Friday, May 10, 2019

The Chickenshit Club accepts another member

There's a book about the Obama administration's failure to prosecute bankers and other wealthy people for crimes they committed in the runup to 2008 - and even for crimes like laundering money for the cocaine cartels, for which Wachovia bank was given a big fine rather than jailtime for the CEO. Jesse Eisinger wrote a book about it called the Chickenshit Club. Basically, the rationale was that punishing the institutions that committed and profited from crimes to the full extent of the law would threaten the existence of these institutions, which, it was further argued, would spread too much collateral damage. The exemplary instance was the punishment suffered by Arthur Anderson, which put that accounting firm out of business. Many 200 thou plus accountants spent weeks hunting for jobs, and many of them couldn't pay the docking fees at their yacht clubs.
Obama's Justice department swallowed the "chickenshit" method hook, line, and sinker. Take HSBC bank. Investigators found that it helped transfer funds from Saudi Arabia to Al Qaeda, that it laundered billions of dollars for the drug cartels in Mexico, etc, etc. Here's a story about what happened next (from the New Yorker):
"With four thousand offices in seventy countries and some forty million customers, HSBC is a sprawling organization. But, in the judgment of the Senate investigators, all this wrongdoing was too systemic to be a matter of mere negligence. Senator Carl Levin, who headed the investigation, declared, “This is something that people knew was going on at that bank.” Half a dozen HSBC executives were summoned to Capitol Hill for a ritual display of chastisement. Stuart Gulliver, the bank’s C.E.O., said that he was “profoundly sorry.” Another executive, who had been in charge of compliance, announced during his testimony that he would resign. Few observers would have described the banking sector as a hotbed of ethical compunction, but even by the jaundiced standards of the industry HSBC’s transgressions were extreme. Lanny Breuer, a senior official at the Department of Justice, promised that HSBC would be “held accountable.”
What Breuer delivered, however, was the sort of velvet accountability to which large banks have grown accustomed: no criminal charges were filed, and no executives or employees were prosecuted for trafficking in dirty money. Instead, HSBC pledged to clean up its institutional culture, and to pay a fine of nearly two billion dollars: a penalty that sounded hefty but was only the equivalent of four weeks’ profit for the bank. The U.S. criminal-justice system might be famously unyielding in its prosecution of retail drug crimes and terrorism, but a bank that facilitated such activity could get away with a rap on the knuckles. A headline in the Guardian tartly distilled the absurdity: “HSBC ‘Sorry’ for Aiding Mexican Drug Lords, Rogue States and Terrorists.”""
We are now seeing the "too big to jail" philosophy applied to Donald Trump. Nancy Pelosi, who has been very public with her disdain for the very idea of "impeaching" Trump, has explained that "Impeachment is one of the most divisive things that you can do, dividing a country," she said. "Unless you really have your case with great clarity for the American people."
Just as the operation of HSBC is just too vast and awe-inspiring to, like, stop, so, too, the taks of impeaching the president - well, it is divisive,is what it is.
Impunity is in the blood system of the political elite. They are not going back on the chickenshit system. It is their system, and they are proud of it.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

