Thursday, October 29, 2009

Royal Mail's scabbing depots posted by Richard Seymour

Never mind the non-revelations in The Guardian's 'undercover' shock-horror expose of casual workers listening to music under their hoodies, and so on. Yes, Britain's number one liberal newspaper, scourge of corrupt MPs and multinationals, sent their reporter into a scab sorting office and he found out precisely fuck all. Socialist Worker, by contrast, accompanied a score of activists down to a Dartford sorting office, which Royal Mail says is being used to clear up early Christmas mail. They hoked through the bins, and established that Royal Mail is using the place as a sorting office for regular mail from all over the world. The casual workers are being employed at the minimum wage of £5.80 an hour on the basis that they are covering the Christmas surplus, whereas in fact they are being used as scabs. This, as SW also reports, is breaking the law. The temp agencies supplying these workers, Reed, Manpower and others, are not allowed to supply temporary workers for that purpose.

The news reports a breakdown in talks last night, saying that both sides blame one another for the fall-out (oh, they do? quelle reportage!). In assessing these claims, bear in mind that the CWU did make a serious offer aimed at establishing a period of calm yesterday, and that Royal Mail management is committed to the one-sided imposition of its preferred settlement. And bear in mind that Royal Mail management are circumventing the law in order to keep the mail moving, and thus break the strike rather than negotiate. And finally bear in mind that the TUC's role in this is not to support the strikers, but to operate as an independent facilitator of negotiations. The CWU leadership doesn't have a problem with this, though some posties do. But the point is that the major forces of the organised labour movement are pushing for a negotiated settlement, including the CWU leadership itself. The workforce has signalled through acceptance of previous deals, which shed tens of thousands of jobs, that it is willing to negotiate even to its disadvantage. The only intransigent force here is management. That's the bottom line.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Crisis and recovery: myths about China posted by Richard Seymour

Guest post by redbedhead

ARE WE IN A RECOVERY? Well, there’s certainly lots of talk of “green shoots” and the head of the IMF said on Saturday that “just now we see the beginning of the end of the crisis, predicting that the world will return to growth this year and by next year global growth will be around 3 percent. Is it true? Any talk of global recovery needs to start by looking at two key places – China and the USA. The two countries are locked together in an unwilling but interdependent dance from which neither can escape. The USA is China’s largest trading partner with 21 percent of China’s exports going to the US and almost eight percent of its imports coming from there. In the US, China is now the USA’s number 1 trading partner, representing up to 19 percent of total trade vs Canada’s 14.5 percent. Until last year Canada was the biggest trading partner.

This is significant for a few reasons. First, because exports are still key to China’s growth, with its balance of payments surplus accounting for 10 percent of China’s GDP. In real terms that means that China sells $300 billion per year more than it buys on the world market. It is a key component of China’s growth rates, which have hovered around the 10 percent mark. Having such a high balance of payments surplus has meant that China can invest heavily in growing its economy. It’s rate of investment is a whopping 43 percent of GDP, compared to about 16.5 percent in the United States and 23.1 percent in the EU. But it’s also meant that China can buy up American debt – it holds close to $800 billion in US debt – in a process of debt cycling that helped fund the 2003-2007 boom. It was as though the US borrowed money from China to pay for stuff that it was buying from China. And China lent money to the US that it had made by selling the US goods from its factories. Right wing historian Niall Ferguson labeled this cycle “Chimerica”. What was really happening, of course, was that by continuing to buy up US government securities they simultaneously kept US interest rates low – thus helping to fund the consumer debt boom – and also kept the US dollar high, making Chinese exports cheap.

It was a virtuous cycle until the bubble got too big. It is now in the process of becoming a negatively reinforcing cycle: the collapse in US imports is driving down China’s trade surplus, and the massive quantity of US debt is driving down the US dollar, which is making it less attractive as a reserve currency and threatens to push up US interest rates. The Chinese have stated on a number of occasions that they are concerned by US debt levels, levels that they were happy with in the past when it meant the sales of Chinese goods. In March, Premier Wen Jiabao made some very bald statements at the end of the closing of China’s legislative session:

“We have made a huge amount of loans to the United States. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I'm a little bit worried... I would like to call on the United States to honor its words, stay a credible nation and ensure the safety of Chinese assets.”


But the Chinese can do little more than express concern. They know that ending the present round of massive stimulus spending in either country would be a disaster, since it is all that is propping up the anemic growth in the US and accounts for perhaps half of the growth in China. At a joint two-day conference between China and the US in July, China made the ritual noises about getting the deficit under control but then re-emphasized that now is not the time to stop deficit spending to stimulate the economy. As Peterson Institute economist, Ted Truman, put it:

“They don't want the U.S. economy to collapse because they are highly dependent on the U.S. economy in terms of economic activity and ... because they have a lot of their financial eggs in this basket.”


The result of the present crisis and the interdependent negative effect it has had on China and the US is leading to a number of processes. China is desperately trying to avoid a slowdown in growth. Anything below about 8 percent will cause a rise in unemployment and, it is feared, a growth in unrest – already in good supply. But with China pumping cash both directly through state investment and indirectly through a rapid expansion of lending – at 34 percent, or four times the rate of GDP growth – there is a serious danger of both an asset bubble and massive over capacity as plant comes online with insufficient global markets to absorb the increase in supply. With US retail sales stagnant and GDP in the European Union expected to shrink this year by four percent, the only hope for China beyond government stimulus that is expected to end after 2010 is to develop domestic consumption.

Recent statistics, for instance showing a 16.5 percent growth in retail sales and a whopping 34 percent growth in auto sales, seem to suggest that this is happening. However, these stats are largely for foreign consumption and for the central state paymasters of regional bureaucrats. In other words they are, at best, manipulated and are often outright fabrications. But even where there has been a growth in domestic demand, much of it either includes increased government expenditure or one-off incentives as part of the government stimulus package. The real problem is that rather than rising, household consumption in China is falling – from 47 percent in 2000 to around 30 percent today, a massive decline. What this suggests is that in the medium term shifting China’s economic priorities to develop domestic demand looks like an unlikely proposition for a number of reasons laid out in an article by Michael Pettis in Nouriel Roubini’s Global Economic Monitor. As he notes there are a number of structural and policy limitations to the growth of Chinese consumption:

“• An undervalued currency, which reduces real household wages by raising the cost of imports while subsidizing producers in the tradable goods sector.

“• Excessively low interest rates, which force households, who are mostly depositors, to subsidize the borrowing costs of borrowers, who are mostly manufacturers and include very few households, service industry companies or other net consumers.

“• A large spread between the deposit rate and the lending rate, which forces households to pay for the recapitalization of banks suffering from non-performing loans made to large manufacturers and state-owned enterprises.

“• Sluggish wage growth, perhaps caused in part by restrictions on the ability of workers to organize, which directly subsidizes employers at the cost of households.

“• Unraveling social safety nets and weak environmental restrictions, which effectively allow corporations to pass on the social cost to workers and households.

“• Other direct manufacturing subsidies, including controlled land and energy prices, which are also indirectly paid for by households

“By transferring wealth from households to boost the profitability of producers, China’s ability to grow consumption in line with growth in the nation’s GDP was severely hampered.”


While Pettis hits the producerist nail on the head, he fails to mention the contradictions that prevent the Chinese state from truly shifting towards a consumerist model. As I discussed above, the Chinese state is deadly terrified of a rise in unemployment and believe that an eight percent growth rate is necessary to absorb migration from the countryside to the cities. Shifting economic priorities towards developing domestic consumption necessarily means reducing the very high rate of investment and providing an increase in wages, social services, etc. For instance it was reported at the end of October that investment accounted for nearly 88 percent of GDP growth. Cutting back investment and redirecting that money to consumption would, at least in the short term, lead to a substantial increase in unemployment. However, the export-led model has its own drawbacks, not least of which is that the Chinese economy is vulnerable to drops in external demand. And the Chinese state can’t provide any direct stimulus to counteract such a pullback. The result of that vulnerability has been made clear in the present recession.

