Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

5 Jun 2009

Barron YoungSmith’s post at the New Republic’s blog about Craigslist suggests that the site’s founders are motivated by “libertarian ideology” rather than profit—a surprising conclusion if you believe that libertarianism is all about unfettered markets and the triumph of the will and the cash nexus as the expression of the freedom of choice. Conceived instead as deinstitutionalization, libertarianism means dismantling the barriers between people wanting to make small-scale exchanges. YoungSmith quotes Mark Gimein, who summed up the Craigslist philosophy in this Big Money article: “Bad things don’t come from what two individuals decide to do together. They come from the institutions that stand between them.” (If this was the essence of libertarianism, you’d think they would come out in full force for rescinding the legal personhood status of corporations. Maybe some are.) Such a position implies that caveat emptor should be the only law of the land, which is great if you believe that exchanges always take place with both parties on equal footing (or if you believe a Lewis Hyde-style gift economy is coming right around the corner). But this isn’t the case—asymmetrical information is more the rule than the exception, and economic institutions exist in part to combat that, to illuminate otherwise black or gray markets, to make contract enforcement possible and to allow trust to ultimately flourish. It’s not clear whether newspapers were ever a significant institution in this regard however; they just had a de facto monopoly of local information distribution that has since been broken by the internet.

Anyway, YoungSmith’s post prompted two interesting responses about the phenomenon of working for free (whether in the name of some quasi-utopian ideology or not). Kevin Drum suggests the limits to what people will do for free are not set by how dull the work is but by how many people are necessary to complete it:

Sure, some things are just more fun than others, and thus more likely to attract people to do them for free.  But just as important is: how many people does it take?  Once something gets to the point where it only takes a person or three to do it, then there’s a pretty good chance that someone, somewhere will start offering it for free.  Even if it’s something that most sane people think is boring as hell, there’s almost bound to be at least one person who’s obsessed by it.  Like classified advertising.

Behind this theory, I think, is that endeavors requiring fewer people allow those few to make all the salient decisions and claim all the glory for the accomplishments, which goes a long way toward compensating them for not getting paid. When we are cogs in a large machine, we need to be paid to feel recognized, because our individual contribution is lost in the elaborate division of labor and our autonomy is similarly circumscribed. But having control over how the work is done and knowing one is responsible for the final product in its entirety makes work palpably meaningful, which is its own reward, fulfilling a basic aspect of what it means to be human. What Drum is highlighting is the possibility of a return to the ideals of handicraft—of work not organized and integrated by capital—only digitally mediated. From this perspective, the internet takes what are urban populations in the real world and scatters them into an archipelago of workers in small-scale groupings who can nonetheless participate economically on a global scale. Small groups of individuals working more or less voluntarily on projects would ideally permit the social benefits of cooperation to flourish without them being made over “as a free gift to capital,” as Marx puts it. So when we work for free online, our main goal may be to express our freedom from capital, for at least a little while, and experience the restorative essence of performing socially useful work for its own sake. It could be that it’s inherently delightful in the midst of late capitalism to discover a social need that can be fulfilled without capital’s intervention. So it doesn’t take an obsessive freak to fulfill some seemingly dull function, just an anarcho-syndicalist.

Of course, if we are cut off from social recognition, we rely on cash payment to serve as its proxy, as these research findings published in Nature suggest:

Handling or even contemplating money can relieve both physical pain and the distress of social rejection, according to a study by Chinese and American psychologists. But remembering cash one has spent intensifies both types of hurt. The findings suggest that the mere thought of having money makes people feel physically stronger and less dependent on the approval of others to satisfy their needs. “Money activates a general sense of confidence, strength, and efficacy,” the researchers propose.

Bu couldn’t it be that money functions as a consolation for social isolation, which it then reinforces by supplying the illusion of strength and efficacy?

Matt Yglesias seems to be arguing along the same lines:

profit-maximization is not a natural form of human behavior. I think it’s best understood as a very idiosyncratic kind of pursuit. It happens to be one that’s economically rewarded because with money to invest tend to want to invest it with would-be profit-maximizers. Thus, in fields of endeavor where the ability to raise large sums of capital on reasonable terms is a huge advantage, a profit-maximization impulse winds up being a huge advantage.

In other words the profit motive is a product of capitalism, and not what inspires it. And having to think in that economically rationalistic way, far from being natural to humans, may actually be fatiguing and confining. When capital is not necessary to the enterprise, other motives spring to the fore—the need for recognition being primary among them. Yglesias explains:

The startup costs of a decent website are pretty small in the scheme of things. And there are lots of people and institutions—academics looking to bring their research to a wider public, think tanks and advocacy organizations looking to influence the public debate, corporations like Google looking to express their views on policy debates, students trying to get an edge in the job market, authors hoping to promote a book—with perfectly good incentives to run websites that don’t aspire to maximize profits.

