Hello, folks! Just a quick housekeeping announcement: For those of you who have read my site before, you may notice that it has a new name. I blogged at Life’s a Lap for many years, but recently changed the name to Noisy Gong. All posts, old and new, will be here (and you may have noticed that the old url redirects here as well). Thanks for reading!
Category Archives: Uncategorized
Beyond the Technical: Seeing the Need for Systemic Change
It is a common refrain that our society is facing a crisis. Whether it’s our schools, Social Security, our moral culture, or the environment, decay and collapse are in the air. This isn’t a new development–the idea that the current order of things is on the verge of dissolution is at least as old as the book of Daniel. But with the recent election, this sort of rhetoric has been amplified yet further. Most of those jockeying for positions of power present themselves as the solution to the impending crisis: if you vote for me, the world won’t end. This kind of public presentation is not limited to candidates for political office. Non-profit organizations and for-profit corporations alike constantly present themselves as our only hopes in a dark world–whether it’s a group like Greenpeace asking for donations or a company like Monsanto promising a happy future if their product is allowed to go to market. Everyone agrees that there’s a crisis, and everyone is arguing that they–and normally they alone–can avert it.
In fact, of course, there is good reason to think we really do face a crisis–or even a set of them. Global warming alone poses a serious-enough threat to take the mood of impending doom quite seriously. The question is then: what should we do in response? There’s good reason to think that what has been done up til this point to combat global warming is infinitesimally small compared to what is needed. Sticking with the example of global warming, we are well aware that even with huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines being installed over the last decade that we are dumping even more CO2 into the atmosphere than ever before. And if we include the interlocking environmental crises–whether its the Pacific Trash Gyre, the presence of mercury in seafood, or increased presence of thousands of carcinogenic compounds in human tissue, it’s obvious that the problems are mounting while the solutions are either absent, or pale before the task.
We know there are serious problems, and many of us are spending not small amounts of time, money, and energy to solve them. And yet if anything, we are worse off each year, despite ever-growing wealth and technological capacity. What gives? If we are more aware of the problems, have more resources to address them, and ever more sophisticated modes of response, we would expect the problems to be solved as the future unfolds. This isn’t happening, and I think this disconnect between the expectations of progress and the reality of stasis or indeed regress needs serious attention.
Of course, there are a range of technical, political, and economic factors at work here. As I am not a climate scientist, a policy wonk, or an economist, I’d like to step back and try to make sense of this disconnect from a more general, but still I think explanatory, angle. We live in a society that increasingly celebrates the particular over the general, the technical over the strategic. The assumption is that once a problem has been identified, experts on the subject at hand should be brought in to propose a solution according to their technical understanding. And of course, for many problems, this is exactly the right response. If your car breaks down, call a mechanic. If you are sick, call a doctor or nurse. If your budget is unbalanced, call an accountant. These are all technical interventions that make perfect sense.
But this kind of narrowly-focused response operates with a rarely-analyzed assumption: that all problems are problems of some particular thing or limited set of things. If a car isn’t working, something must be wrong with the particular parts of its engine or transmission or electrical system. If someone is sick, one or more of their organs must not be working properly. If a budget’s totals don’t add up, either a number was entered incorrectly or the arithmetic was fumbled. There is some thing, or some limited set of things, that needs to be adjusted, removed, changed, so that the broader system can work as intended.
But what if a problem is more general than this? What if a problem is being caused not by one particular piece of something malfunctioning, but rather is the result of the system itself, working as intended? In this case, technical intervention will not likely be effective. If the problem is the system and not any of its parts per se, then no kind of tinkering with the parts, swapping in new parts, or removal of them will substantially effect the problem. If the problem is systematic, then the solution probably will be too.
Such situations, where problems arise from deep and broad systematic causes rather than from a few particular items within the system, are far more difficult to address than more limited technical problems for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, the problem is probably much bigger in scale. Systems tend, of course, to be bigger than their parts, so if a problem is systemic rather than particular, there will be a lot more to fix. That bigger problems are harder to solve, generally speaking, than smaller ones will surprise no one. But there is a second, and more subtle reason, that systemic problems are more difficult to address. And it’s this dimension I’d like to discuss further.
If a systemic problem is a problem in a truly large system, then the problem can be exceedingly difficult, even intractable, because the very sub-systems and habits of technical intervention are themselves products of the system which is causing the problems. In other words, if we are talking about big problems like global warming, economic inequality, political corruption, etc., the we are talking about problems in human social systems. That means that our very ways of perceiving, objectifying, and then responding to problems are themselves part of the problematic system. There is an epistemic obstacle that has to be surmounted to even understand the problem at hand, before we can even discuss solutions. This is a difficult claim to wrap our minds around, because we are now trying to analyze our very means of analysis. I think at this point, examples are useful. Economic and financial ones are, I think, perhaps clearest.
Take agriculture, for instance. Let’s say a farmer finds that the price of the crop she is growing has been going down each year. What can she do to make more money? For the most part, crops are crops–farmers have a hard time differentiating their produce from that of other farmers. The only reliable way to increase income by farming is to either switch to crops that are currently yielding better returns, or to increase the amount of crops grown. If the farmer attempts the latter, easier and cheaper solution, perhaps they will bring more land under cultivation. Let’s say they produced 100 tons of grain this year, and then next year they increase their production to 110 tons, an increase of 10%. They might assume they will make 10% more revenue as well, solving their financial problem.
