Misadventures in Capitalism: DVD formats

September 27th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

Today I inaugurate an occasional topic, or what Harry Shearer would call “a copyrighted feature of this broadcast.” I’ll be highlighting signs of capitalism’s obsolescence, economic developments which indicate the need for production not based on profit. I’ll cover products that could be produced better by non-capitalist means, and products which shouldn’t be produced at all.

Today’s entry is a little from column A, a little from column B. The Financial Times reports today that Toshiba and Sony can’t get it together to agree on a format for high-definition DVDs.

The first question is, do we really need a new generation of DVDs? The DVD was a real step forward–I won’t debate its superiority to VHS tapes. But DVDs are pretty great looking, and a higher definition format isn’t going to be noticeably better looking unless you have a 100-inch TV. The article makes it clear what this is really about:

High definition DVDs look increasingly important for the movie industry on two fronts. First, sales of traditional DVDs are slowing after a fantastic run of growth. The new technology allowing better picture quality and more recording capacity could help stimulate demand, not least from consumers rebuilding their libraries with the new discs. Second, and probably more importantly, the new technology would help confront the growing problem of piracy for the movie industry. The new discs will be harder to copy.

So, the point of a new generation of DVDs is to make everyone replace their DVD library, and to prop up movie industry profits by reducing piracy. There you have it: the magic of the marketplace.

But assuming, for a moment, that high-definition DVDs truly represent a great leap forward in human happiness, is the capitalist marketplace the best way to introduce such an innovation? Apparently not. Rather than having some rational process to determine which is the best format for the new DVDs, this is what we could get:

If both formats are launched, many consumers will hold off buying either until a de facto standard has emerged. Such a stand-off makes no sense for any of the companies involved. With the launch of next generation DVD players approaching, the industry should hurry to bang heads together at Sony and Toshiba and secure a solution.

In other words, get ready for VHS v. Beta, round II. And, as the videotape wars showed us, the best format does not necessarily win.

Loud and Proud

September 25th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

(photo by Max Sawicky)

Yesterday, I took a bus from Manhattan to D.C. for the joint UFPJ/ANSWER anti-war march. Geoff said he wasn’t marching, and I responded in his comments with some justifications for the march. So I went to DC hoping that the march would confirm my optimism.

For the most part, it did. The day started inauspiciously, when I wasn’t able to find room on a UFPJ bus despite having a ticket. My companions and I finally found a bus with seats, and we didn’t discover until after we were moving that it belonged not to UFPJ but to the sectarian-connected Not In Our name.

The ride was mercifully free of ultraleft proselytizing, however, and my optimism returned once we finally made our way to the Washington Monument grounds. Estimates of attendance ranged from 100,000 to 300,000, and I can’t really second-guess them–with a march that size it’s impossible to make very good estimates, since you can never really see even a significant fraction of it at once. But it was pretty clearly more than the organizers hoped for, which I think is a pretty good barometer of success.

News coverage was pretty good, especially since we were competing with Hurricane Rita. I think the Cindy Sheehan phenomenon has given the media a new lens through which to view the anti-war movement. While the increased involvement of war veterans, soldiers’ families, and non-politicized citizens has grown of late, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the media would reflect that shift in its coverage. But this extract from CNN (from an AP wire story) is pretty representative:

In the crowd: young activists, nuns whose anti-war activism dates to Vietnam, parents mourning their children in uniform lost in Iraq, and uncountable families motivated for the first time to protest.

Connie McCroskey, 58, came from Des Moines, Iowa, with two of her daughters, both in their 20s, for the family’s first demonstration. McCroskey, whose father fought in World War II, said she never would have dared protest during the Vietnam War.

“Today, I had some courage,” she said.

While united against the war, political beliefs varied. Paul Rutherford, 60, of Vandalia, Michigan, said he is a Republican who supported Bush in the last election and still does — except for the war.

“President Bush needs to admit he made a mistake in the war and bring the troops home, and let’s move on,” Rutherford said.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the pro-war rally held in response the next day was an embarrassing failure.