“Between January and September, China's exports fell by 21.3 percent compared with the same period in 2008. The country's total trade with the European Union dropped 19.4 percent while trade with the US and Japan declined 15.8 percent and 20 percent respectively, according to the General Administration of Customs.”


There is also great pressure from the Americans – and others - for China to increase domestic consumption because the USA can’t continue forever to be the repository for Chinese exports. The American ruling class is increasingly nervous about Chinese control of the US debt, which implies a vulnerability to Chinese pressure of US policy. That means that there must be reversal in US indebtedness – and thus an increase in exports and saving. Barbara Hackman Franklin, Bush Sr.’s former Director of Commerce, summarized the viewpoint recently, stating that:

"The US must increase savings and be less consumption-led and that China must become more consumption oriented and less dependent on exports”


But, if anything, China is doing the opposite. Its policy of pegging the Yuan to the US dollar means that as the dollar has declined to more normal pre-crisis levels, China’s currency has also declined. This is, in effect, a devaluation that hinders the US, desperate to overcome its trade deficits, from doing so. As Paul Krugman noted in the New York Times on October 23:

“By pursuing a weak-currency policy, China is siphoning some of… [the already deeply depressed] demand away from other nations, which is hurting growth almost everywhere.”


Yet, in the face of this policy the US administration is, if anything, becoming more conservative in confronting China on its currency. Back in January during hearings on his nomination as Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner accused China of currency manipulation – a very big accusation that would have meant (if it was sustained after his confirmation) that the US would have to take action against China including, possibly, sanctions. But by October 15 the Treasury Dept under Geithner was singing a different tune in its report to Congress, saying that, while China’s currency was undervalued, it was not being manipulated. Krugman’s response was, “they’re kidding, right?”

But the Obama Administration is not kidding and for very good reasons. If China were to start selling it’s US dollar reserves in a big way it would lead to a much more dramatic decline in the dollar. That would put serious
upward pressure on interest rates as the US government found it more difficult to raise funds in bond markets. While a lower dollar would make US exports more attractive, the combination of higher interests rates and higher import costs – particularly energy – would choke off the feeble recovery and likely lead to stagflation. It would also prick the asset-bubble that is the New York stock market, awash in bailout cash, further depressing the economy. So, expect explicit discussion of currency manipulation to remain taboo. And while the Chinese aren’t happy about all their dollar holdings being worth less every day as the US dollar slides, they aren’t unhappy about their currency devaluing along with it, making their exports cheaper. However, doing nothing – which seems to be the better part of both countries’ present strategy – has a price. For China, it means a continuing decline in the buying power of the Chinese consumer as the cost of imports rise from everywhere but the US. This will make China further dependent upon exports to keep the economy growing, which will also make it vulnerable to factors beyond its borders and thus beyond its control. And as it buys less and sells more it not only has the effect of slowing growth elsewhere, thus undermining its market, it raises the possibility of protectionism. In its trade with the European Union, China had a trade surplus of €170 billion in 2008. The US, by contrast, had a trade deficit of €80 billion. It will be more politically palatable for recession-bound Europe to accept a decline in trade surplus than to see its deficit with China increase. One wonders if America’s weak dollar strategy isn’t, in part, to get Europe to put pressure on China to revalue its currency.

By looking at come of the contradictions faced by the Chinese economy, it begins to look less unassailable than the media is prone to represent it. And it is less the case that China is obstinately refusing to revalue the renminbi than that China has grown itself into a corner, so to speak. With asset-prices rising and the risk of a housing bubble on one side, along with a major crisis of overproduction looming on the other, China must navigate between the rocks of multiple economic dangers and the charybdis of urban and rural revolt that could destabilize the carefully built edifice of Chinese capitalism. It's not hyperbolic to say that the future of the world will be dramatically affected by whatever happens there.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

OutRage!ous Censorship of "Gay Imperialism" posted by Yoshie

The reader of Lenin's Tomb has long been familiar with the problem of Islamophobia in general and its unfortunate manifestations on the (broadly defined) Left in particular in the age of the "war on terror." The reader is also well acquainted with queer variants of it, such as attempts at gay-washing of Israel. Left-wing criticisms of these phenomena, especially by queers of color themselves, are indispensable to our struggle to displace the hegemony of liberal imperialism.

One such queer-of-color criticism of "gay imperialism," a collection of essays titled Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality, however, is being censored in Britain, apparently by Peter Tatchell of OutRage!, who evidently felt his sensationalist brand of activism and rhetoric ought to be above critical scrutiny and got the publisher of the book to take the book out of circulation. For more information about this OutRage!ous censorship, see:


How can leftists beat this censorship? In addition to the actions recommended by Aren Aizura, I suggest a couple more, in the short term:

  • Hold public forums to discuss the censorship of queer-of-color criticism of "gay imperialism."

  • Open up your journals, classrooms, and so on (if you work in publishing, education, and related industries) to discussion of this problem.

In the long term, though, we need to work on creating a Queer Left, informed of Marxist Feminism, capable of discussing such questions as religion and sexuality in proper historical materialist fashion (i.e., supplying missing materialist foundations to Foucauldian critique of the dominant discourse on sexuality).

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Springboard for Griffin posted by Richard Seymour

I can't be the only who is already sick to death of all the news and commentary about Nazi Nick's appearance on Question Time. So, I'll keep this short and bittersweet. A number of antifascist commentators have expressed mild but pleasant surprise at the way in which old psyclops floundered on Question Time. Sarah Ditum and Sunny Hundal are among them. I wish, briefly, to demur. Griffin certainly was all over the place at points. He was challenged to an extent on his real record and beliefs, and members of the audience landed some decent blows (while the duce sat there chuckling away as if it was all a bit of a larf, and he was in on the joke). However, two things: 1) As many people expected, the overwhelming tenor of the discussion was appallingly racist, with Jack Straw, Chris Huhne and Baroness Warsi competing to sound tougher than one another on immigration. That automatically legitimises the empirical claims made by the fascists. The 'debate' is then a narrow one about who most adequately deals with the purported problem. Warsi made the claim that many BNP voters aren't really racist, merely having legitimate concerns, and therefore the mainstream parties have to 'listen' to them. That is based on a falsehood - the BNP's voters are overwhelmingly racist, far more so than the population at large. But accepting this logic means accepting a discussion on the terms of the far right, which has benefited them wherever the tactic has been tried (eg Essex, following Margaret Hodge's disgraceful pandering to BNP rhetoric). 2) Just because antifascists watching this thought Griffin came across as a sleazy dishonest windbag doesn't mean that everyone thought the same. Polls show that 40% of British people think that white people are the most discriminated against group in society, and a plurality think that Muslims are the most privileged. That was Griffin's audience, and he didn't have to win over every one of them to make this a successful evening. He needed to reach those racists who are deeply suspicious of the mainstream politicians, don't think Straw et al are serious about cracking down on Muslims and immigrants, and who suspect that the BBC is biased to the left. And those people may well have reacted quite positively to Griffin's claims, and may be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on the whole 'Nazi' thing. I wouldn't roll out the barrels just yet, that's all I'm saying.

Update: the BBC brings us news of the fruits of its labours. A Yougov poll says that 22% of British voters would "seriously consider" voting for the BNP, while more than half thought Griffin had "a point" in standing up for the interests of "indigenous white British people" (a phrase the BBC chooses to repeat without scare quotes).

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Protest outside BBC posted by Richard Seymour

Well, that was an interesting evening. It seems that BBC headquarters across the country had protests and occupations - in Plymouth, Glasgow, and some other cities that I don't remember. A number of protesters managed to scale the gates to the BBC headquarters in White City (one placard read: "It's not THAT kind of White City, Nick") before the main protest actually began, thus panicking the police briefly. I believe the actual filming of the Question Time programme was delayed by a couple of hours because of the protest, and that a number of antifascists did get into the studio. (In fact, I see from the clips being shown on the BBC that the studio audience detested Griffin, as they should have done, and were far more effective at challenging Griffin than any of the creepy politicians they had on the show - especially the pathetic Jack Straw). And I also hear that Jonathan Ross was inconvenienced in some way.

