Archive for the ‘political theory’ Category

Dystopian Practicality

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

I’m back.

David Graeber recently threw down a new piece / excerpt, called The Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse. It’s got lots of good things to say, namely that revolutionary activity is the driving force in history. This is an important thing to say when suffocated with the wet blanket of complacency that coddles the overdeveloped world. The impact of an event is not always in the here & now, but has ripple effects. These ripple effects can only be discerned by studying the waves that past revolutionary events have made in the fabric and institutions of the social order. This is what Graeber does, and he makes some excellent points: that, for example, the French revolution, even as it was co-opted, nonetheless led to various modern democratic institutions including universal education in the West (even if they were “distributed” by Bonaparte).

But there are two critiques of Graeber’s piece I want to advance, in the spirit of adding more to this discussion from the same side of the fence, as it were:

(1) For Graeber, the big event of the ’60s was Paris ’68. I’m going to say that May ’68 is a nice bedtime tale that boomer French Lefties tell their kids. A counter-history is available here: May ’68 is the echo of the early 1960s Algerian riots in Paris in which dozens of activists were killed and dumped in the Seine — that’s the revolutionary moment. Not May ’68. Why? I’m not trying to find the “real” revolution, though it may seem so. But I can’t help but notice a white streak in Graeber’s analysis that passes over struggles for Civil Rights and anti-colonial revolts against European and imperial empire. Graeber focuses on white, bourgeois struggles for class equality within empire, where brief moments of “playing revolutionary” resulted in few deaths because nothing really was at stake, and where, after everyone got their catharsis on, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. By this I mean: all the soixante-huitards got to return to society. They got their jobs back, went back to university. They even got a new, radical university: Vincennes. A few had a rough time, but in the end (Cohn-Bendit!) they became part of the party system and came into power with Mitterand. They weren’t ghettoized, incarcerated, hunted down, strangled, dumped in the Seine — like the pieds-noirs were. That’s my point. And that’s also why we saw the ban lieu riots a few years back: because shit didn’t change much for the others.

Let’s look at blowback. What did ’68 result in? Yes, there are all the good things, Mitterand came in, they got rid of the cobble stones, there were “concessions”. But the big blowback of the ’60s in general? The ’60s struggles led to (as in fed back into) a much more complete and comprehensive system of consumerism designed to sell “revolutionary” values back to the white kids. Silicon Valley and what on Nettime was critiqued as “the California Ideology” is part of this: utopian technocapitalism led by cyberhippies. iRevolution from Apple. Once the “personal became political” it was sold & packaged to the boomers as all manner of retreat-oriented lifestyle products. Then this strategy was marketed worldwide. The Situationists were right; they did warn us. We all know this of course. It’s precisely what we went into the streets for in the ’90s, all Adbustin’ & symbol-wreckin’, following innovations in graffiti 15 years previous. But I digress.

Where are we today with ’68? Well, some of the former brick-tossers are theorizing Being & Event and claiming to be Maoists on the lecture circuit — let’s compare that to where the black revolutionaries ended up: either assassinated or incarcerated during the ’60s  (Malcolm X, MLK Jr., Edgar Mevers, numerous Black Panthers, Mumia Abu Jamal, etc.) or driven to the breaking point by COINTELPRO (notable exception: Angela Davis). Power is unevenly distributed along lines of “race”. So we need to look where it has been handed down with the greatest force & violence — because that is where the State saw the most disruptive revolutionary activity coming from.

(2) I also want to make another point: that downplaying certain trajectories, such as US military operations, doesn’t help our understanding of the impact of revolutionary events. Graeber says that the various events of the ’60s kept the US out of major conflict for 30 years until 9/11. This claim ignores the changing strategies of a globalized military. The US simply moved their military operations into covert ops, funding paramilitary and fascist organizations throughout the Middle East and Latin/South America. The military supported Contra drug lords to channel ghetto crack back into the US — why? To shut down black revolutionary activities by creating structural impoverishment, crime, and addiction (check The Black Power Mixtape above). The US also went on a spree of illegal strike force assaults worldwide thanks to the real lessons they learned from Vietnam — of the Colonel Kurtz variety. My point here: while Autonomia in Italy were theorizing disappearance & exodus, the US military was practicing it. The US didn’t step back from military engagements: it just changed the strategy and re-packaged them for home consumption. Just like the military used Nazi scientists & their rocket technology to build the space program they put to good use military expertise in terror-tactics learned from Vietnam for “surgical” operations, abroad and at home by militarizing local police forces to surpress black urban ghettoes so that Watts would never happen again. But it did, of course: the 1992 LA riots, leading to increasing militarization of the police, suspension of civil liberties, and the surveillance NSA State that the US is today. Yes: I am suggesting a counter-history here. That it is not the reactionary response to 9/11 that created the surveillance state. The framework was already in place to control insurgent populations, namely the large number of disenfranchised African Americans. What 9/11 did was simply allow the State to sell the loss of civil liberties to its citizens as the “price of freedom”: it was the cover to make public what was already going down.

So while I like the theses put forward here by Graeber in their general form, they could be more powerful, and convincing, if they dealt with the revolutionary activity around Civil Rights, anti-colonial revolts, and — in the underdeveloped world — slave insurgencies. Because these are the critical points of struggle. Critical because they concern anti-slavery.

No pep talk should be erasing race from the narrative or limiting an understanding of revolutionary activity to a few Western, primarily white, hotspots. The struggles against enslavement and dehumanization should not only be “included”, but understood as the more powerful side of the equation — especially where such struggles refuse the Enlightenment values of white humanism. Because there is a macro-counter-history to that of the ongoing progress narrative of the French revolutionary subject under which Graeber’s piece has been inscribed.