“Free competition” turns out to be a way to use the profit motive to inhibit free expression. Ideas aren’t typically or necessarily manufactured in accordance with the dominant modes of production (though arguably capitalism aspires to make it so that only the ideas manufactured corporately—by the entertainment industry, say, or the for-profit press—are recognized as valid). Capital is not necessary to think. So ideas don’t necessarily need to circulate in the ways capitalism requires. The exchange of ideas relies on a different sort of economy, of influence and notoriety. Capitalist society presumes that influence is only meaningful insofar as it can be converted into capital, but perhaps we are now beginning to see signs that money and intellectual influence could possibly move apart again. Perhaps this will only empower the advertising industry even further, as they will have to squawk louder to help paid content drowned out the alternatives.

by shathley Q

5 Jun 2009

Who could have guessed that 50 years down the line in 2007, there actually would be a comedy show called The Office? And that deadpan, cornball humor, exactly of the kind to be found in this 1957 cartoon strip would be its trademark? Certainly not Charlie Brown. Nor his prodigious creator, Charles Schulz.

Approaching the second decade of the second millennium, it is hard to miss the cultural impact of Schulz’s Peanuts. Three generations now have grown up in a world where Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown have been part of their world for much longer than they themselves. More than a literary staple, Peanuts has become a permanent fixture of popular culture. In time, as with all enduring cultural objects, Charlie Brown and the Gang have become the fuel for these generations having dreams and writing popular culture of their own.

Fifty years down the line, it becomes very easy to celebrate Schulz’s achievement by saying, ‘Without Peanuts there would be no…’. This cry can be completed in any number of ways. No Rugrats, no Dilbert, no Calvin & Hobbes, no Boondocks. No TV show called The Office. But making this claim while living in a world where Peanuts culturally predominates, also means losing something of the vitality and vibrancy of Schulz’s original work.

Just beginning to write in the mid-‘50s, Schulz could not have guessed at the overwhelming success that awaited him, nor at the popular and critical reception still to come for his work. Schulz’s Charlie Brown was not the Charlie Brown of our era. Peanuts was slow, and deliberate, just as Charlie Brown was the kid who always got out of bed late at night to feed Snoopy, no matter his own fear of the dark or neuroses around social failure. And like his fictional analog, Charles Schulz was the guy who drew a comics strip, everyday for fifty years.

It is this enduring spirit that would propel Peanuts well beyond the newspaper funny pages and into the popular imagination. Writing in the Introduction to second volume of The Complete Peanuts Jonathan Franzen reminds us, ‘Schulz wasn’t an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip everyday for 50 years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It’s the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz’s early sorrows look like “sources” of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humor in them’.

by Emily Tartanella

5 Jun 2009

Sell-out, corporate, commercialized, whatever—“Bruises” is so sweet and so strikingly weird (“Now I taste like / All those frozen strawberries / I used to chill your bruising knees”) that it absolutely refuses to be reduced.

by Matt Mazur

5 Jun 2009

Tori’s live show is where she has always been truly on fire and here Amos gives a solo mini-concert with three of her newest songs from Abnormally Attracted to Sin, “Maybe California”, “Fire to Your Plain” and “Lady in Blue”, plus one classic, “Silent All These Years”.

07/10: Seattle, WA @ WaMu Theater
07/11: Portland, OR @ Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
07/13: Oakland, CA @ Paramount Theatre
07/14: Oakland, CA @ Paramount Theatre
07/16: San Diego, CA @ Humphrey’s
07/17: Los Angeles, CA @ Greek Theatre
07/18: Phoenix, AZ @ Dodge Theatre
07/20: Salt Lake City, UT @ Abravenal Hall
07/21: Denver, CO @ Paramount Theatre
07/23: Kansas City, MO @ Starlight Theatre
07/24: Grand Prairie, TX @ Nokia Theatre
07/25: Austin, TX @ The Long Center for the Performing Arts
07/27: Atlanta, GA @ Chastain Park Amphitheatre
07/28: Orlando, FL @ Bob Carr Performing Arts Center
07/29: Miami Beach, FL @ The Fillmore Miami Beach @ The Jackie Gleason Theater
07/31: Durham, NC @ Durham Performing Arts Center
08/01: Washington, DC @ DAR Constitution Hall
08/03: Chicago, IL @ Chicago Theatre
08/04: Milwaukee, WI @ Riverside Theatre
08/05: Minneapolis, MN @ State Theatre
08/07: Indianapolis, IN @ Murat Theatre
08/08: Detroit, MI @ Detroit Opera House
08/10: Toronto, ON @ Massey Hall
08/11: Montreal, QC @ St. Denis Theatre,
08/13: New York, NY @ Radio City Music Hall,
08/15: Upper Darby, PA @ Tower Theatre
08/17: Boston, MA @ Bank of America Pavilion

by Thomas Hauner

5 Jun 2009

Sunday afternoons are inherently lazy, especially those bathed in grills, sangria, and sunshine. Thus the Sunday afternoon summer dance series—Sunday Best—on the banks of the Gowanus Canal at BKLYN Yard was a lively way to mobilize and relax all at once. Quesadillas and fresh watermelon nourished the crowd between Sapporo’s and a cool breeze maximized the informal vibe. Dogs and babies alike danced to resident DJ’s Justin Carter, Doug Singer, and Eamon Harkin who warmed up the crowd before Andy Carthy, a.k.a. Mr. Scruff, took the helm later in the afternoon. The dance floor swelled as Mr. Scruff mixed mostly eclectic funk and other retro-tinged tunes, like “Summertime”.  But despite the healthy turnout of kids and proximity to the canal Mr. Scruff abstained from playing any of his fish-themed repertoire. All in all, it was an ideal afternoon on a canal in Brooklyn.

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