Friday, March 09, 2018

New York Times/Fox News - you pays your money, you takes your chances

Its story about the signing of the TPP by eleven nations was, typically, full of contradictions and fibs.

Of course, any article whose premise is that a trade alliance is the equivalent of “free trade” is in trouble from the get-go. You can’t label your trade alliance “free trade” and then present it as a counter-weight to an exporting superpower – which is what the article does in its first graf by claiming that the TPP was conceived by the United States as a counterweight to China. Of course, this ignores the advantages to corporations that made the deal so sweet and rotten. Of course, drug companies in the United States would like monopolies – those patents which have been stretched into unrecognizability by corporate bought legislatures – to extend to other countries. This is probably a bigger motivator than the anti-China canard. In fact, at this moment when overdoses have overtaken car accidents and murder to become the no. 1 killer in the U.S., Big Pharma, with its oxycontin reserves, has been lookingto knock down laws in other countries to allow oxy to be prescribed on thecandystore model. TPP would have been an excellent vehicle for this. So othernations in the TPP trade alliance might have missed a bullet this time. 
The article’s slant is transparent enough – but the article goes further than the mislabeling a trade alliance as free trade. It reaches the fib stage when it lightly touches ground on data.
“The new agreement — known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — drops tariffs drastically and establishes sweeping new trade rules in markets that represent about a seventh of the world’s economy. It opens more markets to free trade in agricultural products and digital services around the region. While American beef faces 38.5 percent tariffs in Japan, for example, beef from Australia, New Zealand and Canada will not.”
Doing a little research on Google, I find that the tariff for beef from Australia was not dropped because of TPP – it was dropped in 2015,due to another traditional trade treaty between Australia and Japan. 
But still, one might say, that 38.5 percent tariff on American beef must be a killer! Of course, that tariff – which goes up to 50 percent for refrigerated beef – is high. And yet, in the year since it was slapped onAmerican beef, guess what? American beef sales to Japan have increased 20%.

I do wonder if the “sweeping trade rules” include the godawful inclusion of “takings law” – a favorite of rightwing economists – that was included in the original TPP. Takings law simply says that if a country or a part of a country passes regulations that cut into a company’s earnings, well, that is a taking, and the government then owes the corporation. How sweet it is. In order to be totally fair about it, though, the TPP set up another court system, staffed by corporation picks who would be totally, totally fair, and called the Investor state dispute settlement court. Notice, there is no, say, environmental multicorporation dispute settlement court on the horizon – after all, global climate change is inevitable and good for you! But if the government interferes with an asbestos company’s godgiven right to mine that stuff regardless of the tender condition of the lungs of the miners – why, they better pay up!

The TPP, as the article does not say, was opposed by both Trump and Clinton. Clinton was right to oppose it. I’ve read Clintonites say that really, she was lying, just like her husband lied about Nafta, and once she got into office she would have stabbed her voters in the back by flipflopping. I’ve criticized Clinton, but I really don’t think she is as bad as her supporters make her out to be.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

FBI as trollers: fake news in 1969!

 It is interesting to compare the fake Russian accounts on Twitter and Facebook that we have all read about with the fake material generated by the FBI in the 60s and 70s. This was the golden age of Operation CHAOS and COINTELPRO, and every Fbi office in a metropolitan area was falling over itself to think outside the box and please the chief.
My favorite, as revealed by an FOIA generated yield ofdocuments, was the Washington D.C. office’s idea, in 1969, to create an “anonymousstudent-written” that was to be released to college campuses. Of course, the office assured the chief, “distribution of the paper will be handled by a source using a “cut-out” to avoid any affiliation with the FBI.”
The FBI, like today’s Russian troll, was not exactly a stylist. The “Rational Observer”, which must have been great fun to brainstorm there in the FBI office, reads like the product of a rather dim reader of Atlas Shrugged. It contains many, many bits of rhetoric that float around even today. For instance, the ever popular “we’re victims (as we lie to you)” ploy, which even today gets buckets of tears elicits buckets of tears from concern troll types – I’m looking at you, NYT editorial page!

It is an attempt by a small group of students, who love democracy, to preserve democracy…
It is unfortunate that we cannot identify ourselves for we take classes from some who do not believe in freedom and grade accordingly.”

This was a nice touch – not that it would resonate very much with students, but with conservative groups whose spirits preside over this FBI production, this would have seemed like God’s own truth. Of course, the real reason they couldn’t identify themselves is because they were FBI agents, but what is a little untruth when trying to preserve democracy?

