Monday, January 31, 2011

Hoping for the Best

From the NY Times, an article describing the class conflict lying just below the surface of the Egyptian uprising. Hat tip to Che Bob. A wealthy beneficiary of the Mubarak regime and policies says from behind the wall of his upscale gated "community":

"I wish we could be like the United States with a democracy, but we cannot. We have to have a ruler with an iron hand."

Implicit in this statement is the persons admiration of a system which has so perfected the illusion of liberal, neutral "democracy" to mask the kind of inequality he enjoys. It is so much more Western and sophisticated to convince your citizens they are free, to make them complicit in their own oppression! This iron hand is so crude, so 1980's.

Am I saying a "bourgeois democracy" is no better than a dictatorship? No. I am saying it is all contingent.An Egyptian elite with his yacht and mansion looks at the minority American rotting in prison on a drug possession charge. I'm free to write my ignored revolutionary manifestos and if capitalist democracy is allowed to flourish in Egypt they may elect their own Ronald Reagan or Silvio Berlusconi in a few years.

Dr.Ahmed Zewail believes "a constitutional assembly of wise men should be assembled to draft a new constitution, based on liberty, human rights and the orderly transition of power."
There you go, some Founding Fathers with large land holdings and superior educations perhaps?
They could inscribe the freedom of private property, capital and markets along with the liberty to pass dynastic wealth from one generation to the next and start to really BE somebody! I believe you could get Hillary behind that one.

I saw two amazing interviews yesterday. Both John Kerry and Tom Friedman were in Davos and were asked their reactions to what was going on in Egypt. The tip toe, Death Mask blathering about "flat earth" and " stability" and "rights" was priceless. The doubling of oil prices may have some effect on "stability" however and I know Ehud Barak is in a tizzy. The one thing they all share is a deep distrust of democracy.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Act

"An Act always involves a radical risk, what Derrida, following Kierkegaard, called the MADNESS of a decision: it is a step into the open, with no guarantee about the final outcome- why? Because an Act retroactively changes the very coordinates into which it intervenes. This lack of guarantee is what critics cannot tolerate:they want an Act without risk- not without empirical risks, but without the much more radical 'transcendental' risk that the Act will not only simply fail, but radically misfire...It is here that one can see how an Act proper cannot be contained within the limits of democracy (conceived as a positive system of legitimizing power through free elections). The Act occurs in an emergency when one has to take the risk and act without legitimization, engaging oneself in a kind of Pascalean wager that the Act itself will create the conditions of it's retroactive legitimization."

Slajov Zizek from his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Our group has been talking lately about leaps into the unknown (un-knowable). My problem with Zizek's approach is: how does one recognize such an "emergency"? George Bush sensed such an emergency and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan wagering the acts would later be legitimized.Hitler, Stalin, PolPot, Franco, The Symbionese Liberation Army, they all felt their moment to be an "emergency" and that history would later absolve them.

This is where the inner liberal comes out in me, the one who senses something in the warnings of Isaiah Berlin, Popper and Arendt at the same time he rejects their anti-utopian arguments. Since we can never KNOW the true moment of emergency, I would rather put my lot in with some degree of popular will, knowing full well it can be quite wrong. At least we must stop and ask if we are acting purely as a vanguard or it we are listening as well.

What about those in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Western Sahara, soon probably Iran? These movements certainly argue for the Act as does any uprising in the past for justice. So how might we discern the necessity for an Act? Which side of history we are on when we decide to stop talking and start doing?

In his book Picture Imperfect Russell Jacoby makes a case for Utopianism which confronts much the same dilemma. He says beware the "blueprint utopian" who "more often betray a will for domination than for freedom; they prescribe how free men and women should act..". Jacoby argues for "iconoclastic utopians" who "did not surrender to the drumbeat of everyday emergencies" . Still, the "everyday" unfolds before us and presents Moments when one must choose whether to Act or not. Perhaps there is no trustworthy guide, only imagination and will.

