Monthly Archives: April 2008

“Bad idealism” and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

[Much of this post is inspired by Michael Neumann’s analysis in his book, “The Case Against Israel.” Tidy and eloquent, if you read one book on the P-I conflict, make it this one.]

American and Israeli thinking about the P-I conflict is a great example of what might be termed “bad idealism” in politics. By this I mean a preoccupation with “telling facts”—as in, “It must be very telling that x is the case.” Idealism uses a prestanding theory to show, by inference, how the world must be when we could just look at how it is. Recalling the Democratic debates, Obama must be unpatriotic if he doesn’t wear a flag pin—no matter what the man has ever done. Similarly, many socialists of the “third camp” persuasion refuse to lend political support to the Cuban revolution because of Fidel’s bourgeois background, or bourgeois participation in the revolution, on the Marxist specification that the working class is the “motor” of the revolution. This, instead of looking at what the actual character of Cuba looks like, wherever it “came from.”

Regarding P-I: There is an idea that getting the Palestinians (Hamas) to “accept Israel’s right to exist” is important before meaningful negotiations can proceed. Notwithstanding that Israel’s refusal to declare its own borders means that it is unclear just what “existence” Hamas would be agreeing to—there are deeper issues.

For one, no matter what Hamas says, they know that Israel’s existence is a fait accompli. We know this not only because (a) they are not stupid, but more importantly because (b) they are not fighting against the “existence of Israel”—again, no matter what they say they are doing. This (b) is an important point if you are of the view that the negotiations and the violence are connected, or rather, that the preparedness of Hamas to accept Israel’s “existence” and its preparedness to cease violence against Israel, are connected.

The position amounts to “bad idealism” for two reasons. For one, Palestinians can perfectly well negotiate with Israel without renouncing violence. In fact, a sincere renunciation of violence against Israelis would make meaningful negotiations impossible—precisely because the Palestinians have nothing with which to negotiate except for violence. If they renounce this, the Israelis can simply do what they want to them. They might treat them well or poorly, for all we know, but the Palestinians will have conceded them all the power of deciding.

Second, for precisely the same reason, a solution to the P-I violence can be met without anyone’s even negotiating at all. Again, it isn’t Israel’s “existence” that Hamas fights against, but rather their settlements into Palestinian territory. These settlements, begun in the 1970’s, are fatal to Palestinian lives, homes, culture and sovereignty. The settlement policy has maintained, and the settlements themselves deepened, across every Israeli cabinet since their beginnings, and, all things being equal, Israel intends to spread them across the West Bank as far as they can. The most unsavory Israeli actions in the territories—roadblocks, detainings, and the like, are geared toward protecting and supporting these.

Given Palestinian options, a violent response on their part is rational and, I think, moral, if a violent response to anything is ever warranted. It also shows why a Palestinian renunciation of violence would be worthless: They have to resist the settlements, and whatever they say, so long as the settlements remain it will always be the case that somebody will. In this way, the settlements block peace even if they aren’t the cause of the fighting.

(Note: The fact that the fighting began before the settlements does not change this assessment. There is no amorphous P-I “violence” to speak of. The establishment of Israel prompted one wave of Palestinian violence in 1948; the settlements, a distinct action, prompted a distinct response that continues to the present day as the settlements maintain and spread.)


Israel could withdraw from the Occupied Territories without striking any agreement with Israel. This unilateral action would lessen the violence by removing its chief cause. It would have the added effect of allowing Israel to firm up its borders, now indefensibly jagged and porous due to the settlements. A secure border would enhance peace even if Hamas, inexplicably, remained more ravening to murder every Israeli than they (allegedly) are now. Defining Israel’s borders would ipso facto define the Palestinian borders, making a way for genuine Palestinian statehood. This would aid any subsequent negotiations by providing a “legitimate” party for Israel to negotiate with, and would, again, give the Palestinians something to lose. As of now, the Palestinian leadership lacks the resources, the authority—and again, the real incentive—to police the anti-Israeli “terrorists” in their midst. Sovereignty in the Territories would change all that. Not to mention the support of the world that would result from a good faith withdrawal.

