Friday, December 12, 2014

Property Is Racist

Originally published on CounterPunch

While most cops - as so many contend in the USA these days - may not be racists (let's say, for the sake of argument, that they aren't), it is nevertheless still the case that the police, as an institution, is racist through and through.

This is because, among other things, as an institution, the police is an appendage of the larger institution of property. The police serves property. And property - in the US at the very least - is inextricable from racist dispossessions of wealth. Property is racist.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the term private (found in the designation private property) derives from the verb 'to deprive.' And these deprivations, from the late eighteenth century on, and the creation of both personal property (slaves, for instance) and real property (land) were justified and enabled by racist ideologies.

This relationship - between race, property and police - appears in the very creation of the institution of the police department. In the US, as Kristian Williams and others have noted, the first police departments were specifically instituted to hunt runaway slaves - that is, to retrieve and secure runaway chattels, also known as personal property, or personalty. And slaves' status as property was determined by the idea of race. 

Related to personalty is the concept of realty. Realty, or real property, refers to fixed property - land. And, just as it is with the case of slavery, the modern anointment of the world as so many pieces of property (dominated by owners and secured by contracts, the courts, police, etc.) is inextricable from the racist ideologies and practices fundamental to the European and US conquest of the planet. Whether public property or private property, real property (like a particular lot of land) or personal property (like the cotton extracted from it), property is simultaneously the manifestation of wealth and power (political and economic), and the objective, concrete manifestation of historical racism. This is not to say that property is exclusively racist. However, in the US property is thoroughly imbued with and inseparable from racism. 

Just look at where real property (to say nothing of personal property, or wealth in general) comes from. In the US virtually all real property was taken, by force and in violation of legally binding treaties, from Native Americans. And more often than not the rationale for forcefully taking these lands derived from racist narratives. Depicting Native Americans as essentially nomadic (in stark contrast to the evidence of the practices of the Cherokee Nation, for example, or to the presence of the ruins of the city of Cahokia - which, when discovered in the early 1800s by European-Americans, near present day St. Louis, was larger than the contemporaneous city of Washington D.C.), the racist narrative of an essential nature was necessary to the ethnic cleansing of North America and the concomitant transformation of the land into so much property.

At the same time, the development of wealth and property in the US was inextricable from a slave economy underpinned by racist ideologies and practices. Even after the Civil War, the exception to the 13th Amendment - which allows slavery in the case of punishment - enabled the continuation of systemic slave labor to flourish. More often than not, this practice was deeply racialized. In addition to significantly contributing to the industrialization of the South, this racist prison labor system continues to operate, controlling overwhelmingly black and brown 'surplus populations' and generally maintaining property values throughout the country as well. This fundamental relationship between race and property is not by any means limited to the 19th century, however, or to the prison-industrial complex that Michelle Alexander persuasively refers to as "the new Jim Crow."

In the 20th century racist practices such as blockbusting, redlining, and urban renewal destroyed neighborhoods and enriched others across the US. These policies and practices ensured that some people (like pundit Bill O'Reilly's family, who lived in racially restricted Levittown, New York) would benefit economically and politically from owning property, and others (such as people of color living in areas that were being deformed into ghettos by these same policies) would not. The brutal effects of these policies continue to reverberate throughout the US today in the form of poverty, inequality, incarceration, and police violence (the patent expression of the latent relations of domination and subordination). The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, among so many others, are the entirely foreseeable outcome of these relations. 

In spite of the prevalence of its brutality, though, in the end the institution of the police is but an extension of the more deeply rooted institution of property - which, in turn, is the manifestation of wealth and economic power (which, in a capitalist society, translates to political power as well).

In light of this, in confronting racism it is insufficient (though nevertheless still crucial) to focus our efforts on the brutality of the police. The police is but the tip of the racist iceberg - or, if you prefer, the toxic icing on the racist cake. As the icing, it primarily conforms to, and reflects, the underlying contours of the cake.

Meaningfully dismantling racism, then, not to mention inequality and poverty, requires dismantling not the police so much as it requires dismantling property relations. This, in turn, requires dismantling property as such - not the concrete objects that are presently regarded as property so much as the very concept of property - and what this implies, the right to dominate in the first place.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Do Not Save the World, Please

originally published on CounterPunch

Climate change is a scientific fact. The planet is warming, and this warming is anthropogenic - that is, it is caused by people. The evidence for this is overwhelming. And as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, and as glaciers and ice caps continue to melt, we all bear witness to ever new hurricanes, floods, fires, and other disasters. We even have new terms to describe these - e.g., extreme weather events. Famine, disease, war, water insecurity, and other insecurities proliferate. In confronting these exigencies, people’s tendency to refer to the need to save the world is entirely understandable. In spite of this, however, the idea of saving the world is deeply problematic.