As Ian Baucom argues, it is not the French revolutionary subject that is the birth of the modern subject. The “birth of man” requires its condition of possibility: the $lave, the ideal commodity form. It is to slave revolts and its insurgencies and anti-colonial revolutions that we need to turn. Why? Because the struggle is doubled, against slavery but also against the white narrative of Enlightenment humanism that instituted and produced modern slavery in the same moment that it invented the revolutionary citizen.

 

 

 

meditation (ii) the political nomad

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

In reality there exists no political society or association but only one political entity — one political community. The ever present possibility of a friend-and-enemy grouping suffices to forge a decisive entity which transcends the more societal-associational groupings. The political entity is something specifically different, and vis-à-vis other associations, something decisive. Were this entity to disappear, even if potentially, then the political itself would disappear.

— Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (45)

This is the context in which to read Derrida’s work on friendship: when one deconstructs the friend/enemy distinction, one gets at the heart of Schmitt’s antagonistic definition of the political. If hospitality always implies the risk of a stranger becoming a friend, a friend an enemy, and so forth, these friend/enemy distinctions are never concrete, nor can be. Schmitt recognises as much — is this not the place of the State, to render decisive this indistinction through citizenship or exile? — but he rarely troubles the distinction when advancing the thesis of the political; the political, by principle, demands that this distinction remain rather steadfast.

Were it not steadfast, as Schmitt writes, “even if potentially, then the political itself would disappear.” In a land of hazy associations, of indistinct boundaries between friends/enemies, the political would disappear. But what operates in its absence? What is that which disappears the political? Is it a “politics” under erasure, a “politics” of différance?

Of which there can be no such thing — not for reasons mystical or obscure, but because différance is precisely this unfixed timing / spacing that would render the possibility of a politics impossible; différance is process-difference: thus when Derrida affirms that there can be no positive politics of deconstruction, is it not also because he must accept certain postulates or limits of the Schmitt’s concept of the political?

This acceptance of that which must be deconstructed is a trait — a necessary paradox, technically — of the entire intellectual endeavour Derrida engages in. It also goes to show that when Derrida argues that he is primarily affirmative, that he affirms that which he deconstructs, he is not practicing intellectual dishonesty: he’s correct. You have to affirm to deconstruct; there cannot be a deconstruction that commences from a negation.

As Schmitt says, the political community is the decisive entity. It cannot be indecisive. Yet all sorts of problems arise when translating this concept into a positive, historical formula. Schmitt clarifies that the political is not equivalent with sectarian politics, ie with politics as representative, or democratic, and so forth. It is a condition of possibility for politics, in all its forms, including all nondemocratic exercises of power. As such the political is a fundamental operation; it is (a) a grouping and (b) a grouping defined by friend/foe and thus (c) decisive.

Yet what happens to the indecisive? Are they now foes to their former friends? Certainly this can be the consequence when one takes positions such as Derrida’s; if one doesn’t sign up for this or that stripe of vogue leftism or rightism, speaking at the level of politics, then one is often exiled and outcasted. But what would be the effect at the level of the political? Is there not a potential connection here to Deleuze’s philosophy of the nomad, as those whom are neither friend nor foe, but wandering, indecisive between the two?

meditation (i)

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Clint Eastwood is talking to an empty chair in front of thousands of people. Most of these people are devout believers in an invisible deity. The empty chair represents the President. But does it also not represent the deity?

This is the Evangelical tradition: the deity talks back. And so Eastwood has a conversation with it. He is trying to address the President, but he does so in the only way he knows how when addressing power: by way of Evangelical prayer. A “conversation” that is not a conversation at all, but a monologue with silence. Or so it appears. Inside Eastwood’s head, improvising, is a schizophrenic conversation of internalized voices. One voice the mind, representing desires, things you ask for from the deity. The other, what you think the deity is saying back to you. This is God. Or it is the President. The two are interchangeable in American politics.

 

Eastwood has a conversation with an empty chair symbolizing the President by way of a theotechnics that represents, in its exchange, the Evangelical deity.

funk & the savage silence

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

You couldn’t help feel the savage atmosphere at Romney’s HQ last night. Somehow, all that money, hate, praying, and underhanded dealings from a few “faulty” voting machines to voter deregistration and intimidation hadn’t done their magic: somehow, Obama had swung some other States they couldn’t sneak new upgrades into, and Ohio didn’t work out as planned.

It was ugly in there. Everyone was mulling about, a few half lost, the in-the-know already fled, save for those making last minute, backroom deals, backpatting in the far rear of that small, star-lookin’ chambers…

Now, over at Obama HQ, it was like some where’s-the-booze highschool party with the lights on, but shit, they were playing some good funk music: Gapp Band, Zapp & Roger, Betty Wright, Stevie Wonder, some seriously tight classics. (According to this, it was wholly dicated by the Obama campaign; playlist also included: U2, Florence and the Machine, Aretha Franklin, No Doubt, Al Green, James Taylor, Electric Light Orchestra, among others).

See, Obama has been ignoring hip-hop this entire time around: in 2008, he was all over hip-hop, featuring the genre in his official playlist. But not this year: his final week or so was spent with both Hurricane Sandy and Bruce Springsteen, and not a hip-hop track to be found on the Presidential iPod. Nor has Obama invited a single hip-hop artist to perform in the East Room of the White House in 4 years. I hope that changes. Let’s get Kool Keith over for dinner.

But the victory party — another story entirely. If not hip-hop, then its precursors: funk, soul, Motown. Track after track it was a slow jam of Afrofunk proportions (apparently thanks to Texas’ Dj Mel). I didn’t catch Parliament, or anything outrageous, but shit, it was deep at points. And with conviction. So here’s the pop culture reading: does this not signal that the real Obama is stepping out? That with another 4 we’re going to see an Obama willing to show both a more compassionate, open side to his character, less dryly strategic, as he was this election, and more outgoing, more willing to reveal all that he is?

