Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy

I probably would not have paid attention to this fad if someone had not explained to me the premise of the books and encouraged me to read them. The big question for me, of course, was what will these books have to say about poverty and hunger? Will they contribute anything useful to the public conscious?

Throughout the first book and part of the second, I was pleased. It was a typical dystopian set-up, but with some more contemporary considerations given to reality tv, the entertainment industry, and celebrity, along with a few interesting connections between ancient Rome and the present (e.g. the practice of throwing up between courses and bulimia in the present day). What I liked most, however, was the very explicit connection between wealth and poverty: the Capitol citizens were wealthy only on account of the fact that everyone else was exploited. The people in the districts were not hungry because they were lazy or unenlightened, but rather because production was organized by and for the benefit of a wealthy elite. In the same vein, I really appreciated the way in which the technological advancement of the Capitol was juxtaposed to the more “traditional” lifestyles in the districts. “Development” is always uneven and it is more the product of exploitative relationships than a stage of cultural evolution. Finally, I was happy that the trilogy explored the means by which violence is ideologically justified in the political sphere and then glorified by the entertainment industry.

Of course, at this point there were still some things that troubled me. Most importantly, the fact that power seemed to be concentrated in the hands of a single figure: President Snow.

As I progressed through the rest of the trilogy, those qualms became more pronounced. President Snow was behind everything and killing him was the key to changing the social order. Yet even here, I appreciated the fact that Collins considered the way in which revolutionary movements may replicate the structures they seek to overthrow; still, though, it was a single figure, Coin, who was the problem.

I liked the fact that Collins raised important questions concerning the sacrifices one must make to enact change and the necessity of violence to achieve those ends. She illustrated how easy it is to forget that the “enemy” is also a father/mother/sister/friend... But then it wasn’t clear at the end of the last book whether any of the violence was, in the end, justified. Was life better in the districts? Would it have been better if the rebels had not waged a war, if they had not caused that avalanche, if Beetee had not designed those weapons? Could there have been any other way to free themselves from Snow’s rule?

Not that I have a problem with a story being open-ended. However, if the districts were, in fact, in a considerably better condition (which I do think Collins implies), it would have been nice for her to reflect on whether the same results could have been achieved through non-violent means, since she has spent the entire book probing and problematizing the use of violence. If you are going to question violence, then you should also examine alternatives to violence.

Furthermore, while I do think a certain amount of violence was necessary for Collins to illustrate the disparity between its effects on a person in the “front lines” and the audience reactions engendered by political propaganda and the entertainment industry, she went beyond the point of necessity. She did not use graphic violence sparingly. The violence became gratuitous (really, a second Hunger Games?). I remember being disgusted by the novel A Clockwork Orange and then subsequently reading that Anthony Burgess admitted to making the book so violent partially because he took some pleasure in writing the violence. Like A Clockwork Orange, The Hunger Games trilogy often feels like violence purely for the sake of violence.

Collins also inadequately addresses the question of the conditions that cause the new structures to replicate the old. Was it simply the fact that Coin was self-interested from the beginning? Was the death of Coin all that it took to build a more just world order? Of course, this is all compounded by the fact that Collins views power as a characteristic possessed by an individual, rather than an institutional, structural feature. For example, the technology and lifestyles of the Capitol were previously enabled via exploitation of the districts. Yet, conspicuously absent from the books were the industrialists, CEOs, financiers, and middlemen who make such an arrangement possible. What was their role in the new world? Was having a representative in the government enough to protect the districts from exploitation? Were any sacrifices made in the realm of technology in order to ensure a more equitable social order?

