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May 25, 2010

My two (dialectical) bits on the Rand Paul thing

Filed under: Philosophy,State,U.S.A — rmangum @ 7:48 pm

As you probably know, Rachel Maddow recently grilled Rand Paul on whether he would have supported the 1964 Civil Rights act, and whether a strict enforcement of property rights would lead to a segregated society. You can read a transcript, along with a defense of Paul here. Of course an anarchist cannot agree that only federal legislation can stop racism, but I want to critique the defenses of Rand that have been offered by some libertarians as well. First of all, Paul’s responses were not at all straightforward, but incredibly evasive. Other defenses have taken the following form: “Segregation and discrimination were the fault of Jim Crow laws, which come from government, and not private business, which have a natural economic incentive not to discriminate.” There is some truth to this, but it is limited and fails to see the whole picture. Of course Jim Crow laws made things much worse, but laws do not come from nowhere. Laws which have no broad popular support do not last long, and often cannot be passed at all. And while the profit motive does indeed offer an incentive against discrimination, since black or gay money spends as well as any other kind, we know also that human beings are more than homo economicus, or what Dierdre McCloskey has named “Max U”, a kind of rationally self-interested calculating machine. In other words, culturally-inculcated prejudice is often more than enough to overcome economic self-interest. Anxious to exonerate markets and property, libertarians who make these arguments are also letting the racist culture of the South off the hook. (This is not to say that the North was not also racist in its own way.)

I’ve been reading Chris Matthew Sciabarra‘s “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy. I just finished Marx, Hayek and Utopia, and am now a good ways into Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. While I’m not fully convinced by Sciabarra’s arguments, I am finding that taking a dialectical view can often be illuminating, and Rand Paul’s gaffe is a case in point. Sciabarra sees “internal relations” as fundamental to dialectics. In social systems, all parts are related to each other in essential ways. Remove any part, and you effect the whole. In contrast, “external relations” view at least things as being independent of each other. The libertarian defenses I mentioned before view culture and government as being externally related, so that all things bad can be ascribed to government. Here’s the crux of these kind of debates: liberals and libertarians fundamentally agree on this externalist view of the state, only with opposite value-judgments about government intervention. Here’s an excerpt from the Maddow interview:

MADDOW: But it could be brought up at any moment. I mean, if there – – let’s say there’s a town right now and the owner of the town’s swimming club says we’re not going to allow black kids at our pool, and the owner of the bowling alley in town says, we’re not actually going to allow black patrons, and the owner of the skating rink in town says, we’re not going to allow black people to skate here.

And you may think that’s abhorrent and you may think that’s bad business. But unless it’s illegal, there’s nothing to stop that — there’s nothing under your world view to stop the country from re-segregating like we were before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 —

PAUL: Right.

Unacknowledged Legislators

Right? Let’s just repeat what Maddow is saying, and Paul is agreeing to: without federal legislation, there is “nothing.” Nothing. So, no boycotts, no marches, no protests? Since the legislators who passed the bill were not black, we can assume that blacks were really helpless. Either white oppressors or white saviors. Now you can see why blacks on the radical left in the 1960’s like Malcom X and the Black Panthers had nothing but contempt for white liberals.

The reality is that the impact of the Civil Rights act was positive, though not quite positive enough to counteract the evil done by Jim Crow. But it was itself the result of a social movement involving heroic actions taken by individuals acting in solidarity to raise consciousness and fight oppression. And the enforcement of Jim Crow was legal oppression, but it too was the result of social forces, enabled by the fact that a majority of southern whites viewed segregation as desirable.

Government is evil, but it is not the root of all evil, merely the apotheosis of evil, the codification of evil. And there is plenty in a worldview that rejects government to fight bigotry, as virtually the whole history of the civil rights movement demonstrates: boycotts, strikes, peaceful demonstration, acts of solidarity in the face of intimidation, and yes, even market forces.

The view that social change springs fully formed out of the head of government legislation, with lawmakers observing and adjusting from some Archimedean point outside society, is ahistorical, undialectical, and condescending to the groups it proposes to help. Furthermore, once this view gains hold, it has an insidiously self-fulfilling effect. Groups who before were able to spontaneously organize to fight for freedom and equality, and become ennobled by the struggle, (“I am somebody” as a young Jesse Jackson once told a crowd in Watts) are now encouraged to seek help only from government, settling into a mediated client-patron relationship which is something like an extremely attenuated form of a master-slave relationship (and dialectics enters the picture once more).

Too many libertarians seem to think that because we view the state as on balance evil, we can never admit that it does any good, as if that would be to admit it is the only way of doing good. That is of course statist nonsense on stilts.


