Saturday, October 19, 2013

On the Concept of the Crisis

published on CounterPunch

Whether it's the most recent financial scandal, political calamity, or environmental catastrophe, social life these days is presented - if not experienced - as a succession of crises. Indeed, the ongoing economic crisis alone has generated its own considerable brood of sub-crises: the foreclosure crisis, the jobs crisis (aka the unemployment/poverty crisis), not to mention the health care crisis, and the perennial, ideologically distorted, debt crisis are accompanied by still others. And with the government shutdown here in the US, and the related debt ceiling crisis, we encounter this succession of crises' latest incarnation - one that, no doubt, will provide yet another pretext for the privatizing classes, and their acolytes, to further realize their longstanding dream of totalized privatization (eliminating the public wherever it appears: in public schools, social security, medicare, public lands, etc.). In light of all this, a consideration of the concept of the crisis may not only contribute to a clarification of the present political-economic situation, but may aid in our shaking free from it as well.

While the word 'crisis' is rooted in the Greek term krinein - which means to separate, distinguish, critique, or judge - by the time the Hippocratic Corpus was assembled in the beginning of the fifth century BCE, the concept had acquired an important place in ancient medical theory. According to this, a crisis is a turning point in the development of a disease - a point at which a patient's disease begins to either intensify or diminish. Because Hippocrates, among other ancient thinkers, held that the organism possessed an intrinsic healing capacity, he argued that the job of the physician was to pay attention to such crises (thought to occur preponderantly on what were termed "critical days"), adjusting the patient's treatment to facilitate this natural healing process. According to the theory, successful interventions in crises allowed the patient to recover her or his health.

Elaborating upon this, the legendary Roman physician, philosopher, and medical theorist Galen made significant  contributions to the development of the theory of the crisis. Writing and practicing in the second century of the common era, Galen's theories would spread throughout the Roman Empire, influencing the practice of medicine in much of the world until well into the 19th century. And while much of Galen's work would be superseded by ensuing medical discoveries, his theory of the crisis is considerably contemporary. Indeed, insofar as this theory of the crisis is comparable to a notion of a rupture or break in the causal chain of history - enabling an intervention into, and an alteration of, what would otherwise have been a more or less predetermined sequence - the classical concept of the crisis finds curious analogues in early 21st century political and philosophical thought. In some respects it is inseparable from the French philosopher Alain Badiou's concept of the Event. Roughly defined as a moment of truth that emerges from a more or less predetermined "situation," an "event" is contingent upon that disruption, interruption, or other type of rupture of the inertial "situation" that allows the event - the genuinely new - to emerge. Comparable to just such a rupture, the classical medical notion of a crisis in many respects amounts to an event's precondition. For what is a crisis if not a gap in the regular advance of a disease that allows for the turn to not only the patient's recovery, but for a new health - not just a new life, but a better life - to emerge?

Among other things the present shutdown "crisis" (and contemporary crises in general) conforms to this classical, medical definition. For a crisis is just such a turning point from which things can improve or worsen - a point from which the otherwise determined chain of events becomes indeterminate. Since the crisis is the point from which recovery can begin, Galen and Hippocrates would likely agree with the US politician Rahm Emanuel's well-known statement that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." However, while Galen and Hippocrates might agree with Rahm Emanuel's position concerning the importance of crises, it seems exceptionally unlikely that they would agree with Rahm Emanuel's prognoses, or recommended course of treatment.

Before discussing crises further, it is crucial to distinguish between what are, ultimately, deeply political and ideological categories: critical notions of health and non-critical notions of health. Among other forms, the latter tend to manifest as fetishizations of health. Marked not only by a narrow focus on superficial or one-sided aspects of overall health (obsessive exercise regimens, for instance, or a hyper vigilance concerning matters of nutrition), these practices tend to amount to decidedly unhealthy compulsions. Practiced in generally toxic social and physical environments, these generally relate less to actual health than to what are more often than not pathological concerns with purity. Literally dis-easing (disrupting ease), such non-critical practices and regimens prove themselves to be not actually healthy so much as health's mere semblance. A critical notion of health, on the other hand, concerns itself less with individual health than with the distributions of the concrete social conditions and social practices requisite for the realization of an egalitarian society and general social (and individual) well being.

