A Head Full of Ghosts

Derived Absurdity
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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #50

Postby Derived Absurdity » Thu Aug 29, 2019 3:27 am

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Steve Fraser) - The title purports to answer a question I've been wondering for half my life, namely: why the fuck is everyone just okay with the fact that all our lives are actively being ruined by an openly malevolent and criminal plutocracy? Where are the mass demonstrations, the radical organizations, the violent protests, anything at all? Any tiny hint of class consciousness, any sign whatsoever that people are angry that their quality of life is being annihilated in front of their eyes by a tiny cabal of morally empty ruling class sociopaths? Or if you want to take a more dispassionate structural view, through a less individualized lens, the picture is still the same: the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, wages are stagnating or declining, life expectancy is going down, rents are going up, student loans are going up, everything is getting more expensive, working hours are either staying the same or lengthening, job security is worsening, unions have disappeared, suicide and drug abuse are rising, gun violence is rising, loneliness is rising because our social lives are becoming more atomized, the police are state-sanctioned thugs who murder people in the streets for giving them attitude, climate change is barreling down on us, five companies own our media, one evil megacorp owns all our entertainment, the general structure of our society is getting more predatory and exploitative and cruel, and everything is getting worse. Ever since the seventies everything has been on a downward trend. Why is the American public just taking all this? Not only are we not doing anything, there's little sign that many people even want to do anything. We elected Donald Trump and next we're going to elect Joe Biden. A billionaire child rapist just got nerfed in a high-security prison cell right before he was going to rat out members of the ruling class for raping children, and we all talked about it for like two days, and that was it? Revolution, to put it mildly, is not exactly in the air. What happened, did we just give up?

In the thirties and forties there was mass revolutionary consciousness everywhere. Unions, communist and socialist parties, wildcat strikes, go down the list. The rich ruined everybody's lives, and people were rightly pissed off about it, and they actually tried to do something about it. FDR had to almost break the capitalist class in half just to get people to calm down. Before that, in the late 1800s during the time of the robber barons, there was the same thing. Strikes and riots. The Knights of Labor. The Pullman strike. The Populist Movement. Massive nationally recognized organizations calling for workers to own the means of production and the end of wage labor. Now the only recent flashpoints have been the rise and immediate fizzling out of Occupy Wall Street and the campaign of Bernie Sanders. That's it. We live in a second Gilded Age, very similar to the first one, with one crucial difference: people were actually angry during the first one. So why aren't they now?

This book takes a stab at answering. It actually offers several speculative hypotheses, but none of them are really persuasive. The first, most compelling one, is that the first Gilded Age happened when industrial capitalism and mass wage slavery were still scary and new, and very wrenching and disruptive to traditional ways of life. Production was then largely an agrarian and household affair, not organized by industrialists and oil barons and whatnot for private profit. Financialization also expanded to put small farmers in debt to distant unseen bankers during industrial capitalism's violent gestation period. So there was a fairly brand-new problem with fairly brand-new and clear villains. Now we have more than a century of industrial capitalism at our backs and it's not scary anymore. Our new Gilded Age isn't particularly wrenching or disruptive, just kind of slowly and imperceptibly corrosive in a frog-in-a-boiling-pot sort of way. Our way of lives aren't radically changing, just getting worse, so our resistance is slower. The second one is that we don't even know, precisely, who the ruling class even is anymore, which I find amusingly stupid, but might have a grain of truth. In the last few decades we've been misled by everyone from tech-bro entrepreneurs to high-rising celebrity criminal investment bankers marketing themselves as anti-establishment rebels to right-wing populists to finger the "ruling class" as mid-level government bureaucrats sticking their noses where they don't belong and cosmopolitan "limousine liberals" rather than billionaires and Wall Street moguls and defense contractors, and the shift from capitalism from a largely industrial mode to a largely financialized mode, which makes it a bit more opaque and ephemeral, has made outlining the problems more difficult and the villains less clear-cut. The third explanation is that we've all been pacified by unprecedented material abundance, which doesn't really work since the first Gilded Age was marked by unprecedented material abundance as well. In fact that was kind of the point of the era - material prosperity for many coupled with radically unjust and severely predatory hierarchies in wealth and power. There are some other points he touches on - the demoralizing effect of the death of the labor movement, how languishing in debt has allowed people to keep up the pretensions of living a middle class lifestyle for decades, how neoliberalism has slowly strangled our collective imagination so that we can't conceive of a world structurally different from this one, and above all how the massive rise in consumerism has kept up the illusion of freedom and dignity among Americans by giving them a dizzying smorgasbord of meaningless choices and material goods, with the ruling class even managing to tie the American Dream to it, and so on - but those are the basic three as far as I can tell.

