Rhetoric, Materiality, and Pants

May 25, 2018

When you point out to orthodox Marxists that they engage in analyzable rhetorical strategies, they act like you’ve just peeped into their living rooms where they’re walking around without pants.

When you point out to non-materialist rhetorical scholars that the artifacts and situations they analyze are grounded in materiality, they act like you’ve just suggested they remove their pants and walk down a crowded street in broad daylight.

(Just an observation by Matt.)

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Matt’s Public Banking Series at Occupy.com

by matt on May 14, 2018

Occupy.com is publishing my ten-part series on public banking, “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of the movement, as I told editor Mike Levitin. Here are Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four, and Part Five, which was just published today.

Main themes: Public banks are tools, not ends in themselves. It matters how we message them. Thus far, technocratic and even conspiratorial rhetoric has dominated the contemporary movement, although historically, successful public bank advocates (the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota, the Quakers, and even the medieval clergy, have been motivated by strong visions of economic justice. Money, debt, interest, sovereignty–these are all ways of describing material relationships. The foremost question of political economy, and the most important policy question in creating a just banking system, is to co-create and meet needs in sustainable ways. Public banking is an important step on that journey. Again, it matters how we issue all the demands and create all the things.

Part Three is a little bonus story-within-the-story: How a whole lot of California public banking and cannabis activists, and a small organization (Commonomics USA) helped evolve the State Treasurer’s Cannabis Banking Working Group into a test case of arguments for and against public banking–and ultimately a proponent of the paradigm. This was a big deal in my mind, because John Chiang began his leadership of the Working Group by saying its goal was to provide to the cannabis industry the same private banking service other industries get, and has wrapped it up by calling for the exploration of a public banking system that would run across the state’s gargantuan economy while staring the DOJ in the face. That’s some evolution. It’s hopeful stuff.

If you’re interested in all of this and have stuff to say, let’s think about getting some discussions on a podcast–yours, someone else’s, mine, whatever. And, as you might imagine, these ten articles gotta be compiled after the series, so look for whatever package that ends up becoming.

Mug Shots and Bankruptcy Proceedings

May 11, 2018
Matt Stannard

The other day I stumbled upon this example of the practice of publishing people’s bankruptcy proceedings. Declare bankruptcy at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Spokane, and the Tri-City Herald will publish your name, address, total debts, and total assets.

They’re a matter of public record, of course, but one’s conscience asks why such painful information needs to be publicized in this way (if there are public policy-oriented reasons for disseminating bankruptcy information, surely there are better ways to do it), even as one’s legal mind may understand the theoretical reasoning: Bankruptcy is the public legal forgiveness of debt.

But as I cited in a recent public banking article over at Occupy, debt itself is a political and sociological invention.

In his 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber chronicles the transition from communal systems of sharing – including shared obligations – to capitalism’s assimilation of all relationships into a system that generates profits for investors. Integral to that process is the individuation (and demonization) of debt, one of the many relationships that are stripped away, often through literal violence.

 

In addition to Graeber, in that article I also cite Linda Coco, a law professor and innovative legal clinician concerned with how debt and financial distress damage us. I learned about Professor Coco’s work when I read her 2016 article on bankruptcy as discipline in the Wyoming Law Review. Concerned with how bankruptcy court procedures construct and reinforce a narrative of fiscal failure, Coco concludes:

The bankruptcy petition codes [petitioner’s] financial life according to a legal and procedural logic found in the bankruptcy legal world . . . [their] financial lives and their identities are properly rendered into a recognizable pattern. Their information is fixed within the grid of the schedules and organized over time in the Statement of Financial Affairs. Their financial life is organized and controlled. It becomes legible in two-dimensional space. It is clearly analyzed and rendered for and in the bankruptcy process . . . a normalizing force in American social and cultural life. The internalization by disciplinary techniques of these dominant discourses results in the collective doxa of a group in which “more and more people must attune their conduct to that of others, the web of actions must be organized more and more strictly and accurately, if each individual action is to fill its social function. Individuals are compelled to regulate their conduct in an increasingly differentiated, more even and more stable manner.’  Therefore, discourses of economic utility and individual responsibility create the standards by which individuals compare themselves to each other, the manner in which individuals distinguish themselves, the way that individuals rank and measure each other, generate ideas of good and bad, and ultimately decide what is normal and abnormal behavior. The social group views individuals experiencing over-indebtedness and financial distress as aberrant. Financial failures are people who have not mastered the requirements of economic productivity and utility. According to the economic utility models, individuals experiencing financial difficulty are believed to be unable to exercise restraint and self-control.

Professor Coco’s article is a profound exposition of an insidious ideological machine. Another law professor, similarly concerned, is Mehrsa Baradaran, whose recent prolific work effort proposes that we create supportive, rather than adversarial, relationships with our financial structures. For Baradaran, this reformation includes a more authentic and class-conscious interpretation of the Bank Holding Company Act’s public benefits requirement, and the creation of postal banks with a mandate to provide credit and liquidity to the economically marginalized.

