Wealth and Revolution

K9.6AresAristotle, the fourth century BCE philosopher, was familiar with social upheaval. Son of a wealthy Macedonian family, his childhood Aristotleparalleled that of Phillip of Macedon, the future monarch and eventual conqueror of Athens. During his training at Plato’s Academy in his late teens, Athens, which was almost continuously at war and forced to divert resources and wealth away from more productive uses, continued to convulse under political assassinations and low-level civil war. In 355, weary of the strife on its southern border, Macedon invaded and easily defeated its war-weakened southern enemy. Aristotle returned to Athens with the patronage and protection of his one-time student Alexander the Great, Phillip’s son. He then taught in occupied Athens as an “independent contractor” with the occupying force until Alexander’s death made him the target of anti-Macedonian rebels, from whom he fled, dying a year later.

I am thinking about Aristotle this morning — as I am most mornings — because I think he might have something to teach us about the social, political, and economic upheavals coursing through central and Eastern Europe. Aristotle was Plato’s student. Plato was Socrates’ student. And, yet, Aristotle’s response to and diagnosis of Socrates’ trial and death was very different than Plato’s.

Sanzio_01_Plato_AristotlePlato, whom contemporary political scientists sometimes label a “realist,” faulted his mentor for, in effect, casting pearls before swine. When he carried his criticism of Periclean Athens into the streets for all to hear, the common people of Athens found his message overwhelmingly offensive. The people of Athens, Socrates told his listeners, had been enchanted by Pericles’ superior command of speech and swindled into entrusting him with their riches to fight wars that were not in the overall interests of the Athenians. Moreover, since Pericles had not given the people of Athens either the wealth or the education to responsibly measure his words, Periclean democracy was in fact a demagoguery, a means whereby a superior power tricks the majority into supporting him. Not religious himself, Pericles used religion to delude the religious and turn them against the openly irreligious oligarchs. No democrat, Pericles used democracy for his own private ends. But to say all of this publicly to the Athenians, thought Plato, displayed a profound lack of wisdom on Socrates’ part; which is why Plato counseled that the wise should keep their wisdom to themselves and should lie to the people for their own good. Plato was a realist.

Aristotle disagreed. If only leisured, educated, and healthy individuals could be expected to responsibly govern themselves, then, Aristotle taught, states had a responsibility to make sure that all those who participated in political life were reasonably leisured, educated, and healthy. The alternative, taught Aristotle, was anarchy and revolution.

Since the fourth century, because of his spirited defense of res publica, the notion that citizens of states need to share their common wealth — hence Commonwealth — Aristotle has served as the foundation for all genuine republican political theory. Citizens need to be adequately educated. But they also need to be sufficiently wealthy, leisured, and healthy to rule. States that do not ensure these benefits of liberty invite civil war and collapse. Aristotle knew what he was talking about.

article-2542288-1ACD80C300000578-625_634x438And so we turn to the violence now coursing through central and Eastern Europe. Of course, political scientists and economists of a certain generation came to “pooh-pooh” Aristotle’s “idealistic” prescription for republican health as unnecessary and naive. These theorists and policy makers — not all of whom had been students of Leo Strauss — called themselves “realists” because of their preference for Plato over Aristotle. “Keep your counsel to yourselves and lie to the masses.” That was their advice. Austerity, private enterprise, and an iron fist; that’s the only prescription the people really understand.

But, what if Aristotle was right? What if what the people really need is education, leisure, and good health? And what if the austerity measures of the past twenty years have in fact paved the way for the current upheaval? “Well,” say our realist colleagues, “what do you expect from the hoi polloi?”

What do I expect from the people? What do you? It has frequently been said that the people get the leaders they deserve. But, surely, the reverse also holds true. Leaders also get the people that they deserve. And today central and Eastern Europe’s — along with the world’s leaders generally — are seeing the kinds of people their policies have created: hungary, un- and underemployed, in need of good health, in need of better education, in need of more time, more leisure, to consider their options, in need of a safer, more secure world.

