A decade of counterfactual reality or how to quiet a vampire of history (15 September 2008, ten years later)

15. IX 2018

If history doesn’t manage to exhaust the possibilities of the direction it’s taken, if it’s forcibly prevented from unleashing everything, even its most monstrous forces, sooner or later it’ll return to seek out its curtailed right, its insane continuation. Had Adolf Hitler been killed, had the natural course of history been upset and halted in July 1944, we would have yet another national socialism today, or we’d at least have to defend ourselves from it. Hitler wouldn’t have been defeated, rather his certain victory would have been thwarted[1].

On this day, ten years ago, we witnessed an event in the true sense of its meaning: the event that changed the order of things and divided the time into before and after. With government intervention and bailouts, we had interrupted the flow of history and interfered with its course. By throwing a lifeline to the system, which had been spontaneously self-destructing, we had created conditions for alternative counterfactual history. $7 trillion was the price that had to be paid for suspending the crushing force of gravity that would have otherwise caused the collapse of the entire capitalist system and which has resulted in a downgrade of present reality to counterfactual.

We thwarted the system’s self-annihilation. Instead of allowing this process to complete, Lehman’s ritualistic collapse laid the foundation for system’s resurrection and reinforced the imperative of its ultimate triumph. The rescue package laid the ground for the narrative according to which we needed more of the same — what caused the system’s “temporary” collapse was interpreted as our unwillingness to set it free to blossom fully. The systems imminent demise was, thus, magically converted into its thwarted victory. Ten years later, it resurrected and came back to claim its curtailed right. Today, in its afterlife, we have to defend ourselves against its ugliest and most monstrous incarnation.

And the vampire in us now has an alibi; the American national pride has invented its scapegoats: Immigrants, atheists, pacifists, homosexuals, international trade agreements, NAFTA, regulations, Chinese, Mexicans, teachers, football players, Planned Parenthood, alternative energy sources, progressives, education, science, climate change, facts and truth and other elitist concepts. And, like bad students, we will have to repeat the entire tragedy from the beginning. This is the new counterfactual reality.

In its infinite unwisdom, the high priests of ideology knew that what is imminent, cannot be prevented, it could only be postponed. If in 2006, during the peak of the housing bubble and only two years before its collapse, we knew what we know now, we would have done exactly the same. So, Lehman was not saved – it was allowed to collapse; this was the ritualized assignment and acceptance of guilt aimed at diverting the blame– and this fact, precisely, is what exonerated the system as such.

Here is Konrad Rutkowski, one more time: It is senseless to attempt to crush an order that is based on a consistent ideology. To disappear, it must completely exhaust the last bit of its historical energy. It must die like an old man whose sinful life has extinguished his reproductive energy and even his instinct for the survival of the species[2].

 

[1] Fourth letter of Konrad Rutkowski, in How to Quiet a Vampire, B. Pekic Northwestern University Press (2003)

[2] ibid.

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Erectile alchemy and bubble addiction

12. IX 2018

Priapism, named after Priapus, the Greek god of fertility who sported an oversized, eternally-erect penis (so large, in fact, he used it to frighten away anyone who tried to plunder his gardens), is a condition that causes persistent and sometimes painful erections, which last for four hours or more without sexual stimulation. Apart from ED pills, anomalous blood flows in and out of the penis can be caused by a range of disorders and diseases, like sickle cell anemia, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and penile cancers, or abuses of certain prescription medications, alcohol, and some illicit drugs. Priapism can cause serious complications. The blood trapped in the penis is deprived of oxygen and can damage the penile tissue. An erection that lasts longer than four hours is a medical emergency. Untreated priapism can result in damage or destruction of penile tissue and permanent erectile dysfunction.

Economic bubbles have had a special place in American culture for the last 50 years. They encapsulate the essence of the ultimate male obsession: Everything has to be pointing skywards, from male reproductive organs to luxury condo towers, to economic growth, stock market charts and the yield curve. Bubbles hold the key to understanding the essence of American political conservatism and its ongoing transformation.

Behind this fetishized fantasy is the troubling decline in productivity growth (and economic potency in general), together with desperate attempts to bring back good old days, with governments ready to deliver temporary libidinal surrogates of any sort irrespective of their long-term consequences.

During the post-war decades, America, at 3% productivity growth, was open and welcoming, promising (and delivering on that promise) to enlighten and enrich the lives of anyone who took part in the great American project. The economic potency in those days was palpable. Each generation was doubling its standard of living; libidinal forces were abundant, optimism unshakeable, and belief in a better future consistently gratified and rewarded.

After years of misguided interpretation of the theory of comparative advantages, the American locomotive jammed in 2007. The America of today, with 1% productivity growth, has become a get-rich-quick-if-you-can landscape, xenophobic, polarized and libidinally disinvested, with rampant inequality and the highest rate of incarceration on the planet, where every subsequent generation is practically guaranteed to be worse off than its predecessor, and where 96% of people that are born poor remain poor. In today’s America the future looks more like a threat and less like a promise.