This struck me as a more diverse crowd than ever before–in terms of age, politics, region, and race. Although on the latter point, here’s reason #11,347 why organized labor is such a unique and important institution of the left: a large chunk of the people of color I saw on Saturday, and probably the majority of the African-Americans, were wearing SEIU purple.

The march gave me the distinct impression of a mass movement which has outgrown its leadership, a disorganized and ideologically amorphous mass which is still looking for its proper political vehicle. You could see this in the structure of the event, and in the people who came to it.

The day began with a rally, a.k.a. an interminable series of speeches. ANSWER had way too much control over the podium, and consequently a lot of the speakers were either off-point or crazy (or both). Although it was pretty cool that I happened to walk through a big crowd of Haitians at the exact moment when the person on stage started talking about the need to restore Aristide to power, provoking passionate cheers and flag-waving.

The interesting thing was, most people ignored the speeches, and the setup of the rally made it very easy to do so. Just up the hill from where the stage was set up was the area where all of the organizations set up their information tables. It was a big lefty carnival–everything from the sectarian left to liberals to single-issue groups to a “progressive Internet dating” web site was represented. Nearby, a second stage was set up–starting at about 2pm, this featured bands, short speeches, and Jello Biafra as MC.

The march itself started from the street in between the music/carnival area and the speechifying zone, and people left on the march pretty early on in the “rally”. This was fortunate, given the size of the crowd–by the time the march made it back to the Washington Monument, there were still people there trying to start marching!

My point about all of this is that while the content of the speeches hasn’t improved markedly (although I didn’t catch any truly offensive statements of the “Zionism=fascism” variety) , someone in the march planning leadership seems to have made sure that the march was structured to sideline the speech-making. I think this is probably a good idea in general–who ever wants to sit and listen to this stuff, anyway?–but it was particularly important in this case. No matter what certain sectarian liberals might want, we’re not going to be able to banish ANSWER from the movement at this point, for the simple reason that they still do a ton of the actual work of turning people out. But it’s nice to see their destructive side marginalized as we start to attract a less-politicized group of people to these marches.

If you ignored the stage and just walked through the crowds–as I did–you got a very different sense of the politics of the event. The first thing I noticed was the sheer diversity of homemade signs, some very painstakingly designed, others crude, and many carrying very idiosyncratic messages. Everything from “send the twins” to “make levees not war” to “Bush is a fascist” to “anti-Bush Republican”. There was a lot of lunacy of the non-left variety–9/11 conspiracy theorists were particularly noticeable–as well as innumerable variations on “stop the war and [insert pet cause here]”. But the sheer variety was incredible, and this kind of inchoate politics overwhelmed the signs and slogans of the march organizers and the organized left.

Noticeably absent, however, was the liberal mainstream organizations, either in the form of elected officials or the MoveOn.org crowd. Sure, we had a few left-wing reps like Sheila Jackson Lee, but as Max Sawicky notes, most stayed away. This made sense when opposing the war was a fringe issue, but we’ve reached the point where a majority opposes the occupation, and there’s an “out of Iraq” caucus in congress. I think it’s got to be inertia and cowardice that’s holding people back at this point; it’s a failure to recognize that the political terrain has shifted, and move accordingly.

I hope that some of these folks get it together to start providing some leadership. That’s no knock on the hard working folks at UFPJ–rather it’s a testament to all they’ve accomplished. UFPJ represents my politics pretty well, but I don’t think it represents the people who were at this march as well as some of the liberal outfits–even the vacillating weenies at Win Without War, annoying as I find their politics, will probably be part of winning on this issue. UFPJ will continue to be important, but they will find themselves part of a broader effort rather than a candle in the dark.

If this march (and its associated days of lobbying and civil disobedience) helps kick some of their asses into gear, then we’ll be able to look back on it as an unqualified success.

