Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Telling Conversation

The following is a rough transcript of a conservsation I had at dinner last night with a few friends. In addition to being funny, I found it rather ominous.

Existential school teacher: 'Live Free or Die' is such a cool motto, much better than The Bay State.

Me: The Bay State isn't our state motto.

C&B shopgirl: Yeah, just like New Hampshire is The Granite State.

Existential school teacher: What is it again? The birthplace of America?

Me: The Spirit of America.

Vintage clothing shopgirl: It sounds like we're already dead.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Some Questions for Owen Hatherley

I recently finished Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism which is basically a study in socialist-oriented 20th century modernism with specific respect to architecture. Given that Hatherley is an Englishman, I found the most well researched and interesting parts of the book to be about British public housing. Like myself, Hatherley recognizes that both classical modernism and high modernism contained progressive and utopian elements which recognized the positive potential in human beings to create new and advanced communities for themselves. As he succinctly defines it, modernism is a "movement aiming at transforming everyday life through art, or rather abolishing art by transforming everyday life." It suffices to say that to prefer these older forms to the yuppie garbage which pass for modern today will likely get one slagged off as a nostalgic, something Hatherley is certainly familiar with. This is one of the reasons the subtitle for this blog used to be 'thrift shop conservatism' but was changed due to a new emphasis on redefining an independent Left which seeks alliances with an independent and alternative Right to "confound the corporate center."

This being said, as a fan of his writing there are some things which I would like to see addressed with more clarity. While I found Hatherley's defense of Brutalism in British public housing admirable, summed up with the phrase "nothing is too good for ordinary people", given the history of public housing as well as other uses of Brutalist architecture (which I will soon get to) certain questions are raised which cannot afford to be critically avoided.

The first is a question about public housing itself. Hatherley, like so many detractors on the Right, seems to make little distinction between British midcentury social democracy and Soviet socialist republicanism (i.e. the Lenin years) as Militant Modernism jumps between these two very different socio-economic systems using the common denominator that both were leftist and employed modernist housing schemes. As such he seems either unaware or unwilling to address the role of the state in all of this. In other words, what the state giveth it can also taketh away. Of course Hatherley is certainly aware of this as it became a Thatcherite policy continued up to Brown to either demolish or condo-ize these relics of postwar social democracy. Now I certainly support affordable and utilitarian housing in the shape of modernist high rises for ordinary people. As someone braving the gratuitously overpriced Boston apartment market, a concrete high rise with a balcony and all mod cons (defined as heat, hot water and laundry) would be ideal for someone such as myself. It can be pretty bare bones as long as my books and clothes can all fit. Of course, the same policies have affected this country as well as the far fewer working class high rises this side of the pond have also been either demolished or yuppified. So the question remains as to the price of such social housing policies. Can we really rely on the state to consistently provide affordable and utilitarian housing for lower income folks if it will only sell it off to the highest bidder or simply destroy it when it becomes a budget burden?

Taking this a step further, I would also question the liberatory nature of such social housing. Hatherley uses examples which utilized then cutting edge architectural styles and provided such amenities as balconies and skywalks, as such these were certainly the cream of the crop when it came to public housing. He neglects to mention the much more common housing projects most people associate with social housing policies. Here in Boston, projects like Bromley Heath are neither modern or futuristic in any way. They are cesspools of crime and poverty where residents are met with security cameras outside their doorways and find their common areas patrolled by a projects-specific police force. They are little more than open air prisons with the residents representing a caste under state capitalism roughly equivalent to that of peasants under feudalism with the Boston city-state filling the role of the Medieval landlord.

This leads me to a questioning of the uses and ideology of Brutalism itself. While I am grateful for Hatherley's publicization of the aesthetically forward and socially populist aspects of Brutalism, I have yet to see him bring attention to its uses as the architecture of the intrusive state. As an example, I use the photos featured in this post of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building which now houses the Department of Homeland Security. While I personally appreciate the design and often enjoy sitting on the minimal, concrete benches in front before I have to go to work, the ideology inherent in the architecture which touts the power and omnipresence of the federal government cannot be ignored. For another example, I turn to this previous blog post featuring a rather Mussolini-esque moment for former HUD director Robert Clifton Weaver using a Brutalist backdrop to emphasize his point.

Going back to my first example, I will end with the lyrics of the Jonathan Richman song 'Government Center' (where the JFK federal building is located) which touches on the psychological aspects of working in that concrete palace of statist glory:

"Well we've got alot alot alot of hard work today
We gotta rock at the government center
Make the secretaries feel better
When they put those stamps on the letters

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The World As We Presently Know It

As my brief post 'The Forest for the Trees' defined what the establishment and its opponents will look like in the coming years, the intention of this post is to define the establishment as it is currently and the differing views most people hold regarding what shape it should take. For this I again return to Gary Ulmen's introduction to Confronting the Crisis:

"Today, practically everywhere in the West, Left and Right mean very little and designate, at best, free-marketers advocating a classical 19th-century liberalism, predicated on minimal government and unrestricted economic freedom, and statists preferring its 20th-century welfare-state version, where the state turns into the most important economic agent and seeks to control and regulate all features of everyday life."