Bubbles

Productivity growth (5Y moving average) and bubble economy

The two bubbles of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which briefly interrupt the monotonic decline in productivity growth, announce the beginning of a new era. The Internet bubble is not without merit — it presents the arrival of a genuine technological innovation and a paradigm change — an entirely novel production process, and introduces cognitariat as a new social class. However, its biggest shortcomings are related to the creation of a new mindset: an overnight lottery winner as a new type of entrepreneur and a general change of direction in the political economy. The second, the housing bubble, is much closer to the traditional definition — overconsumption financed by debt. It bears direct responsibility for the utter impotence of the third, and the largest of all bubbles, the government debt bubble, and for the current predicament. Even after nearly a decade of unprecedented government subsidies and budget deficit spending, productivity growth has descended (and still remains) below 1% (the lowest post-war levels), just as it was declared that the economy was on the way to recovery in 2015. The effect of the entire $7tr bubble remains largely undetected by the basic barometers of economic wellbeing. It is precisely the extended duration of the housing bubble, mistakenly identified as a sign of economic potency, which has compromised the hopes of a robust recovery. The current flaccidness of productivity stands as a reminder of the fallacy of the underlying political economy.

Bubbles economy as an ideological core

However, despite their repeated failures, we still seem to be unable to shake off our bubble addiction. Bubbles sit at the core of the right wing populist delusion — no longer a political movement, but a state of mind. This pastoral fantasy has evolved into full-blown alchemy, which continues to insist without any base in reality and against common sense – and economic orthodoxy is reluctant to disagree — that in order to live happier and more meaningful lives and secure prosperity and a better future, all we need is a new magic pill.

Millions of angry gun-wielding Podunk residents, the excluded who represent the excess of the population and now live at or below the poverty line, have become the most vocal cheerleaders of the existing stock market bubble, disguised as the economic boom. They use it to rationalize the toxicity of their favorite ideology and see no reason to be concerned about the true source of their short- and long-term hardship and erosion of quality of life.

Their ignorance is not merely the absence of knowledge, but an outcome of cultural and political struggle. The current political economy has morphed into agnotological[1] capitalism – the systematic production and maintenance of ignorance as a major feature that enables the economy to function by allowing the creation of bubbles. In its background there is a programmatic effort to eliminate the potential for dissent. This effort relies on the creation of systemic unknowns where any potential “fact” is always already countered by an alternative of apparently equal weight and value, which renders engagement with the conditions of reality contentious and a source of confusion. In this way, participants in bubbles remain unaware of the imminent collapse until after it has happened.

Erectile alchemy

Bubbles are economic erectile pills — false signals that something can happen out of nothing. They have a special allure, in the same way Ponzi schemes do – when easy money is readily available, we don’t need a rationale. Economic bubbles have become a juncture where erectile fantasy has become the main cultural dimension. The surge in transient virtual wealth they create is the extended erection we read about on ED pillboxes. The duration of extended bubbles is their most troubling aspect; the longer they last, the bigger the damage they create. So, why does the obsession with bubbles still persist?

According to medical statistics, priapism brought on by erectile dysfunction drugs is extremely rare — more than 100 million erectile pills are sold every year with fewer than 100 cases of priapism reported; that is less than one in a million. However, it is quite possible that there are many more cases of extended priapism caused by the ED pills than medical statistics show. They are just not being documented. If anything, the warning itself could be seen as a clever advertisement incentivizing the users to look for those “gold nuggets” that would trigger one such episode. Why not? Who would complain about having too much of a good thing? “If I get a four-hour erection, I’m not calling a doctor, I’m calling my friends”. Reporting protracted erections would be the most un-American thing to do.

And this is the actual point where the erectile fantasy of bubble economy will meet its maker. Do we not need libido first? Erection will come by itself after that. Or will it? This issue is, and will remain, the central theme of the ongoing political struggle for decades to come. The future of our civilization depends on its outcome. Pills, no matter how different and potent, will never work in the long run, and they have consequences.

 

[1] The concept of agnotology was first introduced by Robert N. Proctor as the study of culturally induced ignorance, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. In his book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, Verso (2013), and numerous interviews and essays, Philip Mirowski argues usefulness of agnotology for explaining the post-2008 socioeconomic transformation. This paragraph is largely a summary of his thoughts on the topic.

 

Complexity curse: From low productivity to social fragmentation

3. IX 2018

Sooner or later, everything turns into shit (2nd law of thermodynamics)

Economic productivity is one of the most important indicator of the wellbeing of a society and a fundamental determinant of its standard of living. It determines how prosperity is metabolized and how quality of life improves with time. Productivity is defined as the quantity of output produced by one unit of an input within one unit of time. An increase in physical productivity causes a corresponding increase in the value of labor, which raises wages. This is why having an education or on-the-job training is sought after by employers; it increases the productivity of workers and makes them more valuable assets to the firm.

