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Via facebook my friend and yours JDRyan posted a link to the UK Guardian piece “Haiti and the Rules of Generosity: Why do people give generously to earthquake victims, but not to prevent the much larger number of deaths caused by poverty?“. As JD said in his facebook posting, a good question (not to mention a long-winded article title, something which I support).
The answer, something I’ve eluded to and spoken to quite often here, is liberalism. Specifically, in a society in which even those who do not benefit at all by the dominate economic systems and relations have internalized the logic of said system, an authentic and meaningful challenge to the status quo is exceedingly difficult. At its most glaring, liberals feel compelled more by a desire to maintain a system in which their basic needs are met (never mind whether or not they’re met in an efficient or healthy manner) than any genuine desire for social justice, equality, or fairness and thus syphon resources to aid the spectacle rather than towards any serious effort to combat the socio-economic conditions which contributed to said spectacle, let alone towards meaningful systemic changes which could elevate real suffering.
The piece rightfully notes the role the mass media plays, and above I intentionally used the word “spectacle” for just this reason. As the Guardian piece points out,
Media saturation obviously makes a critical difference. Scenes from Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, and now the Haitian earthquake were shown over and over again on all television news broadcasts…. The daily deaths of children in poor countries from diarrhoea, measles, and malaria are part of the background of the world we live in, and so are not news at all.
Which, of course is insane. To say (and frighteningly enough, to say rightfully) that the daily deaths of children due to easily curable diseases and conditions is “not news at all” is to point out that in modern society our experience is not one of authentic human relationships to each other, but rather of relationships through images and representations of life itself.
Which brings us to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. In that incredibly important work, Debord points out a modern society in which authentic social life is increasingly replaced by its mere representation. Through a confluence of the State, advanced capitalism, and the mass media of each our lives cease to be authentic human experiences, our relationships cease to be between each other, but instead all is replaced by images and the mere representation of actual experiences and relationships. From the surprisingly articulate wikipedia post on it:
In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there’s also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought. Debord analyzes the use of knowledge to assuage reality: the spectacle obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never ending present; in this way the spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history (time), one that can be overturned through revolution.
Indeed. Because in general we lack the knowledge to understand the causes (global capitalism, class divisions, colonialism) of poverty we lack an awareness of the means to alleviate such problems and human suffering; with no clear solution to systemic problems we gravitate towards the momentary tragedy instead- the spectacular images of which we are bombarded with by the mass media, furthering our own anxiety’s over the suffering of others in what we might call the last remnants of our instinctual drive for authentic, meaningful human relations.
As I give it at least my dozenth try at getting the ol’ blogger legs back going, lets take a look at some highlights of life here in America, February of 2010 (grab a beer or a joint or a big mug of coffee, this is a long one):
Seems it was a very good year to be a Washington lobbyist- the best year ever, actually. The Center for Responsive Politics has looked into tens of thousands of disclosure findings and found that in 2009 special interests of every kind spent $3.47 billion lobbying the Federal government. “Even when companies are scaling back other operations, many view lobbying as a critical tool in protecting their future interests, particularly when Congress is preparing to take action on issues that could seriously affect their bottom lines.” said CRP director Sheila Krumholz. Among those numbers, the dollars from your and my health care premiums (if you’re lucky enough to even have health insurance) spent ensuring Congress could not pass a meaningful overall of the health care system was $266.8 million (that amount spent by the pharmaceutical and health products industries represents a record for one sector). The report also notes- oddly- that this year saw a decline in the number of actual registered lobbyists, prompting speculation that in the face of tighter controls on lobbying from the Obama Administration some aspects of lobbying have moved under-ground; now there’s a welcome development: the seedy back-room world of those with power manipulating politicians for their personal gain moving into a closet in the back-room. “Democracy”? is that what you folks call this?
