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.




City Summer Swimming


originally published on CounterPunch


New York City’s municipal swimming pools will open their gates, and their blue, chlorinated depths to the public in a few weeks. And while local and even national papers will report the advent of the city’s swimming season, the conduct of the crowds, the (overwhelmingly petty) crimes that tend to arise when so many people are concentrated into such tight confines, and (to a lesser degree) the ongoing privatization of the public realm that is limiting these spaces ever further, as so often happens the real issue will hardly be discussed at all – the real issue being: why is it the case that in a city that is almost entirely built on islands – a city literally surrounded by water – are there so few places to swim and cool off in the first place?
Though billions of dollars were recently spent refurbishing some of the city’s municipal pools, such as the McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, these pools can only accommodate a fraction of the overheated. All the while, the potentially refreshing waters of the Hudson and the East River – among other bodies of water which could radically improve people’s quality of life – are treated less with respect, and more with sewage and toxic runoff. Notwithstanding the occasional, anomalous swimming events (such as the annual Brooklyn Bridge Swim) and the accommodationist efforts of advocates of pools designed to float in the East River and filter the river water – the city’s natural waterways are practically unswimmable. Why?


Anyone who takes a not-so-short view of the city’s (and the world’s) history will quickly recognize the answer to this only apparently beguiling question; the present political-economic system, today’s exploitative, exchange-value economy (capitalism), has deformed the once bucolic harbor and rivers – not to mention the land and its inhabitants – into their present carcinogenic configurations. Indeed, in their descriptions of the region, early European chroniclers (such as Henry Hudson) without fail called attention to not only the salutary beauty of the harbor, and to the abundance of fish, but to the intensity of the sweetness of the air as well.


It takes little to see, and smell, that these conditions no longer prevail. And just as early explorers (blind to the indigenous inhabitants’ cultural practices) erroneously attributed this apparent pristinity to untrammeled nature, they raise a question as important as it is elementary: What is the point of an economy, and of technological prowess, and of society itself? Is it to create good swimming conditions – and, by extension, a healthy, peaceful world? Or is it to destroy these things?
As the planet continues to heat up (limiting places to cool off while creating greater demand for such places), and as the writing drips from the storm-washed walls, it is only becoming more evident that radical, transformative political and economic changes need to be enacted to keep cities, and the rest of the world, from growing ever more unlivable. Radical (and critically rational, as opposed to merely instrumentally rational) political and economic changes cannot take place, however, before a deeper shift occurs – one in which, among other reprioritizations, exchange-value and profit are subordinated (normatively and, ultimately, legally as well) to use-value and the well-being of the people, animals, and habitats of the planet.


As New York City’s municipal pools prepare to open for the summer season, many will no doubt dismiss projects designed to create a genuinely healthy environment, and to renew swimmability to New York City’s waterways, among others, as utopian and misguided. Yet such a project – which demands the correction of vast social and ecological harms – really ought to be regarded as what it in fact is: one of the most crucial social, economic, and practical questions of our time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Welcome to the Planet of the Frankensteins





It seems these days that the name Frankenstein is used to designate not only the scientist Victor Frankenstein, but also the monster he created in Mary Shelley's early 19th century novel. Rather than reflecting a mistake of some sort, however, this may reflect the recognition of a deeper, underlying truth. For while both creator and creation are monstrous in the novel, in many respects it is the creator who is the more horrible. As such, it seems entirely appropriate that his name should come to designate not merely the monster, but the monstrous. 