Without any attention to these issues, the take-away from the trilogy becomes the fact that, while horrific, violence actually worked to transform society. A couple of key deaths and, boom, life is better. Simple as that.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Marketing: Instrument of Social Control

Marketing is the key to understanding modern power relations. (To view previous posts about the nature of power, click here and here, for starters.) To summarize: power is a property of relationships, not an entity that can be possessed by an individual, and it is a property of all relationships, not concentrated in or originating from any single institution, such as a state. It is characterized by an ability to act on other people’s actions, for the purpose of repressing or promoting behaviors, and may be distinguished from total domination in that both parties must be free to act. In the modern world, power often works by penetrating consciousness and creating/shaping identities. The old maxim that “knowledge is power” is not only true because knowledge affects one’s ability to act, but also because the production of knowledge about certain populations simultaneously defines who they are.

One of the most salient domains in which identities are created, shaped, and cemented is marketing. We are now bombarded by advertisements. They absolutely saturate our consciousness. On the radio, on television, plastered all over buses and buildings, in our inboxes, on the internet.... the number of advertisements that we encounter on a daily basis is unfathomable. Due to the very extent of its presence in our consciousness, marketing possesses an unparalleled capacity to affect that conscious.

I have learned quite a bit about marketing from my job. It is no secret that the most fundamental principle of marketing is that its end goal is to manipulate people’s behavior. It is not to provide information about a product. For example, an email campaign will be considered successful if it compels people to click on a link; it need not include any information about what is being promoted. The science of marketing is the art of inducing behaviors.

One of the basic ways that this is achieved is through the creation and reinforcement of particular identities. It is more than just “knowing your audience.” Marketing creates the audience. Generally, to achieve maximum success, the market is broken into a number of segments that align with categories of race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. Then, the marketers determine what their targeted segment desires, in order that they can use those desires to manipulate behavior. (In this sense, one can view political campaigning as a subset of marketing.)

However, marketers don’t merely tap into the pre-existing desires of clearly defined, homogenous groups. Through the use of particular images and the placement of ads in particular contexts, new associations are made and old associations are reinforced. It is these associations themselves that define both the categories and the desires simultaneously.  For example, a whole network of interlinked cultural artifacts marks sports as a masculine domain; the commercials that a man sees during a game will both reinforce the idea that "men" (aged 20-40?) are the primary audience, while also elaborating the behaviors and desires that typify masculinity (drinking beer, objectifying women, etc.)

Then there is the less visible side of marketing – the one most intimately involved in the production of knowledge. This is the side of marketing that has been receiving the most critical attention lately, and the side that has shed light on the intersections of technology and privacy in the modern world. Obviously I am referring to the collection, sharing, and selling of personal data. This is governmentality extraordinaire (if only Michele Foucault were alive to witness the development of trends of which his later work portended). Data. Data is the lifeblood of modern power relations. The technological means of culling personal data have become outright Orwellian. Every little move you make: every time you use your cell phone or your credit card or do anything on the internet, information is being recorded about your location and actions. Of course, what Orwell could not predict (see my post about 1984) was that such surveillance does not have to be conducted by a state. We have been too busy fearing the government to realize who/what is really capable of infringing on our privacy.

We tend to think of marketing as a relatively benign practice. Or, at worst, perhaps slightly dishonest and maybe promoting unhealthy behaviors. Yet, the most insidious aspect of marketing is its omnipresence and its hegemony in the most intimate areas of our lives. It surveys (often in the other sense as well), records, and tracks. It concerns itself with our habits and desires. It shapes identities. It monitors what we do in order to tell us who we are and what we want (in order to influence what we do).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Progress or Dystopia, Part 4

Equal Rights

The last main claim in support of progress is that modern society is so much more tolerant and progressive than “traditional” societies. We ended slavery. We ended Jim Crow. Women entered the workforce. Gays can serve in the military. Let’s pat ourselves on the back.

I addressed some of these claims in my post about issue based change versus systemic change. If you think the U.S. has eradicated its racial caste system, read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. If you think modern, industrial societies have successfully dealt with racism, read any comment thread that exists anywhere on the internet. If you think women are liberated, look at statistics concerning rape and eating disorders, examine the gendered division of labor in any industry or organization, and look at the images of women promulgated by the entertainment industry. If you think America (or any other industrial society) is a melting pot, pay attention to discussions (and I use that word lightly) about immigration. You do not need to look hard to find hateful language directed at any particular group of people. In fact, the internet has made it easier to disseminate this vitriol.