A plea for a citizen's tribunal on impunity

In Paris two months ago a feminist group went about and affixed stickers with female names to streets. This was more than about those streets that are named after people, and by people I mean 95 percent male, but also about the claim to the public space and how it has tended to be normatively male.
Are the street names going to change? I don’t know; I do know that this action was taken because they are never going to change – people in established positions, people in power are never going to change them – if there is no activity on the ground, from the ground, and in your face.
The division of political labor has the permanently pernicious effect that there is a political class – a circle which, as it were, runs both the discourse and the institutions of power. This effect is only partly off-set by “representative democracy”, especially when these democracies continue to generate judicial systems that are, basically, non and anti-democratic.
What has happened in the neoliberal era, as democracy from the street has been de-legitimated, is a slow, steady impunity creep that separates the powerful and wealthy from the rest in the sphere of justice. Not just rich crooks, but their minions, their protectors, the whole lot, are now less likely than ever to suffer the lot that is borne by the working class poor. It is from this point of view that I have been watching the discussion in the U.S. about whether or not to impeach Trump, look at his taxes, look at the Mueller report about him, get the Attorney General of the U.S. to testify before a Congressional committee, all that jazz, is being treated as a fun Washington thing. The political reporters will treat it all as a partisan butting head contest, with the main question being which butting head is going to be crowned the winner. In other words, elite shit. The winner doesn’t matter a damn.
Impunity is elite shit. It isn’t just Trump, it is the entire system, groaning under the privileges accorded to the most privileged and the jail sentences allotted to the least. Wachovia bank launders money for the cocaine cartels. Wachovia bank gets a fine, because, as Justice Department officials will tell you, we can’t do anything to disturb the fine economic activity of Wachovia bank. A small time African American dealer sells five caps of crack to an undercover cop. The dealer gets twenty years. The Justice Department doesn’t comment, because this is same old same old in every District Attorney territory in the U.S. And the wheel goes around, crushing us underneath it
So let’s put a stick in the wheel, shall we?
When the military junta in Argentina folded in 1983, President Alfonsin came to power, and started proceedings against certain members of the military high command who had participated in the Dirty War, as well as the leaders of the Monteneros (those who survived) for kidnappings and murders. However, the trials affected only a few. In 1986, the full stop law was enacted, the limited suits to those that would be enacted within 60 days of its passage, all others to be rendered null, and the due obedience law, in 1987, which halted the trials that had passed the full stop law. Then, when Menem was elected in 1989, he began issuing mass pardons, mostly for the military but some of them for the Montenero leadership (which, it must be said, has always been suspected of actually being led by agent provacateur, notably in the case of the leader, Mario Firminich – see Martin Edwin Andersen’s Dossier secreto for details).
Collectively, Alfonsin’s decrees were known as the impunity laws. In this way, the State covered up for the almost thirty thousand murders committed by the military junta.
Against this coverup, a civil rights organisation began to hold Tribunals against Impunity in Buenos Aires in 1990, with the aim of revealing as many facts as possible and shaming the state.
I’ve been thinking about this vis-à-vis the United States. It seems to me that we have been living through the era of Impunity, here: from the horrors committed in the name of fighting terror to the invasion of Iraq through the Obama directed drone war; from the unwillingness of the Justice department and the SEC to reign in or jail anyone for the financial meltdown of 2008 to the widespread fraud by the banks in the paperwork they have submitted to courts concerning mortgages; from the abolition of jury trial in the case of suits for damages to corporations to the Supreme Court’s increasing willingness to lend cover to any plutocratic attempt to buy elections and change laws in their favor. From, finally, the massive defiance of the Trump administration to recognize the Legislative branch as a co-equal, while being cheered on by the dysfunctional millionaire’s club known as the Senate.  On the cultural front, there is the impunity enjoyed by those in the media who have cheered along all these things, and who have never lost a dime for being not just wrong, but disastrously wrong; not just mistaken in their reporting or analysis, but being willing conduits of propaganda and lies. From their pumping up of Rogoff/Reinhart nonsense in the most recent Depression to the center-right logic of the editorial war against “entitlements” waged by the supposedly liberal press, we have an elite culture that collaborates with the predatory class because, well, it is owned by it.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

The sprinkler

Another Karen Chamisso poem.

The sprinkler

"The males stare at each other"
she said, disconsolate,
holding them in her hands
above the yellow hose, all dont-tread-on-me
folds, by some hand chopped off;

it is in the ragged hole
thrust upon that one end
that we'd thrust a coupling
and now stand clueless before the next step.

Is this so emblematic that it must lead
to these very lines? God or goddess,
do the oracles live?
The males stare at each other,
the one in the hose, the other in the sprinkler.

and not by us will such plumbing ever be joined.
"Oh fuck it: I'll water by hand,"
she says, dropping their brass to the earth.
And so we solve for a time
the problem: what do boys want?

"Il était impossible que ces deux hommes vécussent ensemble huit jours de suite,  sans que leur étrange manie les reprît..."

Saturday, May 04, 2019

On poets

Another Karen Chamisso poem

On Poets

They try to make it hard, the poets
With their initiating ha ha ha
And the laws concerning the breath/wind
In and of words, subtracting snorts and swallows
The whole mucousy richness
As the silverware clinks tink tink tink tink
On expensive plates
That one would like to break

They try to make it hard the poets but still
I decided to be one – since
The gate door is unlocked – and it was always only meant
For you
The joke prosody plays on the tongue
goes: knock knock? Who’s there?
And the answer, child, is iamb.

