Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Sheesh, when it’s laid out like this then the parallels are just ridiculous:

– living five adults to a two room apartment

– being told you are constructing utopia while the system crumbles around you

– ‘totally not illegal taxi’ taxis by private citizens moonlighting to make ends meet

– everything slaved to the needs of the military-industrial complex

– mandatory workplace political education

– productivity largely falsified to satisfy appearance of sponsoring elites

– deviation from mainstream narrative carries heavy social and political consequences

– networked computers exist but they’re really bad

– Henry Kissinger visits sometimes for some reason

– elite power struggles result in massive collateral damage, sometimes purges

– failures are bizarrely upheld as triumphs

– otherwise extremely intelligent people just turning the crank because it’s the only way to get ahead

– the plight of the working class is discussed mainly by people who do no work

– the United States as a whole is depicted as evil by default

– the currency most people are talking about is fake and worthless

– the economy is centrally planned, using opaque algorithms not fully understood by their users

How to end 2016

Book cover of Penguin Classics edition of Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

I am reading Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Technically I haven’t actually started reading it yet and have only finished reading the preface by Michel Foucault. Mostly I’m reading it because a lot of Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas were explored thematically in the Ghost in the Shell anime and I’d wanted to read it before actually watching the movies and shows. I think the book itself has been on my Amazon wishlist for eight years now.

It seems to be about using the schizophrenic’s break with (capitalist) society as a roadmap to how to live outside of capitalism and its inherently fascist tendencies. It’s kind of hard to read a theory book once one is no longer in academia as I’m no longer in the headspace to easily parse a translation of a densely written neo-Marxist monograph. That, and there are just too many options for amusement available to me.

Speaking of which, I’m also reading another – and more accessible – translated work known as The Devil is a Part-Timer series. It’s a bunch of Japanese light novels about the Devil being kicked out of his kingdom and escaping to modern Japan, where to make ends meet he has to work part-time at McDonald’s. It’s frequently hilarious.

I keep these books at home, though, and when I’m commuting I pull out my Kobo and read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: Shadows of Self, which is set 300 years after the end of his Mistborn fantasy series. While the original trilogy was essentially a decently fresh take on a fantasy trope, being about a world where the destined hero failed and the land is ruled by the evil emperor, this series is kind of a fantasy Western about supernaturally powered lawmen and criminals playing their games in a mix of the Wild West and Victorian London.

I like it okay. Sanderson’s writing has definitely improved since his first book, Elantris, though it’s still not going to end up studied in creative writing classes. But the book is entertaining enough.

Eat the Rich

So the revelations from the Panama Papers are all shocking and whatnot if you didn’t already assume that the world’s oligarchs were greedy pieces of shit. Though I suppose it’s interesting to see how specifically all this tax haven stuff works.

But what really surprised me was this picture from The Guardian:

Jasmine Li (centre) at the Crillon debutante ball for Vanity Fair magazine in Paris, France. Photograph: Jonathan Becker/Contour by Getty Images

They still have debutante balls? And the kind where actual wealthy people attend, not athletes or minor celebrities but those whose ungodly riches can destroy nations. There were princesses and future captains of industry at this shindig. I swear, it looks like something out of My Fair Lady.

The ostentatious ballroom of marble floors and baroque chandeliers filled with the rich and powerful seated for dinner

Jasmine Li, it seems, is a scion of one of China’s Communist Party elites. Well, the party calls itself communist, but really, when your party members’ kids are coming out in a debutante ball then there’s no use pretending there’s anything of the old ideals left.

It just goes to show that the 1% live in a different world from the rest of us, which is especially noteworthy since the pictures date from 2009, during the worst economic crisis in decades. Ordinary people were left destitute and homeless as the masters of the world waltzed the night away. I wonder, is this kind of inequality what we can expect for the rest of this century? One wonders.

