Tags: capitalism*

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  1. nailing the evil ways of oligarchs hardly demolishes left-wing arguments in favor of an unconditional, universal basic income which, so far, is the only policy being mooted as a way of universally guaranteeing the most basic right of all: the right to material existence. Moreover, basic income, while not a universal panacea, is one way of strengthening vulnerable members of society in their struggle against the oligarchs.

    Then again, the respected Marxist economist Michael Roberts has a different take in his recent blog (which we’ll cite at length to cover all the points):

    But what to do, as jobs are lost to robots? Some liberal economists talk of a ‘robot tax’. But all this would do is slow down automation – hardly a progressive move in reducing toil. The idea of universal basic income (UBI) continues to gain traction among economists, both leftist and mainstream. I have discussed the merits and demerits of UBI before. UBI is advocated by many neoliberal economic strategists as a way of replacing the ‘welfare state’ of free health, education and decent pensions with a basic income. And it is being proposed to keep wages down for those in work. Any decent level of basic income would be just too costly for capitalism to afford. And even if UBI were won by workers in struggle, it would still not solve the issue of who owns the robots and the means of production in general.

    A more exciting alternative, in my view, is the idea of Universal Basic Services i.e. what are called public goods and services, free at the point of use. A super-abundant society is by definition one where our needs are met without toil and exploitation ie a socialist society. But the transition to such a society can start with devoting socially necessary labour to the production of basic social needs like education, health, housing, transport and basic foodstuffs and equipment.

    Roberts’ text provides a good starting point for getting to the nitty-gritty of some key aspects of the debate about basic income.

    1) A basic income can be financed in several different ways. The difference between left- and right-wing proposals is easily ascertained by asking who gains and who loses. A left-wing proposal would entail progressive tax reform which brings about a major redistribution from the richest citizens to the rest of society. Hence, in a financing proposal resulting from an extensive study which is detailed in the final chapter of our book Against Charity, we specify that, with our version of basic income, the richest 20% would lose and the other 80% would gain. This would mean a redistribution of income which, in Gini Index terms, would become one of the most egalitarian in the world (about 0.25).

    2) Any basic income that contemplates dismantling the welfare state is a right-wing ploy. The fact that Milton Friedman—who, in fact, rather than basic income, favored a negative income tax (NIT) which is similar to basic income in some ways but also significantly different in others—and other more recent right-wing economists are ostensibly basic income supporters has led some left-wing critics to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Friedman wanted the NIT as a sop when he was aiming to dismantle public social services in the United States but it’s pretty reductionist to conclude from this that all basic income supporters want to do away with welfare. Far from it,

    Poverty is viewed as a personal aberration. The norm is having a job and earning a respectable living, which flies in the face of today’s reality that having a job is no guarantee against poverty, as the burgeoning numbers of working poor testify.
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  2. “If everyone was to behave like us then the world would be a better place — we would be able to get rid of guilt, inequality, competition, greed and anger.”“If we all ate less and were less materialistic the world would be a better place.” “Only by changing ourselves can we change the world, by our living example.”

    This is the one foundational belief system of every intentional community that all members can agree on. This was also the justification that the hippies used for practically everything. The theory goes like this: Instead of acting in the world, all you have to do is become a peaceful, non-violent person — a model human, and others will follow your model. This is how you change the world, by focusing entirely upon yourself.

    The results of this experiment are, generations later, clear — changing yourself became a vast industry of self-help books and courses, dietary, fitness and personal “spiritual” planning regimes — a form of obsessive self-focusing and self-policing, which, it turns out, corporations are very happy to encourage.

    The Final Test of the Blank Slate: Children

    There is one other final and hard-to-face factor that is an unintended consequences of Utopian alternative parenting experiments. There is a reason that the average life of a Utopian project is the time to takes to settle and begin to raise children.

    Children are the authoritative test of the theory that humans are born a blank slate and that all behavior is conditioned “by society” — of Rousseau’s potent idea that man is “born free but is everywhere in chains.” Children of Utopians should behave very differently than “old world” children, because they have been brought as blank slates into an egalitarian environment, and have been raised with positivist behavioral conditioning.

