Category Archives: america

How I See Victory Day (as an American)

Red salute to the millions who died in the fight against fascism! Tragically, it seems there are more martyrs to come.

Emboldened by US backing of their newly-installed government in Kiev, fascists brutally murdered at least forty anti-fascists in Odessa this last week. The response should have been unequivocal – ¡No pasarán! – but immediately following the tragedy, the spin machine was kicked into full gear. Who could say who actually killed the protesters? Who could say they did not kill themselves with piano wire? And here comes the anti-communist “Left” squad with truncheons, beating back people who mourn the death of these martyrs with their famous slogan: Neither Moscow nor DC.

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Positioning the United States, which is undoubtably at the helm of our planetary slide into darkness, as a comparable threat to Russia, encircled on all sides by the American war machine, is laughable, if not actively malicious.  According the latest SIPRI report on military expenditures, The United States spent $640 billion on “defense” in 2013, while Russia, with its conscripted military, spent a little more than 13% of what the US did.

But to frame this tragedy as a conflict between pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian forces is to buy into the idea that Ukraine is standing bravely, on wobbly fawn’s legs, against the giant monster of Russia. Another way to frame the debate would be that a US funded coup brought a fascist, pro-austerity government into power in Kiev, and mobs of brownshirts are mopping up localized resistance against the fascists in parts of East Ukraine, going as far as to torture and burn them alive. If the Russian government is offering assistance to these  antifascists, among them communists, then shouldn’t we as antifascists even be a bit glad? And yet…

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see: https://twitter.com/keithgessen/statuses/462609427930308608

Even if there were anti-government protesters – *cough* excuse me, I mean to say Pro-Russians – shooting at pro-government protesters – *cough* excuse me, I mean to say Pro-Ukraines* – does this excuse the butcher of 40 armless civilians and then the arrest of hundreds more? I missed the numbers of those killed outside of the House of Labor that day… how many were there?

But for socialists, those who aspire to instill change in our world, who believe the system is fundamentally unjust and stacked against the world’s oppressed supermajority, the insistence on condemning “both imperialisms” is clearly an excuse to do nothing. A cop-out.

Warning flags go up when one hears the following: Yes, but isn’t Putin bad? You’re not saying you’re a “Putin-understander” are you? Saddam did gas his own children. Ghadaffi was leaning towards market reforms, wasn’t he? Iran makes its women wear hijab. It’s not purely socialist. Etc. Chances are these are people who cannot be arsed into marching to support the people being lynched in Ukraine. And if they were, well, they’d feel compelled to hand out flyers while marching explaining that yes, Putin is bad too. When you give credence to the imperialist narrative, you give people excuses not to act. What’s the point? Both sides are clearly in the wrong, and the offender bears the brunt of the barbarity.

This is false propaganda. The American fantasy of a hulking bloodthirsty Russia must be dispelled. Let the Russian left worry about Putin. The American left should be worrying about their own president, their own two-party mock democracy, the oppressed nations of African Americans and the Native Americans, the shadow, superexploited workforce they call “illegal”. And, more pressingly, the billions under surveillance, millions under occupation, drones butchering children, and yes, tax money going into the hands of fascists in Ukraine, who make molotov cocktails and strangle pregnant women to death.

There are fascists marching in Ukraine now. They are doing better than that, they have been installed and recognized by NATO and her allies. They are emboldened. They are firing on their own civilians who march for Victory Day, the day commemorating the unquantifiable sacrifice made by the Soviet Union in smashing Nazi Germany. Forty million killed as USA and UK sat back on their hands and watched, intentionally hoping the two would cull each other’s numbers. When the Ukrainian people hope to beat back the tide of austerity and god knows what else, they are labelled “Pro-Russian”. When they object to an unelected government on a “suicide mission” to strip the population of its last shreds of prosperity, must we allege they are on Russian payroll? Can we not guess that the Ukranian people, themselves having lost millions to Nazi aggression, know the cost is too high without “Russian agents” telling them about it?

So, on this Victory Day I try and remember all the people still fighting fascism today just as much as those who died fighting. As an American, I look to my own heroes and seek to emulate them in my struggle. And this means, as an American, being uncompromising and unwavering in my denouncement of our imperialist aggression abroad.

“narcotic earnestness” and the exclusion of working class people

from Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) by Chris Marker

Two articles were published this week that featured similar takes on the emotional side of the socialist equation. Doug Henwood said he found the magazine-publishing left in Brooklyn encouraging because it offers an “intellectual seriousness without a narcotic earnestness”. Owen Jones wrote for the Independent saying that there’s nothing “personal” about socialism. What do they define as narcotic earnestness, as personal? Imagine a civil rights movement told to make racism “not personal”, telling people to settle down and see things logically for a change. Where’s the heart in it?

