All of the public schools in the United States of America, from kindergarten through doctoral programs in higher education, should be free of charge and open to anyone with sufficient intellectual curiosity and merit.

 

Instead, the Republican establishment has doubled down on school privatization efforts, and our president-elect looks as if he will continue this form of despotism.

 

I admit it: as faculty at a public research university, I have a vested financial interest in preserving public education. Last year’s salary was $58,790, about the same as a fully certified high school teacher in the state of Ohio. Nevertheless, my conflict of interest cannot remotely compare with those of the “reformers” who want to bring profitability into a sphere that cannot function well under for-profit conditions. For-profit operations drive up costs for the consumer, while driving down quality and breaking yet another source of income for our dwindling middle class.

As Diane Ravitch argues:

“There is no evidence for the superiority of privatization in education. Privatization divides communities and diminishes commitment to that which we call the common good. When there is a public school system, citizens are obligated to pay taxes to support the education of all children in the community, even if they have no children in the schools themselves. We invest in public education, because it is an investment in the future of our society.”

We are hardly “cartels,” as Paul Ryan has described us. Google “cartel” and you see the violence of Mexican drug lords. There can be a comparable analogy drawn from when our schools are weak –– students drop out, join questionable organizations, crime increases, and the teachers burn out one way or another. It is, indeed, a crime against American-style democracy to underfund and thereby slowly snuff out the public schools that make democratic thinking and voting possible.

The 21st Century offers too many complex challenges to then have schools and universities abandon their fundamental mandates in favor of religious-tinged “science” or  sub-standard services while corporations make profits.

 

We as a country have foolishly put too many wolves in charge of our hen houses. It is time for us to intervene. Indeed, the future of critical thought and action, of class mobility and non-violent pursuits, in this country depends on it.

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After being carefully steered through our existence by others, it should come as no surprise that we are granted legitimacy only as nodes of a social network much larger than ourselves.

Facebook is what you might call a vulgar expression of that network, a vast human information-gathering service that interpenetrates business, art, personal, and public spheres with equal impunity. In this respect, Facebook is not unique: Google, Microsoft, Apple — these are all companies that have built business models around the harvesting and control of global information flows. The recent NSA scandal has only sharpened global interest in these for-profit surveillance industries, but only the naïve could have earlier thought that all the personal information supplied to these industries was simply being tucked aside somewhere, unexamined and encrypted. On the contrary, the dot-com crash of the late 90s more-or-less drove market models specifically toward the following end state: users are brought in with “free” products, and then the users themselves become the product. James Schirmer has recently described such “services” as “institutionware.” Here I excerpt his argument:

Institutionware is software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. … The aims of institutionware: decrease user agency, increase user dependency, preserve market dominance, contain “features” … Institutionware decreases user agency and increases user dependency by demanding and reinforcing user compliance. … Institutionware preserves market dominance through a blanket of equivalence in systems and users. Even limited use propagates further use. … Instititutionware is about preserving the institution as it is and has been, enhancing/supporting rather than challenging/threatening.

To return to the idea of the network: there is an overdetermined quality to how we are seen today as being “plugged in.” What if the voluntary nature of our being interpenetrated by digital networks is fundamentally flawed? That is, Facebook would rather see us never log out, than see us engage in other forms of networking (face-to-face conversation, letter writing, reading each other’s books, etc.) What if, given our consent to be plugged into just a little, we have consented to a whole-scale strip-mining of our digital identities for profit? But this is not Facebook’s fault; it is, rather, a company “merely” trying to survive in an exceedingly regressive, reactionary business climate that privileges only establishment ideas and passes the consequences of “social change” onto the consumer, as per Ian Bogost’s idea of hyperemployment.

So many of us depend on Facebook, not only for information but also employment and familial contacts. So much of Facebook relies on such co-dependency, and our present-day obsession with the service (before it is replaced by something even more megalomaniacal) should give us pause about the kinds of drugs peddled here in the 21st Century. Why rely on chemicals, when the digital can give each and every one of us our fix for free?

