Monday, February 27, 2012

The Ceremony of Innocence

Every progressive in America is fired up and ready to somehow convert the Occupy energy into support for their reformist agenda. The fact that they have failed so spectacularly up to this point has zero effect on them. Like the un-dead, they simply rise up once more to try the exact same strategy, only this time with more Zeal!

No where is this more in evidence than "The 99% Spring",a campaign by a coalition consisting of Campaign for America's Future, Take back the American Dream, Rebuild the Dream, Rebuild the Dream blah blah blah. Front organizations for MoveOn.org, Change to Win, Progressive Democrats of America, Demos, etc.. Led by Thom Hartmann and Robert Reich, no doubt Rachael Madow will get her face on a fact sheet somewhere. So basically the same well funded crew who want to rebuild the Middle Class and make America Competitive in World Markets, Van Jones, Michael Moore, the pros.

Asked how Rebuild the Dream came up with their "ten point plan", co-founder Natalie Foster said they "crowd sourced" 131,000 ideas. Then, "we took the best ones". Natalie and her NGO pros winnowed it down for The People. This is called "wisdom of the crowd". That's the beauty of Dreams, they are so malleable, such empty signifiers, pure Symbol.

Part of the reason why these zombies will never go away is because they have a whole non-profit empire built up around their petitions and campaigns. Infrastructure, Green Jobs, stronger unions, money out of politics, you know the drill. In their defence, this time around they are planning non-violent direct action which, on it's face, sounds like they are ready to intensify tactics to mobilize occupiers. But at the point of "wanting what they desire", they "lack all conviction".

This is because it is easier for them to "imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism." Capitalist realism, post-modernism, Ceremony, Spectacle. Call it what you will. it feels like the movie Groundhog Day.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tom Friedman - Again

In a recent column, our struggling propagandist for globalization claims that on the new Flat Earth, "individuals have more freedom." This is freedom defined as the "flexibility to develop their own identities." In other words, if you are a straight man and you want to be a lesbian, Go For It! Who is stopping you? Thank God Almighty, Free at last!

The problem lies not, therefore, in freedom, but in an essential conflict between those who are "ambitious, gifted, dynamic, talented" vs "people who lack social capital", you know, losers. I guess I just assumed that was why they were building those FEMA camps, to house the "innovatively Challenged" (the new PC term). Tom worries about this stuff, bless his liberal heart. Meritocracy is his Church, the Temple where he worships.

Thomas Edsall asks some big questions on his NYTimes blog including this one straight out of Occupy: "Has surging income of the 1% reached a point where the political leverage of the very affluent outweighs the electorate at large?" Sincere but again, look at the underlying assumption of a viable "political" system. It's an illusion.It's Senator Russ Feingold and Colbert Super Pac and Citizens United Move to Amend blah blah.A house of mirrors, a diversion, a smokescreen. But what if you asked: ..a point where the cultural productive capacity of the 1% determines the conditions of possibility? Or has achieved hegemonic dominance?

In a critique of classic economic theory Michael Spence points out: "Market incentives are good at efficiency, growth and innovation. They are proving weak or deficient in stability, equity and sustainability." Here we should question the real value of innovation. Aren't we just locked in a cycle of trying to innovate away the problems the last innovations caused? This is not an anti-technology critique, but a question of how and where it is directed. What if we concentrated on already known, basic stuff like food, water, medicine, education, governance? Oh yeah, I forgot, not much profit margin. Sorry.

Last but certainly not least, we have Francis "End of History" Fukuyama asking; Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class? Again, wrong question. If poor Francis could ever catch up he might ask; Can the Planet Survive the Global Middle Class? Full of innovations and "ambitious, gifted, talented" trans-gender innovators?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Representation

Rather than discuss demands or vision (how to want what we desire), the greater Occupy movement is engaged in a great debate over tactics, specifically, violence and non-violence. Of course, once again there is little agreement on the definition of the terms, but it is obvious the degree to which Gandhi and Martin Luther King and the representation of their specific struggles are influencing the arguments.

I think it is a good time to look at the politics of representation itself,the power of symbols, who controls the conveyance of those symbols and how our historical moment might require new approaches. At the heart of this lies the image and it's force, not just the visual ( although it is crucial) but also narrative structures, myths, stories and meaning.These are the not-so-new battlegrounds, and, like Tahrir Square or Oakland, they resist easy categorizations such as won or lost, victory or defeat.

Image really is everything.

