Sunday, September 13, 2009

Guatemalan Court Sets Precendent in the Case of Israel Carías

ZACAPA, GUATEMALA—June 22, 2009, was an historic day for the family of Israel Carías Ortiz, and for the people of Guatemala. The Sentencing Tribunal in Zacapa, Guatemala found two men guilty of the 2007 murder of Ortiz and his two sons Ledwin Anilson (age 9) and Ronald Aroldo (age 11).

The precedent-setting sentence recognizes Carías was killed because of his leadership in the struggle to reassert legal rights to community land, and mandates an investigation into the planning or 'intellectual authorship' of the murder: the finqueros (large land-owners) presumably responsible for contracting the assassins to protect their interests.

In Guatemala, this sentence is referred to as 'dejar abierto,' meaning that though there was a verdict, the judges do not consider the crime resolved. However, due to many obstacles impeding justice in Guatemala, action to persecute intellectual authors remains extremely difficult.

The ruling has implications in establishing guilt for human rights crimes of the past, especially those committed during the 36-year internal armed conflict, over 99 per cent of which, according to the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala (ODHAG), remain in impunity. For the first time, a Guatemalan court established that guilt in attacks against human rights defenders goes beyond the actual perpetrators. Those responsible for orchestrating the attacks must be identified and held accountable for conceiving and financing the crime.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inglourious Basterds. Review. Spoiler Warning (but you've already read reviews and know what happens, so it doesn't really matter):



When I was an undergraduate, I took a course entitled "The Bible and the Holocaust" from a short, squeaky, charismatic and funny rabbi-cum-professor, who would lecture twice a week, making jokes about feminism and Blow Pops and the president of the university. This professor, who also taught a class entitled "Quest for the Human Destiny," in which he would draw an intellectual genealogy from the Book of Ecclesiastes to Salinger, Hemingway, and the film, Shane, was not, I realized, talking to us about the Holocaust. Yes, we read Nehama Tec; yes, we watched Shoah. But for this professor, the entirety of the political and social phenomenon that took place between 1938 and 1945 could be reduced to one phrase: Hitler versus King David.

Hitler versus King David. What this phrase meant was a little bit obscure at first. We read Kings and Samuel, the stories of David fighting Goliath (our professor mentioned the fact that the Philistines were uncircumcised); the stories of David unifying Israel; the stories of David abusing his power by killing Bathsheba's husband; the stories of David impotent in his old age. David was, for Holstein, a warrior king, with imperfections, and the perfect human being. But what did any of this have to do with the Holocaust? Certainly, the Holocaust was a clear example of a minority's inability to fight back against the State, and King David represented Jewish autonomy and statehood. Certainly, there was no Jewish leader who managed to take on the Nazis in the way that David took on the Philistines. But transforming the Holocaust into this simple dualism of David/Hitler seemed to be a flashy way for our professor to recapitulate his obsession with History as the creation of great men (he once told his Quest for the Human Destiny lecture crowd that "not one of you will ever be the human being that King David was"). But it all came clear one day in one of his many anecdotes:

"I was in Israel," he told us, "on the day of remembrance. All of the sudden, it got very quiet, and in the silence, three fighter jets made a loud boom as they passed overhead. There was another moment of silence, and then, all in unison, voices rose up shouting 'Never again!'" He repeated the "Never again," a bit teary, and said, "To protect the weakest members of your society... you need your own land, your own territory!"

This is what David versus Hitler meant: the formation of a Jewish state and its securitization through military force. Holstein continually reminded us that "to protect the weakest members of society, one needs strength."


My professor will probably show Inglourious Basterds in future permutations of the "Bible and the Holocaust" class. If ever a film was meant to appeal to Israelis (and Americans) of the Avigdor Lieberman persuasion, this is that film. The two parallel narratives follow a young Jewish woman, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who, at the beginning of the film, escapes from Nazis while her family is murdered and who subsequently becomes the proprietor of a medium-sized cinema in Paris, and the Inglourious Basterds, about whom we know very little, except that they are an elite squad, made up almost entirely of Jews (with the exception of Brad Pitt's character, 1st Lt. Aldo Raine) with very few speaking lines (also with the exception of Brad Pitt's character), whose sole mission in Germany is to "scalp Nazis," as Aldo Raine informs us in the second scene of the film. Both protagonists harbor deep animosity toward the Nazis, for fairly obvious reasons: how could a Jew not hate Nazis, even if a few did buy into Nazi propaganda and were even members of the German military through the Third Reich? The Basterds fulfill their hatred by killing Nazis for being Nazis (sounds a bit like Erik Prince's attitude toward Muslims), while Shosanna, whose cinema is opportunely turned into the venue for the premier of a major Nazi film directed by Joseph Goebbels, Stolz der Nation, is able to fulfill her desire for revenge by burning down the theater filled with all the major members of the Nazi party, including Hitler, and presumably forcing a German surrender and ending the war on the German front in 1944 instead of 1945.

The film is not aiming at realism, and to critique it on such grounds would be worthless. But I want to ask, what does ending the war in 1944 instead of 1945 accomplish, from the perspective of fantasy? It doesn't save the Jews, because the Final Solution was kicked off two years prior. Tarantino's fantasy apparently has nothing to do with saving innocents, then. It doesn't prevent D-Day, which, as we are informed in the course of the film, has already taken place. Hiroshima and Nagasaki would most likely still occur. The only event with a major human cost that would have been likely to be prevented by such a victory would have been the bombing of Berlin in February 1945, certainly not an insignificant achievement, but I doubt at the forefront of Tarantino's mind. Indeed, the major victory of Shosanna Dreyfus and the Basterds seems to be that Jews get to kill Hitler instead of him killing himself.

