Friday, July 30, 2010

A Critique of Zizek on Charity

Hot on the heels of their animated David Harvey talk on capitalism, the RSA has animated a recent talk by Slavoj Zizek. They do quite a job of having some fun with controversial topics, this one being Zizek's critique of "the logic of charity."

Zizek, as one has come to expect, takes on the common sense (in the Gramscian sense) view of charity as obviously helpful by arguing that it perpetuates the system of inequality that it claims to transform. This 'simple' issue of charity that he discusses, in fact, blurs the distinction between two different activities. First, he's right to criticize the hypocrisy of 'charitable' capitalists who give to charity with one hand and perpetuate inequality with the other. As he says, drawing on Oscar Wilde, you can't solve the injustices of private property with private property.

However, he confounds this argument with another that isn't about charity, it's about conscientious consumerism. The idea is that the extent of activism of Western consumers is to purchase commodities that seem to make the world a better place. I don't have a problem with the critique that conscientious consumerism is not enough to change the world, and that it blocks a more radical, anti-capitalist response (this latter response requires not just a concept of the event, but also some degree of organization and class consciousness or, if you prefer, solidarity-consciousness...but we'll have to talk about this later).

My problem is that Zizek calls the egoism of conscientious consumerism a kind of charity. He's conflating marketing tactics, consumerism, and ideology with the reasons why capitalists as a class have had to switch to slightly less exploitative forms of capital accumulation. Let's follow his example of Starbucks and fair trade coffee for the sake of simplicity. Even the general framework of the movie Black Gold shows (if I remember argument doesn't rise and fall on the movie itself) that it's neither capitalist nor consumerist philanthropy that generates what we might call 'slightly more equitable commodities,' it's  some degree of organized social struggle and political pressure. By subsuming these changes under the "logic of charity," with only Western dramatis personae, Zizek misrepresents the subjectivity and collective action of the activists and workers who fought to implement fair trade practices through social struggle as a kind of passive acceptance of better conditions.

I don't want to fetishize fair trade products as the solution to exploitation, because they aren't; Starbucks uses its fair trading as a kind of battering ram to hammer on its Western competitors (namely local cafes). Might I also add that they offer health insurance as part of their benefits package (I know because I worked there for several years)-- again, not out of the kindness of their hearts but to stave off attempts to unionize.

In any case, we know from Capital, we must leave the "noisy sphere" of the market, "where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone," and follow the owners of money and of labor-power "into the hidden abode of production." There we will find the relationship between uneven geographical development, exploitation, and, most importantly, social struggle. What I gather from Zizek, especially because he's pushing this critique of "cultural capitalism" rather than a critique of neoliberalism, is that he's not willing to make that dialectical leap.

(Hat tip to Santi for bringing the RSA video to my attention).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Realist's Utopia and the Fight for India

When I came to South Korea I brought about a dozen books. I have already read some of them twice. But I finally just dove into Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, published in 1986 by the University of Minnesota Press, a couple days ago. This book deserved its place in my small ensemble of academic reads in my luggage. In it, Chatterjee outlines the course of an anti-colonial movement through the three most influential writers and politicians of India from the late nineteenth century to political independence.

I took the book apart in an unusual order beginning with its three theoretical chapters. Its first two chapters and the last outline what he calls the thematic and the problematic. Where he describes the thematic of an anti-colonial discourse and those who desire it as justifying from the vantage of what’s best for the people and the problematic the actual and possible routes for achieving the desired outcome. Here I have overly reduced his theoretical platform, no doubt. He also discusses the nature of the analysis. He notes, I think correctly, that sociologically deterministic theorists consider the framework of independence struggles but fail to calculate the realities on the ground or content which forms the material of the struggle. This becomes the book's project. He aims at outlining the thematic and problematic through the content of the struggle for independence in the political ideology of India.

He outlines the content of the struggle in three stages or moments. In the moment of departure the initial drive is produced towards assessing the drive for independence of the foreign body. In the moment of maneuver the people are made aware of their place in the struggle. Finally, in the moment of arrival the struggle is brought to its apex and its bones given flesh. He takes for his first moment the writings and thoughts of Bankimchandra. At the time of his writing in the late nineteenth century Bankimchandra ably took from the traditions of India’s oppressors what he saw as valuable while critiquing it and offering the ‘perfect man.’ This man, in Bankimchandra’s assessment would imitate the science of Western Europe while maintaining the spirit of Indian history and civilization. I fear too much of the British tradition of liberalism was taken at face value but Chatterjee breaks this apart and examines British theory and British practice. Sadly, no meaningful critique is given for the inherent faults of this liberalism.

In the moment of maneuver the person of Gandhi catalyzed the people of India around the struggle to unleash India from the grip of British political domination. Gandhi, who Chatterjee describes as an anarchist, carried the banner of what began to the peasantry and created enough unity among the disparate elements of the Indian sub-continent’s inhabitants to mobilize its human resources towards the aim of political sovereignty. Without the charm and charisma of Gandhi, this second moment may not have produced the requisite will to national self empowerment.

Finally, in the moment of arrival, Nehru built a workable political apparatus and cut away the excess of ideology he believed impossible to produce a ‘realist's utopia’ in the schema of Indian nationalist thought. These elements served as the foundational content of India’s successful movement to loosen itself from foreign rule. These people, their ideas, and their actions fill these pages and the moments of Indian independence.

Many of the concepts within this book help bring abstract concepts about post-colonialism to their counterpart: their actualization. How can we possibly understand how these movements work by assuming history proceeds automatically and without effort? Although Chatterjee pushes a bit too hard on the line of religion in the chapter on Bankimchandra, the idea of a content driven historical set of moments in nationalism or even of independence itself reveals new vantages. Furthermore Chatterjee seems, in my reading, a little too enamored by British liberalism. Hegel’s assumptions about the natural course of history still need to be broken down. Nonetheless, Chatterjee still leans heavily on Marxist notions of equality, which I might add were and still are a part of Indian political thought and this is true of Nehru to be sure. The point being that people and specific actions produce outcomes not abstract ideas.

The Struggle for Tibet

Getting good information about Tibet can be difficult: one the one hand, there's Chinese media censorship to get around, but on the other, we also have to avoid the Western tendency to exoticize and to fetishize Tibet and the Dalai Lama. As Joshua pointed out earlier this month, the Dalai Lama is seen as a "hero and saintly man," but he is also the spiritual leader of a society that was, under his rule, both feudalistic and theocratic.

In The Struggle in Tibet (Verso, 2009), Wang Lixiong (a Chinese dissident intellectual) and Tsering Shakya (a Tibetan exile now teaching at the University of British Colombia) attempt to analyze Tibetan struggle without falling into either what they call a Chinese colonialist line or a Western exoticization line. Their opening two essays reproduce a debate between them (turning on the legacy of the Cultural Revolution) first published in the New Left Review in 2002, and the additional contributions analyze various facets of Tibetan religion (although some of the arguments are left wanting...) and Chinese imperialism, up through the Tibetan demonstrations that began in March 2008.

The goal of the book is to assess the Tibetan struggle 'on the ground.' While neither reside in Tibet (Wang travels there intermittently) they both strive to address concerns indigenous to the larger region. In this regard their collection of essays is successful and informative; I recommend it (as a non-expert myself) to anyone looking to challenge their views on the relationship between Tibet and China. There are three things of note:

First, Wang's essays can be frustrating at points, especially the first, which betrays, as Shakya calls it, a colonialist's attitude toward Tibet; his interpretations of religious need  are often oversimplified.  Nevertheless, Wang's contributions document his radicalization, as he comes to call for Tibetan cultural autonomy and to argue that the Chinese bureaucracy's mismanagement of the region puts its independence on the agenda because Tibetans have realized that China will be unable to resolve the 'Tibet Question.' Note, however, that this argument isn't directly framed as a call for complete independence, rather it's a call for democratic reform in China if the government wishes to implement 'national unity.'