    But the children of Utopians fail every test: they are selfish, they grab and steal, they fight, and love competitive sports, they bully and they lie — just like all other children. Lying, it turns out, is a necessary developmental stage in learning. These naturally dishonest, violent creatures disprove the theory of human mind as a blank slate upon which images of perfection can be drawn.

    As the behaviorist J. B. Skinner (creator of Walden Two) realized, you can’t pass what you’ve learned on through your DNA so any achievements in equality achieved have to be repeated from scratch. Utopian behavioral engineering is an ongoing struggle against something that Utopians deny even exists — human nature. Not only are Utopian parents horrified by the little dictators that they have spawned, they find that they themselves have horrible anti-Utopian cravings to put their children above all the others. The maternal bond and the need for privacy also seem to be pan-cultural. Children brought up communally suffer neglect, as other adults find ways of refusing to care for children that are not their own. The lack of childcare and of constancy in who is “mother and father” leads to kids not being taken care of at all, falling between the cracks, leading to abuse and damaged children. People care a lot more for their own kids than they do for other kids as an obligation. One frequently hears Utopians complaining that someone else’s children are ruining everything.

    As for mothers — we discovered after the 1970s that “free love” communes turn into coercive systems in which women are forced to sleep with men they don’t want to. They also lead to male dominated harems. John Humphrey Noyes, the father of “perfectionism” and “complex marriage” fathered 58 children in his commune in the 1850s. Another Utopian collective in Holland was so radical that it’s male leader removed the age of consent and slept with his own daughters and those of other parents. While, the Friedrich’s Hoff Commune, led by Viennese performance art guru, Otto Muehl, collapsed with Muehl being given a “seven year prison sentence for widespread sexual abuse of minors.” Variations on this sickening story have been repeated with convicted sex offender and cult leader William Kamm and Warren Jeffs with his “50 brides.” When a charismatic leader takes control and demands that others de-condition themselves, exploitation is tolerated and then becomes the norm. All of this is done, with the coercive Utopian alibi that all capitalist and patriarchal behaviors and boundaries must be swept away. Auroville, which attempts to be government-free, and money-free, has been plagued with growing reports of the crimes of Sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and murder.

    No matter how much Utopian communities try to get rid of the idea of sexual ownership — the female desire to chose a mate may be a constant for our species. It does however ensure the continuation of competitive behaviors, which leads us once again to hierarchies. To get rid of this, female choice would have to be stopped, a process that we associate with cultures that are oppressive.

    The Shakers who were celibate and only adopted children became extinct after their adopted children refused to adopt the rules of Shakerism. The Harmony Society died out because it refused to reproduce. And the experiment in Fourierirsm known as Brook Farm ended after with many child related problems, one of which being when the children refused to be placed at the bottom of the Fourierist redistribution hierarchy and were forced to clean the toilets.

    So many intentional communities create trouble for themselves by trying to replace the nuclear and extended family structure with other forms of mating and child rearing, only to find that mothers and children simply want to leave.

    Intentions Are Not Enough

    One of the great mistakes we make in interpersonal behavior, is to judge people by their intentions and not by the real outcome of those intentions. To let them off with saying “we meant well.” The same is true for wider society and the many and repeated failures of applying Utopian ideas to reality are nearly always excused by the same means — people say “but we meant well” or “it’s still a good idea, it just hasn’t worked in practice yet.”

    It could be that the greatest failing of intentional communities is contained within this very formulation. A community that is based upon declaring intentions is apt to be fearful of outcomes that would disprove those good intentions and invalidate them. So, the burying of facts about failure (moral, practical, political) would appear to be one of the secret tasks of those who live by intentions alone, who, rather than trying to address problems as they arise would rather bury the results, hide the outcomes and continue as if good intentions were all that was required. It is precisely this denial of outcomes that leads intentional communities to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Good intentions are clearly not enough but we shall undoubtedly continue to witness the communities of those who live by the constant re-affirmation of good intentions alone, continuing to fail and to bury the evidence of their failure in order to “keep on believing.” A result of this is that intentional communities will not learn from their mistakes, and will keep on springing up, not as a force that will gather momentum or lead to progress as we move through history, but as a ceaseless eruption of the same good intentions beset by the same systemic problems and doomed by internal contradictions to fail, all over again.
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  3. Rome and London are two huge, sluggish beasts of cities that have outlived millennia of eager reformers. They share a world where half the people already live in cities and another couple billion are on their way into town. The population is aging quickly, the current infrastructure must crumble and be replaced by its very nature, and climate disaster is taking the place of the past’s great urban fires, wars, and epidemics. Those are the truly important, dull but worthy urban issues.