That said, though such politicians as Rahm Emanuel may recognize that crises are important for advancing the goals of their political-economic class, the policies they advance do not lead to anything more than the most narrow notion of health. Among other things, these lead to not only disease in the literal sense of a (general) diminution of ease; they also contribute to and perpetuate disease in the more chronic sense; for their economic policies are inextricable from occupational and social stresses which lead directly to heart disease and cancer, not to mention poverty and homelessness, among other ills. Moreover, endless production also results in ever more pollution, resource destruction, ecocide, and global warming (and, consequently, droughts, malnourishment, famine, and war, to name just some of the more prominent manifestations of socioeconomic disease endemic to this political-economy).

Although people are in many respects aware of the fact that the present manner of organizing society is destroying the planet (along with our lives) the inertial situation continues. And while these potential turning points (these crises) come along regularly, for  various reasons no salutary intervention seems possible. Instead of actually salutary, emancipatory interventions, various short-term treatments are distributed by the present Order to maintain social stability. Rather than treating the root of the problem, the existing Order treats its symptoms. In general, this treatment proceeds by way of the extremely profitable sale of pain-killing and sleep-inducing anesthetics. Beyond the more conventional aspects of the anesthetics industry (represented traditionally by alcohol, street drugs, TV, and religion), with the advance of the general algia over the past few decades, new anesthetics have gained prominence. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and Klonopin have become top-selling pharmaceuticals. Along with the other 'opiates of the masses', smart phones, endless television channels, and other forms of entertainment ensure that people are properly entertained, maintained, and contained. And as the general algia (which includes the sickness of the ecosystem) grows ever more extreme, more and more extreme forms of anesthetics are developed simply to keep up. Such practices as extreme sports, and the concentration of sex into extreme, unlimited amounts of pornography, as well as the intensification and proliferation of street drugs, chart this progress.

If anesthetics and the anesthetics industry is as prevalent as it is, though, it is important to note that the opposite of anesthetics is aesthetics. Defined broadly as the critical examination of art, culture, and nature, more than just the opposite of anesthetics, aesthetics may be regarded as its corrective. As opposed to the practice of a narrow, uncritical aesthetics (which tends to spend its energy pondering the latest series of dots, installation of wires, or other such derivative anesthetic consumer items) a critical aesthetics not only analyzes the relationships and intersections between  "culture" and "nature." In addition to paying attention to, and participating in, the arrival of crises, a critical aesthetics  recognizes that it redirects society to the extent that it reinterprets it; redirecting it from the general algia - from a world of generalized disease - to one of radical Ease.

Concerning Ease - and returning to Hippocrates and Galen - it is important to consider the fact that what Hippocrates and Galen most often prescribed for their patients was not medicine so much as rest. Believing that the organism's innate healing power (thevis medicatrix naturae) allowed it to heal itself, and that rest enabled this best, they maintained that ease was required to overcome disease. According to this view (supported by contemporary medical research, incidentally), the physician's role is to create the conditions that allow the body to heal. With this in mind, it should not be too difficult to imagine Galen or Hippocrates prescribing just such a treatment for this society.

As anathema as it may be to the capitalist Order - which requires unlimited expansion and work - health and crises demand just the opposite. For although it is necessary for health, rest is opposed to the economic functioning of capitalism. In spite of the harms its deprivation causes, rest is systematically subordinated to the dictates of the economy. Absent certain environmental crises, not even the sky is afforded any rest. To be sure, it is worth recalling the fact that the April 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland led to the grounding of thousands of air flights. Though less discussed than the economic loss engendered by the cancellation of so many flights, the cessation of air traffic also resulted in the elimination of an estimated 1.3 to 2.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions - contributing to less pollution as well as to less disease. Likewise, the general strike in Spain in late 2012 led to decreases in Spain's national energy consumption, with accompanying decreases in pollution, stress, and dis-ease. And while a critical health recognizes that energy must to some degree be consumed, the critical judgment of a meaningful aesthetics, among other disciplines, must consider that - among other things - the bulk of the energy and work undertaken in present economic production and distribution results less in goods and services than in atrophied health on one end, and hypertrophied illness on the other.

