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'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Sing Song Girls of Shanghai 

Columbia University Press has published some excellent translations of Asian novels in recent years. I have been fortunate enough to read two of them, Floating Clouds by Hayashi Fumiko and the subject of this review, The Sing Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangqing. Eileen Chang translated it before her death and Eva Hung revised and edited it upon the subsequent discovery of the manuscript. Some of you may be indirectly familiar with it if you have seen the film adaption, The Flowers of Shanghai, directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsein. Apparently, neither the translated novel nor the film have been well received, although cinephiles, more familiar with Hou's work, recognized substantive and aesthetic qualities in the film that were lost on most American critics.

Perhaps, the problem is that both are centered around a brief period of courtesan life in Shanghai just before the industrialization of the city near the very end of the 19th Century. Our present day liberal universe is one that, quite rightly, emphasizes the importance of gender equality, so the prospect of reading an over 500 page novel about the social life of the so-called pleasure quarters, no matter how dispassionately portrayed, is probably not a very appetizing prospect. Additional hurdles include, as appears to be typical of classical Chinese fiction, an enormous number of characters drawn from all levels of society within the brothels, as well as a modernist sensibility in the execution of the narrative.

In fact, it is this sensibility that makes Sing Song Girls a mesmerizing novel, one of the most highly regarded works of Chinese fiction, even as, in the words of David Der-wei Wang in the Introdution, it remains one that has never been popular with general readers. He gives a plausible reason for it, Bangqing's avoidance of the extremes that apparently characterize the courtesan novel genre, sentimental narcissism or, alternatively, what he delicately describes as the sensationalization of the sordid dealings of the prostitutes and their clients. Indeed, the novel is so lacking in explicit sexual content that it could have been used in a literature course before I departed high school, and, I suspect, could still be today.

Bangqing had higher ambitions, but taxes the reader before revealing his intentions. For the first 200 pages or so, we are subjected to a seemingly endless merry-go-round of parties, where the wealthy patrons of the courtesans eat, drink, smoke opium and sometimes gamble at their establishments. Keeping all the characters straight is a challenge, even as Bangqing seeks, through an accumulation of outwardly mundane detail, to distinguish them from one another in important ways that will become obvious in the final quarter of the novel. His discipline in this regard is admirable, as he effectively creates a modernist form of storytelling that would subsequently be commonplace throughout much of the world in the next century.

An essential key towards understanding what transpires in the novel is the concept of mystification as developed by French sociologist Henri Lefebvre. For Lefebvre, mystification was a process whereby most ideologies have succeeded at certain times in making men accept certain illusions, certain appearances and introducing these appearances into real life and making them effective there. Lefebvre provided a Marxist variation of something that has always been a prominent feature of Chinese culture, especially within literature, the notion of the real as opposed to the illusory, and the fact that each frequently masquerades as the other, to the great detriment of those mislead by the deceit. It is an oversimplification, but a fair one as a form of shorthand, to say that Bangqing lays out the mystification of the pleasure quarters in the first half of the novel, so as to dispel it in the second half.

Ultimately, one must have several things to successfully navigate the brothels, whether one is male or female, money, obviously, but something more as well, common sense, for lack of a better word, as well as education, or perhaps, more accurately, a habitus, a set of durable dispositions normally shared within particular classes and groups and the cultural capital that often goes along with it. Interestingly, while Pierre Bourdieu invoked the concepts of habitus and cultural capital to explain social influence somewhat independent of financial capital, in Sing Song Girls, there is much less of such an oppositional tendency, as in late 19th Century China, it would have been difficult to develop them without some wealth.

Of course, it goes without saying that the men, with some exceptions, possess much greater wealth than the courtesans, but, as Bangqing demonstrates, they are not powerless, with the interaction between the habitus of the male elite and the habitus of the courtesans providing much of the novel's narrative drive. Without doubt, an evaluation of Sing Song Girls in relation to the work of Bourdieu and his theories of social reproduction could prove to be a very creative research project, if it hasn't already been done. For now, at the risk of upsetting potential readers of the novel, I will briefly make reference to several important stories within the novel in order to highlight this interaction.

