Liminality and Political Ritual

2. IV 2019

Ritual is one of the basic social acts. It is a journey, symbolic or literal, at the end of which the traveler returns to its starting point, but as a transformed subject capable of seeing the context with different eyes and a new perspective afforded by the experience of the journey. It is a cleansing of the social palate before commencing the new stage of life. Rituals are mechanisms that convert the obligatory into the desirable. They take place at inflection points where status quo approaches dead end. Rites of passage like entrance into adulthood or marriage are meant to diffuse the anxiety before, and catalyze acceptance of, disruptions of stasis that generally tend to be rejected or (sometime indefinitely) postponed.

Ritual is a play between structure and anti-structure, which resides between thought and action. It is an affair of the tremendum rather than a quite ordinary mode of human social labor[1]. Despite their multitude and diversity, a wide class of rituals follows the same basic structure. The first stage consists of separation – this is when the subject is taken out of context. The second step is transitional or liminal stage. During this phase, the work of the ritual takes place: The order of things is (temporarily) suspended — participants are in a structureless zone ready to accept new rules. In the final, integration, phase the subject is re-contextualized. This is the von Gennep – Turner model of ritual structure[2].

Two modes of betwixt and between

When they turn 16, Amish kids undergo the ritual of rumspringa[3]. They are released into the outside, the Devil’s playground, where they get a taste of the English world and confront its temptations. During that time, which can last several years, the rules of the Amish are suspended. Young Amish living like English teenagers are not fully or properly either of the two things – they are betwixt and between.

Despite all the pacifist bullshit and declarative distancing from various modes of violence associated with the English culture, the Amish actually function as an oppressive cult. However, they have a very non-English way of imposing their rule and a very Zen approach to oppression. They use smart power, which has been the key to their longevity and resilience[4]. To an individual programmatically unprepared for survival in the outside world, options opened by rumspringa do not get exercised through free will – rather, they amount to a free selection among a reduced subset of possibilities. A large majority of Amish kids return to the Amish community. In lieu of basic survival skills, the security of predictable and boring Amish life outweighs the excitement and challenges of the precarious Devil’s playground.

The ritual of rumspringa is essential for the stability of the Amish community. The ultimate goal of the ritual is to foster docility, which comes as a consequence of confusing the free selection for free will and, as such, results in the ownership of the decision to remain in the cult.

Rumspringa outlines the basic structure of ritualistic rites of passage with all three of its stages (separation, transition, and integration). Various rituals, although having the same basic structure, generally differ by the underlying backbone and directionality of purpose.

Another example of the same formal ritualistic structure, with all three stages, but different purpose and backbone, is the American college experience. After a sheltered childhood, where access and exposure to major sources of risk, like excessive time mismanagement, night clubs, drinking, drugs, etc. is restricted either legally or through parental supervision, college kids ceremonially leave their parents’ homes and move into student dorms, the new communal centers where they cohabitate with their peers. Unsupervised and armed with newly acquired fake IDs, they step into the Devil’s playground with access to alcohol, drugs, sexual experimentation, and the host of new experiences, becoming exposed to the risks and temptations of the adult world. No longer kids and not yet adults, betwixt and between, they enter the liminal stage, in which all rules of either life seem to be suspended.

Although Amish rumspringa and the American college experience have the same formal structure, they differ by directionality of their integration and re-contextualization. Rumspringa is a regressive (centripetal) ritual with forces that pull the participant back to the original social structure after spending the liminal period in, what by Amish standard is considered as, structureless environment. In contrast, the American college experience is progressive (centrifugal) with the liminal period emerging as a source of potential alternative structures waiting to be embraced. The progressive backbone of the college ritual is further reinforced by the stigma of failure associated associated with returning to the safety of the parental home. And this emancipatory process goes both ways — most of parents, subsequent to their kids’ departure, declare themselves as empty nesters, repurpose their kids’ rooms and generally adjust to their future life without them. In terms of the integration score, the success rate of the college experience is roughly the same as that of the Amish rumspringa – most college kids succeed by not returning back to live with their parents.

The initiates: Excess population

Capitalism has to be the strangest creation in the history of human civilization. At its core, capitalism has the metabolism of a pathologically self-destructive organism, the self-sabotage emanating from its every action, relentlessly looking for new ways to hurt and undermine itself, always narrowly escaping its own demise, only to continue to search for a new and more potent poison. Whatever is perceived as beneficial in the short-run, becomes fatal in the long run. No other system, living or dead, behaves like this.

An inevitable side effect of capitalist progress and its self-destructiveness is a growing number of those who fall through the cracks. They are the marginalized excess population, pushed to the margins of the social, political, economic, ecological, and biopolitical system, which prevents them from access to resources, assets, services, and restrains freedom of choice and the development of capabilities. They are socially undead, earmarked for recycling or rehabilitation.

When the excess population swells to such an extent that its drainage is blocked, the resulting social configuration becomes unstable. The longer the marginalized segment of the population stays inside the enclosure of prosperity and rubs shoulders with the useful, legitimate, and self-entitled rest, the less the lines separating normality and abnormality appear reassuringly unambiguous[5] — precarity becomes everyone’s potential destiny. The tensions created by this configuration acquire new quality. The system faces a legitimation crisis. The existing social structure is seen as oppressive and society desires to transcend it. This can be achieved only during the liminal stage of ritual.

The underlying social imbalances need to be addressed either by force or other forms of violence. However, outright physical oppression is an inefficient and expensive way of governing. Instead, power needs to be smart– it has to convince people to voluntarily submit to it. Ritual enters the scene as a form of smart power. Social transformation, thus, takes a ritualistic form where liminality functions as Nay to all positive structural assertions[6]. When applied as a remedy to diffuse the existing social tension and descent, the essence of ritual is to create conditions for the separation phase as a prelude to liminal stage where the existing social rules and hierarchies are suspended.

