Monday, November 23, 2009

Hey--a good idea from Washington

Representative David Obey (D-WI) is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. On 19 November he released a letter calling for a graduated surtax to pay for the war in Afghanistan:
“For the last year, as we’ve struggled to pass healthcare reform, we’ve been told that we have to pay for the bill – and the cost over the next decade will be about a trillion dollars. Now the President is being asked to consider an enlarged counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, which proponents tell us will take at least a decade and would also cost about a trillion dollars. But unlike the healthcare bill, that would not be paid for. We believe that’s wrong,” said Obey. “Regardless of whether one favors the war or not, if it is to be fought, it ought to be paid for.”

This sounds like a great idea to me. I don't think this legislation has a snowball's chance in hell of becoming law--hell, I'd be surprised if it even comes up for a vote, let alone passes, in the House. But it's nice to know that some of the Democratic leadership is willing to consider measures like this.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Torturing Democracy

Based on the strong recommendation from Bill Moyers, I watched "Torturing Democracy" over the weekend. It is a very meticulous and well-made documentary available free on-line that chronicles the path from 9/11 to the use of "enhanced interrogation" (i.e. torture) techniques by agents of the United States, as well as the role of high-level officials in the Bush Administration in authorizing them. While this is a story that many of us have been hearing about in bits and pieces over the last several years, it is really helpful to have it all in one place. I think it would be a good documentary for a wider audience too, including those who are not already human rights activitists. It includes interviews with former detainees, highly shocking but not gratuitiously graphic visual images, documentary evidence, and earnest testimonials from U.S. officials within the system who opposed what they saw happening. By the end of it, the case for high-level complicity in international human rights crimes seemed well established. I think every U.S. citizen--especially those who are tempted by the idea that we should put all of this behind us and move on--ought to see this film.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A New Hope (not the Star Wars kind)

Naomi Klein always seems to have a sharp eye for cutting through the usual day to day discourse and focusing on what is really happening--the big picture. Her latest analysis of the state of the Left Progressive movement vis-a-vis the Obama Presidency, just published today in The Nation on-line, is well worth reading.

There may be some who still yearn for another hope fix from above, but I, for one, am ready to join Naomi Klein's call for a new kind of hope from the grassroots. Admittedly, I have been ready since even before the Inaguration, when Obama was ominously stacking his cabinet with the same old elite "centrist" insiders.

But now that we are almost past 100 days, and just past Tax Day, maybe we are passing the tipping point on the Progressive Left. Are we ready to finally start pushing Obama aggressively from the unified grassroots, or are we going to keep arguing about whether we should just trust Obama?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Stop Flying

Should we stop flying? Ever since I read British environmental journalist George Monbiot's stimulating book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning awhile back, one of the conclusions that stuck with me most was how the air travel sector (and high-speed long-distance travel in genreal) is probably the most difficult sector for finding technological solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Monbiot argues that there is no alternative but to drastically reduce air travel. He contends that we need a new ethics to discourage frequent air travel, since it is highly damaging to the atmosphere and, moreover, since it is almost exclusively done by the most privileged people on the planet. (Poor people in developing countries, who will be the worst victims of climate change, never fly.)

It will be hard enough to curtail our air travel for business. But think of the even more difficult problem of what Monbiot calls "Love Miles," the distance that separates us from loved ones. See this video clip from Monbiot to hear more, or perhaps his article in the Guardian. I believe that we need to grapple honestly with the sobering implications of Monbiot's argument.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Lumpenlogocrat Manifesto

Several months ago I read Marc Bousquet's sensational How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008). I've been meaning to write a blog posting about this book, since in many ways it offers a manifesto for lumpenlogocrats. I keep thinking that I will find the inspiration to write a longer analysis. But it just isn't happening. So I figure I might as well just point our readers toward the book itself--and the author's website.

Himself a tenured English professor at Santa Clara University, Bousquet gained wide attention in the 1990s for his "excremental" theory of graduate education. Roughly, this interpretation holds that, especially in the humanities, Ph.D. recipients are a waste product of a system of higher education that has relied increasingly on contingent labor--including graduate student labor--over the past few decades. Needless to say, Bousquet's work is both provocative and timely, and in many ways should be an essential foundation for lumpenlogocrat consciousness.

The issue of contingent academic labor remains quite relevant during this economic crisis. Colleges and universities are often trying to increase their reliance on adjuncts and other contingent faculty even more, now that endowment spending, alumni giving, and financial aid lines in the budget are under severe pressure. Of course, Bousquet would point out that this is just one more justification among many for this shift, which has been occurring through good times and bad. It's just like the Republicans and tax policy: when times are good, cut taxes; when times are bad, cut taxes. For universities: when times are good, use more contingent labor; when times are bad, use more contingent labor.

Bousquet's indictment of higher education is strongly worded and uncompromising. And it also rings true. There is no single issue that strikes more at the heart of what is wrong with higher education today than the massive shift towards contingent labor. The shift has not been felt equally across all institutions--a small number of elite liberal arts colleges, for example, still have the majority of courses taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty, at least for those students privileged enough to be able to attend such schools--but its effects in Academia have been far more profound and consequential than any of the squabbles that regularly surface in the mass media about what is wrong with higher education.

