Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, December 31, 2007

A Happy New Year

Let's hope it's a good one.

Without any fear.

Planetary Geoengineering, Planetary Escapism, and the Anti-Democratizing Politics of Retro-Futurism

Jamais Cascio has published an enormously disturbing post on his blog Open the Future in which he indicates that he is becoming "increasingly convinced that, whether we like it or not, geoengineering is going to become a leading arena of environmental research and development in the coming decade."

"Geoengineering" is rather like the process of terraforming one encounters in science fiction novels that describe the process of re-engineering human-hostile alien planets into hospitable ones, but applied to the earth itself... on an earth that has been made inhospitable through human carelessness and greed. More specifically, geoengineering would involve deliberate, presumably megascale, interventions into geophysical systems intended to produce beneficial or remedial changes in climate and the terrestrial environment as a whole.

We are all aware that the practices of extractive petrochemical industry have produced planet-scaled environmental changes already -- namely, global warming, aquifer depletion, topsoil loss, species loss, cancer epidemics, and so on.

The idea of geoengineering is enormously attractive rhetorically and psychologically because it represents a would-be redemptive face of this human caused environmental catastrophe: proposing the application of industry to the wounds wrought by industry, proposing the progressive redirection of human ingenuity from the short-sighted personal pursuit of greed to the foresighted collective pursuit of a sustainable and resilient technoscientific human civilization.

But as Cascio together with many other environmental scientists and activists have repeatedly pointed out, the "technofixes" inspired by the geoengineering imaginary tend to be simplistic in the extreme, tend to ignore the underlying structural and social problems that keep producing environmental catastrophes in the first place, tend to involve hyperbolic and overoptimistic claims amounting to matters of public relations rather than consensus science, and tend to inspire interventions that would almost inevitably prove later to be far more limited in their actual beneficial impacts than promised, sometimes would prove unfounded altogether in their assumptions, and all too often would end up making matters worse rather than better.

Cascio points out we cannot altogether "rule out a breakthrough discovery making this [geoengineering] strategy safer," and concludes that, hence, "for now, its only environmental value appears to be as a desperate, last-ditch effort to head off catastrophe."

I agree with Cascio here, but I will admit that I am incredibly reluctant to voice even this highly qualified and circumscribed support for any expression of the geoengineering imaginary. The reason I say this is because I am so keenly aware (as is Cascio, by the way, I doubt this is a disagreement between us) of the way incumbent interests have demonstrated themselves to be all too capable and even eager to manufacture the false apocalyptic scene of just such a final "catastrophe" demanding just such a "last ditch effort" when it suits their interests in maintaining and consolidating their hold on unjustified authority and unearned privilege.

I speak here not only of the obvious apocalyptic conjuration of a "Clash of Civilizations" and "Global War on Terror" whomped up by neoconservatives (not to mention neoliberals) in an effort to maintain US hegemony and the supremacy of corporate-militarist elites in the context of planetary energy and resource descent, but more specifically of arguments like that of James Lovelock who proposes that we have crossed an environmental "tipping point" to justify his recommendation that we immediately start building many more dangerous, unhealthy, expensive, politically Pharaonic nuclear power plants.

What Cascio isn't emphasizing quite enough in his account of the politics of geoengineering (this is, by the way, entirely a matter of emphasis in my view, since Cascio is definitely aware of the issues, does not neglect them in his arguments, and holds positions on these questions with which I generally sympathize) is that the geoengineering imaginary is suffused with the assumptions, interests, and habits of what Yochai Benkler calls The Industrial Model.

The Industrial Model is in its particulars both literally and figuratively monolithic, centralized, and hierarchical, whether applied to traditional industries like steel, transportation, broadcast media, print publication, or imposed (usually catastrophically) onto more traditionally peer-to-peer practices like agriculture, healing, research, or mentorship. As Benkler points out, the particulars of The Industrial Model derive historically from the inter-implicated exigencies of risky capital-intensive investment (in the means of production, public infrastructure, and the like) taken on by moneyed and authoritative elites and by the distribution and application of limited but generally usefully knowledge by credentialed experts and professionals from core to periphery.

The contemporary face of democratic politics in my view consists primarily of the resistance of elite incumbent interests that have long preferentially benefited from social and cultural formations defined by The Industrial Model to the radically democratizing forces unleashed by peer-to-peer planetary networks and the collaborative practices they facilitate. As a practical matter, environmental politics represent the most urgent problems with which we are grappling collectively in this historical moment, but as a conceptual matter, these environmental politics politics represent one among a number of skirmishes across a technodevelopmental terrain undergoing the fraught transformation from industrial-elitist to p2p-democratic assumptions, institutions, practices, norms, and ends.

To clarify what I mean by this, let me point out that I read Cascio's comment on the rise of the geoengineering imaginary in light of Naomi Klein's equally disturbing recent piece in The Nation, Guns Beat Green, in which she shows that investment in general and venture capitalists in particular are throwing enormous amounts of money at the moment into military r & d, surveillance, privatized security, gated community services for the rich and so on, rather than into the enormously promising avenues for solar, wind, desalination, and other renewable technologies that one would expect -- especially given the Greenwashed public face corporate-militarism likes to show the world via the bought and paid for corporate media at every opportunity these days.

Although I would not want to deny the force of straightforward head-in-the-sand climate-change denialism and the usual Ugly American Exceptionalism in play in much of the skewed monetary investment and attention Klein is documenting in her piece, what seems to me most chilling in the story she is telling is that beneath the surface of much of the public cheerfulness and denialism of our corporate-militarists in the face of human-wrought environmental catastrophe is some serious behind-the-scenes plotting and planning that is clearly premised on an awareness of the scale, scope, and pace of climate disaster quite as keen and shrill as that which one might hear from the keenest and shrillest environmental scientists and advocates incumbents are so quick publicly to disdain.

This is because the actual environmental politics of incumbent interests is not so much Denialist as Escapist on Klein's account here.

Ultimately, I think the escapist fantasies of moneyed and war-criminal corporate-militarist elites is just that: facile fantasies.

Whether they hope to abscond with their ill-gotten loot and sex-slaves to Dubai or some tropical tax-haven or beneath a bubble-dome on Mars or in the asteroid belt (as one finds seriously discussed by more "futurologically" inclined corporate-militarists, typically the ones who really fancy themselves the smartest guys in the room wherever they go, poor things), the greedy bloodyminded would-be aristocrats who have been cheerleading humanity largely against our regular and loudly expressed will through the interminable unnecessary murderous vulgar and gross chapters of their "Great Game" and war adventuring will surely discover to their cost that they are finally no more secure atop their piles of treasure and skull-heads than anybody else is from environmental devastation and violent social unrest.

And so, it is probably right to say, when all is said and done, that while the Escapists are not Climate-Change Denialists in stricto senso, theirs is still a Denialist position… It is the usual denialism of people attracted to the reactionary rightwing politics of incumbents and self-appointed elites, the denial of the facts of the dependence of all individuals, however momentarily august and glorious they may be, on the collective inheritance of history and on the ongoing collaboration of their fellows for their survival and flourishing.

What Klein and Cascio are documenting, then, in my view, are two different but importantly complementary faces of the anti-democratizing politics occasioned by the growing planetary awareness of and increasing impacts of environmental catastrophes:

The "Geoengineering" Imaginary, on the one hand, represents the efforts of incumbent interests to divert as much energy, investment, intelligence, and attention to Industrial Model solutions to environmental problems, not because these are the best solutions to the problems but because these are solutions least likely to challenge their authority and privileges -- as authors and facilitators of these very problems -- but more likely in fact, obscenely enough, to represent opportunities for the further consolidation of their authority and further accumulation of their privileges.

The "Escapist" Imaginary, on the other hand, represents the desires and efforts of incumbent interests to insulate themselves from the adverse, unsustainable, socially destabilizing impacts of the of their irresponsible profit-taking enterprises (no doubt soon enough to include their opportunistic embrace of geoengineering strategies), primarily through an ultimately doomed fantasy of perfect physical sequestration and perfect military supremacy.

And so, one encounters yet again in the industrial and incumbent-elitist confrontation with environmental catastrophe a deeply conservative (however "futurological") politics conjoining a selective fetishistic embrace of the technoscientific toypile to a selective hysterical disdain of the open secular democratic technoscientific multiculture on which scientific discovery and progress actually depend to produce the usual idiotic feudalist retro-futurism.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Today's Random Wilde

The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity. But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Scattered Speculations on Secularism, Atheism, and Anticlericalism

The noisier advocates of organized authoritarian religiosity -- and especially troubling to pervy atheistical folks like me, Christianism in America -- seem enormously eager to collapse the notion of secularism with that of atheism, and I worry somewhat that some of the more careless advocates of the "new militant atheism" (so called) are abetting the theocrats in this facile identification.

