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Archive for the ‘socialism’ Category

judt on social democracy

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Tony Judt’s “What Is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy,” a talk given at NYU and printed in the NYRB, is worth taking a look at for the clarity of its diagnosis and the ultimate argument, which I take to come in these late paragraphs:

If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them.

The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

We all, I think, understand what Judt’s getting at with this argument in favour of conservative, “anti-modernist” social democracy, given the tenor of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative approaches with which we’ve been long familiar. (Remember the “reality-based community” stuff back from the beginning of the war?) But on the other hand, Judt’s suggestion seems to contradict his criticism, earlier in the paper, of social democratic parties for their defensiveness, the fact that they’ve long since had “nothing distinctive to offer.” Still, worth taking a look at…

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December 25, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Posted in crisis, socialism

mark fisher’s capitalist realism

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Ah insomnia! A little worried that I’ve found the problem of my early-middle age. Anyway, was up from 4 AM this morning and decided to spend the wee small hours reading Mark Fisher’s new Capitalist Realism, which I’ve finished, and which is quite a good read. (And quick! I made it through in about 2.5 hours while also answering blog responses, writing a couple of emails, and making and drinking 1.5 pots of coffee…)

One thing that occurred to me while reading it is just how British Mark’s examples and ultimately his arguments are. Obviously this isn’t a problem! But from an American perspective, or at least to this American, what Capitalist Realism is really about at center, given its preoccupations, is not really capitalist ideology and atmospherics in general so much as a specific (and specifically British) set of phenomena having to do with the lingering bits of British socialism, the remnant bits of the welfare state. The book focuses on the experiences of those who work for or use a set of public resources – further education colleges and state-funded universities, NHS-provisioned psychological care, the BBC, etc. I can’t actually think of a single example of non-public business mentioned in the book. (He talks a bit about call centers – but in the UK these are often attached to public organizations like the NHS too…)

It’s not even the standard story about privatization that Mark is ultimately telling here, though it’s a related story. Rather, Capitalist Realism is ultimately focused on something else – the ways that public institutions that haven’t and likely won’t be privatized have been forced (have been forced to) to participate in simulated markets, where a rigorous regime of testing on a set of metrics replaces the invisible hand of the market. It’s a governmental gambit driven at once by a desire to reduce funding across the board and to convince voters that they are taking the efficacy of public institutions very seriously. Since it couldn’t / can’t actually expose some public institutions to market forces through opening competition or privatization, New Labour established (and continues to establish) pseudo-markets, fake market-like games, for public institutions to compete in in order to obtain funding.

The Research Assessment Exercise (now, the Research Excellence Framework) is the face of this that I’m most familiar with, as it’s the pseudo-market in place for higher education in the UK. The short version of the process is that academic departments collect and submit “research inputs” from their staff – three or four “inputs” from each lecturer including essays, books, editions or whatever the equivalents are discipline to discipline. These will be assessed according to a variety of metrics by a board, who will rate the inputs and, when the results are aggregated, departments as wholes. Funding will be distributed (according to a complex formula) to universities based on the results. Entities like the NHS have their own versions of this sort of exercise. And further, it’s easy to see how the dominance of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the NHS’s mental health provision has everything to do with its cost-effective and goal-oriented nature.

Having benchmarks and metrics to measure the effectiveness isn’t, to my mind, a strictly bad thing in principle. It’s not a terrible idea for state-funded agencies to be required to demonstrate that they are in fact working correctly. The oldest problem of socialist economic organization is how to provoke productivity and promote efficiency once work has been shielded from the imperatives of the market. But on the other hand, while the rules of market participation are quite clear cut (make a lot of money, one way or another), the very pseudo-ness of this sort of exercise allows the bureaucrats and politicians involved in its development wide latitude to accomplish nefarious ends – and to accomplish them with all of the trappings of semi-scientism and “definitive” league tables.

