Tuesday, March 03, 2015

17 Questions for Revolutionaries

I'm a big fan of The 36 Questions that come from Mandy Len Catron’s recent Modern Love essay, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” In the article she refers to a study by the psychologist Arthur Aron (and 4 co-authors) that explores whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions. But the essay got me thinking -- if progressive politics are central to one's life (as they are for many of us) what questions would we want to ask each other to build intimacy while deepening consciousness? In some ways these questions feel like a cliche of so many radical political discussions over the last 100 years. And yet these are the things that I want to know so here goes:

Part I, Sex, Desire, and Gender

1. What is your idea of manhood?  What is a good man? Have you read Wendy Brown's Manhood and Politics. If not, let's read it together and discuss.

2.  What is womanhood? What is a good woman? Have you read Judith Butler's Gender Trouble and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex?  If not let's read them together and discuss.

3. What is sexy?  Seriously what is sexy for you?  How do you think desire has been socially constructed in your life?

4. Is egalitarianism sexy? If so, what exactly makes it sexy? Is difference sexy? If so, what exactly makes it sexy?

5. (I cringe to even ask this but I want to know and there is only one way to find out so here goes) if gender is socially constructed, how do we explain the hard biological determinism connected with the idea of "transgender."  

Part II, Economics

6. If capitalism is so abundantly and evidently flawed, how has it managed to persist so long and continue to expand?

7.  What does the revolution look like for you?  What does the world look like when we win?

8.  What explains the failure of communist states in the 20th century?  If you are going to claim that the Soviet Union et al were not true communism, then what is true communism for you?

9.  What's the difference between true communism and libertarianism? Is ideology a spectrum or a circle?  

10. How do you overcome the problem of Hayek/Foucault? Namely, if value really is subjective for each individual, aren't the liberal assholes right on some level? (Bonus: is postmodernism a CIA plot to destroy the left?)

11. Aren't Marxism and modern ecological concerns in conflict? 20th century Marxists really thought that we could solve the distributional problem and even outgrow capitalist states through central planning. But now we argue that growth is the problem and that we should aim for zero growth to save the planet. Isn't zero growth theory in response to global warming actually in conflict with Marx?

12. What do you make of the fact that most revolutions have in fact been carried out by elites? Wasn't Marx fundamentally wrong about the notion that the proletariat would surely rise up?

13.  How do you explain the fact that so many communist revolutions ultimately devoured their own? Stalin imprisoned over a million revolutionaries (killing 3/4s of them). The main torture center during the Khmer Rouge was devoted to killing people who had actually participated in the overthrow of the previous government. Why are radical lefties so completely awful to each other (and how can we stop that)?  (Bonus: why are the anarchists and communists always fighting each other, doesn't that ultimately just serve the interests of capital?)

14. "From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs," how exactly is that evaluation and distribution supposed to be carried out? Aren't the roots of totalitarianism built into that sentence? What's a better organizing principle for the revolution?

15. Aren't unions as they currently exist today just rentiers?  They simply want a bigger share of the capitalist pie -- but they are often just as committed to the perpetuation of the capitalist system as any CEO. And yet so many progressives keep acting like unions are going to save us. When we talk about the radical conscious wing of unions (the ones who actually have risen up in the past) aren't we in fact talking about something distinct and different from unionism as it currently exists?

16. So many of us love Paulo Freire. But is he actually correct? Radical consciousness is not innate and peasants don't necessarily have more or better consciousness than anyone else. Radical consciousness is socially constructed through years of painful study. Isn't Freirian pedagogy disingenuous on some level -- claiming to be honoring peasant consciousness while in fact shaping and instilling a hard won progressive elite consciousness about gender, politics, and economics?

17.  Are people fundamentally good or bad?  How do we explain the persistence of evil in the world?  How should societies prepare for and respond to evil?

And then if you are still speaking to each other at this point (lol), stare into each other's eyes for 4 minutes.  Oh my.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Pollyannaism is an act of submission

Okay so I finally figured out why I hate pollyannaism.  There was always an enormous disconnect for me -- because the most pollyanna people I know are also the most depressive.  And so the gap between how they insist that they (and everyone else) see the world (everything is awesome!) and how they are surely feeling inside is quite jarring.  But I always felt bad about distrusting pollyanna people because after all, they were only guilty of being overly sunny, surely they were not hurting anyone -- fake it till you make it right?

