"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Church After Gaza

Once upon a time, a major Catholic theologian named Johann Baptist Metz wrote a seminal essay called “The Church after Auschwitz”. In this essay, he cited the sad, profound words of Elie Wiesel, “The thoughtful Christian knows that it was not the Jewish people that died at Auschwitz, but rather Christianity.” This judgement applies not to the religion of Jesus Christ, but to that form of Christianity that not merely turned its eyes from the systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews, but actively aided and abetted that slaughter through its direct support for the Nazi regime.

At the heart of this struggle over the meaning of Christianity is the struggle over what it means to be human. We cannot be Christian unless we are first human beings. We hear much today about “not dwelling on the past” with regard to the crimes of the Bush administration, but “looking forward”. However the question raised by Metz in this essay remains, “Are we human beings really more humane when we are able successfully to forget such a horrible fact about ourselves?”

The horrible fact today is that we Christians sat and watched while thousands of innocent people were maimed and slaughtered in Gaza at the beginning of this year. Of course, the news media presented it as a battle of equals with good and evil on both sides, but does this make us less culpable? No more or less than the Germans of Hitler’s time.

Where was Jesus Christ during the Gaza slaughter? Was he standing with the Palestinians who stood fast with a courage and dignity under the missiles or did he laugh with the Israeli soldiers who mowed down civilians like cockroaches? If there is no Jesus Christ for us in Gaza, how can there be a Jesus Christ for us anywhere else?

There are magic Christians who worship a miracle maker who blesses the utopia of unending commodities. And there is a Jesus who sits trembling with a Palestinian father who waits in sickness for the missile to destroy his family. In Jesus Christ, the nearness of God is guaranteed to Christians, but to which Christianity is this promise applied? Is a Christianity that prays with its back turned to the Palestinians part of the promise or do such Christians worship something whose name none dare speak? When Jesus looks on us on the last day, will he thrust us into the same deadly isolation that we have thrust the Palestinians? Or perhaps he only cares about “religious” issues, like same sex marriage?

Unless we can see the world through Palestinian eyes, our Christianity remains dead. Unless we can see the world through the eyes of the poor, we are blind to the glory of God. We can know nothing of courage and dignity unless we recognize the strength of spirit found in the Palestinians who walked to devastated hospitals with bullets in their backs. Otherwise, how can we hear the cry of Jesus in Hebrews 5:7 “loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death”? Such a Christianity is not the religion of the crucified one, but a myth of the victors.

The attack on Gaza was an attack on everything that must be holy to us. To humiliate those whose dignity is under our protection, to kill to satiate an artificially induced bloodlust resulting from infantile racism, is to reject the Israel for whom Jesus died.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Illusion of Change

The gushing enthusiasm over Obama has been manufactured in order to evoke the illusion of change. This illusion is extremely useful for many purposes, but primarily because it allows the same policies to be pursued with different apparent justifications. The masses by necessity live on hope. Nurturing this hope is a key factor in the continuing dominance of the command and control system of which Obama is now the visible symbol. Decent people will endure hardship as long as they believe that those at the top truly have their best interests at heart, but require sacrifices of them during crises. Obama symbolizes the intelligence, compassion, and unruffled endurance that are required to realize this drama.

Before describing the forces that control Obama, as they controlled Bush and Clinton before him, I don't think there's a need to buy into conspiracy theories. The conspiracy is out in the open, not hidden. There is a psyops operation going on against the American people, but the propaganda machine and those behind it are fairly easy to identify. It consists of the heads of transnational corporations and Wall Street banks, along with their minions in government. It consists of those who have grown fabulously rich from neoliberal policies and wish to continue imposing the same policies. No need to invoke the Bilderburg Group or the Trilateral Commission. It's important not to mystify the struggle by making oppression appear to be the product of a secret group because that makes it seem as if we only need to eliminate this evil group and the New Age will dawn. The truth is less dramatic and more challenging. The ruling elite does not consist of evil individuals who are constantly scheming towards world domination, but of clever and accomplished people of differing moral characters, who have pursued a strategy that has resulted in great personal success. That success has been accomplished in a particular economic and political context that they wish to preserve because by preserving it, they can preserve their wealth and sense of accomplishment. So far their strategy seems to be working extremely well.

