The Most Fundamental Force

9. VIII 2020

Is it progress if a cannibal uses a fork? (Jerzy Lec)

In a competitive environment, violence against the other is the most effective survival strategy. Murder as a (predominantly male) strategy of attaining the status position of dominant power has been adaptive. It is installed in the human brain because it worked. Violent humans are descendants of those who succeeded in evolution. They are wired in the same way as their ancestors as the dominant factors of success propagated.

From the perspective of evolution, it appears as if the secret fate of every individual is to destroy the other, not necessarily through deliberate intent to do harm, but because of the fact of their own existence, driven by some cosmic necessity for the general demise of life. This destructive impulse extends across all living organisms and binds them together. Baudrillard saw this as a true ontological principle: Existence as such is already violence.

Bacteria, viruses, parasites of all kinds, and bacilli in general, invade a living organism and exploit its hospitality until they kill it and in this way destroy the source that feeds them. With the death of their host, bacilli die as well. Their destructive drive is not intentional — they just don’t “know” better. The destruction process takes place because their existence and survival degenerates into blind excessive growth. Bacilli are blind to the higher entity to which they owe their life and nourishment. Despite superior survival abilities, adaptability, and mutation, the immanence of the fatal end simply transcends their capability to incorporate that crucial aspect of their existence into their behavior. From the first moment of its creation, every invasive microbe is on a suicide mission and the entire purpose of its existence is to execute that task. This is the ultimate irony of existence in general.

The striking parallelism between behavior of humans and microbes led to Arthur Schnitzler’s brilliant meditation[1] in which he imagined the human race as an illness of some higher organism, completely inconceivable to us, within which humanity was to be found a purpose, necessity and meaning of its existence but which it also sought to destroy, and indeed would ultimately have to destroy, the more highly developed it became, in the same way bacilli strive to annihilate the ailing human organism. Even if this were right, this configuration would be ungraspable to us. It resides in the hyperplane that is out of our cognitive reach.

Stripped of higher purposes and social context, and reduced to bare survival, violent self-destructive drive is the essence of human existence: Violence is the most fundamental force. Because of this, human life and interactions need to be heavily regulated on every level. The true (unconditional) human nature should never be allowed to take its course, not even approximately or temporarily. It should be intercepted and redirected at all costs! The 20th century alone offers plenty of examples of what happens when human nature is let loose: Two world wars, Hiroshima, countless regional conflicts, Gulags, cultural revolutions, extermination camps, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and more than 120 million killed.

Topology of violence

The irony is that violence is unavoidable: Violence must be fought with violence. Subjective violence, inherent in human nature, should be controlled by the systematic violence of the collective. This is the regulatory and regulating force of the state. When human nature becomes unconstrained, we have death, wars, and extermination; there is blood everywhere. However, when we attempt to regulate our nature, when the state takes over, violence does not disappear, it merely changes the mode of its manifestation.

Human history is chronicle of the technology of violence. According to B. C. Han, social transformation across modernity represents its most dramatic structural transformation[2]. In premodernity, violence was ubiquitous and, above all, both mundane and visible. The staging of violence was an integral, even central component of societal communication. Rulers exhibited their power through deadly violence, through blood. The theatre of brutality that was staged in public spaces also demonstrated the ruler’s power and magnificence[3].

Emancipation and enlightenment announced a major departure in the use of violence. Modernity marks the onset of its internalization. Violence continues to be wielded but not publicly staged. The theater of bloody violence, which characterized the societies of sovereignty, yields to bloodless gas chambers withdrawn from public view. Rather than staging the magnificence of power, violence in modernity conceals itself in shame[4].

Without expressly drawing attention to itself, violence has withdrawn from the city center to its outskirts. Public executions were replaced with silent annihilations or by the hidden apparatus of institutional repression.

Han sees this as the essential and most sinister aspect of modernity: Violence in modernity takes place as a mute annihilation. It shifts from visible to invisible, from direct to discreet, from the physical to the psychic, from the frontal to the viral. Its mode of operation is no longer confrontation but contamination, not open assault, but concealed infection[5].

21st Century: The return of the magnificence of power

By elevating competition and individualism to the level of ultimate universal criterion, politics, in its regressive (neoliberal) spiral of the last 50 years, ultimately became the tool of the systematic removal of inhibitory mechanisms, which allowed us to come out as we are. As a consequence, the modalities of resulting social structures developed a deep resonance with our real nature. Leading inevitably to the rise of systematic violence. This has become the core problem of capitalism, the main reason why it has emerged as an anti-social project and why ultimately it either has to self-destruct or society as such has to disintegrate.

By now, we are about to close the circle of violence. Our initial conditions were clear: We are violent creatures whose civilization starts only when an exogenous entity (sovereign or state) begins to regulate our natural impulses. However, emancipation and enlightenment, for all the intended good doings, ultimately resulted in the grand sabotage of the entire civilization project by allowing individuality and freedom to create the seeds of ideology that gradually aligned itself with true human nature and ultimately created the path for the return of violence in its primordial form.

Designing a system of social organization, which is in harmony with human nature, is not something we should aspire to. It is generally a bad idea. A very bad one, in fact. Without a considerable amount of inhibition, human nature is socially toxic. In order to become social, we have to abandon our true nature. The entire process of growing up, of becoming socially integrated – what is referred to as civility – is all about inhibiting our true impulses (e.g. toilette training, selfishness, lack of empathy, aggression, ability to engage in a dialogue,…). These inhibitory skills define us as social beings. We are born without those skills and we spend a considerable portion of our lives learning how to acquire and use them. Without them there is no society.

So, we are the real problem. Violence is inscribed in our genetic code and, sooner or later, becomes the essential component of social organization. The question is then, how close or how far are we from the grand convergence with our real selves when all barriers are removed and ideology becomes a true representation of human nature.

This dilemma has finally caught up with us in the 21st century and we are beginning to get the first installments of the full answer. There is a clear trend of resurgence of violence in postmodernity. In this process, 2020 has played a singular role, not so much because it represents an eruption of violence per se, but because it is bringing it back to civic centers and confirming the sad, but unavoidable, truth that, no matter what we do and how much progress we make as a civilization, we can never fully emancipate ourselves from violence.

Rather than concealing itself in shame, violence is staging a return of magnificence of power through the regressive unwind of modernity. The new wave of fascination with power, with the emerging breed of populist autocrats seeing themselves as sovereigns of pre-modern times, are creating conditions for the recreation of the magnificence of sovereign power through a medieval fantasy of “law & order” by reviving the spectacle of violence and feeding the lower echelons of society, the modern day plebs, the regressive nostalgia by choreographing another reality show as a reenactment of the bloody violence of yesteryear in the contemporary centers of civility.

[1] Arthur Schnitzler, Aphorismen und Betrachtungen, S. Fischer Verlag (1967)

[2] B. C. Han, Topologie der Gewalt, Matthes & Seitz Berlin; Auflage: 1. (2011)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

Portland

1. VIII 2020

There is a distinct feeling of déjà vu behind the government response to civil unrests across the country in the last month. Political demagoguery, heated emotions, faux patriotism, us & them, “law & order” BS, enemies of the people, antagonism of the press, gratuitous violence, racial supremacy, misogyny, secret police, and the entire spectacle of identitarian package, all of this comes from the same tired and worn out playbook — same type of theatre, same scriptwriter, and the same mindset seen so many times before.

The spurious similarity between the populism of segregated and fractured post-2016 America and single-voice Germany of the 1930s — the two countries a century apart with no socioeconomic overlap — can be traced to the fact that their respective leaders have been engaged in the same ritual practices. Their respective ideologies – unconditional subordination to either national or oligarchic interests — and representative parties, National Socialist German Workers’ Party and National Capitalist MAGA, run in parallel.

In both cases, social marginalization triggered and shaped the rituals that followed. The 1930s was an uprising against the marginalization of Germany as a cultural, industrial and military power of the time. The rise of Nazism was a result of discontent due to the loss of a privileged position in the global context and the rising precarity at home. As a consequence, the entire country spoke in a single voice.

In 21st century prosperous America, which has not had a war on its territory for more than 150 years, it was marginalization of an entire social class and a reaction to the loss of white male privilege of the old days. The consequence was an unprecedented polyvocality as an expression of the social divide along cultural, racial and ethnic lines — a class war in a displaced mode, with the entire marginalized class speaking in a single voice only they could understand.

Camouflaging ritual as an escape route from marginality in today’s America has the sole purpose of forcing the alignment of interests of billionaires with those of the marginalized sector of its population. It is an effort to compactify an otherwise fractured political landscape and, by ignoring facts, laws of physics, economic, logic and common sense, connect the two opposite, and logically opposing, ends of the social spectrum and forge political alliances along artificial cultural divides between victims and their executioners.

As systematic violence, which for decades enabled the smooth functioning of the system and its repressive apparatus, has been on the rise, so has subjective and random violence. Throughout those times, sales of weapons were breaking new highs. The number of mass shootings and the score of victims recorded an unprecedented rise that transcends any historical extrapolations.

For years we have been bombarded with excuses and narratives arguing that all the innocent victims of mass shootings — this uniquely American phenomenon, a product of country’s obsession with guns, and militant opposition to any semblance of their regulation — had to die in order to preserve the 2nd amendment in its most insane form. While 90% of the American population has been unequivocally in favor of more stringent gun control, the NRA has persisted in their cynical and sadistic non-consensus stance against it, insisting, against all evidence, that such high concentration of unregulated gun ownership will keep us all safe and protected in case a rogue government turns on their citizens. According to them, even more guns are needed to make the society even safer. Leaving alone shear idiocy of that argument for a moment, the time to test the validity of that narrative and intentions of gun lobby has finally arrived.

This year, the rise of violence gained a new dimension. The failing and increasingly desperate and lonely president, who has practically abdicated his position and duties, who is already functioning as a lame duck, cleaning up his shop and trying to deliver in the next three months what was originally planned for him to do in the subsequent four years of his presidency (which by now is practically certain that will not happen), is bringing the vestiges of medieval spectacle of violence and power to the city center.

