Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ayn Rand's India holds up a mirror for the American right to see itself

  "Evil requires the sanction of the victim." Ayn Rand"
 David Seaton's News Links
The other day in my perusings I stumbled upon this troubling jewel
Not only do Indians perform more Google searches for (Ayn) Rand than citizens of any country in the world except the United States, but Penguin Books India has sold an impressive number of copies -- as many as 50,000 of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead each since 2005, a number comparable to sales there by global best-seller John Grisham. And that's not counting the ubiquitous pirated copies of her works that are hawked at rickety street stalls, sidewalk piles, and bus stations -- an honor that Rand, a fierce defender of intellectual property rights, probably would not have appreciated. Foreign Policy
To put this information into some perspective I would ask you to read a paragraph from Wikipedia:
The World Bank estimates that 456 million Indians (42% of the total Indian population) now live under the global poverty line of $1.25 per day (PPP). This means that a third of the global poor now reside in India.(...) India has a higher rate of malnutrition among children under the age of three (46% in year 2007) than any other country in the world.
Now into that context, to see what Indians are so eagerly googling, let's mix in the following sayings of Ayn Rand, which though few, hopefully give the full flavor of her "Objectivist" philosophy:
"Evil requires the sanction of the victim."

"If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject."

"I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

"Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men."

"It only stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master."

"Money is the barometer of a society's virtue. "
Now you may ask yourself, what possible attraction could this sort of  paean to sociopathic selfishness have for the countrymen of that paragon of selflessness, Mahatma Gandhi? How can you revere one and also revere the other?

You can't. Rand is in, Gandhi is out.

How is this put together?

Again from Wikipedia:
A disproportionally large share of poor are lower caste Hindus. According to S. M. Michael, Dalits constitute the bulk of poor and unemployed. Many see Hinduism and its subsidiary called caste system as a system of exploitation of poor low-ranking groups by more prosperous high-ranking groups. In many parts of India, land is largely held by high-ranking property owners of the dominant castes that economically exploit low-ranking landless labourers and poor artisans, all the while degrading them with ritual emphases on their so-called god-given inferior status.
"Dalit" is a politically correct term for "untouchable"; to put this into clearer focus, let's hear from Mahatma Gandhi on the subject:
Removal of untouchability means love for, and service of, the whole world and thus merges into Ahimsa. Removal of untouchability spells the breaking down of barriers between man and man and between the various orders of Being."
Now it is obvious that the Dalits (untouchables) and the rest of India's 456 million poor, living on less than $1.25 a day, are not the ones who are googling Ayn Rand, are they? It would be safe to assume, I imagine, that the googlers belong to what the paragraph above calls the "more prosperous high-ranking groups".

The mechanism at work here is also obvious. The  extreme poverty of India  has always been a great embarrassment to Indian yuppies when speaking to foreigners and the cruelty of its ancient caste systems is universally condemned throughout the world by all the other belief systems. Till now untouchability and  the extreme poverty of India have been intellectually indefensible. How to rephrase them for the globalized world, a place where India's elites are hot to trot?

At this point, along comes a prestigious  American, a major cult-figure,  Ayn Rand, the guru of Sri Alan Greenspan no less, someone who with her  indifference to suffering, with the clockwork logic of her exposition and the elaborate intellectual edifice constructed around what boils down to, "bugger you, I'm alright Jack", justifies their system in all its time-hardened egotistical racism.

Not only do they have the absolution of their ancient religious traditions, they now have the apostolic blessing of one of the guiding lights of ultra-modern, western, anarcho-capitalism.

Gotta be a hit.

Something that is fun and often productive is to run things backwards and see what turns up. Let's try that on Ayn Rand in India.

Here is the scenario: Ayn Rand is a big hit with high-caste Indians, who would like to ignore India's racism and justify their indifference to its poverty, but long before she made it in India, she was a big hit in the USA: could it be for the same reasons?

Could Ayn Rand's popularity in India hold the key to her popularity in the United States?

Could India be holding up a mirror for us to contemplate ourselves?

Are we looking to Ayn Rand for the same absolution she gives the Indians?

If you stop to think about, since South Africa abandoned apartheid, what other large, densely populated country besides India has such a history of race problems or where the poor are so abandoned to their fate as the USA?

