Monday, June 30, 2008

How to democratize the UN

The United Nations is fundamentally flawed. It is unresponsive to the views and opinions of people around the world. The Security Council, with its permanent membership and veto powers, privileges the policies of some countries while allowing vested interests to completely block legitimate action. The General Assembly, rather than serving as a global legislature, is merely a place for appointed ambassadors to mechanically regurgitate their home government's current policies.

If the UN has any hope of being of service to humanity, it must be democratized. This obviously involves ending the permanent membership and veto powers of the Security Council, but it also means transforming the General Assembly into a World Parliament.

The first component of this transformation is variable delegation sizes based on population. As much respect as I have for the fine people of Nauru, the fact that they have the same number of votes (one) as China, a country with over 100,000 times the population, is profoundly undemocratic. Now, we have to strike a balance when choosing delegation sizes. We don't want the World Parliament to grow to monstrous proportions, of course. We can't have Nauru with one Member of the World Parliament and therefore China gets 100,000.

We might arbitrarily state that each nation gets one MWP, and any nation with more than 25 million citizens gets additional members for each 25-million person bracket they fit into. So Chile with 16 million people gets one MWP. Iraq with 29 million people gets 2 MWPs. The United States has 304 million people and gets 13 MWPs.

China, at 1.3 billion people, gets 53 MWPs. Wait, so China, a single-party authoritarian state with a sketchy human rights record gets to dominate the United Nations? Isn't the point of democratizing the General Assembly to make a fair and democratic Parliament? I propose two mechanisms to deal with this.

First, we want the members of the World Parliament to be chosen by the people. I submit that any nation that does not elect its MWPs through some democratic means (national or regional elections) gets only half votes. If China appoints 53 loyal MWPs by decree, they can only get 26.5 votes rather than 53.

Second, we want the World Parliament to be a democracy of democracies. We might assign different vote weights to the level of democratic freedom in different countries. For the purposes of illustration, if we chose to use the Freedom in the World survey, we might give full votes to all nations that qualify as Free, half votes to those who qualify as Partly Free, and quarter-votes to those that qualify as not Free. China is rated Not Free, and if it appointed its 53 MWPs, they would only get 6.625 votes in the Parliament, 0.125 votes for each MWP. In contrast, India gets 45 MWPs; it is ranked as Free and if its MWPs are chosen through elections, it gets 45 full votes.

These are just examples of ways in which the size of some countries can be counterbalanced with democratic policies. In actual practice, the World Parliament might use entirely different criteria and vote weights. However it is done, a democratic, responsive World Parliament could be a positive force to counterbalance the capitalist globalization, militarization, and imperialism of the United States and other powers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Democrats : humans :: vegetarians : animals

Democrats are to humans what vegetarians are to animals.

I'm a socialist and a vegan, so naturally I think of Democrats and vegetarians as being well-intentioned but, well, wrong. But it wasn't until today that I realized that both groups are wrong for essentially the same reasons. Vegetarianism and liberalism do seem to go hand in hand to some extent, while vegans are typically on the left fringe of liberalism shading into different sorts of radicalism. I wonder if I might be onto something.

The Democrat looks at society today and sees many problems. There is a widening gap between rich and poor in this country. Millions of people have no health insurance, and many who do have it still pay too much for the care they receive. Economic power is centralized in multinational corporations. Jobs are being outsourced. There is an unpopular war in Iraq that is costing American and Iraqi lives. Democrats see these things and think they are real problems to be solved.

The vegetarian looks at the treatment of animals today and sees many problems, too. Factory farms result in horrible cruelty to animals, from cramped quarters to mutilation to pumping them full of drugs and hormones. Agricultural animals produce an enormous amount of waste, to say nothing of greenhouse gasses. Vegetarians see these tings and think they are real problems to be solved.

The Democrat seeks to solve the problems of the country by stricter regulation and reform. Raise the minimum wage and increase taxes on the rich to bring incomes closer to parity. Offer single-payer health care to cover those who lack it. Enforce strict monopoly laws and protect American jobs. Bring the troops home! The vegetarian seeks to reduce the suffering of animals by refusing to eat them. Vegetarians are often involved with animal welfare charities such as the SPCA and local animal shelters. They are not opposed to the use of animals, provided it is done humanely, so they typically try to eat only cage-free eggs and free-range organic milk.

