Friday links: Coat Sunday Edition

October 21st, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

Peculiar Luxembourg fact of the week: my co-workers informed me today that this is the weekend of “Coat Sunday”, the one day all year when shops open on Sunday, so that people can buy their winter coats. Seriously: “originally this was to allow residents living in the countryside to come down to the towns and buy their new winter outfit”. Anyway, for those of you not too busy travelling to the city for your coats:

  • This story about Occupy L.A. protestors defending a woman from foreclosure and Mike Konczal’s post about the general intersection between Occupy and the anti-foreclosure movement gave me big time nerd chills. I’ve had countless discussions over the years about how modern socialists could learn from the Communist Party’s anti-eviction work in the 1930’s. In my arsenal of talking points about how socialists need to relate to people’s everyday experience, it’s rivaled only by “the Daily Worker had a sports page”.

  • This is kind of on the abstruse philosophy tip, but as someone who does a lot of Critique and finds Spinoza/Nietszche/Deleuze annoying, this from Benjamin Noys spoke to me. And I think it actually bears on the marvellously contentious Jacobin OWS debate in an oblique way. Perry Anderson argued in Considerations on Western Marxism that the Western Marxists (Frankfurt School, Coletti, Althusser, etc.) all tried to tie Marxism back to some prior trend in the history of philosophy, and there was kind of a three-way split between those who went with Hegel, those who went to Kant, and those who went with Spinoza. The “anti-critique” tendency derives in some ways from the encounter between Marx and Spinoza in this period, of which Althusser was the primary exponent, but it’s filtered down in many ways to the type of anarchism you see in the Jacobin debate. “The invocations of radical imagination, of the valence of utopia, of transcendental ‘ideas of communism’, and so on, seem to me to forgo or forget this labour [of critique]. Motivational as they may be the effect of such receding moments, whose empirical instantiations are often questionable or vague, is to offer false consolation.”

  • A faction of the Occupy Wall Street crew (including some of my friends and comrades) is trying to win people over to a demand: jobs for all. I share some of Jodi Dean’s discomforts, which won’t be a surprise if you’ve read me on jobs and full employment. But I’m enough of a political pragmatist to think that this is probably the best program to get behind right now, and one that could lead in more promising radical directions in the future.

  • Ari Berman’s profile of “the Austerity Class” fits in nicely with my post from a few days ago, in which I identified austerity politics as the ideology hiding behind post-partism “centrist” posturing. The open question about these people, as Mike Konczal says, is whether the anti-growth agenda of the austerians represents a material interest or merely false consciousness among the capitalist class.

  • On a related note, “Economists say” is one of the most ubiquitous ways that reporters launder their right-wing opinions into “objective” news.

  • “These are the dwindling options facing the Obama administration now that it’s gone down the road of killing an American citizen without due process and covering up the rationale for doing so under the veil of state secrecy. Welcome to absurdity.”

  • Great line from Jorge Albor’s discussion of Batman: Arkham Asylum: “I find it hard to relate to a rich white playboy who secretly buys expensive toys and uses them to beat people up.”

  • I, too, tend to tune out when I hear the phrase “peak oil”, but this really could be a problem.

  • Democratic feudalism watch (cf. Corey Robin): you can get corporate donations to your nonprofit, but only if you’re willing to lobby on behalf of your corporate masters.

Friday Links: We Won Something!

October 14th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

For the time being, mayor Bloomberg and the owners of Zuccotti park have backed down, abandoning their plan to clear out Occupy Wall Street after a huge crowd gathered at the park and prepared to nonviolently resist the police. My favorite reaction came from historian Angus Johnston on Twitter: “We won. We NEVER Win. Wow.” I think that pretty much sums up why the Occupy movement is so exciting even to those of us who are critical of some aspects of it. Of course, the city may have decided to wait until most of the crowd goes home before moving in for the kill, but this still looks like a huge win. (Also, from what I’m seeing on Twitter, there’s still some ongoing craziness between marchers and police downtown, which I can’t yet get any confirmation about.)

Jacobin Live

October 6th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

More non-content content until I can come up with a proper post. Jacobin magazine, hot new Leftist magazine and the home of some of my recent writings, is sponsoring its first public event!

OWS debate flyer

Time: Friday, October 14. 7 pm.

Location: Bluestockings book store. 172 Allen Street between Stanton and Rivington.