The pamphlet is full of zingers, the kind of things FBI agents were probably telling their kids at the dinner table, and just felt would be ever so persuasive when put down in cold type. For instance:
“What’s wrong with competition? Nothing. Only those who lack confidence in themselves fear it and flock together like sheep under a shepherd of cowardice.” Mean profs, enemies of freedom all, would probably, it must be admitted, put a red ink circle around “a shepherd of cowardice” and write, “cliché - revise image to make point.”  

This proud product of D.C.’s finest G-men did not, most likely, turn the tide in any campus environment into which it was, via “cut-out”, released. But its themes, culled from a hundred Rotary Club dinners and John Birch society pamphlets, entered the mainstream. Its descendants now call those freedom hating, mean-gradin’ profs ‘PC’, and definitely think that they are the shepherds of cowardice, against which only a brave minority of intellectuals (plus the vast silent majority) are taking a stand.

as poor as a machine

“And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”.

“ “While the division of labor increases the productive power of labor, and the wealth and refinement of society, it leads to the impoverishment of the laborer until he sinks to the level of the machine. While labor incites the accumulation of capitals and thus the increasing well being of society, it makes the laborer ever more dependent on the capitalist, thrusts him into a greater competition, drives him into a rush of overproduction, from which follows an equivalent slump.”  - Marx

Leszek Kolakowski has written that Marx, unlike the socialists of the 40s, had a firmer grasp of the fact that capitalism was rooted in de-humanization. His economic analysis does not marginalize this insight, but builds upon it – which is why Marx never puts the market at the center of economic analysis, even as he is able to represent the reasons that mainstream economists do so.

In the Economic-Philosophical manuscripts, the figure for that de-humanization is the machine.

Not, I notice, an animal. Traditionally, the poor were compared to animals. Animals themselves occupy an ambiguous status in the popular mindset. Sergio della Bernardina, who did an ethnographic study of various rituals of cruelty to animals, from bear baiting to hunting, found that the concept of the person, outside of philosophy, is a matter of degrees and situations, not an absolute.  How personhood intervenes in social practice can’t necessarily be predicted from our definition of personhood – in the cases Bernardina examines, the tormenting of a bear or a bull before it is killed does not happen because its tormenters lack a sense of the animals personhood, but precisely because they want to provoke aggression on the part of the animal to which they can respond, shifting the blame for the animal’s death to the animal itself as a person responsible for lashing out, for acting badly.

Since the sixties, environmental historians have liked to bait Christianity for the massively bad habit of entrusting nature to man, and thus making the environment secondary to one species of dweller within it. I think this is a misinterpretation of the Church’s larger history, which put it in the broad ancient tradition which, while it certainly did not ascribe property to animals, did understand them as dwelling things - they did have holes and nests. They had families. Christian iconography is actually replete with peaceful animals, with the redeemed sheep, with the dove, etc.

The animal might not have a property relationship with the world – they could be hunted, they could be sacrificed, they could be eaten – but they were, of course, God’s creation.

Not the machine. The machine not only has not property claim on the world – it has no home. It has no family. The son of man would not say, the chariots have sheds, the hammers have a box – although he’d know it, being a carpenter’s son. In the double logic of the dissolution of the human limit, when Descartes and the early modern natural philosophers compare the animal to the machine – and man, too – they both advance a new claim about the human relationship to the world (dissolving any limit to its use) while advancing a new and unrecognizable form of human – the man machine, the Other – as the human subject.

The poverty of the worker, who sinks to the state of a machine, is the flip side of the glory of the proletariat, the Other who is the subject of universal history. What does the poverty consist in? Marx sees it, of course, in terms of wealth – but also refinement – the “Verfeinerung der Gesellschaft.” I would call this poverty an imprisonment in routines. It is hard to resist jumping ahead to Freudian terms, having to do with obsessive behavior and neurosis, which, after all, is the mechanical coming to the surface – the arm or leg that doesn’t work, that has returned to dead matter.

A note more here on the machine – I am floating a string of notes here. It is easy to forget that the Descartes or Le Mettrie’s machine was an automaton, an entertainment. Court societies love F/X, whether it is Versailles, Hollywood or D.C. – but in real material terms, the automata did nothing more than demonstrate the uses of a winding mechanism. What Marx is talking about is not that kind of machine.