 


Among other things, it is especially noteworthy that the man who would end up creating the now legendary monster was not only a scientist; he was a rich scientist working in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Obsessed with electricity – that is, with the union of technology and power – he employed this electrical power to realize his dream of creating a 'life form.’ That he should do so at the very historical moment that new and horrible 'forms of life,' or ways of life, were being shocked into creation throughout the world by the Industrial Revolution and European imperialism – and that these newly created ways of life of the colonized, enslaved, and industrial working classes were indeed monstrous – seems hardly coincidental, irrespective of Shelley's intent. (Also worth noting here is the fact that the quality of the monstrous – in its association with the sublime, as well as in its opposition to beauty – is not restricted to the sphere of aesthetics. Indeed, to the extent that it is opposed to beauty – to fairness (which designates both harmony and that other variety of fairness, justice) – the monstrous also represents the ethical and political concept of injustice.)


Shelley, of course, was not unaware of the fact that she was writing her novel at the beginning of a new historical period. Frankenstein's subtitle, after all, is The Modern Prometheus. Moreover, beyond the notion of modernity, Prometheus himself is symbolic of historical ruptures. A trickster who challenged Zeus’ omnipotence, Prometheus was the Titan who transgressed the rules of the gods to bestow fire (and, more generally, technology) to humanity – mythopoeically representing a moment in the history of humanity that is rivaled in importance by the Industrial Revolution itself.

Following Prometheus’ theft, and his gift of fire, Zeus punished the former by chaining him to a rock on top of Mount Kazbek (where, each day, an eagle would tear out Prometheus’s ever-regenerating liver). Zeus, however, was not content to merely punish Prometheus; he would also punish those who benefitted from Prometheus’ crime. Commissioning the god of technology, Hephaestus, to fashion a woman from clay, Zeus would set Pandora (and her jar of misfortunes) to the world to punish humankind. Indeed, it was by way of her notorious jar that not only disease, but work itself was introduced into reality. That is, prior to Prometheus's theft, there was no disease or work in the world. Relatedly, across the planet that industrial imperialism was increasingly subjugating during the period of Frankenstein's creation and publication, work and disease were being introduced with great rapidity. As Karl Polanyi describes it in his seminal The Great Transformation, European colonizers often introduced work to the natives they conquered. Unwilling to toil for those colonizing their homes, Polanyi relates that the natives would remark that there was no need to work and earn money since there was plenty of food growing more or less wildly for them to eat freely. The colonizers’ response to this was to destroy the freely growing food, creating a state of dependency, compelling the conquered people to work[1] – creating work and disease, just like what resulted from the theft of Prometheus. It was not simply imperialism, though, so much as a new type of industrial imperialism that was transforming the world in the early years of the 19th century. And it is primarily this industrialism – marked by its particularly monstrous electrical, economic, and political power – an electrical power that, like fire (and like capitalism itself) requires the perpetual consumption of fuel – that is represented by Dr. Frankenstein.

Dr. Frankenstein, then, is a monster who creates monstrosities. But not only were conquered natives being monstrously subjugated by the British Crown, and their lands turned into monstrosities; the industrial working class was also being created during this time, and being subjected to monstrous conditions. As such, just as we can see Dr. Frankenstein as symbolic of the forces of science and industry, we can see Frankenstein's monster as symbolizing to some degree the industrial working class and the slaves and other subjugated peoples of the empires - the poor in general who threaten and frighten the dominating classes. These monstrous forms of life, however, are not limited to people. The monster that Dr. Frankenstein created, which becomes hostile and harmful to people, can also be regarded as the natural environment itself. To be sure, with its increasingly destructive hurricanes, floods and other 'extreme weather events', and with its polluted toxicity, all caused by Prometheus/Frankenstein/Industry, much of the natural world today is being monstrosified. 

But the monster-making of the combined forces of science, industry, and empire did not by any means end in the 19th century. The 20th century's biopolitical monstrosities are far too numerous to list. Aside from the monumental horrors of concentrated violence witnessed in genocides and nuclear bombings, and the more quotidian forms of diffused violence endemic to modern life, a new technology would find itself attached to the term Frankenstein toward the end of the 20th century: frankenfoods. Combined, like Frankenstein's monster, from sundry parts, frankenfoods are distinct from the monster insofar as they are the result of not so much anatomical, but genetic engineering. And closely related to Frankenstein and genetics, or epigenetics, rather, is Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

While it may be a coincidence that an actor named Franco plays the Dr. Frankenstein character, the scientist Will Rodman,
[2] other structural similarities abound. Indeed, beyond sharing characteristics with Dr. Frankenstein, Will Rodman is also much like Prometheus – for the technology he sacrifices so much to convey to humanity directly creates world-changing disease. 

