Archive for Originals

Capitalism: ‘Its Own Worst Enemy’ (And Yours, Too, But Who Cares?)

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We’ve got a live one!

A pair of corporate CEOs have decided capitalism is ailing. They start their Project Syndicate commentary off in a super original way that isn’t cliche’ed in the field at all, riffing off Churchill’s famous quote about democracy being the worst system “except for all the rest”. The writers opine that capitalism is the worst type of economy, except for all the others they’ve no doubt researched exhaustively.

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Paul Polman of Unilever and Lynn Forester de Rothschild of E.L. Rothschild are joining the ranks of liberal capitalists concerned that capitalism, after saving all the poor people from the very poverty it consigned them to, might at long last harm something that really matters: capitalism itself.

Capitalism has guided the world economy to unprecedented prosperity. Yet it has also proved dysfunctional in important ways. It often encourages shortsightedness, contributes to wide disparities between the rich and the poor, and tolerates the reckless treatment of environmental capital.

If these costs cannot be controlled, support for capitalism may disappear – and with it, humanity’s best hope for economic growth and prosperity.

Let’s break this down. First of all, Polman and de Rothschild think two of the most upsetting problems with capitalism are “shortsightedness” and its contribution to “wide disparities between rich and poor”.

The dominant economic system on Earth is apparently just one reason some people are rich and some are poor. The other reasons must be those invisible reallocation pixies that come in the night to transfer wealth to the haves, like reverse Robin Hoods.

Financial disparity is a problem in many ways that are getting lots of deserved attention lately, but I’d have to say the abject poverty that capitalism keeps much of the world in by depriving it of a sensible system for allocating basic goods and services to those most in need (instead sending them to those most able to pay), is a much bigger problem than the wealth gap. That is, a gap between super-rich and comfortable would be one thing; however, the actual canyon we’re saddled with is from a super rich elite to a massive underclass of billions who lack consistent access to basic necessities.

(Polman and de Rothschild do at the end of their article take a stand against extreme poverty in and of itself, but throughout the piece they maintain that capitalism is the savior from, not the cause of, such poverty.)

It’s not entirely obvious what is meant by “shortsightedness”, but in context of the piece, it seems to refer back to the main thesis: that capitalism will engender its own demise. They advise businesses to “look beyond profit and loss to maintain public support for a market economy”. Be less profit-driven in order to make sure the system that drives your profits remains intact.

Capitalism is of course also shortsighted in that the profit motive leads firms to eat their future lunch by eschewing long-term product and market planning to suit short-term returns. This seems to be another of the writers’ concerns, but it’s not inherent to capitalism, as Polman’s Unilever claims to demonstrate. (The other problems – inequality and environmental destruction – are indeed inherent to capitalism.)

And, yes, the writers really did cite “reckless treatment of environmental capital” – not devastation and unsustainability, and not the environment per se, but mere mistreatment of that portion of the natural world that is useful to capitalists – as the final of the three things capitalism does wrong.

Problems with markets and capitalism not cited by Polman and de Rothschild, most of them externalities not accounted for in the prices we pay for products and labor:

  • climate change
  • class antagonism
  • inhumane working conditions
  • alienated labor
  • animal exploitation
  • undermining democracy
  • absurd privatizations (schools, prisons, etc)
  • fiat currencies (and black markets)
  • debt
  • un(der)employment
  • intellectual property
  • limitless growth on a finite planet
  • crass consumerism
  • commodification of life

I’m probably missing some.

Anyway, what do Polman and de Rothschild say is the risk of not minding the problems that matter to them?

If these costs cannot be controlled, support for capitalism may disappear – and with it, humanity’s best hope for economic growth and prosperity. It is therefore time to consider new models for capitalism that are emerging around the world – specifically, conscious capitalism, moral capitalism, and inclusive capitalism.

Again, I would love to see the array of noncapitalist alternatives Polman and de Rothschild have familiarized themselves with in order to support their claim that (modified) capitalism is our best hope. It surely is a very dismal hope as it stands, but sure enough, these glass-half-fullers hold out that capitalist elites can save us from the certain disaster that would result from us shedding the yokes of concentrated capital, exploitative markets, and dehumanizing hierarchy.

