Gramsci on Crisis

December 13, 2011

It may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historical events; they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life.

…the content is the crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony, which occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated,add up to a revolution. A “crisis of authority” is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the State.

Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

You Might Stop the Party But You Can’t Stop the Future

December 12, 2011

The acid house explosion provided an inspirational moment for the London underground, participants in which were taking squats and throwing parties amid the sensorial atmosphere enhanced by new technologies, music, and drugs. Under a novel soundtrack and mindscape, these were adventurous times in which a bizarre range of disused government and industrial buildings were occupied. Circus Normal held several huge events in 1990 in a bus garage in Camberwell reputed to be endowed with the largest single-space roof in Europe. Circus Lunatek broke into and occupied a NatWest bank in New Cross and a Barclays in Brockley, South London, in 1991. They would even occupy a police station garage in Elephant & Castle, South London, with Jiba, Vox Populi, and Bedlam sound systems in 1992, and admitted themselves to a ballet school in Kent with Bedlam and others in 1993.

-Graham St John, Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures

While the Occupy movement excavates its history of successful political actions, as Julie McIntyre points out we should also incorporate into this narrative the “libidinal disruptions” and cultural productions that characterize interventions into militarized space. The golden age of rave is over (many claimed it was over by the Nineties), but squat raves persist, while sloughing off some of the more carnivalesque trappings of old. Whereas the early squat ravers’ militancy was mostly semiotic, in the language of their flyers and track titles, a generation growing up under the militarized police forces of neoliberalism often take things a step or two further. Attendants at this 2010 squat rave successfully repulsed attacks by riot police.

The soundtrack is stripped of any new ageism of early rave, just caustic beats with the repeated refrain of “fuck the police.” As we all know, this slogan was popularized by N.W.A., whose own militant aesthetic arose from the then-extraordinary military-style repression that characterized the LAPD’s pursuit of the “War on Drugs.” An earlier L.A. rap song on this topic, Toddy Tee’s “Batterram” from 1985, had a more bemused tone than NWA, but served as a nationwide warning call to ghettos across the U.S.: “New York, it’s coming. Detroit, it’s coming. L.A., it’s coming – no, it’s here!” over the diesel churn of LAPD’s military hardware.

Another song of similarly striking prescience is IDC’s “This Is Not A Riot” from 2009, which begins with a clip from “V for Vendetta,” which, through the use of its imagery by the hacker collective Anonymous, has become associated with the #Occupy movement. The track samples another police military device, the Long-Range Acoustical Weapon (LRAD) used at the protests in Pittsburgh of that year’s G20, and more recently during the raids on occupations in Boston and New York. It splices this with protester chants of “Disobey your orders.” These were directed at the cops breaking up the protest, but their decontextualization in the song destabilizes the command: it is now free-floating injunction to refuse. The shrill chirping of the LRAD melds into the oscillations of the Roland TR-303 synthesizer which characterized acid house. The music had anticipated militant sonics and had been preparing us.

At the front lines of squat raving, Spiral Tribe faced enormous police repression. In 1992, when riot police amassed outside their party space — an abandoned UniChem warehouse in London — ravers barricaded themselves inside. The police broke through the wall, not with a battering ram, but with a JCB Digger. A witness recounts a scene that echoes contemporary Oakland, Manhattan, Boston:

At this point, there were about 750 people in the building – all trying to escape the vicious onslaught from the police. A panic started as people tried to crush through one small exit. Instead of alleviating the crush, the police pushed up hard behind everyone, hitting out and forcing everyone face down to the ground. Some people were singled out and given further severe beatings. The police then started on the equipment that had been lent or donated destroying it needlessly.

The local hospital reported up to 700 casualties amongst the party goers with one policeman injured. 5 arrests were made – for assaults on police officers and for breach of the peace. No charges were made against Spiral Tribe.

One of those casualties was a teenager who was thrown off the roof by officers, breaking both his arms and legs. As arrestees were marched past the police, a man with an American accent boasted that in the States, his squad would have emptied the building in twenty minutes. Police forces were colluding on an international scale in cracking down on rave. A Spiral Tribe communique pondered, “Why should a ‘civilized nation’ wish violence upon its youngest citizens for listening to a stigmatized beat? The question baffles most police constables and ravers alike. No-one can see what the problem is. Unless of course for reasons known only to themselves, the archaic powers that be feel the stability of their regime threatened by the strange music and dancing.” Their apparent bafflement comes from analysis that has just missed the mark: it wasn’t the music that mattered to the powers-that-be, and it wasn’t the dancing, not exactly. What’s becoming clear in 2011 is that what really threatens the archaic powers that be, what invites police violence out of all proportion, is engaging in collective social practices independent of state and market, rejecting capitalist commerce and openly mocking property rights. May we continue this proud, global, collective tradition. As Detroit’s Underground Resistance puts it — illegally, using MLK’s copyrighted enunciations for a decidedly non-nonviolent purposes — “Now is the time.”


