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Many USA within 20 blocks: A divided Americas…

The creator of The Wire, David Simon, delivered an impromptu speech about the divide between rich and poor in America at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, and how capitalism has lost sight of its social compact.
America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas.
This is an edited extract of  David Simon’s speech:

‘There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show’

I live in one America, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it.

About 20 blocks away is another entirely different America. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.

The Wire creator David Simon in Baltimore

David Simon, creator of The Wire, near his office in Baltimore. Photograph: Stephen Voss/Redux / eyevine

There’s no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be.

We’ve somehow managed to march on to two separate futures and I think you’re seeing this more and more in the west. I don’t think it’s unique to America.

I think we’ve perfected a lot of the tragedy and we’re getting there faster than a lot of other places that may be a little more reasoned, but my dangerous idea kind of involves this fellow who got left by the wayside in the 20th century and seemed to be almost the butt end of the joke of the 20th century; a fellow named Karl Marx.

I’m not a Marxist in the sense that I don’t think Marxism has a very specific clinical answer to what ails us economically. I think Marx was a much better diagnostician than he was a clinician. He was good at figuring out what was wrong or what could be wrong with capitalism,if it wasn’t attended to and much less credible when it comes to how you might solve that.

You know if you’ve read Capital or if you’ve got the Cliff Notes, you know that his imaginings of how classical Marxism – of how his logic would work when applied – kind of devolve into such nonsense as the withering away of the state and platitudes like that. But he was really sharp about what goes wrong when capital wins unequivocally, when it gets everything it asks for.

That may be the ultimate tragedy of capitalism in our time, that it has achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.

We understand profit.

In my country we measure things by profit. We listen to the Wall Street analysts. They tell us what we’re supposed to do every quarter. The quarterly report is God. Turn to face God. Turn to face Mecca, you know. Did you make your number? Did you not make your number? Do you want your bonus? Do you not want your bonus?

And that notion that capital is the metric, that profit is the metric by which we’re going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes of the last 30 years. I would date it in my country to about 1980 exactly, and it has triumphed.

Capitalism stomped the hell out of Marxism by the end of the 20th century and was predominant in all respects. The great irony of it is that the only thing that actually works is not ideological, it is impure, has elements of both arguments and never actually achieves any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection.

It’s pragmatic, it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought and of free-market capitalism and it works because we don’t let it work entirely. And that’s a hard idea to think – that there isn’t one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we’ve dug for ourselves. But man, we’ve dug a mess.

After WWII, the west emerged with the American economy coming out of its wartime extravagance, emerging as the best product. It was the best product. It worked the best. It was demonstrating its might not only in terms of what it did during the war but in terms of just how facile it was in creating mass wealth.

Plus, it provided a lot more freedom and was doing the one thing that guaranteed that the 20th century was going to be – and forgive the jingoistic sound of this – the American century.

It took a working class that had no discretionary income at the beginning of the century, which was working on subsistence wages. It turned it into a consumer class that not only had money to buy all the stuff that they needed to live but enough to buy a bunch of shit that they wanted but didn’t need, and that was the engine that drove us.

It wasn’t just that we could supply stuff, or that we had the factories or know-how or capital, it was that we created our own demand and started exporting that demand throughout the west. And the standard of living made it possible to manufacture stuff at an incredible rate and sell it.

And how did we do that?

We did that by not giving in to either side. That was the new deal. That was the great society. That was all of that argument about collective bargaining and union wages and it was an argument that meant neither side gets to win.

Labour doesn’t get to win all its arguments, capital doesn’t get to.

But it’s in the tension, it’s in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.

The unions actually mattered.

The unions were part of the equation. It didn’t matter that they won all the time, it didn’t matter that they lost all the time, it just mattered that they had to win some of the time and they had to put up a fight and they had to argue for the demand and the equation and for the idea that workers were not worth less, they were worth more.

Ultimately, we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarian in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It’s astonishing to me. But it is.

People are saying I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the firefighter comes from, I don’t care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It’s the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.

That we’ve gotten to this point is astonishing to me because basically in winning its victory, in seeing that Wall come down and seeing the former Stalinist state’s journey towards our way of thinking in terms of markets or being vulnerable, you would have thought that we would have learned what works. Instead we’ve descended into what can only be described as greed.

This is just greed. This is an inability to see that we’re all connected, that the idea of two Americas is implausible, or two Australias, or two Spains or two Frances.

Societies are exactly what they sound like.

If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have “some”, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the same amount. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be people who are the venture capitalists who stand to make the most. It’s not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels as if, if the society succeeds, I succeed, I don’t get left behind. And there isn’t a society in the west now, right now, that is able to sustain that for all of its population.

And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show.

You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons.

No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.

Socialism is a dirty word in my country.

