Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ancient Co-optation

I wrote before about how potentially oppositional impulses get co-opted by the system and channeled into activities that maintain the status quo. I noted that I was purposely limiting my discussion to the capitalist era, even though it could be extended beyond that.

For no particular reason whatsoever, I think I will take a stab at a pre-capitalist example. In Europe during the Middle Ages, although the Church had a heavy hand in maintaining the education system, royal powers also learned how to turn it to their own ends. Lawyers, in particular, were inculcated with the view that only royal law (as opposed to divisive feudal legal systems and special merchant law) should be given a place of primacy. Lawyers and other university graduates, who might otherwise consort with the restive bourgeois, were coaxed into the royal bureaucracies, from whence they used their education and skill to enforce royal edicts and maintain the social order.

To me, this is very strikingly similar to the way in which young, educated idealists are currently drawn into government agencies and nonprofit organizations (bureaucratic extensions of government/business).

The question, as always, is… will anything ever change?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Unpopular Mainstream

One interesting dichotomy structuring many sorts of value judgements is that of the “mainstream” versus the “fringe.” I love it. Not only is this another excellent example of linguistic categorieslanguage as action as opposed to representation – but the power plays and strategies entailed by the use of these terms can be absolutely fascinating to observe.

I don’t think it is particularly earth-shattering to suggest that the “fringe” label is often used to imply that an idea or thing so attributed is more unique and creative, and somehow more in tune with “the truth” – whether that be theoretically or as a subjective understanding of human experience – than the brainwashed, whitewashed mainstream. This fits with the “sanctity of the individual” perspective that is the hallmark of liberalism. People working on their own, in competition with others, in opposition to the common, will necessary create a better, more enlightened product.

Nowhere has this been better assimilated and exploited than among the youths. There, one sees the perennial cycling between the fringe and mainstream: what was fringe becomes cool… until too many people catch on, at which point it goes out of style and lays dormant until it is once again obscure enough to be appropriated by the fringe. Not to get too deterministically economic in this post, but that is a great mechanism for driving the cycles of consumption so necessary in the late capitalist era. See style.

It is a food chain. The hipsters emulate the ignored and forgotten; the popular crowd emulates the hipsters; everyone else emulates the popular crowd; and, eventually, grandma emulates everyone else. And the hipsters emulate grandma. Of course, everyone has different opinions about what is cool and what is mainstream. One person may be proud of the indie band they discovered in a movie soundtrack, while someone else will deride the band for gaining so much exposure. And then there is the constant fear that the great new band that one discovered will “sell out.”

This goes beyond pop culture. In politics, it is common to try to paint oneself as a “maverick” while portraying one’s opponent as a “Washington insider.” No one likes “the establishment.” Everyone dreams about their independent-in-shining-armor, born on the edge of society in a no-name town, emerging with integrity intact, to transform the entire political system. True, this does, in part, stem from the idea that the people currently occupying offices are visibly incompetent, dishonest, and corrupt… but we are committed to the idea that it is somehow being part of the establishment – as a personal trait – that entails mediocrity, and nothing about the structure of the establishment itself (in which case it would not matter which individuals populate it).

I should not leave out academia either, although my discussion is by no means exhaustive. Scholars scramble over each other to be part of the “fringe.” This is particularly true in the critical social sciences and humanities. In this case the “mainstream” schools of thought are associated with forces of dominance – patriarchy, the bourgeoisie, etc. The academic version of coolness is to be “marginal” and speak for (oh, no, wait, I mean “with,” I swear I totally meant to say “with”!) the oppressed. There is nothing necessarily objectionable with that sentiment in and of itself, except that it is often a superficiality which masks the general maintenance of status quo and reluctance to take real radical action. People often attempt to fashion “fringe” viewpoints without addressing the foundations of disciplinary thought, in attempt to gain a certain sort of authority or following (rather than withering in the shadows of the hot-shots). This makes me wonder whether the valorization of “marginality” really emerges from a revolutionary disposition or merely represents the transplantation of “hipsterism” into the university setting.

