Tuesday, February 13, 2018

RICO CAPITALISM: PILLAGING IN THE 21ST CENTURY

The news that Newsweek has now become a front for a cultish religious organization to launder money made me think of a post about Reader's Digest I wrote in 2009. It is still a pretty good analysis of business culture in the Bush-Obama era. Hell, in the Trump era.

RICO CAPITALISM IN THE AGE OF BUSH-OBAMA

“Now he's got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with a bill, to Paulie. Trouble with cops, deliveries, Tommy... ...he calls Paulie. But now he has to pay Paulie... ...every week no matter what. "Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Had a fire? Fuck you, pay me." "The place got hit by lightning? Fuck you, pay me." Also, Paulie could do anything. Like run up bills on the joint's credit. And why not? Nobody will pay for it anyway. Take deliveries at the front door and
sell it out the back at a discount. Take a 200 dollar case of booze and sell it for one hundred dollars.
It doesn't matter. It's all profit.”
– Goodfellas

The merger of good business practice and racketeering in the 00s was embodied by the private equity firm, which made the Mafia look like punks. Two hundred dollar cases of booze were nothing when you buy a company with money you borrowed with your potential purchase as capital, thus adding the company’s cost to you to the company’s total debt load, from which – because you have been so successful! – you paid yourself a management fee, and then appointed undertakers to break the balls of any of the employees who’d been there long enough to, say, get a pension, or to have an emotional stake in the company’s success – deadwood, in other words; then you sell off the parts of the company that are working, which earns the management company, those private equity sweethearts, another management fee; and finally lead the company into bankruptcy, thus screwing the banks and the investors, the latter of which had been sitting on the sidelines swallowing pap about the efficiencies brought to the company by the private equity junta. Having followed the fuck you – pay me! Business plan, the private equity partners have long moved on, although not before putting a proper legal distance between the business they picked apart and the consequences.

Mattress companies, shoe companies, if it lives and breaths, if it produced value, if it employed people and was the result of honesty, toil, and the identification of the employees – well then, it deserved, from the racketeering rational choice point of view, to be fucked.

That was the trade – the bright side was that it got the thumbs up from economists, politicians, everybody in the know, all the bright ones in our Bush-Obama culture. You know, the ones who have shoved so much shit down our throats that we have gotten to like it, that it just seems normal to wake up with that taste of plutocratic turds in our mouths, it is just who we are, it is just what living in the Do Tread on Me Nation we call home is all about.

That this was done to Readers Digest sorta figures. Symbols are attractors, and what better symbol for a brisk deathmarch through the valley of the shadow of fuck you than the magazine that, in its humble way, embodied conservative middle brow Cold War culture? The army jokes, the first person accounts of American heroism, the vocabulary builder, the Cold War rants about all the usual topics: drugs, Communism, delinquency. Plus the condensed books, Ultra-Moderne – much like Campbell’s Condensed soups, showing that the process of assembly line production could be applied to the novel. It was a sign of middle class tastelessness – of working for the Middle Brow man - to have bookshelves full of Readers Digest books – in my family, we certainly did. I eagerly went through those books when they came, laughed at the humor in uniform, built my vocabulary with the vocabulary builder, and learned the anti-Communist facts of life. Ronald Reagan’s biographers say that he was an earnest reader of the Digest, and he often quoted from it – which makes sense. In a sense, Reagan embodied the whole RD ethos.

Including the reversal of what you would expect a conservative company to do. Just as Reagan’s experience of the only business he ever knew – the movies – gave him a, to say the least, skewed notion of the relation between labor and business, Reader’s Digest evidently treated their employees, in the HQ in Chattaqua, NY, with the kind of princely beneficence that would have softened Karl Marx’s heart. The Sunday NYT story about the decline and fall of the magazine includes this anecdote about the owners, DeWitt and Lila Wallace: 

Al Perruzza, now a senior vice president, recalls a dinner in the early ’70s at which Mr. Wallace rose, clanked a glass and announced that, effective Monday, everyone at Reader’s Digest would get a 10 percent raise. He sat for a moment, conferred with Mrs. Wallace and then stood up again.
“My lovely wife doesn’t think that’s enough,” he said. “So effective Monday, it’s 15 percent.”
He rose a third time and announced a cost-of-living increase.
“We had spent literally weeks preparing a budget,” Mr. Perruzza says with a grin. “I was sitting with the president of my division. The guy went ashen.”

