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the “fictional” people of austerity

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The Guardian leads today with a story about the DWP using “fabricated quotations” from “fictional people” talking “about their positive experiences of the welfare system.” It is the sort of story that raises all sort of interesting issues about what “fiction” is and how it functions in a situation like this. For instance, what do we make of this apology / retraction from the DWP itself:

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It’s a curious phrasing: “… they were illustrative only.” Only as opposed to what? How would one complete the sentence? The most obvious answer is “as opposed to ‘real,'” which leads to a curious collision between realness of the person in question and what wisdom we can take from their example. Or do they mean “as opposed to “evidentiary”? That is, to rephrase it, “These people are not real people but merely examples of how one ought to comport oneself under austerity.”

Further, the changes that the DWP initially made in response to the furore over the fake stories are revelatorily strange in and of themselves. This is from the printed version of the story (more on changes between the print and the evidently revised story available on-line in a minute):

Before the removal of the second version of the leaflet, a spokesman said: “We have temporarily changed the pictures to silhouettes and added a note to make it more clear that these are illustrative examples only. We will test both versions of the factsheet with claimants and external stakeholders to further improve it in the future. This will include working with external organisations.”

That the names can stay, albeit then pinged by explanatory asterisks, but the stock art images have been turned into “silhouettes” is curious too, as if the DWP is probing the limits and lines where a “real (but fake) story” turns into a generic anecdote before turning into, well, simply a non-narrative command. Zac (pictured) says… turns into “Zac” says… on its way to something said without a claimant saying it, what the DWP was trying to say with its fictional sock-puppets all along: We’d like you to thank us for withdrawing your benefits, as it’s for you own good (even if we can’t find any examples of this being the case…) In short, these morphing pseudo-people – who have, in a short period been revised into shadows before disappearing all together – do seem like the appropriate protagonists for austerity policies that have always been buttressed by the anecdotal false-equivalent (the nation is like a household) and the spectral fictional “type” (the welfare queen, the “benefits migrant” etc).

Even the Guardian itself seems a bit confused by the ontological status of these austerity-drunk pseudo-people. Lot’s seems to have been edited from the print version of the story to the one currently posted on-line – almost as if the newspaper had caught a case of revision and re-revision from the DWP itself. In the print version, for instance, this is the third paragraph of the story:

The fictional person called Sarah was quoted as saying that she had lost some of her benefit because she had initially failed to produce a CV. “I didn’t think a CV would help me but my work coach told me that all employers need one. I didn’t have a good reason for not doing it and I was told I’d lose some of my payment,” she said.

But in the version that currently exists on-line, the first line of the paragraph is changed to:

“Sarah” was quoted as saying that she had lost some of her benefit because she had initially failed to produce a CV.

Whether these un- or pseudo- people are “fictional person[s] called” X or Y or they are just names encased in scare-quotes or locked in a rictus grin of clip art compliance, they are the secret sharers, it seems to me, of those letraset (and post-letraset) people that appear in advertisements for new real estate developments who have been an obsession of mine for a long time.

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Just as our speculative economy seems to be populated by these shadowy denizens of luxury flats that are always on the verge of opening, often never literally present in their concrete and glass inventions, perhaps the DWP’s fictional protagonists are an in a eerie sense a spectral “reserve army of labour” haunting the real reserve army. Instead of the idealised “model workers” and “new men” of socialism, we are beginning to live in a world of model victims of precarity – those Zacs and Sarahs who thank the government for withdrawing their dole to teach them a lesson about the value of updating their CVs and who thank the DWP for allowing them “time off” to visit the hospital.

In this sense, the propaganda of the institutions of austerity darkly echoes Brecht’s joke in his poem Die Lösung:

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In this case, rather than electing another “people,” the DWP has gone ahead and composed one out of clip art and generic names.

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August 19, 2015 at 10:31 am

“against the grain”: on critical perversity

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At the place where I teach, we still have the students do two courses (one at the beginning of their time with us, and one at the end) in “practical criticism.” We don’t call it that (we just call it “criticism”) but that’s what it is. If we were an American institution, we’d think of it descending out of what is termed “The New Criticism,” but because we are where we are, it’s seen as an import from Cambridge. As the folks to the north-north east describe it on their department website:

Practical criticism is, like the formal study of English literature itself, a relatively young discipline. It began in the 1920s with a series of experiments by the Cambridge critic I.A. Richards. He gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written. In Practical Criticism of 1929 he reported on and analysed the results of his experiments. The objective of his work was to encourage students to concentrate on ‘the words on the page’, rather than relying on preconceived or received beliefs about a text. For Richards this form of close analysis of anonymous poems was ultimately intended to have psychological benefits for the students: by responding to all the currents of emotion and meaning in the poems and passages of prose which they read the students were to achieve what Richards called an ‘organised response’. This meant that they would clarify the various currents of thought in the poem and achieve a corresponding clarification of their own emotions.

If you’ve been a reader of this site for awhile, or are familiar with my work in “the real world,” you might think that’d I’d buck against this model of instruction. Any good materialist critic of course should. It approaches the literary work in isolation of its context – the work as an ahistorical entity that emerged autonomously and without the frictional influence of the writer who wrote it or the world that the writer wrote it in.

But on the other hand – and this is why I not only do not buck against it but actively enjoy teaching on this course, perhaps more than any other – it is an extremely valuable method for enabling students to develop “against the grain” critical insights about texts. In the absence of astute attention of the “practical criticism” variety, it’s very difficult for students (or, really, anyone) to develop convincingly novel interpretations of texts. The close attention to the words on the page, and the dynamics of their interaction, not only sets the stage for an appreciation of the “value added” that comes of distilling whatever contextual and personal issues inform the piece once the history is added back in, but, due to the multiplicity and idiosyncrasy  of possible interpretations, provides an opening for critical newness – for the saying of something provocatively different about the work.

