Friday, November 30, 2012

Will Statehood Help the Palestinians?

The hope that Palestinians pin on the UN and statehood status is just another example of the pitfalls of trying to create change within the system.

The Palestinians are not being screwed by Israel. They are being screwed by a global system, of which Israel is merely one component.

Do the Palestinians really believe that having the status of a sovereign state will protect them from being occupied or invaded? Do they think that, in obtaining statehood, they will suddenly be freed from their open-air prisons and no longer be deprived of basic necessities? The answer, of course, is no, but the hope is that any steps toward statehood will give them certain rights under international law and perhaps some leverage via the UN.

Then I must ask, do you really think the UN is going to deliver? We're talking about the same UN, right?

The fact of the matter is that the UN serves the interests of the global capitalist elite who control its institutional machinery. So long as Palestinian subjugation is useful in the capitalist system, it will continue.

The Palestinians would be better served by recognizing the way in which all modern institutions (including the system of nation-states and international law) functioning together with capitalism as an integrated whole. If the Palestinians want their freedom, they will not find it in the international legal system. Perhaps the only way out of captivity is the path (more or less) of the Zapatistas.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Political Parties and Branding

Branding has come to occupy an interesting role in Late Capitalism, particularly in the constitution of the “global,” often providing a key linkage between the local and the global. Branding constructs a formidable international terror syndicate out of a ragtag collection of disparate local activist groups; it creates the impression of cultural homogenization and modernization despite an immense amount of global variation; it allows for the functioning of an international legal discourse (that of “human rights”) and value system (the spread of “democracy”) that can be strategically manipulated in different situations. In the U.S. (and probably elsewhere?), it also shapes party politics and the bodies of rhetoric that political parties regulate.

American democracy is not a system whereby citizens choose from a collection of representatives associated with an innumerable spectrum of viewpoints. Generally there are one or two viable candidates, and voters often base their decisions on party affiliations. For example, a person who agrees with much of the Republican Party platform (thus self-identifying as a Republican) will assume that any Republican politician represents the Republican “brand.” This obviously encourages people to vote for candidates without knowing anything about them other than their party affiliations (witness the election to U.S. congress of a man who believes he is Santa Claus). It also creates an extremely black-and-white environment for thinking about and discussing politics. But, finally, it allows for a certain degree of control over such thought and discussion on the part of party leaders, as brand loyalty makes particular arguments and ideologies easier to sell to the base.

And so political parties are a terrain on which a constant struggle plays out. Different interest groups attempt to wrest control over the messaging of the party, in order to cement their viewpoints as hegemonic. It is interesting to observe, for example, the different wings of the Republican Party that overlap with and diverge from each other based on religious loyalties, commitment to libertarian values, and the evangelical zeal of American Exceptionalism. It appears that the faction of the Party that recently came to control the messaging was too extreme to engage a majority of the American public, and now there is in-fighting and finger-pointing in the aftermath of the election. The Republican Party is trying to figure out how to re-brand itself in order to increase its appeal. Which ties into the second form of struggle: the relationship with the public at large. Political rhetoric has to be carefully calibrated to both “sell” the party and its ideology (i.e. to appeal to the market) and simultaneously influence public opinion, by providing the language with which various issues are discussed. It is the changing dynamic among powerful interest groups and their relationship to different segments of the American population that accounts for shifts in party ideology and demographic composition. Of course, one must account for the fact that political parties and campaigns are composed of people with external aims (economic, social, geopolitical) AND those whose primary goal is to win elections. The latter are all too willing to adopt any messaging that is strategically useful.

One characteristic of branding that very aptly describes the American political scene is its ability to alter perception. People believe they are getting what the marketing tells them they are getting, especially if it is popular. In the U.S., it does not matter what a political party actually does when it acquires power. People believe the messaging over the reality. In fact, their view of reality is distorted by the branding. People believe that Republicans are more fiscally responsible, even though that is not the case. They believe that Democrats are friendlier to minorities and the poor, even though that also is not the case. Even more fundamentally, branding creates the illusion of distinction. People don’t realize that Orbit gum is really the same as Eclipse, and both are owned by the same parent company. Just as they don’t realize that Democrat is, in actual practice, the same as Republican, and both are owned by the same parent company.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Cost of Health Care

I covered a lot of my thoughts about the way in which capitalism structures the health care industry, both materially and ideologically (see my health series). This discussion follows fairly directly from those ideas.

Partly this is spurred by a recent experience I had, in which someone I knew was being kept alive on a ventilator, although it was against both their own wishes as expressed in the advance directive and the wishes of their spouse. I was reminded of the fact that more than a quarter of the total health care costs in the U.S. are spent on people in the last stage of their lives.