Social change as ritual: Between marginality & liminality

Liminality and marginality define coordinates of political action. They reside on the opposite sides of social structure. Marginality is an involuntary submission to the capitalist social structure. From the perspective of marginality, structure is oppressive, and ominous. Liminality, on the other hand, is liberation from structure. Even if it might be temporary, it is nevertheless a reprieve– in the liminal phase structure becomes invisible, and the underlying social rules suspended.

Right wing populism resides in the interstices between liminality and marginality. It offers to the excess population ritual instead of real solutions – a simulated Devil’s playground. The mindfuck of rebranding the social change necessary to escape marginalization with liminality — a permanent state with a temporary one — is a way of giving social transformation a regressive ritualistic spin, a political rumspringa of a sort. This is not specific for the current political moment — it has always been the case in history. For many people who have been marginalized, offering ritualistic rites of passage as a surrogate for their social redemption is the only hope of social redemption.

The spurious similarity between the populism of segregated and fractured post-2016 America and single-voice Germany of the 1930s — the two countries a century apart with no socioeconomic overlap — can be traced to the fact that their respective leaders have been engaged in the same ritual practices in different times. Their respective ideologies – unconditional subordination to either national or oligarchic interests — and representative parties, National Socialist German Workers’ Party and National Capitalist MAGA, run in parallel. In both political events, marginalization triggered and shaped rituals that followed. The 1930s was an uprising against the marginalization of Germany as a cultural, industrial and military power of the time. The rise of Nazism was a result of discontent due to loss of privileged position in the global context. As a consequence, the entire country spoke in a single voice. In 21st century prosperous America, which has not had a war on its territory for more than 150 years, it was marginalization of an entire social class and reaction to the loss of the white male privilege of the old days. The consequence was an unprecedented polyvocality as an expression of social divide along cultural, racial and ethnic lines — a class war in a displaced mode, with the entire marginalized class speaking in a single voice only they could understand.

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

The roadmap to re-contextualization

Democracy itself has been functioning as a ritual for quite some time. Actual authoritarian power works much better. Authoritarianism has been in place, but disguised as pseudo-democracy with elaborate layers of deceit. (Slavoj Zizek)

The inner space between marginality and liminality defines the politics of change in post-2016 America. This is the territory where two different directions of purpose are drawn – rumspringa vs. college. In the current context of political ritual, post-liminal integration can evolve along three different paths.

1) American rumspringa: Idiocracy crashes and self-destructs reverting to pre-ritual centrism as a lesser of two evils. Suspension of rules masquerading as change serves as an anesthetic for a more extreme status quo. This is the role of the simulated Devil’s playground. The ongoing ritual is an exact replica of the Amish rumspringa. People are compelled to accept the flawed centrism as a less bad alternative to the corrupt kleptocratic configuration of the present. The problem created by social marginality is dissolved through its acceptance and its victims are permanently defeated – their condition appears as an act of their own will as a result of free selection which substitutes for the free will.

2) Emancipatory path: Transformational/progressive integration is directed towards opening a way into new structure as a resolution of underlying tensions. The ideas and practices that have become established during the liminal phase take the quality of structure. After the trance of (political) ritual subsides, return to pre-separation becomes impossible. While liminality is unstructured — a lack of fixed points in a given moment — it becomes an origin of structure. It is the state of “cosmic foam” awaiting a big bang — formless reality out of which forms emerge — the beginning of everything.

While regressive populist offering is liminality without destination, a voluntary submission to the pre-ritualistic phase, the progressive alternative provides a true destination (with minimum ritual), distinct from the pre-separation phase.

3) American twilight: Idiocracy becomes a new paradigm. This is what Victor Turner calls the state of institutionalized liminality or, in Max Weber’s terminology, everydayinization of the out-of-ordinary situations.

Politics turns into a ritualistic orgy and political leadership assumes a shamanic mode of functioning with permanent campaigning (before, during, and after the elections) as the only way of governing. Nothing is ordinary — everything is tremendous. Semiotic excess — lies, deceit, nonsense, and propaganda — has the main purpose of perpetuating the ritual, sustaining liminality, and suspending the rules, while palpable falsehoods become articles of faith. New social identity draws the boundary between us and them and becomes the main theme of political discourse. Acceptance includes tests of authenticity which require participants to go through initiation rites in which they burn bridges by committing deep out-of-the-money unethical acts and physical or intellectual atrocities (sometimes all three), most often led by the political shamans themselves. This ritual within a ritual consists of competitive symbolic self-immolation in the arena of public spectacle that irreversibly closes the doors for their return to pre-liminal life. This is a state of atonal pseudo-totalitarian operetta without a key or meter, the kingdom of arbitrariness where words have no fixed meaning and actions no consequences.

[1] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures (1966)

[2] This breakdown of the structure and the concept of liminality were first introduced by Arnold von Gennep in 1909, Rites of Passage, University of Chicago Press (1961) and later picked up and developed further by Victor Turner, ibid.

[3] Pennsylvania German version of herumspringen, to leap around

[4] Amish population in the US has almost tripled since 1990 and is likely to continue growing at the same rate, expecting to increase from 350K today to nearly 1 million by 2050. This is pretty amazing given the context of social Darwinism of modernity where any inefficiency becomes punitive and its cumulative effect ultimately lethal. The rationale for such growth is simple: Amish offer monotonous life with security against rapidly raising precarity on the outside. The ritual takes away the possibility of descent.

