Saturday, November 18, 2006

friedman and a non-tomato

I’ve poked around and looked at Milton Friedman’s tributes and tomatoes. I’m mostly in the throw a tomato camp – but there were libertarian moments in Friedman’s work that I definitely love. Among them, naturally, was his opposition over forty years to drug prohibition.

What surprises me, however, about that opposition is how little it drew strength from any theory of markets – and I’ve always thought that had to do with the reluctance to ascribe any virtue to state regulation. In fact, the illegal drug markets are a wonderful instance of what happens when the state abandons its regulatory function by opting for straight banning. State regulation is often very inefficient – think of the way state’s regulate liquor and cigarette sales, and how leaky the ban on selling to minors is – and yet the standard by which it should be measured has, as its primary dimension, social concord. The first thing one wants in an economy is relative peace. Snatch and grab, which is all very well for the revolutionary moment, quickly becomes hell – as Iraq is demonstrating every day.

I talked with a friend in Mexico City this morning, and in her ritzy neighborhood, Polanco, they just had a dramatic shootout bankrobbery. Then we talked about the crime, the feelers that are out to privatize Pemex (which Fox’s government has underfunded so that it can be sold off because – it is underfunded!), etc. The misery that the neo-liberal regime imposes on a country accumulating, year after year, until something breaks, and inequality is no longer a fun topic to bat around among economists at the AEI meeting, but puts a gun in your face.

Anyway, to return to Friedman’s good side… Having an intensely silly ideal of the state as a thing that ‘keeps out’ of the political economy, Friedman deprives himself of a tool for analyzing what goes entirely wrong when the state bans a consumer commodity like, say, marijuana, and why that banning is different from the case of the state banning the manufacture of a product like DDT. Lately, I’ve been reading Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, which goes into Romer’s theorem about endogenous technological change, and I will have some stuff to say about defining commodities in some far future post. At the moment, though, let’s just say the dumbness of the division between the public and the private sphere, as construed by economists, tripped up Friedman, who posited his objection to drug banning on the libertarian principle of freedom that is, itself, shaky business. There is a deeper lesson to be learned about markets from the catastrophes resulting from the American determination to, a., ban certain drugs internationally, and b., consume as much of those banned drugs as we can afford. Of all the ways in which the American imperium has fucked up the world, this is, practically, the greatest of all fuck ups, one that has reached into the shantytowns of Sao Paolo and the countryside of Sicily, has created black market states and financed the killing gangs of Africa, has put Latin America in a noose for the past sixty years and was the satyr play that ran within the larger play in Vietnam.

(Of course, the bigger fuck up – the mad addition of CO2 to the earth’s atmosphere, otherwise known as stealing the earth’s atmosphere – has been more gradual and less purposive.)

Other off the cuff remarks – the thumbsucker in the NYT Business section about Friedman’s real contribution was dumb even by the NYT standard of dumb obituaries about intellectuals. Friedman, it turns out, taught economists to think of the economics as … a world view! Now, I bet Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Thorsten Veblen, F.A. Hayek and Karl Polanyi wish they had thought of that.

Friday, November 17, 2006

a percipient speaks

That sleep, or rather the borderland which lies on either side of sleep, is peculiarly favourable to the production in the percipient, not only of hallucinations in general, but of telepathic hallucinations in particular, has already been shown. – Frank Podmore, Apparitions and Thought Transference.

Let’s first imagine Albert Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing, shall we? Of course we shall. A baron and a doctor, a respectable man whose investigations into sexual pathology have uncovered much rich material about the peculiar perversion of algolagnia. So we shall imagine him, one night, in the winter of 1886 … “I think it was in the month of February, as I was going along the Barerstrasse one evening at half past 11, it occurred to me to make an attempt at influencing at a distance, through mental concentration. As I had had, for some time, the honour of being acquainted with the family of Herr…, and thus had had the opportunity of learning that his daughter, Fraulein …., was sensitive to psychical influences, I decided to try to influence her, especially as the family lived at the corner of the Barerstrasse and Karlstrasse. The windows of the dwelling were dark as I passed by, from which I concluded that the ladies had already gone to rest. I then stationed myself by the wall of the houses on the opposite side of the road, and for about five minutes firmly concentrated my thoughts on the following desire: Fraulein … shall wake and think of me.”