The fact of the matter is, all of the social/economic/political processes that demand structured inequality remain in place. It is important to note that the ideological basis of these divisions and prejudices are completely modern:

-The concept of “race” developed in the Enlightenment era as a means of creating divisions among the population of people oppressed by the nascent capitalist system. It has continued to function as a mechanism for segregating interests and obtaining free or cheap labor.

-The relegation of women’s work to the domestic sphere was a product of the new division of labor that emerged when production moved outside of the home and into the factory. Furthermore, the absorption of women into the post-WW2 labor force is a reflection of the need for cheap labor, an expanded labor force and a new market for manufactured goods (dishwashers! washing machines! mass-produced clothes!). The combination of these two forces (domestic responsibility and careers outside the home) has only served to double the burden that women must bear. Now women are expected to do it all.

-Michel Foucault argued that the idea of “homosexuality” (even more, sexuality in general) did not arise until the late 19th century, and has served to make sexual activities definitive of a person’s entire identity and consciousness as a human being. Some scholars have provided evidence that the creation of “homosexuality” as a pathological mode of being was born out of eugenicist fears that white reproduction was not occurring at a healthy rate. It should never be forgotten that “homosexuality” was a scientific/medical concept before it entered popular discourse.

-It can be just as convincingly argued that fears/abhorrence of immigrants, terrorists, Muslims, and the like, are byproducts of colonialism and nation-building, especially the creation of immutable state boundaries, the ideals of ethnically “pure” states, and all the various forms of neocolonialism that produce backlash against the modern world order.

The prejudices that modernity, in all of its enlightened glory, is supposedly ameliorating are the very prejudices created by modernity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Progress or Dystopia, Part 3


Then there is the argument that, whatever flaws our current system may have, at least we are freeing ourselves from the shackles of tradition and tyranny. Democracy is spreading around the world. Surely, no one can deny that the formation of modern democracy is a marker of human progress.

What’s really at work here is another case of “loaded words.” Sometimes, using particular terminology may hinder a thorough reflection on the realities of a situation. It is clear, if one looks beyond the fa├žade of elections and representatives, that the only form of rule that exists is oligarchy. The average citizen in this modern world, no matter to which country she or he belongs, does not have any say whatsoever in how society is organized or how it functions.

It’s a wonder that a country like the U.S. can even sustain the illusion of any sort of real participation. People can choose between two candidates that have been pre-selected for them by party elites and corporate donors, and with whom they may have very little in common. People in the U.S. often lament that fact that neither candidate really represents their views or talks about the things they feel are important. Yet, for some reason this does not give anyone pause about the U.S.’s status as a democracy, or to rethink the idea of democracy in any critical way. How is it empowering to go into a high school gym every few years and bubble in the name of someone who doesn’t really represent your views? What kind of “voice” is that really?

Then, there is the matter of campaign rhetoric versus reality. Stated views – in fact, the entire structured opposition between (or among) the parties – often have little to do with actual policy. I have presented evidence on numerous occasions of the continuity between presidential administrations in the U.S., regardless of political party. It does not matter whether a Republican or Democrat is in office. And it does not matter what any candidate’s or party’s official views are; those views bear very little resemblance to what actually happens. (The fact that a Republican governor – and now presidential candidate – enacted such a similar healthcare plan to the current Democratic president, despite all of the polarized rhetoric that has come to characterize the issue, only goes to show that the rhetoric itself is more for show than anything else.)

In fact, the people who are elected into office are largely irrelevant. All of them merely exist to sustain an illusion of representative democracy, and, in actual fact, always carry out the agenda of the global elite. The people who pull the strings and call the shots do not change and are not affected by elections. Elections are scripted, flashy and designed to distract people from what is really going on before their own eyes.

