Monthly Archives: November 2014

Through a glass, darkly

The media is a buzz with criticism against modern Russia and its fearless leader Vladmir Putin. The New York Times book review this morning devoted virtually every page to works on the life of Stalin, the intellectual degradation of literary works in Soviet Russia, and the corrupt, nigh fascist, policies of Putin’s oligarchic Russia.   This is all well and good. It does, however, leave one with the impression that Russia is intended – much as it was in the Cold War – as a foil for American political and social life.  This is particularly evident when one examines the subject nations’ respective propaganda outlets – RT and Fox News – which paint very different pictures of Russian and American life.  (I presume as I proceed that we can all agree that neither are factually accurate in their portrayal of global affairs). Both entities attempt to portray the other nation as overreaching violators of human rights with inept economic systems that depend upon coercion and militarism for sustenance. I would posit that both propaganda machines are moderately accurate when examined in the aggregate.

Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 was a reactionary assault upon the outmoded monarchy and centuries of serfdom. Naturally, it met the classical Marxist revolutionary paradigm – a class division predicated upon the sense of exploitation experienced by a predominantly agrarian economy on the verge of industrialization. Approximations of this historical narrative materialized in places as diverse as 18th Century France and 20th Century Mexico, Spain, Cuba, China, and Vietnam. Using Marxist terminology, we can assess the relative successes and failures of these revolutions by measuring  the abundance or dearth of surplus resources (Mexico, for example, retained a socialist party, but failed utterly to implement meaningful Marxist reform because its pending “industrialization” faltered when its newly minted national oil industry failed to secure adequate production; France in the immediate aftermath of its revolution remained an agrarian society, and communism cannot cure drought or famine).

The United States, of course, experienced a similar transition from agrarian to industrial life, but Marxism never saw a revolutionary presence in the United States. Why? Certainly, Marxist principles were espoused in the United States, often in violent expressions.  These outbursts, however, were suppressed.  The very right to speak of communist ideology was seriously disputed before the intercession of the United States Supreme Court. Political and Popular Culture figures were blacklisted, and Hoover’s FBI conducted intrusive surveillance of suspected communists, often attempting to publicly (or privately, in the case of the recently unredacted Martin Luther King “suicide letter”) discredit them. These tactics, eerily similar to the modern approach taken by the federal government in suppressing anti-government rhetoric in the NSA – Snowden scandal, worked to effectively vaccinate the United States from the introduction of communist ideology into the mainstream public dialogue. This approach stifled a full and complete political discourse on the subject and instead purported to crush out communism in the name of “democracy.” This strategy more closely resembles fascism than classical liberalism.

Of course, political Marxism has proven a failure in each of its real world applications. As the economic theorist F. A. Hayek aptly noted:

The main point of my argument is, then, that the conflict between, on one hand, advocates of the spontaneous extended human order created by a competitive market, and on the other hand those who demand a deliberate arrangement of human interaction by central authority based on collective command over available resources is due to a factual error by the latter about how knowledge of these resources is and can be generated and utilised.

In short, the communist’s obsession with preventing a surplus of resources from enriching the bourgeois at the expense of the proletariat does not cure the problem of the surplus, but rather redirects that surplus to waste and wither under bureaucratic mismanagement.    Rather than heed Hayek’s admonishments, however, America adopted a more traditional, conservative, fascist model of quelling proletariat unrest – appeasement in certain delicate economic sectors:

That the conservative opposition to too much government control is not a matter of principle but is concerned with the particular aims of government is clearly shown in the economic sphere. Conservatives usually oppose collectivist and directivist measures in the industrial field, and here the liberals will often find allies in them. But at the same time conservatives are usually protectionists and have frequently supported socialist measures in agriculture. Indeed, though the restrictions which exist today in industry and commerce are mainly the result of socialist views, the equally important restrictions in agriculture were usually introduced by conservatives at an even earlier date.

