Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ten Best Albums of 2010

Here are my picks for best albums of 2010. I've done it a few years now, but this year my primary goal was to have a list where Kanye West's waaaaaaaay overrated album isn't on it.

(Here are my lists from 2007, 2008, and 2009.)

10. Yeasayer- Odd Blood

Delightfully weird. This is the sort of music Lady Gaga dresses like she wants to make.

I Remember


9. Aloe Blacc- Good Things

Snubbed by many "best of" lists, Aloe Blacc put out the best R&B album of the year and barely got noticed.

Femme Fatale


8. Dan Mangan- Nice, Nice, Very Nice

This dude can write. But the album isn't the just the stereotypical singer/songwriter guitar and microphone act (not that there's anything wrong with that). It is actually quite funky as well.

Road Regrets


7. Sufjan Stevens- Age of Adz

I was able to see Sufjan while he toured in support of this album. I thought the album just the right mix of electronica and folk-rock. (The show was amazing by the way.)

Now That I'm Older


6. Joanna Newsom- Have One On Me

Joanna Newsom doesn't write songs; she writes epic stories. I recommend getting lost in this one.

Baby Birch


5. Sam Amidon- I See The Sign

Sam likes to take old folk songs and give them new life with lavish string arrangements and crisp production. He did that with the beautiful All Is Well, and now again with his latest album.

Johanna The Row-di


4. Mumford And Sons- Sigh No More

For some reason critics love to hate this band. Is it because they wear their heart on their sleeve a bit too much? Possibly. And perhaps they do. But I buy every word of it. And you've got to be tone deaf to not think this album is catchy as all hell.

The Cave


3. Arcade Fire- Suburbs

This album cements their status as one of the world's elite bands. I was fortunate enough to see them while they were touring for this album as well.

Ready To Start


2. The National- High Violet

This is smart rock and roll for grown ups. It isn't quite as bad now as in the 90s, but it seems like rock has been dominated for such a long time by people trying to be scary or people who are in their mid-thirties lamenting about relationships at a junior high level of complexity. The National are a hit single away from being one of the biggest bands in the United States. And they more than deserve it.

Lemon World


1. The Walkmen- Lisbon

The Walkmen are underrated. Every album I think "this is the one," but yet I still can go see them play shows with a couple hundred people. Cool for me, but I'd like to see them get more attention. An ode to a place, or most likely a woman at that place, I get completely enveloped by this album. These dudes are cool. Like Roy Orbison cool. And, friends, it don't get no cooler than that.

Blue As Your Blood

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Abe

No matter what, everyone has a level of pride they must keep. This is needed to care not just about themselves, but about anything, or anyone. Abe knew this. It’s that same sting that makes a dancer cover herself while picking up the currency hurled her way when she was stark naked only moments before. Without it, we wouldn’t even get out of bed. We wouldn’t even clean ourselves. What’s the point?

Some days Abe had to remind himself he still cared. It was strange. And a bit grandiose. Most people don’t have to sit and wonder if they care. Not about any particular issue, but about anything and everything. This worried him. As I suppose it should.

Just like you and I, Abe was born somewhere. And it was somewhere to a tee. It wasn’t anywhere that needs anymore description than that. To make things even more familiar, Abe didn’t much like his father. We’ve heard this story before. Abe set out on his own. Not so groundbreaking. And not with high ambitions, but with a humming timidity that had a lingering danger in its lull; like a revolver had been fired right next to his head not too long ago. This humming noise would never leave him. Not even as Abe lay dying. Actually, that’s when it was the loudest.

What do average people do when they want to be greater than average? Or, perhaps more accurately, perceived as greater than average? On good days, Abe would fancy himself average. He entertained the idea of joining the armed forces. Nothing says “I care” like a distinguished career shoving the butt of a gun in someone’s face. But then, as is today, only the worst of the worst scoundrel would dare make a career out of being a bully. Abe decided to hit the books. Information is powerful. And, as it turns out, there is a lot of information out there available to someone who simply takes the time to sit down and look it up. The entire judicial system is a vast network of precedents and interpretations that allows someone from somewhere to have a say in the fate of everything and anything from a piece of jewelry to whether or not another someone should live or die. This is good. Abe was thinking.

Sometimes Abe would dream about replacing every mirror in the entire world with one of those distorted fun house mirrors. How long, Abe wondered more than once, would it take for everyone to consider a long warped chin and an indented nose the height of beauty? Or would that become too normal? Who decides who is ugly? Is it our bathroom mirror or our neighbor? Would we convince ourselves we looked like our false reflection, even if others saw us differently? If only such power was available. Abe would take it. There is nothing wrong with using power, Abe thought. In fact, without using it, or at least maintaining the threat of its usage, power would, by definition, cease to exist. The only people who want that are liars.