As I have argued before, the seeming lack of democracy in other countries is merely a result of poverty, with its concomitant difficulties in sustaining the necessary ideological infrastructure.  Like technology, the enjoyment of civil rights tends to be limited mostly to the well-to-do (globally speaking).  It is a benefit that exists only by virtue of a system that simultaneously deprives others of many comforts and securities.  Of course, for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in such conditions, it is nice to be able to voice our opinions without fear of retribution.  The other side of that coin is, the ideological infrastructure that makes this condition possible also ensures that we live in ignorance.  The question is then, is it better to know the truth and not be able to say it with impunity, or to be completely in the dark, but still able to say whatever you want?  I would also argue that "freedom of speech" is honored only so long as it is not threatening.  Julian Assange can tell you that.  And, of course, modern democracies always have recourse to "emergency powers" (one benefit of being at war) and means of legalizing all manner of abrogations of supposedly guaranteed constitutional rights.  If you live in the U.S., for example, you can be surveilled in any number of ways, detained without any probable suspicion, and denied rights of due process.  Just ask Muslims.  Or black men.

A constitution does not guarantee that people will be treated without prejudice, or that their privacy will be respected.

And voting does not change who is in power. It does not alter the basic structure and functioning of society. It only serves to legitimate the system. No one has any more voice in today’s society than they would have had at any other time in history. The only difference is that we are now less likely to see what is really going on, and more likely to continue in our delusions that we, the people, have the power.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Progress or Dystopia, Part 2


Another common argument supporting the idea of progress is that modern technology has made life so much more efficient and comfortable. We are saved from so much time-consuming, draining toil. We can produce so much and never have to wait long for anything. Who wouldn’t agree that technology has made our lives better?

I think the big consideration here is, it depends on who the “we” is. For many Americans, yes, life is undoubtedly better. However, we must ask ourselves, are “we” all that matter? What about those other people? The people who have to work in factories, in mines, on plantations. The people who don’t get days off and don’t get paid enough to stop working anyway. The people who have to perform the same menial assembly line tasks over and over and over. The people who live in areas torn apart by conflict, drug and human trafficking, and poverty. The people who don’t have enough to eat. Are all of these people (representing a sizeable portion of the entire world’s population) really better off than they would be, for example, living in a small community, doing farm work for their own subsistence and supplementing their needs with crafts and trade?

Poverty and inequality are fairly universal across time and space. But a system in which most of the people on this planet have no choice about how to sustain themselves, and are forced to perform dehumanizing labor, and do not have enough to feed themselves and their families on a regular basis.... that is an entirely new phenomenon. There is a big difference between the limited poverty that results from interpersonal relations or environmental conditions (for which one can plan and adapt) and poverty on an unprecedentedly large scale that is necessitated by the functioning of a global system, over which most people have no control. There is a significant difference between a person’s role being determined by a small community with mutually shared interests (a community which the person is free to leave) and a person’s livelihood being completely determined on a regional basis by a global elite with which most people do not have any personal contact or relationship (also making it impossible for anyone to “escape” the system of control).

Plus, even for those segments of the population that get to enjoy all of the benefits of modern technology, it is still a double-edged sword. We get convenience, efficiency, and comfort on the one hand. (Though comfort is relative.) But we also get advanced weaponry, environmental degradation, dehumanizing productive processes (and alienation), materialism (people who devote their entire lives to such ridiculous, superficial considerations as what colors are “in” this season), sophisticated mechanisms of control and information-gathering (your bank knows more about you than you realize), weakened communal bonds (in favor of more plentiful and scattered long-distance relationships), fewer choices (more and more products and services are falling into the hands of a few mega-conglomerates), and less enriching forms of relaxation and entertainment. Since it is really a balance of superficial pleasures and grave, wide-reaching destruction, I would say the scale might tip against technology.