Of course. A wholly natural scientific experiment to perform at eleven o’clock at night, especially when the ladies are asleep and one of them, you happen to know, is susceptible to psychic experiences. Schrenck-Notzing just might have been strolling home from a hard night experimenting with haschich, in his laboratory – a complete bust that, as it did not induce telepathic experiences as one rather hoped. No control in the percipient. And the agent, frankly, became susceptible to unnamed horrors. As we well know, it will be several years before Schrenck-Notzing finally makes his true scientific reputation with an exhaustive study of the ectoplasm exuded by mediums (200 + photos) with the truly Schrenck-Notzingian title, Phenomena of Materialisation: A Contribution to the Investigation of Mediumistic Teleplastics - but to return to our percipient for a second, Fraulein … - that night she was lying in bed with her eyes closed when suddenly the room seemed to brighten, “and I felt compelled to open my eyes, seeing at the same time, as it appeared to me, the face of Baron Schrenck.” It was just the kind of thing Fraulein … would confide, the next day, to her dear friend, Fraulein Prieger, who as it happens went skating the next day with Baron Schrenk and spilled the beans.

Well, such a gothic intro to the dry subject of the structure of political parties! A little parapsychological Ringen, and one hopes the best for dear Fraulein …, a case history headed towards tragedy if you ask me. But LI simply liked the metaphoric richness of the relation between agent and percipient, which we are going to use to talk about the party, the working class, and the state when we get around to our next post on Lenin, who as it happens did write “ What is to be Done” in Munich, while he signed his letters with the name Petrov and received all communications at Gabelsbergerstrasse 20a, München.

Meanwhile, a man is concentrated out in the parking lot on LI’s window. And my room is filled with light…

Thursday, November 16, 2006

what is to be done?

I was reading the chapter on Lenin in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like the State a couple of days ago. In that chapter, Scott compares Lenin to other modernist figures, and in particular Le Corbusier. Scott takes Lenin’s text, What is to be Done, as his starting point for discussing the organization of the Communist party as a classic modernist project: the use of military metaphors, a planning structure based on an elite command center, the distrust of spontaneity, the whole nine yards. But more than that, Scott compares Lenin’s notion, in 1903, that a party such as he envisions it, and only a party such as he envisions it, can really bring about a revolution, with what happened in 1917, when the spontaneity that Lenin believed to be doomed by its lack of goals and viable mechanisms actually did the task that the Bolsheviks couldn’t do in fifteen years – overthrew the Czar. Revolution, it turned out, was very different from Lenin had envisioned it.

Now what struck LI is that Lenin’s theory of the party is so closely associated with the Communist party that we don’t see how it actually is about… any party. Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Fascist, Menshevik, Bolshevik – LI’s hunch is that the curiously little investigated thing, the party form, and its role in the twentieth century, should start with Lenin.

Anyway, we thought it would be good for a coupla posts. But first, we will begin with another figure, an associate of Weber’s, Robert Michels, who wrote the text book on the nature of the party in 1910, formulating the ‘iron law of oligarchy.’

Michels is an interesting figure. He was a political activist in the Social Democratic party – near the anarchic edge – as well as a sociologist. Later, after WWI, he moved towards fascism, teaching in Italy. But we are concerned with jut a few of his notions.

Robert Michels contrasted two ways of comparing democracies and monarchies/aristocracies. One was to compare the frequency of elections as the index of popular participation – and by this criteria, democracies were clearly more ‘democratic’. But the other way – comparing length of tenure of the officials – gave a more paradoxical result. In Germany, an official – in the legislature, in the party, as a minister – had much greater chance of having a longer tenure, or at least a more frequent one, then they did during the aristocratic/monarchical time.

Michels came up with certain psychological reasons for this unezpected datum. For instance, the democratic representative often is the recipient of gratitude for what he has done. An appointed official or an aristocrat, on the other hand, does what he does evidently for – his king or his family, thus arresting the impulse of gratitude. LI would actually institutionalize gratitude in terms of favors. In general, the frequency of election actually puts a greater stress on those factors that lead to the successful longevity of the representative – in other words, cost of entry goes up, the longer the representative endures in office, the more the gratitude/favors logic works to ensure the closeness of supporters and the officeholder.

There are also, according to Michels, external reasons that help ensure length of tenure. For instance, “…the party that changes its leaders too often runs the risk of fining itself unable to contract useful alliances at an opportune moment. The two gravest defects of genuine democracy, its lack of stability (perpetuum mobile democraticum) and its difficulty of mobilization, are dependent on the recognized right of the sovereign masses to take part in the management of their own affairs.”

