Saturday, September 29, 2012

On the Villainization of Teachers and Muslims

originally published on counterpunch

Among the issues raised by the Chicago teachers' strike is the one involving the villainization of labor. Yet, while teachers have been shamelessly conflated in the corporate media with the very gluttons who are in fact fleecing the teachers of their pensions and other benefits, it is important to bear in mind that teachers, and labor in general, are far from the only ones being villainized in the ongoing efforts to privatize what were until relatively recently socially - rather than privately - controlled resources. Indeed, a far broader, and deeper, historical phenomenon is at play. In addition to the ongoing villainization of organized labor appearing and reappearing in the press, as well as in popular films and other media, social welfare recipients have also been subjected to villainization recently, as well as over the past few decades. To be sure, who is not familiar with consumer society's archetype of the 'welfare queen'? Beyond its misogyny (who ever hears of welfare kings?), and the lopsided classism that villainizes welfare recipients while simultaneously accepts the common-sensical naturalness of, for example, agricultural policies that subsidize millionaires' and billionaires' dairy empires, it completely distorts social reality. Still, one finds no dearth of stories villainizing food-stamp beneficiaries. That this villainization does not end there seems widely understood. However, in order to arrive at anything beyond a superficial understanding of villainy, it is important to acknowledge that it does not start there either.

For a better understanding of the phenomenon of villainization - which is a historical no less than a criminological phenomenon - it is instructive to consider the meaning of the term villain. Long before it designated a criminal, the term villain, or villeiny, referred specifically to the peasantry. Though generally forgotten, during the centuries-long period of enclosure acts that began in the late Middle Ages, the lands that the peasantry had historically lived off of - and, importantly, enjoyed rights to under feudal era law - were commodified and sold. As a result of this shift in property relations, the peasantry/villeiny was kicked off their land and into a world of increasingly privatized social relations. Deprived of their former resources, many could only offset starvation by theft, among other petty crimes. And herein lies the origin of the term villain as a designation for a criminal.

 Expelled from their homes, this freshly created class of poor people was treated with extreme harshness in England. From the reign of Henry VIII and well into the eighteenth century, any person caught begging would be deemed a vagabond and sentenced to six months imprisonment. A second violation received a two-year prison sentence. And a third violation earned its perpetrator a sentence of death. Thefts, as well, were punished with death - and to such an extent that in the reign of Henry VIII alone (1509-1547) “72,000 great and petty thieves were put to death.” That is, about 1,900 people a year were killed for 38 years simply for theft. Throughout the period following the mass privatization of formerly collective lands, multitudes were sent off to the colonies to further privatize the world. Resistance to these conditions was met with not only swift and violent punishment, but as a preventative measure to such breaches of the new security, new institutional and ideological apparatuses were constructed. Not only did prison and poorhouse populations explode during this time, new notions of identity and morality were constructed, securing the new system.

For, not only were those resisting these new social arrangements branded (often literally) as criminals, further blurring the distinction between the villeiny and villainy, it would not be long before a pseudo-science sought to explain and naturalize this criminality - deflecting people's attention from the actual, historical causes of these conditions. At the same time that Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations, and the Declaration of Independence was being penned, and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was writing his treatise On the Natural Variety of Mankind, in which he established the concept of race which deemed much of the world's people inferior to "caucasians," one of the founding studies of what came to be known as Criminal Anthropology was composed. In his Physiognomische Fragmente zur Bef√∂rderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–1778), the Swiss deacon Johann Kaspar Lavater presented arguments linking physical characteristics to crime, further justifying the dominant position of those in power. By the 19th century, in French studies of the social origins of disease, the poor were identified as “a race apart,” a barbarian, uncivilized multitude - that is, "science" not only established that the former villeiny were villains in the criminological sense, but that their condition was physically unavoidable as well. Unsurprisingly, within a few hundred years of the enclosure acts, these new historical conditions were taken for natural normalcy. As Karl Marx put it, “By the nineteenth century, the very memory of the connection between the agricultural laborer and community property has, of course, vanished.”

Additionally, as kidnapped and exported Europeans and Africans were being villainized, and the concept of race was being concocted from a blend of superstition and science to justify the colonization and privatization of the world, these lands' indigenous inhabitants were being villainized as well. Under the imperialistic dogma holding that their ways of life were obstructing progress and civilization, native peoples were increasingly criminalized for merely existing in ways that did not conform to this privatization of the frontier. Of course, there are some exceptions. However, it is important to note that, while in England the peasant/villein became the villain, in what was to become the US it was the Native American whose land was taken. As such, in some respects the Native American, as an obstacle to capitalist "development," assumed the position of iconic villain in the United States. To be sure, today's privatization of a new international frontier calls to mind just this earlier period's villainization of natives.

For beyond the ongoing villainization of organized labor and the poor, people of color, the homeless, debtors, immigrants, and political activists, not to mention whistleblowers and journalists like Wikileaks' Julian Assange, there is an international correlate to this villainization of people in, perhaps most visibly these days, the villainization of Muslims. Just as Native Americans were deemed to interfere with progress and productivity on the frontier of capitalism and privatization, and those who merely sought to live in their own way were marked as villains - a designation which justified their destruction, the appropriation of their land, and the extraction of its minerals - there exists today a comparable relationship internationally between the US' and Muslims. Tellingly, Muslims are even referred to as (American) "Indians" in US military operations along this new frontier. This designation itself, however, has a considerable history.

For example, in one of its earliest overseas wars of conquest in the Philippines, US soldiers not only villainized Filipinos, they referred to them as "Indians." During the Vietnam War, as well, the Vietnamese were referred to as "Indians." Moreover, war zones were described as "Indian country." When the first Gulf War broke out, these designations also recurred. And they are still employed by US soldiers and officers. Like others before them, Iraqi and Afghan belligerents are not only seen as obstructing the privatization of the new frontier (let's not forget, the very first thing US forces did upon invading Afghanistan was to secure an important oil pipeline), they are referred to as "Indians," too. In light of this, it seems almost predictable that the code-name for the mission to assassinate Osama Bin Laden was Operation Geronimo.

