Sunday Morning Link Brunch: 10/13/2013

Society

I enjoyed doing this last week, so I decided to do this on a more regular basis. Bolded portions of quotations are my emphasis, of course.

“To conclude, we tend to see growth as an unalloyed good, but an expanding body of evidence is now telling us to think again. Daniel Bell wrote that economic growth is the world’s secular religion, but for much of the world it is a god that is failing — underperforming for most of the world’s people and, for those in affluent societies, now creating more problems than it is solving. The never-ending drive to grow the overall U.S. economy has led to a ruthless international search for energy and other resources, failed at generating needed jobs, led us to the brink of environmental calamity, and rests on a manufactured consumerism that does not meet the deepest human needs. Americans are substituting growth and ever-more consumption for doing the things that would truly make us and our country better off.”

“If, on the other hand, we stop taking world leaders at their word and instead think of neoliberalism as a political project, it suddenly looks spectacularly effective. The politicians, CEOs, trade bureaucrats, and so forth who regularly meet at summits like Davos or the G20 may have done a miserable job in creating a world capitalist economy that meets the needs of a majority of the world’s inhabitants (let alone produces hope, happiness, security, or meaning), but they have succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism—and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semifeudal capitalism we happen to have right now—is the only viable economic system. If you think about it, this is a remarkable accomplishment.”

Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom—that the current economic and political system is the only possible one—the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance. Next, you are likely to be asked for a detailed program of how this system will be brought into existence. Historically, this is ridiculous. When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism,” figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality. In fact, the idea is so absurd we might well ask ourselves how it ever occurred to us to imagine this is how change happens to begin.”

“What would happen if we stopped acting as if the primordial form of work is laboring at a production line, or wheat field, or iron foundry, or even in an office cubicle, and instead started from a mother, a teacher, or a caregiver? We might be forced to conclude that the real business of human life is not contributing toward something called “the economy” (a concept that didn’t even exist three hundred years ago), but the fact that we are all, and have always been, projects of mutual creation.”

“Certain kinds of everyday heroism will always be important and unavoidable, but the goal of a set of social institutions should be to destroy as many opportunities for heroism as possible. Heroism is only possible where some kind of tragedy is imminent. But a good social system snuffs out avoidable tragedies before they even have a chance of approaching imminence. In many cases therefore, the existence of heroism is actually a deeply troubling symptom of overall political dysfunction. It should not be met with adoration, but with horror and concern.”

“The idea that jobs solve poverty misses a bigger picture. Through the developed world the share of GDP growth that goes to the working population in earnings has been falling steadily for about 40 years… Put simply, workers receive somewhere between a sixth and a twelfth less of what they produce than their counterparts did in the 1950s and 1960s and their share is continuing to decline.”

“The work-first welfare state is seen as the answer to poverty across Europe. This may reflect the difficulties governments face in developing traditional tax-and-spend welfare in a more globalised and ruthlessly competitive world. Many of those who are keenest on this approach ignore the fact that the share of GDP going to workers is falling, market incomes are becoming steadily more unequal and the working lives of those at the bottom are less satisfying and meaningful than in the past.

The UK Coalition is at the forefront of the work-first welfare state. The trends to falling wage share and inequality are reinforced by government policies that cut benefits and impose tougher conditions on the working poor. We should perhaps be more honest. The new job-centred welfare state is not about reducing poverty or improving the lives of those at the bottom. It is about mobilising them into paid work regardless of stress level or the impact on family life. It is also about ensuring that they contribute to the rising living standards of more advantaged groups.

“Now that human work has become devoid of any true economic function, as the unemployment rate largely demonstrates, its essence boils down to the relinquishment of any whim of taking control over our own lives or of pursuing any personal existential goals, in favour of a mystical union with the abstract flow of global capital. The degradation of drunkenness, or of a ketamine blackout, perfectly mirrors the essence of dehumanising office jobs. In both cases, the point is to stop being ourselves, to go beyond our limits to the point of becoming unrecognisable even to ourselves.”

