Thursday, March 31, 2011

Knowing when Guinness is good for you

Because I would like to think of today as our day of departure, I'm about to do something that I don't normally allow myself while writing: I'm going to prepare myself a pint of Guinness. Here it goes.

Truly a thing of beauty. I regard it with all my senses, because this is an important moment for me; and I hope for you, too. I appreciate that most of you don't start drinking at noon. But remember to do this for yourself when you get done with work. For now, you will have to experience the effects as they play themselves out in my writing.

The Guinness I am drinking can be looked at in a variety of ways. Let us begin where Marx begins, with his concept of the commodity; or, commercial product.

Now to me, Guinness is just a kick-ass commodity. There is no getting around the fact that it fulfills a particular use-value: it's a good beer. Humanity has for a very long time produced beer, and my every aspiration for humanity in the future is that it will never stop doing so. In this respect, I allow myself to thoroughly enjoy a commodity like Guinness, when the occasion arises.

The capitalist way of producing a commodity like Guinness brings with it certain implications, however. The most general implication is that people with no independent way of living sought out employment with Guinness Inc. (or whoever) because they had no choice but to work for somebody else. This in itself doesn't let us draw any hard conclusions about how Guinness workers regard their relationship with their employer. It could be that, overall, they are cool with it. But it is significant in itself. And the reason it is significant is that the most general implication of capitalism is that people are told they shouldn't have any independent way to survive, and have to rely on somebody else in order to do so. When you actually think about it -- dude, that's crazy!

So here we have a situation where the very process of making something awesome, like Guinness, is premised on one relatively small part of society (employers) telling the overwhelming majority of people (workers) that they exist to work for them. Here I want to share with you what the German syndicalist (labor anarchist) Rudolf Rocker had to say about that happy crappy:

The portentous development of our present economic system, leading to a mighty accumulation of social wealth in the hands of privileged minorities and to a continuous impoverishment of the great masses of the people, prepared the way for the present political and social reaction. and befriended it in every way. It sacrificed the general interest of human society to the private interest of individuals, and thus systematically undermined the relationship between man and man. People forgot that industry is not an end in itself, but should only be a means to ensure to man his material subsistence and to make accessible to him the blessings of a higher intellectual culture. Where industry is everything and man is nothing begins the realm of a ruthless economic despotism whose workings are no less disastrous than those of any political despotism. The two mutually augment one another, and they are fed from the same source. 

What Rocker is talking about here is no different than when you turn on the news and all you hear amounts to a running obsession with the health of the economy, oddly detached from anything that you care about in your day-to-day life. Obviously, we get the sense that we don't benefit when the economy is bad; but how much do our prospects improve when the economy is doing great? Basically, you just feel lucky if you have a job, because that's what everyone keeps telling you.

So you see, as much as I unreservedly enjoy this Guinness, there's a much bigger story going on around it, of which it forms one part. In fact, there is potentially quite a lot at stake, in human and environmental terms, anytime people are conditioned to unquestioningly accept the things that they are told by others; or, what's worse, to embrace this as a way of life.

I want you to think about this -- but not if it means ruining your drink, or anybody else's drink. Above all else, I want you to enjoy that. The thinking will come when the time is right. Cheers.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Introducing a continuing series on the things I am for, and how they relate to the things I am against

The first thing I want to say about all of this is that I do not have a crush on Snooki.  I say this first, and foremost, for my partner's benefit; but also for your own.  And the reason for this, you see, is that by merely invoking The Snooks, she has already come between us.  To know her is to confront a kind of social power.

There are a few things you should know about before we get started.   The path ahead of us will not be easy, so I'm going to use a couple different maps.   I've adapted these maps as they relate to my own experiences.  Let me briefly say something about them here.

The first map that I want to bring up in this context is a map called anarchism.  Anarchism is the idea that all authority is wrong unless it can prove that it isn't wrong.   Authority is when somebody tells you what to do.  In other words, nobody should ever tell you what to do unless they can justify it -- to you.  If they can't do this, anarchists will challenge the claim until they do.

The second map I'm going to use is a map called Marxism.  To me, Marxism is concerned with how people make the things they need in order to survive.  For many of us today, this happens within a context which Marx called the capitalist mode of production; or, the capitalist way of producing what we need to survive.  Marx was particularly focused on this way of producing things; and he looked at it in a way that fits nicely with anarchism: the capitalist way of making things often "tells us what to do" in ways that other approaches might not.  Marxism fits into the broader project of anarchism because it focuses on a particular form of authority.

