J.A. Myerson

Year-end Round-up of Things

Last year, I wrote a post here called 12 Articles That Killed It in 2012 that people seemed to find useful. So here’s a similar thing for 2013. My friends are featured heavily both because I like featuring my friends and because my friends produced unbelievable work this year. Away we go.

Seven essays that bowled me over this year, in no particular order:

1. How To Be A Person In The Age Of Autoimmunity, Carolyn Lazard, Cluster Magazine

2. The Worst of White Folks, Kiese Laymon, Gawker

3. Yes, America Has Gotten Better About Racism, but It Really Doesn’t Matter, Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation

4. Cockblocked by Redistribution: A Pick-up Artist in Denmark, Katie J.M. Baker, Dissent

5. Expecto Patronum: Lessons From Harry Potter for Social Justice Organizing, Chris Crass, Organizing Upgrade

6. What Picketing Taught Me About Feminism, Julia Carrie Wong, Salon

7. Dear Khary (An Autobiography of Gentrification), Dr. Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson, Gawker

The best satire I read this year:

1. The first job creator, Adam Kotsko, An und für sich

2. Destructo Salon: Does Matthew Yglesias Enjoy Murder?, General Gandhi, Mark Brendle, Jeb Lund, Et tu, Mr. Destructo?

An incredible wedding article:

1. In Zuccotti Park, a Demonstration of Love, Colin Moynihan, The New York Times

Remember this shit going down this year?

1. Human Doll Cloning Is So Hot Right Now In Japan, Messy Nessy Chic

2. School Suspends Student for Writing YOLO on Test, Tweeting It to School Officials, Neetzan Zimmerman, Gawker

3. Richard III dig: DNA confirms bones are king’s, BBC News

4. Woolwich suspect’s friend arrested after appearing on Newsnight, Conal Urquhart and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian

And a couple cool things to look at:

1. Visualization of Every Protest Since 1979

2. NYC Grid

Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Who’s Bad

The whole world has to answer right now just to tell you once again… who’s bad?

Gen. McChrystal spoke yesterday at the New York Historical Society and took questions. I asked one. Here’s his response.

One of my all-time favorite passages

From Howard Barker’s 1986 work “Arguments for a Theatre.”

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Fortynine asides for a tragic theatre

We are living the extinction of official socialism. When the opposition loses its politics, it must root in art.

The time for Satire is ended. Nothing can be satirized in the authoritarian state. It is culture reduced to playing the spoons. The stockbroker laughs, and the satirist plays the spoons.

The authoritarian art form is the musical.

The accountant is the new censor. The accountant claps his hands at the full theatre. The official socialist also hankers for the full theatre. But full of what?

In an age of populism, the progressive artist is the artist who is not afraid of silence.

The baying of an audience in pursuit of unity is a sound of despair.

In a bad time laughter is a rattle of fear.

How hard it is to sit in a silent theatre.

There is silence and silence. Like the colour black, there are colours within silence.

The silence of compulsion is the greatest achievement of the actor and the dramatist.

We must overcome the urge to do all things in unison. To chant together, to hum banal tunes together, is not collectivity.

A carnival is not a revolution.

After the carnival, after the removal of the masks, you are precisely who you were before. After the tragedy, you are not certain who you are.

Ideology is the outcome of pain.

Some people want to know pain. There is no truth on the cheap.

There are more people in pursuit of knowledge than accountants will admit.

There is always the possibility of an avalanche of truth-seekers.

Art is a problem. The man or woman who exposes himself to art exposes himself to another problem.

It is an error typical of the accountant to think there is no audience for the problem.

Some people want to grow in their souls.

But not all people. Consequently, tragedy is elitist.

Because you cannot address everybody, you may as well address the impatient.

The opposition in art has nothing but the quality of its imagination.

The only possible resistance to a culture of banality is quality.

Because they try to debase language, the voice of the actor becomes and instrument of revolt.

The actor is both the greatest resource of freedom and the subtlest instrument of repression.

If language is restored to the actor he ruptures the imaginative blockade of the culture. If he speaks banality he piles up servitude.

Tragedy liberates language from banality. It returns poetry to speech.

Tragedy is not about reconciliation. Consequently, it is the art form for our time.