Thursday, May 02, 2019


In the new novel I am writing, much depends on a poet, Karen Chamisso,  I figure my last novel, which I still haven't placed with an agent, was all about the Bush era, and for that I needed a political murder. For the Obama era, I have decided my guttering candle that will light my way through the murk will be a poet who is also the heiress of a fortune made by her father in the bug extermination trade. You'd be surprised. So I've been writing Chamisso poems. This is one.

Claire taught me the larger gestures
The kabuki theater of entrances and exits
In sky high boots at the Killer club
Sweeping into the backseat of the taxi at 2 a.m.
The seriousness at the center of silliness
A moral position, stoic,
Enduring the battering of ten thousand bragging boys.
Claire taught me the larger gestures but
Claire died. They dragged her body from the river.
She chose the largest exit. And though I see and feel
The moral position, I can only visit, stricken.
They buried her in Alpharetta.
Oh Claire. Honeychild.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Buridan's internet

Buridan’s ass would doubtless have hated the internet. The same old blues, he’d think, multiplied infinitely. Or perhaps, and this is the bet every Internet marketer and Google stockholder makes, he would have loved it, as craving becomes an addiction to choice. We begin by looking for the cheapest price, and we end by spending hours looking at Airbnb pictures and commenting on how they could possibly thought that photographing a corner of the bathroom was of any interest to the curious renter.
This is, at least, my experience. I become more asslike as I realize that possible worlds are unfolding before me in cosmic vistas, that one of my childhood dreams – invisibly entering a house – is being realized on a frightening scale, and I have merely to put the cursor on another link to send another shot to whatever part of my brain that is dedicated to invidious comparisons. However, there’s a point, a sad point, in which the whole expedition upon which I have embarked – to find, say, a cheap Airbnb in X – begins to lose its purpose, in which the best price, or the best looking rental, or the best location, or the best references, loses its practical side, because nothing, it turns out, is exactly, every jot and tittle, what I want, even if, before I began the expedition, my desires were of a vagueness… It becomes, instead, an indicator of more – of the “there must be more” that so often besets the poor commoditized consumer, in fatal foreplay with his own want-y self.
John Buridan, like any medieval worth his tomes, left behind a considerable amount of text. However, there is no textual anchor in that corpus for the ass story, although there are plenty other paradoxes. The story goes like this: an ass is driven to stand between two exactly similar bales of hay. If we suppose that the ass simply acts on a calculation that serves to maximize his desire, he would find no reason to prefer one to the other. Thus, he would continually stand there, calculating, until he starved to death.
Buridan apparently used this parable orally, when teaching his students, and it was passed down after he died so that it was known to Spinoza, who is one of the first to mention the story.
Crucially, the ass is between two parity products. Two bales of hay that are composed of just the kind of saliva inducing stuff that donkey’s crave. The donkey has found a strange spot in the human universe, an equilibrium spot, where there is no more reason to chose bale “a” then to chose “b”. Being a mule calculator, an asinus economicus, the mule has obviously read up on ranked preferences and is way ahead of Kenneth Arrow on the impossibility of the three candidate rank ordering, at least if we are to satisfy certain classical criteria, such as Pareto optimality.
Buridan’s ass has spawned, as such things do, a whole subliterature in philosophy. Many return to Spinoza’s analysis in Ethics II, 49:
“I am quite ready to admit, that a man placed in the equilibrium described (namely, as perceiving nothing but hunger and thirst, a certain food and a certain drink, each equally distant from him) would die of hunger and thirst. If I am asked, whether such an one should not rather be considered an ass than a man; I answer, that I do not know, neither do I know how a man should be considered, who hangs himself, or how we should consider children, fools, madmen, etc.”
Spinoza’s suggestion that the equilibrium state is kin to such extra-rational states as childhood or madness could be seen as a throwing up of his hands – a narrowing of the anthropological interest, of the human all too human. But I take it as something other than a philosophical defeat; to me, this signals a moment in the history of philosophy:  a transformation of what used to the whole goal and morality of the sage’s exercise in refusing to want, in ascesis. See the rest at Willett's!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

