Archive for the Capitalism Category

Anti-Trump: Catalyst for a New Organized Left, or more Dead-End Cult of Personality?

Posted in Capitalism, Elections, Media, News, Politics, USA with tags , , , on January 20, 2017 by Z

As anti-Trump protests sweep across the USA, I am reminded of the signs of ill health I saw in the Bernie Sanders camp at the end of the primaries (link here).  Just as Bernie’s cult of personality threatens to act as a barrier to genuine political consciousness for many of his followers, so too does the photo negative that is Trump’s own cult.  I hope there are protesters out there trying to use this outcry to educate and organize, but much of what I’ve seen today (as presented by mainstream media, so that’s something to bear in mind) seems focused on Trump the individual; his vulgarity, his character, his personal history – not the broader social trends and policy direction in which he is situated.  Assuming Trump maintains his apparent course, we’ll have four years before this potential resistance begins losing people who failed to learn any broader lessons, meaning we have four years to teach those lessons.  There were organizations participating today that definitely understand this.  With luck, the cheeto-in-chief will provide enough vulgar provocations to maintain this anti-Trump coalition, which has at the very least already provided more opposition to any looming Trump disasters than was faced by the previous administration, which certainly dealt enough damage of its own.

Put on your helmets and strap in.  It looks like we’re going full accelerationsim.  At the very least, it will be interesting.  Probably very unpleasant, but interesting.

Brexit, Trump, Hillary, Neoliberal Multiculturalism and Robespierre’s Mistake

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, Elections, Europe, News, Politics, USA with tags , , , , on July 2, 2016 by Z

Most people who intended to comment on Brexit have already done so, but something about the situation made me want to wait. What follows is the result of that delay. Hopefully, it’s coherent enough to read.

First, a note about Brexit: this is a non-binding referendum, as many powers that be are already pointing out. It is still possible, even likely, that the democratic process that produced the Brexit vote will be overridden via undemocratic, unaccountable forces in the EU, much like what occurred in Greece. In addition, there is the very important point made by Yanis Varoufakis, who cited the interconnected nature of modern global capitalism and the UK’s geographic position when he referred to the EU as “Hotel California” – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. In other words, suppose the right wing of the Brexit faction gets all that it wants and more; suppose the immigrants all leave, reducing downward pressure on wages. Well, the corporations in that case would simply go where wages are lower. There is no escape from austerity to be found in scapegoating, unless you’re also prepared to nationalize those corporations before they can leave (which the UKIPpers certainly are not), and if you’re willing to do that, there’s no reason to be scapegoating immigrants in the first place, even if you’re the special sort of malicious that likes that kind of thing. Global capital is just that: global. It is not so easily sidestepped, and its consequences cannot be canceled with a vote alone. The center-left and all points to its right have, of course, already done their best to marginalize the left wing of the Brexit faction. However, assuming there actually is a Brexit, here’s my (American) take on it:

The popular discourse around this issue has been (and continues to be) dominated by two political forces: those of the center left, and those of the far right. Right out of the gate, we have a glaring, and instructive, omission: the left. Apart from a handful of alternative media interviews, supporters of a “left exit” have been ignored at best, called bigots and xenophobes and enablers of the far right at worst. And why not? Mass media and the two largest parties permitted the issue to be framed as one of immigration and economic stability; the choice was presented as a (false) dichotomy – limit immigration (and be racist) at the cost of economic stability, or remain, do not touch immigration (and don’t be racist) and insure economic stability. This is the center-left formulation, which of course overlooks all of the racism built into the already existing system. The far right (UKIP) formulation maintains the same narrative when it comes to immigration (though they dispute the racism charge), but reverses the economic stability element. The Brexit campaign promises a better life for the British working class (which a left exit might deliver, but the UKIP exit almost certainly won’t, i.e. the right exit claim is basically a lie), while the remain campaign tells some version of the truth – that choosing to remain will cause the lives of working Brits to get worse at a slower rate than they would with a right exit (the remain campaign doesn’t really acknowledge the possibility of a left exit because the remain campaign is fundamentally a creature of the center and opposes the left). In other words, one side lies when it promises a better life; the other tells the truth about a steadily worsening one. No one who wants to suggest actually sticking up for working people and challenging the power of the elite is allowed in. Of course they’re kept out; a true exit taking a leftward turn would mean the total abandonment of empire, an end to the plundering, through neoliberal globalism, of the third world (and even much of the first). This would require that resources needed to secure the future of the working class would need to come from inside the UK, from those who currently control them… the capitalist class. They aren’t going to let that happen. If the plunder dries up, the illusion is shattered, the imperial system gone, the only remaining choice laid bare as that first articulated by Rosa Luxemburg: Socialism, or barbarism?

A few points regarding the EU:

  1. The EU is not, and never has been, a democratic organization. Like it or not, Brexiters pointing this out are correct.
  2. The EU is a creation of neoliberal capitalism. As we saw in Greece, it lines up time and time again against the people and for the elite. The freedom of movement touted by many as a major advantage of the EU has a dark side: it allows free movement of labor between nations with vastly different costs of living and levels of poverty (in part because the EU makes no meaningful effort to empower the lower classes economically, and no effort of any kind to empower them politically). Because of this, EU freedom of movement can be (and is) exploited by the capitalist class to encourage a race to the bottom in wages. At the same time, the EU limits the ability of member states to strengthen worker protections, and even pressures them to remove said protections – as is happening in France right now. (Even after Brexit, it is likely that this freedom of movement will not be meaningfully altered for the UK – it will probably be required to retain access to the single market – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave).
  3. The role of EU institutions such as the European Central Bank has been to move and manage economic crises around Europe for the benefit of bankers – this is why Syriza was thwarted in Greece. This is why Varoufakis could not get a sensible deal for the Greek people. While the UK is not in the Eurozone, it is nevertheless strongly influenced by Eurozone economic policy – London is a financial center, and the Euro is the most important currency in the region.