Modesty Zhu, the shy younger brother of businessman Amity Zhu, is initiated into the life of the pleasure quarters, where he takes a fancy to Twin Jade, a new courtesan in the Zhou House, a first class establishment. After observing the affection between Modesty and Jade, Script Li, a wealthy, high ranking official, proposes that they marry. Modesty and Jade become inseparable, but his family thereafter intercedes, with the assistance of none other than Script Li, to arrange a marriage for him with someone else. Upon finally learning of the marriage, Jade realizes that she has mistaken the unreal for the real, and proceeds to pressure the Zhu family to provide sufficient funds to enable her to buy her release from Zhou House.

One is tempted to construe this story as one of bitter betrayal, but Bangqing tells it in such a way as to suggest other, more disquieting possibilities. Upon reflection, Script Li comes across as less an insensitive cad, and more like someone playacting within the artificial world of the brothels as he would do without the slightest hesitation because of his wealth and social status. Jade, upon learning of Modesty's marriage, draws upon her experience of life in the pleasure quarters and successfully obtains the money she needs to leave Zhou House, revealing in the process that the prospect of leaving was more prominent in her mind and heart than her love for Modesty. If anyone could be said to be a victim, it was Modesty, lacking in the understanding of the habitus of both his social class and the pleasure quarters, thus finding himself pushed into a marriage imposed upon him by others.

Accordingly, the interaction between brothel patrons and courtesans is necessarily a personal, emotional and economic form of unequal exchange, one in which the courtesans accept the transformation of their attractiveness, their musical and theatrical skills, their refinement and, of course, their sexuality into a form of mercantile commerce so as to have an opportunity to assert their personal independence. Green Phoenix, a leading courtesan at another first class house, Huang House, is an excellent illustration of this aspect of the novel. Her favorite client is Vigor Quan, a client with whom she has developed a high level of trust to accompany their enduring sexual attraction.

Upon encountering another prospective client, Prosperity Luo, a magistrate, at a party, Phoenix immediately recognizes that he is enamoured of her, and seizes the opportunity to accept him as another client on her own terms. Luo is enraptured by her intelligence, her practicality and her independence, and she eventually manipulates him into paying a substantial amount for her release from Huang House. She then sets up her own house, where she will be able to continue to see both Luo and Quan as clients. Bangqing relates her story with little romantic flourish, instead highlighting her financial and legal knowledge as well as her entrepreunerial sense, essential qualities for any good courtesan.

Such qualities are invariably rare in a world where entertainment, sex and commerce are intermingled, and Bangqing acknowledges it as part of his process of demystification. Twin Jade and Green Phoenix are exceptions, not the rule, as revealed by the tragedies that befall Little Rouge and Second Treasure. Little Rouge and Lotuson Wang really do love one another, but because their desire is incapable of bridging the gap created by the habitus of class and the habitus of the brothels, she ends up alone and impoverished. Second Treasure, unwilling to acknowledge that her departed lover has reneged on his promise of marriage, continues to spend money for the anticipated wedding, and, eventually, upon discovering that she has been abandoned, stumbles blindly into a most terrible fate. For their male patrons, life goes on, in seemingly circular fashion, but for the courtesans, the slightest misstep can result in disaster, and often does.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Importance of Honduras 

From the UN News Center:

Latin American leaders today called for a return to power of José Manuel Zelaya following the recent coup d’état in Honduras, stressing that political will is vital to confronting and overcoming threats against peace, development and democracy.

The leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and El Salvador used their addresses to the General Assembly’s annual high-level debate to express their concern about the ongoing political situation in the Central American country.

Since Monday, Mr. Zelaya, who was forced from office in late June, has been seeking refuge in the Brazilian embassy in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.

“Unless there is political will, we will see more coups like the one that toppled the constitutional President of Honduras,” said Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

“The international community demands that Mr. Zelaya immediately return to the presidency of his country and must be alert to ensure the inviolability of Brazil’s diplomatic mission in the capital of Honduras,” he added.

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said it was crucial that the international community became aware that it would set a “very serious” precedent in the region if it failed to devise a strong multilateral strategy to return democracy to Honduras.

Multilateralism means all countries must accept common and general rules, such as basic democratic values and respect for human rights, she said.

In his address Carlos Mauricio Funes, President of El Salvador, said the “de facto government [in Tegucigalpa] has not heeded the clamour of the international community that Honduras return in the shortest time possible to constitutional order.”

Meanwhile, any elections organized by the de facto authorities will lack the necessary legitimacy and transparency to ensure credible results that can contribute to resolving the crisis, he stressed.