A lawyer and a politician walk into a bar. Every everyman has a short temper for such careers. That, of course, is until one or the other is needed. Problems are easy to solve when they aren’t your responsibility. Monday morning quarterbacks only throw touchdowns. Back seat drivers never get into accidents. Nobody’s hindsight needs bifocals. Abe loved the high. The debate team is often more competitive than any sports team. The power made people forget. And forgetfulness makes life possible.

“The ambassador is here to see you Mr. President.”

Abe heard a familiar voice wrap around the door.

“Send him in please.”

Abe ran his fingers through his soon to be iconic beard and wiped away an embarrassing amount of liquid from just under his eyes.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Change

hunting and gathering to herding and settling

Things haven't always been this way and things won't always remain this way. Much like our underlying knowledge we will someday be no longer, we all understand this but don't particularly care to dwell on it. While we can physically see many of the more tangible things change- like our jobs, friends, homes, physical appearances- we sometimes don't see, or maybe even refuse to see, our institutions, our political realities, our "world," so to speak, change.

For much of the 200,000 years us homosapiens have been around, we've been communists. Now, as far as words in the English language with baggage attached to it go, communism must be close to the top of the list. Let me explain. Of course I'm not talking about the "Communism" we all learned about in school with its gulags, its Stalin, its dreary sunless and Godless skies; I'm talking about hunter-gatherer societies where every able bodied person went to find food and share it with the rest of the group. It took several of us slow, clawless, dull-teethed humans working together with our big brains to catch anything substantial to eat. Everything that was collected was consumed and the few tools and other items crafted were held in common. This went on for a mind-boggling amount of our existence. In fact, modern humans lived this way until the Neolithic Revolution, which is dated around 8000 to 12000 years ago. (So we were communists, albeit primitive ones, for at least 185,000 years!) The Neolithic Revolution ushered in agriculture, which made it possible for us to stop chasing food. Soon (at least historically speaking) the taming of animals provided another much more reliable source of food. From hunters and gatherers, we became herders and settlers.

whose surplus?

Eventually we got pretty good at growing food and raising livestock. We became so good that we produced more than we needed. A surplus started piling up. It didn't take long before someone figured out that if they controlled that surplus, they ruled the roost. This was the beginning of class society. The men who could talk to God argued it was God's will they control it; the warriors demanded they control it or they'll cut your head off; the Royalty argued it was God's will and they'll cut your head off; and so on. Inevitably, power sharing deals were made. Different modes of production brought different ruling classes, with their power still resting on their control of the surplus that was created. This was the case even during times of famine, whether natural or created, when there was no surplus. Once that power was taken, society was built around those relations as if things had always been that way, surplus or not.

But who created the surplus? For much of history, this was a fairly straight forward question. In a slave society, for example, clearly it's the slave who is creating the surplus for the slave owner. During Feudalism, it's the serf who works the land for the nobleman, who in turn is loyal to his King. In both these cases the exploitation, and brutal dehumanization, is clear. But there is also a growing of the productive forces. Both the slave owner and the nobleman were interested in increasing their own wealth and this created rivalries, wars, old Gods dying, new Gods being born, etc. But it also created an ability to produce more of a surplus, that is as mentioned, a growth in the productive forces.

don't tread on me

Eventually a ceiling is hit. There tends to be a lot more slaves than slave owners and sooner or later they often decide they are sick of being worked to death against their will. (Who would have thought?) And as the folks below the Mason-Dixon Line in the United States found out, there is a distinct limit of technological advancement that can be achieved under a slave economy. Technological innovation requires an educated work force and the last thing a slave owner who is attempting to breed tranquility wants is a tech savvy slave. Not to mention the fact that the slave would have exactly zero motivation to use the machines in a way that would be of use for the slave owner. The ruling class also used socially constructed racism, a huge issue still a problem today, as a way to divide the surplus creators and many slave owners no doubt believed their own rhetoric and thought their slaves weren't capable of learning anyway.

We saw a ceiling get hit in economies dominated by Feudal relations as well. A straw, as is said, broke the camel's back. A period of heightened class struggle seemingly erupted out of nowhere, but really was there all along buried under layers of contradictions. Even then the world was getting smaller. Kings from there were consolidating land by marrying queens from here. Skilled craftsman were making much better quality goods and new inventions were making production easier. Along with more goods came more selling of goods, and with that the rising of people who sold them. The merchants that did this found themselves in a historically important role. They also found themselves gaining more and more power. But they still were operating under the economic laws of Feudalism. From village to village within the same kingdom there were different currencies and taxes, creating an obvious nightmare for someone trying to sell goods. The land was tied to the nobility and passed on through birth as opposed to being up for sale. There was no urban work force to speak of as most worked the land as peasants or were craftsmen who specialized in one craft. Things needed to change in order for society to move forward.

capitalism

Obviously, I'm being brief, but the general direction of where I'm heading leads us to where we are now, with the merchants owning industry through a system of market exchange and private ownership of the means of production. This is called Capitalism. Our idea of what a country is was also developed in this period. Capitalists needed uniform currencies and laws in certain areas to govern trade, buying and selling, etc. That isn't to say, however, we made a clean break with times past. History certainly doesn't flow uninterrupted in a straight line. In France, the idealistic fervor of the rising bourgeoisie led to the French Revolution trying to go much further than was historically possible. This ushered in Napoleon, who was the right person at the right place and time (at least from a certain power structure's point of view). In the United States, on the other hand, the pragmatic ideals of many of the leaders allowed a backwards slave society to exist well into the middle of the 19th century, until the Civil War (which would be more accurately called the finale of the U.S. Revolution) finally secured a victory for Capitalism.