Thar she blows

Big Marijuana is coming like Big Tobacco did decades before, but it’s taking a detour through the 1920s and the Prohibition Era first. If and when marijuana is legalized in the United States, it will almost definitely join the other legal drugs in being pushed by profit-driven corporations willing to kill as many trees as it takes to be in the black. In the meantime, heavily armed pot growers are destroying the environment well enough on their own.

So sayest MoJo:

Although the original Northern California growers saw pot cultivation as an extension of their hippie lifestyles, their environmental values haven’t readily carried over to the next generation. “They are given a free pass to become wealthy at a young age, to get what they want,” Silvaggio explains. “And do you think they are going to give it up when they turn 20, with a kid in the box? They can’t get off that gravy train.” But with prices dropping as domestic supply expands, “you can’t go smaller; you’ve got to go bigger these days to make the amount of money you used to make. So what does that mean? You have to get another generator. You have to take more water. You’ve got to spray something because you may lose 20, 30 grand if you don’t.”

The Sadness of Sweetness

If the history of workers’ rights was an object then it would be a seesaw tipping between capital and labour. Sometimes capital has the upper hand, sometimes labour does. Well, labour is never dominant but sometimes it doesn’t entirely suck to be a worker.

The seesaw of workers’ rights occurred to me as I was watching The Devil is a Part-Timer, which is an anime about Satan being kicked out of his kingdom and exiled to modern Japan, where to survive he has to work part-time at McDonald’s.

Demon Lord of McDonald's

The series is hilarious. Watching the Adversary coming home exhausted to his shithole apartment panicking about how he’s going to pay for his new refrigerator is comedy gold. A lot of the stories are in that vein: The Devil gets promoted to shift manager. The Devil goes on a date with a co-worker. The Devil gets scammed by a door to door salesman.

The series is funny, but I couldn’t help feeling put off by the implicit normalization of living on the economic precipice. Lots of people live pay cheque to pay cheque and it’s probably not funny from their point of view. There are moments recognizing that precariousness in the series, such as the utter loneliness one of the otherworldly refugees suffers from or the way something as simple as free noodles is an incredible gift to the working poor characters.

I’m reminded of Welcome to the NHK, which is about what one possible reaction to the modern world: complete and almost total withdrawal. On the one hand, what does retreat do in improving one’s lot? On the other hand, what does struggling do in improving one’s lot as well? Because The Devil sure works his butt off in The Devil is a Part-Timer but he still isn’t even a full-time worker yet. And goodness knows those poor Kentuckians trying to make a living just seem to be digging themselves in deeper. The article is a decade old, but The Onion hit the target dead-on: “Report: Poor People Pretty Much Fucked”.

Is this the new normal, then? Is this life what Thatcher meant when she said There Is No Alternative? Because it seems that in this brave new world even our fantasies participate in our own subjugation.

I don’t mean to criticize the anime for not offering a solution. Comedy can be a site of political awareness, but by its very nature it can never be a site of struggle. It’s always too easy to say that it’s all just a joke. But comedy and art in general can still be a mirror to the society it depicts, and for The Devil is a Part-Timer, that society is trying hard to laugh at its own misery.

The Hipster Backlash

Lots of people still don’t know this but apparently we’re supposed to hate hipsters now (see the Wikipedia link for its fumbling vagueness in trying to define an amorphous subculture). To see the backlash, witness McSweeney’s Hipster Logic Problems:

  • Train A leaves from a platform that you probably never heard of traveling at 60 mph. Train B leaves one hour later from the same platform going 85 mph. How long will it take train B to catch up with train A, and which is going to an M83 concert?
  • Theodore heard of Youth Lagoon before Max. Max heard of them after Cindy, but Cindy heard of them before Don. Who’s the bigger asshole?

The thing is, McSweeney’s is exactly the kind of website that hipsters frequent. In fact, I will bet actual money that the author of the piece would be labelled a hipster by most people who met him. The missing analytical tool, of course, is class, in that a hipster is invariably a middle class consumer with disposable income and/or university education, the better to buy the vintage t-shirts and recognize the literary allusions found in independent cinema so beloved by hipsters (which is not to say that every single hipster loves these things).

