The divided subject of labor market

17. IX 2017

It’s a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can’t eat for eight hours; he can’t drink for eight hours; he can’t make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work (William Faulkner)

For the first time since the advent of industrial age, new technology is destroying more jobs than it is able to remobilize. Productivity and employment have begun to diverge from each other since the last years of the 20th century – productivity accelerates while employment decelerates. This is the new reality. While good for profits, this is becoming a major setback for labor, a source of positive feedback in the system and a destabilizing force for the entire economy and society. The profit maximization equation can no longer be satisfied: The recipient of wages (and social benefits) is expected to perform an impossible task of supporting increasing consumption, which accounts for an ever growing fraction of GDP, while being paid less in an environment of rising living costs. Credit, which had been conceived as the magic bullet aimed at bridging this imbalance, has turned to be another source of positive feedback leading to unsustainable borrowing and balance sheet crisis from which it is difficult to engineer economic and social recovery.

Work is at a crossing point of history, going through a significant transformation, second since industrial age, with profound economic and social implications. Both new technology and credit, together with dismantling of the welfare state, have been the drivers of surplus labor and erosion of demand. It is becoming clear that we need less labor to produce the same output and that further rise in growth is conceivable without a rise in employment and wages. Work has become the biggest bubble which is about to burst. This is the limit where economic and social rationalities collide. Disappearance of work in work based societies is no longer only an economic issue, but a wider social and political problem and a crisis of the entire system of values.

Work alone

A priori, there is nothing appealing about wage work. It is all about the employers; they set the rules, workers comply[1]. Work is generally an unpleasant task, something we rather would not do. It goes against our nature and conflicts with our free will. Unlike work for subsistence, which we (most of the times reluctantly) do, wage work is an outcome of a voluntary optimization process. Workers effectively agree to surrender a portion of their free time in exchange for salaries.

When seen from the modern perspective, work defines our social identity. It is a gift to society and our contribution to the project “better future”, a sacrifice we are willing to make for collective wellbeing. Work is viewed as our moral duty, social obligation and the road to personal success. However, work as we know it today is a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, in Ancient Greece freedom was exclusively located in the political realm and necessity was a prepolitical phenomenon. Those who had to work were slaves to necessity considered incapable of making ethical decisions, and therefore, not part of political life[2].

The modern notion of labor appeared with the advent of manufacturing capitalism. From the modern perspective, production was not governed by economic rationality. The objective was to work as much as it takes to earn a wage necessary for subsistence rather than earn beyond that by working as much as possible. The economic rationalization of labor was a major novelty at the time. It presented a radical subversion of the way of life. In order to overcome workers’ unwillingness to work long hours, factory owners had to pay them meager wages, which forced the former to put in long hours every day of the week in order to earn enough to survive. Labor became part of reality distinct form everyday life. However, in the course of time, with development of industrial society, work became the Siamese twin of life.

Technology and labor in postindustrial age

While in pre-industrial societies innovation and competition were strictly prohibited, postindustrial age, in contrast, is characterized by its addiction to innovation.

Innovation has turned out as a major trigger of a reinforcing mechanism of economic exhaustion. The primary reason is that innovation is a source of rent — prices are no longer commensurate with production costs, but contain a scarcity premium. Profit centers always compete in terms of their capacity to innovate. Higher output leads to more investment in innovations which lead to new technologies, which means higher output and even more innovations. However, technology reduces need for labor and so the workers have to work for lower wages, which reduces labor costs of production and increases output, which means more investment into new technologies, which further reduces the need for labor and lowers wages further. This process continues until it exhausts itself and there is no more room for labor.

When labor is scarce, workers have some bargaining power – they could refuse to work and the producers are willing to make concessions to workers. As long as profit margins are high, there will be money for everyone. Problems begin when margins begin to compress. Cost cutting eliminates jobs either through automation or relocation to regions with cheap labor or forces the workers to accept lower wages. As a consequence of innovation, work ceases to be the main productive force and wages the main production cost. Output is produced more by capital than by labor, and labor gradually loses bargaining power as its choices become reducible to dilemma between poorer working conditions and unemployment.

As a consequence of these developments we have had tree major trends that emerged in the past decades: Decline of wages, reduction of government spending (a.k.a. dismantling of the welfare state), and continued rise of consumption as a fraction of GDP (currently near 70%). Over time they have created cumulative imbalances and dead-end conditions, which have resulted in the 2008 crisis and conditions where further recovery from the crisis is becoming increasingly more difficult to engineer. These trends define the current landscape. Any attempt at change becomes a source of positive feedback that only destabilizes things further.

Devalorization of labor and the new standard of subsistence

Credit is another source of positive feedback. Low wages force more reliance on credit which causes higher living costs (more liabilities and less money for subsistence), so more people have to work (e.g. not just the head of the household, but their partners, kids….), and they have to work longer hours which further increases labor surplus and forces lower wages and amplify reliance on credit which increases living costs further. Servicing debt becomes the main liability, which further undermines bargaining power of the workers. This continues until debt becomes a burden than can no longer be born.

