Posts Tagged ‘Red and Black’

The Ecology of Freedom: introduction

April 11, 2016

THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).  Introduction

I am coming to realize that  Murray Bookchin, whose name I first heard a year or so ago, was one of the great thinkers of our time.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_His book, The Ecology of Freedom, is a profound work that is worth studying closely.  I intend to do this by reviewing the book chapter by chapter, partly to stimulate interest in his ideas but more to clarify my own thinking.

His basic idea is that human domination of nature and human domination of other human beings are part of the same thing.  This sounds simple.  What he does in this book is to describe the history of how this has played out in all its cultural, political, economic and religious aspects, and map paths to a better future.

My basic political principles are the ideas of American freedom and democracy that I was taught as a small boy.  My ideals have changed little in more than 70 years, but my ideas of how the world works have changed a lot, especially in the past 10 or 20 years.

State socialism based on command economies haven’t worked.  A tiny group of masterminds, even if they have good intentions, are not qualified to make decisions for the rest of us.  The kind of capitalism we have now doesn’t work either.  So I am interested in learning about alternatives.

Born in 1921 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Bookchin was a labor organizer in the 1930s and 1940s and a participant in the anti-nuclear and radical Green movements in the 1960s and 1970s.  As a young man, he was a Communist.  He later became a Trotskyite, then an anarchist, and, in this book, espoused a philosophy he called social ecology or libertarian socialism.

The Ecology of Freedom begins with introductions to the 2005, 1991 and original 1982 editions, in which he expresses his disappointment with the environmental movement’s failure to live up to its original promise because of the failure to develop an adequate political philosophy.

One current of the environmental movement became a mere lifestyle option, based on consumer choice.  The Deep Ecology movement and part of the population control movement decided that human beings as such, rather than oppressive governments or exploitative corporations, were the problem.

Many self-described environmentalists identified being anti-rational, anti-science and anti-technology with being in harmony with nature, which was one of the teachings of fascism.

ecological-crisis-quotes-2All these things, Bookchin wrote, indirectly helped prop up the status quo.  Environmentalists did accomplish important practical victories in individual situations, for which they deserve praise.  But they did not change the overall direction of society because of the lack of a unifying vision, which he called “social ecology”.

That vision is a symbiotic relationship among human beings, and between human beings and the rest of nature.  This doesn’t mean passivity, or abandonment of the human-made environment to wilderness, he wrote; it means to work with natural processes and with human nature rather than trying to override them.

This seems to me very much like the Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle, which is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

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NEXT: chapter one: the concept of social ecology

chapter two: the outlook of organic society

chapter three: the emergence of hierarchy

chapter four: epistemologies of rule

chapter five: the legacy of domination

chapter six: justice—equal and exact

chapter seven: the legacy of freedom

chapter eight: from saints to sellers

chapter nine: two images of technology

chapter ten: the social matrix of technology

chapter eleven: the ambiguities of freedom

chapter twelve: an ecological society

epilogue

LINKS

MURRAY BOOKCHIN’S COLLECTED WORKS

The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin – the complete book in PDF form.

Society and Ecology by Murray Bookchin.

Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement by Murray Bookchin (1987)

Libertarian Municipalism by Murray Bookchin (1991)

What Is Social Ecology? by Murray Bookchin (1993)

Bookchin Breaks with Anarchism by Janet Biehl.

Murray Bookchin: The Man Who Brought Radical Ecology and Assembly Democracy to the Left by Janet Biehl

Remembering Murray Bookchin by David Rosen for Counterpunch.

David Graeber’s “rape, torture and murder” test

October 2, 2013

I’m reading David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, which is about the Occupy movement.  I came across this passage which I like so much that I’m going to make a separate post about it.   He started out by talking about how writers use phrases such as “human rights abuses” or “unsavory human rights records” when they mean “rape, torture and murder.”  He went on to write:

… I find what I call the “rape, torture and murder” test very useful.  It’s quite simple.  When presented with a political entity of some sort or another, whether a government, a social movement, a guerrilla army or, really, any other organized group and trying to decide whether they deserve condemnation or support, first ask “Do they commit, or do they order others to commit, acts of rape, torture or murder?”

DGCIt seems like a self-evident question, but again, it’s suprising how rarely—or, better, how selectively—it is applied.  Or, perhaps, it might seem surprising, until one starts applying it and discovers conventional wisdom on many issues of world politics is instantly turned upside down.

