Thursday, July 12, 2012

Consume Mass Quantities!

Caught in the trap of life, man is moved by a field of attraction determined by a flash point where solid forms are destroyed, where the various objects that constitute the world are consumed as in a furnace of light.  -- Georges Bataille
I've been thinking about the good Reverend Earwhigger's emphasis on the consumer as key to solving the present crisis (see previous post) -- but I've come up with a solution very different from what he's proposed. (He shouldn't feel badly, however. He was my inspiration!)

It seems to me that what we need from the consumer is not a boycott (see previous post), but the exact opposite, i.e. exactly what the Gods of Capitalism created the consumer to achieve: consumption. Mass consumption. The consumption of mass quantities. In other words (the words of Bataille): Expenditure Without Reserve!

Did you watch 60 Minutes recently? I'm thinking of the segment hosted by the ever-lovely, ever wise Lesley Stahl, the one on truffles. Did you know that a single meal featuring truffles in a top French restaurant can cost $1,000 or more? So why not go for it? Grab that credit card, hop a flight to Paris, preferably First Class, make your dinner reservation, enjoy your meal, and be sure to spend the rest of your stay in a first class hotel.

Why, you say? Well, let's face it, the world economy is due for a total collapse, but the powers that be are doing everything in their power to delay the inevitable. Meanwhile, since the only arrow in their quivering quiver is spelled "austerity," it seems that their solution is to squeeze every last drop of blood from the 99% in order to protect the vast wealth of the 1%. If things continue along such lines for very much longer (and it looks like they will), then all us ordinary folk, workers, middle class, professionals, ne'er do wells, always do wells, under achievers, over achievers, college grads (with huge debt loads) and high school dropouts (with huge families) alike, will be forced into bankruptcy -- or worse (if you've racked up student debts they won't let you go bankrupt, you'll become their slave).

The longer they kick the can down the road to preserve the "economy" for the banks and the super-rich, the worse it's going to get for the rest of us. So what is needed, if we want to survive, is some strategy to force their hand, i.e., to bring the whole absurd mess down around their necks, Sampson style, as soon as humanly possible. Only then will the spell of the Plutogarchs be broken; only then will society be free to pick up the pieces, recognizing that what is important is not money, but resources, both natural and human, managed by true representatives of the people, not the super-wealthy and their minions, whose wealth will have evaporated into thin air once the money mirage concocted exclusively for their own benefit and at our expense has lifted.

So, who will be our Sampson? In some past posts, I've nominated the workers, and I still think a united international movement of organized workers, aided and abetted by sympathizers among the middle class, professionals, students, etc., could achieve a great deal. However, the Reverend H.C. Earwhigger ridiculed that idea as hopelessly outdated and perhaps he's right. For him, it is the consumer who is all powerful. And I have to admit that on reflection there is definitely some truth in that. But a consumer boycott won't work, because for one thing consumption is already down and for another, consumer boycotts are effective only when very precisely targeted, which means they can only have a very limited effect.

Nevertheless, there IS something we consumers can do to trash the "economy" and I'm not sure why I never thought of that before. What has brought our financial system to the brink of disaster has been reckless borrowing. And because we borrowed so much we are now very cautious about how much we spend and are reluctant to borrow much more. Nevertheless, because the powers that be are now in panic mode and not thinking straight, it is now actually almost as easy to borrow today as it ever was. Just check out those automobile commercials. No money down, easy terms, easy credit no problem. Same with mortgages, which are now selling for the lowest interest rates in history. Same with credit card debt, student debt, etc.

So, we now have it within our power to resume the same destructive process that blew the last bubble, only this time, if we really gird our loins and try, we can blow the damned thing up literally to kingdom come. It will, of course, take organization. Don't try this at home folks, until you're sure you won't be alone. It will require the mobilization of consumers on a vast scale, for sure, in every corner of the world where credit is easily available (in other words, just about everywhere).

Once we are organized, then hold onto your hats. We'll start buying everything in sight, en masse. Need a new car? Why settle for a Ford or Chevy when you can buy an Audi, BMW, or better yet, a Mercedes or Cadillac? Already own a house? Why not buy a summer place, preferably in the Hamptons? Think you can't get the loan? Well think again. The "market," especially the housing market, but also the automobile market, is as starved for attention as a teen age delinquent. Get out that credit card and if that isn't enough, head for your local bank. If they turn you down, try another, I can almost guarantee you'll find some bank eager to loan you just about whatever you want.

Students, don't be shy. Step right up to that admissions office and sign yourself up for the biggest student loan you can get, preferably for the full four years, and at the most expensive Ivy League school that will take you. They'll be down on their knees with gratitude, because a great many of these hallowed institutions are now in deep deep trouble.

If millions of us go on a spree all at once, all at the same time, borrowing to the hilt and buying whatever we damn please, spending like crazy and without reserve, we can send that bubble soaring into the stratosphere. All it will take will be a tiny pea from the tiniest pea shooter you can imagine to bring it down. And all the King's horses and all the King's men will NOT be able to put that damned phoney baloney "economy" together again.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Getting Their Attention

My old friend, the Reverend Earwhigger, considers my proposal of an international worker's action to be some sort of romantic pipe dream. As an alternative he's proposed a consumer boycott, which in his view would be much more likely to succeed. He writes, in part, as follows:
An organized consumer boycott? Difficult, improbable, but not exactly pie-in-the-sky. More and more consumers are beginning to understand that they are being exploited. The significance of the fact that 1% control the 99% is beginning to sink in. Unlike global warming, the 1:99 ratio is a "fact" that is accepted by both political camps. People are angry. They might be convinced that withholding their purchasing power could be a way to express it.
Perhaps, just as the labor unions organized one industry after another, consumer boycotts could – at least at first – be targeted. For example, a boycott on buying music. Relatively painless, but effective. A boycott on clicking on internet ads. Again, painless – but imagine what it would do to the Nasdaq numbers. Or a boycott on brand-name cereals in favor of super-market brands. Pretty painless, if somehow the narcissistic brats to whom the stuff is marketed could be induced to come aboard, but effective. . .
Though I'm in agreement with my friend on many points, I have problems with his consumer boycott proposal, because I seriously doubt that many consumers would be willing to participate, at least for very long. What he is recommending would be, at best, a very gradual process through which the 1% would hopefully get progressively worn down over time, as their profits on certain items, such as music, gradually eroded. But their profits are already eroding. And their solution would be the same as before: squeeze the workers, downsize, cut benefits, hire temps or "independent contractors," etc. In their minds there is no other alternative.

On the other hand, as I see it, a call for a general work stoppage could go out very quickly, and if effectively organized could shut large sectors of the economy down for enough time as to make a clear statement that workers are not being fooled and are unwilling to cooperate in their own exploitation. My friend isn't buying it, however:
Sorry, Doc G. Reviving the labor movement? Just a nostalgic pipe dream. Neo-romantic economics. The plutogarchs need workers. Well, yes, but there's no danger of running out of workers. There are billions of potential workers, and they are constantly spawning. Besides, technology actually has diminished the need for labor. What they also need, and what there is a danger of them running out of, is consumers: workers who not only are able to, but are willing to, pass back to them the fruit of their labor.
Yes, this may sound romantic, but it has in fact been done in the past and has in fact worked, very effectively. Worker organization was at its height during the last depression, when there were a great many unemployed workers and when automation in the form of the assembly line was also enabling many companies to cut down on their work forces. It was not a pleasant process, because many employers would hire "scab" replacements, which was why the picket line was invented.