on sebald's vertigo: an article at Willett's Magazine

In 1821, Stendhal was on his downers. He had fled Italy on the advice of certain authorities, who knew he was in line to being scooped up by the cops because of his association with certain  revolutionaries. His hated father had died – on the bright side – but his inheritance was paltry – on the down side. So he was in Paris, making the rounds of the salons of the opposition, and writing journalism for the English papers from the scoops he’d gather. It was in these conditions, between brilliant banter and nostalgia, between personal penury and the hôtels of the bourgeois grandees, that he  sat down and wrote his first book – which was also the first tryout of his pseudonym (his real name was Henri Beyle). On its publication, Love [De l’amour] was received, even among his friends, as a puzzle or a mystification. In an essay on Stendhal in the London Review of Books, Tim Parks noted that Etienne-Jean Delécluze, in whose salon Beyle met the leading lights of the liberal opposition, “wondered whether the pages might have been bound in the wrong order.” Beyle claimed that the book only sold seventeen copies. The feeling of being wrong-footed by this book is often shared by contemporary readers, who find in the book a confusing mixture of aphorisms, anecdotes, and the dry remains of a treatise on passion within the framework of Beyle’s creaky old master, Cabanis, the inheritor of the enlightenment sensualist tradition that reduced all claims, transcendental or aesthetic, to the hedonic facts of human physiology – that is, to pleasure and pain.  This seems a framework ill suited to Beyle’s attempt to show that love of a certain type – passional love, which seems to find pleasure in its pain, and pain in its pleasure – is the true measure of human elevation, but such is the course he lays out for himself. It even becomes his measure for assessing the level of cultural liberty within the different societies of Europe.
One hundred and sixty nine years later, W.G. Sebald published his first “novel”, Vertigo [Schwindel. Gefühle], also a wrong-footing book in as much as its tone and subdued narrative – if narrative there is – seem contrary to the canons of fiction in our time. The first chapter is entitled “Beyle: or love is a madness most discrete.” Sebald, drawing largely from Love  and other autobiographical writings, constructs a portrait of Beyle  that, behind the reader’s back,  employs certain fictional slights of hand, displacements of fact, distortions of context, amalgamation of incidents, to produce a Beyle who corresponds in some larger recognizable sense to the historical figure, but in the narrower sense corresponds to that figure very much caught in the narrator’s filling in, for his own purposes, of the historical lacuna. His very use of “Beyle” instead of “Stendhal” has a de-familiarizing thrust, in as much as it points to the duplicity of “Stendhal”: one of the affects of a pseudonym is the feeling it gives of making the bearer of the real name something of an imposter, a fake, a counterfeit, a parvenu in the domain of his own fame and reputation.  
Sebald wrote his book in the 1980s – which was a time, not unlike the 1820s, when the predominant political tone was one of restoration, with the power in place (Thatcherism, Reaganism) overtly working against the democratic socialist ideals of the period between 1945 and 1980. The latter had legitimated itself, vaguely, with reference to the ideals of the Atlantic revolutions, and not surprisingly the French Revolution was busy being “re-evaluated” by conservative historians during the 80s, and blamed for all the evils of totalitarianism.  Yet Sebald’s work is usually not connected to this background, but rather to World War II. Born in 1944, Sebald carried with him a certain cloud of melancholy that was all about the Nazi era that he never really experienced, but that marked all the adults around him in the Germany in which he grew up. It was like he was born on the exitus of some black hole. There are accidents you keep looking back on all your life, and understandably, for a European, the meat mangle of World War II is one of those kinds.  This motif pervades one of Sebald’s most important essays, History and Natural History, an essay on the literary description of total destruction…, which was published in 1982 and caused a large and continuing controversy in Germany, because of the weight it put upon the air bombardment of Nazi Germany – which struck some people as an apologetic and nationalist move, even though Sebald was neither a nationalist nor particularly into any school that made Germany a “victim”. In that essay, Sebald asks how one can create an “authentic literary reflection” about the “extreme reality of our time”  – which is a question that is partly answered in his series of novels, beginning with Vertigo.
Can one, then, ask about the “extreme reality” of Sebald’s own time? Read the rest (warning: this is a long motherfucka) here:

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Poem for today

Ask the man all skilllless and off
Upon whose face noiseless time has crept on weather
In what veiny ruin his childhood coughs 
Itself to sleep in wild blue forever
But don’t expect prophecy, amigo:
Though twigs and dirt stick in his beard
The oracles were all shuttered long ago
And God sings lonely in the mockingbird.