In developing what he hopes will be a cure for Alzheimer's, Will Rodman conducts series of drug tests on a number of apes. But while his experimental drug increases the research subjects' intelligence by extraordinary bounds, the drug also has a deadly side-effect – an infectious disease that, by the end of the film, gives rise to a pandemic wiping out much of humankind – allowing the apes to rise to global hegemony in this Planet of the Apes origin story.

After an accident leads to the cessation of Rodman's medical research program at the beginning of the film, Rodman is forced to euthanize his lab animals. One infant chimpanzee, however, is spared. Although he could have just as easily been named Moses, the infant chimp is named Caesar. Brought to Rodman's Bay Area home, Caesar is raised in Rodman's house like his own child. Possessing an intelligence more powerful, we are told, than that of most humans, Caesar learns sign language, communicates linguistically, and develops into a sophisticated 'person.' In one pivotal scene involving a leashed dog barking at Caesar (who is also on a leash) a distressed Caesar asks Rodman if he is also a pet. And if he is not a pet, what is he? With his unique capacities, assembled by a scientist, this creation of Frankenstein/Rodman – Caesar – is a type of Frankenstein's monster. But unlike Frankenstein's monster, who was entirely alone and alienated in the world, Caesar is not completely unique. There are others, other apes, who are like him. Caesar is not only a type of Frankenstein's monster; he will become a type of Dr. Frankenstein as well. 

When a violent incident results in his banishment from Rodman's home to a primate refuge, Caesar learns to live among other apes – and, as befits his namesake, he attempts to organize these apes into an army so that they may resist the abuses to which they are submitted.
However, and to some degree illustrating Spinoza’s observation that “Subjection to domination impedes the subject’s ability to use reason correctly,”[3] the other apes are a mostly thoughtless and bestial lot. So, to aid the raising of their 'class consciousness,' Caesar decides to expose them to the Alzheimer drug under renewed development in Rodman's lab. Shortly after the apes' exposure to this drug, their intelligence greatly enhanced, they begin to understand Caesar's plan for liberation. And it is not long before they have exacted revenge on their jailer and climbed out of the compound. 

Having freed themselves from the primate refuge, the apes proceed to Rodman's lab where the drug is being studied. Liberating the test apes there, they then head en masse to release the apes trapped at the zoo. And from the zoo, Caesar decides to lead his army to Muir Woods on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is not long, however, before the police are on their trail. Cutting them off, what results is an exciting battle in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge – one that calls to mind Occupy Wall Street protesters' attempted occupations of bridges. Rather than marching right into the arms of the police, though, as Occupy protesters often did, Caesar directs his troops to climb over and under the bridge, avoiding and then surrounding the police and ultimately prevailing over their adversaries. And while it may not be fair to expect Occupy protesters, or others, to be able to climb as well as CGI orangutans and chimpanzees, it may not be entirely unrealistic to expect present-day political protestors to employ something approximating Caesar's tactics and strategies – tactics that could have just as well been gleaned from studying Sun Tzu.

At any event, Caesar – the monster of Frankenstein who becomes a type of Dr. Frankenstein himself – winds up leading his wounded army to Muir Woods and safety. And while their freedom might have been only short-lived otherwise, the pandemic that was only flaring up when they were making their escape from the primate refuge has, by the movie's end, engulfed the globe, ensuring that their freedom (from humans, at least) will be a lasting one.

