Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bad Laws Are Made to be Broken!

It's December, and if you're in the western world that means you're being inundated with the month-long cultural ritual known as Christmas Season. If you're like me, you spend some time during Christmas Season thinking about its attendant cultural signifiers. Here's something that's been rolling around in my head: "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" - the song - has always had a taste of the fascist to it. The 1934 song could just as easily be some weird paean to the NSA with it's lines about knowing when you're sleeping and whether you've been a bad, bad citizen kiddo.

So that makes it extra striking that the 1970 Christmas Special of the same name is basically Santa Claus for Anarcho-Whovians. The Rankin/Bass special, featuring the vocal talents of Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney, presents a counter-cultural rebel intent on bringing down the established order and creating a culture that rebels against the Cult of Productivity. And frankly, the whole thing plays like a Troughton-era serial of Doctor Who, with Mr. Claus himself in the role of the Doctor.

Going through the story, moments stand out. The villain - the head of the state in the hamlet of Sombertown - Burgermeister Meisterburger, finds an orphaned Claus on his doorsteps. His solution is to send the child to the state-run "Orphan Asylum" which we're made to know is a wretched fate displaces the burden of helping those in need from the community and instead shifts that burden to an uncaring, unfeeling institution. Luckily, nature intervenes and whisks the baby Claus off to the Kringle family, who raise him up to follow in their profession of toymakers.

As Claus gets older, he makes his return to Sombertown. This is shortly after Burgermeister Meisterburger vindictively passes a series of laws banning toys from the town. So not only does the film portray the apparatus of the state as bad - who would send a kid to Sombertown's Orphan Asylum? - but the political leader is also stupid, cruel and has the ability to use the power of the state to maliciously enforce his bad laws on a disenfranchised populace.

Seeing the oppression taking place in the aptly named Sombertown, Claus cannot stand by idly. As he meets two children and the local schoolteacher, Miss Jessica, he knowingly and deliberately begins distributing toys in direct violation of the law of the land. His is not a simple act of ignorance, but willful defiance of an illegitimate authority. Like the Second Doctor dropping into an oppressed society, he agitates for revolution while playing a bit of a clown figure (he also softens some of the most sketchy lyrics of the song the film's title is based on by making the lines a natural reflection of his personal disposition rather than some weird behavioral program).

Of course, Claus is caught by the Burgermeister and his state lackeys. As the Burgermeister praises the way the lack of play or toys will discipline the local children and make them productive members of society,* he runs into Claus and his toy distribution scheme. The Burgermeister explicitly refers to Claus as a "nonconformist" and "rebel." In classic Troughton-esque style, Claus acts in a casually disarming manner while fully embracing the role of antagonist to the powers that be. After a brief confrontation, Claus escapes the police and goes on the run.

*Presumably, given that this was released in 1970 this is supposed to be some kind of commentary on foreign totalitarianism (the Burgermeister is German, but the drabness and focus on efficiency and productivity feel a lot like a swipe at the Soviet Union). It's astonishing how well the Burgermeister and his view now reflects Capitalist orthodoxy and the new thinking of how public education is supposed to produce an army of well-trained, docile workers to be thrown in the maw of consumer culture.

On the run, Claus meets the Winter Warlock and melts his heart. Like the Doctor, Claus brings companions on board his adventure and they have transformative experiences where they become better people for their time with the Doctor. The song that Claus and the Warlock sing together - One Foot in Front of the Other - is particularly striking. It posits that the ability to change oneself comes from within, and echoes a sentiment from Leo Tolstoy that I've referenced regularly, particularly in how I think it get to the heart of what Doctor Who can be about at its best:
There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man.
The scene with the Warlock and Claus specifically sees the Warlock "regenerating" from his bad old appearance to his friendlier, wizard personality. I've always been primarily a fan of an anarchism that is deeply personal and focused on the betterment of oneself, and the strive to change one's manner of thinking and way of engaging with one's fellows. This hews closely to all that, and sets the stage for some of the closing scenes of the film.

Claus also finds that Miss Jessica - who was persuaded of the rightness of Claus' anti-authoritarian position - has followed him. She gets a song where she essentially has a moment of self-reflection and comes to better understand her own value system and motivations. It's great because the entire sequence is insanely trippy. There's really no other way to look at it except as the enlightenment that comes from an acid trip. The self-actualization narrative and the visuals all reflect the kind of stuff that was coming out of the 60s counter-cultural movement. In fact, it reminded me nothing so much as Doctor Who's The Krotons which similarly embraced the counter-culture of the time and the drug component of it as well. With this sequence, the film further aligns itself to an anti-authoritarian position and entrenches itself as a weird echo of Doctor Who.