Bousquet does not believe in the "job market." Or, more precisely, he believes that the "job market" is an idealized fiction that covers up the reality of a shift towards cheap, expendable contingent labor. It is a measure of the rhetorical effectiveness of such terms as "job market" that even those of us who understand Bousquet's critique have a hard time avoiding them.

This is the one book that all lumpenlogocrats (and those who stand in solidarity with them) should read.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The future of food

There's a good article in the recent Mother Jones about the problems of producing enough food for the world in the ways currently in vogue as "sustainable." The author, Paul Roberts, argues that the organic- and local-food movement is promoting a model of farming that is very difficult to scale up to the size needed to feed the earth's growing population. That part of the article is certainly very useful and informative, but what I really like came near the end.

Food activists have pushed consumer education and activism as a means to convince food producers and marketers that more sustainable food can be profitable. But the changes needed to the food supply are huge, and unlikely to be realized through consumer choice alone. What we need to do is change the rules of the market through new laws and government programs. It's a good example of the limits of pocket-book activism. Regardless of how many choices we have in the market, real change demands political action.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Barack Obama?

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. ... Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language."

So said Karl Marx in beginning his famous pamphlet applying historical materialism to French political history, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon" (1852). If he were around today, he might have written much the same thing about Barack Obama's "100 Days" in comparison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's. In the more recent incarnation, of course, the first time was arguably triumph, not tragedy--though Marx himself probably would have decried FDR's saving of capitalism from the Revolution. If it did not seem not too hard to decipher for the reader, I would have titled this blog entry: "The 'First 100 Days' of Barack Obama."

It is indeed true that much may yet be accomplished by a Democratic Congress and President Obama intent on revitalizing the economy. But the sobering fact is that the Congressional economic stimulus package is far too little, not too much, as some have so absurdly stated. Notwithstanding the regrettable stripping of vital provisions out to placate a petulant GOP minority, the bill was already too modest. Too loaded down with ineffective tax breaks and pointless gestures to the now-discredited conservative dogmas. Too small by far in relation to the taxpayer funds that continue to be lavished on the financial sector. Obama's "100 Days" period is certainly better than what came before under Bush (obviously), but as a recurrence of the New Deal it is falling towards farce.

Now I would recoil at the idea of calling Obama a "grotesque mediocrity," as Marx did for Louis Napoleon in a preface to a later edition. Obama is clearly a talented leader with great potential, and, as I've said above, it is triumph not tragedy that will recur as farce this time. But I fear that Marx's lesson of historical materialism--that social structural forces might construct our political leaders more than their individual actions--is in danger of being forgotten by a Progressive Left which has too much assimilated the individualist rhetoric of its political opponents.

As Marx put it, contrasting his views with Victor Hugo: "He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history." Now, to be fair, it was really Obama's predecessor who was the violent Louis Napoleon figure of the early 21st century, as argued recently by at least one scholar. But substitute "triumph" for "violent act" and it seems clear that Obama runs the risk of becoming the mirror image.

If Marx was right--and he was probably more right than wrong in his critique of capitalist society, if not in his short-term historical predictions--then we are in for a rough ride. The working people of the U.S. are swelling in their populist indignation (which seems heartening), but they are as of yet far from posing any kind of organized threat to the existing political and economic order. I hope with all hope for a nonviolent, democratic political movement to shift power away from the economic oligarchs (now represented by Geithner, Summers, et al.) who rule our country, but I wonder instead if the disenchantment that will result from the failure of Obama's government to act boldly enough to address this crisis will instead drive all of that populist indignation in a rightward direction. And then we will be in for some real trouble.

Maybe a bold transformation is still possible. Perhaps the Progressive Left will allow a working-class populism to drive forward a strong wave of pressure that will pull Obama decisively Leftward on economic issues. But so far it is precisely on those economic issues where Obama has been most disappointing. The social forces are simply too weak right now, and Obama is beginning to fall towards farce. Or, as Immanuel Wallerstein concludes in his recent commentary, "Obama is off to a very shaky start. The belief that he is ready to push for a fundamental remaking of America has weak evidence in its favor, despite his intelligence and his intellectual openness. The United States is getting good grammar. It needs bold remaking."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Goodbye, Bush!

With all the attention focused on Obama's (incoming) inauguration tomorrow, I'd like to take note of the other (outgoing) side: the departure of George W. Bush. Tonight we can all--at last--celebrate the last night of an eight-year downward slide in our country and the world. We could commemorate Bush's two terms in many different ways--the illegitimacy of his initial election, the warmongering, the civil liberties trampling, the cronyism and profiteering, the economic implosion, etc., etc., etc. But I'm inclined to follow Bill McKibben in speculating that the most enduring negative legacy of Bush's Presidency will be something few people seem to be talking about these days: the environment.

Any other thoughts on the eve of Bush's departure from the White House?