In some sense, we are being pulled back towards early industrial age. In those days, the unwillingness to work beyond subsistence had caused employers to pay lower wages to force workers to work long hours in order to earn for their basic needs. Labor market was inefficient: Demand for labor was high, but workers were reluctant to work. Early industrial era worker had a limited capacity to desire and the opportunity of earning more was less attractive than that of working less. Salaries had to be low to force people to work hard in order to earn for subsistence.

Although, the end result (low wages) coincides with the current predicament, the causality chain is different. Late 20th century economies grow only if people consume beyond their needs. The ability to desire – the consumer libido — has to be maintained systematically and that mechanism has to be incorporated into ideology as work ethics and wage work to become closely associated with social status. With pressure to maximize profits, and therefore limit wages, this program could only be achieved if wage recipients continued to borrow more and more, especially if their liabilities continue to grow. For that, they need jobs, but jobs do not pay. So, they have to work harder, put in longer hours, to be able to survive. Unlike early industrial age when scarcity of labor was the dominant factor, in post-industrial economies, supply of labor continue to climb together with costs of living high.

Preindustrial concept of “enough”, which in the early days defied economic rationality, gained new life in the light of postindustrial developments. Its meaning is now being redefined by credit. The problem is no longer the individual attitude towards work, but the collective response to the cumulative effects of excess rationality. Credit redefines what subsistence means. It is a conversion factor from desires to needs. As seen from the workers’ side, the effect of increased efficiency of production, brought about by technology, is offset by credit. It naturally extends what our needs are and sets a new standard of subsistence and determines how much we have to earn for survival. Contrary to the economic dogma and cults of free market ideology, competition has led to suboptimal outcome for labor. Despite all technological advances, there has not been a commensurate decrease in working hours.

Work won’t be revolutionized, it will be auctioned

The objective of profit centers is to make money and, if they happen to create jobs, that is good, but not necessary if it negatively affects their profitability. Keeping this as priority for the future, changes of the labor force would have to be made accordingly. Some contours of the fragmented labor force are already beginning to show along these lines of adjustment. The assembly line has colonized a wide range of jobs. With the rise of cognitive economy and de-emphasis of material production, workers are divided into four main categories: Inventors of ideas and desires, educators (responsible for reproduction of labor), salesmen of products and producers of desires, and routine laborers[3]. We could refer to them metaphorically as over the counter or OTC (first three) and exchange jobs (the last one). OTC jobs can never be made generic; they always carry some unique component of personal skills that cannot be fully automated. Routine laborers, on the other hand, require no particular social skills. They are an extension of assembly line workers, but in a wider context that includes technical and intellectual skills. They are always replaceable and therefore treated as expandable.

Extrapolation of the current trends leads to a limit where workers become a shadow category. They no longer exist, only their time does, always ready to engage in exchange for a temporary salary. In that environment, the next step towards improving the efficiency of transaction between capital and labor are job auctions. A finite term, e.g. 2000-hour or zero-hour, job would be offered in an auction and given to the lowest bidder. Profit centers would face high flexibility at expense of labor force whose bargaining power could decrease further. The labor force would be self-trained and offer high-level skills on an increasingly precarious landscape. Those with superior skills could demand additional accommodation that could smooth their consumption across periods without jobs, which could create a need for intermediaries, job brokers who have stables of workers with standardized skills on whose behalf they bid for part time jobs.

Added flexibility of employers eliminates pressure to have a long-term view and strategy. Instead, there is a sequence of short-term tactical positions with an ability to quickly adjust labor costs to different market conditions. If this is indeed the case, it could create a reinforcing mechanism where their output trails the economy and never completely recovers or rebounds. Disappearance of permanent jobs would have a dramatic impact on credit market. It would increase urge to save more and would affect ability of long-term borrowing, with direct impact on housing market, education, consumption, etc. and, therefore, adverse effects on economic growth.

In the extreme, demand for labor completely disappears — everyone works for himself. This is the most radical social transformation from society of workers to society of employers. The ultimate irony is people employ themselves but end up working long hours and paying themselves poorly.

Coda

Work is gradually emerging as the biggest hoax in the history of humankind. We have come a long way from the early days of capitalism where its basic antagonism was defined by the dynamics of capital and labor. It is reduction of life to work, and not capitalist exploitation, what makes work alienating. This particular aspect is what has led to the rapid dead end. In taking work as a given, we have depoliticized it, or removed it from the realm of political critique. Wage work continues to be accepted as the primary mechanism for income distribution, as an ethical obligation, and as a means of defining others and ourselves as social and political subjects[4]. There is an urgency to emancipate ourselves form work. Crisis of work is signaling also a crisis of imagination. We cannot imagine postwork society. This is the biggest problem.

