Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What does honesty mean?

In their story about the Hallmark Packing Plant in California, the Washington Post quotes the incredulity of management:

In an interview, Mendell expressed disbelief that employees used stun guns to get sick or injured animals on their feet for inspection.

"That's impossible," he said, adding that "electrical prods are not allowed on the property."

Asked whether his employees use fork lifts to get moribund animals off the ground, he said: "I can't imagine that."

Asked whether water was sprayed up animals' noses to get them to stand up, he said: "That's absolutely not true."

"We have a massive humane treatment program here that we follow to the nth degree, so this doesn't even sound possible," Mendell said. "I don't stand out there all day, but to me it would be next to impossible."

Now it goes without saying that this schlump is lying repeatedly and obviously. To be confronted with video evidence and then to say that what the video shows is impossible takes gumption (or desperation).

Still, what bothers me about the coverage of this admittedly disgusting episode is the way in which two factors are consistently left out of the frame:
  1. The media scrutiny is focused on the employees--those shown in the video and managers like Mr. Mendell. Now, I have no great love for managers, but they are, ultimately, just mediators. They are paid to do what is necessary to please the people with the capital. How would the stockholders respond to the video? Why was it shown to the manager, but not to the owners? Aren't the owners responsible for what happens on their property and at their behest? (This is not to excuse the fork-lift operators, the line bosses, or Mr. Mendell, but shouldn't the accounting be a bit wider, and trace things back to the first cause?)
  2. Also, there is this ridiculous statement included in the story, made by the president of the Humane Society: "To sneak downers past inspectors, Pacelle said, is 'penny-wise and pound-foolish.'" As rhetoric aimed at the owners of meat-packing operations, that's all well and good, I suppose, but the problem here is not one of fiscal irresponsibility!! The future that is destroyed by the factory-farm system is not reducible to future returns on our investments.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Kolakowski is NOT a legitimate source on Marxism

John Derbyshire at NRO, wondering about Obama's intellectual curiosity, displays his own lack of same:
Modern American conservatism is a huge and various body of thought, with many mansions. Has Obama explored it? I'll lend him my Nash if he wants to make a start. Heck, I have read Kolakowski all the way through, all three volumes; has Obama read Hayek? Buckley? Kirk?
Kolakowski was an ideological anti-Marxist, and Main Currents is a faux-intellectual hatchet-job. An anti-Marxist who reads Kolakowski will find all of their prejudices bolstered, and that's about it. One might as well say: "Heck, I've read Liberal Fascism all the way through; has Obama read Hayek? Buckley? Kirk?"

UPDATE: And, just to be clear, this is not a problem because silly people at National Review read Kolakowski. I'd expect no less from them.

The number of supposed scholars who cite Kolakowski as some sort of authority is what bugs me. I just finished reading a supposedly serious, academic article about the Marxist theory of revolution that based its interpretation of Marx on Kolakowski, and claimed that Althusser's thesis about the break between early and late Marx was refuted by Main Currents.

This is just dishonest; one of the fundamental and unquestioned premises of Kolakowski's whole approach is that there is an essential Marxism underlying everything in the Marxist tradition, and that the main currents of Marxism are all corrupted indifferently by this essential character. This thesis is not demonstrated, but presupposed. To say that such a presupposition "refutes" anything is to mistake a catechism for an argument.

Kolakowski doesn't read the texts of the Marxist tradition; he uses them as screens onto which he projects his catechism. There is nothing honest about Main Currents except the author's open avowal of his antipathy to Marxism.

UPDATE 2: Here is a useful rundown of Kolakowski's modus operandi:
Kolakowski, we are assured, has first-hand experience of the consequences of Marx's malign doctrine, and is thus in a better position than privileged and protected Western intellectuals to appreciate the flaws in that doctrine. Kolakowski's exposure to 'actually existing socialism' did influence his understanding of Marxism, but not in the way that Judt imagines. Despite his political changes of heart, Kolakowski has never shaken off the habits of thought he learned from doctrinaire Stalinists in the frosty first decade of the Cold War. In his early twenties Kolakowski made a name for himself as the Communist Party's most energetic critic of Catholicism, that traditional enemy of the Polish left.

The young Kolakowski's criticisms of the Catholic tradition betray the classical intellectual method of Stalinism. In essay after essay, Kolakowski essentialises a complex body of ideas, reducing it to a few crude formulations, links these formulations to discredited political positions, and gives the ideas a teleological quality, in an effort to undercut any future attempt to revise or otherwise rehabilitate them. Under the guise of intellectual history, the young Stalinist pursues the crudest political polemic.

The same procedure can be observed in My Correct Views on Everything and Main Currents of Marxism. Marx wrote millions of words in an extraordinary range of genres, from political journalism to poetry to history to 'pure' economics. This immense oeuvre is filled with change and contradiction. It is the record of a political and intellectual quest, not a set of commandments. Yet Kolakowski is able to reduce Marx's life's work to a few hackneyed formulations:

The idea that the whole theory of communism may be summed up by the single phrase 'abolition of private property' was not invented by Stalin...The point is that Marx really did consistently believe that human society would not be 'liberated' without achieving unity. And there is no known technique apart from despotism whereby the unity of society can be achieved...

A good example of the poverty of Kolakowski's method is his treatment of Marx's view of the likelihood and likely location of a future socialist revolution. Referencing a handful of texts, Kolakowski claims that Marx believed that socialist revolution would break out in the 'advanced' countries of the West, and that it was well-nigh inevitable. Marx's careful reassessment of the prospects for socialist revolution in the West after the destruction of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the growing interest he showed in Russia and other 'undeveloped' societies in the last decade of his life are ignored by Kolakowski, lest they disturb his smug attribution of failure to Marx's 'prophecies', and his claim that the Bolshevik revolution could never have been forseen by the author of Capital. (Kolakowski's claim that Marx could never have anticipated the October revolution looks rather uncomfortable beside his attempt to make Marx responsible for the degeneration of that revolution and the depredations of Stalin.)