Here is an example of how it works in practice. An employer offers you $15 to dig a 25 square-foot hole in his backyard. Suppose that you have insufficient capital goods (your bare hands or a spoon), and it takes you three hours to dig a hole to his specifications. Your labor output is worth $5 per hour. If you had a shovel instead, it may have only taken you 30 minutes to dig the hole; your labor output just rose to $30 per hour. With a big enough crane, you may have been able to dig it in five minutes with a labor productivity of $180 per hour. It is clear how the quality of life of a crane owner, which is a direct consequence of his high productivity, differs from the rest of the crowd.

Economic productivity is the source of libidinal forces, the alpha and omega of economic potency, and the ability to better the human conditions. It regulates social entropy, defines the arrow of time, shapes our expectations of the future, and provides mechanisms that sustain our capacity to desire. Abundant productivity enables future generations to live better than the previous ones. Low productivity, in contrast, means both short- and long-term hardship and erosion of the quality of life.

For almost half a century, productivity growth in developed world has been showing a troubling secular trend. In the last decade, developed economies all have entered a stagnation trap from which they seem to be unable to find a way out. This is illustrated in the chart, which shows the history of productivity growth in the US. The bold red lines indicate long-term averages across different regimes. Except for a relatively short period of two successive transient bubbles (internet and housing), there is a clear decline of the average from 3%, in the post-war decades, to 1% in the last ten years.

Productivity Anotated

US productivity growth (5Y moving average)

The decline in productivity growth has profound social implications. A 3% productivity growth, as seen in the two post-war decades, means that the standard of living doubles for every new generation[1]. In contrast, a productivity growth of 1% requires three generations to double the standard of living. However, if we take into account the rise of living costs, in an economy with 1% productivity growth each subsequent generation will have less of everything than its predecessor. It is particularly interesting that productivity growth has been descending to a near all-time low in the last five years, to below 1%, just as it was declared that the economy was recovering from the post-2008 recession. This point in itself deserves special attention.

The death spiral of productivity growth is an example of Tainter’s law, a general pattern whereby investing in complexity inevitably generates decreasing marginal returns for the systems that uses it. Insisting on the same methods, even when they have ceased to work, sets a civilization on track for collapse[2].

This is the essence of Tainter’s argument[3]. A civilization forms when some benefit accrues from greater complexity[4]. Benefits of complexity are realized through cooperation – the proverbial “whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. However, in the initial stage, although benefits of increasing complexity rise, during their evolution, complex systems spontaneously generate endogenous mechanisms of self-sabotage.

Tainters Law

Tainter’s Law

The primary source of self-obstruction is the new protagonist that emerges on the scene: the coordinator[5]. He is the guardian of the new paradigm, which champions complexity as the main and, ultimately, only strategy. The marginal benefits of complexity eventually begin to decline. Beyond a certain point, their intensification produces less additional benefit, putting its beneficiaries to more and more stress. But, as the community/organization now only knows how to use a single strategy, a superstructure is in place that cannot be gracefully abandoned. In the last phase, as benefits of additional complexity taper off, vast resources need to be invested in entirely unproductive ways, such as desperate attempts at regime legitimization: The competitive monument building, or the lavish parades held for each new, short-lived emperor. Eventually, the burden of civilization becomes greater than any benefit it provides and the society collapses[6].

Destruction of cooperation and self-sabotage in corporate organizations

Yves Morieux, offers an illustration of how the last phase of complexity is realized in the current context of developed corporate structures[7]. Behind persistent declining trend in productivity are the three basic tenets of corporate management that act as the main pillars of self-sabotage: Performance, Transparency, and Accountability.

Transparency implies audits and compliance — where does my role start and end. Accountability creates conditions for failure (in a compliant way): Who is accountable? Instead of creating conditions to succeed, we obsess on knowing who is to blame in case of failure. Performance: People put energy and effort in what can be measured, i.e. their individual performance, but not in cooperation.

However, cooperation is how you allocate your effort. Cooperation means taking a risk by giving up the ultimate protection, your own performance, to enhance the performance of those to whom you are being compared, for the sake of cooperation, in order to achieve the optimal result[8]. People are continuously being discouraged and disincentivized to cooperate. If when they cooperate, people were worse off, why would they cooperate? The three basic tenets of corporate management are doing injustice to effectiveness. The more complex the system becomes, the more structures we add that emphasize the three tenets. They trigger a counterproductive multiplication of interfaces that not only add people (non-productive ones), but also create obstacles. The more complicated the system, the more difficult to see what is happening. So we need meetings, reports, conference calls, etc.: people spend 40-80% of time wasting their time[9]. This is the politics of deliberate sub-optimality.