The third general map that I want to talk about is feminism.  Feminism also fits into anarchism's broad goals insofar as it challenges anything that tries to tell women what to do.  Sometimes it's men that try to tell women what to do; at other times institutions; still yet, it can be other women.  Feminism challenges any form of authority which tries to tell women what to do.

What we see coming out of these maps is the general principle laid out by anarchism, which is expressed within specific relationships.  If someone tries to tell you what to do because you are gay or because of the color of your skin or any other reason, to challenge this would constitute a specific struggle while at the same time satisfy anarchism's general rule.  When human beings try to tell animals or the environment "what to do," that fits in as well, if a little differently.  The important point is that we all have to draw maps which come out of our own experiences and interests; anarchism encourages us to learn from each other as we do.

I was hoping to return to our theme of the Jersey Shore, but this is probably enough to think about for one day.  We will reconvene tomorrow.  Until then, if you want to have fun then do something!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Being in the world

Sparklehorse with The Flaming Lips, "Go":

To understand and be understood is to be free

One area of anarchist theory that I've never seen developed relates to how we live our lives in advanced consumer societies while at the same time practicing anarchism. To use my own life as an example, what does it mean to be an anarchist and work for a major corporation? Can anarchism apply when shopping at Whole Foods? Where does anarchism enter into our love for commercial music? In other words, what does it mean to be anarchist and, at the same time, just be yourself?

If we accept the premise that advanced consumerism leaves few spaces in which to escape either the authority which confronts us at work or the authority imposed by the market, then most people aren't going to be able to stand outside of these experiences, as anarchists might have in the past. I know I sure as hell don't. And yet somehow this blog has become a space where -- I don't know. I think last week's hijinks have helped me to understand that this blog has become a little too disconnected from the way that I think about anarchism in my everyday life. So maybe it would be good to start writing about that!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On intervention

Any intervention in another's affairs requires a very high burden of proof to show that it can be justified. All evidence in favor needs to be evaluated as to whether it can meet this burden. Without meeting this burden intervention can be assumed to be wrong.

The anarchist position as I understand it is never non-intervention as an absolute principle, but that intervention is wrong without adequate justification; particularly, as it relates to the preferences of the affected parties.

The fact is, as much as we do not like Western power in principle, in practice there are many instances where we solicit it for what we think is right, because there is no alternative. Naturally, we seek out these alternatives if we can. But it is hypocritical to foreclose the same options to others when in our daily lives as Westerners we pursue them all the time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Methods and ideologies

The enthusiasm for yesterday's post is warmly received! Yet for all the discussion about Libya, I can't help but feel dismayed by what was in fact said about Libya, which wasn't much. As indicated already, I don't find generic discussions of Western foreign policy to be sufficient for my interests, nor do I believe they should ever act as a substitute for trying to understand a situation from the perspective of those primarily affected. To the degree that I use such a critique, it is one part of a broader equation, not the only part.

This in turn points to my method for evaluating the legitimacy of authority in a particular situation, which might best be described as something like a non-ideological anarchism. For our purposes here, I will only reiterate that it's really not important what your view is in a situation that primarily impacts other people. It's important what their view is, and what their preferences are under the circumstances as they experience them. So if you aren't part of that situation, but want to have some relevant relation to those within it, you have to try to establish a consensual connection that acknowledges reality on both sides. As far as I am concerned, if you don't want that, you won't do it.

The main reason why I am uninterested in imposing an ideological template on every situation that comes along is that it provides no incentive to even try to understand what is happening from anyone's perspective but my own -- i.e. to understand the situation. What I believe is an uncomfortable fact for many of the left is that if they let other people express their preferences, it is unlikely that they will fit neatly into their preconceived world view. And what we find in such cases is that this prompts not renewed engagement, but anxiety and condemnation.

Needless to say, I have my interests and there's never any expectation on my part that they should be yours. If you want, you are welcome to engage them in your own way, with all that genuine engagement entails.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More Libya

I would encourage the Western-based left-o-sphere to take a greater interest in the feelings of Libyans when deciding whether outside intervention is warranted in a conflict that impacts them daily.

