COVID Reaction: The Triumph of Ethics

Lots of folks have been wondering if the COVID-19 pandemic carries any legitimately hopeful meanings. Here at TCT, we think there’s at least one, and that it’s a doozy. Permit us to explain.

In his classic (though admittedly pretty hard-to-read) book, The Great Transformation, the Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi argued that, despite official doctrine, no sane person really believes that human beings and natural objects are actually commodities, actually things that can be bought and sold, up to infinifty or down to zero, without regard to underlying physical and ethical realities.

Under certain conditions, Polanyi argued, certain groups of people can get away with pretending that land and labor really are merely salable things. But not always and not forever. When things get over- or under-heated, as they inevitably do, capitalist theory falls away, as people sense the truth of what Polanyi called, on page 76 of The Great Tranformation, “the commodity fiction”:

Now, one of Polanyi’s main subordinate hypotheses was that, despite the efforts of TPTB, society — meaning the democratic majority — would often be forced to defend itself against the commodity fiction by creating “welfare” policies based on the reality that land, labor, and money are not, in fact, infinitely salable quanta, but rather precious, ethically primary, qualitative realities of their own.

With this in mind, TCT would like to suggest that social distancing is, among many other things, a very major proof of the Polanyian “self-protection of society.”

As the most hardcore and/or naive capitalists among us are trying to point out, we could quite easily go back to letting the commodity fiction organize our everyday affairs. Doing so would undoubtedly be very good for capitalism.

But we are instead doing something else, aren’t we?

Why is that?

It is because we are choosing human life and human ethics over market valuations.

Just as Karl Polanyi predicted we would.

And, the news might be even better than this. We seem to be doing this astounding thing with little serious resistance. This may speak to the gradual improvement of our culture, in Polanyian and later culture-war terms.

We are voting with our feet, marching in the direction of the basic pragmatic point that, ultimately, in the real world, economic “markets,” as some have said, can be great servants, but are always, at the end of the day, terrible masters.

A big question now is whether we will somehow become aware of what we are, in fact, doing, and then use our new level of self-clarity to keeping stepping toward the other kinds of self-defenses we pretty obviously need to enact against our other impending realities, which promise to make COVID-19 look like, ahem, a tea party.

The Land of Private-Sector Boondoggles

The New York Time Magazine this week carries a brief essay about how South Korea runs its internet. They don’t do what we do here in the proving ground of capitalist dictatorship. While we permit private profit ranchers to own our internet infrastructure, South Korea has its Ministry of Science lay and control the pipes.

The results are predictable:

Seoul is blanketed with free Wi-Fi that offers the world’s fastest Internet speeds — twice as fast as the average American’s. Back in 1995, the government began a 10-year plan to build out the country’s broadband infrastructure and, through a series of public programs, to teach Koreans what they could do with it. South Korea also eased regulations on service providers to ensure that consumers would have a multitude of choices — in marked contrast to America, where a handful of cable and telecommunications monopolies dominate the market. Such healthy competition in Korea keeps the cost of access low.

To maintain South Korea’s lead, the country’s Science Ministry recently announced a $1.5 billion initiative to upgrade Korea’s mobile infrastructure. By 2020, the government predicts, it will be 1,000 times faster — so fast you could download a feature-length movie in approximately one second. In the same time frame, the Federal Communications Commission hopes to wire most American homes with broadband Internet with speeds of at least 100 megabits per second, or roughly one-sixtieth of South Korea’s goal.

Here’s one telling result:

American mobile design is fetishistically minimalist. Silicon Valley applauds itself for good taste in this regard, but this aesthetic has sprung up partly in response to a deficiency: Americans have learned to strip out bandwidth-guzzling elements because they slow down loading times. Korean designers, lacking such bandwidth restraints, can stuff their apps full of all the information and widgets they like. On-screen real estate isn’t an issue, either, because Koreans prefer massive phones. While the “phablet” — the missing link between a phone and a tablet — is popular as a punch line in the United States, it’s been in high demand in South Korea for years.

This trans-Pacific gap in bandwidth is so pronounced that Korean developers often have to strip down their software if they want to take it stateside.

None of this, of course, enters into our pathetic debates over whether to place a few paltry regulations on our holders of licenses to steal. Despite such stark facts, even our reformers dutifully refrain from mentioning what a terrible idea it is to let capitalists own basic public facilities.