With: Jodi Dean, Doug Henwood, Malcolm Harris, and Natasha Lennard. Seth Ackerman moderates.

I won’t be there, unfortunately, because I’m thousands of miles away. But if you’re somewhat closer by, you should turn up for what promises to be a great debate about the politics, strategy, and tactics of the “Occupy [whatever]” upsurge.

Stay tuned to the Jacobin blog for updates and details.

Happy Agricultural Reform Day! link roundup

September 30th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

No, really: on this day São Tomé and Príncipe celebrates the nationalization of large plantations. There should really be more holidays like that.

31 years ago today the Ethernet specification was published, and without it this blog wouldn’t be possible.

8 years ago today, Yusuf Bey died. I’m mentioning that mostly as an excuse to link to the insane saga of Your Black Muslim Bakery.

I’ve now risen high enough in Google’s algorithms to get some interesting search engine traffic. My favorites from the past week or so:

  • “how to short germany”. Sorry, we’re not a financial advice blog here, can’t help you.
  • “i’m reading huckleberry finn for english but i’m not getting what’s going on at all”. My one post on Huck Finn probably didn’t help this guy either.
  • “коммодификация”. Google Translate tells me this is Russian for “commodification”.
  • “how does someone steal shoes from department stores”. I believe stuffing them under your coat is a popular method.
  • “do we still have capitalism”. Good question! I think I actually do have some helpful things to say about this.
  • “the book of job translation in modern english”. I think this person was actually looking for information about “the job of book translation”, which I do have one post about. But “the book of job translation” isn’t a bad description of a lot of the other writing here.
  • “business cycle turkey”. Mmmm, turkey.

Anyway, your links:

  • What’s that expression, it’s not the crime, it’s the pepper spraying? The media was all set to ignore the Wall Street protests, until the cops decided to go buck wild. Click that link to see former Daniel Patrick Moynihan advisor Lawrence O’Donnell sounding like vintage Ice Cube: “There’s a Rodney King every day in this country, and black America has always known that.”

  • Speaking of Ice Cube, “My Summer Vacation” is a great track about some LA gangbangers moving to Saint Louis to start up a new franchise. Listen to that as you read about how today’s gangs spread to America’s smaller cities.

  • And speaking of Occupy Wall Street, check out my pal Chris Maisano and my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, in this Salon article.

  • More OWS: I haven’t written anything about Occupy Wall Street because I’m not sure what to say about it, even though I’m rooting for it to succeed and expand. Perhaps because it’s not sure what to say about itself. Still, it’s looking like things are starting to gather some momentum.

  • Just to be clear, the Obama administration is now in the business of assassinating American citizens whenever they feel like it, with no due process or legal oversight. In a different context, we’d use words like “death squad” to refer to stuff like this.

  • Groupon seems like it’s either an egregious scam or the next big tech company or possibly both, or perhaps just pure bezzle. Felix salmon explains why the company may not be doomed, and why the huge amount of money taken out of the money-losing company by its founders could be a rational venture capitalist strategy rather than the crass looting I always figured it was. I still think they’re doomed, though.

  • I already mentioned it, but here again: this series of articles about the replacement of human labor with robots is quite good on the specifics of automation, but it goes with what’s basically a “jobless future” argument, and is therefore probably wrong: capitalism is endlessly capable of coming up with things that humans can be paid to do. It’s always a mistake to say “in the future there will be no jobs” rather than “in the future we could spent a lot less time in paid labor”. The real lesson here is that there’s no reason to keep coming up with alienating jobs for people, and we have the opportunity to live lives that are mostly free of the drudgery of unwanted work, but only if a political movement arises to make that happen. As always, see “Anti-Star Trek”, along with “Against Jobs” and its follow-up, for my more considered reflections on this topic.

  • Oceania has always been at war against inflation.

  • Tom Slee asked very nicely that everyone go read this old post. Tom Slee is great, so you should do what he says.

  • “That’s probably the pragmatic way to look at it. But it seems to me, though, that it’s a concession to a step back in civilization”. You’ll just have to watch the whole thing to find out what the context of that statement is. Salim Muwakkil is kind of a national treasure, but you probably don’t know about him unless you’ve lived in Chicago. Should you happen to catch the fever, though, go on to watch this clip, especially after about the six minute mark. “Did that kind of radicalize you, when you were shot?”