By the time I arrived, the protest had swelled to several thousand people congregated on the road outside Wood Lane tube station. It was quite noisy and rebellious, and there was an inordinate number of young people there. I hear there was some rumours of violence outside the gates or something. I didn't see any violence on the part of protesters whatsoever, but the police did pepper spray a couple of kids, a few people were assaulted by coppers not wearing their numbers on their shoulders, one guy was throttled and another fellow did get his head cracked open by a truncheon. Aside from the usual police brutality, it was a straightforwardly militant, multiracial protest in the mainstream antifascist tradition. The audience passed through security gates behind plexiglass where they could see us outside protesting, and were clearly rather excited and intrigued by the whole thing. When filming ended, the protesters then marched to where Griffin's car was supposed to be exiting, and blockaded it for a while, before a number of ominous looking police vans turned up and despatched a platoon of riot cops. There were some fascists around, and a number of few Nazis wandered over from the nearby pub to taunt the protest before being chased away.

Here are some pictures of the protest as I arrived:




Here, someone symbolically burns the 'television licence':



The protest stayed on for a while, until well after filming had ended, at least ensuring that Nazi Nick had a late drive home after what one can only hope will have proved an abortive publicity opportunity.

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Mainstreaming fascism posted by Richard Seymour

Today, the BBC will film its Question Time episode with Nick Griffin [pdf] on the panel. Protests will be gathering outside the studio at Wood lane from 5pm, and there is already reportedly a picket building up there. I don't know how big the protest will be, but I will say this: I spent some at a stall outside Holborn station yesterday, which was petitioning against the BBC's decision. The response was extraordinary: it was one of the few times that I have seen people queue up to sign petitions. The BBC directors have been musing over various possibilities in response to this. They've got the studio audience locked down, it seems: antifascists have been meticulously vetted from the audience, while BNP members and supporters will be in attendance. Yet, they're still not completely certain of their position, so they have reportedly been considering whether it is possible to move the event forward and film the show without an audience. If that's true, why bother with the panel and chair? Just put Griffin under a spotlight and give him 45 minutes to deliver his message to the kids. It has been pointed out that the arguments over Griffin's appearance are analogous to those that erupted over Le Pen's television appearance in 1984, after which support for the Front national doubled. Now Jim Wolfreys has explained in more detail the similarities between the tactics of the BNP and FN. These involve precisely the strategy of normalisation, distancing themselves from the explicit symbols, regalia and language of the traditional far right, and tapping into more socially accepted forms of right-wing politics, such as anti-immigrant racism.

We have to take note of such tactics, and make sure as many people understand them as possible. As Michael Rosen argued in a typically sharp contribution at last night's UAF meeting, fascist strategies of dissimulation are as much what they are 'about' as Holocaust denial, white supremacy and the building of a fascist terror state. Rosen pointed out that Griffin's particular use of language cannily exploits a weakness of liberalism, namely its failure to properly unpack and interrogate the concepts that it relies on. So when Griffin appeals to 'freedom', 'democracy', 'identity' and so on, he knows that this is a mystifying language that won't be challenged by the BBC or any guests they have invited. "Freedom for whom, to do what?" is a question that won't be asked tonight. Similarly, Griffin understands something about the nature of the BBC's 'impartiality'. If Griffin lies about his position, or pretends that his organisation has nothing to do with the violent EDL (which protested recently on behalf of the BNP's right to be on Question Time), he knows that he is unlikely to be challenged, since the BBC has an established practise of largely taking politicians at their word. We are used to Downing Street correspondents telling us what the PM thinks or feels, as if it was a matter of established fact, when all that has happened is that they have received a briefing from a spin doctor telling them what the PM allegedly thinks or feels. Deference is the general tone of the BBC's political coverage. And we know from past BBC encounters with the BNP that even if they lie about widely understood matters-of-fact, they won't be confronted. Griffin understands this, and knows that he will have considerable leeway to play with received opinion. Finally, Griffin understands that what is acceptable in political language depends to a great extent on the precedent set by others. When he calls for the EU to sink boats containing refugees - basically calling for the mass murder of a civilian population - he is playing on anti-immigrant sentiments and ideas already introduced into popular language by the right-wing mass media, and by the government.

We also have to understand something about the other player involved: the BBC. Its director-general, Mark Thompson, doesn't understand what is wrong with having the BNP on Question Time. He says it would be censorship not to have the BNP on Question Time. This is a man personally responsible for refusing to broadcast the DEC appeal over Gaza, a decision he presumably does not consider to be censorship. Yet the rationale he presents is at variance with the facts and with BBC doctrine. First of all, he says that the level of BNP support demonstrated in the Euro elections is sufficient to mandate an appearance by the fascists on Question Time. This is disingenuous, since we know that the BBC have been angling to arrange an appearance on the show by the BNP for a couple of years now, well before the recent election results. Secondly, it isn't true that the only consideration here, even in the BBC's own terms, is the demonstrated electoral support of a particular party. The BBC is owned by the public - all license fee payers are 'subscribers'. For that reason, despite its paternalism and instinctive sympathy for power, it has to at least answer to the public in some way. It has developed a set of discourses and practises that interpret its public service remit - the two key ones being 'trust' and 'compliance'. Those presenting and producing programmes have to get clearance from 'compliance' - a producer, an editor, an executive - who will approve or decline potentially troublesome incidents in a programme. Rosen pointed out that one example of 'compliance' at work was exhibited in a recent programme about King George VI. Because old George had a stutter, he was depicted as having a stutter. It had to go to compliance who advised that there was 'too much stutter' in evidence. So, there is no such thing as 'free speech' in the BBC: editorial controls are vast and intricate, and in this case deferred completely to any possible concerns of George's daughter, the current tinpot monarch, and her disgusting and illiterate family. As regards 'trust', the BBC requires that viewers - subscribers, co-owners in a sense - trust whatever appears on the BBC, and everyone who works for the BBC has to commit to upholding that trust. Trifling controversies, such as the Ross-Brand affair, constituted a breakdown in compliance and a breach of trust. So, the idea that hosting a fascist politician, with an explicit commitment to purging Britain of all of its non-white citizens, is in any sense uncontroversial by the standards of the BBC itself, is utterly false. What the BBC are doing is breaking with their own conventions to promote a fascist party before millions of people.

The third party we have to understand is New Labour. Gary Younge reminds us that when we see that fascist spouting off on national television to an audience of millions, those principally responsible for disseminating the racist ideology about Muslims that the BNP so ably exploits are the New Labour hierarchy. Jack Straw, who is to appear on the show with Griffin and promises to be really rather stern with him, is a cardinal offender. It was he who didn't want to talk to a constituent who was wearing a niqab, though he evidently feels up to chatting politics with a Nazi who is committed to driving every last non-white person out of Britain. It was he who, as Jerry Dammers of The Specials pointed out at the UAF meeting, insisted that Asians should speak English in their own homes. Dammers asked: "If Straw moved overseas to a country where English wasn't the first language, would he stop speaking English to his family? Of course he wouldn't. What racism!" And Straw is a man whom we are supposed to look to as a champion of antifascism in this debate. Indeed, a whole number of dubious opponents of fascism are emerging these days. And while one is happy for the BNP to be attacked by anyone and everyone, sometimes the stench of hypocrisy accompanying such attacks mitigates their force. A particularly poignant example are those army generals who want to murder Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, but don't want their good name to be besmirched by association with the far right. Aside form the questionable anti-racist credentials, army generals have a pretty poor record, historically on antifascism. All of this reinforces the point that one can't rely on the great and the good facing down fascism on our behalf. The tradition of antifascism that has been effective in the past has been that involving the grassroots authorising themselves and taking action independently to stop the fascists, regardless of how much the media demonised them, and regardless of how much the bourgeois politicians pleaded for such matters to be left in their hands.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The theory of crisis posted by Richard Seymour