This conclusion, in some respects, mirrors the end of Shelley's novel – for Frankenstein's monster escapes as well, banishing himself to the arctic at the end of the story. The story in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, leads one to wonder whether Frankenstein's monster would have risen in revolt had he had the company and support of an army of monsters. To be sure, unlike his cinematic depictions, Frankenstein’s monster was in possession of an intelligence comparable to what Rodman's intelligence drug provoked in the apes. Had he had the company of other monsters, who knows, they might have revolted actively (as opposed to revolting merely passively, committing the daily mini-sabotages people tend to commit in workplaces and other locations across the world
[4] – for, just like in Shelley's time, most people today are Frankenstein's monsters of sorts as well). Of course, even though we are told, by enemies and allies alike, that we are all 'singularities,' we are not alone like Dr. Frankenstein's sui generis freak of a monster. We may all be Frankensteins, but in this respect we are less like Dr. Frankenstein’s singular creation and more like Caesar and the apes, together in our alienation. What we lack is their consciousness of their Frankenstein condition(s).

Perhaps the most important question raised by the problematic film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, is whether one can free oneself from Dr. Frankenstein (i.e. capitalism and its ideology, and dominating forms of power generally) without becoming a Dr. Frankenstein oneself. And whether, relatedly, we are all, to varying degrees, hybrids of Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation.




[1] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Boston, 1944, p. 164
[2] A name, by the way, comprised, of the phallic “rod,” not to mention the problematic “will.”
[3] Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

[4] See James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Yale University Press, 1985.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Climate Change as Crime against Humanity

originally published on CounterPunch


Have you ever found yourself thinking about the fact that climate change is both caused by and benefits a certain class of people, and generally does not benefit – and actually harms – another, far larger, class of people? Have you? And have you ever thought that, just maybe, this is not just a moral or ethical problem but a criminal matter? Something like a reckless or negligent crime against humanity? Have you? Well, maybe you have.

Maybe you’ve even thought, as I do now and then, that there’s no reason to hatch up yet another crime, another law  - since that’s just what reckless or negligent crimes against humanity would be. To be sure, there are already plenty of laws – prohibiting all sorts of horrible, exploitative, harmful things. They’re just not enforced. So what’s the use? What would it accomplish to frame climate change as a crime against humanity? I mean, you’re not going to drag anyone off to the International Criminal Court, are you? Or maybe you’ll set up your own tribunal, right here in the street. Why the hell not? It might feel good. And you can still boycott the fossil fuel industry – you and Desmond Tutu and so many others. Why not? It’s not as though – for all practical purposes – you’re forced to drive a car – forced to drive a car to get to work to pay the rent and pay for food and pick up groceries…

But let me tell you, as long as we’re discussing food, the meat industry, according to that UN report, is an even bigger climate change causer – or, if you prefer, bigger perpetrator of negligent and reckless crimes against humanity – than even the fossil fuel industry. I mean, that’s just a fact – just as the very air we breathe is the world’s leading carcinogen. And it’s only getting worse. I mean, I know that facts are somewhat unfashionable. Remember that old Mr. Gradgrind? Wasn’t that his name?

The point, however, is that if we’re going to meaningfully boycott the fossil fuel industry (which I’m all for, by the way) we shouldn’t stop there. I mean, it makes little sense to boycott one ecocidal industry while perpetuating others. For instance, did you know that the information technology industry is as big a polluter as the airline industry is? Look it up if you don’t believe me. And you’ll see, too, that search engines generate no small degree of CO2. That’s another one of those facts. At any rate, what was my point? Oh yeah, even though climate change is a horrible problem – a crime against humanity, not to mention a crime against so many animals, and forests, and rivers – it’s only an offshoot of a far larger problem. But you knew that, right?