There are plenty of reasons the left might want to leave – EU rules block left wing change just as surely as they block right wing anti-immigrant change. The EU is not a leftist institution, only a liberal one. It will not permit serious challenges to the dominance of capital, and is actively pushing its member states toward austerity. It will not be reformed from within, as this would require all member states, including those with far right governments, to agree on a new EU constitution. Reforming the EU is probably as realistic a goal as reforming the Democratic Party. Absent a Bakuninesque spontaneous popular uprising, I don’t see how this could be done without an army, at which point it’s no longer ‘reform’. Bottom line: There’s no reason to be mad at the Brexiters. Some are also UKIPpers, and you can be mad at them for that, but left exiters are making some version of the following calculation: Leave now and risk a major battle against the right to secure a left exit while the left still maintains some rough equality with the right in its political clout, or remain, accepting a status quo where the resources of the working class and other left constituencies are guaranteed to gradually diminish, making the likelihood of victory over the right more remote the longer the fight is delayed. Is that the wrong call? What is to be done? In any case, what reason could there possibly be to actually support the undemocratic playground for capital that is the EU? Let us remember that, contrary to what the remainers seem to think, Brexit didn’t and won’t create rampant xenophobia and bigotry. Those things already existed long before this vote and have been festering and growing for years. The EU isn’t protection against nativism; it is part of the context in which nativism has again become prominent. It doesn’t expunge racism; it legitimizes an “acceptable” level of it by institutionalizing it – as exploitation of Eastern Europeans as cheap labor, as squalid refugee shelters in Calais, where the victims of imperial meddling in the middle east rot in legal limbo, as the bodies of North Africans sinking into anonymous graves beneath the Mediterranean. When you silence the left, substitute neoliberal globalism for internationalism and in the process bleed the workers, the only place left for them to go is, unsurprisingly, the only ideology outside of neoliberal globalism that you didn’t silence: nationalism. The perfidious Blairites and their Tory tag-alongs, the same drivers behind Remain, are responsible for UKIP. The left too is responsible, for repeating the mistake of the interwar socialist parties; they provided no viable alternative, allowing themselves to be drawn into the web of centrist compromise, in the end compromising only their integrity and credibility.

[Another point in Brexit’s defense: it has prompted calls from Sinn Fein for the return of Northern Ireland to the republic where it belongs. Sadly for my mother’s people, Eire is currently dominated by Fine Gael, scions of the Free Staters and Blue Shirts, who will no doubt shoot down any suggestion from Sinn Fein purely because it comes from Sinn Fein. Still, it’s nice to see the loyalists glance around nervously. Sweat, you bastards. Connolly’s watching.]

I. Remain, Hillary and Neoliberal Multiculturalism

Professor, political scientist and all around brilliant guy Adolph Reed has observed a phenomenon in recent years that he calls “neoliberal multiculturalism.” It short, this refers to the use of previously left wing politics connected to various liberation movements (black, latino, women, etc.) by establishment forces. Reed summarizes the effect as a sundering of select identity groups from class as identity politics, but not class politics, are assimilated in warped form by the liberal wing of the elite. Reed describes the result as a widespread neoliberal position in which the idea of equality is reduced to the notion that as long as the 1% contains demographic proportions similar to the general population, everything’s ok. In other words, the neoliberal concept of equality is a 1% that is 12-13% black, 14% latino, 50% women, etc. leaving the working class portions of those (and all other) groups behind to rot. (These percentages, obviously, refer to the US population. If you want to look up the appropriate numbers for the UK, I won’t stop you). Here in the states, we might call this Clintonian multiculturalism. In the UK, it is at the heart of Remain. This is why calling for a vote to stay the course on a steady decline appears defensible to the UK establishment. A compromise with the EU is analogous to the compromise the Democratic Party made with capital in the US a long time ago (and Labor with the Thatcherites); it is this compromise that led directly to the neoliberal multiculturalism Reed despises. Put simply, it goes like this: “You (Dems, Labor) stop with all this ‘class’ business and we’ll let you keep working for minorities and social issues.” They accepted this deal, which in the context of the time may have seemed reasonable; income disparity was less pronounced, and the threat of the Soviet alternative forced the establishment to keep up the appearance of worker’s rights. Absent that alternative, however, the situation has steadily deteriorated. Left of center social issues have come to be associated with neoliberal economics, as the mainstream parties that represent these social issues are also neoliberal. What we have now is the social issue equivalent of the old lie that free markets make free people. Now free markets, apparently, make tolerant people as well. A population that no longer sees the necessary links both racism and sexism have with class can be tricked into seeing Brexit as a moral binary between bigotry (which predates neoliberalism by millennia) and tolerance (which also predates neoliberalism by millennia), emptied of all political economy and devoid of historical context, despite that the relevant context is not only recent, but current. In the US, the same blindness has been applied to the Democratic primary, where the mainstream media has treated Bernie Sanders’ attempt to talk about class as though it was a sign that he rejects all other struggles, despite the naked absurdity of this infantile assumption. It allows the political establishment to pretend Hillary Clinton is on the left because she’s a woman, or pays lip service to the black leadership class (while supporting the mass incarceration of the black working class). There will no doubt be a similar myopia in the presentation of the general election, which is shaping up to be every bit as absurd, hyperbolic and fearful as the Brexit “debate.” The artificial separation the neoliberal center-left has imposed between class and identity has exacerbated divisions within the left that should have been surmountable. It has fractured the coalition we need, and should have had.