We live in interesting times. The hawkish governor of the Bank of England is railing against the City, and the government's failure to fundamentally reform the financial system. He is railing against the debt/speculation model of the economy that has been in place for decades, and which both Labour and the Tories have sought to conserve. He notes that taxpayer money is now being used to fuel another speculation bubble, and that economic outcomes for millions of people depend on the activities of a small, powerful group of institutions whose profits depend on risk and instability. True, his agenda is a conservative one that fits neatly into the coming Tory administration's theme of an 'age of austerity'. Yet, it does express more than that, coming as it does amid some dubious talk of 'green shoots'. For example, last Wednesday's Evening Standard exulted, in response to a rise in share prices, the value of Sterling, and in City bonuses, that "Britain bounces back". That sort of short-sighted cheerleading already looks stupid. Bear in mind that industrial production in the advanced capitalist economies contracted at least as rapidly in 2008-9 as it did in 1929-30. The fact that the states governing these economies are committed to continuing with stimulus plans for the foreseeable future is indicative of how deep they think this crisis can go. King's warning shot suggests that he knows how tentative any recovery signs are. Meanwhile, other forces on the right are drawing some novel conclusions. Niall Ferguson, a neoconservative known for his hostility to marxism, has even been bigging up Bukharin and Lenin's critique of state monopoly capitalism, albeit in the name of some chimerical 'free market'.

First principles
These are not the first examples of ideological disorientation that I have had cause to comment on. Neoliberalism has not been over-ridden as a growth strategy yet, but its intellectual sustenance is increasingly threadbare. Perhaps it is time to go back to marxian first principles. At least, I'd like to do that, as much as to help me process the ideas as anything else. What does marxism tell us about capitalist crisis? Capital enjoins us to start with the things being bought and sold, commodities, and asks us to consider what is novel about them. Any good that you possess, be it a DVD or your ability to perform mental and physical labour, can become a commodity if you just enter it into circulation as a good to be exchanged. You put the DVD on eBay, and advertise your availability and CV on Totaljobs or whatever, and both goods are instantly commodities. And if you do decide to exchange a good, you want to exchange it with something of equivalent value. Marx puts it thus: "To the owner of a commodity, every other commodity is, in regard to his own, a particular equivalent, and consequently his own commodity is the universal equivalent for all the others." If you sell your DVD for a fiver, you figure that the goods which could be bought with that fiver are in some sense equivalent to the good you've just sold.

But this value is a mysterious kind of substance. It isn't the subjective value that a good might have for an individual, as that can hardly be the basis for an exchange of equivalents. It isn't 'use value', in other words. There has to be another 'exchange value' which all commodities have, and which render them commensurable with one another. I was told by teachers that the value of goods traded on the market was determined by supply and demand: a healthy supply and poor demand would reduce prices, and vice versa. Yet, supply and demand merely equilibriates the system: it accounts for price fluctuations but not for the underlying value that they fluctuate around. If you assume perfectly equivalent supply and demand, you still have to account for why the price settles at a particular rate and not another rate. For Marx, as for the classical political economy that he was trying to reformulate, the source of value is in labour. The exchange value of a commodity is determined by the "average amount of socially necessary labour" embodied in it. That is, if a coat is of equal value to a mobile phone, this reflects the total amount of labour that has gone into making each good. A good can be very useful to us without having any exchange-value. Air is obviously a use-value of supreme importance, and it would be difficult to support a mortgage and an average-sized family without it. But to make it saleable, you would have to - in Lockean terms - mix your labour with it, or buy someone else's labour to mix with it. You could, say, make 'air in a can' with certain unique properties not found in nature, thereby producing it in such a way that it would both have an exchange value, and a use value for the potential market that would enable one to realise that exchange value.

It is worth pointing out, en passant, that even at its most abstract, Capital is always historicising. So, for example, Marx traces these conceptual operations - use value, and exchange value - to the historical origins of markets themselves out of barter between different communities. As the productive capacity of each community develops, "the need for foreign objects of utility gradually establishes itself. The constant repetition of exchange makes it a normal social act. In the course of time, therefore, some portion at least of the products of labour must be produced with a special view to exchange. From that moment the distinction becomes firmly established between the utility of an object for the purposes of consumption, and its utility for the purposes of exchange. Its use-value becomes distinguished from its exchange-value."

The money fawcet
If, for the sake of this argument, we accept this account of value, then the mystery only deepens. For we are constantly exhorted to believe in another account of value which clashes with it: the 'golden egg' theory. Save your money, you are told, or invest it, and it will just magically increase in value. Buy a private pension scheme for a fraction of your weekly earnings, and when you retire you can have a lavish, hedonistic lifestyle that would make Jan Moir choke with fury. Better yet, save enough money to use as start-up capital, become a capitalist and one can, with sufficient nous, acquire enough dough to get Lord Mandelson's telephone number. Something very nebulous and mystical about the process of abstaining from immediate consumption, and entering this money into circulation as money-capital, causes it to produce a 'surplus value', above and beyond what was originally invested. In neoclassical accounts, this added value is a reward for abstinence. That might serve as a moral-religious justification for profit, but unless we just assume that God, or Providence, or the Geist actually intervened to produce this bonus, it doesn't actually work as an analysis. The added value must come from somewhere, and we have already accepted that the source of value is labour.

Yet, we have also said that exchanges in the market take place as an exchange between equivalents. If that's true, no one should end up with more value than they started with. We can't have it both ways. So, if a capitalist employs labour, he buys a person's labour power for eight hours a day for precisely its exchange value (setting aside odd examples of de facto slavery, partially voluntary wage systems involving tips, etc.), no more and no less. But what is the exchange value of labour power? On the basis of what we have said, it must be the amount of labour required to reproduce it, ie the socially necessary labour embodied in that combination of goods and services that will enable a worker to return to work the next day and perform her duties in a normal way. So, where does this surplus value come from? How does one extract value from the consumption of a commodity?

Marx's answer, of course, is that labour is a unique kind of commodity in that it has the capacity to produce more value than it is actually worth on the market. You know how that goes. If you're employed in medium-sized service sector company that supplies goods, say market research, to other companies, they typically include the cost of your labour in the bill. If you ever see this bill, and the breakdown, you're likely to find that the cost of your labour is substantially higher than your wages. Merely as an anecdotal example, in a firm I worked for some years ago I discovered that when I was seconded to a sister organisation for a week or so, they charged that sister organisation £40 an hour for my services. I wasn't being paid £40 an hour, though I was being paid the correct market rate for my labour power (which was less than £10 an hour). So, there was a gap between the exchange value of my labour power and the value produced by my labour.

Class struggle, and the composition of capital
This distinction between labour-power, the "aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being", and labour, which is the exercise of those capacities, is clear enough. It is the former which the capitalist purchases, and the latter which produces his surplus value. That is the exploitative basis of the labour-capital relationship, the main axis of class relations in a capitalist society, and of course the basis for constant struggle. This struggle isn't just collective, in the sense of trade union bargaining over wages, or left-wing political struggle for reform or revolution. It is more often than not individual, in the sense of cutting off work early, taking long breaks, arriving late, throwing sickies, working slow, wasting time on the internet, etc. Parenthetically, the latter comes with a certain kind of shifty, guilt-ridden disavowal. I recall at a previous workplace, where individualism and competitiveness predominated, if someone was caught skiving by the boss they would always try to rationalise it to the rest of us. They either didn't understand that everyone but the most deluded and dedicated workhorse was doing exactly the same things, or they maintained the pretence of being part of a 'team' because they were careerists. Anyway, the basis of surplus value and thus of profits is labour. The largely notional values that circulate in the stock market, are all derivative of values produced by labour.