I'm not proposing anything so drastic as unionization, however, at least not at first. A work stoppage of a day or even a week wouldn't give employers a chance to hire -- and train -- replacements, but it would put them on notice that their workers are no longer willing to suffer passively in the face of all these wonderful "austerity" plans that are supposed to solve all problems. I agree that the participation of many US workers would be questionable, given the resentment that's been fomented by movements such as the Tea Party, to which many working class people subscribe.

But there is a whole new generation of younger, more educated workers in this country, the type of people we see every day slaving away in businesses such as Barnes and Noble, Whole Foods, Apple stores, etc., not to mention literally all of our Universities and Colleges, earning maybe if they are lucky, $10 an hour, or $2,000 per class, who might very well understand the situation and be willing to get involved in a movement of this sort. And I think a great many consumers, including students, would be more than willing to support them by boycotting such institutions during such an action. In such a context a consumer boycott would, I think, be effective, but only as a supplement to a worker-based action.

As far as Europe is concerned, I would think the degree of social and economic awareness of most workers on that continent is much higher than in the States, and there have already in fact been several work stoppages and other such actions in Europe -- only they've been limited to individual businesses and/or countries, with no attempt at international coordination.

Just think how utopian the Occupy Wall St. movement sounded prior to its first stunning successes. The key, of course, is organization. But if OWS could get organized, I don't see why a similarly "utopian" labor movement couldn't also get organized. Why not? The difference would be that instead of demonstrations having no immediate effect on the ruling class, we would have labor actions having a very real and immediate effect on their bottom line, something they cannot so easily ignore.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Expenditure Without Reserve

From Federico Garcia Lorca, Theory and Method of the Duende
Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’
          So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.
From Georges Bataille,  "The Cruel Practice of Art":
Only a few of us, amid the great fabrications of society, hang on to our really childish reactions, still wonder naively what we are doing on the earth and what sort of joke is being played on us. We want to decipher skies and paintings, go behind these starry backgrounds or these painted canvases and, like kids trying to find a gap in a fence, try to look through the cracks in the world. One of these cracks is the cruel custom of sacrifice..
Caught in the trap of life, man is moved by a field of attraction determined by a flash point where solid forms are destroyed, where the various objects that constitute the world are consumed as in a furnace of light. 
From Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share
I will simply state, without further ado, that the extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles—the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking—and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire... It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.
From Putting Global Capitalism in Its Place: Economic Hybridity, Bataille, and Ritual Expenditure, by Mayfair Mei‐hui Yang: 
What [Bataille] proposed in his enigmatic and mesmerizing book The Accursed Share was that, in our modern capitalist productivism, we have lost sight of this fundamental law of physics and material existence: that the surplus energy and wealth left over after the basic conditions for subsistence, reproduction, and growth have been satisfied must be expended. If this energy is not destroyed, it will erupt of its own in an uncontrolled explosion such as war. Given the tremendous productive power of modern industrial society and the fact that its productivist ethos has cut off virtually all traditional avenues of ritual and festive expenditures, energy surpluses have been redirected to military expenditures for modern warfare on a scale unknown in traditional societies. Bataille thought that the incessant growth machine that is the post-World War II U.S. economy could be deflected from a catastrophic expenditure on violent warfare only by potlatching the entire national economy. In giving away its excess wealth to poorer nations, as in the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe, the United States could engage in a nonmilitary rivalry for prestige and influence with the Soviet Union, that other center of industrial modernity’s radical reduction of nonproductive expenditure.14 Thus, Bataille wished to resuscitate an important dimension of the economy, nonproductive expenditure, that has all but disappeared in both capitalist and state socialist modernity.

For Spain

From The Nation:

The early June performance by the Sevillian flamenco anti-bank protest group FLO6x8 was a direct hit. Days after the announcement of a $23 billion public bailout of Spain’s third-biggest bank, Bankia, three cantaora singers strode into the city center office of the bank and began to bellow out the purest, full-lunged cante jondo, songs of grief, pain and protest of the Andalusian gypsies. Customers looked on, surprised, then impressed. Security guards fidgeted nervously. One singer, nicknamed Prima del Riesgo (Risk Premium, a term on every Spaniard’s lips, as the spread on Spanish bonds rises to unsustainable heights), pushed open the door to the bank manager’s office. “Goirigolzarri! Tell us!” she sang, gesturing with her hands as if money were flowing through her fingers. “Why did you retire? With all the money you’ve spent, we could feed the world.” This was a reference to the new Bankia CEO José Ignacio Goirigolzarri, brought out of early retirement at 55 (on a pension of 3 million euros per year) to manage the biggest government bailout of a bank in Spanish history.

 From  Federico Garcia Lorca, "Theory and Method of the Duende":
Pastora Pavon finished singing in the midst of total silence. There was only a little man, one of those dancing mannikins who leap suddenly out of brandy bottles, who observed sarcastically in a very low voice: "Viva Paris!" As if to say: We are not interested in aptitude or techniques or virtuosity here. We are interested in something else.

Then La niña de los peines got up like a woman possessed, her face blasted like a medieval weeper, tossed off a great glass of Cazalla at a single draught, like a potion of fire, and settled down to singing - without a voice, without breath, without nuance, throat aflame - but with duende! She had contrived to annihilate all that was nonessential in song and make way for an angry and incandescent Duende, friend of sand- laden winds, so that everyone listening tore at his clothing almost in the same rhythm with which the West Indian negroes in their rites rend away their clothes, huddled in heaps before the image of Saint Barbara.

The "Girl with the Combs" had to mangle her voice because she knew there were discriminating folk about who asked not for form, but for the marrow of form - pure music spare enough to keep itself in the air. She had to deny her faculties and her security; that is to say, to turn out her Muse and keep vulnerable, so that her Duende might come and vouchsafe the hand-to-hand struggle. And then how she sang! Her voice feinted no longer; it jetted up like blood, ennobled by sorrow and sincerity, it opened up like ten fingers of a hand around the nailed feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni - tempestuous!

The arrival of the Duende always presupposes a radical change in all the forms as they existed on the old plane. It gives a sense of refreshment unknown until then, together with that quality of the just-opening rose, of the miraculous, which comes and instils an almost religious transport.

In all Arabian music, in the dances, songs, elegies of Arabia, the coming of the Duende is greeted by fervent outcries of Allah! Allah! God! God!, so close to the Olé" Olé! of our bull rings that who is to say they are not actually the same . . .

In every country, death comes as a finality. It comes, and the curtain comes down. But not in Spain! In Spain the curtain goes up. Many people live out their lives between walls until the day they die and are brought out into the sun.

From George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia:
The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. . . .
Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. . . .

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Oh Don't Ask Why -- more questions

Isn't the main problem unemployment? How would international work stoppages and strikes create more jobs?