Against this ready prospect, only a bad idealism could cast what Palestinians think, or say they think, as the more important consideration.


On panhandling as a “real job”: an exercise in intellectual self-defense

[Good and revised 4.27.08.]

It is odd that one could be committed to capitalist “free exchange” and oppose panhandling (on the same grounds, at that). A co-worker of mine got me to thinking about this. She expressed the idea that panhandlers, of which there are many in Memphis, should just “get a job” instead.

A “job” must, I thought, mean more than simply generating an income—as panhandlers are already doing this. It must be a “real job,” somehow. This can’t just mean working for another person, a boss, as there are self-employed people who everyone agrees have “real jobs.” Perhaps they are supposed to generate their income performing “productive” or noble work instead. But there are plenty of “real jobs” that are neither: A financial speculator produces nothing in terms of commodities or services; and production of, say, rubber novelty turds or whoopee cushions seems hardly noble or edifying for consumers, or “society.” Must real jobs be taxing or unpleasant? Panhandling requires standing still in the elements for hours and is probably humiliating. It sure seems like “work.” Indeed, people are paid to do this sort of thing all the time, only with ads on the signs they hold. Conversely, nobody thinks a person has ceased to “really work” when she gets paid to do something she really loves, and would even do for free; indeed, finding this is often said to be one of the great goals of life.

On a consistent definition of “job”—one that covers all of the ones we want to call “real”—panhandling probably qualifies as one. In the end, nobody really defines a real job as something productive in hard material terms, or ennobling of consumers or of broader society, or taxing and difficult; a job is simply anything1 that one is paid by another to do. There might be silly jobs, or work that nobody should have ever paid someone to do, but this makes them no less “real.”

Be a productive member of society and crank these out

Soliciting charity for a living might seem fundamentally different because it seems like getting paid something for nothing. But consider: Giving charity clearly satisfies a want in the giver. This is true by definition: In the barest psychological terms, every action, giving charity no less, is motivated by some element of desire; if the payer did not want to pay, he wouldn’t. If we define a service as something someone does which satisfies a want for which another person pays—it follows that the panhandler provides a service indeed. Just because neither the panhandler nor the charitable giver thinks they are engaged in a product exchange hardly changes the facts of the case, any more than if I think I am a woman I thereby cease to be a man.2 (And this “service” is arguably as edifying as many other “legitimate” ones—giving to charity makes people feel good, and, frankly, reminds them of how relatively well off they are.)

In broader terms, unemployment is necessary for the health of a capitalist economy. 100% full employment all the time means no “room” for growth—for who would staff the new factories and storefronts? And how would capitalists, as they constantly remind us, remain profitable without periodic cuts in labor costs (i.e., layoffs, relocations)? So long as unemployment is necessary, panhandling (and all other “illegitimate” ways of making a living) will be as close to necessary as makes no difference. And something necessary to the maintenance of the capitalist system can hardly be criticized as breaking the rules of the same game.

Finally: From another angle: If I brokered charity contributions for impoverished third parties, and took a salary from these contributions, this would qualify as a “real job.” How then, if I broker the contributions for myself directly, and keep it all, is it essentially different?

* * *

I write all this as an exploration of ideological thinking—not the most important example, but a telling one. The whole “blame the panhandlers” angle is one of those rationalizations that people who are materially invested in a “bad” deal (capitalist production relations) must tell themselves—and must tell others, like my co-worker, they can influence—to legitimize the deal’s outcome. As a rationalization, the story stands up poorly to scrutiny; on the most obvious level, it is irrational. It won’t gel with other things the subject believes, and these things can be used to show a contradiction. And ripping the masks off this shit has to be part of critiquing the system.


1 Perhaps, anything legal one is paid to do.

2 Nor am I saying that the charity is reducible to a product exchange, or that “getting something” is the only motivation, or a poor or self-defeating one, for the giving. I’m only saying that whatever ever else the exchange may be, it is this also.

