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June 27, 2010

A Song for Sunday #50

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 5:28 pm

It’s been known for a long time that in his pre-Velvet Underground days Lou Reed worked as a staff songwriter for a small label called Pickwick records and recorded a number of conventional (at least by the standards of the book as VU later rewrote it) rock and roll ditties, including an infamous novelty dance song (or parody of a novelty dance song) called “The Ostrich,” for which Lou tuned all of the strings of his guitar to the same note, hence the potential for feedback and drone effects, hence “Sister Ray” and Metal Machine Music and all the craziness that came later. But first, there were songs like Your Love, now available courtesy of the Norton Records compilation All Tomorrow’s Dance Parties.

June 23, 2010

The Freedom of Machinery

Filed under: Anarchy,Economics — rmangum @ 2:37 pm
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I’ve been reading David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to Radical Capitalism. The book is somewhat dated, and flawed in a number of ways, not the least of which is the title, which summarizes his whole economistic approach to liberty. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile, and I would recommend it to non-capitalist libertarians, just as I would recommend Proudhon and Kropotkin to capitalist ones, and I believe I shall do so now, since checking Friedman’s blog I see that it has just been made available as a pdf. (My own copy comes courtesy of the University of Utah library.)

Quotes of the Week

Filed under: Philosophy,who said it? — rmangum @ 2:21 pm

“To discover the unknown is not a prerogative Sinbad, or Eric the Red, or of Copernicus. Each and every man is a discoverer. He begins by discovering bitterness, saltiness, concavity, smoothness, harshness, the seven colors of the rainbow and the twenty-some letters of the alphabet; he goes on to visages, maps, animals and stars. He ends with doubt, or with faith, and the almost total certainty of his own ignorance.”

Jorge-Luis Borges, Atlas

“The person who says, as almost everyone does say, that human life is of infinite value, not to be measured in mere material terms, is talking palpable, if popular, nonsense. If he believed that of his own life, he would never cross the street, save to visit his doctor or to earn money for things necessary to physical survival. He would eat the cheapest, most nutritious food he could find and live in one small room, saving his income for frequent visits to the best possible doctors. He would take no risks, consume no luxuries, and life a long life. If you call it living.”

David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom

Spotlight on Israel

Filed under: State,War — rmangum @ 1:31 pm

. . . the government of Israel does not like the kinds of things I say — which puts them into the category of I suppose every other government in the world.
-Noam Chomsky

I may be premature or overly optimistic, but I think that we’ve reached some kind of turning point in American public opinion regarding Israel in the wake of the Gaza aid flotilla debacle. Our policy of blindly supporting Israel whatever they do, at whatever cost (monetary or political) is one of the greatest barriers to peace in our time, and such a policy seems more ludicrous the more heavy-handed Israel’s tactics become. When the Israeli state’s (I must repeat, with emphasis, “State,”not people) only supporters in America are the Christian Right and Democratic party leaders with a clear vested interest in keeping the Israel lobby happy, then we might see some change.

Here’s a round-up, with some comments, of articles I’ve recently read on the subject.

“Israel’s Feeling of Isolation is Becoming More Pronounced” (from The Washington Post): If Israel is very much like America, and a taste for indie rock is a pretty good indicator of liberal political beliefs, then concert cancellations by “Elvis Costello, The Pixies, and indie folk singer Devandra Banhart” should breed some internal resentment (in addition to, you know, the murdered aid deliverers).

“Desegregation in the Holy Land”
by Richard Spencer, from Alternative Right: This is not really about the Gaza situation, but it points out that relations with Arabs aren’t the only race problem Israel faces. Coming from a right-wing perspective, of course Spencer points out the hypocrisy of this, given the fact that Jews have been in the vanguard of civil rights movements in America. But what he fails to address is this: in every case of hypocrisy, the question is in which direction should it resolve into consistency- start practicing what you preach, or start preaching what you practice? Spencer’s fellow “white nationalists” clearly prefer the latter, the former is always possible and usually preferable.  This leads me to a fascinating article by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books, which shows clearly that there is something of a generation gap between young Jewish liberals in America and their parents or grandparents when it comes to attitudes about Israel. Faced with a choice between liberal democratic values and support of Israel, young Jews will decidedly opt for the former. Or as Beinart puts it:

For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

Beinart characterizes this situation as a “failure of the American Jewish establishment,” that is, a failure to offer an alternative “liberal Zionism.” Whatever, the reason, it is an important part of the change in public opinion I am sensing.

