Though floods are considered natural disasters, most of the damage they cause is related to human activity. Like earthquakes, floods rarely posed many risks to people before human civilization developed. This makes them an excellent indicator of large-scale social problems- a society’s preparation and response to a flood can reveal much about both its physical and its information infrastructure. From word-of-mouth warning networks to hydroelectric dams, the social fiber of a country or region plays an enormous role in the control of floods’ effects. Therefore, in countries where floods have considerably larger effects, an understanding of their development is essential to a full understanding of the geographic effects of the floods. Disparities in the responses of different countries in the same region reveal not just inequities in each country’s own infrastructure, but difficulties in regional coordination and communication concerning floods. Just as problems in local villages’ responses to flooding can better be explained in the context of national or regional failures, so too can supranational complications deepen a comprehension of national failures. In particular, problems with flood management reveal broader international difficulties with surface water management- an understanding of which is incomplete without taking the global phenomenon of climate change into account. In addition to the geophysical and hydrological shifts brought about by climate change, more local problems with agriculture and water management can be explained by regional policy (or lack thereof) coordinated by large institutions like the International Monetary Fund. The role that such institutions play in shaping policy from an international down to a local level highlights the unevenness of that policy and its subsequent effects. All of these factors had a role to play in shaping the events surrounding the 2009 West African floods. This paper will examine the role of infrastructure and institutions in shaping policies and procedures of flood preparation in some of these countries. Comparisons will be made both between different countries in the region, and between the least developed countries and more developed countries elsewhere in the world. In making these comparisons, particular attention will be paid to ecological management. Due to these inequalities, the conceptual model of uneven development offers a tremendous amount of insight into the social context of the floods.

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author’s note: this was the first question on my midterm for History of Socialism & Communism.  I think it answered the question, but may not be a suitable introduction to Marx’s thought for its length.

Explaining the philosophy of Karl Marx requires a few definitions for clarity’s sake. The dialectic plays a central role in Marx’s philosophy and conception of society, and so requires a thorough elucidation. Beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers, the dialectical process of discovering truth entails a combination of reasoning and discussion to understand ideas. The dialectic defines itself through process and dynamism, and looking at the world dialectically entails accepting that objects, institutions, and ideas are constantly in the process of changing themselves and others. The interplay between multiple dynamic entities is what gives dialectics their character. To use an example from nature, co-evolutionary processes could be described as dialectical- the symbiosis that develops between bees and the flowers that rely on them for pollination illustrates this phenomenon quite well. As the flowers more well-adapted to bee pollination proliferate, bees that are attracted to those flowers gain an evolutionary advantage, and the process continues. Marx also gave social classes an extremely important position in his historical analysis. The conventional distinctions between lower, middle, and upper classes appear in Marx’s parlance in modified forms as the proletariat, petit-bourgeoisie, and bourgeoisie, with the first and last taking precedence. The proletariat is the great mass of society, the industrial workers, those who provide basic services, and generally those who own little or no property. The bourgeoisie owns the overwhelming majority of property in capitalist society- the factories, large swaths of land, and corporations- and also controls most of the capital process. The petit-bourgoisie are the lesser property-owners, the shopkeepers, small landlords, and so on. Their property is distinguished from that of the bourgeoisie in that theirs is largely non-productive; it would be difficult to characterize a factory owner as not belonging to the bourgeoisie proper. The conflict between these classes will be further explicated later on. Materialism is Marx’s method of inquiry, rejecting that reality is shaped by supernatural or immaterial forces. Marx rejected Plato’s notion that an object must exist as an idea before it can exist in physical reality, and Hegel’s conception of reality as a single idea, or “absolute idealism.” Marx argued that the only genuinely scientific lens through which to view the world necessarily rejected the immaterial.

At the central place of the totality that is human life, Marx placed the economic conditions of society. Since these conditions bear the responsibility for creating and maintaining the conditions under which all other aspects of society (art, music, philosophy, daily life) can continue to exist, economic conditions play the largest role in this totality. In order for a person to begin to discuss ideas or culture, that person must be relatively assured of some kind of social stability. This sense of stability includes food to eat, security in health, and a space in which one can feel welcome, among others- and all of these necessary conditions are created by the economic activity of a particular society. This is not to say, however, that economic activity determines the total result of philosophy or culture. It creates the space in which these other activities conduct themselves, and it certainly does have a strong influence on their character, but to say the influence is complete or runs purely in one direction is to ignore the role of the dialectic in Marx’s thought. “…what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality,” Marx wrote in Capital. Since those participating in economic activity all have imaginations to call their own, they may dream up new alternatives to existing modes and conditions of production. Given that culture has a strong impact on an individual’s imagination, we see the basis for the dialectic between ideas and production.

