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“the highest achievement in socialist literature to date”

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Richard Seymour, aka Lenin of the Tomb, on Oscar Wilde in an interview with Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBook.

MT: Socialist classics: are you a Ragged Trousered fan, an Upton Sinclair fan? Is it Wilde’s The Soul of Man that moves and inspires you or some other fusty old tome I won’t have heard of?

RS: I love Wilde, and the essay you mention was probably the first socialist text I ever read, although there are moments when the egotistical sublime degenerates into egotistical absurdity. I could be wrong, but I think it was here that Wilde first refashioned Christ in his own image, a dirty trick that he would repeat in De Profundis just to show how little prison had altered him. Christopher Hitchens has argued, probably correctly, that the heroic individualism and distrust of the mob in Wilde’s socialism contains a coded plea for the right to live as a sexual outlaw. This is a fuck sight better than most excuses for megalomania. But I read The Soul of Man during that low, dishonest decade in which the Left was largely capitulating to neoliberalism, and in which New Labour was reviving every discredited form of bourgeois cant. I read that it was finer to steal than to beg. I read that disobedience was man’s original virtue. I read that one is shocked, not by the crimes of the wicked, but by the punishments inflicted by the virtuous. I read that the rich need to be liberated from their property, for their own good. I read all that and compared it to the farting balls that the ever aphoristic Tony Blair came out with – rights and responsibilities, fairness not favours, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime – and was reminded that behind every political failure is a literary failure. While I’m on the subject of Wilde, why isn’t it more widely known that the highest achievement in socialist literature to date is The Importance of Being Earnest? To think that bourgeois audiences to this day can watch a Miramaxised version of the play, and not notice a vicious attack on their own proprietorial obsessions, their class bigotry, and the narrow self-interest embodied in the values that they claim are universal and enlightened, is a real shame. Someone should point it out to them. Let them go and watch Jimmy Carr, and keep their grasping philistine hands off Wilde.

Really like that bit about Earnest. Sure, it’s clear in a sense, but I never would have put it quite that way – but I will, the next time I teach it, and I teach it lots…

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May 21, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Posted in socialism, wilde

i left just at the wrong time

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Normally wouldn’t import a whole post (from Lenin’s Tomb), but this is astounding:

Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.

Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better.

Investors by a 5-to-1 margin choose capitalism. As for those who do not invest, 40% say capitalism is better while 25% prefer socialism.

There is a partisan gap as well. Republicans – by an 11-to-1 margin – favor capitalism. Democrats are much more closely divided: Just 39% say capitalism is better while 30% prefer socialism. As for those not affiliated with either major political party, 48% say capitalism is best, and 21% opt for socialism.

(link)

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April 9, 2009 at 9:32 pm

Posted in america, socialism

“thanks to its own powers of persuasion….”

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Henri Lefebvre in his foreword to Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. I:

We ask ourselves: ‘What is socialism exactly? How does it intervene in everyday life? What does it change?’ And the answer is unclear. The elimination of the bourgeoisie and class antagonisms? The suppression of capitalist relations of property and production? These are only negative definitions. We find the picture of a bourgeois society without a bourgeoisie neither reassuring nor satisfying. We think that there is, or will be, something else. But what? Accepting one’s work, making it – willingly if possible – one’s first priority, working harder, willing productivity to increase rather than merely putting up with it? These ideas are fine as far as they go. Admittedly they are probably all essential, very important for the social relations of production, and perhaps they would go some way towards defining a mode of production economically. But as a definition of a culture, a civilization, a humanity, they are inadequate. Nor can they define a worthwhile way of living which could come into being thanks to its own powers of persuasion. *

Ah, that last line is a killer. Perfect! And here’s what he says in the footnote attached to the end of that passage:

* Unfortunately materialism is presented in far too many publications as the most depressing of platitudes, In fact it appears to reach the heights of platitude (so to speak). If it were a completed system, or simply a weapon for the working-class struggle, why indeed would it have to be interesting? After all, when philosophy lost metaphysics, it might also be said to have lost its picturesqueness!….

