Saturday, December 15, 2012

Right to Work: Are Unions Still Relevant?

With the union protests in Wisconsin, the teachers’ strike in Chicago, the closing of Hostess, the Right to Work law in Michigan, and other recent events, the discussion about the usefulness and role of unions continues to regain importance in the public sphere. In the U.S., anti-union forces really began to mobilize in the 1980s and have taken advantage of every opportunity to raise questions about the continued relevance of unions. The pro-union voices have typically responded by listing all the things unions accomplished a hundred years ago, thus unintentionally contributing to the perception that unions are a relic of a bygone age, operating within an archaic and simultaneously (paradoxically) overly-bureaucratized structure.

It is interesting to look at how this dynamic played out in the recent debate over Michigan’s Right to Work legislation. On the face of it, and as the bill is publicly presented, the issue revolves around whether union membership should be a choice or a mandate. Thus, it is packaged in the typical liberal discourse of “freedom of choice.” This ensures widespread support.

This “freedom of choice” rhetoric is also used to strengthen strategically propagated (though not entirely false) images of unions robbing paychecks for dues and forcibly promoting their political agendas. Under these circumstances, it seems reasonable that a person may wish to decline participation in a union. And why should any person be forced to join any organization?

Every potential bit of evidence of union coercion is thrown into the spotlight and continually regurgitated to support the ideological goals of the anti-union forces, who have substantial media influence. Employer coercion, in contrast, often lurks beneath the surface and escapes widespread attention. The fact of the matter is that the opposition at stake is not that of union coercion versus freedom, but rather of union coercion versus employer coercion, and unions and employers are not equal forces. It is a well documented fact that employers use every manner of intimidation available to them to discourage union participation. If union participation is not mandated, there is nothing to stop the employer from trying to mandate the opposite, as Walmart, for example, has done. Furthermore, such weakening of unions will by necessity undermine their ability to negotiate. What leverage will unions have when a pool of non-union reserve labor is always available? The ultimate effect of eliminating the mandate, then, is the complete emasculation of unions and the obstruction of their most central function.

This is where the question of their relevance comes in. It is often argued that they really don’t serve any necessary function today. The world of the Industrial Age has long passed, and the concerns of that era are no longer valid. Why is it, then, that U.S. corporations do not hesitate to engender the exact same conditions in other parts of the world, where no opposing force exists to stop them? From Foxconn in China to the Walmart sweatshops in Bangladesh... it is clear that industry still operates according to the exact same principles. I have heard the rebuttal that there are cultural differences in those parts of the world, that they are not as developed or enlightened, and that it is better than sitting in the jungle eating poop. This, of course, is racist. The appeal to “culture” most often is a racial argument. The reality, as I have already explained many times in this blog, is that forces of global capitalism have created underdevelopment and poverty in the Third World. So sweatshops most certainly are not saving them from some supposed savage life. Moreover, industry is not culturally biased. It will build sweatshops wherever it is allowed.

Of course, then the whole issue degenerates into the question of whether workers should willfully work for less than they need to survive or be happy seeing domestic jobs disappear. The very fact that this is an either/or situation proves the inhumanity of capitalism.

So, if one looks at the global organization of production, it is clear that the existence and proper functioning of unions are key to ensuring that workers in particular countries make enough money to feed themselves and their families. In fact, unions have been necessary to the development of capitalism as a whole. The worker unrest that emerged in its earlier stages would have certainly destroyed the entire arrangement if the creation of the welfare state and unions had not placated workers and made them more amenable to being exploited. In some sense the work of unions serves the general conditions that support the functioning of the capitalist system. Not only does it control worker unrest, but higher wages in one business or industry is beneficial to all the other industries in the form of expanded demand. On the other hand, capitalists have always been more concerned about their immediate interests, which union bargaining does frustrate. More than that, the greatest threat posed by the existence of unions (regardless of whether they are functioning effectively or not) is that they organize the working class. Capitalists realize that their system has shaky foundations and have always feared the revolutionary potential of an organized working class. This fear is probably the primary driver for the coordinated propaganda against unions.

If unions have become in any way irrelevant, this is the crucial area where that has occurred. In the past, unions had connections to revolutionary political parties and organizations. They questioned the system and in some cases tried to fight against it. The biggest blow to the power and relevance of unions was, in the decades following the Great Depression, when the Democrats incorporated them into their coalition. Unions no longer promote the type of consciousness that is needed to challenge capitalism. They function as a wing of the Democratic party. They are happy to concern themselves primarily with the haggling over wages and benefits (which I do not mean to disparage) and have ceded any broader transformative role. In that sense, they are supporting the system that oppresses them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

On Violence

I thought it would be fitting, given today's horror of an elementary school shooting, to repost some of my previous discussions about violence.

Why gun control is not a panacea

Violence and gender

More on the systemic nature of violence

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Feminization of Consumption

It recently struck me that the act of consumption is considered to be inherently feminine. I mean, obviously the archetypal woman loves going to the mall and shopping. But I started to notice how, in movies and tv shows and advertisements, men don't even know how to shop. They don't need to buy things. They are content with what they have. Unless Father's Day is approaching, in which case they need new tools. But if they need to pick out a ring or something, god help them.

I started to think more about this as I viewed this advertisement. In a subtle way, the ad implies that knowing how to shop well is a feminine trait.

This idea may have germinated in the post-WW2 era, when the necessities of capitalist expansion brought women more deeply into the productive and consumptive spheres. Once women started to work outside of the home (providing their conveniently cheap labor) they provided a ready market for time-saving domestic devices (washing machines, microwaves, etc.). This was a boon to the economy.

It seems that this felicitous trend was further exploited by capitalist forces, which have insisted that women need to be beautiful and well-dressed to be successful. So women spend their paychecks on tanning, hair dye, mani/pedis, jewelry, handbags, shoes, make-up, age-defying moisturizers, and on and on.

Of course, as the natural homemakers and interior designers, women have a knack for picking out the kitchenware, the decor, the linens, and the furniture. And, when kids are involved, they are the most concerned about choosing the right baby formulas, diapers, toys, food, and clothes.

So it appears that capitalist interests have been able to use gender to drive consumption. They helped to create the narrative that women have a lot of needs (pertaining to their outward appearance and domestic well-being). And then women, who already, as a group, make less money than men, are supposed to sustain the levels of consumption required by the capitalist system.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Will Statehood Help the Palestinians?

The hope that Palestinians pin on the UN and statehood status is just another example of the pitfalls of trying to create change within the system.

The Palestinians are not being screwed by Israel. They are being screwed by a global system, of which Israel is merely one component.

Do the Palestinians really believe that having the status of a sovereign state will protect them from being occupied or invaded? Do they think that, in obtaining statehood, they will suddenly be freed from their open-air prisons and no longer be deprived of basic necessities? The answer, of course, is no, but the hope is that any steps toward statehood will give them certain rights under international law and perhaps some leverage via the UN.

Then I must ask, do you really think the UN is going to deliver? We're talking about the same UN, right?

The fact of the matter is that the UN serves the interests of the global capitalist elite who control its institutional machinery. So long as Palestinian subjugation is useful in the capitalist system, it will continue.

The Palestinians would be better served by recognizing the way in which all modern institutions (including the system of nation-states and international law) functioning together with capitalism as an integrated whole. If the Palestinians want their freedom, they will not find it in the international legal system. Perhaps the only way out of captivity is the path (more or less) of the Zapatistas.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Political Parties and Branding

Branding has come to occupy an interesting role in Late Capitalism, particularly in the constitution of the “global,” often providing a key linkage between the local and the global. Branding constructs a formidable international terror syndicate out of a ragtag collection of disparate local activist groups; it creates the impression of cultural homogenization and modernization despite an immense amount of global variation; it allows for the functioning of an international legal discourse (that of “human rights”) and value system (the spread of “democracy”) that can be strategically manipulated in different situations. In the U.S. (and probably elsewhere?), it also shapes party politics and the bodies of rhetoric that political parties regulate.

American democracy is not a system whereby citizens choose from a collection of representatives associated with an innumerable spectrum of viewpoints. Generally there are one or two viable candidates, and voters often base their decisions on party affiliations. For example, a person who agrees with much of the Republican Party platform (thus self-identifying as a Republican) will assume that any Republican politician represents the Republican “brand.” This obviously encourages people to vote for candidates without knowing anything about them other than their party affiliations (witness the election to U.S. congress of a man who believes he is Santa Claus). It also creates an extremely black-and-white environment for thinking about and discussing politics. But, finally, it allows for a certain degree of control over such thought and discussion on the part of party leaders, as brand loyalty makes particular arguments and ideologies easier to sell to the base.