So how do I teach “practical criticism”? In the seminar groups that I lead, I model and encourage the following “flow chart” of thought: Anticipate what other intelligent readers of this piece might say about it. Try to imagine the “conventional wisdom” about it that would emerge as if automatically in the minds of the relatively well-informed and intelligent. And then, but only then, figure out a perverse turn that you can make within the context of but against this conventional wisdom. “Of course that seems right, but on the other hand it fails to account for…” “On first glace, it would be easy and to a degree justifiable to conclude that…. But what if we reconsider this conclusion in the light of….”

Students tend to demonstrate resistance, early on, to this practice. For one thing, especially in the first year, they don’t really (and couldn’t possibly) have a fully developed sense of what the “conventional wisdom” is that their supposed to be augmenting, contradicting, perverting. At this early stage, the process requires them to make an uncomfortable Pascalian wager with themselves – to pretend as though they are confident in their apprehensions until the confidence itself arrives. But even if there’s a certain awkwardness in play, it does seem to exercise the right parts of the students’ critical and analytical faculties so that they (to continue the metaphor) develop a sort of “muscle memory” of the “right” way to do criticism. From what I can tell, encouraging them to develop an instinct of this sort early measurably improves their writing as they move through their degree.

But still (and here, finally, I’m getting to the point of this post) there’s a big problem with all of this. I warn the students of this very early on – generally the first time I run one of their criticism seminars. There’s a big unanswered question lurking behind this entire process. Why must we be perverse? What is the value of aiming always for provocative difference, novelty, rather than any other goal?  Of course, there’s a pragmatic answer: Because it will cause your writing to be better received. Because you will earn better marks by doing it this way rather than the other. Because you will develop a skill – one that can be shifted to other fields of endeavour – that will be recognised as what the world generally calls “intelligence.” But – in particular because none of this should simply be about the pragmatics of getting up the various ladders and depth charts of life – this simply isn’t a sufficient response, or at least is one that begs as many questions as it answers. What are, after all the politics of “novelty”? What are we to make of the structural similarity between what it takes to impress one’s markers and what it takes to make it “on the market,” whether as a human or inhuman commodity? What if – in the end – the answers to question that need (ethically, politically) answering are simple rather than complex, the obvious rather than the surprising?

In my own work, I’m starting to take this issue up. And I try to keep it – when it’s appropriate – at the centre of my teaching, even if that can be difficult. (And there’s the further matter that to advocate “simple” rather than “complex” answers to things is itself an “against the grain” argument, is itself incredibly perverse, at least within an academic setting. There’s a fruitful performative contradiction at play that, in short, makes my advocacy of non-perversity attractively perverse!)

I’ll talk more about what I’m arguing in this new work some other time, but for now, I’m after something else – something isomorphic with but only complexly related to the issues with “practical criticism” and the issues that it raises. It has to do with politics – in particular the politics of those of a “theoretical” or in particular “radically theoretical” mindset, and the arguments that they make and why they make them.

Take this article that appeared yesterday on The Guardian‘s “Comment is free” website. The title of the piece (which of course was probably not chosen by the author, but is sanctioned I think by where the piece ends up) is “What might a world without work look like?” and the tag under the title continues, “As ideas of employment become more obscure and desperate, 2013 is the perfect time to ask what it means to live without it.” While the first two-thirds of the article is simply a description of the poor state of the labour market, it is the end that gets to the “provocative” argument at play.

But against this backdrop – rising inflation, increasing job insecurity, geographically asymmetrical unemployment, attacks on the working and non-working populations, and cuts to benefits – a debate about what work is and what it means has been taking place. Some discussions at Occupy focused on what an anti-work (or post-work) politics might mean, and campaigns not only for a living wage but for a guaranteed, non-means-tested “citizen’s income” are gathering pace.

The chances of a scratchcard winning you a life without work are of course miniscule, but as what it means to work becomes both more obscure and increasingly desperate, 2013 might be the perfect time to ask what work is, what it means, and what it might mean to live without it. As Marx put it in his 1880 proposal for a workers’ inquiry: “We hope to meet … with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer and that only they, and not saviours sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills that they are prey to.”

In other words, the best place to start would be with those who have a relation to work as such – which is to say nearly everyone, employed or otherwise.

It may be a somewhat bad faith line to allege that “interesting perversity” rather than some well-founded and straightforward belief is at work behind an argument of this sort, but in the absence of any substantive suggestions of what the answers to these questions might be, or in fact why these are the right questions to ask at the moment, what else are we to assume? It is provocatively perverse to suggest, at a time of stagnant employment rate and when people are suffering due to the fact that they are out of work or locked in cycles or precarity, that we might do away with work altogether. It isn’t the standard line – but it’s a line that allows the author to avoid repeating the conventional wisdom about what a left response to such a crisis might be. This in turn affords an avenue to publication, as well as a place in the temporary mental canons of those who read it.

Unfortunately, of course, the Tories (and their ideological near-cousins in all of the other mainline parties) are also asking the same sort of questions about a world (or at least a nation) without work. How might one keep the tables turned toward what benefits employers? How might one keep wages (and relatedly, inflation) low but still spur “growth”? How might one manage this system of precarious non-work, at once depressing wages but keeping the employable populace alive and not building barricades. In short, the question of “What a world without work might look like” is a question that is just as pressing to the powers that we oppose as to people like the writer of this article.

