Monday, July 21, 2014

The 47th SWP Convention

The Socialist Workers Party held its 47th Constitutional Convention in Oberlin, Ohio, in late June. It must have been a pretty tedious affair. The convention was preceded by an Active Workers Conference--a combination summer school and pep rally. Both events stretched out to a week.

My recollection is that conventions must occur every two years, but the 46th Convention happened in 2010--four years ago. So there's some extra-constitutional hanky-panky going on, though probably innocent enough. I think it results from there being very little for the Party to talk about.

Doug Nelson's article hits the four highlights of Party activity for the coming year:
  • Expand readership of the socialist press (aka The Militant).
  • "[F]ree the Cuban Five and defend Cuba's socialist revolution."
  • "[G]ive more leadership attention to organizing party members to work together in industrial workplaces."
  • Recruit new members.
This is an extraordinarily modest agenda--much less ambitious than what they proposed in 2010. It certainly does not rise to the dramatic changes in American politics proclaimed by Jack Barnes: “Like coming out of a long tunnel, the decades-long political retreat of the working class is more and more behind us."

This year's event attracted 320 participants, compared to 350 in 2010. So the Party is shrinking slightly. On the plus side they recruited three new members, whose names they proudly report: Sydney Coe, Jose Acosta, and Lara Canales. The latter two hail from Edinburg, TX, and will move to Houston to join the branch there. New recruits usually don't last long in the Party--most of them are gone within a couple of years.

If comrades' median age is 60, then their median life expectancy is about 25 years. That means they'll lose 4% of their membership every year due to natural attrition. Thus they need to recruit five to ten people annually just to break even, something they are not doing as the decline in convention attendance indicates.

So it's clear they need to recruit new members. What about the other items?
The party’s regular sales of the Militant and books on workers’ doorsteps over the recent period has been, and will continue to be, the bedrock of this perspective. “We have built a large periphery of readers,” said Barnes, “but we have only started to focus on getting to know them,” to have the discussions that will lead us to more workers, more fights and other activity we can join with them.
Simply astonishing! The Party has a long history of renewal campaigns, forums, and get-togethers aimed a Militant readers. It's not as though comrades haven't tried to reach their audience--Mr. Barnes simply insults his audience.

Such efforts have failed. The reason for that failure is the Party is stuck in an early 20th Century communications medium--a print newspaper on a rigid, weekly publication schedule. They need to employ social media. Even the grandma crowd is avid users of Facebook, not to mention anybody under the age of 50. The Party's risible efforts to engage readers with their current tools are laughable.

I don't understand the fascination for the Cuban Five. These are five Cubans convicted of espionage in 2001 and sentenced to long prison terms. I have not followed this case at all because I think it is unimportant. All appeals have been exhausted and no judicial proceedings remain. There is no defense case anymore. Indeed, one of the five was released on parole and repatriated to Cuba.

Nevertheless, the Party is on an extended campaign to--do what exactly? For the last year or so they've been touting the prison paintings of Antonio Guerrero, though not for any aesthetic value. Instead, according to Mary-Alice Waters,
...still ahead of us is organizing the kind of events that really tap into the opportunities to win support for this campaign among working people — to take this fight deeper into the working class where a “jury of millions” can be built. That’s where we find those who are attracted to the Five as revolutionary fighters, not suffering victims.
It's not clear to me how these guys are "revolutionary heroes." All they did was go to jail. A 13 year-old case around people of at best ambiguous moral or political credentials is a loser. I don't think the Party has won any traction with this.

Their support for Cuba seems misplaced. Unmentioned is the fact that Cuba is supporting Russia rather than the Ukrainian government. Fidel even remarked that he thought the Ukrainian government had shot down the Malaysian airliner. Both of these positions are at odds with The Militant's. And nowhere is "Venezuela" mentioned--odd since it is the major financier of Cuba's much touted internationalism.

Finally, they greatly exaggerate the turmoil within the American working class. The lede paragraph of Mr. Nelson's article illustrates.
The worldwide slowdown of capitalist production and trade over the last half decade has spurred the propertied rulers to intensify their offensive to whittle away at the living standards, job conditions, rights and expectations of working people. This is generating stirrings of labor resistance and a widening and sustained receptivity to communist politics not seen in decades, creating greater openings and responsibilities for proletarian parties.
Elsewhere, they contradict this: "No electable politicians are calling for a frontal assault on Social Security, Medicare, or other social benefits, or even dismantling the Affordable Care Act."

The Party's pessimism about the global economy is overstated. Yes--governments the world over are in debt. But as Tyler Cowen points out, this is a political problem rather than an economic one. The economy is actually doing pretty good: stock prices are at new highs because of corporate earnings, housing prices are rising slightly, and technology promises to dramatically improve our standard of living.

