Archive for November, 2011

Friday Reading to Project on the Verizon Building of Your Mind

November 18th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

This was a wild week for Occupy protests around the country—more than ever, I hate being so far away from everything that’s happening. Congrats to everyone in New York, Oakland, and everywhere else. If you’re around New York City and you’re trying to figure out where Occupy Wall Street goes from here, you’ll want to check out the next Jacobin magazine event, which is happening at Columbia University on Monday, November 28th. Frances Fox Piven, Dorian Warren, Nikhil Saval, Mike Hirsch and Liza Featherstone will be there, and I’m sure it will be a great discussion. And I’m cautiously optimistic that none of our panelists will get fired for participating this time.

What else is new:

  • I really wish this new pro-OWS single wasn’t by Third Eye Blind. Now my non-sectarian, solidaristic leftist side is at war with my snotty, elitist music hipster side. And no, I couldn’t bring myself to actually listen to it.

  • The robots are coming: soon farmworkers may be replaced by charming little robots.

  • The nationwide drop in crime is linked to falling cocaine prices. I grew up during the “Murderapolis” era of violence and high crack prices in Minneapolis, so this rings true to me. And it’s a truly damning indictment of the War on Drugs, which was meant to raise drug prices: not only has the War been a failure, but if it had succeeded it would have been an even bigger disaster.

  • This article about the network security vulnerabilities of airplanes, power plants, and transportation systems is terrifying.

  • If you’re a leftist and a nerd (and if you’re not at least one of those things, why would you be reading this?), then this is the one link you must clink: science fiction author David Brin demolishes the mendacious, fascist politics of graphic novelist Frank Miller. And if that doesn’t sate your appetite for Miller-bashing, move on to Gary Brecher’s contribution on the topic. In addition to enjoying the polemic, I learned a lot about ancient Greek history from these posts.

  • This is awesome: “Angry over spying, Muslims say: ‘Don’t call NYPD’”. Under the circumstances, “stop snitching” strikes me as exactly the right attitude. Christians might want to adopt the same position.

  • This is so marvellously bonkers: Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen interviews Stalin, as portrayed by Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen.

  • This socialist defense of consumerism is on the right track. Socialism should be epicurean, not ascetic.

  • This Chinese alternative to the Nobel prize is just trolling the real Nobel committee’s Obama pick by giving it to Putin, right? Also: “The first award went to the former Taiwanese vice-president, Lien Chan, though Mr Lien did not show up to claim it at a somewhat surreal ceremony. The award and a prize of 100,000 yuan (£9,500) were instead given to a young girl, whom organisers refused to identify.”

  • This episode of Matt Taibbi’s Supreme Court of Assholedom isn’t as funny as some of the earlier installments, but it turns out to be the most serious reckoning I’ve seen with the issue of Steve Jobs idolatry.

  • Bloods and Crips come together at Occupy Atlanta. That’s basically an irrelevant bit of human interest trivia, but it gives me an excuse to post this memento of peace treaty-era LA gangsta rap.

  • I’ve been a bit ambivalent about a lot of the Evgeny Morozov stuff I’ve read, but this is exactly right. He comes out strongly in favor of the right to be anonymous online, which I’ve also written about.

  • Do you want to see Bill Gates in a 1995 promo where he goes inside the video game Doom and kills demons with a shotgun? Of course you do:

  • This Rock Paper Shotgun review of Modern Warfare 3 is what video game criticism should be like. In something I linked last week, Adorno said that “Because people have to work so hard, there is a sense in which they spend their spare time obsessively repeating the rituals of the efforts that have been demanded of them.” And now John Walker at RPS says:

    It fascinates me that this is the successful formula, the secret behind being the biggest FPS series of all time. It turns out people don’t want to be that hero at the forefront, making glorious decisions and bravely leading the way. They want to be the nobody who can only ever do what he’s told, and that’s on the rare occasions when he’s actually able to control himself. This game has the word “follow” on screen almost as often as it doesn’t. It floats above the head of whomever it is you’re with, ensuring you know your place, which is never to be in front, never to pick the direction, never to make a tactical decision. You follow. It says so.

  • The National Review gives us an interview with a liberal who informs us that “Conservatives have big appetites for ideology; liberals don’t. There are, of course, taxonomies of conservative schools of thought. People on the right classify themselves as libertarians, neoconservatives, social conservatives, traditional conservatives, and the like, and spill oceans of ink defining, debating, and further subdividing these schools of thought. There is no parallel taxonomy on the left.” Dude, what? I don’t think you actually know what “the left” is.