We’ve seen other episodes of the same. During the student protests over tuition increases (among other things) I myself criticised (and had a bit of a comment box scrap over) the Really Free School and those who were busily advocating the destruction of the university system…. just as the government was doing its best to destroy the university system. That many of those making such “radical” arguments about university education were themselves beneficiaries of just such an education only made matters more contradictory, hypocritical, and frustrating.

In short, in countering some perceived conventional wisdom, in begging questions that seem to derive from a radical rather than a “reformist” perspective, the author (and others of her ilk) ends up embracing an argument that is not only unhelpfully utopian, but actually deeply compatible with the very situation that seems to provoke the advocacy of such a solution. I can’t help but sense that the same instinct towards perversity that makes for a good English paper – and, perhaps even more pressingly, a good work of  reputation-building “theory” – is what drives a writer to take a line like this one at a time like this. One might counter that I’m being a bit of a philistine – that I’m closing off avenues of speculative thought and analysis. I’m not. I’m just wondering what the point of writing all this up in a questi0n-begging article in a popular publication is, an article that does little more than raise unanswerable questions and then ends with what might as well be the banging of a Zen gong.

 

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January 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm

the misery index

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From Paul Krugman today:

Oh, and the UK: was it “forced to impose painful austerity”? Here’s the interest rate on 10-year UK bonds:

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There was no sign of a crisis of confidence in the UK budget before the May election; the Conservative government chose to embark on austerity, it wasn’t forced into it.

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January 26, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in austerity, crisis, economics

false economy

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Haven’t really had a chance to look at this site since I spent some time at one of the occupations with one of its founders, but False Economy is truly excellent. Neurathian clarity translated into the flash-embedded informational age. And the ad above is very very good.

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January 21, 2011 at 1:35 pm

the university as “heritage industry,” part 2: now with numbers

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Ah, here we go. This is exactly what I’ve been talking about. From the Times Higher Education:

Data published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reveal that 210,022 people – about a third of applicants – were not accepted on to university courses last autumn.The number of UK students accepted fell by 0.8 per cent, but non-European Union places rose by 12.4 per cent.

EU student numbers, which are subject to the same strict cap on places as UK ones, also went up.

The Ucas figures reveal the final picture of those who applied to start university in 2010.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “Record numbers of students missed out on a university place because the government refused to fund sufficient places and that trend is set to continue this summer. After the government axed the education maintenance allowance, these figures are a reminder of the rationing of opportunity at the higher education level as well.

“The foreign market is a lucrative one for UK universities and these figures suggest that UK students are now disproportionately missing out on places.”

There was a 27.8 per cent increase in the number of students coming from China.

Again, just to reiterate: I have absolutely no problem with the admission of international students and, if the world were perfect, one would teach a randomized mix of students ingathered from everywhere. I’m, after all, a foreigner myself. That’s not the issue. What is the issue is shifting from merit to money as the primary determinate of who gets places – or rather, of what places are available in the first place. Non-EU students pay more, therefore universities who can manage it are shifting their provision toward programmes that attract non-EU students (say, interdisciplinary MAs rather than hardcore single subject BAs). The article continues:

Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, said: “Higher education is one of the UK’s most successful export industries and today’s figures show that it is going from strength to strength.

Never in my wildest dreams, while I was doing my PhD, did I think I’d be a part of a dying nation’s “most successful export industry.” But, true to form,  I did receive an email the other day soliciting applications to work for a new branch campus in Qatar. Comes with a free apartment and car. No salary increase though – the fact that Qatar charges no income tax is supposed to serve as the enticing “raise.”

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January 21, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Posted in academia, austerity

keep calm and carry on… co-opting socialist modernism

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A good piece from Owen Hatherley on the Festival(s) of Britain – both the old one and the new one that’s ostensibly on its way – and austerity in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free. Here’s a bit:

In their rhetoric of belt-tightening, in the ludicrous notion that “we’re all in this together”, the millionaires’ austerity government is tapping into something that predates it, but which accompanied the start of the financial crisis in 2008. Since then, an austerity nostalgia has been rife among the middle class: in the wartime aesthetics of Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food; in retro-modernist CCTV posters; most of all in the phenomenal success of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster. At the Festival Hall’s shop, it can sometimes seem like you’re in a 1940s theme park, with all manner of austere rationing-era ephemera for sale. It hinges on the somewhat gross analogy between our predicament and the blitz, or the rationing that lasted well into the 50s – the “blitz spirit” attendant on every transport disruption or tube strike. Cameron’s government has consciously appealed to this trend.

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January 21, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Posted in architecture, austerity

wish they had an ipad app: communist monopoly

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This via Der Spiegel, but ultimately the excellent Marginal Utility’s twitter feed:

A Polish research institute has developed a board game to teach young people about life under Communism. In the game, which is inspired by Monopoly, players must wait in endless lines at stores for scarce goods. For added realism, they have to put up with people cutting in line and products running out — unless they have a “colleague in the government” card.

There are no glamorous avenues for sale, nor can players erect hotels, charge rent or make pots of money. In fact, a new Polish board game inspired by the classic Monopoly is all about communism rather than capitalism.

The goal of the game, which will officially be launched on Feb. 5, is to show how hard and frustrating it was for an average person to simply do their shopping under the Communist regime in Poland. The game has been developed by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a Warsaw-based research institute that commemorates the suffering of the Polish people during the Nazi and Communist eras.

Just like in the original Monopoly, acquisition is the name of the game. In this case, however, that means struggling to get basic necessities such as food, clothing and furniture. “In the game, you send your family out to get items on a shopping list and they find that the five shops are sold out or that there hasn’t been a delivery that day,” the IPN’s Karol Madaj told SPIEGEL ONLINE Thursday, explaining that the game “highlights the tough realities of life under Communism.”

