Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Telling the truth

Fouad Ajami, Wall Street Journal:

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

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

Damned if you do

Karl Marx; Capital, Vol. 2:

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Time management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Good news for the bored

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The preferential option for humanity

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Practicing anarchism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Parable of the preacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where you are is what you know


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

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

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

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

Thanks to almostinfamous

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Honoring veterans

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Capital: A basic review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The "then" commandments


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

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

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

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

Monday, November 08, 2010

Korean liberalism

Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

See also femenins

Saturday, November 06, 2010

An American president

Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 05, 2010

Family ties


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Close to me

Financial Times:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Fast friends

Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


Financial Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 01, 2010

Protest and promotion on the Mall

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

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

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