These preferred “models” all

share the assumption that companies must be mindful of their role in society and work to ensure that the benefits of growth are broadly shared and do not impose unacceptable environmental and social costs.

Polman and de Rothschild don’t go into specifics, but these are basically mindset protocols, not actual economic structures or institutions; they’re not systemic models, just enterprise models. That is, business leaders are supposed to just do the right thing out of the goodness of their heart, with faith that in the long run, their bottom line will reflect the sensibility of prudent past decisions. Nothing to structurally incentivize or enforce changes, aside from a belief that doing the right thing will pay off.

Addressing the failures of modern capitalism will require strong leadership and extensive cooperation between businesses, governments, and NGOs. To begin creating a path forward, we are convening key global leaders in London on May 27 for a conference on inclusive capitalism. Top executives from institutions representing more than $30 trillion in investable assets – one-third of the world’s total – will be in attendance. Their aim will be to establish tangible steps that firms can take to begin changing the way business is done – and rebuilding public confidence in capitalism.

So after noting that the effort will have to involve governments and NGOs, though not necessarily any grassroots representation of civil society or apparently even organized labor, the authors brag that their conference will involve a staggeringly disproportionate representation of wealth. Advocates of “inclusive capitalism” will have the ears of elites representing a massive amount of capital, and presumably those representatives will have the ears of the government and civil-society do-gooders, as well. What could possibly go wrong?

The list of speakers at the conference includes representatives of such humanitarian institutions as the IMF, GlaxoSmithKline, UBS, and Dow Chemical, plus elites like Bill Clinton, Larry Summers, and fellow Titanic deck-chair rearranger, Jeremy Grantham. Apparently just one person from organized labor will be given a microphone, along with nobody from an environmental group or a consumer advocacy organization. The only identifiable progressive on the roster is Chrystia Freeland. But somehow, this meeting is expected to yield progress, without even having key stakeholders represented.

In any case, the argument here is that microeconomic adjustments by concerned CEOs and boards at major corporations, usually fighting the wishes of greedy shareholders every step of the way, will save capitalism from the litany of contradictions and abuses that threaten humanity, the environment, and yes capitalism itself. This notion is quite simply absurd.

But don’t take my word for it – read the Project Syndicate piece, and this one by de Rothschild, and this one on “moral capitalism”, and this one on “conscious capitalism”. Then decide for yourself if they (a) address the full host of problems with capitalism; (b) take the problems they do address seriously enough for the right reasons; and (c) even remotely meet a burden of proof required of a solution to be considered realistic.

Banner reads: "Capitalism isn't working - another world is possible"

 

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‘Market Leninism’ is Kinda Just Fascism

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Political commentator and Daily Beast managing editor John Avlon has been throwing around a label for the emerging political economies of Russia and China that I think was introduced by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times two decades ago. Avlon explains in a Daily Beast commentary that was picked up by several other outlets:

Russia and China, along with some of their old satellite states, have traded Marx and Lenin for Market Leninism. The militaristic one-party state endures with varying degrees of electoral kabuki, but the nomenklatura now attracts global capital, swilling champagne in jet set nightclubs instead of behind dacha walls.

This twist on “Marxism-Leninism” may sound slightly catchy, but if you think about it, they’re basically just becoming fascist economies, and there’s really no need to invent a new term – certainly not one so ridiculous as “Market-Leninism”. The neo-nomenklatura, or the new propertied ruling class, of Russia and China are the freshly christened millionaires and billionaires who parallel the domestic industrialists of fascist European nations in the 1930s. Those outside the Party’s core don’t directly wield tremendous political power, but if they play by the rules, they thrive on the kind of institutionalized corruption and cronyism that marked Italian, German, and Spanish experiments with fascism.

This critique isn’t meant to start a semantics debate; I really just want to take the opportunity to highlight the structural similarities between the post-Communist economies like Russia’s, China’s, and Vietnam’s, with the European fascism of the mid-Twentieth Century. It’s worth noting, due to the frightening prospects for this model influencing contemporary American political economy, which may be far more likely than you’d guess.

We currently define economies with broad strokes based on dominant attributes.* The US is characterized by private ownership of most industry, as well as by market determinants of material and wealth coordination; we call this market capitalism, even though the markets aren’t pure and there are lots of publicly owned enterprises. In the Soviet Union, industrial ownership was nationalized and central planning was the chief method for deciding who made and consumed how much of what goods and services – command socialism.