Exciting to be re-reading Lefebvre. I had forgotten, in the way that one does, the fact that every line of thought that I follow on just about any topic that matters very clearly started nowhere and nowhen else than with my first reading of this book.

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April 8, 2009 at 11:22 am

food we got

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Barbara Ehrenreich at Alternet (via icite):

It was also supposed to be a simple matter for the masses to take over or “seize” the physical infrastructure of industrial capitalism–the “means of production”–and start putting it to work for the common good. But much of the means of production has fled overseas–to China, for example, that bastion of authoritarian capitalism. When we look around our increasingly shuttered landscape and survey the ruins of finance capitalism, we see bank upon bank, realty and mortgage companies, title companies, insurance companies, credit-rating agencies and call centers, but not enough enterprises making anything we could actually use, like food or pharmaceuticals.

I don’t have figures on this, but it might surprise Ehrenreich to know that lots and lots of at least food is “manufactured” locally, even in the United States. It’s strange, and I know it throws the “slow food” types into confusion, but I’d venture to guess that seventy percent of what’s on your average American supermarket’s shelf (actually – you’re local co-op may well be worse, though that’s no reason to stop shopping there…*) is produced nearby. The thing is, unlike televisions, cars, and children’s toys, cookies and bread don’t age well, thus they don’t do well on the slow boat from China or Vietnam. Trust me, I know this in all too intimate a way, as I was both a long-term if seasonal employee of a Major American Food Company whose trianglular red logo all of my American readers are familiar with and, um, a close-up observer of the selfsame company’s labor issues – domestic labor issues.

So Ehrenreich is a little bit wrong in an article in which she is mostly right. But it’s OK – this fact should give Americans hope. We could feed ourselves with the bakeries we’ve got, even if we might have to stick with our old TVs for a bit and our kids would be bored with last years toys and we’d look a bit dumpier without the sweatshop-made shirts and trousers…. Lots of things aren’t produced in the USA anymore, but Cheerios we’ll have under socialism, if it were to arrive, if we were to make it happen….

Can you imagine? Socialist fucking Cheerios would taste ten times as…. oaty? **

* One of the few things I liked about the unfortunate place that I lived before I moved to London was the percentage of my spending that took place at establishments that were co-ops. The better part was spent at the lovely food co-op right around the corner from me. We bought stuff for the house and garden at a community owned garden store located in the middle of a shitty part of town likely shittier than any of my British readers have ever seen. I bought my books from a store that was effectively owned by the department where I worked. There was beer and ciggies from the gas stations, that’s true. But twas nice, all of this, and I still drag my canvas bags from the food co-op down to my Tesco to fill with grimly packaged wiltshire ham and pasta here.

** Again not to be promisory. But there’s a huge thing I really need to say about Ruskin and aesthetics and socialism and the idea that fair-trade coffee actually tastes better as the artisinally-made cathedrals looked better to Ruskin than slave-made pyramids. And I will say it, shit – promisory – soon.

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March 9, 2009 at 12:19 am

Posted in socialism

the bureaucratic sublime

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From Alexander Provan’s review of a group of works on and by Kafka in The Nation:

At the fin de siècle, the state bureaucracy already held considerable sway over people’s lives and selves, and Kafka wrote from the center of the age’s contradictions and anxieties. When he assumed his position at the Insurance Institute in 1908, after having spent a dismal year in the employ of Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurer, the Dual Monarchy was groaning under a superabundance of paperwork. Legislation enacted in the 1880s had ushered in the European welfare state, and its administration required a massive expansion and modernization of the notoriously sclerotic royal bureaucracy. By the turn of the century, district authorities were processing four times more paperwork than they had been twenty years earlier; the empire was “being suffocated by files and drowning in ink,” wrote the governor of Lower Austria. Meanwhile, the arcane official idiom had become so divorced from vernacular German that the bureaucrats and their charges could hardly communicate. One imagines a cadre of clerks madly dashing off reports and edicts, which would be inevitably eclipsed by newer documents before they arrived at the appropriate filing facility. In Kafka’s last, unfinished novel, The Castle, this flood of imperial documents has so overwhelmed the citadel that the living rooms of village homes have been turned into storage annexes.