Free for a price, of course.

This cartoon made the rounds a while back, but I still strongly identify with its sentiment:


The convergence of all media into one or two devices has had untold effects on the human relationship to information, and certainly has probably had effects on our brains as well.

Philosopher Glenn McLaren proposes in an article in the latest Cosmos and History that the virtual reality of the Internet has made us “hunter and gatherers” in a forest of information, rather than independent, critical and deep thinkers.

As someone grappling with something akin to Internet addiction (okay, let’s just say I am addicted), it spoke quite a bit to my own experience.

After about 2009, I began to lose the ability to apply my attention to any long task when the Internet or other social media were available. On any big project, it has become an absolute necessity to shut off my connectivity to get any work done. Whole days have been lost to aimless wandering of forums, reading of digital newspapers, blogs, and the like. Though I’m a film scholar, I probably spend the least time on YouTube of anybody, preferring instead the back catalog of Film Philosophy or The Forge for my reading to distract me from all the pressing projects on which I need to focus. Nevertheless, pressing issues and deadlines do not impact my consciousness as they used to, convincing me the web has some kind of narcotic effect.

McLaren goes further to state that this shortening of the attention span and the sudden total equivalency of information has had noticeable political consequences, i.e. a certain docility and conformity as subjects no longer need to construct radically individual, deeply conceived opinions of anything to continue to spread their impact on the world.

How do I unchange my mind, so I reach a pre-2009 level of focus, attention and memory, themselves perhaps the most critical items necessary for my political consciousness?

As I move toward the summer, one of my most productive working periods, I caution myself against spending too many time trawling the Internet for novelty, and will consign myself to my stack of books and films I haven’t consumed while my brain drifted through the Internet’s networked isles.

Here’s acknowledgement of the irony that I feel compelled to blog about this topic, and encouragement for anyone to take the same occasional intense hiatuses I do. For intellectual survival, you understand.

Remember, above all else, that tomorrow is International Workers’ Day.

Unless you’re a big property owning industrialist, tomorrow is meant for you.

May Day now will always remind of the big party in Kreuzberg and the scuffles in Berlin while I was there in 2010.

It will also recall the fact that, despite calls for the youth to make war against the old, the enemy still remains the oldest of all: capitalism.

I will spend my May Day watching German films and contemplating their labor relations, not out of pretentiousness or facetiousness, but because it’s the end of the semester and it’s also my job.

Those of you who have work, may God bless your good fortune and grant you the strength to fight for the appreciation you deserve.

Those of you without work, may you pour out onto the streets to show the world you exist and deserve a living wage.

We all do. Every generation does.

People of the United States, let me be brief:

The battle on the streets of Wisconsin was and is for the very future of America itself.

Why?

In the 1970s, there was an organizational revolution among the military, business and religious sectors that let them erode protections erected between the 1930s and 1960s to keep Americans alive, healthy and productive no matter what the circumstances of the “market.”

It was a reactionary revolution, but a revolution nonetheless.

In 2008, it finally succeeded in the form of a financial coup d’etat.

The world moved on, of course, but now under different terms.

Wolves no longer had to wear sheep’s clothing.

The New was now to be sacrificed on the altar of the Old.

Today, we are experiencing its full repercussions in the form of austerity measures which are, in fact, a form of class war against everyone who’s not a multi-millionaire or, dare I say, multi-billionaire.

That’s right: everyone.

You, even.

You, the single individual, who is in many ways at the heart of this battle.

Do you get to be, as the position goes, an individual in a karmic exchange where you live and die based on how much “hard work” you’ve done in a system stacked against you, or just one of a collective obliged to improve the lot of all mankind?

The people who believe in the former help some capitalize profits for short-term gain, and socialize losses for long-term social disruption.

The people who believe in the latter now ostensibly pose such a titanic threat to this system that even the remotest support mechanisms that imply a collective sharing of wealth and power (collective bargaining rights, education, healthcare) are being dismantled by the multi-billionaires.

