Tuesday, August 30, 2011

PSA from my mom

Going away for a while. When I come back I hope you will be fully prepared to discuss Season 1 of the Jersey Shore.

Also: My mom really wants me to tell you not to hold your cell phone directly against your skull or gonads. It's microwave radiation, after all. See the related book, Disconnect -- but beware the verb which fashionably becomes a noun.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Marx and communism

Samuel Brittan, Financial Times:

Marx has suffered not only from sycophants, but from critics who identify him with the Stalin dictatorship or even the regime of Mao Zedong. It is, of course, absurd to blame Marx, who lived from 1818 to 1883, for the crimes committed decades after his death. Indeed, the great man himself once said: “Whatever else I am, I am not a Marxist.” Many serious analysts have written on what Marx meant or should have meant. I am not one of their number and my main excuse for giving my own highly selective take is that I have neither demonised nor worshipped the man.

The aspect of Marx that originally intrigued me was his division of history after the end of the Dark Ages -- feudalism, capitalism, socialism and communism. By socialism Marx meant something like an extreme version of the British Labour party’s former clause four, which envisaged public ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange. But communism did not have anything like its later meaning. It was a utopia in which a short working day would provide all society’s needs and people would be free to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and discuss philosophy in the evening”. The vision of such a society kept in the Marxist fold some idealists who might otherwise have bolted.

The basic idea here is that industrialization lets you produce a lot. If production were oriented toward meeting people's needs rather than turning out ever-increasing amounts of disposable junk for profit, people could work relatively little while living in abundance. That's theoretical communism, as Marx envisioned it.

To his credit, Brittan gets a lot of this right. He mixes up the issue of "return on capital" with Marx's concern that the employer/employee relation is based on dependency: the employer extracts profit through an unequal power relation. For Marx, profit isn't wrong because you charge more than the cost of production; it is wrong when you appropriate for yourself (the employer) a value that has been created by others (the employees).

Anyway, see what you think.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Libya and the left

US citizens have a relationship to their government which obligates them to oppose its crimes against themselves and others. Because this is an uncontroversial principle amongst the radical left, it is usually assumed to be part of a shared outlook.

While the US radical left inherits this relationship to its own government, it also has the potential to develop relationships with other popular or principled groups beyond what is implied through domestic resistance alone. We show support and solidarity for others fighting different fights, or the same fight in different places.

Regarding Libya, most of us are fine on the first point, rhetorically anyway, since that's what we are already doing, most of the time. We point out what's criminal about US foreign policy, for example, a lot. Good!

It's worth bearing in mind that what is criminal about US foreign policy is our responsibility, primarily. Libya is an example where a popular rebellion seeking to remove a dictator solicited international assistance to down the dictator's air force and other heavy military infrastructure. In the current geopolitical context, "international assistance" effectively means NATO, and NATO means the US. US interests are not Libyan interests. But none of this is the Libyans' fault, anymore than it was necessarily their fault that they needed assistance in the first place.

It's remarkable to me that portions of the US left get this backwards -- that because the rebellion required assistance, the rebels are compromised for having received the only available kind. Why weren't other kinds available? Why does the only kind available look so grim? We might look at ourselves -- at our relationship with our own government -- and not the people facing the tanks.

So on my second point, when it comes to showing solidarity toward people who not only don't control the global order but are sacrificing a lot more than most of us to change it, it's worth putting our responsibilities in perspective when compared to theirs.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Radicalism and reform

Anarchism has always made the point, correctly, that states exist to defend a minority of wealth and privilege against the majority of the community. They don't exist to provide necessary services to the majority: they only do this when the majority compels them, or when failure to do so imposes a cost that is unacceptably high. If you just tune out and let a government do its thing, like most of us do when we are preoccupied with trying to survive, you see lots more government for the rich and much "less government" for everybody else. That's happening right now, in fact.

When people understand this -- that government "represents" them only when it has no choice -- they are in a better position to influence their government -- and in the past they have. The achievements, like Social Security, unemployment benefits, and any other number of rights and freedoms, are at the same time 1) very important to people and 2) not bound to the point about the nature of government in any particular way. You might support them for the simple reason that no non-state substitutions yet exist to address those problems.

