Wednesday, April 29, 2009

An Interesting Find

First off, oops.No more jokes about swine flu. I'm wondering how those who think over-population is our planets biggest problem view pandemics? Lesser of two evils? Natures revenge?

I mentioned the little collective book store in Portland ( fantasy check: me living out my days surrounded by radical literature, chatting with activists, eating avacado and cheese sandwiches in just such a little grotto) where I found this gem, Work Politics and Power :an International Perspective on Workers Control and Self-management by Assef Bayat. In it he describes four approaches, the first being the corporatist approach advanced by the International Labor organization.(ILO) He states:

"..the ILO perpective focuses mainly on the issues of raising the productivity of labour and providing conditions for industrial peace- issues on which organized workers are assumed to stand as partners with the employers and managers. In an atmosphere of cooperation, all parties are assumed to benefit from improvement in individual companies and in the economy as a whole. capital and labour are viewed as having an equal position, being engaged in free agreement; the state is to act as a neutral arbitrator between the two..."

Sound familiar? This is the dominant narrative accepted by liberal and conservative both, it is what in fact unites them in their utopian vision of late capitalism.It is further enhanced by a religious devotion to techno-scientism.
" in it's assesment of the new forms of work organization, for example, job enlargement or job enrichment , the ILO suggests that 'sophisticated and diversified scientific and technical methadology furnishes a group for the emergence of these new forms of workers participation.'

I call this Google-ization ( disclosure: my son-in-law works for them) with all it's lax atmosphere, pampering, hidden- hierachical structure etc. and creativity development. It's better than the killing floor, no doubt, but consider what else it replaces.

Bayat goes on to discuss Third Way Approaches ( worker participation/management but could include private ownership) ,an "aggressive encroachment approach, ( sort of following Gramsci, that is worker control as a vehicle for political change at the societal level) The fourth is the Workers State approach identified with anarcho/syndicalists, libertarian Marxists and council communists.( who disagree on HOW to get there) This takes the form of councils or freely associated communities of workers as an alternative to a bureacratic state or centralized planning, etc..

Published in 1991, the work foresees many of the problems that thinkers like Albert and Hahnel have been working on in their development of Parecon. New issues, especially in the division of labour, led to analysis of a "coordinator class" and "job complexes" and it is interesting to read the history of the thinking that brought us to this point.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Outbreak of Fear

According to CNN swine flu is sweeping across the nation, in fact..oh my it comes now.. noooo! Negro Presidents, Kim Jung Il and now this!

Actually, I want to write about an invite I got to attend a discussion of The Great Turning, a "movement" inspired by the writing of David Korten. It came from an organization whose listserve I am on, Sustainable Living Systems, which promotes "local solutions", mostly in the form of food systems and ecological awareness issues like clean energy, mass transit, etc..They are deliberately vague about their politics but it seems they think this Great Turning is sort of stepping it up a notch in terms of radicalism and I am wondering if it presents an opportunity to present an anti-capitalist critique.There has been a tension for a while between these eco-types, semi-hippie freegans, young farmers,etc and the more politically militant types ( me, basically) in the area. Much of what they do is in a sense"resistance" and it has a spiritual, moralistic aspect, which has helped them successfully organize far more folk than me certainly! But I still think the analysis is flawed right at the most critical juncture, condemning this "progressive" movement to the same old liberal irrelevancy. Reformism will always be co-opted.

According to Korten "we make war with our brethren and our environment because we do not know our place in the cosmos". Yes, perhaps, but WHY don't we? There are calls to "redesign our economic system from the bottom up" and see that "the role...of government to create a supportive framework within which people, communities, entrpreneurs and responsible investors ( ?)can bring forth this new economy" though a five part agenda:
Clean up Wall Street
play by market rules
self-finance the real economy
measure what we really need
one other I forgot to write down

There has always been a sort of "New Age" mentality around the organic set here and I'm afraid all this "hope for change" plays right into it. Every well meaning liberal wants "socially efficient market allocation" and more regulation, pure information exchange, progressive taxation and a mandate that "economic power be equitably distributed", in other words a kinder, gentler capitalism. But if wishes were fishes...I'd be out of a job! Have they never read any political-economy, have they never heard of labor struggles or socialism or anarchism, Marx or Kropotkin? Or have they just learned not to mention it?