  • If you like quantitative data, survey research, and corrections for measurement error, you’ll love this video about how the Census Bureau fixed an error in their new count of same-gender couples. Which is to say, I loved it. And if that doesn’t have enough complicated mathematical equations for you, there’s a technical paper!

  • New home sales in 2011 are on pace to be the lowest since at least 1963. Sales this year are at less than a quarter of what they were in 2005, at the peak of the bubble.

  • Epic Bureau of Economic Analysis fail. I knew that their initial estimates of the severity of the recession were off, but I hadn’t caught that they revised the GDP growth number from Q4 2008 from -3.8% all the way down to -8.9%!!! Let this be a lesson to all us quants who rely on U.S. government statistics.

  • Some random day trader got on TV and caused a big uproar by confirming every suspicion you ever had that finance guys are amoral, callous assholes who don’t actually care about the health of the global economy. Then people started to wonder whether the whole thing might be a Yes Men hoax.

  • Via the Jacobin crew, I found out that it’s Capitalism Awareness Week. I hope that this consciousness-raising effort serves to increase awareness of the capitalism epidemic and the risk it poses to the public.

  • “If you’re quick with a knife, you’ll find that the invisible hand is made of delicious invisible meat”.

  • I still don’t know what the current Palestinian statehood initiative is actually going to amount to, but at least it’s leading to things like this. Tony Blair is truly one of the most contemptible living humans.

  • Anyone who took that Onion story about congressional hostage-taking seriously, or thinks the Onion “went too far”, is, to quote Charles Barkley, a stone freaking idiot.

  • Corporations have figured out that they can manipulate Tea Partiers into doing their lobbying for them.

  • Regime change doesn’t work.

Link Roundup of Doom (or, the Crusties Were Right All Along)

September 23rd, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

I try not to go in for dour pessimism in my writing, but this weeks links are heavy on the doom-and-gloom. The one pleasant thing to come up today was the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind. (Although maybe it’s not all pleasant if, like me, you feel incredibly old contemplating that fact.) See Latoya Peterson, Amanda Marcotte, Spencer Ackerman and Matt Yglesias for extended coverage.

You probably have to be almost exactly my age to see this anniversary as a huge deal–any older and you’d have already known about the underground Nirvana came from, any younger and you wouldn’t realize how much music and culture seemed to change after Nevermind. Yglesias and Ackerman both say that Nevermind didn’t fundmentally shake up their understanding of music, but I can’t say the same. I didn’t have any older siblings to introduce me to punk rock, so I learned about it through Nirvana. There are very few moments in my life that I can vividly recall with a kind of “where were you when JFK was shot” specificity; one of them is the 9/11 attacks, and another one is the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I was 11 years old, sitting at my desk in my bedroom and doing my homework. I had the radio tuned to a Top 40 station (probably KDWB), because that’s what I listened to at the time. But when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on I actually stopped what I was doing, turned around, and just sat there staring at the radio, listening to it. I had no idea what it was or where it had come from, but it was unlike anything I had ever heard before; I immediately decided that whatever it was, this was the kind of music I listened to from that point on.

From there, it was on to Fugazi, and then Minor Threat, and many more obscure finds from the bins at Extreme Noise Records. So this week’s roundup of doom and gloom will be accompanied by a carefully chosen gourmet pairing of apocalyptic hardcore and crust punk, which I might never have known about if not for Nevermind.

  • We’re doomed, political dysfunction version. Musical accompaniment: Extreme Noise Terror, “Fucked Up System”:

  • We’re doomed, wage stagnation version. Musical accompaniment: Assrash, “Kings of No Future”.

  • We’re doomed, not even pretending to be a free country anymore version. Musical accompaniment: Doom, “Police Bastard”:

  • We’re doomed, really really not even pretending to be a free country–hey, maybe that Mubarak guy was onto something! version. Musical accompaniment: Discharge, “Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing”.

  • We’re doomed, not only is Obama clueless about the economy, he’s a worse feminist than Larry Summers version. Musical Accompaniment: Spitboy, “Isolation Burns”.

  • We’re doomed, they killed Troy Davis edition. Musical accompaniment: Amebix, “Axeman”.

  • We’re doomed, Euro crisis version. Musical accompaniment: Tragedy, “Beginning of the End”.

  • We’re doomed, the FBI thinks counterrorism=Muslim-bashing version. Musical accompaniment: Destroy, “Burn this Racist System Down”.

