Monday, May 03, 2010

View from the Treetops (3 May '10)

Get Happy

Red Monkey ~ Tien Hee

How long have you humans been buying the wonder of the happiness product?
Looking down from the treetops this monkey understands that happiness is a fundamental human right; you’re born with it and are naturally a happy species. Unfortunately, as you grow up you will need to acquire the means to maintain your happiness – you will need to earn your happiness.
The basic requirement for happiness is work: a noble industry where you all toil together to create noble goods for the betterment of mankind (always keeping in mind the glowing and prosperously happy future you will achieve for yourselves and your offspring).
Unfortunately, it would appear that the noble product requires a stupendous amount of work to be produced, leaving you with just two days out of seven to fully experience your happiness.
So far so simple, but from here on in thing start to get confusing for this monkey: It appears that, in order to fully experience happiness, you need first to alter either your surroundings or your consciousness in some way. It is generally accepted that altering your surroundings first is by far the most efficient way of experiencing happiness: at least one of your two free days should, in order to achieve the best results, be spent shopping for the noble products. Now, to the more cynical among you, this might seem to be little less than more work, but this kind of thinking underestimates the power of happiness. Happiness, if experienced for too long, leads to all sorts of problems: who would create the noble products required to make you all happy? Besides, without work you cannot be happy.
And so we come to the more immediate preparation. In order to fully experience your well earned happiness you must first allow yourself to relax. Relaxation can be achieved in many ways:
  • Some attempt to do nothing, a choice best achieved by either watching other people achieve happiness on television or by watching other people achieve happiness by waging war upon one another on the sports field (a popular choice this one)
  • Some of the more spiritual amongst you attempt to relax by meditating but this method is fraught with problems since (contrary to the belief that meditation clears your head of thoughts) the term meditation almost always leads to thinking, and thinking and relaxation are not necessarily compatible, since thinking often leads to agitation and you all know that you can’t be happy while you’re agitating.
  • but it appears that the most accepted (and indeed effective) means of relaxing is by the consumption of alcoholic beverages (some of you may even find yourselves working to create the noble alcoholic beverages during the week). By all accounts this method, while generally accepted as enjoyable, is rather an inexact science and many find themselves overshooting the happiness mark and ending up sleeping on the pink, woolly mat that some choose to place at the foot of their toilet in order to facilitate kneeling before its altar.
  • Of course there are those foolhardy among you who choose to employ more dangerous measures such as the inhalation or consumption of certain vegetation or the rather more drastic method of introducing chemicals directly into your bloodstream. Now those of you involved in working to produce these latter (not so noble) products may find yourselves in the unhappy position of being rather frowned upon by those who make all of the decisions regarding happiness You will even end up, they say, Un-happy.
No matter which method is employed, the above relaxing usually ends up making quite a mess (some of the noble products are often damaged or broken) and it appears that happiness cannot be experienced by you humans until you have absolved yourselves of all guilt (and indeed all responsibility) for the previous night’s relaxing activities. By far the most effective way of doing so is by attending the religious ceremony where you go in guilty and emerge self-righteous and happy (For the record, we animals find it grossly unfair that the great god who made everything allows only you humans to get this kind of magic).
Strangely, many of you have found that it is possible to pretend to have attended the guilt ceremony and spend your day pretending to be happy (tut-tut).
The strangest part, to my monkey mind, is that the next day, back at work producing the noble product, you all claim that the weekend was spent in the most profound happiness filled with all manner of bizarre occurrences and interesting acquisitions.


The Monkey in Your Soul ~ Steely Dan


By Paul Street

If I’d known you were doing music today I might have brought my electronic keyboard and tried to pull off a version of the old radical tune about a precocious group of 17th century English anti-capitalists called “The Diggers” – a song called “The World Turned Upside Down,” where one lyric says:

They make the laws to chain us well
Their clergy dazzle us with heaven and they damn us down to Hell.
We will not worship the God they serve.
The God of greed who feeds the rich while poor people starve.

I am, for what its worth, a revolutionary socialist. I’ve been one since I was two years old but I only knew it for sure when I was 18. That’s when I read the Communist Manifesto (1848) by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. It was like a bright light bulb going off in a dark attic. I read the Manifesto because it was assigned in a political science class I was taking at Northern Illinois University from this right-wing anti-communist Czechoslovakian √©migr√©. (You had to stand up when he walked into the classroom – no joke). His whole thing was that “you’ve got to know the enemy and to know the enemy you know you’ve got to read the enemy.” (I agree: that’s why I read The Wall Street and the rest of the business press and the corporate media as much as I can). Well, I read the Manifesto and it was like, “excuse me professor, but with all due respect, this is not my enemy.”

