April 12, 2010

Hail to Blogging


Today it’s more important than ever that we have independent, decentralized flows of information and commentary, and new ways to organize. The existing media and political organizations are corrupt and malicious, and seek only to stifle all public interest discourse and activism.
The one great promise of the internet which has so far been kept is how it would provide a new democratic space. It’s true that today this is the most capacious public space left in an otherwise increasingly enclosed world, and the only real bastion of participatory democracy left. Those of us who still value positive freedom, true political freedom, must cherish and exploit this great space while it exists, and fight to ensure that it continues to exist.
When we look back at the American Revolution today it’s striking how similar the atmosphere and modes of political communication were. Back then they had printing presses while today we have blogs and alt media sites. But the basic parallel of a decentralized dissemination of political ideas and calls to action, avidly devoured and debated, sparking a brush fire which riled itself up into a conflagration, is one we can look to with hope.
The basic literary form is the same – the pamphlet. Political blogging is simply old-style pamphleteering. The versatility and robustness of the form have proven themselves since Roman antiquity, and the pamphlets played a major role in preparing the Revolution in America. Common Sense, the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, the Four Letters on Interesting Subjects, and many others take their place as actions of history and weapons of freedom.
Meanwhile the MSM is corrupt and dishonest, and financially moribund. Ad revenues, already in a free fall for years, continue to plummet. Some are even asking if blogging is “winning” a fight against the corporate media. I don’t think bloggers in themselves can assault the establishment media. But the MSM is caught in a vise of its own design. It exalted the predatory corporate model and shilled for it, hoping to be a well-paid prostitute. But by its very nature corporatism has no gratitude or forbearance for sluggish performers. As it perceives its stranglehold to be secure, it won’t feel as much of a need for a pseudo-independent media to serve as a propaganda wing, if this is more expensive than using the government as a direct extortionist. Plus, it’s in the very nature of corporatism to liquidate every weak link by bleeding it even more vampirically. So it was predictable that as soon as advertiser-driven media found itself in any kind of financial difficulty, that advertisers would rush to lowball them. If I’m the ad buyer I figure, if you as a newspaper are charging too high an ad rate, I bet your competitor will offer me a lower one. You guys need me more than I need you.
So the MSM’s race to the streetwalking bottom hasn’t availed them. It’s only made their position worse and worse. (One of the few good pieces of Schadenfreude in this whole mess has been the poetic justice being visited upon the MSM. The way they’re an ongoing object lesson in how appeasement and prostitution don’t work.) Meanwhile the other grip of the vise is how, as the corporate media’s coverage is so obviously rank propaganda, the people no longer believe or value it, and become ever less willing to pay for it. (I sure never would.) Here’s where bloggers and the alternative media can come into the picture.
The blogs become more popular as, at their best, they offer the only outsider, non-corporatized point of view on the idiocies and crimes which afflict us. Here’s where the people can find the real discussion and the real truth-telling they will never get from the corrupted government, media, or academia. Here’s the first space where the power structure is completely collapsing, where power is falling back into the people’s hands as an unrefined glop, and where we have the chance in refine it anew for the sake of freedom and the public interest. That’s the essence of a revolutionary situation.
And there’s the sense in which, if blogs and alternative websites can maintain their integrity, refine this new people’s power and and cohere to a movement, that this could be a force fighting the powers that be, even something that could battle and “win”. So in that dialectical sense we may someday be able to talk about independent media winning against the corporate media.
But this is no freedom idyll. There are great threats on the horizon, and if our freedom isn’t vigilant today it may have no tomorrow. The most obvious threat to the integrity of the blogs is astroturfing. Today we survey the wreckage of the great dream of the “progressive” blogosphere, which arose as a veritable anti-Bush resistance movement. It claimed to oppose Republican ideas and policies, and many believed it. Today we know most of these bloggers were liars, that they were really partisan Democratic hacks who never opposed any Bush policy (corporatism, war, assault on civil liberties, secrecy, imperial presidency, just to name a few examples) but only that it was Republicans doing it.
We must take to heart the lesson of this disaster. The blogosphere cannot achieve its own emancipation so long as it remains ideologically beholden to any aspect of the existing system. By definition a blog that supports, for example, the Democratic party is not part of the blogosphere but an appendage of the corporate system trying to extend its hedges of enclosure into the blog space. This isn’t a picayune matter of “opinion”, but a structural feature of the age. One can be on the side of corporatism or of freedom, but never both, nor is any mediation possible.
