A Freeway in Hell

My thoughts on the nature of our late capitalist society. The title should give some clue what I think of that! US 101 or I-80 as metaphor for our imperatives. Besides worrying about what sort of black hole we are speeding into, I like airships. One reason being the almost inescapble desire to have one to get out of a traffic jam!

Location: Sonoma County, California

Grew up a military brat, Californian-in-exile, reactionary libertarian-essentially spent the 70s on Mars, for I am hearing impaired and I did not know what the music was saying. Generally still don't unless I listen to it over and over or find the words captioned on a movie or somewhere on line. Came "back" to California to begin my adult life, have not lived elsewhere since. No regrets there despite our problems here. Have studied physics, more math than most human beings will ever need, worked on spaceship projects (well, one) at JPL. Lived with a wonderful disabled person who lives no more--L Natasha Littletree RIP October 2004. I have a life plan, just kind of vague on some of the short-term stuff.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Because It Apparently Has To Be Said Again

One side effect of the brouhaha about John Edward's brief employment of world-class feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte on his campaign staff and the subsequent right-wing Swiftboating of her and the candidate is that nowadays Pandagon has apparently quadrupled or quintupled its traffic, and among new commentors there are a lot of hostile right-wingers. In this new ecosystem, I have become more motivated to expound my Marxist views, particularly on the core subject of Marx's labor theory of value political economy. I don't know how far I'll get or how fast I can post, but clearly I need to write down my reasons for believing that Marx did in fact develop the rational approach to economics whereas mainstream "economics," called variously NeoClassical, Marginalist, or the "Austrian" or "Chicago" school, is a bunch of ideological hooey, of no scientific value and having no practical uses except for making apologies for the outrages of capitalism.

For now, just a long blockquote from the late Ernest Mandel, Trotskyite economist extrordinaire, from his Introduction to the Vintage Edition of Capital, Volume I, 1976.

[Capital] was never intended as a handbook to help governments to solve such problems as balance-of-payment deficits, nor yet as a learned, if somewhat trite, explanation of all the exciting happenings in the market place when Mr. Smith finds no buyer for his last 1000 tons of iron. It was intended as an explanation of what would happen to labour, machinery, technology, the size of enterprises, the social structure of the population, the discontinuity of economic growth, and the relations between workers and work, as the capitalist mode of production unfolded in all its terrifying potential. From that point of view the achievement is truly impressive. It is precisely because of Marx's capacity to discover the long-term laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production in its essence, irrespective of thousands of "impurities" and of secondary aspects, that his long-term predictions--the laws of accumulation of capital, stepped-up technological progress, accelerated increase in the productivity and intensity of labour, growing concentration and centralization of capital, transformation of the great majority of economically active people into sellers of labour-power, declining rate of profit, increased rate of surplus-value, periodically recurrent recessions, inevitable class struggle between Capital and Labour, increasing revolutionary attempts to overthrow capitalism--have been so strikingly confirmed by history.

This judgement has generally been challenged on two grounds. The easiest way out for critics of Marx is simply to deny that the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production which he discovered have been verified at all. This is generally done by reducing them to a couple of misstated and oversimplifed formulae (see below): "progressive immiseration of the working class" and "ever-worsening economic crisis." A more sophisticated objection was advanced by Karl Popper, who denied the very possibility, or rather the scientific nature, of such "laws," calling them "unconditional historical prophecies" to be clearly distinguished from "scientific predictions." "Ordinary predictions in science," says Popper, "are conditional. They assert that certain changes (say, of the temperature of water in a kettle) will be accompanied by other changes (say, the boiling of the water)." Popper denies the scientific nature of Capital by asserting that, unlike scientific theories, its hypotheses cannot be scientifically tested.

This is obviously based upon a misunderstanding of the very nature of the materialist dialectic, which, as Lenin pointed out, requires constant verification through praxis to increase its cognition content. In fact, it would be very easy to "prove" Marx's analysis to have been wrong, if experience had shown, for example, that the more capitalist industry develops the smaller and smaller the average factory becomes, the less it depends upon new technology, the more its capital is supplied by the workers themselves, the more workers become owners of their factories, the less the part of wages taken by consumer goods becomes (and the greater the becomes the part of wages used for buying the workers' own means of production). If, in addition, there had been decades without economic fluctuations and a full-scale disappearance of trade unions and employers' associations (all flowing from the disappearance of contradictions between Capital and Labour, inasmuch as workers increasingly become the controllers of their own means and conditions of production) then one could indeed say that Capital was so much rubbish and had dismally failed to predict what would happen in the real capitalist world a century after its publication. It is sufficient to compare the real history of the period since 1867 on the one hand with what Marx predicted it would be, and on the other with any such alternative "laws of motion," to understand how remarkable indeed was Marx's theoretical achievement and how strongly it stands up against the test of history.