Schiavo Schmiavo

March 24th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

As Kevin Drum reports with glee, a vast majority of Americans think that the Republicans are using the Terry Schiavo case for crass political purposes. Unfortunately, I still don’t think this is a strategic mistake by the President–on the contrary, it’s quite shrewd.

This is one of those political situations in which simple poll numbers of the “yes/no” variety aren’t particularly helpful. The important question is not how people feel about the Schiavo situation, but how much they feel it. Of the people who think the Republicans are engaged in petty grandstanding, I’d wager that few are going to change their votes over the issue. But the minority that approves of the Federal intervention in the case is made up largely of hard-core social conservatives. The Schiavo business is a sop to these people, who otherwise feel somewhat sidelined by the federal Republicans (see Marriage, Gay). This is particularly acute since, as Ed Kilgore points out, this whole case is really about anti-abortion politics by other means.

When all is said and done, most people will forget all about this case. But the ultra-right won’t, and by intervening in this case the Republicans have firmed up the support of a key segment of their base.

What's wrong with MoveOn

March 12th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

Around the time Howard Dean blew up, everyone got excited about Internet activism. Hey, who needs organizations with meetings, statements of principle, and ideologies? We’ll just go to a meetup, and donate to our favorite candidates online!

Since the upsurge of activism around the 2004 election pretty much defined “wide but shallow” for our generation, the rapid deterioration of its political structures was hardly surprising. And yes, Democracy for America, I see your hand in the back of the room. It’s rad how “DFA does not be having ‘chapters’, ‘affiliates,’ or ‘branches’.” Not just because it sounds all “street” and so on, but “because these terms imply a legal relationship and possible liabilities”. Wouldn’t want that. Wouldn’t be prudent.

But seriously, can we talk about MoveOn.org? How they suck, I mean.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the bankruptcy bill. The short version: after you’ve been pre-approved for double-plus-free-credit-for-life, the credit card companies jack your rate to 30% because your brother missed a car payment. Then you can’t declare bankruptcy. Or, to put it another way: this bill promises to lock generations of Americans into debt peonage to the credit card companies.

Republicans support it, natch. So do many Democrats, for two reasons. One, their corporate benefactors want them to. Two, they don’t have a grassroots opposition pressuring them not to.

So where’s the grassroots opposition? Well, here’s what MoveOn’s Eli Pariser said to Salon:

“Because of the solid Republican support for the bill, terrible though the bill is, it wasn’t something that we could make a difference by weighing in on,” Pariser told War Room by phone on Friday. He said that MoveOn’s members had chosen to focus on two other “critical fights that we can win” — namely Bush judicial nominations, and the battle over Social Security.

What, your members can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?

Apparently not:

Pariser maintained that the group has not narrowed its focus since the presidential election: “We’ve always been a multi-issue organization and we always will be.” But he says that members have indicated that they’ve been overwhelmed when asked to “track 16 different issues at once, so we’ve done our best to respect our members’ attention and inboxes.”

Live by the sword, and so on. The problem is that groups like MoveOn sell politics as a commodity. They present it to their customers this way: “rebuild the left in America, for only three clicks a month! From the comfort of your own home!” The similarity to late-night infomercials is not accidental, and it points up the limits of the genre. If you don’t ask people to be part of a movement, to learn an ideology, to develop an analysis–if you don’t do those things, small wonder no-one has the patience to pay attention to any issue which requires the least bit of thought. If you only conceive of politics as something you fit into your spare time, no wonder “16 different issues” is intimidating.

Blogs, the web, and related neat gadgets present interesting possibilities, but they are only technique, and they presuppose a political consisciousness which, judging by the silence over the bankruptcy bill, is still sorely lacking. I would venture to say that such consciousness cannot be built over the Internet. It requires stable, long-lasting social connections which are difficult to forge. More on that later. For now, read this rad dude for more on the commodified left.