Tragedy resists the trivialization of experience, which is the project of the authoritarian regime.

People will endure anything for a grain of truth.

But not all people. Therefore a tragic theatre will be elitist.

Tragedy was impossible as long as hope was confused with comfort. Suddenly tragedy is possible again.

When a child fell under a bus they called it a tragedy. On the contrary, it was an accident. We have had a drama of accidents masquerading as tragedy.

The tragedies of the 1960s were not tragedies but failures of the social services.

The theatre must start to take its audience seriously. It must stop telling them stories they can understand.

It is not to insult an audience to offer it ambiguity.

The narrative form is dying in our hands.

In tragedy, the audience is disunited. It sits alone. It suffers alone.

In the endless drizzle of false collectivity, tragedy restores pain to the individual.

You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies. After the musical, you are anyone’s fool.

Tragedy offends the sensibilities. It drags the unconscious into the public place. It therefore silences the banging of the tambourine which characterizes the authoritarian and the labourist culture alike.

It dares to be beautiful. Who talks of beauty I the theatre any more? They think it is to do with the costumes.

Beauty, which is possible only in tragedy, subverts the lie of human squalor which lies at the heart of the new authoritarianism.

When society is officially philistine, the complexity of tragedy becomes a source of resistance.

Because they have bled life out of the word freedom, the word justice attains a new significance. Only tragedy makes justice its preoccupation.

Since no art form generates action, the most appropriate art for a culture on the edge of extinction is one that stimulates pain.

The issues are never too complex for expression.

It is never too late to forestall the death of Europe.

Review of “Working”

I’ve just seen the production of “Working” playing at 59 E. 59 theaters. The musical, first staged in 1978, is the product of a handful of composers, among them Stephen Schwartz, Mary Rogers and James Taylor, adapting Studs Terkel’s then-four-year-old oral history, in which, per Terkel’s subtitle, “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” My mother introduced me to the original Broadway cast recording when I was a child, and it has remained one of my favorite musicals since. I even got to perform in my high school’s production of it. This is the first live performance I have ever watched.

Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who died in 2008 at the age of 96, was, if not a card-carrying Communist, some hue of red, and was blacklisted for it during the McCarthyist red scare. As such, he held certain ideas about labor that he thought he could best put forth by tape-recording interviews with laborers – a strip miner, a receptionist, a realty broker, a bar pianist, &c. – and transcribing and publishing their words.

For one, wage labor is alienating. As Terkel puts it in the book’s introduction, “the automated pace of our daily jobs wipes out name and face – and, in many instances, feeling,” and yet, “No matter how demeaning the task, no matter how it dulls the senses and breaks the spirit, one must work. Or else.”

For another, labor is, as President Lincoln put it, “prior to, and independent of, capital” and is therefore “the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” That laborers are afforded much the lower consideration produces the chief grievances of the workers; “The most profound complaint,” Terkel writes, “aside from non-recognition and the nature of the job, is ‘being spied on.’”

The oral history, in other words, is a celebration of workers, an antagonistic interrogation of “work,” and an affirmation of the former’s widely shared attitudes toward the latter. This is a very different animal from a display of hardship for the purposes of provoking pity, a specialty of theater, particularly of the musical sort. Pity is a very liberal impulse; Terkel worked from solidarity. The production vacillates between honoring and avoiding the responsibility of perpetuating this legacy.

Clever staging highlights the socially necessary labor time unfolding in the moment of performance. As the audience comes in, the actors and stagehands are visible on stage preparing for the show. Ah, yes, we dutifully realize: we are consumers of a product which laborers will manufacture (for the material benefit, by way of the capture of surplus value, of, chiefly, the rentier interests who own the real estate whereon the midtown theater is expensively situated).

The play begins and the stage manager’s voice is not hidden behind a headset but amplified to the theater, calling video and sound cues, making them happen, producing value for our consumption. The costume changes are performed before us to the sounds of Terkel’s interview audio, the grace and timing of the stagehands delivering and picking up costumes allowing effortless motion for the actor and looking rather more like beautiful choreography than backstage tech.

The rest of the choreography, in which the performers dance to the songs in the musical, deftly renders the real activities of labor rhythmic – a trucker shifting gears, changing lanes and speaking into a CB radio; a mill worker’s 40-second looped routine which, when performed under industrial conditions non-stop hour after hour, yield, she tells us, severe health and safety risks.