Clearly there is some evidence of support for Western intervention amongst those doing the fighting against the Qaddafi regime. It's true that this evidence may not in itself justify the Western attacks, because we don't know whether it is representative of what the larger community wants. It could be that the community is merely caught in between, as is frequently the case in these scenarios.

Any use of force has to be justified vis-a-vis the preferences of the affected community; in the context of this fast-moving civil conflict, we should be trying all the more to understand what those are, since military force is already being used against Libyans by their own government. What Western bombs will add to the situation is a very, very good question; but ultimately it is not one for Westerners alone to answer.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Civil war in Libya

Wall Street Journal:

Islamist and secular alike, Libyan rebels express their gratitude for the Western airstrikes, drawing a sharp distinction between the campaign against Col. Gadhafi and the American entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. A handful of today's Libyan revolutionaries fought American troops in those conflicts.

"When America occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, it spread corruption and killed innocents," said Rafat Bakar, a revolutionary activist in the city of Baida. "A Western intervention in Libya would help us get rid of the tyrant and of injustice."

The Libyan situation is complicated so I don't share a straightforward view of what is happening there, even if Western involvement can be reduced to self-interest, as usual. The only immediate questions that interest me are whether the rebellion would have been crushed without intervention, whether the rebels enjoy greater popular legitimacy than the regime, and what the likely outcome for civilians would be with or without Western involvement.

Leaving the country to be reconquered by Qaddafi would not have been good for Libyans -- I think that much can be said for sure. In light of the regime's advances on rebel cities in recent weeks, I'm not sorry to see it newly discouraged by Western support on the rebel side, even if this poses a new set of problems in the longer term.

Friday, March 18, 2011

We are obligated to each other, not the demands of power

Inside Higher Ed:

[Q]uoting Marxist theory should be seen ... not as an endorsement of all things Marx. "I see it as one lens through which we can observe and look at the world we are trying to understand," especially with regard to issues of social class. "I'm not saying it's the only way or the best way, but it's a way, and those theories do have something to offer," he said.

For example, all this week I have been thinking about how, in the face of one social catastrophe after another, my daily routine remains the same: Get up, go to work, come home, do what I need to do to repeat it all over again tomorrow -- none of which is directed in any way toward addressing what is happening to people in Japan or Libya or Ivory Coast; or for that matter, in my own neighborhood. So much personal commitment going toward somebody else's priorities, so markedly different than my own, because the basis of my livelihood is spelled out in their terms. As it stands now, society would collapse if everyone decided to take a month off to do what is right, obligating ourselves to others on the basis of need, not power. Subsequently, it is never done -- and so we watch as things get worse.

Thanks to Beth E.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The greatest president


Businessmen have long complained that these onerous labour laws, together with high payroll taxes, put them off hiring and push them to pay under the table when they do. When Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva, a former union leader, became Brazil’s president in 2003, they hoped he would be better placed than his predecessors to persuade workers that looser rules would be better for them.

Note the logic here -- that by electing a labor candidate to the office of president, you don't produce an administration which represents workers, but one that is "better placed" to advocate on behalf of business in the eyes of workers. What changes from one president to the next is not the interests they represent -- this remains more or less constant -- but the audiences they best persuade.

Early on, Obama was similarly embraced as a popular figure who business hoped would sell their concerns to a skeptical public. Since then, both his popularity and his credibility amongst business-types has declined. Less able to persuade, he is less useful to business, who in turn cast doubt on his economic priorities, and by doing so make him less popular. Duly scolded, you will note the president's newest attempts at "reconciliation" with business.

The key to a celebrated presidency in societies like ours is to basically do what business wants while remaining a reasonably popular and unifying figure. Though less true at the time of his incumbency, this explains a lot of Ronald Reagan's revival in the time since: he did whatever business wanted, and so has been rewarded with great popularity and "leadership" in hindsight. Clinton is also notable in this regard.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A life without parties


"I'm sorry that they will lose some money that they'll have to contribute, and I'm sorry for what they might lose through the loss of collective bargaining, but I doubt that any of these government employees will not be able to make the mortgage, not be able to buy groceries, not be able to put fuel in the car or clothes on their backs, and our family has had to face those things," she went on, her voice rising. "So I find it hard to be sympathetic, and to continue to pay for people who are the haves when the rest of us are the have-nots."

