Archive for the ‘Political theory in the news’ Category

The panopticon in the work of Marquez

December 20, 2014

We have a late addition to the blog! See here.


A Reflection on Food Industry

December 19, 2014

I recently came across an article regarding the transition society has taken from the traditional farmer to industrial farming. It is a phenomena that I think most of us are at least somewhat aware of, but I thought this article in particular really highlighted the blatant presence of exploitation from those individuals in power.

Here is the link to the Article

It is obvious the writer’s negative tone towards industrial farming, but the most notable recurring theme the author brings up is the group responsible behind industrial farming.  He calls these exploiters “American Oligarchs.” We can also view them simply as the Bourgeoisie.  The writer effectively highlights the extremely negative aspects of industrial farming, but still takes time to routinely bash these American Oligarchs responsible.

At the expense of organic quality, industrialization has praised profitability over all other factors in the farming business.  As the article illustrates, methods are being used which are in no ways natural and seem to be harming both farmers and consumers.  The food industry has taken efficiency to a new level.  They in turn have no regard for the well being of the working class.  However, we often see people unable to escape processed foods, as it is often the only option left.  As traditional farming has come so close to extinction, it becomes increasingly impossible to escape this ever growing market run by oppressive bourgeoisie.

The writer of this article states- “some loveless, power-addicted oligarchs sitting atop their mountain, looking contemptuously down on us normal folk, have decided that’s just what they desire.”It is easy to sympathize with the writer in his frustration with these oligarchs.  It is a part of how Marx describes the relationship between the proletariat and the Bourgeoisie.  We feel trapped as we are spoon fed toxic foods and watch traditional organic farming die out, all the while feeling powerless to do much of anything against it.  We also see an interesting statement arguing for the traditional farming technique- “the traditional family farmer is uniquely suited to mediate with nature and us to produce food that is healthy for humans and animals to eat. No machine can replace the personal dedication or passion that I have seen again and again in every farmer I have met who truly cares about his livestock or crops.”

A crucial factor in the food industry is the secrecy of its shrouded methods.  Many people are completely unaware of what goes into the food they eat. As our society as a whole becomes more aware of what we eat, we will eventually be able to act against these powerful oligarchs.  We know from Foucault that our government is obsessed with obtaining a healthy diet of its population… so how much will that play into food regulation in the future? Perhaps it will take place in an act of Arendtian protest against food industry. Maybe even a Marxist style revolution will take place against the bourgeoisie.  Regardless I don’t see industrial food being the healthiest route for society, both in terms of diet and lifestyle.

Thriving Theater in Italy’s Prisons

December 19, 2014

In this post I would like to focus on the emerging theater programs in Italy. Over the years, as a means of rehabilitation, the program has become so successful it has even overshadowered Italy’s real acting troupes. Their effort even came close to being nominated for an Oscar.

This example would resound very strongly with Foucault because of his extensive effort of reform in the French prison system. Much of ‘Discipline and Punish’ is concerned  with the prison and the panopticon as an expression of power. The physical separation of the prisoners and the surveillance of the gaurds is the  physical disciple that the prisoners have to face. Thus the mental discipline is instilled the prison time table; based on the quality of the prison/rehabilitation program is an example of the latent forms of power. The freedom granted through time for recreational activities might appear liberating at first. Yet, when there is free time in a schedule, it shows that freedom can be something that is given and then taken away. Freedom i in the short amount of time that it allowed in  the schedule disappears as the next activity begins. Furthermore, when considering the activities during free time, the prisoner is truly not free because he cannot do whatever he wants – he must adhere to what is acceptable in the prison environment.

Now let’s consider theater. Theater itself is a creative process; it requires an actor to change him/herself to fit a certain role. Through rigorous practice and memorization one can come close to a recreation/accurate reproduction of a role. The time and effort put into orchestraing the entire effort requires seriuos dedication. Judging by the success of the program each prisoner puts an ample amount of commitment into the performance.