So you may be surprised, however, to note that what we’re now seeing isn’t capitalism.

What we’re seeing is outright theft.

The disbelief in the so-called public good, the idea that we must force freedom from  collective welfare programs on the citizens of the world, these are mere positions to mask unadulterated greed.

But belief in the public good is communism, isn’t it?

Possibly.

But it’s also encoded into Christianity, Hinduism, Keynesian economics, most remaining indigenous societies, traffic signals, kindergarten, restrooms, and our biology itself.

Adult humans strive for the common good, and have to be continuously disciplined into thinking like a child:  prioritizing selfishness and avarice and instant, short-term gratification.

State-led Communism with its largely ineffective five-year plans attempted to condition populaces into long-term thinking without letting them becoming adults themselves.

It didn’t work.

This form of communism collapsed in 1989 thanks to its inability to effectively maneuver within the information economy.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the center of it, a few thieves took all the spoils and left the people to fend for themselves.

Many citizens of Russia now miss the Soviet years.

They miss partial adulthood over perpetually conditioned and enforced childhood.

Capitalism, however, is as faulty of a system as communism:  it has to battle continuously falling profit margins.

In short, everything becomes worth less over time.

Crises must be perpetually introduced into the system to produce value.

Crisis also destroys most value (look at the earthquake in Japan), leaving a few valuable goods left over.

Finance capital collectively decided that in order to combat such a pernicious loophole in their lives of reflexive avarice, one can do no less than to seize everything, including time itself.

We didn’t believe they would do it.

But they did.

They do not want to seize power; they already have it.

Now it becomes a matter of breaking the remaining resistance: us.

Now they fear not only communism, or the so-called “naked wealth transfer” from the rich to the poor, but even the informal and formal networks that have helped us sustain each other against each financial onslaught:  Catholic charity, net neutrality, soup kitchens, low-income heating programs, public education, supportive families, team volunteer efforts, squatting, scavenging, repurposing, recycling.

But now that anxiety clouds their vision, courage and fortitude should animate our bodies.

What we will institute will not be called “communism,” but what we want is not so dissimilar – the equitable distribution of resources among those who deserve it.

This turns out to be everybody.

You.

Reality

Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

–David Foster Wallace, a great author who hung himself on September 12, 2008
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/11/just-asking/6288/

Yesterday, I was thankful.

Today, I have a right to be not-so-thankful.

Today is Black Friday.

Black Friday is to capitalism as the International Worker’s Day (May 1st) is to socialism:  a celebration of a system of ideological assumptions premised on labor and material relations long expired in the modern era.

International Workers’ Day celebrates global labor and the workers’ struggle for solidarity against capitalism.

It was established as a holiday of mourning, emerging from the egregious 1889 Haymarket massacre, that transformed into a righteous holiday of solidarity of protest.

The holiday has transformed over the years, from hard-bitten strikes to Stalinist spectacles to raving Berlin street parties.

Black Friday, on the other hand, is a relatively recent invention celebrates individual initiative and the availability of large-ticket items at local chain stores.

It takes the name of another 19th Century capitalist disaster – the Fisk-Gould run on the U.S. gold market in 1869.

The black mark on economic history shoved to the back of our minds was brought to the foreground in the 1980s, when accounts at businesses spread rumors that it was only after this point in the year that businesses began to earn a profit.

What could have become a statement on the instability of capitalist-competitive enterprise instead became a “holiday” for consumer greed.

“Is this because you’re bitter because you’re not out there hunting for bargains?” you ask.

No.

There is a purpose to my jeremiad, though I’m certain, for example, the general mid-crisis malaise that has stricken academics like myself is not an isolated phenomenon.

It is a malaise that affects us all.

Nor is it all that separate from, say, Americans’ outrage over the new TSA devices.

See, Black Friday is part of neoliberalism colonizing the American Self as well as the political sphere.

Corporations capitalize profits and socialize losses.

That means Americans are no longer needed by those who have any money.

Yet ardently we position ourselves to look like we’re still making a buck, we’re still viable.

