Monday, January 28, 2013

Is Marxism Dead?

Arguing with Louis Proyect about Marxist theory is like playing chess with Garry Kasparov, or discussing physics with Albert Einstein. It doesn’t look like much fun for the amateur. I hardly dare take him on. Still, his recent post entitled Does anyone ever get the revolution they ask for? is so compellingly interesting that I can’t resist a reply. Along the way he asks another great question: Is Marxism dead? Let’s consider that one first.

Marxism is not dead for generally the same reason that creationism is not dead. Both -isms resonate strongly in the human psyche--it is easy for people to believe them. Creationism offers the simpler example. Imagine a toddler having a conversation with his mother:

Toddler: Mommy, why is that mountain there?

Mother:  Because God put it there.

Most 2-year-olds will find this explanation entirely satisfactory. Mother’s reply asserts that the mountain is intentional, and the natural, nearly irresistible inclination for people to ascribe motives to everything means that evolutionists will never win the public relations argument.

Now consider this dialogue between toddler and mom:

Toddler:  Why are we so poor?

Mother:  Because the rich people stole all the money.

This is even more believable, for it not only assigns motives--it also assigns blame. Mother’s explanation slides into the mind like oil in an engine--it is so easy to learn, and very hard to unlearn. Marxism is not only not dead--it never will die.

The problem, of course, is that neither creationism nor Marxism are true. The Marxist assertion that rich people got that way by cheating workers out of their rightful wages is just straight-out, empirically false.

Walmart is an excellent example. The Walton family today is worth about $100 billion--a fortune that Sam Walton accumulated during his 40-year career. It sounds like a lot of money until you learn that the annual net revenue (sales minus cost of product) for Walmart is $500 billion. In other words, Walmart nets five times more than Sam Walton’s entire net worth in one year. Multiply that sum over forty years (and adjust for inflation), a conservative estimate is that Walmart has generated $10 trillion in revenue over the course of Sam’s career.

So Sam managed to pocket about 1% of Walmart’s total revenue. Who got the 99%? Well, to borrow a phrase, the 99% got the 99%. First, workers got paid. And more importantly, customers got good deals. Since Walmart’s customers are mostly poor people, the primary benefits of low prices accrue to the bottom half of the income distribution. That’s not the whole story--Sam bought much of his product from China, and so did a lot to raise the standard of living in China. Indeed, I think Sam Walton did more to eliminate poverty than any other human being in history. Far from stealing from workers, he created millions of jobs for the poor, and fulfilled his mission to give common folk the chance to buy the same things that rich people buy.

Marxism is just flat-out wrong.

Regarding the other question--can we get the revolution we want--I am not capable of following the debate between Mr. Proyect and Erik Olin Wright. Still, at risk of getting into a discussion that’s over my head, let me weigh in on this.

For Marxism, the study of history is central. Marxists view history in large-scale, hydrodynamic, tectonic terms--there are powerful social forces, irresolvable conflicts of interest, class struggles, historical trends, and material conditions. All these ingredients are combined into some mysterious dialectic through which the tea-leaves can be read, and the path forward for humanity can be discerned.

This does not seem to me to be an accurate view of history. History is instead a sequence of random events, piquantly illustrated by the (apocryphal) German newspaper headline of 1919: “Archduke Ferdinand discovered alive! Great War was a mistake!” And indeed, whether or not the Archduke survived his assassination, World War I was a mistake--and nothing more than that. It reflected no great, underlying social or historical conflict. And neither did World War II, which could easily have been prevented had the colonels’ plot to assassinate Hitler been successful. History, far from being the grand drama of class conflict, is instead a tawdry little tale about how, for the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.

Now even I acknowledge that history can’t be entirely random, for some long-term trends are readily apparent. For example, how can one explain persistent technological progress, much accelerated over the past 400 years? This is not random. And neither is the readily measurable decline in violence over past millennia--we live in the most peaceful time in history. And finally, social structures have become ever more enabling, making people richer. Capitalism is vastly better than slavery. These phenomena do require explanation, though I suggest the answers are more likely to be found in evolutionary psychology, not in Marxist dialectics.

A revolution is a radical change in the political dynasty, during which exists a period of mob rule. In the French revolution, there was a dynastic change from a monarchy to a republic, separated by mob terror. In the Russian revolution the dynasty changed from a serf-based monarchy to a “proletarian” republic, separated by mob rule. The so-called Arab Spring involves a dynastic change from secular dictators to (not totally yet clear what), separated by mob rule (which we are still in the middle of).

The problem with mob rule is that there are many more ways for it to go wrong than there are for it to come out right. Mobs have a way of bringing out the worst in people. You want Trotsky--instead you get Lenin and Stalin. You want Liberty, Equality, Fraternity--instead you get Robespierre and Napoleon. You want an Arab democracy--instead you (likely) get religious fanatics. And so forth. The odds are against you. You’ll lose.

The only exception I can think of is the American Revolution. Now perhaps this wasn’t even a revolution by my definition--I’m not sure the Colonies ever succumbed to mob rule. But semantics aside, it is only by the purest, most unexpected good fortune that our country escaped that fate. Today we call it American exceptionalism--in reality it’s as if our country just hit the jackpot in Vegas. No other revolution has been anywhere near as lucky or as successful.

So, the answer to the question Mr. Proyect poses--Does anyone ever get the revolution they asked for?--the answer is almost always No. Unless you’re really lucky. And you won’t be.