Worse than Kolakowski's misuse of Marx's ouevre is his misunderstanding of Marx's method. Kolakowski treats Marx as a curious cross between a second-rate bourgeois social scientist and a wild-eyed prophet. Marx's use of the dialectic is treated either as a rhetorical affectation or as evidence of an appetitie for feverish pseudo-Hegelian speculation about 'destiny'. Determined to ridicule his subject as a dogmatic false prophet, Kolakowski is incapable of appreciating the way that the dialectical method informed all of Marx's thinking, making his concepts nuanced and contextual and open to continual refinement. Marx had no time for the static categories of bourgeois economics, just as he had no time for the dogmatism inherent in all prophecy. All of Marx's concepts, even concepts as fundamental as 'proletariat' or 'capital', were dialectical abstractions, slices of an infinitely complex and continually changing reality. Kolakowski, though, insists on freezing the concepts of Marx and his followers, and treating them like the definitions of a dour analytic philosopher or number-crunching sociologist.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What comes after farce?

Kagro X, via Greenwald:
In rejecting the Feinstein "exclusivity" amendment to the FISA revision considered on the Senate floor today -- an amendment that failed by a vote of 57 Ayes to 41 Noes, thanks to another "painless filibuster" of precisely the type we were promised would not be tolerated on this bill -- the Senate has voted to say that although they were passing a law governing surveillance, it was OK if the President decided that he really didn't like the law very much and wished to make up his own instead.

Exclusivity -- the purpose of the amendment that "failed" -- meant simply this: that the law they were passing was the law, and it was the governing authority for how surveillance could be conducted in America.

The Senate just rejected it, so that means that they're passing a law, but if a president decides later on that he thinks there's really some other controlling authority besides the law, that's OK.
The Party of Order proved by its decision on revision that it knew neither how to rule nor how to serve; neither how to live nor how to die; neither how to suffer the republic nor how to overthrow it; neither how to uphold the constitution nor how to throw it overboard; neither how to cooperate with the President nor how to break with him. To whom, then, did it look for the solution of all the contradictions? To the calendar, to the course of events. It ceased to presume to sway them. It therefore challenged events to assume sway over it, and thereby challenged the power to which, in the struggle against the people, it had surrendered one attribute after another until it stood impotent before this power. In order that the head of the executive power might be able the more undisturbedly to draw up his plan of campaign against it, strengthen his means of attack, select his tools, and fortify his positions, it resolved precisely at this critical moment to retire from the stage...
Seriously, when the legislative body of a nation is insufficiently bold to declare that its laws are, indeed, the laws, and that, therefore, anyone who contravenes those laws is, indeed, breaking the law, then what's the point?

Owning a TV doesn't mean you're not poor

This is a good bit of ideology critique from Pandagon. The notion that consumption is a good indicator of economic well-being is, of course, quite old. That it has been repeated a thousand times since Hume doesn't make it a good argument.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Now, the revolution developed the executive power...

From TPM:

Attorney General Michael Mukasey is back on the Hill today, testifying to the House Judiciary Committee. Paul Kiel is covering it at TPMmuckraker.

So far, he's dropped two big bombshells. DOJ will not be investigating:

(1) whether the waterboarding, now admitted to by the White House, was a crime; or

(2) whether the Administration's warrantless wiretapping was illegal.

His rationale? Both programs had been signed off on in advance as legal by the Justice Department.

Cynics may argue that those aren't bombshells at all, that the Bush Administration would never investigate itself in these matters. Perhaps so. But this is a case where cynicism is itself dangerous.

We have now the Attorney General of the United States telling Congress that it's not against the law for the President to violate the law if his own Department of Justice says it's not.

It is as brazen a defense of the unitary executive as anything put forward by the Administration in the last seven years, and it comes from an attorney general who was supposed to be not just a more professional, but a more moderate, version of Alberto Gonzales (Thanks to Democrats like Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer for caving on the Mukasey nomination.).

President Bush has now laid down his most aggressive challenge to the very constitutional authority of Congress. It is a naked assertion of executive power. The founders would have called it tyrannical. His cards are now all on the table. This is no bluff.

I saw Susan Buck-Morss give a paper in 2002 entitled "The Eighteenth Brumaire of George W. Bush." 2002. The joke was already obvious then. What comes after obvious?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Marx's Futures Market

Jim Devine analyzes Brad deLong's musings on Marx here. I wold like to say a thing or two about this, but class prep comes first. Maybe this evening...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Fun Lenin Quotes

From State and Revolution (I.4):
We are in favor of a democratic republic as the best form of state for the proletariat under capitalism. But we have no right to forget that wage slavery is the lot of the people even in the most democratic bourgeois republic.
Whatever you have to say about the man, that's a good line.

On the other hand, selling the dictatorship of the proletariat as "the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!" (same, V.4) ... eh, not so much...

Friday, February 1, 2008

Creeping Corporatism Watch

Some dimwit spokesperson for the "Third Way":
"We thought it would be a bad idea to allow these companies to be held legally liable for cooperating with the government ... you want to encourage the cooperation of not just the telecom industry, but all other industries in the future."
Great. Heaven forbid that companies might fail to cooperate with illegal directives from the government!

It's the dawning of the Second Empire in America...

(...and it's funny to see a nice Leninist argument being made on Daily Kos: There is no third way!)