Indeed, the U.S. has one of the most expensive (especially in comparison to quality) health care systems in the world. The unjustified costs stem largely from the attitudes I discussed in my previous posts: 1) the assumption that the causes of ill health are material/individual and always require material interventions; 2) the obsession with "normality" and the treatment of variable states as "deviance"; 3) and the aversion/inability to cope with death and irrational belief that prolonging life is desirable.

1. When people feel a little different than usual, they go right to the doctor. Even colds are not considered as things that occur from time to time (like bad weather) and pass with time and rest. Some intervention must take place.

2. At the doctor, people only feel satisfied with the visit if they have a diagnosis and a prescription. Compounding the problem, doctors often are paid according to the number of people they can see everyday, thus encouraging them to breeze through each visit, barely listening, slapping together a diagnosis, and writing off a prescription. [I already discussed my frustration with the over-prescription of antibiotics - not only is it costly, but it weakens immune systems and promotes the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.]

3. People believe that health care providers are capable of solving every problem and should theoretically be infallible. Doctors and hospitals are always under threat of law suits. This, of course, directly raises the costs of health care; it also indirectly increases costs because doctors feel compelled to order millions of tests - many of them costly and unnecessary - to cover their butts, and may also be induced to expend resources wastefully to comply with families' demands (like keeping someone on a ventilator when they are going to die in a few days anyway). This point, in particular, is attributed responsibility for a lot of the cost inefficiencies in the U.S. health care system compared to other health care systems.

The upshot of all of this can be characterized by a libertarian maxim: people want a lot more than what they are willing to pay for. They want all of the medical interventions possible, but have constructed a system that is not able to absorb all of the costs. What happens, of course, is that all the people with insurance and means to afford out-of-pocket costs who demand unnecessary tests and treatments, and thereby drive up the costs of care, make it that more difficult for people in poverty to afford the care that IS necessary for them. Once again, it is the poor who are subsidizing the extravagance and irresponsible behavior of the well-to-do.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

American Dominance and the Changing Nature of War

This post is not a consideration of how war has become more high-tech. That's an interesting topic, but I have nothing to add. These particular thoughts arose out of a discussion I had with someone (sparked by this essay on the Just War Theory), in which I tried to argue against the legitimacy of any military action. The thrust of my argument was the Marxist idea that wars serve bourgeois interests and are falsely justified as being a means to secure the freedom of ordinary citizens. This led to a discussion of the actual purpose of modern wars.

I think I had better start at the beginning, historically speaking. There was a time when wars served very concrete and easily discernible purposes. Wealth and power relations were more directly tied to the ownership of specific territories and the rights to the surpluses of the producing classes. Imperialism was purely an aim to acquire more territory (and to benefit from the resources therein), as well as to consolidate the social structures which generated surpluses and tributes.

In the modern era, when one envisions a war in the abstract, one has to wonder who really benefits, and how. I often come across geopolitical analyses that explain certain U.S. actions and attitudes as stemming from a drive to maintain global dominance or to prevent any oppositional regional powers from emerging. On the surface that seems plausible. But try to think of “American dominance” more concretely. Who represents the American interests, and who benefits from America’s dominance? The president (who is only in office for a handful of years)? Members of congress? Those in the military and intelligence communities? None of those players benefit directly from any sort of “American dominance.” Those at the helm of our structures of wealth extraction, the multinational corporations and financiers, are no longer tied to any particular territory. Indeed, their dominance defies territorial boundaries.

In the modern era, the objectives of war must be completely different. Territory is incidental. Resources are still important (although more instrumentally so), but so are markets, monetary policies, rents, wages, and production. Wars serve economic interests when they allow for the penetration of foreign capital and the emergence of neoliberal policies. (That is why modern warfare is so much more concerned with regime change.) The capitalist system depends on universal participation, particularly now that its functional requirements absorb existing global capacity. Its centripetal inertia creates a constant need for new markets, new sources of vital resources, “underdeveloped” locales to develop, and battered masses to submit to exploitation.

The problem for my position, though, is that it implies that “American dominance” is wholly inconsequential. However, if one looks at actual facts, it is clear that the U.S. has a disproportionate degree of influence and control over world affairs. And it is also appears that someone is trying to preserve this state of affairs (successfully or not we will see). One could argue that, despite globalization, the economic elite are primarily based in the U.S. and other Western nations. Thus, they have the most access to political and military levers of control in the U.S. This is plausible.

One could also argue that, in the international division of labor (which is a key feature of the global capitalist system), the U.S. has come to occupy the role of the “police man” on a global scale. Hence, it could be that the global forces of dominance have found it convenient to employ U.S./Western military resources in the service of their agenda (and of course this convenience could go back to the citizenship of many of the global elite, thus connecting this argument back to the first). In this paradigm, the preservation of U.S. dominance would be akin to securing the hegemony of the police force to monitor and suppress the activities of other citizens that undermine the capitalist order (protesters, bootleggers, etc.)