Revolutions are bad things.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Viva Poverty!

If there is one thing we know about socialism, it’s that it doesn’t work. This iron law of economics, as solid a result as the dismal science has ever produced, brooks no exception. “Not working” means that no socialist society can provide a meaningful standard of living for its citizens, much less compete militarily with surrounding capitalist societies. The Soviet Union collapsed without firing a shot, not because Russians are a bunch of weak-kneed wusses, but because their country was flat-out bankrupt. China turned to capitalism because its leader, Deng Xiao Ping, realized that Mao suits and Little Red Books were both useless and inedible. North Korea retains socialism only by maintaining a prison-camp society.

Even less dramatic examples have come to naught. Margaret Thatcher put paid to the pink socialism of Labor Party PMs James Callaghan and Harold Wilson. As she famously said, “Socialism works until you run out of other people’s money.” You can steal from the rich for a year, or perhaps two, but then the bank account is dry.

In the best case a socialist society is run by an honest and honorable man. One thinks of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who ruled his country reasonably gently (for a Communist, and Hitler-mustache notwithstanding), and then after twenty-odd years, retired. He lived the rest of his life peacefully in his own country (not in exile), earning the honorific Mwalimu (teacher) from his countrymen. He accomplished some good things, and partly because of his legacy Tanzania is not riven by the civil wars and ethnic conflict that plague the rest of the continent. But his economic policies were a complete disaster. The country was substantially poorer at the end of his rule than at the beginning. Indeed, in the poverty sweepstakes Tanzania excelled, bested only by nearby Ethiopia, a socialist experiment that plumbed depths of hell that not even Dante imagined.

So now comes Socialist Action (SA) with a resolution on Cuba presented at their August convention, and described in an article by Jeff Mackler. That nation, having long since run out of other people’s money, is now desperately seeking new sources of cash to support so-called social welfare projects, aka free unicorns. The stunning revelation is that Cubans are actually going to have to work for a living--a novelty that creates complex theological and legal tangles for Marxist minds to deal with.

So the bearded geniuses have decreed that 178 occupations are now legal in Cuba. These run the gamut from hairdresser to restauranteur. Mackler assures us, however, that nothing substantial has changed. People were already engaging in these professions, albeit illegally, and all the government is doing is regulating (and presumably taxing) existing practice. For Mackler this is important, because the major thrust of the article is to reassure readers that Cuba is not embarking on the Capitalist Road, following the well-trod path of Eastern Europe and China.

Well, he certainly has me convinced! No restaurant, for example, can have more than 50 seats--not even a restaurant with really good food! For if restaurants served more than 50 people, then a talented cook might have to hire an additional waitress--may the heavens forfend! She, miserable soul, would be ruthlessly exploited while delivering delicious dinners to hungry diners, some of whom could actually leave her a tip.

Our desperate waitress might actually float a makeshift boat to escape from such a fate. She’d certainly be much happier in North Korea, where hard work is properly punished.

Among the litany of problems Mackler describes are corruption and the black market. “Bureaucratic abuse has been and remains widespread, including government and military personnel using state-owned trucks to steal or otherwise sequester food products from state or cooperative farms for sale on the black market.” Now this I simply don’t understand. Why would good, honest, civil servants--revolutionaries no less, trained in the work ethic of psychopath hero Che Guevara--steal from their fellow citizens?

Mackler does actually answer this question--the argument is tortured and indirect. But the conclusion is simple--it’s America’s fault. That’s it--absent the United States all civil servants in Cuba would be scrupulously honest. It is only because of the trade embargo that Cubans are forced into such degrading activities such as stealing.

I point out that black markets are a creature of socialist societies, where prices don’t reflect reality. There is no black market for foodstuffs in the United States. Prices are set efficiently by the market, rather than regulated by a bunch of bearded crackpots. And corruption is primarily a problem of government. In 2010, 90% of the Cuban workforce was employed by the state. Of course corruption will be rampant in that environment. The cure for corruption is to put people in charge of their own money--you can’t steal from yourself.

These Cuban reforms won’t accomplish their goals. If you want people to work hard, invest in their property and their future, and manage resources well, you have to put them in control. You have to allow people to run businesses with as few restrictions as possible. Cuba’s halfhearted steps in this direction won’t make much difference. Mackler is correct about the limited, present reforms--they’re not much of a step toward capitalism.

Mackler does criticize the leaders of the Cuban state. He calls them “revolutionaries of action,” another one of those Marxist theological terms that I won’t try to define. But he admits that Cuba is not a democracy, and he advocates a more stringent adherence to majority rule. Presumably he thinks the majority should vote on how capital is to be allocated, and he would also deny individuals much protections from such rule. So if you had a successful restaurant, the majority could vote to confiscate it.

All this is particularly ironic given the picture that accompanies Mackler’s article--it’s a picture of majority rule in action as it exists now in Cuba. To me, it looks like mob rule. Here’s the link again--take a look and see if you don’t agree.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book Review: We The Enemy

A useful assignment for college students would be to compare Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, with Ray Rhamey’s novel, We The Enemy. They are both political novels, and both begin in the dystopian near future. Atlas Shrugged heroine Dagny Taggart inhabits a misgoverned, decaying, impoverished New York. Rhamey’s heroine, Jewel Washington, lives in misgoverned, crime-ridden Chicago.