I suspect this lack of heart comes because of a distance from the idea. It’s no coincidence that people who are not workers, who have sometimes never even been workers, peddle these viewpoints of emotional disconnect and masculine affect. We would laugh off a white male who tries to tell us that feminism or anti-racism aren’t personal issues. A white male clearly has much less at stake in the fight against misogyny and racism than a woman of color. It would be no surprise to us if he could approach the situation without emotion – after all, what has he ever felt in his bones on the matter? So when a member of the privileged classes says that socialism is nothing personal, that narcotic earnestness is something to look down one’s nose at, we should have a similar reaction.

I believe that the reason the “new left” is pushed in the direction of academic dryness, blocked ears and inaction is precisely because those privileged classes, who have quite a different stake in the discussion, are the ones currently steering it. It’s a small, closed circle that is described by the New Statesmen as basically, “the wunderkind socialists of Brooklyn”. Workers are not included in this new left except as statistics and dehumanizing, baseless assumptions. Workers should be at the forefront of overthrowing capitalism, because they are the only ones who can do it. Those on the left who say “the left is dead” are, more often than not, those who benefit most as a class from the death of the left.

This is not to say the privileged classes who can afford to separate themselves so emotionally from socialism should be excluded entirely – far from it. But one should vigorously fight bourgeois ideas masquerading as “socialism” that spring from this source. If you cannot see the fight against capitalism as a fight to save your life, then you will never fight as hard. Without the inclusion of workers who have such a vital stake in overthrowing capitalism, the movement will remain on the pages of a magazine.

I happen to think that if there is such a thing as a “safe space” in this society, there should safe spaces on the left for people who are not bourgeois, people who come from working class backgrounds and people who are poor. I would like to see more workers’ journals, more workers’ panels. I believe that workers should be preferred recipients for writing and journalism grants. Workers are the ones who inevitably organize to accomplish socialism. After all, it is the people who have the most to lose who not only take socialism the most seriously, but also feel it the most personally. And workers know bullshit better than anybody; when you come around dispassionately speaking in a language meant to exclude them from things they care passionately about, they will turn their backs on you. Workers should be at the forefront of socialist ideology to defeat bourgeois ideas. Workers are the subject, not the object, of socialism.

Workers and the experiences of working people are erased daily in discourse on the left. They exist as statistics or as ignorant masses who need to be talked out of their own stupidity and shown “the way” by  wunderkind socialists of Brooklyn who (obviously) know more about capitalism than they do. It’s time to welcome workers into the discussion. They take socialism personally, they feel the blows on their bodies from capitalism daily. Most importantly, they bring the “narcotic earnestness” that pushes people into action.

Looking at what the average American worker consumes, very little of it represents their class interest. It is essential they be included in socialist discussions and organizing because they have the most to gain from socialism and because they can help articulate the heart in the theory.

I think the first step in this inclusion of workers should be for the rich to identify who they are on the left. I suggest a moneybag icon next to bylines of writers whose family wealth is more than $150,000. Doug Henwood, for example, attended Yale and makes his living as a financial advisor, yet is quoted in a story as offering authoritative views on this new left. There is nothing wrong with being born into money or having an advanced degree and speaking about leftism. It’s the “authoritative” part I take issue with. It’s the distance from the risk and reward and suggesting socialism isn’t personal, isn’t really about life or feelings, that poisons things. If one’s ideas aren’t bourgeois, there’s nothing to be afraid of by opening them up to challenge. If one can learn to speak to people simply and concisely, if one can listen well and not speak with condescension, then this is going to help. The art of self-criticism is lost on this generation of “new” leftists; we are terrified of critique or blacklisting ourselves out of academic institutions or publications. We tune out what we don’t want to hear, and hold tighter and more personally to our positions than we do to socialism. If we’re all on the same side, why the defensive posturing, why the lashing out?

There are two meanings of “taking it personally”, and one involves ego. A socialist should be eager to correct their ideological mistakes and take criticism from others. When criticism is painted as “trolling” and dismissed as “hysterical”, this is the ego talking. When the greatest stake you have in the conversation is whether or not you’re correct, then you have little to lose. The New Statesman article admits the socialist revival in Brooklyn seems to exist in the air, not in action, but fails to grasp that the lack of worker involvement, the beating heart of socialism, is why.

Dirty Wars (2013)

Jeremy Scahill gets out of the tank and walks with the locals 

Richard Rowley makes a good documentary – well shot, well narrated,  good storytelling – but there was something that kept nagging me throughout the showing. I finally put my finger on it near the end, when Jeremy Scahill was going over his revelations, his horror at how largely evil the world has become in the last 10 years. I remember being a bit of a smug huff at his crawling out of a tank in Afghanistan to explore the surroundings on his own, his anguish in facing a “boring” life back in Park Slope, all pretty normal for a documentary. Even the bloodied Somali corpses as props for Scahill to express appropriate disgust and horror is pretty par for course in an American documentary against an imperial backdrop. But what really had me was – really? What’s changed? Targeted assassinations,  kill lists, death squads, shadow proxy wars.. none of this is particularly new. Not even the part about extrajudically killing American citizens, either at home or abroad. I even asked the question to the panel at the end, maybe is the change something to do with the executive branch having more concentrated power? But this question was glazed over. Instead, we learn about how Scahill’s book (available for purchase by the concession stand) and this documentary were “piercing the veil” and how the New York Times calls it “riveting”. At one point, it was even compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was also credited with starting the Civil War, which is not only strange but a weird way of reading history.