And so political parties are a terrain on which a constant struggle plays out. Different interest groups attempt to wrest control over the messaging of the party, in order to cement their viewpoints as hegemonic. It is interesting to observe, for example, the different wings of the Republican Party that overlap with and diverge from each other based on religious loyalties, commitment to libertarian values, and the evangelical zeal of American Exceptionalism. It appears that the faction of the Party that recently came to control the messaging was too extreme to engage a majority of the American public, and now there is in-fighting and finger-pointing in the aftermath of the election. The Republican Party is trying to figure out how to re-brand itself in order to increase its appeal. Which ties into the second form of struggle: the relationship with the public at large. Political rhetoric has to be carefully calibrated to both “sell” the party and its ideology (i.e. to appeal to the market) and simultaneously influence public opinion, by providing the language with which various issues are discussed. It is the changing dynamic among powerful interest groups and their relationship to different segments of the American population that accounts for shifts in party ideology and demographic composition. Of course, one must account for the fact that political parties and campaigns are composed of people with external aims (economic, social, geopolitical) AND those whose primary goal is to win elections. The latter are all too willing to adopt any messaging that is strategically useful.

One characteristic of branding that very aptly describes the American political scene is its ability to alter perception. People believe they are getting what the marketing tells them they are getting, especially if it is popular. In the U.S., it does not matter what a political party actually does when it acquires power. People believe the messaging over the reality. In fact, their view of reality is distorted by the branding. People believe that Republicans are more fiscally responsible, even though that is not the case. They believe that Democrats are friendlier to minorities and the poor, even though that also is not the case. Even more fundamentally, branding creates the illusion of distinction. People don’t realize that Orbit gum is really the same as Eclipse, and both are owned by the same parent company. Just as they don’t realize that Democrat is, in actual practice, the same as Republican, and both are owned by the same parent company.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Cost of Health Care

I covered a lot of my thoughts about the way in which capitalism structures the health care industry, both materially and ideologically (see my health series). This discussion follows fairly directly from those ideas.

Partly this is spurred by a recent experience I had, in which someone I knew was being kept alive on a ventilator, although it was against both their own wishes as expressed in the advance directive and the wishes of their spouse. I was reminded of the fact that more than a quarter of the total health care costs in the U.S. are spent on people in the last stage of their lives.

Indeed, the U.S. has one of the most expensive (especially in comparison to quality) health care systems in the world. The unjustified costs stem largely from the attitudes I discussed in my previous posts: 1) the assumption that the causes of ill health are material/individual and always require material interventions; 2) the obsession with "normality" and the treatment of variable states as "deviance"; 3) and the aversion/inability to cope with death and irrational belief that prolonging life is desirable.

1. When people feel a little different than usual, they go right to the doctor. Even colds are not considered as things that occur from time to time (like bad weather) and pass with time and rest. Some intervention must take place.

2. At the doctor, people only feel satisfied with the visit if they have a diagnosis and a prescription. Compounding the problem, doctors often are paid according to the number of people they can see everyday, thus encouraging them to breeze through each visit, barely listening, slapping together a diagnosis, and writing off a prescription. [I already discussed my frustration with the over-prescription of antibiotics - not only is it costly, but it weakens immune systems and promotes the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.]

3. People believe that health care providers are capable of solving every problem and should theoretically be infallible. Doctors and hospitals are always under threat of law suits. This, of course, directly raises the costs of health care; it also indirectly increases costs because doctors feel compelled to order millions of tests - many of them costly and unnecessary - to cover their butts, and may also be induced to expend resources wastefully to comply with families' demands (like keeping someone on a ventilator when they are going to die in a few days anyway). This point, in particular, is attributed responsibility for a lot of the cost inefficiencies in the U.S. health care system compared to other health care systems.

The upshot of all of this can be characterized by a libertarian maxim: people want a lot more than what they are willing to pay for. They want all of the medical interventions possible, but have constructed a system that is not able to absorb all of the costs. What happens, of course, is that all the people with insurance and means to afford out-of-pocket costs who demand unnecessary tests and treatments, and thereby drive up the costs of care, make it that more difficult for people in poverty to afford the care that IS necessary for them. Once again, it is the poor who are subsidizing the extravagance and irresponsible behavior of the well-to-do.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

American Dominance and the Changing Nature of War

This post is not a consideration of how war has become more high-tech. That's an interesting topic, but I have nothing to add. These particular thoughts arose out of a discussion I had with someone (sparked by this essay on the Just War Theory), in which I tried to argue against the legitimacy of any military action. The thrust of my argument was the Marxist idea that wars serve bourgeois interests and are falsely justified as being a means to secure the freedom of ordinary citizens. This led to a discussion of the actual purpose of modern wars.

I think I had better start at the beginning, historically speaking. There was a time when wars served very concrete and easily discernible purposes. Wealth and power relations were more directly tied to the ownership of specific territories and the rights to the surpluses of the producing classes. Imperialism was purely an aim to acquire more territory (and to benefit from the resources therein), as well as to consolidate the social structures which generated surpluses and tributes.

In the modern era, when one envisions a war in the abstract, one has to wonder who really benefits, and how. I often come across geopolitical analyses that explain certain U.S. actions and attitudes as stemming from a drive to maintain global dominance or to prevent any oppositional regional powers from emerging. On the surface that seems plausible. But try to think of “American dominance” more concretely. Who represents the American interests, and who benefits from America’s dominance? The president (who is only in office for a handful of years)? Members of congress? Those in the military and intelligence communities? None of those players benefit directly from any sort of “American dominance.” Those at the helm of our structures of wealth extraction, the multinational corporations and financiers, are no longer tied to any particular territory. Indeed, their dominance defies territorial boundaries.

In the modern era, the objectives of war must be completely different. Territory is incidental. Resources are still important (although more instrumentally so), but so are markets, monetary policies, rents, wages, and production. Wars serve economic interests when they allow for the penetration of foreign capital and the emergence of neoliberal policies. (That is why modern warfare is so much more concerned with regime change.) The capitalist system depends on universal participation, particularly now that its functional requirements absorb existing global capacity. Its centripetal inertia creates a constant need for new markets, new sources of vital resources, “underdeveloped” locales to develop, and battered masses to submit to exploitation.

The problem for my position, though, is that it implies that “American dominance” is wholly inconsequential. However, if one looks at actual facts, it is clear that the U.S. has a disproportionate degree of influence and control over world affairs. And it is also appears that someone is trying to preserve this state of affairs (successfully or not we will see). One could argue that, despite globalization, the economic elite are primarily based in the U.S. and other Western nations. Thus, they have the most access to political and military levers of control in the U.S. This is plausible.

One could also argue that, in the international division of labor (which is a key feature of the global capitalist system), the U.S. has come to occupy the role of the “police man” on a global scale. Hence, it could be that the global forces of dominance have found it convenient to employ U.S./Western military resources in the service of their agenda (and of course this convenience could go back to the citizenship of many of the global elite, thus connecting this argument back to the first). In this paradigm, the preservation of U.S. dominance would be akin to securing the hegemony of the police force to monitor and suppress the activities of other citizens that undermine the capitalist order (protesters, bootleggers, etc.)

Still, though, I am unable to account for the factions within the U.S. military and intelligence communities that supposedly are driven purely by a desire to combat Islam and spread Western Enlightenment around the world. There are two possibilities here. Either the claims of the existence of these pure ideological motives are exaggerated or miss some important underlying reality, or else some people are impelled toward the same (or similar) ends as global capitalist interests, but for entirely different reasons. At this point, I think either is plausible. Certainly the more complexity, the more diversity and divergence of interests, that an explanation allows, the more accurate it is likely to be.

I think it is important to preserve some notion of “American dominance” (otherwise world events are nearly impossible to interpret); however, one must avoid its narrow definition solely by reference to nationalism and place it in the context of global capitalist relations.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Real Petraeous Scandal: the CIA and Imperialism

Being a cynic, I tend to think that the timing, focus, and slant of news stories are usually very carefully orchestrated. Therefore, I couldn't help but feel there must be some reason for the hullabaloo surrounding Petraeus's affair. However, the conspiracy theory propagated by conservative media seemed wholly unsatisfying.

Then I ran across this article, whose explanation I find much more plausible. The long and short of it is that the attack in Benghazi exposed some of the lies surrounding the conflict Libya, which included covering up the role of the CIA in arming and supporting jihadist militias - a strategy in which Petraeus was intimately involved.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rolling Jubilee

I just heard about this today: rollingjubilee.org/.  This is the kind of thing I like. People taking action on their own, outside of any institutions, to behave in a way that is more in line with their conception of a well-ordered society. Rather than trying to reform institutions, undermining them.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why I'm Not Voting

This is the one day of the year where people feel no shame about encroaching on strangers with personal questions laden with implicit moral judgements.  I lost count of how many times random people asked me if I'd voted yet. Equally irksome, I spent the entire day listening to trite sermonizing on the importance of voting. Of course, I never told anyone I wasn't planning to vote. That offense is ranked, I think, slightly below pedophilia, and I am not prepared to destroy my reputation.