In fascist countries like Germany and Italy, the model was private ownership of most industry, markets determining most prices, but the state intervening heavily through command to enforce nationalistic priorities and to ensure stability. Basically, Hitler and Mussolini reserved the prerogative to override any market signal with a new directive.

This is a power still out of executive and even governmental reach in modern Western Europe and North America but exercised with regularity in China and Russia today. When contemporary Western governments want to broadly influence industry, they tend to do it through the blunt instrument of legislative policymaking that encourages or discourages certain economic activity for national priorities. Executives can’t command very much in the economic sphere.

The transformation of the past quarter century, in both Russia and China, has involved much greater market influence internally, to be sure. But also a massive privatization of industries, and there’s nothing Leninist about privatization. Avlon even alludes to this being the major variation between the Cold War and now, citing the fact that “the nomenklatura now attracts global capital” in his paragraph defining “Market Leninism”.

Of course, to be clear, that’s not the part that upsets John Avlon or Nick Kristoff. To Western neoliberals, privatization of the means of production is a natural step. They are just upset about the nationalistic tendencies that manifest as the one-party state overriding market forces. Avlon is complaining about the heavy-handed, iron-fisted, one-party domination of these countries’ economies and the refusal of individual civil liberties. That’s where the (quite legitimate) charge of lingering “Leninism” comes from.

Yet if you’re going to mix private ownership with overwhelming government interference in the coordination aspect, aren’t you really talking about fascism? Fascist economics is all about maintaining a small, wealthy capitalist class while enforcing strict adherence to nationalistic principles and service to the state, with the government intervening to both stabilize and reprioritize economic activity.

Writing of then-Chinese ruler Deng Xiaoping, Kristoff noted in 1993 that China’s leadership was post-Marxism-Leninism, with a privatization spree already underway. Deng and his circle had eschewed Marx’s rejection of markets yet retained “a fondness for Leninism, in the sense of highly disciplined one-party rule with centralized decision-making”. Kristoff added, “Their aim, in other words, is Market-Leninism.”

Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler all had similar takes on Marx and Lenin. They were vehemently opposed to using central planning to orchestrate socioeconomic equality, preferring distinctive class divisions as virtuous. So they figured, why not let capitalist markets do the default economic coordination, since as Marx himself had rightly argued, markets and the pursuit of profit will tend to exacerbate those class divisions? But the fascists concluded they should indeed use a strong, unopposed nationalist party and cadre to enforce essential central planning in favor of state power whenever necessary. This was one of Lenin’s highly miscalculated (and vile) contributions to the actual implementation of the Marxian project; it’s what Hitler, Mao, Lenin, and Mussolini all had in common vis-a-vis economics.

The transformations in China and Russia have been very much in this direction and sound exceedingly fascistic. In each:

  1. the means of production are increasingly owned primarily by an elite wealthy class or nationalized to enable graft;
  2. controlled by fiat or regulated in such a way as to sustain rent-seeking among capitalist cronies;
  3. otherwise with market forces doing the basic price-setting and coordinating; and
  4. a state that offers boisterous rhetorical support for the “working class” but deprioritizes worker’s rights and effectively outlaws autonomous organization of labor.

In the case of Russia, in fact, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to draw many significant structural differences between its political economy and those of mid-20th Century fascist states. China maintains more nationalized industries, but this too is changing through a form of liberalization that so far affects capitalist property rights far more than individual political rights.

Avlon’s concern seems to be that economic liberalization has not led to democracy in the formerly communist states, which on one hand undermines hypotheses that capitalism is inherently democratizing, but on the other hand suggests they’re just not doing capitalism right.

What’s worse, some [American] CEOs privately grouse that they would rather invest their capitol [sic] in one-party states, not only because of the potential rate of return, but also because they feel America’s political system is increasingly inefficient and chaotic when it comes to making long-term decisions.

I’m far more concerned that China (more so than Russia, for sure) will demonstrate a more durable version of capitalism during periods of economic tribulation than the relatively laissez faire nations of the world generally have. As crises driven by resource depletion and climate change generate more and more national emergencies, Americans will hopefully begin to realize what a danger markets pose and how weak the various preferred methods of regulating or manipulating them through political means. And you can bet your bald spot China will be responding more assertively and often more effectively to similar challenges on its land and shores.

