Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The tea partiers are as good as you and me


[P]eople feel legitimate anger toward their government. They sense that the vague democratic ideals they have held since childhood have been traduced and betrayed. And they have.

We live in a post-manufacturing society, but this has different implications for different people.

Communities whose wealth came from manufacturing operations have had to replace that with some service-sector alternative. You're going from $30-an-hour jobs to minimum wage.

Then you have a wave of immigration from Mexico: you've got people willing to work for less than minimum wage -- people who get picked up by van services in the mornings, get robbed by their employers, and then pay a fee to the van service to bring them home.

Naturally, if you're going from some decent union job to competing with desperate immigrants for work, you're going to be pissed. Sure, you want to "take back your country," and you probably don't have good things to say about Mexicans, either. Meanwhile, you're listening to Beck and Limbaugh, because they're making sense of what is happening to you. No one else is addressing your concerns, so you tune into the people that do.

If we judge the Tea Party-types by the racism they display while bearing the brunt of the pain that comes from NAFTA and a move away from manufacturing, and put them up against all the progressively-minded people in corporate America who helped bring these things about, I don't see much of a moral distinction to get worked up about.

The only meaningful distinction comes from people who do something to challenge these trends.

Monday, August 30, 2010

All the King's men

Financial Times:

If Martin Luther King had a nightmare, it might have involved Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, the patron saints of the conservative Tea Party movement, taking over the anniversary of his historic civil rights address to attack the US’s first African-American president.

I'm pretty sure if Martin Luther King, Jr., had a nightmare, it might have something to do with what his legitimate successors aren't doing about war, poverty, and racism by occupying themselves with respectable careers.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Inequality and the problem of "equal rights"

Gail Collins, New York Times:

[I]f feminism simply means supporting equal rights and equal opportunities for women, I don’t see how a feminist can be opposed to government programs that provide poor working mothers with quality child care.

"Equal rights and equal opportunities" are in fact rather conservative concepts when viewed through the inequality of class and other relations.

"Equal rights" in this context is a political concept: it refers to one's relation to the state. To have equal rights means that the government will give all citizens equal consideration in the administration of their affairs.

A good example of this is the present fight over marriage. One side argues for equal rights, the other side against. The gay community advances a conservative position by appealing to the Constitution, their opponents push a "moral" argument by appealing to the Bible.

Similarly, "equal rights for women" means that the government gives women the same consideration it gives men: it acknowledges their right to vote, it defends their right to own property, it lets them seek restitution through the courts, etc. The state treats them equally as citizens, and affords them rights as citizens.

"Equal opportunity," on the other hand, refers to economic relations: it is the right to be considered without prejudice for a job, for example. In theory, a principle of equality of opportunity could be read expansively to mean equal access to resources; in practice, it is read narrowly as "non-discrimination" in the workplace -- a reflection of organized social power around employer preferences.

Equality of opportunity means equality vis-a-vis a particular standard of opportunity. It could be no opportunity, but as long such lack of opportunity is fairly maintained, equality of opportunity has been fulfilled.

This gets at the difficulty of using "equal rights and equal opportunities" as measure of progress within class societies: by definition, some classes have more rights and opportunities than others.

In fact, many rights only become meaningful in conjunction with a particular class position. Rich people can put rights like freedom of speech and due process to work in ways that poor people can't; men might be "most qualified" for a job insofar as they won't become pregnant; the right to vote for African-Americans hasn't translated into an unemployment rate less than 50% greater than the nation as a whole. By itself, an equality of rights doesn't tell us anything about outcomes -- what something actually means for people -- which is one of reasons why it is insufficient as a principle for addressing people's needs.

* * *

When it comes to government programs, for lack of anything else, what Gail Collins says is true enough. We need something that will address these problems, as opposed to nothing.

However, it is perfectly possible to be opposed to government programs in principle and feminist if you endorse something else -- e.g., something that is more likely to address women's concerns than a government program. It might be something designed and implemented by women, for example. "Government programs" typically aren't.

Suffice it to say that in the meantime something has to be extended to people in need -- and it deserves to be developed to a point beyond what a state agency can likely sustain: the point at which people achieve meaningful control over their lives. This is the outcome we should be working toward.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sunday night shakes and the declining rate of profit

If you've ever had the Sunday night shakes then you know the capital-relation well. Your time is soon to become someone else's, to do with as they please! And yet it can be scarier to contemplate life without this self-discipline that has been instilled in us since youth, that sustains our reputation as dependable employees, and informs our identity otherwise. People retire and die -- that sort of thing!

