Monday, December 29, 2008

Ten Best Albums of 2008

Like last year, I decided to list my top albums of the year. Also like last year, I only chose from albums I own, so I'm no doubt missing some great music. (Please, feel free to make recommendations!)


10. Coldplay- Viva la Vida

Coldplay sells a lot of records. After X&Y I wondered if they decided they had a good thing going and should be content making hummable bland music (the kind U2 makes now). Viva la Vida proved me wrong, at least for now. Death and all his friends, also the alternate title of the album, is one of the best songs of the year.


9. Sun Kil Moon- April

Every time I listen to Sun Kil Moon I tell myself I'm going to get hold of everything Mark Kozelek has done and spend a weekend listening to it. I haven't yet, but I will. April isn't as accessible as Ghosts of the Great Highway, but if you put in the effort you will be rewarded with a beautiful album. (I recommend checking out the lyrics as well.)


8. Erykah Badu- New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)

With production from Madlib, among others, New Amerykah is easily Badu's best work to date. But that isn't to say production is the sole reason for the wonderful album. Badu's intellect and refusal to fit nicely into the "neo-soul" category is a breathe of fresh air in a smoggy formulaic radio-friendly world. This is the best hip-hop album of the year. (Check out this remix of The Healer.)


7. TV on the Radio- Dear Science

I'm not sure if art-funk is a genre, but if so, Dear Science is the album of which to judge others by. I saw TOTR in Fargo when they were touring in support of Return to Cookie Mountain and they quickly became one of my favorite bands. As with Sun Kil Moon, the lyrics should be handy when listening to this album.


6. Tricky- West Knowles Boy

I'm happy to see Tricky back in form. He has been one of my favorite artists since the mid-nineties but I, like many, was disappointed with his last few releases. West Knowles Boy is a genuine comeback, but it didn't get much press in the US. That's really too bad as this album is his best in nearly a decade. (This is a standout track.)


5. Vampire Weekend- Vampire Weekend

If I were to change anything about Vampire Weekend, it would be the order of the songs. Instead of Mansard Roof first, I'd go with Oxford Comma. Then the album would have the best opening line since Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica. It is what it is- fun pop music that isn't going to change your life. There's nothing wrong with that.


4. Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago

Listening to Bon Iver reminds me of driving through snow drifts on a gravel road. There isn't any logical reason that should be a positive memory, but it is. There is something hopelessly romantic about Midwest winters and that something oozes from this album.


3. Portishead- Third

2008 was good for what was called "trip-hop." It took me several listens, but Third has become my favorite Portishead album. Listen to this at least ten times before you decide whether or not you like it. The whole album works this way. If it clicks for you, you'll know what I mean.


2. Fleet Foxes- Fleet Foxes

From gospel to rock, you can hear what music has influenced the Fleet Foxes. What makes them so special, and I pretty much flipped a coin on whether or not this album should be number one, is they often sound better than their influences. I am excited for what these dudes will come up with as their careers progress. Check this out and tell me it isn't as good as anything you hear on your local classic rock station.


1. The Walkmen- You and Me

Perhaps it is because I've seen this band go from good to great, but I loved this album on first listen and it simply hasn't gotten old. It has the expected piercing vocals and guitars, but also has a quiet side. It is personal. It ends up feeling like a letter from a best friend. After a few listens it became obvious my favorite track on the album is the most basic one.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Flower power

This past weekend I attended an immigrant rights coalition meeting. It was my first meeting, but friends have been there since it formed in 2006. Its formation was a direct result of the working class movement of immigrants, primarily Latinos, in the Twin Cities area. From what I could tell, the people at the meeting were a mixture of democratic party activists and socialists (although it was hard to tell the difference with some folks).

The reason I bring this up is to examine an exercise we did at the beginning of the meeting. The moderator, in all seriousness, had us draw a flower. Our flower needed at least four large petals, with a smaller petal drawn inside the outline of the larger one. We were then to label each petal. One should be race, one gender, one whether or not English is our mother tongue, and one marking our social class (which wasn't talked about much, if at all). If you are white, male, and speak English, then you were to fill in the outer layer of your flower petals. This means you are an "exploiter" in these areas. If you are female, non-white, and learned a language besides English when you were young, then you were to fill in the inner layer of the petals. You are "exploited." This was taken extremely seriously, with the moderator at one time asking people to stop laughing and think hard about their exploitation situation. I did the exercise, and besides recognizing the general silliness of it, didn't give it much thought until our first break when I talked with a friend.

