Archive for Activism

Capitalism Makes Us Sick

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I often enjoy reading Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff’s commentaries. He strikes me as someone who kind of “gets it” about capitalism but who is unable, for whatever reason, to draw the logical conclusions. The final paragraphs of his column entries that point to some serious flaw in capitalist economic arrangements are almost always anticlimactic disappointments.

His latest piece, a brief exposé of how capitalist forces contribute to bad diets and poor health titled “Coronary Capitalism”, serves as a great example of his unsatisfying lessons. The piece starts off digging into an important economic matter. After noting that decreased life expectancy is bad for economic growth, he explains that making people fat and sick is probably a net boon to the economy, all aspects considered. Here’s the nut:

Highly processed corn-based food products, with lots of chemical additives, are well known to be a major driver of weight gain, but, from a conventional growth-accounting perspective, they are great stuff. Big agriculture gets paid for growing the corn (often subsidized by the government), and the food processors get paid for adding tons of chemicals to create a habit-forming – and thus irresistible – product. Along the way, scientists get paid for finding just the right mix of salt, sugar, and chemicals to make the latest instant food maximally addictive; advertisers get paid for peddling it; and, in the end, the health-care industry makes a fortune treating the disease that inevitably results.

Coronary capitalism is fantastic for the stock market, which includes companies in all of these industries. Highly processed food is also good for jobs, including high-end employment in research, advertising, and health care.

So, who could complain? Certainly not politicians, who get re-elected when jobs are plentiful and stock prices are up – and get donations from all of the industries that participate in the production of processed food. Indeed, in the US, politicians who dared to talk about the health, environmental, or sustainability implications of processed food would in many cases find themselves starved of campaign funds.

Okay, all of this rings true. But doesn’t it sound like the problem is pretty deep? Doesn’t the problem even seem inherent to capitalism?

Not for an economist steeped in the religion of markets — “free” or otherwise. For these cats, the market — regulated or not — has to form the basis of any solution to an economic problem… even when the market causes the problem in the first place. Rogoff is so conventional in his mindset, he seems to think market forces are actually an excuse for problems, rather than ever being able to draw the conclusion that markets are the problem. Look at the way he almost gives food pricing a pass:

True, market forces have spurred innovation, which has continually driven down the price of processed food, even as the price of plain old fruits and vegetables has gone up. That is a fair point, but it overlooks the huge market failure here.

[emphasis added]

Let’s explore the first sentence, which is so strangely structured as to imply that lowering food prices through subsidies, monocropping, and over-processing is a positive in any way — like, cheap food = good, so it counts for something. But let’s give Rogoff the benefit of the doubt. I think it’s fair to define “innovation” as developments that make something more economically efficient or profitable but not necessarily “better”. Still, I’d bet most people think of innovation as inherently “good”. It would make sense to take pause here and consider that in capitalism, innovation is something that helps capitalists. It may incidentally help workers, but usually it does not. And it doesn’t necessarily help consumers at all; it might even harm them. So finding cheaper ways to get junk food out to people is an innovation — one that is killing us.

But Rogoff acknowledges the “market failure” — so why am I picking on him for allegedly not recognizing that markets are the failure? Am I just nit-picking? Rogoff goes on:

… [P]roducers have few incentives to internalize the costs of the environmental damage that they cause. Likewise, consumers have little incentive to internalize the health-care costs of their food choices.

As far as I can discern, producers have no incentives to internalize the costs of environmental damage of their economic activity. I would love to see Rogoff’s list of the few incentives he thinks they do have. But where is this division coming from, concerning who has what incentives to internalize “externality” costs? This divide between producer and consumer is very real in our society, but how unimaginitive does an economist have to be — or how logically manipulative — to divvy up who bears what costs of bad economic behavior? Rogoff seems to be suggesting, by implication, that producers should have to internalize environmental costs and consumers should have to internalize health care costs of bad agricultural, food-processing, and dietary practices. Consumers somehow aren’t responsible for the production of their food, and producers aren’t responsible for the consumption of their goods (even though previously he notes that advertising is a significant force in the equation). This is the best analysis a conventionally “progressive” orientation on economics produces: bizarre, irrational surface conclusions drawn about a system that is fundamentally flawed at its core.

