Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's resolution

My sister asks whether, in all my written endeavors, I have decided to write something everyone can understand. This year I promise I will try.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

First the working class, then "the Left"

Robert Parry, via AZspot:

The hard truth is that until the Left gets onto the field in a much more serious way and starts engaging the Right in its “war of ideas” -- including making major investments in media, think tanks and other means of getting information to the public -- politicians will continue to disappoint and embitter the Left. So will mainstream journalists.

This is the Arianna Huffington approach to engaging the Right: the Left must make major investments in media, think tanks and other means of getting information to the public. That part of "the Left" which is ruling class, in other words: neither you, me, or anyone we know is in a position to start their own think tank!

I'd much rather that people like us, anyone whose daily vitality is absorbed by employers, extend ourselves sympathetically to anyone else in the same situation; and commit ourselves to dialogue, whether the individual identifies "left," "right," "Christian" or "racist."

If what is called "the Left" is going to amount to anything worthwhile, it can only come through the self-organization of the working class. That means insofar as you are compelled by economic necessity to seek employment from anybody else, you have a necessary role to play, from whatever vantage point you occupy within the economic hierarchy.

Thanks to Montag

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An open letter to everyone

Dear The World,

More exhaust fumes, please!

Respiringly yours,

Still conscious in Philadelphia

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The white man's burden

A coworker is very concerned about the "brothers and sisters" who are running City Hall here in Philadelphia. He is convinced they are all thieves. On this point you cannot argue with him: he is philosophically opposed to stealing!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Introducing a feminism for men

reposted from femenins

Industrial Worker

When we think about feminism amongst the working class, the people we usually think about are women. Feminism, after all, is understood as the struggle for the liberation of women in much the same way that industrial unionism is conceived in terms of the struggle for the liberation of the working class.

All too often, however, the role that working class men might play as feminists is not adequately defined. As Wobbly men, we might hold feminist values, but we may not know what to do with them in concrete terms. This is a frustrating experience for those of us who would like to establish real ties of solidarity to women's struggles, much like the ones we extend to other workers -- even when they are struggling under circumstances very different than our own.

Identifying our role as feminists can be less intuitive than knowing our role as unionists: as unionists, we experience class subjugation directly; but as men, our relationship to the subjugation of women is ambiguous. After all, there always exists the possibility that we are contributing to the problem, somehow, even in spite of ourselves.

Working class men should be reassured that this problem is not insurmountable. There is a necessary role for us within feminism; and what’s more, men have something to offer feminism that even women can’t provide. This is the perspective of someone who directly experiences patriarchy as a man, but who utilizes this awareness as a feminist.

Patriarchy is a big word and complicated affair. However, to afford us a familiar starting point from which to proceed, let us think about patriarchy as being not unlike the kind of hierarchy we know so well at work. At work, there is a boss that tells us what to do, enjoys privileges we don't, and who is free of responsibilities that we bear alone. Patriarchy, in other words, is a form of authority which assigns the role of “boss” to men.

Like bosses in the workplace, when a person occupies a formal position of authority over others, this doesn’t tell us everything about what kind of person they are, or what their first preferences might be. But like bosses who were promoted from the ranks of the working class by their employers, the role that patriarchy assigns to men isn’t something they choose. It is how their responsibilities are dictated by that system. But men don’t even “apply” for the job of patriarch; it is thrust upon them, and they often enjoy its benefits before they know what is going on, by the simple virtue of being “men.” Furthermore, most men don’t have the option to “quit” being men, strictly speaking -- as a manager might quit being a manager once he grasps the moral implications of class struggle.

If we think about men under patriarchy as being like managers who are forever condemned to be bosses until that system is destroyed, then the responsibilities appropriate for feminist men are easier to discern. Namely, it is incumbent upon us to actively resist our assigned role as “boss.” We can’t be neutral on this moving train -- and identifying as “feminist” is only the first step. Active resistance means anticipating what patriarchy is trying to accomplish and directing our actions accordingly -- namely, in solidarity with its intended victims. If patriarchy wants us to actively or passively endorse our boss-like authority or privileges, we need to identify what these are and reject them.

Much of the practical work of feminism for working class men begins at the individual level; it means examining our relationships with women in order to identify the ways in which our behavior might impact them like the behavior of a boss. For example, do we tell them what to do, enjoy privileges they don’t, or escape responsibilities that they bear alone? Once we start asking ourselves these questions in our relationships with women, we create the practical possibilities for modifying our behavior: we can reject the role patriarchy has assigned us as “men,” and create our own as individuals. But this takes quite a bit of work and introspection, as well as a readiness to hear the critical concerns of women as they are addressed to us.

In future installments, this column will address the relationship between feminism and the class struggle for men from a variety of perspectives; underscoring how this can contribute to the work of women feminists, and ultimately inform the feminist and class struggles at large. Specific strategies, including workplace organizing as a feminist activity, will receive special attention.

This initiative wants you to write for it so that the benefit of your direct experiences can be shared with others as they relate to the interwoven struggles of all of us within the working class.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

To build a fire

Some things in life we can't help. Circumstances are already in motion, and we are caught up, whether we like it or not. In these places we yield, because there is no other choice.

Other things in life we can influence, some things more than others. Wherever we exert the greatest influence, in the smallest things, we always face a choice. Depending on what we choose, small areas of great influence will contribute toward one or another medium realm of moderate influence; and so on and so forth.

In some places we yield, in other places we advance, rather in spite of ourselves! And yet we always face a choice about what we are advancing toward.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Attention deficit disorder


The problem, says Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, is that the company is competing "with anything that demands people's attention and energy."

The Nintendo chief has named the modern dilemma -- that everything is put into competition with anything that demands people's attention and energy. This includes, for our purposes here, the very viability of societies.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Organizing amongst the working class

Theory is important because it organizes the world around our concerns. For example, most people who are very concerned about poverty don't naturally turn to mainstream economic theory, because the problem of poverty is subordinated to other priorities, like the need for economic growth. Insofar as poverty is identified as a problem, its solution must be found in economic growth, because that is the priority. How economic growth contributes to resource inequality, by concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer hands, is a problem relegated to governments; though how governments can pursue the problem when their mandate is always and everywhere to pursue economic growth is a question that mainstream economists are compensated very well to leave unanswered.

It follows from this that if poverty counts among your priorities, you will likely find yourself courting extra-capitalist or anti-capitalist explanations for why it persists in an industrial context where production is routinely jeopardized by its very ability to produce in excess. The theories that we use to explain our world, then, are in large part a reflection of our own priorities.

One of the most compelling insights to come out of socialist theory since the 19th century is the idea that a category of humanity identified as "the working class" has objective material interests; speaking broadly, its constituents share the same elementary priorities. This remains true even when the ruling class priorities of economic growth, war, and furthering their own domestic power are promoted to such extremes that the vocabulary of the working class appears to reference nothing else. No amount of ruling class propaganda can erase the objective relations of dominance and subjugation that exist between those that work and those that rule.

The practical project of organizing amongst the working class for people like you and me begins by wondering aloud at the remarkably consistent, objective reality that is always concealed behind the theoretical veil drawn by the ruling class: Isn't it funny how we are always obligated to them, but they are never obligated to us? Ha ha! Wait -- what?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Understanding propaganda

Pursuing the relationship between theory and practice is often daunting for activists. Communicating something to an audience bound by a spectrum of concerns that are narrowly defined is the easy part. If your audience is against war, it is easy enough to say, "I am against war." Additionally, it is never too hard to accuse someone else of not being sufficiently against war, in order to highlight one's own level of commitment. This is almost always a waste of practical energy; but again, easy enough to do as long as we know the bounds of debate in advance.

Once we exit the predictable confines of our own group or club, the bounds of debate can only be discovered by testing them -- by talking to people and hearing their concerns. Insofar as we wish to be persuasive, the concerns of others must form the starting point, for the simple fact that nobody is bound by ours. This includes concepts and vocabulary used during the conversation; again, to the degree that we want to communicate anything at all to others, we first yield to their terms. And this is because no amount of self-satisfaction on our part ever obliges them to listen -- or to care.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ways of the world

The surest way of dispersing power at the individual level is to listen to what others are telling you.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Discerning anarchism

If we start from the premise that what people choose for themselves, while respecting the right of others to do the same, best qualifies as a choice made "without rule"; whether such choices serve to advance the principle itself might allow us to identify the anarchists within the bunch.