The great heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, neoliberal multiculturalists imply, weren’t fighting for working class minorities, but rather for the opportunity for their own elites to join the white elite. Never mind, of course, that both MLK and Malcolm X just so happened to be assassinated when they were starting to talk about the relationship between race and class. (Leaders who talk only about race and don’t mention class seem to live significantly longer). This neoliberal multiculturalism is also at the root of the current plague of upper class white liberals in cities with strong tech sectors just dying to explain how the app they’re developing plus the glorious free market will somehow save all of the brown people. It’s why you meet people who describe themselves as “progressive libertarians.” In rejecting class politics in favor of identity politics, the left in the US and Europe severed the connection between the two in the minds of their political class and, increasingly, their constituents. The result: postmodern liberals – pro-gay, pro-minority, pro-woman and utterly disdainful of the working class without realizing that the working class contains at least 95% of all of those other groups. This combination is now bearing bitter fruit.

II. Right Exit, Trump and What Happens when the Left Cedes the Field

In both the US and UK, the immediate political consequence of neoliberal multiculturalism has been the “New Democrats” (Clintonites) and “New Labor” (Blairites). Class as a political consideration has been sent to the back of the line by both. The real left (people like me) were, of course, already sidelined long before these developments either through marginalization (in the UK) or recurrent, punitive red scares (in the US). The move away from the working class while retaining an increasingly skewed and superficial interest in minorities and social issues has contributed greatly to both Trump and the right exit camp. By dropping class as an issue, the New Democrats and New Labor effectively abandoned a key demographic: the white working class. Because the white working class is, well, white, it could not be retained solely through appeals to race or gender. With the nominally center left (neoliberal) parties working against their interests (and placing all of the blame on them for the persistence of racism despite their being the least powerful white people around – look at yourselves, white liberals; you’re probably more to blame), they had nowhere to go. The left was nowhere to be found with the alternative that should have been provided. Instead, these workers went to nationalism, the only game in town outside the neoliberal consensus. In the US, this is why the Trump phenomenon is largely a white problem, and also why there are so many who prefer Sanders to Trump, but Trump to Hillary. When even a vaguely left option is presented, many jump at it, but for the most part the left has ceded the field, leaving it by default to the nationalist right. Meanwhile, working class minorities had even fewer options – they couldn’t go to the nationalists, and so had no choice but stay with the neoliberals, who had stolen and twisted their causes in the absence of meaningful objection from the left, which continued to be marginalized or to compromise with the center. If the white working class is racist and xenophobic, then you (center-left neoliberals) made them that way. In short, the arrogant mainstream liberals bemoaning the foolishness of the unwashed and assuming that no motivation other than hatred and xenophobia could possibly underlie a Brexit or Trump vote are the very reason these entities exist as anything other than an irrelevant fringe. Trotsky believed that fascism was the result of a failed revolution; it looks like crude nationalism may be the result of a totally absent one. But hey, keep ignoring, insulting and dismissing Trumpeters and right exiters; clearly, the center-left refusal to even try to understand the situation is working very well. Where, oh where, is the left alternative? Its mainstream expressions in Sanders and Corbyn are under constant attack. Congratulations, center-left – you’ve succeeded in marginalizing the only currently viable alternatives to what you claim to hate. In the US, this is compounded by an unbelievably cynical and utterly transparent effort to herd the berners into the Clintonian fold.

III. Robespierre’s Mistake

Learning is hard. If it wasn’t, those on the left who still call for compromise with the center, whether in the form of lesser evil Democrat voters or EU supporters, wouldn’t. Even so, learning shouldn’t be this hard. Robespierre was probably the first to make this mistake, at least in the modern era. Faced with a profoundly confusing political situation, he was beset on both left and right. Unable to satisfy rivals on the left, the sans-culottes and enrages, representatives of the popular movement as opposed to the more educated political clubs (such as Robespierre’s Jacobin club), he was nevertheless too concerned with their welfare to find support from the middle class. He attempted to compromise, but inevitably ended up acting against both factions and satisfying neither. Having moved against those on his left, he found that they would not help him against those on his right. For him, the consequences of compromise with the center were total. He had once noted that the revolution might one day consume him; indeed it did. It isn’t so hard to understand why Robespierre made his mistake – he was, after all, arguably the first to make it in the era of modern politics. But why do leftists throughout the western world continue to repeat this mistake today? Whether settling for Clinton or huddling under the leaky umbrella of the EU, afraid to clash with the racists in a true battle for a left exit, why do so many on the left abandon their fellows to compromise with the center? They should know better. They should know that the center will not return the favor, will not help them in turn. Robespierre paid with his head. The least we can do is keep ours. The center is falling apart. Either the left can rescue the working class from neoliberal multiculturalism and form a coalition able to deliver socialism, or there will be a period of triumph for the racist right caused by our inability to do so. Maybe we’ll win after that, but I’m inclined to think it’s do or die. Failure means barbarism.