“Millworker,” James Taylor’s masterpiece, is executed very movingly by Marie-France Arcilla, the show’s brightest talent. “And may I work this mill just as long as I am able,” she prays in the song’s bridge, “and never meet the man whose name is on the label.” Arcilla’s extremely lean performance strips the song down to its emotional core, allows us to hear it as a person’s reflections on her work, rather than feelings about it.

Such subtlety is not always the order of the production. At times, over-reliance on emotional gimmicks, acquired in the same musical theater training regime that has produced Glee, infects what could be an illuminating moment. What in Arcilla’s hands feels like actor-character solidarity, other times begins to feel like actor-character pity.

Perhaps there’s a mistrust of the stories’ ability to choke the audience up without actors signaling that desired response by pretending to get choked up themselves, and perhaps that has to do with the distance between these laborers – the people singing and acting and dancing – and those – the people Studs Terkel interviewed in the 1970’s.

Characters like the millworker feel anachronistic at the doorstep of 2013; a lot changes in over thirty-five years. In the 1970’s, American mills were producing textiles. Now, they sit abandoned on the banks of American rivers, either empty reminders of jobs bygone or else newly-fashionable restaurants. The textiles now come from China and Bangladesh, where industrial conditions resemble those here a century ago, when American textile workers were working with anarchist and socialist union organizers to bid up the price of their labor – and defeat the National Guard and Pinkertons.

This is not the only glaring anachronism. “Nobody Ever Tells Me How” is Mary Rogers’ ballad of an old-fashioned, hyper-conservative teacher coping with changing expectations. But her complaints by now are pat and obsolete. The new-style of teaching is, for her, English and a Second Language, classroom informality, and art therapy. But that is now the old style. Current teachers are negotiating and, when they and their students are lucky, coping with stifling testing regimes, the threat of merit pay, and facilities being overtaken by charter school co-location.

The housewife, too, is now largely a historical profession. The 1970’s saw a) important gains for the women’s liberation movement, and b) the dissolution of individual salaries sufficient to support a family, as real wages stagnated nationwide and costs increased. The movement of women into the labor market was changing economic conditions even as Terkel was conducting the interviews; the character here is stuck between these two forces, wanting to stay home, raise her children, and perform housework, but insecure about boring guests at a dinner party and belittled by images on television of women performing more “important” work.

Joe, a retiree, sings about the ways he keeps busy, but as today mainstream politicians propose on a bipartisan basis to cut social security benefits and raise the retirement age, and as pension funds evaporate and median incomes continue to diminish, Joe’s profession seems to trickle into the dustbin of history as well. A senior citizen held a memorable sign at Zuccotti Park – “Last generation retiree?”

The play confronts the anachronistic tension with varying degrees of success. In the best cases, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the talent behind “In the Heights,” has composed new material. Early on in the performance, a McDonald’s delivery guy sings an upbeat number that pays respectful homage to a very fun and nevertheless mercifully abandoned song about a newsboy in the original score.

Welcome as this change is, Miranda’s show-stopping contribution comes later in the show, in the form of a duet between a homecare worker and a live-in nanny. Theirs are two of the labor sectors in which employment is most precarious and conditions are most demanding, the positions often occupied by people who have immigrated since the 1970’s. This is the service sector proletariat, performing tasks needed in the post-industrial era, the era of prohibitive health care costs, the era of would-be caretaking parents (like our housewife) working jobs outside the home. The nanny points out that her job is to do whatever the child’s mother doesn’t, or, as a recent study on domestic work puts it, “the work that makes all other work possible.” The song’s tender composition and delivery – another shining moment for Arcilla – is the show’s finest moment.

Miranda was well-selected to augment the score to include these choices, but the net Spanish language material has decreased. As a person who has spent hundreds of hours in rehearsal rooms with Latin theater artists, I  hope you’ll believe it is not paranoia or a determination to be offended that makes me suspect the cutting of James Taylor’s affecting farm-worker ballad, “Un Mejor Dia Vendra,” as attributable to a satisfaction with the show’s quota of Latin material.