The political arguments in Wisconsin pit people like this woman against government employees who are one step closer to becoming like this woman. We see that no resolution will come from taking one side versus the other, the political right vs. the political left, insofar as such positions will only protect narrow constituencies within the social whole. Even if there is good reason to reject her analysis, there is no reason not to take her side as someone whose objective requirements for living are under assault -- and, by doing so, advance our own.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Success, suffering, and happiness

Wall Street Journal:

[S]ymptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations.

Amid great inequality there will always be penalties if you just try to be yourself. That is hard, but it's okay. There is a kind of suffering that is necessary for personal growth, and it's important to be able to identify that and accept it. For example, if you suffer for something you strongly believe in, as a reflection of who you are, yes, you will suffer, but you will also know who you are. When the suffering subsides, you will still have this knowledge of yourself -- a possession that will not expire.

On the other hand, we bear a much greater penalty when we try to avoid all suffering, by pursuing only the repeated, short-term happiness that is promoted by consumerism; or the concomitant status that comes from "choosing instead to measure up to the standards of others." Unfortunately, much of school is geared to this status-model, where what we produce need only satisfy the teacher's criteria for approval, irrespective of whether it relates in any way to our own.

If you read the article you will see that they are basically counterposing the advent of consumerism with "community and meaning in life" -- i.e. some other social system altogether, certainly if we believe that everyone should partake in it. We don't have anything like that yet, but we do have enormous psychological suffering amongst even very well-off people, whose burden is no doubt compounded by every social indicator which insists they are successful and doing everything right!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hot commodities

Wall Street Journal:

Mr. [Mitch] Singer [a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group] said he doesn't think the accident in Japan will derail the U.S. nuclear boom. In fact, he said the explosion should reassure Americans that their own plants will be prepared for any emergency, because the industry will disseminate lessons learned in Japan around the globe, helping other reactors shore up their defenses against even devastating natural disasters, like the quake and the tsunami that followed.

Because if the history of nuclear power shows anything, it's that any publicity is good publicity!

Playing Nintendo's game

I hope by now we have established that when you read Volume 1 of Capital, we are talking about what happens to you at work; when we talk about something like Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, we are talking about what is experienced outside of work, generally speaking. Naturally there is is an important relation between these two realms, between production and consumption.

Last week I said that, for me anyway, many things are clarified when introduced to the crucible of work. It is easy to talk to people about what is happening to them. I am a patient person, and my method is only to supplement conclusions people have already drawn by filling them out with what I know. This way we accompany each other, with whatever primary experience or theoretical knowledge that we have. This opportunity presents itself regularly.

On the other hand, you might say that many more things are obscured when exposed to the light of the Spectacle. "Spectacle" is a very good name for it: it is a spectacle! The problem for, say, Nintendo is the same for social justice; as the company's president put it, you are competing "with anything that demands people's attention and energy." Within a consumer society, that means anything and everything!

In my experience, this means waiting much longer for opportunities to add anything to the conversation that could act as affirmation for people in difficult circumstances. Consumerism does a very good job of overcoming our long-term concerns with successive, short-term distractions. You have to account for this: everyone wants to talk about their brand new whatever it is, but almost nobody is happy. Yet that short-term high can be repeated indefinitely, for decades, in fact. There are often only short intervals when people can really have each other's attention in a meaningful way. A lot of times I find that even in conversations that are ostensibly heartfelt, there is a preference to console and retreat than to proceed through places of uncertainty, perhaps because we haven't developed those skills.

So operating within the spectacular is, for me, like undertaking guerrilla warfare where you hardly ever do anything. You have to wait long periods, accompanying people the best you can. The internet can be helpful in composing a piece like this, for example, and certainly lends to it the potential to reach a broad audience; nevertheless there remains the question of competing with anything that demands people's attention and energy. It may be that this is the most important consideration for anyone trying to produce on behalf of social justice: to invest in whatever you think is most deserving of people's limited attention and energy, because there is no moving forward without their consideration.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The crucible

We can think of class as an experience that brings us all together. Whenever I talk to people on the bus or at work, men and women of different colors, increasing I find that everyone is very eager to talk about class. "There is a working class and a ruling class: One makes the rules while the other does the work." This is instantly recognizable to anyone whose existence revolves around work; all the more for those who have been doing it longest, having never attended university or graduated high school.

At least in reference to work, I find that people really want to pursue this commonality, to know what it is that we share. There really isn't any preoccupation with how we are different. The work experience is just so total: I'm talking to people who work two or three part time jobs, all day and all night, who literally do their sleeping on the weekends, if they want consecutive hours of it. It's certainly not the case that we experience this reality in the same way, but the fact remains that the vast majority of us are experiencing it, and suffer tremendously as a result.