IV. Final Note

After reading this, one could be forgiven for thinking I believe Brexit has significant positive potential. Sure, it could, but there’s little reason at present to believe it will. The most likely outcome is that it will be ignored, canceled or technically carried out but with no meaningful changes to British economy or government. Even if a real effort at a true Brexit, whether of the left or right variety, is made, the gravity of market forces and global capital dependencies will simply hold the UK in economic orbit around the EU anyway. Varoufakis has it right: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. The elite are already trying to adjust to the unexpected script changes fired at them by Brexit, but adjust they shall, unless something else happens. Still, forcing them to go off script is far better than just going along. It might well be meaningless, but it had to be tried, and no good leftist should accept the EU as it stands; so Brexit it is.

On trendy pseudo-responsibility and its commodification

Posted in Capitalism, USA with tags , , on June 11, 2016 by Z

A few days ago, my girlfriend came home with a story.  She had stopped at a place called “Sweetgreen” (one word) on her way home from work.  Apparently, “Sweetgreen” (one word) is some kind of salad and yogurt place for the hip and health-conscious urban sophisticate consumer with adequate disposable income.  Fond of salad and yogurt, particularly when one or both happen to contain bacon (I don’t know if they did in this particular case), she placed an order.  Based on her description, it seems the clerk was an unduly alert and enthusiastic young lady with a penchant for upward inflection at the ends of her sentences, the sort of customer service professional my girlfriend has been forced to work with in the past and often describes as “wretched.”  (She’s not known for patience in the face of annoyance).  Her order was prepared with the usual “this isn’t fast food but it is fast food but it isn’t fast food” efficiency no doubt familiar to patrons of “Sweetgreen” (one word).  The funny part came next: she opened her wallet to pay – and was informed by the clerk that “Sweetgreen” (one word) doesn’t accept cash.  Uh, why?  Apparently (according to the clerk) because cash is not sustainable.  But, the clerk noted, you can pay with apple pay on your smartphone!  Or a credit card, if you still use those things (come on, they don’t even have apps for those!)

Wow.  “Sweetgreen” (one word) doesn’t take cash because cash is not sustainable.  Apparently, paper money is doomed to destroy the environment, but the massive coal and nuclear powered energy infrastructure necessary to maintain the elaborate electronic payment systems “Sweetgreen” (one word) prefers are somehow sustainable and will save us all.  It’s remarkable how many people seem to be convinced that electricity comes from some kind of magical green-friendly no place, like a happy meadow where gumdrops grow from the sunflowers.  Even if we had 100% wind and solar tomorrow, the maintenance of physical infrastructure like copper wire (mining, smelting) and the rubber to cover it (chemicals galore!) would still probably be less sustainable than simple paper bills, which come from trees that can, if I’m not mistaken, grow back.  (And we haven’t even touched on the level of pollution, social chaos and even armed conflict endemic to many regions of Africa where a large share of the rare earth metals needed to make devices like smartphones are mined, or the worker suicide plagued factories in China and Southeast Asia where they’re assembled!)  There’s also the issue that those most likely to lack smartphones and credit/debit cards are of course the poor, who are therefore likely not able to patronize “Sweetgreen” (one word), but no one seems too worried about that.

What then, is the reason for this compulsive attachment of poorly thought out pseudo-responsibility to acts of consumerism?  Is it simply a marketing tactic, begun (probably) by Starbucks, and now necessary for all others to avoid being outcompeted via the logic of capitalism?  Slavoj Zizek suggests a more complex picture.  I might think we could call it quits here, but “Sweetgreen” (one word) is doing something a little different from the more familiar cultural capitalism Zizek describes.  They aren’t just offering some kind of one-for-one personal moral redemption for the individual consumer; they’re actually making an unambiguously authoritarian decree.  It isn’t “buy one of our salads and we’ll do something nice for the less fortunate,” it’s “engage with us on these terms or be cast into the outer darkness, you enemy of sustainability!”  That the poor are de facto excluded from the ethical light of “Sweetgreen” (one word) may be taken as especially instructive; this is a form of class-ignorant yuppie slacktivism.  It’s doubly slacktivist in that not only does the business carry out your slacktivism for you, it tells you what the issue is and has already done obviously lazy and totally inadequate research in order to identify it.  It is both smug and lazy on your behalf, bestowing upon you a sense of righteousness at the expense of the excluded unwashed.  Ah, bourgeois virtue!  Of course, it’s also quite possible that it’s just a cynical marketing ploy existing only because the management prefers electronic payment for totally selfish reasons and grabbed at the first eco-friendly sounding excuse within reach.  But then, that’s arguably also a bourgeois virtue.

Look on the bright side…

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, USA, Web Satire Round Up with tags , , on June 6, 2016 by Z

I found these on an out of the way forum recently; I think they go well together.  Happy summer.

debtjoke directdep

A (Shitty) Year in Review

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, Elections, Israel-Palestine, Media, News, Politics, USA with tags , , , , , , on January 10, 2013 by Z

Happy new year.  Let’s review.  We’ll start small:

Status quo in another revolving door election between party A and party a.  (No other result was possible, so we classify this as small).

Stepping up now:

We were treated to the holy wisdom of Richard Mourdock from the heart of Indiana as he revealed to us the Almighty’s position on rape.  (A note on the lighter side: Shouldn’t someone who might be nicknamed “Dick” generally avoid commenting on gender issues?).

Moving on from troglodytic verbal gaffes, we reach domestic surveillance:

It seems the Occupy movement was closely watched by the FBI and Homeland Security even before the start of public protests.  Apparently, the FBI’s Memphis Joint Terrorism Task Force actually described Occupy as “domestic terrorism.”  Apparently, the FBI communicated their findings to corporate America.  So, what we have here are government agencies (the FBI and Homeland Security) coordinating a national crackdown on a nonviolent protest movement according to the needs of the cash engorged corporate world.  This is nothing less than part 2 of the Palmer Raids.  Why mention this now?  Well, because this surveillance is still going on as Occupy plans for the coming spring.