Because those sane among us know what we’d like to see: an Obama willing to pick up the gloves and punch-out theocracy; an Obama who is willing to push the US towards becoming the social democracy it could be; an Obama who will address climate change with practical though immediate measures; an Obama who will move on the offensive so the centrist-bankers-but-somewhat-centre-left can drag this bloated, aging behemoth of a country into the 21st century, even if half of its citizens appear to want to return it to the 18th?

We’ll see.

:: 10:47 PM UPDATE (PST) ::

“The best is yet to come,” says Obama: there it is, the message. The Real Obama, he be coming out? And then, in regards to the long lines at the polling stations: “we’ll have to do something about that.” The crowd: Yes. More. Of. That.

:: 10:54 PM :: Nod at climate change. Somewhat belated response, but solid. And it continues: all the promises undelivered (save for less dependence on foreign oil; domestic oil production has significantly increased the past few years, I believe to about 55%; the US now produces 83% of its own energy, up from 73.9% in 2008 — according to Bloomberg News, Oct. 15th 2012 issue, p. 43, stats from U.S. Energy Information Admin, American Petroleum Institute, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meaning the GOP is full of shit on this issue, btw.).

::11:05 PM ON TWITTER. ::: Richard Florida: “Real passion. this is a different Obama.”

Indeed. It be FUNKY OBAMA. Bring on the mothership connection.

More Springsteen, but whatever.

 

./././.

The California Ideology (again)

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Isn’t it odd to still see The California Ideology espoused with such faith?

For the first time in history, the age of networks and mobile devices has created the efficiency and the social glue to… [enable] the sharing and exchange of assets from cars, to bikes to skills to share space.
— Rachel Botsman, What’s mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption

For the first time in history, we’ll be able to share things like bikes! What’s next, carpooling? Who woulda’ thought!? THANKS INTERNET. I would have never thought of sharing my bike if it wasn’t for you.

This raises some disturbing questions concerning the state of education in the land.

Since the dawn of history (to match hyperbole with rhetorical flourish on fact) the world’s communities didn’t need the internet to organise complex ways of sharing. In fact, it went way beyond the idea of sharing things you owned. There was simply “the shared” that in practice nobody owned. The greatest example perhaps go by way of the First Nations; nobody owned the land per se. Or the fish, or the sky, or any such things. Sure, not all was rosy, and tribes fought over territory, but ownership — not quite. The people shared the land with the animals, the spirits, the weather, and other people, and so on. You couldn’t own the land, or anything from it, really.

In Britain, strangely this was also the case: the land all but belonged to no one. On paper, the aristocracy did own the deeds, but it was the same aristocracy that formalized the Commons with anti-enclosure acts of the 15th & 16th centuries. It is ironic (from today’s perspective) that the aristocracy saw the benefit of halting the enclosure of common land, so as not to turn the entire peasantry into vagabonds (the criminalized homeless). Over a period of 150 years, the English aristocracy saw it fit to ensure the peasantry had access to shared land as a common good.

In fact the involvement of 20th century communication technologies has not boded well for sharing. At least not on the whole. Thanks to industrial technologies and this little thing called the industrial revolution the Western world all but abolished “shared space.” The bourgeoise revolutions did out with the aristocracy, establishing, at the same time, private domain over what were previously “Crown lands.” This was known as the enclosure of the commons during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the enclosure acts condemned self-sustaining communities into generations of homelessness and impoverishment. Enclosing the commons conveniently provided the much-needed workforce for the new industrial regime. Wage slavery had been born — as well as urban homelessness, vagabonds, child workers, sweatshop labour and all the ills the aristocracy attempted to guard against. In fact, the whole thing was so abhorrent it prompted a number of interesting books by Charles Dickens and this other one by a guy called Engels.

Anyway, Botsman’s quote was used recently by angel investor Ron Conway in The Economist.

At the same time, entrepreneurs are using technology and social insights to create trusted communities for these new peer-to-peer marketplaces. The flagship example of this movement is AirBnB, which builds a market around renting one’s living space.
— Ron Conway, special adviser to SV Angel (The Economist: The World in 2012, 127)

Of course, this is from someone who sees peer-to-peer markets as a novelty in 2012. Perhaps I am confused, but I thought the very definition of the market meant peer-to-peer. I think we’ve hit upon another ideology here, as in, another point where an assumed truth reveals its artifice: that today, “markets” are for corporations only. When we have small-scale people sharing things, whether for gain or for exchange, we suddenly have peer-to-peer markets. Not the market as-such.

I get that P2P also means distributed software and/or decentralized networks for such things. Great. So now we can do all that online. I get that; it works. And if anything I do see that Conway is sneaking the very concept of “sharing” into the bastion of neoliberal ideology, The Economist, which is no mean feat. It’s just unfortunate he can only do so by turning sharing into a revenue-generating concept, i.e., by enclosing sharing yet again. He is, after all, an angel investor. Sharing needs to be monetized before it has value. The idea of sharing as a common good — precisely because it is a major force against poverty — is all but lost here.

But to get back to general ideas, it seems to me that even in terms of the history of the internet, utilising networks for sharing is not particularly novel. Just a new form of distribution on mobile hardware. It might certainly render it all more effective and integrated, but on a mass scale, but hardly new. I can recall all the levels of the internet being used for sharing, from BBS to iRC. I mean, this is all post-P2P networks anyway, right? I mean, the Net is based upon file-sharing.