But then, the scope was rather small. Even though the film describes 75 countries as suffering JSOC invasions and drone strikes, we are only presented with the theaters we understand a bit about already: Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. It was strange to me how Pakistan – being the main focus of these attacks – was somehow left out of the story. But either way, we are given “Islamic terrorism” and “drug cartels” as being the main reasons behind these attacks, with no broader scope as to the United State’s geopolitical and strategic capital interests. We get the feeling from the film that America needs to be doing something about these terrorist Muslims and drug lords, but perhaps it could be in a more humane way. After all, there is no dialectical relationship between the Taliban and the women and children slaughtered by Hellfire missiles. The link cannot exist because then we must see it also exists between Scahill, the Hellfire missiles being used to kill, and ourselves safe and sound in the IFC theater.

The finest part of the film is where a Somali general tells Scahill how Americans are the “masters of war” and “great teachers”. But the point is given in such a way where Americans watching have the chance to immediately settle back into the comfortable dichotomy of the Taliban vs. innocent Afghanis. Black and white, good guys and bad guys. No relationship, no history, just the sort of hogwash George Bush would hoot about on the radio. After all, we too must scramble to separate ourselves from responsibility. We too must be able, as Americans, to separate ourselves from our government – after all, we voted for Kerry in 2004 and did our part. In this film, there is no dialectical relationship between the people and power.  Surely there can be no connection between our relatively comfortable lives in the United States and children born without limbs in Fallujah – otherwise we really could do something about the violence done in our names.

It was a good documentary, as I said. It’s important that people know what’s going on, how the United States’s endless lust for war affects human beings all over the world. However it should not be understood as “groundbreaking” or something that will change the tide of politics forever in this country. Whipping out my checkbook or signing a petition is not going to stop America’s ravenous appetite for blood and gold. These sorts of things have always happened in American history, maybe not with so much executive power and technological gadgets, but the idea has remained the same for hundreds of years. The question elicited from the film shouldn’t be “what can I do?” but rather, “how does this happen?” Once we understand how the machine works, we can properly throw a wrench in the gears.

The other questions during the Q&A session were mainly concerned with calls to action, what is it that we can do? The questions sounded rather like the “we” meant a crowd of individuals as opposed to “we” the people. They brought up a journalist jailed in Yemen, petitions for his release as he was arrested while covering this story. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as well-off citizens nestled on the island of Manhattan, is there nothing more you can do than sign a petition? On your own? I guess not. In the theater, many of those watching the horrific catalog of violence wrecked by the American government probably voted for Barack Obama, the man whose voice on the phone actually demanded the Yemeni journalist’s imprisonment, the man whose order slaughters thousands of unnamed innocents. The viewer does not trust their own ability because she is limited by their view of the world where all one can do is sign a petition and vote the lesser of two villainous warmongers.

reality check: American radicalism

At the start of December 4th 1969, Fred Hampton was drugged by a FBI informant after teaching a political education course at a local church in Chicago. Later, when he was passed out, fourteen cops burst into his apartment and murdered him in his bed, next to his pregnant girlfriend. After two shots to the head to confirm his death, he was dragged into the hallway and left in a pool of blood. He was 21 years old.

Almost 100 years earlier, John Brown sat at his desk, waiting for execution at the age of 59. He wrote his last words to his wife. She was waiting nearby, but he was refused the right to spend the last night of his life with her, that refusal being the only time his stoic comportment threatened to break down. He had helped lead a militant uprising of enslaved people. He was hanged and then put in his coffin, noose still around his neck, and sent back north to be buried.

The list of American radicals who died in battle against a massive system of oppression is long and should be a source of pride for Americans who seek to follow a life fighting for economic and social justice. They were those who were expelled by the society they lived in because of their beliefs, because of the color of their skin, because of their sex, the list goes on. These were people willing to die for their beliefs. Even those who were possibly not ready still died sometimes. They were those whose death would perpetuate the American machine of oppression and pain.

What is a radical? A radical is a thorn in the side of what she opposes. The radical is pushed outward like a splinter under the skin. The radical accepts that she will live a life of lack unless she gives in and changes her mind. Even then, she might not make her way back into the fold. This is to be expected – a radical seeks to disrupt the reproduction of  oppression, not negotiate or change it warmly. As we edge closer to the abyss, as the planet itself threatens to crumble underneath our feet, those who would call themselves radicals must make a decision. Are they pleading or are they demanding? Are they negotiating or are they accusing?