Second, while both authors address Chinese economic interest in the Tibet region, their analyses could have been developed further. Both note the improved infrastructure in Tibet and 'accumulation by dispossession' that is occurring there, especially, as Shakya notes, with the discovery of large mineral deposits (p. 198), but neither does more than sketch how this could be self-managed by Tibetans to avoid extra-regional expropriation (see also Wang's discussion of ecology on pp 160-168).

Finally, while both acknowledge the Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of Tibet, neither expressly calls for him to return as a political leader. In fact, Shakya argues that there is a "huge social and cultural gap" between Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the exile community in India and the West (p. 215). It's also important to note that the exile groups in India receive funding from the National Endowment of Democracy, which, despite Shakya's claim that this "does not translate into an ability to mobilize" in the People's Republic of China, has a long record of meddling in the politics of what the US considers to be hostile or rogue states. Certainly, being a border region between China and India, and then an interest with national resources between two imperial powers can't help the local struggle for autonomy. Nevertheless, The Struggle in Tibet provides a solid foundation to build subsequent responses to these issues.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Short Thoughts on Summer Reading (Part 1?)

I've been reading (and for some parts, rereading) the first volume of Capital, which has already been the source of not a little humor at my expense (which I figure it's better than some Friedmanite talking my ear off about it).

When I came across the New Left Project's "Summer Reading" feature I  knew that one of its contributors would probably crack what we might call the 'ponderous tome' joke. It happened to be Nina Power:
Being a fairly curmudgeonly type, I don’t really like the idea of summer reading, implying as it does some kind of listless sangria-addled page-flicking on a beach. Having said that, there is a way in which at least some trips put you in a reflective mood, which is often fairly good for getting to grips with serious issues or difficult concepts (going on holiday with me sounds fun, no?). To that end, I would recommend trying to read Vol 1 of Marx’s Capital, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Only joking.
Yet the joke works because these ponderous projects are probably fairly common, especially among younger academics. Even Power admits that she's reading Feuerbach and Althusser this summer.

So there are good reasons to read something like Capital or any other difficult text during a period of so-called relaxation and vacation, which for at least the last six years has always brought to my mind the word unemployment. Here's a quick list:
  • Lots of available time to study a difficult book without losing the thread in course preps (unless I suppose you're David Harvey and giving your annual seminar on the book).
  • Having a clear project to motivate reading. In my case, I'm trying to get a handle on the structure of Capital to work out the relationship of Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness to Marx and Hegel.
  • If you can manage time, it doesn't actually interfere with (reading) anything else. Or, better, it helps you structure your time: I'm reading Capital during the week, and taking every weekend off from it. Then I spend part of the weekend reading The Wretched of the Earth or something else, and there is still a sense of direction and expectation during my week
    These are probably the reasons (including the unemployment part) why I remember my summers through the  texts that I had read: Foucault's History of Sexuality (all three volumes) in 2001, finishing Being and Time in 2002, Badiou's Deleuze in 2004, comps in 2005, Being and Event in 2006, the Critique of Pure Reason in 2007, rereading Schelling's System of Transcendental Idealism to write Chapter 3 in 2008, and the dissertation crunch (peppered with the first two volumes of Stieg Larsson's trilogy) in 2009.

    Saturday, July 24, 2010

    US-South Korean Relations, A Dynamic Affair

    I’ve only just arrived in Korea about five weeks ago. I don’t want to live obliviously as so many Americans seem to do here. With this in mind I set out to learn some of the history of Korea and some of its culture. I’ve digested a short course of books on the country and also on the city in which I live. Given Hillery Clinton’s visit to Korea in the past days and the George Washington, a US supercarrier, conducting war games off of the coast of South Korea’s port city of Busan one of these books seems more relevant right now. Edited by David Steinberg of Georgetown University, Korean Attitudes Toward the United States: Changing Dynamics, published in 2005 by M. E. Sharp Inc., presents a primer for contemporary South Korean international outlooks. Though many professional academics have contributed to the work I would like to note at the outset that most of them seem to begin their appraisal of these relationships from a strongly biased opinion in favor of the continuation of US military presence in South Korea. As I have learned since arriving here in Kwangju that regularly both pro-American and Anti-American protests rage here, I think this overwhelming bias within the book worth of note.

    The book, to its editor’s credit is arranged extremely well. Each of its sections cover peripheral as well as pertinent topics from comparative studies and statistics to structural interpretations and diplomacy. Unfortunately their remains a vast dearth of anything remotely cultural. The cultural components of the book are purely explicative and only considered as secondary to international relations or else political conditions. These caveats aside the book has a lot of interesting data and explication to consider.

    William Watt’s essay “Changing Perspectives in U.S-Korean Relations and the Rise of Anti-Americanism" by far out weighs the other chapters in terms of the mass of data available. The chapter consisted of a vast corpus of statistics on Korean attitudes. I particularly found the table on page 268 interesting. It suggests that South Korean public opinion remains balanced between its outlook on China and the US. Given that China’s economy continues to rise and the US continues to decline this table and others indicates that Sino-South Korean relations are becoming significantly stronger. While the presence of the US military in South Korean increases disputes over sovereignty within the peninsula, China continues to play the role only of economic partner. This enables China to continue to improve relations while the US seems to continue aggravate their ally. The US and Korean military alliance centers on a fear of Kim Jong Il’s impotent aristocracy. This alliance does not fuel the aggravation but the perpetuation of US bases inside South Korea does for a portion of the population.

    Watt's Statistics also reveal other striking, and for me surprising, statistics. For example a table on page 274 show that of those surveyed 59% think the US is the benefactor of the US-South Korean military alliance, with only 37% thinking that South Korea benefits. A statistic which bears relevance in my own politics jumps off of page 275: of "US led efforts to fight terrorism," 67% oppose and 13% favor. Given the emphasis in American media of the strength of the US-South Korean alliance, I found it quite revealing that Koreans largely oppose the US in its crusade. I found it a breath of fresh air. As several of my new friends here have explained, the invasion of Iraq and other 'counter terrorist' activities of the US in recent years have crossed many important political lines. Living in San Francisco these past years I had begun to think that only my friends therein quoted the Geneva Conventions, but I have had them referenced to me here as well.

    Both citizens of the US and citizens the US's allies didn't see the Bush regime's invasion and occupation of Iraq as either justified or legal. Several less numeric data sets found their way into the study showing the reasons so many South Koreans grow cold over continued US military involvement on the Korean Peninsula from American egoism to US policies heightening South-North tensions. Of the last concern, many intoxicated Korean men have noted the desire to see all Korea eventually reunited into a single Korea. The political moves made by the US prevent this eventuality in the eyes of many people here.

    William Drennen’s contribution unfortunately spends its pages attempting to find US hands clean of the disastrous and violent suppression of the people’s movement against the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan: The Kwangju Massacre. I have had the opportunity to end up living in Kwangju, which has a massive park and memorial to remember the people lost in the military suppression. People I have spoken with who lived through the affair related seeing children beaten bloody and women raped in full view of the public. Furthermore, the military cut the telephone lines out of the city moments before they began their week long blood sport. This prevented neighboring cities and families from hearing of the full extent of the bloodbath. Other books I will review later explain that reporters on the scene later described the army‘s relentless battery of anyone within reach by sprint as "human hunting."