“The power conferred by madness helps us understand the slightly smaller, but still very serious, game theory at work in Washington this week. Would either John Boehner or Barack Obama really let the nation go into default? Surely worldwide economic calamity is a worse outcome for everyone than compromise. But as we approach the deadline, both sides insist they won’t cave. In one sense, Obama has the stronger hand: he’s merely asking that Congress pay America’s bills and its debts. But Boehner has Ted Cruz in the background, reciting “Green Eggs and Ham.” Obama can say he’s willing to let the nation default to protect his goals, but he’s known for a certain sense, one that is both calm and sound, and it’s hard to believe him. Boehner, meanwhile, can point to the suicide caucus and truly make the case that he has people on his side who are willing to destroy the country’s credit if they don’t get their way.

“One of the weird consequences of the 2008 financial meltdown and the measures taken to counteract it (enormous sums of money to help banks) was the revival of the work of Ayn Rand, the closest one can get to an ideologist of the “greed is good” radical capitalism. The sales of her opus Atlas Shrugged exploded. According to some reports, there are already signs that the scenario described in Atlas Shrugged – the creative capitalists themselves going on strike – is coming to pass in the form of a populist right. However, this misreads the situation: what is effectively taking place today is almost the exact opposite. Most of the bailout money is going precisely to the Randian “titans”, the bankers who failed in their “creative” schemes and thereby brought about the financial meltdown. It is not the “creative geniuses” who are now helping ordinary people, it is the ordinary people who are helping the failed “creative geniuses”.”

“Their frustration has grown so intense in recent days that several trade association officials warned in interviews on Wednesday that they were considering helping wage primary campaigns against Republican lawmakers who had worked to engineer the political standoff in Washington.”

…“We are looking at ways to counter the rise of an ideological brand of conservatism that, for lack of a better word, is more anti-establishment than it has been in the past,” said David French, the top lobbyist at the National Retail Federation. “We have come to the conclusion that sitting on the sidelines is not good enough.””

“These people are basically neo-Confederate insurrectionists. They are in substantive rebellion against the orderly government of the country. And one of the things I noticed — and it’s something that’s very common in human beings — we all try to mollify or appease the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. You know, “Don’t make a scene.” Well, I noticed in the last few years of my service on the Hill that a number of Democrats seemed to be afraid of Republicans. And Obama pretty much wasted his first term trying to mollify them. I think he’s finally stumbled upon a strategy that’s better: simply not give them what they demand. Because this is a deliberate strategy to hold the government hostage.”

“I think Gingrich’s speakership was an important way station on the road to our current circumstances. Because he very much polarized things. And his successor in function if not in title, [former House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay, took it a step closer with the K Street Project and that sort of thing to really polarize matters.

But maybe in a broader social sense, I think it was the twin shocks of 9/11 and the 2008 meltdown that released a Frankenstein monster that was sort of sleeping in the American id — a certain totalitarian streak came out, an absolutist streak, good versus evil, where either you’re with us or against us, all of this kind of nonsense.

Plus, in 2008 you had the biggest crash since the Great Depression. And you know, we think we got through the Depression OK – well, we had Franklin Roosevelt. But you know other countries lurched to the right, violently. And there is a strain in the American society that seeks a kind of reactionary order to the chaos they see, that supports charlatans like Ted Cruz.

The political strategy of the Newest Right, then, is simply a new strategy for the very old, chiefly-Southern Jefferson-Jackson right. It is a perfectly rational strategy, given its goal: maximizing the political power and wealth of white local notables who find themselves living in states, and eventually a nation, with present or potential nonwhite majorities.”

If you step back and take a look at this ugly landscape, what you will see is something akin to a new Jim Crow system, a sickening reprise of what happened the last time white supremacists saw their political and cultural dominance threatened in the years after the Civil War.

In the late 1860s and 1870s, the two parties were on the opposite sides of the racial-equality issue. Then, the Republicans pressed for a reconstruction of the South to assure civil rights for blacks. However, the Democrats, the old party of slavery, acted to frustrate, sabotage and ultimately defeat those efforts.

What the United States then got was nearly a century of racial segregation across large swaths of the country although most egregious in the South. It was not until the 1960s when the Democratic Party of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson broke with the old traditions of collaborating with the Old Confederacy. These new Democrats instead supported civil rights legislation pushed by Martin Luther King Jr. and other advocates for racial equality.

However, opportunistic Republicans, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, saw an opening to flip the electoral map by snaking away the South’s resentful white racists from the Democrats and locking them into the Republican Party. The maneuver – cloaked in coded messages about states’ rights and hostility toward the federal government – proved astoundingly successful.

