Detroit update

Levin says he’s unsure whether they’ll get to 60, the new bill will feature an oversight board to ensure “drastic restructuring.”  In short, it seems that getting to 60 will require the blood of the UAW.

Krugman thinks the auto industry in the Detroit environs will likely disappear (see his NYTimes blog, he doesn’t really elaborate though).

Detroit part 2, reply to Ocho Cinco

The last question in your post Josh asks, why are Dem’s pushing for layoffs in the middle of a recession?  My answer:  it isn’t just any jobs that will be cut, it’s the jobs worked by members of the UAW, the most powerful union body in the country today.  The death or wounding of the Michigan UAW would be an incredible catch for the minority party.  The Democratic rhetoric stems from filibuster worries in the Senate, and this is the way they will convince 4-5 Republican senators of voting for a bailout.  There are few strong union Democrats in the Senate, the party is willing to allow the union to take the hit.  Note that the Democrats have made no concerted effort to protect the workers.  Even more, the UAW itself has been complicit with the job-cut, wage-reduction, benefit-reduction rhetoric.  It’s a sad state of affairs when the representative body of the workers is fighting to make their condition of employment worse.

Not surprisingly, the other side of the aisle sees any auto bailout as a gift from the Democratic Congress to the unions.  Apparently these commentators don’t realize that unions without employees aren’t unions.

Even more ridiculous (and sinister) to me was something I heard on TV this week:  that lawmakers are resistant to a bailout for the automakers because it would be “throwing good money after the bad.”  This is a startling quote for two reasons, 1) that the commentator would call this “good money” and 2) that we could make any statement about the “bad” now, after the billions of dollars given to banks so that they could hide it away in their treasury chest at the Fed.  The “good money” is that being printed off the press or debt sold to foreign banks.  The “bad money” is manufacturing infrastructure, and hundreds of thousands of jobs.  As opposed to the financial industry, the so called “circulatory sytem” of the economy, who was given money to circulate, but instead plunked it at the Fed, where it earns them a safe 1.5% return on their principal.  We can pump money to the banks so that they can sit on it and bilk us for interest, but we can’t send money to Detroit to keep one of the most depressed areas of the county afloat.

God bless the USA.

Adorno and tact

For Theodor Adorno, tact emerges as the bourgeoise individual frees himself of moral absolutism (the doctrine of whole rights and whole wrongs).  I assume the freedom from absolutism, for Adorno, represents the historical entrance of the liberal, egotistical individual and the making of society for him.  This individual knows no whole rights and wrongs, for everything is simultaneously justified and condemned by that person’s self interest.  Acting in one’s self interest is necessary, and yet selfish and violent towards one’s peers.  Tact is the historical remnant of this now impossible absolutism, the left-over.  It is found in the trappings of hierarchical placements and considerations, and it makes “living together within privileged groups bearable.”  But for Adorno, tact breaks down as it becomes transparent.  Adorno, Minima Moralia, aphorism 16: “Thus individuals begin, not without reason, to react antagonistically to tact: a certain kind of politeness, for example, gives them less the feeling of being addressed as human beings, than an inkling of their inhuman conditions.”  The transparency of the connection between the social convention “tact” and the inhuman conditions of living (and competing) in a liberal, market society makes tact something to be reviled, for it brings into light the animalistic, savage nature of such a society.  The presence of tact only further reinforces one’s awareness of living in subhuman conditions.  Tact is a cultural form that “demanded the reconciliation – actually impossible – between the unauthorized claims of convention and the unruly ones of the individual.”  As such, it is a futile mission.

But is it, nevertheless, a useful one. “That the abolition of this caricature of tact in the rib-digging camaraderie of our time, a mockery of freedom, nevertheless makes existence still more unbearable, is merely a further indication of how impossible it has become for people to co-exist under present conditions.”  Adorno, writing in 1944 at the height of WWII, as a historical witness to the Holocaust and Fascism, justifiably sees society as broken and culture as a veil.  That tact makes this situation slightly more bearable is a demonstration of the debasement of man, for man ought not require such aristocratic and baseless social conventions to keep from killing one another.

Versus the convention of tact is the convention that has us interact with one another “without preamble.”  But this convention is dangerous, for…

“behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in.  The direct statement …that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things” (emphasis added, MM aphorism 20).

In the competition between social conventions, one being an remnant of aristocracy and the other a byproduct of capitalism, no one wins.  Social interactions without “ornamentation” simply reflect the fact that human beings have been turned into commodities.  That vestige of moral absolutism, tact, cannot cover up this arrangement.  As it cedes ground to “time as money” and “matter-of-factness,” the reality of the human condition (its material basis) becomes all-too-apparent.  In aphorism 22, Adorno stresses the danger of reducing all human relations to their material basis, which functions as both a critique of capitalism, and as a compelling caution against those (e.g. worker’s organizations) who isolate this material basis as the basis for a politics of change.  Doing so limits the imagination of a “nobler” existence, it forces the unity of theory and practice to the detriment of the former (MM, aphorism 22).  Adorno wants to leave open a door to Utopia, at the historical moment of its opposite.

The question to ask at this point is: how to escape from this predicament?  Can freeing theory from practice enable us to overcome the materialist basis of society, and thus realize a society which no longer needs the trappings of tact in order to be bearable?  What would “theory” mean without an attending role for practice?