I wish I had time to do the reading that I’d like to do in order to make the point that I’d like to make. But for now: it is important – when dealing with Kafka, modernism in general, and modernity in general – to remember that the alternative to bureaucracy isn’t necessarily free and easy human contact and everything working very smoothly indeed. Rather, the alternative, both historically and often enough at present day, is the efficiency of hierarchical fiat.

For in its most neutral sense, and under forseeable conditions (anarchist utopias where you simply take as many apples as you like from the big barrel notwithstanding), there is no distribution of public benefit without bureaucracy. If there will be free health care and subsidized education, there will be forms to fill out, boxes to check. There are ways to run a society without forms – the gentlemanly handshake, the emperor’s thumbup or thumbdown. I’m sure there are people who get into Harvard from time to time without filling out an application, just as there are doctors you can see who will bill you later. The welfare state is a state run on ticked boxes and eligibility criteria. This is not to say that the pejorative usage of the word bureacratic is unjust. Bureaucracy is in fact often enough used to inhibit the distribution of benefits by setting up obstacles for those who would obtain them to negotiate, as I’m sure just about anyone who has filed for unemployment benefits in the USA or UK could easily testify. But this fact – the way bureaucracy is put to work in neoliberal societies by those who would deprive citizens of their rights – should not distract us from the bigger picture.

In this light, take a look at IT’s excellent post on the RAE and the goalpost-shifting that’s perhaps about to happen. The RAE is perhaps the most maligned element of bureaucratic governance in the UK system of higher education. But if I might play the helpful American for a second or two, it’s worth remembering that for all the grumbling that we do (“we” being now UK academics – I wear a lot of hats) that, in the eyes of someone who comes from the states, the RAE seems like a potentially highly progressive manifestation of bureaucratic rationality. We can see in IT’s post just why the word potentially is in the previous sentence and why I’ve italicized it.

But the Americans out there can second this if they like. If we had a system of academic finance distrubution that held even the slightest possibility that if, say, SUNY Stony Brook outperformed Columbia during a given period, that SUNY Stony Brook would swipe some funds away from Columbia’s pot…. Well, that might change some equations around a bit. And if the system were weighted to reward good work against the odds and to draw some cash away from well-endowed but underperforming institutions…. well, we’d still be simulating “market” logic, but one could deal with that if the simulation was jiggered to be fair, given the unlikeliness of any true equality in university funding of the “nationalize Harvard and spread its endowment from sea to shining sea) model….

But, yeah, a potentially fair RAE might look like the one that just took place, but whose findings were then duely acted upon rather than burying them in shoulder slaps for the old boys and vague ramblings about “our current crisis….”

Anyway, back to bureaucracy in general:

I’ve attended private universities in the US, and I’ve worked at public or publically-funded universities in the US and the UK. And I can assure you, with a few notorious exceptions (looking at you, again, Columbia!), there’s lots and lots more paperwork and general bureaucratic overhead involved with every single thing that happens, from the changing of the title of a course to the admission of Ph.D. students at publically funded institutions. There are days when my life feels like it is dissolving into a mass of papers on my desk. And I resent it – you have no idea how much I resent it.

But the reason why I resent it is because I am a little bit of a snot with a few not totally healthy memories of life at extremely-well endowed private institutions, where if the right person wanted something done, it was simply done without all that much paperwork, all that much meeting and voting and squabbling and oversight. I will admit that there are times when I envy the working life at institutions like the ones I attended.

But of course, of course, there’s a distinct and clear dark side to this sort of efficiency. It’s country cousins with the darkside that goes by the parabolic abbreviation make the trains run on time. With the smoothness and humaneness of response comes often enough a lapse into nepotism of the worst sort, the hiring of friends and lovers and the lovers of friends, picking from the visible top of the heap (and we know who gets to be visible) and that sort of thing.