Not a penny of profit can come from a production system composed entirely of machines: this is part of what Marx is saying. So you've got to keep showing up -- you can't take half the year off to do something you'd like! Technology does its part, but the real trick behind capitalism is convincing human beings to work one portion of their lives as necessary for their own subsistence, and another portion as an unpaid contribution to their employer. The two parts come together in varying proportions and are expressed superficially as a working day, a working week, a working year, and so on.

Much of the politics of class conflict revolves around how the two components of a working day fit together, i.e. how much of the day is spent working for oneself and how much is given without compensation to an employer. At first employers made people work 18-hour days, etc., in order to maximize what they could get above and beyond the cost of subsistence for their workers.

Now employers use a number of different means, including lowering the cost of subsistence (e.g. making food and other commodities cheaper for the general population -- think of how fast food sustains the American family!); increasing productivity via technology; dividing compensation between more members of the household, as with women's emergence in the workforce; or increasing the number of hours in a workweek, as from a neat 40 in most of our parents' day to whatever unholy combination is fashionable now.

One of the contradictions here is that while human beings form the portion of capital out of which profit is made possible, technological advances in production throw increasing numbers of people out of work. This leads to a scenario which Marx called "the declining rate of profit" -- the profit-bearing portion of capital grows smaller in relation to its automated forms, which are in turn maximized for the productivity gains they support. This is one phenomenon which can contribute to a generalized crisis.

That's probably enough to think about for now. Just remember the importance of self-discipline in all things, with working for others at the top of your list!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A gentleman's guide to career, romance, and nation-building

Capital, understood as a social relation, depends on the willingness of people to work and consume in a consistent, if dynamic, way. Sometimes you work harder and consume less, as in a recession; other times you work less but consume more, as when credit is available: and yet, a minimum number of your neighbors remain unemployed, reinforcing a sense of good fortune either way. Capital is not just the money or machinery available for production, but also that mass of people who choose work and consumption as the objectives that absorb their lives.

For capital, such activity must persist in the face of every other social obligation. Our president might be remotely detonating women his daughters' age in order to get at the men in their homes; somebody else's leaders might be stoking sexual violence against women as a rule; your parent may be dying, or your city. Nevertheless, the world makes getting out of bed and going to work, day in and day out, its highest calling. To anyone who asks "How could it happen?" after watching the film adaptation of any social catastrophe, the answer is always that our fidelity is not to people, but to the things that have situated themselves between us -- not the least of which we know as "careers."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Commodities come between us

It's not easy to catch onto this idea about capital being a social relation mediated by things. People on TV don't talk about it like that, and nobody else is going to reinforce this for you. You have to spend some time thinking about it, and you have to make yourself come back to the idea whenever you lose it.

Based on my own experiences, I would say that the capital-relation begins with what we choose for ourselves in school, and ends with a lifetime of walking in and out of CVS and Target stores (popular retailers in the US). Whatever career we choose, and whatever things we buy are less important than the fact that we divide our time between working and consuming in a uniform way. If you look around at just about anyone in your life you will find this commitment to work and consumption to be relatively constant, while time for other things is apportioned with greater variability, if at all.

The things that mediate our relations with other people are called commodities, and capitalism is a system based on commodity production. A commodity is just a commercial product. It's something that is made and sold, as opposed to something that is made and used, without commercial exchange.

If you want to get a good idea of what our lives are about under capitalism, just walk into a CVS and ask yourself what might be done about a homeless person soliciting customers in the parking lot. In spite of the fact that the place is stuffed with commodities of every stripe, there's nothing you can buy that will change your relation with this person in a lasting way. What can you do but deny that you have any relation to them -- even if you do give some change? Many of us learn not to acknowledge such a person at all.

A lifetime of walking in and out of CVS stores might get us the commodities we need, but it doesn't address social problems in a lasting way. If work and consumption are our primary activities, then social problems become secondary considerations. The fact that they persist becomes "evidence" that you can't do anything about them, instead of being the predictable outcome of relations that don't do anything about them. This stems from the fact that our relations with others are mediated by things that don't help us in areas of mutual concern, because they are assigned to a different purpose entirely.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Social networks

Karl Marx, Capital:

[C]apital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons which is mediated through things.