Capitalism is tricky. It takes something that is relatively simple- production and consumption of goods- and confuses it to the point of creating complex financial instruments, such as derivatives, that no one seems to really understand. Those very few individuals who own industry are constantly looking for new ways to turn money into more money, and again, as those of us in the U.S. are keen to, this means a shift away from manufacturing actual goods.

Despite the lack of transparency, we can gather that Capitalism isn't any different than other modes of production in the sense that a surplus created. But it is different regarding how it's created. Capitalism needs free laborers, that is people who are free to sell their labor power on the open market. When we go look for a job we are advertising ourselves as someone who can make our employer money. We often give this little thought as it has been our reality our entire existence. But what are the greater implications of the profit motive? And where does profit come from?

Because we distribute goods on the basis of creating profit for private individuals, some things are inevitable. There are those with great amounts of wealth and those with little to none. This is certain so long as we operate under the profit motive. There is no getting around it. It is an endless source of misery and death for millions upon millions of people. We are told much of this comes down to how hard people work. And to some extent, there is truth in this. Certainly Capitalism allows a degree of social mobility. It would be too obvious, like the slave and Feudal systems of old, if it didn't. Within certain contexts people can gain more wealth by putting forth more effort, knowing how to position themselves favorably within certain structures, and so on. This is the same in many organizations- from organized crime, to a multinational corporation, to a totalitarian government. But even a tacit grasp of reality quickly dilutes the significance of this argument. Surely know one can disagree that if I was born a female in the slums of Kinshasa I wouldn't be sitting in an air conditioned room right now with a fridge full of food, car in the drive way, and HD satellite TV in the living room. This is not because of my "work ethic," but because of the environment I was born into. That obviously is an extreme example, but the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" argument conveniently fails to account for even this, let alone the more subtle environmental differences within our own personal communities.

So what about profit? Capitalism demands profit in order to stay in business. But who creates the profit? We are told profit is created by a company selling a commodity for more money than it cost them to acquire or produce it. In other words, profit is made during exchange. Profit is solely dependent on the price of a commodity. This effectively shuts production out of the equation. Production is a mystery, not to be talked about during our economics classes. There is a distinct reason for this. In reality, profit is based off of a commodity's value. Not only its exchange value, but also its use value. (For example, a hammer's exchange value is how much it costs at the Home Depot. Its use value is its ability to pound a nail into the wall.) When we look up the Wall Street Journal's dress, we see that value is actually created during production. Labor, from research and development to the actual transformation of raw materials into a exchangeable commodity, adds value to a substance. A pile of cotton has a certain amount of value. It isn't until labor transforms it into a comfortable yet fashionable t-shirt that its value increases. The price reflects that value. Of course the price is also affected by stuff like supply and demand, marketing driven fads, etc. But in the final analysis, despite how distorted the relationship between price and use value can sometimes be, there's a definite amount of value created by definite amount of socially necessary labor time. (Socially necessary means exactly that. Even if it takes you a day to do something that takes someone else an hour, tough luck, the socially necessary labor time to produce that good is an hour.)

the secret that shook the world

The implications of this are astounding. If labor is what adds value to a good, how come labor isn't reimbursed fully for this? Why is it capital treats labor as just another expense, like a machine or a building? This is the primary contradiction Marx exposed in his famous works entitled "Capital." Because the Capitalists have ownership over industry, they are able to take the surplus value created home for themselves. This allows them to accumulate vast amounts of wealth, wealth that they didn't create. This is how workers are exploited under Capitalism. They are exploited, not only in the moralistic sense, but also in a very scientific sense. Even those who are paid relatively well have to be paid less than the value they create or else there would be no profit for the Capitalist to usurp.

This secret was enough to alter the very foundations of economics. The labor theory of value was scrapped. You won't hear any mainstream economist talk about it today, even though Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism, firmly understood it as a basis of his theories. This is not surprising. During other modes of production there were also loads and loads of charlatans who made quite comfortable livings convincing people things today are how they have always been and how they'll always be. Any sort of real change is to be "unrealistic" or "radical." Today, ours write for the NY Times and talk on CNN.