Those would be relatively modest reforms, if we’re being honest with ourselves. But conventional American economic thinking sees such proposals as pretty much Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism. If such a reconciliation of Americans’ material vulnerability with the building of democratized and compassionate financial utilities is difficult to conceive in the present moment, one reason for this is the not just the ritualized discipline of financial failure, but also its ritualized spectacle. These newspaper bankruptcy notices are a manifestation of that spectacle. They are like, although perhaps not completely like, “mugshots” magazines available for sale (because people buy them) in gas station convenience stores across the Midwest.

“Of all capitalism’s tricks,” I wrote in the Occupy article, “the trickiest is convincing people that debt, credit and currency have an objective existence and power beyond what we give them.” Marching debtors out naked onto the public stage while their debts and assets are called out as dry, existing things is one way to reinforce that topos.

Featured image: Philip Nicholas Bankruptcy Proceeding, signed by John Quincy Adams as Commissioner.

200 Red Balloons

He seems older to me.

Whatever else you want to say about Karl Marx (and there’s a lot to say, he doesn’t actually seem like someone I’d have wanted to be friends with), he had a profound, unprecedented critical sensitivity:

    • he possessed an empathy with the excluded periphery of the material and political world,
    • he was capable of finding the classist metaphysical assumptions, the cruel theology, in conventional assumptions about economics, and
    • he spotted, with precision, the ways in which symbolic, legalistic, institutional reforms failed to address the underlying problems they set out to reform.

Materiality always seems to have the last word, even though materialists have a mixed record on understanding oppression holistically. But you can’t get oppression without understanding how wealth, the generation of wealth, differences in wealth, control of systems of production large and small, contextualize it.

While I won’t defend those who insist that economics always comes first, it seems like the more pressing challenge always is convincing people it comes at all. There is a great material interest in obfuscating materiality.

Just search “Marx at 200” today and you’ll find many interesting reads, but a few that stand out are Andrew Hartman’s “Marx at 200: Just Getting Started” and Nigel Gibson on “why the workers’ way of knowing still matters.” Gibson writes:

In his last years, after the Paris Commune of 1871 when working people rose up against the capitalist state, he became interested in alternative paths to socialism. In his Ethnological Notebooks compiled in 1881, he critically read ethnographers, praising the freedom that the Native American Iroquois women had compared to women in “civilized” societies. It was live human beings and their reason that remained essential – not the mechanical materialism that Marxism is often reduced to. Marx was a revolutionary humanist, open to – and inspired by – the new passions and forces that spring up and open new avenues to a truly human society.

But he was also a materialist, and I think we have to be both and more.

matt

 

Guns, Public Spaces, and the Arming of the Commons

by Matt Stannard
March 31, 2018

How should those concerned with economic justice orient ourselves to the discussion about school shootings and the availability of firearms? Many vocal revolutionary lefties have taken the position that “if the cops and white supremacists have guns, we need them too,” and although I don’t necessarily disagree with the principle of revolutionary self-defense (and support oppressed groups defending themselves by whatever means they think necessary), I think it’s important to reflect on the kind of world we are trying to build, as well as the way gun proliferation manifests itself in the capitalist political economy.

Public conversations about safety and security are not exactly self-conscious of their own kierarchic biases; think of how the silly “free range parenting” debate ignores the condition of communities of color, for whom there are often no “free ranges” where children are not in danger of being harassed or murdered by police. Likewise with the debate about whether to allow lethal weapons into public spaces. Liberals will ignore how gun laws hurt oppressed communities. Conservatives will ignore how the weapons industry and the myth of the armed white savior celebrate racist violence against those same communities. I also agree that all laws, including the regulation of firearms, fall harder and more capriciously on people of color—and are often constructed with that very aim. So I’m not looking to extend the hand of a deeply corrupt (even if occasionally redemptive) state onto those communities. At any rate, I’d prefer to debilitate or eliminate the private arms industry rather than punish individuals for possessing guns.

The reason my wrath is reserved for the arms industry is that they make a hell of a lot of cash while lobbying for the wholesale saturation of public and private spaces with guns. Gun lobbyists want guns to be an intrinsic facet of the very structures of everyday life. Besides being an overwhelmingly lethal vision of life, the arming of the Commons is contemporaneous with the privatization, the enclosure, of the Commons. Spaces ruled by the constant threat of lethal violence can be neither free nor cooperative. In the privatize-and-arm paradigm (for the forces behind privatization are absolutely allied with the agenda of the NRA and gun universalists), each affluent home is a well-armed fortress, less-affluent homes depend on the good graces of the wealthier classes (for whom they work anyway), businesses are all lethally armed, able not only to eliminate individual, pathologically disaffected worker-assailants, but also to intimidate workers from collective actions like strikes or slowdowns. In a world where no spaces are unarmed, and people cannot exist in mutual vulnerability, there are no truly public spaces.