This film, then, like many of Tarantino's films (is it because he is a nerd?) is about revenge. I can't be harsh on him for this. After all, I have had plenty of revenge fantasies in my life: what if we could kill Hitler before he came to power? what if we could go back in time and arm Nat Turner with M240s, Humvees, and Tomahawk Missiles? I've even outlined a film, entitled Dick Cheney Gets Tortured, in which the former VP (a character, of course) would be subjected to standard CIA interrogation techniques throughout the course of two hours. The question, though, is, What do these fantasies do, in terms of the current world, the current political climate, and arranging people's view of the world around them?



Tarantino outlined one possible response to this question, in a statement quoted by The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in one of the more interesting reviews of the film I have read:
Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims... We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.
This is actually, despite Tarantino's claims that it never happens, an oft-repeated desire, in and out of Hollywood. In the same essay, Goldberg points to Stephen Spielberg's Munich and Edward Zwick's Defiance. In other words, the Jewish audience wants to see the stereotype broken, they want to see Jews, like De Niro's character in Casino who kick ass, who shoot people, who don't simply die en masse. Unlike these other films, Tarantino's film takes this fantasy and plays it out as fantasy, rather than revisionist (in the good sense) history.

But another question arises: what does this type of portrayal accomplish now, in this moment, when a Jewish state exists, and when Germany has paid it reparations and become its largest European trading partner? When strong Jews exist, and they patrol the border between Israel and Gaza, sometimes launching offensives into Palestinian territory? This film, like Jay Holstein's class on the Holocaust, doesn't seem to be about the Holocaust at all, just as portrayals of the Holocaust, by conservative American pundits or liberals advocating for Darfur, are often not about the Holocaust at all. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but we should be aware of it. The violence of the Holocaust often stands in for something else, and in this case, it seems to be an implicit backing of Jewish force.

This is, of course, a good film. I was even surprised at how much I liked it. There is some very good dialogue - for example, the scene in the beginning when the villian, an SS officer named Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) recapitulates the famous dog/swine discussion from Pulp Fiction by discussing the difference between a rat and a squirrel, and asking whether there is any reason we should be more disgusted by rats than squirrels, or any other rodent for that matter. One can't help be impressed by a functionary of a racist regime asking, through animal metaphors, whether racism is arbitrary (yet he carries out his duties). Another great moment is when Eli Roth's character, nicknamed "The Bear Jew," beats a German officer to death with a baseball bat. Roth, in a movie full of actorly actors, is so un-actorly that he actually makes what would a very unpleasant scene incredibly engaging. Rather than retaining some kind of aloof cool, he begins to scream and shout, cursing and saying something along the lines of "I knocked it out of Fenway, motherfuckers!" (Not in the shooting script). There is also an amazing sense of pacing and shot composition, the kind that has led people to see the ultra-violence film as "Quentin's genre" (and the ultra-violence is, as Gerry Canavan points out, not as extreme as some reviewers would lead you to believe, certainly not as extreme as Kill Bill).

But we have to be careful with this kind of film. The temptation is to see critique where there is none, and to mistake our utter enjoyment of the film with profundity on Tarantino's part. The fact is, it recapitulates many of the arguments held in foreign policy circles about intervention and the rights of enemy combatants with no sense of critical distance at all, and it replays the fascist caricature to such an extent that the presence of non-Germans in the burned-down movie theater at the end is explicitly ruled out in a conversation between Joseph Goebbels and the star of the film-within-a-film, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl of Good Bye Lenin! fame). We can read shades of the Bush memos on whether un-uniformed combatants count as enemy combatants and thereby can be protected by Geneva (a false argument, because international courts have ruled that you are either an enemy combatant or a civilian, and are therefore protected by Geneva no matter what), for example, when Aldo Raine tells a Nazi Gefreiter that "We like our Nazis in uniform. That way, we can spot 'em, just like that." And it is hard not to see shades of interventionism and R2P sprinkled throughout this fantasy that, ironically enough, does not save the lives of any of Hitler's victims.

Tarantino does not critique violence. He loves it. The parodies of violence in Kill Bill are not criticisms aimed at violence but criticisms aimed at film. He wants filmmakers to understand that they can make violence fun and to revel in this fact. Of course, for him, film is film and real life is real life, and I agree that one cannot draw a connection between violent acts in film and violent acts in "the real world." But I would add that the relationship between ideology and action is always an ideological one: it shapes opinions and attitudes, forming how people look at the world, in this case, one starkly divided between good and evil, as Eli Roth said in an interview with The Onion AV Club: "[My character is] not taking pleasure in killing. He’s fighting evil on behalf of those who can’t fight. He knows he’s the biggest and strongest one in the bunch, and he wants to terrorize them. But he’s doing it to stop evil." This would sit very well with my "Bible and the Holocaust" professor, who viewed human history as a gigantic contest between David and Hitler. But for those of us who are stuck in the realm of the human, this film adds nothing to the conversation.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Border wall successfully halting illegal immigration (of wildlife) . "Still, by some measures, the border wall can be considered a success. Since its construction, there have been no reports of pronghorn antelopes enrolling in public schools, and the number of ocelots working in service industries appears to have been sharply reduced."