So what are Rogoff’s disappointing, vague, intangible suggestions for addressing the latest problem he has rightfully (if not rightly) exposed? Well, you can bet he will suggest reforming the “pathological regulatory-political-economic dynamic that characterizes” the food industry, for starters. It isn’t the market, you see; it’s our failure to regulate that pesky rascal. Indeed, Rogoff insists,

We need to develop new and much better institutions to protect society’s long-run interests.

That’s the only sentence we get on the matter, so we’re left to presume he’s talking about regulating bodies of some sort, to rein in the market, or manipulate it so that it works the way centuries-old magic-imbued dogmas suggest it should… you know, intervene to make markets do what they’re supposed to do precisely as long as we don’t intervene.

But even this cop-out directive comes with a familiar warning.

Of course, the balance between consumer sovereignty and paternalism is always delicate. But we could certainly begin to strike a healthier balance than the one we have by giving the public far better information across a range of platforms, so that people could begin to make more informed consumption choices and political decisions.

And that’s it. It’s all he offers. I don’t know Rogoff so I won’t presume to know what goes on in his mind, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the constraints of a neoclassical economics education, a current gig at Harvard, and a couple of stints at the IMF, have limited Rogoff’s imagination so that he can’t fathom there might be another way to manage production, consumption, and allocation in a modern society. Standard forms of centrally planning are too “paternal” to consider; I’d agree with that. And I’d even suggest that having a thoroughly undemocratic government like the United States republic intervene to coerce policy in a major sector of the economy would be rashly paternalistic, with mixed and confusing impact.

So what does that leave us with? Oh, if only there was a way to plan production, consumption, and allocation in a democratic manner, averting the paternalism problem altogether. Information for consumers is indeed a good start. But short of people actually organizing in their dual capacities as consumers and producers, let’s not pretend we can change much just by making smarter purchases. The idea of using the blunt instrument that is “voting with our dollars” to affect the agricultural and manufacturing policies of the handful of conglomerates that dominate our food supply is just plain ridiculous. Change will require collective action to tear down existing institutions and replace them with a foundation of alternatives.

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Billionaires Smell Like Fear

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Bloomberg News, often the mouthpiece of the elite, is revealing the soreness of .01% at the nascent excoriation movement dishonoring their special place in society as “job creators”. How dare we not be grateful for their large(ne)ss?

Read this. It’s stunning how bizarrely out of touch these folks are even when making deliberate statements to the press.

One example:

[John] Paulson, the New York hedge-fund manager who became a billionaire by betting against the U.S. housing market, has also said the rich benefit society.

This is actually pretty good reporting, but not as explicit as it should be. Paulson made money off of mass suffering and loss. It’s not a judgment, it’s a statement of fact.

Then there’s this:

Attacking the banking system is a mistake because it contributes to “a healthier economy,” [Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman] said in the interview.

I honestly don’t know if these guys believe this stuff. A banking system could contribute toward a healthier economy, but the banking system we have? Not so much.

“If I hear a politician use the term ‘paying your fair share’ one more time, I’m going to vomit,” said billionaire founder of Paychex, Tom Golisano.

Fairness makes them sick.

Then a thinly veiled threat:

“It’s simply a fact that pretty much all the private- sector jobs in America are created by the decisions of ‘the 1 percent’ to hire and invest,” [Delphi Financial Group founder Robert] Rosenkranz, 69, said in an e-mail. “Since their confidence in the future more than any other factor will drive those decisions, it makes little sense to undermine their confidence by vilifying them.”

Read: “If you attack us, you’ll get hurt worst and first.” You seriously couldn’t make this stuff up if you were making comic-book villains out of these elitists.

