Archive for November, 2011

To Save the Labor Movement, We Must Destroy the Labor Movement
November 28, 2011

Kevin Drum is usually pretty solid on labor issues, so it’s more than a little jarring to see him give his qualified endorsement to obvious quackery like this:

Congress should authorize employee associations that are easier to form than current unions, but which do not have the power to interfere with managerial prerogatives (which is pretty much every subject other than employee compensation as determined by a collectively bargained contract). Of course, if the new types of employee organizations are not suffocating their members, they may in fact find it easier than old unions to attract new members.

Author Alan J. Haus never gets around to explaining how unions “suffocate their members,” but apparently it has something to do with a unions’ “power to interfere with managerial prerogatives,” or bargain on anything that doesn’t directly pertain to wages. That’s an odd way to define suffocation.

The maneuver Haus is trying to pull here is an oldie but goody: conflating employee interests with those of management, and suggesting that traditional unions are diametrically opposed to both. The unspoken thesis is that class conflict is something stirred up by innovation-hating unions, not the natural byproduct of a system that relies on worker exploitation. What Haus would have us believe is that everyone can be on the same team, so long as workers don’t put up a fight. In other words: give managers freedom to do whatever they want (except, Haus graciously concedes, when it comes to wages), and the benefits will trickle down to everyone!

I can see why the promise of conflict-free labor-management relations would appeal to Drum, but he should be smart enough to know that Haus is selling snake oil. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century and the advent of scientific management, conservatives and business-friendly “progressives” have foretold a bold new era of cooperation between workers and employers. Mysteriously, realizing this dream has always required that workers cede just a little bit more control of their own labor. And then a little more, and a little more. Haus offers us nothing but a variation on the theme. “Just give up this one more thing,” he promises us, “and this time, I swear, it will happen.”

Well, why take his word for it when we can see for ourselves how it’s worked out so far? I would suggest Drum read his own work to find out.

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On Godless Theology
November 26, 2011

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.

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Stoicism for the Kids
November 21, 2011

Cover of "A Guide to the Good Life: The A...

Cover via Amazon

I really wish I could praise William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy without qualification, but instead I’ll just suggest that the book’s repetitive passages and occasional bursts of condescension*, while regrettable, are outweighed by the fact that Irvine has written a pretty good primer on Stoic thought with some handy tips for how to practice Stoicism in modern, everyday life. At the very least, Irvine’s book might be a half-decent gateway drug to the wisdom and compassion of Seneca and the other classic Stoics. That alone makes it well worth reading.

I would especially recommend the book to folks in my own age bracket (eighteen-to-twentysomething), which might sound a little counterintuitive, given that it’s a book about an ancient school of philosophy written by a late-middle-aged academic philosopher. But just as Irvine argues that Stoicism is still relevant and valuable today, I’d argue that it’s especially relevant and valuable to those of us who are starting our adult lives in post-financial crisis America.

Because here’s the thing: most of us young’uns in the 99% are going to make less money than our parents did. Nearly all of us are going to have less stuff than we’d like. And that’s just talking to those of you who come from relatively comfortable upbringings. The overall trend in living standards is bad news for us, but it’s terrible news for the people who aren’t as lucky as us.

I say this not because I want to depress the hell out of you, but because it’s self-evidently true, and we should probably all start getting used to it. The vast majority of us are going to have to downsize our lives at best, and fight like crazy to get by at worst. If your idea of happiness is a fat wallet and a life of conspicuous consumption, then you’re going to be significantly less happy than you were promised pre-recession.

So that leaves us with two options: we can live lives filled with bitterness and resentment at the shit deal the Boomers left us with, or we can consciously strive to find our joy in something else.

Stoicism is a strategy for doing the latter. As a philosophy of life, it melds theory and practice in a manner that has more in common with Zen Buddhism than modern Western philosophy. The key difference, I think, is that whereas the practice of Zen is intended to temporarily obliterate most conscious thought processes, Stoicism is a method for ordering conscious thought in a manner that will promote happiness and tranquility. Because one of the keys to tranquility is stability, most of the strategies Stoics use in daily practice are designed to insulate their tranquility from uncontrollable external conditions such as the state of one’s material possessions, social standing, and so on.