I don't know, maybe that is the big answer. Doesn't seem enough to me, but I might be expecting too much. After all, humans have been remarkably pliant to coercive and self-evidently unjust structures of authority for a long time, long before capitalism. People are okay with being subjugated as long as they think there are other people who are being subjugated worse, or if they get to entertain fantasies of themselves doing the subjugating someday. It's more emotionally compelling to have one grand unifying explanation than a bunch of small disparate ones that add up, but less realistic, so I'll take it.

About the book itself, it's fine. Nothing you haven't really heard. Like none of these explanations you can't work out yourself. It's basically a whistlestop tour of American history, an engaging and passionate mix of historical analysis with polemic in the same manner as Howard Zinn or Chris Hedges or Chomsky. He weaves through different focal points, applying varying degrees of analytical heft to each, attempting to connect them in multiple ways, writing passionately, but extremely overwroughtly. Not sure I would recommend it. It's really really fucking long and only intermittently incisive. It's engaging, but incredibly overwritten and stuffed with unnecessarily fancy vocabulary; very dense in history and information if not ideas or insights, and it doesn't attempt to answer the subtitle until the last two chapters.

Derived Absurdity
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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #51

Postby Derived Absurdity » Thu Aug 29, 2019 2:56 pm

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (David Graeber) - based on this infamous essay, which I recommend if you haven't read it: https://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;. Argues that many jobs are completely pointless and psychologically destructive. Makes several interesting points. One is that in recent decades these jobs have mostly proliferated and expanded among the upper middle class, whereas the working class mostly still have jobs that are actually useful and productive. They're shitty, and terrible, and miserable, but they're actually contributing to society, for the most part, while the most prototypical bullshit jobs, the ones that don't need to exist and which wouldn't affect the world negatively if they just disappeared, are things like corporate lawyers, private equity CEOs, hedge fund managers, actuaries, telemarketers, ad execs, and so on. The upper crust. The working class can get by with the knowledge that they're being productive if nothing else, while the upper middle class, even though they have more material comforts and social prestige, often feel like shit because they know deep down that what they do is pointless and worthless. This leads to the weird result that the usefulness of your job is inversely correlated with how well-respected it is (and you are) and how well-paid it is. In our fucked up society, statistically the more obviously and self-evidently useful your job is, the shittier it is, the less respect you get for doing it, and the less it pays, but if you're one who has to twist yourself into knots to explain what you actually do and why it matters, you're likely to be well-compensated for it. The few vivid exceptions just prove the rule. This makes the upper middle class act all guilty and defensive and double down on their derision for the working class to make them feel better about themselves.

Another point is that on paper the exact opposite of all this is supposed to be happening. You would think a capitalist enterprise wouldn't want to waste money on employing a bunch of people who just take up air. Capitalism is supposed to be all about ruthless efficiency and cost-cutting. But that is indeed what happened, and what is happening. Your average office has people who only get about two to three hours of work done in any given day. The health and education sectors in particular are currently ballooning with administrators who mostly just man desks all day long and fill out insurance forms and schedule meetings and walk around pretending to be busy. This is obviously an unbelievably colossal waste of resources, but it probably helps the egos of the super-rich to have more people working under them than the other guy does, and social climbing is much more ancient and fundamental to human nature than ruthlessly efficient cost-cutting. This wasn't supposed to be this way, obviously - we were all supposed to be working only three hours a day by now, but the darkly hilarious thing about it is that in reality we actually mostly are, just not officially. We're getting the worst of both worlds here. We're only productive for about a dozen hours a week, but instead of the rest of our time being devoted to leisure like it was supposed to be, it's devoted to a kind of living hell of meaningless pointless worthless make-work under a tyrannical unaccountable dictatorship. It's amazing how much modern corporate capitalism looks like all the caricatures of Soviet command communism we were all supposed to be terrified of - the stifling and demoralizing bureaucracy, the unaccountable hierarchies, the pointless make-work, the unbelievable waste and inefficiencies. We all live in a communist dystopia, and people are just too stupid to notice.