I have to give that disclaimer at the beginning of every speech, “Oh by the way I’m not a Marxist you know”. I lived through the 20th century. I don’t believe that a state-run economy can be as viable as market capitalism in producing mass wealth. I don’t.

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is a diminished labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way.

Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximize profit is juvenile.

It’s a juvenile notion and it’s still being argued in my country passionately and we’re going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

If you watched the debacle in the fight over something as basic as public health policy in my country over the last couple of years, imagine the ineffectiveness that Americans are going to offer the world when it comes to something really complicated like global warming. We can’t even get healthcare for our citizens on a basic level. And the argument comes down to: “Goddamn this socialist president. Does he think I’m going to pay to keep other people healthy? It’s socialism, motherfucker.”

What do you think group health insurance is?

You know you ask these guys, “Do you have group health insurance where you …?” “Oh yeah, I get …” you know, “my law firm …” So when you get sick you’re able to afford the treatment.

The treatment comes because you have enough people in your law firm so you’re able to get health insurance enough for them to stay healthy. So the actuarial tables work and all of you, when you do get sick, are able to have the resources there to get better because you’re relying on the idea of the group. Yeah. And they nod their heads, and you go “Brother, that’s socialism. You know it is.”

And … you know when you say, OK, we’re going to do what we’re doing for your law firm but we’re going to do it for 300 million Americans and we’re going to make it affordable for everybody that way.

And yes, it means that you’re going to be paying for the other guys in the society, the same way you pay for the other guys in the law firm … Their eyes glaze. You know they don’t want to hear it. It’s too much. Too much to contemplate the idea that the whole country might be actually connected.

So I’m astonished that at this late date I’m standing here and saying we might want to go back for this guy Marx that we were laughing at, if not for his prescriptions, then at least for his depiction of what is possible if you don’t mitigate the authority of capitalism, if you don’t embrace some other values for human endeavour.

And that’s what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy.

It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.

That’s the great horror show.

What are we going to do with all these people that we’ve managed to marginalise? It was kind of interesting when it was only race, when you could do this on the basis of people’s racial fears and it was just the black and brown people in American cities who had the higher rates of unemployment and the higher rates of addiction and were marginalised and had the shitty school systems and the lack of opportunity.

And kind of interesting in this last recession to see the economy shrug and start to throw white middle-class people into the same boat, so that they became vulnerable to the drug war, say from methamphetamine, or they became unable to qualify for college loans.

And all of a sudden a certain faith in the economic engine and the economic authority of Wall Street and market logic started to fall away from people. And they realised it’s not just about race, it’s about something even more terrifying. It’s about class. Are you at the top of the wave or are you at the bottom?

So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody’s going to get left behind. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labour and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.

We’re either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, at which point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.

The other thing that was there in 1932 that isn’t there now is that some element of the popular will could be expressed through the electoral process in my country.

The last job of capitalism – having won all the battles against labour, having acquired the ultimate authority, almost the ultimate moral authority over what’s a good idea or what’s not, or what’s valued and what’s not – the last journey for capital in my country has been to buy the electoral process, the one venue for reform that remained to Americans.

Right now capital has effectively purchased the government, and you witnessed it again with the healthcare debacle in terms of the $450m that was heaved into Congress, the most broken part of my government, in order that the popular will never actually emerged in any of that legislative process.

So I don’t know what we do if we can’t actually control the representative government that we claim will manifest the popular will. Even if we all start having the same sentiments that I’m arguing for now, I’m not sure we can effect them any more in the same way that we could at the rise of the Great Depression, so maybe it will be the brick. But I hope not.

David Simon is an American author and journalist and was the executive producer of The Wire. This is an edited extract of a talk delivered at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.

Note: The American Ghettos

In search of “The Self”?

There is this Andrew who posted his story on his search for “the self”.

The search started in the late ’70s, when in junior high.  His parents lived in Dundee, IL and he “realized that there was more to life than what could be seen from his parents.”

Apparently, the search initially showed great promise: Andrew discovered his uncle’s old Doors records and a copy of The Catcher In The Rye.

Andrew was dogged in his pursuit, sacrificing his higher education, bank account, social status, and personal esteem.

Despite the rising costs and mounting adversity, he vowed he would never give up his search.

Andrew searched in a wide variety of places, including the I Ching, a tantric-sex manual, and a course in chakrology.  He toured Prague in 1991 at the hight of his search.

“My family and friends kept telling me to give up. But I couldn’t believe that my true self was forever lost.”

Over the next two decades, the “leads just petered ou. Fuck it”:  He uncovered nothing.

And the 38 year-old Andrew decided to call off “his search”

Andrew wrote:

“I always thought that if I kept searching and exploring, I’d discover who I truly was. Well, I looked deep into the innermost recesses of my soul, I “plumbed” the depths of my subconscious, and you know what I found?