Still, though, I am unable to account for the factions within the U.S. military and intelligence communities that supposedly are driven purely by a desire to combat Islam and spread Western Enlightenment around the world. There are two possibilities here. Either the claims of the existence of these pure ideological motives are exaggerated or miss some important underlying reality, or else some people are impelled toward the same (or similar) ends as global capitalist interests, but for entirely different reasons. At this point, I think either is plausible. Certainly the more complexity, the more diversity and divergence of interests, that an explanation allows, the more accurate it is likely to be.

I think it is important to preserve some notion of “American dominance” (otherwise world events are nearly impossible to interpret); however, one must avoid its narrow definition solely by reference to nationalism and place it in the context of global capitalist relations.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Real Petraeous Scandal: the CIA and Imperialism

Being a cynic, I tend to think that the timing, focus, and slant of news stories are usually very carefully orchestrated. Therefore, I couldn't help but feel there must be some reason for the hullabaloo surrounding Petraeus's affair. However, the conspiracy theory propagated by conservative media seemed wholly unsatisfying.

Then I ran across this article, whose explanation I find much more plausible. The long and short of it is that the attack in Benghazi exposed some of the lies surrounding the conflict Libya, which included covering up the role of the CIA in arming and supporting jihadist militias - a strategy in which Petraeus was intimately involved.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rolling Jubilee

I just heard about this today:  This is the kind of thing I like. People taking action on their own, outside of any institutions, to behave in a way that is more in line with their conception of a well-ordered society. Rather than trying to reform institutions, undermining them.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why I'm Not Voting

This is the one day of the year where people feel no shame about encroaching on strangers with personal questions laden with implicit moral judgements.  I lost count of how many times random people asked me if I'd voted yet. Equally irksome, I spent the entire day listening to trite sermonizing on the importance of voting. Of course, I never told anyone I wasn't planning to vote. That offense is ranked, I think, slightly below pedophilia, and I am not prepared to destroy my reputation.

Why does voting fill people with such a sense of pride? Why is it justified on moral terms? After all, most any close-minded ignoramus, misanthrope, or psychopath can go to a local high school gym and bubble in a scantron. Any person can vote with the most self-interested, destructive, hateful ends in mind. Following dominant logic, someone who voted for George Wallace purely on account of being racist still performed a noble deed. Why is the value of voting never questioned? Voting is a hallowed sacrament in modern societies because it serves an important ideological purpose: sustaining illusions of progress, enlightenment, self-determination, and empowerment in the midst of historically unprecedented conditions of oppression.

The brainwashing has been quite successful, aided of course by the blunting of most people's capacities for critical thought.  Anyone who believes our education system and national media are eroding in effectiveness need to think again.  They are doing their jobs very well.

1. People either do not consider the fact that campaign rhetoric does not predict real actions, or they deem this fact to be ultimately irrelevant.

2. People do not realize that important decisions are shaped by external factors and institutional constraints, and NOT by a person occupying an office; they are ignorant of the continuity across different presidential administrations, Democrat and Republican (the Obama administration was a continuation of the Bush administration, which was a continuation of the Clinton administration, and so on.)

3. People are not phased by the limitation of having only two viable options (in most cases); the fact that these choices have been selected for them by party leaders and corporate kingmakers is of no concern; and the frustration they feel that these options do not reflect their own interests and desires does not give people pause.

Let me emphasize this point. Voting is a selection between two corporate-sponsored options that will both serve the same corporate-driven interests. Voting allows people to participate in their own oppression. What shelters this reality from popular recognition is the spectacle of political campaigns.

Campaigns serve two key functions:

1. They camouflage reality (i.e. the fact that the candidates are not fundamentally different) in order to persuade people that they have a "voice" (whatever that means...). Campaigns create the illusion of variety and choice.

2. They set the terms of public discourse. The hegemony of modern thought is constituted by a complex of ideologies and discourses that is structured around two oppositional nodes.  Campaign rhetoric is critical to the process of redefining the bounds of modern discourse and reorienting the nodes to suit changing circumstances. In essence, the debates, stump speeches, and ads serve to determine what sorts of things the public thinks and how they talk about it, and equally important, what they cannot think and say. The heart of public discourse, the structured opposition, is created by distorting the significance of small details, thereby allowing many significant matters of foundational importance to fly under the radar as "givens" and thus effectively block them from reaching the level of conscious reflection. The domain of popular consciousness is entirely saturated with inane, trivial details. As a result, most people are not able to think critically about social reality. The liberal/conservative dichotomy actually curtails freedom of thought more than it represents any real flowering of opinions.

Real change goes beyond the political process. It radically transforms all institutions, economic, political and social. I'm not going to thank the people who voted today. I thank all the people who refuse to accept the "options" that are given to them, who take the time to think past the sound bites with which they are saturated, and who will not compromise what they know is right.