The point is that the ruling elite propagandize themselves as much as those whom they wish to control. The nature of their domination has been clearly set forth by Herbert Marcuse, “In the social reality, despite all change, the domination of man by man is still the historical continuum that links pre-technological and technological Reason. However, the society which projects and undertakes the technological transformation of nature alters the base of domination by gradually replacing personal dependence (of the slave on the master, the serf on the lord of the manor, the lord on the donor of the fief, etc.) with dependence on the “objective order of things” (on economic laws, the market etc.). To be sure, the ‘objective order of things’ is itself the result of domination, but it is nevertheless true that domination now generates a higher rationality – that of a society which sustains its hierarchic structure while exploiting ever more efficiently the natural and mental resources, and distributing the benefits of this exploitation on an ever-larger scale. The limits of this rationality, and its sinister force, appear in the progressive enslavement of man by a productive apparatus which perpetuates the struggle for existence and extends it to a total international struggle which ruins the lives of those who build and use this apparatus. – “The One-Dimensional Man” The result of the “objective order of things” is false consciousness, described as follows: “…To the degree to which they correspond to the given reality, thought and behavior express a false consciousness, responding to and contributing to the preservation of a false order of facts. And this false consciousness has become embodied in the prevailing technical apparatus which in turn reproduces it.” – “The One-Dimensional Man”. Through technology the dominance of the ruling elite is enforced and the objective order of things established.

So, there is no need to posit an all-knowing Bilderburg group on one side and the ignorant, propagandized masses on the other. This dramatized image of the domination system actually serves the purposes of that system by pretending that those who recognize the obvious fact that the owning classes control virtually all economic and political power in this society are “conspiracy theorists”. “Conspiracy theory” is also the product of a slave mentality in which the masters are all-powerful deities and the slaves must accept and cooperate in their own oppression. It is very doubtful that the elite gather together in secret to plan world domination. It is simply the case that those who control political and economic power instinctively understand the best ways to continue their dominance and act on that understanding both individually and as a class. They are not “evil”, but are usually acting in good conscience, though with a conscience formed in a peculiar way. Their conscience is formed by their experiences of economic success, which they generalize into working tools for the formation of mass economic policy. They do not speculate on the roots or final ends of their policy, but they are certain that obedience to their policy will maintain their control and their success. And for them that is only goal worth achieving.

To make the point more transparent, we need to contrast the personal and the political, which the corporate media tend to confuse. Barack Obama is by all reports a decent, intelligent, and compassionate man. But like many intelligent and compassionate men, he has become entangled in power webs that favor certain types of decisions over others. The leaders who make these decisions are, in their minds, simply recognizing the “objective order of things”, regrettable as that order may be in certain instances and sometimes contrary to their personal morality. Nevertheless, precisely because they are decent and compassionate men, they must sacrifice their personal values to ensure the greater good of the whole, conditioned as it is by the “objective order of things” which must be respected.

This is a point well worth expanding on because it goes to the heart of why capitalism “succeeds”. Its driving force is the success of the leading members of society. These members have mastered behaviors that this social and economic order rewards. In their own eyes, their actions are dictated by noble aspirations for success and many of them are quite altruistic in wanting to spread the formula for this success to others. For them to fail to apply this formula would be felt as moral degeneration and they view those who cannot do what they do as insufficiently ambitious. The key understanding is that their success shapes the rules through which this society governs. Exceptions to the rule are experienced as unnecessary concessions to weakness, which must be overcome as quickly as possible. Capitalism does not arise from a secret conspiracy of bankers plotting world domination. Its main support consists of decent, compassionate individuals such as Barack Obama who wish to apply the rules that led to their “success” to as many as possible.

But it is precisely in their success that their blindness lies. Having mastered the rules so superbly, much of the world’s suffering becomes invisible to them, not because they are consciously ignoring it, but because minimizing those realities is part of the definition of their type of success. In reality, massive suffering is the reverse side of their achievements, but those achievements would not be possible unless they saw only the towering city and not the foundation it rests on.