Anarchism begins by asserting the freedom to choose; and it concludes by beginning again, whatever the outcome.

For your consideration

Montag's Humble Theory of Human Nature.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Save yourselves

Richard Rohr, OFM:

As I fight my own demons of cynicism and loss of hope at the human situation, the earth situation, the national situation, and the church situation, I have come to believe that the response strong enough to overcome these many demons is to be in a state of constant gratitude for all that is given so freely, quietly, and undeservedly.

Tolstoy tells us: Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them.

All the same, I'd just as soon not add to my list of "outward things" until at least January.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Nine ladies lurking

By now you've had ample time to observe how men behave toward each other on blogs, and as authors of blogs. So let's be frank, ladies, what are among the most annoying tendencies of men in an online setting?

Personally, I don't see any progress being made until we can talk to each other, no matter how esoteric or long-winded we can be on our own. Everytime a 30+ comment thread appears that's all dudes, I think: fuck.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The money fetish

One of the most woeful predilections to befall the modern working man is his eagerness to embrace the terms by which "you could make a lot of money." Rarely is the point raised, in his defense, that a life spent chasing money is a life spent chasing the priorities of the people who have the money; and that these priorities have never included him.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

I know what you're thinking

Yes, the world is a mess and it's probably getting worse. But all the more reason to distinguish yourself in contrast.


A new work schedule and multiple projects will likely find me saying less around here for the next few weeks. But I'd love it if that somehow amounted to communicating more.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Anarchism revisited

I wanted to say something about anarchism, since you are interested.

If somebody tries to tell you what to do, anarchism, as the political philosophy concerned with authority, places the burden on this person or institution to show why this must be. Sometimes a justification can be shown: the person has been democratically delegated responsibility for administering a social task, for example.

The important point is that the burden of proof is on whomever assumes a position of authority to demonstrate that is socially justified. All authority is illegitimate by assumption, unless this burden is met. This is because anarchism's preference is always to move power from greater to lesser states of concentration.

Sometimes, this can't be immediately accomplished, as with elements of the welfare state: in the absence of anything else, there is a social justification for having a hierarchical state administer programs which afford people some basis for life when they cannot procure them from employers.

In fact, there may be many aspects of modern life which are popularly supported, like the technological advances coming out of defense research (the internet, for example), which imply some kind of state or state-like structure; i.e. institutions which may be democratically delegated responsibility in a such a way that amount to de facto concentrations of power.

While some anarchists extrapolate from the preference for less concentrated power a vision of a world where concentrations would not exist, to set this as the standard by which every institution must be judged may in itself deny the democratic preferences of communities amongst which such judgments will naturally vary. These are not simple questions, and it is for this reason that evaluating the legitimacy of social arrangements is best undertaken on a case-by-case basis.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Corporate multiculturalism

Wall Street Journal:

Since February, IBM has sent 36 executives on three-week consulting assignments to four emerging-markets cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Chengdu, China. Next year, IBM plans to send 100 more executives to 11 different cities.

The idea, in part, is to get to know more decision-makers in those markets, which IBM views as increasingly important to its future. The program also gives executives more familiarity with developing economies and experience working with people from a wider range of backgrounds.

Corporate globalization is a celebration of diversity at a party without the poor.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Anarchism vs. feminism?


Cindy Milstein, at a recent event in Baltimore, described [feminism] in less negative terms. She said that the anarcho-adjectives symbolized not preference, but passion. That’s fine. If you are extra passionate about injustice related to gender oppression, more power to you. But I am not. I may identify more when I hear about the injustices and abuses faced by women, but I am not more passionate about doing something about those injustices than I am about injustices due to race or class or disability or anything else.

I would take it one step further than Cindy Milstein and suggest that "passions" are best informed by people's individual experiences; and, moreover, our circumstances are to a considerable extent not what we "choose."

People can be passionate about wanting to address every conceivable kind of oppression, and identify themselves in these terms; but in practice they will only have the kind of direct experience to speak, or act, in a leadership capacity on a few. As soon as we step out of what we experience on a daily basis and get drawn into circumstances which primarily affect others, we have to defer on some level to how they understand their own experiences.

We've certainly seen how the tendency to preference our own struggles can assume many illegitimate forms. But that doesn't mean it's inappropriate for middle-class white feminists, for example, to be committed to addressing the problems that they know best. It's inappropriate for them to be completely self-consumed; but it's also inappropriate for them to pretend to be something they're not.

In my view, the harmony between anarchism and feminism is implied insofar as anarchism concerns itself with authority, and feminism is aimed at authority in a particular form (that which subjugates women). People will use whatever terms or labels they like; particular women will distinguish their circumstances from others, etc.; but the principle remains the same.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Democrats shoot people from airplanes, cont.

Wall Street Journal:

Wild pigs, descendants of animals brought by the Spanish conquistadors, have foraged in Texas for centuries and have long been a pest on ranches. But as cities and suburbs swallow up more land, they are becoming an urban nuisance as well.

Eradication methods common in rural Texas, such as shooting feral pigs from helicopters, don't lend themselves to a more urban setting. So police departments and animal-control officers are trying new ways to stymie the wily wild swine, methodically tracking the marauders' hoofprints and setting up night-vision cameras to monitor their movements.

"If you had told me I would be doing this when I joined the police force, I would have said, 'yeah, right,'" says Cpl. Salas, who has been in law enforcement for 13 years.

Yeah, right! If only pigs were people and helicopters, drones.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The science of climate change


The best protection against global warming is global prosperity. Wealthier, healthier people are better able to deal with higher food prices, or invest in new farming techniques, or move to another city or country, than poor ones are. Richer economies rely less on agriculture, which is vulnerable to climatic change, and more on industry and services, which by and large are not. Richer people tend to work in air-conditioned buildings. Poor ones tend not to.

Richer people eat more ice cream. They drink more lemonade. Both strategies have been shown to be effective in countering the adverse effects of global warming.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Telling the truth

Fouad Ajami, Wall Street Journal:

[Julian] Assange feeds off the taste for high gossip. Doubtless, he sees himself as truth-teller at war with an American "empire" with a lot to hide.

The worst crimes of state are plain to see. The idea that there could be such a thing as an incriminating "secret" in the context of one nation occupying another by force, somehow transcendent of this fact, tells us a lot about how we are "informed" as citizens!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Damned if you do

Karl Marx; Capital, Vol. 2:

The money capital transformed into variable capital, i.e. the money advanced as wages, plays a major role in actual monetary circulation. Since the working class has to live from hand to mouth, i.e. since it cannot give the industrial capitalists any long-term credit, variable capital has to be advanced at the same time in money at countless different points in society, and at definite and short intervals, such as a week, etc. These periods are repeated fairly rapidly, no matter how different the turnover periods of capitals in the various branches of industry; though the shorter the intervals, the smaller need be the relative size of the total sum of money cast into circulation at one stroke through these channels. In every country of capitalist production, the money capital advanced in this way forms a relatively decisive share in the total circulation, and all the more so in that the same money flows through the most varied channels and functions as means of circulation for a myriad other businesses, before returning to its starting-point.

The money you receive in your paycheck plays a major role in monetary circulation. In other words, you have to spend it. This is why you are assigned the role of "consumer." It's a central part of your identity. You think like a consumer, you act like a consumer. It feels good because there is so much affirmation and support for it in the society. It's also one of the few things you can do without a boss looking over your shoulder. You are the boss now!

Economically speaking, a consumer is just a person who spends money. Bad consumers don't spend enough money; awesome consumers spend just enough of somebody else's money so they can be indebted to them on an ongoing basis, in the hopes of earning their highest approval rating!

One of the worst things you can do is save your money -- unless of course it's for retirement, which is really just a kind of deferred spending. Nobody wants to pay you at definite and short intervals, such as a week, etc., if you aren't also contributing to what is being produced in real time. Nevermind that you've been doing it for 40+ years and you want to do something else, or that you have trouble walking. People are living longer: the difference between the ages of 20 and 40; and 70 and 90, is 20 years in either case, FYI.