As we consider this latest crisis, and contemplate the various measures policy-makers hope to leverage into being with it (of which the gutting of social security is only the most obvious of the continuing efforts to completely privatize the globe), it is particularly ironic that the implementation of Obamacare is the ostensible precipitant of the shutdown. For let us not overlook the fact that Obamacare does not promote a critical health so much as it allows for the maintenance of a system of normalized disease. That is, Obamacare represents not health so much as its semblance - the Order of the general algia. And the conditions required for justice (which in many respects are articulable as the conditions required for a critical health) demand not the counterrevolutionary austerity of work, production for exchange-value, and dis-ease, but the radical 'austerity' of rest, and critical ease. If our consideration of the classical, medical concept of the crisis elucidates anything, it should lead us to  recognize the degree to which a crisis is, at least potentially, a turning point toward such a critical ease - and that another term for such an actual turning is revolution.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Order and Conquest - The Spirit of Columbus

published originally on CounterPunch

Officially celebrated in the US on the second Monday of October, Columbus first made landfall in the Americas, in what is now the Bahamas, on October 12, 1492. And though, in his eyes, he did stumble onto the shores of a new world, what is more important for the present inquiry is the fact that Columbus immediately imposed the Order of the old world upon the one he invaded. The law of force (articulated in the European legal tradition's Doctrine of Conquest, which grants invaders legal title to the lands they conquer) was subsequently imposed throughout the Americas and beyond. Though this doctrine was formally abolished by the UN in 1974, insofar as it continues to determine the distribution of the planet's resources, the right of conquest in many respects continues to  determine the course of our lives. And while it is crucial to remember the atrocities that Columbus and his successors committed throughout the world during the so-called Age of Discovery, it is equally important to recognize the fact that, though its forms may have changed, the underlying Order that Columbus initiated (with all of its violent implications) continues to operate in politics, economics, and law - that is, systemically - throughout the world today.

It is said that events occur in groups of three. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider the fact that Christopher Columbus was born in the year 1451 - in the year of the death of the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, and the ascension of the sultan's son and heir, Mehmed II. In the following year, 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued his notorious Dum Diversas, the papal decree declaring war against all of the world's non-Christians. Thirdly, one year later, in 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered  Constantinople, delivering the terminal blow to the 1500-year-old Eastern Roman Empire. Among the results of their military triumph in Constantinople, the Ottoman Turks made significant geopolitical inroads into Christian Europe. Importantly, this included wresting control of the invaluable overland trade routes to India, China, and the other lands to the east from the Europeans. The subsequent influx of Byzantine refugees into Christian Italy, with their classical texts in tow, contributed to the flourishing of learning and secularism that marked the Italian Renaissance. And it is likely that this proliferation of classic Greek and Roman texts, many of which treated the sphericity of the world as an ancient and uncontentious theory, contributed to Columbus' adoption of this topographical notion. Among its other consequences, the Turk's capture of Constantinople led the banking centers of Europe to shift from the markets of the eastern Mediterranean to the ports of the west, whose sea-routes now allowed traders easier access to the Indies. And it was from just such a port along the Spanish coast that the Christian from the Italian city of Genoa would embark in search of a western sea-route to Asia, spreading - whether willfully or not is unimportant -  Christian and Roman political, economic, and theological institutions (the old world) to the Americas.

While they were to some degree mediated by Christian influences, Roman forms of power and institutions of governance were to take firm root in the so-called new world. As the historian Gordon S. Wood informs us, the founders of the United States themselves consciously modeled not only their political, but also their social projects on Classical Roman forms. Today, few places evince this more strikingly than what is arguably the most politically powerful city in the Americas - a city that, not coincidentally, couples the name of George Washington, that admirer of Roman thought and virtue, with Columbus'. Beyond the classical appearance of Washington, D.C.'s buildings and monuments, the political institutions they house are also heavily indebted to Roman models. To cite probably the most obvious example, the main legislative body of the US, the senate - Latin for council of elders (and etymologically related, incidentally, to the word 'senile') - is derived from the Roman institution of the same name.