Why does voting fill people with such a sense of pride? Why is it justified on moral terms? After all, most any close-minded ignoramus, misanthrope, or psychopath can go to a local high school gym and bubble in a scantron. Any person can vote with the most self-interested, destructive, hateful ends in mind. Following dominant logic, someone who voted for George Wallace purely on account of being racist still performed a noble deed. Why is the value of voting never questioned? Voting is a hallowed sacrament in modern societies because it serves an important ideological purpose: sustaining illusions of progress, enlightenment, self-determination, and empowerment in the midst of historically unprecedented conditions of oppression.

The brainwashing has been quite successful, aided of course by the blunting of most people's capacities for critical thought.  Anyone who believes our education system and national media are eroding in effectiveness need to think again.  They are doing their jobs very well.

1. People either do not consider the fact that campaign rhetoric does not predict real actions, or they deem this fact to be ultimately irrelevant.

2. People do not realize that important decisions are shaped by external factors and institutional constraints, and NOT by a person occupying an office; they are ignorant of the continuity across different presidential administrations, Democrat and Republican (the Obama administration was a continuation of the Bush administration, which was a continuation of the Clinton administration, and so on.)

3. People are not phased by the limitation of having only two viable options (in most cases); the fact that these choices have been selected for them by party leaders and corporate kingmakers is of no concern; and the frustration they feel that these options do not reflect their own interests and desires does not give people pause.

Let me emphasize this point. Voting is a selection between two corporate-sponsored options that will both serve the same corporate-driven interests. Voting allows people to participate in their own oppression. What shelters this reality from popular recognition is the spectacle of political campaigns.

Campaigns serve two key functions:

1. They camouflage reality (i.e. the fact that the candidates are not fundamentally different) in order to persuade people that they have a "voice" (whatever that means...). Campaigns create the illusion of variety and choice.

2. They set the terms of public discourse. The hegemony of modern thought is constituted by a complex of ideologies and discourses that is structured around two oppositional nodes.  Campaign rhetoric is critical to the process of redefining the bounds of modern discourse and reorienting the nodes to suit changing circumstances. In essence, the debates, stump speeches, and ads serve to determine what sorts of things the public thinks and how they talk about it, and equally important, what they cannot think and say. The heart of public discourse, the structured opposition, is created by distorting the significance of small details, thereby allowing many significant matters of foundational importance to fly under the radar as "givens" and thus effectively block them from reaching the level of conscious reflection. The domain of popular consciousness is entirely saturated with inane, trivial details. As a result, most people are not able to think critically about social reality. The liberal/conservative dichotomy actually curtails freedom of thought more than it represents any real flowering of opinions.

Real change goes beyond the political process. It radically transforms all institutions, economic, political and social. I'm not going to thank the people who voted today. I thank all the people who refuse to accept the "options" that are given to them, who take the time to think past the sound bites with which they are saturated, and who will not compromise what they know is right.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Capitalism and the Management of Individualism

It is widely contended that individualism is a product of modernity and a feature closely associated with capitalism. At the same time, there is some discontented recognition of the homogenization that results from mass-production, and a certain nostalgia for personal craftsmanship (note the popularity of the word "artisanal"), cottage industries, and mom-and-pop businesses. I have looked before at several ways in which modernity in general and capitalism in particular have generated contradictory impulses. It is interesting to consider how this principle applies to the idea of individualism.

On the one hand, modernity has atomistic tendencies. Capitalism is based on the commodification of individual labor; governmental power relations focus on penetrating and shaping individual consciousness (often, for example, centering upon educational campaigns); religion is a matter of personal beliefs. The motto of neoliberalism is “personal responsibility.”

To the extent that power relations hinge upon the Individual, it follows that individuality assumes a heightened importance as a cultural value. The significance of this value is far from difficult to detect in popular culture and public discourse. Everyone is extolled to “be yourself.” People struggle to figure out exactly what particular career is meant for them. Modern societies pride themselves on the ability of their citizens to follow their own beliefs and personal whims. (This is contrasted to the perceived patriarchal authority/entrenchment in tradition of less modern societies.)

Yet paradoxically, individuality is realized within categories, and while modern power relations act upon the individual, they simultaneously do so by reinforcing and homogenizing these categories. Scientific research on human beings separates populations into discrete, internally homogenous categories, which are used in the construction of simplistic cause-effect relationships. Survey research and polling likewise reinforce social categories through the use of statistics (and thus we scrutinize “the black vote” and “the women’s vote”). We are barely able to comprehend the ways in which these categories intersect. Moreover, categories are so important to the basic mechanics of modernity that opportunities for reinforcement are constant.  All institutions (medical, educational, legal, professional, etc.) define people in relation to social categories, and thus it is not possible to interact with any institution without overtly constructing one's identity via these categories. One cannot apply for college, go to the doctor, or rent an apartment without classifying oneself on the basis of race, gender, marital status, etc.

Even more paradoxically, as diversity and “being yourself” are celebrated, the ideologies and strategies of power associated with modernity have created the concepts of normality and deviance (in a way that never existed before). Children are subject, probably more than anyone, to constant comparisons against the norm; their development is carefully measured and tracked against growth charts; rigidly defined stages of mentally, emotional and moral development; and cultural standards (e.g. regarding the appropriate age to potty train or wean).  Statistics and psychology are the primary tools of governmental power, and they work together to define normality and deviance.  Statistics provide percentiles and bell curves.  Psychology lends scientific legitimacy to cultural norms and renders deviance as pathology. You have trouble with social situations? You are diagnosed with some sort of psychological disorder, which defines who you are as a person – a defective person.

Finally, from a more materialistic standpoint, which I have already alluded to at the beginning of this post, individuality is celebrated at the same time that our lives are overtaken by mass-produced goods. A relatively small handful of corporations determines what we wear, what we eat, and what we watch on tv. Rebellion and nonconformity are expressed through the possession of commodities that have been socially coded as such. In fact, the people on the fringes are the trailblazers who, purposefully or not, determine what the “next big thing” is. They do not lie outside of the curve; they determine its shape.

In the modern world, the Individual has a privileged position as the basis of governmental and capitalistic power relations. The sanctified status of the individual has come at the expense of communal bonds and social support mechanisms. At the same time, the forms that individual subjectivity can take are carefully managed, limited, and homogenized by those same forces. Individual subjectivity is, after all, a medium of power.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy

I probably would not have paid attention to this fad if someone had not explained to me the premise of the books and encouraged me to read them. The big question for me, of course, was what will these books have to say about poverty and hunger? Will they contribute anything useful to the public conscious?

Throughout the first book and part of the second, I was pleased. It was a typical dystopian set-up, but with some more contemporary considerations given to reality tv, the entertainment industry, and celebrity, along with a few interesting connections between ancient Rome and the present (e.g. the practice of throwing up between courses and bulimia in the present day). What I liked most, however, was the very explicit connection between wealth and poverty: the Capitol citizens were wealthy only on account of the fact that everyone else was exploited. The people in the districts were not hungry because they were lazy or unenlightened, but rather because production was organized by and for the benefit of a wealthy elite. In the same vein, I really appreciated the way in which the technological advancement of the Capitol was juxtaposed to the more “traditional” lifestyles in the districts. “Development” is always uneven and it is more the product of exploitative relationships than a stage of cultural evolution. Finally, I was happy that the trilogy explored the means by which violence is ideologically justified in the political sphere and then glorified by the entertainment industry.

Of course, at this point there were still some things that troubled me. Most importantly, the fact that power seemed to be concentrated in the hands of a single figure: President Snow.

As I progressed through the rest of the trilogy, those qualms became more pronounced. President Snow was behind everything and killing him was the key to changing the social order. Yet even here, I appreciated the fact that Collins considered the way in which revolutionary movements may replicate the structures they seek to overthrow; still, though, it was a single figure, Coin, who was the problem.

I liked the fact that Collins raised important questions concerning the sacrifices one must make to enact change and the necessity of violence to achieve those ends. She illustrated how easy it is to forget that the “enemy” is also a father/mother/sister/friend... But then it wasn’t clear at the end of the last book whether any of the violence was, in the end, justified. Was life better in the districts? Would it have been better if the rebels had not waged a war, if they had not caused that avalanche, if Beetee had not designed those weapons? Could there have been any other way to free themselves from Snow’s rule?

Not that I have a problem with a story being open-ended. However, if the districts were, in fact, in a considerably better condition (which I do think Collins implies), it would have been nice for her to reflect on whether the same results could have been achieved through non-violent means, since she has spent the entire book probing and problematizing the use of violence. If you are going to question violence, then you should also examine alternatives to violence.

