Category Archives: Big things

The Few Body Problem & the Metaphysics of Stupidity

13. III 2022

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. (Max Planck)

A vibrating string represents the collective motion of a system of (practically) an infinite number of atoms. Its properties and behavior are very different from those of its constituents. When the collective sets in, the system loses knowledge of its building blocks and obeys an altogether different set of rules: A string made of nickel atoms behaves (acoustically) the same way as a plastic string composed of complicated organic molecules. In terms of complexity, the collective is a nonlinear function of the size. A one-body problem is easy to handle. A two-body is more complicated, but in most cases tractable. Three-body is very difficult, while the few-body problem is impossible. However, an infinite-body problem is easy. Loss of granularity washes away as the number of degrees of freedom increases. The wave equation describing a vibrating string is significantly simpler than the Schrödinger equation for a single atom; their discoveries are separated by two centuries.

Collective IQ < Average IQ

When it comes to intelligence, a similar pattern unfolds — size is its enemy. As the group grows, at some point, it inevitably begins to get stupider. It is not difficult to fool a single person. All you need is some persuasive skills and a little intelligence. Fooling two people can be complicated – they can compare their thoughts and come up with non-overlapping objections and increase resistance to persuasion by filtering out the nonsense more effectively. Fooling a few, say five, people is practically impossible, even if they are of average intelligence. They retain their individuality (and independent thinking) while their cooperation still remains strong. Manipulating large masses, however, can be very easy (as witnessed by numerous historical examples and confirmed by the experience of the last five years). Large groups would believe what even its stupidest members would reject on their own.

As the group grows beyond a certain size, the task of deceiving them becomes progressively easier. Individual wisdom and constructive cooperation changes and gives way to collective thinking where individuality is lost. In large groups, the collective IQ resides significantly below the average IQ – no matter how intelligent individuals are, their collective intelligence will be low. Although this inequality is an empirical observation, it is never violated in practice.

Size inspires special behavior: When a group become large, it has no resemblance to and no logic of individual behavior. Masses can always be manipulated with stories that would never work on individuals. It becomes increasingly more difficult to rebel against the consensus – the loss of individuality that results after such capitulation of the mind leads to loss of resistance to persuasion. You can disagree with collective stupidity, but your resistance is inconsequential.

Subjectlessness of humanity

Only individuals can be wise; institutions are well designed, at best. (Peter Sloterdijk)

Financial markets are often miscast as an example of an intelligent collective. Although they are treated as such, markets are not an entity in the true sense of that word, but a self-optimizing medium. All market participants have the same well-defined objectives, which streamline and unify their actions and push them to act in the same direction by doing everything possible in order to maximize profit. This leads to the propagation of ideas by the smartest players to everyone else and orients everyone towards the “smart consensus”, what is considered ex-ante as an optimal action.

Corporations are collectives. However, in their (misguided) attempts to emulate some of the market’s behavior, like meritocracy, transparency, and accountability, and transpose them to the context where they don’t belong, they create obstacles and impediments to their efficient functioning and permanent sources of corporate dysfunctionality. There is a long history of their continuous struggle against underlying the trappings which come with that predicament.

Casting businessmen (successful or unsuccessful) as political leaders is a bad idea, a very bad one, actually. Seeing society as a corporation and running it as such, cannot lead to good outcomes.

Humanity is even further removed from a market-like medium than corporations. It consists of people with heterogeneous (most often conflicting) objectives. Their goals cannot be quantified and are far from unifiable.  When applied to humanity, the classic model of learning from harm collapses before this fact. In the words of Peter Sloterdijk: Humanity is a priori learning impaired because it is not a subject. It has no self, no intellectual coherence, no reliable organ of wakefulness, no self-reflection capable of learning, no identity — building common memory. Humanity cannot be wiser than a single human being. It has no body of its own with which to learn the hard way – no hand to learn first-hand – but rather a foreign body, its place of residence, the earth, which does not become wise, but transforms into a desert[1].

Humanity is to humans what a vibrating string is to atoms — its intelligence is inferior to even the sub-average intelligence of all humans.

The intelligence problem and the power of 16-percenters

Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that. (George Carlin)

Things don’t look encouraging when observed at higher resolution. This is a graph of the IQ distribution. The average IQ is around 100 with 68% of population residing inside the two standard deviations range, between 85 and 115, which means that about 16% are of deep sub-average intelligence. These numbers are fairly robust across different countries in the developed world.

This distribution becomes particularly alarming when applied to a large relatively non-oppressive country. In the context of modern liberal societies, the synergy of stupidity, size, and democracy reinforces the malignant potential of the stupidity of the collective.

Transcription of these numbers to America implies that about 53 million (16%) people (entire population of France) are of sub-average intelligence, out of which 7 million (entire Bulgaria) is seriously impaired. These people are empowered to express their opinion and impose their will in the ballot box.

By mobilizing the left side of the distribution behind a single political movement – a maneuver that represents a collectivization of mediocrity — makes them even stupider by lowering their collective IQ further, and persuading them to believe in pretty much anything. When their discontent is streamlined and wrapped into a single narrative, in an electoral democratic system, these 16-percenters can become a decisive factor[2]. Empowered by their malignant stupidity, such people are capable of committing the most extreme atrocities as they have been throughout human history.

Humanity cannot outgrow its own death drive

Intelligence is not a theoretical quantity, but represents a behavioral quality of creatures in an open environment. (Peter Sloterdijk)

Humans are generally intelligent, but this individual intelligence fails to get collectivized. This has only become worse with progress and the general trend of increasing acceleration and addiction to speed. The long term has become so long that it now exceeds our capacity for statistical prediction, but the short-term has accelerated so much that snap decisions are the only decisions ever made. The stakes have become higher – short-term survival is no longer guaranteed, which leads to a shift of focus.

In the face of the urgency of short-term survival, long-term foresight collapses. This defines the tradeoff — the lower the odds of survival, the weaker the desires and capacities for grasping the long-term. As the group size increases and individuality fades away, collectivization inevitably leads to abdication of responsibilities. This leads to collective myopia, which attracts its membership and supports the group’s desire to grow. As a consequence, we no longer engage in intergenerational projects — passing the baton to the next generation is the best we can do (as a collective).  

This removal of the long-term perspective, its subversion, leaves power dominated by short-term forces, which under the capricious conditions of the market forces requires adaptive, liquid or transient strategies as a basic skill set. At a systemic level, change is taking the form of positive feedback. In conditions of general info acceleration and hypercomplexity, as conscious and rational will become unable to adjust to the trends, the trends themselves become self-reinforcing (up to the point of collapse)[3].

For years now, the Right-wing populism of the capitalist West has been tapping into the left side of the IQ distribution. This has proven to be a very successful strategy for their project. Unsurprisingly, in the most spectacular staging of abdication of collective responsibility, thus cultivated populist movement became the epicenter of insane resistance to simple measures of containment of the COVID pandemic.

At the core of the incoherent response to the pandemic – the spectacular failure of adjusting to the most straightforward problem of self-defense of the collective body – resides collective abdication of responsibility. This was a simple test of common sense, accepting the most basic measures any single human would normally have no problems accepting, but which collectively encountered resistance on a large scale (bordering on hysterical) causing, at the end, massive casualties, financial and economic damages, and unnecessary complications and extension of the pandemic. The resistance to alignment with simple and logical adjustment to an existential threat is just another illustration of the erosion of basic survival instincts caused by decades of deliberate and programmatic anti-science project and glorification of mediocrity.

In the world of infinite acceleration, humanity is spontaneously converging towards a state of maximum cognitive incompetence, a collective Dunning-Kruger effect. According to the latest statistics, there are about 41 million Q-anon believers in the United States.

However, this does not mean that capitalist democracies carry exclusive blame for the degradation of intellect and the rising rate of malignant stupidity. Rather, it is a combination of human nature and the law of large numbers. As much as Soviet-style communism pretended to have sought to divert the inevitable self-destructiveness of capitalism, it merely reinvented different and more efficient ways of self-destruction. A similar story goes with fascism. Communism’s record of ecological misconduct, which has penetrated deep into the territory of criminal, is just one of many examples of its self-destructive overdrive. Its pretended ideological attempts to be something else from what it really was were just failed diversions that merely accelerated the inevitable.

Welcome to Asbest

Russia is the largest country in the world by size. Nazis dreamed of conquering it as the Lebensraum for the new super-race. They failed, but so did the Russians. Instead of converting their resource-rich land into a prosperous superpower, despite Russia’s considerable cultural heritage, they have been struggling for centuries and still resemble in many ways a third-world country with staggering levels of large-scale corruption, chronic scarcity, high levels of poverty, and rampant inequality. After the failure of the Soviet experiment, Russia became a different type of Lebensraum for malignant stupidity of griftopian turbocapitalism and a laboratory of myopic ecological experimentation.