Another threat is that the net sector may follow the usual processes of media consolidation and feudal calcification. Although what’s been called the “gated community” model of the online experience as envisioned by AOL, Compuserve and others was temporarily defeated in favor of a more freewheeling, decentralized setup, that’s no guarantee that it won’t still be the eventual victor. Every other sector ends up that way. Closely related to this is the critical net neutrality issue, where America just suffered a setback in a court decision which sided with the tollbooth tenders. According to what I read this was actually based on a technicality which can easily receive a technical fix (assuming this administration is willing to make such a fix, which I don’t assume; net neutrality’s yet another place where Obama has said all the right things, but we’ll see about the actions). But we should take it as a shot across the bow. Even if this decision was on a technicality, there are plenty of rogue corporatist courts which won’t need technicalities to serve as goons for the telecoms. (The scary thing with this issue is that, so far as I can see, we’re still in the hands of federal regulation and the noblesse oblige of companies like Google. I’m not sure how relocalization works where it comes to the activism of internet freedom.)
Then there’s the specter of censorship. Google’s recent (if belated) stance against Chinese censorship looks like a rare bright path in an otherwise blackening sky. If Yahoo and Microsooft went all in on collaboration with the Chinese government, there’s little reason to believe they wouldn’t do the same at home, as fascism becomes more overt. Thoroughgoing online censorship is already the order of the day in Australia. Meanwhile here in America we have Obama cadre and “supreme” court hopeful Cass Sunstein’s battle plan for the full castration of the unruly net. (Sunstein, a totalitarian by nature, has hated the internet since its inception. He instinctively hates anything that’s not dictated from the top down. He speaks in classical totalitarian code, claiming to want to use his “nudges” for the sake of democracy, when in practice they would always serve the corporate interest. It’s the same thing as with the “logic” of alleged speech activists who supported Citizens United.) The MSM are already enlisting in this war on the blogosphere.
That’s direct censorship. But there’s also the soft censorship of the economics of online access. Just as free speech in general is corrupted wherever monetized, so as the Depression sets in and fewer people can afford online access, the democratic promise of the internet will dissipate in the wind as it becomes a de facto gated community, rationed according to ability to pay. This makes it all the more critical that we maintain our libraries, which for many among the ever-expanding ranks of the poor provide the only opportunity to go online. By definition you can’t have a democracy where access in itself requires purchasing a ticket. (But libraries are being gutted as well.)
And then there’s the robustness of the internet itself. The system requires tremendous energy inputs, for its normal operations and infrastructure maintenance. As Peak Oil sets in and energy becomes ever more expensive, we’ll have yet another economic barrier to access, as well as instability in the physical system itself. Would fortresses of the rich, using their self-contained solar and wind systems, be able to maintain their own feudalized version of the web (I assume they wouldn’t be able to string wires from compound to compound)? Where would the spare parts come from? I suppose if things ever reach that extremity than the idea of democracy we’re talking about will be a moot point. But we can envision less complete manifestations of the problem. Just as we’ve already seen spot shortages of gasoline like in the Southeast in 2008, so we can expect to see increasing brownouts and blackouts as the system experiences problems with upkeep and delivery. Such blackouts will, of course, be manipulated for the benefit of the rich. (For example, the Giuliani administration in NYC was accused of browning out poor neighborhoods during the hottest times of summer to make sure there would be enough juice to run the air conditioners in rich neighborhoods.)
So there’s a rundown of the blogosphere’s democratic possibilities and the threats it faces. I know we don’t need more stuff to have to think about, but for the time being we’re unlikely to make progress on any point if we can’t discuss it online freely and in great numbers. So in that sense an issue like net neutrality is a preconditional issue.
In spite of the stumbles, in spite of the betrayals, we have a blogosphere growing in vibrancy and strength. If we want this growth to stay robust, this health to overflow, we’ll have to fight for that as well.
Here again we must achieve the vigilance of freedom. 

April 8, 2010

Constitution and the Process


Today we’re mired in the process mentality. It has brought us disasters like the health racketeering bill and a widespread willingness to accept the rogue “supreme” court’s Citizens United decision. Those who are actuated by principles of justice and the love of freedom have always insisted that core principles must guide all politics and judge all policy. The process ideology denies this, sometimes in principle, always in practice. Instead it will toss around the empty names of ideals while accepting any result no matter how offensive to the essence of the real ideals, as long as it can go through the motions of a spurious formality, the established “process”. If this is done by the book, then the book is judged only by whatever exalted word is scrawled on the cover, no matter how pornographic the contents inside.
