Archive for the ‘Socialism’ Category

Caveat: rather overlong for me, but I got rolling …

One of the better articles I’ve read about the pandemic is this one by Robert Skidelsky at Project Syndicate (a publication I’ve never heard of before). It reads as only slightly conspiratorial, purporting to reveal the true motivation for lockdowns and social distancing, namely, so-called herd immunity. If that’s the case, it’s basically a silent admission that no cure, vaccine, or inoculation is forthcoming and the spread of the virus can only be managed modestly until it has essentially raced through the population. Of course, the virus cannot be allowed to simply run its course unimpeded, but available impediments are limited. “Flattening the curve,” or distributing the infection and death rates over time, is the only attainable strategy and objective.

Wedding mathematical and biological insights, as well as the law of mass action in chemistry, into an epidemic model may seem obvious now, but it was novel roughly a century ago. We’re also now inclined, if scientifically oriented and informed, to understand the problem and its potential solutions management in terms of engineering rather than medicine (or maybe in terms of triage and palliation). Global response has also made the pandemic into a political issue as governments obfuscate and conceal true motivations behind their handling (bumbling in the U.S.) of the pandemic. Curiously, the article also mentions financial contagion, which is shaping up to be worse in both severity and duration than the viral pandemic itself.

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Didn’t expect to come back to this one so soon, but an alternative meaning behind my title just appeared. Whereas the first post was about cancel culture, this redux is about finding people willing and able to act as mouthpieces for whatever narrative the powers that be wish to foist on the public, as in “Where do they dig up these characters people?”

Wide-ranging opinion is not difficult to obtain in large populations, so although plenty of folks are willing to be paid handsomely to mouth whatever words are provided to them (e.g., public relations hacks, social media managers, promoters, spokespersons, actors, and straight-up shills in advertisements of all sorts), a better approach is simply to find people who honestly believe the chosen narrative so that they can do others’ bidding guilelessly, which is to say, without any need of selling their souls. This idea first came to my attention in an interview (can’t remember the source) given by Noam Chomsky where is chided the interviewer, who had protested that no one was telling him what to say, by observing that if he didn’t already share the desired opinion, he wouldn’t have the job. The interviewer was hired and retained precisely because he was already onboard. Those who depart from the prescribed organizational perspective are simply not hired, or if their opinions evolve away from the party line, they are fired. No need to name names, but many have discovered that journalistic objectivity (or at least a pose of objectivity) and independent thought are not high values in the modern media landscape.

Here’s a good example: 19-year-old climate change denier/skeptic Naomi Seibt is being billed as the anti-Greta Thunberg. No doubt Seibt believes the opinions she will be presenting at the Heartland Institute later this week. All the more authenticity if she does. But it’s a little suspicious, brazen and clumsy even, that another European teenage girl is being raised up to dispel Time Magazine‘s 2019 Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg. Maybe it’s even true, as conspiracists suggest, that Thunberg herself is being used to drive someone else’s agenda. The MSM is certainly using her to drive ratings. These questions are all ways to distract from the main point, which is that we’re driving ourselves to extinction (alongside most of the rest of the living world) by virtue of the way we inhabit the planet and consume its finite resources.

Here’s a second example: a “debate” on the subject of socialism between economists Paul Krugman and Richard Wolff on PBS‘s show Democracy Now!

 

Let me disclose my biases up front. I’ve never liked economists as analysts of culture, sociology, or electoral politics. Krugman in particular has always read like more of an apologist for economic policies that support the dysfunctional status quo, so I pay him little attention. On the other hand, Wolff has engaged his public as a respectable teacher/explainer of the renewed socialist movement of which he is a part, and I give him my attention regularly. In truth, neither of these fellow needed to be “dug up” from obscurity. Both are heavily covered in the media, and they did a good job not attacking each other while making their cases in the debate.

The weird thing was how Krugman is so clearly triggered by the word socialism, even though he acknowledges that the U.S. has many robust examples of socialism already. He was clearly the one designated to object to socialism as an ideology and describes socialism as an electoral kiss of death. Maybe he has too many childhood memories of ducking, covering, and cowering during those Atomic Era air raid drills and so socialism and communism were imprinted on him as evils never to be entertained. At least three generations after him lack those memories, however, and are not traumatized by the prospect of socialism. In fact, that’s what the Democratic primaries are demonstrating: no fear but rather enthusiastic support for the avowed Democratic Socialist on the ballots. Who are the fearful ones? Capitalists. They would be wise to learn sooner than later that the public, as Wolff says plainly, is ready for change. Change is coming for them.