Jewel, a Black, single mother, lives in the Cabrini-Green housing projects with her six-year old daughter and drug-addict brother. She works as a legal secretary on Michigan Avenue, spending much of her salary on “Pink,” the drug that supports her brother’s addiction. She purchases Pink from a fat, white, corrupt, cowardly cop named Murphy.

Jewel is almost raped in broad daylight along Michigan Avenue by a couple of gun-toting thugs, and would have been if the male lead, Jake Black, hadn’t dispatched the pair with a pistol of his own. While all this happens, passersby avert their eyes and walk by--including the cowardly cop, Murphy. While not an example in the book, it seems as if in the Chicago-of-the-future, dead bodies are so common that people just gingerly step over them.

In Rand’s novel the good guys all hole up in a place called Galt’s Gulch, established by the mysterious John Galt (“Who is John Galt?”). It is where the creative class hangs out until it is safe for them to go back into the world and be creative again.

Rhamey’s analog is Ashland, Oregon, a college town in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains and home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Unlike Galt’s Gulch, a temporary hideout, Ashland is the permanent and very public headquarters of a group known as the The Alliance, headed by the Galt-like Noah Stone. What is The Alliance? Who is Noah Stone? These are questions which bring both Jewel Washington and Jake Black from Chicago to Ashland, and also concern the US government.

While both are political novels, they differ. Rand’s book is about capitalism, freedom, business, and the evils of the welfare state. Rhamey’s book instead focuses on guns and violence, and surrounding legal issues.

In an idealistic Oregon designed by Noah Stone, citizens are encouraged to own a gun known as the stopper. This is a three-barreled peashooter, each firing a different kind of non-lethal ammunition colloquially known as nap, whack, and tangle, supposedly adequate for self defense. Possession of any lethal firearm is a felony offense--punishable by ten years in jail (the “Keep”), or time in a re-education camp until you learn the error of your ways. The plot depends on militia activists out there--gun nuts in my reading--who still irrationally believe in the Second Amendment, but Rhamey grants them neither respect nor any intelligent arguments.

The book includes a gripping trial scene, where (in my opinion) the judge argues strongly against the Fifth Amendment. Due process has been partially replaced by a computer, which supposedly can infallibly identify when a witness is lying. It can’t--not even for the show trial described in the book.

I was going to ding Mr. Rhamey on his miscasting of Jewel--which I initially interpreted as a fiction issue. But on reconsideration I see that the problem is not Mr. Rhamey’s, but instead gets to the core of what’s wrong with Noah Stone’s philosophy.

Jewel is a ghetto girl from the Projects. Somehow she acquired the educational resources to become a downtown legal secretary. Good for her! Most ghetto girls don’t get that far. Jewel, already unusual, is still a believable character.

But now move her to Ashland, Oregon, and apart from the occasional verbal tic the ghetto has been completely forgotten. Indeed, within the first week she’s listening to Mozart with her new beau, a white, redneck-cum-hippie set designer for the Shakespeare Company, while reading The Little Engine That Could to her child. Wow! Ghetto girls (along with most human beings) just don’t behave that way.

Ghetto girls--even those that leave the ghetto--do not so comprehensively abandon their heritage. Instead, like most human beings, they retain connections to family, friends, lovers, language and the culture that they call home. Almost all emigrants keep one foot in their native culture. For Jewel to move to Ashland in the manner described in the book implies (in my view) that she has completely abandoned her birthright.

So (I imagined asking Mr. Rhamey) why not make Jewel a white girl? One could go with White Trash, say from Chicago’s Uptown or Bridgeport neighborhoods. The character would be more believable and possibly make for better fiction. Mr. Rhamey may have agreed with me, but Noah Stone certainly wouldn’t have. His proselytizing in Chicago, for example, implies that his movement is universal, and should appeal to people from all cultures and backgrounds--including ghetto girls.

It doesn’t. Noah Stone’s Alliance embodies Enlightenment attitudes as held by people with bourgeois attitudes. The group may be multi-hued and even multi-ethnic, but it is decidedly not multicultural. Jewel is a case in point—by joining, she becomes “white.”

Noah Stone’s professed tolerance actually disguises a form of intolerance. Religion, for example, makes a claim to truth that The Alliance simply doesn’t recognize. A conventional Christian will regard Noah’s watered-down version of Christianity as both patronizing and sophomoric. A religious Jew will simply ignore it--the Torah and Talmud are a much richer vein. A devout Muslim will accuse Noah Stone of blasphemy. Noah’s dismissive “tolerance” of religion may appeal to denizens in college towns, but it will hold little sway elsewhere. In most of the world (probably including in the Projects) the Enlightenment has a very slim purchase on the human soul.

I disagree strongly with the politics in this book. But I still think it is an excellent book. First, it is a page-turner--well written and expertly plotted. It’s as good as the Vince Flynn novel I read recently. The ending was a surprise, but totally convincing and very satisfying. Unlike much modern fiction, this book actually has a plot. And second, unlike Vince Flynn, it is intellectually serious. For better or worse, it presents a Liberal vision of the future--I find it disconcerting, but you may disagree. Either way, the book is well worth reading.

Note: Ray Rhamey is an excellent copy editor and cover designer. You can reach him through his website:

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Paul Krugman: Honorary Trotskyist

The incessant racket that my Trotskyist friends don't make on the federal deficit is driving me to distraction. The noise is almost as loud as one hand clapping--and that's precisely the problem. For apart from labeling the deficit as just another "contradiction" of capitalism (whatever the hell that is), they have absolutely nothing to say. Their silence is a problem.

