Thursday, April 14, 2016

Down on Main Street: Democratic Dilemmas and the Politics of Nostalgia

Though it has gone mostly unreported, lots of people have gathered in D.C. for "Democracy Spring" with lots of civil disobedience (a good thing) and protest over "corrupt campaign finance/governance". This is described as an outgrowth of the Occupy movement which apparently alerted the populous to "inequality". The problem with this narrative is even if you take all the money out of elections and start to re-distribute wealth, the original distribution of power (owning the means of production) stays the same. And what that power concedes it can always take back. I will never write for Yes! magazine because I'm always writing about NO! but David Korten wrote a piece saying capitalism vs socialism is a false dichotomy and we should be FOR democracy. The difference is that under capitalism private capitalists own the means of production and "under socialism, government owns these assets in the name of, but not necessarily in the interest of, the people". He starts with a description of his idyllic upbringing where his dad owned a business on a local mainstreet in smalltown America circa 1950-60. This embodied "Adam Smith's vision of local markets governed by a shared moral code and populated by local farmers, artisans and merchants who own their land and tools..." This nostalgic pastoral is notable for what it excludes (thanks Derrida) in the realm of power and antagonism: there are no farm laborers, no resource issues with said farming, all production and manufacturing magically done by honest craftsmen in small shops, and bartering done on a trusting, “fair and square” handshake manner. No exploitation or subterfuge, no externalities or inequity. You remember those days, right? Of course; because they happened on television and the movies! Not historical reality but the cultural production of reality. David Korten’s “the people” is the same as Democracy Spring’s “the people”, they are everyone BUT evil Corporations, all united in a “moral code” and working hard for the betterment of all. They hope to turn back the clock to those idyllic, Jeffersonian , pre-Citizens United days of small entrepreneurial capitalism. It ignores the account of Pickety wherein the gains of capital always outstrips the gains of the economy. It turns a purposefully blind-eye to patriarchy and nationalism and race and the other inevitable antagonisms. This romanticizing of “the local” is found in many of the “new” movements, especially the climate movement, but is problematic on many levels. First, the local can be totally reactionary, it can be the local warlord or mob or precinct captain. Second, it avoids the hard work of theorizing at meta-levels, where lots of change also has to occur.

Monday, April 4, 2016


When the Break Free PNW Coalition asked for volunteers for the Communications Working Group I jumped on board. Experience has taught that it is within such innocently named bodies where "messaging" is developed; the analysis and narrative and eventually conceptual language which will guide action. In other words, "there is a necessary relationship between conceptual apparatuses and political institutions." that's right, ideological power. I don't know whether the others in The Group would articulate it but I suspect they intuit it. So when the original draft of the Core Messaging Document came online I got my licks in early. I inserted language around Markets and market failure as essential roots to understanding the current crisis. Those who read the blog know to what I refer. And the language hung in there for quite some time. It survived a few edits and iterations, but as it came time to finalize the doc, my language around Markets turned into "the economic system" and "the fossil fuel economy". I'm pretty sure The Message had to pass muster with representatives of organized labor, and I suspect my seditious focus was found problematic. After all, "economic system" is the ultimate empty signifier, it explains nothing while pretending to explain everything. It can be used by anyone and everyone to mean whatever they want. "Market failure", on the other hand, is a little too specific. I didn't bother to argue or press my point. This Coalition is broad based and I knew that going in; there will be folks who read Naomi Klein's book as a call for revolution and some who saw a call for cheaper solar energy. So it goes. The labor folks are in bind and we can be sympathetic. But to deny much of it is their own doing is to condescend, to say they have no agency. They can claim to be "shocked" that their "fossil fuel economy" is bad for the planet, and claim special dispensation (a Just Transition)but I have been in enough of these Blue -Green Dialogues to know these guys are good at seeing trees and missing the forest. Though capitalism has tyrannical power over their consumptive lives, most cannot speak the word. tey'll blame hippies and commies and say "just let the market sort things out."