Yet, there's another problem right away. Capitalists wouldn't be capitalists if they didn't want to augment that value as much as possible. They operate in a competitive system, and they have to invest some of their profits in new means of increasing their surplus value throughout each cycle of production. They can find ways to make the workers go faster, labour harder, and so on, though always at the risk that some of them might get truculent. Here, another distinction is of use: between constant capital (machines, equipment etc used in the production process) and variable capital, which is the human input. If investment in a labour-saving device will enable a capitalist to produce more goods and vie for a greater market share, while expending less on that variable capital (labour power), then this is the sensible thing to do. This drives technological innovation, though it also drives job losses - eg, while American commentators have been given to blaming job cuts on international competition and outsourcing to China and Mexico, the major source of job losses in recent years has been downsizing by American companies. Yet, if every capitalist acts in this way, as it seems to be sensible for them to do, then the aggregate amount of socially necessary labour embodied in the goods they produce is depressed, thus depressing their exchange value. This means that there will be a tendency for capitalists to find it increasingly difficult to realise their original investment plus surplus. In the long term, profits are likely to decline as the ratio of constant to variable capital (which Marx calls "the organic composition of capital") increases. This can be offset by various factors. Among these are the opening up of new avenues for investment and thus new deployment for labour, and financialisation, which can equilibriate the system by redistributing investment and supporting consumption. Financial innovation also opens up new investment opportunities, with speculation on future profits, speculation on that speculation, the sale of debt, speculation on the profits from the sale of debt, speculation on that speculation, etc. Yet, if these countervailing tendencies prove insufficient to offset the overall tendency of the rate of profit to fall, then investment will decrease, employment will fall, consumption of all goods will decline, and the economy will cease to grow. Without growth, capitalism is in crisis. The only way to restore growth is to destroy capital - through war or protracted depression - and resume the whole process of accumulation.

Destruction of capital
So, here we are in this disastrous consummation of neoliberalism, which itself was negotiated and imposed as a solution to a crisis of profitability that emerged in the 1970s. Profitability throughout the neoliberal era has been sustained by repressing real wages (in the leading industrial economy, they didn't rise in real terms for thirty years), breaking down the bargaining power of labour, increasing the crude rate of exploitation (longer working hours, productivity deals, etc.), and financialisation. Lower wages meant consumption had to be supported through debt, and financialisation meant that investment was increasingly dependent on Wall Street. That debt/speculation arrangement is what has just collapsed. According to Andrew Kliman (paper with detailed empirical evidence here [pdf], some further arguments here), the underlying problem that arose in the 1970s was not resolved. Insufficient capital was destroyed in the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, in contrast to the immense destruction of the Depression and WWII which resulted in the prolonged post-war boom. In that sense, the current crisis was merely deferred for a generation.

Kliman is interesting on the theory of crisis for a whole number of reasons, but mainly because he is one of the few economists to defend the labour theory of value in its marxian variant. I said earlier that, for the sake of argument, we would accept that Marx's theory of value was correct and proceed from there. One outstanding problem with the theory, though, has always been the 'transformation problem'. How do we get from exchange values, which we don't see on a daily basis, to prices, which we do? This is a crucial question. Bear in mind that the account of crisis that I have just sketched, with a pained and slightly comical expression on my face, depends on the idea that the prices of the goods sold on the market will not be sufficient to recoup the original investment, as the 'organic composition of capital' rises. To establish this, we need an account of how exchange values become prices. Many economists argue that no function can be established that will transform exchange values into prices. If that is the case, then Marx's crisis theory is presented with a serious problem. Prices may be decoupled from values in such a way as to render the latter a merely metaphysical construct with no relation to the real economy.

Marx's answer was presented in Capital Volume III, chapter 9. In it, he dealt with an issue arising from his previous analysis: if the organic rate of capital differs from industry to industry, the profit rates should vary considerably Yet, the observable tendency is for profits to equalise across economies. Marx argues that this is because investment flows between capital sectors to the most profitable areas - thus increasing the amont of goods produced, reducing prices, and lowering the overall profit rate - and away from the less profitable areas - thus decreasing the amounts of goods produced, raising prices and profits. While surplus value is redistributed through market transactions and realised in different ways, a 'general rate of profit' is formed. Thus, capitalists determine the price of their goods by looking at their input costs and adding a mark-up based on the general rate of profit obtained in that economy. In aggregate, then, the total price of commodities produced will equal their total value; the total profits will equal the total amount of surplus value produced. Thus, a wholistic view of the economy gives us the basis for transforming exchange values into prices. This account has been subject to numerous criticisms, mainly on the grounds that Marx inconsistently applies the transformation, failing to transform the values of inputs (constant and variable capital) into prices. Kliman defends Marx's account against these charges, though, arguing for what he maintains is an internally consistent picture of Capital that also conserves the argument concerning profit rates.

I raise all that, aware that Kliman's account remains controversial. Resolving such issues is far from my competence, but it's worth being acquainted with these arguments because if we are going to account for this 'age of austerity' that we face (actually an age of naked class war in which the rich are trying to place the burden of this crisis on us), we have to develop a consistent and viable theory of capitalist crisis. Despite the aporiae of marxian political economy, no other competing theory has come close to accounting for the empirical evidence of the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Commie speaks posted by Richard Seymour

Red Russian exile predicts US world dominance! (Eat Snacky Smores.)

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Myths of the Royal Mail strike posted by Richard Seymour

As a certain amount of contrived hysteria over the coming national postal strike circulates, there are two questions of absolute importance to bear in mind. What does Royal Mail's management want? And what does the government want? One part of the answer to these questions was furnished by BBC Newsnight last week (see report here), after an internal Royal Mail document was leaked to the programme. Entitled 'Dispute: Strategic Overview', the document lays out the plan for forcing the union to accept Royal Mail's terms for 'modernisation'. If the union did not accept Royal Mail's terms, management would just proceed to implement them regardless. The upshot of a complete success by Royal Mail management in this dispute would be the effective de-recognition of the union: forcing through major changes without negotiation with the workforce is exactly what companies without union representation are able to at liberty. This strategy, the document reveals, had the government's approval.

So, this is the first point: when you hear government ministers urge the CWU to 'return to the negotiating table', the reality is that Royal Mail management are the ones refusing to negotiate, with government backing. The business secretary and prince of the Brighton prom, Lord Mandelson, has already tacitly acknowledged the existence of the document, and ruled out the use of ACAS to arbitrate the dispute. The CWU has made repeated overtures, which have been rebuffed. This tendency on the part of Royal Mail's management to ignore conciliation and adopt bullying tactics is one reason why the vote for strike action was so overwhelming: 76% voted 'yes' for strike action.

In this connection, bear in mind what a future in Royal Mail without strong union representation would mean for a postal worker. It has been announced that Royal Mail has scrapped its anti-bullying week. The reason why this measure, among others, was introduced in the first place was because Royal Mail's management culture is one of the most retrograde in the whole of UK industry. Not only is the use of bully-boy management typical of the way Royal Mail handles disputes. It has long been part of the culture of management at sorting offices and depots across the country.

In 2001, an inquiry into Royal Mail's industrial relations by Lord Sawyer, Nicholas Underhill QC, and Ian Borkett of the TUC, was initiated by both the CWU and Royal Mail management to find ways to reduce the frequency of conflict (you can read the full pdf document here). This was after a series of unofficial actions brought sections of Royal Mail to a standstill - 95% of work days lost in 2000-1 were due to unofficial strikes beginning locally and then spreading through wildcat action. The report started from the assumption that workers' militancy was the problem to be averted, expressed disapproval of excessive worker involvement in managerial tasks, and was sympathetic to Royal Mail's 'modernisation' project. Yet, its findings highlighted an abysmal "authoritarian" culture in Royal Mail management, with managers insisting that workers ask for permission just to go for a slash or get a drink of water. Management knew how to apply punitive measures, even where they were inappropriate, but not much else. More senior managers, they found, were of a similar mentality. They refused to punish or confront "unacceptable behaviour" by frontline managers, evidently because they didn't find such behaviour to be "unacceptable".