But this won’t happen. This one farmer, of course, will not be the only one to notice the drop in prices for the crops they sell. Thousands, millions of other farmers will have noticed the same problem, and will have the same possible set of limited responses. If every farmer increases the production of this particular crop, they all may expect to make more money. But of course, if the entire market for this crop sees a production increase of around 10%, what will happen to the price? It will fall (all other things being equal). Supply will have gone up without any change in demand. So: the very response the farmers made to address the fall in prices will actually cause the price to fall even further.
Of course, the farmer could attempt to change which crops she is growing, to a crop that currently has a relatively high margin between cost of production and price at market. But note that not only does such a transition normally involve a large increase investment in seeds and equipment (as well as perhaps more labor hours, etc.) but, again, every other farmer in the world sees the same problem, and many may try the same solution, leading to the same supply glut that we explored above.
It’s worth noting that this is not just a hypothetical example; in the post-colonization period in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, both the IMF and the World Bank made loans and loan adjustment for many countries in that region contingent on structural economic changes in those countries’ agriculture policies. In short, they demanded that these countries adopt policies that moved farmers away from subsistence agriculture–that is, growing the plants they themselves ate and made clothing and other products from–and towards cash-crop agriculture, in which farmers instead grow commodity crops for sale on the international market (e.g. cotton or soy).
The results of insisting on this policy for numerous countries, and therefore millions of farmers, at the same time, was of course a glut in the production of many cash crops and a resulting collapse in their price. The switch from subsistence agriculture to cash-crop agriculture meant that these farmers–who before had been self-sufficient, even if poor–meant that they now depended on foreign farmers (esp. US farmers) for their food. As the price of the crops these African farmers themselves sold went down, their purchasing power went down as well. What this ended up meaning was that these farmers went from a position of poverty where they could at least feed and clothe their families to a position of extreme poverty where they could not even guarantee food on the table.
And of course this meant that many of these farmers went into debt and ultimately lost their land, leading to the concentration of agricultural land in fewer, wealthier hands, and in some cases, in foreign companies. The technical solution offered to these farmers demonstrably made the problem worse (it’s worth noting, of course, that in this case, this worsening of the problem was no doubt intentional on the part of the IMF and World Bank).
The problem here was not with the individual farmers, but with the economic, political, and logistical systems in which they lived and operated. An agricultural system built completely on private property and markets will generate this problem time and again, leading to boom and bust cycles (as well as crushing poverty among many rural workers around the world).
Technical solutions, like better fertilizers, or GMO crops that provide better yields, or more efficient machinery, can give a particular farmer a short-term edge, perhaps delaying the problem, but can not solve it, because the problem is generated by the economic decision-making that is forced upon farmers not by the technical or biological limitations of their capital or seed stock, but by the economic and political systems in which they live. This point is absolutely crucial to see in such situations, because we can only address a problem once we actually understand it.
Said more generally: the financial and industrial systems that govern agriculture under modern economies will generate problems that those systems cannot solve, precisely because the fundamental cause of the problem is the system itself. This point also applies to areas beyond agriculture. If we want to understand growing income inequality, global warming, etc., we have to move beyond limited analyses and the limited solutions they generate. Job re-training is a completely insufficient response to income inequality, as is cap-and-trade legislation for addressing global warming.
So long as the owners of factories and other businesses have the incentive to extract as much value from workers as possible while paying them as little as possible, then they will have incentives to make decisions that increase income inequality, whether through union-busting, exploiting immigrant workers, or moving businesses overseas to countries with fewer protections for workers.
Likewise, so long as our economic systems incentivize the burning of fossil fuels, companies will endeavor to keep doing this. Pointing out the technical issue–that burning fossil fuels is a leading contribution to global warming and all the problems this brings–is completely insufficient to the task at hand. We need a different economic system if we hope to get a different economic results.
This is the reason we must be on-guard against purely technocratic solutions, which have become central to the platforms and policies of the Democratic Party over the last 40 years. Small adjustments to a broken system may be worthwhile as stop-gap measures to try and prevent some suffering in the short-term. But unless we take the task of seriously over-hauling the whole system, the problem will only fester, and suffering in the long-term will be magnified.
The crises we face today are massive and interlocked, the result of the social, economic, and political systems that have predominated over the last two centuries. We have to find a way to maintain the real gains and advantages of these systems–liberal democratic capitalism is not without its real achievements–while also fixing the fundamental pitfalls, and providing new structures and systems where the status quo has failed most fully.
If your ship is filling with water, it’s time to grab a bucket and start bailing it out. If the last ten ships you’ve built all have leaks, though, at a certain point you need to assign some people to look over the blueprints and propose some structural changes. To simply call for more buckets to be made is surely madness. And yet that’s where we find ourselves today: with politicians and businesses and even many non-profits all claiming that they make the best buckets. Our crises demand much more: a fundamentally new set of social, political, cultural, and economic systems.