“We must close all possibility of returning to the era of authoritarianism or military or civil-military dictatorships. We must not let the coup in Honduras become a precedent that would endanger the gains made with regard to stability and regional institutional democracy.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration remains remarkably passive. Do we live in an age in which even the President is incapable of resisting an alliance of indigenous oligarchs and their right wing supporters in the US bent upon reimposing their autocratic control over Central and South America? It calls to mind the effort by East German President Honecker and his conservative allies within the Kremlin to bring down Gorbachev in the mid to late 1980s, an effort that culminated in the 1990 coup after the fall of the wall. Is even Obama himself threatened by a similar international coalition of reaction?

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

UC Walkout: Trapped in a Partisan Cul-De-Sac? 

Tomorrow, many faculty throughout the University of California system will participate in a walkout on the first day of class. After raising registration fees, known elsewhere as tuition, 9.3% in May, UC President Mark Yudof has recommended an additional 30% increase to fully take effect by the fall of 2010. UC campuses have already laid off 884 employees, and plan to lay off an additional 1,006 more. Most employees that remain are now participating in a furlough plan that will result in salary reductions between 4% and 10%.

Meanwhile, the UC Board of Regents has generously increased the pay of high level executives, including new deans and vice chancellors, even as it has been increasing registration fees for students, firing workers, ordering furloughs, and, of course, reducing the number of course offerings and increasing class sizes. UC students, workers and faculty have every right to be outraged at policies that will result in a further curtailment of education opportunity and decreased wages while UC executives continue to further enrich themselves at the top of the pyramid.

But there is something lacking in the macroeconomic analysis of the people who intend to participate in the walkout. They share a perspective that is, shall we say, California centric:

Today's drastic budget cuts are the results of decisions by taxpayers and their representatives. A generation ago, in the midst of another recession, California spent today's equivalent of $327 per California resident on our higher education system, including the UC, California State University and community college systems. This level of commitment was adequate for sustaining a system that allowed any family in the state, no matter their financial means, to send their children to one of the highest-quality higher education systems in the world. This spending, in turn, drove the innovation that powered the economy of the state. This expenditure was 3.2 times as much as we spent on the entire criminal justice system, reflecting a clear priority of schools over prisons.

By 2008-09, spending on higher education had declined to $263 per California resident, down 20 percent from a generation ago. Among other reasons, this has meant that UC Davis receives only about a quarter of its revenues from the state.

Meanwhile, spending on the criminal justice system has skyrocketed – up more than 220 percent on spending per resident since 1984-85. California now spends nearly 25 percent more on our systems for arresting and locking up people than we do on providing quality education opportunities for our youth and students of all ages.

UC faculty, as well as those in the California State University system, a system facing equally draconian austerity measures, have effectively explained the state policy failures that have resulted in the current crisis, but have been consistently incapable of placing the crisis in a broader national context. UC budget cuts, registration fee increases, layoffs and furloughs have not taken place in a vacuum. They constitute a typical neoliberal response to the most severe economic downtown in the last 70 years. Of course, as many faculty have stated, including the ones quoted above in the linked Sacramento Bee article, the crisis is having a more severe impact upon higher education because of misguided decisions in the past.

There is, however, much more to it than that. As spring turned to summer, the state of California faced a $25 billion budget deficit, despite substantial budget cuts over the course of the previous year. With both the Governor and the Legislature unwilling to consider any more tax increases, large higher education cuts were inevitable. None of the faculty recognize that if the federal stimulus plan had retained billions of dollars in assistance for state and local governments, there would have been a lower state budget deficit, and, hence, less need for higher education budget cuts.

In other words, responsibility for the severity of the current crisis at UC and CSU lies in Washington, with the President and the Congress, as well as with the California Governor and Legislature. President Obama and the Congress gave transnational financial institutions trillions, awarded billions in tax cuts as part of the stimulus plan, and failed to take meaningful action to forestall the blizzard of foreclosures taking place around the country, especially in California, an action that, by itself, would have significantly stabilized the California economy, an economy with an unemployment rate of 12.2%.