Democrats and vegetarians are the liberals of their respective domains. Liberals see the problems of society and think they are the irrational outcomes of a rational system, so they try to correct the outcomes. Radicals see that the system itself is irrational, and that the outcomes that flow from it are only to be expected. It is the system that must be changed.

The problems with society that the Democrat seeks to regulate away are inherent in capitalism itself. They will not go away until capitalism goes away. By the same token, simply not eating animals doesn't end animal cruelty because animals are still property. They cannot consent to be used at all, ever, and so they ought not be used any more than humans should be used without their consent.

The only solution to these problems is a radical solution, one that strikes at the root causes of them. Capitalism is the root cause of most of the ills of society, and thus socialism -- not well-regulated liberal capitalism -- is the abolition of capitalism and the solution to those ills. The property status of animals is the root cause of most animal cruelty, and thus veganism and animal rights -- not animal welfare reform and vegetarianism -- is the abolition of the property status of animals and the solution to animal cruelty.

However, Democrats and vegetarians both believe they are part of the solution, and so they can be. The way to achieving the shared goals of Democrats/socialists and vegetarians/vegans is not to say "Fuck you guys, we have all the answers and you're morons." The solution is to work together on those things we agree on and use the good old-fashioned art of healthy debate, persuasion, and evidence to bring people further and further towards the solution. Revolutionary socialists must participate in the everyday fights for rights and social justice that liberals are involved in, but constantly draw attention not only to symptoms but to illnesses. Protest the Iraq war, and while doing so draw the inherent connection between capitalism and imperialism. Campaign for universal health care, and use it to highlight the way the market fails to provide even the minimum welfare for the people who make it work.

Vegans and animal rights activists can support certain reforms in animal use while consistently maintaining that all use is always wrong, no matter how humane. Go naked rather than wear fur if you like, but point out that you can't be opposed to fur and not be opposed to eggs and milk. Turn people's compassionate decision to become vegetarian into an opportunity to explain the inherent cruelty involved in more than only meat.

Democrats and vegetarians can be part of the solution, but not without changing their views in the process.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Quote of the Week

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, on lack of more rapid progress in the transition to renewable energy.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Marxism vs. anarchism