MBA nation or cannibalization of the social landscape

The false premise, which has become the defining characteristics of American politics and, to some extent, the culture as well, has been that a society is essentially the same object as a corporation, just a bigger one, that skills you learn in an MBA program are the same skills you need to manage a society, and that successful corporate managers are, by default, also good national leaders. However, this is not the only social damage of this fallacy. When applying the lessons from corporate culture to society, one inevitably also imports the underlying mistakes of that culture. And so, in the same way a rising complexity creates its own mechanisms of self-sabotage, the essence of the neoliberal approach to social organization is inhibiting the mechanisms of social cooperation. Social atomization, the cult of individuality, the creation of homo economicus as a model citizen, competition as the only and ultimate criterion for everything, the obliteration of welfare, the destruction of empathy, and the entire conservative system of values, all of these structures are instruments of social fragmentation and annihilation of the tissue that makes society different from a collection of individuals. All this leads to barbarization of the social landscape with the degree of polarization that has reached the point where political consensus is no longer possible and democracy no longer works. Politics has become a problem instead of a solution. The net result? The quality of life is already deteriorating and this trend will be reinforced with each subsequent generation as the whole continues to shrink smaller than the sum of its parts.

Under the crush of social entropy, with its ever-increasing complexity as the only strategy, we are facing the same destiny as many civilizations have in the past. The future has already become impossible and without the clear picture of the future, the present cannot take off. Like the boy in Kafka’s story, A Country Doctor, our social and economic system already inhibits the world of undead. Rising complexity is the fatal wound depriving it from the capacity to die. Only when that wound heals, will the system be able to collapse.

 

[1] If one generation is about 20 years, then (1.03)20 ≈ 2

[2] Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman: Smart Simplicity: Six règles pour gérer la complexité sans devenir compliqué, Manitoba (2016)

[3] Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press (1990)

[4] The term complexity is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways, culminating in a higher order of emergence greater than the sum of its parts.

[5] Akshay Ahuja in Dark Mountain Project (19, March 2012)

[6] Akshay Ahuja, ibid.

[7] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

[8] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

[9] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

 

 

The age of unreason

25. VII 2018

The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion

 people in these parts have of heaven. In these parts

 they have come to the conclusion that God

 requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to

 plan two establishments but

 just the one: heaven. It

 serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful

 as hell.

(Bertolt Brecht, Hollywood Elegies)

According to Foucault, the basis for civil society is the idea of a redistribution/recentering of the governmental reason. In pre-modernity, the idea of regulating, measuring, and so limiting the indefinite exercise of power was sought in the wisdom of the person who would govern. Wisdom implied governing in accordance with the order of things, with the knowledge of human and divine laws. But, as modernity entered the historical scene, roughly from XVI century on, exercise of power was no longer adjusted in accordance with wisdom, but according to calculation of force, relations, wealth and factors of strength. The modern forms of government technology could be described as control of government by pegging it to rationality.[1] Modernity, since the nineteenth century, is marked by the emergence of four modes of governmental rationalities, which in subsequent two centuries overlap, lean on each other, challenge each other, and struggle with each other. They represent art of government according to: 1) truth, 2) rationality of the sovereign state, 3) rationality of economic agents and 4) rationality of the governed[2].

It is the fourth mode — the rationality of the governed as the regulating principle of the rationality of the government – that was responsible for the rise of neoliberalism and Homo Oeconomicus as the new political subject and, with it, the emergence of economics as the ideological metalanguage in the second half of the twentieth century.

The trap of rationality and the search for unwisdom

Neoliberalism disseminates market values into every sphere of human activity. People are seen as specs of human capital which needs to appreciate and get reinvested by making proper choices (mate, education, job,…). It provides direction without meaning in directionless environment of postmodernity. (Wendy Brown)

Rationality is a wonderful thing. However, when coupled with competition and when the two are elevated to the highest principle of human existence – when everything in life is reduced to rational decisions in a competitive environment – it becomes a spectacularly efficient mechanism of exclusion. Sooner or later, the symbiosis of the two create a winner-takes-all environment where every failure to make a right decision has dire consequences.

With competition, the number of right paths is shrinking and the number of wrong ones proliferates. Every wrong turn is punitive and potentially fatal. In the kingdom of rationality, bad decisions become self-reinforcing. One wrong turn reduces subsequent maneuvering space and forces another suboptimal choice until there are only wrong choices, all the good and rational ones had been taken by competitors.

The number of those who have failed rationality test grows exponentially with time. They are the excess of population. They hate rationality passionately and resent reality they have been served. The real problem is the unforgiving aspect of progress, the persistent depletion of the safety net and the ultimate absence of cushion. Yet, the excluded are lured into an ideological trap that supports the narrative of systematic removal of that very safety net and, in that process, they continuously undermine themselves. They prefer anything, any alternative to what they have now, not matter how elusive, dubious, and unpalatable the reasoning behind it.