As for the concept of sharing, it’s not only ancient, it’s really an eternal concept, as the philosophers put it. It’s so ancient I would even hazard that it says something about one of humanity’s more positive traits: the ability to share things. It bears close resemblance to altruism. It’s kind of altruism in-action.

What does Conway look forward to in 2012? “Collaborative consumption.” The great hope of dot-com neoliberalism today is that we’ll all share our consumptioning together. Or that we’ll consume together. Or perhaps consume each other. Or something. Fair enough, though, I would like to hear more about what this means, because I could sense something subversive about it, insofar as it undermines the sandbox ideal of individual purchases that are not supposed to be shared (i.e., music DRM).

I guess it be a good thing that hey, the internet might facilitate some forms of sharing that humanity has known and loved for thousands of years. Perhaps we’ll even manage to grab back a few shares lost to the ever encroaching Moloch as of late. But to think this is novel only reveals the impoverishment of the capitalist imagination in the 21st century. The world needs to share a whole lot more.

The Invisible Fist (Part III)

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

I’m afraid I have more to say — and critique — concerning the CBC’s radio show The Invisible Hand, a tour-de-force of neoliberal ideology masking as “economics.” In its second show, it looked at the question of the apocalypse, following its first show on economic decision-making in times of crisis (see posts, part 1 & part 2).

The second show easily demonstrates how saving chickens, and not gold, is the way to roll when the apocalypse hits. At least this has a hint of sanity to it — chickens lay eggs, make more chickens, provide food, etc. Of course, what isn’t mentioned is that they require a local economy for their sustenance. The growing and provision of grain requires collective efforts, which requires not only small-scale trade but coordinated agricultural efforts. In short, raising chickens means communal levels of negotiation and organisation around resources. This argument is well-made against the more radical factions of neoconservatives who want to return world currencies to the gold standard, and who advocate hoarding gold. You can’t eat gold if the world goes down in flames.

Yet the second shows harbours an even more insidious level of neoliberal ideology concerning the primacy of the individual, precisely because the above models — of localized community around the chicken economy — are absent from the discussion. Rather, the show assumes a single individual having a choice: gold or chickens? There is no discussion of what raising chickens means, or how it would work. The debate over chickens vs. gold masks a more troubling series of assumptions concerning the apocalypse as a whole: that we will all be going it alone.

The show performs this ideological operation by setting-up a false debate and masking its terms. Under this debate, everyone can see that hoarding gold isn’t that smart if world (and local) economies collapse. Yet this scenario follows from the premises of the first show: the first show established an ideological illusion concerning human nature, ie, that in crisis situations we’d all act like individuals and/or are supposed to, without any kind of collective organisation, communication, principles of sharing, or ad-hoc communal formations with decision-making power to prioritize resources.

Indeed, the apocalypse show follows from this, as it presents the logical outcome of the first show: now there is definitively no governance or community. The apocalypse is here, we’re all on our OWN! In the apocalypse the neoliberal question becomes: what should I hoard? Instead of: what collective/communal arrangements will be the most beneficial in the pooling of resources?

History demonstrates that in every disaster scenario, those that survive are those that band together, pool resources, and learn how to share. Just look at the recent tsunami in Japan, or a few years ago in Thailand — nobody sits around with arms-crossed going “so, what did you hoard?” No, everyone is out there helping each other out. Look at New York after 9/11. In short, all of the economic examples presented demand a very narrow, restricted idea of human nature in terms of crisis. And it is a dangerous one: if you’re sitting around with chickens (or gold) and want to go it alone, you will die. Period. Neoliberal ideology implies that if you don’t hoard, and have no property, you will be excluded from trade (ie society) and thus be left to die, when in fact, historical fact, the opposite is true. Which leads to a question: who is this ideology serving? Do neoliberal economists actually believe this ideology, or do they only propagate individualist versions such as these so as to easier divide-and-conquer, given that most wealthy elites are not that individualistic at all, but operate through all sorts of elite networks, ie through insider-trading, old boy’s clubs, capitalist club retreats such as Davos, etc., all of which make up the privileged economic systems of power and wealth known as oligarchy?

In any case, neoliberal ideology is still definitively at work here in the second show, by insidiously establishing the parameters of individualist economics in times of crisis. And we should be led to ask by now: why is it that neoliberalism specifically requires not only crisis, but apocalyptic levels of crisis, to supposedly demonstrate its principles? Does this mean that we can only observe neoliberalist economics in effect if we reduce the world to crisis, if we bring on the apocalypse?

This thesis — that neoliberal economics requires crisis, if not the apocalypse, to reduce humanity to the Hobbesian savagery of go-it-alone individuality so as to allow for the deity-like “Invisible Hand” to work its magic — does make sense in a twisted fashion, insofar as neoliberalism economics are irrecoverably tied into the apocalyptic agenda of the theoconservative right.

The Invisible Hand and the right-wing, Evangelical/American Catholic Christian god occupy the same position: as the dealer of benevolent reward to believers, and punishment to non-believers (including homosexuals, pro-choicers, feminists, godless socialists, etc). This is why the Invisible Hand rewards the wealthy and punishes the poor: the wealthy have demonstrated their value as Christians of capitalism; the poor are deserving of their lot, as obviously they don’t believe enough in the system to let the Invisible Hand/God help them.