TINA

There is no alternative. After the collapse of the totalitarian distortion of "socialism" that existed in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, this was the answer we got if we dared question the omnipotent wisdom of the market. I always thought this was a bit strange given it was coming from the same message machine that also told us we can "be anything we want." The words "anything" and "no alternative" seem to clash a bit. In fact, it's pretty much the exact opposite. We can't be anything we want, a sentiment I believe most children can grasp, and there is an alternative. There always is.

And the alternative isn't the failed example of the Soviet Union, as so commonly is said. There are many reason why Russia turned out the way it did. When the Bolsheviks took power, they intended to be the flicker that started the flame of a world revolution. Just like the Capitalists had done away with Feudalism, they expected the Socialists to do away with Capitalism. But when the spreading of the revolution failed, primarily because of the working class leadership in the developed countries, we saw it degenerate. Similar to the French Revolution allowing a situation in which Napoleon was able to take power, the objective situation following the Russian Revolution allowed Stalin to rise. Without the spreading of the Revolution into the more advanced countries, it would die. The original Bolsheviks knew this, which is why Stalin and his rising bureaucracy had them all executed.

The Stalinist bureaucracy's power was, however, based on a certain economic structure. This was something that went largely unpredicted by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, the founders of scientific socialism. While the state was in effect a workers' state, meaning the commanding heights of the economy had been nationalized and were potentially able to be controlled by the people who actually did the work, political power rested with a bureaucratic elite. Much like Napoleon charging through Europe abolishing serfdom and replacing it with the economic structure that benefited his rule, the Stalinists shored up as much influence as they could post WWII. There were the more subservient bureaucracies throughout the Eastern Bloc, but there also were some who became independently powerful while adopting a very similar structure. China's peasant revolution, for example, took Russia's ready made degenerated state and basically started where they left off. But this hardly meant the Chinese were pawns of the Soviets, nor were the Vietnamese Stalinists pawns of the Chinese. If they largely owed their liberation to themselves (Tito's Partisans in Yugoslavia are another example) they earned a degree of independence. This was something the Capitalist west failed to understand, and it showed, particularly in Vietnam, put also in various Latin American countries. Given Stalinism, carefully portraying itself as "Socialism" or "Communism," was the only major alternative to the imperial domination of the colonialist countries, most of the anti-colonial struggles ended up adopting some form of this distorted ideology. This confused, and continues to confuse, many of the left in the developed countries.

You suck, but so do you

During the Cold War the Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a war of propaganda, among other things. What's so interesting about this war of ideas is the glaring fact that both sides really didn't have to make that much stuff up. It's true, the United States was, and is, an extremely financially polarized society that despite being the richest in history fails to provide even basic living standards for many of its citizens. It's also true that the United States is perpetually at war in an attempt to maintain its post-WWII worldwide dominance. This has cost millions of people their lives. In contrast, it's true the Soviet Union was a ruled by a totalitarian bureaucracy that regularly murdered and jailed citizens that dared question the privilege of the ruling stratum. It's not surprising those who benefited from this arrangement had no desire to highlight the fact that U.S. Capitalism at one time, and even more so in western Europe, gave enough concessions to allow a fairly stable standard of living to a sizable chunk of its population. (This period, however, is now over. These are the "good old days" we see the "Tea Party" movement today yearn for in a sad, historically ignorant way.) Nor is it surprising U.S. imperialism had no desire to highlight the enormous gains of the planned economy. Russia went from a backwards peasant country to producing the first satellite to orbit the earth, all within 40 years. That's simply incredible. That would be like Pakistan today placing the first human on Mars a couple generations from now. It's almost unthinkable. But such is the power of humanity harnessed with a rational plan of production.

real change

The Soviet Union failed because they lacked democracy. It's one thing to plan national space program bureaucratically from the top, but it's quite another to produce people's favorite pair of jeans or the toothpaste most would prefer to use. But just as Capitalism shows us the enormous productive power we hold, the "Communist" countries showed us how we could potentially harness that power to make sure every single human has the basic necessities to shape his or her life in the way they see fit. Democracy provides a check and balance to planning. It's needed at every level.

This is the primary concern of those with power. Democracy threatens power. This is why they demonize government, even though our current government governs a state that's primary purpose is to keep current property relations intact. The idea of "big government" is translated to the average person as a long wait at the post office. In reality, the ruling class isn't real concerned with mix-ups at the DMV. They are, however, very much concerned with the theoretical possibility of government being used to take away their privileges.

This is why we must engage in the political process, no matter how corrupt and ridiculous it may be. Right now in the United States we have no political party, but this will have to change. The working class will be forced to enter into politics as Capitalism no longer has the room to offer as many concessions as it did before. (I'm involved in a campaign that calls for a mass party of labor which I urge you to check out.) Apathy is not atrophy, and American workers will move. And when they do, the world will shake.