The exploitation of workers and unemployment go hand in hand. While the powers that be are continually lamenting the unemployment situation, it is actually in their interest to keep unemployment high. Which is why "austerity" is a euphemism for both low wages and massive layoffs. The more unemployment, the more competition among workers, thus the less influence the workers themselves will have over their jobs and their pay. Employed workers thus have an incentive to strike not only for living wages and decent conditions, but also to send a message that additional firings and layoffs are not acceptable. Moreover, since many among the employed are now being forced to work ever harder, at longer hours (in the interests of "productivity"), improved working conditions at fewer hours (thus lowering "productivity") will incentivize corporations to hire more workers.

More generally, the notion that jobs are what is needed, rather than a decent, rewarding way of life for all, is in itself a perversion, more smoke and mirrors intended to confuse working people regarding their own needs and desires. No one needs a "job." What is needed is a meaningful and rewarding lifestyle. Most people are willing to work, and even work hard, in order to achieve such a lifestyle, but work (aka a "job") has never been an end in itself for anyone. The responsibility of government, i.e., society as a whole, is to work to ensure a meaningful and rewarding life for all those willing to make the effort to cooperate in the realization of such a goal. The key, therefore, is not work per se, but cooperation. If there are not enough "jobs," then there are certainly more than enough ways for people to contribute meaningfully to the society in which they live. Not everything need be measured in terms of work hours and money.

If we are to improve the lot of all people, by fighting for living wages and better working conditions, resisting the push for austerity, growth, productivity, and placing less emphasis on "jobs" per se in favor of a meaningful lifestyle, where is the money going to come from to pay for all this?

We are living in an era of vast wealth, probably more than at any time in history. A recent issue of Forbes magazine lists all billionaires now living, 10 per page, with 123 pages total -- 1,230 in all. Highest on the list is Carlos Slim, who alone possesses 69 billion, more than the entire Lithuanian GDP. According to the Wall St. Journal, the USA alone had 3,100,000 millionaires in 2010. There is more than enough money to cover the costs of an improved way of life for every man, woman and child in the world, but that money will not be made available for that purpose, unless those who control this vast wealth can be persuaded it is in their own interest to do so. In my opinion it is. But it will take some drastic measures to convince them, that's for sure.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Oh Don't Ask Why

No doubt the last few posts have raised a lot of questions. I'll try to answer some of them here:

Given the current fragility of the Euro zone, isn't there a risk that a European work stoppage could cause the Euro to collapse?

Yes. Of course. That would be the point -- to bring it down, to force it to collapse. Why not? It's going to collapse anyhow, of its own weight. But the longer that takes, the harder it's going to be for workers throughout the zone. And every indication is that the leaders, who are after all part of the 1%, are going to draw out the painful process indefinitely. A Europe-wide united labor action would force the issue, thus freeing workers from the grip of an increasingly intolerable "austerity." 

How can workers organize on a worldwide basis when the cost of labor varies so greatly from one part of the world to the other?

Yes, third world labor costs far less than first world labor, and as a result European and American workers are finding it more and more difficult to compete with Asiatic, Middle Eastern and African workers -- which makes both groups increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by globally based corporations. If we look more closely, however, we will see that the differences are not as great as they may seem. While American workers earn far more in US dollars than Asiatic workers, Asiatic workers can buy a whole lot more with each dollar (or its equivalent) than Americans.

Thus, Chinese workers, for example, have a far greater savings rate, a high level of home ownership, and far less mortgage debt. In fact they have very little debt at all. I'm not saying they have as much spending power as US workers, because most Chinese still earn less than we do, and have far fewer choices as consumers. Nevertheless, the income discrepancy is not as high as it might seem. What makes them so competitive with US or European workers is the largely the discrepancy in the value of the Chinese currency compared with the dollar, euro or pound.

So in principle the competition isn't really that great. It's largely the result of distortions introduced by a monetary system that favors "cheap" Asiatic labor and gives a huge advantage to large corporations capable of moving their operations anywhere in the world. The monetary system and the corporations work in tandem as part of a process through which all workers are exploited. So the goal of a united world workforce is to promote the collapse of that system, not cooperate in (futile) efforts to delay its (in any case inevitable) collapse. Once it collapses, a more logical and equible economic system, based on the production and distribution of resources, will be possible.

(more later)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ritual of Purification

I visited Mexico City in 1997, and was immediately robbed, at the very impressive new bus terminal, almost as soon as I arrived. (The first-class bus I traveled in was excellent, state of the art, with air conditioning -- unusual at the time even on US buses -- and even a movie, just like on a plane.) While visiting with a friend, I noticed that all the streets in his neighborhood had gates, manned by security guards. This wasn't simply a "gated community," but an ordinary middle class neighborhood. Every single street was gated, as were many such streets in many other neighborhoods throughout the city. I'd never seen anything like it before, but for my friend it was, of course, nothing special.

Overall, Mexico City impressed me. Much of it is very beautiful. I visited the University, the art museum and also a special museum devoted to the work of one of my favorite artists, David Siqueiros. And at my request, my friend and his father took me on an outing to Teotihuacan, one of the most spectacular ancient cities in the world.

Though I enjoyed my stay in Mexico City, I couldn't help but notice the many signs of truly dire poverty visible all around me. What struck me especially were the large number of what appeared to be homeless boys roaming around the streets. I became fascinated by a group of boys working as windshield washers, a mode of "employment" one step removed from outright begging. I'd seen this sort of thing before in New York City, but never on this scale. What impressed me especially was the diligence of these boys, and the relation between them and the drivers. Unlike New York, they never forced themselves on anyone, never began to wash a windshield without a signal from the driver.

This phenomenon deeply moved me. There was something very touching about the care these boys took to clean each windshield as carefully as possible, and something touching as well about the indulgence of the drivers and their patience with the boys. In New York, drivers are typically irritated when someone with a rag comes up to their car, but in Mexico the situation was very different, possibly because poverty was already so much of a fixture of everyday life that no one was any more bothered by it.

I was moved but also deeply disturbed. On the surface, there was something truly beautiful about it, almost like a ritual, but when I tried to project myself into the mind of one of these boys, continually repeating the same delicate task over and over again for hours on end, it was almost impossible to imagine. On the one hand, there was something Zenlike about it, a form of meditation. On the other hand, it was imprisonment or even torture, a kind of self-flagellation.