    Drennen does a fairly inadequately researched outline of the violence which the people of Kwangju suffered in the days of murder by Hwan’s troops before a section he notably entitles “The Myth of US Responsibility.” Within this section he dismisses both American and Korean commentators as ignorant of the chain of command. This in his assessment leaves only Hwan's regime responsible. The facts, which he attempts to dismiss rhetorically remain that the South Korean military received a go ahead to conduct the operation entitled “Fascinating Vacations” from the US military. The critical point here is that while the US government often claims that it is taking military action to prevent humanitarian crisis to justify its own infractions against sovereign states and peoples, it could have just as easily and simply said that the operation couldn't be conducted to prevent this slaughter and didn't.

    Other chapters are generally descriptive. Most indicate a growing movement of ‘anti-baseism’ or a growing desire to see US bases removed and full South Korean sovereignty brought to the now full fledged democracy. While these chapters tend to focus on the growing sentiment toward a desire to see the US military presence removed, the authors readily qualify that many South Koreans in fact remain desirous of a good relationship with the sole global military superpower. Though many here in South Korea rally for the removal of US bases from the Peninsula, others wear shirts bearing the US flag. Even those who have expressed negative opinions about the continuation of US presence in South Korea to me have often bought me a beer and even treated me to whole night out while discussing their political concerns. My own brief experience here has buttressed my appreciation of the expositions of this book.

    Slavoj Zizek Interview

    It is about time that the great cultural critic Slavoj Zizek make an analysis of his own rising popularity. It seems his role as a popular thinker even baffles establishment media. I am posting an interview of Zizek from the BBC arts program The Culture Show. The interviewer, Paul Mason, points out that Zizek is known to discuss Marxism while incorporating concepts from the Matrix film. He asks if Zizek's use of Marxism can only be tolerated in this manner. Then Mason asks if it could be the global financial crisis that makes Marxism once again palatable. This is the interesting duality of Zizek. Zizek is a "marketable" thinker because he is a showman and a spectacle. At the same time he breaks down the harsh realities of capitalism and modern society. He is like a humorous court jester that operates simultaneously as a prophet bearing bad news. Zizek preforms his jokes that tell of ominous tidings: Everyone laughs and then realizes how serious things really are.

    Friday, July 23, 2010

    Thoughts on the Schelling Book and After

    Today was the day that the typesetting and proofing and indexing of the Schelling book (if you're not already in the know, it's here) was supposed to be finished, and...we made it.

    To think, only a year ago, to the day, I was writing Chapter 4, which is about Schelling's philosophy of art during the period that he held to a position he called absolute idealism (1801-1806), and which, as almost everybody knows, he developed with Hegel, before their later break over that one book that Hegel published in 1807...

    I've already discussed, in a very schematic fashion, Schelling's absolute idealism and his philosophy of art on the blog (parts one, and two), and the nice part is, much of this discussion doesn't appear in the book, so if you read it, it won't be redundant. In fact those posts are more than likely going to be used for a future paper about Schelling and Hegel.

    But a year ago, to the day, I was still grappling with a flaw in previous Schelling secondary-lit. Most people follow this line: Schelling's philosophy of art was important when he held to the subjectivism of transcendental philosophy (through the System of Transcendental Idealism), and when he dismissed that subjectivism, he no longer needed artistic production as the 'keystone' of the system. I argue that he still needs the philosophy of art, in fact, he makes recourse to artistic production to move his changing system along through 1807.

    During the period of absolute idealism, Schelling argues that philosophy constructs a system from the perspective of reason itself, and in the lectures later published as The Philosophy of Art he argues that artistic production in the form of mythology provides the historical content of the transition from the infinite to the finite. That is, philosophy deals with the infinite as the perspective of reason, and art (via the imagination/Einbildungskraft) 'forms into unity' the historical content of art through mythology, art presents the absolute in finite form. Far from dismissing art, Schelling needs it to give content to the absolute. (now I know that some might say that nature-philosophy does that as well, and it's true, although Schelling claims that art is a superior truth; we have to just leave it at that for the moment).  But I argue that the historical content that art is to provide is itself formally different than what the so-called perspective of reason (absolute idealism) tells us about the world, and the two can't be, or weren't, reconciled. This sends us off to Chapter 5, which you are all going to have to wait for.

    Now, I had been rehearsing this post for a few weeks, because I was going to tell you that, for the first time in years, I didn't have a project with a deadline at hand for the first time since I spent the summer reading the three volumes of Foucault's History of Sexuality (that was the summer between my BA and the start of my 2001).

    But it's no longer true. I've volunteered to review Rancière's Dissensus, and last week the RPA accepted my conference abstract on a critique of Laclau and Agamben, both so far apart and yet so similar in not quite grasping, for very different reasons, the uses of violence. 

    However, with just that gloss, I know what you're thinking: between the time you write the abstract and the time that it's accepted, you've been reading a lot of Fanon and Lukacs, and now you're quite certain that the paper has transformed into something entirely different and you're right. Laclau's got to go, and you've got to get serious about Agamben's tendency to turn historical violence into metaphysical violence. Hell, you might even get a chance to throw in a critique of Zizek, because they have a common fault: too much early Benjamin, not enough later Benjamin.

    Yeah, that's it, that's exactly what I'm working on. Imagine if conference abstracts started reading like the paragraph above...

    Monday, July 19, 2010

    Piero Gleijeses, "The Cuban Drumbeat"

    Let's just get it out the way now: Piero Gleijeses's The Cuban Drumbeat (Seagull, 2009) is one of best political pamphlets I've read in several years. It's the second installment in Seagull's "What was Communism?" series, but this concise volume puts the question in the present, if not the future tense.* Gleijeses shows that, far from being exhausted, the internationalism and anti-colonialism of Cuba's foreign policy has succeeded in transforming the relationships between formerly colonized and underdeveloped regions and the imperial powers that seek to exploit them.

    The extent of Cuba's internationalism has not always been recognized, nor even understood. Even if the US government, according to internal documents, had recognized from the beginning the reason for the popular support for Fidel Castro's leadership, it has nevertheless spent decades propagating outright misinformation. Lost in this state-media echo chamber are the accomplishments of  Cuban socialism both domestically and internationally. For a balanced account of the successes and failures of Castro's domestic policy, see Richard Gott's Cuba: A New History (Yale, 2004); The Cuban Drumbeat recounts the history of Cuba's internationalism.

    As both the United States and Castro recognized, the "power of Cuba is the power of its revolutionary ideas [and] the power of its example" (Castro quoted on p. 11). In the 1960s, the determination of the United States to stifle this power led to the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the embargo, and continuous attempts at subverting the socialist government; the determination of Cuba led to small scale assistance to revolutionaries in Latin America and Africa, the most notable of them led by, and led to the death of, Che Guevara. It is worth noting that Gleijeses tactfully avoids that retrospective and romantic distinction between Che, the permanent revolutionary and the statist-bureaucratic Castro brothers (Recall here Fanon's comment from 1961 in Wretched of the Earth: "Castro attending the UN in military uniform does not scandalize the underdeveloped countries. What Castro is demonstrating is how aware he is of the continuing regime of [imperialist] violence. What is surprising is that he did not enter the UN with his submachine gun").

    The living tradition of tradition of Cuba's anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism might have its roots in Latin America, but it first came to fruition in Africa in the 1970s. To understand Cuba's support of African revolutionaries, it is important to look beyond the interests of the Cold War superpowers. Gleijeses argues that Castro saw, from very early on, that revolutionary action also required an attentiveness to the relationships between what we now call the Global North and Global South. Cuba's fate in the post-Soviet era has largely rested on the kinds of alliances and internationalism that it established in the 1970s in Africa. Gleijeses writes:
    Cuban leaders were convinced that their country had a special empathy for and a special role to play in the Third World beyond the confines of Latin America. The Soviets and their East European allies were white and, by Third World standards, rich; the Chinese exhibited the hubris of a great and rising power, and were unable to adapt to African and Latin American culture. By contrast, Cuba was non-white, poor, threatened by a powerful enemy and culturally both Latin American and African. It was, therefore, a unique hybrid: a Socialist country with a Third World sensibility. This mattered, in a world that was dominated, as Castro rightly understood, by the 'conflict between privileged and underprivileged, humanity against imperialism' and where the major fault line was not between socialist and capitalist states but between developed and underdeveloped countries (18).
    While today we can recognize how these ideas, from a humanitarian side, have shaped the relationships between Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia (see, on this score, of course, Tariq Ali's Pirates of the Caribbean),  in the 1970s and 1980s the most stunning examples of Cuban internationalism were its military interventions in Angola, which took place within a complex set of relationships between three rival independence parties in Angola, Namibia (a former German colony then under the mandate of South Africa), the United States, and South Africa.