I have a confession to make. I change my mind on political affairs quite often.
This isn't a confession that I am now going to endorse John McCain for president or anything so insane as that. It's just that when I get into a topic, I tend to immerse myself in that topic and form opinions before I've emerged from my immersion. It's very easy for me to read, as I had for the last few months, nothing but anarchist material with regards to politics, and more or less ignore alternative views in the meantime.
Really, for the last year I'd been considering myself essentially "converted" to anarchism, if that's an appropriate word for it. Many of my blog posts are written from an anarchist perspective. But as I think back over that time, I've always been an "anarchist but..." I am not sure I've ever been entirely anarchist in my thinking, as reflected by how I described my anarchism as a critique of authority rather than a political ideology. I've freely admitted that I think there is a place for representative democracy, even while posting screeds against representation. I've been of dual minds about many fundamental components of anarchism, and I've come in the last few weeks to realize that I was only on the edge of anarchism at all.
In essence, as the title of my blog implies, I've continued to be a revolutionary socialist -- a Marxist. I've certainly taken a great deal away from my foray into anarchist thought, and I still consider it to be a valid and useful critique of authority, as I said. But the more I think about it, the less I think that it (and by it I mean of course the myriad interrelated strands of thought that go by the word) is actually an effective means to the sort of world I want to live in.
Here's the thing: anarchism, even in its most socialist forms, is an individualist political philosophy. If we take (as the Left has traditionally done) liberty, equality, and solidarity as our core values, anarchism doesn't strike the balance that I do between them, because anarchism privileges liberty over the others. Certainly, many anarchists would dispute this, and I grant that the situation isn't nearly as dire as other leftists might try to imply. But the fact remains that anarchists are generally in favor of radical decentralization, of small communities (even if they're near each other in what is presently a city) being independent of one another and confederated horizontally on an ad hoc basis for, among other things, trade, distribution of raw materials, and defense.
This doesn't sound so bad. The problem for me is in the anarchist conception of humanity's future. They see these small communities as being, for lack of a better word, sovereign. Autonomous. If a community doesn't want to be a part of a given project undertaken by the confederation as a whole, it is generally allowed to not do so, or even to dissociate from the confederation. And this applies not only to specific communities, but even to individuals within the community. Many, if not most, anarchist groups even favor consensus decision-making -- a laudable goal, but one that gives a single individual veto power over the wishes of as many members as make up the group by that individual simply refusing to consent. But even without such a decision-making process, anarchism allows individuals to just plain opt-out of whatever the disagree with. Individuals must always win over groups, because as soon as they don't, "authority" is introduced and the system is no longer anarchist.
Now, some may like this. I don't at all disagree that individual liberty is an important component of the ideal political system -- but it is only one component, not the system as a whole. Part of this revelation for me came about when I was reflecting on my last post, and I quoted anarchist anthropologist David Graeber about the hypothetical victory of the anarcho-syndicalists in the Spanish Revolution. His conclusion, and the one that I supported at the time that I made the post, was that we can't, and shouldn't, win through a revolution by a minority, because it would be impossible to force our beliefs on the majority without resorting to authoritarian methods that sacrifice our anarchist ideals.
I agree with that conclusion. An anarchist revolution (in the traditional sense) is destined to fail for precisely that reason. I also agree that a revolution needs at least some basic support of a majority to have any chance of success. But think of the American Civil War. Before the war, chattel slavery was legal in the South. A person could legally own slaves. After the war, it was illegal to own slaves. If most of the wealthy South had simple ignored this edict (as the hypothetical Spain of Graeber's thought experiment would ignore the disintegration of capitalism and the state) would it then be wrong to "impose" freedom of slaves on those slave-owners?
The anarchists say they wish to abolish the state as well as capitalism in one fell swoop, though most are reasonable to admit that this swoop might take some time. But I have to agree with the Marxists, who argue that the state is the only entity powerful enough to impose economic democracy on the capitalists. And yes, it would be an imposition. No capitalist is going to say, "Gee whiz, you guys win, here, take my multibillion-dollar company and I'll go dig ditches from now on."
Most anarchists seem to agree with this necessity in principle. They will freely say that it might take violence to wrest control of capital from the hands of capitalists. They want to do this without a state, which is a fine goal. But the Marxist definition of a state is simply "coercive force to maintain class rule." It says nothing of the composition, development, and functioning of this state. The only example Marx and Engles ever gave for how the "dictatorship* of the proletariat" was to function was the Paris Commune of 1871 -- one of the very institutions anarchists hold up as an example for their own purposes as well. If a democratically-organized confederation of workers and community councils was in place that prevented capitalists from hiring wage slaves through the threat of force, it would still be a state by the Marxist definition -- even while not being one by the anarchist.
Both Marxists and anarchists have the same goal: a stateless, communist society. The difference between them is in the role authority will play in getting there, and by extension, the order in which the twin demons will have to be exorcised. I am with the Marxists. We must, through revolution if necessary, democratize the state and use it to democratize the economy. When the class of exploiter no longer exists, and all are socially equal, the state will no longer be a state and its more objectionable functions will cease to be necessary. In the meantime, socialist ideas must be disseminated as widely as possible, which includes through the use of electoral politics as propaganda (if not as an end in themselves). But any political movement must retain democracy and for its own functioning operate with liberty, equality, and solidarity as paramount values.
* For the less seasoned readers, it is important to remember that in the 19th century, "dictator" didn't have its present connotations. A Roman dictator was in place for a temporary term. The idea of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" had no particular negative implication at the time, and could be entirely democratic. It was only a dictatorship in the sense that the proletariat now "dictated" that they could no longer be exploited by the bourgeoisie.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why We Can't (and Shouldn't) "Win"

My views on the subject of this post have changed since the post was written. I am leaving the post up, but please note that it is no longer consistent with my opinion.

No, I'm not talking about the possible meaningless shift from rule under a Republican to a Democrat come November. As they say, "No matter who wins, we lose."