So in lieu of an actual Trotskyist adversary, I hereby appoint Paul Krugman as the honorary Trotskyist of the day (an ill-fitting choice, to be sure), and respond to his recent essay. I have picked a difficult assignment, because I mostly agree with what Mr. Krugman writes. As with real Trotskyists, it's what he doesn't write that is the issue.

He says:
The budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem, by a long shot. Furthermore, it’s a problem that is already, to a large degree, solved. The medium-term budget outlook isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either — and the long-term outlook gets much more attention than it should.
That last sentence, especially, is absolutely correct, and puts paid to the arguments from some that we're putting our grandchildren in debt. Our grandchildren will have to solve their own problems (be they financial, climatic, environmental, or anything else)--thank you very much.

The long-term consequences of our deficit is not the issue. A hundred years out all our current debts will be forgotten. The principals will be 50 years deceased, their estates long since dissipated, and indeed, history will have moved on. Imagine Sears Roebuck trying to collect on accounts receivable from 1913--good luck with that. Like everything else, debts decay. The fact that our national debt will never be repaid is probably not an important issue.

The problem with debt is not the long-term consequence, but rather the short-term problem, and on this Mr. Krugman is simply mum. He dismisses the financial crisis as so much chin wagging. He has a point: it is a professional hazard of pundits to exaggerate all phenomena into "crises." Hence a category one hurricane morphs into "Superstorm Sandy," routine highway maintenance becomes an "infrastructure crisis," and any test result turns into an "education crisis." Trotskyists trot out so many crises that I think they have a crisis crisis. So I'm sympathetic to Mr. Krugman's financial downgrade.

Still, maybe our current financial problems do rise above the normal, or even above the new normal. How, for example, can the government borrow $1.2 trillion annually, but keep interest rates at near zero? Given that China is no longer able to lend us unlimited amounts of money, the Fed is reduced to printing money, i.e., paying off social security with little bits of colored green paper. 

And what about the rehypothecated debt--debt incurred using (uncollectable) accounts receivable as collateral? That's what really makes too big to fail to big to fail. If one bank goes down, then all the other hypothecated securities go down with it. Instead of the bankruptcy of a single bank, we're faced with the potential collapse of the entire financial system.

Finance is supposed to allocate capital to its most effective use. As long as that purpose is paramount, then there's nothing wrong with all the complex derivatives, algos, hedge funds, and other animals that I simply can't recognize in the wild. But our financial institutions have taken on a life of their own, and no longer serve the larger economy. In a word, they've failed at their true purpose. The reasons for this failure surely include government hijacking institutions to fund government, the Fed putting a thick finger on the scales in misguided efforts to save the system, technology enabling tools which consequences are poorly understood, and a whole bunch of completely misguided regulation. The result, in a word, is a crisis.

Now I'm very bullish on the long-term prospects for the American and world economies. Abundant energy, additive manufacturing, driverless cars, trucks, and airplanes, huge potential savings due to automation in medicine, education, and every other industry, means that my grandchildren (should I be so lucky) will be much richer than I am. I think Mr. Krugman agrees with me on that (not sure), but my Trotskyist friends definitely do not. They conflate "finance" with "capitalism," and assume that the collapse of one implies the collapse of the other. They're wrong.

But finance is important. The persistent misallocation of capital will make us poorer. The financial crisis--for that is what it is--will wipe out trillions of dollars in wealth and impoverish hundreds of millions around the world. I see no way around this,

On a personal note, Mr. Krugman let me know that our mutual friend, Wile E. Coyote, has finally got his life put back together. He's doing fine and looks to do better. Indeed, on his current trajectory his long-term prospects are excellent.

Until he looks down.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Proyect on the Economy

I intended to post an article about Louis Proyect's excellent website, The Unrepentant Marxist. Indeed, I had something all thought out and was going to start writing this morning. But Mr. Proyect can write circles around me--his productivity is really amazing--and his most recent post renders my plans and ideas obsolete.

I was, for example, going to claim that he rarely discusses the economy. I think that's true, but it certainly isn't true today. His most recent post is a fascinating piece entitled Is Growth Over? In it, he relates part of the conversation about the future of jobs, the economy, growth, and technology. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I have blogged about it before many times, including herehere and here. I have also published several articles elsewhere under my real name on the same issue.

Mr. Proyect comments on Paul Krugman's piece by the same title here, along with work by Robert Gordon (which I have not read). Equally relevant is the article in a recent Economist, here, along with Tyler Cowen's and Alex Tabarrok's work over at Marginal Revolution (my favorite econ blog). An excellent summary is given by Noah Smith, here.

Here is the problem in a nutshell (data from Wikipedia): Walmart, with 2.2 million employees, generates $15.7 billion in income. Google, with 54,000 employees earns $9.7 billion. In a word, Google produces an income roughly comparable to Walmart, but with only 2% of the payroll. Google is a capital-intensive company, while Walmart is a labor-intensive business. Krugman's thesis (and, by extension, Proyect's) is that capital will displace labor and there simply won't be anyplace for us shlubs to work.

On the surface this appears to be true. Lawyers have, indeed, been partially automated out of existence. College professors are not far behind--you can read hilarious wailing and gnashing of teeth here. Medical care is next--all those nurses, physician's assistants, and specialist doctors won't know what hit them. Of course we've seen it all before--just read Gregg Shotwell's description of the auto industry to find out what happens when machines steal your job. Lots of people get laid off, and wages go down, down, down.