The idea of an alliance is very important. Because the party is so often considered as an instrument, as something that is designed completely to accomplish a purpose, it is hard to see it standing for itself. It must stand for an idea, represent a class, an ethnic group, etc.

Which will get us to Lenin, in my next post, or some post soon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

marie antoinette... maria stuart...ulrike...gudrun

uber "die Spielformen weiblicher Herrschaft, die am Ende alle in den Tod führen" –
“…over the forms of the play of feminine domination, which in the end leads to everybody’s death.”

The big deal about Coppola’s Marie Antoinette has passed – but I’d much prefer to see Jelenik’s new play: Ulrike Maria Stuart. The combination of Schiller’s play and the Ulrike Meinhof story (and I admit that I still have a bit of a thing for Ulrike Meinhof) sounds like an idea hatched in hell – where all the good theater comes from. The lines, at least the one’s quoted in the Spiegel review, are – for anyone who remembers the old New Left style (I remember, long ago in France, reading an Autonomen manifesto demanding that parents masturbate their children to lead them out of the toils of bourgeois repression – oh, that was a long, long time ago. Who knew the years of lead would turn into years and years of fool’s gold?) – of a champagne like, ticklish deliciousness. Here’s a lament from the “youth” of today:

"Ach, wie gerne hätten wir die repressiven ideologischen Apparate selber noch erlebt, doch diese Offensivposition gab's nur für dich, wir hatten nicht die Wahl."

That language, ripped directly from the dictionary of the Comintern directives and employed as though it were the everyday speech of the working masses, or as though Europa, circa 1976, were like Malraux’s Shanghai, 1929 – oh, I admit, I rather miss it. It is far more entertaining than the vulgate of biz inspirational speech that now stalks the tongues of the young.

Reading the Spiegel review does remind LI, though, of what Meinhof faced – the concatenation of pure media cant and hatred is still par for the course for the “radikal Links.” Maria Stuart, of course, stages the confrontation between two queens – Mary and Elizabeth – and Jelenik’s play apparently confronts Meinhof with her RAF rival, Gudrun Ensslin. Here’s a blast from the past – Ensslin’s communication of 5 June, 1970, after a liberation action – was this the torching of the stores? No, it was the jailbreak engineered, if such a precise word can be applied to such a sloppy procedure, by Meinhof and Baader.

Genossen von 883 - es hat keinen Zweck, den falschen Leuten das Richtige erklären zu wollen. Das haben wir lange genug gemacht. Die Baader-Befreiungs-Aktion haben wir nicht den intellektuellen Schwätzern, den Hosenscheißern, den Allesbesser-Wissern zu erklären, sondern den potentiell revolutionären Teilen des Volkes.

“There’s no point in explaining the correct action to the wrong (false) people. We’ve done that for long enough. We don’t have to explain the Baader-Liberation action to the yammerers, the one’s who shit in their pants, the know-it-alls, but to the potential revolutionary section of the people.”

Let’s scratchtapose here, without telling you why, to an article in Slate, today’s home of the know-it-alls and the ones who shit in their pants, although only at the thought of modifying NAFTA or something important like that. There was an article last week on the terror that stalks London (HOOODIIEES!) that perfectly represented our cocooned moment. Here’s how it begins:

“The other night, my girlfriend and I were sitting on the upper deck of one of London's bright red buses, staring out the window with the drowsiness of early evening, when we came to a lurching stop. Just then, six boys clambered up onto the second deck. They all wore hooded sweatshirts. The boys moved toward the back and began, in an exuberant way, to make a ruckus—shrieking, laughing, speaking in a peculiarly adolescent patois. There wasn't menace in their adolescent singsong, exactly, but its brazenness made their message clear: We own this bus. I gripped my girlfriend's hand. We stared stiffly forward, our lips tight, hoping that whatever the boys were saying didn't concern us.”