    After the collapse of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, a power-sharing agreement was arranged between the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), for joint rule of Angola until November 1975. However, the arrangement was short-lived; civil war broke out in spring 1975 between the Soviet-backed MPLA and the UNITA-FNLA, the latter which had the covert backing of South Africa  (who felt that an MPLA victory would endanger its control over Namibia) and the United States (this probably goes without saying, but the US interpreted the conflict only through the lens of the Cold War). Despite the these powerful allies, UNITA and FNLA could not defeat the MPLA, so in October, at the quiet urging of the United States, South Africa invaded Angola. While Cuba had been giving  small-scale medical and tactical assistance to the MPLA, in November 1975, Castro sent thousands of troops to combat the invasion. This "unprecedented" military action took both Washington and Moscow by surprise, and it proved decisive. Within a few months the MPLA-Cuban force had turned back South African aggression, and on 27 March 1976, South Africa withdrew, defeated, from Angola.

    The victory of the MPLA-Cuban alliance was, Gleijeses notes, a turning point in the fight against  Pretoria's  domination of southern Africa. He argues that neither realpolitik nor "narrow interests" can explain Cuba's motivation; rather "Castro sent troops because of his commitment to what he called 'the most beautiful cause,' the struggle against apartheid" (30).

    But this would not be the end of the struggle. Because Angola gave support to the the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), who were fighting for Namibia's independence, in 1981, again with the support of the United States, South Africa invaded Angola again. And yet again Cuba's military prowess proved crucial. In September 1987 the South African Defense Force (SADF) launched a major offensive in Southeastern Angola, cornering the Angola Army in Cuito Cuanavale. Despite the sense of inevitability that South African and Western Diplomats claimed for the fall of Cuito Cuanavale (62), Cuban forces beat back the SADF, and then marched southwest toward the Namibian border, forcing South Africa out of Angola, then to the negotiating table, and finally out of Namibia. Gleijeses writes that:
    As a child, in Italy, I heard my father talk about the hope he and his friends felt in December 1941 as they had listened to the radio reports of the German troops leaving the city of Rostov on the Don. It was the first time in two years of war that the German superman had been forced to retreat. I remembered his words--and the profound sense of relief they conveyed--as I read the South African and Namibian press from these months in early 1988. For the blacks of Namibia and of South Africa, the advance of the Cuban columns towards the border, pushing back the troops of apartheid, was a clarion call of hope (64).
    In recounting the victory of social solidarity over the powers of colonialism and imperialism, The Cuban Drumbeat captures a rare moment of hope in the long struggle against oppression.

    Notice the date, however; soon after the victory in Angola the Soviet bloc would collapse, jeopardizing Cuba's economy and infrastructure; while Havana often acted internationally without consulting Moscow, it still remained dependent on Soviet economic assistance. Nevertheless, just at that time a new kind of revolutionary movement was beginning to gain strength across Latin America. Cuba has, since the 'fall of communism', depended on relationships build through the humanitarian side of its internationalism, for decades training doctors and funding education for African, Asian, and Latin American students. Its kind of internationalism still represents, in the era, we might say, of the Bolivarian Revolution, a direct challenge to the hegemony of the neoliberal world. The question is whether this revolution can create a lasting international infrastructure that can create a more egalitarian future.

    * I criticized this choice of tense in the title of the series in my review of Tariq Ali's The Idea of Communism.

    Saturday, July 17, 2010

    "A Brief History of Neoliberalism", Chapter 7

    Having cornered the ideological market via naked repression and the subtler re-organization of what Gramsci calls "common sense" (i.e. "the sense held in common"), neoliberalism has on the one hand effectively foreclosed mainstream debate "as to which of several divergent concepts of freedom might be appropriate to our times" [183-184]. Under neoliberalism, freedom is simply market freedom, and rights boil down to individual property rights; even FDR's Keynesian policies and wishy-washy "Obamanomics" sound like communist extremism given neoliberalism's ideological ambiance. On the other hand, through its history of accumulation by dispossession, social corrosion and natural despoliation, neoliberalism itself accounts for "the emergence of diverse oppositional cultures that from both within and without the market system either explicitly or tacitly reject the market ethic and the practices neoliberalism imposes" [185]. Harvey argues in Chapter 7 that although there are signs of growing discontent within policy circles as regards the performance of much-touted neoliberal solutions, true change has to come from "outside the frames of reference defined by this class power and market ethics while staying soberly anchored in the realities of our time and place" [188]. To leap over our shadow in this way is possible in any case because the neoliberal organization of consent has its limits as well as its unintended consequences, and because "these realities [of our time and place] point to the possibility of a major crisis within the heartland of the neoliberal order itself" [Ibid.].

    Neoliberalism is rife with economic and political contradictions. These can be contained through locally damaging but globally manageable financial crises, but only at the cost of practices departing significantly from neoliberal theory [Ibid.]. This suggests that despite its continuing hegemony in the ideological arena, neoliberalism is "in trouble if if not actually dead as a viable theoretical guide to ensuring the future of capital accumulation" [Ibid.]. Moreover, the contradictions of neoliberalism cannot rule out an Argentina-2001-type situation even in US, which would have catastrophic consequences for local as well as global capitalism [189]. This is of course a doomsday scenario, but as Harvey argues (and backs up with a painstaking reconstruction and expansion of Marx in his stellar The Limits to Capital), "there is a limit to which this system can progress" [190].

    That there's a limit means not only that it is increasingly difficult for American capital to be realized (in Marx's precise sense), but that in simple terms, it's running out of frontier. Rosa Luxemburg (in The Accumulation of Capital) famously argued that capitalism needs a non-capitalist outside to survive (for example: a crisis of over-accumulation in the centers of global capitalism can be mitigated by forcing open "primitive" or "under-developed" foreign markets through economic pressure or open imperialism). This theoretical insight has been critiqued, refined and expanded by subsequent theorists, but at bottom it means that capitalism survives via periodic cycles of primitive accumulation or, as Harvey prefers to term it, "accumulation by dispossession". At the most general level, a look at recent history appears to bear this insight out. What we are witnessing now in the US, especially as regards the housing bubble and the ruination of vast swaths of the population through consumer debt, is a truly cannibalistic form of capitalism: American capital, effectively, is visiting accumulation by dispossession on American citizens.

    An unworkable, cannibalistic neoliberal order will either fall on account of its own contradictions, in particular the class struggle it perpetuates and exacerbates, or it will consolidate its class rule by more and more open neoconservative authoritarianism (neoconservatism being a natural rather than monstrous or unaccountable offspring of neoliberalism). As Harvey states, "regimes of accumulation rarely if ever dissolve peacefully" [189]. Neoliberalism will not go gentle into that good night for the very reason that it is about class power, and not about economic efficiency and material abundance for the many. We can expect that the struggles surrounding the G20 coordinated austerity plan and so on will only sharpen as things develop. We can also expect increasingly open class warfare on the part of the rich to the extent that their economic "solutions" reveal themselves for what they are: accumulation by dispossession visited on the general public, with a view to further enriching the upper class. If class warfare on the part of the dispossessed is also inevitable, to the extent that this category embraces an increasingly large portion of the general population, the field is ripening for insurrection and - this is our hope in any case - for revolution.