  • And to sum it all up: Code 13, “Doomed Society”.

When I talk about money all you see is the struggle

September 16th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

Consider these as you reflect on this week’s anniversary of 9/13:

Because it’s Friday, 14 million people ain’t got no job…

September 9th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

It somehow became a convention of modern blogging that you should periodically throw up a post of links to stuff that you think is interesting, but aren’t going to write a whole post about. Some of the pros do one every day, while the amateurs usually do one weekly. If you do it weekly, my understanding is that Friday and Sunday are acceptable days for linkdumps. You’re also supposed to have a clever title of some sort, but for now I’ll settle for a reference to a great Ice Cube vehicle:

Friday came out in 1995. Today, there are a whole lot more people who ain’t got no job, though sadly they probably still have shit to do. Anyway, here goes; this edition guaranteed to be 100% 9/11-free.

  • Jon Huntsman has complicated opinions about Captain Beefheart. Being something of a philistine, I prefer Doc At the Radar Station.

  • Around the world, ruling parties lose when the economy is bad, regardless of ideology. Which implies that even if the voters are wrong about the economy in theory, they’re right in practice: if you don’t get results, they’ll throw you out.

  • Trying to stimulate the economy purely by monetary means might just end up inflating asset bubbles.

  • People in their 20’s are mad as hell, but seem like they’re going to continue to take it for a while longer. The mixture of righteous anger and ideological confusion on display here is fascinating.

  • The U.S. economy has about the same number of jobs now as it did in 2000, despite a much bigger population. Just imagine what things would be like if we had dealt with this by decreasing hours rather than shedding jobs, and if the income growth of the past ten years had gone to increasing wages instead of swelling the incomes of the top 1%.

  • The rise of the gig economy is good reason to expand the welfare state and decouple its benefits from employment.

  • Ladies and gentlemen, the Internet: Jack White and the Insane Clown Posse collaborate on a single built around a Mozart sample. The song is entitled “Lick me in the arse”.

  • It’s impossible to know what really went down in the crazy battle over the Innocence Project at Northwestern’s school of journalism. But my inclination is to come down against the servile and morally bankrupt culture of “objective” journalism, and in favor of a project that, whatever its errors, demonstrably saved the lives of people wrongly condemned to the state of Illinois’ machinery of death.

  • As I’ve noted before, sometimes “job killing” policy is a very good thing.

  • Peter Dorman speculates about the incentives and ideology of the elite in finance capitalism, and why it’s so hard to pit one segment of big business against another.

“Undercover Boss” and the misfortune of labor

March 1st, 2010  |  Published in Uncategorized

Cross-posted from The Activist

“To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.” –Marx, Capital “Are you a good team player/remember the boss is your best friend/kill your head.” –Born Against

CBS chose to premiere their new reality show, “Undercover Boss”, after the Super Bowl, indicating that they expect big things from it. And the premise is undeniably appealing: sending CEOs out to work entry-level jobs at the companies they control. In the first episode, we follow Larry O’Donnell, president of Waste Management, as he picks up litter, rides a garbage truck, and cleans toilets. As cheap populist theater, it’s hard to resist.

Predictably, the show is really an affirmation of the class hierarchy it pretends to challenge. Its core lesson is that, should the benevolent corporate ruler deign to walk among the peasants, he will surely recognize the injustice of their plight and leap to action to remedy the situation. We get copious evidence of the CEO’s empathy, his heartfelt desire to improve his employee’s lives and help them enjoy their jobs. The episode ends with O’Donnell giving a speech acknowledging the struggles of the workers he has toiled alongside, as he promises to be a different and better leader from this day forward. As the credits roll, we are given brief “happily ever after” messages about the fate of the five rank-and-file employees we have met.

Of course, it’s trite and obvious to point out that television tends to portray structural inequalities in terms of personal morality and individual solutions. If that was all there was to “Undercover Boss”, it wouldn’t rate a post. But what really struck me about the episode was something that relates to my recent post on guaranteed income. This show inadvertently makes the point that there is nothing noble or honorable about being working class under capitalism, despite what capitalist propagandists and even some traditional leftists would have you believe. On the contrary, being forced to work at an unpleasant job in return for wages leads to a degradation of the soul and a deformation of one’s character.

