Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The pain in Spain and America's iron jaw

David Seaton's News Links
This remobilisation of Spanish society, lulled into comfort and complacency during the boom years, in some senses recalls the fevered political and street activity of the transition to democracy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. Yet it is more amorphous and experimental, bypassing politics and Spain’s increasingly tarnished institutions.(...) A salient feature of the present crisis – beyond the immediate drama of Spain’s cost of borrowing and the broader eurozone crisis – is the extent to which Spain’s institutions, the linchpins of the vibrant democracy Spaniards painstakingly built after Franco, have been battered. Financial Times
I don't usually like to blog here about Spain, where I live, because I would have to spend too much time explaining the context of a very complex reality to the majority of my readers, who probably come to that reality burdened with a multitude of cliches about Spain, cliches that I find too boring to clear away. I write about politics, I'm not a travel writer.
I'll make a bit of an exception now in order to explore the advantages that come wrapped in Spain's weakness and the disadvantages for the American people inherent in America's enormous natural strength.
Spain, unlike the USA, is by nature poor, with few natural resources, with practically no rivers of any commercial use, a dry, rocky, challenging terrain that has always made communication between its regions difficult. It is also an extraordinarily beautiful land, but as any farmer of Iowa's flat, boring landscape will tell you, "pretty land is bad land to farm". 
It is a landscape that breeds hardy, fibrous and energetic men and women. This ungenerous, hardscrabble, land is what drove the conquistadors to discover and conquer the Americas take its gold, and create what was then the world's largest empire.
When that empire fell apart Spain languished until Europe's post war prosperity lifted all the boats and finally provided Spain with the capital necessary to modernize its infrastructure and give opportunity for the Spanish people, called "the Prussians of the south", to express again their native energy by building Europe's fourth largest economy.
Today Spain is trying to dig itself out of the debris of an enormous real estate bubble created out of the euphoria of finally finding low interest money in their pockets after centuries of privation.
As the snippet from the Financial Times above indicates this has led to a massive questioning of the basic construction of the Spanish state. In other words, in the midst of disaster the Spanish people are discovering, in the words of Marx and Engels that,
"All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."
And I would maintain that such a facing with sober senses the real conditions of one's life and the relations with one's kind, is one of the most beneficial exercises a human being could undertake in the short time he or she is given to live. I think it was Socrates that said that an unexamined life wasn't worth living. And it is trying to imagine the American people en masse ever waking up to the extent that Spanish people are waking up now, that leads me to meditate on the advantages of weakness and the deadening, sluggish, tyranny of strength.
I have observed over the years that those who can drink large quantities of alcohol without showing its effects are the ones who die of cirrhosis, that the boxers that can't be knocked down, no matter how hard they are hit, are the ones that end up punchy and I wonder if this also applies to the living flesh of the common people of a country whose elites are the most wealthy and powerful and self satisfied in the history of our species.
The United States of America is so big, so populated, so rich, with such a smug and layered plutocracy, so tyrannized by endless interest groups that I cannot imagine the American people ever taking to the streets in a general strike or even more tragically, I cannot imagine that it would ever make any difference at all to their reality if they did. DS

Monday, July 23, 2012

James Holmes: a budding neuroscientist runs amok

David Seaton's News Links
James Holmes
So this is just what one of America's many faces is going to be a bitterly divided, hatefully cynical country where insane people have easy access to semi-automatic weapons, and occasionally use them to commit senseless atrocities. We will continue to see more and more of this sort of thing, and there's nothing we can realistically do about it. The Economist
You have to be away from America for awhile to fully realize what a stone-crazy place it is.
I'm beginning to get interested in James Holmes' story, so many of the elements don't fit together
He was a brilliant, scholarship student, with no history of mental illness (a bit of a loner, which is normal in a person of high intelligence) but invariably described as "nice", even "sweet", with no problems of concentration, no history of weirdness, or "inappropriate behavior", safe around children, going for his doctorate in neuroscience...
Suddenly, out of nowhere, he drops out of school and acts out the standard, American as apple pie, run-amok: collecting guns and ammunition and shooting up an apparently random crowd of innocents... With his hair dyed red like a clown, after booby trapping his apartment.
A budding neuroscientist?
Didn't his neuroscience teachers notice anything?
What triggered all this?
I get the feeling there is a story here worthy of Truman Capote... any thoughts? DS

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What exactly is the USA?

