Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why History Is Not About Lara Logan

The fluid developments in Libya remind one that political history runs on wheels bigger than the latest gossip about one telegenic American. History — and Machiavelli — teaches us that every ruler, democratic or otherwise, has a relationship with the ruled and faces a critical decision when discontent sets in and an angry mob arises: kill them all and rule from fear or quell discontent subtly without changing the order of things.

The problem usually comes when the ruler changes horses in the middle of the river — which sometimes can't be avoided.

In my view of the French Revolution, for example, Louis XVI's appointment of Necker and the end of repression, marked the king fit for his eventual decapitation. Every subsequent show of force was only a demonstration of a lack of real power.

That's because every people form a compact with every ruler, whether it is written or implicit.

Stalin could kill millions, but he had to put offer secure jobs and stable wages and prices (e.g., Russian rents in the 1920s were the same as they were in the 1980s). The demise of stability under Gorbachev and later is what gave the post-Communism Stalinists the gumption to attempt a coup and even to praise the "good old days" of Uncle Joe.

Of course, sometimes the compact is itself finite: lead us to a defined "Promise Land" (the development of a modern technocratic class, for example). When such an intelligentsya finally takes consciousness of itself, the compact ends and the ruler must step down.

For Egypt, for example, simplifying much, one could argue that Nasser promised national pride, Sadat offered peace and Mubarak offered continuity amid turmoil — until society Egyptian stabilized, didn't need a hallway monitor any more and people were willing to forge some new balance of power based (we think) on elections.

As to the ballot box, let's not delude ourselves into thinking that democracy abroad — we in the United States really have a republic in which the elected officials are representatives primarily of the already powerful — is either a panacea or the only way in which people and ruler can communicate and make the necessary deals.

There are a variety of imperfections that can invalidate electoral results.

In the United States, most major party candidates of the last century easily represented 40 percent of the electorate, at a minimum. What does that mean, though? Ronald Reagan's "landslides" were predicated on the votes of no more than a third of those eligible to vote.

By and large, a rather broad majority goes unrepresented in Congress, or much less the White House. Indeed, the disunity, anger and frustration of Americans with all politicians is rooted in this fact — which the chattering class of Washington (which I mostly observe for a living) refuses to acknowledge, for good reason.

Real democratic revolutions yield results that none of us who are riding the applecart want to see.

In Iran, it was the Ayahtollah Khomeini. In Afghanistan, the mujaheddin CIA-armed rebels became the Taliban, riding on the shoulder of enthusiastic crowds; let'snot forget that the Taliban was (is?) very popular.

There is no guarantee that modern revolutions will automatically lead to Western liberal "democracy." Should there be? History renders the question moot.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Living at 33 rpm

Lazybones that I always was, I cursed my luck when the city bus on which I was on was suddenly diverted from its familiar route barely two blocks before my stop. Then, as the bus actually made its 90-degree turn, I caught sight of a long line of tanks heading downtown. That night the government was overthrown.

This is a true experience of mine in Buenos Aires many years ago when, as a teenager coming home from school, I first came face to face to with the everyday details of a government overthrow. The events of Egypt and its region bring it to mind.

Back then, some people joked that Argentina's politics were like a long-play record because it had 33 revolutions per minute.*

They weren't real revolutions; no systemic change was ever brought about by these events. They didn't occur quite as frequently in Argentina as elsewhere (at the time Bolivia held the frequency record, with more revoluciones than years of independence). They were not spontaneous, popular overthrow, as in Egypt.

Yet they bore a number of similarities. There were war vehicles in the streets and soldiers in fatigues. People liked them or didn't like them, but life temporarily stopped.

Schools closed. Many places of work closed. Groceries were available but in short supply because deliveries halted. For an average person, it was a time of uncertainty.

In the Latin American pronunciamiento (pronouncement) ballet, some generals sided with the president, some with the rebels. Both sides seized radios and began to broadcast communiques.

Who was really winning? Were the two sides going to shoot at one another? Was it safe to be on the streets at night? Would they -- the "they" who were at the moment in charge, whoever they were -- turn off electricity or shut off the water supply? Who knew!

When students and workers took to the streets against the army a few years later, there were sharpshooters. From both sides. Anyone could get hit by a stray bullet.

This is what I imagine life was recently like in Tunisia and Egypt and is still much that way elsewhere in the Arabic World.

More to the point of the moment, in countries where revolt has succeeded in toppling a ruler, there's still that terrible, terrible uncertainty of not knowing what comes next. As the Hungarians joked in the 1990s: What's worse than Communism? Post-Communism.

Toppling is always the easy part. Putting something better in its place ... that's tough. Many average people in those countries are now wondering what comes next.

* The joke made more sense in the 20th century, before cassettes or CDs, when the LP -- a vinyl record roughly comparable to the contemporary commercial music CD today -- replaced the single, which usually spun at a speed of 45 rpms on the turntable (see for details).

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Cecilieauxist Manifesto

Events have overtaken a variety of comments and posts. In lieu of outdated piecemeal commentary, I hereby offer a grand positive vision of what ought to be ...