Furthermore, while I do think a certain amount of violence was necessary for Collins to illustrate the disparity between its effects on a person in the “front lines” and the audience reactions engendered by political propaganda and the entertainment industry, she went beyond the point of necessity. She did not use graphic violence sparingly. The violence became gratuitous (really, a second Hunger Games?). I remember being disgusted by the novel A Clockwork Orange and then subsequently reading that Anthony Burgess admitted to making the book so violent partially because he took some pleasure in writing the violence. Like A Clockwork Orange, The Hunger Games trilogy often feels like violence purely for the sake of violence.

Collins also inadequately addresses the question of the conditions that cause the new structures to replicate the old. Was it simply the fact that Coin was self-interested from the beginning? Was the death of Coin all that it took to build a more just world order? Of course, this is all compounded by the fact that Collins views power as a characteristic possessed by an individual, rather than an institutional, structural feature. For example, the technology and lifestyles of the Capitol were previously enabled via exploitation of the districts. Yet, conspicuously absent from the books were the industrialists, CEOs, financiers, and middlemen who make such an arrangement possible. What was their role in the new world? Was having a representative in the government enough to protect the districts from exploitation? Were any sacrifices made in the realm of technology in order to ensure a more equitable social order?

Without any attention to these issues, the take-away from the trilogy becomes the fact that, while horrific, violence actually worked to transform society. A couple of key deaths and, boom, life is better. Simple as that.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Marketing: Instrument of Social Control

Marketing is the key to understanding modern power relations. (To view previous posts about the nature of power, click here and here, for starters.) To summarize: power is a property of relationships, not an entity that can be possessed by an individual, and it is a property of all relationships, not concentrated in or originating from any single institution, such as a state. It is characterized by an ability to act on other people’s actions, for the purpose of repressing or promoting behaviors, and may be distinguished from total domination in that both parties must be free to act. In the modern world, power often works by penetrating consciousness and creating/shaping identities. The old maxim that “knowledge is power” is not only true because knowledge affects one’s ability to act, but also because the production of knowledge about certain populations simultaneously defines who they are.

One of the most salient domains in which identities are created, shaped, and cemented is marketing. We are now bombarded by advertisements. They absolutely saturate our consciousness. On the radio, on television, plastered all over buses and buildings, in our inboxes, on the internet.... the number of advertisements that we encounter on a daily basis is unfathomable. Due to the very extent of its presence in our consciousness, marketing possesses an unparalleled capacity to affect that conscious.

I have learned quite a bit about marketing from my job. It is no secret that the most fundamental principle of marketing is that its end goal is to manipulate people’s behavior. It is not to provide information about a product. For example, an email campaign will be considered successful if it compels people to click on a link; it need not include any information about what is being promoted. The science of marketing is the art of inducing behaviors.

One of the basic ways that this is achieved is through the creation and reinforcement of particular identities. It is more than just “knowing your audience.” Marketing creates the audience. Generally, to achieve maximum success, the market is broken into a number of segments that align with categories of race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. Then, the marketers determine what their targeted segment desires, in order that they can use those desires to manipulate behavior. (In this sense, one can view political campaigning as a subset of marketing.)

However, marketers don’t merely tap into the pre-existing desires of clearly defined, homogenous groups. Through the use of particular images and the placement of ads in particular contexts, new associations are made and old associations are reinforced. It is these associations themselves that define both the categories and the desires simultaneously.  For example, a whole network of interlinked cultural artifacts marks sports as a masculine domain; the commercials that a man sees during a game will both reinforce the idea that "men" (aged 20-40?) are the primary audience, while also elaborating the behaviors and desires that typify masculinity (drinking beer, objectifying women, etc.)

Then there is the less visible side of marketing – the one most intimately involved in the production of knowledge. This is the side of marketing that has been receiving the most critical attention lately, and the side that has shed light on the intersections of technology and privacy in the modern world. Obviously I am referring to the collection, sharing, and selling of personal data. This is governmentality extraordinaire (if only Michele Foucault were alive to witness the development of trends of which his later work portended). Data. Data is the lifeblood of modern power relations. The technological means of culling personal data have become outright Orwellian. Every little move you make: every time you use your cell phone or your credit card or do anything on the internet, information is being recorded about your location and actions. Of course, what Orwell could not predict (see my post about 1984) was that such surveillance does not have to be conducted by a state. We have been too busy fearing the government to realize who/what is really capable of infringing on our privacy.

We tend to think of marketing as a relatively benign practice. Or, at worst, perhaps slightly dishonest and maybe promoting unhealthy behaviors. Yet, the most insidious aspect of marketing is its omnipresence and its hegemony in the most intimate areas of our lives. It surveys (often in the other sense as well), records, and tracks. It concerns itself with our habits and desires. It shapes identities. It monitors what we do in order to tell us who we are and what we want (in order to influence what we do).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Progress or Dystopia, Part 4

Equal Rights

The last main claim in support of progress is that modern society is so much more tolerant and progressive than “traditional” societies. We ended slavery. We ended Jim Crow. Women entered the workforce. Gays can serve in the military. Let’s pat ourselves on the back.

I addressed some of these claims in my post about issue based change versus systemic change. If you think the U.S. has eradicated its racial caste system, read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. If you think modern, industrial societies have successfully dealt with racism, read any comment thread that exists anywhere on the internet. If you think women are liberated, look at statistics concerning rape and eating disorders, examine the gendered division of labor in any industry or organization, and look at the images of women promulgated by the entertainment industry. If you think America (or any other industrial society) is a melting pot, pay attention to discussions (and I use that word lightly) about immigration. You do not need to look hard to find hateful language directed at any particular group of people. In fact, the internet has made it easier to disseminate this vitriol.

The fact of the matter is, all of the social/economic/political processes that demand structured inequality remain in place. It is important to note that the ideological basis of these divisions and prejudices are completely modern:

-The concept of “race” developed in the Enlightenment era as a means of creating divisions among the population of people oppressed by the nascent capitalist system. It has continued to function as a mechanism for segregating interests and obtaining free or cheap labor.

-The relegation of women’s work to the domestic sphere was a product of the new division of labor that emerged when production moved outside of the home and into the factory. Furthermore, the absorption of women into the post-WW2 labor force is a reflection of the need for cheap labor, an expanded labor force and a new market for manufactured goods (dishwashers! washing machines! mass-produced clothes!). The combination of these two forces (domestic responsibility and careers outside the home) has only served to double the burden that women must bear. Now women are expected to do it all.

-Michel Foucault argued that the idea of “homosexuality” (even more, sexuality in general) did not arise until the late 19th century, and has served to make sexual activities definitive of a person’s entire identity and consciousness as a human being. Some scholars have provided evidence that the creation of “homosexuality” as a pathological mode of being was born out of eugenicist fears that white reproduction was not occurring at a healthy rate. It should never be forgotten that “homosexuality” was a scientific/medical concept before it entered popular discourse.

-It can be just as convincingly argued that fears/abhorrence of immigrants, terrorists, Muslims, and the like, are byproducts of colonialism and nation-building, especially the creation of immutable state boundaries, the ideals of ethnically “pure” states, and all the various forms of neocolonialism that produce backlash against the modern world order.

The prejudices that modernity, in all of its enlightened glory, is supposedly ameliorating are the very prejudices created by modernity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Progress or Dystopia, Part 3

Democracy

Then there is the argument that, whatever flaws our current system may have, at least we are freeing ourselves from the shackles of tradition and tyranny. Democracy is spreading around the world. Surely, no one can deny that the formation of modern democracy is a marker of human progress.

What’s really at work here is another case of “loaded words.” Sometimes, using particular terminology may hinder a thorough reflection on the realities of a situation. It is clear, if one looks beyond the fa├žade of elections and representatives, that the only form of rule that exists is oligarchy. The average citizen in this modern world, no matter to which country she or he belongs, does not have any say whatsoever in how society is organized or how it functions.

It’s a wonder that a country like the U.S. can even sustain the illusion of any sort of real participation. People can choose between two candidates that have been pre-selected for them by party elites and corporate donors, and with whom they may have very little in common. People in the U.S. often lament that fact that neither candidate really represents their views or talks about the things they feel are important. Yet, for some reason this does not give anyone pause about the U.S.’s status as a democracy, or to rethink the idea of democracy in any critical way. How is it empowering to go into a high school gym every few years and bubble in the name of someone who doesn’t really represent your views? What kind of “voice” is that really?

Then, there is the matter of campaign rhetoric versus reality. Stated views – in fact, the entire structured opposition between (or among) the parties – often have little to do with actual policy. I have presented evidence on numerous occasions of the continuity between presidential administrations in the U.S., regardless of political party. It does not matter whether a Republican or Democrat is in office. And it does not matter what any candidate’s or party’s official views are; those views bear very little resemblance to what actually happens. (The fact that a Republican governor – and now presidential candidate – enacted such a similar healthcare plan to the current Democratic president, despite all of the polarized rhetoric that has come to characterize the issue, only goes to show that the rhetoric itself is more for show than anything else.)