It is curious to observe the relation Rand's "thinking" and her followers to our present predicaments.
"If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject."   Ayn Rand
"You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost." Milton Friedman
"Left to their own devices, it is alleged, businessmen would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings. Thus, it is argued, the Pure Food and Drug Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the numerous building regulatory agencies are indispensable if the consumer is to be protected from the `greed' of the businessman. But it is precisely the `greed' of the businessman or, more appropriately, his profit-seeking, which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer." Alan Greenspan in a 1963 article, ``The Assault on Integrity'' for  "The Objectivist" magazine - quoted by Ayn Rand in her 1967 book, "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal''
One of the upsides of our present predicament has been the defenistration of luminaries like Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and fellow travelers. This from the Financial Times:
The Washington Consensus, the organizing idea behind the global advance of laisser faire economics, has been unceremoniously buried.(...) The crisis has restored the legitimacy of the state: bankers have been dethroned, Alan Greenspan defrocked and economists exposed. Regulation is no longer a term of abuse. Adam Smith has made way for John Maynard Keynes as fiscal policy has been rehabilitated as a tool of economic management. Phillip Stephens - Financial Times
Or this from BusinessWeek:
The cost included a Hobbesian view of business -- nasty, brutish and every man for himself -- and a rejection of the idea that ultimately we're all in this together. Which is precisely what we do not need at this time of increasing global interdependence. (...) In this worldview, "business ethics" is an oxymoron, not because of bad behavior but because ethics can't even exist apart from some notion of a "relationship" to something or someone else. Subordinating everything to shareholder value is, literally, anti-ethical. Charles H. Green - BusinessWeek
Here, Charles Green, an MBA from Harvard, has gone straight to the heart of the whole matter when he says, "ethics can't even exist apart from some notion of a "relationship" to something or someone else".
That is really what human life is all about. Nothing is more defenseless and miserable than an isolated human being.
Our terror of being the only human on earth is the romance of Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe's joy at encountering Friday, saving his life and becoming his friend is one of the most powerful metaphors in literature.
The human being is a social anthropoid, whose phenomenal success as a species is due to its unique capacity for empathy, altruism and sacrifice for the common good. If selfishness were such a survival plus, then the common house cat would be the "master of the universe" and not human beings.
Since we wandered over the African savanna in small groups of hunter-gatherers, naked, without even fire, in fear of lions and hyenas, a sprained ankle or a broken bone, during those hundreds of thousands of years, the "common good" existed. If humans hadn't recognized it and sacrificed for it we wouldn't be here today.
Over most of our history that was our life, only of late have we taken a sinister detour. wandering togetherness is what our brains, inhabiting spirits and digestive tract are built for and look where we are now.
Over a relatively few millennia we have woven ourselves into hell.
Selfishness is precisely the least human of our traits and that it has become a driving force in our world is perhaps the central problem we face... our paradox: humans that dehumanize themselves.
Certainly, unless we can recreate the essence of our cooperative origins on a mass scale within our present technological development, there seems to be no solution in sight to this hell we have created.
Ayn Rand is probably (with Milton Friedman) the most profoundly immoral and destructive thinker that America has ever produced.  Milton Friedman believed that greed was humanity's sole motivator and Rand believed that selfishness was. Both considered what western civilization has traditionally marked as deadly sins as virtues not defects. Their followers are legion and we live among the wreckage they and their "virtues" have created. DS

