Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Conservative Life and Death of Obamacare

I never did write a second series of post on health. However, I think it's about time I said something about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, aka the Socialist Scourge of the Earth.

Let's start with the obvious: Obamacare is not socialist. Yes, it involves government regulations and mandates, but last time I checked, that is not the definition of socialism. From what contact I have with them, I often see the undereducated folks from Real America and brainwashed Tea Party ideologues complain about the imposition of a "national healthcare plan" to accomplish the goal of making sure every American has access to health care. Apparently, they think that Obamacare is a public health insurance plan. They may have forgotten, or never realized, that Obama was forced to drop his public option from the ACA. So no, sadly, Obamacare is not a public option, does not contain a public option... and as has now become clear, never will have anything to do with a public option.

Now, one could argue that increasing government regulations and mandates equates to socialism. Then, of course, they are going to have to try to explain how to clearly distinguish socialism from capitalism when the difference is only a matter of degree, with no clear dividing line. The truth of the matter is, many of the provisions of Obamacare were dreamed up by conservatives. A republican governer (Romney, former republican presidential candidate) employed a version of the law in Massachusetts, and was heavily supported by conversatives activists and think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation. Obamacare is a conservative idea.

Furthermore, the ACA depends on and works through private insurance companies. Insurance companies have helped write the law and develop the national health exchange. Insurance companies also stand to benefit from the increased coverage, especially that of healthy young adults (who are now penalized for not having insurance).

Simply put, the ACA is an idea conceived in conservative circles and given flesh by private corporations. It is about the furthest thing from socialism I can possibly think of.

For these reasons, also, Obamacare is largely crap.

Yes, it makes somes attempts to cut costs (mostly in order to pay for itself, not to make health care more affordable, as the name of the law implies). Yes, it provides subsidies to some people who will better be able to afford insurance. Yes, it allows young adults the option to stay on their parents' insurance a little longer. Yes, it has gotten rid of pre-existing conditions restrictions. Etc.

This will undoubtedly be very helpful to a few people.

But it does nothing to address the exorbintantly high cost of health care (which is the main problem with the U.S. health care system), caused mainly by: 1) price gauging by hospitals, medical device manufacturers, and pharmaceuticals (the provision to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices was stripped from ACA, as was the public option, both of which could have addressed price gauging by competetive downward pressure); 2) High overhead/beaurocratic costs (increasing the complexity of the insurance marketplace will only make this worse); and 3) Over-use of treatments and medications.

The last point, in particular, is a sensitive one .Americans, saturated as they are in the "rugged individualist" mentality, completely blind to the effects individual actions have on the rest of society, insist on their right to opt for whatever absurd, costly, and unnecessary treatments they want. "No one is going to tell me what treatment I need!" And then, of course, we like to sue medical care providers when they are not able to work miracles. All of this results in an over-reliance on expensive diagnostic imaging, over-prescription of antibiotics, and the like. In addition to conbributing to the rise of antibiotic resistant superbugs, this dramatically increases the cost of medical care for everyone. The poorest of society are harmed the most, of course. And since ill health follows lines of political/economic/social marginalization, the poorest are often most in need of this expensive care that they can't afford.

So, as nice as it might sound to have the "freedom" to keep your 97-year-old father on life support for another 2 weeks, because you are emotionally incapable of dealing with the inevitability of death, that "freedom" comes at the direct expense of poor people who have their whole lives ahead of them.

'Murrica.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Liberation Rhetoric: Of Robin Thicke and Syria

Due to my recent busy schedule, I haven’t had time for writing. So, I realize my delay in drafting this post puts me a little behind, at least as far as Robin Thicke is concerned. Well, he’s still popular so maybe not.

The first time I heard Blurred Lines, I was flipping through radio stations while driving around in another state. I listened for a minute, trying to determine exactly which song it reminded me of (later on realized it was Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up), but as soon as I heard the lyrics, “Let me liberate you,” I gave up and changed the station.

As it turned out, there were many other reasons why the lyrics to this song were offensive. Then there’s the music video, which generated perhaps the most controversy of all. However, to this day, I remain most bothered on a visceral level by the lyrics, “Let me liberate you.” Hopefully I don’t need to explain why. But just in case, here is my begrudging (shouldn’t need to do this) half-assed summary: 1) Men don’t liberate women, women liberate themselves; and 2) Liberation is not tantamount to acquiescing to men’s sexual desires, just as not consenting isn’t a manifestation of oppression. If a woman doesn’t want to, that does not mean she needs to be “liberated.”

Both of these principles have broader application, as the idea of “liberation” has been employed as a justification for domination in a variety of domains. I have already written about its function in the colonial enterprise (link). I have also discussed the continuation of its use in the logic of humanitarian interventions (aka humanitarian imperialism). Want to invade a country? Come up with a reason why the people need to be liberated. Considering all the many negative consequences of the global capitalism, it’s never hard.

We see it playing out once again in Syria. Syria has been on the U.S. “kill list” for more than decade. Finally, there is an opportunity to exploit a mild, short-lived protest movement and transform it into national upheaval (to change the regional balance of power). Of course, Saudi Arabia and other external participants get more of the credit for this role. Still, the American people are told now that we have to bomb Syria in order to save the people from chemical weapons attacks. As of now, the plans are on hold, but I would not be surprised if the U.S. becomes dissatisfied with the efforts of the Syrian regime to hand over their weapons.

Obviously, the most effective discursive elements are able to circulate widely and quickly in multiple domains. And we tend to draw on pre-formed discourses to from other areas to form arguments in new domains. However, as the “liberation” rhetoric is so thoroughly enmeshed in a particular mode of domination, it brings sharp relief to the way in which that mechanism of power itself operates in seemingly different circumstances. In other words, if one wishes to understand the inviolable connection between patriarchy and imperialism, critically examining the role of “liberation” rhetoric is not a bad place to start.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Soft Sexism of Women's Empowerment

Confession: I tune out whenever anyone mentions “women’s empowerment” as a solution to Third World problems. Before I tune out, I roll my eyes and sigh. And I am a feminist.

If you've had any involvement in human rights circles you will be familiar with the idea: empower women – give them an education or a microloan or whatever constitutes empowerment – and they will “fix” poverty. However, the belief that women are the key to human progress is not new, and it is not feminist. In fact, it has always been essential to the functioning modern patriarchy – that is, patriarchy in fortified imperialist/racist form. More than that, this belief is the most insidious element of patriarchal ideology, because it only superficially, and very disingenuously, values women.

Consider, for example, the American women's rights movement in the Reconstruction Era. White women were encouraged to stay home and raise children to fulfill their role as guardians of the White Race. The suffragists did not want to stay home and have tons of babies, but they happily accepted the fact that they would further the progress of their race. They insisted that voting rights for women was the only antidote to the impending peril of the Black Vote. White women, they argued, were educated and enlightened, and they outnumbered all of the uncivilized blacks and immigrants who would be tarnishing every election from here on out. White women could properly serve their function as guardians of the race only if they had the right to vote. Sadly, in constructing their argument on the basis of the Woman Savior, the suffragists merely strengthened the sexist and racist ideological framework that was instrumental in their oppression.

Of course, there is also a long history of using "women's liberation" as a pretext for imperial conquest. This may be even more pertinent to discussions about the developing world, particularly coming from the propaganda mills of powerful NGOs.

When a child has a crappy role in a school play, you make her feel better by telling her that, even though she doesn't have any lines, it is actually the most important, super special part in the play. Guardianship of the race (/humanity) works in pretty much the same way. Women have to clean up all the messes caused by capitalism, and they are told it is an honor. Whatever society as a whole used to provide, women now have the responsibility of taking care of as best they can on their own.

Valuing women does not mean forcing the entire burden of human progress onto their shoulders. It is not women’s job to fix poverty. As far as I can tell, men created the problem, so why should women have to solve it alone? I have heard, in the context of microloans, that men can’t be trusted because they waste money on alcohol and they don’t care as much about their families. Although I can’t prove that this is an exaggeration born out of Western ideas about masculinity, I can still ask: don't we want to raise the bar for men a little bit? Are the women supposed to do all the work of lifting their families out of poverty while the men drink themselves into oblivion?

But the larger issue is this: the responsibility for “fixing” poverty does not lie with any individual poor people, male or female. Poverty and inequality must be treated as a global systemic problem, one that involves a complex network of transnational social relations manipulated by a handful of people with incomprehensible amounts of wealth. It must be confronted en masse. A few individuals may be able to raise their standards of living with a good education or a loan, but poverty will continue to exist on the same scale until enough people, men and women, decide that they are not going to put up any longer with the capitalist system that creates it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is Oppression Fun?

I recently had a conversation with a man who explained gender studies to me thusly: “It’s a bunch of white, middle class women who have it really good, they’ve got nothing but privilege, but they want to feel like they’re oppressed too. They don’t want to be left out of that game!” Of course this sentiment has been applied, in one form or another, to pretty much every form of oppression. The basic premise is that there is something exciting or rewarding about being oppressed – so much so that everyone wants to be oppressed! It’s treated as a badge of honor. What ultimately lies behind this attitude, I believe, is discomfort with any challenge to white, male privilege.