This self-sabotage is at the base of the frustration of a large segment of the population. From the political side this is perceived as an irresistible source of rage capital that is begging to be deployed and reinvested. For the excluded, refusal to yield to the forces of reason is the ultimate act of resistance, a sign of desire to liberate themselves from the tyranny of rationality.

The great U-turn and the politics of performative speech acts

Performative utterances are sentences which not only describe a given reality, but also change the social reality once they are pronounced, like “I pronounce you husband and wife”, or “The court finds the defendant guilty”.

When the number of those who have failed the rationality test is so large that there is no more place for them in the enclosure of prosperity and when they begin to present a significant political body whose voice can be heard in the ballot box, rationality, as a way of governing, has already exhausted itself – its toxic effects have taken over. At that point, the excluded will seek to abandon reason and, with a dash of nostalgia and a help of identity politics, elect a new prince. And this prince will be unlike any other before him. He will govern with unwisdom, and will have the courage to wear his unreason unabashedly as an ultimate virtue. He will create a new order of things, define new reality, and construct the world of unreason with rules that only he and his base will understand. The new fictions will become their articles of faith. Facts and truth will no longer have their old values and the wish for a coherent fictitious world will be satisfied.

In the kingdom of unreason, power will derive from a way of using language rather than from a system of ideas[3]. The first phase of the uprising will consist of a linguistic revolution. Performative speech acts — the pronouncements that change reality by their mere utterance — will enter the vernacular and shape political and social reality. 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. As soon as falsehood has become part of a group identity, it generates new obligations which can be neglected only at risk of showing weakness or, worse still, a treasonous attitude. [4]

Slide2

Unwind of enlightenment and the great U-turn

In a strange twist of fate, emancipation, which marks transition from wisdom to rationality and gives rise to enlightenment as the public use of reason, in the late stage of neoliberalism, it creates conditions for its own demise that lead to its forced unwind and a historical U-turn. With the rise of unreason, populism takes over and becomes neoliberalism’s counterpart in its afterlife.

Unreasonable people cannot be governed by reason. They require a leader who appeals to their irrational side and who, therefore, has to display unreason himself. A different principle is required for governing such masses, a mirror image of neoliberalism’s “governing through freedom”. Unreasonable people are governed through unfreedom.

But this, like any other, detachment from reality cannot be anything but short-lived. The question is not if, but when. The leader will sit in his big car, get on a highway and drive against the traffic. His car will have only one pedal: gas. Like his followers, he believes that everyone else is driving in the wrong direction. Many drivers will move to the shoulders to avoid the collision, but, as he continues to accelerate, there will be a slow-moving trailer trucks that will not be able to maneuver fast enough and, at the end, the fanaticism and the speed will consume their creator. There ain’t no way around it.

 

[1] Michele Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978—1979, Picador (2010)

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Ibid.

Populism as space travel

9. VI 2018

Populism consists of the simultaneous embrace and denial of shit.

The history of populism is a repository of failed missions — a true destination of the populist journey is really a problem of imagination. For the most part of his literary opus, post-modern Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin has been trying to imagine social settings which represent life consistent with alternative and unconventional rules. One such example is offered in his novel “The Norm”, where the Soviet style populism, packed as the vulgar materialistic interpretation of “pseudo-egalitarian” dystopia has settled in and been allowed to blossom to its final consequences. The book was written in the 1980s, when the system’s imminent end was not palpable, and the writer described its long-term trajectory, the very journey of the Soviet “deep space mission”.

“The Norm” is the name for a piece of food that every Soviet citizen considers important, even prestigious to possess, taste, chew, and eat, notwithstanding the fact that it smells bad, almost like excrement. The book is a series of vignettes linked by a moment in each when a character unwraps his or her ration of a substance called “the norm.” It stinks and tastes awful. Children especially hate it, but they, like everyone else, swallow their daily dose. It’s shit, of course, actual human excrement—a pungent symbol of the requisite humiliations of the Soviet system and, perhaps, of life in any oppressive collectivity. Ours included. [1]

There is no rule that says rules cannot be broken

It remains one of the great ironies of the post-1968 West that massive waves of liberation on all fronts ultimately only paved the way for hegemony. This resulted in a drastic reshaping of the possible modes of contestation of different forms of power. How does one rebel against the all-permissive system that shows absolute hegemonic dominance where saying no is meaningless and inconsequential and where resistance is futile? Oppression can be overturned by revolution, but hegemony cannot – it has to be toppled from within. For a rapidly growing majority of those pushed outside of the (shrinking) enclosure of prosperity whose future is collapsing under the crunch of status quo, there is no hope for change. For them, life on this “planet” is no longer possible. The only mode of resistance is rebellion against the established rules.