At the place where I used to work, when the department decided to hire someone, there was this hoop that we had to jump through called something like Affirmative Action Review. Now, the purpose of this review wasn’t expressly to force us to hire black candidates rather than white ones, or women rather than men. It often felt like a mostly useless paperchase involving interaction with some office or other in the adminstrative building, all of which generally came to ratifying the choice we’d already as a department made.

But there was a logic to it. I didn’t get it at first, but I had one colleague (who happened to be the single Marxist instigator, you know the sort) who incessant raised the point of the affirmative action procedures when we were tempted to play fast and loose with them by, say, not running a proper job advertisement, not interviewing several candidates for a position, or not putting a potential spousal hire through the full ordeal of the interviewing process.

As I said, I didn’t really get the point of the procedures that I’ve just listed at first, but he explained it all to me once so clearly that I never wondered about them again. The point is this. The AA protocol doesn’t ensure that we would hire, say, a black candidate for a job. What it does work toward ensuring is that we don’t fall victim to the temptation to hire intelligent friends,  to hire spouses and partners and lovers, even if they are talented and seem on the surface to be an obvious choice for the job. We might in the end end up hiring them anyway, once the full search has been completed…. or we might just hire someone else who’s astoundingly excellent when given the chance (I’ve seen this happen. Shit, I’ve made this happen. Just ask around my old school… Was amazing, I was….) Our friends and lovers tend to be similar to us in background, just by mandate of biographic probability. (If I had had to marry one of my grad school classmates, the odds were something like 5-1 that I’d have married a woman that went to a posh undergraduate school just like me, was white just like me, came out of similar socio-economic bracket as me, and so on and so on…) We had Stanford grads around, and without due diligence we’d likely have been experiencing a fall harvest of Stanford-types every year etc etc.

Perhaps I’m overplaying the point. Perhaps I’m just trying to tell myself something like rather than grumble about the paperwork that’s waiting for you on your office desk, that you’ll have to go in early and spend an hour filling in tomorrow morning, shut up and realize that sometimes the bureaucratic stuff has its purpose. And that, in fact, if society were the way you’d have it in the haziest vision of what it actually might best be, you’d likely be doing more and more paperwork, endless paperwork that would take the place of the easier “Oh, that’s a good school! Let’s let her in!” which is the worst thing in the world, really….

In short, and again absent the arrival of the anarchist utopia that is in equal parts a lovely idea and unlikely to work properly, I will content myself with fantasizing about a world in which I visit an office to apply for my housing, I fill out a form to apply for my shitty constructivist computer (as they would be hard to get, given the equal access that those currently without access would have to them – schoolkids in Ghana before the overly-pensive in London), I wait my turn for my subsidized vacation somewhere, and I hand in my dated vouchers to get me some food at post-Tesco. So long as all this pain-in-the-assery meant that I didn’t get to step to the front of the line because I carry American Express, so long as the bureaucratic hoops meant that we were all getting our fair share, so long as paperwork replaces class-privilege, it is a worthy dream to replace the ones that I currently am having about lost cats and the like…

Let’s hope the funders-that-be sit down and their desks and go through the numbers properly and give Roehampton its due. They’ve got some good fucking researchers over there, let me tell you. And from what I hear, worthy students too.

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March 4, 2009 at 12:15 am

u.s.s.a.

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Just keeping a running count of things like this:

It seems that “socialist” has supplanted “liberal” as the go-to slur among much of a conservative world confronting a one-two-three punch of bank bailouts, budget blowouts and stimulus bills. Right-leaning bloggers and talk radio hosts are wearing out the brickbat. Senate and House Republicans have been tripping over their podiums to invoke it. The S-bomb has become as surefire a red-meat line at conservative gatherings as “Clinton” was in the 1990s and “Pelosi” is today.

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February 28, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Posted in america, socialism

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

mosselprom on fifth avenue, and the afterlife of constructivism

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a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

There’s a piece in the IHT today on constructivism. Ah, a specter’s haunting, you know, the ad men. But there are more serious / valuable paragraphs that come after the stuff about Saks.

