Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Capitalism and the War On Drugs

I just read this article, and it got me thinking again about law, drugs, capitalism.  Have I talked about drugs yet?

There is so much more that can be said about this topic than I could ever write. I know I am biting off more than I can chew. And really, the whole thing is still something that I'm trying to make sense of. This post, then, mostly revolves around some unanswered questions.

The biggest mystery is WHY any drugs are illegal. The fact that prohibition is totally ineffective and promotes the formation of black markets and organized crime leads one to believe that social welfare is not the primary objective, else this strategy would have been rejected (like it was in the case of alcohol). Then, of course, there is the fact that some drugs (e.g. marijuana) are relatively harmless compared to others. There does not seem to be any logic undergirding this system.

In opposition to the idealistic "social welfare" explanation of drug policy, there are a number of conspiratorial explanations.

1. Targeted enforcement of users allows for the imprisonment and control of certain populations (e.g. poor, young African Americans)

2. The formation of black markets and crime rings creates markets for arms manufacturers

3. The formation of black markets allows for redistribution of wealth (further drains money from the poor - the population that is most associated with drug use); furthermore, accumulated capital from the drug trade exists "outside" of the system and leads to the formation of spaces free from laws of taxation, etc.

In regard, particularly, to number 3, it is important to remember that law is not a set of rules but a constitutive practice of modern social formations. The act of making something "illegal" does not put it "out of bounds." Notions of legality/illegality are, rather, means of creating different spheres of action which are required to maintain the inequalities that fuel capitalist accumulation.

All three of the above theories are plausible and to some extent supported by evidence. However, it seems unlikely that any one of the three in itself could be held entirely responsible the whole global War On Drugs, nor is it particularly easy to see how they might fit together (even including an actual concern for social welfare, which is at least slightly plausible as well).

Any ideas?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Is The Center Always Better?

Despite the polarization and passion involved in politics, no one directs their rage at the Center. If you can establish yourself as a moderate, you are pretty safe. No, more than safe: moderates usually command the most respect and wear it as a badge of honor. I have already discussed the discurve association between "radical" and "irrational"; there is, likewise, a parallel association frequently made between "moderate" and "rational." Moderates are more reasonable because they avoid the simplicity of the extremes and recognize contingencies on both sides.

That's not how I see things.

I have joked to friends that moderates are people who are too lazy to apply a consistent set of principles, or follow them to their logical conclusions. Now, setting aside my critique of the concept of the political spectrum, I think it is fair to say that the extremes are more ideologically "pure" than the Center. It could logically follow that ideological purity (or consistency) results in simplistic thinking (and from that, that the Center is more complex). But I think there is something more sinister going on in the Center.

Those who occupy the Center do not reject any of the ideologies embedded in the current social structure (neoliberal ideology, social contract ideology, etc.). In fact, dominant ideologies find fertile ground in the discourse of the Center. Thus, it cannot be said that the Center eschews the simplicity of ideology. Rather, the Center represents what is manifestly exigent at any moment, regardless of ideology (even when strategically employing it). It is the arena in which various forces of dominance struggle to satisfy their most immediate needs. It is, indeed, a place of comprimise - but comprimise among the base interests of the most powerful members of society. For that reason the Center can more easily command the network of state and non-state institutional resources, and control the messaging that is propogated as "public discourse" (making it seem more widely accepted and pragmatic).

It is Centrist parties, politcians, and policies that most effectively support global structures of domination. Both the Right and Left tend toward a degree of isolationism/protectionism that is obstructive of global networks. And both are often wary of state and transnational authority. This is what the Right and Left have in common: both are more likely to support system-threatening changes. It is in this way they are more "radical" (and that is also by virtue of their very definition).

One need only look at the Greek elections for a demonstration of this point. It is the Centrist parties that support the status quo as regards economic issues: essentially, acquiescence to the interstate system. Now, although I do not think the proposals of the Left and Right (which are essentially the same on this front) fundamentally challenge the system, both propose actions which are at least somewhat contrary to more dominant European interests.

The Center appears the most rational only because it is the least threatening to those who determine what rational is.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Neoliberal Falsehoods

I enjoy reading media from other parts of the world, if only because it generally presents a wider variety of perspectives than my own regional alternatives.  I wish it were easier in the West for people not drinking the neoliberal kool-aid to reach a general audience.  But I will just have to satisfy myself with the fact that people like this Namibian can.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Book Review: Fordlandia

...The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

This account of Henry Ford’s ill-fated Amazonian rubber plantation also provides some history of the rubber and auto industries as well as the life and work of Henry Ford himself. I enjoyed it, mainly because I thought it was well-written and just plain interesting. Sometimes it’s nice to have a break from philosophical gymnastics and pedantic intellectualism, to just enjoy a story.