Avlon continues, about the claims of inefficiency in the capitalism-democracy mix:

We’ve heard these claims before. In the 1930s, the buzz was that liberal capitalist democracy was decadent and declining – that the pluralism and diversity of the USA was our greatest weakness because we could not reason together. … The mirror-image systems of communism and fascism promised to solve problems quickly through command and control.

This is of course true in the long run, and Avlon is right that democratically influenced Western capitalism proved more resilient in peacetime than the even-more-vicious manifestations such as the Soviet and Nazi systems. But what about a softer form of command-and-control capitalism? The new fascism has features that are attractive to capitalists unconcerned about the personal liberties of industrial workers and the poor. And make no mistake, this system is more likely to appeal to liberals than to conservatives.

Note as well, any Western capitalist eyeing the Chinese system with envy is not lusting over any remnant unique to Marxism. He’s not licking his lips over the use of central planning to flatten classes. His nascent drool has nothing to do with high rates of public ownership of industry. He’s looking at private ownership and a government-manipulated market, currency, etc.

Fascist economics is, after all, a form of capitalism. It’s only a couple of steps removed from the American-style cocktail. Classic fascism embraced all of the main elements of the American political economy except (1) fondness for international trade and (2) our less-bilateral influence between industry and polity. Whereas the fascist government reserved the right to control industry (the erstwhile funders of the ruling party) in service to the state, the Western “democracy” observes a largely hands-off policy, behaving more like a puppet on behalf of its funders, with only the pretense of respect for a so-called “national interest” and intervention to avert only the most egregious market failures.

Other characteristics of fascism include fomentation of class antagonism and elimination of effective political opposition. Class antagonism has not reached fascistic levels in the United States by any means, mostly because the working class has not played an active role in the conflict as it did in 1920s Europe. (However, we certainly have the fascist work ethic down!)

With regard to political opposition, as Avlon notes, instead of a command-ready one-party state, US national politics is hobbled by petty divides separating the two branches of the capitalist party (that last bit is my interpretation, not Avlon’s). He obviously yearns for a vibrant two-party dynamic that can compromise decisively, but in truth all of these options are just various ways a polity can relate to its financial backbone. With such a demonstrably slim difference between fascism and capitalism, it’s not clear why the Avlons and the Kristoffs spend so much of their time focused on the shortcomings of the Chinas and the Russias instead of analyzing the corporatist structure of the US political economy.

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*There are two main determinants of the broad character of an economy. These are (1) ownership of the means of production and (2) form of coordination. To keep it simple, the ownership options are basically: collective (state or public ownership) or private (individual or shareholder ownership). On the matter of how much of what goods and services are produced and consumed by whom, the options are basically planning (command) or markets (supply/demand). The dominant options tend to determine the form of economy: market capitalist, planned socialism, market socialism, or planned capitalism (fascism).

Chinese propaganda poster from chineseposters.net.

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Hierarchy on the Defensive

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You might expect capitalism-centric media would react negatively to the recent buzz around Valve Software‘s innovative non-hierarchical structure. I was actually a little surprised about how un-reactionary the broad response was. The problem for industry media is, it’s really hard to defend hierarchy with actual research. Most behavioral economics research has uncovered big holes in the conventional workplace structure, which is of course maintained in order to foster and perpetuate class divisions, keeping a tiny owner class, a minority coordinator class, and the largest possible share remaining as fundamentally disempowered, disenfranchised worker bees.

I was actually wondering where the reaction to Valve’s novelty revelation of its innovative structure and policies was hiding. So much industry reportage had just treated it as a lark to note and move past. (Probably the wiser strategy.)

Then I saw Inc. magazine’s apologetics piece purportedly defending the virtues of hierarchy. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of contortions would be needed to try to undermine what is becoming more and more obvious: that workers thrive under conditions of empowerment, and that class divisions and disparities of wealth and income are causes of anxiety and dissatisfaction.

But I thought the establishment press would be able to come up with something a little better than this, at least.