[5] Zigmunt Baumman, Wasted Lives – Modernity and its Outcasts, Polity (2004)

[6] Victor Turner, Betwix and Between: The liminal Period in Rites de Passage in The Forrest of Symbols, Cornell University Press (1967)

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We need to learn to speak again: Linguistification of society as foreplay to social change

18. II 2019

Tongue finger

One avoids a lie whenever one can get away with truth (Borislav Pekic)

Why does it appear impossible to dispute obvious lies and falsehoods with simple and self-evident truths? It’s been more than two years since lies were set free. They have flooded the public discourse, politics, media and everyday life. Lies and falsehoods are neither exonerated, nor are they getting flushed out. They continue to pile up on top of existing ones with no drainage mechanism in place. Their presence continues to agitate the public, but nothing seems to be on the horizon that would resolve the underlying tensions. The political entropy caused by this toxic ferment is gradually sucking out all the oxygen and beginning to intoxicate even its own creators.

There is something about the current political configuration that is conducive to this state of unresolved contradictions, which is embedded in our thinking and language. In capitalism, the significance of a concept is primarily measured in terms of its value in the marketplace. The market value system has penetrated all social relationships and governs our thinking and language as well. Under capitalist conditions, language functions as a commodity[1]. For example, we express an agreement by saying: I buy that, disagreement with: I don’t buy it. Winning an acceptance is articulated as selling (the President has to sell that idea to Congress).

As a consequence, any resistance to capitalist hegemony, either through critique or protest, is recognized as successful only it if sells well, and vice versa – fails if it sells poorly. In other words, language in capitalism is mute. Criticism of capitalism does not operate in the same medium as capitalism itself[2]. The two can never meet each other, and they cannot be allowed to. In that respect, capitalism is structured in a very Euclidean way. According to Boris Groys, society first must be altered by linguistification if it is to become subject to any meaningful critique[3] – before we contemplate any change, we need to learn how to speak; linguistification is a foreplay to any meaningful change.

Capitalism’s instinct for survival mobilizes any and all possible forces of defense, including its spontaneous mutation, in order to prevent its own transformation. The merger of politics and entertainment is one such mechanism at play. The logic behind this strange symbiosis is simple. Entertainment draws attention and boosts viewership and ratings — it takes attention away from the content and reinforces the message irrespective of its validity. This is the commodification of language at its purest.

How nonsense travels: Semantic excess and its transmission mechanisms

Current political protagonists have an unusual set of skills. They show up in various shapes and forms as a composite of entertainers, debate artists, and charismatic personalities with a penchant for scandal, something like a massively dumbed down version of sophists. They are, to paraphrase Boris Groys, entrepreneurs who offer the empty surfaces of coherently articulated speech to anyone who wishes to be concealed behind them. The real attraction of the linguistic commodities offered for sale by these characters is represented less by their logically valid surfaces than by the dark space behind those surfaces where customers can settle comfortably. The key transformation of political subjects into consumers has already taken place. Listeners are encouraged to appropriate the obscure core of populist speech in order to fill it with their own concerns[4]. In other words, speech that hides its paradoxical structure becomes a commodity that invites penetration into its paradoxical background or interior.

In the political environment where all social structures are suspended and things function like in professional wrestling, where only the loudest voices are heard, ratings are the ultimate metric. Everything is measured by its shock value. It doesn’t matter what kind of attention (good or bad) one gets, whatever cuts through the mix counts; the rest drowns out in the overall cacophony of semantic excess. And the more politics resemble a circus, the more people will tune in to see it. Everything else is of secondary importance. Viewers will dial in not to get a dose of sense or logic, but to be entertained, agitated or to activate any emotion that interrupts their boredom.

There is a concentrated effort to keep every public discourse trapped in the vortex of commodified language, where any new idea that could lead to a possibility of change receives a price tag and gets absorbed by the black background of the capitalist value system. The sole purpose of political talking heads, spokesmen and pundits – the political whirling dervishes – is to not allow this vortex of cognitive opacity to come to a halt and to stir each debate and discursive deviation towards its center. Media are caught in this play as unwitting accomplices. Like rats who carry the bubonic plague, they facilitate the transmission of the message; they cannot stop the dissemination of lies because they go wherever profits take them.

Disappearance by proliferation: Between logic and truth

Is truth necessary at all? Can’t logic replace it? Logic is something permanent, whereas truth changes. (Borislav Pekic)

There is nothing new in the political platform of the right wing populism — its still-born ideas are outdated, compromised, and were disqualified long ago — its only innovation is linguistic. The grand program is to exonerate lies and integrate them into the mainstream capitalist system. Flooding the public discourse with lies and falsehoods is multi-purpose.

Lies have had an uncomfortable and disadvantaged position in capitalism. Those who lie, steal — they are thieves. And although they respect property, thieves want to redistribute it, and redistribution is the biggest sin in capitalism. So, liars are assholes. However, this logic (unjustly) denies lies, and those who are good at using them, their chance at limitless profit making. And the new populist breed is here to correct this historical injustice (this is America!). Their mission is to show that lies, when set free, could take us to places we could only have dreamed of. Lies can become monetary forward contracts, a promise of revenue, and no longer a challenge to the interpretation of reality. By maintaining the capitalist paradigm, profit exonerates the encounter of lies with facts.

When seen in retrospect, 2016 was a cognitive coup d’état. The subsequent two years have been a process of transcription of society into the medium of language, a linguistic counterrevolution and not a political or social and economic movement – nothing has really been accomplished, nothing sustainable achieved, except an overall social and political destabilization.

So, before anything can change, the last two years have to be undone — we first need to learn how to speak again. Learning the right language is a foreplay that needs to come before any political action. The progressive agenda, if it is to be effective at this stage, has to be centered on the linguistic part.

To begin to learn how to speak again, and to grasp the inadequacy of the existing language (the only one we know at the moment), one has to start speaking about the unspeakable, about the topics where the commodified language of capitalism is mute. We need to escape into the blind alleys of capitalism where its systemic disorders, the five horsemen of the apocalypse, reside[5]: Stagnation, Redistribution, Plundering of the public domain, Technology and commodification of labor, and Corruption.

These are the topics that define the discourse of change. They address the central points of self-intoxication, the Achilles heels of capitalism. The five systemic disorders expose the inner contradictions, the paradoxicality of the system; they are the portals of change. Any political figure whose platform is defined by these topics deserves our attention. All others are impostors.

