Timothy’s Notes on The Culture of Liberty by Mario Vargas Llosa

In The Culture of Liberty, Mario Vargas Llosa asserts that modernization provides for a better quality of life. “That is why, when given the option to choose freely, peoples . . . opt for modernization without the slightest ambiguity.” Through modernization peoples can free themselves from unjust and stagnant traditions. It gives them a taste of the American dream, a chance to improve their lot in life, and a voice on the global stage.  Modernization and globalization are inherently preferable to local economies and ways of life.  For proof, you only need to look at how developing nations have embraced it.

Llosa’s explanation presumes that when a nation modernizes, it does so by choice.  If a people really wanted to remain traditional, they could do so indefinitely.  This explanation fails to acknowledge the role of international trade treaties like the World Bank.  Over the past sixty years, these treaty organizations have used loan-sharking tactics to “open up” national economies and force them into the global market.  This cycle has been noted repeatedly in documentaries like Life and Debt and Our Friends at the Bank.  Faced with rising taxes and harsh austerity measures, people in developing nations have little choice.  They sell their land, close their shops, and join the globalized work force.
At the same time, American media has spread to movie theaters and radio stations throughout the world.  Hollywood films and pop music have become cultural ambassadors, and they illicit desires that local economies cannot meet, be it for fast cars, spacious houses, fashionable clothes, or American leisure.  Other cultural values can also be conveyed through media, but non-American film makers are often ill prepared to compete.  Given the millions of dollars that go into the production of a typical blockbuster, American media has become a dominant voice and it says the same thing in a thousand different ways: modernize and you will be as happy as a Hollywood film.
Although Llosa’s explanation is simplistic and overlooks how nations can be coerced into modernization, his emphasis does fall in the right place.  A conversation about the ethics of modernization must consider the people’s will.  Is modernization embraced because it truly brings about a better quality of life, or is it embraced because it is the only life raft in a man-made ocean.
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Penny’s notes on our discussion of Naomi Wolf (2/7/12)

Penny’s notes on our discussion of Naomi Wolf on Occupy – from the British Guardian

Tuesday, February 7th – reading “Naomi Wolf On Occupy”. from the British Guardian

I would first like to say, I’m of the gray haired generation, and when James, who was the facilitator today, asked for volunteers to write a blog entry, I had to ask, what is a blog? I have trouble sending an e-mail. I really don’t want to be left behind and a blog sounded like a new term for a report, and I can do that, so here goes.

I would like to say that what I have taken away from the reading group, more than the content of the material, is the passion of the people in it. It is refreshing to see young people organizing such a diverse group where everyone’s opinion is valued. You hear so much about the youth of today being selfish or self serving and I agree there are some young people like that, but I also see middle age and old people like that. What I experience when I get out and work with groups with my values is that there are lots of young people out there that are as concerned about our world, our environment and our lives as there are old people. I have been blessed to be included in this group that strives to hear everybody.

Today, we read “Naomi Wolf On Occupy.” It was a question and answer interview with her. Some of the discussion topics we had after reading were:

Does consensus create a bottle neck and should it be majority instead? We discussed whether consensus was a way to curb authoritative leaders or does it create them. The value of consensus is that everyone is heard. What is important to one may be trivial to another. We seemed to agree that the consensus process is slow, but creates more lasting effects. It was mentioned that maybe consensus was overused and if you use it on less important things, it takes up valuable time and people loose interest. The suggestion was made that it should be used on critical issues only.

Does Occupy need a central message? Concerns were expressed that a central message would create a top down leader role rather than have everyone’s concerns included. The whole experience of Occupy is that the 99% be heard. We re-read some of Naomi’s answers to verify that she does not want one leader. She states that the top down strategy is dead and that the new world requires that everyone be a leader ready to speak and write and lobby. She believes you get there through majority voting and not consensus and that led us back into the discussion of consensus vs majority.

May Naomi be inserting herself into the movement for her benefit? One person clarified that she is a reporter. The conclusion seemed to be to wait and see.

Should Occupy use the “pincer movement” from Act Up as a technique to move issues forward? She feels Occupy has a reluctance to use this technique because it is contaminating.

Is non-violence the best strategy? There seemed to be agreement that Occupy needs to stay non-violent.