Most telling for me was the fact that the meeting date is, get this, MAY 1. They don't think of themselves as workers, they won't carry a red flag, they won't march and sing and cause trouble because they will be dancing around a MAYPOLE . And they will get absolutely nowhere with their "Great Turning" except a warm feeling and lots and lots of zuchinni.

update 3 hours later: Guess who was on Alternative Radio this afternoon? No, not the Center for Disease Control, David Korten! he is very well spoken and enthusiastic, has a great critique and mass appeal, but I fear it is because his Turning requires no risk taking. And is Utopian in the social democratic sense. He said to go out and "talk to your neighbors. Honest conversation may be the ultimate revolutionary act." He is against Wall Street and for Main Street, a false dichotomy.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Mr. and Mrs Trout Visit the Big City

We took a great five day jaunt to Portland to visit my daughter/ editor and get a little Metro-funk back in the veins. Clubs, movies, bookstores !(I've already written about Powells Purple Room) Portland is crammed with pale, eco-friendly super hip people, Rescue Missions, artsy students, Asians and high tech executives. Our weather was once again perfect and the tropical-Pacific rainforest was blindingly green and in full bloom.

On a side street I found a collectivist bookstore/restaurant and a copy of Habermas' Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Downtown we sat in the plushest theatre seats in the universe, sipping our merlot and watching An Examined Life. Cornel West driving uptown in a cab, Michael Hardt rowing in Central Park, Martha Nussbaum walking along the lakefront, Kwame Anthony Appiah in an airport, Slavoj Zizek going off in a crazy garbage dump, all riffing on philosophical questions and grand themes while the camera wanders to people and places. It hasn't been particularly well recieved but I believe a movie about IDEAS is totally subversive and revolutionary in this era of Pirate Joe Plumbers and Sarah Limbaugh. Perhaps the subtlety escapes the critics?

As we ate our lamb and pilaf in a little Lebanese restaurant it was fantastically easy to forget there was anything wrong with the world, the Spectacular Illusion is SO complete! Back at our favorite jazz club, many large (large) women bopped and jiggled and sweated like it was 1999. No sign of Tea Baggers anywhere but my daughter assurred me they had a well attended rally here in this liberal bastion. Stop Spending! Democracy Not Socialism! Liberty or Death!

I spent yesterday at a conference on Civil Discourse put on by Montana Humanities and some concerned citizens. It was all corporate-speak "capacity building" and "leadership training", break into small groups and put your ideas on some butcher paper with colored markers blah blah. I'm not being too cynical when I say a totally dysfunctional culture needs more than high paid, super sensitive "facilitators" but I guess you have to start somewhere. The sandwiches were ok. I should have gone next door to the cage fighting/ gun show/ Monster Truck Expo!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Open Veins and Reform

Those familiar with Eduardo Galeanos brilliant book about Latin America ( the one Chavez gave Obama at the summit) know his evocative use of the term "upside down world". This phrase aptly describes our attempt to influence our two US Senators yesterday with visits to their local offices and the voicing of our concerns about US policy regarding Colombia. Our group has been tracking the horrific violence and resistance movements in this region since 2000 and trying to get the marginalized voices in this "upside down world" heard by both citizens and policy makers. These testimonies about aerial fumigation and oil companies and death squads are inevitably greeted with promises about increased accountability and protection of rights and improved oversight. The good Senators always want to support democracy and trade and security because in the "upside down world" the US is a force for Good and a Rising Tide Lifts All Boats. We are told the human rights situation is "improving" and that "trade will benefit both nations". They have their own sources, their own studies, their own "facts". And essentially their task is to preserve capitalism and it's ideology and to make it as palatable as possible.