Many veterans of past struggles for rights or recognition or peace know how perception is shaped by the media. A great example is the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the fear-mongering going on now regarding Iran, Colin Powell in the UN, CNN's breathless accounts of the Mad Mullahs, etc. Image creation was crucial in the Civil Rights struggles. The Bloody Sunday impact of fire-hosed marchers and snarling GERMAN shepherd dogs on every ones TV news cannot be over-stated.

Occupy WS had positive image production thanks to the cops new love of pepper spray for "crowd control" but the events in Oakland, including the burning of an American flag signalled a reversal. We can expect heightened awareness on the part of the elite establishment about the image wars. Highlighting homeless or clueless or bare breasted Occupiers is an example. Many organizers are now worried about the images that might emanate from large gatherings in May in the city of Chicago. They want passive resistance and strategic non-violence and hopefully some film of frothing cops beating pacifist protesters, maybe even a beaten protester forgiving a cop, hugging the cop. But we know the lens can always find "angry youth rioters" when it needs to.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Austerity

We must do more with less, we must be frugal, prudent, severe. We must be cautious and shrewd. Economical! Life is hard. Blah blah blah. Austerity is a complement to all the wonderfully Calvinist, self-denying and debilitating memes the big Other imposes on the damaged, scarred "sinner" and it is incredible how truly global has been it's embrace since The Crisis.

It turns out most people expect so little out of life now that when they are told they must cut back to one can of beets a week thy beg to make it half. Penance for dreaming too big.
Look at the moral condemnation of the "slothful" Greeks who, like the grasshopper, lived short-sightedly, beyond their means, without proper thrift. Tsk, tsk go the dedicated, hard working masses as they enter the mine, eyes cast downward.

Don't those Mediterranean races know we are all sinful, that life is simply a series of impossible demands and botched attempts to satisfy them? They are like the accused at the Stalinist show trials who professed their innocence, not knowing the more innocent they are the more they deserve to be shot!

Of course the elite laugh all the way to the bank, the morality they impose is just a joke to them, only taken seriously by fools. You must pay for your excess, your exuberance, the proles are told. Otherwise you fall prey to moral hazard! We can't have that now, can we?

There is a strange reversal at work here. No one believes the ridiculous claims made in crass advertising, yet they buy the product. Everyone knows politicians are all liars and yet they continue to vote for them. Everyone knows the media is untrustworthy but believe "the police were attacked by protesters". "Yes I use contraception, I just don't want it to be acceptable." Let me fetishize my own poverty of spirit, revel in it, so that austerity becomes in fact a gift.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Trap of Legitimacy

It is a very good thing that so much creative intelligence is being directed towards imagining the future of Occupy at this moment. Veterans of past struggles combine with those who have totally fresh insights and hopefully both come away with a new, better understanding. One of the hardest aspects of critical appraisal is creating enough emotional distance to admit past failure and the wrong assumptions or analysis it resulted from.

The events in Oakland threw this into sharp relief. Every experienced organizer is reminding "the movement as such" that the goal is broad based support, bringing in the masses, enlisting the tacit approval of the "silent majority", to use the conservative jargon. Of course this has been stressed from the beginning, to the point where folks denied any ideological bias ("this is not left or right") and worried about bringing in union support because it might alienate the Tea Party. Ron Paul market fundamentalists and revolutionary socialists would find common cause under a banner of infinite inclusiveness. Grievances took the place of demands. The guiding principle in all this was GAIN LEGITIMACY.

One way to gain legitimacy is to fold yourself back into those modes that already have legitimacy, social justice advocacy in the form of NGO's, non-profits, mainstream unions, even amorphous social-forum or anti-globalization type groupings. From the Sierra Club to EarthFirst, Komen for the Cure to Code Pink, at least most participants had knowledge of and had participated in these types of organizational structures. And while adopting the outward form of horizontalism, the consensus based assemblies and spokes and stacks, the hierarchical power structure of the "outside world" still needed to be appealed to. This was where the old school organizers came in with a methodology.The media controlled perception, so our image had to be tailored to appear legitimate. Elected authorities still controlled state power so we had to be respectful to stay legitimate. And our bosses still controlled our material circumstances (especially with high unemployment) so our actions had to remain within the legitimate bounds of dissent and protest.

But how do we know what is legitimate? Struggling against a foreign dictatorial or imperialist regime, it appeared legitimate to self-immolate, to throw rocks at police and even drop bombs on the despot (Kadahfi). Strikes by workers and barricades by students are tolerated. But struggling against an economic regime we find such tactics illegitimate. There we are to limit ourselves to economic boycotts, elections and appeals to Parliament. To engaging in campaigns and peaceful protests, perhaps civil disobedience if the issue is "serious". So we know our approach is legitimate by how others react, by whether it runs counter to their ingrained sensibilities.

