Afghanistan is a Modern Society

Several months ago, I blogged a bit about the changeover of power in Guinea – at the death of a long-running ruler, the ‘official’ group of kleptocrats and authoritarians was suddenly swept aside by a new, up-and-coming group of kleptocrats and authoritarians, promising ‘democracy’ around the end of the year.

At the time I was cautious about writing off the new lot out of hand – though it was always likely that they would be indistinguishable from the previous group, it wasn’t impossible that from some anomalous personal scruple or (more likely) the continued pressure of the popular groups who had been struggling against the old government, there might be some change worth noticing – no prospect of a substantially non-shitty arrangement, but perhaps better, insofar as I’d rather live in a representative democracy with civil rights than not.

Turns out my caution was misplaced: protests banned, more than 150 shot, and the head of the military junta planning to stand for election.

Of course, any unwarranted glimmer of hope in my analysis is quite different from the sort of messianic optimism that so many people have displayed over these latest elections in Afghanistan: manifestly rigged, and besides run between rival coalitions of warlords, drug barons, fundamentalists and ultra-conservatives, who seem quite able to defy western pressure when it comes to enshrining the rights of rapists in law, but not when it comes to stopping Americans from setting off bombs in civilian areas.

Here’s an interesting thing though. There’s a certain reflex that I think many Western observers make, a mental knee-jerk which involves saying “of course, it’s terrible that these countries, like Guinea and Afghanistan, are so enmired in instability and corruption – but that’s because they are ‘less evolved’, more ‘primitive’, and over time they will build up the sorts of institutions and culture needed for democracy, like we have.”

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A Typical Day in the Blogosphere

Snark-loving radfem blogger: BDSM is “painfully silly rape-based patriarchy-reenactment boinking.” Any kinky man is “some asshole who gets off on rape fantasies” and “here’s another tip: Dump him!”

Defensive BDSMer: Fuck you! There’s nothing wrong with my sex life, I personally find BDSM empower(fuliz)ing!

Snark-loving radfem blogger: you silly person and your “hackneyed crap”. You think that because you have a personal experience of something, it should be automatically exempt from criticism? “Practicing BDSM without examining your choices is like having Stockholm Syndrome”.

Even more defensive BDSMer: But I have examined it – a lot more than you have (what with the whole ‘personal experience’ thing). And it’s not necessarily any more or less ‘patriarchal’ than any other sort of sex.

Suddenly philosophic radfem blogger: Ah of course, when did I ever deny that? Due to large-scale societal factors, all sexual interactions participate in patriarchal dynamics to some degree. No person escapes complicity, any more than you can avoid participating in capitalism or environmental degradation. Normal heterosexuality is no different.

Confused BDSMer: Oh. Ok…so why do you have to be so snarky about BDSM?

Exasperated radfem blogger: You’re just being over-sensitive. Can’t you take a joke? Why are BDSMers always so defensive?

Fights on the internet? Predictable? Whatever next!

6 Ways to Subtly Distort the Meaning of the Socialist Drive for Equality

Everyone knows that socialists think ‘equality’ is quite a good thing (although some consider such talk too fluffy and just speak of ‘abolishing classes’, but whatever). And the ideal of equality has become a widely used motif in all sorts of areas of politics. But often the way that it gets expressed, especially by liberals and social-democrats, makes it appear quite different to how actual socialism would mean it. Which, since many people’s impressions of socialism are drawn largely from such things, can then cause confusion.

So! What are the Top 6 Ways to subtly distort the meaning of ‘equality’? Read on to find out!

1) Focusing primarily on personal consumption, and not on control of production. If people own the means of production together, and control them democratically, at least a rough equality of consumption flows naturally; if ownership of the means of production remains in minority hands (private business or the state), then inequality of consumption will be stark, regardless of how many new initiatives and reforms are introduced to reduce it. More to the point, even if it were possible, being handed an equal slice of wealth by a power over which you have no control (the state or the market) is still alienating and disempowering.

2) Presenting only claims of need, not of right. The people with 50 times someone else’s wealth are not 50 times as worthy – often they are less worthy. Everything around us has been produced by thousands of people’s efforts, living and dead, and splitting it into the rightful property of various individuals would be impossible, and even then would not look much like the actual distribution. People deserve equal shares not because they need them (though that’s not irrelevant) but because they have as much right to it as anyone else.

3) Implying, by accepting any comparability with private charity, that a rich person who lets some of their wealth go to others is displaying generosity beyond the call of duty, rather than returning some of what they have usurped.