In 2006, for example, most people in the United States read about the Mexican government sending federal troops to quell a popular revolt, initiated by a teachers’ union, against a notoriously corrupt governor in the southern state of Oaxaca.  In the U.S. media, this was universally presented as a good thing, a restoration of order; the rebels, after all, were “violent,” having thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails …

No one to my knowledge has ever suggested the rebels had raped, tortured or murdered anyone; neither has anyone who knows anything about the events in question seriously contested the fact that forces loyal to the Mexican government had raped, tortured and murdered quite a number of people in suppressing the rebellion.

Yet somehow such acts, unlike the rebels stone throwing, cannot be described as “violent” at all, let alone as rape, torture or murder, but only appear, if at all, as “accusations of human rights violations,” or in some other similarly bloodless legalistic language.

 

The stupidity theory of organizations

April 30, 2013

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Stupidity in big organizations is not a bug.  It’s a feature.   So say two scholars, Mats Alvesson of Lund University in Sweden and Andre Spicer of City University in England, in their recent paper, The Stupidity Factor in Organizations.

They say organizations need “functional stupidity,” which is a willful lack of recognition of the incompleteness of knowledge and a willful refusal to question the organization’s goals and policies.  This builds confidence and loyalty which helps the organization to function smoothly.

Alvesson and Spicer discuss how managers use vision statements, motivational meetings and corporate culture as “stupidity management” to develop loyalty and suppress critical thinking.  They discuss how employees use “stupidity self-management” to suppress doubt and get with the program.

In Herman Wouk’s novel, The Caine Mutiny, a recruit decides that the U.S. Navy is an organization designed by geniuses to be operated by idiots.  When in doubt, he asks himself, “What would I do if I were a idiot?”   That is a gross exaggeration, but an exaggeration of truth.

Managers want employees who are intelligent enough to carry out orders competently, but not so intelligent that they question the orders.   Critical thinking creates friction that prevents the organization from running smoothly.  Over time the organization’s tendency is eliminate that friction, and become more disconnected from reality.

You can see this in how Washington officials and journalists understand politics.   They treat the processes of government, such as the 60-vote rule in the Senate or the revolving door between corporate and government employment, as if they were objective and unchangeable facts, like the laws of thermodynamics.  They treat actual problems, such as unemployment or global climate change, as if they were matters of personal preference.

The trouble with ignoring reality is that sooner or later it catches up with you.  Then crisis generates what Alvesson and Spicer call the “How could I have been so stupid?” syndrome.

Click on A Stupidity Based Theory of Organizations for a PDF of Alvesson’s and Spicer’s paper. If you read it with close attention, I think you will see the dry humor beneath their social science jargon.

Click on Understanding Organizational Stupidity for Dmitry Orlov’s summary of their paper and his comments.

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Taking anarchism seriously

April 26, 2013

rochester.red&black.logo_nI read The Conquest of Bread, the classic 1892 work by the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, as part of a reading group organized by Rochester Red and Black.   Kropotkin was a revolutionary communist anarchist.  He was dead serious about eliminating government, laws, money and corporations, as well as private property over and above what an individual could personally use.

How can you be both a communist and an anarchist?  The one thing that libertarians, socialists, conservatives and liberals agree on nowadays is that equality and liberty are tradeoffs—that to get more equality, you have to sacrifice liberty, and vice versa.

Kropotkin pointed out that this hasn’t always been true.  Many traditional cultures, including Russian villages of his day, had both more sharing and more freedom than most of us enjoy today.  People helped each other out of neighborliness and offered hospitality to strangers out of kindness.  Life did not center on earning money.  There are still places like this, such as the Virginia mountain town described by Barbara Holland in Bingo Night at the Fire Hall, where people she didn’t know helped her in emergencies and acted insulted when she offered payment.

conquestofbread.kropotkinKropotkin pointed out that even the existing capitalistic and authoritarian system of Kropotkin’s day, many important things were accomplished through voluntary cooperation.  The international scientific community functioned without any particular individual in charge.  Voluntary organizations such as the Red Cross and lighthouse networks performed important public functions.  Capitalistic businesses themselves were able to integrate railroads and canals without a central planning organization to give orders.