How “Do What You Love” Reflects Our False Identities
“Do what you love.” This is now the stock advice given to young people seeking work. This advice encourages young people to not worry about what jobs are actually available, or what kind of income one can expect from a given field, but instead to focus only on seeking work that one will actually enjoy. On its face, of course, it seems like great advice–everyone would prefer to spend the 40 or 50 years they’ll be working doing something they enjoy rather than something they don’t. But the phrase is based on premises that often go un-analyzed. First off, as many have pointed out before, the freedom to “do what you love” is itself a privilege, and one that many simply don’t have. For those living paycheck-to-paycheck, one has to do what pays the bills, even if they hate it. The alternatives–eviction, hunger, cold–are sobering enough to discipline most people from any impulsive career decisions. Doing what you love is, in other words, something you can only do if you are either independently wealthy or supported by generous family members. It is the purview of upper-middle and upper-class dreamers alone.
This simple and obvious–yet often overlooked–fact reveals not only the privileges of the well-to-do, but also the fact that the vast majority of such well-to-do folks aren’t even aware of this privilege. The assumption is that everyone should–and could–simply do what they love; those who work dead-end or low-paying jobs, seen from this perspective, are just inexplicably choosing to not do what they love. This fact is taken as is by the do-what-you-love crowd, at face value, as a sad commentary on the failure of working-class people to self-actualize and live their truest selves. It never seems to enter into the minds of these folks that many people have no real choice; they do what they have to.
This disconnection between the well-heeled advocates of working only one’s passions and those who work jobs they hate out of fear of homelessness and hunger goes much deeper than job advice. The basic pattern of thought manifest here reveals a lot about the ways in which people of different classes construct and maintain their very identities. For people basically encultured into bourgeois social locations, one’s identity is based around one’s interior states: what makes me happy, what I feel passionate about, what interests me, etc. Such a person is likely to see themselves as more or less the master of his or her own destiny; to the extent that such a person does not achieve what they desire, they will likely look inward to make sense of this failure. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and the growing popularity of visualization and positive thinking are two good examples of this essentially bourgeois self-identity. The “I” is understood as a more or less stable entity, a subject who arranges the world of objects it finds around it so that they are best suited to its preferences.
Those raised in a more proletarian or working-class social location are likely to think in a fundamentally different way. They recognize themselves as largely, though not exclusively, defined by exterior circumstances: how much necessities cost, who is hiring, what natural and political forces act upon them, etc. Such a person is likely to recognize that they are very much not the master of their own destiny, that forces beyond their control will shape much of their lives. Their attitude towards work is likely to be straightforward and practical: they do whatever they can that makes the most money, because money is scarce and without it they will face real hardship. That’s not to say, of course, that such people take no pride in their work or don’t hope to enjoy it–but they tend to take pride in doing a good job with whatever work comes their way, and they seek to find ways of enjoying it, whatever it may be. In other words, they try to love what they (have to) do, but they are under no illusions that they can simply choose freely to do what they (already and for reasons of their own) love.
To point out that people of different class backgrounds think of themselves, their work, and their world in fundamentally different ways is to make not only an ontological point about society and social groups, but also to suggest something more fundamental–that the epistemic structures through which people think are actually quite diverse, and built on mutually exclusive assumptions. This may provide some clarity in making sense of the way in which people seem to so often completely misunderstand one another.
If one sees work as fundamentally something one chooses to do because of one’s own particular identity, as the outpouring of a passion and an interest, that may make it hard–or even impossible–to understand why anyone would remain in a job paying minimum wage. For someone with the bourgeois self-identity as outlined above, when thinking about those who work such jobs, one has a choice. One can either explain the minimum-wage worker through the terms of bourgeois social identity, or one can admit that perhaps this social phenomenon cannot be reduced to this explanatory framework. People rarely choose to have their way of perceiving and conceiving of reality changed. Much more often, we reduce confusing phenomena to factors we can understand, we homogenize what is different to make sense of it according to our own presumptions and values. Thus, many people raised within a bourgeois social location find themselves struggling to make sense of the minimum-wage worker, and resolve their confusion not by exploring what that worker would say for him- or herself, but according to the terms that make sense to the bourgeois thinker.
This basic cognitive and epistemic process may explain how so many people simply assume that minimum-wage workers must be lazy and unmotivated. Employing the logic that they have been encultured into, this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion: if people always have the freedom to make the choices that maximize their own happiness, and someone makes a choice that consistently makes them unhappy, they must be either stupid or lazy. If someone understands human identity and microeconomic decisions from the standpoint of the bourgeois subject, this conclusion is hard to avoid.
Such a person would have to be willing and able not only to imagine circumstances very different from their own in order to understand the logic that compels people to work jobs they hate, they would actually have to be able to think differently about self and labor. They would have to recognize that not only the minimum-wage worker, but they, the middle-class “do what you love” worker as well, is constrained and defined by the exterior social and economic forces of capital accumulation. That is to say: they would not only have to come to terms with some hard truths about the brutal way that capitalism treats the working poor, but also about how the same system of capitalism undercuts middle-class workers the agency and subjective freedom they value so highly and which, in fact, are essential to their own self-understanding.
Thus, to see the world the way that most working-people do can actually be traumatic for a well-to-do white-collar worker–personally traumatic, because it will displace their own cherished ideals, the ideals that are essential to his or her own self-image. They will find that the “I” they take to be the central reality of their existence is actually mostly, perhaps even entirely, the product of social and economic forces they neither comprehend nor approve of. They will be radically displaced, revealed to be something other than that which they dream to be. It should not be surprising that they will resist this realization, that they will fight tooth and nail to not achieve this consciousness, because it is painful on these two levels–the social level, in which they realize their world is more brutal to vulnerable people than they want to admit (it is much easier to blame the unfortunate for not engaging in enough positive thinking)–and also this latter personal level, in which their own sense of self is deconstructed. Recognizing the violence inherent in our existences is not pleasant. Of course we would rather see the world through rosier lenses.