This is why you will have to work forever! Or else squirrel away whatever is required to be a good consumer at 75. But because this mustn't interfere with your present obligations to spend, it makes perfect sense that you would consume both conventional and financial products, "giving back" to Wall Street both by direct and indirect means. Whatever misgivings one has about Wall Street, there is simply no other way to save money over the long term without jeopardizing one's good standing as a consumer.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Time management

If you earn a paycheck, you should be reading Ethan's writing.

If you watch TeeVee, pay attention to what it teaches.

If you think you live at the center of civilization and progress, discover what Dusty People think!

Have you any misgivings about the above, consider what it takes to crush a bastard.

And, finally, the person who does this sort of indexing better than the rest, and on a daily basis, our friend BDR.

As for me, I'm officially on vacation, buddies. Have a good holiday.

However, seeing as how I would like to appropriate some of that time for myself, I will still be working, possibly even here. There is the rest of Volume 2 to contend with, for one thing. Reading Volume 2 of Capital really makes me appreciate how much there is to get out of Volume 1; and anybody who likes this blog should own at least a copy of Volume 1, if only to skim through the historical passages or read completely at random, as I did at first. Then listen to the David Harvey lectures and read it as a book, if you want. I say this because you can get a lot out of it if you take for granted the fact that, like so many things worth doing, it isn't always going to be easy.

Working for someone in one capacity shouldn't immediately lead to working for them in another, even if one is called "work" and the other "free-time." All of our time must be reconstituted as our own. Even if we don't control it formally, we can direct it toward our own ends, using the momentum of our circumstances. As Harvey says, they are taking capital off our backs -- and this is as true whether it is taken in the workplace or surrendered, recreationally, through exchange. The only question left is how we respond.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Good news for the bored

In order to maximize the time available to us for pursuing our principles, daily life must become the substance in which they are realized. Work and other obligations can no longer be treated exclusively as "somebody else's time," while that which we choose for ourselves applies only on weekends and holidays; online or at the bar. Our lives as we experience them are the evidence we need to prove our points, not evidence that our lives are failures.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The preferential option for humanity

There are two criteria for determining what is socially justified in general, but also internal to particular hierarchies. The first are the preferences of the affected parties; the second, some conception of fundamental human rights.

For anarchists, hierarchy in and of itself is a violation of fundamental human rights; namely, the right to freely associate with others absent any external social coercion (e.g., if you don't work for somebody else, you will jeopardize your material well-being).

However, insofar as hierarchical relations are increasingly the norm, and therefore woven into social assumptions -- "a boss is just a fact of life!" -- anarchists interested in propagating their view must convene at the point of established assumptions and recast them as a new set of preferences: not "work" vs. "unemployment"; but "wage-slavery" vs. "freely contributing toward something worthwhile," with the means to live an assumed right for everyone.

As long as the working classes of society continue to see the extension and intensification of their work lives as a blessing when compared to the alternative, not a curse, anarchists will have their work cut out for them to make the case.

As discussed yesterday, one of the ways to move toward a general reappraisal of established norms is to take an explicit stand on particular ones, supporting what is socially justified in moments when hierarchical policy lacks institutional consensus. Despite their formal power structure, hierarchies like all social institutions include variable distributions of power to which the formal structure is immune. By exploiting what is variable within hierarchical institutions, anarchists can support what is socially justified on one issue (e.g. sexual harassment), leveraging this to propose what might be socially justified on another (e.g., economic harassment).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Practicing anarchism

Anarchism is commonly understood as opposition to hierarchy, the vertical ordering of people on the basis of power. How this opposition can be demonstrated is not an easy question, however, insofar as participating in hierarchies of one form or another is unavoidable for most people in modern societies. How this opposition can be broadened can seem even more perplexing.

Many anarchists are good at reducing their exposure to hierarchies on an individual level; for example, by participating in small-scale cooperative activities. Such efforts are meant to perform a dual function: they provide individuals the experience of working without hierarchy, and they serve as examples to the rest of society that such alternatives exist.

Unfortunately, small-scale cooperatives are themselves at a power disadvantage in relation to state capitalist institutions, and frequently fail or fail to grow past a certain point. What is doubly unfortunate is when the anarchists involved become culturally alienated from working class people in "mainstream" society, and fail to do the kind of outreach necessary to keep their projects growing in scale.

There is a particular need for anarchists who can do effective propaganda both from within and external to functioning anarchist organizations. This means promoting anarchist practices inside hierarchical organizations, where most of humanity already is anyways.

Practicing anarchism inside or between hierarchies may sound like an impossibility, but not if we apply the same principles we observe in the circumstances we can control to the circumstances we mostly can't. This would mean identifying those parts of a particular hierarchy which do and do not have social legitimacy, and picking our targets accordingly: some to promote and some to oppose.

How do we know what is socially legitimate within an institution which, at its core, has no intrinsic legitimacy? The answer is: they are the practices, policies, and other norms that people would likely support, or which our principles endorse, under non-hierarchical conditions.

This can include things like women's equality in the workplace, equal opportunity employment, ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell; and other institutional practices that are socially justified regardless of the circumstances. Such reforms can be used to support people within hierarchies while showcasing the anarchist principle that how organizations are constituted at present is not necessarily how they need to remain, once exposed to the light of human preferences.

Supporting what is socially justified internal to particular hierarchies is probably the only way we have to directly communicate anarchist principles to the people confined within them; what anarchists accomplish without a direct line of communication to their intended audience is almost never fully understood. It is also probably the only realistic way for most anarchists to actually practice their principles, without inviting the problem of leaving society altogether.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Parable of the preacher

Yesterday I listened to a preacher on the radio. He was in a studio, taking calls; he wasn't giving a speech like they usually do. He was an old preacher, his voice warbly, but he still had charisma.

First he was talking about the father, the son, and the holy ghost. I had no idea what he meant by this. Then a caller asked him: What do you mean when you say nobody can know Jesus? Didn't people know Jesus when he was alive?

The preacher started to jitterbug up and down and all around this question. It was funny to hear him argue that you can't know the mystery of God, and yet somehow presuppose a god. I didn't know what he meant -- it didn't make any sense -- but clearly he had something in mind.

The best part was when he started telling someone about salvation. Salvation, he said, was an experience where all these new possibilities are revealed that you were never aware of before. I immediately knew what he meant by this. Then he started talking about the difference between the "saved" and whatever you call people who aren't saved. He said they aren't stupid or unworthy. They just aren't aware of these possibilities; they are stuck in a certain way of seeing things. Again, I knew what the preacher was referencing: something true; something that happens between teachers and students, even if they are not called by those names.

Religious people often reference things I don't understand in order to reference the truths that I do. But lots of people do that. And not only that, but I'm always referencing things that others may not understand in order to strike at something that they do.

So even though the preacher and I don't use the same terms or understand the same things, we can still speak a common language in the things that are true. I need not insist that he cease to be a preacher, or take offense that he is -- things I have no control over anyway. And in this way, it was a comfort to be at peace with my brother.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where you are is what you know


We can think of any force, sufficiently empowered, as the graveyard of all social relations. Now we're exiting capitalist critique and entering the way of all totality of power.

It's very important to be able to "exit capitalist critique and enter the way of all totality of power"; or, rather, to pursue capitalist critique while under its wing. In a word, this is anarchism: Capital is one manifestation of an unequal distribution of power. It's not the only example, or the most important example in every case.

Every relationship contains some internal distribution of power which must be legitimated by its participants if social liberty is to exist. There are as many opportunities for abuse of power as there are types of relationships. Usually, people focus on whatever questions of authority arise out of the relationships they are in.

Because I experience the capital-relation as a form of subordination and patriarchy as a mode of power most directly (i.e. input from other relations, like race and sexuality are less constant), I emphasize them. Given time constraints and other real world obligations, any stance "against all authority" will inevitably become an examination of particular authorities at the individual level. What we learn from others is what they know best from their own experiences. We are, each of us, called to listen and to teach.

Thanks to almostinfamous

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Honoring veterans

When we talk about the military as an institution it's important to distinguish between the subjective motives of people in the military and the objective function of a military within a particular society.

One of the underlying characteristics of the United States military is the presumption that it exists to advance "American values" around which there is broad social consensus: values like "freedom," "liberty," and "democracy." Though many who join the military do so owing precisely to a lack of "freedom" in economic terms, even these individuals can be counted amongst a larger group who accept this ideological premise, more often than not. Because military service is rewarded in cultural terms on the basis of "service to society," there is a disincentive to call into question the basis of one's reward: if the objective function of the military is likely to undermine subjective preferences about why people serve, it will not be examined.