Like privatized public spaces, armed public spaces substitute physical force for mutual deliberation, making hierarchies inevitable and participatory governance impossible. So it’s especially disturbing that advocacy of firearm security is focused on turning the “soft targets” of public schools (an especially vulnerable and valuable part of the Commons) into “hard targets.” The construction of the fearful student, the existentially insecure youth, is a fast track to the commodification of life. By defining the lack-of-firearm as a condition of insecurity, we invite the incursion of a warrior class into our already materially overdetermined class relations. All of this makes sense against a backdrop of creeping incipient fascism and neoliberal privatization economics. “Whether wielded by heavily armed police, mass shooters or right-wingers,” Sean Larson writes, “the sheer volume of guns in the U.S. serves to militarize underlying social conflicts.”

That political economy of weaponization is manifest across many current points of the gun debate. So when the White House and Department of Justice promise to aid in the training of armed teachers, they will undoubtedly award firearm training contracts to for-profit gun school cronies. A cluster of banks with proven records of racism and/or criminality–Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Fifth Third Bank–are providing financial support to arms corporation Remington, as it slogs through bankruptcy. Other banks have refused to do so, citing public perception and general decency. Conservative lawmakers, put off by insurance companies’ risk market-based reluctance to insure schools where teachers carry firearms, are considering forcing those companies to provide the insurance, an irony several layers deep. Here in Wyoming, gun manufacturing businesses prop up a piece of the state’s conventional economy, and business groups welcome the prospect of new gun manufacturers setting up shop in the Cowboy State.

All of this is part and parcel of an economy based on extraction and exploitation. Citing Pamela Haig and Richard Hofstadter, Sean Larson’s amazing article traces the gun market to the desperation of arms manufacturers when wars end. It begins immediately after the Civil War, when

major gun manufacturers were faced with a dilemma: how to create a civilian gun market when the major demand from the military had fallen off sharply . . . in the 1870s, Winchester advertised its Model 66 as useful for “Indian, Bear or Buffalo hunting.” These early links between gun sales and imperial expansion, however, were nothing compared to the cultural campaigns launched a few decades later . . . During the [First World] war, contracts for the U.S. and allied militaries drastically expanded gun production facilities. But planners were already anticipating the postwar problem of, as Haag puts it, “too many guns and too much capacity for too little demand.” Looking ahead to an era of mass production and diminishing practical need for guns, sales and marketing teams set out to construct and reinforce an ideal gun consumer . . . gun manufacturers took the opportunity to monetize racism and fears of radicalism by advertising “riot guns” to business owners looking to protect their shops from “disturbances, either racial or political,” and promoting their firearms as the only surefire way to protect the “industrial life of the nation.” Such overt efforts to militarize existing class conflicts were part and parcel of a broader plan that Winchester called “the biggest and most carefully planned national advertising campaign ever undertaken by any firm of gun makers in the world.”

And so has it continued and evolved.

It’s impossible for me not to see the entire conversation around the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, and the rash of similar shootings, through this lens of capitalism, privatization, enclosure, and militarization. Thinking about how the warrior culture is embedded in materially hierarchical societies, I think about how the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was a member of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, as were some of his victims. That program’s Parkland-based marksmanship team was partially funded by the National Rifle Association, meaning that gun lobbyists essentially helped train the assailant and wish also to help train those who try and deter or kill future assailants. I can’t even view stories about the non-responsive, seemingly paralyzed sheriff’s deputies who didn’t even try to stop Nikolas Cruz, without wondering whether they were deadened to the danger of the lethality of Cruz’s weapon, or aware of that danger to the point of being terrified, even as LEOs. There are no good decisions in lethalized spaces, and a society wishing to incentivize good decisionmaking should not saturate such spaces with deadly weapons.

Illustration: The Gun Factory, by Joseph Pennell – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain

On Banking, Heitkamp Forgets Where She Lives

by Matt Stannard
March 14, 2018

Elizabeth Warren is in a bloody fight with the handful of Democrats who support new GOP legislation to roll back Dodd-Frank requirements on banks. The new legislation loosens regulations for smaller “community” banks, but also for the biggest, too-big-to-fail, often criminal banks at the top of finance capital’s food chain. One of the Democrats joining the GOP in that rollback effort is North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, who said of Warren on this matter, “She doesn’t live where I live.”

But Heitkamp lives in the state with the country’s only public, state-owned bank, the Bank of North Dakota. And although she told The Atlantic‘s Russell Berman a sob story about “Democrats [watching] as smaller banks and lenders in their states have been eaten up by larger institutions, due in part to the added burden of regulations created by Dodd-Frank,” there are a couple of half-truths at play here, and Heitkamp should know better.

First, Dodd-Frank has been little more than an exacerbating factor on what was already a steep decline in community bank viability. As J.V. Rizzi wrote in American Banker a few years ago:

There are many things to dislike about the Dodd-Frank Act. Causing the demise of community banks, however, is not one of them . . .  the number of community banks with assets under $100 million dropped from 13,000 in 1995 to 2,625 in 2010–before Dodd-Frank was enacted. The number of small community banks had dropped under 1,900 by 2014.