Now, one must allow for the fact that white, middle-class feminists have all too often been blind to their own privilege. That is true. And they have often defended their race and class privilege at the direct expense of working class white women, immigrants, and women of color. However, oppression is complex, particularly in its intersectionalities. Historically, white, middle class women have enjoyed many things – especially wealth and better working (or non-working) conditions; yet during the first waves of feminism they still were not able to vote, express their opinions publicly, receive professional designations, choose when to have sex, or make high-level household decisions. Women of any race or class have been viewed as less intelligent, rational, and strong. Even today, one cannot deny the existence of pay disparities, rape and other forms of assault, rampant eating disorders, unequal treatment in the health care system, disproportionate responsibility for childcare, sexualization/objectification, false beliefs about women’s analytical capabilities, the “big strong man” motif, etc. etc.

There is, however, another variation on the “everyone wants to oppressed” routine that I frequently encounter. This one does find white hetero men trying to inhabit the role of the oppressed. Not, though, because real oppression is actually desirable to them. To the contrary, this attitude is a response to perceived challenges to their privilege – privilege that they are terrified of losing. This claim of oppression is rather a strategic means of trying to defend their privilege – without looking too overtly like they are defending their privilege. Too bad for them, though, it is very clear what they are doing.

The reason why the “while male oppression” claim should not be taken seriously - if one has any doubt that it is a sham – is the inability of these men to articulate any social/political/economic foundation for their oppression. This claim is not embedded within any structural analysis that examines the way in which “being male” inherently places one at the wrong end of relations of exploitation and domination. It is impossible to find any structural basis for male oppression. In the U.S., for example, white, middle/upper-class men are over-represented in government, in business, and in science and engineering. They make more money than anyone else (even when one removes the class dimension) and have greater educational advantages. They are not hit as hard by unemployment, wage stagnation, urban decay, and cuts in social spending. White men are grossly under-represented in prison, and less likely to have to resort to low-wage service jobs.

It is true that white men are afraid that college and employers only look for women and people of color. However, the facts prove otherwise. This unfounded fear is born, in part, out of the general competitiveness of capitalist society and the instability of current times (college admissions are more competitive as more people pursue higher education; and having a degree does not guarantee anyone a job). Despite the fact that they are often spared the full force of this competition and instability, white men feel the need to place blame on others who are far more helpless (rather than the system itself).

And then there is oppression at the micro-level. Even white, middle class women have to deal with daily impediments to their agency: when, for example, they are never able to decide who opens the door or who goes in first; when assumptions are made about their rationality; when “emotional” dimensions of their behavior are highlighted; when they are presumed to be weak and helpless in all situations (unable to open doors and lift boxes, e.g.); when their assertiveness is construed as “bitchyness” and their silence as ignorance. This may not seem significant enough to some people to qualify as real oppression (remember that this micro level is in addition to everything else addressed above); yet, one should realize the full effects: everyday women are subtly made to feel weak and helpless; they struggle to present themselves as rational decision-makers who are not at the mercy of their emotions; and they are constantly marked as “special” human beings whose fragile existence must be carefully protected. A woman can never be “just” a professional or “just” a manager or “just” an athlete or “just” a politician or “just” a scientist.

White men, on the other hand, feel that they own public space. They never hesitate to make their voices heard and to assert their agency. The other day I was on a bus, and a couple of the passengers started to rudely (and loudly) command the bus driver how to make a difficult turn. “Frat boys,” I thought. Sure enough, when I turned around I saw college aged (ish) white guys. From my own experience, when someone is being a bit too loud or a bit too pushy, more often than not it is a young, white, straight, middle/upper class male. And is it any coincidence that the people who take out their emotional frustrations via mass public shootings - the prime example of claiming ownership over public space - are almost entirely all white men? All too often, though, white men do not perceive (or perhaps, more accurately, will not admit?) that they have this freedom and sense of entitlement. Instead, they nurse their resentment over the fact that they can’t continue to behave in ways that subtly make other people feel inferior or helpless, without potentially (though I would challenge far too infrequently) being called out on it. They are horrified – horrified! – at the suggestion that they give some thought to their speech and actions, and perhaps even listen to the perspectives of others.

The usual resort to “preserving traditions” is a clumsy way of defending white, male privilege. The misguided fears about women and people of color dominating academia and employment are an expression of white, male feelings of entitlement to the upper tiers of society. And the frustration with “politically correct” language and non-traditional theories (feminism, post-colonialism, critical race theory, etc.) is born out of the desire to preserve the patriarchal/bourgeois/racist ideology that places white men at the apex of civilization and progress.

Being oppressed is in no way enjoyable, and white men know it. That’s why they’re doing everything they can to maintain their dominance.

*Disclaimer: obviously, when I say “white men” or any variation thereof, I am not stereotyping or condemning ALL white men. I am referring specifically to those people who make the types of arguments that I am addressing here – those that try to embody the archetype of the White Man as a means of dominating or placing themselves above others. The people who are too concerned with preserving traditions to actually listen to the things other people have to say.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sexual Violence and the Military

Recently there has been a lot of reporting on the high prevalence of sexual assault in the U.S. military. My favorite is the guy who was in charge of the Sexual Assault Prevention Program, accused of sexual assault himself. I have heard people speculate that this is a result of the transition to allowing more gays and women into the military. Yeah, it is always integration itself that is the problem, not the people who refuse to be integrated.

However, this is just another case in which people are resistant to (or completely incapable of) scrutinizing the military. Not certain things that it does here and there, but the logic of its operation – in fact, its very existence. The natural response to the current scandal is to think of more ways the military can be regulated, or more effective policy that can be put in place. I say, have fun with that.

The truth is, the predisposition toward violence against women lies in the very fabric of the military itself – and not just the U.S. military, but any military. For all of human history, from what I can tell, pillage and plunder has always been associated with rape. You can’t have one without the ooooothers. To understand why, we have to revisit the inherent nature of violence.

Violence is not a universal aspect of human nature, but rather a feature of structures of inequality. There are, of course, plenty of ways to sustain inequality without resorting to violence, and some have argued that power must defined in terms of the ability of both parties to act (thus precluding violence). Therefore, the relationship between violence and inequality/power is not merely a matter of direct practical necessity. Violence is, rather, one component of a particular kind of authority - an authority that is established upon the differential valuation of human life and dignity. Just as the distinction between man and animal, which entailed the exalted status of man, was traditionally justified by man’s dominion over animals (and this was always expressed through the act of hunting), the imposed hierarchical distinctions among different types of human beings are ideologically sustained by the “naturalness” (in some cases even virtue) of violence committed by white men, as the vanguards of human progress, and the complementary insignificance or invisibility of acts of violence carried out against Others (women, people of color, etc.).

In other words, while hierarchical structures do not always require violence to sustain their general existence, individuals employ violence to maintain the day-to-day, lived experience of hierarchy. Wherever the particularity of social life lies in the interstices of structures of inequality, violence works to reproduce the larger structures within the gaps that escape the hierarchy, and in so doing extend the hierarchy into its own margins.

So, with the notion of “legitimate violence” comes the white man as the legitimate purveyor of legitimate violence. There are two ways in which this is ideologically reinforced. First, violence is construed as a masculine characteristic. Science does its part by lending pseudo legitimacy to nonexistent data. Testosterone provides the link between gender and violence, despite a serious lack of knowledge about the effects of testosterone (for a number of reasons, testosterone is very difficult to study). Then families, schools, and entertainment media join the effort by subtly (or not so subtly) implying that “boys will be boys” and promoting violence as a valued expression of masculinity. Real men punch back. If men feel that their masculinity (i.e. superiority) is being threatened, they reliably resort to violence. This is why rape, or any violence against women, is essentially a means for men to assert their hierarchical domination over women.

Second, violence becomes part of the “white man’s burden” when it is encapsulated within the narrative of Progress. This has been true since the colonial era (as colonialism was ostensibly designed to bring civilization to the savages), and it is just as true today when military interventions are supposedly undertaken to support human rights and democracy, by fighting the forces of darkness, as represented by Muslims...err, terrorists... well, really, Muslims.

So yes, the military is inherently racist too. (Since race and religion are co-constructed and intricately entwined, Islamophobia does indeed count as a form of racism.) I have seen photo evidence that basic training primes recruits to view “the enemy” as someone existentially unlike them. Make them look like a cartoon version of the Evil Arab, and suddenly it’s not so hard to envision killing them. That is not to say, of course, that in the end many people in the military don't find it psychologically impossible to cope with the things they are doing. The military doesn’t seem to care too much about anyone’s psychological health once they’ve done their duty, but they do need to make it just a little easier for people to actually accomplish something before they develop PTSD.