It sounds terrible, awful, cataclysmic--indeed, downright Marxist. And it is bad, but for one thing. Prices will go down. College tuition, now averaging about $20K, won't cost more than $2,000. Health care, now 17% of our economy and growing disproportionately, has to get cheaper. Likewise for legal services and automobiles--they are cheaper and better. And Google gives most of its products away for free!

For workers, the trend toward capital is bad in the short term. For capitalists, the trend is bad in the long term, for reasons that Marxists understand better than most--they call it the declining rate of profit. I'd call it ever lower prices because of competition. But for consumers this news is unambiguously good. Better, cheaper, more abundant products improves our standard of living--what's there not to like?

So I am more sanguine than either Mr. Krugman or Mr. Proyect. Better, cheaper products that make us healthier, better educated, happier, and richer is a good thing. The problem will not be poverty, but instead the appropriate distribution of riches. That's a difficult problem, but nowhere near as bad as poverty.

Mr. Proyect mentions some things that seem to me to be just weird. He opposes globalization, an opinion he shares with economic know-nothings on both the Left and the Right. Already 250 years ago, Adam Smith pointed out that larger markets make for a richer people. A global market is bigger than any local market, and countries that are part of the global economy (e.g., USA, Singapore) are substantially richer than those that exclude themselves (e.g., North Korea, Venezuela). This law of economics is as established as any in the business, and I don't believe there are any real exceptions. Denying the virtue of globalization is rather like denying the Law of Evolution. So I'll stick to my thesis that Mr. Proyect is not particularly interested or knowledgeable about economics, today's article notwithstanding.

The second oddity is his affection for the Occupy Movement. To my mind, Occupy was completely incoherent and essentially apolitical. Predictably enough, it faded without leaving a trace. I have yet to read anything that convinces me that the Occupy Movement was of any consequence whatsoever.

These two blemishes notwithstanding, I think Mr. Proyect writes an excellent blog. I'll have more to say about it soon enough. I disagree with him on some issues, but I am strongly supportive of his overall project.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Homage to Kim Jong-un

The Militant includes a pathetic piece in the current issue that sympathizes with  North Korean prison camp Democratic People's Republic of Korea sadistic, psychopathic dictator General Secretary Kim Jong-un. I have little more to add to this that's not in my previous post, here.

I really have to wonder what kind of psychic bennies there are to associating with the most vile regime on earth. I mean, not even my former comrades can possibly believe that this society represents human progress. I really have no clue. It just seems to me to discredit the entire organization. 

Union Man

Gregg Shotwell missed his calling.

He should have been a newspaper reporter--like the kind you see in old movies, with the felt hat, pad and pencil in hand, banging on the doors of City Hall looking for corruption and incompetence. Mr. Shotwell, a man of courage, is an excellent writer. Instead, he got a job at the factory and worked building automobiles for thirty years. He founded an organization called Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS), a faction within the UAW. The Union is the cause to which Mr. Shotwell has devoted his professional life.

Mr. Shotwell writes an irregular column headed Live Bait & Ammo (LB&A). He's been writing these for years, though I don't know how many years. If there is one beef I have with him, it's that he doesn't date his columns. One can only guess when they were written.

One piece can be roughly dated to 2011, two and a half years after his retirement in 2008. LB&A #164 reads like a swan song. In it he recites his biography, enumerates the benefits of the union, and then describes how the union is failing today's workers. It is not often in this blog that I say "read the whole thing," (after all, I read The Militant so you don't have to), but now is one of those times. Gregg Shotwell's cri de coeur deserves a wide audience.

Here's the opening paragraph:
I've got it made. I’m sixty-one years old and I've been retired for two and a half years. I've got a pension, health insurance, and money in the bank. I own my own home. I’m debt free. I’m a fortunate man, but it wasn't luck or talent. I had a union.
And here is how today's workers have it:
I make more money in retirement than a new hire at General Motors.
I don’t know how they expect to make it.
They are not going to make it. They will never achieve economic security. The new generation of auto workers are not destined to enjoy the standard of living my generation took for granted. This is not a recession in the classic sense of the word, it’s a downscale restructuring. The state sponsored attack on collective bargaining is the final phase of the new New Deal.

Frankly, it is simply heartrending. Mr. Shotwell vividly describes how middle class workers are being reduced to poverty, and that nobody seems to care. His use of the phrase "downside restructuring" is apt, for that is exactly what it is. In the modern economy labor is devalued.

Republicans, especially, need to read this paragraph, which shows just how unhelpful Romney's comments about the 47% were.
When it comes to labor costs there is no bottom to the bottom line. We could work for free and the masters would complain about the cost of food, shelter, and clothing. When the mechanical cotton picker made labor obsolete in the South, workers were kicked off the land and accused of freeloading. It’s not enough for the owners to deprive workers of gainful employment, they must shame them in the bargain. We hear the same refrain today in legislatures where unemployment benefits are cut as free trade agreements make labor obsolete and skilled trades redundant. When capital rules the land, mercy is arbitrary and retribution is absolute.
So what is the cause of this sorry state of affairs? Here Mr. Shotwell and I part company. He has absorbed enough Marxist balderdash to assume that greedy capitalists, whose primary source of profit is to squeeze more from the workers, are to blame. And then there is the UAW President, Bob King, who in Mr. Shotwell's reading is a co-conspirator with the class enemy. Mr. King, rather than stand up for workers' rights, heads what is bitingly called the "concession caucus," i.e., that group that wants a contract with the manufacturers no matter what the cost to the rank and file.