Monday, June 25, 2012

When the American left lost its way

David Seaton's News Links

On April 4th, 1968, the day when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot down in Memphis Tennessee, the American left lost its way. Less than a year before he was murdered, King set out to channel the energy and power of the Civil Rights movement toward ending poverty among all the races in the world's richest country. This metamorphosis of the civil rights struggle was called the "Poor People's Campaign".
Income and housing were the main goals of the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign would help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to start to a solution. Under the "economic bill of rights," the Poor People's Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing. The Poor People’s Campaign was part of the second phase of the civil rights movement. Wikipedia
It is difficult not to believe that his murder was a direct result of this change of course. Certainly no movement has arisen since to replace or replicate the Poor People's Campaign. And it certainly is not for any lack of poor people:
Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it. New York Times -09/15/2011
What Dr. King was initiating was an evangelical "Liberation Theology" and if allowed to continue it could have electrified the United States. If begun again it could electrify it today.
America's first Nobel prize for literature, Sinclair Lewis once said that, "when fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross". I would go a bit farther and say that any rebellion in the USA would have those characteristics to begin with.
To paraphrase the demon Rumsfeld, you have to go with the working class you have and not the one you might like to have.
Many progressives have problems with all of this, they are repelled by what they consider the gross superstition of creationism, for example. As to evolution, however, if progressives ever hope to win over working class white people and black people, they had better not put evolution at the center of their program. Poor people never have liked Darwinism very much... think about it. What does "survival of the fittest" hold for them? What is their role in "the devil take the hindmost"?
Why are so many of the poor of America, white and black, socially conservative?
Because without a welfare state, the only institutions that offer any comfort or protection are the church and the family. The family is the first welfare state. In the USA there is no welfare state and the family is also under heavy pressure from the system. Single parent families are increasingly common, The United States has the highest percentage of single-parent families (34% in 1998) among developed countries. The United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, twice that of Denmark, Canada, or the United Kingdom. The divorce rate is highest among lower income couples. With reason, poor people in America are terrified: frightened people take comfort where they can. A divorced waitress with two kids who has to take them to an emergency room to treat their asthma can't be criticized for being a "Left Behind" enthusiast: she and her kids fly up to heaven and the stingy tippers go to hell.
She and her children will be saved, taken directly up to heaven and all the people who have ever treated them so shabbily here on earth will suffer indescribable torment and humiliation, which the chosen will be able to watch from heaven. This is a form of sedition... it goes against everything that the Tea Party, the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth stand for.
Imagine how the following text would sit with Ayn Rand or the Koch Brothers, in fact, can you imagine it being spoken at a Tea Party event?
'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least among you, you did not do for me.' Matthew 25:41-45
Trying to make the Teabaggers square their program with the Holy Bible might short circuit the whole business. A text like this, and others like them from the world's great religions, are the earliest expressions of the universal human hatred of oppression and thirst for social justice. As such they help give shape and a common, deeply rooted, electrifying language to express a growing consciousness that things are not as they should be. That is the language with which Dr. King chose to clothe his message and this is how Martin Luther King wished to be remembered:
I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Wikipedia
All of this is about building consciousness and directing it into positive and effective channels. That is the political task facing progressives today. I am not totally pessimistic that this is impossible because all the materials are there ready to be taken up and put to use, however the only political figure in America that ever brought all the positive threads of American culture and its ancient roots together in one package was Dr. King and surely that is why they took his life.
Dr. King's legacy is why I think that some sort of "liberation theology" which makes full resonant use of the American people's most powerful cultural baggage, is finally going to be the only idea or movement that is going to truly change America. We have to take up the struggle precisely where Martin Luther King Jr. was on April 4th, 1968. DS

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why is the American left so useless?

David Seaton's News Links
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay
Oliver Goldsmith - The Deserted Village

Throughout the Great Recession and the not-so-great recovery, the most commonly discussed measure of misery has been unemployment. But many middle-class and working-class people who are fortunate enough to have work are struggling as well. New York Times
In most situations there is one thing the whole construct depends on or revolves around. I call that thing the "hinge".
In analysis, finding the hinge is the shortcut to the center of a mass of inchoate information causing its elements to render some coherence.
In action, identifying the hinge is often finding the "fulcrum" with which to move the world and finding it can bring huge rewards with little input of effort.
The world's latest economic crisis, for example, was brought upon us by very clever people who had discovered that the "hinge" of our financial system was that there was really no meaningful relation between the actual value of assets and what you could charge for them if you transformed them into a gaseous state.
I have been searching for the "hinge" of the absurd impotence of American progressives. Finding it hasn't been that difficult.
Historically, the left has concerned itself with the suffering and the exploitation of workers. "Workers" being roughly defined as those with nothing to sell but their labor.
The American left has strayed far from that traditional role and has put much more emphasis on issues that only gain importance after the most basic needs of sustenance have been fulfilled. What passes for a left in the USA is obsessed with racial, gender, ecological and identity politics, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a great number of Americans, of all races and all possible sexual preferences, are mercilessly overworked and underpaid. They are being exploited and treated no better than excrement and left to the mercy of right wing demagogues.
The American left appears unable to make any meaningful contact with those who suffer the most from our economic system. It appears unable to unite them, organize them or even create a consciousness among them that transcends questions of class, race or gender.
USDA data released this week shows that the number of Americans receiving food aid from the Supplemental Nutrional Assistance Program (SNAP) hit another all-time high in August. 45.8 million people -- almost 15% of the country -- were enrolled in the program, which replaced Food Stamps in 2008. This is only a slight increase from July, when 45.3 million Americans were receiving SNAP help -- but a massive 31% jump since June 2009, when the National Bureau of Economic Research declared the most recent recession over. Huffington Post
I think that I may have found said hinge contemplating a simple technical phrase that keeps bouncing off my neural walls: "working poor". The contradiction between working and simultaneously being poor in the world's richest country.
Here is how Wikipedia defines the term "working poor":
Working poor is a term used to describe individuals and families who maintain regular employment but remain in relative poverty due to low levels of pay and dependent expenses.
Barbara Ehrenreich, the writer who has probably done more than anyone to put a face on working poverty, has this to say in her book, "Nickel and Dimed":
When someone works for less pay than she can live on ... she has made a great sacrifice for you ... The "working poor" ... are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.
The reality is that millions of working Americans, both black and white, men and women, gay and straight, are being treated like shit every day of their lives and being treated like shit plays a greater part in their suffering than their race, gender or sexual preferences.
"Treated like shit": surely an exaggeration?
Check this from the Guardian:
It was July 2007 and Potter, a senior executive at giant US healthcare firm Cigna, was visiting relatives in the poverty-ridden mountain districts of northeast Tennessee. He saw an advert in a local paper for a touring free medical clinic at a fairground just across the state border in Wise County, Virginia.