My strongest bonds with people on the bus or at work has come from these conversations, which acknowledge what is happening to us. I wonder if many of the internal conflicts between those concerned about social justice couldn't be helped by anchoring them in the contemporary work experience, where their significance will grow or recede in direct proportion to their practicality. Those that remain in a given situation will be the ones to address. Perhaps a lot of interpersonal inaction could be dispensed with by introducing it to the crucible of work!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Identity politics

S.J. McGrath, Heidegger:

Insofar as we fail to stand in authentic comportment to our possibilities, choosing instead to measure up to the standards of others, we do not authentically exist.

Capital isn't strictly how Marx defined it in Volume 1, however -- that authority which confronts you at work, which alienates you from that process. Seen from the capitalist's perspective, it is also a circulatory process which transforms money into production (which means paying for you and your tools, etc.) out of which emerges the commodity, or commercial product (or service). Marx called this cycle "industrial capital": money capital is transformed into productive capital which is in turn transformed with a surplus into commodity capital; when the commodity is sold, it can once again be realized in money capital form, and begin its circuit anew. So capital can take different forms, all contributing to this process, when looked at in this way. This is the subject of Volume 2.

What the Spectacle represents is capital once it permeates society as whole: the advent of consumerism, which recruits everyone into the spirit of producing, consuming and investing. You still have the conspicuous consumption of the rich, now assisted by the conspicuous consumption of the poor. As we said yesterday, whether at work or at home, you always have an idea of what you are supposed to be doing, and if you think about it long enough it becomes clear that it usually has to do with contributing in one way or another to the production of surplus-value, or profit, for somebody.

Naturally this imposes rigid constraints at work. But as a younger colleague once confessed, he didn't like having time off from work because it made him "want to spend money." Nothing at work or in your living room or on the interstate is going to reinforce your feelings about any other value than what Marx called exchange-value, except in cases when they can be bundled together. You can pay someone to uphold your ideals, for example, as with many non-profit organizations, but at the same time find yourself consistently discouraged from living them.

All of this has particular import as it relates to our sense of time. I hope a short example will suffice. Most of us can hardly bear the thought of having to get up in the morning to go to work. It just sucks. Because we have no enthusiasm for the project, some of us will remain home until the last minute, putting us in a position where we now have to rush to work. Once we begin our commute however, we only prioritize our obligation to our employer. All other obligations -- to that homeless dude over there, or to whomever might still be in that smoking car in the center lane (true story) -- go right out the window. All of our social exchanges between home and work are heavily discounted, because we don't get anything out of them that we need in the same way that we do with our boss -- who we hate. And so it is that the same fools who show such tolerance for the boss erupt into a furor at the slightest misunderstanding in the street -- a process that repeats itself daily.

Insofar as we choose to measure up only to the standards of others, we foreclose the possibility of knowing ourselves in an authentic way. We won't know ourselves. One of the best reasons for regarding yourself and others sympathetically, and accommodating them the best you can, is that everything dominant in the society is working full-time against that, and you are all that is left.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Capital and the Spectacle

In Capital's first volume, Marx defined capital as a social relation that is mediated by things. In this case, Marx was looking at what happens when you go to work everyday, and his point was that only a part of your day is spent producing the value that you receive in your paycheck. Another part of your day is uncompensated, and this "surplus-value" is appropriated by your employer. If your employer can turn around and sell "his" products, that surplus-value will become profit -- for him.

When you read Capital you will see that Marx goes into all kinds of different scenarios where the uncompensated part of the day is this or that much in comparison with the part you get paid for. It depends, for instance, on whether technology is assisting very much in production (in which case the uncompensated time can be very great), or whether employee resistance has reduced the total hours of a working day (in which case the uncompensated time might be less). In reality, you have many things happening simultaneously: increased productivity through technology is often relied on to offset other factors -- the main reason why businesses are always hollering about technological innovation.

For Marx the whole scheme was pinned together, in a fundamental way, by the fact that your boss owns, as his exclusive right, everything needed to make stuff; while you on the other hand are hard pressed to even grow your own vegetables. In a meaningful sense, you are propertyless, making you highly amenable to your employer's outlook on life: his schedule, his pay -- his terms. Just to reflect for a moment on the amount of nonsense you went through in your educational formation so that you might best appeal to his preferences tells you something about the relationship -- one that is mediated by things.