For those of us out here in California, Obama's response to our budget crisis was the same that President Gerald Ford gave New York City in 1975: Drop Dead. But don't expect anyone to point this out during the walkout tomorrow, because that would require UC students, workers and faculty to say that the UC system is in crisis partially because of the refusal of a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress to provide assistance. To acknowledge it requires a fundamental change in attitude that would not sit well with a more comfortable partisan way of thinking. Sometimes, though, you can't avoid it if you really want to engage with what is actually happening all around you.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Second Reagan Revolution (Part 2) 

Turns out that Obama liked Reagan a lot more than he let on during the campaign.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Postmodernity of Gossip 

If you click on the link, you will be virtually transported to an excellent article by Alexander Cockburn about gossip, a subject that has interested him for decades. Interestingly, Cockburn never makes the connection, but one can certainly identify gossip as one of the first manifestations of postmodernism, because nothing bespeaks the collapse of metanarratives, such as say, the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom, as well as cultural fragmentation, like gossip.

Perhaps, this overstates the case, though, because, gossip has always been a prominent feature of American history, one need only recall the vicious slanders against Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln. From the country's inception, gossip has always answered the call of resistance against the prospect of social change. As Gore Vidal observed, in a quote from Cockburn's article:

"Gossip?" Gore Vidal said to me. "Gossip is conversation about people. In the United States there has never been actual discussion of issues whenever a personality could take its place. We do that because we can never examine the sort of society we live in. Therefore candidates are rated according to their weight, color of eyes, sexual proclivities, and so forth. It avoids having to face, let us say, unemployment—which is a very embarrassing thing to have to talk about. Anything substantive is out. Otherwise somebody might say this is a very bad society and ought to be changed."

Indeed. His observation raises a troubling question, though, because while the emergence of the United States, and its attendant economic, social and cultural values, have commonly been recognized as the cutting edge of modernism, a modernism that fully flowered in the 20th Century, such an emergence apparently carried within it the seeds of its own demise. Capitalist rationality, the annihiliation of time and space through new forms of communications, ultimately served to gratify the public obsession with personality through gossip, thus undermining the social order associated with it.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Random Observations on Health Care Reform and the Dysfunctionality of Government 

On Tuesday, Montana Senator Max Baucus released his proposed Senate Finance Committee health care reform bill. Of course, it's an atrocity, a bill that exploits the health care crisis as yet another opportunity to transfer wealth from workers to finance capitalists. People will be forced to purchase policies that are useless in the event of a serious health problem, despite inadequate subsidies and non-existent cost containment. Furthermore, there is the additional prospect that individuals fortunate enough to have good policies through, say, collective bargaining agreements, will find themselves forced to pay a 35% surcharge in 2013 to help fund the program.

In other words, we face a looming social and political catastrophe, one in which the middle and lower classes are even more impoverished as a result of conscious government policy than they are today. Progressives are also prognosticating a wipe out for the Democrats in the mid-term elections of 2010, and, possibly, a defeat for President Obama in 2012. But this underestimates the peril. It goes beyond political partisanship and economic hardship to the legitimacy of the political system itself.

California is a bellwether for what is likely to come. As a consequence of a distressed economy, a legislature riven by partisan conflict, an unwillingness by legislators to make any decisions that would place their salaries, per diem and car allowances at risk and a governor who substitutes vapid public relations gestures for policy, the public holds the political system in complete contempt. Both the governor and the legislature are extremely unpopular. It is impossible to generate public support for any measures that would resolve the fiscal crisis and preserve essential public sector programs.

Everyone, and every public institution, is quite literally, on their own. If the Congress puts through health care reform on terms dictated by health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and health care providers, and Obama signs it, this is what we can expect nationally. A collapse in progressive support for the political process, resulting in, at best, gridlock, and, at worst, the passage and implementation of more and more regressive social measures. Combine the passage of such a miserable health care reform bill with possibly as many as 40,000 additional troops for Afghanistan, and we will see the ascendency of an irrational, emotionally driven right wing populism that will escape the boundaries set by Rahm Emanuel and other conservative Democrats, and go beyond preventing the passage of any progressive measures during an Obama administration, to destroying his presidency, and perhaps, the existing social fabric of the country.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

The Honduran Coup Never Happened (Part 4) 

Forgotten all about this, haven't you? The Obama administration, unwilling to challenge an oligarchy that has been closely connected to the US for decades, has taken the silent approach, and just let the Honduran coup fade from public view. Over two and a half months of the last six months of Zelaya's term have already passed. Maybe, by early December, the coup government will let him reenter the presidential palace just long enough to gather up whatever clothes and credit cards he left behind when he was forcibly removed by the military.