While unidentified paramilitary troops — the actual government secret police, the present-day incarnation of Gestapo — are terrorizing the citizens of Portland, including unarmed women, veterans, and elderly, and are preparing to spread their activity to other big cities, the NRA and their members and supporters are nowhere to be found; their silence has been deafening. In fact, if one were to wager where their sympathy would be, there is an unmistakable feeling that it is most likely to be on the side of the aggressor, rather than the people.

The uncovering of the falsity of the ideological mindfuck behind the 2nd amendment is the terminal bankruptcy of the old and persistent narrative, a fairy-tale for angry citizens, which, against any reason, continues to permeate and contaminate the American culture. Disguised as a rationalization of the faux “cultural” alignment between executioners and their victims, it never really had any other meaning and value beyond laundering blood money from arms sales.

Violence & Power

19. VII 2020

The cat uses force to catch the mouse, to seize it, hold it in its claws and ultimately kill it. But while it is playing with it another factor is present. It lets the mouse go, allows it to run about a little and even turns its back; and, during this time, the mouse is no longer subjected to force. But it is still within the power of the cat and can be caught again. The space which the cat dominates, the moments of hope it allows the mouse, while continuing however to watch it closely all the time and never relaxing its interest and intention to destroy it – all this together, space, hope, watchfulness and destructive intent, can be called the actual body of power, or, more simply, power itself. (Elias Canetti)

Violence and power stand in opposition to each other. Power is revealed when violence is withdrawn (the destructive clock stops when the cat releases the mouse). Inherent in power is certain extension in space and time (releasing the mouse, giving it space and time to develop illusion of freedom and hope). In contrast, violence takes place at a particular point.

American history resides in the interstices between violence and power. That has always been its preferred habitat. From inception, its history has been marked by an unprecedented reliance on violence, from the systematic genocide and practical eradication of Native Americans to Slavery — a prime foundation of the country’s industry, finance, commerce and general prosperity — and its successive mutations, Jim Crow, cities of destruction, hyperghetto, resulting in explosion of the networks of incarceration with the most extensive carceral system on the planet.

The persistent coexistence of violence and power, and the longevity of that configuration, is difficult to understand in a broader context of the dialectics of power. When taken in a political context, violence represents stupid power. It is an extremely inefficient way of rule, unsustainable when applied alone. Violence automatically causes an opposing will, which weakens its effect and demands escalation in order to offset that will. This causes violence to exhaust itself in the long run, and as its power erodes, its rule results either in capitulation or in the tragic end of annihilation. Between the beginning and the end of its rule, there is a tipping point beyond which violence, as it collapses under its own weight, either disappears or crushes everyone else.

How did American violence survive for so long without self-destructing? The systematic resort to violence as a way of maintaining a grip on power for four centuries remains one of the major paradoxes of modernity primarily due to its longevity and continued escalation.

The anatomy of violence and the masquerade of power

In domestic affairs, violence functions as the last resort of power against criminals and rebels – against individuals who refuse to be overpowered by the consensus of the majority. Even in actual warfare, like during the Vietnam war, we have seen how superiority in the means of violence can become helpless if confronted with an ill-equipped but well-organized opponent who is much more powerful. The accumulation of means of annihilation does not make superpowers mightier – military might is often the counterpart of internal weakness. (Hannah Arendt)

Violence is a transient phenomenon; it may contribute to the creation of power, but power is not based on it. One can use violence to seize power, but cannot maintain it with violence. In order to survive, violence must continuously reinvent itself. Following the process of mutation of violence through American history brings some clarity to the paradox of its longevity. There are three main ingredients, which define the landscape: The use of culture as a lever arm, economic forces, and particular patterns of mutation of state as the main source of lawlessness and violence.

1) Culture as a lever arm

Benedict Anderson’s observation that nations are imagined communities[1] (the emphasis is on “imagined”) frames the problem and alludes at its non-linearity. This notion indicates that the idea that complete strangers might share identity with us as a group or nation is not obvious from our direct experience. The fact that multiethnic and multicultural communities are trans-experiential, requires an abstract layer, like ideology, for example, that provides justification for their existence. A wide acceptance of these ideologies, thus, allows the mobilization of social movements and mass media, which may acquire power over people because they are ready to accept ideas that make some plausible sense of their world.

According to B. C. Han’s account of the power-violence dynamics, as opposed to violence, which does not allow for either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, power relation contains the possibility of resistance. Freedom, no matter how illusory it might be, is the essential precondition for the exercise of power (cat has to release the mouse in order for power to begin to configure itself). The illusion of freedom must never stop in order for the power relations to continue existing[2].

These considerations outline the importance of interplay between violence and the transient windows of illusory freedom, which creates pockets of power underlined by the cat & mouse dynamics: The space which the cat dominates, the moments of hope it allows the mouse, while continuing however to watch it closely all the time and never relaxing its interest and intention to destroy it, all these elements have been in play at each new node of violence in American history.

Since the abolition of slavery, every new concession to the freedom of Black Americans has created a new temporary space of power by implying a new mode of violence in place of the old one as a reminder. Every subsequent institutional change of repression just made violence more systematic and less transparent. As apparent superficial freedom was changing, from slavery to Jim Crow, to ghetto & hyperghetto, to the expansion of the prison system, and police brutality, violence did not taper; it only reinforced the grip on power.

Every shift in the underlying systematic violence has had its ritual part aimed at creating a temporary space of power: lynching, manhunts, and other manifestations of (white) male bonding, institutionalized and reinforced later through the carceral state. The entire white supremacy act, both in its original incarnation and its subsequent mutations, has been just ritualized violence with an unambiguous aim to reiterate and cast into peoples’ subconscious a symbolic message associated with each black face: “Your nature is to be a slave”(cat & mouse play, again!), for the sole purpose of transforming that violence into power, while the vulgar-materialistic evangelical narrative was structured around interpreting this order of things as a heavenly dictum aimed at mobilizing forces that provide its legitimacy.

2) Economic factors

All this has been playing against powerful economic factors. The backbone of the system’s attachment to Slavery and its modernized versions resides in capital’s insatiable need for free labor. This highlights the second dimension of violence.

According to Michael Mann’s model of ethnic conflicts[3], all cases of oppression against certain segments of society involve material interests. Usually, members of one segment/class/ethnicity come to believe they have a collective economic interest against an out-group. Often, ethnicity trumps class. Class sentiments are displaced onto ethnic group relations. The oppressed group identifies the other as an imperial exploiting class, considering itself an exploited proletariat. Exploiter on the other hand sees its imperial rule as bringing civilization and progress to inferior ethnic group/class. The defense of this imperium against revolutionary threats from below is what is called imperial revisionism.

3) State as the center of dissemination of lawlessness

In the past, culture had a dual role, to shape consensus and act as an agent of change. In the last 50 years, gradually, but perceptibly, culture has abandoned its missionary course; it has become the mechanism for creation of a parcelized space of power and a tool of division and maintenance of the status quo.

The modern state has redefined itself inside the gap between cultural and economic powers, where the two became inextricably intertwined providing the background for the imperial revisionism as the framework for expanding the space of power. The main trend of technocratic governments in developed democracies, and in America in particular, has been gradually giving up ideological consensus and replacing it with cultural division as the main lever arm. Without big ideological causes, the only way to actively mobilize people (and their passions) is through fear. In this way, culture wars became class wars in displaced mode. Neoliberalism and populism are just two different modes of implementation of this agenda.

According to Charles Tilly, the state in many ways functions like organized crime and uses its monopoly position as a racket. The very activity of producing and controlling violence favors monopoly, because competition within that realm generally raises costs, instead of lowering them. The production of violence enjoys large economies of scale. Governments are generally in the business of selling protection with state having a monopoly on violence. They legitimize its use in order to maintain and reinforce consensus and, thus, maintain their power. Subordinated government tends to maximize monopoly profits as well as turning protection rents to the economic interests of the dominant class[4].

Based on an extrapolation of Tilly’s argument, in response to each installment of innovation in violence during the last 400 years, time and again, the state had adapted to the new context accordingly, giving rise to new institutions of oppression.

By criminalizing the Other, power could be deployed as a way of protecting or maintaining the fractured consensus, which, in effect, refers to selling protection to the privileged segment of society, while drawing the revenues to maintain and/or expand its repressive apparatus. In that process, state tends to invent new problems, which it proposes to resolve, and in time becomes itself a source of lawlessness and violence[5]. This is the logic behind institutional racism, the criminalization of poverty, the war on drugs, the exploding carceral network, and other institutions of programmatic repression in America, all this against the background of a systematic, ideologically driven, elimination of empathy and pathological individualization as the main cultural dimension.

Production of political subjects or Banality of Evil

To be human remains a decision (Carl Schmitt)

As the state manufactures excuses to escalate violence and extend its life support, it enables violence to masquerade as power and sustain itself longer. Implementation of this approach to power requires the production and cultivation of a special kind of mindset: Philistine, self-righteous, ignorant, aggressive male, devoid of ethical constraints and accountability, which conforms unconditionally to ideological tasks, whatever they may be. These are mediocrities, not fanatics or sociopaths, who, rather than thinking for themselves, rely on clichés; they are driven primarily by their petty interests (promotion, careers, money,…) and believe in success as the chief standard of a “good society” to which everything else is subordinated. Such people, especially them, are capable of committing the most extreme acts of evil. Their actions are motivated by extraordinary complacency. These extraordinarily unexceptional men become champions of extraordinary evil, the condition identified by Hannah Arendt as Banality of Evil.

Creating conditions for this mode of social interaction has been the main ideological tool of American politics. Social atomization eliminates cohesion and unified expression, except in terms of violence or hostility towards the Other who have been identified as such through one of the modes of exclusion, like racism or social Darwinism, as not worthy of the same rights. The same mechanism — absence of organizational power — that allowed a relatively small number of slave-owners to handle a large number of slaves, or labor camp guards vs. inmates, is now in full display. When such a weakened social community is attacked and people are unable to organize themselves around their interests and political rights, they cannot find a common voice or underpinning, except in aggressiveness towards other groups.

