Saturday, May 16, 2020

War and Taxes: Marx plus Pynchon

Marx, in the Grundrisse, makes an interesting remark about war:

War was developmentally prior to peace. The way, through war and armies, etc., certain economic relationships, such as wage labor, machinery etc. are developed earlier than in bourgeois society, Even the relationships of productivity and commerce are particularly visible in the army.
Still, Marx clung to the bourgeois imagining of war as something that is not itself a system: “War is self evidently to be understood as though it were immediately economically the same as though the nation through a part of its capital into the water.”

In other words, Marx ultimately sees war as non-productive – even as he sees that it can be developmentally prior to peace. In his list of war’s innovations, one notices that he does not include credit and taxation. As is well known, Marx did not have a developed sense of credit, which he saw as parasitic on productivity. It is, and it isn’t. A parasitic relationship is not necessarily a subordinate one, after all.

Thomas Pynchon, in the novel Gravity’s Rainbow, has a more acute sense of war as a system. He doesn’t, of course, develop this sense as a “theory”, but it becomes a strong narrative thread in Slothrop’s peregrination through war ravaged Europe.
What was happening on the American home front in World War II has been seen through many lenses: the greatest generation unity of the country, the enormous burst in productivity, the end of the Depression. But the lens that might be most interesting to us right now is that WWII marked a decisive change in the tax structure, which has had an enormous bearing on the peculiar American structure of class feelings – that lack of solidarity and identity of the working class that has determined our politics.
In part, this is simply racism. In as much as the upper class in America has been and continues to be overwhelmingly white, the sentimental outbursts of racism are rarer there. This is why the press, when it looks around for racists, finds plenty wearing baseball caps and having trouble with spelling – and doesn’t look to the almost all white system of prep schools, the Ivy leagues, the boards of corporations, etc.
However, there are other roots of labor’s odd affection for its exploiters.

Which gets us to war and taxes. In WWI, Wilson’s government had a newly established tax system – the internal revenue. Internal revenue was designed as a class tax. Before you had to file a return, you had to make a certain amount of money, far above the average salary. In World War I, this changed – those families with incomes above 2,000 per year, for the first time, had to pay a tax. However, that only added about 3 million to the tax rolls – and eventually that figure rose to 6 million. The government really relied on its hikes on corporations and wealthy individuals. From 13 percent, the tax rate for those making above 2 million rose to 67 percent. Since the major source of federal income before that – the tariff – was, so to speak, in suspension, corporate taxes – billed as taxes on ‘excess war profits” – and borrowing made up the rest of the war expenditure.

The borrowing prevented the Republicans who came in after the war from immediately undoing the taxes on the wealthy.  Mellon, perhaps the most powerful Treasury secretary the U.S. ever had, didn’t really want to abolish the income tax, as the radicals in the Republican party did, and replace it with a sales tax. Rather, he saw the advantages of this kind of revenue, and the advantages that came with tax loopholes – a tool used ever since to nourish one or another wealthy interest.
It was WWII that marked the true transition in the tax regime, however. The income tax remained a “class tax” up to the 40s. The masses didn’t generally pay any income taxes. As Sarah Kreps points out in Taxing War, “At the beginning of World War II, for example, only 3.9 million Americans were paying taxes, compared to 43 million by the end of the war. Income generated through taxes had gone from $2.2 billion in 1939 to $35.1 billion by 1945.2 The fiscal sacrifice was enormous, and despite these demands for revenue, public support remained high throughout the war—as did the belief that the system of taxation was appropriate, with individuals stating overwhelmingly that their tax levels were fair.”

In the sixties, leftist critics of the New Deal attacked it as a means to preserve an inherently unequal socio-economic capitalist system. Since the Reagan years, though, the critique has generally vanished. It is now viewed as a gold standard even by lefties. Yet the sixties critics were accurate: the creation of the mass tax turned out to be a great class dissolvent. Both the wealthy and the worker were paying taxes, and sooner or later the wealthy would figure out that a tool had been given to them: that the cry of being taxed too much would echo among the mass of taxpayers, who indeed, one could argue, were being taxed too much, especially in relation to the services provided for them by the government – which, at the same time, were being chipped away by political groups generally working in the service of capital.