[1] “Work is a paid activity, performed on behalf of a third party, to achieve goals we have not set for ourselves, according to procedures and schedules laid by the persons paying our wages.” (Andre Görz, Critique of Economic Reason, Verso 1989)

[2] ibid.

[3] Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998 )

[4] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work, Duke University Press (2011)

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Weimar guitar gently weeps: Masochistic self-destruction of the right

10. IX 2017

Hitler plus power is gruesome, but Hitler minus power is a comedy. (Sedar Soumucu)

Despite its infamy and unprecedented negative press, almost one century after its first print, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf continues to play an important role in shaping the populist narrative (kind of like Uber’s influence on shared economy). Modern day right-wing populism just doesn’t seem to be able to distance itself from its main message. While most populist interpretations have been careful in staying clear of a direct endorsement or explicit references to the text, most of them have in this or that form emulated the three aspects of the mechanism behind Hitler’s rise to power outlined in Mein Kampf: Interplay between comedy, terror and power, Infiltration of ideological terrain, and Blending of speech acts, half-truths and conspiracy theories.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the post 1968, an actual birth of neoliberalism and governmentality, has been, what Jean Baudrillard has identified as The agony of power[1]: Power is a highly inefficient form of governing, not only because of its refusal to be dominated, but also in the refusal to dominate. Force is the most “expensive” way of maintaining power and conventional dictatorships have become unsustainable. This realization has defined a turn away from the oppressive rule and towards Groucho Marx authoritarianism — a depoliticization of politics — a mixing of “spontaneous” goofiness aimed at inspiring trust and anesthetizing the public, but with the most ruthless state manipulations. This started arguably with Ronald Reagan, continued with G. W. Bush, and became a template of governing in a wider context (Berlusconi, Ahmadinejad, and many others). This transformation coincided with escalation of conflicts between capitalism and democracy and in response to the challenges of implementing unpopular government programs in nominally democratic societies by using essentially autocratic methods. This is where comedy entered political scene.

Comedy, terror & power

Comedy and terror sit on the opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, but politics brings them close together into a symbiotic bond where they coexist in perfect (and logical) harmony as they serve the needs of power. Comedy and terror are the defining coordinates of power. That the two are closely related should not surprise anyone too much. Cruelty borders on comedy inasmuch as it, too, proves incomprehensible — how many times did we laugh at the sights of arbitrary acts of self-satisfied omnipotence (which refuses any explanation to their victims)[2]?

Comedy makes even the most ruthless tyrants palatable. Terror stabilizes their power, no matter how ridiculous they might appear – it is an antidote to their ridiculousness. Kim Jong Un’s chubby figure and his hairstyle have a completely different meaning with and without nuclear weapons; Donald Trump (any aspect of his persona, hair included) alone or in the context of the powers he commends. Terror provides a necessary means for aspiring or self-declared autocrats trying to compensate for their lack of legitimate power[3].

Infiltration of ideological terrain and the politics of speech acts

In the same way Hitler and his close followers appeared just as a small group of self-taught crackpots pushing their half-baked pseudo-intellectual ideas in the early 20th century, during the 2016 US Presidential elections, after years of hibernation, with the backing by serious money of selected oligarchs, similar character types crawled out straight onto the political center stage, while their like-minded individuals and institutions like Fox “News”, who in the meantime became part of the establishment, struggled to find their place on the newly defined political scene.

To the segment of the nation traumatized by failure, poverty, social degradation, and general hopelessness, today’s populism, like its early 20th century predecessor, promises to restore both honor (social and, to some who feel entitled to it, racial status) and the means to achieve greatness (again or for the first time, all the same). It gives to many of them a sense of direction; it turns ambivalence into clear-cut meaning to be worked out with unbridled hatred. All of this amounts to satisfying the wish for a coherent fictitious world, a straightforward extrapolation of the simple (predominantly male) fantasy of omnipotence and superheroes syndrome, which arises from accumulated frustration and general impotence.

In the same way this has played out in the 1930s Germany, populism nowadays communicates another desire (and pleasure) too, one that savors the power of empty words that make an impact – the fascination of power deriving strictly from its own ascent, which fashions itself out of nothing. This has been the major achievement of the grand populist demagogues, both then and now — to create the sensation of proximity of the void, the cognitive black hole effect, and arouse the wave of nihilism. Ultimately, power in this context, derives from a way of using language rather than from a system of ideas – a use of language that does not articulate form to anything preexisting, that takes joy by commanding being and nothingness, life and death[4].

Comparison with the 1930s Germany is interesting and relevant also because it defines a strategic choice of the present ideological terrain. Hitler’s program offered a synthesis supposed to lead to natural unity, a semantic solution whose double trademark of German and Worker connected the nationalism of the right with the internationalism of the left; thereby it stole the political contents of the other parties, in this case socialists. Rather than set the antagonist at the opposite end of the political spectrum, Hitler’s ideological maneuvering made his rival occupy the same terrain. The problem does not involve points of contradiction so much as areas of political overlap. The struggle to be the masses’ spokesman now amounts to combat at extremely close quarters. When rivalry is this close, demonization proves indispensable[5].

