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)
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