One need only look to the International Monetary Fund to recognize the true contours of US policy, as recently reported by Mark Weisbrot:

No country in the world recognizes the coup government of Honduras. From the Western Hemisphere and the European Union, only the United States retains an ambassador there. The World Bank paused lending to Honduras two days after the coup, and the Inter-American Development Bank did the same the next day. More recently the Central American Bank of Economic Integration suspended credit to Honduras. The European Union has suspended over $90 million in aid as well, and is considering further sanctions.

But the IMF has gone ahead and dumped a large amount of money on Honduras – the equivalent would be more than $160 billion in the United States – as though everything is ok there.

This is in keeping with U.S. policy, which is not surprising since the United States has been – since the IMF’s creation in 1944 – the Fund’s principal overseer. Washington has so far made only a symbolic gesture in cutting off about $18.5 million to Honduras, while continuing to pour in tens of millions more.

In fact, more than two months after the Honduran military overthrew the elected president of Honduras, the United States government has yet to determine that a military coup has actually occurred. This is because such a determination would require, under the U.S. Foreign Appropriations Act, a cut off of aid.

One of the largest sources of U.S. aid is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a government entity whose board is chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Interestingly, there were two military coups in the last year in countries that were receiving MCC money: Madagascar and Mauritania. In both of those cases, MCC aid was suspended within three days of the coup.

The IMF’s decision to give money to the Honduran government is reminiscent of its reaction to the 2002 coup that temporarily overthrew President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Just a few hours after that coup, the IMF’s spokesperson announced that “we stand ready to assist the new administration in whatever manner they find suitable.” This immediate pledge of support by the IMF to a military-installed government was at the time unprecedented. Given the resources and power of the IMF, it was an important source of international legitimacy for the coup government. Members of the U.S. Congress later wrote to the IMF to inquire how this happened. How did the IMF decide so quickly to support this illegitimate government? The Fund responded that no decision was made, that this was just an off-the-cuff remark by its spokesperson. But this seems very unlikely, and in the video on the IMF’s web site, the spokesperson appears to be reading from a prepared statement when talking about money for the coup government.

In the Honduran case, the IMF would likely say that the current funds are part of a $250 billion package in which all member countries are receiving a share proportional to their IMF quota, regardless of governance. This is true, but it doesn’t resolve the question as to whom the funds should be disbursed to, in the case of a non-recognized, illegitimate government that has seized power by force. The Fund could very easily postpone disbursing this money until some kind of determination could be made, rather than simply acting as though there were no question about the legitimacy of the coup government.

Interestingly, the IMF had no problem cutting off funds under its standby arrangement with the democratically-elected government of President Zelaya in November of last year, when the Fund did not agree with his economic policies.

Meanwhile, resistance to the coup continues, despite government repression.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Second Reagan Revolution (Part 1) 

One of those posts that we will remember 5 years from now, and recall how we were rendered helpless by the expropriation of the progressive politics of identity in order to further dismantle the social welfare state.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Confessionals of a Situational Nihilist (Part 2) 

In Part 1, I explained why I find the current social climate for progressive, much less radical, change so bleak. Today, I will provide begin to provide some signposts that would, if found, suggest reasons for optimism.

One of the most disheartening developments of the last 30 years has been the acceptance of neoliberal economic doctrine by not only liberals, but even labor unions. During this period, union leadership has become more and more docile, focusing on procedural impediments to union membership, through measures like the Employee Free Choice Act ("EFCA"), instead of direct challenges to the country's economic structure. One of the most vivid concrete expressions of this phenomenon occurred in Seattle in November 1998, when union march marshals directed the participants in a massive union protest away from the direct action civil disobedience taking place downtown near the World Trade Organization assembly hall.

Upon the election of Barack Obama, unions were quiescent as Obama continued to direct trillions of dollars of assistance to transnational banks and brokerage houses, while millions of Americans faced foreclosure. Indeed, they even failed to organize for the passage of the EFCA as major corporations put on a full court press against it, calling into the question the sincerity of this inconsequential endeavor. Unions held innocuous rallies across the country but failed to pressure the President or the Congress to pass it. Meanwhile, in relation to health care reform, unions left it to firebrands like Jane Hamsher and other liberals like her to forestall the abandonment of the public option.