Constructivism is also a critical influence on the creation of digital imagery. This is partly because of the intellectual link from the original Soviet Constructivists to contemporary software designers. The trajectory begins with Moholy-Nagy, who worked in the United States with his fellow Hungarian, Gyorgy Kepes, on early theories of the construction of mechanical images. Kepes shared their thinking with his students, including Bass, and later with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among them the pioneering technologists Muriel Cooper and Nicholas Negroponte. The digital artist John Maeda studied under them and then taught Ben Fry and Casey Reas, the inventors of Processing, the advanced software that produces visualization, arguably the most compelling new visual language of our time.

Visualization, or “viz” as it is nicknamed, crunches through complex data to create digital images that explain its meaning clearly. As dynamic digital media, visualizations can be constantly updated, enabling them to illustrate changing information and complicated concepts that are too elusive to be depicted accurately on traditional charts or graphs. Geopolitical developments, such as population shifts, and virtual phenomena, like the flow of Internet traffic, lend themselves to visualization, as do scientific and medical theories. Among the most ambitious applications is the Blue Brain Project in Lausanne, where a group of neuroscientists is trying to create a visualization of the human brain, in the hope that it can be used to help find cures for Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases.

The “viz” phenomenon owes more to Soviet Constructivism than its academic pedigree. When Rodchenko and Popova designed posters and pamphlets for the Soviet state, they were trying to help a confused and largely illiterate population to make sense of the dramatic changes in their daily lives. New laws. New institutions. New working practices. New expectations. New taboos. Their striking collages must have looked as exhilarating to 1920s workers as luscious digital visualizations do to us today, and shared the same aim of helping people to make sense of the complexity of modern life. That’s why there’s so much more to Constructivism than a style that shifts slouchy bags.

This is a story that I didn’t really know, but I’m glad to learn. I’ve begun work on a project on simplicity and modernism, and I must admit that I first became fixated on the term when I was reading John Maeda’s blog and looking at his book on the topic. But I had no idea that there was a traceable genealogy back to exactly the stuff that I’ll probably, long way around, start the project with…

Ah, sometimes, despite what I said and then redacted, it feels really good to be an academic and a blogger, and whatever else it is that I might be. If I could actually find room for all of this stuff in the book that I want to write, man….

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February 9, 2009 at 10:01 pm

never thought I’d live to see the day

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A few weeks ago, we were linking to utopian but fake versions of the New York Times, remember?

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February 9, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Posted in socialism

ever more nervous about nationalization

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Despite the fact that the non-nationalized corporation that he works for has just dragged its own building down to the pawnshop in order to keep paying his salary, David Sanger from the NYT still believes in the American way. Just. A Bit. Nervously. And just like our president-elect.

WASHINGTON — When President-elect Barack Obama talked on Sunday about realigning the American automobile industry he was quick to offer a caution, lest he sound more like the incoming leader of France, or perhaps Japan.

“We don’t want government to run companies,” Mr. Obama told Tom Brokaw on “Meet the Press.” “Generally, government historically hasn’t done that very well.”

But what Mr. Obama went on to describe was a long-term bailout that would be conditioned on federal oversight. It could mean that the government would mandate, or at least heavily influence, what kind of cars companies make, what mileage and environmental standards they must meet and what large investments they are permitted to make — to recreate an industry that Mr. Obama said “actually works, that actually functions.”

It all sounds perilously close to a word that no one in Mr. Obama’s camp wants to be caught uttering: nationalization.

Not since Harry Truman seized America’s steel mills in 1952 rather than allow a strike to imperil the conduct of the Korean War has Washington toyed with nationalization, or its functional equivalent, on this kind of scale. Mr. Obama may be thinking what Mr. Truman told his staff: “The president has the power to keep the country from going to hell.” (The Supreme Court thought differently and forced Mr. Truman to relinquish control.)

The fact that there is so little protest in the air now — certainly less than Mr. Truman heard — reflects the desperation of the moment. But it is a strategy fraught with risks.

The first, of course, is the one the president-elect himself highlighted. Government’s record as a corporate manager is miserable, which is why the world has been on a three-decade-long privatization kick, turning national railroads, national airlines and national defense industries into private companies.