Can’t you just see the movie version? The boyfriend, who we’ll call Abba, separated from the girlfriend, who we’ll call Baba. The London evening coming down. Abba streaking through the streets in his new, 400 dollar trainers. Ah, every muscle strained. But then, cut to Baba, surrounded by the sinister hoodies, like the gang in Touch of Evil. They close in … and now they … and now they… oh, fiends in human form! They force her to drink whole milk, thus spoiling the whole gifted child soy program she was on! Goodby Harvard, hello Duke. Such is the violence of modern life. And poor Baba, how many years will it take her to get over the trauma! Abba himself will curse the shoestore where he got his trainers and go for a much more expensive pair, next time.

And yet, why did LI, reading this article of the true gated community angst end it humming:

When you’re a Jet
you’re a Jest all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dying daaaay!

One more thing, ahem

Gay Talese, at the below mentioned conference, said something that irritated me. It wasn’t his fault, really – the zeitgeist filled his mouth. He said he considered himself a story-teller. He said everybody has a story. He gestured ecumenically and said, there are hundreds of stories in this room.

Excuse me, but I can’t fucking stand this holy gargling around the word story. In truth, we don’t all have stories at all. Mostly, we have rumors. We are rumors to ourselves. Countless times, I have heard a person with whom I shared experience x tell a third party about x and censor, distort, exaggerate, and in general leave such a patchwork impression of the experience as might be admired by an old Marseillaise street of gossiping fishwives. And that isn’t even going into the major flaws with logic and continuity by which one sequence fits into the other in the ‘story’ of one’s life, as told by the lucky auto in the autobiography. Janet Malcolm made the point long ago in her book, In the Freud Archives, that those who really do live as though they were in a novel are those who most need psychoanalysis. To have a prayer of living a normal life, these folks need to be reduced to bearers of their own rumor. Then they can be safely ensconced in the suburbs.

Now, at one time, LI would have taken the kneejerk stance that it is far better to live as though in a novel than to live as though in some ADD fantasy. We would have claimed that psycho-therapy is the white magic of white magic. But LI has mellowed. LI thinks that it is all too easy and irresponsible to urge the wounded to go into battle. I suspect my own living-in-my-movie has done me a lot of harm: made me less loving and loved, lonelier, less powerful, less generous.

So: no romantic stance here for LI, no climbing the battlements. But I am saying: enough already with the story bullshit.

Stories cost. Stories exact a large price. Stories take the pound of flesh just for an entrée. The cutsification of the story is absurd – like trying to make a pet out of a river born parasitic worm that lays its eggs in the human brain.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Further adventures at the Mailer conference.

Well, LI’s headache got a better offer from a better head, one with a Pacific coast view, the sauna, the cable tv, a lot more sex to at least vicariously control, and so it moved away.

So now I will say one more thing about the Mailer conference.
I didn’t catch most of the conference, which started last Thursday. This is because I have had work – work! – due to my name being spread by former clients like IT, Lei and Silja. If this keeps up, I might be able to afford to get a new boom box to replace my recently deceased stereo. So the one conference panel I did observe was the last one. Three academics spoke, and the MC was Morris Dickstein, who looked like the Gates of Eden was a long time ago.

So okay. Question time. One question about Mailer’s technophobia. This was mulled around by the panel without any theme emerging. Then the eager guy sitting next to me – Robert Boyer, the editor of Salmagundi – made the comment that though Mailer criticized technology, he benefited from it enormously: tv, the paperback revolution, etc. He sat down with a smile on his face and all the other academics smiled too. Oh, it was lovely, an academic gotcha moment. And on that note the conference dissolved.

And that would have been cool, except: Boyer’s comment was entirely dumb. Mailer’s technophobia was not just a longing for arts and crafts, but wound into the politics of his entire oeuvre. And the point of it was dialectical. The point of it was that WWII had shown the world just how vulnerable all the modern systems were – and the following global Cold War system responded to that by a double movement – on the one hand, the system‘s polar powers tried to trump their vulnerability by threatening ever greater destruction, embodied by ever more missiles, aimed at each other – and on the other hand, within the system, the attempt was made to lessen individual vulnerability – whether due to race, sex or economic status. Technology was the common element shared by both ends of this double movement, which is how entrenched power - the system's beneficiaries - could promise invulnerability while producing, at the extreme of the system, ever greater vulnerability – vulnerability on a planet-wide scale. That was the demonic pact – in Mailer’s terms. Mailer’s conservativism consists in maintaining the badness of the devil and the goodness of God. LI would reverse that – the Cold War system, in which we still live, is one of white magic, with the devil being the joker and the only way out of the contradiction that Nobodaddy generated, and that now threaten to destroy it.