Foundations of this order began to shake in the last decade with the escalation of systematic violence. The cumulative result of rampant inequality, systemic exclusion, and endemic precarity was ultimately the devastation of the political space inherent in the existence of the medium of power and, as access to power became more exclusive, consensus began to form independently of the state, which grew more isolated and without real power to rule. The context that provided power for decades continued to shrink and began to collapse onto itself as contours of superior non-coercive, smart, power emerged. This is when things started to unravel.

The system of violence, which masqueraded as power for four centuries, revealed its cracks in the last decade and, in 2020, reached the tipping point when the space of traditional power began to implode. Political/social matter and antimatter began to collide triggering the annihilation process. Centuries of the masquerade of power were exposed for what they always have been: violence, i.e. stupid power.

Hannah Arendt

If one of us is chained, none of us are free (Solomon Burke)

In a sociopolitical context, power is predicated on commonality and cohesion, but without necessarily having one central actor. Power creates a medium against which collective action can arise. This medium is the ground state of power. Violence, on the other hand, is a lonely act. It is not supported by the affirmation of the others – it is One against All[6].

However, power has another dimension besides shared space and commonality. During the accelerated transformation of the American political body in the last four years, the 45th president’s abject figure has emerged as the origin of the new political subjectivity. His only consistency, to be always, without exception, on the wrong side of any and every argument and decision, has inadvertently galvanized the process of political reconfiguration. He has made the present so appalling that unconditional change, wherever it takes us (as long as it is without him), has become a preferred direction embraced by traditionally opposing ends of the political spectrum, leading to the formation and buildup of massive like-minded crowds, unified in their common desire. He has become the center of mass of political anti-matter, which repels the rest and defines the direction of “against” and, thus, emerges as a reference point of political action.

Power is above all an affirmation of self[7]. This is Arendt’s most powerful insight. It is not an absolute consensus, but a mirror image of violence as expressed with “One against All”: Power is “All against One”, where “One” is the object to be opposed, the repulsive core of social antimatter, an anchor of subjectivity and the origin through which coordinates of subjectivity are drawn. The collective that is configured around this origin becomes the seed of spatialization of power.

Power is greatest where the holder of power encounters no resistance whatsoever. Power and violence, therefore, meet in the limit of their absolute: There is no resistance not only in the case of infinite violence, but also in the case of infinite power[8]. At some point, the distinction between the two becomes blurred and transition from one to another seamless.

 

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Revised Edition, Verso (2006)

[2] B. C. Han, Was ist Macht?, Philip Reclam jun. GmbH & Co. KG, Stuttgart (2005)

[3] Michael Mann, Dark side of Democracy, Cambridge University Press (2005)

[4] Charles Tilly, War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, in Bringing the State Back, ed. By P. Evans, D. Rueschemeyer, and T. Skocpol, Cambridge University Press (1985)

[5] ibid.

[6] Hannah Arendt, On Violence, Harcourt Brace Javanovich; First edition (1970)

[7] ibid.

[8] B. C. Han, ibid.

Crowds and Power

4. VII 2020

The very time I thought I was lost

My dungeon shook and my chains fell off (James Baldwin)

Unlike other senses whose organs are localized (eyes, ears, nose, tongue), our sense of touch, our skin, is everywhere – it envelops our entire body. We feel touch no matter where it comes from. Touch frightens us much more than any other stimuli because of its immediacy. When felt, someone has already intruded into our personal space. We can sleep through a powerful thunderstorm, but are instantly awakened by even the gentlest touch when our personal space and sovereignty have been violated.

Because of this deep rooted fear, neighbor has always been perceived as an arcehetypal traumatic intruder, someone whose different way of life disturbs us, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails, whose proximity often gives rise to an aggressive reaction and an impulse of getting rid of, or at least getting isolated from[1]. All the distances, physical, social or intellectual, which men create around themselves, are dictated by this fear. They are perceptible in architecture through symmetry, which derives in part from man’s attempt to create uniform distances all around himself — safety is based on distances and is emblematically expressed by them.[2]

Crowds play a dual role in the context of their interaction with our fears. People avoid crowds because of the fear of being touched. However, it is only in crowds that man can become free of this fear — as soon as man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch.[3] There is a singular point in crowd formation: when they swell to a certain size, they begin to attract people as they realize that the only way to overcome the anxiety of touch is to be totally immersed and allow touch to be everywhere.

That decision is triggered when those who belong to the crowd decide to abandon the comfort of their rank, status, and privilege – everything that defines ones social universe – and feel equal with others. Those distinctions are deeply embedded in their subconscious; they keep them firmly apart from one another. In every sphere of life, firmly established hierarchies prevent man from touching anyone more exalted than himself or descending, except in appearance, to anyone lower.[4] This moment of annihilation of differences and surrender to a single collective, which Canetti calls Discharge, is the tipping point in the process of creating the medium of power.

With discharge and the surrender to the crowd, the fear of alien intrusion into our personal space disappears – its sanctity no longer matters, our neighbors no longer frighten us. Through this symbolic gesture, the old power, which derived its strength through our division, loses its magic spell and is no longer capable of functioning as or impersonating power. It has lost its space and, exposed for what it has always been, is retreating into the bunker. In its place, a new space of different power is being created.

James Baldwin

To this day, the poetic take of James Baldwin offers the most eloquent and accurate summary of this moment of social and political inflection in American history[5]. For years, white Americans, even the most progressive – the alumni of the civil rights movement and the 1960s protests – despite having their hearts in the right place, have remained essentially bystanders, their well-meaning actions unable to change the course of things. They have been trapped in a history, which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. Throughout the 400-year history of America the Black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.[6]

Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. The danger in the minds of most white Americans is the loss of their identity.[7] That fear of the end of the (white) universe has defined the space of the masquerade of power that has been maintained through extraordinary violence, which in turn provided the lifeline to that fear. The fear and violence fed on each other until they were both exhausted and began to collapse under their own weight.

As we commemorate 244 years of unprecedented violence, the American white man finally appears to be ready to overcome his fear of the end, of removing the static barriers to change, the historical constants and the pillars of his universe. More than half of protestors in the Black Lives Matter Movement have been white[8] — not a victory, but definitely progress! The white man has overcome the anxiety of being touched by immersing himself into the crowd, by allowing each square inch of his political body to be touched. After being lost in it for 400 years, he is coming to terms with his history. The fixed star is beginning to move, the earth is shaking and the universe is changing. A new space of power is exploding. This is 1968 redux, only this time it is no longer a battle against the two alternative sources of political violence, but the showdown with the only remaining one.

Happy 4th!

[1] Slavoj Zizek, Violence, Profile Books (2008)

[2] Elias Canetti, Masse und Macht, Claasen Verlag (1973)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Vintage; Reissue edition (1992)

[6] ibid

[7] ibid.

[8] For example, in Atlanta, 75% of protesters were white, in LA 78%, in Minneapolis 85%, and in NYC 76%!

Oklahoma

20. VI 2020

It has been three months since the beginning of the pandemic, more precisely, since the admission of its existence, and the beginning of the most spectacular collapse of a presidency in American history. After three and a half years of political theatre of the absurd, the 45th president is standing alone, fully exposed as the most colossal failure a high office has ever seen, guilty and crumbling under the growing burden of responsibility, which he is hopelessly trying to deflect.

So far the narratives he launched in his defense have been largely either stillborn lies — short lived, ridiculed and disputed even before they were completely uttered — or, at best, they got drowned at inception in the cross-media cacophony. He is addicted to lies, but his lies refuse to stick. He has been in a desperate need for their real-time audio-visual validation – a confirmation that someone, anyone, can still find them believable.

As poll numbers are in a nosedive, the imploding echo chamber of his sycophants has been getting quieter by the day. Nothing seems to be working for this infantile geriatric whiner.

At the same time, his transgressions were getting graver and their baggage heavier – it continues to reinforce itself requiring new transgressions to cover old ones up, drawing an ever-expanding circle of collaborators inside the event horizon.

The stakes are getting higher and risks more extreme. The prospect of finding himself unprotected by the shield of the presidential office is alarmingly realistic and overwhelmingly likely while his legal and political liabilities are reaching toxic levels, all this only five months before the elections.

And he can’t take risks — he has never been able to; his entire life has been about deflecting responsibility.

Serious withdrawal symptoms from his addiction to lies are beginning to erupt through their somatic manifestations. He needs a new fix – a more potent drug and a higher dose of it. His position requires a higher level of unconditional commitment – no longer a cheerleading choir, but a new installment of high-stakes articles of faith by his eroding base in order to satiate his habit and diffuse the anxiety of withdrawal. What is happening today in Oklahoma is the inauguration of nothing short of a political suicide cult. The spirit of Jim Jones is palpable.

Deresponsibilization and the Politics of Escape

31. V 2020

Making a decision under risk/uncertainty requires an understanding of possible outcomes (and having some idea about their probability assignment) in order to quantify the relative magnitude of cost/benefit, and assess its merits. The only decisions that make sense are those where the upside exceeds the downside (in a probabilistic sense), preferably by multiple times.

For example, jumping a turnstile in the NYC subway carries a $100 fine; the actual ticket price is $3.00. Opting to jump a turnstile instead of buying the ticket is clearly a stupid decision – the downside, $100 fine, is more than 30 times higher than the upside of saving $3.00 — you have to do it 34 times without getting caught in order to break even.

Imagine now that you are offered to participate in a game of coin toss with the following payout: Gain $10 if heads come up, and $0 in the case of tails. Clearly, a ticket to this gamble should be worth something, around $4 or $5, for example, so that net gains are just slightly higher than potential losses. However, for the sake of argument, assume that this gamble is grossly mispriced and is offered at a much lower cost, say $1 or less, so that its price is insignificant. For the buyer the exposure is: $10 upside and practically no downside.

This type of transaction/gamble/contract cannot exist, or if it for some reason shows up, it cannot persist, in a financial world or any other context where all participants are rational. Without a commensurate downside, the gamble violates basic axioms of (financial) decision-making. However, if this Impossible Game were to persist, it would inevitably end in the financial ruin of the underwriter.