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It’s easy to claim that the economic crisis did a better job deconstructing the ideology of privatization than the work of any economist. After all, we saw the damage done, we understand that regulation is necessary, that markets can’t always provide the best good for everyone, that the government neglected its duty. It’s almost conventional wisdom at this point. But does that really describe the assessment of the situation?

David Harvey observed that “…if you say neo-liberalism is about consolidation of class power… we’re seeing the further consolidation of it right now, rather than the lessening of it.” Neoliberalism as a class project is alive and well, as the bailouts indicate. As far as ideology is concerned, not much more progress is being made.

Of course, on the right, the relentless critics are saying once again that poor people caused the housing crash through the Community Reinvestment Act, that “we can’t spend our way out of a recession,” that we should abolish the Federal Reserve, and all other manner of ruthlessly pro-rich policy. But it’s not them I’m really concerned with, because they count few actual economists and writers among their number (it’s mostly politicians and TV personalities). Besides, they’d be saying this regardless of the state of the economy- the crisis has only affected their volume.

The mainstream writing about the economic crisis now carries some appeals to responsibly (and perhaps, regulation), but the primary criticism of CDOs and securitization is that the SEC rated the resulting financial innovations improperly, causing investors to be unaware of what exactly they were buying. Though the assessment is undoubtedly accurate, the force driving it is still a reliance on the neoliberal favorite of rational choice theory. If investors knew what they were really getting, they never would have bought these derivatives. The criticism is not on the fictitious nature of the securities, merely the lack of information surrounding them.

Additionally, some of the same economists who were calling for globalization and unfettered free trade now seemingly seeing the error of their ways. “No one has addressed the ‘too big to fail’ problem that was at the core of the crisis. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and a host of hedge funds have already gone back to their old ways of making money, and have used their resources to hire legions of lobbyists to block new regulation they don’t like. Now that the stark fear of last winter has passed, so too has the popular anger that’s necessary to overcome their behind-the-scenes clout,” Francis Fukuyama wrote late last year. It’s a remarkably accurate assessment, but unfortunately Fukuyama runs exactly the wrong way with it and uses it as prima facie evidence to insist that “history is still over.” Capitalism is the best system, still the only game in town- we simply went about it in the wrong way.

Fareed Zakaria wrote in 2002 that the global economy was “teflon,” that globalization was in everyone’s interests, that unfettered trade of commodities and capital was the key for prosperity. Now he’s saying that government policy to prop up businesses continues to distort the market. The implicit assumption here being, of course, that an undistorted market will provide for everyone more equitably. Additionally, he claims the central problem with healthcare is not that millions are uninsured, but that we have a system that encourages “overconsumption.”

President Obama is calling for a spending freeze. The Democrats argue that the public option’s greatest benefit is not its ability to provide health insurance to people, but that through competition it will keep private insurance honest. Everyone’s still talking about helping the economy instead of helping people directly. We’re supposed to place trust in private for-profit entities instead of the state or independent social networks. The assumption that the state should only become involved in matters when and where markets fail goes largely unchallenged (the “state of the gaps,” if you will), despite calls for greater regulation and spending.

It’s quite disconcerting to see these ideas being reconstituted so quickly after the crisis, and the ideological capitulation that comes with the insistence that “there is no alternative” to capitalism is both irresponsible and intellectually bankrupt. We can reclaim public discourse from the neoliberal trap by redefining the terms of the argument. We can ask questions like “what is an economy for?” and “how will capitalism continue to sustain the growth it needs to survive?”, questions which the pervasive ideology of privatization has a considerable deal of trouble answering. The key is not to let the mainstream vocabulary and ideology limit our imaginations.

Resurgent Hegemony

Near-future video games and the construction of ideology

Author’s note: I was inspired to write this after a conversation with a few friends of mine in which they discussed Blackwater and other PMCs in an identical manner to the video game Army of Two. I also feel that critical theory needs to be applied to video games, as they are just as much a part of our culture as films and TV shows.

Disclaimer: I love shooters too.

In the third-person shooter Army of Two, two mercenaries working for a private military company uncover and stop a plot by their company to privatize and take over the US military. After this, what do they decide to do? They found their own PMC. The game manages to point out the dangers of mercenary armies while simultaneously glamorizing them, an example of what Robert Pfaller calls “interpassivity.” The game performs the player’s outrage at the crimes of mercenary work for them, allowing the player to continue participating without any critical engagement. Though games like these are lauded as morally complex and realistic, they still gloss over the structural problems surrounding privatization and military contractors.