It’s fascinating how the hipster locates identity firmly in consumption. A hipster is not a hipster without also consuming in certain ways (clothes, movies, music, what-have-you). Hipsters are still not as bad off as, say, Japanese otaku, who, as Marxy says, “use consumerism as a therapeutic solution to their psychological and social problems”, which is to say that to be otaku is to consume otaku products, else one would not be otaku and would therefore have mainstream tastes and social skills and not need to fill a hole in one’s life with consumer goods targeted directly at oneself.

However, and unlike the otaku, part of the hipster identity also seems to be located in an obsession with authenticity. Outmoded technology and little-known media are admired as not just pure expressions of creativity; instead, the very act of selecting these products are also seen as expressions of the hipster’s own pure being. “Only the authentic can recognize authenticity” is the unspoken and unacknowledged motto behind hipster consumption. The second part of that motto is of course “Only the authentic can consume authentic products”, which is to say that “Only the authentic can buy authenticity”.

But one might ask, then, what is all this in aid of? What is authenticity for? Which question can only be answered with a syllogism: Authenticity is for being authentic.

To remove the answer from being useless, one might also say that the search for authenticity is the point and not capturing the authentic itself (for, like a rainbow, one cannot stuff it in one’s pockets). Clearly the rampant and relentless message of consumption that surrounds us all in a capitalist society has created strange pockets of, well, not counter-consumption, since there is no such thing, but rather alterna-consumption, or a different way of consuming in a capitalist society which still reaffirms the pre-existing capitalist order.

I do wish I had more time to tease out more analytical insights and further develop these ideas but I ain’t in grad school no more, I can’t be arsed to write more.

The hidden price of cheap online dildos

I just read this eye opening piece from Mother Jones about the inhuman working conditions to be found at the logistics firms that run the warehouses which ship the online gewgaws that we swim in. It’s shocking to find out about the hidden costs of being able to order cheap dildos on the Internet.

The annoying thing is that I really shouldn’t have been so surprised. I’ve written about Taylorism and scientific management – I defined it as “a discredited management philosophy organized around getting the most productivity out of workers and damn their health and comfort” – and I know perfectly well about the dire labour conditions to be found in states with right-to-work laws, which severely curtail the power of unions, and I also know about the demand towards timeliness with Just in Time shipping which has companies do their level best to turn their workers into unfeeling cogs who don’t pee or get sick.

I knew all that and yet I didn’t connect those things to the free shipping that Amazon and almost every other large online retailer provides and the guarantees towards getting items fast which are always shouted out in giant letters on a company’s website. Really, though, I’ll pay for the damn shipping and even wait an extra couple of days if it means workers won’t get fired for attending the birth of one of their kids.

Still, the article is about American third-party logistics firms so I wonder if I can still order stuff online in Canada with a clear conscience. I know at least three things different between Ontario and this unnamed state west of the Mississippi:

  1. Minimum wage is $10.25 an hour, well above the $7.25 those poor slobs were getting;
  2. Mandatory overtime is illegal;
  3. All residents would be on the provincial health plan.

Just to be safe, though, I think from now on I’m going to buy stuff in person whenever I absolutely can. All those trucks driving around delivering stuff can’t be good for the environment, anyway.

Capitalism: “It might start sucking less”

From The International Herald Tribune:

On the cusp of economic history

Is economic history about to change course? Among the chieftains of politics and industry gathering in Davos for the World Economic Forum on Wednesday, a consensus appears to be building that the capitalist system is in for one of those rare and tempestuous mutations that give rise to a new set of economic policies . . .

“The pendulum between market and state is swinging back,” Pascal Lamy, director general of the World Trade Organization, said by telephone before traveling to Davos. “The year 2008 is a crucial year that could end up setting the tone for some time to come. What we need is an ideological mutation without falling into the trap of protectionism.”