While in the early 20th century Germany, National socialists had to persuade people (despite absence of any evidence) that they offered a better alternative to Marxists, in the 21st century USA, people who would benefit from widespread state welfare programs and general wealth redistributive policies are being seduced into aligning their interests with the very people responsible for their social degradation and their existing condition. What in the 1930s was offered by phantasm of the Jewish world conspiracy (it helped that Karl Marx was a Jew) as a way of smoothing over any and all conceptual gaps in the populist narrative, in 2016 “universal blame” has been shared by the global oligarchy, Hollywood, liberal media, foreigners, and other disenfranchised people who see a different path to their social redemption. Both cases — demonization of Jews in 1930s and implication of global oligarchy today — represent examples of a class struggle in a displaced mode. These conspiracy theories possess a built-in mechanism that makes them resistant to disproof: anyone seeking to refute them may be accused of having already fallen for the ruse of the Jewish press, or liberal media and “fake news” today, thereby proving the theory’s accuracy. In this manner, the underlying conspiracy theory seals itself off from the outside and achieves inner coherence. For the movement followers, its attractiveness lies in precisely this closedness, which ensues a strong group identity internally and projects a figure of enemy externally[6].

Fanaticism, half-truths, and rationality of irrational acts

This, naturally, creates a problem in the short run as reality does not support the entire narrative, but this has never been an obstacle for populism. The primary concern of the aspiring leader or dictator in power is to become the spokesman for what has been neglected until now or pursued only halfheartedly. Fanaticism does not necessarily arise from genuine conviction. Its beginnings lie in chance identification of the options afforded by the market of opinions[7].

For example, Breitbar guys, its founding members at least, were former employees of a liberal outlet, Huffington post, and departed in the opposite direction, not due to the change of heart and ideological flip, but in pursuit of superior opportunities elsewhere. Their position and rhetoric continue to escalate towards what appears to be irrational extremes. However, in the periods of sustained social tensions – this has been the lesson of the German experience — radicalization, no matter how unmotivated and self-destructive it might appear, can actually become strategic. In a calculated manner, the leader or his surrogates can even drift off into seeming absurdity insofar as the base puts a premium on flights of enthusiasm, which signal initiation to insiders and confirm that consensus of others does not matter (this sheds some light on the events of the last summer). This is where self-intoxication begins. By repeating and ritually solidifying lies, those who tell them and hear them may, after a while, embrace them as articles of faith – even though doing so is not necessary from inception[8].

Coda

No matter what color, shape or origin, modern-day right wing populism just cannot shake off its fascination with Mein Kampf. In their marvelous and persistent display of metaphysiological nonsense, they continue to show essential refusal to accept that Hitler’s rise to power was not unconditional. In that process, they create a man-made irrelaity – a construction of a human mind which becomes slave to its own fictions – a tactical manipulation aimed at deluding themselves and seducing the public into believing that literal transplant of political maneuvering, which transformed Weimar Germany, could define the path to and solidify their grip on power almost a century later in a completely different socioeconomic, political and technological context.

With appropriate reassignment of political variables, the three main political maneuvers — Comedy/terror/power, Infiltration of ideological terrain, and Reliance on half-trues and conspiracy theories — were taken and implemented literally by different populist fractions, perhaps most thoroughly in the US in the last year. However, in their infinite naïveté, dilettantism and political (and general) illiteracy, Trump’s handlers and self-proclaimed ideologues, in their sloppy plagiarism, they failed to grasp a very simple fact that Hitler’s populism struck resonance not because of his talents as a politician and orator, but because on the other side of his message was Weimar Germany ravished by poverty, unemployment, hyperinflation, humiliation after the lost war, and general hopelessness: The entire country spoke in one voice. The United States today has no resemblance to that in any of the outlined categories — although it could be many other things, the main point is that the country has never before been so divided: The polivocality in today’s America is deafening.

The dilemma is not whether Trump’s handlers and ideologues have read and emulated Mein Kampf and National Socialists’ message and the tricks of their rise to power, but whether they have read any other books on politics and history at all.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power, semiotext(e) 2010

[2] Albrecht Koschorke, Adolf Hitlers “Mein Kampf”: Zur Poetik des Nationalsozialismus, Berlin (2016)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

Summer of cognitive instability: From Hendrix to Trump

27. VIII 2017

For the last sixty years, the seventh summer of each decade has treated us with special types of excitement delivering events that would sometime put a stamp on the entire decade:

1967 — summer of love (Jimi Hendrix sets his guitar on fire)

1977 — summer of Sam, disco, and Studio 54

1987 — Alan Greenspan becomes the Fed chairman (it takes exactly twenty summers to experience the full impact of his nomination)