I am talking about the big picture, the struggle against authoritarian government and capitalism that can broadly be termed "anarchism." Many of the people fighting this fight wouldn't think of themselves as anarchists, of course, so it's not quite proper to term the amorphous mass of civil unrest and resistance to neoliberal globalization and war an anarchist movement per se. But the ideals of the movement as a whole -- self-determination, participatory democracy, opposition to capitalism -- are fundamentally anarchist.

There are still many anarchists and other leftists of the traditional varieties who believe there will be a capital-R Revolution at some point in the future, near or far. They believe, and the idea isn't entirely without merit, that once the exploited class of workers gets some political motivation, they will overthrow the present system in a most-likely violent revolution of the sorts that have periodically occurred throughout history. And after the capitalists have had their riches expropriated and the government has been overthrown, the left will rebuild society along the lines of whatever vision the holder holds -- most often, something like directly democratic workers and community councils confederated at the regional, national, and global levels.

I freely indulge in utopian visions of what the ideal society would look like. I've posted pieces before, and I will post pieces again. But this is not my point.

To illustrate the problem with the traditional view of revolution in the modern world, allow me to quote David Graeber:
In way of illustration, consider this: what would it have actually meant for the Spanish anarchists to have actually “won” 1937? It’s amazing how rarely we ask ourselves such questions. We just imagine it would have been something like the Russian Revolution, which began in a similar way, with the melting away of the old army, the spontaneous creation of workers’ soviets. But that was in the major cities. The Russian Revolution was followed by years of civil war in which the Red Army gradually imposed the new state’s control on every part of the old Russian Empire, whether the communities in question wanted it or not. Let us imagine that anarchist militias in Spain had routed the fascist army, which then completely dissolved, and kicked the socialist Republican Government out of its offices in Barcelona and Madrid. That would certainly have been victory by anybody’s standards. But what would have happened next? Would they have established Spain as a non-Republic, an anti-state existing within the exact same international borders? Would they have imposed a regime of popular councils in every singe village and municipality in the territory of what had formerly been Spain? How exactly? We have to bear in mind here that were there many villages towns, even regions of Spain where anarchists were almost non-existent. In some just about the entire population was made up of conservative Catholics or monarchists; in others (say, the Basque country) there was a militant and well-organized working class, but one that was overwhelmingly socialist or communist. Even at the height of revolutionary fervor, most of these would stay true to their old values and ideas. If the victorious FAI attempted to exterminate them all—a task which would have required killing millions of people—or chase them out of the country, or forcibly relocate them into anarchist communities, or send them off to reeducation camps—they would not only have been guilty of world-class atrocities, they would have had to give up on being anarchists. Democratic organizations simply cannot commit atrocities on that systematic scale: for that, you’d need Communist or Fascist-style top-down organization, since you can’t actually get thousands of human beings to systematically massacre helpless women and children and old people, destroy communities, or chase families from their ancestral homes unless they can at least say they were only following orders.
You don't have to be incredibly familiar with the Spanish Revolution to see the point here. In a movement committed to anti-authoritarianism, you can't force people to change. Previous revolutions have relied on authority to work. Traitors were killed, governments imposed on people, and so on. An anti-authoritarian revolution cannot do those things and remain opposed to authority. You would have to have a truly vast majority that is not just sympathetic to the aims of the revolutionaries, but that is completely on board with the outcome. You would have to either become authoritarians and command respect for your values, or allow others to reorganize as they see fit and reestablish the very systems of domination you fought so hard to overthrow.

The anti-authoritarian revolution must be a different kind. This is not something would-be insurrectionists want to hear. They decry it as nothing more than reformism or, with a bit more bile, lifestylism. But this is a genuine battle for hearts and minds, and the way forward is to simply build the future as we can, bit by bit, challenging authority and expanding democracy wherever and however we can. This ranges from direct action and protest and civil disobedience to starting coops and collectives and unions to educating ourselves and our children. Any changes we demand from the government are not means to repair the system, but to take what we need in spite of it.