Whereas Native Americans, and natives in general, however, were deemed to be villains, perhaps owing to an inflationary rhetoric Muslims are branded as super-villains - that is, as terrorists. Muslims, though, are far from the only ones being defined as terrorists. The super-villain category of terrorist is applied domestically, too. While white militia types aren't generally so designated, activists involved in direct-action political activities in defense of the environment, who directly interfere with the privatization of the earth, are so labelled - as eco-terrorists. That is, just as it was during the period of the enclosures, it is the interference with the efforts of privatization and capitalist expansion that in the end determines who the label of villain will be applied to. But if Muslims, activists, teachers, journalists, whistleblowers, and others obstructing the privatization of the planet are being villainized, and villainization, related to criminalization, is in many respects a criminal justice issue, a consideration of villainization's relationship to notions of justice may further clarify the situation.

While political and social theorists largely agree that a given society's success can be measured by the degree to which justice is achieved, few agree on what justice in fact means. Recent efforts at articulating a lucid conception of justice have resulted in many overlapping, and at times conflicting, notions. These range from justifications for revenge - referred to as retributive justice - to theories of justice that concentrate on preventing injustices from arising in the first place, creating the conditions which justice requires in order to be realized. An example of this latter notion of justice is distributive justice, which seeks to distribute resources in a  just manner.

Somewhere between retributive justice and distributive justice theories rests the theory of restorative justice. Restorative justice sees justice arising from the restoration of a wronged party's pre-wronged position. And while distributive and restorative justice tend to be viewed as distinct notions, a critical look at the former reveals that in at least one crucial respect theories of distributive justice are highly flawed to the degree that they neglect to consider a certain restorative justice dimension.

Advocates of distributive justice argue that a society's resources ought to be distributed in an equitable manner. Beyond taking the position that people have an ethical duty to help one another, these advocates tend to contend that there is a human rights aspect to this as well: all people have a right to a certain basic level of welfare. As such, resources need to be distributed in such a way as to allow all people to benefit. This is objectionable only to the degree that the historical dimension just discussed is overlooked. That is, there is considerably more to this 'injustice which demands correction' than the moral issue of inequitable resource distribution. Beyond the wrong inhering in the situation which finds some having so much food that, for example, it rots before they can even use it - or they destroy it intentionally to  keep up its exchange-value, while people are starving to death the world over - lies the wrong of how they acquired control of so many resources in the first place. The obverse of this, of course, is how the rest of the world lost control of these resources.

Unlike their ideology has it, the few did not come into possession of the majority of the world's resources by virtue of a more successful cultivation of the land, or a greater work ethic. Rather, the historical fact is that this acquisition was carried out by means of a conquest that itself constitutes a monumental series of harms. As the paraphrase to Balzac's remark in his Pere Goriot puts it, behind every great fortune there lies a great crime. And the great fortunes deriving from the enclosure, privatization, and sale of what was formerly commonly owned land in Britain and Europe, among other places, not to mention the genocidal conquests of the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia, among the other former colonial possessions of the modern empires, are not excepted from Balzac's observation. Indeed, the persuasiveness of distributive justice theories lies not so much in the recognition that the great majority of the resources of the world are held in a very few hands and that an equitable distribution of these would contribute to a just world. This is only part of these theories' persuasiveness. The other part rests in the recognition that these very resources were once - and not very long ago, either - more or less held in common by most people in the world, and were only concentrated into extreme wealth by way of a series of murderous expropriations - privatizations - coupled with the villainization - then as now - of the victims of these acts. As such, the redistribution of the world's wealth is not simply a matter of distributive justice, it is a matter of restorative justice as well.
In light of the above, one may wonder whether we ought to deepen and expand the debate concerning the villainization of the world's people, and the privatization of the world's resources, to encompass a discussion of the legitimacy of property laws, among others, as well as of the legitimacy of the capitalist economic system as a whole. Furthermore, one may want to consider whether villainization, which involves turning peasants into criminals no less than it accompanies policies that turn people into industrial and post-industrial peasants, has still further meanings. Indeed, the villainization of the rich, of the owners of the world, may mean more than merely regarding, or charging, the rich as criminals. It may also be interpreted to mean transforming the rich as well into peasants. And, perhaps, if all are villeinized, we will finally be through with villeins, and a just society (not just a more just society) may emerge from the shadows of the past.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Rahm Machiavelli and the Chicago Teachers' Strike

A considerable degree of confusion appears to be attending the ostensible conclusion to the Chicago Teachers' strike. Indeed, with various interests proclaiming victory, it is difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of just what the outcome portends. Before addressing the facts, however - which are indispensable in any effort to evaluate a situation - a word ought to be given to the context in which the strike unfolded. Among other things, it is important to note that, beyond the talking points regarding school choice, accountability, and teacher and student performance, we must recognize the key austerity impetus subtending the efforts of Rahm Emanuel, and his ilk, to push forward their plan to privatize public schools in Chicago and elsewhere. Like most things that pass for social policy considerations these days, the purpose of shutting down schools and so-called education reform is not the improvement of education so much as it is an effort to convert public schools into private, charter schools.

Whether advanced by the Koch Brother-funded Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, or the no less business-friendly Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, the ongoing attack on labor and public sector employees and unions is at its root just this effort to transform public education into private education. Just as the privatization of public utilities created and continues to create new markets - creating new sources of profits for businesses and further polarizing wealth - the privatization of public schools is a bonanza for businesses, while its benefit to most people is questionable at best. Confronted by this, unlike the public transit workers' strike waged in London earlier this summer, in which London's transit workers' pushed for better working conditions and pay, the Chicago teachers' strike must not be seen as an offensive strike. Rather than striking to secure better working conditions and better pay, per se, the Chicago teachers' strike is a defensive, conservative strike, one in which labor is merely attempting to hold onto not only the wages and benefits that were gained through decades of struggle and which are now under threat, but to their jobs themselves.