It should go without saying that the basic phenomenological and sociological analysis laid out above applies to racism and sexism as well. For white people to truly recognize not only the violence inherent in their social realities, but also that their very identities as white people have been and are generated by this violence is incredibly difficult, even offensive, to accept. For modern people, steeped in the rhetoric of democracy and equality to accept that where they live, how they talk, and what they do have been shaped in fundamental ways by slavery, genocide, and rape is to accept a kind of existential death. Likewise, for men to recognize that much of what is understood as defining masculinity is built on violence and control, not only of women but of other men, is not something most men will want to admit. It means accepting that who we are will have to change if we care about justice. Who we are at a fundamental level, at the very core of our being, the very basis of our identities. Who would seek this out?
All of this should yield at least the following two conclusions: first, we should not be surprised at how often people in positions of relative privilege will cling to perspectives, logics, and modes of perception that seem clearly, ridiculously false upon rigorous inspection. It should not be surprising that people do not want to accept the wholesale displacement of their world- and self-views. Such a displacement is painful, traumatic, and indeed impossible to even imagine, by definition. It is a sort of dying.
But this must not for a moment lead to us thinking that speaking the truth about capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and the other systems of exploitation should somehow be toned-down to protect the feelings of the relatively privileged. Certainly, recognizing the potential for serious pain and trauma among the privileged may lead us to change tactics and rhetoric in our discussions. It may be necessary to build real trust and intimacy with people before we can challenge them to see the world more clearly. We may also want to stress to them that their feelings of resistance to this change in consciousness are normal, and that they should not pretend to not feel them, or be overly shamed by them. We can hopefully have a frank conversation about all of this, and build the possibility for both empathy and solidarity moving in both directions in these hard conversations. But we cannot allow the feelings of privileged people to be valued more than the lives, the incomes, and the personal safety of the vulnerable. (To stress this precedence of the objective and material circumstances of the poor and vulnerable over the feelings of the privileged is itself a reflection of the proletarian epistemology as outlined above, of course, and shows that there is no neutral ground, no Archimedean view-from-nowhere.) Above all, Christians truly concerned with social justice must hear what God has to say: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” and “the truth will set you free.” (Amos 5:24 and John 8:32, respectively).
The Threat of Power and the Limits of Solidarity
“Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never did and it never will.” Frederick Douglass sums up the fundamental attitude that has animated the American radical left and labor movements for the last 150 years. To place one’s hopes in electoral politics, business reform, or the goodwill of elites, from this perspective, is to believe the fairytales of Liberalism. Far from being a series of reasonable conversations by reasonable people, labor organizers and radical leftists have a much more Realpolitik conception of politics: it is a struggle of power. If workers, minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, etc. want change, they have to identify, expand, and mobilize real power to force those in positions of authority to either cede to their demands, or be removed from office.
In short, whether explicitly or not, leftism recognizes the truth of Marx’s claim that human social relations were largely (if not entirely) reducible to class struggle: political and economic structures are simply means of extracting value from workers while returning to them less value (in food, clothing, etc.) than they generate. The margin between the two, between revenue and expenses, is profit, itself the essential fuel for the engine of reinvestment, by which capital reproduces itself.
Fundamentally, this view of human society results in radicals’ taking an adversarial stance to all of those in power, whether government administration, in business, or indeed in mainstream culture. All such figures are understood via their structural, rather than individual, identities: their incentives are to maintain the system that gives them power, wealth, and prestige, and so no matter how morally upstanding they may be as individual people, they will, push come to shove, always serve the interests of capital, even if that means horrendous devastation for workers, the environment, racial or sexual minorities, etc. It is the structure of power, and not the personal qualities of the various officers, representatives, or managers, that is essential.
Now, one could certainly, even from a radical-leftist perspective, challenge this account. I’ve attempted to compress nearly two centuries of political theory and practice into three paragraphs, so inevitably I have engaged in massive generalizations. But for the moment I want to assume this basic framework of political thought to raise a question about specific political practices (a debate about how accurate the above account actually is would itself, of course, be valuable–but I won’t be addressing that in this space.)
In short, assuming the above account, how does one avoid falling into a kind political nihilism? If it’s the case that everyone, without exception, is only serving their particular role in reproducing capital as an abstracted value controlled by a small class of property-owners, then how can workingpeople ever generate real communities of resistance? Won’t it be the case that even fellow workers will themselves always be waiting to take their own cut of capital’s spoils? If all are corrupted by the structure of capital’s mode of self-reproduction, on what foundation can real movements of justice and liberation be built?
Well, the committed leftist can respond, according to the theory of class struggle itself, those who do not find themselves directly benefiting from the generated profit of capital’s reproduction–e.g., the workers whose labor is exploited, from whom this value is ripped–have a unique structural role within capitalism. From this (more or less orthodox Marxist) viewpoint, the goal is to clarify the confusion of false consciousness, to make it clear to all workingpeople who their real enemies are, and thereby build solidarity among such people–who, after all, generally constitute a majority or near-majority of most populations in industrialized nations.