On the other hand, the industrial working class as it existed in the first half of the 20th Century simply doesn't exist anymore. The Party's tactic of selling Militants in front of plant gates is doomed to failure. Outside the public sector the union movement is not just dying, but arguably is dead and gone--witness the most recent AFL-CIO convention.

So there is no evidence of any stirrings of labor resistance, Mr. Nelson's long list of anecdotes notwithstanding. We're all petty bourgeois now--everybody is an entrepreneur. The Marxist template which The Militant wants to impose on reality simply does not fit.

The Socialist Workers Party is doomed. In twenty five years it won't exist.

Further Reading:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sisters & Slackers

The Weekly Standard is one of the two publications for which I still receive a print copy via snail mail. Two articles about sexual harassment caught my attention--one by Charlotte Allen, and the other by Harvey Mansfield. The first referenced a blog post by a wronged woman named anonymous, while the second is commentary on the sorry state of romantic relationships on campus.

Anonymous, a graduate student in philosophy (and I think also African-American) fell head over heels in love with a much older, Ivy League professor--the world leader in the philosophy of global justice. (Per Ms. Allen's suggestion, you can google ivy league global justice to learn his likely identity.) This gentleman won our lady's favor by intelligence, good looks, charm, money, and deceit. Even she admits that she should have known better. And despite threats to sue, she really has no legal recourse--she was neither a student nor employee of his, but rather just a member of an audience at a talk he gave.

What a hypocritical cad! That's the opinion of right-minded commentators on both the Left and the Right. What a lucky guy! That's the private opinion of some bloggers who write under a pseudonym.

My Leftist friends want to make the gentleman's actions illegal, though they don't know how to do that. For them it is all part of the rape culture that infests our elite colleges. After all, the male faculty at such places are almost by definition intelligent, charming, and moneyed. Most have passable looks, and a few are psychopathic enough to lie without guilt. Aren't women equally endowed with such talents? And shouldn't they be similarly rewarded?

With the exception of psychopathy (a mostly male, inherited trait), many women do have those skills--certainly those who work at Ivy League colleges do. But what good does it do them? After all, mere seduction is not a woman's hardest endeavor--it is instead convincing the seduced to commit. That's a much harder problem than a bouquet of roses, a nice dinner, and a few hours of conversation can solve. Psychopathy won't get you very far.

Leftists, now in the guise of feminists, want a society where men simply refrain from using their nature-given talents. They should voluntarily stop hitting on women--that's what they mean by ending the rape culture. A man should court only when he's ready to commit, and not a moment before. In the feminist's world, first comes the marriage proposal, and only then the courtship. That's sort of what happens in romance novels.

Of course that will rarely happen in real life. Attempts to end the rape culture will probably have no lasting impact whatsoever. At most, they will simply be another nail in the coffin of the higher education complex. Facts are very stubborn things, and feminists run headlong into the fact that men and women want very different things from their relationships.

But my Rightist friends--now in the person of Mr. Mansfield--are hardly any better. While the feminists blame men for all their problems, Mr. Mansfield blames feminism. However irritating it may be, I think feminism is a flea bite on a gnat--it is completely inconsequential. Or more precisely, it is a symptom of larger social change, rather than a cause. Changing feminism, or even abolishing it completely, won't solve a thing.

Mr. Mansfield argues that college women were better off in the status quo ante--the world of chaperones and curfews. Those institutions protected women from psychopaths, and hence actually gave them more freedom rather than less. But anonymous is a grad student, and it's hard to see how she could still be chaperoned into her late twenties and early thirties. So I think Mr. Mansfield overstates his case. On the other hand, I'm oversimplifying his argument--read the whole thing.

The causes of the problem (if problem it be) are 1) birth control and 2) technology. Birth control gives women the power to choose when they have babies, or even to choose not to have babies. Nothing wrong with that per se. The issue arises when most women reduce their fertility to two or lower, and many women choose not to have children at all. Indeed, many are even proud of their low fertility--witness Amanda Marcotte's pitiable essay here.

The result is that the educated sorts, people like Ms. Marcotte and anonymous, are not having children. Conversely, the people who are having children tend to be members of religious communities--Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Amish, Duck Dynasty types, etc., all folks who don't use birth control. People with children determine the future.

Thus is evolution happening in real time. The question confronting our species is How do we successfully reproduce in an environment that contains birth control? The answer appears to include membership in a religious group. Accordingly (if present trends continue) feminism looks to be literally dying out, and in two or three generations will be confined to Boston, Berkeley, and Madison, WI.

The second change is that technology has rendered male jobs disproportionately obsolete. Upper body strength is no longer a requirement for employment. Neither are the supposedly male traits of math or spatial abilities--long since supplanted by computers and GPS. The fact is, women can do many or even most jobs better than men can.

And so we're generating the new leisure class--slackers. These are men--typically without especial intelligence, good looks, or psychopathy--who have chosen to cash out of the economy and live off their women folk. Needless to say, they don't make good husbands, and women don't want to marry them.