It's extremely simple, but also unforgivingly complex. For me, and perhaps this isn't so flattering, reshaping society isn't about "the common good" so much as it's about individual freedom. I want a world where much of my life consists of me doing what I want, not what I'm financially compelled to do. If we allocate the world's resources based on need as opposite to profit, we are actually providing the only possible way to have true individual freedom. It simply can't be done so long as the economy is controlled by a few people; be it kings and queens, state bureaucrats, or domineering capitalists. We have got to take power. This is our historical task.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Social Security Under Attack... Again

From IDOM:

One could easily be forgiven for thinking the Baby Boomers appeared out of nowhere. The way it’s presented in the media, it would seem they just suddenly appeared -- near retirement, of course -- with their hands cupped firmly open, waiting to be paid. They’re going to break Social Security! Ever since I can remember, this has been the spin. Because “big government” can’t do anything right, all the money you paid in is hopelessly lost. This is a fundamental, and cynical, misunderstanding of Social Security. It’s a distortion of both what it is and how it works -- and convenient cover for those who want to dismantle and privatize it.

But first off, what about those Baby Boomers? Did people really not notice they were packing four or five lunch boxes instead of two or three after the second World War ended?

Well, of course they did. And so did the government. In fact, it was the now infamous but then-rockstar Alan Greenspan, along with the conservative movement’s water-walker, Ronald Reagan, who sought to “fix” the problem. What they did was to increase the amount of money that comes out of our checks to pay for the benefits of future retirees.

But it should be noted that this is a tax primarily paid by the working class. Any income made in excess of a little over one hundred thousand dollars is not taxed at all. The money put into the system is mostly wealth created by ordinary workers through their labor. In effect, it is a pool of deferred wages, to be paid out upon retirement.

In any case, a big surplus was created. This money was to be set aside in order to pay for the upcoming influx of Social Security recipients. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the free market champion Ronald Reagan gave that surplus away to the rich in the form of a government subsidy cleverly called a “tax cut.” Reagan, and the legion of unoriginal sycophants he has inspired, love to rail against the “redistribution of wealth” when a single mother gets some food stamps, but when the rich take billions of our dollars from a trust fund supposed to provide a safety net for our parents and grandparents, it’s called supply side economics. Really, it was theft. Theft that was approved by Congress and signed by the Gipper himself.

Social Security, however, isn’t simply being attacked from one side. Besides Reagan, we all remember a few years ago when George W. Bush attacked the program. The liberal activists were ready to riot. But, as some of the more honest pundits have pointed out, it was Bill Clinton who first sought to privatize Social Security. After he got done taking George Washington’s cherry tree-chopping axe to welfare, he held a few public meetings entertaining the idea of investing Social Security funds in the stock market instead of US Treasury notes. It was only America’s puritanical obsession with Clinton’s sexual habits that led to his plan falling by the wayside.

Now we see President Obama on the attack. Granted, he talks less about privatization and instead focuses on cuts and forcing people to work longer before receiving benefits. But there’s nothing coming from the White House about getting rid of the taxable income cap, or the host of other common sense tweaks to the program that could be discussed to keep it solvent. Instead it’s the same pill, just a bit smaller. They hope they can shove it down our throats with less resistance this time.

According to economist Dean Baker:

“This threat [to cut Social Security] comes not just from the Republican Party, but from the top levels of the Democratic Party as well. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the majority leader in the House, explicitly called for raising the retirement age to 70 in a speech earlier this summer. Erskine Bowles, the co-chairman of the deficit commission appointed by President Obama, also explicitly said that cuts to Social Security would be on the agenda of the deficit commission.”

So why the attacks? Is it because of the deficit? Earlier I mentioned that Social Security is a tax primarily paid by the working class. This is true. But Social Security could probably be better described as a social contract. So long as there are workers working, there will be benefits paid out. It’s an agreement between those who are working and those who are retired. And it is immensely popular. Social Security shows that Americans, even those in the “Tea Party“ movement, are not only capable of sharing, which is essentially what it is, but that they depend on it and even enjoy it.

In addition to the massive profits to be made by privatizing, cutting, or otherwise “restructuring” the system -- with the help of highly-paid private consultants -- the main reason for the attacks is that it’s a bad example. This sort of thinking must be stamped out as soon as possible.

If we actually stop and take a look at the numbers, Social Security is not at all on its death bed. Right now, according to a recent Social Security Board of Trustees report, it will be able to pay future benefits through the year 2037 with no changes at all. That hardly sounds like the urgent crisis we keep hearing about. Especially considering everything else the American bourgeoisie has on its plate. If they are really serious about reducing the deficit, there are several far more logical areas they could cut. From military spending to the newly revamped, but still wasteful for-profit health care system, not to mention corporate bailouts and their own inflated salaries and benefits packages.

The bottom line is that Social Security is not safe with either a Democrat or a Republican in the White House or controlling Congress. This is not surprising, given that this issue is so infused in class relations. Social Security is often the only thing that keeps people who have worked hard their entire lives, often for minimal pay, from being thrown out on the street. It’s the difference between many of our loved ones going hungry or having something to eat. Just 75 years ago, it didn’t even exist. Its implementation was a major victory for the working class.