From this perspective, then, power is built in a perhaps cynical, but at least honest way: workers should be willing to commit to radical leftist politics for their own individual interest, even if lofty concepts like justice and equality in the abstract don’t motivate them. The problem with this perspective has become particularly clear through experience of organizing in the US during the 20th century. So long as workers view the political landscape this way, and sign on to radical politics only so as to get theirs, they will constantly have an incentive to abandon the movement if capital offers them a better deal. Indeed, this is what has happened time and again, perhaps most obviously in the case of the AFL, which as a craft/trade union of skilled workers, has often (especially in the early 20th century, before joining with the more militant CIO) had incentives to abandon industrial workers and other low-skill workers in their contracts. This historical fact reveals that in many ways, many workers themselves are basically potential petit bourgeoisie, or to put it more plainly (and to quote* John Steinbeck): “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
This tendency of workingpeople to break ranks and make separate deals is a serious problem, and, unsurprisingly since this is not my area of study, I have no helpful or pragmatic response to it to offer here. But it also brings a related problem into sharp relief:
In many ways, the basic theory of class struggle hurriedly outlined above has only been made even starker by critical theory and Michel Foucault‘s work, which (to massively generalize and paraphrase), stresses that all human communication is fundamentally oriented to the maintenance and expansion of power, even–perhaps especially–if the person communicating doesn’t realize this (it’s not always their power that is being maintained or expanded, of course, e.g. internalized racism). This view simultaneously brings important, if depressing, facts about human social life to the surface, but also runs the risk of destroying the potential for building solidarity among workingpeople, for if everyone, no matter how marginalized, is simply a node of power reproducing itself, if we are all in truth temporarily embarrassed millionaires, if all of our interactions are really just sly flanking maneuverings in socio-economic combat, isn’t all hope for a liberatory politics lost?
This is not a purely theoretical question, as many of the political movements among Millenials have focused on precisely this problem, albiet often somewhat implicitly. I offer two examples: first, I would point you to the claim made by some black feminists and womanists that “solidarity is for white women“, a phrase that spread as a Twitter hashtag in 2013 and which simultaneously exposes the real fault lines of leftist and progressive movements as well as the cynicism which lies just beneath the surface of a political discourse that so often tries to build itself on a foundation of hope. Likewise, the honesty of many black organizers in the Movement for Black Lives has led to many of them directing sharp criticisms both at politicians one expect them to see as likely allies–e.g. both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton–but also at white allies more generally.
Many (white!) commentators immediately dismiss such critiques, calling for maturity, pragmatism, or (insert other code-word for “please shut up” here) among such activists and organizers: even if they have serious critiques of white allies, the thinking goes, they should keep quiet for fear of giving ammunition to the real enemy (Republicans, et al.) But this tone-deaf response fundamentally misunderstands what these black critics are pointing to: that even among well-meaning whites, decisions are still being made according to a power calculus, and these activists are refusing to settle for any less than their fair share of power. They are being honest that it is this that they want: power, and nothing less. Real power. Decision-making power. They don’t simply want to place some well-meaning white in authority and trust that she or he will do the right thing. They don’t trust us (and why should they!?) Instead, they are saying: give us the power, and we will make the decision. Nothing less will do.
In its own way, this is a return to the stark but deeply insightful political analysis of the 60’s Black Power movement, a turn away from the emphasis on electoral politics and slow reform and progress that defined the civil rights movement from the 70’s through the early 00’s. Trust was given and was broken, not only by white politicians, but also by many black ones, who prioritized maintaining and expanding their own personal power over doing what was actually best for their constituents. And, of course, this is precisely the sort of behavior that Marxist and (in its own way) critical theory/Foucauldian analysis would predict. Everyone’s actions are, in some way or another, movements to maintain or expand power. To get what you want, you have to maintain and expand your own power. In that sense, BLM and critiques of white feminism are both products of serious reflections on the reality of politics.
But this brings us back to our original question: what can we expect the result of this realpolitik to actually be? Does this honest assessment of power have the potential to generate a truly liberatory politics? Or is it actually just the opposite, the codification of exploitative power? For if the above account is correct, then no one–not even the current leaders of the BLM–can ultimately be trusted. To the extent that they succeed and gain real power for themselves, they can be expected to act to maintain and expand that power itself, rather than necessarily wield it responsibly in the struggle for justice. This, of course, is not some particular critique of these individuals, but simply applying to them the very lessons they have learned from their own lives and the history of their communities, as catalogued above.
At this point, dear reader, you probably see the double-bind: recognition of the reality of how power operates simultaneously gives and takes away. It gives marginalized people the knowledge they need to see their own political, economic, and social conditions more clearly (i.e. dispels “false consciousness”) and to work to develop power with other marginalized people to overturn the structures that are crushing them. On the other hand, and by the very same token, it also predicts what will happen if they succeed: the same cynical use of power by whoever manages to lead such organizations of liberation.
I hope I have accurately diagnosed the problem, even if only in a very generalized and truncated way. But as for solutions to the problem, well…it’s at this point that my mind moves to further philosophical and theological speculation, precisely because I think what the above suggests is that politics is itself the very problem that liberatory political activity seeks to solve. But as Audre Lorde made clear: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Applying this insight to political economy, having dis-covered the fact that our very lives and identities are both causes and effects of the way in which power is reproduced according to the structures of capital, can we expect that wielding power itself, if it is wielded in precisely the way that the owners of the means of production wield it, can lead to real liberation? I hope to have made clear in the above that I am not optimistic about such a program, no matter how “democratic” it seeks to be.
