Friday, 20 January 2012

When Nixon goes to China...

... Lower Your Expectations!

Only Richard Nixon could have gone to China to make peace with Mao, for it was Nixon who was the most staunchly anti-Communist of Republicans and had been embedded in McCarthyism in the 1950s. If the step had been made by a Democrat then they would have been torn apart by the right-wing media. Only Obama can legally enshrine killing American citizens aligned with the "associated forces" of al-Qaeda, even as the conservatives accuse him of being a 'socialist' and the liberals remain silent just to keep the Republicans out of office. This is the lowering of expectations that Alexander Cockburn talks about. The business of conventional politics is rooted in a kind of realism which forecloses any manifested opposition to the ruling-class. We can see this in Britain where the Labour Party signed onto the Thatcherite programme in the 1990s, which amounted to nothing less than an assault on the minimal living standards of working-class people.

The architects of New Labour were well aware that the trade unions would hang on no matter what, a large chunk of Scotland and the North would vote Labour no matter what, so it was only a matter of winning over the Southern middle-class. Under Blair the Party quickly dumped it's commitments to any kind of socialist development, indicatively the common ownership of the workplace by workers was abandoned. It was only because of Labour's history that it could hand over the Bank of England to the private sector and let the markets run amok in the NHS. So it should be no surprise that Ed Miliband has signed onto every pathetic decision of the Conservative Party to trash health-care, education, pensions and benefits in general. The opposition has been foreclosed. Now no one stands on the side of the vulnerable and the exploited in this time of great turmoil. No doubt if Blair was in power he would be pushing through bigger cuts than the Conservative Party could get away with.

So it would seem that the Labour Party is beyond reform, you can thank Tony Blair for that. In another sense then the ground is ripe for the radicals to tap into popular disillusionment, widespread grievances and the people's wrath. We need some major decisions, perhaps the trade unions should break off from the Labour Party and align themselves with the Greens. Of course, the unions won't because they're afraid that would forfeit any influence in Parliament whatsoever. The trite of Ed Miliband is the best they can hope for and clearly the unions have lowered their expectations. There is widespread outrage at what has gone on for the last 30 years. Now we have to think of what is to be undone. It wouldn't take much to reach out to ordinary people, we've seen nearly 1 million march against cuts through the streets of London. The Coalition of Resistance seems to have petered out since Ed Miliband gave a crap speech at the March for the Alternative. The Occupy movement is a good thing in terms of popular energy, but it is insufficient in many respects.

We can't lower our expectations and give in to this crowd. We should remind ourselves that it isn't all gloom and doom. Take a close look at the hubbub around SOPA and PIPA, what do you see? So Wikipedia goes on strike because libertarian Jimmy Wales wants to take a stand for free-speech online. Can't you just make out one of the contradictions of capitalism prevalent today? The more the common is captured as private property, the more its productivity declines and yet the further expansion of the common undermines the relations of property.  Neither the state nor the market has any substantive answers to this matter. Both have demonstrated a remarkable ability to shoot themselves and each other in the foot. Jimmy Wales took a stand for free-speech and undermined property rights in doing so. The state acted to defend the interests of corporations vested in private property, but it will only reduce the productivity of the system if it succeeds. This is just another repeat of when Nixon went to China, except we won't be lowering our expectations this time!

As for the question of what's your alternative? We shouldn't shirk away from central planning even though it was largely a disaster in the 20th Century. There does exist a model for socio-economic planning within the current system and this is reason enough to not dump all talk of planning from radical programmes. In a capitalist system the markets are meant to provide coordination to an intricate network of firms, the only alternative is central planning to coordinate a network of worker self-management. The Left doesn't want to talk seriously about the question of coordination. The corporation is the most advanced, sophisticated and dynamic command and control system in world history. It is a profit-based planning system but the corporate model is not a free-market one, it sends order through supply chains to extract and distribute resources. These techniques of planning can be ripped out of the capitalist system and applied to an egalitarian end.

Brand Obama - Prospects for a Second Term.