Obsessed by images I couldn't get out of my head, I decided to write about it, or more accurately, write my way through it, by producing a kind of poetic incantation. As I began to write what struck me was that, on the one hand, I was creating something almost like an avant-garde prose poem, a kind of minimalist poetry I suppose, but on the other hand, I was reporting as accurately as I could exactly what I had observed. I began with the intention of making this go on for many pages, to convey as real a sense as possible of what these boys experienced day in day out, just to survive. But I didn't get very far. Just writing it was too difficult, so imagine what living it was like. Here's as much as I had the courage to do:
The boy waited patiently for a sign. When the sign came, he lifted the bottle and sprayed. A soapy liquid appeared on the glass. The boy lifted his squeegee and patiently skimmed the soapy liquid off the glass. Patiently he held out his hand for the coin. When the coin appeared he tucked it into his pocket and said “gracias” and waited patiently for another sign. The sign came, but this time from the other side of the street. Traffic was heavy so he had to move quickly. Upon reaching the auto, he lifted his bottle and sprayed the soapy liquid onto the glass. Patiently he lifted the squeegee and skimmed the soapy liquid from the surface of the glass. When he was done, he held out his hand for the coin. But it slipped from his hand and he had to dive down between two cars to retrieve it. The light changed. Traffic began to move. He found the coin and quickly thrust it into his pocket. Patiently he waited for the light to change. A woman signaled him from a red convertible. She smiled. He smiled back at her, then lifted the bottle patiently and sprayed a soapy liquid onto her windshield. Then, lifting his squeegee, he skimmed the liquid from the glass, smiled again and held out his hand. She smiled and handed him two coins. She was pleased. He said “gracias” and smiled again, tucking the coins into his pocket. Then he patiently waited for another sign. But the light had changed and the cars were moving. Quickly he slipped out of their way, looking down the line of traffic for another sign.
Imagine repeating this same thing over and over again, with all the many variations the boy would encounter during a long day's work. Imagine writing it, but more important, imagine living it. Day after day after day for an entire childhood.

I forgot all about the boys, and my truncated "poem," until recently when reading for the umpteenth time about the so-called Mexican drug wars, and it suddenly occurred to me: where are all these boys now and what are they doing? I wonder how many survived, and if so, how. When poverty of this depth and on this scale is accepted simply as a fact of life and nothing is done to alleviate it, then it seems to me this is going to have consequences for society as a whole. We see it now in Mexico and I see it coming in the USA.

David Alfaro Siqueiros -- Echo of the Scream

Friday, June 29, 2012

Acting from a Position of Strength

I just now posted the following on the Occupy Wall St. forum. Since it's based on what I've been writing on this blog, I decided to post it here as well:

Occupy Wall St. has done a great job of mobilizing support worldwide, especially among the young, and making the world aware of the debilitating effects of inequality on the social fabric. Unfortunately, the powers that be (i.e., the oligarchs, plutocrats and the politicians controlled by them) are not about to relinquish any fraction of their power simply because a bunch of latter day "hippies" is upset.

I learned myself, from bitter experience during the 60's and 70's, that you can shame, blame and embarrass the ruling class as much as you like, but that in itself will not have much of an effect on their actions.

If the impetus behind OWS seems now to be a bit stalled, it may well be due to the sad reality that the 1% see no reason to either share any of their wealth or give up any of their power, even in the face of massive protests and embarrassing media exposure. Nor is it likely that more aggressive, or even violent actions will make any real difference. Despite the fact that they are hugely outnumbered by the 99%, their power, economic, political, and military, is far greater than that of all of us combined -- many times over, in fact.

Was it Sun Tzu who wrote, in The Art of War, "never attack from a position of weakness"? From years of bitter experience I know that to be true. Which does not mean I lost my battles. Only that I chose them carefully, and learned to act only from a position of strength.

So. The question now is: how would it be possible for the 99% to act from a position of strength rather than weakness? My answer: there is only one force in the world, as far as I can tell, powerful enough to stand up against the forces of greed, manipulation and exploitation, and that is, very simply, the workers. The workers of the world, to coin a phrase. Workers are the ultimate source of the wealth accumulated by the oligarchy and also its secret vulnerability. It's only vulnerability, as far as I can see.

The workers of the world are a sleeping giant, though this is something they seem blissfully unaware of, so we rarely hear from them these days. They have been all too ready to accept the line handed out to them, as today in Europe, that the so-called "economic crisis" is largely their fault. They borrowed too much, demanded too many benefits, high wages, pensions, their unions made too many demands.

So now they are being called on to save "the world as we know it" by accepting "austerity," a euphemism for crushing exploitation. And this is true also not only for Europe but the entire world, the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, everywhere. The world over, workers are being duped into competing with one another for crumbs.

If these workers could manage to organize, just as the great labor unions organized early in the 20th Century, they would be capable of acting from a position of strength that could rock the world -- and in fact save the powers that be from themselves, since as should be clear, despite all their frantic efforts, their precious "economy" is on a downward spiral into the pit.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Day of Rest

To summarize: The ultimate cause of the present crisis is not out-of-control borrowing, manipulative and dishonest lending, the US Federal Reserve, the bankers, the hedge funds, the housing bubble, the Euro, etc., though all were and still are contributing factors. The ultimate cause is the overdoing-it of the capitalist "free" market system in its efforts to maximize profits at the expense of workers by opening up a global labor market and thus instituting ruthless competition among workers from different regions of the world with very different modes of compensation. If that sounds confusing, I suggest reading it again, slowly.

Of course the problem is very different depending on which side of the economic divide one is viewing it from. From the viewpoint of the workers, the situation is not all that new, because they have always been squeezed by their bosses -- what is new is the degree to which they are being squeezed, which is rapidly becoming intolerable. When it reaches the breaking point, which it will very soon, then there will no longer be any incentive to work at all. Better to just chuck that hairnet and go back to the farm.

From the viewpoint of the capitalists, however, which is, of course, the only one we ever hear about, what's really important is that, thanks to their excesses in squeezing the last drop of blood from their employees in every corner of the world, they have themselves sown the seeds of their own destruction. Because workers are also consumers, and when consumers are squeezed dry, markets are squeezed dry, and when that happens, then out-of-control borrowing becomes the last resort. And when out-of-control borrowing is no longer possible, the whole system grinds to a halt.

Is it really that simple? I think so. But the capitalists, aided and abetted by the politicians and the media, are unwilling to admit, either to the world at large or even themselves, that the exploitation of workers is the cause of their own downfall, which is why we are hearing so much about borrowing, lending, banking, bubbles and Euros and literally nothing about the role of the working class and its plight. Unable to grasp the root cause of the crisis, the capitalists and their cronies are attempting to solve the problem by doing more of what they have always done: squeeze squeeze squeeze the working class, which presumably has no alternative but to blindly obey. This is true, by the way, not only for those demanding "austerity," but also those pleading for "growth." In either case, the burden will be on the backs of labor.

There is an alternative, however. Which takes us to where I left off in the previous post: "And what can they do to liberate themselves -- and us? Why, what they have always done . . ."

Were you able to fill in the blank? The answer is: organize. And really the best name for the specter currently haunting Europe is not simply "the workers of the world," as I so thoughtlessly stated, but more to the point: organized labor.

The only group that's remained passive throughout this whole fiasco is labor. Not surprising, since ever since the Reagan-Thatcher era, labor and unions have become dirty words, to the point we've arrived at today, where no one, even so-called progressives, wants to talk any more about the "working class." We have all now officially become "middle class." Well, congratulations, folks, you have moved up in the world. How does that make you feel?

Occupy Wall St. seems to have fizzled. The upcoming elections in the US don't hold much promise. I'll be voting for Obama and the rest of the Democratic ticket for sure, but only because the alternative is too scary to contemplate. I've heard talk about forming a new political party, an international party, which might, over time, develop some influence on the various national agendas, but that would take far too much time to develop, assuming it could work at all.