Lacan on Fucking and Killing the Poor

August 9, 2011

The episode of Saint Martin and the cloak is one of those paradigmatic parables of charity. Martin, coming across a naked beggar, cuts his own cloak in two to clothe the man.

Here’s Lacan’s interpretation, from The Ethics of Psychoanalysis:

Saint Martin shares his cloak, and a great deal is made of it. Yet it is after all a simple question of training; material is by its very nature made to be disposed of — it belongs to the other as much as it belongs to me. We are no doubt touching a primitive requirement in the need to be satisfied there, for the beggar is naked. But perhaps over and above that need to be clothed, he was begging for something else, namely, that Saint Martin either kill him or fuck him.

Ethics indeed! Of course, Lacan admits, the beggar does have basic needs to be satisfied. But “perhaps” — this word does a lot of work — what the beggar really needs — no, wants — is for the benefactor to, well, it’s (uncharacteristically) pretty clear from what Lacan wrote.

Let me pre-empt any Lacan acolytes out there, who are always ready to jump to their master’s defense. Lacan is drawing a distinction between philanthropy and love, love being for Lacan a violent rupture that at bottom is the desire “to kill him or fuck him.” So he’s saying that if Saint Martin truly loved the beggar as his neighbor, he wouldn’t give him his coat, he would ram his dick down the poor man’s throat. That’s love. None of this pussy-ass charity when you have the guts to stare into the void of the Real! Of course, Lacan was a bit of a trickster, so he could be playing up his language, dropping an f-bomb to make his genteel-but-prurient audience titter while he makes an opaque joke about love. You can go through any number of interpretive backflips to justify what Lacan says; this suppleness, this studied indeterminacy of his work is no doubt one reason why Lacan is so attractive to people who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about words and trying to outsmart one another.

But let’s pause with the image Lacan has given us. He wants his audience, bourgeois in an older sense, like Lacan himself, to imagine a hand grasping for help, the epitome of abjection begging for a simple need to be met, as secretly wishing for the superior owner of property to exploit, hurt, use, and dispose of him. The poor want to be used by the rich, and the rich in turn love the poor by exploiting them. This is not even saying that the poor deserve their abjection, as is so common in the West today. This is saying they desire it.

And this is one reason why I can’t understand why any left-leaning person would waste their time with this crap.

The Ideology of Desire

February 20, 2011

The worst part of Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire documentary is that the human quest for profit and capital accumulation, which globalizes and genetically alters certain crops, is presented as the workings of nature itself.

But it should also be noted that the precise way this set of social relations is naturalized and mystified is through white male bourgeois owners portrayed as connoisseurs who display intense love, not for profit, but for objects which instantiate some abstract (but biological and therefore ahistorical) desire for sweetness or beauty or getting high. In other words, they are fans.

The relations of 3D printing

February 19, 2011

The economist has a recent cover story on the wonders of 3D printing. It does sound pretty amazing, especially if you are like me and have read Matt Mason’s breathless account of how piracy is the next Schumpeterian revolution in capital. Kids designing and printing their own shoes, skateboards, and jewelry — homemade YouTubes will never be the same!

The problem, as usual, is technophiles like Mason and the Economist writers haven’t read their Marx. Well, Mason probably hasn’t and the Economist probably has, but then it repressed it deep down to the same spot where reside those acccidentally discovered Polaroids of their parents on vacation in Aspen. Anyway, what Marx says is that a mode of production — basically, the way a society organizes to make its stuff can be broken down into two parts:

  • productive forces: human labor power (what people do) and the means of production (the equipment used — here’s where our cool 3D printers live)
  • relations of production: how people are arranged to produce things. This includes stuff like property law, as well as things like the division of labor and the class structure of a society.

Technophiles almost never look at the second one because they get so into the means part — the technology. We could even venture an explanation for why this is so along ideological lines: technophiles are often privileged individuals — educated, white, male — who speak from the perspective of classes who receive lots of advantages from the economic system. They don’t see (or choose to ignore) the exploitative nature of the relations of production, under which most of society labors for the benefit of a small segment. These are the capitalist relations of production, between what Marx labeled the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (suppliers of labor power). Plenty of people, including Marx, have offered other categories, but most of them aren’t really that useful because they often lead to forgetting the fundamental divide between people who work and people who own that work.

So the sci-fi scenario of countercultural youth making their own stuff that Mason provides us slips into relations of production that very few people (and almost no children) fall into — the oft-romanticized (and oft-reviled) petit bourgeoisie (or “small business owner”) who owns his means of production and works on them. But what if we looked at 3D printing from the perspective of the relevant class division under capitalism, the one that hasn’t fundamentally changed from the time Adam Smith was looking at it?