In my view, it is crucial to distinguish secularism, atheism, and anticlericalism as stances -- all three of which I happen myself to advocate, but separately and each for different reasons -- else real mischief can result. This is especially so in a fraught era when, on the one hand, there is conspicuous contestation around issues of the proper relations of public citizenship and private faithfulness, as well as, on the other hand, at once reductive and expansive attitudes toward scientific rationality are apt to take on some of the historical coloration of organized religiosity (and no doubt the latter contributes to the former, and vice versa).

First off, for me the essence of secularity is the demarcation of private from public life as represented not by the ancient separation of oikos and polis (a problematically feminized and subordinated household economy as against a masculinized and valorized civic sphere), but by the more modern separation of Church and State. As it happens, I actually have a much more elaborated and idiosyncratic view of secularity (I'm a theoryhead, you have to expect these sorts of things from me) involving the demarcation of scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political practices of warranted belief, but one doesn't have to follow me down that path to get the substance of my argument here.

Be all that as it may, the iconic scene that captures secularity most essentially for me is the one in which the practitioner of some marginal religious practice or an atheist testifies in a court of law without calling the scene of civic adjudication into question.

The secular is sometimes taken as synonymous with the worldly and distinguished from the otherworldly, and on this basis some describe as secular only those societies in which there is no prominent role for religious belief or practice -- but it seems to me that the substantial content of religious belief and practice is in fact perfectly worldly and so this does not seem to me to be a useful characterization.

Now, atheism, for me, is a matter -- and quite true to what one should rightly expect from the term itself, actually, a-theist -- of doing "without god" in my personal life. I can't honestly say that I think there is much that is particularly positive or substantial entailed by this doing without god that I seem to have been doing cheerfully for a quarter century now, any more than there would be in pointing out that I do without phlogiston or heroin in my personal life.

Since the various characterizations and proofs of the existence of god I have stumbled on in my philosophical travels have never seemed to me particularly coherent, and certainly not to pass muster in the face of the standards of warranted assertability that apply in other circumstances when a person is offering up a candidate description as more useful than others in the way of prediction and control of the my environment, I must admit I have for the most part come to assume that people making what appear to be such assertions are really testifying to profound aesthetic experiences of the sublime and beautiful of a kind that make much more sense to me, whether from hikers recounting their encounters in wilderness, sensualists recounting their encounters in orgies, English majors recounting their encounters with Burroughs or Blake, esoteric mystics recounting their encounters in meditation or whirling, cognitive dissidents recounting their encounters with acid or mushrooms, and so on.

I will say that it seems to me to do equal disservice to the varieties of both mystical and magickal lifeways as well as to the variety of lifeways that do without god to shoehorn them into bland idiotic generalities like "people of faith" or "atheists" neither of which capture any of the worldly differences in practices or perspectives that constitute the substance of whatever is likely to matter most in the lives of all these variously believing folks.

As you can see, I'll admit that I think most of the attention atheism gets both from those who vilify and valorize "it" is wildly overwrought. Now, anticlericalism is another matter altogether.

It seems to me if the militant atheists were clearer about what really bothers them about organized religiosity they would shunt aside all the self-serving generalities about epistemology and irrationality and focus on the priestly patriarchal hierarchies that have captured especially the judeochrislamic monotheisms of the Book. I get especially annoyed when so-called "Champions of Science" (so much of whose "championing of science" seems to involve anti-intellectual diatribes by social scientists and culture warriors against effete elite humanities scholars in a sad and doomed effort to consolidate their own credibility as solid stolid He Men of Hard Science) claim to be carrying the torch of what they monolithically oversimplify as "the" Enlightenment Project.

For one thing, although it is clearly true that there were some atheists (or at any rate, close enough) among many of the key figures in especially the French and Scottish moments of the Enlightenment, the truth is that the overabundant majority of those figures were not, and indeed no small part of the various movements of European Enlightenment consisted of ferocious anticlerical interventions organized to faciliate more personal understandings of proper Christian faithfulness. Pesky facts like these should presumably matter to so-called "champions of science," especially given their endless harping on how devoted to truth they are compared to the rampant relativists and irrationalists they seem all too eager to dismiss everybody else as.

It is especially troubling to notice how often those who would claim to take up the torch of Enlightenment in historically insensitive ways coupled to militant enthusiasm go on to use this rhetoric to demand deference to authoritative would be elites and incumbent interests, precisely to the contrary of the anti-incumbency, anti-authoritarianism, anti-literalism that seem to me more properly to characterize the ethos of Enlightenment if one really must try to distill its complexities into a useful generalization.

This weirdly authoritarian commandeering of Enlightenment discourse seems to me to be afoot when militant would-be champions of Enlightenment mobilize racist construals of a hysterically monolithic Clash of Civilizations demanding we all do what the nice reasonable grown up executives and experts of white racist patriarchal capitalism tell us to do else be bulldozed by skeery highly sexed brown skinned irrationalists with guns who hate our freedom. (It is of course easily possible to criticize fundamentalist social formations without making recourse to such pathologizing and racist overgeneralizatoins and such are the criticisms I personally strongly prefer.)

This commandeering of Enlightenment also seems to me too often to be happening when militant would-be champions of Enlightenment mobilize anti-intellectual construals of a Fashionably Nonsensical Relativist Menace in the Elite Effete Humanities Academy among what are in fact mostly just sensible scholarly advocates of pragmatist, pluralist, social constructivist accounts of prevailing factual and normative descriptions soliciting belief, and propose instead that we defer to expert pronouncements (often by self-appointed "experts" without recognized qualifications in the actual fields under discussion) concerning vital technoscience questions rather than demanding a say in public decisions about the distributions of technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits that conspicuously affect us.

In such cases, it seems to me that these militant atheists, especially in their anti-political or presumably neutrally apolitical scientistic reductionist moods end up endorsing dangerously error-prone and parochially-minded authoritarian forms of technocratic clericalism in ways that endanger indispensable secular commitments. And despite the fact that I share their atheism (and am therefore very likely able enjoy a good joke and a drink at the bar with them whenever their talk turns to Festivus Poles, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or similar trivia), I must say that my own anti-authoritarian anti-clericalism and pluralist secularism in many cases seems to trump my capacity to endorse much in the way of their programmatic attitudes and commitments when all is said and done.

Postcards from Libertopia

Free Market Theory in Practice... Paradise!

Greetings from Beautiful Libertopian Baghdad!
L. Paul Bremer, who led the U.S. occupation of Iraq from May 2, 2003, until he caught an early flight out of Baghdad on June 28…

The tone of Bremer's tenure was set with his first major act on the job: he fired 500,000 state workers, most of them soldiers, but also doctors, nurses, teachers, publishers, and printers. Next, he flung open the country's borders to absolutely unrestricted imports: no tariffs, no duties, no inspections, no taxes. Iraq, Bremer declared two weeks after he arrived, was “open for business.”

One month later, Bremer unveiled the centerpiece of his reforms. Before the invasion, Iraq's non-oil-related economy had been dominated by 200 state-owned companies, which produced everything from cement to paper to washing machines. In June, Bremer flew to an economic summit in Jordan and announced that these firms would be privatized immediately. “Getting inefficient state enterprises into private hands,” he said, “is essential for Iraq's economic recovery.” It would be the largest state liquidation sale since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Bremer's economic engineering had only just begun. In September, to entice foreign investors to come to Iraq, he enacted a radical set of laws unprecedented in their generosity to multinational corporations. There was Order 37, which lowered Iraq's corporate tax rate from roughly 40 percent to a flat 15 percent. There was Order 39, which allowed foreign companies to own 100 percent of Iraqi assets outside of the natural-resource sector. Even better, investors could take 100 percent of the profits they made in Iraq out of the country; they would not be required to reinvest and they would not be taxed. Under Order 39, they could sign leases and contracts that would last for forty years. Order 40 welcomed foreign banks to Iraq under the same favorable terms. All that remained of Saddam Hussein's economic policies was a law restricting trade unions and collective bargaining.