On the east side of the Ural mountain range, about 1000 miles east of Moscow and 2000 miles north of Kabul, resides the town of Asbest, the three forming a nearly perfect rectangled triangle. Asbest (the Russian word for asbestos) is one of hundreds of mono towns of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, established according to the tenets of planned economy. As its name suggests, Asbest is the center of asbestos mining, with the largest open pit asbestos mine in the world, 1000 ft deep and the size of half of Manhattan.

As 59 countries have outlawed usage of asbestos and phased out any production due to its carcinogenic effects on humans, Asbest has become the world’s largest producer of the substance, which, by global ecological standards, is considered a criminal enterprise. About 70% of Asbest’s budget comes from the asbestos industry.

At the town’s entrance, drivers are greeted by what looks like a béton-brut installation in place of a welcoming billboard – a concrete structure, suggestive of a stylized arrow pointing downwards, with a coat of arms, representing asbestos fibers through a ring of fire at the top, and the text, below, broken in two lines: Asbest, my town and my fate! It is not clear if this was supposed to be ironic or not, but it certainly has an ominous vibe and strong overtones of dark humor. There are numerous motivational billboards in the town itself with text emphasizing the compulsory optimism of yesteryear, the most striking one stating: Asbestos is our future!

Asbest, my town and my fate

Breaking rocks and extracting the chrysotile from the mining pit is usually done with dynamite. This creates enormous clouds of asbestos dust, which covers everything in the town, from cars, rooftops, window, and parks, to fruits and vegetables people grow in their gardens.

Compared to the rest of the Sverdlovsk Oblast, Asbest has 30-40% higher incidence of cancer, a fact that remains carefully hidden from the public. Most of workers in asbestos processing plant have persistent coughs, a symptom of exposure to what they call the white needles, and strange skin ailments. Its population is slowly depleting with high mortality — the town has been losing about 1% of its population every year since the 1990s. And as if afraid to miss inserting yet another piece of irony here, local authorities have erected a monument to residents who have died (presumably from asbestos exposure) made of an asbestos block with the inscribed text: Live and Remember.

After the collapse of communism, without skipping a beat, the town of Asbest transitioned seamlessly from the clutches of ideological incompetence of the Soviet era to the unconditional greed of post-communist kleptocracy. Unlike other mono towns (where about 25 million people, 16% of the Russian population, still live), which became dying cities, Asbest did not die instantaneously. Rather, it repositioned for a slow death.

Instead of regulating human nature, capitalism as well as both communism and fascism only continue to reaffirm, time and again, what humans are truly capable of and enabled the full realization of that potential. And we haven’t seen the last of it, not yet. Free or oppressed, unable to avoid the degradation of collective intellect and preserve the wisdom of the few, humanity will always find ways to hurt itself.

Like post-communist Russia, Western democracy has been caught in a hypnotic ritualistic trance of the spectacle of its own cultural creation and self-consumption, the two fatal modes of modernity Jean Baudrillard identified as: Carnival & Cannibal. The self-imposed ignorance and collective myopia have reached the point where the West has elevated its own annihilation to a supreme aesthetic act. Against that backdrop Asbest is our future has acquired a universal metaphoric ring as a mantra of the directionless escape of mankind where the endgame appears unavoidable — a slow death in a hyperoptimized dystopian trap. This is the realization of Arthur Schnitzler’s vision of the human race as an illness of some higher organism, within which it has found a purpose and meaning, but which it also sought to destroy, in the same way virus strives to annihilate the ailing human organism and in that process destroys itself.


[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Infinite Mobilization, Polity (2020)

[2] These numbers, although larger or comparable to the USA, are less alarming when it comes to Russia, China or India. In the former two, high coercive powers of the state prevent large-scale stupidity to metastasize, while in India, where more than 50% of the country is under no one’s control, it is the fragmentation and absence of coherence along the lines of language, religion, culture, education, and social hierarchies, that prevent the collective to set in.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Polity (2006)

The Year of the Abject: Making Sense of Nonsense

31. XII 2021

Within the boundaries of what one defines as subject (a part of oneself) and object (something that exists independently of oneself), there reside pieces that were once categorized as a part of oneself or one’s identity that have since been rejected – the abject. (Julia Kristeva)

Unless we are consciously drawn to it, we, for the most part, are not fully aware of our saliva. It is part of our body, an utterly neutral liquid, which we produce and swallow continuously as long as we are awake. However, this is true only as long as it remains in our bodies. Imagine periodically spiting into a glass and attempting to drink it once it fills up. The very thought of this causes utter disgust. As soon as our bodily fluids have become alienated from us, they become abject.

Abject represents the taboo element of the self; it rejects and disturbs social reason and the communal consensus that underpins social order. The Indian caste of eunuchs represent a castrated remainder of a fully functional biological body, cast out, distanced, but not completely. In modern capitalism, the excluded segment of the population — those who fell through the cracks and can no longer be reintegrated into normal functioning of society – is the neoliberal equivalent of Indian eunuchs. Their proximity reinforces an anxiety that their destiny could become everyone’s prospect; their presence is a reminder how narrow the gap is between a comfortable middle class life and precarity.

We have an ambivalent relationship with the abject — we are both drawn to and repelled by it. The ambivalence and inherent dialectics of the concept is encapsulated in the very word, which can function both as an adjective/noun as well as a verb.

The verb to abject comes from the Latin abicere, which means to throw away or to cast out. The action of abjection refers to an impulse or operation to reject that which disturbs or threatens the stability of the self and is inassimilable. As an adjective, abject has two meanings: 1) Extremely unpleasant and degrading (living in abject poverty), and 2) Completely without pride or dignity (an abject apology). [1]

The abject functions both as a repulsive and as an attractive fixed point of subjectivity. The concept is at the same time constructive (in the formation of identity and one’s relationship to the world) and destructive (in what it does to the subject): Abjection, the operation to abject, is fundamental to the maintenance of subjectivity and society, while the condition to be abject is subversive of both formations. The key to this duality is that the abject is not fully exogenous.

The body of the excluded

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. (Zygmunt Bauman)

By its very nature, capitalism generates abject social bodies as a part of an excess population. Unlike criminals, social outcasts, homeless, illegal immigrants or general categories of aliens, who are transported beyond the boundaries of the enclosure of prosperity, the redundant white underclass has escaped the transportation and remains on the inside where economic balance and social equilibrium are sought. However, the longer the redundant population stays inside and rubs shoulders with the useful rest, the less the lines separating normality and abnormality appear reassuringly unambiguous. Assignment to waste becomes everyone’s potential prospect[2].

The white underclass represents the abject social body which cannot be completely objectivized but whose presence threatens the existing symbolic order. They cannot be fully reassimilated into normal life patterns and reprocessed back into the category of useful members of society — they lack the skills required for reintegration — but they cannot be discarded either; they carry a sense of entitlement as a constitutive element of the cultural and historical heritage that defines today’s America.

The abject lean on subject’s stability — their presence threatens the implicit culturally established boundaries of what is considered normal, causing the subject to feel vulnerable because its boundaries are under threat. The white underclass cannot be ingested or incorporated into the system — they are like bodily fluids that have departed the (social) body — appalling, but, at the same time, a part of the (social) body-image that carries a prospect of everyone’s destiny. The very thought of their reintegration, has becomes revolting, while, at the same time, they cannot be fully objectivized either.

The abject gambit

The abject hovers at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable, but is itself unassimilable which means that we have to contemplate its otherness in its proximity to us but without it being able to be incorporated. It is the other that comes from within (so it is part of ourselves) that we have to reject and expel in order to protect our boundaries[3].

The abject is a great mobilizing mechanism. While the state of being abject is threatening to the self and others, the operation of abjecting involves rituals of purity that bring about social stability. Abjection seeks to stabilize, while the abject inherently disrupts[4].

When the mass of the excluded increases to a size impossible to ignore, they trigger rituals of abjection, which work themselves into identity politics.The repulsion and efforts to distance from the excludedthe abjection – which reinforces the self-awareness of the social standing of regular folks, are in conflict with the attraction by the powers the abject population enjoys and exudes. They are the power bottoms in this relationship as they define the location, robustness and porousness of the boundaries of the enclosure. Fascination with the abject’s power pulls the viewers in, while they remain at arm’s length because of the threats the abject exert.

This makes the excluded a tool that drives the wedge between different social groups and prepares the population for political usage of the abject as leverage.

Objectifying minorities has been institutionalized in America since its inception — from slavery and Jim Crow to ghetto and hyperghetto, prisons, wars, opioids, and other tools of soft and hard marginalization. However, with the rise of the white underclass in the second half of the 20th century, American ideology has become highly nuanced around the questions of exclusion.

To a large extent, the Right wing has stuck to its white supremacists roots of yesteryear (either in a closeted form or explicitly) while centrists, both Left and Right, have shown greater initiative in modernizing the process. However, when it came to exclusion of the white underclass, the problem proved to be more difficult. Complicated by globalization, technology, the decline of American manufacturing, weaning off conventional energy sources and the general decay of demand for labor, low-skill jobs have been disappearing irreversibly, and the ranks of white underclass grew unstoppably together with their discontent.

