Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mayday Discussion Forum

Thanks to all who came to our discussion of Marta Harnecker's article Latin America & Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid Mistakes! Twenty people attended.

We are planning to have more discussions in the future and would love your input in the comments. Some ideas already floated:

• Articles in Monthly Review (a month after they publish)
• State and Revolution by Lenin
• The ABCs of the Economic Crisis by Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates
• The Great Ecnomic Crisis by John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff

Next event will probably be after the new year. Please add comments below.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Electric Dialectic -

Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord, 1967, re-issued 2005.

This thin philosophical classic was written by Debord, a Marxist ‘situationist’ living in France. It is in two main parts – one, on the ‘society of the spectacle,’ which is really about the all-compassing alienation brought about by bourgeois culture; and stuck in the middle, a criticism of Leninism, Trotskyism, Lukacs, structuralism, anarchism and Stalinism from a ‘Councilist’ and also a 3rd Camp perspective, similar to CLR James.

What is most striking is that Debord writes in an epigrammatic and dialectical form which is enjoyable to read, though not always so easy to understand. It initiates surprised pondering and stuns the reader into thinking. To do this, as Feurbach and Marx did, Debord many times replaces the subject with the predicate. While Debord is against quotations, or as he might put it: “Quoting is the death of the quotation,” I will do it anyway. Here is one example from section #72, which shows his dialectical method of thought:

“The unreal unity proclaimed by the spectacle masks the class division on which the real unity of the capitalist mode of production rests. What obliges the producers to participate in the construction of the world is also what separates them from it. What brings together men liberated from their local and national boundaries is also what pulls them apart. What requires a more profound rationality is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchic exploitation and repression. What creates the abstract power of society creates its concrete un-freedom.”

The dialectic realizes that within every process is its negation, which is the heart of historical movement. Nothing is fixed. Capital, on the other hand, requires everything to seem eternal.

According to Dubord, Situationism believes in the ‘supersession’ of art – not its realization, as in Surrealism, or its suppression, as in Dadism (#191). It was most powerful in France during the worker-student strike wave in May-June 1968. The Situationists developed ‘unitary urbanism’ and ‘psycho-geography’ as fields of study, combining Marxism with non-alienating architecture and urban planning. They disbanded in 1972.

Dubord’s main point is that during the early phases of capitalist accumulation, the proletarian is only seen as a cog, receiving the minimum compensation for his contribution. However, as the society becomes more abundant, what is also required of the worker is ‘collaboration.’ Hence arises the ‘humanism of the commodity’ (#43) – the bourgeoisie finds it necessary and also profitable to take over the workers whole cultural existence. And the “society of the spectacle” is born. As Dubord puts it: “The real consumer is a consumer of illusions.” (#47) Gramsci understood the necessity of a proletarian cultural politics for this same reason.

Dubord identifies the ‘spectacle’ as not just religions, or sports, but every non-physical ideological commodity - tourism, celebrity worship, television (and now, the internet…), pseudo-festivals, the disappearance of history, credit, the service economy selling ‘experiences,’ art as a ‘collection of souvenirs,’ – perhaps even dating services, outdoor adventure trips and sites like Facebook.

Many ideas within this book show up later in the works of other writers. The commodification of dissent (#59) leads directly to Thomas Frank’s “The Conquest of Cool” and many articles in the Baffler. The ‘dictatorship of the automobile’ (#174) and the fake ruralism of suburbia (#177) show up in James Kunstler’s analysis of the suburbs, “The Geography of Nowhere.” Even Dubord's comments on the bourgeoisie’s belief and promotion of cyclical time can be seen as a criticism of writers like James Joyce, who posited the ‘endless return.’

The Revolutionary Organization:

Dubord’s ideas on the events in the USSR and other former and present workers’ states regarding third-campism are nothing new. The opposition of the ruling class to the bureaucratically-run states was part of their ‘bourgeois spectacle,’if you may. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that the Party, or the revolutionary organization, should ‘wither away’ itself. And it should wither away before the workers state.

Lukacs, in his 1924 book, “Lenin, a Study of the Unity of His Thought,” fresh from his own participation in the Budapest Soviet, wrote: “…had a relatively quiet period of prosperity and of the slow spread of democracy ensued …the professional revolutionaries would have necessarily remained stranded in sectarianism or become mere propaganda clubs. The party … is conceived as an instrument of class struggle in a revolutionary period.” If a highly ‘centralized’ party (Lukacs words) is not fit for time of ‘relative quiet,’ according to a Leninist like Lukacs, than why would it be fit to control the state after the working class takes power? In other words, if actual power is held by proletarian Soviets /workers councils, a party (or parties) is redundant. It/they should slowly relinquish it/their role(s), as the working class, through the councils, matures in its running of society. The Leninist idea of the party, or a single party, or any revolutionary organization, is really a ‘raft’ for revolution. And the raft, like the state, needs to wither away, not to exist eternally. Otherwise the party becomes (and did become, and still is) the vehicle for rule by a new bureaucracy. Of course, this bureaucracy is also made possible by the continued world dominance of capital. As such, another guarantee against bureaucratism is the extension of the revolution.