One such mutation in mainstream economic policy took place after the Depression of 1929, which led to a protectionist interlude and then gave rise to Keynesian demand-side policies and eventually the welfare state. Another took place following the oil price shocks in the 1970s, which refocused policy makers’ attention to supply-side measures and strengthened those pushing for privatization and free markets as the best way to stimulate growth.

When students of economics open their history books in 2030, they might read about 2008 as the year when the groundwork was laid for a re-regulation of certain markets, a more redistributive tax system and new forms of international policy coordination, economists say.

I don’t know, isn’t this just more of the classic cycles we’re supposed to expect from capitalism?  But having said that, it would be unfair to claim that nothing has changed and that we’re stuck in a perpetual circle of death and reincarnation.  Perhaps the roller coaster is a more apt metaphor – things go up and down, but they never go backwards.  After all, the environment is in a more precarious position today and the emerging economies of China and India are far stronger than they have been in the recent past.

So, while no one can expect the abolition or even the gradual phasing-out of the capitalist nation-state system, perhaps we will see some encouraging moves towards allowing more people around the world the chance not to get gang-raped out of nowhere by economic policies they never agreed to.  And perhaps some of these people might be more open-minded to an alternative to the current political-economic system?  Hope springs eternal.

By the way, that picture of Davos just makes me even happier that I’m in Costa Rica right now.  Man, it looks cold up there (although it’s snowing so it must be relatively warm, like only -5 Celsius).

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

For history-minded people who are also China watchers, it’s fascinating to see how China’s current drive towards accelerated industrialization resembles the historical trajectory of European industrialization.  There is, of course, the massive pile of Chinese migrant labourer bodies stacking up from various coal mine accidents, sweatshop fires, and worker riots.  All of this recalls “Western” experiences, and if you squint at the headlines in the right way you can even imagine you’re reading a news article from the 19th century.  The wealthier Chinese are even aware of this:

But an odd change has come about in some [Chinese] shoppers’ minds. As members of China’s business and political elite, they have come to believe that the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where connections and smarts mean everything, and quaint notions of fairness count for little.

I noticed this attitude on my most recent trip to China from the United States, where I moved nine years ago. So I asked a relative who lives rather comfortably to explain. “Is it fair that the household maids make 65 cents an hour while the well-connected real estate developers become millionaires or billionaires in just a few years?” I asked. He was caught off guard. After a few seconds of silence, he settled on an answer he had read in a popular magazine.

“Look at England, look at America,” he said. “The Industrial Revolution was very cruel. When the English capitalists needed land, sheep ate people.” (Chinese history books use the phrase “sheep ate people” to describe what happened in the 19th century, when tenant farmers in Britain were thrown off their land to starve so that sheep could graze and produce wool for new mills.)

“Since England and America went through that pain, shouldn’t we try to avoid the same pain, now that we have history as our guide?” I asked.

“If we want to proceed to a full market economy, some people have to make sacrifices,” my relative said solemnly. “To get to where we want to get, we must go through the ‘sheep eating people’ stage too.”

In other words, while most Chinese have privately dumped the economic prescriptions of Marx, two pillars of the way he saw the world have remained. First is the inexorable procession of history to a goal. The goal used to be the Communist utopia; now the destination is a market economy of material abundance.

Second, just as before, the welfare of some people must be sacrificed so the community can march toward its destiny. Many well-to-do Chinese readily endorse those views, so long as neither they nor their relatives are placed on the altar of history. In the end, Marx is used to justify ignoring the pain of the poor.

Certainly it’s a mealy-mouthed excuse for an excuse: It’s okay for Chinese to exploit their fellow human beings because the British did the same 150 years ago.  The British also forced the Chinese to buy British opium at gunpoint and cede Hong Kong in the Opium Wars, so my inner cynic wonders if the Chinese are also planning on doing the same thing to other countries.  Then again, the march of progress means that often the new capitalists are welcomed with open arms.