Social outcasts and minorities are relatively easy to objectivize. Permanently excluded – criminals, drug addicts, homeless – they have already been cast out. The residual, white precariat, which has always been perceived as a building block of this country’s social fiber, remains still on the inside, but unable to get reintegrated within the context of modern developments.

In a white dominated/ruled society the marginalization of the excluded white subproletariat has been a political hard sell. They grew in size and have acquired a sense of entitlement minorities never could. Their sudden political awareness, no matter how fragile, has become an expression of pleasurable transgressive desires. As a new center of social subjectivity, theydraw their power from this position, which serves as an inspiration for their own identity politics.

The emergence of 21st century Right-wing populism represents the biggest innovation on that terrain. Right-wingers now recognize the abject as a source of political leverage and, instead of exclusion, their program revolves around subjectivizing them. Voluntarily casting oneself as abject — identification with the white subproletariat – has become a quest for authenticity, aimed at acquiring a stigma in order to become a credible voice of the marginalized. This is the core of the modern populist abject gambit.

Poetic catharsis: Politics in the kingdom of unreason

Poetic catharsis is an impure process that protects from the abject only by dint of being immersed in it. (Julia Kristeva)

In past autocratic systems, leaders had their own eccentricities and aberrations (e.g. Stalin’s paranoia, Kim Jong-Il’s sadistic personality disorder or vindictive narcissism of countless number of dictators and autocrats), but societies, collectively, didn’t suffer from them — there was a variety of afflictions that coexisted without any coordination with their leader –people were depressed, anxious, indifferent, etc. while their leaders remained an idiosyncratic singularity. In contrast, in contemporary populism the leader is styled as an embodiment of collective afflictions – he becomes a performance artist who functions as a concentrated version of collective social traumas, grievances, and anxieties. He appropriates the collective paranoia towards the deep state, the sovereign citizens fetish, the second amendment fixation, tax evasion obsession… Self-abjection of the Western political Right is pseudo-authenticity at all cost: Racism, misogyny, denialism, antivaxerism, conspiracy fantasies, and other flat-earth derivatives channel widespread collective anxieties through their leader.

Perceived as a medium of grievance and spokesmen for collective traumas, politicians of the populist Right have been absolved of any accountability. Their biggest strength and their superpower is the absolute absence of any shame and embarrassment, even when faced with undeniable proof of their incompetence, lies, criminality and lack of an ethical backbone, no matter how obvious and damaging their culpability might be. They have been set free to establish new benchmarks of shamelessness, a unique political skill that always keeps them one step ahead of their political opponents, which has opened an entirely new political terrain never accessible before.

The Populist politics now function as poetic catharsis: Through mimicry with their constituents political leaders no longer lead but surrender, resulting in a fragile and shifty consensus that is reinforced with their each action. Their activity consists of looking for themes that create resonance points capable of producing the loudest reverberations. Politics becomes hyper-optimized — there is not a single spec of life that is not used as leverage – but, in that process, it loses its robustness, becomes thinly spread and fractures under tinniest of shocks.

The emergence of the rapidly growing white underclass and its irreversible marginalization in the last decades is beginning to get recognized as the fatal flaw of the American experiment, an outcome that is in conflict with its founding axioms and an evolving national trauma threatening to void it. Things have gone terribly wrong in the last 50 years — the accidental wounding of the American white malehood by the inner workings of neoliberalism has been the unintended consequence of capitalist progress[5] with which the system has not been prepared to deal with in any form.

The Right wing populism of the last decade has become the last desperate attempt to save this failing experiment regardless of costs. Defeated in the ballot box, the battle to save wounded white malehood has assumed a less conventional form. In its desperation it has escalated to a suicide mission whose contours were unambiguously underlined in the first week of the past year.

As much as the political center may want to distance itself from the white underclass and its populist political representation, the significance of that moment forces them to pause and rethink one more time whether they are really prepared to win this battle and write the obituary for the American experiment.

CODA

If 2017 was the year when unreason was set free, then 2021 is the year of its proliferation – it is everywhere and nowhere. There are no more individual GOP members or voices anymore, only the opaque background of unreason against which they perform a choreographed dance of non-overlapping sequential appearances on the center stage of political spectacle hoping for a moment of public attention to make the absurd palatable and promote abnormal as the facts of life.

The Right-wing political kabuki functions like a medieval mechanism of an astronomical clock on a church of unreason. The puppet-apostles of that church have a fixed position on a slow rotating carousel, parading through the window of shared reality in a mechanized procession, always one at a time, like luggage pieces on the conveyer belt of baggage claim from a flight which arrived without passengers, occasionally voicing their presence through monologues of nonsense, hoping that someone would notice them.

The mechanism of the rotating Apostles inside the Prague Astronomical Clock of the Orloj church

[1] Rina Ayra, Abjection and Representation: An Exploration of Abjection in the Visual Arts, Film and Literature, Palgrave Macmillan; 2014th edition (2014)

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted LivesModernity and Its Outcasts, Polity (2003)

[3] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (1982).

[4] Rina Ayra ibid.

[5] Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, Columbia University Press (2019)

Disaster Calculus

21. XI 2021

It is only the occasional experience of the extreme that exposes the temperate human region where we can cultivate what we are competent to do. (Peter Sloterdijk)

There is a considerable body of dystopian art and literature that captures our imagination of counterfactual reality corresponding to the history of the world in which dark forces had triumphed in WWII. These visions are generally an extrapolated superposition of various gloomy patches of history adjusted for modern times.

However, the flip side of our imagination, one which deals with a fictional reality where WWII had been completely absent, or the devastation significantly smaller, is practically nonexistent. Nothing in human history could be used to convincingly (re)construct this alternative world. Even if we were to mobilize all our creative forces and transcend the baggage of history and prejudice, we would still inevitably encounter strange mental barriers, psychological resistance, and dead ends.

At the bottom of this defect of symmetry resides the legacy of our historical experience. Good deeds are unpredictable because they are not natural; they don’t arise spontaneously, people commit them impulsively. Evil, on the other hand, acts naturally – we never wonder about evil; we are only surprised if it is not realized. This belief forces us to incorporate appropriate expectations into our thinking process and, with time, these expectations become our second nature and we no longer reflect about them; they constitute the knowledge that doesn’t know itself.

Disaster didactics

In his book Infinite Mobilization Peter Sloterdijk argues that one of the most powerful and robust lessons of modernity is that people need catastrophe because they must be educated and can only be educated by the school of worst possible scenarios. Human functioning and survival are intricately linked to disaster-didactic calculations – only a visual instruction of the worst can usher in a turn for the better[1].

Sloterdijk uses the Three Mile Island nuclear accident as a template around which he develops his argument.

The Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor, near Middletown, Pa., partially melted down on March 28, 1979. This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history. The accident began about 4 a.m. on that day when the plant experienced a failure in the secondary, non-nuclear section of the plant. Either a mechanical or electrical failure prevented the main feedwater pumps from sending water to the steam generators that remove heat from the reactor core. This caused the plant’s turbine-generator and then the reactor itself to automatically shut down. Immediately, the pressure in the primary system began to increase. In order to control that pressure, the pilot-operated relief valve opened. The valve should have closed when the pressure fell to proper levels, but it became stuck open. Instruments in the control room, however, indicated to the plant staff that the valve was closed. As a result, the plant staff was unaware that cooling water in the form of steam was pouring out of the stuck-open valve. As alarms rang and warning lights flashed, the operators did not realize that the plant was experiencing a loss-of-coolant accident.[2]

There is one particular moment in the Three-Mile Island episode, which captures the essence of disaster didactics: As disaster was brewing, there was a palpable sense in the air of the public developing sly sympathy with the explosive substances in the defective reactor, as if those were not representing a physical quantity, but also contained a culturally critical message that deserved to be released[3]. The silent rooting for the explosion was nothing more than an educational hypothesis about the didactic and mind-changing energies that radiate from actually occurring disasters.

Because the big explosion failed to materialize, the Three Mile Island disaster could not reach the level where disaster didactics develops its grim calculation between misfortune and insight can be formed[4]. (That role was fulfilled by Chernobyl about a decade later.) For that reason, this remained only the warning disaster.

When seen from that angle, both 2008 GFC and 2016 US Presidential elections were also just warning disasters – the financial and political Three Mile Island accidents when another faulty “nuclear reactor” threatend, but eventually failed, to melt down. A Chernobyl-type event was averted in both cases, in 2008 by the comprehensive bailout program (augmented with unprecedented monetary policy stimulus) and in 2020 by the Republican debacle in (and out of) the ballot box. And judging by how things have been developing both in the post-2008 times as well as during the last year, we haven’t learned much, if anything at all – the message hasn’t sunk in. By interrupting the course of history and by averting the full-scale catastrophe, we remained deprived of valuable lessons. This hadn’t happened in the 1940s, WWII was “allowed” to develop into a full-blown catastrophe. However, had Adolf Hitler been killed, had the natural course of history been upset and halted in July 1944, we would have had yet another national socialism soon after that, 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. By experiencing the full-scale impact of the war, humanity has learned a valuable lesson, but this knowledge is conflicted with the price tag that came with it and has become a dilemma that never ceases to trouble us.