I mean, just imagine what would happen if nuclear fusion were perfected – if an unlimited source of “clean,” “green” energy were available, and climate change were no longer a problem. What do you think all that energy – all that power – would be used to pursue? You’d still have to pay the rent. That wouldn’t change. Not with these laws. It’s not going to wipe out poverty, or malnutrition, or starvation either. That’s all, as a matter of fact, already technically feasible. I mean, you know that tons of food are willfully destroyed every day to keep up prices – exchange value, not use value, makes this world go round, right? Exchange value – a type of religious thought – backed up with guns, and all sorts of crimes against humanity – negligent, reckless, intentional, and otherwise.

In other words, there’s a whole hell of a lot to boycott beyond the fossil fuel industry – this entire coercive, unthinking society. If we can boycott that – I don’t know. Perhaps a non-coercive, thinking society can emerge from the former. One sees little hints of this here and there, from time to time.

Preconditions for an Actually Democratic Society

originally published on CounterPunch


As the Fourth of July is celebrated across the US – in the glow of unprecedented economic polarization, a ballooning prison population, and a barrage of dire climatological studies, among other pieces of evidence leading ever more people to consider whether our collective way of life is in need of a fundamental transformation – an examination of the ostensible objects of our celebration (independence and democracy) seems in order.


Aside from the concept of independence (and the question it implies: independence from what?) democracy, it should be remarked, is an especially vague and ambiguous concept. Indeed, because democracy can refer to egalitarian, emancipatory politics, as well as to the political-economic systems of the slavery-based societies of the southern US or ancient Athens – an initial distinction should be drawn between egalitarian forms of democracy (which tend to be organized more or less horizontally, with social resources distributed more or less evenly) and what, in practical terms, are really plutocratic societies – or what, perhaps, can be termed market-based democracies (which tend to be more or less hierarchical and representational). And it’s the market-based or plutocratic society that, with only minor egalitarian democratic interruptions and adjustments, exists today and characterizes what democracy has meant since the bourgeois democratic revolutions of the late 18th century.


This observation shouldn’t be controversial. Beyond the fact that democracy was limited in the US, France, and other places by design to property owning men, it is well known that today the rich, as a class, or as various power blocs, control the major media, among other resources, and act as gatekeepers to the public realm – limiting what is able to be considered reality or realistic, and determining which issues are legitimate or acceptable enough to be affirmed or legitimized by a vote. So it’s a kratein of the ploutos – a plutocracy. Or, at best, it’s a very narrowly circumscribed type of democracy – an arrangement which is a far cry from an actually democratic society.


Beyond describing what democracy is not, however, we should elaborate just what it is that we mean when we speak of democracy. Democracy, of course, means the rule of the people – the Kratein, the rule or power, of the Demos, the people.


What should be added is that this notion of people refers beyond the universal notion of people to the particular notion of people as an underclass, an excluded class, the poor. As Giorgio Agamben put it: “Every interpretation of the political meaning of the term ‘people’ must begin with the singular fact that in modern European languages, ‘people’ also always indicates the poor, disinherited, and the excluded. One term thus names both the constitutive political subject and the class that is, de facto if not de jure, excluded from politics.” So, the people were not, and are not, the masters or the owners of a given society. And perhaps this is why Aristotle in Book III of his Politics defines democracy as that political system in which the poor have power.


And because the poor (historically at least) comprise the majority of a population, the idea of majority rule arises alongside this. This majoritarian power, majority rule, however, is really indistinct from the rule of force (or might makes right). As John Stuart Mill’s conservative rival James Fitzjames Stephen put it, “we agree to try strength by counting heads, not breaking heads.” And because this rule of force is thought to be incongruent with the demands of fairness and justice – which democracy, according to its adherents, is supposed to realize – certain protections are put into place.


Beyond the form of democracy (majority rule, voting – which is always ever only really acclamation – and other formalistic, procedural qualities) democracy, then, may be said to possess or require a content as well. And this content – what we just referred to as justice and fairness – takes, among other things, its legal form as rights. The right to due process of law, or free speech, for instance.