What they cannot see is that the “objective order of things” did not spring up full-grown out of the void. It is in fact the creation of human beings, who could have decided to make different choices. A good example is the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. At this point in time, Barack Obama is obliged to recognize the objective fact that hundreds of thousands are already living on Palestinian land. It is regrettable that they have done this illegally, but that does not negate the “objective facts.” These facts have become part of the objective order of things that must be respected. The decision to remove these settlements becomes more impractical with each passing day, but did this situation arise due to some unknown physical law? No indeed, these “objective realities” were consciously created by political agents precisely so that the facts on the ground would enforce a certain power relationship between Jews and Palestinians. In deciding to back the Israelis, Obama is simply recognizing political reality and trying to work within the system to make whatever “progressive change” is realistically possible.

What is invisible to these good and intelligent men (and women) is that by working within the constraints of the “objective order of things”, no real change in that order is possible. What is implicit in this decision is to accept, willingly or not, the current state of power relationships which are the result of political maneuverings in the recent or distant past. The inability to challenge these relationships restricts the latitude of one’s own political maneuvering so that those relationships can never be transcended except by the pressure of events. And, as helpful as events may be, they can never by themselves provide the theoretical standpoint which allows leaders to guide the people through them to a more compassionate and sane society. Reacting to the pressure of events is passive, not the active, guiding role that only a sound theoretical viewpoint can provide.

Unless and until Obama can step out of the frames in which the financial elite have bracketed him, there can only be a continuance of the same system, in whatever crippled fashion may now be possible.

To dramatize the constraints applied to economic policy options, consider the media reaction if it were suggested that the assets of the banks which have caused the current crisis be expropriated and distributed to the population at large. Yet what could be more just or economically sane? And what would more quickly restore prosperity and economic justice? Yet such a suggestion would be so far outside the pale of current dialog as to be considered absurd.

How about considering the immediate elimination of harmful or useless industries, such as arms manufacturing, or the banking and insurance industries? If the boss at your workplace doesn’t place the interests of the workers first, why not consider direct action that cripples the boss's ability to make a profit and force him to recognize the justice of the workers' demands? Such ideas are taboo in the mainstream media and we have been socialized in a thousand different ways to instinctively reject such ideas as totally unrealistic.

What is important to see is why these ideas are taboo. They have not been carefully researched by teams of advanced economists and found to be scientifically defective. Instead, they do not accord with the elite’s success strategy described above. That strategy is exclusively focused on capital accumulation and increased profit margins. But it does not promote the human welfare of any but a tiny minority and even then only if you define human good in terms of the accumulation of commodities. The welfare of the vast majority is a possible side effect of the main goal, but one that can quickly be ejected if it interferes with profit maximization.

The choice is socialism or barbarism. If we continue to subsist in an economy focused on profit maximization, the planet will eventually (and in the not-too-distant future) become incapable of sustaining life. If we decide to make human welfare, not profit, the goal of economics, then a long and brilliant future lies ahead of us.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mounting Anger

The financial elites do not care about the anger of the American taxpayer because they don't have to. Obama’s decisions are implicitly controlled by the same financial interests that caused the crisis in the first place. A careful examination of his Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan (HASP) plan reveals the following: HASP will in most cases depend on the voluntary participation of private banks. In other words, there will be almost no obligations by the banks to actually lend the money to homeowners. If you know anyone who's tried to a get a loan from one of the bailed-out banks lately, it's easy to see what the new plan will entail. Innumerable hurdles designed to make it very difficult for homeowners to qualify will be erected by the banks while they take taxpayer money to build up their business in other ways. In particular, the bill says that anyone who is deemed able to "afford" their present rates will not qualify. If a mortgage company decides that refinancing a loan will cost them more than sending the house into foreclosure, they will be free to deny refinancing.

Instead of suffering for their destruction of the world economy, the banks will not be required to write down the values of their vastly overpriced loans, much less relinquish control over the resulting derivative securities (CDOs, SIVs, and all the rest of it). Instead of writing down the bad debt, as has been done in many previous crises, the banks will retain the unrealistic current value of their loans, with the difference paid for by the very taxpayers who are being thrown out of their homes.

In other words, the HASP bill is mostly window-dressing to cover another mass transfer of funds to the banks. The financial elite that Obama represents brook no limit, however mild, to its power and prerogatives. It would appear that having bought into their own "free market" propaganda, they now find themselves staring into the void. They know that the old game is over and they are attempting to build up a cushion at taxpayer expense so that they can ride out the storm.