Yet the story was not without a point. The author, Greg Grandin, clearly emphasized the impossibility of controlling the negative effects of capitalism and the naivety of technocratic idealism. Henry Ford served as a symbol of the Ideology of Progress, the hope that science and technology can perfect society.

In fact, from a philosophical standpoint, what I found most interesting about the book was the way it illustrated the relationship between capitalism and government (the impulse to rationally control society). Henry Ford embodied these two forces better than anyone else. As such, he serves as a good entry point for an examination of the ways in which these phenomena both mutually reinforce and undercut each other, how they can spring from disparate ideals yet still be manipulated by the same dominant groups.

Common ways of construing the relationship between capitalism and government are simplistic. The two are seen only as opposing forces. Government interferes with capitalism; such interference may be viewed as beneficial, to the extent that one acknowledges any shortcomings of capitalism. To this end, capitalism and government are seen as the province of independent entities, the latter generally of the state.

I have already argued that government originates and extends beyond the state, in contrast to the view that the two are synonymous. On the other hand, it is also overly reductive to assume that capitalism and government work seamlessly together, managed by an elite conspiratorial cabal. A capitalist may be interested in social engineering, but may also come into conflict with the state, transnational organizations, nonprofits, community groups, and other capitalists, any of which may also be interested in the same governmental projects.

Henry Ford was motivated by profit. No doubt. Yet he was also an idealist, who sometimes let his drive for profit take a backseat to his quest for a better society. Unlike the stereotypical capitalist, Ford was interested in conservation, cared about the lifestyle and wellbeing of his employees, and vehemently opposed war. He expended a considerable amount of money developing a "sociology department" (which kept tabs on the habits of his employees) as well as providing quality healthcare, and in some cases (for example, Fordlandia) housing and meals. Ford bought into the promises of the Ideology of Progress - that technology could liberate humans from hard labor and dependence on the whims of nature; that capitalism could effectively regulate the distribution of resources and labor; that wage labor could build moral character and generate prosperity; that modernization could have a "civilizing" effect around the globe. Thus, Henry Ford was compelled to act in certain ways purely due to his belief that people should be healthy, productive, and morally upright. He was interested in people in their own right, and not just as forms of capital.

Yet he also opposed projects of other organizations that were motivated by the same concerns. He fought against state intervention (even when it mimicked his own projects) and despised FDR's New Deal programs. He pioneered the Five Dollar Day (a high wage at the time) and provisioned health care, but he was ruthless in his treatment of unions.

There is, I think, a better way of understanding the complex relationship between capitalism and government. It is true that individual capitalists (and others in positions of dominance) are able to wield disproportionate control over the distrinbution of resources, organization of production, and other aspects of social reality, even if they are only able to do so by virtue of the existing social structure, based as it is on inequality. However, one must not assume that they are all working together, or that there is some master plan. Of course everyone looks after their own self-interest. This necessarily leads capitalists into conflict with each other, because every individual succeeds at the expense of many of the others.

Yet, there are some general conditions which are necessary for the capitalist system to function, and this forms a base of shared interests. The state is one important arena in which shared interests are negotiated and protected. Even here, though, there is not total coordination among the members of the supposed capitalist "class." Many cannot connect all the dots and are unaware of the necessity of these general conditions - possibly because their understanding is distorted by ideology - while some are so concerned with short-term personal gain that the long-term prospects of the system itself are of no consequence to them. It is this fact, more than any other, that accounts for "politics" (as opposed to, say, the harmonious coordination and brainwash-based consent of the world of 1984).

But I must take better account of ideology in this scenario. It is true that ideology derives from and often works to support the system (and in that way furthers capitalist aims). It is also true that it may be strategically employed in a disingenous way. Yet it is not just a "lie" used to brainwash the masses (once again, a la 1984). Ideology fundamentally shapes the consciousness of many, many people from all levels of the social hierarchy. As such, when ideology is embraced by capitalists, it may hinder an awareness of what is really necessary for the system to function, and it may even cause a capitalist to knowingly act contrary to the profit motive. Henry Ford demonstrates both of these cases. For example, he did not realize that his refusal to cooperate with unions would result in dramatically increased worker unrest. It was not until a series of violent episodes and the success of a sit-down strike that he realized the necessity of cooperation as a general condition. And Fordlandia is the ultimate example of ideology before profit. Fordlandia was a drain on Ford's resources, and yet he continued to invest in the operation, with the rationale that it was a "civilizing mission."