[1] Boris Groys, Das komunistische Postskriptum, Suhrkamp Verlag (2006)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?, Verso (2017)

The genesis of governmentality and the great flood of arbitrariness

(A homage to a great book)

28.XII 2018

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Hieronymus Bosch: Last Judgment Triptych

Human freedom is a hell of alternatives, dilemmas and choices. True freedom is having no choices. Hell is nothing other than absolute freedom and the devil has been its champion since his rebellion against God… Just look at what kind of image we have of heaven. Whenever some painter attempts to reveal the Powers and Glory of God, we feel like we’re attending an SS parade at the Luipold Arena in Nuremberg… Phalanxes of identical, expressionless and blond angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, surround the Throne as specified in most brutal visions of an authoritarian state… Take the Bosch’s Last Judgment as an example. Successive necessities, realizing paradisiacal freedom are transformed along the vertical axes of the composition into chaos and true freedom of hell. High up, in the golden nimbus, symmetry reigns as in the Wehrmacht barracks; there’s still a humble order and a system in the falling of the angels, but further down… my god! Further down and absolute oriental chaos reigns! Each abusing each as he pleases! Each does as he likes! Everything is in total confusion! An insane chaos attains the freedom and beauty of the ideal democratic state. (Borislav Pekic)

Collective free will is a paradoxical social configuration. It is a highly disruptive force that interrupts the normal run of things and creates conditions for its own demise — it shows up every once in a while, but it never stays. The last time free will made its brief appearance in 1968, it frightened everyone, sounding alarms and prompting the urgent response of governments across the entire western hemisphere. Ironically, it was in the West, the champion of freedom and emancipation, where panic registered the highest levels. The developments that led to 1968, and those that followed, represent the crossroads of political history at the moment of an acute crisis of governmentality. The tensions of 1968 are defined by two contradictory realizations: that force is an inefficient way of governing and that true freedom is not governable.

In a discursive ideological competition that followed as a consequence of the crisis, neoliberalism offered the most “successful” (not necessarily the best) resolution of the underlying contradictions. By outlining a new way of conducting individuals, which satisfies aspirations to freedom in every sphere of human activity, it set the new initial conditions of modern governmentality. Behind these abstract statements lies a simple and, at the same time profound, observation about our ambivalence regarding freedom. People are both attracted and frightened by it — they like to wear it as an ornament, but don’t know what to do with it. This was the major political and cognitive innovation shaped by the factual constraint of the times.

Begin from the middle: From free choice to free selection

However, there was a twist, a detail without which none of it would have worked out. It consisted in the displacement of free choice with free selection. As long as selection was abundant, this subtle, but profound, shift of perspective remained largely unnoticed and the essence of control consisted of dialing the selections. But, when free choice is replaced with free selection and when selection is reduced to only two options, things begin to get interesting. People are given an illusion that, at each point of their life, they stand at the crossroads where one path leads to destruction and the other to redemption, that their future depends on every decision they make along the way. The ideological core of this binary choice consists in packaging it as the principle of one’s own choice. One constantly has to choose. Left or Right. With time, this dilemma becomes an engine which drives a continuous cognitive process that never switches off; it dictates how people live, how they experience reality, and how their sub-consciousness functions. For something like this, people need to mobilize considerable intellectual energy — totally preoccupied with the fear of not making a mistake, they have no time to reflect on anything else. Surrender to this reality — the ubiquitous and perpetual dilemma, Left or Right, when it would be normal to resist either direction — is an expression of acceptance of one’s (inevitable) destiny, supported by the hope of redemption, although real redemption is not waiting for us in either direction.

Labor camps as the birthplace of modern governmentality

The principle of one’s own choice of destiny is not a neoliberal invention. So reassuring at first sight, it was a tried and perfected modus operandi in Jewish Ghettos during World War II. It was invented there with a particular purpose to squash any possibility of resistance. This is how SS Standardführer Heinrich Steinbrecher[1] described the logic of its functioning in the Vilna Ghetto (city of Vilnius, in the territory of Nazi-administered Reichskommissariat Ostland), where, within less than two years from its establishment in 1941, the Ghetto’s population was reduced from an estimated 40,000 to zero.

In the Ghetto, the principle of choice of your destiny was perfected by issuing various kinds of certificates. Those who worked for the German industry received them, the others did not. At first, raids would target only those without certificates, so everybody tried to get one. The thought was now exclusively occupied with this goal. There was no time for any kind of resistance. The main objective was to obtain a work certificate before the next raid. However, the raid did not happen. In the meantime, a change in the rules was announced. Now, there were two kinds of certificates being issued — with and without an identification photo. It was up to you to choose with which kind of certificate you would face the next “manhunt”. The principle Left or Right was active again. Raid now hits those with passport without a picture. Everyone tries to exchange them. Administration announces that it is introducing a third id: a blank card with a stamp mark from the labor bureau in Ponar. However, hardly anyone decides to get it. Miserable piece of paper does not present any reassurance in terms of security. Next night, they arrest many of those with old id’s, with or without photos, in proportion to those without any documents. Everyone rushes to get a blank id. In the meantime, administration arrives at a conclusion that this division/distinction is impractical. It replaces it with partition on qualified and non-qualified workers. They do not ask for any proof. Only personal statement/declaration. Right or Left? Majority decides for some qualification. They reason that one who is considered useful will be spared. In principle, that conclusion is correct. Soon, it is discovered that “qualified” documents were taken also by those who have no rights for that. As a punishment, raid hits everyone, without discrimination. Both, those with and without documents. Jews realize they can only blame themselves: “They (Germans) trusted us, and we deceived them”. When someone reaches this level of reasoning, you can do anything with them. Selections on the basis of identification papers were continued. Left of right was permanently in effect/play. And before the last Jew was liquidated, their i.d.’s changed all colors: from red to white. Thought was constantly occupied. One always had to choose. Left or right?