If these policies sound familiar, it's because they are the same ones multinationals around the world lobby for from national governments and in international trade agreements. But while these reforms are only ever enacted in part, or in fits and starts, Bremer delivered them all, all at once. Overnight, Iraq went from being the most isolated country in the world to being, on paper, its widest-open market.-- Naomi Klein, Baghdad Year Zero

Greetings from Beautiful Libertopian New Orleans!

Greetings from Beautiful Libertopian Suburbia!
The wave of foreclosures that has rippled across the U.S. has already battered some of our largest financial institutions, created ghost towns of once vibrant neighborhoods -- and it's not over yet. -- From a report compiled for U.S. Mayors Conference, November, 2007.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Out for Edwards

I just stumbled upon an interesting site for any Amorous Mundyite Queers out there who share my own (sometimes somewhat muted) enthusiasm for the candidate John Edwards. Out for Edwards describes itself as "A network of LGBT grassroots supporters of John Edwards for President in 2008," and it is full of interesting information and perspectives for them as wants them.

MoveOn Year in Review

Take a couple of minutes and check out MoveOn's take on MoveOn's work in 2007, as told by MoveOn members themselves, and then, if you are so inclined take part, join up, donate.

Today's Random Wilde

Those who see any difference between soul and body have neither.

Bhutto: Hold Musharraf Responsible For My Death

[via Democracy Now]
Pakistani President Pervaz Musharraf has blamed Islamic militants but several associates of Bhutto have accused Musharraf himself of having a role. In an e-mail sent to a confidant in the US two months ago, Benazir Bhutto wrote that Musharraf should be held “responsible” if she was assassinated because his government did not do enough to provide for her security. Bhutto survived another assassination attempt in October shortly after she returned from exile.

For much more in-depth coverage, watch or listen to today's free newscast of Democracy Now!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tough Times for the Bill of Rights

The good people of the ACLU remind us just how hard these last seven years of the Killer Clown Bush II Administration have been on the US Constitution (which all those crooks and scoundrels swore to uphold and protect, by the way). Quite apart from abuses of "executive privilege," the bulldozing of the Congressional prerogative to declare war, the incredible unprecedented abuse (nearly an invention) of "signing statements" (and I'm leaving to the side here the dangerously anti-democratizing developments in a cowed Congress, a partisanized Judiciary, and a consolidated corporatized broadcast media establishment), Anthony Romero points out that of the ten articles of the Bill of Rights, nearly half have been seriously and specifically undermined in the last seven years:
Article I? "Faith-based" federal funding violates it. The Patriot Act undermines it. And NSA spying undercuts it.

Article IV? FBI National Security Letter abuses violate it. And the Patriot Act
overrides it.

Articles V and VII? Military Commissions Act restricts it.

Ending the catastrophic and criminal wars and occupations of this debased and devastated epoch is surely foremost in my mind as I contemplate the beginning of another election year in America, but reversing this damage to the Constitution and restoring the rule of law is pretty damn high on the list as well.

I spend most of my time here and derive much of my personal pleasure in talking about p2p democratization, talking about renewable, appropriate, and appropriable technodevelopment, talking about consensualizing emerging non-normalizing genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine, and talking about global basic income guarantees to circumvent wealth concentration via automation and subsidize peer production and citizen participation. You know, all the fun technoprogressive stuff.

But these days there is just no getting around and no getting over talking about these ongoing catastrophic wars and occupations, talking about the dismantlement of our civil liberties here and now by incumbent interests, some of whom really are just a hop skip and a jump away from embracing straightforward fascism to get what they want, talking about a neoliberal order of development, production, and trade that leaves overabundant majorities of people on earth (every one of whom is a potential peer in the collaborative project of enriching creative expressivity and shared problem solving) to die of easily treatable neglected diseases, starvation, resource descent, social dismantlement, "market discipline," precarity, weapons, drug, and human trafficking, and so on. You know, all the harrowing real stuff.

Edwards's Iowa Closer Ads

What do you all think?

It's broad brushstrokes time, of course, but the anti-corporatist message couldn't be more front and center. (Apparently, a comparably anti-militarist message is too much to ask.) Even if he went on to break our hearts, I think a victory with this message would be fantastically transformational and emancipatory for this country (I'm blogging and voting in the USA).

Today's Random Wilde

The only thing that can console one for being poor is extravagance. The only thing that can console one for being rich is economy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Left and Right, Back to Basics

It doesn't matter what you are called or flatter to call yourself politically (I'm beyond left and right! I'm fiscally conservative and socially liberal! I'm a conformist independent! I'm the mushy middle!) -- it doesn't matter what neologistic tag you've glommed onto online (Constitutionalist! Upwinger! Dynamist!) -- it doesn't matter what political party you belong to… the fact is that you are perfectly intelligible as a person of the progressive democratic Left if you affirm or feel inspired by the following basic ideas, just as you are perfectly intelligible as a person of the conservative incumbent-interested Right if you feel indifference, skepticism, or even hostility to the basic ideas that
[1] All people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them;

[2] People who are not misinformed or under duress tend, in general, to be capable of articulating their own interests, of testifying to their personal knowledge, and of contributing a worthy measure to the collaborative solution of shared problems;

[3] It is always possible and desirable, however costly and difficult it may be, to reconcile differences and conflicts between people in nonviolent ways -- and this includes disputes over questions of what constitutes violence;

[4] The act of informed, nonduressed consent is a foundation both of democracy and nonviolence;

[5] The public provision and administration of civil rights, basic income, healthcare, general welfare, and common goods facilitates a scene of consent that is nonduressed, while the public provision of the widest possible access to education and reliable knowledge facilitates a scene of consent that is informed, and acts of consent are legible and legitimate as such only to the extent that they are so informed and nonduressed;

[6] Progressive taxation of property and income provides a means to meet the basic conditions on which the doubly foundational scene of consent depends, while at once providing a popular check (no taxation without representation) on the dangerous policing authority of government as well as a check on the tendency of individual stakeholders -- especially those who happen to be momentarily invested with conspicuous wealth, authority, reputation, or attention -- to forget or disavow their ineradicable social and historical inter-dependence in the always collaborative project of creative expressivity and collective problem solving.

"Beyond Left and Right"

It is one of the occupational hazards of seeking to clarify one's views online in particular that one is constantly confronting befuddling cut-and-pasted worldviews articulating what amount to rather straightforward left or right political propositions in fact, but tangled up in a thicket of superfluous neologisms, undigested notions, conventions, terms, and frames deployed without much sense of their discursive, figurative, generic, or etymological entailments, or sometimes even their basic definitions.

I can't tell you how many times I've been caught up in arguments with right-wing corporate-militarists who deny that their political viewpoint is authoritarian or conservative at all, all evidence to the contrary, but constitutes some newfangled perspective "off the traditional political map," "Beyond Left and Right."

And once one has followed one of these dot-eyed reactionaries off the cliff-face of that traditional left-right map one is inevitably inducted into a bewildering labyrinth in which the often dime-thin differences that distinguish libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, crypto-anarchists, Randians, minarchists, agorists, dynamists, extropians, upwingers, classical liberals, neoliberals, neoconservatives and so on get invested with epic significance demanding endless hair-splitting analysis and inspiring endless claims of unsubstantiated confidence and originality.

Meanwhile, all this endless slogging through the swamp of reactionary right-wing bullshit, this swamp of proliferating neologisms and public relations spinning to keep thought off-kilter and profit on-target, has always obscured or altogether obliterated our devoting any attention at all to or attributing any significance at all to the crucial difference that makes a difference distinguishing all this right wing crapola from basic democratic left attitudes that represent the real living alternative to the whole dumb debased range of these right wing "ideas."

My whole adult life since high school I have been constantly sermonized that "all the new ideas are on the right," that all "the excitement and revolutionary fervor has shifted away from the left to the right," and so on. Usually it seemed to me upon actually listening to all these "new ideas" and "excited revolutionaries" that this was mostly a bunch of stupid white assholes saying fairly obviously trite and idiotic things, not to mention rather ugly usually racist things, and in general confusing theory with something like used car salesmanship. And while it is true that there often was a real excitement on display among the Movement Conservatives, the Ayn Randians, the libertarians (you know, people who vote Republican but who are personally cool with pot and hookers and, sometimes, atheists), the extropian libertopian techno-utopians, and so on, this excitement always seemed more to do with pulling off a heist or a scam or otherwise getting away with something naughty than the excitement of being undone and remade in the confrontation with new ideas or engaging in anything like real revolutionary struggle.

