Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The penultimate solution

Heather Mac Donald, New York Times:

Allegations of racial bias, however, ignore the most important factor governing the Police Department’s operations: crime. Trends in criminal acts, not census data, drive everything that the department does, thanks to the statistics-based managerial revolution known as CompStat. Given the patterns of crime in New York, it is inevitable that stop rates will not mirror the city’s ethnic and racial breakdown.

Cops aren't racist because America isn't racist. And thanks to the statistics-based managerial revolution known as CompStat, America probably never was.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Gun rights victory may spell defeat for sales; "Freedom isn't free, and ammunition is fucking expensive"

John Jannarone, Wall Street Journal:

The more important impact of the [Supreme Court] ruling may be its signal that gun controls are unlikely to tighten anytime soon. And, surprisingly, that could have a cooling effect on firearm sales.

After all, it was the opposite concern -- a fear that President Obama would clamp down on firearms -- that many argue helped drive a recent surge in U.S. gun sales.

Take Sturm, Ruger, for example. In the entire decade preceding President Obama's election, its annual firearm sales posted no growth, holding at an average of $145 million. That jumped to $174 million in 2008 and accelerated even further to $267 million in 2009.

Granted, some of the sales spike across the industry in recent years may also have been linked to the deep recession and fear of higher crime rates. But with concerns over economic crisis and a gun clampdown now receding in the public mind, firearm sales look ripe for a fall.

What? Is nobody in the mood to celebrate their 2nd Amendment rights? Buy a gun, man! It's the only commodity that safeguards our liberty as Americans. Don't tell me you can't afford to buy one "right now." When it comes to precious freedom, how can you afford not to?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Financial regulatory reform

Financial Times:

[C]ompleting financial regulatory reform is less a final victory than an opening shot in a long struggle. Regulators will now have the authority to keep banks on a tight leash. But authority to act is not the same as action, and it will be up to regulators to wield their newly won powers. This they will only do effectively if other countries do the same, and if regulators everywhere have political backing to make enemies of the banks.

It is instructive that the United States required financial regulatory reform in order that regulators might enjoy the "authority to act." But as the Financial Times points out, such authority is contingent upon "political backing," which in a society of depoliticized consumers means some portion of the business community will have to endorse it vis-a-vis the banks.

Here we speak of the difference between the banks running the economy more or less unchallenged, and some kind of negotiation between different business sectors on what the rules will be. The public is understood to be out of the picture altogether, saddled as they are with ever-longer hours and increased costs in getting from day to day.

Glossary for the G-20 Summit: Black Bloc

Wall Street Journal:

Summits "attract a group of people who are here for these types of altercations," said John Thompson, a security expert with the nonprofit Mackenzie Institute in Toronto, which studies political instability and organized violence. "This is going to happen no matter what [police] do."

Such groups, which police have taken to calling "black bloc," for the black clothing members often wear, study police tactics to determine how to inflict the most damage without getting caught, Mr. Thompson said. Members tend to have a hodgepodge of political views and attend protests more for "a rush, a thrill" of violence, he said.

"The black bloc is a TACTIC, not a group or organization. Just like there cannot [be] the "Civil Disobedience Group," neither can the black bloc be an organization. Some people are under the mistaken impression that one can join the 'black bloc organization.' There is no standing black bloc organization between protests. There is the anarchist movement which always exists (and has been around for over a century). You can think of the black bloc as just a temporary collection of anarchists that represent a contingent in a protest march. The black bloc is a tactic, similar to civil disobedience."

Black Blocs for Dummies

Friday, June 25, 2010

Art imitates strife

Michelle Marder Kamhi, Wall Street Journal:

True, works of visual art have often protested injustice. Examples such as Picasso's "Guernica" (representing the suffering of a village bombed during the Spanish Civil War) and Goya's "Third of May" (depicting Spanish patriots facing a brutal firing squad of Napoleonic invaders) come to mind.

The author is fond of using the term "neo-Marxist" in this piece, so here is a bit of it in reply: Could there be some material basis for those works of "protest art" which "come to mind" for Wall Street Journal contributors? I mean, they don't like art that protests the effects of NAFTA by supplying would-be immigrants with sneakers and medicine? Really?

The variable humanity of employees

Vineet Nayar, Financial Times:

When you take employees seriously, show them you value their work, and make it clear that you believe the business depends on them, the strangest things take place: employees perk up, think for themselves, take responsibility, stop delegating upward, and put their heart and soul into their work as never before. This has almost immeasurably positive effects on every aspect of the enterprise.

Capitalism works on very basic rules, but we mustn't let what is straightforward about it distract us from its constant dynamism. Capital will expand into any area that it believes will yield an advantage, so it is not coincidental that today's "business visionaries" are pushing into territory traditionally neglected by the profit motive. This includes forays into "social technologies" of the sort described above.

The basic idea here is that within a context of appropriating value from people who can't live independently of the employer-employee relation, greater value may be obtained by treating people more like human beings and less like objects of utility -- because ultimately they are both. To treat people only as objects is to deny their human side, which is itself dynamic and a potential source of value.

Of course, we needn't speculate on the implications of treating people only as human beings, since this would preclude them from ever being "employees" in the first place! What remains constant for employees under capitalism is their utility; what is variable, according to the business visionary, is their humanity.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Gulf Coast, an offering


Many economists argue that government needs to step in when the private sector isn't providing the socially optimal amount of something like research. But government R&D spending on energy has been scarce, too. It was less than 0.03 percent of U.S. gross domestic product as of 2007, about one-third the share in Japan. The dearth of investment in energy R&D helps explain why the world is still getting its energy by punching holes in the sea floor rather than from safer, renewable sources such as the sun and the wind.

