Monday, April 27, 2015

Some miserable thoughts on Baltimore

Elizabeth is right, of course, but it seems like one outcome is more likely than the other. Hype aside, the Baltimore riots have not been particularly threatening from the perspective of capital. A few small businesses and chain outlets were looted, some cop cars damaged, some ball games postponed. Those costs will ultimately be socialized to the 99% in the form of higher insurance rates and taxes. The rioting was mostly confined to the poorer sections of Baltimore, and even there massive armies of militarized police easily walled them off and kettled them.

Ian Welsh reminds the rioters that they should "move to the rich areas of town." But the riots were not simply contained because of strategic oversight or laziness; they were contained because they will not be allowed to have any consequence. Had the rioters posed a serious threat to anything they would have been instantly and violently destroyed.

"But what if enough rioters had rallied and fought back?" But they didn't, and there's a reason. Most of the people who have a stake in resisting, and even most of those who want to resist, have been cowed into submission. They've been successfully intimidated by a police state designed to intimidate. Capitalism has successfully isolated the people in our communities, alienated them from each other, and exposed them to all sorts of mechanisms of control. The Left has been aware of this problem, has actively resisted it for centuries, and has not found a way to overcome it.

When things get this terrible, we often hope that the sheer weight of misery will ultimately force communities to come together and effectively defend themselves. As I've written elsewhere, this strikes me as historically naive. Humans can endure suffering of scales and intensities unfathomable to the modern mind - particularly to the minds of sheltered, pampered Americans. And Capitalism is very good at self-preservation. When things get too bad, it backs off and throws the powerless some scraps.

If the system eventually breaks, it will probably be because of actual bio-physical constraints on human endurance and production - problems on the order of bones only being able to bend so far and metabolisms needing so many calories per day. It's frightening to imagine the degree of exploitation at which those limits would seriously jeopardize entire economies.

None of this is to trivialize the suffering the people of Baltimore have experienced tonight. Certainly the victims of police violence have already suffered as much as anyone can.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Marxism and modern technology

Some points against Marx would be extremely damning, if only they were true - but the problem is that they aren't. Other points against Marxism, meanwhile, happen to be true - the problem is that they don't actually work as criticism. In the first category, place claims that the market can maintain perfect equilibrium; in the second category, place claims that some Marxists are smelly.

These are the most prolific genres of criticism against Marx, and they're dumb for their own reasons. But there is a third, elite kind of criticism so catastrophically stupid that it doesn't fit into either of those categories: points that wouldn't work as criticism if true, and that aren't even true. For an example of this, consider the idiotic attack trending on Twitter right now:
The premise here is straightforward: there's something hypocritical about Marxists who use technology that was invented within Capitalist economies. The problem, of course, is that this is not actually true -- and even if it were true, it would say nothing about the merits of Marxism. Suppose that there are Marxists who actually are hypocrites. What exactly does this prove about, say, the labor theory of value?

More to the point, the argument that Marxists should not use technology invented under Capitalism relies on premises that Marxists openly reject.

Simple example: Capitalists maintain that the economy is governed by the "law" of supply and demand. Products are supplied and produced in certain ways because that's what consumers have demanded; so if you buy a product, you are responsible for the way it is produced. Thus, if Marxists buy cheap consumer electronics or clothes made in sweatshops, they have no moral standing to complain about exploitative business practices.

Marxists would indeed be hypocrites if they agreed with this line of reasoning and yet still chose to buy products produced within a Capitalist economy. In that case, their actions would be inconsistent with their beliefs, and critics would be right to draw attention to the discrepancy.

And yet Marxists quite obviously do not think that the economy is defined by supply and demand. That is precisely what Marxists are arguing against. Marxists insist that no amount of conscientious consumption can resist the overwhelming, systematic incentive that employers have to exploit their workers. For that reason, the choices consumers make in the market are completely irrelevant; they are not what causes exploitation, and it will continue with or without them.

The honest critic of Marxism should at this point simply maintain that the law of supply and demand holds, and that Marxists who reject it are in error. But this is where the "hypocrisy" allegation becomes truly bizarre: because instead of acknowledging the disagreement, Capitalists pretend that Marxists actually agree with them about the market, and are exploiting workers anyway. That is a patently insane, bad faith premise - but it is the only basis on which the hypocrisy charge can make sense.

This general problem besets the "hypocrisy" complaint from every angle. Marxists do not believe that you can fix Capitalism by being a good consumer. They don't believe that technology produced in Capitalism could only have been produced in Capitalism. They don't believe that you can simply excuse yourself from the Capitalist economy, either. Marx is quite clear about all of this: people who are born in a particular historical moment and in a particular economy have to play the cards that they are dealt.

Thus, this point falls into the elite third category of dumb anti-Marxist criticism: Marxists who use technology aren't hypocritical, and even if they were that would prove nothing about Marxism. The point does, however, demonstrate something about the Capitalist. The assumption that Marxists agree with them about supply and demand is at best dishonest. At worst, it demonstrates an extraordinary intellectual failure - a complete inability to evaluate the world from a different perspective, even provisionally. That ability, of course, is the basis of empathy, so its absence among Capitalists is not all that surprising.

Friday, April 24, 2015

What is at stake in arguing about Cornel West?