Regarding governmental, administrative, and economic forms of power persisting from Rome to the present, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben observes in his treatise on political power, The Kingdom and the Glory, that the constitutional separation of powers schema of the US Constitution, among others modeled on Montesquieu's tripartite division, can be traced directly to the Christian Trinity and the administrative apparatus of the Church. To be sure, it is not difficult to see the father - god, the creator of law - as an analogue of the legislative branch. Moreover, the son, Jesus, often referred to as the one who judges, may be seen to correspond to the institution of the judiciary. Lastly, the Holy Spirit - defined by the Fourth Lateral Council of 1215 as that "who proceeds" - corresponds to the executive branch. Insofar as the transitive verb 'to execute' means to carry out fully, the executive branch of government conforms to this notion of one "who proceeds" quite closely.
Yet while the correspondence between the separation of powers and the Trinity is very close, today's constitutional schema and the theological and ideological justifications that accompany it can be traced to structures of power that significantly predate the Trinity. Beyond the mixed constitution Aristotle described in his Politics, there is a Hellenic progenitor to the Trinity - itself an echo of paleolithic religious structures - that predates the Trinity by many centuries. And not only does the structure of the Greek Moirai, or Fates, predate the Trinity, it also matches the US Constitution's separation of power schema with uncanny preciseness.

Like the Trinity and the three branches of government, the Fates (the three daughters of Necessity) are one power that has three distinct aspects. Corresponding to the legislature, Clotho, the spinner, spins the thread of life. Corresponding to the judiciary, Lachesis, the measurer, measures this thread. And Atropos, the cutter, cuts the thread of life. Curiously, in describing his job as "the decider" - which literally means 'to cut’ - George W. Bush confirms this correspondence between the executive and Atropos.

Among other things, it is important to point out that in Greek myth the Fates were more powerful than all of the gods - even Zeus, who alone was more powerful than all of the other gods combined, could do nothing but adhere to the dictates of the Fates. As such, it seems appropriate that Law should mirror their form. Yet the general rule of the Fates' supremacy had one exception. Asklepios, the son of the god Apollo, and a powerful healer (who, in addition to other feats, could raise the dead), was through his healing power able to overrule the Fates' Order - demonstrating that what appeared to be a necessary power was, in fact, not necessary at all. Threatened by his incursion into their monopoly over divine power, the Fates soon determined that Zeus would destroy Asklepios with a bolt of lightning. Shortly after his death, Asklepios was resurrected as a god and raised into the heavens. It does not take a terribly keen eye to see in this a likeness to another son of a god who raised the dead, healed the sick and the lame, was killed for threatening power, and was resurrected as a god himself. In fact, in many respects Asklepios is a prototype of Jesus of Nazareth - at least one aspect of Jesus. For while Jesus is represented as both a healer and a shepherd (the latter role, as Michel Foucault informs us in his elaboration of the notion of pastoral power, is a dominating, oppressive force), Asklepios is only a healer. And just as the healer Asklepios is able to overrule the Fates (as justice, or the spirit of the law, is said to prevail over its dead letter), Jesus (in his role as healer and champion of the poor and oppressed) stands opposed to not only his shepherdly role, but the pastoral, dominating power that manifests in the Trinity and the institution of the Church as well.
In light of the above it is revealing that, in his oft-quoted diary entry of 1498, Columbus wrote: "let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold." That is, it is the pastoral power of the administrative body of the church - the power of law, of violence, sanctioned by the papal decrees of 1452 and 1493 - that Columbus is referring to and conspiring with, and decidedly not with the healer. Indeed, the enslavement, murder, and other atrocities committed by Columbus over the course of his conquest may be viewed as the very opposite of healing.

This tension between Jesus the healer and Jesus the shepherd/the Trinity (which matches the opposition between Asklepios and the Fates, and between the spirit and the letter of the law) makes another important appearance in the Americas. Three centuries after Columbus' voyage this same dynamic appears in the US Constitution. As with the Fates, a dominating power is "separated" into three parts - into the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. And just as the Fates are not only opposed, but neutralized, by Asklepios, it is important to recognize that the Constitution's Power is at once opposed and legitimated by a notion of justice that (in addition to the "general welfare” of the people) is intimately related to the concept of health. To be sure, it is no small coincidence that Asklepios' daughter - the Greek goddess of healing - was known to the Romans as Salus; and Salus, the Roman goddess of health, in turn pops up in the ancient Roman legal maxim salus populi suprema lex esto. Translated as the health of the people is the supreme law, the maxim has been interpreted to hold that laws and practices that are hostile to the health of the people (however defined) are devoid of legitimacy altogether.

