Saturday, July 15, 2017

don't blame Ayn Rand. Blame Alex Osborn

I had gone through this vale of tears thinking that the root of brainstorm was meteorological: that the brain is encouraged to “rain down” ideas. But this week, I have learned that storm was meant, by the coiner of the phrase, to evoke soldiers storming a position. In other words, the brain was to be considered a sort of grenade, and the brainstormers were to be considered commandoes rushing at a problem.
The coiner of the phrase was an advertising man. Naturally. Name of Alex F. Osborn. Now, a lotta folks blame everything that’s been crapped up on Ayn Rand’s malign influence. Few (or maybe nobody) blames Alex F. Osborn. But I think a case can be made that Osborn’s brainstorm baby – set sailing on a sea of Babbitry and business uplift – has had a larger effect on the American elite’s cognitive style than the firebreathing Rand, who had the good sense to see that under the suit or  casualware of the business school graduate beats a heart just yearning for someone to mistake him for a hero in a Harlequin Romance.  Good way to sell books. And if daffy Silicon Valley types weave a philosophy from Rand’s romances, well, pretty much tells you about the level of Silicon Valley types.
But Osborn was serious.
“It was in 1939 when I first organized such group-thinking in our company. The early participants dubbed our efforts “brainstorm sessions; and quite aptly so because, in this case, “brainstorm” meas using the brain to storm a creative problem— and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.” [Applied Imagination]
Osborn is quite excited by the sheer quantity of brainstorming results. A group at his agency developed over 800 ideas for one of his clients. 800! Imagine, as they would say today, the disruption!
Osborn gives four rules for brainstorming:
“1. Judicial judgment is ruled out. Criticism of ideas is withheld until later.
2. Freewheeling is welcomed. The wilder the idea, the better.  It is easier to tame down than to think up.
3. Quantity is wanted. The greater the number of ideas, the more the likelihood of winners.
4. Combination and improvement are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of their own, participants should suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea. “

If the surrealist idea of automatic writing were turned into a parlor game for servants of capital, I guess it would look like this.
However, my point here is that the breathless idea of being “freewheeling” and putting out all these ideas out there – the more there are, the more likely we are to find “winners” – has become the unfortunate cognitive style of the Executive branch in its ultra testosterone mode. In a sense, Trump’s tweets are the ultimate brainstorm. They wheel so free that the wheels come off; they flurry, they multiply. And they both judge and ask not to be judged – exposing the contradiction between 1, where criticism is given its division of labor instructions to stay away, and no. 4, where we are trying to make an idea better, which is truly hard to do if we can’t judge its worth at all. Meaning that we end up with excitable inanity, the usual form in which exec speak happens. It is all very uplifting and, as Osborn likes to say over and over again, creative. The American cult of the creative may not have started with Osborn, but he was a votary.
Osborn indicates with some satisfaction (in the book I’ve been quoting) that the military has taken up his ideas and run with them. I think some glimmer of brainstorming is behind the cockeyed sense of intellectual entitlement that pervades both Silicon Alley and Wall street: that the making of software apps for taking pictures of cats, or slicing and dicing a financial instrument so that nobody understands what it is about, is very creative.   Trump, that old joke, with his art of the deal, otherwise known as cheating at cards, is very likely convinced that he is a brainstormer par excellence. He and Kushner and Bannon – can’s you see these fatuous men putting their heads together to solve, say, the problem that miiiinoooorities are still allowed to vote in this country. Etc.

I don’t blame Rand. Poor Osborn is the guy I blame. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

theses on neoliberalism: once more with feeling!

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 sandwich shops of David Broder 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?

What we know of the life of the sandwichmaker – or of our own lives – is that we perpetually sacrifice our idea time to our work time. Marx has a pretty keen idea of what space, in the course of a life in which twelve hours a day is devoted to repetitive work activities, is going to go into ideas that are going to be written on paper.

The neo-liberal triumph is to make this all seem delusory. Instead, we have the great ideas of the great ideamen – usually men, but under our new more liberal standards, even women are accepted! – and then we have the daily lives of people who, if we don’t watch out, will want free government services.

It is in this way that neo-liberalism moves from being some set of “ideas” about the economy to a cosmic vision of how things are and ought to be.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Gareth Stedman Jones's Marx

I was so irritated by the review of Gareth Stedman Jones’ Marx “biography” in the London Book Review that I began to research GSJ’s past pronunciamentos in re the great man. Jones has been treading high road to capitalism for a long long time. But he has the misfortune, or fortune, to have linked himself early to Marx. Instead of disavowing Marx and moving on, he’s dedicated himself to the more remunerative task of misinterpreting Karl. As was pointed out in 2004 by Jacob Stevens, fascinated by Jones’s long  yawp of an intro to the Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto,  Jones’s Marx is recognizably a product of one of the Cold War subthemes in the “battle of ideas”: that Marxism is a religion. Hence, the title of the book of confessions by ex-Commies: The God that Failed. Jones’s variant is that Marx knew very well that ideas rock the world, but hid this under a materialism that was in stark contradiction to his humanist faith.