Cutting through all the bogus novelty, empty neologisms, and faux innovation, it seems to me that there remains in force a basic distinction between the left and the right, between conservative politics organized by incumbent interests and progressive politics organized by the diverse dynamic demands of the plurality of actual stakeholders to historical change in the world. And, no, it doesn't matter, hot shot, that these designations derive superficially from the placement in the congressional chamber of partisans of conservative against progressive politics during the French Revolution, any more than it matters that Red and Blue have acquired a comparably accidental association with conservatism and democracy through the mass broadcast mediation of election coverage in the United States, the underlying and in my view abiding countervailing political orientations captured in these various accidental formalisms are what matters here.

I know that many of my colleagues (especially those who share my own focus on the politics of disruptive technoscientific change) find this to be a real blind spot in my thinking, but I honestly think all the overheated re-mappings of the political terrain one stumbles onto in popular political prognostication (especially online) tend to be faddish distractions from the enduring analytic utility of distinguishing elitist from democratic political ends.

I don't deny that disruptive technodevelopments, for example, can scramble and befuddle customary left-right constituencies, formations, and so on. But it seems to me that a clear grasp of the traditional distinction of left from right, democratic from elitist politics, provides indispensable guidance in such moments of befuddlement, reminds us that traditional allies -- whatever our basic political orientation -- may not yet have found their way to a politically consistent accommodation of novelty (as neither yet might we ourselves), and so it is a useful thing to provisionally reorient ourselves by way of our basic principles.

If nothing else, in moments like those, especially democratically minded folks of the left know to set aside their comfortable allegiances and formulations and remember to actually pay attention to just who is profiting and who is bearing the costs of some novel development, who is doing all the talking and who is getting ignored, who is holding the guns and where are they pointed, and so on.

I have yet to confront a situation, however otherwise unprecedented, that ultimately seemed to me "Beyond Left and Right" in any significant sense, once I had devoted time to understanding it properly in those terms. Neither do I know of any progressive or democratic outcome that has been facilitated by an analysis that flattered itself that it was "Beyond Left and Right" in this way.

Given the special predilection of market libertarians (most of whom are, face it, perfectly intelligible as right wing reactionaries in most of their desired outcomes and many of their deepest assumptions) for the claim that they are "Beyond Left and Right," and given indispensability of the "Beyond Left and Right" formulations to the neoliberal corporate-militarist hijackings of the Democratic Party in the USA by the DLC in the Clinton Administration and of Labor in the UK in the Blairite era of the so-called "Third Way," one would expect especially democratically minded people to be leery by now of expressions of the desire to get "Beyond Left and Right." Too often that desire seems upon close scrutiny to amount to a rather facile, however effective, effort to get the people of the democratic left to take their eyes off the ball and so abet the Right in their ugly awful Business As Usual.

In Which I Champion Inefficient Unprofitable Messy "Massarchy," Whatever That's Supposed to Be

Upgraded and edited from Comments

It probably goes without saying that I cannot agree with the conclusion of my interlocutor "peco" from our conversation in MundiMoot yesterday, that what he is calling "massarchy" (and which he later admits is roughly a neologism, for whatever reason, for "democracy") is in any sense worse than oligarchy.

As a secular democrat I believe strongly that all people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them.

He (yes, I'm assuming that the pseudonymous "peco" is a "he") seems to disagree with that. I honestly cannot grasp how one squares any sense of basic human dignity or autonomy worth having with an indifference to all people having a say in public decisions that affect them.

I can only assume that anyone holding such a view either hasn't thought very clearly about their own vulnerability to abuse wherever such indifference prevails (despite the obviousness of this vulnerability exhibited in the world we actually are living in right here and right now wherever and precisely to the extent that democratic ideals are denigrated or diluted). Perhaps they simply assume this because of the accidents of their personal wealth, position, or privileges that they will always be, as they are now, one of the relatively lucky ones who will always have a say in a world in which not everybody has one.

"peco" worries that democracy as a guiding notion makes governance too beholden to "opinion." As it happens "opinion" is foundational in literally every form of government, inasmuch as governance is always governance of human plurality, and the ineradicable diversity of opinion is an expression of that plurality. This isn't a consideration relevant to just one notion of politics. Rather, grasping the fact of plurality and the diversity of opinion constitutes the point of departure for political thinking as such (as opposed to thinking in other modes like science, morals, aesthetics, ethics, and so on).

Politics is, recall, the ongoing reconciliation of the aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders with whom one shares the world. This worldly sharing is a thin and fraught matter, the "inter-esse" or being in the inter-subjective in-between in the midst of subjects, objects, and abjects that yields intelligible shared interests (think of the "interested" inter-implication of people by way of their shared dependence on the perishable environment, their shared vulnerability to criminal, military, and politice violence, their shared imbrication in global developmental circuits of production and trade, their shared susceptibility to interpretation via personal information accessible in online networks, their shared imbrication in history and diaspora), an interested inclusion thinner by far than the thick but indispensably more exclusive sharings on which moral identification or aesthetic sympathy depend for their substance.

This thin worldly share of the political inter-esse, arising out of our shared internment in a plurality of interested peers is the substance of all political forms, not just democratic ones. Even baldly authoritarian forms of governance organized by the opinions of particular elite minorities over all others still have to take into account the plurality of interests and opinions, if only to police their expression and control the organization and resistances that arise from that plurality.

This seems an especially relevant point in addressing "peco's" concerns inasmuch as his preference for "profitable" governance that, above all else, "works" (a strong preference that seems rather curiously to refrain from indicating what counts as "working," apart from an insistence that whatever "working" means it certainly has nothing to do with pesky notions like "legitimacy" that bedevil my own political thinking), seems to connect with his worries about the messy opinionated masses of democratic "massarchies" as well as with his desire for more "efficient" modes of governance. Needless to say, whenever one calls up the unmoored non-contextualized value of "efficiency" in a moment like this it is necessary to remind ourselves that "efficiency" is always efficiency -- in the service of which ends among others? efficiency -- in the service of whose ends among others?

For example, if democratically minded people like me insist that all people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them and if we go on to describe as an "optimal" political outcome any one that nonviolently reconciles the diversity of expressed ends of the stakeholders to a developmental question by their own lights, then something that is likely to look quite "inefficient" from the perspective of, say, profit-minded people looking to make some people more profit in this developmental situation, might instead look enormously "efficient" in fact to the more democratically-minded folks, that is, I'll venture to say, to the actual majority who would prefer a say over the minority who would prefer a personal profit.

I have to say that the valorized attitudes toward "profit" and "efficiency" together with vilified attitudes toward "opinion" and "legitimacy" and "masses" in "peco's" account give me the queasy feeling that fairly straightforward rightwing reactionary bullshit is circling down the discursive drain here.

I think it is disastrous to say the least to try to organize governance with an eye to parochial profit making rather than to the legitimacy of democratic process and informed, nonduressed consent. And I mean that word in the literal sense in which anti-democratic profit-hungry governance authored or at any rate incomparably exacerbated the disastrous occupation of Iraq, the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, and so on.

To put the point more nicely, what passes for "profit" is simply a catastrophically impoverished indicator of the fraught and complex demands of the public good on a planetary scale and over generational timescales; just as what passes for a "market exchange" tends to be a catastrophically impoverished indicator of whether an act of consent is truly an informed and nonduressed one.