Absorbed into ancient Roman Law as a constitutional metanorm, the maxim spread throughout the legal systems of Europe, and across the globe. And though it has been subjected to diametrical interpretations (for health is often conflated with not only mere strength and power, but with an obsession with purity which leads to oppression and, ironically, dis-ease), and has bolstered the regimes of tyrants, it is vital to note that the maxim has been employed just as frequently in efforts to liberate people from the domination of tyrants. For instance, while common lands were being privatized in England during the enclosure period, the Levellers employed the maxim to justify their efforts to wrest land from dominating powers and distribute land in an egalitarian manner. Though authoritarian thinkers like Thomas Hobbes would use the maxim to justify absolutism and domination, it was the emancipatory, "Asklepian" interpretation of the maxim that would become most influential in the British colonies. It was just this interpretation that the North American colonists repeated in their efforts to legitimize their struggles for liberation from the British Crown (while, at the same time, using the Hobbesian take on the maxim in their relations with indigenous people, women, and slaves, among others). The health of the people is the supreme law, they argued; and because domination by the British Empire (not to mention any other form of domination) is hostile to people's health, this rule lacks legitimacy and must be dissolved.

While the emancipatory spirit animating the employment of the maxim may have been frustrated by the re-emergence of dominating power (one that manifested in the US Constitution, with its enshrinement of slavery, among other economic institutions), just as the figure of Asklepios would counter the dominating power of the Fates, the maxim salus populi suprema lex esto would continue (in limited ways) to be employed to combat harms perpetrated against the health of the people - condemning noxious industrial enterprises, for example, and nullifying debts, among other things. Though shrouded in myth, this is not purely happenstance. An important  equivalence exists between actual justice and actual health. In many respects the conditions necessary for health – the freedom from conditions of disease and domination, and the freedom to access all the resources health requires – are indistinct from the concrete conditions of justice. One may even argue that the maxim provides a basis for positive rights to housing, health care, and other elements of health. For if the health of the people is the supreme law, that which is hostile to the health of the people is against the law. As such, conditions that are hostile to health must be corrected - corrected by supplying those conditions necessary for the actual health and well being of the people of the world - such as housing, nutritious food, a healthy environment, etc. This ought to be the top social and economic priority of any society that claims to respect justice. And because we redirect our society to the extent that we reinterpret it, such a reinterpretation of the maxim - among other things - is crucial today.

In a world in which harms are systematically reproduced (from wars, global warming, and the ongoing catastrophe at Fukushima, to the more mundane epidemics of poverty, occupational disease, and police brutality), and the political-economy of domination - of which Columbus was as much an effect as a cause - continues to plague the health of the people of the world, it is important to recognize that embedded within the power-structure that Columbus conveyed to the Americas is the germ of its destruction. Implicit in the dominating power of the Fates (law as mere Order) is the liberating power of Asklepios (law as Justice), and the potentially emancipatory constitutional metanorm that the actual health of the people should be the supreme law.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Surprise Party

published originally on CounterPunch

The federal government has been shut down, and the Tea Party crowd (who make no bones about wanting to both shrink the fed until it's small enough to fit in a bathtub - to paraphrase Grover Norquist - and to drown it in there as well) is thoroughly enjoying the situation. Indeed, for Tea Partiers, among the many other minions of the business class, it's a veritable dream come true. All those regulatory agencies that interfere with business (yet, in quasi-dialectical fashion, preserve them all the same) are now out of the way. With the EPA and OSHA shut down, worker safety and the environment, among other aspects of the common good, will no longer interfere with the accumulation of private goods (not that these agencies were such effective impediments to begin with).  Furthermore, and in demonstration of the fact that the market only functions with the aid of state force, "essential services" (which, in turn, confirm that the essence of the state is not security, per se, but security in the sense of force) are still very much in effect. As such, the business class can work its workers and drill and mine and otherwise ransack the planet as much as it likes.

Insofar as it relates to the ostensible elation of Tea Party types, it is interesting to reflect upon Barack Obama's recently articulated plan to neither budge nor otherwise give in to Tea Party pressure. For if the Tea Party is enjoying the present situation, and if their constituency is pleased - which they all appear to be - it is difficult to see why the Tea Party would have any interest in budging either - especially when they can "drill, baby, drill." Indeed, rather than persuading the Tea Party to relent, intransigence on the part of Obama would result, it would seem, in little more than mutual catatonia.