Mason, like most commentators, wants to talk about the petit bourgeoisie because he is one. Other culture producers — writers, designers, academics — tend to like Mason because they want to be like him, and Mason, as a former music critic, has spent most of his career writing for this audience. Now, the owners often like hearing about this perspective too (various CEOs pay Mason to talk to them about his ideas) because they seem to fulfill certain promises of capitalism about working hard and innovating — schema where the relations of production don’t matter because individuals can escape them through will power and effort. But owners fundamentally understand that this isn’t really how things get done.

Here’s where the Economist helps us. It’s not written for culture producers; it’s written for (and by, most likely) the bourgeoisie class of owners. So we can leave out the Disney crap about will power and effort to succeed because the bourgeoisie are already on top. They just have to stay there by buying the latest manufacturing technology, like 3D printers. These are already in use by one of the most capital-intensive industries on the planet, aircraft manufacture.

So the window-dressing of the manufacturing revolution will be Mason’s skaters and hip hop kids turning entire social worlds into customizable MySpace profiles. But the real story will be in less sexy places, like manufacturing plants. Instead of the machines there now, we might see all manner of copy machines. The factory would look kind of like a Kinko’s.

Which means instead of factory workers, people working in these places would be more like copy-center workers. They’d mostly just push buttons and follow simple directions. You wouldn’t need as many of them, they’d need little training, and you wouldn’t have to pay them as much — just like copy center workers now. You could even have part open to the public so those hip kids could have a place to print their sneakers. And as an owner, you’d make a lot more money because you’d pay your workers a much smaller share of what your factory produces. And the other class? A lot more of them would find themselves completely useless, and therefore unemployed. The rest would be Kinko’s employees, working a shitty job for $7.50/hour without benefits. The factory floor houses the copy center. The industrial mode of production would have service sector relations of production. Owners benefit. Workers lose.

And the petit-bourgeois culture creators? They can try to figure out how to get rich like Matt Mason selling flattering fables to the wealthy. Or maybe they’ll get hired by Apple or Google when the app-store version of 3D printing design hits the market. Or, maybe, just maybe, they can try to change things.

This change will never come from technology, the means of production. The real necessary revolutionary change is in the relations of production, which requires struggle against those who benefit from these relations remaining how they are.

Adam Smith and Collective Bargaining

February 18, 2011

Adam Smith, for all the considerable flaws in his thinking, wasn’t stupid. He understood the class conflict inherent to the economic system he was describing.

What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

He also understood that this wasn’t an even match-up. Under 18th Century capitalism, not only were most workers living hand to mouth, organizing was expressly forbidden by law. It’s pretty clear that Smith thought this was an unfair state of affairs.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.

Of course, workers organized and fought anyway, were beaten, killed, thrown in prison, and vilified in the capitalist press. But their “masters,” the owners of the factories, organized themselves as well. These organizations operated with the consent of the law to do what it is masters always do, the very aspect that unites them as a class: lower the wages of the workers. But this operated out of sight.

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate.

“As ignorant of the world as of the subject” is a phrase I’ve had occasion to deploy more than a few times today. Smith realized that part of the invisibility was ideological. Implicit to the capitalist system was that owners would try to pay their workers as little as possible, so it didn’t seem worth remarking upon. He also saw how this secrecy was a great asset to owners, who could maneuver out of sight until they were in a better position to thwart worker aims. So they worked behind closed doors.

We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of. Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

The Wealth of Nations, Book 1 Chapter 8

So Smith would have understood what is happening in Wisconsin right now, and he would have expected most news to look like this. The “masters” are trying to revert back to those glory days when workers had no right to organize because it will allow them to better lower those workers’ wages. Why? Not to balance the budget, but to shift wealth — in this case, public funds — into the hands of those in the ruling class. And Adam Smith knew what the result of that was:

Many would not be able to find employment even upon these hard terms, but would either starve, or be driven to seek a subsistence either by begging, or by the perpetration perhaps of the greatest enormities.

Or as Krugman says:

The whole budget debate, then, is a sham. House Republicans, in particular, are literally stealing food from the mouths of babes — nutritional aid to pregnant women and very young children is one of the items on their cutting block — so they can pose, falsely, as deficit hawks.

The Peak Experiences of the Ruling Class

March 24, 2010

As we continue, Mr. Koch becomes increasingly animated. He discusses another seminal work in his collection, F.A. Harper’s 1957 “Why Wages Rise.” The book demonstrates “that wages rise not because of unions or government action, but because of marginal productivity gains–people get more money when they produce more value for other people.” Then he confides, “I was so thrilled by this revelation that I had what Maslow called a ‘peak experience.'” [WSJ]

An interesting idea that bares no relation to the facts.