This is made painfully evident by the heroes and villains in “Undercover Boss”. The heroes–other than the CEO himself–are the everyday workers. And they seem like basically good people dealing with difficult circumstances. But their attitude toward their jobs is, at best, a resigned cynicism, like that of the woman who shrugs her shoulders at being followed by corporate spies and forced to urinate in a can in order to make her quota of trash pickups. And at worst, they show that they’ve internalized a work ethic that causes them to become complicit in exploiting their fellow workers. One man, who holds his job despite suffering from kidney failure, rides O’Donnell relentlessly for being too slow to pick up trash on a windy hillside, and then fires him after ridiculing him for being a worse worker than a dialysis patient. Even more horrifying is the man who brings a cheerful, can-do disposition to his job of sucking unspeakable waste out of the depths of a carnival porta-potty. O’Donnell commends him for his talent at motivating him to do this dirty job, even making it seem “fun”. And one can see why as a CEO, he would this employee so valuable. But watching the two of them interact, one is struck by the gulf that separates a man forced to clean toilets, who adopts a positive attitude in order to make the work bearable, from the CEO who patronizingly approves of his attitude.

The villains in this drama are, in their own way, just as poignant. They are, for the most part, middle managers–pasty white guys who sit a bit higher on the corporate ladder than the spotlighted workers, but many rungs below CEO O’Donnell. In several scenes of “Undercover Boss”, O’Donnell puts these characters on the spot and calls them out for various overbearing and callous managerial demands. These scenes fall into a long tradition of vilifying middle management in post-industrial American culture: it’s the impulse that animates Dilbert, Office Space, and the Office. Middle managers make easy targets because they’re the face of the boss that workers actually see–unlike the top managers who will never meet workers face-to-face outside of the fantasy world of reality TV.

At best, people focus their resentment on middle mangers for the same reason that radicals and oppressed people feel a visceral animosity toward cops, even though they are only foot soldiers for a much larger power structure. But watching the interviews on “Undercover Boss”, I was reminded of the stories of Soviet peasants and workers, faced with the brutality of, in turn, the Cossacks and the Communist bureaucracy. They would cling to the notion that the big leader–first the Czar, later Stalin–would be outraged if he only knew what his agents were up to, and would surely make things right.

But as the liberal economist Brad DeLong likes to say, “the Cossacks work for the Czar”. The squirmiest parts of “Undercover Boss” are the interludes where O’Donnell expresses his shock and dismay at the brutal policies implemented by underlings as they attempt to implement the productivity targets that he himself has imposed. He behaves as though all of these nasty outcomes are the fault of small-minded managers, who simply misunderstood his benevolent motives.

In the end, then, no-one on this show comes off looking good. The boss looks like a smarmy and self-satisfied hypocrite; the managers look petty and cruel; and the rank-and-file look either beaten-down, brutalized, or brainwashed. The secret lesson of the show is that the powerlessness of workers has horrible spiritual consequences both for them and for their bosses. I think a lot of people are reluctant to make this argument–I’m reluctant to make it too–because it seems disrespectful of people who are generally less privileged than those of us with the time to write rambling blog posts about TV shows. But that’s a risk I’m willing to take, if the alternative is to patronize people by romanticizing their work even though, in all honesty, I wouldn’t for one second consider trading places with them.

The healthiest reaction to the plight of the people featured on “Undercover Boss” is to fight for a society in which people aren’t forced to clean out toilets and then pretend they enjoy it. One way to do that is to build strong unions that can stand up for the rights of people who will never be lucky to appear on a CBS reality TV show. But the left needs to think hard about other models, including the one I raised the other day–a minimum income that allows everyone enough to survive on, no matter what. It’s hard to imagine that people would be so eager to oppress their fellow workers, or feign enjoyment of their crappy jobs, if they had the same choice given to the star of “Undercover Boss”: the choice not to be there.

AJ el Memorioso

March 25th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

Let me step back, for a moment, from the abstract contemplation of concrete phenomena in the world, to consider how it is that we think abstractly at all. I’ve been fascinated, for a few years now, by the possibility of historicizing epistemology by connecting abstract thinking with processes of abstraction that operate in everyday life in capitalism; the path-breaking work here is that of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and his theory of the “real abstraction”.

I was provoked to return to this line of thought by a news story about a remarkable medical case, a woman with perfect memory:

James McGaugh is one of the world’s leading experts on how the human memory system works. But these days, he admits he’s stumped.