Titled “Your employees like hierarchy (no, really)”, the short Inc. piece squirms for a minute then ends up praising Valve. The title addresses you as if the author knows who the fuck you and your employees are. It assumes they’re just like the subjects of a laughably conducted study that proves conclusively that people prefer the way a hierarchy looks on paper. Of course, the study purports to show that people appreciate being in a pecking order. But in fact, it does nothing of the sort.

Let’s not pick on the poor journalism in the Inc. article. The study’s own press release is shoddy enough.

The researchers apparently did not actually test whether their subects would like to work in a hierarchy. Not only did the study fail to examine actual workplaces of various structures and compare them, it didn’t even put the subjects in the hypothetical perspective of employees.

(c) 2006, Carol Simpson

In one of the five experiments used in the study, researchers had subjects react to pairs of photographs of people’s faces that had been independently analyzed for dominant vs. submissive features.

The results indicated that subjects consistently responded more quickly to the pair of photos consisting of a “dominant” face and a “submissive” face — what they termed the “hierarchy condition” — than to any other pair. They concluded that because people process pictures of hierarchies faster than pictures of equalities, hierarchies are easier for people to perceive.

Taking the results at face value (pun intended), what’s the point? I honestly don’t know. Ease of perception is supposed to correlate to preference, let alone actual validation? Nice try.

What’s next?

The second experiment sought to prove that people have an easier time remembering hierarchical relationships than equal ones, and therefore like them better.

To be fair, judging from the abstract, the researchers apparently surveyed the participants on their preference; they didn’t just infer it from ease of memorability of a seating chart (sometimes PR teams get a little carried away in relaying findings). But still, who cares if it takes someone slightly longer to learn the structure of a collective vs. a hierarchy? Has ease of memorability been independently correlated with long term appreciation? Is it even conceivable that you would list “how long it takes to learn the workplace structure” among your top 100 factors in choosing an employer, given you’ll likely spend years there after the few days or maybe weeks it takes to figure out who’s who?

The third experiment involved testing whether subjects more quickly memorized relationships of power hierarchy (boss/worker) over differentials in friendliness. Again, how could we possibly extrapolate a livelihood preference from such an exercise?

“The symmetric-orders condition, where people could give orders to the same people who gave them orders, was extremely hard for people to learn,” the study concluded. “This is interesting because sometimes organizations try to create equality by producing more symmetry; that is, by empowering people to give orders to one another and to take orders from one another. Yet, this kind of structure was confusing to our participants, and some even complained that these relationships did not make sense.”

They weren’t dealing with real people! Not even real fellow subjects, just fictitious people on paper. Of course it would be confusing. This experiment is not in the slightest way an analysis of how people behave in the real world, with real human beings.

I work every day in two flat workplaces. In both cases, team members regularly assign each other tasks. We use a project management system that’s configured to give everyone the power to do so. Sometimes we reassign tasks or even assign them back to the person that gave them to us, indicating we don’t have the capacity or we’re not the best specialist to do it. It’s not confusing. It’s empowering!

The fourth experiment was much more interesting and conceivably relevant.

Using their home computers, subjects were asked to read materials and provide recommendations for a fictitious company, whose goals included “downsize by 10 percent,” “phase out the Atlanta office,” and “increase the number of women in senior positions.” The materials contained spreadsheets of employees’ names, genders, ages, and performance ratings, as well as organizational charts showing their locations and positions.

That’s where the researchers manipulated the variable: some of the charts demonstrated little or no hierarchy, with a maximum of three levels per department, while others revealed a much more stratified structure, with highly differentiated job titles.

Next step: the participant got to do some firing! But all this experiment examined (by its own admission), is how outsiders would handle the challenge. And from what I’m able to see (I don’t have the actual model), it’s not clear that there was any attempt to actually familiarize the subjects with the way the organization worked. That said, the experiment does demonstrate the obvious: that someone from outside an organization will have a harder time analyzing a collective than a traditional hierarchy. So don’t bring in an outside firm to downsize your egalitarian workplace.

It’s also worth noting that in Experiment 4, the participants “expressed a much more positive view of the [hierarchical] firm and its employees”. This could have bearing on all sorts of matters, including prospective customer/client or partner or investor relationships for a company that eschews old-fashioned organizing in favor of a progress-aware approach.

Furthermore, it’s interesting that the charts used in Experiment 4 varied in two ways: stratification and job titles. There’s nothing about less-hierarchical workplaces that would suggest job titles can’t be significantly varied. It’s just bad methodology to change two variables when testing for one factor.