  • Obvious argument is obvious: it’s hard to convince people that people get rich by working hard when people don’t actually get rich by working hard.

  • Economists have done a lot of real-world damage with their bad theoretical models, so I’m glad to see that us sociologists are getting a chance to ruin everything for a change.

The Perils of Extrapolation

November 18th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, xkcd.com/386

So Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias have read Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee’s Race Against the Machine e-book, and both of them managed to come away impressed by the exact argument that I identified as the weakest part of the book’s case. Namely, the belief the Moore’s law—which stipulates that computer processing power increases at an exponential rate—can be extrapolated into the indefinite future. It’s true that Moore’s law seems to have held fairly well up to this point; and as Drum and Yglesias observe, if you keep extending it into the future, then pretty soon computing power will shoot up at an astronomically fast rate—that’s just the nature of exponential functions. On this basis, Drum predicts that artificial intelligence is “going to go from 10% of a human brain to 100% of a human brain, and it’s going to seem like it came from nowhere”, while Yglesias more generally remarks that “we’re used to the idea of rapid improvements in information technology, but we’re actually standing on the precipice of changes that are much larger in scale than what we’ve seen thus far.”

Let’s revisit the problem with this argument, which I laid out in my review. The gist of it is that just because you think you’re witnessing exponential progress, that doesn’t mean you should expect that same rate of exponential growth to continue indefinitely. I’ll turn the mic over to Charles Stross, from whom I picked up this line of critique:

Around 1950, everyone tended to look at what the future held in terms of improvements in transportation speed.

But as we know now, that wasn’t where the big improvements were going to come from. The automation of information systems just weren’t on the map, other than in the crudest sense — punched card sorting and collating machines and desktop calculators.

We can plot a graph of computing power against time that, prior to 1900, looks remarkably similar to the graph of maximum speed against time. Basically it’s a flat line from prehistory up to the invention, in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, of the first mechanical calculating machines. It gradually rises as mechanical calculators become more sophisticated, then in the late 1930s and 1940s it starts to rise steeply. From 1960 onwards, with the transition to solid state digital electronics, it’s been necessary to switch to a logarithmic scale to even keep sight of this graph.

It’s worth noting that the complexity of the problems we can solve with computers has not risen as rapidly as their performance would suggest to a naive bystander. This is largely because interesting problems tend to be complex, and computational complexity rarely scales linearly with the number of inputs; we haven’t seen the same breakthroughs in the theory of algorithmics that we’ve seen in the engineering practicalities of building incrementally faster machines.

Speaking of engineering practicalities, I’m sure everyone here has heard of Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore of Intel coined this one back in 1965 when he observed that the number of transistor count on an integrated circuit for minimum component cost doubles every 24 months. This isn’t just about the number of transistors on a chip, but the density of transistors. A similar law seems to govern storage density in bits per unit area for rotating media.

As a given circuit becomes physically smaller, the time taken for a signal to propagate across it decreases — and if it’s printed on a material of a given resistivity, the amount of power dissipated in the process decreases. (I hope I’ve got that right: my basic physics is a little rusty.) So we get faster operation, or we get lower power operation, by going smaller.

We know that Moore’s Law has some way to run before we run up against the irreducible limit to downsizing. However, it looks unlikely that we’ll ever be able to build circuits where the component count exceeds the number of component atoms, so I’m going to draw a line in the sand and suggest that this exponential increase in component count isn’t going to go on forever; it’s going to stop around the time we wake up and discover we’ve hit the nanoscale limits.

So to summarize: transportation technology looked like it was improving exponentially, which caused people to extrapolate that forward into the future. Hence the futurists and science fiction writers of the 1950s envisioned a future with flying cars and voyages to other planets. But what actually happened was that transportation innovation plateaued, and a completely different area, communications, became the source of major breakthroughs. And that’s because, as Stross says later in the essay, “new technological fields show a curve of accelerating progress — until it hits a plateau and slows down rapidly. It’s the familiar sigmoid curve.”

And as Stross says elsewhere, “the first half of a sigmoid demand curve looks like an exponential function.” This is what he means:

Sigmoid and exponential curves

The red line in that image is an exponential function, and the black line is a sigmoid curve. Think of these as two possible paths of technological development over time. If you’re somewhere around that black X mark, you won’t really be able to tell which curve you’re on.