The second risk is that if the effort fails, and the American car companies collapse or are auctioned off in pieces to foreign competitors, taxpayers may lose the billions about to be spent.

And the third risk — one barely discussed so far — is that in trying to save the nation’s carmakers, the United States is violating at least the spirit of what it has preached around the world for two decades. The United States has demanded that nations treat American companies on their soil the same way they treat their home-grown industries, a concept called “national treatment.”

No need, really, for me to go into how bothered I am by Sanger’s “first risk,” is there? As basically just about every corporation in the world totters on the verge of collapse, as far as I know packages mailed via the USPS will still arrive in time for the special morning. Everyone knows why Amtrak has trouble, and Sanger should come over to the UK to experience what fully privatized rail travel is really like. I’ve heard all those privatized and deregulated airlines are doing really really well lately, but sure, yes, the privatized (um?) defense industry has done well over the past decade, that much is true.

I know it’s boring to keep posting these, but I’d like to keep a record just for record keeping’s sake. A post is coming that dares to tie the knot between my dominant preoccupations, NYT watching and nationalization, within hours or at the tops days. That Habermas piece is around here somewhere….

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December 9, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Posted in anxiety, news, socialism

political parapraxis / detroit bailout

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When the political actors wrap the potential bailout of the American car companies in language of environmentalism, they aren’t being serious, they’re being cynical. There are reasons – some decent, some horrible – why those that want to save these dying corporations, but first on no one’s list is the prospect of forcing to market low-emissions vehicles and the like. It is a marketing strategy, and one that play on a very strange sense that is perhaps semi-subliminally resident in the minds of some voters and many commentators: If the nation controlled General Motors, General Motors could be forced to design and distribute vehicles that would be at once socially beneficial, attractive to consumers, and sustainably profitable. From the NYT today:

“They’re going to have to restructure,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “And all their stakeholders are going to have restructure. Labor, management, shareholders, creditors — everybody is going to recognize that they have — they do not have a sustainable business model right now, and if they expect taxpayers to help in that adjustment process, then they can’t keep on putting off the kinds of changes that they, frankly, should have made 20 or 30 years ago.”

Even the deployment of the slightly – though not much – more realistic sense that the goal of government intervention is going to return these companies to profitability seems to me fairly cynical and not at all realistic. Jobs and shareholders, not necessarily in that order, are being protected, full stop. The rest is windowdressing.

That said…. Each and every time they dress the windows with this sort of talk, every time the government players offer the argument that General Motors or Chrysler would have been better managed by responsible, sane, and forward-thinking bureaucrats rather than their board and corporate management, they turn the wheel of discursive normativity a click toward state management and the economics of planning. The Environmental Protection Agency together with the Department of Transportation could better manage a car company than the invisible hand of the market and the men it selects for ownership? Talk like this, however cynically deployed, was absolutely unimaginable a few months ago. Of course the chatterers on television and the papers will forget all about these arguments when (if!) things improve. But the voters, an ever larger percentage of whom are about to become unemployed, perhaps won’t if they are startled into attention by the shock of what’s coming in the next few months and years.

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December 8, 2008 at 11:29 am

saturday morning glimmerings

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For half a second after picking up today’s IHT, I misunderstood the relationship between the top headline and the image below it.

Or I wanted to misunderstand it. Of course the image doesn’t have to do with apartment blocks in Detroit doing Che instead of Santa and his reindeer this year but rather is an illustration for just another internally incoherent piece about Cuba and socialism (not up for link for some reason…) Still, still, thrilling when the paper gives you the chance to imagine a different sort of Saturday morning.

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December 6, 2008 at 9:39 am

the socialisation of finance

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From Willem Buiter’s Blog at the Financial Times:

If financial behemoths like AIG are too large and/or too interconnected to fail but not too smart to get themselves into situations where they need to be bailed out, then what is the case for letting private firms engage in such kinds of activities in the first place?