For instance, while it’s still a bit early to tell exactly what metrics will be employed in this current round of the REF. This is a big problem to start with – we’ve all already been playing a game whose rules still haven’t been formulated two years into the match… But what’s worse is that there’s a good chance that the rules will be skewed to favor varieties of research that humanities academics simply don’t produce.  I won’t go into the details here – I swim in this stuff all day and night, and simply can’t go through it again. If you’re really interested check out Stefan Collini’s excellent piece in a recent TLS, describes the problematic situation for the humanities very vividly.

At any rate, to an American, or at least this American, Capitalist Realism is as much a book about the adaptation of the UK’s lingering socialist structures – public education facilities, public health care provisioners, public broadcasters – not so much to capitalism per se, but to the simulation of capitalism that defines New Labour’s approach to public services. Since Americans barely have any of these structures even to worry about – little public health care, public education is mostly administered on the local or state level, PBS and NPR aren’t large enough to matter in the way that the BBC does – there’s only been a small amount of pseudo-market gaming. (Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was a step in the direction of “standards-based education reform” on a federal level). And while some of the structures that Mark describes can be found in the private sphere, the self-assessment and self-monitoring that he focuses on really are, to my mind, most prevalent in the British public sphere, a framework of holdover socialist public organization constantly being tampered with by a state whose priorities lies elsewhere.

And this fact has important ramifications for the assessment of the overall argument of Capital Realism. On the final pages of the book, when Mark addresses the question “What is to be done?,” one of his primary suggestions is that the left focus on the reduction of bureaucracy – a suggestion that certainly seems to correspond with the evidence and analysis that he provides throughout. Still, and given what I’ve said above, it is a suggestion that is not without a significant amount of danger. For while we would all like to do less of this maddening bureaucratic work, and while much of this bureaucratic work is aimed ultimately at the cynical reduction of public service in the name of efficiency, there are more pernicious (and more likely) paths to the reduction of bureaucracy than leftist agitation and refunding. I know I’ve focused disproportionately on education in this post, but just one more time: I’m sure, for instance, that the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA would love to give the Tories a hand at straightening out the UK further and higher education systems and their reams of paperwork once they get in office… Or, as will likely be the case, the Conservative government (or pre-emptive Labour) can allow universities to set their own student fees, which will let “students decide” with their increasingly empty wallets and increasingly large student loans how the funds are apportioned rather than a board of bureaucrats monitoring the self-monitoring of the academics.

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December 2, 2009 at 1:34 pm

“it would be wonderful if we became part of a socialist chain”

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Last night, the wife and I were watching Mad Men S3E10 when, at a certain point, she turned to me and whispered: I think you missed your calling. Of course she’s right, in a sense. Or lots of senses – what she was referring to in particular, given the scene at hand, was the fact that the boys at Sterling Cooper drink their way through their “creative” work all day… And, um, let’s not go into that now.

But it is true that I have long harbored a very real fantasy of working in advertising. Mad Men isn’t helping, nor is the fact that people think it’s quite funny / apt to compare me to Don Draper (Americano-effect over here in part…), but the fantasy extends way back before this program first aired. (Check the title of this blog, just for instance….) I doubt that I could ever leave the soul-protecting fortress of public sector work, and advertising is awful, right? To try to get into the business in an ethical and politically-useful way would probably be as successful as all of those friends of mine who went to law school,  you know, in order to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and now defend white collar criminals in Washington.

So forget the career change, I guess… Definitely going to write a book about advertising, one way or another, once I’m done with the Monster. Advertising and socialism. But then again….

In the third season of Mad Men, one of the major subplots involves Don Draper meeting, befriending, and then getting a contract to work for Conrad Hilton, the eccentric founder of the Hilton Hotels chain. (It hadn’t occurred to me until just this minute that Conrad Hilton is Paris Hilton’s great-grandfather. Hmmm… Nice touch, Mad Men writers…) Hilton has messianic hopes for the chain, believing that it is in itself an materialized advertisement for the virtues of American capitalism vs. the austerity of the godless Communist menace. Don does his damnedest to deal with his increasingly weird client, but eventually just stops trying under the pressure and instead turns his attentions to an affair with a clingy local school teacher instead.