But I’m inclined to agree with Stross that we’re more likely to be on the sigmoid path than the exponential one, when it comes to microprocessors. That doesn’t mean that we’ll hit a plateau with no big technological changes at all. It’s just that, as Stross says in yet another place:

New technologies slow down radically after a period of rapid change during their assimilation. However, I can see a series of overlapping sigmoid curves that might resemble an ongoing hyperbolic curve if you superimpose them on one another, each segment representing the period of maximum change as a new technology appears.

Hence economic growth as a whole can still look like it’s following an exponential path.

None of which is to say that I wholly reject the thesis of Brynjolfsson and McAffee’s book—see the review for my thoughts on that. In a way, I think Drum and Yglesias are underselling just how weird and disruptive the future of technology will be—it’s not just that it will be rapid, but that it will come in areas we can’t even imagine yet. But we should be really wary of simply extending present trends into the future—our recent history of speculative economic manias should have taught us that if something can’t go on forever, it will stop.

Nigel Tufnel Day Links

November 11th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

Happy Nigel Tufnel Day, y’all. I’ll take 11-11-11 over 9-9-9 any time.

  • This is what I like to see: about time my Minnesota brothers and sisters got down with moving Occupy in the direction of foreclosure defense.

  • This, friends, is how you deal with police provocateurs. This is our line!

  • I’m kind of thin skinned, so I have a tendency to let it get to me when people say nasty things about me online. But the negative reactions I get are pretty mild, and I don’t have to put up with the kind of insane, violently abusive trolls that female writers endure on a daily basis. If I did have to experience that, this blog probably wouldn’t exist, which tells you all you really need to know about how male privilege works on the Internet.

  • I’m on board with the idea that “complex programs with egalitarian aims should be replaced with direct cash transfers wherever feasible.” This can be our theme song:

  • This post will be funnier if you know something about the culture of video game journalism, but its portrait of our dystopian future is pretty great on its own.

  • In light of this research, I suppose I should start re-branding my advocacy of a guaranteed minimum income as the “guaranteed minimum tax rebate”.

  • Alabama passed a crazy anti-immigrant law, and so their immigrant population fled. And guess what, now businesses are complaining that they can’t find enough workers. There are a bunch of interesting things going on in this article. Unsurprisingly for an article in Business Week, the reporting skirts around the possibility that maybe the reason it’s hard to fill these jobs is because they suck. Dean Baker would no doubt observe that if you take these whining business owners at their word, they’re terrible at business: if you can’t find enough workers to fill the positions you have, basic economics would suggest you need to either raise wages or make the jobs more pleasant. Of course, this is complicated for some of the industries in the article, like agriculture and fish processing, since they have to compete with low-cost overseas producers. But apparently there are also labor shortages in construction and janitorial services, which can’t really be outsourced, so clearly some of this is just an unwillingness of bosses to accept that sometimes wages have to go up. My favorite anecdote is at the very end of the article, when one of the immigrants who stuck around notes that he’s going to take advantage of the labor shortage by demanding his employer give him a raise. Full employment FTW.

  • Doug Henwood did what I was hoping he’d do, and rewrote an old article to address the current craze for moving money to credit unions.

  • Adorno and Horkheimer discuss a new communist manifesto, hilarity ensues.

  • “We need to alter the circumstances under which full-employment requires that lenders pay borrowers to spend. “

  • Beware of claims that online piracy is a big threat to the economy.

That’s it. It’s the 20th anniversary of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, so let’s have this:

The Fog of War and the Case for Knee-jerk Anti-Interventionism

November 10th, 2011  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics, xkcd.com/386

In my last post on Libya, I took a sort of squishy position: while avoiding a direct endorsement of the NATO military campaign there, I wanted to defend the existence of a genuine internal revolutionary dynamic, rather than dismissing the resistance to Gaddafi as merely the puppets of Western imperialism. I still basically stand by that position, and I still think the ultimate trajectory of Libya remains in doubt. But all that aside, it’s important to look back carefully at the run-up to the military intervention. A couple of recent essays have tried to do so—one of them is an exemplary struggle to get at the real facts around the decision to go to war, while the other typifies the detestable self-congratulatory moralizing of the West’s liberal warmongers.

The right way to look back on Libya is this article in the London Review of Books, which I found by way of Corey Robin. Hugh Roberts, formerly of the International Crisis Group, casts a very skeptical eye on the claims made by the the NATO powers in the run-up to war, and on the intentions of those who were eager to intervene on the side of the Libyan rebels. At the same time, he acknowledges the intolerable nature of the Gaddafi regime and accepts the reality of an internally-generated political resistance that was not merely fabricated by external powers. But rather than accepting the claims of foreign powers at face value, he shows all the ways in which NATO actually managed to subvert the emergence of a real democratic political alternative in Libya, and he leaves me wondering once again whether the revolution would have been better off if it could have proceeded without external interference.