Less savvy than Manuel’s contributions is the attempted incorporation of Globalization, another element in the crucial post-1970 shift in capital. It is deployed only once, and artificially, at that. A monologue which I seem to recall was previously spoken by a generic customer service representative (a white woman, if memory serves, in my high school’s production) has been specified as a tech support worker in India. Perhaps this speaks to the difficulty of actually interviewing an Indian tech support worker for original, authentic material, and perhaps some acknowledgement of Globalization is better than none, but the monologue still sticks out like a sore thumb among the rest of the text. If she show continues to evolve, this will be a fruitful avenue of exploration to investigate.

Two of the best songs from earlier incarnations – “Lovin’ Al” (parking lot attendant) and “I’m Just Movin’” (supermarket check-out cashier) – have lamentably been cut from this version, despite the jobs’ ongoing practice in the 2012 economy. These, alongside “It’s An Art,” a waitress waltz performed capably by Donna Lynne Champlin, are expressions of workers who adore their work and take pride in the ways in which they individualize or excel at it.

Above all, the transition the musical is undergoing sets me to thinking about the future of labor. The legacy of the 1970’s is, in one sense, the relegation of labor to a position of surplus to production requirement, which is a problem very few thinkers (outside of Jacobin Magazine) are working on. If we are to find any hope of a future in which it is easy to survive outside the labor market, or in which capital does not employ labor but the working class democratically controls the country’s capital stock, it will come from new joy brought to an old piece of text by a quite recent turn of history: the hedge fund manager got laughs, which he didn’t in 2003. Thanks, Occupy.

12 Articles That Killed It in 2012, in No Particular Order

  1. Jelani Cobb – “Barack X,” The New Yorker Online.

The best thing I read about the election. Cobb, a black history professor at Rutgers, digs deep into the complicated dynamics governing the interplay between Obama and black America. There is so much whites like me are unable to see and detect, and thank goodness we can occasionally be guided so eloquently.

 Early on, observers noted Obama’s Ebonic lapses when speaking to black audiences and saw in them a sly attempt to pander to African-American voters. But they had it precisely backward: to black audiences, his ability to speak in pulpit inflections one moment and concave Midwestern tones the next made him seem more black, not less. We saw him as no different than any African-American lawyer who speaks black English at home and another, entirely more formal language, in his professional environment.

  1. Bill McKibben – “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone.

You have probably already read this incredibly important articulation of the most important problem there is.

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

  1. Peter Frase – “Against Jobs, For Full Employment,” PeterFrase.com.

Peter’s really thoroughgoing advocacy for a new set of labor relations thrilled me, because I’m a nerd. Though this particular blog post is from last year, I only encountered it recently.

Take, for example, health care reform. It is generally accepted that there are a certain number of people who would like to retire or otherwise leave the labor force, but who stay in their jobs because that is the only way they can maintain access to health insurance. A program of national health care that successfully guaranteed universal coverage and severed health care from employment would cause these people to drop out of the labor force; all things being equal, this would move the economy toward full employment as these jobs were filled by the unemployed and the total pool of people seeking work shrank. However, this move toward full employment involves no net job creation since it is entirely targeted to the labor supply side.

  1. Eli Friedman – “China in Revolt,” Jacobin.

An industrial proletariat in open and widespread revolt against the exploitation of their labor by the ownership class? Sign me up. Even if that ownership class happens, incredibly, to be Communist Party commissars. The fact that the proletariat in question migrates from one part of a massive country to another for work is critical to the revolutionary challenge, as Friedman details vividly here.

Another example: every year just before the Chinese New Year, the number of strikes in the construction sector surges. Why? This holiday is the only time of the year that most migrants will return to their hometowns, and is often the only time that they can see family members, often including spouses and children. Construction workers are generally paid only when a project is completed, but nonpayment of wages has been endemic since the deregulation of the industry in the 1980s. The idea of going back to the village empty-handed is unacceptable for workers, since the reason they left for the city in the first place was because of the promise of marginally higher wages. Hence 
the strikes.

  1. YouTube user nauiocelotl – “ANAHEIM KIDS vs. Anaheim Police department,” YouTube.

Right, so. A video, not an article. Nevertheless, the Anaheim incident this summer was one of the most important episodes of the year, and one that has generated minimal continuing attention. Check out these kids’ stories.