In the 20th century, Guy Debord, a thinker working in the Marxist tradition came up with this whole idea about something he called the "Spectacle." The Spectacle was, in his words, a social relationship mediated by images. What the hell does that mean? I'll be the first to say that I'm not entirely sure. At one level, you can talk about TV and the mass media. So when all the headlines converge around one particular issue, you'll notice that everyone is talking about that one thing. If the headlines don't reference that one thing, people are less likely to offer an opinion about it, because you have to think about it and you might be wrong. But if a position on something is being trumpeted nationwide, you can just say: "Yeah, that!" and get along with almost anybody.  Or you can take one of the two sides that usually reflect elite opinion, and get along with certain people.  As Debord wrote: "Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear."

The whole thing stems from the fact that in contemporary society there isn't any formal space to think on your own terms. You're either at work taking orders, or you're at home watching commercials. You hear what professional opinion makers have to say about something one way or the other. You aren't encouraged to have a view of your own, certainly not if it departs from the industrially manufactured view.

The Spectacle is the experience of only knowing your life as it is marketed to you by consumerism.  "Branding" plays into this directly: the purchase of "lifestyles."  Even our "work lifestyles" have been sold back to us as black comedy in films like Office Space and shows like The Office and Party Down.   But you aren't going to get a breakdown of what is happening to you at work in a way that helps you respond, or helps you help others.  In popular culture, work is just this futile endeavor we all have to endure, with no explanation as to why this must be so.



I am, in no particular order: a socialist, a biker and a martial artist. I struggle with the contradictions of being a Marxist trapped in the body of a small businessman working in the graphic arts sector.

Thanks as usual to Poumista.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Always more than a woman's day

Because I can't think of any ongoing activity in life that will suffice in the absence of women, today I add online yacktivism to the group. I simply can't invest myself in smart discussion that doesn't include women, because I don't trust it.

I'm not a prolific commenter to begin with, so what this means at ladypoverty -- well, we will see what it means. I hope it will serve as confirmation for what many already feel, and bring renewed vigilance to approaching shared problems as equals.

Monday, March 07, 2011

A trip to the mall

In the same way that marriage has become culturally bound to the state, our lives in late capitalist societies are materially implicated in consumerism. How we react to this is complicated: we might bemoan materialism but love the new Snooki Minaj track. At least I do -- are you kidding? Yet how could capital be more concentrated, and artistry more controlled? All I know is, in the new society, there damn well better be auto-tune -- and, of course, Snooki.

Earlier today I took a stroll through the King of Prussia Mall. Commodities -- by which I mean commercial products and not raw materials or whatever in the stock markety sense -- on exhibit in a zoo! From a strictly Marxist perspective, you could get very bent out of shape about the whole thing. But that's not always what's called for in a social setting where people are very excited to satisfy their material needs, myself included. The fact is, I needed new pants. And do you know what? There they were, neatly folded, just like the old boy Tommy Friedman is always crowing about.

My suggestion to you is: Don't get bent out of shape! But at the same time: Don't forget about what has transpired. Remember! Rest assured that a time will come when you can put those memories and that understanding to use in a way that does not alienate you from what has become the social life, but secures affirmation to others when they invariably come away empty. Every principle you care about is best deployed in the service of other's needs; it should never approach them as condemnation. Mao said: Swim in the sea of the people. I say: Swim in the sea of commodities, because this is where you will find the people.

I want to make an analogy about your feelings when you think about injustice in the world. Some members of my extended family have something in their fireplace that they call an "insert." It's something that goes in your fireplace, presumably, but more noticeably forms a full glass and metal enclosure in the front. By means of this device, you can control the airflow to the fire.

This is the important part. When the airflow is turned to the minimum, that fire will last who knows how many times longer than it would if exposed to the direct environment. I've heard the fire will last all day or all night. Conversely, when you dial up the heat, it's hot as fuck. It will heat the better portion of your home. It's crazy.

Your passion about the things you care about is like that. If you let it get direct exposure to every goddamnable thing that comes along -- yeah, it's going to flare up; but it will only be a matter of time before you burn out. You know what I mean by this, many of you, I am sure. So create an enclosure, and let that fire burn indefinitely; and, moreover, grant yourself the ability to choose when you are going to let it run hot or let it go unnoticed by everyone else but you. Never let circumstances dictate how you dispense with your own energy -- or for that matter any antagonist. They will try, but this must always remain your choice. And you will make these choices based on what is required by the people in your life, intimate or afar, in solidarity with their struggles.