Really, the whole article is chock-full of this stuff. I’m not even picking favorites here.

Okay, just one more:

[Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, who also co-founded the 1 Percenter public relations group Job Creators Alliance] said he isn’t worried that speaking out might make him a target of protesters. “Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” Marcus said. “Are you kidding me?”

Right. He doesn’t give a crap; he just started a PR firm to respond to it. Other than that one move, he shows no sign of being bothered by the nationwide protests.

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Down with (‘Occupy’) Materialism, Up with Diversity and Holism

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It’s barely secret that numerous local Occupy groups have encountered allegations of internal racism and sexism. When people who are marginalized or sidelined in the outside world feel that happening inside movement groups, they tend to get upset. I don’t really have trouble seeing why that makes sense, but a lot of people do, so I’d like to explain as briefly as possible one main reason for it.

Activists hopefully understand that racism, sexism/heterosexism, and ageism in movement circles are rooted in their institutionalized counterparts in the rest of society. But what keeps them from effectively preventing or even addressing these problems’ reemergence in and between activist groups? I believe the problem is that many leftist intellectuals insist oppressions such as sexism and racism are secondary to classism: the exploitation, alienation, and subjugation of labor. The Occupy movement is fertile ground for this ignorance, and I’m glad that it’s being challenged in many quarters.

Slavoj Žižek’s recent column really brought this home for me. In his commentary, pop-left darling Žižek falsely identifies the Occupy phenomenon as a monist movement about economics alone. But he’s not that far off, actually; he may be more right than wrong.

Žižek is positively giddy that, in his perception, the Left seems to be abandoning its attachment to struggles against racism and sexism, finally getting back to the real work of fighting capitalism.

In a kind of Hegelian triad*, the western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called “class struggle essentialism” for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, and other struggles, capitalism is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem.

Yes, the was italicized in the original. I think he really believes all other problems are not just subordinate to and exacerbated by exploitative economic relations, but that “racism, sexism, and other struggles” are strictly rooted in capitalism.

He’s not alone. Many hardcore Marxists, and even reformed Marxists as most style themselves these days, have long lamented the Left’s foray into “identity politics”, that murky expanse in which the “special interests” of people of color, women, queers, and sometimes even young folks are taken into account, or even raised to the same level of concern as workers’ grievances against capital. Those who believe economics is the central (or only) battlefield of struggle usually admit some or all of these groups are oppressed, but they add caveats. They say (1) people of color, women, queers, etc. are primarily oppressed as workers; and (2) capitalism is the root cause of all oppression, so surmounting it will naturally lead to universal liberation.

What’s really going on here? How is it that someone with a supposedly sophisticated mind like Žižek’s can believe that capitalism is really the only problem (“the problem”)?

Here’s the deal: capitalism is “reemerging as the name of the problem” because the OWS phenomenon started with a massive influx of people who are new to radicalism and radical ideas. These folks first came together mainly around economic concerns, i.e., Wall Street vs Main Street, 1% vs. 99%, etc. Then shifty Marxian ideologues swooped in to coopt Occupy Wall Street, along with its various manifestations and energy. The truth is, they did a pretty poor job of this, I gather largely because OWS and its offshoots were steadfastly anti-authoritarian. Still, as a social phenomenon that lacks the sophistication developed through generations of struggle and learned analysis, Occupy is highly susceptible to oversimplified ideologies and sectarianism. Craven Marxist hacks apparently cannot help but try to take advantage of this, even through the pages of mainstream newspapers.

Make no mistake: materialist fixation (also known as “economism” or “class struggle reductionism”, as Žižek noted) in North American movements means in practice writing off or at least subordinating major concerns of pretty much everyone outside the white, male so-called “middle class” (not to mention groups like young people, among whom consciousness raising of oppression is barely active). This doesn’t seem to matter to folks like Žižek, because they can draw the privileged into their camp with promises that the resulting vanguard will take care of women and people of color (who are technically welcome, after all) “after the revolution” (guided by the remaining white men who stay in board).