What kind of behaviour might be hinted at in this cool terminology? Well, in 2003, it was disclosed that some 20% of staff had suffered bullying in the form of physical and mental abuse. Sometimes the abuse has taken on racist dimensions. In 2002, management had to make an unprecedented pay out of £100,000 to the family of a black postal worker who was driven to suicide after racist bullying by a group of managers. In another significant case, Mahmood Siddiqi was awarded almost £180,000 after it was revealed that he had been the subject of racist bullying for years that was condoned by managers on at least ten occasions when they might have acted to prevent it. Consider what might happen, with that sort of management culture operating without the constraints of a strong union. And think about that whenever you hear about 'union bullies', as you surely will.

Another part of the picture is that management want to reduce the cost of labour, to enhance the company's capacity as a profit-making institution. The inquiry led by Lord Sawyer acknowleged that aside from working in an unpleasant environment, postal workers traditionally suffer from low pay. The CWU points out that the average pay for a postal worker is much less than the average for skilled workers, even though managers enjoy lavish pay settlements with bonuses rivalling some of those bestowed on the oligarchs of the City. Royal Mail management would like to reduce workers' pay even further if they can, with proposed pay caps costing some workers £180 a week. This issue has been fuelling strikes across the country recently. (Royal Mail managers have responded to the strikes by scabbing). So, aside from job cuts, Royal Mail's current strategy involves forcing through a pay freeze, which is a de facto pay cut, while insisting on compulsory - but free! - overtime.

The next part of the story has to do with what the government intends to do with the postal service. Had Mandelson had his way, part of the Royal Mail would already be privatised. That had to be shelved last year, in part because of opposition from the backbenches. The major source of opposition to the privatization programme, though, is the organised Royal Mail workforce itself. So, in preparation for a renewed privatization drive, the government wants to decisively beat the union. Now, Mandelson has been very clear that this part-privatization proposal is just the first step toward full privatization. As Blair's secretary for trade and industry, he had always wanted Royal Mail "to be progressively private, even if if initially part of the company stayed in the Government's hands".

Already, the introduction of private competition has allowed companies like TNT and Citypost to bid for Royal Mail's more profitable contracts, while still using the Royal Mail's socialised infrastructure to actually deliver the mail. That has clearly been done in such a way as to make Royal Mail uncompetitive, and to blackmail its workforce into accepting changes that may not be for either their good or that of customers. Thus, in respect of the current strikes, The Guardian has reported - falsely, as it turned out - that the Royal Mail had lost a major postal contract for Amazon. The moral is clear, and cited by government ministers everywhere: strike, and people will just find other ways to get their mail delivered. Royal Mail managers have also claimed that the amount of mail being handled has declined, and that this in itself justifies substantial job losses in adaptation to a changing market. But postal workers have spotted the ruse behind this:

Mail is delivered to the offices in standard-size grey boxes. In the past, the volume was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There was an estimate for the number of letters in each box, decided by national agreement between management and the union: 208. So the volume of mail passing through each office was worked out: 208 letters per box, multiplied by the number of boxes. But in the past year, Royal Mail has arbitrarily reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box from 208 to 150.

Doubting the accuracy of this number, the union ordered a random manual count. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain 150 items actually carry 267. This manipulation explains how the Royal Mail can say figures are down when every postman knows that volume is up.


These myths - about union intransigence, about the economic necessity of job losses, about the superior efficiency of private competitors, etc. - are being deployed for the purposes of turning a low-cost public service provider into a marketplace of competing providers in accordance with the extraordinarily resilient neoliberal orthodoxy. This brings with it the usual problems - soaring costs, as companies seek to make a profit, duplication of capacity as they fight for market share, and poorer service as low paid, casualised and de-unionised workers are less committed to the job, and less likely to have the time and training necessary to develop their skills. Royal Mail, for all its faults, is one of the last bargains in town. Less than forty pence for a first class letter to anywhere in the UK is nothing. What else would you spend that money on? You couldn't even buy a pint of milk or a Mars bar with that money. Additionally, as much as businesses might whine when there is a strike on, capital makes a big efficiency gain with Royal Mail, especially if they use the metered mail service which gives them a further discount. Admittedly, the Royal Mail is not as cheap as America's socialised mail service, where a first class letter can cost as little as $0.44 (£0.27). But we can't all be as communistic as the yanks.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Mail's gay-bashing columnist 'speaks out' posted by Richard Seymour

Don't waste your time going to visit the Daily Mail website to read that Moir article. You can see the whole thing here. (Then, if you are moved by Charlie Brooker's column, you can complain here). As you'll have gathered by now, Mail columnist Jan Moir decided to use the death of singer Stephen Gately to suggest that something terribly sinister is afoot when gay men have relations. Gately died of natural causes, and the coroner's report confirmed this. Moir, though, smells a rat, and for once it isn't a co-worker. She induces that the cause of Gately's death must have actually been 'unnatural', in some sense related to his 'lifestyle'. (Can I just ask, in passing, whether my banal sexual and sumptuary habits amount to a lifestyle? Just curious.) Somehow, quite mischievously apparently, this was construed as homophobic. For, as Moir explains:

"The point of my column -which, I wonder how many of the people complaining have fully read - was to suggest that, in my honest opinion, his death raises many unanswered questions. That was all."

Yes. Unanswered questions. About the viability of gay relationships, particularly of 'civil partnerships', in light of the "ooze" of some supposedly "dangerous lifestyle" disclosed in the death not only of Gately, but also of Matt Lucas' partner, Kevin McGee. Those kinds of unanswered questions. Only a sick, politically correct, fascist bastard would construe that as evidence of homophobia. In fact, it's just common sense:

It seems unlikely to me that what took place in the hours immediately preceding Gately’s death - out all evening at a nightclub, taking illegal substances, bringing a stranger back to the flat, getting intimate with that stranger - did not have a bearing on his death.

Coroner reports are all very well, but they can hardly be expected to deter the unflabble and infallible inquisitive instincts of the Daily Mail glitterati. And anyway, Moir clarifies that civil partnership stuff:

In writing that ‘it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships’ I was suggesting that civil partnerships - the introduction of which I am on the record in supporting - have proved just to be as problematic as marriages.

Pause for a second and think about this. Moir is "on record" as supporting civil partnerships. That makes her practically a gay rights activist, for fuck's sake. Can you be so intolerant as to deprive a committed Stonewaller of the right to just ask some questions just because it might be a little bit inconvenient to your worn out ideology? Oh, sure. Some of you might have noticed the part of the article where Moir specifically contests the idea that civil partnerships are "just the same as heterosexual marriages", citing two recent celebrity deaths and the "dangerous lifestyles" they supposedly resulted from as evidence of her thesis. You might have even noticed that she appears to take exception to gays "always calling for tolerance and understanding". And, no doubt, in yet another affront to taste and manners, you are already forming your ignorant, ill-conceived opinions about her supposedly contradicting herself in a flatfooted attempt to evade responsibility for having written something vile. You might even be calling her a lying piece of shit at this point. But that's just because you are part of the conspiracy:

In what is clearly a heavily orchestrated internet campaign I think it is mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones.

Quite. This is an orchestrated hate campaign, mounted by you-know-who against a tolerant, inclusive, committed supporter of the gay community. She's not a homophobe, she's just asking questions. Incidentally, something odd happened earlier in the week. A perfectly healthy gay man died, painfully and horribly, in the middle of Trafalgar Square. His lifestyle was definitely related to the cause of his death. I hope Moir will not be put off by this spiteful campaign, and will take the time to examine this case and its implications for those tolerance-begging, understanding-seeking types in our midst. More power to her typing finger.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Another Wall Street bubble, thanks to the bailout posted by Richard Seymour

Guest post by redbedhead:

I suppose it shouldn¹t come as a surprise that the biggest of the big banks in America that sucked up tens of billions in government aid are now rolling in profits. That¹s how this game works. Thus, JPMorgan has just reported a 580% profit increase over last year to a whopping $3.6 billion third-quarter profit. The reason is, purely and simply, ­ that the money that the US government pumped into the banking and financial sector has created a new Wall St. bubble ­ with stock prices rising by nearly 50% to top the psychological benchmark of 10,000.