These “needs,” as GWF Hegel once taught us, following Aristotle, point to a profound deficit in the theories and policies of the realists we have been following for the past quarter century. Perhaps it is time to once again turn away from Plato and turn toward Aristotle.

Spying on Ourselves: Two Conflicting Legal Traditions


Spying by NSA Ally Entangled US Law Firm

I have a confession to make that might get me into deep water with my friends back in Berkeley. I am not a privacy nut. In fact, back in the day I cc’d all of my email, as a matter of course, to John Ashcroft. You know: “Picked up the milk,” “On my way to get kids,” “Meet you at the theater,” etc. So, when I read an article about how indignant I am supposed to be about spying, I am inclined to yawn. This article is different, because it peels the edge back ever so slightly on one of the many legal, ethical, and institutional contradictions festering just beneath the surface of our social formation.

Privacy rights, we are told we must remember, were born out of the privilege — literally the private law, freedom, or right — enjoyed by those possessing greater political power and economic wealth to gather information about those with less power and use this information against them. This was not against the law. This was their private law, their private right, their privilege.

This privilege came under criticism only when another class — a class without title, whose only powers derived from their wealth, not their family lineage or land — gained sufficient social and economic power to challenge the right of the privileged to enjoy their own private law; and with this challenge was born the notion of universal law: a law that applied equally to all parties, irrespective of their land, title, or wealth.

It needs to be pointed out that this new notion of universal law emerged at a time when, at most, 10% of adults in the newly constituting United States enjoyed the “one vote” democracies say that they grant to “one person.” It needs also to be pointed out that the notion of universal law has always stood in tension with a much older notion that “might makes right,” which is the legal principle upon which the current Patriot Act and its successors is based.

Might makes right sounds like no more than the “Bully Principle.” But it is not. When John Yu, the often ridiculed UC Berkeley Law professor, wrote the famous legal memo that justified the Executive branch’s violation of the US Constitution and established law, he drew upon a tradition that says, in essence, that politics is a contest among the branches of government. If Congress had sufficient political power, it could have politically challenged the Supreme Court and the Executive. Lacking that power — or, in the alternative, agreeing with the Executive’s right to violate the US Constitution — Congress tacitly endorsed the action of the Executive. Similarly, did the Supreme Court possess the power to compel the Executive to subject itself to the “Law of the Land,” it could have done so. However, failing to do so, it too concedes that it is in agreement with the Executive. In other words, on purely legal grounds, since neither Congress nor the Supreme Court enjoyed sufficient will or power to challenge the Executive, the Executive’s extra-Constitutional (indeed, anti-Constitutional) decisions and actions prove to be . . . constitutional. For, where the three branches of government agree, that is where law is made.

So, on the one hand we have universal law; and on the other hand we have legal particularity. Think of it this way: did the growing entrepreneurial classes of the 18th century not have sufficient power to force the nobility’s and monarchy’s hands, universal law would never have been enshrined in the various Constitutions that sprang up in the late 18th and throughout the 19th centuries. Universality is thus grounded in the legal particularity of the power exercised by the non-titled, non-landed, educated bourgeoisie in the 18th and 19th centuries. These newly constituted elites, of course, then went on to brutally suppress the working families upon whose penury their new wealth depended.

But, does the reverse also hold true? Those who enjoy might, make right. If citizens are able to compel governments to once again hold themselves to universal law, does not this power to compel, in and of itself, reconstitute the law as universal law?

These questions, I believe, if squarely faced shift the burden of proof away from “the government” and place them once again on the shoulders of “the people.” Why is “the government” — which, in a “democracy” is constituted by “the people” — not obeying universal law? Why is “the government” able to eaves drop on the private lives of “the citizens” by which it has been constituted?

The simplistic and simple-minded answer to this question is that “the government” has not actually been constituted by the people. This answer begs the question who — the Tri-lateral Commission, the international Zionist conspiracy, the Communists, the homosexual life-style lobby etc. — who has taken over “our government.”

Far more troubling, I think, is the conclusion — born out in poll after poll — that “the people” are not real big fans of or cheer-leaders for the universal rights and liberties — including privacy — enshrined in the constitutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. In other words, “the people,” who enjoy the power to overturn and turn out their representative governments, have constituted governments that, like themselves, prefer the right of might to the right of law; they agree and support the notion that might makes right.