There are a few particularly important points that I want to draw out of Roberts’ essay. First, he shows that, in a pattern that is familiar from the recent history of “humanitarian” interventions, many of the claims that were used to justify the imminent necessity of war do not hold up under scrutiny. First, there is the claim that military force had to be used because all other options had been exhausted. As Roberts observes:

Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments. ‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate. Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. No sooner had Cameron covered for the NTC’s unmistakable violation of Resolution 1973 than Obama weighed in, insisting that for Gaddafi’s ceasefire to count for anything he would (in addition to sustaining it indefinitely, single-handed, irrespective of the NTC) have to withdraw his forces not only from Benghazi but also from Misrata and from the most important towns his troops had retaken from the rebellion, Ajdabiya in the east and Zawiya in the west – in other words, he had to accept strategic defeat in advance. These conditions, which were impossible for Gaddafi to accept, were absent from Article 1.

Whether or not you believe that the Gaddafi side would ever have seriously engaged in negotiations over a peaceful settlement, or whether you think such negotiations would have been preferable to complete rebel military victory, it seems clear that the NATO powers never really gave them the chance. This is reminiscent of what happened prior to the bombing of Serbia in 1999: NATO started bombing after claiming that Serbia refused a peaceful settlement of the Kosovo conflict. What actually happened was that NATO presented the Serbs with a “settlement” that would have given NATO troops the right to essentially take control of Serbia. The Serbs understandably objected to this, though they were willing to accept international peacekeepers. But this wasn’t enough for NATO, and so it was bombs away.

A second element of the brief for the Libya war that Roberts highlights is the peculiar case of the imminent Benghazi massacre. Recall that among the war’s proponents, it was taken as accepted fact that, when NATO intervened, Gaddafi’s forces were on the verge of conducting a genocidal massacre of civilians in rebel-held Benghazi, and thereby snuffing out any hope for the revolution. Here is what Roberts has to say about that:

Gaddafi dealt with many revolts over the years. He invariably quashed them by force and usually executed the ringleaders. The NTC and other rebel leaders had good reason to fear that once Benghazi had fallen to government troops they would be rounded up and made to pay the price. So it was natural that they should try to convince the ‘international community’ that it was not only their lives that were at stake, but those of thousands of ordinary civilians. But in retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda. The only known massacre carried out during Gaddafi’s rule was the killing of some 1200 Islamist prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996. This was a very dark affair, and whether or not Gaddafi ordered it, it is fair to hold him responsible for it. It was therefore reasonable to be concerned about what the regime might do and how its forces would behave in Benghazi once they had retaken it, and to deter Gaddafi from ordering or allowing any excesses. But that is not what was decided. What was decided was to declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenceless civilians and instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit, and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend military action.

Roberts goes on to cast doubt on one of the specific claims of atrocity against Gaddafi: that his air force was strafing protestors on the ground. This claim was widely propagated by media like Al-Jazeera and liberal war-cheerleaders like Juan Cole, but Roberts finds no convincing evidence that it ever actually occurred. Reporters who were in Libya didn’t get reports of it, nor is there any photographic evidence—this despite the ubiquity of cell-phone camera footage in the wave of recent uprisings. The evaporation of the sensational allegation calls to mind the run-up to yet another war: the first Gulf War, when the invasion of Iraq was sold, in part, by way of a thoroughly made up story about Iraqi troops ripping Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and leaving them to die.

Beyond revealing the weakness of the empirical case for war, Roberts also highlights something I hadn’t really thought of before: the way the West’s case for intervention promotes an anti-political and undemocratic framing of the conflict that has a lot in common with the sort of anti-ideological elite “non-partisanship” that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in the context of domestic politics. Roberts observes that the NATO powers portrayed themselves as the defenders of an undifferentiated “Libyan people” rather than partisans taking one side in a civil war. By doing so, they short-circuited the development of a real political division within Libyan society, a development that in itself was a desirable process:

The idea that Gaddafi represented nothing in Libyan society, that he was taking on his entire people and his people were all against him was another distortion of the facts. As we now know from the length of the war, the huge pro-Gaddafi demonstration in Tripoli on 1 July, the fierce resistance Gaddafi’s forces put up, the month it took the rebels to get anywhere at all at Bani Walid and the further month at Sirte, Gaddafi’s regime enjoyed a substantial measure of support, as the NTC did. Libyan society was divided and political division was in itself a hopeful development since it signified the end of the old political unanimity enjoined and maintained by the Jamahiriyya. In this light, the Western governments’ portrayal of ‘the Libyan people’ as uniformly ranged against Gaddafi had a sinister implication, precisely because it insinuated a new Western-sponsored unanimity back into Libyan life. This profoundly undemocratic idea followed naturally from the equally undemocratic idea that, in the absence of electoral consultation or even an opinion poll to ascertain the Libyans’ actual views, the British, French and American governments had the right and authority to determine who was part of the Libyan people and who wasn’t. No one supporting the Gaddafi regime counted. Because they were not part of ‘the Libyan people’ they could not be among the civilians to be protected, even if they were civilians as a matter of mere fact. And they were not protected; they were killed by Nato air strikes as well as by uncontrolled rebel units. The number of such civilian victims on the wrong side of the war must be many times the total death toll as of 21 February. But they don’t count, any more than the thousands of young men in Gaddafi’s army who innocently imagined that they too were part of ‘the Libyan people’ and were only doing their duty to the state counted when they were incinerated by Nato’s planes or extra-judicially executed en masse after capture, as in Sirte.

It’s possible, after reading all of Roberts’ essay, to remain convinced that the NATO attack was a lesser evil on balance, and to retain some optimism about the future trajectory of Libya. But he nevertheless provides an important reminder of just why it’s so important to beware of Presidents bearing “humanitarian” interventions. The liberal war-mongering crowd likes to deride those of us who bring strongly anti-interventionist biases into these debates, on the grounds that we are irrationally prejudiced against the United States, or against the possible benefits of war. But in the immediate prelude to war, such biases are in fact entirely rational, precisely because the real dynamics on the ground are so murky and hard to determine, and the arguments used to justify intervention so often turn out to be illusory after the fact.

This reality does not, however, prevent the liberal hawk faction from coming out with some triumphant breast-beating and score-settling when their little war looks to be a “success”. Michael Berube has a new essay in this genre, and it’s terrible in all the ways the Roberts essay is excellent. In both tone and content, it’s a shameful piece of writing, and Berube should be embarrassed to have written it—but since it placates the tortured soul of the liberal bombardier, he is instead hailed as a brave and sophisticated thinker.

Berube argues that opponents of the war in Libya are fatally flawed by a “manichean” approach to foreign policy: rather than appreciate the nuances of the situation in Libya, he claims, opponents of the war lazily fell back on “tropes that have been forged over the past four decades of antiwar activism”. These tropes, says Berube, are an impediment to forging “a rigorously internationalist left in the U.S., a left that will promote and support the freedom of speech, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear—even on those rare and valuable occasions when doing so puts one in the position of supporting U.S. policies.”

This is, I suppose, an improvement on Michael Walzer’s call for a “decent” left (where “decency” consists of an appropriate deference to U.S. imperial propaganda). But as the Roberts essay shows, the pro-war faction are on shaky ground when they accuse others of relying on a ritualized set of tropes: the imminent humanitarian disaster and the impossibility of a non-military solution are themselves the repetitive–and routinely discredited–way in which war is sold to those who consider themselves liberals and internationalists. The eagerness of people like Berube to pick up on any thinly-sourced claim that vindicates the imminence and necessity of bombs suggests that the case for humanitarian intervention has become increasingly routinized as the Libyas, Iraqs, and Serbias pile up.

And it is striking that, in contrast to the careful skepticism of Roberts, Berube simply assumes that NATO action was necessary to prevent imminent catastrophe. In doing so, he evades all the difficult questions that arise in the Roberts essay. He relies, for example, on Juan Cole’s refutation of numerous alleged “myths” of the anti-interventionists; among them is the argument that “Qaddafi would not have killed or imprisoned large numbers of dissidents in Benghazi, Derna, al-Bayda and Tobruk if he had been allowed to pursue his March Blitzkrieg toward the eastern cities that had defied him”. Berube derides this claim as “bizarre”, and indeed it would be if this were actually the argument that any serious party had made. But the argument for intervention was not merely that Gaddafi could potentially have “killed or imprisoned large numbers of dissidents”. As Roberts notes, that’s the inevitable end result of just about any failed armed rebellion, and imprisonment and killing was probably an unavoidable endgame no matter how matters in Libya were resolved. The victorious rebels, after all, have imprisoned or extrajudicially killed a large number of people on the pro-Gaddafi side, including Gaddafi himself; and that’s not to speak of the direct civilian casualties from the actual bombing campaign.