Michael Chabon, the Jewish-American novelist, (author of several novels I’ve been meaning to get around to reading), is a bit older than the demographic Beinart discusses, but his embarrassed reaction to the news of the aid flotilla attack in the New York Times is probably somewhat typical. He muses about the discrepancy between famed Jewish intelligence and Israel’s “unprecedented display of blockheadedness.” Had he read Kevin Carson’s book on Organization Theory, he would have no cause for wonder: a given organizational system (in this case a militarized state) may be stupid, even if the people who make it up are not. It is no accident that “military intelligence” is widely regarded as an oxymoron. But I wonder if Chabon is not evading the real issue by focusing on the stupidity of Israeli actions, which is of course that they are highly immoral. As a parallel, I suggest that George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is one of the stupidest acts the American government has ever done, but that is nothing compared to how immoral it was. One of my main problems with liberal critics of the war is that they have been obsessed with how “badly handled” it was (the unspoken subtext being that a high-I.Q. Democratic administration would have fared better), which distracts from the fact that it should not have ever happened in the first place. Bad management does not bring people to the barricades. Fighting brutality and oppression, that is to say, fighting evil, does.

P.S.- It’s stupid that I should even have to address this, but let me clear up a few things: 1. I am not Jewish, but even if I was, that fact alone doesn’t seem to keep you safe from the charge of anti-Semitism these days (nor, apparently, does it even give you a right to visit Israel). 2. Not only am I not anti-Semitic, I would even say that I am pro-Semitic, though I would point out that Arabs are Semites too. 3. Do I think that the State of Israel should not exist. Of course! I am an anarchist: I think no State should exist. States do not have a right to exist- people do, and both Jews and Arabs, in the Middle East as elsewhere, can claim the same right.

June 20, 2010

A Song for Sunday #49

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Dylanalia,Music — rmangum @ 9:03 pm

Happy Father’s day, Daddy-O!

When I Paint My Masterpiece is a song written by Bob Dylan, and wonderfully performed by The Band. I have to confess a supreme ignorance of The Band, beyond their association with Dylan and their big hit “The Weight,” but many fellow rock snobs are very enthusiastic about them. (I’ve not even seen the famed concert film The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese, and I’m a big Scorsese fan.) The Band’s version of this song was brought to the attention by the movie Observe and Report, a comedy with Seth Rogen playing a disturbed Mall Security guard. In my interpretation of Dylan’s impressionistic lyrics, the singer of the song has never been to Europe, but has as rich an inner fantasy life as Rogen’s character, and imagines himself changing the world and his own sordid and pathetic life by creating an artwork to rival the European masters of old. My favorite line is “Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola/Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!” It’s a pop-art effect (Dylan, with his roots in the folk scene, is underappreciated as a pop-artist) and stands the European fantasy on its head.

Postscript on Cultural Keynesianism

Just a couple of days after writing the last post, which referenced Camille Paglia’s comparison of postmodernists to Wall Street financiers, a book I had recently ordered arrived in the mail: David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, from 1991, when the philosophy still had very high cachet in academe. De Man was a Yale professor who had emigrated from Belgium after WWII, and was one of the primary proselytizers for deconstruction. Thought by his cult-like admirers to be a man of the Left (though his actual writing is rather apolitical), he was discovered after his death to have written pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles for Belgium’s collaborationist newspaper Le Soir in the early 1940’s. De Man turns out in Lehman’s investigation to have been a lifelong liar, bigamist, and petty thief. An opponent of deconstruction could use these facts as an ad hominem attack on such ideas (and in the wake of the scandalous revelations, many did), but Lehman does a great job of avoiding arguments, on the one hand that deconstruction necessarily entails the despicable facts of de Man’s life, and on the other that such facts are irrelevant to it.