I’m decidedly excited about organized labor threatening to “stay out” of this year’s elections in protest over the way the Obama Administration and Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate have failed to deliver much of anything for working people. Lets face it, the Republican Party is not even an option- in terms of political choice- for working class people (I know what you’re thinking about Tea Party-ers and rednecks and religious fundamentalists and the like, and I’ll get to them, but I’m referring here only to those who are at least partially aware of their class-standing, the existence of class society, and who reject in general the inherent good of wealth concentrated among the wealthy (even if some of these things happen far from even their own waking consciousness)). For years organized labor have leaned towards the Democratic Party knowing they’d at least get thrown some bread crust, and that that would always be better than the mere crumbs the Republicans may throw. But in the face of being so hopeful, so full of excitement and promise (and after spending serious money and donating serious volunteer time) to get Obama in and with majorities and everything, labor has gotten jack shit. Read the rest of this entry »
Ah yes, now I remember writing, and thinking, and pondering (and throwing my various opinions out at the world)… sorry ’bout that 8-month or so interruption. Life tends to get in the way of one’s best laid plans, I guess.
And when I left off, I was thinking a lot about- in fact, even working in my spare time on a book- the importance of integral theory to the political providence. Conversely, I was also thinking a lot about the many ways in which integral thinkers get politics all wrong. For instance, I just came across a new (to me) site by integral heavy-weight Corey W. deVos, a guy who I generally like (OK, I’ve never met him). This despite the fact that I have some serious disagreements with his take on “integral politics”. But it’s nothing personal against him, since the mistakes he makes are rampant throughout the integral community.
In particular, my attention was drawn to a post up on Mr. deVos’ site which is more or less a mini-manifesto on the wonders- the integral nature even- of green capitalism. As I’ve said before, I’ve found that in general the integral community is liberal (in the American popular sense, liberal to social democratic in the European political sense) and very, very defensive of capitalism. They like it. A lot. At the very best they’d like to see it look more like the capitalist-socialist hybrid that is popular through much of Europe. But the integral community is, from what I’ve seen, more or less 98% upper-middle class or better. Even those “without money” come from privilaged backgrounds (not surprisingly, there’s a high concentration of ‘whiteness’ too, since economic standing and racial make-up are so often related, though, again just from what I’ve seen, the racial mix of the integral community is a bit more diverse than the socio-economic mix).
And while I’m on this tangent (I will get to Mr DeVos’ post and my opinions of what’s wrong with it), a word about the integral community’s general economic background (and connected political leanings): it’s no coincidence at all that the integral community is by-and-large made up of individuals whose economic lot have enabled them to have a higher degree of education, and have afforded them the leisure time to ponder the sorts of bigger picture questions that might lead one to come to an integral vantage point of the world (Kosmos, whatever you’d like to call it). There are, in fact, little if any people (let alone currents) involved with integral theory (or practice or interests) from Harlem, East St Louis, or South Central LA. There are, however, hotbeds of integral activity in Boulder, Ashville, Burlington. Speaking in strictly political terms, people who benefit from a political (economic) system are going to be loath to embrace the destruction of that system, even if the destruction of that system were to bring about a net gain for the majority, or even the planet. Instinctually, we want security and safety, and if we have it, well, it becomes quite a thing to root for something else to take its place, no matter the pros or cons.
Good enough to wanna pass on:
The following was adapted on Commondreams.org from a by Naomi Klein speech on May 2, 2009 at The Progressive’s 100th anniversary conference and originally printed in The Progressive magazine, August 2009 issue:
We are in a progressive moment, a moment when the ground is shifting beneath our feet, and anything is possible. What we considered unimaginable about what could be said and hoped for a year ago is now possible. At a time like this, it is absolutely critical that we be as clear as we possibly can be about what it is that we want because we might just get it.
So the stakes are high.
I usually talk about the bailout in speeches these days. We all need to understand it because it is a robbery in progress, the greatest heist in monetary history. But today I’d like to take a different approach: What if the bailout actually works, what if the financial sector is saved and the economy returns to the course it was on before the crisis struck? Is that what we want? And what would that world look like?