You may ask, what does a revolutionary syndicalist hope to gain by appealing to Senators? Especially ones like Max Baucus, whose "silence closely resembles stupidity"? The fact is, I go into these offices with no illusions about the hollow formality of our own representative capitalist "democracy", but I believe in putting energy into these groups because, at the level of informing and advocating, this kind of activism can be important and can bring otherwise totally complacent people into the fold of a generalized "opposition" or dissident community. That is the "walking" part.The question is , what happens next? What about "chewing gum"?

As Arundahti Roy puts it "even among the well intentioned, the expansive, magnificent concept of justice is gradually being substituted with the reduced, far more fragile discourse of human rights." Our "social justice" organization is indeed "well intentioned", and still believes in the efficacy of legislative efforts, in legal protections, in legal manuevering within the prescribed limits of capitalist "democratic"institutional frameworks. Unfortunately, just as with those working for "environmental justice", those concerned with "social justice" must see the "upside down" nature of that framework and the essential futility of reform efforts within a capitalist economic structure. Where does that leave us in terms of activism?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taste Your Own Medicine

"Conservatives, libertarians and independents" are caught up in a couple of controversies today, one being the anti-government "Tea Parties" and the other a report that the Dept. of Homeland Security is nervous about "right-wing extremism". This confluence creates a rare, but perfect picture of the almost total incoherence and hypocrisy of a movement stranded on the sandbar of it's own intellectual impoverishment. In the wake of the most progressive tax cuts for American workers in our history these patriots cry out for solidarity for the uber-rich. They implore the Leaders to "let the banks fail" which would, of course, serve my radical left interests rather perfectly. They claim to have their "own economists" ( similar to their own scientists) who advocate no stimulus spending and tax cuts for the rich but no one takes this seriously. They cry out for Freedom and Liberty and have no idea of what it is that enslaves them. The government they hate is their only hope for rescue. ( and they are good at killing pirates! )

On top of this confused, disjointed, inarticulate narrative these same Swiftboat supporting, "Islamofascist" hating, demagogue following knuckleheads are Simply Outraged they might be profiled as Timothy Mc Veigh types. Just because they bought millions of guns (including assault weapons) when Obama was elected. The report mentions the possibility of well trained Iraq- Afgahnistan veterans being fodder for hate groups and so they feel victimized and stigmatized and stereotyped, something they themselves of course excell at with Mc Carthyite zeal. Stupidity itself reaches new plateaus as the Spectacle engages in a shouting match with itself.

My wifes co-worker went through a fast food drive up and found a "tea-bag" in her burger sack with the date and time of a local protest attached to it. These folks know how to organize! Standing in clutches around the country with other camo-dressed Minute Men, they will listen to Sarah Palin or Joe the Plumber try to explain the historical moment they suffer through. They will go home and turn on Fox News to see what kind of turn out they got. I'm headed down there now!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Politics of Memory

" Our goal is to make the first textbook in which------- history will look not as a depressing sequence of misfortunes and mistakes but as something to instill pride in one's country. It is in this way that teachers must teach history..."

If you believe that confronting and understanding one's past is necessary to moving forward, you know that the teaching of history has real importance and that one could fill in the "blank" above with the name of any nation-state. Myth building is the project of the state to facilitate its other goals, such as the accumulation and projection of wealth, power, and prestige.

"In his concluding speech to the history teachers, Putin said:
" As to some problematic pages in our history- yes, we've had them. But what state hasn't? And we've had fewer of such pages than some others. And ours were not as horrible as some of those others....All sorts of things happen in the history of every state. And we cannot allow ourselves to be saddled with guilt..."

Shit happens! and think of all the great things we've done! This is the argument I face every time I protest something, where I attempt to explain some past or present injustice and I'm called an America Hater and told to emphasize the good. Only nine people showed up last night where our presenter from Colombia talked about the effects of US foreign policy and trade on her country, but hundreds will turn out for the "Tea Party" being organized for tomorrow. Each Patriotic American who shows up to protest government involvement in the economy ( the Bail-out, the Fed, Fanny Mae, etc) will have failed to learn or deliberately forgotten the brutal nature of capitalism BEFORE government intervened. In the collective memory hole will be the 150 years of barbaric exploitation and wild fluctuations which led to massive social unrest and revolt, thereby precipitating state involvement.