When a US Law Firm is working for the government of Taiwan and finds itself caught in the web of NSA surveillance; and when the Supreme Court rules that private citizens have no standing to challenge this clear violation of Constitutional Law; this can only mean that might makes right and that “the people” lack the will or the power or both to reconstitute the rule of universal law.

Of course, “the people” might change their minds about this. They might decide that they prefer a universal law that makes all parties — the powerful and the weak alike, the wealthy and the poor alike, the many and the few alike — equal before the law. But there is much to suggest that this is not at all the direction in which “the people” are moving. For when, in the 1970s, “the people” agreed that private interests needed to be “unbound” (think Ayn Rand here) and public interests sacrificed in order to create greater private efficiencies, they were in effect choosing the right that might makes. When they began to place the interests of the Commonwealth, the Republic, under those of private enterprise — making politeia subject to oikonomia — they were already saying quite loudly that the universal law protecting their privacy against surveillance by those who were more powerful could be sacrificed to the benefits the powerful can win from the knowledge they seize from those who are too weak to resist.

“The public” has already decided that it does not particularly like or support or want universal law. (And Tennessee recently showed that its people have no interest in assuming power, even when it is offered to them.)

Is it important for us to note here that now the majority of Supreme Court justices explicitly embrace the legal tradition — might makes right — upon which John Yu based his famous memo? Is it important for us to note that this tradition includes Carl Schmitt, the notorious architect of the National Socialist judicial system and mentor to Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago classicist responsible for inspiring, among others, Donald Rumsfeld?

The right to privacy is founded on a legal tradition to which the courts no longer adhere. It is founded on the antiquated notion of universal law. The legal world now adheres to the contrary and much more ancient tradition: might makes right.

If this is true, then we need to find the might that will make this wrong right once more.

Occupy or Plenum?

Two years ago, my family spent several days and weekends “occupying” the spaces privatized and “secured” under the new post-Fordist regime of accumulation and regulation. Those were exhilarating days not least because the usual crowd of lefties, students, and professors were joined by Teamsters, doctors, teachers, retirees, priests, rabbis, and pastors, believers and unbelievers — the 99% — who, for a brief moment, recognized that they were living and working in a world created by and for the 1% who owned the media, who had bought the politicians, and who were now making a killing off the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. But then the tear gas, pepper spray, and billy clubs came out; the crowds dispersed, the middle class went home, and the police made easy work of the students, lefties, and street people who remained. That was that.

IMG_2939I now live in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, epicenter of the “Bosnian Spring”; in quotes because protests have occurred throughout the former Yugoslavia and in all of the entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina, including Republika Srpska. And, just in case you have not yet read (with all of the cut-backs in real, live reporters, the Western “for profit” press can be terribly slow), Tuzla is also the center of a new process of self-government, the Plenum (you will need to Google Translate the text), that is superseding the oligarchic-plutocratic model established by the EU, World Bank, and US following the Dayton Agreement. US and EU observers may mistake Plenum for Occupy, and they do share certain surface similarities. Like Occupy, for example, Plenum engages in “direct democracy.” Everyone’s voice can be heard. And, just as in Occupy, no one is “in charge.” Plenum, like Occupy, actually votes; and their vote holds.

Yet, there are several elements where Plenum differs from Occupy. Most notably — and this is really, really important — Plenum has IMG_2929been recognized by the “duly established” authorities, by the elected City government. There is no sense in which Plenum is opposed to government or opposed to the institutions that make government. In fact, Plenum was made necessary only because government was not working for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Had government truly been representative; did it really represent the people and the interests of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the “Bosnia Spring” would never have been necessary and Plenum would never have happened. But, insofar as everyone — including the elected authorities — recognize that government is not working, Plenum has been nearly universally recognized as the duly constituted authority of the City of Tuzla.