Rudolf Rocker said, "I am an anarchist not because I believe anarchism is the final goal, but because there is no such thing as a final goal." This is the spirit of the revolution we face today.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A Note on Class

I don't really know how the social classes work in the rest of the world, but in the United States we suffer under the curious delusion that there is a "middle class" of happy folks who are living the American dream. I'd like to dispute that.

The idea of a middle class is a corruption of the idea of class itself. Now that we've done away with silliness like divinely-sanctioned royalty, we're left with only two essential classes in capitalist society: capitalists and workers. Good ol' Marx's bourgeoisie and proletariat. These classes are formally based on the members' relationship to the means of production, but the easiest way to think about it is to ask, "Where does their money come from?"

Capitalists make their money and living off of others. They hire people. They own businesses and equipment. They rent out land and loan out money. They could, if they chose, not lift so much as a finger in actual work themselves and they would continue to be able to afford food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and all the necessities of life. They don't have to work.

Workers, on the other hand, make their money by seeking employment from capitalists. They sell their labor. It may be industrial labor, it may be mental labor, but it is labor all the same. Unlike the capitalists, if the workers chose not to lift so much as a finger in actual work, they would starve to death. They have to work.

You'll immediately note that these categories are not cleanly cut and easy to see. There are small business owners who are capitalists but barely scrape by, and there are extremely well-paid engineers and the like who, nonetheless, couldn't quit their jobs and make a living off investments. When it comes to class, money is not the issue. That money is unfairly distributed is true, but it is only a symptom of the problem of class-based society.

Ultimately, the class distinction is nothing more than a reflection of our respect for authority. Rather than a just system of possession, we have a society based on private ownership of everything. Capitalists own businesses, and profit from businesses, but they do not make the profit themselves. If the capitalist disappeared, the business could continue and the workers could keep the profit they earned. If the workers disappeared, the capitalist would be out of luck, as no profit would be made. What keeps the workers from taking the profit they earn is nothing more complex than words (a claim of ownership) backed up by force (police).

So what about the middle class? Well, clearly most middle class people are still workers. The idea of the middle class has one purpose: to make middle class folks think they're superior to the working class people who might be poor enough to get upset and demand changes. Middle class people are supposed to be content, and not want to rock the boat. The invention of the middle class is a means of dividing the workers, by allowing one segment of the group to have a few more crumbs than the rest, driving a wedge of jealousy on one hand and apathy on the other between people that should be united against their common foe. The invention of the middle class is designed to convince its members that capitalism is OK, simply because it is apparently OK for them at the time.

The artificial line between the working class and middle class, often trotted out during election season, is one that should be forgotten. It is not the fault of the middle class that the capitalists chose their positions as those that would earn more, and it is not the fault of the working class that the capitalists didn't choose theirs. All people who must sell themselves for the benefit of another, for fear of death, ought to be united against those who would force that choice upon them.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

KFC discovers magical way to eat chicken without keeping and killing chickens

Yes, it must be true! PETA — who claims to be "the" animal rights organization, who declares that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any way" — says that it has won an "enormous victory" and calls for an end to its boycott of KFC Canada, though the cruelty in other nations continues. If PETA says its OK to eat at KFC in Canada, it can only mean that KFC Canada no longer uses animals for food, right? It must mean that KFC Canada now recognizes the rights of chickens not to be eaten, right? After all, it is a "historic victory!"

Not so fast.

The enormous victory that PETA is celebrating consists of "increasing product quality and yield" and producing "more tender breast meat" by gassing chickens to death. "All we want is for KFC worldwide to do what KFC Canada has done," says a PETA spokesperson.

That's right, folks. All PETA wants is for people to eat chickens that were gassed to death. Killing chickens doesn't count as abusing them in any way, according to PETA. And apparently, eating chickens doesn't count as eating them, either. Why else would PETA call for ending a boycott of a corporation that does these things?

Needless to say, it is no surprise that PETA also encourages people concerned with animal rights to give money to chicken-killing KFC by ordering their new mock chicken wrap, served with mayonnaise. It's "totally cruelty-free" according to PETA, who apparently forgot their own subsite declaring eggs — the primary ingredient in mayonnaise — cruel.

God, PETA, I want to like you. You make it impossible.