Legitimacy in this sense is an elaborate social construction designed to protect a hegemonic project, in our case liberal democratic capitalism. Often the most effective challenges to this legitimacy have been humorous or theatrical, artistic and playful, such as the work of Situationists, puppeteers, Yes Men or flash mobs. This messes with "ingrained sensibilities" at a cultural juncture but because capitalist production of culture is always adapting, challenges like this can never rest on their laurels.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Meritocracy

“In his classic “The Promise of American Life”, Herbert Croly noted that 'a democracy, not less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognise political, economic, and social distinctions, but it must also withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance.' So far Americans have been fairly tolerant of economic distinctions. But that tolerance may not last for ever, if the current trend towards “excessive endurance” is not reversed.”

This revealing wordplay is from a 2004 article in The Economist on meritocracy. When Croly says a democracy must recognize “economic discriminations” to some degree, it is arguing for measured inequality, a necessary result of capitalist production. This becomes the normative foundation on which democracy rests. The author then asserts that “democracy” has the capability to determine when the pressure of inequality becomes dangerous and clamp down on capital by withdrawing it's consent. This conceit, that Americans are able to regulate their own inequality, belies the great fiction of so-called liberal democratic capitalism. And if we look closely at the main argument presented in the piece, that the only alternative to aristocracy is a meritocracy, and if we don't preserve the one we will inevitably slip into the other, we uncover a similarly revealing conceit, namely, that the best deserve the most. The ideological function of the discourse around merit is to give this claim universal acceptance but it's true program, like that of “democratic capitalism”, is simply to veil raw power behind liberal language.

The Greek kratos (cracy) is translated as power, so meritocracy refers to a system which bestows power to those who are deserving by virtue of their competence, intelligence, ambition and/or talent. Here the Protestant work ethic as described by Max Weber meets Keynesian “animal spirits”, creating the entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers which purportedly propel modern capitalist production. It is the supposed answer to the competing claims of distributive justice and liberty, with either a Rawlsian liberal caveat (the famous veil of ignorance) or a conservative/libertarian rationalization about efficiency,moral hazard and such. In either case, the dilemma for democracy is expressed by this quote: “Most Americans see nothing wrong with inequality as long as it comes with plenty of social mobility; it is simply the price to be paid for a dynamic society.” In this view, meritocracy is an ethical trade-off necessary to avoid the nightmare of uniformity, stagnation and the steady drift towards the lowest common denominator.
In contrast, I believe the most persuasive challenge to the notion of the meritocratic society lies within this false choice between equality or dynamism. A much more cooperative, egalitarian, less competitive society can still be equally dynamic, motivated less by material incentives than by shared benefits such as leisure time and increased collective well being. Metrics for measuring dynamism, such as GDP, are now recognized as fundamentally flawed. In fact, dynamism measured this way is the motor driving the planets life systems towards ecological catastrophe.
In terms of the so-called ethical trade off, there is simply no moral logic which could justify granting rewards based on blessings or gifts inherited in the “gene pool lottery” ( IQ, aptitude, physical strength, etc), much less the inherited gifts overlooked by merit proponents such as wealth, property, privilege and power. A much more just system of remuneration would reward effort and sacrifice, as well as the duration and onerousness of labor. Not it's output. In this way, we avoid not just a modern aristocracy but the class conflict which has de-stabilized society since the industrial revolution as well.

addition: I just found this over at Salon, America's Failed Promise of Equal Opportunity by Alex Gourrevitch and Aziz Rana. A progressive critique of Meritocracy that never mentions capitalist ideology and calls for full employment and workers cooperatives. Quite tepid and yet the hysterical screaming by liberals in the comments shows the degree to which the kool-aid has been consumed. They even use race to the bottom!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Kicking Off

Paul Mason's book Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere is a sort of left wing version of Tom Freidman's Flat Earth hypothesis, creating linkages between new information technologies to world political development and ongoing struggles. He did a great deal of travelling and interviewing and research and the book is getting lots of buzz. I really need to read more before commenting on his basic argument.

What I do want to look at is some things he said in a recent interview concerning the Occupy Wall Street movement.Looking to history he points out:

"This movement is content to live within capitalism, to create it's space within capitalism, but the problem is, capitalism might be about to go into a level of crisis that doesn't allow you to do that. This generation of protesters could easily suffer the fate of social democracy."