A specter is haunting the globe and it is the model of economic growth driven by consumption demand at prices, levels of production and wages dictated by a market that is falsely said to operate unfettered in its allocation of goods, services and capital.

This system has unrivaled global reach. Having destroyed its prime challenger in the past century, Soviet Communism, the system is now devouring secondary challengers, such as the western European welfare state and islets of experimentation elsewhere. The system has swallowed post-Communist Russia whole and is in the process of digesting China. It has also laid waste to American power and influence and used the government of the United States has its gendarme and its enabling institution.

The system is a hydra-headed combination of multinational corporations and plutocratic elites that, because they are locked in dynamic competition with one another, is invisible and omnipresent at once. No political party, government or group has shown itself capable of fending off its insidious and seductive power. No individual escapes the pathology of greed that it spreads. Unless it is stopped, the planet will be despoiled by its byproducts and civilization as we have known it will disappear from the face of the Earth.

We Cecilieauxists believe, however, that the current trend is not yet irreversible, that the overall mass of human beings will ultimately arise to change the course of history, if it awakens from the systems somniferous distractions.

We conceive of a political economy in which the art of decisionmaking lends itself to the apportionment of the world's resources in such a way as to extend the well-being of the many balanced by careful regard for the healthful development of every individual.

We believe that, for the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge to equitably distribute all the essentials needed for survival to all human beings and that disparities are only the result of willful maldistribution that needs to be remedied. Given this situation, we believe it is possible that many assumptions heretofore held by the vast majority of economists and policymakers can and should be transcended. The human economics of the future must be a non-zero-sum game in which all actors aggregate and multiply the resources for all.

In the process of developing a new human economy, we believe that economic power and economic results trump all other powers and factors. A hungry army will fail. An arbitrary project will collapse of its own. It is in such a pragmatic approach that Cecilieuxism has nothing to say beyond the material goal of a globally equitable society.

The cause will not succeed until success is global. Equitable need not mean a perfect, mathematical material equality, so long as everyone's essential needs are satisfied and differentials do not enshrine an unbridgeable gap. The social aim is inextricably linked to the social necessities of human beings to survive and does not mean a disregard for differences between people and their individuality, the common good and the well-being of the individual.

As initial steps toward such a world, we propose:

1. The permanent and worldwide abolition of hereditary classes through a 100% tax that devolves all assets of a deceased to government, in trust for society -- with the understanding that society undertakes to safeguard the well-being of the family left behind, especially children and adults unable to care for themselves.

2. The gradual abolition, through attrition and education reform, of involuntary work. Individuals working only out of economic need should be replaced by individuals who choose occupations and terms of work that give them the greatest joy. The change is to be brought about by a student-centered education system directed to help individuals discover the talents, abilities and capacities they most enjoy giving to society. Work in the future should be a privilege in which those who toil fulfill their potential and their desires through an activity of their choosing.

3. A gradual reform of the labor market to reduce the workforce to the minimum necessary to satisfy all the human needs of society. This would be achieved by automating the least desirable occupations, eliminating jobs that serve no useful purpose or tasks within jobs that serve no useful purpose and the establishment of a universal conscription of all men and women at age 18 to a Social Service Corps for a period of three years to perform tasks of service to society.

4. A gradual de-linking of income from work or occupation and individuals and a gradual elimination of individual earnings differentials, focusing instead on household income necessary to fulfill the human needs of its members.

5. A redefinition of human needs to include minimal material survival, but also, to the extent that equitably allocated resources allow, cultural and intellectual needs. However, no human need beyond immediate survival should be served before all human beings are satisfied in this regard.

6. Along with guarantees toward household incomes necessary to fulfill human needs, a revolutionized global society should set maximum standards of income and creature comforts, devolving any excesses to society for common use.

7. All weaponry and means of inflicting pain, wounding or death should be destroyed and the industries that produce them redirected to peaceful technological innovation.

8. Government should be limited to regulating and policing the equitable allocation of resources, fostering private initiative to fulfill public needs, the resolution of disputes and the maintenance of public order necessary to assure public safety and survival of all. All punitive measures shall aim to repair the damage of wrongdoing to the extent reasonably possible as well as to rehabilitate the wrongdoer to just behavior. Government policy should be decided through legislation and plebiscites, with elections and campaigning at public expense.

9. Private enterprises should be transformed into nonprofit social enterprises, with excess revenues directed only to expansion, innovation and, in lieu of these, the capitalization of society through government. Existing nonprofit organizations, churches and other similar organizations should be incorporated into a similar regime.

10. The right to property of fixed assets or machinery should be limited to socially beneficial uses (i.e., to provide housing, produce goods needed, etc.), but not as a source of income from rents or sale. Owners unable to use such property for socially beneficial purposes should relinquish their property to other proposing the best possible use.

In sum, we envision a peaceful world in which the fulfillment of human potential is a reasonable expectation and economic crime is eliminated through guaranteed survival and equitable access to human requirements. We believe that the path to the necessary changes must be persuasion and participatory democratic decisionmaking, as the veritable revolution needed will not take place without the enthusiastic support of all sectors of society.