Whether or not the US military advances "democracy" around the world is a matter that can be evaluated independently of the fact that it makes this claim. The criteria is straightforward: if the US military conforms to the preferences of the societies it impacts, it may be possible to make such an argument. It is immaterial here whether the US military conforms to the preferences of US citizens. Only those primarily affected by a particular authority are in a position to legitimate its rule.

Generally speaking, modern militaries are not constituted in such a way that makes them democratically accountable to the communities they affect. National militaries primarily exist to impose the authority of one nation on that of another. Because the US military is not exceptional in this regard, we begin with the assumption that the US military does not function to advance democracy, but to instead project internationally the authority of whatever groups presently hold US domestic power. If we incorporate into our discussion a class analysis of US domestic power, we will quickly discover that it diverges in important ways from any democratic distribution itself.

Accountable only to a small minority of US domestic interests, is it not more honest and respectful to veterans and service people to describe the US military as an obstacle to democratic aspirations, and to thank them for their efforts when they try to address this? In listening to them carefully, we may be surprised to find that they often do.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Capital: A basic review

Leaving aside for now its financial corollary, capital is money that is circulated productively in order to create more money.

For Marx, the important part about this for humanity centered on the question of where this "surplus" money -- "surplus-value" -- comes from. Capitalist economists didn't care enough, or perhaps knew well enough, not to ask this question. A century and a half later, we may note, they still aren't interested in entertaining it.

Marx arrived at the conclusion that surplus-value is directly attributable to unequal social relations; namely, an inequality of power. This inequality is present in the production of social goods, with one class endowed with private ownership rights, and another class made dependent without them: the first, owners; the second, workers. Owners have the power to decide what will be produced, while workers have the power to decide which owner is best to depend on for survival.

Owners compensate workers at the rate (socially) necessary for them to live. The difference between this value and the value at which products are sold is the surplus-value, captured by the owner. For example, an employee may work 3 hours of an 8-hour shift to produce the value necessary for him to live, but another 5 hours of time that is uncompensated, for the enrichment of his boss.

As an economic phenomenon, capital implies this inequality of social power between the people who own and the people who work. (Between them we may add an intermediary strata of people who manage -- workers who enforce the discipline of owners.) Under capitalism, it is this fundamental inequality that forms the basis for all wealth-creation. Remember this when the politicians appeal to you on the grounds of economic growth!

When we talk about "capital," we must be sure to bear all of this in mind. It is not as much about money as it is about the inequality between two classes of people, an inequality that is perpetuated through the pursuit of surplus-value.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The "then" commandments


Almost 60 percent of Israel's estimated 100,000 ultra-Orthodox men of working age don't have jobs. They have prompted Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to assert that the haredim, as they are called in Hebrew, may impede Israel's prosperity. The low rate of employment is putting pressure on the economy in a way that is "not sustainable," Fischer told reporters in Jerusalem in July. About 50,000 ultra-Orthodox men who study full-time are also exempted from service in the military, which means they don't participate in an institution that has driven Israel's technology boom and helped transform its economy.

Imagine a Jewish state at odds with practicing Jews! Those most dedicated to holy practice are recast in the light of capitalism's needs: they "give a small amount but get a lot."

What self-respecting Jew "studies full-time" without consideration for the "institution that has driven Israel's technology boom and helped transform its economy?" Doesn't he know that the New Jew™ studies Microsoft Office, not the Torah?

Just as the modern woman must observe her feminism within cubicle -- or factory -- walls, the modern Israeli sports his best Jew by putting aside religion when his god announces itself amongst the flames of "prosperity."

Monday, November 08, 2010

Korean liberalism

Wall Street Journal:

To keep growing, economists here and abroad believe, [South Korea] will have to make fundamental changes to its hierarchical, male-dominated society -- not only bringing more women into the workplace, but also encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, promoting by merit rather than seniority and opening the door to immigrants.
Part of the reason the government's heavy-handed role in the economy is accepted is because it's in line with Korean society's Confucian-rooted belief in the power of hierarchies. That same belief spills over to everyday work. South Koreans routinely defer to people older than themselves, a habit that preserves order but chills interaction and suppresses new ideas.

And the hierarchical tradition is further complicated by the power it assigns to men over women. Until the 1990s, Korean textbooks preached that women should stay at home. Even now, women are routinely encouraged to quit work when they become pregnant. And it was only this April that a judge for the first time held a South Korean company liable in a sexual-harassment case involving a male boss and female subordinate.

Just as soon as capital hits any social obstacle, society must be rearranged to ensure its flight. That which is independent, but in the way, must be subordinated; that which is subordinated, but inadequate, must become independent.

See also femenins

Saturday, November 06, 2010

An American president

Wall Street Journal:

President Obama, in a news conference Wednesday, took responsibility for the deterioration in his administration's relationship with corporate America. Mr. Obama said he needed to "make clear to the business community, as well as to the country, that the most important thing we can do is to boost and encourage our business sector and make sure that they're hiring."

As a down payment on his effort to rebuild ties to business, Mr. Obama said he would bring a group of corporate leaders with him to Asia this week to demonstrate his commitment to multinational companies, which he often slammed during the midterm election campaign.

"The whole focus is on how are we going to open up markets so that American businesses can prosper," Mr. Obama said.

It isn't clear how far any moves by Mr. Obama or the new Congress would go in encouraging U.S. businesses to unleash the $2 trillion in capital they are holding amid uncertainty about U.S. policy and the economy.

One of the reasons I don't bash Obama reflexively on domestic issues owes to a reluctance on his part to "demonstrate his commitment to multinational companies" as "the most important thing." He is grappling with how the system works: either you do such things, or you lose; and you lose on the basis of those economic decisions you don't control, like what gets invested, what gets produced, and how it is distributed. The politician's role is to sell it to the public in a way that the business executive can't, as a national achievement. Otherwise you are smeared in the press that he owns.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Family ties


If female talent is undervalued, it should be plentiful and relatively cheap. Firms that hire more women should reap a competitive advantage. And indeed, there is evidence that one type of employer is doing just that.

Jordan Siegel of Harvard Business School reports that foreign multinationals are recruiting large numbers of educated Korean women. In South Korea, lifting the proportion of a firm’s managers who are female by ten percentage points raises its return on assets by one percentage point, Mr Siegel estimates.

South Korea is the ideal environment for gender arbitrage. The workplace may be sexist, but the education system is extremely meritocratic. Lots of brainy female graduates enter the job market each year. In time their careers are eclipsed by those of men of no greater ability. This makes them poachable. Goldman Sachs, an American investment bank, has more women than men in its office in Seoul.

Absent any critique of capitalism, the competing patriarchies in this example can be rendered into "traditional" and "progressive" forms; i.e. one is "sexism," the other "progress." Hiring more women equals "progress" as women assume greater proportions within the workforce; the Economist has made this argument many times.

Global capital investment in women because they are undervalued is regarded as a positive development when contrasted with those established relations which undervalued them in the first place -- but only as long as the capital relation escapes scrutiny. When capital breaks the bonds of local patriarchy, it is breaking a form of local authority. This authority can be socially constituted any number of ways. Capital may "liberate" Chinese girls from their families into the factory while the liberal feminists cheer, but it does so by breaking the family.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Close to me

Financial Times:

[T]he extreme polarity [of Congress] reflects the electorate itself: on Tuesday nine out of 10 African-Americans voted Democratic whereas more than six out of 10 whites voted Republican.

Those acute racial divisions are replicated by almost every demographic measure. Whether it is the old, who turned out in droves to vote Republican, or the young, who emerged only in trickles to vote Democrat, or the small towns (Republican) versus the urban centres (Democrat), Tuesday highlighted an increasingly divided US political map.

An individual's "political" profile often relates in an important way to their proximity to capital. For example, "progressives" are clustered in close physical proximity to capital centers -- what are known as cities -- whereas "conservatives" are dispersed at successive intervals between them.

Capital's ability to assert itself at a cultural level varies by distance. City life is the embodiment of capital's "liberating influence," freeing up the individual for work -- the primary criteria by which she is judged. Social minorities, for example, whose persecution at first owed to that fixed quality making them "minor," discovered in capital a welcome indifference.