That said - and though proclamations such as Obama's shouldn't be taken at  face-value - it takes little to recognize that a standoff involving doing nothing is particularly advantageous for the Tea Party, and disadvantageous for Obama. For if catatonia prevails, the federal government will remain shut. And though Obamacare (the ostensible cause of the shutdown) is already being rolled out, such a setup could very well prove to be a merely pyrrhic victory for Obama. Among other outcomes, the upcoming debt ceiling deadline could not only tank the economy. Just as dramatically, Obama, (blatantly encouraged to do so by the New York Times already) could equally disastrously resolve the upcoming funding crisis by becoming a "sovereign dictator" - in the classic Schmittian sense - outright. Yet (in spite of its counter-intuitiveness) none of this should deflect from the fact that, when it comes down to brass tacks, Obama and the Tea Party aren't really all that different in the first place. 

To be sure, though Paul Krugman has likened the Tea Party to a monster a la Frankenstein's - created by the .01% and now rampaging out of control - the real out-of-control monstrosity, it must not be overlooked, is the ecocidal capitalist economy that Obama and the Tea Party - in their own privatizing ways - each so zealously champion. That is, their merely quantitative differences mask their actual, qualitative sameness.

Whether their respective efforts to wholly privatize the public sphere is advanced through charter schools, or giveaways of public land to private interests, both are in agreement. The world must be divided - ordered - into commodities - irrespective of the objective harm such a paradigm provokes. And though it may be the ostensible trigger of the present shutdown, we should not forget that - irony of ironies - Obamacare is itself, in fact, a product of the same ideology, and of the same business class, that produced the Tea Party. Not only did the Right Wing Heritage Foundation essentially write Obamacare (as an alternative to Clinton's paltry healthcare efforts) the primary aim of Obamacare is not the distribution of healthcare. This is apparent even in Obamacare's official name. As rising health costs began to threaten the stability of the status quo (of the overall stability of the existing Order) the Affordable Care Act was produced to deliver "affordable" healthcare to the uninsured. Delegated to the insurance industry via Obamacare, the provision of health care has nothing to do with providing health care as a basic human right, but serves the double function of distributing commodities - for the purpose of deriving profit - and maintaining the general Order. 

In spite of the fact that there is a patent conflict of interest between providing care and reaping profit (and despite the fact that - in any conflict in a profit-based system - profit prevails over care as a matter of law) business is still in charge of the distribution of care, reaping profits from a complex of social relations and obligations that by all rights should not be determined by business priorities in the first place. This dynamic will only be amplified once the "individual mandate" is in place, compelling people to purchase this "product" - under penalty of law - from the monopoly.

What's more, even the Affordable Care Act's notion of affordability is stilted. Though premiums are unknown at this point, as an example of what a good deal people can expect, we are told that a 27 year old, in good health, making 25,000 dollars a year (a near poverty income in many parts of the country, by the way) will still have to pay close to 10 percent of his or her annual earnings to the industry to secure care; this amount will be higher, of course, should this hypothetical patient ever fall ill and receive actual treatment. And this is an example of a particularly affordable plan. The healthy young must subsidize the infirm old, we are told. That the healthy young, and everyone else for that matter, must also subsidize the wealthy is something that is less frequently discussed.

Defenders of Obamacare will object. Important reforms have been made, they will argue. Obamacare in fact ameliorates some of the grosser inequities of the insurance industry (allowing people with pre-existing conditions, for instance, to secure care). And look at how the Health Exchanges are being gobbled up.

Bandwagon fallacies aside, the putative  popularity of Obamacare derives less from its merits (unknown and untested) than from the fact that people in the US have been starving for access to health care for generations. As is well known, starving people will not only eat rotten cabbages, or boiled shoes, they will be grateful for the opportunity of feasting on such rubbish. What's more, they'll even pay for it. Deprivation (either real or imagined) does this to people; treatment that might otherwise elicit disgust elicits praise. And with the health exchanges open for business, and some seemingly able to receive care, it is only one irony that the government shutdown provoked by Obamacare should threaten the larger Order Obamacare was designed to reinforce. Another one is that this order - insofar as it is based on varieties of exploitation that systematically reproduce all types of disease (from sleep deprivation to cancer) - is itself a grave threat to the health of the people of the world.