This ignorance, wilful or designed, serves capitals interests ( let the state be the whipping boy for a week ) and replaces culture with spectacle. Spectators prefer the image ( Paul Revere ) to reality ( working two shitty jobs without healthcare) and they hope their "Tea Party" will go down in history, or some version of history, somewhere.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Letters to the Editor

The modern soapbox is the "letters to the editor" column. Average Joes can try to organize and express their thoughts to their fellow readers through this rapidly disappearing medium. Though it is a rather pathetic excuse for a true public forum in a supposed "democracy", the fact is only a small handful of people ever even use even THIS limited venue. Most "citizens" are never heard from by The People in their entire, quietly desperate lives.

I am one who uses the medium on as regular a basis as allowed to expound on my ideas for radical social change and our paper has an "on-line" space for replies. I will list a few here that I received regarding my last missive:

"Socialists naturally hate it (the market) and any institution of freedom."
"Christianity is a faith of individualism."
"without the division of labor we would still be living under conditions of grinding poverty."
"The government certainly is the exploiting class."
"You think less of the individual and maintain the collect (sp) knows better, you seek to tear down the successful and create interdependence on the system."
"Isn't economic freedom just as important as political freedom?..sure some people are better equipped for the business worls than others and they may just aquire some more material wealth than others."
"In 2000 years of modern history you have no example of your system working but you want to try it."

This is like the Greatist Hits of conservative shibboleths and points to the success of George Lakoffs "elephants", the messaging-talking-point method of dominating the narrative. Liberals are getting better at it but the left-Left is excluded from popular culture and typically promotes understanding rather than sound-bites, a longer term and perhaps questionable strategy in the Television Age ( CNN has a segment of international news they call Around the World in 80 Seconds, I kid you not!). It is fascinating then, given the degree of propagandistic inundation, to see these poll numbers:

"Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 20% say socialism is better. 27% are not sure."

Setting aside the problems around definitions, this is a far greater opening than I could have imagined! There is a deep oppositional streak in Americans, though not always well focused.Lots of peoples grandfathers were socialists or union leaders. LOTS of people know the current order (call it what you want) is a failed, fucked up mess. I'm working on my next Letter!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Meaningful Interpretation

What does it all mean? With all ideology swallowed in the bright, bland, CNN mishmash, the "public" awaits definitive direction and prognostication, or at least some sort of context within which to place events. Do I "want him to fail?" Are "we all socialists now?" Are businessmen the "engine of growth" or greedy swine? Is the "new world order" going to somehow serve me? Are stock markets reacting to Obama? to real information? Are they "protesters" or something more dangerous? How much is a trillion? Is it real money? Have we hit the bottom? Will the economy rebound? Far more questions than answers! As for modern philosophers we might turn to, they are nowhere to be found.

Around the globe, people are returning to that old philosopher Karl Marx to help interpret events. He and those who have further developed his approach provide a thought structure within which we might search for meaning in what seems an incoherent jumble. One key insight which CNN, liberals and conservatives resist with their whole being has to do with individual agency, that within the capitalist system we are not the actors we think we are.

"Capitalism is the form of society that must ruthlessly develop the productive forces, but it develops them in a form that turns their agents into passive victims of the process."

This goes directly against the meme of "hedonistic" consumers, "greedy" bankers, "bad" regulators, "good" workers pushed in popular discourse. In other words assigning values and virtues and a moral structure around what are essentially determined roles obscures the real "enemy". Guy Debord described the process this way:
The spectacle subjects living human beings to it's will ( Beak is just an extreme example) to the extent that the economy has brought them under it's sway. For the spectacle is simply the economic realm developing FOR ITSELF- at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers.

Objectified, we forfeit our agency. Fortunately, periodic crisis serves to interrupt this passive acceptance and causes workers to look at the tail and the dog and figure out what is wagging who.