The addiction to the unbearable

According to Sloterdijk,the key question of disaster-didactics is: How big would a catastrophe need to get before it radiates the universal flash of insight that we are waiting for?[5] This disastercalculus resides at the core of our stifled imagination. The difference between our reality and that without WWII extends beyond better or worse — the entire configuration of the world without WWII would have been unrecognizable by today’s man, as if we would have missed the most important lesson in our education.

Unraveling the causality chain that defines what we call our cultural and historical heritage today could take place along multiple alternative paths. Here is a short menu of things, one of its many possible accounts, of what we would be missing in this counterfactual reality.

Certain concepts like cold war, arms race or nuclear deterrent, simply wouldn’t exist. No Hiroshima, no Yalta and no political East and West. Geopolitical maps would look different. There would be no United Nations, no NATO and no European Union either.

Without another war, the nazification of Germany (which was really a consequence of WWI) and its infantile aggression would turn inwards onto their own people. High inflation and chronic indebtedness would have led to Germany’s imminent financial default and would handicap their economy in the long run. They would be the subject to multidimensional economic and cultural blockades, which, together with desires for excessive military spending, would exhaust their economic potential. Fueled by politically catalyzed incompetence and growing paranoia, Germany would spiral into something akin to the third world country and would be forced to close their borders finding themselves, with time, straddled somewhere between what East Germany was in the 1970s and contemporary North Korea. Adolf Hitler would have probably died of an aneurism at an old age remaining a marginal historical figure of local significance.

It is not unlikely that the Soviets – now a lot more numerous without WWII – would go on minding their own business, but still burdened by Stalin’s shenanigans, remain on a slower, but inevitable, path of self-destruction and eventual dissolution.

In contrast, the rest of the developed European countries which would never have to be liberated by the Soviets would remain on the course of prosperity; they would have an uninterrupted period of growth and resembling, probably, today’s Luxembourg or Switzerland.

Distribution of power would differ significantly. America would have nothing resembling its global presence and influence it has today. Its military budget would be considerably lower. There would be no Berlin Wall, no Bay of Pigs and no Castro; no Korean or Vietnam War either, no arms race, no Manhattan project, and no Sputnik moment. Landing on the Moon would have been dismissed as a frivolous and expensive idea and never attempted.

Kennedy would serve two presidential terms and his family would produce the longest reigning American dynasty, probably occupying top offices to this day. Onasis would remain anonymous outside of Greece. Nixon would have never been a President. There would be no Watergate and the Republican Party would not have to reinvent itself; they would remain a party of the elites and not a populist conglomerate. The right to life would never resurface as a polarizing issue. FOX would be an entertainment network without a political agenda. Twin Towers would still be the most prominent landmarks of the New York City’s skyline. The Civil rights movement would look very different. There would be no 60s as we know them, no hippies and no Charles Manson; 1968 would not happen. There would be no Summer of Love, no Woodstock, and lots of rock anthems from that period would never be written. The world would never see Casablanca, The Deer Hunter, Schindler’s List, Downfall or The Tin Drum.

Without WWII, philosophy, history, social and political sciences, physics and engineering, and our entire culture would have been hopelessly incomplete; they would be like physics without differential calculus, music without Mozart or literature without Dostoyevsky. We don’t even know how to begin to think about that reality. It would be an utterly different cognitive configuration, an anotherhood that eclipses our capacity for imagination – no extrapolation of our previous experiences would be capable of approximating it.

However, as much as we think we would be ready to transcend these obstacles, we remain nevertheless protective of the knowledge instilled by the catastrophe of WWII, unprepared and unwilling to give it up.

Adding disaster to the curriculum of humanity as the last pedagogical tool is a testimony to the fact that the only way that something can be learned is through catastrophe and the force of event. This is a de facto capitulation of Modernity’s method of unforced guidance and listening in favor of learning the hard way[6]. In the pedagogization of disaster – the interplay between misfortune and insight – there is always the lingering question about what didactically sufficient size of the disaster is: How bad the catastrophe has to be for the lesson to have long-lasting value? Well, WWII delivered in that respect.

The aesthetics of disappearance

When it comes to imagining the world without WWII – one that, at a minimum, shouldn’t be nominally worse than the existing one — the dead end of our imagination emerges as a consequence of the centuries old cultural baggage. Our world system and its history have developed mechanisms that inhibit modes of imagination which exclude catastrophes. This is a result of cultural struggles, which spontaneously create conditions that foster this asymmetry and resistance to alternatives as a cognitively more stable configuration. It stands as a reminder that disaster is essential for our existence, that bearable is an island in the ocean of unbearable and the island residents exist at discretion of the ocean[7]. Humanity’s addiction to disaster is a verdict on the failure of the struggle to extend the boundaries of that island of bearable.

This leads naturally to extrapolation of Walter Benjamin’s reflections on humanity. As a result of the blend of historical addiction to catastrophe and its growing self-alienation Western civilization may have reached a point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure and, at the same time, internalize it through an ultimate didactic high as the most valuable lesson to be learned.


[1] Another outstanding book by Peter Sloterdijk that had been written way before its time. First released in Germany in 1989 as Eurotaoismus; Zur Kritik der politische Kinetik and in English translation as Infinite Mobilization in 2020 by Polity Press, the book has a keen contemporary relevance with unparalleled freshness of perspective and depth of insight.

[2] United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report: https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ibid.

Skumring

25 IV 2021

The way out of a room is not through the door. Just don’t want out. And you’re free. (Charles Manson)

Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol

In 1897, the French playwright and police employee, Oscar Metenier, bought a theater at the end of the impasse Chaptal, a cul-de-sac in Paris’ Pigalle district, in which to produce his controversial naturalist plays. The smallest theater in Paris, it was also the most atypical. Two large angels hung above the orchestra and the theater’s neogothic wood paneling; and the boxes, with their iron railings, looked like confessionals (the building had, in fact, once been a chapel)[1].

Under the influence of their main writer, Andre de Lorde, who collaborated on several plays with his therapist and experimental psychologist, insanity became the main theme of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. This was happening at a time when insanity was just beginning to be scientifically studied and individual cases catalogued.

While fear of ‘the other’ appeared in countless variations, what carried the Grand-Guignol to its highest level were the boundaries and thresholds it crossed: Loss of consciousness, loss of control, panic — themes with which the theater’s audience could easily identify[2]. They reacted with terrified faces, but never once choosing to leave.

Revenge as entertainment

The theatre produced plays about a class of people who were not considered appropriate subjects in other venues: prostitutes, criminals, street urchins and others at the lower end of Paris social echelon. This was also the original target audience. Horror plays often alternated with comedies, a lineup referred to as hot and cold showers. The actors often broke the fourth wall and directly addressed the audience in order to make them an accomplice to an act of violence, to highlight moments of realization, and to remind them that this act is happening very close to them, thus heightening the horror of being a witness[3].

The repertoire consisted of many different unrelated stories, but the common theme of revenge appeared in almost all of them. These are some examples of Grand Guignol horror shows[4]:

Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous: Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a pretty, young fellow inmate out of jealousy.

Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations: When a doctor finds his wife’s lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery, rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor’s brain.

Le Baiser dans la Nuit: A young woman visits the man whose face she horribly disfigured with acid, and he obtains his revenge.

Revenge was an emotion generally frowned upon by the proper bourgeoisie of the time, considered unseemly and unworthy of their status. Although it was associated with lower social strata, the initial target audience, revenge gradually became the guilty pleasure of selected members of the elite who frequented the Grand Guignol plays.

Unlike other forms of aggression that require no provocation, revenge is an action provoked by a wrong. While punishment looks to improve the transgressor’s behavior or to deter future bad behavior, revenge seeks to have the transgressor suffer.

Revenge has deep social roots. The threat of revenge could have actually helped our ancestors to build stable social bonds by promising swift retribution if rules or boundaries were transgressed. Those who are vengeful were much less likely to be victimized or attacked.

Revenge carries strong hierarchical overtones. Not everyone is entitled to exact revenge. Right to revenge is a privilege that comes with status. Elaborate medieval spectacles of punishment and execution always contained a certain portion of retribution, which was not correctional and was incommensurate with the gravity of the offense. Even if there are no individual victims, breaking the law demands retribution because it is an attack on sovereign personally, since the law represents his will. This is the zero-point penalty. The ritual made the body of the condemned man the place where the vengeance of the sovereign was applied, the anchoring point for manifestation of power, an opportunity of offering the dissymmetry of forces. In punishment there must always be a portion that belongs to the prince – it constitutes the most important penal liquidation of the crime[5].