So the Sisters (feminists) go to college--they make up over 55% of all students these days. At my college (a liberal arts, public school) the ratio is 62% female. And the slackers stay home, play video games, and watch porn. Women are all forced to compete for an ever shrinking number of eligible bachelors--a competition that is becoming ever more brutal and cut-throat.

No wonder anonymous throws herself at the Handsome Dude on the flimsiest pretext. She's all too willing to believe his lies--what other options does she have? She has two that I can think of: spinsterhood or prostitution. Anonymous doesn't need the protection that Mr. Mansfield recommends. What she needs are viable careers for men that enable them to be good husbands.

What about philosophy grad students, you say?--most of whom are male? Aren't they marriageable? A male graduate student is just another name for a slacker, albeit one who doesn't want to concede the obvious. His job prospects are approximately zero.

The female grad student, at least, can advance by spreading her legs. Though as anonymous discovered, that's not always successful.

Further Reading:

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book Review: Lih's Biography of Lenin

I just finished reading Lars Lih's short biography of Lenin. I'm ashamed to admit that it is the first complete biography of Lenin I've ever read. Mr. Lih's book is well-written and nicely researched. I understand that Mr. Lih has an atypical and tendentious view of Lenin. Indeed, he may have tried too hard to fit the facts into his storyline, though I certainly can't judge that. It all sounds a little too pat.

Born in 1870, Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov morphed into V. I. Lenin only after his death. In fleeing from the tsar in 1900 he borrowed a passport from a man named "Lenin," which our hero turned into the pseudonym, N. Lenin. Legend has it that N stood for Nikolai. He acquired his birth initials only post mortem.

Three people had a profound effect on Lenin's life. The first was his father, Ilya, a teacher who became an organizer of village schools to educate the peasants. This the tsar viewed as subversive.

Lenin's elder brother, Alexander, was involved in a failed plot to assassinate the tsar, for which he was hanged. As much as anything, Lenin was motivated by revenge for his brother's death. More importantly, he resolved not to make his brother's mistake. He disavowed terrorism as a revolutionary method, and indeed, mostly disowned violence.

Finally, Lenin had a life-long, love/hate relationship with Karl Kautsky, the great popularizer and propagandist of Marxism, and a founder of the German Social-Democratic Party. It was pure love until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, after which it turned into hatred as Kautsky supported Germany's war efforts. Lenin remained resolutely internationalist.

The Leninist perspective was already sketched out in 1894. Mr. Lih calls it the heroic scenario, which Lenin laid out in one, long, banner sentence in an illegal publication entitled Friends of the People. I'll describe it in my own words here:

The beneficiaries of Lenin's heroism were to be the narod, perhaps best translated as the German Volk. The English word, people, does not convey the spiritual significance, though perhaps if you substitute in the American People as politicians do, you'll get closer. Mr. Lih uses the Russian term exclusively.

This Leninist emphasis on das Volk is ignored by my Trotskyist friends, perhaps in part because it doesn't translate easily into English. But more, it reveals the uncomfortable relationship between Leninism and fascism. While it's an overstatement to equate them, there is no doubt that Lenin and Mussolini were political cousins.

Lenin opposed the Russian entry into the Great War, not because he opposed Russian nationalism, but indeed the opposite. He thought the Russian bourgeoisie were betraying the Russian narod.

The agents of the heroic scenario were the Russian proletariat. It was the workers who actually had the power to overthrow capitalism, a power the peasants did not have. Their concentration in the big cities, along with their thumb on the means of production gave them unexcelled political leverage.

The implementation of the heroic scenario depended on the Leninist Party, though of course Lenin didn't know it by that name. The term he used were the praktiki, who were members of the Social-Democratic underground. These class-conscious workers were the communications link between workers in different cities and factories, and also with a class of intellectuals (including Lenin) who lived abroad and could communicate freely. Lenin's paper, Iskra, that he edited up to the 1905 revolution, was smuggled into Russia, and provided news to praktiki across Russia about what they were all doing.

The first order of business in the heroic scenario was to overthrow the tsar and establish a bourgeois democracy. Then it would no longer be necessary to operate underground, and the praktiki could organize for socialism directly. In this first step the peasants would be close allies. The second step--the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, would split the kulaks from the rest of the peasants, and impose a greater responsibility on the proletariat. After that the narod would all live happily ever after.

So what could go wrong? Surprisingly little, actually. Lenin's durable support from the praktiki meant he could not be dismissed from the emigre political scene, this despite his rabid sectarianism. Especially after 1914 his rhetoric against fellow emigres as opportunists waxed vitriolic. During a conference in Bern, he led a something known as the Left Zimmerwald Opposition, a short-lived organization that could rival the Spartacist League.