It is the same quasi self-sufficiency of rural communities in general that permits a measure of cultural independence from capital, e.g. the form we know as "social conservatism." This is a rebellion and reaction to capital which arises out those hierarchies not yet vanquished by it (or other means), as in the case of "small town"-style homophobia.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Fast friends

Wall Street Journal:

Executives at the Business Roundtable, a group made up of the chief executives of the nation's biggest corporations, have scoured the public utterances of every Republican candidate to determine their stance on the group's priorities: corporate tax cuts, rollbacks of environmental and some financial-markets regulations, and free trade.

But the group came up mostly empty. "Many candidates have not articulated their business stance at the level we're interested in," said Roundtable Executive Director Johanna Schneider. "Relationship building is going to be a big job."

As BDR documents, the rightward populism of the US working class is championed by all of three personalities within the US ruling class. The rest of the ruling class, including those executives at the Business Roundtable, may appreciate the rightward tilt, but their publications record hostility toward populism in any form. Left or right, politicians must be "experienced" enough to understand how the system works -- and that's not going to happen insofar as closer-to-average Americans suddenly achieve public office. So relationship building is going to be a big job!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


Financial Times:

Stock markets tend to prize political gridlock, believing fewer new regulations will emerge and less government deficit spending will keep borrowing rates low. A study by Fidelity Investments found that large-cap stocks saw average price gains of 23 per cent during the four periods of gridlock -- a split in party control of the White House and both houses of Congress -- since 1970.

Some of those gains will already be priced in, however, in part because gridlock to some degree has been the rule in Washington since Democrats lost their 60th vote in the Senate. Only a surprise Republican seizure of the Senate could be a near-term catalyst for further gridlock-led gains.

If someone were to approach me today and ask if I voted, I could only tell them "I hope so," because I think it is important to vote everyday on the things you care about most. Whether we supplement this activity by endorsing one or another faction of the ruling class under particular circumstances isn't as important to me as the primary activity of our lives, which I hope would be organized around independent aims.

What is called "voting" for civic purposes is just a specific kind of voting. It's not a very good one. Sometimes you can make an argument that it is important. But, again, if you can sometimes make an argument that electoral voting is important, you can always make the argument that "voting everyday" is critically important.

Voting everyday, by being true to yourself as much as possible, is not an easy thing to do, society being what it is. We are very sensitive to the requirements of daily life, yet most of us have little control over how they are met. This immediately makes us dependent on somebody else for survival: either private property owners or the state. At this point in history, we spend our lives working for the benefit of one or the other, while "what is true" about ourselves is deferred indefinitely.

What I observe, even amongst those who benefit materially in return, is tremendous psychological strain. Mental health issues feature prominently at each stage of human development within this country. Part of that must come from the social emphasis placed on participating in processes, like politics or work, that ultimately leave the individual person with less control over their lives, by the very act of participating.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Protest and promotion on the Mall

Not much for television myself, I don't know how Jon Stewart normally spends his time. But if his rally was any indication, he markets himself as a reaction against the mainstream cable news model. This format is sensational and alarmist; and although it attracts a certain audience normally and a broader one at the drop of a "crisis," many people don't like it. Stewart and the Comedy Central team have established their brand by acknowledging this fact.

This is all happening within the marketplace, and in some ways it is kind of cool: one business model thrives by challenging what is inadequate about the other. But that's about it. If you like Jon Stewart, you can watch him to find out what is wrong with his competitors -- and there's plenty wrong, so this can be fun -- or you can bear witness to the "hypocrisy" of the political class; for example, as when they are "caught" saying contradictory things to different audiences. The Daily Show exists to make of routine business and politics a kind of entertainment.

In this respect, the "Rally to Restore Sanity" was a savvy way to promote the show in the guise of a traditional political rally on the National Mall. Considering how few outlets there are for political participation by the working class, we can expect some tension between the organizers and the attendees of any such event. The average person probably does not attend a "rally on the Mall" expecting the political equivalent of a "concert in the afternoon"; although I admit to some uncertainty about which they would prefer.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rally to restore conformity

Tomorrow sanity will be restored for those of us who are too busy to participate in our own lives. Political moderates of every stripe, having achieved temperance through a life at work, will come together for an afternoon of entertainment, and "not being crazy." Finally: an affirmation of what is normal!

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Karl Marx, Capital Volume 2:

The development of civilization and industry in general has always shown itself so active in the destruction of forests that everything that has been done for their conservation and production is completely insignificant in comparison.

One of the fun things about Marx is that his method doesn't translate very well for people desirous of simple conclusions about what he says. What conclusion do we draw from this passage? That civilization is bad? That conserving forests is good? That civilization is necessary -- and so forests must be destroyed as the ends justify the means?

To the extent that Marx draws conclusions about history, he appears to restrict the criteria for doing so to the requirements of people's material needs, and how these requirements exert themselves within different relationships. A civilization which can't help but destroy its forests presents us with certain implications, not others; just as a civilization which can't help but destroy any other means of life, or which transforms its essential character, does the same.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tricks and treats

Lenore Skenazy, Wall Street Journal:

Even when I was a kid, back in the "Bewitched" and "Brady Bunch" costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger's Halloween candy.

Joel Best has his argument; the National Confectioners Association has theirs.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When the rulers are more "progressive" than the ruled

I was watching an old Champsky bit and came across two sentences that I found very helpful.  Champsky remarked that Democrats were aligned with big business, whereas Republicans represent the business community generally.

To my mind, this explains whatever cultural differences exist between them, with corporate America assuming the "liberal" internationalist position, and domestically-oriented industries and small business free to take up more conservative and "nationalist" causes.

At one time, the Democratic Party reflected a collusion between big business and big labor.  But as labor was gradually broken by business, the Democrats fell more completely under the sway of corporate prerogatives.

As we analyze the conflicts between the corporate mainstream and the smaller, domestic business factions of the ruling class, we want to look at what each actor needs to accomplish economically, and then understand how this is expressed ideologically for public consumption.

For example, the long-standing American openness to foreign labor, just like the long-standing American hostility to foreign immigrants, has always reflected the needs of an industrial ruling class, and bitter competition amongst the working class, respectively.  Ideologically, the ruling class has always portrayed this as a benevolent feature of US society, without emphasizing that it coincides with ruling class aims.

Today, "openness" is articulated as the "civilized" position to take on Mexican immigration within mainstream corporate culture and among the liberal professionals who champion its perspective.  Conversely, lower tier workers whose industries are negatively impacted by the corporate deployment of an "industrial reserve army" from Mexico, to use Marx's phrase, exhibit their resentment toward immigrants in all the usual ways.  Their bigotry may be real, but it stems from an economic source.

Comparatively, the mainstream of ruling class opinion may be viewed as "more progressive" than its smaller, weaker rivals.  It is power that is progressive, because power can afford to be.

This is important to think about.  Should we align ourselves with what is "more progressive" about somebody else's rules, or engage the bigotry of our class in order to devise our own?

Monday, October 25, 2010

A tiger by the tail

Financial Times:

“Let’s face it. [Big business] is not a group that hates government,” says [Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute]. “Government at its best, as far as they are concerned, is a partner. Because this is a populist movement, anti-government means also being sceptical of government investments in education, which business needs.”

Here again the ruling class is ensnared in its own popular rhetoric, which is anti-government.  Decades of anti-government sentiment have convinced many in the lower tier of the working class that government is their problem, so let's vote Republican for less government.  If that amounts to nothing, let's vote libertarian for less government!  Now the business community is beside itself that electoral success has come at the price of class consciousness: the rulers want more government for themselves, and less for everyone else.  But the Tea Party-types are still sincere; they have yet to discover the betrayal embedded in their world view.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A path between houses

Mikhail Goldman, via Feminisnt:

The adoption of activism as a lifestyle rather than a medium for bringing about social change serves to alienate those who do not identify with its idiosyncratic culture. The unspoken rules of what hairstyles, clothing, diet and lifestyle choices are and aren’t acceptable in the activist ghetto are major barriers to those who are interested in the same revolutionary aims but don’t share the lifestyle.

