Who Cares About Voting, Anyway?

As the long-term conservative strategy to shift public discourse from explicit race hierarchy to “welfare queens” and low taxes progresses – all while protecting the structural reality of racial inequality in America – the slim gains of the Civil Rights Era have come increasingly under attack. The Supreme Court will be hearing a case in February challenging a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law that ensured the access of minority voters to the polls. This case – and Fisher v. University of Texas, the Supreme Court case challenging affirmative action this year – grow directly out of the myth of a postracial America. Conservatives have suffered losses on other fronts recently, but they are winning the struggle to make racial inequality completely invisible in American society. The arguments in Shelby County and in Fisher both more or less boil down to this: America has healed, so we no longer need civil rights laws. In fact, these civil rights laws have become unconstitutional.

This is all a roundabout way of cross-posting something I wrote on the Voting Rights Act on a different site:

After the formation of the NAACP in 1909, African American leaders pursued a strategy to challenge restrictive voting laws. Despite notable victories in cases such as Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915) (striking down a grandfather clause in Oklahoma and Maryland) and Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) (striking down whites-only Democratic primaries), racist voter suppression was too pervasive to be defeated by individual lawsuits. Furthermore, it was sometimes difficult to prove the government enacted these laws with discriminatory intent, which was necessary to establish an equal protection violation. Compounding the NAACP’s struggle was the fact that a single case could take years to win.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained ground throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, white supremacist tactics evolved and became subtler. Some jurisdictions implemented new facially neutral voting tests purporting to measure understanding of the issues and the character of the voters. Due to longstanding systemic inequality in education and subjective evaluation of good character, these tests effectively barred African Americans from the polls. Incumbent white politicians further disempowered African American voters by gerrymandering voting districts to weaken the black vote and prevent the formation of majority-black districts. In order to halt this deliberate avoidance of the requirements of the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress enacted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to force state and local governments across the South to justify any new electoral rules and procedures.

In this past election cycle, conservative politicians sought new voting rules in order to reduce Democratic voter turnout. Section 5 has been the strongest defense against voter suppression tactics. In the past year, Section 5 prevented the reduction of early-voting hours in some districts in Florida and blocked a voter ID law in Texas. The court that struck down the Texas ID law noted that the required documentation would be enormously burdensome to obtain, and would disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. Recently, federal judges used Section 5 to block a Texas redistricting plan that would have divided a population of African American and Latino voters into new, white-majority districts. Judge Thomas B. Griffith described it as a “deliberate, race-conscious method to manipulate not simply the Democratic vote but, more specifically, the Hispanic vote.”

Two points here: first, it is notable that stretching as far back as the 1870s, white supremacist laws have often been justified as race-neutral. Keep this in mind as you consider “neutral” voter-ID laws today.

Second, any defense of the VRA should touch on Emma Goldman’s famous dictum, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” The history of race relations in America is, in part, the history of literally attempting (and often, succeeding) to make voting by people of color illegal. This attempt continues today.


Intellectual Property: What is it good for?

Not absolutely nothing; but getting there.

Peter Frase:

The rhetoric of property rights has always run along two parallel tracks: the utilitarian and the moral. Utilitarians may acknowledge the arbitrariness, even the injustice, of private property while holding that it is nevertheless our best guarantee of freedom and prosperity. They might invoke the specter of Soviet collectivism, along with the “tragedy of the commons” — the depletion of resources held in common because no one holds the property rights that might encourage conservation. For the moralist, however, such arguments are beside the point: Whatever the political or economic efficiency of private property, it must be held inviolable because of the immorality of infringing on another person’s property. When the economy was mostly based on the production of physical commodities, the utilitarian argument tended to have the upper hand. For while the moralists must fall back on tendentious metaphysics (such as Locke’s contention that we take ownership of the common by “mixing our labor” with it), the utilitarian could simply point to propertarian capitalism’s manifest ability to deliver a world of material wealth, however inequitably distributed. With intellectual property, however, the situation is reversed. There is, to be sure, a utilitarian case for it, one enshrined in the U.S. Constitution: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” But the actually existing regime of intellectual property (IP) law has long outstripped that justification. Maintaining Disney’s perpetual copyright on Mickey Mouse has no discernible benefits to the progress of anything, and even when unauthorized copies of works undermine the profits of the culture industry, as has happened most obviously to the music business, this does not seem to translate into a shortage of music being produced. Serious studies — that is, those not funded by the copyright cartels themselves — tend to find that IP is an impediment to economic growth rather than a driver of it. An intellectual-property regime that hewed to its utilitarian roots would thus be a much less expansive one than what we have today, which is why the utilitarian arguments about IP tend to come from its critics. The liberal economist Dean Baker, for example, while conceding that copyrights provide an incentive for creative work, dismisses them as “an extremely inefficient mechanism” for achieving ends that could be better accomplished through direct government support of creative work.

Why it is difficult (impossible?) to smash capitalism

On the one hand, this identifies something real. There is a narrow consensus, which sharply defines the things that can or cannot be spoken of by Serious People. Coercion is of course, an important element of how the system survives. But the language here suggests a seamlessness, and a level of shared intention and planning on the part of the “rulers of the world” who have “constructed” and “designed” this system that seems to me implausible. Many of the most important features of modern capitalism have less to do with conscious coordination than with unconscious synchrony. Graeber, it seems to me, radically overestimates the extent to which monetary systems and debt arrangements are the product of conscious design. Furthermore, his apparent contention that the system rests on people’s fears, despair, and desire for conformity systematically ignores the possibility that many people like monetized relations, and that sometimes they have good reason to prefer them over the more embedded forms of interaction that Graeber thinks are preferable.