Consistent with the religious, colonial, and imperialistic associations wrapped up in the notion of saving (and salvation - from which the liberal ideas of progress, progressivism, and development derive), this notion contains a fundamentally conservative implication. For, rather than advancing justice or fairness in a critical, meaningful sense, "saving" involves maintaining, conserving, and preserving what already exists. Of course, in employing this expression people do not mean to suggest that they wish to preserve the things that threaten them. Nor do they mean to say that the physical world as such should be saved. Unless we're discussing large-scale nuclear war, the physical world's existence is not in question. Even if it's soon shrouded in clouds of ammonia, and supports little more than jellyfish, the physical world will persist. No, when people speak of saving the world they are referring to saving a particular type of world. But what type? The type that led to the present ecological crisis? Even if those who speak of saving the world are referring to saving the seed of the future world developing in this one, doesn't saving the world imply destroying other types of worlds as well? No, this rhetoric of saving the world is confused at best. To paraphrase Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, the point is not to save the world. "The point is to change it."

As such, we should ask ourselves what the persistence of this salvific language suggests. While one may be inclined to think that this is some sort of superficial quasi-problem, the prevalence of the term in, among other places, promotions for the People's Climate March (which entreat people to "save the world," and to "save everything we love," along with descriptions of itself as "a movement that can save the world") may reflect an orientation less concerned with transforming the world in keeping with the interests of actual justice than it is with organizing society in a manner that preserves certain privileged ways of life (along with privilege's converse, exploitation and discrimination). At the very least, the use of this type of language reflects a degree of difficulty distinguishing salvation from actual justice and transformation. How else does one explain the fact that, in the film Disruption (which, according to the People's Climate March website, "gives a behind-the-scenes look at a part of the effort to organize the People's Climate March"), the organizer Keya Chatterjee herself proclaims (some 40 minutes in) that "we have to get off of fossil fuels to protect our way of life"? This assertion leads to as much confusion as it reveals. Just which way of life is Chatterjee referring to? Isn't our way of life the problem that we're supposed to be combating? Or, did she mean something else? Beyond the fact that the march is supported by the Climate Group, whose members include, among others, BP, Goldman Sachs, and Duke Energy, an examination of the implications of the film's title is revealing. 

In what appears to be an instance of ideological affinity, as opposed to mere coincidence, the short film Disruption shares its name with a theory from the world of business. As dubious as it is prevalent (especially in tech circles), the theory known as technological disruption, innovative disruption, and simply disruption attempts to explain why businesses succeed and fail. Roundly criticized for flaws including circular reasoning and selective examinations of history, the New York Times defines disruption as that which occurs when "fledgling companies use new technology to offer... alternatives to products sold by established players." Like practitioners of technological disruption, the movie Disruption advances a similar logic.  

Referring repeatedly to "climate disruption," the film's featured speakers, including Chatterjee, Van Jones, the ostensibly anti-capitalist Naomi Klein, Chris Hayes and Bill McKibben, consistently argue that the fossil fuel industry must not only be dismantled; they stress that doing so will correct the problems we collectively confront. Presenting climate change as the most significant problem facing humanity (as opposed to recognizing climate change and ecocide as outgrowths of a more deeply rooted exploitative and coercive political-economic system and way of life), the film again and again attributes responsibility for the present crisis to the fossil fuel industry. To the neglect of all other ecocidal activities (such as the practices of the meat industry, which according to some reports account for 51% of greenhouse gases), the film argues solely for the elimination of the fossil fuel industry and its replacement by a green energy industry. Rather than arguing for the replacement of the intrinsically exploitative commodity economy, which harms far more than the environment, green technology is presented as the answer. The purpose of production within a capitalist system - metastatic growth and profit - is not questioned at all. Instead of inquiring as to why our economic system requires so many jobs, many of which cause far more harm than good, in the first place, Van Jones simply apprises us that "many jobs will be available for people building wind turbines."

Coupled with its unambiguous interest in investing in green technologies, Disruption's single-minded focus on the fossil fuel industry may lead people to suspect that the commitment to environmentalism advanced by the film (and, by extension, that of the People's Climate March) involves pursuing a political-economic strategy in line with the logic of technological disruption described above. In other words, those behind the film appear to be attempting to "disrupt" the fossil fuel industry in order to profit off of "green tech" (such is the logic of disruption, theory and film). Actually, on their website, The Climate Group says this more or less explicitly. Unlike Flood Wall Street, set for Monday, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, The Climate Group, and other "disrupters" don't seem interested in disrupting daily life very much at all. Not only is the New York march being held on a Sunday, it is designed to end up on marginal 11th Avenue. Advertisements even playfully encourage marchers to grab brunch before making history. Whether their brunch server is invited to "change history" with the hipsters and bankers is difficult to discern. 

All of which is to say, though an economic engine fueled by a clean, green energy source may very well significantly slow down climate change, absent deep structural, systematic transformations, that engine will merely fuel the exploitative political-economic system presently in place – a clean, green exploitative machine is still an exploitative machine. And a clean, green capitalism is not at all incongruent with high rates of occupational disease, sweatshop labor, sleep deprivation, obesity, stress, food insecurity, housing insecurity, homelessness, mass indebtedness, mass incarceration, and the other systemic problems that arise from a political-economic system that prioritizes exchange-value over use-value. As clean and green as they may become, prisons will still be prisons. And a clean, green military machine would still be a wild misuse of our collective potential.