Note the economic admission that the government should step in when the private sector isn't providing the "socially optimal" amount of something. Naturally, the economist arrives on the scene, just in time, to help us understand the principle. But how does the economist know what is socially optimal when in every social exchange he produces nothing less a monologue? I will tell you: the economist, who enjoys all the advantages of a specialized training, commits to an intensive evaluation of his paystub and, having weighed all of the evidence, makes an impartial determination as to whether he might like another. By this method the economist conjures up a measure of what is socially optimal that is best suited to any occasion.

What we can deduce from this is that "many economists" don't work directly for large oil interests; if they did, they would know full well that what society needs is best met by extending a mechanical drill two miles beneath the sea, only to advance two more miles into earth, in search of that piece of profit which constitutes the basis of daily life. Surely, "the dearth of investment in energy R&D helps explain why the world is still getting its energy by punching holes in the sea floor" -- why, it's almost as if whoever is driving energy policy hasn't made it their priority to do otherwise!

As an inversion, capitalism might be called the greatest philanthropic endeavor ever undertaken by humankind. Never before have so many contributed so much to so few. Let it be a consolation to our children and grandchildren that everything we gave away so generously was not squandered, but made right by the approval of that possessing minority we looked up to and admired. Surely they will understand our position, as people who might have done differently before it was too late!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A quick reminder about revolution

Raúl Zibechi, Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces:

Revolution is the midwife of history. Marx's phrase sums up a conception of revolution that has been buried by the Marxists. However, Marx was always faithful to this way of looking at social change, in which the revolutionary act of giving birth to a new world is just a short step in a long process of creating that other world.

Revolution helps give birth to the new world, but it does not create it. This new world already exists in a certain stage of development and that is why, in order to continue growing, it needs to be delivered by an act of force: the revolution. I feel that what is happening within the social movements is the formation of "another world," one that is not only new but also different from the present one, based on a different logic of construction. This parallels Marx's reflections on the Paris Commune. "The workers," he said, "have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple [by decree of the people]. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant."

Allow me to dwell on "to set free," because I think it points to a pivotal element that runs through Marx's entire theory of production. For Marx, communism exists as a potential within capitalist society. He is very clear about this in the Communist Manifesto when he discusses the transition from feudalism to capitalism and emphasizes how bourgeois society was born in the bowels of the feudal society. The same, he anticipates, will happen in the transition from capitalism to communism. The new society is not a place that one arrives; it is not something to be conquered and therefore is not out there; and it is even less something implanted. The image that Marx offers us of revolutionary change is that of a latent power that lies dormant within the world of the oppressed, and grows out like a flower. This is why he uses the expression "to set free."
I maintain that the idea "to set free," and the concepts of "self-activity" and "self-organization," all derive from the same conception of the world and social change. It is one based on the idea that these processes occur naturally -- a word Marx used himself -- or, by themselves: that is, as a result of their own internal dynamics.

In this vein, I leave you with a few tips for revolution:

Don't get discouraged. You will find your purpose in circumstances as they arise. Back when the Christians were still populated by prophets, they put the expression "Don't be afraid" into their texts over 350 times, anticipating what we all need in the face of power. Keep an open mind about where you will discover meaning.

Purpose means taking yourself seriously in a way that is unlikely to be reflected in the world around you, except to your own eyes. This is the opposite of what power brings: a significance that isn't really yours. We all know what happens to people who go down that road! No: you have to be contented to see your own purpose with clarity even if nobody else can.

Purpose can be discerned by employing the following formula: You can always get more money, but you will never have more time. Time is the one thing we run out of with each passing day, even if the world carries on without comment, preoccupied as it usually is with money. Money has power in the market, but what can you buy in the market? Surely, a good deal. But nothing that will sustain you in the long term; this you have to develop for yourself. If you can feel death in your future, and in all of the relations around you, then your priorities will right themselves against distraction.

If you still don't understand your purpose, you will have to reflect on those areas of your life that make you distressed. They are relationships, they are obligations, they are expectations that aren't correctly aligned with what will sustain you, which is your purpose.

I write about revolution in a personal way because I agree with C.L.R. James, who said that first you develop the individual, then you create the culture. You are the individual, not me -- I have my own problems! We do this for ourselves; nobody does it for us.

We always begin where we are, so take your situation seriously! Bolivian peasants know how to do this, but affluent, middle-class Americans think they have nothing to offer! You really have to start fucking shit up in your own way -- you know what your capabilities are, now honor them even if no one else will. The life you want will never be earned as long as your effort goes toward a purpose you can't respect.

Have your own theme songs, and let their beauty come from valor in your life.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

China's currency appreciates -- but not enough!

Financial Times:

In truth, many of the business lobbyists wanting action from Beijing are less concerned about the currency than a plethora of other issues they say prevent them from competing fairly in the Chinese market, such as restraints on foreign direct investment and government procurement policies that are skewed towards Chinese concerns. The out-and-out currency lobby tends to be a relatively small subset of American industry, concentrated in sectors such as steel and other manufacturing that compete directly with Chinese imports.

"Many of the business lobbyists wanting action from Bejing" represent financial, not industrial, concerns -- a reflection of the US economic landscape generally.  The "out-and-out currency lobby tends to be a relatively small subset of American industry" in consequence, because manufacturing is a relatively small subset of American industry.