Unrest and Winning the Future

I have heard only peripherally the degree to which rising food prices contributes to the revolts and unrest spreading like wildfire around the Middle East and North Africa. Tomorrow the Muslim Brotherhood joins the protests in Egypt and I know one country in the region that is going to start feeling very isolated and alone. The "Palestinian papers" don't help matters. As an aside, this whole self-immolation thing seems a little over the top. I remember the Buddhist monks doing it in Viet Nam. It is also favored by women in India who are desperate.

As for Obama's speech, these competitive references, "race to the top", "winning the future" might pump up the team but has he really watched the team sprint around the track lately? People no longer ask what their country can do for them OR what they can do for their country. Now they ask : Would you like fries with that? or Could you supersize that?

Pagan has Sarah Palins facebook response on his blog which is: let the private sector fix the roads, bridges,infra-structure etc. and do all the educating, research and innovation.Let Wall Street handle your retirement and someone other than "Big Business" get us all plenty of carbon based energy.I personally liked Michelle Bachman over the other little dude.

The Utah State Senate is considering a bill just passed in the house to make a Browning the State Gun. Montana doesn't have a state gun but we can now kill animals with blunt objects (HB 161) I listened to the State of the State delivered by Gov.Brian Schwietzer last night and the biggest applause line came (from Democrats and Republicans) when he announced the worlds largest coal company was starting to dig what will be millions of tons of especially dirty coal out of a pristine river valley. Also big revenue out of the oil patch and the biggest wheat crop ever.Everythings comin up roses!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cabal

It always cracks me up that local right-wingers and "inside job" type lefties come together on the fear that a shadowy cabal of elitists exists "somewhere out there." Hello people, ever hear of Davos, Switzerland? The ruling class makes a huge show about their little get together, splashing it across the front of all the papers. It's on again for next week and they may still have some tickets left.

It's openly called the World Economic Forum.Google is going to throw a party estimated to cost $250,000. Sulley Sullenberger is a featured speaker. A Strategic Partnership costs $622.000 but you still have to pay the $3,400 from Zurich and back for helicopter service.( there is a free bus for those "worried about their environmental footprint") I imagine that riding the bus gives you the same kind of cred as getting tear gassed in Seattle does for Anti-globalistas.

There are doubts creeping into the champagne and caviar however.The founder and executive chairman is expressing his own "concern that governments and international organizations can no longer cope with the capacity and fast pace of this new reality" (capitalist crisis) A CEO said "You always feel like you are in the wrong place. like the real Davos is happening in secret." Even those in the cabal think there is a cabal! Because the "cabal" isn't people, it is a logic.It's everywhere but you can't really touch it.

From the Merrill Lynch Cap Gemini World Wealth Report: The total liquid wealth of the rich in 2009, 39 trillion, was 2/3 of WORLD GDP. A year when global unemployment grew by 14.4%. High Net Worth Individuals (1 million) grew by 17% but Ultra- HNWI's outpaced them. There are only 36,300 of them (.0005% of population) but they now have 35.5% of the worlds wealth ( 14 trillion)

So as U.S. luxury spending rebounds, the Economix blog at the NY Times writes : The Moral Heart of Economics. "There is a deep moral tenet, a belief in the value of human freedom- at the core of our discipline."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Local Follies

Our local Human Rights Alliance brought in a speaker for the annual MLK Day gathering. He talked about Tea Party ties to hate groups, militia groups, Koch brothers, John Birch etc and he showed some demographics, survey results, and other data in yet another liberal attempt to understand these wacky neighbors.His starting point was established at the beginning when he stressed "This is not a populist movement" over and over again.