The Intellectual Commodity:

Debord reminds us that the development of late capitalism is not just about increasing financialization. Intellectual property and intellectual services have become a larger and larger segment of ‘production’ in the US and other advanced capitalist societies. This is in the form of films, inventions, software, music, graphics, television, etc. Intellectual services like legal work, engineering, drafting, academic theses, etc., and the paper/electronic ‘products’ of that labor, are also a larger part of the economy. They do not just play the role of 'spectacle' but also a role in profitability. As such, Marxists have to develop a clear analysis of intellectual property, and the nature of intellectual/cultural labor and its role in political economy.

Dubord's book is a delight, and if Craig has any copies left, grab one. It is certainly not for sale anywhere else in town.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, October 17, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Class war, pure and simple

A piece at Globalresearch:

In his intransigence, the Spanish leader is following the lead of other European governments. In France, despite three recent massive protests against pension reform, President Sarkozy repeated that he would not change the law. In Greece, six general strikes in as many months against the austerity measures had no effect on Prime Minister Yorgos Papandreu.

But at least the European proles know they're in a class war, and that the only means of combating the sinister powers-that-be is on the streets -- and not through the farce of formal elections, which are rigged from the get-go.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Essay on the FBI raids by Lydia Howell

An essay by Lydia Howell, published today at Commondreams:

"President Bill Clinton’s 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act made “material aid" a crime, was expanded under George W. Bush’s PATRIOT Act and is broadening to Orwellian vagueness under President Obama."

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Masters of ... No Strategy

Part II - “Liquidated – An Ethnography of Wall Street,” by Karen Ho. 2009

Ho continues her analysis of 1990’s Wall Street by finally getting to THE brass tack – compensation. People do not go into Wall Street for intellectual stimulation. Or the privilege of sucking up to rich or powerful people. The main preoccupation is money. So while the ideology of ‘shareholder value’ is what is transmitted to clients, or even the shareholders of their own firms, individual cash is the point of each and ever deal, trade or sale. Compensation on Wall Street has soared since the 80s. Average bonuses (the bulk of compensation) in 1986 were $13,950. In 2006, it was $190,000. In the 1990s, a first-year associate would make in the $100,000 range. In the second year, with an MBA, you could make $200,000-$300,000. The recent bull market, which ended in 2007, saw investment banking associates out of business school making $220,000-$330,000 in their first year. First year vice-presidents salaries were around $200,000, which is LESS than their bonus. In 2000, most investment banking and senior vice presidents were making $1M a year. Managing directors received multi-million dollar bonuses. In 2000, the average salary for a director was $240,000, with a $4M bonus – a 33% increase from 1999 (2000 was the final year of the tech boom and crash…) At the top, Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein made a record bonus of $53.4M in cash, stocks and stock options in 2006. Ho points out that the bigger the bonuses, the closer Wall Street is to crashing.

Ho’s interviewees claim that the insecurity of Wall Street is the price for the high compensation. Being a ‘liquid’ employee is the human commodity equivalent of the booms and busts on Wall Street. Although not as liquid, of course, as the day laborer who vies for jobs on the street, and is paid in daily cash if he is lucky enough to get one. She also notes that because most compensation is done through bonuses, which are more difficult to track by law, discrimination in compensation is far easier. In one academic survey, women in investment banking were compensated at 60.5% the rate of men. The average gender difference was around $223,368. (!!) And it is not insignificant to point out that Wall Street does deals for corporations – not for the benefit of the corporation’s shareholders, but their own. And sometimes, only for the individuals WITHIN the investment bank. 50% of all money earned in investment banking is doled out in compensation to bankers, NOT to shareholders. A massive wealth transfer away from the public, the taxpayer, the corporations and smaller businesses into the coffers of finance capital’s employees is really what is going on.

