Shadows For Sale

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At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. “This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the LORD’S remission has been proclaimed. -Deuteronomy 15:1-2

Debt is often portrayed like this, insurmountable garbage or an overwhelming flood. But for debt buyers, it is a valuable commodity.

A personal goal of mine in writing this blog was to do a somewhat extensive application of all of Marx’s Capital to U.S. law. That goal did not quite materialize as I got caught up in various things, but I recently started an amazing reading group through DSA’s Socialist Feminist Working Group for women and nonbinary people to read through Capital Vol. 1. Since I will be putting time into not only re-reading it but also discussing and learning from my nonbinary and sister comrades, I figure might as well apply that knowledge to the law.

So those who have read Capital know that Marx starts things off with his analysis of what a commodity is and why the nature of commodities leads to commodity fetishism. He famously (or perhaps infamously) uses the example of linen and coats for commodities. He did not pick these commodities at random: coats are a commodity that has near-universal familiarity and linen is one of its components (at least in the 19th century). They also have a clear utility: coats keep us warm and linen can be used to make clothes like coats. And they have a clear root in production through private labor: coats are tailored and linen is weaved. But this first chapter of Capital Vol. 1 is supposed to cover all commodities because of how Marx comes to his definition of the money-form.

Marx begins by describing the two values contained in commodities: use-value, the utility of a commodity in its consumption or use, and exchange value. Exchange value is derived by the relative value between two commodities, with Marx giving the example of 20 yards of linen=1 coat. Marx notes that every commodity has an extensive number of relative values, essentially as many as there are commodities in the marketplace. He explains that these other relative values are needed to really understand the value of a commodity. If, for example, whatever market fluctuations cause the exchange value of linen and coats to go up in the exact same proportion, their relative value will remain the same: 20 yards of linen=1 coat. Throw in a third commodity however and you can understand that the exchange value has gone up, i.e. 20 yards of linen=1 coat= 1 lb. of coffee > 20 yards of linen=1 coat=2 lb. of coffee.

As such, one can craft what Marx calls the general form of value by setting one commodity against all others – “the joint contribution of the whole world of commodities.” And per this relationship, society can come up with a commodity to serve as a universal equivalent. That commodity was gold. And this relationship of “direct and universal exchangeability” made gold into money. Gold’s existence as money then made its relative value towards other commodities the price form.

Now commodity fetishism is the part of this first chapter of Capital Vol. 1 that draws a lot of attention because of how present it still feels in our day-to-day lives. The deduction of money conversely seems a bit archaic: after all, we now have a fiat currency in the United States that does not rely on the gold standard. Is modern money still a commodity? Many would argue that is not: as the economist Georg Friedrich Knapp said, money is a “creature of law” rather than a commodity. It is important to recognize however, as Marxist economist Michael Roberts points out, that Marx is not writing about money throughout existence but rather money in a capitalist-commodity economy.

Roberts also notes that the state being able to create money “out of thin-air” as is done with a fiat currency is not the same thing as creating its value. He uses the example of the Great Recession to indicate that when the value of a national currency collapses that commodities’ demand increases to hoard value.

Note the spike in mid-2007 and then drop in mid-2012.

And I would argue a recent scourge of consumer protection law is also demonstrative of money’s role as a commodity and the importance of rooting the price form in relational values of exchange: the practice of buying consumer debts.

Debt buying regularly comes up in the context of so-called “zombie debt.” This “zombie debt” is debt which has been paid off but the account winds up accidentally getting bundled with a bunch of open debt accounts and sold to debt buyers. Many creditors (and we’re talking big names here like Bank of America and Discover) deal with this problem by indemnifying themselves contractually from any liability, placing the responsibility of weeding out already-paid accounts onto the debt buyers. The debt buyers in turn have little to no incentive to weed out these accounts because (1) there is literally no court in the US where default judgments are not obtained in the majority of consumer debt proceedings, and (2) the main statute protecting consumers, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), limits penalties for individual actions to $1,000. That’s less than practically any of the judgments that debt buyers stand to win from filing suit, so it is simply a matter of profit margin.

But how come companies are allowed to buy debt in the first place? People appearing in court, sued by a company they have never heard of like Portfolio Recovery or Calvary SPV, often wonder why they are dealing with some strange company rather than their original creditor. After all, the origin of our ideas of debt are mostly from Judeo-Christian concepts of morality, like the common seven year statute of limitations that can be traced back to Deuteronomy. As in prior to capitalism being the dominant economic paradigm, when the impetus of paying debts came from fearing judgment and sin. It is hard to get across to people in debt from a wide array of backgrounds that this moral system has little to no bearing on their legal proceedings. The judge probably will not, and the plaintiff will certainly not, care if someone has always “done the right thing” or made one mistake. Moral culpability is irrelevant: what matters is contractual obligation.