Paradoxically, it is the supremacy of the US financial sector that has turned China's exchange-rate policy into a political flashpoint.  Wall Street moved US manufacturing overseas in search of better returns, and that portion of the public who now work in retail never forgave them for it.  Naturally, this finds political expression in hostility toward places like China, with "currency appreciation" being the ultimatum that least offends everyone: US manufacturers because they gain from it; investors because it is secondary to other concerns; the Chinese because it forms part of their long-term plan anyway; and the US electorate because they want to hear tough talk on China relating to trade, whatever it is.

The irony, of course, is that currency appreciation isn't going to stop US jobs from moving to China.  If Americans wanted to keep jobs in the United States they wouldn't allow them to be moved to other countries in the first place.  But because nobody becomes a politician by arguing in favor of capital controls, hollering about undervalued currencies is the closest thing to keeping everyone happy.  The shock registered by Washington in the wake of China's announcement was telling in itself: what will they scream about now?

Monday, June 21, 2010

When it comes to understanding the Middle East, I too am guilty

Shelby Steele, Wall Street Journal:

[W]e ignore that the Palestinians -- and for that matter much of the Middle East -- are driven to militancy and war not by legitimate complaints against Israel or the West but by an internalized sense of inferiority.

I'll be the first to admit my own culpability in ignoring this point. But, in my defense, that's only because I find it very unpersuasive!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Old men in the sea

Robert Skidelsky, Financial Times:

Politicians clamouring for cuts in public spending do not cite Chicago University economists. They talk about the need to restore “confidence in the markets”. The argument here is that deficits do positive harm by destroying business confidence. This collapse of confidence may come in several forms -- fear of higher taxes, fear of default, fear of inflation. Deficits thus delay the natural (and rapid) recovery of the economy. If markets have come to the view that deficits are harmful, they must be appeased, even if they are wrong. What market participants believe to be the case becomes the case, not because their beliefs are true, but because they act on their beliefs, true or false.

Any society that has contented itself to depend on business surely won't want to lose its confidence! Why, we do positive harm to ourselves by appearing as anything other than the most viable conduit through which money may be converted into its maximum yield. And these are the political arguments made by people who, unlike investors, will eventually face an electorate! The political class is more afraid of organized capital than an unorganized public, for the simple reason that organization confers power. This tells us what we need to know about "representative democracy," insofar as one class gets represented to the exclusion of all others!

Old man Skidelsky is very good to summarize the arguments presently in vogue. For example: it doesn't matter whether investor perceptions are correct, only that they have them. Markets "must be appeased, even if they are wrong." Because, when you get down to it, human history is the story of appeasing those who must be appeased, even if they are wrong. To depart from that narrative would be utopian!

Naturally, Skidelsky's hero in all of this is John Maynard Keynes, the economic technocrat who, in my uninformed opinion, was a narrowly intelligent dude who was also a product of his socialist-influenced times. Skidelsky likes him because the combined effect was to produce someone who was a not complete moron, who "stood out against the herd." Without even reading the remainder, one can conclude that what the world needs now are more John Maynard Keyneses coming out of elite institutions and entering into public life -- just like we need more FDRs and a replacement Obama.

Liberalism's problem is that it attributes past successes to whatever elite personalities attended them, rather than to whatever it was ordinary people were doing to bring those successes about -- in fact, the only way liberalism has ever worked, at least to the degree that people still think positive things about it. People were doing shit in the 1930's that contested the relationship between society and investors, and this led to that period of prosperity which made the American "middle class" a reality. It wasn't because FDR had a magical personality, so all we have to do is help Obama find his inner FDR and he will summon the moral resolve to take on the people who own the country!

I repeat this complaint so often in response to all that liberalism has to offer, and insofar as the overtures are unending, as if Paul Krugman were life coach to the president. There is no technocratic solution to the fact that investors want limitless returns and society wants progress, just as there will be no "negotiation" between organized investors with concentrated resources and unorganized consumers whose commitments are diffuse: those with power must be appeased, even if they are wrong. If that is a principle worth objecting to, then people, not presidents, will have to register the dissent on their own terms.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Prospects, great and small

"I don't want to make too much of this comparison because it's not the Great Depression, but it's almost like a Joe Kennedy environment. He made all of his money during the Great Depression. If you have money, you can make a lot of money. And if you don't, it's going to be so much more expensive to be poor in this country."

Meredith Whitney

Disaster capitalism

Financial Times:

Legislators accused BP of putting profit before safety ...

I am 100% in favor of accusing anyone of putting profit before other considerations; and that is why I rarely accuse anyone, specifically, of doing it: Everybody does it all the time. It's just called "innovation" when the catastrophe unfolds on somebody else's watch.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Regarding jobs, the Cold War, and that chick from the Atlantic Monthly

Financial Times:

Mr Obama inevitably antagonised opposition Republicans by devoting almost half the speech to a clean energy future. As it progressed, Republican e-mails arrived with metronomic efficiency accusing the president of exploiting the emergency to impose a “jobs killing” national energy tax on America.

Always read "jobs" as "profits." You will notice that politicians and industry leaders never say "We need more profits!" -- even though that is the explicit purpose of our entire economic system. You'd think they would mention it, since jobs and public revenue and innovation and philanthropy and a better world for all are presumably contingent upon it. If wealthy people aren't adequately positioned to get a lot more wealthy at any given moment, then starving people will starve even worse! That's the moral force behind what we in these here United States call "freedom."