Why don't they have to care? Because the opinion of the American people counts for nothing in Washington and Wall Street. In a thousand ways, Americans have been socialized into accepting a certain image of themselves that makes rebellion against the system almost impossible. This has allowed the growth of a modern aristocracy which has now consolidated its control over every aspect of official political, cultural and economic life.

Those of us who believe that Jesus came to bring social justice into the world must now make a commitment to fight this modern aristocracy. But we must fight them with the weapons of conscience, not bombs and guns. Bombs and guns are what they believe in and the fruit of their warfare is plain for all to see. Violence is always counterproductive because it always denies the power of conscience to move men’s hearts to embrace justice. We must believe in the power of conscience from the depths of our souls, remembering that the goal can never be achieved through the manipulation of human bodies with the technical instruments of control. Such a course will always dehumanize both us and those who choose to make themselves our opponents. The path to social justice always leads to deeper humanization by recreating ourselves as agents of truth.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Remove Our Names from Your Blood-Stained Wall

“Mr. President of the State of Israel, I am writing to you to intervene with the appropriate authorities to withdraw from the Yad Vashem memorial dedicated to the memory of Jewish victims of Nazism, the name of my grandfather, Moshe Brajtberg, gassed at Treblinka in 1943, and those of other members of my who family died during deportation to various Nazi camps during World War II. I ask you to honor my request, Mr. Chairman, because what took place in Gaza, and more generally, the injustices to the Arab people of Palestine for sixty years, disqualifies Israel to be the center of the memory of the harm done to Jews, and thus to all humanity.” - Jean-Moïse Braitberg

The attacks had been planned months in advance. On Saturday, December 27, 2008, school had just let out. Thousands of Gazan school children poured into the streets, oblivious of the darkness that invaded their parent’s eyes. As the children milled about devastated streets, Israel struck. Four hours later, 150 men, women, and children lay dead. The word “terror” for them was simply a slur laid upon their tribe just as “savage” had been laid on African-Americans a hundred years before. But they were dead, and their mothers and fathers wailed while the world looked on in silence.

In June 2007, the noose was tightened around Gazan necks. Then began a siege in which every aspect of the lives of the people came under surveillance and control. They were totally dependent on Israel for fuel, electricity, cooking gas, medical supplies, food supplies (even flour), and building material. The means of life were cut off like air to a man strapped to a table with tape across his mouth while interrogators pinch his nostrils shut. Israel made sure that the Palestinians remained barely alive.

“You see, since my childhood, I lived in amongst survivors of the death camps. I saw the numbers tattooed on their arms, I heard the story of torture; I knew the impossible grief and I shared their nightmares. I was taught that these crimes must never happen again, that never again must man, because of ethnicity or religion despise other man, mock his Human Rights of living a safe, dignified life, without barriers, and hope, so remote be it, of a future of peace and prosperity.” - Jean-Moïse Braitberg

“I lived in amongst survivors.” The Palestinians have survived Israel’s honor. The war’s strategic concept was to terrorize the civilian population by unremitting attacks from the air, sowing indiscriminate death and destruction. This has the side benefit of saving the pilots from seeing the anguish they inflict since the Palestinians have no anti-aircraft weapons. The simple calculation of childish cruelty: if the entire life-supporting infrastructure in the Strip is utterly destroyed and total anarchy ensues, the population will rise up and overthrow the Hamas regime. Such fantasies factors out Palestinian honor which now gushes forth to bring life to a battered people.

“You’ll tell me Mr. President, that Israel has the right to defend itself against people launching rockets into Israel, or suicide bombers that destroy innocent Israeli lives. My response to that is that my humanism doesn’t vary according to the nationality of the victims.” - Jean-Moïse Braitberg

To be an Israeli is to have no crimes to pay for. Their crimes have all been absolved by the Holocaust, which cleanses from every sin. Their eternal innocence preens itself and basks in unquenchable moral ascendancy. When they kill children, it is not murder, but the elimination of “terrorists”, untermensch whose existence is another holocaust burning at the feet of the chosen ones, sacrifices to the Moloch which they have named “God.”