And now manipulating public opinion:

CNN decided to go ahead and selectively gather data on drone casualties from obviously suspect sources in order to cheerlead for Obama-as-war-president.  Here’s an article from The Atlantic that covers the bases, but frankly isn’t critical enough.

On to the real big leagues – death and wrongful imprisonment:

Gaza is still blockaded.

The drone wars of Bush-Obama continue to kill civilians.

Bradley Manning is still not free.

Leonard Peltier is still not free.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is still not free.  (Three is good enough for now.  We only have so much space, after all).

We had a school shooting, following which a president whose personally authorized drone attacks have killed more children than died at Sandy Hook gave what I can only consider a deeply hypocritical speech.  We then had to be dragged through the requisite media find-some-music-or-movie-or-videogame-to-blame-this-on routine before arriving at gun control as an issue.  Once there, the limit of the national discourse seems to be an assault weapons ban not substantially different from the one we had not too long ago.  (Never mind, of course, that that ban only expired in 2004; those of my generation who were finishing up high school in 1999 ought to be acutely aware that this ban was in effect during the Columbine shooting, so hooray for useless legislation).  There’s a great post over at SMBIVA suggesting what should have been obvious from day one: there’s a common element to all school shootings that no one seems to want to talk about – schools.  Check it out.

Finally, stuff of global import:

2012 was the warmest year on record, with tons of extreme weather.  Climate change deniers would be well advised to wear sunscreen when they go outside to yell at the rest of us about how climate change is a hoax.  Unless, of course, sun burns and skin cancer are also hoaxes.

The 2012 Mayan apocalypse failed spectacularly.  Granted, it was based largely on a blatant misinterpretation of Mayan beliefs.  But hey, at least a horde of ignorant rubbernecking tourists did irreparable damage to a couple of archaeological wonders as part of their world’s end party.

You know, I’m getting some serious déjà vu here.  In ’99, we had a horrible school shooting, I finished an academic program, and a prediction of apocalypse (Y2K) didn’t deliver.  In 2012, we had another horrible school shooting, I finished another academic program (if we include high school, that makes four now and still no lucrative, fulfilling career.  Ever wish you could place a call back in time to your high school guidance counselors?), and another apocalypse fizzled.

We lost both Alexander Cockburn and Gore Vidal.  I can only see this as a severe blow to the left and to the United States in general.  We don’t have that many good people left, and these losses only hasten the end of the era of the public intellectual, already being replaced with talking heads and credentialed idiots.  With Howard Zinn already gone, things look pretty bleak to me.  If Noam Chomsky, Jeffrey St. Clair and Cindy Sheehan ever travel anywhere together, maybe we should insist they take separate flights.  The flame is low, and there’s a big wind coming.  The liberals capitulated big time (again) and think the Democrats have saved them from some thug named Cliff whose nickname appears to be “Fiscal.”  As usual, there will be no meaningful help from them.  This year, my eyes will once again be on Occupy.  Here’s hoping.

 

On the bright side, I did read a pretty damn funny satire recently.  I’ll probably add more on that soon.

Post Thanksgiving Update 2: Black Friday, AKA American Thunderdome, or possibly Lumpenfest USA

Posted in Bad Faith, Capitalism, Economy, Media, News, USA with tags , , , , on December 4, 2012 by Z

What can be said about the uniquely American quasi-religious retail holiday known as Black Friday? This year’s observance happened to coincide with a Walmart worker’s strike that almost no one appeared to care about. Well, that’s not quite true; I’ve heard of several stories indicating that many shoppers expressed support for and approval of the Walmart strike – as they crossed the picket line to shop AT WALMART.  (This account of some of the more successful actions may lift spirits a little.  Let no one say I’m more than 95% gloom).  In addition, I’m aware of an incident of mass pepper spraying by a shopper looking for a cheap Xbox (California), two people shot dead in a Walmart parking lot over a parking space (Florida) and a man who tried to punch his way to the front of the line outside Sears, until he happened to attack a man with a concealed carry license, who drew his weapon and chased the attacker away (Texas). While I’ve never been a fan of concealed carry (if one must carry a weapon, surely open carry is both more honest and a better deterrent), the Texas Sears incident is probably the best argument in its favor I’ve yet seen. Of course, the Florida parking lot shooting seems a more potent argument against it.  But back to the matter at hand: How has this de facto holiday achieved such significance that people are prepared to kill for it? Why also do so many see no contradiction in indicating their approval of the Walmart strike even as they cross the picket line to shop at Walmart?

