Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

I have a tradition here on the blog of grappling with holidays that don՚t really work for me the way they are supposed to. It՚s not celebrating them exactly, but it is doing them a bit more honor than just going shopping or firing up the grill.

On Memorial Day, where we are supposed to be thinking of those who gave their lives for their country, I tend to think of those whose lives were impacted by war in all the other possible ways besides being a soldier – being a victim, for instance, or refusing to participate, or finding a larger cause to dedicate themselves to. I guess there is an element of snobbery there, for which I apologize. But it՚s also a function of my background – my father was a Czech Jew who served in the British Army during WWII, and I came of age during the Vietnam era, which did not inspire much patriotic war fever. So like many vaguely leftish people, I am in the position of trying to love my country while hating the larger part of what it does.

But the day is about the people who sacrificed, not the cause they sacrificed for. I think of them enlisting, with enthusiasm or trepidation or a simple sense of duty. It՚s an alien experience for me, and I admit to a surprising touch of envy: to immerse yourself so totally in a collective cause must be liberating in a way. We all must serve something greater than ourselves; how convenient to have that need packaged up in an institution for you. Us draft-dodger types have to work hard to figure out what we are fighting for and how to fight for it, and most of our efforts are dissipated by lack of effective institutions. The war against war involved some real risk too, and I՚m glad those who died in that struggle have a memorial. But on this holiday, let us forget the sides, the countries, the causes, the enmities, and think about what binds together all those who have risked themselves to fight for something they believed in.

Some of those beliefs may have been wrong, stupid, or evil, but I give the grunts the benefit of the doubt: they may have enlisted in a bad cause for good reasons. Finding yourself betrayed by your own bad judgement is one of the risks of war.

Here's a veteran describing with controlled anger his treatment at the hands of the VA. This issue has gotten plenty of airing lately; I don't have much to add. But it occurs to me that this country no longer has a functioning upper class. If I was a member of the aristocracy (say, a scion of an old WASP family like the Bushes) I think I'd take some pains to take care of veterans, given that I expect further generations of the working class to go risk their lives for my interests. Given that we treat them like dirt, I can only assume that either nobody is running the country, or the people who do feel that they don't have much need for soldiers. Or, and I think this is the most probable and most terrifying, there are people running the country but they have not got a clue about how to protect either their own or their country's real long-term interests.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

“Anarchist Conference Devolves Into Chaos”

Who could have predicted?

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More here. In fairness to the cause, I have been to plenty of anarchist events that did not devolve into chaos; that this one did and that that was notable says something.

In this particular case, I think the culprit is not anarchism per se as much as it is the culture of aggressive victimhood that seems to be taking hold among college-age youth. People seem to feel they have a right to not have their feelings hurt that trumps everything else. This is very broken and I hope it fixes itself, and I say this from a leftist position. This preoccupation with internal feelingns and symbolic action is the enemy of real political action.

It is completely unclear from the video and any associated links what the speaker, Kristian Williams, had done to merit being shouted down. As best as I can figure out it is stems from an article he wrote called The Politics of Denunciation where he dives into this exact issue. So of course the fact that he was shouted down is excellent evidence for his own thesis. He notes that attempts to police the movement for purity are counterproductive:
At issue here are strikingly different visions of what a political movement ought to be.

In one vision, a movement and the people who make it up should be in every respect beyond reproach, standing as an example, a shining city on a hill, apart from all the faults of our existing society. To achieve this perfection, we have to separate the sheep from the goats, the good people from the bad, the true feminists from everyone else. This outlook produces, almost automatically, a tendency to defer to the dogma of one's in-group. It is not enough simply to do the right things; one must also think the right thoughts and find favor with the right people.

In contrast, in the other vision, a movement should attract people to it, including damaged people, people who have done bad things, and those who are still in the process of figuring out their politics. It will require us, therefore, to address sexual assault and other abuse by actually engaging with the people who do such things. We have to struggle with them as much as we struggle against oppression.
Seems about right to me. Of course both Mr. Williams and I have (at least some subset of) white male straight cis privilege, so wtf do we know?