But neither Mr. King nor the greedy capitalists are at fault for the plight of today's autoworkers. Instead, the culprit is none other than me. And you, too. We, the consumers, are the real villains of the case, for we inevitably buy the best products available at the lowest possible prices. I have no hard data, but I think cars have gotten cheaper over the decades--at least as a fraction of annual income.

And while I can't vouch for a lower price, I can say without a doubt that vehicles are vastly better than they were in 1979, when Mr. Shotwell got his first auto job. This is so obvious that I don't think I need to waste words making the case. The automobile industry over the past thirty years has substantially improved my standard of living.

So better cars at lower prices--is this bad? Not for you and me, but it is bad for autoworkers. They are now forced into a competition to be the lowest cost, highest quality producer. Failing that, they simply go out of business. Mr. King understands this. He may not like it any more than Mr. Shotwell does, but it is an inexorable truth of the laws of economics. There is simply no way that today's autoworkers can have the same standard of living for which Mr. Shotwell is so grateful.

Mr. Shotwell is not the only person in his predicament. I share his sense of undeserved entitlement. I'm a professor at a state college--tenured and not too far from retirement. I can't be fired or even laid off, especially since I'm the senior person in my department. I have "rights" accorded to me by the public employee union, including cushy working conditions, generous health care, a sweet pension, "academic freedom," a nice office with a beautiful view, and so on. All of this is at tuition and taxpayer expense, and little of it is deserved.

But just as the mechanical cotton picker pushed the sharecropper off the land, and just as the robot has eliminated a large fraction of factory employment, so also will automation displace college professors. I feel very sorry for my younger colleagues. They are chasing tenure as if it meant a 30-year career like mine. It means nothing of the sort, for they, too, are going to be rendered obsolete and will be tossed to the wayside like so many useless autoworkers.

Mr. Shotwell has no solutions for these problems. A stronger union will accomplish nothing. I confess I have no solutions, either, but somehow I'm more optimistic. That's probably why I'm a Republican.

Still, I like Gregg Shotwell. I wish him a long, happy, healthy, and pleasant retirement. And keep writing, sir. Please keep writing.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The SWP and the Second Amendment

The January 14th issue of The Militant includes an article by Louis Martin on the Newtown school massacre. It opens
The Dec. 14 killing of 26 elementary school students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., has sparked sharp debate among politicians and pundits from the left and right of bourgeois politics. But all the proposed “solutions,” from gun control to expansion of armed cops in the schools, share a common target—the rights of working people.
Now when The Militant accuses both sides of being "bourgeois," then one is usually entertained by radical-sounding bombast, followed by no position whatsoever. The paper's position on global warming fits into this mold--they really take no sides. It's not for nothing that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has earned the sobriquet abstentionist.

But this article is different. Not only does The Militant take a position, it has a view that puts it radically at odds with American society. They manage to both oppose second amendment rights and gun control at the same time. Therein lies the tale.

The key to understanding The Militant's position is to note that the quoted paragraph does not cover the waterfront in terms of "bourgeois" opinion. There is a third position held by many members of the NRA, and one which (with caveats) I share. That is, schools would be much safer if law-abiding citizens could carry guns. Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, knew that he'd be the only person on campus with a gun until the cops arrived. Since it took twenty minutes for the police to get there, he had plenty of time to methodically shoot students and teachers one at a time. He didn't need semi-automatic weapons or big magazines--twenty minutes is plenty of time to reload. The key to his success was that the school was a "gun-free zone," and he didn't have to worry about anybody shooting back. Take that certainty out of the equation (by giving citizens guns), then likely as not Mr. Lanza would not have chosen that school as his target.

Posting an armed guard at the school helps a little bit. But Mr. Lanza would know who the guard was and could take him out fairly easily. It complicates his planning somewhat, but not by much. On the other hand, if some group of random citizens are armed, first he doesn't know who or where they are, nor can he predict how they'll respond. He cannot plan for that situation, and he being a meticulous planner, wouldn't have gone there in the first place. (Now I am sympathetic to some of the counter arguments, e.g., teachers carrying guns in classrooms full of 12-year-olds may not be a good idea. But this takes us off-topic.)

Declaring a "gun-free zone" is tantamount to putting a big target on a facility. It is really stupid public policy.

So The Militant simply ignores this third, "bourgeois" opinion. To see why, it is useful to quote the Second Amendment in full:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Now I'm neither a lawyer nor a historian, but I think I understand how this has been interpreted by the courts. The first clause--about a well-regulated militia--grants the state a monopoly on violence. That is, private armies and militias are not allowed in the United States. Neither are armed vigilante groups. Further, under the first clause, there are limitations on what weapons citizens can own. They can't have howitzers, or tanks, or automatic weapons.

The second clause grants an important exception to the state monopoly on violence, namely that citizens have a right to defend themselves, their property, and innocent people around them. Now this right is carefully circumscribed, and varies considerably depending on location and situation. Far be it for me to describe it in full. But for the current discussion we can put it this way: Citizens have a right to defend themselves until the police arrive.