    However, the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.

    Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect.

    “information about you wants to be free to us.”

    This year, a host of American cities vilely prostrated themselves to Amazon in the hopes of winning its promised, new second headquarters. They’d do anything for the scraps of Amazon’s shipping business (although, nobody knows what kind of jobs Amazon is really promising). This also made it clear, though, that the flat-world internet game was up, and it’s still about location, location, and location.

    Smart cities will use the techniques of “smartness” to leverage their regional competitive advantages. Instead of being speed-of-light flat-world platforms, all global and multicultural, they’ll be digitally gated communities, with “code as law” that is as crooked, complex, and deceitful as a Facebook privacy chart.

    You still see this upbeat notion remaining in the current smart-city rhetoric, mostly because it suits the institutional interests of the left.

    The “bad part of town” will be full of algorithms that shuffle you straight from high-school detention into the prison system. The rich part of town will get mirror-glassed limos that breeze through the smart red lights to seamlessly deliver the aristocracy from curb into penthouse.

    These aren’t the “best practices” beloved by software engineers; they’re just the standard urban practices, with software layered over. It’s urban design as the barbarian’s varnish on urbanism.

    If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it’s not clear that the “smart city” is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that’s already digitized.

    It’s a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there.
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  4. There will be no economic or political justice for the poor, people of color, women or workers within the framework of global, corporate capitalism. Corporate capitalism, which uses identity politics, multiculturalism and racial justice to masquerade as politics, will never halt the rising social inequality, unchecked militarism, evisceration of civil liberties and omnipotence of the organs of security and surveillance. Corporate capitalism cannot be reformed, despite its continually rebranding itself. The longer the self-identified left and liberal class seek to work within a system that the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism,” the more the noose will be tightened around our necks. If we do not rise up to bring government and financial systems under public control—which includes nationalizing banks, the fossil fuel industry and the arms industry—we will continue to be victims.

    Corporate capitalism is supranational. It owes no loyalty to any nation-state. It uses the projection of military power by the United States to protect and advance its economic interests but at the same time cannibalizes the U.S., dismantling its democratic institutions, allowing its infrastructure to decay and deindustrializing its factory centers to ship manufacturing abroad to regions where workers are treated as serfs.

    Dividing everyone up on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference fails to address the major problem.

    the left lost its universalizing character. It no longer dealt with the intersection of all these issues within the context of a militarized, capitalist, hegemonic American empire. It treated politics as siloed group identity problems. Women had glass ceilings. Same with blacks. Same with gays.”

    The loss of this intersectionality was deadly. Instead of focusing on the plight of all of the oppressed, oppressed groups began to seek representation for their own members within capitalist structures.

    “When you bring politics down to simply about helping your group get a piece of the pie, you lose that systemic analysis,” he said. “You’re fragmented. You don’t have natural connections or solidarity with other groups. You don’t see the larger systemic context. By saying I want, as a gay person, to fight in the military, in a funny way you’re legitimating the American empire. If you were living in Nazi Germany, would you say I want the right of a gay person to fight in combat with the Nazi soldiers?”

    “I don’t want to say we should eliminate all identity politics,” he said. “But any identity politics has to be done within the framework of understanding the larger political economy. That’s been stripped away and erased. Even on the left, you cannot find a deep conversation about capitalism and militarized capitalism. It’s just been erased. That’s why Trump came in.
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  5. "we have run out of world to commodify. And now commodification can only cannibalize its own means of existence, both natural and social." - @mckenziewark
    Tags: , , by M. Fioretti (2017-12-28)
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  6. an endlessly growing population is not sustainable, even if they live like peasants.