From the end of Paul Street’s They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014):

Those on the radical left who worry that pursuing a Green New Deal and leading with the environmental issue means giving up on the struggle against the 1% for a democratically transformed “world turned upside down” can rest easy. The green transformation required for human survival will be bright rouge. With its inherent privileging of private profit and exchange value over the common good and social use value, its intrinsic insistence on private management; its inbuilt privileging of the short-term bottom line over the long-term fate of the earth and its many species, with its deep-sunk cost investment in endless quantitative growth and the carbon-addicted way of life and death, and with its attachment to the division of the world into competing nations and empires that are incapable of common action for the global good, capitalism is simply inconsistent with the deep environmental changes required for human survival. “Green capitalism” is an oxymoron. It is naïve to think that the green transformation required for civilization’s survival can take place without an epic confrontation with — and defeat of — the concentrated wealth and power enjoyed by the capitalist elite and its profits system. [p. 197]

Richard Wolff gave a fascinating talk at Google offices in New York City, which is embedded below:

This talk was published nearly two years ago, demonstrating that we refuse to learn or make adjustments we need to order society better (and to avoid disaster and catastrophe). No surprise there. (Also shows how long it takes me to get to things.) Critics of capitalism and the democracy we pretend to have in the U.S. are many. Wolff criticizes effectively from a Marxist perspective (Karl Marx being among the foremost of those critics). For those who don’t have the patience to sit through Wolff’s 1.5-hour presentation, let me draw out a few details mixed with my own commentary (impossible to separate, sorry; sorry, too, for the profusion of links no one follows).

The most astounding thing to me is that Wolff admitted he made it through higher education to complete a Ph.D. in economics without a single professor assigning Marx to read or study. Quite the set of blinders his teachers wore. Happily, Wolff eventually educated himself on Marx. Multiple economic forms have each had their day: sharing, barter, feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism (including subcategories anarcho-capitalism and laissez-faire economics), Keynesian regulation, socialism (and its subcategory communism), etc. Except for the first, prevalent among indigent societies living close to subsistence, all involve hierarchy and coercion. Some regard those dynamics as just, others as unjust. It’s worth noting, too, that no system is pure. For instance, the U.S. has a blend of market capitalism and socialism. Philanthropy also figures in somehow. However, as social supports in the U.S. continue to be withdrawn and the masses are left to fend for themselves, what socialism existed as a hidden-in-plain-sight part of our system is being scaled down, privatized, foisted on charitable organizations, and/or driven out of existence.

The usual labor arrangement nearly all of us know — working for someone else for a wage/salary — is defined in Marxism as exploitation (not the lay understanding of the term) for one simple reason: all economic advantage from excess productivity of labor accrues to the business owner(s) (often a corporation). That’s the whole point of capitalism: to exploit (with some acknowledged risk) the differential between the costs of labor and materials (and increasingly, information) vs. the revenue they produce in order to prosper and grow. To some, exploitation is a dirty word, but understood from an analytical point of view, it’s the bedrock of all capitalist labor relationships. Wolff also points out that real wages in the U.S. (adjusted for inflation) have been flat for more than 40 years while productivity has climbed steadily. The differential profit (rather immense over time) has been pocketed handily by owners (billionaire having long-since replaced millionaire as an aspiration) while the average citizen/consumer has kept pace with the rising standard of living by adding women to the workforce (two or more earners per family instead of one), racking up debt, and deferring retirement.

Wolff’s antidote or cure to the dynamic of late-stage capitalism (nearly all the money being controlled by very few) is to remake corporate ownership, where a board of directors without obligation to workers makes all the important decisions and takes all the profit, into worker-owned businesses that practice direct democracy and distribute profits more equitably. How closely this resembles a coop (read: cooperative), commune, or kibbutz I cannot assess. Worker-owned businesses, no longer corporations, also differ significantly from how “socializing a business” is generally understood, i.e., a business or sector being taken over and run by the government. The U.S. Postal Service is one example. (Curiously, that last link has a .com suffix instead of .gov.) Public K–12 education operated by the states is another. As I understand it, this difference (who owns and runs an enterprise) is what lies behind democratic socialism being promoted in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders is aligning his socialist politics with worker ownership of the means of production. Wolff also promotes this approach through his book and nonprofit organization Democracy at Work. How different these projects may be lies beyond my cursory analysis.