Kreps points out that American wars – and pick the year for the last sixty to one hundred years when America wasn’t waging war – used to fall within the liberal framework that claimed that wars were a sacrifice – much like Marx speaking of the nation “throwing” its capital into the water. However, it is not clear that this has ever been so. There is a school – which again was stronger in the sixties – that pointed out the predatory nature of America’s wars. These wars, in short, created the vast geopolitical entity of the United States, with all the resources that went with it. One could say, as well, that the wars undertaken or supported by America since and including World War II have created a world-system on American terms that has been enormously profitable for the American economy. In fact, this perception has long been abroad in American culture: under the official rhetoric about the “sacrifice” of war, there is another that sees war as a solution to economic problems: what we need is a war.

Kreps is right, I think, to see the shift in the way America does war as a symptom of the decline of democracy as an ethos and ideal in the American republic. Not only has conscription gone, allowing American leaders to use their volunteer troops as monarchs used theirs, without fearing any radical public complaint, but the wars are also put on the ticket – taxes are not raised, but even lowered as wars are fought and the war industry grotesquely inflated. Krebs view of democracy is that it requires a certain Pavlovian mechanism – the administration of pain by the governing class should create a response by the governed class. When the pain is anaesthetized, the governing class has a non-democratic leeway, and the governed class feels cheated and baffled.
The governed class is just Slopthrop magnified. Something terrible happened to the child, and the man feels a strange hardon whenever his ESP picks up the presence, or the future presence, of a missile. Pynchon plus Marx: our guide to the present disorder.

Friday, May 15, 2020

x men and america

So I saw an X man movie with Adam. X men: the something something something. It is the one where some group finds a “cure” for the mutants. And Dr. Nematode (I know, not his real name. I joke!) leads a mutant revolt against these here States. Meanwhile, the core of the plot is classic: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy kills girl for her own good. Myth, quoi! Wolverine falls for Rebecca, who conceals two souls within her breast, one of whom is some monster who not only wants to fuck – thus seducing Wolverine – but also doesn’t respect anything. For instance, she psychokinetically destroys a house that, from the look of it, would easily go for 2 million in the hot L.A. real estate market. And incidentally kills kindly Captain Picard, who in this movie is Doctor something or other, the Gandhi of the mutants. Then this Rebecca chick teams up with Captain Nematode and they attack Big Pharma island, costing beaucoup in FX, and then she gets mad, her monster is unleashed, she atomizes a whole army, and Wolverine has to use all his strength to approach her for one more kiss and then stabs her to death in the stomach. Happy ending!
Like most high concept (that is, brilliantly dumb) super hero flicks, the allegory of a “cure” for mutants is meant as clickbait for film critics, i.e. anyone with a Twitter account. Thus, instead of discussing bang bang, which, though fun to watch, is not the kind of thing that sustains controversy, one can discuss, say, the “cure” for same sex desire, or whatever. However, the allegory is pretty clumsy in this one. The premise is that mutants are civil beings, i.e. they have rights. But since the mutants kill each other and wreck property with abandon, and yet seem to face no handcuffs, lawyers, or trials, they are really being treated as political subjects and superheros. Of course, this in a way is more realistic to the way things are in the states, where the superhero class – the upper five percent – has to do something extremely nasty to even get to the arrest stage, and, like Jeffrey Epstein, are jailed, if at all, under remarkably mild conditions. Meanwhile, justice for the peon class in America goes like this: arrest, guilty plea, punishment. Something like 95 percent of the arrested don’t face any goddamn trial in the normal sense – that is, where there’s a fucking jury. That would completely overwhelm the system. In the land of the free, we’ve overcome this problem through the clever use of incentives: those who dare to ask for a trial will be found guilty anyway, but their sentence will punish them for having the audacity to ask for a trial. A perfect system! It gets rid of the whole “trial” ethos at one swoop, so we can jail our less successful contingent without spending an inordinate amount of time handwringing about it.
However, Hollywood and tv still love the trial, because the trial is drama. And so over the practical everyday authoritarianism of American life (worse, of course, on every level if you are an African-American) they have woven a pleasant picture of the law working like it did in the wet dream of the writers of the Constitution (giving a bit too much credit here to the writers of the Constitution, but work with me here).
Occasionally, reality gives fantasy a break and you have something like the Weinstein trial, where a 1 percenter, after a mere thirty year streak of rape, is actually sentenced to prison. Building on this thin wedge, I think the superhero paradigm should try out the trial. Wolverine, for instance – what if the cops actually took him in for murdering Rebecca (or whatever her name was). This would be an excellent high concept premise! You’d get two myths (the myth of justice in America and the classical myth that you gotta kill the chick you love if she’s such a slut that she fucks you) for the price of one.
Marvel universemakers, DC universemakers – try this out!

