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Friday, March 19, 2021

A TERMINOLOGICAL QUIBBLE

In the aftermath of the horrific events at three Georgia spas, there is renewed talk about the “problem” of anti—Asian sentiment in America. This accompanies talk about the “problem” of anti—black racism, the “problem” of economic inequality, the “problem” of obstacles to voting, and so forth. I should like to spend just a moment objecting to this use of the word “problem,” which, I believe, confuses and obscures certain obvious truths about American society.

 

Let us start with economic inequality. The enormous gap between the wealth of the rich and the wealth of the poor (Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos between them have as much wealth as the poorest 120 million people in America) is not a problem of or for capitalism. It is the point of capitalism. As the saying goes in this digital age, economic inequality is a feature, not a bug. Capitalism exists in order to exploit workers and accumulate wealth in the hands of capitalists. That is why it existed in the 19th century, in the 20th century, and now in the 21st century.

 

An analogous observation is true of the other so-called problems mentioned above. The word “problem” suggests a technical or conceptual difficulty that may be overcome by the application of science, technology, or the rational organization and deployment of available resources. Building an affordable car that runs on electricity rather than by means of an internal combustion engine was a problem. Putting human beings on the moon was a problem. Building a nuclear weapon was a problem. Developing and deploying a vaccine for Covid – 19 was a problem. All of these, including the last, turned out to be solvable, fortunately in the case of the vaccine, rather less fortunately in the case of nuclear weapons.

 

Racism, economic inequality, and the suppression of the vote are, or arise out of, conflicts of interest, between whites and nonwhites, between rich and poor, and currently (although not always historically) between Republicans and Democrats. There are no technical solutions to these conflicts, there are only struggles in which some win and some lose.

 

To describe the struggles as “problems” suggests falsely that what is needed is a research grant or government program to “solve” them. This, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s lovely phrase, afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable.

10 comments:

marcel proust said...

Two thoughts:

1) Similar to this article in Slate, It’s Never a “Bicycle Accident”, about Shawn Bradley's being hit by a car and paralyzed as a result.

2) Capitalism exists in order to exploit workers and accumulate wealth in the hands of capitalists. This brings to (my) mind Joan Robinson's comment, "“The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited all.” At least in its initial stages, known as proto-industrialization, the capitalist exploitation was likely an improvement from previous states of affairs.

(I have substantially reduced my commenting here due to my preferences for a pseudonym and our host's preference that commenters not use pseuds, but I thought that in this case I would violate the rule. Apologies if my decision is a mistake.)

s. wallerstein said...

For them the U.S. is your "Adonis with a pimple", a healthy society with a few minor problems, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the leader of the free world,
the greatest nation ever, an example for humanity.

And they really believe their own bullshit. Otherwise, why would Biden call Putin "a killer"? Yes, Putin is a killer, but so is Biden. And many have died from U.S. drone strikes since Biden took office, how many died when Biden attacked Syria?

In spite of who and what they are, they, the U.S. ruling elite, still consider themselves morally superior and sermonize the world.

Chomsky always says, "look in the mirror first", but they don't ever look in the mirror.

John Doe said...

Thus spoke the affluent, comfortably retired philosophy professor who got his BA and PhD at Harvard, who taught at Harvard, U Chicago, Columbia, among other universities, and who has a nice little apartment in Paris.

Tell me, how would Harvard, U Chicago, Columbia, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, etc. react to a certain subset of Black Lives Matter protestors rioting, looting, and pillaging their campuses? If they were trashing academic buildings and dorms? If they were setting fire to the campus police department building and police vehicles?And suppose the looters then said, “These institutions reflect white supremacy. They predominantly serve the white and wealthy. Overall they do not welcome us. And so we are going to take what we want from them and declare these reparations. We are going to demand that they give us 20% of their multi-billion dollar endowments. We are going to demand that they abolish their campus police. And if they do not give into our demands, we are going to functionally shut down these universities.”

If all this happened, these universities would freak out and call in the local police for heavy reinforcements to suppress the rioting and looting. And then certain, highly “woke” professors at these universities who champion hardcore identity politics would loudly condemn their universities for such a response: “These protestors are correct. We should let them take whatever they want and also give them 20% of our endowment as reparations. However, I still expect to keep my professorship, my tenure, my salary, my annual cost of living adjustment, and my pension. If we need to cut costs due to the decrease in our endowment, then that should adversely affect other professors, lecturers, etc., not me, since I am holier than thou and ultra woke. Other professors here demonstrate white privilege and white supremacy but not I.”

The bottom line: we should not view race relations as a zero-sum game that involves winners and losers. No one should physically attack others, regardless of their race. No one should commit offensive violence against others, regardless of their race. No one should riot or loot, regardless of their race. No one (including blacks, Hispanics, and Asians) enjoys being the victim of violent crime. No one (including minorities) likes having their neighborhood or workplace trashed, looted, or burnt down. And no one likes being disenfranchised.

We should strive to treat one another with respect and dignity, regardless of race. But that does not mean tolerating violent criminal behavior. And we should not worship at the altar of wokeness and hardcore identity politics, which inevitably creates racial divisions and hostilities. (Note that the white supremacists (e.g. Identity Europa) are also playing the game of hardcore identity politics.) And all this is consistent with supporting universal voting rights and protections for all US citizens.

Howie said...

You make capitalism sound like an evil conspiracy- something out of the movies

Eric said...