So there’s an abyss between principled activism and fraudulent process-mongering.
This divide is not new, however. It goes back to the dawn of this country. In the struggle over the great question of constitution itself, the first time this rift opened up it gaped wide enough that it could bring forth a revolution.
As America entered the 1760s, as Britain began its attempt to impose a far more ponderous control over the lives of the colonies than it ever had hitherto, the question, What is the constitution?, loomed large.
The conventional view was that the constitution was co-extensive with existing institutions and mechanisms. In particular, the constitution was the body and action of Parliament itself. Principles like the right to life and liberty were considered part of this, but to exist in reality only insofar as they were embodied in institutional action. So in a sense, “liberty” was whatever the law said it was.
The loyalist Charles Inglis gave one of the best statements of this concept:

What is the constitution, that word so often used – so little understood – so much perverted? It is, as I conceive – that assemblage of laws, customs, and institutions which form the general system according to which the several powers of the state are distributed and their respective rights are secured to the different members of the community.

What did he mean by “perverted”? Although this viewpoint was the consensus in 1760, Inglis actually wrote that in 1776, in reply to Paine’s Common Sense, which was a fervent expression of the opposite concept: that the constitution was not the procedures which in theory animated the principles, but the principles in themselves. The procedures, including the very sovereignty of Britain over the colonies, were to be judged valid or invalid according to whether or not they enlivened the principles and enhanced their reality.
This idea was an outlier at first. Even aggressive patriots like James Otis tried at first to reconcile greater colonial independence with established constitutional ideas. But as the controversy intensified the evolution of thought accelerated, and the concept of constitution as fixed principle spread along with the other great political innovations of the day.
In 1768 Sam Adams wrote, “the constitution is fixed; it is from thence that the supreme legislative as well as the supreme executive derives its authority.” That same year William Hicks denied that statutes were part of the constitution as opposed to tools of it. The next year John Zubly made the strongest assertion yet, that Parliament “derives its authority and power from the constitution, and not the constitution from Parliament.” This was the most forceful direct contradiction of what had been gospel just a few years before (and of course still was to the British). “The constitution is permanent and the same”, while Parliament and its processes are just executors.
From then onward the schism became clear. It was the constitutionalism of fundamental principle vs. the constitutionalism of institutions and processes. The innovation was to separate principles and exalt them as the transcendent boundaries of government action, of the “process”. This was the true constitution, while the mechanism, the process, was degraded to a tool of this constitution, only to operate within its bounds.
(On a deeper level, this struggle of principle vs. process is a manifestation of one’s view of morality and legality in themselves. Does morality exist, or is it simply coequal with what’s legal? Do you believe the law is to serve man, or man the law? The former means the law must serve the principles which make us human, while the latter degrades the definition of “human” to being a slave of the process.)
So what’s our thesis? Just as the first time round constitutionalism and the action which springs from it had to shift from the process mentality in the 1760s to the fixed constitution of principle in the 70s, so today again freedom activists have to reclaim our constitution from the mire of “process”.     
Today we’re in a situation where the process mentality has largely engulfed the space previously dedicated to constitutional and public interest action. I’ve written about this before and don’t need to reprise the basics here.
I do want to explore this one more case study, however, since where it comes to the Citizens United case even usually good activists like the ACLU and commentators like Glenn Greenwald were capable of taking a radically pro-corporate, anti-public, anti-constitutional stance. That’s how pernicious the process mentality is among those beholden to it.
Just like with health care, with the SCOTUS case the dividing line is corporatism vs. constitution and democracy. That’s the defining struggle of our time, all issues are defined in light of it, and all political positions are positioned according to it, whether people are aware of that or not.
That’s why looking at anything from any kind of “process” point of view, like so many supposedly rational commentators have with the corporate speech case, is always wrong, and will always put you on the wrong side of things. It’s because the process itself has already been hijacked.
Yet when it counted Greenwald, sometimes able to see this big picture, chose to exalt “process” over every other value in shilling for this nonexistent “right” of racket speech.
(He also went to great lengths to analyze the decorum of the process.)