    This opens the question of the particular characteristics, direction(s) and prospects of the emergent resistance to the neoliberal order. If the recent G20 convergence in Toronto has taught us anything, it's that parliamentary politicians and the traditional organized or "official" Left continue to play the same game as their neoliberal masters. A Black Bloc of a few hundred smashing corporate storefronts caused a mass moral panic among a Left that could not even conceive of the moral rightness of property damage against the order that it professes to oppose. The official Left did the conservative government and mainstream media's job admirably in quickly denouncing militant comrades as terrorists, criminals, or agents-provocateurs. This is an exemplary case of what Lukacs long ago identified as the fetishization of legalism; apparently the mainstream Canadian Left is incapable of imaging cases where tactics may be illegal, but also morally right and pragmatically called for. Evidently, it has not even done the necessary prerequisite work of untangling the questions of legality, morality, and tactical soundness.

    Harvey himself speculates on the shape of the resistance to come, taking shots at Hardt-and-Negri style abstractions as well as principled narrowly-focused local activism. There must be a global analysis to guide the resistance, but he allows that an expanded account of the local will continue to be a vital point of leverage in future struggles. Essentially, demands, agendas and tactics must be locally tailored and appropriate, but they must also be revolutionary - and this, precisely, entails a view to unity and an emergent form of activist organization. Neoliberalism's self-serving, empty and formally negative rights discourse must also be opposed by a more robust and positive vision of human rights, namely in terms of a right to economic security and prosperity.

    The main lesson to take away from Harvey, in any case, is the following: "if it looks like class struggle and acts like class war then we have to name it unashamedly for what it is. The mass of the population has either to resign itself to the historical and geographical trajectory defined by overwhelming and ever-increasing upper-class power, or respond to it in class terms" [202]. In practical terms this means a subject-position cleansed of a neoliberal "common sense" that would have over seventy percent of Canadian citizens cheerfully condoning the repressive actions of a police force hired to ensure that dispossession of public assets could go unimpeded. As regards the general content of this subject-position, the Industrial Workers of the World put it best perhaps, in the preamble to their constitution: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common."

    Imagining Collectivities: Fragmenting Analysis

    We live in a world which defies models and reductionism. Borders only have meaning within certain contexts. But what about that which transcends these limited vantages? The tired example is that of the transnational corporation operating globally, but what about the flexibility of media models like MTV? On July 12, 2006 - Professor of English and American Language and Literature at Harvard University - Homi Bhabha remarked that MTV acts as an instrument of cultural war moving from one dominating culture and destroying others. Yes, here in Korea, where I am currently living, MTV is marginally different from its American counterpart. And it has been fashioned from Korean cultural materials but the style and manifestation of music as culturally related and practiced is still in the mold of the original. More than the concern over cultural integration and globalization my concern here rests on application of theory. We can no longer divide our histories, our politics, our cultural and anthropological investigations on Gramscian borders which increasingly matter less. Rather Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization by Arjun Appadurai, published by the University of Minnesota in 1996, argues for seeing each study, each investigation according to its particular geography and context.

    For Appadurai, an anthropologist teaching at New York University, collective imagination has become an impetus for the formation of identity. mass media molds this collective imagination in turn. For Appadurai, localities are no longer able to be studied in isolation but must be studied in a postnational and transcultural set of frameworks. Although even this set should be regarded suspiciously and disregarded in favor of specificity.

    Appadurai’s theoretical framework conceives of the collective identities of different cultural groups as comprised of imagined selves. This no doubt leans heavily on Benedict Anderson's works but brings it still further. His premise contains within it the notion that the imagination plays a new role in group identity formation. He asserts that within the imaginations of people located throughout space a platform for the construction of a plurality of imagined worlds has been formed. Each of these imagined worlds must be taken unto itself as opposed to an simple political model, as Anderson has done. One cannot look at capitalism solely through a political or economic lens. Rather, we should consider the especial spacial relationship of a study relative to it its actual location within a network of human imaginations. Increasingly, departments are moving towards transnational studies and complex compartmentalizations of their faculty for good reason.

    Appadurai therefore argues for the study of mediascapes, technoscapes, ideoscapes, and other frames of reference as starting points for reinventing our perception of the global distributions of ideas and imagined realities. Citizens imagine themselves as part of a territorially defined community. Other identities are constructed in much the same way; that is through a collective imagining based on the collective consumption of shared media, technology, ethnicity, and other forms of collectivity or self reference.

    Though the theory is built for anthropology, its applications are myriad. Appadurai is an anthropologist so he is concerned primarily with helping to form a theoretical framework from which to proceed in developing his field. History, Philosophy, and literature too can benefit from mobilizing these concepts.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010

    Cormac McCarthy, "All the Pretty Horses"

    (Vintage, 1993)

    There's a metaphysic, an entire universe at the bottom of McCarthy's fiction; the hard part for me has been to dig it up, and the following is simply a musing on that topic.

    McCarthy seems, for the most part, to deliver a chaotic, almost high-modernist metaphysic of chance and naked force (see in particular No Country for Old Men or Blood Meridian). But the more I read him, the more I'm convinced that this can't be the whole picture. All the Pretty Horses, the first book in his acclaimed Border Trilogy, is rife with symbols and discursions betokening the aforementioned universe of constant, chaotic change. Something else emerges however: as long as I'm bandying about "isms", I might call it a negative Romanticism or something close to that.

    The book is a Western set in the early 1950s near the Texas-Mexico border. The main protagonist finds himself homeless at the age of sixteen, and enlists a friend to travel with him by horseback to Mexico in search of work and adventure. A third youngster, a stranger, joins them on the road, and this eventually sets off a series of violent events which escape the protagonists' control. In the meantime, however, they find work with a rich landowner/rancher. The main protagonist falls in love with the rancher's daughter, becomes her lover, and attempts to overcome the massive obstacles put in their way.

    For me, the following passage sums up the entire novel: "He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he'd first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he'd presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and he felt a loneliness he'd not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world's heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world's pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower".

    Nature is not an infinitely creative source of abundance as in Romanticism, but rather an insatiably vampiric entity dragging down beauty, or allowing it to appear only briefly, and at an exhorbitant cost. One thinks here of the bleakness of The Road, but on further reflection the fragility of beauty and goodness in an otherwise indifferent or malevolent world is a constant theme throughout McCarthy's fiction. Humanity itself is ephemeral; it is in any case bought at what may seem too high a price, as the main protagonists of both The Road and All the Pretty Horses learn firsthand. In general the Western is, perhaps, one of the best genres through which to lay all this bare. Of McCarthy's Westerns, however, I would suggest that the interested reader start with All the Pretty Horses lest the novelization of this metaphysic offered by what is arguably his best work, Blood Meridian, prove altogether too terrifying or unpalatable.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010

    The Real Nihilists

    My friend Ideas Man has written a sharp essay on the Creation Museum, built near the Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky border, in the suburbs of Cincinnati. I didn't know about the museum until he wrote about it, but let's just say that I live north of the so-called culture wars (although the Conservative government has put some effort into stoking such idiocy up here).