As for me, I don’t care where I am, so long as I have a good view.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

European Exploitation: Phase 4

I have already described how exploitation of the so-called “Third World” has proceeded over the past few centuries according to a succession of variants (though the basic theme remains the same), and I have also explained how that exploitation has been and continues to be vital for capitalist/industrial profitability. In another post, I delineated to some extent the rigidity of the global hierarchy of wealth.

Specifically, I think it is important to emphasize that the only time during which the lower rungs make some sort of progress is when the top of the pyramid (the industrial north) experiences any kind of set-back. In a very simplistic and abstract way (which very much belies the complexity of the actual mechanisms of change), this is due to the fact that wealth is finite (based, of course, on a given level of technology) and essentially zero-sum (just like, for all you physics fans, the amount of energy in a closed system never increases or decreases, but merely changes form).

Now, on a slight tangent, I have heard some official reports from institutions like the World Bank that extreme poverty has recently been reduced around the world. Get out the champagne, right? Unfortunately, I would not put too much stock in this claim. For one thing, official statistics regarding global poverty produced by multilateral organizations like the World Bank tend to be extremely misleading and, quite frankly, useless. Not only do these organizations have agendas (as instruments of the industrial north), but statistics, in general, tend to be ineffective for understanding poverty. A true Marxist looks to structural realities and daily experiences. Take a look at any local newspaper in a Third World nation, and you will see no evidence of improvement in the conditions faced by ordinary people. (Where there are gains, these tend to concentrated at the top of the internal hierarchy, in typical capitalist inquality-increasing fashion.)

Regarding the structural realities, it is clear that the basic pecking order, the global relations of domination, has not changed. At all. And since gains in the underdeveloped world come at the expense of the industrial north, they are almost always limited and temporary.

Often, gains are temporary because the industrial north tries to regain their position in much the same way that, when two people are struggling to stay afloat in a pool, one tries to stay above water by holding the other down. This happened at the end of the 1970s. Global economic stagnation had set in by the late 1960s (caused by a crisis of overproduction and merely exacerbated by the energy crisis). As growth slowed in the industrial north, the Third World made some impressive gains. This was especially facilitated by the initial attempt of capital to find areas of investment and possibilities for cheaper production in other parts of the world.

But then the 80s, and with it the Reagan-Thatcher brand of neoliberalism, rolled in and flattened the developing world. The policies (“austerity measures,” if you will) of the industrial powers undermined all the prior investments and resulted in devastating financial crises which destroyed any economic progress made in the Third World in the previous decade.

In the intervening years we had some bubbles that did not resolve any of the underlying problems of overproduction, but made us feel pretty good about ourselves, nonetheless. Shockingly, the bubbles burst and we once again found ourselves on bumpy terrain. And once again, whose head are we going to hold under water so that we might have another gasp of air? Who are we going to screw over in an attempt to save ourselves?  It seems that the EU is busy devising new ways to drain the world of its wealth and resources.

Check It.  Sorry, Africans!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Recording Industry and the Monopoly on Music

I have been a long-time opponent of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Around the time they began to fight against file-sharing, and well before I was able to formulate my thoughts in a very theoretical way, I was already on my crusade. Granted, my crusade has consisted mostly of being very angry, and occasionally wearing an anti-RIAA t-shirt.

Now, of course, I can pinpoint exactly where I take principled issue with the Recording Industry:

1. No one brings entirely new things into existence, and creativity depends on a free flow of ideas.
2. Music is a social, not an individual, phenomenon.
3. The Recording Industry reinforces social boundaries.
4. The Recording Industry controls the availability of music and attempts to manipulate trends and tastes

To expand on each point….

1. See post about intellectual property. But I also want to ask, why would anyone think that no one would have any incentive to create good music if not guaranteed millions of dollars in return? Have there not been troubadores, for pretty much all of human existence, willing to live meal by meal and entertaining without any expected rate of return? Do not many people choose to be musicians knowing very well that they will probably not make much money? This is the music I WANT to hear.