A particularly problematic aspect of Disruption's narrow treatment of climate change – and the narrow focus of its proposed solution – is the fact that no mention is made of why this economy needs to use such a tremendous amount of energy in the first place. Why, for instance, are people compelled to rush around all the time? Why is it the case that, though US worker productivity has only increased over the past several decades, wages for most, and most people's quality of life, only decreased? 

The answer, of course, is that this economy produces goods and services (not to mention scarcity itself) in order to make a profit – the satisfaction of human needs is secondary. In the words of Adam Smith – and other economists, such as Marx – this political economic system produces goods and services for their exchange-value, not for their use-value. The point is to make money, and then to invest this to make more – an orientation that generates a profound conflict of interest.  

Food production for profit provides a strong example of this conflict. Instead of leading to the satisfaction of hunger, the production of food for exchange-value, as opposed to use-value, winds up creating food insecurity. The reason for this is straightforward enough. As the amount of food produced increases (as its supply rises), the exchange-value drops. Within such a system, farmers are punished, not rewarded, for satisfying needs and providing food. What results is a food production system in which regularly destroying food and creating scarcity to keep up prices is rewarded. Beyond destroying food directly, various subsidies are provided to prevent farmers from growing too much and upsetting the market. Nourishment is hardly a consideration. In such an upside down system, eliminating hunger would destroy the businessperson/farmer, starvation be damned. 

This commercialistic logic - in which exchange trumps use, and luxury is valued more highly than necessity - is also clearly illustrated by recent occurrences in the housing market in New York City. As a particular residence for elderly people in Brooklyn saw properties in its neighborhood rise in exchange-value, the landlord (who's primarily a businessperson, after all, motivated by profit) realized that s/he could make a great deal more money by evicting the elderly residents and converting the property into luxury condominiums. Consequently, the elderly tenants were evicted. While this generated considerable public outcry, and was described in the New York Times as a particularly egregious instance of immorality, it is nothing less than the logic of the market displaying itself. Luxury housing - which by definition is not necessary, and often isn't even used except as an investment - takes precedence in a commodity economy over necessary housing. Among other things, this is because housing isn't produced for use, but for exchange. This is the principle that regulates our society, produces vast amounts of toxic waste and disease, and precludes the development of an actually just world. 

Unfortunately, discussions concerning global warming, climate justice, and the development of alternative fuels are primarily taking place in this general exchange-value-prioritizing context. If green energy (along with other conditions necessary for the well-being of all - such as housing, nutritious food, transportation and communication networks) is not decommodified, and produced for use rather than for exchange, it will only be lorded over by new landlords and masters, and provided to (or withheld from) consumers, rather than people, for profit, rather than as an end in itself. [See Detroit]

As such, instead of the coercive, exploitative, capitalist model that produces food, homes, transportation systems, energy systems, and other human needs for exchange, a critical, emancipatory politics would produce and distribute those conditions necessary for actually egalitarian, democratic social relations for their own sake. Like those political rights we hear so much about, these conditions would be inalienable – not for sale. Rather than creating more work, requiring more jobs (and more occupational disease and pollution, among other harms) the decommodification of society would eliminate the need for so much work, eliminating the need for so many jobs. Freed from being compelled to produce for exchange, according to the dictates of the market, the planet - and humanity as well - could begin to heal. In other words, rather than simply, and simplistically, saving the world that we presently inhabit, justice demands that we fundamentally transform it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Beyond Reparations - Ferguson and Actual Justice

originally published on CounterPunch

Killed at noon, just down the road from the grave of the slave Dred Scott, Michael Brown has now joined a perennially growing group of dead men and women (a group that only recently added Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Renisha McBride, and others) killed by a combination of institutional racism and systemic poverty. Poverty and race, of course (like race and wealth), cannot be easily disentangled. Not only has the man-made construct of race been used to justify seizures of material resources (gold, timber, land, etc.) from various locales throughout the world, impoverishing these; it has also justified enslaving people, creating immense wealth from slave labor. That is, racial discrimination is not only intertwined with poverty; its obverse, racial privilege, is a key component of affluence. As such, rather than the existence of the two Americas we hear so much about (black and white, rich and poor) there is really mainly one: the parasitic embrace of its constituent parts.

This entanglement of race and poverty, and the relations of domination it implies, demonstrates that poverty should also be regarded as something beyond the absence of economic power. For poverty refers to a condition in which political power, in addition to economic power, is absent. In other words, poverty refers to a lack – or, more accurately, a deprivation – of political-economic power that amounts to something more than political-economic weakness; it amounts to a weakness that leaves people vulnerable to such a degree as to constitute an injury in its own right – a vulnerability which tends to go unseen, taken for granted, and not easily distinguished from the more quantitative harms characteristic of poverty, such as high rates of incarceration, and epidemic levels of preventable diseases.

It is no coincidence, then, that the term injury is not just etymologically related but conceptually related to the notion of justice. And justice, if it means anything at all, requires that this ongoing injury (of marginalization, exclusion, and abuse) be repaired. But how is a society to repair such an injury? What type of repairs, or reparations, must be accomplished to correct this entrenched injustice?