Monday, June 15, 2009

This map, which is rather sobering for what it claims, also has a pretty scary physical appearance: it looks like a fire spreading up and torching the southern United States. I took it from Climate Progress, which took it from a posted draft version of the forthcoming "Unified Synthesis Project: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States" to be put out by NOAA. This draft says, "Internal Review Draft: Do Not Cite or Quote," so I'm giving that as a big blaring caveat, but the final draft will be released tomorrow at 1:30 PM EST.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Slumdog star's home is demolished":
The Mumbai slum home of one of the child stars of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire has been demolished by city authorities.

Reports say that police smacked the boy, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, with a bamboo stick before ordering him out.

The authorities claim he and other families were squatting on land that was owned by the government.

He played a younger version of one of the main characters in the film, which scooped eight Oscars.

"We are homeless, we have nowhere to go," Azharuddin said after the demolition.

The family lived in a temporary makeshift shelter made up of plastic sheets over bamboo sticks, in a slum near Bandra East in Mumbai.

He said he had been fast asleep when the demolition squad came and asked them to leave, later tearing down the entire row of tents pitched on the land.

The family claim they had not been informed about the planned demolition.

Municipal official, Uma Shankar Mistry, who was present during the demolition, told the BBC that the authorities only razed temporary and illegal homes which had recently been erected next to the slum.

He said the houses were in an area that was meant for a public garden.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Louis Proyect explains to Slavoj Žižek the need for contextualization (or, why philosophers say so many stupid things):
Although it seems implausible at best that Soviet firing squads in 1922 have anything remotely to do with choosing soft drinks, it might be useful to review exactly what Lenin was talking about in his speech–even though it might subvert the postmodernist exercise that Zizek is engaged in.

To begin with, it took a little bit of digging to find out where Lenin said these words. In poking around in Google (the MIA archives used a different translation so an exact match could not be found), I discovered that Zizek was not the only one lending credence to this version of Lenin as the High Executioner. The super-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party dotes on these words as well. In a book on their website titled “Another view of Stalin” by Ludo Martens, we discover that Lenin’s threats against his opponents demonstrate that he “vehemently dealt with counter-revolutionaries attacking the so-called `bureaucracy’ to overthrow the socialist régime.” In other words, Zizek’s Lenin and that of the PLP is a precursor to Stalin, implicitly and explicitly respectively.

At least I did learn from the PLP article the source of Lenin’s words, which was a Political Report of The Central Committee of the Communist Party at the Eleventh Congress on March 27, 1922. It can be read in its entirety at:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/27.htm

If you do, you will discover nothing in Lenin’s speech to support such the interpretation of Zizek or the Progressive Labor Party. To begin with, the report is a defense of the turn away from War Communism toward the New Economic Policy, which most historians view as an end to economic, political and legal regimentation–including the use of the death penalty. Immediately upon taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks did away with the death penalty. It was only restored during the civil war when White terror was unleashed on the civilian population. As soon as the White armies were defeated, there was no use for the firing squad. A January 17, 1920 decree of the Soviet government stated that since the counter-revolution had been defeated, there was no need for executions. Since this occurred more than two years before Lenin’s speech, it is a little difficult to figure out what Lenin was talking about.

As it turns out, Lenin was referring not to an actual firing-squad, but a figurative one as should be obvious from the paragraphs that immediately precede Zizek’s citation:

When a whole army (I speak in the FIGURATIVE sense) [emphasis added] is in retreat, it cannot have the same morale as when it is advancing. At every step you find a certain mood of depression. We even had poets who wrote that people were cold and starving in Moscow, that “everything before was bright and beautiful, but now trade and profiteering abound”. We have had quite a number of poetic effusions of this sort.

Of course, retreat breeds all this. That is where the serious danger lies; it is terribly difficult to retreat after a great victorious advance, for the relations are entirely different. During a victorious advance, even if discipline is relaxed, everybody presses forward on his own accord. During a retreat, however, discipline must be more conscious and is a hundred times more necessary, because, when the entire army is in retreat, it does not know or see where it should halt. It sees only retreat; under such circumstances a few panic-stricken voices are, at times, enough to cause a stampede. The danger here is enormous. When a real army is in retreat, machine-guns are kept ready, and when an orderly retreat degenerates into a disorderly one, the command to fire is given, and quite rightly, too.

If, during an incredibly difficult retreat, when everything depends on preserving proper order, anyone spreads panic-even from the best of motives-the slightest breach of discipline must be punished severely, sternly, ruthlessly; and this applies not only to certain of our internal Party affairs, but also, and to a greater extent, to such gentry as the Mensheviks, and to all the gentry of the Two-and-a-Half International.


So Lenin’s words, taken literally by Zizek and the PLP, were specifically regarded by him as a figurative exercise. Lenin was talking about figurative armies, figurative retreats, figurative machine guns and figurative firing squads.