2. Historically, music has been created for communal purposes: special music for rituals and rites of passage; entertainment for social gatherings and dances; songs to memorialize group history and lore; songs for travel. Of course, everyone riffs off of ideas already in existence (see point number one) and widespread recycling of popular melodies has been more of the norm than the aberration. Music is very often performed with ensembles and not infrequently through collaborative improvisation. And music still plays a vital role at parties, weddings, sporting events, public venues, religious services, civic ceremonies, holiday celebrations, and is incorporated into pretty much all nonprint media forms. Now, I do not mean to be ahistorical and absolutist and suggest that the nature and function of music can never change. But the changes that have occurred have been for the sole purpose of profit. More importantly, since changes have occurred very unevenly, it is impossible to enforce copyright law consistently, and of course the punishment seems to far FAR outweigh the "crime."  Why should we consider akin to stealing a diamond something that has been so entwined with social life for all of human history?

3. It is sometimes claimed that “rock ‘n roll” finally erased racial boundaries – was the first melding of African-American and white American musical traditions. Setting aside the inaccuracy of the latter claim, I tend to get very annoyed by this utter nonsense. The boundaries were never erased. The recording industry, through its labeling and marketing techniques, has left them quite intact, if not further solidified them. The creation of charts, the organization of record stores, and the development of radio formats all depend on Recording Industry categories, which are wholly inflected with race and gender. The original term for “R&B” (the Industry’s euphemism for “black music”) was originally “race music.” At some point down the line it became not so “nice” to be that explicit, but the racial undertones remained. For example, in the 60s they felt the need to distinguish “blue-eyed soul” from plain old “soul,” in an effort, I suppose, to avoid racial mixing within a single category. I find it interesting that Hip-hop and R&B – two completely distinct genres – often appear together as Hip-Hop/R&B. The important thing is, black music is black music. On that note, I also found it interesting that Eminem (one of a scant few popular white rappers) was always played on my area rock stations, the sole form of hip-hop ever played by those formats. And then there is gender. Usually female musicians are confined to the sugary center of the industry – pop music. Even to the small extent that they have seeped into the domain of rock, they tend to be relegated to the singer role. No playing any complicated instruments for women! When female groups became popular in the rock ‘n roll era (and the new, edgy rock ‘n roll music was almost exclusively male at the beginning) they too were separated into their own marked category: the “girl group” genre. In an opposite move, the term “boy band” became popular to describe all-male groups who performed a style of music that was becoming increasingly “feminized.” Beyond race and gender, the music industry also reinforces class boundaries… but I feel this paragraph is long enough already.

4. The industry’s control over the circulation and availability of music is, I think, one of its most heinous crimes. Obviously they make it difficult for new and/or unconventional artists to “break through,” while saturating our airwaves with a couple of hand-picked photogenic performers.  Fortunately, the internet has been undermining that aspect of the Industry’s control, though only very weakly. The Industry also determines what gets played, and in what proportions, by pretty much every radio station in the country. Stations used to have a lot of independence. Not anymore. This has greatly reduced the variety of music being played. The same tired old stuff gets played ad nauseum. The Industry, taking a cue perhaps from the fashion industry, has tried many times to create new “scenes” and genres. It is constantly trying to fabricate and capitalize on “the next big thing.” (As much as individual artists try vainly to protest that they “just play rock ‘n roll man.”) They discover The Darkness and wet their pants over the “Hair Metal Revival” which certainly must follow (this, of course, being an example of utter failure). Above all else: they never EVER pass up an opportunity to exploit the passions of pre-teens…. The perennial cash cow.

The bottom line is, the Recording Industry was developed to monopolize and control. I’d rather it never existed.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Critical Analysis of "Art"

I think I have an arts series going on now. Expect at least one more post, about music.

"Art" is another one of those things that I consider to be merely a category rather than an independently real object (see religion). The reality is quite simple, actually: people make things and people do things. These things may be useful or not, valued or not, pleasing or not, novel or not. Probably most of these characteristics exist on a spectrum and depend, of course, on context. Hence, they are relative.

