The Dream Café

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

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.”

31 July 2018
by skzb

Why Can’t the US turn into Scandinavia?

“The Russian bourgeois dreamed of an agrarian evolution on the French plan, or the Danish, or the American – anything you want, only not the Russian. He neglected, however, to supply himself in good season with a French history or an American social structure.”  Trotsky—History of the Russian Revolution

The issue of “modified capitalism” or “a mix of systems” or “Scandinavian style capitalism” has been coming up a great deal on social media as the capitalist juggernaut crushes more and more people and the idea of revolution seems less far-fetched and therefore, to certain social layers, more terrifying.  I’ve added a section to my sidebar post, “Answers to a Few Things I’m Tired of Hearing,” (point #20) , but it’s coming up so often now that I’ve decided to talk about it here.  This is mostly a copy of what I put there, with some expansions.

Of course it is tempting to point and say, “They do it there, why can’t we do it here?”  Like all easy answers to difficult questions, it makes intuitive sense, but falls apart upon examination.  Before I get into methodological problems, let’s look at it historically for a moment.

There is no question that in certain countries the working class, through terrible struggle and through the creation of labor parties, was able to win significant and important concessions from capital that have made those societies far more humane.  This was a product of the post WWII conditions, that is, a time when capitalism, having gone through this slaughter, and massive destruction of property, had given itself a certain amount of flexibility.  At the same time, the bourgeoisie was absolutely terrified of the social revolutions that were threatening throughout Europe (and Asia).  In general, expressing it in the form of an equation, we get something like this:

Flexibility in capitalism + fear of social revolution = the possibility of reform.

That is pretty much what happened in the Scandinavian countries (as well as England, Belgium, &c)  after WW II.  But then, what about the US?  Alas, thanks above all to the betrayals of the Stalinists in the US Communist Party, the same upsurge in the US (1946-48 strike wave, see also the Progressive Party ), was not able to produce a political arm, which has crippled the ability of the US working class to win similar concessions (although it still did win some: see medicaid, medicare,  &c).  But here’s what I want to emphasize: The idea of doing so now, when capitalism has so little flexibility that it is taking away every tiny thing once gained, and is going so far as to turn police forces into militarized terrorist gangs, and is attacking democracy on every front, is utterly absurd.  And if you believe the best way forward is to recreate those post-war conditions, in other words, to have a third world war (nuclear this time) merely so capitalism can continue its bloodbath while being a bit gentler in the more privileged countries, I’m going to have to fight you on that.

Moreover, capitalism is international.  Financial exchanges, capital investments, and deals for new factories fly across borders that, after all, are only intended to keep the working class in place, not the elite, and certainly not the elite’s money.   I won’t say that a butterfly in New Mexico can cause a hurricane in China, but we’ve seen that a bank failure in Thailand can cause a stock market crash in New York.  And as these crises increase in frequency and severity, we know who is asked to pay for them.  Hint: It isn’t the capitalists.   Not here, not in Thailand, and not in Iceland.

Capitalism is rattling itself apart like a machine whose control mechanism has broken.  Rather than the Scandinavian countries being a model for what the US should do, the US is a predictor of what will inevitably happen there.  We can already see it in the virulent anti-immigrant stances that are more and more common there (and in Australia).   Such reactionary positions are not independent of attacks on the working class domestically, but are part of the same process.  In other words, the reformists in most of those countries have either lost power, or are moving sharply to the right.  The others will follow because they must.  If capitalism is to be preserved, it must be preserved on the backs of the working class; the working class, on the other hand, has no way to protect what it has won, or, in this country, to win basic human rights like healthcare, without a program that rejects the idea that capitalism has a right to exist.  However much you’d rather it were otherwise, those are our choices: the needs of the masses, or the free market.

What I want to emphasize, though, is the method behind this confusion: in part, it comes from looking at surface phenomena and accepting them, without digging deeper into causes.  But another part comes from the same methodological flaw that produces right Libertarianism: the idea that the way forward involves thinking up what sort of society you’d like to live in, then convincing enough people that this would be a good idea that it is (somehow) implemented.   I hope and believe that, someday, this can happen—that humanity will achieve a level of cooperation and a height of intellectual power that we will be able to plan out our own future development.  But we’re not there yet.  Now we’re where history has placed us, and we have to move forward from here as best we can, and that means, among other things, a study of history, and an effort to learn its objective laws.  That is where to begin, not with picturing an ideal society, but with where are we, how did we get here, what are our options, and what do we need?  Turning the US into another Scandinavia is simply not on the table.

One last point, because it’s somewhat related: for those who claim the Scandinavian countries are socialist.  Uh, no.  They do not have public ownership of production, state power in the hands of the working class, or state monopoly on trade—and those are only the foundations upon which socialism can be built, not even addressing distribution. Socialism does not mean capitalism that isn’t quite as brutal as it is elsewhere.  It is a sign of the poverty of political understanding in the US, and additionally a sign of the barbarity of the US ruling class, that anyone could look at those countries and consider them socialist.  As a side note, I have yet to meet anyone from Sweden or Norway or Iceland or Denmark or Finland who claims to live in a socialist country.

30 July 2018
by skzb

A Serious Post About Puns—No really

Years ago, a close friend remarked, “I don’t like puns.”

I was stunned.  Not that there could be someone who doesn’t like puns, but that such a person could be a close friend. I mean, I’m me. Like pretty much everyone who loves language, I can’t help but be aware of the acoustic properties of words.  And this will inevitably cause connections in my head between words, which will of course lead to connections between the ideas those words carry with them, and sometimes that connection will take the form of a line of a song (or, god help you all, a poem), or a nice sentence, but very often it will take the form of a pun.  This word sounds like that word, and here is how their subject matter can connect.  What I mean is, on a certain level, I cannot help but be aware of word play, and when one comes to mind that passes my not-terribly-high standards of humor, I’m inclined to let it out.  Therefore, I was amazed that someone could actually like me but not like puns.