Since the gamble is practically costless, the beneficiary could either flip the coin repeatedly as often as he wishes with impunity as the costs to enter are insignificant, or can raise the stakes and, instead of $10, change the upside to $10 million. This means that the costs to the underwriter could increase indefinitely and ultimately result in ruin. Knowing this, the buyer could use this as leverage – by dosing the frequency of his coin tosses, he could extort any kind of consent from the underwriter.

Severe mispricing and absence of meaningful downside is always harmful. It leads to far-reaching and catastrophic outcomes. Removal of the downside decouples decision making from its consequences and creates a dangerous world of irresponsible behavior with predictable long-term outcomes. Good judgment is based on experience and experience is based on past bad judgment — exposure to downside, i.e. suffering the consequences of our mistakes, is an essential part of learning. Denial of downside intercepts the corrective loop of knowledge acquisition and prevents the formation of experience as an essential part of our existence.

The existence of real and consequential downside is a friction that is necessary for the stability of any sociopolitical, financial, or biological system that involves risk, like social contacts, relationships, sexual encounters, family, economics, business, science, art, law, politics, crime or any other human activity.

You cannot innovate without creating some damage

So, why are we thinking of Impossible Games that have no right to exist? The 20th century was largely a century of innovations and new discoveries. However, every novelty introduces new risks and consequences. Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck; invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, nuclear power plant of nuclear meltdown. Progress and disaster are two sides of the same coin, and the more revolutionary and impactful the innovation, the more spectacular the disaster it creates[1]. We have been harvesting the benefits of those discoveries for decades. This is what the last century was about. However, the 21st century is shaping up to be the century of disasters.

The accident reveals the substance of innovation. Only now are we beginning to get a full taste of this causality. 9/11, global financial crisis, inequality, climate change, economic stagnation, structural unemployment, populism… they are all consequences of the 20th century innovation streak (scientific, political or socioeconomic).

While the innovation paradigm has become an irresistible profit-making machine, embraced by the capital, there is a persistent parallel effort to externalize the downside that comes with it by distancing decision makers from the consequences of their decisions. This has been the unmistakable trend of the first two decades of this century so far. However, in the last four years, this effort has entered an accelerated phase. The paradigm of Impossible Transaction has intruded into every pore of our activity and has become the template of current American politics.

Intersecting crises and the anatomy of the impossible

Capital has always externalized the adverse effects of its prosperity — its desire for deresponsibilization is understandable and in some perverse way natural. However, when such denial of responsibility comes from a person, it is a sign of deeper problems and pathologies. The inability to behave responsibly – pathological refusal to face the downside in a risky situation – is inextricably linked to incompetence, insecurity, and habitual lying. When such people are entrusted with positions of high responsibility, the totality of their flaws are activated simultaneously and begin to reinforce each other leading to dire consequences.

The third decade started with a bang by creating the conditions for the most dangerous configuration of risks: The intersection of social and economic crises. At the epicenter of this deadly configuration resides a compulsive escape from responsibility. Externalization of responsibility and its rapidly growing deficit have entered an acute phase in the last two months as attempts to untie the deadly knot and decouple the two crises are beginning to crumble, threatening to intoxicate the public sphere and bring the whole system down.

Reopening the economy during a pandemic is a high-risk decision. It is desirable by businesses and, if successful, the monetary and political upside could be substantial. However, the downside is difficult to own — the price can be many human lives. Forcing one or the other side – ignoring the risks or erring on the side of caution — requires expending unknown amounts of political capital, which inevitably deepens the downside.

The main difficulty with that decision is the irreconcilable character of the data – the upside and downside are measured in different units. While the upside reflects economic gains, the downside, in addition to economic losses, includes human lives. Any attempt at cost/benefits analysis would necessarily reveal the price tag policy makers put on human life, which as a rule has always been low. And while that has been no secret, the issue is especially troubling for the current president, who has a pathological skew in that context and reminding the public of its magnitude and extent could be politically costly. As a result, the criteria for reopening cannot be clearly specified, forcing the deployment of alternative articulations of the approach to the problem. And we know how it all unfolded.

Pathological refusal to face downside

It’s been more than two months since, during the press conference on March 13th, the 45th President uttered the historic words: “I don’t take responsibility at all”. This ludicrous denial of responsibility by a person in a position of the highest responsibility stands on its own as one of the most singular PR attempts ever seen in American political history. However, the nonsense did not stop there; it was followed by a barrage of falsehoods and a series of real “constitutional gems”[2] in the subsequent weeks. If Dante Alighieri were a contemporary poet some statements that came from the current occupant of the Oval Office in the last two months would occupy prominent spots in the New Divine Comedy of the 21st century. The emerging composite message of Trump’s laughable attempt to redefine his position in the current crisis can be summarized with two claims: “I can fix it alone” & “I bear no responsibility”.

In financial lingo, this is the Impossible Gamble: All the upside without any downside. The underwriter of this transaction, the American public and the state, would be exposed to a pure downside with no upside and would be subject to blackmail by the president who can use that contract as leverage to extort any subsequent concession.

This maneuver reveals a systematic and unambiguous pattern: Trump has no ability to take risk. Instead of managing risk, he runs for cover preemptively and buys protection ahead of time. If he were a market maker or portfolio manager, he wouldn’t last a week. At the root of this handicap resides an implicit deep-seeded lack of confidence in the merit of his decisions, an implicit awareness that they are worthless — there is a cloud of inevitability of their failure from inception. However, when he is forced to take a risk, he does so in the most cowardly (and dishonest) way. All this while he and his surrogates are trying to strike an alpha-male chord with the frustrated angry citizenry, who go to antigovernment protests armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers. Underneath that faux machismo resides an essential cowardice and ultimate beta-dog mindset of both the leader and his followers fundamentally unsure of themselves.

Truth deficits and Ponzi-scheme artists

In the same way small sporadic indebtedness — occasional borrowing to have ends meet — is different from massive dependence on debt to cover the costs of a gambling habit, there is a qualitative difference between isolated lies and habitual or perpetual lying. Lies are a debt to the truth; persistent lying is accumulation of debt without collateral.

Trump is not an occasional liar; he is addicted to lies. The fundamental axiom/algorithm of his life, and the main pillar of his business, is condensed in the simple realization: If I owe you $100, it is my problem; but if I owe you $1 million, then it is your problem. Trump’s entire business “acumen”, the only thing he really knows, is contained in this one sentence.

He is a one-trick pony, an avid Ponzi-scheme practitioner socializing his risks and neutralizing himself against his bad decisions and actions. Doubling down on every lie is a strategic debt management maneuver, not in a good or intelligent way, but in a way that reflects incapacity for anything else. It is a survival skill acquired during a lifetime of bad business decisions out of which it was impossible to escape by any other means except with the help of other bad decisions. Such a context requires an ever-expanding line of credit, which draws his creditors into the position of his accomplices. Once they are fully in, they become partners and co-owners of that debt – it becomes their problem[3].

Incompetence and the art of escape

More than anything, Trump is an escape artist. His entire professional life he has been on the run, trying to escape the consequences of his ineptitude and incompetence. He’s been a fugitive from facts, truth, and evidence, always merely steps away from the fatal clinch of his collectors. This had created conditions of acute anxiety, short attention span, cognitive incapacity, persistent feel of persecution, and low-grade paranoia, where everyone is there to get him. Ironically, this is not incorrect because he owes to everyone in terms of money, truth, facts, favors, loyalty, and responsibility. He genuinely sees himself as a victim because of that.

Somewhere along the way in Trump’s troubled life his ignorance became robust and non-adaptive. He had gotten away with it so many times that he became incapable of understanding any other context than the one of his own mistakes and cover-ups. His corrective mechanisms atrophied, his bad decisions never converted into experience.

Disappearance by proliferation

Cancer implies an infinite proliferation of a basic cell in complete disregard of the laws governing the organism as a whole.

How could a person so flawed, inept and fundamentally incompetent like Trump continue to thrive for decades and rise in ranks in the nominally competitive meritocratic world of American business? And how did America get duped into signing a contract with this subliterate yawper? These are fundamental puzzles, which cannot be understood on their own, but require a broader context. His survival and rise are signs of deeper dynamics — a problem of contamination of the entire American value system — which have been brewing in the background for decades now.

Over the course of the last 50 years, contemporary Western political systems have become entirely self-referential. They have lost every external point of reference and, in that way, corrective mechanisms that align them with their social purpose. They could be either judged only on their own terms or not judged at all. Consequently, they have been allowed to continue to expand, increase in size and become more efficient, but in the direction that served no other purpose but their own. With time, they have become all encompassing – every sector of social activity gradually became like this and now all systems account for all of reality[4]. There is nothing that can be held against such a political system that is not revealed to be already part of it. The mode of ideological hegemonic functioning has become self-preserving: Nothing that comes from within the system can be resisted – no critique of it can be articulated and revolt and uprising are rendered meaningless.

To a large extent, Trump is a product of these conditions of socioeconomic functioning. His political position is supported not only by his base but also by a wide-ranging sector of capital. He was seen as a harbinger of the new paradigm, responding to both the need of capital for deresponsibilization and for the creation of simplified and self-serving narratives aimed at pacifying a growing number of excluded and managing their rage capital.

Capital loves him because he is doing their bidding by setting the stage for a general escape from consequences by opening the door for the legitimization and eventual normalization of widespread unaccountability. He is a catalyst whose task is to introduce it into the mainstream and make sure that the paradigm of the Impossible Game percolates into every pore of human activity and proliferates until it is everywhere and nowhere and, as such, becomes invisible.

With the consequences of risk-taking fully externalized, the accumulated downside becomes the dark matter of the social universe and its buildup the main uncertainty. However, it is just when all uncertainty disappears that it also reappears, because it is at the very moment when domination is total that, because there is nothing outside of it, that it cannot be realized, and has no objective effect. It is at this point that stakes re-enter the game and impossible exchange is shown to be necessary[5].