But, then what? Am I just contributing to the very cynicism I earlier seemed so wary of? I can’t really deny the claim, and as I said above, I have no concrete answer or solution to offer. But I can offer a more general, theoretical point: what is needed is a transformation of the way we think about ourselves, about power, and about each other. We need to exist in such a way that we see ourselves and each other differently, and–by the very definition of what I am saying–I can’t imagine what this other way of seeing self and other will be, because, of course, if I could imagine it, I would know it! I would already be occupying that epistemic perspective. I can’t imagine what it would be to not see myself a power-managing being wrestling with other power-managing beings.
Now, I am not suggesting that simply by thinking of ourselves differently, we can magically transform our material circumstances or social relations; rather I am saying that a condition of possibility for such a real transformation of the material and social is a new way of thinking. In short, we have to be able to imagine a different mode of relations in order to challenge the current one. But if it is true that our imaginations are themselves limited by the very social relations in which we currently find ourselves, then the double-bind explored above comes back with a vengeance. I have to imagine the possibility of a new set of social relations, which I can only do once I am already existentially defined by those very (as of yet non-existent) social relations(!)
At this point, Marxist theories of the Proletariat as the Subject of History, or the deeper Abrahamic narratives of the eschaton upon which the former is based, loom in my mind. But these, of course, have their own well-rehearsed limitations and failures. I want to end here, honestly, having charted the terrain and perhaps made a simplistic map. That I can’t see beyond the horizon of my own social location to new possibilities of a transformed power, a power that can be more than zero-sum, doesn’t mean that someone else necessarily won’t be able to. May my map, however poorly drawn, be of some help.
Framing Questions to Shift the Blame in the Housing Crisis
The LA Times published an editorial two days ago purporting to explore why it was that the black population of many progressive/liberal cities had been declining over the last decade or so. Aaron Renn, the author, pointed out that cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles had extremely high “median multiples”, a figure that expresses how many times the median income the average house costs in each city. Portland’s figure of 5.1, LA’s of 8.1, and San Francisco’s of 9.4 were all much higher than most cities (a baseline expectation is 3.0–meaning that an average home would cost three times the median yearly income in that city). The conclusion was that building/zone restrictions and environmental protections, which tend to limit the supply of housing, were driving up the prices of housing in these cities.
Now, on the one hand, Renn is pointing to an obvious and incontrovertible fact. Housing prices have certainly gone up in many cities in recent years; the explosion in housing costs in San Francisco has, in particular, gotten a lot of attention. There’s no denying that this is happening and it’s a problem. But Renn offers a particular causal explanation: saying that it is progressive/liberal environmental and zoning policies that are to blame. And it’s this causal story that doesn’t hold water.
First off, let’s step away from the content of this particular discussion and note the tactics involved. This rhetorical strategy of pointing out obvious and undeniable facts but then offering a contentious and indeed wildly dubious explanation is an all-to-common one. The hope is that the reader, noting the obviousness of the facts presented, will simply assume the proposed cause is just as obvious. We should be on guard against this rhetorical maneuver.
Our suspicion should only deepen when we pay attention to who Renn is and who he works for: he’s a “senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute“, a conservative think tank. Of course, pointing out that he has an ideological bias doesn’t prove his point wrong–we all have biases and points of view. But it makes the breezy transition from confident fact to dubious cause less surprising; Renn here is, it would seem, less interested in providing technical economic advice to cities seeing adverse outcomes and more interested in pushing a specific ideological interpretation of the situation to effect policy changes.
And it’s not just that Renn’s causal explanation seems specious and ideologically-inspired–it’s that he seems to be pulling a bait-and-switch as well. Because the problem he identifies–the massive increase in housing prices in these cities–may have other causes which he would like to obscure.
First and foremost, remember that the figure he points to for evidence of the problem is the “median multiple”, which is the ratio of housing prices to income. This number will go up if the cost of housing goes up or if income effectively goes down (or stagnates). So the problem could be as much with income as it is with housing availability or prices. It’s worth noting that Renn does not discuss minimum wages, union density, or trade policy, though these are all major factors in explaining the drop in real wages over the last 40 years in this country. Again, considering his employer, this is not surprising.
Secondly, in the case of San Francisco, we also know that the explosion of Silicon Valley companies in the area, most notably Google, is also a major catalyst for the increase in housing prices. But Renn explicitly claims that a city’s being friendly to development and business will decrease rather than increase the median multiple–and again, considering his employer, this interpretation is not surprising, even though it runs into direct conflict with the facts on the ground (facts which, unlike the increase in housing prices, Renn chooses not to report here).
I think this discussion is important not only because this issue of housing availability is itself crucial, but also because this is a very clear example that how a question is framed will have a major impact on the answers an author reaches, and how those answers are received. By ignoring most of the relevant data and discussion, Renn is able to take a very real problem, offer an at-best partial explanation, and then reach a wildly specious conclusion. We need to be on guard against this sort of rhetoric–not just bad answers, but manipulative questions.