It has become fashionable to attack Barack Obama not just from the Right but from the Left as well. We should not lose sight of the magnitude of the election of the first African-American to the Presidency, especially as it was slavery which built the White House and provided the material conditions necessary for American capitalism. But the election of Obama was not the fulfilment of the dream that we all pay lip-service to. The ideological goal-posts of America have been shifted under Obama in a way which was unthinkable under just another white male politico. With that in mind it is impossible to deny that Obama would be a better President if he had not backed the coup in Honduras and slashed the wages of Haitian workers in the aftermath of the earthquake. The same goes for the way Obama has extended the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan. Let alone the drone attacks on Somalia which have been conveniently ignored in the mainstream media.

It has been a long strange trip since 2008 when the first African-American became President-elect and the American people were ready to say "Adios!" to George Bush. That year the Obama campaign team won the award for the Best Marketing Campaign, with commiserations to Apple and Nike. The election was the subject of an enormous flow of corporate dough and grass-roots campaigning which succeeded in electing Obama. Soon the word was out that the US had finally gotten over it's silly little race problem, it had become a "post-racial" society overnight and just around the corner the 'birthers' were on their way to tell the world that the President was a "closet Kenyan". There had already been attempts to pin the label of Muslim to Obama's lapel, the point being to call him a "terrorist" without actually saying it. Soon the favourite substitute for the n-word was "socialist". By now we can listen to the odious Newt Gingrich calling Obama a "food stamp President". Notice all of this has no relation to reality.

There is very little of substance for Republicans to complain about. Obama has conceded on health-care reform (which were conservative changes anyway) as well as the Bush tax-cuts, the National Defense Authorization act and on the stimulus which was wiped out by cuts at other levels. So the GOP shout about debt and they would love to run on economic issues, but they can't win on the economy because their policies only appeal to the top income brackets. The Republicans need more than just the ultra-rich to vote for them, the Democrats can appeal to ethnic minorities, gays and women to seek refuge in their party. The GOP are in a truly desperate situation. It was most astonishing to see the Republicans take a contorted anti-capitalist position last year, when they tried to block the rise of the debt-ceiling and in doing so acted to undermine the accumulation of wealth. At this point Karl Marx would just smugly remind us that "the contradictions of capitalism work in mysterious ways."

It is common knowledge that the outcome of American elections are basically bought. Back in September, Obama had the lead on Romney with a gap between them of over $50 million. Now we find the Republicans have leaped in front of the Democrats by almost $6 million. In 2008 Obama raked in around $750 million which was far more than McCain could muster. The estimates for the costs of 2012 are running as high as $11 billion and probably about $2 billion poured into the campaign war-chests. The core base of the Obama campaign were the same financial institutions which caused the Crash of '08. The small donors to Obama's campaign should not be ignored, but they amounted to $300 million at most which still leaves $450 million on the table. Large donors have been donating enormous amounts of cash in small chunks as to appear as small donors in the stats. This is something the Obama campaign encouraged from day one and probably still does.

It is corporate interests which shape American politics and every so often there is a convergence with working-class interests. The Obama health-care reforms were designed to drive down the costs entailed by the private system on manufacturing companies. It costs General Motors $1,000 more to produce a car in the US than it does in Canada. A system of universal provision would have a significant impact on the deficit, it would reduce it heavily. This is why a national health service is an inevitability.  In fact the Republican Party put forth these proposals when Clinton pushed for health-care reform in the 1990s. The former draft-dodging pothead Newt Gingrich is still a defender of the individual mandate and Mormon vulture Mitt Romney imported the same reforms in Massachusetts. Both Gingrich and Romney have been attacked for this by the ultra-Right for whom there is no "pure" conservative. These are the people who want to reduce the deficit through cuts and no tax increases, but insist on a "strong military" which costs $1 trillion.

The deciding factor could be turnout in this election, there is an extreme disillusionment in the electorate and both parties could feel the brunt of this. But it isn't just apathy in this situation which could tip things over. The GOP are well aware that the White House could be seized if they the opposition simply doesn't vote against them. Remember George Bush only came to power because the GOP managed to disqualify black voters in Florida. On average the Americans who earn less than $100,000 lean towards the Democrats, that actually accounts for 75% of the population - which only had 36% of the vote in the 2010 midterm elections. The forces of reaction are well aware of this, thus the Republicans have opted to make it as difficult as possible for Americans to vote. It was conservative Paul Weyrich who told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980 "our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." Almost 40 states have introduced measures to deliberately hinder voters.