An outright fetishization of so-called spontaneous orders and market machineries and profit-taking processes regarded as political panacaea seems to me to have been the principal intellectual (in stricto senso anti-intellectual) blight of the last 25 years or so. I believe that this market fundamentalist neoliberal tide is turning at last, and by way of conclusion I will offer "peco" and others of like mind the friendly advice that they will do well to attend carefully to the significance of these shifts as they continue to try to get away with whatever it is they are trying to get away with.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Eight Propositions on Taxes and Democracy

Taxes are not really the price we pay for a civilized society -- in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s, influential phrase -- for civilization is priceless. Taxes are not, for example, fees for discrete services that might be provided otherwise, nor are taxes a price for which there might be discount alternatives. Taxes, like government bonds, are ongoing public investments in the material and ritual infrastructure of equity-in-diversity, which is the essence of a civilized society for those who are devoted to democracy. Perhaps the true spirit of Holmes' phrase is captured best in a negative formulation: anti-tax zealots would appear to believe that civilization is the only free lunch.
Taxes are not theft, but a precondition for the constitution and intelligibility of the claim to ownership on which notions of theft depend in the first place.
Taxes are not, however annoying they may seem, burdens on our freedom, so much as indispensable enablers of freedom -- and hence they are a precondition for the constitution of the very experience of the "voluntary" on which notions of the involuntary depend in the first place.
Taxes are not forced charitable contributions, since the basic rights secured through taxation cannot be regarded as mere matters of charity else they are not rights in the first place.
Taxes ensure sufficient equity among citizens so that the diversity also valued by democracy does not disable the shared commitment to democratic processes, the preservation of democratic institutions facilitating collaborative expression, criticism, and problem-solving and the ongoing reconciliation of the diverse aspirations of the stakeholders with whom we share the world.
Taxes pay for the maintenance of institutions providing nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes. Taxes pay to secure basic needs to ensure that the scene of consent to everyday association is reliably informed and is non-duressed by the threat of deprivation, inequity, or insecurity. And taxes pay for the accountable administration of commons and public goods for the common good without which these are violated and exploited for short-term profit-taking by minorities at the cost and risk of majorities. Far from representing quintessential state violence, taxes are the enabling condition of a democratic state facilitating nonviolence. 
Taxes coupled to representation itself ("No Taxation Without Representation") ties the maintenance of government as such -- an organization invested with legitimate recourse to force with all the authoritarian dangers inhering in that state of affairs -- inextricably to the maintenance of its democratic legitimacy.
Taxing more those who profit more by their personal recourse to the shared inheritance of knowledge and culture, to the shared inheritance of the limited environmental resources on which we all depend for our survival and flourishing, and to the benefits of collaboratively maintained infrastructure, institutions, norms, trust, legitimacy, and security is not unfair so much as a basic recognition of the fact of our radical inter-dependence as creative and vulnerable individuals in the world, peer to peer. 

Monday, December 24, 2007

And So This Is Christmas

What's Wrong With Elitism? What's So Good About Democracy?

Upgraded and edited from Comments:

A reader asks: What is so bad about elitism? Is democracy a good thing in itself?

Rather than simply dismissing this question out of hand, I think it is often clarifying to try to think through and explain basic convictions that we so rarely have explicitly to defend that we lose track of what the stakes are in affirming them.

The short answer to the question is an easy one, of course (and verges on a dismissal): Elitists are always assholes and usually dumbasses: "If this was a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier, as long as I am the dictator."

Of course, one can still affirm as desirable one's membership in who knows what kinds of rarefied subcultures, societies of weird enthusiasm, marginal headspaces, marvelously perverse lifeways, or incredibly arcane and difficult professions, and be therefore a kind of "elitist" in the pursuit of one's private path of perfection. But it seems to me that these essentially aesthetic and moralist projects are only elitist in the troubling anti-democratizing way under discussion when they acquire public ambitions, when they seek to dictate or circumvent the interminable process of pluralist politics, the ongoing reconciliation of the diverse aspirations of stakeholders who share the world with us even if they are not members of our moral communities or sympathetic to our esthetic lifeways.

Longer answer: Let us begin with Thomas Hobbes, from his Leviathan, CHAPTER XIII:


NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.

And as to the faculties of the mind, setting aside the arts grounded upon words, and especially that skill of proceeding upon general and infallible rules, called science, which very few have and but in few things, as being not a native faculty born with us, nor attained, as prudence, while we look after some what else, I find yet a greater equality amongst men than that of strength. For prudence is but experience, which equal time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves unto. That which may perhaps make such equality incredible is but a vain conceit of one's own wisdom, which almost all men think they have in a greater degree than the vulgar; that is, than all men but themselves, and a few others, whom by fame, or for concurring with themselves, they approve. For such is the nature of men that how so ever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent or more learned, yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves; for they see their own wit at hand, and other men's at a distance. But this proveth rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of any thing than that every man is contented with his share.

From this equality of ability arise the quality of hope in the attaining of our ends.

Hobbes and I part ways at this point in the argument, but up to this point in Chapter 13 I find little to disagree with at all.

As for your second question: "Is democracy a good thing in itself?"

I define democracy as the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them. Do you disagree that this is a good thing? Even if you do believe such a thing (which is surely doubtful given the reliance of most modern conceptions of human dignity on widely shared intuitions about autonomy and consent), it is hard to believe that you will be willing to say this in public (inasmuch as it means you lose the argument before you begin, since few people are foolish enough to affirm a belief in elitist authoritarianism even if they share it).

The options for the would be elitist are either to agree with the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them (but then to direct the debate as quickly as possible onto actually fraught questions of how specific democratic struggles and institutional experiments to implement this idea in history should play out), or to make some conspicuously qualified claim for elitism in certain constrained circumstances (parents for offspring, advocates for clients, experts for general stakeholders on difficult questions directly connected to their expertise, and so on), although one still does find conservatives occasionally stumbling clumsily into versions of the more generally elitist claim that some people should make decisions affecting others for them (because some minority or other is the "natural constituency" of decision due to birth, money, position, education, merit, professional qualification, and so on and so on), which they are usually quick to disavow or explain away when this attitude is exposed to public scrutiny.

Except in highly qualified and constrained cases (I mentioned a few obvious ones above) those who claim to represent such natural constituencies will tend to be exposed eventually and rather hilariously as self-serving and dangerously delusive. Meanwhile the arguments that tend to provide the rationale for elitism (the masses are too ignorant, subjective, intemperate, greedy, passionate in some generalized way that the valorized elites in question are not, blah blah blah) tend to disqualify the exemplars of the so-called elites from the position of legitimate decision making exactly as readily as they would everyday people upon closer scrutiny in any case.

Jeebus Freakery Late Night and Down Under

Thinking About the Politics of "Design"

Over the last couple of years I've taught a few courses at Berkeley and at the San Francisco Art Institute exploring the interactions of "design" with "politics," especially in the contexts of "Green" design and social software/p2p coding for democracy, and so on.

"Design" discourses turn out to be really double edged for democratically minded people, since they can easily be either profoundly democratizing or profoundly anti-democratizing in their assumptions and effects and the popular forms of design discourse don't seem particularly well-equipped or even always particularly interested in distinguishing these assumptions and effects.

It is amazing how often those who emphasize questions of design and who "value design" really mean by this to denigrate democratic processes or to express a desire to circumvent politics altogether through elite decision making processes and what gets portrayed as politically-"neutral" engineering processes.

Those who would employ, educate, and implement sound design principles to democratic ends (many permaculture advocates, for example, as well as many social software coders) have always to pay close attention to the question of who gets designated as the designers in these design discourses, just where their powers come from, where their money comes from, whether or not they are accountable for the actual impacts of their designs in any way, whether those who are affected by design decisions have a say in the design process and in its outcomes, whether design functions (usually obliquely) to facilitate elite control/exploitation, whether what is marketed as the "introduction" of design into some chaotic state of affairs actually represents the imposition of a new and particular design vocabulary onto indigenous/local lifeways and vocabularies already in use and capable of emancipatory elaboration or reform rather than replacement, and so on. The politics of design is in the details.

This circles me right back around to a point that I really find myself hammering at incessantly among technocentric folks (of whom I too am one, so this is also a self-criticism): "Design" is a word like "technology" -- there is absolutely no conservative or progressive politics inhering in the affirmation or repudiation of "design" as such, at that level of generality.

In fact, the very idea of the blanket repudiation or affirmation of all design, just as with the idea of such a blanket repudiation or affirmation of all technology is literally incoherent: we are ineradicably socialized, acculturated, linguistic, historical beings, there is no human outside of selective attention, public testimony, applied technique. And so there can be no politics organized by the distinction of a "pro" versus "anti" design viewpoint, nor by the distinction of a "pro" versus "anti" technology viewpoint.

Actually, interestingly enough, the rhetoric of proposing otherwise here, of obfuscating technodevelopmental deliberation at the relevant level of concrete decisions, actual stakeholders, and discernible impacts for an abstract affirmation of "design" or "technology" conceived as bland generalities does often have a politics -- and usually it is a de facto conservative politics, even when it exhibits the superficial trappings of radical futurology. This is because taking things off the table, engaging in efforts at de-politicization, is inherently anti-democratizing, and hence inherently conservative.

Technodevelopmental politics look to me to be pretty conventional in fact: either people have a say in the decisions that affect them or "elites" make the decisions because they should for whatever reasons elitists care to supply. Democracy versus tyranny, collaboration versus control, left versus right, exactly as usual.