Lenin assumed that there would be an extended time between the bourgeois revolution and the subsequent proletarian, socialist revolution. When he returned to Russia in March, 1917, he realized this would not be the case. He seized the opportunity to take state power during the infamous October revolution. Mr. Lih devotes very little space to the October events, probably because they've been covered in great detail elsewhere.

And this is where the heroic scenario ends. Lenin had no blueprint for what would happen after the socialist revolution. He was like the dog who caught the car. He simply assumed that socialism was a superior form of economic organization than capitalism. Today, of course, we know that is not true, but Lenin can probably be excused for not realizing that. Accordingly, especially during the period of war communism (1918-1919), Lenin rather uncharacteristically resorts to force. During that time he thought that simply liquidating the class enemy would be sufficient to solve all problems--since, after all, the class enemy was probably the only problem.

But by 1920 it was obvious even to Lenin that murdering his way out of economic difficulty was not going to work. Of course he could never admit to either himself or anybody else that socialism failed. Still, some backtracking seemed necessary. Instead of liquidating the kulaks, he tried to engage them in production. And instead of pure socialism, he turned to the New Economic Policy, subsequently imitated by socialist countries from Romania to Cuba to Venezuela.

Lenin's political career ended in 1923 with a stroke, and he died in 1924. Trotsky's name appears in Lih's book, but not prominently. Trotsky was late to the Bolshevik Party, and thus not an important part of Lenin's life. He was probably more important to the survival of the revolutionary state. Stalin's name also appears, and Lih reports that Lenin consulted closely with Stalin in the writing of his Last Testament. Stalin, of course, did not share Lenin's distaste for violence.

So what of Lenin's legacy? His success depended crucially on his longstanding connection to the praktiki, who eventually became his foot soldiers. In this he had an edge over the intellectual emigres who had lost connection with Russia. Further, Lenin's attitude toward open political work and underground organizations meant that the praktiki were still on the ground in October, 1917, rather than cooling their heels in jail or in Siberia. Similarly, his opposition to terrorism served him in good stead.

Beyond that, Lenin's success looks to be pure luck. His small army of praktiki succeeded only because the Russian state was devastated by World War. Much to Lenin's surprise and dismay, similar organizations were not successful in western Europe. Indeed, Lenin's success has not been duplicated anywhere else in the world. In no place has a small, vanguard praktiki party taken state power. So it seems to be a once-off deal unique to Russian history.

The Lenin Mr. Lih describes was a very smart man who single-mindedly devoted his entire life to his heroic scenario. His success depended on that determination, along with a huge amount of luck. Obviously, Lenin played a crucial role in 20th Century Russian history. But I think his significance for the rest of the world is minor. His contemporary, Teddy Roosevelt, is probably of comparable importance. Lenin's lessons for world politics, never important, have faded into irrelevance.

I agree with Louis Proyect's conclusion, summarized by the title of his article, Goodbye Lenin.

Further Reading:

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What Would Lenin Do?

Louis Proyect writes a wonderful article under the title Goodbye Lenin, appearing Counterpunch. He responds to friendly fire from our former comrade, Paul Le Blanc (not to be confused with the president of the University of Southern New Hampshire). Mr. Le Blanc was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (US SWP) when I joined, and has subsequently cycled his way through to the International Socialist Organization (ISO), his home since 2009.

Mr. Proyect's article is the latest volley in an on-going discussion from the consequences of the British SWP's collapse in a sex and rape scandal. I have not followed that at all, but apparently it has resulted in a serious leadership crisis. That larger issue was addressed by a prominent Marxist theorist, Alex Callinicos, in an article entitled Is Leninism Finished?He maintains that whatever the specific fate of the British SWP, the truth remains that a Leninist vanguard Party is necessary to lead the working class in revolution.

Mr. Proyect responded with an answer to that question: Leninism is Finished, contending that the concept of democratic centralism is no longer helpful. He argues that the Leftist net must be cast wide, and that ideological purity is probably not the most important thing. Otherwise one ends up as a small, sectarian group, such as today's US SWP. His argument is similar to the one I make here.

Mr. Le Blanc picks up his cudgel in a piece entitled Leninism is Unfinished, where he tries to split the difference. Democratic centralism is still important, he maintains, but he thinks the modern grouplets purporting to be Leninist don't understand the concept. Lenin meant it in a much weaker sense, though how weak is a matter of dispute.

Here is how I summarize the three points of view:

Mr. Callinicos: Democratic centralism means vigorous, internal discussion of program and policy, followed by unity of speech and action presented to the outside world. That's the Trotskyism I grew up with.

Mr. Proyect: Democratic centralism means a united voice in parliament.
All discipline meant [according to Lenin--ed] was a deputy voting according to instructions from the party’s central committee, etc. For example, if Alex Callinicos was elected to Parliament and instructed to vote against funding the war in Iraq, and then voted for funding, the party would be entitled to expel him.
Outside of parliament, freedom of speech and action (within the "principles of the Party") are permitted.