When seconds count, the police are only minutes away. In Newtown, the police were twenty minutes away. During that time, supposedly free citizens were denied their constitutional right to defend themselves. I do not suggest that anybody should be allowed to carry weapons into a school. But if not teachers, surely there is a janitor, or an assistant principal, or a secretary, or a cafeteria worker--and preferably several of these--who are willing to take some responsibility for the safety of their pupils and coworkers.

The Militant opposes both clauses of the second amendment. They are clear about their opposition to the state monopoly on violence, and they actively advocate private militias. The article says,
The Second Amendment is among the constitutional protections that working people wielded as part of the mass proletarian fight for Black rights in the 1960s. Groups like the Deacons for Defense and Justice and Robert Williams’ NAACP chapter in Monroe, N.C., maintained their right to bear arms and used them to stay the hand of racist thugs and cops, protect social protest actions and Black communities and prevent bloodshed.
This paragraph completely misinterprets the amendment. Of course The Militant only supports some vigilantes. The next paragraph begins "At the same time, the working-class movement has nothing in common with the gun-rights politics of rightist militia outfits or with vigilante “justice” and so-called Stand Your Ground laws that promote them." So the paper is inconsistent: they only support goons on their side of the argument.

Indeed, the article's argument against Stand Your Ground laws indicates that the SWP opposes the second clause of the amendment as well. From The Militant's perspective, "gun-rights" means only that certain vigilante groups which the SWP happens to support should be allowed to carry guns. Everybody else should let themselves be lined up and shot as class enemies.

This, of course, is Brown Shirt politics. Or rather, Red Guard politics. It doesn't matter--the only difference is the color preference.

Were the SWP a significant organization this would be scary. Fortunately they're inconsequential, so I can still be friends with them. But it is important to call them out on what they really believe. They oppose the second amendment. They oppose the rule of law. And they support Redshirt violence in support of their cause.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Wooly Cults

I received a nice note from Dennis Tourish, currently a professor of leadership & organisation studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. Like me, he’s an academic and former Trotskyist--in his case a member of the Communist Workers International (CWI) in Northern Ireland. He has extensively studied Trotskyist cults and has sent me a lot of information. The piece I read was his article about the CWI, here. (The article is not dated, neither the version he sent me nor the one linked. I don’t know when it was written.)

I am pleased to say, based on Dennis’ paper, that none of the grouplets I follow are cults. I’m perfectly happy to take Socialist Action at their word--they claim to be a political organization, and I think that’s exactly what they are. Socialist Viewpoint, as best I can tell, is a group of people who want to publish their own newspaper. And the folks in the Socialist Workers Party, many of whom I know well, are not mentally ill or stupid. I stand by my previous characterization of the SWP as being a social club with a mission--rather like a church.

If these organizations were cults I wouldn’t be writing this blog. I’m interested in political conversation--something one can’t have with a bunch of fruitcakes. Dismissing somebody as a “cult” is to not take them seriously.

Dennis is also co-author with a certain Tim Wohlforth of a book entitled On The Edge, about political cults.

Wohlforth...? That’s a blast from the past--a name that hasn’t crossed my mind in decades. I associated Tim Wohlforth with the Workers’ League, an organization we considered to be “ultraleft,” i.e., unwilling to make even tactical compromises. We called them the “Woolies,” derived from Mr. Wohlforth’s name. I had rather little contact with the Woolies, so I can’t say much about them.

After I left the Movement, I read that the Woolies claimed the SWP was somehow in cahoots with the CIA. I’m sorry--I don’t remember the details and it’s not worth researching. Suffice it to say that this was one of the kookiest conspiracy theories of all time--right up there with the UN flying around in black helicopters. What I gather from Dennis’ account is that the CWI was in some way related to the Woolies. And a group that can come up with such a prize-winning conspiracy theory may, indeed, be a cult.

Now I accuse my Trotskyist friends of believing in conspiracy theories all the time. Indeed, I think Marxism is just one, big conspiracy theory. So if holding to a conspiracy theory defines a cult, then of course not only are all Trotskyists cultists, but so is much of the Democratic Party. But there are conspiracy theories, and then there are conspiracy theories. The former are untruths that are very easy for people to believe, e.g., “I’m poor because the rich people have all the money.” People, including the grouplets I follow, simply don’t realize that it’s a conspiracy theory.

The other conspiracy theory involves some Mission Impossible scenario, e.g., George Bush destroying the World Trade Center. Mysteriously, none of the thousands of people who needed to be in on the scheme have squealed yet. These theories border on the schizophrenic, i.e., can be symptomatic of a cult. So who knows--maybe the Woolies were a cult?

While I had little interaction with the Woolies, I more often encountered members of the Spartacist League--we called them Sparts. The Sparts were a sectarian split-off from the Woolies (who, in turn, had split from the SWP--we’re talking Trotsky’s great-grandchildren here, or maybe second cousins twice removed). I recall two facts about the Sparts.

First, I think they were all men. If they had any female members, I never met her.

Second, they were nuts. My most vivid memory is when we had set up a literature table on some campus somewhere. We were soon accosted by a Spart who spent the rest of the day haranguing us. The point may have been simply to disrupt our literature table (he was somewhat successful), but I think he also wanted to convert us. His arguments made no sense--I wouldn’t exactly say that he was schizophrenic, but he surely wasn’t entirely rational.

For all I know, the Sparts were a cult. Lord knows why one would want to run a cult with that kind of membership and that program. Nobody--I mean nobody--ever bought their newspaper or wanted to listen to them. No money or glory to be had in that crowd.