In fact, the people who are elected into office are largely irrelevant. All of them merely exist to sustain an illusion of representative democracy, and, in actual fact, always carry out the agenda of the global elite. The people who pull the strings and call the shots do not change and are not affected by elections. Elections are scripted, flashy and designed to distract people from what is really going on before their own eyes.

As I have argued before, the seeming lack of democracy in other countries is merely a result of poverty, with its concomitant difficulties in sustaining the necessary ideological infrastructure.  Like technology, the enjoyment of civil rights tends to be limited mostly to the well-to-do (globally speaking).  It is a benefit that exists only by virtue of a system that simultaneously deprives others of many comforts and securities.  Of course, for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in such conditions, it is nice to be able to voice our opinions without fear of retribution.  The other side of that coin is, the ideological infrastructure that makes this condition possible also ensures that we live in ignorance.  The question is then, is it better to know the truth and not be able to say it with impunity, or to be completely in the dark, but still able to say whatever you want?  I would also argue that "freedom of speech" is honored only so long as it is not threatening.  Julian Assange can tell you that.  And, of course, modern democracies always have recourse to "emergency powers" (one benefit of being at war) and means of legalizing all manner of abrogations of supposedly guaranteed constitutional rights.  If you live in the U.S., for example, you can be surveilled in any number of ways, detained without any probable suspicion, and denied rights of due process.  Just ask Muslims.  Or black men.

A constitution does not guarantee that people will be treated without prejudice, or that their privacy will be respected.

And voting does not change who is in power. It does not alter the basic structure and functioning of society. It only serves to legitimate the system. No one has any more voice in today’s society than they would have had at any other time in history. The only difference is that we are now less likely to see what is really going on, and more likely to continue in our delusions that we, the people, have the power.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Progress or Dystopia, Part 2

Technology

Another common argument supporting the idea of progress is that modern technology has made life so much more efficient and comfortable. We are saved from so much time-consuming, draining toil. We can produce so much and never have to wait long for anything. Who wouldn’t agree that technology has made our lives better?

I think the big consideration here is, it depends on who the “we” is. For many Americans, yes, life is undoubtedly better. However, we must ask ourselves, are “we” all that matter? What about those other people? The people who have to work in factories, in mines, on plantations. The people who don’t get days off and don’t get paid enough to stop working anyway. The people who have to perform the same menial assembly line tasks over and over and over. The people who live in areas torn apart by conflict, drug and human trafficking, and poverty. The people who don’t have enough to eat. Are all of these people (representing a sizeable portion of the entire world’s population) really better off than they would be, for example, living in a small community, doing farm work for their own subsistence and supplementing their needs with crafts and trade?

Poverty and inequality are fairly universal across time and space. But a system in which most of the people on this planet have no choice about how to sustain themselves, and are forced to perform dehumanizing labor, and do not have enough to feed themselves and their families on a regular basis.... that is an entirely new phenomenon. There is a big difference between the limited poverty that results from interpersonal relations or environmental conditions (for which one can plan and adapt) and poverty on an unprecedentedly large scale that is necessitated by the functioning of a global system, over which most people have no control. There is a significant difference between a person’s role being determined by a small community with mutually shared interests (a community which the person is free to leave) and a person’s livelihood being completely determined on a regional basis by a global elite with which most people do not have any personal contact or relationship (also making it impossible for anyone to “escape” the system of control).

Plus, even for those segments of the population that get to enjoy all of the benefits of modern technology, it is still a double-edged sword. We get convenience, efficiency, and comfort on the one hand. (Though comfort is relative.) But we also get advanced weaponry, environmental degradation, dehumanizing productive processes (and alienation), materialism (people who devote their entire lives to such ridiculous, superficial considerations as what colors are “in” this season), sophisticated mechanisms of control and information-gathering (your bank knows more about you than you realize), weakened communal bonds (in favor of more plentiful and scattered long-distance relationships), fewer choices (more and more products and services are falling into the hands of a few mega-conglomerates), and less enriching forms of relaxation and entertainment. Since it is really a balance of superficial pleasures and grave, wide-reaching destruction, I would say the scale might tip against technology.

Of course, my position cannot be reduced to simple opposition to technology. I am suggesting that we might think more deeply about the benefits and harms of technology. I am contending that the image of “progress” as it relates to technology is too distorted. It is possible, if the current world order could be broken, and something more humane were to take its place, there could be positive uses for technology. We would just have to think very carefully about all of the potential consequences.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Progress or Dystopia?

[Note:  I just decided to break this subject into multiple posts, but I am too lazy to change my intro.]


I have already characterized the notion of progress as the central component of an ideology that is strategically used to justify the modern social order. If we believe that “things may not be perfect, but it is better than anything else,” and “at least things are better than they were in the past,” how motivated are we going to be to rock the boat?

What I want to do now is really provide a detailed challenge to the idea of social progress. In fact, I would argue quite earnestly that what we have now is the worst of all possible worlds. I believe that we live in a dystopia, and that in many ways things were better in the past. I do not mean to romanticize or idealize the past. Certainly I do not think things have ever been perfect. However, I do believe that inequality and oppression have spiraling out of control, and there is some value in questioning the current social order.

Let’s start with health. One of the most common claims in the favor of modernity is that we have eradicated all sorts of diseases and extended the human lifespan. The former contention is misleading, and while the latter is true, it is uncritically reflected upon. Undoubtedly there are many diseases that we no longer have to worry about. No Polio. No Bubonic Plague. Yet, there are new diseases (e.g. AIDS), some of which have been directly caused by our cherished “medical advances” (e.g. MERSA). New diseases will continue to evolve and thwart human progress. Then, there are those diseases that are on the rise, some, once again, as a result of modernity (like Diabetes). Modernity creates as many problems as it solves.

Well, what about that lengthened human lifespan, then? There are two parts to the counter-argument. First, medical advances have not eliminated the occurrence of early demise.  There are many opportunities offered by modernity for untimely, tragic (sometimes gory) death: advanced weaponry, automobiles (the number of deaths caused every year from car accidents should never be discounted), industrial accidents, and the type of alienation that results in suicide and mass-shootings, just to name a few. In fact, one could even argue that, to the extent that we have heightened the psychological discomfort surrounding certain kinds of death (especially as a long life becomes normalized), these untimely deaths are a greater source of suffering and loss than they were in the past.

Second, one must question the nature of the extended portion of a typical lifespan. Do those extra years really bring extra joy and personal fulfillment? Having seen way too many old people with severe loss of mental functioning (and that is not to mention the physical decline!), I would say “no.” Coupling the extended lifespan with the atomization of social life engendered by modern social formations, we have created a whole segment of the population that feels unneeded and irrelevant, with no essential purpose to their lives, and with little ability to support themselves in a world with high costs of living and little social supports. Furthermore, even if medical treatments can keep people alive, they can do nothing to stop the inevitable deterioration of mind and body. The one grandparent of mine whose final years I did not find utterly depressing and pathetic was the one who died before he reached 80. Old age is not something that I desire; it is something I fear.

How about our advanced understanding of the human body?  Surely that will lead to additional cures and a means of halting mental and physical degradation, right?  I am not too sure about how advanced anyone's understanding is.  I have already mentioned this in my series on health.  However, having long term physical injury was enough to convince me that no doctor had any idea how my body worked.  I saw a range of professionals and they disagreed about the most fundamental things... and they all turned out to be wrong in important ways.  The more deeply you are involved in the profession, the more apparent are the gaps in understanding.  For example, so many drugs are developed by trial-and-error (it just happened to work for some reason) and not due to any understanding of the condition itself or the mechanism of the treatment.  The image of progress in knowledge and understanding is another strategically deployed illusion of modernity.

Furthermore, one must not completely discount the types of treatments used before or outside the bounds of modern medicine.  Recently I went with a pharmacist friend of mind to an apothecary museum.  Many of the visitors laughed at the antiquated treatments, but my friend pointed out how many of them are still used today.  Moreover, pharmaceutical companies are scouring the globe and ripping off indigenous populations in an attempt to monopolize and commodify this supposedly "primitive" knowledge of plants and herbs.

Now, I am not staying that modern medicine is completely without basis, or that it has offered us nothing.  I am merely pointing out that the image of enlightenment and progress associated with its practices is quite a bit overstated.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Revolution or Delinking?

My general purpose with the blog has been to provoke thought about questions that are rarely considered. I may make suggestions or undermine particular assumptions, but that does not mean that I feel like I have all the answers. I am just tired of the usual discussions; I want to think about the foundations of our social structure and imagine other possibilities. With that in mind, I try to tackle some common Marxist and reformist assumptions in this post without necessarily coming to any definite conclusions (regardless of the tone I take).