Debt, and its more appealing twin Credit, developed to allow for the expansion of capitalism for reasons that will be covered further into Capital Vol. 1. For the time being, it just needs to be understood that debt is a contractual money obligation by one party, the debtor, to another party, the creditor. Like any other contract, the rights it instills can generally be assigned to another party. U.C.C. 15-317. But assignment only provides a legal vehicle for the purchase of debt: what is the economic motivation? And more precisely, is debt a commodity despite being nothing other than a money obligation?

While abstracted to an extraordinary degree not even imaginable in Marx’s worst nightmares, debt is very much a commodity under modern capitalism. One element that reveals the debt’s commodity form is the difference between its use value and exchange value. Debt buyers do not purchase debts for the money owed on it. Instead, evaluating several factors (age, type of consumer transaction, attempts at collection), a price is formulated in relation to the necessary labor time needed to produce its value. This necessary labor time consists of administration, compliance, and legal collection. As such the exchange value winds up being pennies on the dollar or even less: it is literally a full-time job to track down people in debt and collect from them while complying with all the appropriate government regulations. And it should be noted that the use value of these debts is not the money owed either: debt buyers are well aware that most of these debts will settle for less than the principal and some (if people like me do their job right) may get discontinued altogether.

The example of purchasing debt shows the power of money as a concept, and particularly the price form. In any other exchange system, it would be difficult if not impossible to calculate the exchange value of a debt as a commodity with such ruthless efficiency. For starters the debt would not be for money but rather for commodities: to use an example we all can hopefully relate to, let’s say Rosa owes Lucy three tacos. Lucy decides she does not actually want the three tacos but wants to come out with something, so she tries to sell this debt to Margaret since she knows Margaret makes amazing pizza. Even assuming there was a generally recognized rate of exchange of one taco for one slice of pizza, why would Margaret risk purchasing this taco debt that she’ll then have to collect on when she could just go to someone with tacos and trade? It’s an intentionally silly example but hopefully it illustrates how complicated these relationships can be without a universal equivalent.

And of course the debt buying process is particularly interesting when we consider the debate of whether money is a commodity. Like money, debt as a contractual obligation is a “creature of law.” The obligations are not natural things but social relations. And most importantly how they relate to people (through their use value, or the collection of the debt) is different from how they relate to other commodities. The minute a price (the exchange value between money and a commodity) is placed on a debt, it relates to the entire world of commodities despite itself being an odd shadow of the very universal equivalent of money that allows this relation.

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How To Get Away With Murdering A Corporation

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Fairly unimpressive, and yet this piece of paper grants license to do almost anything.

Today the more moderate forces of progressives and the far Left are obsessed with one thing: the corporation. “Get corporate money out of politics,” they say. “We’re not against capitalism,” they explain, “We’re against corporatism.” “Corporations have taken over,” they argue, “We need to take back democracy from the corporations and their creations like NAFTA.” That last point is an interesting one because, even for the oldest among them, saying that the corporations have taken over during their life time implies that this supposed shift happened sometime in the 20th century.

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Où Pour Toujours l’Injustice Perd Ses Quartiers: Due Process And Revolutionary Burkina Faso


To head off the “[insert revolutionary leader here] DID NOTHING WRONG” crowd and just because Westerners tend to be woefully misinformed, let’s start with describing Burkina Faso under the revolutionary government of President Thomas Sankara and why despite its brief existence of four years it accomplished more than most other attempts at socialism, throughout the globe and history, ever have. All land and mineral wealth was nationalized. 2.5 million children were vaccinated against meningitis, yellow feaver, and measles. Before environmental issues were talked about by most of the world, the Democratic and Popular Revolution planted 10 million trees to fight back against the desertification of the country. In four years Burkina Faso became not only food self-sufficient by dramatically increasing agricultural production but had a surplus due to some crops like wheat being produced at triple the rate. The country spurned the silencing of stigma by being one of the first in Africa to recognize the AIDS epidemic. 700 km of rail were laid to facilitate extraction of manganese by and for the people. Female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy were banned. Sankara himself was an ardent feminist who promoted contraception and men stepping outside of traditional gender roles by going to the market and cooking. He was the first African leader to appoint women to his cabinet and the revolutionary military actively recruited women. These are just a few of the successes that Sankara and the Burkinabe under the Democratic and Popular Revolution were able to accomplish in the span of four years. And we’re not even touching on how President Sankara was an amazing orator who frequently told the most powerful people in the world that he refused to abide by their colonial rule any longer.