This second question is made more interesting in light of the revelation that the term “Black Friday” was used by factory managers in the 1950s not to refer to crowds of shoppers, but to the large number of workers who called in sick.  Only later did the day transition from a headache for manufacturing into a for profit free for all for retail. One might characterize the transition in this way: 1950s Black Friday was a day for workers to tell the boss “piss off, I’m extending my holiday and there’s nothing you can do about it,” while present day Black Friday is a day for consumers to say “it’s great that you’re standing up to this evil company I’m about to make more profitable. I’d stay home or shop elsewhere and actually support you in a meaningful way, but I can’t show any real solidarity. I mean, seriously dude – there are plasma screens at stake!” Between the violence and the disregard for workers, I think the following ought to be the official Black Friday slogan (or mission statement, if you’re the corporate type): “Plasmas over people!” This attitude shouldn’t surprise us. It makes perfect sense in the context of a society in which people have come to identify as consumers rather than workers.  This is what becomes of six decades of local news reports on who’s getting ripped off at the register instead of who’s getting ripped off on payday.  Yet the culture of Black Friday doesn’t really favor the consumer, either.  The desperate violence, after all, ultimately stems from the once a year availability of products that most consumers ordinarily can’t afford.  This is another effect of the worker-consumer disconnect. The exploitation of American workers is what sets the stage for the annual struggle over products that are temporarily affordable.  This is what leads to actual human beings calmly considering the pros and cons of unleashing pepper spray on their fellows in the name of savings, and this is what leaves us with shoppers who seem totally unaware that the bargains they’re hunting come at the direct expense of the striking workers they’re largely ignoring.  There is no understanding that the workers and consumers are the same people; even the workers and consumers themselves seem unaware of this.  Everything is simply part of the environment.  Deploying pepper spray against a rival for a game system seems as natural as two predators fighting over a gazelle carcass if it’s perceived as an environmental necessity.  Ignore the man behind the curtain, peon.  This contrived retail scenario has nothing to do with him.  Now face your opponent and fight to the death!  Two shoppers enter, one shopper leaves – with a discount!

Obromneycare, Dead Peasants and the Limits of Liberal Imagination

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, News, Politics, USA with tags , , on July 3, 2012 by Z

Obromneycare

 The Supreme Court has reached a decision.  Obromneycare + individual mandate have emerged from their rather cushy gauntlet intact.  How?  The penalty for the uninsured has been classified as a tax.  (See Correntewire for an excellent summary of Roberts’ legal gymnastics).  Discussion of Obromneycare’s constitutionality or lack thereof has been covered quite well elsewhere, so I’m going to do something else.  First, a brief summary of my own experience with the individual mandate in Massachusetts, where we’ve been living with the Romneycare to which Obama has attached his “Ob”:

For a while, I was covered by a subsidized plan because neither of my jobs offered insurance and my annual income was just under the cutoff point (300% of the federal poverty level).  Then I finished graduate school and moved to full time at one job, gaining insurance through my employer.  The tanking economy took a toll on that employer, which led to a reduction in my hours – which caused me to lose full time status – which allowed human resources to decree that I was no longer entitled to full time benefits – which meant my insurance was no more.  Luckily, I was able to keep three of my original five days a week at that job, and still had weekends at my other job, giving me a patchwork full time schedule, but no benefits.  I couldn’t go back on the subsidized plan, because my income was now too high.  At the same time, the cheapest available private plan that satisfied Romneycare’s holy writ cost more than double what I’d paid for the subsidized plan, and nearly double what I’d paid through my employer.  Obviously, I couldn’t afford it, and even if I could, I’d never have been able to pay the outrageous deductible if I had needed any care.  I then found that the penalty (properly called a penalty and not a tax here in Massachusetts) was lower than the cost of the cheapest plan and thanked the stormin’ mormon that I would be allowed to not buy a terrible, useless and expensive product, but could simply pay an arbitrary fine for the privilege of living with no health insurance.  Thanks, Mitt!  When tax time rolled around, I dutifully filled out my state return, waiting anxiously to see the outcome of the still relatively new healthcare schedule that would determine the extent of my fine.  I was surprised.  A handy chart through which I was obliged to search until I found the entry under my zip code informed me of what the state deemed an affordable payment for health insurance for my income group in my area.  The schedule I was filling out then spilled the beans: because the cost of the cheapest available plan exceeded the state’s notion of an affordable payment in my zip code at my income, I was off the hook.  No penalty.  Of course, I was still without insurance.

What lessons can we extract from my experience?  First of all, Romneycare, touted as “universal” by both Romney (that is, past-Romney.  Present-Romney has sworn to slay the beast he now retroactively did not spawn.) and current Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is anything but.  Large groups of people throughout the state are deemed unable to afford the most affordable plans produced by the vaunted private sector, but are not sufficiently impoverished to warrant the attention of the state.  My situation is not unusual.  Depending on the overtime, I’m quite firmly in the 32-35k range, and the mixing and matching of part time positions is not at all strange in this era of underemployment.  It’s worth pointing out that Commonwealth Care, the group of subsidized plans here in Massachusetts, is available to a larger income group than Medicaid will be nationally under the ACA, meaning that even more people nationally than in Massachusetts will slip through the middle and be uninsured despite the new law.  In short, there’s nothing ‘universal’ about any of this.  There’s really no need to discuss the difference between care and insurance, as anyone interested in this issue is already aware of the health insurance industry’s apparent business model (“Find a way not to pay”).  The horrific deductibles many of the Romneycare spawned plans feature make the plans themselves so insubstantial, they serve no recognizable purpose other than fulfilling the minimum requirements necessary to avoid the penalty.  When I had to look into these “plans” a few years back, I found that some of them didn’t even offer prescription drug coverage, though it looks like that, at least, has been (partially) corrected.  If you’d like to see for yourself, just head over to the MA HealthConnector and shop around.  Have fun.  In effect, what the Massachusetts reform has accomplished is to establish a requirement that enables health insurance providers to sell bad products to a captive market.  At the same time, it allows those (like me) with whom private business would rather not deal to go without.  Private insurers therefore have free reign to sell barely there insurance to whatever groups of consumers they feel comfortable selling to, and leave the rest of us out to dry.