Second, and even more to the point of why Heitkamp’s position is so weird: the Bank of North Dakota has kept community banks alive in that state through financial support for community bank loans, and regulatory compliance support. The results have been astounding if one compares North Dakota’s community banking scene to the rest of the country. I once explained why in a blog post I wrote for the Public Banking Institute:

Public banks offer unique benefits to community banks, including collateralization of deposits, protection from poaching of customers by big banks, the creation of more successful deals, and . . . regulatory compliance. The Bank of North Dakota, the nation’s only public bank, directly supports community banks and enables them to meet regulatory requirements such as asset to loan ratios and deposit to loan ratios. . . . [I]t keeps community banks solvent in other ways, lessening the impact of regulatory compliance on banks’ bottom lines.
We know from FDIC data in 2009 that North Dakota had almost 16 banks per 100,000 people, the most in the country. A more important figure, however, is community banks’ loan averages per capita, which was $12,000 in North Dakota, compared to only $3,000 nationally. . . . During the last decade, banks in North Dakota with less than $1 billion in assets have averaged a stunning 434 percent more small business lending than the national average.

Stacy Mitchell reached a similar conclusion:

With 89 small and mid-sized community banks and 38 credit unions, North Dakota has six times as many locally owned financial institutions per person as the rest of the nation. And these local banks and credit unions control a resounding 83 percent of deposits in the state — more than twice the 30 percent market share that small and mid-sized financial institutions have nationally.

And so did Ellen Brown, who provides some background on how BND was mandated to help with compliance:

In order to help rural lenders with regulatory compliance, in 2011 the BND was directed by the state legislature to get into the rural home mortgage origination business. Rural banks that saw only three to five mortgages a year could not shoulder the regulatory burden, leading to business lost to out-of-state banks. After a successful pilot program, SB 2064, establishing the Mortgage Origination Program, was signed by North Dakota’s governor on April 3, 2013. It states that the BND may establish a residential mortgage loan program under which the Bank may originate residential mortgages if private sector mortgage loan services are not reasonably available. Under this program a local financial institution or credit union may assist the Bank in taking a loan application, gathering required documents, ordering required legal documents, and maintaining contact with the borrower.

So Heitkamp’s invocation of North Dakota is curious. I can’t say I’m surprised though: BND has saved conservative North Dakota’s financial ass countless times, but state officials and electeds hate acknowledging this–in fact, they almost never do in mainstream contexts.

Warren’s criticism of the new Senate bill is sound. The bill ultimately exempts all but only the top 12 banks in the country from regulations and stress tests. The worst thing Warren is guilty of in this instance is believing (or acting as if she believes) that for-profit banking can be saved at all. We can have that debate another time (I personally believe capitalism makes the consolidation or death of small banks inevitable without massive state intervention). But Heidi Heitkamp’s omission of her own state’s success in propping up an otherwise anemic community bank industry is, to use current parlance, sad.

Matt Stannard writes on cooperative economics, law, and sustainable farming. He was policy director at Commonomics USA and a board member of the Public Banking Institute.

Activists Urge California Public Bank Not Limit to Cannabis Revenue

Grassroots public banking activists respond to CA Treasurer’s Request for Information

by Matt Stannard
March 3, 2018

Commonomics USA (the organization I used to be policy director for, and for which I still serve as a consultant), along with public banking advocacy groups from Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and Eureka, California, have written a response to California Treasury Secretary John Chiang’s Request for Information concerning a public bank in California, which was written after a year’s worth of public hearings on California’s cannabis banking problem.

That RFI (an RFI is a standard business and governmental procedure made prior to undertaking large projects) was released in late January. But there was a problem with it: It did not reflect the public demand that sparked it. And, given the final direction and gestures of the Working Group, that was a surprise and disappointment.

It should be noted (I’m presently working on a longer piece telling this story) that the public banking movement overwhelmed, and fundamentally changed the focus of, what was initially a reluctant Cannabis Banking Working Group. In early sessions of the CBWG hearings, Chiang went out of his way to instruct participants not to advocate for public banks in general; early scholars invited to the San Diego session insisted public banks were not feasible, and the Working Group was even, at times, jovially dismissive of the idea.

But everywhere the CBWG went, members of the public, during the open comment periods, insisted not only that the Working Group consider a public bank for cannabis revenue, but that it consider a public bank categorically. While Chiang continued to insist that comments be limited to the problem of banking cannabis revenue, members of the public ignored that limit and advocated for the general benefits of public banking.

Chiang’s eventual response was impressive: Rather than further scolding members of the public, the Working Group announced a previously unscheduled hearing in Los Angeles devoted exclusively to the question of public banks, and further, that such a discussion should not be limited to cannabis revenue, but be inclusive of general arguments for and against public banking.

I continue to admire Chiang for that piece of brave leadership (among the privileged, public banking is still seen as a fringe movement, even after New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, campaigned on creating one in that state). Chiang could have taken a safer way out. Many of us are glad he didn’t.