An empty, windowless room the size of an aircraft hangar. From now on, if anybody needs me, I’ll be sprawled out on this couch drinking black-cherry soda and watching Law & Order like everybody else.”

“I can’t believe how many creative-writing courses I’ve taken, how many expensive sessions with every conceivable type of therapists. All that time wasted on a wild-goose chase.”

Since calling off the search, Andrew has canceled his yoga classes, turned in his organic co-op membership card, and withdrawn plans to go on a sweat-lodge retreat in Saskatchewan.

He loaded books by such diverse authors as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Meister Eckhart, and George Gurdjieff into a box labeled “free shit,” and left it outside of his apartment beside a trash can.

“The only books I’ll be reading from now on are ones that happen to catch my eye in the supermarket checkout line on the few occasions I leave my apartment to buy more Fig Newtons.”

Andrew will no longer lament his coding job at Eagle Client Services, but will rather “embrace the fact that I have a job that makes enough money to pay for cable.

He vowed to marry “the first woman who will have me, whether I love her or not. And if I never throw another goddamn clay pot in my life, it’ll be too soon.”

Though hardened and haggard from his long search, Andrew expressed relief that it was over.

Asked if he had any advice for those who are continuing on their own searches, he had two words of advice: “Give up. Trust me: there’s nothing out there for you to find.  You’re wasting your life. The sooner you realize you have no self to discover, the sooner you can get on with what’s truly important: celebrity magazines, snack foods, and Internet porn.

I don’t understand.

Does going to work not a way of searching for the self?

Does earning a living to survive a search for the self?

Does meeting co-workers not a search for the self?

I don’t understand.

Did Andrew, during two decades, failed to go to a movie, to a park, to the zoo, to any kinds of celebration, visiting with his parents, watching Law & Order , “the Wire”…?

I don’t understand.

What Andrew means “you have no self to discover?”

I don’t understand.  Since when authors as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Meister Eckart, and George Gurdjieff are the stuff for discovering the self?

Andrew must have known that Gurdjieff made the members slave 12 hours in  manual works so that they don’t think, and refrain from having time and the energy to formulate any meaningful question and taking divergent active stands…

Andrew warmed his couch after his earning job to survive:  Gurdjieff would have kicked him out of the comfort zone…

I don’t understand.

Is the road to discovering the self an excuse to end up browsing celebrity magazines, snack foods, and watching Internet porn?

Did Andrew stopped doing all these stuff in the last 20 years, not even occasionally?

“The Wire”, David Simon, the ghettos, and America systems…

David Simon is not necessarily the “angriest person on TV America” but he showed the reality of the dysfunctional tragedy of communities on the side-road in America systems, episodes that hugely angered the citizens before Occupy Wall Street protests. Simon, the creator and director of the series “The Wire” (2002-2008) described the US system through this typical City of Baltimore, where he worked as journalist for 15 years.

Before undertaking the creation and direction of “The Wire” on HBO, Simon related his experiences in a book that inspired NBC Homicide and HBO The Corner.

Bill Moyers interviewed David Simon, and I am translating liberally portions from the French weekly magazine Courrier International.  Simon is not to resume this series, he is out of The Wire because stories should have a beginning, an end, and a timeline, otherwise, the stories get distorted and the characters broken.

Individuals out of detox programs, usually about the age of 30-35, as they return to their original quarter inevitably wonder: “What the F am I doing here?” As a youth, the drug addict has plenty of issues and problems, and they constitute the majority of the population (about 15%) that the system has no need of in the production and development process.  The addicted youth and drug dealers are not stupid: They comprehend that the system want them “out of the system of normal productive people” and want them to fend for themselves and the system refuse to care for them, or come to the rescue.

Statistics are deformed and reconstructed to show distorted realities in the police force, in public schools, in crime rate, in success stories…

As a journalist,” I covered stories with eyes to the outside. In The Wire, I covered with eyes turned inside the system, how it works in details…For example, police forces get promoted by checking the computer statistics on the “performance” of a police officer. Consequently, a police officer has advantage paying visits to the poorer quarters, check the content of the pockets of individuals for small quantity of drugs, and show up in court 30 or 40 times a month and registering a “hit”.  Serious crimes require to invest plenty of time and energy and barely the officer register a single performance on records. Fact is, not a single point of sale of drugs has been closed in Baltimore.  As long as our economy is based on the market, what the system only know how to manoeuvre within, war on hard drugs is doomed to failure.  The courageous political decision is to legalize drug…”

(If crimes are given weights commensurate to the seriousness of the crime (homicide, rape…), then officers might consider doing their most important job: Focusing on the serious crimes…) Why, if the police force is pretty lukewarm going after serious crimes, could we account for the dramatic reduction in violent crimes?