The application of the term "art" to certain crafts and activities has been entwined with other socially meaningful divisions, and a more detailed genealogy of the term than I can provide might illuminate the history of its meaning and function more fully. Loosely, though, it helped to demaracate the domains of the sacred and profane, and then to differentiate between the productions of the educated uppercrust and those of the ignorant masses (labeled, in contrast, "folklore").

Through its contemporary usage, "art" has been universalized and tied to the concept of human subjectivity (as an "individual expression"). This is no surprise, given the universalizing tendencies of "modernity" (as discourse and project), as well as the central role played by the idea of the subject in modern social formations.

There have been plenty Marxist analyses of art. For example, noting the way in which different aesthetics contribute to the rigidity of the class hierarchy. Also the way in which art patronage provides a safe outlet for capital which may not be profitably invested (the Medicis, e.g.), and thereby maintaining some systemic stability. I do think these points are extremely useful and worth keeping in mind. However, I am more interested in the way in which art functions both in the discourses and social/institutional structures constituting "modernity," as a means of objectifying individual subjectivity and notions of "culture."

Once objectified, subjectivity/culture may enter the capitalist market as a commodity (and art forms of various sorts do seem to be the primary way in which individual and collective subjectivities are commodified). The transformation of individual subjectivity into a form of "property" provides the rhetorical material with which the legal basis for monopolies (copyright law) is constructed.

Even when subjectivity objectified does not enter into any market relations, it may still have market value.

But most importantly, it is venerated as a sacred, powerful artifact. Because subjectivity is conceived as the mysterious key to human knowledge of the world and our own condition, art allows us the possibility of understanding our own history, diversity, and motivations. Paradoxically, it fulfills our almost technocratic urge to rationalize every aspect of human life, in an effort to control and improve.

As a result of both this preoccupation and the dynamics of capitalist production, "style" becomes eminently important and an object of ceaseless contemplation (generally leading one to consider how certain individuals developed new styles, or how one style emerged out of another). Usually, narratives of style take an evolutionary form and buttress the ideology of progress (even when, contradictorily, some room for arbitrariness is allowed). And of course, the succession of styles feeds into the capitalist need for constant novelty and osbolescence.

All of this to say: art is another thing that emerged as an integrated whole, though in manifold and complex ways, with the other processes and institutions associated with modernity. It is a piece of modernity, or rather, multiple pieces (as it is not a single thing): a byproduct of the concept of subjectivity; an expression of particular subjectivities; a tool of governmental/reformist impulses; a form of economic value; and a means of reinforcing particular ideas/discourses, to name a few.

No sense in trying to define it. More fun in seeing how it works in practice.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fashion: The Super Model of Late Capitalism

Finally, I get to use a bad pun! If I didn’t want my posts to be easy to find via Google searches, I would do this more often.

There have been a number of attempts in pop culture to get behind the more superfluous aspects of the fashion industry – for example, the comedy film Zoolander, and recent novel Zero History. The former, while jokingly implicating the industry in international conspiracy, also highlights the political-economic realities (namely, sweatshops) associated with it; the latter explores the relationship between the fashion industry and defense contracting. Of course there are other examples as well.

While avoiding any attempt render the industry as some sort of conspiratorial cabal, an examination of the industry along with the phenomenon of “fashion” and “trends” more generally can provide a good glimpse into the rhythms and logic of late capitalism.

By late capitalism, I mean the post-WW2 era, specifically characterized by fully automated production, “Fordism,” multinational corporations, and mass consumption. Several key problems resulted from its extraordinary successes (demonstrating the point that capitalism is based on contradictions that threaten its very existence): the prominence of sectoral (as opposed to regional) inequalities expanded the role of research and development and increased the risk of investment; mass production and consumption left fewer and fewer avenues for profitable investment (thus the turn to financialization) as well as a level of production grossly disproportional to human needs; and a high level of state spending and gradual devaluation of currency (responses to the aforementioned problems) destabilized the international monetary system.

