Friday, November 19, 2004

Unidentified Strangers

The contract, binding hand and foot –
that ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law
drawn to scale the mirror simply to become the case
as a nod to sacrifice
maybe maybe maybe I can be more clear.
No eye’s the eye to understand it
rots the body out
to our people to obey the law that ought to
stand your ground as burial in view of
motel rooms during demolition if I
maybe maybe I can be more
this tiny body
for another passage And the representative spirit, bursting
out of the domestic analogy, into the crawlspace
or the walls, the staircase, molten glass
by which one fixes residence.
The instructions went out to our people
with short-haul freight: sewer sludge, cable spools, tons
of labor, of such navigation past
the water-stress against the crumbling earthen foot
could be some divine strength, so look,
it’s cool. It just got way too difficult
to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you
by diffraction – the anthem draws a line
of camps a writing on the plain: forms
the word a million tongues have slithered up me
to economize the virtualities of space
until a lateral wall should stretch us wide
– a razor in the mouth cut trenches for the disarmed dead,
the cast-off gun or less
exact what’s left the object-form says you, says we
are a nation of law. We adhere to
the ceiling, thrust down on us like doubt.

To hang on for as long
as this to grommets at the banner’s edge
The child – through phases of the satellite feed …in
and out – it’s all one, if not yet all the same for each
what started when we thought the air a dome
and singing on a sparkling marble stage
cut shares of living space in half-hour slots.
Nudity peels off a skin enfolds the screen that other room
– like for like, can’t leave. Each single wiry hair pricks the palate
where they dance and fuck, adhere to laws. We have
laws on the books. You might look at
relocation, survival of the fields and shops of process
is a landscape picture indistinct from land.
Wring the hands like cane shared flesh or shred pitched brick
builds the heart of town, the streets
a grievance in the human face
are soot to suck from pores…gray water
in the single instance, flee the lip
to be united. The solid state, crushed together
in the living pharaonic tomb, while the soil subsides
just prior to events. I know precisely how

to show you. I don’t understand
how we are many – we burn along the shore
without examining the same.
We were interminable in this place this cage might look at
those laws might provide comfort
to the citizen renouncing membership,
her mouth congested with a tongue
troweling mortar on its own teeth –
right down the town’s throat.
Ample and uncharted in that night,
an expansive list of charges offscreen the love offering
steadfast hand in dying fires
and dark matter or dark matters
to the body huddled in a rug
pulled out into its own sore sum.

But the mouth breaks in two, and then you pay for dental work.
Teeth come forth come out furrowed undead legion, rooting
in the juice of function – a handful of metal a metal hand
comes down on the brow as our reverse. Whatever
adheres to law that ought to comfort you
do such things to help remember us
who didn’t pay. But someone did. Along the walls
hands trail unraised, grope on your behalf …was faking dead
An instrument, curved behind, recalls us to our threshing:
work… and I’m tired of it and I’m tired I’m tired and
your tongue’s cold track drying in my palm shared flesh belongs
by weight of die and press, shreds matted in the hair,
to you, working on it now up close – explosive it as good belongs
to me: the rifle round, my terror reflex, we hail this ghost

Friday, November 12, 2004

Profligate Moral Economy

Thanks to Josh Corey for the pointer to Timothy Burke’s attempt to inaugurate a critique of Thomas Frank. Such a critique will be, I think, a real necessity of progressive cultural and political organization for the foreseeable future, and it’s good to see that some sharp minds out there are taking up the challenge and raising questions about the potentially disastrous implications of Frank’s “populism” for left politics.

While I’m thankful for the direction opened up by Burke’s comments, though, I have some unresolved questions about the invocation of moral economy on which they lean. Specifically, I can see how small-holding Western and Southern-states farmers and surrounding agrarian communities could think their place in the world in terms of an anti-accumulation position historically tied to the small peasant. What I need some help seeing is how, again historically, the radical divergence between this moral-ideological side of their moral economy and the political-economic side of the equation has been so effectively papered over.