Then she went on, and the proverbial light bulb went on in my head.

“It’s just that sometimes I have conversations with people and it seems like they aren’t interested in what I’m saying, they’re just waiting for the next opportunity to make a pun.”

Oh.  Ouch.  Yeah.

How can I argue?  I’ve not only done it, but I realized, as she spoke, that I’d been irritated by the same thing.

This does not, in my opinion, mean, “stop making puns,” it means, “be aware of the context.”  If someone is talking about something that matters to him or her, that is actually important and meaningful, or even a subject that person is interested in and believes you are too, turning it into an opportunity for humor can be rude, disrespectful, hurtful. Of course, it isn’t easy, because sometimes it can be exactly perfect in the sense of breaking the tension in an agreeable way.  That’s the thing about interactions with us monkeys: nothing is simple, nothing is easy.

But, anyway, this is something for those of us whose minds work that way to think about.

25 July 2018
by skzb

The Perfect Place

I’ve mentioned before about how much of my career has been defined by extraordinary luck.  I was just reflecting on this again.

As a writer, one dreams of awards, of #1 NYT bestsellers, of the Hollywood money copter appearing and dumping barrels of cash.  Nice enough fantasies, but some things—I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to supply the specifics—are better left as fantasies.

For reasons I don’t feel like going into right now, I’ve recently been in touch with a number of other writers, many of whom are significantly more successful than I am.  They have layers between them and the rest of the world.  They need these layers so they aren’t bothered so much they can’t do their work.  I don’t need layers.  My email address is fairly public, I’m active on my Facebook page and Twitter (and here) and interact with people as much as I feel like.  I don’t have to buffer myself.  And, with all of that, I make a living.  Thanks to the level of success I’ve had (and to Patreon, and the amazing people who’ve been kind enough to kick in), I’m caught up on rent, I can buy groceries and tobacco, and I can even take vacations once in a while.  Would I like to be able to buy a Tesla?  Sure.  But it would come with all sorts of things I don’t want, things that would be bad for me.  In the worst case, I’d have to isolate myself at conventions.  That would suck.

I’ve been fighting off mild depression for the last year.  Shit happens, I’ll get over it.  But it helps to remind myself that, with one thing and another, I have stumbled into the perfect place.  I can write here, and enjoy the people and things I love while doing it.  Overall, I’m one lucky son of a bitch.

20 July 2018
by skzb

Defending a President I Hate

To be clear before we start, in case there’s anyone here who doesn’t know it, I did not vote for Hillary Clinton, and I am not a fan of, well, anything she’s done since she was elected. She was so universally despised that she nearly lost an election to Donald Trump for god’s sake, and nothing since she’s taken office has made me think she should be more popular.


The attacks on her from the extreme right have gotten so absurd, that I just have to say something. I’m not talking about Republican accusations of treason for her meeting with Kim Jong-un; anyone with half a brain knew that was coming. It’s other things.

One thing that makes me rub my eyes is immigration. What the hell do the Republicans want? She is already continuing Obama’s mass deportations (as well, of course, as the slaughter in Yemen and the bombing in Syria to make sure of a growing supply of refugees to abuse and deport), and even continuing his massive deportation of children. She is on pace to break his record of most deportations of any administration in history.  Isn’t that enough?  Will the Republicans not be satisfied until concentration camps are set up? Sheesh.

Of course, the Republicans are silent about the worst aspects of her presidency: her continuing Obama’s policies of cuts to SNAP benefits, her support of police militarization, her “get tough” talk against Russia and China (along with increasing the US supply of nuclear weapons!), her continuing drone killings of non-combatants, her failure to do anything about climate change, constantly pushing for legislation that will benefit no one but Wall Street, her headlong retreats before the religious right, &c &c. Those things the Republicans like, so they just ignore them like good little hypocrites.

What broke it for me was the accusation, again, of treason (do you guys even realize that there is no such thing as treason absent a foreign power being a legally defined enemy, which pretty much means a war?  No, of course not; why would Republicans bother learning about the law before making accusations?) for what happened in her meeting in Copenhagen with President Rivlin of Israel. I mean, come on. Did Israel interfere in the US elections, as the Republicans keep yammering about, and as the various intelligence services say they did? No doubt they did—as did thirty or forty other countries, all working for their own agendas, as happens in international politics. Chances are, Putin (Vladimir Putin, president of Russia) interfered just as much on behalf of Trump. But if Trump had won—as nearly happened—I don’t think we’d have seen the Democrats complaining about his “interference.” And, seriously, when President Clinton (or “President Hillary” as Fox News has started calling her, using the thin justification that there was recently another President Clinton) implied that she didn’t necessarily believe the report of the intelligence services, well, it was like every Republican Senator was about to have his head explode. I mean, did you hear Paul Ryan, during his reelection campaign? I thought he’d have a coronary right there. *scream scream* treason *scream scream* anti-American *scream scream* bought and paid for by Israel *scream scream*.   Here is a place where I have to agree with my Democratic friends who have been doing such a good job of pointing out the history of the US intelligence services.  If it’s treason to mistrust everything said by the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI, then treason has just been defined as, “having a minimal amount of common sense.”

Anyway, sorry for the rant. No, I do not support President Clinton. But I can’t watch this absurd Republican hypocrisy without saying something.