A majority, even a supermajority, the 99%, for example, cannot deprive a minority of their rights without due process of law. In practice, of course, this doesn’t play out. But, in theory, it’s supposed to be there. People are supposed to enjoy – to possess – rights. And, crucially, beyond their particular contents (free speech, right to a jury trial, etc.) these rights, in general, are said to be inalienable. What does this mean? Well, those who know anything about property law know that something that is said to be alienable is able to be sold. If something is inalienable, then, it cannot be sold. It’s a legal impossibility. And this distinction operates vis-a-vis rights as well. Of course, people have been sold into slavery, and today people are still enslaved throughout the world. But this is all considered contrary to justice. And it’s against the law as well – or, it’s against some laws.


The point, however, is that, in general, rights (whether they actually exist or not) are said to be inalienable and this ultimately sets up a fundamental conflict between the regime of rights (democracy) and, among other things, capitalism. Because, just as democracy can be said to be the regime of the inalienable, capitalism may be said to be the regime of the alienable. Within capitalism, everything’s alienable: land, water, labor, everything. Even time is said to be money. And, of course, people are alienable under capitalism, too (in whole, as is the case with slavery, and in part, by the hour, in the wage system).


So, capitalism can be said to be the regime of the alienable; democracy, to some degree, can be said to be the regime of the inalienable – the form of society in which some things should not be alienable, for sale, at all. The ability to own property, for instance, should be subordinated to the demands of the actually democratic society. And if a conflict between alienability and inalienability should arise (between, say, the right to own a slave and the right to not be a slave), the democratic society ought to prioritize the inalienable (while the capitalistic society prioritizes the alienable). Perhaps surprisingly, an important example of this can be found in the thought of someone who is recognized as being one of the seminal thinkers of the modern democratic tradition – Thomas Jefferson.


Now, Jefferson may have been a slaveholder, among other things, but his thought is worth consideration – not because he was a great person, but because his thought is so central to the idea of democracy and rights, and to the relationship between alienability and inalienability. For Jefferson, we should recall, the inalienable extended beyond what we might call enumerated rights. A democratic society had certain preconditions. In order, for instance, to participate in a democratic society – to govern themselves – people needed to be somewhat autonomous. People couldn’t be dependent on another who might usurp a person’s political decision-making ability in some way. As such, people needed to have some degree of independence physically for there to be a democratic society, or democratic social relations, according to Thomas Jefferson.


As Michael Hardt points out in his essay Jefferson and Democracy, Jefferson felt that people could not govern themselves (could not self-govern) without having some degree of material self-sufficiency. This is why, in his version of the Virginia state constitution, 50 acres of land were to be given to all (white men) who did not already own 50 acres (an amount deemed sufficient to enable the one who possessed it to be free from the coercion of others). Of course, this land wasn’t to be divided in an egalitarian manner; it was to be appropriated from Native Americans. So, quite a few racist and sexist, anti-egalitarian ideas reside in Jefferson’s thought beside this other deeply egalitarian notion that all people should have some basic degree of autonomy, and must enjoy a basic, prerequisite material basis, for a democratic society to function.


Despite its anti-egalitarian shortcomings, and its promulgation of the adolescent ideology of the individual, Jefferson’s thought points to the notion that democracy requires a certain infrastructure – that beyond its form, and beyond the abstract content of certain rights, an actual democracy requires a concrete content. That is, in addition to the rule of law, courts, a free press, etc., political rights cannot be actualized – cannot manifest – absent a material basis of some sort.


Certain basic conditions need to be present for a democratic society to arise: security from hunger, security from lack of shelter, conditions that precede and support political rights must exist. And these conditions, or preconditions, this infrastructure of democracy – like the rights they’re actually inseparable from – must also be inalienable – as inalienable as those prerequisite 50 acres, unconditionally.