There are radical reasons for supporting moderate reforms when the proposed alternative is not yet plausible, as is the case when vulnerable populations, encompassing both majority and minority groups, retain more confidence in government solutions than non-government proposals. That most Americans associate "no government" with free-market capitalism or gang rule, instead of highly-organized societies liberated from coercive rule, is an indication that we have a lot more work to do before the point that governments defend the rich can be of greater immediacy than what is daily required to survive.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The grapes of laughs

The New York Times wants to know how much an apple would cost if farm workers had rights like other Americans. Might it unduly discourage US consumers from eating their fruits and veggies? Could the industry even survive? And doesn't it insult hardworking immigrant workers to suggest that their rights aren't good enough already -- that they need to live up to our lofty standards? Join the informed debate -- only at nytimes.com.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Capital concerns

Gautam Malkani, Financial Times:

Another much-discussed difference was the role of consumerism. In place of the traditionally anti-capitalist stance of previous youth counter-cultures came reports of rioters in low-end fashion retailers, engaged in the new practice of “trying before you loot”. This form of extreme consumerism meant that, by the end of the week, the biggest bogeyman was our culture of rampant materialism and instant gratification. In a consumer society, identities are constructed from owning things. But the widespread sense of self-entitlement revealed by the riots also betrays a broader fetishism of objects. Some of Britain’s urban centres are so atomised that it is now easier to connect with things than with people. Likewise, digitally reduced attention spans have also contributed to a culture of superficial “bling”.

You see, rampant materialism and instant gratification don't normally betray a broader fetishism of objects. If you spend your money on electronics products instead of nutritious foods, that's healthy. If you have new rims but no roof -- no problem! Only you know what is best for you. Treat yourself. You've earned it.

But how to explain the behavior of those whose self-entitlement has eclipsed the most pressing needs of others: the need for profit amongst the profiteers? Capital has its own line of cultural criticism, and it has delivered a verdict: There is something very wrong with society, indeed!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Indignities of labor


The movement [Joe] Hill lived and died for has proved less durable. As Mr Adler recalls, the Wobblies flourished for a brief, electrifying moment at the dawn of the 20th century, when industrial capital was new, raw and brutal. At the time the IWW’s vision of a new worker-controlled order seemed “if not on the verge of becoming reality, not preposterous either”.

And yet the fundamental relationships have not changed. Americans, for example, have yet to achieve the same "rights and freedoms" in the workplace that they revere everywhere else -- freedom of speech, freedom of association, the right to privacy, elected representation, etc. -- and this in the very space where they spend the bulk of their lives! To step into the private workplace is to surrender one's rights on a daily basis; surrendering them all the more, the more hours one works. The paradox must be regarded as natural in the context of capitalist "government by the people": the governors are not the people, and the people spend precious little of their time governing; rather, they are working, and with no access to the rights by which they regard themselves American.

Concomitant to questions of rights and freedoms, however, there are perceptions of dignity, and it is only by obscuring the relationship between classes that US culture has arrived at a place where dignity becomes more a question of fitting in than acting human. Not bearing the stamp of social exclusion is significant: to be a "team member" is qualitatively different than being "illegal," even if neither means being free. To be singled-out for a special abuse within its broader application is what most people notice and respond to best, as opposed to general lack of freedom in "the way things are."

In the early industrial period, the working classes understood themselves as occupying this role of social inferiority. They weren't yet consumers or title-inflated quasi-professionals. Because household wealth was not contrived through debt, they had fewer illusions about how far their actual wealth could take them. Wherever they lacked the means, they went without. They understood their "place" as assigned by class.

Today there are many more avenues for American poor and working people to "keep up appearances" via consumer credit than in the earlier periods attended by labor radicalism. You can own an Escalade, and nobody has to know your social standing based on the clothes you wear. Orwell writes about being shamed for not having money to buy a loaf of bread: the whole neighborhood might know he was a pauper, and treat him that way.1 But in the US today, even if you dress like a bum you might be a wealthy person; the implications under consumerism just aren't as obvious.

