Saturday, February 15, 2003

With but one precious exception, the institutions of our auto-preening democracies are greatly in need of the rigorous application of the sort of critical sensibility Krishan Kumar describes on page 191 of the indispensable *Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought*: "The market is formally 'free', bureaucracy formally 'rational', and the political system formally 'democratic'. But in no case do any of these institutions truly live up to the promise of their formal principles ... By constantly subverting society's self-regarding ideologies, and repeatedly confronting it with the unpleasant truth about itself, it hopes to stimulate a critical awareness that might lead to the desire for change."

That one precious exception is the normally formal but occasionally substantial 'citizen'. Having just consulted William Burroughs's Perspicacious Baboon, I am moved to conclude that, after thirty years of fitfully acquiescent slumber, the 'citizen' has sidestepped the corridor to hell that is 'proper channels' and embarked on a bout of potent substance.

And s/he's subverting and confronting the unpleasant all over the place.

The Beeb tells me London's Hyde Park is now going fully giga - obliging Prefect Tory Blur to resort to the destroy-the-village-to-save-it/cruel-to-be-kind/humanitarian-bombing/
fucking-for-virginity logic that used to go down so well back when he was a lad. Aah, I love the sound of tendentious tory tosh in the morning.

Embrace The Baboon for the New York numbers as they come to hand, citizens!

The citizen is BACK!

And we're not happy.

... oh, and have I had a glass beyond thirst, or is 'No-one Knows' by the Queens Of The Stone-Age an absolute ripper of a toon?

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Blogorrheaders will remember erstwhile US Commerce Department demographer Beth Osborne Daponte from a week or two back. Well, she's thankfully back in the public eye. BusinessWeek has now published an interview with her in which she confirms the 1991 body-count at between 158 000 and 205 000 Iraqis, and cites The American Statistical Association's unequivocal support for her methodology.

Anyway, Ms Daponte elaborates: "In modern warfare, postwar deaths from adverse health effects account for a large fraction of total deaths …In the Gulf War, far more persons died from postwar health effects than from direct war effects … The contribution I made was in looking at civilian casualties from indirect war effects. It was hard to separate some of these from the economic sanctions. But there was damage to the electrical grid, health-care facilities, roadways and the distribution system, and, most importantly, the sewage system. When you contaminate the water, you cause all kinds of health problems ... Relatively few bombs missed their targets. I went to different human-rights sources and created a database of death in each incidence of a missed bomb. Often there were reports on who died. That gave us figures for direct deaths. We calculated indirect deaths in part from age distributions … If it's a bombing war, being a refugee is the most dangerous aspect. Refugees are in tremendous danger. Refugees are exposed to the elements, bad sewage, cholera, outbreaks of diarrhea. The youngest and oldest are most vulnerable and generally don't have the strength to begin with … "

Thanks to Gary Sauer-Thompson for putting me on to just the thing to go with Ms Daponte's sobering reminder as to what we're toying with here.

Oh, and Raed is one who evidently did survive 1991. Why not pay him a visit while the going's good, eh? Some nice thumbnails of Baghdad's salient edifices, too ...

George, Tony and John are bent on liberating the hell out of decent people just like Raed.

Blogorrhoeaics find Samuel Huntington's work tends to bring on bouts of Dismarrhoea, but Raed is made of sterner stuff and lifts a quote to supplement his blog's banner:

"the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do."

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

I'm busier than an American ambassador stuck in a democracy at the moment, so will content myself with reproducing the words of the wise. Topic du jour? Drawing the connecting dots between the question 'What's poverty?', 'What's wrong with the exclusive and ahistorical focus on methodological individualism that characterises latter-day economists?'; and 'How much better off are we REALLY than we were X years ago?'. Lots more, too, I think ...

Back in 1907, Arbitration Court President Henry Bournes Higgins heard a case that, well, just about sums today's economic debate right up (ie. the one between those who would promote civilisation and, um, market economists). Higgins's judgement would also be remembered as a constitutive moment in the making of modern Australia (Bob Hawke, for instance, thought Higgins almost as great a man as the author of the former's autobiography). Certainly, the judgement evinces a way of thinking that has persisted in this country through three decades of bipartisan commitment to neo-liberal barbarism. Anyway, what was impressive about Higgins was that he thought not only that there should be a minimum wage, but that this wage should be fixed according to the conditions *prevalent at the time*. He consulted "workers and their wives" and came up with a number that accounted for light, clothes, boots, furniture, life insurance, union pay, sickness, books, newspapers, alcohol, tobacco, transport fares, and a weekly indulgence in the new mass entertainment medium, the cinema. What would doubtlessly have seemed either outrageously luxurious or simply unimaginable to the Australian working class of but a generation before had become, according to Higgins, something that should be within the province of the 'a fair and reasonable wage' of 1907.