And many public services, such as highways, street lighting and public libraries, were provided free—following the principle of to each according to their needs.  Surely, Kropotkin argued, if so much has been accomplished under a system devoted to personal profit, how much more can be accomplished under the rule of the people in a system devoted to the public good!

He thought the progress of science had brought abundance for all within reach.  And he said to the capitalists of his day, “You didn’t build that.”  Since this progress was achieved by previous generations, he said, all of the present generation have the right to share in its fruits and none of us, in his view, had the right to appropriate the fruits for their exclusive benefit.

Since Kropotkin’s day, the role of voluntary associations has contracted, and the provision of universal services is under attack.  Most of the world’s governments, big corporations and international organizations adhere to the so-called “neo-liberal” ideology, which says that all of human society should be organized on the model of the for-profit corporation. Kropotkin’s philosophy provides a basis for pushing back in defense of the individual and the commons.

His anarchism is the opposite of Leninism or even Fabian socialism, in which decision-making is delegated to a tiny circle of masterminds and the mass of the people are bystanders.   Kropotkin said revolutionary reigns of terror created new systems of oppression that were worse than the old.  He lived to see the Bolshevik Revolution, and foresaw all the evils that would flow from it.

Now I doubt a full-blown anarchist society is feasible, and I’m not sure how I would fit into one if it were.  Governments, laws, money and the operation of supply and demand, however distorted they are in practice, do serve a function that a future anarchist society would have to duplicate.  I’m too much of an egoist to be part of a collective.   I’m too distrustful of human nature to give up the Constitution and Bill of Rights and trust to public opinion to safeguard my rights.   When I think about a society wiping the slate clean and starting over fresh, I think of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.   Perhaps some of these questions will be resolved as I read and study more about anarchism.

In any case I don’t think that living under anarchism is something I’m going to have to deal with in my lifetime (I’m 76).  Kropotkin’s ideas for me represent a direction, not a blueprint.  The direction is toward a society without hierarchy, or at least with a minimum of hierarchy.  I like Kropotkin’s sunny optimism, his humane spirit, his questioning of fundamental assumptions and especially his belief that a better world is possible.   I refuse to accept what we have in the USA today as the best that we can hope for.

Click on The Conquest of Bread for the full text of Peter Kropotkin’s work in The Anarchist Library.  [Added 5/15/13]

Click on In Praise of Anarchy, Part One, Part Two and Part Three for a discussion of Peter Kropotkin’s thought by Dmitri Orlov.

Click on Rochester Red and Black for that group’s home page.

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One in four US workers are “guard labor”

April 24, 2013

ME_397_Walls-640x199

One fourth of the American work force is employed in “guard labor”, not producing anything themselves, but keeping the actual workers in line, according to a studies by economists Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute and Arjun Jayadev of the University of Massachusetts.

Comparing nations, they reported that the greater the amount of inequality in a society, the higher the percentage employed in guard labor.

The following is from an interview with Samuel Bowles in the Santa Fe Reporter.

Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor.”  In a 2007 paper on the subject, he and co-author Arjun Jayadev, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, make an astonishing claim: Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.

securityguardThe job descriptions of guard labor range from “imposing work discipline”—think of the corporate IT spies who keep desk jockeys from slacking off online—to enforcing laws, like the officers in the Santa Fe Police Department paddy wagon parked outside of Walmart.

The greater the inequalities in a society, the more guard labor it requires, Bowles finds. This holds true among US states, with relatively unequal states like New Mexico employing a greater share of guard labor than relatively egalitarian states like Wisconsin.

The problem, Bowles argues, is that too much guard labor sustains “illegitimate inequalities,” creating a drag on the economy.  All of the people in guard labor jobs could be doing something more productive with their time—perhaps starting their own businesses or helping to reduce the US trade deficit with China.

via Santa Fe Reporter.

The category of “guard labor” includes police, prison guards, court workers, military and civilian employees of the Department of Defense and private guards, as well as monitors and supervisors with the power to reward and punish.   They do not count employees of companies that make burglar alarms, video surveillance cameras and other security equipment.

They do count the unemployed and prisoners, which may seem like a stretch.  Bowles and Jayadev argue that if nobody was out of work and nobody was in jail, there wouldn’t be any way to keep the rest of the population in line.  This is in line with Karl Marx’s idea that employers need a “reserve army” of the unemployed to keep wages low.

But even excluding the unemployed, Bowles and Jayadev said that “guard labor” is about a fifth of the American work force.