How the Democrats Exploit the Culture Wars
A while back, I wrote a post about how the culture wars were started–and continue to be exploited–to convince working- and middle-class people to support the Republicans even though that party supports foreign, economic, and fiscal policy that’s awful for 90% of folks in the US. I argued that those of us concerned with social and economic justice have to redirect Americans’ attention from this narrow concern over abortion and homosexuality if we are going to address the most serious problems we face today: unending war, crushing poverty, climate change, ecosystem collapse…the list goes on. Republicans and conservatives certainly bear the brunt of the blame for this culture-war focus–but what has become clear over the last 2 decades is that the Democrats are just as willing to exploit the culture wars. As Thomas Frank discusses in a new essay in Harper’s (which is behind a paywall, so I’ll link you to a Salon interview about it instead), Obama hasn’t really challenged any of the substantial economic, foreign, or environmental policies of the Bush years. He’s instead touting his (at best, wishy-washy) support for abortion rights, his (late, and often muffled) defense of gay rights, and his “I’m slightly less of a toady for Wall St.” history as President as reason why progressives and liberals should turn out to vote for him in November.
But this just-barely-left-of-the-Republicans Democratic strategy isn’t new to Obama. Let’s not forget that it was Clinton who signed NAFTA–with a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress–and it was Jimmy Carter who made it clear that the US would use force to defend its interests in the Gulf. The Democrats are just as beholden to Wall St., the banking sector, and the big multinational corporations for campaign contributions–and post-public-service jobs–as the Republicans are. Policies that actually challenge the exploitation of workers and the destruction of the environment don’t go over well with the tiny fraction of people around the world who own most of the land, capital, and wealth. So the Democrats are no more interested in standing up on these issues.
And the culture wars, though begun to bolster support for conservative Republicans, have offered the Democrats an unbeatable opportunity. They can, both personally and institutionally, cozy up to big business just as closely as the Republicans, and wax hysterical in public over the same cultural issues to frighten up support from workers, women, and minorities. Both parties, in other words, use the culture wars to get Americans to support them, even as each party pursues policies that are detrimental to almost all of us. There is, in short, no (sizable) labor party in this country. There’s no substantial party critiquing capitalism. There’s no party really talking about poverty, about justice. Democrats are just as willing to throw poor people in jail for stealing a candy bar while groveling at the feet of Jamie Dimon. Bill Clinton was famous for his “it’s the economy, stupid” campaign in ’96, but the reality is that it’s not about the economy anymore–both parties support the same positions. It’s about cultural posturing. The wealthy are happy to support a ‘pro-life’, anti-gay party and a pro-choice, pro-gay party, precisely because neither of these issues actually affect their bottom line. But increasing the minimum wage, prohibiting pollution, supporting unions, respecting the sovereignty of other nations–these would cost them–billions, trillions of dollars–and so neither party makes a move, even the supposedly worker- and environment-friendly Dems.
I don’t mean to suggest that abortion and gay rights aren’t important issues–they are. And I’m glad to see the Democrats defending women and homosexuals, advancing their causes on these issues. Because they are crucial debates about the rights of Americans. These issues are necessary in the fight for a better world, but they’re not sufficient. If women have good access to safe abortions and gay folks can get married, but the planet is 2 or 3 degrees C hotter, our air and water are toxic, most people around the world are living on a few dollars a day, and there’s an unending war–is that a future we can look forward to? I am in no way calling for progressives and liberals to abandon the pro-choice and pro-gay positions–but I am asking that they demand more from their supposed representatives. Because the course we’re on doesn’t end well.
Here’s where most people would begin to talk about voting strategy–should we refuse to vote for Obama because he’s basically Bush 2.0? Maybe that would show him; maybe that’d force the Dems to move to the left in ’14 and ’16. Many would argue that this is our only hope, that progressives and liberals have to let the Dems know they can’t take us for granted–that they’ll never respond to our demands if they know we will vote for them no matter what. But of course others would point out that that would mean a Romney presidency, and as bad as Obama has been on so many issues, Romney would clearly be worse. Don’t we have to think about the short-term as well as the long-?
I don’t have anything to really add to this debate. I’m not sure I can bring myself to vote for someone who is murdering US citizens without trial. But does that mean that I’m implicitly supporting a Romney presidency?…my fundamental response is that voting isn’t going to fix this. We need to recognize that we will have to organize and build a real movement for social justice. The good news, of course, is that people already are. But we can’t change things with a thousand, or even ten thousand committed activists protesting and resisting. We will need millions–tens of millions–of Americans to step forward into this fight. I’m not sure how to get there. The obstacles are many, daunting, and complicated. But it does seem to me that one of the biggest, and earliest, obstacles that will lie before us is the polarization of the US along the culture war fracture. A popular movement that doesn’t include poor minorities, rural folks, construction workers, factory workers, and a good chunk of the middle class isn’t a popular movement at all. We are going to have to start looking at people as something other than socially liberal or conservative. We’re going to have to recognize that the pro-life, anti-gay blue collar people so many liberals denigrate and ignore are not our enemies. We are all being crushed by late capitalism, together, all the same. Organizing will mean finding common ground with them, it will mean building bridges over the culture war fissure. It will mean challenging not only the conservative, Republican culture war narrative–but the “liberal” Democratic one as well.
Korean Steeple Chase
UPDATE: Actually, now I’m no longer maintaining Korean Steeple Chase, which makes sense considering I’m leaving Korea in about a month anyway. I hope to start putting up theology-themed posts a few times a week starting this weekend (it’s a 4-day holiday here in Korea, so I have no excuse).
