The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

30 August 2018
by skzb

Contradictions of Capitalism vs the Bionic Eye

If you have heard about the bionic eye and don’t think it’s cool as hell, what are you even doing reading my blog?

Scientists are close, probably within ten years, of being able to cure blindness in a massive number of cases—that is, as I understand it, among everyone except those whose disability is caused by damage to the visual cortex.  How cool is that?  How wonderful, how human, how proud we should be to be a member of a species that can do this!

How was it done?  At a University.  At public expense.  I repeat, at public expense.  Tax money well spent indeed!

What will happen now?  Well, a couple of things I want to point out.

One of them is that people with loss of vision will be able to see—if they can afford it.  If not, sorry for ya.  That the technology was developed at public expense does not mean the public is entitled to its benefits.

Here’s another thing that will happen: Someone will develop an elegant solution to some of the remaining problems, such as the interface between the eye and the brain, or maybe something else—very likely at another University and at public expense.  He will patent it.  He will start a company to produce products based on it.  He will make incredible amounts of money, and official society will widely proclaim him a hero, especially when he donates a hundred units of his product to the poor in Rwanda.  And, as he checks his bank balance, he will loudly decry the waste of money going into institutions like Universities, because, he will say, taxation is theft.

And he won’t even be aware of the irony.

25 August 2018
by skzb

On Morality

I’m watching a Facebook discussion on taxation and health care, in which an arch-reactionary is attacking the concept that health care is a human right; specifically, attacking it on moral grounds. Yes, of course, your immediate reaction is to laugh, or perhaps roll your eyes. But for me, there is a significance to this that is important.
It is a reminder that morality does not exist above society, is not handed down from God, is not inherent in the air we breath or the water we drink, but rather is a product of society, of human interaction. Moral systems, moral codes, are invented by human beings, and in class society, any moral system serves the interests of a definite class. In feudal society, to oppose the king was immoral. As the bourgeoisie began to gain power and influence, they created their own morality, in which, eventually, resistance to the king was laudable. In the antebellum South, opposition to slavery was immoral; but to the abolitionist, who represented the future and the interests of Eastern capitalism, and to the slave, whose deepest interest was emancipation, slavery itself was immoral. Today, failure to respect private property is immoral.
Then there are those who attempt to place themselves above society, and either make judgments about the worth of various moral systems as if reflecting eternal values; or, worse, take themselves entirely out of the conflict and make observations about all moral systems as if they were all equal and we can pick one based on whim and it would be no better or worse than any other; or still worse, and still more common, that the value of a moral system can be determined by only examining the system itself, outside of its social and historical context.  These people, too, serve definite class interests.
I am willing to make judgments about certain actions as being good, or bad, or heroic, or vile. I do this based on the morality I have chosen, which is a morality that, to the best of my ability to understand, serves the interests of the working class. All ideologies in class society serve class interests, and that especially includes our sense of right and wrong. If you have not examined your morality, if you have not thought about where it comes from and what class interests it serves, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to do so.
Recommended reading: Trotsky: Their Morals and Ours

Trotksy Their Morals and Ours V 4


25 August 2018
by skzb

Differences and Commonalities

Sometimes I get the urge to just lay out my beliefs on a certain subject in as few words as I can manage.  This will not, of course, convince anyone of anything, as it consists of assertions rather than arguments.  But it sometimes helps other discussions to have the basics clear.  So here are my beliefs about differences and commonalities between and among people.

On differences:

I believe there are greater differences between individuals than between genders.

I believe there are greater differences between individuals than between races.

On commonalities:

I believe the poor and the working class of the world have more, and more fundamental, interests in common with each other than with the oppressors or the economically privileged in their particular geographical location.

I believe the poor and the working class of all races and genders have more, and more fundamental, interests in common with each other than with the oppressors or the economically privileged of their race and gender.

12 August 2018
by skzb

On Listening

Years ago, before many of you were born (good lord!), I would show up, every week, at the Minneapolis Unemployment Office to sell copies of the Bulletin (paper precursor to the World Socialist Web Site).  Many could not afford the .25, so “sales” tended to be poor, but more important than sales was that it provided an opportunity for political discussions with people collecting unemployment checks or seeing what work was available for them.  It was the early 70s, and the economy was struggling.

That was one of the places I learned about listening.  I also learned about listening critically.  In politics, it is vital to listen to the working class, but it is also vital that, when listening, you don’t turn off your brain and simply accept what you’re told at face value.

Slicked-hair guy came by.  I’d never seen him before, but from his age and hair-style I figured him for a Korean War veteran.  I was cautious, because some of those guys bought into the McCarthy thing, and occasionally got violent.  He didn’t get violent, but when I spoke to him about the conditions facing working people, he dismissed it.  “I’m just here cuz I got laid off.  I’ll be working again by next week.”  And off he’d go.