The concept of reparations, of course, requires some clarification. Just what is it that we mean when we refer to reparations? In certain respects this concept overlaps with the equitable notion of restitution – according to which, if justice is to be effectuated, a party injured or harmed by another must be made whole – repaired – by the injurer. As this applies to the African American community, there is no question that the African American community has been monumentally harmed by the political and economic institutions of the United States of America. From insurance companies (such as Aetna) who profited enormously from slavery, to industrial and agricultural companies, not to mention banks, finance, and real estate interests, tremendous fortunes were made – and continue to be enjoyed – from the abuse and exploitation of millions of people. The law has a name for this type of enrichment: unjust enrichment.

Based on the ancient Roman legal maxim nemo locupletari potest aliena iactura - that none should be enriched from an other’s loss – the doctrine of unjust enrichment holds that when one is enriched at an other’s expense, irrespective of the enriched party’s fault, a duty arises to rectify this by disbursing the unjustly acquired enrichment to those harmed in its acquisition. According to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, then, the African American community ought to be reimbursed somehow for the collective injustice it has suffered. Moreover, those who profited from this suffering (and continue to enjoy the wealth and privilege derived from such suffering – a privilege that is nothing short of the obverse of discrimination) should be dispossessed of this unjustly attained advantage.

While the African American community may be among the most wronged people in the history of the US, however, we must not neglect to note that it does not occupy this category singly. Just as Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis, the so-called Gateway to the West, this gateway opened on to nothing short of the conquest of the continent – and its appropriation, contrary to legally binding treaties, from millions of native people. As such, according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, the fortunes derived from exploiting the continent ought to also somehow be removed from those unjustly enriched by this, and returned to those unjustly deprived.

In spite of the fact that African Americans and indigenous people have suffered inordinately, it deserves to be mentioned that women and immigrants from across the world – Ireland, Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe, China, Vietnam, and the rest of Asia, as well as from Latin America, among other places – have suffered generations of exploitation as well. In fields, in the depths of coal mines, and in countless sweatshops and factories, countless people have been compelled – at the expense of limbs, lives, and well-being – to produce tremendous wealth and power for a small class of people. Consequently, when discussing the issue of reparations and social justice, we must address the fact that – according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, at least – most people in this society – the urban poor, the rural poor, the working class, and even the middle class – deserve some form of reparation. How, however, does one begin to repair this widespread impoverishment?

Because money derives its value in part from scarcity, exploitation, and debt – and, so, requires poverty and exploitation to function – money can only superficially correct the basic problem of poverty/social injustice. Instead of thinking about reparations as the distribution or redistribution of money, or of other commodities (the value of which is restricted to its exchange-value – i.e., money), then, we should recognize that actual justice, and actual peace, requires social relations that are not regulated by the drive for profit (i.e., peace requires social relations that are non-exploitative). As such, a step toward an actually just society can be accomplished not by distributing commodities but, rather, by decommodifying that which is necessary for an actually democratic society.

Instead of remaining within the sphere of commerce, and subject to its whims, that which is necessary for human flourishing should not be available conditionally, in exchange for something else. Housing, nutritious food, water (as the situation in Detroit is making so clear), not to mention health care, education, communications, transportation, and other resources necessary for the realization of an actually just, actually democratic society should not only be inalienable (not for sale), an actually just society’s priority would be to supply these conditions directly. Producing and maintaining housing, food, livable cities, healthy ecosystems, and other conditions, would be a just society’s job – as well as its reward.
Beyond the obvious calls for the demilitarization of the police, and of the removal of money from politics – and even beyond the more intrepid calls for the abolition of the United States’ metastasizing prison system – actual justice and actual peace (the absence of which has been amply illustrated by the unrest in Ferguson) requires not just redistributing political-economic power; actual justice and actual peace requires neutralizing coercive political-economic social relations. Beyond the superficial justice involved in hauling off cops to prison, by de-commodifying and universally supplying those conditions that are an actually democratic society’s precondition we can move concretely toward social conditions of actual justice, and actual peace.

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Cure for Climate Change

originally published on CounterPunch

As Easter Sunday melds into Easter Monday, and as technophiles and other overly zealous techno-fetishists prattle on about their market-based (that is, their faith-based) and tech-based fixes for climate change, a foolproof, low-tech and (dare I say) “shovel ready” solution is already at hand: the time-honored institution of the vacation. Recognized as vital at least since biblical times (when the sabbath – a word derived from the verb ‘to rest’ – was introduced) the vacation not only enables people and other animals to rejuvenate, the planet itself benefits from being left alone.

To be sure, people the world over have for millennia recognized that leaving fields fallow (or at least rotating crops) allows fields to recover their vitality. And who can deny the fact that limiting the introduction of pollutants to the ground helps the earth to repair itself? The soil, people, and other animals, though, are not the only things that benefit from rest; the seas, also, heal when left alone. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, North Sea fisheries were over-fished to such an extent that, by the 1930s, they were all but depleted. The vacation imposed by World War II, however (which virtually shut down the industry for the war’s duration), allowed fish populations to recover. On the brink of deforming into a worldwide dead zone today, a global moratorium on – and mandatory vacation from – industrial fishing (not to mention a vacation from the introduction of various toxic pollutants into the seas) could not only lead to the recovery of the world’s oceans, because the oceans are responsible for converting most of the world’s CO2 into oxygen, such a policy could significantly mitigate climate change as well.