Thoughts on Black Friday

I was the odd man out at the Thanksgiving dinner with my opinion on Black Friday.  My opinion: Black Friday is a festering sore of American culture, theirs: there’s nothing wrong with shopping when the stuff is cheap.  I think they missed the point, but that’s fine, I’ll try and make it again (and better).

By now I’m sure that if you’re reading this you’re also aware that a Wal-Mart employee was trampled by a horde of frenzied shoppers, who broke down the entrance and stampeded into the store.  If not, here is the story.  What surprises me is that this is the first time someone’s died in such a fracas.  Does this story exemplify my case, or strengthen it?  I do know that I am repulsed by a society in which ideas of human decency are forgotten when something goes on sale.  This person died not at the hands of an angry mob (although anger had something to do with it, I am sure), but at the feet of a mob who was enraptured by the idea of buying something for less than it usually costs.  When looked at this way, it seems such a sad way to die.

We might compare the frenzied Black Friday shopper, who arrives for the “door buster” deals (a metaphor now blackened), to the religious zealot, and Black Friday itself as the holy day.  The Black Friday zealot arrives at the store in the early morning to get the first-hour super sale.  The zealot waits in the cold and the dark, a period of painful penance that one must pay prior to being awarded the rush, the ecstasy of seeing one number crossed out and a smaller number in its place.  This ecstasy surely outweighs the simple joy of having a better TV.

But I know my friends aren’t these people.  My friends are good people, who likely abide by (most) norms of human decency when out shopping on Black Friday.  So what’s wrong if they go out shopping on the day after Thanksgiving?  I could argue that the act of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving gives life to the phenomenon, and the more who shop on that particular day, the stronger the phenomenon gets.  This probably does not dissuade those who have no problem in a phenomenon that “saves them money” (which is a wonderful way to look at it, say the marketing and business leaders).  But what of the symbolism of the matter?  Of the reinforcement of the capitalist ideal, done by your shopping on capitalism’s holy day – the day when these businesses turn a profit for the year?

One who is interested in seeing the muting of the materialist consumer lifestyle and the hyper-capitalism it promotes (where every “sale” is simply a cost passed down onto someone else, such as the environment) ought not shop on Black Friday.  This day is the celebration of materialism, of buying the new and shiny, and every purchase goes towards reinforcing the ideals of both consumerism and capitalism.  Instead of increasing demand for new goods, why not buy used?  If concerned with the pocket-book, this makes sense.  If concerned about the environment, this makes sense.  I argue that we ought consume less every day of the year, but it makes a particularly strong statement if we do not shop on that day of the year when everything is “cheap” and our pantheon of deities, Best Buy et al, find their enticements ignored.

Remembering COINTELPRO

In times when the government seems to bungle everything, a common conclusion drawn by many is that the government is incapable of producing “results.”  The recent spate of governmental ineptness and inadequacy (Iraq, Katrina, the economy) is not only a spicy combination of ideology, bureaucracy, and nepotism, it is dangerous in the sense that it decreases the average person’s fear of the government.  Why fear a group of individuals and institutions which don’t know their elbow from their asshole?

And then we reflect back on history and the ability of small groups of individuals hidden within the government’s bureaucratic layers to get their results.  For instance, COINTELPRO, the FBI counter-counterculture unit that engaged in a wide variety of criminal activity in the 1960s and 70s.  Those of the “left” were the target, and they were pursued with determination.  Breaking up any “subversive” activity was their goal, which necessitated infiltration, burglary, and violent aggression (to assassination if you ask some).  Should you win a Pulitzer writing about the Vietnam war, get tracked by the FBI for two decades.  The FISA court that came to our attention in the last year came into being as a direct result of the investigations into COINTELPRO’s activities.

For all those who readily agree that the government wants us stupid, we should also realize that the government does not lose anything if we come to the conclusion that it is inept.  The government does not have to fear a radical overhaul led by the citizenry.  The institutions of government and those who staff them have nothing to fear from the bovine American populace.  Thus what does it matter if the stupid cows make themselves feel better by ruminating on the stupidity of government?  It grants the people a false sense of security, which is something entirely useful for those in power.  In short, this is a caution to those who smirk at the ineffectiveness of our government.

Walmart and the child consumer

Was watching Hardball, or something of the sort, and during a break Walmart aired a commercial that struck me.  It featured several children, and each wanted something for Christmas.  “I want a dinosaur,” etc.  At the end, it flashed to a “mother” of the children, who stated, “This Christmas, I want my children to follow their imaginations.”  Brilliant advertising, especially to any children who happened to be watching, as it empowers them to demand that their parents buy them shit.  It is yet another example of what Juliet Schor wrote about in her book Born to Buy.

What’s interesting to me in this case is the reduction of a child’s imagination to their ability to isolate particular consumables and then nag their parents to buy it for them.  In a way, we might see this as symbolic of the consumer society as a whole, where as individuals or as society our imagination becomes an instrument of desire.  The end served by our imagination is the purchase of the commodity, to direct the brain accordingly.  Rather than imagining a better politics, we imagine what life would be like with a shiny new laptop.  We’re all guilty of this, myself included (just purchased a shiny new laptop), but it is disturbing to see the effect on someone so young.  That the child’s imagination is not soaring through a book but imagining the euphoria of possessing a commodity is a danger to a society that seeks to be more than an aggregation of individual consumers.