Cathedral and forest

« Toutes ses figures sont des mots; tous ses groups sont des phrasses ; la difficulte est de les lire. » - Huysman, La cathédrale

The nineteenth century went crazy about architecture. As Haussman went about bulldozing the ancien regime in Paris, the gothic craze and statuemania made Paris streets into a spectacle for stone eyes. Ruskin in England had an influence that it is now difficult to understand: his melding of architectural critique and red Toryism – an aristocratic anarchy, protesting against the industrial age as a huge smudge enveloping human life – was so important to Gandhi that he made the anti-industrial, home cottage message into a program of independence. Viollet-le Duc made the case for restoring the gothic cathedrals of France – and even if restoration here sometimes seems like vampirism, it did succeed in making France aware of its vast fleet of stone spires and towers. Perhaps the last architectural critique with this popular pull was Adolf Loos in Vienna, whose pamphlet about ornament kicked off a functionalist revolution – a sort of anti-statue mania.

The esotericists were as busy with the newly discovered cathedrals. Employing the archeological method – the digging up of old writing systems and the translating of them – the esoteric interpretation of cathedrals was a sort of popular sport among Rosicrucian fans. The standout text in the 20th century is by a pseudonym, whose identity is disputed to this day: Fulcanelli.
Fulcanelli wrote two books: One with the very fullbodied title,  Les Demeures Philosophales Et Le Symbolisme Hermetique Dans Ses Rapports Avec L'Art Sacre Et L'Esoterisme Du Grand-Oeuvre, which I’d translate and truncate as Philosophical dwellings and hermetic symbolism; and the other, The mystery of the cathedrals. The latter was translated into English and published by an organization based in Las Vegas called “The Brotherhood of Life”. This ain’t no Dan Brown mismash, but the real goods, on the Gurdjieff level. Whoever Fulcanelli was, he knew his literature, and he knew the key principle: by indirection find direction out. Whoever he was – the cloud of unknowing around Fulcanelli served its purpose well, in the shadowy channels of “secret knowledge”. He presented himself, in the texts, as an alchemist. Certain occultists – the kind that show up in Gravity’s Rainbow at the White Visitations – claim to have known him.  In the 1920s, philology started to become modernist. Instead of reading poetry as the inspired expression of the poet, one began to read it as a machine in which the standardized parts functioned quite apart from the individual variations of the makers, even as those variations produced the real cultural value of the machines – the machine, as it were, churns out the poet, rather than the other way around. This form of reading, which sometimes seems to be a reading against the grain of the text (the key terms here are irony and ambiguity), was employed as well by the esoterists and alchemists – in fact, surely the New Criticism has certain occult roots. What doesn’t?

Mediapart made fun, today, of the proliferation of Hugo references – although the citations of Hugo are rarer. As one who tried to leap into Notre-Dame de Paris myself, a few years ago, and was defeated about the time the gypsy queen saved the poet, I can understand not digging through that gargoyle strewn text. Huysman, who went from Satanist to Catholic ultra, was converted as much by the cathedral itself, and its messages, as anything in the Gospels. And me? I am not a Christian, but a Spinozist, or perhaps no -ist at all. To me, the cathedrals and the pictures I have seen of Hindu temples in India at the same time are amazingly alike – buildings that are forests. And I believe in forests.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Perennial article about plutocracy and managed capitalism

We've all noticed, those of us denizens of twitter, commenters on newspaper comment spaces and the like, that any time a vague and distant hint arises that the rich in America might be oh, oh, slightly too… rich in some newspaper column, expressed by some leftleaning politico, etc., twitter, comment section, and pundit spaces in the NYT are reliably flooded by screeds against socialism and for the American way.

It makes me long for a snappy way to point out that capitalism was not abolished in the U.S. in the fifties, nor was the Reagan tax cut on the wealthiest the second coming of Adam Smith in the eighties. What is funny about the rabid defense of the wealthy is that I imagine it often comes from the non-wealthy. It isn’t like billionaires are into making comments in comment boxes. Or even, save for Elon Musk and Trump, tweeting themselves - they've got factotums for that.  But what they are defending is, of course, absolutely against their interests. It is the great American paradox: the almost saintly disinterestedness of the American householder in defense of systematic greed.