Ideology, like profit, represents both shared and conflicting interests among the capitalist class. Most accept the set of ideologies associated with modernity (as these represent a dominant mode of thought overall). At the same time, some may emphasize different aspects over others, or hold different opinions regarding how best to achieve these ideals.

It may be said, given all of the above discussion, that the "forces of dominance" in our world are less individual people, and more the complete assemblage of social artifacts (social structure, physical infrastructure, ideas, discourses, modes of communication etc.) that has accrued throughout the entire human history of production and interaction. We are really, in a sense, slaves to our own creations - and the "our" here includes our ancestors.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Democracy Doesn't Create Wealth

And... now for part three of the "I Told You So" series.

As I was listening to a report this morning about the continued economic woes (e.g. high unemployment) in Tunisia, despite the new democratically elected government, I was reminded of a post I wrote about dictatorships and democracy, in which I argued that dictatorships are a result of poverty rather than a cause.  I insisted that democracy is nothing more than a discursive tool employed by those who are wealthy enough to erect the requisite physical and ideological infrastructure to sustain its illusion.  And I predicted that supposed democratization in the MENA region would not bring about prosperity, so long as the capitalist system remained in place.

I told you so.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Capitalism Caused the European Debt Crisis

This post is the second in a two-part series of "I Told You So."  Well, that's not really accurate.  More like, I have been arguing against some people who take what I perceive to be more dominant points of view, and I have recently seen a number of articles come out which undermine their positions.

In this case, it is the economic debacle of Europe.  For some time now, I have mostly heard people admonishing the carelessness and irresponsibility of Greece, Spain, et al., while praising the success of the  Germans.  Why should Germany be punished for other countries' mistakes?  But, no matter.  Germany is an unbeatable machine.  Germany has discovered the key to everlasting economic dominance.   And so on.

Part of my argument against this sentiment (I will get to the other part later) is that Germany's economy is entirely dependent on exports, and thus the markets (i.e. "reckless spending") in eastern and southern Europe.  A bail out would not be a punishment for Germany, then, it would be a lifeline.

And now, such an oppositional point of view has been gaining some ground in Europe, and has been championed by some reputable figures.  They even go so far as to allege that Germany purposely set the whole system up to function as it did (not realizing, of course, how it would all pan out) because it was economically beneficial to expand its markets in Europe.  I wonder how much traction these claims will get.  Will Germany be able to maintain its Good Guy status?

As interesting as that dynamic is, there is still the other half to my argument, which I doubt will ever be raised outside of the fringes.  You cannot place blame for an economic crisis on any individual country or industry.  Crisis is systemic.  Do people really think it's a coincidence that the crisis in Europe occurred around the same time as the "downturn" in the U.S., and the slowdowns in other parts of the world?  The system itself caused the crisis.

Overproduction:  investment in the capacity to produce more than what is profitable.  I'm becoming a broken record, but then again, only I read all my posts.  The global economy has been bogged down by overproduction since the late 1960s.  All that has occurred since then is a whole series of bubbles in different parts of the world, and a three-way seesaw game among the U.S., Germany, and Japan (who was pretty much left in the dust after the 80s).  Every industrial power is dependent on exports (including now China), and all are desperately scrambling to create markets.  Deficit spending is encouraged in different times and places to create more demand, which never seems to match the excessive supply.

It's not Germany's fault, it's not Greece or Spain's fault.  But then again, everyone who has participated in and helped to perpetuate the capitalist system is really to blame.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

China's Economic Weakness

I love it when my wild ideas are lent some credibility (except, of course, for the fact that my wild ideas often revolve around forecasts of impending doom).  For example, I have been arguing for quite some time now that China's economy is a house of cards, and that is it is not necessarily poised to become the next world superpower.  For those who cared to look, there has been plenty of evidence to back my claim up (and obviously "my"  argument has been made by others).  Recently, however, the media has suddenly created a frenzy over China's slowing economic growth.  Shock!  Horrors! ...USA!  USA!

Once again, the economy is global.  The whole system has been stagnant for decades.  No one, not even China, can escape that fact.