The chart below shows the growth of guard labor in the United States.   By their count, the percentage of U.S. workers in guard labor nearly quadrupled in the 20th century, and increased more than 10 times if you don’t count the unemployed.

guardlabor

This is old information, but I don’t think the trend has reversed.  I see armed security guards and video monitors everywhere I go and, while I’m retired, my friends tell me that work conditions are getting more and more restrictive.

In the best of societies, there will be a need for a certain number of supervisors, monitors, police, courts, prison guards and military forces, and there will be a certain number of prison inmates and job-seekers.   But Bowles and Jayadev found that the percentage is much greater in nations with a high degree of economic inequality, such as the USA, which has more than double the percentage of guard labor of Sweden or Denmark.   Where there are no extremes of rich and poor, it is not necessary to devote so much effort to keeping people in line.

Click on Guard Labor PDF to read the 2006 paper by Samuel Bowels and Arjun Jayadev.

Click on Garrison America PDF to read the 2007 paper by Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev.

Click on Crime and Punishment: Some Costs of Inequality for a report by Nancy Folbre in the New York Times.

Click on Born Poor?  Santa Fe Economist Samuel Bowles Says You’d Better Get Used to It for the full interview in the Santa Fe Reporter.

Click on Vested interests in mass incarceration for an earlier post of mine on a related subject.

Hat tip to Nina Paley for the Mimi and Eunice cartoon.

[Added Later]  Click on One Nation Under Guard for a New York Times article by Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev.

A little bit more anarchism would do us good

April 23, 2013

Anarchism is the political credo that rejects all forms of compulsory authority and believes society can be organized on the basis of individual freedom and voluntary cooperation.  Yale professor James C. Scott is not a full-blown anarchist, but in his short and highly readable book, TWO CHEERS FOR ANARCHISM: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, he makes the case that a bit more anarchism in American life would do us good.

We are so used to obeying authority that many of us have lost the habit of acting for ourselves, Scott wrote.  Once he shocked a friend of his, a Dutch college professor who considered himself a Maoist revolutionary, by crossing the street against the traffic light when there was no traffic on the street.  Scott advocates “anarchist calisthenics”—occasionally violating a rule or law that makes no sense just to break the habit of submission.

twocheersHow necessary are traffic lights?  Scott told how Hans Moderman, a traffic engineer in the city of Drachten, the Netherlands, noticed that traffic flow improved when electrical failures put traffic lights out of commission.  In 1999, he replaced traffic lights at the city’s busiest intersection with a traffic circle, an extended bicycle path and a pedestrian area.  The number of traffic accidents fell dramatically.  Relying on drivers to use good sense was more effective than demanding they obey signs.  In fact, the traffic signals may have been counterproductive, because they distracted drivers from the road, and they created a false sense of safety.

Many Dutch towns now advertise themselves as “free of traffic signs.”  The lesson learned from this experiment can be applied to other things besides traffic.

That is one of Scott’s examples of mild anarchism in action.  Another is a children’s playground in Denmark in 1943 which, instead of building swings, seesaws and sliding boards for the children to use, simply opened up a raw building site with lumber, shovels, nails and tools and left them to the children to do as they wished.  It was hugely popular, but soon ran into trouble.  Some children hoarded lumber and tools for their own use.  Fighting and raids broke out.  Adults were on the verge of closing the playground down when the youngsters themselves conducted a salvage drive to retrieve the hidden materials and organized a system for sharing tools and lumber.  The children learned a valuable lesson in self-government, which they would not have learned from adult supervision.

“Adventure playgrounds” have since become popular in many parts of the world.  Scott pointed out that to the casual observer, they look messy and disorderly, but in fact are not.  That is the planner’s disease—to impose external order for the sake of appearances, and disregard the hidden order that already exists.

James C. Scott

James C. Scott

Scott said the limitations of hierarchy and top-down planning are shown by the fact that one of the most effective forms of labor union action is “work to rule”—to simply carry out orders and follow procedures as given, rather than use individual judgment.   Bureaucrats and executives think they are in charge, and do not realize how much they depend on the initiative and knowledge from below.

In government, he wrote, it is better to put up with the messiness of democracy than to abdicate to supposedly neutral experts and technocrats.   Sometimes it is better to put up with the even greater messiness of direct action than to insist that people work within the system.  Most of the great reform movements in American history—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the labor union movement, the civil rights movement—were achieved by people who were willing to break laws and defy authority.