David Seaton's News Links
Right now the question would have to be: what exactly is the USA??

The people?

The system?

The economy?

Whose economy?

What exactly is the USA?

This is really important in America's case, more so than in other countries, because "American" isn't an ethnic group or a religion or even a language and shared history; people move around a lot and are not deeply rooted and to top it off the family structure isn't very strong. All of these factors are what normally make up a "nationality". So the question, "what exactly is the USA" is something every new generation of Americans has to answer... and I believe it is getting more difficult.
When, back in the 50s "Engine Charley" Wilson enunciated his famous formula: "what is good for General Motors is good for the USA and vice versa", he was probably right, or it least  the phase made  some sense at that time. Today, could you say something like that about General Motors or substitute any other American corporation's name for GM's? Would it still make any sense? Try it with "Goldman Sachs".
Right now, we are looking at the possibility that the economy may "recover", but that its "recovery" will not mean any jobs. So we have to go back to the original question, The people? The system? The economy? Whose economy?  What exactly is the USA?
I think that the difficulty in answering this question, "what exactly is the USA", is what makes the situation much more worrisome today than the crisis of the 70s or even the 1930s. DS

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Globalization: King and country

David Seaton's News Links
Martin Luther King
We are white mice participating in a great historical experiment.
The idea of completely untrammeled, frictionless capitalism has only been a theoretical construct till now, but we are almost there today.
There are basically two -- untried -- theories of how this would play out.
On one hand the free market liberals believe that, if not interfered with, the markets will bring mankind an endless cornucopia of good things that will lift all boats.

On the other hand Marx believed that left to its own devices, the system would tear itself apart.

Us white mice have front row seats at this experiment, rather like crab lice at the birth of Jesus.

All over the world and increasingly in developed countries like the USA, this metastasizing process of anarcho-capitalism that I call "stateless-imperialism" is producing a hardening mass of misery, which in America is known as the "working poor": an intractable class of unemployed, or underemployed human beings, or if they have work (often needing several jobs to get by) they are invariably overworked, over exploited, always underpaid, socially excluded and in general, politically inert. These are America's untermenschen, living in what is said to be the richest, most powerful country in the history of the world. A place which fills its mouth with phrases like, "all men are created equal" and washes it down with the greatest levels of inequality on the planet... even greater than in India.

Once again Indian metaphors arise, and this is because the Indians have been working on codifying this social stratification for thousands of years. So looking at their caste system will give us a clearer idea of where we are headed.
Everybody has heard of "untouchables", but many people that are unfamiliar with the workings of India's ancient caste system are probably unaware that there are categories way below the untouchables called the "unapproachables" and the "un-seeables". That is to say human beings you cannot share open space with and other human beings you cannot even lay eyes upon without being polluted.These last two categories are most applicable to today's gated-community, America.
"We've got the message. But my college kid, the babysitters, the nails ladies -- everybody who's got the right to vote -- they don't understand what's going on. I just feel like if you're lower income -- one, you're not as educated, two, they don't get how it works." guest at a Romney Hamptons fundraiser (hat doonesbury)
And paradoxically, America's affluent usually choose members of this underclass to take care of their children and cook their food.  However, except for that strange intimacy, the wealthy have put as much mental and physical space as they can between themselves and this mass of suffering humanity, denying them even a decent education and healthcare... This in the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world. No high caste Indian could be colder or crueler then then America's wealthy, not even get close. India is our future, nearly our present, not some exotic oddity.
Martin Luther King, America's most successful social activist's greatest influence was Mahatma Gandhi, so, not so indirectly, Gandhi may be one of America's most influential thinkers
King took as his model Gandhi's tactics and more importantly, perhaps, Gandhi's seamless infusion of political activism  with a spirituality that allowed King to connect on a deeply emotional plane with Americans of all colors and creeds just as Gandhi did with Indians.
Today, in great part thanks to Martin Luther King, America's "untouchables" are no longer so rigorously color coded, however these days, many who once sat comfortably at America's groaning table now have become familiar with the humiliation of un-aproachibility and invisibility, to add to their precarious hardscrabble existence without adequate healthcare or education.
In many ways Dr. King was more successful than Gandhi, that an African-American sits in the Oval Office today is the living proof of his success.
Today what is missing from the left is the emotional energy that came from MLK's Gandhian infusing of activism with spirituality.
In his 2008 campaign Barack Obama showed that Americans are still moved by the beauty of our English language when it invokes social justice... That there was little practical follow up to the "soaring rhetoric" in no way invalidates the revelation that many Americans are hungry for another social leader like Martin Luther King. For me that is the challenge that faces the American left in defending what should be its natural constituency, America's working poor. DS