It is important for liberals to avoid discussions and analysis which is in any way economic because it could lead to nasty questions about their beloved market system. (In fact the progressive who received the award that night spent almost five minutes of his speech pre-emptively defending democratic capitalism as imperfect but reformable)

Their job is made easier by actual haters, like whoever placed the bomb on the Spokane parade route, and the knuckleheads who now oversee our legislature here in Montana. Their latest victory was a bill to make it legal to hunt animals with a blunt object.I'm serious here.Now they want to use the Federal data base (which they hate) to find illegal aliens applying for drivers licenses. They also dominated local races such as our county commission and the City Council in Big Timber which is dismantling a city park because they see it as an ominous sign of the U.N "Agenda 21", which calls on governments to adopt national strategies for sustainable development.

Yes, actual racism and homophobia and xenophobia need to be confronted.Hate groups should be challenged. But the deeper analysis would see their rise associated with economic uncertainty and then ask what is wrong with this economic model? Why does "sustainable development" cut into our pocket book? Knuckleheads will take care of themselves as they find governing with no money forces them farther and farther down the rabbit hole. Our local commissioners can wear their guns now but will find this freedom doesn't stop the suffering and misery associated with social breakdown.

The REAL challenge is for these liberals to admit their failures,open themselves up to something new and try moving into that tension filled, uncertain space where you have to listen instead of talking all the time. If they listened to their neighbors they would hear their own suppressed fears expressed. This Isn't Working. Problems are Not Being Addressed. The Future is Bleak for Our Children. Why Are Leaders Always Corrupt? Do I really Want to Pay More Taxes to a War Machine?

"But Malcolm X got what was coming. He got what he asked for this time.
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal."
Phil Ochs

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Finding Common Ground

Obama has mastered the language of compromise and pragmatism and after being disciplined in this last election he has his priorities straight. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient answers his fellow recipient (languishing in a Chinese jail) with a commitment to "fair trade". By selling more things to the Chinese people he advances the cause of "human rights" on both sides, as he and his corporate underwriters understand "rights".

The uncomfortable fact that One Party capitalism is doing so well in China is glossed over in many ways. General Electric, which has been in China for over a hundred years, is no doubt recommending the U.S. political model: Get as many televisions into as many homes as quickly as possible and then invent two Spectacular Parties ( call them the Dragons versus the Carp, for instance) who can "debate the issues". They could quickly get their own Glen Beck installed and a Teddy Kennedy and point to this lively exchange as "dialogue". They can figure out their own version of half-time at the Super Bowl and Tavis Smiley Show.

As for events in Tunisia and Ducky's fear that leftist voices will not be heard in a re-formation, I don't have much to go on. There are pieces on Renegade Eye and Leninology that explain some of the history and balance of forces. If the revolution goes the way of total constitutional overhaul, I think the U.S. and other protectors of neoliberalism will get involved in stopping any contagion.

As it stands now, I think the powerful unions of Tunisia do have a class analysis and the Islamists are moderate enough that a coalition is possible ( though full of tensions) And once again U.S. commentators are in that tricky position of having to explain just why we have backed certain autocratic regimes and not others.

Two of the biggest mysteries to me are Yodoods position on Ayn Rand and Lichanos on man's contribution to global climate change.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Back to the Garden

I'm involved in a number of interesting discussions right now (and I'll include this blog) but one is an investigation into John Holloway's notion of "cracks" in capitalism.He would have us believe this seemingly sturdy monolith can be brought down by various fissures uniting (one of his metaphors is a block of ice), sometimes re-freezing, always running off in different directions, etc

Much referential value is given to the movement known as Zapatismo, resistance by the mostly indigenous peoples of Chiapas, in the form of demands for autonomy.One of Holloway's cracks is "the creation of a territorial base for developing different social relations,be it in the Lacondon Jungle...or a social center in Milan."

It reminds this old hippy of the calls for creating "intentional community" back when we rejected our parents soul sapping suburban life and were forming a "Woodstock nation" that was seeking ways to get itself "back to the Garden." It was a deep premonition that alienation from nature was a problem for our species as were rigid subjectivities. ( lose the suit, become a "freak"). Holloway also has a critique of identity:

"Identification or reification is an enormously destructive force in everyday struggle..we enclose ourselves within limits."