This results in a limbo situation for such people who cannot fit in. Most end up giving up on a scene that they feel they can never be fully part of.
Aside from the obvious cultural bias in activist circles towards whiteness, the disproportionate dominance of student politics (as well as those who have come through the university system) means that those from working class backgrounds often feel a similar alienation from activism. The intellectuals of the movement love to communicate in lengthy theses on this or that particular issue, often lacking direct connections to those on the front line.

Walking into a subculture is kind of like walking into somebody's home. It tells us something about who someone is at a particular point in their life. It might represent who they are or who they are trying to be. You're not going to know much about it unless you spend some time there, because it's not your home. When you are in someone else's home you try to be respectful.

A home is fundamentally an enclosure from what is happening outside. Some people have wonderful homes that you never want to leave. But if we want to engage with the world outside, eventually we are going to have to leave the house.

It is revealing to me how often I can be critical of other people's homes while very rarely leaving my own. I really like my home. And have you seen what is going on outside lately? F that!

We can't expect that other people are going to rearrange their furniture on the basis of our preferences. However, it is important to try to make other people comfortable in our home, particularly if we want them to stay; and to visit others from time to time, if we want to know who they are.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Direct action gets the goods

Guy Sorman, Wall Street Journal:

The French have a long tradition of taking to the streets as an irrational answer to economic reforms.

Marx makes a point in Vol. 1 about "capitalists" that is very considerate. He says they aren't good or bad people, but "capital personified" -- agents of capital. Capital, value in motion, has its own internal logic that plays itself out regardless of whether you are Montgomery Burns or Mark Zuckerberg. Whether noble or sinister, the intentions we bring to private enterprise will always be disciplined by capital. We often see this expressed as the stress and frustration brought on by those who think that they, not capital, is in charge.

The international economy reflects the trajectory of capital's logic. This is why when you listen to mainstream economists, they never shut up about very boring things like growth and demand. They never mention whether everyone can eat -- for example, kids. Whether kids have enough food to eat seems like an interesting topic for human beings, broadly within the scope of "economics." But that doesn't really enter into mainstream economics as a primary concern; and the reason it's not a primary concern is because the functionality of kids being fed is kind of variable from the perspective of capital. If kids are dying left and right, that can create social disruption which capital doesn't like. On the other hand, if kids are vulnerable, that can create an incentive for parents to work harder and make fewer demands, which in turn accelerates the capital process. An economist who works as an agent of capital would merely call this "increased productivity," and see it as a good thing.

Most of what's happening today on a global level comes down to communities being disciplined by capital. This is what the author means at the end of the article, when he says: "The best and the brightest now want to become entrepreneurs, not top bureaucrats. Such an evolution was not desired by political leaders but instead has been forced on French society through the liberating influence of globalization and the European Union." It used to be that people were interested in democratic governance, but now they want to become capitalists; not because this was their first preference but because capital is imposing an ultimatum by force -- a "liberating influence" in his words.

Different communities are reacting in different ways. As we know, the French have a long tradition of taking to the streets as an answer to economic reforms. What happens when you take to the streets -- when you strike and shut things down -- is you stop the necessary movement of capital. Capital always has to be moving in an expansionary way, and if you stop that motion, it can't produce value. The ruling class, acting as an agent of capital, then loses its base of economic power. This is the most direct way to undermine ruling class power, even to eliminate it, theoretically. It's an effective tool. And that's why the French working class can retire at 60, take over a month of vacation, and have all kinds of other things that working class people who do nothing, or who only vote, can't have.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Love thy neighbor

There are two classes within society: a ruling class and a working class.

Whether it is in the workplace, the financial exchanges, Congress or the executive, we know the ruling class by the fact that it rules. It makes the central decisions which affect society.

We can identify the working class -- those who do the necessary work of society -- as everyone else. Strictly speaking, this class does not "rule"; it works. And the work it does comes in the form of assignments from a boss of one variety or another.

In order to perpetuate the inequity between ruler and ruled, the ruling class must solicit support from the working class. Part of the way the ruling class does this is to legitimate its own position vis-a-vis what is deemed undesirable about the working class. Racism, for example, aims to make people of color an "undesirable" component of the working class, which is then bemoaned by the rest of society: the basic division within society is obscured by one manufactured by its rulers.

One way or another, the ruling class exploits a prejudice against the working class, thus drawing key parts of the working class to its side. If you watch the local news, or read your daily paper, you will be well informed on what is wrong with working class people like you. However, what you will soon learn are the many ways in which you might free yourself of people like yourself, by choosing to identify with people who are unlike yourself! This is accomplished by taking part in "national politics" -- by aligning yourself with one part of the ruling class versus another. Now you don't have to be like you; you can be like them!

"Left" and "right" are parliamentary positions; they are horizontal locations on a vertical axis. At the upper pole of this axis we find the ruling class; at the lower, the working class. Both poles occupy terrain encompassing "left" and "right," whether ruling or working class.

What happens at the upper pole between "left" and "right" is significant because it happens internal to the class which rules -- and this affects everybody. What happens at the lower pole between "left" and "right" is immaterial because it happens internal to the class which works: working class people may bicker with one another, but continue working (or not working) as assigned. A faction of the working class becomes material only in concert with a faction of the ruling class; otherwise it is has as much force as an opinion.

Struggle always occurs between classes, thanks to the fact that one rules while the other is ruled. But the shape that class struggle takes depends on the relative cohesion of the working class. A working class that is fragmented into alliances with the ruling class will pursue class conflict down a dead-end street: it is the ruling class, at the end of the day, which rules. It doesn't matter who is elected to office when it comes to class problems.

We can observe class struggle anywhere we like, whether it assumes a shape from the "left" or from the "right." But as long as division prevails at the lower pole of social power, the ruling class will continue to rule.

How the ruling class behaves can be influenced by cohesion within the working class, i.e. when it disobeys the rules. An identification with power can be replaced with an identification with oneself and with people like oneself, even in the face of immaterial differences, as when your neighbor believes in Martians while you don't. Ruling class-sponsored paranoia that the Martianists will win elections and impose their Martian ways can be allayed by observing the material conflict between a ruling class and a working class in which Martians, one way or the other, really have no purchase. You don't have to freak out about it.

The surest way to disobey every rule, and the ruling class which creates them, is to love our neighbors as ourselves, without regard for very much else. People who can sympathize with one another on the basis that they are ruled, rather than condemn each other for their mistakes or differences, are the people best suited to challenge those rules not of their own making.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Company towns


[M]any other [company] towns were monuments to the Utopian spirit. Benevolent bosses such as Milton Hershey, a chocolate king, and Henry Kaiser, a shipping magnate, went out of their way to provide their workers not just with decent houses but with schools, libraries and hospitals. This Utopian impulse inevitably went hand-in-hand with benevolent bossiness. Hershey served as his town’s mayor, constable and fire chief and employed a squad of “moral police” to spy on the workers.

"Those who write so effusively about the 'Beauties of Factory Life' tell us that we are indeed happy creatures, and how truly grateful and humbly submissive we should be. Can it be that any of us are so stupified as not to realize the exalted station and truly delightful influences which we enjoy? ... Pianos, teachers of music, evening schools, lectures, libraries and all these sorts of advantages are ... enjoyed by the operatives. (Query -- when do they find time for all or any of these? When exhausted nature demands repose?) Very pretty picture that to write about; but we who work in the factory know the sober reality to be quite another thing altogether."

-- Juliana, Voice of Industry, June 12, 1846

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hearts and minds of the working class


[The Tea Party platform] may sound like a corporate dream come true -- as long as the corporation in question doesn't have international operations, rely on immigrant labor, see the value of national monetary policy, or find itself in need of a subsidy to boost exports or an emergency loan from the Fed to survive the worst recession in seven decades.
"The business community writ large is the essence of the inside-the-Beltway type," says lobbyist Rich Gold, who represents Dow Chemical, NextEra Energy, and other energy companies. "And these [Tea Party] people are the essence of the outside-the-Beltway type."

Leave it to our friend, Rich Gold, to remind us of the two classes which exist in society, irrespective of their "values": one that "petitions government for redress of grievances"; and the other, which doesn't have to!

Coping with anti-anxiety

CLR James, You Don't Play with Revolution:

It is wonderful to read what he says about the "they," what he says about idle talk, and what he says about everydayness. And he says he is not attacking anyone, abusing them, or using these words in an opprobrious sense. That is how "they" are, that is exactly how they live.