    His verdict is that the museum did not meet his basic expectations...
    • We'd expected to have sophistical arguments thrown at us designed to confuse us.
    • We'd expected to have cultural conservativism thrust down us: anti-abortion, anti gay-rights, maybe anti roll and roll, yaddah yaddah yaddah.
    • We'd expected implicit jingoism, pro-capitalism, yaddah yaddah yaddah --- in other words, the weird amalgam of economic libertarianism and traditionalist populism that marks the ideology of the religious right.  We'd expected that to be front and center.
    ...but rather the museum presented a narrative of sacrifice and violence that cleaved the world into believers and non-believers, for which creation and evolution are shibboleths:
    They see men of God doing violence to people and animals, and they are told that that violence is an inevitable result of sin (but note, again, it's not the world doing the violence, as in the traditional account of Christianity, it's the men of God).  The crucifixion is represented as the apotheosis of this violence.  We are told that this violence that we've been undergoing has been prefiguring the Crucifixion.  And Jesus, who is represented as the "sacrificial lamb," is given the name of the last Adam, the first sacrificer.  Then, we are reminded that, after all, it's our choice: same facts, different interpretations.  You can interpret them in the godly way (the way that the doers of violence interpret them) or in the human way (the way that those who will have violence done to them do).
    The violence is accented, and any sense of redemption and social justice is minimized; the creation narrative is recasted according to a paranoid and persecuted style of politics.

    Reading about these things always reminds me that religious people really are the real nihilists, because in the worldview described above, there's either their transcendent values or no values at all. They make existentialists, secularists, atheists, historical materialists and even some other religious believers, who believe that humanity makes its own history (and thus its own values) in conditions that it does not choose, sound like optimists and humanists.

    Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    "A Brief History of Neoliberalism," Chapter 6

    Chapter Six puts neoliberalism "on trial," and the central question is whether the implementation of neoliberalism has done what its ideological proponents claim it does: protect individual freedom and increase his or her free choice.

    Not to spoil the fun, but we already know. We've lived through the financial crisis and everything that's followed. But this does not render Harvey's analysis in Chapter Six redundant or obsolete. It documents many of the warning signs, and provides markers for making sense of what seems to be yet another reinforcement of class power, at least concerning the weak reforms proposed in the United States. [1]

    But more importantly, Harvey provides a analytical toolkit to evaluate whether or not neoliberalism continues by different means, for he argues that neoliberalism is much more pragmatic than ideological. While its ideological proponents might bluster about mistakes they might have made (Writing this reminds me of a line from David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas: "Where there's bluster, there's duplicity"), much of--if not all-- the financial and institutional infrastructure is still in place. Even if, before the crash, neoliberalism had failed to stimulate worldwide growth [2], and even if "all global indicators on health levels, life expectancy, infant mortality, and the like show losses rather than gains in well-being since the 1960s" (p. 154), several tenets of neoliberalism seem unshakable.

    Which leaves us with the class power thesis: neoliberalism proved appealing because it provides a system for re-entrenching class power domestically and redistributing wealth from the global south to the global north's financial centers. I don't think it's a stretch to argue that two of the crucial analytical indicators of the retreat of neoliberalism would be the reversal of these trends. There are two other indicators that I think we should watch (that is, on which we should focus in out critiques).  

    First, accumulation by dispossession. Harvey renovates what Marx called "primitive accumulation," because dispossession is an ongoing, rather than completed, process. The concept includes (among other things) privatization and commodification, financialization, closure of commons, transfer of state or public property rights to private property rights, and "a raft of techniques such as the extraction of rents from patents and intellectual property rights [sometimes stolen from the general intellect of indigenous or  might we say 'underprivatized' populations --D.Z.S.]  and the diminution or erasure of various forms of common property rights (such as state pensions, paid vacations, and access to education and health care) won through a generation or more of class struggle" (pp. 159-160).

    Second, the prevalence of NGOs in overexploited regions. Often NGOs fill the void left by a collapse in public services in the face of political or environmental crisis. And while they can fulfill basic needs, they do not provide a long term solution to crisis (that is, if they aren't part of fomenting a crisis as a front group for particular interested parties-- think US involvement in Venezuela). Because NGOs are not accountable to local populations and often negotiate directly with state or class power, they cannot or do not step out of the neoliberal framework, but rather reinforce it (p.177). It might be worth quoting what I wrote in a review, loosely speaking, of Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood:
    Non-governmental Organizations are not neutral. This is a difficult point to get across. First, it probably has to do with the neutral sounding name, when many of these groups could properly be called, in the case of Haiti, Ideological Counter-state Apparatuses. Hallward shows how the operation of NGOs allows 'rich countries a morally respectable way of subcontracting the sovereignty of the nations they exploit' (179). While some of these groups do respectable work with the poor and exploited, the problem remains that their primary responsibility is to the sources of their funding, which means that they function according to a mandate set not by the people of Haiti, but to rich donors outside of the country. Instead of directly giving foreign aid to the government, where it has the possibility of being utilized according to a plan (here health, there jobs, there education), these tasks are privatized, fragmented, and often rely on elite contacts for local distribution, which reproduces class inequality.
    Let's not forget that some of the same people who are out re-establishing class power are the same that sit on the boards of some NGOs. Which reminds me of a problem that I have about Harvey's use of 'upper class' or 'elite' to designate class power. While I admit that 'bourgeoisie' sounds dusty and Victorian, these other terms seem to be too available for capture within non-Marxist, parliamentarian, and/or wrongheaded right-wing critiques of 'power' or, might we say, class power. The question is, how can we designate the ruling class of the contemporary order, in a way that describes it concisely and accurately?

    These trends can only be reversed by movements that can establish alternate forms of social organization, that can move from local resistance to broader democratic governance (and I don't mean that in a parliamentarian sense). As difficult or abstract as such projects sound, fighting the global resources of capitalism demands/requires movements that can establish-- or organize?-- "freedom of speech and expression, of education and economic security, rights to organize unions, and the like" as primary freedoms, while making  "property rights and the profit rate derivative" (p. 182).

    Matt's going to finish our reading of A Brief History of Neoliberalism this week by discussing 'Freedom's Prospect.'


    [1] I've previously discussed some of the proposed strong reforms here.

    [2] The numbers: "Aggregate global growth rates stood at 3.5 per cent or so in the 1960s and even during the troubled 1970s fell to only 2.4 per cent. But the subsequent growth rates of 1.4 per cent and 1.1 percent for the 1980s and 1990s (and a rate that barely touches 1 per cent for 2000) indicate that neoliberalization has broadly failed to stimulate worldwide growth" even with the deficit spending of the United States and China (p. 154).

    Sunday, July 11, 2010

    The Road to Serfdom...In Cartoon Form!

    I know, with all this talk about A Brief History of Neoliberalism, that you've just been dying to get your hands on some of the theoretical classics-- a kind of Verso's Radical Thinkers series in reverse-- from the key figures. Fortunately, a cartoon version of Friedrich A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom can save you lots of time, and you don't even have to feel guilty about it: I've heard that not a few Randians first 'read' Hayek in this form. Originally published in Look Magazine in 1945, and paid for by General Motors...what was that class power thesis that we were discussing again?

    In case you're wondering, the host site-- for the Ludwig von Mises Institute-- isn't being ironic.

    Saturday, July 10, 2010

    Russian Neo Nazis and Global Neoliberal Capitalism

    The majority of the world lives in poverty. Parts of the world enjoy wealth that millions will never come close to experiencing. This disparity has created huge incentives for people from poorer regions to migrate into wealthier countries, legally or illegally. This is leading to race and ethnic conflict on a global scale: Germans against Turks in Germany, French against North Africans in France, whites against Mexicans in the US and so on. There are racists that truly believe in the supremacy of race and ethnicity, but these individuals are not the reason for increase in societal conflict. The rise of racial and ethnic tensions is due to economic catastrophe.

    This video, made a few years back, revealed the emergence of violent Neo-Nazis in Russia. This video is disturbing and can make the viewer feel angry. It would be misleading to watch this and assume the root to this violence is Hitler and his contemporary followers. There will always be Nazis and other various forms of racists (all of which are not violent). However, their ideas only have mass influence in crisis.

