Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Workers' Paradise To Come

Of course we all know by now that the US is posed to elect its first Marxist president one week from today. Admittedly, the evidence for Obama's Marxism is, uh, peculiar. For example, he buys large slots of prime-time TV. You know, just like Stalin used to. Also, he and his running mate both "shrug off accusations of liberalism." Honest.

(Actually, my favorite bit of this "essay" is the inset photo of Marx, the caption of which informs us that:
German philosopher Karl Marx, author of "The Communist Manifesto," advocated redistributing wealth in order to achieve a classless society. (AP Photo)
I think it's actually the "(AP Photo)" that gets me. Like there's some AP stringer somewhere who caught Marx on camera.)

Nonetheless, there are slightly less fantastical grounds for thinking that an Obama administration would be better for workers than a McCain administration. One of which is Obama's support of card-check legislation.

Right now, if workers want to organize a union at their workplace, they have to go through two steps: 1) a card campaign, in which they get at least a majority of their fellow workers to sign cards indicating that they want a vote on whether to have a union; and 2) a secret-ballot vote, ordered by the labor relations board, which is an up-or-down vote on whether to accept union organization. Card-check legislation would do away with the second step.

Today the Wall Street Journal, that bastion of pro-worker sentiment, farmed out its editorial page to a scribe from the National Right to Work (for Peanuts) Committee, who decries the more-likely-than-ever card-check era by claiming that unions prolonged the last depression, and if we get card-check, by gum, they'll prolong this next one, too! The argument is that the Wagner Act (that great bugbear of all who want the right--the RIGHT, I say!--to work for peanuts) caused the recession of 1937. Whatever. My favorite paragraph:
Given the reality of unions in the workplace, the law meant that efficiency and profitability were compromised, by forcing employers to equally reward their most productive and least productive employees. Therefore subsequent wage increases for some workers led to widespread job losses.
Yeah, and Mussolini made the trains run on time. I like the notion that in modern large-scale industries, the employers know who their most and least productive workers are, and that weeding out the lazy ones is teh key to profitability and efficiency. The boss, he just like Santa Claus! As Edmond Burke observed a long, long time ago ("Thoughts and Details on Scarcity"):
Unquestionably, there is a good deal of difference between the value of one man’s labour and that of another from strength, dexterity, and honest application. But I am quite sure, from my best observation, that any given five men will, in their total, afford a proportion of labour equal to any other five within the periods of life I have stated; that is, that among such five men there will be one possessing all the qualifications of a good workman, one bad, and the other three middling, and approximating to the first, and the last. So that in so small a platoon as that of even five, you will find the full complement of all that five men can earn.
Anyway, it's unsurprising to find that NRO is riding the same hobby-horse today. They do it with a thought experiment: imagine that Joe the plumber is a hard-working, ill-informed, anti-union, friendless schlub; as such, he might get press-ganged into a union without even knowing it! Why, it's fasco-communist! My favorite bit:
The Union leaders are pretty sophisticated at organizing. After all, it's what they do. Pretty quickly they identify both the employees most receptive to unionization as well as those most opposed. Joe falls into the latter group so the Union never even attempts to get him to sign a card. In fact, since most of the pro-union employees work a different shift, Joe's not even aware a union drive is going on. The Union gets 51 employees to sign cards and gets certified by the NLRB as the collective bargaining representative for all employees — including Joe, who had absolutely no say in whether he wanted a union.
Obviously Peter Kirsanow (one of the B-listers, apparently) has never been in a union, or he never would have written those first two sentences. My question for Peter: Did Joe have a say in whether or not he was such an unbelievable ass?

I have no doubt that card-check will change the terrain quite a bit for unions. These changes will not all be in the direction of making unionization easier, either. Tactics on the other side will change to reflect the new regime, and I would guess there will be an increase in militancy on both sides. I for one, will welcome our new soviet overlords!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Neo-Hobbism and Conservative Paranoia

My thinking about the liberal-conservative divide in US political ideology has been immensely clarified by teaching this term. The two major factors: teaching Hobbes and Locke again, and reading Michael Zuckert's Launching Liberalism in preparation for the latter (Zuckert is a sweetheart, and a thoughtful, intelligent fellow, to boot, I happen to know). Anyway, the one-two punch really drove home how well the distinction between Hobbes and Locke maps on to the distinction between conservative and liberal (even though there are also crucial non- and even ounter-correlations).