McGaugh’s journey through an intellectual purgatory began six years ago when a woman now known only as AJ wrote him a letter detailing her astonishing ability to remember with remarkable clarity even trivial events that happened decades ago.

Give her any date, she said, and she could recall the day of the week, usually what the weather was like on that day, personal details of her life at that time, and major news events that occurred on that date.

. . .

McGaugh has spent decades studying how such things as stress hormones and emotions affect memory, and at first he thought AJ’s memories were of such emotional power that she couldn’t forget them.

But that hypothesis fell short of the mark when it became obvious that “the woman who can’t forget” remembers trivial details as clearly as major events. Asked what happened on Aug 16, 1977, she knew that Elvis Presley had died, but she also knew that a California tax initiative passed on June 6 of the following year, and a plane crashed in Chicago on May 25 of the next year, and so forth. Some may have had a personal meaning for her, but some did not.

This remarkable case, if it is indeed as described, is a real life version of Ireneo Funes, the protagonist of the Jorge Luis Borges story “Funes the Memorious” (or, in the 1998 Hurley translation, “Funes, His Memory”). Here is Borges’ narrator describing Funes:

With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho. Nor were those memories simple–every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on. He was able to reconstruct every dream, every daydream he had ever had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day. “I, myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began,” he said to me. And also: “My dreams are like other people’s waking hours.” And again, toward dawn: “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.” A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, a rhombus–all these are forms we can fully intuit; Ireneo could do the same with the stormy mane of a young colt, a small herd of cattle on a mountainside, a flickering fire and its uncountable ashes, and the many faces of a dead man at a wake. I had no idea how many stars he saw in the sky.

But for Funes, perfect memory is not an asset–it is a curse:

I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars–and they were virtually immediate particulars.

One wonders, then, what sort of thinker is AJ, our real life Funes? In the story, Funes is physically crippled; Borges implies that he is also intellectually crippled by his “gift”. AJ is not, as one might expect, incapacitated by her prodigious memory–she has lived a fairly normal, functional life. Yet it does seem that she is subject to some of the same limitations as Funes, according to the original press release about her:

There are limits to AJ’s memory. While she has nearly perfect recall of what she was doing on any given date and instantly can identify the date and day of the week when an important historical event in her lifetime occurred, she has difficulty with rote memorization and did not always do well in school. She scored perfectly on a formal neuropsychological test to measure her autobiographical memory, but during the testing had difficulty organizing and categorizing information. She refers to her ongoing remembering of her life’s experiences as “a movie in her mind that never stops”.

So it is true, as Borges supposed, that perfect memory is at odds with the actual process of thinking. This has implications for social theory, for it demonstrates the complex relationship between empirical sense-data and conceptual abstraction–and it supports the type of dialectical thought recommended by Marxists like Bertell Ollman:

Dialectics restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the common sense notion of “thing” (as something that has a history and has external connections with other things) with notions of “process” (which contains its history and possible futures) and “relation” (which contains as part of what it is its ties with other relations). Nothing that didn’t already exist has been added here. Rather, it is a matter of where and how one draws boundaries and establishes units (the dialectical term is “abstracts”) in which to think about the world. The assumption is that while the qualities we perceive with our five senses actually exist as parts of nature, the conceptual distinctions that tell us where one thing ends and the next one begins both in space and across time are social and mental constructs. However great the influence of what the world is on how we draw these boundaries, it is ultimately we who draw the boundaries, and people coming from different cultures and from different philosophical traditions can and do draw them differently.

Ollman’s methodology, Borges’s narrative, and AJ’s example all militate against the misconception that we can arrive at truth through a mere accumulation of information; to Ollman’s principle of drawing boundaries between sensory qualities, we can add the importance of excluding some sense-data while retaining others. These examples are therefore a defense of the usefulness of social theory, both for understanding the world and for changing it. But I think the discussion of memory and abstraction also has something to say about a little discussion I had with Geoff recently, about the new types of subjectivity that are encouraged by the Internet. In a way, the Internet is a cyborg appendage which gives us all Funesian memory: a machine which preserves every random bit of information, and every comment on that information, eternally. The argument I have sketched so far suggests that this is as likely to imped e our ability to think, as it is to facilitate it.

So perhaps the question facing us is: in an environment where every memory is preserved, how do we devise new principles for forgetting?