    Another hero to some in Russia is Stalin. Not because he was Communist, but a strong leader that brought order and international respect to Russia. In a world of uncertainty and turmoil "stabilizers" from the past will always seem like a panacea to current troubles. That is why it is important for the Left to not get caught up in obsession with "deviant" groups. It is understood, we must take on thugs as they come. Lest we forget, the greatest thugs are the architects of the neo-liberal capitalist world order. This video shows what comes about in countries under their control. The ruling class prefer violence to be horizontal, not vertical.

    Friday, July 9, 2010

    "A Brief History of Neoliberalism," Chapter 5

    While Chapter 4 of David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism outlines the uneven geographical implementation of neoliberalism, Chapter 5 analyzes the "peculiar path" of China's entry, via  the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping, into an increasingly neoliberalized and globalized economy (although it is more proper to say 're-entry' regarding the longue durée of China's relationship to global political economy). [1] Whether the outcome is socialism 'with Chinese characteristics' or privatization 'with Chinese characteristics,' the transformation of China's economy over the last thirty years has led to high growth, a rising standard of living, but also dramatic inequalities of wealth between urban and rural populations, with the resulting unrest and instability that such inequalities produce. [2] Much of this growth has been export led, and as such, China has benefited from the international frameworks for trade and finance that have promoted neoliberalism.

    Unsurprisingly, especially for those who have been following our discussion, the central question for Harvey is whether the transformation of China's economy has led to the reconstitution of upper class power. His analysis is focused and does not lapse into shock and awe that the more popular punditry has produced while discussing China (some of these tendencies are described in Perry Anderson's review for the London Review of Books entitled "Sinomania"). Harvey argues that China has constructed "a particular kind of market economy that increasingly incorporates neoliberal elements interdigitated with authoritarian centralized control" (p. 120). In this regard, the salient features of China's political economy are:
    • Accumulation by dispossession. Privatization of communal property and steps toward the financialization of the economy has created speculative bubbles in real estate. Corporatization of state owned enterprises followed by buyouts of worker shareholding (sometimes through coercive means) and state bailouts of non-performing loans have transferred large amounts of wealth to the elite. Yet class formation, Harvey argues, has been a complicated affair; while reforms have prevented "the formation of any coherent capitalist class power bloc within China," they have not prevented, through a combination of corruption, clientelism, and opportunism, a "growing integration of party and business elites in ways that are all too common in the US" (pp. 123, 150).
    • Steep inequalities produced by uneven geographical development. Economic reform has reinforced social inequality between urban and rural areas. Not only is there a large disparity in income, there are reductions in social services and the implementation of user fees for public services. Residency restrictions (separating town and country) have led to a labor force of peasants (especially young women) that-- lacking legal protection-- is "vunerable to super-exploitation" not only through low wages, but also through non-payment of wages and pension obligations (p. 148).
    • Proletarianization. The working class has nearly tripled between 1978 and 2000, increasing from 120 million to 350 million (270 million workers plus 70 million peasants who have found wage work). Greater flexibility (that is, precariousness) in the labor market, and uneven geographical development has produced large labor surpluses that the Chinese state has confronted through public deficit spending, on dam projects, and massive projects in infrastructure and public transportation. [3]
    Nevertheless, China cannot just deficit spend its way out of political upheaval. As Giovanni Arrighi notes in Adam Smith in Beijing, "public order disruptions" (protests, riots, and other forms of unrest) have increased from around 10,000 in 1993 to 87,000 in 2005. [4] Harvey concludes with remarks on the possibilities for political subjectivity and mass movements in China. Rather than paraphrase, this passage is worth quoting at length:
    Both state and migrant workers, [S.K. Lee] suggests, reject the term working class and refuse 'class as the discursive frame to constitute their collective experience'. Nor do they see themselves as 'the contractual, juridical, and abstract labour subject normally assumed in theories of capitalist modernity', bearing individual legal rights. They typically appeal instead to the traditional Maoist notion of the masses constituted by 'workers, the peasantry, the intelligentsia and the national bourgeoisie whose interests were harmonious with each other and also with the state'. In this way workers 'can make moral claims for state protection, reinforcing the leadership and responsibility of the state to those it rules'. The aim of any mass movement, therefore, would be to make the central state live up to its revolutionary mandate against foreign capitalists, private interests, and local authorities (pp. 149-150).
    Whether the Chinese state responds to these challenges through outright repression, opportunist intervention, class compromise, or through a more egalitarian redistribution of wealth remains to be seen.

    Next week, we will conclude with Chapters Six and Seven.


    [1] Recall, of course, Mao's well-known remark that Deng was a secret 'capitalist roader.'
    [2] Not to mention large scale and rapid environmental degradation.
    [3] Deficit spending, and Chinese state control of capital flow run counter to the "global rules of the IMF, the WTO, and the US Treasury." While Harvey notes that these kind of economic practices cannot continue "in perpetuity" due to China's agreements with the WTO (for example), it's not difficult to notice that China uses its large holdings in US debt for political leverage.
    [4] See Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing (London: Verso, 2007), 377.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010

    "A Brief History of Neoliberalism", Chapter 4

    Harvey emphasizes the "universal tendency [of neoliberalism] to increase social inequality and to expose the least fortunate elements in society ... to the chill winds of austerity and the dull fate of increasing marginalization" [118]. This tendency is no accident. Recall that he interprets neoliberalization as a redistributive process: the rich, through force of arms, political maneuvering and the construction of mass consent, gut social infrastructure and break or co-opt organized labour and social movements in order to line their own pockets and cement their class power. Chapter 4 describes the geo-historical particulars of this process over the past few decades. Neoliberalization has had far from universal consequences on the world stage. Harvey enumerates local conditions, geo-political and other particular factors to sketch an explanation of why some countries have fared better than others, and why at particular times. Nonetheless, he suggests that neoliberalism, which touts itself as the only cure for sick economies, is neither a panacea, nor, but for the very small minority of the ultra-rich, anything resembling a medicine.

    The proof that neoliberalism is about class power and not about economic efficiency and abundance is in the numbers. Harvey underscores that the true economic success stories of the 80s and early 90s belonged not to countries implementing neoliberal policies, but more mixed economies like Germany and Japan, which followed corporatist or at least more traditonal/integrated models of employment and social spending. Such models "did not, however, facilitate the restoration of class power" [89]. Those pushing the neoliberal agenda had therefore to discipline these economies and bring them full stop into the neoliberal fold. Harvey enumerates the components of their project: the "turn to more open financialization" (i.e. speculative capital) [90], "the increasing geographical mobility of capital" (outsourcing, etc) [92], persuasion, cajoling and coercion of many "developing countries" by the "Wall Street-IMF-Treasury complex" dominating the Clinton years (recall the fate of post-Apartheid South Africa) [92], and finally, the "ever more powerful ideological influence" exerted by "the global diffusion of the new monetarist and neoliberal economic orthodoxy" [93]. These factors came together to form the so-called "Washington Consensus" of the mid-90s, cementing the view that neoliberalism is the only answer to what ails the world's economies.

    So here we are in 2010 in the midst of a protracted global economic crisis. Neoliberalism has continued to wreak havoc on the environment and punish the most marginalized. South American countries, having had more than enough neoliberalism (it was there that neoliberalization was first pulled off, by open violence), experiment with different economic models. Insurrectionary anti-capitalist situations are blooming in Greece, Nepal and India.

    The question becomes: why, given all this mass unrest and the repeated failure of neoliberal policies to provide a stable and healthy economy, are we swallowing the neoliberal pill the G20 has offered us? Naomi Klein has pointed out in The Shock Doctrine that neoliberalism is an ideology, in the sense that it seals itself off hermetically by employing the fallacy of "the exception that proves the rule". Refuting instances, for example massive unemployment and social unrest resulting from neoliberalization, are chalked up to not enough neoliberalization. Even when austerity measures provoke widespread revolt, the neoliberal line is to continue to insist that the market is distorted by state intervention, or, more baldly, to claim that the people losing their jobs and social programs are personally responsible, and in any case simply ignorant of the benefits that will come. The argument that neoliberal policies are necessary to foster "a good business climate", so ubiquitous as to seem a tautology, is similarly ideological [117]. Given that neoliberalization consistently produces mass social unrest, it is unclear how it is able to claim that it is best suited to attract investors.