There’s nothing like an immature movement to make people with immature analysis feel righteous. And there’s nothing like a lack of real organizing experience to let someone believe exclusive ideologies won’t have exclusive effects on participation. At last, there’s nothing like being a straight white male to enable one to decide that racism and sexism are secondary to classism.

Even if you buy into a theory that poses a primacy of economics over cultural, interpersonal, and other social dynamics, consider the implications of organizing around class issues to the general exclusion of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ageism, and so forth. This is what some incarnations of the Occupy phenomenon have tended toward; women and people of color (too many links to list) especially are taking notice. And they’re not just charging that the Wall Street-oriented focus doesn’t include their particular interests; they’re noting that traditional race, sex, and age-based hierarchies are appearing within Occupy groups.

To truly transform society, a social movement will need to be radical (seek out and strike at the roots of problems), and its approach to the array of oppressions will need to be holistic. To attract the kind of diverse participation that makes a movement worth really standing behind, it will need to be at least pluralistic in this crucial regard. Sidelining or subordinating the major, legitimate concerns of people from marginalized communities and identities all but guarantees a movement dominated by people with backgrounds and privileges in tune with the top 20% that really owns and runs society, if not the 1%. And even though Occupy might be under the impression that the 99% are one big happy monolith, reality begs to differ. Failing to acknowledge this reality is essentially terminal for any radical social movement in the US, Canada, or Western Europe.

The good news is, there are elements inside most Occupy manifestations that I’ve heard of — including straight white males — who are willing to challenge failures of inclusiveness. There are folks effectively making the case for holistic or at least pluralistic approaches. Occupy may well be headed in the right direction, not least because its failure to empower an official leadership has not allowed the narrowly, materially focused among them to heed typical calls of “let’s just move on” from matters of race, gender, and so forth. That said, the failure to have accountable leadership has enabled unofficial hierarchies to develop, and this militates in the wrong direction, almost no matter their character.

If you’re participating in an Occupy general assembly or working group and feel like calls for inclusiveness and diverse objectives are bogging down the process, I urge you to rethink. There is power in movement and organizational diversity, and there is something to the idea that addressing oppressions other than hierarchy and classism is critical to the endeavor of radical social transformation.

* (I wouldn’t worry too much if the meaning of “Hegelian triad” doesn’t jump out at you; it’s pretty clear with references of this nature that you aren’t Žižek’s intended audience. There’s no use for that phrase except as a wink to those steeped in the teachings of the pre-Marxian philosopher Hegel. He’s just talking to the academics and bookworms; he doesn’t mind if the rest miss his message. If you haven’t read Hegel, maybe you don’t really matter to Žižek.)

Photo credit: Will Stevens/AP

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Are We Really All One Big Equally Unhappy 99%?

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Radical economist Michael Albert has made a tremendous contribution to the so-called occupy movement by injecting nuanced class analysis. The 99% slogan has caught on, and it’s easy to understand why. But it’s not a good idea to accept the notion that everyone who isn’t super rich is in one unified camp, even setting ideology aside. The 99% can’t form an egalitarian society or anything close to it until we address internal structural matters… such as that pesky third class aside from workers and capitalists. I believe it’s downright dangerous, and that maybe my friend Mike understates the problem, if anything.

We Are The 99% – But Are We?

 

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The Real People’s Budget

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I haven’t had a lot of time to blog lately, but I do have a good deal of stuff in the till that I’ll try to share in coming days.

I don’t know anything about the process by which this document from Occupy DC came into existence, but it’s worth reading even if it was just written by one person. It amalgamates a bunch of very interesting progressive and radical ideas. It doesn’t go far enough for my tastes, but if something like this could be popularized, I’d be thrilled to work on bringing it about. It would be a huge step in mostly the right direction.