Of course, my position cannot be reduced to simple opposition to technology. I am suggesting that we might think more deeply about the benefits and harms of technology. I am contending that the image of “progress” as it relates to technology is too distorted. It is possible, if the current world order could be broken, and something more humane were to take its place, there could be positive uses for technology. We would just have to think very carefully about all of the potential consequences.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Progress or Dystopia?

[Note:  I just decided to break this subject into multiple posts, but I am too lazy to change my intro.]

I have already characterized the notion of progress as the central component of an ideology that is strategically used to justify the modern social order. If we believe that “things may not be perfect, but it is better than anything else,” and “at least things are better than they were in the past,” how motivated are we going to be to rock the boat?

What I want to do now is really provide a detailed challenge to the idea of social progress. In fact, I would argue quite earnestly that what we have now is the worst of all possible worlds. I believe that we live in a dystopia, and that in many ways things were better in the past. I do not mean to romanticize or idealize the past. Certainly I do not think things have ever been perfect. However, I do believe that inequality and oppression have spiraling out of control, and there is some value in questioning the current social order.

Let’s start with health. One of the most common claims in the favor of modernity is that we have eradicated all sorts of diseases and extended the human lifespan. The former contention is misleading, and while the latter is true, it is uncritically reflected upon. Undoubtedly there are many diseases that we no longer have to worry about. No Polio. No Bubonic Plague. Yet, there are new diseases (e.g. AIDS), some of which have been directly caused by our cherished “medical advances” (e.g. MERSA). New diseases will continue to evolve and thwart human progress. Then, there are those diseases that are on the rise, some, once again, as a result of modernity (like Diabetes). Modernity creates as many problems as it solves.

Well, what about that lengthened human lifespan, then? There are two parts to the counter-argument. First, medical advances have not eliminated the occurrence of early demise.  There are many opportunities offered by modernity for untimely, tragic (sometimes gory) death: advanced weaponry, automobiles (the number of deaths caused every year from car accidents should never be discounted), industrial accidents, and the type of alienation that results in suicide and mass-shootings, just to name a few. In fact, one could even argue that, to the extent that we have heightened the psychological discomfort surrounding certain kinds of death (especially as a long life becomes normalized), these untimely deaths are a greater source of suffering and loss than they were in the past.

Second, one must question the nature of the extended portion of a typical lifespan. Do those extra years really bring extra joy and personal fulfillment? Having seen way too many old people with severe loss of mental functioning (and that is not to mention the physical decline!), I would say “no.” Coupling the extended lifespan with the atomization of social life engendered by modern social formations, we have created a whole segment of the population that feels unneeded and irrelevant, with no essential purpose to their lives, and with little ability to support themselves in a world with high costs of living and little social supports. Furthermore, even if medical treatments can keep people alive, they can do nothing to stop the inevitable deterioration of mind and body. The one grandparent of mine whose final years I did not find utterly depressing and pathetic was the one who died before he reached 80. Old age is not something that I desire; it is something I fear.

How about our advanced understanding of the human body?  Surely that will lead to additional cures and a means of halting mental and physical degradation, right?  I am not too sure about how advanced anyone's understanding is.  I have already mentioned this in my series on health.  However, having long term physical injury was enough to convince me that no doctor had any idea how my body worked.  I saw a range of professionals and they disagreed about the most fundamental things... and they all turned out to be wrong in important ways.  The more deeply you are involved in the profession, the more apparent are the gaps in understanding.  For example, so many drugs are developed by trial-and-error (it just happened to work for some reason) and not due to any understanding of the condition itself or the mechanism of the treatment.  The image of progress in knowledge and understanding is another strategically deployed illusion of modernity.