Theory and History

Filed under: Economics,Philosophy — rmangum @ 6:03 pm
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For whatever they’re worth, here are two completely unrelated comments I’ve made  recently. The first is from Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History forum:

Amor Patriae

I agree with some of the other comments that Dan failed to define what he meant by “toughness.” Is it callousness? bravery? some combination of the two? I can see how it takes toughness to be a soldier on a battlefield, or to volunteer to be one. I can also see how it takes an amoral psychopath to do the same. But I cannot see how it takes toughness to follow orders and kill people (hundreds of thousands at a time in the case of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings Dan discusses), or to give such orders. On the contrary, in a culture which demands such things, it takes bravery to refuse. The deserter may be a coward, but he may braver in a way, no? Most people do not have the courage to go AWOL or burn their draft card.

And contra the notion that we have not the willingness to do what is necessary the way our “greatest generation” grandfathers did, I find no shortage of Americans who (rather flippantly) would love to bomb the whole middle east (minus Israel, of course) into oblivion.The question is, are they “tough” or psychotic? Or perhaps both? And can technological civilization afford such attitudes?

Finally, while I think Dan’s notion of “toughness” is confused, he discusses the concept in a laudably value-free manner.

Second, a comment on a recent EconTalk podcast about the lamentable state of current econometrics:

I’ve been listening to EconTalk for more than a year now, and I’ve heard you become increasingly skeptical about empirical work in economics, leading you to proclaim that “economics is not a science.” The implicit assumption is that only natural sciences like physics, which work by inducting general laws from empirical data. As far as I know this is a very modern, 20th-century view of science, where social sciences such as economics (formerly “political economy”) suffer from “physics envy.” The older view of science denoted any systematic investigation of phenomena.

Not the way to learn about humans.

Thanks for the great work, and I look forward to more fascinating shows in the future.

May 23, 2010

A Song for Sunday #46

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 10:54 pm

Last night I saw the Ian Curtis biopic Control. I’d say it’s above average as far as those films go. But it did inspire me to revisit the music of the unique post-punk band Joy Division. This week’s song is No Love Lost, from their first album, 1978’s An Ideal for Living. In this period the band had an aggressive sound that could still be categorized as punk, though tracks such as this bear the seed of the more spacious and bleak style they would later adopt.

Joy Division took their name from the forced prostitution wing of Nazi concentration camps which were alleged to exist in the controversial 1955 book The House of Dolls. The book’s author, Yehiel Feiner, was a holocaust survivor who wrote under the pen name Ka-Tzetnik 135633 (meaning “Concentration-Camper”), and his writing is variously viewed as novelized history or pornographic exploitation. (Apparently pulp Nazi porn briefly flourished as a literary subgenre in Israel in the early 1960’s, called “Stalag fiction.”) At any rate, the novel must have had an impact on Ian Curtis, since he took the band’s name from the book and featured excerpts in the song “No Love Lost.” (The style of Curtis’ vocal delivery here recalls John Cale’s on The Velvet Underground’s similarly morbid “The Gift” and “Lady Godiva’s Operation”.)  Curtis was fond of references to underground literature, and also took titles from William Burroughs (“Interzone”) and J.G. Ballard (“The Atrocity Exhibition”).

Between the band name and the Hitler Youth depicted on the album cover, Joy Division were early on suspected of Nazi sympathies, but that is quite unlikely. And yet there is an abiding fascination with Nazism apparent in their early work- the song “Warsaw” (which was the band’s original name as well), for instance, is about Rudolf Hess- not as a positive political doctrine but as an aesthetic, or even an atmosphere. (Of course, as Walter Benjamin has indicated, fascism is less a political doctrine than an aestheticization of politics.) It’s a fascination that was not only shared by other punk bands, but was also weird undercurrent of the 1970’s zeitgeist (expressed in films such as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and Lilian Cavani’s The Night Porter). At least in the case of Joy Division I doubt it expresses anything beyond adolescent morbidity, and Curtis would drop the Nazi imagery as he grew into his own as a songwriter and required less ready-made signifiers of his alienation. But if anyone is interested in making serious connections between fascism and punk rock (and not just the obvious skinhead groups but respected art-rock bands), I’d suggest reading Lester Bangs’ 1979 essay “The White Noise Supremacists.”

May 19, 2010

Glenn Beck and the Anarchists

Filed under: Anarchy,Glenn Beck is not a Libertarian — rmangum @ 2:16 pm

Anarchy for the USA: It's coming sometime . . .