With the moment of vision you begin to see exactly what you are, you begin to know what it is you are in and what decisions you have to make. And I must say, I have been applying this, not only to ordinary existence ... I am also in the habit of applying the moment of vision -- the drifting along with everybody else and then the moment of vision and discovery of the authentic "there" -- to a national unit.

I find that I can apply it as a historical method. I am not going to attempt to prove it. The only thing that proves a theoretical method is what you get from it. And if, ultimately, I use this method and get a certain amount of clarification of national units, etc., I use it. That's all I can say.

"The evasion of death which covers over, dominates everydayness so stubbornly that, in being-with-one-another, the "neighbors" often try to convince the "dying person" that he will escape death and soon return again to the tranquillized everydayness of his world taken care of. This "concern" has the intention of thus "comforting" the "dying person." It wants to bring him back to Da-sein by helping him to veil completely his ownmost nonrelational possibility. Thus the they makes sure of a constant tranquillization about death. But, basically, this tranquillization is not only for the "dying person," but just as much for "those who are comforting him." And even in the case of a demise, publicness is still not to be disturbed and made uneasy by the event in the carefreeness it has made sure of. Indeed, the dying of others is seen often as a social inconvenience, if not a downright tactlessness, from which publicness should be spared."

-- Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

* * *

Heidegger tells us that we need courage to live our anxiety about death. I say "live" because to feel anxious about death prompts this flight response into unfeeling. Culturally, we are numb to death; this tells us something about ourselves. Death is an elementary truth, but we can't face it.

Orienting ourselves toward death is one way to orient ourselves toward truth. But the problem in sustaining a relationship with truth is that we are thrown into an everydayness whose terms are expressed as the "they." Consequently, we have to choose our own "being-in-the-world" -- by possessing the courage to know ourselves authentically, or knowing ourselves only in the "they." For Heidegger, authenticity -- what James calls "setting a pattern toward something peculiar to oneself" -- is achieved by maintaining a tension, a lived anxiety, about the truth of one's existence.

Many of us can relate to the "they" as consumerism. And one of the interesting things, if you've ever tried to "set a pattern toward something peculiar to oneself," is how isolating it can be. Not only do you have to try to sustain this tension, but you're orienting yourself toward something that has no external reference for anyone else. People ask "what's new?" and -- well, I don't know what. What do you tell them?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Good news

bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love:

Unlike happiness, joy is a lasting state that can be sustained even when everything is not the way we want it to be.

If we look at the world long enough, we may find that everything is not the way we want it to be. As a result, many of us don't look.

If we look in a comprehensive way, what can be seen is deeply troubling. Many of us arrive at the point of seeing particular problems with clarity, only to be left with the task of communicating their relevance to others.

At this point most of us experience real frustration. This can play itself out as anger, at the world and at each other; but because anger is a difficult emotion to sustain, it often leads to apathy: it becomes too painful to try, and we withdraw from our attempts to do so.

Anger is often justified, but because it can't be sustained, it can't form the basis for moving past frustration into fulfillment -- a fulfillment that is honest about what is wrong in the world, and the work that must be undertaken in response.

bell hooks points to something that must be cultivated in spite of what we very well know to be true about the world. This is what we must be prepared to offer others, if we ever want them to fall in love with our work despite its inherent difficulty.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The modern idea

We must remember that capitalism imposes its authority and establishes a value system at the same time. Controversy erupts over "values" anytime the imposition of authority is assumed; this is why we have "culture wars": we want our values to prevail in an environment that cannot tolerate others.

But in every instance we are encouraged to formulate our ideas in ways that do not betray our economic requirements. Liberals can rail against the private sector on election day while dutifully comprising its professional tier; conservatives can endorse a populist rebellion in "defense" of capitalism only to be mocked by its ruling class. In either case, it is the practice of independence combined with the deviation from prescribed values that is absent.

It is important to understand, as Marx often emphasized, that capitalism is an authoritarian system of progressive values. It contains within it the modern idea.

The story of our world today is one in which people are responding to the authority of global capital. They are responding to the authority, and they are responding to the values that this authority imposes. Moreover, they are responding to those values in a particular way because they are being imposed.

We have to be able to look at our relationship to authority, especially dominant authority, before we can congratulate or condemn ourselves for holding particular values. A free society would let people maintain whatever values they want, so long as they are not imposed on others. Consequently we are enjoined to oppose that imposition, not "values" in and of themselves.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sprinkling away the warehouse fire

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal:

In an open economy, you will never know what is out there on the leading developmental edge of this or that industry. But the reality behind the miracles is the same: Someone innovates something useful, makes money from it, and re-innovates, or someone else trumps their innovation. Most of the time, no one notices. All it does is create jobs, wealth and well-being. But without this system running in the background, without the year-over-year progress embedded in these capitalist innovations, those trapped miners would be dead.

If only everyone who was mortally confined to their place of work had the benefit of more capitalism!

Normal, Inc.

Wall Street Journal:

Rivals for a Delaware Senate seat sparred Wednesday night in a nationally televised debate that included accusations that one candidate was an extremist and the other a Marxist.

What's the difference?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The problems of ordinary people

Gideon Rachman, Financial Times:

[T]he Republican party and the Tea Party are not synonymous. It is rightwing populists, associated with the Tea Party, such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Joe Miller in Alaska, who are making all the headlines. But the Republicans are also fielding traditional pro-business candidates, some of whom are very impressive.
The fact is America is now too complicated a place to accommodate the simple verities peddled by the Tea Partiers. You could see it, even at the Angle rally. The candidate drew cheers by railing against illegal immigration and the federal government -- and then cheerfully admitted that she has half-Mexican grandchildren and that her husband had worked for the federal government for many years.

The popular elements of any political movement often prove unpopular with the ruling class. "Many traditional, pro-business Republicans are horrified by the populism of Sarah Palin," Rachman writes: Palin is closer to her constituency in outlook than she is to the business mainstream.

The challenge for the Republican Party is to pacify that portion of its base which takes its anti-government rhetoric seriously. The Republican National Committee certainly doesn't! But the cultural apparatus funded by business is producing people who are sincere about smaller government; now some of them are winning elections.

No corporation wants smaller government; what it wants is more government for its own purposes. After all, a corporation can't go it alone! So the Tea Partiers take a hit in the press, continually, until they get on board. On vacation I watched a Jon Stewart piece where Christine O'Donnell discussed her views on masturbation; now I hear she may have "dabbled in witchcraft." This is big news! -- but only because O'Donnell is out of step with the prevailing institutions, and consequently draws their wrath. Watch closely and you will see!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The commitments

Financial Times:

The financial demands of unfunded pension promises come as state and local governments grapple with years of falling tax revenue related to the recession.

One of the advantages to being a socialist is that you can look at a statement like this and say: "When wealth is generated first for private-profit, all other considerations become secondary!" You don't have to ask Paul Krugman about it; the diagnosis is always sound.

When the wealth-generating portion of the economy is privately controlled, the need for profit comes first. Profit is the sole basis by which anything else can even be discussed.

In politics, the language of profit does not announce itself as such, but instead appears in its ancillary forms; e.g. as "jobs," "taxes," and "entitlements." Because all of these things are derived from profits, they are commonly set against each other: if you propose taxes, you kill jobs, etc. Everything depends on the rich getting richer, because everyone is dependent on the good fortunes of our private administrators of the collective wealth.

There is a metaphor I like to use for capitalism: When the rich are doing very well, others have a chance to tread water; when the rich are treading water, all bets are off!

Monday, October 11, 2010

What are anarchist politics?

CLR James, Every Cook Can Govern:

In strict politics the great strength of the [Greek] system was that the masses of the people were paid for the political work that they did. Politics, therefore, was not the activity of your spare time, nor the activity of experts paid specially to do it. And there is no question that in the socialist society the politics, for example, of the workers’ organizations and the politics of the state will be looked upon as the Greeks looked upon it, a necessary and important part of work, a part of the working day. A simple change like that would revolutionize contemporary politics overnight.

The next time someone asks about your political views, feel free to tell them that you don't believe in politicians. Politicians, after all, are people paid to run our affairs so that we don't have to. Do you want someone else to make the rules you live by, or do you want to make those rules yourself?