But Berube elides all of this, by implying that those who questioned the predictions of a humanitarian apocalypse were absurdly denying the possibility of any retaliation at all against the rebels. Thus, while acknowledging that in principle “the Libya intervention could be subjected to cost/benefit analyses and consequentialist objections”, he proceeds to pile up the human costs of non-intervention, while leaving his side of the ledger clear of any of the deaths that resulted from the decision to intervene. This allows him to portray the pro-intervention side as the sole owners of facts and common sense, before launching into his real subject: the perfidy and moral obtuseness of the war’s critics.

He finds plenty of juicy targets, because there was indeed some dodgy argumentation on the anti-war side. There was, as there always is, a certain amount of vulgar anti-imperialism that insisted that opposing NATO meant glorifying Gaddafi and dismissing the legitimacy of his opposition. There was, too, an occasional tendency to obsess over the war’s legality, even though law in an international context is always rather capricious and dependent on great-power politics. And Berube is clever enough to anticipate the objections to his highlighting of such arguments:

Those who believe that there should be no enemies to one’s left are fond of accusing me of “hippie punching,” as if, like Presidents Obama and Clinton, I am attacking straw men to my left in order to lay claim to the reasonable, vital center; those who know that I am not attacking straw persons are wont to claim instead that I am criticizing fringe figures who have no impact whatsoever on public debate in the United States. And it is true: on the subject of Libya the usual fringe figures behaved precisely as The Left At War depicts the Manichean Left. Alexander Cockburn, James Petras, Robert Fisk, John Pilger—all of them still fighting Vietnam, stranded for decades on a remote ideological island with no way of contacting any contemporary geopolitical reality whatsoever—weighed in with the usual denunciations of US imperialism and predictions that Libya would be carved up for its oil. And about the doughty soi-disant anti-imperialists who, in the mode of Hugo Chavez, doubled down on the delusion that Qaddafi is a legitimate and benevolent ruler harassed by the forces of imperialism, there really is nothing to say, for there can be nothing more damning than their own words.

For the record: yes indeed, Berube is engaged in “hippie punching”, attacking straw men, and selectively nutpicking the worst arguments on the anti-war side. And to what end? As with so much liberal imperialism, it seems that the purpose here is not so much to provide an empirical and political case for the war, as it is to confirm the superior moral sensibility of the warmongers, who are committed to high-minded internationalist ideals while their opponents are mired in knee-jerk anti-Americanism. The conflation of good intentions with good results bedevils liberal politics in all kinds of ways, and nowhere is it more damaging than in the realm of international politics, where morally pure allegiances are difficult to find.

Berube complains that “for what I call the Manichean Left, opposition to U.S. policy is precisely an opposition to entities: all we need to know, on that left, is that the U.S. is involved.” To this, he counterposes his rigorous case-by-case evaluation of specific actions, which is indifferent to the identity of the parties involved. But while this is a sound principle in the abstract, Roberts’ exposé of the shaky Libya dossier demonstrates why it is so dangerous in practice. Given our limited ability to evaluate, in the moment, the hyperbolic claims made by governments on the warpath, a systematic bias against supporting intervention is the only way to counter-balance what would otherwise be a bias in favor of accepting propaganda at face value, and thereby supporting war in every case. Even if the outcome in Libya turns out to be an exceptional best-case scenario—a real democracy, independent of foreign manipulation—this is insufficient reason to substantially revise a general-purpose anti-interventionist prior. And even if the outcome of the NATO campaign has not played out as badly as some anti-war voices predicted, the details of that campaign’s marketing only tend to confirm the danger of making confident statements of martial righteousness while enveloped in the fog of war.

Inhuman Megaphone: Friday Roundup

November 4th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

I’m in Brussels for the rest of the weekend, so I’m putting these up a little early before I descend into a haze of moules frites and trappist beer.

  • I know I said the media was failing extra hard last week, but this week might have been even worse. The Oakland march/strike/shutdown of the port was one of the most remarkably huge, dynamic, unexpected mass protests I’ve ever seen, at least as best I can tell from here in Europe. But if you watched TV or read the major papers, you’d think the whole thing was nothing put window-breaking, arson, and fighting with the cops. I’m grateful to all the folks who have been on the ground covering Occupy Oakland on the web an Twitter–some of whom ended up in jail for their trouble.