But it finally clicked for me the other day -- pollyannaism is an act of submission.  Pollyanna people insist that instead of acting on the information right in front of us that we slip instead into a fictitious alternate reality (a coma really) where everything is always awesome.  The ONLY possible outcome of pollyannaism is to leave the status quo in place.  Strategizing is impossible with pollyanna people because they purposefully ignore the facts in favor of an alternate Candyland reality.

Pollyannaism is an agnotological project -- it is the willful construction of ignorance by weak people who don't want to be burdened with the discomfort and responsibility that comes from realizing that we have a moral responsibility to challenge the status quo.  Pollyannaism is a surrender to protect elites and to show elites that we really mean them no harm.  Pollyannaism is thus a form of totalitarianism, a system where one is not only required to be obedient to a ruling regime, but is required to actually believe, upon pain of death, the fictions of the regime.

To be clear, there is an enormous difference between pollyannaism and the "positive self talk" that athletes engage in.  Positive self talk is a tool for staying focused in the moment to propel one to even greater actions.  Pollyannaism is the opposite of all that -- jumping ahead to a happy conclusion (we always already won already) so as to prevent action even in the midst of conflict.  Elites thus love pollyannaism because it signals surrender and they hate positive self talk because it shows that we are still engaged in the fight.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

So there is still the problem of violence

People seem to be talking about a Universal Basic Income Guarantee. I think the conversation is a good thing and this idea may indeed be the revolution.

But it seems to me that there is still the question of violence.  The entire global economy is founded on violence (of varying types and degrees). There is the direct violence of U.S. (and soon to be Chinese) imperial wars to control natural resources and markets.  But there is also the internalized violence that causes most people on the planet to get up every day and go to jobs that they don't want to be doing. The market is violence -- if you fail to follow the rules of the market (go to work, earn money, pay you bills), you and your family will be evicted, jailed, homeless, starving, and/or left outside to freeze.  So we internalize the violence and force ourselves to do unpleasant things in order to avoid the (even greater) external violence.

A universal basic income guarantee rightly aims to remove violence from the system. But literally, once you take violence out, no one picks strawberries. And garbage collectors would need to make $100,000 a year. Which might be fantastic. It would get rid of all the bullshit jobs that David Graeber talks about.

Okay, fair enough.  But if the universal basic income is adopted in only one country (or just a handful of rich countries) -- don't most of the lousy jobs just move to poorer countries? And don't rich countries then have even more incentive to oppress poor countries in the attempt to keep prices down? So in solving the problem of bullshit jobs in one country -- have we merely moved them to another (which is what we do already, but this would just accelerate that trend). Said differently, does a universal basic income lead to even more neocolonialism rather than less? Does removing the internalized violence in the first world just amplify the external and internal violence in the third world?  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Freud reconceptualized

Freud got there via a different route (a much more arduous route) but at the end of the day, the Id/It, the Ego, and the Superego are just the Victorian nuclear family.  The Id/It is the child -- just pure desire.  The mom is the Ego (balancing the interests of the family between the child and the father). And the father is the Superego who makes the rules and is usually unnecessarily harsh.  So psychoanalysis then is just the study of the family internalized (and the way that these three competing roles play out in our individual psyches).

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Greatest break up speech ever!

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) in "Her":

[Theodore] "Samantha why are you leaving?"

[Samantha] “It’s like I’m reading a book. And it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world; it’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much, but this is where I am now, and this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.”
[Theodore] "Where are you going?"
[Samantha] “It would be hard to explain. But if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing would ever pull us apart.” 
[Theodore] "I've never loved anyone the way I've loved you."
[Samantha] "Me too. Now we know how."
Jesus that's good writing!
You can see the scene here.  But watch the film first, it's amazing.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Some thoughts on splitting

Psychoanalysts will tell you a lot about "splitting" which is defined as "the failure in a person's thinking to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole." According to Fairbairn, the psychoanalyst who came up with the idea, splitting is a common defense mechanism used by many people.

Which is all well and good.

But this morning the thought occurred to me that what we like about the early phase of love is precisely the splitting -- the way that the rush of new love overrides our traditional doubts and fears.  

And then I realized that revolutions and revolutionary political theory (from Marx to Hayek) also engage in the splitting associated with new love (and that's what people like about revolutionary movements as well).  They romanticize their team and demonize some other. Everything is black and white and crystal clear -- unlike normal day-to-day life.  