When I was a little girl, I learned about my great-grandfather, shipped over from the old country as a child and sold to a mining company in Montana. He grew up to become an IWW organizer and was beaten, threatened and blacklisted. Blacklisted was the first radical word I learned. To be blacklisted is a heavy thing for sure, and my grandfather grew up in crushing poverty. My great-grandmother begged for food. No one offered him a warm hand because he was a thorn in the side of capitalism, because he demanded that workers have the right to the means of production and to the fruits of their labor. The labor movement was fighting for an eight-hour day. Now, as the eight-hour day slips through our fingers, today’s self-proclaimed radicals write television reviews for major American newspapers and hold court at academic conferences.

They claim they are interested in building a party – but where is the phone number? How do I get involved? Is it a party that will vote Democrat? The academics – and I am an academic, considering my education – fight over semantics and whether or not pornography is ethical. Meanwhile, people all over the country are ready for more. They are ready for disruption. Sectors of this generation see the ability to reproduce themselves being eroded away. Nearly seven million Americans are under correctional supervision. Schools are being closed. Poison is being poured in our lakes and rivers, in our oceans and all over our land. Be sure – this will not hold. It’s not sustainable. But the people in power will try every trick in the book to sustain themselves.

We’ve seen it before. We talk about women as if their biggest problem is what sort of clothes they’re wearing. We talk about race as if we have the first black president. Now the very term “radical” – a comforting dogwhistle nowadays for sleepy anticapitalists – is being appropriated, subsumed into the project of class reproduction. When you broadcast your opinions and find it thrilling that major media outlets have brought you on board, you need to consider your part to play in the reproduction of class. Do you make a living on your radicalism? Do you want to? My beloved once told me: “I want to be a low-level Soviet bureaucrat, but you live the life you have, not the life you want.”

There is nothing wrong with carving out a corner and trying to feed yourself. It is quite another project you are envisioning, however, when book deals with no outlines line up and event coordinators begin to court you. When you imagine a new party, one that appeals to the so-called masses through the capitalist propaganda machine, you must be very careful. When you start getting printed in the New York Times and Washington Post, when you see your face staring back at you as the primary photo accompanying a story, you must be even more careful. A story about you is not a story of the system of oppression that cracks skulls every day in this country.

When your critics become your trolls, this is because you somehow think your points are correct because you have more of a space to speak. You forget how you got this page space, you forget why it was given to you. You (yes, you dear reader!) are part of this machine now. The skin is not pushing you outwards, it is pulling you in towards its organs. Close your eyes and imagine what is is like to have paid staffers, then wonder why so many Black Panthers were sleeping in the same apartment that tragic night in Chicago. When you yell down that someone is a troll because they have less twitter followers than you, remember that you are calling yourself a radical and placing yourself in a pantheon of radicals who gave their lives to end capitalism. Wonder then, why Fred Hampton wasn’t published in the New York Times.

Slavoj Zizek is honest when he says that he thinks there must be a vanguard party because he himself wants nothing to do with struggle, with politics. He wants to be a boring man with a boring life somewhere. Who then, will execute the ideas of those who proclaim to be on the vanguard of the Left today – who are the radicals? Do they exist? The Left Forum is this weekend in New York, and Verso, the leading publisher of leftist books, sent out invitations to their after-party. Have we ever seen such a crowd of communists who are so willing and able to rationalize away their own inaction? Watch them drink cocktails and discuss the importance of this or that idea, watch them rally around positions like it’s some sort of game. I went to an ISO meeting in Brooklyn and met fund managers, people in advertising. We must look at the way that these “radical” ideas should shape our lives. What worth does a bunch of words on paper have when there is no one that is willing to put their thoughts into action? What do these “writers” even think of their own ideas when they do not even inspire themselves to make the necessary sacrifices, adopt the necessary discipline? Here we suddenly find shivering cowards, insisting that they are caught up in their everyday lives too much to put a shoulder to the wheel and push.

Overthrowing capitalism is about sacrifice and discipline. When we fantasize class revolution or wars against Nazis, we fancy ourselves willing to give our lives to the cause. Yet when it comes to choosing paths in our lives, we hesitate in committing fully to our positions. It becomes about this or that obligation, the desire and right, we bark defensively, to lead a normal boring life. Tough shit, comrade! If even Marx shivered in poverty while shoveling what money he had into failed revolutionary causes then surely you puffing up about twitter followers, an appearance on television or in the pages of a society magazine is nothing to brag about. If people like John Brown were willing to put their head in a noose, if strikers willing to be shot in the streets for demanding eight-hour workdays, if tens of millions of Soviets died fighting the Nazis, isn’t steering clear of a lifetime of normalcy and comfort the least you can do?

on somatophobia more generally, or, is “Food a haven for reactionaries”?

T’ai: I hadn’t even read the newest piece and I came to a bunch of the same conclusions about food politics today when reading this article on Gawker. Somatophobia and the fear of hunger.

Em: Yes, it’s horrible.