I see two different problems here: one is the tension between moving forward and looking backward. Those in the Lacondon Jungle believe there is an ancient knowledge/wisdom within ( cosmovision), embedded, which must be somehow retrieved. This was part of tribal hippiness as well.The other pull is forward, saying lose all that, re-analyze everything and look for an entirely new form. a "new man" as Adorno put it, thinking dialectically that nothing stays the same. According to Foucault : "...we cannot use the same concepts.."

The other problem is that for Holloway, it is enough to just crack capitalism, as an anarchist he doesn't want to pre-figure anything that might " convert it into a positive concept that might give it a deadening fixity." This reminds me of the faith capitalists place in "the invisible hand".

I have always felt subjectivity can't be voluntarily abandoned but that all identity ( gay, worker, Zapotec, etc) must be consciously prioritized so that "worker", that is your identity within the relations of production, becomes primary. If a "relentless criticism" of "the capitalist system, from 'top to bottom'",as Joel Kovel puts it, is combined with worker identity, capital can be attacked at the place it is most vulnerable, the "crack" can be focused and concentrated through organization (no waiting for magical forces).

There are better ways to live and we all want to escape the "Desert of the Real" as Zizek calls it and find something real. These discussions were unimaginable in our community just a few short years ago and I see an oasis off in the distance.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Out With The Old

in with the old. Obama's pick of Gene Sperling for president of the National Economic Council should convince the last looney holdout that he is no socialist. ( of course it won't) No friend of the working man, old Gene, although he is presented as a "progressive", the least informative term since Gen X. This is some of Gene's "progressive" thinking from his 2007 book Rising Tide Economics:

"For Americans, shared prosperity, an opportunity for upward mobility, and economic outcomes determined more by merit than the accident of birth are fundamental to who we are as a nation..."

Pagan, somebody, help me out here. Isn't "merit", that is, cognitive skills, talent, health, physical strength,coordination, determined at least in part by "the accident of birth"? How about luck? Opportunities dropping from heaven, right place right time? How much do we reward those with less aversion to risk? Is that meritorious? What might the "moral hazard" be in rewarding lucky gamblers with the most power and wealth?

As for his (and Jack Kennedy's) Rising Tide lifting all boats, has he not looked at the Gini co-efficient lately? Many sink, a few still tread water and a select few ride away on the yacht.He proposes no taxes ( it will drive off investment!), no public works programs, (bureaucratic) and plenty of public investment in university research. ( let the public pay and business profit) He suggests bringing back call-center jobs for working class. So he is no Austrian, perhaps, but "progressive"?

Sperling actively promoted the over-valuation of the dollar during the Clinton years, pushing down manufacturing wages and eliminating many jobs ( outsourced). The massive trade (not budget) deficits were the result of this strong dollar, deficits which in turn led to shortfalls in demand, filled by bubble generated growth. The kind we are experiencing right now.

They won't have a TARP to throw over the next crisis of capitalism and Gene Sperling will be lucky to find a call center job.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Grand Bargain

At some point after World War II a bargain was tacitly struck, here in the United States, between labor, capital, and government. It was a deal that would facilitate economic growth, limit social unrest and let the country take full advantage of it's superior position in terms of global economics.Each party to the deal recognized how it's own interests would be served.

Basically, labor said it would limit disruptive direct action and adopt a more cooperative attitude toward management. It would no longer agitate ( certainly not the way it had) as a force to structurally change society as long as a big enough share of profit was steered their way. This is the period when the much touted "middle class" grew at an unprecedented rate, a pension system was formed and "collective bargaining" was institutionalized along with a National Labor Board for mediation.Capital was happy with the arrangement because the U.S. dominated every sector, including manufacturing. Wall Street didn't need risky speculation to make money, profit was everywhere. Three chickens in every pot!