4) Talking as if equality was primarily for the benefit of ‘the poor’, some fraction of the population who are worse off than ‘the average’. The majority of the population are dispossessed by capitalism and would benefit from equality.

5) Calling for ‘redistribution’: if you need to redistribute, your original distribution was badly off, and will probably override whatever efforts at re-distribution you tack on. If the distribution is broken, then change that primary distribution, so that the basic workings of the economy produce equality.

6) Implying that equality is something to be produced by a body standing outside the rest of society and independent of the ‘normal’ economy – a body thus separating itself from society being pretty close to a state already, whatever its other traits.

Obviously these aren’t entirely separate – each one connects with the others. But I thought it might be worthwhile separating them out.

Foucault, Humanitarianism and the Will-to-Power

This is the first post that’s coming out of my attempt to read ‘Discipline and Punish‘ by Michel Foucault. I want to start with the broadest idea of the book: an analysis of how our attitudes to and methods of punishment have changed in the emergence of modern society.

Foucault’s story is like this: in the previous ideology of punishment, the criminal appeared as something outside of and opposed to the social body – that social body being identified with the body of the king. The function of punishment was to reaffirm the superiority of the sovereign body over the criminal’s body by destroying it; the more complete the destruction, the more effective. Hence criminals taken out in public, tortured, dismembered, and finally executed.

In the currently ascendant ideology of punishment, the criminal appeared as always still a part of the social body, but a malfunctioning and diseased part (partly because the social body was now the nation and the people, not the sovereign). So now the function of punishment is to restore it to health – to strengthen and clean society.

Some key consequences of this new approach to punishment: that rather than seeking excess (after all, to rip off someone’s flesh with pincers, and kill them, and then string out their guts, is pretty excessive) it had to seek balance between two opposed imperatives. On the one hand, to attack and harm (after all, that’s what punishment is), but on the other, to respect and preserve the criminal (for they must eventually be returned to society in ‘mended’ form).

Secondly, knowledge of the criminal now becomes vital – detailed understanding so that they can be changed both inside and outside. This again tells against ‘excess’ and ‘violence’, because they might disrupt the collection of systematic data. The prison thus appears as the paradigm of punishment it preserves a symbolic ‘something’ about the prisoner that is not violated (they can keep their bodily integrity as long as they follow the regulations) and because its regimented, drawn-out nature allows for the collection of detailed information, the detailed composition of schedules and regulations, and the endeavour of trying to ‘fix’ the defective human being.

That’s how Foucault presents matters – and in many respects this account is not too different from the conventional liberal story. As society became more ‘civilised’, its efforts at punishment shifted away from being motivated by base motives of vengeance and cruelty, and came to embrace ‘humanitarian’ punishment that respected the ‘rights’ and ‘dignity’ of the criminal, along with seeking to ‘understand’ them so as to ‘rehabilitate’ them.

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Kealey, Women-as-Job-Perks, and Feminism from First Principles

Readers may have come across this story, in which vice-chancellor at a British university publically advises (male, straight) academics to leer at their female students as ‘a perk’. It has, predictably, sparked outrage from many and defense from many others, and I’m not going to repeat that stuff – partly because, this seems to be the sort of thing where some look at it and intuitively get that this is objectionable, while other people may simply not ‘get it’, and more forceful articulations may remain too intuitive to ‘get across’ effectively to the opposite group.

The same sort of thing applies to most of the media; plenty of people can agree that, yes, people of a certain race are rarely seen in films outside of certain roles and settings, and yes, adverts feature female bodies presented as bodily more often than they do male bodies, and yes, this Kealey fellow speaks as if the only sexual question is between male professors and female students. But so what? People just need to man up and deal with it. And yes, the phrase ‘man up’ is a gendered expression, but people need to man up and deal with that too.

Perhaps a more theoretical argument may be persuasive to some such people; if not, perhaps it might be useful and worth consdering. That is, if we think that these phenomena are not just distasteful but pernicious, we might think it worthwhile to sketch how that relates to something rather like ‘first principles’. And if we find that different people draw the same conclusion from different premises, that’s something worth learning.

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Forks, Coffee and Communism

Some thoughts on communism, sparked by buying coffee. I’m not an expert on the food and/or beverages industries, so I may have missed something important, but even if so the discussion will hopefully be suggestive of thoughts.

The various establishments that give freshly-prepard food (and hot drinks etc.) to people, who then take it away and eat it, do so by putting it into a container, of styrofoam or cardboard or foil, that cannot be effectively washed and re-used and thus gets thrown away. And end up somewhere like the Great Pacific Trash Continent (or whatever it’s called).