It is also important to note that changes in the methods and organization of production in the post-WW2 era have sharply increased the turnover time of capital (and hence, accelerated the rhythm of production). As the value of capital depreciates over time, increasing its turnover time (approaching zero) is a natural tendency of capitalism.  Thus... constant bombardment with NEW! things.

And how does fashion (as an industry or a phenomenon) embody these trends?

First and foremost, of course, a basic human need (protection from the elements) is transformed into a commodity, but more importantly, a commodity which one must constantly purchase and replace. Through media and socialization, we acquire the mindset that one should have a variety of clothes (bearing no relation to the need clothing is supposed to fill). We believe with religious fervor that an outfit should never be worn more than one day in a row (even if, privately, we do not wash it between uses). Clothing begins to take on specialized functions. There are work clothes, leisure clothes, formal wear, athletic wear, summer clothes, winter clothes, etc. etc. And then, if that isn’t enough, things are constantly going out of style that so we continually feel a “need” to update our wardrobes. We see something new and have to have it. We give our old (perfectly functional) clothes to charity.

One thing that makes style so important to us is the idea, implanted into our conscious, that clothing expresses identity. What you wear says something about who you are as a person. In fact, the fashion industry has absorbed many of the people who, as a result of the capitalist division of labor, are able to devote their labor entirely to “artistic” productions, as a livelihood. Fashion has become an art form (as have other human necessities such as food and shelter). The fact that it is an “art” in some way legitimizes the attention people devote to personal style. Of course, as a type of art, clothing has also become a means of identifying and expressing class affiliation (in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, a form of cultural capital). Wealthier people will spend inordinate amounts of money on clothing, purchasing high-end brands, just to demonstrate to everyone that they can spend inordinate amounts of money on clothing.

The thing that real galls me is the seeming aversion of many celebrities to wearing a piece of clothing more than once. Must clothing really be that dispensable? Talk about senseless waste.

Another thing to pay attention to: why is it that every event, organization, vacation, any occasion whatsoever, requires a t-shirt? (College students have this down to a science.) How many people have many more t-shirts than they need or could ever wear? And somehow, t-shirts come to function as holy relics, objectifying the memories and emotions of past experiences. (People make quilts out of them!) Why something so silly and cheap as a t-shirt?

As the actual human need gets increasingly obscured, we are impelled to buy more and more. We are socialized to shop for new clothes at the beginning of every season. Clothes are not meant to last. All because demand and short production cycles are necessary for capitalist profitability.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The People United... or, Divide and Conquer

This post is based on my sentiments about reform movements, the welfare state, and the non-profit sector.

I have argued that many people who genuinely desire to do good are coopted by the system and end up wasting all of their time and energy. I find this very frustrating; it seems there is enough will to change the system, but everyone is directing their efforts in different (and ineffective) directions.

In general, I believe changes made within the system (increasing minimum wage, improving funding for education, giving money and loans to the impoverished, legalizing gay marriage, raising taxes, cutting taxes, improving healthcare coverage, and so on) are merely cosmetic and fail to address the underlying issues, and therefore are necessarily of limited scope, both in terms of breadth and duration. These types of reforms only endorse and pereptuate an unjust system and lay the groundwork for future hardships and challenges faced by the oppressed.

What is fundamentally at issue is NOT money, or technology, or policy. The heart of the issue is relationships. Our global society is based on relations of exploitation - including, but not limited to, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and slavery. In fact, capitalism is impossible without some form of slavery, whether characterized as free labor or lack of self-determination. Although slavery has legally been abolished, capitalists have devised other means of obtaining free labor - internships and prison labor are a couple of examples. Some companies, like Walmart, have been accused of simply not paying their employees for all hours worked.

But believe it or not, the "dependency" form of slavery is both more widespread and more troubling. Most of the Third World has been forced into dependency relationships with the industrial powers. They are barely able to exert control over their own affairs. Many Third World citizens do not have any choice about what to produce or how to make their living. Their livelihood is determined by an international agenda. Sweatshops, plantations, and mines abound. Recent outrage over the Foxconn expose proves my point about the narrow scope of the reform attitude. People acted like this was the only place in the world where these conditions existed. They treated it as a problem of a single corporation, when it is the nature of our entire manufacturing system. And they pressed for some minor changes within Foxconn, ultimately leaving those workers on the assembly line and everyone else in the world out in the cold.