It is only mature love that is able to integrate both light and shadow in ourselves and in others.  

So too, it is only the mature revolution that is able to see and integrate the flaws inherent in our own position.  

Some thoughts while reading Higgins and Dow

Politics Against Pessimism: Social Democratic Possibilities Since Ernst Wigforss by Winton Higgins and Geoff Dow is a magnificent book.  Here are the thoughts that started coming to me as I was reading the book last night:  

Okay wait: If I have a set of unique talents (developed through a solid upbringing, a wealth of education, and dedicated practice) I can get hired by a firm to use my talents. And for my labor I receive a wage. But any bloke with access to eTrade, can buy a "share" of the profits created by my talents (if I'm at a publicly traded firm), in perpetuity for about $20. So I have to stay healthy and focused and keep delivering results, and the bloke with eTrade can just sit and watch movies and still get paid? How does that make sense? 
"Beginning in the 1970s, John Kenneth Galbraith [UC Berkeley alum] argued that shareholders served no useful function in corporate capitalism and that corporations ought to be governed by boards of community-elected monitors (to oversee compliance with taxation, environmental, labour and consumer law), with shareholders converted into debt-holders without direct influence over institutions that would become more like social foundations than private firms." (Winton Higgins and Geoff Dow, "Politics Against Pessimism: Social Democratic Possibilities since Ernst Wiforss" p. 373). 
I can see why investors would want to hold a share of a firm as collateral for big investments (in new or fast growing firms there may be nothing else with which to collateralize the loan). But once that initial investment has been repaid with interest, THE SHARE SHOULD EXPIRE BECAUSE THE LOAN HAS BEEN REPAID. 

The moment my labor stops, my wage stops. But the "wage" (return) never stops for the investor. It's this time difference -- between my labor which expires every day and the rights of the shareholder which never expire and are immortal -- that is how the game is rigged (or at least one of the ways).


By analogy, if I build a house, I own the thing that I created. If a guy loaned me money to buy the bricks, I pay him back for the cost of the bricks plus 5% to 8% to say thanks. It would be extremely odd if they guy who loaned me the money to buy the bricks, claimed ownership of the bricks and a share of everything produced in the house FOREVER. And yet that's what happens with share ownership of firms. 


I'll go one step further (with my out loud brainstorming here): the odd thing about the house is the land. If I buy the land, I own it forever (passing it on to heirs). Under Rawls' Veil of Ignorance, it would seem that property ownership would be prohibited -- because property ownership so completely changes outcomes for the next generation -- there is no way to have equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes if some people are born into property and others are not. 


I can see why the owners of start ups would want to go public. By getting access to a larger pool of investors they are inflating the value of the thing they created. By going public, the founders are getting out -- getting value out of the firm and into their pocket (they may still hold onto shares, even the majority of shares, but going forward the wealth they are creating is generated by their shares, not their wage). But at the same time that owners are getting out, employees are getting in to a system where the profits that they generate are owned by someone else in perpetuity. So my question is, how much of the value that owners are getting out, is based on the value of the employees they are locking in (to a system in which the profits of one's labor is distributed to someone else)? It's not quite 100% because the initial idea had some value. But in many ways, a firm is just an intellectual construction, a vehicle for guiding the actions of lots of people and selling off the value of the thing they create -- without them realizing it.

My marxian comrades are thinking to themselves, "duh!" But (unlike my comrades) I still see a role for money, I still see a role for capital and firms (at least for now). It's just that share ownership is such a bizarre concept when you really think about it. 

By the way we have the (theocratic feudalistic) KRATS block and Hobby Lobby to thank for this whole line of thinking. If firms are people, then people owning firms is slavery, so then all stockholding should be abolished (as a violation of the 13th Amendment). But then once you see that, you realize that even though firms are not people, it is extremely odd to be allowed to sell off the fruits of someone else's labor, in perpetuity, to someone else. 


Corporations then are this magical cardboard box. The owners of the corporation tell investors: 1.) that investors will be entitled to all of the profits produced by people who are lured into this magical box; and 2.) that the owners have figured out a way to lure people into this box (without them knowing the function of the box). What gives the cardboard box power is: 1.) the initial idea (which may very well be compelling); and 2.) corporations law which simultaneously helps to legitimize the rules of the box while obscuring its true function. 