Cornel West, in response to some infamous criticism from Michael Eric Dyson, has insisted that we should "focus on what really matters: the issues, policies and realities that affect precious everyday people catching hell and how we can resist the lies and crimes of the status quo!"

On its face, this is just an uncontroversial call for setting priorities. And when he specifies those priorities, the New Republic's Heer Jeet declares them "worthy" - West wants us to focus on "police murders, poverty, mass incarceration, drones, TPP (unjust trade policies), vast surveillance, decrepit schools, unemployment, Wall Street power, Israeli occupation of Palestinians, Dalit resistance in India, and ecological catastrophe".

So what, exactly, is Jeet objecting to?

In a brief post this morning, Jeet argues against the ethic of "actionism", which insists that "it’s never a good time to think and argue, since the world is always full of evils that need to be protested." Fair enough - but inexplicably, Jeet seems to think this point stands as an indictment of West.

I have no idea how he gets there. West writes that "the marvelous new militancy in our Ferguson moment should compel us to focus on what really matters" - and Jeet reads this as a call to actionism. This is the only point of contact his argument makes with West's post - but if this is the foundation of his entire critique, it is not particularly sound. Cannot a focus on Ferguson entail thought and argument?

The objection here seems to have less to do with actionism, and more to do with priority. Jeet sees Dyson's piece as an "intellectual critique" that deserves our attention, even if it happens to be "bitter and personal". That is debatable - but even if we happen to agree with Dyson, we can maintain that his criticism of West is less urgent, less consequential, and less worthy of our focus than what's going on in Ferguson.

That is clearly West's position, and it strikes me as pretty defensible. It is in any case hardly an instance of actionism - unless the only issues that count are the ones that Dyson wants us to debate.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What have we learned about ideology?

"Capitalism must draw upon cultural ideas that exist outside circuits of profit-making, some of which support the norms and structures of capitalism and some of which are critical of capitalism...capitalism needs both types...critical voices are productive and fruitful for capitalism, forcing capitalism to evolve and temporarily resolve some of its contradictions thus preserving it as a system for the long haul. Indeed, capital's ability to periodically present a new set of legitimating principles that facilitate the willing participation of society accounts for its remarkable longevity despite periodic bouts of deep crisis." - Nicole Aschoff, 2015

"NOTHING is more surprising to those, who consider human Affairs with a Philosophical Eye; than to see the Easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and to observe the implicite Submission with which Men resign their own Sentiments and Passions to those of their Rulers. When we enquire by what Means this Wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as FORCE is always on the Side of the Governed, the Governors have nothing to support them but OPINION. 'Tis therefore, on Opinion only that Government is founded; and this Maxim extends to the most despotick and most military Governments, as well as to the most free and most popular." - David Hume, 1742

How has our understanding of ideology advanced in the last 275 years? By the eighteenth century (and arguably earlier), we already understood that the powerful can only maintain their power through ideology.

From that point it would seem to follow trivially that ideology which is successful will have to incorporate criticism and accommodate adjustments to changing circumstances. This is not unique to capitalism. If you are King John and your rule is under threat by a gang of rebel barons, you may have to abandon the legitimating principle of vis e voluntas for the principle of treaty embodied in the Magna Carta. This move is functionally identical to capitalism's ever-shifting reliance on arguments of efficiency, meritocracy, and so on.

There are of course unique particularities to our present situation. For instance, because power in capitalism is depersonalized, the vicissitudes of ideology emerge not from some clever monarch changing his justifications, but from a vast apparatus of academia, marketing, electioneering, and so on. This is certainly interesting with regard to ideological production, that is, the process which creates and promulgates expedient ideology. Where before we had some individual intelligence playing politics, now ideology seems to emerge from a self-organizing process wherein some messages get amplified and others remain lost in the din of public discourse.

But does this difference in ideological production - perhaps the most substantial insight we've gained into ideology since Hume -  have any practical consequence for people who want to contest power?

Two possibilities seem likely to me. The first is that it doesn't, and that much of our political thought about ideology over the past three centuries has been a tactical spinning of wheels. Powerful people invent pretexts for staying in power, and our task is to debunk them through the hard work of critique and persuasion. It doesn't much matter that the ideology is coming from our marketers and politicians rather than from, say, royal proclamations; what matters is that we resist.

The second possibility is that the particularities of ideological production in capitalism do matter, though in a way we should find disquieting. Capitalism draws on the whole of the public imagination for its raw materal; it relies on a kind of marketplace of ideas to select among them; and it reacts in real time to ideological challenges, sometimes disseminating rebuttals even faster than the challenges themselves. It is something like what various biologists and computer scientists have referred to as a superintelligence: adaptive, spontaneously organizing, and aggregating the cognitive machinery of much smaller parts.

This latter understanding maps pretty closely onto conceptions of ideology advanced by writers like Ellul and Althusser, but I think the consequences are, in this formulation, much clearer. Critics of capitalism are not vying with some comparable intelligence like a king of a faction of aristocrats -- they are decisively and thoroughly overmatched by the collective wisdom of entire populations. In that case, there is no reason to assume that individuals can come up with criticism fast and effective enough to overcome capitalism's vast stores of creativity and capacity for adaptation.

Still, I suppose one must try.