In any case, the point isn’t that technology is bad, but that it exists as part of a system and as a promoter of attitudes. The great hope of liberal society is that individuals, freed from the contingent vulnerabilities of scarcity and history, will use that freedom to risk their existences on a higher level. That, in fact, one can create a society that makes possible human generosity. Gives everyone their own movie music and large gestures. The great social fact of the sixties and seventies, however, is that mass adventurousness scares the shit out of the governing class, which then does everything it can to suppress it: drug laws, massive increases in prison building, the creation of an institutional architecture, an educational system that instills the message that one’s life is about, ultimately, making money. The system, Mailer was correct to feel, was slowly destroying other areas of life beyond the prudential – undermining and demonizing the adventurous moment, the moment of chosen risks, the moment of beauty. And this was at the heart of Mailer’s notion that the tool that created tools – technology – was making life less vulnerable by making life less honorable.

Of course, the backlash that started in 1980 was about making life within the system more risky for some and at the same time embedding in more areas of life the economic connection between the destructive technology at the periphery of the system and life within the system. The present administration, trying to both destroy social security and create a long, expensive, vague war, is following that logic to the letter. At the same time, the environment that has borne the cost of the technological system – absorbed the infinite wastes of it, as though those wastes were not a cost – is finally reaching a point of comparative no return. The gamble of creating nations that are armed to the point that they could, theoretically, eliminate humanity has produced a mindset in which the planet’s life is carelessly pissed away so that we can buy the kids the Hummer for the graduation present. Never has such a large disaster come about through such puissant motives.

But while this happens, we can sit around and find Mailer’s gotcha moment – that paperback revolution! tv! jerking off the Black Hole until it finally responds – and that response won’t be pretty.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

yesterday - Mailer day

LI has an enormous headache – one of those headaches with its own address, utilities and telephone number – so my post today, which was going to be all about how I got to see Norman Mailer speak, yesterday (hooray!) and how I finished my damning review of Pynchon’s new novel (sob) is going to have to be truncated. Suffice it to say that, about the latter, I finished that review with the feeling of the crippled lawyer in Lady From Shanghai, who tracks down his wife, Rita Hayworth, in the Mirror Fun House and calls out to her hundred fold reflected image – Lovah, are you aiming that gun at me? Cause I’m sure aiming this gun at you. Of course, to kill you is to kill myself – but I’m getting tired of the both of us. - My codex to the Planet Mars, Gravity’s Rainbow, that great black magic book about white magic, i.e. the Good War, is still high up there as one of the novel’s I most admire. Alas, Against the Day is the dissolution, a barbaric yawp turned into a barbaric yawn. Lovah, are you aiming that gun at me…?

Well, the Mailer symposium at the HRC this week brought together all the once young dudes, who dutifully roll the sixties up the hill until it rolls down again like academic Sisyphi – such as Morris Dickstein – and then for the piece de resistance, the man himself, with – on his left side – his go to guy, Larry Schiller (who is still the guy who sold the pics of Marilyn Monroe dead – he still visibly carries the air of a man who would sell his grandma if it would get him into the news, especially if his grandma had just committed a hatchet murder) and the elegantly suited and perpetually confused Gay Talese on his right. Mailer was totally cool – his belly gone, the arms thin, the eyebrows needing plucking, but still having the devil’s grin in him enough to read an elaborate passage about Hitler’s parents 69ing to the assembled Austin gentry. Speaking of which, the woman in front of me, mistaking me for someone more important (hey, this Joan of Arc haircut is really working out for LI!) told me a story about how she had, indeed, made the mistake of having a fundraiser for Kinky Friedman back in March, but never would have thought he’d become such a jackass, and had sent out a mailing just last week calling on her friends to vote for Bell – but that K.F.’s campaign manager, sitting right before her, had just told her, as though it were the best news, that Governor Perry (the dropped on his head Republican who announced, halfway through his campaign, that non-Christians would go to hell – but graciously declined to make them pay higher taxes if they behaved themselves in his state) had apparently invited K.F. to work with him – on what, God only knows.

Mailer quoted the Trotsky epigram about how to use the press: you can know the truth by comparing the lies, talked about his own way of ‘reporting’, and in general was cushioned by our universal affection. Sincere affection, too. I was happier to actually see Mailer in person than I would be to see… well, almost anyone else.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...