When put in a proper social context, revenge can find a strong resonance with certain segments of society, especially those who believe to have been wronged or excluded in one way or another. Revenge is the other side of victimhood. It defines the early contours of dialogues with the past and conquests of traumas, and reflects a quest for stability by folks who have been victims of various injustices. Since the past is fundamentally unjust, the call for revenge alludes to some form of dispensation of justice and implies entitlement and privilege with a promise of a chance of healing. This quest for justice and its collective resonance is often perceived as an aura of enlightenment by any political movement based on revenge.

Something is rotten in the state of status quo

These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up. (Charles Manson)

In the years following World War II Grand Guignol audiences gradually waned as the actual reality of the two wars and their aftermath eclipsed the theater’s fictional horrors[6]. By the time the Theater closed its doors in 1962, Charles Manson was 28, serving time in the McNeal Island US Penitentiary in Washington State. After a short release from there, he found his way back to the Terminal Island Correctional Institute in San Pedro, CA where he had already done time in the 1950s. As his release from Terminal Island was approaching in early 1967, Manson had already spent more than half of the 32 years of his life in prisons and other correctional institutions. Telling the authorities that prison had become his home, he requested permission to stay.

After being discharged in 1967, Manson began attracting a group of followers, mostly young women, from around California, later known as the Manson Family. The Family developed into a doomsday cult when he became fixated on the idea of an imminent apocalyptic race war between America’s Blacks and the larger white population. A white supremacist at heart, Manson’s acid fantasy revolved around Helter Skelter, a quasi-apocalyptic scenario whereby Black people would rise up and kill all whites, except, of course, Manson and his “Family”. And, to add to that another layer of the ridiculous, not being intelligent enough to survive on their own, the Blacks would need a white man to lead them, and would, of all people, chose Manson as their “master”.

In early August 1969, Manson encouraged his followers to trigger Helter Skelter by committing murders in Los Angeles and making it appear to be racially motivated. Their rampage ended the 60s, which marked not only their calendar ending, but also the end of an era of rebellion against conformism and the status quo. It closed a chapter in American history and wrapped up a decade of social uprising.

It is not so much what Manson did, although he did it in a way that couldn’t be ignored, but how he did it, the resonance he struck and reverberations his acts triggered. As if wondering what everyone was surprised about, Manson’s parting message, I am what you made me, was the unsettlingreminder of circular causality between the complacency of middle-class America and the inherent violence necessary for maintaining that lifestyle, its long echo refuses to go away even after five decades.

Manson was an outcast denied the comfort of American middle class complacency. He created his own surrogate reality through speech acts and pushed it to his followers. He exploited the Stepford wife model to repurpose the helpless, dissatisfied, and disillusioned young middle-class women bored with the status quo, into his willing robot killers. It was a civilizational relapse, a slap in the face to both the conformism of the 50s as well as all the liberation movements of the 60s that opposed it. Despite the backdrop of hippy rhetoric, free love, independence and emancipation, “his women” had been willingly downgraded back to obedient, docile subjects of suburban housewives of the 50s, only this time, with a mission. He had found the keys to the portal that unlocked the toxic social ferment whose existence had to be denied at all costs by the system.

The emergence of Manson and his cult was an autoimmune reaction of the system, the blowback that couldn’t be processed or digested. It appeared at the peak of ideological obsession with the status quo. Manson was a social malady that couldn’t be fought. He did not want anything from the rest of the society; he didn’t need anything that society could deny him. Yet, he exposed the Achilles’s heel of the system. His only agenda and the driving force, was revenge against the system, against women, pop culture, Blacks, Hollywood, and the entertainment industry, spiked with a dash of white supremacy and the entitlement that fills the void created by the absence of other values.

All of the cult’s participants in the murders received death sentences. This included Manson himself, although he personally did not do the killing and was not present at the site when they occurred. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life as California abolished the death penalty.

Wendy Brown

My father is the jailhouse. My father is your system. … I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you. … You want to kill me? Ha! I am already dead – have been all my life. I’ve spent twenty-three years in tombs that you have built. (Charles Manson, 1978)

Manson was one of the first superstars of the nascent society of spectacle. Fascination with him and his cult started shortly after their arrest, and hasn’t really stopped even during his time in prison. Manson had numerous marriage proposals and was, at the age of 79 (two years before his death), engaged to marry a 26-year-old Illinois woman. Tex Watson, the only male member of the killer squad, who, like the rest of the surviving members, remains incarcerated to this day, got married and had four kids. Susan Atkins was married twice (her second husband was a Harvard-graduate lawyer, 15 years here junior). Manson and his followers have all been repeatedly denied parole, anywhere between 17 and 23 times and those who have survived, will most definitely never leave the confines of a prison.

50 years later, doomsday cults are back in vogue again and we learned that the same modes of collective mobilization, on a much larger scale, could be achieved without the persuasive powers of psychedelics. In 2016, Grand Guignol has been shut for over 50 years and Manson, behind bars for 45 years, has become an almost forgotten chapter of America history. However, his paradigmatic significance as a vindictive narcissist cult leader was anything but dead. The spirit of Manson’s Grandguinelesque version of macabre horror was very much alive, only hibernating, ready to be deployed again.

Ressentiment and the modes of rebellion

At the center of all forms of uprising and public revolt resides Ressentiment /rə,säntə’män/,  a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement[7]. There are three shades of revolt that govern different modes of response to Ressentiment. They differ by the intensity of revenge involved.

Absence of revenge: Judeo-Christian morality was born as a response of the weak, those who suffered in a value system affirming strength, power, and action. The weak were resentful not of their own weakness, but of the strong, whom they blamed for their suffering. As a result, they invented a new value system in which strength would be reproached as evil and weakness forted as good[8].

Moderate revenge: The French revolution and Communist uprising in Russia were bloody, but revenge was nominally blended with an emancipatory program and agenda. However, with time, revenge took over and prevented the evolution of the rebellion into anything other than self-destruction. These examples suggest that revenge is ultimately lethal even in small doses.

Excessive revenge: When ressentiment is born of dethronement, from lost entitlement, rather than from weakness, there is no new value system. Suffering and humiliation, ressentiment unsublimated, become permanent politics of revenge. In the present version of right-wing uprising, this is manifested through concentrated attacking those blamed for dethroned white maleness – feminists, multiculturalists, globalists, who both unseat and disdain them. There are high levels of affect instead of a developed moral system[9].

Unlike Black rage, which has been articulated through the Judeo-Christian mode, 21st century white rage represents collective vindictive narcissism. It is a reaction of the historically dominant as they feel that dominance ebbing.  

Vindictive Narcissism

Exclusion leads to resentment and accumulations of grievances, which brews into revenge. Outsourcing those grievances to the cult and its leader defines the collective and the sense of identity and belonging. Cults are predicated on convincing their members that everyone has been lying to them. Followers are enticed by the illusion of new truths and territories. With the help of psychedelics or flattering rhetoric and identity politics, and with some persuasive power, cult leaders create their own reality through speech acts and push those visions to their followers.

At the core of each cult resides revenge as the common link. It is through revenge that cult leaders resonate with their members. The people most hell-bent on revenge are both low in forgiveness and high in narcissistic traits. Both the narcissist’s inflated social confidence and the narcissist’s sense of entitlement could produce a desire to retaliate against wrong-doers and could reduce constraints on acting on this desire[10].

In his book The Narcissist You Know, Joseph Burgo actually identifies The Vindictive Narcissist as a distinct psychological type/category. Narcissist’s vengefulness stems from his unconscious shame and his need to defend himself against that shame being revealed, leaving him thin-skinned and vulnerable to anything that looks vaguely like an attack. When he feels attacked, he reacts without restraint and limits[11].

Success is a relative category. A businessman whose career starts with a $400mn handout from his father and follows up with seven bankruptcies is not really an example of success. While being objectively rich, someone with such initial conditions and that roster of  failures is a colossal loser, pretty much by any metric[12]. Getting into the White House only to finish his one-term presidency as, what is unanimously considered, the worst president in the American history (by a wide margin) is also not something one could be proud of. That knowledge and awareness must hurt.

For Trump, everything has always been about revenge – he is the epitome of a vindictive narcissist. That is his curse, but, at this political moment, also his magic, his secret sauce, and the point of resonance with his base. Exacting revenge has become the sole purpose and philosophy of both the leader and his following. It is the backbone of their shared social identity.

Having a leader who harbors feelings of revenge, not necessarily rooted in the same way as his followers, creates a special emotional bond and resonance between the two[13].

Trump’s transgressions and acts of revenge, no matter how petty or pointless, have had an orgasmic effect on his base. They became an articulation of their revenge against the wound of nothingness and a symbolic act of destruction of the imagined agent of that wound. The policies he proposed were irrelevant as long as he opposed those that were in place, which they hold responsible for their precarity. His abuses of power are vital to this desire. He has the power they lack – they live their revenge through him.  

Politics as a suicide cult

No sense makes sense (Charles Manson)

Revenge as a way of creating change is socially toxic. It carries the seeds of self-sabotage. It is non-convertible and sterile, unable to transform itself into a creative force. The vindictive cult followers are trapped in the quicksand of fermented rage and resentment. They are asphyxiated by their leader, but, at the same time, as a group, they cannot survive without the virtual supplement that he provides. The residual of the Republican Party, “Trump’s Family”, is a bunch of bewildered and desperate shipwreck survivors, Manson’s girls without Manson in search of their raison d’être.