Clearly some of these changes make some difference in some people's lives. But my question is this. What if ALL of the time and energy expended in calling for and implementing these reforms, all of the people who belong to non-profits, NGOs, transnational organizations, and grassroots campaigns, came together and united for a single cause. What if everyone challenged the system itself? If all efforts were directed at ending this exploitative system... could it actually be transformed?

The image that comes to my mind is slaves on a plantation, petitioning to be allotted 300 more calories per day, rather than revolting or escaping to freedom.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Catholics and Contraception

I have been lagging with my posts lately, due to other commitments, so I am kind of forcing myself to write something. It seems like the contraception debate has been the biggest hot button issue lately, and while I have already written a bit about this, I may as well address it again.

I have argued that religious institutions can be a force for great good as well as harm. The Catholic Church has its share of blemishes, but in parts of the Third World, particularly in Latin America, it has been a significant champion of the poor and oppressed. Its anti-birth control stance has actually allowed the Church to fight against eugenicist projects (see discussion here about eugenics and contraception), among other things. So I think it is unfair to unequivocally condemn the Catholic Church for this stance.

In the case at hand (requiring coverage of contraception), however, I don’t know if contraception is really the issue. At first blush, it seems like the Catholic Church is being kind of silly. Hormonal birth control has medical uses entirely independent of contraception, to the extent that the name “birth control pills” is a misnomer. [On a side note, I don’t entirely understand the Catholic Church’s position on birth control. If the reasoning is that sex should only be for reproduction and not for recreation, then why is the “rhythm method” acceptable? It is a (fairly ineffective) means of having sex without conceiving. It seems there is some inconsistency there. But I digress.]

I came across an article, which I am too lazy to find again and link to, written by a Catholic who argued that what is at stake is the nature of liberal society itself. This gets to the heart of the issue. The legislation requiring coverage of contraceptives, and the maelstrom surrounding it, demonstrates once again the tenuousness of boundaries created between “politics” and “religion.” (See my previous discussion here.) It is liberal/secular doctrine that religion should be confined to the private life of the individual, leaving the public sphere free for a non-religious civil society. Of course, this set-up was historically buttressed by defining religion as a set of beliefs, and therefore a matter of individual conscious rather than public morality.

The creation of categories and boundaries is always strategic, and never conforms exactly to reality. Thus “religion” and “politics” as we know them do not exist in reality. What we actually have are competing systems of morality/interpretation/practice. Catholics and other religious voices are correct when they insist that legally confining religion to the individual conscious is, in fact, a victory for liberal/secular society. When they say that their religion is more than a set of beliefs – also a code of morality, a set of real practices, and a mode of organizing society – they are being truthful.

For this reason, when I watch the debates, I don’t really “feel” anything at all or “choose sides” (aside from noting the nonsensicalness of the Catholic Church’s outrage in this particular case). I just sit back and watch another instance of the inherent conflict built into the modern social structure.

**I want to add an addendum to this post that I actually wrote a number of days ago.  I don't know if the terrain has shifted or I am kind of out of touch with the national conversation, but it has recently come to my attention that the terms of debate now include the claim, advanced by conservative pundits of all Christian stripes, that this bill would, in effect, be forcing citizens to pay for women to have sex.  Once again, side-stepping the urge for an immediate emotional reaction and outrage at the lack of logic employed, one must question why they are reacting in this way.  I propose it arises from the capitalist framework for understanding health, in which health is always seen as an individual problem and a matter of personal responsibility.  People should not be spared the consequences of their decision to have sex.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Syrian Plot?

I had written a new post yesterday and then forgot to email it to myself, thus trapping it on my work computer until Monday.  In the meantime, I wanted to link to an article I just read.  I have already speculated about whether the CIA and other forces are behind the Syrian uprising.  This article provides some fairly compelling evidence that it is, indeed, the case.