Theater and the arts can have a profound effect on the mentality of a person. When considering the mental state of the prisoners one has to realize that many of these prisoners do not have much else to look forward to aside from the theater. Therefore the program is an example of Foucault’s biopwer because the profound influence theater has. The seemingly benign system pervades the mind and soul of the prisoners and they thus relinquish their own power willingly. The system works very effectively in the way that it allows for the ‘betterment’ and it does so in a way that resounds positively with the prisoners – there is no resistance to the program. In fact, some prisoners do not want to leave because  it gives them something to live for. When released, the prisoners have to try to redefine themselves in an context of a society that is not very welcoming towards ex cons. The prison theater gives the prisoners a new identity that allows them to thrive in an environment that they are comfortable in and have a community in.

The seeming concern with the prisoner’s artistic wellbeing shows the excercize of biopower in the way that the program get hte prisoners very inolved.  Moreover the latent power is in effect when each prisoner practices on his own time. Foucault’s theory would involve the prison to create a time table that would grant them time for recreation such as theater. Thus this is the most sinister form of power because it pervades the prisoners’ very soul – the acceptance of this art form as a means of rehabilitation has a deep effect on their psyche as this method seeks to condition the prisoners for life outside  the bars.

He knows when you’ve been sleeping; he knows when you’re awake

December 18, 2014

I guess in retrospect, this almost seems too obvious of a connection. You should read the whole article (Elf on a Shelf as training children to live with panopticism), but here’s one excerpt:

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.

The Panopticon in “The Wire”

December 15, 2014

The HBO series “The Wire” is one of my all time favorites.  Set in Baltimore, the show expertly portrays the legal system of the city and captures its relationship with urban crime.  One of the most significant and interesting aspects of this relationship is the almost constant theme of surveillance.  Director, David Simon, seems to obsess over the theory of the panopticon, with its methods of surveillance as well as efforts to battle against it from its subjects.

The panopticon is an architectural structure designed, ideally for prisons, to constantly surveil its tenants.  It consists of a surveillance room, surrounded on all sides by cells with one-way windows.  Using this central room, a watchman would have the ability to watch any cell at any given time.  Although this watchman could not physically observe all rooms at once, the prisoners’ knowledge that they might be under surveillance forces them to exhibit good behavior at all times.  In Discipline and Punish Foucault uses this building as a very effective metaphor for the structure of modern governments.  With the advancement in technology, we see our society becoming increasingly surveilled by the government. Streets being monitored by cameras, wiretaps on phones, and monitoring of peoples activity on the internet.  These are just a few techniques of many exercised by governments to invade the lives of citizens.  What is most important about these techniques of surveillance, and what Simon emphasizes in “The Wire”, is that all these forms of surveillance could be occurring in complete secrecy.  What results from this is an incredibly obedient society, following laws, which we otherwise would ignore, for the fear of being caught and punished.  When writing “The Wire”, Simon was certainly aware of this increasingly apparent aspect in our society.

In the first season of “The Wire” Simon uses the Low Rises to give us a good look at the complex systems the drug crews of Baltimore use to shroud their illegal activity.  The cash transaction is always handled by a separately than the “package.”  The dealers use pagers and pay phones, going far out of the way of convenience.  They use encoded phone numbers and language. They refuse to explicitly mention anything regarding their business except in secure, trusted locations.  When these lines of defense fall through, they manipulate the legal system in order to win court cases. Similar to the panopticon, the likelihood that a given moment is actually being surveilled is low, but the prospect alone is enough to encourage the constant vigilance which is required to evade the law. All these precautions are meant to safeguard in the event that they are being watched. This idea is so engrained in the urban culture that there seems to be an unbreakable rule among the community to never take part in the panopticon.  The “snitch” seems to be among the most dishonorable titles one can acquire.  Regardless of what is most beneficial for the individual, assisting the police in their investigation is by all means unacceptable.  “The Wire” shows this when a testifying witness against a murder is assassinated by a drug crew.