Fascination with chaos and ex-nihilo creation reveals a common pattern across different cases of vindictive narcissist cults. Through a concerted creation of chaos, doomsday cult leaders effectively voice their plea for a second chance, albeit without any alternative plans. Their entire lives were spent on the edge of precipice, narrowly escaping catastrophe. They believe that, due to their higher tolerance to chaos, they would fair better than the others after the great reset.

Manson’s ridiculous acid fantasy of revenge, Helter Skelter — the racial war in which the Blacks would win, but unable to rule themselves, would elect none other than him — is just the other side of his impotence in finding his place in the social universe. As an outcast, he saw himself in the same position as African Americans, the other systemically excluded social group. However, the little white racist in him couldn’t avoid seeing himself as their superior and “natural” leader. When put together with his choreography of the gruesome spectacle of the 1969 Hollywood murders, this dimwitted fantasy underscores the Grandguinolesque dialectics of comedy and horror.

These modes of collective self-hypnosis are the site where all revenge-based cults converge — Fascism, Bolshevism, Jacobin revolution, terrorism, Trump’s and Manson’s included. Their logic and dynamics translate seamlessly to contemporary Right-Wing populism, just on a larger scale. The spectacle of the last presidency, as a form where the comedy of ridiculous narratives, clownish self-sabotage, and outright stupidity are blended with irresponsible criminal incompetence and the gruesome horror of their consequences, is the Grand Guignol Theater of the new century.

According to Wendy Brown, the current predicament is a result of the unintended consequences of the neoliberal project. The accidental wounding of the white male supremacy has yielded an apocalyptic politics, which in its final mutation has evolved into a suicide cult. If white men cannot own the planet, there won’t be any planet. This, at the end is the apocalyptic mode of white revolt and its politics that is willing to destroy the world rather than endure a future without white male rule[14].

This degeneration of the Right-Wing political movement (into a suicide cult) has an unmistakable Helter Skelter vibe. The crescendo of deliberately open and grotesquely excessive violence against the American Blacks could serve no other purpose except to act as a trigger of a racially intonated civil conflict, out of which the white supremacist cult hopes to emerge on top as a representative of the outnumbered, but ultimately, in their eyes, superior race in what they are experiencing as a reenactment of the Manson’s acid fantasy.


[1] http://www.grandguignol.com

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage (1979)

[6] Charles Nonon, theater’s final director, summarized it best: “We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”

[7] Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, Columbia University Press (2019)

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] Joseph Burgo, The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age, Touchstone (2015)

[11] ibid.

[12] To put things in perspective, at the time of this handout, the S&P was around $100, and now it is at $4000, and if one had done nothing but left those $400mn as a passive stock market investment, that would have amounted to around $16bn today. Instead, the recipient of that handout today is struggling to remain solvent for the eight time.

[13] Wendy Brown, ibid.

[14] ibid.

Idiocy and the Art of Getting Lost

24. II 2021

Sanity is a small box; insanity is everything. (Charles Manson)

Two erotic modes of modernity

The real genius of Kafka was to eroticize bureaucracy, a non-erotic entity which in the early 20th century had already acquired a divine dimension representative of another order beyond earthly reality[1]. A century after Kafka, Sarah Palin rose from virtual anonymity to become an unlikely icon of eroticized stupidity, another force of the new order. She impassioned America and brought a new Eros to politics. In a series of carefully coordinated public appearances she struck resonance with a large body of the American population (mostly white middle aged men) and emerged as the Franz Kafka of right-wing populism. Embraced by the conservative elites who quickly recognized the political value of the ridiculous, she became, practically overnight, the new face of the Republican Party.

Sarah entered the scene as an emblematic representative of de-complexified post-femininity and a self-declared champion of the American underclass. She stood as a reminder that you can be ignorant, stupid, and, at the same time, aggressive and still occupy a high public office. She embodied “post-feminist” femininity without a complex, uniting the features of mother, primary-school teacher (with her glasses and hair in a bun), public person, and, implicitly, sex object, proudly displaying the “first dude” as a phallic toy (and don’t forget the “drill, baby, drill!”). The message was that she “has it all” — and that, to add insult to injury, it was a Republican woman who had realized this Left-liberal dream[2].

Sarah Palin’s figure resides on the end point of continuum of eroticization of the non-erotic that spans one century from Kafka’s castrating power of bureaucracy to Palin’s castrating power of stupidity. But she didn’t come out of nowhere. For decades, stupidity had been cultivated as a precious commodity, its value well recognized and used in politics, business and media. After considerable efforts have been invested in its rise and widespread acceptance, the harvest time came in 2016. And what a harvest it’s been. In the last four years, the circle has finally closed: Kafka’s world of eroticized bureaucracy gradually gave way to the eroticized stupidity of Sarah Palin, and finished with a fully bureaucratized stupidity of Trump’s GOP.

Creative potential of stupidity

You can’t get lost in one dimension — you go either left or right. On a plane, that is easier, but it comes with no penalty. Penalty comes with gravity and the third dimension.

Until recently, ignorance and stupidity were allowed only transient intrusions into public life. There was always a certain stigma attached to stupidity — people used to be embarrassed to display it. Sarah Palin changed that forever. Stupidity is here to stay; it is now being promoted as a virtue and has acquired an elaborate cultural cross-dressing aimed at anesthetizing the public to its omnipresence and, at the same time, encouraging stupidity to come out in its full glory.

The last four years ushered in a new age when stupidity infiltrated every pore of public life. Stupidity has become ubiquitous and unavoidable, assumed many forms and developed a level of granularity it hadn’t had before. Every segment of society has been touched by it. From those unemployed and socially dislocated, to political lobbyists, conservative think tanks, Congressmen, Senators, ministers, lawyers, media personalities, epidemiologists, cabinet members, economic advisors, and the First Family, stupidity always managed to have its voice heard. In its everyday acceptance, stupidity now demands a new framework — it requires to be properly identified, stratified, nuanced, and contextualized. Not everything is equally “stupid” – there are shades, depths and texture to it.

The space of intelligence is not a one-dimensional spectrum consisting of intelligent, stupid and everything in between. Intelligence, wisdom, ignorance, stupidity, or idiocy are not just points on a line, but destinations, paths, and directions on a multi-dimensional landscape.

The word intelligence comes from inter-legere, which means choosing-between. It is not entirely free as it is caught in a between. Intelligence has no access to outside because it makes a choice between options in a system. Therefore, intelligence does not really exercise free choice: it can only select among the offerings the system affords[3].

Intelligence follows the logic of the system; it inhabits the “horizontal plane”. It is conditional: A given system defines its own intelligence. (Having a PhD degree in abstract algebra has little value for survival in a prison.)

In contrast, idiosyncratic takes leave of the prevailing system — it abandons the plane of intelligence and operates along the “vertical” dimension perpendicular to it. The reign of intelligence is slavery to the existing order of things. The idiosyncratic means overcoming the intelligence; it is a rebellious act of removing the shackles of intelligence and emancipation from its confines.

Idiots reside on the idiosyncratic axis. Theirs is a missionary role: They traverse between different intelligence planes of the systems of knowledge.

In his Treatise on idiocy, Clément Rosset[4] points out that unlike intelligence, which is thought to be attentive, nimble and alert, stupidity is understood as sluggish, anesthetic, and mummified. However, there is nothing as attentive, nimble, and alert as stupidity. Boundless openness and receptiveness is its main distinctive feature.

Ignorance means not understanding the rules and options of the plane of intelligence. Ignorance is a poverty of experience: It closes doors and refuses to recognize the existing paths to knowledge.

Stupidity, in contrast, is opened to anything; everything is an object of notice[5]. It confuses different contexts and assumes knowledge and extrapolations of previous experiences to contexts where those do not belong and often cannot hold.

Ignorance is static — it means being stuck. Stupidity is dynamic — it implies being ill equipped, fearless, and lost.

When ignorance is set in motion, it morphs into stupidity. Stupidity is ignorance on the move. It is revealed by getting out of the cocoon and exploring unknown territory, applying knowledge and experience to the context where it doesn’t apply. Stupidity is open to conspiracy – it represents an assault on probability: It doesn’t recognize the impossibility of the improbable, but takes the unlikely as probable. This susceptibility to the improbable is not a sign of open-mindedness or critical thinking, but a trademark of stupidity.

Wisdom, on the other hand, means understanding the domain and boundaries of your knowledge and experience and avoiding terrain where those do not hold. It is the ability of not losing your way.

I followed the road less travelled and now I don’t know where I am

Illegal immigrants caught voting should be stripped of their citizenship (Ben Carson)

Stupids and idiots are fellow travellers. Idiots have perfected a way of looking clever to stupid people. They seduce and confuse; stupids are their victims. By creating bridges between different layers of knowledge idiots open gateways to new territories, new rules, and new experiences. But, in that process, they create entropy and increase the possibility of getting lost. With idiots’ help, stupidity finds the shortest path to self-destruction.