Beginning of the epilogue

Nazi plunder refers to art theft and organized looting of European countries during the Third Reich, between 1933 and 1945, carried out by military units known as the Kunstschutz on behalf of the ruling Nazi Party. In 1940, Der Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (The Reichs Leader Rosenberg Taskforce), or ERR, was formed, under Alfred Rosenberg’s and Herman Göring’s leadership. ERR was responsible for seizing more than 20 thousand art objects from German-occupied countries, out of which Göring alone selected about 600 pieces for his own collection. Items which Hitler and Göring did not want were made available to other Nazi leaders, while other, lesser valuable, objects were traded to fund Nazi activities.

While it started as a systematic and well organized project with great attention to detail and involvement of many top art experts and art dealers, guided by strictly defined aesthetic and market criteria, towards the end of the war, the effort became more hectic, non-discriminating and disorganized as the whiff of inevitable defeat began to sink in.

Trump has been doing his con job for over 40 years. But has it worked? Well, every project he undertook ended up in bankruptcy, a total six of them – roughly one every seven years. However, he got away without going to jail while at the same time raising the stakes, so he succeeded in that sense. The stakes are now as high as they can be, so there is no next level. Will he get away with it this time and who will be the rube that bails him out? Or has he come to an end from which there will be no escape? It looks like this time will be no different.

The Republican party and the ideological right, which several decades ago spearheaded the conservative agenda as fiscal hawks and mobilized an army of economists, historians, and legal experts to push implementation of the programmatic plunder of the public domain, entered the final phase of high entropy of the end days in 2016.

This year (2020) presents their attempt to breathe new life into the already bankrupt project of Trump’s presidency. All elements of their so-called “strategy” and doubling down have been on display. Nevertheless, despite all the efforts to find an escape route and stage another comeback, last week feels unmistakably different, as if we have passed through the point of no return and that from now on, things will start unwinding at an accelerated pace.

The four decades of plundering of the public domain in America by the GOP’s Kunstschutz and their oligarchic sponsors, a.k.a the project of reconfiguration of the state, has been interrupted in 2020 by the lethal mix created by the intersection of the social and economic crises. Trump’s pillage and cover-ups are the modern version of the Nazi Plunder. Its accelerated phase of the last three months, the disorganized looting akin to the last days of WWII, is an acknowledgment of the imminent end of the Trump era, its 1945.

[1] Paul Virilio, The Original Accident, Polity (2007)

[2]It’s my decision, not governors’, to reopen country. I have the ultimate Authority to Override States’ Virus Measures. When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total.” on 13-Apr, only few days apart from: “I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them, because from a constitutional standpoint, that’s the way it should be done. If I disagreed, I would overrule a governor, and I have that right to do it. But I’d rather have them make their decisions.”

[3] One does not have to go as far back as his real estate deals, casinos, products he tried to con people into buying, or his University and charity; not to mention the entire Birther Movement. We just need to remember what happened in the last 3½ years. His problems with Russia, impeachment, or corona pandemic… are now problems of Bill Bar, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Lindsey Graham, Fox News, and the entire GOP – apparently everybody’s except his own.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange, Verso (2012)

[5] ibid.

One Day the Day Will come when the Day Won’t Come

26. IV 2020

Madness is the only way of forgetting – it is the hawthorn stick of history. (Borislav Pekic)

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Prologue: How modernity forgets

Civilizations are repositories of collective traumas. National sensibilities and neuroses have in common that they prefer to repeat their accidents, like the commemoration of defeats at cult sites, memorial pornography or reenactments of civil war battles[1].

According to Peter Sloterdijk, traumatized people are dislocated from the happy forgetful center to the margins of society from which there is no longer any simple return to normal life. For them, forgetting is an unaffordable luxury, and since consolation through forgetting is unreachable, it becomes unwanted and unacceptable. Incapable of digesting the poisons of memory, the traumatized subject embarks on conquering trauma through simulated grief, which begins when the victim decides to let him/herself fall into humiliation as if it were the product of choice. This condition awakens the emotion of self-pity which becomes a cause of resentment, and which in turn inspires rage. In order to deal with pain, victims exaggerate it to make it bearable: To transcend one’s depressed suffering, they extend the feeling of trauma or injustice to the size of the mountain in order to be able to stand on its peak full of bitter triumph[2].

The trauma of modernity

Modernity represents a large-scale civilizational coming of age – an awakening of reason and a shattering moment of self-realization driven by a collective expression of discontent with God and how he managed the affairs of the world. It is the most monumental transfer of power and responsibility in history, a tectonic cultural shock, an abandonment of millennia of old and tired narratives and organizing principles, and a collective trauma of epic proportions that continues to linger on.

With modernity, the blend of facts and fictions has changed. The whole world is upside down: Earth is no longer at the center of the universe; it has no beginning and no end; Man is no longer special, just an evolved monkey. However, contrary to initial expectations, enlightenment, rationality, and above all, emancipation from God, i.e. abandonment of the world of simplicity, determinism, coherence, and fairy tales, created their own problems.

In its essence, modernity is a process of disenchantment of the world — a seminal break point in modern culture and a radical departure in the way we experience reality. It connotes the removal of a magic spell and reflects a belief that humanity can control everything by means of calculation. And so, through the advent of scientific methods and the use of enlightened reason the world is rendered transparent, demystified and, ultimately, hollowed and deprived of its richness. It became disenchanted and disenchanting, predictable and intellectualized[3].

But to what end? Emancipation, progress, and enlightenment have ultimately failed in almost every respect. They only led to more unequal distributions and further accumulation of discontent — the number of people left behind has been growing unstoppably and persistent encounters with, or the looming threat of, the reality of exile to the margins of society has made modern man eminently traumatized.

After centuries of reason, modern man finds himself isolated, deprived of his ontological need to communicate, emotionally exhausted and socially disoriented, without a sense of territory, belonging, and identity.

The collective trauma of modernity is registering through an eruption of various modes of simulated grief as the ritualistic annulment of consensus, a revolt against what has become the conventional interpretative framework of reality. This is an expression of capitulation before the side-effects of enlightenment.

The uprising: Communitas

The world used to be simple when God was around and in charge. Details of “how and why” were left to Him to sort out and manage; man was left to deal with simple problems within his reach. Now, God’s things became man’s job and responsibility – he had to take care of everything and bear responsibility for his acts.

That was too much for man. Humans are unable to cope with too many things and this inability creates a state of chronic anxiety and libidinal disinvestment. Cults and fringe groups form in response to social and emotional dislocations caused by complexity fatigue and anxieties these conditions engender. These groups have always existed as an escape from conventional reality and as a pursuit of alternative self-serving fictions that soothe man’s injured soul. However, with advanced modernity and emancipation, their number has not only not declined, but it continues to grow at an ever faster pace and intensity. Never have we seen such a proliferation of cults and fringe groups as in the post WWII West. By joining those groups, members escape their social isolation and resurrect as social beings in communitas[4] – the communes of like-minded traumatized subjects.

A case study of regressive healing: Flatearthers

The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe. (a tweet posted by The Flat Earth Society)

As the media space has become saturated with the ever more astonishing and ridiculous, and the audience, never tired of being shocked and entertained, was ready to absorb this new dose of reality entertainment, the Flat-Earth Movement, although not new, made its second entrance onto the scene, finding its place together with various denier groups, from holocaust to evolution and climate.

There is really not much about Flatearthers that is worth discussing in terms of their actual view of the world– their ideas are pure idiocy. The group is only interesting as a sociological phenomenon, as an expression of a saturated discontent with modernity, and a mode of simulated grief — a demand for a remix of facts and fictions. Their existence is the most resolute no-confidence vote on modernity.

In the excellent documentary, Behind the Curve, Daniel J. Clark takes his audience on a journey deep into the world of Flatearthers. Their community consists, practically without exception, of social misfits of some kind — people left behind socially, developmentally or both. Mark Sargent, their most prominent spokesman, an equivalent of a charismatic leader but completely devoid of any semblance of charisma, is a fifty-something guy who lives with his mother on Whidbey Island in Washington. He is a college dropout who sports an impressive resume with 20 years of video game activity as his most important achievement prior to becoming the Flatearthers’ main spokesman. Other members are not much different — they all live highly reduced social lives, most of them loners.

Their social demeanor is not aggressive or openly hostile. At first sight they are not anti-science. They engage with whoever wants to talk to them, including scientists. Physicists and astronomers, in whom they inspire missionary instincts, see Flatearthers as misguided, innocent, and ignorant victims worthy of redemption.

They come across as open-minded and willing, even inviting tests and scrutiny of their views by scientific method and reasoning, but fail when it comes to interpreting the results of those tests[5]. They invest considerable amounts of time and personal money to pseudo-scientific projects of their own design to expose what they call “the round earth hoax”. In that sense, they carry a certain dose of fanaticisms: They refuse to change their minds, but also don’t want to change the subject. As such, Flatearthers inspire both pity and ridicule.

The Flat-Earth Movement is not a religion and, having a rather egalitarian structure, they do not function as a cult in a traditional sense either. They believe that round earth is a result of the most incredible conspiracy — that is where the seed of their madness resides.

Flat-Earth delusion is the site where the traumatic symbolic annihilation of modern man resides: Their movement defines the journey of reverse pilgrimage to the place where the showdown with modernity takes place. Their existence represents a template for the regressive reaction of the growing traumatized population in the ritualistic healing mode.

Flatearthers represent traumatic subjects of modernity. They are simulated martyrs who carry public shame about their beliefs as a badge of honor and an article of faith, an essential element of the initiation ritual. Their emergence and functioning contains the core of rebellion against modernity. The unifying factor with other such movements is its ritualistic aspect – healing by climbing the mountain in order to conquer it in bitter triumph.

Returning to the site of “original defeat”, to the battlefield where the original dogma which maintained pre-modern coherence resides, the site where humanity’s innocence was lost, where the world was denied enchantment, religion and the God-centric world were dealt mortal blows, where God was dethroned and denounced and man put in his place and in charge.