1997 — Asian crisis

2007 — summer of subprime (conditionally insolvent become unconditionally illiquid and all hell breaks loose)

2017 — summer of hate (Donald Trump sets his “guitar” on fire)

Summer of 2017 highlights an acute case of cognitive instability — a cumulative erosion of traditional frames of reference, changes in interpretive frameworks and proliferation of intersecting narratives. At the core of current political developments lie the structural changes, which after years of brewing in the background, have hit the center stage and became dominant drivers of everyday politics and market functioning. But, as dramatic as these developments have been, market reaction remained restrained throughout — markets still appear to be complacent, but that complacency feels less uncomfortable than before. The verdict is not yet in regarding significance of the summer of 2017. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that it announces deeper political changes. Still in their formative stage, these changes, while not having significant short-term impact, could affect the society in a profound way.

Although the current political landscape appears highly volatile and unpredictable, it is neither new nor extreme by historical standards. It is merely a phase of a well-defined pattern of developments during periods of transition between two paradigms. These patterns capture how political bodies are damaged by ideas, which are invented to perpetuate this damage.

As this transition process has clear path dependence, in order to fully understand its underlying dynamics, one has to start from its trigger event, the 2008 financial crisis – the true event in the sense that it changed both the reality itself and the way we perceive it. No matter how hard we tried, the aftertaste of 2008 is not only not going away, but its echoes only seem to be growing louder with time. Last ten years or so have been like a persistent pneumonia that, despite all the treatment, just wouldn’t go away indicating deeper problems suggestive of a failure of the immune system or even a terminal disease. Unlike previous crises, its depth has been so severe that it has triggered a social change. As the existing modes of social organization alone (such as electoral democracy) can no longer safeguard the economic interests of a growing fraction of the population, economic initiatives are no longer effective and a quest for social change takes center stage. Social stability defines equilibrium and social transformations represent a change of equilibrium. When international trade agreements are under possible revision, interplay between technology, labor and capital is poorly understood, the role of welfare state is being reexamined, borders being closed – when everything that defines a social system is on the table – this is the most challenging environment where explanatory power of traditional macroeconomics is the weakest. These transformations are always disruptive and have the appearance of discontinuous processes. Unlike economics, which provides effective description of reality around a well-defined social equilibrium, a social change corresponds to a change in equilibrium – a paradigm shift to which economics needs time to adjust.

During these transition periods, old values, beliefs, concepts, institutions, and authorities as well as traditional frames of reference lose their power. This creates a state of cognitive instability. Nothing functions according to established (or any known) rules. Cognitive instability spontaneously creates the urgency for stabilization. There is too much new information, and not enough understanding. This “agitates” society. There is an open contest for a narrative — not necessarily the most accurate, but one capable of providing the best fit — that would restore stability. The challenge consists of constructing from amorphous mass of unintelligible information, tendencies, and speculations an acceptable narrative that restores equilibrium.

These transition situations bring to the surface a wide range of characters and organizations, which become new participants in the political discourse. Not all of them are serious contenders, but history reminds us that there exists a greater proximity between laughable and dreadful than calmer times would admit. The underlying narratives play an important role in the ability of the governments to shape consensus, which breaks with the tradition, the past, and sometime reinvents it to self-aggrandizing end. The fragility of the local equilibrium makes especially alarming and uncomfortable the fact that abnormal and delusional are not cut from a different cloth than what counts as “normal” or mainstream. Under special circumstances some of the fringe narratives infiltrate affective realm and interests of broader social circles and create intellectual ferment for a perceived mode of change. In the end, the most successful narrative will be the one that offers a description of reality, which helps articulate otherwise inarticulate experience by translating diffusive emotional states like fear, identity or cultural belonging into slogans that admit strong affective charges. As such, it will stamp a mode of description that seeks recognition in ever-greater circles until it is accepted as the “official” social self-image[1].

The political developments of this summer are suggestive of a transition process between two paradigms with the old one not completely dead, but without clear contours of the new one. Effectively, what is currently on the political table is an alternative between two undead modes of social organization: the old one (centrist democracy) is still too alive to be dead, and the “new” one (a Turkmenistan-style electoral dictatorship proposed by the current administration) too dead to be alive.

In the bidding stage for the new narrative the goal is not so much to post immediate victories, as it is to re-center the dialogue in such a way that it creates advantages in the mid- and long-run. Small gains now could convert into larger gains later. Consequently, in the near term things could remain “boring”, relatively speaking — a continuation of the status quo mostly due to diminished ability to produce political consensus. However, beyond 2017, things could get quite a bit more exciting. Political leaders, who bear dual burden of imperative of stability on one side, and the urge to change, on the other, are themselves running an enormous risk. They are tempted to counter the confusion of the present with will for order and, in that process, often increase the very chaos which they pretend to oppose, often risking to fall themselves victims to spiraling disorder of their own creation[2].