Furthermore, one must not completely discount the types of treatments used before or outside the bounds of modern medicine.  Recently I went with a pharmacist friend of mind to an apothecary museum.  Many of the visitors laughed at the antiquated treatments, but my friend pointed out how many of them are still used today.  Moreover, pharmaceutical companies are scouring the globe and ripping off indigenous populations in an attempt to monopolize and commodify this supposedly "primitive" knowledge of plants and herbs.

Now, I am not staying that modern medicine is completely without basis, or that it has offered us nothing.  I am merely pointing out that the image of enlightenment and progress associated with its practices is quite a bit overstated.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Revolution or Delinking?

My general purpose with the blog has been to provoke thought about questions that are rarely considered. I may make suggestions or undermine particular assumptions, but that does not mean that I feel like I have all the answers. I am just tired of the usual discussions; I want to think about the foundations of our social structure and imagine other possibilities. With that in mind, I try to tackle some common Marxist and reformist assumptions in this post without necessarily coming to any definite conclusions (regardless of the tone I take).

Moving on from the dilemma of policy change versus systemic transformation, I would like to consider the mechanism and possibilities for social change in greater detail. Following directly from reform v. transformation, one the of the most significant questions debated by those on Left is whether or not it is worthwhile to attempt change through political processes. Some argue that gradual reforms at the level of policy are more feasible than abrupt, large-scale transformations. If we ignore politics, they contend, we are doomed to failure. The other camp (with whom I tend to agree) replies that political change is merely cosmetic and does nothing to change the basic social order. Other avenues will be opened to maintain inequality and oppression when one pathway is blocked. And whatever “progress” is achieved is generally insignificant in the grand scheme of things (like re-wallpapering your house when it is structurally unsound and filled with asbestos). Trying to change the world through political processes is like trying to hold the dam with your finger.

However, I think the former group raises an important point when they insist that grand, sweeping revolution is not as feasible. If one examines history, it is clear that the only revolution which had any lasting and systemic impact was the bourgeois revolution (the various peasant rebellions and even the twentieth century communist revolutions did not seriously challenge the hegemony of global capitalism, else our world would look quite different today). The reason the bourgeois revolution was so successful on a global scale is because the incipient bourgeoisie had for centuries been developing their own institutions and domains of authority that existed independently from those of the existing social order. When that social order was challenged, there was something else there to take its place. The same cannot be said of the forces that currently seek to subvert the status quo. Right now, nothing else exists.

Michel Foucault, in a conversation with Noam Chomsky, insisted that it was impossible to envision change within the current system.  The problem is that our consciousness is too permeated by the structures (physical and ideological) of the current system, even at the level of the language that we use (e.g. "justice").  Foucault contended that the task of someone who desires change is to study the subtle, overlooked mechanisms of power, in order that it may be resisted and subverted. The question is, though, how long must we continue to study?  At what point do we take action?  The bourgeoisie didn't accomplish a revolution by extensive observation.  They simply got to work forging their own institutions.  And all institutions comprising the modern world, as a consequence of the revolution, are bourgeois institutions.  Foucault does provide an important insight for us:  revolution will have to be total.  No existing institution or ideology can be preserved.  They are all bourgeois through and through.  We must start from scratch.

There is another lesson from history. The weak never win. The bourgeois were the only successful revolutionaries and they were seeking domination rather than liberation.

Then there is the issue of what would follow revolution. Marx was vague about his conception of a communist utopia, but he was clear about his belief that revolution required a single, global movement (a united proletariat). Many socialists hope for a single world government (a socialist word government, of course). No matter what, though, the idea of revolution generally entails some sort of unity. This, more than anything else, makes revolution seem so unachievable. We must also consider more deeply whether unity is actually desirable. I have already questioned both the practical feasibility and the desirability of a single world government. In sum, I pointed out that it would entail more extensive technologies of social control, would create a whole new set of dangers as authority became increasingly concentrated and centralized, and would likely intensify ideological differences (at the same time as it tried to homogenize all difference) because of the high stakes involved in every policy decision. The social evolutionary desire for a single world government is also tied to latently racist ideas of the superiority of Western, secular culture (which, of course, would be universally adopted).