The next time you feel intimidated by someone using abstruse economic jargon to explain contemporary events, just remember that although there were probably many fascinating technical details at work behind the institution of slavery in, say, the American South, about 99% of what of anyone really needs to know about it concerns the relations between people. If you leave out the relations between people, no amount of technical exposition is going to capture what was going on in that system.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Capital, Vol. 1 comes from Marx's insistence that we look at our system in the same way. While there is no shortage of technical arguments or challenging language, one can take comfort in knowing that no matter how complex the concepts become, Marx has only proceeded thus far by first posing the same question about capitalism that any sane person would ask about slavery: what does it actually mean for the people involved?

One of the ways Marx does this is by defining capital as a social relation, not a thing. Capital, and the economic system named after it, implies particular relations between people, just as slavery implies one group of people relating to another group in a specific way. It is the relations between people which define the logic of the system, not mathematical formulae. This is frequently lost on Marxists and non-Marxists alike.

If we only understand capital as a thing, we too easily miss what really matters, because the whole conversation turns into a one-sided story about the entrepreneur, this person who takes "capital" and does all kinds of wonderful things with it, like creating wealth and jobs. That's probably 100% of what you have heard. Marx is saying: you might as well talk about all the good things the slave owner does, like provide for his family or give money to his church or allot food and shelter for his slaves, etc.; because the fact that wealth is created, or that people are recruited into the process which creates it -- these qualities don't distinguish capitalism from slave societies, or any social system that came before. So what distinguishes capitalism specifically?

The answer always comes back to what is happening between people.

Friday, August 20, 2010

An anarchist guide to relationships


[W]hen someone claims that there will be an anarchist future and it will include employer/employee relationships, I wonder what the hell kind of anarchist would agree to submit to the control of an employer. And I think back to the central conflict that made me an anarchist in the first place and wonder what kind of anarchy can exist with that kind of power imbalance. The answer, to my mind, is none.

Anarchism is a political philosophy concerned with questions of authority in any relationship. So anarchism can speak to any relationship -- between women and men, governments and citizens, employers and employees, etc. -- and ask questions about how power is distributed and whether such distribution can be justified vis-a-vis the preferences of its participants.

To describe oneself as "anarchist" can give others an idea of our general orientation toward relationships. For example, the current incarnation of this blog might be described as Marxist feminist in focus, anarchist in orientation, because it looks at particular relationships -- between capital and the individual, and women and whatever forms of authority are imposed on them -- through an anarchist approach.

Because anarchism's purpose is to detect and challenge illegitimate authority within relations such that power may be dispersed -- "thus broadening the scope of human freedom," in Chomsky's words -- anarchists naturally favor greater equality of power as opposed to less.

But it is important to remember that anarchism is first and foremost a process for evaluating relationships. If we are going to ask whether specific employer/employee relations are justified, the question must be posed to the participants in the relation. We can't approach the situation by declaring that it would be better if everyone lived in a commune. Maybe it would be better, but that is our judgment, and unless we are participating in the relation, our judgments aren't really relevant.

I often see anarchists make the mistake of judging others based on their own preconceptions of "what would be best" in situations they aren't a part of; they use "anarchism" as a yard stick by which to condemn or approve other people's choices, instead of as a methodology for determining what works best based on individual preferences within a group.

When we talk about the relationship between employers and employees, there are plenty of good reasons to want to eliminate the distinction between those who own what is necessary for survival and those who submit to their terms. But that doesn't tell us anything about how to work towards this goal. It also draws no distinction between examples which conform to what their participants want vs. those that do not. In other words, if we decide as outsiders that we want to unionize an enterprise that basically conforms to the needs and expectations of its employees on the basis that employer/employee relations exist, we are committing ourselves to a fool's errand without the consent of the affected party.

There's likely to be great diversity in the forms of economic organization that one community might choose for itself in one part of the world vs. another community in another part. A community that is resisting the expropriation of communal lands may endorse different kinds of authority structures in their resistance efforts, as with the Indian Naxalites, than unionized autoworkers might in an entirely different context. The point isn't to look for one template to be superimposed on every situation, but to ensure that the model chosen enjoys legitimacy amongst its constituencies: we don't want to embrace a Leninist model that sidelines the concerns of women in India anymore than we want to endorse a syndicalist approach which does the same thing elsewhere.