But that’s not to say Stoicism is a selfish or anti-social philosophy. One of Irvine’s most interesting claims is that the Stoicism, properly understood, not only allows for but necessitates some level of civic virtue (as evidence, he points to the fact that many of the most famous Stoics — Seneca, Cato, and, of course, Emperor Marcus Aurelius — were deeply involved in Roman politics). That message, given the grassroots mobilizations currently happening all over the country, seems particularly timely.

*PRO TIP: Skip every paragraph that includes any variation on the phrase, “political correctness.”

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From an Occupation to a Movement
November 16, 2011

The New York Times is reporting that, as of this morning, a handful of occupiers remain in Zucotti Park. That is both encouraging and unsurprising, but it doesn’t alter the fact that Liberty Plaza as it once existed — as a camp, an incubator for radicalism, and as an anarchist village unto itself — is over. Occupy Wall Street has lost its occupation, and I do not think it can be recovered.

Yet today I’m not filled with despair or anger, but hope. There are now, after all, other occupations. Many others. November 17 is tomorrow. And the New York occupiers are still out there. Many of them are doubtless more galvanized than ever.

So no, this is not the end. It may well be the beginning of the end, but that’s in our hands, not the mayor’s. The choices that Occupy Wall Street and its supporters make in the next couple of weeks will decide whether their eviction was a check on Occupy’s expansion or a catalyst for more. If we’re smart and lucky, then all that happened was what had to happen for the occupation to evolve. It’s not the way I would have chosen for things to go down, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s tremendous opportunity in this crisis.

What we have now is a chance to fundamentally restructure Occupy Wall Street. That means completing the transition from one central space to a number of autonomous spheres. It means devolving power from the General Assembly to a network of autonomous factions with their own goals, strategies and leadership structures. Time to stop thinking commune and start thinking movement.

I’ve long been skeptical of the General Assembly. A consensus-based model of governance has considerable merits, but those merits have been harder to find the more the occupation has matured. The prerequisite of consensus makes the decision-making process difficult, time-consuming, and strategically incoherent. It leaves Occupy unable to seize the initiative or respond to nasty surprises (such as, say, an NYPD raid in the dead of night) in a rapid, coordinated fashion.

It’s also less democratic than it looks. Doing away with formal leadership structures doesn’t do away with hierarchy, it just makes it harder to see. Differences in knowledge, expertise, experience, charisma, and dumb luck create informal hierarchies that can be just as coercive as formal hierarchies (if not more so), but lack clear institutional boundaries. Behold the disproportionate power wielded by Occupy Wall Street’s opaque Finance Committee, or the unofficial network of “ad hoc leaders” profiled here. When people say that Occupy, is “not leaderless, but full of leaders,” this is what they really mean.

Because these leadership structures go mostly unacknowledged, there’s no formal process for improving them. And because they’re based on the same informal hierarchies we find in the world at large, they often have the some old privilege-based power dynamics. But to their credit, most of the occupation’s unofficial leaders seem to be aware of this, and they have been taking steps to correct the problem. As Sarah Seltzer reports in The Nation, Occupy has taken steps to privilege traditionally marginalized voices in the General Assembly. Even more promising was the recent adoption of the Spokes Council model, described here.

The formation of the Spokes Council was a good first step towards the eventual factionalization and movement-ization of Occupy Wall Street, but that’s all it is. This new model preserved the General Assembly’s tyranny of consensus while leaving a little more room for internal caucusing. For Occupy Wall Street to go full movement, these spokes would next have to be granted more freedom from both the GA and each other, and assume a central role in organizing and decision making.

The end result would hopefully look something like the American civil rights movement, one of the most effective and transformative mass movements in American history. If you look at one of that movement’s individual struggles — the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that Dr. King died defending, for example — you’ll see an amorphous group of individual “spokes” with deep organizational and philosophical differences. In the case of the strike, those spokes included such wildly divergent groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Council, AFSCME, and a local group of black militants known as the Invaders. These groups did not try to achieve consensus, either internally or with one another. In fact, they had very serious disagreements that were never truly reconciled. Nevertheless, their ad hoc unified front successfully secured a collective bargaining agreement for hundreds of oppressed black sanitation workers, an unheard of victory in the anti-union, segregationist south.

That victory was won by the sort of movement-based model I always hoped Occupy Wall Street would eventually morph into. Now that the occupation’s central base of operations has been dismantled and co-opted, it might not have any choice. The time has come for evolution or endangerment, and possibly extinction.