There are a number of ways to redistribute wealth down. Imagine, for instance, that unions had been strong enough, back in the eighties, to peg earnings to the ratio between upper management and the lowest paid functionaries in a company. Back then, the ratio was about 70 to 1 – today, it averages something like 300 to 1. If the unions had done this and the CEO level had succeeded in extorting the pay packages they had today, we would be living in a utopia in which the merest entry level receptionist would be taking home 150-200 thou. This would be excellent – except of course that corporations would no longer make profits. Instead, they’d be pouring all their cash into paying their workforce. Still, at the 70 to 1 ratio, upper management’s efforts to increase their compensation packets would have significantly pulled the earnings up of the entire workforce.

Unfortunately, when you don’t have powerful unions, you have to rely on the countervailing powers of the state. You have to work, then, to raise the taxation on the upper tier considerably. You have to do this not only because you need to pay for public investments, but because there is a macro good to great income equality. For one thing, it discourages economic activity that is, in reality, mere churning. Looking at the mortgage mess, one can see more and more clearly how the fantastic, Pirenesian structure of false economic activity has worked since 2001. It has allocated money not to the most productive, but to the most churnful. For another thing, more equality now means more equality latter. As the gap widens between the resources of the rich and the not-rich, it becomes exactly what we socially reproduce. Those non-rich who, for instance, decided that the death tax, otherwise know as the estate tax, was just terribly unfair to their children actually screwed their children terribly, because they are not leaving the kids fortunes, whereas the fortunate few are – thus aggravating the already unfair structure that separates rich from non-rich children. The cost of abolishing the estate tax is borne by the non-rich in such areas as trying to get their kids into top schools and the like.

But what most impresses me about expropriating a good share of the wealth of the wealthy is its environmental impact. As anybody with the eyes to see can see, the last twenty years have been years of great GDP growth in many countries. In fact, the whole Tom Friedman-esque economy is oriented towards steroiding GDP. Why? Because if you are going to have increasing inequality, growth is the way that the middle income sector – the vastly more numerous non-rich – can, at least, maintain their lifestyles. But GDP growth could also be called the Diminishing Environmental Return. DER is the natural result of overexploiting a system that is limited in many ways. Put up a zillion towers for cell phones, and you can say bye bye to songbird populations – make your McMansions of tropical wood, and strew them with the kind of wiring that gives you 24/7 instaconnectoinstamaticinstatubelivegirlsxxxxpronomatic action, and you can say bye bye to the environment of Sumatra. Down the intertubes it goes. It is an incredible waste of resources, which is the total result of the elite decision to grossly exacerbate the wealthiest’s share of the wealth. With a greater equality of income, of course, GDP doesn’t have to grow as fast. The drift of our current society into endless war, endless stupidity, an endlessly degraded public sector, the unwinding of all those hard fought democratic gains of the last one hundred years, is the direct result of a simple arithmetic ratio. To repair this – to go back to the managed capitalism, as Kuttner calls it, of the past – isn’t socialism – it is the self interest of the vast mass of American citizens.

Unfortunately, all of these arguments keep coming up against the odd argument that the rich "earn" their wealth. And the answer is always - no, in capitalism, wealth is created by the producers, i.e. the workers. 
Which is why arguments that tend to go to sports stars or musicians are really besides the point. The same amount of work and ingenuity can be valued by the "market" - or by the various devices by which one gets into the market - in wildly differing ways. Ayn Rand's Fountainhead was refused by a number of publishers, and she was about to let it go into the desk drawer, when some editor at Bobbs Merrill decided he'd fight to get his company to publish the book. Unpublished or published, it was the same book. What we call earning is a social act. It is, of course, not a one to one act. I may eat my spinach by myself - the eating and digestion are individual. But I never earn money by myself - it is an infinitely mediated act.
All of which is a philosophical point that is besides the point. If a countervailing power to plutocracy exists within a state that can cause the levying of a heavy, heavy tax on the wealthy - it should do so pronto. There is no enjoyment people get from money they aren't using to live on - the enjoyment is in the power it gives them. And the power it gives their children and allies. Fine. In the power struggle, the vast majority can use democracy to severely limit that power.
The economic effects of this we can observe empirically. Is it really the case that a high marginal tax rate on the wealthy keeps the wealthy from fullfilling the roles that they are lauded for - investing and managing? Will the middle class or the working class or the poor be hurt because the wealthy are divested of a considerable part of their wealth? Empirically, the answer is obviously no. The only argument the wealthy have is that the economy grows quicker when they are allowed to retain their wealth. I think this is a very poor argument.
Robert Reich has an excellent idea: instituting a 70 percent marginal tax on those incomes over a million per year. Do it! This, too, will become full of holes - and the holes will have to be plugged up. Taxation is not a one time only process. But there is ample proof that a high tax rate does work on expropriating wealth from the wealthy. It is for this reason, of course, that the wealthy oppose it. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Neoliberal notes: 1