On the other hand, an effort to organize workers on an international scale might be far less difficult and far less time consuming than it might seem. In fact the time seems ripe for it. We are living in the age of the Internet, after all. I would venture to say that there is hardly any industrial worker anywhere in the world without an Internet connection, either of his/her own or that of a friend,. Similarly, I have a feeling that the English language is now sufficiently widespread that communications in this language could be almost universally understood. Anyone who doesn't understand English is almost sure to have a friend, or child, who does.

Where to begin? I think a general one-day work stoppage could be very effective, especially if it were international. Certainly a general "day of rest" honored by a significant portion of the European workforce might make a very effective start, a shot across the bow. I'd like to say we could include American workers, but the full brunt of the crisis is not yet being felt as acutely in the USA as it is elsewhere, so there might not be much of a response. And Chinese workers might be too easily intimidated to respond, I'm not sure.The one-day stoppage could then be followed by longer stoppages, with the ultimate threat of a complete shutdown by all workers everywhere.

In the past, it might take months or years to organize actions of this sort, but the Internet makes it possible to organize very quickly, within a week or so I would think, given an efficient organizational base. Who would do the organizing? Well, OWS may have fizzled, but the people behind it are still around. And judging from their success in organizing all those rather spectacular actions last year, I would think these folks would be ideal. Assuming they are motivated to take this sort of action. I wonder . . .

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Specter is Haunting Europe (Oh, you know why)

No, not THAT specter. And not only in Europe. Read on and you'll see what I mean.

Meanwhile, before I continue, I want to make it perfectly clear (to quote an old adage) that I am NOT interested in hatching a new conspiracy theory. I am not saying the 1% or .1% or .01% got together and conspired to concoct some clever scheme to force impoverished workers into ruthlessly competing with one another by blowing a financial bubble so huge as to ensure the complete and total collapse of  the world economy unless we all agreed to impoverish ourselves through the institution of appropriately harsh austerity measures. For one thing, they aren't smart enough. For another, they don't think like that, because they don't have to think like that. They have better things to think about, such as finding the next whiskey bar -- or the next little dollar -- or the next luxury hotel:

They don't need to plan a conspiracy because the "system" does the planning for them. And by "system" I mean, you know, that wonderful system of "free" market capitalism we all love so dearly.

Also, before I continue, I would like to take back what I wrote earlier about economists who love to explain more than they like to think, because I just discovered a thinking economist, just today, by coincidence, God bless me. More on that presently as well.

Oh and one more thing before I really get started, let's take a look at a fascinating graph, courtesy of the Business Insider (June 22):

Corporate Profit Margins as a Percentage of GDP:

Here's another, from the same source:

Wages, as a Percentage of GDP:

The headline, appropriately enough, reads:

Corporate Profits Just Hit An All-Time High, Wages Just Hit An All-Time Low

This from a business publication.

OK, now finally I'm ready to continue from where I left off in my last post. But first, I need to correct what I just wrote, because, according to the thinking economist I referred to above, there was a conspiracy after all. Who is this thinking economist? Greg Palast. And who is the villain who concocted the conspiracy? A guy named Robert Mundell. In an article in yesterday's Guardian, Palast accuses Mundell of being the evil genius of the euro:

The idea that the euro has "failed" is dangerously naive. The euro is doing exactly what its progenitor – and the wealthy 1%-ers who adopted it – predicted and planned for it to do. . .
That progenitor is former University of Chicago economist Robert Mundell . . . [t]he architect of "supply-side economics" . . . 
[Mundell] cited labor laws, environmental regulations and, of course, taxes. All would be flushed away by the euro. Democracy would not be allowed to interfere with the marketplace . . .
And when crises arise, [according to Mundell] economically disarmed nations have little to do but wipe away government regulations wholesale, privatize state industries en masse, slash taxes and send the European welfare state down the drain.
[Thus,] Mario Draghi, the (unelected) head of the European Central Bank, is calling for "structural reforms" – a euphemism for worker-crushing schemes. They cite the nebulous theory that this "internal devaluation" of each nation will make them all more competitive.
Monti and Draghi cannot credibly explain how, if every country in the Continent cheapens its workforce, any can gain a competitive advantage. But they don't have to explain their policies; they just have to let the markets go to work on each nation's bonds. Hence, currency union is class war by other means. 
So. It's nice to learn I'm not the only one. A bona fide economist with real credentials is saying more or less the same thing. But what I'm not yet hearing, from him or anyone else, is any idea of what to do about this disturbing and disheartening situation.

Occupy Wall St. did its bit, and I supported them. But now they've run out of steam and little wonder. If their sort of passive resistance isn't the answer, then what about outright armed rebellion? Sorry, that won't work either. With respect to any conflict, it is always better to avoid attacking from a position of weakness, best to attack only from a position of strength. That's how the Vietnamese beat us back in the 70's and it holds true today. We aren't armed, and even if we were, the powers that be are far too powerful for armed rebellion to achieve any real and lasting success. Look at what's happening now in Syria, or even what happened in Egypt, when what looked like victory was turned into defeat, because the real powers in that country, the oligarchs and plutocrats, have the army on their side. Why not, they pay it well.
Besides, armed rebellion is always a bad idea, imo, not only when it's futile, because even when it succeeds, too many innocent people get hurt or killed and there are too many things that could go wrong, too many chances for the cause to be betrayed or co-opted.

So, what is to be done? Well, before I answer (I always have an answer), I have to fulfill my promise and explain what I mean by the title of this post. What is the "Specter That is Haunting Europe" (and not only Europe)? The unknown, unsung, routinely ignored, denigrated, chronically underestimated workers of the world. And what can they do to liberate themselves -- and us? Why, what they have always done . . . 

(to be continued)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Workers of the World . . . (oh, you know)

Economists the wide world over are turning themselves inside out trying to explain what's going on. It would be nice if they tried to understand it first. Sure, everyone, poor folk, rich folk, banks, investors, cities, states, whole nations, borrowed much too much, often on outrageously manipulative terms -- and now the debts have multiplied to the point that they can never be repaid. Sounds simple enough. Only no one ever seems interested in figuring out why it was necessary for all these people and all these institutions to borrow so much in the first place.

I've already tried to explain it by using a single word: "immigration." But of course this too is misleading, because the immigration I've been writing about, both literal and figurative, isn't the root cause either. And "immigration" is now a politically charged term, with all sorts of ideological resonances that have little or nothing to do with the point I'm trying to make.

So let's dig a little deeper. What we see time after time in literally all the reports and all the analyses coming from literally all points (though at the moment Europe has become the focus) is over and over again the same idea, expressed in a variety of ways, but always with the same (unstated) meaning: words like "austerity," "growth," "productivity," "competitiveness," phrases such as "budgetary discipline,"  "moral hazard," "growth-enhancing reforms," "market reform," pretty much any call for "reform," reform this, reform that.

When we look more closely and more critically at all these terms, pushing aside the fog of obfuscation, what all the rigmarole amounts to can be encapsulated in the following question: how can we squeeze the absolute maximum amount of blood from our workers at the least possible cost without them figuring out what's really going on?