“By displaying the names of my family members at the Yad Vashem Memorial, in the heart of the state of Israel, your state imprisons my family memories behind the barbed wires of zionism, and makes it hostage of a so-called moral authority which commits every day the abomination of denying justice.
So, please, remove the name of my grandfather from the shrine dedicated to cruelty against Jews so that it no longer justifies the injustice being done to the Palestinians.” - Jean-Moïse Braitberg

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Need for Deeper Analysis

“The major problem now is that these entities -- the ones that ought to be applying pressure on Obama from the Left and opposing him when he moves too far Right -- are now completely boxed in. They've lost -- or, more accurately, voluntarily relinquished -- their independence. They know that criticizing -- let alone opposing -- Obama will mean that all those new readers they won last year will leave; that all those new dues-paying members will go join some other, more Obama-supportive organization; that they will prompt intense backlash and anger among the very people -- their members, supporters and readers -- on whom they have come to rely as the source of their support, strength, and numbers.” – Glenn Greenwald, “Obama and Liberals: A Counter-Productive Relationship”, Feb. 13, 2009.

The deeper question is why did they relinquish their independence? According to Greenwald’s analysis, they gave it up because “Many online political and ‘news’ outlets -- including some liberal political blogs -- discovered that the most reliable way to massively increase traffic was to capitalize on the pro-Obama fervor by turning themselves into pro-Obama cheerleading squads.” In other words, they cared more about the size of their membership rolls than their “principles”. They bought into the notion that membership equals influence, when the opposite is more likely the case, depending on the members. Attention comes to those who blend with the choir, but they have to sing the same dull song.

The term for this behavior is opportunism. If your organization values opportunities more than principles, then principles tend to become the icing on the political product you are offering and the real goal becomes sales quantity. Deep political convictions can be very powerful, but they have to be real. The sad truth is that Democrats (and associated groups) no longer possess such commitment, though they are still able to imitate conviction with considerable rhetorical ability.

It is only at the point where such groups and their so-called principles end that real analysis begins. “Obama co-opted huge portions of the Left” – is this a real left? Left means convictions about the way the relationships of society are aligned. It does not mean anger at Bush or disgust with Wall Street greed. These are worthy sentiments indeed, but if they find no deeper ground, then they are as effervescent as the moods of Britney Spears - and just as meaningful. A left that is devoted to a person rather than ideas is not a left at all, but a Tiger Beat cover.

These so-called left groupings lost the battle because they never fought it. The Right is still capable of political conviction and therein lies its power. “For the moment, on one issue after the next, one can vividly observe the harm that comes from a political faction being beholden to a leader rather than to any actual ideas or political principles.” – Glenn Greenwald. Harm? What is the bond that holds the vast “Left” to its leader? If no ideas are involved, then what is the motivation? Star power? People devoted to stars are not leftists – they are teeny boppers grown old.

The diagnosis begins with the disease which Greenwald has so ably uncovered. To do this, we must speak of shared ideas. The ultimate taboo in Democratic circles which pride themselves on their “pragmatism” is a theoretical critique of this society. “Pragmatism” to them means reacting to immediate events with immediate and barely thought-out “solutions”. Lacking an explicit body of theory on how this society and its economy function, such “solutions” inevitably reinforce the current power relationships while making cheap gestures toward the poor and middle class. Unless you have a measure for what progress means, your progressivism becomes meaningless. When progress is defined “pragmatically”, it starts to mean whatever the powerful want it to mean at a particular moment. This type of “pragmatism” ultimately means doing whatever is necessary to perpetuate the current economic relationships, not questioning them. It takes two distinct parties to make a real compromise, otherwise one can only compromise oneself.

Without progressive theory, there can be no progressive movement. If we are people of political conviction, then we have a critique of the economic and power relationships in this society and how those relationships need to change. We do not engage in battle with the Right merely with a game of numbers, but we must fight on three fronts: the theoretical in which progressive ideas triumph over the those of the Right, the political, in which progressives gain access to the levers of power, and the economic, in which the principles of economic justice are enforced. Real change has never come from any other source.