Anarchism is not a doctrine; it is a way of thinking about relationships. Thinking about relationships should inform how we engage them. We won't know how to engage a relationship until we think about the particular circumstances in which it exists. There may be situations where employer/employee relations are justified, just as there may be cases where property rights are appropriate. We won't know until we understand the concerns of the people involved.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Civilization and its discontents

Karl Marx, Capital:

The private property of the worker in his means of production is the foundation of small-scale industry, and small-scale industry is a necessary condition for the development of social production and of the free individuality of the worker himself. Of course, this mode of production also exists under slavery, serfdom and other situations of dependence. But it flourishes, unleashes the whole of its energy, attains its adequate classical form, only where the worker is the free proprietor of the conditions of his labour, and sets them in motion himself: where the peasant owns the land he cultivates, or the artisan owns the tool with which he is an accomplished performer.

This mode of production presupposes the fragmentation of holdings, and the dispersal of the other means of production. As it excludes the concentration of these means of production, so it also excludes co-operation, division of labour within each separate process of production, the social control and regulation of the forces of nature, and the free development of the productive forces of society. It is compatible only with a system of production and a society moving within narrow limits which are of natural origin. To perpetuate it would be, as Pecqueur rightly says, "to decree universal mediocrity."

I read this passage as saying that private property can be cool if you're Amish. There are plenty of things to say for being Amish, and Marx gets at this in his first paragraph. But what Marx is telling us is that we're not going to get Facebook and the iPhone and plenty of other things we like if we remain Amish.

Now, many people will rightly point out that modern civilization produces all kinds of awful things that Amish communities don't. The world isn't going to be destroyed because Amish people took a pass on electricity. The world could very well be destroyed because the same technological advances that begat iPhones are also producing weapons systems and genetically modified everythings.

People who believe it's simply hopeless to socially direct the work of those institutions from which something like the internet is born are going to end up taking a position against an awful lot of things that the average person likes and generally takes for granted. If they want to be persuasive, they will have to have a pretty good argument.

Marx is understood as taking a position on this by advocating communism, which is the democratic administration of all institutions, social and economic, in an advanced industrial context. I think part of this relates to his observation that many societies move past Amish-style living anyway, and once capitalist, they become violently expansionary and work perpetually to displace everything else by productive and technological advantage.

So on the one hand, this is what we have to contend with anyway, regardless of what we choose for ourselves.

On the other hand, Marx sees great possibilities in the idea that you could have things like iPhones and space exploration -- keeping the things we like -- while eliminating the socially destructive tendencies in capitalism that virtually everyone recognizes as undesirable, whether poverty, climate change, or war. I don't know if there is a primitivist argument that is analogous to this, but it seems to me that persuading people toward a saner management of what we already have by confronting what we don't like is going to be an easier sell than patiently explaining why all civilization must end.

Things to think about. Just don't take too long: the world can hardly wait!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Liberalism, power, and the state

Tony Travers, Financial Times:

The [British] government is making changes that accord with Conservative instincts -- favouring a smaller state and less top-down intervention. But there is also a willingness to try out ideas whose impacts cannot be predicted, amounting to “suck it and see” experimentation. This mix of cost-savings, reform and target-dumping disguises a more coherent underlying philosophy: the twin aims of reducing the size of government and bringing about a dramatic shift of power away from the centre.

Every government reflects the balance of domestic power. Inequality shifts that balance to favor certain groups over others. Because the natural logic of capitalism creates and sustains inequality through the ever-greater accumulation of wealth in ever-fewer hands, a government wedded to capitalism will always default to this purpose absent any demonstration of greater power by contending groups.

In this sense, what Marx called "bourgeois government" -- government by the private owners of social wealth -- can be assumed in capitalist societies as constant. The least amount of government will act to sustain capitalism, because without government, capitalism, and the property relations that it implies, cannot be sustained: the majority of people would not voluntarily submit to someone else's terms of employment if they didn't have to. Our laws are written in large part to ensure that we have to.

Liberalism evolved into a politics of "big government" out of an acknowledgment of this constant factor operating within the state. A government that "governs least" may be appropriate for a society whose economic affairs can be administered by free networks of small farmers and craftspeople, as Jefferson had hoped. But when the organization of all economic life falls to possessing minorities via "the compulsory nature of centralized authority," in Dick: Armey's words, then "less government" just means government for one part of society, and less for everyone else.

This is the sense in which liberalism came to embrace "big government" -- as a consensus policy arising from the conflict between classes. Big government added to the state's constant component a variable element: government for the rest of society.