David Simon said: “The critical key to comprehending how the poor quarters in the US cities got to mushroom is that school materials are intrinsically linked to the “street culture”.  We can demonstrate the linkage between the decline of the industrial age and the deficiencies in public schools, schools that are smokescreen institutions in the non-favored quarters. The Wire recounts the stories of that section in the US society and communities, which were left on the side road, and nobody care to remedy to them…”

During a graduation ceremony at Loyola College in Baltimore (2007), Simon asked the students to look up the term “Oligarchy” (political system run by a small group of individuals…).  He said: “We should desist believing the fraudulent ideology that states “what is good for the majority is good for the nation. I will not tolerate to be lied at… And I refuse to keep lying to myself and to the citizens… 50% of blacks in Baltimore are out of a job. You cannot claim that this is a viable economic system that is functioning well…””

Note: David Simon, born in Washington in 1960, worked for 15 years as an investigative reporter and journalist in the Baltimore Sun. Between 2002 and 2008, HBO diffused the series “The Wire” directed by Simon.  The episodes of The Wire acquired popular success in the form of DVD and video on demand.  The newer series “Treme” (HBO since 2010)  is covering the daily life in the city of New Orleans, after the hurricane Katrina

Do kids need 13 formal years of schooling? Think again

It is becoming evident that modern schooling system is principally a big detention center for the youth in order to keeping them “away from the streets”.

Kids do not need 13 years of schooling before going to universities or learning practical skills and talents to earning a living by the age of 15.

In the 19th century, with the advent of the mass “Industrial Age“, kids were readily put to work, and the capitalists offered many excuses as to particular capabilities and abilities in kids to being more productive in certain tasks…

Kids in these chain work processes didn’t survive to be twenty. And you have to wonder: “If kids were good to work two centuries ago, why they are considered to be that limited today?”

Most probably, modern technologies can bypass not only kids to work, but over 15% of the adults in any society adopting the capitalist system, in mass production, open world market, a “free trade”…

It is not knowledge that kids are learning, but regurgitation of consensus information, of system rules, regulation, and what to expect.

Reflective learning and self-learning are not appreciated on the ground that kids are not “ready to discuss, ponder and ask the right questions…”

Kids, by the age of 15, should be able to earn a living from skilled maintenance professions (electrical, plumbing, carpeting, painting…), before considering higher education in fields of their interests…

In general, in almost every society, you have about 15% of the population deemed unnecessary for producing and contributing to the development of the” system”: They are confined in ghetto quarters to fend for their survival and are basically the ones incarcerated in order to show “statistically” that the police force is doing its job…

David Simon, the director of the series “The Wire” (2002-2008) that described the US system through this typical City of Baltimore said:

“The critical key to comprehending how the poor quarters in the US cities got to mushroom is that school materials are intrinsically linked to the street culture.  We can demonstrate the linkage between the decline of the industrial age and the deficiencies in public schools, schools that are smokescreen institutions in the non-favored quarters. The Wire recounts the stories of that section in the US society and communities, which were left on the side road, and nobody care to remedy to them…”

Eduardo Galiano recount this short story: “Muhammad Ashraf never set foot in school. Up before dawn, he has been working since the age of 6.  Muhammad is 11 year-old, and his job is cutting, perforating, patching, and sewing soccer balls.  Soccer balls are produced in the Pakistani village of Umarkot and seen in every soccer field around the world.  Muhammad also has to glue a sticker that read “This soccer ball was not made by kids

Another way of differentiating between a failure and a mistake is offered by Seth Godin: (sentences in parenthesis are mine)

“A failure is a project that doesn’t work, an initiative that teaches you something, and the outcome doesn’t move you directly closer to your goal.

A mistake is either a failure repeated, doing something for the second time when you should have known better, or a misguided attempt because of carelessness, selfishness or hubris… that hindsight reminds you is worth avoiding.

(Occasionally, it is worth repeating a previous “failure” on the ground that a minor “variable” was not controlled or not considered worth including, and later experiences implicitly demonstrated its value…”

We need a lot more failures, I think.

Failures that don’t kill us make us bolder, and teach us one more way that won’t work, while opening the door to things that might.

(Thomas Edison never considered his hundred trials for finding a solution as failures:  The combinations of alternatives solutions eliminated the possibilities that do not work…)

School confuses us, so do bosses and families. Go ahead, fail. Try to avoid mistakes, though.” End of quote

Note 1: I have started a series of restructuring projects of school system, medical profession and practices, health care providers, engineering and design profession and practices…

These projects are labelled “Daydream Projects” because they are well-thought out with details and the various controversies that conventional professional orders and syndicates might vehemently object to, on the ground that a wide range of businesses are simply relying on the old system to profit…




June 2023

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