In addition to the seas and the soil and the people of the world, the planet’s skies would also greatly benefit from a meaningful vacation. As demonstrated by the cessation of air travel following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland in 2010 (not to mention shut downs and slow downs from labor strikes, and the limitation of automobile traffic, among other things), vacations from our ecocidal economy lead to vastly improved air quality. In other words, beyond improving the soil, the air, the seas, and people’s health and quality of life, vacations of various stripes and types alleviate climate change in general.

And while such improvements (to health, for instance) alone should lead reasonable people to adopt something akin to a secular sabbath (two or three mandatory holidays per week, perhaps), when we factor in what we know about climate change, and the harms we collectively face, the adoption of such a policy should amount to a socio-economic priority for all but the most disturbed sadists and masochists among us – a priority, by the way, with very few downsides. Indeed, while in earlier times vacations may have compromised people’s health to some degree (since vacations could impede the production of food, among other necessities), vacations pose no such problems presently. Modern agricultural practices enable the production of easily enough food to feed the world – the demands of profit, more than anything else, are what determine that millions of people should be deprived of sufficient nutrition.

With the capitalist economic system’s voracious requirements in mind, though, it takes little to recognize that ten, or so, extra vacations per month will result in both 1) less income, and added harms, for workers and 2) less profit for owners. Like the climate change problem, however, this apparent problem has a simple, low tech solution: the decommodification of housing, food, electricity, transportation, and other “necessities” will correct problem 1). As for problem 2) – well, the owners will just have to take a “haircut.” With economic inequality at historic highs, there’s little question that they can afford it.

And though we should not overlook the fact that climate change is merely part of a larger problem, stemming from a culture of domination and alienation (from which capitalism itself is but an outgrowth), and though we should note that, within such a context, a couple of vacations a week can only amount to a short term fix, a couple of mandatory vacations a week, and the decommodification of necessities, may nevertheless not be a terrible place to begin.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cosmopolitanism contra Empire

Originally published on CounterPunch 

Though Tiberius died, and the ancient Romans have all faded away, the empire has not. As a political form the empire not only remains, it is still very much alive. Just look outside at the various senates, and capitol buildings dotting the landscape. Though Rome may have left more remnants of its reign, however, Alexander the Great's empire may provide a better example - not only of the empire as such, but of that which opposes and resists it.

Beyond Hellenizing much of the world (to some degree laying the groundwork for subsequent empires), Alexander of Macedon served as well as a symbol of imperialist aspiration. From Pompey the Great, who actively emulated Alexander's hairstyle and dress, to Julius Caesar and Napoleon, the figure of Alexander exemplified (and in many respects continues to exemplify) not only an unparalleled model of martial excellence (as well as a warning of the hazards of decadence and violence); Alexander symbolized the particularly imperialistic characteristics of ambition, drive, and sovereign power - the supreme power to command - not to mention heteronomy.

If we are willing to accept the proposition that Alexander is symbolic of empire (of domination and heteronomy), however, it ought to be added that the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, may be regarded as the antithesis of Alexander (and, by extension, as the antithesis of empire, heteronomy, and domination as well). For while Alexander may be regarded as a singular manifestation of coercive power - as military force - Diogenes, aside from his own self, commanded nothing. Owning nothing and according to legend living in an upturned tub, as opposed to the grandeur of Alexander, Diogenes championed the simple life. Moreover, contrary to the coercive, dominating power of Alexander, Diogenes may be said to manifest a non-coercive, emancipatory power - the power to control oneself. Autonomous as opposed to exposed to heteronomy, Diogenes was able to exert influence through reasoning, without dominating or harming (although he did not entirely abstain from harassing) others.

According to various sources, including the historian Plutarch, Alexander and Diogenes even met. While Alexander was still a prince he visited Corinth and sought the company of the famous philosopher. When Alexander told the latter that he would grant the philosopher anything he'd like, in a demonstration of audacity the Cynic famously replied that he would like Alexander to move, as the prince was blocking his sun. As the contemporary philosopher Peter Sloterdijk remarks in his Critique of Cynical Reason, this encounter demonstrates, among other things, the "sovereign spirit" of the philosopher. Inhabiting not a truer world, but a truer life, the critical thinker is (to some degree) free from intimidation and coercion. Beyond the sovereign power of Alexander, which requires subjects to dominate and lord over, Diogenes was strikingly autonomous.