Well and good. But today I read in this in the Guardian:

What used to be the Caracas Hilton today soars over Venezuela’s capital as a bold symbol of Hugo Chávez’s leftist revolution, a 36-storey, state-run declaration of intent.

The government took it over from the US hotel chain two years ago as part of a sweep towards greater state economic control. Renamed Alba – “dawn” in Spanish and also the acronym of Chávez’s regional alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas – the hotel hosts summits which condemn US imperialism and chart a brighter, leftist future.

“We are the first socialist hotel but hopefully not the last,” said Katiuska Camaripano, its general manager.

Last week it acquired a sister: the government seized the Hilton on Margarita island, Venezuela’s tourist playground. It had angered Chávez during a meeting of African leaders he hosted at the hotel. “The owners tried to impose conditions on the revolutionary government. No way. So I said, ‘Let’s expropriate it.’ And now it’s been expropriated.”

A presidential decree transferred its assets, including 280 rooms, 210 suites, shops, restaurants and a casino to the tourism ministry. A Hilton spokeswoman said the chain was “evaluating” the government’s action.

Now that’s the spirit! Chavez does have a knack of fulfilling fantasies of mine.   And check it out: red branding!

The state’s Margarita acquisition may also be renamed Alba, consolidating the brand name. Venezuela has also partly funded a small Alba hotel in Managua, capital of its leftist ally Nicaragua, said Camaripano. “It would be wonderful if we became part of a socialist chain.”

It only gets better from here:

There are some striking changes. Gone are the American and European managers and well-heeled foreign guests who used to snap up jewellery and cosmetics in the shops. Red-clad government officials and Cuban delegations have largely taken their place. “Business is dead. All we’ll sell is chewing gum and antibiotics,” lamented one store owner.

The Italian restaurant now serves more Caribbean fare such as chicken in coconut sauce and cachapa, a corn-based pancake. The gift shop offers a range of ceramic Chávez mugs and sculptures ranging from $20 to $240.

The bookshop which sold glossy magazines and Dan Brown novels has been replaced by a culture ministry outlet offering political tracts such as Transition Towards Socialism and Venezuela: a Revolution Sui Generis.

The titles are all subsidised, with some costing the equivalent of just 50p. “The problem is people buy the books and sell them on for profit,” said Nicola Castilla, the bookshop clerk. “It’s not easy instilling a socialist conscience.”

Jesus! I’m now wondering if Chavez would consider taking over some of those dingy Bloomsbury hotels, which already have a certain circa-1983 Bucharest about them. I’d stop by for cachapas and 50p books every day if he did!

Anyway, on a night when the BBC is hosting fascists on Question Time, nice to have an alternate fantasy – of Alba Hotels everywhere, of ad campaigns in a yet-to-come workers’ paradise – to fall asleep to….

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October 22, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Posted in ads, socialism, teevee

it’s time

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Obama and Dems getting aggregate, and getting out ahead of the kitchen table ads that are bound to be on their way. No one expects single-payer at this point, but please let’s open some Overton Windows!

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July 19, 2009 at 12:59 am

Posted in america, socialism

ads sells out, answers work emails, becomes funded researcher, bureaucratized philosopher of happiness?

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Strange. Answering work-email, including one from our departmental “research facilitator.” And for the life of me, I can’t see why I shouldn’t “express interest” in becoming part of “a research initiative on subjective wellbeing and practical implications for design and delivery of public policy and services.”

Is the trick in the “subjective” determination of “wellbeing”? There has to be a trick. Is that where I would encounter problems? I suppose I don’t really have a problem with that, as I can see and discuss the “subjective” even if I automatically and instantly translate it into meta-effect of the “objective.”