Monday, July 09, 2012

The World Economy: into the Wild Blue Yonder

David Seaton's News Links
It would be comforting for many to imagine that our globalized economy is a conspiracy,  a murky cabal, directed from the shadows by some Bilderberger-ish, ecumenical-protocol, of sinister "elders", who are pulling all the strings.
I say comforting because presumably, if sufficiently intimidated, the people who got us into this mess could easily pull their strings and get us out.
However, I am afraid that instead of being something so tidy, there are no identifiable human hands on the controls of our world and the whole thing is simply on automatic pilot...
How does that work?
I could illustrate that with an old joke I recall.
An airliner takes off full of people and a metallic voice comes over the speaker system:
"Welcome aboard Acme Airlines flight 505 to London, the first totally automatic flight in aviation history, this is your computerized control system speaking, totally free from any possibility of human error, there is no pilot on board,. We hope you enjoy your flight. We will be flying at an altitude of 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet, 30,000 feet,  30,000 feet....
That is where I think we are right now. No one is in charge: the system itself has taken over and has no idea of the future but to grow endlessly.
In globalization, the deregulated system expresses itself freely qua-system and even the famous buttinsky billionaires like Sheldon Adelson or the Koch Brothers and their Tea Party accolytes are mere puppets, reacting like Pavlovian pooches to the stimuli produced by the unshackled world mishagoss, as are those politicians they use their billions to influence (buy, bribe).
I call this system "stateless-imperialism".
Classical state imperialism could be illustrated by the 19th century British empire's destruction of India's native textile industry and forcing Indians to buy cheap, industrially produced, cloth from Britain's satanic mills. This captive market made Britain rich and caused many an Indian weaver to literally starve to death and sucked commercial life out of India's villages.
In short imperialism was generally good for the British, but generally bad for the Indians and the distinction between being British and being Indian was clearly marked with indelible ink.
Stateless imperialism is quite similar in its effects, but the lines of winners and losers has little reference to state boundaries, color or creed.
A roughly hypothetical example might go something like this. The prices on the world cotton market, chock a block with subsidies, but without significant tariff barriers, fall dramatically and this allows the reborn Indian textile industry to turn out a lot of cloth cheaply and allows the many brown and nimble fingers of sweatshop ladies in India and other Asian countries to turn out attractive clothing at near-slave wages; clothing which is to be sold by multinationals in expensive boutiques all over the developed world and after being worn there, turns up second hand in the street markets of Africa thereby putting native African industry out of business.
Meanwhile, thousands of Indian cotton farmers, with the collapse of world cotton prices, finding themselves drowning in debts they are unable to pay, commit suicide, leaving their widows and orphaned children to sell themselves into indentured servitude to eventually pay those debts.
Of course in this environment the British textile industry disappeared ages ago and its descendents loiter on street corners wearing hoodies.
All of this is logical, cause and effect. Just business... unchained business.
The suffering is the same as in state-imperialism, but in stateless-imperialism there is no "king and country" and no "viceroy" and certainly no one lining up to "bear the white man's burden". In classic state-imperialism, identifiable robber barons, celebrated in song and story, controlled entire industries. Today there are no Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller figures, once upon a time there was a man actually named J. P. Morgan, God only knows what or who J. P. Morgan really is today. Now, like "flight 505 to London", the world economy is flying itself... look ma, no hands.
When I say this world system is on automatic-pilot, I'm not saying that are no human beings involved in running these mechanisms, only that these humans are merely hired managers with stock options, whose only assignment is to maximize shareholder value, if they don't do so they will soon be replaced by their board of directors, men and women who themselves represent only a tiny fraction of the total, largely faceless, equity. In short, faceless men and women create "value" for faceless often momentary shareholders in mastodonic enterprises of no clear national or personal affiliation and whose only horizon is the quarterly report.
Many have ridden this impersonal process to wealth, but none control it and the fallen lie all about us and the walking wounded crowd the roads. DS