Capital on Wall Street moves from one ‘product’ to another at lightening speed. If a financial ‘product’ is invented, and becomes successful, every bank tries to move in on this new market immediately. If a product fails, the desks are shut down, and everyone is out of a job. Because Wall Street is only after the ‘new’ buck, the new boom, they, in essence, never plan anything – unlike even an ordinary corporation or retail company. This is why Ho claims that Wall Street’s temporal strategy is ‘no strategy’ at all. Sort of the ‘short attention span theatre’ of finance. The corollary of this is that built into every boom is a bust. Even though this is common knowledge in that business, the point is to’ ride the wave’ until it breaks on the beach, and make as much money as possible while doing so. Since these are mostly speculative products unconnected to the real world or real world production, they have little to no actual use value. Which would give them some permanence. Like making shoes, for instance. They only have exchange value – a value which can easily fall because of a glut, a change in tax policy or government policy, over-leveraging, etc.

Her last anthropological point is that the emphasis on the rhetoric of ‘globalism’ within every investment bank is sometimes a necessary sham, and sometimes a capitalist reality. In reality it reflects each banks attempt to have a ‘global reach,’ necessary to doing business, not in Kinshasa, Zaire of course, but in bringing banking deals from Sydney, Australia to customers in the rich parts of the world. The bank that can sell privatized shares of Australia Telecom, for instance, to some rich client in Russia, is the bank that will be able to garner more business. Because the local market for shares in Australia might be insufficient for the size of the deal, which are getting much bigger. The sham part Ho discovered was that many banks maintain virtually empty offices in some locations because they do not really have any business in a certain country or city, but might at some point. She points out that not one investment bank truly has a fine or global network of offices, even in countries like Japan. Merrill Lynch attempted to bring their broker, M&A and sales and trading businesses to Japan in the late 1990s– and eventually pulled out in the early 2000s. While McDonalds still sells hamburgers there in many cities.

Ho’s main thesis, as is common in anthropology, seems to be that the cultural habits of the Wall Street ‘tribe’ – the ‘corporate culture’ - determine how business is done on Wall Street. ‘Smartness,’ hard work, high compensation, temporality, job insecurity and globalism on Wall Street create the booms and the busts – not anything in the underlying economy. This essentially idealist view of Wall Street masks the actual financial roles of labor exploitation, surplus value, use value, exchange value, overproduction, the falling rate of profit and debt in the growth of financialization. Wall Street's cultural habits play an important ideological role in promoting finance capital, of course. Defending and hiding an exploitative financial relationship cannot be done simply. A Marxist would say that the cultural habits of Wall Street reflect how money is made there – i.e. they are perfectly adapted to finance capital at this time in late capitalism. That is not to say that these cultural habits do not sometimes heavily influence and refine the financial basis of life on the Street. But they do not determine it.

They key here is that corporations go to Wall Street to 'raise capital.' Evidently, raising capital the old-fashioned way, by exploiting labor through surplus value, is not sufficient any longer. They must dip into the pool of OTHER people's capital - both the working classes through pensions and 401Ks/Roths, or other capitalists and petit-capitalists, who have stolen that money from the working class too. Some of this borrowed capital is used for M&A activity. I.E. the firm itself cannot grow normally without borrowing to ... buy other firms. I think this fits quite nicely with the thesis of capitalist stagnation and the falling rate of profit ... which is partly what the triumph of finance capital represents.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 10/4/10

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Labor militancy in Europe, and the conspicuous lack of such in the USA

An essay at Commondreams:

The greater challenge looming over the One Nation campaign isn't just the optics—it's defining a weakened movement in an increasingly unstable political arena. And it's tapping into the public outrage that the right has shrewdly exploited in galvanizing new constituencies. So the groups carrying the “One Nation” banner might want to focus a bit less on projecting an aura of middle-class liberal harmony, and instead learn from the mass appeal of European union militancy.

We're running into one of the most dangerous aspects of the myth of American Exceptionalism: the concept that American workers somehow operate outside historical class antagoisms. Folks are lulled into the belief that deep social crisis can and should be resolved by individual upward mobility and by negotiating within establishment institutions (like Election Day or corporate-controlled collective bargaining).

But as the ITUC's new report starkly reveals, America's labor crises often put its people in the same quagmire as their peers in other economies. So when workers around the world are roused to action—organized, passionate, and not afraid to get a little dirty—why should American labor be any exception?

To be fair, comparing American labor to European labor is analogous to comparing apples to oranges. There's a sense of both history and class consciousness embedded in the collective psyche of European labor, which is conspicuous by its absence in the more heterogenous USA. And because of the way the US neo-feudal and plantation economy has evolved, the dice -- legal, political, cultural -- are loaded against American labor in a way not to be seen in most West European countries.

It's a disheartening state of affairs in the USA and arguably comparisons should really not be made since the terrain differs so much. American labor will have to make its own individual destiny.