So very roundabout, there’s nothing that my work’s aimed at (again, so so roundabout) more centrally than the “design and delivery of public policy and services” toward the enhancement of “happiness,” whether subjective or objective.

I wonder if I would stop all the other madness if I were, in the long run, appointed as house man-of-letters for a lovely organization like the NHS? I bet I’d have an easier time settling down with myself, working at my desk.

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July 19, 2009 at 12:49 am

the promise and peril of utilitarian philosophers writing articles for the nyt

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this sheep needs braces, but can we afford it?

Peter Singer had an almost wholly wonderful piece on socialized medicine in the NYT the other day (it appeared in the IHT today). Why almost? The first 2/3rds of the piece are devoted to debunking the myth that American medical care isn’t already “rationed.” It is, of course, “rationed,” just by ability to pay rather than medical necessity. Great stuff very clearly and cogently written. But in the last bit of the piece, and unfortunately you could see this coming once you noticed that Singer was the author, he veers off into the trickier questions involved in the rationing of medical care under and egalitarian but limited system. And in doing so, he ends up raising issues and situations that really are better deferred until a later date, as the careful but undecided reader might well walk away from this piece disturbed by the notion that a new medical order might well find more marginal value in 2000 wart removals than, say, costly treatment for a single disabled kid. Wrong point to make right now, Peter! Stop yourself when you find yourself making things harder than they need to be in context – this isn’t a graduate seminar, it’s real life complete with feelings and stuff!

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July 19, 2009 at 12:10 am

“the real tragedy of england” / office park socialism

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The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely: the man-made England is so vile. (D.H. Lawrence).

Perversities – inner-originated or outer, who knows – conspired to put me back in the gynaecological surgery ward during the same week when I finished reading Ballard’s Crash. Too bad Ballard’s sexo-aesthetic didn’t take – perhaps I’d have been wafting along in some sort of dark erotic reverie instead of melting into a puddle from anxiety and wanting-to-be-homeness. I spent three days and two nights, and I’m just back now, and so very happy to be back.

I hate hospitals, I really do. We were taught quite a lot at Catholic school about the fucked up fort-da games God plays with hell – a glimpse of the All-Most and Everythingest, and then lost, lost forever, that sort of thing. You’re hottest most excellent fantasy, but when she turns (and keeps turning forever and ever) there are maggots for eyes and yuck for breasts and burning hot coals where the… you know what I mean. Hospitals are like that for me too. Single rooms in them impersonate austere hotel rooms (love those!) but then add into the mix nervous electronics (hate that!) and people who burst into your room unannounced to do unpleasant things (hate that even more! in a visceral sort of way!) that completely blow the fantasy that you’re trying to keep in place that this is just a lovely few days spent somewhere with an interesting view and worse TV choices than at home.

Anyway, we spent three days and two nights. With luck, we are now absolutely finished with absolutely everything having to do with the medical end of bringing children into the world. We’ve had our two, my wife was injured and then injured worse, and now we’re done. We’ve replaced ourselves, and now, well, it’s your turn! We’re done!

head-on

Best of all, we got to do our three days and two nights during the runup to what appears to be a full-scale swine flu pandemic. You heard it here first – they’re clearly in the process of shifting hospitals from their normal and normally gory work of hacking and sawing and sewing and injecting into H1N1 Containment Camps. Shit. I overheard unpleasant conversations between nurses in the lifts (elevators) detailing the geometrical increase of infected patients in their wards: we had none yesterday, three today, and they’re telling us to be ready for nine tomorrow. The reassuring thing is that none of the staff seemed particularly worried about this outbreak, except in terms of what it is about to do to their next few workweeks. But clearly, this thing is happening.

from the side

Apparently, infection makes the lights go out wherever you are, and turns your hands sort of black to white, white to black, and green in the dirty spots. Worse than you thought, huh? But it does make it easier on the Underground. If the person you’re tit-to-tit with during the morning rush starts to cough and sputter, simply give a little left-and-down juke and see if there’s any green aura involved. Saves on swabs.

mushroomic

Anyway, I had lots and lots of time to start out our 13th floor window. Here’s some rain happening over the Thames Estuary. I thought less abstractly and interestingly about things like aggregate fiction, and more poignantly and pressingly about simply wanting to be out of the hospital, down on the street, and back on schedule with my work. I could see all of my workplaces – the libraries and my office and even the tops of buildings that contain my favorite coffee places at street level – from up here.