Under the familiar call for accountability, which masks the push for of austerity (accountability which, it should be noted, is rarely invoked to rein in corporate criminals) Emanuel demanded that Chicago's teachers concede some of their benefits in the negotiations over the renewal of their labor contract. Among the things that Rahm Emanuel, and the privatizing classes, demanded were longer working days, greater power over the firing of teachers granted to school principals, and teacher performance evaluations that are tied to standardized test scores - the latter two allowing the mayor and his constituency to more easily shutter public schools, and to replace them with private, charter schools. Initially resisting these efforts, the Chicago teachers soon found themselves facing Rahm Emanuel's threat of a court-ordered injunction. Cowed by this, the teachers' union agreed to a compromise.

Among the concessions the union agreed to were just what Emanuel asked for: more rigorous teacher evaluations (though they are only partially, rather than wholly determined by standardized test scores), the aggrandizement of the power of principals to hire or fire teachers based on performance - with layoffs now for the first time being determined by teacher performance - and a lengthening of the school day (an increase of half an hour a day for high schools, 75 minutes a day for elementary schools, and two weeks added to the total school year).

Even a cursory look at these concessions must yield the conclusion that rather than achieving a victory, or even a stalemate, the contract under consideration represents a loss for labor in the ongoing class war of attrition. For, among other things, the lengthening of the school day and the school year alone amounts to something close to four extra weeks of work for high school teachers, and considerably more for primary school teachers. Such an extension of the time teachers are expected to work is hardly remunerated by the raises under negotiation. To be sure, when factoring in the extra time they will have to work, teachers won't receive much of a raise at all. For the first few years of their new contract, when their work load increases by close to 10% and their pay increases by only 3%, they will be taking a loss. And while the teachers did attain some of their demands - books will be more readily available to students - and stave off a more forceful attack by the forces of privatization, they ultimately lost rather than gained ground. 

As it is highly relevant, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the legal argument that Rahm Emanuel advanced in favor of seeking to enjoin the teachers to end their strike. In addition to arguing that their strike was illegal because they were demanding more than mere wages, Emanuel argued that the strike was illegal because it threatened public health and safety. Such an argument (which Bloomberg, by the way, invoked in order to eject demonstrators from Zuccotti Park last year) requires a tremendously narrow-minded and shortsighted conceptualization of public health, one which has long been employed as a pretext for power's designs. Intimidated by this threat, and vilified by the mainstream press, the teachers backed down. Rather than submitting to his power play, however, and ending their strike, the teachers should have counter-argued that it is not they, but Emanuel himself who is harming the public health by creating social conditions that are objectively harmful to not only teachers and students, but to society in general. For if in the short-term the teachers’ strike is conceivably harmful to the public health, Emanuel’s long-term designs pose a substantially greater harm.

Beyond the fact that public health requires a reasonably well-educated public - a public possessing not only a basic understanding of such health issues as the importance of nutrition, sanitation, and exercise, but also an awareness of the prevalence and transmissibility of communicable diseases, not to mention the environmental issues that determine our public health, or lack thereof - such an education must itself be afforded in conditions that are conducive to learning. Crammed into overcrowded classrooms, Chicago's students and teachers alike are consigned to operate in facilities that are neglected and decrepit to such an extent as to pose serious risks to the public health. Beyond their other deficiencies, many of the classrooms in the Chicago public schools lack basic air-conditioning. In Chicago's torrid heat, such conditions alone can severely challenge students' health, and the public health in general, not to mention the more serious problems attending a generally dilapidated infrastructure.

In addition to the conditions that teachers and students encounter within the schools themselves, however, who can reasonably maintain that it is not in the interest of public health to provide decent living conditions to the sizable portion of the public represented by school teachers? For, as much as those who vilify them argue otherwise, teachers are not gluttons so much as the victims of those very gluttons championed by their detractors. Not only is it well-documented and well-known that nearly all teachers eke out a fairly modest living, if the opponents of teachers, and of the working class, have their way the result will be an even greater number of people living in conditions of precarity – conditions which, it should be noted, have been demonstrated by a mountain of studies to be a contributing cause of illness. Beyond the health problems attending poor nutrition and poor housing, for instance, the stress accompanying the inability to make ends meet is itself a significant cause of disease. Producing such conditions can not possibly be in the interest of the public health.

But Rahm Emanuel is not interested in the health of society so much as he is interested in the health of a mere segment of society. This is hardly new; appealing to health is an old trick of such political types. And though he may not be referring to it by name, in arguing that the teachers’ strike is a public health concern, and therefore justifies his putting it down by force (by violence, which is the opposite of health), in many respects Emanuel is invoking the ancient Roman maxim Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto - the health of the people is the supreme law.

Attributed to the Roman statesman and orator Cicero, the maxim has long been used to justify the machinations of the State and coercive power. Modernly, one of the first political theorists to employ the ancient Roman maxim was none other than the Renaissance political-theorist Niccolo Machiavelli. Titling one of the final sections of his Discourses on Livy with the above maxim, Macchiavelli argued that what was necessary for the health of the people was the supreme law, to which all other laws had to yield. Of course, Macchiavelli's notion of what comprised 'the people' was limited, pretty much, to the prince. Then as now, the people in general were considered something more like a resource from which profit could be extracted. But the maxim’s use is not restricted to princes and their followers.

Fighting against the Royalists in mid-seventeenth century England, and resisting the enclosure, privatization and sale of commonly owned lands, the so-called Levellers appropriated the maxim that the health of the people is the supreme law. Earning their name from their practice of leveling the hedges used to divide the commons, the Levellers argued that the maxim applied not to tyrants and oligarchies, but to the people in general. As such, the Levellers gave the maxim an emancipatory interpretation. Maintaining that it granted people certain rights against the crown, including an extension of the suffrage, the Levellers repeatedly  employed the maxim in their struggle for self-government and collective control of lands that had historically been held in common. But the Levellers were not alone in deferring to the maxim. Around the same time, Thomas Hobbes, the great theorist of absolutism, employed the maxim that the health of the people is the supreme law. Rather than the Levellers' interpretation, however, in his treatise Leviathan Hobbes' gives the maxim something closer to a Machiavellian reading.