Shortly after the decision Linda Greenhouse analyzed the contradictions which mix you up when you’re beholden to process instead of principle. Greenwald thought this decision was good constitutional process? But what about jurisprudential processes: activism vs. restraint, and being consistent in how a particular court operates? As Greenhouse highlights here, the Roberts court contradicts itself in both of these process ways. Doesn’t Greenwald care about those processes? (Greenhouse wasn’t actually directly replying to Greenwald in her analysis, but I couldn’t help reading it as such a reply.)
Those of us who focus on outcomes, and are guided by principles, and who respect the true underlying constitution and not just the current process constitution, don’t get into such messes.
Even corporatist Stanley Fish wrote a good piece focusing on the process vs. the consequentialist legal philosophy, which basically means that equitable, common sense outcomes should be sought within the bounds of the law, and if a law is such that it refuses to allow such outcomes, this in itself compels the strong presumption that the law is unconstitutional.
“What is the 1st amendment for?” The process ideology without further ado ignores the question and blithely says, “The 1st amendment is the process of entities speaking, and the process of courts (and pundits) talking about and deciding what it is.” With Citizens United we see how this leads to the same outcome as the law which “majestically proclaims” that rich and poor alike are forbidden to sleep under a bridge. Here ExxonMobil or ADM are the equivalents of a penniless, despised radical. The noble ideal that the 1st amendment must most of all protect fringe, weak, despised speech, is now hijacked to claim that because the people have a well-founded fear that massively wealthy corporations will use this tremendous wealth to buy influence, that this qualifies as lonely, despised speech.
The basic ideological motion here is to go from the right to be let alone to the “right” to swing one’s fist anywhere you want, no matter whose face is there.
Although Fish didn’t delve into Revolutionary history here, we see how we’re back in the original debate, asking with James Otis whether an odious law passed by Parliament, odious and therefore constitutionally void, must nevertheless be obeyed. In other words, whether the constitution is the water in which the law swims, or whether the constitution is nothing more than the ephemeral current legislature and law itself. The Founding Fathers had no problem answering that on its face such a law need not and must not be obeyed, for it is no law. The constitution is about principle and consequences, not about process as such.
So in all this we have the process pseudo-principle and a phony process goal. The bogus “principle” is 1st amendment absolutism. But the 1st amendment has to have value toward something. It’s not sacrosanct in itself, especially when a rogue court decision like this would force us into the mode of “the constitution is a suicide pact”. The phony goal is just making sure that the legislature and courts process terms like “speech” punctiliously, that they hit all the right process notes, without reference to the principle (or lack thereof) underlying it, or the end result.
(Just to make a few points on how shabby is their alleged principle, and how incompetent their “process”. If you’re trying to speak with your unassisted voice, while right next to you someone shouts through a 100′ tall speaker he was able to buy (and didn’t even build himself), you’re being censored just as surely as if you were being censored for your content. Besides, if the “market” financed artificial amplification for him and none for you, it must have done that on the basis of content censorship anyway. Indeed, the “market”, and its rigged law, probably let him steal that money.
This highlights how, if anti-censorship is the ideal, then the 1st amendment as interpreted by this court and by process liberals like the ACLU and Greenwald does not achieve that ideal, is not sufficient for it, and as a practical measure ends up subverting it.
Regarding the rigors of “process” itself. Some defenders of corporate speech as such asked about the free speech rights of non-profit groups. They’re saying “How can a public interest group have free speech rights if Goldman Sachs doesn’t?”  I have to question the competence of anyone who finds it so hard to distinguish non-profit from for-profit organizations. Sure, not every example is 100% clear, but the basic divide is clear enough, and for all the controversies I’ve heard about the IRS, I’ve never heard that they have much of a problem making this distinction. So I have no idea what Greenwald’s talking about when he pretends not to know the difference, or that you can’t figure out the difference, or that it’s somehow unsafe to impose extra restrictions on sociopathic organizations. Or deny them the full protection of public interest protections.
Needless to say, a for-profit corporation is an explicit sociopath, operating not in the public interest but at best merely amid it, and in practice always against it once the corporation reaches a certain size. This sociopathy is the explicit concept of its existence. By antithesis, the constitution is explicitly the servant of the public interest. By definition, existentially, corporatism has the goal of dissolving the constitution. So again, to say that the constitution must protect an existential traitor to it proposes to turn it into a suicide pact.