Mr. Le Blanc defines democratic centralism succinctly: Freedom of discussion; Unity of action.

So let's consider an example. Back in the 1980s Nat Weinstein--then a member of Socialist Action (SA)--wanted to run his own newspaper. There were no important programmatic differences between SA and Weinstein and his friends, but nevertheless this perfectly simple and reasonable desire led to a split. And given the traditional conception of the "revolutionary press," it had to. The Party can't have two, independently edited newspapers.

Mr. Callinicos will agree with SA's decision to expel the Weinstein grouplet.

Mr. Proyect will probably agree with me and suggest that there's nothing wrong with Mr. Weinstein publishing his own newspaper under the SA umbrella. There is precedent for that, albeit not Trotskyist. The Daily Worker and People's World were both separately edited publications of the US Communist Party, with slightly different points of view. SA, of course, was too conservative to even consider the possibility.

I can't predict Mr. Le Blanc's opinion. Is publishing your own newspaper disunity of action, or freedom of discussion?

The last word, so far, belongs to Mr. Proyect in Goodbye Lenin. I can't do justice to his argument in the space here, nor indeed to any of the arguments. Rather than attempting any kind of summary, let me pick out some items that caught my fancy. I'll add that all three of my correspondents are very good writers, and if you're at all interested in debate on Marxist arcana, this is a good way to get there.

  • Mr. Proyect repudiates the charge of "Zinovievism," supposedly leveled against him by Mr. Le Blanc. I'll let you figure out what that means for yourself--I did promise you Marxist arcana.
  • Mr. Proyect indicates that the Internet changes everything, or at least a whole lot. Mr. Le Blanc appears not to like the Internet very much--witness the fact that his books are not available on Kindle. That means I'll never read them.
  • Mr. Proyect touts the work of Lars Lih, an author whom Mr. Le Blanc seemingly does not think so highly of. The dispute may arise because Mr. Lih is an independent scholar, and not part of the academic priesthood to which Mr. Le Blanc belongs. Or it may be that Mr. Lih releases his books on Kindle. Indeed, I have downloaded his blessedly short Lenin biography, and am finding it quite enjoyable.
So I basically agree with Mr. Proyect--Leninism is dead. Misters Callinicos and Le Blanc are members of what some have called the Dead Russians Society. It's an apt name. As I read Mr. Lih, I am struck by how different Russia a century ago is from the modern world. Not only is there an Internet today (and therefore no "revolutionary press" worthy of the name), but there isn't even a proletariat. The working class of Lenin's day has long since been replaced by machines and robots. It's no longer sensible to speak of an intelligentsia--anybody who wants to read has access to all the information they could ever want.

Mr. Proyect is certainly correct that the Leninist grouplets of the sort I cover will remain completely irrelevant. That includes both versions of the SWP, along with Mr. Le Blanc's ISO, along with whatever variant of SA you care to imagine.

For all that, there is an air of unreality the pervades all the articles we've discussed. Mr. Callinicos spends most of his pixels on the evils of "neoliberalism." He demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how the modern economy works, nor the remotest comprehension of how to solve our serious problems. If this be the best Marxist theory can offer, then they've got worse problems than Leninism.

Mr. Proyect shares this view of the world, as demonstrated by his alternative to the Leninist project. He puts forward the Greek party SYRIZA as a role model. Now I think SYRIZA is mostly a group of government employees, and since the Greek government employs a very large proportion of the workforce, this is a sizable organization. The problem with these people is that they are totally unproductive. Every member of SYRIZA could go on strike and nobody would even notice. Rather than the proletariat, they represent the parasite, lumpen class.

SYRIZA believes that there is some huge stash of cash hidden somewhere, and if they just throw a big enough temper tantrum then the bank vaults will be opened an all problems will be solved. Of course it's delusional--nobody with any money remains in Greece. Worse, they conflate currency with money with wealth--all of which are completely different things. Currency is easily redistributed, but money less so. Wealth is almost impossible to redistribute since it is almost always intimately tied to the abilities of the wealth owner.

In Zimbabwe they liberated the white-owned farms that then subsequently fell into ruin. Because not only do you need land to run a farm, you also need expertise, access to capital, and access to markets. The Mugabe thieves had none of that--the wealth was impossible to capture. A similar story is playing out in Venezuela--by expropriating the oil industry the government is destroying it. Within the next decade (barring dramatic political change) Venezuela will not be an oil exporter, and for the same reason Zimbabwe isn't a food exporter.

Leninism won't get you to the socialist heaven of which Misters Callinicos, Le Blanc, and Proyect dream. But nothing else will either. Socialism is impossible.