The great successes of Burkina Faso during this time makes it all the more tragic that the revolution fell apart after only four years. There are four major reasons why this happened: (1) President Sankara and the government’s conflict with certain sections of the proletariat, especially teachers, syndicalists, and unions in general; (2) the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were decentralized and undisciplined as President Sankara himself admitted and was beginning to address, though unfortunately too late; (3) the international hegemony was scared to death that President Sankara was inspiring not only revolution in Burkina Faso but a Pan-African rebellion against the International Monetary Fund and capitalism itself, so they actively sabotaged and undermined the regime (and judging from others like President Lumumba of the Congo, Sankara’s execution very well may have been aided or ordered by these authorities); and finally (4)  the Popular Revolutionary Tribunals, an attempt to hand over control of the judiciary to the people for the purpose of establishing real justice. While having the best intentions, these tribunals quickly devolved into kangaroo courts for settling personal scores. This devolution happened because the Popular Revolutionary Tribunals were set up only in recognition of one of the two dialectics of the law: they had authority but not certainty.

Much like the proletarian state is still an instrument of violence arising from class antagonism, a revolutionary legal system cannot exist for long without authority and certainty. Authority is simply the framework by which the law outlines the actions of the state. In the United States there is generally ultimate Supreme Court authority through the Supremacy Clause and the rest of the Constitution, especially the Civil Rights Amendments as applied after Cooper v. Aaron. Cooper was the culmination of a plethora of cases that arose in reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, with Southern courts and governments refusing to recognize federal authority. The Supreme Court simply reaffirmed the federal system of government and while states rights’ are still held as an issue by conservative legal scholars, federal supremacy is to a certain extent accepted across the political spectrum. While the system of authority is at times ridiculously complicated, it functions to uphold the authority of the law as a whole and subsequently the authority and legitimacy of the state itself.

Authority itself though is only the synthesis of the tensions between two intersecting counter-posed relations: legitimacy and power. No authority can preserve its legitimacy without the power to do so, and no authority can exercise its power without the legitimacy to do so. And both of these relations were present at the start of the Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. The courts were legitimate because they were held in the open with direct oversight by the people. The conception of the appeals process and federal oversight are unique aspects of the US legal system that I doubt are in any way necessary for authority, especially in a country as small and far more homogenous as Burkina Faso. They had power because their decisions were binding and final. But of course alone these characteristics could not preserve it. They degraded: trials began to be held in secret and decisions became more difficult to enforce as magistrates and sects of the military began to fight among themselves. And they degraded because of the lack of certainty within the legal system.

Certainty is a bit more complicated. Traditionally certainty is framed as an important aspect of liberal formal equality, that people should know be able to calculate the legal impact on their lives like a set formula. I prefer to consider certainty by how it functions rather than how it is supposed to function. So for example, a liberal person would say due process rights are meant to protect all individuals from having rights taken away without some good reason. I would say due process rights are meant to prevent massive redistribution of wealth and create a certainty (i.e. you go 20 over the speed limit, you get a $1000 ticket) that makes it more difficult to dissent from the authority (you knew the speed limit and that going above it would get you punished, therefore it was your choice).

What limited use ‘due process’ has had for more progressive objectives comes from the need to preserve the legal fiction of equality under the law. In constitutional legal theory this is referred to as ‘representation-reinforcement,’ the theory that our legal-political system works by the laws morphing to match the majority’s will enough to prevent large scale revolts and the destabilization of the government. Its more liberal proponents argue in addition that this means the responsibility of the courts, and especially the Supreme Court, is to make sure there are no impediments of people resolving their problems through the political process. ‘Due process’ is the penultimate civil right of ‘representation-reinforcement,’ in that it is the guarantee of political process rather than the actual remedy of any grievances. And it is important to distinguish ‘due process’ from remedy: after all, what does ‘due process’ matter to the 95% of criminal defendants who are pressured into guilty pleas?