“All That is Holy is Profaned”
There are lines in the Manifesto that get etched in your mind forever. At one point Marx and Engels point out that under capitalism, under what they call the rule of the bourgeoisie, everything in the society, everything in the politics, everything in the culture gets hopelessly soaked in the cold nothingness of the cash nexus, the heartless reckoning of monetary self-interest. “The bourgeoisie,” The Manifesto observed, “has …left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value…All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned.” Boy, that sure happened! It’s its still with us, to say the least. Just watch American television: it’s about whatever sells and more often than not its one’s very self and soul that gets put on the market. Just look at the millions who get tossed out of their jobs and evicted from their homes and dropped from the insurance rolls and denied care and who can’t get enough to eat all because of selfish profit and money considerations

“The bourgeoisie,” Marx and Engels continued, “has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.” Yikes – that’s still going on. I just spoke with a law professor about all the law students who go in to his institution thinking their going to do public interest law and then end up working for big corporations so they can make the money to pay off their student loans. I was just talking to an anthropologist about how most of the PhDs in her field now end up working for multinational corporations, helping them de-code indigenous cultures to more effectively sell people things like KFC and McDonalds and cigarettes and other nice stuff so that people can experience endemic lung cancer and childhood obesity and diabetes in the developing world just like us. Another bunch of anthropologists have worked for “the bourgeoisie” a bit more indirectly by helping the Pentagon work up its Counterinsurgency Manual, which assists the U.S. “defense” department in its efforts to invade, occupy, police, and otherwise assault other nations to (among other things) deepen multinational corporations’ control of those nations’ natural resources.

“Unfit to Rule”
The “bourgeoisie,” Marx and Engels wrote in 1848, “is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within its slavery,” The bourgeoisie’s “existence,” Marx and Engels added, a bit prematurely perhaps, “is no longer compatible with society.” I revisited that quote the other day and I went up into my den and pulled off this book I’d almost forgotten about. It’s by a French ecological writer named Herve Kempf and it’s called How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2007). Kempf shows how the rich and powerful feel amazingly indifferent and invincible in the face of global warming and other ecological disasters – disasters that they themselves have created by plundering the Earth to boost their profits, by using their wealth and power to thwart any public and governmental action to protect livable ecology, and by relentlessly promoting the cancerous ideology of growth, which tells us that endless economic expansion, not the redistribution of wealth is the answer to poverty and insecurity. According to Kempf, “the predatory oligarchy” (what Marx and Engels called the bourgeoisie) is “the main agent of the global [ecological] crisis, directly, by the decisions it makes. Those decisions,” Kempf adds, “aim to maintain the order that has been established to favor the objective of material growth, which is the only method, according to the oligarchy, to make the subordinate classes accept the injustice of the social situation.”

If the tide keeps rising, capitalist growth ideology hopes, then all the boats keep rising and we can be more easily convinced to disregard the fact that 1 percent of the boats – the people in the big yachts and cruisers – own more than a third of the wealth in the ocean, leaving 99 percent of the people in their often leaking rowboats and canoes to fight it out for the rest. When the tide recedes the disparities are more clearly exposed.

Well the literal sea is rising along with global temperatures. And the glaciers and snow-caps are melting and the floods and mudslides are increasing and the great forests are in epic retreat. Marx and Engels’ “no longer compatible with society” comment isn’t premature anymore.

“All our problems,” Dorothy Day once said, “stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system” (and I would add, of that system’s ruling class).

Obama the “Socialist” (Give Me a Break)
I wandered into a crowd of tea-baggers in Iowa City three weeks ago and this one old guy says to me, “you’re just one of those goddamned socialists like Obama.” I told him “well, you’re part right at least. I am definitely a socialist. I may or may not be damned by God. But you have no idea what you are talking about when it comes to Barack Obama.”

Last weekend I was on this peace and justice panel in Urbana, IL and this old time militant working class activist from central Illinois gets up and says (among other things) that "people think they got a black president with Obama but all they've really got is a green president – green as in money, not the environment.” “Obama,” the activist added, “is just another ruling class asshole." There was a brief hush around the room as everyone digested the comment and then it was like, "yeah, right on. You said it brother."

