Archive for the ‘Capitalism’ Category
In “Language and Politics,” Noam Chomsky makes what I think is an oft’ repeated remark summarizing capitalism:
I mean, don’t really have capitalism, we have some variant of it. But if you think about the ideal form, which we approximate to some extent, I mean, capitalism is a system where everything is for sale, and the more money you have, the more you can get.
My emphasis. When Chomsky says that everything is for sale, he’s referring to how the market mediates our access to pretty much everything. It’s the mode of distribution, whereby things like chairs, lettuce and even human labor are distributed from producer to consumer by way of a transaction or exchange we call a sale – though that isn’t an entirely accurate way of describing it, but I’ll get to that.
There’s another side how everything comes to be for sale, because all the stuff that’s for sale had to be produced. So, the flip-side is that in a world where everything is for sale, everything is produced to be sold. We could say, in a way, that everything becomes a cash-crop. When I said that a producer selling something to a consumer (directly or indirectly through middle-men) is not really well described by the notion of distribution, that’s because producers for the most part don’t make things that are directly consumed by them or anyone else. Most of the time, chairs are made and lettuce is grown to be exchanged or sold first and consumed or used only afterward. This ought to weight heavy on the minds of those who advocate sustainable agriculture and small-time farming.
Many people think of farming as a business like any other, which only goes to show how “everything is for sale.” Farmers are seen as businessmen producing a product for exchange first and consumption second. It’s often the case that they keep some of their own product for their own and their family’s consumption, or maybe they feed it to their livestock, but the dominant character of that production is that it is for exchange. Most small-time farmers, to say nothing of the corporate ones, who farm for a living are producing most of their food not for other people to eat but to buy. Often enough the first party to whom it’s “distributed” is a middle-man called a distributor or maybe a grocery-store. It’s highly unlikely that they’re going to eat any of it themselves; their purpose in buying it is to re-sell it at a profit (Money > Commodity > More Money Than Before). They pay their workers wages or salaries to go buy food for themselves (though they may offer them a “deal” to give the company back some of the wages they just paid them).
Sometimes product is sold at at a Farmers’ Market. There, the relationship between producer and consumer is about as direct as you can get. The food is grown/processed by the farmer and sold directly to the person(s) who will likely eat it themselves (or with their family). However, these farmer-market stands aren’t enough to sustain the farmers on their own on such direct terms. If they don’t have a “real job,” or subsidies, they are usually supplemented by selling in other venues (grocery-stores or restaurants or to organizations that process the food entirely different products), if only because the farmer (and even their family) cannot directly and by themselves sell enough product (while also being a farmer) to make the money they need for all the things they can only pay for with money (taxes, materials/tools, and most labor). They may employ labor and have an ongoing vegetable-stand, but then they probably have to pay for the labor (either to work the stand while they farm or to farm while they work the stand, or more likely some combination of both). The workers may get a cut of the product as partial compensation, but they usually need money, which means more has to be produced in order to sell it in order to get the money to pay for such things.
Farmers who directly sell are in a relatively unique position compared to grocery-stores to deal with unsold product. They can eat it rather than throw it away. Assuming it’s still good but not “sell-able,” they can eat it and that directly sustains them. This is not so in stores and restaurants who often forbid employees from eating food destined for or already in the trash. One rationale has to do with hygiene, but I know from personal experience that this legitimately applies to about a quarter to a third of all food considered “unsellable.” Often enough it looks unattractive from being exposed to the air if it’s a fresh-made food, or is so close to expiring that the management wants to restock but must clear the space to put fresher product there, or they just want to make sure it gets pulled off the shelf lest it sits there until it’s “sell by” date. This food is destined for the trash and it is a terminable offense to eat it in Kroger stores (Fred Meyer in the Pacific Northwest). I knew people who got fired for what is called “grazing,” which is a term they use to also refer to how, say, someone plucks a grape or two off a bunch in sitting in the open air in the produce section. This is stealing to them because the product in or going to the garbage, they figure, is their property as much as the product on the shelves, and it is their right to destroy it. The more ridiculous though clearly motivating rationale (I have heard managers say this with a straight face) for this policy is that if workers can have a cut of what heads for the garbage, they will have an incentive to throw things away (as if they weren’t already ordering the workers, through direct commands and policies, to throw away hundreds of pounds of perfectly edible food every day as it is) that they can then eat on the company’s dime. I am getting off on a tangent though, since the points I wanted to make are about production. I’ll say, though, that this management of waste or would-be waste is a direct expression of how everything is for sale (even the garbage isn’t free or common property).