  • Speaking of throwing journalists in jail, Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah has been imprisoned by the military once again. Read his letter from a Cairo jail.

  • This post (via Steve Randy Waldman) is long and fairly dense, but the core argument is simple, and it explains how technological unemployment and “great stagnation” theories of the economy can both be true at the same time. In a nutshell, we’re seeing lots innovation in making the same stuff with fewer workers, but not much innovation in coming up with new stuff to make. See the post for an explanation, and make sure to read all the way to the end: the concluding recommendations make me think once again that if you’re thinking seriously about economic policy that addresses fundamental problems, all roads lead to a guaranteed income.

  • Superstitions of the bourgeoisie: how the meritocratic elite mentally cripple their own children.

  • “The City of London will remain outside the authority of parliament. Domestic and foreign banks will be permitted to vote as if they were human beings, and their votes will outnumber those cast by real people. Its elected officials will be chosen from people deemed acceptable by a group of medieval guilds…”

  • I hate to pick on somebody who’s just an intern at the American Prospect, but this post is an absolutely perfect example of the kind of confused un-ideological partisanship I recently wrote about. This guy claims that Obama is a “pragmatist” who believes that “realism, data, and debate—not ideology —make for effective long-term policy”, whereas Mitt Romney is only out to “get more votes, even if bad policy is the price.” But if Obama has no ideology, what criterion does he use to determine what counts as “good” policy? Pragmatism has to be in the service of some ideologically driven goal, otherwise it’s just…opportunistic flip-flopping in the pursuit of votes. Relatedly, I agree that there is no such thing as a disinterested technocrat, merely “different, competing interest groups with different, competing preferences”.

  • Cops are the worst. One reason I’m thankful to my parents for sending me to urban public schools with lots of non-white kids and punks and skaters and graffiti writers: despite being an upper middle-class straight white guy, I learned early on that police are dangerous and scary, and you should do whatever you can to avoid getting anywhere near them. If I ever have kids, that’s what I’ll teach them as well.

  • At last, the Orwell take-down we all needed. The bonus Perry Anderson quote is great as well.

  • The Occupy movement has mostly chosen good targets and strategies, but “Bank Transfer Day” is kind of a dumb idea. Doug Henwood covered this back when it was called “Move Your Money” and was being promoted by Arianna Huffington.

  • Here’s a call for “another anarchism”, which will “fight for and win reforms short of revolution in way that both improve people’s conditions and options now, and that also create opportunities for further victories in the future.” Uh, that’s what Gorz called the strategy of “non-reformist reform”, and us Marxists and social democrats at Democratic Socialists of America have been advocating it for years. But hey, call it anarchism if you like–welcome aboard!

Failure Mode

November 2nd, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics

It’s general strike day in Oakland. I don’t really know what to expect—this isn’t going to be a true general strike in the sense of completely shutting down the city like in 1946, but it could still be an exciting step forward. And since I’ve underestimated the impact of everything that’s happened since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, I won’t make any confident predictions until I see what happens in the streets. But one big wild card, once again, is the response of the Mayor and the police.

What’s been remarkable about the events in Oakland and elsewhere, so far, is how much they’ve freaked out and disrupted the political system. For my whole life, it seemed like the governing elite could easily get rid of mass protest through some judicious mixture of ignoring and repressing demonstrators. But that seems not to be working this time. When Michael Bloomberg tried to sweep away the Wall Street occupation under the pretext of “cleaning” the park, he was met with thousands of solidarity protestors and forced to back down. When the Oakland police tried to gas their city’s occupation into submission, they not only made a martyr out of Scott Olsen, but felt they had to issue a bizarre open letter in which they distanced themselves from their own violent actions. In Albany, the police simply defied the governor and mayor’s order to evict protestors. In Tennessee, the state government first tried to dispel protests with mass arrests, but then declined to defend the policy in the face of a court injunction.

In all these cases, it seems that the system is incapable of handling the appearance of any kind of mass civic participation that doesn’t go through the expected channels—and this problem is not limited to the United States. The European Union’s attempts to contain its banking crisis are, it seems, not robust to the outbreak of democracy, since Greece’s Prime Minister was able to plunge the continent into turmoil by merely threatening to give his people a say in the current bailout and austerity plan for the country. In Britain, an occupation has set off crisis and resignations in the Church of England, while directing uncomfortable attention to the bizarre and authoritarian structure that runs central London. What’s going on here?