It’s been a bit too long since I’ve written about Glenn Beck, dontcha think? Last time he came to my attention, he was saying that when Christian churches preached “social justice,” is was just a code word for Communism and Nazism. Of course, if Beck had just said, “nine out of ten times, in or out of religious contexts, when someone says ‘social justice’ they just mean ‘socialism, of the statist variety, meaning government intervention to regulate the economy and redistribute goods,’ though there’s no logical reason for that ideology to have a monopoly on the words ‘social’ or ‘justice’,” then he’d be absolutely right, and furthermore would have given his viewers something to thing about. But no, he’s got to go right to the reductio ad Hitler, peddling the view that everyone who disagrees with you politically is secretly an evil totalitarian out to get you.

Beck’s problem is that he is incapable of perceiving often rather large, to say nothing of fine, distinctions in political and social thought. Everything must be reduced to a duality of us and them, good and evil, freedom and slavery, god and the devil. And the reason for this is that his thinking is rooted in Mormon eschatology, especially as interpreted by the author, and former FBI agent and Salt Lake City police Chief, Cleon Skousen. I should know, because I come from a family of ardent Skousenites. Without going into all the paranoid details, it’s plain that this paranoid and fundamentally anti-intellectual view causes Beck to collapse and confuse categories, and link things together in often bizarre ways. Even when Beck is right (it happens), he’s right for the wrong reasons, and expresses himself wrongheadedly. As I’ve written about before, for all his supposed sympathy with libertarianism, he has a rather dim view of what it means philosophically, and if you add “anarchism” to the mix, well then Beck’s circuits just short out.

I bring all this up because he recently aired a segment which tried to link together the riots in the wake of Greece’s economic collapse with protests against Arizona’s immigration law. The common thread seemed to be that both featured large numbers of people in the street. (“How did they all get together so fast?” he wonders aloud-I’m not saying it must be a conspiracy, but it must be a conspiracy!) Never mind that the Arizona protesters, as can be seen in the footage he shows, are entirely non-violent. He concludes, or rather insinuates, that it represents an incipient communist uprising, and holds up as proof a book (which he does not quote from, and barely bothers to summarize) called We are an Image from the Future: the Greek Revolt of 2008. He says, “They are not anarchists,” which must seem like a non-sequitir to most of his viewers, unless they get curious and google the book, and discover that, hey, they are anarchists! In fact, the well-known anarchist publishing house AK Press put out the book, and in response they have published “An Open Letter to Glenn Beck.” The letter address an intriguing reason why Beck has such trouble with anarchism:

So we asked ourselves: What could account for this guy waving around a book written and published by anarchists, while never quoting a single word from it, and then going on to associate the book with political groups—like the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Workers World Party—that no one in the book, or associated with the book, would endorse? How could he miss something so obvious?

Then it dawned on us: you’re afraid of anarchists. You’re not afraid of the fake media portrayal of anarchists as bomb-throwing maniacs: that’s your bread and butter. You’re afraid of real anarchists, the actual ideas they espouse, the real work they do.

We don’t blame you, Glenn. When we sift through your rants, we realize that there’s a lot of overlap between you and anarchists. The difference is that anarchists are more honest, aren’t part of the same elites they criticize, and they make a lot more sense. They see you, and raise you one.

The admission that “there’s a lot of overlap” between Beck and anarchism is a startling one, though perhaps correct. An average establishment progressive or neocon intellectual, for instance, probably cannot see much difference between Beck’s views and genuine libertarianism.

I have not read We are an Image from the Future (which of course deals with the 2008 revolts, which had an explicitly anarchist bent, and not the recent riots which are a reaction to the collapse of social services that has accompanied Greece’s financial fiasco), but I doubt Beck has either. At any rate, the more profitable comparison could be made (in spirit if not ideas) between revolts like the one in Greece our own recent tea party phenomenon.

May 16, 2010

A Song for Sunday #45

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 1:09 pm

By my count I’ve missed five weeks of ASfS, and I’m ruminating over a number of ideas to make it up. I could do different versions of a single song for a few weeks (I’ve got a zillion versions each of “Summertime” and “Caravan”, or I could take one week and use it to highlight a particular artist by posting a bunch of their songs (I’ve been wanting to write about the Minutemen and Sonny Sharrock for a while). Either way seems like too big a project for today (got to ease myself back into the blogging routine, you know), so here’s the song I’ve been listening to most lately:

Fearless by Pink Floyd, from the underrated 1971 album Meddle, is a unique song within the Floyd’s oeuvre, presenting an attitude of youthful optimism, fitting for being chronologically placed  after the manic child’s-play of the Syd Barrett-led Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the elegiac Barrett tribute Wish You Were Here (to say nothing of The Wall, a paranoid and alienated expression of the Roger Waters-dominated period). With their psychedelic soundscapes and compositions of epic length Pink Floyd is often thought of as hippie music, or as pretensious art rock, which is why Johnny Rotten used to wear an “I hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt. But that’s a narrow-minded view. “Fearless” could fit right into an indie-rock set by your local college-radio DJ, and the it’s been appropriately covered by both Phish and Low. The chanting you hear in the background is fans of the Liverpool Football Club singing their anthem, Rogers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” so we’ve got hippies sampling jocks singing a show tune.