If one wants to do anything about the scourge of sexual assault in the military, one has to accept the role of the military in sustaining gendered and racial hierarchies both ideologically and materially. The military itself is the problem. Or, rather, the military functions primarily to enforce the ideological and material regimes of domination that make sexual assault possible in the first place. Only with the dissolution of the military and radical systemic change can anything really be done about sexual assault.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Inertia of the Status Quo

It is often difficult to explain the existence of complex institutional structures, constituted by the collected (not collective) action of “average” people with varying beliefs and goals, when one rules out the implausible case of a small group of elites secretly controlling everything. When one gets to the heart of any organization or industry, one can always find relations of exploitation that support an overarching structure of domination. If this overarching structure is not being coordinated from above, how can it possibly exist?

The cornerstone of effective social analysis, particularly if one truly follows along historical materialist lines, is the understanding that people employ already-existing realities – relationships, ideologies, material structures – to achieve their goals. We are always constrained in the present by the arrangements that have emerged through prior human activity. Thus, current social realities can always be explained to some extent by historical accident. The key is in understanding how historical accident articulates with particular interests and strategies of domination. Several different types of articulation seem plausible – the last one being the most insidious:

Opportunism
Occasionally, authentically new social-material networks are created (with existing material and social resources) in an effort to address certain problems. Say, for example, members of a community want to keep their youth out of trouble and notice that children do not get any kind of after-school support or supervision. So they pull together some resources and start an after-school youth program, operating out of a local library (already-existing resource). The people who are involved may have varying degrees of self-interest (in our example, a woman agrees to direct the program on a volunteer basis because it looks great on her resume), but are all ultimately supporting the original goal. Eventually, someone spots an opportunity for profit, or a business discovers a way to use the network to shift burdens onto the community or to create a new market or to otherwise serve its own interests. Someone comes along and tells the youth program organizers that they know how to raise a lot of money to get them their own building and supplies. Now businesses are donating items with their company logo strategically displayed. All the youth programs needs to do in return is promote messages about personal responsibility and the merits of competition. Then the businesses, who are looking for some way to reduce their tax burderns, realize that, even if all the money they contribute is not spent, they still receive tax exemptions for their donations; so they quietly place their friends in leadership positions and ensure that only a small percentage of their generous contributions are actually spent on anything. Finally, other people realize that the program can be replicated in other locations, and politicians decide to reduce funding for schools on the premise that some of the resources previously provided by the school system can now be provisioned through these private youth programs (and it’s a win for these politicians who are trying to capitalize on the anti-public school sentiments of their base).

Eventually, the after-school youth program becomes an enduring social institution that occupies its own niche, but nevertheless serves other political and economic purposes. The idea was not formulated in some smokey room by a secret ruling class cabal, yet in the end, powerful interests found a way to use it to their own advantage.

Ideological Conformity
Many people’s social awareness is so clouded by hegemonic assumptions that they may inadvertently draw upon and enhance existing power relationships as a direct consequence of the ideologies that they employ. For example, going back to the youth center: say that they haven’t yet sought corporate sponsorship, and they are trying to delineate an educational vision for their program. It may be in the best interest of the youth to receive political/historical education that will allow them to challenge structures of inequality that oppress them. Yet, the directors of the program have bought into the idea that people can raise themselves out of poverty if they just work hard enough. They might decide, totally on their own, without any outside pressure, to use their program to instill values of self-discipline, goal-setting, and financial responsibility. This program now reinforces one of the most powerful ideologies that justifies an inequitable social order – but not through any manipulation by corporate or political elites, simply through the work of ordinary people.

The discourses and ideologies that, through the speed and extent of their circulation, are always close at hand, are the very the very ones that get taken up and reproduced most easily - thus intensifying their circulation (vicious cycle).

Inertia
This, perhaps, may be one of the most powerful, yet frequently overlooked, forces that creates stability in an unjust system. People may have good intentions, but they do not want to think critically about how their own lifestyles and self interests contribute to the global and domestic suffering of which they are dimly aware. People who have built careers in particular industries – like health care or retirement, for example – like to take pride in the benefits they are providing to vulnerable populations, and so they view their role in society, and the inner mechanics of their industries, in simplistic terms (e.g. “I’m helping sick people get healthy again” or “I’m helping middle class America save for retirement”). Furthermore, because their careers sustain them both financially and socially (status), any potential changes to the institutional environment that might, possibly, threaten their careers are resisted. So they band together in industry associations to lobby and oppose regulations that seek to reform their industries. They will not acknowledge the reality that they are really exploiting already vulnerable people, and participating in the profiteering of hospital, insurance, and pharmaceutical executives (health care) or the financial services industry (retirement).

Lifestyle is just as important as career. The middle and upper classes of industrialized societies have so thoroughly absorbed the Ideology of Progress (which assures them that material comforts are a natural outcomes of human progress, not products of exploitative relationships) and so enjoy their luxuries (which they cannot even see as luxuries) that they are utterly resistant to lifestyle changes. At most, they may shop at Whole Foods (corporation) or buy energy-efficient light bulbs – maybe even a hybrid vehicle. The few people who go so far as to grow their own food, forego the latest technology, or live somewhat “off the grid” are perceived as crazy fringe radicals (the type of people who might have Marxist blogs...?). Yet, it is these lifestyles that sustain the global capitalist system – the market is crucial. An equitable social order would preclude any such extravagance. As long as the relatively well-off are unwilling to change their consumption patterns, social change will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

In sum, then, it is obvious that powerful economic and political interests are able to co-opt existing structures and exacerbate inequality. Yet ordinary people also contribute in a very powerful way: through their inability to challenge hegemonic ideas, jeopardize their careers, or change their lifestyles.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Conspiracy Theories, Media Control and Reality TV

I’m not ashamed of the fact that I love conspiracy theories. To me, a reality that is tidy and closed-ended is intolerably boring. So what I like about conspiracy theories, in fact, is not the theories in and of themselves, but the uncertainty and mystery that they entail. (A good conspiracy theory must at least be plausible, but still deniable.) This is all well and good when it comes to decades-old assassinations and CIA experiments and celebrity deaths. However, uncertainty can be outright frustrating when it comes to figuring out what ruling elites are or aren’t doing right now. How do we access accurate information?

Conspiracy theories grow as quickly and easily as internet memes. We barely had time to turn on our computers after Sandy Hook and the Boston Bombings, before gun advocates (and others) were flooding the internet with Youtube videos and suspicious photo evidence. The abundance of eyewitness testimonies to 9/11 and Boston were discarded without batting an eye. The problem, though, isn’t simply that people are too credulous; it’s that no one really knows who to trust anymore. We all know, for example, that government officials create fictional versions of reality to generate public support for/acquiescence to inhumane projects (John Brennan, I’m looking at you), that intelligence officials leak false information, and that the corporate-owned media suppresses information on the direct orders of the state, or affiliated agencies, or corporations. (Saudi Arabian drone base... what?) For that matter, most media outlets are used to promote particular political agendas and shape public consciousness through strategic use of images, talking points, and topical foci.

So, when we are told, for example, that the Boston Bombings were undertaken by two Muslim immigrants, working alone, motivated by Islamic radicalism and opposition to wars in the Middle East... essentially that two fairly normal American immigrant kids just suddenly became “radicalized”... do we believe it? It at least seems plausible, and the assertions that the whole thing was staged (actors, fake blood, etc.) are outrageously insane. On the other hand, how many times has the initial official interpretation of events subsequently proven false, or even evidence of some sort of cover-up? The initial explanation of the Benghazi attack, after all, did fit very well with the “irrational, angry Muslim” narrative, but it just turned out that our existing narratives are useful in selling us erroneous interpretations of events. We are told that Assad used chemical weapons against the opposition – and he may have – but a similar argument was used to remove Saddam, and it was totally fabricated then. Why wouldn’t we believe it was fabricated this time, too?

Actually, the way I feel about evaluating the claims of mainstream media and state officials is very similar to how I feel about judging the “reality” of reality tv. Everyone (or most everyone, I hope) knows that reality tv is far from what it claims to be. Writers come up with storylines, producers manipulate situations, and editors distort what actually happens on camera. In some cases everything is very obviously fake. Other times it is harder to tell what is contrived and what is real. Is everything fake? Was that person hired to play the role of a villain? Do those people really have feelings for each other? Were the outcomes determined in advance? We know that participants (/actors?) in reality programs are bound by stringent contracts. Is that all that prevents contestants from revealing the true nature of these shows? Yes, some people have come forward and “pulled back the curtain” to a certain extent. But so many other people insist it is mostly real. If the contract were the only force cowing them into secrecy... wouldn’t more people be coming forward (or at least spilling things to close friends, thus initiating the spread of information into the public domain)? Breaches of contract and aren’t all that uncommon.