The name of the game is Kolejka, which according to the article is the Polish word for queue or line. I’ve written recently about communist queues – but while I’ve just about given up the pretense that this blog is still pseudonymous, I still won’t link at this point. (There isn’t a link anyway – it’s in a collection from Verso, released last year. Take a look around and you’ll find it if you’re really interested…)

For now: there is something interesting about the fact that fascination with the communist queue seems to be making something of a comeback just as the last vestiges of unrationed or less rationed goods provided by the former welfare states of the West. Fewer university places, more expensive mass transit, more expensive health care – the thought that here, in the liberal capitalist wonderland, we never wait in queues, there’s no such thing as insufficient distribution of goods, and, in particular, that no one is able to jump in front of anyone else is a bit of a stretch. The right side of the US health care debate has long run with the fallacious notion that medical services aren’t rationed there. Of course they’re rationed – just by those who extract profit by doing so rather than efficiency savings. I just watched the brilliant series of episodes from The Sopranos which blur together American college admissions and mafia-type offers that can’t be refused, which was slightly, though not entirely, hyperbolic – speaking from personal experience here. And in Britain, there’s been a persistent interest in what has been called the “Ryanairification” of civic services, a system in which one straightforwardly bribes the council pays a fee in order to jump the line – among other things, of course.

Anyway, lots more to say about this but have to run… I’d like a copy of the game for the little Isotype people, pictured above, alone…

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January 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm

china, chips, seeds, scale, scales

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1. According to Bloomsberg Businessweek, “In 2010, the U.S. added 937,000 jobs; Foxconn, the Taiwan-based maker of nearly every consumer product you wanted this year, added 300,000.” But on the other hand, from another article in the same magazine,

Ah Wei has an explanation for Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Terry Gou as to why some of his workers are committing suicide at the company’s factory near the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Among other things, Foxconn manufactures the iPhone and the iPad for Apple.

Further, China moved at the end of 2010 to limit its exports of the “rare earth metals” whose supply it almost entirely controls and which are necessary for the production of most electronic devices so as, it seems, to protect its share of the manufacturing market as its workforce begins to expect ever higher wages. In other words, if there’s fancy strange rocks hiding in the engine room of your Device, they’re likely going to have to be made in China for the foreseeable future.

2. On the other hand, the guy who made the art installation pictured above – which seems to me about the most sublimely appropriate artistic representation of the global economy imaginable – had his studio demolished in Shanghai last week.

Chinese demolition workers have torn down the Shanghai studio of the artist Ai Weiwei – a move he says is linked to his political activism.

Mr Ai said the demolition crews arrived without warning on Tuesday and flattened the building within a day.

He originally had permission to build the studio, but later officials ordered it to be destroyed, saying he had failed to follow planning procedures.

Mr Ai has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of China’s leaders.

The work pictured above is “Sunflower Seeds,” which was recently on display in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Here’s the description from the Tate’s website:

Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain.

Each seed has been individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Far from being industrially produced, they are the effort of hundreds of skilled hands. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the 100 million seeds form a seemingly infinite landscape.

Porcelain is almost synonymous with China and, to make this work, Ai Weiwei has manipulated traditional methods of crafting what has historically been one of China’s most prized exports. Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.

Without getting all Pater-before-La-Gioconda on you, I hope that you can even vaguely imagine the overwhelming power – at once critical and, well, crushingly aesthetic in some sort of very old fashioned sort of sense – of seeing this work. When the visual titanicness of the display meets your recognition that each of the 100,000,000 seeds was painstakingly handpainted by human beings working for a wage, one comes as close as one can – as I ever have – to a painfully concrete yet at the same time marvellously abstract sense of the absurd scales, absurdly tipped scales, that orchestrate our world today.

3. Francis Fukuyama, Sisyphusianly obligated to revise forever his early call of time at the pub of history (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), has recently written a piece for the FT titled “US democracy has little to teach China.” Here’s an extract:

The most important strength of the Chinese political system is its ability to make large, complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well, at least in economic policy. This is most evident in the area of infrastructure, where China has put into place airports, dams, high-speed rail, water and electricity systems to feed its growing industrial base. Contrast this with India, where every new investment is subject to blockage by trade unions, lobby groups, peasant associations and courts. India is a law-governed democracy, in which ordinary people can object to government plans; China’s rulers can move more than a million people out of the Three Gorges Dam flood plain with little recourse on their part.

Nonetheless, the quality of Chinese government is higher than in Russia, Iran, or the other authoritarian regimes with which it is often lumped – precisely because Chinese rulers feel some degree of accountability towards their population. That accountability is not, of course, procedural; the authority of the Chinese Communist party is limited neither by a rule of law nor by democratic elections. But while its leaders limit public criticism, they do try to stay on top of popular discontents, and shift policy in response. They are most attentive to the urban middle class and powerful business interests that generate employment, but they respond to outrage over egregious cases of corruption or incompetence among lower-level party cadres too.

Fukuyama focuses, as he would, on autocratic China’s ability to force infrastructral development and to please it’s new and growing – yet still demographically insignificant – urban middle classes. The infrastructure is important sure, and the middle classes may well be happy with the fruits of upward mobility, but we all know that the real competitive advantage – and human cost – of China’s “democracy deficit” is the fact that it is able to manipulate its internal labour market and keep its currency artificially weak, thus keeping standards of living artificially depressed.