To the modern eye, this may seem very bolshie stuff, especially in the mouth of a judge. But there's proof that liberalism was once big enough to cater for such sociological and historical sophistication. And the formidable D-Squared provides it:

"My view on the subject of what constitutes a decent living goes right back to Adam Smith, whose views on the subject are not so well known, but exemplify the strand of humanity and sound common sense which has been so thoroughly ignored in his writing ever since he coined that phrase about the Invisible Hand. Smith asked the question in Wealth of Nations, in respect of the minimum standard of living, whether it was part of that standard for a man to own a clean linen shirt (at the time, linen and the laundry thereof were just making the transition from a luxury of the upper class to a mass market product). Smith's answer was that, although a linen shirt was clearly not a necessity for survival, and had not been part of the basic standard of living even ten years earlier, it was at the time of writing. His reason for so concluding was that things had advanced to the point at which any industrious tradesman could afford to wear linen and keep it laundered, so any tradesman not able to afford his linen shirt would be thought lazy or inferior; even if he had happened into that state of penury by bad luck, he would find it very difficult to get employed and get out of it once he was in it.

That seems like, adjusted for technological advance, a good rule of thumb for today. Taking out clue from the fact that the senses of "decent" which refer to the display of taboo body parts, and the senses which refer to material standards of living, must have some common origin, I'd define "a decent standard of living" as "the lowest level of material possessions in a society which allows one to escape shame and prejudice". So for example, while the phrase "trailer trash" is in common usage, a decent standard of living implies not living in a trailer. If it is impossible to get a job without an email address, then maybe a modem of some sort (not necessarily ADSL) is a part of that standard. And so on."

And here's some more in the same vein, from Christopher Jencks et al's 1972 book *Inequality*:

"The goods and services that made it possible to live on $15 a week during the Depression were no longer available to a family with the same "real" income (i.e., $40 a week) in 1964. Eating habits had changed, and many cheap foods had disappeared from the stores. Most people had enough money to buy an automobile, so public transportation had atrophied, and families without automobiles were much worse off than during the Depression. The labor market had also changed, and a person without a telephone could not get or keep many jobs. A home without a telephone was more cut off socially than when few people had telephones and more people 'dropped by.' Housing
arrangements had changed, too. During the Depression, many people could not afford indoor plumbing and 'got by' with a privy. By the 1960s, privies were illegal in most places. Those who could not afford an indoor toilet ended up in buildings with broken toilets. For this they paid more than their parents had paid for privies.

"Examples of this kind suggest that the 'cost of living' is not the cost of buying some fixed set of goods and services. It is the cost of participating in a social system. The cost of participation in large part depends on how other people habitually spend to participate. Those who fall far below the norm, whatever it may be, are excluded. It follows that raising the incomes of the poor will not eliminate poverty if the income of other Americans rise even faster..."

Compelling, eh? Maybe this is why that rhetorical champion of neo-classical economics, the US ruling class, has effectively gutted 'The American Dream' upon which it so much depends to legitimate itself. It has produced a society in which upward mobility has become all but impossible (certainly, that sclerotic ol' Europe they're always slandering does far better on this index, as, for the moment, does Australia). And maybe this is why the American 'consoomer' (like her Australian counterpart) has been forced into unprecedented levels of debt. In the 'west', stuff like internet connection, mobile phones, suits, cars, parking money, fast food, cosmetics and child-minding are, for many, no longer luxuries - their absence condemns one to marginalisation, alienation, unemployability, ignorance, loneliness, social and democratic irrelevance and economic stasis. When the credit bubble gives its last pop, pundits will nervously monitor their finance-sector equities and berate their societies for their wanton expenditure. The suddenly huge underclass, effectively and traumatically ejected from society, will be noticed only in so far as they will be blamed, not only for their own suffering, but also for the inconvenience of scarlet ledgers on Wall Street. We've managed to get away with treating the billions in the periphery like this for a long time. Wonder how easy it'll be to ignore once we've imported this social cancer into our own comfy polities ...
Monday, February 10, 2003

Gary Sauer-Thompson, all three of whose blogs are compulsory daily reading for this blogorrhoeaic, outbleaks even Yours Dismally with his thoughts thunk in a bookshop.

"I picked up a book on Samuel Beckett. It was full of stuff about culture being kaput, human beings continuing to vegetate, creeping about on their hands and knees and unable to survive on the rubbish heap at the edge of city and a polluted nature. Being a postmodernist text it held that we now find that our mode of life amongst the cultural junk has made reflection on our damaged state worthless. We have forgotten to remember the history that has bought us to this sorry state. We can imagine no other mode of life.

We may as well be dead."

Not typically one to offer comfort to the pessimistic (let's face it, stuff's sucking large just now), I will go so far as to join a phalanx of dead white males in the thought that the world's people and their cultural loci are more a bag of mixed all-sorts than the perfectly regulated pack of passive automatons envisaged by Sadsack Adorno and his gloomy mates. Hegemony's never perfect (Antonio Gramsci), there are ever residual and nascent forms of culture messing with it (Raymond Williams), all systems of thought bear within 'em the contradictions that'll see 'em superseded (Georg Hegel), and, even if our culture could become so systematically distorted as to eradicate the very norms by which its deformity may be seen and expressed, why, then contradictions in the very way we interact with the ever dynamic external world would eventually undo the dominant discourse (Karl Marx). One of Ol' Whiskers' later fans would go on to say, sorta, that just 'coz we're not interested in history doesn't mean history ain't interested in us.