T’ai: Or rather, you don’t deal with the suffering or need by eliminating the instrument which suffers or needs. Wanting tasty food isn’t a curse. These people probably get angry when they involuntarily sneeze, or laugh. Optimizing nutrution is a great goal, but it’s really wrong to act like something that isn’t whatsoever pleasant to eat is anywhere near to optimal. It really does come down to a weird hatred of being bodied, or anything involuntary, like sneezing or laughing or orgasms.

Em: It’s a weird contradiction. Capital demands individual units, but people seek to discard their own units in an individualistic way. It’s possible that the individual desire to escape the body is the unfocused individual desire to escape capitalism.

T’ai: It’s true that it’s possible to be denied agency by immaterial things, like drug addiction. Which is why I think that “do what you want because it’s your body/drug politics” are stupid. But, like, that doesn’t make every single biological or psychological need a sort of oppression. Things like the need for food can be vehicles for actual oppression, obviously.

Em: Like through capitalism, commodification. All of those items: hunger, sex, disease, they have all been commodified.

T’ai: Yeah, there’s something very No Alternative about it. I feel like the sort of person who is into this displays a really weird desire to escape (and indeed destroy) the human body/condition as such; eliminating biological and psychological needs instead of fulfilling them, uploading one’s mind, and so on. There’s something that bothers me about a viewpoint that sees suffering human bodies (in whatever fashion) as a thing to be made obsolescent rather than a thing to be treated more respectfully and humanely.

Em: Even eliminating them! Eliminating suffering bodies is easier than treating them, for capital.

T’ai: Yeah…

somatophobic feminism I

Dying was the best piece of publicity Shulamith Firestone ever generated. A name I did not hear much in 2012 seems to be making a comeback in 2013. I could not grasp what made her so rehabilitatable at first. “Radical feminism” is almost a slur nowadays, while hissing at and even physically attacking “radfems” is quite  nearly applauded on the left. So when Laurie Penny tweeted about how fond she was of Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex” I had to finally raise my hand and ask why. The most memorable chapter I could recall was Chapter 5, “Rasicm: The Sexism of the Family of Man” which was one of the more shockingly racist things I’d ever read from a second wave feminist. Penny said her favorite was the chapter that comes after, on love, and that she could effectively divorce the underlying premises from the previous chapter. How? Even within that chapter we find abhorrent essentialism, totally unhelpful analysis based more on Firestone’s own life than on conditions women face.

The underlying theme to Firestone’s work – and part of why I think it’s been rehabilitated – is a very vicious somatophobia (fear of the body) that complements contemporary racist and classist feminism very well. On request, I emailed Penny to ask her what could be gleaned from such a feminism – she has not responded. This destruction of the female body – either from thinking sex work is “just like any other job” or from the surgical/chemical feminism that holds hands with liberal trans feminism – is rooted in a dangerous essentialism. The woman is unable to escape her body, therefore she must destroy it. Reminders of her body, e.g. birth, menstruation, voluptuousness etc, are considered traumatic.

Masculinity is being able to transcend the body by immersing oneself in the “world of the mind”, by utilizing technology, by challenging the mystification of the body, of reducing people to individuals and individuals to their individual parts. Federici writes on surgery theaters of the late middle ages, of women being cut open and their mysteries being laid bare as a kind of terrorism and disciplining of the female sex. The mystical experience of pregnancy and birth reduced to organs, the rearing of children (reproduction of labor force) reduced to individual events and biological needs, schedules and regimins. In Firestone’s technofetishistic fantasy of babies grown in vats and raised by the state we have made quite a leap. The oppression of woman under capital is found in her body that betrays her by swelling large with children, by losing its perkiness with age, by gaining wrinkles around the eyes. The betrayal trans people describe in the process of puberty is the same betrayal women face as they go through puberty, as they age. The solution to this oppression posited here (with Firestone) is to embrace the flesh and conquer it and shape it to our will using technology and surgery. By embracing  masculinity-through-technology we too can escape our oppressive bodies. The hate is turned inward, festers like an ulcer. We blame ourselves, our lack of spirit, our lack of ability to change our own situations. It is atomizing and alienating.

In this, liberal and pink feminists willfully ignore the forces that assign such values to the body that make us hate them. Infuriatingly, they say there is nothing to be done about this. They say that men will always want to buy sex, they say that women are programmed in their brains to be the way they are, that gender is an essential biological condition as opposed to a system of active oppression under capitalism.

Birth is a powerful thing. Reproducing society is essential to our continued existence. There is no shame in breast feeding, no shame in menstruation, no shame in pregnancy or varicose veins. These are positions of great power for women, it is male technofetishism and capitalism that have turned these things into cause for shame and weakness. That Shulamith Firestone hates the body, hates weakness in the self is understandable, considering the pain that women go through on a daily basis in being women. However, she is misdirecting her hate and fear, putting the blame on women themselves. Her essentializing logic is dangerous, and the fact that her ideas have once again found traction in a “new generation” of “feminists” is troubling indeed. I hope that women are critical when they read these works, that they critically ask their friends to what end they are fascinated by fantasies of birthless, bloodless womanhood. We must make a decision of what we wish to transcend: capital or the flesh?