Despite the fact that Fukuyama stages his piece as a question begging affair –

During the 1989 Tiananmen protests, student demonstrators erected a model of the Statue of Liberty to symbolise their aspirations. Whether anyone in China would do the same at some future date will depend on how Americans address their problems in the present.

– the title gives the game away. Fukuyama hasn’t really described a question so much as yet another equipoised situation, a roadmap of the configuration that, whatever the grumbling of our leaders, is basically the baserock foundation of our current and miserable status quo.

4. What causes Foxconn workers to kill themselves is that which permits Foxconn alone to add a third of the number of jobs as the entire US economy in 2010 is that which depresses wages around the world, and is that which renders Ai Weiwei obnoxious to the PRC, and is that which sanctions the race to the bottom that we’re all suffering through, the rise in in what the BBC was chirping away this morning about as the “misery index.”

We are suffering separately, and somewhat differently now. The ebb tide of the economic cycle is rapidly lowering all of our boats – our separate little skiffs that float on the sea of production. Would that we could figure out how to suffer, and thus perhaps to alleviate the suffering, together.

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January 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm

yeats and the imf, harry potter brutalism, apple store art museums: aesthetics via the wsj 19/11/10

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In addition to my IHT, I like a financial paper every day, as the “business section” is the only section where the actual news happens. I used to read the Financial Times until, at MSA 2008, I saw Frederic Jameson carrying around a copy to match mine (we’d probably both walked to the Borders down the road as there was nowhere else to buy such a thing in Nashville) and realized at that moment that this FT shit had, as they say, jumped the shark. So now I kick it old school with a subscription to the Wall Street Journal – European Edition, which is cheaper by miles anyway.

(a joke, btw – in case it’s not clear. maybe a joke. i dunno)

Anyway from yesterday’s WSJ, a strange melange of aesthetics / politics / commercialism that gives us the present state of play in snippets. First, from an article on Ireland’s debt crisis / IMF intervention:

It (an editorial in The Irish Times) went on: “There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.” In Ireland’s parliament, a deputy recited the stanza of Yeats from which the editorial takes its title, an elegy for the dead of an earlier, failed, revolution.

Let a billion quasi-leftist grad seminar papers bloom. Folks have been – at times very cheaply and with a tinge of, dunno, residual and deeply perverse ethnocentrism – using Ireland and its literature as a way to be a “post-colonialist” without dealing with, you know, black people. This would seem to me to be the wet dream via Naomi Klein version of this…. The quotation in question, as another article in the WSJ indicates, was from ‘September 1913’:

Was it for this the wild geese spread

The grey wing upon every tide;

For this that all that blood was shed,

For this Edward Fitzgerald died,

And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,

All that delirium of the brave?

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Funny thing is that there are better bits from that poem to cite on this occasion, namely the first stanza (“What need you, being come to sense / But fumble in a greasy till / And add the halfpence to the pence” etc). If I were one of those erstwhile hibernian pocoists, that’s where I’d go with my deconstructively angled paper…  Alternately, if I were still attending “mass” on weekend evenings at the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park, I’d ask and receive, I’m sure, incredibly fascinating analyses of this poetry-cum-or-anti-economics issue from the (sometimes) friendly and strangely erudite pensioners who go there to receive liquified communion.

And then there’s this from an article about the CGI in the new Harry Potter film(s):

Leavesden (Studios) is also home to the fictional Ministry of Magic, which is supposed to sit beneath a real street in the London government district of Whitehall. To create the ministry, which first appeared in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” in 2007, Mr. Craig studied underground structures such as the London and Moscow subway stations.

For the new film, Mr. Craig added a towering monument to the ministry’s atrium. The Soviet-style sculpture shows wizards crushing cowering muggles—people without magic powers—and bears an engraving that says “Magic Is Might.” The totalitarian aesthetic, Mr. Craig says, highlights the theme of a world dominated by evil. He used seemingly long, winding corridors to give the ministry a Kafkaesque feel. As the characters explore the building, including an upstairs office and a basement courtroom, viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.

Leaving aside the sublation of the Red Menace into noseless (syphlitic?) baddy magicians, that final phrase is a bit bizarre: “viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.” Location, Location, Location real estate imaginineering meets Kafkaesque Unheimlichkeit in some sort of illogical and unholy union, no? Perhaps that, my friends, is the definition of the uncanniness of our times: bureaucratic befuddlement that somehow you feel cozy in, that you want to take out a variable-rate mortgage in order to buy-to-let, even though there are no mortgages to be had…

Finally, and winning today’s Rem-Koolhaas-Was-So-Right prize, is this on forthcoming renovation of the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague:

“You can think of a cross between the Apple store in New York and the Louvre,” is how Mauritshuis Director Emilie Gordenker describes the museum’s hopes for the extension and renovation. “We’re going to open up the gates. Then you come in and you end up in a very large, spacious and light-filled foyer.”

And things finally head full-circle. The Apple Store aesthetic, stolen from what I can tell (or remember) out of certain now-lost Soho (NYC) sleek coffeehouses, which in turn had stolen their look out of the galleries that were just then on their way out, returns to garnish the place where they keep Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” What is the next turn of the screw to come in our frenetically static cultural world, the palpating infrastructure built atop an ever self-renewing base? Apple Stores shaped like Aeroflot terminals? Childish pre-sex fantasies (wtf?) cast in the light of Allende-ite democratic socialism? Ezra Pound cantos about usury and the Jews recited on the House floor?

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November 20, 2010 at 8:56 am

μέτρα λιτότητας

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From the NYT today, predictable news:

In Athens, the Greek government had no choice but to seek an I.M.F. solution after its costs of borrowing skyrocketed, but that has not made the negotiations for aid any easier.