Friday, March 04, 2011


Wall Street Journal:

Less than a quarter of Americans support making significant cuts to Social Security or Medicare to tackle the country's mounting deficit, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, illustrating the challenge facing lawmakers who want voter buy-in to alter entitlement programs.

In the poll, Americans across all age groups and ideologies said by large margins that it was "unacceptable" to make significant cuts in entitlement programs in order to reduce the federal deficit. Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security "unacceptable."

Yet for all the effort put into dividing them politically, and all the significance attached to that divide, there is consensus within the working class -- and it stems from economics.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The morality of power

Robert Kaplan, Financial Times:

The moral differences between one dictator and another are as vast as those between dictators and democrats. There is such a thing as a benevolent dictator –- and we should not turn our back on all those that remain.

Vision, perceived legitimacy, the existence of a social contract and the ability to make society more institutionally complex –- and thus ready for more freedom –- are the distinguishing characteristics of good dictators.
This legitimacy [of dictators] depends on a social contract that treats the population as citizens rather than subjects, and has as its primary goal the economic and social advancement of society.

Once we accept power as an established principle, the political "dictator" really isn't that different from a CEO or your garden-variety household patriarch.  The issue is no longer what they are -- one who rules  -- but rather what they do; and, moreover, whether or not we agree with the outcome.   This explains how the author can glide effortlessly into performance-style appraisals of people who regularly use the army to make their societies "ready for more freedom," by his standard.

Furthermore, the distinction between the "citizen" of the republic and the "subject" of autocracy is a lot like the difference between the "team member" of today versus the "worker" of yesteryear: a status in name only.  The material concern in any hierarchy is always one's proximity to the bottom.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Love and tactics

David B. Rivkin Jr., Lee A. Casey; Wall Street Journal:

Marriage is unlike any other governmental benefit. License to marry carries with it far more than mere permission, as in obtaining a license to drive or practice a profession. The reason that gay-rights supporters are so determined to achieve equal status for same-sex unions, and the reason that so many others vigorously oppose that recognition, is that marriage is an affirmative statement of societal approval.

Congress took account of this fact in enacting DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], and of the fact that large majorities of Americans still oppose recognition of same-sex marriages. Significantly, most Americans do not oppose some other form of legal recognition for same-sex couples that isn't called marriage.

"Civil unions. Because you're not a person -- you're a gay!"

Marriage is an example of a social practice that has become so thoroughly conflated with the state that it is difficult -- even for people who love each other bunches -- to imagine undertaking the endeavor without making it "official" in the eyes of virtually everyone.

In the present context, to deny one group of people this "affirmative statement of societal approval" which has become culturally bound to the state can be interpreted in turn as an affirmative statement of societal disapproval as regards those individuals in particular.

Of course, there is always the argument to be made that what is elemental about "marriage" does not spring forth from the blessing of a loveless bureaucracy, but is rather whatever two people and their immediate community can sustain by the force of their own creative design. But this does not mitigate the injustice at the point where it presently resides: within a society that, for now anyway, cannot imagine "marriage" developing toward its most fruitful maturity in the absence of a state.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Feed the world!


In his 1981 essay, “Poverty and Famines”, Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, argued that the 1943 Bengal famine, in which 3m people died, was not caused by any exceptional fall in the harvest and pointed out that food was still being exported from the state while millions perished. He concluded that the main reason for famines is not a shortage of basic food. Other factors -- wages, distribution, even democracy -- matter more.

Yet The Economist isn't interested in other factors. Instead it wants to talk exclusively and at length about what are called "agricultural yields" -- how much can be produced at a given cost, within a given acreage; in other words, the efficiency of agricultural output.

And while I am no expert, the impression I get from this article is that The Economist, rather than confronting the fundamental problem of profit in production, would merely prefer that agricultural yields, by the entrepreneurial magic of state-sponsored biotechnological chicanery, increase by a million percent!, so that "farmers" -- corporate agribusiness -- can finally produce commodities at so minimal an expense to themselves that they can feasibly sell them to people living on less than a dollar a day and still make a profit.

Failing that, all bets are off.