Left Forum Notes

March 12th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

This weekend was the 2006 Left Forum, the conference of anti-capitalist academics and activists from around the world, held in NYC. The Left Forum is a successor to the Socialist Scholars Conference, which ended two years ago under acrimonious circumstances that are utterly not worth going into. The Left Forum is almost identical in structure to the SSC, although somewhat different in its political scope: it encompasses a wider array of anarchist and autonomist currents of the non-parliamentary left, while leaving out some of the social democratic and liberal currents on the “right” of the old SSC.

I was surprised to find myself somewhat dissatisfied with this political shift. While I have no particular use for the political positions of people like Michael Walzer and Ian Williams, they do represent a real segment of the left, and having them around led to some real sparks flying at past conferences. In contrast, the anarchoid left tends to uphold individualistic and disorganized kinds of activism; rather than criticizing the approach of more state-oriented leftists, their general attitude is something like: “hey man, do your own thing!” This tends to cut off debate rather than sharpen it, which can lead to an efflorescence of empty platitudes.

Still, there were good things happening at the forum. What follows is a recap of the panels I attended.

Imperialism and its Future
Chair: Jomo K.S.
Panelists: Eric Reinert, Anwar Shaikh, Vivek Chibber
I don’t really know much about Jomo K.S., and I’ve never read his work–but his name is just amazing, and it always makes me want to go to his panels. How does one get a surname that is only initials? Can I have one? In any event, the panel was pretty good, if a bit unfocused–one of the problems with the Left Forum format is that you often get panels of people who know nothing except the title of the panel, and have to make their own guesses about what will be a relevant contribution. In this case, Professor Reinert (who teaches in Estonia) decided to use his time to criticize the left and right for basing their economic thought on David Ricardo. Huh? Fortunately, things improved rapidly, as Anwar Shaikh and Vivek Chibber gave solid takes on the meaning of imperialism. Shaikh’s big take-away point was that international inequalities are not the result of monopoly or some other deformation of perfect competition–a view associated with both neoliberalism and with much Leninist anti-imperialism–but in fact a predictable result of even the most perfectly free market. Chibber, meanwhile, made many great points, but the big one was the claim that capitals are still regional in nature–almost all of the Fortune 500 companies make most of their sales within their own geographical region. Thus, the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry based on the rivalry of different regional capitals is still very much operative. (But for a contrary view, see below.)

Crisis in Auto or Crisis in Health? Crisis in Capital or Crisis in Labor?
Chair: Leo Panitch
Panel: Doug Henwood, Thomas Sablowski, Frances Fox Piven, Sam Gindin, Marsha Niemeijer
Sometimes, panels at this conference will just have too many people on them for a space of two hours. Other times, the panel will be made up of people who all seem to be friends, cronies, and co-thinkers. This panel managed to unite both tendencies, but was nevertheless pretty good. With the recent struggles over job, wage and benefit cuts at the major U.S. automakers as a starting point, the panelists debated the future of the auto industry, its role in the capitalist economy, and the strategic choices facing auto workers unions. Sablowski, a German researcher, and Gindin, a former research director of the Canadian Autoworkers, were probably the most interesting of the bunch. Gindin argued that auto unions had to get beyond fighting concessions and talk about three big issues: instituting national health care in the U.S., managing over-capacity by regulating investment in new auto plants, and reducing working hours in order to preserve jobs. Sablowski drew attention to the political difficulties inherent in reconciling the particular intersts of auto workers with the general needs of the working class and the environment. The other panelists all had something to contribute to these general themes, although Niemeijer, a writer for Labor Notes, mostly just gave that publication’s typical answer to every problem in the labor movement: more militancy and more union democracy. She didn’t really grapple with the arguments of the rest of the panel, which showed pretty effectively why that’s not enough.

