Archive for the 'Politics' Category

“Pervy blin narkomom”

August 14, 2016

This summer I tackled my first real history book – real in the sense of first-class scholarship drawing directly on primary sources. The topic was 1930s Soviet industrialization, and the author is Stephen Kotkin. I chose Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, the second of his books on Magnitogorsk, a large planned Soviet-era industrial and mining town. His first book deals with its more recent history, and I may read that one too, or one of his other titles about Russian history in the transition and post-Communist eras.

His research questions, in studying primary sources, included these: What was Russian about Stalinism, what was inevitable (inherent in the project of governance under communism), and what was idiosyncratic about it? This book is especially interesting in light of Putin’s heavy-handed efforts to rehabilitate Stalin, which can best be understood as reactionary conservatism, an attempt to reverse the demoralizing effects hindsight had on the Russian people during the late Communist era of de-Stalinisation, when so many skeletons were taken out of the closets to be buried.

I was largely unprepared for what I learned from this book, having always associated Russian Communism with American Socialism and the progressive movement. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the movie Reds at face value. Socialists and other progressives were persecuted violently under Stalinism, as were any officials who questioned the official line, not to speak of rank-and-file Party members. And I was completely surprised to learn that Party membership was far from universal in Communist Russia. Apparently the Communist Party itself was made up of a highly selective new ruling elite – membership was tightly restricted, and yet at times during the Party’s history, Party members were the first to feel the brunt of a violent purge.

Kotkin paints a vivid portrait of everyday life for both workers and officials under Stalin, and the picture of a society in turmoil is engrossing. He documents ordinary workers’ adoption of communist values in everyday life as well as their grumblings, some violently suppressed and others blithely noted in passing by the keepers of official records. One witnesses rapidly rising expectations in terms of standard of living, and a glaring gap between these utopian promises and the reality on the ground. The lightning-speed eradication of illiteracy in the early years of Communism is documented alongside the extreme cultural paucity of the radical censorship regime. Promises to meet every citizen’s material needs are juxtaposed with images of famine, sometimes episodic and sometimes prolonged, but never equally distributed across the population.


It becomes difficult to see Stalinism as a civilization when it seems that everything we associate with civilization today was banned under Stalinism, with the notable exception of jazz (which was always considered suspiciously bourgeois, but never quite fell out of favor with the ruling elite). But Kotkin convincingly attributes a sense of ownership of the revolutionary project to the Russian people in this era, and a deep sense of popular commitment to the goals of rapid industrialization, however traumatic the pace.  As a sense-making project, the book is definitely a success.

Perhaps the most valuable lessons to be learned from this book are the lessons of the purges within the Communist Party – while the author barely describes the purges of non-Party members, which were in fact far more extensive. Very likely this bias reflects a bias within the official record, with far more evidence available from which to describe the Party purges vividly. Kotkin recognizes the “housekeeping” rationale of the iterative bloodbaths alongside the vicious cycle of recriminations and careerist incriminations fostered by Stalin’s murderous directive that the Party engage in “self-criticism”, a byword which survived as a tenet of Party ideology even into the Khrushchev thaw.

If there had been any “housekeeping” agenda at work in the purges, it was a desperate and double-dealing project from the outset. Take the example of an official “purged” for engaging in illegal trade with state resources in order to finance his mandated quota of services and goods provided. His motive was simple: he had orders to deliver, and no budget with which to work. And had he not found ways to meet his quota, very likely he would have been “purged” for nonperformance.

The vulnerability of the Communist elite can be explained by the redundancies built into the Russian government under Communism: there were two chains of command, the state pyramid and the Party pyramid. Every organ of the state thus operated under two chains of command, the ordinary one and the Party one, which was to serve as an ideological watchdog and which was liable for the successes and failures of its counterpart. Hence the redundant Party bosses could easily be painted as self-serving leeches on the system, if any flaw could be found in their performance.

The first to be purged were the ideological non-conformists, lumped indiscriminately under the banner of Trotskyists. Later purges associated their victims with the fascist threat from abroad, and accused officials lagging in industrial performance (or guilty of ruining their equipment in an overeager attempt to exceed its production capacity to meet official targets) of sabotage and espionage in one breath. Kotkin illuminates an enduring level of xenophobia and ignorance of the outside world that could explain how some officials were purged simply for having foreign-sounding names.

Yesterday I discovered an anecdote about Shostakovich and his Symphony No. 5 that illuminates the era of the Great Purge nicely. The symphony was written while the composer (living in Russia) had fallen into disfavor, in the late 1930s. His opera Lady Macbeth had been a great success until the day Stalin came to see it, but the composer was “white as a sheet” by the end of the performance. Stalin had laughed during an explicit sex scene and had later walked out. The next day Pravda carried a scathing editorial about the opera, and not until Symphony No. 5 brought the audience to their feet with tears in their eyes was Shostakovich restored in stature. You can judge for yourself what the symphony is about.