The root cause of the so-called "economic crisis" was neither banking nor the Euro nor monetary policy, nor fiscal policy, nor the Fed, nor Goldman Sachs, nor J. P. Morgan Chase, etc. (though all the above contributed mightily to the depressing outcome), but the relentless ratcheting up of that age-old resource of the wealthy and privileged: the ruthless and relentless exploitation of labor. Only this time, vast new resources became available via the economic miracle known as "globalization." Capitalism has always had a hard time with competition, which is why so many companies collude with one another to fix prices and control markets -- but competition among workers, why that's another thing, no problem there. The more competition along those lines the merrier. So when all sorts of fresh "human resources," from the remotest corners of the globe became available for exploitation, what better way to exploit them then to force them to compete.

The only problem was that workers are also consumers, so by cutting worker pay to the max, the oligarchs were depriving them of the ability to purchase goods and services. How could manufacturers, home builders, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, universities, investment houses, entrepreneurs, banks, etc., survive without a steady stream of purchases and investments from the very workers whose paychecks were being steadily eroded? Then suddenly out of the blue, a brilliant "innovation" emerged in the form of: easy credit. Let them borrow what we need for them to have so they can pay us through the nose even when they can't afford it (because we've shaved their incomes down to practically nothing).

Thus was born the magical housing market, where ordinary people at all income levels were persuaded that they could afford a mortgage because the value of their house could only go up up up. And for a while, it all worked marvelously. Until the bubble burst and those values started going down down down.

The oligarchs have overdone it. And now they are in trouble because the world financial system on which they depend is about to collapse thanks to all those bad loans, based on their absurd attempt to milk their victims at both ends. And the only solution they can think of is: austerity, aka "productivity," aka labor reform, market reform, employer "flexibility," etc. And what it amounts to is the squeezing of the labor force far beyond anything ever attempted before. And lo and behold: they are buying it! The workers of the world are buying it. They've been convinced that this is the only way to go and that they have no other recourse, because the only alternative would be the collapse of this mythical beast they've been taught to revere: the economy.

(to be continued . . . )

Monday, June 25, 2012


"Which Side Are You On?"

by Florence Reece

Come all you good workers
Good news to you I'll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
He's now in the air and sun
He'll be with you fellow workers
Until the battle's won

Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Claire

Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?

Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?

Don't scab for the bosses
Don't listen to their lies
Poor folks ain't got a chance
Unless they organize

Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?

It's the Workers, Stupid

No, it's NOT the "economy," stupid. I'm not even sure what that word means. Huike asked Bodhidharma to pacify his mind, to which the great sage replied: "Bring me your mind and I will pacify it." By the same token, we might ask all those wishing to save "the economy" to first tell us what it is, and where it is, so we can go there and rescue it. As I wrote in an earlier post, with respect to the Euro zone, "the whole dog and pony show of recapitalization, austerity, growth, default, EFSF, ESB, TARGET 1, TARGET 2, etc., etc. is nothing but a huge misdirection, intended to confuse the workers of the world as to the true nature of what is taking place."

The liberal version of this charade: A bunch of greedy bankers decided to make loads of money by foisting questionable mortgages on naive victims who couldn't afford them. One thing led to another, a huge financial bubble formed, which then inevitably burst, threatening the world "economy." The conservative version: a bunch of do-gooder liberals decided that all citizens, regardless of whether they could afford it or not, should own their own home, and then pressured the banks to make "low interest" mortgages available to them. When, inevitably, they started to default on these loans, the whole banking system tanked, due, "naturally" to government interference.

On the European front, the most popular version goes like this: a bunch of European politicians cynically decided to garner votes by instituting "welfare states," hiring lazy bureaucrats, offering outsized pensions, and generally cow-towing to the unions. When it became clear that all the "entitlements," along with union demands were unaffordable, they decided to borrow their way out of their problem, and when these loans ultimately had to be repaid, an "economic" crisis developed.

In my opinion, all of the above interpretations are "correct," while at the same time not only completely off base but oddly deceptive. The real problem at the heart of this fiasco is the one thing no one wants to talk about: an old old story -- the exploitation of the working class.

"What," you ask? "Working class? What's that? Gee, I thought we were all middle class."

(more next time)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Are Conservatives Anti-Christian?

Before considering the above question, I want to share an interesting observation. Conservatives and liberals are closer to one another than one might think. For example, both tend to be highly critical of state power. Liberals call it "hegemony," conservatives call it "big government." Many conservatives see themselves as "libertarians," while many liberals have embraced, or expressed sympathy for, policies that could only be called "anarchic." Are they really that different? Both libertarians and anarchists are strongly opposed to centralized authority and tend to emphasize the importance of both rugged individualism and localized decision making.

Conservatives are very concerned with certain basic rights, as are liberals, especially rights protected under the constitution. Which has, on many occasions, produced real problems for organizations such as the ACLU, which has, more often than it might like to admit, felt forced to defend conservative institutions and causes.

Many liberals complain that conservatives listen too closely to representative of the despised 1%, but so does our liberal-in-chief, Barack Obama and a great many of his fellow liberals in public office nationwide. Both sides have been forced to acknowledge that money is essential to winning in politics and neither seems very comfortable with that fact.

And while we're on the topic of money, both conservatives and liberals embrace capitalism and so-called "free market" reform, and both clearly want to see us get over our current economic crisis so we can return to something resembling the good old status quo that worked so well for us back in the "good old days." And by the way, both sides seem focused on those "good old days" as an ideal time when America really worked -- in every sense of that word.

Nevertheless, both liberals and conservatives were opposed to the economic bailout, and many on both sides remain incensed at the soft treatment of irresponsible banks and bankers by leaders in both parties.

So, I've been asking myself, if conservatives and liberals are so alike in so many ways, how can one tell them apart? And the answer I came up with may surprise you. Liberals are essentially Christian in their thinking, while conservatives are in fact anti-Christian. And that's how you can tell them apart, by comparing their moral outlook with that of Jesus Christ.

Take Christ's attitude toward wealth and poverty. Christ was the one who cast out the money changers, but conservatives are the ones who have consistently enabled and defended them. Liberals are attempting to more tightly regulate their activities, while conservatives want to give them free reign. It is Christ who insisted that "man cannot serve both God and Mammon," while conservative "Christians" take pride in their attempts to do exactly that.

Liberals are concerned, as was Christ, with the welfare of the poor and outcast, while conservatives mercilessly disparage them as "welfare cheats," and "lazy good for nothings." Christ said, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." (Matthew 19:21.) On the other hand, according to conservative icon Ayn Rand, "those who are loudest in proclaiming their desire to eliminate poverty are loudest in denouncing capitalism." Since she was an atheist, perhaps it didn't matter to her what Christ's take on this might be.

But his preference ought to be clear.  He was definitely on the side of the poor and most definitely not very sympathetic to the capitalists of his day: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." If there ever was a philosophy that was patently anti-Christian, it is clearly that of Rand -- yet most conservatives admire, and regularly quote from, her writings. For Christ, altruism was the essence of his teachings, while for Rand it was an impediment to one's own "God given" right to prevail regardless of the cost to others.