Pages 23-25

Friday, February 16, 2007

Jammin' with Pam Spaulding on Matters of the Spirit

As she does on matters of race and homobigotry, Pam Spaulding has once again bared her sweet heart to invite discussion on that "third rail" of socio-politics in the USA, religion/spirituality, organized and otherwise. Note it is cross-posted on her own blog here.

OK, so now's as good a time as any for me to muse on my own faith journey.

Like Pam I was raised under some Catholic influence--unlike her, I was raised pretty much exclusively as a Catholic. For most of my life, whenever I even considered that I might recover, or perhaps more accurately discover for the first time, a true Christian faith, I assumed that of course then I'd become a Catholic again--because to be honest, I think I have to say a certain smug bigotry against Protestantism was successfuly conveyed to me, if not an actual living faith in my nominal religion.

Unlike a lot of Pandagonians, commenting on Chris Clarke's earlier entry, while I spent every year from 1st grade through 10th in a Catholic school, I had none of their seminal experiences with wonderful teachers, in or out of holy orders, who inspired me. But then neither did I have any truly horrendous experiences either. The bleak fact is that when I look at my childhood the only living inspirations and guides I had in matters of faith (or any other matter of spirit or intellect) were my own family. Otherwise, as I look back on it I pretty much lived in a world of books and other media.

I can trace the roots of my smug arrogance in part back to the fact that as a hearing-impaired child, one who was born with normal hearing but lost it gradually and behind the backs of everyone including myself, that I adapted by learning to talk rather than listen, and to read rather than hear. This is a fine thing for getting a leg up on the academic rat race of K-12 education and impressing one's elders with bookish accomplishments, but pretty poor for learning to relate to living people. But another would be my Dad's own rather austere and doctrinaire leanings in this same direction. My Dad actually went to a Catholic seminary instead of junior high school. Quite obviously he changed his mind, but from very early years I considered myself, emulating and following his pronouncements on faith and doctrine, fit to judge the orthodoxy and right-thinking of priests, nuns, and certainly my peers. Elsewhere I've written about my gradual revelation, as a young adult, that contrary to my impressions, I'd been educated to be a typical American racist. It was much easier to recognize, years before, how I'd been trained to be a sexist as well, because my Dad was quite explicit in his doctrines of the divisions between the sexes--so dogmatically so, and so in contradiction with my experience even as a child, that I questioned and rejected much of that nonsense.

Even as a child, I had my doubts about the reasonableness of what I understood I was supposed to believe, without question. Catholicism, and Christianity in general, has sound and reasonable answers for its critics, but one must accept the premises from which they are made. In my life experience, the message of Christianity seemed to divide up into, on one hand, a beautiful if dismayingly difficult challenge to confront the world with courageous and generous love, and on the other a corpus of dry and arbitrary doctrines fundamentally based on sheer authoritarian fiat. As an intellectually trained acolyte I knew that the latter was supposed to follow from the former, but I never really accepted that I saw it do so.

On the contrary, hewing strictly to the line that was clearly pronounced in Papal statements and dogmatic teaching seemed diametrically opposed to living the life exemplified by Christ and in the Acts. Believing as I was taught that the fate of my immortal soul depended mainly on the former, I spent my childhood as a sophist, seeking validation and approval for my proper understanding of dogma, while secretly chafing, and resenting the freedom and happiness of those who seemed to accept a more forgiving and gentle form of faith. In fact in the post-Vatican II 1970s, I was surrounded by folk masses and rather rockin' hymns and the threat of Charismatics and other bizarre shenanigans, not to mention my parents' rather dark pronouncements on the questionable orthodoxy of "liberal" clerics they found in every dioscese we moved to, even in places like Virginia or the Florida Panhandle.

So it was that within weeks of moving away from home, I dropped the facade of Catholic faith, stayed on campus on Sundays (skipping Mass being of course a mortal sin quite as much as if I'd murdered someone) and soon considered myself an atheist.

But that never sat comfortably with me either. Just as I was at heart a non-practicing Catholic, I've always suspected that somehow, we are indeed children of a Being that cares about us, and that somehow there will be judgement, reconciliation, and redemption. I've dabbled with various forms of neopaganism but have never quite crossed over to believing in any definite way that the powers of the natural elements are the same as this Great Spirit.

There came a day when I had a definite moment of revelation, when a reflection touched me deeply and I decided that at any rate, I am a person of faith. As it happened, this came from contemplating the record left on the Voyager space probes, that photographic and audio testament to human life on planet Earth, launched as an act of faith and a gift, for what it may be worth, to unknown peoples of other stars.