Sir Patrick Spens

Filed under: Literature,State,War — rmangum @ 11:52 am
Tags: , ,

The Scottish ballad tradition contains some of the most haunting and beautiful poetry ever composed, a fact all the more striking since the authorship of most of it is anonymous. Fans of American folk, bluegrass, and country music will find it the lyrical origins of our most vital body of song, expressing a powerful sense of death and loss. “Sir Patrick Spens” has this, and something more: a protest of political power. It is a powerful indictment of a king’s power to send his subjects off to pointless death’s on fool’s errands.

The king sits in Dumferling town
Drinking the bluid-red wine:
‘O whar will I get a guid sailor
To sail this ship of mine?’
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king’s richt knee:
‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That sails upon the sea.’
The king has written a braid letter
And signed it wi’ his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the sand.
The first line that Sir Patrick read
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick read,
The tear blinded his ee.
‘O wha is this has done this deed,
This ill deed done to me,
To send me out this time o’the year,
To sail upon the sea?
‘Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid ship sails the morn.’
‘O say na sae, my master dear,
For I fear a deadly storm.’
‘Late, late yestre’en I saw the new moon
Wi’the old moon in his arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to harm.’
O our Scots nobles were richt laith
To weet their cork-heeled shoon,
But lang or a’ the play were played
Their hats they swam aboon.
O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
Wi’their fans into their hand,
Or ere they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the land.
O lang, lang may the ladies stand
Wi’their gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain dear lords,
For they’ll never see them mair.
Half o’er, half o’er to Aberdour
It’s fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies guid Sir Patrick Spens
Wi’the Scots lords at his feet.

In the first stanza we meet the king, who “sits in Dumferling town/Drinking the blude-reid wine.” Kings sit on thrones and hold court, but this king apparently occupies the whole town, signifying how places become identified with “great” political figures (think “Washington”). His wine is “blude-reid” because he is a parasite living off of the blood of the people he rules. It is no accident that the tyrannical king Vlad Dracula, famous for his enthusiasm for torture, bequeathed his name to the most famous fictional vampire. The king wants someone to “sail this ship of mine.” The ship of state is considered the sovereign’s personal property. No sooner is the question asked then someone at court pipes up to volunteer someone else for the job, in this case “an eldern knicht” who “Sat at the king’s richt knee.” It’s always the same story, old men sending off younger ones to die. The knicht may have been a warrior once, but is now just another courtier. He is a right-knee man, which is a much lower stature than a right-hand man. Today the knight would be a security adviser or a pentagon bureaucrat.

When we first meet our titular hero, he is innocently “walking on the sand,” which contrasts with the king’s sitting at the seat power. He has received a letter from the king, who “signed it wi’ his hand.” It is the same in Dylan Thomas’ “The Hand that Signed the Paper,” which declares, “Great is the hand that holds dominion over/Man by a scribbled name.” The hand is a metonymn for political power. The signature is proof of guilt in a contract killing. The king is represented by his limbs, his hand and knee. His body is the body politic (an idea illustrated on the frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan), and his subjects are nothing but a multitude of appendages which may be used, severed, and then disposed with. Other characters in the poem are known by their accessories, tools by which ordinary people live, such as the sailors’ shoes and hats, the latter of which will be found swimming on the water, signaling their fate. At the end of the poem we do find reference to an appendage not the king’s: “thair lies Sir Patrick Spens/Wi’ the Scots lords at his feit.” This is a morbid parody of the opening scene of the king with his knights at court.

True to the Scots ballad tradition, “Sir Patrick Spens” highlights the experience of women, who are as affected by the adventurism of government that sends young men out to die as the men themselves. Two stanzas are given to the ladies, wives and mothers who bear the brunt of the loss when the state demands sacrifice. In the poem they represent an alternative body politic which, sitting or standing, may not be made whole because their men have been severed from them.

The poem leaves out a great deal of the story, such as the nature of the mission and how the crew died, but we can imagine any of the innumerable suicide missions a king can dream up. The point is that the brave knight met Leviathan and was destroyed. But Sir Patrick has the last laugh: we know his name, which is immortalized in the ballad, but not that of the ruler.

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