This “other side” of the equation becomes somewhat clearer if we actually take a look at the realities of agricultural production in the South, and even more so in the West. Even a cursory examination reveals these modes of life to be structured as anything but small peasant production. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that acreage under cultivation by small-holding individual owners is a rapidly shrinking share of total farmland, the divergence from peasant conditions becomes clear even when we take these small-holdings as representative of the whole. And this becomes clear precisely in the form of those redistributions of accumulation that Burke says provoke such distrust in the terms of a peasant moral economy. Agriculture in the regions we’re talking about here, and especially west of the Mississippi, is simply unthinkable on its current scale without gargantuan Federal inputs. There is farmland in Arizona, for example, where the ratio of Federal dollars – in the form of subsidized irrigation water, hydroelectric power and direct farm commodity price supports – to farm commodity prices runs in the neighborhood of 1 to 1.2. If we talk about low-value graze crops like alfalfa, grown with expensive irrigation water on poorly-drained land, the ratio sometimes sinks below 1 to 1. While not as pronounced in the Southeast, the presence of the TVA and related Federal dredging, dyking, draining, and power generating facilities – most supplying their inputs far below cost to agricultural producers – produces a similar phenomenon. As has been pointed out elsewhere in the wake of the election, were we to conceive of the circulation of Federal tax monies as a balance of payments, the majority of blue states would show payments well above receipts, while for the majority of red states the inverse would hold true. And none of this, of course, is factoring in the non-renewable nature of some of the Federally-subsidized inputs, most particularly the water itself. (Could this perpetual externalizing of costs onto the commons one day become the breaking point between the persistent, peasant-derived “moral economy” and the large scale forms of production it’s increasingly enmeshed in?)

So I’m left wondering how large-scale capital flows, and State intervention in those flows, have been rendered so historically invisible when we’re speaking about “Red-state” rural and small-town life. This isn’t intended as a hostile question to Burke, because I think he might well be on to something, but I think one aspect of the situation we might need to make forcefully clear is the wide divergence between this moral economy as it’s articulated in a mode of cultural life, and the political economy it’s been serving behind its own back, as it were, for almost a full century.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Open letter to Suzanne Stein

(In response to posts and comments 11/5-11-7 over at Minor American)

Dear Suzanne,

Thanks for your note – there’s a lot to think about here, and I don’t want to simply dismiss the substance of your critique in the course of disagreeing with it. But disagree I must. To the extent that the emphasis on “stupidity” devolves into the publicly-stated belief that “those people in the flyover states are just ignorant rednecks,” then yes, you’re absolutely right that, leaving aside even the ugly class assumptions of such a claim, it’s on the face of it a politically suicidal position to take. To the extent that I lapsed into that in a moment of ill-considered rage, what you’ve written is a necessary corrective and a reminder of some more serious work to be done.

What I want to disagree with, though, is the implication that there’s something necessarily wrong with the assertion, which I think I was making, that working-class conservative voters who turned out for four more years of Bush made a politically disastrous and yes, stupid, decision. Frankly, I find the contention that we might live among “the people,” the better to understand them and help them to understand us, far more redolent of the Rousseau-esque excesses of a certain paternal liberalism than the outright acknowledgement that what we have on our hands is the need to organize an opposition for what promises to be a long struggle. This stems in large part from having grown up as one of “those people,” albeit one who voted and organized left. I take what David Perry (?) says in Maggie's comment box very seriously: there’s a wide range of diverse political opinion and a much more various array of forces within the red states than most of the current analysis is finding room for. And within that diversity, especially in a place like my hometown of Tampa, which usually swings rightward in electoral politics but has a large enough progressive/left/liberal set of organizations to make themselves felt, those who occupy that sizeable minority feel themselves acutely beset.

The invocation of bodily threat by Maggie and others is very much to the point. This came home to me early on, in the aftermath of an incident of racist and homo-hating violence (I’ll join Pamela here in distinguishing between the “pure phobes” and the haters) in the punk scene I grew up in, a scene which had until then felt to many of us like one of the nearest approximations on our native terrain to a progressively organized, grassroots public sphere. When a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads beat to death a young, gay Puerto Rican man outside the Cuban Club one night, that changed for me, and I suspect for a lot of other people as well. The point made to us in that act of violence was that “openness,” tolerance or whatever other name it might trade under, was an insufficient principle on which to organize a democratic (small-d) public in the face of actual struggle. The hard right in this country has understood the weakness of classic liberalism in this regard for several generations, and has organized accordingly – for cultural, political, and at times physical conflict, not for discourse. So the position I find myself in, following this election, is rooted in a place I found myself about a year after the Cuban Club murder, when I learned that a younger friend, in part responding to long-term unemployment in his family, the violence attendant on Tampa’s insane pattern of school “integration,” etc., and looking for a place to belong (which, in itself, is not at all a stupid motive), had joined a Christian Identity-type skinhead gang. (Admittedly, it’s an extreme example, and the analogy to the current situation is somewhat loose and permits of nuances not possible in the situation I’m narrating here. I’ll get to those in a moment). My response at the time was to take as seriously as possible the choice he had made, not to cast it as the result of insufficient education, lack of exposure to progressive alternatives, all the usual array of compensatory fantasies we progressives tend to indulge in when confronted with rightwing social violence. Taking his choice seriously meant telling him in no uncertain terms that what he had done was wrong, destructive, and stupid, and that, if followed through, it would mean the beginning of a real struggle between him and me. To invoke conviviality here, as you do, gets at the crux of this, though in a way perhaps different than what I think you were pointing at: what was at issue with my erstwhile friend was his explicit agreement with acts of violence against the possibility of our living-with-(one)-another, of occupying a commons.