The answer is that it would look like Sarah Palin. Hear me out, this is not a joke. I don’t think we have given sufficient consideration to the meaning of the Palin moment. Think about it: Sarah Palin stepped onto the world stage as Vice Presidential candidate on August 29 at a McCain campaign rally, to much fanfare. Exactly two weeks later, on September 14, Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the global financial meltdown.
So in a way, Palin was the last clear expression of capitalism-as-usual before everything went south. That’s quite helpful because she showed us-in that plainspoken, down-homey way of hers-the trajectory the U.S. economy was on before its current meltdown. By offering us this glimpse of a future, one narrowly avoided, Palin provides us with an opportunity to ask a core question: Do we want to go there? Do we want to save that pre-crisis system, get it back to where it was last September? Or do we want to use this crisis, and the electoral mandate for serious change delivered by the last election, to radically transform that system? We need to get clear on our answer now because we haven’t had the potent combination of a serious crisis and a clear progressive democratic mandate for change since the 1930s. We use this opportunity, or we lose it.
So what was Sarah Palin telling us about capitalism-as-usual before she was so rudely interrupted by the meltdown? Let’s first recall that before she came along, the U.S. public, at long last, was starting to come to grips with the urgency of the climate crisis, with the fact that our economic activity is at war with the planet, that radical change is needed immediately. We were actually having that conversation: Polar bears were on the cover of Newsweek magazine. And then in walked Sarah Palin. The core of her message was this: Those environmentalists, those liberals, those do-gooders are all wrong. You don’t have to change anything. You don’t have to rethink anything. Keep driving your gas-guzzling car, keep going to Wal-Mart and shop all you want. The reason for that is a magical place called Alaska. Just come up here and take all you want. “Americans,” she said at the Republican National Convention, “we need to produce more of our own oil and gas. Take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska, we’ve got lots of both.”
And the crowd at the convention responded by chanting and chanting: “Drill, baby, drill.”
Watching that scene on television, with that weird creepy mixture of sex and oil and jingoism, I remember thinking: “Wow, the RNC has turned into a rally in favor of screwing Planet Earth.” Literally.
But what Palin was saying is what is built into the very DNA of capitalism: the idea that the world has no limits. She was saying that there is no such thing as consequences, or real-world deficits. Because there will always be another frontier, another Alaska, another bubble. Just move on and discover it. Tomorrow will never come.
From the UK Guardian:
I’m wondering if anyone can tell me the difference between this scene:
and this scene:
Give up? Well, for starters, in the first video the U.S. (the president, the government, and the press) either explicitly or at least tactfully supports the protesters in the street over the “heavy handed” violence of the police. In the second video, it’s just the opposite: the American State sees the violent actions of those police forces as “restoring law and order” and enforcing “security” in the face of radical, criminal social deviants. By no surprise, that first video is of protesters in Tehran, Iran these past few days. Iran, see, refuses to open it’s consumer goods markets to Western business, and more importantly, refuses to open its petroleum resources to Western exploitation for corporate profit. Perhaps just as importantly, Iran refuses to accept the U.S. military as a legitimate “police force” over their sovereign affairs. That second video, on the other hand, is from protests in South Korea in 2007, where people took to the streets against the devastating domestic effects (particularly in rural areas among peasants and farmers) of global capitalism. See, South Korea does “freely” trade consumer goods with the U.S., does offer its natural resources to U.S. corporate exploitation, and freely recognizes the U.S. military as a legitimate “security force” within its own borders.
Engage in a global economic order in which the power elite can line their pockets? beat down dissent when necessary; refuse to allow rich white Americans and Europeans a chance at making money off of your people and land? well, how dare you beat those innocent people in the streets.