Ellen M. Wood's "The Retreat from Class" , published in 1983, is uncannily predictive of the course of neo-liberalism. Though she is pretty highhanded with us epigoni of French Theory, what she says about the disappearance of class within political discourse – and cultural discourse in general - is totally correct, at least in the Anglosphere.

Of course, class only disappears in the minds of the bien-pensants, not from their daily lives. Class as lived experience is overwhelmingly present, from the counter people at the sandwich shops where David Broder checks in on the proles to the shores of the mini-mansion subdivision universe.
Neoliberalism is neo because, unlike classical liberalism, it proceeds logically from the dismantling of the labor theory of value. In terms of class, this means writing out the working class, and substituting as its pertinent tri-fold structure the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. The wealthy are described as wealth makers. The middle class are economically autonomous, and the poor are government dependents.
Within neo-liberalism, then, taxing the wealthy is justified by the government services provided for them, and not as a countermeasure to the level of exploitation that creates that group. The middle class, if it demands something from the government, is displaying moral culpability: how dare, for instance, middle class kids demand free secondary education? Obviously, they simply want bribes. And the poor never work – the goal is to get them to work. Then we can pull away government support for them.
Class, which used to indicate a position in the spheres of production and circulation, becomes, in neoliberalism, a proxy for income.
Politically, income is a very weak guarantor of solidarity. The search for solidarity turns elsewehere – to various identities, which, in the absence of a robust sense of production and circulation, take on the primary roles in structuring our lives, and thus the politics concerning our lives.
It is interesting to me that Marx talks about life, not about economics, when speaking of what determines our consciousness. Life is at the center of his thinking, yet it is consistently read out of his thinking. When we read that Marx doesn’t accord enough force, or accords no force, to ideas, the people saying this are usually at work. They are usually academics writing ideas in books that, among other things, will gain them tenure. The ideas that they are talking about come from the great names. They are not talking about the ideas of the sandwichmaker at Subway. Why?
Read the rest at Willetts Magazine

Saturday, April 06, 2019

The Breakup of Britain: on Fintan O'Toole's Heroic Failure

This is a part of a review I wrote for Willett's Mag

Oliver’s army is here to stay

Oliver’s army are on their way

And I would rather be anywhere else

But here today – Elvis Costello

In 2009, I became a great fan of Fintan O’Toole’s column in the Irish Times, where he served as an appalled guide to the meltdown of the Irish banks, which were riding down the sudden and traumatic slump in real estate prices. O’Toole was full of savage indignation at the sheer wanton and meanminded greed of it all, and it was a thrill to see him unloose the vials of his wrath on incompetent government honchos, the party of Fianna Fáil, the popinjay plutocrats, and their collaborators, a gang of looters pathetically incapable of covering their tracks. I was rooting from the far seats, ’cause I knew that the fight in Ireland was the same as the fight in the U.S. and the EU – the fight of the working people against the rip off artists who rule them. At the same time, O’Toole was funny. Funny! Righteous and funny is a hard combo to pull off, and requires a deal of literary reference. All of these are qualities I revere. As well, he didn’t turn out to be a reactionary crank (many were the critics of the banksters who turned out to be supporters of something even worse), but, recognizably, a democratic socialist type, or social democrat type, whatever.  Which I, a lukewarm Marxist, think is the best we’ll get in my lifetime.
In some of the reviews of Heroic Failure – especially those written by conservatives – O’Toole is accused of an uncritical, admiring attitude towards the EU. This is of course not true. As he wrote in a recent column:

… the other way to be [a] bad European is obsequiousness to the demands of the technocratic elites in Brussels and Frankfort. If the EU in not a community of vibrant, challenging, skeptical democracies, it will wither. The meek will inherit nothing.