Do you understand the genius of this idea? It could come only from a speculative mind like German. Only people who gave the world Kant and Hegel. However, to be fair, one has to give credit to those Jews. Only their Talmudic intelligence could get fully and wholeheartedly immersed into this game. Primitive Anglo-Saxons, without imagination and intellectual combinatorics, as soon as they would notice that the rules of game are changing whenever they are on the way to winning, they would exit/abandon the game. Jews continued the play it. With ever growing passion, as the game selection would get more complicated, and their count continued to shrink[2].

In what must be one of the greatest moments of cultural introspection, Steinbrecher’s summary outlines the contours of future struggles of governmentality in a broader ideological context and, at the same time, reveals a disturbing natural link, a straight line, that connects the western cultural tradition with the Holocaust and the final solution. The logic of that strait path leads beyond mere physical; it penetrates deeply cognitive and intellectual horizons and ties them together. It identifies Evil as an intellectual need of the mind, which meditates about the good –a logical necessity of any effort that funds the idea about a better world[3].

Triumph of unfree will: New governmentality at work

The fundamental challenge of any capitalist ideology is how to convince people to voluntarily make stupid decisions, and how to do that systematically. This is a complicated problem of constrained optimization with multiple horizons to which neoliberalism offered the simplest solution. Instead of inventing a new ideology for the emerging socioeconomic system, neoliberalism concentrated on reshaping the political subjects and manufacturing docile bodies. It introduced a series of social apparatuses that gradually transformed society to conform to the old methods of control, using Ghettos as a blueprint.

For the labor camp model work outside of the context of extreme oppression, it was necessary to condition the modern political subjects and reduce their thinking process to that of the residents of the 1940s Ghettos. How? Neoliberalism adopted a simple approach. It disseminated market values into every sphere of human activity. Cooperation is replaced by competition, which is elevated to the level of a supreme principle and a criterion that trumps everything else. It inserts a war machine into each pore of human activity – a fascisization of everyday life. The continued cult of wage labor merely replaces Arbeit macht frei, and, as “fences” become narrower and the “voltage” approaches lethal levels, every mistake becomes potentially irreversible and the fatality of mistakes self-fulfilling.

To persuade the Westerners, and, in particular, Anglo-Saxons with their practical empiricism, to play this game, the rules have to be complicated to the point of becoming ungraspable. And, of course, to make sure people continue to make stupid decisions, efforts have to be made to keep them stupid: Critical (or any systematic) thinking is undermined and discouraged; ignorance is promoted and cultivating as a cultural virtue while access to education is continuously reduced.

As selection gets reduced to binary, the contours of the Ghetto gradually emerge. The Left or Right dilemma gets a cultural dimension. One path is more inclusive, it leads to more welfare, but less god and guns, while on the other end, one is lured by the promise of “greater coherence”, with all the regressive ornaments surrounding a neo-patriarchal, unenlightened society – a gay-free zone where everyone carries a bible and a gun. However, both paths lead to the same destination of social self-destruction defined by the systematic devastation of everything that doesn’t submit to the profit of the strongest.

So, at the end, it is down to a binary choice between two alternatives, neither one of which would have been found acceptable if they had been subjected to free (and/or intelligent) choice. This is the neoliberal parallax gap defined by the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives with no common ground. The free will has been taken out of the decision process altogether, ex ante! However, the cultural division, embedded in the two selections on offer, has an important stabilizing role: make the pain across different cultural divides mutually unintelligible and mutually exclusive. As the rules of the game become more complicated and the size of excess population grows, those who had been played – the game’s main victims – continue to play with ever growing passion. Everything looks perfect. But, reality refuses to be fooled by it.

2018: The great flood of arbitrariness

After decades of accumulated social deficit, neoliberalism came to a halt by the end of the first decade of the century. Although it became clear that the existing ideological framework had run its course, there was no alternative that could replace it. 2016 was a referendum on free will, the year when the West finally rejected freedom and the capital voiced an open quest for an authoritarian state. In many ways, 2016 was an anti-1968 — the triumph of unfree will — a directionless step forward and a stepping into political quicksand.

In the two subsequent years, the initial conditions of 2016 set the stage for the great flood of arbitrariness: A chaotic dissolution of all frames of reference, the established social structures, institutions and rules, and an all-out assault on truth. The new political narrative envisions the great deluge of arbitrariness as an act of “divine” retribution aimed at washing away the sins of the West: the sin of rationality, logic, restraint, mediocrity, and compromise — a systemic purge of the social body from the existing rules in preparation for its rebirth.

This is another round of discursive ideological competition where the modern-day transposition of the biblical narrative is served to the properly prepared segment of excess population, while the insane wing of the right populism is energizing their base – the unsuspected victims of their con jobs — and subcontracting their rage to build, on their behalf, the Ark on which they will secure the spot for a selected few.

The great flood of arbitrariness creates its own rules. It is an escalation of neoliberal maneuver of selection reduction extended to intellectual and cognitive horizons, beyond physical survival. Instead of the Left or Right dilemma, it is now between drowning in the flood of arbitrariness or getting on board of the Ark of fools. People subjected to this principle of choice resemble a person who considers an outstanding privilege and benefit a permission to choose whether he will jump through the window from the third floor or wait for the fifth[4].

2016 marks the beginning of the end of the Hegelian historical continuum where History is seen as the realization of freedom by means of a series of successive enslavements to different kinds of necessity. Free selection is now being reduced down to one option and we are free to embrace it or reject it. This is the highest act of freedom — freely assuming what is otherwise necessary. It is also the end of history. We have finally achieved true freedom because true freedom is having no choice. And so, history doesn’t end with a fairytale of global liberal democracy, but with an authoritarian state.