Another alternative to capitalist hegemony is a resource-based economy, which I admit I don’t really understand. Its rank utopianism is difficult to overlook, since it doesn’t fit at all with human history, where we muddle through without much of a plan or design except perhaps for those few who discover and devise ways to game systems for self-aggrandizement and personal benefit while leaving everyone else in the lurch. Peter Joseph, founder of The Zeitgeist Movement, is among the promoters of a resource-based economy. One of its chief attributes is the disuse of money. Considering central banks (the Federal Reserve System in the U.S.) that issue fiat currency worth increasingly little are being challenged rather effectively by cryptocurrencies based on nothing beyond social consensus, it’s interesting to contemplate an alternative to astronomical levels of wealth (and its inverse: debt) that come as a result of being trapped within the fiat monetary system that benefits so very few people.

Since this is a doom blog (not much of an admission, since it’s been obvious for years now), I can’t finish up without observing that none of these economic systems appears to take into account that we’re on a countdown to self-annihilation as we draw down the irreplaceable energy resources that make the whole shebang go. It’s possible the contemplated resource-based economy does so, but I rather doubt it. A decade or more ago, much of the discussion was about peak oil, which shortly thereafter gave way to peak everything. Shortages of materials such as helium, sand, and rare earths don’t figure strongly in public sentiment so long as party balloons, construction materials, and cell phones continue to be widely available. However, ongoing destruction of the biosphere through the primary activities of industrial civilization (e.g., mining, chemical-based agriculture, and steady expansion of human habitation into formerly wild nature) and the secondary effects of anthropogenic climate change (still hotly contested but more and more obvious with each passing season) and loss of biodiversity and biomass is catching up to us. In economics, this destruction is an externality conveniently ignored or waved away while profits can be made. The fullness of time will provide proof that we’ve enjoyed an extraordinary moment in history where we figured out how to exploit a specific sort of abundance (fossil fuels) with the ironic twist that that very exploitation leads to the collapse of the civilization it spawned and supported. No one planned it this way, really, and once the endgame came into view, nothing much could be done to forestall it. So we continue apace with self-destruction while celebrating its glamor and excess as innovation and progress. If only Wolff would incorporate that perspective, too.

Throughout human history, the question “who should rule?” has been answered myriad ways. The most enduring answer is simple: he who can muster and deploy the most force of arms and then maintain control over those forces. Genghis Khan is probably the most outrageously successful example and is regarded by the West as a barbarian. Only slightly removed from barbarians is the so-called Big Man, who perhaps adds a layer of diplomacy by running a protection racket while selectively providing and distributing spoils. As societies move further away from subsistence and immediacy, various absolute rulers are established, often through hereditary title. Call them Caesar, chief, dear leader, emir, emperor (or empress), kaiser, king (or queen), pharaoh, premier, el presidente, sultan, suzerain, or tsar, they typically acquire power through the accident of birth and are dynastic. Some are female but most are male, and they typically extract tribute and sometimes demand loyalty oaths.

Post-Enlightenment, rulers are frequently democratically elected administrators (e.g., legislators, technocrats, autocrats, plutocrats, kleptocrats, and former military) ideally meant to be representative of common folks. In the U.S., members of Congress (and of course the President) are almost wholly drawn from the ranks of the wealthy (insufficient wealth being a de facto bar to office) and are accordingly estranged from American life the many different ways most of us experience it. Below the top level of visible, elected leaders is a large, hidden apparatus of high-level bureaucratic functionaries (often appointees), the so-called Deep State, that is relatively stable and made up primarily of well-educated, white-collar careerists whose ambitions for themselves and the country are often at odds with the citizenry.

I began to think about this in response to a rather irrational reply to an observation I made here. Actually, it wasn’t even originally my observation but that of Thomas Frank, namely, that the Deep State is largely made up of the liberal professional class. The reply reinforced the notion who better to rule than the “pros”? History makes the alternatives unthinkable. Thus, the Deep State’s response to the veritable one-man barbarian invasion of the Oval Office has been to seek removal of the interloper by hook or by crook. (High office in this case was won unexpectedly and with unnamed precedent by rhetorical force — base populism — rather than by military coup, making the current occupant a quasi-cult leader; similarly, extracted tribute is merely gawking attention rather than riches.)

History also reveals that all forms of political organization suffer endemic incompetence and corruption, lending truth to Winston Churchill’s witticism “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Indeed, recent rule by technocrats has been supremely awful, leading to periodic market crashes, extreme wealth inequality, social stigmatization, and forever wars. Life under such rule is arguably better than under various other political styles; after all, we gots our vaunted freedoms and enviable material comforts. But the exercise of those freedoms does not reliably deliver either ontological security or psychological certainty we humans crave. In truth, our current form of self-governance has let nothing get in the way of plundering the planet for short-term profit. That ongoing priority is making Earth uninhabitable not just for other species but for humans, too. In light of this fact, liberal technocratic democracy could be a far worse failure than most: it will have killed billions (an inevitability now under delayed effect).