Scott devoted a section of his book to praise of the “petty bourgeosie”—independent farmers, craft workers and shopkeepers, who are not subject to bosses.  This social class has a bad name among left-wing radicals, but, as he pointed out, it is during the periods of history that the petty bourgeosie have been in the majority that society has come closest to worker ownership of the means of production.

He entitled his book Two Cheers for Anarchism instead of three cheers because he does not think it really is possible to do without government.  Nor does he think authority is always wrong or the masses are always right.  When the federal government imposed school desegregation against the wishes of the majority of the people of the South (that is, the overwhelming majority of the white people), it promoted liberty.  But such examples are rare, he said.

Click on The American Conservative, The Coffin Factory, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Wall Street Journal for other reviews of the book and The New York Times for a profile of Scott.

The fable of the grasshopper and the lazy ants

June 27, 2012

The following is by Todd Kelly for The League of Ordinary Gentlemen group web log.

Once upon a time, my children, in a small thicket there lived a young grasshopper that liked to sing and dance all the live long day. He was a smart grasshopper, as grasshoppers go, and he came from a good and loving family. Unlike some of the other forest insects the grasshopper never wanted for much, because his parents were both good and successful.

One day a small boy trying to complete a science fair project came and put both of his parents in a glass jar, stealing them away forever. This made the grasshopper quite sad, as you might imagine. He mourned for what seemed like a proper amount of time, and then he returned to his life of singing and dancing all the live long day.

Now in this same thicket lived a very large colony of ants. They were an industrious lot, and spent all day every day toiling, working hard each day to make sure that there would be enough food for the winter – which as everyone knows arrives each year come what may. That summer after his parents had been taken away, the grasshopper would call out to the ants: “Come, ants, play with me!” The ants just scolded him and said, “If you want to succeed, you must work hard! For if you do not, what will you eat come winter?” But the grasshopper had never labored before, and as he did not think that it looked like much fun he politely declined.

Well, my children, as you know winter indeed comes to all places, and so it was for the grasshopper’s thicket. He was alright at first, but as the snows continued to fall and the months began to pile up he found himself without food, just as the ants had warned. Having no other choice, he went to the ants with hat in hand, and begged their queen for food.

Now, the queen was was wise and kind, and so agreed to feed the grasshopper. However, the queen knew an opportunity when she saw one, and she knew that the grasshopper came from old money.  “I’m feeding you now,” she said as he gorged himself on the ants’ winter larder, “but I do worry that next year another a younger ant might try to be elected queen in my place.  Perhaps you could spare just a bit of money for my reelection campaign?”  And so began a beautiful partnership.

Now the grasshopper was no fool, and once winter subsided and the first blades of grass began to poke through the thawing ground, he decided that if he did not wish to labor he would need to find a way to keep himself in the pink.  He used the money his parents had left buying the ants’ businesses, and investing the profits of those businesses with banks both far and near.  Also, once the businesses were secure, the grasshopper found that he could make more money by closing them down, and reopening them in a thicket across the pond, where food was quite scarce and those other ants would do the work for far less pay.  He was a very clever grasshopper indeed! As the year wore on, the grasshopper found that his chest of money grew until it dwarfed what his parents had earned.

Late that summer, the queen came to the grasshopper and asked for a favor. “I am glad that you are so successful in your enterprises, grasshopper!” said the queen.  “But I fear that because you are sending our supplies across the pond we are in danger of having too little food for the winter.  Might I ask you to bring some of those jobs and supplies back to this thicket, that all insects will be able to eat this winter?”

“It’s not my affair if people can’t do an honest day’s work,” scolded the grasshopper.

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Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook

April 14, 2012

I just finished reading From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp, the great strategist of nonviolent struggle.  Like the great Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, his strategy and tactics are directed against the mind of the enemy.  An enemy is defeated when they are no longer willing to fight.  A government is defeated when people are no longer willing to obey it, and this can be accomplished, Sharp claims, without having to kill people in large numbers.

When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, there was a story that at some point in the Russian history course taught by Professor Petrovich, he would throw a chair to the side of the room.   Supposedly he was making a point about revolution.   I took the course, and the chair-throwing apparently was an urban legend, but the point he made was an important one.