See, while admittedly president Obama has taken a very reserved public stance regarding the recent election results in Iran (the guy the U.S. preferred didn’t win) it’s no secret whatsoever that the West (including the U.S.) very much wants Ahmadinejad out of power in Iran and political unrest there is very much a welcome development, as far as the powers that be here are concerned. Make no mistake, Ahmadinejad is an asshole of the highest order; among other absurdities he’s a holocaust denier, and in his political fits against the Israeli State (not unjustified from a humanitarian perspective) he’s gone that extra step to believe and promote full-blow conspiracy theory’s and even pal around with neo-Nazi’s and white supremacists who share his hate for all things Jew.
What I’m not buying, however, is that there was likely any “stolen” election or that the protest movement that has sprung-up all of the sudden in Tehran is entirely populist, or entirely organic. For those who think I’m dipping into conspiracy theory here, let me assure you: I’m not saying any of this with certainty, ’cause I just don’t know for sure. What I do know- because it’s documented fact- is that the U.S. (along with other Western allies) has a long, long history of interfering in the political and electoral happenings of country’s for it’s own strategic (financial and military) gains. The fermentation of pro-capitalist, upper class minority revolt in Venezuela, for instance; the “orange revolution” in Ukraine. As I said in my last post- the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, and in all three of these examples that’s very true. In Venezuela, while the U.S. tried to covertly foment dissent in that country against Chavez, it’s also true that Chavez is power hungry and running that country in the same tradition of authoritarian socialist State’s throughout the Twentieth Century. As well, Chavez loses much if any real sympathy we might extend to him by exaggerating the acts against him to try to prove his own point and draw attention to the interference of pro-capitalist forces within their borders. Same with Ukraine: while programs like USAID covertly built pro-Western movements among sympathetic elements of the population (hit that link on “orange revolution” above and read down to the section on “involvement of outside forces”), Russia operated the same kind of program to push their favored candidate, just with all the not-very-subtle effectiveness of their authoritarian history (um, poisoning the other candidate? really? your covert political meddling handbook is the James Bond series?). I find it incredibly likely that relatively progressive student movements have been nudged in Iran with the oversight of USAID or some other similar U.S. program; Ahmadinejad of course doesn’t win us any sympathy’s by claiming to have won in a landslide when it was likely closer than that, and by offering us photo-shopped PR images of his faithful backers.
In statements about the protests in Iran, president Obama has explicitly spoken about the importance of people’s ability and right to protest without feeling the heavy hand of the State come down on them. Let’s just agree to keep those comments in mind when we get the to G20 in Pittsburgh in September.
Over this blog’s short life I’ve jumped into the occasional multi-post running account of major street protests at certain events (last summer’s RNC and DNC, or last fall’s uprising in Greece, for example). I’ve generally done so for some basic reasons: First, the heavy-handed, overly violent, repressive nature of police against protesters is, more times than not, quite shocking and shockingly under-reported in the press; not only under reported, but actually mis-reported in a manner that fails to inform the public of how “our” State treats its own people, particularly when those people have reason or want to exercise their incredibly important right to protest against economic and government programs, Parties, and institutions. The reporting (or lack-thereof) of street demonstrations and protest in general serves only and explicitly to marginalize the voices of those who object to the status quo of political and economic means and at the same time, obviously, to enforce the will of those in power as inherently right, just, and even inevitable. At the very least, this is a tragic dis-service to “democracy” and the people’s ability to have governance over their own lives, or in the terms of the popular lexicon, to be “willfully governed”.