Is the reality of the modern, transactions-oriented model of financial capitalism indeed that large private firms make enormous private profits when the going is good and get bailed out and taken into temporary public ownership when the going gets bad, with the tax payer taking the risk and the losses?

If so, then why not keep these activities in permanent public ownership?There is a long-standing argument that there is no real case for private ownership of deposit-taking banking institutions, because these cannot exist safely without a deposit guarantee and/or lender of last resort facilities, that are ultimately underwritten by the taxpayer.

Even where private deposit insurance exists, this is only sufficient to handle bank runs on a subset of the banks in the system. Private banks collectively cannot self-insure against a generalised run on the banks. Once the state underwrites the deposits or makes alternative funding available as lender of last resort, deposit-based banking is a license to print money.

That suggests that either deposit-banking licenses should be periodically auctioned off competitively or that depostit-taking banks should be in public ownership to ensure that the tax payer gets the rents as well as the risks.The argument that financial intermediation cannot be entrusted to the private sector can now be extended to include the new, transactions-oriented, capital-markets-based forms of financial capitalism.

The risk of a sudden vanishing of both market liquidity for systemically important classes of finanial assets and funding liquidity for systemically important firms may well be too serious to allow private enterprises to play. No doubt the socialisation of most financial intermediation would be costly as regards dynamism and innovation, but if the risk of instability is too great and the cost of instability too high, then that may be a cost worth paying.

These are issues that must be pondered not just in Washington but everywhere modern financial intermediation has taken root or is threatening to do so – in the financial heartland (Wall Street, the City of London, Frankfurt, Zurich, Tokyo and Dubai) and in the emerging markets that until recently were having their ears bent on the desirability of precisely the kind of financial institutions and markets that have now turned into trillion dollar collapsing dominos.

From financialisation of the economy to the socialisation of finance. A small step for the lawyers, a huge step for mankind. Who said economics was boring?

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 18, 2008 at 9:19 am

Posted in crisis, markets, socialism

wtf? where’s my gmail?

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So there seems to be some sort of massive gmail outage going on. Tomorrow we’ll perhaps hear about the billions and trillions of dollars worth of damage this has done. But of course, the financial figures miss so much, as they always do. All the bitchy gossip that will go unsaid. Lovers aiming to chat across oceans will have to take the night off or find another way. Baby pictures will rest on hard drives, unable to travel for another night. Think of the lost hours of trying and trying to open the millions of accounts.

I’ve been meaning to write a post for awhile about the increasingly significant role played by entities that we might call quasi-utilities. Mostly web-based, these free or almost free services come to seem like a kind of human right, an automatic endowment that we receive simply for being alive. We feel entitled to decent email access (once we’re on the web in the first place of course), free chat, free books (albeit not in paper form). We feels ourselves to possess the right to look at the photographs of friends and family. Maps, likewise, guide us from place to place without apparent cost. Of late, even scaled down versions of expensive programs like Microsoft Word have been added to Google’s pseudo-public empire.

We don’t notice the advertisements, though we do see them. We are familiar with the model from television which was perhaps the first of the quasi-utilities.

In a sense – and much to their dismay, from a profit-making angle, newspapers have evolved in this direction as well. I pay for a subscription to the IHT, because I like newsprint and it’s page for page probably one of the better papers in the world, but I don’t really need it to keep up with the NYT, which is right there waiting for me anytime I like and for free. Reading the papers for anyone who came of age just after I did has perhaps always seemed like something that you ought to be able to do for free, if you want to do it in the first place. When you scroll through the news on your computer or your phone it is easy to have the sense that you live in a world in which content is below and beyond value at once, something there for the taking. And of course the entire sector of media capitalists have never been panicked by anything like they have been by the dawning sense that music and tv programs and films too exist as non-commodities, items to be freely shared rather than bought and sold.

Now, there’s lots to be said about this. It is important to remind ourselves at the getgo that the publicness of the services and information provided by google and similar corporations only appears to be a public utility rather than a private business. Administrators at some libraries, thankfully, are beginning to catch on to the fact that google’s book scanning business is in fact a business – is not a frictionless gift to the world in the utopian form of “every book, every page, any time or way you like.”