More to the point, there were no SR’s or Mensheviks in the USSR to brandish such threats against by 1922. They were no longer part of the political equation inside Russia and were left to issuing condemnations of the revolution from afar. Of course, the question would certainly arise as to why they were no longer inside the country. Had the Bolsheviks exiled their political adversaries in the same fashion that Lincoln arrested and deported a sitting Congressman to Canada who opposed the Civil War? Or in the fashion that FDR had imprisoned the leaders of the Trotskyist movement for criticizing the motives of the war with Germany and Japan?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Rich in sunshine is the city of nine-teen-sixty. Fresh air, fine green parkways, recreational and civic centers, modern and efficient city planning, breathtaking architecture, each city block a complete unit in itself." If you want an idea how we got where we are today, just check out To New Horizons, a 1940 documentary about the General Motors' "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair. The world of 1960 features uncongested urban highways, highways that ascend into mountain passes, rationalized farming, and plenty of leisure time for all the girls and boys. GM was staggeringly efficient in getting their future to come true, although without the lilting, soothing accompaniment of Robert Stein. Oh yeah, and with the pollution and misery.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bolivia is "the Saudi Arabia of Lithium." Lithium-ion is what powers the batteries that will run our electric cars, and Bolivia has the largest deposit in the world. This is interesting: what will Morales' socialist government do with/about its new-found "riches." I like the quote from the Bolivian Minister of Mining, Luis Alberto Echazu: "Any company that would like to work with us will have to develop industries here. Otherwise, there's nothing. It's very simple: we will not continue exporting raw materials for another five hundred years. That is over." The problem, as the minister appears to recognize, is that raw-material export countries tend to have huge levels of wealth stratification. If Bolivia can put tight controls on its exports and develop the industry within Bolivia, it may be able to actually benefit from the lithium deposits. Here's CNN's take:

Monday, April 20, 2009

I apologize in advance for this post. Pass it by if you are at all squeamish. Georges Franju's 1949 film, Le Sang des bêtes, about slaughterhouses in France. I found it at Limited, Inc., where there is an ongoing discussion of the abbatoirs in France.





I have to say, I like this a lot:

“It’s a reminder for us in the United States,” President Obama was quoted in the New York Times, “that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence.”

I think he may end up being better than a lot on the left are willing to give him credit for. Of course, lets see if he follows through on his words. The CIA thing this week is rather depressing, to say the least.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I just wanted to make a brief comment on the so-called "easing of the embargo" between the U.S. and Cuba. First of all, there is no easing of the embargo, but rather, an easing of the travel ban. Secondly, this is not some radically new shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, but simply a movement to a travel policy slightly more permissive than during the Clinton era (yes, certain people could legally travel to Cuba all the way up until 2005; I lived there for four months in 2003). Good, yes. But the left and the right should not delude themselves about what this means. If the embargo ends, that will be something significant. That's not what this is, however.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I've had at least three conversations lately about begging. I found myself more or less in agreement with one of the people I was discussing this with (less so with the other two), who argued that, while she has respect for begging, one cannot possibly cure the problems of a society by giving money. This is true, and I agree. But perhaps we need to rethink the position of begging in societies. In his book, Shadow Work, Ivan Illich speaks of "a right to beggary that for a thousand years was never challenged" (103). Begging, in other words was a legitimate part of European society for most of its history. What's more, if you look at other cultures today, many have a completely different view of begging than the dominant European one. My parents have been Buddhist for over forty years now (much longer than I have been alive), and for about 10 years of my life, they had a Buddhist teacher who came directly from Tibet, spoke no English and always taught with a translator, and who was completely un-Western in most of his mannerisms. One of the teachings he would constantly reiterate was the need to give to beggars, regardless of what one thought they would do with the money. There was a mandate to give because begging itself was not seen as illegitimate, a subjective "lack," or some kind of result of a deficiency in the beggar. I visited Tibet, myself, when I was 18 and the begging there was completely different than what we see here. It never involves an individual; it always involves groups, and once you give to one person, you are asked by more and more people until you either refuse to give more or have no more to give. There are a number of things to bear in mind here when thinking about begging in so-called "underdeveloped" or "developing" nations: 1) it acts as a kind of global redistribution on a negligible scale: in Tibet, we gave things that the Tibetan beggars didn't have access to; eyedrops were particularly popular, because of the dust in Tibet and the lack of availability of eyedrops at reasonable prices; 2) the existence of a dual economy makes what for me seems like a drop in the bucket actually have some value elsewhere; as tourists, we generally know this, but don't understand it; it does not mean that begging releases beggars from poverty (and a genealogy of the uses of the word "poverty" might be interesting in itself), but that the dollar can buy imported commodities, whereas the local currency usually cannot at any reasonable price (unless the "local" currency is the Yen or the Euro). Now, unlike in Tibet, in the U.S., it is always individuals, and their begging generally relies on "selling themselves." In other words, they try to appeal to emotions, or they try to entertain, or occasionally, they try to intimidate (I've seen this twice in my life). In other words, in a society of producing monads, even begging is a monadological phenomenon.



These are the preliminaries. To better understand begging, we need to stop viewing it as an isolated phenomenon: the (lazy) beggar asking for my (hard-earned) money. This should be patently obvious to most leftists and even to most liberals. Poverty is an outcropping of society and not some effect of laziness. What I think is less obvious is that begging is quite simply an activity that aims to redistribute social wealth in a very direct manner. Begging, like investment, takes wealth from one portion in which it might be swelling or overflowing, and deposits it in a portion where there is a (relative) lack. It is probably not the most effective form of wealth distribution, partly because in liberal societies we are so thoroughly trained to view property rights as unassailable and to view beggars as sub-human, but partly because, structurally, begging is a very "inefficient" way of extracting surplus from those who have it.