The only remedy for the reality tv dilemma is to tell yourself that it’s all entertainment anyway. Who cares if it’s real, as long as it’s interesting? But that doesn’t work for terrorist plots and military interventions. Nothing is more important than determining what is real. Unfortunately, if even second-rate writers and producers (the type who will settle for working on reality tv shows) are able to effectively create so much secrecy and confusion... what hope do we have figuring out current events?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Disease Entities and Mental Health

In my series of posts on the capitalist approach to health, I noted, in particular, the relevance of disease categories. I suggested that lumping complex phenomena into discrete categories fit patterns of research funding and the proliferation of commodities (namely drugs) as interventions. I even noted Autism as an example of this proclivity.

Well, apparently, that’s how some mental health professionals are starting to see things as well. Of course, their alternatives are still pervaded with capitalist logic and a governmental focus on normality and pathology. Yet, they recognize the role played by those who fund research, the pharmaceutical industry, and even (this is something I previously neglected) the personal identifications and campaigns that have evolved around these disease categories. Imagine what would happen to that all-powerful pink ribbon breast cancer campaign once cancer is viewed more in terms of genetic composition and less in terms of bodily location. How will we define women’s health when we can’t pin everything on the breasts?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Most Terrorism is Not Islamic

The first person I talked to about the Boston Marathon Bombing - as soon as it came on the news - insisted it had to be jihadist.

Yes, everyone assumes that all or most terrorist attacks are carried out by Muslims.

When it turned out that the perpetrators were, in fact, Muslim, everyone immediately concluded (once again, in the absence of any evidence) that their religion must have something to do with their actions.  That could turn out to be true. But it is also possible that they were motivated by some Chechen liberation cause that had nothing to do with Islam (national liberation movements/sympathizers have committed more terrorist acts in the US than jihadists). And it is also possible that personal trauma (the best friend of one of the brothers was brutally murdered) or some other factor that has nothing to do with either their religion or ethnicity is really to blame. We just don't know. But the fact remains that all of the media discussions about the brothers' potential links to Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups just serves to reinforce the idea that all terrorists are Muslims and all Muslims are terrorists.

So I gave up on the media and started looking at the FBI's published lists of terrorist activity. What I found, overall, backs up the claim that about 6% of terrorist incidents in the U.S. are Islamic. I saw that there has actually been more Jewish terrorism than Islamic.  And just to give you a sense of how rare Islamic terrorism really is: there were more incidents involving the Earth Liberation Front in 2001 than incidents involving Muslims from 1980-2005.

Now, it seems as though the incidents that have involved Muslims have received proportionately more attention than any other religious or political group (and that's an understatement). That just shows how skewed people's perceptions can be as a result of dominant ideologies promoted by the media. However, the consequences are severe: Muslims (or anyone who looks Arab or Muslim to the undiscerning eyes of Americans) are discriminated against; they get detained for hours whenever they travel because they are deemed automatically suspect.

The reality as demonstrated by the FBI data makes it absolutely clear that Muslims are being treated unfairly.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Chivalry and Chauvinism

After an incident at my workplace, in which a male of high rank decided to act “chivalrous” toward a female colleague, I have initiated discussions with some of my friends about the historical and contemporary implications of chivalry. Unfortunately, the difficulty we face is the persistent belief (often shared among oppressor and oppressed) that stereotypes and gestures cannot be truly discriminatory if they are flattering. What’s wrong with saying that Asians are good at math? And isn’t it nice when a man holds a door for a woman?

The problem is, so long as any statement or gesture reinforces difference, and so long as difference always implies hierarchy (as it will until/unless the world is radically restructured), the act will bring to bear some applicable power relationship, some dynamic of domination. It works something like this. Say I am a woman waiting for a bus. I may be thinking about any number of things – what happened at work, what I plan to cook for dinner, how warm it is, and so on. As soon as a man steps aside to let me on the bus, I may still have a number of other things on my mind, but I am also now thinking, on some level, about the fact that I am a woman. And the man is also thinking, on some level, about the fact that he is a man.

That’s pretty harmless, though, right?

Well, for one thing, it adds up. As a woman, on the basis of these trivial actions, your gender is constantly being emphasized even when it’s not important or you don’t want to think about it (particularly in the workplace), and most importantly, you, as a woman, have no control over when this occurs. You realize that you never get to decide who goes in first or last, and this is yet another instance in which your ability to act is not equal to that of men. People argue that chivalry is just run-of-the-mill politeness. However, if chivalry were merely about being polite, it would not be the prerogative of men.

Furthermore, if chivalry were just about politeness, men would not feel insulted when women try to do the same for them. Although personal experiences here may vary, it is definitely true – and I have seen overwhelming evidence in support of this claim – that a good majority of men feel some degree of shame when women insist, “after you.” This shame comes from a perceived threat to their masculinity. They are, after all, supposed to be the “big, strong man.”

Finally, say what you will, chivalry does convey the message that women are weak and helpless. Historically, as these traditions emerged, the ideological justification for chivalry was expressed quite openly. And then it reinforced other existing forms of inequality. For example, women couldn’t even get into carriages by themselves, so they certainly couldn’t be entrusted with the privilege of voting. Some people argue that these historical facts aren’t applicable today. I counter that, first, it is important to remember that history is always relevant to the present. Attitudes and practices do not disappear nearly as easily as we think they do. Culture has a habit of reproducing itself. Second, I contend that ideas about feminine weakness DO persist, and are thus relevant today. That’s why we still have gender segregated sports. That’s why you hear countless women expressing their desire for a strong man who will protect them. That’s why men feel they need to open doors for women.

For any girl who has literally tried to compete on an equal playing field with boys, it is clear that boys do not tolerate girls who aren’t athletically inferior to them. Boys feel threatened when girls show them up. Boys insult each other by comparing their abilities to girls’. Because boys still learn that they are supposed to be physically superior to girls. Then those boys grow up and start pulling out chairs and opening up doors for women, just so they can remind themselves of that superiority.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Sanctity of Small Businesses

I have written previously about the concept of the “middle class” and how it is strategically used by politicians to create divisions and distort reality. The concept of the “small business” works in a very similar way, and I think it is important to highlight its function in political rhetoric. This is on my mind particularly because pretty much every political discussion I have heard lately has had some sort of appeal to the effects of various proposals on small businesses.

If anyone were unfamiliar with American society, a few hours watching any cable news channel would be enough to show them the great reverence in which small businesses are held. In fact, it seems that the most effective attack one can launch on any proposed policy or regulation is to demonstrate its negative impact on small businesses. One would think that small businesses must be the engine of the American economy.

They are not. Of course, it is not hard to see why everyone likes small businesses: they are the exemplars of entrepreneurialism, individualism, and free market laissez-faire capitalism. They stand in opposition to the corruption, human rights abuses, and political finagling of large corporations. Even the most die-hard capitalist apologists have a hard time defending those evil multinational corporations who ship American jobs overseas. Thank goodness there are small businesses to salvage the ideals of capitalism.

So part of the political usefulness of the concept of small business lies in its very appeal. People see capitalist virtue embodied in small business. The “small business” is a loaded ideological symbol which, as a discursive element, conjures up associations with cherished values and some old-timey nostalgia to boot. This can be compared to the appeal of the “middle class,” though the latter also draws its discursive power from the fact that most everyone identifies themselves as members of the middle class.

However, like the concept of “middle class,” the notion of the “small business” serves an important ideological purpose in addition to those more immediate and practical ends. The constant references to small businesses bolster false images of capitalism. It counters the reality that capitalism’s nature is to increasingly centralize capital, to nourish monopolies, to exploit and dominate. It discounts the importance of mega-conglomerates in economic, political, and social spheres. Moreover, it reroutes conversations away from analyses of the ways in which corporations secure their wealth and manipulate social structures, and focuses discussion instead on misguided notions about the inherent conflict between government and business.

The truth is, that capitalism has been the greatest threat to free markets and small businesses.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Hactivism: The Nonviolent Revolution

It’s hard to be a cynic. I do appreciate the fact that it prevents me from occupying myself with ultimately futile activities. However, cynicism can too easily turn into hopelessness, which begets apathy. I don’t want to be apathetic. How do I reconcile my ideals and my desire for social change with the reality that the ideologies and relationships that constitute power permeate every single aspect of life, including institutionalized movements for change? Including revolutions?

I am opposed to violence. Violence is a function of structures of inequality. It is the basis of patriarchy and slavery and capitalism. Yet, is it possible to transform our world without violence? How?

I don’t believe in the “political process” – whatever that means in reality. There is no boundary separating corporate and financial interests from the institutional apparatus of sanctioned violence and social coercion that is the state. Trying to re-shape the system from within the system is like trying to dry yourself off in the shower. When is the last time that a boycott or a petition created lasting, meaningful social change? Even the protests that constituted the so-called “Arab Spring.” What is fundamentally different in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya, aside from greater poverty and more weapons floating around? Yet, if I take violence and politics off of the table, what is left?