The actual meaning of that number is a mystery to most of us not initiated into the occult world of the stock market. But the basic gist is that there's a lot of cash floating around and people are doing to the stock market what they did to the housing market ­ bidding it up, out of relation to the value of the assets that they represent. The trouble is, in the real world, the shithouse is still burning. Community banks in the US, which make their profit by loaning money to people to buy houses, finance small businesses, other consumer loans, etc. are tanking badly. These 7,000 banks have collectively lost about $2.7 billion. And many are outright failing:

"Ninety-eight banks, mostly small, have failed so far this year, and regulators predict the harvest from the current recession is less than halfway complete."

The reasons why are straightforward, with loan delinquencies sitting at a record 4.35 percent and climbing ­ and real estate development loans have rocketed to 16 percent. Amongst homeowners, 7.35 percent were delinquent ­ - another record. In previously frothy markets like south Florida the freefall is continuing. According to one real estate agent foreclosures have risen by 25 percent compared to last year and the trend is higher. It is certainly possible that the present round of profit reporting ­ including a positive report from Intel Corp. boosting share earnings and projecting an extra $1 billion in revenue for the fourth quarter could in fact herald a recovery. But it¹s also the case that, like previous recessions ­ going back to the Reagan arms boom ­ this one will have been ended by laying the basis for the next one.

In particular, what we have seen in recent decades is a game of debt ping pong, with debts being shunted back and forth between governments, private individuals and the corporate sector (including banks). Until that debt can be dealt with it will act as a drag upon the economy and create other problems that will increasingly limit the ability of governments (in particular the US government) to act. My own view is that in the short to medium term, once the present round of "irrational exuberance" wears off ­ and I don¹t think it will last long once stockbrokers remember that there¹s a real world ­ will see us return to an extended period of stagnation. Some of the weaker centres of the system - droopy old Britain, for instance ­ may experience Icelandic types of crashes. As Nouriel Roubini might say, this ride ain't half over yet.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

The pitfalls of tolerance posted by Richard Seymour

Every now and again, I read something like this and have to stop and consider why it is inherently ridiculous and offensive. The Tories are lauded for adopting a new attitude of 'tolerance' toward homosexuals, and one feels an immediate pressure to partake of this cosiness, this idea that something uncomplicatedly benign is happening. Increasingly, moreover, one is apt to hear 'tolerance' name-dropped in respect of racial problems in the UK, in which the absence of 'tolerance' is either a euphemism for racism, or an attitude ascribed to supposedly self-segregating minorities. And in its function as part of a martial ideology, 'tolerance' is what NATO troops defend against 'native fanaticism'. The word and its various significations do a lot of ideological work, obscuring and inverting crucial social relations, and smuggling in a patronising attitude to the subjects of said 'tolerance'. Given this problem, I just wanted to clarify my thoughts by arranging them into a number of simple arguments, as follows:

I. There is a crucial distinction between the narrow terms of religious toleration, a doctrine elaborated in an attempt to manage Protestant schisms in early modern Europe (though the Ottoman Empire's 'millet' system could also be cited as an instance of toleration), and the broader terms of 'tolerance'. The toleration of religious belief is not on the same ontological plane as tolerance for ascriptive attributes. In its ultimate Lockean variant, the former asserted not merely the separation of church and state, but the privatization of ethical belief as such, the decoupling of religious or moral statements from social context. Alasdair Macintyre has useful commentary on this, but it is separate from the contemporary issue of 'tolerance'. The latter implies a model of political communities in which different groups and individuals experience one another as a burden that they have to put up with. It implies a fundamentally competitive model of human behaviour, whose excesses are avoided through tolerance. In this respect, it is deeply misanthropic.

II. Tolerance is an alternative to equality rather than an expression of it. Toleration in its old sense was compatible with bourgeois ideas of equality but, although 'tolerance' has a soft and generous texture to it, it bears a political freight of inequality, subordination and hierarchy. Thus, when American rightists are asked about gay marriage, their answer is that they are prepared to tolerate homosexuals but not dilute the 'sanctity of marriage' by allowing same-sex partners to wed. Even Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which banned known gays from serving in the military, would serve as a 'tolerant' alternative to legal equality, since it says that homosexuality can be tolerated as a private, or rather secret, affair of the individual.

III. Tolerance displaces social justice, and as such depoliticises intensely political questions. It became a dominant discursive tool in the 1990s precisely in such a way as to displace questions of power, discrimination and social justice. This was a novelty - in previous periods, anti-racist liberals and leftists were fully aware of the basically reactionary nature of racial 'tolerance', especially in US politics where northern elites would contrast their supposed tolerance with southern bigotry. That has to do with the success of the right in parlaying such questions into 'culture wars', in which - say - segregationist schools could assert their right to practise discrimination not by defending principles of white supremacy, but by defending local or indigenous cultural practises against an intrusively egalitarian state. They demanded tolerance for down to earth Christian folk, and railed against what they called 'reverse discrimination'.

IV. Tolerance is an expression of resentment. Historically it has been an attitude that dominative majorities adopt toward oppressed minoritiesm, and so it remains. To be the subject of this tolerance, one must have already been designated a worthy object of aversion by the majority, at best to be indulged on account of the magnanimity of those with power. To be the subject of this tolerance, one must already have been deemed normatively aberrant. That means that some sort of idea of what organically belongs and does not belong to a given political imaginary (community, nation, etc.) has already been stipulated: thus white rule, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. are often asserted in the very gesture of 'tolerance'. The subject of tolerance does not really belong, is foreign, and might easily be rejected by a much less tolerant host. As such, should the basis for this maganimity be undermined or threatened, tolerance can easily lapse into its opposite: "zero tolerance".

V. Tolerance has long had an imperial and colonial dimension which is greatly in evidence today. The Dutch empire has been lauded for its supposed tolerant attitude toward colonial subjects, in contrast to Spanish and Portugese rivals. Of course, said 'tolerance' was a pragmatic decision that made more commercial and colonial sense for the Dutch than trying to convert local Islamic sultanates to Calvinism. Puritan settlers in the New World practised 'tolerance' toward heathen Native Americans when they weren't busy wiping them out. Similarly, the British Empire tended to express its own cultural domination over the natives in terms of what may or may not be tolerated under British rule. Thus, William Bentinck, governor-general of the East India Company, wrote in 1829 on the practise of sati that the sole basis upon which it may be tolerated would be if such an attitude were necessary to conserve the many improving influences of the British empire as a whole. The discourse of Anglophone rule in South Africa was also framed in terms of tolerance: Cape Town, the centre of British commercial dominance, was lauded for the 'racial tolerance' practised there, in the context of racist imperial rule. Even when the labour practises of British capital began to stratify workers by race, from the Glen Grey Act onward, the dominant tone of colonial discourse remained that of 'tolerance' of the natives. And it was in stark contrast to the incoherent 'native fanaticism' that contrived false grievances against the empire, and persisted with intolerant cultural practises despite the attempts at education and racial uplift. In the contemporary Huntington/Lewis/Ignatieff school of imperial thought, tolerance is once more a peculiar attribute of Euro-American states, noticeable for its absence in the Orient. 'We' are tolerant because we have mastered our cultural biases, our instinctive narcissism and hostility toward others. We have assayed them and submitted them to the rule of reason. Instead of romantic nationalism and religious devotion, we have civic nationalism and belief constrained by inquiry. 'They' are intolerant because their cultural biases dominate them. Their alleged hostility and self-involvement, their desire to speak their own language and wear their own religous garb, is a sign of their fanatical rejection of tolerance.

All of which is to say that when we hear about tolerance, and it comes with a certain amount of self-congratulation (think of Blair and Major blissfully eulogising about a modern, tolerant England, relaxed and at ease with itself), its more sinister dimensions should come to mind and caution us against luxuriating in that sense of warmth and humanity that the term exudes.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Encircling Kabul posted by Richard Seymour

The latest analysis from what used to be known as the Senlis Council says that 80% of the territory of Afghanistan currently experiences "heavy" insurgent activity. 17% experiences what they call "substantial" insurgent activity. And a mere 3% of the territory, in a region called Sari Pul where the dominant language is Dari Persian and the dominant ethnicity Uzbek, experiences only "light" insurgent activity. The number of insurgents, as estimated by the US, has risen from 7,000 in 2006 to about 25,000 today, which slightly more than the total number of insurgents reported killed.