The narrative goes on to explain that Miss Jessica becomes Mrs. Claus and the two get married on Christmas Eve. By this time Claus is on the run from the authorities and has become an outlaw hiding in the forests and mountains. There's a bit of a deal made in the film of how Claus and Jessica marry in the forest as they've been turned away from towns due to their outlaw status and being married before the eyes of God or somesuch. What's really interesting here is how the Winter Warlock, stripped of his power in an earlier scene, calls upon God to grant him some power to due some lighting tricks at the wedding ceremony. To be sure, this is not a staid, orthodox view of God.

In fact, nothing in the film really suggests a traditional, Christian view of a higher power. "God" is fairly nebulous and all that's said about the significance of Christmas could just as easily apply to any of the pre-Christian holidays that went on at that time of the year. Indeed, the film explicitly links any concept of a higher power with the pagan magic of the Winter Warlock. Rather that representing an authoritarian deity, the film seems to treat questions of faith in the sort of cosmic sense we might find in 60s counter-culture or the Doctor Who scripts of David Whitaker.

Eventually, Claus becomes the Santa Claus we all know today. The brilliance is that he "beats" the Meisterburger simply by changing minds and attitudes. There is no formal revolution (so, un-Troughton-like in that sense) but instead a follow-through on Tolstoy's call for the permanent revolution. The people of Sombertown realize they simply don't need the laws in place and so go on with their lives ignoring them. Santa Claus is free to embrace his chosen life regardless of what laws may be on the books and the people of Sombertown seem to get on just fine without a Burgermeister figure to rule over them.

A brief coda follows, where the narrator explains that some folks still just don't get Christmas. While one of the "examples" is a store clerk who is clearly just tired of having to take the brunt of abuse from the consumer capitalist side of the holiday, and thus a rather unfortunate target to pick on, the fascinating inclusion is the industrial businessman spouting platitudes about how silly it is celebrate Christmas with so much suffering in the world. Of course, he probably supports a Burgermeister-esque vision of molding people into compliant workers and the suffering he's referring to is caused largely by the economic system he propagates and profits from. I think the film cleverly sets this character up: we're supposed to read the bullshit in his feigned concern for the poor. Now that we're at the end of the film, we as viewers have the tools to recognize that the company boss is simply another burgermeister in need of a good toppling.

A triumph for anarchists and Doctor Who fans alike. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fight for Your Right to Party

Jill Filipovic at Feministe recently put forward the thought experiment:
Would you limit abortion to 12 weeks if it meant getting a full range of other reproductive health benefits?
And then went on to answer in the affirmative, using France as an example with such a system that has produced relatively positive results. It's a thoughtful article, and worth reading.

Unfortunately, it's also ultimately the wrong question and posed in a thoroughly useless way. As far as it goes, it's almost a meaningless thought experiment (I use that term instead of hypothetical since the entire conceit is - as the author admits - beyond the realm of plausibility). Of course given a choice between two extremely sub-optimal options, you go with the one that will produce the best results. If we're limiting rights either way, best to go the route the causes the least suffering, duh. That's not a particularly clarifying result.

In fact, Filipovic's hypothetical has the most in common with the false choice presented by sweat shop apologists, which always goes something along the lines of "well, sweat shops are better than all of those people being jobless and starving to death." Well, yeah, when you restrict the options in front of you to those two results, sweat shops look like the best thing on the table. But, of course, the basic underlying framework that the sweat shop apologists promote is fundamentally flawed: it's a choice that makes assumptions about the basic validity of property and wealth distribution schemes as promoted and enforced by the international Neo-Liberal ruling class. There are lots of other alternative choices that would be even better than the two presented by sweat shop apologists: labor capturing and controlling the means of production being just one alternative that should be considered and advocated for.

So it goes on the body rights question. Would you limit one set of rights in exchange for broadening of another set of rights? Well, set aside for the moment that I passionately reject the very idea that the state has any business limiting the human rights of anyone and let's consider the harm caused by restricting the question in such a way. Filipovic short circuits the possibility of advocating for the expansiveness of all rights, something that advocates should generally be striving for. She also short circuits the possibility of addressing the underlying structural issues in play here, i.e. what I had just said I would set aside but apparently won't: that the state has no business restricting any of these body rights in the first place. Filipovic's question - like the sweat shop apologists - tacitly accept the frameworks of the ruling class by accepting body rights (especially female body rights) as something non-essential to be traded for other (apparently-not-really-) rights.

