If you grew up thinking you are “white”, the New York Times “1619 Project” is a must read.
Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.
“Anglo-America’s dingy realities – deindustrialisation, low-wage work, underemployment, hyper-incarceration and enfeebled or exclusionary health systems – have long been evident. Nevertheless, the moral, political and material squalor of two of the wealthiest and most powerful societies in history still comes as a shock to some… every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. In fact, the state has been AWOL for decades, and the market has been entrusted with the tasks most societies reserve almost exclusively for government: healthcare, pensions, low-income housing, education, social services and incarceration.
The other dingy reality is that we use the police as a cordon sanitaire between us and the consequences of all of our social and political failures; the police keep the homeless out our minds; the mentally ill away from our door steps, the darker skin tones in their allotted neighborhoods and the desperately poor from stealing from a “middle class” teetering with economic precarity. While we have come to live without a general sense of prosperity, we cannot seem to relinquish our attachment to “order”.
Of course we can’t. We can sense that we are, collectively, a ticking time bomb. Today, American exceptionalism means extreme inequality of wealth, more guns than sense, abiding racism and a pathological distrust of collective problem solving. The way we police in the U.S. is inextricably bound up in the exploitative capitalism to which we as citizens have become resigned.
The police are to capitalism what neurotic or compulsive behaviors are to the psychoanalyst; symptoms of a (death) drive. In Freud’s words, (the drive)… is “like the grain of sand around which an oyster forms its pearl”.
The capitalist death drive is to accumulate, to acquire and to constantly rediscover that that no acquistion really satisifies, no level of profit is sufficient. Impelled by a dread of scarcity and the impoverished view that the only real “wealth” is private, Americans are frantic earners in a bleak zero sum landscape. If I don’t get it, someone else will. We accept that there are “winners and losers”. We accept that folks for whom cost-benefit analyses are difficult, impossible or irrelevant tend to get pissed off when they perceive themselves to be left behind. They are wont to behave in ways that disrupt the “order” that dispossesses them.
The state proscribes violence to its citizens. Not as Freud pointed out, because it disapproves of violence, but because it wants the monopoly on violence. The majority Black population of Minneapolis distrust their police greatly but cannot imagine their absence. In the USA, we have created our own monsters; we are the jailers and the jailed.
As with the neurotic, dysfunction continues until the drive is recognized (and re-addressed). Until we contend with ravening capitalism, our policing will remain unchanged.
We have come to see that the gaudy marketplace and our comfortable way of life is built upon the backs of the “essential” and the perennially poor. (Hedge fund managers are not “essential” workers.) It has also dawned upon us that the “world’s greatest economy” is a house of cards. “Supply chains” get sick. The human links in these chains lose their jobs and the flywheel of consumer spending slows down.
Another revelation for the middle class: the “social safety net” does not really exist! This uncomfortable truth has has long been a knee on the neck of the 20% of the American public that has no household net worth. For this economic demographic, the quaint notion that the government “has your back” actually went out the door forty years ago along with Ronald Reagan’s wits.
However, we have seen what a uniformed representative of government can do; casually kill George Floyd with one hand in his pocket.
The “commodity fetish” in capitalism is the tendency to see the value of a commodity as an inherent property. The value of a widget is related only to the value of other kinds of widgets in the marketplace. We are blinded by the panoply of glittering widgets. The complex of interpersonal relations that go into producing widgets is ignored.
The pandemic has lifted the curtain and exposed (in Marx’s terms) the “relations of production” usually masked by “market” metaphors. “Supply chains”, it turns out, are people. “Supply chains” get sick.
Workers we took for granted and did not notice are now “essential” to our way of life. Why are these workers “essential” today? Why weren’t they “essential” on January 15? They are “essential” today because what they do is suddenly visible and cannot be taken for granted. “Supply chains” are working people whose labor keeps the groceries stores stocked so Americans never have to be without retail choice.
What do these “essential” workers have in common? They are poorly paid and their employers consider employee safety an afterthought.
If you work in a meatpacking plant, by order of President Trump, you are officially considered less essential than the steak you’re cutting up.
If you lack a Hobbesian view of human nature, you are going to be late to the pandemic hoarding party. You are going to be without toilet paper.
That’s what I told myself standing in Safeway staring at the empty shelves, feeling slightly embarrassed… as if I had missed some obvious social cue. Why toilet paper? The Google offered some insight:
Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.” This is an example of “zero risk bias,” in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.
These days the the greater risk is going to the grocery store in the first place.
