Sunday, November 09, 2014

Karl Polanyi vs. the Koch brothers

For some authors, books seem heavy, as if the responsibility for having something big to say crushes their ability to say things clearly. I feel that way about the humanist economic historian Karl Polanyi. The Great Transformation, his courageous, crusading work questioning the ideology of the free market, sometimes seems like it was deliberately written to blunt the force of his argument. It reads as if Polanyi couldn't quite bring himself to jump across the ever-widening rift his analysis created in the world’s economic thinking. (To be fair, Polanyi wrote the book in a great hurry during World War II, and the shadow of that conflict probably made it hard to venture as far in words as he had in thought.)

So it’s great news that Polity has released For a New West, a collection of Polanyi’s unpublished essays and lecture notes. As a young man, Polanyi started studying law but dropped out, instead becoming an economic journalist and commentator for Der Oesterreichische Volkswirt, the leading German-language financial weekly in Europe. The pieces in this collection, culled from an archive of his papers at Concordia University in Montreal, are refreshingly clear – perhaps because they were never intended for publication. In these essays, we can watch Polanyi as he teases out the implications of his arguments. The book’s title, taken from the title Polanyi gave one of the essays, doesn't capture the scope of his work. Polanyi wasn't only blowing the dust off the West’s self-image. His thought required retooling many of the economic nostrums that have come to dominate the entire planet and wresting politics and culture from collapsing into economics. He wanted a gut renovation of almost all the conceits of economics and a renewed commitment to freedom, justice, and the concept of the people ruling themselves.

Here he is, questioning whether the need for food and the desire for gain should be considered economic matters:
     We…are surrounded by plenty but freeze our economic life in terms of scarcity. That is why we are able to accept the fiction that millionaires are actuated by fear of starvation.
...  We rightly assume that our market economy appeals to what we call “economic motives,” that is, fear of hunger and hope of gain. But, by calling hunger and gain “economic motives,” do we not prejudge the very possibilities of adjustment of the economic sphere of life? Let us consider the point. In one sense, the answer must be yes. Since market economy takes care of production and distribution of material goods, and hunger and gain (as we define them) are insuring the working of that system, it is justifiable to call them economic motives, since they happen to be the motive on which the economic system rests. But are they economic in any other sense. Are they intrinsically economic? In the sense in which aesthetic motives or religious motives are aesthetic or religious, that is, as the outcome and expression of an experience the quality of which is self-evident? Not at all. There is nothing economic about hunger: if a man is hungry, there is nothing specific he can do. Being hungry is certainly no indication of how to go about production. It may induce him to commit robbery, but that is not an economic activity. Neither is the cerebral drive of gain specifically economic. Its idea, and maybe its urge, if such a thing exists, have no connection with the production and distribution of material goods.
Nonetheless, while he questioned the value and values of capitalism, Polanyi had little sympathy for orthodox Marxism, which he thought involved economic absolutism:
Marxist determinism is based on some kind of railway timetable of social development: Upon slave society follows feudalism, upon feudalism capitalism, upon capitalism socialism….It was such a mistaken belief in economic determinism as a general law that made many Marxists – not, to my knowledge, Marx himself – prophesy that our personal freedom must disappear together with the free enterprise system. Actually there is no necessity for this whatsoever.
Still, he noted, under the laissez-faire system, the economic and the political meld together in a marriage that also tends towards fascist intrusions on freedom:
A point is reached where neither the political nor the economic system functions satisfactorily. A feeling of general insecurity takes hold of society as a whole. There is [a] fascist short cut to safeguard production at the price of sacrificing democracy. Democracy can continue only with a change in the property system. Therefore the destruction of democratic institutions is a safeguard for the continuation of the industrial system.
His analysis of the tendencies of the free market alliance between economics and politics seems incredibly prescient in light of the rise of the Tea Party and the battle to tear down Obamacare or any new form of government-backed health insurance or social safety net:
While the action of the market called forth widespread reactions and helped to create a strong popular demand for political influence of the masses, the use of the power so gained was greatly restricted by the nature of the market mechanism: isolated interventions, however urgent on social grounds, could often be shown to be economically harmful, while economically useful interventions of a planned type could not even be considered. In political terms, while piecemeal reform could be discredited as a damaging interference with the working of the market, outright socialist solutions, which would have been economically advantageous, had to be excluded altogether. Under conditions such as these, the striking power of the forces of popular democracy was necessarily limited.
Finally, he asked what might be called the ultimate economic question: what’s the use of having the great wealth and abundance produced by modern society unless it goes to make people’s lives better:
An industrial society has one thing in abundance, and that is material welfare more than is good for it. If, to uphold justice and the freedom to restore meaning and unity in life, we should ever be called upon to sacrifice some efficiency in production, economy in consumption, or rationality of administration, an industrial civilization can afford it….we can afford to be both just and free.
Contradict that, Koch brothers! Occupy Wall Street couldn't have said it better.
Today every militant must feel profoundly that he is not called to coerce humanity to its salvation but to restore humanity to its freedom, and he must have the inner conviction that what will save the world is freedom -- and nothing else.
Polanyi was a man of his time ahead of his time. We need him more than ever.