Further reading:

Audit This!!!

The following is written by packagedude69 and reprinted, with permission, from elsewhere…

When I read Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, I was expecting something like a Frankfurt School abstract examination of the totality of capitalist society, which is kind of how the book was marketed. But the book was way more concrete than I expected, and one of the book’s concrete-ier chapters dealt with the audit, from Fisher’s perspective of a minor functionary in a vast bureaucracy whose occasional byproduct is education.

I’m also a minor functionary, part clerk and part manual laborer, in a vast organization whose byproduct is the sorting and delivery of packages. Since my, ahem, work, is different, but the experience of the audit is ubiquitous, I have a slightly different perspective on what Fisher talks about in the concrete chapters of his book, and an experience a couple days ago allowed me to put together some things I’d been thinking about for a while but was unsure of.

The experience occurred during a pure audit situation, the ideal audit situation, when the auditors are present but their presence is unknown and things are truly proceeding as normal. I came back late from my pickup route to the sort, and missed the meeting where my manager told all of us “hey idiots, don’t throw packages, don’t cross the belt, if you see someone in a polo and khakis he’s an auditor and you should cough cough, do what you do every single day.” I was across the belt, and a huge package came down and there was only one person on the other side to handle it. The rule is that packages above 75 pounds have to be handled by two people, but honestly anything above 60 and sufficiently bulky can be basically unmanageable by one person at the speed at which the belt moves and given all the additional requirements of the sort (the requirement to place packages in ‘walls’ so they don’t all fall over later, etc.). So, I crossed the belt. About two seconds later a pudgy middle aged man with a goatee and a partially shaved head (have you ever seen a white male police officer?), in telltale khakis and polos, materialized next to me. He took down my employee number by saying “hey, we’re just checking training records, routine stuff, let me see your badge.” After he took my number down, shaking from the rush of witnessing a blatantly unsafe act, he told me that I’d cost my entire workgroup an entire section of the audit and that I should, quote “never cross the belt, especially not during an audit. it’s a major safety violation.”

Fisher says that the audit is self-referential. No data from the audit is ever used outside of the audit, the set of procedures by which the data is collected have relevance only to the audit and not the thing that the process being audited is supposed to produce, and after the audit is done the data is discarded, the process resumes, with the only change being disciplinary actions, in the form of pay cuts, firings, demotions, or the increased arbitrariness and “scrutiny” of authority. At all major package companies this is so obvious not even the auditors themselves or my bosses even bother to appeal to the relevance of the audit to the actual process. Fisher’s equivalent is his “laid-back” ex-hippie boss, who says “hey look, we’ve got to do this and it’s bullshit, but we might as well go on with it and make things as easy as possible for ourselves.” Fisher says that an attitude like this doesn’t actually challenge the legitimacy of the audit at all, or even make it less effective, since its purpose is not to improve the process or, in my case, make anything safer. A short review of the idea of safety, which Fisher doesn’t encounter but makes up the major component of my audit, will establish this.

Packages themselves are unsafe. Spilled dangerous goods, drill bits that dislocate shoulders when lifted, packages that adjust in transit and tumble down when the container is opened, slippery bullshit that crushes toes, etc. Driving is very unsafe, especially in our area, which includes mountainous areas with long driveways, unimproved roads and tons of crazy weather. And delivering is unsafe. People here frequently let huge dogs patrol their grounds like some sort of insane English lord on a quarter acre, in Oakland some routes are done out of armored cars instead of normal delivery trucks, and one dude got the police called on him when he was driving a rental vehicle, a white van of course, and someone thought it was suspicious that he was driving super slow in a deserted residential neighborhood in the early afternoon.

So all this is obvious. Leaving your house is dangerous. The question is not should we take any risks at all, do things that are inherently unsafe, because we have to. The question is how much should we risk to get the job done. Package companies have said, we can risk the health and safety of our workers to a pretty considerable degree to get the job done. We can give them guidelines, punish them if they do unsafe things, and give them seatbelts and purely cosmetic back braces but at the end of the day we have to get packages to where they need to be.

This is where the traditional socialist focus on things other than high wages puts itself head and shoulders above the grubby small-time crap that passes for militancy where I work. There is basically no amount of risk or injury that is defensible or reasonable in the face of about ninety five percent of the pure garbage we deliver every day.

A courier of very long standing snapped his leg on an icy driveway last year delivering a Kindle. He was well paid to do it and he recovered fully, generating thousands of dollars in extra business for insurance adjusters, surgeons, the guys who took over his route when he was gone, and Budweiser. So from the perspective of capitalism everything is working normally. But as soon as these benefits go away, and they are being eroded at non-union FedEx and at “Change To Win” UPS, the broken leg = delivered Kindle equation will appear even more absurd and grossly wasteful than it already is. Socialism’s demand to not only compensate workers fairly but reduce the amount of time they spend working, period, is the only real answer here. And it’s clear from the internal decisions of package companies that they are able to bear the reduction in work – or at least the reduction in the intensity of the work – that would make authentic safety possible. Let me explain how I know this.