Should Occupy water down the message and have more people’s ideologies be included or focus our message and alienate some people? This lead to a discussion about teaching people to set goals and work for what Occupy wants. We were all concerned that there is a fine line between educating someone and using propaganda on someone. Our consensus was that we wanted unity not uniformity. We agreed that Occupy is a well of resources, a hub for existing movements to come together.

Hooray, my first blog!

Felipe’s notes on our discussion of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (Jan 29)

The readings from Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam introduced some basic concepts such as:

Social capital: the connections among individuals

Bridging: establishing connections between individuals of varying backgrounds—example, the civil rights movement

Bonding: establishing connections between homogenous, inward looking groups—example, a fashionable country club

Discussion of the reading centered around four points:

1. There was general agreement that civic engagement, to use the author’s term, had decreased. It was suggested that perhaps each generation feels that the previous generations was more connected and had more social interaction. Another point was that perhaps historic events such as the Depression stimulated mutual concern and as time passed the impact of such events faded. Also women present a different picture than men, especially the mid-20th century stay-at-home mom who was often isolated. Finally the question was raised of how to determine if on-line social networking increased or decreased civic engagement.

2. We discussed how global finance capital decreased social engagement. Roger noted that around the world finance capital was destroying jobs thus preventing young couples form marrying. The question then arose if it was global finance capital per se that impacted social engagement, or if it was just its current more virulent manifestation which has concentrated wealth so greatly.

3. We considered the statement from the reading: “…a well-connected individual in a poorly connected society is not as productive as a well-connected individual in a well-connected society.” It was not clear if the quote referred to productivity in its strictly economic sense, or if it meant that a well connected individual could be more effective at achieving any goal, whether economic or social. In any case, the point was that a person’s connections are more valuable if they link to others with good connections.

4. The final consideration was how the reading related to the Occupy Movement. Nicole noted that Occupy started out as a bridging movement in that it brought together individuals with different backgrounds (though from observing the group, not different racial groups). Inevitably as groups within the Occupy Movement come together, a bonding process also occurred. This is in keeping with the author’s observation, “Many groups simultaneously bond along some social dimensions and bridge across others.”

5. Comments by note taker: Bowling Alone was published in 2000 so its latest data is from the 1990s. Thus it fails to consider the more recent impact of on-line activity and of recently increased wealth concentration. The book also treats U.S. society as a single entity, and thus misses how the actions of different social strata vary. Charles Murray in his book “Coming Apart” (Crown Forum, 2012) takes a different approach—which we might want to look at sometime—in that he considers how different economic strata of U.S. society have different social values. Our attempts to use older members of our group to comment on how society evolved over the period considered in Bowling Alone were not very successful due to a. skewed age distribution of group members (i.e. Few had memories of a half century ago) and b. since 1960s experience of the note taker were punctuated with acid and tear gas, it hardly reflected a representative sample of U.S. society.

Kyle’s notes on our 2nd discussion of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals

Sunday, January 22, 2012 reading – Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”.

 

It is our first revisit to a book that we may come back to even more in the future.  Early on in the days of Occupy, we read passages from Alinsky’s text and learned some wisdom for revolutionaries – make it fun, things that drag on too long become a drag, ridicule your enemy.  This second set of excerpts, courtesy of Roger, took Alinsky to a deeper level.

 

The ensuing conversation took us into a discussion of the Occupy movement: what it has accomplished, how it has accomplished it, and what its future is.  Despite the smallness of the group, there was a range of opinions, with the most cynical coming from James who declared, perhaps hyperbolically, that the movement was a failure.  Group consensus, though not that strong, did seem to feel that the movement had grown stale or tepid.

 

But before I get into that, the text itself merits discussion, and brings about obvious correlations to the Occupy movement worth thinking about.  I am struck, and have always been struck, by the Orwellian idea, expressed by Alinsky as well, of three fundamental classes of people.  Alinsky calls them the “Haves”, “Have-nots”, and “Have-a-Little, Want Mores”.  It has been a feature of history that the third group can sometimes supplant the first, but the Have-nots always have naught.  It is always worthwhile to look at the makeup of a movement like Occupy with regard to race, socioeconomic status, and other features.  Are the “leaders”, the most vocal participants, tending to come from one of these three particular categories?  I think Occupy is fairly safe for now, but it does tow a dangerous line between being a movement of the poor or a movement of the disenfranchised bourgeois (college graduates from middle-income families).