Perhaps no person has done as much for the military-industrial complex as Tom Clancy. The popularization of high-tech military strategy and tactics owes a great debt to the prolific author. His work typically features a small team of highly experienced specialists applying a technocratic solution to a military problem- an unsurprisingly great recipe for a shooter. Consequently, over 40 video games have been based on his work or carry his name in some form. In particular, the Rainbow Six series of games has laid the groundwork for incredibly popular games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which feature small squads fighting in decisive parts of huge conflicts.

Invariably, the challengers to western liberal democracy in these games are linked in some way with the past and have scarcely plausible motivations. Modern Warfare 2 has “ultranationalists” seizing control of Russia and invading the West through a campaign of both conventional warfare and terrorism. Their motivations are neither clearly explained nor believable, but I’m not sure this is merely the result of bad writing. It captures Mark Fisher’s “‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” When we have reached, as Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed, the “end of history,” how could a challenger to it be anything but implausible?

Needless to say, the defeat of these foes has nothing to do with ordinary people (other than that their Security And Freedom Are Completely Assured) and completely marginalizes countries in the periphery (which do nothing but produce terrorists, it seems). Though it’s ostensibly some neologism for NATO (or NATO itself) that Fights The Good Fight against Those Dastardly Foes, it’s plain that the US is running the show. Despite the claims of video game magazines that these near-future games are morally challenging, their overall plots lack any sort of the critical engagement that is a necessary condition for truly examining war and society.

As America’s empire has declined, these games, depicting America reclaiming its rightful place as protector through war, have drastically risen in popularity. Of course, semi-nationalist video games depicting a heroic America have been around for decades, but games like Modern Warfare 2 and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon are of a different breed. As video games have become more advanced in the last decade, they have become less self-aware. Older video games, if for no other reason than graphical limitations, were far more cognizant of the limits of their medium. With contemporary games, lots of the buzz surrounding them focuses on their gritty realism- they are more direct in reinforcing ideology because they are perceived to be more in step with the real world. These video games create an insidious form of praxis by making the player an active participant; a dialectic between the game’s ideology and the player’s actions ensues. When paired with hegemonic ideology, the results, though not yet fully realized, are undoubtedly startling.

A rather long-winded response

A response to a question I received on Tumblr, which was “Isn’t there an argument that advertising is a higher form of art?”

This is a very interesting question! In order to answer it properly, I have to draw on my background as a former art student and my current interest in philosophy and political economy. Having taken three semesters of art history but no formal aesthetics or media studies classes, I must piece together an answer from my basic familiarity with contemporary art and understanding of postmodernism and critical theory. Let me say from the outset that both “high” and “low” art have a lot to tell us about society. Continue reading

Deconstructing Neoliberalism, part I

note: This is the first in a series of posts, the idea for which I mentioned here. I am certain Sach’s arguments have been addressed by writers and thinkers far better than myself. However, I am writing this to deepen my own understanding of ideas to which I am relatively new. I hope it will also allow me to more readily address the points of mainstream economists.

The book jacket gives us the first indication of Sachs’ direction, and a very clear picture of the framework he’s using.

“Ultimately, The End of Poverty leaves readers with an understanding, not just of how grave the problem of poverty is but how solvable it is- and why making the necessary effort is a matter of both moral obligation and strategic self-interest of the rich countries.”

Sachs here is trying to sell his agenda to both the humanists and the capitalists alike, and judging by his stature and influence, he has been incredibly successful. He has received accolades for his pragmatism, though his desire to reconcile capitalist imperatives with moral ones smacks of utopian idealism. Žižek noted the hypocrisy of the modern capitalists: they accuse communists of being too utopian, while their ideals- universal healthcare, voting rights, decent living standards (all within a capitalist system of accumulation)- are every bit as utopian as those of Marx and Engels. Sachs’ focus, however, is on the “strategic self-interest,” of rich countries, indicating the plans he has for them.

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The pitfall of many amateur historians is to try and identify a “golden age” in the past, one that has supposedly universal or simply superior values and qualities to the present. To recognize the folly of this inquiry is merely to recognize that all societies have flaws, and the only way to fix these flaws is to focus on the future. By seeking to emulate the presumed benefits and structure of a past cvilization, a society could easily fall prey to the same flaws that past civlization had. The past might shape perception of current events, but only in events continuing into the present and future can people and governments act meaningfully. The past only truly matters, from a political standpoint, in is capacity to affect the future. Society should therefore pay attention to it, but all policy it sets should be prospective. Continue reading