*** 
One caveat:

For a New West focuses on unpublished or draft writings and lecture notes. But, in her preface, Kari Polanyi Levitt mentions some additional essays that sound like winners -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Is Freedom Possible, Economy and Democracy, and The Mechanism of the World Economic Crisis. They previously appeared in various German-language newspapers and, in one case, in an Italian translation – and thus are not technically unpublished. But so what? It would have been great if they had been included here. I hope the fact that they were left out means there’s more Polanyi yet to come.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Andre Gorz on the sharing economy

André Gorz’s prophetic analysis of the sharing economy, from 1988 –


At the very point when a privileged fraction of the working class seems to be in a position to acquire multiple skills, to achieve workplace autonomy and continually widen their capacities for action – all of which are things that were ideals of the worker self-management currents within the labor movement – the meaning of this ideal is thus radically altered by the conditions in which it seemed destined to be fulfilled. It is not the working class which is achieving these possibilities of self-organization and increasing technological power; it is a small core of privileged workers who are integrated into new style enterprises at the expense of a mass of people who are marginalized and whose job security is destroyed – people shunted from one form of occasional, unrewarding and uninteresting employment to another, who are often reduced to competing for the privilege of selling personal services (including shoe-shining and house-cleaning) to those who retain a secure income.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

the secret sharer

A 10 question pop-quiz about the sharing economy


1.      If a four-star restaurant auctions its unsold daily specials on the internet half an hour before closing time, it is

A: sharing food and doing its part to feed the world
B: being environmentally friendly by making use of food that would otherwise go to waste
C: earning at least a little from what would otherwise be a total loss
D: doing what it always does: selling meals


2.      If someone rents out an unused corner of their basement so someone else can store things, he or she is

A: sharing an unused space and making the world a less cluttered place
B: providing a needed service to a neighbor
C: getting some added income that can help them avoid foreclosure
D: operating a self-storage business with one storage locker


3.      Renting out your apartment for a week on Airbnb for more than you pay your landlord per month is

A: sharing your home with others
B: helping tourists feel at home in your city
C: natural capitalism that is boosting your income
D: simultaneously raising rents and ripping off visitors.



A: an excellent service to all people
B: a great opportunity for elderly folks on fixed incomes who spend all day staring out at the street to make money from what they do naturally
C: privatizing the street
D: making money off the public domain, like the railroad barons of old


5.      What’s the difference between picking someone up at the airport for a fee and picking up your grandmother for free?

A: none; they’re both extremely generous acts
B: there’s no middleman taking a cut of the cash your grandmother gives you on your birthday – and that’s the only reason you’re waiting for the old bag anyway.
C: your grandmother is an über-baker and makes much better apple pies than anyone to whom you've ever given a Lyft.
D: there’s no profit in pimping your ride for your nana—and anyway, she’s too old to slide into the Maserati you bought with profits from picking up people in your beat-up ’89 Toyota.


6.      I feel your

A: pain
B: need
C: ability to supplement my income
D: wallet getting thinner


7.      Sharing is

A: its own reward
B: a generous act
C: never having to say you’re broke
D: a profit-making enterprise


8.      The sharing economy is different from the rest of the economy because

A: it encourages equality
B: through peer-to-peer contacts it boosts community and connectedness
C: it breaks down overpriced monopolies
D: it allows you to sometimes make a buck, rather than always paying for stuff

9.     
Calling selling sharing is

A: valid and true
B: a natural extension of the free market of words
C: just as logical as a phrase like ‘the internet of things’
D: Orwellian in the extreme


10.  The best slogan for The Sharing Economy is

A: ‘from each according to availability, to each according to depth of pockets’
B: ‘the invisible helping-hand of the market’
C: ‘there’s a profit-center born every minute’
D: ‘Micro-Capitalism Über Alles!’