I have long held that technology would be the “creation of the system that ultimately destroys the system.” I have talked a bit about the potential of the internet, in particular, to subvert and escape global capitalism. Yet, I have never given too much thought to hacking, as an aggressive action against the system. It’s getting hard to ignore these days. For one thing, we now live in a world where cyber attacks and cyber security are a solid reality. We have WikiLeaks providing us with classified documents. And we have groups like Anonymous, who hack corporations, governments, and other groups to make social/political statements.

We don’t need weapons to dismantle capitalism. Its entire infrastructure is digitally based, and totally vulnerable to cyber attack. We don’t need to engage in endless debates about the nature of power and the government, trying in vain to convince people that democracy is a sham. Hackers can pull away the curtain and show us who’s really back there and what they are doing.

The only problem is that, currently, hactivists tend to be stuck in the old mindset. They employ a “rights” framework and fight for isolated “freedoms.” They protest against particular governments – governments that are under the thumb of industrial powers, no less – without seeing the larger forces that are responsible for the actions of these governments. Overall, they retain a very reformist attitude, and they are not able to keep sight of the larger picture: the particular articulation of capitalist relations, liberal discourses, bureaucracy, and governmental power that orders global and local social structures.

Hactivism could be a very effective nonviolent form of resistance. It just requires a very clear definition of the enemy, and a will to complete transform society.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Truth about Marriage

Once again, an issue of power/oppression is being scrutinized within the framework of human rights and functionalist social theory. The Supreme Court hearings this week are nothing more than an opportunity to rehash ideas and arguments that everyone is familiar with, but no one seriously questions. The conception of marriage exhibited in these discussions reflects both the Ideology of Progress and a latent neoliberalism, yet holds no weight against historical and anthropological evidence. I think it is important to examine some of these popular myths about marriage in an effort to understand the real history of marriage and its ideological construction in the modern era.

Throughout all of human history, marriage has been defined as a union between one man and one woman.
There has been tremendous variation throughout time and across cultures in how marriage is defined. There is no single definition of marriage that has been universally accepted. In fact, polygamy has been a very prevalent form of marriage for most of human history, even if it has been declining recently. (Thus, countering the “slippery slope to polygamy” argument.)

The function of marriage is to regulate procreation
Like the forms that marriages take, their functions are similarly diverse. However, if one really wishes to generalize, for most of human history marriage has most often served an economic purpose (which is why, in anthropology courses, the two topics are often taught in tandem). But, economics is never really separate from other aspects of the social structure, and so it would be a bit narrow to say that marriage is purely “economic” in the modern understanding of the word. However, marriage has commonly functioned as a type or realm of exchange (the basis of economic activity). These exchanges facilitate the integration of different kin groups and determine responsibility for the care and provisioning of certain segments of society. This does, of course, include children, but may also include elders and other people who cannot participate fully in the social division of labor. Significantly, the social division of labor is almost always gendered, and consequently in many instances, a woman is treated as a form of property, which another adult male can own for the purposes of extracting labor. Hence, if there is any such thing as “traditional marriage” then traditional marriage has served the primary function of exploiting and oppressing women.

But let’s get back to those children. In more communal societies, marriage may have determined which group of people was responsible for provisioning a particular child, and that group might have included kin and non-kin. However, in atomistic capitalist societies, the nuclear family has become the primary (“sacred”) means of providing for children. This concentrates and confines all of the responsibilities, risks, and expenses involved in childcare to one or two people – and it is guaranteed that one of those people (the woman) is already saddled with a larger share of the division of labor in combination with fewer resources. If the one or two people who have been charged with caring for the child do not have enough money or sufficient time or cannot provide a safe environment for their child, then that child is SOL. That is why so many children die of malnutrition, despite the abundance of available food. That is why so many children grow up without supervision, and why so many children are exposed to violence, filth, and disease on a daily basis. Under capitalism, there is no communal responsibility for the raising of children, and therefore no safety net when the parent(s) cannot handle it on their own. In my opinion, that is the most dysfunctional and malevolent social arrangement of all!

We do not know enough about the consequences for children
I refer once again to my point that the forms that marriages and families take have been and are incredibly diverse. Evidence has been accumulating for all of history that marriage in and of itself does not determine the fate of a society or the character of its children. What matters is the social structure as a whole, and structures that are severely unequal and exploitative are the most unstable. If we are concerned for our children, then we should get rid of capitalism.

Children need a mom and a dad
False. See my argument above. In addition, this idea is based on the assumption that gender is a natural trait. To the contrary, gender, and even sex (the anatomical distinction between male and female), are social constructions. Hormones and other biological factors vary continuously, not discretely, and there is a considerable overlap between male and female. Furthermore, characterizations of gender differences have varied throughout history and across cultures, and there is no evidence of any link to biological factors. What it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman today are very culturally specific. It is absurd to say that there is any innate, biological need for a child to be exposed to particular cultural constructs.

Marriage is sacred
If the historical functions of marriage, particularly in the West, have most often been concerned with the gendered division of labor, exploitation, and subordination of women, and furthermore, if the nuclear family in the context of a capitalist society cannot adequately serve the needs of most children.... why do we even need marriage? Are there not better ways to nurture loving human relationships and to provide for vulnerable segments of society? I’m not so sure that a victory for marriage equality will be a real step toward meaningful social change.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Generational Stereotyping

It seems the latest rage in the business world is making generalizations about employees based on the generation to which they belong. Some businesses have hired consultants to explain these generational differences to their employees so that they can interact with each other more effectively. This, of course, is another variation on the “personality types.” The basic idea is still the same: condense all of human variation into a few discrete catagories in order to simplify human relationships.

I have complained to my employer about such a workshop in which I must participate. My concerns were countered with the assertion that “this is a science.” It may be a science, I was tempted to reply, but science is not infallible. In fact, the worst types of science in the last few centuries have been precisely those that elaborate and solidify catagorizations of human beings, whether it is based on race, gender, age, or any number of factors.

All categories are arbitrary. If I were born just a few years earlier, I would belong to a different generation, but there is no reason why the official “line” has to fall on that exact year. There are an infinite number of ways to create generational categories, and none is definitive. Furthermore, human variation is always continuous, not discrete. What this means is that the arbtirary categories will necessarily overlap to a significant extent. I am a Millenial, but my brother and many of my friends growing up were Gen Xers. Hence, the world I inhabited, the attitudes and views that I assimilated, were shared with people of an officially different generation. Yet, the whole basis of this new generational consulting fad is that generational differences are based on the entirely different environments in which people’s knowledge, attitudes, and values are shaped. But everyone on the boundaries – not just me – has grown up in an environment that includes people of two different generations. It’s not like in reality some big break occurs that would cause a neat, clean-cut generational divide.

People who are closer in age definitely have a larger shared cultural frame of reference, and their attitudes toward new technology will certainly dependent to some extent on how old they are (though even this generalization doesn’t entirely hold). Yet the concept of a “generation” doesn’t reflect that reality at all. For one thing, people on opposite ends of the range have far less in common with each other than they do with people on the other side of the generational divide. My experiences growing up were much closer to people born in 1980 than to those born in 2004. Nine-year-old children belong to the same generation as me! And I have a hard time relating to the world of college students!

The idea of a “generation” was originally employed in social science to describe specific groups of people at times of social upheaval - for example, the counterculture of the 1960s – in order to explain societal factors that caused a perceived rift with, and hence rebellion from, the established order. This is a far cry from suggesting that everyone fits into some sort of generational box.

I also take issue with the claim that generational groupings are at least as important as gender, race, class, etc. The latter groups relate to one’s objective place in the social division of labor and within relationships of power and dominance. To push these considerations to the background (as generational theory does) is, once again, to elide the role of power relations and the inherent dynamics of the capitalist system. The fact that, for example, generational theorists claim their framework explains Kondratieff cycles, without having any real understanding of economics, makes them all the more laughable and dismissable.

But the steady march of “progress” requires the contant elimination of complexity, as well as the management of human populations in terms of discrete categories. So, if it’s not generational stereotyping or personality stereotyping, it will be something else.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Are Boycotts Still Useful?

After Israel’s latest assault on Palestine, it seems there has been greater interest in Palestinian solidarity groups and movements like Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS). The idea of the latter is to treat Israel as the World Community treated South Africa during its Apartheid years, hoping that the results will be similar. There are two interrelated matters to take in to consideration when it comes to BDS: Israel’s role in the global hierarchy and the value of boycotts in general in the modern world.

The position of Israel is the most crucial issue, so I will start there. Not infrequently, both in unofficial forums in the U.S. and the whole gamut of “officialness” in foreign media sources, I have come across people from the Middle East (and sometimes other parts of the world as well) express the almost-cliched anti-Semitic truisms: Jews control the banks and the media, they pull the strings of Western foreign policy, there is a reason why “everyone” has a problem with the Jews, etc. Obviously there are many Jewish anti-Zionists and anti-Zionists who are in no way anti-Semitic; however, in denouncing Zionism one must take great care not to unintentionally provide support for or feed into the misconceptions of the anti-Semites. When one emphasizes the power of Israel and isolates its evil from the global capitalist system of which it is a part, then one runs the risk of reinforcing the ideas about Jews Running the World and Jews as an Evil People.