The key to our future (or its absence) lies in the very definition of chaos — when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. Chaotic systems are hypersensitive to initial conditions – tiny disturbances have enormous consequences. We are not only heading in an unknown direction, but the path itself is unknown, and not only are these things not known, but they are also unknowable. Nothing what we know will be of use any more.

[1] A. Koschorke, The Poetics of National Socialism, MIT Press (2017)

[2] ibid.

Quantity theory of sanity

3. VII 2017

What if there is a limited amount of sanity in the world and the real reason people go mad is because somebody has to? (Will Self)

If you think about it, sanity is a rather delicate and improbable mental configuration. It is an unstable (more precisely, metastable) state of the human psyche. It requires an extraordinary amount of fine-tuning to remain sane. An incredible number of things has to work out in a coordinated way for a person not to flip out at some point in his life. And if one experiences a severe shock during his life, chances are he or she will go insane and never come back.

Metastable sanity

Insanity as a stable equilibrium and conditional stability of sanity

Sanity is a one-way street. There has never been a case of an insane person suddenly becoming normal, spontaneously or as a result of a shock or trauma, or that one is born insane and then suddenly, when he/she enters puberty, becomes normal. You see! It is like entropy: systems evolve from less to more probable configurations. So sooner or later everything turns into shit (2nd law of thermodynamics): As we age, our sanity becomes questioned and at some point, if we live long enough, we start losing it. There ain’t no way around it.

Hallucinogenic drugs themselves do not carry any particular magic cocktail of chemicals that causes a state of controlled madness. No, that madness is always in us – there is a constant, albeit dormant, carnival in our heads; it is hibernating thanks to various inhibitors, which control that process. Hallucinogens merely deactivate the inhibitors and set the madness free. A similar effect can be observed without drugs when one is subjected to stress (e.g. hunger, sleep depravation, torture, or a marathon run), shock or some other factor that disturbs the existing order of things (e.g. fasting and a drop in blood sugar – this is how ascetics are getting their visions).

We are biologically wired through evolution to see the world the way “normal” people do. This maximizes our chances of survival. But, we were not meant to live this long and to endure these levels of persistent stress, or to be surrounded with so many people. So, the sanity dimple at the top of the hill is almost full and the shocks are continuous and even though they might not necessarily be always powerful, they are capable of causing persistent overflow.

Setting madness free: Social change as a mental disease

Superfluid information flows have transformed madness from idiosyncratic to systemic. Traditionally, elites and rulers (and people of influence, in general) used to define cultural parameters, set the trends and boundaries. But, their extreme idiosyncrasies remained always their own.

With the evolution of media and compression of timescales, their idiosyncrasies, no matter how odd and socially unpalatable, got a chance to catch up with the rest of the population. In particular, the democratic process has been gradually transformed into a referendum on the idiosyncrasies of the candidates. The madness is no longer individual, but collective and systemic. In a society where an increasing number of people feel like outsiders or outcasts, idiosyncrasies acquire special appeal and great mobilizing power. They cut through the mix and humanize politicians. Individual instabilities become destabilizing on a collective level and are used as leverage to erode the democratic process. The system becomes a center of production of social vulnerability.

Diathesisstressdualriskmodel

The Dual Risk Model distinguishes between types of response to environment. Resilience plays a large part in distinguishing between “normal” and vulnerable individuals. In a positive social environment all is good: When there is growth, there is enough for everyone. But when there is no growth, everything is a zero-sum game – there is not enough for everyone. This brings out the worst in people and this is when social change begins.

The pinnacle of human evolution, the ultimate manifestation of civility, is the human ability to engage in a dialogue, to listen to and respond to the others. The structuralist deconstruction of mental illness consists of an unwinding of the evolutionary process. For them, mental illness is evolution in reverse. During mental illness, unwinding starts from the top by shutting down the ability to engage in a dialogue — the cacophony caused by the “voices” takes over; one is in constant dissensus with oneself, which incapacitates the ability to listen and respond. The regressive unwind proceeds step by step by shutting down other social and biological skills. Different mental diseases differ by the terminal points at which the unwind stops. This is why social changes, which follow closely the pattern of a mental disease, look like madness and the social degradation that accompanies them is defined by the level of destruction of democratic institutions and devastation of traditional forms of civility.

Emotional shocks can also cause disorder. With extreme psychoses like schizophrenia, one is often born with a tendency towards them, but it is only when certain traumatic life events happen that the actual symptoms are triggered (this is the nature-nurture argument). With other factors combined, psychoses can develop faster or not at all in certain individuals. But you have to have both: a tendency towards it + the stressful life factors. These stress thresholds are very relative. They are both biologically and culturally conditioned – people in the pre-Homerian period had a considerably lower threshold of stress than modern man. In fact, the distinction between madness and “normalcy” is more quantitative than qualitative. Everyone has a different breaking point, but practically everyone has it. So, it is only a matter of generating an appropriate level of stress to reach an individual or collective breaking point and everyone will go crazy.