Is anybody else here as nauseated as I am by this constant relentless Orwellian nonsensical description of Obama and the Democrats as socialists? Good God, the man is the Kingpin of Corporate Subsidies ….he’s set new records in the transfer of taxpayer dollars to so-called private corporations starting above all with the leading parasitic financial behemoths that crashed this economy in the first place. His auto bailout included subsidies for GM to set up yet more plants in cheaper, non-union plants around the world, just like something out of the Communist Manifesto’s discussion of the bourgeoisie’s relentless quest for profit across the world system.

Obama cut a health reform deal that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, making sure to leave single payer health insurance out of the discussion and making corrupt bargains with those companies long ago – last summer – to keep even a public option out of the package. Obama went to Copenhagen and did the bidding of the energy corporations by coldly undermining any serious move towards desperately needed mandatory carbon emission reductions for the industrialized states that account for the lion’s share of global climate change. That’s “Change we can Bereave in,” as the radical writer Mickey Z says. As Ron Paul – yes, Ron Paul – said recently, Obama is a "corporatist" above all, not (of all things) "a socialist."

Obama’s not really going to seriously control Wall Street; he sure isn’t going to cut its “too-big [and powerful]-to-fail" behemoths down to size. He hasn’t done anything real and he won’t do anything real to move on his campaign promise to push the Employee Free Choice Act, which could have re-legalized unions in this country, where union density is back to historic lows at 6 percent – yes SIX Percent (we’re talking early 20th century here, people) – of the private sector workforce. Capital opposes the EFCA and therefore so does Obama, who went to the headquarters of Caterpillar to sell his stimulus bill last year – to Caterpillar, the first major American manufacturers to smash labor with permanent strikebreaker replacements during the Reagan era. That was a big raised middle finger to the working class and to organized labor, what's left of it.

By the way Noam Chomsky was the first person I saw to point out that Caterpillar connection (he isn’t just about foreign policy). Another thing that Chomsky has been pointing out lately is that Obama is “offering federal stimulus money to Spanish firms to produce the high-speed rail facilities that the US badly needs, and that could surely be produced by the highly skilled work force that is reduced to penury in Ohio.”

How’s that for “socialist” policy -- shutting down auto plants in the Midwest, exporting jobs to China, and contracting with Spain for skilled and green transportation jobs and infrastructure development that are urgently required here in "the heartland"?

Meanwhile, Obama has passed the biggest Pentagon budget in history, itself a giant subsidy to high-tech corporations like Boeing and Raytheon and along the way he has kept the U.S. global military "machine set on kill" (Allan Nairn) as he conducts his child-bombing five-front petro-imperialist terror war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and as he militarizes U.S. policy in Latin America and Africa and provoking nuclear Russia.

So don’t talk to me about this guy being a leftist radical. Don’t give me this Tea Party/talk-radio crap about Obama being a "socialist."

Socialism Defined
Socialism is widely and very weakly understood – misunderstood – as little more than simply government intervention in the economy. That misunderstanding is a big part of how so many right wingers can get sucked into idiotically thinking that Obama and the Democrats are socialists. But it isn’t just right wingers who get lost. “Oh, I believe in government intervention,” a liberal told me last year, “so I guess I’m a socialist.”

No. That statement leaves out the critical question: government intervention and social policy and practice by and for whom? What we’ve seen with Obama and the Republicans and other Democrats before him is top-down state-capitalist intervention like the Wall Street bailouts and the insurance mandates and subsidies and people confuse that with left ideology. That’s government intervention for the rich and powerful few – corporate socialism if you like. We actual socialists are (among other things) about government intervention for the working class many.

Socialism for me starts with two key core and overlapping things: (1) participatory, bottom-up and institutionally empowered workers’ control of the work process in the interests of equality, democracy, social use value, and ecological sustainability; (2) democratic planning of the overall economy for human needs, for social use value, for the common good and not the profits of the few. Socialism is the democratic negation and transcendence of capitalism or, if you prefer, of the profits system.

The Filthy Rotten Profits System
What is Capitalism? My second unabridged edition of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines that filthy rotten system as follows: “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution, as land, factories, railroads, etc., are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc."

Please note four things about this definition:

One, the definition contains ample room for significant government involvement: there is plenty of state allowed in capitalism by the official definition. In and of itself, government intervention is not a negation of capitalism; it is in fact part of it.