A more fundamental, and even more revealing, difference is the way conservatives will invoke the Old rather than the New Testament when castigating the morals and values of others. It is to the Old Testament they turn when pronouncing on the evils of same-sex marriage, family planning, Darwinian evolution, sexual mores, etc. Yet the whole meaning of Christ's message was his reinterpretation of the Old Testament, his loosening of its rigid insistence on controlling all aspects of human life, his substitution of mercy, peace and altruism for narrow minded notions of blind justice and vengeance.

So yes, this is a no-brainer, folks. Conservatives are indeed anti-Christian. And when they attack Obama and his liberal supporters as some kind of anti-Christ, you gotta scratch your head and wonder.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Immigration and the Global Economy -- part 3

I'll begin by quoting from the last paragraph of my previous post:
The question that is never asked, however, is why? Why was it necessary for the prosperous, technologically advanced nations of Europe to borrow so much simply in order to provide their citizens with certain basic necessities and decent working conditions? 
The answer: immigration. Not simply the literal displacement of desperate people from places like Mexico, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, etc., though that too is a significant factor. But immigration in a more general, figurative sense. As I put it in the previous post, "a huge hoard of starving, desperate, workers is overwhelming the hitherto impregnable borders of the first world economic fortress."

Thus, the root cause of all the borrowing on which everyone is now focused is not simply moral turpitude driven by greedy bankers and their clueless marks, as real as that may be, but a much more fundamental aspect of capitalism -- its tendency to encourage the most ruthless, cutthroat, socially damaging forms of unbridled competition. In the name of "unrestricted free markets," natch. Aka liberal "reform," which of course all the major power players on both sides of the political fence are continually promoting.

Returning to the situation in the States, when we look at the reality behind the hoards of illegal Mexican immigrants and ask ourselves why they take such huge risks to get here, the answer is usually that these people want to partake of the advantages of the "American way of life." Which may be true, in a very general sense. More particularly, however, there is no denying that the great majority come to this country expecting jobs. Why? Because in fact until very recently there were a great many US businesses, both large and small, prepared to hire them. And in fact dependent on them. Why? Because of good old, American as apple pie, "free market" competition. Competition for markets, yes. But mainly competition among workers.

The more potential workers for any given job, the less one has to offer them in wages, benefits, decent working conditions, etc. So illegal immigration, over which so many of our very confused and befuddled Tea Partiers are so worked up over, happens to be very good for business. Which is the real reason why it's been tolerated and will continue to be tolerated. Of course, now that there's been such a huge slowdown in the economy, the need for such workers has diminished, which is why so many are now in fact being deported. (Why bother with them when so many US citizens are now desperate enough to take such exploitive jobs.) When the economy picks up, however, the rules will, trust me, once again be bent.

What does this tell us about the European situation? It tells us that European workers are now being forced to compete with the huge hoard of economic "immigrants" from the most impoverished regions of the third world. So thanks to the "unrestricted free market" in human exploitation worldwide, European workers (along with American workers, of course) are in effect being told, in no uncertain terms, to literally enslave themselves. Otherwise, how can they compete with all the billions of submissive wage slaves of the "developing" world? And if they refuse, as the Greeks may well do this Sunday, why then they will be responsible for the collapse of the European economy if not the world economy, an apparently "disastrous" outcome, leading to the dread EOTWAWKI (End of the World As We Know it).

From this perspective, the whole dog and pony show of recapitalization, austerity, growth, default, EFSF, ESB, TARGET 1, TARGET 2, etc., etc. is nothing but a huge misdirection, intended to confuse the workers of the world as to the true nature of what is taking place. Amidst all this turmoil, the tiny minority of plutocrats and oligarchs is doing just fine, raking in millions if not billions in profits earned on the backs of hapless human beings the world over, conned into believing they have no choice but to sacrifice their very lives to feed the enormous profit machine. What is at risk if they refuse to comply, is NOT their own well being, which will in fact be liberated, but the vast wealth of the super wealthy, whose power very literally depends on the willingness of ordinary people to buy into the swindle.

When the huge monstrosity that "free market" capitalism has become finally collapses under its own weight, the spell will be broken and we can all return to our lives as autonomous human beings rather than pawns in someone else's game.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Immigration and the Global Economy -- part 2

As I see it, the USA's immigration "problem," as described in the previous post, is only one relatively small part of a worldwide socio-economic revolution, with ramifications in all possible directions. I'm not referring only to the immigration "problem" in Europe, which is of course a part of the same trend, but something far more widespread and comprehensive. What is happening is that a huge segment of the world population until recently more or less safely ignored (or else patronized) is rapidly becoming integrated into a radically new type of global workforce.

This isn't an entirely new development. Low wage workers from the third world have been exploited for decades by first world industries and the societies they service. But this time, thanks to the universal spread of "free market capitalism," the rapid development of countries like India and China, increasing instability in Africa and the Middle East, and the embrace on all fronts of so-called "liberal reforms" that encourage the most ruthless forms of cut-throat competition, a huge hoard of starving, desperate, workers is overwhelming the hitherto impregnable borders of the first world economic fortress. And, as in the US of A, these people are "taking jobs" away from the natives, in a development that could almost be described as a form of colonialism in reverse.

As with the US "illegal immigration" issue, the situation can be described from different viewpoints. It can be seen as a good thing, since, for the first time, there seems some hope of lifting a large portion of the third world out of its desperate poverty, while making all sorts of goods, including all kinds of nifty electronic gizmos, widely affordable (for the American middle class, that is). On the other hand, it can be seen as yet another means of "taking jobs" away from good, hard working citizens, via outsourcing and "unfair" competition.

Finally, there is yet another aspect which is too often downplayed. As with illegal immigration in the US, we have, to quote my previous post, "a system that provides all sorts of businesses, both small and large, with peons willing to do backbreaking, debilitating and often humiliating work for less than minimum wage." As far as the global economy is concerned, that could be amended to "boring, dehumanizing and sometimes dangerous" work. And, as far as "minimum wages" are concerned, forget it. There would seem to be no minimum to the amount for which someone with starving children or parents to feed would be willing to work.

So, what are the consequences of the above to the world economy generally, and the current "crisis" in particular?

There has, of course, been much hand wringing of late over the failing economy of the "Euro zone," explained as the consequence of overspending by all those welfare states, with their spoiled workers and their outsized budgets, paid for by irresponsible over the top borrowing by both banks and government officials. Also blamed is the so-called "real estate bubble" that formed when greedy wheeler dealers convinced the gullible that prices could only go up up up. Finally, many economists are blaming the Euro itself for creating a climate in which individual nations can no longer print money to cover out of control borrowing costs.

The question that is never asked, however, is why? Why was it necessary for the prosperous, technologically advanced nations of Europe to borrow so much simply in order to provide their citizens with certain basic necessities and decent working conditions? Why was it necessary for individual families to borrow so much to purchase homes, or even to buy homes in the first place? Was there a housing shortage that necessitated such actions, and if so, what was its cause? And if it hadn't been necessary for these countries and their banks to borrow so much, then there would have been no need to print money and the Euro would not have been a problem.