In our local Occupy discussions about a vision going forward it is clear that a necessary starting place is consensus on WHERE WE ARE NOW. I've harped on this before but everything depends on your definition of crisis. If you believe we are experiencing a crisis of corporate corruption and de-regulation you will turn to re-regulation. If you believe the corruption infects deep into politics/governance, you will want to see the courts create remedies to check the legislative-executive branches. If you think the crisis is the total capture of democracy including the judicial branch and the media, you have to look at even broader systemic or structural remedies including the hegemonic role of capitalism. We aren't there yet.

We know starting in the 1890's those who thought the system could be reformed, such as Eduard Bernstein, started a deliberate 40 year program to build an electoral base. "The movement is everything," he famously said, "the ends are nothing." He could not have seen the World Wars coming that would destroy his project but that's the thing about historical development, it is not smooth or seamless, it is uneven. The revolutionists of Egypt do not have the luxury of such "ends are nothing" thinking. Do we?

There are literally hundreds of programs out there now to "build a better capitalism". Even as Fukuyama abandons his own theory, a huge majority accept liberal democratic capitalism as "the end of history". Mark Fisher explores this in depth in his book Capitalist Realism. Solidarity economy. Blue economy, Steady state, Slow growth, no growth,New Economy Great Transformation perma-culture Transition Towns have an obvious appeal and to the degree they can present themselves as "radical alternatives" they will draw folks away from true anti-capitalist critiques such as Parecon.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Why Are Corporations Bad? part 5

You cannot spit without hitting some article blaming corporations for the mess the world is in. According to this meme "They" rape and pillage at will, they are the 1% who hog everything, they are the elite who control everything and THEY must be stopped before it is too late. To many, "they" are synonymous with Wall Street and the opposite of Main Street. This seems to be the thing that finally unites the left, from Occupy to Yes magazine!

But I'm thinking this is yet another misdirection. By focusing on one organizational strategy of capital rather than the logic of capitalism itself, you risk a myopic view leading to a myopic "solution".I'm no fan of corporations,mind you, but what is it exactly that is so objectionable to so many? The hierarchical structure? The sheer size of the biggies? Their disproportional influence over the "political" process? What is a corporation really?

A corporation is a group authorized to act as a single entity. The business my mechanic buddy owns is incorporated so that his liability is limited (he won't lose his house if his employee does something stupid). He is on Main Street. So it must be the organizational model. But no, he allows his two employees equal decision making power.Google feeds it's employees catered lunches and pays really good. I know a farmer with ten seasonal employees who exploits the shit out his help. So it must be the size factor, when they get too big they can demand things or buy people. As monopolies they can corner markets. But how big is too big? (can we pinpoint some number?) And what would keep them from splitting up but still coordinating? What if they formed trade organizations? What if they met in Switzerland and made plans?

The point here is that the local Main Street store can be twice as ruthless as Costco. And their union, the Chamber of Commerce, is viciously anti-worker. And a small, local bank can screw you just as effectively as a big one. Their board of directors is no more transparent than Goldman Sachs and the CEO might be a racist reactionary way worse than Blankfien.

So if people want to spend all their energy de-corporatizing capitalism (pit bull) to make it smaller and gentler and kinder (like a puppy?) they will find themselves on the ground having their throats ripped out by a pack of chows.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Say The Word

At a recent gathering of the Republican Governors Association, influential pollster and strategist Frank Luntz urged conservative politicians to stop using the word “capitalism”. He said “I'm trying to get that word removed and we're replacing it with either 'economic freedom' or 'free market'. The public... still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral.”
Within Occupy, as within all the social justice movements or groups I have worked with for decades, there is a similar tension over use of this word, with some folks slinging it about comfortably and many others finding it divisive or a barrier to organizing broad based support. In both cases, what I believe is clear is that language and words matter ; they are an important terrain of struggle. What do we know about this word which has been taboo for so long and seems to have such power?
At some point those gathered under the large umbrellas of social or environmental justice run into the question of economic justice. Though not something taught in Econ.101, it might show up in an ethics or philosophy class under the rubric of “distributive justice”, who gets what and why. Should a society or state re-distribute wealth, resources, opportunity, rights? This is where progressives battle conservatives over social democracy and an expanded welfare state, regulation, social uplift etc..
But there is an even deeper question, which is: why are outcomes unequal in the first place? This is where radicals and progressives butt heads. Conservatives like Luntz hope to avoid discussions about equality or morality(usury) or justice or “vulture vs venture” by just replacing the word capitalism. Progressives hope to advance their program of safety nets and re-distribution by avoiding it. Those who wish to do away with the system altogether try to use the word at every opportunity, to keep it glaringly exposed under the brightest possible spotlight. They believe it is not just the King who has no clothes, but that with enough critical examination, it will eventually begin to dawn on us how naked we all are.