It is true that the speed, scope, and intensity of technodevelopmental change can sometimes introduce structurally coherent clusters of issues into the political scene that introduce problems into conventional left-right mappings, scramble conventional left-right formations, and so on. Technodevelopmental change isn't the only thing that does this, by the way, but it must be conspicuous in our thinking of the political today.

But I think it is mistaken to claim that these key but momentary complications redefine politics in a truly fundamental way. Given the conspicuously provisional character of analysis and the "strange bedfellow" alliances fears and fantasies around such issues seem to inspire it is easy to imagine there is a kind of unprecedented "third axis" (beyond familiar left-right concerns of democracy/anti-democracy) introduced by the politics of reproductive technologies (abortion, ARTs, contraception, sex education politics, and so on), environmental politics (resource/energy descent, pollution, monoculture, etc.), p2p politics (copyfight, a2k, Net Neutrality, sousveillance, etc.), non-normalizing medical technique (struggles of the differently enabled, the "drug war," transex/intersex politics, consensual mod-med, etc.). But it is my view that each of these fraught and contested edge-cities on the left-right terrain will eventually settle back into familiar democratic/anti-democratic terms -- indeed, in my view, already they are doing so -- as unfamiliar and unknown capacities, problems, costs, risks, and benefits are refamiliarized through the testimony of the relevant stakeholders to their impacts.

I agree that it is important to know when a disruptive development causes familiar mappings and organizing to go a bit haywire for a time, so as to understand better what the dangers and opportunities available in an historical moment consist of. But it is crucial to keep one's touchstone intact even so: The left-right map will eventually restabilize to accommodate the disruptive development. (Even if it is also true that there will always be emerging local disruptions, thank heavens, keeping the political terrain dynamic and futurity open, however intelligible it remains in terms of the basic left-right antagonism of democracy/anti-democracy.) The dangers and opportunities that matter most even in the moments of instability are still defined by the democratic/anti-democratic values onto which the map will re-stabilize soon enough. The politics are prior to the toypile.

It will always be possible to re-orientate the problems and promises inhering in concrete technodevelopments according to democratic versus anti-democratic politics, and to the extent that it is the politics that are being foregrounded presumably in one's analysis, then the values, alliances, and details that are relevant to that analysis will remain the ones that are democratizing or anti-democratizing. The utility of a distinction of pro- vs anti- "design" or pro- vs anti- "technology" as the lens through which to analyze technodevelopmental politics is, to my way of thinking, entirely a matter of observing the impact of these distinctions on and translating them back into terms of whether or not they conduce to greater democratization of deliberation and distribution of technoscientific costs, risks, and benefits to the actual stakeholders to those developments. As a person of the democratic left, I've come to be rather skeptical about both moves myself.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Grading Diary Climax

Just completed and handed in grades for my third and final class. What a relief! Of course, since I have assigned a few failing grades and incompletes this means the term isn't really completely over, and is sure to have an awkward aftermath, possibly a prolonged one, demanding scenes in which nagging, recrimination, histrionics, and despair are almost sure to be involved (hell, for some students the award of a "B" can provoke such scenes). But, come what may, I have the whole weekend to myself at last. No prep, no post, only reading for pleasure. Heaven! At last, I have a nice free space of time to watch my copy of the gorgeously restored and remastered Berlin Alexanderplatz, which has been reproaching me for ignoring it since it arrived weeks ago.

Today's Random Wilde

Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

John Edwards: The Promise of America

Grading Diary

Grading for two courses done. One course left. Almost there!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Today's Random Wilde

People who count their chickens before they are hatched act very wisely because chickens run about so absurdly that it's impossible to count them accurately.

Bubbles Bursting In Air

Krugman on where we are and where we're going. Very clear. Very scary. (PS: Still grading...)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

Today's Random Wilde

The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things. The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.

More on "Positivity" (This Time Via Krugman)

Let’s be blunt: pundits who say that what voters really want is a candidate who makes them feel good, that they want an end to harsh partisanship, are projecting their own desires onto the public.

And let's be even more blunt: These desires of these pundits reflect their position as privileged incumbent interests (what some in the emerging p2p-democracy of the progressive Netroots like to call, The Villagers) in a catastrophically unjust and violent society, the United States of America. They do not reflect the desires of the pundits to be objective, judicious, public intellectuals.

Some of them would have us believe the latter, obviously. Some of them may even have bamboozled themselves into believing it (after all, their authority, position, perquisites, and lifestyles all depend on it).

But you can't endlessly carry water for proven liars on matters of war crimes and the violation of civil liberties and claim to represent or even to respect objectivity, you can't facilitate outrageous Republican partisanship while denigrating Democratic partisanship and claim to represent or even to respect judiciousness, you can't claim to represent or even to respect the role of public intellectuals in democratic societies when you call any intellectuals who struggle to understand the causes of terror appeasers of terror, war critics traitors, defenders of consensual multiculture unprincipled relativists, anybody who works for peace or basic decency or fairness in the world ridiculous creatures, everyday people who testify to their ideas and opinions online "angry bloggers" to be dismissed out of hand and so on.

Corporate media is clearly the mouthpiece for corporate interests, and the beneficiaries of corporate conduct are not one and the same as the interests of everyday people. It is not surprising that Krugman's comment appeared in the context of a near-endorsement of John Edwards as against Barack Obama:
Mr. Edwards [said], “Some people argue that we’re going to sit at a table with these people and they’re going to voluntarily give their power away. I think it is a complete fantasy; it will never happen.”

This was pretty clearly a swipe at Mr. Obama, who has repeatedly said that health reform should be negotiated at a “big table” that would include insurance companies and drug companies.

On Saturday Mr. Obama responded, this time criticizing Mr. Edwards by name. He declared that “We want to reduce the power of drug companies and insurance companies and so forth, but the notion that they will have no say-so at all in anything is just not realistic.”

Do Obama supporters who celebrate his hoped-for ability to bring us together realize that “us” includes the insurance and drug lobbies?

[I]t’s actually Mr. Obama who’s being unrealistic here, believing that the insurance and drug industries — which are, in large part, the cause of our health care problems — will be willing to play a constructive role in health reform. The fact is that there’s no way to reduce the gross wastefulness of our health system without also reducing the profits of the industries that generate the waste.

As a result, drug and insurance companies — backed by the conservative movement as a whole — will be implacably opposed to any significant reforms…

As health care goes, so goes the rest of the progressive agenda. Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.

Which brings me to a big worry about Mr. Obama: in an important sense, he has in effect become the anti-change candidate.

Obama's much vaunted "positivity" amounts, yet again, to negativity as seen from the perspective of those who desire change in the actual distribution of access to knowledge, authority, and law, rather than "change" in people's expressed attitudes towards those distributions.

The harsh partisanship of this era -- so bemoaned by pampered Villagers and Obama's audacious hopefuls (including, no doubt, the anti-gay bigots among them) -- reflects the access of the actual diversity of the country's citizens to speech with a wide hearing and manageable political organizing via digital networks.

Progressive change is "positivity," if that vapid term is to have any useful meaning at all. And the expressions of discontent and testimonies to injustice that drive that change (however "negative" their details, however "negative" the feelings they occasion, however "negative" the demands for redress will feel to those expected to pay for them to the cost of their unearned privileges, and so on) contribute to that positivity.

There is nothing more negative than the charge of negativity from the complacent beneficiaries of injustice to those who would struggle together to change the world for the better.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Grading Diary

Not to give you the blow by blow here, but grading continues on interminably. The last of my letters of recommendation are done, reviews of the work of my Honors Thesis students is more or less done. One of my students has submitted a wonderful Thesis on the way the scene of judgment in some reality television programming functions as a spectacle enabling audiences to navigate the paradoxes of the American ideology of meritocracy in a way that draws on Barthes' Reality Effect -- it's got lots of insights and lots of laughs in it -- I'll post a link to it if she puts it online. Going over portfolios for the students in the Writing Program at SFAI at the moment, those are due tomorrow morning. Even perfunctory professional activities suddenly exert an allure and you find yourself delving deep into student work, hours and hours go by, and the mountain of finals seems never to thin. It's gonna be a rough week getting through everything, I can tell. And so much of the student work is really serious and engaged and marvelous, a consequence of teaching on urgent topics like environmental politics, I suppose -- you really just can't engage with it superficially. On top of everything else, I have a splitting headache, am still fending off some bug that has been wanting to grab hold of me for three days at least, and I can't medicate too much because it will muddle my head and muss my grading! I know, moan moan moan...