Obama’s “guilt by association”

Of course the Democratic debates were nothing but crap—but tonight especially, a very particular kind of crap. It is not even that Obama was aggressively pelted with questions about issues to the side of anything relating to whether he would make a good President. (Not that I think there is any such thing as a “good President.”) But regarding his relationships with Pastor Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground: What precisely is the problem here?1 Is it not enough to say, simply, that Obama favors or endorses certain things about these gentlemen, and not other things about them? I can think of no person—no entity—on earth which I wholeheartedly endorse, in every respect, at every moment, without any qualification whatsoever. (If nothing else, the persons or things I basically like could still “do more of the same.”) The proper attitude to any object is always some disposition of “mixed feelings.”

Why must one embrace his associates on the level of the “whole individual,” rather than on the level of qualities and features, of which there are several in the same individual? If I must reject an individual because he has some “bad parts” to himself, I may as well go the whole way and argue that we should reject entire “humanity” because it has some “bad parts” to itself—for one, that very individual whose own bad parts make him bad.

Notwithstanding, Obama’s association with these men could still mean trouble, if somebody actually thought he would as President make efforts to “damn America” in God’s name or blow up Federal buildings, on inspiration from his friends. But does anyone actually think Obama has these designs? And if they don’t, just what is the fear? Finally, there is the argument that his association—the fact that Obama could tolerate these men, or their “bad sides”—shows a lack of judgement. But of course, this begs the question: For what he would be lacking judgement about are just those problems his relationships with these men actually pose—and the fact that they are a problem, as I have argued, still needs to be shown.


11 For argument’s sake, I’m assuming that mainstream criticisms of Wright and Ayers themselves are valid; this is not my own view.

Good sources on the surge, etc.

Here‘s Nir Rosen interviewed on Democracy Now! about the allover situation in Iraq today. Also his Rolling Stone article, “The Myth of the Surge.”

Rahul Mahajan’s blog has a good one on the surge as well. (No permalink so scroll down to the April 7 entry.)

Capitalism and “respect for individual rights”

So Some Communists Do Naughty Things

Apologists for capitalism—I’m thinking of the authors of The Black Book of Communism—like to advertise the superior human rights records of capitalist countries over those of the “really existing” socialisms.1 The idea is that this says something bad about socialism (relative to capitalism, at least).

But the record by itself cannot do this. One must go on to specify the mechanism inherent within socialism which discourages concern for human rights, or fosters abuses. Only this could tell us that the poor moral performance of these countries has something to do with the character of their economic systems, and not some other, “incidental” factor(s). For, yes, these countries were, at least on someone’s definition, “socialist”; but they were other things as well: scarce in material resources, victims of the active hostility of major powers, and lacking in a long tradition of political liberalism. Above all, they bore the memory and habits of a history of political despotism long, long predating socialism.

In this way, every entity, including “communist countries,” is a tangle of various properties. Any observer can go about, hirdy-girdy, pointing these features out; this does not amount to a causal explanation of the entity’s behavior. It does not tell us, that is, just which of these properties is “at fault.”

In other words, saying that communists hurt people is not to say that “communism” hurts people—any more than that some cooks or Methodists hurt people shows that “cookery” or “Methodism” is the culprit.

An Open Question

Strictly speaking, an economic system is one thing, and a political system, another. There is no reason why deprivatizing control of production should magically generate a benign politics. In theory capitalism and socialism are each compatible with a whole range of political colorations—from despotism to a very direct democracy. These characters are determined, in the end, by the will and ability of citizens to work for them, and to resist their opposites. They don’t flow automatically from some socialist or capitalist “essence.”

A Twist On the Argument: Individual Rights and the Development of Capitalism

But if communism is not predisposed to disregard rights, then perhaps capitalism is predisposed to respect them. Indeed, the English Civil Wars marked the beginning of talk of and care for what we might call “individual rights,” as well as a fair starting point for the emergence of capitalist production. Certainly, capitalism and the conceptual architecture of rights spread apace throughout Western Europe and North America, the former probably the vehicle for the latter.