Since my tangent somewhat took the steam out of where I was going with production, I’ll get to the quick and dirty point I made in a comment on Mark Bittman’s NYTimes oped about sustainable agriculture. Namely, to have a serious conversation about sustainable agriculture we need to talk about agriculture as a common resource. That is, as part of the commons. Historically it’s been a chief activity to take place on common-land and is as far as human endeavors go one of the most common (i.e. universally useful and to some extent necessary). It’s the key to sustainable agriculture, because if agriculture remains essentially privatized, the efforts to create sustainable agriculture will continue to benefit those who can “afford” it while under-writing the political, social and environmental costs of unsustainable though immediately lucrative agriculture. I daresay that privatized agriculture is itself unsustainable.
What Mr. Rutten is peddling in the LA Times today is an apology for non-unionized workers’ stockholm syndrome. Most of them have no alternative means of livelihood to the market of private labor contracts that the owning-class monopolizes and co-ordinates to their advantage. The owning-class (speaking on behalf of their god, variously known as the market, capital, economic necessity, value – or if you’re going to get really Old School, Mammon) has told those workers they are going to get less, and being the unorganized lot they are they have had little choice but to accept. However, having so thoroughly identified with the owning-class, these non-unionized workers don’t even begin to think they’ve been screwed by that class and its economic laws of value, growth and capital accumulation. They have been hosed though, and not only should they not be angry at those who refuse to be screwed, but Rutten shouldn’t be trying to legitmate their misplaced resentment. To do so takes us back to 1930s Germany when it was popular to point to the well-organized Jews as not just racial but economic scape-goats for the German workers’ own struggle with global depression. Unions are not to blame for the current economic malaise, which Rutten offers as a token of pseudo-objectivity, but their non-capitulation to the forces of global capitalism is the only hope this country has.
One commenter, who at least seems to have read the comment I left on this article (essentially reproduced above), lashes back:
So we should all have contracts/pensions/free healthcare like the public employee unions? And we would all be better off and thrive happily ever after?
Hey, What the heck. It worked well for GM and Greece. Lets give it a try.
I never said anything about happily ever after. This union-busting stuff is part of a struggle to which we may see no clear-cut end in our lives. I make no arguments about the economic desirability of unions either (i.e. from the “bargain” perspective). Yes, though, we should ALL have the kind of livelihoods that public employees unions (fight to) secure for them. That this is at odds with an economic system rooted in principles of value, growth and capital accumulation is an argument against the latter.
Armando Salvatore wrote this great essay for The Immanent Frame about the pitfalls of Egypt’s revolutionary moment. The way he ends up talking about the State in terms of Zizek’s cartoonish cat – that has stepped over the precipice but fails or refuses (or to use a Zizekian term, short circuits) to recognize there is nothing holding it up – should be applied to all talk of the economy. I don’t just mean the official cult known as finance, but the much more pervasive popular following behind value, its production and accumulation, and profit. Zizek’s Tom and Jerry analogy, as worn out as it threatens to become, has to be applied not just to the capitalist nomenklatura, but the larger population of devoted capitalists – everyday people who operate on a principle of “getting ahead” and affirm that in their capacity as consumers, workers and voters.
Armando contends with Zizek’s tired cat-and-mouse analysis though:
If the mythology of revolution indicates a pure state of popular will, the mysticism of the state—its modern political theology—reposes on a redundancy: a mysterious ritual of self-establishment that literally allows it to float in the air without the need to look down; it does not need awareness since it is itself, in Hegelian parlance, the peak of consciousness, spirit incarnate. Every state, by definition, walks on the edge of—and indeed across—a precipice: not just by demanding that millions of citizens comply with the law by imposing just a modicum of violence in routine times but also, as more people in the world are now becoming aware, by piling up hundreds of billions of “sovereign” debt for decades without anybody really worrying about it.
This might happen with or without corruption—surely, if the “fat cats,” all the way up to the president, took a large part of that pile of cash into their own accounts, the cat’s game of floating in the air becomes a caricature of itself. Yet, in itself it is neither a caricature nor a cartoon, but the very image of what the state is about, the outcome of a collective entrancement that makes a docile subject out of popular multitudes who know how to organize themselves. Indeed, matching this kleptomaniac, steady drainage of resources under the regime of Mubarak, these thirty years witnessed a spectacular rise of social self-organization and solidarity in a variety of sectors (health and education first) that has blurred the boundary, imposed by the modern state and its weak imaginary, between “formal” and “informal” associations and networks, between “religious” and “secular” NGOs.