Digby Predicts (Plus a Bit More on "Positivity")

I predict that the right wing noise machine will shout far and wide that the election was stolen (probably with the help of "illegal aliens.") The new president will not be allowed to weed out even one right wing plant anywhere in the executive branch without being accused of politicizing it. There will be no executive privilege as the courts rediscover their "responsibilities." Scientists and experts will all be accused of being shills for the liberal special interests. The president will be accused of violating Americans' civil liberties and destroying the constitution. There will be widespread accusations of fraud and corruption and non-stop investigations.

In other words the Republicans are going to accuse the Democratic president of everything we know the Bush administration did. And because it was never fully investigated or even fully discussed, people will lay the sins at the feet of the Democratic president and feel a sense of relief that the balance of power is being restored and Washington is finally being cleaned up.

I fear that everything she says here will indeed come to pass. The lesson she draws from all this, is:
Democratic presidents are going to have to learn that their most important and difficult job will be dealing with relentless baseless political attacks from the Republicans and the media. It's the way our politics are currently constructed. Republicans accrue vast amounts of power and wealth for themselves at the expense of the taxpayers, and the Democrats are expected to clean things up by paying the debts for them. The Dems don't do it out of altruism or commitment. They do it because they are held to standards of integrity and effectiveness that aren't expected of Republicans.

I notice that this conclusion is not itself framed as a prediction, probably because she rightly suspects that what must be learned by those who must learn it may well not be so learned after all and she would rather not say so because it is just too stupid and too depressing and because, like most sunnily disposed secular democrats with brains slogging through the swamp of our debased era of failed and failing institutions, she knows enough to know people can come together and surpass our expectations in democracies after all so why dwell on the depressing likely eventualities?

Perhaps the Netroots will raise the Village after all, perhaps Machine politics will be democratized by p2p organization and reform, perhaps American armed forces demoralized by neoconservative adventurism will no longer permit us to bully the world into self-destruction, perhaps planetary networks will defuse fundamentalisms (including market fundamentalism) and immerse and invest us in viable secular consensual multiculture, perhaps awareness of shared environmental problems from global warming to soil erosion to aquifer depletion will usher in co-operative problem solving and public investment in renewable technologies and permaculture techniques, perhaps emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medical techniques will seduce the world into public investments in education, welfare, and co-operation rather than corporate-militarist competition, and then perhaps things really will be all right, after all, because they can be and they should be and people turn out to be quite reasonable and capable and well-meaning when they have anything like real fair access to knowledge, resources, and the rule of law.

I realize that the attribution to Digby here of a sunny political disposition (and by implication of a comparable disposition to myself) may seem somewhat jarringly at odds with the rather desolating implications of her analysis, as well as with the comments on "negativity" expressed in my earlier post about Edwards, but the point is that discussions of "negativity" governed by incumbent interests and their spokesmodels in the corporate media really aren't ever discussions of negativity or positivity in any remotely reality-based construal at all, but always actually express the same relentless insistence that everything always is about them and their comfort level and their being interminably petted and complimented and maintaining their hold on as many of their unearned privileges as possible even in a world their shortsighted idiotic greed and narcissism has reduced to a septic sewer of ballooning deficits, ballooning starved children's stomachs, and ballooning bullet riddled civilian corpses.

The negativity negating their vapid lying "positivity" offers the road to any sane positivity actually worth having. Or something like that. I think I read about that in Hegel or Adorno or somewheres.

Edwards Makes It Plain (Yet Again)

John Edwards this morning on ABC's This Week:
STEPHANOPOULOS: [H]ere's what [The Des Moines Register] said in the editorial this morning [endorsing Senator Clinton]. They noted that they endorsed you four years ago, but then they went on to say this: "We too seldom saw the positive optimistic campaign we found appealing in 2004. His harsh anti-corporate rhetoric would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change."

How do you answer that charge?

EDWARDS: [T]hey have a position. I respectfully disagree with it. I think that if we're going to have serious change in this country, universal health care, attacking global warming, a tax policy that works for most Americans instead of just a few, a trade policy that creates jobs instead of costing jobs, I mean, all those things are going to require us to have a president of the United States who's tough and willing to fight these powerful corporate interests that stand between us and the change that we need.

And I think the notion that you can sit at the table and negotiate and compromise, and these powerful interests will give away their power, I think is a fantasy. If it were true, it would have been working over the last few decades. And it does not.

I think we have a huge fight, an epic fight on our hands against those powerful interests, not against politicians. Nobody cares about politicians fighting. But I think we need a president who's tough enough to take these people on and win, and I've been doing it my whole life.

An epic fight on our hands, indeed. And our media leets want to whine about Edwards being "too negative"? Edwards, while not perfect, has been my candidate from the beginning, and never more so than now. I don't think he's going to get the nomination anymore. It's, you know, a bummer. Sorry if that seems too negative. I wonder if there is literally any way to demand accountability from those who have directed and benefited from the catastrophic politics of incumbency that won't seem to them too negative? (That's a rhetorical question: The answer is: No. That's what Edwards is saying, and that's why I fear he is losing everywhere but in the Netroots.)

Junk News Makes Democracy Die

Broadcast/Mass Mediation Versus p2p/a2k Democratization =

Oligarchy Versus Democracy =

The Face of Right Versus Left for Our Generation.

Honestly, it couldn't be more simple.

Okay, okay. Here, watch this. It tells the truth. Also, it's got a beat and you can dance to it.

Today's Random Wilde

There is something tragic about the enormous number of young men there are in England at the present moment who start life with perfect profiles, and end by adopting some useful profession.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

More Jesus Love, via CBSNews
A[n] attack on four Jewish subway riders in New York City has resulted in a friendship between the Jewish victims and the Muslim college student who came to their aid.

Walter Adler is calling Hassan Askari a hero for intervening when Adler and three friends were assaulted on a subway train in lower Manhattan on Friday night.

The altercation erupted when Adler and his friends said "Happy Chanukah" to a group yelling "Merry Christmas" on the Brooklyn-bound train. Adler told the New York Post that one of his attackers rolled up his sleeve to display a tattoo of Jesus Christ.

"Happy Chanukah. That's when the Jews killed Jesus," the attacker told Adler…. The Post said two of the suspects had been charged with hate crimes in the past.

"That a random Muslim kid helped some Jewish kids, that's what's positive about New York," said Adler, 23, who suffered a broken nose and a lip wound.

Creationist "Wins" Debate Against Evolutionist by Killing Him

[via The Independent]
Alexander York... was sentenced to a maximum of five years in jail yesterday for the manslaughter of Rudi Boa, 28, a biomedical student....

York had become friendly with Mr. Boa and his girlfriend…. [T]hey became embroiled in the creationism versus evolution argument, and it escalated into a shouting-match…. Mr. Boa and Ms. Brown were both adamantly opposed to York's Christian fundamentalist point of view….

York, who had been making dinner, attacked the couple outside his tent and delivered a single stab wound [to] Mr. Boa with a kitchen knife… He was found guilty of manslaughter but acquitted of murder, and ordered to serve at least three years in jail. The judge said he was giving him a relatively lenient sentence partly because of the accidental nature of the stabbing….

"The offender's act was done impulsively and on the spur of the moment. I do not think the offender was aware of how seriously he had harmed Mr. Boa."

The judge added that York was "a person of good character" and that the offence was "a complete aberration".

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dispatches from the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream


Here's hoping the various online libertechians and robot cultists don't screw it up by hitching their wagons to this effort in an attempt to gain superficial short-term legitimacy. So far, it seems pretty cool.

Rachel Maddow Ready for Take Off!

[via ThinkProgress]

Rachel Maddow, my favorite media personality who isn't Amy Goodman, has recently “taped a pilot” for MSNBC -- where baby-faced baby-brained conservative Tucker Carlson's ratings are falling like a stone, while fighting liberal Keith Olbermann's ratings soar like... I don't know, like a stone with wings or a booster rocket or something.

Rachel Maddow has the best show on Air America these days (though I still especially heart Sam Seder also), indefatigably right-on-with-your-on politically, timely, sharp, smart, witty, very charming and genuinely funny, but also offering the likes of me a catnip combo of on-air queer and geek. And she currently makes irregular appearances on MSNBC programs anyway.

The good folks at ThinkProgress say there is “no word on if the pilot is being considered ready for take-off.” Maddow's fans can assure everybody involved that Maddow has been ready for nationwide takeoff for quite some time now.