One problem with this idea of a single world society is the findings of sociological research that estimates the optimal group size to be rather small (say, around 150). There are many benefits (economic, physical, emotional) associated with maintaining the types of social bonds and communal solidarity that cannot exist as easily in larger groups. Furthermore, one must face the fact that social/cultural diversity will never be erased. There is nothing to be gained from trying impose a single worldview on everyone. That is not, of course, to say that people should live in isolated groups, or that they can never get along with or even understand people who think differently. I only suggest that people have different ideas about how to live their lives and organize their communities, and they should be free to do that as they please. If a group wishes to organize a community based on the principles of Sharia law, then so be it.

What that in mind, there is a principle that Marx expounded, which may be useful in rethinking revolution. Marx conceived of social evolution in cyclical rather than linear form. He believed that what would follow capitalism would in some ways be a throw-back to “primitive communism” (in which people lived in small social groups based primarily on kinship affiliations), yet with a new twist: technology. The new form of communism would be more enlightened, and with the aid of technology, allow for more dignified human occupations. I do not believe that Marx was ever clear about the size of the community(ies) involved in enlightened communism (if someone knows, please chime in and correct me), but regardless, the general principle may still be applicable.

What if we were to return to a more decentralized, communal social organization, yet continue to incorporate modern technologies into the production process? I can envision a world where communities keep up their own gardens and handcraft things like clothes and furniture; they also specialize in the production of one or more other goods that can be sold to other communities (and likewise purchase specially produced goods from other communities). The internet could facilitate widespread movement of products and ideas. Through the internet, people could maintain contact with others around the world; and movement from community to community would occur with ease (as has been true throughout human history). There would be no need for provincialism. Hopefully, though, materialism could be eradicated. People wouldn’t need to update their wardrobes with the change of every season, and collectible junk would be seen for what it is: useless. This is purely idealistic, of course.

If such a world were to exist, it would not require some large-scale, unified revolution. It would only require groups of people to decide, on their own, not to participate in the capitalist system. If everyone simply stopped participating, the system could not continue. Cessation of participation does not require any large-scale coordination. People can pull out on their own terms. In this respect, I greatly admire the Zapatistas and hold them as an exemplar of how to escape capitalism. It is possible to delink. Although the Zapatistas have not eschewed violence, one benefit of delinking is that it does not require violence (for those who oppose violence on principle, that is a huge benefit).

It is an interesting question to consider whether delinking as a paradigm for social transformation is more feasible and desirable than revolution. It seems less impressive, to be sure. But even if delinking isn’t the answer, the broader question is: why can’t we seem to think past revolution? We are given the choice of reform or revolution, and neither seems entirely satisfactory. So maybe we should try to find a third way.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Issue Based Change VS Systemic Change

As I discuss possibilities for social change with various people in my life, I am continuing to circle back on and re-reflect upon ideas already discussed in this blog. I hope that this is not merely repetitive, and that my upcoming posts go beyond what I have already written... in some way or another.

I have talked quite a bit about my frustrations with reformism (see, for example, this post). In general, energies and wills get divided and dispersed. First, people are divided into separate interest groups based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and so on. Then, attention is pin-pointed to very specific issues that are supposedly of greatest concern for these (internally undifferentiated) groups. When this happens, there is no common enemy. Everyone has their own personal issues.

I have discussed Michelle Alexander’s problems with civil rights movements focusing so exclusively on issues like affirmative action (people see illusions of progress – token black people who are successful – and are blinded to enduring realities of racial caste). I even contended that Alexander’s concern about the drug war is still too narrow. No single policy or institution encompasses the broad economic and ideological foundations of racial caste.

I have also taken on, to some extent, the preoccupation with abortion within the women’s rights movement. In general, women’s rights tend to center around: abortion, birth control, and rape. Not that any of these are unimportant. However, this collection of issues defines women’s rights exclusively in terms of reproduction, obscures the way in which different women experience oppression differently, and does not expose or challenge the ideological framework that constructs gender.