I was particularly struck by this passage:

This is not a pipe.

Has deconstruction hit Wall Street? Richard Rand of the University of Alabama, co-translator of Derrida’s Glas, thinks so. In the spring of 1989, when Michael Milken was slapped with a ninety-eight-count indictment on charges of racketeering and securities fraud, Rand- an English professor- sent a letter to the Wall Street Journal defending the misunderstood junk-bond king as a “deconstructive financier.” Rand stated that the two things he had studied with rapt attention over the course of twenty years were Jacques Derrida’s texts and the Journal’s financial pages. To Rand’s mind there was quite a continuity between the two, and particularly between Derrida’s theoretical maneuvers and Milken’s leveraged buyouts. Milken had apparently made a deconstructive move when he turned the junk bond from “a ‘marginal’ (and despised) ‘supplement’ to the overall investment machine” into “a central and dynamic feature.” With his leveraged buyouts he had accomplished a “reversal” and “rewriting”- two more terms from the Derrida lexicon- of the merger-and-acquisition strategies already in place in postwar America.

There is nothing outside the text.

This Rand guy reminds me of a character named Murray in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, an academic who has abandoned arts and letters for the signs and wonders of the supermarket’s cereal isle. Reading Lehman’s account of de Man also brought to mind DeLillo’s main character, Jack Gladney, professor of the trendy new field he has pioneered, Hitler Studies.

But what is the significance of the parallel? Again I would refer to the Paul Cantor essay about hyperinflation in Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow.” He writes that “Everything threatens to become unreal once money loses its reality.” Severed from its origin as a real commodity valued by real actors in a market economy, money becomes a manipulative game, and so to does language when severed from reality. I don’t think anybody will dispute Saussure’s insight that the relation between sign and signifier is arbitrary, but in no way does this have the nihilistic implications of post-structuralism. The selection of gold, say, as a medium of exchange has a mixture of objective and arbitrary qualities to it. Austrians stress the former, but Keynesian and other neoclassical theories tend to see only the latter, with the result that manipulation of the money is seen as the sole key to prosperity. But it is folly to see society as reducible to linguistic discourse and economy as reducible to finance.

June 14, 2010

A Critique of Cultural Keynesianism

Filed under: Contra Keynes,Economics,Literature — rmangum @ 9:07 pm

I’ve often wondered why most literary and cultural theory is Marxist. Conservative claims notwithstanding, most academic intellectuals, especially those in the humanities, are not Marxists. They are not radicals, mostly, but rather polite NPR-listening Democrats. So why isn’t there, for instance, a Keynesian critical theory? A post over at the blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything provides a good example of what this might look like.

The post is quite rambling, proceeding from a scene in Jane Austen that provides a metaphor for capitalist speculation to ruminations on economic metaphors in general, to the current Keynesian stance on whether “WWII solved the Great Depression”, and then on to a quasi-“Crusoe” analysis (islanders trading shells) of the role of money and representation. Obviously, since I think Keynesian economics is wrong, I find that Keynesian assumptions mar the post. But otherwise it is quite interesting, especially comparing it with Paul Cantor’s essay “Hyperinflation and Hyperreality,” on Thomas Mann’s Wiemar-era short story “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” which similarly explores, from an Austrian perspective, the parallels between representation and value in money and representation and value in culture.

A few points:

1) Not long ago, I had coffee with an undergraduate who reported that he had just read Derrida and Lacan on Poe and was excited by the idea that criticism might be the new literature. Twenty years ago, when I read Derrida and Lacan on Poe, my professors teased me the same exciting possibility. It occurs to me now that the idea is about as old as, and has certain structural parallels to, the notion that finance is the new manufacturing. Like criticism over literature, finance traditionally supervised manufacturing yet was thought to be parasitic upon it and less “creative” than it.

Finance is not necessarily parasitic upon production, but it tends to replace real economic activity in a central banking regime, which breaks the link between money and real wealth. Likewise criticism is not necessarily parasitic upon literature. Just as one can probably find money and finance as soon as soon as trade emerges, so too literary theory is almost as old as literature (there’s no reason to assume it began ex nihilo with Aristotle’s Poetics). But the period from the 1970’s to the 1990’s was a sort of “theory bubble.” The metaphor has already been deployed by Camille Paglia in her essay “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” from 1991, which may well be the point when the bubble began to burst. (The equivalent of the economic “flight into real value” being the flight of intelligent students out of the humanities.)