Given the amount of uncertainty in which we were swimming…self quarantine? lock down? days or weeks?… adding a little buffer stock to one’s cache of TP was rational. The effects of mass buffering however were empty shelves. For Americans, empty shelves are eerie and portentous. OMG …my neighborhood cornucopia is empty of that which can clean me…toilet paper, disinfectants and hand sanitizers. What will I be deprived of next? This is how an end-times shopping spree gets its start.
Few people appreciate how much retail inventory is “just in time”. I did a stint with Kroger a few years back (All praise the UFCW!) The only real storage space in a grocery store is the shelves. The corporate computer knows how much of any product will be (normally) needed in each store each week. Toilet paper takes up a lot of shelf space and sales are normally not volatile. In a well run store, there is only a two day supply. It is only when people get irregular that the supply chain falters.
The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
There is a new horror show on HBO called “Years and Years”. Set in the U.K. in a near term future, it appears that a Trump like figure (played by Emma Thompson) is on the political horizon. Below is a rough transcription of an exchange between a young married couple. In recent years Daniel (a public housing manager) and Ralph have grown apart. Daniel works long hours finding shelter for refugees. Ralph, a school teacher, has taken refuge in the Internet.
Ralph: (The link I sent you),,,proves that germs don’t exist..the whole germ thing was faked by big pharma…there’s no such thing.
Daniel: Thats bollocks! You’ll be joining the Flat Earth Society next.
Ralph: Now THAT stuff is fascinating!
Daniel: You’re kidding!
Ralph: Have you read it?
Daniel: No…and I never will!
Ralph: Well that’s ignorance..isn’t it? How is that going to help anyone by not reading?
Daniel: For god’s sake….you are not saying the Earth is flat are you? You teach children for godssake? We have been in an airplane…we have seen the horizon curve!
Ralph: I am not saying it is flat. It is an option….I’m not saying I am absolutely right so you can’t say I am absolutely wrong.
Poor Daniel is gobsmacked. His partner can no longer think. Ralph is at sea in an eternal present of information that is all of the same value. Unsuprisingly, Ralph is intrigued by the Trump-like leader. Daniel is repelled by her.
As Hannah Arendt also noted, Adolf Eichmann was the banal monster who lost to the ability to think. I have only watched the first episode. I may not be able to watch any more. Too close to home. I’ll take Freddie Kruger any day.
In a world facing floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, unprecedented winters, and mass migration on a never before seen scale, will people be content with the current winner takes all version of capitalism? Will we be fine with the rich taking a bigger and bigger share of total income, until the end of time, as the world drowns and burns and starves? Will we succumb to what’s now being called ‘climate apartheid’, with the rich world cutting itself off from the poor and entrenching itself behind barriers and walls, and letting the poor world die? On current form, you would have to say that is not an unlikely version of future events.
I can’t unsee this photograph. I really wish I could. To be honest, it fills me with dread. It documents the end of discourse.
I feel like I should be able to understand this countryman of mine. I still feel like I should try to understand him
Is this man economically insecure? Probably: seventy eight percent of all Americans live from paycheck to paycheck. (Though among white voters who voted for Trump nearly 60 percent were in the top half of the income distribution). Nevertheless, perhaps he feels like he is running on a hamster wheel. He runs and runs and still can’t achieve the financial security he feels he should have (or that his parents had). He works his ass off and he imagines that people with different colored faces from different places are getting something they haven’t earned. Maybe he has moved from home more than once in his life to find work or maybe he has never left his small Western Pennsylvania town though his children have left. His high school buddies who left and occasionally come home seem to be living in foreign lands.
Like the rest of us, he lives in a world that floods him with information. What to believe? Who to believe? With whom should he believe? He is awash with technologies that are useful but operate by a magic he does not understand. He resents his ignorance and his dependence. Maybe he resents people who appear comfortable with the new technologies. Maybe he feels useless to himself.
He has a legion of consumables available to him but no control over the array that he is offered. His only agency is the choice of what to buy with his hamster wheel earnings. His only choices are not really “choices”, they are merely features of the wheel. He understands himself as the individual surrounded by the goods he has purchased. This is how he shows himself to the world. Very possibly he resents those who seem to denigrate the “life style” his purchases advertise. Maybe it is not Mexican immigrants he hates but other smug “white” people. Many of these are the same people who tell him that the plain truths he is holding onto about gender and sexuality are “prejudiced”.
It’s bad enough that he can’t seem to “get anywhere” economically but then he hears from too many sources that he shouldn’t even be proud to be an American. He really doesn’t want to hear that shit. Everything for which he feels pride (or took for granted) seems to make him defensive these days. He is an “old white American”. The “old” is problematic because he is running out of time to become a millionaire. The “white” is just normal for him; he has never hurled a racial epithet and he resents being called a racist. That the “American” part of his identity is called into question is the last straw. If America is not the “shining City on the Hill”, if America is not “exceptional”, where does that leave him?
