Saturday, April 19, 2014

tricks of the trade

Reading this recent Nature article got me thinking that crises of capitalism don't just take the form of economic downturns and unemployment. They also take social forms, such as the creation of industries that actively seek to produce cheap, addictive, and unhealthy products that are produced solely to make a profit. While it might not seem like a typical crisis, for example, the epidemic of obesity has economic roots.

As authors Stephen Simpson and David Raubenheimer note, "Food manufacturers have a financial incentive to replace protein with cheaper forms of calories, and to manipulate the sensory qualities of foods to disguise their lower protein content." And this trend, they argue, has contributed to the growing epidemic of obesity since, "The paucity of protein relative to fats and carbohydrates in processed foods drives the overconsumption of total energy as our bodies seek to maintain a target level of protein intake" because "the [human] appetite prioritizes protein over carbohydrate or fat." We're eating way too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

Unfortunately, most people fail to connect the economic roots of these kinds of social crises to the mode of production because they're so conditioned by the ideology of 'personal responsibility' to blame the individual for poor choices despite the fact that the very same system puts people into a position where, "The higher cost of protein drives consumers to buy cheaper processed food loaded with fat and carbohydrates — an effect that disproportionately affects people on tighter budgets." Sometimes we simply can't afford to eat well. And even when we can, we often don't have the time and settle for whatever's convenient in our fast-paced, consumer society.

It's a catch-22. The consumer is often treated as a 'rational actor' who makes decisions that provide them with the greatest benefit or satisfaction. But when they act in such a way, such as when they're coerced by the limitations of time and money to purchase greater quantities of processed foods to feed themselves and their family, they're simultaneously making a 'poor choice' despite it being an economically rational one.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

us study illustrates the basic marxian concept of base/superstructure relations

An interesting study on the political-economic makeup of the US, which notes, among other things, that, "In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose":

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

Two paragraphs from the study in particular that caught my eye were:

Analyses of U.S. politics centered on economic elites go back at least to Charles Beard, who maintained that a chief aim of the framers of the U.S. Constitution was to protect private property, favoring the economic interests of wealthy merchants and plantation owners rather than the interests of the then-majority small farmers, laborers, and craft workers. A landmark work in this tradition is G. William Domhoff's detailed account of how elites (working through foundations, think-tanks, and an "opinion-shaping apparatus," as well as through the lobbyists and politicians they finance) may dominate key issues in U.S. policy making despite the existence of democratic elections. Philip A. Burch has exhaustively chronicled the economic backgrounds of federal government officials through American history. Thomas Ferguson's analysis of the political importance of "major investors" might be seen as a theory of economic elites. Most recently, Jeffrey Winters has posited a comparative theory of "Oligarchy," in which the wealthiest citizens – even in a "civil oligarchy" like the United States – dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection.


And:

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of "populistic" democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics findings indicate, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.


Reminds me of this famous passage from The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.


All you really have to do is replace the word 'ideas' with 'policies' to illustrate the basic Marxian concept of base/superstructure relations, i.e., the idea that a state and its ruling class (political superstructure) are a manifestation or reflection of underlying economic social relations (economic base). In other words, this study offers an empirical example of political inequality as it manifests itself in the US, arising, in the final analysis, out of inherently unequal social relations of production.

For the US to truly move away from its oligarchical political-economic makeup and towards real democracy, it has to fundamentally alter the makeup of its mode of production through a radical economic transformation in which the exploitation, alienation, and commodity fetishism of the present system are gradually eliminated via a more socialized mode of production.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

scotus strikes back

Yesterday, the Supreme Court's ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC effectively struck down the overall cap on the "total amount any individual can contribute to federal candidates in a two-year election cycle," according to the New York Times. The 5-to-4 decision is similar to that of the 2012 Citizens United v. FEC decision, which "struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions" based upon its perceived infringement of First Amendment rights.

On the one hand, many see any limitations on campaign contributions as an unconstitutional restriction on the exercise of the First Amendment, especially in light of the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo equating money with speech. Just as newspapers aren't limited to the number of candidates they can endorse via editorials, some argue that contributors shouldn't be limited by limits to the number of candidates they can support/endorse with their pocket books. So while the $2,600 per candidate limit on contributions from individuals to candidates in primary and general elections ($5,200 total) still stands, the overall limit of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates and the $74,600 limit on contributions to political party committees have been removed. More money = more freedom, right?