An individual or family who ate all of their food from containers which they then destroyed would surely be considered wasteful. Why does such waste happen with these food-giving-away establishments?

What would happen if they gave away food in re-usable containers, with metal forks, ceramic mugs, plastic tubs, etc? The immediate answer is, they would spend far more money on giving away these endless ‘proper’ implements, and their customers would swiftly acquire a needless glut of the same, and no doubt would simply throw them away. This would be an even more wasteful situation!

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Are People Getting Stupider?

In a comment on a recent post, it was claimed that:

“We are moving into a socio-economic system characterised by Keynesian economics, general licentiousness and mass rootless ignorance.”

The Keynesian economics could certainly be disputed, but I won’t focus on that. The relative ‘licentiousness’ is clearly true for certain sorts of activities, with the dispute being over the value or otherwise of such a development. But what does interest me is the ‘mass ignorance’.

It’s a sentiment you can observe quite widely; castigations of the mass media and popular culture, frenzied lamentations of the shocking ignorance of the average person. The same commenter links this point to “Jerry Springer”.

Now, I have no objection to cultural critique, but this sort of claim strongly implies that this ignorance is ‘new’ – we are ‘moving into’ rather than ’emerging out of’ mass ignorance. At some presumed point in the past, we are to understand, the overall state of human learning was more respectable.

This strikes me as very implausible. A few reasons include:

  • Global literacy is higher than at any time in history;
  • Average IQs have been rising steadily for some time;
  • The quantity of information available in pretty much every discipline is greater than ever, often radically;
  • The average person’s technical ability to access this information is greater than ever, often radically.

Now this sort of a question is incredibly hard to get precision on – what exactly is ‘ignorance’? How is it to be measured? But these are four of the things that would come to mind, if I were to ask myself what the most reliably and easily-measured indicators might be. I don’t really see any contrary indicators – that is, any remotely reliable ways to measure some important component of ‘ignorance’ and ‘knowledge’ that gives a different impression.

So given this, I can only see the sort of sentiments mentioned earlier as unfounded gripes without proper perspective.

But I’m no expert on the data or the techniques of measurement. Are there any rigorous ways to show (or even suggest – because yes, a rigorous suggestion is quite possible. For instance, literacy can be fairly reliably known to have increased, but this only suggests, and doesn’t prove, a greater diffusion of knowledge) a decline in the knowledge – or even wisdom – of ‘people’?

Taxation and its Discontents: are taxes theft?

A lot of placarrds at the Tea Party protests expressed a sense of ownership, a feeling that something was being taken away from people, with the key form of this taking being taxation. This is hardly a fringe position – claims that (over-) taxation is theft are relatively common fare. Perhaps relatedly, there is a broader sense of robbery – that the country itself is being stolen?

To what extent might leftist observers agree with or sympathise with this sort of thing?

To start with I think it’s important to distinguish ‘simple claims’ and ‘exclusive claims’. To have a simple ownership claim on something is to have a right to control and enjoyment of it, but a right which must be balanced against the like rights of others. An exclusive claim overrules all others (or permits them only as very secondary qualifications), and so if I have an exclusive claim on something, that excludes anyone else doing so.

Property as it exists in our society is, with some qualifications, an exclusive claim – moreover, an exclusive claim that persists unchanged over time, and encompasses rights of use, exclusion of others, enjoyment of further products, and crucially tradeability to any other person. Its justifications, however, are usually valid if under stood as arguing for simple claims.

For instance, the fact of having expended effort and time to create something certainly gives you a claim to it, in that to be entirely deprived of it would not just be unpleasant but unfair. But that need not imply that other simple claims on it, such as from those who contributed to allowing you to make it, or from those who need it, are necessarily ruled out; nor need it imply that your claim on it fully possesses all the components of a property right, or that it bears any strong relation to the particular property-rights respected by our legal system.

By distinguishing the two, we can grant what is intuitive in various property-justifying arguments, while still denying their conclusion, and supporting communism. This, in essence, is what is wrong with rights-based capitalist arguments.

With that in mind, let us look back at opposition to taxes.

The average person in a capitalist-and-statist society is greatly impoverished relative to what they would have if either a) society’s wealth were divided into equal-sized chunks and each person given exclusive claim to one chunk, or b) society’s wealth were partly thus chunked but, wherever convenient, made collective property in such a way as to maximise people’s ability to use and enjoy it. So overall, most people are alienated from social wealth.