The encouragement of idiocy never ends well. Kafka’s bureaucracy, at its peak when it used to decide who existed and what the truths were, gave birth to another order and, with it, created fertile ground for the rise of idiot leaders, which, by the mid-century, produced totalitarian regimes of various kind and wars which shaped the entire century.

The post-Reagan war on bureaucracy, under the banner starve-the-beast/drain-the-swamp, was nothing else but a political maneuver of replacing the old bureaucratic machine of self-indulgent inefficiency with a new one – stupidity. Its core followers were, at the same time, its main victims.

Like the early 20th century bureaucracy, stupidity of the 21st century has become inefficient institutional machinery caught in its own circular self-pleasure and delight. The true aim of the technology of stupidity, its commodification and proliferation, is no longer to pursue an ideological goal, to solve problems of governing increasingly fragmented society, but to repeatedly re-create or even magnify the underlying problems and reproduce the reasons for its own existence and growth. Stupidity confronts us now with a new form of addiction in terms of paralyzing surplus-enjoyment[6]: The enjoyment generated not by fulfilling its official goal (e.g. mobilizing populist votes), but by self-reproducing cycle of its own movement.

Idiot: The man of the future

The old idiot wanted truth, but the new idiot wants to turn the absurd into the highest power of thought (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari)

In Lars von Trier’s movie, The Idiots, a group of perfectly intelligent young people decides to express their reaction to society’s cult of aimless, non-creative and irresponsible conformism by living together in a commune of “idiots”. Their main activity consists of going out into the world of “normal” people and pretending to be mentally disabled. They create chaos and anarchy with a ritualized practice of enacting spastic tantrums of agitated mental derangement in public spaces, fast food restaurants, coffee houses, or movie theaters. These actions generally stop normal flow of things and generate discomfort by drawing attention to the perpetrators. They disrupt, shock, and anger the spectators caught in these situations. The turning point in the movie takes place on the occasion when the commune members, during their public display of voluntary idiocy, encounters a group of mentally disabled adults on a daily field trip from their nursing homes.

Following that encounter, one of the members goes involuntarily into a spastic tantrums and her act is noticed by the rest of the commune members as more genuine and is recognized as the letting of her inner idiot out, a novelty the others haven’t had the ability to do.

And as if reality has caught up with the movie more than twenty years after its release, there is an undeniable vibe of déjà vu in the current ritualistic practice of the American right-wing politics that strikes resonance with von Trier’s Idiot commune. Republican senators no longer engage in politics in terms of serving the needs of their constituents. Their main preoccupation has become the self-indulgent surrender to stupidity. Like von Trier’s Idiots, they function through enacted episodes of spastic tantrums and idiosyncratic stupidity in public, Congress or in Senate. And there seems to be a real competition among them to outdo each other – whose outburst would be more both more shocking and, at the same time, more convincing and genuine.

What does it mean to be stupid and what does it mean to pretend to be stupid? Who are these politicians who have had elite education and credential, but act like ignorant folks, and can the two meet? While enacted political stupidity is about role-playing, at some point, it raises the question: Is the individual a persona, a mask or his stupidity is real? These are questions about identity, authenticity, and character as well as about politics as a medium and as tool.

In addition to being an act of protest, the practice of deliberate and ceremonial display of political idiocy has become a ritual, which highlights the inner idiot in a man. This is the situation when role-playing becomes indistinguishable from the real thing and when going overboard with idiocy is a way of getting rid of one’s false self and becoming a different person, one who can, by stepping out of the confines of intelligence, foster change.

Stupidity as a political tool is a new chapter in the history of civilization. The stupidity project is production of human bodies without human reason and the idiot as the man of the future. The release of idiocy is a way of displaying the hollowness of conventional behavior and a method of provoking consensus and status quo. It stands as an ideological critique of the existing social condition and frames stupidity as a rebellion against the tyranny of intelligence and a tool that is used to prevent reality’s intrusion on the entire stupidity project.

This brings us closer to answering the nagging question that just won’t go away: Why are madness and stupidity embraced as a tool of political alchemy? The answer is surprisingly simple: Because stupidity is efficient.

There is something cathartic about absolute surrender to the singularity of bottomless spastic tantrum of mentally unstable rage, with total disregard for consequences, whether it is in a fast food restaurant or on the floor of the US Senate. It is a true idiosyncratic event, the missionary task of idiots, which creates a situation of unconditional attention and maximum unpredictability, like stepping into a black hole and exiting on the “other side” to a new universe with no possibility of return.

Black holes are objects of absolute coherence. Information that is absorbed by the black hole does not disappear, but its apparent loss and increase in entropy is converted into an expansion of the black hole’s event horizon.  As the event horizon extends after each spastic event, a larger fraction of the universe becomes captured inside the region from which return is impossible, and the growth of stupidity, like that of entropy, never stops.


[1] Slavoj Zizek, The Courage of Hopelessness: A Year of Acting Dangerously, Melville House (2018)

[2] Jacques-Alain Miller, Sarah Palin: Operation “Castration”, lacan.com (2010)

[3] B. C. Han, Psychopolitics, Verso (2017)

[4] Clément Rosset, Le Réel. Traité de l’idiotie, Paris: Minuit (1977)

[5] ibid.

[6] We encounter this surplus enjoyment in everyday life: We often engage in shopping, not only because we enjoy the object we would acquire, but because we enjoy the act of shopping itself.

Adventures in Rage Kapitalism

29. XII 2020

Between 1996 and 1997, during the de-Sovietization of Eastern Europe, Albania was convulsed by the dramatic rise and collapse of several huge financial pyramid schemes. At the peak, the nominal value of the pyramid schemes’ liabilities amounted to almost half of the country’s GDP. About two thirds of the Albanian population invested in them.

Last summer, ten years after my first reading, I took a second shot at Peter Sloterdijk’s, Rage and Time[1]. While the first take was illuminating, the second round was nothing short of transformational — a pure bliss and an altogether new experience. The framework, which it laid down a decade ago, when put in the current context, has acquired visionary relevance. The book has aged marvelously. Like the best wine, it developed complexity and nuance, which I failed to detect originally.

Rage and Time was published in its original version in Germany in 2006 and appeared in the English translation four years later, in 2010. It was written while the economy in the developed world was booming and neoliberal hegemony remained uncontested, before any hint of the global financial crisis was on the horizon. As such, the book had been deprived of the new landscape of rage and the most interesting decade of its evolution. Nevertheless, it became a true testimony of the future. Solterdijk’s work laid a precise fundamental groundwork for what was to come soon after its publication. Post-2008 developments flow seamlessly as a natural extrapolation of the ideas expressed in the book, making it practically effortless to imagine what would have been the content of additional chapters had the book been written in 2020. This period is possibly the most explicit celebration of the book’s framework and a stunning “out of sample” confirmation of its main theses.

Sloterdijk’s argument begins with the observation that political parties and movements define a non-monetary banking system where they function like rage banks and operate as collection points of affects; they facilitate transactions with the rage of others in the same way monetary banks operate with the money of their customers. They provide a liaison between rage capacities and a desire for dignity. Their contract is based on a promise to their clients to disburse a return in the form of increased self-respect and a more powerful grasp of the future, provided the clients refrain from independent utilization of their rage. By doing this, they relieve their clients of the difficulty of having to take their own initiative, while nevertheless promising thymotic gains[2].

With these transmission mechanisms of rage in place, political developments in America and Europe nowadays can be interpreted as conceptually the same phenomenon that took place in financial systems of emerging post-socialist Europe some 25 years ago.

At the core of these developments reside continuous attempts to manage the crisis of legitimation of a system that has run its course with pyramid schemes of rage: Populist movements, which have emerged as a consequence of this crisis, have enticed people to deposit every last molecule of their grievances in rage banks run by the current Right Wing political parties. Their game plan is to appropriate those deposits and declare bankruptcy, in pretty much the same ways as regular banks did in 1990s Albania.  And who’s better suited for this job than a certified conman with an uncontested record of fraud and serial bankruptcies?

Surrogate capitalism

The main characteristic of pyramid schemes, what distinguishes them from traditional capitalism, is that they have a finite duration and irreversible collapse. Capitalism, which has booms and busts, crashes, and recessions, recovers because it has an elastic modus of fleeing ahead that includes creative behavior; it is capable of controlling tendencies that signal collapse[3]. A pyramid scheme, on the other hand has no inner mechanisms and patterns of behavior; it is a hollow project financed only by a continuous inflow of (gullible) newcomers who are willing to pay for an opportunity to take risk against empty promises. While those at the top could pocket sizable profits, the bottom echelons lose with certainty. It is the absence of transparency and information about individuals’ places in the hierarchy of the pyramid scheme that determines its extent and duration.