[1] Borislav Pekic, How to Quiet a Vampire, Northwestern University Press (2003)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

The Gods must be crazy: The rise of the primitive society of the future

10.XI 2018

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. (Steven Weinberg)

If God exists, then everything is allowed because every act committed by man is an expression of God’s will. This includes even the most extreme acts; especially them. For most people, hurting others is deeply traumatic. A sacred Cause serves to anesthetize their elementary sensitivity to another’s suffering. Without this Cause we would have to feel all the burden of what we did – the Cause transposes the burden of guilt[1]. So, if there is God, we do not have to reflect on the consequences of our actions. Whatever we do — and, we know, we are prepared to do terrible things if the situation requires — it is a priori legitimized.

If there is no God, however, everything is prohibited. Well, not exactly everything, but a lot of things. This is the Lacanian inversion of Dostoyevsky. In the absence of God, we are the judges of good and evil; we censor ourselves and restrict our actions. We become Kantian subjects: every man has a conscience and finds himself observed, threatened and, in general, kept at awe by an internal judge[2]. The moral subject is simultaneously defendant and judge, a doubled self or dual personality. A Kantian subject is answerable to a superego far more severe than that of the traditional morality.

Man’s discontent with God in general, and how he managed the affairs of the world in particular marks the beginning of Modernity. It is the moment in history when man puts himself in charge. This is the first point of transfer of power and responsibility in modern history. However, enlightenment, rationality, and above all, emancipation from God created their own problems. In the final stages of enlightenment, this process led naturally to the disenchantment of the world[3] as the ultimate triumph of rationality — a seminal break point in modern culture and a radical departure in the way we experience reality. It connotes the removal of a magic spell and reflects a belief that humanity can control everything by means of calculation. And so, through the advent of scientific methods and the use of enlightened reason the world was rendered transparent, demystified and, ultimately, hollowed and deprived of its richness. It became disenchanted and disenchanting, predictable and intellectualized.

God as a secular entity: Primitive society of the future makes its first appearance

Nothing vanishes; of everything that disappears there remain traces. God disappeared, but he left behind his judgment, like a Cheshire Cat’s smile. And God’s judgment is terrifying in itself, but the judgment of God without God is even more terrifying[4].

The disenchantment of the world proved to be the alienating and undesirable flip side of scientific progress. Life got more complicated and unmanageable, and became too much of a burden and responsibility. The more man tried to liberate himself, the more trapped and enslaved he felt. Unhappy again, he started plotting his escape from freedom, by looking for a worthy replacement for God. Despite centuries of enlightenment, emancipation, education, and overwhelming accumulation of empirical evidence and insight, dictators and autocrats, as God’s surrogates, never went out of vogue. In fact, their appeal only grew stronger with time. We just seem to be unable to resist their seductive powers. Modernity in its later phase reads like mankind’s love affair with authority. There has never been a comparable concentration of dictators, of the most extreme kind, in history as in the 20th century, the times marked with the most intense scientific progress and emancipation on all fronts.

Adorno and Horkheimer, and other Weber’s followers of Frankfurt School understood early on the dialectics of rationality and enlightenment and perceived the disenchantment as an altogether negative force. Science’s attempts to disenchant the world resulted only in a kind of return of the repressed: the irrationality that had been squelched by enlightened reason returned in the form of violence and barbarism[5]. Re-enchantment emerges as a response to an overdose of rationality, an attempt to establish new symbolism, or recycle the old one, and resurrect the supernatural qualities that were exorcised during centuries of symbolic asphyxiation.

In the mid-20th century, the market emerged as a surrogate, which temporarily filled the vacuum created by God’s disappearance. During the peak of the neoliberal post-industrial phase, it attained a status of a separate entity, worshiped like a pagan deity to which society sacrifices social prey in order to appease it. This defined the contours of a new social structure: Primitive society of the future.

However, unrestrained personal hedonism gradually intruded and ultimately invaded other peoples’ pleasure horizons. Its consequences were social fragmentation, eradication of empathy, and a general breakdown of social bonds. Fueled by the machine of competition, asymmetrical distribution of wealth and misery, together with unprecedented corruption, found widespread acceptance and endorsement as a consequence of “natural” free-market forces, and was eventually normalized. It didn’t take long for the free market orgy to take the course of a full-scale autoimmune reaction.

Nothing can be more oppressive than ethical hedonism (the right to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure) – we have been enslaved by it for centuries. Religion serves to legitimize the hedonistic trespassing; the absence of religion constrains it. We look at religious suspension of the ethical[6] as our salvation from enslavement. And this opens the doors for the return of God through the vulgar materialistic interpretation of his will and judgment by the born-again Evangelical fundamentalists.

This is the answer to disenchantment with disenchantment, a barbaric eruption of discontent with the oppression of rationality and growing desire for submission. If there is one aspect that post-modernity brings in this historical moment of introspection and self-reflection, it is the realization of bottomless human capacity for submission to institutions, ideologies, or to personalities, regardless of how grotesque and destructive they may be. These are the initial conditions of the 21st century.

Deresponsibilization and the second transfer of authority: Ideology of collective contempt of reason

The same logical framework provided by the religious suspension of the ethical in fundamentalist religious interpretations is also deeply embedded in the ideological foundations of neoliberalism — so long as we follow economic rationality, this ultimate metric of value, we are exonerated of any and all the consequences of (and free of responsibility for) what any of our actions may cause. The same mechanism sits at the core of both the fundamentalist call for crusade, religious exclusivity, and its propensity to annihilate infidels as in the economic Darwinism and hyper-libidinal capitalism of libertarian neoliberalism. This is where the religious and the free-market dogmas meet each other. Economic rationality and existence of God both maximize our freedom from responsibility. They are logical twins.