Simon also incorporates symbolism of the panopticon in various shots.  For instance, in the first shot following the credits of the first episode, the camera is angled at a security television surveying the two primary characters as they walk into a courthouse. This is an appropriate way to begin the series, as it immediately gives the viewer a feeling that the characters, even on the side of the law, are already under the influence of the panopticon.  Another significant symbol Simon uses is in the opening theme. In each of the 5 seasons, the series of shots and music that begin the episode changes.  However, each respective opening shares an identical shot of a boy throwing a rock at a surveillance camera, breaking its lens.  This reoccurring shot is clearly meant to stand out among the others and is a representation of the struggle to fight against the panopticon.  Here is a link to the video of the entire opening credits.  Pay attention to 1:15, where the previously said shot occurs. As you will see, the entire sequence is littered with symbolism referring to methods of surveillance.

The last connection I wanted to make is regarding a recent theme we talked about in class.  In “The Wire” we see constant advancement in the techniques used both by the panopticon and by those resisting it.  This progression is related to the notion that these two opposing forces actually support each other.  As the surveillance methods evolve, the drug crews become more efficient in evading the law.  As a result, both parties are continuously progressing in order to keep up with each other.

In “The Wire” David Simon creates an extremely curious relationship.  Viewers shift between supporting both sides.  Simon creates a dynamic causing you switch your support between both sides of the battle:  Between the ever-present  panoptic surveillance of the law and the evasive methods put out by the drug crews.

Bernie Sanders Channels his Inner Arendt

November 8, 2014

In the wake of the recent midterm elections, I thought I would share this interview with the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders (Sanders characterizes himself as a socialist, but in this interview he channels the idea of participatory democracy). The interview is around 25 minutes long, though you can read the transcript if you’d prefer. One key moment in the interview is this:

BILL MOYERS: How do you make the Hillary wing of the Democratic Party pay attention to the power of a populist message unless you’re in the debates in 2016, when most of the public is paying attention to political messages?

BERNIE SANDERS: This has been my political experience. When you rally the grassroots of the country or the city or of your state, when people begin to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough. We want to do well by our kids. We want to protect the environment. We believe we should join the rest of the world in terms of having health care for all, single-payer health care for all, et cetera, et cetera.’

When people begin to move, the people on top will follow them. So, whether it’s Hillary or anybody else, what we have got to do is mobilize the American people in a way that we have not seen in recent history around a progressive agenda. Bill, every poll that I have seen, when they ask the American people, what is the most important issue that you’re concerned about? You know what they say? Jobs and the economy.

How come we are not investing heavily in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. $1 trillion invested in rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, rail creates 13 million decent-paying jobs. You know what? The American people want us to do that. They want us to raise the minimum wage. So, you need a very strong agenda. You need a mechanism. And you’ve asked a hard question. Easier to say than to do, to rally people around that agenda. And once you do that, things will take care of itself.

BILL MOYERS: This is what Barack Obama did in 2008. He asked people to take over the Democratic Party, progressives and populists, everyday people that you describe in your speech out in Richmond. He asked those people to come in and, elect me and we’ll do just exactly what Bernie Sanders would do if he were president. Hasn’t happened.

BERNIE SANDERS: I have lot of respect for Barack Obama. But, his biggest mistake is that, after running a brilliant campaign in 2008, where millions of people in fact were galvanized, young people, people of color came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make some real change.’ The day after the election he said, okay, thank you very much. Now I’m going to work inside the Beltway and we’re going to start negotiating with Republicans and all that stuff. The simple truth is, in my view, nothing gets done unless millions and millions of people will demand it. Politics is 365 days a year.

BILL MOYERS: Not just voting?

BERNIE SANDERS: Exactly. And anyone, you can have the best person in the world as president of the United States, that person will accomplish nothing unless millions of people are standing behind him or her. Just an example, Bill, everybody, all the young people in this country are worried about student debt. The fact that hundreds of thousands of young people can’t even afford to go to college.

You have a million people, a million young people marching on Washington saying, there’s a vote coming up. And if you vote the wrong way, we know who you are. We actually are paying attention. You aren’t going to get reelected. We will lower the cost of college substantially and deal with the student debt crisis. It will not happen. It will not happen unless millions of people are activated.