That government for the rest of us functions as a variable phenomenon is plain to see in the various "reform" and deficit-reduction initiatives which have assumed priority-status. It is also evident in the cultural associations, for example, which have gained traction in the minds of Generations XYZ, that "Social Security won't exist when we retire," because "that's what they say." The expectation that one should retire at all is now being whittled away at by the same popular trend setters in the corporate press as well.

Contemporary liberalism should be understood as advancing a conception of domestic "rights" under capitalism. One needs a big government to do this, because "small government" is assigned to preserving property relations alone. This raises important questions about how the inequalities attending capitalism can be addressed and eventually overcome, since big government is only variably responsive the public, while its "bourgeois" directive pushes constantly to make it less so.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tea party manifestos

Dick Armey, Matt Kibbe; Wall Street Journal:

The many branches of the tea party movement have created a virtual marketplace for new ideas, effective innovations and creative tactics. Best practices come from the ground up, around kitchen tables, from Facebook friends, at weekly book clubs, or on Twitter feeds. This is beautiful chaos -- or, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek put it, "spontaneous order."

Decentralization, not top-down hierarchy, is the best way to maximize the contributions of people and their personal knowledge. Let the leaders be the activists who have the best knowledge of local personalities and issues. In the real world, this is common sense. In Washington, D.C., this is considered radical.

The big-government crowd is drawn to the compulsory nature of centralized authority. They can't imagine an undirected social order. Someone needs to be in charge -- someone who knows better. Big government is audacious and conceited.

By definition, government is the means by which citizens are forced to do that which they would not do voluntarily. Like pay high taxes. Or redistribute tax dollars to bail out the broken, bloated pension systems of state government employees. Or purchase, by federal mandate, a government-defined health-insurance plan that is unaffordable, unnecessary or unwanted.

Yeah, dude! Everything should be like that! Let's decentralize our jobs and elect our bosses! No authority without the consent of those affected!

And if government is the means by which citizens are forced to do that which they would not do voluntarily, then surely it must be replaced by some form of voluntary association!

Under conditions of inequality, "less government" is hardly sufficient: it only ensures that the weakest citizens are forced to do that which they would not do voluntarily, while the powerful act without restriction.

A good tea partier is a consistent tea partier! Don't be a Dick like Armey! That clown has dedicated his career to "the compulsory nature of centralized authority," in standard Republican fashion -- by wielding it as a weapon of the rich. Don't let his cries of "big government" condemn any other principle than when it is half-heartedly extended as a shield for the poor!

One can always "reduce the size of government" by favoring certain groups over others. That is why you must either come to an understanding of which "group" you fall into, socially and economically, and work politically on its behalf; or stop playing the game altogether and abolish centralized authority-as-arbiter of the rights of persons once and for all!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Women first, then the world

Nancy Folbre, New York Times:

The historian Dorothy Sue Cobble, going further back in time, explains how New Deal feminists lobbied for what they called “full Social Security,” including paid maternity leave, investment in child care and early education, tax exemptions and tax credits for dependents and the recognition of women’s unpaid caregiving as part of the calculation of Social Security benefits.

To think there was a time when "Social Security" might have meant what it says!

Feminism means independence for women in all relations. Whenever women's choices reflect honest preferences, not some third-tier compromise negotiated at the heels of men and employers, the world comes that much closer to saving its own skin, and aspiring to something worthwhile.

But you have to remember that you are a feminist first!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tolerance made easier by imposing no costs

Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times:

Including Islam within the fold of traditional western religious tolerance is not business-as-usual. It is an experiment. Our Lockean ideas of religious tolerance had their origins in the 16th century (the peace of Augsburg) and the 17th (the peace of Westphalia).

In other words, "our Lockean ideas of religious tolerance" coincided with the emergence of an institution that would displace religion at center stage in human affairs. For example, Judeo-Christian orthodoxy became a lot less important to people when industrialists began scheduling work on Sundays. Given the choice between sustenance and faith, human beings become much more flexible about faith!

The purported conflict between "Islam" and "the West" is really just a conflict between the contending forms of economic organization these terms can imply.  The same held for "communism" and "free-market enterprise" -- that is, until communism proved amenable to the latter, as in the contemporary case of China. 

Western investors are enormously "tolerant" of anything that makes them richer, just as they display the most principled objections to anything that does not.  In this way, identifying our friends and foes on the world stage is more readily accomplished than by employing any other criteria.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Everything you always wanted to know about communism but were afraid to ask

Anytime I hear some South Philly fluffernutter use the term "communist" I know I am in for a treat an order of magnitude equal to when liberal professionals spout off about "Christians."

