Thursday, December 08, 2011

Anecdotes

The vertebrate brain seems to operate as a device tuned to the recognition of patterns. When evolution grafted consciousness in human form upon this organ in a single species, the old inherent search for patterns developed into a propensity for organizing these patterns as stories, and then for explaining the surrounding world in terms of the narratives expressed in such tales. For universal reasons that probably transcend the cultural particulars of individual groups, humans tend to construct their stories along a limited number of themes and pathways, favored because they grant both useful sense and satisfying meaning to the confusion (and often to the tragedy) of life in our complex surrounding world.
Stephen Jay Gould- "Jim Bowie's Letter and Bill Buckner's Legs"

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Understanding Our Confidence Crisis

Generally, I am not in favor of reducing things to their most digestible. We live in a complex world and reducing things to "good vs. bad" is rarely helpful. Topics take time to sift through and understand. This is only natural. Although, I also agree, sometimes a step back to the fundamental issues at hand is helpful. With few notable exceptions (Alan Woods, Martin Wolf), commentary surrounding Europe's debt crisis has been muddled at best and purposefully confusing at worst. If you aren't fluent in the technocratic economic vernacular of the various talking heads, things can get a bit distorted.

First off, it should be noted the crisis in Europe is not simply an "economic" crisis. It is a crisis of a certain kind of economics- a certain way we produce and distribute goods. It is a crisis of Capitalism. What started as a banking crisis in the United States has morphed into a national debt crisis in Europe. This has been complicated further due to the strange economic union European nations have, both formally and informally. The fact that many sovereign nations have given up some amount of sovereignty in order to share a common currency magnifies the woes of a certain otherwise fairly economically insignificant nation.

While there are many specific areas one could follow up on in that last paragraph, let us step back to recognize the inherent crisis. We hear a lot about confidence. Consumer confidence; business confidence; market confidence; etc. (One would think the world is made up of a bunch of teenage boys afraid to cross the dance floor and ask for a dance from the equally unsure teenage girls gathered on the other side.) Consumer confidence is fairly straight forward. Working people are less likely to spend money when they are not so sure they will have more money in the future. This is the result of orchestrated attacks on labor. We have less economic power, more job uncertainty, and wage stagnation. For some time credit masked this crisis of consumer confidence, but now that has largely dried up. Business and market confidence, however, are a bit different. Their confidence is more about making certain margins that will satisfy shareholders than any sort of tangible concern for the material needs of their future. They are concerned they can not bring back a certain amount of profit from whatever it is they produce, be it a securitization or a toothbrush. If consumers are timid with their ever increasingly limited finances, profit margins start to decline. It's a vicious (business) cycle. This leads us to one of the central, and tragically hilarious, contradictions of Capitalism. What we have is a crisis of overproduction.

We have too much stuff. Not, mind you, too much stuff in the sense that everyone has food, shelter, and security. These needs are not met, not even close. We have too much stuff in the sense that those who own industry can not make a large enough profit off of what is already produced. This is the tragically hilarious part. We have people starving while food rots in storage bins. We have people sleeping on the streets next to perfectly good homes wasting away unoccupied in foreclosures. If someone from another planet was to look at how we produce, distribute, and consume resources, they would probably conclude we are not an intelligent lifeform at all. (Perhaps this is the reason we have yet to be contacted by any extraterrestrials?)

Further compounding this central comedy/tragedy is the inability of the bourgeoisie to work together, even to save their own economic system. Their desire, and objective need, for profit has made them paranoid to an alarming degree. No one is to be trusted. Really, from their perspective, the crisis isn't too difficult to at least find a "working" solution. Either you bail Greece out or you don't. Either you take some of your massive accumulated wealth and invest it, as the Americans did with TARP, in saving your current structure, or you do not. Allowing a default, whether "orderly" or not, did not work with Lehman Brothers and it will not work with Greece. An "orderly" default is completely nonsensical. This is like allowing a glass bottle to fall to the floor and trying to guess where each one of the broken pieces will end up. It simply can not be done. The soap opera over the various half-hearted agreements the leaders of the Eurozone have come up with has been much more confusing than reassuring. This furthers the uncertainty the market hates so viciously.

Regardless, a "working" solution does not resolve inherent contradictions. In the United States this is most clear. The bank bail-out may have stopping the gushing blood, but the disease is still flowing throughout Uncle Sam's veins. Slow growth, high unemployment, and high debt are obviously issues that don't escape us here in America. Even with this so-called solution, things can not go back to what was normal.