Others, however, like the dissenting Justice Breyer, see this decision as further opening the floodgates of cash from wealthy donors, which will give them (and those they support) an even bigger advantage in each election, raising "the overall contribution ceiling to 'the number infinity.'" The way elections are currently conducted and financed in the US, the average citizen has enough trouble competing with the lobbying power of large multinational corporations and the wealthy, thereby severely limiting their 'voice' in the political process. And this ruling will help the voices (i.e., the $) of the wealthy, whose political views on economic issues often differ from that of the majority of working-class citizens, further outweigh those of average citizens. In other words, it's a victory, via the conservative justices of the Supreme Court, for the interests of the wealthy.

But from another standpoint, one could argue that this decision is not only in line with the intent of the framers of the Constitution, it's the logical conclusion of their intent. Many of the Founding Fathers were critical of direct democracy, mistrusting the will of the majority itself (though not entirely without reason). Like most forms of government centred around private property rights, the basic principle behind the establishment of our form of representative democracy had more to do with the ruling elites wanting to protect the small minority of property owners (including themselves) from the majority of the propertyless than anything else. As James Madison put it in Federalist No. 10, "[T]he most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society."

The only real difference between the Founders and the wealthy elites of today is that the former were primarily holders of landed property while the elites of today are holders of money capital, which for all intents and purposes are the same thing in that both are property in the political-economic sense of the term. What people like Jefferson (who was critical of what he saw as the ascendancy of the aristocracy of banking institutions and monied corporations) and Madison seemed to fail to realize is that having a political-economic system centred on private property rights, which are considered sacrosanct, actually protects and even promotes the rise of a new kind of aristocracy, one based on capital and wealth rather than hereditary nobility and land ownership.

Liberalism (the emerging philosophy of the time that greatly influenced the shaping of the Constitution) links private property to liberty, and through private property rights, secures the liberty of the propertied. Consequently, the greater one's property, the greater one's means of self-determination. Anyone who thinks otherwise and defends the Constitution and the Founders as the 'be all, end all' of democracy would do well to recall that, originally, the representatives in this new republic were elected by a select few, namely white, male property owners—it was their interests that truly mattered and shaped the political and legal superstructures we know today. And as Adam Lioz, a public policy analysis from Demos, points out, "[T]he donor class is overwhelmingly wealthy, white, and male... so we're going to see folks who can have access to those networks of donors have an even greater edge in deciding who can run for office and who wins."

So while rulings like that of Citizens United and McCutcheon may appear to some as moving America away from its democratic roots, what they may actually be doing is moving us back towards our liberal-republican roots, eroding some of the victories won over the past couple of centuries by the poor and disenfranchised in the ongoing fight for equality and universal suffrage. In essence, the game is rigged. To fix these problems, we need to change the rules; and to change the rules, we need, in the words of The Coup, to 'flip this system.'

Monday, March 31, 2014

another shameful example of our two-tiered justice system

From The News Journal (delawareonline.com):

Judge said du Pont heir 'will not fare well' in prison

So a wealthy du Pont heir convicted of raping his 3-year-old daughter is getting probation and 'treatment' instead of time behind bars because he "will not fare well" in prison (as if anybody fucking does). Reminds me of Glenn Greenwald's article, "HSBC, too big to jail, is the new poster child for US two-tiered justice system," in which he concludes: "How this glaringly disparate, and explicitly status-based, treatment under the criminal law does not produce serious social unrest is mystifying."

I couldn't agree more with Greenwald. I've been ranting about and protesting against this kind of shit ever since I started to actually pay attention to the world around me; and for the life of me, I can't understand why more people aren't up in arms over shit like this, or endless other examples of a glaringly inegalitarian system that not only produces toxic accumulations of both wealth and power, but serves to protect the economic, legal, and political hegemony of capital and wealthy/ruling-class elites while ruthlessly taking its pound of flesh from the rest of society, particularly from the backs of minorities and the poor.

If this or the Greenwald article doesn't piss you off and start to make you question whether we can do better, it really should.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

the downside of gentrification

Gentrification has a dark side and it's something I think we need to start talking about it, as well as having a broader conversation about the way our political-economic system is organized.

A lot of people I've talked to about gentrification seem to be for it primarily based on the positives of urban renewal projects, such as the influx of business it brings and how it helps to revitalize neighborhoods that've seen better days. What often happens, though, is that many of the people who already live in those areas get displaced.