In their global usage, the terms have a lot in common. Unless you understand the context, you don't know whether "communist" or "Christian" mean something really good in the sense of the "highest ideal," or something really bad in the sense of dogmatic and authoritarian.

Clearly, the concepts have competing interpretations. And this is one of the reasons why it drives me crazy anytime someone insists that a Christian or a communist is whatever it is they think it is. Because most of the time there are innumerable examples that run counter to their own rule, and which make their definition just one among many.

Between these ideas, communism is more interesting to pose to an American audience, because the connotations are almost universally bad. That's how you know you've got something worth talking about. As Noam Chomsky has noted, the terms "socialist" and "communist" are deployed as curse words requiring no elaboration, in spite of the fact that most people have only the vaguest idea of what they mean. Even Americans who are otherwise communist will use some other term -- any other term -- to describe themselves, because -- well, I'm sure it didn't help that people lost their careers over it in the 1950s!

The first thing most Americans think of when it comes to communism is the Soviet Union. Everybody knows the Soviet Union was not great. The Soviet government called itself communist, and the US government called the Soviet government communist. It was probably the single greatest point of consensus between the two governments during the entire Cold War, in fact. They couldn't agree on anything else, but when it came to the genuine-issue communism that was blossoming in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, both governments were pleased to promote the idea.

One can imagine why that is. In the Soviet case, communism was the justification for whatever the government was doing at any given moment; in other words, communism was a good thing, an idea that was popular amongst Russians. What was this idea, you might ask? Who cares! Russians don't know anything about their country that we can't tell them instead.

As far as the US goes, communism was an awful thing that everyone else was up to -- specifically, any government that wasn't adequately integrated into the US sphere of influence, or subordinated to its needs. At one point Champsky tracked down the national security document -- NSC 68*, I think it's called -- from the '40s or '50s where American planners defined for themselves what was wrong with "communism": It was "the idea that the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of the people."1

Whatever communism is or is not, let us always remember that for the purposes of our government, communism is the idea that the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of its people, and this is as objectionable to "the American way of life" as anything ever conceived!

*Apparently the quote was George Kennan's and does not in fact appear in the more hardline NSC 68.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The best investment

Bertrand Russell, Free Thought and Official Propaganda:

If there is to be toleration in the world, one of the things taught in schools must be the habit of weighing evidence, and the practice of not giving full assent to propositions which there is no reason to believe true. For example, the art of reading the newspapers should be taught. The schoolmaster should select some incident which happened a good many years ago, and roused political passions in its day. He should then read to the school-children what was said by the newspapers on one side, what was said by those on the other, and some impartial account of what really happened. He should show how, from the biased account of either side, a practised reader could infer what really happened, and he should make them understand that everything in newspapers is more or less untrue. The cynical scepticism which would result from this teaching would make the children in later life immune from those appeals to idealism by which decent people are induced to further the schemes of scoundrels.

In the same way that we learn best about the limits of education when we go to school, the realities of work when we pursue careers, and the possibilities of living whenever we consciously attempt to do so; we also learn best about the world by not accepting uncritically any single account that is reported about it.

For example, seeing the amount of time I invest in following financial headlines, people unfamiliar with my politics sometimes imagine that I know a lot about investing in general. The answer is no: I don't read the financial press in order to understand finance; I read it in order to understand the financial press and the industry for which it speaks. If I wanted to understand finance, I would work in finance, or learn about working in finance from people who do.

Only in understanding another perspective can we compare it with our own, and, as our friend Bertrand suggests, infer a general picture of what the hell is going on between us. What is true for news organizations is true for our relations with anyone else. But we have to know enough about both our own lives and the experiences of others to draw an accurate comparison in each case. This means an ongoing examination of both.

Sometimes we hear about things that don't directly impact on our own lives, but impact on the lives of others; or consist of some combination of the two, expressed in varying proportions. In the case of the US occupation of Afghanistan, for example, we are talking about something that impacts Afghans primarily (it is their country), and Americans and others secondarily. Subsequently, what American commentators think is best for Afghanistan isn't really relevant, since Americans do not fall within the category of persons primarily affected by fate of that country. Their judgments should be considered secondary to those held by whatever groups in Afghanistan its population feels best suited to administering its affairs.