2) I don’t see how Keynes’ theory of the “propensity to consume” necessarily entails equal distribution of wealth (or at any rate a more equal distribution of wealth).

But according to Keynes, there is a problem with concentrating wealth in the hands of the rich: they don’t spend as much of it. They aren’t, after all, in need. “Consumption — to repeat the obvious — is the sole end and object of all economic activity,” writes Keynes, in a sentence quoted by Swartz. That is, money in the bank is for the interim worthless; its value is suspended until it is put into use. Give a rich person ten dollars, and he is likely to put nine dollars in his savings account. Give a poor person ten dollars, and he will have spent all ten by lunchtime on food and services, and its beneficiaries will be people who have to work for a living and who are therefore more likely to spend it themselves. The original ten dollars, if spent by a person of modest means, will multiply their value as they work their way through the economic system.

If aggregate consumption is the goal, and if higher incomes mean lower consumption, then it wouldn’t matter if wealth was redistributed. Consumption by the rich would go up, but consumption by the poor would go down. In fact, we are led to the paradox that we would all be poor if we were all rich, and all rich if all poor.

3) The moral of the story seems to be that when the rich have most of the money and hoard it, the symbolic value of money becomes somewhat unreal—the conversion of money, which is imaginary, into value, which is real, breaks down.

Again, see the Cantor essay on how this is precisely what happens because of the government monopoly on the production of money. But these views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, since a left-libertarian analysis would find that inequality of wealth increases with government monopoly. One can see a bit of this in Cantor and Mann, who find that capitalists (speculators and war-profiteers specifically) are in fact the main beneficiaries of inflation. (There is also a conservative thrust to both, too, but I won’t go into that.)

4) The whole analysis of islanders using shells as a medium of exchange imports facets which characterize a modern central-banking economy into a primitive market situation. Shells would not emerge as money if they had no intrinsic value to the islanders in addition to being a medium of exchange. Therefore it does not matter that “The durability of the shells misrepresents the nature of fish and breadfruit” because the shells are not mere stand-ins for other goods but also goods in themselves. But even if they were just symbolic, it is in the nature of all symbols, all media, to distort what they represent. This is in a sense a defect, but we only use a symbolic medium if it has advantages over the “real thing” as well (usually simplification, but “durability” often applies as well, especially with words).  The point is that in a free market we are much less likely to confuse the map with the territory than we do in a fiat money economy.

5) The question has to be asked of every liberal follower of Keynes: how do you square the belief that in the economy consumption is king with the desire for a less consumerist society? I have my own thoughts on this subject.

June 13, 2010

A Song for Sunday #48

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 4:17 pm
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“St. Louis Blues” was published by W.C. Handy in 1914. It was not the first blues song, as is sometimes asserted, nor is Handy the “Father of the Blues,” as is more frequently asserted. The blues is elemental, an veritable axiom upon which American popular song rests, so it can have no such thing as a “father.” But it is a great tune, and perhaps the 20th-century standard.  Notes at Art of the Mix contain some interesting facts, such as, “It was first performed publicly by an unknown female impersonator,” and, “in the 1930s when Ethiopia was invaded by Italy, the Ethiopians adopted it as their battle hymn.” I don’t know what battle-hymns normally sound like in Ethiopia, but I wouldn’t immediately think of a song with the famous lyric, “I hate to see that evening sun go down.”

Notable versions of the St. Louis Blues have been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Bob Wills, and John Fahey. Here are two of my favorite versions, one by John Kirby and His Orchestra, and one by the great Sicilian trumpeter and vocalist Louis Prima.

June 12, 2010

Pabst Blue Ribbon, Man!