The first group would of course include libertarians, paleoconservatives, or those who simply call themselves 'small government conservatives' while the second group properly describes the broad mainstream Left, social democrats, and left-liberals. The policies of this second group are also the most mainstream as we see the 'far right' Bush administration taking them up as noted in this previously linked article by David Michael Green. Due to this stunning revelation, the GOP and its propagandists on AM rabies radio have now began distancing themselves from the Bush years, but not for his police state policies or neo-imperialism, but because of this lazily defined 'socialism.' Of course, the opportunism is clear to anyone not suffering the symptoms of the rabies bite given that they can now return to the phony outsider status they held during the Clinton years and lob accusations of "Communist", "Marxist" and, occasionally, "national socialist" at the current regime. As is noted here, all the past Republican administrations since Nixon have been more than slightly indebted to the ideology of the man long since left to be "kicked around" and ridiculed. This can be understood as a form of symbolic sacrifice whereby the square personality of Nixon was strung up and burned as an effigy by victorious New Left youth while his policies remained entrenched in Washington to be continued and elaborated on by left and right alike. In other words:

"If you believe this story, then conservative politics was not “reborn” after the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and cemented by Reagan. Instead, the Nixonites allowed this new ideological trend to be the face of the party, but they retained control over the institutional functions of the party, as evidence by Nixon’s resurgence. This observation explains a lot of other puzzling feature of Republican politics. This is not the party of small government, it’s the party of national security. The party of individual liberty and self-reliance is actually the party of “enhanced interrogation.” The idea tying it together is national security, with superficial appeals to whatever helps win the election. "

This brings me to my next point, which begins with an examination of Thatcherism (Reaganism being simply American Thatcherism) and the bogus libertarianism attributed to it. As I've written about previously, Thatcherism and its American counterpart sought to roll back the 'Keynesian consensus' of the high modern era and usher in an era of deregulation, entrepreneurialism, sharp individualism, meritocracy and higher achievement. We all know Reagan's famous dictum about government being the problem, not the solution, therefore one would rightly assume he was enemy of the second view of the establishment quoted at the beginning of this post. While the high modern era provided the highest level of prosperity and comfort for the greatest number of citizens than ever before, it came at the cost of an ever increasing government and military. Transatlantic Thatcherism certainly rolled back the welfare state, but the size and power of the executive government in both Britain and the United States remained the same while the military-industrial complex, which is mostly publicly funded, increased. Reagan began to increase US military involvement in the world, especially Latin America, breaking with the relative isolationism seen after defeat in Vietnam. Thatcher meanwhile put British imperialism into overdrive with the ridiculous invasion of the Falklands and a brutal suppression of Irish self-determination (the response to which almost claimed the life of Mrs. Thatcher herself). This is something which I have not yet seen properly addressed by either the left or right. Namely, that the social democracy afforded in Britain and the United States in the postwar era was intrinsically tied with the war effort itself. In other words, one cannot have a benevolent welfare state (as the Left views it) without a state which is also involved in perpetual warfare and conquest and will happily crush personal freedoms at home when it sees fit. From the right, I have not yet seen a critique of the Thatcher or Reagan administrations which notes that they both continued the high modern consensus of an increasingly powerful executive government and military. Thus, it seems whether you have a socially democratic welfare state or one seeking the deregulation of markets, war will remain the health of the state.

From here I will turn to the first notion of the establishment mentioned in the beginning of the post. This classically liberal variant of the political and economic establishment was last seen with the Calvin Coolidge presidency. Coolidge represents the last of the East Coast liberal Republicans who are now at best a footnote in American political history. During his presidency, Reagan stated that he held Coolidge in high esteem, no doubt to cement his credentials as a proponent of small government. Nevertheless, I think even the most ardent trade unionist would regard Coolidge's handling of the Boston Police strike during his time as Massachusetts governor as far more even handed than Reagan's handling of the air traffic controllers' strike. After all, Coolidge only intervened on the issue of public safety after there was violence in the streets. Reagan's bias towards big business was never hidden and so the intervention of the Federal government on behalf the airline companies somehow becomes an example of minimal government in action. Nevertheless, even outside of libertarian support or lionization of Transatlantic Thatcherism, a look at the Gilded Age outside of this revisionism leaves much to be desired. Yes, it was an age where the government was comparatively minimal in respect to it's present size, but economic inequality was severe. Present day luxuries such as the weekend and minimum wage were won only from of the struggles of organized labor against the conditions which the Robber Barons would continue to have us all living under. While I don't have any illusions concerning the radical nature of present day trade unions, the fact that they were able to establish themselves as a powerful lobby for working people and have it so their members could make decent living for themselves and their families is a testament to the power of working class self-determination. A return to the policies of the Gilded Age would have the majority of us working 12 hour days, every day, for $4.50 an hour with the added stipulation that one could smoke a joint at the end of it. While the incorporation of the trade union movement within the political system certainly spelled the death of labor radicalism and from a Marxist and syndicalist perspective an accommodation with the capitalist system itself, in terms of what the British and American working classes themselves actually wanted it was a victory as it established the trade unions as their rightful representatives and an era of relative affluence for those who run but do not own the means of production. This is why, to the chagrin I'm sure of some of my Austrian minded friends, I believe social democracy is the most advanced form of capitalism as it neutralizes to a large degree the social inequalities produced by capitalism.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the High Modernist era and social democracy in general, while admirable for the relative affluence which most Americans and British citizens could attain with ease, a culture of mediocrity and conformity became the staid afterbirth. As such, the appeals to excellence and an unrestrained individualism during the Thatcher and Reagan years were a logical act of rebellion. Nevertheless, the outcome of their reign was a bit different. As is described in this review of James Heartfield's book The 'Death of the Subject' Explained:

"In his analysis of the 1980s, the decade of Thatcher and Reagan and of the slogan 'there is no alternative' (to the market), Heartfield exposes the contradictions of popular capitalism. The defeat of an already moribund left proved much easier than rolling back state support for a stagnant capitalist system deprived of its old enemies at home and abroad and obliged to discover new sources of legitimacy. The result was 'a solipsistic individuation of society', as people retreated from public life and social engagement, rather than the self-assertive individualism promised by Hayek and Popper."

Today not much has changed except that politics has taken on a synthesis of Thatcherism and social democracy, the so called 'Third Way.' Such syncretism just goes to show what sort of dead end the power elite has come up against. As such, capitalism is moving away from the technological advancements and higher standard of living which it certainly can provide in favor of an era of restraint and neo-feudalism. Rich Karlgaard of Forbes draws some comparisons between our current crisis and the beigism of the Carter 1970s:

"Thus does our current mess look like the 1970s more than anything. There are some notable differences, of course: House speculation, poorly understood credit derivatives, crazy leverage, bad accounting rules and lax SEC enforcement created today's woes. In the 1970s, it was oil shocks, inflation, tax bracket creep and a growing welfare state. Those differences aside, we seem to have wound up in the same place. We are led by a government that once again (1) distrusts markets, (2) embraces oddly contradictory Keynesian deficit spending for growth and Malthusian limits to growth (except for the government) and (3) is run by a president with a deep regard for his own virtue.

Then as now, the U.S. economy will recover. But it is hard to imagine anything stronger than a tepid recovery--occasional bright periods of growth interrupted by numerous mini recessions, oil shocks and so forth. On the whole, this will produce European-style growth of 1% to 2%. If you doubt this, then think of the American industries whose top companies will shift capital and creative energy from growth investment to regulatory compliance: banking, for one. Automobiles. Oil and gas. Electric utilities. Pharmaceuticals. Picture yourself at a board meeting at any top company in these fields. You will hear defensive talk overwhelming growth talk.

How did ordinary Americans cope in the 1970s? Many turned inward. Writer Tom Wolfe captured the decade's mood in a 1976 essay called "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening." Wolfe used the term "awakening" as satire. What Wolfe described was far from the religious awakenings led by Jonathan Edwards in the early 18th century or by the abolitionists of the 19th century. Rather, the great awakening of the 1970s was a national plunge into self-absorption.

So here we are: the military-industrial complex and the executive government has been ever expanding since the beginning of the 20th century, untouched, in fact cheered on by those supposed supporters of small government in the 1980s. Meanwhile, relative affluence and ease of life (i.e. not having to worry too much or struggle over the essentials) is now left to the nostalgics. A culture of self-absorption and perpetual adolescence has prompted a new view of society: one outside of class or culture and brought on by a levelling humanism which now sees individuals as either victims or professionals (i.e. those who manage the victims and their affairs). Western capitalism has retreated from production and advancement and now speaks of sustainability and the so called 'New Economy' based around service and security. On either the Left or Right there are no longer any actual bottom-up political or social movements, just useful idiots trying to make the agenda of power elite seem chic. Environmentalism, anti-consumerism, and various charities mark the revival of a Victorian morality whereby regular folks are supposed to feel guilty about their "privileges", like owning a car and a house, and give something back. It has been said that aid to Africa (and related schemes) are the means by which poor people in rich countries give money to rich people in poor countries. In addition to this I would add that the current vogue of charity is really an attempt by the American and British ruling classes to preserve some sense of legitimacy where they can still imagine they are on top and thus in a position to give something extra to all the little people around the world. Meanwhile both countries are steadily on their way to resembling East Germany or Communist Yugoslavia. In closing, I would normally ask readers which brand of poison mentioned in the beginning of the post they would prefer. However, thanks to the Third Way we needn't choose as we can have the worst of both! The economic feudalism of the Gilded Age nostalgics with the ever present statism and beigism of the social democrats. Backwards to a Brave New World which is neither brave or new.