Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lady Thatcher's Koan

Dirty Dancing
In almost any question, no matter how complex, there is an axis, hinge, fulcrum, upon and around which the entire question revolves. Discovering that point is often produced after concentrated immersion in the problem in all its facets, but the discovery itself is experienced as an intuitive flash.... what Zen Buddhists call "satori". In their discipline they make use of riddles called "Koans" to trigger such insights.
Koan:  a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment. Merriam-Webster
Here is a sample koan:
A monk asked Zhàozhōu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" Zhaozhou said, "Wú".
Margaret Thatcher, of all people, once delivered herself of a koan, which, in my opinion,  if meditated upon sufficiently, explains much of what we are living through today with the triumphant "Conservative Revolution" that she and Reagan led and also gives valuable insights in how to resist and perhaps even reverse that revolution.

Here is Maggie's koan
"Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families." Margaret Thatcher - 1987
In my view, this "koan" encloses all the contradictions and even the agenda of the Thatcher/Reagan,  Conservative Revolution, the political, social and economic wasteland that we inhabit today.

Let's get into our lotus position and have a closer look at this thing, let us in the words of the immortal Spike Milligan, "scrutinize it with an intense scrute".

First question, "who is society"? 
a. The totality of social relationships among humans.
b. A group of humans broadly distinguished from other groups by mutual interests, participation in characteristic relationships, shared institutions, and a common culture.
c. The institutions and culture of a distinct self-perpetuating group. The Free Dictionary
In other words: anyone who actively participates in the affairs of a community within the larger community, be it a church, mosque or temple, or someone who canvases for a political party or a charity... or simply anyone who takes the trouble to pick up a piece of litter, that he/she didn't drop on the sidewalk and walks over to a public wastebasket and throws it away. That is society... Maggie said it doesn't exist... If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Who are the "individual men and women" that Lady Thatcher mentions?

Knowing her a little, I would think that she was referring to what I would now call "Piketty individuals", one-percenters like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or the Koch brothers, people whose activities are constrained by little more than the laws of physics... I think Lady Thatcher would prefer that other, lesser, "individuals" be of  the "Bowling Alone" variety; sitting by themselves on their soft sofas in a dark living room watching endless TV series, while eating popcorn and guzzling super-size, sugary drinks.

And the families?

Again, knowing her, I imagine that she was thinking of "Piketty" families:
The book argues that the world today is returning towards "patrimonial capitalism", in which much of the economy is dominated by inherited wealth: Their power is increasing, creating an oligarchy. Piketty cites novels by Honoré de Balzac, Jane Austen and Henry James to describe the rigid class structure based on accumulated capital that existed in England and France in the early 1800s. Wikipedia
I certainly don't imagine she was thinking about couples with a high school education both working 60 hour weeks, weekends included, at minimum wages, whose children are being raised by a TV set, going to sub-standard, tax-starved public schools and without medical care.

And strangely enough, this is where the sado-libertarian ideology that Thatcher-Reagan represent has exposed a vulnerable flank in its defenses... religious conservatives... yes the, "every sperm is sacred", crowd. The new Pope has said that our economic system is "inhuman", more anti-Thatcher than that is hard to imagine. 
Respect for the person means not only guaranteeing their political and civil rights, the pope said, but also "offering each person the possibility of having effective access to the essential means of sustenance: food, water, shelter, health care, education and the possibility of forming and supporting a family."(...) "There cannot be true peace and harmony if we do not work for a society that is more just and marked by solidarity, if we don't overcome selfishness, individualism and special interests at every level," he said. Catholic News Service
Maggie would turn in her grave reading the above.

With that in mind, the Christian pro-life movement should be pressed to define what sort of society would be "human" enough to allow families to bring endless children into it and more importantly, how such a society could be achieved. 

Progressives should hold Christian's feet to the fire on this question. "OK, agreed, so no more abortion, so no more contraceptives, then where is the tax money coming from to pay for the nurseries, the schools, the universities, the hospitals, etc for all these humans?" "Can a system organized like ours do all this and if not, how could it be organized to be 'human' or are you OK with a system that the Pope defines as inhuman?" The Ayn Rand crowd couldn't care less about this, but certainly any person raised in the Abrahamic traditions would be discomfited by these questions.

In my opinion this is the "sound of one hand clapping" moment for progressives. DS

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Israelis are playing with fire...