Further Reading:

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Book Review: Work 2.0

Work 2.0: Nowhere to Hide by Sergiusz Prokurat, is a breathless account of the new world of work. He recounts in great detail how jobs have changed as a result of the digital revolution, specifically the web. His book contains a huge amount of data, lots of graphs (many of which are hard to see in the Kindle edition), and cites innumerable references. This is the work of a scholar, and as such it isn't an easy read.

I will find the book a very useful source for my own opus Your Future Job: How to Build a Career in the New Normal (draft excerpt here). Rather than scholars, my audience is different--I'm writing for 18-year-olds and their parents. That means a lot of the data and nuance has to disappear, to be replaced by the Big Idea, or at least the Simple Model. Or, the critic might argue, the Oversimplified Model.

And that's where I take issue with Mr. Prokurat's book. It's hard to see the big picture through all his data. It's information overload, and somehow the connecting links are missing. I'll give two examples.

First, he rightly considers globalization and outsourcing as a major driver of change. Lots of manufacturing jobs have been exported to China, with America's rust belt being hollowed out. "The 21st century will belong to Asia, as was the case always, except for the last 500 years. Asian workers are working very hard to make this happen while we consume as never before."

But this isn't true today. Automation is bringing manufacturing back to the United States in a big way, drawn by cheap electricity, good infrastructure, and proximity to markets. Wages are no longer a significant factor. It's China that is being hollowed out. A few pages later Mr. Prokurat admits as much. "The problem with this model [outsourcing for low labor costs] became evident with the opening of Asian labour markets--the model had simply been exhausted. We [countries like Poland and China] have reached a stage of development where we either enhance our economy's competitiveness, or we stop in our development tracks."

Later in the book he describes today's labor market for Generations Y and Z (i.e., my children and students). Today's workers, he claims, demand eight qualities from their employer: freedom; adjusting work to their needs; careful observation; credibility; cooperation; entertainment; a fast-paced environment; and innovativeness. Failure to offer these perks will cost the company its talented workforce. And then comes the bottom line: "What also matters is the possibility of rapid promotions and climbing the wage ladder."

Really? Maybe that's true for graduates from MIT or Stanford (though I doubt even for them), but it certainly isn't true for the students I talk to every day. I teach at a second-tier public university, and my students will be lucky to find any professional work. That they can lay eight conditions on their terms of employment is a pipe dream.

And sure enough, a few pages later Mr. Prokurat comes back down to earth. He admits to the shamefully high youth unemployment in Europe. And concedes that many if not most college graduates will struggle to find jobs. As to "rapid promotions and climbing the wage ladder," that simply won't happen for the majority of today's young people. That's one reason why I call them the screwed generation.

It's not that I disagree with Mr. Prokurat. Every one of his statements is true within some context. The problem is the book doesn't really explain that context--there is no story line. Thus we're presented with seeming contradictions within a few pages. He's missing the Big Idea.

There is one theme in the book that I do disagree with. Mr. Prokurat implies that the Web has somehow changed human nature. For example, he writes "Our physical presence will be supplemented by digital beings (e.g., our avatars developed in MMORGs, our presence in the world of Second Life, our interactions on our favourite forums) which represent us in cyberspace." Similarly, I think he exaggerates the effect of Facebook and Twitter.

This is the first I've heard of Second Life in several years. It used to be a big thing--indeed, my university hired a faculty member whose research was centered around that software. I thought that was silly then, and it's obviously nonsensical today. Second Life has fallen off the radar screen. Virtual reality is the domain of low-status males who retreat to that because they have so few opportunities in the real world. It is a sad place, not a happy one. I think that's true of Second Life, on-line porn, and probably most video games.

My knowledge of Facebook comes from seeing how my wife and daughter use it. For them it is a technology that allows them to keep up with friends and relatives. It replaces the telephone and the greeting card. It is precisely not a way to meet strangers or to expand one's social circle. Friends are still made the old-fashioned way--at school or work, at a church picnic, or in a bar. Human nature has not changed.

I'm distressed by Mr. Prokurat's account about how employers are searching employee's social media presence. This portends a 1984-like world, where political correctness is rigidly enforced. If any regulation of social media is warranted, it would be to limit this behavior. There has to be a realm where people can interact with their friends privately.

So Work 2.0 is a good book. I read the whole thing, and I will probably read it again as I write my own book. There's a lot of information there. And that Mr. Prokurat doesn't provide us with the Big Idea is probably a good thing--the reader can make their own interpretation.

All in all, it's a pretty depressing picture. I'm glad I'm nearing retirement.

Further Reading:

Friday, May 30, 2014

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare A Trillion?

This article is about Ta-Nehisi Coates' now infamous article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled The Case For Reparations.

Mr. Coates' article is better written and more thoroughly researched than a handwritten, beggar's plea, but the message is pretty much the same.
Homeless, tired and hungry. No family. Anything helps. God Bless you.
Like the sidewalk bum, Mr. Coates is coy about the amount he wants us to put in his tin cup. Estimates I've read range from $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion. He purports instead to be more interested in the come to Jesus moment when the scales finally fall from us white folks' eyes. We're supposed to have a conversation, a heart-to-heart where we finally recognize that we're all brothers under the skin. So here's my two-cents to the conversation, not that Mr. Coates will be listening.