It is certainly important to call attention to the reality of the situation in Palestine, as Western media and public discourse are very one-sided. Yet, this attention should also highlight the context of European colonialism, American neocolonialism, and global capitalism. These forces are responsible for nurturing Zionism, guiding it in particular directions, using it to secure global structures of power, and of course, funding and arming it. Just like poor whites in the American South who were inculcated with racism to suit the needs of politicians, Israel is in a sense “only a pawn in the game” (lyrics courtesy of Bob Dylan).

So the question (which can apply to all boycotts) is, why Israel? It seems a bit like cherry-picking. The U.S. has enslaved more people (particularly if you include the humungous prison population) and caused more death and suffering worldwide (including direct support for the Israeli occupation). Why not boycott all goods produced by U.S. companies? In fact, since all corporations exploit human beings (and are complicit to varying degrees with slavery and poverty), why not boycott all capitalist-produced goods? Once again, to single out Israel is to make the Jewish nation appear as the greatest evil in this world when it certainly is not.

But those questions bring me to my second point. One of the first instances of the boycott was employed by Quakers and free blacks in the United States as a reaction to slavery. At that time, it probably was not possible to see the development of capitalism, and certainly the institution of slavery was (and still is) foundational to the capitalist system. In that sense, the boycott really was aiming high. The participants did not want to personally profit off of slavery; thus, it was a general, principled stand rather than a fight against anyone or anything in particular. The problem with boycotts now is that they are directed at specific actors: a certain corporation or set of corporations. All capitalists play by the same rules. If you do not want to personally benefit from capitalist exploitation, then it doesn’t make any sense to single anyone out. In fact, it may end up just putting impoverished people in a more vulnerable position (as I once heard a Bangladeshi Walmart employee say, “But we need the jobs!”). What we need is an effective way to challenge the entire global capitalist system – a way to extricate ourselves from it and call attention to the reality of its mechanisms. When we boycott these days, we are sending the message that we are just concerned about “bad guys,” but the truth is that we are fight against a bad system.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Border Control: Conflict or Symbiosis?

It occurred to me that immigration/border security is an entire domain that I have only touched on lightly and indirectly. This is as good a time as any to go into more detail, particularly with the recent discussions about immigration reform. Obviously, I could tackle this from the perspective of nationalism and xenophobia/racism, as that is certainly an important aspect of the situation. However, I am most interested in some of the contradictions that are entailed by the concept of “border security” and its surrounding activities.

The first contradiction has been fairly well observed and commented on. In theory, capitalism entails a constant circulation of capital, and this includes labor (in essence, human bodies) as a form of capital. Any impediments to the movement of labor in response to market needs would be an infringement on the functioning of the capitalist system. In this way, the assertion of sovereignty in the control of populations appears to run against the grain of the capitalist system (as capitalism always appears to be in conflict with the state). More radically, in its ideological construction, capitalism is premised on the free market, whether that is the market of products, raw materials, or labor. Of course, in reality capitalism has nothing to do with free markets, and historically has necessitated more state involvement and a more rapidly growing concentration of capital among fewer competitors than any other system. Capitalism has limited the freedom of markets more than anything else, and capitalism and the state are not in inherent conflict. In many ways, then, this contradiction is a matter of ideology versus reality.

But not entirely. It is true that the cheap and grueling labor supplied by migrant workers is highly profitable for many industries – especially agriculture in the United States. In fact, many farmers have discovered to their dismay that their labor reserve dried up when the immigrants were chased away. This stems from the fact that, although in many ways symbiotic, capitalists and the bureaucratic apparatus of the state do act independently, and this may result in friction. The basic problem is this: state sovereignty and nationalism often have a life of their own and work toward insular, self-reinforcing ends, even while they are under the control of (and wielded by) capitalist interests. How can this be? I have never heard a satisfactory explanation, and I do not have one myself. However, since control of the movement of people and objects across borders is one of the primary manifestations of state sovereignty, the identity of the state and the very existence of sovereignty itself have come to depend on the acts of defining citizenship and managing immigration.

Or maybe there really is a definite economic interest underlying the expressions of state sovereignty. One very recent development in immigration/border policy is the placement of the whole enterprise within the framework of domestic security and the “War on Terror.” One interesting effect of this rebranding is that it has allowed for the creation of another “parallel military” (in terms of its structure, power, funding, and equipment, the Department of Homeland Security now acts as much like a shadow military as the CIA), as well as a new area for the fusion of the domains of military, intelligence, criminal justice, and industry. The boundaries among these four groups are steadily eroding. The activities of police, FBI, and CBP constantly interlace. Furthermore, the increased securitization of the border control issue is a boon to arms and military equipment manufacturers, who happily peddle their latest products at security conferences.

Could this be a case of certain groups of capitalists becoming empowered and benefiting at the expense of others (those who rely on migrant labor)? In fact, it’s even possible that the manufacturers who profit off of the securitization of borders simultaneously avail themselves of cheap immigrant labor (knowing, perhaps, that border security will never been 100% successful). It’s possible. Capitalism is always contradictory.

One could take the economic argument even further and suggest that all of the money spent on border security is actually another emergence of military Keynesianism. For example, Doug Noland argues that an illusory economic recovery is currently developing by means of a “government finance bubble,” which includes increased government spending on arms and security. What this would mean, if true, is that it is not just certain groups of capitalists who stand to benefit from the expenditures, but the entire system, in the erroneous perception of the dominant classes, or at least those members of dominant groups who have reached the absolutely influential consensus that the financing of border security (and other such activities) will serve all of their interests by protecting the base conditions necessary for the maintenance of the capitalist system.

The bureaucratic processes and nationalist ethos of the state may conflict with the needs of the capitalist class, but they often work seamlessly together. The interests of particular capitalists may conflict with each other, yet capitalists often collaborate to secure their common aims. It is hard to tell which of these situations is reflected in the securitization of our borders.

However, there is a final contradiction that goes right to the heart of the nature of capitalism, and while in many ways more interesting than those outlined above, is a bit more straightforward. Capitalism is an inherently centrifugal system that is completely global in its extent. Yet, it simultaneously requires various sorts of inequality (uneven development), including those of geography that strict border enforcement helps to maintain. The classic example is the simultaneous development of the West and impoverishment of the Third World. To this end, it is interesting to note that securitization makes borders more impermeable to some people while at the same time it eradicates those boundaries for others. People with “medium skin” (as the classification goes) find it more difficult to cross borders without being detained and abused. On the other hand, border enforcement requires cooperation between neighboring states, and in this way securitization entails a much freer flow of officials, equipment, and information across national boundaries. Border patrol officers are able to work on both sides of the line with more ease. Drones and other surveillance technology roam without restriction. And information sharing agreements may soon allow for the unimpeded transfer of biometric and other personal data between states. In essence, a securer border means greater disparities in the ability to cross boundaries. Organizations imbued with authority (corporations, state officials, etc.) more freely transgress borders while people as mere individuals, especially disadvantaged and "medium-skinned" people, are spatially, geographically contained.

The big question, then, is the implications of all of these changes. That, too, is difficult to answer. However, I can’t help but wonder how the military-prison-industrial trinity (involving intelligence and security agencies and the criminal justice system) can continue to grow and cohere into a violent capitalist juggernaut without some sort of very obvious and overtly unpalatable police state emerging.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Drones and the Universal Battlefield

I was very happy this morning when I saw drones on the front pages of the newspapers. Finally, I thought, this is being raised to the level of public discussion. As the day wore on and I read all of the variations of the story, with associated comment threads (yes, I did my actual reading online), my excitement continued, but I also grew irritated by a couple of things. On the positive side, I was happy to see people, including those who have believed that Obama is the answer to all their dreams and aspirations, starting to seriously question some of his choices. Yet, predictably, the debate centered entirely on the subject of the targeted killing of American citizens, and all criticisms of these killings were amply qualified with paeans to the virtues of killing terrorists.

The American Citizen Angle
Obviously it is a breach of domestic law and the Constitution (specifically that part about due process) to assassinate American citizens without a trial or any sort of legal procedure that might justify the act. This is and should be an outrage to those people who believe in the virtues of the modern institution of law. (I, on the other hand, have argued that the modern concept of “law” is a bourgeois institution/ideology/set of practices that create different spheres of actions and different types of citizenship – as such, laws are not made to be followed, and the U.S. has never consistently followed the rules upon which it supposedly is founded; infringements on civil rights have been the norm for the nation’s entire existence.) However, this departure from the Constitution is seen as the extent of the scandal. The targeted killing of non-citizens is not seen as problematic, and I have not seen it raised for discussion.