Filed under: Drugs,Personal — rmangum @ 11:00 pm
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So I’m about two weeks late on this but, whatever, this isn’t a news site. I wanted to add my own little R.I.P. for Dennis Hopper. First, I must admit that  though I’m not immune to its virtues, I’m not that big a fan of Easy Rider. But for Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and River’s Edge, Hopper belongs in the late-20th century Pantheon of iconic actors. Dig Jesse Walker’s Reason retrospective, which reveals that Hopper was already a Republican by 1980.

I should also confess that I had a freaky nightmare a few years back which “starred” Hopper as the leader of a Manson-like killer hippie-cult. Sorry for the typecasting, Mr. Hopper.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear . . .

Filed under: Notes Toward a Supreme Conspiracy Theory,State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 9:58 pm
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I’ve been reading Phillip Jenkins‘ political and social history of 1970’s America, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. The first thing I have to note is the striking similarities between our current period and the one Jenkins covers (focusing specifically on 1974 to 1977). But I really had an epiphany when I read about what Jenkins calls “The Terror Noncrisis.” He argues that the mid-seventies saw a wave of domestic terrorism in America. He writes, “In terms of the scale and frequency of attacks , America during the mid-1970’s was suffering one of the worst waves of terrorist violence in its history to that point.” He cites some well-known events, such as the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the ’75 bombing of the State Department by the Weather Underground, as well as some which were news to me, such as the “Zebra murders” in San Francisco and a Puerto Rican nationalist group called the FALN, supposedly responsible for “over thirty bomb attacks in New York, Chicago, and Washington.” These groups didn’t really have anything to do with each other, but all could be broadly categorized as subscribing to some Leftish variety of radicalism. But Jenkins also notes that anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami “became the heart of a flourishing terrorist and guerilla subculture.”

So what is the point in linking all of these together under the rubric of a “terror wave”? 1970’s domestic terrorism as a single phenomenon has been largely ignored by historians (“as late as 1995, writers on Oklahoma City were still remarking that finally ‘terrorism had come to the United States'”) and, more shockingly from a post-9/11 perspective, was not high on the list of earth-shaking fears of Americans at the time. As I said, the various groups were not linked (except as they each represented the death-spasms of the New Left), but it is strange that it was not thought to be the case at the time (except by usual anti-commie suspects like the Birchers). A mere 10 years earlier every longhair with a peace sign was suspected as an agent of Moscow, but now that the longhairs were actually blowing things up, nobody thought the revolution was finally upon us?  And its not as if the seventies lacked the paranoid mindset. As Jenkins demonstrates, this was the decade when the conspiracy theory went mainstream. So what happened?

The short answer is that Richard Nixon happened. The revelations about Watergate, COINTELPRO, the American-backed coup in Chile, and other government scandals had everyone looking to Washington as the source of crime and corruption. “The near-total focus on abuses by government and law enforcement meant that political dangers of a kind that in any other political environment would have demanded an urgent response. . . . The powerful focus on evils committed by the state diverted attention from subversives or revolutionary threats, however well-documented those dangers.”

While Jenkins does not deny that government agencies brought it on themselves, he seems to lament that the CIA and FBI were weakened, and thus unable to deal with new terror threats. “Infiltration and surveillance of the sort that once would have been commonplace was now highly unpopular . . .” But that’s the rub! Every single terror group Jenkins writes about fizzled out within the decade. Precisely nothing came of these threats beyond the isolated events. There was no revolution, because it was not televised. Americans quite rationally feared being spied on by government, but they did not fear that the Symbionese Liberation Army would force them all to smoke dope in communes while having orgies in front of a Chairman Mao poster. But let’s say that the Feds had retained the organization and legitimacy to “mobilize public concern.” It might have been civil war, and people might have felt like the wheels were coming off entirely (as they arguably did in ’69-70, the time of the Manson Family murders and Kent State). Consequently, they would have demanded greater force and more expansive measures.

Obviously, we can learn something from this era. As it stands, we have a president who refuses to prosecute his predecessor, the latter being guilty of crime and corruption at least on the level, and probably far exceeding that of Nixon and LBJ. And, oh yeah, then there’s the whole police state thing. And what are we worried about? The Hutaree.

The terror wave of 1974-1977, unlike that of the 2000’s, was a “noncrisis” because terrorism doesn’t work if you don’t become terrorized.

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