GeneSharp51aSjpXTx1L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200DictatroshiptoDemocracy_Revolution does not come, he said, when you have a privileged aristocracy, dancing to Strauss waltzes, who are suddenly overthrown by Jacobins or Bolsheviks, and here is where he would have tossed the chair to one side.  No, he said, revolution comes when a society is on the verge of collapse, and here he would have balanced a chair on one leg with one finger, and it loses its last support – here he would have let the chair fall.

That is surely true.  Governments can govern only because people obey them.  They fall when their people cease to obey them.  That is what happened to the King of France in 1789, the Tsar of Russia in 1917 and the Shah of Iran in 1989.   Gene Sharp says that the way to overthrow a despotic government is to undermine the public’s habits of fear and obedience, and to deprive it of the resources it needs to govern.

In From Dictatorship to Democracy, originally published in 1990, and The Politics of Nonviolent Action, published in 1973, he listed 198 different tactics by which this could be accomplished, including public protests, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and creation of parallel institutions.  Here are his broad principles.

Develop a strategy for winning freedom and a vision of the society you want.

Overcome fear by small acts of resistance.

Use colors and symbols to demonstrate unity of resistance.

Learn from historical examples of the successes of non-violent movements.

Use non-violent “weapons.”

Identify the dictatorship’s pillars of support and develop a strategy for undermining each.

Use oppressive or brutal acts by the regime as a recruiting tool for your movement.

Isolate or remove from the movement people who use or advocate violence.

via BBC News.

Back in the 1950s, I never would have thought these tactics would work against a ruthless totalitarian government such as the Soviet Union, which had the power to sniff out and suppress the slightest dissent.  I had to change my mind after the Soviet government did fall, simply because it lost the authority and power to compel obedience.   On the whole, nonviolent fighters have a better record of success than the advocates of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

Sharp argued nonviolent struggle requires as much strategic planning and tactical discipline as military action.  Superior ethics and morality will not in themselves bring victory.  You need to be as tough-minded as the community organizer Saul Alinsky, who in his way was a master of nonviolent struggle.  But while there are many academies where you can learn military science, there are few academies where you can learn the strategy and tactics of nonviolent struggle.  I used to think proposals to establish a national Peace Academy or Department of Peace were naive, but I know think such proposals might be more than mere sentimental gestures.

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A Plutonomy world – we just live in it

June 30, 2011

PLUTONOMY is a word coined five or so years ago by Ajay Kapur, then a global strategist at Citigroup, to describe the United States economy.  It is a kinder, gentler synonym for plutocracy or oligarchy.  It means an economic system based on serving the needs and desires of the ultra-rich.

In the United States, 1 percent of the population has wealth equivalent to the bottom 90 percent.  And, according to Kapur, their share of the national wealth is likely to continue to increase.

Ajay Kapur

One implication of this fact is that it makes more sense for business to make products for the ultra-rich than for the mass public. He recommended a Plutonomy investment portfolio, in stocks of Tiffany’s, Sotheby’s, Burberry, the Four Seasons and other companies that cater to the wealthy elite.

Another is that many of the problems that affect the general public – for example, rising gasoline and food prices – do not affect the Plutonomy.  That means little is likely to be done about these problems.

After Michael Moore cited Kapur in his documentary movie, “Capitalism: a Love Story,” his writings were taken down from the Internet.  But earlier this year Kapur, who now is head of Asian equity strategy for Deutsche Bank, resurfaced with an interview by Robert Frank of the Wall Street Journal.

Kapur said the Plutonomy is alive and well, and is so well entrenched it is unlikely to go away anytime soon.  In fact, he now sees the whole world, not just the United States, as a Plutonomy.

The foundation of Plutonomy is deregulation and low taxes, Kapur said, and the Plutonomy is so politically powerful that it can resist populist pressures for the indefinite future.

Unlike me, he has no problem with this.  He sees the desire to join the Plutonomy as the driving force of progress.  And as for an economy in which most people work to serve the desires and interests of the rich, he has made a good career doing just that.

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An obituary for the age of mass affluence

June 29, 2011

Advertising Age reported that the only American income group that increased its spending last year were those earning more than $100,000 a year.  Everybody else is economizing and cutting back.  Consumer demand, according to Advertising Age, is being driven by “a small plutocracy of wealthy elites.”