Around the time of Hobbes's death, John Locke - whose thought was to exert a significant influence on the thought of the North American colonists of the eighteenth century - referred to the maxim in his Second Treatise of Government. And though Locke’s thought is deeply problematic, and he attributes the designation 'people' to only a narrow segment of humanity, it is not only important that he employs it against the crown, but his liberatory interpretation of the maxim would be imparted to the North American colonists fighting the British for the ability to govern their own lives. Playing a significant part in the articulation of justice in the years leading up to and beyond the American Revolution, the maxim is appealed to repeatedly as an authority limiting coercive power. Not only did it appear again and again in the writings and speeches of John Adams, among other Founders, the sensibility that the health of the people is the supreme law finds expression in the Declaration of Independence. It is especially noteworthy to remark that in the period following independence from the British, around the time that Shays' Rebellion was being fought in New England by soldiers and farmers whose homes were seized when they were unable to pay the debts they had accrued while fighting in the war, in the south other debtors challenged their debts as well. Invoking the maxim Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto, they sought to discharge their debts completely. Arguing that high debts are onerous and against the health of the people, the debtors prevailed. Much to the chagrin of their creditors, their debts were forgiven. If the health of the people is the supreme law, the argument goes, that which is hostile to the health of the people is invalid. As such, contracts that would harm the health of the people were nullified - something debtors today might want to consider.

These two interpretations of the maxim, the emancipatory and the dominating, were employed again and again throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Overriding contracts and property law where these infringed on the health of the people, the maxim was used to shut down slaughterhouses and tanneries, as well as to regulate food production, and other industries. And while the maxim did nothing to liberate people from slavery, and excluded Native Americans, African-Americans, and women, not to mention disabled persons as well as the poor from the designation 'people,' it nevertheless possessed an emancipatory content in relation to the harms spread by business - one that, today, ought to be expanded. As the 20th century progressed, however, its emancipatory interpretation gave way to a reading more favorable to dominating power. In referring to the health of the people as the supreme law, this latter type of interpretation favors the health of the State and business interests. That is, it possesses a narrow understanding of health that views the people of the world as a population to be managed, a workforce from which to extract profit, and a resource to employ to further its own particular well being. Indeed, according to this reading, the health of the people is for the wealthy what the health of the horse is to the farmer. The horse, whose job's to drag and haul and otherwise support the lavish carriages of plutocrats, is not to enjoy health for its own sake. It is this reading of the maxim that Michael Bloomberg referred to in clearing out Zuccotti Park last November, and which now Rahm Emanuel appeals to in breaking the Chicago teachers' strike.

But while Rahm Emanuel may have learned this tyrannical reading of the maxim from Machiavelli, his hostile treatment of his political opponents leads one to wonder whether he ever learned Machiavelli's chief insight: that a society cannot function without popular support. Indeed, such support is the only thing preventing a given society from wholly collapsing. And though teachers may be announcing that they're happy to be returning to work, and Emanuel appears to have won this battle, given the state of the economy and the environment, it may very well be that the next strike won't be a conservative one like this, or even an offensive strike with demands of a four day workweek, or a basic income law. Rather, it may be a total, permanent strike. For not only has it become apparent that Rahm Emanuel is an abusive person, it is becoming increasingly obvious that that which he advances - that is, the policies of the Democrats as well as the Republicans, of Romney as much as Obama, of capitalism - is abusive. These are not only abusive to people in general, throughout the world, and to animals as well, it wreaks its abuse upon the entire ecosystem. And just as dignity from time to time compels people to quit abusive work relationships, walking out with no intention or desire of ever returning, the next strike might very well see the people of the world simply quit this abusive system for good. The health and dignity of the people of the world demands it.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City and can be reached at

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wherefore Art Thou Occupy?

Originally published on Counterpunch

As its anniversary is celebrated we will no doubt be reminded that no matter what else it achieved, or failed to, Occupy Wall Street managed to introduce - if not a new sensitivity to inequality into the world - at least a new phrase into popular political parlance. Indeed, the slogan ‘We Are the 99%’ concisely articulates the fact that a deep, structural conflict exists between the so-called 1%, who own virtually the entire planet, and the 99%, who spend their lives in the service of that 1%. And though in actuality power is distributed in more complicated ways than the phrase suggests, and an elite far smaller than 1% calls the shots worldwide, with the willing complicity of much of the 99%, 99-to-1 sums up the point well enough. Because of this, the phrase has resonated strongly throughout not only the US, but around the world. With such ingrained inequalities in place, a society with democratic pretenses utterly fails to live up to the ideals on which the legitimacy of its representative government rests.

That is, the legitimacy of the US government, along with the legitimacy of the legal powers delegated and validated by the government – including, but not limited to, the legitimacy of its property laws – is contingent. The government and these associated powers, according to this argument, are only legitimate to the extent that they remain faithful to not only the principles set down in the Declaration of Independence, but to those reiterated in the preamble to the Constitution. Because the proposed and repeated purpose of the US’s attempt at organizing society is the establishment of justice, and the promotion of the general welfare, insofar as it deviates from these basic principles its laws and practices deviate from legitimacy.

The above argument was not then, nor is it still, a far-fetched one to make when the government at various levels, instead of vigorously investigating the perpetration of unprecedented financial crimes and injustices, among others, preferred to all but grant a pass to the crimes’ perpetrators. At the same time, the victims of these crimes were being evicted from their homes by this very same system. The fact that the losses of the super-rich were reimbursed by the State, allowing them to continue to harass regular people for payments of debts that would have been wiped clean on account of their bad business dealings had it not been for massive taxpayer funded bailouts, gave rise to substantial amounts of rage. An inkling of this sentiment found expression in another much-repeated popular slogan: banks got bailed out, we got sold out.