Of course, this isn’t the theology of the charitable Christian whose poor & meek shall inherit the Earth — though perhaps so if interpreted as: the poor & meek shall inherit what is left of the planet after the wealthy have plundered it, stripping the planet bare and exhausting its resources, thereby bringing about the End Times — during which the wealthy Christian elite are zipped up to Heaven during the Rapture. For more on this documented, direct connection between Christian theoconservatives and right-wing neoliberal capitalism, and how this ties into the Bush regime, the invasion of Iraq, the privatization of the US military, and the rise of Christian mercenary armies, see Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

So how could this show be different? If I were doing this show it would be far more interested in questions of how people actually find ways to collectively problem-solve and troubleshoot economic questions (and crises, such as the one we are in right now — climate change!) rather than the underlying go-it-alone premise of individuals acting under the rationale of the “Invisible Hand” which is, basically, a fiction — a bed-time story for the disenfranchised. “One day, the Invisible Hand might touch you in a special place and make you rich too!” The Invisible Hand is yet another name for the depleted and destructive capitalist fiction that is the American Dream.

Right now, what we need is critical thought on economics, given that the prevailing neoliberal model has brought about the collapse of world economies, rewarding the criminal bankers with bailouts at the expense of the rest of us. All of us, the 99%, are paying for the criminal plundering of our planet by the wealthy 1%. Neoliberal economics has failed in even the most basic of its promises — the Reagan-era trickle-down theory — that a so-called “free market” results in eventual equality. The Invisible Hand does nothing to help: it is a fist that smashes all attempts at collectivity, which protects the wealthy elite with military force. Neoliberal economics has also failed at addressing truly pressing environmental issues that will, in the end, probably destroy us if intelligent action is not taken to address climate change, precisely because neoliberal economics is designed to bring about the apocalypse, if we are to believe the published theoconservative agenda. (This is not conspiracy theory — simply read what is on the record from right-wing US Republican representatives, and in Canada, members of the Conservative Party.)

Taking it home to Canada, it just appears to me that The Invisible Hand is a mouthpiece for the Harper government — it attemtps to sell Harper’s neoconservative policies by presenting as an uncontested, received truth the neoliberal doctrine…

The Invisible Fist (Part II)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

In response to my letter to the CBC’s new show on (neoliberal) economics, here is a thoughtful letter from host Mathew Lazin-Ryder. I certainly appreciate his response, though I’d like to emphasize, he appears to believe that “governments don’t exist.” Ponder carefully what he has to say. My response, which seeks to clarify his neoliberal position — that “markets” exist before governance — is below. We’ll see if he has the time to reply further. / tV

From: Invisible Hand <invisiblehand AT CBC.CA>
Date: Wed, 27 Jun 2012 15:20:03 -0400
To: “tobias c. van Veen”
Subject: Re: Economic Examples without Consequence

 

Hello Tobias,

Thank you for your email. Yes, things are always more complicated than time allows. As for economists not being one solid lump, that is quite true. Our research did find a broad consensus amongst mainstream economists about the economic principles behind anti-price gouging laws. There certainly are things over which economists disagree, but I’d put anti-price gouging laws below many others on the list.

I also understand that our simulation was an over-simplified version of reality, which is exactly as we intended it to be. Sure, there are what-if, and comparisons of laws and economic structures, which is why we reduced the variables. 1 city, 1 law. Price-gouging, non-price gouging. We also, of course, removed the variable of personal wealth. While this is indeed a simplification of reality, we found the judgement that if a person had 1 dollar, they might also have 10 dollars, an acceptable one.

Indeed, I heartily agree that there are better scenarios – an efficiently run government that operates purely in the interest of the populace. Unfortunately for the world, I’m not sure that government exists – it certainly did not in our simulation. There are deeper implications, there are further considerations, there are caveats and what-ifs. The idea behind our show is that before we can even begin to talk about those as a society, we need to know how the basics are supposed to work – or at least, what a significant, if not major portion of an academic field believes to exist.

All the best,

Matthew Lazin-Ryder
CBC Radio Vancouver

================

 

From: “tobias c. van Veen”
Date: Wed, 27 Jun 2012 12:52:28 -0700
To: Invisible Hand <invisiblehand@CBC.CA>
Conversation: Economic Examples without Consequence
Subject: Re: Economic Examples without Consequence

dear Mathew,

Thanks for your response, indeed.

> Indeed, I heartily agree that there are better scenarios – an efficiently run
> government that operates purely in the interest of the populace. Unfortunately
> for the world, I’m not sure that government exists – it certainly did not in
> our simulation.

This is troubling. Your entire model of economics is dependant upon *not having a government* ?

Who provides the currency in your model, then?

> There are deeper implications, there are further considerations, there are
> caveats and what-ifs. The idea behind our show is that before we can even
> begin to talk about those as a society, we need to know how the basics are
> supposed to work – or at least, what a significant, if not major portion of an
> academic field believes to exist.

I’m in that field, and many of us would say that what exists first are social relations of power, and thus the primacy of politics, over economics. That is why policy is set by governments.

Of course, I effectively understand what you are saying is the opposite: that the “basics,” for you, means economy before government, capitalism before democracy. That governance is secondary to finance, in short.

In short, you are a neoliberal capitalist and an anti-democrat, correct?

Ie, you believe that “society” exists in the “market” before there is political organisation or representation of the “society” in a State?

I’m just curious, as this is, of course, a basic tenet of neoliberalism, which privileges the “market” before governance. (As the radicals would put it money before human rights, profit before people.)

I’d say many people would find the idea that we should imagine economic scenarios without governance deeply problematic. As deeply problematic as imagining that people all have the same amount of money. It all sounds like a fantasy to me. The question is, who does this fantasy benefit?

I think it’s fairly easy to see whom: those with the most amount of money.

At least, unlike Thatcher, you find that there is such a thing as “society.” However, in your example, there was none. Only individuals — with money. So I take this as a bit of an error on your part.

If governments “don’t exist,” why should “society”?

I look forwards to further shows either questioning these troubling, anti-democratic assumptions, or, more likely, continuing to espouse neoliberalism as “basic tenet” — a core ideological operation if there was one.