In the past year, I felt moved by various life events to seek out a congregation of more or less like-minded people to share some kind of affirmation of the spirt, vague as suited me but geared to some kind of positive action accountable to reason as well as the demands of the living spirit. For a time, I communed with a United Church of Christ congregation in Sebastopol, California. And a fine bunch of progressive, loving yet clear-minded Christians they are too. But the fact is, from my point of view the spirit of Christianity itself is clouded with the authoritarian, patriarchial dogmas associated with the rule of power over people. These good progressive Christians did not seem like agents of this to me, but I simply do not feel right trying to frame my perceptions from a specially Christian standpoint. I therefore sought out the Unitarian Univeralsalist congregation in Santa Rosa, and there I am happy to be for now, and for the foreseeable future.

For the moment I have run out of time, but blessings be upon everyone of good will.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Theoretical background stuff for Pam's guests and posterity

The estimable Pam Spaulding, co-blogging at Pandagon, has once again asked us to seriously discuss race in the USA. Here is my theoretical abstract background to my response to her questions.

First of all, intellectually I frame the whole issue of race and racial categories and assignments and so on in the context of an oppressive system that is maintaining the myth of race for reasons of its own normal functions. Specifically, people in the USA have the impressions we have because of our social system and its history, and since there isn't any objective basis in inherent human abilities or characteristics for it, of course there is no other framework but this arbitrary history and present practice, and therefore of course it is full of absurdities especially around the edges.

The US racial system was founded in enslaving Africans, and this was done simply because African slaves who fled captivity could be readily identified and re-captured. This was true no matter how culturally comfortable or even identified a particular African or descendent of Africans became, and no matter whether there was any feeling of rejection any group of "white" people night have felt, nor even vice versa protective solidarity with a fellow exploited worker--other fugitive workers like indentured servants from Britain for instance, or the shipmates of an African sailor (of whom there were quite a few in the 18th and 19th century). It was objectively easy to catch escaped Africans, easy to separate them from possible allies, easy to enforce differential treatment. That's the crux of the matter, and that aspect continues relevant to this day.

To be sure the whole task of getting economic benefit out of the investment in slavery was made even easier by the cultivation and encouragement of bigoted attitudes among potential allies of recalcitrant black workers as well as other levels of society, so we have a tremendous cultural investment in bigotry. But we could analyze the whole thing without acknowledging this, though the analysis is much more straightforward if we do.

Many people might wonder why I think that the economic and sociopolitical basis of anti-African bigotry that seems so clear when we look at the era of legal slavery matters today, when slavery has been long abolished. We can and should consider the many ways that we have continued a number of quasi-slavery institutions and practices to this day, but for the moment leave that aside. Even if we didn't selectively and differentially convict people perceived to be African, or had no prejudices about hiring them on a case-by-case basis, or have any concerns about intermarriage, or whatnot, we still live under capitalism.

And capitalism by its nature produces a stratified range of options for people at different economic levels. Not only is there a wide range of income distrubution for wage workers, and a limited opportunity for people to enter the capitalist classes by amassing investment capital sufficient to live off the profits, which is the definition of a capitalist, there is also a tremendous range of working and associated living conditions. In particular, capitalism is characteristically volatile, unstable, and cyclic. Most of the jobs and related opportunities at the bottom of the ladder are particularly vulnerable to these inherent and necessary fluctuations.

But at the same time, capitalist societies, for good and deep reasons, tend to be associated with nominally liberal institutions. In particular, the notion that government, and society in general, derives from the consent and enlightened self-interest of the people, is very important (though not indispensible) in maintaining the moral pre-eminence of a capitalist society. Thus, we see a serious problem--individuals near the bottom of the ladder may well consent, or even be enthusiastic supporters of, a system they think offers them fair opportunities to enjoy greater wealth, and that at any rate offers them a lifestyle they are accustomed to. But when a boom goes bust, when a particular line of work that showed promise half a generation ago is supplanted by the evolution of the market, or indeed anything at all goes wrong, it is these people at the bottom, the last hired, who are first fired; it is they who bear the full brunt of the violent swings characteristic of the system, and these swings last years stretching into decades.
Therefore it is not necessary, but it is very handy, for a capitalist republic, to have a class of people whom the majority do not accept as full members and full equals of themselves. If a big portion of the worst work is offered mainly to them, and these people have impaired opportunities to seek more rewarding and secure positions, then it becomes much easier to cultivate stable sustained support for the cyclic system among the better-off majority. Of course the flip side of this purging of the risks and downsides onto a disfavored minority is that those people will presumably be even more disaffected than they would be as merely poor people, and might develop a group consciousness that all the more systematically works to change or overthrow the domininant system. But if this risk can be managed by a series of social double standards that permit the dominant portion of society to systematically attack and undercut such organization perhaps in ways that would never be accepted by the majority applied to themselves, then actually the threat of the revolt of the stigmatize underclass becomes a reinforcement of the system, as its plausibility justifies the harsh measures taken to a larger majority than might be prepared to stomach them without the clear and present danger.