Henry Farrell, as part of a symposium reviewing David Graeber’s new book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Bertram is right, and his analysis flies in the face of another participant in the symposium, Malcolm Harris, a smart young anarchist who believes The Revolution will come in the next 2 to 10 years. I think Harris is not alone in his optimism, but this strand of the left faces a simple problem – what does it mean to overthrow capitalism? Did capitalism “overthrow” feudalism? How can we smash and replace wholesale a web of uncoordinated social relationships that now span the globe?

To be aware that capitalism is largely uncoordinated and highly complex, with supporters up and down the chain of the hierarchy, is not to surrender to its inevitability or even suggest that gradual reform is the only answer. Sometimes capitalism did smash feudalism: nouveau riche mercantile interests jockeyed with landed aristocrats for power in politics and in bloody civil wars, and early modern European states “opened markets” in the Third World at gunpoint. But this isn’t the whole story: the rise of finance, joint-stock corporations, wage labor, and an exchange-dominant economy is also a story about changes in social and economic relationships growing in the interstices of the old order. Cities increasingly became sites of long-distance trade, and the finance institutions that necessarily accompanied them; manufacture emerged first in the home, and then in factories; laws and political formations changed to accomodate atomized citizen-workers rather than class-bound peasants, artisans and gentry.

All this is simply to state that leftists who envision the possibility of a better world must do more than agitate for the overthrow of the state. We must build, as well.

In 1820-1850 our courts felt in general a freedom and duty to move in the manner typified in our thought by Mansfield and Marshall. “Precedent” guided, but “principle” controlled; and nothing was good “Principle” which did not look like wisdom-in-result for the welfare of All-of-us. In 1880-1910, on the other hand, our courts felt in general a prime duty to order within the law and a duty to resist any “outside” influence. “Precedent” was to conrol, not merely to guide; “Principle” was to be tested by whether it made for order in the law, not by whether it made widom-in-result.

[I]t is plaint to see that the two earlier period-styles represent also two eternal types of human being. There is the man who loves creativeness, who can without loss of sleep combine risk-taking with responsibility, who sees and feels institutions as things built and to be built to serve functions, and who sees the functions as vital and law as a tool to be eternally reoriented to justice and to general welfare. There is the other man who loves order, who finds risk uncomfortable and has seen so much irresponsible or unwise innovation that responsibility to him means caution.

Karl Llewellyn, Remarks on the Theory of Appellate Decision

The Nature and Purpose of Resistance

We must continue to resist, but do so now with the discomforting realization that significant change will probably never occur in our lifetime. This makes resistance harder. It shifts resistance from the tangible and the immediate to the amorphous and the indeterminate. But to give up acts of resistance is spiritual and intellectual death. It is to surrender to the dehumanizing ideology of totalitarian capitalism. Acts of resistance keep alive another narrative, sustain our integrity and empower others, who we may never meet, to stand up and carry the flame we pass to them. No act of resistance is useless, whether it is refusing to pay taxes, fighting for a Tobin tax, working to shift the neoclassical economics paradigm, revoking a corporate charter, holding global internet votes or using Twitter to catalyze a chain reaction of refusal against the neoliberal order. But we will have to resist and then find the faith that resistance is worthwhile, for we will not immediately alter the awful configuration of power.

– Chris Hedges, Zero Point of Systemic Collapse

One of the Problems of the Media

What is interesting is that Davidson, like most reporters on the money beat–hell, like most reporters on most beats–has but the barest grasp of what the thing he reports on actually is; his Wall Street is just a sort of vague metonym for all things having to do with money; imagine a sports reporter conflating the Nordic combined with the NFL with the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament with Formula One and you get some sense of how these pieces read to a person even marginally interested in the subject.

IOZ, on Adam Davidson’s (muddled, error-ridden) puff piece on Wall Street.

The remaining question is: what accounts for Kickstarter’s popularity among the hip progressive left? How can we account for the strange coincidence of left countercultural values with a business model that would make all but the most hardened Objectivist blush? The short answer is that Kickstarter embodies what I want to call “Good™ values”, after the magazine, web site and infographic emporium that was founded in 2006 that describes itself in the following way:

“In a world where things too often don’t work, GOOD seeks a path that does. Left, right. In, out. Greed, altruism. Us, them. These are the defaults and they are broken. We are the alternative model. We are the reasonable people who give a damn. No dogma. No party lines. No borders. We care about what works–what is sustainable, prosperous, productive, creative, and just–for all of us and each of us.”

It’s no accident that this is the same Third Way center-left post-politics of the mid-90s. The founder of the magazine is 20-something Ben Goldhirsh, the son of the founder of Inc., a magazine that focuses on entrepreneurs and start-up companies. What this amounts to is progressive cultural politics married with neoliberal capitalist economic policy, but opposed to the bad (and boring!) corporate capitalism and instead favoring the dynamic, exciting capitalism of innovation and creative destruction.

The magazine has very positive and supportive coverage of Occupy Wall Street, because people with Good™ values have no problem with a certain kind of anti-capitalism, the kind that implies that the problems are not with the system itself, but with the people in charge. Those people have the wrong values — they’re greedy and selfish and have no goals in life except making money. They’re the problem. What we need are people who have a social conscience, people who live for meaning and beauty, people who care about Darfur and the environment; poverty and education and health care; vibrant communities and public transit.

On Kickstarter as an a model of parasitic capitalism, wearing the clothes of social justice.

The broader, and more important question: is it at all worthwhile to pursue a more humane capitalism? Is it too late?