Lights, Camera, Factions

March 12th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

Salon had an OK article about the porn industry today. It’s not especially notable, except that all semi-sane coverage of the sex industry is notable. The left seems to have a problem understanding how to deal with sex work. Either you condemn it as an exploitative abomination which must be done away with immediately, or you think it’s everyone’s right to do what they wish with their bodies. The first is puritan moralism; the second is individualist libertarianism. But whither socialism?

Certainly, sex work can be exploitative, degrading, and humiliating. But so can many other kinds of work. The problem is that we live in a sexist society which specially stigmatizes women who sell sex, in a way we don’t stigmatize sweatshop workers, say. Rather than issuing moral condemnations of the sex trade, maybe we could try advocating for the decriminalization of sex work, and argue against the stigma around pornography. If we did that, we could then advocate for the rights of sex workers as workers. Then we could address the very real exploitation that happens in the sex trade, without implicitly condemning women who do sex work.

Thesis: sex work is bad!
Antithesis: women have the right to control their own bodies!
Synthesis: decriminalize prostitution, support sex worker rights! (Also, support this magazine).


The Arbitrariness of the Blog

March 5th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

To paraphrase something Joseph Epstein once said about art, “good blogs refer only to other blogs.” In that spirit, I offer my favorite blogs, with snarky comments and pithy summaries.

Talking Points Memo
Josh Marshall started out as a journalist, and he still actually does some journalism–you know, finding new information, rather than information somebody else already found. These days, he’s pretty well obsessed with stopping Bush’s Social Security phase-out scheme. But that’s a fine obsession to have, and somebody’s got to have it.

Max Sawicky is an economist at a lefty think-tank, the Economic Policy Institute. He’s also an idiosyncratic lefty populist, and a pleasure to read. Most prominent liberal bloggers are centrist democrats like Josh Marshall and Brad Delong, but Max is decidedly to the left of them, even if he’s not identifiably a socialist. I particularly appreciate Max’s outspoken anti-imperialism, which comes more from the tradition of Mark Twain than that of VI Lenin.

Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal
Brad DeLong is an economist at UC Berkeley. He’s liberal only by comparison to the lunacy that passes for modern conservatism in this country–his fealty to the dogmas of neo-classical economics is absolute, and his incessant red-baiting is tiresome to no end. But he’s good at the blog thing, at least when he’s not bragging about how smart his teenage son is, and he’s good at exposing the hypocrisy and outright mendacity of the right’s house intellectuals. He generally gives the impression of being a super-intelligent, somewhat arrogant, thoroughly dorky teenager.

Informed Comment
Juan Cole, University of Michigan professor and middle east expert, mostly comments on events in Iraq and the rest of the Muslim world. He’s both a lefty and someone who actually knows something about Islamic history and culture, which makes him the bane of the jinogist blogosphere’s existence.

I feel like I have to read at least one conservative blog regularly, lest I completely lose touch with the reality of American politics. I started reading Drezner mostly because I took a course on foreign policy from him while I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. He’s a readable conservative, mostly free of the goonish machismo that characterizes a lot of the big right-wing blogs (Glenn Reynolds, Powerline, Little Green Footballs, etc.) His politics definitely tend toward the libertarian, so his thought tends to converge with that of pro-capitalist liberals like Brad DeLong.

The Washington Monthly
Kevin Drum started out with his personal site, Calpundit, before getting hired to write a blog for the Monthly, a wonky political magazine that covers the D.C. scene. He’s basically a smart, middle-of-the-road liberal–nothing special, but his site is good for keeping track of what’s going on in blog-land and in the real world.

Crooked Timber
CT is a bit different from the blogs above. For one thing, it’s a group blog, and so it’s inherently richer and more varied. It’s also a very academic blog, not just because the contributors are mostly academics (most of the bloggers above are professors too), but because they’re as likely to talk about Rawls or Derrida as they are to bash Bush’s latest press conference. The politics of CT is still in the liberal-to-soft-left spectrum as academic politics go, stopping just to the right of the New Left Review. But it’s a good read when you’re starved for intellectual depth.