The comparison of begging and investment is not an accident. Both of these ask people to hand over surplus. In one, we are giving such a small share of our surplus, in general, that the thought of it going to, say, alcohol rather than food (although anyone who thinks about this should realize that, if I give someone five dollars on the street, and s/he spends the bulk of it on alcohol, he nevertheless has to eat; and he will probably spend something on food, unless s/he gets it from another source) should not particularly distress me. On the other hand, with investment, the idea is to get back more than what is invested - gambling. In this latter case, the figure who is being compared with the beggar, the investor, gets a share; this share is legally his once you have gone through with contracting, and as long as he "plays by the rules" he gets this share. He has begged you to trust him with your wealth; you have done so; he gets something out of it; you may ultimately not. We know how it's played. But what is important is that both begging and investment rely on social surplus; they are means by which individuals and groups secure for themselves a share of the social surplus. In one case (investment), the promise is held out that more surplus will come back the way it came; in the other case (begging), no such promise is made.

An anecdote: The similarity between begging and other forms of wealth redistribution really hit home for me recently. Last summer, I had a job of sorts, for Grassroots, Incorporated. I got paid minimum wage (and I didn't get paid for every hour I was working) plus commission (which adds up to nearly zero no matter how much money you make, because commission comes by beating the office average for the week; if you make seven hundred one day and one hundred the next, and the office average is 300, you make 25% of the 100 dollar over the office average, or twenty-five dollars for those two days; sounds good, but if that remains your average for the week, you get a grand total of twenty-five extra dollars for the week). I went door-to-door from about 4 PM to 9 PM asking people to donate money to the Democratic National Committee. I would stand on their doorsteps, asking them from the bottom of my wallet (which was pretty sparse just then) to help fund the war against John McCain. I met some interesting people, some nasty people, some hostile people, and a lot of people who couldn't afford (and others who "couldn't afford") to give me money. I memorized a script and repeated it over and over again until my mind went numb, my personality evaporated, and I was nothing but a smile and a minute-long prefabricated request for money. I began to speak in an obnoxious lilting tone and feel as though I didn't have a self. I quite the job after two weeks, which were the two most emotionally exhausting weeks of my life. More recently, I ran into a beggar while I was in a bit of a hurry. He began talking about his kids, and how he lost his job, and I realized while he was talking that everything he was saying had been rehearsed. Instead of making me hostile to the man, it made me realize just how similar my job knocking on doors was to his job standing on the street corner. I gave him more money than I probably otherwise would have. A beggar is someone who can get five dollars out of you; a fundraiser is someone who can get five thousand.



Of course, the rise of the welfare state has allowed us to forget that in many societies there is no solid line between "beggars" and "workers." In Ecuador, for instance, children beg as a supplementary income for the rest of the family. In other words, the original postulate, i.e., that "we aren't going to fix society by giving money away," is absolutely true, but with this caveat: we should begin to look at begging as a trade; it is thus not about fixing society, at all. If we want to fix society we need to look elsewhere, at larger forces and institutions around us. Begging is simply a means by which one group gains some of the surplus that large civil societies almost inevitably produce. It is not about work and laziness; after all, in a highly capitalized society such as ours, begging has, as I have shown through the comparison to my work at Grassroots, all the appearances, including many of the drawbacks, of a "job." It is about the ways in which social surplus gets redistributed, whether it be to a two dollar 40 Oz bottle of malt liquor, a four dollar hamburger, a ten dollar martini or a two hundred dollar iPod.

Friday, April 3, 2009

It doesn't get any more blunt than this:
It was the US dollar that was monetized, or more specifically US debt obligations, which are now substantially worthless and will have to take a significant haircut in real terms. This is similar to the Japanese experience in which they monetized their real estate.

Ironically, those expecting this deleveraging to result in a stronger dollar could not be more mistaken. The Obama Administration is scrambling to obtain relief from Europe and Asia, getting them to inflate their own currencies through 'stimulus,' in order to continue to hide the unalterable truth - the US must partially default on its debt as expressed in the dollar and the Bond.

This is the inevitable outcome of all Ponzi schemes. Several smaller, private schemes already have collapsed. The big one is yet to come down. And when it does, the foundations of democracy will shake, several governments will fall, and we will once again experience the kind of uncertainty more familiar to those who lived in the first half of the twentieth century.

The sad truth is that the Obama Administration has barely begun the real work of rebuilding the economy. Everything to date is simple looting, paper-hanging, and the rewriting of history.

Until the median wage improves signficantly in real terms, and the economy is put back on a productive basis without relying on the unsupported expansion of credit, there will be no recovery, merely sound byte opportunities for the smoke and mirror crowd.

This is the reality.
The census is done only once every ten years, which means it's pretty important that it's done right. We all know that Republicans have a huge investment in doing it wrong, in counting only the people who come to the door and answer the phone and not using statistics and probabilities to figure out who was missed. This year, there are going to be more problems, because of the huge number of foreclosures and the large numbers of people living in tent cities:
“Many people now who have lost their homes to foreclosure are doubling up with relatives, with other families. They might be living in motels . . . tent cities are popping up,” said Terry-Ann Lowenthal, a consultant for many non-profit organisations co-operating with the bureau on the 2010 census. “All of these new living situations create really significant challenges to traditional counting operations.”