Jobs presuppose profits. This is because profit-making entities are the chosen vehicle for creating jobs. If they don't make profits, we don't get jobs! This leaves us with a lasting incentive to ensure that they make profits, even if we have to tie a noose around the global esophagus and set the world a-swinging to do it. We don't care. We need jobs!

This raises the question of whether the government can create jobs. Like any question of public policy, the answer depends on the effect that such "intervention in their economy" will have on those entities dedicated to ever-increasing profit. Any government action that contributes to or facilitates the procurement of profit is deemed "government by the people"; anything that doesn't is communism. If you never really got what the whole Cold War thing was about, now you do. Our relationship with China bears this logic out nicely: the country is nominally communist, yet integrated into the profit economy. So we overlook our differences on secondary concerns like human rights and political freedom; "economic freedom" comes first!

Around the time of Obama's economic stimulus, there was a sprinkling of apoplexy about how sponsoring public projects that both employ people and fulfill some useful purpose was by some economic classification not real work. Megan McWhatsherface, distinguished personality at The Atlantic Monthly, tried to explain to Dean Baker that if the government makes jobs, they're not real jobs; they're "make work" jobs, by definition. (Dean Baker mostly felt bad for her in response; what does it a profit a woman to gain a career if she comes off like an ass?)

This brings us back to Marx's observation of what "productivity" means under capitalism: it means making somebody else a shitload of money! Failing that, it is technically impossible to be productive; after all, you are doing work that could be making somebody else a shitload of money, and yet you are not. If the whole point is to make somebody else a shitload of money, then we desperately need as few examples to the contrary as possible, or else people might get the wrong idea.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Women at work

I Blame The Patriarchy:

[T]here are no notoriously female industries, only dude industries that are notorious for exploiting a female workforce.

Perhaps you've heard of the "Mancession"? It's when the economy contracts and women "benefit" by having cheaper bodies, thereby "achieving" gender supremacy in the workforce! The Economist had a whole issue about it, with Rosie the Riveter on the cover saying "We did it!" I shit you not.

The life you want will never be earned


BW: You say public sector unions are bankrupting the country. Are you prepared to go to war with the labor movement?

[American Enterprise Institute President] Arthur C. Brooks: All you have to do is look at the unfunded pension liabilities and the disparity of benefits that accrue to public sector employees compared to the private sector. The disparity is so large and so unfair, a day of reckoning is coming.

"Unfairness" is a brilliant way of characterizing "the disparity of benefits that accrue to public sector employees compared to the private sector," especially when the point you want to make about "benefits" is that no one should expect to have them; benefits are something you earn by appealing to employers, who decide on their own terms, as vehicles of profit, what you "deserve." Benefits, in other words, are standardized on the basis of institutional, not human, expectations; which is just another way of saying they favor the form of increased profit for executives and investors.

The trend we observe worldwide is that those institutions that control wealth and compete on the basis of profit have decided that what "you deserve" is just as little as you will accept without becoming disruptive alongside your peers. But because this threshold is variable, not fixed, think tanks like AEI devote lots of resources to shaping the attitudes of the general public on these issues; namely, that people whose compensation stems from their power vis-a-vis employers must be brought to the same degree of dependence and insecurity as everyone else, rather than seen as role models to be followed.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

All I need to know I learned from never trusting economists

Wall Street Journal:

Spain has been scrambling in recent weeks to convince markets that it can repair both its ballooning deficit and its troubled banking sector. Spain's Socialist government plans on Wednesday to begin pushing through a controversial labor-market overhaul that seeks to address a problem that many economists say is at the heart of Europe's economic malaise: rigid labor markets that dissuade companies from investing.
Many economists argue that the only way for such countries to rebound is for governments to unshackle their heavily regulated economies by making it easier for businesses to operate.

Spain "as a whole needs to become more competitive, and the labor market is one of its least competitive parts," said Fernando Fernandez, an economist and professor at Madrid's IE Business School.

The country has a two-tier labor market similar to those in France and Germany. One level typically includes older, skilled workers in jobs that pay well and are protected. The second consists of younger workers who earn less and can be easily dismissed. Critics say this system has resulted in high youth unemployment and argue that deregulating the first tier would lead to the creation of more and better jobs.

Insofar as economics is the art of delivering bad news to the public in the sunny dialect of investors, we may extrapolate from "jobs that pay well and are protected" to "the creation of more and better jobs" everything we need to know.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chinese prosperity, in a word

Wall Street Journal:

The share of national income going to Chinese households has been declining for a decade, meaning the benefits of China's growth have gone mainly to corporations and the government.


The principle of captive obligation

Financial Times:

Over the past four quarters, non-farm productivity in America had its sixth biggest jump since records began in the 1940s. That’s good, right? It certainly is if you are an employer. More output per paid hours of work equals better returns. But for poor old employees it might simply mean less help and more sweat. Of course, economists have long known that productivity growth ultimately lifts everyone’s prosperity.
Higher productivity can be distributed to shareholders, customers through lower prices, or paid to workers. But if the economy picks up, higher profits will likely be spent on hiring new bodies, rather than paying more to overworked current staff. That will please the politicians at least, and eventually everyone wins. But US workers should not expect a pay rise anytime soon.

There is a simple principle I would like to share with you which might measure the spirit of working life today; it is what I like to call the principle of captive obligation.

The idea is eminently useful for anyone who works, and who, in working, inevitably encounters that deep, wide stream of human discontentment, nourished as it is by the most delicate assortment of neurotic tributaries.