Two, the definition does not see the rise of giant corporations as anything but the natural outcome of capitalism as it develops over time. It offers no support to petit bourgeois reformers who want to set up a dichotomy between (A) the supposedly good proprietary capitalism of the past and the (B) bad corporate capitalism of the present. B emerges quite logically from A and those who just want to get rid of corporations (and corporate personhood) without developing a deeper alternative (workers control + democratic economic planning) to the profits system as such are not doing the radical-democratic cause a favor.

Third, Webster’s deletes capitalism’s pronounced tendency to reduce much of the working age populace to wage and salary slavery - dependent employee status - in any society it takes over.

Fourth, the definition quite properly contains no reference to the "democracy" and "freedom" with which is routinely and falsely conflated in "mainstream" U.S. media a political discourse. No, it is an economic system one that is at core about profit and wealth concentration and the related rise of “great corporations” (and of what we today call “big government”) and nothing more.

But, it’s not just different than democracy and liberty. More than being merely dissimilar to cherished Western ideals of popular self-governance, freedom, and (we should add) the common good, capitalism is fundamentally opposed to all those core principles. Its key characteristics include

* A consistent drive towards the ever-greater undemocratic concentration of wealth and power

* A constant and unequal battle between the wealth of the capitalist Few and the income, security, autonomy, health, and sanity of the working class Many.

* The relentless reduction of the majority of the working-age populace to the dependent and vulnerable status of employees – to wage and salary slavery.

* The authoritarian and hierarchical division, command, distortion, perversion, and stultification of the human work process.

* The contingency of employment for many on profitable exploitation by a business firm: no work and hence no wages/salary unless some capitalist interest finds it profitable to employee you.

* A disconnect called surplus value between the amount of wealth you create for or transfer to your employer and the compensation you are granted for renting out your labor power.

* The soulless, dehumanizing hegemony of exchange value over social and human use value.

* The private ownership and propagandistic management of core opinion-forming, and “reality”-distorting cultural and communications sectors from the New York Time and NBC to American Idol and the Disney Channel.

* Wildly disproportionate political influence for the capitalist elite, with much of its surplus pooled and protected in giant, impersonal corporations, whose directors are legally mandated to privilege investor profit over any and all other concerns

* A dangerous addiction to militarism and the production of means of mass destruction both as a direct source of profit and as tools to expand the global reach of the profits system and to protect elite investments across the planet.

* Last but not least and related to all of the above, capitalism entails a relentless profit-addicted, “cost-externalizing” business assault on livable ecology. This last assault has reached the point where it is I think fair to say along with the great Hungarian Marxist Istvan Meszaros that “if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, then there can be no future of humanity itself.” We have come to a point where the really dangerous and unrealistic utopianism – the truly fantastic belief – is to think that we can advance the human and democratic prospect without getting rid of the eco-cidal rich and their filthy rotten profits regime, with its underlying unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.

Savage Inequalities
Recall that quote I gave at the beginning from my good friends Marx and Engels, the one where they say that the bourgeois is “unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within its slavery.” Now in the rich nations of the world you could look around at the living standards for millions of people and raise some problems with the statement – no doubt about it. Lots of people have been living pretty damn well. Their existence seems pretty assured. But how did the bourgeoisie, the oligarchy, pull this off? How did they create the American and European and Japanese half-century of phenomenal economic expansion and mass consumerism? Among other things, by exploiting and expanding a global shantytown economy in which more than 2 billion people struggle to live on less than a dollar a day. Eighty percent of the human race lives in the global South people…they live and die and struggle many of them in the periphery of the world capitalist system and in much of that periphery life is cheap and existence is less than assured. Another thing the oligarchy, Marx’s bourgeoisie did to achieve its great 20th century take off was to rape the world of its natural resources and then recklessly shit solid, vaporous, and liquid waste back into the water, land and air to a degree that now threatens the near-term existence of the human species so that is now reasonable to say along with Meszaros that its “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”

At the same time, sound material existence is ever more less assured to millions right here in the world’s richest and most powerful nation, where we now have an unemployment rate that (if it were properly calculated to include involuntarily part-time workers and people who have given up on finding work) rivals that of the Great Depression. I know of at least five neighborhoods in my home city of Chicago where more than 40 percent of the children are living at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. More than any time since I’ve lived in this wonderful and terrible nation, the slowing tide of toxic growth is exposing savage inequalities (straight out of Marx and the Diggers) to those who bother to look. Even the local paper in Owatonna, Minnesota yesterday had a column noting that the bottom 50 percent of U.S. taxpayers now possesses a combined 2.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The top 10 percent owns 70 percent (Owatonna People’s Press, April 16, 2010. p. A4). That sounds like something from The Communist Manifesto!

