November 25, 2008

Global Capital and Delocalization

“Ideological celebration of so-called globalization is in reality the swan song of our historical system.
Immanuel Wallerstein

In Epilogue II of War and Peace, which often goes unread, Tolstoy berates modern Historians who “ought to be studying not the manifestations of power but the causes which create power” if they are to provide a “description of the flux of humanity and of peoples”. Alas they act “like a deaf man answering questions no one has put to him.” This serious methodological defect highlighted by Tolstoy over a hundred and fifty years ago is still often committed not only by historians but by many of their colleagues in the social sciences. The results of such flawed cognitive processes dominate the field of Economic Development, Environmental Studies and what passes for analysis in the ubiquitous phenomenon of Globalization to name just three areas.

One illustration of the shortcomings of such models can be seen clearly in the efforts of The Group of Industrialized Countries, G 8, to deal with the ever spiraling level of poverty and deprivation on the African continent. The G 8 decided in 2005 to stem this downward cycle by lending its strong approval to the UK’s “Commission for Africa” plan spearheaded by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and the support of the PM Tony Blair in addition to the rather lukewarm support of the US administration. Fundamentally, the plan was based around the idea that a write off of the debt of the countries in question is the prescription for leading these countries out of poverty and dependency. Unfortunately, this scheme of increased money grants has been tried before with dire results.

The level of sincerity of the G8 nations is not questioned; their ability to differentiate between “manifestations” and “causes” is. There is no doubt that if an individual/country/institution has a lighter burden of financial liabilities, then they would be better of temporarily. But if the initial conditions that resulted in the debt in the first place have not been removed, then do we have any right to expect a different outcome the next time around? Of course not. Since it is safe to assume that neither countries nor individuals within countries will freely choose to live under inhumane conditions of deprivation, misery and squalor, then such outcomes are imposed on the unlucky recipients by a set of rules that demand such outcomes. Outcomes do not just happen; they are dictated by the prevailing social, economic and political structure; by the mode of production. Outcomes change only if we make changes to the world system.

Environmental studies is another field that is replete with policy suggestions that commit the fallacy that Tolstoy warned against. Despite the clear conclusions of large scale scientific studies that global ecological resources are under severe stress the global community and the United Nations proceed to work on peripheral issues . We have chosen to address symptoms instead of causes when we know that any meaningful relief demands a fundamental change in the conduct of economic, social and political affairs. Anything short of a radical change in the architecture of the world system is a palliative measure that would be doomed to fail and to only aggravate the problem that it was intended to resolve.

Whether it is global warming, the ever shrinking rain forest, desertification, endangered ocean fisheries, urbanization , water scarcity, pollution or declining biodiversity, just to name a few of the major environmental issues, it is clear that all of these problems are generated as a result of the global community’s unrestrained obsession with material accumulation. Again the solution is clear and obvious but the global community chooses to concentrate on “manifestations” instead of the real “cause”, economic growth. But to renounce growth and advocate redistribution is an unrealistic expectation from within the confines of the current paradigm that is constructed on the unrealistic assumptions of infinite growth and an economy that is not subject to any form of ecological constraints.

Globalization is yet another area whose analysis lacks distinction between symptom and cause. Recommendations and policy suggestions emphasize the superficial aspects of the phenomenon in question, proceed to describe in great detail its outer appearances, then conclude that globalization’s demands must always be accommodated since the process of globalization is inevitable and even irreversible. No attempt is made to explain the cause of globalization, its ultimate goal or whether that end is worthwhile. Globalization, to this group, is the order of the day, it can never do any harm and it must be unquestionably accommodated. A slight variation of the above admits to the possibility of generating unpleasant outcomes from the globalization process but believes that the structure is amenable to adjustment. It believes that reform could produce globalization with a human face thus creating a win-win solution for all stakeholders. This level of analysis is equally unsatisfactory since it does not delve into a meaningful analysis of the reason globalization arose, what is its reason d’ĂȘtre and whether it is amenable to reform.