Most people will prove sympathetic to this view: nobody, or very few people, think of themselves as "believing" or "having faith" in politicians to do the right thing; we think of politicians in a negative light, at least in principle.

This is a very easy way to explain anarchism, without getting into a complicated conversation about government. Government can mean "the state," a hierarchy of rule-making, rule-enforcing administrators; but for many people government simply means some form of necessary social organization -- in which case anarchism endorses a non-hierarchical form.

Getting rid of politicians, and doing the necessary work of society ourselves, as opposed to the unnecessary work of making wealthy interests more wealthy, is a straightforward way of explaining what "anarchist governance" would look like.

To paraphrase the syndicalist Rudolf Rocker, anarchism is the popular administration of things, not the unpopular rule over people.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

30 Rock

I watch 30 Rock and note that Tina Fey is liberal while her boss, Alec Baldwin, is conservative; yet they work in the same occupation and spend most of their lives contributing to the same thing. Whatever their ideals, they conform to those values which secure their livelihood.

And this is very much to comedic effect, with both characters frustrated in their attempts to assert themselves within a corporate bureaucracy. Tina Fey's humor is based around the idea that being a successful woman invites repeated failure, especially when you try to do the right thing. Alec Baldwin's character, who fashions himself at the vanguard of capitalism, can prove equally out of step with its objective requirements.

The significance attached to political identity is interesting. As colleagues, they cooperate toward a shared goal that is not their own; in exchange, they earn an income. Yet much is made of the fact that one is Republican -- this is bad -- while the other is not.

This suggests that how one votes is of particular importance while at the same time acknowledging that most of us spend our lives comically failing at what we choose. Why should it matter how we vote if our daily choices amount to failure, as when we most strive to be ourselves?

More about dictatorships

Was Marx a totalitarian?

Friday, October 08, 2010

More on the white working class

Financial Times:

Members of the Tea Party, the burgeoning conservative movement whose membership is overwhelmingly white, feel they are losing ground to African-Americans and other minority groups, according to analysts who conducted a wide-ranging survey of the attitudes of its members.

Why would white Americans feel they are losing ground to African-Americans and other minority groups?

One answer is that African-Americans and other minority groups are enjoying improved circumstances while those of white communities remain the same.

Another answer might be that the circumstances of white communities have declined while those of African-Americans and other minorities remain the same.

Finally, it may be that the circumstances of white communities are declining while those of African-Americans and other minorities improve.

We can probably agree that the circumstances of African-Americans and other minorities are not improving, if at all, at a rate that white Americans would notice.

My own view, oft repeated, is that the circumstances of the blue collar white working class have declined at a faster rate than other groups, under corporate pressure to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator. White workers historically occupied a privileged position; globalization is eroding that privilege.

Subsequently, you get some very animated reactions, with 99% of the media focus on the reactions -- whether it takes the form of militia groups, vigilante groups, anti-tax constitutionalists, etc., at different points in time -- and almost nothing which relates what these communities are reacting to: global capital.

So we should be talking about that.

Thursday, October 07, 2010


Financial Times:

A Treasury plan to encourage investors to buy banks’ toxic assets favoured applications from the large asset managers that helped design it, a government watchdog found.

This is the kind of thing about government where you really need a dictatorship of the proletariat! You see, the state is going to "dictate" one way or the other; it does it all the time.

Marx means "government by the people," but that's something industrial capitalism won't permit, so he is assuming a power struggle, with the state dictating one way or the other. You can't just arrive at "government by the people" and expect it to be sustained in equilibrium; certainly not as long as one fragment of the community owns all productive wealth as private property.

What we see repeatedly in our so-called democracy is an uninterrupted dictatorship of wealthy interests and concerns. Policy barely budges from one administration to the next, while the average American's burden grows heavier over time.

The term "dictatorship of the proletariat" acknowledges that the state dictates, and, insofar as we have a state, what it dictates should be "designed" by the working population. But Marx did not believe in statecraft; he simply acknowledged its role within society, and anticipated the need to deal with it in a revolutionary context.

So: this is not an ongoing thing, this "worker's state," but a moment within a conflict when the "expropriators are expropriated." Revolution, in turn, is necessary to reset the natural equilibrium of society; this time with productive wealth the shared property of communities.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The poverty of partisans

Among the unitary objectives of the US ruling class, the American citizen is free to choose between "more regulation" or "less government" while furthering these ends. In either case, the outcome remains the same -- whether in foreign policy or financial reform -- with "more government" going toward elite purposes, and "less government" under popular control.

Accordingly, participation in electoral politics assumes a cultural dimension as one identifies through the state as either "left" or "right," and in doing so announces one's underlying principles: that the private sector is too powerful, or the government too centralized, respectively.

The predominant culture within the United States is a corporate culture, a reflection of the country's dominant institutions. Corporate culture is liberal to the degree that it embodies capital's progressive, expansionary character: it is a technocratic culture, disciplined by the ready expectation for change.

Liberals and "the left" form the intellectual material of this culture; by and large, they don't see it because it is "normal." Geographically, they are concentrated within the urban centers where capital is amassed; "fly-over country" is how they understand life where capital is scarce, and where expository narratives are absent: there is "nothing" there.

The culture wars are so-called because, having no purchase over anything that matters, Americans pose as partisans over the representations attached to partisanship! We vote for more regulation; we vote for less government; and we condemn in the harshest terms anyone who does the opposite! The outcome remains the same, yet we insist on our identities as partisans rather than our interests, combined, as a class.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Rank and file rebellion

By the mid-20th century, when the repose of an industrial aristocracy was being broken by the progressive mission of global capital and the welfare state, US conservatism began to find a home amongst "the people," laying the groundwork for the right-wing populism we enjoy today.

Liberalism, in its turn, without the working class, has come to mean corporate; to be "liberal" is to be culturally corporate. This is described by the left as "sanity": it is normal, and prevailing; as Jon Stewart says, we are too busy working to go to rallies! In any event, it is what we know.

Rank and file conservatives see in themselves, correctly, an underdog in the face of global capital. There is no small government that will ever come from the Republican Party, only less government for the working class. To their credit, they look with skepticism on "crony capitalism" in a way that Obama supporters, patiently awaiting the next FDR, would do well to study.

Liberals see in themselves an advocate for working people, but this suffers from their integration into corporate structures by which they benefit more than most. Their advocacy extends as far as what the Democratic National Committee will allow. They fight for a base of power within the state, from which they will do good for all -- or at least for themselves and their favored minorities, while they use the state to enforce corporate culture in rural schools and local communities that appear intransigent. They compete as voters against financial institutions in setting policy, and predictably lose every time!

"The left" would do well to acknowledge its economic position in relation to capital, and understand that most of the electoral "right" exists subordinated to it. An identification with "progressive issues" does not bear on where one stands, or what one contributes to, every day we participate in an unexamined career.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The liberal elite

Wall Street Journal:

Even Americans most likely to be winners from trade -- upper-income, well-educated professionals, whose jobs are less likely to go overseas and whose industries are often buoyed by demand from international markets -- are increasingly skeptical.

"The important change is that very well-educated and upper-income people compared to five to 10 years ago have shifted their opinion and are now expressing significant concern about the notion of ... free trade," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who helps conduct the Journal survey. Among those earning $75,000 or more, 50% now say free-trade pacts have hurt the U.S., up from 24% who said the same in 1999.

After four decades of trade agreements that put blue collar, high school educated workers out of their livelihoods, the "well-educated and upper-income" have begun to feel uneasy!

Perhaps they feel the deflation at work in the value of their degrees; a BA is the new HS diploma -- is that right? I understand a PhD hardly assures you a job, and you are treated like a serf until you obtain tenure.

As we have observed here before, absent jobs, it won't matter how much education the average American receives: degrees don't produce jobs.

Capitalism is taking away jobs. On the one hand, this is due to technology in the form of automation; on the other, "good jobs" are only however many innovations away from becoming reconstituted in a low-wage form.

One of the points I try to make to the "well-educated and upper-income" is that having four decades of something like this on your back feels different than if you're only having second thoughts about it now.

You could even make the argument that people experiencing vastly different things have very different ways of expressing themselves politically, with more distressed communities less inclined to "take it down a notch for America."