It is thus that you will find a staunchly Republican farmer or cattle man who cannot tolerate the Democratic party, but simultaneously decries the cutting of a farm subsidy bill. America is fully of such contradictions in ideology.  The nation who most proudly wears the banner of capitalism is the very same country that created protectionist tarrifs, protectionist legislation for the railroads and oil companies, income security for those demographics most likely to preserve their power (i.e. AARP re social security), and “income destabilization” or welfare incentive programs to suppress monetary and political power amongst those demographics most threatening to their power.

By choosing to stifle communist rhetoric, America never enjoyed a true competition of economic philosophy in the market. Instead, America followed in the footsteps of figures like Adolf Hitler, picking and choosing the most intoxicating aspects of collectivist ideology to better cement and increase political power.

This is the inheritance of post-Soviet Russia.  The fall of the iron curtain was praised as a victory of capitalism, but in my mind this account does not tell the full story.  In the 1980’s Russia’s economy was hobbled by Brezhnev’s systemic poor allocation of resources. The dissolution of the USSR that followed was certainly motivated by a collective desire to better allocate those resources and reconcile the supply and demand of consumer goods.  It was also motivated, I would submit, by the gradual recognition that the political power of the politburo could not be guaranteed without some way of deluding the citizenry into believing they had regained control of the economic direction of the country.  The democratization of the soviet block countries countenances this position.  However, as we ourselves have learned in our failed attempts to spread democracy in the middle east, the power of the vote (which I have discussed in a previous post) does not a free society make.  The truth of the matter is that the collective planing of the Soviet Union had generated a powerful black market of goods, a wealth of untapped resources, and fifty years of under-utilized labor. The institutions of power held within the crumbling Kremlin saw these opportunities, recognized their facile exploitation, and gave the people a more active role in the selective processes of government as a form of distraction so that those in power could retain power by a new means of controlling these resources. Naturally, they were able to model much of this new method of exploitation from the United States.

The modern Russia differs very little from the United States in terms of objective.  Both nations have adopted a very conservative approach to governance that depends upon a suppression of ideology, an opiate in the form of fictionalized “choice,” and militarized propaganda.  If anything Putin and his oligarchic administration have merely learned the lessons forged from America’s 20th century experience and applied them to greater effect, unencumbered by the same traditional distaste for open, public, fascist rule we have in the United States.

Admittedly, I am not an expert on Russian history, politics, or language. My opinions are strictly the product of casual observation and armchair historical browsing. I am writing in this fashion mostly as a challenge for anyone out there to refute my thin little thesis.  As I examine the rhetoric of our media and Russia’s I get the constant feeling that our grievances against Russia are really an act of self-loathing; this post is my own weak attempt at rationalizing these similarities and understanding them on a historical level.

That being said, I will grind my own political axe for a paragraph or so.  True political freedom depends upon the absolute choice of the individual in his economic and personal decisions. We have only experienced that kind of freedom fleetingly in the United States, and largely as the product of accident.  Government, however organized or motivated, will trend toward oppression if it is permitted to do so.  The tale of the 20th century has largely turned upon the exploitation of individuals attempting to approximate this freedom.  Whether an indigenous agrarian in Mexico, a tobacco farmer in Virginia, or a surf liberated by a humanistic aristocrat in Russia, the human desire to better their own predicament is tragically exploitable under a myriad of economic and political ideologies.  It is my deeply held belief that the historical trend of our world is to appeal to this urgency of the human condition under the auspices of democracy in an attempt to foment power covertly.  In the past, power was seized (to borrow from Nietzsche) under the “master morality” theory of “might makes right.” The 20th century operated to reject this theory and render it morally repugnant, but the heroes and victors of those movements ultimately ruled under the same paradigm, albeit more discretely.  If true liberty exists at all within a civilized society, it must acknowledge that democratization is not a counterpoint to centralized communism, monarchy, or fascism; rather, standing alone, it is simply another manifestation of the same golem that has hunted down freedom since antiquity.

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Back in Time for Election Season

Let me begin by apologizing briefly for my absence.  I am a professed Luddite, and that coupled with gross neglect caused this website to disappear temporarily. It appears that I have finally addressed the technical difficulties, and with any luck the site will remain fully functioning for more than a month at a time.  Now, on to the diatribe!