Two weeks later I’d see him again.  Same thing.

Two weeks later he’d be back, and this time, maybe, we’d talk a bit about how frustrating it was to be without a job, and how determined he was to work again, and he’d listen when I spoke about this being a systemic problem, not just a personal issue with him.  I’d learn that he’d been working for Whirl Air Flow, manufacturing parts for heating and cooling systems until the economy forced a reduction in new buildings, which led to them laying off half the work force.  I’d learn his name was Jeff, and he’d tell me a bit about his family.

Two weeks later, we’d talk in more detail, and he might agree with me on some things, disagree on others, but the bottom line was that he was determined to get back to work, and confident he would.  Any manufacturing job would do; he was sure he could learn whatever they needed in no time.

Two weeks later, he’d still be determined, but now he’d be scared.  However much something like unemployment is a general, social problem, it feels personal to everyone it hits.  Often, it feels like failure.  We’d talk about that.

Two weeks later he’d be terrified, miserable, and pretty much unable to talk about things.  He was now ready to take any sort of job he could find.  I’d get the feeling that he had to fight depression just to bring himself down to see what jobs were available, knowing that there would be nothing for him.

Two weeks later, he’d show up to collect his check, and there would be a fake smirk on his face, and a contrived jaunty step, and he’d say, “Hey, fuck it, man.  Who needs a job?  I’ll just collect unemployment.  This is great!  They pay me for doing nothing!  Ha ha!”

And then I’d go home and some reactionary bastard on the radio would talk about how people are unemployed because they don’t want to work, and for proof, he’d just spoken to someone like Jeff who loudly proclaimed how he’d rather collect unemployment than find work.

How many times did I see that pattern repeat?  I don’t know.  Scores, maybe hundreds.

So, yeah, listen to what is said.  But that doesn’t mean taking it at face value.

2 August 2018
by skzb

War and Capitalism and Stupidity and Aquariums

A friend of mine had an aquarium with a snail problem.  In case you didn’t know (I didn’t), snails in an aquarium can cause nitrogen build-up that can kill the fish.  She dealt with the snail problem and the nitrogen build-up.  A year later, she carelessly permitted the filters to become clogged with the waste products of the fish (yeah, fish poo).  This caused a nitrogen build-up that can kill fish.

As she was explaining this to me, you know what I didn’t say?  I didn’t say, “fish poo can’t be the cause of nitrogen build-up, and the proof is, there was nitrogen build up last year before there was a fish-poo problem.”  Because, you know, that would have been a very stupid thing to say.

Here’s another stupid thing to say: “Capitalism can’t be responsible for war, and the proof is, there was war before there was capitalism.”

Um, hello?  No one said capitalism invented war.  War, in the most general sense, is a product of scarcity.  (No, it is not  because “people are evil,” and it isn’t the product of religious differences, though certainly religious differences can be and often are used to incite a population into doing what it would druther not.)  But you know those other economic arrangements we monkeys came up with in order deal with the problem of scarcity? They don’t exist any more.  Today, we have capitalism.  And, you know what?  Capitalism, among many other benefits (as well, to be sure, as countless crimes), has improved the productivity of labor so much, there is no longer any need for scarcity.  And thus, there is no longer any need for war.

So why is there war?  Because capitalism is organized on the basis of nation-states, and because of the nature of the profit system, in which production is inextricably tied to amassing personal wealth.   Thus, production, through the medium of accumulation of personal wealth, is tied to control of markets, resources, labor, all of which are divided among nation-states.  The US is bombing civilians in Yemen so the Koch brothers and Jeff Bezos can add more zeroes to their bank accounts, and they are in the position where they can (and in some ways must) do that because of the capitalist mode of production.  The irony is not lost on me that it is as a result of scarcity that millions of people have had to die to keep a few bastards living in luxury.

The point is, the fact that we can eliminate scarcity doesn’t mean we have eliminated scarcity. And we cannot eliminate scarcity until we break once and for all the relationship between production and the amassing of personal wealth.  Once we’ve done that, there will no longer be scarcity, and thus, no longer war.  In the meantime, the reason we still have war, is because we still have capitalism.  Kapeesh?

(Just in passing, this provides the answer to those smug idiots who like to say, “Neener neener  under socialism who gets to decide who gets the rare things like vintage wine and caviar?”  Just ask yourself: would you go to war for it?  If not, shut up.  If so, you’re a bloody sociopath, and kindly go shoot yourself.   I’m not feeling patient right now.)

Anyway, the next time some guy tells me that capitalism can’t be responsible for war because there was war before there was capitalism, I’m going to look him dead in the eye and say, “Fish poo.”