So there really is no wonder why the political parties of capital are attacking it. Just as the ruling class has all but ended traditional pension plans in the private sector, and replaced them with complicated and unstable stock investment plans, they’ve been foaming at the mouth trying to get their hands around the neck of the most successful government program ever created.

This is why the working class needs our own political presence, a mass party of labor, in order to defend our basic social programs, let alone to expand and improve them. The bourgeoisie across the world are using the current crisis of capitalism, which looks to be heading into yet another downturn, as an excuse to roll back hard-fought gains. They are stretched thin and it shows. They simply have little to no room to give.

We must patiently explain that economic planning, done democratically by the people who actually do the work, is the only thing that will protect our standard of living. Moreover, it’s the only thing that can give the millions of people across the United States and around world who needlessly wallow in poverty something that could reasonably be called a life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Young Man and the Sea


I sit at the edge of the beach with a bottle of wine and profound thoughts in my head.
In the darkness I think of the emptiness of the sea.
I can only hear the waves crash against the shore.

But the sea is teeming with life.
Life is in abundance in what seems to be the darkest and loneliest of places.
Such is the contradiction of our existence!

Just then a drunken man takes a piss over my shoulder.
The unmistakable feeling of relief hits him as he sighs in certain approval.
My profound thoughts are reduced to the more urgent thought of remaining piss free.

Fuck it.
I throw the near empty wine bottle into the sea.
There is no message, time, or tiny ship in this bottle.
Only salt water, wine, and the memory of profound thoughts.
Profound thoughts which, like all profound thoughts, are servants to a stream of piss.

- Tyrrhenian Sea, Tuscany, Italy

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Panic! No, don't panic! Well, if you must, make sure you panic first.

Contradictions! Contradictions! Contradictions!

Now that the big European economies have decided to unabashedly, in no uncertain terms, put their pocketbooks where their mouths are and bail out capitalism (as if there was any doubt), the markets have rallied. Even the currency markets soared. At one point during the day the Euro gained over two percent on the dollar.

This comes only a few days after investors were convinced the sky was falling. It's now a distant memory, but remember when the Dow fell nearly one thousand points during the day? (It eventually gained back a good deal of that, but the psychological damage was done.) Much of this was blamed on the near default in Greece. But there were also reports of someone accidentally putting an extra zero somewhere in an electronic trade. Oops! Some Monday detail and all hell breaks loose!

The NY Times described it like this:

A bad day in the stock market turned into one of the most terrifying moments in Wall Street history on Thursday with a brief 1,000-point plunge that recalled the panic of 2008. It lasted just 16 minutes but left Wall Street experts and ordinary investors alike struggling to come to grips with what had happened — and fearful of where the markets might go from here.

At least part of the sell-off appeared to be linked to trader error, perhaps an incorrect order routed through one of the nation’s exchanges. Many of those trades may be reversed so investors do not lose money on questionable transactions.

But the speed and scale of the plunge — the largest intraday decline on record — seemed to feed fears that the financial troubles gripping Europe were at last reaching across the Atlantic. Amid the rout, new signs of stress emerged in the credit markets. European banks seemed to be growing wary of lending to each other, suggesting the debt crisis was entering a more dangerous phase.

Traders and Washington policy makers struggled to keep up as the Dow Jones industrial average fell 1,000 points shortly after 2:30 p.m. and then mostly rebounded in a matter of minutes. For a moment, the sell-off seemed to overwhelm computer and human systems alike, and some traders began referring grimly to the day as “Black Thursday.”


Whew. Glad that's over. Now it's more like this:

The initial market reaction was ecstatic. The euro jumped back above the $1.30 mark for the first time in a week before falling back slightly. Greece’s 10-year borrowing costs plunged by almost half.

In afternoon trading, the Euro Stoxx 50 index, a barometer of euro zone blue chips, rose more than 8 percent, following on modest gains in Asia.


Domestically, the Dow gained four hundred points and rose almost four percent. The S&P (a much more telling index by the way) rose almost four and a half percent. Sure, people are still concerned about debt, but being concerned is, you know, relative to your situation. I'm a lot more concerned about paying for my credit card when I'm unemployed than I am when I've got a job. All in all, we've got our high back. At least for today.

So what is to make from all this? Even from the bourgeoisie's point of view, two things are evident. One being the "let's build a wall" folks are out of the loop. They remind me of John McCain stumbling around the stage looking for the podium during that infamous Presidential debate. When a country like Greece, whose economy is about as big as Joe Mauer's contract, can influence our markets so much, the idea that a wall on the Rio Grande and a pseudo-fascist sheriff in Arizona are going to stem the tide of globalization is laughable. Sorry folks. History says you lose.