The opposition between Alexander and Diogenes, heteronomy and autonomy, becomes even more pronounced when one considers Diogenes' legendary response to a question concerning his citizenship. Asked from where he came, Diogenes reputedly replied: I am a cosmopolite - a citizen of the cosmos. In addition to putatively coining the term cosmopolitan, Diogenes to some degree defines the notion of the cosmopolitan - as that which, among other qualities, stands opposed to the heteronomous logic of empire, not to mention the nation-state. For what, after all, is the nation-state, in the end, but the manifestation of the imperial logic on a less extensive scale? Both operate according to the same principle - sovereignty over a territory and over a population - Alexander's coercive power, as opposed to the non-coercive power of Diogenes. Indeed, whereas the imperialist and/or nationalist adheres to an ultimately anti-egalitarian ideology rooted in force/coercion, the cosmopolitan may be said to eschew national or imperial myths and justifications of power in favor of a skeptical, flexible, critical thought - one that embraces difference, yet recognizes the invariable, universal human qualities and vulnerabilities (e.g., our common need for water, among other vital resources) that supersede national, ethnic differences. Because the cosmopolitan is said to be a "citizen" or member of the cosmos, or universe, it is entirely consistent that the cosmopolitan should not only recognize but prioritize the universal among all creatures.

Insofar as it relates to cosmopolitanism, it is worth noting that, like other diasporic communities (which have been, usually violently, dispersed across the world), the Jewish people, historically at least, have been regarded as particularly cosmopolitan. To some degree this characterization (as it generalizes an entire community) is a stereotype. However, because marginalized communities exist in relation to, and in contrast with, a mainstream, hegemonic culture, greater opportunities often do arise for a relativistic, cosmopolitan outlook to develop among marginalized communities. We see this consistently, with all sorts of marginalized, excluded communities. And it is worth consideration that cosmopolitan Jews (like Spinoza, and more recently Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, among others) tend to reject nationalistic politics. The ongoing emigration of the more egalitarian-minded Jews from Israel only affirms this. The cosmopolitan, anti-imperialistic, anti-nationalistic Jew is as opposed to the logic of empire and heteronomy as the nationalistic Jew (the Zionist - who is just as often also an imperialist) is opposed to a meaningful cosmopolitanism - a cosmopolitanism, and supra-nationalism, that, in the end, is the way toward a meaningful peace. For, rather than the violence of force or command (of sovereignty), the cosmopolitan position may be said to reflect Emmanuel Levinas' notion of care and responsibility toward the Other - a responsibility that, as he put it, "is an act of anarchic right that exists as outside the state."

In light of the above, the solution to the unconscionable violence in Gaza and beyond can neither be a one-state nor a two-state solution. Rather, actual peace requires a no state solution. For what is the state (what is this machine designed to exercise sovereignty over a territory and over a population) but an instrument of war? And because the state is an instrument designed to fight wars - both interstate wars (with other, rival states) and intra-state wars (class and civil wars), actual peace can never arrive in the guise of the state.

If an actual, supranational, cosmopolitan peace is to manifest in the world, not only must the state be dismantled; peace requires not just (as Kant expressed it in his essay Perpetual Peace) the total abolition of standing armies. Actual peace requires the provision of concrete, objective conditions as well (the material preconditions for concrete peace, such as nutritious food, water, housing, leisure, health care, a healthy environment, among other conditions necessary for human flourishing, not in exchange for money, but unconditionally - that is, these conditions must be as inalienable as the political rights they subtend). These conditions, however, are objectively precluded by the institutions of the contemporary state (e.g., militaries, banks, and real property, among others).

Accordingly, the state as a political form must be superseded. To propose that the State of Israel must be destroyed, then, should not be construed in the nationalistic sense that merely the State of Israel must be destroyed, or superseded. If actual, concrete peace is to manifest in the world, all states (not communities, or people, but the agglomeration of institutions - such as borders, and war machines - that comprise the state) must be destroyed. This should in no way be understood to mean that only states need to be destroyed, or that communities should be harmed, or that governments should be destroyed. Governments and states, it is important to note, are distinct entities. While the latter manifest sovereignty and heteronomy, and perpetuate monumental harms, the former carry the potential to manifest autonomy in the form of self-government - the democratic ideal par excellence.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fighting Without Winning, Winning Without Fighting

published originally on CounterPunch

The supreme art of war consists in subduing an enemy without fighting.

- Sun Tzu

As military and paramilitary forces (and the institutions they serve) continue to bombard and maim the people of the world - and as the death tolls in Gaza, Congo, Iraq, and other war zones, continue to rise - one cannot help but wonder whether the relatively voiceless, seemingly dis-empowered, people of the planet are really unable to do anything - beyond offering largely symbolic condemnations and demonstrations of solidarity - to halt these monstrosities.

The not just political, but physiological, fact of the matter, of course, is that, though the people of the world may not possess the coercive, violent power of the state (of the police and the military, for instance), there is another dimension of political power extant in the world - one that we already possess.

Rather than any coercive power (what the philosopher Spinoza referred to as potestas - the power to command and force others to obey), the "little people" of the world already possess non-coercive power - the power to command ourselves, to determine ourselves (what Spinoza referred to as potentia).

This non-coercive power, of course, is not un-problematic; it is itself limited, and can be deformed (by social norms, and coercive institutions - in short, by ideology) beyond recognition. Despite this problematicity, though, to some degree we enjoy this immanent, non-coercive power already (what can be thought of as "labor power", among other notions, or as that which the poet Dylan Thomas referred to as "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower"). As such, the issue should not be whether we need to seize power, or not. The issue, rather, is how to employ this non-coercive power in a strategic manner - to bring about peace.