A recent research report by a firm called Digitas, self-described as “the leading global integrated brand agency,” writes off two-thirds of the people even within the $100,000-plus category.  Unless you are taking in $200,000 or more by age 35, you’re not worth bothering about, Digitas says.  And if you aren’t taking in $100,000 or more a year in your 20s, you have little chance of reaching the $200,000 level.

Digitas recommends that business should concentrate on selling only to the Affluent, Wealthy and Rich, and to the Emerging Affluent, since they have a chance of becoming Affluent, Wealthy or Rich.  The rest don’t count.

During most of the 20th century, it was a proud boast of the United States that the vast majority of the population had access to the same kinds of goods and services as the very rich.  They all could afford similar, though not identical, goods and services – automobiles, refrigerators, TVs, annual vacations at the seashore or in the mountains.  You could not tell the difference between a wealthy person and a middle-class or working-class person by looking at them.

This is still true to an extent.  But unless something changes, we’re moving toward an economy more like that of France in the age of Louis the Fourteenth, in which the vast majority of the population labored at low wages to serve the desires of a wealthy minority.

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The realism of nonviolent action

March 31, 2011

There is a mindset that identifies violence with practicality.  People who think this way regard boycotts, peaceful protests and civil disobedience of an oppressor as woolly-minded idealism, and assassination, terror and military force as hard-headed realism.  They become impatient with negotiation and diplomacy when they fail to bring about immediate results, but believe in responding to the failures of military action with redoubled military action.

Gene Sharp, in 2009

I used to think a little bit that way myself.  I of course admired Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but I thought they were special cases because they appealed to humanitarian public opinion in the British and American democracies.  To deal with a truly ruthless enemy, such as Hitler or Stalin, required armed force or even the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Gene Sharp wrote The Politics of Nonviolent Action in 1973 to challenge that kind of thinking.  I never read it when it first came out.  My interest was aroused when I learned that it was used as a tactical manual by Egyptian protesters who overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Sharp contended that nonviolent action was as effective and realistic a means of struggle as war.  He intended his book to inspire the study of nonviolent strategy and tactics what Clausewitz and other military thinkers did for the study war.  The introduction was written by Thomas C. Schelling, a noted theorist of game theory and military strategy who was noted for his cold-blooded logic.  He praised Sharp for his dispassionate and realistic approach.

Sharp was to nonviolence was Clausewitz was to war.  Like Clausewitz, he said strategy and tactics were aimed at the will of the opponent.  Although Sharp was a conscientious objector, he insisted that you don’t have to be a religious pacifist to favor nonviolent struggle; there are many pragmatic reasons for doing so, he said.

All oppressive institutions depend upon the obedience of the subjugated class; when that obedience is withdrawn, the oppressor is no longer powerful.  And in Sharp’s view, the nonviolent fighter can win over or divide the opposition while a violent fighter unites it.

Oppressive institutions fear nonviolent action more than violence, Sharp contended.  That’s why agents provocateurs always try to instigate violence.  Sharp said rulers prefer violent to nonviolent opponents because they know better how to deal with the former than the latter.  If nonviolent resistance were weak and ineffectual, why wouldn’t the informers and infiltrators encourage it?

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Deming and the rise and fall of quality

June 10, 2010

During the 1980s, when I was reporting on business for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, I became fascinated with the ideas of W. Edwards Deming, the father of the Total Quality Management movement. I thought then, and still think, that Deming’s ideas were more potentially revolutionary than most of his followers realized.

W. Edwards Deming

Deming was a statistician. He created statistical techniques by which workers can monitor their own workand coordinate their work without the need for supervision. His techniques were widely adopted by Japanese industry after World War Two, and enjoyed a vogue in the United States when Japanese competition was seen as a threat.

I was excited by Deming’s ideas. I became a cheerleader for Total Quality Management as the expense of my professional journalistic skepticism. I liked the idea of Americans working together as teams to make our industry the best in the world. I liked the idea of businesses drawing on the knowledge and best ideas of all their employees, and not just a handful of managers and consultants; this, to me, was democracy. I interviewed company employees who were enthusiastic about being able to plan their work and make improvements, and not just passively obey.

But this was not to be. In a few years, TQM was wiped off the blackboard, and U.S. business fell into the pattern of downsizing and outsourcing which has continued to this day. Was TQM abandoned because it was threatening to the prerogatives of management? Or did it simply prove too difficult to implement? I’m not privy to the inner decisions of corporate management nor to the information those decisions were based on, so I can’t say.

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