Globalization in its entire facets, political, social, cultural and economic, is ultimately the result of a unique project due to the nature of capital accumulation on a world scale and the need for capital to dominate and homogenize. As production and consumption become alienated from their local surroundings, then this pursuit of global commodification will result in delocalization, desocialization and deterritorialization. Globalization results in less diversity, less control and a loss of identity. None of these unhealthy effects of globalization can be eliminated if globalization is maintained.

Change, if it is to come, will only occur when the victims decide to take action in order to vanquish the world system that has produced an environmentally unhealthy ecosystem and a humanly unjust society.

November 22, 2008

You Know When You See It....

Art is in the eye of the beholder

What is art? And, what is the artist responsibility, if any, to the community? Well, this is the general topic of discussion on this faculty-student retreat conference this weekend. Needless to say, we haven't reached a consensus. Like art, the discussions are all over the place. What I find fascinating is that there's such an effort to define art! I'm not sure this is necessary or even practical.

It's something similar to what Plato asked--and I'm only interested in his question not the answer he came up with. What is a good life? Likewise, art can obtain a definition through this route. I believe that some things that deal with the abstract, whereas opposing opinions may be equally valid (is this art or not?), there is no need to have a universal definition. It's not about the laws of physics where personal opinion has to conform to the evidence, the facts.

Therefore, I think the definition of art it's in the eye of the beholder. Don't tell me that there are certain standards that clearly delineate something as art. We all can think of pieces of art that do not appeal to our artistic sensibilities. But, stuff that we don't think it's worth a second look, it may be sold for lots of money. Soviet art--you know, the only true and valid artistic expression of the proletariat... In this case, the totalitarian state infused society (by force or by excluding other choices) with a certain artistic perspective.

I showed a few pictures I had on my computer (like the ones here) and asked whether they're art. Well, guess what, once I said those pictures were from well-known museums in New York, almost everyone said it was art! [in case you're wondering, the female model on the left is not in a museum!]

For me, art should be a personal definition. If society values something because it has a special meaning or whatever it does to inspire, provoke,challenge, etc., it's fine. I don't see a necessity to define something that doesn't seem to want to define the physical world. Since it means different things to different people, then let's leave it at that.

An interesting topic that can indeed be discussed and debated with some degree of a practical application is censorship. Should art ever be censored? If so, under what circumstances? It has and it is, but I believe censorship is a really bad idea. My group discussed the topic of censorship. What forms, if any, of censorship are acceptable?

Most of the panel agreed that some form of censorship is appropriate, but I think they expanded the definition of the word. Exclusion is not necessarily a ban. This morning at the buffet table, I filled my plate with lots of stuff but not of all many foods available. Taste and preference excluded a few items. I didn't exercise censorship though. The same principle applies to ideas, art, and other expressions.

Censorship means an attempt to stop or kill something seen as a threat or of corrupting influence. But, I think adult individuals should be in charge of themselves. I want to be trusted with all sorts of information, even exposed to ideas that contradict my own point of view. Being challenged is a learning experience and a necessity as a person grows up, matures. It's part of life. We should not be shielded by sensorship. This is a protection that we can live without--much like the protection the mafia offers.

I don't buy the argument that the devil is out there trying to destroy us. For those who believe in the devil, however, I'd say that they should also be ready to acquit those who commit crimes if they perps say, the devil made me do it. I do not doubt that an offensive expression can make people violent, but this isn't a good reason to limit free expression. The medicine turns out to be worse than the disease in this case.
Art, in particular, is a means to challenge, push the envelope. And, if this isn't allowed to be totally free, then in which other area of human endeavor can it take place?

George Orwell nailed it: if liberty is to mean anything, it means the right to tell people what they don't want to hear.
PS>I took the photos above at the MOMA and the Metropolitan.