As the NYT tells the story, Readers Digest, back then, was an incredible cash cow – much to the Wallace’s amazement. Having figured, when he began the business, that he could make as much as 5,000 dollars per year, DeWitt and his wife were rather stunned by how much they really did make:

“By 1929, circulation stood at 290,000 subscribers and brought in $900,000 a year — more than $11 million in inflation-adjusted dollars — according to “American Dreamers,” a book about the Wallaces. By the 40th anniversary of Reader’s Digest, Time tallied up the magazine’s achievements: 40 editions, in 13 languages and Braille, and the best-selling publication in Canada, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Peru — and on and on. Total worldwide circulation was 23 million.”

So they did things like make their Chappaqua campus a nice place to work by hanging art on the wall: "Paintings by Picasso, Monet, Degas,Matisse, Renoir and van Gogh — museum-worthy décor was just another perk of working for a publishing phenomenon, one that sold millions of magazines and books a year, a readership rivaled only by the Bible. Although comparing sales of the scriptures to those ofReader’s Digest has always been unfair, because, as The New Yorker noted in 1945, “the Bible had a head start.””

That art, seen by the 3,000 employees and their family members, has now, of course, been stripped (“Take a 200 dollar case of booze and sell it for one hundred dollars. It doesn't matter. It's all profit.”). In the place of those paintings – o symbol calls to symbol, the worm that turned calls to the mindboggling serfs we are today! - we have this:
“…the walls are dominated by inexpensive prints and lots of corporate propaganda.
That’s right: corporate propaganda. Posters in the corridors of this mostly empty building trumpet something called the FACE plan, an acronym for fast, accountable, candid and engaged. One poster offers simplistic how-tos for running a meeting. (“Ensure that the right people are at the table.”) Another is headed with the words “Vision Statement” and uses lots of empty white space to underscore the point: “We will create the world’s largest multiplatform communities based on branded content.”
That mantra, and all the posters, are the brainchild of Mary Berner, the kinetic former president of Fairchild Publications who landed here with the backing of Ripplewood Holdings, the Manhattan private equity firm that orchestrated the debt-fueled takeover of Reader’s Digest.”

Our fast, accountable and engaged Mary, at a modest 125,000 a month, has surrounded herself with a coterie of “blondes” – as they are called by the stunned remnant of RD culture – to ‘reconfigur[e] the innards of the company’ – as NYT says, building up our biz vocabulary. Reconfigure – strip what isn’t nailed down, burn employees, create on-line presence.

It is a heartwarming story, this, the rescue of Readers Digest, with Ripplewood Partners throwing the company a big life preservers, made out of lead, after RD fell on hard times post-9/11. It wasn’t just that Readers Digest had been rendered rather useless by the internet. It was also that the Feds shut down RD’s sweepstakes. That killed the company with its base. It is one thing to have the condensed works of Taylor Caldwell on your shelves, but quite another not to have a shot at winning the sweepstakes. Underneath the idea of earning your money, we all long for the main chance. Ripplewood saw the bleeding, and stepped in to suck the creature dry.

“Ripplewood, led by Tim Collins, its chief executive, saw turnaround opportunities as well as a chance to roll up the fund’s own media properties, including Time Life Inc., the direct-marketing company that was formerly part of Time Warner. Ripplewood put in $275 million of its own money and had a bunch of partners, which included Rothschild Bank of Zurich and GoldenTree Asset Management of New York.
But the $2.4 billion deal piled so much debt onto Reader’s Digest’s balance sheet that it tripled the company’s interest payments, to $148 million a year. The Great Recession hurt ad sales, of course, and devastated sales of direct-marketed books. Instead of the single-digit percentage growth in revenue that Ripplewood was banking on, revenue declined.
In January, the company laid off 300 people, about 8 percent of its staff.
But even with those measures, the company did not, as Ms. Berner might put it, make its number. In August, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.”