One in nine US homeowners with a mortgage was behind on home loan ­payments or in some stage of foreclosure by the end of last year and reports are growing of the desperate measures to which people are turning when they lose their homes. Almost 300,000 homes received foreclosure filings in February alone, according to RealtyTrac.

There is little data on the rise in “non-traditional” housing, which is something the Census Bureau will generate for the first time as it seeks people out this year.

“Some of the first really hard data we have will come from this census, and it’s a big concern, there’s no question about it,” said Burton H. Reist, assistant to the associate director for communications at the bureau.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"With RectSYS, fruit pickers living in India can pick tomatoes grown in the USA!"



And see how happy she is. It must be progress we're watching here:



Lest I need to remind you, "Este es el sueño americano: todo el trabajo, sin los trabajadores":

Life is sweet: I found out today that I have a job for the summer. 20 hours a week, which is what I had asked for.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Today in class, Walter Mignolo made a very interesting critique of Agamben's "bare life." He said, and I paraphrase, "Slavery is not bare life, in the sense that Jews were bare life; slaves are expendable life." The concept of bare life and homo sacer, drawn from Agamben's studies of Auschwitz, refers to a kind of magic circle, a necessary out-casting of individuals in society, the construction of the scapegoat, etc. It is about the phenomenon of internal exclusion. Slavery, on the other hand, was, first and foremost, about labor, about the appropriation of laboring bodies. Slaves are not bare life, they are chattel, completely expendable, not because the slaveholding west desires to annihilate them, but because it needs them to build up the foundations of mercantile capital and it cannot simultaneously admit their humanity. It is a mistake to conflate racial extermination policies and enslavement policies; they have completely opposite ends. The former is a means of mobilizing the "national" population against an internal/external enemy. The latter is more on a continuum with the wage slavery of the industrial revolution era, but with more brutality. Expendable life is not immoral, but amoral; it is life that serves not for sacrifice but for bodies, and it is really impossible to locate it outside the historical specificities of capitalism (perhaps this is why Agamben, with his intellectual history stemming from the Greeks, misses the point here). "Expendable life" is the kind of nullified life-forms that the institution of slavery produced, wholly constrained by plantation-based merchant capital.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street. This is an interesting article, not actually about how the formula itself killed Wall Street but how the eagerness of traders to grab onto a magic bullet led them to tweak a formula for calculating correlation so that it fit their needs. Of course, one thing this article doesn't mention is that, had it not been this formula, it would have been something else. One thing that the financialization of capital has done is to make the international markets incredibly vulnerable to things like this. This fallout of capitalization is the kind of thing that only Marxists and very skeptical chaos-theory liberals like Nassim Nicholas Taleb actually propose in times of economic prosperity, but that people start taking seriously during an economic collapse. The basic principle is that when everyone starts doing the same thing - misusing a specific correlation formula, for example - this creates a bubble that will eventually burst. Anyway, check out the article. Worth reading.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I'm very excited about Sleep Dealer, which is, according to the trailer, coming out next month. It's already playing in LA and New York. It is a science fiction film (with some not so fictional elements: military drone planes, robotic labor replacing human labor, sealed borders) that takes place in a future Mexico, in which the borders to the U.S. have been completely closed off, and immigrant labor is done through computerized factories (machinery is controlled by Mexican laborers in Mexico, but it operates in the U.S.: "All the Work without the Workers"). It has gotten some acclaim at Sundance and other festivals. This will probably be my favorite film of the year.

Also, check out the blog at the website, which has some interesting links.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I've been thinking about the question of circularity, and I wanted to post something, even if I don't have time right now for a full articulation of my thoughts:

I grew up as a Buddhist in a white Buddhist community (and am now a complete atheist). One thing I would often hear is that, unlike Western notions of history, Eastern religions conceive history in terms of circular processes, be it the process of karma and rebirth in Buddhism, or the cycle of three ages - each represented by a different god, The Creator god, the Sustainer god, and the Destroyer god - in some forms of so-called Hinduism. This complaint strikes me now as utterly blind to how the dominant trope of Western historiography actually functions: not only is there circularity, everything is circular. Western historiography refers back to the past repeatedly, in order to clarify the present: Obama=Lincoln or Obama=FDR, the current crash=Great Depression, 21st Century=20th century=19th century (but the 19th century≠the 18th century, at least not for us any more), Hitler=Napoleon=Ghengis Khan. Our conception of history is utterly circular; we cannot do without the circle. The claim that Western history doesn't recognize the circle simply fails to recognize the circle in Western history. What else is redemption than a restoration of an original state of peace?