RPW: "Let us start with economic inequality. The enormous gap between the wealth of the rich and the wealth of the poor ... is not a problem of or for capitalism. It is the point of capitalism. As the saying goes in this digital age, economic inequality is a feature, not a bug. Capitalism exists in order to exploit workers and accumulate wealth in the hands of capitalists."

Now let us wait for someone to approvingly cite a Bloomberg article about "Smart Capitalism" and to tell us how capitalism can be modified and improved to create a sustainable economy and a political system that is able to successfully address the climate crisis and extreme inequality.

(But seriously, Professor, thanks for at least one post like this mixed in with all the other posts cheering on the Dems & the Biden admin.)

Eric said...

John Doe: "No one should physically attack others, regardless of their race. No one should commit offensive violence against others, regardless of their race."

Who could disagree with this statement, taken at face value?

The problem is that its framing totally obscures the violence on which the system of racial and class hierarchy has been built, going all the way back to Jamestown and the New England colonies (and to Columbus before them), and on which it is maintained. It makes it seem that it is only the protesters who use force.

I wonder how you and others who share your point of view feel about the slave revolts in American history. The only "legitimate" use of violence in those times was the violence employed to maintain slavery. Were the slaves who rebelled wrong to have used force when they burned plantations to the ground and killed white slaveholders?

(Please, trolls, do not take this as a call for any kind of indiscriminate racially-motivated violence.)

John Doe said...

Eric:

“The problem is that its framing totally obscures the violence on which the system of racial and class hierarchy has been built, going all the way back to Jamestown and the New England colonies (and to Columbus before them), and on which it is maintained.”

In general, setting aside historical inquiry and debate, I am focused on the present and near future, not the distant past. Yes, slavery in the US was a moral abomination and obviously it was a good thing that slavery was abolished. But obsessing over the past and utterly condemning the Founding Fathers, the original colonies, Columbus, and possibly even Lincoln (certain states are debating whether to take down Lincoln statues, even though *he emancipated the slaves*) will not help reduce racial tensions and move the country forward.

When Obama ran for president in 2008 and 2012, he did not invoke hardcore identity politics or constantly refer to slavery. Instead, he consciously tried to universalize issues, i.e. frame issues such that they universally apply to all races, genders, regions, classes, etc. Recall his 2004 DNC speech emphasizing that we are the *United* States of America, not red America or blue America. By appealing to the universal, he won the 2008 and 2012 elections and became the first black president, one who served two terms and left office with a very good approval rating. Overall, Obama is not a proponent of hardcore identity politics or wokeness (although he speaks up about certain racial issues) and many people love him, even if they disagree with him on various issues.

“It makes it seem that it is only the protesters who use force.”

I never said that only protestors use force. Most (probably the vast majority of) BLM protestors were peaceful. But some were not peaceful and committed violence by rioting, looting, burning stuff down, attacking police officers, etc. On the other hand, the police used force to a degree in response to the protestors and rioters. And Derek Chauvin definitely used excessive force when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, an egregious action and killing for which he should be held responsible. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery is another egregious, heinous example. Thus many people other than BLM rioters (e.g. the Capitol insurrectionists) wrongfully commit violence.

John Doe said...

Continued:

“I wonder how you and others who share your point of view feel about the slave revolts in American history. The only "legitimate" use of violence in those times was the violence employed to maintain slavery. Were the slaves who rebelled wrong to have used force when they burned plantations to the ground and killed white slaveholders?”

Slavery was a moral abomination and so I am sympathetic to those slaves who revolted and burnt their plantations. If they indiscriminately killed all white slaveholders including their wives and children (instead of targeting the worst, most abusive slaveholders and leaving the wives and children alone), then I am somewhat less sympathetic and more opposed.

However, there is a HUGE DIFFERENCE between then and now. We no longer have slavery. The US now has many middle-class blacks and some upper middle-class and wealthy ones. We have had a black president (Obama) and now have a black female vice president (Harris). Many major cities have or have had black mayors (e.g. Keisha Bottoms in Atlanta and Lori Lightfoot in Chicago). We have had two black Supreme Court Justices (Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas).

Overall, I do not think it is justified to riot, loot, or burn stuff down in major cities nationwide in response to certain police officers fucking up and unjustifiably killing certain black people. Hold the police officers accountable. Let the legal system handle it. Peacefully protest and peacefully advocate for *reasonable* police reforms, not defunding or outright abolishing the police. If you want to know why the Democrats performed worse than expected in the 2020 House races, listen to Jim Clyburn: “‘Defund the police’ is killing us [politically].”

Finally, this really should not matter but I am predominantly white with about 6% of actual black, African blood in me. If I were 25% or 50% or 100% black, I would still think my expressed views are perfectly reasonable.

aaall said...

It should be pointed out that it can't be assumed that BLM supporters were doing the (and certainly all the) violence. It was a right wing Boogaloo Boy who murdered a CHP in San Jose during a protest and a member of some militia group has been indicted for smashing windows and arson in Minneapolis. The looting in Santa Monica was some blocks away from a peaceful protest. Also it's not really fair to lump anarchists, Antifa, and lumpen opportunists in with BLM. What we know for sure is that considering the thousands of protests and the millions of protestors there was remarkably little violence and property damage that wasn't initiated by agents provocateurs, opportunists, and police over-reaction.

"That statement betrays a profound misunderstanding of capitalism.
Capitalism is inherently inequitable."

Which, Eric, would seem to imply that there is some economic system that is inherently equitable and ungameable. Life is an endless series of magneto adjustments. Wins are always going to be at risk and big losses easy.



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