In light of this, it is worth considering the fact that Dylan Thomas' generative metaphor (of the force that drives the flower) shares a number of qualities with the generative power embodied by the mythic Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter. One of the principal Greek deities, Demeter not only caused food to grow, she was the source of the force animating the life cycle itself in ancient Greek myth. And, just as she gave life, Demeter could also easily withdraw this vital force. For instance, when her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and abducted to the underworld (to cite the most well-known example) Demeter reacted with a radical passivity. By shutting down, by ceasing to cooperate, Demeter caused the world to wither, its grains and grasses to shrivel. And none of the gods could do anything but entreat her to revivify the world.

Analogous to Demeter's radical passivity, by ceasing to cooperate, the people of the world could stop the global economic system - a system which the various war machines are dependent upon and cannot function without (they cannot, for instance, function without state aid, etc.). In other words, by withdrawing, by radical non-cooperation in general, and by means of a general strike in particular, the people of the world can stop the war machines of the world from inflicting their various harms.

Although any attempt to counter the coercive power of police and armies on their terms, on their terrain, would only lead to "fighting without winning," a critical mass of people figuratively walking out of this system (shoplifting ourselves, so to speak), depriving the hegemonic, ecocidal political-economy of the energy it requires to function, could just as likely lead to winning without fighting. 

How does Monday work for you? 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Trickle Down Civil War

originally published on CounterPunch

For those who haven't heard, a major offensive is being planned in the ongoing war between the classes. While the poor, and what remains of the middle and the working classes, suffer defeat after defeat, the wealthy are hammering out yet another "free trade agreement." Memorably described by Global Trade Watch Director Lori Wallach as "NAFTA on steroids," the Trans-Pacific Partnership - or TPP - is the largest such agreement to come along since the creation of the WTO in 1995.

Negotiated in secret between the US and 11 other Pacific nation-states (including Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan), the deal is regarded as central to Obama's economic agenda (as well as ancillary to his "pivot to Asia"). And yet, despite its list of horrors (which include the predictable assaults on labor, and the further desecration of the global environment, along with the virtual enclosure and privatization of the public domain via patent and copyright protections), the further aggrandizement of corporate power, and the further privatization of the commons, doesn't seem too novel; perhaps because corporations already pretty much run the political-economic show.

After all, though those objecting to the TPP warn that its passage will weaken governments' ability to regulate corporations and constrain corporate abuses, as it presently stands the corporate interests behind the TPP are already powerful enough to keep the agreement's contents (aside from a few leaks) virtually secret. The few politicians privy to the deal's contents are effectively banned from discussing its substance with their constituencies. And, as we've time and again witnessed, widespread public dissent is simply ignored. In other words, so-called "national sovereignty" (which many TPP protesters fear is being undermined) in many respects does not risk taking a backseat to corporate interests - for the very reason that they aren't distinct to begin with.

Let's not forget, although many of us have had it hammered into our heads that we live in a democracy, the fact of the matter is that we live in a "representative democracy" - one that represents the wealthy - in which money is equated with political speech - i.e. a plutocracy.

In addition to the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties are corporate parties through and through (who represent the interests of the rich nearly exclusively), those decrying the loss of national sovereignty sound particularly absurd considering the fact that they echo throughout a political context characterized by extreme abuses of sovereign power - abuses such as Obama's "disposition matrix" (which, for those who haven't been paying attention, allows the Executive to assassinate anyone s/he likes, without any meaningful due process of law). In light of this, perhaps, we should take a moment to briefly examine the concept of sovereignty.

As Carl Schmitt, the notorious Nazi jurist - whose thoughts on sovereignty are among the most influential of the past century - pithily put it: "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." That is, the sovereign is the person able to decide what the law is by deciding what and where the law's exceptions reside, and has the capacity to declare a "state of exception," suspending the law entirely.

The sovereign is s/he "who decides on the exception." Given this, it is highly revealing that, in discussing his official function, George W. Bush described himself as "the decider" - the one who decides. And when Obama assumed Bush's office, this baton of sovereignty - this power to decide - passed on to him. Now Obama decides. He decides, for instance, that certain practices (targeting people for assassination without due process of law, or indefinitely detaining people without charging them with a crime, or killing people with drones throughout the world) are exceptions to the law. As such, demands for the protection of sovereignty (of "the ultimate power to command") sound confused at best.

Rather than lamenting the loss or diminution of national sovereignty to corporate hegemony, then, we should instead consider the thoughts of the late Zapatista Comandante Ramona who maintained that, instead of seizing power, emancipatory political movements ought to break power into little pieces so that all can exercise some degree of (noncoercive) power - and that none will be subject to (coercive) power. That is, corporate sovereignty ought to be rejected, but not in favor of national sovereignty. National sovereignty ought to be rejected too.

In light of the above, some of those protesting the TPP to some degree (to me, at least) resemble the subculture of people obsessed with so-called "chemtrails." This, of course, should not be construed to mean that TPP protesters are conspiracy theorists. What's commensurable is just the utter superfluousness of their respective concerns.