The Humble Inventor

Keep this in mind as you watch the charades over net neutrality:

Of course, public mention of the existence of successful public enterprise is verboten in this market totalitarian society. So, even the rebels restrain themselves from it, as they fawn over feeble, 11th-hour less-than-half measures.

October (Non)Surprise

fox with dead hen Guess what? That’s right. The Federal Communications Commission, after striking the pose that it would respect the results of a period of public comment, is going to preserve net non-neutrality! Internet access, one of our epoch’s most basic and simple services, will continue to be given over to the corporate profit ranchers who understand and use the gift as a license to steal.

Here is the scheme, as described by The Wall Street Journal:

Advocates of net neutrality say that the only way to achieve it is to classify the Internet as common carrier, or a public utility.

The broadband providers would like the FCC to keep them classified as information services, which makes the industry subject to far less regulation.

Caught in the middle, Mr. Wheeler is close to settling on a hybrid approach, people close to the chairman say. The emerging proposal is a departure from an FCC plan put forth last spring, which kept broadband classified as an information service, though Mr. Wheeler at the time made clear that he welcomed input on whether to go the common-carrier route.

The plan now under consideration would separate broadband into two distinct services: a retail one, in which consumers would pay broadband providers for Internet access; and a back-end one, in which broadband providers serve as the conduit for websites to distribute content. The FCC would then classify the back-end service as a common carrier, giving the agency the ability to police any deals between content companies and broadband providers.

This of course, means that “consumers” will not be able to avail themselves of common carrier rights vis-a-vis the internet overlords. Only the FCC will have that privilege, and only as relates to backroom dealings. Anybody want to guess what that will mean? Take heart, o yearners for democracy and real economy: The fox is going to be watching (part of) the henhouse even more closely!

And, meanwhile, what a phrase, this “caught in the middle.”

On one side stand the overclass Robber Barons, with their sponsorship of the entire political show.

What’s on the other side, you might wonder?

Well, according to the Sunshine Foundation’s analysis of it, in the record-smashing public commentary to the FCC, “less than 1 percent of comments were clearly opposed to net neutrality.” Moreover, the Sunshine Foundation found it “actually surprising how many of the submitted comments seemed not to have been driven by form letter writing campaigns.”

Of course, this is “caught in the middle” quote, is quite accurate politically, despite the numbers of human noses on each side. Our mighty regulators are indeed stuck play-jousting in the spaces between the investing class and the 99 percent. At the ready they stand, on their golden leashes, armed with quivers of wet noodles!

I 522

If you saw CounterPunch today, you might have noticed this piece about anti-GMO [note that, as usual, they dutifully restrain from calling themselves “anti-corporate food“] activists’ efforts in Washington State to strike a small blow against capitalist Frankenfood. Residing in Portland, Oregon, the urban core to which Washington’s fourth largest town is a [tax-dodging, Republican-leaning] suburb, I have had the displeasure of watching corporate capital’s 3-month-long response to W.S. Initiative 522, a meager little ballot measure that would, in accord with almost unanimous public desire, require grocery-store foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such.

Here’s a sample from the compendium of utter shamelessness that is the appalling and revealing “No on 522” effort:

Good ole Dan looks like a humble organic farmer, don’t he, what with the blue work shirt and the vaguely ex-hippie haircut and beard?

Dan’s ad is titled “Claims v. Facts.” That carries the usual amount of overclass chutzpah — total, all-out, complete.

Dan’s friends’ claim is that I 522 would raise food prices, and that the proposed rule is unfair, since it carries some exemptions! Of course, the threatened price hike is what? A penny? And the irony of opposing a labeling law from the right because it is too weak would slay Big Brother himself.

As to facts, turns out Dan is actually a corporate farm “operator” (think Dan does much of “his” farm labor?) in Eastern Washington, and also a scion of long-time farm-operator politics.

As for the hilarious pack of right-wing businesses Dan cites as scholars who’ve allegedly thought deeply and dispassionately about I 522, take a special look at the “science” organization Dan cites in his ad. Any group started in 1932 (in what was then known as the Soviet of Washington) that is dedicated to disseminating “credible economic research and policy analysis supporting economic vitality and private sector job creation” simply has to have a rather interesting little closetful of juicy, forgotten secrets. And how about that science? “Credible research.” ROFLMFAO.

As always, the corporate TV assault is working. 66-21 a month ago (and a month ago was already well into the corporate “No on 522” onslaught) is now 46-42.

TCT, of course, predicts defeat of I 522, while holding out some hope for a small miracle. The election ends November 5.