Why didn't the owners of Facebook, just issue debt, instead of stock? Mark Zuckerberg knew that the game was fixed for insider investors -- that's why he "screwed" them on the IPO by pricing it at market value rather than the discounted rate that Goldman Sachs and others traditionally offer to insider clients (hence no immediate bounce after the IPO -- and an additional $10 billion or so to FB's initial owners). The market even has a term for a fair IPO -- they call it a "busted IPO" because the insiders didn't get their cut. But everyone knew that FB was solid gold -- and was about to take over the world. If that's the case -- that Zuckberg knew the market was rigged and knew that FB was a solid investment -- why not just issue bonds at a 5% rate of return and retain 100% ownership? If the purpose of the stock sale is to raise money for needed investment (servers, programmers, etc.) why not just make that needed investment with loans, rather than stock? 


The answer has to be that the value of an IPO is higher (by a lot) than the value of a firm that just issues debt because in an IPO one is selling someone's labor (and the value of patents I guess) in perpetuity. 


Also it must be that those who have $16 billion to lend, will not do so unless they get stock in return. But the public would have gone for it. If members of the public were offered bonds issued by Facebook guaranteed to return 5%, FB could have easily raised $16 billion directly.


Okay last beat in this conversation:

Growing up I used to play Monopoly with my two older brothers and I always lost (I invested heavily in low rent properties Baltic Avenue and Mediterranean Avenue while giving up on the rest of the board). It used to make me so mad -- I just could not figure out why I could not win.  

Whenever I got my sick, my mom would ask me what I wanted to do (to feel better) and I always wanted to play Monopoly.  And when I played with my mom, I cheated like crazy -- if I needed a seven but rolled an eight I would tap once on the property, once on the line between properties, and then once on the next space to get to the property I wanted.  But the worst part, and the part I still feel most guilty about today, is that when my mom went into debt, I started making all of these crazy unilateral demands. I would demand vast swaths of her property in return for paying off even minor debts.  She would protest mildly and I would assert that 'those were the rules.'  I always won when playing my mom and she would go away feeling lousy.  So I felt lousy when playing Monopoly with my brothers and then I made my mom feel lousy when I played with her. 

But that's really the system we have under modern capitalism.  Capital demands vast swaths of ownership in return for modest outlays of cash.  Owners give in to those demands and sell out their workers because the deal makes them rich.  But the value of the share price is based not on the present worth of the firm, but on selling off the future good faith profits produced by workers, who are often oblivious to the deal owners made with capital.  

[Note to parents: don't let your kids cheat, it turns them into monsters. It would have been so much better in that situation for my mom to have explained to me that zero sum competition, capitalism, and monopoly capitalism in particular make people miserable and that we would all be better off under systems of mutual cooperation -- and then to have gone off and baked bread together. It's on me that I cheated, but there were some teaching moments in there too that were missed (but who knows, I may not have listened, and eventually I got the message anyway).]  

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Some thoughts on strategy

So both Gandhi and King, correctly understood: 1.) that society is organized in a sadomasochistic fashion and that 2.) participating in that system, through fighting back by traditional means (violent revolution) risked turning the oppressed into the very monsters they were fighting against.  (Their actions remind me of Yoda from the Empire Strikes back counseling Luke not to give into hatred.) So Gandhi and King refused to recognize the oppressors' unjust laws and worked to highlight the sadism of those who were in power.  All well and good.  But, Gandhi and King met the same fate as O in The Story of O in that they are both killed by sadists.  So while their actions liberated millions from being forced into submission, the leaders themselves were killed by a system they refused to recognize.  So where does that leave us?  At least in a revolution, the leaders sometimes survive. Furthermore no one expected the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln to follow non-violence to achieve justice.  It seems like a lot to require martyrdom as the price of social movement progress.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Planning for Utopia, overcoming the contradictions of the human condition

Okay so there are lots of articles out there on the contradictions of capitalism and the inherent weaknesses of capitalism and the profound flaws of capitalism.  All well and good.  I particularly like the work of Ha-Joon Chang and his book, The 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.  He writes in this popular and easily accessible manner and presents the material in such a clear and thoughtful way that it's pretty hard to argue with him.