With respect to all of these facts, and because the shortcomings and benefits of Obamacare remain obscure, it is little  wonder that people from across the political spectrum (excluding those zealots of banality - the Democratic Party partisans) remain dubious about the insurance industry's new compulsory monopoly. Rather than Obamacare, poll after poll reveal that a single-payer system (medicare for all - universal healthcare) is consistently most popular - as much as it was when Obama unilaterally removed the "public option" from the so-called bargaining table prior to the negotiations that would lead to the ACA. Confirming the notion that those with the power to define what is possible define reality as well (and much to the insurance industry's presumed pleasure, and the majority's chagrin) we now have Obamacare - as well as, for now, the shutdown. 

As both Tea Party adherents and Obama, Democrats and Republicans, pursue generally unpopular policies - and as the Obama regime, with its wars, mass surveillance programs, drone strikes, and Romneycare/Obamacare demonstrates the interchangeability of the two hegemonic parties - the present shutdown may lead some to consider how the general public would respond if a party pursued such a tactic (akin in some respects to a general strike) not in furtherance of the demented populism of the Tea Party, but in furtherance of a genuinely popular politics. For lest we forget, when we hear the blather about how the shutdown is just part of the messy project of a functioning democracy, we should remember that Republicans and Democrats combined comprise less than a majority of the people.

That said, it is interesting to consider how public opinion would respond, say, to a government shutdown, and/or a  general strike, that aimed to secure, for instance, a single payer health care system, or an end to the wars. Not merely the wars in Afghanistan, among other places, mind you, but the so-called War on Terror in general, and the War on Drugs as well; one whose goal included not only shutting down Guantanamo, among other black site prisons, but sought to shutter our extensive domestic prison system, too, and shutdown the government to do so. One can already hear the predictable,  pseudo-working class argument that this would destroy jobs. And indeed it would. Moreover, these jobs should be eliminated, for a just society should neither reproduce such practices, nor have an economy that is dependent on them. When confronted with the follow-up that asks how people would pay for rent, among other necessities, one could envision such an imaginary party responding by remarking that the transition to a just society (in which positive rights to not only housing and health care, but education, and leisure, among other conditions, would be realized) could proceed by way of the institution of a Guaranteed Livable Income, not to mention a ten-hour work-week. Further, one could add that student, consumer, and other debts would be eliminated, too. To be sure, the decrease in production involved in this is not only necessary to combat global warming and environmental degradation, but for the sake of well-being. In other words, not only would the War on Terror and the War on Drugs be concluded, but the Class War itself - which subsumes these lesser wars - would be ended. Along with other systems of domination, capitalism (the sine qua non of which is domination and exploitation) would be phased out; and political and economic power, as well as political and economic rights and duties, would be redistributed according to the demands of justice.

While people criticize the Occupy movement for not congealing into such a party - providing a counterweight of sorts to the Tea Party - such criticism betrays a deeply flawed analysis of the Occupy Movement. Notwithstanding the problem that inheres with parties in general (which is a problem of dogma, and hierarchy, among other things, and is found even in consensus-based organizational approaches), among its other weaknesses the Occupy movement could not fully embrace such positions owing to a fundamental split between its anarchistic, emancipatory elements, and its very large contingent of pro-business libertarians and liberals - libertarians and liberals whose fundamentally reformist, pro-market sensibilities were, and are, not only at odds, but irreconcilable, with the critical requirements of a genuinely emancipatory politics. In spite of the good intentions of many in the Occupy movement, this inability to not only fail to recognize the need for, but the reasons for, decapitating capital (as well as the state) brought it to a theoretical and practical impasse.