I’m no longer maintaining this blog–please head over to Korean Steeple Chase for my ramblings on Korean politics, religion, and society. As well as pictures of mountains.
>I’m Too Dang Sarcastic
>It’s easy to fall into a rhythm or a rut in day-to-day life, to find a groove and to continue along it without reflection. And it rarely occurs to us, I think, that our troubles, our depression, our emptiness, may all stem from the Way We Go About Life. A realization about myself and my friends has slowly dawned on me over the last few years. It’s been so slow that I normally don’t even notice the realization at all, but every so often I see through my social interactions, my past day, and don’t like what I see. And a pattern has emerged. At least that should mean I can change things.
Simply put, a sardonic sarcasm has come to dominate my friendships. I find it difficult to interact with anyone without relying on a wry sense of humor. I feel a need to always be funny while showing no vulnerability. I could probe into why this might be the case–I was a quiet kid who got picked on a lot on middle school, etc. etc.–but really it doesn’t matter, because 1) regardless of what might have shaped this approach to life, what matters now is changing course, and 2) it’s not just me. This sardonic sarcasm seems to have absorbed deeply into American culture, or at least the culture of my peers. And it needs to change.
The trouble is, how do you go about changing something so fundamental to how you act with your friends? How do you learn to be genuine with people? How do you learn to be comfortable with vulnerability? I had hoped that I’d explore these questions more deeply in this post, but nothing is coming to me. Nonetheless, I’m glad to have at least state the problem. Hopefully I’ll get some ideas about the solution soon.
>The Semantics of Theism
>What do people when they say they believe in God? Are they making an intellectual statement, asserting the correctness of a certain body of Scripture? Are they describing a personal relationship with a spiritual being? Are they making a teleological claim about the meaningfulness of existence? Are they just reciting the beliefs of their parents? Modern society is decidedly secular; in many quarters admitting to belief in God is a serious faux pas, an admission of ignorance and superstition.
At the same time, the foundations of Enlightenment agnosticism and atheism are beginning to show signs of wear and stress. Advances in philosophy and physics in particular have led many to a sort of nihilistic skepticism, not only about God but about all knowledge. While the debate between theists and atheists is generally cast as a polarized battle between two diametrically opposed metaphysical, cultural, and ethical systems, even a cursory glance at the writings from both sides reveals that the terms and ideas used are often muddily vague. How much of the debate is really confusion and miscommunication? Can we really even argue about an idea as abstract and ineffable as God in the first place? What does the word “God” even mean?
At the center of this debate is the separation of a word or concept from what it describes. The word “chair” is not itself a chair. My name is not the same thing as my actual body and my history as a person. So the focus of our attempts to talk about and understand God is an issue of semantics: what do these words mean? And what, perhaps more importantly, do these words not mean? If our debates and discussions about God are going to be fruitful, we have to be clear with our semantics.
Getting back to the “chair” example, if someone asked me to define a chair, I think the most accurate and succinct definition would be “a human-made object with a horizontal surface designed for a single person to sit on and a vertical surface to support the person’s back, and that is movable.” Other similar objects, like stools and booths, would be excluded–stools have no back, and booths seat more than one person and are normally bolted to the floor or wall.
When we talk about God, though, are we talking about an object like a chair that can be perceived with the senses and then described? I’m not going to give my own answer(s) here, in part because I don’t know that I have any good answers to give. But there’s no question that considering these questions must be central to any person of faith. Is God a being we can perceive like other beings? Or is God Being itself, the very essence of all existence? Is God a prime mover, a first cause alone? Or is God cause and constant sustainer–transcendent and yet immanent? Can we communicate with God like a sort of super-human? Or does communing with God take radically different forms than we are used to as humans?
Ultimately, what do we mean when we talk about God? I don’t think any of us will have any immediate answers. One might say that the practice of a religion is, at least ideally, itself the answer.
>Prayers of the People
>My parish recently asked its newest members and members-to-be to write our own forms of the Prayers of the people, which is communal prayer offered in Episcopal (and other) liturgies. The Prayers of the People seeks to express the needs, concerns, fears, and questions of all the members of a church an to connect them to the broader Church and world abroad. So here’s my crack at it.
With all our heart and soul, let us pray to the Lord for mercy in the ancient Greek in which many of our earliest brothers and sisters spoke:
(The kyrie response could be chanted or sung, and the prayer could be concluded with an extended traditional kyrie chant.)
For Your Church, in all its denominations and divisions, and for all who love Truth within or without the Body of Christ.
For this and all nations, for our leaders, for the citizens, for all who find themselves in positions of authority and power.
For all who volunteer and work for others and for their communities, who struggle to improve the world as well as themselves.
For the whole earth, from which we arose and on which we will always depend, for all of the life with which we share this planet.
For all the communities of Richmond, Northside and Southside, Westend and Eastend, downtown and suburban, for that broader community which we often forget or ignore but to which we are intimately tied.
For the poor, for the sick, for the oppressed, for the enslaved, for the dying, for all who are powerless in the face of power, who are not only our brothers and sisters, but infact Christ, who is always before us in the least of us.
For all who live with the hope of Christ’s kingdom and for [St. Andrew and] all who have died in that same hope, who together have and are striving to obediently serve as builders of that kingdom.
For each of us here and now, whoever we are, certainly creatures of God and certainly called to the work of redemption.