  1. Lindy West – “How to Make a Rape Joke,” Jezebel.

Daniel Tosh’s abominable behavior prompted this clear-headed analysis from the just way too funny Lindy West, at a time when most of the discussion was between people simply pointing out the existence of rape culture and others pummeling them with the patriarchy juggernaut.

This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks. Your girlfriend is censoring herself when she says she’s okay with you playing Xbox all day. In a way, comedy is censoring yourself—comedy is picking the right words to say to make people laugh. A comic who doesn’t censor himself is just a dude yelling. And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

  1. Nima Shirazi – “What We Won’t Hear in Boca: Nine Things to Remember During the Iran Section of the Presidential Debate Tonight,” Wide Asleep in America.

Nima’s penchant, as I am fond of needling him for, is to produce exhaustive tomes inclusive of every piece of information related to his subject. Even in this piece, the listicle format is deceptive, since he nonetheless dives headlong into the task of debunking misunderstandings about Iran. For that reason, though, the piece is extremely worth reading, especially if you are curious about the dynamics but overwhelmed by the volume of literature and in need of a primer.

United States intelligence community and its allies have long assessed that Iran isnot and never has been in possession of nuclear weapons, is not building nuclear weapons, and its leadership has not made any decision to build nuclear weapons. Iranian officials have consistently maintained they will never pursue such weapons on religious, strategic, political, moral and legal grounds. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Ronald Burgess, President Barack Obama, his National Security Council, and Vice President Joe Biden have all agreed Iran isn’t actively building nuclear weapons. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, and Military Intelligence Director Aviv Kochavi have also said the same thing, as have other foreign intelligence agencies. Furthermore, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continuallyconfirms - that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program and has stated it has “no concrete proof that Iran has or has ever had a nuclear weapons program.” (emphasis added) In November 2011, a spokesman for the Obama White Houseconcurred, “The IAEA does not assert that Iran has resumed a full scale nuclear weapons program.”

  1. Molly Knefel – “Kindergarten/Cops,” The New Inquiry.

Sticking with the Stuff Written By Close Friends track for a moment, Molly here brought me (and just about every other teacher I sent this to) to tears with her essay about the criminalization of children of color, from her perspective as a privileged, white teaching artist.

Documentary films about “failing schools” feature the bodies of boys who look like David. Such films are created and consumed by concerned adults who would prefer not to send their own children to the schools. Although these concerned adults mostly benefit from class and white privilege, they are sad for the little boys and root, vaguely, for their education. But they—we?—are not surprised when taller versions of the boys come out of criminal court without belts and shoelaces. When I hear that a kid a few years older than David got caught selling a bag of weed to his white upstairs neighbor, I accept the fact that he has been taken to Rikers even though I will later buy that same bag of weed from that same upstairs neighbor with the unwavering confidence that he will never be taken to Rikers no matter how many bags of weed he sells me. Alongside the outrage many of us felt upon seeing my brother in handcuffs is its photonegative: our complete lack of outrage with the millions of images we’ve seen of the darker-skinned men who must be, based on the evidence we’re given, the ones who are supposed to be in handcuffs.

  1. Nick Pinto – “Can Occupy Wall Street Trust Its Own Candidate?” The Village Voice.

Last one from a friend. I just love Nick’s writing so much, and I am riven with jealousy of his eye for complexity in the mundane.

“It comes down to this,” he says. “I see people who are hurting and struggling, and I just know that I—that we—we could do something about it.” He pauses. “If you know you could do something about that, and you don’t. . . .” Another pause. There’s a hitch in his voice now, and when he continues, the words are strained with emotion. “If you don’t, that’s failure. And I want to encourage us not to fail.” After another silence, he re-collects himself. “Damn, I got choked up on that,” he says. “I didn’t think that was going to happen. I’m going to have to work on that.” Hearing an aspiring politician brought to tears by his own inspirational generalities, you don’t have to be a cynical journalist to wonder: Is this guy for real?

  1. Gavin Mueller – “‘The Dark Knight’ is No Capitalist…” Jacobin.

There was a lot of discussion about the woefully disappointing completion of Chistopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but this take was the most lucid I encountered.