However, drone strikes, regardless of whom they are directed against, represent a fundamental shift in our notion of the “battlefield.” Up until recently, if one wanted to intervene militarily in another country, one declared war. It was the declaration of war itself that triggered the application of international laws pertaining to Just War. For example, the rationalization of “collateral damage” (which I nevertheless do not believe is in any way "rational") occurred within the context of a declared war, with a specified battlefield in relation to where the combatants were located. It was this official declaration of war that made a “special exception” for the killing of civilians located in a conflict zone. Now there is no declared war. And the “battleground” has been redefined as “anywhere a terrorist moves.” Since “terrorist” itself is a vague word (more on that below), any location on earth can be defined as a battleground, and therefore the “special exceptions” of war have become universally applicable laws. Despite the misleading contentions that drones only kill terrorists, less biased international organizations estimate that the vast majority of victims are innocent civilians. What the drone apologists are arguing is that they have the authority to indiscriminately kill anyone in the world, without any approval or oversight, or any framework of a “war.” This is just as much of an abrogation of previously accepted law as the assassination of American citizens.

The Secrecy Angle (/Killing Terrorists is A-Okay)
One common sentiment that I encountered today went along the lines of:  "Of course, no one would have much of a problem with the U.S. killing terrorists without due process. They just shouldn't be so secretive about it." Yes, it seemed that the main problem was simply the covertness with which the drone program has been carried out. Not the the loss of life or physical destruction or psychological trauma in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. The telling thing is that a lot of people are more than willing to give up their sacred laws if terrorists are involved. This is where the problematic definition of "terrorist" comes in.

It has been noted that the U.S. retroactively (and erroneously) identified some drone victims as high-ranking Al Qaeda members in order to justify the killings. Yet, many victims are young and only marginally involved in Al Qaeda, posing no serious threat to the U.S. The problem is that one does not have to possess both the means and the intent to inflict harm on the U.S. institutional apparatus or citizenry to be considered a terrorist. Generally, anyone expressing any views that challenge the U.S. and its vital interests can be labeled as a "threat" - and if they are Muslim, a "terrorist." Of course, one can view this as a freedom of speech issue. But there is a broader issue. All nations are not created equal. The U.S. is a neo-colonial power with substantial influence in pretty much every country, particularly in those areas where "terrorists" reside. Expressing anti-American sentiments must be seen in the context of feeling the domination of the U.S. in a very physical way (poverty, dictatorships, etc.)

It is an established fact that when one group of humans dominates another, the subject populations will resist. It is also an establish fact that the dominating power will label the resistance movement as "terrorists" or some other such pejorative term. For a while, the popular term was "communist." Whether one talks about "terrorists" or "communists" the effect is always the same: the demonization of people resisting domination, and the legitimization of all manner of activities that would in normal circumstances be unpalatable (e.g. killing random people with drones).

Drone attacks should be seen for what they are: another expression of American domination of the Middle East and Africa. That is why they largely increase anti-American sentiments. When drones kill "terrorists" they are not eradicating evil-doers. They are annihilating the resistance to neo-colonialism.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Does Everyone Hate Pacifists?

I’ve noticed that whenever someone makes an anti-war argument, they feel the need to preface it with “I’m not a pacifist, but...” Similarly, if you admit to being a pacifist in the course of a conversation, all further arguments will be immediately dismissed. If you’re lucky, you might get a pat on the head, and you will definitely be told that you are too na├»ve and idealistic. Clearly, you don’t understand how the world “really works” and no one should take you seriously. If your interlocutor is fervent leftist, you may even be met with hostility, for your unwillingness to engage in or support “real revolution.” As a self-identified pacifist, I feel like that is the one aspect of my personal identity that no one feels a need to respect or tolerate.

I keep wondering, why is a principled love of peace so vile to the general public? Why has political realism become such a sacred cow? Violence is vital to the functioning of the global capitalist system, and we are psychologically primed to accept violence from a very young age. Perhaps it is the necessity of violence and the strength of the brainwashing that can account for the widespread aversion to pacifism. What this means, then, is that contrary to popular belief, it is the revolutionaries who have some trouble with reality. They are accepting the ideology of the capitalist system hook, line, and sinker.

This is where pacifists have the upper hand. Institutions do not operate in isolation from each other, but rather function as an integrated whole. As I have already discussed at length in this blog, all modern institutions and associated ideologies arose together as part of the bourgeois transformation of society. A revolution cannot be successful if everything is not attacked together, as one unified package - and this includes the ideology that justifies violence. To put it another way: it is so difficult to escape the world within which one is entrapped, that one often resorts to using the same tools and strategies as the dominating power one is trying to resist. But how can one effectively destroy a power when one is relying upon the foundational institutional and ideological components of that power? If one is to escape, one must completely and absolutely leave behind the Old World Order. It is failure to recognize this fact that always results in the unwitting reconstitution of the very type of society that one is trying to abolish.

So, I would argue that pacifists are able to more radically challenge the system and its ideologies than anyone else. Furthermore, pacifists are more faithful to underlying principles and values – holding them as ultimate ends in themselves and thus not willing to compromise for any other ends. Is it really so terrible if a person is not willing sacrifice their values?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book Review: Humanitarian Imperialism

Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human RIghts to Sell War by Jean Bricmont

This short book is really a persuasive essay targeted at Bricmont's fellow leftist who have abandoned the idealism of their youth (the revolutionary 1960s) and have for decades been advocating humanitarian interventions in other countries. Bricmont, though not writing from a pacifist perspective per se, highlights the weaknesses of the leftist criticisms of the anti-war movement, and explains how interventions ostensibly undertaken to defend human rights in reality always serve to strengthen Western imperialism.

Although I didn't agree with every single line of reasoning used by Bricmont (e.g. faith in international law), as an argument against the pro-militaristic left it is fantastic. Bricmont situates U.S./NATO military campaigns in the context of colonial history and present neocolonial hegemony. He makes a compelling case as to why a Western state will never have altruistic aims, and why an army can never be used to promote human rights.

I do wish he could have expanded a bit more on why WW2 can't be used an example of justifiable intervention. He mentions that Western elites admired fascist regimes; that the purpose of waging war with Hitler had nothing to do with concern for human rights abuses; and that, in fact, mass killings of Jews did not occur until after Western powers became involved (thus, the war was not really an effective tool to stop genocide). Bricmont could have also mentioned the role of U.S. capital investments in Germany's rearmament - in fact, the role of capitalism more generally.

On the other hand, I was very interested by some of Bricmont's arguments regarding the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is always used to make the case that communism/socialism/Marxism has "been proven wrong." This frustrates me to no end, and I think I may just devote another entire post to the subject. However, one interesting idea proposed by Bricmont is that the instability caused by Western intervention in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution should be factored into the type of dictatorship that emerged. It is true that threats from the outside always engender a curtailment of civil liberties. Bricmont also rightly points out that there were plenty of cases of democratic socialism/communism, but they just happened to be undermined by Western-sponsored coups and the like. Bricmont argues that dictatorships are harder to topple, and thus the only socialist/communist states that were able to survive the Western onslaught were those that were dictatorial. Thus, the most popular examples of the failure of communism do not really prove anything about the inherent nature of communism.

The conception of violence as a useful tool is one of the last bits of dominant ideology that is so entrenched as to be nearly unquestionable. Bricmont takes a great step toward demystifying the nature of violence and war. I can already think of several people who I would love to get to read this book!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

New Cold War? U.S. Shifts Geographical Focus

To start, I want to make it clear that the true geographical focus of the U.S., as a world imperial power, is nothing less than the entire world. In this post I am referring specifically to its more overt military operations, as opposed to CIA actions and other things more “under the radar.” For the past decade or more, U.S. military focus has concentrated overwhelmingly on the Middle East, particularly at the sites of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not that I see a complete abandonment of these regions anytime soon, but it appears that the center of gravity of military strategy is spreading in two different directions.

First, there is Africa. The ‘Arab Spring’ in its historic import is coming to symbolize not so much some real transformative movement, but more the moment when the U.S. military started bringing in “the big guns” to Africa. Obviously the U.S. has diligently been helping to overthrow governments and support brutal dictators and ethnic conflict in Africa for the duration of the decolonization/post-WW2 era. Yet, they never thought The Dark Continent deserved the best of its military resources. Not until they finally got their opportunity to overthrow Gaddafi.

Side note. Although I am restricting my discussion to the U.S., clearly, as always, the interests and actions of other Western powers are intertwined with those of the U.S. In that vein, the shift toward Africa has coincided with the re-emergence of French imperialism. The French, of course, were at the forefront of the decision to invade Libya, and are pretty much going solo right now in Mali.

Back to the U.S. Now that the U.S. has been getting weapons into the hands of militant groups, and Islamist movements are re-branding themselves as Al Qaeda syndicates, it is possible for the U.S. to argue that Africa is an important front in the War on Terror. As such, the military is very visibly upgrading its African operations, including more advanced surveillance and killing technology – complete with a brand new drone base in Niger! Some analysts are even predicting that Mali will become the next Afghanistan.