Secondly, I enjoy a sort of fascination with street protests and insurrectionary conflicts between people in the street and the State (or the powers-that-be more generally). On this point, there’s a bit more to be un-wrapped here. For starters, it is quite true that not all protests in the street are being conducted by people of a left-libertarian orientation or goal (i.e., people with whom I would agree politically), which is to say that I have no real inherent desire to see the people protesting to necessarily “win” or get what they’re demanding. I should be clear here that in referring to protests I’m explicitly meaning left protests in general and radical left more often- I’m not at all speaking of right-wing protests such as against abortion providers or rallies held by neo-Nazi’s or white supremacists (of right wing protests, I can’t say that I enthusiastically look to the State to squelch them- which they never do- but instead I support and encourage left counter-demonstrations and conflicts against such groups, as typified by ARA and similarly oriented actions). But when not coming from a political or social right orientation, I nearly universally am in support of the protesters (the “insurrection”) over that of the State or the dominate power force. This is a core matter of anarchist principle: to support the ever-expanding providence of human liberty and freedom and always be against the rule of patriarchy, empire, and concentrated power. Most basically: I am in favor of the most progressive element in any conflict, and recognize that it is near impossible for the State to be in the position of being that; it is the State itself which seeks dominance over peoples, regions, resources, and labor and it is a rare instance indeed that one finds nationalist forces acting as the progressive element (a clear example of when one might find themselves conflicted in this area would be the current war in Iraq, where nationalistic and fundamentalist religious forces there are battling against the empirical U.S. army; while I would never support the forces of empire and empirical capitalism, it is hard to find an ally in the nationalist Iraqi insurgency. Quite simply, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend).
While for whatever reasons I do have this sort of insurrectionist-fetish, I don’t, in fact, see insurrectionist politics as holding much if any promise or meaning. When it comes down to it, I would like to see the people themselves self-govern in a classless, stateless, free and just society. For this to be accomplishable- for us to even come close to arriving in “revolutionary times” let alone actually win the revolution (these are, make no mistakes, non-revolutionary times which we live in- though that can and historically has changed surprisingly rapidly) the working class themselves must be able to employ the tools of self-governance and cooperation; the people must be familiar with and accustom to taking power into their own collective hands as well as acting in the interests of society rather than the individualist notions that typify a greed-based system such as capitalism. Insurrection may eventually prove to be the final nail in the coffin that kills capitalism and the State, but it will be an explicitly populist insurrection which finally enforces the end of power for the capitalists- not one of ideology carried out by political currents and almost certainly not to abolish the State and impose a liberation upon an un-welcoming and un-involved public.
Which is to say that the actual revolution requires strong revolutionary institutions and movements; revolution does not wander the streets breaking property, clashing with police, and throwing projectiles. Revolution instead listens, cooperates, considers.
And it is from this vantage that I find the recent call to action against the G20 by the Pittsburgh Organizing Group to be incredibly well-crafted. Aside from calling all anti-authoritarians to their city to protest in the streets against the institutions of global capital in September, they go on quite pointedly (emphasis added):
The real value of this summit, to its participants and those resisting it, is not in the substance of the “leaders'” discussions. Our power is not in whether or not we have the ability to prevent a bunch of finance ministers and heads of state from talking. The real importance is in the way an undisrupted ceremony reinforces the dominant worldview. If that view is flawed, it must be rejected, and the spotlight such a gathering creates must be one in which people will manifest liberating social conflict.
We therefore believe that the necessary attempts of thousands to interfere with the summit are not an ends in and of themselves, they are a critical part of the means we can use to achieve the victory we are collectively organizing for in September: to heighten existing social resistance, and to present an alternative narrative of why our world is the way it is. We must make it clear that the world need not be this way, and talk about our vision for a movement towards a new society based not on profit and coercion but rooted in meeting collective needs for both material comfort and the freedom to pursue fulfilling lives of opportunity and dignity.
The insurrection (street protests) might be fun, might be sexy, might be flashy and dramatic, but ultimately they carry most of their value in symbolic form. Those that believe that government accountability or full-on revolution (either of socialist or anarchist varieties) are possible or even likely outcomes from clashes in the street against property and police are lost unto a world that should only be familiar to the adolescent mind. That these actions have no value is not at all what I’m saying: merely that their value is of an incredibly limited variety. More importantly, that to truly build a revolutionary movement our battles must be fought in our relationships, our conversations, our community groups, our labor organizations… it is not the people whom need to be freed, but the people who need to free themselves.