Thursday, October 11, 2012

Economics Fail

While I'm at it, here's another ridiculous article from what is quickly becoming Canada's worst newspaper, the Globe and Mail.

In it a part time business professor attempts to refute David Suzuki's comments about economics, and ends up completely confirming all of Suzuki's criticisms, all the while thinking he's doing a great job and patting himself on the back. Let's do a blow by blow of the points.

Suzuki: economists (by which of course he generally means neoliberals, as they have largely captured academic and professional economics and imposed their single dogma while denying that other forms of economics exist) will tell you that there is no intrinsic value in having a forest remain standing. The wealth comes from chopping it and selling it.

Which Moffat takes to mean that Suzuki thinks economics says cut all trees! In reality Suzuki is right. There is no economic incentive to leave say a rainforest in its natural state when that rainforest sits on an oilfield. The point is that the rainforest existing has value, which is not captured by standard economic theory. Suzuki shows an understanding here of economic history that goes well beyond Moffatt.

Suzuki then goes on to point out that economists treat the destruction of natural environments, such as the ozone layer, as an externality, which even Moffatt admits is correct. But he again misses the point and goes on to talk about how economists actually do study externalities. Of course the point Suzuki is making is that these things shouldn't be considered after thought externalities but should be part of the economic considerations to begin with.

Economics and business administration programs are the only places you'll find more dogma in a university than the theology deparatment.

Tim Hudak is a Moron

Tim Hudak's big plan to fix the Ontario economy was revealed today. Thankfully he's not the Premier, but he did come dangerously close to it last election.

So Hudak sees there is a problem with unemployment, what's his solution? Fire 68,000 people! Nothing says tackling unemployment like drastically attacking the civil service, which is a source of well paying and relatively stable employment.

So how will he boost the economy? Tax cuts for corporations, despite the fact that the Bank of Canada governor just finished a big rant about how Canadian corporations are sitting on cash instead of spending it on hiring and growth because they're worried about the economy. So a tax cut just pads their pockets with more cash.

At the same time Hudak says he can reduce the deficit, all by firing those civil servants and making cuts to health care and education. Never mind that dramatic corporate and personal tax cuts will dramatically reduce government revenue. If you really want to get rid of deficits you don't offset savings with reductions in revenue. It's basic math.

So to sum it up, Hudak wants to fight unemployment by firing people, cut the deficit by giving away revenue to corporations and people who don't need it and won't spend it, and his big plan for reviving the economy is to create a workforce that is less educated and less healthy.

The fact that anyone might vote for this Dopey the Dwarf doppleganger shows how little people actually know about public affairs, and how little politicians know about public policy.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

B.C. Considering Internet Voting

The Canadian province of British Columbia is considering studying internet voting. I've written about this topic before and it continues to generate hysterical reactions in the comment sections of various media outlets.

The interesting thing about this hostility to online voting is that it comes at a time when people in Canada are pretty turned off with politics, and voter turnout rates especially among youth, are at historic lows. Academics and politicians are continually lamenting this democratic deficit and trying to find ways to re-engage people. In this context online voting makes sense, and the people frustrated with "politics" because their voice is not heard, should welcome an easier way to vote. But instead the comments sections are overwhelmingly opposed to online voting, which I believe shows both a fundamental lack of understanding how the electoral process in Canada works, and also a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the technology of the internet.

Let's go through a few of the comments on two sites that posted news stories on this topic, CTV News and Opinion 250 News.

The biggest complaint seems to be the idea that the internet will make fraud easy, and there are even a few references to the Conservatives various voter suppression tactics of the last federal election. Internet voting would have eliminated the possibility for such Conservative dirty tricks, as robocalls telling people their polling station has changed wouldn't work. Cities: Skylines experiments blog.

The bigger question about fraud though assumes that the internet is a less secure medium because of "hacking". Never mind that the current set up lets pretty much anyone vote as many times as they feel like it, so long as they can either get someone to vouch for them or have documentation with multiple addresses. Anyone who has moved often and kept old hydro or cable bills, could easily show up at a polling station on election day, say they're not registered because they just moved, show the documentation and vote. None of which requires any technical skill. Compare that to hacking into a government computer system and intercepting encrypted traffic in real time. The current system allows anyone, now matter how much of a dope they are to commit electoral fraud, whereas an internet voting system would require one to be a top flight internet security expert. If "hacking" was as easy as these people say it is, then virtually anyone with an internet connection could rob a bank and get away with it, considering that virtually all global financial transactions are electronic now. Why bother with trying to change an election when one could just as easily hack the stock market and become an instant millionaire? Does anyone actually believe that if the technology were not secure, capital markets would use it?

Another common sentiment in the comments is that voting online would be too easy, and thus somehow cheapen the electoral process if there was actual mass participation. The fact that right-wing parties have flourished in low-turnout environments is the source of such conservative and anti-political sentiment. The fear here is precisely that elections might actually end up electing people that the population likes.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Critique of Multitude

Deleuze & Guattari, along with their followers Hardt & Negri, both posit the idea of the nomad as a rhizomatic formation which has the effect of “warding off the state” as Deleuze & Guattari put it. The rhizomatic nomad has a tendency to become Empire, but as Hardt & Negri point out, it can also congeal into a non-hierarchical and sustainable form, which they name the multitude. While the multitude as a global challenge to Empire which operates against it at the same supranational scale is an attractive idea on the surface, when examined further, the multitude as a non-hierarchical sustainable nomadology which functions as an alternative to Empire ultimately fails as a concept.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze & Guattari develop the idea of nomadology in relation to their concepts of the War Machine and the rhizome. The rhizome describes their image of thought which would allow multiple non-hierarchical entry and exit points into a body of knowledge. They contrast the rhizome with the traditional tree-like structure of knowledge, in which every leaf is connected to a branch which is connected to a trunk, which takes one back to the root. The ultimate example of a rhizome today is the internet, practically speaking it has no start and no end, just a multitude of non-hierarchical points of entry. Applying this structure to social formations, Deleuze & Guattari claim that the nomad, who operates in the form of a travelling pack, is rhizomatic in that the travelling pack prevents power from stabilizing.

The rhizomatic nomad is then the expression of what Deleuze & Guattari term the war machine, by which they do not mean the military of a state, but a formation which destabilizes power and acts by deterritorializing space. The war machine then works to ward off the state, in that the state tries to stabilize and conserve the organs of power, while the nomadic war machine with its deterritorializing and reterritorializing of space fundamentally disrupts such attempts by the state.

The prime example of the nomadic war machine that wards off the state formation that Deleuze & Guattari have in mind are the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan. Although their nomadic and pack structure warded off the state formation, they did become an empire. An empire which deterritorialized space and promoted circulation, which made it not only an empire formed by the fluctuations of nomadic warriors, but one in which commerce flourished. Deleuze & Guattari explicitly point to the connection between commerce and the nomadic war machine, and posit the state as an obstacle to the dynamic and smooth flows of commerce.

Today’s form of globalized capital, which is able to operate above the level of states, and in fact is able to constrain the power of the state, is then precisely an expression of rhizomatic nomadology. While this argument is part of the basis for Hardt & Negri’s Empire, Zizek in his book on Deleuze Organs Without Bodies, picks up on this fact to defame Deleuze & Guattari as “ideologists of today’s digital capitalism”. Zizek argues that today’s globalized capital is thoroughly rhizomatic, it operates without a power centre, and has a thoroughly nomadic formation which seeks to ward off the state. The neoliberal push for free trade and deregulation was global capital’s mostly successful attack on the old state-based economies of the Keynesian era. A Thousand Plateaus, written in the 70s and finished in 1980, was ostensibly written as a leftist critique of Keynesian state-capitalism, but today does in fact come across as apologetic for neoliberal attacks on the state.
Hardt & Negri however, are able to somewhat deflate Zizek’s critique, in that they accept that today’s form of globalized capital with immensely weakened states is precisely an expression of the rhizomatic nomadic war machine lauded by Deleuze & Guattari. What Hardt & Negri point out is that this new formation, called Empire, contains within it the potential for those who sustain its creative force to generate their own form of nomadic counter-empire, which would be a “an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges” operating on the same global terrain as Empire. Hardt & Negri name this nomadic potential counter-empire the multitude.

The multitude is then rhizomatic in nature, as it is not simply a new working class movement, but contains any group of exploited or subjugated people, all coming together under the banner of “absolute democracy”. The global nature of the multitude makes it global and nomadic, as it seeks to legitimize cross national flows of people and information through its demands for a global citizenship and a reappropriation of information. Thus while the multitude is positioned by Hardt & Negri as a sustainable nomadology that rejects the hierarchical alternative of Empire, the concept is inoperable for a number of reasons.

The first problem with the multitude is that it effectively lacks any real political content. For Hardt & Negri the key element of the multitude is its immaterial labour which directly produces new forms of social relations, rather than material goods. Thus computer programmers working on Twitter or Facebook are producing means through which we socialize with other. Creating such networks of communication and culture, in Hardt & Negri’s view, essentially allows these immaterial labourers to create society directly thus undermining the need for mediation in the form of the state or of corporations. If immaterial labour directly produces a networked and rhizomatic society, then the labourer is no longer alienated and in a Marxist sense is accelerating the contradictions of capitalism. If globalized capital relies on such creation of immaterial social relations (again Facebook is a good example), then corporations like Facebook are the gravediggers of capitalism as they are creating the infrastructure for a new society of direct cooperation and communication which would render private ownership and the state redundant.

In many ways Hardt & Negri remain too Marxist then, and ignore any political dimension to their idea of the commons produced by this immaterial labour. Social networks such as Facebook which form a large part of the new immaterial commons Negri speaks about remain today explicitly non-political (the best way to get defriended is to constantly comment on politics), and the question remains of how and why the production and people who constitute the multitude would all of a sudden unite to overthrow Empire without any concrete political space to enact this. Again we are left with the conundrum of Western Marxism, looking at the contradictions in capitalism, waiting for the proletariat to magically become conscious of their position and spark some kind of Benjamin-style divine violence. Highly paid software engineers at Google or Facebook, who can show up to work at noon, are given Fridays to work on any pet project they want, and have pool tables beside their computers are much less likely to obtain this revolutionary spark than Marx’s industrial working class ever were.

Even if the immaterial labourers did develop a revolutionary conscious, the concept of the multitude has the further problem of how to get people to join together across cultural, religious, and ethnic lines. Even if the circuits and flow of nomadic empiric capital make the Apple engineer in California aware of his or her connection with Apple tech support in Pakistan, Apple factory workers in China, and Apple consumers in Israel, cultural consciousness today is an overdetermining factor. If the Californian is an evangelical Christian, the Pakistani an Islamist, the Chinese worker an atheist, and the Israeli consumer an orthodox Jew, those divisions will prevent any revolutionary multitude from uniting in today’s political climate. Toward the end of Multitude, Hardt & Negri finally tell us what it is that they believe will bring the multitude together into political action, and it is love. While loving your neighbour is a theme of many of the religions which seem intractably opposed today, there seems very little prospect for people who are radically different (and who remain so inside the rhizomatic multitude) to simply put aside what were once differences worth killing for and start loving one another.

The problem of people within the multitude loving each other as neighbours as a kind of political glue has been seen as a problem for many theorists. In Lacan’s reading of Freud, the neighbour is someone who disturbs us, in loving the neighbour we recognize his or her aggressive and evil core. In the approach of the neighbour we recognize our own aggressive core, which Lacan calls our jouissance, a kind of excess enjoyment which pushes us to transgress limits and thus makes us suffer. Lacan states we dare not go near our own jouissance, for to do so would be to attempt to satisfy the death drive and would thus result in our own destruction. To love our neighbours in the multitude is to get too close to them, and to destroy the space between that is needed for a kind of philia politike that Aristotle speaks of, which is more of a general friendship which does not require the intimacy of love. For a political community to function, it does not require people to love each other, but merely for people who disagree to be willing to leave their disputes in the public realm and not resort to private violence. A politics based on love would have to be a politics of reconciliation with no conflict, which would effectively reduce politics into the mere administration of things. Conflict among lovers leads to the worst kind of wars, and would thus be impermissible in the multitude, rendering it once again into a form of the One, and undoing its dynamic and rhizomatic non-hierarchicalization.

Hardt & Negri claim that the advent of empire improves the chances of revolution, as now the global multitude is positioned directly against the global empire of capital, and the mediating notion of the state is no longer an obstacle. Workers of the world really can unite today, but where? At least with the existence of the state there was an object for the working class to take hold of and exercise hegemony through. As the Arab Springs demonstrated, the immaterial commons in the form of Twitter, Facebook, and even symbolic public space can be catalysts for revolution but without a concrete political project and imposing of a permanent political space, such revolutions are likely to get swallowed up by the forces of the administrative state and Empiric capital. The problem with nomads is that although they are good at deterritorializing and disrupting the organs of power, as Deleuze & Guattari point out, they do not seek to reterritorialize space and simply move on. In the case of the Arab Spring, the reterritorializing is now being left to the military or Islamist groups who are winning elections, thus mitigating much of the progress that was made during the revolution.

The problem is then with nomadology itself. What if instead of trying to oppose the nomadic Empire of globalized capital with a non-hierarchical nomadism of the multitude, we need to oppose the figure of the nomad itself? If the nomadic war machine warded off the state, we now essentially need to ward off the nomadic war machine in its guise of Empire. The creation of a global political stage is needed to provide a fixed space for the “multitude” to play out their conflict, both with the Empire of globalized capital and with each other. As Deleuze & Guattari point out, the nomad was always opposed to the fixed space of the polis, and thus the nomad is an inherently anti-political figure. To be political requires a space for politics, and although the new immaterial commons that Negri speaks of could very well constitute this global stage, to politicize it means to mark out a fixed space which is designated as explicitly political, and thus a rejection of the nomadic element. If politics is thought of as something other than the exercise of power over subjected populations then the state need not be invoked as an alternative to the nomad, but a participatory politics could be a third formation which by providing stability and also being global, could work to ward off the destructive effects of the nomadic Empire of globalized capital.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Note on Political Freedom

In what follows, the idea of freedom will be developed and defined as the freedom to engage in politics. This is a positive conception of freedom, in which being free entails the ability to participate, in conjunction with other people, in the affairs of one’s community. While negative conceptions of freedom as rights not to have something done to you are obviously needed as a set of laws to hold a community together, the notion of law and rights should be separated from the concept of freedom which should apply in the positive sense. Freedom is then something that can only occur among other people; outside of politics one is either a beast or a god as Aristotle points out, neither of which have any need for a conception of freedom as political engagement. This view of positive freedom as the ability to engage in politics will also be contrasted to the popular view of freedom as the right to be left alone. The concept of freedom as the freedom to engage in politics will be developed starting with Aristotle, and on through to Rousseau, Arendt, and Nancy.

Aristotle presents something of an ambiguous figure when developing the idea of freedom as political engagement. On the one hand Aristotle’s conception of politics as living well as opposed to simply living fits with a positive conception of political freedom. As Aristotle points out, politics should not be thought of as simply people living in close proximity who agree to do business with each other and mutually defend each other if attacked. Such is essentially the definition of the modern state, which is in Aristotle’s terms nothing but a large scale household. For this reason Arendt characterizes the business of the modern state not as politics but as “national housekeeping”. Politics then implies something higher, a community not of utility but of living well. It is from Aristotle’s conception of politics, that Arendt draws her idea of politics as a space of freedom as opposed to the natural or private sphere as the space of economic necessity.

When it comes to actual freedom however, Aristotle becomes much more suspect. He defines democracy as the political formation characterized by an equality of freedom, as opposed to oligarchy being based on wealth, and aristocracy based on virtue, where only a few are free, and tyranny and kingship where only one is free. Aristotle is ultimately suspicious of the political freedom of democracy and the participation of the multitude as he calls it. He argues democracy tends to go bad when people define freedom improperly, namely as the freedom to do whatever one wants. When this becomes the case, the city no longer functions politically, and it becomes impossible for everyone to live well under such a situation. A better definition of freedom in democracy argues Aristotle is ruling and being ruled in turn. However even this definition of freedom, raises Aristotle’s suspicion as he goes on to argue that the best form of democracy is one where the majority of the people are farmers. As Rancière explains, a democracy made up of farmers is a democracy where the people are going to be too busy to go to the agora and actually exercise their freedom. Here we are back to a negative conception of freedom, the farmers have a right to engage in politics and be free, but due to the nature of their occupations, cannot actually put this freedom into practice. The same goes today for rights such as freedom of speech, the government will not throw in jail for what you say, but on the other hand there is no forum for anyone to actually listen to what you have to say, and thus the right is extremely difficult to positively activate.

While Arendt draws from Aristotle in many ways, she lacks his hostility to freedom as democratic political participation, and thus forms a good basis in thinking freedom. To be free and thus to be able to act politically is for Arendt, like with Aristotle, an activity that can only be performed among other people. Political action necessarily forms relationships and thus freedom as political action has been condemned by the philosophical tradition as a means by which the individual ends up losing their own freedom as they become entwined with others. Thus as Arendt points out, to maintain one’s integrity as a person, political action is to be renounced in favour of a conception of individual freedom which pretends no one else in the world exists. This form of sovereignty of self in isolation has become the model for popular notions of freedom as a set of negative rights which allow for one to be left alone.

Being left alone however removes citizens from concern for living well, and places them back into the realm of necessity, in which freedom becomes a matter of accumulating wealth, rather than engaging in the good life of politics and philosophy. Arendt and Aristotle are both dismissive of economic money-making as the aim of life, as this places one within the realm of merely living, the realm of necessity and mere life, and cuts out the possibility for the freedom to truly live well.

Arendt’s definitive statement on freedom is that the polis, and therefore politics, is the realm of freedom. Thus politics cannot be about mutual defense pacts or an economic arrangement as Aristotle pointed out, nor can it merely be a society of religious believers as in the Middle Ages, or a society of economic producers or labourers as with Marx. Thus even though Aristotle found the democratic politics of Athens highly problematic, he never questioned the fact that freedom was located exclusively within the political realm. To be free is then to be able to engage with other people in politics, which means the ability to engage in speech and action related to the affairs of the community.

If politics is the realm of freedom, then it stands to reason that we are not born free. Thus Rousseau’s statement to begin the Social Contract is flawed, and rather than trying to recover some of that original freedom through a new social contract which would re-establish freedom through politics, politics should be thought of as ushering in freedom. In the Discourse on Inequality Rousseau paints a picture of the free person as isolated and self-sufficient, and sees the advancement of society as corruptive of this freedom. This view of freedom is precisely the modern attitude which Arendt critiques, one where freedom is seen as isolation and being left alone. The natural man of Rousseau has no politics, and simply lives a bare life, with no freedom to live well in the Aristotelian sense.

Rousseau does go on to argue that the civil liberty guaranteed by the social contract acts as compensation for the freedom we had in nature which is now lost. The operation of Rousseau’s politics, in particular his conception of the general will, are again problematic for an idea of freedom as engaging in politics. Being a citizen in a nation under a social contract which constitutes the entire people as a sovereign is what allows for civil freedom for Rousseau, and in so far as “the key to the working of the political machine” is the idea that everyone must obey the general will or be forced to do so, then Rousseau’s freedom is not a freedom to engage in politics but a negative freedom of mutual self-defence in the same manner of Hobbes. Requiring all to consent to the general will destroys one of the primary conditions for politics: plurality. Without a plurality of opinions Arendt tells us, then there is no need for the political action and speech which engages us with our fellow citizens. The general will simply manifests the true course of opinion and action, and it can be carried out in a non-social manner, like workers on an assembly line.

Rousseau goes on to argue that it doesn’t matter if the government of a nation is a democracy, aristocracy, or monarchy, so long as it obeys the general will, it allows people to be free. Of course in a monarchy, what freedom to people have to engage in the political affairs of their community? In this way Rousseau is prefiguring modern arguments about governments who act according to opinion polling and thus represent the will of their people. Answering a few questions in an opinion poll is not an expression of freedom as political engagement nor is casting a ballot in an election. The notion of general will as sovereign fundamentally constrains freedom in that it cuts citizens out of public realm.

In many ways Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Experience of Freedom provides a succinct diagnosis of the problem being discussed here. Today we talk of freedoms as a collection of negative rights which simply form a border around a vacant space. What should fill this vacant space that Nancy speaks of, is a freedom to be political. Thus we have many negative freedoms-from, but no positive freedom-to; a freedom to engage with others in politics. Without being able to fill in this vacant hole, these bordering freedoms once again leave nothing but a life of survival, and no ability to live well.

Nancy goes on to argue that freedom belongs to the essence of the human, in so far as the essence of being human is also being in common. In a lengthy engagement with Heidegger, Nancy concludes that dasein is fundamentally intertwined with mitsein, to be there is inherently to be with and vice versa. Being with is not a simple add on to Dasein, it fundamentally constitutes it. Thus Nancy agrees with Arendt’s ontological determination of freedom as a status within the political realm, freedom meant the freedom to “meet other people in word and deed” in the public realm before the term freedom came to signify a quality of the will or of thought. As Nancy put it, freedom is then a free space of external movement and meeting of others before it was an internal disposition. Thus for Nancy, as for Arendt, political space is the space for freedom, of the existence of shared being.

As Nancy’s title suggests, freedom is bound up with experience. Freedom as experience involves the testing of limits, and freedom therefore proves itself by testing itself. Bringing Nancy’s freedom back to politics, freedom as freedom to engage in politics then also involves a testing of the limits and boundaries of the political. In this sense the definition of freedom as experience promoted by Nancy meshes with Jacques Rancière’s definition of politics as involving not just participation but by the opening of a dissensus. Dissensual political activity involves enacting freedom and equality as a test against its limits. If the law says all are free, but in reality only some are free, to enact the freedom that is guaranteed to all by those who do not in practice have it, is to open a dissensual gap in the realm of the sensible, and thus to engage politically. Dissensual politics is then precisely freedom testing itself, making sure that it really is freedom, and expanding the limits of freedom to ensure equality. Once again it is not enough to merely have the negative right to be free, if this right cannot be enacted and carried out in a positive manner.
Freedom is then the freedom to engage in politics, the right to be political. This is a freedom of experience, the ability to live well by engaging with one’s fellow citizens on matters of common concern, as well as a testing of the experience and limits to this freedom. The political sphere is fundamentally the space for freedom, and without politics, we truly cannot be free. Freedom as political engagement has a strong sense of requiring other people, the isolated self-sufficient person in the woods can never be free. Freedom is thus something that belongs to our essence, in so far as our essence implies that our existence is an existence with others which is materialized through political engagement.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Newsflash Don Drummond, neoliberal economics don't work

Full story in Toronto Star: Walkom: The real victims of the Drummond report’s cuts

This Drummond guy, a bank economist--which essentially means he knows nothing about economics and is simply peddling neoliberal dogma--is really out of touch with reality. These kinds of massive government cutbacks when the economy is shaky are just plain dangerous. Putting more people out of work, and letting the rich off the hook once again will simply lead to declining government revenues over time and the need for more and more cutbacks until the province hits rock bottom. It's also interesting that Drummond and McGuinty won't even consider the most obvious methods to increase government revenue: a more progressive tax system with higher rates for high income earners, and abolishing the Catholic school system, which is not only redundant in that it doubles top level administrative positions, but that it is also a ridiculous attack on equality. Drummond and McGuinty would rather put tens of thousands of people out of work than implement a fair education system that does not give special privileges (and government money) to religious fanatics.