Nevertheless, the Working Group’s RFI does limit itself to “studying the various administrative and operational structures for organizing a public bank or state-backed financial institution to serve the cannabis industry.” And this has raised the ire of the many groups across California demanding divestment from big private banks and the embrace of a radically democratic model of public finance (more radically democratic, even, than anticipated by the rather conservative, fossil fuel-supporting, pro-police state Bank of North Dakota).

The letter in response, linked below, argues that the best way to envision a public cannabis bank is by envisioning a public bank that is not limited to cannabis:

We invite you to share our vision: a network of public banks (intrastate municipal/regional banks and interstate state banks) that provides a distinct alternative to depositing public monies into Wall Street banks, reflects California’s environmental priorities and social values, and becomes California’s legacy for future generations.
Public banking, at its core, is a shift in the state’s role from mainly providing bank regulatory oversight to also providing banking services, thereby addressing commercial banking market failures. Public banking shares the original ambitions of the postal service, delivering mail to every household, and the rural electrification program, electrifying all of rural America. In our envisioned network, each public bank will provide banking services to its defined community – filling gaps where the market has failed to fully provide affordable deposit, credit, and other investment services. State banks would provide low-cost (probably internet-based) deposit services to large segments of the unbanked population and create pools of credit for large infrastructure projects, affordable housing, and student loans. Municipal and regional banks would focus on developing the small business lending and local investment market; developing financially-responsible alternatives to predatory financial schemes, such as bail bonds and payday lending; and financing local infrastructure projects, including renewable energy and disaster recovery.
The failure of the market is profound and more widespread than is commonly understood. The lack of banking services for the cannabis industry is only one example of this failure. Over 20% of California households are un/underbanked, as documented in 2015 by the FDIC. And, given the ongoing disaster recovery efforts in northern and southern California, the lack of immediate and affordable credit for municipal governments as these communities struggle to rebuild after the fires and floods is a clear shortcoming of the market. Unfunded infrastructure, unfunded new Community Choice Energy organizations, and unfunded affordable housing for public service workers can be financed through a state or municipal public bank. Finally, the state’s revenue shortfall and liquidity crisis during the Great Recession, made worse by the refusal of banks to honor the state-issued IOUs, is another critical example of the need for credit. Without a broader vision, this particular public bank effort by your office may be perceived as exclusive or discriminatory. Such a perception so early on in the public bank feasibility process may be cause for otherwise avoidable resistance from both the public and the Federal Reserve, which may view a public bank “dedicated entirely, or predominantly, to the cannabis industry” as concentrated deposit risk. Moreover, since the Federal Reserve is tasked with addressing financial inclusion, it may be receptive to an expanded definition of financial inclusion based upon a critical analysis of the market failures of the commercial banking system.

While the letter includes specific suggestions that will be helpful to the cannabis industry (such as automated retail cannabis payments), its larger message is that a whole-state, economic and ecological justice approach to public banking is advantageous for the limited policy objective of cannabis banking, because more stakeholders will sign on, and even because the Federal Reserve will be more likely to entertain giving a Master Account Number to a broadly-mandated bank than a narrow one whose only purpose is to circumvent (or, to put it more charitably, make up for the gaps in) federal law. Thus, the response letter suggests “conduct[ing] an ‘intersection’ study throughout state government and its agencies that identifies the specific state social, economic, and environmental policy objectives that a public bank can achieve.”

The letter may be downloaded here:
030218 Letter in Response to RFI

ICE, Detention Centers, and the Commons

(matt)

Despite the threat sanctuary cities are under, I wish I lived in one. I wish I could support public officials who, politically at least, see noncitizens (whatever their immigration status) and citizens as equally worthy of moral consideration, as equal stakeholders in the community. Wyoming is lucky enough to have a few public officials who see both documented and undocumented residents of the state as part of their community family, but the odds, unsurprisingly, are not in our favor.

Wyoming’s ruling class, its cattle and mineral and real estate interests, often exhibits a uniquely and sometimes brutally indifferent attitude towards disadvantaged people. And although Wyoming has always had a significant Latinix community, it hasn’t been easy for them.

Comes now Management and Training Corporation, an allegedly terrible Utah company, to build an ICE detention facility in Evanston, the Wyoming border town an hour from Salt Lake City. Andrew Graham of the ever-important and brilliant WyoFile, described developments as of last October:

Both Evanston’s city council and Uinta County’s commission unanimously passed resolutions in June to support the Management Training Corporation’s plan to build and manage an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center just outside Evanston city limits. The jail would have the capacity to hold 500 undocumented immigrants detained by ICE while they await court hearings in Salt Lake City.
Uinta officials are uncertain whether they need Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials to approve the project. It is possible a jail holding immigration detainees does not require the same level of approval as other forms of private prisons regulated under Wyoming law, a county official said. Either way, MTC’s efforts to jail immigration detainees from throughout the northern rockies in Uinta County have thus far gone largely without notice in the state at large.