The gay rights movement has pivoted primarily around two issues: repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and marriage equality. Neither of these battles addresses the real structural roots of homophobia. If anything, they strengthen and support capitalist institutions: those of the military and the traditional, nuclear family. (And really, what does the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell prove other than that the military is stretched too thin and really desperate for bodies?) Furthermore, the so-called “gay culture” (a combination of externally imposed stereotypes and practices born internally out of resistance) that the movement attempts to normalize reinforces the materialistic, superficial behaviors and attitudes that serve to benefit the capitalist system (for example, the obsession with fashion).

If everyone realized their common interests and could sustain a meaningful dialogue regarding both the positive and negative social implications of capitalism as it really exists (not as it should be in some hypothetical universe) – what kind of real social progress might be possible then? Even more, if a critical mass of people were willing to critically analyze and question modern institutions – the law, science, democracy, the family (in short, everything that fills us with such blind pride and faith) – together with all of the ideologies that sustain and are simultaneously produced by these institutions, how might we be able to re-imagine our world and the possibilities for social cooperation, for the better?

Our inability to ask the really difficult questions, and to think critically about the foundations of our society paralyzes any attempt at improving the lot of the poor, oppressed, exploited, and stigmatized masses.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Political Creation of the Middle Class

Marx developed an extensive, complex, and sometimes inconsistent theory of class.  As with other topics, Marx wrote so much that it is possible to select different portions of his works and derive varied interpretations of class.  However, if there is one least common denominator, it is that class is defined primarily by economic roles rather than arbitrary income ranges.  What was salient for Marx was the fact that some members of society own the means of production while others are means of production; that some people own land while others must rent; that some have much to gain from investment while (or because) others have much to lose, and so on.

In contemporary usage, class is generally equated with the concept of income bracket and it comes in three distinct forms:  lower, middle, and upper.  The exact bounds of these groupings is debatable, not only because "class" is a social construct and, as such, inherently arbitrary.  There is a political usefulness in this vagueness.

A lot of people self-identify as "middle class."  Everyone likes to think they are somehow "average" or "normal."  If you appeal to the middle class, you are targeting a good chunk of the population.  But the political function of class rhetoric is more sinister than that.  It goes back to the 'ol divide and conquer strategy.  Split the masses into "middle class" and "poor" and you get people to fight for their own interests at the expense of others'.  Except that "their own interests" are really bourgeois interests disguised as middle class values.

Want an idea of how important this strategy is?  Try to find one political speech that doesn't mention the middle class.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Women's Issues

In my post about Breast Cancer Awareness Month I briefly alluded to my annoyance with the idea of "women's issues."  However, I centered my discussion on "women's health."  For the sake of completeness, I will finish my thought about "women's issues."

In generally, the problem I have with "women's issues" is the assumption that women or their bodies are the core of the concern.  Take rape, for example.  It is a "women's issue" because it affects women. See, women find themselves in this unfortunate circumstance of having bodies that are so irresistibly tempting that people can't help but violate them.

Why isn't rape a "men's issue."  Most rapes involve men.  And men generally cause rape.  Isn't it slightly concerning that so many men are prone to acts of violence against women?  Why do we not see it as some sort of pathology infecting the male population, and try to stage interventions or develop cures for this mental/moral debility? (I'm not saying that is the "right" way to look at things of course, just noting the significance that it is never discussed in those terms.)  Instead, we choose to treat it as a "women's issue" and focus on what women wear and where they go at night.

The real problem for women of all classes and colors, and for everyone who is oppressed, is an exploitative capitalist system that depends on a variety of structural inequalities.  Therefore, everything that is typically labeled a "women's issue" I would consider a structural characteristic.  "Women's issues" are not problems specific to women, they are conditions that are endemic to our social system.