People, by and large, are not happy. The point is inescapable to anyone who listens to people talk when they are at work. But because consumer culture, including the "culture of career" which is passed off as its harmonic counterpoint, always occludes its role as arbiter in that circuit of relations known as capital, we are forced to face our situations critically if there is ever to be any hope of understanding them.

A principle of captive obligation restates the idea that obligation favors the more powerful side in any relationship. Of course, the idea is not novel, but it needs to be restated until it is understood.

Today a coworker explained that the collective bargaining contract we work under was not being observed by management -- an all too common refrain of late, a la "The Great Recession." Meanwhile, a manager explained that her increasingly "informal" work schedule was conflicting with those parental expectations already established with her kids. Whether merely employed by capital or acting as its agents, the "have nots" bear their own personalized burdens, experienced as they are through a customized fear and aloneness.

In any relationship where power does not rest balanced but pulls inexorably to one side, so obligation goes with it, in a singular direction. Just as gravity cannot be overcome without an equalization between contending forces, power pulls to the lowest point between unequals, absent any countervailing force.

It is instructive that amongst human relationships, the principle of captive obligation which exists between employers and employees is increasingly rejected out of hand as abominable in nearly every other form of social intercourse. Only in the most "abusive" relationships can we discover the principle at work, articulated as a woman's increasing obligation to her husband, for example, with successive and decreasing obligation by the husband toward his spouse, as the relationship grows. This is the logic of the capital relation as we must come to understand it; and it is always portrayed as an opportunity, not an abuse.

As you go about your workaday existence, much comfort may you derive from the simple principle that we are obligated to them, but they are not obligated to us! and the understanding that this principle supplies: In order to stop the abuse, one must always confront the relation.

Friday, June 11, 2010

iPhones may cause premature death in people making iPhones


Terry Gou says he has no idea why so many of his employees are killing themselves. Gou is the founder and chairman of Foxconn, the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer -- the maker of iPhones and iPads for Apple, computers for Dell, and countless other devices for well-known high-tech customers around the world. So far this year, 10 Foxconn workers have committed suicide. "From a logical, scientific standpoint, I don't have a grasp on that," Gou told reporters on May 27 at a press conference at the company's vast production facility in Shenzhen, China. "No matter how you force me, I don't know."
Meanwhile, work goes on in Shenzhen. Foxconn's facility is three square kilometers (1.16 square miles) and is crisscrossed by tree-lined streets with a fountain at the center. There's a hospital and a collection of restaurants. Workers live in dormitories, eight to ten people to a room. The company provides worker counseling, according to supervisor Geng Yubin. "For many of the young people who are here, this is the first time they've been away from home," Geng says. "Without their families, they're left without direction. We try to provide them with direction and help."

Terry Gou knows life is too short to sweat the small stuff, so he hires kids to do it for him! Keeping a positive attitude all depends on your perspective.

As we all know, children the world over abandon their families in search of opportunities which might contribute to the survival of either. As much as the beneficiaries of global capitalism stress the progressive tendency of the "liberated child" and her historic role in regional development, sometimes kids miss their families!

Nicholas Kristof, who is paid to write that "poor countries need to harness the female halves of their population .... and [give] young women the autonomy to enter the formal labor force" is a noted exponent of the "benevolent investor" view, which substitutes the patriarchy of rural life for the patriarchy of the industrial compound -- while taking special care to condemn the former! But what, I ask youze, will it take for a child, separated from her family, to see the world from the eyes of a globetrotting New York Times journalist, and finally recognize it for the "opportunity" that it is!

The exchange value we confront at the Apple Store enters into conflict with whatever inherent value is keenly felt by the contract employee, who tells BusinessWeek that "conditions at Foxconn make ... life seem meaningless." The meaning of life for this young person making iPhones, for reasons that the New York Times columnist cannot explain, does not arise spontaneously out of a desire to cheaply supply developed markets, donate to the private wealth of his employers, or live "footloose on the factory floor" with nary a parent in sight -- though the commercial journalist eagerly champions each as 1). free trade, 2). economic growth, and 3). liberation from oppressive traditions, respectively.

"Exchange value," which measures the cost of a transaction at one point in capital's circuit -- namely the market, or "point of consumption" -- fails to account for those costs borne elsewhere in the circuit, unless they are costs which bear on capital directly. In other words, a shortage of component parts for the iPhone may increase its exchange value, because more capital is required to purchase those parts. But employees committing suicide because they aren't happy needn't impose an insurmountable challenge to capital in preserving the value of exchange, because desperate workers are a dime a dozen, and the "rationalization" of production means you can swap one used body out with a fresh one at a minimal cost in processing and retraining.

One area where employee suicides will impose costs on capital is in the realm of public relations, so it comes as no surprise that Apple executives are shocked, SHOCKED, to discover unpleasantries accompanying a Chinese contractor that won its bid by "[directing] the business units that make components to sell parts at zero profit," with predictable consequences for the hourly staff working within those "non-profit" units, not to mention cost-cutting applied elsewhere in the organization to compensate for this loss.

Our relationships with commodities should be informed by more than what little we learn from the price tag.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


History records two ways of confronting popular injustice.  One is through the intervening force of some central authority; the other, by undermining injustice in a way that makes it unpopular.

For our purposes, we might compare the federal authority of the United States to the moral authority of the abolitionist movement; or we might think of the military force of Allied troops during World War II versus whatever disparate groups might have derailed Nazi aspirations had they been sufficiently organized to do so -- the German Communist Party, for example, amongst a myriad of others.  History recorded is always the history of possibilities not met.