    That said, overpopulation is not, in my view, the main driver of planetary collapse today. The main driver is capitalism. The human population has roughly tripled since WWII. But our consumption of resources has multiplied many many times greater than population growth: We use something like 6 times as much steel as in 1950, 15 times as much aluminum, thousands of times more plastic and on and on. That ravenous overconsumption of resources, and its associated pollution, is overwhelmingly driven by the requirements of capitalist reproduction, the ceaseless invention of new needs and so on, not by human reproduction. Yes we need to reduce the human population, if only to give other life forms some space and resources. But there are easy ways to do so without using force like the Chinese government. Instead of building grandiose blingfrastructure and space shots to glorify the Communist Party, China’s so-called communists could have prevented their current overpopulation problem if they had spent that money on providing adequate old age pensions and social security so that peasant farmers don’t have to raise multiple kids in the hopes that one or two will live to support them in their old age. Amazingly, this is still the “social security sytem” for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

    So overpopulation is a real problem. But if we don’t overthrow capitalism, Mother Nature is going to solve the overpopulation problem in a hurry, but in a most unpleasant manner. That’s why I don’t concern myself much with the population problem. I don’t mean to ignore it. But I think its very much a secondary driver compared to capitalism.
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  7. Earlier studies on this issue, Brandt points out, have highlighted the risk of a “net energy cliff”, which refers to how “declining EROI results in rapid increases in the fraction of energy dedicated to simply supporting the energy system.”

    Axiom: So the more EROI declines, a greater proportion of the energy being produced must be used simply to extract more energy. This means that EROI decline leads to less real-world economic growth.

    It also creates a complicated situation for oil prices. While at first, declining EROI can be expected to lead to higher prices reflecting higher production costs, the relationship between EROI and prices begins to breakdown as EROI becomes smaller.

    This could be because, under a significantly reduced EROI, consumers in a less prosperous economy can no longer afford, energetically or economically, the cost of producing more energy — thus triggering a dramatic drop in market prices, despite higher costs of production. At this point, in the new era of shrinking EROI, swinging oil prices become less and less indicative of ‘scarcity’ in supply and demand.

    Brandt’s new economic model looks at how EROI impacts four key sectors — food, energy, materials and labor. Exploring what a decline in net energy would therefore mean for these sectors, he concludes:

    “The reduction in the fraction of a resource free and the energy system productivity extends from the energy system to all aspects of the economy, which gives an indication of the mechanisms by which energy productivity declines would affect general prosperity.

    A clear implication of this work is that decreases in energy resource productivity, modeled here as the requirement for more materials, labor, and energy, can have a significant effect on the flows required to support all sectors of the economy. Such declines can reduce the effective discretionary output from the economy by consuming a larger and larger fraction of gross output for the meeting of inter-industry requirements.”
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  8.  For a small but committed group of economists, academics, and activists who adhere to a doctrine called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), though, #mintthecoin was the tip of the economic iceberg. The possibility of a $1 trillion coin represented more than mere monetary sophistry: It drove home their foundational point that fiat currency is a social construct, and that there are therefore no fiscal limits on how much a sovereign currency-issuing nation can spend.

     To a layperson, MMT can seem dizzyingly complex, but at its core is the belief that most of us have the economy backward. Conventional wisdom holds that the government taxes individuals and companies in order to fund its own spending. But the government—which is ultimately the source of all dollars, taxed or untaxed—pays or spends first and taxes later. When it funds programs, it literally spends money into existence, injecting cash into the economy. Taxes exist in order to control inflation by reducing the money supply, and to ensure that dollars, as the only currency accepted for tax payments, remain in demand.

    It follows that currency-issuing governments could (and, depending on how you lean politically, should) spend as much as they need to in order to guarantee full employment and other social goods. MMT’s adherents like to point out that the federal government never “runs out” of money to fund the military, but routinely invokes budget constraints to justify defunding social programs. Money, in other words, isn’t a scarce commodity like silver or gold. “To people who’ve worked in financial markets, who work at the Fed, this isn’t controversial at all,” says Galbraith, who, while not an adherent, can certainly be described as “MMT-friendly.”