The Russian proverb I used as the title of this blog entry appears untranslated as an epigraph to Kotkin’s last chapter, and he says it is untranslatable. But I was able to find the source:

“‘How was that as a first try?’ asked Trotsky. [Vladimir] Mayakovsky answered with a devastating pun: ‘The first pancake falls like a People’s Commissar’ (pervy blin lyog narkomom), a play on the saying ‘the first pancake falls like a lump.’”

This and other gems make Kotkin’s description of the “little tactics of the habitat” under Stalinism a real page-turner, and I am looking forward to checking out more of his work. But for now I am chewing through Khrushchev’s memoirs, the first half of which are profoundly depressing in this context. Over and over again he shares anecdotes about directives from Stalin that he carried out against his own better judgment for fear of the consequences of gainsaying the boss. I’ve made it up to the point of Stalin’s death now, and I’m hoping the second half of the book will show up the author’s engaging personality more fully, out from under the shadow of pervasive sycophancy in an environment of totalitarianism.

Planned obsolescence

August 12, 2016

When it rains, it pours, and this month one household appliance after another has broken down. I’ve spent more money than I normally spend in a year on electronics, replacing products that were only a few years old when they finally stopped working. I didn’t immediately blame planned obsolescence, the decidedly seedy side of capitalist consumerism, but I had to when it came to shopping for a new desk lamp.

It was nearly impossible to find a desktop lamp with a replaceable bulb! The shopping catalogues I browsed offered countless models of LED lamps with bulbs that were built in and could not be replaced – meaning as soon as the bulb dies, you have an expensive and oversized paperweight on your hands. Some of them even looked like paperweights – one had a pencil holder attached to it, and another was designed to look like an artificial plant. The angry and surprised customer reviews all harped on the same theme: the bulb had died, and the lamp was useless.

Looking at my outlays on high tech devices this month set me thinking about my ecological footprint, which has shrunk considerably since I became vegan. I took several quizzes to calculate my carbon footprint and “how many planet earths” it would take to support the world’s population if everyone shared my lifestyle habits. The results were surprising and encouraging.

According to a fairly comprehensive Earth Day quiz, most of my ecological footprint comes from the distance my food is transported, and it would take 3.4 planet earths to support my standard of living sustainably. According to the Islandwood quiz, it would take only 2.9, but most of my footprint in this calculation came from excessive water consumption, which the other quizzes don’t cover. According to Forterra, which sells carbon offsets to individuals and businesses, I produce 7.7 tons of CO2 a year, which is the equivalent of about 1.6 planet earths, and according to the Nature Conservancy’s calculator, the total is 6.3 tons of CO2 or 1.3 planet earths.


Taken together, it’s clear my lifestyle choices aren’t really sustainable. But I’m doing far better than the national average, and these calculators point to concrete ways in which I can improve my score. Shorter showers, purchasing green energy from the grid and buying more locally produced food would make a huge dent in my ecological footprint. The carbon dioxide can be offset with credits that would cost less than I spend on electricity and transportation already, which is very little. By not using heating or air conditioning, by walking to work and taking the bus on errands, and by avoiding meat and dairy, I’ve managed to do about 60% better than the local average.

Where food transportation is concerned, I’m lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest, where many vegan processed foods are locally manufactured. And finding local fresh produce isn’t difficult, although I can’t see myself giving up coconut milk ice cream any time soon. As far as other goods go, I’m not sure how to weigh the trade off between used books, which ship separately from scattered book sellers, and new books, which ship from Amazon’s amazing warehouses together. I buy quite a few of each, either way.

As low-end as my consumption level is relative to the American average though, I wouldn’t give up the luxuries that consumerism has to offer lightly. There’s something liberating about doing your own shopping out of your own income, and that feeling is mediated by the marketplace and the sheer variety of goods and services it has to offer. I have far more respect for markets now, also because I’ve started reading a few history books about life under communism, and the myriad incongruities of anti-capitalist social planning. I’ll probably write reviews of some of those books here later.

The Frontiers of Justice

August 8, 2015

In The Frontiers of Justice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that under neoliberal governments like ours, there are four major groups of persons who are excluded from recourse to the justice system by virtue of their lack of means (money to bring a case in court) and/or lack of voice (ability to reason with a court/right to stand before a court). These are children, the disabled, non-citizens, and animals.

This is an important book to me, and one I mention often in my blog. Lately I’ve been wondering whether these frontiers of justice are really a product of neoliberalism. Or are they more deeply ingrained than that in human behavior? Do they in turn shape human behavior, through childhood psychology? It seems to me that these groups have always been at a political and social disadvantage, regardless of what system of government we’re talking about.