The popular aspect of consumerism has to be acknowledged.  The fact that people form attachments to material things can't animate an indictment of consumerism, because people form attachments to material things as part and parcel of being human and existing in the world.  Consumerism merely places this consideration ahead of all others, and in doing so, deflects attention away from moral concerns that accompany it as a system.  These include questions about the investment, production, and distribution processes of commodities; not to mention what portions of human experience -- like identity "branding,"  "ghetto" culture, and women's sexuality, for example -- will be subsequently commodified.  The totalizing impulse of capital towards indefinite expansion suggests there is no realm it won't try to assimilate into itself.

Two significant contradictions within consumerism arise from its relation to the past, as well as its claims to a better future.  Because consumerism, being an advanced-stage of capitalism, can only see as far the short-term, it is undermined by larger questions about life which, paradoxically, still remain in the broad realm of "religion" given the comparable limitations of present-day science.  This is why a language of resistance to consumerism can more often be heard in the conservative church than even amongst secular progressives, whom consumerism identifies as most vulnerable in their youth.  If you want a personal model of resistance to consumerism, you have only to think of the elderly church-goer as your inspiration!

For most of us, the contradiction we might exploit relates to how we participate in consumption, as well as to what degree.  This may be less about resistance per se as it is about adding to the natural momentum of capital toward markets that it can't sustain.  The "greenwashing" and "corporate social responsibility" movements stand as truly comical attempts by capital to promote itself as the solution to its own internal logic -- and anyone can tell you just how far Beyond Petroleum we have come, now that the Gulf of Mexico will let you swim in it.  These initiatives deserve to be pushed to their natural conclusions, which should never be anything less than the public expropriation of all critical social wealth from private hands.  But this will require individuals whose commitment to social and environmental justice is not sated by green labels on the products they buy, but which demands a market in "social goods" that capital cannot provide.

Something we learn from Marx is that ideas constitute a material force in history, and those of us contributing to culture through the relatively new, relatively open networking technologies should not discount these efforts on the basis that they aren't happening at traditional sites of resistance, like the picket line or capitol steps.  While I think clickity-clacking in the comfort of one's domicile hardly constitutes a heroic act, it is an open question in my mind the degree to which it doesn't have the potential to be a more effective one as compared with marching down the street, being pummeled in some inscrutable confrontation with the state.  There is a time and a place for such things, but I don't think they can be justly described as "the weekend."

Insofar as we are a long way off from even the kind of "change" that Obama supporters hoped to see through a "renewed engagement with the political process," concepts and understanding will have to change first.  Only when conditions are favorably established can we hope to sustain a movement in the direction that we want to go, and in a way that people will actually want to be a part of.  This will mean yielding to that place where most of us already are, in order to reframe the experience.  In the context of consumerism, this means strategic participation within the patterns of consumption in order to undermine and eventually transcend them.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


Resistance to the culture of consumerism should be understood to take several forms. Depending on the country, these forms are managed by the political process, and lend to the state its ideological content.

To the extent that consumerism has assumed the mantle of a popular culture, it has done so only by displacing its rivals: the culture it succeeds, and whatever culture it precedes.

In Europe this phenomenon is more readily apparent in such parliamentary programs as those claimed by the "Christian Democrat" and "Socialist Labor" parties, but the United States observes its own way of "looking forward" and "harking back" within an oppositional arrangement meant to smooth over elite disputes.

As religion moves to the political periphery, its primacy dissolves into a duality which both challenges and complements its successor. Religion cannot compete at the level of exchange, but from the corner into which it is backed, it is not easily dislodged. Commercial secularism may command our short-term attention, but it can't inform our judgment long-term: for the commodity, there is no long-term. Consumerism thrives in the bright light of the short-term, but withers in the shadow of mortality: It cedes this ground to the priest.

That the biological process of living intrudes on the limitless conceit of consumption can be seen at play in religion's dual roles. It complements the commodity by placing capital in the pulpit, where there is preached a "gospel of prosperity"; but it undermines the commodity by referencing a life cycle whose terminus conspires to transcend it. This is where consumerism inevitably breaks its stride against insurgent traditionalism, both at home and abroad.

The other side of what has been is always anticipation for what might become! Consumerism produces an analogous contradiction in its intrinsic progressive character -- something which should give liberal and leftist-types pause. When yesterday you could fit 200 songs in your pocket, and today 1000, and tomorrow every song known to humankind, this creates a positive sense of change as it is experienced through commodity exchange.

The paradox is that people accustomed to the accelerated pace of technology will either be distracted from or incapacitated by the profound contrast in human life as it persists outside the market. Taken together, this often amounts to a "distracted outrage" amongst liberal and leftist-types, who cannot reconcile the "progress" between forms as part of a unitary process in which they participate.

Challenging consumerism from within consumerism is a particular problem not borne by the FDR-era socialists who drafted significant portions of the New Deal, so the constant overtures to Obama to "lead the way" on this point are absurd: not only is there no movement, its participants are already participating in the opposite direction -- which is to say, in every direction, their movements dictated by commodities. Why do the antiglobalization summits look like everyone shopped at the same store?

My hunch is that the upending of consumerism will have to come from some synthesis traditionalism and "modern life." Science and romanticism, as they prove useful to human needs. But this presupposes that people can come together around strategies that increase their autonomy, rather than merely advertise it. This will mean drawing on what is insurgent about tradition, while exploiting consumerism's natural bias for "progress" by pushing it into areas it does not want to go, like those which bear on the capital process itself.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Crises of consumerism:

In every society where a culture of consumerism prevails, the whole of life succumbs to that class of investors enlisted to further the aims of capital.