This is the second point of transfer of authority and responsibility in modern history. The need for authority comes from the same center of our mind and soul as the needs for freedom, order, and coherence. Reaching that destination goes hand in hand with unwind of responsibility; this is the gift of the authoritarian project. The singular attraction of the right-wing populism, the ideology of unreason, lies precisely in the fact that it represents a movement of deresponsibilization of epochal magnitude never seen in history, the main reason the world is making a sharp right turn at this point of history. This is the face of the new primitive society of the future.

The infantile refusal to accept responsibility together with the ontological need for (unconditional) absolution legitimizes all the regressive measures that come with the ideology of unreason, and defines the core of its malignancy. We no longer need to admit our mistakes or apologize for them; we disrespect the truth and refuse to step back in the face of facts and, in a collective display of contempt of reason, interpret our delusional ramblings as the voice of God’s will. After all, if God exists, everything is allowed.

[1] Slavoj Zizek, “God is Dead, but He Doesn’t Know It” (Lacan plays with Bobok), Lacanian Ink (04.04.2009)

[2] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Suhrkamp (1982)

[3] In its original usage, the term Entzauberung is attributed to Friedrich Schiller, crystallized through his poem The Gods of Greece, first published in 1788. The German word literally means de-magic-ation, but is meant to imply the breaking of a magic spell. Around 1913, Max Weber used it to describe the character of modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Why hasn’t everything already disappeared?, Seagull Books (2016)

[5]Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH (1989)

[6]Seren Kierkegard, Fear and Trembling, Cambridge Text in the History of Philosophy (2011)

Male trouble and the rise of the disillusioned perspective

22. X 2018

The disillusioned perspective distinguishes continually between life as we want it to be and life as it actually is. Conversion is a transparent attempt to lend meaning to the meaningless, possibly only through self-delusion, that is by allowing illusion to trump disillusion. (Karl Ove Knausgaard)

It is the eleventh hour for white American males. This, once dominant and privileged majority has become a collateral damage of capitalism’s global triumph, beaten in just about any game that matters, even the ones they invented, they are joining the ranks of excess population facing a threat of irreversible social displacement and marginalization. Tired of self-abuse, anesthetized by drugs and alcohol, angry and armed with guns, but feeling powerless, a growing number of American white men is taking permanent residence in the center of the disillusioned perspective, in desperate search for conversion, looking for a savior who will restore their lost dignity and self-respect, and reclaim, on their behalf, what they always considered rightfully theirs, the basic white male privilege.

In that quest they have fallen victims to predatory seduction of anarcho-capitalists and global kleptocrats. These merchants of regressive nostalgia and self-proclaimed guardians of traditional values, who celebrate the idea of privatized utopias of gated communities, do not really need the white male precariat as such, but are ready to offer them whatever leftovers they don’t need, in exchange for an exclusive right to manage their rage capital and for their voice in the ballot box. And white American males will take it and will fall under the spell of magical thinking of the Third-World-esque political pornographers just because, stripped of all other alternatives, the male precariat has found itself lost in the blind alley of the disillusioned perspective.

The stories we tell ourselves and the stories behind stores: The emergence of male precarity

American men have been the unintended victim of the policies and socio-economic changes of their own creation, which saw their culmination in the ultimate downfall ten years ago. Although the prophets of supply side economics continue to insist that we are deep into the recovery cycle, a minimal dose of common sense points in the opposite direction – the economy and, especially, society have never fully recover after 2008 — the crisis appears only to be deepening.

Here’s one way of slicing it. Conventional civilian unemployment rate represents a fraction of the labor force that is not employed. It is a superficial (and distorted) way of assessing the state of economic health, the official statistics reported and referenced in the media and public discourse. It is compared here with the fraction of the US male population of working-age without a job (not including the people that are currently in prisons, so that its rise does not get confused with the explosion of the incarceration rate).

Joblessness never stops for American men

UR M vs ConventionalThe histories of these two measures of unemployment share the same cyclicals: Their rise in recessions and decline during recoveries always takes place in a coordinated way. However, their structural parts are different. Although during each recession conventional unemployment peaks, it always returns to its “normal”, pre-recession level, somewhere in the 4-5% range. Male unemployment, on the other hand, follows a steady upward trend. For over a half a century, since 1960s, every six years the unemployment rate of American men has increased by an additional 1%. For them, there is no “normal” unemployment – every recession creates a new, higher, normal unemployment rate they are required to tolerate.

In every recession, the social costs of recovery have been financed by the rise of male precarity. And those social costs have accumulated to the point where they no longer can be ignored. The current male unemployment rate is around 14%, about 10% higher than in the 1960s. This is the unemployment gap that captures the level of male precarity. Nearly 10 million American men[1] are currently without a job (in the 1960s they accounted for about 1.5mn), and with them probably another 10+ million of their immediate family members and/or dependents who are affected by that condition.

When compared to the unemployment of women, which shows exactly the opposite trend, these numbers highlight the problem associated with the male condition. Starting with the 1960s only a small fraction of women worked and their unemployment rate was in the 60% range. It has since declined down to 25%, with a noticeable inflection in the 1980s, a consequence of significant socio-economic changes, shift of focus from manufacturing to service economy, women’s liberation, and a general emancipation trend.

Two opposing trends: Unemployment of American men and women

UR M vs F

As male unemployment tripled in size since the 1960s, female numbers declined to less than half of their initial value. All progressive forces, like general education, emancipation, or new technologies, which had been embraced initially as possibilities for improvements in the working conditions, leisure, and higher quality of life, eventually became new techniques of control and created the world of perpetual underemployment. These developments have inspired a massive wave of anti-progressive sentiment and emerged as the foundations of the disillusioned perspective, predominantly, of American white men.

Male precariat and the excess population

Over the course of six decades, American men have become the main constituents of what Zygmunt Bauman has identified as the excess population: The volume of humans that are made redundant by the global triumph of capitalism has grown so much that it exceeds the managerial capacity of the planet. They cannot be re-assimilated into the “normal” life pattern and reprocessed back into the category of “useful” members of society.[2] This has emerged as the most challenging test of the existing socioeconomic paradigm, with no hint of possible solution in sight.