We both agreed the flower didn't do much other than offer many members a chance to self-flagellate and momentarily ease some feelings of liberal white guilt (doing the project reminded me of reading Tim Wise's recent nonsensical babbling). Of course it is true being a male, white, English speaker gives you an advantage in our society. But what wasn't represented in the flower example was the ability of class, at least when social power is concerned, to largely trump our society's sexist, racist and xenophobic nature. If we objectively concern ourselves with power and exploitation, then this needs to be recognized. In this flawed exercise, a white homeless man would be more of an exploiter than a Latina CEO of a fortune 500 company.

This is worth mentioning if only to reinforce the fact that the main power in our society, just as throughout much of modern history, lies in who controls the surplus value created by labor power. No doubt the struggles against sexism, xenophobia, racism, etc., are extremely important; but they are mainly symptoms of a disease, not the disease itself. Liberal ideologies, and policies, tend to want to put a bandage on a gunshot wound. This is all good and well, I certainly support working for better policies even within the confines of our current society, but it is crucial to understand even if we stop the bleeding with a good bandage, we've still got a bullet rotting away in our body.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Life teaches."

News of the worker occupation in Chicago has spread across the web quite quickly and odds are readers of this blog already know the story. I think, however, it is important to point out this sort of action is most likely not ideological. I doubt too many workers at this factory are reading a whole lot of Marxist, Anarchist, or any other "radical" literature. Just like Marx and Engels didn't create the idea of a workers state, and Lenin didn't create Soviets (councils); theorists didn't tell these workers they should occupy their factory. It was their objective situation, i.e. the failure of capitalism, and their own ingenuity. The same goes for the worldwide factory occupation movement.

My point isn't to make this relatively small action in Chicago into something it isn't. My point also isn't to knock theorists and those with the knowledge and talent to play a leadership role in our struggle. My point is simply this: never underestimate the ability of the working class. A revolution is possible, even in the United States.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Yet another mandate for revolution in Venezuela

Yesterday's state elections in Venezuela saw Chavez's allies win the vast majority of races. The opposition did make strategic gains, however, winning the two most populous states and the Capital District of Caracas. They, quite correctly, point out Venezuela still faces many problems similar to those faced before Chavez took office. Of course, they neglect to mention they're the main reason for this. Those in the opposition tend to make good use out of the fact they've prevented much of the needed actions (and those bureaucratic "Bolivarian" leaders opposed to the revolution do nothing but help them).

This election is yet another mandate for revolution from the people of Venezuela. It is time for their leaders to follow through. It is time for serious land reform, nationalization of all major industry under democratic workers' control, meaningful power centered in councils, etc. Those opposed to the revolution, including "Bolivarian" officials, will be easy to spot when the dismantling of the bourgeois state becomes clear. (No worries, as Miami has many foreclosed homes that are just taking up space right now.)

This should be a wake up call to those comfortable in the government; the people of Venezuela continue to demand change (fans of Obama take note, they're demanding real change).

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Adam Smith the populist

I can't recommend Michael Perelman's The Invention of Capitalism enough. It destroys the myth that classical economists were against government economic intervention and points out that in order for market capitalism to develop, state power was needed to force a largely self-sufficient society into selling their labor for wages. One thing I noticed while reading the book was a similarity between Smith's views and that of Ron Paul, or even Lou Dobbs. While Dobbs might not share the other two's market fundamentalism, they all have a divisive fetish for the "middle class." And beyond that, they proudly display a very basic understanding of the world. There are good and bad people. Some countries are bad, some aren't. The guy in the middle is always getting screwed, be it by the "illegal" Mexican immigrant or the "new world order." This line of thinking certainly divides the working class. It keeps us fighting each other and/or wasting time and effort on silly conspiracy theories.

Perelman's writings on Smith's populism, and that famous metaphor, are worth quoting at length. From The Invention of Capitalism, page 208-

I suspect that Smith's work earned much of his popularity because he expressed so eloquently what others deeply felt. Unlike many of the less educated populists, Smith was usually able to sublimate his rage into his charming theory of the invisible hand, in which competition and even aggression is channeled into harmonious actions that better the world. Frequently, cracks appeared in this fantasy, and the harsh reality of the world around him intruded. At such times, we can catch a glimpse of Smith's theory of primitive accumulation.
Smith's vision of the bizarre heroism of the petit bourgeoisie seems to reflect his own rage at those who refused to adopt the values that were so dear to him. Even if Steuart's [Sir James Steuart] language was brutal, I suspect that society has more to fear from the repressed emotions of someone like Smith. His metaphor of the invisible hand may be relevant in this regard. We may equate friendship with an open, outstretched hand, but an invisible hand has something sinister about it. In this spirit, Macbeth requested that the darkness of night, "with thy bloody and invisible hand," cover up the crimes he was about to commit.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Economics is largely bullshit