HENRY (V.O.)
And, finally, when there's nothing
1 left, when you can't borrow
another buck from the bank or buy
another case of booze, you bust
the joint out.

CUT DIRECTLY TO:

LARGE CLOSE UP OF - HANDS

making rolls of toilet paper being kneaded into long rolls
with Sterno.

CUT TO:

HENRY AND TOMMY shoving wads of Sterno paper into the
ceiling rafters.

HENRY (V.O.)
You light a match.

Fake news in 1800 - or how to do history



There’s a good rule that goes: by indirection find direction out. Or, translated from the Shakespearese into nice wooden ideology critique terms: since present injustices rest on past ones, one of the ways to delegitimate the former (otherwise known as “waking up”) is to go after the latter with a blowtorch.
That’s a rule of thumb, natch. It can allow the scholarly type to disappear into the tunnels of history-mongering and never emerge again, blowtorch in hand. Rectifying the past is a painstaking business, and liable to blowback. When you find what you want to find, often you have to ask: is this a poisoned gift? But vanity more often whispers: hey, hypothesis and proof, don’t have nothing whatever to do with the unconscious libido.

So far, I am not describing Abbé Gregoire; I’m merely farting around with ideal types. However, there was, in Gregoire’s capacious C.V., room for activist scholarship – especially when he was on the outs. As he was in 1800.

Before 1800, he’d been one of the great lights of the Revolution. It was Gregoire who first addressed the question of the rights of men in 1789. Gregoire proposed the abolition of the academies of the ancien regime. Gregoire was the first who proposed the abolition of the monarchy to the Convention after the flight from Varenne. But, as an opponent of the death penalty, he voted to condemn the king for treason to the country but not to execute him. Among his causes was that of the abolition of slavery, which was, alas, not at the top of the agenda in France in the 1790s, and certainly not in in the Napoleonic counter-revolution either. But Gregoire persevered, even as the convention, post Thermidor, turned against the abolitionist politics of his organization, the Société des amis des Noirs. Incidentally, the neo-liberal turn in the eighties that saw bigwig French historians – notably Francois Furet – adopt the Cold war view that the French revolution simply foreshadowed Stalinism, somehow leaves out of account the slave trade. It is as if about half a million Africans did not perish in the 18th century under the Ancien Regime. Gotta keep your eyes on the prize – Stalin! And pay no attention to the sound of those chains…

But I digress. To get back to Gregoire, all that activity had left him rather to the side as Napoleon rose. Napoleon was the kind of opportunist Gregoire had no time for, plus a bloodshedder. So Gregoire had time for other things: for instance, striking blows against slavery. In 1800, in the European context, anti-slavery was not a popular position, since of course the bourgeoisie was making money hand over fist on the whip and the steal. So Gregoire looked back to the past for friends. And who did he see at the other end of the inverted telescope but the Spanish bishop of Chiapas, Bathelemy de las Casas.

In 1800 he published a pamphlet, Apology for Barthelmy de las Casas, disputing the idea that de las Casas had originated and promoted the idea of the slave trade. Gregoire saw clearly how de las Casas was being used by supporters of the slave trade (a category into which fell, alas, a number of “enlightened” thinkers): here was a humanist, a protestor against the massacre of the Mexican Indian nations, who turned to slavery as a humane palliative for the pains of conquest. And, more than that, there was a rhetorical gesture, here, that was then and is now a commonplace of conservative boilerplate, which involves an “even the liberal” logic: even the liberal de las Casas saw how necessary slaves are!