When grief is ineffective: Rage transactions

In December, buttressed by his conviction and advances in homemade rocketry, “Mad” Mike Hughes flipped on a camera and fantasized about the moment when he shows mankind that it lives on a verdant disk. Hughes, a self-styled daredevil, Flat-Earth theorist and limousine-jumping stuntman, died Saturday when his crudely built contraption propelled him on a column of steam, spiraled through the air and cratered into the sagebrush outside Barstow, Calif. He was 64.[6]

For centuries, western civilization has been battling the trauma of enlightenment, progress and general intoxication with complexity. Flatearthers embody the essence of that battle. They transcend the oppression of reason by abandoning it altogether in a regressive mode of healing and collective grief. Their struggle underscores the power of madness as the only way to forget or erase traumatic experiences of the past.

The growing appeal of crackpots of various kind and magnitude has become so pervasive that these characters have infiltrated the American mainstream. They occupy positions of influence at universities, in media, think tanks, government, politics and the White House — especially there where, after more than three years of relentless adverse selection, they have become practically sole occupants. Their emergence and widespread acceptance are the result of a quest for simple certainty by people who find themselves lost and bewildered by the growing complexity of their life and the grim reality in general.

These crackpots have a special appeal to a growing population of what H. L. Mencken calls the inferior men. The inferior man hates knowledge because it is complex –it puts an unbearable burden upon his capacity for thinking. He has an insatiable need for trivial simplicity, always ready to trade probable truths for palpable falsehoods. The science of cosmology is complex; it’s understanding requires an immense stock of knowledge and a habit of thought. But cosmology of Genesis, although idiotic, is so simple that everyone can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers to an ignorant man the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical[7].

Abnormal and delusional are not cut from a different cloth than what counts as “normal” or mainstream. There is a fragile boundary between different shades of madness – between fringe groups and suicide clubs or doomsday cults. One thing is to deny the existence of gravity, and the other is to act on it. But, the gap that separates the two is very narrow. This is a different level of madness, a pure death drive and a desire for self-extinction. It is the point in depression when the traumatized subject finally hits the bottom.

The latest installment of madness, to some extent already outlined by Flatearthers, is the formation of movement around a premature disruption of the lockdown during the corona virus pandemics, a sort of MAGA suicide fraternity. “Liberate TX, WV, MI, GA…” is less outlandish than reinventing cosmology and is not exactly the same as denial of gravity, but doesn’t fall very far from them. The communitas of MAGA-liberators has the same DNA and bottom line as any suicide club – they are all “Mad” Mike Hughes, ready to hop into their home-made rockets and take off. There is not much difference between injecting disinfectants into your body and drinking poisoned cool-aid in Guyana or eating cyanide-laced candy in a Berlin bunker. All these practices are a logical consequence of certain beliefs and the anesthetic comfort of the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. Like the Flat-Earth Movement, intravenous Clorox users and their ilk are ignorance and stupidity run amok, unleashed by conditions of simulated grief of the growing segment of the population traumatized by their systemic exclusion. Together with other deniers (evolution, holocaust, climate), anti-vaxxers, TV evangelists and the army of false prophets of doomsday, they are the loudest contributors to the great flood of arbitrariness.

This is a collective tragedy, staged as comedy. But the silver lining, if there is one, is that when we lose the reins on stupidity and let it run unrestrained, we allow evolution and natural selection to enter the scene and take its course.

[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (2012)

[2] ibid.

[3] Max Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf, Zenodot Verlagsgesellscha (2016)

[4] Communitas are social surrogate, reduced communities, defined by specific identity politics. They are essentially opposed to structure. They fill the vacuum created by destruction of social bonds due to modernity’s individualization against the need for community. Suspension of rules is a primary condition for the generation of the feelings of oneness and flow that characterize communitas. During some ritualistic episodes of liminality, like pilgrimage, participants become equal as they distance themselves from mundane structures and their social identities, leading to homogenization of states, and a strong sense of communitas.

[5] They derive their strength and composure by seeing themselves as privileged. Their delusion functions as doubt in a displaced mode. In the same way scientists and normal people in general are condescending towards them, Flatearthers look down on non-believers and skeptics as naïve and gullible victims of an elaborate deception visible only by the privileged few — them.

[6] ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes, who wanted to prove the Flat-Earth Theory, dies in homemade-rocket disaster (The Washington Post, 23-Feb-2020)

[7] H. L. Mencken, Homo Neanderthalensis, Baltimore Sun (29 June 1925)

The Unconditional Moments as Portals of Social Change

29. III 2020

We generally like to surround ourselves with intelligent people, people with whom we can discuss a variety of topics and problems and whose intellect and judgments we value. However, in situations of extreme stress and acute collective anxieties, situations that require intellectual honesty and courage, unconventional thinking, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone, we invariably discover that the number of people whose intellect continues to function turns out to be disappointingly small.

A large segment of nominally intelligent people (with high IQ, sharp intellect and cognitive skills) can reason only within a limited space inside well-defined boundaries. These intellectual boundaries designate both the habitual forms and attitudes of their mental apparatus, and the experiences of the mind and recognize these attitudes as falsely objectivized. Crossing those boundaries shuts off their cognitive capabilities and ability to reason. Outside of the deep waters of their intellectual comfort zone they are like stranded whales.

What happens to our thinking process in situations that expose our cognitive and intellectual incapacities, when extrapolations of our knowledge and experiences fail to provide meaningful guidance? How do we respond to a confrontation with the reality of failure — an absolute failure, which we cannot fail to recognize? Setting foot on intellectual terra incognita can be only managed by coming to terms with those incapacities.

Karl Jaspers recognized the singularity of these inflection points of reason, the Limit situations (Grenzsituationen), as the moments when intelligence boundaries are crossed. During the times of acute anxiety triggered by death, guilt, war, pandemics, or uncertainty of the world, the human mind confronts the restrictions and pathological narrowness of its existing forms and allows itself to abandon the security of its limitedness, and enters a new realm of self-consciousness. These are situations that require creation of a new set of values and standards and a new picture of the world and one’s sense of self in it. There is no turning back; the whole system of values must change[1].

Limit situation are unconditional moments of human existence in which reason is drawn by intense impulses, which impel it to expose itself to the limits of its consciousness and seek higher, more reflexive modes of knowledge. The unconditional (das Unbedingte) is an inflection point of reason in which reason encounters itself as conditional or limited and desires to transcend the limits of this form[2].

The unconditional moment is now. What is happening at the moment is not a financial crisis or an economic downturn caused by the endogenous workings and self-sabotage of the capitalist system. Rather, the present crisis is a reaction to an exogenous shock to the system with a compromised immunity, which is now unable to defend itself due to decades of self-abuse. This is not an economic crisis with social consequences, but a social crisis with economic consequences. While all previous recoveries were engineered around economic measures and financed by social deficits, the response to the present crisis requires a genuine social change — an entirely new value system and a novel way of thinking.

For decades now, the intrinsic incompatibility of capitalism and democracy has been the key driver of social change in the developed West. The most significant consequence of this tension has been a gradual but systematic transition of politics from free choice to free selection as a way of maintaining the status quo. The American political system, defined by the selection between two dominant parties has not been a democracy and expression of free will, but the realization of a dilemma ahead of selection between two alternatives: Drowning in the flood of arbitrariness or getting on board of the Ark of fools. People subjected to this principle of choice (who still defend this mode of political functioning as a democracy that is worth preserving) resemble people who consider it an outstanding privilege to choose whether they will jump through the window from the third floor or wait for the fifth[3].

Persistence of this mode of political participation and its streamlining in the last decade has led to a reshaping of the social landscape and, when seen in a wider context, history. Hegelian interpretation, which is appropriate for this particular moment, sees history as the process of moving toward the realization of human freedom, brought to life by the interaction of subjective consciousness and an objective sequence of events and their mutual influence on each other. In this framework, history is directional – there is an improvement from a more primitive condition of humanity to amore advanced (not only materially, but culturally and morally)[4]. Contradictions generated at one level are overcome or transcended at the next, and incorporated in a radically new form in the subsequent social change. Human freedom is one of the main parameters which determines the direction of history. History is seen as the realization of freedom by means of a series of successive enslavements to different kinds of necessity.

There is a distinct point of culmination where a higher level of society is achieved. That is the point at which history stops: Society has reached its apex beyond which further improvement is not possible. This is not a static configuration – time does not stop here. This is a dynamic configuration, which requires consistent maintenance and rebalancing. For Hegel, this was German Protestant society, for Marx it was communism[5].

We are now witnessing the beginning of the end of the Hegelian historical continuum. Free selection is now being reduced down to one option and we are free to embrace it or reject it. Downward distribution, universal basic income, comprehensive healthcare for all, widespread social welfare programs, government subsidies, and empathy – all those things that have faced decades of coordinated resistance, and have been on the verge of extinction, are now being endorsed and about to be distributed in size by their most vocal opponents of yesterday. We have finally achieved true freedom because true freedom is having no choice. This is the highest act of freedom — freely assuming what is otherwise necessary.

This is a realization of the Unconditional in its purest — a true transideological moment when, faced with the absurdity and obsolescence of the existing ideology, political subjects transcend their ideological confines and abandon the safety of ideology as they realize its imminent demise due to self-destruction.

What we learned in the last five decades of neoliberalism is that no change can happen without making serious concessions to those whose wrongdoings that change is supposed to correct. Every change has been one step forward and two steps back. The system absorbs each change, mutates, and emerges stronger and more resistant. Change triggers a quicksand effect. So, as long as change occurs in small steps – as long as a quasi-stationary state is maintained — change becomes impossible.

However, a real change is possible, but it cannot happen without a crisis, it must be triggered by an exogenous shock of substantial magnitude. The shock creates an Unconditional moment, which forces a paradigm shift and allows the system to self-destruct and die from an overdose of itself.

You can negotiate with reality, but not with the Real. When you encounter the Real, you act.

[1] Karl Jaspers: Basic Philosophical Writings, E. Ehrlich, L. H. Ehrlich and G. B. Pepper (ed.), Humanity Press NJ (1986)

[2] ibid.

