Saturday, March 29, 2008

Popular Justice


I taught Foucault's discussion of popular justice this last week, and then two things popped up on the radar screen to remind me of the continued relevance of this discourse.
  1. The Wall Street Journal (via here and here) had a story about corporate health plans' efforts to recoup payouts by claiming any damages won in injury suits. The particulars of the article involve a woman severely injured in a wreck with a semi. She will require life-long medical care, which her family hoped to pay for with the $400,000 injury settlement. But her employer--Wal-Mart--claimed the entire settlement as recompense for the $470,000 that their health-plan had already paid out for her care. Now the woman is reliant upon Medicare and Social Security checks for all her care.
  2. Another WSJ article (via here) is the latest account of retaliatory vandalism by home-owners going through foreclosures--they lose the house, and, before vacating, trash the place.
The latter story highlights a spontaneous and unorganized sort of popular justice. (Ironically, it seems to be conservative and business oriented media (like, say, the WSJ) that pays attention to these phenomena, publicizes them, and thereby acts as a vector for the transmission of the meme.) The former story lacks any act of popular justice, but seems to cry out for one. It seems to be precisely the sort of situation--large corporate actor decimates one worker's life in the name of its "fiduciary duty to the plan and the entire group of employees that are covered by it"--that, in 1970s France, or 1920s America, would have led to a Wal-Mart getting burned down.

The "economization" of justice, however, seems to militate against any action in the latter case, and shapes commentators' responses to the first case. After linking to the WSJ story, Megan McArdle--a self-professed libertarian--writes:
I don't get it. It's hardly the bank's fault that you can't make your mortgage payment. I mean, I understand the rage at fate that has pushed you out of your home and left your credit record in shreds--yea, even if you had a hand in that fate yourself. But I don't get pointless destruction.
Her commenters take the cue and run wit it:
Most people are quite reluctant to admit personal fault in these matters. It's so much easier to blame an external entity and then unleash rage as deemed appropriate.

A nation of victims means no one is responsible--except for the "evil" bank.

You probably also don't get buying houses you can't afford. People who do this are not overly endowed in the "dispassionate decision-mkaing" department.

I wonder about the "trashing people's lives." Isn't it more like corporations fail to enable the self-trashing of people's lives by insisting on responsibility and consequences? Hmmmm...sounds like a decent parent to me.

These people trash their former abodes for the exact same reason most of them are in the mess they're in: poor impulse control, arising from emotional immaturity.

I'm sorry, but it's not at all understandable. It's childish and, indeed, criminal. It's not the bank's fault that they're incapable of acting as adults either in financial or, as we have found out, behavioral, matters.

It's the bank's fault that the bank presumed it was dealing with adults who could make decisions for themselves, and didn't belong in an institution for the feeble-minded where decisions were made for them.

I am truly amazed at the number of individuals who think that because banks and mortgage companies acted greedily (that's the business they're in), it gives homeowners with poor judgment the right to default on loans that many of them are capable of making (California's jingle mail) or to even trash a home that will soon not be their property.

It is simple immaturity and lack of respect for the property of others. It is no different from puncturing someone's tires, or vandalizing a neighbor's property because of some dispute.

So, on the one hand, you have the business entity (bank, insurance company, Wal-Mart), which is greedy but rational. It behaves like an adult, honors its fiduciary responsibilities, and expects that everyone else will do so as well. On the other hand, you have the short-sighted, irresponsible, and immature individual (employee, borrower, renter), who lacks respect for others, is childish and incapable of controlling her/his impulses, and thinks of her/himself as a victim all the time.

Monetarized power is not power, on this analysis. Monetarized desire is not desire (i.e., it cannot be a childish impulse). Only those who are reduced to using their bodies as the only means available are guilty of victim-think. Legal power and monetary power are identical.

Fascinating stuff.

