Nicole’s notes on our 12/18 discussion of Bookchin’s articles re: the Spanish Civil War

On Sunday, James finally brought in a text about his favorite subject: the Spanish Civil War.  The essays from which he drew excerpts provided only a basic overview of Spanish anarchism during the revolution, so our conversation quickly turned from his selections toward a more generalized discussion of the Spanish Civil War.  Because James is so knowledgeable about this period in history, we were lucky to be able to use his expertise to guide our debate.

We spent most of our time appraising whether different forms and uses of anarchism could present viable alternatives to our apparently failing political and economic system.  To this end, we asked ourselves four basic questions: What type of anarchist system would be appealing to us?  Would it be possible to maintain, and, if so, at what level?  Would there be any undesirable consequences (such as violence, reduced standard of living, etc.)?  If so, would these side effects be worth it?

James looks to the accomplishments of the CNT (the National Confederation of Labor) during the Spanish Civil War for inspiration.  According to him, villages run by the CNT during the war saw increases in employment, grain output, gender equality, and standard of living (as measured by education, food distribution, sanitation, and healthcare).  When nudged a little, he admitted that some anarchists, in their efforts to de-Christianize Spain, committed atrocities, but he does not believe that this violence diminishes the importance of the CNT’s villages as examples of the benefits of anarchism.

For the most part, group members agreed that anarchism has several appealing qualities, but that we cannot anticipate how feasible it would be on a global scale, especially since much of our technology relies on international trade.  Roger said that our global economy cannot continue to sustain itself as it is and suggested that, as the global economy breaks down into national and regional economies, anarchism in some form may emerge to replace it, but he did not indicate whether or not he liked this possibility.  Kyle brought up the idea of tweaking the type of anarchism promoted by the CNT to be more global in scope by segmenting cooperative communities according to what is produced rather than geographical location.  Michael, however, took a much less radical standpoint; he believes that we at Occupy need to garner popular support and use our unified voice to work with corporations and the government to enact appropriate reforms.  Coming from a different angle, but also invoking the potential of Occupy to address our economic problems, Greg wondered whether Occupy could operate as a laboratory for developing alternative forms of governance, but he also expressed disappointment that the movement does not yet seem to be close to doing that.  My own thinking was much smaller in scale, and I brought up the reading group itself as an example of the ways we can use small-scale anarchism in order to do what little we can right now for ourselves and our communities.  In reorienting our conversation, I conveniently avoided having to state my own opinion on the matter, and I will again conveniently avoid stating it here.

During one exciting tangent, Roger and I reentered a standing debate of ours re: the media and its various truth-claims.  Roger often refers to “the truth” as something that is accessible and communicable, and Kyle, our resident journalism expert, tends to agree with him.  I, however, tend to believe that “truth” is lost in the process of transmission, or, as Greg eloquently restated for me, that “there is no such thing as truth apart from a model that assesses the truth—so we must bring the model to the forefront.”  Our purpose in discussing this was to think about the role of new media in the Occupy Together movements as opposed to relevant social movements in the past.  In sum: Kyle thinks that new media complicates things to the point of making it easier for big money to control meaning-making, while the rest of the group expresses perhaps a little more hope, along with a little less certainty, about the role of new media in our activism.  My personal belief is that, since we can’t make new media go away, we should try to figure out what it offers us and use it as much to our advantage as possible, but since my realm of expertise is kind of limited to organizing this reading group, that basically means making a blog and a facebook page.

On a personal note, I particularly enjoyed this conversation.  Since day one, James has been alluding to the Spanish Civil War, and it was exciting to get to study it, to share in his passion, and to develop a slightly better understanding of how it relates to what we’re going through right now.  The discussion was animated, and, as always, I learned quite a bit from my fellow readers.  So… thanks y’all.


Katherine’s Notes on “Paying Attention” by Jonathan Beller – 12/6

Our discussion of Jonathan Beller was facilitated by Ryan and his introduction started with an explanation of where Beller is coming from in this work. Beller is an American film professor and he is drawing from two related traditions of Marxist critique:

1. Situationists (Parisian writers and artists of the 1950s and ’60s) who believed that capitalist ideology had systematically permeated everything in a person’s life, including their environment. Capitalist production had recently moved out of the factory and followed people home. They called this ideological system the Spectacle.

2. Autonomists (Italian intellectuals of the ’60s and ’70s) who were associated with the larger ‘Autonomia’ tendency in Italy, a popular movement that won significant power through strikes, occupations, and other tactics aimed at (re)claiming urban space. They used the term “social factory” to describe the expansion of capitalist organization beyond the workplace. For them, all of a worker’s life, from the factory to the home, was increasingly organized around capitalist production of value. As manufacturing declined worldwide from the ’70s on, this shift accelerated.

The chief product of the “social factory” is human subjects. According to this theory, contemporary capitalism encourages a proliferation of identities tied to accessories, ideas, attitudes, gestures, etc. Performing these identities, by consuming the right products, behaving in the proper way, etc., drives entire industries (e.g. fashion, education, domestic appliances, interior design, etc.). The middle class can at least hope to derive some benefit from this competitive process (careers, social status); the poor tend to have identities forced on them. The point is that all identities, even negative ones, can generate profit for capitalists (gangsta rap, for example, capitalizes on urban crime, sponsors clothing lines targeting African American youth, etc.).

Beller claims to have pinpointed the mechanism by which the social factory operates, by acknowledging the quantitative side of what earlier theorists had qualitatively described. He draws on the concept of “attention economy,” which supposes that attention is a vital, finite resource that can be measured and controlled. First developed by management theorists in the workplace to increase productivity, it later spread to the consumer realm. Beller argues that cinema was the technology that enabled this shift, by making attention to circulating images central to the production of value. When a film is watched, value is added to it (meanwhile you pay for your ticket and you get entertained for a bit). Today media is the organization of all human activity. One’s personal preferences are constantly being data mined so that when you turn on a TV or radio, read a magazine, or open a web browser, you are presented with dozens of ads that not only vie for your attention, but have already been tailored to your interests (or people like you) so you don’t even have to think about what you might be interested in reading, watching, or experiencing. It’s all been predetermined for you.

Beller’s examples are:

Attention Trust- a startup company “dedicated to the protection of online users’ attention. To protect our right to our own attention, the Trust offers free downloadable software that tracks and records registered users’ attention. Later perhaps, the Trust will arrange to sell our attention for us.”

Root Markets- “an effort to securitize attention, that is, to bundle and sell attention on secondary markets.”

Google’s ‘Adsense’-“auctions searchable terms to the highest advertising bids.”

A list of examples we came up with:

Facebook asking you to ‘like’ something
Gmail’s ads that correspond to your personal electronic mail messages
Amazon’s ‘People who viewed this item also viewed this other one we thought you might like’
Any retail store you go to asking you for your phone number and/or email address
The Texas Tribune making you either log-in to their site so they can track what you’re reading, or have you complete a quick survey before you read any article
I was watching the local Fox affiliate here in Austin (Fox 7 News) the other night and they asked people to choose via text which ‘news’ story they would like to see next. Wtf?

Another claim that Beller makes is that the increased use of, or dependence on, images in our daily lives has affected our cognitive abilities, making it harder to comprehend our condition: “With the rise of visuality comes the erosion of language and therefore of certain kinds of reason.” Appealing to peoples’ emotions is much more effective at making people react in a manner a capitalist can control (as opposed to trying to appeal to logic). Our thoughts have become conditioned to produce value, or as Beller puts it: “capital has captured the cognitive-linguistic capacities of humanity.” One result, as one of Beller’s teachers once remarked, is that “Today we can more easily imagine the death of the planet than we can the end of capitalism.” If people keep taking this story of impending doom for granted, without thinking about any alternative existences, then capitalists will have an easy time overseeing their social factories. Beller says it more bluntly. “There is an economics to ignorance as well. The Bush administration has provided ample evidence about the profits than can be made with socially produced stupidity: Americans are stupid by design. Never perhaps have forms of ignorance that include carefully calibrated racism, historical, economic and political blindness, and a sheer inability to analyze or even retain the simplest of facts been turned to such productive ends.”

Todd brought up the point that Beller assumes here that language is the superior form of communication. Perhaps moving toward an image culture is just part of human evolution. Interesting…

The group then discussed forms of resistance to the social factory.

A consumer boycott-cum-labor strike such as everyone agreeing to stop watching TV for a week?
This may not be effective since media is not limited to TV. Is it possible to boycott all of media? Going that far seems impossible.

Todd also suggested writing letters and send them through the mail instead of email?
This would limit our forms of communication and is too slow. Perhaps we could just write more letters in addition to writing emails. Hand-written letters do seem pretty safe from data mining.

Jorge suggested ‘culture jamming.’ Adbusters turns advertising into a weapon to use against those who rely on advertising to program our minds in order to gain capital. They also put out the call for Occupy Wall St. to organize. Along those lines we could also use negative media attention (our own) against the media organizations that use extreme tactics to limit peoples’ speech. Most people oppose media blackouts and there was general public outrage in the U.S. when the Occupy Wall St. movement was not being covered by the mainstream media initially. Someone mentioned the documentary Breaking the News.

Ethan asked where the artists were in all of this? Why aren’t those who make films, etc. for a living presenting more of an opposition to their media being co-opted, especially those with left-wing sympathies? Probably the best answer is that artists are not above (or they don’t exist outside of) the social factory, in which they occupy a small but potentially very profitable niche.

We wound up sort of agreeing that everything about humans is commodifiable and exploitable, but at the same time, anything the capitalists can use for their gain so can we, because ultimately it is us (humans) they’re using. Instead of our minds being the raw material and ourselves the product of a social factory, we can use our own minds as the raw material for our own products that can remain nonproprietary.

For example, Facebook commodifies our relationships, but the way it was used by the people participating in the Arab Spring movement was essential to its success. It’s also currently being used to the benefit of the Occupy movement. As long as people are aware of the social factory and of the various ways this realm of capitalism is exploiting people for their gain (i.e. we have to maintain a certain level of media literacy), we can come up with ways to work around it and resist it. It’s a start anyways.

Ryan’s notes on 11/29 discussion of the Eurozone crisis

Tonight we discussed the Eurozone crisis, mainly via this article presented by Roger:

The article focuses on the conflict in the EU between advocates of a stronger central banking authority, led by the European Central Bank (ECB), and Germany, which opposes greater centralization (i.e. pooling national debts). All of this comes after interest rates on Italy’s bonds exceeded 7%, Belgium’s credit rating got downgraded to AA+, and even Germany had a weak bond auction (bad because Germany has been the economic powerhouse for the EU). Banks are responding by hoarding capital and giving fewer loans, which threatens to send the Eurozone into recession.

The ECB is now trying to push through a proposal for a European Stability Mechanism, which would have the authority to draw on a pool of $700,000 billion euros to ‘bail out’ struggling countries by buying their bonds (debt). It would have legal immunity, no democratic oversight, and the authority to increase that pool without individual countries being able to do anything about it.

We talked about how the proposed ESM and the current ESFS (European Financial Stability Facility) are just surrogates for more or less what we have in the U.S. — a quasi-autonomous Federal Reserve with the authority to set interest rates and lend money at will — which would be illegal under current EU law.

We also wondered what would be the effect of individual countries choosing to go off the Euro and whether the resulting recession/depression (b/c investors would pull their money out) would just be short term, or would cause the huge disaster mainstream economists predict. James suggested Greece (which is probably the most screwed right now) could basically move to barter even for international trade and would be better off. There were other digressions (on Malthus, Chris Hedges, and anarchism) but that’s more or less it for the Eurozone.

Katherine’s notes on Endnotes’s “Two Aspects of Austerity” & discussion from 11/21

We’ve recently started devoting our Tuesday meetings to discussions on economic themes. They just haven’t been getting posted. But no more! Here are Katherine’s notes from our first meeting, on a critique of the Keynesian interpretation of the crisis dominant in liberal circles, by the UK collective Endnotes.

‘Bar-Yuchnei’ (the pseudonym of this article’s author) makes the claim that since WWII, there have been increasingly diminishing returns from each economic boom cycle (with the exception of the ’90s stock market bubble) in the United States and in other ‘advanced countries.’

The author points to the debt-to-GDP ratio as evidence, and states that ‘for almost four decades, debt-to-GDP ratios in the high-income countries have tended to rise during busts (according to the Keynesian prescription), but they have refused to fall or have risen even further during booms… it is because the booms themselves have become increasingly weak, on a cycle by cycle basis.” Due to these weaker and weaker boom cycles, eventually no amount of government spending will get us to a point where everyone can pay off their debt. Laborers will therefore always be indebted to the ‘job creators.’

During the discussion some asked for a description of the Keynesian economic model.

Keynesian theory concentrates on economic ‘boom’ and ‘bust’ cycles. During a boom phase there is increased investment in leading sectors of the economy and production is also increased. This eventually leads to overinvestment and decreasing returns, resulting in panic and pullback by investors and decreased production (bust!). When investors spend less, the government must step in to spend on infrastructure and also lower interest rates to keep the economy afloat until investors regain their confidence in the economy. When investors are ready to spend again, the government raises interest rates so that it can pay off the debts it accrued during the bust cycle.

Again, according to Bar-Yuchnei, the economic booms have been getting less and less profitable over time and back-debt is out of control. This is a problem because people in debt do not want to borrow more money. That means even if ‘the 99%’ received stimulus money directly (i.e. Obama’s ‘middle class’ tax breaks), much of it would go to paying down their debts. There will come a time then, when the economy won’t ‘recover.’

The two contradictory pressures on states that lead to austerity policies:

1. Need for fiscal stimulus to finance infrastructure and the paying down of debts to keep the economy of a country afloat.

2. The pressure a country feels to avoid public spending while indebted (which ultimately risks its sovereignty).

According to Keynesian theory, the goal of a government is to balance these two pressures so that both laborers and ‘job creators’ get their fare share of the pie. However, when a government is asked to provide fiscal stimulus when it is already deeply indebted, there is not much it can do, and a crisis ensues. When this happens, people with resources (individual capitalists) do not suffer as greatly as those without (laborers) because they can usually wait the crisis out. Again, the laborers come out on bottom.

One critique of the article, though, is that it doesn’t even suggest possible solutions. For example, could debt cancellation bypass the problems of debt repayment?

Other limitations of Keynesian economics are that (in its standard formulation) it doesn’t account for 1) population growth and 2) a finite amount of resources.

Even green technology cannot skirt these limitations. The Jevons paradox is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.

Ryan’s notes on our discussion of The Powell Memo and Mario Savio’s “Bodies Upon the Gears”

Tonight Jorge introduced two pieces to the group. The first was the Powell Memorandum (1971), a private document intended for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and written by Lewis F. Powell, then a corporate lawyer who had represented the tobacco industry in Virginia. In it, Powell warned of growing anti-business (and therefore anti-American) sentiment, and advocated greater corporate control over the media. The second was a speech given by Berkeley student activist Mario Savio, “Bodies Upon the Gears” (1964), in which Savio famously compared capitalist society to a “machine” and urged his fellow students to stop its functioning with their own bodies.

Powell’s memo warns business elites of a “broad attack” on “the American economic system,” and that they are not paying close enough attention to the leading centers of public opinion: “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and…politicians.” The threat from these groups, he argues, is worse than that from Communists or New Leftists, who “remain a small minority, and are not yet the principal cause for concern.” The left-wing threat, in other words, is from within, and calls for a disciplined response from responsible elites: “One of the most bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.” Though we didn’t get to discuss them tonight, he then lays out precisely the kind of covert influence that has been the strategy of the pro-corporate Right for the past 30 years and which we now tend to call “corruption,” or maybe “right wing conspiracy.”

Savio’s speech was delivered as part of the Free Speech Movement’s action at Sproul Hall on the Berkeley campus (which also became the site of Occupy Berkeley) in defense of the right to political speech on campus. He calls for a reclamation of the human right to collectively decide the kind of world he and his peers want to live in, in defiance of established authority. The university administrators, he claims, have demonstrated that they aren’t invested in the humanistic ideals of a liberal education, and are instead interchangeable with the managers of a factory. Extending this logic, “the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re raw material.” And that means the students’ most powerful weapon is their active refusal to participate, using their very bodies. “One thousand people sitting down some place, not letting anybody by, not letting anything happen, can stop any machine, including this machine!” The force of this refusal promises to open up a space in which a new world can be imagined: “We’re going to learn about freedom…and we’re going to learn by doing!!”

We discussed how the two essays presuppose two opposed perspectives (the top vs. the bottom, or at least in sight of the bottom), two opposed audiences (a tiny wealthy elite vs. Berkeley students and the broader public), and two opposed worlds. At the same time, they share an interest in preserving a way of life or set of values from outside attack.

Katherine pointed out that Powell sees activists like Savio’s defense of (what for him is) humanity betrayed as an attack on the “American economic system.” Where Savio’s speech is as inclusive as possible, Powell is constantly bringing his collective ‘we’ back to America and the nation state against its internal and external enemies. We then wondered if Powell really believes that free market capitalism is the essence of America or if he is just using it instrumentally to advance his own interests. James reminded us that the “American system” has been in defense of property owners since its founding, and that gives the defenders of (any version of) capitalism the justification to equate it with “real America.” It’s a powerful argument that can work on both elites and the public, even if the common working person owns a vastly smaller share of the wealth. To be against (any version of) capitalism is to be un-American. It’s also how elites can use populist-sounding arguments to defend their own interests against the public without suffering cognitive dissonance.

I suggested that there’s also a fascist history to Powell’s argument. Blaming social and economic decline on so-called ‘cultural elites’ (‘the enemy within’) over any specific external threat while calling for a return to essential national values is classic fascism. It justifies greater power and control over the population and the suppression of dissent.

We considered that for Savio, the enemy isn’t internal vulnerability, but an oppressive and dehumanizing system of control, a machine. As Jorge put it, the basic conflict between the two seems to revolve around the question (basic to liberal political theory from Hobbes to Rousseau) of whether good social order requires that people be controlled for their own good by responsible elites, or whether people should be free to control themselves according to their general will. In other words, is direct democracy a desirable ideal or an unrealistic and dangerous one?

It’s pretty obvious which side we’re on.

We also asked ourselves whether the university and the media are still the key political battlegrounds, as Powell and Savio both thought they were. Some of us, including myself, said yes; Kyle said no, the university is not the hotbed of radicalism it’s made out to be. James argued that ideological battles are not enough, because the very language and imagery we use can always be turned against us. Slogans like “We are the 99%” are already getting co-opted by Democrats, and Republican PR strategists like Frank Luntz have already got the GOP candidates expressing ‘sympathy’ with Occupy while attempting to turn it to their advantage. We were all unclear how to sway anyone we don’t know personally to our side beyond the opportunistic repetition of slogans.

There was no real consensus on this point, but it’s a troubling set of questions: to what extent does the war for public opinion matter in a political struggle that goes beyond partisan politics to address the very nature of capitalist society? To what extent can it matter when our opponents have a vast advantage in funding and institutional power? And if the answer to either question is “not that much,” then what is the Occupy movement actually trying to accomplish?