other's voices in this zeal to occupy and carve things as one's own, reducing the Self and the Other to bones by the end. Call it silly but I find it reassuring to see that not everyone Out There was successful or even bent on colonising. Moving away from the text, the character we know as Emily Bronte is supposed to have been a recluse, she 'waches' (her word for watching) people, shapes, consonants but cannot claim anything as her own -- and the Glass Essay does a fabulous job bringing her alive. Again, a voice from the canon questioning colonialism, the 'right' to occupy spaces? I can't not fall in love with her.

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