A linear conception of time would be quite different. For one thing, it would recognize circles/cycles, but only in certain circumstances. The seasons, for example, are cyclical, but also linear. No two springs are the same, as any farmer can tell you, but we can expect the regularity of the cycle spring/summer/fall/winter (to varying degrees, of course, depending on our global location). Historically valid solutions may work a second time, but under varied conditions. Also, a linear notion of time has to recognize entropy. The movement of energy in the universe does not recapitulate the movement of the seasons. Up to this point, the dominant trope of historiography has been circular; although there have been figures that have argued for a more linear history, Marx among them (periodization is a theory that implies no reversal), the dominant trope is a circular one.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I haven't put up any new posts in a few days. I'm getting tired of using the link-blog format, even if I appreciate other people's link blogs quite a bit. At some point, not yet, of course, I would like this blog to become something entirely different, more of an outlet for my research. I think this probably won't be until after I've taken my preliminary exams. Or I might split it up, so that I have a second blog devoted entirely to research run-off. I'll leave you with a couple of links. I'm working on a review of the autonomous Marxist Christian Marazzi's first book to be translated into English, Capital and Language (Semiotext(e), 2008), and I've found a couple other reviews of the book here and here. I will say this about William Dixon's review (the second one): I think that his claim that Marazzi ignores history is rather unjust, for two reasons. First, it's not really true; Marazzi continually situates the development of the New Economy (his term for the finance-based, tech-based economy that began to exist in the 1980s and that came into maturity in the 90s) in a historical trajectory based on global legal, political, and social changes. Second, this book is not attempting to fully theorize the totality of the New Economy along with its numerous particulars after the manner of Marx in Capital or Keynes in The General Theory. The series in which it has been released in North America, Semiotext(e)'s "Post-Political Politics" series, consists of a number of short interventions into various theoretical currents rather than massive theoretical treatises on techno-capital. But some of the complaints that Dixon makes are just. See what you think.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Coen Brothers direct an anti-Clean Coal ad. Enjoy:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Scenes from the New Depression, via BBC:

Most Famous Pundits=Most Wrong. From fair.org. Stanford Psychologist Philip Tetlock did an analysis of pundit predictions to see if there were any strong correlations between aspects of the pundit and the degree to which they made accurate and inaccurate predictions. Turns out, being more famous had the strongest correlation with being wrong in one's predictions:
He initially looked at whether accuracy was related to having a Ph.D., being an economist or political scientist rather than a blowhard journalist, having policy experience or access to classified information, or being a realist or neocon, liberal or conservative. The answers were no on all counts. The best predictor, in a backward sort of way, was fame: the more feted by the media, the worse a pundit's accuracy. And therein lay Tetlock's first clue. The media's preferred pundits are forceful, confident and decisive, not tentative and balanced.
I didn't need a crystal ball to see that one coming. Blowhards like O'Reilly, Limbaugh, and, yes, Franken, tend to prefer getting a rise to being right.
Testing. What just happened to my blog?
A Fraud Bigger than Madoff. The Independent has a story on the looting of Iraq by American contractors. It's pretty astounding how much the Iraqi people were taken for:
Despite the vast sums expended on rebuilding by the US since 2003, there have been no cranes visible on the Baghdad skyline except those at work building a new US embassy and others rusting beside a half-built giant mosque that Saddam was constructing when he was overthrown. One of the few visible signs of government work on Baghdad's infrastructure is a tireless attention to planting palm trees and flowers in the centre strip between main roads. Those are then dug up and replanted a few months later.

Iraqi leaders are convinced that the theft or waste of huge sums of US and Iraqi government money could have happened only if senior US officials were themselves involved in the corruption. In 2004-05, the entire Iraq military procurement budget of $1.3bn was siphoned off from the Iraqi Defence Ministry in return for 28-year-old Soviet helicopters too obsolete to fly and armoured cars easily penetrated by rifle bullets. Iraqi officials were blamed for the theft, but US military officials were largely in control of the Defence Ministry at the time and must have been either highly negligent or participants in the fraud.
As Woody Guthrie said, "Some may rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

Liberals have, for a while, been pointing out how hypocritical it is that people can die for "our" country, but can still be denied citizenship after they fight. Well, that debate is over, because the military is now offering a path to citizenship:
Immigrants who are permanent residents, with documents commonly known as green cards, have long been eligible to enlist. But the new effort, for the first time since the Vietnam War, will open the armed forces to temporary immigrants if they have lived in the United States for a minimum of two years, according to military officials familiar with the plan.
Of course, the fact of the matter is that this creates a huge incentive for military enlistment - people now have a very strong reason to enlist even if they have no interest in the military. Given the army's general views on politics, I would assume that this move on the part of the U.S. military (obviously with the aid of congress) has very little to do with the liberal desire for a global community with free citizenship for all, and quite a bit to do with military expansion and the need for bodies (variable capital) to man the machines (fixed capital).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This piece by Steve Keen on his Debtwatch blog is very enlightening and also - for the five people in the world who have any faith that massive payouts to banks and the printing of money are going to get us out of recession (or, dare I say it, depression) - very distressing. He argues that we do not live in a world where printed money precedes credit; in fact, it is the reverse, the overextension of credit creates the need for the Fed to print more money. Keen argues that this is the normal functioning of a credit market. His argument is very compelling.

Note Bernanke’s assumption (highlighted above) [that if the feds print massive amounts of money, a "helicopter effect will occur, and inflation will counteract the rampant deflation created by stagnant credit] in his argument that printing money would always ultimately cause inflation: “under a fiat money system“. The point made by endogenous money theorists is that we don’t live in a fiat-money system, but in a credit-money system which has had a relatively small and subservient fiat money system tacked onto it.

We are therefore not in a “fractional reserve banking system”, but in a credit-money one, where the dynamics of money and debt are vastly different to those assumed by Bernanke and neoclassical economics in general.[10]

Calling our current financial system a “fiat money” or “fractional reserve banking system” is akin to the blind man who classified an elephant as a snake, because he felt its trunk. We live in a credit money system with a fiat money subsystem that has some independence, but certainly doesn’t rule the monetary roost—far from it.