This will inspire some creative flailing by the free market ideologues whose positions at my university are directly funded by Koch’s institutions. “You should measure total compensation, not just wages!” Fair enough:

Even after the Heritage Foundation jukes the stats with their patented Implicit Price Deflator, there’s still a gap (along with a humorous typo in the title — more wishful thinking?).

That gap between productivity and compensation is what’s known as “profit,” or, in some quarters, “exploitation.”

And let’s not forget that “total compensation” includes employer-covered health care, whose costs have risen astronomically in the past ten years. The current health care bill will not stem this trend.

Meanwhile, Koch has had a peak experience of another sort.

Wikipedias of the Ruling Class

November 19, 2009

Perhaps a series in the making?

I was trolling around Wikipedia late at night as I am wont to do on occasion and stumbled upon this fascinating (really!) entry for Boston Consulting Group, a firm dedicated to the dark arts of management consulting. Management consultants, for those of you who have never had corporate experience, are the engineers of Big Capital. They come in with a toolkit filled with buzzwords and best practices, making businesses more efficient by homogenizing them, and then charging a hefty fee. They’re those guys in Office Space who interview everyone to find out who to fire.  They are also responsible for “strategy” (the military metaphor is not a coincidence), and thus are a prime site to analyze ideology, particularly the stories Capital tells and sells to itself, fantasies of frictionless accumulation, endless growth curves, and workers who approximate Sims characters in their malleability. These are terrible people who hold terrible meetings.

And in apparently terrible places to work — can you imagine walking down the hallways with people who invent terms like “globality”? It’s like hanging around with dozens of yammering Tom Friedmans. BCG prides itself on its “employee-focused culture” (translation: one helluva boozy holiday party), and landed on Fortune’s “Best Places to Work” list, the only management consulting firm to do so. Tokenism? I’m sure Fortune’s editorial board is the picture of objectivity.

BCG’s major innovation is applying the “experience curve,” which says that the more a company does something, the more efficient it gets. Thus, businesses should “capitalize on” (funny how that is always a synonym for “take advantage of”) these trends by always making more of whatever crap they make — pencils, cars, TPS reports. The prime source of efficiency comes from the workers themselves, who “become physically more dexterous. They become mentally more confident and spend less time hesitating, learning, experimenting, or making mistakes. Over time they learn short-cuts and improvements.” In short, they become more and more a smooth operating circuit inside a business: their bodies and minds steadily conform to the needs of their corporate overseers. And they produce more, though we shouldn’t presume that more productive workers are better compensated; these savings translate into profit and increased market dominance. All for an idea that says “whatever you do, do it more.” People talk about making an “ethical capitalism” and this is precisely why they are mistaken: Capital has decades of experience doing what it must always do, which is grow and conquer. There is no space for “sustainability” (a term that sounds suspiciously like management consultant jargon) except as a fashionable brand that allows you to capture market share. Become physically more dexterous or get out of the way.

Can you believe there are FOUR credited authors for this book?

Globality is another of these idiotic concepts dressed up in a Brooks Brothers suit: “the end-state of globalization – a hypothetical condition in which the process of globalization is complete or nearly so, barriers have fallen, and ‘a new global reality’ is emerging.” Chilling, no? This is one of those corporate fantasies of total control, an end of history wet dream when the neoliberal imperial project is complete and all questions are management-related — no politics necessary. Nations’ borders ebb away, governments recede, and corporations get about the business of “competing with everyone from everywhere for everything.” Shocking that this book could come out in 2008, after the leading instrument of toppling governments, U.S. military power, has been horribly discredited. Although, you know, with almost a decade of experience occupying Middle Eastern nations, you’d expect that the military’s experience curves are accelerating — we’ll be ready for Pakistan, Yemen, or Iran in no time, capturing more of that sweet, sweet market dominance. As our soldiers become physically more dexterous at their jobs (barring the occasional death or maiming), we can draw them down in our captured markets and redeploy them to emerging ones. See how it works?

In addition to having offices in every major financial center from here to Kiev, BCG boasts an impressive array of former employees, a veritable who’s who of the ruling class. GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt, who managed to tank his company’s stock by 80%. He was then appointed to Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, a move that no doubt inspires great confidence among the citizenry. Other all-stars formerly on the BCG gravy train: the CEOs of Pepsi, Red Hat, Bertelsmann Media, airlines, military contractors, etc.; such notable politicians as Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney; celebrities such as John Legend and the guy from Season 1 of The Bachelor. Consulting groups are a kind of finishing school for the ruling class: once you graduate from your top tier college (your major isn’t important), you become steeped in the work culture and ideology of the top 15% while paying off your student loans. After a few years, you get an MBA and try your hand at running a company (or a country) or you win some Grammys. Either way, your path to power will be smoother because all your ideas will align with the dominant ideology of politics-as-management, workers-as-capital, efficiency-at-all-costs. In short, what we see on this nice little Wiki is Capital reproducing itself.