Now, of course, I’m not claiming that everyone, or even a majority of those, who voted for Bush shares this willingness to sign up for a pogrom. Actually, I’m not even saying that this was entirely the case with the particular person I’m mentioning: in the face of a clearly-stated demand to be prepared for acts of direct violence, his commitment faltered and he entered a period of intense self-criticism and re-evaluation. What I am saying, though, is that the mark of my respect for him, as for those red-staters who were my neighbors, and who are still the neighbors of the great majority of my family and “home community,” was precisely my willingness to treat him like an adult whose political, or more broadly public, decisions would have adult consequences. And this is the response of those I know who actually live in the places we’re talking about at present: my siblings, faced with a continuing “jobless recovery” and attendant privatized healthcare (read: upward redistribution of wealth) are in fear of losing their jobs and with them their health insurance; my grandmother is facing the prospect of having her Social Security dangerously toyed with in order to make some hare-brained political point about “ownership” (read: upward redistribution of wealth); and my youngest brother, the Kerry-voting Marine, sees the recommitment of the electorate, witting or unwitting, to the war and the stop-loss programs that go with it, as possibly consigning him to another stint in an Iraq he’s already decided we have no business being in. Up against outcomes like this, their response is akin to what you might expect if your neighbor lit a fire to make a symbolic point and ended up burning down your house: “Hey, that was a really stupid thing to do.”

It’s here, I think, that I see the most serious problems with any sort of “red-state resettlement” program. Put bluntly, because these people are adults, and aren’t idiots, despite having made a bad decision, they can smell carpet-bagging a mile off. If you’re actually committed to the modes of social life in small-town, rural communities in the South, Midwest and West, and feel that you can add to that some organizational energy in the service of progressive movements already active on the ground there, then by all means, go ahead and move. But if what’s operative in this decision is some sense that, simply by putting ourselves in front of the Other, we can help that Other to see the “real us,” I think you’re in for a severe disappointment. Ask my Florida friends who had tires slashed, windows broken, received anonymous hate mail, etc., during the presidential campaign.

The other, mostly undiscussed side of this issue, rests in the way this “moral values” theme has been both overreported and underanalyzed. Overreported, because as it turns out, perceptions of who would better handle terrorism, the Iraq war, and even the economy had at least as much, and in many places far more, to do with the Republicans being able to drain away slivers of the Democratic base while energetically mobilizing their own to a level unseen in recent elections. Underanalyzed (and this goes hand in hand with the above), because the stock response on the part of agonized centrist Democrats has been, “How do we craft an appeal to these people?” Left at that level of abstraction, it’s an unanswerable question – either you give up any final pretense to represent the claims of civil and human rights and “steal some Republican thunder,” or you don’t, and resign yourself to symbolic opposition. It’s a pretty unappealing binary.