Except they didn’t go unnoticed for long. More on that in a minute, but first more about MTC, which has come under scrutiny for a number of problems that ought to raise red flags in the minds of the public: corrupt officials, riots, prison breaks, sexual abuse by officers, alleged human rights violations, and a number of other charges ranging from concerning to embarassing to horrifying. If even some of these charges are true, that raises serious public policy concerns. MTC also deploys prison labor and I was told by people I trust in this subject matter that it was very likely ICE will utilize detainee labor –practically unpaid–at the facility it wants in Wyoming. I’ve written articles and talked about this before. Extracting surplus value from the labor of the incarcerated is an especially insidious and destructive form of bio-political control.

MTC knows it’s in trouble. Fortunately, ICE is having problems of its own (notwithstanding the Trump administration’s mandate for ICE to behave like literal stormtroopers). Evanston, Wyoming–in Uinta County–is a chance for both corporation and goon squad to do right. Finding willing jurisdictions for building detention centers has been challenging. The hope is that Wyoming, immersed in a downward trajectory of economic insecurity, and highly supportive of unhinged border nationalist Donald Trump, will be a willing partner.

But there’s fierce resistance (partly due to Wyofile‘s coverage) and it’s growing throughout the state. Thanks to groups like Juntos, the ACLU, and the Equality State Policy Center (and many other organizations, churches, groups, and individuals, an organized effort is underway to pursue numerous political, legal, and social pressure-oriented means (check out #WyoSayNo) of stopping the project. I’m helping.

I’m not just helping because immigrants are human beings, detainees are human beings, and we’re all potential aliens and detainees (that’s all true though). I’m helping because our vision of the Commons, of community, and of cooperativism will not work alongside a regime of regulating human movement based on violence. If we are to “regulate” migration, let us do so democratically and cooperatively. That’s the spirit of the Commons appropriate to the tens of thousands of years of cultures migrating, traveling cyclically, escaping bad things and journeying to better places, together. Welcoming the stranger, giving the outsider the head seat at our table, is a recognition of our universal dependence on the Commons. If we have to regulate the way and where we move, we need different criteria, and different voices, in place to exist with and honor how and why we travel across, out of, and into shared spaces.

More later on this, here at C on the C, and elsewhere.

Photo credit: aljazeera.com

7 Reasons Your Economic Insecurity Isn’t Your Fault

. . . and why that matters

by Matt Stannard
January 29, 2018

The sobering assessment at the end of 2017 by Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, concerning the 40+ million Americans living in poverty, left a question unasked: Why have there been so few effective grassroots political revolts against inequality and material deprivation in the United States?

The seeming lack of class consciousness is even more surprising when we consider that economic insecurity doesn’t just affect those below the poverty level: over 215 million Americans–which I count as 66 percent of the population–couldn’t cover a $1000 emergency with the money in their savings account. That’s over five times as many of us who technically live in poverty, and it suggests that economic insecurity is now an intrinsic feature of the American identity.

This knowledge alone, that there are well over 200 million people just like us, should help temper the feeling of failure that Americans tend to feel about their economic insecurity. But the cultural and rhetorical forces of capitalism are strong. The billionaire class invests a lot in teaching us that our material insecurity is our fault. That unique capitalist apologia has an illustrious history.

Such shaming, along with the condition of economic insecurity itself, extracts terrible tolls on our health, and makes us less effective in fighting the underlying socioeconomic and political conditions responsible for the difficult conditions so many of us are in. The shame of economic insecurity demoralizes and weakens us and makes it less likely we will join in struggle with others against unfair economic conditions.

So I actually hope that if you are economically insecure–whether in poverty or swimming a few days above it, as you read this short article, your shoulders will feel less tense, you’ll breathe more deeply, and let go of the guilt that the oligarchs and moralists want you to carry. Then, I hope you’ll find the strength and love to become more resolute in your determination to help create a world without this kind of abuse, and with the opportunities that come from egalitarian, cooperative security–the kind of world that, frankly, the majority of the world wants and has always wanted.

Here goes: This is a meditation. Your economic insecurity is not your fault because:

1. . . . wages aren’t under your control

Wages haven’t kept up with productivity gains or inflation over the last several decades. The work you are doing now could very likely have been enough, on its own, to support you and a few others, and own a house and car. Even low-income work could sustain a decent apartment. None of that is true anymore. The elites have many reasons for wanting to keep wages low in most sectors of the economy, including protection of their profits, but other reasons too. I’ll just let Richard Wolff explain it:

Capitalist enterprises keep moving their operations (first manufacturing, now also many services) from high to low-wage regions of the world to raise their profits. Departing capitalists leave their former host communities with unemployment and all its social costs. Such conditions force desperate competition for jobs that drives down wages and guts job benefits. Public services decline as government budgets suffer. Capitalism no longer delivers a rising standard of living in the regions where it began and developed first: Western Europe, North America and Japan. Instead of goods, capitalism delivers the bads.

Wages suck, the wage economy is designed to suck for most of us, and none of that is your fault.