I could do some picking at the idea that France, Italy, Hungary or Poland have vibrant democracies at the moment – but you get the drift. With this viewpoint, O’Toole is a natural Remainer, but no EU soft soaper.  More than that – what his conservative critics miss, flailing away at the fun he has at their expense – is that his analysis, which concentrates on the social forces behind the Leave position, concedes to Leave a dialectical complexity that lifts the book out of the zone of mere denunciation. This is an exemplary study of the culture, or part of the culture, of contemporary England – the England that is confusedly starting to address its identity as the British nation-state complex breaks up. Its is a comparatively fast decline-and-fall, taking not hundreds of years but decades. And we are in the midst of it.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Pseudo-keynesian winter: a tale from the end of civilization

I am a great fan of shoebox economics - done by amateurs at the feet of the policymakers, smelling their stinky toes, Das Kapital in hand.

Which is why, yesterday, I suddenly thought of a way of explaining to myself the governing class's economic policies for the last thirty to forty years.

The policy has three legs. But calling them legs doesn't quite give one the picture of how they are inter-related; metaphors always have their shortcomings. But bear with me, ladies and germs.

The first leg - let's call it the bond trader's threat - is the moral pressure on governments to cut their deficits. This pressure is asymmetrical: it does not call for governments to return to the tax policies of the immediate post-war years of last century, when corporate and wealth taxes went up. It instead calls for those deficit-driven cuts to be made in "entitlements" - in other words, in public goods and services: education, healthcare, retirement, the environment, and the whole regulatory structure of government.

The second leg - which is dynamically connected to the second one - is for deregulation and privatization. This is a tricky leg. Although it might seem, on the surface, that this is a demand for a return to pre-keynesian economics, it is really caught in the whole Keynesian paradigm of managing demand. Privatization means that public goods, like higher education, increasingly reflect the price system controlled by private entities. De-regulation means, among other things, that not only are markets deregulated, but that the consumer's access to credit is also de-regulated. The total effect of this is to shift public deficits onto individual households. In other words, bondholders who get 2 percent, say, on U.S. bonds are now looking at a market in which mass individual debts can be pooled, with the debts paying anywhere from 5 percent to whatever. Since tax cuts to the wealthy in order to encourage investment usually just result in vast cash reservoirs swirling around, here's the perfect place to put that cash. Thus, the financial sector experiences really incredible growth. From another viewpoint, this growth is cancerous. Just like any good or service, the prices of financial goods should be going vertiginously down: due to the internet and software such as, say, excel spreadsheets, the real cost of financial transactions has deflated over the last thirty years. But the cost of stocks and the various species of shadow finance financial instruments - derivatives and such - keeps booming (before they bust). This is due partly to direct class pressures - the lifting of usury limits, wage stagnation, and the massive increase in laws to administer a punitive regime of debtor surveillance - and partly to the massive influx of money from the state, in terms of tax cuts.

The third leg is cheap goods. This is the analgesic that keeps the working class from feeling the full extent of its pain. As the public goods disappear, a direct hit to the lifestyles and wealth of the working class household, and debt becomes seemingly more available, filling the gap between lifestyle and wage stagnation, the massive trade deficits of those countries that have adhered most closely to the deficit scold-tax break- deregulate and privatize paradigm - become noticeable. They are treated by economists as unexpected outcomes, but of course they are really the results of a policy choice. That choice freezes the inflation of consumer goods, even as life-cycle goods - education, healthcare, housing (and I would add here environmental "goods") inflate wildly.

Interestingly, these three legs are inevitable as long as the paradigm is in place. There's no reform that would make this more bearable. At the same time, the original justification for the Keynesian regime - that it moderates business cycles - becomes a parody. It actually speeds up and aggravates the severity of business cycles, but it removes the hurt of those cycles from the governing classes and Capital and puts it squarely on the working class.

Inevitably, the keynesian compact was eventually going to devolve into a weapon in the class war. And that is what the Great Moderation is all about. So when my child asks me, where were you in the Great Moderation, Daddy, I can at least have the satisfaction of saying, I was being screwed by shitheads, my child. That's about it, cause otherwise, what I have done, and what the working class has done collectively, is hide.