Thursday, May 14, 2020


The patsy in his lonely fabuloso
builds a home out of a homecoming,
his lifeline out of a lifelong nostalgia.

Later, out and about in the top-feeder city
holding a crumpled brown sack full
of bread crumbs, he finds the usual park bench.

They always find him, wingbursts, the convention
Of their dull gray and street ragged bodies
Juddering heads, automaton legwork, injuries

- b-but, but loved, these dead eyed bottom feeders
as though their back ally flights foretold
the shamanic instant beyond his coil.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


In his book, Bad Medicine, David Wootton makes an interesting remark about the symbolism of the stethoscope. It was invented in 1816 by René Laennec out of a problem in gender politics: the norm for female patients of the all male doctor fraternity was to be examined with their clothes on. Thus, the doctor could not lay his head against the chest of the patient and listen to the sound of what was going on inside. Laennec was concerned with phthisis, a nosological category that has now been subsumed as tuberculosis. The stethoscope was a true advance: doctors became much better at diagnosing phthisis. But therein lies the historical burden of Wootton’s book:
“Phthisis no longer exists as a disease: we now call it tuberculosis because we think of it as an infectious
disease caused by a specific micro-organism. The same sounds in a stethoscope that would once have led to a diagnosis of phthisis now leads to tests to confirm tuberculosis. But there is an important difference between our diagnosis of tuberculosis and Laennec’s diagnosis of phthisis: we can cure tuberculosis (most of the time), while his patients died of phthisis––he died of it himself. Until 1865 (when
Lister introduced antiseptic surgery) virtually all medical progress was of this sort. It enabled doctors to get better and better at prognosis, at predicting who would die, but it made no difference at all to
therapeutics. It was a progress in science but not in technology.”
The gap between the ability to diagnose and the ability to cure, or even to understand the cause of a disease, or its etiology, is easy to forget. I often edit articles about medicine, or public health, in the pre-twentieth century period. Some of these articles concern the medical culture of native peoples. And even with the best anti-colonialist will in the world, often the authors simply assume that there is a contrast between a rational and curative Western medicine and a ritualistic and non-curative folk medicine. In fact, folk medicine was medicine up into the twentieth century, and often continues to be today.
The older regime of treating a disease for which there was no certain cure has been much studied, and, contrary to all the bullshit about building up "herd immunity" (by letting the herd be culled of its weak members) was highly successful by stopping infection. To take tuberculosis, one of the great scourges of the 19th century, as an example - a classical example - we assume that this scourge was defeated by streptomycin, one of the miracle drugs of the 50s. But as was pointed out long ago by Rene Dubos, who was a major player with the Rockefeller foundation in finding a cure for tuberculosis, the decline in the mortality from tuberculosis long preceded the cure. Dubos was a pioneer of the ecological school of medical history - recognizing the vast importance of infrastructural factors in the recent surge in the health and wellbeing of human beings. Tuberculosis, in the nineteenth century in the U.S., was responsible for a fourth of all deaths. By 1940 it had plummeted to a 20th of all deaths. A large share of the increase in longevity in the 20th century was due to the decline of tuberculosis. Some doctors estimated that a third of the deaths of the middle age cohort in Europe in the 19th century were tuberculosis related.
If the same anti-virtue ethos was in place in the nineteenth century, instead of public money being spent on sewage systems, the government would have encouraged each individual to dispose of his or her sewage - although the "progressive" 19th century version of the neoliberal would have encouraged safety through a tax break of some kind. The late twentieth and early 21st century witnessed a shocking dectline in the public health structures of most of the "advanced" Western economies. And this is what we get.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

the end of virtue

In the eighteenth century, certain ‘total concepts” were believed by the philosophers – for instance, that the republic as a political form depended on virtue as the glue that bound the populace together. As Catherine Puigelier has pointed out, the Enlightenment consensus was that the whole discussion of whether man was born good or bad was falsely constructed: virtue was always and everywhere a product of sociability, of the social. Although – me here, not Puigelier -  it was not just one of many products: the social cannot exist without virtue. The social contract only held, only made sense, if there was an ethos of virtue that enforced contracts – not with violence, but with reasoned agreement.  In this sense, it is what might be called an emergent property.
Voltaire in his Philosophical dictionary – and don’t we need a new translation of the whole unabridged thing? And isn’t this a case for the NYRB classics publisher? – mocks the notion of a sovereign good, of a ultimate state towards which humanity, or the individual, strives.
Le souverain bien en ce monde ne pourrait-il pas être regardé comme souverainement chimérique ? Les philosophes grecs discutèrent longuement à leur ordinaire cette question. Ne vous imaginez-vous pas, mon cher lecteur, voir des mendiants qui raisonnent sur la pierre philosophale ?
Le souverain bien ! quel mot ! autant aurait-il valu demander ce que c’est que le souverain bleu, ou le souverain ragoût, le souverain marcher, le souverain lire, etc.