The third point is that this is profoundly horrific to the human soul. A few surveys suggest that something like 40% of people think their jobs might qualify as bullshit. That really is deeply nightmarish if you actually sit down and think about it. The one thing humans are really supposed to be good at is creating meaning out of things. Psychologists say our biggest fundamental skill is detecting patterns, which is just another way of saying we create meaning. And yet almost half of us can't apply this basic innate skill to our fucking jobs? That thing you earn a living from? That thing you spend forty hours a week doing? That thing which is supposed to validate you as a person and give you worth, according to society? Almost half of us can't manage to spin a story even to ourselves that they're useful or meaningful? That's extremely fucking bleak, folks.

The book itself mostly functions to informally categorize the bullshit jobs the essay outlined. There's the flunkies, jobs that only exist to make someone else feel good; the goons, who just push other people around on their employers' behalf, a kind of second-order bullshit job which performs a useful function for industries that shouldn't exist; the duct-tapers, who fix problems that should never have come up; the box-tickers, who use paperwork to pretend that a company is doing something it's not; and the taskmasters, who give people work they don't need or supervise people who don't need supervision. Then there's basically a bunch of anecdotes to hammer the point home. At the end he anemically advocates, predictably, a universal basic income, which doesn't seem proportionate to the magnitude of the problem. It doesn't seem to me like anything less than a complete and totalizing overthrow of the entire system would even begin to do anything to ameliorate this problem. But then I would say that, wouldn't I? It was good.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #52

Postby Derived Absurdity » Sat Sep 14, 2019 8:34 am

Utopia for Realists (Rutger Bregman) - this is the book by that Dutch guy who got famous a few months ago for berating a bunch of billionaires at Davos for not paying taxes and who called out Tucker Carlson a short while later for being a phony populist. Its big idea is that the left's major problem is that it lacks ideas and vision, and so it lays out three - a universal basic income, a fifteen-hour work week, and open borders. It's a very short, almost pamphlet-like book, at least compared to what I've been reading, and only covers these ideas broadly, so nothing new for me. You won't be surprised that I liked the fifteen-hour work week part best. It does a nice job of presenting these ideas, I guess. For being a "radical" book, there's nothing here that's very subversive or antagonistic to the powers-that-be; Silicon Valley plutocrats, for example, are famously open to the ideas of both basic income and open borders, not for the right reasons, and they'd probably be tolerant of a shortened workweek too. This book has no mention of anything approaching class conflict or power or structural violence or imperialism or anything of the sort; it seems you have to eschew those types of things to be acceptable to the Vox and NPR crowd. A radical the corporate media can like. Marxists can say stuff exactly like this, only they would probably mention class and structural violence and so probably wouldn't be granted interviews on The Daily Show and the BBC. But if it opens up some peoples' minds I guess it's not bad.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #53

Postby Derived Absurdity » Tue Nov 05, 2019 9:14 pm

The People's Republic of Walmart: How the World's Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism (Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski) -

When people say "socialism doesn't work", what they usually mean is "large-scale top-down economic planning doesn't work". One of the biggest takeaways from the twentieth century is supposed to be that markets are much more efficient at allocating resources than planning could ever be. And yet one very obvious but never acknowledged fact is that there are many examples today of large-scale, country-wide economic planning of the Soviet type working exceptionally well, better than almost anyone could have foreseen - namely, those exemplars of corporate capitalism, Walmart and Amazon, who undergo economic planning on an absolutely massive scale to unprecedented, extraordinary success. Walmart by itself is the 38th largest economy in the world and is pulling in more than the Soviet Union did at its height in the early 70s, all with absolutely no internal markets, and in fact precisely because it was a pioneer in adopting efficient supply chain management through internal cooperation rather than competition. The book takes a detailed look at the inner workings of Walmart, and it shows that it does pretty much exactly what socialism's critics have, for over a hundred years now, been saying can't be done - everything, from the manufacturers to the suppliers to the distributors to the retailers, is coordinated and organized with extreme precision from the top down. It's a planned economy in all but name. The US Department of Defense is also the single largest employer in the world, and conservatives would be reluctant to disagree that it's pretty good at what it does, despite it being a centrally planned non-market public sector operation, and the People's Liberation Army is second, which also seems to be working fine. (Britain's NHS is fourth, also a publicly planned service, and it routinely outpolls every other institution in popularity, including the monarchy.)