Moving on from the dilemma of policy change versus systemic transformation, I would like to consider the mechanism and possibilities for social change in greater detail. Following directly from reform v. transformation, one the of the most significant questions debated by those on Left is whether or not it is worthwhile to attempt change through political processes. Some argue that gradual reforms at the level of policy are more feasible than abrupt, large-scale transformations. If we ignore politics, they contend, we are doomed to failure. The other camp (with whom I tend to agree) replies that political change is merely cosmetic and does nothing to change the basic social order. Other avenues will be opened to maintain inequality and oppression when one pathway is blocked. And whatever “progress” is achieved is generally insignificant in the grand scheme of things (like re-wallpapering your house when it is structurally unsound and filled with asbestos). Trying to change the world through political processes is like trying to hold the dam with your finger.

However, I think the former group raises an important point when they insist that grand, sweeping revolution is not as feasible. If one examines history, it is clear that the only revolution which had any lasting and systemic impact was the bourgeois revolution (the various peasant rebellions and even the twentieth century communist revolutions did not seriously challenge the hegemony of global capitalism, else our world would look quite different today). The reason the bourgeois revolution was so successful on a global scale is because the incipient bourgeoisie had for centuries been developing their own institutions and domains of authority that existed independently from those of the existing social order. When that social order was challenged, there was something else there to take its place. The same cannot be said of the forces that currently seek to subvert the status quo. Right now, nothing else exists.

Michel Foucault, in a conversation with Noam Chomsky, insisted that it was impossible to envision change within the current system.  The problem is that our consciousness is too permeated by the structures (physical and ideological) of the current system, even at the level of the language that we use (e.g. "justice").  Foucault contended that the task of someone who desires change is to study the subtle, overlooked mechanisms of power, in order that it may be resisted and subverted. The question is, though, how long must we continue to study?  At what point do we take action?  The bourgeoisie didn't accomplish a revolution by extensive observation.  They simply got to work forging their own institutions.  And all institutions comprising the modern world, as a consequence of the revolution, are bourgeois institutions.  Foucault does provide an important insight for us:  revolution will have to be total.  No existing institution or ideology can be preserved.  They are all bourgeois through and through.  We must start from scratch.

There is another lesson from history. The weak never win. The bourgeois were the only successful revolutionaries and they were seeking domination rather than liberation.

Then there is the issue of what would follow revolution. Marx was vague about his conception of a communist utopia, but he was clear about his belief that revolution required a single, global movement (a united proletariat). Many socialists hope for a single world government (a socialist word government, of course). No matter what, though, the idea of revolution generally entails some sort of unity. This, more than anything else, makes revolution seem so unachievable. We must also consider more deeply whether unity is actually desirable. I have already questioned both the practical feasibility and the desirability of a single world government. In sum, I pointed out that it would entail more extensive technologies of social control, would create a whole new set of dangers as authority became increasingly concentrated and centralized, and would likely intensify ideological differences (at the same time as it tried to homogenize all difference) because of the high stakes involved in every policy decision. The social evolutionary desire for a single world government is also tied to latently racist ideas of the superiority of Western, secular culture (which, of course, would be universally adopted).

One problem with this idea of a single world society is the findings of sociological research that estimates the optimal group size to be rather small (say, around 150). There are many benefits (economic, physical, emotional) associated with maintaining the types of social bonds and communal solidarity that cannot exist as easily in larger groups. Furthermore, one must face the fact that social/cultural diversity will never be erased. There is nothing to be gained from trying impose a single worldview on everyone. That is not, of course, to say that people should live in isolated groups, or that they can never get along with or even understand people who think differently. I only suggest that people have different ideas about how to live their lives and organize their communities, and they should be free to do that as they please. If a group wishes to organize a community based on the principles of Sharia law, then so be it.

What that in mind, there is a principle that Marx expounded, which may be useful in rethinking revolution. Marx conceived of social evolution in cyclical rather than linear form. He believed that what would follow capitalism would in some ways be a throw-back to “primitive communism” (in which people lived in small social groups based primarily on kinship affiliations), yet with a new twist: technology. The new form of communism would be more enlightened, and with the aid of technology, allow for more dignified human occupations. I do not believe that Marx was ever clear about the size of the community(ies) involved in enlightened communism (if someone knows, please chime in and correct me), but regardless, the general principle may still be applicable.

What if we were to return to a more decentralized, communal social organization, yet continue to incorporate modern technologies into the production process? I can envision a world where communities keep up their own gardens and handcraft things like clothes and furniture; they also specialize in the production of one or more other goods that can be sold to other communities (and likewise purchase specially produced goods from other communities). The internet could facilitate widespread movement of products and ideas. Through the internet, people could maintain contact with others around the world; and movement from community to community would occur with ease (as has been true throughout human history). There would be no need for provincialism. Hopefully, though, materialism could be eradicated. People wouldn’t need to update their wardrobes with the change of every season, and collectible junk would be seen for what it is: useless. This is purely idealistic, of course.

If such a world were to exist, it would not require some large-scale, unified revolution. It would only require groups of people to decide, on their own, not to participate in the capitalist system. If everyone simply stopped participating, the system could not continue. Cessation of participation does not require any large-scale coordination. People can pull out on their own terms. In this respect, I greatly admire the Zapatistas and hold them as an exemplar of how to escape capitalism. It is possible to delink. Although the Zapatistas have not eschewed violence, one benefit of delinking is that it does not require violence (for those who oppose violence on principle, that is a huge benefit).

It is an interesting question to consider whether delinking as a paradigm for social transformation is more feasible and desirable than revolution. It seems less impressive, to be sure. But even if delinking isn’t the answer, the broader question is: why can’t we seem to think past revolution? We are given the choice of reform or revolution, and neither seems entirely satisfactory. So maybe we should try to find a third way.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Issue Based Change VS Systemic Change

As I discuss possibilities for social change with various people in my life, I am continuing to circle back on and re-reflect upon ideas already discussed in this blog. I hope that this is not merely repetitive, and that my upcoming posts go beyond what I have already written... in some way or another.

I have talked quite a bit about my frustrations with reformism (see, for example, this post). In general, energies and wills get divided and dispersed. First, people are divided into separate interest groups based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and so on. Then, attention is pin-pointed to very specific issues that are supposedly of greatest concern for these (internally undifferentiated) groups. When this happens, there is no common enemy. Everyone has their own personal issues.

I have discussed Michelle Alexander’s problems with civil rights movements focusing so exclusively on issues like affirmative action (people see illusions of progress – token black people who are successful – and are blinded to enduring realities of racial caste). I even contended that Alexander’s concern about the drug war is still too narrow. No single policy or institution encompasses the broad economic and ideological foundations of racial caste.

I have also taken on, to some extent, the preoccupation with abortion within the women’s rights movement. In general, women’s rights tend to center around: abortion, birth control, and rape. Not that any of these are unimportant. However, this collection of issues defines women’s rights exclusively in terms of reproduction, obscures the way in which different women experience oppression differently, and does not expose or challenge the ideological framework that constructs gender.

The gay rights movement has pivoted primarily around two issues: repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and marriage equality. Neither of these battles addresses the real structural roots of homophobia. If anything, they strengthen and support capitalist institutions: those of the military and the traditional, nuclear family. (And really, what does the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell prove other than that the military is stretched too thin and really desperate for bodies?) Furthermore, the so-called “gay culture” (a combination of externally imposed stereotypes and practices born internally out of resistance) that the movement attempts to normalize reinforces the materialistic, superficial behaviors and attitudes that serve to benefit the capitalist system (for example, the obsession with fashion).

If everyone realized their common interests and could sustain a meaningful dialogue regarding both the positive and negative social implications of capitalism as it really exists (not as it should be in some hypothetical universe) – what kind of real social progress might be possible then? Even more, if a critical mass of people were willing to critically analyze and question modern institutions – the law, science, democracy, the family (in short, everything that fills us with such blind pride and faith) – together with all of the ideologies that sustain and are simultaneously produced by these institutions, how might we be able to re-imagine our world and the possibilities for social cooperation, for the better?

Our inability to ask the really difficult questions, and to think critically about the foundations of our society paralyzes any attempt at improving the lot of the poor, oppressed, exploited, and stigmatized masses.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Political Creation of the Middle Class

Marx developed an extensive, complex, and sometimes inconsistent theory of class.  As with other topics, Marx wrote so much that it is possible to select different portions of his works and derive varied interpretations of class.  However, if there is one least common denominator, it is that class is defined primarily by economic roles rather than arbitrary income ranges.  What was salient for Marx was the fact that some members of society own the means of production while others are means of production; that some people own land while others must rent; that some have much to gain from investment while (or because) others have much to lose, and so on.