This Batman-as-financier stuff is a trick played by casting the actor whose greatest role was a psychopathic i-banker. Yes, Wayne is rich, but that’s not the same as being a capitalist. The guy running the bodega down the street is more of a capitalist than Bruce Wayne. Wayne has no interest in profit, in accumulation, in investing his wealth to produce more wealth. If you don’t see M-C-M you don’t have capitalism. Now, the character of Bruce Wayne has always been imbued with noblesse oblige, but let’s not get that confused with what a capitalist does. Wayne funds orphanages and renewable energy in distinction to the actual capitalist, Daggett, who is trying to pillage Wayne Enterprises, Bain-Capital-style. Daggett is pointedly dissed at a party full of rich people because he’s only interested in money. Those silly noveau-riche, so gauche, am I right?

  1. Bruce A. Dixon – “Why Isn’t Closing 40 Philadelphia Public Schools National News? Where Is the Black Political Class?” Black Agenda Report.

The title basically says it all; in an age when everyone is rushing to identify “the civil rights issue of our time,” we ignore that civil rights is the civil rights issue of our time.

The black political class is utterly silent and deeply complicit. Even local pols and notables who lament the injustice of local austerity avoid mentioning the ongoing wars and bailouts which make these things “necessary.” A string of black mayors have overseen the decimation of Philly schools. Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous and other traditional “civil rights leaders” can always be counted on to rise up indignant when some racist clown makes an inappropriate remark about the pretty black First Lady and her children. But they won’t grab the mic for ordinary black children. They won’t start and won’t engage the public in a conversation about saving public education. It’s not because they don’t care. It’s because they care very much about their funding, which comes from Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, from Wal-mart and the Walton Family Foundation, from the corporations that run charter charter schools and produce standardized tests.

  1. Quinn Norton – “A Eulogy for #Occupy,” Wired.

Boy, oh boy. This lengthy piece of on-the-ground reporting just absolutely killed it. No better read to end your year with.

I was doing unhealthy things just to feel anything again. I didn’t even argue theory much after New York. Weeks before, I’d stay up all night to talk about ways the people around me wanted to make a new world. I’d write my stories exhausted, but fascinated. Now I just asked about evac plans and took pictures of everything from every angle. I documented the sights and sounds of Occupy like an ornithologist on a sinking island, surrounded by its last birds. And after New York, I arrived at new camps ready to give last rites. I had little mental rituals at each new camp where I tried to spot who would get arrested and predict who would be beaten. The police always obliged.

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Happy end of the world everyone. Read up! – JAM

Sunday Taine Excerpt


From The French Revolution, Vol. II:
“Extravagant conceit and dogmatism, however, are not rare in the human species. These two roots of the Jacobin intellect exist in all countries, underground and indestructible. Everywhere they are kept from sprouting by the established order of things; everywhere are they striving to overturn old historic foundations, which press them down. Now, as in the past, students live in garrets, bohemians in lodgings, physicians without patients and lawyers without clients in lonely offices, so many Brissots, Dantons, Marats, Robespierres, and St. Justs in embryo; only, for lack of air and sunshine, they never come to maturity. At twenty, on entering society, a young man’s judgment and pride are extremely sensitive. — Firstly, let his society be what it will, it is for him a scandal to pure reason: for it was not organized by a legislative philosopher in accordance with a sound principle, but is the work of one generation after another, according to manifold and changing necessities. It is not a product of logic, but of history, and the new-fledged thinker shrugs his shoulders as he looks up and sees what the ancient tenement is, the foundations of which are arbitrary its architecture confused, and its many repairs plainly visible. — In the second place, whatever degree of perfection preceding institutions, laws, and customs have reached, these have not received his approval; others, his predecessors, have chosen for him, he is being subjected beforehand to moral, political, and social forms which pleased them. Whether they please him or not is of no consequence. Like a horse trotting along between the poles of a wagon in the harness that happens to have been put on his back, he has to make best of it. — Besides, whatever its organization, as it is essentially a hierarchy, he is nearly always subaltern in it, and must ever remain so, neither soldier, corporal or sergeant. Even under the most liberal system, that in which the highest grades are accessible to all, for every five or six men who take the lead or command others, one hundred thousand must follow or be commanded. This makes it vain to tell every conscript that he carriers a marshal’s baton in his sack, when, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, he discovers too late, on rummaging his sack, that the baton is not there. — It is not surprising that he is tempted to kick against social barriers within which, willing or not, he is enrolled, and which predestine him to subordination. It is not surprising that on emerging from traditional influences he should accept a theory, which subjects these arrangements to his judgment and gives him authority over his superiors. And all the more because there is no doctrine more simple and better adapted to his inexperience, it is the only one he can comprehend and manage off-hand. Hence it is that young men on leaving college, especially those who have their way to make in the world, are more or less Jacobin, – it is a disorder of growing up. — In well organized communities this ailment is beneficial, and soon cured. The public establishment being substantial and carefully guarded, malcontents soon discover that they have not enough strength to pull it down, and that on contending with its guardians they gain nothing but blows. After some grumbling, they too enter at one or the other of its doors, find a place for themselves, and enjoy its advantages or become reconciled to their lot. Finally, either through imitation, or habit, or calculation, they willingly form part of that garrison which, in protecting public interests, protects their own private interests as well. Generally, after ten years have gone by, the young man has obtained his rank in the file, where he advances step by step in his own compartment, which he no longer thinks of tearing to pieces, and under the eye of a policeman who he no longer thinks of condemning. He even sometimes thinks that policeman and compartment are useful to him. Should he consider the millions of individuals who are trying to mount the social ladder, each striving to get ahead of the other, it may dawn upon him that the worst of calamities would be a lack of barriers and of guardians.”