By creating a captive market, the ACA (like Romneycare) will basically carve out a fiefdom for the health insurance industry.  Purchasing terrible coverage under threat of a penalty (or tax) with no coverage amounts to nothing more than a legal obligation to fork cash over to an unaccountable private entity.  It’s downright feudal.  Which brings us to…

 

Dead Peasants

 While working on my master’s degree in a field in which I would later fail to find work, I developed an interest in agrarian history, which led me to the work of historian Thomas Bisson.  One of Bisson’s lesser known works is a book called Tormented Voices: Power, Crisis and Humanity in Rural Catalonia, 1140-1200.  The book was inspired by and largely based on research from a collection of peasant complaints regarding uncustomary abuse, violence and seizure of property and possessions.  Bisson frames the complaints within a narrative of the attempted expansion of seigniorial authority by local lords.  Within many of the complaints themselves, one can see the origins of some modern practices, including what has been called “Dead peasant insurance,” a practice in which a company will take out an insurance policy on the life of an employee.  Bisson makes several references to a woman named Ermessen who complained that she and her husband were forced to pay their lord 5 sous because their son had died.  This has nothing to do with health insurance (it’s really more about life insurance), but it does get at the diseased frame of mind we’re dealing with.  “Dead Pesants” is also a great title.  Bisson’s lords and knights set about trying to impose new fees, fines, dues, etc. on their peasants and used violence and systematic humiliation to force compliance.  The peasants complained to the Count of Barcelona (and later, the King of Aragon) hoping something might be done about their local lords.  Eventually, the King did take action, though this action occurred in the context of an ongoing struggle between royal and local authority, so how much weight the peasant’s complaints had is uncertain.  In any case, there is a clear parallel between the neo-feudal concept of dead peasant insurance and the neo-feudal health insurance dues now owed to the likes of Lord Aetna and the Holy Order of the Blue Cross & Shield.  Unlike in 12th century Catalonia, however, the current seigniorial overreach of the health insurance industry is not being done behind the back of a royal authority that might one day oppose it.  It is instead the result of collusion with that authority.  The ACA represents official sanction for the private management (and profit) of (and from) a properly public function.  It is legitimized neo-feudal rentier capitalism.

 

The Limits of Liberal Imagination

 The ACA represents the present limits of both liberal political will and imagination.  I suspect that conceptual constipation and lack of historical memory play a role in this quagmire.  Why else would the allegedly liberal wing of the democratic capitalist enterprise, the would be heirs of 1789 or at least 1776, have no better ideas than pressing for dues and rents from debt incumbent serfs, the way their old foe the feudal nobility did?  The situation would be hilariously bizarre, if it weren’t so transparent and sad.

Delusional hysteria isn’t the exclusive property of the parties Republican and Tea.  There’s just as much making the rounds amongst the Dems.  If those shaking from terror and screaming “Socialism!” in the ACA’s general direction are deluded and dead wrong (and they are), then those cheering about how it’s a step toward single payer are just as ridiculous.  By funneling cash into the pockets of insurance providers while simultaneously making them an integral part of a formally legislated healthcare plan, Obama & friends have created a barrier to single payer.  Should we ever have such a plan here in the US, it will need to be forced on a more, not less powerful insurance lobby.  It will exist despite, not because of, the ACA.  That polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans favor single payer really makes one wonder why the liberal imagination doesn’t seem to encompass this popular idea.  I once thought this could be explained via the usual logic regarding lobbyists and corporate money, but it’s more than that.  It’s a failure of imagination.  The ACA is the ultimate expression of a world view incapable of looking for solutions beyond the boundaries of the neoliberal consensus.  One might even argue that the individual mandate itself is an admission that American capitalism as it now exists has failed.  Private insurers have failed to achieve universal insurance in the “free” market.  The solution?  Don’t rethink markets – use the state to force people into them!  This represents an intellectual as well as a material failure, in that the initial, material failure (the existence of the uninsured, insured people denied claims) is compounded by a failure of imagination (“Private insurance didn’t work.  Try it again harder.”).  The ACA and in particular the individual mandate are at their core the self-cannibalization of American liberal capitalism.  The capitalist component is forced to eat a bit of liberty to sustain itself.  We’ve already seen this in other more obvious areas, such as the NDAA, the crackdown against the Occupy Movement, etc.  It is more and more apparent that liberals, shackled as they are to neoliberalism, will not be able to save liberty from capitalism.  Only the real left can do that.

Death and the Private Public

Posted in Capitalism, Media, News, USA with tags , , on March 25, 2012 by Z

The Trayvon Martin shooting has provoked a number of reactions throughout the internet and beyond, from the predictable (but reasonable) “If Trayvon had been white, Zimmerman would have been arrested” to the predictable (but pants-on-head retarded) “Well, he musta done sumthin.”  We were even treated to the Geraldo Rivera “hoodie as universal gang uniform” thesis (Uh oh – I’m pretty sure I own a couple of those.  I’d better check myself for gang tattoos and concealed weapons).  The prez went so far as to point out that if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.  Sweet, I guess, although it does sound exactly like the sort of fundamentally noncommittal comment one might make in an election year to give Trayvon supporters the impression that one is on their side without giving that same impression to their (presumably white) detractors.  I’m going to focus on something else: gated communities.