The victim is blamed. The "lazy" Greek worker. The "entitlement culture" working people across the advanced Capitalist countries have grown accustomed to. The bourgeoisie tells us in order for their system to work again, our living standard must be brought down. The post-war boom is over. Austerity is the new "working" solution.

Here is where our confidence, that of the ninety-nine percent, is most needed. We have a problem of income distribution. This needs to be recognized. Too much of society's wealth is concentrated in too few hands. Far from being "job creators," the one percent are economy destabilizers. Instead of risky physical production, they have poured a massive amount of money into complex financial products which promised little risk and big rewards but have proved worthless at best and harmful at worst. The way to correct this is to put those who actually produce the goods and services we all rely on in control them. In reality, the one percent are the lazy ones. They are the ones who do little work which could be considered socially necessary. They have developed an entitlement culture that assumes they deserve massive profits because a piece of paper says so. They can barely hide their disdain for democracy. (Notice the reaction to the proposed, then rescinded, popular referendum on the bail-out agreement in Greece.)

We need the confidence, and leadership, to intervene in our own history. This, of course, is no easy task. It takes hard work, organization, etc. But, this is the only solution that really works for the ninety nine percent of us. Hyperbole aside, it is the only solution that will work for humanity.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"The Class, the Party, and the Leadership"

The Spanish Revolution is in many ways a how-to-guide for how not to take power and implement a revolutionary workers’ democracy. Actually, it is studying the Spanish Revolution that convinced me personally that revolutionary Marxism was correct and revolutionary Anarchism, at least in practice, didn’t exist.

As we know, the Spanish Revolution failed and we saw Fascist reaction not only gain control of Spain, but ultimately most of Europe. So why did the Spanish Revolution fail? Was this a failure of leadership, or were the workers simply not mature enough to carry through a revolution?

In this document [The Class, the Party, and the Leadership] Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky answers that question by verbally body-slamming the editors of Que Faire (What To Do), which was a left-leaning bourgeois intellectual paper published in Paris. It is interesting that Trotsky made sure to write that the paper itself was of no importance, i.e, it wasn’t going to do much other than give a few left liberal types a venue to write their muddle to share amongst themselves (which I think we can draw numerous parallels with today). He was of the opinion that it was of “symptomatic interest.” In other words, it was characteristic of much of the reasons given by those who Trotsky called “puesdo-Marxists” on why the Spanish Revolution failed.

The beginning of the document starts with a quote from Que Faire’s review of a pamphlet entitled Spain Betrayed by Casanova (which was the pen name of a Polish Marxist named Bernstein who was in Spain during the Revolution). At first glance they might seem to be offering an interesting criticism of Casanova’s argument that the leadership of the Communist Party in Spain followed the wrong policy. Instead, Que Faire argues the workers simply weren’t ready for a Revolution and those like Casanova had to blame boogeymen like Stalin and inept Anarchist leaders to cover for the workers’ failure. The following is taken from Que Faire's criticism of Casanova's analysis (via Trotsky's piece):

Why was the revolution crushed? Because, replies the author (Casanova), the Communist Party conducted a false policy which was unfortunately followed by the revolutionary masses. But why, in the devil’s name, did the revolutionary masses who left their former leaders rally to the banner of the Communist Party? ‘Because there was no genuinely revolutionary party.’ We are presented with a pure tautology. A false policy of the masses; an immature party either manifests a certain condition of social forces (immaturity of the working class, lack of independence of the peasantry) which must be explained by proceeding from facts, presented among others by Casanova himself; or it is the product of the actions of certain malicious individuals or groups of individuals, actions which do not correspond to the efforts of ‘sincere individuals’ alone capable of saving the revolution. After groping for the first and Marxist road, Casanova takes the second. We are ushered into the domain of pure demonology; the criminal responsible for the defeat is the chief Devil, Stalin, abetted by the anarchists and all the other little devils; the God of revolutionists unfortunately did not send a Lenin or a Trotsky to Spain as He did in Russia in 1917.

Under closer examination, however, we see that Que Faire’s criticism is nothing but empty rhetoric. (It is quite ironic they refer to Casanova's central argument as a "tautology.") Why were the workers not ready for Revolution? Because the Revolution failed. Why did the revolution fail? Because the workers were not ready for the Revolution. In the end, we are left no closer to understanding what happened in Spain than when we started.