Potter, who had worked at Cigna for 15 years, decided to check it out. What he saw appalled him. Hundreds of desperate people, most without any medical insurance, descended on the clinic from out of the hills. People queued in long lines to have the most basic medical procedures carried out free of charge. Some had driven more than 200 miles from Georgia. Many were treated in the open air. Potter took pictures of patients lying on trolleys on rain-soaked pavements.

For Potter it was a dreadful realization that healthcare in America had failed millions of poor, sick people and that he, and the industry he worked for, did not care about the human cost of their relentless search for profits. "It was over-powering. It was just more than I could possibly have imagined could be happening in America," he told the Observer.
The Canadian National Post newspaper writes:
The U. S. Congress, corrupted by a failure to impose campaign finance reform on special interests, from unions to wealthy entities, appears to be unable to pass laws to provide even a modicum of fair, universal health-care coverage for its populace.
In short: the American left has spent several generations merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, while the band plays requests. DS

Monday, June 18, 2012

Angela Merkel and the hour of the Wolf

David Seaton's News Links
Angela Merkel in the DDR
Angela Merkel in the DDR
Angie was 35 when the Berlin Wall fell. She grew up in Communist East Germany, was member of the Communist Party's youth group the Free German Youth (FDJ, from the German initials), graduated from Karl-Marx University in Leipzig, and worked as a physicist in East Germany. She was 35 when the wall fell. I've wondered if her outlook may have some basis in growing up in the Warsaw Pact.  Old Hickory's Weblog
Today I thought I'd write  you about this dream I had on the lines of "The Manchurian Candidate"...
(Distant Trombone - Dissolve)

Just before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Markus Wolf, the great, East German, spymaster, the one who ruined Willy Brandt, the model of John Le CarrĂ©'s, "Karla", who upon seeing his system and his life's work falling  apart, in order to take revenge, created the "Doomsday Weapon", a deadly mole, a fatal poison, that he infiltrated from the dying DDR into the heart of the West German political apparatus in order to destroy the entire capitalist system... The mole's name.... Angela Merkel.…
At first I thought it was a joke, but now I'm not sure... DS