Yet, within the collective trance staged by the state, the multitudes as “the people” are none other than the state. In the trance routine, they are its very collective body: at best, they can imagine inhabiting a parallel space called “civil society,” which, however, only exists and flourishes in a symbiotic relationship with the state and manages to pump citizens’ energies “voluntarily” in the “non-profit” sector, thus creating social cohesion at low or zero cost.
We should think of David Cameron’s “Big Society,” which has this vaguely populist cant to it while simultaneously affirming the sovereignty of the economy and its “leaders” by cutting taxes to the rich and privatizing or simply auctioning off State services and property. Not all Brits seem to be taking to cool-aid, but the vague sense of being taken hostage looms. Just a few years ago, when the market began to crash in the United States, the ultimatum given Congress and Wall Street and not a few well-to-do Main Streeters was that if Wall Street (i.e. the institutional face of capitalism) fell then so would Main Street. Even Zizek wouldn’t or couldn’t admit that Wall Street had stepped off the precipice in 2008 when he repeated in the LRB that
The problem is that there is no way to separate the welfare of Main Street from that of Wall Street. Their relationship is non-transitive: what is good for Wall Street isn’t necessarily good for Main Street, but Main Street can’t thrive if Wall Street isn’t doing well – and this asymmetry gives an a priori advantage to Wall Street.
That ultimatum is really not that unlike “Mubarak or chaos,” which Zizek got right in the Guardian saying ‘The argument for Mubarak – it’s either him or chaos – is an argument against him.” The same stance needs to be taken against the position we hear all the time that if we do not do X (cut taxes on the rich, work longer hours, take care of our own healthcare/retirement, deregulate this or that industry, get rid of or otherwise compromise our unions, make ourselves more competitive, and the like) then jobs will go away, and we’ll starve or else succumb to chaos.
In response to an article from Alter-Net, “Will Avatar’s Pro-Indigenous Narrative Bother Oscar Voters”:
Shouldn’t the title of this piece be “Will Avatar’s Pro-Noble-Savage Narrative Bother Oscar Voters?”
The militaristic invaders are portrayed, in a way, as the actual savages of the film, but few seem to see that the Na’vi (the official or formal “savages” of the film, in Lenin’s sense of actual/formal) are part-n-parcel of our own savageness the film arguably is showing us.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that one of Cameron’s ideas behind the film is an eye-opener about Western imperialism for some (while preaching to the choir for many more, probably). In a very important sense though, the Na’vi don’t exist. They do not exist as savages apart from the savagery of the imperialists. Avatar will do well at the Oscars because it offers a way of enjoying imperialist savagery.
Jacob Libby leaves an excellent comment on my now somewhat old post on Western Buddhism (redux), which I have been meaning to update and otherwise revise. I would like to put it up for its excellence in itself, and as a way point for further discussion. The only thing I will say now (there will be updates) is that I whole-heartedly agree in dropping the true/false-buddhism angle. I even think I have in subsequent posts, when I pick up on Zizek’s critical/therapeutic religion distinction (though I wouldn’t isolate this split to an effect of modernity; Walter Breuggemann employs this same distinction, though without naming it, when discussing “the religion of God’s freedom” and “the religion of God’s accessibility” or religions of transendance and immanence in his book “The Prophetic Imagination”).
Set aside the question of whether Plum Village is capitalist in its Essence. Ask rather, what would it take for Plum Village exist in Port-au-Prince, Haiti? This is the revolutionary question: can Buddhist “practice” undermine the Capitalist relations of production that warp and control the social and economic space of our choices — that ultimately determine where and when Buddhist practice can flourish?
If you love Haiti and you love Buddhism, please read my words!
Joe claims that the Buddhism Zizek critiques is not the real Buddhism. The properly Zizekian response here would be to claim that the division between so-called Western (postmodern) Buddhism and “true” (scriptural) Buddhism is not an aftereffect of Buddhism’s cooptation into America and European society but rather is a primordial cut inherent to Buddhism itself. In other words, the postmodern “interpretation” of Buddhism was part of Buddhism from the beginning, one of its intrinsic possibilities. In this case, Western Buddhism expresses what is to the scriptural Buddhists the repressed core of Buddhism proper, its relativistic complicity with the violence of Global Capital. So, for example, Suzuki’s commentary on affirmation “not conditioned by a negation” (mirroring Nietzsche’s notion of the Yea-sayer as well as Foucault’s double circumscription of meaning and truth in philosophical archaeology) strikes a relativistic chord sharply contrasting Zizek celebration of Divine Violence, which depends upon a double negation. For Zizek, such an act must first step out from the coordinates of world-perpetuating activity by a radically negative gesture of non-participation; only by means of this negating gesture of freedom is the space opened for a true act. In what Zizek would call “a properly Hegelian paradox,” freedom is the condition for freedom.