The voter is now expected to provide proof of citizenship before registering in some states, ex-felons have been barred from voting, in some states you'll need to produce a government-issued ID before you can vote. This would exclude that 10% of American voters, 18% of the youth and 25% of black voters. This is comparable to the use of poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent blacks from voting out the racists in the South. Ironically, the Republicans have pulled this off on the grounds that there needs to be tighter guidelines to eliminate "fraudulent voters". Naturally the same billionaires who bankrolled the Tea Party are in the shadows seeing to it that the cogs in the machine are well oiled. This could be the divine, or should that be satanic, intervention to save the Republicans grabbing at political power wildly. It's even possible that the GOP are looking towards 2016 at this point. With that in mind, we should remember the words of Hunter S Thompson "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but to those who see it coming and jump aside."

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Engels on the Third Party for America.


The radical economist Doug Henwood recently posted this little beauty on Facebook, it is a fascinating extract from a letter sent by Friedrich Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge in January of 1892. Only 120 years on and it seems to ring true for the American political psychodrama, even though the conditions have definitely changed as have the players it seems that there is no place for a third party in America.

There is no place yet in America for a third party, I believe. The divergence of interests even in the same class group is so great in that tremendous area that wholly different groups and interests are represented in each of the two big parties, depending on the locality, and almost each particular section of the possessing class has its representatives in each of the two parties to a very large degree, though today big industry forms the core of the Republicans on the whole, just as the big landowners of the South form that of the Democrats. The apparent haphazardness of this jumbling together is what provides the splendid soil for the corruption and the plundering of the government that flourish there so beautifully. Only when the land — the public lands — is completely in the hands of the speculators, and settlement on the land thus becomes more and more difficult or falls prey to gouging — only then, I think, will the time come, with peaceful development, for a third party. Land is the basis of speculation, and the American speculative mania and speculative opportunity are the chief levers that hold the native-born worker in bondage to the bourgeoisie. Only when there is a generation of native-born workers that cannot expect anything from speculation any more will we have a solid foothold in America. But, of course, who can count on peaceful development in America! There are economic jumps over there, like the political ones in France — to be sure, they produce the same momentary retrogressions.

The small farmer and the petty bourgeois will hardly ever succeed in forming a strong party; they consist of elements that change too rapidly — the farmer is often a migratory farmer, farming two, three, and four farms in succession in different states and territories, immigration and bankruptcy promote the change in personnel, and economic dependence upon the creditor also hampers independence — but to make up for it they are a splendid element for politicians, who speculate on their discontent in order to sell them out to one of the big parties afterward.

The tenacity of the Yankees, who are even rehashing the Greenback humbug, is a result of their theoretical backwardness and their Anglo-Saxon contempt for all theory. They are punished for this by a superstitious belief in every philosophical and economic absurdity, by religious sectarianism, and by idiotic economic experiments, out of which, however, certain bourgeois cliques profit.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

What the Schmoo?

I'm going to start with a story which was told by the American cartoonist Al Capp. The story is about a creature called the Schmoo. The Schmoo was 10 inches high and something like a pear in shape and a beautiful creamy white in colour, it had no arms, tiny feet and big whiskers under it's nose. The Schmoo had only one desire, to serve the needs of human beings and it was well-equipped to do so. Its skin could be made into any kind of fabric. Its flesh was edible. Its dead body could go brick-hard and be used for building. And its whiskers, well its whiskers had more uses than you can imagine. If you looked at a Schmoo with real hunger in your eye it dropped dead in rapture because you wanted it, after first cooking itself into your favourite flavour.
Well, since they multiplied rapidly there were plenty of Schmoos for everybody and they even looked good in the environment. Almost everyone approved of the Schmoos. But some people weren't keen on them. The rich capitalists hated the Schmoos. Since Schmoos provided everything people needed nobody had to work for capitalists anymore because nobody needed to make the wages to buy the things capitalists sold. So as the Schmoos spread across the face of America the capitalists began to lose their position and their power. And this made them take drastic action. They got the government to tell the people that the Schmoo was un-American, the Schmoo was causing chaos undermining the social order, people weren't turning up for work and they weren't going to the department stores to buy anything.
Well the government propaganda convinced the people and the President ordered the FBI to gather the Schmoos and gun them down.
          GA Cohen, Against Capitalism

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The anti-capitalism of Republicans.