In the daily grind of policy making, trade-offs are often required to produce least-bad outcomes. No one disputes that. But the vantage point of ethics- and rights-free advocacy has moved out of lawmaking territory and come to infect the intellectual framework of advocates and activists. When you accept the underlying structural limits that the ruling classes have imposed on the rest of us, you limit the horizons you can strive for.

And when feminist advocates push for limiting abortion rights for women, they don't create a space for other rights to be expanded (as the author says they won't), they just provide more cover for those who would seek to limit the rights of others to go on with their terrible business.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Free Nelson Mandela

Jack Graham has already gotten the ball rolling on properly assessing the legacy and life of Nelson Mandela, who passed away last week. Here's his basic takeaway:
Let's mourn the passing of a fighter against racial discrimination, who endured decades of suffering (on a level that I can't even conceptualise, let alone imagine myself tolerating) for his principles. But let's not lose ourselves in lachrymose sentimentality and forget the real history of post-Apartheid South Africa.
And was that post-Apartheid history. Jack starts pointing us in the right direction with a pair of articles. The first is from John Pilger, who interviewed Mandela shortly before he died. The most salient grafs:
Few ordinary South Africans were aware that this “process” had begun in high secrecy more than two years before Mandela’s release, when the ANC in exile had, in effect, done a deal with members of the Afrikaner elite at a stately home, Mells Park House, near Bath. The prime movers were the corporations that had underpinned apartheid.

Around the same time, Mandela was conducting his own secret negotiations. In 1982, he had been moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, where he could receive and entertain people. The apartheid regime’s aim was to split the resistance between the “moderates” that it could “do business with” (Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Oliver Tambo) and those in the front-line townships who were leading the United Democratic Front. On 5 July 1989, Mandela was spirited out of prison to meet P W Botha, the white-minority president known as Die Groot Krokodil (“the big crocodile”). Mandela was delighted that Botha poured the tea.

With democratic elections in 1994, racial apartheid ended and economic apartheid had a new face. The Botha regime had offered black businessmen generous loans, allowing them to set up companies outside the Bantustans. A new black bourgeoisie emerged quickly, along with a rampant cronyism. ANC chieftains moved into mansions in “golf and country estates”. As the disparities between white and black narrowed, they widened between black and black.

The familiar refrain that the wealth would “trickle down” and “create jobs” was lost in dodgy merger deals and “restructuring” that cost jobs. For foreign companies, a black face on the board often ensured that nothing changed. In 2001 George Soros told the World Economic Forum in Davos, “South Africa is in the hands of international capital.”
This is less an aberration of contemporary economic policy or simply a twisted echo of Apartheid, and more the bread and butter of modern Death Capitalism. Naomi Klein gives a full analysis which should really be read in its entirety, but here's a bit of it:
Some commissioners felt that multinational corporations that had benefited from apartheid should be forced to pay reparations. In the end the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made the modest recommendation of a one-time 1 percent corporate tax to raise money for the victims, what it called "a solidarity tax." Sooka expected support for this mild recommendation from the ANC; instead, the government, then headed by Mbeki, rejected any suggestion of corporate reparations or a solidarity tax, fearing that it would send an anti-business message to the market. "The president decided not to hold business accountable," Sooka told me. "It was that simple." In the end, the government put forward a fraction of what had been requested, taking the money out of its own budget, as the commissioners had feared. 

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is frequently held up as a model of successful "peace building," exported to other conflict zones from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan. But many of those who were directly involved in the process are deeply ambivalent. When he unveiled the final report in March 2003, the commission’s chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, confronted journalists with freedom’s unfinished business. "Can you explain how a black person wakes up in a squalid ghetto today, almost 10 years after freedom? Then he goes to work in town, which is still largely white, in palatial homes. And at the end of the day, he goes back home to squalor? I don’t know why those people don’t just say, ‘To hell with peace. To hell with Tutu and the truth commission.’