The Arendtian notion of power here is quite obvious. There is a tendency, he argues, for people to think that social change occurs primarily through passing laws or getting courts to recognize various rights. In contrast to this, Sanders claims that passing a law is often only the beginning of a political conflict, not its end. Consider the ACA (also known as “Obamacare”). The law as passed in 2010; since then, the Republican party has taken every step it can to get rid of it. They have tried to repeal it and to get the court system to declare it to be illegal. But they have also taken steps to make sure that its implementation is unsuccessful (for instance, states where Republicans have majorities have not enacted the insurance exchanges the law calls for, thus requiring the Federal government to set them up instead; similarly, many Republican-controlled states have refused federal money to extend Medicaid coverage to the poor). In other words, for better or for worse (I make no judgment here), the Republican party has mobilized its supporters to treat the passage of the ACA as the start of an ongoing political battle. Sanders, in effect, is arguing that the Democrats need to do the same thing. If you want more spending to improve infrastructure, create better health care, or increase support for education (thus reducing student loan debt), we cannot wait for political leaders to spontaneously decide to do so. There must instead be the organization and generation of public power.

Of course, the trouble here is that this kind of power cannot (by definition) be fostered or administered from above. Moreover, for various reasons, almost no one has any experience in organizing or developing such power. We don’t even know where to begin, and so we have no “taste” for action, its joys and its obstacles. In this respect, Sanders’ comments might (or might not) be inspiring, but they also seem peculiarly hollow, at least to me. People have been making the point Sanders is articulating here for decades, but it’s still not entirely clear what precisely one could do to foster the kind of action he’s calling for.


Weber’s Traditionalist in Portlandia

October 30, 2014

Thinking back to Weber for a bit, I’d like to point out a pretty interesting thing I found in one of my favorite shows that relates to some things he’s talked about.

A Weberian traditionalist believes that they will work until they can achieve the things they want. When they reach their goal, they stop working and enjoy the life that they have made for themselves. Many will also rationalize their time – plan out every aspect of their life and figure out what they need to do and when they need to do it in order to reach their goals and aspirations.

A satirical demonstration of this kind of traditionalism can be found in the second season of Portlandia.  In the very beginning of the episode, Brandon and Michelle Marston stand in the kitchen of their home and present posters and charts to their young son, Grover, about his academic life and success. They are applying for a special pre school that they believe will create the perfect life for him. To demonstrate this, they present charts and explain to him what can happen to him if he gets in, as well as if he doesn’t. Their ultimate belief is that if their son Grover is accepted to the Shooting Star Preschool, eventually he will be successful enough to buy his own Ferrari and whatever else he wants. However, if Grover is not accepted, he will set himself up for a life of failure.

view the clip here

The traditionalist idea here: If we get a credible education, we can succeed in whatever we want and maintain a comfortable life, and as a result, work until we achieve these goals and spend the rest of our life enjoying the life we’ve created for ourselves. This clip can be seen as an over-the-top example of Weber’s traditionalist “rationalization of time”. Grover’s parents also go as far as making a promotional video for their son to bring to the pre school’s interview. I’m sure that a lot of parents may have visions of what their child can achieve, but few would go to the lengths that Brandon and Michelle Marston did.  Reading Weber’s ideas on traditionalism and rationalization of time, along with watching this particular episode of Portlandia, helped me better understand his explanations of these concepts. It was also entertaining to see this idea demonstrated in such a ridiculous and satirical fashion.

With that said, I present two questions to you:
-Do you think that the education system in our country, by creating options like attending private pre schools, instill this idea in our parents and in our youth?

-Additionally, do you think the American dream was founded on traditionalist principles like this, and as a result, could that be why some of us find this clip especially funny?