Many of the Faithful Are Really Just Aesthetes

Upgraded and adapted from Comments:

In my last post I proposed "that scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political modes of belief-ascription are all warranted as reasonable according to different criteria, [and] that these are not reducible to one another in their proper work, their proper forms, their practices, [or] their histories. But since I do believe one can warrant one's beliefs in any of these modes with good reasons it isn't really right to say that I am a relativist in the sense Americans tend to mean [by that charge.]" This is a proposal I have expanded on in many places, but especially here.

My friend (and Friend of Blog!) Robin responded with the following question:
What would you say to someone who puts "religious" just as comfortably in your list that includes "scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political"?

(This isn't a challenge, by the way. I'm just genuinely curious!)

When people start making religious claims that might otherwise sound questionable to a longstanding atheist, secularist, and appalling voluptuary like me I find that if I adjust my Universal Translator a bit and hear them making aesthetic claims ("I am following my bliss"), or moral claims ("I try to be a decent person according the norms of my community") instead of making troubling onto-theological claims in the philosophical sense, I have discovered to my delight that the overabundant majority of religious discourse becomes pretty unobjectionable even to crusty atheistical ears like mine.

Not only that, but I have found that I can carry on quite sustained and detailed conversations with people who locate their religiosity pretty close to the center of their selfhood in ways that seem completely mutually respectful and intelligible so long as I keep these mental translations to myself. That makes me think these translations are probably capturing the substance of what is really at stake in much of the discourse that passes for "religious."

From all this I conclude that

(1) my sense that the United States is pretty much a secular country despite the megaphone organized religion has got is still perfectly sensible,

(2) my Deweyan faith that Americans, like everybody else, are critical enough to sustain democratic institutions and intelligent enough to collectively solve shared problems is still perfectly sensible,

(3) my belief that most people really are mostly right about most things most of the time isn't ruled out by some prevalence of rampant irrationalism after all, and that

(4) too many of the new "militant atheists," so-called, are mistaking as terrifying irrationality what is often little more than a rather glib usage of superficially theological vocabularies to express aesthetic and moral beliefs, and this mistake of theirs makes these militants feel more alienated, scared, and desperate about the state of the world than they need be, attesting to what I have long suspected has as much of a reductionist failure of imagination and an anti-democratizing failure of nerve in it as it has good sense.

All that said, when a fundamentalist champions patriarchy, when an evangelical jackhole champions genocide or theocracy, when a Robot Cultist muddies the distinction between policy discourse and flim-flam artistry and fraud, when people uncritically substitute the dictates of priestly authorities (religious or otherwise) for critical engagement, well, you can be sure I do call them on it for dangerous nonsense.

In answer to your specific question, then, I don't finally think "religious" is properly added to my list of modes of warranted belief, but mostly because the bits of religiosity that do seem to me to be warrantable are already subsumed under the aesthetic and moral categories.

If it hurts the feelings of an otherwise unobjectionably religious person to put that point so baldly, I'll just do the mental translation in my head and go ahead with dinner.

Does that answer your question? I didn't take it as a hostile provocation or challenge at all! I like answering this question. I tend to think my approach on this subject could be much more widely applied to good result.

But I'm Not a Relativist

An e-mail interlocutor has patiently explained to me why he thinks I protest too much when I insist that I am not an effete postmodern relativist to the solid stolid champions of He-Man science who sometimes like to criticize me online. He then proudly affirms his own relativism. I appreciate his support, of course, and the fact is that this particular interlocutor is a European with an actual background in philosophy and so he doesn't mean by these terms quite the same thing that people tend to do who excoriate my muzzy relativism in online debates as a way of assuming their Priestly vestaments in the defense of dumb death-dealing scientism.

In a nutshell, the key philosophical figures for me are Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, and Judith Butler. I'll probably spend the rest of my life struggling to find the language in which to express intelligibly to others how these four weirdly incompatible figures in some ways have come -- probably in no small part completely accidentally -- to crystallize a harmonious perspective from which I understand the world.

Philosophically, I am most legible as coming out of the tradition of American pragmatism (James, Dewey, Rorty) and working today in the discourse of queer theory in Butler's practice of it (which seems to me to mean something more like the delineation of non-sovereign performative/prosthetic self-determination in planetary multiculture these days). All of these figures are post-Nietzschean and one finds in all of them an expression of something like his perspectivalism.

In online anti-intellectual discourse in America "relativism" is defined as something like the belief that any belief is as good as any other. I don't believe that and it isn't really worth the time to walk Americans all the way through to the place in which they can better understand what the actual claims involved are. I do believe that one can warrant one's beliefs with good reasons, and understanding that point gets most folks close enough to what I really mean that there doesn't seem much point in going further into the matter, unless they indicate a real sympathy and talent for the nuances involved.

I propose that scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political modes of belief-ascription are all warranted as reasonable according to different criteria, that these are not reducible to one another in their proper work, their proper forms, their practices, their histories. But since I do believe one can warrant one's beliefs in any of these modes with good reasons it isn't really right to say that I am a relativist in the sense Americans tend to mean, and probably not according to the sense in which many Continental philosophers use the term either.

Today's Random Wilde

To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Copyfighters Support Professional Writers Against Predatory Media Conglomerates

Write the Studios!

A student asked me today if my commitment to a2k/p2p politics diminishes my support for the WGA strike. Until he asked the question, it never occurred to me that there might be a tension between these commitments.

Here's my thinking for now. I can imagine p2p practices making profitable professional writing a thing of the past one day, or at any rate a much rarer thing than it is today. I can also imagine this development contributing to a flowering of free collaborative creativity, intimations of which we already see online all around us. (I also advocate a universal non-means-tested Basic Income Guarantee to subsidize free content provision and p2p participation -- a proposal I call "Pay to Peer," but that's another story.) Be that as it may, today six media conglomerates (General Electric/NBC, Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, CBS, and News Corp/Fox) are screwing the writers who create the content from which these media giants make their profits.

From the Perspective of These Conglomerates:

Unacceptable Piracy = Downloading content for free online.

Acceptable Promotion = Downloading content online that contains advertising (but from which its writers still get nothing).

Even the Cute Kitties and Puppies of YouTube Understand the Principle Involved:

Torture Enablers Are No Better Than Torture Lovers

So much makes sense now that didn't make sense before. As lambert from Corrente pithily put the point: "Well, I guess now I know why impeachment was 'off the table.'"

We know now from a story in this morning's Washington Post that from 2002 the Bush administration did indeed brief leading Democrats in the Senate and House Intelligence Committees -- including my California's Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harman -- about the CIA's "enhanced interrogation methods," specifically including details about waterboarding and other methods that unquestionably amount to torture.

Glenn Greenwald proposes that "[t]his information was almost certainly leaked to the Post by intelligence officials who are highly irritated -- understandably so -- from watching the manipulative spectacle whereby these Democrats now prance around as outraged victims of policies to which they deliberately acquiesced…"

Either too unprincipled to grasp what a child of two knows -- namely, that torture is wrong -- or, worse, too timid or cynical to act on such obvious principles, despite their incomparable power, despite their goddamned job descriptions as members of these Committees, despite their basic responsibilities to the constituencies who elected their sorry asses to these positions, the Democratic leadership has enabled the torture regime, the illegal war machine, the surveillance state, the dismantlement of habeus all so long and so desperately coveted by the Killer Clowns of Movement Conservatism and their would-be "Unitary Executive," the Boy King.

I still know the difference between torture lovers and torture enablers, but I also know the difference between torture enablers and the righteous fighters against torture we had every right to expect our Democratic leaders to be.

As Greenwald summarizes the stakes:
[I]t's the Bush administration that conceived of the policies, implemented them and presided over their corrupt application. But it's Congressional Democrats at the leadership level who were the key allies and enablers, never getting their hands dirty with implementation -- and thus feigning theatrical, impotent outrage once each abuse was publicly exposed -- but nonetheless working feverishly the entire time to enable all of it every step of the way.

You better believe that there will be hell to pay for this abdication of responsibility, for this disgusting and pointless complicity in criminality. There can be no patience, no apologies, no self-serving justifications for the enablers of torture, any more than for the criminals who love it.

There is nothing for it, but as always: More Democrats. And as never before: Better Democrats.

Movement Republicanism is surely dead or dying now. A Progressive Democratic turning of the tide is finally discernible, perhaps only just in time, driven by citizen activism, citizen journalism, citizen organizing out from the Netroots and into the Streets. We deserve better than we are getting from our Democratic leadership, and we will demand better, and you better believe we will get better.