    In Canada, where the G20 was recently hosted, the situation does not appear to be so bad. Nonetheless, we feel the effects of the global meltdown and are told that cutting public infrastructure will somehow get us back on our feet. The Toronto police ever so politely reminded us with rubber bullets, sound cannons, kettling, illegal searches, detentions, and even made-up laws that it is very naughty of us to show our disagreement. Heartbreakingly, over seventy percent of Canadians feel the police response was justified, and almost no one has even bothered to look into how the G20 mandate affects them. But this is only consistent with what Harvey is saying: "It has been part of the genius of neoliberal theory to provide a benevolent mask full of wonderful-sounding words like freedom, liberty, choice, and rights, to hide the grim realities of the restoration or reconstitution of naked class power, locally as well as transnationally, but most particularly in the main financial centres of global capitalism" [119].

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010

    Schelling, the 'Secret' Pythagorean?

    Sure, his manuscripts (those that survived destruction in World War II) probably don't contain a hidden numerology, but we couldn't let Plato be the only philosopher recently 'outed' for Pythagorean tendencies. In his lectures given in 1802-1804 and later collected under the title of The Philosophy of Art, Schelling writes:
    to the extent that the eternal things or the ideas are revealed from the real side within cosmic bodies, the forms of music as the forms of ideas viewed concretely are also the forms of the being and life of the cosmic bodies as such; hence, music is nothing other than the perceived rhythm and harmony of the visible universe itself. 
    After noting that Pythagoras was the first proponent of this view, Schelling continues:
    People have usually understood Pythagoras's doctrine of the music of the spheres quite crassly, namely, to the effect that the fast movements of such large bodies must cause resonance. Because these bodies rotate with different yet measured velocity and in increasingly expanded circles, this resonance generates a consonant harmony organized according to the tonal relationships of music, such that the solar system resembles a seven-stringed lyre. This view takes the whole affair empirically. Pythagoras does not say that these movements cause music, but rather that they themselves are music. This indwelling movement needed no external medium through which to become music. It was music within itself, or inherently.

    Monday, July 5, 2010

    Plato, the 'Secret' Pythagorean?

    The claim that Plato embedded, in the structure of his dialogues, a musical substructure, has been making the rounds lately (even showing up on NPR; I first saw it here). On his website, Jay Kennedy writes that:
    Plato used a consistent scheme of symbols to embed a musical structure in each genuine dialogue. In short, each dialogue was divided into twelve parts. At each twelfth, i.e., at 1/12, 2/12, etc., Plato inserted passages to mark the notes of a musical scale. This regular structure resembles a known Greek scale. According to Greek musical theory, some notes in such a scale are harmonious (if they form a small whole number ratio with the twelfth note) and the others are dissonant or neutral.  Plato's symbolic passages are correlated with the relative values of the musical notes. At more harmonious notes, Plato has passages about virtue, the forms, beauty, etc.; at the more dissonant notes, there are passages about vice, negation, shame, etc. This correlation is one kind of strong evidence that the structure is a musical scale. 
    This, of course, has prompted not a few skeptical responses (see the comments on Leiter's blog). The most obvious being that, since we have no access to the original scrolls (contra the implication of NPR's shorthand), the author has to make several assumptions to get this thesis off the ground, which introduces a creeping sense of a vicious circle.

    I think the second most obvious problem is that it doesn't strike me that Plato was all too secret about his affinities with Pythagoreanism, in like, you know, the Phaedo or the Timeaus.

    Which makes Kennedy sound like he's overstated his case. What might be an interesting technique to reopen the 'spurious works' question becomes a technique to discover Plato's secret, positive doctrine, which in turn is crammed into a solution for an already false-dilemma'd-debate about science and religion (I suppose that the reader was expecting that I would take the discussion in this direction). Kennedy again:
    Today we hear much of the culture wars between believers and atheists, between those who insist our world is imbued with meaning and value and those who argue for materialism and evolution. For Plato, music was mathematical and mathematics was musical. In particular, we hear musical notes harmonising with each other when their pitches form simple ratios. For him, the perception of this beauty in music was at once the perception of a beauty inherent in mathematics. Thus mathematics and the laws governing our universe were imbued with beauty and value: they were divine. Modern scientists don't ask where their fundamental laws come from; for Plato, the beauty and order inherent in mathematical law meant its source was divine (a Pythagorean version of modern deism). Plato may light a middle way through today's culture wars.  
    I don't know exactly where to start with this, but telling people that a mathematical structure underlies the universe (imagine the looks on the faces of today's fundamentalist Christians...) isn't a solution to that debate, because the debate is about legitimating a social sense of normativity. The religious claim that normativity is derived from faith in some objective (though 'revealed' value), while the New Atheists claim that normativity can be derived from science. Despite their differences, both sides avoid granting that people make their own history in conditions that they have not chosen, that political praxis and social struggle enact as much normativity as we're going to get (see also this article by Ronald Aronson). As we know, and Jacques Ranciere never tires of reminding us, Plato wasn't too keen on that.

    Saturday, July 3, 2010

    Is the Dalai Lama a Mean Theocrat?

    The Dalai Lama is viewed internationally as a hero and saintly man. This exiled leader of Tibet certainly has a charismatic smile. He has spiritual authority over Tibetans and heads the exile government of Tibet located in India. Tibet has been occupied and controlled by China since 1951.

    The Dalai Lama will have his birthday July 6. He has spent most of his life working to get his country's sovereignty back. The Free Tibet website states, "Across the world people will be freely and publicly celebrating the Dalai Lama’s 75th birthday, but in Tibet people are unable to do so without risking terrible punishment. They cannot even pray openly for his long life or burn incense to mark his birthday, as is traditional." The irony is that the Dalai Lama currently enacts the same draconian punishment against Dorje Shugden worshipers. The Western Shugden Society's website says, "In March 1996, in an aggressive and threatening manner, the Dalai Lama stated that there would be a forceful implementation of the ban against those who persisted in the practice of Dorje Shugden....This persecution has been enforced since 1996 and still continues."

    This 1998 Swiss Television documentary reveals an unambiguous despotism by the Dalai Lama. In no way does his behavior somehow validate China's occupation of Tibet. It also does not justify China's treatment of Tibetans. Yet, it does deconstruct the Western fantasy regarding Tibet's legacy of mystic feudalism. A theocracy is a theocracy.

    Part 1 of 3 (I am only posting two clips)

    Part 3 of 3.

    Friday, July 2, 2010

    David Harvey Animated

    I know that Joshua is usually our go-to guy for the weekend Youtube videos (and he should have something up this weekend as well), but the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) Animate has created an animated version of one of David Harvey's recent talks.

    I'm sure, as we've been reading through A Brief History of Neoliberalism, that not a few readers have wondered, when confronted with passages such as...
    Nevertheless, these configurations of political economy remained difficult to map, although the totality of their relations are typically now referred to as neoliberalism, a concept that encompasses the aforementioned compression of time-space, the conservative counterrevolution that captured state power in various metropoles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the postmodernization (if I can be permitted such a term) of culture.
      ...if there wasn't some kind of animated précis of the material. And now there is. 

    The video jumps at a few crucial moments (where you just know that Harvey's going to start talking about the character of the 'spatial fix,' etc.) but it does summarize the advantages of Marxist analysis, and it does so with a bit of humor.