Poorer yet up-and-coming areas of the city targeted for gentrification essentially get makeovers by the city, with improvements to public transit, good grocery outlets, etc. that tend to attract young, middle-class families and upwordly mobile individuals from other areas of the city, particularly the suburbs. Developers also play a role, buying properties to flip or convert into more profitable enterprises. It seems like a good thing. New things are being built and new people are moving in. Win-win, right?

A big problem, however, is that this influx of people, in combination with all the trendy, new (and pricier) dining and shopping establishments and living spaces that pop up, starts to put pressure on surrounding rents, real estate prices, and low-income communities, forcing many of the poorer, long-term residents to move to elsewhere, which often ends up by necessity being poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of the neighborhood or city in question that lack many of the basic services of the one they're forced to leave.

Portland, one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the US, has seen its fair share of this, from gentrification in the 80s and 90s pushing out long-time working-class and African-American residents into the north and northeast to where it's currently threatening to push out homeless encampments and shelters downtown, and lower-income residents all over Portland outside of city limits.

One of the major issues this story raises, in my opinion, is the way the state (like many others) actually forbids things like rent controls while at the same time allowing property owners to rent based on income caps, highlighting the unequal relations between renters and property owners. As Commissioner Fritz so blatantly puts it, the state values land ownership rights over tenants' rights; and this hurts people. People like my friend Joe are being displaced, with little-to-no compensation; they're losing their homes and access to their communities as a result. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Renters essentially have no rights nor recourse within the current system based on profit and property rights. They're at the whim of markets, often unsympathetic legislators and courts, and property owners and developers who are conditioned and/or coerced by competitive pressures to make decisions based on profit rather than the needs of tenants or the surrounding community.

And worst of all, many in their own community are conditioned by the same system to to shrug off their suffering and say, "Tough luck, you should just stop being a loser and make more money or else move."

Friday, March 14, 2014

sick-day rant

Ironically, I hate not working because it gives me too much time to think abut all the things I hate about working. I hate, for example, that I'm pressured to work for a wage to survive, trading my autonomy (and sometimes my dignity) for a portion of the value I help produce but have no rights to. I hate the control over my life that employers generally have and freely exert, from when I have to be there and when I can leave to when I can even fucking pee. I hate that I have to schedule my entire life around when I'm not working, time which is also dictated by employers. I hate how difficult it is to find a job you like with an employer who doesn't treat you like a commodity (or like shit, since your labour-power is nothing but a commodity in the final analysis), where you're not belittled every day by management simply because you're on the low end of the capitalist totem pole. I hate how employers have the tendency to make you feel like an asshole when you're not able to make it in to work, even if you rarely ever call in. I hate the alienation of work, from the alienation imposed by the social relations of production (e.g., the divide between owners/managers and workers due to unequal relations, the divide between workers due to competition for and at work, etc.) to the alienation of not owning the product of my labours and the unfulfillingness of working simply to produce surplus-value for another. I hate that I'm pressured to spend so much time doing something I often don't enjoy for people who often don't know or care about me, while I spend so little with the people I love and who love me. I hate the stress this causes. And most of all, I hate that so many other people feel the same way, even if they're not fully cognizant of it, but at the same time feel trapped materially by their dependency on wages and psychologically by cultural and ideological conditioning into believing there's no alternative. /rant

Saturday, March 8, 2014

happy international women's day

Today marks the 103rd anniversary of International Women's Day, a day dedicated to women and their contributions to the world.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the first International Women's Day was observed, women were being pushed into the workforce in record numbers due to a combination of factors including rapid economic and population growth, widespread poverty, and the need for cheap labour to fuel the industrial capitalist machine.

Women, who in many countries, including the US, still couldn't vote, were often working 10-12 hours a day in deplorable, sweatshop-style conditions, sometimes even being locked in factories until their work was done. And during this time, many of the largest and most militant strikes were organized by women fighting for things like shorter hours, better pay, safer working conditions, the right to unionize, and the right to vote.

With all the progress that's been made, it can be easy to forget how bad things were and how far we've come in just the last 100 years alone. But I think it's important to remind ourselves every now and then of the contributions and struggles of working women in both the past and present, not only to honour those that fought so hard to get us where we are today, but to remind ourselves of the work that's yet to be done.

So today, we celebrate and honour the contributions and struggles of women everywhere. Bread and Roses!