You don’t mind if I quote you in an article saying that “governments don’t exist,” do you?

best,

tobias.

The Invisible Fist

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Letter to the CBC’s new show on (neoliberal) economics, The Invisible Hand. The letter is self-explanatory. The first episode provided such a weak justification of the so-called “free market” that any first-year philosophy student could’ve poked holes through it. 

 

dear Mathew & Invisible Hand,

Thanks for your new show. As a student of political economy, I found it interesting, and I always like it when radio tries to break down topics like economics for the listener.

However your example provided today was quite lacking in the reality department. I want to pick through it a bit, because I think you can go a lot deeper than this. The consequence of not revealing the true difficulty of economic policy decision-making is obvious: you refer to “economists” as if they are one bunch of people, all thinking the same thing. This, of course, is not the case. The “economists” you are referring to in your show on Hurricane Katrina are neoliberal economists, who believe in a fictional caricature known as the “Rational Actor,” who also plays in a nearly fictional environment known as “the free market.”

Indeed, current “economists” have finally begun questioning these models after fourty years of near unquestioned dominance within mainstream “economics” circles. But I digress.

Let’s liven up your example, and remember that all economics includes ethics. In short, economy, because it always involves people, and thus tensions between individuals and the collective authority that we call the State, is always political economy.

 

=== THE ICE IS FOR SALE : A REAL SCENARIO ===

In your example, ice is for sale during a disaster. Your customers include those seeking non-essential uses (corsages, cookies) and those seeking essential services (health care and emergency response).

But no mention is made of the purchasing power of the health care and emergency services. Let’s pretend we’re in Canada first.

 

SCENARIO 1: FREE MARKET ALLOWED, CANADIAN CONTEXT

 1. The hospital can only afford $10 worth of ice. At the normal rate of $1 per bag, it can keep alive its ten patients. At $9 per bag, it can only keep alive one patient. This is the first consequence of the so-called free market, where prices are allowed to rise during a disaster.

 1a. Of course, the hospital has emergency funds, and so they dip into them or borrow funds of the public trust to buy ice at 9x the price, thus paying $90 for the ice that would’ve cost $9 before the disaster. This has immediate consequences — the hospital has now spent the money it had saved up for a new diagnostic machine, and so cancer patients awaiting this new treatment will suffer, and perhaps die because of it. Further, the hospital now has debt to pay off if they borrowed the money, plus interest. Where will the hospital get the funds? In the Canadian system, from taxes and/or increased user fees. The ultimate consequence of hospitals paying 9x the price is that taxes rise to cover the trickle down effect of inflated purchases — all so that the corner-store ice owner could make 9x the profit, or, as neoliberal economists put it, “equitably distribute the ice to the agent with the highest need.”

Meaning, in short, we all pay the cost for a single individual’s wealth, while risking lives in the process.

 

SCENARIO 2: FREE MARKET ALLOWED, U.S. CONTEXT

 1. The public hospital can only afford $10 of ice. It is in the same situation above, except that it cannot raise taxes due to neoliberal economic policies that keep taxes down, so that the “free market” can operate more freely. After the disaster, the hospital is shut down as it costs too much money, and the 9x-the-cost acquisition fee is paraded as proof of the inefficiency of the public service. Scores of uninsured Americans fall through the cracks — the deaths are of course unreported, as there is no public service to do the analysis.

1a. Of course, there is a private hospital buying ice too that can well afford the ice. It buys a large chunk of the available ice with the wealth it has from privatized, high-end health services delivery. Those with health insurance (mainly the wealthy) receive the ice and live through the disaster.

The meaning here is obvious: services with equity survive, and so do their wealthy patients; those without wealth do not. Might makes right in this “free market.”

 

SCENARIO 3: NEITHER / NOR: THE STATE IS FOR ALL

In your example, you only offered two choices: either all bags of ice are sold for $1 at a first-come, first-serve basis, or the seller can raise the price to exclude so-called frivolous buyers, so that only those with the greatest need buy the ice.

Of course, this is already a fallacy. Investors can buy and hoard ice, creating a futures ice market during the disaster, and trade large amounts of ice to scaled buyers (those with wealth), creating price fluctuations that generate large amounts of profit. This already exists on a formal scale, and is called the stock market. During disasters, this exists in the form of what is usually called the black market. Throughout history, such markets have popped up — such as in Leningrad during the siege of World War II. However, the people turned on such “free marketeers,” distributing street justice to hoarders and profiteers. And for good reason; the above example should demonstrate that no market is “free” when there is inequality of means to begin with. So here’s a truly rational, third example:

1. The hospitals and all emergency services are given priority access to the ice market by the State. All corner-store shops are mandated to sell ice to health personnel at the normal rate of $1. In this scenario, hospitals and emergency professionals get what they need, thanks to the emergency provisios of the State, which steps in not to “interfere with the free economy” but to insure that the economy does not enter a period of hyperinflation that would only benefit the wealthy (those that could afford the ice or private services that can) and which would have disastrous consequences upon the impoverished and upon public health as a whole (the impoverishment of health services would result due to hyperinflation of necessary supplies).

Indeed, this is what we already have in Canada and the US: various services are declared essential services. (However, in the current situation, this is usually only enacted to limit the right of labour to strike, rather than to provide fair access to necessities — but I digress.)

 1a. In times of dire emergency — what is called a “state of exception” — the State can go much further than this. In World War II, many States introduced food stamps and rations. In this scenario, all ice production is monitored  and controlled by the State, to ensure that everyone receives a fair portion (this is also how Leningrad survived the Siege of World War II: without such strict rationing, ie, not only intervention of the State into the market, but direct control of supply and demand by the State, many more would have died). Indeed, in extreme examples, the State has the right to commandeer property and materiel (though today this is abused to kick out land owners for the benefit of mining, the oil and gas industry, shale fracking or pipelines — such as in Québec’s Plan Nord; but I digress again).