When communities detect they are being singled-out, they often flare up, and this comes back to questions of dignity, though not always freedom. Dignity relates to how one is seen, and whether one's place warrants respect. One's place needn't be a place of equality of power with others -- what freedom means -- it could be an "honorable" position of servitude: being seen as a "human being," even if human beings aren't free.

It's much easier to organize into accepted standards than to organize beyond them. When workers of the 1910s saw their rich neighbors enjoying "the good things in life" they saw things they wanted for themselves that they couldn't obtain by any other means than fighting. When workers today see things they want for themselves, they become indebted to rich people to have them. They don't have to go without in the eyes of others, but the price they pay is their freedom, and there is nothing dignified about that.

1. Orwell, writing in the same general period, but from Europe; Down and Out in Paris and London.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A socialist case against "small government"


Once upon a time the American right led the world when it came to rethinking government; now it is an intellectual pygmy. The House Republicans could not even get their budget sums right, so the vote had to be delayed. A desire to curb Leviathan is admirable, but the tea-partiers live in a fantasy world in which the deficit can be reduced without any tax increases: even Mr Obama’s attempts to remove loopholes in the tax code drive the zealots into paroxysms of outrage.

Because the Republican Party’s electoral strategy amounts to identifying the US government as “large” on one hand, while positioning themselves as “opposed” on the other, there is something irresistible about watching when they succeed at big government.

“Big government” is actually redundant. To the extent that we have government in the world today, it is going to be big -- and grow bigger. We can debate what kind of big government it will be -- what it does and where it does more of it -- but it’s not going to become smaller. No government limits its size or tempers its ambitions, insofar as a potential remains. Republican administrations are proof enough of this in and of themselves.

To advocate smaller government is in fact to pursue a course identical to every politician: to reduce or eliminate the programs you don’t like while expanding the ones you do. It is in this way that governments grow larger over time, not smaller, irrespective of ideology.

One of the advantages of a socialist perspective is that it presumes this to be the case: it does not pretend that big government becomes smaller by putting individuals philosophically opposed to big government on its payroll. Consequently, it assumes that how the government expands, who it helps and who it hurts, is the meaningful question, insofar as governments in their current form exist.

Since long before the time of Karl Marx, socialists have thought seriously about the possibilities for getting rid of government altogether, since the whole business about making it smaller is truly utopian. Even Marx conceived the evolution of socialism as culminating in communism, which he defined as a stateless society. That is certainly ideal, since it implies some kind of "self-government" which encompasses social and economic pursuits. But presently we are a long way from it -- and in the meantime government continues to expand.

The wrangling over a debt deal in Washington this week revolved not around questions of big or small government, but which parts of an ever-expanding government deserve to be curbed. In fact, it is the same debate that has gone on ever since the US government got into the business of fielding concerns incidental to business -- like public health, for example. Cuts invariably fall on those least able to influence their government: people who are either too poor, too busy working, or too few in number to make an impact politically. Since most of us fall into one or more of these categories, the cuts fall on people like you and me.

The Tea Partiers are an interesting case of ordinary people organized by much wealthier people around this idea that government is too big; it is too “socialist.” Again, socialism as a tradition was never meant to describe “big government.” Socialists presumed modern governments were big; they distinguished themselves by insisting that government work more actively on behalf of working people and the poor, since every government already works actively on behalf of the rich. (The last point is universally true, and forms the animating inspiration behind “government” in the first place.)

A good question to ask when government becomes smaller is “Have my burdens become larger?” This might include a rise in the retirement age, a hike in public transit fares, or the now prevalent expectation amongst young people that Social Security will someday cease to exist. These are all examples of areas where the US government, which is indeed big, has in the past made life easier for ordinary people rather than making it more onerous.

Tea Party claims notwithstanding, we can rest assured that big government will carry on unabated; and by one means or another it will always assist the rich. The only question is whether you can honestly count yourself in that category.