But does this not put Plum Village alongside the Shanghai Commune and the Paris Commune in a line of radical communities who have dropped out of society and forged ahead with a new non-Capitalist vision? The answer is clearly “No.” No where does Zizek celebrate the apolitical compassion of the sustainable, non-exploitative, and egalitarian Buddhist community. Plum village does not fit alongside the death-defying radicalism of Robespierre or the Red Guard in Zizek’s narrative of world transformation for a simple reason: a Plum Village alive and well in the heart of capitalist Europe offers no fundamental challenge to the hegemony of Global Corporate Power. The Paris Commune and Shanghai commune occurred at the epicenter of world-transformative revolutionary violence — to Zizek they were failed attempts to directly institutionalize the spirit of the revolution. Plum Village is what Zizek would call decaffeinated revolutionary — the impossible revolutionary without the revolution. If, instead, on the proverbial day after the apocalyptic scene at the end of Fight Club — after Tyler Durden destroys the computer databases of the main central banks — yes, then Plum Village would be the site of revolutionary activity (the revolutionization of the revolution) — and Durden’s death would represent his truly Buddhist detachment from commodity fetishism. But without the explosives, the personal transformation does not make it into Zizek’s pantheon: while Global Capital still calls the real shots, still controls the economic realities that interpolate and warp our reality and our choices, Plum Village remains an ideological appendage of Capitalism.
My question is therefore a different one. Does a “True Buddhist” really care whether his faith is admitted into Zizek’s pantheon? If so, why? Does he inwardly doubt this his path can build the world he envisions in the age of global ecological collapse and continental enslavement? The political dynamics of the modern world demand new questions of the original Buddha. The questions of freedom in the age of global finance cannot but change Siddhartha’s path. The modern circumstance begs Buddhism to reveal what is in Buddhism more than Buddhism itself.
And apropos to today: Who will build (and fight for!) a Plum Village in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
(PS: My understanding of Zizek is based on “Tarrying with the Negative”, “Parallax View”, “Violence”, and “In Defense of Lost Causes”)
A thought I posted on facebook, after which a thread of comments follow.
“If there are more skilled social-service jobs, the college-grads forced to work retail or worse will leave, because who the fuck wants to do that, making jobs for the… less-skilled. People who [with regard to Measures 66 and 67 in Oregon] talk about ‘job-killing taxes’ seem to think that everyone wants to work dead-end retail jobs. They’re already there, and a lot of the wrong people are working them.”
Matt Reiter: retail is fun~~~~~~~not.
Eric S. Gregory: So there are ‘right’ people for dead-end retail jobs?
Joe Clement: I had second-thoughts about that the second I hit send. No, Eric, no one should work dead-end retail jobs, though I don’t rule out them out (just the necessity of working them). My point is that those most affected by 66 and 67, especially 67, are those corporations whose job-making potential is largely in this field.
The work they offer is not socially-necessary, which isn’t a backdoor into some bizarroland the libertarians dread where you can only do the work the government offers. There are plenty of medical and education positions these taxes keep, if not expand. Even the unskilled labour that ODOT may employ is more socially necessary than ensuring your complete costumer-satisfaction at Fred Meyers.
To the extent that they do serve a role in keeping Capital in circulation enough (and possibly redirected to more democratic organizations, which I do believe exist, even in the world of necessary goods) that the people don’t choke (a starving population is a lot harder to mobilize than a minimally fed one), I don’t rule out retail jobs.
The point should not be to protect these jobs, but to reduce and ultimately eliminate the ‘necessity’ of working them in the first place. That way, if you really get your jollies frying chicken-strips at the Deli of the Hawthorne Fred Meyers, then you can. Since I doubt many of us would do that kind of thing, organizations like Freddies might either have to downsize or disappear completely.
In a world where the jobs they offer are seen as socially necessary because they’re work period, this would be a disaster. In the world I’m talking about, it’s good riddance.
I also don’t rule out the possibility that in a more equitable environment, working in a grocery-store (a socially-necessary job, unless you assume State-run distribution centers, in which case the grocery-store model I think still makes more sense) could be an unalienated activity.
Whether you prefer some kind of Marxist fisherman-by-day philosopher-by-night approach is for you to decide. I think that many, most probably, would like a monotonous life of steady work in a field they basically like.
Eric S. Gregory: I’m in general agreement, Joe. I just bristle at certain notions of entitlement that might (by implication) exclude or construct a class of others (not that you’re doing this–just wanted to clarify).
