Saturday, June 30, 2007

Superstructure, Meet Base

In recent years, Naomi Klein has emerged as one of Left journalism’s most trenchant critics of late capitalist economy. Her website is available at:

In her 2000 book No Logo, Klein confesses to having been, in college, a acolyte of postmodern cultural criticism, rallying militantly for more democratic “representation” in late capitalist culture, while ignoring the persistence of concrete socio-economic inequalities. Ironically, it was the very successes of PC agitation in the early to mid-90s that ultimately inspired to her convert to an older, more economically-oriented Leftism. She came to realize that achieving greater “diversity” in campus curricula or magazine adds didn’t exactly make for a more equitable society, when most minorities continued to be denied access to tangible means of economic and political self-determination, when the gap between rich and poor continued to widen, and when the concentration of capital continued to reach historic magnitudes. In fact, she discovered in the victories of Gen-X demands for cultural pluralism a kind of repressive desublimation at work: global capital figured out that it could make the face of capitalism more "funky," democratic, and multicultural--and thus more mass appealing and legitimate--without having to change the underlying realities of exclusion and exploitation. In other words, nineties' identity politics did more than fail to subvert capitalist hegemony; it actually collaborated in designing its most recent atavism.*

In the past four or five years, Klein has spent her time researching what she terms “disaster capitalism”; the fruit of that research has been both insightful and disturbing. Through investigations into the handling of post-invasion Iraq, post-tsunami Asia, and post-Katrina New Orleans, she’s uncovered global capitalism’s latest, and most pernicious strategy: exploiting disaster to implement radical neo-liberal policy reforms. A book on this theme will appear in September; this article, which appeared in The Nation in 2005, offers a précis of her basic arguments:

Klein’s angle on the Iraq war, to my mind, is among the most penetrating to have yet appeared. In her September 2004 article, “Baghdad Year Zero,” she makes the compelling case that not only was the war initiated to fulfill the neo-con dream of establishing a laissez-faire utopia, but the very policies that have been implemented in furtherance of this dream are one of the chief causes of the violence that continually threatens both our soldiers and the nascent Iraqi democracy, not to mention hundreds of thousands of everyday Iraqi citizens. Her article, which appeared in Harper’s, is available online at:

Subsequent to this article, in early 2005, Klein gave a public lecture that expanded upon her thesis of a relationship between neo-liberal ambitions, the Iraqi occupation, and the insurgency. While some of the material will be familiar from the Harper's article, much of it--including her discussion of the suppression of spontaneous democratic activity in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, and of the true significance of the 2004 Iraqi elections--is new, and worth checking out. The lecture is available in ten parts on youtube. Here’s the link to the first part:

The importance of Klein’s work on Iraq is that it makes clear that all this current talk in our public discourse that blames the problems there on a putative “culture of dependency” or on long-standing sectarian hatred is ultimately a screen. While Klein herself has admitted that the situation in Iraq may very well have degenerated to the point of intractability (and she was writing in 2004), the unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from her investigations is that no viable solution is truly conceivable that doesn’t confront first and foremost the fundamental economic realities there and the forces determining those realities, chiefly the neo-liberal policies that were initiated during the regime of Paul Bremer and the CPA.


*Thomas Frank, in One Market Under God, offers a different, but equally compelling critique of this 90s form of “market populism.” On the complicity, conscious or otherwise, of “radical” postmodern academics and neo-liberal ideology, see Chapter 7 of One Market Under God, “The Brand and the Intellectuals.”

The Black Box

About a month ago, Steve Shapin, historian and sociologist of science, wrote a favorable review of The Shock of the Old, a new book on the history of technology by David Edgerton. Here’s the link, for those of you who are interested:

Shapin used to be faculty at my university, but he left us a few years back for a more prestigious post at Harvard. Now, having achieved the pinnacle of the academic cursus honorum, he’s also begun contributing occasional pieces for the New Yorker, where his review of Edgerton appeared.

Although Edgerton is a specialist in military technology, his new offering is a general history of technology, and it proposes the important thesis that we should reorient the focus of our histories of technology away from innovation and towards use. Apart from registering the obvious truth (recognized now in the specialist literature for about three decades or so) that what we do with things is often more significant, in terms of lived experience, than either their novelty or the intentions of their designers, such an approach has the added benefit of decentering the typical Eurocentric perspective of most histories of technology. As both Edgerton and Shapin point out, the Third World has become a huge dumping ground for cast-away western technology; in the hands of the poor but resourceful multitudes, technological goods that we have come to see as disposable, notably cars, take on a new life. African mechanics, for instance, have developed ingenious means of repairing automobiles that can make them last virtually indefinitely. (In an interesting turn of phrase, Shapin labels such skills “ ‘creole’ technologies.”)