Peak season, from Black Friday to Christmas, is really the happiest time of the year at any package company. Everyone gets Hours out the ass, management give almost free reign to employees, the audit is completely suspended (audits only happen during this time of the year, the slow time), and, most importantly, the intensity of work is reduced dramatically. The sort, which during slow times is compressed into a supercharged hour and a half to two hours at my station, is stretched to an almost criminally indulgent six or seven hours during peak season. We get way more packages but more people are working, and working longer, and as a result the time is much easier. Drivers don’t have to worry about running their routes twice (once for priority packages and once for all the other ones), but instead just waltz into their area, deliver everything in a straight shot, and come back after a couple hours of overtime to a happy family and welcome rest. Management fawns over us for a month. We get donuts or bagels every day, crates of frozen turkeys and coolers filled with burritos appear spontaneously, customers leave us holiday cookies on their doorsteps, we do donuts in the parking lot in our huge trucks, and the checks are fat. It’s labor aristocracy hog heaven.

Package companies are meticulously managed and this freedom would not be allowed if the company were not making enough money. But the point is that there is no reason why couriers must be rushed to, say, jog down an icy driveway instead of walk slowly, or why the sort has to be two hours instead of four, and conducted at a much safer, more leisurely pace. Or why the audit focuses on the individual actions of employees in a context created by the company to compel rule violations, corner cutting, and deliberate unsafety, and not the fact that delivering slave labor iPads or merger agreements is not worth any degree of risk to anyone whatsoever.

it’s not crazy – it’s normal!

I knew someone who was institutionalized as a child and went back years later to see her old psychiatrist. She told me he laughed and joked with her about how strange she was as a little girl of 8 or 9 – that she was up late wondering if people had souls or if suffering was normal. So many have lived her life and live as “normal” people now – but how much were they ever crazy to begin with? It got me thinking about some statistics I’d seen earlier about how 6.8 million American children were on ritalin, a 41% rise in the past decade. As the rhythms of our days and nights change, so too do our minds. Over half of “millennials”, those 18-33, are kept up at night due to stress.  The most tragic figure is that of women, who are disproportionately medicated against anxiety and depression to men, 2 to 1.

As I’ve always understood it, sanity was about your reality agreeing with everyone else’s. If you were convinced that the sky was red, and everyone else around you said it was blue, insanity would be doubting their perceptions over your own. Of course, as the pace of our minds increasingly change according to the markets, so does this minority of the “insane” steadily increase. Substance abuse or self-medication, as some would like to call it, is nothing new. However, solutions to being out of sync with reality are becoming more of a public service, less of a private affair and now more the realm of the market. A new pill is rolled out to cure what ails us. Curing cancer is important, sure, but more money is spent on researching pills to take once you have it than on prevention efforts and education. The wheels of commerce roll forward when you are buying something, not when you are eradicating illness. Over $35 billion worth of antipsychotics, stimulants and antidepressants are sold each year in the United States. Insanity is big business. Big business is insanity. It follows that we begin to crack under the strain.

If you look around and see problems with the world around us, and if that drives you to distraction, the practical and profitable thing to do in this modern world is to medicate yourself and seek out someone who can talk you out of your external symptoms of unhappiness.  Taking adderall can help you perform better at work, can help you work two jobs and go to school, etc. Faced with a disappointing middle age spent taking care of ailing parents and distraught children can drive one to antidepressants. Becoming overwhelmed and terrified by a world of distraction and suffering, we start taking anti-anxiety pills.

Anyway, what was so crazy about my friend when she was a little girl? Wondering if one has a soul, if the nature of the world is suffering – these are normal things. If someone is unhappy in a marriage, workplace, prison… this is normal. Instead of changing the world around us, we are ushered into padded rooms and handed pills in paper cups. Children who can’t sit still in class for 8 hours per day only to go home and sit in front of  a screen for the next 6 cannot be expected to have the ability to focus or learn effectively, much less grow into well-adjusted human beings. Adam Lanza was unable to leave his house at the end, medicating a condition rooted in something deeper than his own brain – if Adam Lanzas were normal in this species, we would see spree killing as a historical phenomenon – not something associated with the birth of neoliberal social and economic restructuring.

Of course it’s not sustainable! But many continue to assume that left untouched, we can ride out current era of madness and find something easier on the other side. There is no promise to this, nothing to lead us to believe that inaction would deliver a better world to us eventually. In addition, as history shows us, new patterns of social behavior that rise and fall with material conditions will eventually be integrated into commonplace occurrence, or perhaps the other way around. It’s all fluid and dependent on dominant economic and class mores at the time.  Seventy years ago, it would be strange to think that graphic violence could be celebrated as a part of pop culture through video games, and commonplace among children. So too homosexuality would be considered a mental illness seventy years ago, but perhaps because of this we should be doubly critical of seeing dissent or dissatisfaction with our current lives as symptoms of a disease to be treated with pills. Perhaps we should start to look deeper and wonder if, maybe sometimes, the sky really is red and it really is everyone else who is crazy.