Scott McLemee
Scott is one-of-kind–a popular journalist who exclusively covers abstruse debates among academics. He writes a column for the new Chronicle of Higher Ed competitor Inside Higher Education, so he blogs less than he used to. But he’s the source for the latest academic gossip. Plus, he shares one of my guilty obessessions, the history of the sectarian far-left–one of his first published writings was about the Marxist-Leninist Party, USA.

General Glut’s Globblog
This is the blog of an economist, writing pseudonymously. He’s one of those odd characters who seems like a radical leftist because he’s so out of step with current intellectual fashions. Really, though, he’s just some kind of Keynesian. But he writes often about the US current account deficit and the international monetary order, which is something I’m slightly obsessed with.

Stan Goff: Feral Scholar
Ah, now we get to the hard stuff. Stan’s as hard as you get: hard-core Marxist-Feminist, and hard-ass former Special Forces officer. Stan’s a great writer, but he hasn’t really mastered the blog form, yet–his posts tend to be long-winded discourses on imperialism, thermodynamics, and other pet obsessions, and they lack the pithiness required of blogging. The comments sections are where the real action is, for the time being. Stan actively engages with his interlocutors, and he attracts characters you don’t see much on lefty sites–in particular, former military people who are willing to have open, tough-minded arguments with leftists.

After reading all of these blogs, you should be able to figure out exactly who I am: the difference between all these other blogs.

Hide your kneecaps in a Lexus motor

February 28th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

When I read this incredibly creepy story, I immediately wondered: have the police questioned Kool Keith?

The Unknown Toby Keith

February 28th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

Toby Keith gets a bad rap. If you don’t know who Toby Keith is, you’re not alone, unfortunately. He’s one of the best selling modern country stars, but alas, progressives still continue to live up to Michael Moore’s stereotype of them: ignorant of country music, NASCAR, and everything else branded “white working class” (or “redneck” as it’s called among certain classes).

Most leftists who do know who Toby Keith is probably remember him mostly for “The Angry American”, a.k.a. “the ‘boot up your ass’ song”. And yeah, that song is some pretty ripe jingoistic stuff. I always found it funny because it was so over the top, but I can see how some people would be offended.

But don’t judge Keith by the worst of his output–and songs like “Angry American” and “American Soldier” are definitely his nadir, not just politically but aesthetically as well. The rest of his output, though, tends toward irreverant, drunken populism, and it’s both fun and politically pretty tolerable.

It was “Whiskey Girl” that really sold me on Toby Keith. I really relate to a guy who prefers a hard-living, whiskey-drinking woman, and the songs makes me think that Keith is somewhat comfortable in his masculinity. Which is a rarity among men who….well, among men. I have my reservations about the second verse–I like that your girl has a badass car, dude, but why are you driving it?–but all told, it’s pretty right on.

I also recommend “If I was Jesus…” (the end of that sentence is, “…I’d be the guy at the party, turnin’ water to wine”), “Nights I can’t remember, friends I can’t forget” (mostly self-explanatory, but it’s about being in college, which cuts against the faux-working class posturing of most modern country guys), and “Weed with Willie” (Toby, it seems, is a bit of a lightweight in that area.)

Consider the foregoing a chapter in my ongoing crusade for the value of an aesthetics not immediately tied to political doctrine. I like Toby Keith the way I like a lot of gangsta rap–sometimes radical, sometimes reactionary, musically good, and very much immersed in its historical moment. Maybe sometime I’ll write the egghead version of this post, about Frederic Jameson, Georg Lukacs, and the problem of Marxist Aesthetics. But until then, listen to Toby Keith.

Reluctant Reformers

May 1st, 2003  |  Published in Uncategorized

Well, looks like Joe Conason’s onabout Al Sharpton over at Salon and the NY Observer. Conservatives want Sharpton to split the Dem vote, which in Conason’s eyes is Sharpton’s problem. Of course it wouldn’t occur to him that the racism, conservativism, and general crappiness of most of the other candidates is the problem, not Sharpton.