Perhaps one of the reasons Plenum has legitimacy — a bad word, I know — is that, unlike Occupy, it’s mantra has never been “we have no platform, we have no demands.” At some point, the authorities in the United States came to believe that Occupy was not lying, that they really did have no platform and that what demands they did have bordered on “world peace” and the “brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind.” Those are great ideals. Don’t get me wrong. But, government is government. And putting “world peace” into a City Council resolution — sorry Berkeley — is kind of a waste of time. Which means that when Plenum, again with overwhelming support, submitted its platform, its demands, to the authorities, with bodies in the streets to back up this platform, guess what: the premiers resigned and the City endorsed the platform of Plenum. No talk here in Tuzla of how bad power is or how evil force is. The issue was WHO has the power; the issue was WHO has the power to force the issue. And, at least in the case of Plenum, there was no question.IMG_2735

IMG_2963The third thing that struck me and continues to strike me is the diversity of people coming to participate in Plenum; old people, pensioners, business men and women, clerks, trades men and women, mom’s, old union hacks, all waiting their turn to say what they’ve been waiting since 1995 to say; and now they have a voice. No one is patting them on the head and asking, “Now, don’t you feel empowered?” People are listening to them and taking what they have to say seriously; so seriously, that they are putting what they have to say into motions and proposals that will, if approved, become the law of Tuzla.

Perhaps a fourth, overriding difference between Plenum and Occupy is that Plenum is unapologetically critical of capitalism and of the neoliberal policies that have created over 50% unemployment in this country of 3.5M. No one in Tuzla or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia asked for the global economic downturn of the 1970s and 1980s. No one wanted Belgrade — at the time Yugoslavia’s capital — to implement the draconian cut-backs recommended by US neoliberal economists. All workers in the 1980s were in favor of a universal social franchise. But then the cuts kicked in and hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs. And families were reduced to all they had left: their ethnicity and their religion. Croatia and Slovenia pulled free, Croatia at a horrible cost. But Bosnia and Herzegovina maintained the dream of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, cosmopolitan nation. And they were punished for it. Now everyone — Croat, Serb, Bosniak — recognizes that it was capitalism that was creating the turmoil.IMG_2969

Occupy needed to be much more up front, much more vocal, about the social franchise. Plenum has learned its lesson. It is not going to sacrifice any of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s communities in order to make a dime.IMG_2960

Here is another instance where the United States and Great Britain could learn from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Occupy was important, perhaps indispensable. But Plenum is pointing the way to the future.

An Economic Primer for Transition in Bosnia and Herzegovina

What do we need to know in order to think clearly about the impending political and economic transition for Bosnia and Herzegovina?

The first thing we need to know is that it has been a long time coming.

In the 1970s, after President Nixon ordered the end of the Gold-Dollar standard leading to a flood of cheap money on world markets, among those governments that took advantage of this money was President Tito’s Yugoslavia. The decision, which made some sense at the time, proved fatal. This is because President Reagan, shortly after taking office, ordered the Federal Reserve, Treasury, and Labour Secretaries to do all in their power to strengthen the dollar, placing an extraordinary burden not only on US workers whose employers responded to the higher cost of borrowing by laying off employees, cutting benefits, and closing plants, but also on foreign borrowers who found themselves compelled to pursue similar measures — or so they thought — in order to keep up on payments on their debt. Among those most pressed by the rising cost of their debt were President Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Second, we need to recognize that although President Tito and his successors may have made bad decisions in the 1970s and 1980s, Bosnia’s and Herzegovina’s economic and political woes are part of a global economic transformation.

We have already outlined in some detail the historical and social, as well as economic, consequences following from President Tito’s and his successors’ fateful pursuit of neoliberal economic policies: the selling off of public assets, privatization, deregulation, coupled with severe reductions in the social franchise. Increasing labour unrest throughout the 1980s led directly into the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s from which Bosnia and Herzegovina has not yet recovered.

Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, has written eloquently and passionately about the human consequences of neoliberal economic policies around the globe: in South Africa, Russia, Poland, China, Argentina, and Chile, as well as in the United States and Great Britain. Yet, beyond the justifiable righteous indignation produced by reports, it is often difficult for us to identify the specific policy decisions political actors can make and need to make in order to set their economies on a different path.