Nick Cook, 36, of Grand Ledge did two tours in Iraq and, as an Army troop commander, lost five soldiers. “For me, it’s very upsetting,” he said, “I watch what’s happening there. My first six months, it was very intense fighting in Baghdad, but then there was prosperity and good news. And to see that now on the verge of collapse, and knowing I lost five soldiers, it’s very hard. These kids may have died in vain.” (...) It also was a costly war financially for the U.S. The war will eventually cost U.S. taxpayers at least $2.2 trillion, including long-term care for wounded veterans, according to a 2013 study by the Costs of War project, based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Detroit Free Press
"If people don't do politics, others will do it for you. And when others do it for you, they can steal your rights, your democracy and your wallet." Pablo Iglesias - Podemos

The Middle East now has been torn apart by American invasions and attacks, and careless ideas about how to remake other peoples’ lives according to our own ideas about how they should live and behave and believe. It’s been like the Huns passing through: millions are dead, cities in ruins, the Muslims at war with one another. Iraq and Syria, and probably Jordan, as they exist today, and possibly Lebanon, may never recover from this. The Arabs will survive, and one day Palestine and ancient Syria and Mesopotamia will undoubtedly be reconstituted. Israel? It has existed as a modern state for little more than six decades, although it too existed in antiquity. Will modern Israel still exist at the end of this century? After all that has, and will, happen? I wonder what is the answer. William Pfaff

Through their actions, young American Jews can shape the way a Jewish state wields power. And how Jews behave with power represents a post facto referendum on the Jewish ethical tradition itself. We should tell them that if they believe Jews possess a special passion for justice, they must prove it. And they must prove it in Israel, because although justice is endangered in the United States and all over the world, only in Israel is the Jewish people’s honor at stake. Peter Beinart - Haaretz
Things change if people make them change.

Things have changed since the American people were encouraged to put Vietnam behind them and "move on". The "gate keeper" function of  "mainstream media" which worked mightily to that end is, if not dead, very, very sick and not expected to recover... especially when confronting something as stubborn as Middle Eastern reality.

Unlike "manufactured consent" social media opinion  today is largely grassroots, village-like. It is a  sullen, brooding, self-confirming, bench tested, consensus, slow to build, hard to budge and in this sense "authentic".

Many commentators discount the sullen power of public opinion, this is most unwise. Publicists and think tanks can spend billions trying to convince the public that the sky is green and the grass is blue, but to no effect, finally their efforts boil down to Redd Fox’s cheating wife, who, when caught in the act, tells her furious husband, "go on, believe your goddamn, lying eyes!".

This is now the case of American public opinion and the Middle East. Liberal-Interventionists can whine and Neocons can howl, but Americans have had enough of the Middle East, they will not be easily dragged back there again to spend blood and treasure poring sand down a rat hole and will resent mightily anyone who tries to drag them back.

Netanyahu and the settlers should not press their luck much farther, if Israel negotiates a two state solution with the Palestinians and pulls back to something like the 1967 borders, I believe that Americans would still be willing and still be able to defend that status with decisive armed force and considerable soft power, but that is certainly not the direction things are moving. What I don't think is that Americans will agree to sending their sons and daughters to die defending apartheid and ethnic cleansing or agree to pay for that out of their taxes. Time is running out. DS

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The "Piketty Effect" or the "One-Percent" can be harmful to your health

Collage - David Seaton
"Anybody who reads the newspaper will be aware that, in the United States, the “one per cent” is taking an ever-larger slice of the economic pie. But did you know that the share of the top income percentile is bigger than it was in South Africa in the nineteen-sixties and about the same as it is in Colombia, another deeply divided society, today? In terms of income generated by work, the level of inequality in the United States is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world." Thomas Piketty - quoted in The New Yorker
I don’t want some rich person’s mansion or bank account. I just don’t want to pay for them with our schools and roads and postal service. Marym in IL- Firedoglake

While mulling over the huge impact of Thomas Piketty's book,"Capital in the Twenty-First Century", I got this nagging feeling that I had been here before, that this was so familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was... 

Then it came to me... This is like when it was statistically proven that smoking causes cancer, and then a shockingly cancer ravaged, near death, much loved, proverbial chain smoker, John Wayne, showed up on that Oscar night in 1979... Only this time, in the case of the side-effects of inequality, the sequence has been reversed: first we are ravished, then near death and then we get the explanatory statistics.

However, I find the similarities striking: an enormous "public-relations" industry, including (massively) Hollywood, devoted over decades to convincing millions of men, women and children that something useless, expensive and totally harmful, was not only not harmful, it was "cool".

Finally the statistical evidence combined with the sight of iconic personalities wasted by the smoking habit has brought about a sea change in public opinion, which has caused millions of people to give up the habit or never start smoking in the first place and forced the passage of stringent legislation, bucking the efforts of big tobacco, one of America's most powerful lobbies.  

Today, far from being seen as cool, smokers are forced to huddle pitifully outdoors in the dead of winter, to get their "fix". 

Statistical evidence combined with raw emotion caused this massive change in public opinion. 

Does this mean that thanks to the ravages of the financial crisis and the findings of professor Piketty we  are going to see pitiful, former billionaires huddling on America's sidewalks anytime soon?

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it.

What we are going to see, I think, is an enormous, tectonic conflict between the sea change of Piketty empowered public opinion and the enormous power of the one-percent to corrupt the political process, which will dwarf anything that the tobacco lobby could ever have even dreamt of. DS

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Notes on the new populism



Classic left wing parties are missing the boat today, almost to the point of irrelevance,  because the traditional "working class", which was their power base, has been largely fragmented and is now practically powerless as the enormous "reserve army of labor" that globalization provides means that the worker´s principal weapon, withdrawing their labor, is no longer effective, increasingly even in skilled or jobs requiring higher education: if an American legal assistant is expensive, get an Indian lawyer in India to do the paperwork at a tenth the price per hour. But this has a certain "death spiral" effect.