“The 99%’s Deficit Proposal: How to create jobs, reduce the wealth divide and control spending”

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Harvard Econ Students Walk Out

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It is not surprising that students would be more astute about economics than their professor. This open letter to Harvard Prof. Greg Mankiw, in which they declare they’re walking out of his class because it has a narrow, conservative bias, is gratifying. It starts:

Dear Professor Mankiw—

Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.

Sad that these students don’t express an inkling of what’s really out there in the realm of alternative economic thought and critiques of capitalism, but maybe if they wander down to Occupy Boston while they’re sitting out Mankiw’s class, they’ll learn something useful that they’re not going to hear at Harvard. At least they know they’re being manipulated. Pretty soon, it will be their turn to do the manipulating. Let’s hope this undermines their future in this way.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

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Making Wall Street Pay

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My friend Lonnie Atkinson’s latest track. This song needs to be heard. Let’s make it viral!

How we gonna make Wall Street pay (with Anitek) by Lonnie Ray Atkinson

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Liberating Possibilities

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I was quite heartened to read Yotam Marom’s recent ZNet contribution, “Liberating the Impossible”. It’s a succinct and probably superior expression of a commentary I had been working on to share my wishes for the real potential of the so-called “occupy” movement that has swept the country and offered even the most pessimistic and cynical among decent people at least a glimmer of hope.

Any cursory glance at the occupy manifestations nationwide can see that they offer a promising model for subjective social change. That is, they are transforming the participants in very concrete ways, raising consciousness and empowering people with real skills for participating in social change. Of course, they’re not really making much objective change yet. The occupy actions are already influencing society’s understanding of itself, while perhaps inspiring some hope. But OWS and its offshoots haven’t really made reforms, let alone the kind of structural social changes that will be necessary to address the roots of the laundry list of legitimate complaints offered by the diverse array of occupy participants.

Yotam’s portrayal of what needs to happen for the occupation movement to become a real force for actual, objective change in society is astute. In his words, what is called for is a new “dual power” movement that is

able to prefigure the values of a participatory, egalitarian and solidaristic society in new and liberated institutions, while simultaneously toppling the old, oppressive structures that exploit and constrain. We must build the new and fight the old at the same time. We must do it all while telling the story of the world we are creating, to defeat the story told by the masters of the status quo.

I have been saying stuff like this for a long time (since 1996 really), but I never said it this well. In these few sentences, Yotam has captured the crux of what I call “grassroots dual power strategy”, with a terrific emphasis on the need for inspirational vision.

Right now, thousands of North Americans are living in ad-hoc communities that could be the seeds of a new society. But of course, the occupation sites themselves cannot form the literal foundation of a new society. That basis for change absolutely must be intertwoven with the fabric of the society we have today until it can create an alternative foundation and the worst auspices of anti-social (i.e. oppressive) institutions can be toppled and replaced whole cloth. If we want to pull the proverbial rug out from under institutions like capitalism and government, we need to have at least a convincing patchwork of an alternative carpet mostly in place.

Zuccoti Park and its hundreds of local spinoffs can hardly better serve as the headquarters of a mass movement for social change than could some remote commune or compound. This is because the movement needs more than the popular appeal achieved by the occupy encampments; it must make real connections to the everyday lives of people throughout society. It must not just be relevant to our hearts; it has to become relevant to many more people’s economic, cultural, political, and even personal lives by seeping into the spaces where the rest of the so-called 99 percent spend most of our time.

The headquarters of a successful social change movement for real social liberation will be found in the the workplace, the marketplace, the campus, the town hall, the neighborhood, the congregation, the festival, the home. Only when the movement pervades all of these places and more — offering alternative ways to relate and meet our real-world needs as well as practical ways to fight back or stand in solidarity with fellow resisters — will its true potential become evident to people who today don’t feel a direct connection to the occupy encampments.