The world has already seen this type resistance on the global geopolitical scene as a total collective refusal to play by the rules of the neo-liberal world order. The regimes which have refused to follow the established conventions are not new, from Castro and Khomeini, to Iraq, North Africa, Afghanistan and North Korea. The novelty brought in by the rise of the right-wing populism in the West is that it comes from the part of the world that has been the staunchest defender of those rules and is now championing their dismantling.

The war on rules is a decision to exorcise oneself from the existing order of things – it is a declaration of war on oneself, a suicide mission of sorts. It is an exile to another “planet”. Any political or religious leader willing to undertake this mission on behalf of the excluded, is likely to forge a special pact between himself and his constituents. The implicit sacrificial obligation of this commitment, by its very nature, makes that person immune to any defection, or ideological or material corruption, and secures an unconditional, cult-like devotion and support from his following. Even if facts and reality point to his flaws, corruptibility or dishonesty, his commitment alone will ensure a practically unlimited political credit line.

Populism, like space travel, is sustained by the hope that life on another planet is possible. Populist leaders and their followers are faced with the same dilemmas as space travelers. They all carry the willingness to leave the world as we know it and embark on a potentially fatal journey, even if the probability of success is infinitesimal. And that willingness is the most radical act of rule breaking and an absolute weapon against the system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death.

As long as the leaders stick to their promises, people will cut them slack. Populism’s main agenda is continuous breaking of the rules. The more politically damning their actions, the stronger their commitment appears. The more blatant disrespect for the established conventions and rules they show, no matter how futile and meaningless those empty gestures might be, the firmer the bond between populist leaders and their followers. What is normally perceived as a political suicide becomes the main engine of popularity.

Shit as a universal reference frame

The integrity of our lives, as we know them, is sustained by an extraordinarily fine-tuned set of rules and parameters. Disturbing the rules even slightly leads to qualitative changes. If our body’s temperature changes by one degree, we get sick, if it rises by more than four degrees, we are very likely to die. Inventing new rules means inventing new forms of life[2].

This link between rules and life is the aspect populist leaders, predominantly the right-wing kind, and their followers show no capacity for understanding – their most distinguishing trademark is a deafening cognitive dissonance. But what kind of life can we expect on the populist planet? On Mars, for example, the gravitational constant is three times lower than on Earth and water there boils at 10 degrees Celsius, so no coffee, and no hardboiled eggs for starters. Everyone is at least eight feet tall, their bone density different, blood flow probably seriously compromised, and who knows how that affects the brain.

Embracing new rules, like embarking on a deep space mission, requires a voluntary participation ritual. Sorokin’s book, The Norm, describes precisely such ritualized participation. However, as outlandish as it sounds, the book’s extrapolation is not far-removed from our reality. Rules that govern our lives also regulate the flow of shit, its path and direction, how it disappears and how it resurfaces in different forms[3]. We use shit to fertilize soil and grow plants; animals eat those plants and we eat both animals and plants. However, there is a clear protocol in these circular flows. They are important. Changing the rules even slightly profoundly affects our lives.

Like space travel[4], populism approaches shit rationally by throwing it (with everything else) into the big optimizer. The difference between Sorokin’s dystopia and our world is condensed in minor changes in the rules of shit-flow, by cutting the “middleman”. Such approach is hardly a surprise, given the decades of reign of the ideology where the requirement of economic optimization is elevated to a general political principle whereby the system of economic production is also a system of anthropological production[5] — an extension of market rationality to existence in its entirety. The recycling bin of this ideology is the actual birth place of the right-wing populism — a political maneuver championed by the mid-level segment of the oligarchic structure, posing as self-proclaimed defenders of the excluded and purveyors of ideological snake oil for the poor. Their platform is founded on the long ago rejected “free-market” dogmas, which nobody (including them) takes seriously anymore, alive only thanks to the life support provided by the new identity politics.

[1] Ben Ehrenreich, Vladimir Sorokin’s Absurdist Excess, The Nation (4-Feb-2016)

[2] Heterotopias are reminders of this link, as Michel Foucault outlined in his 1967 essay, Des espaces autres, Hétérotopies. They represent real sites that can be found within the culture where social rules and interactions are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted, e.g. boarding schools, in their nineteenth-century form, or military service for young men; heterotopias of deviation like rest homes, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons; brothels, puritan societies established by the English settlers in America, or Jesuit colonies founded in South America in which “human perfection” was effectively achieved. Life in these communities is significantly different from that on the outside, but the underlying rules governing them are only slight variations of ours.

[3] This is a deep ideological terrain – different cultures are distinguished by the way they dispose of their shit (the comparative architecture of German and French toilettes is probably the most eloquent summary of the differences between the two cultures).

[4] When it comes to manned deep space missions, bringing food supplies from Earth would take up valuable space aboard the spacecraft as well as increase fuel consumption, which is why scientists are searching for a more economical solution by growing or generating food en route. Astronauts on their way to Mars may be required to eat their own waste in the form of a recycled paste. The innovation is being touted as a possible nutritional solution for long-term manned space missions.