So there is clearly a correlation, and perhaps even a natural enough “fit,” between the two. But this cannot substitute for an argument showing that capitalism needed the concept of individual rights, or that rights could never have developed in the absence of capitalism. But let us assume this (generously) for the sake of argument.

If capitalism somehow “selected for” or otherwise caused the development of concern for rights, it would be poor logic to conclude much in capitalism’s favor from this fact alone. For if capitalism needs rights, it hardly follows that rights need capitalism. It doesn’t even follow that capitalism is the system most effective at meeting or securing the things people have a right to. It is quite possible that concern for rights cannot be fully met under the very capitalism that created it—even that it can be met only some type of socialism.

Capitalism and Rights: Intimately Connected, But Not In A Way Pro-Capitalists Should Like To Admit

But things may be worse for capitalism still. Consider first all the examples of “good” things that are nonetheless indices of very “bad” ones: A father’s tenderness toward his children may spring from the death of their mother–perhaps it would never have developed otherwise. Lauding the newfound tenderness does not oblige us to celebrate its tragic cause. Second, consider those items that gain all of their value from being stopgaps against, or remedies for, otherwise “bad” ones: One might treasure a favorite bar as a “haven” away from loneliness and meaningless toil; more concretely, one is glad to have a strong metal door when it is all that separates her from a violent and uncertain outside. We can celebrate security doors and havens, sure enough. And certainly, havens and security measures would not have developed apart from those threats we need haven and security against. But those threats are not made good simply for causing their remedies.

To complete the analogy: It is difficult for we contemporary persons, trained to “naturally” see human labor as a commodity, like bricks or tea, to appreciate how alien this notion appeared at the dawn of capitalist social relations. This was compounded by a related idea: Under capitalism, there is a domain of human activity over which the State does not exercise very direct power—what Hegel called “civil society.” This domain includes family life, the arts, and work. It is the place where the most fundamental human desires and aspirations are dispatched and, hopefully, fulfilled. At the same time, where the dictates of the State leave off, the dictates of capital accumulation take over. This is the fundamental organizing principle of civil society to the extent that no activity or interest is permitted which does not facilitate (or at least permit) the imperative of capitalist growth. Human needs and aspirations are subordinate to this overarching imperative. (If humans stopped needing and aspiring to things, or needed things contrary to the interests of capital, capital would still need to expand itself—lest the whole system, civil society in tow, collapse into crisis.)

The new idea that human persons, as bearers of labor power, are fundamentally mere means to an end outside themselves, versus (in Kant’s terms) “ends-unto-themselves,” further blurred the line between people and objects; the threat to human dignity was evident. A philosophical justification was required, and the concept of rights provided it: The most fundamental rights—the “inalienable” ones of which our Constitution speaks—carve off an area of human activity into which the mandates of capital accumulation may not encroach.

(That there should be rights was not merely a conclusion from theoretical principles. They were inspired by the more egregious acts of violence and dislocation attending the birth of capitalism—which came, in Marx’s words, “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” It wasn’t a smooth and pretty process, for example, to separate self-sufficient peasants from the lands on which they long lived and farmed, and implore them to work in someone else’s factory, built on the site.)


Rights provide checks against the nasty consequences of capitalism. They correct what results when an organizing principle is made of of the view that humans are chiefly valuable for what can be got out of them. Rights are premised on the expectation that the system in its “natural” state ever-threatens to produce these. It is precisely because capitalism will not generate these protections on its own that they must be stuck on from outside.

In this way, capitalism enhances rights to just the extent that cancer “enhances” chemotherapy. The connection is real, but scores no “moral points” for the pro-capitalist.

* * *


1 I’m using the terms “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably here.


(1) It is far from clear that capitalism has a better human rights record than “actual socialism” anyhow. For example, millions of deaths from the AIDS epidemic in South Africa—where maybe a quarter of the population is infected—are directly attributable to capitalist competition: In 1997 the South African government passed a law permitting compulsory licensing of the AIDS cocktail produced by American pharmaceutical companies. (Compulsory licensing is a legal, commonly used practice allowing local companies to produce medications under patent by a foreign company. It is “compulsory” because the patent-holder does not have to consent, but they must be compensated with a licensing fee.) The law also allowed South Africa to purchase the drugs second-hand from countries who have already obtained them from the patent-holder at a lower-than-market cost.