Chemtrail enthusiasts, let us recall, who are disturbed by lingering condensation trails left in the sky by passing jets, believe that a government plot to control the weather is poisoning the world with various pollutants. Yet, while chemtrail theorists excite themselves over what may not even exist, mountains of firmly established factual reports point to the prevalence of actual pollutants in the environment causing epidemic rates of cancer, not to mention global warming, and the acidification and death of the ocean, among other actual, factual problems. Why don't chemtrail obsessives concern themselves with these firmly documented harms?

Likewise, TPP protesters (like Ralph Nader, and other liberals) ought to recognize that though the harms expected to accompany the TPP are projected to exceed those that accompanied NAFTA, the TPP is itself just a symptom, a product, of the capitalist system subtending it. For even if the TPP is defeated, capitalism will just produce more trade agreements like it. That's just what capitalism does. In addition to producing high-tech gadgetry - not to mention wars, ecocide, and widespread poverty, along with extreme concentrations of wealth - capitalism produces these inequitable trade agreements. So why not just go to the root of the problem - the radix (from which the word radical - as well as the word rational - derives)?

Some, of course, may object to this characterization of capitalism as an economic system that (re)produces poverty. But capitalism is hardly the efficient system its profiteers, and their minions, insist that it is. Just consider the relation capitalism has to the most basic economic product there is: food.

Most would probably agree that an economy's purpose is the production of basic services and goods. Within capitalism, however, this is not exactly the case. The primary purpose within capitalism is the extraction of profits. Goods, or commodities, are produced for exchange (exchange-value) rather than for use (use-value). And since goods are produced not for their own sake, but as a means to acquire money, one encounters a fundamental conflict of interest in the capitalist production process. For instance, farmers who produce enough crops to feed their communities ultimately find themselves forced out of business in a capitalist system. Though successful in the sense that they produce a large amount of food, and provide sustenance, in a capitalist system this very productiveness renders them failures. For, within the upside-down logic of capitalism, a too-productive farmer, by lowering demand (by satisfying a need) leads the price of his or her product to drop. And the more the farmer produces, the less valuable the food becomes. This valuation/devaluation ultimately renders the farmer both unable to pay her debts and forced out of business. This is why millions of tons of perfectly good food are intentionally destroyed each year - not only is food sacrificed to profit, in a commodity economy food items become instruments of a low-burning civil war. (Of course, by decommodifying food - by treating it as a commons - this problem could be corrected. Yet, decommodification is anathema to capitalism. Capitalism runs in the opposite direction, attempting to privatize and commodify - and thereby profit from - everything).

Rather than meeting human needs directly, then, capitalism meets (some of) these needs incidentally - actively undermining human well being in the process, by artificially maintaining scarcity. This is why Henry Ford, faced with the problem of having new models of cars to sell to a public unwilling to trade in their perfectly functioning Model-Ts, contributed to the development of what has come to be known as planned obsolescence. That is, he developed cars that would break down and need to be replaced after awhile. Commodities (like computers) that aren't rendered obsolete by technological advances are designed to break in a capitalist society. To be sure, manufactured scarcity, as well as planned obsolescence, and other strategies designed to create demand and profit, are integral to capitalism; these do little, however, to provide goods and services.

Capitalism's general tendency to deprive (some degree) of goods and services from all but the wealthy is illustrated by another example. Due to the rising price of real property, the owner of a senior residence home in Brooklyn - which provides housing for vulnerable members of the community - is evicting this population, rendering them homeless. Why? In order to transform this necessary housing into luxury condominiums, of course. In other words, necessary housing for a vulnerable population of elderly people is valued less than, and subordinated to, luxury housing (which by definition is unnecessary). It is this upside-down system of values (which is anti-democratic - subordinating basic housing for the many to luxury housing for the few, for instance) that needs to be corrected.

While it may be counter to the reigning ideology, it is nevertheless the case that, rather than being a democratic political-economy (animated by a concern for the well being of all) capitalism is actually a highly aristocratic economic form, concerned with what is best for those it considers the aristos, the best (which, within a system that values things according to their monetary worth, turns out to be the rich). This is precisely the aristocratic logic undergirding "trickle down" theories. What is in the interest of the best, the theory holds, is in the interest of the many as well - as it will "trickle down" to the rest.

Unlike (aristocratic) capitalism, however, a society aspiring to actually democratic social relations ought to concern itself not with what is in the interest of the "best," or even with the "majority," but with the flourishing of all people. As long as an economy functions according to the demands of exchange-value, instead of use-value, though, we will wind up not only subordinating the well-being of all to the luxury of some, we will continue to produce avoidable harms such as global warming, famine, and poverty, along with trade agreements like the TPP. Rather than narrowly focusing on the TPP, then, we ought to direct our attention to developing an actually egalitarian, critical democracy. Unlike the capitalistic system, which regards everything as alienable (i.e., for sale), such a project would not only recognize, for instance, that political rights must be inalienable (not for sale); it would recognize that the preconditions for these rights (such as food, and housing, among other conditions necessary for human flourishing) must be decommodified and inalienable as well. Humankind may yet have time to recognize this.