Still, the white supremacists faced a politically existential problem. They were demographically fading from their historic dominance, steadily replaced in numbers by Hispanics, Asian-Americans and blacks as well as by younger whites who viewed racial bigotry as a disgusting residue from the age-old crimes of slavery and segregation.”

“The evolution of modern management is usually associated with good old-fashioned intelligence and ingenuity—”a glorious parade of inventions that goes from textile looms to the computer,” Rosenthal says. But in reality, it’s much messier than that. Capitalism is not just about the free market; it was also built on the backs of slaves who were literally the opposite of free.“It’s a much bigger, more powerful question to ask, If today we are using management techniques that were also used on slave plantations,” she says, “how much more careful do we need to be? How much more do we need to think about our responsibility to people?””

“Not until April 1998 did the federal government, under pressure from the labor movement, even maintain that employers had to grant employees an ill-defined ”timely access” to the bathroom.”

“Like so much else in the contemporary economy, feudalism has gone upscale and high tech, eliminating liberal freedoms of speech and association in the wired workplace. Exxon Mobil and Delta have installed a software program on their company computers to ferret out any sign of employee opposition to management authority. The program forwards to managers all employee documents and e-mails – saved or unsaved, sent or unsent – containing ”alert” words like ”boss” or ”union.” As a supervisor explained to the Wall Street Journal, ”The workplace is never free of fear – and it shouldn’t be. Indeed, fear can be a powerful management tool.”

The goal is a Bosnia where it is normal to be a Catholic Serb, an Orthodox Bosniak, or a Muslim Croat. It is normal today to be a Muslim German or a Buddhist French. The parents of David Alaba, the most prominent player on the Austrian national football team, are from the Philippines and from Nigeria. Yet he is Austrian. This is what modernity means: identities that are fluid, open to change. This is what nationalists in the past have always tried to suppress. But modern Europe has to have a place for Catholic Greeks, Christian Turks, and Muslim Austrians.”

“So while Stalin’s voice rang in every ear, his portrait hung in every office and factory, and bobbed in every choreographed parade, the Stalin behind the blue pencil remained invisible. What’s more, he allowed very few details of his private life to become public knowledge, leading the Stalin biographer Robert Service to comment on the remarkable “austerity” of the “Stalin cult.”

But we should not confuse Stalin’s self-effacement with modesty. Though we tend to associate invisibility with the meek, there is a flip side that the graffiti artist Banksy understands better than most: “invisibility is a superpower.”

For Stalin, editing was a passion that extended well beyond the realm of published texts. Traces of his blue pencil can be seen on memoranda and speeches of high-ranking party officials (“against whom is this thesis directed?”) and on comic caricatures sketched by members of his inner circle during their endless nocturnal meetings (“Correct!” or “Show all members of the Politburo”). During the German siege of Stalingrad (1942-43), he encircled the city from the west with his blue pencil on a large wall map in the Kremlin, and, in the summer of 1944, he redrew the borders of Poland in blue. At a meeting with Winston Churchill a few months later, the British prime minister watched as Stalin “took his blue pencil and made a large tick” indicating his approval of the “percentages agreement” for the division of Europe into Western and Soviet spheres of influence after the war.”

“Creativity does not take place in a social or cultural vacuum,” Professor Haslam said.

“Some might suggest we don’t need to fund the Arts, or invest in Universities, because there will always be a handful of exceptionally creative people who can come up with good ideas when they are needed.

“But our research shows you can’t just rely on creativity to spring from nowhere.

“Artists, writers and scientists often do their most creative work when collaborating with one or more people—with like-minded friends, colleagues and peers.”

Dr Adarves-Yorno said the research findings show it is acceptance by the group – or rejection by the group – that ultimately determines the value of creativity.

“For the creativity of individual creators to be celebrated, and to make a difference in the world, it has to be enthusiastically embraced by others,” she said.”

The U.S. is very lonely. There are a few dark blue countries but you can barely see them because they are so small (Israel and a few Pacific islands). Moreover, as I showed in an earlier post, the situation has gradually gotten worse. This cannot just be blamed on President George W. Bush: Alienation from the U.S. started before him and the tide was not turned by President Obama. Perhaps it is because of China, or domestic politics, or just the price of being the only true superpower.”

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