That said, that said – what is perhaps the point to take away from these for-profit services is that they bring to the public a taste of the free and easy that comes of efficient public provisioning. They are, that is to say, advertisements in and of themselves for a healthy public sphere. Learning to get something for nothing (even if it’s not nothing, in the end, for now) is exactly the mentality that we’d be best served to foster. The web makes it easy, but perhaps it might best be visualized as what they called a “gateway drug” when I was a kid. (I don’t know if the phrase is still current – but the idea was that the true danger of pot, in its happy non-dangerousness, was that it readied kids to try more dangerous, destructive “hard” drugs.) It’s not a long leap from free and well-designed email to free and smoothly working public wifi. And from public wifi, it’s a longer leap, though not all that long, to nationalized health care. A bit further yet to media, housing stock, and all the rest. After all, who today would pay for an email account?

Two points to be addressed in future posts. One: the pernicious lies that are told about GDP destruction through the market dominance of public, not-for-profit entities. (The BBC comes to mind on this point… All those ads that could be run but aren’t – the international page views that the fucking Guardian could be garnering if not for the BBC’s site….) Yes, public entities do in fact reduce GDP – the takeaway from this fact is that there is something wrong with GDP as a yardstick of civic health, not that cash should be sliced away from the “public monopoly.” Two: It wouldn’t take much effort for us to offer the argument that any sort of user tax on ISP customers for downloads would, sure, be a fine idea but only if the proceeds were pooled into some sort of state support for artists rather than bottom-line fattener for media companies. We download free; the artists are paid by the state; Sony finds a way to fuck itself for trying. Nuff said. Three: and this is more complicated. I’d like to take a long look at the functionalist design aesthetic of google and its many sites as an impersonation of the aesthetic practices of an as-yet-impossible regime of use-value centered provisioning. The design of the google sites, despite the occassional burst of disneyland coloring, is rather amazing… The blandest thing there is on the internet is also the most popular thing. Something there to think about, don’t you think?

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 11, 2008 at 11:13 pm

impossible is nothing: adidas’s socialist art

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What a strange world we live in. Adidas has made a series of TV ads for the China market that look, well, properly socialist. That is, they seem to me to be the sort of things that an actually-existing-socialist state might make, if they still existed and had hotshit marketing firms on hand to help out. A logical, if very slick, development from the sort of posters the commies liked to do for sporting events and the athletic ideologies of communism.

And the towers of people – people as architectural elements – are particularly interesting and strange in the adidas ad.

Of course, of course, it’d be easy to describe these as more nationalist than socialist. But almost all Olympic themed ads are nationalist – and these are different. Easy test: could you imagine the same ad being made for the American market? For the UK? No, but it’s trickier to say why not…. Some options I’ve come up with:

1) Americans don’t go in for a sense that our athletes are somehow built by society, that they are products or embodiments of the collective. It breaks against the libertarian self-made myth that we love our jocks to live out. (I remember – but cannot find in the usual repositories – an ad that I think Home Depot did a few Olympics ago that would be fruitfully paired with the one above. Working-class athletes in minor sports doing their humdrum jobs only to train, night after night. I think it may even have had something to do with some sort of program that Home Depot had to employ poor Olympic hopefuls. Or was it FedEx? But you see the point – bagging your boxes of nails and mousetraps, not diving into a sea of countrymen….

2) Westerners don’t like to be portrayed as a gray mass of depersonalized semi-individuals. Sports ads more typically revolve around the fantasy that you have been magically been brought into the game – that you somehow are A-Rod or Beckham or whatever. Look how easy they make it for me:

3) A little more complex, but we tend to figure “nationhood” through emblems, scenes, symbols, and physical / topographical elements rather than as a mass of people. Masses of people as nation is a bit scary, and sends the wrong message.

Anyway, it’s an interesting piece of work, this add, and deserves to be filled-away in everyone’s drawer of hauntological repetitions with a big difference….

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 21, 2008 at 12:22 am

Posted in ads, china, socialism