Trotsky goes on to give concrete examples of the “immature” workers being correct and their leadership being wrong. Trotsky writes:

In July 1936, the Spanish workers repelled the assault of the officers who had prepared their conspiracy under the protection of the People’s Front. The masses improvised militias and created workers’ committees, the strongholds of their future dictatorship. The leading organizations of the proletariat on the other hand helped the bourgeoisie to destroy these committees, to liquidate the assaults of the workers on private property and to subordinate the workers’ militias to the command of the bourgeoisie, with the POUM moreover participating in the government and assuming direct responsibility for this work.

Trotsky points out, which I think is extremely important and interesting given this is still a belief held by many Anarchists, that the beginning logic of the “the workers aren’t ready” argument is that there will come a point when the workers will be so ready that they won’t need any sort of leadership. They will simply wake up one day and all decide to take power. When and how this develops under capitalism is left unsaid. I suppose we can assume it is done mainly been reading periodicals such as Que Faire?

Trotsky anticipates the question of “why would the workers subordinate themselves to poor leadership?” and answers it with more concrete examples of the workers not at all being subordinate to their leadership, and in some cases actively fighting against it. He brings up the well known fact that the CNT leadership actually refused to take power, and then bragged about it in several publications. This most certainly wasn’t the wish of the masses who fought, and often times died, for such power. Unfortunately the Spanish workers were unable, in the middle of a war, to produce new leadership that corresponded to the demands of the Revolution. Not just the Stalinists and Anarchists, but also the POUM.

To fully answer the subordination question, we also need to take on the old myth that “people get the government they deserve.” To the social evolutionist liberal, society moves in a straight line from despotism to freedom. Trotsky takes this on quite well and I think it is worth quoting at length. He says:

The secret is this, that a people is comprised of hostile classes, and the classes themselves are comprised of different and in part antagonistic layers which fall under different leadership; furthermore every people falls under the influence of other peoples who are likewise comprised of classes. Governments do not express the systematically growing ‘maturity’ of a ‘people’ but are the product of the struggle between different classes and the different layers within one and the same class, and, finally, the action of external forces – alliances, conflicts, wars and so on. To this should be added that a government, once it has established itself, may endure much longer than the relationship of forces which produced it. It is precisely out of this historical contradiction that revolutions, coup d’etats, counterrevolutions, etc. arise.

This same dialectic approach is needed when dealing with leadership. Again from the text:

A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class. Having once arisen, the leadership invariably arises above its class and thereby becomes predisposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The proletariat may ‘tolerate’ for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class. The mightiest historical shocks are wars and revolutions. Precisely for this reason the working class is often caught unaware by war and revolution. But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party.

In Spain, as mentioned, the working class was able to move far beyond their leadership, yet they were not able to actually replace them.

As we can see by the example of the Russian working class, workers’ maturity is not unchanging. At the beginning of 1917, it was basically just Lenin who had a revolutionary understanding of the moment. Many of the other Bolsheviks were scattered around and not sure what move to take next. This highlights exactly how important it is to have revolutionary leadership during revolutionary times. The maturity of workers is relative to the situation and can change rapidly. The same Russian working class who overthrew the Tsar also allowed a bureaucracy to rise from within its ranks and betray the Revolution.

Que Faire goes on to ask why the revolutionary masses, who left their former leaders, now decided to follow the Communist party. Trotsky points out this is a false question. They didn’t leave their former leaders, but they did rally around the Communist Party and its popular front strategy largely because of the authority the Comintern had gained by carrying out the only successful workers’ revolution. It isn’t as simple as the working class going window-shopping for new leadership. Tradition and loyalty play a large role in the decision. It is only through their experiences that workers move to new leadership, and new revolutionary parties can grow very rapidly given the right circumstance mixed with the right policies.

The POUM, while being the left party not linked to Anarchism, refused to reveal the bourgeois nature of the other parties. This was the only way to move the POUM forward, but they refused to do it. Trotsky noted of the POUM, “It participated in the ‘People’s’ election bloc; entered the government which liquidated workers’ committees; engaged in a struggle to reconstitute this governmental coalition; capitulated time and again to the anarchist leadership; conducted a false trade union policy; took a vacillating and non-revolutionary attitude toward the May 1937 uprising.” This, however, isn’t simply a reflection of the Spanish working class; it is a reflection of concrete events. The working class was more revolutionary than the POUM, who in turn was more revolutionary than the bourgeois leadership they subordinated themselves to. Why did the POUM leadership subordinate themselves to the leadership of the bourgeois state? As we can see using a dialectic approach, the leadership had risen above its class and subject to pressures of other classes. When the degeneration of the POUM leadership became known, the working class, in the middle of a revolutionary struggle, was unable to replace them.