The Enemy At Home
The big question is of course what to do about it, how to turn our rejection of the God of greed (the essence of capitalism) into a relevant movement of an actual Left. Let’s be honest:left true progressives right now lack anything close to the organizational and political presence that is required at this moment of peril when, as Meszaros says, is “there can be no future of humanity" if no radical mass movement emerges “in our time.”

Some, much of this weakness is our fault. Much of it is not, for the power elite logically invests a lot of surplus social and political capital in defeating progressive and solidaristic ideas in this country, where the stakes of wealth and power are incredibly high – higher than anywhere else on the planet.

I want to get into that key question – what is our fault and what isn’t – in the Q and A. Before doing that, however, I want to conclude with a quotation from a young ex-soldier named Mike Prysner – a comment he made while speaking to Iraq Veterans Against the War last December. After characterizing the Iraq occupation as Washington sending “poor and working in this country “to “kill poor and working people in another county [and] to make the rich richer,” Prysner focused on the real threat to “homeland security” in the United States. "I threw families on to the street in Iraq,” Prysner said, “only to come home and see families thrown on to the street in this county in this tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis.” Prysner related his realization “that our real enemies are not in some distant land. They're not people whose names we don't know and whose culture we don't understand. The enemy is people we know …people we can identify. The enemy is a system that wages war when it's profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off from our jobs when it's profitable. It's the insurance companies who deny us health care when it's profitable. It's the banks who take away our homes when it's profitable. Our enemy is not 5000 miles away. They are right here at home.” “Without racism,” Prysner noted, “soldiers would realize that they have more in more in common with the Iraqi people than they do with the billionaires who send us to war.” (See Prysner’s remarkable speech at

That’s how actually radical American activists, workers, soldiers, and intellectuals have felt and thought since the first labor struggles in this country and up through the Haymarket Martyrs and Joe Hill and Eugene Debs and Howard Zinn to the present day. In the 164 words I just read, the young veteran Mike Prysner spoke more genuinely radical, root-and-branch truth than the great bourgeois speechifier Barack Obama has spoken in the hundreds of all-knowing, stealthily conservative orations he has given over the last eight years. Thank you very much.

Paul Street's next book is The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, July/August 2010). Street ( is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).

Via ZNet


Zaina Anwar (Indigenous Dialogues) said...

"In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation".

"the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires. The spectacle's estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual's gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him."

GUY DEBORD (The Society of the Spectacle)

Pisces Iscariot said...

Zaina: Goldust! Thank you for pointing DeBord out to me; I had not heard of him and have now found an online publication of his work at

Zaina Anwar said...

Yeah, is great. Read him, he has lots of intereting things to say...

Yodood said...

Pisces, Tou've gone and done it again!

This is some very powerful shit — fertilizing a new post about just what DeBord posits: our insistence that some sort of system provide "assurance of our existence" is the gesture of responsibility "that is no longer our own" as the fully capable of survival beings we were born to be and may acknowledge once again.

As beautiful as the sentiments of socialism are and as close to my empathy with the misery caused by capitalism as it is, I can only see it valid as a personal way of life. As a change to the driver of a system already too large to succeed, it becomes drained of value just as was the ideal of free enterprise when quality got rebranded quantity.

Redistributing the prosthetics won't bring us a better recognition of the happy to be capable beings were born to be, we'll all just be more equally dependent on the energy required for them to service us with a gesture spectacle and, therefore, more unconsciously so.

Pisces Iscariot said...

I agree for the most part with what you are saying but while my views tend toward the anarchist I do find relevance in socialism too. (on the fence with an ear to the ground) :D
I posted Paul Street's piece here primarily for its critique of the current 'socialist' CEO of Amerika Inc. ;]

Harlequin said...

wonderful stuff and thank you thank you.

Canada, my nation-state, functions within a sort of embarrassed socialism. The neighbour to the south is a strange bed fellow.

and I could not agree more with the rejection of Mr. President as a socialist. Ha!

I enjoyed how you put this whole post together.

Confessions of a Temporal Lobe said...

I'll be thinking about this post for a very long effin' time. I'd say til i am old and gray, but i'm already old and gray.

This post voiced a lot of things that I have been thinking for a very long time but do not the ability to articulate. Thanks for that.