So Gregoire decided to do something that was, historiographically, significant: he decided to trace the chain of title, so to speak, that led to the charge against de las Casas.
“The badmouthers, finding they could not discover any faults in las Casas, invented one, and for two centuries the calumny has weighed on his tomb.”
This is an accusation, more than a hypothesis, but as in a defense lawyer’s speech, it contains a hypothesis: the attribution of sympathy for, or even the discovery of, the African slave trade to de las Casas was prompted by propagandists and rests on an invention.
The hypothesis has two parts: importantly, one needs to scan de las Casas’s biography and writings to find out what misconstrual was going on here.
Gregoire first works to put his apology in line with a humanistic historiography that goes back to Secondo Lancellotti, an Italian humanist who was relentlessly modern, whose 16th century book attacking the “impostures” of ancient historians (and arguing against the very idea of a “Golden Age” – was translated in the 1770s into French. I’m going to ignore, here, the tempting bypath showing a certain receptivity to the Renaissance in the Enlightenment, and how that worked – and return to Gregoire. For after high fiving his buds (dead, alas), Gregoire plunges into business of the history of the slave trade. He finds that instead of being an invention of de las Casas, it was an affair that was being pursued by Portugese merchants before America was even discovered. He does not find an onlie progenitor, but he does find that the Portugese, from the 1430s onward, were raiding the coast of Guinea for African bodies, and selling them in marts to the Spanish. And he finds that the Spanish, before Columbus’s discovery, had entered into the same trade in competition with the Portugese. Importantly, then, the slave trade was in existence on European soil before the New World was discovered.

Like future historians, Gregoire was well aware that the slave trade was originally derived from another commerce – that of cane sugar. The European fondness for this psychotrope was such that one could make huge profits on maintaining a labor force for the intensive work of cultivating and refining it; and that the level of exploitation (the level of profit) would be even greater if that force was unwaged and disciplined to one great task.

“Black slavery seems to have followed, in modern times, the transplantation of sugar cane, cultivated successively in Spain, in Madeira, in the Azores, in the Canaries and in America.” Like cavities appearing across the mouth of the Atlantic (sorry about that image, I’m reaching a little), the slave trade, sugar cane cultivation, and discovery all formed a malign triad.

Still, all Gregoire has established so far is that the slave trade pre-existed de las Casas. But did he endorse it? “But did Las Casas, depressed by the cruelties exercised against the Indians, propose to the Spanish government to replace them with negros? Marmontel, Roucher, Raynal, Paw, Frossard, Nuix, Bryant Edward and Gentey all tell us so.”
One should rest, here, for a second, and think about why this is more important than simply a historical observation. In 1800, when Gregoire was writing, the emancipatory moment had passed in Saint-Domingue. Slavers plied the waters of the Atlantic still. Slavery had been accepted and embraced in the U.S. The economy that developed from the sugar cane depended, still, hugely, for the flow of funds that was generated by the work of the slaves and the trade in them. There’s a long and bitter dispute that has its roots, actually, in the Enlightenment, between economists (generally apologists for capitalism) who claim that the slave trade and slave produce wasn’t that important to Europe and that it was actually opposed by real capitalists, and economists (generally critics of capitalism) who claim no, the figures are damning. No side, though, claims that the slave trade and slave produced commerce was minor. Any history of the “rise of the West” that ignores slave labor is a lie, and Gregoire’s work is important for calling out this lie at an early date.

Now, break over, let’s return to the claim about de las Casas. Here’s where Gregoire strikes. Repeated over and over again by soi-disant “liberals” of the 18th century, the claim, it turns out, rests on one source: not on something de las Casas had written, but on Herrara, a Spanish writer who made this claim. Interestingly, after reviewing the European writers who repeat it, Gregoire turns to a non-European writer: the Mexican creole writer, Clavigero. I say this is interesting: it is a gesture that breaks with a line of implicit authority that runs through history as a discipline up to this day. The facts, in this tradition, are generated by (white) Europeans or Americans. White males. And the voices of those speaking from outside the department (even if they are inside the subject which the historians are treating) are given secondary status, if they are given status at all. This is an established habit in 1800 – and it is still an established habit in 2018.
Gregoire, then, turns to the 1601 history by Herrera, where the idea that de las Casas advocated for African slavery was first propounded. He notices that Herrera quotes no source, no text, even though the unpublished works of de las Casas were available to him – indeed, he exploited them for his book.
Then, Gregoire does some nice SherlockHolmes-ery. As in the curious case of the dog who didn’t bark in the night, a clue in The Silver Blaze, Gregoire examines if there were other voices raised about de las Casas in the period between 1517 (when de las Casas supposedly wrote to the King suggesting African slaves for the Americas) and 1601. In fact, what Gregoire finds are other candidates who suggested African slaves, and names them. But none of them are the Bishop of Chiapas.