The Ironies of Capital.

The appalling spectacle last year around the debt-ceiling debate had an ironic side to it which slipped by the noses of snooty liberals, but not the sharp mind of David Harvey. The Republican machine and the Tea Party took a position to block any further debt-creation, had it been pursued would have led to the end of capitalism. Mind you the Tea Party and the Koch Brothers are just as oblivious as the Republicans are blind in all of this. It has long been a hope of socialists that the working-class might go ape and actually bring down capitalism to a long-awaited thud. The workers have failed to do so thus far, though it looked as though the GOP might actually succeed where the American worker failed. This would have brought a smile to Karl Marx's face. After all Marx was onto something when he noted that the capitalist could feasibly undertake actions in their own self-interest and bring down the system in doing so.

To answer the conundrum of where the extra effective demand would come from so that the profits can be extracted Karl Marx presented a simple model of a capitalist society - it featured two classes, the capitalists and the workers. The capitalists initiate the process at the beginning of the day because the workers do not have the extra money to do so, but the capitalists must supply the necessary demand to close it out at the end of the day. There is the problem of how capitalists can consume and pay for the surpluses they have been instrumental in getting labour to produce. The surplus can be consumed either in personal consumption or through investment in expansion, which may take the form of hiring more workers and buying more means of production. The latter implies perpetual growth and accumulation of capital over time. Conveniently the demand for expansion tomorrow can absorb the surplus product created yesterday.

The expansion takes place the next day and it does not generate profit in money form until the end of the day, so only after the money is needed to purchase yesterday's surplus. The only answer to this problem is credit with the promise of future expansion of surplus production. This is what allows the circle to be squared, in Harvey's words, which depends on whether or not future expansion comes about. In the event that it fails to do so, then we may face a crisis in which the debt cannot be paid-off. This is where we can see capitalism as one gigantic speculative machine, where the accumulation of capital and wealth runs synchronous to the accumulation and expansion of debt. The relationship is not just simple dependency as the two feed on and support each other. But this doesn't mean that there can be no crises. We have seen a debt crisis in Greece because of the imbalance which emerged between capital and debt. So we find that the Eurozone crisis comes out of the failure to find a new way to expand the surplus through reinvestment.

Of course, this is disingenuous anti-capitalism and we shouldn't fool ourselves that it would have led America down the road to socialism. In fact it would have more likely dragged the US into fascism as the system imploded and the right-wing forces mobilised by the Koch Brothers run amok. The Republicans are especially cynical in rhetoric when in opposition, any cause will do to bash the Democrats and it will be abandoned as soon as it was picked up. Fiscal conservatism is an old joke at the expense of the American tax-payer, Newt Gingrich knows it all too well and it is hardly a mystery to the American political class. You can piss away as much cash as you like to feather the nests of the rich. Once a crisis emerges then you attack public services and go after anything that helps the poor all in the name of cutting the deficit. As the ignominious Dick Cheney observed "Reagan taught us that deficits don't matter".

The Republicans have the potential to trash the system in the short-term, probably for the benefit of an opulent minority and leave the American people to pick up the bill. This is the extreme end of the Republican programme which gave you policies with names like "starve the beast" and "trickle-down". The capitalists buy now and pay later, credit fills in the gap in between and the Republican Party is thoroughly embedded in this arrangement. David Harvey refers us to Mark Twain when he said "We have the best congress money can buy." So it is very strange that the Republicans would threaten the entire system in this way. It may be indicative of the distance from power that the Republicans are enduring. The capacity of the system for self-destruction is the reason that Marx thought it might end in the "common ruination" of all classes. As Karl Marx noted, the contradictions of capitalism move in mysterious ways.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Communism: A Love Story.

Ye are Many - They are Few!