What’s being left out, of course, is any delving into those “moral values.” To what extent is that phrase hardwired to anti-gay, anti-reproductive choice, anti-free speech policies, and to what extent might it permit a bit more wiggle room? (Finally, I get to the nuance I promised above): the answer, as far as I can tell, is some of both. To the extent that it’s the former – and that it is, for at least a small but well-organized segment of rightwing Christians, seems fairly indisputable to me – everything I’ve said about the necessity for struggle holds for me. I simply refuse to lend any more support to a party that makes further accommodation with social violence, whether exclusionary or “targeted,” against the citizens it’s supposed to represent. (I’d take this as extending to non-citizens as well, and to Iraqis in particular). To the extent that it’s the latter, though, I think the possibility of room for maneuver rests in the link between those nearly-blank signifiers in American electoral politics, “moral values” and “character.” We’ve all heard Democrats and progressives doing their best to explain, in the wake of last week’s defeat, that “our values are moral values too.” This is where a less-oppositional, more open and collaborative process of political and cultural coalition-building might take hold. For this argument to hold any water, though, what’s needed is some attention to the linkage between “values” and “character.” Put simply, a slim majority of the electorate perceive Bush as a man who says what he means, means what he says, and acts likewise. Their caricature of Kerry is that he’s a man without a stance. The remarkable thing is that this perception turns out to be fairly decisive even for a large minority of voters who strongly disagree with a lot of what Bush means, says, and does. And the problem on the Democrats’ side, ever since Kerry locked up the nomination, is that the caricature has some pretty firm roots in reality.

Take, for example, his relative inability to make a “values” issue out of pre-emptive wars of choice, despite the discomfort of large swathes of voters with the bill of goods they were sold in the Iraq war. The immediate difficulty the campaign ran into, and which it never really overcame, was Sen. Kerry’s vote for the use-of-force authorization. While his vacillations around this issue were never quite as abject as the Rove machine painted them, they were pretty damn weak. The rationale he finally settled on – after much issue-clouding delay – was that his vote was intended to “back up” the sanctions and inspections regime with a real threat of consequences, and that he was misled by the administration into thinking that they would act in good faith, using the vote as a bargaining chip. It’s a pretty shoddy rationale: there was already a good deal of clarity at the time of the vote that the resolution, as worded, essentially gave Bush carte blanche when it came to launching the invasion. And it was widely known that the administration was stuffed to the gills with PNAC neo-cons who had never hedged around their commitment to the military overthrow of the Baathist regime. The first explanation a lot of people came up with (not only Bush voters, but people like myself who put time, money and energy into the Kerry campaign despite some very serious misgivings about him as a candidate) for why Kerry voted as he did, only to later re-position himself as the leader of a party opposed to the war, was that he actually supported the resolution as worded, but later saw how Dean polled in the primaries and realized he needed to capture some of that momentum. This is not a moral stance, but rank opportunism. The other, and perhaps worse possibility, is that Kerry didn’t stand behind his vote at the time, but carried it out in the name of political expediency, bowing to the momentum the neo-cons had amassed in order to save some Democratic face, a kind of party discipline. This would mean that, in hindsight, the Senator had been willing to gamble with tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, thousands of American lives, and billions of dollars, for the sake of short-term political advantage. Not a pretty picture, and it pretty much militates against any attempt to take a moral anti-war stance later in the campaign.

“Character,” if it’s short-hand for anything other than folksy millionaire faux-populism (and there was certainly a lot of that, on both sides, though Bush was far more successful with it), stands for the ability to take a stand. Only thus does one make of the political a matter of “values,” and of lived social commitments. We could go through similar demonstrations of why this particular candidate failed on the terrain of moral economy and the morality of civil and human rights, but I think the picture is clear enough. What’s truly stunning is that a candidate perceived even by many of his own supporters as something of a non-entity for these and other reasons, came as close as he did. One productive line of inquiry in the wake of the election might be, not “why did ‘their values’ beat ‘our values,’” but “why do we keep letting this ineffectual center – in the person of Terry McAuliffe, certainly, but really throughout the party organization – keep its stranglehold on Democratic political campaigns, forcing us to lose elections to eminently beatable Republicans?” (I know, I know, calls for McAuliffe’s head are so four years ago…)

I want to return to those “lived social commitments,” though, because it’s there that things get considerably trickier. If we restrict ourselves, despite all the caveats above, to the church-centered version of the moral values argument, what emerges as a particular strength of the right is the extent to which there are already-existing modes of social organization in the communities where they’re drawing votes. These organizations – churches and attendant “family councils” and the like – are not organized primarily as political institutions, despite the extent to which they have been directly politicized in recent years. What they address at root is the lived experience of belonging, and the sets of social, ethical, spiritual and material needs attendant on that belonging. Once you have a material set of institutions like this, producing identifications on a day-to-day basis, you have a public sphere (albeit centered on a particularly restrictive, exclusionary sense of “public” for the most part) in which the work of political organizing can take hold. This organizing is less a matter of persuasive argument or appeals to communicative rationality, than it is a matter of a direct appeal to the fact of belonging as such. As
Alan Sondheim
points out, there is a shift here from the epistemological to the ontological. Or, as Barrett Watten writes, “All analysis flies in the face of a simple, stupid identification.” (Since I’ve invoked the “s” word again, I should emphasize that I see a reciprocal, and far less effective stupidity operating on much of the left: our stubborn belief in our own self-image as the good-natured persuaders, issuers of appeals to our fellow human beings’ better reason. Simply put, without the material, institutional basis with which to make these appeals operative in lived social experience – which is not a function of communication, but a function of production, the production of public space, itself often a function of a durable kind of “being there” – we’re guilty of a far worse kind of stupidity: not stupidity as the “decision” of faith prior to fact, but the boneheaded, continuing insistence on the counter-factual even after the facts are in).