UPDATE: A smart analysis of the McArdle post can be found here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Foucault Must Be Tamed

Teaching radical political theory this term has re-sensitized me to the flatness of most academic and pseudo-academic chatter. By "flat" I don't mean "square"--I'm a giant nerd, and get unreasonably excited about what I take to be serious work on boring, dusty, old things. But I just watched the excerpts from the Foucault/Chomsky debate that are appended to Manufacturing Consent, and was blown away--with an intensity that reading Foucault just doesn't deliver--by the radicality of Foucault's stance.

Chomsky wants to justify every political act by reference to the authorizations of international law, and Foucault basically says to him: Why in god's name would you want to turn yourself into the police like that? Foucault is unstinting in his assertion of a Spinozan-Marxist power politics. He has no use for discourses of legitimation or legality, or for any other effort to take refuge in a clean conscience.

At first I was struck by the otherworldly quality of this debate, conducted in these terms. That two of the most famous intellectuals of the day could have a televised debate about how to conduct the revolution seems almost unthinkable only 36 years later. But then this sense of wonder was overtaken by a profound disappointment at the way in which Foucault's name is bandied about today, at least in my experience.

First, almost no one acknowledges his deep and abiding Marxism. I would almost go so far as to say that Foucault exists in Marxism like a fish in water. The terms and debates of revolutionary thought are the signposts and landmarks of his thought.

Second--and this follows from this forgetting--he is treated either as a nonsensical post-modernist or as a precocious and wayward child who, in the end, returned to the fold of classical liberalism (he's talking about the Greeks and the Stoics at the end of his life, so he must have been domesticated).

Finally--and for this I wish The Passions of Michel Foucault had never been published--he's treated as a circus freak and cautionary tale. "Flirt with nihilism and totalitarianism, kiddies, and you'll die of AIDS!" I can't tell you how many times I have heard it asserted as a simple fact of the matter that Foucault ran around the bath-houses knowingly infecting people with HIV. This sort of trash is even in print.

Anyway, I am obviously just ranting now, but I do want to come back to my opening. By "flat" I didn't mean "square," said I. Rather, I mean "like three-day old Mountain Dew"--sweet, syrupy, and utterly lacking effervescence. Moralizing, hectoring, and sanctimonious, perhaps.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Economists are Economists, Liberal or Conservative

Paul Krugman:
The fact is that Malthus was right about the whole of human history up until his own era.

Sumerian peasants in the 30th century BC lived on the edge of subsistence; so did French peasants in the 18th century AD. Throughout history population growth had always managed to cancel out any sustained gains in the standard of living, just as Malthus said.

It was only with the industrial revolution that we finally escaped from the trap (if we did — for all we know, 35th-century historians will view the period 1800-2020 or so as a temporary aberration).

Was Malthus just unlucky? No. The same forces that made the industrial revolution possible — above all, the spirit of inquiry and rationality — also led to the birth of analytical economics. There probably couldn’t have been a Malthus until the world was on the verge of becoming non-Malthusian.

Ah that great force, the spirit of inquiry and rationality! Where did this spirit come from? Was it a special dispensation? Did it have a body, or did it wander the globe, haunting dark corners and abandoned buildings? What were its causal powers?

This blog got its start because I was supremely annoyed at an economist for "explaining" the end of the Malthusian trap by means of some absurd forays into socio-biology. Now another economist--a darling of the liberal blogosphere, rather than a crypto-racist--"explains" the end of the Malthusian trap by means of a conjuring trick. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; the great circle is closed, Hallelujah!

Iraqis on Iraq

There is an embedded video in this Greenwald post that I think is essential viewing. I have no idea how to embed it over here, so the link is it.

There has been very little US media exposure (at least of which I am aware) for Iraqis' thoughts about our ongoing invasion and occupation of their country. Charlie Rose has two Iraqis living in America on his show, and for 16 minutes, they discuss the history and ramifications of our intervention. There is no way to know how representative are the views expressed, but I don't think that matters much. They are revelatory.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

“My life has been flushed down the drain”

So says one Bears Stearns executive. (via Eschaton)

To which I say: what a sad life. I recognize that losing millions of dollars must really suck. After all:
There was talk Monday that with their life savings nearly depleted, some executives had moved quickly, putting their weekend homes on the market.
Nonetheless, any life that can be flushed down the drain by the loss of any quantity of money is a sad life.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Lamb-like Innocence of the State

According to the geniuses at Time magazine (via Glenn Greenwald):
In all the examples of diminished civil liberties, there are few, if any, where the motivating factor was something other than law and order or national security.
Well, duh!