Right now, conservatism in the US is deeply committed to Hobbes' claim that authority, not truth, makes law. In international relations, conservatism has become the assertion of US global sovereignty and the derisive dismissal of appeals to any international law that would transcend and check rather than emanating from this sovereign. In domestic affairs, conservatives are much more concerned about lawlessness among the common-folk than about lawlessness among the law-enforcers--Dirty Harry, Judge Dredd, and George W. Bush are all conservative icons because they go outside the law in order to uphold the law, stepping in for the sovereign who is so lamentably absent. This goes alll the way back to conservative opposition to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose civil disobedience looked like lawlessness to the Right precisely because King appealed to natural law. Natural law is no law at all ot the Hobbist.

I'm less interested in the liberal side of the comparison for now than in the connection between Hobbist conservatism and the raving-looney act going on on the Right at the moment. Three exemplary posts at National Review Online will suffice for now.

First up, Andy McCarthy defends himself for posting about the Pittsburgh hoax:

Sen. Obama has expressly tied community organizing to "direct action." As he stated in the chapter he contributed in 1988 to a compendium about organizing in the post-Alinsky era, “[G]rass-roots community organizing builds on indigenous leadership and direct action.” (Emphasis added.) Obama's confederates, especially at ACORN, concede (indeed, brag) that "direct action" is sometimes violent lawlessness. One of his ACORN partners and most ardent admirers, Madeleine Talbott, led an attempt to storm the Chicago City Council in 1997. Some Obama supporters, like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, have actually been terrorists who tried to kill people. All that aside, there have been various reports of harrassment against McCain supporters (just as there have also been reports of harrassment against Obama supporters).

Taking all this into account, I don't apologize for thinking it was possible that an Obama supporter could conceivably have attacked the woman who made the false report. I also don't apologize for believing that a "direct action" culture is likely to lead to violent attacks, regardless of whether this particular attack happened. I'm glad it didn't happen and I hope the woman is prosecuted for obstruction of justice. I wish I had waited a few hours longer to do a post on the allegation, for then there would have been no post. But my brain is not ruled by political correctness, and if you are saying that you instantly concluded the story could not possibly have been anything but a hoax, it's you who are kidding yourself.

The real danger to law-and-order is grassroots "direct action," which short-circuits the only possible line of transmission for law itself, from sovereign to subjects.

There is more grist for this mill in my second example, wherein Stanley Kurtz defends himself against Obama's "Fight the Smears" website, which calls him (accurately enough) a "Right-wing hatchet man and conspiracy theorist." Hitting the same nail with his head, Kurtz rails:
Obama has been mightily helped during this campaign by his calm and apparently reasonable demeanor in debate. It’s tough to believe a man this cool could be a supporter or practitioner of Saul Alinsky’s militant intimidation tactics. Yet Alinskyite "direct action" is alive and well at Obama’s "Fight the Smears" website. This site still seems committed to the proposition that I should be barred from radio, television, and media generally–or at the very least barred without direct supervision from an Obama campaign representative. The thugocracy lives at "Fight the Smears."
Same scare-quotes around "direct action," same fear that grassroots organizing amounts to an extra-legal power-grab, that Obama is one step removed from Robert Mugabe.

Final example: Mark Levin's stemwider about the "Obama temptation," being the temptation we all (except Mark and his stalwart band at NRO, that is) feel to give in to this "charismatic demagogue." In what is sure to be a classic, looked back upon for years to come, Levin claims, among other things, that:
There is a cult-like atmosphere around Barack Obama, which his campaign has carefully and successfully fabricated, which concerns me. The messiah complex. Fainting audience members at rallies. [...] Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama's name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world. I dare say, this is ominous stuff.
Obama's entire campaign is built on class warfare and human envy. [...] Obama's appeal to the middle class is an appeal to the "the proletariat," as an infamous philosopher once described it, about which a mythology has been created.
If the individual dares to succeed beyond the limits set by Obama, he is punished for he's now officially "rich." The value of his physical and intellectual labor must be confiscated in greater amounts for the good of the proletariat (the middle class). And so it is that the middle class, the birth-child of capitalism, is both celebrated and enslaved — for its own good and the greater good.
and, finally,
Unlike past Democrat presidential candidates, Obama is a hardened ideologue. He's not interested in playing around the edges. He seeks "fundamental change," i.e., to remake society.
Much of this is, of course, hilariously deranged. But there is a method to the madness. Obama doesn't seem to the Right to be someone who would leave the current configuration of sovereignty intact. The bizzaro-world claims about his Marxism are simply the displacement of this sense into the most deeply seated ideological place-holders available to the conservative soul. As a real threat to the this sovereignty, Obama really does seem revolutionary through the Hobbist lenses of the right.