This brings up two questions. The first is, what is neoliberalism? The core values of neoliberalism are individualism, private ownership and freedom of choice. Under this regime, social space is a form of market capital, cultural resources and political voice (via the mass media) have been privatized, inequality levels are high, and consumption rates have everything to do with willingness to pay and competition over paid work. Nussbaum argues that it is through a fee-for-service justice system and through doubts in their capacity to reason that children, the disabled and animals are denied the ability to enforce their rights in court, whereas non-citizens are simply denied the right to bring cases in court.

The second question is, how would we treat children, the disabled, non-citizens and animals if ours were not a neoliberal regime? It seems to me that even under conditions of anarchy, maybe especially under conditions of anarchy, these groups would get the short end of the stick. As human animals, we have limited patience with our own offspring and less with those of other people. Towards disabled kin, we have moderate sympathy – towards disabled strangers, we have little to none. Outsiders to our social groups are greeted with skepticism or outright hostility, depending on how well they have acculturated to our norms (from language use to attitudes and beliefs). And animals are either dinner, personal property or an at-large nuisance – even those we think of as family are excluded from the consolations of language use and the rights that come with it.


If these frontiers of justice are in our animal nature, and not a product of our social contract, how do these boundaries shape us as individuals? Object relations theory seems to scratch the surface of this question, with its emphasis on the contingency of infant emotional life on the attentions of the mother. Impatience with the willfulness of their own children is the natural pressure parents exert (without any special training in how to teach children to grow up), and once they have internalized adult habits and come of age, they are sent away to fend for themselves. Later, I’ll look at Freud’s theory of child psychology in this context of actual (not merely imagined) parental hostility towards the developing child.

Returning to the first question, is there really anything about neoliberalism that would lead us to exclude non-citizens from the courts? Here I am inclined to turn to Jane Jacobs again, and look at the two codes of conduct described in Systems of Survival, one more similar to traditional conservative politics in America, and the other more characteristic of liberalism. But this time I would argue that they blur together, rather than competing for political dominance. If neoliberalism were like the market-oriented code of conduct Jacobs describes, it would protect the rights of strangers and aliens and promote multiculturalism. I would argue that it does not, and that instead, this moral question is ceded to the hierarchical code of conduct that stands in opposition to commercial norms, one in which in-group loyalty is paramount.

Neoliberalism is often compared with neoconservatism, but some would say they are two sides of the same coin. The centrist policies of the Democratic party and the radicalism of the Republican party have produced a situation in which domestic politics are, by and large, neoliberal and foreign policy is neoconservative, even when a Democrat is in the White House. Neoconservatism has less to do with individualism and more to do with unilateralism. This co-existence of market-oriented values in the domestic sphere and hierarchical values in the international sphere mirrors what Jane Jacobs describes as the natural symbiotic relationship between market norms and hierarchical regimes. (But it also represents a type of perverse hybrid that she describes as a recipe for corruption. I’ll return to the topic of perverse hybrids later.) War powers are used to open markets and break up cartels, all in the name of the peacetime values of freedom, individualism and private profit.

Some commentators describe this neoliberal hegemony as a depoliticization of the public sphere, and to understand this critique, you have to compare neoliberalism and neoconservatism with their ideological opposition, contemporary Western communism. The hallmark of communist regimes is a top-down redistributive policy on property ownership, as opposed to private ownership of capital and competition over work, housing, food and ultimately, profit. To say neoliberalism depoliticizes public life is to say that politics is, fundamentally, the legal negotiation of class conflict, and that neoliberalism deprives the poor of their negotiating power.


There are two other major points of departure between communism and neoconservatism: the close regulation of daily life, breaking up traditional power structures within family units, and the endorsement of universal suffrage regardless of race (which, when it comes to Palestine, leads neoconservatives to accuse the radical left of anti-Semitism). Here I am talking about communism in Western democracies, not in China or Cuba, where state censorship is also an important point of departure from neoliberalism (to be compared with market-oriented control of the mass media).

Under neoliberalism, racial discrimination is most apparent in the housing market, where it is enforced by private associations colluding to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods in a formal strategy largely ignored by public agencies responsible for upholding civil rights. This is the regressive side of liberalism, promoting freedom of choice (the opportunity to live in a predominately white suburb) for an elite minority on a willingness-to-pay basis. This racist elitism is normalized in national culture, and ‘minorities’ are encouraged by entertainment/advertising media to identify with and compare themselves to white role models, and to associate minority status with being lower class, poorly educated and/or a criminal.

The neoconservative police state’s use of racial profiling and indiscriminate deportation policies, and the neoconservative foreign policy administration’s tendency to equate Arab race/Islam with terrorism, both function as scapegoating behaviors on an irrational level, fostering black-and-white thinking about group loyalties and aversion to multiculturalism and international law. Neoconservatism, at its most basic, is an us-versus-them mentality in which U.S. national interests and preconceptions trump international diplomacy and military force is a first, rather than a last, resort. Outsiders (and, arguably, ‘minorities’) are viewed with contempt or fear, rather than curiosity and admiration.