There are several shades of excess population. At the extreme end of the spectrum reside criminals and chronic outsiders, for whom there is no place within the boundaries of the enclosure inside which an economic balance and social equilibrium are sought[3]. These people are transported outside of the enclosure, either sent to prisons, or confined to life in hyperghettos without access to traditional citizens’ rights.

The unemployed represent those who escaped transportation and remain inside enclosure; although temporarily redundant, they are earmarked for recycling and rehabilitation. However, all that changes once the drainage of the surplus of humans is blocked. The longer the redundant population stays inside and rubs shoulders with the useful and legitimate rest, the less the lines separating normality and abnormality appear reassuringly unambiguous. Assignment to waste becomes everybody’s potential prospect – one of the two poles between which everybody’s present and future social standing oscillates[4]. As unemployment becomes chronic, the ranks of those who permanently drop out of the labor force swell and they become a burden to the society. Their temporary status comes under review and they face potential permanent exclusion.

American males have been falling through the cracks for decades. Angry and growing in size, they epitomize the excess of population, a burden to the society for which there is no solution. And when under pressure of persistent hardship all the energy of young age wears down and body and soul capitulate, they become a part of the “dark statistics”. Mortality of white American males 45-54 — the age when the emotional and physical immune system gives up — is on the rise, while everyone else’s condition (including that of Hispanic Americans) is improving.

The three horsemen of the white male apocalypse

Mortality

What accounts for this dispersion is hardly surprising. While the biggest killers, such as lung cancer have been on a steady decline, death due to poisoning (read: “drug OD”) has more than tripled, suicide rate (i.e. depression) doubled, and death due to chronic liver diseases (alcoholism) increased by 50% since the beginning of the century. Together with prisons, as graduate schools of crime, drugs, depression, and alcoholism are the three main ideological tools for drainage of the excess of population.

Dark America: Nonsense with a purpose and political pornografication

Populism has become the ideological response to the disillusioned perspective, an attempt to lend meaning to the meaningless, to trump disillusion through self-delusion. When process of growth and change becomes chaotic and overwhelming, individuals experiencing such episodes feel that their sense of identity is breaking down, that their old values no longer hold true and that the very ground beneath their personal realities is radically shifting. This is the point at which the new identity politics inserts itself.

Joblessness of men, predominantly whites, has been the cause of multiple side-effects and various forms of social vulnerability. With time, white men’s social dislocation created a fertile ground for a simmering resentment towards those superficially perceived to have been the causes of their job losses, and with it, their social status and, ultimately, self-respect. This made them receptive to the predatory politics of right wing populism. Instead of questioning capitalism’s responsibility for its crimes, their discontent was articulated in a displaced mode, as a cultural struggle.

The main culprits of their condition have been (mis)identified as women, minorities, immigrants, globalization and emancipation in general. Misogyny, resurgent racism, and xenophobia emerged as major mobilizing forces of the conservative right, championed by the NRA, right-to-lifers, and white supremacists, and fortified by the alliances with the vulgar materialism of Christian fundamentalism in the background. These became the voices of the disillusioned perspective that outline the contours of Dark America, which found its way to the ballot box in 2016. Such distribution of factors and their misidentified causes could struck resonance with the fundamentalist narratives and paved the way for a full blown relapse towards strict patriarchal order inspired by nostalgia for times when social coherence was firm and stable due to rigid family structure and racial segregation.

This is where Christian fundamentalism meets its lost Islamic twin and other monotheistic siblings. Nothing illustrates better this civilizational relapse than the words of Mark Harris, pastor turned Republican nominee for Congress in North Carolina’s 9th district. This otherwise marginal and utterly insignificant individual, has distinguished himself by repeatedly questioning the health of women’s pursuit to prioritize their careers and independence over their biblical “core calling”. His colorful sermons condense the core republican views in an unedited form:

Wives, please hear me this morning. You’re not to ever submit because your husband demands it, but you do it because the Lord ordained it. Now ladies, you can rebel against that command, but just please understand you’re not rebelling against your husband, but against the Lord … submission is not about inferiority in any way, any shape and any form. It simply reflects a God-ordained function of things.

When put in context, the message is clear: Emancipation is a sin, modern women are the offenders, getting ahead of men is a rebellion against God’s order of things. “So get over this inequality thing — because that’s not the point of submission,” he concludes.

By retreating to their households and assuming the subordinate role of housewives, women would exonerate themselves from sin and, at the same time, participate in an economic and social reform[5]. Youth crime would decline, as would unemployment when women, grateful for an opportunity to please God, begin to leave the workforce to care for their children. The problem of excess population and unemployment (together with budget deficit!) would be solved in one stroke – here is your conservative fiscal policy right there.

This is one of many techniques of submission of women, the main ideological pillar of right wing identity politics, populist and mainstream alike, which speaks directly to, and resonates strongly with, their sole constituency who are, at the same time, the main victims of its ideological predation – the white male precariat.

Unlike intellectuals, who experience the world with their brains, poor and uneducated arrive at their convictions through their empty stomachs. One cannot confuse them by opening new horizons or perspectives[6] (e.g. with the empty promises of centrists’ narratives). However, they remain blind to conversion. The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its driving force[7]. White men are at the end of the rope; they have fallen victims of their own creations. And that is the biggest irony of this otherwise unhappy and depressing story.

 

[1] There are currently around 60 million men and about 70 million women age 25-54 in the US

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity (2003)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] This reform would go along the same lines as described by Michel Houellebecq in Submission

[6] Reflections of the SS Standartenführer Heinrich Steinbrecher, in How to quiet a vampire, B. Pekic, Northwestern University Press (2003)

[7] Karl Ove Knausgaard, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, NYT (2-Nov-2015)

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.

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.