Further examples of this power structure’s inability to promote anything but the particular welfare, as opposed to the general welfare, are too numerous to comprehensively list. OWS, however, provided a forum for the expression of such grievances. Grouped beneath this umbrella were the manifold calls for various forms of justice. Among others were demands for environmental justice (demonstraters demanding that global warming be addressed, and that the practice of fracking, to name just two, be halted), political justice, (including the end to the wars, the closure of the prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and others abroad, as well as at home), economic justice (pleas for debt forgiveness, an end to mortgage foreclosures, calls for a basic minimum income, etc.), as well as calls for social justice (inclusion, community, an end to discrimination, police abuse, and on).

Beyond these examples of the State’s inability to ‘promote the general welfare,’ there remain such things as entrenched poverty beside just as deeply entrenched wealth, a debt burden carried by most people indistinct from debt peonage, and many others. Concern with these injustices were by no means limited to sympathizers of OWS. They fly, or rather smack, in the face of the public’s most elementary notions of fairness. As such, it should come as little surprise that the indignation attending some of these injustices was shared by OWS’ distorted, mirror-image twin – the Tea Party.

While one hears little about the Tea Party these days (aside from the fact that one of their leading “thinkers” is the Republicans’ candidate for vice-president) for months the comparisons between OWS and the Tea Party were constant. Appearing to share an anti-statist position, this similarity was mostly deceptive. For the Tea Party would dissolve the state only to allow business unfettered power. Alongside its calls for lower taxes and smaller government raved an ardent nationalism, one that saw no problem with the State to the extent that it furthered US hegemony globally, seeing no problem in coupling demands for the elimination of taxes with that of the maintenance of an enormous, hypertrophic military and war industry.

Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, with its consensus-driven, participatory style, seemed to embrace something akin to the anarchistic notion that justice demands not only the dissolution of the State, but the dissolution of power in general. In spite of this, however, there were no shortages of liberals among OWS who seemed to posit nothing more extreme than the reimplementation of financial regulations, like the Glass-Steagall Act, or expressed their support for a more ambitious federal jobs program – something akin to the New Deal’s WPA. Indeed, the filmmaker Michael Moore was among the most vocal proponents of the Glass-Steagall Act’s reimplementation, implicitly rebuffing some of the more radical critiques of capitalist economics. Moore, whose analysis of capitalism doesn’t seem to go beyond a restoration of the post-World War II golden years, made plenty of appeals for the return to those times, and for good, union jobs such as the body-breaking one his father had in Flint, Michigan. Apparently Moore doesn’t understand that the wages and benefits that labor enjoyed during that period were the result of a compromise, a pay-off that workers received in order to stave off revolution. And without the existence of a Soviet threat, and revolutionary specters, such conditions have microscopically little probability of being realized. Of course, this doesn’t even touch on the imperialistic dimension of international economics, and that workers in the US enjoyed such a bounty at the expense of workers, and colonized workers at that, internationally. In spite of this, however, and for all of the flags that one found at Zuccotti Park, the emphasis at OWS was not, like Tea Party rallies, centered on US supremacy. Enjoying an orientation and set of concerns that was international, if not supranational, rather than national, in many respects the participants of OWS seemed to have more in common with the radicals involved in the Arab Spring than with the members of the Tea Party. To carry the analogy further (perhaps a little too far), the Tea Party activists were more like the counterparts to the supporters of dictators like Mubarak, bused in to city centers to foment counter-revolution, rather than people striving for justice. It is of no little account to note that, unlike OWS, which seemed to enjoy a genuine grassroots support, the Tea Party received its funding from a handful of ludicrously wealthy plutocrats, such as the infamous Koch brothers.

However, if the slogan ‘banks got bailed out, we got sold out’ expresses a populistic anger directed toward the banks, and the rich, it also raises the issue of being sold out, or betrayed. This no doubt owes itself to the fact that, among the anarchists and radicals in OWS, many people involved were not only liberals, but one-time Obama supporters. Betrayed by his misleading message of hope and change, these people imparted a significant ideological infusion into OWS. While comparisons to the Tea Party can provide some sense of its parameters, and though many may not care to admit it, one may gain a clearer idea of what OWS is by comparing it not to the Tea Party as much as to Obama himself. Indeed, it should not be at all surprising that, in the age of Obama – a politician skilled above all else in the art of marketing – a movement born from the pages of a magazine should share a considerable deal of his proclivities.

Although it may not be an altogether fair charge to level, since political movements in general appeal to such things, Obama and OWS share an emphasis on hope and change. While Obama’s hope and change, though, contains rhetoric – or used to at least – about green energy, and other futuristic technologies, his is a decidedly backward-looking, nostalgic type of change, one that would restore the US to its former “greatness.” Sentiments such as these were not foreign to the sensibility pervading OWS. In addition to such a backward-looking utopianism, though, OWS also contained a forward-looking, prefigurative utopian element that suggested a break with the nostalgic notion of returning to some past golden time.

Beyond this somewhat superficial similarity, however, Obama and OWS also maintain a comparable position concerning the pace of change. Unwilling to announce any particular goals, many strains of OWS emphasized the importance of movement-building. Not wanting to turn anyone away with unsavory political radicalism, OWS focused its energies on growing the movement. Obama’s strategy, misrepresenting himself as an agent of meaningful change, was identical. Aside from his fraudulent 2008 campaign, Obama continues to employ just such rhetoric, announcing time and again that it is actually too soon to see any real change. Insisting that change takes time, he instead offers further portions of hope. That is, both Obama and OWS engage in similar deceptions. One misrepresents, in order to get more support. And the other, insofar as it keeps mum about its more radical aspirations (with its organizers, for all their talk concerning their respect for autonomy, explicitly asking participants to abstain from mentioning anarchy, or Marx, to name just two inflammatory terms) misrepresents itself as well, with the same rationale. Neither wants to scare away any potential supporter with the truth of their actual political position.