In the end, to a progressively minded person, these findings simply suggest there needs to be a shift in social attitudes towards organizations, away from judging how they’re structured, toward judging how and if they work. Indeed, if the study didn’t include outcome differentials, it’s that much more worthless. I suspect that testing four objects instead of two would have had revealing results. That is:

  • a successful collective
  • a successful hierarchy
  • a failed collective
  • a failed hierarchy

Who thinks success would not have five or more times the influence of the structure variable?

The fifth and final experiment is the real zinger. I find it frankly jaw-dropping that it is treated as anything but an impeachment of the first four experiments. Long story short, participants had an easier time recognizing — and indicated a preference for — hierarchies that were headed by a male as opposed to a female, all else being equal. That’s not very shocking, if you live on planet Earth, where sexism pervades.

What is disturbing is that the researchers don’t reject the first four subject preference equals objective superiority conclusions based on the findings in the fifth experiment. All they’re showing — at most — is that people raised in a messed-up society show messed-up, even self-defeating preferences. No duh.

The researchers were at best gleaning whether people objectively — that is, from the outside — preferred the look of a hierarchy vs. a flat structure. They found out how people who are also generally sexist (like most of us — male man, female woman, trans, whatever) perceive hierarchy. The subjects received no orientation, no special training, not even an explanation, as you would find in any halfway decent workplace, collective or otherwise. The study is a joke, and anyone using it to defend hierarchy looks very desperate.

All that being the case, I think it’s pretty obvious that not everyone would prefer a nonhierarchical workplace. Most people, understandably, are wary of change and newness. I’d love to see a survey of contrasting samples: those who work in collectives vs. those who work in hierarchies. Or, maybe tell us if participants who preferred male-dominated hierarchies are the same subjects that found hierarchy more comfortable in general. Then we’d know if people we should admire — those who did not show a recognition preference for male bosses — favor other forms of equality, too, at least from the outside.

(c) Carol Simpson

What’s funniest of all is that half the Inc. article is taken up introducing the reader to Valve Software’s alternative, horizontal structure, and is not particularly critical in its assessment. For more about Valve’s awesome bossless approach, check out this analysis and this narrative.

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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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The Generational Wealth Gap

IOU in a piggy bank
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There’s been a social storm of intergenerational conflict on the horizon for a long time. Some say it’s merely hype meant to undermine Social Security and Medicare; others believe it’s the likely battlefield of future class conflict. I think it’s somewhere in the middle, but new research suggests the real-world rupture may be more severe than most of us have feared. That doesn’t mean we’re headed for a war between the ages; it just means we should pay attention and try to avert one.

study released last week by Pew suggests there’s been a drastic shift in the intergenerational wealth gap. Under an economic system like capitalism, which permits the accumulation of wealth, it’s only “natural” that older generations would accumulate greater net worth. But these figures point to a serious shift in that ages-old paradigm.

Pew doesn’t put it so bluntly, but basically what we’re looking at is a significant transfer of wealth from young to old in a way atypical of human history.

chart of generational net worth by age group, comparing 1984 to 2009.

Make sure you take a good, long look at those figures. Occupy Wall Street folks clamoring about how the so-called 1% are the only ones to have gained as a class in recent decades might want to take note: Baby Boomers and older folks did better as a class, too. And they seemingly did it on the backs of younger generations. They’re not alchemists, so their wealth came from somewhere, and it’s no coincidence that younger generations have less relative to what their elders had when they were young. Make no mistake, the super-rich capitalist class did way better than the “elderly” class has done over these same years. But these findings are still alarming.

Pew produced few hard figures detailing what’s behind the shift. I suspect much if not most change in the gap can be accounted for by debt; mainly student loans and relatively new mortgages. The benefit of this widened predation disproportionately went to the ultra-rich, of course, but pretty much anyone with 401k or pension fund investments was likely gaining off the trend of more young people getting into more debt. (I do not have data on hand to back this up, so I’d love to hear if I’m wrong.)