2. . . . capitalism is like a roller coaster

Our economic system is subject to periodic crises. During those crises, people who’ve been “doing the right thing” all their lives are often ruined. A haunting Wikipedia page, “List of economic crises,” traces economic crisis from first century Rome to the present. The crises proliferate over time, with one crisis in the 14th century (it was a banking crisis), eight in the 18th century (including the Bengel Bubble Crash and the collapse of French enterprise on the Mississippi) to twenty five in the 20th century. Every economic crisis devastates countless lives and re-boots generational economics. Those devastated lives are then dehumanized further by public discourse blaming working class and poor people for the state of the economy.

3. . . . capitalism reproduces itself in social relations

Although pointing this out makes postmodernists cringe, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the way a society produces and distributes its goods, and the patterns of mass scarcity that may result from inequality, influence the way we interact with each other vis. institutions and cultural behavior. We can debate about how much, but it seems to me that economic determinism is more true the poorer or more insecure you are, which is another way of saying that scarcity “overdetermines” the cultural expression of economic relations.

A description of the important anthology Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism lists those various relational themes:

how the triumph of the free market obscures rising tides of violence and cultures of exclusion, and the growth of new forms of identity politics. The collection also investigates the tendency of neoliberal capitalism to produce a world of increasing differences in wealth, environmental catastrophes, heightened flows of people and value across space and time, moral panics and social impossibilities, bitter generational antagonisms and gender conflicts, invisible class distinction, and “pariah” forms of economic activity.

4. . . . a few powerful entities could make the system work for us all but won’t do it

Although pointing this out makes revolutionary socialists cringe, a few basic reforms –far from the new paradigms of ownership cooperativists ultimately advocate — could solve many, if not all, current manifestations of economic insecurity. A reasonable regime of taxes on capital and the recovery of the trillions of dollars hidden in tax havens could eliminate the effects of poverty and economic insecurity, if not the root causes. All that would take is a tiny group of Americans deciding to end their intransigence on just taxation–but we all know this is unrealistic.

But please tell us more about how our inability to rent one-bedroom apartments in Denver and San Francisco is our fault.

5. . . . “money” is a construct

The increasing realization among scholars and activists that “fiat currency is a social construct” could not have come at a better time. Economist James Galbraith calls the axioms of Modern Monetary Theory “factually uncontroversial.” Governments choose to order and symbolize their financial endorsements the way they do. Both governments and banks create what can be called money, and the real questions are how to manage that process, how to incentivize social goods and ameliorate social bads and deal with other actors, like workers, businesses, and consumers. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian explains:

The decisions about how to issue, lend, and spend money come down to politics, values, and convention, whether the goal is reducing inequality or boosting entrepreneurship. Inflation, MMT’s proponents contend, can be controlled through taxation, and only becomes a problem at full employment—and we’re a long way off from that, particularly if we include people who have given up looking for jobs or aren’t working as much as they’d like to among the officially “unemployed.”

Irrespective of what money “is” in either a metaphysical or practical sense, the value of your money is not under your control. When our parents accused us of “not knowing the value of a dollar,” they were more correct than they knew.

6. . . . “work” is a construct

I remember sitting with activists at a community center in Detroit in a snowy January in 2014, talking about their revolutionary approach to inner-city unemployment. The reemergent phrasing was that there’s no jobs but plenty of work. This truth has been pointed out all over the country. Anyone looking around immediately sees things to do–things that would improve life for everybody, things that could make the planet happier, busy work, dirty work, dignified work. Under our current wage-based paradigm, “jobs” are what private shareholders want to extract from us to increase their profits, and whatever public and nonprofit work can be painfully extracted from these powerful interests. As our crumbling infrastructure and shrinking social service networks testify, there’s plenty of genuinely valuable work not being done.

Moreover, a “work week,” a reasonable number of hours to work in a day, the way differently-abled and differently-privileged people are capable of arranging their work lives? You guessed it: all arbitrary and a function of what economic elites want the extraction of your labor power to look like. For this caprice and myth of order, we’ve been shamed for our inability to always do the kind of work they want us to do.

7. . . . “personal responsibility” is a construct

Even if personal responsibility exists, a person can incur neither credit nor blame for endowments they possess or lack. Even if you can trace your financial mistakes–a job you fucked up, a bad marriage, a criminal record, these mistakes fall differently on different people. The late John Rawls caused a stir among philosophers of “moral desert” when, in A Theory of Justice, he argued that people cannot claim moral credit for their natural endowments and tendencies. Sure, Rawls argued, people can expect to get paid well for doing good work, but that doesn’t mean we deserve or do not deserve good things in a general sense based on what we’re good or not good at.

People resist this because they think personal responsibility is important. But, like the foundational assumptions of MMT, the assumptions of Rawls’ dismissal of moral desert are perfectly reasonable, and their consequences are dependent upon what we do with the understandings we have of our moral, material, and political agency. The real question isn’t whether you are genuinely or absolutely culpable for your individual economic condition (have I mentioned you aren’t?), but what we can do, acting together, to achieve real moral agency, which is control over our material lives.

The think tanks and spokespeople deeply invested in making you feel guilty for not having enough money to live are also deeply invested in systems of production and finance that ensure it will stay that way. As we stop feeling guilty, we’ll find new layers of energy with which to defeat and bypass them.