But perhaps it is through the exclusion of ‘outsiders’, the disabled, children and other animals that neoliberalism is so atomizing, lonely and monotonic. Competition over resources is a never-ending struggle under this regime, and cultural resources are monopolized by a remote elite (from the privatization of Google to the total control of local news coverage by Fox). The agenda of this elite is remote from daily life (minority status now belongs to whites in the census), and tied to a foreign policy agenda that has more to do with direct subsidies than with imperialistic resource extraction. Patronage politics serves a tiny sector of special interest groups and a thinly stretched, poorly compensated military, while the rest of the 99% are at the mercy of the market.

From this point of view, neoliberalism and neoconservatism certainly don’t co-exist in a system of checks and balances – the most obvious feature of this political unity is that it is unsustainable. The real question is, could an alternative system of government expand the frontiers of justice? Or are they simply in our nature?

Affinity and dissent

July 29, 2015

Strongly hierarchical cultures prize consistency and loyalty above independent thinking and creativity. They are stereotypically hide-bound in their resistance to novelty and dissent. This is a constant source of frustration to well-meaning bureaucrats and scientists in large public institutions. So what would explain this pattern of behavior?

If you map object relations theory onto organizational behavior patterns, you can see that the glue that holds a hierarchical organization together is affinity. Mature levels of affinity that can tolerate disappointment (and even censure) are cultivated through patronage and compliance checks, so that subordinates take for granted the correctness and support of their supervisors. You could say they identify with their superiors emotionally the way a dependent child identifies with a parent, internalizing a sense of guilt when they find themselves at odds with their organization’s rules and expectations.

Jane Jacobs argues in Systems of Survival that there are market-oriented cultures that diverge from this model, prizing creativity and intellectual independence above loyalty and generosity. But even firms that are market-oriented in structure can have hierarchical internal cultures that resist independent thinking and suppress dissent. A family business can be very conservative in its values, prone to patronage politics and hierarchical modes of thinking. The business where I work now is a good example of this.

Why is dissent and rule-changing such a painstaking process? In the modern world, democratic decision-making is the norm, and almost all laws and statutes are subject to public discourse and review. But in practice, organizational change is a cumbersome process characterized by high levels of risk and resistance.

To answer this question, you might ask, what conditions foster and encourage dissent? Jacobs would argue that these are market conditions, those governed by strong expectations of honesty and autonomy, where contracts are entered into freely and in good faith. She characterizes markets as naturally open to diversity, in which collaboration among strangers and aliens is the norm. In contrast, hierarchical organizations are closed systems, competitive and secretive with outsiders, and their internal relationships are characterized by top-down dependencies rather than egalitarianism and autonomy.


What, then, are the psychosocial conditions that foster and encourage dissent? They must be characterized by horizontal rather than vertical distributions of status, that is, peer-to-peer relationships. Friendships as opposed to families, colleagues as opposed to supervisors and subordinates, acquaintances as opposed to authority figures.

And there is an important element of trust involved in mobilizing dissent. For creative solutions to arise from independent thinking, there has to be a sense of confidence in the intentions and credibility of the innovator. Here the tension between affinity and dissent is at its most paradoxical. Because the strong bonds of affinity in hierarchical organizations impose a sense of guilt on those who dissent, but in the absence of trust, dissent would go nowhere.

This is perhaps related to the argument Jacobs makes that hierarchical and market-oriented cultures are deeply symbiotic. Perhaps a market-oriented culture nested within a hierarchical society could tap into a sense of affinity just strong enough to inspire trust, but not intense enough to smother dissent. In the same way, a hierarchical organizational culture nested within a market-oriented business model is reluctantly susceptible to organizational change – there are a few important changes going on where I work that show how successful dissent can be when market pressures are in play.

The implications for the study of neoliberalism and Martha Nussbaum’s ideas about the frontiers of justice are interesting. I’ll try to circle back to the topic of trust in market-oriented relationships at some point, to explore how trade and affinity are related. In my earlier concept map of aggression and love labors, I situated commerce in a quadrant governed by rational decision-making and love, as opposed to irrational decision making and aggression. That’s not how I typically think of commerce, but that’s the direction Systems of Survival is leading me in as I explore aggression theory in connection with the Cultural Cognition Project now.

In particular, I want to look at risk-perception as a cultural cognition phenomenon that is governed by both issues of affinity and measures of the credibility of dissent. I want to build on this thought-provoking paper from the Cultural Cognition Project in situating risk communication in a neoliberal state where liberalism is the ostensible ethos of public discourse, but (and this is something the CCP does not adequately address) hierarchically-oriented mega-firms play a decisive role in programming the mass media and setting the policy agenda.