You will notice that this method is altogether different from that endorsed by the commercial news model. According to this model, capital-intensive news organizations employ personnel and sponsor content meant to be "authoritative" in and of themselves. In other words, their job is "the news," our job is to consume whatever version of it we like best so that we might satisfy our role as "informed citizens," by the standard common to liberal democracies.

This means that whenever something important goes down, like a presidential election or a war, we have our choice of nationally syndicated columns or editorials, etc., by which to formulate our own "informed" opinions. The content is derived from professionals so that we might enjoy thoughts of our own, because our time is absorbed in a never-ending quest to pay the bills. Professionals, on the other hand, are paid decently to advance the concerns of whoever pays them. Consequently, we spend a lot of time electing Democrats and Republicans and going to war!

I hope that when you read, listen to, or watch the news, you will not be very impressed at first; but only after you have considered the veracity of the information as it relates to your life. In all things, it is never bad to pose the question after any declaration of fact, Is it true? What is true from one perspective may not be true from another.

The news will reflect different perspectives depending on the money that finds its way into production. Sometimes these perspectives will prove compatible with your own, as on issues where advertisers (for example) and the public are agreed; other times it will seem like you are going crazy, because what is reported and what you experience -- like the "fact" that the recession ended however many months ago -- owe to the difference between perspectives. Remember that the news is not an authoritative view of anything except its own outlook as an institution.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Matrix

The best way to understand something is to experience it. For example, if you want to understand school, go to school: you will learn all about the expectations and pretensions of official education, and the more you know about it the better you will be at navigating that particular system. This is especially important if you want to learn anything apart from what the institution instructs. Personally, I don't remember much of anything that I was taught in school, but I do remember an awful lot about school. What it communicated to me was crystal clear.

On the other hand, if you want to understand the experiences of the average American working schlep, then you'll want to do some schlepping. You're not going to get anywhere talking "discourse" in some graduate course. Why, that's just problematic! No: you have to interact with people who think maybe Obama is a cool guy to hang out with, but that a cabal of "communist negroes" (except your esteemed colleagues will prefer a different word than "negro") is pushing him to the extreme with his ultra-left "cap and trade" policies. And basically, you have to understand where these people are coming from if you want to understand them, as well as yourself, in this particular situation.

The good news is that plenty of people like you and me are already working schleps; we already have some of this understanding. And most of us are also aware that the reality of our careers can diverge precipitously from the official narrative. The problem is that too many of us feel bad about ourselves in response, rather than treating our life as an object of inquiry -- like students trying to understand their own experiences.

If we want to understand our life, we have to regard it as a legitimate object of inquiry. In other words, this shit is happening to us anyway, so what does it all mean? Why is it happening? Who benefits, if not us? Or, in what proportion do we benefit as compared with other groups? Do those groups have more control over the situation or less? We can't take for granted the fact that significant parts of our lives suck: we have to understand why that is, and what the implications are for us in the long-term.

Some years back I was too easily fatigued by the enthusiasm my younger colleagues showed for the philosophical trappings of the Matrix movies, which as you know is all about changing your perspective in order to see reality clearly. I didn't have a way to articulate the fact that the whole Matrix principle is at work all the time -- but it has nothing to do with babies hooked up to robot squids in ectoplasm, or whatever. We don't learn anything from that. But the idea that there is a superficial reality that is maintained in order to obscure the real workings of modern societies in favor of particular interests -- I tell you: you are better off reading Capital -- and working -- than watching The Matrix. Not an easy sell, I realize, but true nonetheless.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Weak ends

Summer is a time for comparing wireless data plans in each other's backyards while debating the merits of beer bottles with a rifled neck. The rest of the year it just happens in front of the HDTV!

It's the kind of thing you might expect if the world was doing great -- like we'd already figured out how to accommodate basic human needs in a way that was consistent with our values -- as if every individual mattered -- and we weren't contributing to needless suffering or the death of the planet as a society at large.

Perhaps you have never felt so alone as when you are in a group of people who only repeat what you already know, or can reasonably predict: hot buys, cool features, headlines, school-as-the-solution-to-everything-that-is-wrong-with-work, good deals, peak consumer experiences ("This sandwich/workout regimen/package deal/foreign destination was life-changing!"), etc. In other words, everything that society already promotes all the time, 24/7, without interruption, ad infinitum, forever; with human beings acting as the vector of transmission.