I’ve decided that I want the following image (properly and professionally cropped, of course) to be used on the cover of some book soon, perhaps even the one I’m finishing now.

northwest mittel-europa

northwest mittel-europa

One of the reasons why the image is an appealing choice for a cover is because it’s so fucking weird. And not just this scene – London from above, with the exception perhaps of stuff along the river, is weird in general. Funny to think how few images you see of London from above. There are easy and hard reasons why this is so. The easy ones generally have to do with the ugliness of the city. It truly is ugly – you can come and see for yourself if you like.

I will photoshop out the cranes if I use this for a cover, as they are not really real, not in the realest sense of real – like the BT Tower is real.

My wife and I decided that in certain senses, London from above reminded us most (or best) of things like the boringer parts of Toronto seen from on-high, or the way Waterbury, Connecticut looks from the 84. (If you know what I mean with that last one, specially NY-NJ to NE driving props to you…) Obvious, if you look in just the right directions, it’s a bit different, but in general, blah.

But don’t get me wrong. It is one of the most loveable things about this place. There are big problems with photogenicness as well – a kind of hyper-realness that of course never feels real enough, as per almost every single street in Manhattan. London feels at times like an only-slightly post-medieval Los Angeles, with the invisible hand dropping what it would as the city sprawled. Terraced houses are nice. Modernist apartment blocks are nice. Terraced houses giving way for six units to modernist apartment blocks and then back again doesn’t look all that nice – and that’s the rhythm of the entire city.  And because of that rhythm, which repeats itself in large scale in the act of dropping a sublimely iron-curtainy looking telecommunications tower into Fitzrovia,  you can take insipidly beautiful / excitingly ugly pictures like the one above. And this rhythm has much to do with the sense of generic urbanity, raw unmarked urbanness, that London gives off in all of its parts – a sense that when felt deeply suggests that Ballard didn’t even have to go to the highway networks that mesh Heathrow. Tottenham Court Road fits the bill just as well.

postcardic (and not really my picture)

But on the other hand… or perhaps on the same hand but only somewhat differently, there’s the question of what to make of all the greenglass newbuilds like the one pictured, the hospital in question above. (The BT Tower picture was taken from that central column of windows in the tower, thirteen floors up…) Nu-language utilitarianism rendered in transreflective window treatments, the design might well have been plucked from an office building on the Rt. 1 pharmacorridor in New Jersey. It is big, it is banal, but it is clean and new. Despite the fact that the photo above (full disclosure – not mine this time) could easily work as a nouveau-nostaligic entry worthy of a future decade’s Architectures de cartes postales, but of course it never will. People have changed, and our architecture is regrettable. But still, perhaps only the Americans in the audience can appreciate how wonderfully funny and more than funny it is to get medical care in a hospital that looks like it could be the regional office of Merck & Co., but which contains no cash registers at all, except the ones at the newsstand and the cafe.

I can’t help but fantasize, from time to time but insistently in spots, about the repurposing of all of the slick office buildings, with their employee cafes and openplan offices, into workspaces for a new bureaucratic rationality, distributing goods and services rationally. Just as in 1984, the characters struggle to remember what these places were before they were rebranded into totalitarian ministries, I tease myself with the thought at times of what sort of conversations might occur over the corian-countertops and leftover cubicles of media company officebuildings put to better use.

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July 18, 2009 at 11:28 pm