In an important sense, the conservatives are right. Conservatives could dismiss all the appeals to international law and multilateralism during and after the Cold War as so much misleading but generally harmless blather: everyone knew that the US was in charge of the Western sphere, and the friend/enemy distinction was crystal clear.

Now, not so much. The Bush years really have produced a crisis in American sovereignty, and the economic crisis just adds insult to injury. In this situation Obama really looks to an American Hobbist like a usurper who will topple the very authority from which law flows.

Another Brush With Infamy

Ashley Todd's encounter with the dark phantom menace in her own mind was supposed to have occurred at my old ATM in Pittsburgh. Why, I was just there last Friday closing an old account. The Citizens Bank stands at the corner of Pearl and Liberty, in the heart of Bloomfield, Pittsburgh's Little Italy. just across Pearl Street is my favorite Thai restaurant in the 'burgh, the not so imaginatively named Thai Cuisine. Yummy curries. Cross Liberty on Pearl, go four blocks, and the powder blue house on the left (the one with the yellow door) is where I lived a few years back.

Anyway, anyone with even a passing knowledge of that ATM and that neighborhood must have known right away that Ms. Todd's strange encounter with a militant, knife-wielding Obama supporter was almost certain fiction (not to mention bad fiction). At 9 pm on a Wednesday night in mid-October, she's supposed to be attacked by a large black man wearing only a black undershirt, on a busy street, in front of a bank that literaly bristles with security cameras (check out Google streetview if you don't believe me). Uh-huh.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Politics is NOT war by other means

I have been struck repeatedly of late by the fact that the right-wing in the US is incapable of telling the difference between war and politics. Their attempts to drum up a controversy around Obama's connections with Bill Ayers demonstrate this. The failure of those attempts demonstrates that the populace at large is not so intent on conflating the two.

According to the right, the failure of Obama to denounce Ayers is proof that Obama is at least unprincipled, if not a terrorist-sympathizing crypto-Maoist. The same goes for Obama's willingness to hold talks with Iran. The implicit premise is that one ought to denounce and refuse to interact with anyone with whom one has fundamental disagreements. But if politics is to be something separate from warfare--and absolute warfare, even--then there must be space to talk to and work with one's "enemies." And to criticize one's friends and loved ones--and this indicates that the persistent right-wing claim that Obama "threw his grandma under the bus" in his speech about race is just the flip side of their conflation of war and politics.

It's nothing novel to say that the right-wing is obsessed with purity and bothered by complexity, so I guess I'm saying nothing novel. Still, it's interesting to see them come completely unhinged over Obama's most prominent trait: his political skill. Politics has become a dirty word on the right, a developmen that doesn't bode well for their immediate future success in electoral contests in the US.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

More on Locke, that sneaky SOB

Ah, Locke on property!

McGill was once the home of James Tully, eminent scholar of Locke. As much as I hate to criticize one with whom, but for the arrow of time, I would have been a colleague, I have profound reservations about his A Discourse on Property. Some of these stem from my general apathy towards Skinner-esque historical work. And some stem from my partisan desire to defend C. B. Macpherson (Another Canadian! Canada rules!!!), who comes in for some rough treatment, some of which is probably fair enough, but some of which is certainly way off base (I'm happy to share, if anyone's curious).

Setting aside these two issues, however, I am mostly annpoyed by the lengths and depths of Tully's credulousness. He gets so caught up in Locke's "obvious" distaste for money, for instance, that he actually seems to be convinced that Locke was some sort of Rousseauian romantic, longing for the good old days before money corrupted us all.

But the case I really want to talk about is this: Tully denies that Locke is a defender of private property, arguing that, in fact, Locke is arguing for a system of private use rights within common claim rights (mumbo jumbo for: Locke is SO NOT a tool of incipient capitailism, man!).