Though Obama allows people to think he is an agent of change, he is in fact ‘more of the same.’ Willfully and knowingly misrepresenting himself, Obama allows people to think he’s legitimately concerned with the welfare of the people of the world. OWS, on the other hand, doesn’t misrepresent itself so much as it refuses to represent itself. Its much discussed refusal to elicit demands owes itself only partially to a principled anti-statist position, one that refuses to make demands of an entity with no legitimate power to grant them. The other part owes itself to a very Obamian marketing sensibility. Just like Obama, OWS has turned itself into a brand.

Related to this is another characteristic that OWS shares with Obama. Neither negotiates forcefully. Of course, as they have nothing even approximating comparable bargaining power, it is not exactly fair to issue such a charge. Nevertheless, there seems to be a similar sensibility at play. For example, as anyone who has studied negotiation techniques learns right away, the first, most basic rule is to ask in any negotiation for more than what you want. Obama, however, a Harvard-trained lawyer, never seems to have learned this elementary rule. Rather than asking for more than what he wants, Obama’s negotiation strategy involves asking for less, as when he notoriously initiated negotiations over what would become his Affordable Care Act by throwing out his biggest bargaining chip, the so-called public option. While it seems hard to believe that Obama did not throw out the public option enthusiastically, in order to realize the business-friendly ACA, his supporters maintain that he was forced to do such a thing by an intransigent congress. As such, they argue, he was only being realistic. This notion of his being realistic, of course, calls to mind the slogan from May, 1968, that you should Be Realistic, and Demand the Impossible. In this respect it appears that OWS has more in common with Obama than with its ostensible allies from nearly half a century ago. Rather than demand the impossible, or even ask for more than what they want, OWS refuses to make demands at all.

As Frederick Douglass wrote, and as many are quick to quote, power will concede nothing without a demand. And as sympathizers of OWS will point out, making demands of power at the same time validates that power. Furthermore, when that power is regarded as something that is not only hostile, but wholly lacking in legitimacy, making demands is at best a degrading affair. At worst the party making demands itself becomes a counter-power. As many iterate and reiterate, OWS does not strive to be such a counter-power. Rather, its aim is to pull the rug out from under power. On this point the sentiments of OWS are to some degree in accord with the words of the Zapatista Comandante Ramona when she said, referring to the Zapatistas’ struggle, that we do not want to seize power, we want to break power into little pieces, so everyone can hold some. This remark deserves some consideration.

While it is a generalization, and a problematic simplification, in a world in which all is in perpetual flux, to some extent human history itself may be described as little more than the concentrations and dispersions of energy, or power. And, if such is the case, and history is this sequence of concentrations – which, upon achieving certain quantities, assume tyrannical qualities – we may regard the disruption and dispersion of such concentrations as ruptures, and the concentrations as stabilizations.

As one facet of human history, U.S. history can be seen as just such a series of ruptures and continuities – of adjustments and stabilizations. Of course, just where one defines a rupture, and where one marks the stabilization, are bound to involve some degree of controversy. For the autochthonous peoples inhabiting the Americas, the arrival of Europeans five centuries ago for the most part initiated a concentration of power that would not only destroy their cultures, but spread monumental misery as well. And while the imperial presences of England, France, Spain, and others, continued to contribute to a process of deforming an earth in which power was dispersed, to one in which it grew more and more concentrated, these concentrations in turn produced their dispersions. As noted above, when power becomes more and more concentrated it becomes more and more tyrannical. And it was just such an appeal to the shaking off of tyranny that provided some of the rationale for the American Revolution. While the Declaration of Independence marks a rupture and dispersion of a concentrated power, the advent of the US Constitution, with its tripartite schema of government designed to concentrate and stabilize this dispersion, marked this dispersion’s limit, and reconcentration. For the constitution’s separation of power schema was not designed to eliminate, disperse, or distribute power so much as balance, contain, and stabilize it.

To some degree this concentration was ruptured again and again. During the Jacksonian era, a dispersion of power extended the franchise beyond the requirement of land ownership – a partial and relative dispersal of power that was followed by stabilization and concentration. When the Civil War broke out, and in the ensuing period of Reconstruction, power was again dispersed. This, of course, was followed by another concentration of power in the form of Jim Crow laws and terror. In the 20th century, the suffrage movement of the 1920s, as well as the New Deal of the 1930s and 40s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, marked an extended period of ruptures and dispersions of power.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, power concentrated yet again, into unprecedented extremes. And while there have been many exceptions, and in some social areas there have been ruptures and dispersions of power, economically power has concentrated and polarized over the past few decades to unprecedented levels. It may be far too soon to determine whether OWS marks the beginning of a meaningful dispersion of power. Among other things, it ought to be noted that while these ruptures and dispersions of power may be punctuated by particular legislative achievements, their truly significant alterations manifest in the adjustment of social norms. If this is the case, one would do well to inquire as to what types of norms OWS might herald.

Perhaps Occupy Wall Street’s most consistent and clear articulation of normative content inheres in its advocacy of Autonomy and Non-Violence. And though one could see these two positions as being contradictory, since the exhortation to be non-violent may conflict with another’s autonomy, an investigation into their interrelations may yield insight. While there have been considerable, and so far unsuccessful efforts within OWS to articulate just what non-violence means, and while examinations of the etymology of words is not always enlightening, it seems in this case that such an examination may shed some light. For the word violence shares the same root with the word violate. But just what does it mean to violate another’s autonomy? If non-violence is merely autonomy’s limit, is this just not a restatement of the harm principle? Is it anything aside from a rephrasing of the golden rule admonishing one to do unto others what one would have done to oneself? Or is it perhaps something closer to the so-called ‘silver rule’ of Confucianism, to avoid doing to others what you would not want done to yourself?