For it's part, government taxed the wealthy and broke monopolies but also invested heavily in economic "partnerships" with business, doing research, educating a workforce and hiring lots of "defence contractors" spread out throughout the country. While Ike warned us about the Military Industrial Complex the working class became more fixated on those evil Soviets and Castro.Proxy resource wars as well as wars of good old ideology made sure there would be plenty of work building bombs.

The Bargain unravelled slowly at first. The post war countries we helped rebuild devised social systems which gave them competitive advantage and their factories were modernized. The U.S. kept getting into those expensive wars which the working class supported and paid for, reducing their purchasing power for other goods. Luckily there were suddenly credit cards! In the 70's, Big Business realized loyalty to America was absurd, natural resources were easier to get AND the value could be added in foreign lands ( by bribery or installing governments if need be) and investment began to flee. With the election of Reagan "greedy unions" became the perfect scapegoat for our lack of competitiveness and The Grand Bargain was shredded by Capital and the Government it controlled. This left workers betrayed but with no recourse.

The documentary film The Red Tail shows the post-Bargain landscape, what is now called globalisation, in painful detail. It focuses on the 444 day strike by North Western Airlines mechanics in 2005. The company said it needed to lay off 53 % of it's workforce and outsource the jobs to Asia to stay "competitive". They had no trouble finding temp workers, that is scabs, and eventually the AFL-CIO itself crossed the line. Solidarity was effectively destroyed.

The Bargain turns out to have been a con.The "middle class" by it's very definition means there will be an upper and a lower class but high wage workers chose self-interest over changing society. Now unions are busted along with the country and they must pay the price along with the rest of us.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Eco-localism

One of the main projects adopted by progressive, anti-corporate, anti-globalization, environmentalist-type- folks is building local food systems. Around here it has expanded into local currency/ barter systems, farmers markets, community gardens and cooperatives. Because it is a very rural area (western Montana) there are lots of folks who make efforts to get "off the grid", raise their own food, and try to be both self-sufficient and leave as small an ecological footprint as possible.Small is Beautiful.

In terms of politics, most of these folks seem to support the notion of "green capitalism", that is, they are fine with private ownership of productive property, fine with "regulated" markets and willing to put their energy into pro-Kyoto, pro -cap and trade type campaigns. They recycle and drive hybrids.

This essay
by a guy named Albo ( hat tip to Che Bob) provides a thorough critique of these tendencies. Even Bookchin's Social Ecology, with it's attention to property relations, gets swiped at as a reformist, anarchist evasion of true social transformation.

Not that Albo is an all or nothing type revolutionary, he sees the usefulness of local action, he just wants it embedded in a wider, Marxist analysis. Think nested, concentric orders of power and agency. Like a dartboard or target, with local in the bulls eye.

We know the problems of so-called no-growth or "steady state" green capitalism. It would take a powerful political movement to create a strong enough central state structure to regulate it, to incentivise or green tax your way past externalities. Who wants such a state, even if it were possible? At a more basic level, can we really rely on prices to transmit perfect information about ecologically sustainable outcomes? Hasn't happened so far.Eternal optimists believe in "technological and organizational transformation", you know, Meet the Jetsons, but capitalist development is too uneven to be just. Just is!

Eco-localism has value as a model, as a way to start organizing, but it is not a movement for justice, democracy or emancipation unless it is accompanied by an explicit anti-capitalist critique. It avoids the tricky questions of politics: how does one locality negotiate with another? With the watershed? The outside world? Antagonism isn't going away just because we are small. And the autonomy is just an illusion, capital can crush it whenever it gets tired of the game.

"Liberated ecological and political spaces can only be defended to the extent that the scale and scope of capitalist market logic is reduced and democracy extended."

The whole idea of local resources for local needs makes California or anywhere around the 30th Parallel a pretty nice location but Montanans would be back to venison, bitterroots and pickled cabbage.