And as consumers, we storm the barricades to demonstrate to ourselves that we still matter – when we do not.

From an academic’s point of view: we do research only to be denigrated for not spending more time doing PR, we have students who could care less about the academic enterprise because they (rightly) assume little money is to be made from it, and the whole academic project is suddenly abandoned by administrators and the public alike at the historical juncture when a knowledge economy has become more important than ever.

From an anti-TSA protester’s point of view: we are now being virtually strip-searched and groped not because it makes us safer, but because the rich need to turn a profit on fear, and our bodies are no longer important to them.

From a Black Friday shopper’s perspective: if we don’t get that deal for myself and my family, someone else will.

Black Friday takes on the sad role of dividing and conquering us, when in fact we should be uniting and conquering the minuscule minority that daily benefits from our misery.

We are trapped in an untenable situation only broken through what one would call “socialist” measures.

Socialism may be capitalism’s best friend, in fact.

Others agree with me.

Neoliberalism’s plasticuff constricts movements, shatters lives, constrains economies, disciplines bodies, punishes the innocent, and benefits the very few.

Can you feel it tightening?  Is it a belt or a noose?  Is there a difference?

For those who care about others, it is a Black Friday indeed.

Fantasy

Tekkon Kinkreet (dir. Michael Arias, Japan 2006)

From the director of The Animatrix (2003) comes a tale of surreal dreams and violence in the heavily allegorical city of Treasure Town.  This global Asian megaplex is apparently protected by two Cats named Black and White, who live as two orphans in a beat-up car under a bridge.  The movie plants the seeds of rich metaphors in our minds about gentrification, the relationship between creation and destruction, tradition and change, relations in the animal kingdom, order and chaos, the reality of realized dreams and the fantasy of undreamed reality (I’ll let that one sink in), and such, but chooses to abandon this wondrous creation for a few pat metaphors and plot resolutions.  Too bad – it could have been a winner; instead, it’s merely pretty.  Remind you of anything?

Reset

August 31, 2010

The Guy in the Black Hat Meets Berlin is dead.

Long live The Guy in the Black Hat.

Reality

Three observations I made yesterday:

* Here’s a simple one: the Private sector could not manage to be regularly profitable without the Public sector.  A corrupt Public sector hemorrhaging resources (i.e., capital, social, environmental, etc.) in large amounts is the only way we humans seem to be able to drive the large-scale Private sector that would generate the necessary profits to satiate our greed.  Think about it.  Hollywood is a dirigiste film industry, massively subsidized by assorted forms of federal and state-level assistance (Toby Miller, 2002).  Nationalism and other forms of social imaginary generate imagined communities (Benedict Anderson, 1983) that it then re-processes into a system of consumer good distribution across networks.  Private 4-year colleges benefit from being near enough to Public graduate universities to have access to its cheap, energetic graduate labor supply.  And don’t get me started on Halliburton. Without governments there to round up the aggregate labor and exchange value of a populace, the Private sector might as well stay at the level of small to medium-size businesses.  Instead, it is an engine quite clearly propelling us toward the End of Human Civilization.

* I may be destitute since my time abroad, but my ability to write and think has increased volumes since being returned to proximity of the UMass library.  Give me a solid research foundation and I’ll live.

* Arcade scores are only three letters because kids can do so much damage with four-letter words.

Fantasy

Daybreakers (Spierig Brothers, US, 2010)

Everyone thought the premise on this movie was golden, let alone fitting for our times: in the near future, vampires have taken over the world, but now they are starving to death due to a lack of human blood to drink.  “Society” deteriorates as resources dwindle. We rented it on behalf of several recommendations, as well as Kat’s natural affinity toward vampires. Neither of us were impressed by the film’s utterly predictable narrative, overwrought seriousness, flat acting (except from Willem Defoe), ill-timed and gratuitous gore effects, and disastrously stupid protagonists. I thought Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Sunshine, and a host of other good sci-fi media had moved us into the new era of “clever” protagonists, but apparently there are still some stragglers caught in 1998, including this film.