    According to this small but increasingly vocal cohort of economists, including Bernie Sanders’s former chief economic adviser, once we change the way we think about money, we can provide for everyone: We don’t have to “find” the money to “pay” for universal health care by “cutting” the budget elsewhere. In fact, our government already works that way: Spending must precede taxation, or there would be no dollars in the economy to tax. It’s the political will to spend on certain things, not the money to afford it, that’s lacking.
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  9. Among the 30% of respondents who said they did not think things would turn out well in the future were those who said the trajectory of technology will overwhelm labor markets, killing more jobs than it creates. They foresee a society where AI programs and machines do most of the work and raise questions about people’s sense of identity, the socio-economic divisions that already distress them, their ability to pay for basic needs, their ability to use the growing amount of “leisure time” constructively and the impact of all of this on economic systems. It should also be noted that many among the 70% who expect positive change in the next decade also expressed some of these concerns.

    Richard Stallman, Internet Hall of Fame member and president of the Free Software Foundation, commented, “I think this question has no answer. I think there won’t be jobs for most people a few decades from now, and that’s what really matters. As for the skills for the employed fraction of advanced countries, I think they will be difficult to teach. You could get better at them by practice, but you couldn’t study them much.”
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  10. The robots hypothesis says that as technology gets cheaper, employers are substituting machines for workers. A 2013 paper by Lukas Karabarbounis and Brent Neiman found that costs of capital goods have been getting cheaper, and concluded that companies are substituting technology for human labor. This fits with other research showing adverse effects on wages from the adoption of new technologies like industrial robots.

    But there are problems with this thesis as well. A recent study by David Autor, David Dorn, Lawrence Katz, Christina Patterson and John Van Reenen found that the labor share is falling across the whole economy, but not within companies. In other words, companies themselves aren’t substituting machines for workers, as we might expect them to do if robots were getting really cheap. Instead, the economy is simply shifting resources toward a few large companies that are very capital-intensive, and away from the more numerous, smaller companies that use more human labor. Autor et al. blame increasing monopoly power for labor’s decline.

    Then there’s the idea that landowners, not corporate overlords, are taking money away from workers. While analyzing the work of French economist Thomas Piketty, Matt Rognlie found that national income accounts showed an increasing amount flowing to owners of land. More recently, economist Dietrich Vollrath examined a paper by Simcha Barkai about rising profits, and found that profits from owner-occupied housing also rose sharply.

    Supporters of the other theses have yet to really grapple with the landlords explanation. The reason is that the people pushing this fourth idea justify it based on national income accounts, while supporters of the other three explanations tend to look at corporate behavior up close. When economists speak in different languages, it’s harder to have a debate.

    So that leaves us with as many as four competing explanations, each with some reasonably compelling circumstantial evidence in its favor. What to do? Eventually, economists will probably find new, better ways of putting these theories head to head. But in the meantime, it’s worth asking whether some of these explanations could actually be measuring different parts of the same phenomenon.

    A recent blog post by Paul Krugman offers a possible insight. Krugman notes that it’s possible that some companies are more capital-intensive and some are more labor-intensive -- think of factories making televisions with robots while others assemble them by hand. When the productivity of the capital-intensive companies improves -- due to mechanization, or the internet, or globalization -- it shifts production toward those companies, and lowers wages in the process.

    Now suppose that those capital-intensive companies are a small handful of superstar multinationals, while the labor-intensive companies are a bunch of small, local competitors. Improvement in robots, information technology and globalization would therefore be shifting resources away from the many and toward the few -- in other words, exactly the same phenomenon that Autor et al. describe. Huge companies are probably more capable of building automated factories, using online supply chains to outsource production to China.

    So monopoly power, robots and globalization might all be part of one unified phenomenon -- new technologies that disproportionately help big, capital-intensive multinational companies. Meanwhile, technology that augments human labor-power -- for example, cheap energy -- might have languished in recent decades, due to the failure to replace oil and gas with better power sources. Hence, small companies that use lots of workers might be losing out in the age of information technology.

    That theory still doesn’t explain how landlords might fit into the picture. But it provides a possible way to unify at least some of the competing explanations for this disturbing economic trend.
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