The left used to have a set of such institutions at its disposal in the form of trade unions and associated public-sphere groupings. And while the decline of skilled labor as part of a globalizing shift toward deskilling and flexible accumulation bears some of the fault for these institutions’ ebb in political life, so too does the willful ignorance of most Democrats (and even most Greens) of the real bases where labor organization is still being carried out, in the service sector and in low-wage, contingent employment. This might be one place to start on the question: “How do we build our own set of institutions, our own politicized public, that can address the real experience of real people?” Progressive religious institutions, largely asleep at the wheel during recent U.S. political history, though with notable exceptions in the sanctuary movement of the 80’s, the Jubilee Justice organizations of the 90’s, etc., might be another place to look. And I’m not writing off what you’ve sketched here, either. As I said, though, it’s a matter of aligning that impulse with what’s actually happening on the ground in the places you’re looking at. The more it feels like Left Coast intellectuals coming to the Great Plains on an anthropological field trip, the more justified resentment such an initiative is going to face.

In the short-term “meanwhile,” though, we’re faced with a particular form of aggression on the part of the victors that I think does warrant some judicious uses of direct opposition. This is, after all, an administration that has interpreted a 2.5% margin as “political capital” to be spent. As Watten also points out, this calculus only makes sense where all value is understood as realizable exchange value – public policy is a function of marginal returns. Actually, I think the stance taken by Bush in this statement is somewhat worse than even Watten spells out: no sane, functional capitalist in the world would interpret a 2.5% ROI as a license to go on a spending spree.

And that last bit brings me, in a roundabout way, to a final consideration. Bush’s recklessness with his political capital is a pretty close parallel to the whole nation’s fiscal recklessness, in both public and private sectors. The recent vote to raise the debt ceiling, the continuing upward spiral of debt-funded U.S. consumer spending that is the only thing currently managing an ongoing crisis of overproduction, the likelihood of a saturation-point being reached in the ability of other nations’ central banks to invest in that increasingly bad debt, and the growing productive capacity of China and other economic regions – all point to the likelihood of a real, honest-to-god financial crisis. It’s important to stress this, I think, because were such a thing to come to pass (and it’s not just my pet lefty economists saying this, by the way), all the marks by which we’re aligning our sense of the political map would shift with extreme rapidity. And with the right in power, this shift is unlikely to come in the form of an opening-up of hitherto unexplored political possibilities. I see it far more as an occasion for something much more closely resembling fascism pure and simple. So by all means, dialogue and collaborate in the present, but keep the options for struggle open.

In those attempts to “communicate,” I think it’s imperative that we work toward something other than a projected return to Clinton-era financial hegemony. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Bush’s militarism is a response to the crisis of Clinton’s financialism: Donald Rumsfeld is the evil twin of Robert Rubin. “If we can’t maintain control of the financial markets, we can position ourselves militarily at a choke point for the productive apparatus – the Persian Gulf oil supply”: I think that’s the unspoken reasoning behind the war, and it doesn’t bode well if a financial collapse does ensue. You don’t encounter a lot of economic empires maintained through sheer military force, but you do see quite a few that managed to wreak a lot of havoc on their way out. Reaction at home and proliferating armed conflict abroad are very real possibilities of this period, and I think it behooves us to know what we could be up against. This is where my sketches of organizational possibilities reach a limit, though, because I haven’t got the faintest idea how to sell a broad cross-section of Americans on the idea that within their lifetimes they’ll probably experience a fairly precipitous fall from “the top of the world,” even though I’m pretty well convinced that being prepared for this eventuality is a central necessity in imagining a democratic politics that has a horizon of more than the next twenty or thirty years.

Yours in struggle,