Of course, this pattern of worker abuse is not just a simple reiteration of Western history being played out by people with darker skin.  For example, no witches were ever burned in England because manufacturing jobs were scarce.  The present isn’t the past and the (cough, ahem) Third World isn’t the farcical Napoleon III to the First World’s l’Empereur, Marx’s witticism notwithstanding.

For one thing, while it may be tempting to think of all of this “stuff” as happening in foreign countries or in the past, the resurgence of Taylorism and “scientific management” (a discredited management philosophy organized around getting the most productivity out of workers and damn their health and comfort), the introduction of flexible labour and contingent work (in rural as well as in urban areas), the migration of capital and jobs, and the shrinking of the working class labour market in the “West” means that things are getting crappier where white people live too.  Some economists are even admitting this, despite the fact that most of them seem to be propagandists of global capitalism.

In fact, the globalist project has been so dismal in its rewards that it’s been traded in for straight-up nationalism in some quarters (e.g., the US, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, and so many other countries).  “Here we go again,” say the historians, though in this sequel the Indians sometimes fight off the cowboys successfully — note, though, that it’s not the absolutely downtrodden countries that are resisting successfully, but the ones that already have some power.  Lest anyone forget, remember also that the elites of those countries are hard at work exploiting their paisanos, so what we’re seeing is more like one group of elites fighting off another group of elites than the underdogs beating the five-time league champion.

All of these thoughts were triggered in me when I read about the recent fashionability of skin tanning among wealthier Chinese (via Boas Blog’s shoutout to Racialicious).  Note that light skin was previously the in-thing to have to signify one’s wealth since it’s a sign that one isn’t a common labourer working outdoors, just like in Britain before the Industrial Revolution and just like it is today in many developing countries (and let’s not forget that skin whitening creams are used by many black people in the US, UK, and the Caribbean, though they’re used for slightly different reasons than mere signifiers of wealth).  With the expansion of the airline industry, the drop in ticket prices thanks to cut-throat competition, and the greater number of vacationing middle class people created by industrialization, tanned skin has become a sign that the possessor has been to an expensive holiday overseas — again, like the way tanned skin became fashionable in Britain as a sign that the person has been to the Mediterranean, most likely during their Grand Tour of Europe, such holidaying becoming only possible by the building of railways to criss-cross the continent.

So there you have it: The more things change, the more they stay the same (barring the odd witch-burning and war on Islam here and there).

O brave new world, a whole new fantastic point of view

I’m still living out of boxes here. It’s charming how the first sight I see upon waking up are bottles of hair gel and vitamin C tablets, plus the dead bugs I haven’t swept up yet. (Update: bugs are gone, vitamin C and hair gel remain ready for use in vitamin and hair-related emergencies).

In case it’s not clear, I’m talking about the new place I moved into. It’s not so bad now that I’ve got an air mattress, I actually had some really good sleep last night. Lots better than when I had to sleep in my office chair because I didn’t have any other furniture (it felt like I was at an airport).

But I didn’t pick the title of this post just because it amuses me to discuss my new place under a title that combines lines from 1984 and the Disney movie Aladdin. I thought I would discuss these two articles: More Koreans Look to Retire in Philippines and Living, Doing Business the Philippine Way

Briefly, the articles talk about (South) Korean emigration to the Philippines. I’ve long been aware that more and more Koreans are moving to the Philippines, but I’ve never known exactly why. Now it’s clear what’s happening: middlingly-wealthy Koreans are retiring and living in the Philippines because they get more value for their retirement fund and pension money.

It’s not just that, though. Those retired Koreans need people that can cater to their needs, which is something that has occurred to a lot of other Koreans. It’s also well-known in migration studies that once a certain group has established itself in a particular country, it becomes easier for other members of that group to migrate to that country, as in the case of children joining their parents or sisters sponsoring their siblings. So you get a secondary wave of Korean migration that comes to the Philippines to make money off their fellow Koreans. I’m willing to bet a lot of these businesses were established in the early days by retirees who were rushing to fill this economic niche.