He has not misplaced his gratitude about his birthright. What he can do is find himself a congregation of folks who also want to Make America Great Again. Now he is part of something larger. Once America is made great again, economic insecurity will depart and we will all be on the same team once more. His team. You are either on the team bus or you are not . Your choice. Fuck your feelings.
I find myself imagining that the message on his t-shirt is meant specifically for me as my feelings of dread are simultaneously incited and dismissed.
I don’t know this person. My attempts to understand him are probably overly reductive. But if I don’t care to try to understand the other person, where does that leave me?
In advance of Ubers IPO, from the Washington Post on 5/7/19:
Drivers in at least eight U.S. cities — including Washington, New York, Los Angeles — are planning to strike Wednesday, according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The protests come as ride-hailing companies face increasing scrutiny over the sustainability of their businesses, which experience massive losses while relying on the work of millions of drivers who are not employees.
“Wall Street investors are telling Uber and Lyft to cut down on driver income, stop incentives, and go faster to Driverless Cars,” Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the taxi alliance, said in a news release. “With the IPO, Uber’s corporate owners are set to make billions, all while drivers are left in poverty and go bankrupt.”
It is “just business” for a few sociopaths who have no regard for the exploitation of others or the social impacts of their enterprise to become billionaires.
Roland Barthes would see the crowd, the signs being waved and the t-shirt logo as the “studium” of this photo; the physical, cultural and historical details of the photo that teach us something about the context of a frozen moment. What Barthes would call the “punctum” of this photo – the detail that compels your eye and skewers you – is the defiant and indifferent stare of an old white man.
My first reaction was that I need to jettison the rest of my lingering Socratism (the fanciful notion that if you marshal enough rational arguments you can bring anyone around to your vision of the truth). This old white guy is basking in belligerence; he is not beckoning anyone to civil discourse. I can see no political utility in trying persuade this man (and the portion of the electorate he represents) of anything. Instead, we must see this man and his ilk as the most visible symptoms of an underlying disorder.
I am listening for the politicians who speak directly to the root causes of this disorder; what Bernard Stiegler calls our culture’s “symbolic misery”. So far in this run-up to the 2020 elections, two candidates have impressed me. Elizabeth Warren when asked if she was a socialist replied, “I believe in markets…but capitalism without rules is theft”. The billionaire Sacklers get us hooked on oxy, hoover up as much money as they can from hapless victims and for the pittances they give back to museums are called “philanthropists”. Pillars of American society.
Peter Buttigieg said this:
To the folks on the other side, freedom means ‘freedom from.’ Usually, freedom from government, as if government were the only thing that could make you unfree. That’s just not true. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. If they get into the business of telling you who you can marry, your county clerk can make you unfree. Let’s talk about what freedom really means. Freedom means being able to start a small business because you know that when you leave your old job, that doesn’t mean you have to lose your healthcare. Freedom means that your reproductive health is up to you. Freedom means that when you have paid your debt to society, you get to re-enter society and become a productive, tax-paying, voting citizen. Freedom means you can organize for fair day’s work, a fair day’s pay, and a fair day’s conditions.
I don’t think Mayor Buttigieg read my post “The Shallow Freedoms of Neo-Liberalism” but given his education I cannot help but believe that he is channeling Isaiah Berlin as he zeroes in on a primary feature of the neo-liberal pathology- the reduction of the concept of freedom to retail choice. We are free to buy anything we want at the grocery store but our children are not “free” to attend school without active shooter drills. If you are an African American teenager you are “free” to buy a hoodie but you are not free to run down the street in it. If you are a poor American, you are “free” to stay poor and so are your children. You are “free” to go to college and “free” to be indentured to a student loan thereafter.
I am listening for candidates who will tell us that things are backward; that we are all the “government” and our life values must supersede the transactional values of the marketplace. I want to hear that we can collectively decide what constitutes a just distribution of wealth; that we are free to create the social and economic conditions in which everyone can flourish.
The moral third refers to those values, rules and principles of interaction that we rely upon in our efforts to create and restore the space for each partner in the dyad to engage in thinking, feeling, acting or responding rather than merely reacting. Jessica Benjamin
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a coliseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such humanity is surely brought into being.... In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.Is this the doom written within our nature? If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races and creeds can share this world…if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real . Tortuous advances worn over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
From Brad deLong
I would conclude that managers with a bias toward freedom, choice, decentralization, and responsibility produce good results alongside a civilization of bewildered individuals lacking moral certainty. By contrast, prophets produce a civilization filled with confident fanatics who then commit gravely immoral actions--and who afterwards have nothing to say but: “Will you please send Lazarus down here with a damp cloth?"