So it is not surprising that Sankara (and ironically the anarchists he despised) would not care much for guaranteeing due process in the new revolutionary legal system. But here lies the contradiction that the Democratic and Popular Revolution unfortunately failed to realize. The bourgeois state does not guarantee ‘due process’ for the sake of defendants: so why would the proletarian state? The purpose of the proletarian state to begin with is as a necessary instrument of violence to preserve the revolution. Its mission is hardly that different from the bourgeois state, the only differences being that power has been reversed and that this reversal will cause the withering away of class itself. Authority and certainty are just as, if not more, needed. So like the current bourgeois state, the proletarian state will use ‘due process’ to create a legal fiction of ‘representation-reinforcement.’ Rather than protecting the individual’s property rights, now it will exist to preserve the right to shared abundance, the abolition of private property. Rather than jumping hoops to receive damages from a corporation that harmed you through its conduct, the corporation would have to jump hoops to establish that every part of itself was contributing to the common good rather than the profits of a select few.

Without this clear principle, the law will quickly become abused as it was by the Popular Revolutionary Tribunals for the settling of private scores, the very reinforcement of individualism and private property relations. Sure, ‘due process’ will give the deposed bourgeoisie access to the political process, but it will only be the sort of access that the proletariat currently has. It is a necessary formalism that has been recognized, with varying degrees of success, by both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Articles 69 and 158) and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Articles 26, 46, 49, 267, 271, 285, and 337), among many other socialist governments which have managed to thus far survive imperialist plots of regime change (while affording even people as vicious as Leopoldo Lopez due process).

It may seem underhanded or ‘fighting fire with fire,’ but revolution is always a messy process in this manner and arguably not nearly as inhumane as the current social conditions. By nature the process is too convoluted  to ever be permanent: it should wither away just like the state itself. President Sankara and the Democratic and Popular Revolution had the best intentions with the Popular Revolutionary Tribunals, but without guiding principles of authority and certainty like ‘due process’ it was doomed to devolve into an anarchistic and individualistic legal system. No doubt the brilliance of the movement and Thomas Sankara could have reversed this course, were it not for the treachery of Blaise Compaoré under the guidance of Western imperialist capitalism.

Don’t Break Them, Take Them: The Legal Battle To Nationalize Banks

Mexican labor leader, internationalist, and Marxist Toledano who advocated for the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938.

As if the Western media did not have enough reasons to rally behind the right wing terrorists of the Venezuelan opposition protests, a great outcry arose from the powers that be when Venezuelan Minister of the Economy Ramon Lobo and the unions seized control of a General Motors factory to ensure that production halts are not used to further harm the already fragile economy. GM of course was not please about this development and ran to their imperialist US government for help – after all, these political friends tend to give them far more deference. Unfortunately for the auto manufacturer giant, Venezuela does not take kindly to such interventionist appeals, so GM’s assets were frozen. It should be noted that this was not some impulsive move solely stemming from the recent unrest: GM owes more than $665 million in damages to a local car dealership that is over 16 years delinquent. The Western media will of course ignore this fact despite that such an egregious violation of the law would probably even elicit an injunction from the capitalist courts of the US. Instead the focus is on nationalization, a word that conservatives and liberals alike have tried to make into a slur, especially in response to any attempts to condition the recent bailouts of the auto industry and banks on even lukewarm reforms.

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One Does Not Sell The Earth Upon Which The People Walk



Title is quote from Crazy Horse, as documented in Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (1970).


Housing As A Modern Rallying Point

How do we organize in late stage capitalism? This question is often debated among Leftists of the US in reference to the precarity of modern existence. The destruction of unions has made at-will employment the norm. Confronting the police’s racism is dealt with harshly. Capitalism’s reach seems inescapable, infecting even the social programs which would seem to mitigate its cruelties. In such a world, people feel alienated from their employment and from their participation in political life: how can they speak up at work when they can get fired without any recourse? Why participate in political life when their options are limited to two brazenly corrupt capitalist parties?

Organizers in Austin, Jackson, New York, and many other regions have turned to housing. While the modern condition of housing typifies the aforementioned precarity, it is an issue that is nearly impossible to be alienated from. For the alienated working class person, the home is one of the few realms where they can exercise dominion and seek refuge (obviously to varying degrees – the police rob many people from the safety of the home).