The figure offered by the US seems likely to be a sizeable underestimate. This 25,000 or so insurgents are supposed to be ranged against almost 65,000 ISAF troops, 45,000 non-ISAF American troops, 9,000 British troops and purportedly 100,000 members of the Afghan National Army (most of whose troops are probably working for the ruling pro-US warlords). The implication is that a combined army of over 200k troops armed to the teeth and with godlike aerial power to back them up can't thwart an insurgency of an eight of the size with comparatively poor weapons and no air force. There must be a substantially larger hardcore of insurgents, and a very large periphery in the supporting population. This is what is so illogical about the continued pretense by US-led forces that their foes are an unpopular rump. They may once have been, but evidently now command the loyalty of broad social layers, perhaps comprising a majority in places such as Helmand. Still, if the figures nonetheless correctly identify a trend, then the insurgency has more than tripled in size since 2006.

Not only are the insurgents growing in number, the sophistication of their attacks is increasing. For example, a recent attack on a military outpost in Nuristan killed eight American soldiers. Another attack on a UK base in the Helmand province killed a British soldier. These are just samples from the dozens of weekly attacks that strike occupation forces. Now, Obama - anxious to justify that Nobel prize, no doubt - is looking at the idea of buying off a section of the insurgency, just as Bush was able to do with a layer of the Iraqi resistance. The alternative is the McChrystal plan of sending up to 60,000 more troops, which is known to divide the Democrats and will force Obama to rely on GOP support if he wants to push it through. The assumption behind the idea of paying insurgents to fight on the American side, though, is that the majority of those fighting the US take up arms because it pays well. Perhaps that's true of some, but the reality is that what has escalated the insurgency from being a relative nonentity into a force that could (so military leaders predict) defeat the combined occupying forces is the mode of rule and repression that the US has developed. The client-state of warlords, the air war, the selective 'war on drugs' are all mainstays of the occupation, and can't easily be dispensed with. Moreover, the success of this strategy in the 'Sunni triangle' depended on the occupiers' ability to coopt the leadership of some of the disarticulated networks of military resistance that characterised the Iraqi insurgency. The leadership of the insurgency is nowhere near as divided in Afghanistan, and the 'neo-Taliban' are waging a smarter war than those fragmented groups that have been fighting in Iraq. The only realistic option for those still committed to this war is escalation. However, that then raises the question of whether America's allies are prepared to throw in more troops and money - an issue over which NATO has divided before.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Party like it's 1989 posted by Roobin

If 1989 is important it’s because it’s the only commonly agreed year of revolution in living memory. The student-worker uprising in China during the summer was spectacular enough. By the end of the year government after government in Eastern Europe fell into retreat or fell outright. This process was crowned by the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, the anniversary of the revolution in 1918 that toppled the Kaiser and finally ended World War One.

1989 happened because a global economic crisis combined with the rocketing pressure of the second cold war to bring down the weaker superpower. The Stalinist Empire, which only 20-30 years previously looked so imposing, had ground to a halt.

Having created a military-industrial complex on the sweat and oppression of millions of working people the Eastern Bloc had built up huge industrial capacity from an impoverished base with little outlet on the world market. This was evidenced by the steep economic and social decline that hit Eastern Europe once it was opened to direct market competition. As the global tendency shifted from protected national economies to the dominance of multi-national corporations the Eastern Bloc began to fall behind.

It also had the added problem that the economy was entirely state owned. In an exploitative society with state ownership of the means of production there cannot be any meaningful democracy.

Western economies had come under great strain since the breakdown of the long boom. This not only caused economic turmoil but also provoked heated class struggle right at the heart of the system. The relative freedom granted in the west meant that this struggle could be diverted. The groups thrown up by the struggle could be absorbed and neutralised.

There was little scope in the east for generating consent. The state had to maintain a constant war against the population. There are numerous examples of grotesque Stalinist oppression. One example: by the end of the DDR anything up to 10% of the population was in the pay of the Stasi, a recipe for social derangement.

This sort of oppression was not a problem when the stalinist system was founded, during the stage of primitive accumulation, when Stalin pitched Russia into making good the 100-year gap with the west in 10 years. As the system developed and expanded westward it became more and more difficult to extract surplus value by squeezing the population.

But attempts at reform tended to result in rebellion, witness the events of 1953, '56 and '68. Any expression of social conflict was liable to become a challenge to the state system, and the state and ruling class were one and the same under stalinism.

The legacy of the revolution was used by the western ruling classes as further evidence (piled on top of their own recent neo-liberal assault) of the decline and death of socialism. Likely readers of this post will know that the above argument is a state capitalist argument. Put simply, what was passed by many (including the western ruling classes) as Actually Existing Socialism was, actually, a system of exploitation of wage labour. At root the systems east and west were the same.

The idea that Russia and its satellites represented some form of socialism must be challenged. It will be overcome as part of the process that creates a new and purposive working class movement at the core of the capitalist system. The working class is the only possible leader in a movement for socialism. Part of the difficulty in overcoming the Actually Existing… argument (however expressed) has been the lack of movement and, therefore, relative unreality of socialism.

Connected with this argument is the line put that this was a good revolution, at last! It was a nice, peaceful, bloodless process, except in China and Romania of course, but there are always exceptions.

This is interesting because the revolutions were not welcomed in as simple manner by the western powers at the time. In his book The Revenge of History, Alex Callinicos lists some of the queer statements from thinkers and heads of state given at the time of the revolutions. They were mostly musing, “whither NATO?” You get the sound of Margaret Thatcher praising the Warsaw Pact as a force for peace and stability. Various defence analysts insisting that the defunct treaty be revived.

There were geopolitical concerns, such as what to do with a reunified Germany. But more than anything else there was a concern about what had been unleashed. Millions of people had been moved by the revolution, the old regime was blown away by great passions that could prove hard to extinguish.

But, aside from the decade-long conflict in the Balkans (a rather large aside), the fires were put out. Within a matter of months, for example, members of Solidarity arguing for austerity measures, job losses and cuts. A common event in post-revolutionary Europe.

The watchwords of the revolution were democracy and freedom. But these are ambiguous terms in need of content. The people who ended up filling these terms were the ones thrown up by the revolution, combinations of well-known dissidents and free market radicals from the old CP. Though they had different motives and came from different directions they had arrived at the same point. The neo-liberal turn had an ideological, as well as economic effect inside the empire.

It could not have harmed that western governments took an interest in these movements. While the US was dealing in counter-revolution on the cheap in places like Nicaragua and Angola it also spent time and money courting the leaders of Solidarity, helping it on its way from radical workers councils to social liberalism. The US government took a similar interest in Serbian revolution and opposition groups such as Otpor.

What became known as revolution after 1989 was a nebulous formula where people appeared on the streets, something happened in government and a ‘revolution’ took place. This trick has been pulled off several times recently, in places like Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgystan. Others have tried and failed, for example, in Tibet, Lebanon and Zimbabwe.

The missing X factor is outside intervention. The United States has a policy of intervening where it can tip the global balance in its favour. It cultivates client groups within local ruling classes who then (in the absence of any genuine alternative) try to use social conflict as a shoehorn into power.

Two more examples: George Bush declared a democratic revolution for the Middle East and began by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. The men and women chosen to formally rule these ‘liberated’ countries were particularly useless and added to the eventual failure of occupations. The point is, however, we now have imperial game play through ‘revolution’.

The revolutionary grand tour recently swung by Latin America. The upheavals there produced new watchwords. Movements were driven by ideas such as autonomy, popular power and civil rights. The Latin American revolutions put genuine content back into political demands.

Modern capitalists may or may not be facing an immediate crisis such as the one that faced their state capitalist cousins in 1989. Things are unlikely to settle down soon. Whatever the coming struggles there will be a battle on to keep the social and political aspects of the movement linked.

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