Two new grassroots movements (to my knowledge) have appeared that openly question who should rule: the Sunrise Movement (SM) and the Extinction Rebellion (ER). SM is a youth political movement in the U.S. that acknowledges climate change and supports the Green New Deal as a way of prioritizing the desperate existential threat modern politics and society have become. For now at least, SM appears to be content with working within the system, replacing incumbents with candidates it supports. More intensely, ER is a global movement centered in the U.K. that also acknowledges that familiar modern forms of social and political organization (there are several) no longer function but in fact threaten all of us with, well, extinction. One of its unique demands is that legislatures be drawn via sortition from the general population to be more representative of the people. Further, sortition avoids the established pattern of those elected to lead representational governments from being corrupted by the very process of seeking and attaining office.

I surmise attrition and/or replacement (the SM path) are too slow and leave candidates vulnerable to corruption. In addition, since no one relinquishes power willingly, current leaders will have to be forced out via open rebellion (the ER path). I’m willing to entertain either path but must sadly conclude that both are too little, too late to address climate change and near-term extinction effectively. Though difficult to establish convincingly, I suspect the time to act was in the 1970s (or even before) when the Ecology Movement arose in recognition that we cannot continue to despoil our own habitat without consequence. That message (social, political, economic, and scientific all at once) was as inert then as it is now. However, fatalism acknowledged, some other path forward is better than our current systems of rule.

The failed Scottish referendum on independence from Old Blighty caught me off guard. I thought perhaps it would be the first secessionist movement in the 21st century to succeed. But alas, breaking up is hard to do, as the song lyric goes. A cursory survey of geopolitical hotspots reveals that there may be a quiet movement afoot, something in the air perhaps. For example, Québec also failed in its latest attempt to establish sovereignty from Canada in 1995, whereas the Free State Project in New Hampshire has yet to test the waters. Texas always has someone beating the drum about secession, but it appears to be mostly rhetoric. More sympathetically, the Republic of Lakota declared sovereignty in 2007, which is yet to be recognized by the U.S. government. There must certainly be other secessionist movements on other continents besides N. America of which I’m unaware.

Secession is only one way nation-states break apart. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) and Czechoslovakia both dissolved bloodlessly, while Yugoslavia broke apart following a civil war. Nations located in the Middle East have had on-and-off civil wars over the past 100 years, abetted recently by destabilization efforts spearheaded outside those countries, frequently under the false humanitarian guise of “regime change.” More pointedly, high-profile calls for straightforward revolution made the news last fall, notably those of Chris Hedges and Russell Brand. Changing out a government is not quite the same as a country breaking up, but there is some overlap.

Aside: Hedges has long established himself as possessing unique erudition and perspective on the world. Brand was a surprise to me, partly because he came almost out of nowhere (as a political commentator) and partly because he insists that there is no reason in particular the pundits should pay him any attention. The obvious rejoinder is that he clearly has something to say, though he admits he can never be a voice of the people because of his fame and fortune. This contrasts with the commonplace mistake of celebrity entertainers lending their names to political causes, as though it’s somehow important that, say, Robert Redford, Eva Longoria, or Alec Baldwin have anything to add to political discussion that isn’t overshadowed and thus made worthless by their celebrity. Withholding might be one of the sacrifices necessitated by celebrity.

It’s a mistake to pretend to penetrate too deeply into the cultural moment and divine a grassroots movement of the people against big government, but I find it plausible at least to observe that the spirit of collectivism has been invalidated in our time. Communism survives only a few places on the globe, and socialism, though still widespread, has suffered a serious public relations setback — especially in the United States. People(s) organize themselves more meaningfully according to smaller social units than nation-states. Thus, the tribalism of sports fans, religions, or political parties is more rabid and motivating than nationalities. I would suggest that average people are even more atomized than that, considering the failure and breakdown of an even more granular sense of community that used to operate in parishes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and families. More people see themselves today as disconnected and adrift from wider context and expect to go it alone when difficulty strikes hard. Recent history has reinforced the growing awareness that institutions that ought to serve us have instead abandoned us or become openly hostile. And yet this is occurring at the same time that economic flows — a poor but ubiquitous measure of wellbeing — are aggregating and leaving behind average folks. That’s globalization at work. However, even the very few who reap outrageous wealth from exploitation of the masses recognize they, too, have no community around them and indeed seek to become sovereign or supranational citizens, which filters down in a hobbled form to the rancher or anarchist who thumbs his nose at government. One wonders whether current political unrest in Syria, Ukraine, and of course Iraq, aren’t prime examples of conflicting motivations between the individual and society.