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The Janet Behind The Curtain

federal-reserve-blogThings are looking worse and worse for the liberal advocates of legalism and reform as direct action continues to win over and over and over again while doing things through the proper channels continues to fail. The latest blow is the resignation of Federal Reserve Board Governor Daniel K. Tarullo. Mr. Tarullo’s term was supposed to continue until 2022 but, for undisclosed reasons, he has left prior to that expiration. Know for his rigorous (or haphazard, at least according to the bankers) stress tests that he conducted against the banks to test how they would weather various economic emergencies, Mr. Tarullo was the closest thing to a public advocate on the Fed. Admittedly not a high bar, but nevertheless with his departure things will likely get worse for the working class.

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A Government of Popular Insurgency: An Interview with George Ciccariello-Maher

Portrait of Tupac Amaru II from

I was going to wait to release this interview until I got a Spanish translation, but because of the egregious capitulation of Drexel University to white nationalist trolls who were throwing a temper tantrum over a joke by Ciccariello-Maher poking fun at the Chicken Little cry of “White Genocide” often made by the Far Right, a “genocide” not by murder or sterilization but by “miscegenation” and immigration. Considering that the United States is a colony and not in anyway a “traditional white land,” this claim of genocide is ridiculous. And yet Ciccariello-Maher is now being threatened by his employer Drexel University. So please, take some time to call or email Drexel University and calmly tell them that you support Ciccariello-Maher and academic freedom, and oppose universities caving in to white nationalism:

Niki Gianakaris
And you can sign a petition as well.

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Lenin, Multinationals, and Development in the Global South




I generally do not write about international law on here because (1) I have 0 training in it and any knowledge comes from my own independent study; (2) because there is a strong presumption of comity in international common law between nations such that many of the issues that I talk about, especially with finance, wind up applying internationally (with obvious notable exceptions like Venezuela). But I had heard a lot about the 2016 UN Conference on Trade and Development so when my law library received a copy of the corresponding report on investment I thought it might be worth making an unusual departure into this mysterious realm.

What peaked my interest was that the UN Conference on Trade and Development is remarkably different from most UN and international institutions that govern economic policy and regulation (the IMF, World Bank, G20 summit, etc.). It is considered to be about as Left as you can get with such an institution in the present world and countries of the Global South have had some, albeit limited, success in defending their interests there to the chagrin of the more powerful and prosperous nations (for my purposes here I am excluding China and India who now inhabit the awkward position of wanting to utilize their former colonization politically while also wanting to surpass the United States in dominating capitalism and perpetuating their own forms of imperialism, especially in Africa).

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US Law And Michael Roberts’s The Long Depression

long20depression20front20coverLast night I finished Michael Roberts’s new book The Long Depressionan epic defense of Marx’s law of political economy that the tendency of the average rate of profit of capital was to fall and an argument that the world is in a long depression, the third economic depression since the rise of capitalism. Readers may recognize the author as I have often cited to the prolific work he has done on his blog, as well as recommending him to all of those who want a solidly Marxist perspective on economics. The book provides an exhaustive computation of the effect of Marx’s law, as well as refutations of a number of alternative explanations (Keynesian, neoclassical, Austrian school, monetarist, Ricardian, etc.) for the economic history of the world from 1873 until the present day. It is a fantastic book not only for Marxists eager to learn more about economics but for Marxists to share with STEM-oriented friends who are more receptive to Roberts’s quantitative focus than to the more sociological arguments for Marxism.

I knew I had to write something promoting this book but I’m at best an amateur economist, so my judgment of Roberts’s argument is not particularly useful. However, I can highlight the arguments of the book by putting forth my own supplement on how the U.S. law correlates to the economic phenomenons that Roberts describes. As the proposal to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act emerges from the shadows it has lingered in for over a decade, it is crucial to understand how a capitalist economy works and what effect the laws have on them.

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The End of Dodd-Frank Part 4: Financing a Democratic Future


The man pictured above nervously staring down the truth that Karl Marx wrote more than 121 years ago is Lloyd Blankfein. Mr. Blankfein is the Chairman and CEO (a duality typical of modern finance) of Goldman Sachs. Despite his grim look in this picture, Mr. Blankfein has a sunny disposition nowadays despite having had “600 hours of chemo” to eradicate the cancer growing out of his lymph nodes. Supposedly he’s been cured, which I’m sure was a big relief to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Clinton is close to Blankfein, and to Goldman Sachs in general. While mainstream media likes to frame Gary Gensler as a “Wall Street cop,” the campaign of Bernie Sanders responded to his hiring as Chief Financial Officer of Clinton’s campaign by saying that they “won’t be taking advice on how to regulate Wall Street from a former Goldman Sachs partner [at the age of 30] and a former Treasury Department official who helped Wall Street rig the system.”

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