 

But tactics are what Alinsky is really known for, even if his analysis of history is also worthwhile.  These are the parts of Alinsky’s works that Occupiers use (or fail to use) on a daily basis, whether they even realize it or not.  And it was from this portion of the selection that we jumped into a discussion of Occupy itself.  Nicole and some others questioned whether Occupy had grown stale, or had drug on too long and become a drag, something Alinsky warns against.  But it’s a double-edged sword, because the exact opposite of too much protraction is too much flash-in-the-panning, or “terminal tactics” – a tactic that “crests, breaks, and disappears like a wave.”  These might include actions like boycotts, which tend to have little long-term damage.  I’d extend the example further and say something like self-immolation qualifies.  Though the image of a burning monk is not easily forgotten, it is far from the worst blow one might inflict on the powers-that-be.

 

So we talked about whether Occupy was doing any of the things Alinsky would suggest it do.  Roger was a little more optimistic, commenting on the dedication of the people who are permanent Occupiers – they continue to sleep on the steps of City Hall and maintain a physical presence.  But the physical presence has very obviously diminished, and this was cause for concern for some of us.  Nicole pointed out that although that physical presence has shrunk, Occupy has enjoyed successes outside of that, and is metamorphosing into something else now.  This is perhaps a romantic impression, but it might be right, and I even am inclined to agree with it – we talked about how Occupy has impacted the public consciousness, with Danny asking random passengers in his taxicab what their thoughts of the movement were (and these ran more or less the usual gamut, although it seemed like their attitudes were cynical from the few examples he did share) and me invoking my grandmother, who is the best instrument I have for measuring the pulse of that all-important segment called Middle America.  To me, her attitude has changed.  While always a lifelong Democrat, she was always somewhat reactionary toward certain groups – drug users, homosexuals, etc. – but her positions have softened and she no longer seems to view them as an enemy.

 

I continue to believe that the physical presence is going to be the most important thing, and I’m hoping that in the spring when decent weather returns we will see a significant resurgence.  Meeting at the top of the City Hall steps, we could see almost as many police officers and cruisers from our vantage point as we could Occupiers.  But the information booth is still set up, and new voices are still being heard in the movement.  The reading group did meet one lady who expressed enthusiasm for what we were doing, and it’s a crucial component of the movement as a whole.  What is clear, however, and is clear from Alinsky, is that Occupiers must be educated in their tactics, message, and goals.  For instance, contrary to the message Occupy is trying to send out of being a body of people without specific leadership or a specific message, Alinsky believes that the best and brightest of a movement ought to take on leadership capacities.  To be able to organize successfully requires training.

 

Hopefully, the Occupy movement can learn from Alinsky’s writing and utilize some of these tactics when they rebound in the spring to deliver significant blows to the powers-that-be.  I, for one, am optimistic, but it’s still a source of contention, even within the reading group in particular, how Occupy should proceed.  If it should be under one banner, with one strong message, with vocal leaders, or if it should proceed in the direction it is already going, with several splinter groups sometimes arranged under the “Occupy” banner and sometimes changing their minds and going with something else.

 

The possibility of Occupy becoming a stigmatized label was talked about by Danny, and I hope that this isn’t the case.  But whether it is or not, the people who have been awakened by the movement need not to return to their slumbers.  Whether we call it Occupy, or whether we’re all united under one banner, or whether we form coalitions and try to work in unison that way, it hardly matters.  What’s important is that the movement has begun and we need not to let the moment pass.  Another of Alinsky’s arguments is that timing is essential to the success of an organized movement, and the time – with farcical Republican debates, a Democratic president who is scarcely any different from the far-right reactionary he replaced, and an economy that’s teetering ever closer to the verge of collapse – can hardly be any better than now.

Roger’s notes on our discussion of The Communist Manifesto (part 2) 1/10/12

We started out by talking about the role of the force of arms implied
by Marx in the Communist Manifesto.

Most agreed that Marx did not advocate violence, but that he laid out
his opinion of what would happen, given the trends of that time, and
what needed to happen.