The other main point is that market fundamentalism is dead. It never really caught on in Europe, but when the largest economy in the world starts thinking it doesn't need the State to protect itself, certain, more realistic, sections of the ruling class get worried. Other than a few true believers, they have all fallen in line by now. Sometimes it takes a crisis to clear some heads. Bank defaults are one thing, country defaults are quite another. (Crap Argentina. I guess you were a decade off.)

But from a point of view that is contrary to those who control industry, we are, perhaps even more than in times past, living through the theatre of the absurd. How could it be that a typo could mess up the way we allocate our resources to such an extent? Why is it we gamble on our ability to feed people? Why is it some people, who are not at all accountable to the public, have so much influence over our daily lives? Isn't the economy supposed to work for us, not the other way around?

Well, ladies and dudes, we are being managed by a bunch of men lost on a backroad convinced they know where they're going and too proud to ask for directions. Sometimes the road smooths out, and we see some familiar landmarks, but a right-turn later and we're back in the middle of nowhere, cursing each other out and pissed off because we haven't ate all day long. We need to get off this road. And we need a map. Really. A map and a plan. It appears many people's initial reaction to Wall Street is correct. This market stuff is, for lack of a better word, bullshit.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Market Aesthetics and the Institutionalization of Waste. Happy Earth Day!

We throw away a lot of stuff. In my near decade of manufacturing work, I'd say I've seen millions of dollars worth of products thrown out. Surely some of this was because of defects affecting performance. This is to be expected. But there's also a much more troubling side to the full dumpster at the end of the shift. Many of the items thrown out were perfectly functional. Because of any number of hundreds of small defects, they were simply tossed. Why? While their use value remained fine, their exchange value had dropped to the point of them being unprofitable to sell.

At first thought, this isn't too controversial. It's just sort of the way things are. When someone asks why we're throwing away so many usable products, as I have many times, the typical answer given is something along the lines of "a customer judges what's on the inside of a product by its appearance on the outside." This is no doubt true. As Fabio's once great career can attest, we often do judge a book by its cover.

However, if we step out of the context of our current society for a second and at least pretend to be the "rational" humans economics supposedly assumes we are, things aren't so clear. While standing outside market logic, I'm tempted to ask, why? Why should we not be willing to use a product that works fine simply because it might not look like our idea of what it should look like? Really, is it even our idea of what that product should look like? Sure, there are many products whose images are directly tied to their performance, but there are also a whole bunch whose images aren't.We know the difference, but we've been convinced to forget by billions and billions of marketing dollars.

It makes me wonder how these marketing campaigns affect our interpersonal relations. If we're too shallow to look past a meaningless imperfection on an everyday commodity, is it any wonder we separate ourselves into social groups like "cool" and "nerdy"? It isn't out of the ordinary for friendships, particularly while trying to climb the "corporate ladder," to be seen as investments.

But I digress.

On "Earth Day," or any other for that matter, the market reminds us to "go green." We should buy new light bulbs, buy a new shiny car, buy new "earth friendly" appliances (as opposed to your old stuff that were total dicks to the earth), etc. The logic here is clearly muddled. Buy an "energy smart" appliance from a market driven profit junkie corporate citizen who pollutes the world more in a day than you will in your life, all in the name of "saving the earth." Capitalism is so historically rotten it provides such a small amount of actual innovation companies end up fighting aesthetically for market share and rationalizing completely preventable waste by blaming the customer's shallowness they themselves developed and nurtured through propaganda campaigns that would make Leni Riefenstahl ask "have you no decency?"

Really, unlike the boring gibberish we were taught in school, the concept behind economics is simple. There's resources and there's people. People both want and need resources. Economics is the middleman who hooks us up, so to speak. The problem is, some people have crafted a middleman that best suits them, then told us the game's over. There's no changing it; history is done. It used to be popular to claim a god, or gods, decided these folks should have more resources than everyone else. (I find it interesting how God has always had such strong opinions on the as worldly as you can get topic of property relations.) Now it's much more popular, and civilized, for them to claim a piece of paper means they "own" the profit others work to produce. This has allowed them to accumulate more resources than at anytime in history. And they're hardly bashful about it. Quite the contrary, they've actually got the chutzpah to hold their head high and announce to the rest of us that they "deserve" more! They went ahead and built courthouses, schools, churches, an entire superstructure encompassed in a cute little Leviathan they call their State, to make damn sure we give them their props.

But based on such relations, only so many props can be given. Only so much stuff can be thrown away before the shit starts piling up in front of not only my doorstep, but yours as well. I can guarantee there will be no invisible hand to clean up the mess.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Venezuela: The People in Arms

From IDOM...

As they wait for the arrival of the President, the militias stand listlessly, or sit on the ground to eat a sandwich. Some rest on their rifles, and one or two even had the muzzle of their AK-47s resting on their boot – a somewhat risky practice, one would have thought. In fact a professional drill sergeant would doubtless have a heart attack, looking at these half-trained civilians with guns.