[…]

According to people who have been briefed on the talks, the aim is to secure from Greece a letter of intent for even deeper budget cuts than the tough measures imposed so far, like reductions in civil service pay, in exchange for emergency funds.

Steps being discussed include closing down parts of the little-used Greek railway system, which employs 7,000 people and is estimated to lose a few million euros a day; limiting unions’ ability to impose collective bargaining agreements, which lead to ever-higher public sector pay; cutting out the two months of pay that private-sector workers get on top of their annual pay packages; increasing the retirement age and cutting back on pensions; and opening up the country’s trucking market in an effort to lower extremely high transportation rates that have hindered the country’s competitiveness.

With Greece now shut out of the debt markets, it has little leverage to resist — especially in light of the 8 billion euros it needs to repay bondholders on May 19. Analysts expect a deal by next week at the latest.

I’ve always been a fan of the euro – not that I’ve given it the amount of thought that I’ve given, say, the style indirect libre and such matters. But it does occur to me today that one thing the common currency seems directly to prevent is the present or eventual adoption of the Kirchner method of handling such crises:

On 15 December 2005, following Brazil’s initiative, Kirchner announced the cancellation of Argentina’s debt to the IMF in full and offered a single payment, in a historical decision that generated controversy at the time (see Argentine debt restructuring). Some commentators, such as Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, suggest that the Argentine experiment has thus far proven successful.Others, such as Michael Mussa, formerly on the staff of the International Monetary Fund and now with the Peterson Institute, question the longer-term sustainability of Pres. Kirchner’s approach.

In a meeting with executives of multinational corporations at Wall Street—after which he was the first Argentine president to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange—Kirchner defended his “heterodox economic policy, within the canon of classic economics” and criticized the IMF for its lack of collaboration with the Argentine recovery.

The Kirchner method, rather than starving labor and the state in service of debt repayment, imposes “austerity measures” on the international banks that made the loans (confident that they’ll be back when the situation improves – and they will) and allows leeway in the domestic effects of a financial crisis (i.e. Argentinians weren’t buying Japanese televisions for quite a bit of the decade…) But due to the eurozone arrangement, this way out, whatever the ideological predilections of those in power, is probably off the table now and for a time to come… As it turns out, the eurozone right now looks like an engine for stealing trains from the Greeks to keep Orlando vacations affordable for the Germans…

And of course, amidst all this, the NYT runs its inevitable ordinary Greeks admit that they are a nation of thieves, and therefore deserve the pain that awaits them piece….

“We did this to ourselves,” said Mr. Koptides, 37. “It is our problem. It’s not Germany or Europe’s fault. We did this to ourselves.”

Greeks seem to be engaged in national soul-searching these days, wondering whether traits they once found amusing might have led to many of their difficulties now.

Some say their country may have been unprepared to join the European Union in the first place. Some focus on how European Union funds sent to Greece were spent on wasteful projects. Greece’s last administration hid the extent of its debt.

“There has always been this way of thinking in Greece that the thieves are the clever ones and the ones who don’t steal are the patsies,” said Petros Anagnostou, 46, a book dealer. “We have to develop a conscience as a community, to see ourselves as a collective society. If it is a jungle out there, then we will eat each other and end up in a place like we are today.”

But of course the right path toward the reestablishment of “a community… a collective society” is by the elimination of the right to collective bargaining and the phasing out of public mass transit!

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April 29, 2010 at 9:22 am

Posted in austerity, crisis, economics

nearly silent – the greek general strike

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I rather like the video attached to this BBC piece about the general strike against austerity measures currently going on in Greece. Just a string of things not happening, and it’s even as if the reporter is speechless in solidarity. But the ambient musak in the airport continues to play…

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February 24, 2010 at 11:10 am

Posted in austerity, crisis

austerity 4: easygovt

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From the front page of the Guardian today:

A leading Conservative council is using the business model of budget airlines, Ryanair and easyJet, to inspire a radical reform of public service provision which is being seen as a blueprint for Tory government.

The practices of the no-frills airlines, who charge customers extra for services which were once considered part of the standard fare, are being emulated by the London borough of Barnet as it embarks on “a relentless drive for efficiency”. A spokesman for the council has unofficially dubbed the project “easyCouncil”.

Barnet wants householders to pay extra to jump the queue for planning consents, in the way budget airlines charge extra for priority boarding. And as budget airline passengers choose to spend their budget on either flying at peaktime or having an in-flight meal, recipients of adult social care in Barnet will choose to spend a limited budget on whether to have a cleaner or a respite carer or even a holiday to Eastbourne. Other examples of proposed reforms include reducing the size of waste bins to minimise the cost of council rubbish collections.

Well, there’s the flipside fulfilment of this that I was talking about not all that long ago.

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August 29, 2009 at 12:14 am

Posted in austerity

austerity 2: comment on paye ses dettes quand on a du génie, or vice versa

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In his “fictionalized memoir” Youth, J.M. Coetzee describes living in a place that just happens to be only a few steps away from Marx’s grave.  At this point in the book, he’s just gotten a job working as a programmer for IBM in London.

Now that he has an income, he is able to rent a room of his own in a house off Archway Road in north London. The room is on the second floor, with a view over a water reservoir. It has a gas heater and a little alcove with a gas cooker and shelves for food and crockery. In a corner is the meter: you put in a shilling and get a shilling’s supply of gas.

His diet is unvarying: apples, oats porridge, bread and cheese, and spiced sausages called chipolatas, which he fries over the cooker. He prefers chipolatas to real sausages because they do not need to be refrigerated. Nor do they ooze grease when they fry. He suspects there is lots of potato flour mixed in with the ground meat. But potato flour is not bad for one.