In contemporary usage, class is generally equated with the concept of income bracket and it comes in three distinct forms:  lower, middle, and upper.  The exact bounds of these groupings is debatable, not only because "class" is a social construct and, as such, inherently arbitrary.  There is a political usefulness in this vagueness.

A lot of people self-identify as "middle class."  Everyone likes to think they are somehow "average" or "normal."  If you appeal to the middle class, you are targeting a good chunk of the population.  But the political function of class rhetoric is more sinister than that.  It goes back to the 'ol divide and conquer strategy.  Split the masses into "middle class" and "poor" and you get people to fight for their own interests at the expense of others'.  Except that "their own interests" are really bourgeois interests disguised as middle class values.

Want an idea of how important this strategy is?  Try to find one political speech that doesn't mention the middle class.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Women's Issues

In my post about Breast Cancer Awareness Month I briefly alluded to my annoyance with the idea of "women's issues."  However, I centered my discussion on "women's health."  For the sake of completeness, I will finish my thought about "women's issues."

In generally, the problem I have with "women's issues" is the assumption that women or their bodies are the core of the concern.  Take rape, for example.  It is a "women's issue" because it affects women. See, women find themselves in this unfortunate circumstance of having bodies that are so irresistibly tempting that people can't help but violate them.

Why isn't rape a "men's issue."  Most rapes involve men.  And men generally cause rape.  Isn't it slightly concerning that so many men are prone to acts of violence against women?  Why do we not see it as some sort of pathology infecting the male population, and try to stage interventions or develop cures for this mental/moral debility? (I'm not saying that is the "right" way to look at things of course, just noting the significance that it is never discussed in those terms.)  Instead, we choose to treat it as a "women's issue" and focus on what women wear and where they go at night.

The real problem for women of all classes and colors, and for everyone who is oppressed, is an exploitative capitalist system that depends on a variety of structural inequalities.  Therefore, everything that is typically labeled a "women's issue" I would consider a structural characteristic.  "Women's issues" are not problems specific to women, they are conditions that are endemic to our social system.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Women's Health

I have talked a bit on this blog about health in general, and women's health in particular.  The latter was discussed in my post about Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  A recent experience of someone close to me has inspired me to expand on that post.

Toward the close of my BCAM post I made the following statement:

Nowhere in these "women's health" and breast cancer awareness campaigns is any attention paid to whether or not women have equal access to healthcare; whether they receive the same treatment/respect by health professionals (in terms of their personal ability to act and make decisions; the assignment of moral culpability; the risks that are taken; and the expectations as to their ability to cope and recover); or how social norms and gender stereotypes may affect women's attitudes toward their own bodies and health. 

And here is the perfect example. A woman I know very well went to the doctor recently.  She was in physical therapy, and as a result of some conversations with her therapist, she was interested in having some imaging done to try to isolate a root cause of her injury.  The doctor told her, "There is no root cause.  You're a woman.  You're designed to push out babies.  You're going to have hip pain from time to time.  Your ligaments are overly stretchy because you need to get a baby through the small birth canal."  Now, the woman in question does NOT have stretchy ligaments (in fact, she's extremely tight), and seeing as to how she is not and has never been pregnant, she could not push out a baby right now if her life depended on it.  The doctor was apparently unaware that pregnancy hormones are responsible for all the increased elasticity at the time of childbirth.  He thought women are just like that all the time.  So he refused to help this woman.

This example illustrates the way in which "women's health issues," while commonly perceived to be a function of the female body itself, are often generated by social/political factors like institutionalized gender stereotypes and the false assumptions of medical practitioners.  People are all caught up with breasts and whatever else constitutes "women's health," but I would think the fact that a woman can be denied diagnostic imaging simply due to the fact that she is a woman - that is a real women's health issue, and one that no one is likely to talk about.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Review: The New Jim Crow

By Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow has been creating a bit of a buzz. The importance of this book is its claim that America’s racial caste system still exists:  the prison is the new plantation. Alexander makes the startling claim that there are more African Americans in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850. With all the attention given to America’s supposed racial progress (part of the larger Ideology of Progress, which is used to trumpet Western cultural/moral superiority), Alexander provides a sobering and much needed wake-up call to the contentedly oblivious citizens of the United States. Her challenge to prevailing ideas about racial equality is indispensible. Although she is obviously not the first person to question the true extent of racial equity in the United States, by framing current conditions as a “racial caste system” she is able to highlight structural continuities throughout U.S. history and carefully consider the difficulties presented to those who desire real systemic transformation.

To bolster her argument that the War on Drugs and the prison-industrial complex work together to sustain America’s racial caste system, Alexander describes the many critical points in the criminal justice process at which discriminatory practices are both legal and institutionalized. To start, Alexander notes that rates of drug use and sale are fairly identical across all racial/ethnic lines. In other words, African Americans do not use or sell drugs with any greater frequency than white Americans do. Yet, the War on Drugs is waged predominately in African American communities and random searches are largely targeted at people of color. Large-scale transfers of military equipment for use in drug law enforcement has increased violence and further diminished the security of “ghetto” neighborhoods. After their arrest, African Americans are subject to racial bias in the criminal justice system: prosecutors seek harsher sentencing for black defendants and are more likely to bring their cases to trial. Minimum sentencing laws ensure that minor infractions (possession of small amounts of marijuana, for example) result in years behind bars. Furthermore, these sentencing measures focus on drugs that are associated with people of color (e.g. possession of crack, a “black drug,” will land you many more years in prison than cocaine, a “rich, white person drug.”) Finally, once prisoners are released, additional punishments (such as excessive fees, ineligibility for welfare and public housing, and the loss of one’s right to vote) impact the lives of poor, urban dwellers more severely than those who have greater personal and familial financial security. The result of all of the above policies and practices is that, despite equality in drug use and sale, a very significant percentage of African American men (in Washington, D.C. for example it is around 75%) are at some point arrested and thus for the rest of their lives face all of the discrimination that was institutionalized in the Jim Crow era (hence “The New Jim Crow”).

Michelle Alexander’s broader arguments about reform and social transformation echo a number of key points that I have already discussed in this blog. 1) Policies like affirmative action and the presence of “token” minorities in the upper echelons of society, to the extent that they obscure the reality of on-going systemic oppression, may cause more harm than good. 2) Reformism is doomed to failure because it divides people’s energies and attentions and fails to confront the root causes of inequality. 3) We are not a post-racial society; our progress is, on the whole, illusory (in Alexander’s words “cosmetic”). To the third point, one need only look at the comment threads.... well.... anywhere on the internet, to see evidence of overt racism.

However, Alexander could have taken her argument even further. Yes, affirmative action is diverting attention and resources away from real systemic change. But is the War on Drugs really the root of the racial caste system? Slavery and Jim Crow were both confronted head on, but that did not stop the caste system from continuing unabated. That is because the root of racial caste is not any particular policy or institution, but rather the system itself. That is, capitalism. Alexander comes close to openly invoking capitalism as the cause of racial hostility, but always censors herself before going too far. Probably this is because she is trying to appeal to a “mainstream” audience and does want to sound too radical. Nonetheless, that is where the real battle is. That is where all of our energy and resources must be directed. If we want real change, we must confront capitalism. We need to educate the public, infiltrate the media, spread an awareness of the reality of capitalism in order to dampen the power of the propaganda currently dominating public discourse.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Is Julian Assange a Hero?

I have felt very conflicted about Julian Assange.  On the one hand, I appreciate the attempt of Wikileaks to bring public awareness to what the U.S. and other powerful interests are really doing around the world.  On the other hand, I would like to maintain consistency with my principle that allegations of sexual assault should never be dismissed.  In this respect, why should Julian Assange be treated any differently than Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

Then today I came across this commentary.  Couldn't have said it better myself.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Empowerment: Racist Rhetoric

I have already talked about the Western obsession with “empowering” women in other parts of the world (see here and here). Today I ran across this article detailing yet another statement to this effect: “this White House paper sums up by saying that 'across all [these] objectives, we will: deepen our engagement with Africa's young leaders; seek to empower marginalized populations and women...'”

I don’t really have anything new to say. I just felt my point was worth emphasizing. The discourse about empowering women and “marginalized populations” in other countries is a means of: 1) Asserting Western moral and cultural superiority (a sneaky form of racism); 2) Reinforcing the narrative of Progress; 3) Obfuscating domestic inequalities; and 4) Providing justification for various sorts of intervention (neocolonialism).

Most tellingly, this rhetoric is premissed on the assumption that it is Western powers that must do the empowering, while women and subalterns are passive recipients of empowerment, unable to act on their own accord.