Accordingly, the emergence of a confrontational movement within the unions to push for a more assertive leadership would be cause for cautious optimism. Earlier this year, some health care workers challenged the employer friendly practices of their union, the Service Employees International Union ("SEIU"), by attempting to form a new union, the National Union of Health Care Workers. Unfortunately, that effort has yet to succeed. Meanwhile, emblematic of the Social Darwinism endemic in the union movement, SEIU has attempted to raid members from another union, UNITE HERE. Under conditions of extreme neoliberalism, it is much easier to devour the weak than to confront powerful elites.

For those schooled in the traditions of the left, whether it be Social Democracy, Communism or anarchism, the reinvigoration of trade unionism is an essential precondition to any prospect of a progressive, not to mention revolutionary, social transformation. While there has been many points of disagreement between these leftist variations, there has been one constant. All three have emphasized the necessity of participating in unions as a means of educating and organizing workers in support of a radical, class based politics. None of them, with the exception of anarchists in the 1890s, believed that we could bring about a more just, more egalitarian society independent of the trade union movement. Furthermore, the unions served an essential purpose by providing a means whereby workers could learn how to manage their workplaces for themselves.

If the moribund trade union movement cannot be resuscitated, the consequences for the left are profound. An entirely new doctrinal approach will be required, one that reinterprets class and capitalism in such a way as to present the prospect of social change despite an immobilized union movement. It would require transcending nearly 200 years of modernist left thought that sanctifies the worker as given expression through trade unionism. It is hard to imagine, but it may be unavoidable.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

President Joseph Lieberman 

Surprise, surprise, the President and Joseph Lieberman are on the same page when it comes to abandoning the public option, and, thus, any prospect of meaningful health care reform. It is therefore a good time to reflect on the fact that, contrary to what many Democrats believe, Joseph Lieberman remains front and center when it comes to setting the policy agenda for the Democratic Party.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Death Panels 

One of the most hysterical Republican themes during the health care reform debate has been an insistence that health care reform will result in government financed death panels, panels that will decide whether people live or die, with an emphasis upon abandoning people who will require costly treatments and surgeries to survive. Of course, it is a ludicrous notion.

But, it turns out that Wall Street is considering a new form of securitization that will encourage investors to resist any measures that would result in improved health and longer life:

After the mortgage business imploded last year, Wall Street investment banks began searching for another big idea to make money. They think they may have found one.The bankers plan to buy “life settlements,” life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash — $400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to “securitize” these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die.

The earlier the policyholder dies, the bigger the return — though if people live longer than expected, investors could get poor returns or even lose money.

Either way, Wall Street would profit by pocketing sizable fees for creating the bonds, reselling them and subsequently trading them. But some who have studied life settlements warn that insurers might have to raise premiums in the short term if they end up having to pay out more death claims than they had anticipated.

And, the size of this market for securitization is potentially enormous:

Not all policyholders would be interested in selling their policies, of course. And investors are not interested in healthy people’s policies because they would have to pay those premiums for too long, reducing profits on the investment.

But even if a small fraction of policy holders do sell them, some in the industry predict the market could reach $500 billion. That would help Wall Street offset the loss of revenue from the collapse of the United States residential mortgage securities market, to $169 billion so far this year from a peak of $941 billion in 2005, according to Dealogic, a firm that tracks financial data.

For all the nauseating details, please consider reading the Times article about it in its entirety. Rarely have I encountered something so distateful, so revolting, described in such antiseptic detail.

Susie Madrak had the same reaction that I did when I read the article: why would brokerage houses and investors want health care reform when it would eliminate such a great opportunity to make money? After all, the earlier that people die, the more money that they will make. It goes much further, however, than health care reform. There are already rumblings that there is going to be a bipartisan effort to reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits as a means of reducing the federal deficit. Indeed, the ideological foundation for such an effort has already been laid.

Through the creation of this market, and the profits, transaction fees and bonuses associated with it, we will be creating a powerful economic interest for reducing the life span of many Americans. It goes far beyond Social Security and Medicare, as one is only limited by one's imagination as to means by which this can be done. Putting people in prison shortens their lives? Criminalize as many things as possible. A lot of people use oil and gas for heat in the winter? Make it so expensive that people are forced to choose between food, shelter, clothing and warmth. In other words, increase emotional and physiological stress so much so that it invariably results in shorter lives.