It is election time again in America.  This fact causes me to wonder what an election is exactly. Certainly we all understand the concept somewhat; we can all describe the details and particulars of an election — “I Voted!” buttons, advertising campaigns,  white toothed politicians glaring at us on billboards, black curtained booths, etc. — but the nuances of the process deserve a more thorough inspection.  At its core, an election is a mechanism for the peaceful transition of power between competing interests.  I think it healthy, particularly on the day of or the day after an election, to examine both the finer mechanics of this political mechanism and the nature of the power(s) conveyed by that mechanism’s operation.

We use the term “vote” in a number of ways.  People often use it as a symbol of power, such as when a particular class of people obtain suffrage.  Other times we use it verbally, as in “I’m not going to vote for Prop. 8.” Still other times we use the term in an economic sense, as if it were a commodity: “You’ve got my vote;” or “He was voted in to office last November.”  Each of these uses is fine, but more globally insufficient.  Ultimately, the vote is an individual, outward expression of choice.  Unfortunately, given that the vote is 1) a human expression 2) for making human decisions, we can definitively recognize that the vote is also inherently a flawed mechanic for politics. This isn’t to suggest that a more desirable alternative exists. There likely isn’t one.  But recognizing that voting is flawed because it is human helps us to better focus the inquiry.  What is the central problem behind the modern, western, democratic model of voting? Choice.

Humanity wants to exercise choices, purportedly. I doubt few would contest the proposition that choice is the central most important facet of true freedom.  We each desire to control our own destiny, our own fate; and why should the political decisions that impact our lives operate any different? To this end, America has fought, bled, and picketed for over a century to obtain universal suffrage; nevertheless, the effects of such valiant efforts have achieved relatively little.  50 years after the “war on poverty” commenced, the poor are still poor.  Politicians wage war on drugs, and yet the drugs still flow into the country.  The middle east is still the middle east. The low income school districts still graduate children who cannot read, and farmers still lose the farm. Markets still crash and foreign powers still plot mischief. At various points in all of our lives we have cast our ballots in the hope that policies will change, reforms will be made, and the corrupt will be run out of town on a rail.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; regardless, the global situation does not generally change.  The reality is that the world isn’t going to change. Not in a macro sense.  Certainly some geopolitical situations will shift dramatically, but the overall effect is de minimis because such changes are typically counterbalanced by a contrary shift somewhere else in the world.  This near constant belief that an election can solve the world’s problems is popularly experienced, but it is not realistic.  This is not intended as an appeal to fate, but rather an attempt to illustrate how a colossal waste of resources (votes) has a far more dramatic consequence than simply electing ineffective officials.

The modern political campaign focuses its energies on creating “projects.”  The objective is to frame a narrative – typically accomplished by resorting to semiotic formulas – i.e. discrepancies of class, economic status, racial status, or what I like to call “tribal status” or jingoism – in order to make the voter believe that a choice is necessary on a particular occasion – say, for instance, November 4th.  For example, a candidate may run his campaign on the premise that illegal immigration is resulting in job loss across his district, bailiwick, etc. (of course, a subject like immigration is vastly more complicated than any political candidate wishes to admit, and is just as likely to contribute to economic growth as weakness). The competing candidate may seek the votes of naturalized citizens or recent descendants of immigrants, and thus adopts the contrary position.  As time drags on, the debate becomes black and white. If you’re for candidate A, you’re anti-immigration. If you’re for candidate B, you’re pro immigration. Both sides recite statistics, first hand accounts from constituents, a pithy quote from a founding father or pop culture figure.  In the end, neither side 1) has the authority individually to do anything about the “project” in question and 2) has a vested interest in keeping the “project” alive rather than risk losing the narrative entirely.  Nevertheless, the population is called to the ballot box armed with the knowledge that they must make a decision. They need to “fix” this problem to fit the version of the narrative with which they best identify.  This has occasionally been characterized as a function of psychology (and this is likely not inaccurate), but its exploitation in the form of degrading the power of the vote is better characterized as a phenomenon of bad faith – an existential dilemma caused by “projections of power,” or rather illusions of power.  It is a semiotic concern. From the elaborate ceremony of monarchic succession in antiquity to the talking head on the television set, power has always preoccupied itself with methods of controlling the narrative – of creating the illusion of choice.  To put it more simply:

Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.