Sooka, who now heads South Africa’s Foundation for Human Rights, says that she feels that although the hearings dealt with what she described as "outward manifestations of apartheid such as torture, severe ill treatment and disappearances," it left the economic system served by those abuses "completely untouched"—an echo of the concerns about the blindness of "human rights" expressed by Orlando Letelier three decades earlier. If she had the process to do over again, Sooka said, "I would do it completely differently. I would look at the systems of apartheid—I would look at the question of land, I would certainly look at the role of multinationals, I would look at the role of the mining industry very, very closely because I think that’s the real sickness of South Africa. . . . I would look at the systematic effects of the policies of apartheid, and I would devote only one hearing to torture because I think when you focus on torture and you don’t look at what it was serving, that’s when you start to do a revision of the real history."
And some numbers:
After more than a decade since South Africa made its decisive turn toward Thatcherism, the results of its experiment in trickledown justice are scandalous:
  • Since 1994, the year the ANC took power, the number of people living on less than $1 a day has doubled, from 2 million to 4 million in 2006.
  • Between 1991 and 2002, the unemployment rate for black South Africans more than doubled, from 23 percent to 48 percent.
  • Of South Africa’s 35 million black citizens, only five thousand earn more than $60,000 a year. The number of whites in that income bracket is twenty times higher, and many earn far more than that amount.
  • The ANC government has built 1.8 million homes, but in the meantime 2 million people have lost their homes.
  • Close to 1 million people have been evicted from farms in the first decade of democracy.
  • Such evictions have meant that the number of shack dwellers has grown by 50 percent. In 2006, more than one in four South Africans lived in shacks located in informal shantytowns, many without running water or electricity.
And let's not forget the time that Mandela, as Walter Glass puts it, "invaded a tiny country to crush a popular protest and take their water":
In recent years, the SADC — dominated by South Africa since the demise of apartheid (the South African economy is three times bigger than the economies of all other SADC countries combined) — has had another reason to want a pliant regime in Lesotho: the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP).

This US$8 billion, four-phase mega-dam project is jointly funded by South African capital and the World Bank. It is one of the largest infrastructure developments in the world and construction is to begin soon on the scheme's second phase.

The LHWP was dreamed up by the apartheid regime in 1986, and accepted by Lesotho's military regime recently installed by Pretoria.

The aim of the project was to pump massive amounts of water to South Africa to meet its agricultural and industrial needs. South Africa consumes 80% of southern Africa's water, yet has just 10% of its water sources. Studies have shown that without new sources of water, South Africa's fresh water resources would be fully used up by between 2025 and 2030.

Both Botswana and Namibia would benefit from the project. Lesotho, on the other hand, would be compelled to pump water to South Africa even in times of drought.
The picture painted here is of a great, revolutionary man and party ensnared by the forces of Neo-Liberalism. Whether the motivation was self-interest or a genuine belief that abandoning economic policies that would help the poor and disenfranchised would be offset in the long-run by the garnering of political power is beside the point. The levers of power are designed primarily to benefit elites, that some new elites can enter their ranks at the expense of the vast seas of the marginalized is no great victory.

On a related note, it's been disgusting see a week of the American news cycle breathlessly slobbering over Nelson Mandela, not for his truly courageous revolutionary period, but for his post-prison positions and policies. Besides the unfortunately usual grotesqueness that is seeing old, powerful, rich white men like Tom Brokaw reminisce with a barely constrained glee about how it was his imprisonment that made Nelson Mandela a great man (because no black man could be great if it weren't for the actions of his white betters, eh? Shades of the imperialist claptrap that is Richard Attonborough's Gandhi), there was the added insult of seeing talking head after talking head declare that it was Mandela's commitment to reconciliation and moving away from his past "divisiveness" that made him a paragon of virtue. Unfortunately, what the overhelmingly white, corporate class calls "reconciliation" folks like Pilger and Klein astutely recognize as the abandonment of policies of economic equality and the embracing of top-down class warfare.

It's tempting to lay blame at the feet of the ANC, or perhaps if we're feeling particularly cynical, at the feet of Nelson Mandela himself. But doing so would requiring disregarding the genuine courage and moral rectitude that characterized so much of Mandela's life. Instead, the lesson here is one of how structures of power imbalance tend to use people to perpetuate those structures, and not - as is popularly imagined - a sort of reversal where a person can come in and change the system from within. Nelson Mandela found that out, and so did we, when he was absorbed into the body of the state and its relentless drive towards neo-liberalism. As Kevin Carson puts it:
The state, in its essence, is a tool for exploitation by an economic ruling class. You’ll never end exploitation by putting “revolutionaries” in control of the state. You’ll just create a new ruling class.
After witnessing the rise of Nelson Mandela, I'm inclined to agree.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Aaaaaaand back!

Wow. Dusting off the cobwebs here. I've decided I want a place for more "serious" writing and whatnot than my Tumblr was really conducive for. Expect a total overhaul of this place as I make it fit for habitation again.