During the period in question, elites among Baby Boomers and their parents, the so-called Greatest Generation, managed to undermine blue collar labor across North America, which forced more and more young people to seek college educations. These elites were meanwhile hurting their own age peers, but overall the impact was far greater on those who had little or no established wealth to speak of. They emerged with crippling debt that their degrees aren’t paying back so quickly, and now the white collar jobs and wages they were seeking are basically going the same way or aren’t as secure as promised. They bought homes to provide financial security, but a housing bubble stripped them of equity.

It has long been accepted that each generation is supposed to leave the following generation better off in every possible way; it’s supposed to be “the American way”. That trend has ended. Wealth has been shifted in the wrong direction, as has the burden.

In case the above isn’t staggering enough, look at this switcheroo.

poverty shifts from old to young over the decades

Now, the progressive line on this is that these figures are inaccurate/relatively meaningless and being spun as a case against Social Security and Medicare. (Actually, I haven’t seen much addressing the poverty factor illustrated above, but I’m talking about the more widely publicized Pew findings about net worth and income.)

Well, I’m certainly not trying to start an “intergenerational war” (talk about overhyping; folks, nobody said leftists don’t know how to use alarming language), and I’m certainly not against Social Security or Medicare, and I don’t fall for the bullshit conservative arguments against them. But that doesn’t mean these findings are not significant and illustrative of a real social problem.

My point in reporting and analyzing these figures is not to engender intergenerational animosity. I certainly don’t think this was a plot by the older generations. If anything, it represents the results of a values split that probably started during the early postwar era, when commercialism and an erosion of interpersonal class solidarity redefined what Americans care about. I’m not saying my generation has been or will be any different in this regard, which is to show a severe disregard for those coming up behind us.

I don’t even think older folks are aware of this apparent shift. More research needs to be done on it. But if it is as real as it seems (and as frankly logic dictates it would be), then it’s something that needs to be addressed along with pressing the 1%. Those in the more politically influential generations need to reverse the shift by investing accumulated wealth in younger generations. There doesn’t need to be a war; once the misplaced burden is identified, redistributing it fairly would be a way to alleviate any bubbling resentment.

photo by: Images_of_Money
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Thriving After Collapse: Three Approaches to Survival and Beyond

Dilbert talks survivalism.
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I see three general approaches to preparing for the impending social/economic/ecological collapse. I’ll talk more about my own views of how I see that coming, and in fact more about the preparation strategies described here, but I thought a brief introduction would be handy down the road.

The most obvious model is the nuclear survivalist approach. I use the term nuclear as in the “nuclear family” unit, but the strategy has its roots in the original contemporary apocalyptic scenario*: atomic holocaust. This is where you stockpile supplies for you and yours and prepare to protect them by force.

The second and third ways are similar, and not mutually exclusive**. The second approach is community survivalism. This is where an entire community prepares for the eventual collapse. A community here might mean a neighborhood or a village or conceivably even a city, or it might be a local sub-group that self-identifies as a federation or network of households.

The third approach is dual power. This is where a community (defined as above) pro-actively organizes to avert the worst impacts of collapse. A dual power is named such as it operates while the current system is still fully functional. This approach, if taken up on a large enough scale, would constitute a social revolution. It would not avert the collapse of the current system per se, but it would potentially ameliorate some of its worse impacts, and might indeed more gracefully bring about the downfall of the dominant system. And if it failed in doing so, it could fall back to functioning as a community survivalist approach to endure collapse.

There are pros and cons to each of these systems, but as you can already tell, I strongly favor the dual power model, because I’m not a very individualistic, short-term, or even local thinker. I advocate the approach that is best for the most. But I also think in the long run, the dual power strategy is the only one that has the potential to do anything other than delay suffering even of the best-prepared survivors.

Nuclear Survivalism

The nuclear survivalist approach is a model that offers you the most control. There are fewer moving parts, so it’s the most reliable, independent option. Even if you expand the model slightly beyond the nuclear family or household, the scale can be relatively manageable. There’s none of the messiness associated with democracy, mutual aid, and larger-scale cooperation.

Unfortunately, the nuclear survivalist model has severe limitations, owing primarily to economies of scale and division of labor — that is, a distinct lack of each. A small group with limited skills can only accomplish just so much, so the nuclear survivalist must stockpile massively. Stockpiles, besides being strictly finite and thus having a literal shelf life, are attractive to hostiles and require vigilant defense.