Myth of the Cold Trail: All-American Terrorists

Less than 72 hours after two bombs went off in Boston, killing three and wounding hundreds, Human Events (a conservative newspaper) has already begun to lament the cold trail left behind by the perpetrators. President Obama briefly addressed the media and, at first, refrained from using the words “terror” or “terrorism”. Janet Napolitino has claimed there is no “broader plot” involved in these bombings. These three developments more than anything lead me personally to believe that these bombings were domestic in nature, probably spawned out of the same sort of nativist, racist movements that inspired Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph.

Immediately after the bombings, the New York Post zeroed in on what it labelled a “suspect” – a Saudi man in a hospital who was caught running away from the  carnage. Once he was no longer a “person of interest”, the trail goes cold.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the US Department of Homeland Security gutted its domestic terrorism office after a 2009 report on right-wing terror was leaked, causing political backlash.

What ultimately happened?
Napolitano eventually told Congress that DHS was going to remove the report from its websites. Some of the people in the media assumed they were recalling the report. That never happened. There is actually a formal process involved when you want to rescind a report. The only reason you do so is if there was something erroneous in the document.[…]

Is it off the DHS website today?
Yes. It was removed from various law enforcement computer systems, and classified systems too. […]

What happened to your DHS unit?
[…]Eventually, they ended up gutting my unit. All of this happened within six to nine months after the furor over the report. Analysts then began leaving DHS. One analyst went to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], another to the FBI, a third went to the U.S. Marshals, and so on. There is just one person there today who is still a “domestic terrorism” analyst.

Though terror from the domestic right in the United States has caused hundreds of deaths in the past twenty years, in recent times we have been quietly ushered away from such scenes of violence, politicians describing these as “lone wolves” who, for instance, fly planes into federal buildings for reasons of mental insanity. It echoes the response in Norway to the Anders Breivik trial, where a man who penned a thousand-word manifesto espousing fascist and nationalist ideals was simply labeled (and tried as!) “insane” for murdering 77 mostly young people.

The excuse in Breivik’s case and in other American cases was that it was important not to create a martyr. This is false. Martyrs are created everyday in the world wherever American bombs make contact. The true reason is to not push the idea that American supremacy – rooted in white supremacy – results in such violence.

To describe something as American, or All-American, is a bestowal of value.  Nothing negative is described as “All-American” – the enemies of our society do not look American, they do not act American, they are as far away from American as possible. Muslims and Arabs, after 9/11, stressed their “American-ness” in an effort to stem racist violence. The people in our prisons are mostly of color – certainly not considered “All-American” by any measurement of common mythology. Terrorists, likewise, are foreign to our body. In our collective mindset, as former Obama advisor David Axelrod says, “The word has taken on a different meaning since 9/11“. The mythological unity that was culturally and politically required for the total commitment to economic disaster and total war also required doing away with white terrorism.

The American myth is rooted in Wild West shoot-outs, covered wagons, individualism, self-reliance and a lot of guns. What is left unsaid but is certainly understood in this is also the total supremacy of the white man. If white men become terrorists in official parlance, then our national identity is shook to its core. The ideas of self-reliance, individualism, conquering “untamed” peoples and lands would be suddenly revealed as packed together with a racial myth that is still even used to challenge the legitimacy of the president, who is of color. Why has the trail gone cold in the Boston bombing? Why have white terrorists been labelled “insane” or “lone wolves”? It is because our society is still dependent on this myth of white supremacy to hold up a national identity that enables the continued subjugation of billions worldwide, including the American poor, seen in their laziness and lack of material success as unAmerican and generally portrayed as non-white.

The left, people of color and feminists understand too well that white supremacy exists at the expense of our safety and security. Occupy and other leftist movements are busted up with violence while the Klan gets a police detail when they march and the Tea Party is seen as a viable, legitimate political force in the United States – something that can find a home in the system of American/white supremacy.  When the media ignores this connection, when the government has no one to take care of tracking down these (white) terrorists, when we are told the “trail has gone cold”, then we are also given an implicit message: Watch your back! They are still out there! 

capitalism is a virus

Have you ever seen the Moscow International Business Center?

It’s a $12b project built on top of shuttered factories and quarries. Still under construction, the darling brain child of the government in the year of our Lord 1992. Capitalism is like a  virus, and out of the ashes of those it’s mindlessly slaughtered it blossoms hundreds of hollow, glass-windowed stories. You see it on Wall Street and Canary Wharf, with their locked-down graveyard howls – now we see it in Moscow, too. Should have been where they were going to build the Palace of the Soviets, so as to get extra psychic energy from Stalin’s seven skyscrapers.