Sunday, June 10, 2012

American Karma: Obama and Free Floating Paranoia

David Seaton's News Links
I remember once reading an Indian guru, who said that if the water buffalo had a god, it would probably look like a very large water buffalo. He believed that there is only one god, formless and all pervading, but that he/she/it responds to intense worship by taking on the form that most pleases his/her/its devotees depending on their temperament and station in life.
I am beginning to think that the goddess of paranoia pursues a similar strategy: she appears to the crunchy granola/ruccola crowd as global warming and to the deep fried Mars Bar set as black helicopters.
To each of her myriad of devotees she appears in the form most guaranteed to seduce and charm them, but at bottom, there is no paranoia but paranoia and the media is her witness.
I was reminded of an incident from the darkest days of the Second World War, a time with millions of human beings freshly dead, or about to die, with European civilization ground to dust or burned to ashes, when there, deep in his bomb proof bunker, Winston Churchill sent a pudding back to the kitchen, complaining that it had "no theme".
That, I think is problem with America's free floating paranoia: like Winnie's dessert, the paranoia pudding that Americans are collectively pulling, has no "theme".
Sensing this themelessness and needing a theme himself, President Barack Obama turned this up in one of his State of the Union speeches:
Grasping to sum up the country’s perilous position, the US president said the country was facing its “Sputnik moment”, a reference to the alarm felt in 1957 when the former Soviet Union launched the first orbiting satellite. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” he said. - Financial Times
The president is too young to have lived the first "Sputnik moment", but it was one of the turning points of my life and on hearing the word "Sputnik", the goddess of paranoia walked over my grave.
For any American child alive then who was principally interested in the humanities: art, literature, history, as I was, it was a terrible moment. The Soviet Union, may she rest in peace, put up the first hunk of the endless rubbish that now tirelessly circles our planet, something about the size of a grapefruit that sailed the heavens in earth orbit going "beep, beep, beep", soon to be followed by an unfortunate dog named Laika, the first warmblooded creature to die out there. From one day to the next, there was a political-ideological science hysteria that prioritized everything that I am not interested in: math, chemistry etc, to the detriment of everything I love. I think it was then that I vowed to myself that I would someday live in Europe, as far away as I could get from such barren, Sputnik induced, philistinism. Without the first "Sputnik moment" I might never have left.
But my private paranoia is just another face of the hydra-headed goddess of American paranoia. And the president would be kidding himself if he thought that America's decline is the mother of all our paranoia. He did touch briefly on what I do believe is the goddess's true form.
We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled. That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation. - President Barack Obama
I disagree, I think the opposite is precisely the truth and that is what "sets us apart as a nation".... And I can prove it with a few simple graphs:

Actually this is exactly what  doesn't set us apart, here is the entire world's estimated distribution of wealth:

So as you can see, if anything sets us apart it is that the distribution of wealth in the USA is much more unequal than the world average.

The previous illustrations are examples of what is called the "Champagne Glass Graph", let's look at this simple pie-chart to get a clearer idea of what is going on.

So if there is one thing the American people are not is a  "family" with "common goals". One percent of the population controls thirty five percent of the net worth. Twenty percent of the population controls eighty five percent of that wealth. That leaves no less than eighty percent of the population to divide up the remaining fifteen percent of the wealth left over.
This is a reality that Americans don't face easily. Here is the reality contrasted with what people think that realty is and with what they think that reality should be:

How does that sort of wealth distribution play out in real life? Here is a reading of America's mood from Pew Research:
The survey finds that a majority of the public (57%) says it is very difficult or difficult to afford things they really want. About the same percentage said this two years ago (55%). And for many Americans, affording basic necessities remains a struggle – 51% say it is difficult to afford health care, 48% say the same about their home heating and electric bills, and 29% say it is difficult to afford food. - Pew Research Center
In the richest country in world nearly thirty percent of the population have trouble earning enough money to eat. Fifty one percent say it is difficult to afford health care and another forty eight percent can't afford to heat their homes.
Now having read that you wonder how Obama could say the following with a straight face:
We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people
So here is how the paranoia thing works:
The one percent  of the population that controls forty three percent of the financial wealth and the next four percent that controls twenty nine percent, plus those who control the next twenty one percent are justifiably paranoiac thinking what would happen if the eighty percent of the population left with only seven percent of the financial wealth ever woke up and decided to change the percentages around, if only by democratically using income taxes to redistribute that wealth.
So the major cultural, legal and ideological industry of the USA is to keep that eighty percent, the peasantry,  from actually discovering who is making them so miserable and how they do it and then getting together and changing the situation... as has so often happened throughout history. With ninety three percent of America's money at their disposal there is no lack of funds for the one percenters to do the job.
And that boys and girls explains why so many Americans are worried about Islam and abortion and black helicopters and climate change and transgenic food and whether Barack Obama was born in the USA and polar bears. Anything but the 800 pound gorilla in the room... identifying the fucker and the fuckee.
Paranoia is what "binds us together as one people"... the paranoia of the haves, fearing that the have nots will someday dispossess them and the have nots with whatever paranoia du jour  that the media, owned by that one percent, chooses to feed them and that "suits their temperament and station in life". DS