 1b. If things aren’t quite that bad, but bad enough, the State can introduce intermediary policies, such as demanding that ice be sold direct from producers and distributors to health services at cost — at enough of a margin to cover expenses and live from, but less than standard pricing, say at 40% off retail. In this scenario, less profit is made by one industry in order to better provide the required health services for all. In short, the short-term profits of the few are sacrificed to save the lives of the many. The State has every right to do this to protect its health care services in times of disaster.

Moreover, it is right to do so: by ensuring cheap supply to necessary services, there is no tab to pick up later. Companies selling the required services make a tad less profit, and certainly don’t reap in profits from price-gouging, but neither do they go under or face higher taxes as a result of the “free market,” had it been allowed “free reign” to raise prices to obscene levels.

 

=====

I sincerely hope that in future shows you go beyond the facile, bloodless examples you’ve already provided. There are no economic policies without consequence, especially when dealing with disasters. Economics always involves ethics.

The correct answer to the real-life problem of disaster supply management is that both of the options provided on the show — either $1 pricing or $9 price-gouging — are ultimately inefficient and wrong. In both cases the “market” is relied upon to provide necessities without any hint that a democratic state has the authority to garner what resources it needs to ensure the survival of the many, if not all.

This is what democracy means: it is above the market.

The actual reality is that the State ought to, and as in the case of Katrina, finally did step in and provide such necessities.

As for the Louisiana ice-seller, some laws are necessary here, because the actual issue is not price-gouging, but street justice. If a seller is seen as contravening the basic ethical principles of community that arise from human nature during such disasters, such a seller may be dispensed without mercy. Indeed, the law is there to limit such activities to protect the safety of such sellers. A better solution would be to have the State request all entrepreneurs to maintain prices at a fair percentage; and they too would be subject to certain pricing regulations when selling to health and other necessary services.

So in this case, Louisiana should not have made an example out of the truck seller (who sold generators).  A true example should’ve been made of the hired mercenaries — ie Blackwater USA — that poured into New Orleans to secure the privilege and property of the wealthy, distributing privatized violence at will, and introducing a climate of fear that descended into racism on a mass scale.

Hopefully your show will go much farther in demonstrating the ethical choices behind economic policy in future episodes, as well as showing that alternatives to either/or propositions exist. At the least, I hope your show will stop referring to “economists” as some homogenous group. As a political economist, I certainly found little to agree with in the models presented, for they are nothing but fictions designed to present what many of us “economists” would argue is a dangerous neoliberal ideology: that of the “free market.”

 

never resign the public sphere

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Often I find myself engaging on Facebook, as do we all — the problem is that such conversations disappear. Time to start archiving them more properly, and to resurrect the role of this blog. The conversation below jumpstarted from an offhand suggestion to writer Leslie Anthony that we start pooling our energies to work that critiques the Harper regime in Canada. This brought about some surprise criticism.

Before I begin, I believe that one of the most urgent tasks of leftists who can craft a word or two is overcoming defeatism from within — as well as turning to the task of producing penetrating and readable critique of the right, at all levels from popular journalism to philosophical jousting. The ideological problem is that many leftists have been convinced that the realm of media critique and the public sphere has been all but deflated by the right. Oddly, this forces the call for action, but rather than mobilizing action and taking ahold of the opportunity, this forces many into resignation — and into the defeatism of resigning control of the public sphere and media to the right. This is strategically handing the board over to your opponent, pieces and all.

Click on the screenshots to make them bigger.

resignation 101

 

The problem is not “what is the alternative” — as if those opposed are grasping around at straws. Perhaps we can begin with restoring the rule of law, organising governance for the many and not the few, and taking as principles the equitable redistribution of wealth within an ethics that takes as paramount ecological sustainability and human rights? Even these old, classic, liberal values appear as revolutionary today.

Our not-to-be-named respondent (I respect the privacy of Facebook here, however slight) makes some very good points that are indicative of widespread malaise and disenchantment. This of course needs to be ousted openly, like airing our dirty laundry, exposing this little secret of resignation so we can get over it and move forward with the energy of an attack.

resignation (again)

To wit, and to reply, then: a letter to one so resigned.

dear [name removed], I agree that action is necessary, but what you’re asking for is a solution on a plate: you don’t want action unless someone hands you a “solution,” readymade and consumable, and until then, you take the defeatist attitude of “there is no alternative” or “what’s the point.” Your “solution” is silence and complicity. This is not only defeatist, its strategically plays into the hands of the neoCons — just like your vote for a Liberal, even though you didn’t support their elected leader or party. In short, your strategy failed, so continuing to pursue it seems to be a mistake, no?

As for the possible action of writers — the very reason the neoCons are attacking CBC as well as StatsCan and information services (health, science research) is because they are creating the conditions for a deficit of informed decision-maing in the public sphere, thus paving the way for ever more irrational policies (or lack of policy entirely). Amassing critical writers by wresting back control of the public sphere, and by defining and remaking that public sphere itself as exterior to the mentality of consumer capital, is a powerful weapon and should never be discounted; in fact it has been the leverage for most change in political currency for millenia, besides, of course, brute force.

So I don’t agree with you that investigative reporting and critical media is worthless unless we “provide a course of action immediately.” That is asking us as writers to be your Great Leader(s) and to hand you all the answers when such action is the responsibility of ALL, not just some cabal — it’s the same ideological ploy that the neoCons exploit (“why do anything? why bother? why isn’t anyone telling me what to do?” etc).