Why is this a sign of credulousness, you ask?

Because in order to make this argument, Tully has to take at face value all that stuff Locke says about 1) the earth being given to us by God for our common ejoyment, and 2) this end of enjoyment also limiting our natural right to property--we can't let anything spoil, and we have to leave as much and as good for others.

Not to get all Straussian, but Locke obviously thinks this is a bunch of bunkum, deployed only to sucker the rubes into thinking he's way more conservative than he is. Well, I'm not suckered.

First of all, the claim that the earth is meant for our use means only that nothing non-human has any rights. There is no teleology immanent in nature such that it is fitted for our use. That is why labor makes property; it distinguishes the thing upon which it expended from the commons by giving it a purpose it did not have by nature. Locke says this pretty explicitly (Sec.28).

Second, the natural limits of property are no limits at all, on Locke's own terms. Since nature is of no use to us withou labor, there is no objective grouds for determining spoilage: one man's spoilage is another man's scienc project, or art project, or whatever. Moreover, for the same reason, the person who apprpriates nature always necessarily leaves as much and as good for others. Without being apprpriated, nature is no good whatsoever. Therefore, Locke says that "he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind," averring only that he has here drastically underestimated the productivity of labor (Sec. 37).

It's merely the icing on the cake that money comes along and, by our tacit consent, overthows all barriers to prperty accumulation and inequality. They were barriers with no real existence to begin with.

Therefore, I say unto James Tully, "You've been had, sir; taken in and swindled."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Locke on the Duty to Resist and Legitimate Slavery

One of my favorite things about teaching is the discovery of new insights and connections that takes place, unbidden, when I'm standing up in front of the class, responding to questions and quizzical looks. In precisely this way, I think that I had my first real thought of the new term today.

I'm teaching Locke's Second Treatise, and wrestling with the sheer, unadulterated normativity of it. Warren Montag has claimed that Locke vacillates between a juridical and a physical concept of power throughout the Treatises, and that may be, but what impressed me immediately was the consistently juridical usage in the opening chapters of the Second Treatise. That is, whenever Locke uses "power" in these pages, what he means is "jurisdiction." Power is always shot through with right, such that humans in the state of nature have the power to do only what they also have the right to do (see, for example, Sec. 8, where "one man comes by a power over another" when that other violates the law of nature).

The difficulty, for me, came in understanding the various things Locke says about slavery in light of this normative concept of power.

On the one hand, Locke defines "the perfect state of slavery" as "the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive." The conqueror is lawful because the captive violated the law of nature, and the conqueror is acting according to his or her natural right to execute that law, seizing by force the body of that "degenerate" and "noxious" "beast of prey" who has "forfeited his own life." Here is slavery that accords with right.

On the other hand, the people of England saved themselves from "the very brink of slavery" by consenting to William of Orange's conquest, and the very criminal who initiates war in the state of nature does so by attempting "to get another man into his absolute power," i.e., to "make him a slave." Here is--threatened--slavery that is a breach of right.

The thought that occurred to me in class is that submitting to slavery is itself a breach of natural right, and therefore justifies--slavery. In other words, the only slavery that is wrong, according to Locke's theory, is slavery that threatens but never arrives, or slavery that has been thrown off through resistance. Actual slavery, by the slave's submission to it, is completely compatible with natural right. In Hegel's terms, the one who chooses life over freedom loses the right to both, debasing his or her humanity. That the slave submits to another who also breaks the law of nature doesn't matter.

In other words, I think that Locke advocates not merely a right of resistance but a duty of resistance. The flip side of this duty to resist, however, is a justification of all actually existing slavery. The real is rational, and the rational is real.

PS: This was meant to be an hypothesis, offered by one who is certainly far short of an expert in Locke. I'd be curious to hear from people who really know their way around Locke as to the merits and deficiencies of my argument. Especially that bit about how it doesn't matter whether the master is just as much in violation of the law of nature.

UPDATE: Edited slightly.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Things I didn't know (part of an infinite series)

Should I sustain an injury from an act of war or terrorism while traveling abroad on academic business, my medical care and repatriation are insured by AIG, now a partially owned subsidiary of the US Government.