But this impression would be entirely false. These militias are the lineal descendants of the Cuban guerrillas, of the militias that fought Franco in the Spanish Civil War, of the workers´ militias that overthrew the Tsar in Russia in 1917, and if we go even further back in history, of the armies of the French Revolution and the militias of the American Revolution in the 18th century.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Bathroom Mirror

How's the reflection?
Angles are important.
Lighting is more important.

If I'm vulnerable
Or conceited,
you're judgmental.

If these walls could talk,
I bet they'd beg
For seven years of bad luck.

I spend far too much time
Looking in your eyes.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Obama's State of the Union Address and "American Values"

From IDOM:

The following is from the end of Obama's first State of the Union address:

In the end, it is our ideals, our values, that built America — values that allowed us to forge a nation made up of immigrants from every corner of the globe, values that drive our citizens still. Every day, Americans meet their responsibilities to their families and their employers. Time and again, they lend a hand to their neighbors and give back to their country. They take pride in their labor, and are generous in spirit. These aren't Republican values or Democratic values they're living by, business values or labor values. They are American values.

Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions — our corporations, our media and, yes, our government — still reflect these same values. Each of these institutions are full of honorable men and women doing important work that helps our country prosper. But each time a CEO rewards himself for failure, or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people's doubts grow. Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith. The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates into silly arguments and big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.

The above paragraphs sound great at first. Democrat or Republican, boss or employee; we all share the same values, that is, "American values." While it is almost certain many of us simply don't, let's give Obama the benefit of the doubt and entertain the idea. One can certainly imagine that the CEO of a Fortune 500 company could share many personal values with a person who works on the factory floor. They both might value family, friends, God, and so forth. According to Obama, if it wasn't for the "few bad apples" that didn't share these core "American values," our faith would be restored and we would, presumably, go back to living the American dream.

But what does this mean?

Really, it is an unoriginal narrative that could be pulled off the lips of numerous Kings, Emperors, and Presidents alike. No doubt every empire thinks they're different than the last, just as the present always seems to believe it's somehow more distinguished, and learned, than the past. History is told to us as a series of events caused by decisions of individuals. Lincoln freed the slaves. Hitler invaded Poland. Columbus discovered America. Bernie Madoff is the economic crisis. Let's throw him in jail and get back to business as usual. If this is the case, how are we to make any sense of it? Why even bother?

In reality, history isn't just individuals making decisions. It's true, individuals' actions do alter events, but these actions must be put in context with the historical period in which they are taken. Simply put, we can't choose when we're born or how the society that we're born into operates. Any decision we make is bound by the limits of the environment we live in. Even seemingly abstract thoughts are originally an interpretation of the world around us.

Similarly, while the corporate CEO might share some personal values with his or her employees, they're bound by the laws of the economic system they operate under. This places the CEO and the employee directly at odds. By their very nature, corporations must make a profit. Not only that, competition and their shareholders dictate they must make an ever growing amount of profit. This means it's in the interest of the corporation to pay the employee as little as possible. Obviously, this isn't in the interest of the employee. In order to live and function in society, the employee must sell his or her labor power to the corporation (if possible, to the highest bidder). But here's what usually is left unsaid: It's actually the employee's labor power, his or her ability to work, above all else, that creates the profit. Without labor power, there are no factories or machines built or operated. There are no goods, let alone markets to exchange those goods on. Therefore, the workers really hold all the power. In effect, without the workers, there is no society.

This brings me back to Obama's fairy tale. Those two paragraphs are a telling example of whose side Obama really is on. It's definitely in the interest of the people who collect profit off of other people's work to assure us we all share the same set of "American values." They want us to believe we're "all in this together" when really they're parasites living off our sweat. They will gladly sacrifice a few of their own ( the Bernie Madoffs — the "bad apples") in order to keep alive the economic system that favors them. Almost every law they pass is intended to do so as well. This doesn't mean, however, that we workers share anything other than basic human emotions with this section of society. We are, in fact, their historical grave diggers. We have much more in common with workers from any other country in the world than we do with any American CEO.

When all is said and done, it's both the development of industry and technology, and who controls that development, that moves history. Right now industry is controlled by a small group of individuals who use that power to run America (and most of the world) in their interest. They hire elegant speakers like Obama to fill us full of platitudes so we will continue to literally work ourselves to death while they continue their lives of privilege. But just as tribal, slave, and feudal societies passed from the historical scene, so too will capitalism fall and democracy finally enter the realm of economics. But it won't fall automatically. As the recent crisis shows, they will use their State to prop up their dying economic system.

This is why we must organize politically independent of the two parties of business. This is why we need a mass party of labor, based on the unions. Obviously it will take much more than this to build a new society, but that first, historically necessary step of breaking with the Democrats, will have an enormous impact on the consciousness of American workers.

We look forward to the fight.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

We're there to protect property relations not people

While still no mention of the Cuban doctors in Haiti, the NY Times is reporting U.S. troops have taken what's left of the National Palace. Just in time for the folks mentioned in this article.