In making this case, Jones embraces the idea that intellectual history is pretty much about reading books. Marx reads some books, is influenced, writes books, etc. etc.

It is a case he has been making for some time. For instance, in 2002, writing for the Guardian, Jones casts cold water on the anarchos and lefties making with the cops at globalist fests – like G20 summits – by way of another Cold War trope – capitalism did everything that Marx wanted communism to do! In 2002, it was very popular for ex-lefties to make arguments of this form. Hence Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens making mock of the betrayal of the “left” by those who opposed the crusade for all that was right and good in Iraq.

Jones did not go that far, although the Blairist butter in his Guardian article is pretty thick. But what bugs me about Jones is not so much his politics – which is a garden variety of bien-pensant reformism, which in the short term is what we got – as his historical method. For instance, this:
“Marx’s manifesto vision was driven by a conviction that the capitalist cash-nexus distorted the expression of human need. Drawing upon legal historians, he concluded the modern forms of private property and the exchange economy based upon it was only one in a historical succession of different property forms. Capitalist private property had produced the unparalleled productivity gains of the 19th century industrial revolution.”

This to my mind ignores the Marx who did not have to read German legal historians to see what was going on about him as he lived and worked in Cologne. All he had to do was read the newspaper he edited. Jones simply ignores the series of newspaper articles Marx wrote about the laws concerning the abolition of traditional gleaning rights in the woods that formed an important part of the wealth of the German landowner aristocracy. How important was this issue? Wood theft constituted the highest percentage of the crimes for which people were sentenced to prison in Germany in the nineteenth century. It was while working on his newspaper that Marx saw the belief he’d been educated in – that law makes property – was untrue. Rather property law was being remade by class. Although Jones has evidently had his head in a library for a long long time, he might have stuck it out enough to notice how intellectual property laws have again remade property. This was not in response to some principle in the law, but rather to some pressure from the owners of computer software and giant pharma. You can sell your car second hand – you can’t do the same with your code for your Microsoft Office Suite. Rationalization isn't reason - the capitalist libido operates now just as it operated in the forests around Cologne in 1845. 

All of which is a way of saying: Marx noticed things outside of books. He noticed events. Jones is correct that the critique of capitalism was never succeeded by the construction of some positive communist utopia, with instructions showing how part a fits into slot b. On the other hand, what promoter of capitalism ever envisioned global warming? Or had a grasp of the vast effects of unleashing the chemical-industrial products on this world? Did the inventor of nitrogen fertilizer have any sense that he was igniting a population boom, and destroying peasant societies globally – more effectually than communism ever did?

All of these overwhelming effects of the system can be abbreviated into the term “alienation.” It is what we live in. Marx’s critique gives us a mirror of how it came about, and how it functions. It is based not on reading the British economists and the German legal historians – these were useful, but not sufficient – but on reading newspapers, reports on factory conditions, going out into the streets. Marx was perhaps the first philosopher to ever take what the newspaper reported as material for thought.

You’d never know that from an intellectual archaeology that refuses to look at the nineteenth century except in the cliched terms of “the industrial revolution” – a sort of children’s book caption for what was happening. A more serious issue might be Jones’s substitute of private property relations for wage labor. Which is what Marx was on about at the time he wrote the Manifesto, and immediately afterwards, when he edited – wait for it – a newspaper, and made speeches to workers organizations, such as the one in Vienna in 1848, on the theory of property by Puffendorf. Just kidding! The speeches were on wage labor, and were reprinted in a pamphlet, and referred to the wages made by weavers, for instance. It referred to the worker’s time – his or her living time.
Here’s a quote, ending with a perfect little metaphor. And then I’m done with the bug up my ass that succeeded my reading of that stupid review in the LRB.  

“But the putting of labor-power into action -- i.e., the work -- is the active expression of the laborer's own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity. What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws up the mining shaft, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages ; and the silk, the gold, and the palace are resolved for him into a certain quantity of necessaries of life, perhaps into a cotton jacket, into copper coins, and into a basement dwelling. And the laborer who for 12 hours long, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, carries hods, and so on -- is this 12 hours' weaving, spinning, boring, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking, regarded by him as a manifestation of life, as life? Quite the contrary. Life for him begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours' work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed. If the silk-worm's object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker.“

The Japan EU trade treaty sucks - not that you'd know that from the nyt

The NYT - in mourning for the TPP - casts its lonely eyes on the European-Japanese treaty and finds it a shining symbol of all that is good and right. Actually, it is a shining symbol that the EU's elite never learns anything. Negotiated in secret, full of the kind of mulitnational corp goodies that are the new road to serfdom, its benefits will flow to the top 1 percent, while undermining the bottom 99 percent. This article in Libe is of interest

Trade treaties are always sold as being so ultra beneficial to the "poor" - which is what we call the laboring class in these neo-liberal times. It is odd that no representatives of the "poor" are ever allowed to shape them, then. But what do the poor know? Best keep these things secret.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...