On “structural unemployment”

In a new segment we’re calling “Anticap Nerd-rant”…

One pesky byproduct of trying to teach oneself about economics and finance so as to figure out Just What The Hell Is Going On Around Here is needing to learn lots of obnoxious jargon. One particularly cringe-making example is en vogue of late, “structural unemployment.” What people mean when they say it is that the base of unemployed workers are actually unemployable, because they simply lack the job skills that employers want.

I find this idea objectionable for a number of reasons, none of which is its assertion that there are structural impediments to full employment. That, I get, but I think the structure of this unemployment has different contours. The tone with which people talk about structural unemployment sneeringly implies that labor cannot meet the needs of capital, when this unemployment crisis is so clearly about capital’s inability to meet the needs of labor.

People are not crippled by lack of skill. It is capital that is crippled, insofar as it cannot by means of investing in people draw anything like the profits possible through investing in their debt, and profit it must. So, the extremely rich are getting exponentially richer as compared to the whole country, through the collection of money (sometimes on threat of prison)  from people who simply are not making enough money at their jobs to pay what is being demanded of them (because capital is not paying them money; it is lending it to them).

Unemployment is implied in debt like this. Debt makes capital much larger profits than are to be found investing in employing people to do meaningful — even long-term profitable — work. (Engineering and constructing, say, a national transit infrastructure that won’t bake us right off the planet.)

The unemployment structure, in other words, has less to do with people’s inability to perform the tasks needed than capital’s inability to invest in the tasks people need to perform. There are jobs a-plenty that need doing, if companies would hire people to do them, but those who own the capital stock of this country seem to be making too much on usury to care.

I’d like also to suggest that prison prescribes a contour to the structure of unemployment. Michelle Alexander is excellent on the prison system’s imposition of structural barriers to employment upon those who pass through (often thereafter to return.) We are taking about an in-no-way-insignificant and perpetually-increasing portion of the population. Incarcerated prisoners also perform labor, at Very Efficient Rates. As we know, the private sector is exceptionally capable in the field job creation, and the good news is that prison privatization is on the rise. Who an tell what exciting employment opportunities await?

Or how about this for structural inequality: in the 1990′s North American capital both stimulated Latin immigration (by undermining Mexican agriculture with NAFTA) and profited off of it (by exploiting extremely cheap labor, whose providers were afforded no right to redress if even those meager wages were stolen). Now, in an economic downturn, people like Mitt Romney go around referring to these people as “illegals” — a noun! Only one Presidential candidate — Newt Gingrich — has put forward an immigration plan that would provide jobs, and those through the implementation of a permanent, legally disempowered peasantry class, a concept of which, Tocqueville observed, Americans lack an intuitive understanding.

Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon objecting to a useful concept in economics because of its inelegant name. I’m not an economist. I don’t know. But I hate, hate, hate anything that implies the mass of unemployed people are at fault for their unemployment.

Monday Lenin Quotation

I know. I already did a Zizek quotation today. But here’s one from Lenin.

Finance capital took over as the typical “lord” of the world; it is particularly mobile and flexible, particularly interknit at home and internationally, and particularly impersonal and divorced from production proper; it lends itself to concentration with particular ease, and has been concentrated to an unusual degree already, so that literally a few hundred multimillionaires and millionaires control the destiny of the world.

1927.

Monday Zizek Quotation

From a speech he gave at my alma mater, before I went there.

It is a well known fact that the close-the-door button in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo which is placed there just to give individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey. When we push this button the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just press the floor button without speeding up the process by pressing also the close-the-door button. This extreme and clear case of fake participation is, I claim, an appropriate metaphor [for] the participation of individuals in our post-modern political process.

Happy Monday, everyone. Now go slobber over the latest Romney v. Obama headlines!

Reflection on the May Day Up w/ Chris Hayes

There was an elephant in the room that I think is really worth exposing for practical reasons. When we talk about the hey-day of the labor movement — during the 1930′s, especially, but also before then, in the sort of radical construction that led to Haymarket Square and Lawrence, MA, &c. — we are talking about a specifically anti-capitalist movement. Labor leaders and self-organizing (mainly immigrant) workers adhered to ideologies that affirmed in their every supposition the primacy of labor over capital. These people regarded capitalism as an illegitimate vacuum, whose design was to extract our — the workers’ — excess labor value for the capture and indefinite accumulation of management and the ownership class. The alternative they proposed was essentially antithetical to the capitalist system: workers should own our own labor power, should control the means of production.

After the Second World War — that is to say, after the golden age of trade unionism, which is further to say, during the age of McCarthyism and the Cold War — that essential supposition was criminalized (literally, by the Smith and McCarran Acts, and socially, by the massive Red Scare effort undertaken by the forces of reaction), so that today’s labor leaders don’t look like Mother Jones; they look like Randi Weingarten. Now, I’m saying this as the son of a public school teacher. Weingarten was a labor leader during a really difficult time for teachers who are everywhere on the defensive as the forces of neo-liberal capitalism conspire to remove education from the commons. But she’s a Democrat, not a Wobblie, and that makes all the difference.

The Democrats are a capitalist party. There is a sense among more liberal Democrats, like Jerry Nadler, that the most ruthless excesses of capitalism have to be mitigated by government regulation and a social safety net. But this concedes the question about labor’s superiority to capital and, in so doing, bankrupts the theoretical, political, emotional and — if I may — spiritual basis for the types of class solidarity that we associate with the golden age of labor. The anti-capitalist locus, such as exists, is no longer the labor movement but the activist and academic classes, which is why the latter, not the former, are calling for a General Strike.

It is also worth noting that concomitant with the breakdown of the labor movement (most starkly under Reagan, but actually forecast by the McCarthy age) was the de-industrialization of the American economy. Today, what this country produces — complex financial products and tons of disgusting chickens — pales in comparison to the American consumer economy (fueled in large part by the Chinese production economy), which is why OWS’s version of May Day, as articulated by Marina Sitrin, is not focused exclusively on labor but also on consumption, education, &c. The American economic system is large and complex, which is essentially the reason Saul Alinsky (who is all of a sudden mysteriously infamous on the right) and others shifted the focus of their organizing from the factory floor to the communities where workers and the poor lived. This also helps to account for public-sector workers like those Weingarten represented, who haven’t got a parasitic ownership class to which to sell their labor (their essential species-being, if you ask Marx), but rather sell their labor to the state.

We need to revive the idea that labor exists for other than the benefit of capital, and we need to incorporate that idea into every facet of whatever ideologies come to define the American left in post-crash America. These will not look like the old left, which is why Liberty Plaza Park didn’t seem Communistic — just communal. Luckily, even the Republicans have an formulation of this idea embedded deep (too deep, perhaps) within their DNA. Their greatest president, Lincoln, a contemporary and reader of Marx, articulated it in his 1861 State of the Union: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Towards a more Lincolnian Republican party and a more Bill Fletcher-heavy commentariat.

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