Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Right to Say No. Or Yes.

The going socialist theory (as expressed by folks like Kim Moody here) sees the capitalist class abolished by a worldwide democratic uprising of workers, who seize power over the means of production and redistribute assets equally among people.

My own observations of the world suggest that, with rare cooperative exceptions, someone generally organizes productive capacity (material resources and other people), and some people have more vision, drive, and capability for doing so than others. These people, of course, are certainly not the ones that always end up in these positions. Inheritance, class entrenchment, etc. ensure that idiots or assholes or otherwise undeserving folks end up at the top all the time. But if workers did succeed in seizing and equally distributing the assets of the capitalist class, the need would arise again for someone to organize people and assets and shape it all somehow, to manage cooperative projects. People would offer their assets and their labor to "buy into" someone's suggested project, or people would come up democratically with a project they'd like to pursue, and put the best individual or team on the job. This again ends up with more power and more resources in the hands of some people than others.

I am not anti-capitalist, in that I am not against some people having more than others. Greed is disheartening and inequality is ugly, but to attempt to manage human beings to ensure consistent levels of equality in all regards among them sounds like a tedious and frankly oppressive project, and one that is stacked too tenuously against the organic motion that is living and being.

So I am not anti-capitalist, in this regard at least. What I am is for accountability and power-sharing. I am for people having a say, and having the power to really have a say. I think that workers have the right to surrender some of their autonomy to "buy into" collective endeavors, and that includes both unions and private business firms. In other words, they have the right to sell their labor. That said, it's obvious there are some preconditions to making that right practicable.

Where the arguments of the socialists gain traction is in pointing out that workers often have very little decision in how or by whom they are employed because they have to be employed. The industrial, urban, mercantile economy we have surrendered to over the last several hundred years has severely limited peoples' ability to provide for themselves, thereby limiting their ability to say no to bad employment when it's the only employment option to be had. Again, we can trace this back to the expropriation of the peasantry in 17th century England, one of the first clear motions by the burgeoning capitalist class to ensure a dependable supply of low-wage labor - a.k.a., those that don't have an option to say no.

So this is where I end up in my political and economic orientations: I believe in strengthening the capacity of people to say no to shitty employment. Sometimes this means changing employment conditions, and sometimes it means increasing options through developing external or internal resources. While ideally this would entail mostly attentive, dedicated local work, the reality of the globalized age is that it often demands coalition and coordination with actors far and near. I suppose it can take a lot of shapes.

All peoples that exist in the world once had their own land or equal access to collective land. They could grow food, fuel, and textiles on it. Few chose to leave these original holdings; most were forced off. This is the history of labor. In my ideal world, we would all be well-organized smallholders, providing for ourselves and our communities and living freely. The complexities and realities of the modern age preclude this from becoming a reality anytime soon, if ever. But it shapes my policy inclinations nonetheless.

(images from

Villages from the air

(photos courtesy of,, and

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dunbar's Number - 148

"a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships."

"Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group."

"a direct function of relative neocortex size."

"Dunbar's surveys of village and tribe sizes also appeared to approximate this predicted value, including 150 as the estimated size of a neolithic farming village; 150 as the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; 200 as the upper bound on the number of academics in a discipline's sub-specialization; 150 as the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times since the sixteenth century; and notions of appropriate company size."

(photos courtesy of

Wiki here.

Capital-ish and Social-ish

Suggest reforming a shitty health care system and you're called a socialist. Suggest that a private business can create public value and you're called a capitalist.

This is bothersome.

To begin with, even if I espoused an unfettered free-market ideology - which those that call me a socialist know I do not - I still couldn't be a capitalist. A capitalist is someone who owns capital. Not me.

Beyond this, while it's easy to see the socialish aspect of an idea or policy, or the capitalish aspect - and I believe it's worthwhile to note these aspects and include them in any worthwhile discussion of an idea or policy - it seems truest to me that most of the time there's a bit of both. It's like anima and animus. Hemingway contains both masculine and feminine energy. The proportions change from individual to individual and for one individual over time, but there's a little of both in everyone.

In examining policies I would like to simultaenously (1) not jump to any foregone conclusions based on the ishness of a policy, but (2) DO consider the complexities over time that said ishness implies. In other words, if a policy has a socialish aspect, let's consider what that might do to the motivation of the policy beneficiaries (for example). Let's consider it IN CONTEXT. I'm a big fan of this in-context thing. And, contrary to the presumptions of a lot of people, I don't think it's impossible to think in context while also considering the long-term implications and theoretical complexities of the thing you're thinking about. As a matter of fact, I think it's necessary.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Notes from David Harvey's lecture on Marx's Capital

Class 02 Reading Marx's Capital from David Harvey on Vimeo.

"There's no way in which you can examine this whole process without actually looking at this metabolic relation to nature... The physical bodies of commodities are combinations of two elements - the material provided by nature and labor. If we subtract the total amount of useful labor of different kinds which is contained in the coat - linen, etc, - a material substratum is always left. This substratum is furnished by nature without human intervention. When man engages in production, he can only proceed as nature does herself... you can only only change the form of materials. Furthermore, even in this work of modification he is constantly helped by natural forces... Labor is therefore not the only source of material wealth. As William Petty says, 'Labor is the father of material wealth, the earth is its mother.'"