The third thing we need to know is that Bosnia and Herzegovina have already taken the first essential steps toward economic transformation.

Politics has somewhere been called “the art of the possible.” It is possible to share wealth more broadly for example. But it is highly unlikely, at least in the short run, that Bosnians and Herzegovinians will, on their own, compel the World Bank, the EU, or the US to reverse their policy preferences.

So what can Bosnians and Herzegovinians do?

  1. Bosnians and Herzegovinians have already begun to take the first step. They have compelled the leaders of four of their most populous cantons to resign. Leadership change is important because so long as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cantons are governed by oligarchs committed to a neoliberal agenda, necessary, orderly, non-violent change cannot take place. But change in leadership is only the first step.
  2. Bosnians and Herzegovinians need to alter the regulatory environment in their country. The oligarchy currently governing the economy and its regulatory environment in Bosnia and Herzegovina favors low-wage, low-benefit — “inferior good” — manufacturing, that, while enriching themselves does not raise the standard of living of Bosnians and Herzegovinians. But given the significant gap between Bosnian and Herzegovinian average wages and EU average wages, it should be relatively easy for a new government to cultivate relationships with both domestic and foreign manufacturers who promise a living wage and benefits to Bosnian and Herzegovinian labourers. One of the leading obstacles preventing this shift in the margin up until now is a regulatory environment that favors the production of “inferior” goods.
  3. But cultivating relationships with domestic and foreign manufacturers willing to promise a living wage, while important, cannot solve the problem of overall wage deflation. Three measures in concert can help Bosnia and Herzegovina in the short run: the first is a domestic content requirement; the second is a minimum wage above supply; the third is to peg international borrowing and repayment to the standard of living. In any “take off,” nations need to protect their most valuable asset, their human capital. For Bosnia and Herzegovina to permit 50% unemployment and an average hourly wage of .67€ is unconscionable; but it also makes poor economic sense. On this wage, all that Bosnians and Herzegovinians can manufacture will be “inferior goods” — goods that specifically target low income communities. Such goods will not generate significant economic growth. Domestic content itself can be on a sliding scale. At this point, Bosnian and Herzegovinian products constitute so small a part of foreign markets that they have little leverage over, but also little impact on these markets. As the economy recovers, domestic content requirements should be reduced and then eliminated. Equally, important, however; since foreign lenders have a vested interest in the health of the BiH economy, they should peg repayment of loans to improvements in the economy; relaxing terms of repayment to permit the rebound that will benefit all parties (except, of course, the oligarchs).
  4. The international community needs to recognize that BiH’s economy, on its own, cannot at present support its population; it must also recognize that the direct path leading from EU and World Bank funds into the bank accounts of duly elected constitutional leaders — who also happen to be identical to the oligarchs — has not been a winning policy. This means two things: First, the international community needs to support efforts to constitutionally separate private economic interests from political office holders, including supporting constitutional change requiring the isolation and separation of the two. Second, strict regulatory restrictions need to be placed on who and what is eligible for EU and World Bank loans; these restrictions need to be couple with a rigorous, independent mechanism for monitoring compliance. Only by getting resources into the most efficient and productive hands can the EU and World Bank, as well as other interested international lenders, hope to see their investments produce returns. And only by getting resources into these hands can Bosnians and Herzegovinians anticipate real economic growth.
  5. Oligarchic and plutocratic control over the BiH economy has shifted marginal costs upward, supply downward, and demand downward. This is a fateful combination for the BiH economy. Strict, rigorous regulation and enforcement of the marketplace will reign in the oligarchy and plutocrats creating more opportunities to entrepreneurs who rely less on oligarchic control over the conditions of production and consumption than on their ingenuity and flexibility. Limiting the power of the oligarchy thus drives costs down. Driving costs down also increases supply at costs that fall within the demand horizon. More employed consumers working for a living wage also places upward pressure on demand.
  6. But to effect such shifts from private oligarchic mediation of the economy to independent, public mediation of economic mechanisms will require institutional changes that protect the integrity of all institutions in the supply chain from degree granting institutions, to lending institutions, to police and military; and, of course, institutions governing the political process itself. This process itself needs to be liberated from oligarchic control and manipulation so that political agents are free to serve public interests.