I also don’t buy the argument that otherwise “you lose their [and who is this "their"?]” attention.” Believing in mass ADD perpetuates it. Taking the other tack ignites attention. In any case, to reflect once gain upon your voting strategy, it has clearly demonstrated that the alternative is the NDP, front and centre. The numbers do not agree with you: the rest of the country is not split. It is quite unified around the left, and predominantly around the NDP. Your own observations above demonstrate that. This is a long process; it took 10+ years to unite the right; don’t think it will be a magic bullet for the left. Nor is the right completely unified; the budget has disenchanted right-wing voters too, and this disenchantment needs to be exploited — by targeting queasy right voters who voted conservative for economic reasons that are now being shown up as awash not in capitalism but religious ideology and irrational cuts. And this is the work of critical media; to sway opinion with research and fact, to expose the underlying and ugly truths. And this is speaking truth to power and the moment one gives up this belief, one is dead — a corpse of resignation.

Vote where your heart is, write where your heart is, and get strategically savvy. Otherwise you’re in the resignation camp — enjoy the bedfellows; they are but the true bitchers. The rest of us are moving forward. Can we count on you?

FOLLOW UP.

Here’s some words that followed in regards to (dialectical) strategy.

^^ Do you know what I read daily? The Economist, which is hardly left. But even The Economist openly ridicules both the GOP/Tea Party and — guess what — Harper’s Canada, which they see as more of the same, though in softer, court-jester form. In short, the lack of a Canadian environmental policy means that for oil-exploiting capitalists there is uncertainty in the markets as they cannot think ahead nor invest with confidence. Canada’s position in regards to the environment and fossil fuels is unclear and ambiguous. So on this front alone, there is dissension in the right. This gap needs to be widened so that the true issue of self-destructive environmental exploitation can be exposed and brought to light: not only that Canada needs an environmental policy, but this policy needs to be one that addresses capitalism as the root of ecological exploitation to begin with. This is a big step but one always possible through a leap over the abyss, and this is the moment of action, of explaining precisely this shift to the many: this lack of a policy, in this case, opens the door for us, as leftists, to create a policy much more radical and far-reaching. Present this policy openly, and suddenly, it fills a hole, creates a gap where the Conservatives have no reply and no ideas. This is precisely what the Liberal/NDP opposition are doing right now in regards to the F-35s; they are turning the logic of capitalist competition back upon the Conservatives themselves by asking why the jets were not sent out for tender…


dispatched

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

CBC

Yesterday — a day of mourning. Close family, a beautiful & pioneering female skier, and CBC. But right now it’s the Harper agenda against our public broadcaster that has me infuriated. Radio One’s Dispatches has been axed completely — one of the only venues for independent, international, investigative news reporting. Gone. Should we speculate why? Perhaps one Canadian mining or oil and gas expose too many? The erosion of democracy is so easy to accomplish against the backdrop of complacency. Ownership of the media — à la Berlusconi — is the first step to consolidating absolutist power. Dispatches is but one casualty in a coordinated, slow erosion of public institutions and media in Canada. Fight back, Dispatches crew. DO NOT GO QUIETLY.

Berlusconi’s reign over Italy is an interesting example. Did he go because of public uprising, because of political overthrow? No, it was only when Berlusconi’s use of the State as his personal fiefdom endangered the power of capital that the multinational bankers stepped in and installed a technocratic council to rule the State. The catalyst to this was not social unrest, mass protest, or democratic upheaval, but the 2008 financial crisis. Like Greece, Italy is now run by unelected technocrats. Berlusconi has managed to evade every single charge brought against him; he publicly flaunts his largesse and lack of ethics.

Harper is the shadow to Berlusconi’s fireworks. All the same strategies are in play — slow erosion of democratic institutions; the flaunting of power and wealth; the complete monopolization of state media. Unlike fascists of the 1930s, today’s neoconservatives know to move slowly by strategically defunding independent public services from the environment and sciences to public broadcasting and food safety. The result is an unstable state lacking the communications and critical media to report upon its wholesale privatization.

A week ago I heard an anti-CBC caller played back on As It Happens: “You should compete like everyone else,” she said, “If I had my way the CBC would receive no funding at all.” Here we have a perfect example of neoconservative, capitalist ideology: here, it is the market, and not public space, which is the norm. Compete like everyone else, join the market; the idea that the market is a private space, and that the space of collective realisation — the “everyone else” — is that of public space, publicly funded from the common wealth, has been completely reversed: now it is the market of competing monopolies that is the “everyone else,” the “we” in which we all feel included. Of course this makes sense given that the self-identity of the caller assumes that of the consumer; the CBC is an imposed purchase under this logic, and s/he doesn’t like what s/he’s hearing. The logic is simple: news is a product, as is all media, and I only want to buy what I like, what I want to hear or see. Of course, such consumerist self-identification undermines the basic principle of journalism, which is to expose all to the ugly truths we don’t like to hear or see.

The more the world approaches ecological catastrophe, increasing impoverishment, permanent militarization, rogue state conflict, the inequality of wealth and power, etc., the more this “everyone else” rebels, creating bunkers of ideology, erecting barriers and fences to the in-common, collective experience of facing ugly truths. The right-wing, Tea Party insanity of the GOP and militant Islam are reactions to the destabilizing and ultimately self-destructive effects of global capitalism. That both aim to fight each other in a duel to the death ignores the true apocalypse brought on by global capital itself—a simultaneous erosion of democracy and the pending ecological catastrophe.

The lesson is bitter and clear: the state political elites serve capital, they are unable and/or unwilling to control and regulate capital even when the very survival of the human race is ultimately at stake. (Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times 334)

This is the final logic, the end times. Zizek’s book is highly recommended.