You can contrast Walmart with Sears, which destroyed itself a few years ago due to its libertarian CEO's decision to disaggregate its different divisions into competing units, or create an internal market. Apparels, appliances, human resources, IT, branding, and everything else were to work as autonomous businesses, with their own board of directors and statements of profit and everything. It was complete chaos, it seems, "dysfunctionality at the highest level", and resulted in Sears losing half its value in a few years. Turns out there's a reason pretty much all firms operate by planning and top-down coordination rather than anarchic market competition. In fact, planning takes up the vast bulk of capitalism: the volume of transactions that takes place within firms, the interlocking nodes of capitalism, is as great or greater than the volume carried out between them. The problem is that, as traditional economists have been steadfastly ignoring and socialists have been pointing out for literal centuries, is that this planning is authoritarian and coercive, with firms operating as little "islands of tyranny", in Chomsky's words, even and especially concerning the labor market, the only "market" that could be said to take place within them. The "theory of the firm" is the open question in economics that asks, if the free market is so great, why are all of its most central nodes resolutely organized as non-market? But the better question is the other way around: if top-down planning is so great, and it takes up the bulk of our system anyway, why even bother with markets.

Amazon in particular is a good rejoinder to the idea that socialism/planning can't provide consumer goods. I'm pretty sure it can. There's a lot of planning that goes into the operation of Amazon. Of course, it still distributes its good partly via the market/price signaling, but it's easy to imagine a scenario wherein that particular part of it could work similarly to, for example, an online public library catalogue, which can theoretically build data-heavy models of consumer interests and demands and recommendations just like Amazon without any price mechanism. Prices are not an indispensable part of Amazon's functioning.

As for the market being the only source of investment and innovation, as libertarian true believers seem to somehow think, most innovation is already driven by the public sector. The public sector, and primarily the Pentagon, has been responsible for the Internet, Google's search engine algorithm, the iPhone, computers, jet aircraft, nuclear energy, lasers, much of modern biotechnology, and roughly two-thirds of the groundbreaking "new molecular entity" drugs discovered in the past decade. What's more, the state has a history of overseeing economic planning when it feels it necessary, particularly during World War 2, when it oversaw everything from fixing production quotas to resource distribution and price setting, and it was directly responsible for the invention of both the atomic bomb and the first antibiotic, penicillin. It seems that when shit starts getting real, the government all of a sudden doesn't feel the private sector is up to the task.

As for the Soviet Union, it's not a very good example of economic planning, partly because it didn't really start out with a comprehensive blueprint in the first place, but mostly because Stalinism basically distorted it out of all reason. The lesson to take from the USSR is not that planning doesn't work, but planning with arbitrary nonsensical coercive authority structures, radically incompetent and pointlessly brutal leadership, all management petrified of doing anything innovative or taking responsibility for anything for fear of being gulaged, lack of honest communication for fear of sending accurate-yet-unwanted information and (again) being gulaged, and above all, all the specialists and experts necessary to run a country mass murdered, doesn't work. Just to take one example, the government sent volunteers to the peasants' villages during collectivization to encourage them to increase productivity, but when they (the volunteers) realized that the procurement quotas needed to be immediately reduced, they were condemned as "saboteurs" and mostly gulaged. Also it's pretty hard to switch from agrarian feudalism straight to communism with no actual plan or blueprint even without Stalinist stupidity, which is why it probably shouldn't be tried.

So large-scale planning works. It works, empirically, despite the century-old arguments from von Mises and Hayek that it, in theory, shouldn't. It's a reversion of the cliche - socialism, clearly, works in practice, even though it shouldn't in theory. The problem is that, right now, it only works for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, as opposed to actual socialist planning that should work for everyone. Amazon, Walmart, and the Pentagon are, to put it lightly, not very socialist or democratic, so we should put a bit of a spin on the historical MO of Marxists and seize the means of large-scale planning from the Waltons and Bezoses of the world and democratize them so that they can be be used for the benefit of the many and not for the few. Exactly how this is to be done, the book doesn't say. But unlike socialist revolutionaries of the early twentieth century, we don't need to invent a country-wide planning system from scratch - we have plenty already here just waiting to be seized and repurposed.

It was good. The book was good. It successfully made its case that large-scale planning, empirically, can work. 21st-century socialism can work. All the shit for it is already available. We just need to make use of it. My only minor gripe with the book is that, despite its title, it doesn't talk about China very much, with its weird form of top-down market socialism. You know, a country ruled by a one-party state with the vast bulk of its economy planned that managed to pull like a billion people out of poverty in thirty years might deserve a mention in a book like this. Like, maybe even just a footnote. But I guess not. Kind of a weird little gap.


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