I have never had to write for money. Whether I am capable of doing it or not is another question. I could have used some money in college, but I was too young then. During grad school, there was the stipend – $13,000, split most years between myself and my wife – just enough to keep oneself in a university subsidised one-bedroom in a banally modernist high-rise in the woods. Later, there was paying work, academic jobs – three of them, actually, one after another.

When I first moved to Brooklyn, just as the inflation level of the real estate bubble passed from ridiculous to obscene, I decided that I wanted to buy an apartment and I wanted to do it by writing a novel. It was the era of that sort thing; one of the students that I had taught had just signed a seven-figure contract for two books, was about to buy a gigantic house in Park Slope. And so I sat in the tiny kitchen at the tiny table that we had found that would actually fit it and typed a novel into my laptop, night after night. I would smoke several cigarettes with the window open and the fan on, write, and then go to sleep.

There were mice and cockroaches, yes. Both the little roaches that come in packs and the big indestructible lone motherfuckers, the ones that you could mash with the end of an aluminium baseball bat and they’d pause for a second only to resume their steady sprint around the living room floor.

I actually finished the novel – the only one I’ve ever finished. It’s resting in a document file somewhere on my hard drive, unopened since the day I completed it. It was about a couple who make their living by running an amateur pornography site. Then someone falls in love with her, one of the customers. And then they meet, and nothing’s there.

No good. Obviously I never did anything with this thing. And then I got a job and another and another. It’s nice to make money from writing, but even if I did, it wouldn’t substantially change my lifestyle.

Bourdieu’s writings on art suggests that the negotiation with having to write for money or not – and all the grey areas between the two, like having to write for money but pretending you don’t or not having to write for money but pretending you do – is a or even then defininitive factor in the determination of literary stance and even literary form. It happens simultaneously, in his reading, on the level of the individual artist and as an aggregate effect. For instance, a wider range of people in mid-19th century France get secondary education, smart but poor young men rush into the city looking for work they do with their heads rather than their hands, and the feuilletons, reviews, and papers fill with new names but new names often writing commercialised shit, whatever pays the bills. Or, from the other direction, there is the young man who inherits a sizeable fortune, but then out of stupidity, addiction, or pose, squanders it, and then is himself forced to dip into something that he can’t stop comparing to prostitution, even if he knows it’s not quite the same thing.

Bourdieu is persuasive on this point – that it is out of the warp and woof of having money and needing money that literature itself, as a category, is born, and close on its heels (to extend his point slightly) modernism. Every document of civilisation is at the same time a document of one form of aristocracy or another separating itself from the barbarism of commerce… or one form of meritocracy separating itself from the barbarism of unanchored hierarchy. Or both at the same time.

But that world has passed, the machine that generates distinction has rolled itself to a stop. Neither are there aristocratic redoubts to remove to, nor is there money to be made in this business. Instead, we’re all in a bedsit just off Archway Road, counting off our meagre amenities, proud of ourselves for having found a brand of sausage that doesn’t go bad when the fridge is broken or never existed to begin with. We read the Observer on Sunday; we are careful with our spending on lunch, whether we really need to be or not. We are, like the young Coetzee, austere with our stipends and we go into great detail about it, if only with ourselves. It only takes a glance at the work, all of it, to discover the effect that this austerity has had on the form, the quality, and the pertinence of the things that we make.

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August 27, 2009 at 7:25 am

Posted in austerity, coetzee

cheap: the aeroflotification of capitalism

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Frederick Studemann argued recently in the FT that Aeroflot in the 1970s was a forerunner of the low-cost, low-service airlines of today.

Not only was it far more extensive and cheaper than in the west, it was less elitist. While back home air travel was for the few, in the USSR it was for the many – just another mode of public transport. Aeroflot, the national carrier, was both the world’s biggest airline and one of the cheapest, so catching the red-eye to Vladivostok was as easy as hopping on the Number 2 trolley bus on Kutuzovsky Prospekt.

Frankly, it was difficult to know where to start. Maybe with the pervasive, sweet, plasticy smell of the planes or the routine delays and constant lack of information. Or how about the flint-faced stewardesses stomping down the aisle offering the “choice” of tangy water or tangy water? Or perhaps the unspeakable food, the shabby fittings and the bleak, run-down airports in the middle of nowhere. Then who can forget the grumpy staff for whom dialogue was an alien concept, preferring instead to find new ways of deploying arbitrary rules and associated punishments. All in all, not unlike a rush-hour ride on the Number 2 trolley bus.

Any of this sound familiar? We may have scoffed at the notion of Aeroflot leading the world.

But how wrong we were. Thirty years on it is clear that far from being a laughable expression of a clapped-out system destined to crash under the weight of its internal contradictions, Aeroflot was in fact the pioneer. Low-cost travel today is simply playing catch-up with those Heroes of the Soviet Union: passengers packed in like sardines, robbed of respect and subjected to a baffling array of terms, conditions and penalties. Passengers do not interact with people but with an impersonal, unforgiving apparat dedicated to the ruthless pursuit of a (centrally fixed) plan.

It’s an interesting effect, this one, when some product sector or another in capitalist economies drops low enough in price that it starts to take on the sheen of a popular good. (Can’t find the story, but some UK government official or another recently defended the “right” of “ordinary people” to low-cost flights… Can anyone remember this and point me in the right direction so that I can update the post?) Google’s empire, to cite the most obvious example, depends entirely upon this populist semblance of public provision – everyone has the “right” to a free email address, a free blog, free news stories, free internet search, free telephony, etc… Chris Anderson’s just written a book about this, that according to the publisher’s description

considers a brave new world where the old economic certainties are being undermined by a growing flood of free goods – newspapers, DVDs, T shirts, phones, even holiday flights. He explains why this has become possible – why new technologies, particularly the Internet, have caused production and distribution costs in many sectors to plummet to an extent unthinkable even a decade ago. He shows how the flexibility provided by the online world allows producers to trade ever more creatively, offering items for free to make real or perceived gains elsewhere.