Gamifying the World- The Link Between Gamification and Capitalism

October 13, 2014

In recent modern day society there has been a peculiar new obsession with gamifying each aspect of our lives;  Classrooms, sales, small businesses…  Gamification is growing and becoming imbedded into the more practical aspects of life.  It’s an unusual phenomenon.  In this blog post I want to relate what we have talked about in class to gamification, providing a viewpoint of why this might be happening and a couple different perspectives as to what this means.

So what exactly is Gamification?  Essentially, it is turning everyday activities into games.  Gamification usually involves a point system.  That is, doing good work will earn you more points and doing sub-satisfactory will earn you less.  It might reward a student in a class for achieving a certain pre-set goal (the same structure as our “Concept of Power” class).  It also incorporates competition,  Using co-workers and colleagues as measurements of ones own success. Competition has always been an inherent part of both human nature and games.  Having employees or teams compete creates a drive and a passion for higher performance. The overall result from gamification is a heightened work ethic.  People become more passionate, efficient, and work harder.

In Chattanooga, TN,  a young up and coming company has already hopped on this idea.  Ambition, also known as “fantasy football for sales teams,” helps other companies “Gamify” their workspace.  Using their computer and phone software, companies are given the customized lay-out needed to effectively turn work into a game, and ultimately create a more efficient work-force.  They use peer competition, scores,  teams, and a leader board  system. Ambition has found much success in this industry as well.  They have won awards, and also secured some pretty substantial clients.  You can learn more about Ambition on their website here.

What is it about this concept of gamification that is so appealing and effective?  In a world where work has become monotonous, industrious, and autonomous, one could say that gamifying people’s lives returns a lost sense of accomplishment.  People need a relevant goal to achieve in order to feel passionate about what they do, and games help inspire that.  However, In Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, the author uses “the machine” as a unique analogy that might serve as an excuse to why people prefer games over work.

The “machine” as Weber describes it arose from asceticism– with its radical view on efficiency and productivity.  As time passed, however, the spirit of asceticism left, while its ethos did not.  The religious drive that helped this lifestyle become complete and balanced has disappeared with time.  What society is left with is the machine– an unstoppable, inescapable influence over mankind which forces those born into it to adjust with the ways in which society is run.  The hard-working, profit-producing spirit of capitalism still remains, as Weber states “‘doing ones job’ cannot be directly linked to the highest spiritual and cultural values.” (Weber 121).

From this viewpoint, we can see how gamifying might be a coping mechanism for one’s lack of purpose in society.  Humans are trapped in this mechanical society, but no longer are able to make work a part of their inherent values.  As a result, working loses its meaning, and people begin to half-heartedly do their jobs.  Gamification returns the meaning to work by giving work a more relevant factor.  Through achievement and competition, gamifying peoples lives makes them feel in control and effectively battles the machine which Weber describes.

Another interesting, somewhat funny, viewpoint that should be considered is from that of a Marxist.  This is a pretty obvious point, but not one people may think about often; that a company like Ambition serves only the bourgeoisie by re-sparking the good little capitalist in all the proletarians of society; all for the sole purpose of making more profit for themselves. The illusion that gamification’s purpose is to make our lives more pleasant is only a front for an opportunity to make large corporations more money.  I mean….. the slogan of Ambition IS “Ambition makes companies more money.”  Moreover, not only is Ambition serving the bourgeoisie, but they themselves are making a huge profit off of their business, creating a classic, ironic circle of bourgeoisie winningness.

Personally, I chose to write about this because I feel gamification, on some level truly does have a connection to the trapped state in which lower working classes are found. Obviously my thoughts are up to interpretation.  Whether gamification is a coping mechanism to deal with the way in which society is run, or simply another economic tool to benefit the bourgeoisie, or both, there is something about the relation between gamifying work and our society as a whole that is relevant to us and fascinating.  Please comment and share your own opinions of this subject!