[Shouldn’t we regard the sovereign good in this world as a sovereign chimera? The Greek philosophers, as was their habit, chewed on this question at length. My dear reader, can’t you see them as beggars arguing about the philosopher’s stone?
What a phrase: sovereign good! You could as well ask what is the sovereign blue, or the sovereign stew, the sovereign walk, the sovereign read, etc.]

Voltaire was a “flat” thinker – he did not ask himself whether the destruction of the hierarchical structure of the good was diagnostic of something intrinsic to the good or intrinsic to the social construction of the good – which aren’t necessarily identical. But the job of destruction did make way for the idea of a republic of individuals. These individuals form a collective not by having no sense of good, but by pursuing the good as they see fit, within the framework of public virtue. Though the abstract hierarchy of good is as absurd as an abstract hierarchy of stew, the real, instantiated good to which the state is responsible still endures, creating a hierarchy that is founded not on the good itself, but on a variety of the good – the legitimation of the social order.
Now, fast forward 275 years. We are witnessing something like the end of virtue, republican virtue. The rightwing parties – in the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Austria, Australia, etc. – are led by an overtly anti-virtue ethos. This, I think, distinguishes them from 20th century fascism, which was an extreme right manifestation of the republican ethos, interpreted through race and the adherence to a supreme – and supremely virtuous – ruler.
On twitter, I received a response to something I wrote by a Trump follower. Usually I just block that nonsense, but for some reason I didn’t this time, so we tweet debated, meaning we slung insults and instances at each other. I wrote, among other things, how degrading and stupid it was to have a national leader recommend injecting detergent. The response I thought was classic: if you think Trump wasn't trolling your side when he said that, you're out to lunch. Your side actually believed he was serious when he tweeted a video of himself being President until 2040.  
Fintan O’Toole coined the phrase LOLConservatism. This is what he meant. I can’t imagine one of Mussolini’s followers defending him by claiming he is just trolling the libs. That would be considered an insult to Mussolini. There’s been a disruption on the right that is still badly understood on the left, where you will sometimes hear the earnest question: well, what does the right propose to do about, say, pollution, or climate change, or whatever. The idea of Republican virtue, of a sense that the governing class is justified in as much as it is working for the good of society, has dissolved, here. As Margaret Thatcher said, there’s no such thing as society, thus bringing to a true dead end the dialectic between the social order and private rivalry that was once a vital conservative concern. If the state is bound by no sense of virtue, and the only demand made on it is to stop guaranteeing any benefit to the mass of the governed (under the guise of shrinking the state – which is of course a mask, as the state expands its support of Capital in ways that the “middle class prophets” of classical liberalism would never have imagined), then the state has essentially divorced itself from the old, republican ideal.
I am not a middle class prophet, and can’t imagine how the world without a republican ideal is going to work. I do know that world is here. Sad, isn’t it?

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Notes on Mike Davis's Monster at the Door: the Global Threat of Avian Flu

the reason the doctor knows everything is because he’s been everywhere at the wrong time and has now become anonymous. - Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

So I went into this pandemic with my eyes closed. I had no real notion, save from some rare reading, what a pandemic was, what it meant, how it worked.  Since, I’ve looked up things, I keep up with the world-o-meter every day about infections and deaths, I rage against the stupidity in the U.S., and in the E.U., I think about the fact that under fucking Sarkozy France had a more rational stock of medica materia for use in epidemics than it does even now (Sarkozy! I’ve long despised Hollande, but to get nostalgic for Sarkozy you have to be driven mad by circumstances), I’m your regular horsefly caught in a jam jar. But I have only begun to understand the modern ecology of the pandemic by reading Mike Davis’ Monster at the Door: the Global threat of Avian Flu.