As Schivelbusch nicely puts it at the beginning of The Railway Journey, the Europe of the eighteenth century, which was still the Europe of wood and woods, of energy supplied by streams and forests, was losing its woods. He quotes Sombart – and I am going to give some elbow room here to exaggeration and the blind eye turned to the forests in America. Still, wood was becoming more expensive, and in this way an opportunity opens up for other means of energy and structure – notably, coal and iron. To which one must add that water, too, but in a new form – as steam – is part of the complex. In one of the historical ironies that the economic historian scrupulously skirts, even the Corn laws, decried for two centuries, actually contributed to the industrial revolution, for, by raising the price of grain and thus of keeping horses, they “helped replace horsepower by mechanical power in much the same way shortage of wood in 18th century Europe had accelerated the development of coal production.”

So, the older elements of life – that obsession of the romantics in perhaps the last final bloom of eotechnical Europe – were being reconfigured before Marx’s eyes. When Marx was expelled from Paris in 1845, he took the messagerie – the stagecoach – to the Belgian border. In 1848, when he was kicked out of Belgium, he took the train back to Paris.

For Marx, the machine like worker is not, here, the automaton, but rather one of the new machines which incorporated an unheard of precision and standardization.

Schivelbusch, interested in how the consciousness caught the phenomenological changes being wrought by the machine, quotes a wonderful passage from an advocate of steam engine powered transport in 1825, who describes the imperfect movement of the horse: ‘the animal advances not with a continual progressive motion, but with a sort of irregular hobbling, which raises and sinks its body at every alternate motion of its limbs.”[12] Similarly, Schivelbusch notes that the steam boat was admired at first because it did not tack – it could move against the current and the wind.

A culture picks up in its proprio-phenomenological net such major changes to its habits, but often doesn’t express their novelty, because the vocabulary to express it is lacking. Marx is a monument of the modern moment because, among other things, he understood that the vastness of the changes taking place around him called for the deployment of an entirely different understanding of the world.

Monday, March 05, 2018

"idealism" vs. "realism" in politics

I have a simple rule, which is that ideas come before parties, and policies come before parties. When I read that Democratic politicians in "red states" have to conform to a "compromise position" to be viable, I think - how about those who elect them?
Of course, the "compromise centrism" case keeps getting tripped up both by political reality - centrist Dems seem very good at losing, as last decade demonstrates - and by common sense. To ban assault rifles you can't say, okay, lets compromise by not banning assault rifles.
You can't have universal health care by saying, let's first elect democrats who are opposed to universal health care. It isn't a matter of being an absolutist about principles. It is a matter of voting to make your life better. Parties are merely vehicles for justice. When they become the determinants of justice, when every compromise leads you further from your goal, best throw them away – or take them over.
Of course, from the p.o.v. of the +250 thou a year crowd who rule the Democratic party, the infinite compromising might be absurd. They can "compromise" principles without ever missing a lunch. But not for their voters: they are the ones voting to miss those lunches, to delay or cancel those visits to the dentist, to work at Walmart 40 hrs a week instead of retiring, to stress out their young lives trying to juggle child care and labor. Meanwhile, inequality keeps soaring, the trade deficit keeps soaring, the life style of the working class keeps decaying, the percentage of those passing through jail keeps the old apartheid system well in place.
When I see pundits put this in terms of "idealists" vs. "realists", what I know is: for the upper class, universal healthcare is an "ideal" b/c they already have healthcare. When you have great insurance, it might seem “idealistic” to make sure people who are out there – your servants, the people who make the things you use, who support your life – also have great insurance. The “ideal” has already happened for them, so it is the “real”.  But it is sheer realism for most peeps to have a system that works for them, instead of simply exploiting, exhausting, and rejecting them. Of course, the punditocracy, the moderate Dem, are the first to tell us that they are really for the “poor”. That’s why, for instance, we can’t have free tuition – that would be “welfare for the middle class.” And all the like bullshit. We can’t have free tuition, really, because the rentseekers wouldn’t get that interest from student loans and the “haves” would suddenly find their children rubbing shoulders with the “have nots” at good schools. That’s about it.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

a poem


“IT is during the placid serenity of a beautiful summer night when the current of the waters moves silently along reflecting from its smooth surface the silver radiance of the moon and when all else of animated nature seems sunk in repose that the Great Horned Owl, one of the Nimrods of the feathered tribes of our forests, may be seen sailing along silently yet rapidly intent on the destruction of the objects destined to form his food”. – John James Audubon

Flying by inward nightmap
Through the gross tangles of the American bewilderment
Plucking from the frenzied scramble
Among brittle oak leaves
A succulent rodent

Such are the owl’s feats.
He’s no Greek hero, our continental dispatcher
Of mice and shrews
And does not sulk in his tent
When the distribution of slave girls goes against him.

Our nimrod lacks all epic vanity.
On moon scouted nights, swooping over rivers
where doxies on dolphinback
are keeling for the port cities
he pays no heed to their luring songs.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...