These measures were the only way to make the pricey cocktail available to poor “third-worlders.” 39 pharmaceutical companies sued South Africa via TRIPS to force a repeal of the law. Then-VP Al Gore (yeah, fuck ‘im), pressured by the pharm lobby, threatened international sanctions if they didn’t comply. Eventually, world outcry forced Gore and the pharmaceuticals to renege, but not until a four-year holdup in the courts. (This speaks nothing of the deaths that came before 1997 all over Africa due to the high prices.)

In any case, there is a French-language Black Book of Capitalism in which the authors, using a methodology parallel to that of their “…Communism” counterparts, gauge the deaths of capitalism (due to imperial conquest, counter-socialist-revolutionary war, colonial repression, etc.) at 157 million—60 million more than those alleged by the authors of “….Communism.” (Again, nothing important follows from this comparison, but if it did….)

(2) Nor is it clear that “really existing socialist” countries, however they performed, were socialist. ‘A’ socialism requires a more-or-less socialist world: If we define socialism by the presence of socialist property relations, then a “socialist” country enmeshed in an international network of capitalist property relations in a sense still “has” capitalist property relations, thus is capitalist. These relations are “theirs” to the extent they must negotiate with them and are internally affected by them.

(3) Rights themselves are a specious concept. There is, frankly, no good theory yet adduced grounding the existence of “natural” rights. We can write laws that say you may not kill somebody, but this does not reflect any “right not to be killed” predating and standing apart from this. But this just furthers our point: If we like “rights,” we can artificially graft them onto socialism just as well as they were, in fact, artificially grafted onto capitalism. And while we’re at it, we are free to graft some rights that capitalism hasn’t seen fit to generate—like, as in Cuba, a right to a home, and the arts.

Finding out stuff you already know can still be disconcerting

From the April 1 headlines:

“ has uncovered a 2006 study written for the US Special Operations Command that suggests the military should clandestinely recruit or hire prominent bloggers. The report stated, ‘Hiring a block of bloggers to verbally attack a specific person or promote a specific message may be worth considering.’ The report also suggested the Pentagon hack blogs that promote messages that are antithetical to US interests. The report went on to say, ‘Hacking the site and subtly changing the messages and data—merely a few words or phrases—may be sufficient to begin destroying the blogger’s credibility with the audience.’”

(Wired article here.)

For the abolition of DUI laws (Part I)

I’ve always felt that “cool”—as an antonym of “square”—has an ethical dimension. Being square has moral implications; sometimes being square is a way of being wrong. This forms part of my growing opposition to DUI laws. Left types not only support these laws, in the sense of hardly ever including them in civil libertarian talk, but many oppose “driving drunk” on principle, legal or not.

Until recently my own view has been the following: Drunk (or rather “impaired”—as nobody is really “drunk” with .08 blood alcohol) driving marginally increases the likelihood of an accident when measured against some ideal “driving state of mind.” One problem with this is that the marginal increase in risk is, to me, trumped by the negative consequences of DUI legislation: the associated fines, jail time, and social stigmatization, and the decrease in quality of life for the many that depend socially on “impaired” driving.

Another problem is that no ideal “driving state of mind” is quite definable. For example, the presence of trees along a highway poses some degree of distraction from the road and thus “impairment.” All instances of driving are constantly fraught with various, crisscrossing “impairments.” Of course, impairments like distraction, fatigue, preoccupation, etc., are not measurable in the way blood alcohol content (BAC) is. But this compares apples to oranges, as the (alleged) impairment associated with BAC (or with certain BAC counts) is not measurable either.

These considerations led me to an argument; in brief:

(1) We can’t measure the state of mind, “alcohol-related impairment,” but rather only the damage to property or persons caused by impaired drivers. (Or better, we can’t measure the impairment but we can prosecute the damages perfectly well without needing them to be measured.)