But that’s not all. The U.S. is also stepping up its military presence in the Pacific. The move was never designed to be secret and has been trumpeted by the Obama administration as a means of countering Chinese regional hegemony. Less well-known is the way in which the U.S. has been covertly trying to provoke conflict among various Asian states and China. For example, goading the Philippines (an important U.S. ally) into disputing the Chinese occupation of the Spratly Islands.

In fact, China may be a common denominator in both of these geographical shifts. True, Africa is rich with resources, including gold, oil, and uranium – all coveted by Western powers (and this may largely explain France’s interests). But the U.S. (and its Western allies) is concerned about the Chinese encroaching on its African investment opportunities. Many Africans are optimistic about the possible benefits of Chinese investment for “rising Africa,” and China, seeing limitless potential for exploitation, is pouring in the capital. The thing about capitalism, though, is that it is characterized by a centrifugal inertia which demands ever larger markets, resource-rich peripheries, and more opportunities for investment. Western economic hegemony cannot abide a competitor. Witness what happened to the Soviet Union! In this way, the characterization of relations between the U.S. and China as “the new Cold War” is quite apt. The differences in Cold War Part 2 are that 1) the ideological divisions have somewhat lost their significance, such that the Chinese can barely manage to still call themselves “Communist” and are in no way pursuing systematic support of socialist or communist regimes (although China is perceived by many in the Third World as more “anti-colonial” and friendly);  2) "Terrorism" has superseded "Communism" as The Great Evil;  3) far from having entered a period of great economic expansion, the world is languishing in the midst of the latest manifestation of a decades-long economic contraction, which has the power to create enormous global instability; and 4) U.S. hegemony may be teetering on the brink.

It’s hard to know how all of this will play out. At the very least, I am expecting to see Africa play a more significant role in U.S. foreign policy.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Most Annoying Legacy of Occupy Wall Street

One of the greatest successes of the “Occupy” movement was its refusal to outline a specific platform and to thereby unite a broad coalition of groups based on a single, shared socioeconomic concern: inequality. I have on numerous occasions expressed my frustration with the divisions engendered by the non-profitization of the progressive movement and the concomitant reformist strategy. People focus on specific issues that they attempt to grapple with via policy changes and other mundane maneuvers. I have maintained, in contrast, that the only way to effect real social change is to create a united front based on a common critique of the global capitalist system. In support of this position, I described the way in which other issues (regarding race, gender, sexuality, etc.) stem from this fundamental social problem.

So, good for “Occupy” for trying to build a movement around basic socioeconomic concerns. My main problem with “Occupy” relates to some of the rhetoric used by the movement (which I already critiqued somewhat in this blog). However, it seems like the most lasting bit of discourse preserved from “Occupy” is the 99%/1% model that they used to characterize socioeconomic relations. At first it just seemed refreshing that anyone could even acknowledge that inequality really exists in the United States. Ultimately, however, the concept has serious weaknesses and the continued use of this terminology is getting a little irritating.

The main flaw of the 99%/1% rhetoric is that it tacitly presumes income distribution to be the most important feature of socioeconomic conditions. From a Marxist perspective, income distribution is a secondary – or even tertiary – concern. Of top significance is the way in which society – including economic activity – is organized. In other words, one must look at the relations of production, not income distribution, if one wishes to get to the root of the problem. All of this amounts to the fact (which I have already noted) that “Occupy” is not a comprehensive, systemic critique of capitalism, but merely a frustration with one of the more troubling manifestations of capitalism. The fact that “Occupy” would eventually have to contend with is that it is not possible to change the income distribution within the confines of capitalism.

This is more than just a theoretical error. It is a strategic blunder. Income distribution is a quantitative and not a qualitative phenomenon. Or, to put it another way, the criticism is based only on the feeling that the current income distribution is too skewed. But then the question becomes: what is an acceptable level of inequality? Where do we draw the line? No one (not even me!) is prepared to argue that income distribution should be completely even, so protesters have put themselves in a position where they are ultimately just haggling over numbers. This awkward position opens them to either the false criticism that they do support complete homogeneity, or the ideological criticism that they are jealous or unappreciative of the contributions of the creative people who rise to the top. The concept of “fairness” is nebulous and no one is going to agree about it what it means in practice.

If “Occupy” had initiated a discussion about the way in which capitalism organizes production and other social relations, and how that results in extreme income inequality, among many other things, it is true that they may have been just as easily dismissed by those people who are too devoted to neoliberal ideology to seriously think about any of their own assumptions. Yet, at least they would be opening to discussion certain considerations that have always remained outside of public discourse – and maybe, by bringing those arguments to light, many people who do not have such blind loyalty to neoliberal ideology may start to question the whole thing: the system and its ideological justification. That would be the start of a real conversation.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Toys, Cultural Transmission, and Recruitment

We like to think that a protective barrier separates children from society. Kids live in a bubble. They have special books and toys and television programs, all of which present them with a sanitized version of the world. We don't like to think about the ways in which the cultural elements of children's worlds are saturated with "outside" social forces of nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism.

Sometimes it is obvious. Feminists have done a fine job critiquing the image of womanhood and the female body promoted by Barbie dolls. Disney has been duly criticized for its patriarchal values and often explicit racism. Fads such as pogs (or bottle caps) have really laid bare the money-making schemes that, with the help of creative marketing and television/movie product integrations, have the power to shape children's behavior.

Then there are the still obvious but less uniformly accepted social/political implications of youth culture. There are endless debates about the harms of Gangsta Rap and violent movies and video games. We just had another round of this after the tragic shooting in Sandy Hook. Some people say, "It's no wonder we have all these mass shootings. Look at the games young people are playing, and the movies they are watching." And then of course others fire back with either the less persuasive argument that "kids really don't take the violence seriously and exposure to video games/movies alone doesn't predict whether any particular person will become a mass murder" (and then they typically blame the news media, because, as we all know, there is no greater young adult influence than the news) - or the slightly more convincing but nonetheless fallacious argument that "other countries have violent video games and they don't have these mass shootings.... ipso facto, there is absolutely no relationship between violence embedded in cultural artifacts and real, enacted violence."

Any kind of culture - whether it is adult culture, teenage culture, children's culture - penetrates individual consciousness and shapes behavior. If your argument is premised on culture being in any way inconsequential, then you are clearly wrong. Every encounter with a cultural production provides us with images, vocabulary, and morally charged narrative, which together compose a framework for interpreting, valuing, and talking about the world. To put it crudely: the images, words, and narratives that we are presented through cultural media determine what we believe and how we perceive the world around us.

So, for example, if one is consistently, from childhood, being presented with variations on the Good vs. Evil narrative, and if violence is perpetually being portrayed as the only effective means for Good to triumph over Evil (add in some patriotic symbols, perhaps, for greater emotional effect), then violence will likely occupy an ambiguous position within one's moral framework, making it easier to justify particular violent acts. On a more sensory level, the abundance of everyday play that involves acts of violence (from toy water guns to graphically violent video games), which are sanitized to remove both the physical gore and the psychological/moral quandaries associated with brutality, serves to normalize and trivialize violence. This can numb one to the real effects of violence and also allow an easier transition to actual brutality.

Meanwhile, as people continue to debate these sorts of issues, a third (but not unrelated) consideration lurks in the background. Are the purveyors of youth culture simply trying to make money, or is any active, purposeful transmission of values taking place? (We have agreed that some transmission of values is taking place; the question here is to what degree it is intended.) For example, there is a striking parallel between the attitudes and behaviors indigenous to team sporting events (from school sports to professional leagues) and those that are characteristic of nationalism. It is clear that the cultivation of these dispositions early in life prepares children to be receptive to nationalist ideology. Was that ever planned, and/or is anyone currently trying to maximize its political potential?

Similarly, we may never know whether Disney intended to reinforce racist attitudes or whether Mattel tried to promote a particular image of an ideal female body. We do know about all the various ways in which the makers of toys, games, and tv shows try very intently to promote the development of different cognitive skills (we now even have Goldiblocks to encourage girls' interest in engineering) - but this is not only an uncontroversial goal, but more importantly, it is a great marketing ploy.

What about the violence? It is so pervasive in youth culture... does it serve any purpose other than its supposedly inherent entertainment value? I think it is clear that the processes of normalization and desensitization are supremely useful to the maintenance of a social order that requires violence as its modus operandi. Plenty of movies and video games have explicitly defended and glorified courses of action taken by the United States. More than this though, the military has seen the motor coordination skills that are cultivated by video games as a valuable resource in the operation of drone technology. They have a keen interest in video game competitions and view the events as recruiting grounds. How innocent, then, are video games when the military seriously considers them as a preparatory stage to real warfare?

We all, generally, feel a need to brainwash children. Usually this is framed in terms of socialization, education, and instilling values. Regardless, though, we still see children as the blank slates that we can form to our liking. The problem is that, through mass-produced cultural productions, multiple interests are trying to shape any given child, and we hardly know who or what they are.