The first two chapters of the book should clue you in: this was a mass death foretold, and it is only going to get worse if we don’t rethink globalization globally. It is a book so full of info that is shocking and overlooked that well, it is a sadness.
Item: the mad Trump idea that Covid19 was a laboratory creation is probably wrong, but it is almost certain that H1N1, an influenza type that appeared in 1971, was the result of a lab accident in the Soviet Union or China.
Item: covering up lab accidents and epidemic threats is common. H5N1/97 is one of the deadliest Avian viruses, although it is rare, yet, that it crosses over to people. It is a virus that does things like, well, causes birds to literally bleed from their eyes and all other parts so that they “melt”.
““It reproduced much faster than ordinary flu strains, and in cells that ordinary flu strains couldn’t live in, and if you grew it in eggs, it killed them. This virus, said Lim [a Hong Kong scientist], was like an alien.” Indeed, when veterinary researchers in Athens, Georgia, infected a poultry flock with the recently isolated human strain, the entire flock died within a day. Horrified scientists, who had never seen such a rapid killer, immediately donned biohazard containment suits and dosed themselves with antivirals; this ignited a controversy about the safety protocols necessary for work with the Hong Kong virus. Influenza diagnostic labs, at least in the United States, were not equipped with the elaborate containment systems required for working with such a potent virus: federal biosafety guidelines had not anticipated an influenza that acted like the nightmare protagonist of a sci-fi thriller.
Did you know that an avian flu epidemic was discovered in Holland in March 2003 that required the destruction of millions of chickens from a strain that caused conjunctivitis among people who had contact with it? Did you know these strains are popping up all over – for instance, H6N2, which infected  tens of millions of birds in California  in a four-month period beginning in March 2002, leading to a mass slaughter that was kept quiet, since the agribusinesses involved thought that it would scare people. Right. Or that Canada had a severe virus outbreak in 2004 in Fraser Valley, British Columbia, that the Canadian government intentionally covered up,
“Several dozen workers involved in the gassing and incineration of the 19 million chickens subsequently developed conjunctivitis and/or flu-like symptoms; two definite H7N3 cases were confirmed but the victims were infected by different strains, evidence that the virus was evolving at very high speed.159 There was also considerable controversy about the disposal of infected chicken excrement after expert testimony that the virus might survive for as long as three months in manure.

Item: all of the stuff about herd immunity is hooey. You either have deathtolls in the hundreds of thousands or you apply the 19th century techniques of quarantine, plus 21st century testing and tracking. This has been happening much more frequently than I know about – and I would guess most people. In Hong Kong, in South Korea, and especially in Guangzhou province in China.
Item: the global food economy has undergone a “livestock” revolution, as Davis rather clumsily labels it. That means that the amount of chicken and pigs, living in close quarters, has increased exponentially in number and in concentration.:  pork and poultry constitute 76 percent of the developing world’s increased meat consumption, and poultry has accounted for almost all of the small net increase in rich countries’ food consumption. The viral “food supply”—poultry, swine, and humans—has been dramatically enlarged.” Deal is, you concentrate the animals in small areas, and you expand the population, and you have no global veterinary watch – one of the crucial points in the book is the minimal overlap between human health organizations and veterinary organizations – you are practically inviting in flu. Especially as you have a wild bird population that has evolved over a million years to mostly coexist with a number of virus types in their bodies. Odd thing is, the species crossover of these viruses to humans results in a change in the symptoms and attack of the viruses – from the digestive system to the lungs.

Item: the hunt for wild animal meat, in Africa and Asia, is a result of various changes in the global economic system. For instance, in Africa, those demographics that used to depend, largely, on fish can’t anymore – because European and Asian fishing fleets have sucked up their fish supply like a vacuum cleaner. At the same time, the forests are being cut down, and the cutters are hungry: so they want to eat meat. What’s on the menu is anybody’s guess.

So yes, the next flu might jump from some weasel to a chicken to a human, or from a weasel to a human directly.

I’m itemizing – the information load in this book is amazingly dense, and one feels like scrawling down items on a piece of paper in order to remember them. But it is also amazingly well written, moving like a thriller in which you find out, on the end page, that you are the victim. And unlike other books about epidemics, the concentration is not just on the U.S. or even Europe. Like “The Victorian Holocaust” – Davis’s superb book on famine in the late nineteenth century – there is an attention paid to India, Latin America, and Africa that is unusual. The Spanish Influenza (which might really have been called the Kansas Influenza, since it probably popped there) is usually written about only in terms of the states – but the scythe was much much heavier in India, where, under British rule, with the food and supplies taken away for the war and British imperial matters, 10-14 million people died. Never watch a movie glorifying the Raj without remembering – it was an empire built on millions and millions of skulls. The British rule in India is one of the great human disgraces.

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...