an uninterrupted rant-

My economics teacher would have me believe that the world is made up of small businesses, or perhaps more accurately, big businesses that act like small businesses. This is the theory. Capitalists justify expropriating excess profits because they are the ones who take the risks. In reality, risk is gone. Bankruptcy is profitable. Management walks away with millions while workers lose their savings. We watched a video explaining how outsourcing was actually a good thing because companies were then able to invest their extra profits back into the economy and create better, higher paying jobs. Right, tell that to the millions of people that work in the low-paying service industry after their high-paying manufacturing job went to some country that virtually enslaves their workers. My guess is that money the corporation saved went into the CEO's 5th or 6th new home. China's industrial boom has diverted social spending away from rural areas. It's also caused a massive human migration to the cities that has created a class of urban peasants that have little to no rights. They are expendable. You get sick, you lose your job. You lose your job, you don't eat. You have kids, they'd better know how to raise themselves. Migrants have to set up their own schools because their children are not allowed to go to city schools. This invisible class that fills up Chinese slums is roughly the same size as the population of the entire United States. India, Thomas Friedman's example of a success story, is going through similar times. While people like Friedman laud its "growth," farmers are killing themselves by the tens of thousands. Instead of offering support for rural development, the Indian government's neoliberal reforms are boosting the international private sector and encouraging the millions of peasant farmers to export their crops rather than feed themselves and their country. With little to no reasonable rural credit, they go into deep debt trying to compete with subsidized Western agriculture. Rather then pass on the debt to their family, they off themselves. Oh, and China too. Interestingly enough, one thing that we do actually export to China is cotton. As with Indian farmers, Chinese farmers can't compete with US subsidized cotton so they join the other peasant migrants and head to the slums of Beijing. Ain't "free trade" grand? Economists would have us believe so. And so would my economics teacher. And so would asshole columnists for the NY Times. It's interesting that when Cuba trades doctors for oil with Venezeula (talk about comparative advantage!), both countries are simply discounted by economists. When I questioned my instructor on how much influence the multi-billion dollar advertising industry has on the market, he basically said not much. He said that the ultimate decision is left up to the consumer and based on the consumer's needs. Yeah. 'Cause we needed those fucking zubaz, those fruity pebbles my mom would almost never buy, and that goddamned Hummer H2O!

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Living in shit

The last two years I have spent a few weeks in Europe. Each time, I decided to plan my train and bus rides overnight, so I didn't have to fork out the cash for an extra night in a hotel. This resulted in me sleeping on benches in train and bus stations as well as during the actual bus or train rides. I usually had to check out of where I was staying in the late morning, so I had to find somewhere to go until the afternoon of the next day. For a posh Westerner such as myself, it was a different experience. The main issue, I found, was finding somewhere to go to the bathroom. It was an event. I had to find a somewhat clean, somewhat private, place to handle my business. Back home, I certainly took such places for granted.

Mike Davis' Planet of Slums has a subsection in the chapter Slum Ecology entitled Living in Shit. [pg. 137-142] He discusses the "excremental surplus" that plagues urban areas with great detail. This is not a new problem, of course, as slums in London and other industrialized European cities had to deal with this issue years ago. But as Davis says, "Today's poor megacites- Nairobi, Lagos, Bombay, Dhaka, and so on- are stinking mountains of shit that would appall even the most hardened Victorians."

Along with the problem of where to put the buildup of shit, there is the related problem of where to actually physically release the waste. While I in no way want to compare my minor inconvenience in Europe to slum dwellers' deadly serious situation, I do believe it gave me the mental framework to at least partially understand the feeling of helplessness not having a private area to take care of hygienic needs can instill in a person. This affects men and women differently, often affecting women to a greater degree. According to Davis, "Being forced to exercise body functions in public is certainly a humiliation for anyone, but, above all, it is a feminist issue. Poor urban women are terrorized by the Catch-22 situation of being expected to maintain strict standards of modesty while lacking access to any private means of hygiene." He goes on to quote journalist Asha Krishnakumar as saying, "The absence of toilets is devastating for women. It severely affects their dignity, health, safety and sense of privacy, and indirectly their literacy and productivity. To defecate, women and girls have to wait until dark which exposes them to harassment and even sexual assault." Many women simply decide not to eat during the day in hopes they won't have to go to the bathroom.

The reason I posted on this unsettling topic is that I find the "solution" to this problem so unbelievably brutal, it leaves me sick to my stomach. Rather than working on revamping the public sanitation system, governments, at the request of elite Western economists, have privatized going to the bathroom! So, in effect, many people can't even take a shit without private industry reaching their greedy hands into the people's nearly empty pockets. This is an invasion of privacy if there ever was one. Toward the end of the subsection, Davis remarks "Indeed, one of the great achievements of Washington-sponsored neoliberalism has been to turn public toilets into cash points for paying off foreign debt- pay toilets are a growth industry throughout Third World slums." Now that is disgusting.