I've seen some scary shit at the front lines. I've seen multiple generations of a family celebrating some important life event with nothing to say to each other over catered food beyond the programs they like on TV. The eldest family members are usually already planted there -- forgotten, forgetting. Recently I read an obituary for a coworker that described her as a dedicated employee who loved her family and enjoyed bingo. This is the best sense you get of a person when their life's work is over -- unless they manage to struggle against that outcome, always offered as the default.

We have to think about the direction we are moving in. Life will move us forward regardless, but we have to choose the direction. Does it reflect what we want? Do we want to be having the same conversations over and over for the rest of our lives? Is it cool to be 70 years old with nothing to tell your grandchildren but the programs you prefer on TV -- with no advice on what they can do in the face of a dying planet?

Friday, August 06, 2010

What the tea party gets right

Financial Times:

“‘Barack Obama is a socialist, communist Marxist who wants to destroy the American economy so he can take over as dictator. Healthcare is part of that. And he wants to open up the Mexican border and turn [the US] into a Muslim nation.’”

If the people who believe this stuff can get sufficiently organized to push their representatives to the right of corporate America, what's our excuse?

You can't congratulate yourself merely for having a rational view of the world: the point is to change it.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Conservative corner

Jacob Weisberg, Financial Times:

[The] fear of overreaching government is deeply ingrained in the American psyche.

This reminds me of a discussion I have regularly with my father-in-law, who makes all the usual points about people becoming dependent on big government thanks to social welfare programs, and so on.

And the fact is, I don't disagree with conservative arguments that are framed this way. Obviously it's true that if you're receiving a check from the government in order to survive this puts you in a relation of depending on the government. The problem is that this is where conservative thought seems to dry up: there's no appreciation for the fact that relying on an employer for a check produces dependency also. It's just dependency of a different kind.

For most Americans, modern life may be summarized as falling into either or both of these dependencies -- not independence. Personally, I am all in favor of classical conceptions of independence, but until that transpires, between a nominally democratic government and some corporate hierarchy, against which of these two dependencies might we hope to strike our best "libertarian" pose? We're talking about one institution which is supposed be administered by its constituents, and another that is supposed to be managed by a tiny minority pursuing narrow self-interest (if tangentially for the benefit of all).

If a fear of "overreaching government" is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, that's because people with lots of money sponsor the national mentality. We must always remember who speaks loudest on questions of what it means to be an American: it is whoever owns the means of having their voice reproduced. The rest of us only learn about it afterward from experts who draw their salaries from the same source. This is called being informed.

Americans distrust government! Well, I don't trust government, but I'd rather it come pick up my garbage than grant me the "freedom" to pay someone who knows I don't want it accumulating in my house -- or the "freedom" for my neighbors to let it accumulate in theirs, because they can't afford such "premium service." Anytime big government supplies me with an alternative to the choices that institutions constrained by the profit-motive have to offer -- more of a whole lot less, all the time! -- that is rarely a bad thing.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Study finds working mothers have some work to do!

New York Times:

That was the sound of millions of working mothers breathing a sigh of relief, after a new study found that the decision of many mothers to work during the first year of their children’s lives is not such a bad thing after all.

The study showed that, over all, children whose mothers went back to full-time work within the first 12 months after birth performed worse on a series of cognitive tests. But there there were big exceptions: the study also found that children whose mothers improved the family income significantly, or selected high quality child care, or remained sensitive to their children did not have any cognitive setbacks when compared with children of stay-at-home mothers.

Great news, ladies! Now You Go Girl!™ and:

1) Improve that family income significantly!


2) Select high quality child care from a menu of attractive options!


3) Stash a small reserve of your best energy somewhere your boss can't find. Ensure your child still has a parent by the time you get home, not a zombie. Ha ha!


4) Don't breathe a sigh of relief -- you may be a bad mom!*

*NYT Disclaimer: Dads aren't moms.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The last laugh


As the late Joan Robinson, a Cambridge economist, once wrote, “the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all”. Her quip, written in 1962, was inspired by underemployment in South-East Asia. Since then, capital has busily “exploited” workers in that region and its giant northern neighbour, much to their benefit. Now it is time for capital to invest in them.

It must be the running gag of every abusive relationship that the misery of being abused is nothing compared to the misery of not having an abuser. You know: hilarious!

Yes, the humor really shines when people have nowhere to turn. Women receive the same advice about husbands anytime they have no options available to them outside of marriage: Make the best of it, dear; that's just the way things are!

But notice how such cleverness becomes stupidity just as soon as other options arise -- precisely that moment when an abuse can no longer be summed up as "just the way things are."