But even if we in the west were so inclined to practice this kind of frugal and pragmatic maintenance, the know-how required for it becomes more and more impossible to acquire as more and more of our essential technology gets “black boxed,” a popular science-studies term (borrowed from engineering) that refers to the extent to which the expertise that goes into the making of the technology we consume is rendered inaccessible. Back in the day, it was fairly easy to “reverse engineer” your radio: all you had to do to figure out how it worked--even how to build one yourself--was to take it apart and put it back together again. Only a select few could do that today with an ipod--or afford to try. Technological knowledge has thus been rendered much less independently and democratically accessible.

Shapin doesn’t have a problem with that; he even goes so far as to argue that it’s better this way. The “enormous gap between the knowledge of makers and the knowledge of users,” he writes, “is exactly as it should be,” since it is “a sure sign of the success of a technology is that we scarcely think of it as technology at all.” In other words, I don’t need to know how my ipod works; I just need to know how to make it work for me.

I part ways with Shapin on this point. I think he takes Edgerton’s conclusions too far, and in the process undercuts the more radical perspective that Edgerton’s global approach opens up. Shapin’s position, to me, is indicative of an increasingly popular--and increasingly dangerous--consumer-centric approach to social issues. The problem with this approach is that it blinds us to the ever-important role of production and labor in structuring our existence, and subtly reinforces the neo-liberal ideology that sells us dependence and alienation by packaging them as their exact opposites. The Third World, for instance, has not only become a kind of afterworld for western technologies; it’s also where most of those technologies are being produced in the first place, often under exploitative conditions. In essence, under the present system Third World workers are forced to make things twice--once for us, and once, much later on, after we’ve used them up and discarded them, for themselves. Indeed, it can be argued that the very disposability, the very “high-throwaway” nature of our material existence is grounded in the easy availability to global capital of cheap labor in the undeveloped world. Contenting ourselves to keep our technology black boxed does not, as Shapin suggests, empower us; it renders us complicit.

This is also one of the major snags, I think, that has hit the mainstream environmentalist movement. It’s actually become easier for socially conscious people to envision the individual consumer saving the world through his or her private choice to buy organic dishwashing soap than to envision some kind of democratic, socialized control of the complex forces of production that are threatening both the environment and society in the first place. So I buy organic, to help the environment, but fail to realize that organic agriculture is heavily reliant on the exploitative use of illegal immigrant labor.

Don’t get me wrong. Organic food is good; technology is good. Like many on the far Left, I wouldn’t really want to live in a world that didn’t cultivate pesticide-free strawberries or produce mp3 players. But unlike Shapin, I don’t think that that means we should be content to know about technology only the use we make of it; it behooves us to know something about where it comes from, and how our consumption of it implicates us in the bigger scheme of things. Otherwise, any hope for broader social change is bound to wind up in disillusionment.

L'Université populaire de Caen

In 2002, the French philosopher, author, lycée instructor, and self-proclaimed "Nietzschean of the Left" Michel Onfray founded a free university in the south of France. Funded in part through proceeds from the sale of Onfray's numerous books, l'Université populaire de Caen aims to "democratize culture and freely dispense knowledge to the greatest number." Onfray's idea was to provide a mass alternative to the "elitism of the universities and the offhandedness of the intellectual cafés," while retaining the best and most progressive features of both institutions. Like many standard universities, instruction at the Université populaire is offered by accredited faculty in the form of weekly seminars that divide time evenly between lecture and debate. But fees, enrollment requirements, exams, and degrees--the classic academic instruments of social reproduction--have been thoroughly dispensed with. According to Doug Ireland, who profiled Onfray in the Winter 2006 edition of New Politics, the majority of attendees at Onfray's free university are of working-class or minority background, and since its founding its example has been copied in nearly a half-dozen other French cities and one in Belgium.

Where, I wonder, are our free universities? Are they even possible here? At the same time, are they not also more and more necessary if we are to achieve true social progress? I say "true" progress for a reason: for more than a decade now, the postmodern left in the US has been steadily converging with the neo-liberal right in its fantasy of a democracy that operates through the spontaneous and untutored expression of individual desire, that "liberates" desire from the pesky elitist mediation of critically-tested knowledge and progressively-acquired skill. That's not liberation; it's repressive desublimation. The essential problem is not the content of instruction--it's access to instruction, and the complicity of our educational institutions, through their funding, their selection processes, and their certification rituals, in the reproduction of social and economic inequalities.

For those of you who can read French, I encourage you to check out the Université populaire de Caen's website, at:

In addition to stating the goals of the university, the website also includes schedules and course summaries, which give you a sense of the kind and quality of knowledge being made available to those who have been historically excluded from it.

Flies and Milk