(to be continued . . . )

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Immigration and the Global Economy - Part 1

We have a problem here in the States with immigration, specifically the illegal immigration of dirt poor, desperate Mexicans across our borders, where they are able to get low paying jobs, have children, and "take advantage" of social services, such as basic health care, food stamps, free education for their kids, free lunches, etc. And if their kids are born in the States, then they automatically become citizens, though this is now being hotly contested.

This situation has become highly politicized, with liberals supporting the idea that immigration has always been part and parcel of the American way and that the willingness of illegals to do the sort of work American citizens refuse to do is good for the economy. They also point out that millions of illegals are now, for better or worse, established in this country, many with children, which means that enforcing the law too strictly and forcing them out (as in Arizona) produces an intolerable humanitarian crisis.

Conservatives typically see it differently. For them, these immigrants are taking jobs away from US citizens. They also make the point that illegal immigration happens to be (duh!) illegal, and if we let some get away with it, then where will we draw the line for the rest? And since most conservatives are devout Christians, the humanitarian aspect of the liberal argument falls on deaf ears, because after all, what did Christ care about the welfare of the poor? Didn't he preach "enlightened self interest"?

I'd like to delve a bit beneath the surface of this debate, because as I see it, the basic issues have a relevance that goes far beyond the politics of one country, even the US of A, and have much to tell us about what is happening in the world economy as a whole.

The first thing I want to point out is the strange attitude of liberals regarding the economics of immigration. There is something wrong with the argument that the sort of jobs illegals are willing to do are jobs US citizens refuse to accept. And it's surprising that liberals would take a position which, to my ears, sounds far too close to a justification for slavery. If these jobs are too arduous, inhumane and low paying for US citizens, then why aren't liberals fighting to improve the working conditions and the pay rather than making this an excuse for accepting illegal wage-slaves into our society?

And by the same token, it's surprising that conservatives, usually aligned with business interests, would attack a system that provides all sorts of businesses, both small and large, with peons willing to do backbreaking, debilitating and often humiliating work for less than minimum wage.

I don't have the answer to these questions, except to observe that there is something very unusual going on here and that we are now living in a very different, more complicated and confusing world than that of the 20th century. Moreover, as I see it, if we pull back to take a larger view, we see essentially the same dynamic, and the same contradictions in the global economy generally.

More on this next time.

Back by Popular Demand

Well, not exactly. Someone named "Anonymous" wondered recently what happened to DocG, which made me feel guilty for neglecting this blog. Haven't had many readers here of late, but that's understandable, since I haven't posted anything since January.

I haven't been lazy, believe me. But much too busy. Preoccupied first with a book project, and more recently a film project, or more precisely, rejuvenating some of my old 16mm films via transfer to digital format, and then getting them onto a DVD. Sounds simple, but it's been sheer Hell. One problem after another, endless. Once I fixed one thing I'd notice some other thing and so on and so on, ad infinitum. I'd like to say I'm finally done, but can't say for sure, because this new technology which seems so magical (and is indeed VERY addictive) is replete with hidden pitfalls -- largely due to compatibility issues and also instant obsolescence.

A few months ago I was sure I'd finally put together the definitive DVD, with 8 of my best film efforts. All the tests run on my old Panasonic 25 inch TV (circa 1995!) looked fine. But when I watched it on my sister's brand new HDTV, I noticed something very disturbing: during portions of my film where the display went to black, it became unstable and began to flicker, back and forth from dark grey (my original background color) to total black. When I bought a new Samsung HDTV and blu-ray last month I noticed the same problem, so it wasn't due to a defect in my sister's equipment.

After a considerable amount of research and discussions with a Samsung guru, I finally figured it out. It's a "feature" called auto-dimming, and it seems limited only to HDMI connections (when played on my old DVD player using the old AV connectors there was no problem). When the HDMI system detects no visual input, the entire display is automatically turned off, turning the screen completely black. There's no way to defeat this "feature," which I suspect is there to mask some other problem they weren't able to fix. It's not just Samsung, apparently all HDTVs have it, and it's driving a lot of people crazy, judging from the many complaints I've been seeing on the 'net. Thanks to auto-dimming my life has been sheer Hell for weeks, as I've been working frantically to adjust and re-render all the films affected by it. The only fix is to lower the contrast levels for sequences containing runs of black, which in my films are not at all unusual. Once I'd fix one thing I'd notice the same problem in another place.

So that's one excuse, anyhow, for not posting here in so long. What does this have to do with economics, you ask? Well, for all the talk of modern technology improving "efficiency" I'd have to say that from my experience, the technology of DVD production has proven severely inefficient. There are too many different systems and too many different quirks and when one system becomes stable it is replaced by a new "improved" system that might or might not display your films in quite the same way. So not only does the equipment become obsolete but so does whatever creative work you've designed to be compatible with that equipment.

OK, my next post will be on-topic, I promise.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Employment "Problem"

(Sorry for posting so rarely lately. I've been distracted by some other projects, so post here only when I can't restrain myself.)

Just suppose that there has been a huge breakthrough in the art of robotics and suddenly robots are capable of just about any task. And let's suppose also that methods of producing robots very cheaply have been devised. So suddenly robots are cleaning houses, repairing automobiles, fixing the plumbing, designing bridges, designing buildings, building bridges, building buildings, etc., etc. Also let's suppose that education has also been automated, so classrooms are no longer necessary, classes are taught online via pre-packaged software, exams are graded automatically, etc.

Sounds great, right? But wait a minute! As this technology catches on there are gradually fewer and fewer jobs for housekeepers, mechanics, plumbers, engineers, architects, construction workers, even teachers (including professors). Ultimately, with so few working, there is no money to purchase any of these robots or online classes, no one in a position to buy a house or even rent an apartment, etc. The 99% are homeless and on the verge of starvation.

Thanks to modern technology, humanity has taken a great leap forward. But instead of this being a boon to humanity it turns out to be a disaster. Why?

The moral of the story is that we are already very close to being in more less this same position at the present time. And the answer to this dilemma lies in a well worn phrase that we very rarely hear anymore: "means of production." Capitalism is based on the notion that the means of production are controlled by a few "entrepreneurs," "innovators," "investors," etc. -- an arrangement that is supposed to benefit everyone. But when we take this arrangement to its absurd extreme, as in the situation I've just described, we see very clearly that it is not only unworkable, but self-defeating.

Why are enhancements in "productivity" taking away so many jobs? Because productivity is defined by the owners of the means of production (the 1%) as something that ultimately enhances their profits and, consequently, their power -- at the expense of workers.  As now seems clear, however, enhancements in productivity are socially desirable only when they benefit everyone, not just the very few at the top of the social pyramid. And capitalism can work only when government intervenes to make sure that the benefits of technology are shared by all.

Thus, instead of taking jobs from workers, the technology should exist to make their lives better. In the form of: shorter working hours, higher pay, more pleasant and challenging types of work, more leisure time to be with family, pursue the arts, hobbies, do research, express oneself, etc. Is this a Utopian dream? Is it (God forbid!) socialism? At one time it might have seemed that way. But at this particular time in history it looks more and more like our only hope.

Add to Technorati Favorites