Given the flood of coverage on the shooting, I initially thought one professional or another would comment on this at some point, but then I remembered that metastasized capitalism and private property worship are invisible to the mainstream media in the same way that water is invisible to fish.  That being the case, I’ll take a shot myself.  The gated community always struck me as suspiciously neo feudal: a quasi-public space arbitrarily cordoned off at the whim of some bearer(s) of accumulated capital for the alleged benefit of its wealthy and/or indebted inhabitants.  This is exactly the sort of ill defined space one might expect to see in a nation where a rigid and impractical conception of private property is asserting itself.  You know, like the US.  It is also the sort of space that appeals immediately to the aspiring and/or failed law enforcers among us (like George Zimmerman).  The private property designation carries a sort of “keep off my lawn” mentality right along with it that gives delusional fans of the “Law and Order” family of police procedural dramas an excuse to play cop (minus the actual training, knowledge of the law, etc. – but racial stereotypes, of course, remain constant).  Outside of a gated community, a “self-appointed neighborhood watchman” as Zimmerman has been called, is known as a nosy neighbor.  People don’t like nosy neighbors.  Cops tend to become frustrated with nuisance calls from nosy neighbors.  Add a gated community, however, and you get a “self appointed neighborhood watchman.”  Add a gun, and you get a vigilante with a sense of power and entitlement.  I can’t help but think that even a nut like Zimmerman would think twice before following an innocent teen down a public street.  Gated communities introduce the logic of private property to areas that should be public.  Lords of the manor (like Zimmerman) or private security guards who would otherwise not perform such functions are suddenly endowed with (or believe they are endowed with) police powers.  Public space becomes an extension of the private home.  Not cool, America.  The whole mess reeks of the misapplication of the classical Lockean conception of private property in which a titular owner has absolute control of his/her/their property, as though only they had a stake in its use.  Zimmerman’s apparent attitude – that Trayvon Martin had no interest in (or indeed right to) the streets of the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community is a symptom of this absurd conceit.  Trayvon had a clear interest in the streets: he was walking home on them.  Even if we ignore the obvious problems with Florida’s “Stand your ground” law, even if we ignore the role of racism, there is one thing we cannot ignore: we are a society that has apparently decided that a young man’s right to life doesn’t stack up to a suburbanite’s right to a private neighborhood.  Not cool, America.

Super complex and totally scientific Financial Models explained!

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, Web Satire Round Up with tags , on February 13, 2012 by Z

I found this at random lurking on one of the web’s many political discussion forums during a lunch break.  Not my bit, but still funny.  Next post, back to the usual text.

The Not so Hidden Costs of Neoliberalism

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, Heritage Foundation, Media, News, USA with tags , , on December 20, 2011 by Z

Who is John Galt?  Well, the strictly factual answer is that he’s a fictional character in a boring novel by a 3rd rate pseudo-intellectual.  In a broader sense, he’s an inspiration for the neoliberal financial oligarchy (and its congressional quislings) that set the stage for this.  That’s right – 1 in 2 Americans are now poor or low income.  Yours truly may be late to the party (this news is several days old, of course), but I simply can’t let this pass without comment.  Worth noting is the tone of the piece – that is, the failure of the “journalist” to connect the dismal data to any sort of historical context.  What we are left with is a narrative of crisis without responsibility.  “Rising housing costs” are cited, along with an aside about stagnating wages and rising medical costs, but these are not explained.  They are noted simply as events – a case of rising costs – rather than as the real consequences of quantifiable human actions.  Apparently, when it comes to the clear results of the blatant transfer of wealth from everyone else to the rich (privatized profit, socialized risk), the 1% have no historical agency.  No, they only have that when they’re being “job creators.”  (When was that, exactly?  I must have been indisposed that day, ’cause I sure don’t remember it).  The best part is this bit:

“Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, questioned whether some people classified as poor or low-income actually suffer material hardship. He said that while safety-net programs have helped many Americans, they have gone too far, citing poor people who live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.”

Evidently the boys over at the Heritage Foundation would have us believe that cars are an unnecessary luxury in a country with notoriously inadequate public transportation.  But Robby – how are we going to get to all these jobs you job creators have on the way?  Evidently it’s also necessary to make sure you destroy any possessions that hint at your past existence as a non-impoverished person.  If you’re recently poor and still have that house you bought back when you weren’t, be sure to get rid of it, or the Heritage Foundation won’t consider you poor – and god help you if you happen to live near a Rent-A-Center.*  Rent a TV you could never afford to buy, and Robby Rector doesn’t care about anything else.  Only someone utterly disconnected from real life could confuse the trappings of prosperity for prosperity itself.  My downstairs neighbors are impoverished Brazilian immigrants, but even they have an excellent stereo system.  That one comfort doesn’t make them any less poor, nor does it somehow render their hardships irrelevant.

The absurdity of Rector’s position seems obvious, but for the many yet ensnared in what the great Joe Bageant called “The American Hologram,” appearance equals reality.  I recall a night about six years ago when, at a dinner with friends, discussion turned to the economy.  After I made the usual assertions regarding capitalism’s contradictions to the bored faces of people used to my lefty ramblings, I argued that the American economy was looking more and more like that of a third world country.  There was only one question: The US will be a third world country – but will it look like it?  The implication, of course, being that an abysmal standard of living is perfectly acceptable as long as the appearance of prosperity is maintained.  Unless the streets turn to dusty dirt roads and the homes to the shacks of Hollywood poverty, the actual conditions don’t matter.  We’ve been trained well.

So who is John Galt?  John Galt is a tepid excuse for the not so hidden costs of neoliberalism.  Gear up, folks.  It’s going to get worse.

*For the uninitiated, Rent-A-Center is a business that exploits the working poor by renting electronics to them at monthly rates that appear affordable for a predetermined length of time that guarantees they will ultimately pay more than the cost of buying their rented “center” outright, which they of course would never have enough ready cash to do.