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Who Cares About Student Debt?
November 7, 2011

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard a lot of people denounce what they see as Occupy Wall Street’s parochial and self-interested advocacy for student debt forgiveness. Some of those folks might otherwise be sympathetic to OWS, some might not. But either way, the objections sound the same: Shouldn’t OWS be focused on bigger issues than some college kids’ debt? Doesn’t this just prove that the protestors are, by and large, a bunch of entitled bougie white kids? Should the US government really nullify millions of contracts just because the people who voluntarily entered them don’t like the consequences?

Some of these objections sound more reasonable than others. It is not, for example, fair to say that Occupy Wall Street has made student debt a top priority. The General Assembly’s list of grievances buries the issue in the middle of 22 other complaints. No two protestors have the exact same set of priorities, but there’s no centralized OWS institution that’s favoring student debt over the smorgasbord of other issues on the table.

If news coverage and commentary related to OWS have focused disproportionately on student debt (and I think it’s reasonable to say that this is the case), that’s more a function of how the news media chooses to depict OWS. The face of OWS as seen by cable news audiences is overwhelmingly young and college educated. (That’s not to say that OWS doesn’t skew young and college educated, but Zuccotti Park is way more heterogeneous than its portrayal in most major news outlets, and growing more so.) Folks in that bracket are going to have an exceptionally strong interest in student debt, for obvious reasons. And student debt forgiveness is a simple, straightforward demand — in other words, it’s exactly what so many pundits originally claimed Occupy Wall Street lacked. Best of all, it’s a demand that should hold the interest of cable news’ majority college educated, middle-class audience.

It’s true that all these factors lead us to a state of affairs in which student debt gets more attention than other, worthier concerns. But that tells us nothing about the merits of student debt forgiveness, which, I would argue, are considerable. A policy of student forgiveness is not a rejection of “personal responsibility.” It is not irrelevant to OWS’s other concerns. It is both a good thing on the merits and, potentially, an impetus for further social change.

Let’s deal with this “personal responsibility” objection first. That makes sense when applied to homo economicus, but most people who take out student loans live in the real world. They also tend to be teenagers — kids, for chrissake, who have been told since adolescence or earlier (by authority figures, no less) that their future economic security hinges on their ability to matriculate into a prestigious institute of higher learning. Those kids who matriculated before 2008 made assumptions about the job market which were, at the time, entirely reasonable. Through no fault of their own, those same assumptions are now fantasies. And in these conditions, we’re asking — no, demanding — that students spend the rest of their lives paying off tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Because that’s the decision they made, and they have to live with it. They may not be old enough to drink a can of Coors Lite, but they’re old enough for this.

To my ears, that sounds self-evidently arbitrary and cruel. And if the welfare and personal responsibility of undergrad debtors were the only concern, I’d be all for debt forgiveness. But burdensome student debt does not exist in a vacuum, and its immediate effects are neither the sole or even primary reason for wanting to alleviate its effects. My bigger concern is with how student debt distorts our politics.

Student radicalism used to matter in this country. It still does, a little, but the trend doesn’t look good, and I submit that student debt is one of the main reasons why. I am not speaking dismissively when I say that campus radicalism and activism are byproducts of luxury: the luxury to learn for learning’s sake instead of for your career, to take time out of working to picket, to temporarily remove yourself from the capital engine to which you may one day submit. These luxuries should humble, but also inspire: they are society’s gift to the young, and the gift of the young back to the society. Who else besides the full-time student gets to spend all week nurturing her social imagination and trying to envision a better nation? Who else has the time and means to work towards that dream without asking anything in return?

Student debt is the best instrument yet invented for suppressing student activism. It forces undergraduates to ignore the radical possibilities in their education and instead focus on keeping their heads above water. Learning for learning’s sake is all well and good, but it won’t help you out on the job market when you graduate. Campaigning for the living wage looks alright on a résumé, but a posh internship is even better. No time to question, experiment or protest; if you want to keep ahead of Sally Mae, you’ve got to start running the treadmill from the moment Welcome Week ends. So put down that picket sign, tuck in your shirt, and get to networking.

Burdernsome student debt is, in other words, an instrument of coercion. It stunts the growth of potential leaders and dissidents, turning them instead to complacent office drones and consumers. For those who want to revitalize our politics, promote social change and finish what OWS started, it can only be an obstacle.

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