Greenwald wants to dispute this characterization by asking for empirical evidence of the motives of those seeking to expand the surveillance state. I don't think any such evidence is necessary, or even relevant. The problem is not that the state has expanded its police powers for some nefarious purpose. The empirical consciousness of those pushing these changes is meaningless. Nonetheless, I think the real intention--i.e., the objective tendency, rather than the conscious aim--of these expansions of police power is precisely the law and order or national security Time cites. Law and order or national security are the only motives for police action ever. That's precisely the trouble with the police.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Brain Dead

No, not me.

David Mamet has a piece in the Village Voice detailing his transformation from a self-described liberal to a self-described conservative. I take this as definitive proof of the limits of introspection.

He claims his conversion is an outcome of thinking about politics in the context of his new play, November. A plot synopsis, supplied by Mamet himself:
The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.
Great! Oleanna in the Oval Office.

Mamet has been always a reactionary, and will be always a reactionary. I only wish his confession would have taken the form of his imagined perfect theatrical review:
"I never understood the theater until last night. Please forgive everything I've ever written. When you read this I'll be dead."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Are Conservatives Unteachable?

Jacob Levy, following Tyler Cowen:
Why is it easier to find enduring reactionary texts than enduring texts that state the basic position of conservatives in liberal democracies? That's the puzzle.
I think Jacob has answered his own question, actually. Fundamentally, conservatives (in the relevant Burke-to-Buckley-to-Sullivan sense) are liberals (in the classical sense) who worry about cultural decay. That is, they agree with liberals that subjective freedom is the end of the political community, but think that market freedom needs a basis in certain cultural institutions in order to be stable and lasting. Those institutions are always being whittled away by the drip-drip-drip of market freedoms, so conservatives self-avowedly find themselves repeatedly "standing athwart history yelling Stop!" The trouble is, as Jacob says, "history keeps right on going." The drip-drip-drip keeps eroding the cultural institutions, and conservatives have to take some new stand.

To be a teachable classic, a work has to touch something enduring, and conservative texts tend to be caught up in the present crisis. Marxism, too, has produced many such momentary texts, but Marxism also has a theoretical framework that is very different from liberalism's, and so even many of these "conjunctural" texts evince an underlying structure that can sustain analysis independent of the historical minutiae.

I'm just not sure conservatism has such an independent theoretical armature.

The first thought-buds of spring

Back from spring break, and feeling pretty lethargic. One of my students is running for student government on the slogan: "The End of Apathy." Another student remarked: "I'd be apathetic, if I weren't so lethargic."

I had two thoughts over break:

When I read and taught Rousseau's Emile years back, I was quite enamored of his proposal that the child should be raised so as never to encounter the limit of another will, but only the limits of nature. It appealed to a certain romantic egalitarian streak of mine, for it held out the promise of the child learning everything from the things themselves, seemingly independent and self-assured.

But hanging out with my four-year-old nephew over break, it occurred to me in a flash: That's a terrible idea! Other wills are just the desires and needs of other people, and I want my nephew to encounter, recognize, and learn to negotiate those desires and needs just as much as I want him to encounter and learn to negotiate the hills and forests around his home. Desires and needs are no less a part of nature than gravity is.

This was yet another minor epiphany in a slow moving and insensibly growing awareness that I dislike the concept of "the will" wherever I find it.

Second thought: finance capitalists like Marx. Or, at least, many are intrigued by Marx. Over break, I had to promise a gregarious and blustery old finance capitalist that the next time I was in Marin, I would sit down and talk with him about Marx. His first question to me was: "What was Marx like, as a person?" He was happy to hear that Marx was also gregarious and blustery.