[5] P. Dardot and C. Laval, La nouvelle raison du monde, La Découverte (2010)

Scandal and power: Pornographication of politics and social life

23. V 2018

There is a species of man who is always one step ahead of his own excrement (René Char)

Scandal is emerging as possibly the most significant technological innovation of the new century so far. It makes social barriers porous, it uncovers human flaws behind the sheltered Public, humanizes the dehumanized, and contaminates the sterilized Symbolic. Current political reality reveals itself through scandal. Scandal gives an illusion of political engagement – it is political activism in consumer mode.

Perfection is sterile – we are attracted to people’s weaknesses and imperfections and not to their strengths. If personal flaws and idiosyncrasies harmonize with repressed collective traumas, desires and nostalgia for the ancestral terrain, they can have a great mobilizing power capable of defining new identity politics and shaping entire political movements. A leader who is able to strike the ancestral chord of his people will make those people dance to his grooves and fall in love with him. For several decades now, the new breed of post-Reagan politicians has been doubling down on their flaws in a bid for deeper access to wider political audiences and a chance to reinvest considerable rage capital that has accumulated over time. Their idiosyncrasies make them human, and the more they err, the more human and appealing they become. They diffuse one scandal with another (always) bigger one — spectacle is addictive, it has to grow to satiate the boundless appetite of the publics. Since Reagan days, scandal has morphed from a free form to a precise game theoretical strategy.

The main problem with scandal as a public communication tool is its integration into political life. After all, scandal in public life has always been synonymous with professional suicide, the end of political career (Nixon was the last tragic victim of that equation). It took almost two decades after Reagan to figure out how to bypass this obstacle. The breakthrough came with a realization that the troubling equation, Scandal = Suicide, is intimately linked with the second one, Suicide = Power.

It wasn’t very long after 9/11 that the West managed to grasp the idea that suicide is a statement of power. A man on a suicide mission is not to be messed with: Irrespective of how much stronger you are, he will manage to hurt you, or at best, his guts will splatter all over you leaving the stains (physical and mental) you will never be able to remove. The impactfullness of suicide as the ultimate symbolic gesture can only be understood and argued after reconciling it with the symbolism of afterlife. The duality of suicide — physical and symbolic (the collateral and the reward) – defines the first layer of its rationalization within the existing cultural paradigm.

Suicide is the most private act. Its intent and execution are done without the consent of anyone but the self. The suicide through martyrdom is an externalization of that personal pact; it is a radical privatization of the public space – a violent erasure of the gap between private and public.

Physical suicide as subordination to a higher goal that transcends the value of human life represents a symbolic act that has no counterpart in the Western culture. For Westerners, this is potentially the most frightening confrontation. But, the West has emancipated itself from this nonsense of higher goals a long time ago: We no longer give our lives for higher goals; we take risks in exchange for adequate compensation.

With real (fundamentalist) martyrs loss of life is real and afterlife is symbolic. For pragmatic Westerners rationalization of suicide consists in transposing its coordinates: suicide becomes symbolic and afterlife real. This is the key step.

Over the last two decades, the public spectacle of symbolic suicide has become a ticket to a lucrative material “afterlife” for numerous public figures. Through scandal, current populist politics, (the concluding chapter of neoliberalism) has been transformed into a perpetual ritual of watered down acts of reversible self-annihilation — political suicide followed by subsequent symbolic resurrection. The ongoing parody of self-destruction comes with an embedded option on resurrection (political and/or commercial) or an implicit promise of a lucrative “afterlife” with “70 virgins” in the form of book deals, high-commission speech opportunities, TV appearances, Fox News correspondent, or consultant positions.

These rituals are repeated over and over again as an essential part of an ever-growing public spectacle. The high-stakes game, the ultimate gamble, where one puts his life on the line for his beliefs (what if my belief is wrong and my life was lost for nothing?) is transposed into its parody, a tactical low-stakes gambit consisting of making minor short-term concessions in return for a potentially large future upside. There is an emancipatory ring to this parody: While “traditional” martyrdom has been strictly a male thing, symbolic suicide has been very much a gender-neutral thing, which has only helped its acceptance and integration.

As potential upside grew, the spectacle of symbolic self-annihilation became more competitive and more elaborate. At the top of this theatre of cruelty sits Donald Trump, always (and without a single exception) on the wrong side of every argument, political, social, ethical, ecological or rational, with consistency that can only be deliberate or programmatic, definitely not accidental. And this is just an appetizer; his distaste for truth, deep in the territory of pathological, is an amuse-bouche (it comes free of charge) before the main course, his passion for scandal of any kind, political, sexual, financial, or legal, none too small or too trivial not to be embraced, defines his habitat. He insults war heroes, war heroes’ widows and parents, handicapped, women, homosexuals, transgender, minorities, judges, FBI, CIA, media, religions, domestic and foreign dignitaries, chiefs of states, anyone that exists on this planet and beyond. And when it looks like he has sunk as low as one can sink, he manages to define new lows. His ability to survive the consequences defies laws of probability, gravity and logic; it can be only compared to surviving a plane crash (something his buddy Nigel Farage actually experienced).