[3] Borislav Pekic, How to Quiet a Vampire: A Sotie, Northwestern University Press (2003)

[4] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Hegel’s philosophy of history, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/history/

[5] ibid.

Dark Enlightenment: Pregnant widow* gets the second sonogram

 8. III 2020

The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. The ability to create imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. Any large scale human cooperation hinges on the ability to create imagined reality out of words: A modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe, are all rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination (Noah Yuval Harari).

Appearance of legends, myths, gods and religions marks the beginning of the Cognitive Revolution — the point when history declared its independence from biology[2]. Out of this revolution emerged the ascent of man and the entire civilization. However, with every new stage of his rise, man’s arrogance grew bigger and so did his desire to free himself from the shackles of his own myths. This was the period of enlightenment and emancipation. Every new installment of emancipation pulled humanity closer towards reduced myths. As rationality became the main guiding principle, myths functioned more as pragmatic protocols and less as organizing principles, losing their magic spell to their pragmatic power and became increasingly aligned with advancing individualization and the underlying emancipatory momentum.

Capitalism in its last 50 years represents the accelerated phase of systematic symbolic annihilation. During this period, ceremonial demolition of old myths of togetherness has practically completed just in time as developed world is facing synchronized irruption of unsolvable problems: Disappearance of community, deterritorialization, loss of identity coordinates, global agoraphobia, criminalization of the globe, structural unemployment, rising poverty, endemic precarity, excess population, large-scale corruption, climate change, and general hopelessness. Their magnitude and nonlinearity have become a cause of growing collective anxieties registering through widespread desecularization, reaching out towards authoritarian figures and (over-) simplified, self-serving narratives aimed at providing a chance of relief, however transient and illusory it might be.

While this might not be an utterly new configuration of collective consciousness, never before has it gained such a systemic dimension and cataclysmic perspective. In the past, progress was synonymous with hope, opening new horizons and creating new frontiers that always delivered. Nowadays, with every new instalment of progress, the future looks dimmer and residual hope smaller. We have reached the limits of futurability. Individuality has run its course; disenchantment of the world has metastasized;. It has left everyone alone and abandoned, without a safety net and without hope. Hard work no longer leads to redemption — progress has become toxic and, suddenly, the old myths ring hollow and empty.

Society cannot function without myths

The tensions of the last decade are a consequence of the collapse of liberal democratic mythologies – they underscore the active quest for new myths in the midst of that crisis. Everything that used to mobilize the libidinal forces of the developed West is now dissolving in the light of devaluations of these myths. Myths are necessary for any collective action. Without them, large-scale social projects are not possible and societies cannot function. Disposing of the old myths while waiting for the new ones creates a troubling disequilibrium.

Today, the developed West stands divided facing the bankruptcy of the old narratives. This division is not only a consequence of diversity of life experiences, but a reflection of irreconcilable divergence of beliefs and imagination. As divesting from reality in the form of parody, mockery, or masquerade has taken its toll, the growing fraction of the disillusioned population is eager to be mobilized by new narratives. However, at the same time they are unable to receive them due to years of symbolic hollowing out, which has deprived them of the capacity to surrender to any collective cause that transcends individual interests. Religion is returning, but in a perverse form, as a parody of itself and without its magic spell, as a grotesque reflection of reality and without any of its original substance.

At the same time, we are now facing a novel type of revolt, in no way resembling anything we have seen before. While the past uprisings had always been, in one way or another, reactions to excessive exploitation, today, most of the things can be done without people. People are becoming increasingly more redundant — there is a growing number of those that are not needed and that are not counted for — the humanity can move ahead without them. Although they cannot be reintegrated into the normal process of social functioning, they also cannot be disposed of. Their size is growing unstoppably and is threatening to exceed the managerial capability of the planet. The excluded are now revolting not because they are being overly exploited, but because they are being denied the right to be exploited.

21st century populism is a hasty political response to the historical inflection point of coincident cultural, economic and cognitive paradigm shifts, which left a void created by decay of the traditional mythology. It is an attempt at repackaging the old myths in a radicalized form disguised as novelty. In its core, the new populism is a celebration of the shock doctrine applied at home, after trying it out abroad for decades, a cruel and unethical experiment that has produced, at best, mixed result elsewhere.

30 years of disequilibrium

Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people[3].

2019 marks three decades of grand political disequilibrium. In the same way 1989 announced a dissolution of communism, 2019 marks the beginning of neoliberalism’s symbolic unwind. It outlines the contours of neoliberal transformation along the same lines as the fall of Berlin wall in 1989 did for the former Soviet Union.

2016 demonstrated unambiguously that a growing number of people are in desperate need for new fairy tales, new myths and representations of eternal kingdom and new authority figures, prepared to accept any surrogate that would fill the unbearable vacuum. People no longer believe in the old American myth of progress, competition, individuality, protestant ethics and the link between hard work and success.

Establishment of new social hierarchies is always accompanied with a display of latent violence, breaking of the social norms and civilized behavior. Peaceful social life in general is the sign that one class, the ruling one, has already won. Populism, as a superficial mode of revolt, has become synonymous with the middle finger to the entire system of values; this includes criminalization of politics and government institutions and normalization of large-scale corruption. As an integral part of the ritualistic power grab, vestiges of the old system become subordinated to the will of the autocrat who personifies raw power and who masquerades his personal interests as patriotism and selflessness for the nation. The two processes, which have been in full swing in the last decade, have accelerated in the last three years: 1) criminalization of the state and dissolution of its legal barriers in order to eliminate residual obstacles against release of the libidinal energy and unrealized potential of crime on state level; 2) consolidation of that power.

Nevertheless the emergence of an unaccountable autocrat is not a sign of barbarization of America. 2016 is not a relapse into fascism, just a search for new myths to replace the old ones, which no longer have mobilizing power. Trump won less than 25% of voting age population votes in 2016. This is in sharp contrast with the 1920s-30s Germany when Nazi party membership rose from roughly 2% at inception to above 32% between 1928 and 1932. This is what a real movement looks like (kept alive by the myths of master race and supremacy of the German state). Trump’s base is a relative minority. There is only a semblance of fascist aesthetics, but no movement[4].

The underlying causality chain behind the recent political developments in America starts with centrists and their compromised narratives. They refuse to bow out and exit the political scene creating in this way a configuration of unacceptable alternatives and massive abstinence from the ballot box as a consequence. For them, as representatives of the oligarchic capital, authoritarianism is preferred to other mode of social organization that imply more egalitarian distribution. Their presence, their sabotage of alternatives, and resistance to their return is likely to be the main cause for continued large-scale withdrawal from the democratic process and reinforcement of authoritarianism as plan-B.

In its targeting only a narrow segment of population, while permanently excluding the rest without any chance of reconciliation, populism is deriving its temporary strength from the division of political subjects. This divisiveness is leading effectively into a perpetual conflict that has gradually morphed into a cold civil war. However, while divisiveness can provide access to power, it cannot sustain it. This is the fatal flaw of the right-wing populism. As such, populism is not sustainable – its failure is inscribed in its basic premises.

Coda

We are always surprised by good and honest acts. They are unpredictable. Every honest act is committed impulsively; it is not natural and spontaneous. Evil, on the other hand, acts naturally. We never wonder about evil. We are surprised only if it is not realized. Myths act in the interstices between good and evil. They represent the denial of biology. In order to survive in the long run, myths have to be socially effective, they must be centered on narratives that are sustainable. Good is the essence of that sustainability – it unifies. Evil is transient – it divides. Good goes against human biology, which is concentrated on individual survival. Myths are there to protect humanity against itself and the self-destructive forces of individuality. It is this denial of biology that marks the beginning of history and the opening of the path of man’s ascent. History is on no one’s side, but it is also not completely neutral.

*Pregnant widow is the point at which the old order has given way, but the new one not yet born (Alexander Herzen)

[2] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, Harper (2015)

[3] ibid.

[4] Enzo Traverso, Trump’s Savage Capitalism: The Nightmare Is Real, World Policy Journal, vol. 34, no. 1 (2017).

America at 400: 1619-2019

30. XII 2019

Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain[1].

America has always had a complicated relationship with its own history. The nation that was based on the ideas of enlightenment, and which gave us Declaration of Independence, The Emancipation Proclamation, May Day, International Women’s Day, Women’s Suffrage, Universal public K-12 education, The Marshall Plan, and Civil Rights Act, was also the birth place of some of the worst institutions of repression such as the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy, systemic segregation, McCarthyism, internment camps, and mass incarceration. But this is not what makes America special; after all, there is hardly any developed country that does not carry historical baggage of some sort. Rather, it is the deliberate effort to make sure that the underlying tensions remain unresolved, which makes its position unique. America has turned its back on some of its best achievements, and never showed the courage (or desire) to completely distance itself from some of the worst practices of its past. The very same rights and freedoms that it continues to champion abroad, the US has systematically denied to a large segment of its population at home[2].

The American political landscape has always reflected this ambivalence. To this day, the underlying ideology and its reality remain trapped in the multiverse of causal entanglement whereby ideology creates social adversity, which requires ideological adjustments, which in turn reinforces the very same social adversity it was meant to contain.

Race as strange attractor: The Centaur-state and the four peculiar institutions

No one has captured the inner contradictions of America’s parallel history better than Loïc Wacquant. He sees the current social and political developments as part of a particular continuum outlined by the Four Peculiar Institutions against the backdrop of a reshaping of the capitalist state[3]. The essence of the dialectics of neoliberalism is condensed in its obsession with a smaller state (always, except when it comes to the riot police). The consequence of that obsession, according to Wacquant, is the building of a Centaur-state, liberal at the top and paternalistic at the bottom[4]. The superficial maneuver of imposing the functioning of free markets to life as whole, with a hands-off approach to the corporate sector and the upper echelon of society, is complemented by a state that is fiercely interventionist and authoritarian when it comes to dealing with the destructive consequences of economic deregulation for those at the lower end of the class and status spectrum[5].