Like the homeless beggar, no doubt Black people are poor, and no doubt they're an underclass, and no doubt they've been horribly mistreated. They've been an underclass ever since they arrived on these shores. Indeed (if you take Gregory Clark's thesis seriously) they were probably an underclass even before they left Africa. After all, the African slavers didn't pursue the social elite or the militarily capable. No--they targeted the poor and defenseless for sale to the Europeans. It's odd that Mr. Coates doesn't insist that some share of reparations come from today's West African elite--descendants of the slavers.

Mr. Coates wants us to take Congressman John Conyer's HR 40 bill seriously. From Mr. Conyers' website, the bill is supposed to accomplish four things:
  1. It acknowledges the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery;
  2. It establishes a commission to study slavery, its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;
  3. It studies the impact of those forces on today's living African Americans; and
  4. The commission would then make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African Americans.
Point 1 is stipulated. Slavery is fundamentally unjust and inhuman. If Mr. Conyers wants to pass a resolution in Congress saying that, it's fine by me.

Point 2 is silly. Why do we need a commission? Isn't the history of slavery being widely studied by academics and many others? What is a government commission supposed to accomplish that isn't already being done?

Point 3 is way too complicated. Shouldn't we also study the impact of history on white Americans? And what about Native Americans? Or Chinese Americans. Tyler Cowen argues (cogently in my opinion) that the large majority of white Americans were (slightly) harmed by the institution of slavery. And aren't today's African-Americans, dispossessed though they may be, better off than they would have been if their ancestors had been left in Africa? Compare North Lawndale with, e.g., Sierra Leone. How is some commission going to reconcile all of this?

Point 4 is impossible. History is history. You can't change it or undo it.

But OK--let's give Misters Coates and Conyers their way. And suppose that African-Americans are awarded some trillion dollars for successful beggary. The immediate beneficiaries will be Black folks, each of which will get some $30,000. Here is my prediction for the secondary beneficiaries.

State Lotteries--Poor people are almost by definition financially unsophisticated. They play the lottery as an investment--it's a get rich quick scheme. Accordingly, I predict that the teachers' unions will be avid supporters of this reparations scheme, given that most of the proceeds goes to education.

Drugs, Liquor and Tobacco--What better way to spend a windfall? Drugs, of course, represent another get rich scheme that young, poor males are likely to fall for. Besides, they get you laid. Accordingly, expect the Mexican cartels to support and lobby for reparations--a lot of the money is going to them.

Prisons--An enhanced drugs trade will lead to more crime and more arrests. The prison guards' union will be very happy with this. What a great deal!

Real Estate Scammers--Mr. Coates spends much of his essay describing how Blacks were ripped off by real estate salesmen in North Lawndale. Crooks prey on gullible people, and if you believe Mr. Coates then poor Blacks are among the most gullible around. Expect lots of the reparations money to be spent on fancy McMansions, sold for far more than they're worth. And in ten years, when the financial and social capital has expired, it will all degenerate into a new slum. Why does Mr. Coates think this will be any different than North Lawndale?

Colleges & Universities--Well meaning commentators are hoping that our gullible friends will spend their new found wealth on education instead of fake luxury. Nevermind that our nation is already over-invested in education, and for a lot of people more schooling makes little sense. And then colleges are often just as corrupt as real estate agents. Mr. Coates will probably finger places like the University of Phoenix, but ripoff joints like Chicago State University or the City College of San Francisco probably deserve more blame. Either way, the academics are going to make out like bandits, which is what they are.

Mr. Coates and Mr. Conyers miss a very important fact. Money is not the same thing as wealth. Especially in this case, many are suggesting that the Fed should just print up a trillion dollars and give it to Black people. But little bits of green paper are not going to substantially improve people's lives.

Money becomes wealth only when it is invested in capital that returns a revenue stream. That can be physical capital (e.g., rental property, or a restaurant) or human capital (e.g., education in something useful). Actually, it has to be both because there's no point in buying a restaurant if you don't know how to run it. But it can't be spent on fake luxury or phony degrees, much less on lottery tickets. Those aren't wealth.

Black people, like underclasses around the world, have not been able to accumulate wealth. In this they differ from the Jews, the Chinese, the Amish, the Mormons, and that fraction of white people we call the middle class. These are all people with bourgeois, or at least petty-bourgeois attitudes. These are people who hoard capital and pass it on to their children and grandchildren. That's why, unlike most Black people, they have a net worth greater than zero.

Until Black people can do that, not even $1,000,000,000,000 in reparations will make a dime's worth of difference.