This whole situation is only possible because of globalization, which I take here to mean “the intensification of global interconnectedness . . . [combined with] the the speeding up of economic and social processes” (Rosaldo & Inda 2002:2-6). This intensification has happened due to several factors. First is the development of new technologies that make it easier to transfer money overseas as well as communicate with distant relatives and friends. However, just as important, if not more so, is the development of new regulations and the signing of new agreements between governments which make the bureaucratic processes involved in international money transfer and immigration easier. After all, to take one example, the technologies involved in jet travel haven’t really changed that much in the last few decades, but the deregulation of the airline industry and the resulting competition between the different carriers have driven ticket prices down.

Because international migration is much easier to achieve, South Koreans have been engaged in what Anna Tsing refers to as a “scale-making project” (Tsing 2002:473). Retiring to the Philippines may have been inconceivable to previous generations of Koreans, but it’s increasingly possible to imagine such a thing today. The sense of scale for South Koreans has been expanded. While the distance between South Korea and the Philippines seemed vast in former times, today the Philippines doesn’t really seem too far to Koreans. This is thanks to the larger scale-making project behind globalization (“It’s one world,” “We’re all connected,” etc.) which is presenting the world as being more interconnected. This is also thanks to the smaller scale-making project in South Korea which is trying to construct the Philippines and Southeast Asia in general as part of the natural sphere of South Korean migration. These scale-making projects are training South Koreans to think of the Philippines as a natural destination for business and retirement.

However, as David Harvey points out, the compression of time and space in globalization is not a neutral process, but has moral implications: a revolution “in temporal and spatial relations often entails . . . not only the destruction of ways of life and social practices built around preceding time-space systems, but the ‘creative destruction’ of a wide range of physical assets embedded in the landscape” (Harvey 1996:241). In theory, capitalism is not a zero-sum game, but in practice, for someone to win at the game of capitalism, someone else has to lose. This is especially true in an age of global capitalism, where companies go all over the world looking for places where they can make the most money while spending the least.

What are the moral implications of intensified global interconnectedness? Consider who it is that participates in international migration. Relatively wealthy people are not the only ones that migrate internationally, there are also millions of the relatively poor who migrate under dangerous conditions to work at dangerous, exploitative, and underpaid jobs. Consider also that making it easier for corporations to move money around means that it’s also easier for corporations to shop around internationally. Don’t like the fact that your workers in Virginia are entitled to bathroom breaks and a living wage? Sell your assets and set up shop in Shenzhen where such things are entirely optional.

Beyond that, also consider who it is that is able to migrate: relatively wealthy South Koreans. Why is it that citizens of South Korea are able to retire overseas, while citizens of the Philippines generally aren’t? The answer is contingent on the different histories of the two countries. The Philippines was a colony of the United States, and after independence the country was still controlled by neocolonial practices that meant the Philippines was still dependent on its “former” colonial master. However, South Korea was vitally important to the United States in its Cold War against the Soviet Union as a bulwark against communist North Korea. It would not have been wise for the US to have South Korea end up like the Philippines, since it would not be able to put up much of a resistance against the North. Therefore, no neocolonial and neoimperial policies were enacted against South Korea and plenty of aid in building infrastructure and such was offered by the US. Simply put, then, it served American interests to have a weak Philippines dependent on the US while at the same time having a strong South Korea to defend against the North. Which brings us to today, where — economically speaking — we have a mini-US in South Korea acting towards the Philippines like the US acts towards Mexico: like a personal playground for its citizens.

And on that note, Happy Labour Day and enjoy the long weekend to those of you that have it.

References:

Inda, Jonathan Xavier; and Renato Rosaldo. 2002. “Introduction: A World in Motion”. In Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo (eds.), The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Pp. 1-34.

Harvey, David. 1996. Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Tsing, Anna. 2002. “Conclusion: The Global Situation”. In Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo (eds.), The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Pp. 453-485.