By their own congenital basis and their own testimony as to their goal, for-profit corporations are anti-social and anti-constitutional. So clearly, if we’re to tolerate their existence at all, we must allow them to exist only under very tight restrictions and the severe oversight of freedom’s vigilance.)
The best we can say of this mindset is that in mustering pseudo-principles it dreams of the good old days. It’s nostalgic for the heyday of the Warren court, for when the amendment procedure functioned sometimes for the public good, for when elections might sometimes offer real choices and not have been subject to outright theft. (Ironically, Citizens United only further tightens the spiral into the abyss. But it sure is punctilious “process”.) But this is no longer our democratic elections, the people’s SCOTUS, the people’s Congress, the people’s executive; all are rogues. But the process mentality is complacent about the names and the formalities. In order to cover up its bankruptcy of principle and moral shame it makes a fetish of the process, and in this way tries to redeem the simulacrum of everything it threw away.
The process ideology can only trap us in a vicious circle. Something like Citizens United only further corrupts the election process to keep government in the stranglehold of criminals, who further turn the whole system into kleptocracy, while every step of the way the process liberals support the intensifying vice as they implicitly applaud the results even as they often nominally decry them. They may shed crocodile tears, they may rend themselves in lamentations, but wherever real reformers declare that the berserk process must be arrested, even the best of the process liberals side with the process. Never mind that something like Citizens United promises more war, more torture, more assault on civil liberties, and greater assaults on true free speech. To the process freaks, it’s simply incomprehensible that the name and the form and the process “free speech” could be hijacked away from the real principle and the real essence.
[To the extent that these process rogues style themselves “free speech” absolutists, as if they can conjure up a coherent principle there, we see a prime example of how anyone with a special interest is unreliable for the real freedom struggle. I call them myopics. A myopic may sometimes or even usually be able to see the big picture. A generally good principle like free speech may usually lead to the right positions on civil liberties, torture, war, many other things. But it’s a convoluted path, because it derives not from an objective view of the broad anti-corporate struggle, but from the myopic path of some subjective parochial “absolute”.
As I said, under optimal conditions this can usually be alright, but under the adverse conditions of a kleptocracy and renegade structures like this SCOTUS, it forces one inexorably into self-corrupting “process” betrayals if one is to be able to hold onto the myopic principle under those conditions at all.
Only that can lead a good freedom activist into such a perverse result as supporting the Citizens United decision. In the end any myopic, however upstanding when the weather’s fair, is likely to double-cross any bigger cause, no matter how much he claims to support it. The way the whole menagerie of “progressives” happily sold out single payer and then even the meager “public option” crumb (and got nothing in return) will probably go down as the most complete self-collapse, the most thorough scouring of the deepest abyss of spiritual decrepitude and moral cowardice, our age will have the misfortune to experience.]
I should stipulate that the original “process” ideologues of the 1760s were still motivated mostly by principle. Even John Adams originally held that the constitution was “a frame, a scheme, a system, a combination of powers”. Today, on the other hand, they’re almost all mercenary corporatists just seeking the most profitable outcome. (I chose to focus on Greenwald precisely because although he’s the rare exception who is not a shill, when he lapses into process mode he still ends up being just as incoherent and self-defeating.)
[Just to chuck in one more example of process, a truly disgusting one. (I’ve had this note sitting around since the Bernanke hearings waiting to be used somewhere.) In voting for cloture even though he intended to vote “No” on confirmation, Al Franken put on a real clinic in process taken to the level of insanity. According to his explanation, Franken’s principle isn’t that heads must roll, that Bernanke must be punished for his monumental screwups, that he should be punished as one of history’s worst economic criminals, or that he should even be prevented from continuing his crimes. No, his “principle” is the sanctity of the process, without reference to any other principle or goal, utterly unmoored from any moral context. (We can say the same of those who still want to do away with the filibuster on “democratic process” grounds even though we know this Senate will never again pass good legislation, only bad, and so from here on the best we can hope for is gridlock.) Prozess uber Alles.
In this he’s typical of politicians and everyone involved with politics, including the MSM.]
We freedom activists, we creatures of principle, must redeem constitutionalism from its relapse into “process”, and the constitution from its Babylonian captivity at the corporate royal court, where it’s painted and laden with garish jewels to dance for the lascivious pleasure of Wall Street and Washington.
Only by combining direct, on-the-ground democracy, freedom vigilance, and constitutional theory as based on avowed principle, with laws odious to this principle being void in the extreme sense, can we build a coherent, just new society.