(2) However, we can’t effectively “read back” the impairment from the damages: A drunk driver could still get into an accident due to slick roads, or mulling over a bad day at work, or any other reason aside from the alcohol. That is, we can’t really determine whether the accident is the effect of alcohol or of some other kind of impairment—or something else altogether. We cannot use the accident to infer alcohol-related impairment causally.

(3) If we can never assume that alcohol-related impairment had something to do with an accident, it would be unfair to prosecute drunk drivers based on this assumption. Far less could we use the experience of drunk drivers we have already prosecuted on this basis to prosecute other drunk drivers on the assumption that this impairment lends significant risk of their future accidents. (That is, if we can’t infer the impairment from an accident, we sure as hell can’t infer it apart from any accident.)

(4) Even if we could prosecute alcohol-related impairment based on its “effects,” consistency would demand that we prosecute all types of impairment based on their (supposed) effects. (Again, supposing we could actually read these impairments off of the damages caused by persons under their influence—which we can’t). All things being equal, criminalizing one type of impairment requires we criminalize them all.

(5) The only (consistent) alternative is to decriminalize all of these impairments, including alcohol-related impairment; also, to decriminalize—that is, to prosecute no more than civilly1—all driving-related damages.

“Drunk drivers cause crashes”—a fact as interesting as “Ohioans steal bikes.”

This is a very preliminary argument—an argument sketch, really. It maintains “all things being equal,” and things may not be equal. (One qualification is added in the Appendix below.)

But thankfully, you don’t have to accept this analysis to oppose DUI legislation. For, like laws associated with the “War on Drugs,” DUI laws don’t actually do anything to measurably hinder drunk driving. If that is the goal, then, all of those prosecutions and all of the considerable pain and hassle associated with them are for nothing. Since it is wrong to cause pain for no reason, it follows that we should abolish DUI legislation. This should be argument enough for good, thinking people.


1 Exempting cases where the damage is clearly deliberate (e.g., a road-rager uses his car as a battering ram), or the product of gross negligence (e.g., the high rate of speed amounts to, or implies, recklessness).


We shouldn’t push too strongly the “you can’t punish a mind-state” aspect of the argument. A strict refusal to punish mind-states would knock the bottom out of the criminal law corpus. Intentionality is a legally-relevant factor and happens to be a state of mind. This mind-state is what makes the difference between a trip and fall which happens to knock over a bystander, and a malicious lunge. Similarly, in the case of hate-crimes, the mind-state attending acts which would be otherwise criminal makes them even more so.

But these mind-states should be distinguished that of drunkenness. For one, “hate” is evidenced by a hate crime much more clearly than alcohol-related impairment is evidenced by an accident-caused-by-a-drunken-person. Again, an accident by somebody who has been drinking might still have been caused by tiredness, or distraction from billboard “white noise.” These impairments are competitors to the hypothesis that drunkenness caused the accident. By comparison, when a Nazi skinhead beats a person of color while yelling racial slurs, there is, reasonably speaking, no similar “mushiness” in our reconstruction of the causality of the beating: Clearly, the “hate” has contributed to the crime, or to its intensity (or something). But just as recognizing the causal relevance of “hate” to some crimes does not require us to prosecute the hate independently of any crime, admitting that alcoholic impairment has contributed to a specific accident—if we could prove that—would not require us to prosecute drunken driving independently of an accident.

(Also, the “hate” bears legally-relevant effects not matched by the impairment: “Adding” hate to some crime makes it a different kind of crime—a much “bigger” one. Hate crimes induce in people of color (for example) the fearful recognition that they could have been targeted, and may be next. An entire community of persons is thereby victimized. However, when a drunk has an accident—again, if we could prove the drunkenness caused it—it is unclear that the “driving community” is similarly, specially terrorized—that is, beyond the degree already induced by ordinary, non-impaired, accidents.)

We might say, then: It is not so much that we not should criminalize mind-states, but that we not criminalize mere mind-states. (Better: Mind-states can be legally relevant, but not a mere mind-state.)