Monday, May 05, 2014

Aimé Césaire’s non-notebook

Some books inscribe themselves on your bones.

The minute I felt the caustic spray of the first lines of John Berger and Anna Bostock’s 45-year-old rendition of Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, just reissued by Archipelago Books (‘At the end of the small hours…Get away, I said, you bastard of a cop, swine get away.’), I was in its thrall. This translation burns with fresh and righteous acid.

It’s far from a literal version—a fact you can judge from the cover. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal means ‘Notebook of a return to the birth land.’ Berger and Bostock’s tummy tuck on the title seems a sacrilege, but it eats away the pretense that it’s just a miscellany of journal jottings: this poem seethes with raw facts and fancies about servitude, forced migration, colonization, and slavery. It shines an unsparing dry-ice spotlight on our complicity. It’s not a notebook; it’s an indictment.

Return to my Native Land is verbal napalm. Césaire’s words molest your complacency, Molotov your privilege, blowtorch your preconceptions and, generously, just when you’re near death, anneal your already-burnt body and conjure a hard new seed of consciousness. This is poetry both of scorched earth and the phoenix.

Reading this translation, I understood for the first time Cesaire’s complicated feelings about his heritage—the forced journey from Africa to Martinique—and his new journey to Europe, to the motherland of his colonizers, all compressed in a line documenting his “leap across the sweet greenish fluid of the waters of shame.” And, with renewed respect, I perceived his complicated, wishful and ultimately unrequited relationship with the West, summed up in the immortal line, “I have come to the wrong witch-doctor.”

With Berger and Bostock as my guides, I discovered Aimé Césaire as the Walt Whitman of the Americas. Born just 21 years after the Brooklyn and Camden master died, Césaire (1913-2008) is the avenging Whitman, the blaming bard, the wordsmith of coruscating hate and transformative self-loathing—a stance Whitman (“I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness”) would have understood and admired. I have no idea if Césaire ever read Song of Myself, but compare:


C:
knowing my tyrannical love you know
it is not by hatred of other races that I prosecute for mine.

W:
encompass worlds, but never try to emcompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you.


C:
My name is Bordeaux and Nantes and Liverpool and New York and San Francisco
Not a corner of the world but carried my thumb-print
and my heel-mark on the backs of skyscrapers and my dirt in the glitter of jewels.

W:
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff. I give them the
same, I receive them the same.


C:
Accommodate yourself to me, I won’t
accommodate myself to you!

W:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself
and what I assume you shall assume,
for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


Césaire published Return in 1939, when he was an angry young man, and reissued it, revised, in 1947, and again, more completely bowdlerized, in 1957, when he was a middle-aged politician. By then he was mayor of Fort-de-France (serving from 1945 to 2001 with just two years--1983 and 1984--out of office) and a member of France's National Assembly (from 1946 to 1956 and 1958 to 1993.) Perhaps he deemed the overt and violent sexuality unfitting and unflattering for a public figure. Perhaps he wanted a more didactic and predictable tone. B and B translated Césaire’s authorized version—the shrunken ’57 edition. But no matter. Their English is packed with passion and shot-through with sexuality.

Return ends with a contaminated and corrosive plea for peace:

Dove
Rise
Rise
Rise
It is you I follow, follow
stamped on my eye’s ancestral white cornea
Rise licker of the sky
and the great black
hole where I wished to drown myself by another moon.
it is there that I would fish
for the night’s evil tongue in its seized swirl!


Césaire doesn’t let anyone off the hook. And why should he? We are all equally implicated, the same peaceful patterns stamped on our corneas, the same death-wish moons drowning our hopes, the same descent into defeat, as we are licked and ultimately suffocated by our dense planet’s evil tongue.

Just being able to say this is a victory, a bold statement of life.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Has Don Rumsfeld done Est?