Anyway, this is my last post about cults. Case Dismissed.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The International Report

Full disclosure: I am petty-bourgeois from the roots of my hair to the tips of my toes. Sorry. I was just born that way.

So it is impossible for me to do full justice to the article entitled Revolutionary Socialist Politics, Part 2, recently published in Socialist Action (SA). This article is part of a series reproducing the documents approved at SA’s August National Convention. For brevity I’ll refer to this part as the “International Report,” since that seems to accurately describe it. (I commented on Part 1 here.)

My muddled, middle-class brain, stuffed full of bourgeois values, is incapable of comprehending the majestic, proletarian beauty of this document. Nor can I follow the grand sweep of history therein described, nor likewise, the subtle strands of solidarity, the class-conscious arguments, or the seemingly telepathic attribution of motives. Instead, the best I can do is invoke those meager powers endowed to me by bourgeois education: logic, fact, and reasonable inference. With that, I’ll do the best I can for you.

From my blinkered perspective, it all reads like a giant conspiracy theory. We learn, for example, that

Today we are witness to a new world armaments race, with every major power striving to increase its military arsenal. This clearly indicates the desperate need of all capitalist nations to protect, expand, and develop new markets by force, when necessary. The U.S.-led NATO war against Libya served as a perfect example, when the U.S., England, France, and Italy jockeyed for position regarding whose military forces would predominate in the destruction of that nation and which would secure the largest percentage of the oil booty.

In one paragraph, we read that capitalist nations want to simultaneously develop new markets, destroy Libya, and secure the oil booty. One can’t develop new markets in a destroyed country deprived of revenue. Further, nowhere have I read that the American goal was to destroy Libya, or even to steal the oil. The oil has been on the world market for decades. And I am not aware of any major push by the likes of Google or Walmart to tap into the newly-opened, wealthy, Libyan market.

But the biggest whopper is the notion that the US’s enemy was not Gadhafi after all, but rather our so-called allies, England, France, and Italy. Who knew? It surely requires some bodacious feat of proletarian telepathy to draw that conclusion, because there is no material evidence. Instead, the true motivation for American and European involvement in Libya is precisely the reasons stated in the media: revenge for the Lockerbie bombing, Gadhafi was a total crackpot and shouldn’t be running a state, and the Libyan people surely deserve better than being brutalized by a megalomaniac psychopath. No conspiracy theory required. Why is this so hard?

The central theme of the document is that the US acts in its own best interest--or more specifically, the interests of its capitalist class. This is trivially true. But SA goes further and says that renders any claim to humanitarian principles both false and hypocritical. For SA, it is impossible for the US government to be both self-interested and humane at the same time.

The article cites an excellent example of where US self-interest and human progress coincide. They write

The U.S.-backed Philippines’ confrontations with China in the [South] China Sea is another major example of imperialist rivalry, wherein naval maneuvers are aimed at securing access to unpopulated and disputed islands that are known to be rich in fisheries as well as oil deposits.

Let’s consider the interests of the three countries. For the Philippines, the disputed islands are off the coasts of Luzon and Palawan, and lie partly within the country’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone. For the Philippines, the economic benefits of the islands--oil and fisheries--may be important. The country has a legitimate and long-standing claim to this area.

China is laying claim to the region circumscribed by the nine-dashed line, which includes most of the South China Sea, and infringes on claims made by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam.

The United States has no dog in the territorial dispute, but we adamantly oppose the nine-dashed line claim on a larger principle. The US is a seafaring nation, dependent on the ocean for trade. Accordingly, we have the largest navy in the world. For a country like the United States, the principle of international waterways is crucial, and maintaining the freedom of the seas is essential to our national security and autonomy.

The US abides by international waters even when it goes against its narrow self interest. The Panama Canal, for example, is wide open to world shipping, including military vessels. The US is almost as adamant as the Russians that the Bosporus remain an international seaway. And likewise the US defends free passage through the Skaggerat, the Strait of Molucca, the Strait of Hormuz, etc.

Americans fear that China will declare the South China Sea as Chinese territorial waters, and thus regulate shipping in that area. This is anathema to the US, as it is to all the other littoral countries. The issue is our vital national interest, and if China pursues its claim beyond a certain point, it is casus belli.

While freedom of the seas is a vital, US interest, it is also in the interest of practically every other human being. Almost nobody--not even Chinese--will benefit from the legalization of piracy in the South China Sea. The only beneficiaries would be some Chinese politicians and naval officers who reap the rewards of theft. Everybody else will be made poorer by this.

So siding with the Philippines benefits the Philippines, to be sure. It serves a vital US interest, which is why we’re doing it. But it is also a profoundly humanitarian act. SA is wrong when it says the United States can’t act in the interests of humanity.

SA’s politics remind me of a hoary Russian joke: Two peasants are neighbors. The richer one has a cow, and the poorer one does not. One night a genie appears in the hut of the poor peasant and says “I will grant you one wish. Anything you want. What is your desire?” And the poor peasant replies “I wish for the death of my neighbor’s cow.”

And so it is with Socialist Action. Everything is zero-sum. Nothing can benefit both US capitalists and Filipino fishermen at the same time. Anything a capitalist wants, no matter how reasonable, has to be to the cost of everybody else. The sole sum of socialist politics is to wish for the death of their neighbor’s cow.

Happy New Year! I wish friends, readers, and comrades all the best for 2013.