To some extent, the contemporary notion of a basic income law is comparable to this prerequisite. Championed by a growing number of people throughout the world, a basic income – or guaranteed livable income, as it is sometimes called – simply provides that all people receive an income (of varying amounts) – whether they work or not.
Yet, while a basic income could ameliorate many of the problems that result from an increasingly automated, advanced capitalist economy, one that simply – structurally – cannot extend decent-paying jobs (or any at all for that matter) to all who need one, and despite its semblance to Jefferson’s idea, the idea of a basic income law falls short.
Among other reasons, it falls short because just as people do not need jobs for their own sake (but need a job to further some particular end), people do not in reality need money either; rather, people need those things that one exchanges for money. And while the extension of a basic income would no doubt mitigate some of this society’s harms, a basic income would do little to ensure that people would be able to enjoy what we have been referring to as the infrastructure of actual democracy.


Indeed, rather than advancing actual, meaningful political-economic independence, or autonomy, a basic income is restricted – primarily – to enabling consumption. In spite of the fact that a basic income law would afford people with more time to participate politically, a basic income law does not address, among others, the political-economic issue of what should be produced, or not produced – or how whatever should be produced should be produced – in the first place. While a basic income could change conditions superficially, the present ecocidal, vastly unequal, militaristic, anti-democratic political-economy would not necessarily be altered at all by this. It could just keep plugging and fracking along, launching wars and other projects that benefit the few at the expense of the many.


Moreover, (in addition to a quasi-democratic politics), a basic income law is just as easily reconcilable with an aristocratic politics. And it’s funny, because there is this idea that really goes back to Aristotle, who did not really like democracy at all, that what was in the interest of the best (who were by definition the few) was, because they were the best, in the overall interest of the city (the polis) and everyone else as well. But what was in the interest of the many (who by definition could not be the best) was not in the interest of the city. And this idea, which is not a democratic idea but is really a rather aristocratic idea is not only prevalent today (the entire “trickle down” argument, for instance, is associated with this notion), it is prevalent among a considerable number of people who champion a basic income law. Among those who harbor genuinely egalitarian political goals – who have a genuine concern for social justice – there are people who to some degree claim to be working toward democracy but wind up conflating the rule and needs of the people with the needs and rule of the market.


Followers of the right-wing economist Milton Friedman, of the Chicago School of economics, for example, subscribe to this notion. As most are probably familiar, this school of thought champions austerity, among other hardly egalitarian economic policies and programs. And in their own way they also claim to champion democracy, or they at least appeal to the idea of democracy, and freedom, while pursuing policies that are more often than not nakedly plutocratic (favoring the wealthy, privatizing the public, etc.) as opposed to democratic in the sense of championing the interests of the people, the masses, the multitude, the little people, the proletariat, pick your term – for austerity means restricting the public realm, whereas democratization calls for its extension and expansion.


While Milton Friedman and his followers (who are well-represented in government, mass media, the business community, etc.) claim to have the interests of democracy – or freedom – at heart they in fact spend their time and money and energy concretely undermining what we might refer to as genuinely egalitarian democratic tendencies in the US, and other places, as unambiguously as they did in Chile under Pinochet. In spite of this flagrantly anti-democratic, pro-aristocratic tendency, however, Milton Friedman championed a basic income law, and many of his supporters continue to support a basic income law today.
Though this may at first seem odd, it is entirely consistent with the libertarian political-economic goal of total privatization – total de-socialization – in which everything is for sale. 


Everything is alienable and hardly anything is inalienable. Rather than creating and expanding public spaces – which are the democratic spaces par excellence, in which public speech, and political debate, etc., take place, the “free market” answer is to privatize everything – schools, public utilities, public lands, streets, water (things that, to some degree, approximate what we have been referring to as the material preconditions for an actually democratic society) – and then people can purchase, as commodities, what the community had previously already for the most part enjoyed. The free market argument, of course, is that privatizing these is more efficient, and convenient. As we see again and again, with housing, food production, and health care, among other resources, however, this is not the case at all. A commodity economy actually gives rise to all sorts of avoidable problems. At any event, many maintain that these resources should all be privatized, and then people – with the aid of a basic income – could purchase that which in an actually democratic society would not be alienated from the public (and managed by a small group of profiteers) in the first place. In an actually democratic society use-value would trump exchange-value.