Rather than the harm principle, or the golden rule, or the silver rule, the twin values of non-violence and autonomy allow for a radical articulation of justice. Indeed, the inquiry into what non-violence means, and the consideration of violence as a violation of another’s autonomy, yields the following formulation. Because a person’s autonomy includes not only their ability to move about, but his or her well-being too, this leads to not only the position that one must abstain from intruding on another’s autonomy in the sense of causing active harms – such as exposing another to harmful toxins, or otherwise abusing another – it precludes the commission of passive harms as well. For example, allowing conditions that are harmful to merely persist – harmful to not only people, but to animals and the environment as well – are violations of autonomy. Beyond removing active harms, passive harms (including, but not limited to, the lack of access to salutary housing, nutrition, health care, education, and so on) must be removed – precisely by making them freely available. This is a just society’s duty, and an economy’s sole purpose. The conditions that produce and reproduce both active and passive harms must be changed, transformed into conditions that allow for autonomy and the general welfare – that is, into the conditions of justice, to which laws, if they are to avoid being tyrannical, must only follow. To the extent that it does not pursue these aims, as this country’s founding documents maintain, a given society has no legitimacy whatsoever. As its anniversary approaches, dragging along with it a train of questions and slogans, it seems that OWS’ most meaningful contribution to contemporary politics are these two conjoined concepts.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Historicity of Disease

Disease is not simply a natural occurrence so much as an historical and cultural phenomena. That is, disease is not entirely natural - however ambiguous such a statement may be. Indeed, this nexus of historical, cultural and physiological forces manifests in culturally specific diseases. Cancer, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes - relatively rare before the industrial revolution - are a few of the most common diseases in the U.S. today.

Among the harms that contribute directly to these pathologies - e.g. a largely sedentary lifestyle, regular and consistent exposure to significant levels of pollutants, poor diet, etc. - are the less direct harms that in the aggregate produce significant stresses. These not only diminish sleep, rest, and other necessary functions, their persistent pressures weaken immunological strength and resistance. Consequently, greater and more severe illnesses result.

A common response to this information is the suggestion that people take it upon themselves to exercise, and eat better food - that they exert some personal responsibility. This suggestion, however, largely ignores the fact that exercise and food collection and preparation take a considerable amount of time; and in this society, where time is money, most people have little of either. In fact, as far as money is concerned, the vast majority of people have negative worth. While this figure may not be correlative with time debts, the fact is that the health problem that this society possesses is endemic to this particular society. That is, even if everyone exercised regularly, and ate well, there would still be basic, structural harms making people ill - systematic deprivation of sleep, pollution of air, water, etc. In other words, politically, economically, and legally, this society is organized in a manner that is hostile to the health of people as individuals, of societies, and the very ecosystem as a whole. As such, these problems cannot be corrected merely by adding more exercise, or better food to people's already taxed lives. The deeper structures need to be radically transformed.

If a society is to develop beyond merely superficial levels of health, not only must it supply the positive things people need to be healthy, it must supply the negative things as well - that is, an enormous amount of harms must be removed. That a society has a positive duty-of-care to produce the conditions necessary to support general, and individual, health, and is only legitimate to the degree that it functions to produce those conditions which allow health to flourish is one of the central tenets of hygiecracy.

These 'conditions of health' include, among other things, free access to all of those conditions necessary for health to develop, such as housing, nutrition sufficient for optimal health, a clean environment, unlimited education, transportation, communication, as well as health care, to name just a few. Moreover, people need time - time to sleep, and to exercise, to cook and to eat well, as well as time to study and to socialize, all of which is necessary for psychological and physical health.

Skeptics may reply that though such an arrangement might be nice, it is unrealistic. For just how, for example, are we to get more time? There are only 24 hours in a day. The hygiecratic response to this is that the elimination of the need to pay rent (an obstruction of the conditions of health) would pretty much halve the amount of time people would need to work. Since food, transportation, and health care, among other things, would be free, people would only have to work to reproduce/maintain/develop these conditions of health. And because the production and reproduction of the conditions of health can be accomplished at less than a quarter of current person-hours, people in a hygiecratic economy would have to work no more than ten hours a week to maintain such conditions. Additionally, there is an exponential aspect to the strengthening of health. As the condition of our health improves, even less work will need to be pursued. We will be free to work on our own labors of love.

Moreover, since large swaths of the capitalist economy would be superfluous in a hygiecratic economy (entire industries like banking, finance, and insurance, to name just a few, would have no role to play in an economy organized around producing the conditions of health, rather than producing financial gain) more people would be able to work in producing and reproducing conditions of health, further reducing the amount that any particular person would need to work to maintain a hygiecratic economy. While it may not be possible, or even desirable, to eliminate disease completely, such an organization would at least eliminate much, especially those caused by the stresses and toxins of contemporary culture - the plague we bring upon ourselves.

Friday, September 7, 2012

On the Economic Mess

Bill Clinton raised a good deal of applause the other night in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, pointing out that the Republicans made a huge mess out of the economy. And while what Clinton said was to some degree the case, it was only the case insofar as it omits a great deal of what we see in the world around us from consideration. To be sure, he neglected to mention the far larger issue that it is not only the Republicans' economic plan, but that of the Democrats as well that makes not only a mess, but an extremely toxic, and - it should be stressed - completely unnecessary "mess" out of the entire biosphere.

It is telling that when it comes time to discuss the subject of cleaning up the big mess of the economy, no mention is made at all about the deep, structural mess that includes, among other things, a prison population in this country that is at present in excess of 2,200,000 people - a figure, by the way, that excludes minors. Indeed, the long-term economic policy in this country has involved incarceration, in one way or another, for over a century. Since the end of the Civil War - especially, but not exclusively, in the south - a sizable amount of economic growth has been attributable to prison labor. Let us not forget, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlaws slavery, has a prison labor exception. And, as soon as Reconstruction was prematurely terminated, the state, together with industry, lost little time in taking advantage of this exception. Through such programs as the convict lease system, newly freed slaves were put back to work in a manner that gives new meaning to the term free laborers.

As the US continues to trudge through this period of post-industrial permanent unemployment - one in which outsourcing and automation have bludgeoned the working class's jobs along with their bargaining power - we are seeing permanently unemployed sectors of the population being permanently housed in corrections facilities. This model of social control, developed in the Jim Crow South, has for decades been applied to the entire country. Not only do prisoners these days produce such consumer items as Victoria's Secrets underwear, but the prisons themselves are an important sector of the economy, employing countless guards, cooks, contractors, sub-contractors, construction workers, etc. This outstanding social problem has, among other things, led to the situation where, although the US has only 5% of the world's total population, it houses 25% of the world's total prison population - a number unprecedented in both absolute as well as relative numbers. Moreover, through discriminatory policing, discriminatory convictions, and discriminatory sentencing - that is, by design - it is only increasing.