Obama's Secret Priorities

The sad fact that Obama represents no change from the fundamental priorities of the Bush and Clinton administrations is rapidly becoming manifest. A renewed surge for the war in Afghanistan appears to be one of the few campaign promises he intends to keep. This week, his Attorney General explicitly endorsed Bush's policy on renditions and Bush's refusal to recognize the jurisdiction of US courts in any legal proceedings against those who kidnap and torture foreign nationals. His solicitor general has explicitly endorsed Bush’s policy on enemy combatants.

I strongly endorse the proposals of the Families for a Peaceful Tomorrow, but I must ask myself, as a Christian: "Do I not have an obligation to reflect on why such proposals have so little chance of even being considered, much less implemented?" Jesus did not understand his mission in isolation from its social and political context and neither should we.

Let's examine the first of these proposals in this light. "Set a swift timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO military forces, to be substituted by U.N. forces for short-term security." In order for this to be implemented, we must seriously ask, "Why are the troops there?" Obviously, they are not there to protect the Afghan people or promote democracy. The U.S. not only indiscriminately kills Afghan civilians, but it supports the Northern alliance who are the chief violators of human rights in that country. They also support the Karzai government which is so corrupt that his brother is one of primary heroin dealers in the region. I could go on, but students of the war know that other interests are being served than those of the Afghan people.

The troops are there as part of a plan to support Western oil and gas interests in the region. Obama understands the real nature of U.S. power relationships and therefore virtually all of his plans revolve around supporting those interests. I say this not in a self-satisfied or ideological manner, but with deep sadness at this perversion of the Christian conscience.

We need to start with a critique of power relations as Jesus did when he exposed the hidden interests of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He never deceived himself about what their intentions were. Nonviolence does not entail acceptance of the self-serving proclamations made by ruling interests. We should begin by facing the reality of these interests in their full force.

Once the larger context is visible, we can begin to form a realistic strategy to fight the interests that promote the war in Afghanistan. As with Jesus, the fight will not often be spectacular, but it will be effective. Only a movement that directly challenges these underlying interests can take real steps toward the goal of ending war.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Irrational Designs: A Socialist Critique of the Software Industry

The best operating system in the world did not require billions in venture capital. It was designed by students and hobbyists during their disposable time. In other words, it was designed and produced using socialist production methods and has now achieved “market” penetration that seriously threatens the “efficient” capitalist monster Microsoft. The name of this operating system is Linux and I believe it offers a paradigm for a socialist method of production that could vastly improve the quality of software in the future. The software industry has succeeded in spite of and not because of capitalist methods of production. Software flourishes in freedom, in networks of equality, driven by bursts of uncontainable creativity which have been perverted and exploited by capitalist methods of social production.
Good software requires time, long periods of intense and lively concentration, mathematical and logical talent, and a few basic tools. There is no more wasteful time sink in software engineering than having to work around the consequences of the proliferation of poorly designed and rushed software. This proliferation is the result of sophisticated marketing campaigns which have resulted in huge profits for select corporations while doing more damage to the potential of software than any other factor. The logic of software contradicts the logic of capitalism at each step of its development.

Many will argue rather persuasively that competition is the lifeblood of software. As a software professional, I heartily endorse this proposition. But we must distinguish between two meanings of the word “competition”, which are typically slurred together by the corporate media. The competition that every software professional celebrates is competition between designs and implementations in which the one with the best features, most performance, and highest level of extensibility and interoperability flourishes over its rivals. But this is not the competition which the mavens of our mega-corporations inflict. And the destructive competition in which they thrive is at the root of a crisis that can only be solved by a full embrace of socialist methods of software production.

The competition which has rotted our technological infrastructure is centered on marketing, not quality. Those corporations who own the marketing machines can and do drive absolute garbage onto consumer’s PCs. You will often hear them explain that they cannot afford to care too much about quality, because too much attention to quality interferes with optimal market timing. A prime example is the recent release of Vista, which is now widely recognized as an immature operating system that was rushed to market. Dozens of major examples could be cited along the same lines. The dirty secret of software is that it is a hard and complex science that that fundamentally requires the attentive capacity of a jewel cutter to do properly. It can be done, but devotion to craftsmanship is what allows it to truly succeed.