A clue, I think, is to be found in a remark that comes near the end of David Graeber’s recent magnum opus on debt:

The last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world . . . with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish, or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win.

In this, Graeber is echoing one of my favorite, often-quoted lines from Fredric Jameson: “The mass of people . . . do not themselves have to believe in any hegemonic ideology of the system, but only to be convinced of its permanence.” This was the outlook that Margaret Thatcher enunciated in one of her famous speeches:

If I could press a button and genuinely solve the unemployment problem, do you think that I would not press that button this instant? Does anyone imagine that there is the smallest political gain in letting this unemployment continue, or that there is some obscure economic religion which demands this unemployment as part of its ritual? This Government are pursuing the only policy which gives any hope of bringing our people back to real and lasting employment.

This outlook is commonly summarized as “There Is No Alternative”. From this starting point, one can create a method of rule which does not depend on being positively affirmed or seen as legitimate by most people, but merely requires the resigned assent of a demoralized populace. Thus the rule of the financial elites can continue, even as political legitimacy is drained out of the institutions of government. But if you build a system on the assumption that there will be no dissent and no alternatives, what happens when dissent does appear, and begins to articulate alternatives? I submit that we’re seeing what happens, in the Occupy Wall Street protests and beyond: the basic fragility and brittleness of neoliberal politics is being exposed. That fragility is analogous to the precariousness of neoliberal economics, and it arises for some of the same reasons.

Contemporary capitalism, we are often told, is characterized by the relentless pursuit of efficiency. In one telling, a more efficient economy is one that gets more output out of the same amount of labor and resources. But from another perspective, a streamlined and ultra-efficient economy is one which produces more and faster in normal times, but which can only do so by cutting out the safeguards and redundancies that protect the system from catastrophic failure when things go bad. Thus the global economy becomes simultaneously more dynamic and more fragile. As Felix Salmon puts it, “as a general rule, the more efficient something is, the easier it is to break.” Both the economics and the politics of neoliberalism are turning out to be very efficient and very easy to break.

To take a metaphor from engineering, capitalist societies of an earlier era were somewhat over-engineered. Before precise computer models were available, the builders of physical infrastructure built works that were far more robust than they needed to be. This uses up more labor and materials, but it also makes structures more resistant to failure; thus, older bridges like those in New York City can stay standing even when they are neglected for years, while more recent structures can collapse in catastrophic fashion.

This same logic can be applied to the economy. The creation of a globalized, just-in-time, streamlined supply chain has made possible huge gains in the efficiency of manufacturing and distribution. Yet as Barry Lynn has argued, it also makes the entire global economy vulnerable to localized shocks, as when a Japanese earthquake crippled world-wide production of Toyota automobiles, or when an earthquake in Taiwan led to a global shortage of computer memory.

And what goes for manufacturing goes double for finance. Investment banks, players in global markets who intricately hedge their positions in order to maximize their ability to take on risk, are uniquely vulnerable to economic shocks. As the saying goes, “in a crisis, all correlations go to 1″. Using another engineering concept, “tight coupling”, Richard Bookstaber explains the process, showing how disruptions in one corner of the financial markets can quickly propagate into a major worldwide crisis.

The tradeoff between efficiency and stability that exists in the process of production and circulation is also present in the mode of regulation. If the output of capitalist production is commodities, the output of the political system is social order and the consent of the working class. This latter, too, can be produced with either more or less efficiency. In the mid-20th century, capitalist economies developed welfare-state mechanisms for dealing with economic polarization and political unrest, and thereby securing some social stability. Keynesian capitalism’s failure mode was one in which working class dissatisfaction could be expressed through unions and labor parties; taxation and redistribution could be used to prop up demand, buy off the working class, and head off more radical forms of political dissent.

However, such a system is expensive for the capitalist class, in terms of both money and social power—eventually, the bourgeoisie concluded it would be more efficient to simply keep all the surplus for themselves and rely on hopelessness to keep the rabble in line. Thus neoliberalism has systematically dismantled the supports and failsafe systems that kept dissent in check, and has relied instead on preventing dissent from arising in the first place. The 99% have been cut off from institutional channels for influencing policy or voicing their grievances, and thus have been left with no choice but to take it to the streets. And now that we have done so, we are seeing the chaotic and unpredictable failure mode of neoliberal governance.

Since the end of the housing bubble, a lot of people have been looking for the next bubble to collapse. Maybe we’ve been living through a bubble in political order, a AAA-rated social stability which is turning out to be based on much riskier and more insecure foundations than any of its architects believed.