We begin our investigation into the circuitry of consumerism at the site of its conductivity; we begin with the commodity.

The first lesson we learn from consumerism is that we want the commodity; the second lesson is that we will have to work in order to get it. This introduces us to our first contradiction, aptly expressed in the Marxist idea of class -- the investor and the employee set at cross purposes while cooperating toward the same goal: the production of commodities.

But where the employee cooperates in order to gain greater access to the market, the investor consents only where this is accompanied by an overall reduction in costs. Otherwise, the classes are set in conflict: the employee wants more money to buy commodities; the investor wants to squeeze more money out of the process which makes commodities. Where the employee cannot ascend the hierarchy to assume a position of responsibility closer to the investor, that employee's aspirations in the market are dashed.

In order that people have jobs, investors must believe that one community will impose fewer costs on their operations than another. Naturally, this means taxing the gains on productive wealth as little as possible, leaving tax revenue a responsibility of the public, who at the same time are paid as little as possible by their investor/employers. This leads to tax revenues that are uncoupled from gains in productivity.

People who want more buying power in the market don't want to be taxed, and this point is not lost on investors, who find themselves a useful ally in the American electorate. The political parties reinforce this consensus through heightened antagonism on less important issues (for investors).

The huge public expenditure dedicated to making the world safe for democracy at the point of consumption is best viewed as the armed expression of State Department trade policy; but perhaps there is no way a country could spend this much money on the engineering of global culture unless it was in the name of "defense" against those elements -- here traditionalist, there populist -- which still assert themselves in spite of it (e.g., "Islam," "Chavismo").

Public outlays that advance investor causes at the expense of society engender a reciprocal need to borrow from investors to finance these outlays all the more. This places "the whole of life" into their debt; it puts the public budget under their authority, as the creditors of their own profit-making, for which the public can only hope to touch the hem of their garment, and in doing so take something away from the transaction.

Monday, June 07, 2010


Crises of consumption:

The totalizing impulse of capital broke free from the state, and an unfettered consumerism marked "the end of history."

History begins anew with each autonomous culture met by capital; it records no greater threat in its past.

Consumerism announces itself as democracy at the point of consumption, and no one will be denied their rights. The security guard is trampled by the mob, but he dies in defense of the same principle they advance. Not inherent worth, but exchange value.

The language of capital displaces its rivals, and what can't be heard can't easily be said. Meaning is powered through the circuit of commodity exchange, as part of its larger process. This leaves the art of human expression limited to those who "succeed" at doing it, while the rest of us spend our time talking about them. We may admire, or we might resent; but we cede their authority by referencing them, for want of a language of our own.

Any association with power will lure humankind away from self-mastery of it. Proximity to that circuit most easily seen as external to the self dampens the power which occurs naturally, internal to it. No culture can satisfy the need for community within a circuit that runs external to the individual -- not even through the promise of association. Human culture must be composed of individuals first, with community expressed through differentiation.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Debating the ghost of Marx

A blogger at Corrente asks if we can't "please bury Marx once and for all?" and I think it is a very good question. After all, we shouldn't have to rely on someone from the 19th century to provide us with insights into the challenges we face today. We should be facing up to them ourselves.

The challenges posed to humanity by a system that preferences short-term gain over long-term planning are significant, and Marx took them seriously. Anyone hoping to move past Marx will either have to confront these challenges in a way that obviates his work, or wake up in a world where they no longer exist.

It's not enough to say, "I don't like Marx," because recent world history tells us that millions of other people still do. Our options are either to more persuasively address these concerns, or accept that there is a utility to Marx that will likely remain until we do -- or until problems like poverty, climate change, militarism, and financial crises decide to leave us alone "once and for all."

5. An aside about Marx and post-modernism

Michele Barrett, The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault:

We are all already regulated, already participants in networks of power, already constituted within the operations of power -- and notions such as the "free individual," on whom power descends from above -- are completely meaningless. Foucault did not believe that this position entailed "seeing power everywhere" or reducing everything to power, just as Marxism had reduced everything to economics, although this criticism is frequently made of his work. He suggested instead that the problem was to understand how power operated in specific methods and strategies, how major shifts such as the increased disciplining of individuals in modern western society had taken place, and how one could show the political and economic dimensions of changes in power.   

People don't always interpret things in the same way, and I think this is the point post-modernism wants to make. It is certainly appropriate to make this point, especially when responding to someone who insists that their interpretation is the only interpretation!

But it seems to me that the impulse to "deconstruct" comes too late. Only when you have a community of intellectuals invested in "modernism" can you arrive at a place where you "need" a community of intellectuals invested in "post-modernism." And that's because, had anybody bothered to think for themselves in the first place, the "constructions" which exclude certain perspectives (those excluded from the professions at that time) would never evolve into "deconstructions" which exclude others (those excluded from the professions now), because there was never any justification for them in the first place. Maybe I am missing something, but this seems to be lost on professionals, and people who want to become professionals, if not surprisingly.

This is what David Harvey is getting at when he says he doesn't read Foucault as "anti-Marxist." And that's because you don't have to. You can read Marx, or anybody else, in whatever way you want. If you place a determination on Marx that Marx is deterministic, that is fine, but nobody else has to. They will take from Marx what is relevant to them -- and you can keep your determinism, if that is what is most useful to you; if that is the extent of what you want to take from Marx, and helps you get along in the world, achieve your goals, and so on.