It is clear the central point the folks at Que Faire were trying to make is that the workers simply weren’t ready for a revolution. We can see similar arguments today in places like Venezuela, where despite the people being far more revolutionary than their leaders, many academics have blamed the slow pace of the revolution on the maturity level of the workers. We also see shades of this in the United States as cynical liberals berate workers for being stupid and backwards. The left sects abandon mainstream unions because of their poor leadership with some questioning whether developed economies even have workers. This is why we study things like the Spanish Revolution, as events today take such a similar course. The folks at Que Faire liked to think they were Marxists, and they did that by throwing in phrases like “condition of class forces” and “condition of social forces.” This, they thought, gave them a material basis for claiming the workers simply weren’t ready for a revolution. The same goes for countless organizations today (all more or less ignored by your average person). Trotsky addresses this with extreme clarity by saying, “Naturally, the ‘condition of class forces’ supplies the foundation for all other political factors; but just as the foundation of a building does not reduce the importance of walls, windows, doors, roofs, so the ‘condition of classes’ does not invalidate the importance of parties, their strategy, their leadership.”

Que Faire and their present day equivalents won’t tell us how we will know when the working class will be ready for revolution. Someday, off in the distant future, we will all just wake up and spontaneously decide to take power; a divine rapture of sorts. That has been proven to be absolutely ridiculous. We must work to build a political structure that can directly confront the bourgeois state. Working within state structures in order to destroy them is a contradiction, no doubt, but understanding contradictions is central to achieving, and wielding, power. And that is what this is all about- growing and crafting correct, democratically accountable, leadership of the world's working class.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Putting North Dakota's Economy in Context...

"Revenge of the Squares"?

Brandishing the values of "yesteryears," some Mayberryish place that exists only in conservatives' minds, North Dakota is the nation's economic hot spot. Although it ironically has become hip to write little fluff pieces on how refreshing it is North Dakota, being so neglected by America's elite, has managed to stave off Capitalism's latest crisis, a few contextual points are in order.

First off, the oil. North Dakota has oil. Now this point is almost certainly mentioned by the glorymongerers, as it is in the above piece, but this key fact has little to do with culture and lots to do with luck and new technology that allows access to oil that was once unprofitable to be refined. A quick look through history tells us oil is, at most, a finite mixed blessing. Oil, unlike the infamous North Dakota weather, tends to keep the "riff-raff" in.

Next, we have the State bank. North Dakota is the only state in the country with its own bank. A relic from the WWI era Socialist wave that swept the Midwest (brought by German and Scandinavian immigrants), North Dakota was able to withstand the worst of the credit crunch because they often provided their own credit. Although it's unfortunately ran like a for-profit private bank, it really is an island of economic sovereignty in an ocean of consolidation. There is little doubt the bank kept many North Dakotan small businesses open. This point is never mentioned by the rosy-eyed revisionists.

North Dakota has an extremely small population. To be exact, North Dakota, while the 19th biggest state in area, has only 672,591 inhabitants. Only Vermont and Wyoming have less. Jordan, the neighborhood in Hong Kong my brother and his wife live in, has 150,000 people. (All .4 square mile of it.) This small number is huge. To put it simply, it's much easier to govern less people. Less people equals less problems, at least from a social services point of view, and services for humans is where states spend the vast majority of their money. It's for this reason you know who the mayor of New York City is and not the mayor of Minot.

Federal money. Like many red states, North Dakota takes in more money than it pays out. A lot more. For every $1 a North Dakotan is taxed, they get $1.62 back. That's a pretty good deal! So these big blue states, like New York and California, who routinely catch the ire of small state politicians for having no "common sense," end up subsidizing states like Mississippi, North Dakota, and Alaska. Moreover, despite the oil boom, North Dakota still has an economy based on agriculture. Every five years politicians, both Democrat and Republican, hammer out a Farm Bill that costs the Federal government hundreds of billions of dollars. North Dakota, despite a ban on corporate farming, is carved up by a small number of plantation-like enterprises masquerading as "family farms." Many of the same people who decry Federal money being spent on after-school programs in the Twin Cities happily collect their Farm Bill check year after year after year.