Further Reading:

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Socialist Action Jumps The Shark

Admittedly, there is a difference between political opinions with intellectual rigor and those that appeal to sentiment. A political party ideally hits both those buttons, at least partially. For example, when I was a Trotskyist, the intellectual argument against the Vietnam war was opposition to imperialism, while sentiment was rooted in the horror of the war. The two matched up more or less, and the result was a growing Party.

Today, both Socialist Action and The Militant have lost their way. The former strives for intellectual rigor (such as it is), while the latter appeals to sentiment. Neither is successful.

A recent article by Jeff Mackler in Socialist Action touts the thesis of the aging muckraker, Seymour Hersh. He's the fellow who exposed the My Lai massacre some forty six years ago, and now he claims that the Syrian rebels are responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. That is the red line supposedly crossed by the Assad government that nearly led to US retaliation.

The consensus view is that crime was committed by the government, not by the rebels. I acknowledge there is some disagreement, and I certainly don't know enough about the mechanics of gas attacks to resolve the issue. But I find Mr. Hersh's claim, and by extension Socialist Action's position, untenable.

The Leftist expert on Syria is Louis Proyect, who has devoted a lengthy article on Seymour Hersh here. Mr. Proyect pretty convincingly debunks the Hersh thesis. Unfortunately, his argument is too ad hominem for my taste: Mr. Hersh is wrong because he agrees with right-wing news sites, such as World Net Daily. But of course there's no reason why Right and Left couldn't agree on a factual matter (were it factual). I'm a Right-winger and on this I agree with Mr. Proyect. Does that make Mr. Proyect wrong?

I think believing in a rebel sarin attack on their own position is a conspiracy theory. It requires that the rebels would use one of their few artillery shells to attack their own, very strategic position, and this apparently just to prod the US into retaliating against the government. Surely, if the rebels really did have access to artillery-deliverable sarin gas, they would have employed it against the enemy, rather than betting on the fanciest billiard ball bounce ever.

Socialist Action advances this theory in part to demonstrate that the rebels are really evil people. Therefore, just as a matter of basic human morality, you should support the government. This is an appeal to sentiment. The effort is belied somewhat by the caption to the photo: "Assad is guilty of many atrocities, as this photograph taken after a government airstrike on the town of Maarat al-Noaman shows. But did his regime use sarin gas?"

More, Socialist Action tries to show that the US is really siding with the rebels. In particular, they assert that we are trying to provide the rebels with shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), capable of shooting down civilian aircraft. For whatever reason we're trying to keep this effort a secret--to this day the mainstream media is completely bamboozled. It's not clear why we'd be trying to keep it a secret, nor could we were it true. The Israelis would have a conniption fit if they really believed we were trying to so arm the rebels, and would shout to the heavens.

The whole theory is just malarkey. As Mr. Proyect demonstrates, the US policy is to let the two sides fight it out and exhaust each other.

In a similarly perverse position, Socialist Action has come down on the side of the Russians in Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine has greatly escalated in recent days, as open revolt against the right-wing government in Kiev sweeps through the eastern and southern sections of the country. Protesters state that they are trying to protect the Russian-speaking population from discrimination and fascist attacks. Many call for autonomy for their region, while others say they are seeking to secede from Ukraine and to join Russia—as Crimea did following its March 16 referendum.
This thesis loosely agrees with Pat Buchanan's, who argues that Putin is defending Christendom. Buchanan's piece is better argued, and indeed, who one sides with here is a matter of taste. But Socialist Action is going against sentiment, which belongs to the freedom-fighting rebels in Kiev. Both The Militant and Mr. Proyect are on the side of the Maidan Square demonstrators.

So for both Syria and Ukraine Socialist Action goes against sentiment and instead argues for "principle." The principle is to oppose anything the American government supports. If the US supports the Maidan square crowd, then of course it's only because they're a bunch of fascists. If America opposes Assad, it can only be because the Baathist regime represents some residue of Marxism, and is in any event less vile than the evil Jihadis.

But since sentiment and principle have to sort-of align, it is necessary to come up with completely bogus crimes, such as the rebel's sarin gas attack. In the cause of sentiment, Socialist Action finds a fascist under every bed. It won't work--it's really hard to distinguish the Black Hats from the White Hats in either Syria or Ukraine. None of the hats are Red, either.

The Militant, in siding with sentiment on both Syria and Ukraine, has lost sight of principle. It's program has become increasingly incoherent, as I've documented elsewhere (most recently here). They're flailing around trying to find a thread on which to hang a position. To use the old Trotskyist lingo, The Militant is opportunist, while Socialist Action is sectarian. My 18-year-old self would still have joined with The Militant. I'd have nothing to do with Socialist Action.

Zoltan Grossman, writing in Socialist Viewpoint in one of the best articles about Ukraine I've read anywhere, puts it best: "The enemy of your enemy is not always your friend." Words to live by.

Further Reading: