The Power and the Mediocrity of the Sign

In “What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” Anu Partanen reveals capitalist Anglo-America’s elephant-in-the-room-sized blind spot, why its focus on competition and “excellence” results in diminishing performance in order to promote concentrated power and idealism.

The Finns (Per Sahlberg) on education reform that demands accountability from teachers: “There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.

The Finns (Samuli Paronen) on competition: “Real winners do not compete.” There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The driver of education policy in Finland is not competition amongst teachers and schools, policy forcing the ideal conservative conditions of bellum omnia contra omnes, but rather cooperation. School choice is not an issue, nor is putting education in the hands of the private sector and profit motive. This is in distinct contrast to America, Sahlberg observes, where “schools are a shop.”

The Finnish education reform goal was always equality and equity, never “excellence” or whatever conservative daydreams that word stands in for. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” What the world dominated by conservative Anglo-american capitalist dogma still cannot face is that it is equality that most efficiently produces star performances and substantive excellence.

Tiger Moms’ genius boys in Shanghai and Singpore can put in 20-hour days of rote memorization and exhaustive cramming, and only manage to approximate in performance the Finnish children who are simply well cared for and supported by valued, independent, unionized teachers and their egalitarian society. Surely, the East Asian genius boys are better poster boys for conservative capitalist discipline; but just as surely they are inefficient…and 99% of these memorizers and crammers will never be able to write a non-plagiarized essay, that is, communicate independently, like humans can.

Why does egalitarianism more efficiently make excellence? The answer is right in front of our nose, right in front of our blind spot. It’s because in the inequality tradition, poor people are overwhelmingly, structurally prevented from attaining their human potentials, and, a factor that perversely torments conservative theorists much more, the rich enjoy the comfort of knowing that surrounded by throngs of shackled “competitors,” they can enjoy many a good old slack.

In such a conservative culture, it is the appearance and ideal of excellence that matters, because the sign unmoored is directed by and justifies power. To be chosen is a sign, necessarily imposed upon the material world. The grim “play” of signs, only ordered by the mystified, atopic distribution of power in a reified collective imagination (a world not made but given, or made by all because you cannot choose unfreely), is Anglos’ obsession, and the more people you can induce to submit to this obsession, the more human life chances are allocated by market power and the more absolutely necessary capitalism (or its feudal and slavery complements)  is for any life chance at all.

At or adhered to central nodes of global capitalist accumulation, Anglo-Americans are altogether too kind, too attentive to, too solicitous of the promotional, the unmoored sign, constantly mistaking it for the legitimate, autarkic limits of knowable (meta)reality. Our literature, for one example, is far too ready to believe that the con man is the true knower.

Capitalism Takes Food from the Poor

Have you ever wondered how it is that capitalism causes malnourishment? Here’s one way.

“The global rush to buy farmland continues, and international investors are focusing on the poorest countries with weak land-rights security…Investor interest in land was triggered by the 2007-08 spike in food prices, and the long-term trends that drive deals are rising commodity prices, population growth, growing consumption and demand for biofuels and timber…The deals in the database amount to 83.2 million hectares (205.6 million acres) of land in developing countries…Most of the investors are private companies, accounting for 442 projects covering 30.3 million hectares, followed by state- owned companies with 172 projects and 11.5 million hectares, based on the data. Investment funds were behind 32 projects covering 3.3 million hectares….

 Governments often sell land already in use by smallholder farmers, according to the (research) group. About 45 percent of deals target cropland or crop-vegetation mosaics, where investors are competing for land with local farming communities, the group reported. ‘Investors are targeting countries with weak land tenure security, although they try to look for countries that at the same time offer relatively high levels of investor protection,’ the Land Matrix group said.”

Look at the Landportal Landmatrix data on capitalism incentivizing investors to steal arable land from the poor, that the moneyed might speculate on the dispossessed’s ensuing starvation.

Breaking Windows…or the Whole Welfare State?

In Le Monde, Brotherton & Phillips argue that a criminology theory, Broken Windows, became distorted by vulgar American social speciation (The poor are evil. Their automatic small transgressions cascade into crimes against the Order), and this corruption is what resulted in a recent, tyrannical Supreme Court ruling.

I like this analysis, in that it points to how even materialist explanatory frameworks become distorted within a conservative culture. (And why materialist explanations can never serve as adequate substitutes for historical-materialist explanations.)

Nonetheless, at the end of the day, any Supreme Court decision must be assessed in the context of that body’s other contemporaneous decisions, and there, unless we are hopelessly immobilized by fear, we must recognize a stark pattern has emerged.

 It is not simply that the Supreme Court justices fell prey to a bowdlerization of Broken Windows theory. That would be a tough enough problem to address. But in fact the situation is much, much more dire. The justices were selected for the Supreme Court because they are far from innocents. The US Supreme Court has come to revert to pre-liberal, end-of-days feudal British legal traditions, and this is not through a series of mishaps. SCOTUS sanctioned election fraud at the highest level; it has recently ruled in favor of capitalist class totalitarianism in the workplace; it has come to rule repeatedly in favor of state tyranny over citizen liberties; it is positioning itself to revoke Congress’ capacity to create welfare institutions. Through its interpretations and rulings, the both conservative and fundamentally elitist US Supreme Court is actively, systematically creating the legal framework for the decisive blows that convert the US to a ferociously capitalist class-biased night watchman terror state.

The working elite theory is that the conservative initiatives will bolster the investor confidence that the US, its dollar and its debts rely on. But the conservative theory of investor confidence is superficial, a symptom of a larger conservative misreading of capitalist accumulation incentives. Because of the 40+ year dominance of conservatism, the US economy is going down like a stepwise-imploding dirigible, and its elites will not fall without scrambling together a new age of serfdom and primitive accumulation—concentrated accumulation by any means possible.

Though they are always enchanted by American capital’s money, networks, organization, ready policy models, hype, and marketeers’ assurance, the rest of the world would do well to continue to turn away and let the Americans alone erect their self-rape and -pillage legal framework in their “exceptionalist” (British serfdom and imperialism meets American slavery and nuclear chain-reaction exploitation) tradition.

Marxists are correct about what is happening here. Despite their emotional rejection of Marxists above all, American liberals need to start to assess whether they will withdraw from the real world to protect their visions of marginally-conflicted, equilibrium, civilized capitalism, or whether they will get back in there and organize to defend the pillars of their crumbling, limited-Enlightenment utopia—from conservatives this time, again.

You have to ask yourself: Are you really comfortable with slavery and serfdom?, because these remain fundamental conservative institutions–entirely complementary to, we can see plainly before us, capitalism, wretched capitalism. Absolute power corrupts absolutely; and under a system of concentrated power–such as is capitalism, there is no high, easy road to progress.

It was William Julius Wilson who argued that affirmative action in the US was designed and applied  to benefit (black) elites rather than the people who had been super-exploited in US history, see “Still separate and unequal” by George M. Frederickson.

Adolph Reed was critical of Wilson, but consanguinely argues that affirmative action is primarily used by black elites (eg. mayors) to support capitalist elites.

Check:

  • Frederickson implies that Wilson’s critique applies more widely: Global elites benefit from affirmative action, rather than impoverished American minorities with historical roots in the US. Does Wilson say this, or does he just focus on middle class v. working class American blacks?
  • Does this critique apply to multiculturalism / diversity management as well? Angela Davis and Zizek have critiqued global capitalist multiculturalism.
  • What have BAR, Manning Marable had to say about this, if anything? 

“The term ‘pluralism’ is acquiring increasing currency in our own time. It is presumably the ideology describing the centrifugal tendencies of a society that threatens to disintegrate into unreconiled groups under the pressure of its own principles. This is then represented as if it were a state of reconiliation in which people lived together in a harmony while in reality society is full of power struggles. As a minor by-product of these lectures I would like to recommend that you adopt an extremely wary attitude towards the concept of pluralism which, like the similar concept of ‘social partners,’ is preached at us on every street corner. To transfigure and ideologize the elements of discontinuity or of social antagonisms in this way is a part of the general ideological trend. In the same way, it is very characteristic of our age that the very factors that threaten to blow up the entire world are represented as the peaceful coexistence of human beings who have become reconciled and have outgrown their conflicts. This is a tendency which barely conceals the fact that mankind is beginning to despair of finding a solution to its disagreements.” (Adorno. History & Freedom: 93)

BAR has published Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (imprisonment) in serial form. Other commentators on this topic: Bruce Western, Angela Davis.

We Have Never Been Modern

This Robin post reviews Karen Orren’s scholarship into the persistence of feudal law in the US workplace. Right, where people spend almost all of their waking time, when not unemployed.

Orren, Karen. 1991. Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law and Liberal Development in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521422543.

Orren’s “”Belated Feudalism” set off multiple explosions when it appeared in 1991, inflicting serious damage on the received wisdom of Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In his 1955 classic ”The Liberal Tradition in America,” still taught on many college campuses, Hartz argued that the United States was born free: Americans never knew feudalism; their country – with its Horatio Alger ethos of individual mobility, private property, free labor, and the sacred rights of contract – was modern and liberal from the start. For decades, liberals embraced Hartz’s argument as an explanation for why there was no – and could never be any – radicalism in the United States. Leftists, for their part, also accepted his account, pointing to the labor movement’s failure to create socialism as evidence of liberalism’s hegemony.

 But as Orren shows, American liberalism has never been the easy inheritance that Hartz and his complacent defenders assume. And the American labor movement may have achieved something far more difficult and profound than its leftist critics realize. Trade unions, Orren argues, made America liberal, laying slow but steady siege to an impregnable feudal fortress, prying open this ”state within a state” to collective bargaining and congressional review.

By pioneering tactics later used by the civil rights movement – sit-ins, strikes, and civil disobedience – labor unions invented the modern idea of collective action, turning every sphere of society into a legitimate arena of democratic politics.”

While the US had slavery and identifiable feudal lords in the South, it maintained feudal workplaces throughout, and up through the entirety of the 20th century. Along with the continuing influence of anti-revolutionary British culture (P. Anderson), instilled via the Anglo American elite class (W. Domhoff), no wonder Southern feudal conservatism (D. Blackmon) was resonant and spread throughout the US even after the Democratic Party was modernized in the mid 20th century.

I had been aware that the contemporary torture and domestic and international repression privileges of the US Executive office were based in ancient and barbaric Anglo feudal law, but now I recognize that, considering British feudal warlords became the capitalist class, the idea flogged, that there was a legal or institutional break with feudalism in the Anglosphere, has been vastly overmarketed.

The last thing we have needed is a break from the fledgling Enlightenment movement, which set up the US as a semi-independent state locked into global economic elite rule, but would have been thereupon abandoned per the Federalist and slaver preferences, save for the unions. American unions were not radical because they were busy trying to push the US from slavery and feudal law and institutions into basic liberal law and institutions.

…Now, that argument is not going to get you very far, if viewed without historical depth. Societies and their institutions obviously don’t have to try to mince their way through lukewarm liberalism. Sweden, for one, developed much more radical and effective unions starting from feudalism. Then there’s Russia, the Latin American countries, etc. However, given the fact that the US was advertising itself as a modern, liberal bastion–to immigrants, to foreign allies–the early 20th century unions found political opportunity in pushing for actual liberal laws and policies within the US.

Here the thesis I will again advance is that liberal institutions as your “Left” do not create a sufficient or robust counter to conservatism–Liberalism is incapable of moving a society into even merely political democracy, let alone democracy and freedom egalitarianism.

And with the destruction of the unions and labor rights, the US has slid back down the muddy liberal bank and sunk back into the dank, suffocating morass of conservatism: Freedom for a few; slavery for most.

Here in “Birth Control McCarthyism” (referencing his book “Fear: The History of Political Idea,”) Robin explains why feminists and labor have a lot of ground in common, faced with conservatives. Insofar as we lose sight of the necessity of the feminist-labor coalition, it is because we have come to have a scandalous blindspot for the horrible, deranged, rabid elephant in the Western livingroom, the ubiquitous, pervasive, legal fact of our (especially Anglosphere) societies: the totalitarian workplace.