Of course, this primer for an economic policy for a Bosnia and Herzegovina is not intended as a comprehensive plan. Nevertheless, it does identify the leading obstacles standing in the way of robust economic recovery and suggests some practical means for overcoming these obstacles.

Theorizing Precarious Labour: Between Bosnia, Herzegovina, the US and Afghanistan

Two years ago, Almedina Tokić, a masters student at the University of Tuzla conducted a survey of precarious laborers hired by private US military contractors to service US soldiers in Afghanistan. Working with Ms Tokić’s data, I resituate the labour relationship between these contractors, the US military, and Bosnian and Herzegovinian precarious labourers within the transformation of the global economy over the past century. This wide lens is necessary because it is America’s supercession of Great Britain as the legal and regulatory anchor of the world economy between 1890 and 1940, and the former Yugoslavia’s peculiar relationships within the Eastern Block and to western-aligned nations following 1945, that helps account for the increasing labour unrest throughout Yugoslavia in the 1980s, the outbreak of ethnic conflict in 1992, and the plentiful supply of highly skilled, multi-lingual, educated and low wage Bosnians and Herzegovinians after the end of this conflict in 1995.

Service Employee 002While important, accounts that focus their attention on private contractor violations of environmental or labour laws, health and human safety statutes, or on rampant sexual crimes on US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan are insufficient because they fail to grasp the complex social and historical, as well as economic mechanisms, structuring the relationship between precarious labourers and private US military contractors. However, they also fall short in the kinds of solutions they suggest through which the relationship might be fundamentally transformed. At this point I am less interested in the solutions we offer than in accurately identifying and describing the shape of this relationship. For if the wide range of violations — legal, regulatory, psychological, social, economic and political — are systemic, then partial, site-specific and institution-specific solutions will not only fail to bring them to an end, but will also fail to touch the broader systematic conditions that gave rise to them over time.

Broadly speaking, the relationship between private US military contractors and Bosnian and Herzegovinian precarious labourers can be considered within a regulation theoretical framework that takes both the demand for precarious labour and its ready supply as elements within a post-Fordist regime of cultural, social, political, and economic regulation and capital accumulation. More narrowly, this relationship follows (1) firstly from the decline in global rates of profit beginning in the late 1960s and from an excess of cheap capital DynCorp Internationalfloated on global markets following the end of the Gold-Dollar standard in 1972; (2) secondly from the transition from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of regulation and accumulation since the early 1970s that culturally and socially predisposed social actors to embrace “the freedom to work” without the same protections or security enjoyed by labourers under Fordism and that politically empowered private corporations to simultaneously vastly reduce public oversight and regulation of private institutions, privatize formerly public institutions, dramatically reduce public supports for health, education, and welfare, and shift the tax burden from wealthy individuals and corporations to middle and lower class individuals and small businesses; and (3) thirdly from the imposition after September 11, 2001, of what University of Chicago theorist George Steinmetz has called an authoritarian post-Fordist regime of regulation and capital accumulation.

Service Employee 001These three conditions (1) helped generate labour unrest in the 1980s in multi-ethnic political entities whose leaders took advantage of the low-interest loans made available on global markets during the 1970s; (2) freed the US military to outsource both combat and servicing to private contractors who were free to contract with labourers at the lowest possible global market cost; and (3) created a combat and working environment free of civilian political oversight and cost multipliers arising from regulatory compliance.

Outcomes: while we might expect traumatized labourers from the poorest region of Europe to respond to survey questions with answers that shed special light on the violence they had experienced during a decade of labour unrest, war, and genocide, the answers offered by these subjects fall well within the limits we might expect from any labourer working under a post-Fordist regime of regulation and capital accumulation. Our study, while calling attention to differences where they appear is just as interested or even more interested in calling attention to the similarities we find between the kinds of answers Bosnian and Herzegovinian precarious labourers working for private US military contractors offer, and the kinds of answers we might expect any precarious labourer working anywhere might offer.