Clinton, and then Obama on the following night, spoke in grandiloquent terms of a new era of economic growth in sight for the United States. But even if, for the sake of argument, such growth could deflate the astronomically large prison population, it would still have no effect - at least not any salutary effect - when it comes to cleaning up the actual, concrete messes this economy systematically produces and reproduces.The ceaseless production of largely unnecessary junk food, junk clothes, junk medicine, junk toys, and their packaging, among other things, creates a literal mess, polluting our world, and spreading a cancer epidemic, not to mention global warming.

It is illustrative that in one sentence Obama mourns his mother's death from cancer, raising the issue of health care (which his Affordable Care Act will do literally little to affordably provide to most people) and in the next he touts his salvaging of the automobile industry - an industry that leads the way not only in the production of cars, but in the production of carcinogens. Not only does pollution from automobile exhaust contribute to soaring rates of asthma, heart disease, and cancer, among other illnesses; in addition to polluting the air it pollutes the water and soil as well.

Beyond automobiles and junk, one of our most fundamental needs, the production of food, is subordinated not to the requirements of nutrition and health, but to profit. It is a well-documented fact that industrial agriculture employs fertilizers and pesticides that, in adddition to contributing to health problems through direct consumption, create monumental health problems from pollution. Vast deadzones now sprawl throughout our oceans and waterways. And where people are not harmed by these practices, they are often harmed by the intended product of these practices: food that contributes less to health than to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. From the harms caused by nuclear waste, oil production, natural gas and coal extraction, to those caused by weapons manufacturing, and their attendant wars, this economy is not just a mess, but a tremendous source and cause of disease.

And even if, contrary to not only experience but its very own logic of metastatic growth, the capitalistic economy could continue to develop without its highly toxic shadow, for most people work itself is an occupational disease. Obama and Biden's assertion that a job is more than a paycheck is correct. However, for most people work is less a source of satisfaction and purpose than it is a necessary evil - one that doesn't even pay the bills these days. There is just too much work. As countless studies demonstrate, there have been huge increases in worker productivity over the years accompanied by widening disparities in pay between entry-level workers and corporate executives. Virtually all of the profit from all of this work is going to the few owners. People are not only aware of this, but are
literally sick of it.

Instead of demanding decreases in taxes, people should be demanding decreases in work. Indeed, a century ago, when machines were relatively new and were hailed as labor-saving technologies, there was an expectation that the workweek would be diminished to two or three days. As we all know, no such diminution occurred. For the sake of our health, however, it should. For the sake of our health the above-mentioned economic practices that are not only not improving at all but are instead diminishing our quality of life should be eliminated. And when people speak of the mess of our economy, we should not neglect to consider the entirety of this mess. A just political-economic system would not only not reproduce these injuries, it would supply those things that people actually need. And it is a just political-economic system that we should be striving toward, not - to use present-day political parlance - more of the same.

For centuries the legal maxim salus populi suprema lex esto has affirmed that 'the health of the people is the supreme law.' Beyond other things, this maxim subtends the emancipatory ideals of the Declaration of Independence. While it has been used to pursue harmful practices as well, for centuries it has also been used to nullify laws and practices that in one way or another trespass on the health of the people, however problematically this notion may be defined. Perhaps the time has come to not only critically reinterpret this maxim, but in the face of a world that is becoming more and more hostile to the health of the people of the planet, to apply it to the exigencies we all today together confront.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The South Carolina Sea Island Slaves

As Labor Day recedes, it is worth reflecting on the meaning of labor in the United States. Because one instance from the history of labor in the United States casts a considerable degree of illumination on this subject as a whole, it is worth recounting it, even if only in outline.

About 150 years ago, in the midst of the Civil War, Union Forces were seizing control of much of the confederate states of Georgia and South Carolina. And just off the coast, in the low-lying South Carolina Sea Islands, the owners of the cotton plantations there heard these reports of Union bombardment and occupation. Deciding to flee, the owners packed away their most valuable portable belongings and abandoned the rest of their property: their land, their cotton plantations, their cotton gins and other machinery, as well, of course, as their slaves.

It ought to be noted that the slaves on the South Carolina Sea Island cotton plantations had historically been afforded a relatively high degree of autonomy. Because they were situated on islands, and escape was difficult, they did not require the same degree of management as their colleagues on the mainland enjoyed. Rather, they tended to run much of the plantations' operations with little oversight. Of course, they were still slaves and, so, were not very much able to ignore the owners' demands. However, when the owners boarded their ships and disappeared into the ocean to escape the inevitable Union invasion, the slaves found themselves with few barriers to their freedom. As a matter of fact, since the plantations were for the most part self-sufficient, there were hardly any barriers at all.

Having learned to hate the production of cotton, and seeing no more need to toil for the cash crop, the freed slaves quickly destroyed the plantations' cotton gins. Freed from not only the bonds of slavery, but from the demands of the market, they developed a subsistence economy, farming crops for personal consumption. While the weather was for the most part mild, and their crops grew, and fish in the nearby sea provided fresh sources of food, the freed slaves enjoyed their freedom. This freedom, however, would not last long.

Only a few months after the flight of their former owners, and the beginning of their liberty, the freed slaves saw the arrival of Union forces. Landing on the islands, with missionaries in tow, their orders were to reinstate the plantation economy. Cotton was a very valuable commodity, and the businessmen in the north coveted the profits it reaped just as much as the businessmen in the south did. You people may be free now, they told the freed slaves, but this land isn't. It was owned by your former owners, and now it is ours. Of course, you may continue to live here. However, you may only continue to live here if you pay us rent. You can raise the money to pay it by working in the fields picking cotton all day long.

Happy Labor Day.