Individuals with higher intelligence, money, supportive families, and a generally positive environment can deal with personal problems better and will, therefore, come out with a better outcome in the end. But when (in the words of an anonymous depression sufferer) we sink to our lowest depths – when everything seems dark and the light is nowhere to be seen – that is when we are the most receptive to change. And we are ready to accept any change, even the one that would hurt us in the long run, as long as it is a change.

At this point, the system operates with a sanity deficit – there isn’t enough sanity for everyone. The madness is set free. Everybody is crazy and everybody has a gun. The greatest show on earth can begin. Enjoy the fireworks. Happy 4th.

Organs without bodies: Symbolic reattachment & hystericization of American politics

20.VI 2017

Phallus is not an organ that expresses the vital force of my being, but an insignia that I put on in the same way king puts on his crown. Phallus is an organ without body, which gets attached to my body, but never becomes its organic part, forever sticking out as its incoherent excessive prosthesis. [S. Žižek]

If a king holds a scepter in his hands (no matter how small they might be) and wears the crown, his words are taken as royal. Such insignia are external, not part of who he really is. He wears them to exercise power. As such, they define the gap between what he actually is and the function he exercises[1]. But, what remains of the real person if the symbolic title is taken away? This question becomes the center of the neurosis of power. Imagine a corrupt judge: I know very well that the person in front of me is a corrupted weakling, but I nonetheless treat him respectfully, since he wears the insignia of a judge — when he speaks, it is the law itself that speaks through him. However, when he takes off his toga and steps out of the courtroom, he is nobody.

Symbolic castration is the gap between a real/actual person and his symbolic title. The gap is irreducible — the symbolic persona always dominates the real one. This is the fundamental dichotomy of symbolic castration. It is synonymous with power as it gives power to the person who is castrated, but that transaction comes with castration as its price. The actual subject cannot ever fully identify with the symbolic mask or title (phallus never loses its autonomy) and his questioning of the symbolic title becomes the center of hysteria[2].

Donald Trump’s presidency is the hystericization of American politics. He represents a case of an attempted symbolic reattachment — a reverse of symbolic castration — a desire to reduce the irreducible, which gives his presidency an aura of a logical paradox. Trump’s determination to undermine his symbolic self has become especially clear in the last two months: The presidential tweets are screaming of self-sabotage, and the display of conflicts of interests is just too obvious and explicitly self-incriminating to be unintentional. The nonlinearity of his relationship with facts and his propensity to lie have reached alarming proportions; it is unlike anything we have seen in the public life of western democracies. The antagonism of the press and media, which seems to be continuing with unrestrained intensity, has created massive negative externalities for the entire administration. The absence of any foresight in his conduct is stunning: It does not take much thought to realize that this could have never produced any positive effects for his presidency. Same goes for his compulsive divisiveness of the populace, and deliberate undermining of his allies, his staff, and supporters, which has isolated him to the point that no one wants to work with or for him. There is no one who takes him seriously any more — he is the laughing stock of the entire world and a butt of every joke. He seems to take some pride in helping in the process of the collective ritual of public denigration of his presidency. One can sense something almost vindictive in his pursuit of the symbolic self.

Trump’s conduct is a suicide from the ambush. What in the one-dimensional space of his subjectivity appears as logically obscure suddenly becomes transparent once the real and the symbolic are identified and separated. His presidency represents a rebellion of the hysterical person against his symbolic persona, an attempt of Donald Trump the citizen to take out Donald Trump the president — an assassination of the symbolic self – a desire to re-attach phallus to the body.

Politics, economics, society, and collective reality are temporarily suspended as the public is caught in this spectacle of self-annihilation. No one knows how to react, because this play has never been played before. Such intrapersonal conflicts and battles normally take place in the privacy of the analyst’s office, away from the public eye. We are now watching its premier in real time.

As Immanuel Wallerstein remarked in his June commentary, Trump equates his presidential position with being the most powerful individual in the world. For him, the main priority is to stay in the office as long as possible (everything else is secondary). True. And, this will go on until real Donald Trump scores a victory by firing his symbolic self and when, at the end, there is only one of them standing — real Donald Trump.

Trump has converted our political and social reality into a reality show featuring his personal encounter with his symbolic persona as the main (and possibly the only) attraction. It is no wonder that people have felt violated from his first day in office. His presidency is a subversion of our experience of reality. His desire for self-annihilation will drag everyone into the vortex of the Vanishing Point. From there we will be able to imagine what the world looks like in our absence, and to see beyond the end and beyond the subject.

[1] S. Žižek, How to read Lacan, (2007) W. W. Norton & Co.

[2] ibid.