Corporations like Ryanair and Google are figures that populate one of the stories that capitalism loves to tell itself and those doomed to live in its grasp – that given enough time and given the allowance for the markets to operate without regulatory hindrance, the general level of affluence will rise as the cost of living drops. But of course, especially when it comes to the airlines, most of the cheap or freeness is a smoke and mirrors false advertisting effect. The Times (UK) ran an article revealing what anyone who’s ever tried to check a bag on a Ryanair flight already knew – that BA actually costs less on many, many flights than its cut price competitors. But let’s even pretend that you actually can access a low-cost flight. I’m sure many many people actually have flown to Spain or Greece from the UK for what I pay for a pack of cigarettes everyday, even if not nearly as many as the advertisements would have you believe.

The answer, and the overall answer to the free and the cheap that is one of the primary calling cards of capitalism remaining, of course involves a heady mix of financialisation, micro-payments, consumer distraction, non-populist austerity, and government subsidy. And the game ends with the demise of the less cynically-minded corporations and then prices rising right back to the place where they were before the game began.

Would love to say more about this, but can’t yet. Given world enough and time, I’d sit in the British Library – or at least the Pret à Manger across Euston Road from the it – and work on a new version of Kapital, centred on the mystical question of what it costs us to view the tiny advertisement at the top of our Gmail inboxes. Actually, seriously… There’s the magnum opus right there – political economy, temporality, “free,” text, interactivity, attention in distraction, ecology – everything all at once… Perhaps once I’m done with the tedious thing I’m working on now… Like Marx, I a) live in North London b) like do my drinking on or near Tottenham Court Road and c) tend to spend Saturdays with my family on Hampstead Heath, so I think I’m a perfect fit for the job.

It’s funny how you hear a lot less about the Walmart Effect lately, though, isn’t it?

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August 17, 2009 at 11:00 pm

the drama of austerity

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The Guardian last week on the rising demand for garden allotments in the UK:

The trust’s director general, Fiona Reynolds, said the scheme tapped into a mood in which, as a result of the recession, people’s priorities were changing from materialism towards “real” things such as spending time with family, and homegrown food.

Reynolds said: “There’s something in the air. More and more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables. This isn’t just about saving money – it’s really satisfying to sow seeds and harvest the fruit and veg of your labour. By creating new growing spaces the National Trust can help people to start growing for the first time.”

Not long ago in the New York Times, on Japan and its falling consumer demand:

Younger people are feeling the brunt of that shift. Some 48 percent of workers age 24 or younger are temps. These workers, who came of age during a tough job market, tend to shun conspicuous consumption.

They tend to be uninterested in cars; a survey last year by the business daily Nikkei found that only 25 percent of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48 percent in 2000, contributing to the slump in sales.

Young Japanese women even seem to be losing their once- insatiable thirst for foreign fashion. Louis Vuitton, for example, reported a 10 percent drop in its sales in Japan in 2008.

“I’m not interested in big spending,” says Risa Masaki, 20, a college student in Tokyo and a neighbor of the Takigasakis. “I just want a humble life.”

The papers love this sort of story, which fits all sorts of long-established storylines. Among many other reasons: anxious self-imposed austerity is a more comforting emplotment of demand destruction than other contenders. Not having much choice in the matter,  a large fraction of humanity already eats the food that they grow themselves everyday without it being really newsworthy, and people not buying fancy clothes and cars happens all the time in a not quite narrativizable way. *

But still there’s something to this. Just something that’s not all that useful in its present form. I do happen to think that there probably is a hard-wired way that humans react to bad economic news. Whether the “wiring” actually happens on a neuro-psychological level or on the level of cultural precedent and morés, it doesn’t really matter. But likely there’s something in us that wants to eat a bit less when it looks like the eating might not be so great once this years harvest returns are processed, or because the droughts dried up all the crops – something that carries through to mute the reptile mind when we read that Citigroup is about to be nationalized or the like.

But it’s not all that useful an impulse, when repeatedly captured and characterized according to the plotlines on display above. What it would be useful to do, if we were to invest ourselves in small little counter-ideological projects, would be to attempt to turn the representation of these stories away from the endorsement of some sort of self-hating, self-lacerating fantasy of austere living (we should eat cabbage stew because we’ve been bad consumers!) toward a useful reevaluation of cultural priorities that might lead to a more useful long term result than the sort of thing that happens in individual households, at the grocery store, and in the garden plot. If the citizenry feels nauseously hung-over from the mode and speed and pitch of life during the bubble and its aftermath, it would be better encouraged to contemplate better, wider answers to such a malaise than neo-christian martyrdom by-storebrand purchases.

Zeitgeisty mass-reactions are real, harnessable. They are generally harnessed in service of the worst or the useless. This happens not simply because there are nefarious, implicit conspiracies to drive them in this direction. Sometimes there are, sometimes there aren’t, generally it’s way more complicated than that. I think this issue is one that people on our send tend to over-simplify and under-read. But there are opportunities for engagement and intervention and tide-turning, we we to think about what we’re doing and maybe work from a common starting place and toward a common if open end.

* Another little find, not yet processed, in re aggregate fiction, by the way.

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February 23, 2009 at 11:32 pm