The nuclear survivalist also has a limited domain. Even if you’re using the cabin-in-the-woods approach, going out to hunt, gather, cultivate, or scavenge is very dangerous. So once stockpiled supplies are depleted, the game shifts dramatically. At this point, the nuclear survivalist will be wishing for community.

Dilbert talks survivalism.

Community Survivalism

This model essentially just ups the scale from the household model to a larger group. Since a community can be defined as just an array of households scattered around a neighborhood or village, or it can be an entire town, it’s hard to paint an encompassing portrait. But all applications share some basic advantages and liabilities.

Greater division of labor and economies of scale make life easier once any stores are depleted, and indeed they open up various options for stockpiling and distributing essentials. The community approach offers basic insurance against acute tragedies such as fire (backup housing) or illness (assuming there’s at least one medical specialist in the group and/or supplies include medicines no single family would expect to store).

In most cases, the community scale also upgrades the domain in which it is safe to be outside acquiring inputs, as perimeter patrolling becomes realistic.

On the other hand, this model requires cooperation between units with varying interests, and presumably it involves democratic structures that are more unwieldy than those enjoyed (or eschewed) at the household level. In terms of economics, the community survivalist model introduces the problems associated with scale, such as competition over “surplus” resources between people who contribute variously. And in the end, all of this cooperation and organizing is still hyper-local and short-sighted, not particularly unlike nuclear survivalism.

Finally, as compared to the dual power strategy, community survivalism offers no recourse for practice. Community survivalists plan for crisis but do not engage in active relations as an operational community until that crisis hits.

This is incidentally the approach that resonates with many because Michael Ruppert advocates it in Collapse. Review this short clip and decide for yourself its relative appeal.

Dual Power Community

This strategy is largely identical to community survivalism, except it is put into practice before crisis hits. Or, perhaps more accurately, it recognizes a crisis in the present and begins addressing said crisis. The other difference is that the dual power model is intended to be transformative. Its mode is not survivalist but rather transitional and change oriented. Dual power organizers look to affect conditions rather than merely cope with them. They see change not just as something inevitable to respond to but forces that can be affected. The dual power approach plans to come out the other side of any crisis ahead in as many realms as is possible.

Otherwise, it shares the weaknesses of community survivalism, and these are not insignificant. There is far less of a guarantee that a community undertaking a dual power strategy would make it through the first winter in a post-collapse world than the nuclear survivalism approach. And it’s obviously much harder to talk about issues of organizing for crisis with one’s neighbors than with one’s family.

But as time goes on, these difficulties will likely fade, as the topic of surviving post-collapse will become increasingly popular and less taboo. Those with an idea of how to thrive, not merely cope, under chronically catastrophic conditions may sound more appealing than advocates of running for the hills.

Conclusion

I have a lot more to say on these matters, but for now I just wanted to get a general entry up so I could refer back to it as I post on various related issues. To be clear, I’m not one of these people who is heralding collapse as the way to spark the change I’ve always known we’ve needed. I have hopes that we will respond to collapse, at least when it is imminent if not sooner, in a way that gives us a foot forward by building community and planning for transformation. But I’d much rather see that happen now, and watch humanity enjoy a relatively bloodless transition to a model that works for everyone instead of just for elites, as market capitalism and central planning always have. And I most hope we avoid the command capitalism (fascism) I think a lot of people will want to turn to once it’s “too late”.

* It’s curious to note that there was very little time in human history prior to the advent of nuclear weapons during which any kind of event — war, weather, economic collapse — threatened to set an entire society back dramatically. Local subsistence and self-reliance were watchwords in an epoch marked by acute scarcity. Only in the industrial age, which started scarcely a century before the US acquired the atom bomb, have we become so dependent on institutions of scale that their disappearance threatens nearly every aspect of our way of life, and certainly our economic footing.

** To be fair, the nuclear survivalist strategy is not necessarily mutually exclusive to the community and dual power approaches. It’s more a matter of where effort and focus are concentrated. One could stockpile and plan for one’s family while also engaging in community organizing efforts. But generally, the mindset is very different, and I think individualism effectively discourages a more social approach.

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How Outsiders Will View Our Demise

anarcho-robot
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I made this movie to express my frustration with where we’re headed. It’s not particularly informative, but I hope it’s a funny way to make people think about how untenable our economic system is.

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