As the federal government remains shut, and the NSA, among other "essential" agencies, continues to function, and Fukushima continues to release its lethal radiation, and the September jobs report, when corrected for population growth, will most likely show virtually no sign of jobs, and global warming continues apace, and the distribution of wealth polarizes ever further into extremes of rich and poor, it seems as vital as it seems unlikely that a "party" championing the above positions will arise; which means that, should it appear, it would come as something of a Surprise - a Surprise Party. Don't tell anyone.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Fukushima Economics - on the distributions of the possible

A well-known, liberal economist was discussing the increasing polarization of wealth in the US, the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and the minimum wage, among other issues, the other day on a relatively popular radio program. In addition to his other remarks, the economist (who once served as Labor Secretary) noted that when it is adjusted for inflation the minimum wage is today lower than ever. He also added that if the minimum wage were adjusted for productivity levels, it would amount to something like $15 an hour in today's dollars. Among other things, he suggested something that on first blush sounds entirely reasonable, but on further reflection seems highly problematic. For the economist suggested that, in general, economic conditions would be markedly improved if fast food workers were to receive an hourly wage of something like 15 dollars. Not only would more people be able to afford a higher quality of life, he argued, but the increased money in circulation would create even more jobs.

Yet while such a wage raise would undoubtedly alleviate much short-term misery, it would do little to correct deeply-rooted socioeconomic problems in the long-term. For even if, for argument's sake, all fast food workers received livable incomes, not only would there still be a huge pool of unemployed and underemployed people in the world (even fast food jobs are hard to come by these days), the production of meat, according to a 2006 UN report, is so harmful that it imperils the livability of the entire planet. 

Not only does the meat industry pose more of a harm to the planet's water, air and soil than the automobile industry, its harms extend beyond the general environment: the employees of the fast-food industry systematically suffer occupational diseases; the people who consume, and increasingly rely on, fast food for inexpensive nourishment suffer all sorts of serious health problems as a result; and, of course, these harms extend as well to all of the other animals slaughtered in the process - not to mention the forests and ecosystems destroyed to create pastures for raising animals. To be sure, rather than raising wages and further "developing" the fast food industry, a sane political-economy would work toward banning this ecocidal industry altogether.

Such a suggestion will no doubt strike many as lying outside the bounds of political reality. Yet, what makes such a statement seem so unrealistic is less its practical content than an ideology that is itself quite literally unmoored from reality - one that not only mistakes a set of social conditions that are wholly contingent on all sorts of historical and geographical variables for a natural and necessary Order, but one that is downright ecocidal as well. Indeed, any honest, critical, non-dogmatic assessment of our present and future 'Fukushima economy' must recognize that our vast technological knowhow and our copious resources are hardly being employed in a sane or humane manner. Rather than providing goods and services that people actually need, more often than not our economy produces disposable, carcinogenic garbage. From fast food and fracking, to automobiles and disposable plastic bottles, without hyperbole the present political economy may be said to spread more harm than good. Rather than wage increases, then, and the creation of more toxic jobs (among the other reforms that do little to ameliorate - and just as often exacerbate - our socio-economic predicament) what we really ought to do is rethink our entire political-economic system. 

Before discussing a minimum wage, or a maximum wage, we should ask the basic question: what is the point of an economy in the first place? Is it to create jobs, and to make money? Or are jobs merely incidental? Are they an end in themselves? Or are they but a means to the creation of those conditions necessary for human flourishing? One may even go so far as to argue that an economy is only legitimate to the extent that it creates such conditions; and that a society (especially one holding itself out as a just society) has an actual duty of care to supply these conditions directly. If one accepts the argument that a society has such a duty of care, a society's failure to supply such conditions amounts to a breach of this duty, and to a forfeiture of its legitimacy. 

With more and more people living in poverty, and most of the 99% of us carrying unconscionable levels of debt; with the degradation of the natural environment leading to epidemics of cancer and other preventable diseases (not to mention other widespread injustices, like the so-called "justice system" itself) it is not difficult to see that this society has failed to satisfy this duty of care. Nor is it difficult to see that this political-economy's march along its ecocidal path is precluding the possibility of satisfying such conditions in the future.

As we discuss the two year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street - as collective wealth in the form of forests, and minerals, and schools, among other parts of the public sphere, are further privatized and given to businesses to "develop" - and as a 1,000 year flood submerges portions of Colorado as a result of these antisocial policies - we must recognize that though it may be important to support efforts to secure livable incomes for all, we must also recognize that increases in mere "purchasing power" (as opposed to a meaningful, truly egalitarian redistribution of political power and resources) only contributes further to our toxic Fukushima political-economy.