Update: This post at Stratfor Global Intelligence appears to argue the same main point I made. Naturally, the arguments are a lot beefier, as befits a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm that trades in such analyses. It even has a world map showing significant separatist movements. I knew they were out there.

Sudden Socialism

Posted: September 21, 2008 in Economics, Politics, Socialism

The news from Wall Street and Washington this past week is jaw dropping only if you have been living under a rock or in complete denial for the past several years. (Another possibility is that you have drunk the market fundamentalism Kool-Aid and are intoxicated by the manic swings.) If instead you’ve been paying attention, the news comes with a resigned inevitability and is surprising only in its timing and degree. The largest irony is that the party that succeeded for generations by trumpeting the small government and low taxes memes is now in its desperation suddenly undertaking one of the largest experiments in socialism in the nation’s history. It must be a little embarrassing that our leadership’s incipient fascism has gotten so bogged down in its own corruption that it’s been forced to transform itself into the enemy. So far there has been scant mention of tax increases to fund our new socialist policies, but that can’t be far off.

How many large corporations eyeball deep in debt are considered too big to fail and must be converted into public trusts? At least three so far. But they may merely be the vanguard — the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Failing boldly where no men have gone before, those entrusted with overseeing the nation’s economic health and wellbeing are now in triage with their patient, hoping that a massive transfusion will keep the patient alive long enough to die another day.

It’s a bad deal, of course, but perhaps a necessary one lest we inadvertently suck the entire global financial system down the drain with us. Already this year the Fed has lost control of the money supply by loaning excessive amounts into existence, chasing bad bets with even worse bets, and in the process raising the stakes precipitously high. It’s unclear whether a reliable prognosis can be rendered, as further shocks are anticipated as evidenced by the ban on short selling. But trapped between a handful of really awful immediate consequences, maybe this gambit is the least destructive one, as long as the house of cards manages to stand for a while longer.

Update: More and more people and pundits are saying that the proposed bailout (hasn’t quite happened yet, but it’s likely to) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or socialism under the skin. This article has a good historical analysis. There are checks and balances to thwart this power and money grab by the Bush Administration, if only they would spring into action.

American and European Social Models

Posted: March 30, 2006 in Socialism
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I attended a lecture last month by T.R. Reid called the “European Social Model.” That term refers succinctly to the welfare state, which in Europe has none of the negative connotations it does in the U.S. High tax rates in Europe support a variety of human services, including socialized medicine, unemployment insurance, welfare, and free public education through university. Although the specific levels of support vary among European states, Europeans are justifiably proud of their collective accomplishment in caring for each other and creating a humane social contract. Recent uprisings in France over employment rules make a great deal of sense from within that context, though from an American perspective the agitators appear positively insane.

In the U.S., considering our history of tax revolt, we categorically flee from the idea of socialized anything. Nonetheless, we have socialized education (through high school), socialized defense (we should go back to calling it the Dept. of War, IMO), socialized roads, and socialized medicine in the form of Medicare/Medicaid. Levels of support for and benefits from human services are considerably lower in the U.S. compared to Europe, and our overall tax rates are lower. It’s more of a continuum than a toggle switch.

However, I doubt anyone in the U.S. could be justifiably proud that we allow our fellow citizens to literally live on the street and die of exposure and/or starvation. In that respect, we are inhumane, and Europeans think we’re insane for allowing it to persist in what is arguably the richest country in the world. Of course, the rich and powerful, who stand to gain from tax rates lower than those in Europe and lower than U.S. tax rates from the 1960s, say, have succeeded in flattening the U.S. tax structure. What used to be a fairly progressive structure (high earners paid a high percentage) has moved incrementally toward a regressive structure (low earners pay a higher percentage when various penalties are factored in, such as the inability to exploit tax loopholes for not having enough money, or Social Security taxes on all of one’s income instead of the first $84K only, or even sin taxes on alcohol and cigarettes).

The flabbergasting thing to me is that the poor have been convinced that the possibility of hitting it big (winning the lottery or being a rapper, mostly), which only happens to a minuscule number of people, makes protecting immense wealth advantageous to them even when they don’t have it. Hope is kept alive — and the underclass with it. The range from top to bottom of the socioeconomic scale has been widening for 50 years in the U.S., whereas in Europe, except for a few royal and aristocratic families, it’s been narrowing.

Which model delivers better social justice? For my money, the European social model.