As Freddie Jameson once wrote, in thankfully accessible English at that, the threat today is a way of thinking about the world that "consists in separating reality into airtight compartments, carefully distinguishing the political from the economic, the legal from the political, the sociological from the historical, so that the full implications of any given problem can never come into view, and in limiting all statements to the discrete and the immediately verifiable, in order to rule out any speculative and totalizing thought which might lead to a vision of social life as a whole."

Blogging has the potential to rejoin the dismembered; as every economist's argument about sociology with an historian, or lawyer's argument about politics with a psychologist, or scientist's argument about genes with a farmer, creates the conditions of possibility for some real wise-making, totality-hinting syntheses.

"Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will," old son! And keep serving up those goodies, Gaz.

political economic and cultural observations in the register of dismal dilettantism

06/30/2002 - 07/07/2002 / 07/14/2002 - 07/21/2002 / 07/21/2002 - 07/28/2002 / 08/04/2002 - 08/11/2002 / 08/11/2002 - 08/18/2002 / 08/18/2002 - 08/25/2002 / 08/25/2002 - 09/01/2002 / 09/01/2002 - 09/08/2002 / 09/08/2002 - 09/15/2002 / 09/15/2002 - 09/22/2002 / 09/22/2002 - 09/29/2002 / 10/13/2002 - 10/20/2002 / 10/20/2002 - 10/27/2002 / 10/27/2002 - 11/03/2002 / 11/03/2002 - 11/10/2002 / 11/24/2002 - 12/01/2002 / 12/01/2002 - 12/08/2002 / 12/08/2002 - 12/15/2002 / 12/15/2002 - 12/22/2002 / 12/22/2002 - 12/29/2002 / 12/29/2002 - 01/05/2003 / 01/05/2003 - 01/12/2003 / 01/26/2003 - 02/02/2003 / 02/02/2003 - 02/09/2003 / 02/09/2003 - 02/16/2003 / 02/16/2003 - 02/23/2003 / 02/23/2003 - 03/02/2003 / 03/02/2003 - 03/09/2003 / 03/09/2003 - 03/16/2003 / 03/16/2003 - 03/23/2003 / 03/23/2003 - 03/30/2003 / 03/30/2003 - 04/06/2003 / 04/06/2003 - 04/13/2003 / 04/13/2003 - 04/20/2003 / 04/20/2003 - 04/27/2003 / 04/27/2003 - 05/04/2003 / 05/04/2003 - 05/11/2003 / 05/18/2003 - 05/25/2003 / 05/25/2003 - 06/01/2003 / 06/01/2003 - 06/08/2003 / 06/08/2003 - 06/15/2003 / 06/15/2003 - 06/22/2003 / 06/22/2003 - 06/29/2003 / 06/29/2003 - 07/06/2003 / 07/06/2003 - 07/13/2003 / 07/13/2003 - 07/20/2003 / 07/20/2003 - 07/27/2003 / 07/27/2003 - 08/03/2003 / 08/03/2003 - 08/10/2003 / 08/10/2003 - 08/17/2003 / 08/17/2003 - 08/24/2003 / 08/31/2003 - 09/07/2003 / 09/07/2003 - 09/14/2003 / 09/14/2003 - 09/21/2003 / 09/21/2003 - 09/28/2003 / 10/05/2003 - 10/12/2003 / 10/12/2003 - 10/19/2003 / 10/26/2003 - 11/02/2003 / 11/09/2003 - 11/16/2003 / 11/16/2003 - 11/23/2003 / 11/30/2003 - 12/07/2003 / 12/21/2003 - 12/28/2003 / 12/28/2003 - 01/04/2004 / 01/04/2004 - 01/11/2004 / 01/11/2004 - 01/18/2004 / 01/18/2004 - 01/25/2004 / 01/25/2004 - 02/01/2004 / 02/01/2004 - 02/08/2004 / 02/08/2004 - 02/15/2004 / 02/15/2004 - 02/22/2004 / 02/29/2004 - 03/07/2004 / 03/14/2004 - 03/21/2004 / 03/28/2004 - 04/04/2004 / 06/27/2004 - 07/04/2004 / 07/11/2004 - 07/18/2004 / 07/25/2004 - 08/01/2004 / 08/08/2004 - 08/15/2004 / 08/22/2004 - 08/29/2004 / 08/29/2004 - 09/05/2004 / 09/12/2004 - 09/19/2004 / 09/19/2004 - 09/26/2004 / 09/26/2004 - 10/03/2004 / 10/03/2004 - 10/10/2004 / 10/10/2004 - 10/17/2004 / 10/24/2004 - 10/31/2004 / 10/31/2004 - 11/07/2004 / 11/07/2004 - 11/14/2004 / 11/14/2004 - 11/21/2004 / 11/21/2004 - 11/28/2004 / 01/30/2005 - 02/06/2005 / 03/27/2005 - 04/03/2005 /

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