Friday, October 15, 2010

Labor as Factor of Production

Ad posted in the Journal of Commerce by the Port of Seattle in August 2009:

Course description at the University of Washington for GTTL 501 Global Logistics Management:

The gist of this scenario is that the Port of Seattle is subsidizing it's costs to reduce container fees to nothing to compete more strongly against Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland. Both of these ports chose to adopt or were about to adopt a plan requiring that port trucking companies hire their drivers on as employees, thus enabling their ability to unionize and thus inevitably driving up container fees.

To make themselves (ourselves?) more competitive, the Port of Seattle is choosing to sacrifice its short-haul drivers. We will offer a limited subsidy to encourage them to purchase newer, cleaner-burning trucks (ScRAPs), but the cost of the new truck will still mostly fall on the individual driver. I mentioned their salary and benefits scenario in past blog entries, so it's fair to assume that this plan is more for show than effect.

How do we choose where to make cost cuts along the supply chain? I think the simple answer is that elites do it where they can, where it will be least visible to the public (in the event that it might be controversial), and least piss off other people with power or influence. So where do they end up? In sectors populated by low-wage immigrant brown-skinned people, where possible. Where resistance is unlikely to be coordinated, where resources for resisting are slim, where individuals can be kept in competition with one another.

The only possible ethical response to this would be to assert that such jobs are only jobs that people pass through. That people will only spend limited time in them and them move on, upwardly mobile. Some may do this. The truth is that being a short-haul truck driver doesn't set a very good foundation for upward mobility - there's no place up to go in the industry itself, and it's unskilled labor, so no marketable skills are acquired. Many drivers take at least English classes, and some attend community college, so there is potential there. But for many it is their full-time job, the best or only one they have been able to get in America, and they have families to support.

Short-haul driving is a crucial part of the infrastructure, and short-haul drivers a crucial "factor of production." As such, I believe they should be treated that way - their jobs cared for, their infrastructure cared for. If we insist on labeling them a factor of production, then let's at least take care of the investment.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wendell Berry - notes

"There's a difference between thinking about problems and having problems. Where experts are thinking about problems, the people who have the problems are usually absent, are not even well represented. The only way out of this is for the teacher, the person of learning, the researcher, the intellectual, the artist, the scientist, to make common cause with a community. They must commit themselves to a community in such a way that they share the fate of that community--participate in its losses and trials and griefs and hardships and pleasures and joys and satisfactions, so that they don't have this ridiculous immunity that they now have in their specializations and careers. Then they'd begin to learn something."

"Luddism has been far too simply defined. It doesn't mean just the hatred of machinery. Luddism has to do with a choice between the human community and technological innovation, and a Luddite is somebody who would not permit his or her community to be damaged or destroyed by the use of new machinery. The Amish, for instance, have succeeded simply by asking one question of any proposed innovation, namely: "What will this do to our community?"

"However, a community has to understand that if it refuses the public proposal, then it has to come up with something better. And if the government or a corporation comes in and says, "We want you to have this obnoxious installation because it will employ your people; it will bring jobs," then the community has to have an answer to the question: "Where are we going to find jobs?" Sometimes it won't be an easy question. Sometimes it will be a devastating question, but the community nevertheless has to begin to look to itself. It has to look to itself for the answers, not to the government--and not to these corporations that come in posing as saviors of the local community, because they don't come in to save the local community. So the communities have to begin to ask what they need that can be produced locally, by local people and from the local landscape, and how it can be produced in a way that doesn't damage the local landscape or the local community. And by local community, obviously, you can't mean just the people. You mean the people and the natural communities that are supposed to exist there--the trees, the grasses, the animals, the birds, and so on. Everything has to be included and considered."

"I guess we should leave open the possibility that we'll be too stupid to change. Other civilizations have been. But at least it's more obvious now that this superstition is a superstition, because now there's no place else to go. The "other places" are gone. If we use up the possibility of life here, there's no other place to go, and so the old notion is bankrupt, though it still underlies most destructive practice."

"There is no time in history, since white occupation began in America, that any sane and thoughtful person would want to go back to, because that history so far has been unsatisfactory. It has been unsatisfactory for the simple reason that we haven't produced stable communities well adapted to their places."

"The first characteristic of a plan is that it won't work. The bigger the plan and the more far-reaching and "futuristic" it is, the less likely it is to work. There isn't a person who is alive and who has any appetite for living, who doesn't make plans. I make a plan for every day I live. I've got certain things I want to do that day, and if I didn't, I suppose I wouldn't do anything. But I can't help but notice, and I've been noticing for a good many years now, that my plans almost never work out. The day almost never exactly fits the plan. Some days depart wildly from the plan. So I conclude that even though you're going to make plans, if you're a live human being, one of the things you must learn to do is to take them lightly. A plan really is useful for signifying to yourself and other people that you like living, that you're looking forward to living some more, that you have a certain appetite to continue the enterprise. But one's real duty to the future is to do as you should do now. Make the best choices, do the best work, fulfill your obligations in the best way you can, and work on a scale that's appropriately small. Make plans that are appropriately small. If you do those things, then the future will take care of itself. But if you don't do those things, then you build up a debt against the future, which is what we're doing now."

From this interview by Jordan Fisher-Smith.