Wacquant’s deconstruction of the reconciliation of the inner contradictions of the Centaur-state puts the entire post-Reagan era of political carnivalization in perspective as the great neoliberal Aufhebung. The imposition of market discipline is not a smooth, self-propelling process: it meets with recalcitrance and triggers resistance; it translates into diffusing social instability and turbulence among the lower class; and it practically undermines the authority of the state. So it requires institutional contraptions that will anchor and support it, among them an enlarged and energetic penal institution[6]. Behind the clownish posturing of the new breed of political leaders resides a serious (and brutal) political reality and the more carnevalesque the politics becomes, the more repressive its penal system turns out to be.

This lays out the logic behind Americas intrinsic resistance to outgrowing its dark history and dealing with its legacy. This history begins in 1619, with the first slave ships docking the coast of Virginia. Its backbone is captured by the matrix of the Four Peculiar Institutions[7], which define the contours of the underlying carceral continuum. The most direct and intuitive perspective on the 400 years of America is offered by the second column of the Table: The root of it all is an insatiable demand for cheap labor; the history of America reflects this through the four transformational phases.

4Peculiar institutions

Four Peculiar Institutions

An unfree and fixed workforce was essential for the North American preindustrial economy. Slavery, as a relationship of domination, was used to fulfill a definite economic end: to appease the nearly insatiable appetite of the plantation for labor. The abolishment of slavery was more than anything a supply shock in labor. After slaves were formally free, a cheap and abundant workforce needed for the plantation economy had been eliminated. The true slaves deserted the South, attracted to looming opportunities in the North as the economy transitioned to its industrial phase, while the South experienced a decline (mechanization, urbanization …), which, when combined with cuts in immigration during WWI, resulted in an acute shortage of unskilled labor[8].

In response to these developments, capitalist industrialization and the plantation elite joined to demand political disenfranchisement and the systematic exclusion of former slaves from all major institutions. This was the period of Jim Crow rule. Backed by custom and elaborate legal structures, the economic opportunities were severely restricted (prohibited attendance of schools, churches, banished from the ballot box with a range of requirements, like residency, literacy tests, poll taxes or criminal offences).

The Ghetto was intended to have a prophylactic function. It was conceptualized as a separate Lebensraum for a group viewed as “physically and mentally unfit, unsanitary, entirely irresponsible, and undesirable neighbors”, while allowing, at the same time, to exploit their labor power (cheaply). In terms of its social functioning, the Ghetto was a logical sequel to slavery and Jim Crow.

The wedding of ghetto and prison: Hyperghetto

When the ghetto was rendered inoperative in the 1960s with economic restructuring and riots, which won blacks votes, the carceral institution offered itself as a substitute apparatus for the black community devoid of economic utility and political pull[9]. This was a way to prevent formation of a unified voice of discontent and convert the non-consuming segment of society into a profit center. According to Wacquant, African-Americans now live in the first prison society of history. The ghetto and the prison are now causally entangled — the two look the same and have the same function; they support and reinforce each other. The life in the ghetto almost necessarily leads to more criminal behavior. And in the prisons, which function effectively as graduate schools of crime, a “black culture” of outsiders is being reinforced by “professional” inmates, which eventually gets exported back to the street[10].

The ghetto and the prison are for all practical purposes indistinguishable, reinforcing each other to ensure the exclusion of African-Americans from general society, with governmental blessings. The prison should be viewed as a judicial ghetto and the ghetto as an extrajudicial prison. Taken together, these constitute part of a ‘carceral continuum’[11].

2019: Exit through the wormhole

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but mainly to ourselves. (Julian Barnes)

Capitalism creates crises, which it cannot wrest from. Recoveries from those crises are funded by social deficits, which grow bigger with each crisis. This became particularly severe during the neoliberal phase of capitalism. The Carceral state has been essential for the survival and sustainability of the neoliberal project and has had a triple role in that context: As a shock absorber and an insurance policy of capitalism against itself, as an engine of growth, and as a mechanism that reinforces its own toxicity. On one side, it offsets the unwanted side-effects of capitalism, while on the other, it creates new problems that reinforce the original ones.

The story of the Four Peculiar Institutions is not a chapter in American history; it is a book whose writing continues. It very much defines the present day (and future) of American politics, society and culture in general. It resides at the core of American culture and is the backbone of its history and economy.

Today more than ever before, America stands conflicted between two parallel histories and two atonal narratives, one starting in 1619 and the other in 1776. This ambivalence is deeply rooted in its constitution and it starts with the establishment of “progressive” America in 1776. Even before the US Declaration of Independence became an official document, the well-known statement from its second paragraph, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, was at striking discord with the social and political realities of the time as it appeared while slavery was in full swing[12]. The dual desire to define a new beginning without resolving the residual baggage of 1619 outlines the intentions not only to have two parallel histories, but more than that, to afford additional flexibility of the new Union. It remains one of the most striking examples of historical irony that the desire to save slavery was in the background of the American push for a new beginning in 1776. While the rest of the world was beginning to phase it out, slavery was still going strong on the “new continent”. America may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue[13]. As a consequence, the issue of race and institutions that followed had become the foundation of the country, as two parallel flows of history unfolded.

The two orthogonal narratives have persisted largely as a result of the ideology America chose to embrace. Endemic exclusion, and the attempted modes of its management, which in the USA assumed a particular institutional systematization, has been a residuum of intrinsic incompleteness of these ideological choices. The two parallel histories have coexisted for centuries unphased by each other, pulling the country in two different directions resulting in an irreconcilable cultural rift, which rose to unsustainable levels in this century.

However, as capitalism ran its course and the 400 years of its reign are facing unwind, these two histories have suddenly become cognizant of each other. The ghost of America’s past resonates with the present-day neo-segregationism located at the intersection of the two parallel (historical) narratives. A Current snapshot of America reflects the peak of the tensions caused by this ambiguity — it is the moment when the two begin to collide and desire to either reconcile with or annihilate each other. As the two historical processes (1619 and 1776) are beginning to intersect, the underlying socio-economic configuration is opening a wormhole that short-circuits the distance between them. This is the coming out of Dark America and its encounter with its progressive twin. What had been the centuries-long illegible process is becoming instantaneously legible in light of the intensity of this encounter. It is the moment of enormous clarity – the reconciliation of the underlying contradictions, which has been suspended for centuries and is now being resolved during their synthesis into a single narrative.

Wormhole

 

The 2016 wormhole

 

The divided self or the anti-psychiatry of the American experience

The resurrection of the 1619 timeline and the collision of two histories come hardly as a surprise in the light of the socio-political developments of the last five decades. The whole republican strategy since the 1970s has been a white supremacist dog whistle. And, since the population has been growing less white, their anxiety has grown accordingly and, with it, their susceptibility to right wing narratives, no matter how ridiculous they became or how much they played against material interest of their constituents. Ian Hany López offers the best summary of the last 50 years of that politics: Government coddles nonwhites with welfare and slap-on-the-wrist policing; meanwhile, government victimized whites by taxing their paychecks and refusing to protect them from marauding minorities[14]. It is no coincidence that since 1972, no Democratic candidate has ever won majority of the white vote. In turn, 90% of GOP supporters are white and so are 98% of its elected officials.

What continues to reinforce the antagonism of African Americans is not so much the fact that political discourse continues to be centered on blaming them for their social dislocation, but the absence of the Four Peculiar Institutions and parallel American history from that discussion — their role has been deliberately and intentionally downplayed or outright omitted from it. By blaming the victims, the existing political narratives, both centrist and right wing alike, are confusing cause and effect. Whatever blacks are being blamed for is not the cause of their precarity, it is a result of centuries of systematic adherence to particular politics and policies. The “missing” history, from 1619 to 1776, without which the last two-and-half centuries are illegible, provides the background for the synthesis of the four centuries of America.

The impossibility of a meaningful consensual discourse stems from the fact that we cannot experience other people’s experience — we can only experience their behavior, which might reveal something altogether different from what they are experiencing[15]. When observed from the outside certain behavioral patterns might appear as irrational and self-destructive with their rhetorical articulation being a valid expression of the inner distress and, therefore, meaningful only from within their own situational context.

When seen through the perspective of the longer (American) history, 1776 had been an attempt at a new beginning. Subsequent years and centuries represent normative period, the birth of new standards of normalcy as something that has come to hold the highest cultural value, what we teach our kids to become and what they pass along to their kids. But, what is the value of normalcy? During the 20th century alone, normal men had killed more than 120 million people and if left unchecked, they will kill more. After almost two and half centuries, we have come to realize that normalcy is overrated.

The only way to forget the traumas of history is to do away with normalcy and embrace madness in order to be healed and find salvation. According to R. D. Laing, one of the founders of anti-psychiatry, madness could become a transformative process — travelers could return from the journey with important insights, and may become wiser and more grounded persons as a result[16].

If the human race survives, future men will look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness. They will presumably be able to savor the irony of the situation with more amusement than we can extract from it. The laugh’s on us. They will see that what we call “schizophrenia” was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds[17].

[1] The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine, August 18 (2019), Ed. Jake Silverstein

[2] Loïc Wacquant, Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh, Punishment & Society 3, 95 (2001) & Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, Duke University Press Books (2009)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] The remainder of this section is, for the most part, the description of the functioning of the Four Peculiar Institutions entirely in Wacquant’s words and thoughts either as a direct quote (italicized text) or paraphrased (regular print).

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] The phrase “all men are created equal” has received criticism from elitists and traditional conservatives. Before final approval, Congress, having made a few alterations to some of the wording, also deleted nearly a fourth of the draft, including a passage criticizing the slave trade. At that time many members of Congress, including Jefferson, owned slaves, which clearly factored into their decision to delete the controversial “anti-slavery” passage. In 1776, abolitionist Thomas Day wrote: “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”

[13] By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy. (Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project)

[14] Ian Hany López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Oxford University Press (2015), and Race and Economic Jeopardy for All: A Framing Paper for Defeating Dog Whistle Politics,
http://www.ianhaneylopez.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/race_and_economic_jeopardy_framing_paper.pdf

[15] R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, Harmondsworth: Penguin (1967)

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.