I’ve been biting my tongue on these matters since the occupy protests started gaining real steam. Having spent about half my life studying, pondering, discussing, writing, and lecturing on matters of large-scale social change strategy, I hesitate to offer specific ideas for getting from this consciousness-raising stage (which I never knew how to achieve) to the institution-building phase. Those of us looking on from the outside, or coming out of past movements that never accomplished over years a consciousness-raising or imagination-stimulating achievements that the occupiers have already managed, should continue observing and not offering more than encouragement and support during this critical phase. Outsiders using the iconic “human microphone” to say “Go home and start organizing your communities” would rightly be no more welcome than sectarians urging the movement to join some obscure party.

But this fledgling movement has to (and I believe can) make that transition to a dual power. It may come as a natural, evolutionary outgrowth of the occupy phase. Or maybe it will be a leap from spectacular encampment to the far-less-sexy community and workplace organizing activities. Sooner or later, I hope movement participants will recognize a mid-term objective of forming a real dual power capable not only of challenging the dominant system but offering real-world alternatives.

But then again, I think Yotam already said this even better than I can after all these years. And his words are probably going to ring truer with his generation, hopefully more so than mine ever did in my own time. I love the way Yotam portrays the potential for a subsequent phase that would mark the manifestation of a dual-power movement:

We will make a real impact when we re-open the abandoned hospitals and put doctors in them; when we bring the occupation to the schools and the schools to the occupation; when we liberate foreclosed homes not just for a day, but to move families back into them. We will make a real impact when the government sessions where they continue to pass new austerity measures behind our backs are interrupted by our active resistance to them; when the arms trucks can’t get across the bridges because we’ve blocked them; when the banks have to close not their branch lobbies, but their headquarters, because those they have disenfranchised have risen up to barricade their doorways.

Do yourself the favor of reading the rest of his short incitement.

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The Future Economy of International Activism

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[Note: This post was published prematurely by mistake. It has been changed to reflect that Jonathan Glennie did not in fact work for PBI in Colombia (he worked with them as a member of a separate organization). Significant copy edits were made. –BD]

One aim for this blog is to tie activism and economics more closely. Not because I want to inject economic concepts into activism as much as the reverse, or at least to show how serious economic thought and social change or solidarity work are intertwined.

A recent commentary in The Guardian does this well. The former Colombia office manager for a Christian Aid chapter says Peace Brigades International, known for a style of solidarity activism called “protective accompaniment”, is “An NGO fit for the future”. And while I don’t know if he’s right, I like that Jonathan Glennie is looking ahead and encouraging basically radical innovation in the world of international activism.

Glennie starts with a rather odd assumption:

Assuming (and hoping) that the world’s poor countries continue to do relatively well economically, as they have done for the past decade, gradually the problems will become less associated with absolute lack of money.

By “gradually”, he must mean really gradually, with a patient eye for optimism most non-NGOers could never muster. But in any case, Glennie crucially doesn’t miss foreseeing a potential counter-shift based on inevitable effects of climate change or the probable costs of energy and resource price spikes.

The future challenge for international NGOs will be to discern the new threats to the interests of the poorest and most marginalised that emanate from an increasingly unequal, volatile and resource-scarce world.

Gratifyingly, Glennie put human rights in perspective, suggesting NGOs should do what he claims Peace Brigades attempts to, which is “make the links between attacks on human rights defenders and certain development models that lead to displacement and environmental degradation.” He explains:

In my experience, those countries that are most vociferous in their support of human rights defenders are the ones that go cold when questions are raised about their own corporate interests that lie at the heart of the problem. Canada and the UK are prime examples. They will go out on a limb to stand up for human rights, but suggest that it is their own mining companies that are causing the problem and you might as well be talking to a wall.

Most NGOs are incapable, owing to mission constraints and structural ineptness, to ask the big questions essentially hitting on why they exist in the first place. Their mantras more or less boil down to “treat the symptoms”, implicitly ignoring the cause.

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