We touched on the topic of Marx’s materialist concept of history
without further discussion. Likewise, Marx’s concept of the class
nature of the family was raised.

The concept of a classless society met with skepticism on the grounds
that a few will tend to take control and dominate, leading to
degeneration of a revolution.

Marx believed that revolutions would start in the more advanced
capitalist countries like Germany or Britain, but that hasn’t been the
case.

We discussed the problem that capitalism was an inherently
expansionist system, and its expansion could kill the planet’s
environment and people through climate change rather than leading to a
socialist revolution of the kind that Mar predicted.

There was discussion of whether a worker’s state was/is needed to
defend the gains of class struggle, or whether doing away with the
state as advocated by anarchists might be possible. A classless
society as seen by Marx requires a leap of faith.

Since workers were instrumental in creating capital in the first
place, they should have the right to take it back.

We decided that Marx did not give a recipe for creating socialism, but
gave particulars of a socialist platform like ten points that he
thought most socialists would support implied by worker control of
capital, like guaranteed work, the industrialization of agriculture, a
graduated income tax, public education, etc.

We touched on the topic of the possibility of evolutionary socialism
achieved within the existing state or government, such s Karl Kautsky
proposed, versus armed rebellion, like other Marxist socialists think
is a necessary part of the process.

We concluded by deciding to read the last chapter of Marx’s “Capital”
which is a part relatively easy to read and understand.

James’s Notes on the Discussion of The Communist Manifesto Part 1 on 1/3/12

I was originally planning on doing one blog post for the two Communist Manifesto meetings, but, as you can see, have decided to change my mind. The main reason for the change of heart is that, of all the meetings of the Occupy Reading Group that I have participated in, this one on Part 1 of the Communist Manifesto may have been the most illuminating for me, and I wanted to be sure to transcribe what was said, since the second meeting on parts 2-4 will certainly be very different.

The main topic we discussed on Tuesday, 1/3/12, was an exegesis of Marx’s view of the effect of capitalism on human relations and society. This exact topic has been debated by Marx scholars for over 100 years, so our group of course was not able to resolve the “answer” to what Marx truly believed; we were however able to crystallize the issue in our conversation into two general possibilities, with each one necessitating radically different versions of what Marxism is.

The passages we focused on the most were in the section in which Marx is describing how Capitalist society has removed the illusions upon which pre-bourgeoisie society rested, including Marx’s statement that the “bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation”. The group thus asked — is Marx saying that capitalism has created a situation in which the family is “mere money relation” and a tool of bourgeoisie oppression, or is Marx stating that the family was always oppression and money relation, and that Capitalism has only made this fact apparent by removing the idealistic fantasies on which pre-bourgeoisie society rested (i.e. religion, diving hierarchies)? This question of course extends beyond the family to society and human affairs in general. Is Marx saying that Man was always inherently oppressive of his fellow Man and that all human interactions have monetary gain as their primary motive, or is he saying that Capitalism has turned people into such creatures?

I believe how one interprets Marx on this issue holds a key into determining how one views Marxism in general. For, if Marx sees Capitalism as having reduced people to this slavish and Hobbesian state, then his goal of creating a communist society not based on Capital would be a society in which the natural brotherhood of the family and of humanity would become the basis for all human interaction, instead of exploitation and accumulation. On the other hand, if Marx sees the family and all human relations as inherently oppressive and as mere avarice, then his communistic society will seek to root out familial and traditional cultural relationships as exploitative and regressive elements.

As tempting as it is for me, I am not going to weigh in here on which of these two interpretations I see as more likely given Marx’s other writing, nor will I analyze the conclusions of either conception of Marxism. Nope…I’m not going to do it. Alright, pushing the enter key to force myself to move on….now

So, a couple other interesting points came up which I will mention in passing. One was the question of whether or not a Marxist view of history, society and human action was deterministic. Another topic that popped up briefly, but which is of utmost interest to me, is the question of whether or not Marx is a statist. This topic, I think, comes up more in parts 2-4, so I am guessing it will likely be discussed more tomorrow night, and I’ll leave any blogging about it for then.

Overall though, I took a lot from our conversation on whether or not Marxism sees Capitalism as the cause of the pervasive greed and oppression of human relations, or as merely the illuminator of this as a natural fact. In the past I have always focused on the statism of Marx, but highly related to this, and, perhaps even more important in understanding his philosophy, is this question as to how Marx viewed the dialectic between human nature and the Capitalist system.

