Thursday, February 05, 2015

the ownership society - now with fifty percent more autism!

Rand Paul, who likes to rush in where even Palins fear to tread, has been mocked for this conjunction of “own” and children. Or I should say some have mocked it, while most have let it pass as mere flotsam on the ocean of cretinism in which we all, as Americans, daily float.
However, the word “own” there is doing so much business, stands out so much like a sore thumb, or maybe a freakish fist of sore thumbs, that I have to buzz around it and find a place to bite, like a mosquito whose maxillary palp organs have been rubbed the right way by the delicious aroma of human sweat gland.
One of the many recent bits marked down for deletion in the collective American memory was the glorious slogan, “ownership society”, under which so many financial products were deregulated in the interest of the common man.  Here’s a bit of a flashback from a site run by a rightwing aparatchik named Jim Glassman (who I happened to work for when I was in college, and before he took his jackassery to new levels):
“The greatest political and demographic shift over the past twenty years was not the number of new Spanish speaking residents, but rather the number of individuals who owned shares of stock. In the 1996 elections, pundits spoke of soccer moms as the key demographic. This time around, the 2004 elections will be decided by America's growing investor class.
With this in mind, President Bush spoke directly to the burgeoning investor class at the Republican National Convention by announcing his vision for America becoming an "ownership society." Bush's speech called for a new paradigm in which government policies empower, not inhibit, individuals, so that each person has more choices and control over his healthcare and retirement. Included in the vision are Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), Lifetime and Retirement Savings Accounts (LSAs/RSAs), Comp/Flex time, and Social Security Personal Retirement Accounts (PRAs). All of these plans have one important theme in common: individual ownership.”

We all like to remember that George Bush was elected in 2000 while losing the popular vote, and we all like to forget that he was authentically elected (no Supreme Court helping) by a healthy margin in 2004. What’s more, he told us exactly what he was going to do.
What did ownership mean? Well, for those of us who combine Marx’s notion that ideology has the quality of reversing the true arrangement of social relations with St. Paul’s maxim that we must read what happens in the World as in a mirror, the meaning was obvious: the ownership society was about appropriating the few assets of the wage class and replacing them with debt. This is exactly what happened. In contrast to Glassman’s claim, the bottom 80 percent of the income scale owns approximately 5 percent of the financial wealth, according to Wolff, an economist who specializes in the composition of wealth in America. In 2007, the median household had assets of around 150 thousand dollars, of which the vast majority, 100, 000 dollars, was invested in a house. Ah, the house! That centerpiece of the ownership society. In 1989, the collected debt of the average household equaled 89 percent of average income – and by 2007, it equaled 141 percent. Now this kind of trend, if put in another situation, say the Soviet Union, would show the total level of expropriation had gone sky high – but in the United States, ownership means that your percentage of what you really own goes sliding merrily down the slope, as you vote for your creditors to turn the screws and call it – freedom.
This, of course, is one shot at the prize of understanding the metastasis of ownership in the American discourse. The idea that the most private and intimate relationship between two humans is one of ownership extends well beyond this, of course. It is a recent and alarming development in public craziness – a severe form of social autism, which is, coincidentally, one of the fears that drives the anti-vaxxers. We watch the social norm become autistic, and we naturally grow fearful for our children – even as we work, in every way, to normalize that autistic way of thinking and speaking.
There’s so much more to say! I’ll stop, here. I apologize for the paradox mongering, which is as easy as skipping stones, I gotta admit. But fun!

Monday, February 02, 2015

cabinet magazine

We went to the art book fair here yesterday. Art book might conjure up visions of the oversized book of impressionist paintings that graced the table in your folks’ living room, accruing over time  a light surface of dust. There weren’t those. These were small press and zine books, with a fair amount of arty and not so arty porn, poetry, artist collaborations, essays, and dozens of mags; among the latter we came upon the table for Cabinet.
We decided to increase our media load and buy a year’s subscription. It was a great bargain – less than 30 bucks. Reader, go and do likewise.
The first thing I read in the new issue, which we took home with us, was a wonderful essay with Michael Witmore about his book, Culture of Accidents: Unexpected knowledges in Early Modern England. In spite of the air of solecism around “knowledges” in that title, Witmore is an impressively articulate interviewee. His thesis is that, broadly, the notion of accident changed in the 17th century. At the beginning of the century, and for centuries past, accident was, in normal, educated circles, an Aristotelian thing:
“… the idea of an accident as an event was essentially the idea that wo independent causal lines could meet in a given place at a given moment and produce something that could not have been foressn by either of those causal agents. So Aristotle’s example would be two people go to the marketplace, one goes to buy olive oil, the other goes to buy grapes, and they meet accidentally in the marketplace and settle a debt on that ocassion. “
As a good little derridean, I hold no example is innocent, and that an example of the accident that sticks in a marketplace and debt is something that can be gone into muchly. But I’ll put a brake on my inner Jacques and go on to Witmore’s sense of how this notion changed in the 17th century.
“Calvin’s sense is that there is a theater of God’s judgment in the world, that God communicates through theater, and that accidental events – things that just seem to happen – are precisely those sttartling events that get a rise out of the spectator and in fact engage the conscience in unusual and startling ways.”
Now, those origin-mongers out there would probably say that Calvin didn’t just come up with this, and we can go back and back all the way to the Vedas for similar views. Anthropologists used to claim that, universally, all human death is looked upon as murder of some sort in “savage” society. I am not sure that this factoid is still upheld in contemporary anthropology, but it surely did have backing in many societies far away from Calvin’s Geneva (although let me butt in here and say that I don’t think those cultures were all that far away – the idea that the European cultures were different, were civilized, were where the progress was, is a faith-based claim, which any survey of European societies – from Galician peasants in the twentieth century to Parisian voyou – would put to flight. The West is just savages with video games, as far as I can see).
Still, Witmore might be on to something here, some further fracture in the order of things.
Myself, I confess to having a high regard for what Pierce called tychism – the idea that coincidence underlies the physical structure of the universe, and that it is irreducible to physical law. I’ve always found the calculations about the probability of there being a big bang, or there being life on earth, etc., curiously blind to the fact that this probability must also encompass the probability that probability calculations can be made. Tychism, as I see it, means that all things swim, as the accident of that particular moment, in a sea of accidents. From this viewpoint, the extended phenotype of an event – say, the waves in the sea –includes the sound of the waves in a seashell cupped to an infant’s ear. That sound is really, of course, the throbbing of our common blood, but its recognition as the sound of waves is wrapped up with what waves are. Though we can erase the contingent factors around the wave – there could be no seashell, there could be no infant – we cannot erase the possibility of seashells and infants.
Which is another way of saying that we grope in the unknown as variables of that dark element, in all worlds and at world’s end, amen.

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...