At this point in my life, I’ve worked over 30 retail jobs (and I might add that working for the Library–at least the actual work involved–isn’t all that different from working at Borders. I was there for 3 years in the early 90s) and while there were some terrible times, I’ve often found retail jobs to be somewhat liberating–especially for living a nomadic semi-exploratory lifestyle. I don’t even mind the work (I have no problem ‘serving’ people)–it’s the money that ultimately becomes insulting and it’s the money (and benefits–lack thereof) that makes these jobs so easy to take and leave and take and leave and take and leave(hence the liberating aspect). I spent my 20s and 30s moving around the country, living ‘simply,’ doing bands and music, drugs, etc., moving laterally from one shit retail job to the next every year or 2. To some extent, the jobs and the lifestyle went hand in hand and I understood that while working a ‘career’ (ugh) certainly wouldn’t preclude the lifestyle above, it would have made it more difficult (and the “serious” office jobs I worked during those years typically resulted in termination, rather than voluntary abandonment). I still think that the Burger King gig I had in the mid-80s was possibly the best job I’ve ever worked (managers laying out lines of blow and sharing big fat doobies with the workers, showing up tripping out of one’s mind without any worry of job-related paranoia, fucking with peoples’ food, working with probably the most diverse cast of characters I’ve yet encountered).
I’ve always seen dead-end jobs as a means to lifestyle invention/play and as temporary paths and ways around the predictable. But I also had the luxury to position myself as such.
Joe Clement: While no where nearly as glamorous as yur Burger King gig, working at Freddies last year, in the Deli, allows me to say: I can relate. Some of the most satisfying work I did every day (I even looked forward to it, in part because it meant the end of the shift was near) was sweeping/mopping the whole deli. I even contemplated for a whole ten minutes, upon the remarkable suggestion of a co-worker who noticed me dancing with the mop, how satisfactory life could be as a janitor.
I think you’d agree though, that the freedom these jobs impart is an index of how little freedom they really offer in terms of self-determination and participation in collective action. They can keep a working-class, ready for mobilization, fed long enough to start something, but they couldn’t really form a stable or satisfactory economic base (especially when you consider how the predominance of such jobs in the US is an index of a very unfree world on the whole).
Eric S. Gregory: Agree 100%, yes. But insofar as having to make accommodations, compromises and to live within the constrained coordinates of late capitalism, there’s something –what shall I call it?–illuminating? exciting? penetrative? about choosing to not choose a career that will come to colonize and define you. Of course, retail defines as well–but it can also allow one to see more extensively how fucked we really are. And if you coordinate your lifestyle with the material conditions of your employment (minimum wage, no health benefits, demeaned social status), you can sometimes have a good fucking time.
Obviously, this way of accessing retail work as an ideal for living doesn’t work as well if you have a chronically debilitating medical condition or usually, if you’re over 50 (I’ve worked with some over 50s who knew exactly what they were doing).
Joe Clement: I agree with you too. Working in the Deli only entrenched my belief in a democratic world of self-organized collectivity (communism for short). I just fight elevating this subjective, one-dimensional freedom [of retail-nomadism within the constraints of Capitalism] above the objective freedom such a system actively denies. Not everyone who discovers how to cope with the stresses of Capitalism finds the time or motivation to see to its end (or radical restructuring for those more attuned to the neo-liberal jargon). You and I and some others are lucky, if not in a Nietzchean sense a bit superior even, and that isn’t enough for me any more than being born into the right caste 2500 years ago was enough for the Buddha.
The point shouldn’t be to relegate retail-work or similarly unskilled labour, but the social-necessity of the relations in which it is currently implicated and further implies.
We continue our discussion with Shambhala acharya, Judith Simmer-Brown, about how we can strategically invest in American Buddhism so that it survives in the long-term. We explored the first three areas of importance in-depth in part 1, which included the translation of core texts, the development of a monastic lineage, and the appointment of dharma heirs.
In this part of the discussion we flesh out the details of the fourth area, which is royal patronage. Judith speaks about how, given a lack of that kind of support, most dharma teachers and organizations turn whole-heartedly to the market to sustain them. And with that come all sort of issues–including the pursuit of fame and fortune. We finish the discussion, going back to the question of whether we’ll be able to develop a monastic community in the West, and why that’s important to the healthy development of Buddhism in America.
What better than a Buddhist Church Inc. to supplement the post-modern feudal order? I mean, Nazi Germany was nominally Christian, right? Stalin’s Soviet Union was still haunted by the big Other. What about nationalism is consonant with a vision of universal liberation?