 

James’s Notes on the Discussion of Auden’s Poem “Spain” on 12/20

On Tuesday December the 20th Nicole facilitated the group’s analysis and discussion of W.H. Auden’s poem “Spain”, which was inspired by the poet’s own experiences participating and observing the Spanish Civil War.The group’s discussion primarily consisted of closely reading each part of the poem in order to determine what its elements conveyed and what its overall meaning might be.

The first 6 stanzas of the poem focuses on the history of both Spain in particular and Western Civilization in general. Each Stanza begins with the word “Yesterday”, which is repeated throughout the stanza, and catalogs various stages in the development of society up to that point. In the 4th-6th stanzas, each ends with the refrain of “but to-day the struggle”. There was thus some assertions on my part that these 3 stanzas may be semi-separate from the first, but others did not concur.  Either way, I think the group agreed that the first 6 stanzas recount the formation of civilization in the past, with that past now leading to the conflicts and civil war of Auden’s present.

The next three stanzas then lists different types of individuals who are appealing to their own particular higher powers for guidance and redress in the face of the already mentioned “struggle.” First a poet appeals to their artistic vision, then a scientist appeals to “inhuman” scientific laws, and finally the poor appeal to history itself. This final appeal, made by “the poor” to “History…the Organizer”, was felt to be Marxian in its appeal to class as well as to a Hegelian view of history. Also, the order in which these individuals were listed seemed to further recount the development of Man and society, since their order matches the development of the type of humans who would question the human condition at different eras; the poet being the first type of person to do so, the scientist doing so in later ages, and in the present the masses as a whole showing such concern.

The following two stanzas synthesizes the appeals made by individuals into national appeals to Life itself. Life then responds in the next three stanzas that it is not the determining force in the world, but is rather the product of mankind’s choices, ending with the statement “Yes, I am Spain.”

From here the poem recounts the journey that people all over the world made to come and join in the Spanish Civil War. Many felt that the journey described in the poem was particularly referring to those who came to volunteer with the Republican side of the war, but at least one person felt that the poem was referring to everyone who fought in the war, and that one of the goals of the poem was to illustrate the transcending of individual “fear” and “greed” in order to become part of the experience of the war. I personally agree that the poem helps the reader feel the brotherhood of the experience, but I think that it is a feeling that is and was meant to be uniquely about the Republican side of the conflict, which Auden himself experienced.

Another element of the poem focused on by the group was its appeal to human responsibility and a focus on the present moment. Already mentioned is the answer of Life, in which it says that it is not in control of human affairs, but is rather itself defined by the choices that each individual makes. Coupled with that is the latter part of the poem’s dismissive cataloguing of the future as well as the summation of the past that occurred in the first 6 stanzas.

I feel that this appeal to the choices of the present that we see in the poem is just one element of  its overall effect, which is to make the reader feel what someone like Auden felt as they decided to abandon the safety and comfort of their lives in order to travel across the world and join a civil war in a country that was not theirs. Like many of them, we come to see Spain as a crossroads of all of civilization and Life, as a situation that we are desperately responsible for, and as something that the men and women who joined the International Brigades could not turn away from.

However, as the group pointed out, the end of the poem also makes us feel the experience of fighting in the war itself. In the end of the poem we see the camaraderie as well as the wretchedness of the war. Whether for all combatants or just the Republican side, Auden expresses the brotherhood of the struggle with his “shared cigarette” and “masculine jokes”. But we also feel the disillusionment of those idealists who came for a moral victory over Fascism, and saw instead the “boring meeting” and the “conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder”.

One thing that the group only briefly touched on was how the poem relates to the Occupy Movement. While the poem is about the Spanish Civil War, I think the lesson that we can take from it is really completely unrelated to the subject of the poem. Given, I more than anyone look to the Spanish Civil War for lessons on how to recreate society, however, when looking at Auden’s “Spain”, I agree with the few comments made during the group’s discussion that the main take away for our movement is Auden’s exhortations of human responsibility and living in the present. We and others must come to view our “struggle” with the same excitement and critical importance which those like Auden viewed Spain.