The"killer contradiction" today is that while workers are no long needed more and more consumers are. Globalization has also brought on overproduction, a glut of consumer goods flood the markets.

How are unemployed or underemployed formerly middle class people, brought up on the idea of their right, even duty to consume, consume? Credit? Been there, done that.

So the real "revolutionary protagonist" today is the
enormous, but increasingly declassé and naturally resentful middle class that was created before globalization. Some sort of populism,  "us against the one-percent" is the only possible progressive game in town now. 

The challenge is to keep this populism international, progressive and not nationalistic-racist, reactionary etc. 

That is why Thomas Piketty work, "Capital in the Twentyfirst-Century" is a great help, especially among statistic loving Americans, in building objective political consciousness in the middle class for this struggle, which is really just beginning. DS

Friday, June 20, 2014

Groundhog day in Iraq and... you name it

Onward and upward
Sometimes, when you get older you get what Yogi Berra called the "dejá vu all over again" feeling while observing life and especially world affairs; a little like an usher in an all day movie theater might get... the moviegoers are glued to the screen to see if the hero gets the girl or the bad guy gets his just desserts, while you who have seen this film a dozen times or more before are pulling back curtains, opening doors and spraying air freshener... From Vietnam through Iraq and back to Iraq... from 1964 to 2014: 50 years of my life watching, the drip, drip, drip, of useless bloodshed, death and stupidity...

Perhaps the time has come to put on a saffron robe, take up a begging bowl and retire to a forest hermitage to contemplate my navel or maybe just take a big dose of fruit salts. DS

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Chutzpah, thy name is Tony Blair

Nobody here but us chickens boss
In a defense of his actions in Iraq, Blair attacked as "extraordinary" any notion the country would be stable if Saddam Hussein had stayed in power. (...) Tony Blair has strongly rejected claims that the 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq was to blame for the current crisis gripping the country, pointing the finger instead firmly at the Maliki government and the war in Syria. In a passionate essay published on his website, the former prime minister said it was a "bizarre" reading of the situation to argue that the US-British invasion of Iraq had allowed the growth of Sunni jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), whose fighters have swept through towns and cities north and west of Baghdad over the past week. "We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that 'we' have caused this. We haven't. We can argue as to whether our policies at points have helped or not: and whether action or inaction is the best policy. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it Guardian

Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible 'guts,' presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to." In this sense, chutzpah expresses both strong disapproval and condemnation. In the same work, Rosten also defined the term as "that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan." Chutzpah amounts to a total denial of personal responsibility, that renders others speechless and incredulous ... one cannot quite believe that another person totally lacks common human traits like remorse, regret, guilt, sympathy and insight. The implication is at least some degree of psychopathy in the subject, as well as the awestruck amazement of the observer at the display. Wikipedia
Today I am speechless: enjoy. DS

Monday, June 09, 2014

Interregnum... after the ball was over

This week William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, told the inaugural London Conference hosted by Chatham House that the world was not simply going through a difficult patch, but had entered a period of “systemic disorder”. Financial Times

Nowadays, both advanced economies (like the United States, where unlimited financing of elected officials by financially powerful business interests is simply legalized corruption) and emerging markets (where oligarchs often dominate the economy and the political system) seem to be run for the few. For the many, by contrast, there has been only secular stagnation, with depressed employment and stagnating wages. Nouriel Roubini
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. Antonio Gramsci

After the ball was over
Nellie took out her glass eye
Put her false teeth in water
Corked up her bottle of dye
Put her false leg in the corner
Hung up her wig on the door
And all that is left goes to bye byes
After the ball
After The Ball Was Over
What kind of animal are we talking about?
I have to admit that I'm getting bored, but bored as combat soldiers get bored, where fear and boredom mix. Bored with the "systemic disorder" of the "interregnum", the randomness, chaotic entropy of it, which defies rational ordering or analysis: anxiety without any horizon.

At the bottom there is something very simple: when they asked the legendary Willie Sutton why he robbed banks he replied, "because that is where the money is". The money is in tax-havens and it must be taxed and redistributed if humanity is going to have any chance of a "human" future.
It would seem much more useful, in terms of building the capacity to address the environmental crisis, to frame the issue of the environment as linked to a broader struggle that includes the redistribution of income and wealth to more equitably share the costs of environmental restraint; a cultural shift in the balance between individual consumption of goods and collective services; the development of public spaces and desperately needed infrastructural renewal (including mass transit); and the conversion of potentially productive facilities rejected by the market to the production of socially useful and environmentally necessary products and services. Such a framing would also tie the environmental crisis to the obvious need to place democratic planning on the agenda and go so far as to start talking about making private banks into public utilities so that we have access to the financial resources to carry out the above initiatives. Sam Gindin - Jacobin
Alas, who is going to ever bell this cat? DS