Now we might think that people have roughly equal simple-claims on the accumulated social wealth – although over particular things one person might have stronger claims than another, overall the differences even out. But do they?

The short answer is ‘yes’; the long answer makes reference to the interdependence of different branches of both waged and unwaged labour, the role of socialisation in making labour possible, the amount which was produced by past generations, whose members are now all dead, natural human equality, and of course the falseness of all arguments for the existing distribution. But I won’t go into that. The point is that there is a systematic dispossession of most people.

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Tea-Party Protesters: What is Freedom?

So a few days ago there was a huge march in the USA by people who are opposed to something – it may be socialised healthcare, it may be the bailouts, it may be the democrats, it maybe ‘big government’, and it definitely seems to involve Obama.

It’s an intriguing phenomenon, and I thought I might devote a few words to it. After all, at least two things seem to suggest, at first glance, a kinship between me and them: some manner of ‘opposition to government per se’, and some manner of fondness for tea.

On the first point, consider an account of the march here (found via Sociological Images): what is particularly of note is this:

“I would say that the spine of this protest is not any well considered opposition to health care, but to taxes, and to the idea of government itself…one theme that seems to be emerging…is that there is no difference between Obama and George W. Bush…When they protest big government,” they are not Republicans, or even conservatives in the conventional sense of the word. They are defenders of personal liberty against a one party state linked to a secret global system, a state that floods a nation of good white working people with illegal immigrants and freeloading welfare cheats”

Now, of course this can be overstated – a commenter says, correctly, “These people aren’t anarchists” – before going on, bafflingly, to say “and we should be thankful for that. Then they’d be really dangerous.” ‘Really dangerous’ here presumably means something like ‘having a smaller history of violence against civilian persons than almost any other political grouping, and far less than most of the tendencies that were manifested at the march’.

But anyway. Anarchists are already bedevilled by the need to differentiate themselves from anarcho-capitalists, who also use the same term, ‘freedom’, in what amounts to a very different way. To understand how people who I would likely disagree with on pretty much all particular points of politics can raise what seem like formally similar cries requires, I think, unpacking what psychologically terms like ‘freedom’ mean to different people.

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How Could I Forget Foucault?!

In a recent post I asked, with sincere puzzlement, what the principled basis was for the modern western opposition to corporal punishment of adults, when prisons often seem to be objectively more severe. The birth of the prison? Doesn’t that sound like a book I’d heard of?

Indeed it does! Or rather, it is the English translation of that book’s French subtitle, and so sounds nothing like it. Anyway, this is not really a post. This is thinking out loud.

The question I asked interests me, as does the broader question of punishment and how to distinguish what is socially necessary from what is power-for-the-sake-of-power, or functions in service of maintaining oppression. So the natural place for me to look is Foucault‘s book ‘Discipline and Punish‘, which seeks precisely to understand the power-relations involved in the emergence of modern forms of discipline and control, exemplified in the rise of the prison as a replacement for more ‘barbaric’ forms of punishment (this knowledge of the book comes from reading the wikipedia page).

Unfortunately, I’m quite busy at the moment, and I often find Foucault’s writing quite dense (I’ve previously read only ‘Madness and Civilisation’ and part of ‘The History of Sexuality’) so I don’t really have the time to go through the whole text.

So I think what I’ll mainly do is read parts or skim parts, and hopefully in the next week or so post some thoughts on them. I’m sure that this won’t be a full or scholarly treatment, and will probably leave out a lot of nuance. But personally I’m ok with that – partial understanding is better than no understanding, and hopefully any glaring mistakes will become exposed.

Moreover, I think I want to try to read Foucault with a particular practical question in mind, namely that with which I really started my last post – what forms of punishment are best and fairest, and by what principles do we make such a decision. In particular (and here things are analogous to many other cases), the challenge seems to be to do justice both to radical critique of how things are done now, and also to the sorts of things that make it seem an improvement on the past – none of us want to go back to hanging, drawing, and quartering.

But insofar as changes in the penal system are part of broader changes in ‘micropolitics’, e.g. the introduction of the modern school, or the factory, this question assumes the broader form of ‘how could we seek to change our micropolitics, to avoid the three risks of embracing modern evils, returning to past evils, or throwing out the socially necessary with the evil, and giving ourselves an unworkable utopia?’

(this makes it all sound grander than it will be)

AFAIK Foucault wouldn’t have much truck with this sort of question – but then, I am mainly on Chomsky’s side in this youtube debate.