But the conditions of the modern software marketplace militate against such care and attention on every side. Unrealistic release schedules are devised by project managers who make guesses based on nothing more optimal time to market. Of course, they “consult” with developers who are encouraged to be “honest” in their time and effort estimates. But those developers realize all too well that true honesty would get them dismissed and replaced by others whose honesty was more closely tuned to the demands of market timing. While most developers want to create a product that is focused on user value, the market constantly perverts these “use-values”, resulting in buggy and insecure products that waste enormous amounts of time. Good software exists, but its survival is not a market value, but a happy and often unrepeatable exception.

The profit motive has been the incubus that has sucked the life, creativity, and potential out of the software industry, whose chaos and inefficiency mirrors the chaos of the capitalist production from which it arose. What software engineers value is the use-value of the software they create. What capitalism values is the surplus value (the difference between the cost of developing software and the licensing fees it commands in the market), not the ability of the software to interoperate successfully with software designed by rival firms. Yet this latter characteristic is precisely what leads to the greatest multiplier of use-value. The generally poor effectiveness of software is the result of the fact that it is produced by competing islands of specialized vendors who have little reason to interoperate with others and strong motivations to subvert the operation of their rivals’ work. Standards organizations attempt to bridge this gap, but support for the standards produced by these bodies is notoriously low even by the major players who have the most to gain from it.

The nature of good software is to reach out and create networks of interoperability, but such interoperability can flourish only in free productive relationships unconstrained by competing profit interests. On a truly level playing field where only the quality and usefulness of the products mattered, we would finally be able to uncover the true potential of software to improve human life. But such a utopian expectation can never be fulfilled until the system of production gains overall direction and unified planning. The idea that quality will arise from competing islands of entrenched marketing interests is as absurd as believing that unregulated financial markets will self-correct.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

As Radical as Reality

“We can assert with confidence that the present system cannot survive. What we cannot predict is which new order will be chosen to replace it, because it will be the result of an infinity of individual pressures. But sooner or later, a new system will be installed. This will not be a capitalist system but it may be far worse (even more polarizing and hierarchical) or much better (relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian) than such a system. The choice of a new system is the major worldwide political struggle of our times.

As for our immediate short-run ad interim prospects, it is clear what is happening everywhere. We have been moving into a protectionist world (forget about so-called globalization). We have been moving into a much larger direct role of government in production. Even the United States and Great Britain are partially nationalizing the banks and the dying big industries. We are moving into populist government-led redistribution, which can take left-of-center social-democratic forms or far right authoritarian forms. And we are moving into acute social conflict within states, as everyone competes over the smaller pie. In the short-run, it is not, by and large, a pretty picture.” – Immanuel Wallerstein, Oct. 15, 2008.

The beginning of the post-capitalist order is taking shape in the form of the mass transfer of wealth and social control to Wall Street banks. The fact that they can now openly re-appropriate the wealth of the people without significant opposition signals the beginning of the end of democratic aspirations. In this drama, Obama plays the role of moralistic facilitator to cover the power transfer.

Though the first movement of this symphony of repression will be the new role of taxpayer as guarantor of the right to risk-free speculation by the ruling elite, the music will quickly evolve. The whip of the drum takes the form of mass layoffs which enforce the necessity of discipline, of unquestioning submission to the demands of capital. Those who object to genocide will be treated as the Israeli protesters against the Gaza atrocities who were subjected to mass arrest and imprisonment.

The billionaires who control the world economy have been endowed with enough free money to become America’s ruling elite for the rest of the 21st century. “The Bush-Obama bailout bore “small print” stipulations that have already given Wall Street a decade’s tax-free status by letting it count its financial losses against its tax liability. So not only has there been a great fiscal giveaway, there has been a tax shift off finance onto labor and industry.” Michael Hudson, “Obama’s New Bank Giveaway”, Jan. 30, 2009. It is clear that we are facing the advent of a new and brutal phase in the history of slavery, with ourselves as the subjects.

The financial elites have replaced the government as primary recipients of economic surplus, reducing the public sector to the role of supplier of value. This relationship points to a new form of slavery that is likely to become the replacement for the current wage labor system. The economic planning function once considered the sole purview of government has now been taken over by the financial sector, who now dictates to the government and will accept nothing but abject submission.