North Dakota is a low wage state, with little opportunity for quality long-term work. This has to do with having no significant metro areas, but it also has to do with its anti-worker laws. It's a "right to work" state. This means that if your coworkers negotiate a contract with your employer, and you don't want to join the union, you get to reap the rewards of that process without any of the sacrifice. While they paid their union dues, you didn't, and still get the benefits. That's, of course, assuming your workplace has a union, which is a pretty big assumption. It's virtually impossible to unionize in anywhere in the US, let alone "right to work" states. Put simply, in North Dakota you will get paid less than you would almost anywhere else and the lower cost of living (which isn't always that lower in the larger towns) often doesn't make up for it. That's not a real good incentive to even stay there, let alone permanently pack up and move to the state. They are now only now starting to stop the brain drain of the previous several years, and this is largely due to the economy being so bad everywhere else. People graduate and move. This is so common most young people don't even give it a second thought. Politicians, even in the midst of this boom, are forced to acknowledge the scope of this massive problem. The reason for this is obvious- there are more opportunities elsewhere.

North Dakota is beautiful. I was born there and lived there for the vast majority of my life. I am proud of that. But the idea that it has somehow been immune to the underlying contradictions during this current crisis of Capitalism is absurd. North Dakota is in a better situation right now than many other states. This is primarily because of luck, and frankly, its limited economic output. It's in spite of, not because of, the often bizarre, and backwards, politicians that run the state. It's dangerous to think otherwise.

I would like to respectfully offer some kind words of caution to North Dakota voters: Minnesota, where I live now, had a 4 billion dollar budget surplus in the late nineties. (That's larger than the entire budget of ND today.) Now we have an estimated 6 billion dollar budget deficit (when adjusted for inflation). This is the direct result of Republican tax cuts (which are really subsidies for businesses and individuals), both at the state and federal level. Jesse Ventura handed out famous sales tax rebates (your "Jesse check"); Tim Pawlenty is infamous within the state for gimmicky budgeting, which shifted costs to local governments and basically kicked the deficit can down the road to be bigger and badder when we catch up with it. (We did and it is.) The Democrats, for their part, continue to ramble nonsensically about the much fetishized "middle ground," which essentially means a bit less cuts than the Republicans. Their "resistance" to Republican social engineering via budgeting is them highlighting their fundamental agreements with Republican proposals in certain crowds and slightly disagreeing just enough to seem opposed in front of others. Despite what both parties say, this is hardly a spending issue. If Minnesota taxed its citizen at the same rate they did in 1998, there would still be a surplus. Now Minnesota is on its way to becoming Mississippi.

North Dakota would do well to rekindle its past political independence from the two parties of business, particularly now when things are relatively good. I know there was talk, at least at one time, of using part of the budget surplus to create a state oil refinery. This would be a good first step in ensuring resources are used collectively for the benefit of all North Dakotans. Unfortunately, the state is controlled by Republicans and Democrats alike who are intent on selling the state to the highest bidder, ensuring a select few receive obscene profits. North Dakota of 1919 decided to buck the system and do what was in the interest of their citizens, let's hope North Dakota of 2011 does too.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Egypt

Many things come to mind when I think of the Egyptian Revolution. There are a few that stick out and I haven't heard much discussion regarding them, so I thought I'd bring them up.

Many reports have mentioned the neighborhood patrols people have initiated. This doesn't sit well with conventional wisdom. It should. To be quite simple, we don't need a police force. The police are there to protect the privileges of the ruling class. Case closed. Of course there are individual members of the police force who are sympathetic and will join the people, as has happened in Egypt, but as an institution they are not necessary in a truly democratic state. Arm the people. If my neighbor isn't safe, neither am I.

That brings me to my next point. Many believe most of us on the left are anti-gun and soft on crime. Untrue. I would imagine these patrols and checkpoints would be quite worthless without guns. They are needed for defense, both of individuals and of gains made by the masses as a whole. And we should also be clear regarding crime. There is a huge difference between understanding crime, its institutionalization and its relationship to poverty, and justifying it. The difference has been blurred, mostly by right-wing propagandists, but activist academic types on the left ferociously obsessed with identity politics have played their part as well. We protect our personal property. We are concerned with the means of production, the "property" that gives the few their undue privilege and influence over the many. The lumpen scum that serve as the foot soldiers of reaction deserve every inch of fiery wrath someone protecting their home or small shop can give them.

The coverage on IDOM has been excellent.