It was only after I was two-thirds of the way through the above book that I realized that the "Marxism [that] had reduced everything to economics" was the Marxism of the 20th-century, socialist state. But, as Foucault himself would point out, that is not the Marxism of either the 19th or the early 21st centuries. So we have to remember that people in different circumstances interpret things in different ways, and we have to remember this in the first instance -- not only after the professional climate has changed.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Crises of consumerism:

In the great contest between cultures, a power culture emerged which consolidated capital between two populist forms: a socialism, and a consumerism. Where socialism played to certain needs, consumerism invented them.

Well, I like the part about socialism playing to certain needs, while consumerism invents them. That much is true.

I don't know enough about the economic system of the Soviet Union to say whether it had an intrinsic capital component or not; it certainly exhibited symptoms of it. My inclination is to say it was "socialist," not if we define "socialism" as worker control of production -- it certainly wasn't that -- but if we define it as a conscious attempt to confront the problems of capitalism under particular circumstances, which I believe it was.

I am disinclined to say that the "socialism" of the USSR was just a cynical power grab, or just capitalism as managed exclusively by the state. It may have been these things as well, but just because power becomes a problem shouldn't render to any endeavor the option to say "it's not really what it was intended to be!" Power always becomes a problem, and the point is, you have to deal with it. Perhaps you have something to say about this.

I think what we can take away from this is the idea of a power culture which is expressed through populist forms. People who lived through 20th century-style "socialism" should tell us about it, because what anybody else can say about it isn't usually worth very much. What we have to examine for ourselves is consumerism.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Crises of consumerism:

The democratization of capital was the inevitable outcome of that threat posed to capital by democracy, which was met in the crucible of 20th century politics.

The greatest threat posed to capital in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was that people no longer wanted to participate in it at the point of production. Working without air, without light; working without rest, and, in proportion to what they produced, without pay -- people decided to stop working: they struck. And very soon they discovered that when one leg of capital's circuit is disrupted, all power is lost to the system as a whole. Capital cannot happen in the absence of commodity production and exchange.

What happened in this case is very interesting. Strikes in this period could become widespread, encompassing entire communities, leaving it to state and sometimes federal authorities to restore order, always on capital's behalf. A problem emerged, however, in cases where law enforcement personnel might show more sympathy for the striking workers than their employers. That, after all, is a magic formula for revolution!

It became increasingly clear that capital was losing control of the society, because large numbers of people identified it as operating contrary to their interests. This prompted a newfound interest amongst the administrative classes in what people thought, with anti-socialism and "the manufacture of consent" becoming the order of the day, as well as an official commitment to education that could produce citizens worthy of their employers: obedient, punctual, and patriotic!

At the same time, "the public" came to be coveted as a market in itself, prompting such visionaries as Henry Ford to perceive self-interest in paying his workforce wages sufficient to purchase the very products they produced.

This is what I mean by "the democratization of capital": not that capital, which is inherently autocratic, somehow became less so; but that participation in the process of capital was extended to all, and at each point in its circuit. So whether or not someone counted themselves as a producer, a consumer, or an investor no longer hinged on a particular class position, but was actively solicited from all. And that is an important part of how capital began to engage the concerns of ordinary people -- by conspiring to become the concerns of ordinary people.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

C to the 3, part two

Crises of consumerism:

Consumerism, having discarded its conspicuous pose, is capital in its populist form. Subsequently, consumption became life, and work its sustenance. Everything that is real is realized through the market.

Consumerism is capital in its populist form. We have already discussed how capital is a process, so what does it mean to say that this process has taken a populist form?

Populism is a political approach which preferences the concerns of ordinary people. One of the notable features of early capitalism was the degree to which "the concerns of ordinary people" was not regarded as an object of interest to anyone other than ordinary people. People could think whatever they want -- and by and large they did; the church, for example, was an institution in decline. But what most people ended up thinking under these circumstances was that capitalism sucked.

Capitalists didn't care what ordinary people thought because they only needed their employees for one part of the capital process: production. And in that context you could treat people as horribly as you wanted: first because it was no trouble to replace one desperate person with another; and secondly because you weren't relying on them as consumers. In early capitalism, your business could grow strictly by selling to other businesses, or to other rich people. You could thoroughly ruin workers; it made no difference one way or the other.

What happens anytime the terrain of "hearts and minds" is left uncontested is that you get a strong reaction from people based on the reality of their situation. If the experience of being screwed over is predominant, and the people doing it don't even regard you as deserving of an explanation, you are likely to develop an ideology based around some alternative to what they are doing. And this is how socialism became a leading populist principle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- because capital left that ground unattended.

The term conspicuous consumption is a memorable one from this period, coined by economist Thorstein Veblen to describe the consumption of the upper classes as a unique claim to their social status. Big houses, mink coats, steak dinners, and so on, in a world where no one else could even pretend to the same. Part of my argument here is to say that consumption ultimately had to "abandon its conspicuous pose" as more people were recruited to the side of capital in its 20th century grudge match with socialism. And that's to a large extent because socialism was winning, thanks to its populist credentials.

When I say that "subsequently, consumption became life," I mean that capital, through its development, emerged with a populist ideology of its own called consumerism; and it was by this means that capital sought to penetrate the imagination of ordinary people. Consumption aspired to become a way of living, and in order to live that way, you would have to work. Reality would be redefined as what could be realized through commercial exchange in the market (rather than the relations that existed between people), and work -- now recast as "career" -- would become sustenance for, and an access point to, this reality.