As one of the more extreme brands of market fundamentalism, the Milton Friedman/libertarian position may be said to subsume the more moderate versions of pro market-regulated economics. And this should be a concern. In championing the total privatization of the public realm, replacing community with a multiplicity of individuals bound solely by market relations, as opposed to human relations, it aims to replace community – and the inalienable – with commerce – the totally alienable – and the rule of the people with the rule of the market (which is always the rule of those people who have market power over those who do not). And this is not inconsistent with a basic income law. If it were, the aristocratic – as opposed to socialistic – libertarians would not argue for one, too.


Still, though, we need to elaborate the idea of an actually democratic society. What constitutes this? How much, for instance, should be inalienable? What conditions need to be created, and which need to be eliminated? Would an actually democratic society, for example, allow poverty to persist? Or, rather, would an actually democratic society work to eliminate poverty altogether? Martin Luther King, Jr., for his part, in his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here, argued that a basic income law should be instituted in order to eradicate poverty. We should pause for a moment to ask, however: just what do we even mean by poverty? For poverty is not merely the lack of resources; poverty is characterized by the lack of socio-political power as well – which is always relative. 


So, this raises a significant question: If, as Aristotle says, democracy is the form of politics in which the poor have power, what happens if the poor obtain power and employ that power to eliminate poverty? Because they would no longer be poor and, according to Aristotle at least, democracy is the rule of the poor, one must wonder: would the elimination of poverty be the elimination of democracy? And, if so, what type of political-economy would this engender?


(This gives rise to another important issue; though most in this post-9/11 world reject Francis Fukuyama’s Kojevian, quasi-Hegelian notion of the end of history, in many respects many people seem to have accepted and internalized an aspect of this notion of our having arrived at the end of history. One manifestation of this is that we don’t really discuss any politics beyond democracy. Is democracy the end of our political imaginary?)
In some respects, of course, the idea of going beyond democracy (not to mention the state) – going beyond limited, market-based democracies, eliminating poverty, for instance – can really be regarded as a type of perfection of the idea of democracy (or, as mentioned earlier, the realization of an actually democratic society – since, arguably, no actual democracy has ever existed).


But this actual democracy, as previously discussed, requires what we’ve been referring to as a genuinely democratic infrastructure (the concrete preconditions for actual democratic social relations) in order to manifest. Democracy, or actual democracy, does not merely require institutions that protect what is alienable (like fire departments, and courts of law); it requires that which supports and allows for the actualization of that which is inalienable as well. To state it somewhat problematically, “political animals” cannot meaningfully realize political rights without also possessing what in many respects amount to “animal rights” – political rights’ precondition. The coupling of these, perhaps, is what the notion of human rights means after all.


Insofar as this relates to the question of a basic income law, a basic income law could be a step toward an actually democratic society, but by itself a basic income law is insufficient – especially when one considers its libertarian and free-market associations, and the fact that mere economic power is a poor substitute for actual political-economic power. Indeed, rather than a basic income law, actual democratization can be said to require something like a basic infrastructure of an actually democratic society law, one in which the infrastructure of actual democracy – not just political rights as such but that which precede and support political rights (conditions such as housing, nutrition, a healthy environment, transportation, communications, education, leisure, the nullification of coercive power and its attendant institutions, not to mention what some, like Henri Lefebvre, have referred to as the right to the city, among other things)  - those conditions that are an actually democratic society’s preconditions, should not only be decommodified and inalienable, but should be recognized as that which an actually just, actually democratic society has an actual obligation to produce for itself; not in exchange for anything, or for profit, but for its own sake.