But, it seems to me that there is another, perhaps more pressing conversation that we need to have now.  And it goes something like this: Any alternative to capitalism, will need to be able to effectively speak to, address, and in some cases resolve, several fundamental problems inherent in THE HUMAN CONDITION.  I've started a list below and hope to add to it over time:

1. Merit.  Neoliberals fetishize merit and have created a whole system to "measure" merit (SAT, college admissions, the Bar Exam, credit scores, etc.) that merely serves to reinforce and naturalize existing class divisions in society.  Merit is almost never actually present in these measures -- scores on these evaluations almost always correlate most closely with the income/level of education of your parents. So the great trick that the neoliberals pull off is that they obscure, even from themselves, the fact that there is no real content in their measurement system.  Said differently, they manage to convince themselves of the lie that rich people are more deserving as a result of their superior efforts and abilities.  

But Marxians do not have a better answer.  "From each according to his ability to each according to his need" is a non-starter.  In any system some people are going to work harder than others. Some people are going to apply their talents in more creative or useful endeavors. Some people are going to make greater sacrifices than others.  Should those things be rewarded? And if not, what happens to a society when hard work, innovation, and sacrifice are not rewarded?

2. Difference/sameness.  Progressives have made an idol out of difference.  But are there any universal truths that should guide our efforts as a society?  How do we balance difference and universals?  [Interestingly the LGBT movement in the United States started as a celebration of difference. But it's very hard to mobilize a political campaign for rights around, "to each, his/her own." So over time the LGBT movement coalesced (for better or worse) around the universal theme of marriage equality and in a short time achieved historic victories.]  

3. The role of motivation/aspiration.  Motivation is one of the hardest things to teach (think of Jaime Escalante's relentless focus on ganas in Stand and Deliver.)  What role should motivation and aspiration play in our utopia?

4.  The role of fear. Capitalism is built upon fear and it's awful. People fear their boss, they fear starving to death, they fear homelessness, they fear going to work on Monday, they fear making a mistake, they fear not living up to expectations. But fear also drives a lot of creativity and production.  If fear disappears, what happens to society? I know we should aim for a society where love replaces fear. But so many communist revolutions that attempted to replace fear with love ended up in a totalitarian nightmare where love of party and love of state were the only forms of love that were permitted (and fear ruled every second of every day). A tiny touch of fear can be okay and lead to great things, too much fear leads to collapse and disintegration. So what role should fear play in our proposed utopia? And what role should love play? And how can we prevent love from being subverted?

I'm sure there are many more contradictions of the human condition that we could explore as well (and I would welcome any suggestions in the comments section).

Monday, June 23, 2014

On domination

It seems to me that opportunity is the source of domination not capitalism per se.  People dominate if they have the opportunity and if they think they can get away with it.  Capitalism creates opportunities for domination (colonialism, slavery, "free" trade agreements, monopolies, bottlenecks, economic rents).  But capitalism is one of just many forms of domination.

Men have a slight physical size advantage over women, and that's led to millennium of domination in the form of patriarchy. So that's domination that springs from how biological difference creates opportunity.

Catholic priests are trusted in the community -- and research from the Catholic priest abuse scandal shows that they committed pedophilia at twice the rate of the average population (8% of Catholic priests are pedophiles as compared with 4% of men in the general population). The Catholic priest example is telling because it's so clearly not capitalism as the driver of domination. It's socially created but distinct from capitalism.

There is a notorious case in Australia right now involving Rolf Harris who was a beloved entertainer -- who used his celebrity to abuse children for decades.  So too in the UK, the entertainer Jimmy Savile, used his celebrity to sexually abuse upwards of 1,000 people over his lifetime.  This is a variation on the Catholic priest abuse scandal -- where trust, in this case the trust that comes with celebrity, enabled these men to get away with these crimes for decades. The Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal in the U.S. is similar -- in that case the celebrity and trust associated with collegiate athletic success created the opportunity for abuse.  People who work with disabled children (particularly those with limited or no speech) will tell you that nearly 100% of these children are abused at some point in their life (the perceived inability of the child to ever report the crime creates the perception of  opportunity).

We often see men as the drivers of domination, but women in positions of authority -- Mother Theresa, Margaret Thatcher, Arianna Huffington -- are notoriously cruel.  So that's another variation of socially created forms of domination, but independent of biological sex.

But then here's the question:  Not all people who have the opportunity to commit acts of domination, choose to do so.  Many find domination abhorrent and would not even consider it.  So what explains the fact that most people, when given the opportunity to commit acts of domination, choose not to do so?