It feels so good to be the Savior.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Male Violence

The other day I came across an article discussing the gendered nature of mass killings. I took a look because I was curious about what this person might have to say about gender and violence.

To start, the author presented some fairly obvious data illustrating the disproportionate prevalence in the United States of mass killings committed by men compared to those committed by women.

Now, the author took the data as an indication that males possess some sort of innate tendency toward violence. In fact, she chose for an analogy illnesses like lupus and anorexia, which disproportionately affect females, and to which an awareness of gender is employed in treatment and prevention.

And so I completely lost interest in this ground-breaking analysis. Any argument that rests on the concept of "human nature" - particularly a nature whose variations follow exactly along lines of gender and race - is automatically suspect to me. I have already discussed the rhetorical use of "human nature."  Yet I do not think I have touched on the social construction of gender in enough detail to warrant a link here.

I don't want to get too far off course, so I will limit myself, for now, to violence and aggression. It is commonly believed it is a biological fact that males are more aggressive than females. And testosterone is the culprit. In fact, no such evidence exists. Studies on testosterone are notoriously difficult to conduct, and the best ones have been conducted on birds, not people. Furthermore, they do not yield any conclusive findings.

You will argue, surely the prevalence of violence among males (compared to females) throughout history is proof enough. The problem is, it is difficult to make judgements about some sort of pure, unadulterated "human nature" when it has, for its entire existence, been so thoroughly polluted by society and culture.

To me, the fact that acts of mass violence are almost entirely committed by men suggests that this violence does not stem from any human nature at all. There is no evidence that anything biological is driving gender differences (gender as a set of behavioral traits, as opposed to sex, a set of anatomical features); and heaps of cross-cultural evidence prove just the opposite. However, there are countless numbers of societal features that do create and sustain gender differences. So it would be logical to suppose that these same societal characteristics are responsible for nurturing a male tendency toward violence.

To that end, I have subsequently come across the following articles that argue precisely that point.

http://jezebel.com/5928584/why-most-mass-murderers-are-privileged-white-men 
http://mona-uwi.academia.edu/ChristopherADCharles/Papers/1266846/Hegemonic_Masculinity_and_Mass_Murderers_in_the_United_States

Monday, July 23, 2012

Prevention Rhetoric

Every so often in the U.S. (this is true all over, but I stick with what I know), someone who never attracted too much attention before will buy a bunch of weapons and go on a killing spree. Everyone is shocked, of course. And ultimately, there is speculation and debate about how this might be prevented from happening in the future.

Prevention may be sought at the level of policy: say, gun control laws? It also may be attempted at the level of individual psychology: looking for the so-called “warning signs” that supposedly, if we are vigilant, can alert us to potential disaster.

Prevention discourse is a perfect example of the way in which the contradictory aims of neoliberalism and government function together in modern capitalist society. On the one hand, prevention rhetoric forms a key component of governmental power and the ideology of progress. That is, the impulse to try to rationally order human life to maximize happiness and minimize harm, along with the belief that this goal is attainable. Or, in raw terms: the urge to manage human beings with the tools of law and science (especially psychology) for the purpose of the common good.

On the other hand, prevention discourse simultaneously locates responsibility for phenomena NOT in the structure of society as a whole, not in the system itself, but in individuals. That, of course, is why psychology is key. (Once individuals are responsible for personal and collective goods, interventions can take place at the individual level.)

The problem is, responsibility does ultimately lie in the system itself, as much as people may want to attribute things like mass killings to some mystical psychosis or neurosis. We live in a society in which the production of arms in ridiculously large quantities is vital to the functioning of the economy. We operate within an economic system that alienates and dehumanizes masses of people. Our consciousness is permeated by a discourse that frames violence as a useful tool that can be justified by a variety of ends. To the latter point, I find it a bit ironic that the same people who are so horrified by an act of violence are, in the next moment, advocating (and almost relishing the thought of) violence against the perpetrator as a just and noble act.

It is impossible to prevent people from doing things that are unexpected. It is impossible to control people. Attempting some sort of technocratic solution to violence of this nature is futile. (A friend of mine tried to start a discussion about "If guns were regulated like cars..."; I was so tempted to respond:  yes, and those regulations adequately prevent drunk/angry/mentally impaired people from driving and killing people.)  Government policies and psychological research may be unable to restrain human actions, but the system itself, in terms of the availability of the means of violence that it proffers and the attitudes toward violence that it engenders, can make these mass killings more or less likely.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Divide and Conquer: Part 2

I have discussed the nefarious impacts of an ever-proliferating web of non-profits and government agencies, which diffuses the focus and energies of well-intentioned people in a multitude of different directions, preventing the emergence of a unified radical movement.

Then there is the more obvious divide and conquer strategy, of which there tends to be greater awareness. Historians and anthropologists have noted that the origin of the concept of “race” coincided with an attempt (successful) to create a wall of separation between poor whites and black slaves, and thus prevent them from uniting to overthrow the system that oppressed them both. Throughout American history, working-class whites have been told that they are competing with blacks (and immigrants) for jobs, all the while opportunist politicians cultivate an insidious racism which may be used to garner their support for the ruling elite. In the words of Bob Dylan (excerpts from Only A Pawn in Their Game):

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
"You got more than blacks, don't complain
You're better than them, you been born with white skin" they explain

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool
He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight


The strategic cultivation of poor, white racism is more well-known. But I often wonder if the same tactic is used to create divisions along lines of gender, sexual orientation, and class (the latter within the same race).

For example, there has been some attention given to the fact that macho-ism/sexism is more exaggerated within white, blue-collar and African American communities (this works internationally as well, but I will stick to the American context for now). There are many scholarly and popular examples. Just recently, for example, the CNN news anchor Don Lemon, upon publicizing his sexual orientation, discussed the extreme difficulties (greater than in American society at large) of being gay in the African American community. And there has been no end to the public discussion about sexism in hop-hop music and culture. Likewise, the image of white, blue-collar life is a paragon of gender stereotypes: blue-collar men fix cars, go hunting, ride trucks and motor cycles, get wasted at the bar and get in fights. Music associated with working-class culture (most notably country and hard rock) is rife with sexism. Lyrics this time from Brad Paisley (country singer):

When you see a deer, you see Bambi
And I see antlers up on the wall
When you see a lake you think picnics
And I see a large mouth up under that log

When you see a priceless friend's painting
I see a drunk naked girl
When you think that riding a wild bull sounds crazy
And I'd like to give it a whirl

These days there's dudes gettin' facials
Manicured, waxed and botoxed
With deep spray-on tans and creamy lotiony hands
You can't grip a tackle box

Yeah, with all of these men linin' up to get neutered
It's hip now to be feminized
But I don't highlight my hair, I've still got a pair
Yeah honey, I'm still a guy

Oh, my eyebrows ain't plucked, there's a gun in my truck
Oh thank God, I'm still a guy


Effeminate men (in the above song, the "dudes getting facials"), in contrast, are associated with elitism and upper-class lifestyles.

Moreover, many people have noted, with great concern, that successful blacks tend to disassociate themselves from poor black communities. They move out into the suburbs and adopt “white” cultural preferences. Black students who do “too well” in school may be criticized for “acting white.”

All of these public images, stories, and stereotypes serve to reinforce boundaries among various groups of people who would be better served by creating a unified front to combat an unjust system. I cannot help but wonder, based on the divide and conquer strategies that have been used to put a wedge been poor white and black, if the public images of these divisions (sexist/homophobic lower-class white and blacks, middle-class versus poor blacks, etc.) spring purely from the social realities.... or if the social realties themselves were partially constructed (and are partially reconstructed) by means of the proliferation of these images and stories in the public sphere.

Is there some iniquitous force lurking in the background, purposefully trying to create and exacerbate all numbers of divisions among the large population of oppressed human beings?

I can speculate, though I have yet to come across any real research. (If anyone knows of any, please comment!) It is a bit curious that, since the time of slavery, white men publicly called into question the masculinity of black males (for instance, calling them “boy”), seemingly trying to provoke them in some way, while scientists simultaneously disseminated their conclusions that black men are inherently hyper-masculine and aggressive. Then, there is the widely-circulated idea that one must be a bread-winner in order to be a “real man,” thus inciting men who are not able to adequately provide for their families to assert their manhood in other ways. Moreover, one must consider who really gets to decide what types of hip hop/hard rock/country music is available in music stores (real or electronic), heard on the radio, featured in movies, and thus ultimately, what artists and songs become representative of these genres? Finally, one must also observe that African Americans for the most part are not allowed to be successful unless they disassociate themselves to a certain degree from black culture and the life of the ghetto. Many students find that they have to “act white” in order to avoid being stigmatized by their teachers, if they want to do well in school. Thus, I can see some evidence that these divisions may be fostered by dominant groups.

 If this is the case, then it follows logically that it would be a divide and conquer strategy.