In the midst of ideological and economic crises, we find ourselves unable to venture out from neoliberal capitalism and when we do it is only to conserve the social democratic post-war settlement which cannot defend itself. Of course, there are those who might have the audacity to walk further to socialism as a political alternative to capitalism in its entirety. We must remember socialism is an intermediate stage which seeks ultimately to undo itself. The time has come to resurrect the language of political ideals in this so-called post-political era of liberal managerialism. This is meant to be a world with no need for ideas and has moved beyond ideology. The anaemia of discourse as it is has gone on long enough. This is the time for serious theory as well as devoted belief and dedicated activism. For these reasons, we should be on the side of those - from Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri - who have devoted their intellectual capacities to developing a new kind of communism.

Even the enemies of socialism might concede it has some moral weight, but communism is irredeemable by comparison because of 20th Century history. We are reminded that not all socialists are communists, though every communist is a socialist. It should be noted that the idea of communism predates Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and actually has ancient roots, but this is not reason to step over Marx to his predecessors. As Terry Eagleton reminds us, in classical Marxian terms, the establishment of communism is preceded by the development of the material base to the point at which it can negate itself and drop clean out of consciousness. The material transcends itself at a certain point of superabundance. It was slavery and feudalism which provided the material conditions for capitalism, but it is capitalism which will produce the conditions for socialism and eventually communism. In a strange sense then socialism is indebted to capitalism, but as the great Nye Bevan would remind us "There can be no immaculate conception of socialism."

To this ultimate end socialism is a self-abolishing project, similarly the idea of communism will remain relevant until it is realised. The end and the means are eschew from one another to the point that the material prosperity, which will fund freedom, is the fruit of unfreedom. As it is inseparable from the horrors of slavery and market forces which laid the path to liberation. We might see communism as the escape from scarcity to the extent that we can actually forget about the very possibility of it. The Marxist notion of communism requires the development of the productive forces, free from the blockages of pre-history, to the extent that the economic system can give birth to a surplus sufficient for the abolition of labour and the fulfillment of the needs of everyone. Capitalism is the only historical mode of production capable of generating such a surplus, but the forces of production are not teleological. The system is not in place for the sake of historical development as it generates the surplus it is committed to the creation of scarcities.

The dialectical twist is that it is the materiality will release you from the forces of the material. We're not free of determinants in class society, we make our own history but by circumstances we cannot choose as Karl Marx reminds us in the Brumaire. The real kind of freedom is that where we're determined in such a way as to sit loose from economic determinants and to free us from the alienation of labour. As Sigmund Freud foresaw without the coercive process of labour we would all lounge about in various postures of jouissance - and this may be le communisme! Here we find the political and the economic are indivisible, as the reality of class society has to be acknowledged in order to eventually get rid of it. Terry Eagleton draws an analogy with revolutionary nationalism, where the point is to assert the unique culture of a nation in order for it to take an ordinary place in the community of nations.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Marriage of Reason and Nightmare.

The marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th Century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century - sex and paranoia.

Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age, so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into the present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.

In addition, I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind - mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality.

In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, it seems to me, have been reversed. The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction - conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads. Freud's classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of the dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.

Given these transformations, what is the main task facing the writer? Can he, any longer, make use of the techniques and perspectives of the traditional 19th century novel, with its linear narrative, its measured chronology, its consular characters grandly inhabiting their domains within an ample time and space? Is his subject matter the sources of character and personality sunk deep in the past, the unhurried inspection of roots, the examination of the most subtle nuances of social behaviour and personal relationships? Has the writer still the moral authority to invent a self-sufficient and self-enclosed world, to preside over his characters like an examiner, knowing all the questions in advance? Can he leave out anything he prefers not to understand, including his own motives, prejudices and psychopathology?

I feel myself that the writer's role, his authority and licence to act, have changed radically. I feel that, in a sense, the writer knows nothing any longer. He has no moral stance. He offers the reader the contents of his own head, a set of options and imaginative alternatives. His role is that of the scientist, whether on safari or in his laboratory, faced with an unknown terrain or subject. All he can do is to devise various hypotheses and test them against the facts.

Crash is such a book, an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis. Crash, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions. Do we see, in the car crash, a sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology? Will modern technology provide us with hitherto undreamed-of means for tapping our own psychopathologies? Is this harnessing of our innate perversity conceivably of benefit to us? Is there some deviant logic unfolding more powerful than that provided by reason?

Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man's life in today's society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way. Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.

JG Ballard on Crash, 1995