Marxist Views of China ‘s Contemporary Development
Chair/Panelist: David Kotz
Panelists: Cheng En Fu, Minqi Li, Richard Smith
I like to go to panels on China at the Left Forum, because they offer something you don’t get many other places: analysis of China’s political economy from a Marxist viewpoint, which is not sectarian or dogmatic in either a pro- or anti-China way. This panel had the added attraction of Mr. Cheng, from the “Marxism Research Institute” of the University of Shanghai. It so happened that the New York Times had just run a story that morning about Marxist factions in the Chinese Communist Party, which probably boosted turnout for the panel. Mainstream Chinese “Marxism”, it turns out, amounts to introducing some tepid social democratic reforms to ameliorate the worst effects of marketizing and privatizing the Chinese “socialist market economy”. Mr. Cheng did not criticize either markets or capital accumulation as a growth strategy. But the other panelists pointed out what’s wrong with this approach: Kotz argued that markets inevitably give rise to a new wealthy class that pursues its own class interests; Minqi argued that the cycle of accumulation makes recession and crisis inevitable, and Richard Smith–in the most devastating of the presentations–made it clear that it will be ecologically impossible for the mass of Chinese to achieve Western levels of resource use. It was clear that capitalism is not sustainable for China even in the medium run–unfortunately, it was far from clear where an alternative to the present strategy of rapacious development is going to come from.

China, India and Capitalism in the Long Run
Chair: Vamsi Vakulabharanam
Panelists: Giovanni Arrighi, Beverly Silver, Leo Panitch, Gilbert Achcar
Since I’m a political mas ochist, the apocalyptic scenarios of the previous panel impelled me to attend another panel on China. This time, the general theme was one that is becoming a leftist perennial: is China in the process of displacing the United States as the hegemonic power in the world? Arrighi and Silver come from the World Systems Theory tradition, which has pioneered the sinocentric take on this question. So it was no surprise that Arrighi played up the significance of China in the world system, and Silver spent a lot of time talking about the political problem of make sure that the U.S. is “graceful” in its apparently inevitable decline from great power status. Leo Panitch then went to bat for his own trademark claim (with Sam Gindin) that “imperialism” is no longer a valid analysis of the relations between capitalist states. This is an intentionally provocative way of putting the issue, actually, since Panitch pretty clearly believes in something that you would have to call imperialism–that is, unequal and exploitative relations between core and peripheral countries. What he objects to is the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry; he claims that the interpenetration of first-world (North American, European and Japanese) capitals has made major schisms between those powers unlikely to impossible. Essentially, he’s reviving Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism”. I didn’t used to think much of this line of thinking, but as I listened to Panitch, I started to think he was on to something important. His insights have to be integrated with some of the facts about the dollar economy and the disarticulation of state and nation which I’ve addressed in earlier posts. But I’m not ready to make that synthesis yet. I do, however, hope Panitch gets on a panel with Vivek Chibber at a future Left Forum, since they are both very sharp and yet have apparently irreconcilable views about the nature of contemporary imperialism.

A Soldier’s Movement Against the Iraq War: Prospects and Challenges
Chair: Tod Ensign
Panel: Aiden Delgado, Jose Vasquez, Geoffrey Millard
After all the high-falutin’ theory, I needed some activist grit, and I was really curious to hear about Iraq veterans organizing against the war. This panel was sponsored by the amazing Citizen Soldier, and all of the panelists were Iraq vets. They were also, to a man, more organized and articulate than most of the academics; military discipline applied to public speaking, or something. There were some moving stories about the process by which these very different people came to their political radicalization; there was also some discussion of the culture class which prevents anti-war veterans from being incorporated into the peace movement. But perhaps the most interesting analysis came from Delgado, who broke down the process that a recruit goes through–from recruitment to training to deployment to homecoming to (maybe) radicalization. He identified the points of vulnerability where a soldier can be politically won over, and he noted that while a lot of energy is going into the small (2-300) core of actively anti-war veterans on one end, and counter-recruitment activism on the other end, there needs to be more attention paid to the training phase. That’s the point where a recruit is first introduced to the realities of military life, before they have been fully socialized into the culture of the military; Delgado argues that this is where soldiers are most amenable to anti-war politics. The trick, of course, is reaching them. He noted that all soldiers have government-provided email accounts, which are one way to get at them. Jose Vasquez also drew our attention to a new film which needs to get into the hands of as many recruits and soldiers as possible.

Those were the only panels I saw–I’ve learned by now that it’s best not to try to go to a panel in every session. I was also not that excited by most of the panels. Some of my favorite Socialist Scholars/Left Forum regulars, like Mahmood Mamdani and David Harvey, weren’t on panels (or weren’t on interesting ones). And there seemed to be a lot of panels that were kind of vague and pointless-sounding. But I was pleasantly surprised at the panels I saw. And of course, there’s always the book shopping. I got this and this, plus I subscribed to New Left Review at their special conference rate, mostly on the strength of this guy’s writing.