The Merovingian, The Matrix Reloaded.

In the modern American political system, this age old problem is compounded by the system’s reliance on political parties.  Tragically, the concept of party rule is not that different from another concern of ancient democracy – the oligarchy. It should come as no surprise that in a system yoked to the concept of narrative choice, certain recurring characters are necessary to help condense the story into a more digestible form.  Most will recognize that such a phenomenon manifests itself constantly at all levels of government. The prevalence of Presidents and presidents’ sons, presidents’ wives, career senators,  etc. all suggest that large swaths of the voting public will vote for the familiar face, or the familiar narrative to the exclusion of most other options.  Many, particularly in smaller parties, blame the media for this tendency, but it is folly to assume that the media, in the business of selling the “news” as a commodity, is not listening to the demands of its audience.  Thus, in addition to confronting a narrative project “requiring” their choice, the citizenry is also confronted with a prearranged list of characters to help facilitate their choice.  This is not even to address the courtesy each political faction offers by providing a color and an animal to help alleviate the difficulty of the choice.   As a functional reality, however, neither of these factions offers a meaningful choice.  Republicans purportedly oppose “entitlement programs,” but no Republican seriously attempts to eradicate programs intended to benefit the elderly – one of their largest constituent bases. Democrats claim to support a “civil liberties” platform, and yet the jail in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba remains open for business. Each party instead concerns itself with retaining power.

The inverse of the oligarchy principle, mob rule, also has a function to play in American democracy, although not as one might suspect.  The mob was repeatedly criticized in antiquity for working as a poor man’s vulture picking the bones of the wealthy. This is certainly one aspect of the mob.  In antiquity, however, the democratic model was limited in scope to certain demographics and classes of people, and the number of participants in the system was limited by a lottery.  In America, the mob has the potential to swell its ranks into the millions. It has the potential to cross class boundaries and to even cross contradicting narratives. To this extent, I would submit that rather than mob rule, America suffers from mob economics. The “vote,” the choice, of each person within the mob is commercialized into a singular value comprised of the particular narrative that chooser will most likely find appealing.  This may dispel the more disturbing image one may harbor of an angry crowd tearing a political enemy limb from limb, but it also means that the mob’s energies become more focused in the hands of those they elect.  Discussions of mob rule often resort to referencing the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France as a choice example (I suppose that in referencing it here, I am no different). It is critical to acknowledge however, the the Terror was equal parts factional murder at the highest levels of revolutionary government and an angry general public.  The revolution had not remedied the plight of the working class french. Those politically involved in the Jacobin and Girondin factions competed in trying to capture the fractured narrative and turn it against one another (and foreign influence). In many ways, this modern incarnation of economized political choice had its genesis in the Terror. As Robespierre and Saint-Just learned on the chopping block, however, the manipulation of narrative can have devastating consequences if taking to the extreme.

None of this is to suggest that voting is a waste of time, or that the citizen does not have unadulterated political choice.  It is, rather, a call to discernment in political action.  When a law maker enters office having successfully convinced the voter to choose his “projects,” he must take steps to alleviate the concerns he addressed on the stump.  If he is too successful, he becomes superfluous unless he finds another project. If he fails . . . well, ask Robespierre about failure. The functional effect of this political tightrope is more legislation that purportedly “fixes” a project while simultaneously creating other problems or only partially redressing the original grievance.  This is not effective law making.  However, it is virtually impossible to change the outlook of lawmakers.  It is possible to change the outlook of voters.  As you watch the election results come in tonight, wherever you may be, please consider the choices you exercised, and ask yourself if the choices you manifested on the ballot were necessary ones.

Although his task is much different than my own, I would highly recommend First Democracy by Paul Woodruff of the University of Texas for an account of democratic problems facing modernity and antiquity. His eloquence and wealth of knowledge alone will make it a far more interesting read than this article.

 

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