Should you hold yourself accountable for bad choices you made when you know you can “do better?” Sure, if you think it will help you do better. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t. But we’re all part of a larger set of systems. We’re smart enough to understand that responsibility is dialectical. It’s just that we’ve been pushed so far in the direction of absolute moral desert that we are, per Kenneth Burke, “rotten with perfection.” We should try forgiving ourselves and each other and moving forward together to overthrow the existing economic order.

Matt Stannard is a legal and policy advocate for sustainable farming and cooperative economics.

Image: The Panic – Run on the Fourth National Bank, No. 20 Nassau Street. Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1873 Oct. 4, p. 67.

Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow and Imagining Contemporary Evil

Matt Stannard
Jan. 21, 2018

This afternoon, after several months of periodic readings, my kids and I finished Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow. I had, with only minimal resistance, proposed to read it out loud to my teen, tween, and ten year-old, in partial recognition of having read the Great Brain series, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, and a few others to them when they were much younger. Those were sweet days.

I’d rediscovered, or spontaneously remembered, Wangerin’s epic novel, that some have called a “Lord of the Rings with Farm Animals” (although Wangerin’s prose is far more pleasing to read out loud than Tolkien’s, in my opinion), decades after first finding it when I was about 13, reviewed in an issue of Dragon magazine. I enjoyed the book then and learned a lot about the form of the Christian allegory in literature from it. Some might try to call it a “Christian Animal Farm,” and that would be clever but not really accurate. Orwell’s novel was really, really cynical compared to Wangerin’s story of a basically innocent, decent, somewhat emotionally immature rooster being charged by God, through the whispering voice of the Dun Cow, to fend off an attack from the manifest evil coming from a coop and farm far away, and created by a giant devil-worm that lives deep in the earth.

And it is unapologetically Christian, although it’s a Christianity that admits to and celebrates doubt, doesn’t promise happiness to believers, and invests even the simplest characters with a lot of personal autonomy–at least in terms of letting each farm animal set their own route to fighting the great evil that threatens the farm. There are no humans in the book, but there is a chicken coop and hints of other artifacts, presumably implying some now-distant human intelligence. But it’s the animals who are entrusted with defeating the evil animal-gods and demigods put before them.

It’s the nature of that evil, though, that inspired me to read the book with the kiddos this time around. Some of it is chaotic evil, to put it in RPG terms: the evil rooster demigod, the mirror-image of the hero rooster except much more physically powerful and able to create millions of tiny poisonous snakes with its vomit or something, reminds me of both wannabe and real Nazi trolls today, with their performative brutality, their deliberate use of low-grade irony, and simple self-declared mission to destroy all who aren’t them. Some of the book’s evil is lawful evil, a giant wyrm in the earth who believes its very presence and size entitles it to rule and who tries to seduce the hero with promises of power before opting to try and destroy anything that opposes it (that’s what the billionaires do–first they try to buy you and then if they can’t they must silence you at whatever cost).

I’m aware that these are Christian images too, and I don’t know anything about Walter Wangerin’s politics, but if he is an orthodox Christian, his politics are probably pretty different from mine. But I also have to say that my concerns with the alt-right and the billionaire class are more than just “political” in a conventional sense. The important thing is that Wangerin knows that the violent exercise of asymmetrical power and dishonest manipulation of good people are bad things, and his animation of them produces beautifully hideous and revolting villains that, like the heroes in the book, are essentially cartoon characters, but not shallow caricatures. That takes some skill and aesthetic vision.

So as I read the book to the kids a couple of hours at a time over a period of months (I can’t quite remember when we started), I wanted to speak the voices of good, imperfect beings fighting back against others who either wanted to eradicate them for existing (the gratuitous racist violence that’s irreducible to just wealth acquisition), and those who would seek to manipulate or destroy others for the sake of economic gain. These are the twin evils, I think, represented by a large part of the current political order and culture. But my hope is they’d get something more than just politics out of hearing a story about how good, imperfect, mistake-making beings hold their own against those who want to exploit or destroy them.

There are two more books in Wangerin’s Dun Cow series. If you’ve read them, I’d love to hear what you think. I told the kids (who enjoyed the book and admitted on their own they miss sitting around hearing me read to them, I swear) that if any of them wanted to read the other books I’d buy them. I think I’m good with just this one, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful in every way–the incredible wordsmithing, the very deep and emotional development of the characters–and, where it was a tiny bit traditional-gender-roles, easily bracketed and deconstructed (at least I felt so, but obviously could be wrong. Christianity is what it is, unless Wangerin were UCC, which as an M.Div from the Lutheran Christ Seminary-Seminex, I will guess he’s not).

But I want to thank him for doing a very good job representing bravery amid moral frailty, destructive and manipulative evil, depression and self-loathing, vulnerability and forgiveness, even the ineffable tragedy of losing family members, all in a fantasy novel about rooster warriors and farm animal armies.

The drawing above is by Abby, and was inspired by the book.