Sound paranoid? Not if you look back and see how the government allowed mortgage brokers, brokerage houses, banks and investors to dismantle the regulatory apparatus that might have prevented the housing bubble. Not if you look back and discover the extent to which the Federal Reserve facilitated the bubble with cheap money. With the securitization of life settlements, the door is open to a remorseless Social Darwinism not seen in this country since the late 19th Century.

Hence, late stage capitalism becomes overtly cannibalistic, moving beyond the dismantling of the social welfare state, and the short term profits associated with privatization, to the inducement of premature death, and the abandoment of one of its most cherished myths, that capitalism is the most ideal system for long life and personal fulfillment. Misery is becoming a necessary precondition for the ongoing operation of the perpetual motion machine known as the world of finance capital.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Confessions of a Situational Nihilist (Part 1) 

A week or so ago, catherine posted a comment to the effect that visiting this site made her feel like turning on the gas. I was tempted to construe the remark as backhanded Goth praise, but the context suggested otherwise.

During the presidential campaign, I encountered this more often, exhortations from local political activists that I was too pessimistic, too dismissive of the prospects for social change as a result of Obama's victory. Strangely, they don't say this to me much anymore.

But catherine points towards some fair questions. Am I just incorrigibly nihilistic or just a situational one? And, if the latter, what would induce to become more optimistic?

Acknowledging that reliance upon my self-analysis is challenging proposition, this is my response. I would consider myself a situational nihilist because of my perception of prevailing social conditions. Unlike partisan political activists, and many liberals, I don't believe that one can rely upon individuals to transform our lives. I consider this to be a form of personality cult politics, and one that invariably results in disappointment.

Accordingly, if you want to evaluate the prospects for a more humane form of capitalism, as given expression in the effort to implement health care reform, or, alternatively, the creation of a more compassionate collective world that rejects the deification of the market, you need to subjectively consider currents conditions.

For me, it is difficult to come to a positive conclusion. Radical movements, with the exception of those associated with environmentalism, are defunct in the US at this time, in marked contrast to other periods of US history, such as the 1820s and 1830s, as well as the 1880s all the way through to the end of the New Deal in 1947. Starting with Haymarket in 1886, there was a continuous, irrepressible radical effort to seize control of the US economy from capitalists and turn it over to the workers. Liberals, progressives and union organizers swam in the slipstream and pushed through numerous reforms, the eight hour day (originally, a proposal put forward by anarchists), better pay, Social Security and provisions related to workplace safety, among many.

One can truly say that they saved capitalism in this country because the Darwinian economic system that accompanied industrialization was unsustainable. But, things have changed for the worse. In the absence of the radicals, liberals, progressive and labor unions find themselves on the defensive, and, in the case of labor unions, fighting for their very survival. More than that, they find themselves incapable of crystallizing an alternative to the neoliberal order that has become more and more entrenched over the last 40 years. A combination of their success and the demoralization of the left brought about by Stalinism are probably responsible for creating the opportunity that neoliberals seized.

As a result, they now possess little ability to influence the political agenda. Examples are common. Despite a recognition that the US economy was about to enter a severe recession, they were incapable of putting forward a program that would have stopped the explosion in home foreclosures and directed federal deficit spending and stimulus funds towards with the greatest need and least responsibility for the spreading financial catastrophe. Instead, the bailout went forward, and, to this day, US economic policy remains one of buttressing the oligopolistic power of banks and brokerage houses like Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America. Even a mildly reformist measure like permitting defaulting homeowners to renegotiate their implausble adjustible rate mortgages in bankrupty court failed in the Senate.

Much the same is now happening with health care reform. As with the bailout, a policy initially justified on the ground of assisting the general public is actually being pursued for the purpose of subsidizing health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and health care providers to an extent never before experienced. To their credit, some liberals, like those over at firedoglake, are fighting the good fight, and they should be praised for it, but, unfortunately, the timing is all wrong, just as it was for Flores Magon in Baja California in 1911.

And, of course, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, with no end in sight, with the very real possibilities that they will be expanded into Iran and Pakistan. So, you ask, what would reverse my pessimism into a cautious optimism? I will answer in a future post.

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