Civil Disobedience in Hong Kong

September 29, 2014

This is only tangentially connected to the stuff we’ve covered in class so far, but as you may have heard, there are massive and ongoing protests in going on in Hong Kong. At issue is the question of how candidates for upcoming elections will be nominated. Officials in Beijing have decided that they will not permit open nominations for candidates for election (which is to say that nominees will be chosen in a closed process). The protesters argue that this closed nomination process will produce candidates who follow Beijing’s direction*. Anyway, protests like this will become more directly relevant in our discussions of Arendt in a few weeks. In the mean time, you should just keep up on current affairs. So Ingrid Robeyns has a very useful post (and links) here. As Robeyns points out, many news outlets in China (particularly the state-run outlets) have not commented at all on these protests. Part of the reason for this post, then, is to share the news of these events as widely as possible.

*For those of you who don’t know, Hong Kong has a special status within China (it’s a “special administrative region” that maintains greater autonomy within the PRC than most regions do) . It was a British colony until 1997, and after the British withdrew, there was a general agreement that Hong Kong would retain a system separate from China, including a separate and independent judiciary, multi-party elections, and so on (“one country; two systems” was the slogan). So part of the protests have to do with the protesters’ worries that this separateness is being threatened.

Marx among the artists

September 25, 2014

No class on Marx would be complete without a discussion of these videos.

The first two develop what we might call “aesthetic critiques” of capitalism. That is, they create a kind of artistic depiction of and protest against capitalist production.

The first is from Charlie Chaplin’s classic film, “Modern Times.” This is among the most famous sequences in film history, and it’s still pretty hilarious (just watch Chaplin’s physical movements!). I couldn’t find one video that contained all the best parts, so watch these two back to back:

And a few minutes later, as the factory owner insists that the line go faster:

The next video also presents a more “verbal” critique of capitalism, this time in the form of sock puppets:

This video, of course, is oddly sophisticated (for sock puppets, anyway), so I thought I’d offer a bit of commentary. Kiki and Bubu are describing what they think is a transformation in the nature of capitalism (what they call “neoliberalism” at the beginning of the video). Traditional capitalist production, the argument goes, was organized as it is depicted in the Chaplin videos above. The workers’ activities are determined by the plant, and profit comes from taking the products produced in these factories and selling them. The “new economy” and neo-liberalism has transformed this situation. Very little work occurs in the manner depicted in the Chaplin videos. Instead, it’s now common to try to give workers at least the appearance of more autonomy. Bosses no longer control workers through overt monitoring and discipline (bosses in the “new economy” are less likely to monitor bathroom breaks, for instance, requiring that workers “clock out” in order to go to the restroom). Why not? Well, this traditional form of discipline and control is not always effective: Workers may comply but only “overtly” (and may continue resisting “internally”); moreover, workers can also figure out ways of subverting that control (foot dragging, playing dumb, etc.).

So what has replaced these older forms? Well, the idea now is to get workers to internalize the basic values of capitalism. You are to see yourself not as a worker under the capitalists’ thumb, but instead, as an “independent entrepreneur.” The goal is to convince you that you are your own boss, that you can control your own work, and so on. And if you fail–if you are unemployed–then this just means that you should make your own employment: Create a new start-up, for instance. In other words, according to predominant ideology in the present, it is up to the worker to remain “flexible,” to constantly be getting new training and new education to prepare for the “jobs of tomorrow,” and absent that, to create one’s own jobs or one’s own new inventions. The effect of this ideology, anyway, is that workers now internalize oversight: The boss doesn’t need to watch you, because you now watch yourself (you don’t take time off, do drugs, or drag your feet, because you believe you are working for yourself and must sacrifice just about everything to stay successful). Another consequence: the dissolution of worker solidarity. If we’re all our own boss, we all do our best simply to out-work and out-compete others, instead of unionizing and the like. Your failures then become wholly your own.

(By the way, these dynamics are now pretty clearly stated directly to you: Traditional orchestra jobs are increasingly rare, so now to have a music career, you have to become your own entrepreneur, thus undermining any sense of solidarity among musicians against those who control society).

So what is to be done? Well, for that, I leave you with another video. This one is by a group of Eastman students. They made it as part of a group project from last spring, and it offers a stylized (and stylish!) version of what a non-violent Marxist revolution entails.