Bernanke thinks it's really cute when Geithner stands up with his paws in the air, "like he's people"


Keen, an economist at Western Sydney University, is someone whose work I have just found, but who seems to offer a needed corrective to econometrics. As he says in this description of his method, he is taking a very different approach:
While I am an academic economist, I don’t build nor believe in the type of econometric models that dominate economics these days–generally so-called “New Keynesian” or “Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium” models.

Instead I build nonlinear dynamic models based on Minsky’s “Financial Instability Hypothesis”, and I have started constructing a strictly monetary model of a pure credit economy.

My predictions based on these models are qualitative rather than quantitative, but on the grounds of Minsky’s extremely prescient hypothesis the sheer scale of private debt that has been accumulated, and the abundant historical data on debt with which we can review past economic performance in the light of Minsky’s hypothesis, I have been arguing that this crisis is beyond bailouts.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Toward a better understanding of wikipedia:
Despite warnings from many high-school teachers and college professors, Wikipedia is one of the most-visited websites in the world (not to mention the biggest encyclopedia ever created). But even as Wikipedia's popularity has grown, so has the debate over its trustworthiness. One of the most serious concerns remains the fact that its articles are written and edited by a hidden army of people with unknown interests and biases.

Ed Chi, a senior research scientist for augmented social cognition at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and his colleagues have now created a tool, called WikiDashboard, that aims to reveal much of the normally hidden back-and-forth behind Wikipedia's most controversial pages in order to help readers judge for themselves how suspect its contents might be.
The people who malign wikipedia tend to be blockheads who think that people are completely incapable of filtering information on their own. But I applaud this tool, which significantly aids in the filtering of information. My own experience with wikipedia is that political figures and pharmaceuticals tend to be very scrubbed and full of disinformation; posts in the humanities tend to be too short and lacking a great deal of information; and posts on the sciences and mathematics tend to feature everything you could possibly want to know about a subject with very few organizing principles. The tool is useful, straightforward, and astoundingly simple.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

I found a new blog that some of you (whoever you are) might be interested in. It's squattercity.blogspot.com, a blog written by Robert Neuwirth, a journalist who spent four years living in squatter communities around the globe, working on a book entitled Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World. The blog Squattercity is a collection of blurbs and news items on squatter towns around the globe. A large portion of the blog focuses on evictions, but there is also a great deal on the nature of squatting, squatter networks, the politics of squatting, and so forth. Check it out.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Judd Gregg: bad cabinet pick or worst cabinet pick? Judd Gregg was such a bad pick. More and more people are sounding off on this. At Open Left, Chris Bowers discusses his lifetime Progressive Punch rating of 10.08 out of 100.00. At Climate Progress, what comes to the fore is, naturally, his terrible record on the climate. To top it all off, it looks like they're not even going to replace him with a Democratic senator, which, it would seem, would be the entire point of putting such a schmuck on your cabinet in the first place. Good grief, says Charlie Brown.

Monday, February 2, 2009

From Mark Bousquet's "How the University Works" blog, I found the following interview with graduate student strikers at NYU (who lost when the NLRB ruled against them; NB: this was under the Bush administration). There's several interesting moments in this interview, but I was particularly interested in when the guy in front points, at the end, that while academia is expanding its understanding of what constitutes work (or labor) - affective labor, domestic work, intellectual labor - corporate legal practice is trying to narrow that definition. I'm not sure this is quite accurate, but the point is very illuminating to me. Instead, he perhaps should have pointed out that, as the labor force becomes increasingly non-industrial, it becomes easier for corporations to deny unionization to those facets of the workforce that try to attain it, by denying their status as workers, etc. There are, of course, a number of other social processes involved here; but the point is nevertheless very illuminating (to me, at least.)

I've compiled all of the Superbowl commercials from this year that either talk about the economic downturn, the misery of working, or downsizing. The most depressing is the first one, an ad for careerbuilder.com that appeared in the third quarter. Also, although the GM Robot commercial didn't appear in this Superbowl, I thought I would include it to demonstrate how unbelievably insensitive GM advertising executives are to their labor force (second ad down). Granted, when the ad aired in 2007, GM appeared to be doing just fine. In any case, it is far more depressing right now than it was then.















Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I've been avoiding blogging for a while, and that might remain the case. Nevertheless, I thought I'd post an update on global warming. I've been following the trends, and it seems that even those who recognize that global warming is real don't always know what's going on. The short version is that 2008 was the coldest year since 2001, which still makes it the tenth warmest year on record. This was because of a La Niña temperature anomaly which kept the Pacific particularly cold (hence our cold winter). La Niña and El Niño are two phases of the same climate cycle, the former being the cold phase, the latter being the warm phase. The effects of La Niña were particularly strong in 2008, and thus brought about cold temperatures. Nevertheless, the Arctic remained exceptionally warm, in fact much warmer than the average for the previous 7 years. That has led to a drop in the sea ice levels to below 2007 levels, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (see the daily snow and ice data chart for October through December with comparisons for 2006 and 2007 here; Joe Romm's analysis at Climate Progress here). It's easy to forget that global warming continues despite cold weather, so I just thought I'd give everyone a reminder.