Event horizon and the physics of Donald Trump

8.VI 2017

Donald Trump is like a new celestial formation, a cognitive black hole, a strange attractor, and a quantum-mechanical paradox, all at the same time. He has a unique way of distorting the social space around him. Everyone who enters his event horizon begins to not make sense. There is something terminal about coming too close to Trump. The list of casualties who have crossed the point of no return, and became permanently trapped on the other side, is getting longer every day. Trump is a new phenomenon whose functioning falls into domains of exotic physical theories. Here are some theoretical requirements for understanding the strange cosmology of his universe.

Compared to classical physics which guides our intuition, the general theory of relativity is like playing billiards on a soft table (think: jello). Each stationary ball creates local distortions on the table’s surface (picture) – the area around each ball is curved due to the indentations it produces. When the white ball is kicked, it is the local curvature around each ball, which causes it to make a bend precisely when it wants to get directly at the stationary ball. From the point of view of the white ball, the curvature is primary and matter (stationary balls) serves only to herald its presence.

Paralax2

Nothing is where it appears to be: The curvature of the space is a source of an apparent displacement of objects; it causes moving bodies to make a bend precisely when they want to get directly at the object. caption

Imagine now that one of the stationary balls on the table becomes very heavy and shrinks in size. The dent around it becomes deeper and more pronounced, and the heavier and the more concentrated its mass, the deeper the dent. So, if the white ball passes slowly and comes closely, it will be “sucked” in. The fall into the singularity can be avoided only if the ball’s speed exceeds the escape velocity.

The presence of concentrated mass defines the event horizon. The event horizon of a black hole separates two permanently disconnected regions. It is the shell of “points of no return”, a boundary beyond which the gravitational pull becomes so great that it makes escape impossible. Nothing can escape the event horizon of the black hole – the escape velocity is greater than the speed of light – what happens inside cannot affect an outside observer.

black-hole-diagram

Once something is inside the event horizon, collapse into the black hole is inevitable

Donald Trump is a political black hole. He is a cognitive singularity, an intellectual triviality with complex consequences — a source of curvature of the social space that makes everything look displaced.

The strange matter of Trump’s universe

Information entering a black hole is lost forever

Whoever comes within Trump’s event horizon becomes afflicted with the same cognitive incapacity as Trump himself. There is a long list of transient (and a shorter list of persistent) surrogates, all of them disposable victims of cognitive asphyxiation: Kellyanne, both Steves, Giuliani, Christie, Newt, Ben Carson, Jeffrey Lord, and a long list of anonymous spokespersons. Not that these people were ever beacons of rationality, but they have broken new boundaries and set new records after entering the domain of Donald Trump. These creatures thrive in the space between real news and reality TV. They roam different mediascapes, mostly to boost the ratings of the mainstream networks — people tune in only to see the spectacle of public humiliation. And the list does not stop there. Now, even former bankers, Cohn and Mnuchin, who, one can argue, may be ethically challenged, but are nominally still highly rational, they are not making any sense either, even when it comes to counting money.

One-child-left-behind

But no one has experienced the gravitational crush of Trump’s black hole like Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, the Sisyphus of morons who performs the same futile task day after day, repeatedly trying (and failing) to convince the public that verifiable lies are truths and that palpable truths are lies. His press briefings have become a spectacle no one wants to miss, and a guilty pleasure of liberals and Trump haters. People tune in to be entertained, not to get informed. Over the course of time, the public has developed a certain emotional attachment to him, bordering on empathy, but not exactly; something along the lines you would feel about the bulldog your girlfriend gave you: He is fun to play with and you want to love him, but he makes a point of shitting in your living room, not occasionally, but every day. As it is becoming clear that under the existing criteria of this administration his gross incompetence will never be grounds for dismissal, there are active debates about the mode of his exit from the scene.

Divided subject is inconsistent with itself

Trump is the embodiment of the divided subject of American politics. On one side, he suspends the gravity of the Real and sets in motion the weightless state of a facts-free universe, while on the other, the singularity of his cognitive incapacity crushes everything that comes within his event horizon. He is the sugardaddy of alternative reality. He attracts people as a political novelty by offering a taste of the other side. He tempts them with fruit from the tree of ignorance. And the more fruit they eat, the more they need.

Trump’s base, which pretty much has been functioning as a doomsday cult, constitutes the core of the strange matter of his universe. These people have entered Trump’s event horizon from which escape is impossible. They are passengers on a boat approaching the waterfall – they notice nothing at the time when the boat crosses the boundary of no return, but the boat is doomed to go over the waterfall.

Coda

Trump is an event in a true sense of the word – he divides the time into before and after. It is difficult to remember our lives before Trump announced his candidacy. What did newspapers write about? What did news media report on? What was tweeting like? What kind of jokes did comedians tell? And what did people disagree about before they were unified in their hatred of Trump? Crowds and media hate him, but they cannot resist him. Life without him is becoming impossible to imagine. The whole nation will be depressed if he ever goes away.