Trump’s administration appointees and surrogates are all symbolic martyrs, selected volunteers on a suicide mission, trying to keep up with their boss. This commitment has become all but an explicit prerequisite for any political office appointment — we continue to be reminded of Comey’s (or Tillerson’s) ritualized dismissal as a consequence of their reluctance to commit to the parody of martyrdom.

The list of Trump’s symbolic suicide volunteers has been growing at an exploding rate. Various transient surrogates and talking heads are too insignificant and numerous to mention. But, who can forget the tragicomic figure of Sean Spicer, a bona fide moron, who went too far too soon and, in that process, blew his chances for afterlife; or premature ejaculator Scaramucci who kamikazeed on runway before his “plane” could take off; the undead duo, Conway & HakaSan; Jeffrey Lord who just couldn’t take the pressure anymore and (for no good reason and out of the blue) blasted a Sieg Heil on twitter, and subsequently lost his CNN (and any other) gig; Garry Cohn, a rational man who did and said irrational things and ruined his reputation in a futile mission, but as a government employee, managed to cash in his vested Goldman Sachs stocks without paying capital gains tax; the list goes on and on.

But, when it comes to the spectacle of public self-annihilation, no one comes close to Sean Hannity, the whirling dervish, performance artist, and Swiss army knife of populist tricks. People of all persuasions and political leanings tune in every night to watch the greatest show on TV, where this postmodern-day Lazarus of the far right sets himself on fire and incinerates his symbolic body every business day of the week at precisely 9 p.m. and within the subsequent 60 minutes violates every professional, journalistic, legal, ethical, and esthetical boundary there is to violate, only to magically resurrect the next day and repeat the same ritual during the exact same time slot.

However, away from the spectacle, one faces sobering reality: Porous boundaries, atonal politics, and populist plan for its rescue reveal the troubling truth about the human condition of the depressive-narcissistic neoliberal subject. It is at the edge of depression where neoliberalism meets its fundamentalist twin. The inability to arrive at a decision or finish anything constitutes a symptom of depression[1]  — our spirit has become so compromised that even suicide cannot be accepted as a conclusive act, but just another chapter – what can be more narcissistic than that? This is the social Möbius strip where the real becomes symbolic and the symbolic turns into real. In this process of social pornografication, the paradigm of the reality show converts martyrdom into a precisely structured symbolic ritual, mythology of afterlife into business opportunities, and transforms America, and the West in general, into a culture of second acts. Everything is explicit and nothing is believable.

[1] B. C. Han

Digital panopticon and the triumph of the unfree will

22. IV 2018

The smart phone is not just a surveillance apparatus, it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue of the Digital. “Like” is the digital “Amen” (B. C. Han)

Digital society is a big congregation, over two billion Facebook users worldwide, about a third of the planet’s population, and over 250 million in the US alone, the entire voting age and twice the 2016 turnout. Their digital soul, the complement of the real one, is there on display for anyone to mess with, if that can serve some purpose — commercial, political or otherwise. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Smartphones are digital windows into the innermost corners of the psyche of this enormous congregation. They provide access to their unfulfilled desires and frustrated egos, fears, tastes, and political leanings.

Smartphones have become a tool for governing — they enable one to shape opinions, diffuse dissent, streamline emotions, manufacture consensus, assassinate opponents, stage revolutions, and declare wars and victories, imaginary and real, all alike. In the configuration of total transparency and social pornographication everything is subject to influence and on disposal to anyone who has the attention or who wins the ratings war. Transparency is a curse. It suppresses deviation, abhors individual opinion, and extinguishes free will. Everyone is watching everyone else; invisible moderators smooth out communication and calibrate it to what is generally understood and accepted[1]. There is no room for and no language to express disagreement – there is only “Like”.

However, as B. C. Han points out, something is alive only to the extent that it contains contradiction within itself, its force consists in an ability to hold and endure contradictions within[2]. Whatever is merely positive is lifeless. In a society of outsiders idiosyncrasy has a great appeal and mobilizing power. But, superfluidity of the social media transforms idiosyncratic into collective. Individual instabilities become part of the collective Eros and destabilizing on a systemic level. The collective absorbs all libidinal forces through persistent self-reinforcement and, in that process, acquires enormous coercive potential, until there is only one opinion, one emotion and one voice. The digital panopticon becomes a communism of affects and democracy a polite dictatorship.

[1] B. C. Han, Fröhliche Wissenschaft: Agonie des Eros, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2012)

[2] ibid.