One more note: this whole fracas may seem ridiculous to anyone who is not involved in alternative politics or is over the age of 25. I don՚t think so, because: the world desperately needs some well-organized opposition to entrenched power. Episodes like this just means that the alternative cultures are just as fucked as the mainstream; both are fiddling to amuse themselves while the planet burns.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Vertical and Horizontal Solidarity

It՚s May Day, time for some working-class solidarity. And are not most of us workers? Employees of someone else? Unfortunately the very idea of class solidarity in America, especially in Silicon Valley, has an odor of ridiculous obsolescence. It՚s a boring and trite view of the world, compared to the technological sublime. SV culture, for all its cachet and raw intelligence, runs on the basically same toxic individualism that rules in the rest of the US and prevents any real political left from forming. It՚s just brought to a more intense level here, where everyone thinks they are or should be an entrepreneur.

The class struggle is not much in evidence here; everyone՚s just trying to get rich by making their company awesome. Companies use obvious tactics to make it seem like everyone at the company is best buddies, teammates, all working hard and happily together towards the same goal. And to some extent this works! It always amazes me that companies, despite their petty politics and obvious social pathologies, actually get shit done. Whatever their flaws, they seem to solve the general problem of goal-directed cooperation.

Doing so always seems to require a communal myth of the company, and everyone has to take part in building up this myth and everyone has to occasionally make a public display to the effect that they are bought into it. This is just as true at both excellent and crappy companies, I suspect. My current company actually does do pretty well in both mythmaking and living up to its myth. Today they chose (by coincidence I՚m sure) to give a presentation on stock options. Can՚t complain about that; stock options actually do work, they do help align labor with the interests of the organization.

So companies build what I՚m going to call vertical solidarity, that is, solidarity and loyalty within a company, between its various ranks and groupings, and to the company itself. Let՚s distinguish that from horizontal solidarity, which is solidarity to your class, profession, or community.

Both of these have their necessary uses. Companies require vertical solidarity to operate; and society requires horizontal solidarity to keep from degenerating into a hellscape. But both forms of solidarity seem to be decaying over the last few decades or so.

In the vertical dimension, the old-fashioned arrangement between company and employee, where a job was a lifetime identity, is long gone. While companies try to instill loyalty into their workforce, they rarely reciprocate. (This is not so much in evidence in technology, where employees are often the companies chief asset, but quite obvious in the most other sectors of the economy, where owners will do whatever they can to eliminate workers as an unnecessary cost),

Horizontal solidarity also seems to be on the wane, as evidenced by the diminishment of labor unions and the absence of much professional class consciousness in technology. This is a shame for several reasons. Aside from purely self-interested motives, which of course are important, professional solidarity exists so that market forces can be resisted. Lawyers and doctors seem to grasp this; computer people largely have not. There are very clear rules for professional conduct among doctors and lawyers; violate them and you are out. But there are roughly no standards of ethical conduct for computer professionals.

This might be all for the best in a field which is still defining itself. On the other hand, as software eats the world, the job of a software developer becomes increasingly important to every aspect of society. Mathematicians have noticed that the largest employer of their talents is not always acting in a a way that is a credit to their profession and a net gain for society, and have proposed setting some standards that would reign this in. Unlikely to happen, but at least they are making an effort. The organization that was making gestures towards the idea that there computer professionals as a class had some social responsibility dissolved itself a year ago.

I suspect that both horizontal and vertical solidarity are going permanently out of fashion, perhaps to be replaced by something more network-based. My real loyalty isn՚t to a company (sorry) or to a particular class or professional identity, but to various far-flung friends, and to the network of ideas and experiences that bind us together. That might not make a revolution, but in an era of general institutional turmoil and decay, it is what binds the world together.

[Past May Day posts]