That was my first reaction when I heard Donald Rumsfeld's "known knowns" and "unknown unknowns" press conference. And it's my reaction now to Errol Morris's analyses on nytimes.com.

That's because, what seems like several lifetimes ago, a former girlfriend took me to a very special guest seminar at Avery Fisher Hall for students of EST-the Forum-Landmark Education. I remember it well because the audience was a bit more devout than the last time I was there for a non-classical event--a massively loud and massively stoned Mahavishnu Orchestra concert. This one was a packed house, too--because the big kahuna himself, Werner Erhard, was in the house.

Using a dry-erase board, Erhard analyzed human experience in a four-part matrix:

Erhard put a big circle around that category at the bottom right and declared that that's where his work worked its magic -- on the unknown unknowns.

So, does anyone know if Don Rumsfeld has done Est?

PS: I'm not the first to suggest this: see lgattruth

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Mayor Skedaddled

It was his first big chance to differentiate himself from Mike Bloomberg, and Bill de Blasio blew it.

Last week, Mayor de Blasio had a chance to show voters that he was, despite his new Upper East Side digs, the same man they voted for. He could have, in one statement, restored our sense that he was, despite his vague and malleable positions on many crucial issues, one of us.

Instead he ran from the conflict.

If you follow the taboids and TV, you know the story: late one night early in the week, Mayor de Blasio picked up the phone to call police officials to find out what was going on with Bishop Orlando Findlayter, a key campaign supporter, who had been pulled over in his car for making a turn without signaling. Then, when records showed several open warrants (apparently for symbolic arrests at protest demonstrations), the clergyman was hauled off to his local precinct. Since he was arrested at almost midnight, he was probably destined to spend the night and the following day, and perhaps even the following evening, at central booking going through the cumbersome and nasty arrest-to-arraignment process.

When the press queried the Mayor about the ethics of pushing for special treatment for a crony, de Blasio defended his phone call by terming Findlayter’s case “unusual.” Then he clammed up, cancelling a press appearance and vanishing from the public eye. He might as well have flown to Bermuda.

Sadly, though, in that one word the Mayor did say about the issue, he misspoke. What happened to Bishop Findlayter was many things—but it was not unusual. Arrests for things that don’t merit arrest happen all the time in New York City. The only two unusual things here are that it happened to an FoB—a friend of Bill—and that it’s being talked about in the press.

Sure it was boneheaded for the Mayor to phone the police and even appear to interfere on behalf of a friend and supporter. But let’s be honest: during the Bloomberg years, it became alarmingly common for New Yorkers to be given tickets, and even to be arrested, for amazingly petty things. Think veering out of a bike lane to avoid a truck that was illegally double-parked. Think walking your dog in a park after dark. Think being accosted by the cops (stop & frisk, anyone?) and not having an ID with you. Think minor automotive things like the Bishop’s supposed infraction (in some circles, that’s called DWB, driving while black.)

This is exactly the tale of two cities that Mayor de Blasio decried in his campaign—that well-connected people like the Bishop get to walk from the precinct, while everyone else is being processed and prosecuted and treated as if they were a violent criminal in punishment for stupid petty violations.

Sorry, Mr. Mayor: if it’s wrong for the bishop, it’s wrong for everyone, and you ought to say so. Arresting people on silly charges like this is a waste of police time, a waste of court time, a waste of the people’s time. And it does nothing to prevent crime. Indeed, it stigmatizes a whole generation—because a kid who finds himself in this situation (you can relate: think of your son, Dante, who featured so mightily in your campaign) might find that that arrest follows him in his computerized records for the rest of his life, potentially blocking him from getting an education or a job.

The Mayor had a chance to be our true elected representative. He had a chance to speak truth to power. He had a chance to say something meaningful: that he had strong reservations about a criminal justice system that would, even temporarily, incarcerate a person—anyone, not just a Bishop and campaign supporter—for spurious and ridiculous violations like making a turn without signaling and getting arrested at demonstrations for engaging in acts of free speech.

And the Mayor ran away.

Monday, February 03, 2014

the last word on art & politics

Art, if you want a definition of it, is criminal action. It conforms to no rules. Not even its own. Anyone who experiences a work of art is as guilty as the artist. It is not a question of sharing the guilt. Each one of us gets all of it.
--John Cage