Finally, Gregoire brings together his ideas on he topic, and introduces a discovery: an anonymous manuscript in the national library in Paris that seems to date from Casas’s lifetime, is addressed to the Court in Madrid, and suggests that the Spanish conquest was entirely illegitimate and that the Spanish should give back Peru to the Incas and that they have to restore ownership of all mines, land and property to the Indians. This, of course, is a ultra ultra radical proposition, but a reasonable, and certainly, for the Bishop of Chiapas, a Christian one. It simply doesn’t fit with the idea of mass enslavement of Africans.

Gregoire rounds out his pamphlet with a summarizing paragraph that I like quite a bit:

Look at how the error established itself and took root. Thirty years after the death of Las Casas, there comes a credulous or malevolent history, who, without proof, directs an accusation, unvoiced up to then, against him. Some repeat it without examining it; others conclude that he was the first to introduce the slave trade: here already we have a commentary that exaggerates on the text. Then one ties these ideas to the barbarities justly thrown at the English, Dutch and French colonists, and [this is how] one elevates a whole scaffold of calumnies.”

Fake news in 1601. Fake news in 1800.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Stalinism in America as directed by shameful twitter feminists!


Bret Stephens, the NYT’s star climate change denialist columnist, got shamefully smeared on Twitter for writing, about Woody Allen: “If Allen is a pedophile, he appears to have acted on his evil fantasies only once. Compare that to Larry Nassar’s 265 identified victims.”

These twitter feminists, as the ever heroic Katie Roiphe has named them (Roiphe, in the Stalinist conditions prevailing in the U.S., has only been able to avail herself of our imperiled freedom of speech lately on CBS news, Harpers Magazine, and Slate. In other words, she has been muffled just like Solzhenitsyn in the U.S.S.R!), have found something a bit fishy about a defense that seems to come down to, come on, one little rapish situation with a little girl is no big deal. Of course, as Stephens defenders have pointed out, he did not mean that at all! What he meant was, Allen, who at the time was taking nude photographs of his partner’s 18-20 year old stepdaughter, was way way too busy to go after other of Mia Farrow’s adopted children.

So there’s that.

But, seriously folks… one of the under-remarked elements in the backlash against the Metoo moment has to do with class and race. You guessed it! For what were conservatives like Bret Stephen writing in the 80s and 90s and 00s? Why, they were writing screeds about how bad welfare was, since it was just rewarding the “irresponsible” behavior of the “underclass”. This irresponsible behavior was presented, almost always, as libidinous. Those poor men just couldn’t keep it in their pants! All of which added up to a culture of immorality. One that needed the firm hand of the policeman.
Well, hmm. So we flashforward to the 10s, and what do we see? The apologists for the plutocratic class, and in general for the upper level of management, have suddenly gotten groovy! If Mr. Allen was, say, Joe in the D.C. slums of the 80s, taking nude pics of his stepdaughter, I’m pretty sure the Andy Sullivans and the Bret Stephens of that time would be shocked, and using this as evidence of a wholesale breakdown of responsibility by the “poor”, otherwise known as the exploited working class. But give Joe in the D.C. slums a couple of million dollars, make sure he is white, and low and behold – we can’t puritanically persecute him! That would be awful, and evidence that the PC crowd is executing its master plan:Stalinism in America!

I laugh. I have to laugh. I have to say that the whole Trump era suffers from the fact that its violence, its nonsense, its racism, its lack of even a figleaf of logic, is so damn laughable.  A killing joke.