The underlying mechanism and logic of cash flows of a general pyramid scheme can be understood using a simple three-level example with Captain, Crew, and Passengers. Everyone has to recruit two new members, and each member chips in with $100, which is then distributed upwards. At the end, the Captain goes with $400, the Crew breaks even, and the Passengers lose their investment, a total of $400[4].

For a pyramid scheme to continue to work, it’s expansion must not stop – once it stops, it is over, all the funds have already been distributed and no new are coming in. Because of that, the scheme is a catastrophic process of finite duration — its collapse must occur because the number of new recruits, which are essential for its financing, is required to grow exponentially and very quickly the number of newly recruitable players is exhausted — all newcomers who can be recruited are already on board.

The inevitable collapse occurs either suddenly or it needs to be brought about consciously because the number of momentarily recruitable players necessarily becomes zero after only a few rounds, which is why even with good camouflage it is hardly possible to extend a game longer than a few years.

Albanian capitalist apprenticeship as a template of American right-wing politics

There is an unmistakable similarity between the Albanian transient apprenticeship in capitalism during the 1990s and the Right Wing populist attempts to crash the American political market in the 21st century. Sloterdijk’s detailed account of conditions that led to the Albanian crash transcribes almost verbatim to present-day America once conventional money is replaced with rage as political currency.

Albania has always held a singular position in Europe. Its history is an undeserved tragedy of Albanian people who had been innocent victims of circumstances created by geopolitical forces over which they had no influence. The country epitomizes physical, political, and cultural exclusion, with a heavy stigma of isolation and backwardness, similar to today’s North Korea.

Decades of systematic and absolute isolation have caused a gradual atrophy of general exchange mechanisms necessary for normal functioning of society[5]. And the more these mechanisms became necessary and urgently needed to keep up with the rest of the world, the more intense oppression had become, leading ultimately to their total disappearance and Albanian disconnect from the rest of the world. Albania was a failed state long before that concept existed. While the only thing at their disposal was time and patience, the world moved on leaving them light years behind and practically impossible to catch up. As Albania gradually learned to live without the world and the world without Albania, after more than half a century of total disconnect, reintegration became unachievable.

The excess population in America, the growing body of excluded white underclass, shares a similar destiny as Albanian folks — both have been the victims of systematic and irreversible exclusions and both have had their own Hillbilly Elegies:Like Albanians, who remained largely prisoners of their own past, the American white underclass felt equally cut off from luck, wealth, and privilege and its distribution for too long.

Their uprisings share a similar pattern as well. Like the newly minted Albanian capitalists of the 1990s, who were fed by grandiose phrases about their past, their American counterparts felt it was their turn to take part in the satisfying injustices of the affluent world. Both fell, naturally and expectedly, into the trap of their precarity and impatience. In the same way Albanians fell for the massive pyramid scheme in the 1990s, 20 years later, the American white underclass had fallen victim to the rage pyramid scheme of Right Wing populism following the same logic of the old-fashioned misconceptions and empty promises of capitalist alchemy.

Pyramid schemes have a strange effect on our minds: When easy money is readily available, we don’t ask for rationale, we take it; everyone sees themselves as perpetrators and not the victims.

Bundling rage deposits of the American excluded underclass into old and new (stillborn) right-wing narratives did it’s magic by saturating the public discourse with low-brow paranoia of deep state, assault on the 2nd amendment, right to life, and the fear of government control, while delivering the inflated thymotic premium in the form of worthless pseudo-nationalist pride as a surrogate for the old-fashioned white (male) supremacy. Although this was not a new development, it’s tempo, set by the last four years, was.

By normalizing corruption, Trump, with a lifetime of experience in fraud and embezzlement, demonstrated how to cash in more efficiently on the rage investments of impatient, gullible, and vulnerable constituents, by pretending to rais the stakes and by deepening the commitment of the Republican base, he drained the last atom of their rage, and after harvesting and monetizing it, declared bankruptcy. In that respect, he achieved in four years more than the GOP did in the prior 40 years.

And things went predictably wrong for all depositors, as they did for Albanian “investors” 25 years ago. Rage deposits were used to deliver lower taxes for the rich, while defaulting on all other promises to bring back manufacturing, healthcare, coal industry, immigration reform, the wall, healthcare debacle… Trump emerged as Bernie Madoff of rage capitalism and the movement became the rage version of the Albanian capitalist experiment.

By now, it is clear that the scheme is over; the pyramid has collapsed. COVID was Trump’s (and the GOP’s) Stalingrad. It outlined the contours of the bursting of the rage asset bubble and the crumbling of the Right Wing pyramid scheme. The result has been a replay of the Balkan opera buffa, which, if it hadn’t had tragic consequences, involving real people and human misery, would have been extraordinarily funny: Caged children irreversibly separated from their parents, massive economic devastation together with the rise of precarity, and the criminally incompetent mishandling of the pandemic with hundreds of thousands of unnecessary victims.

When reality becomes a parody of itself

Unlike Albanian “capitalists” who, after getting financially wiped out, got over it and figured out the obvious that a pyramid scheme is just a pyramid scheme, American comrades (self-proclaimed entrepreneurs, risk takers and believers in the “free-market” supremacy) seem to be immune to the same learning process. Their social metabolism works differently. The myth that there’s a first prize for everyone is still the basic axiom of American cultural ideology. The deep-rooted belief of the underprivileged that they are not victims, just temporarily embarrassed millionaires, is still the fundamental determinant of the American social identity.

After being robbed by one pyramid scheme, they rush straight into another, as if nothing happened — same type of scam, organized often by the same person who robbed them the first time (or by his cousin); it doesn’t matter, there are always rubes to be recruited. There seems to be a culturally conditioned chronic delusion about the wealth alchemy that pushes the entire nation to aspire to become instant millionaires, which prevents them from resisting a scam, even when it is transparent and clearly defined as such[6].

The last decade stands as the final stage of the transformation of the American psyche, from Protestant ethics of hard work to compulsive risk takers and lottery winners, a residual of the gold rush mentality that has mysteriously survived centuries of reality checks. This is the something for nothing mindset that has been going since the discovery of the New Continent. It received strong reinforcement and entered an accelerated phase by the Silicon Valley paradigm. The attempts to contain the psychological fallout of that episode have defined the social tensions of the new century.

Like the biological immune system of Native Americans, who early settlers decimated with diseases, which for the newcomers were not lethal, but proved so for the natives, the contemporary American social immune system remains permanently compromised.

The holy grail of this ideological affliction is the belief in the sovereignty of luck: 1) There is a first prize for everyone and 2) Who wins is right and who loses should not complain[7]. If a person commits a crime and gets away with it, instead of condemnation, society responds with: “Good for him”. This transposes ex-ante any transgression as another failed attempt to realize what is rightfully yours, and thus blurs the boundary between right and wrong. There is no room for ethical judgment – hurting people or doing social damage, is not assessed in a broader context of ethics and general system of values, but is, at most, taken as an error in calculation.

The unwavering emotional investments in the ideology of meritocracy and, at the same time, inability to understand subtle differences between capitalism and pyramid scheme prevents them from being able to resist and defend themselves against fraud. Capitalism is prepared to put up with every form of irrationality as long as conditions for its technical rationality are preserved. And because of that, American self-declared libertarians and defenders of the “free-market” capitalist value system, as much as they believe in the power of rationality, fail it repeatedly. There is a little Albanian capitalist with a learning disability under each MAGA hat, all 74 million of them.


[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time, Columbia University Press (2010)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] In a four-period pyramid scheme passengers can be divided in to 1st class (4) and economy class (8). The latter lose all their money (total $800), while former break even, crew divides $200 and captains takes $600. With a more realistic branching number, where each participant has to recruit ten new members, we realize that pyramid schemes can have only a handful of levels. A twelve level pyramid scheme with this branching already exceeds the entire human population.

[5] For more than half a century, Albania was completely sealed – nothing could come in and nothing could get out. They had no political allies or sympathizers. There was no cultural exchange with the rest of the world and no flow of information. That was the vision of their political leadership, imposed on the entire population with considerable force. Albania was a poor country doomed to endure its isolation alone relying solely on its meager resources. The net result was an incredible poverty, both economic and cultural.

[6] The latest example of the post-election scam is just another data point. After realization that there are more than 70 million rubes ready to participate and invest in an already bankrupt project, the number that stunned even its creators, the new scheme started while the ballots were still being counted. Trump already raised several hundred millions after his defeat in terms of donations for “legal” costs, “Patriot League” and “Elite Club” memberships from the people who just didn’t want to see the small print informing them of a true trajectory of their donations.

[7] Ibid.

Rage Kapital

12. XII 2020

Thymos is that area of the soul where feelings of pride, indignation, and shame are located. It is the middle realm between reason and desire, the unreflective striving towards what is noble — the courage to be. (Paul Lee)

How do individual grievances become streamlined into a collective expression of dissidence, political opposition, and aggregate supply of discontent? This socio-affective landscape functions very much like a traditional banking system in which rage replaces money and becomes the main political currency. In Peter Sloterdijk’s highly original approach to the role of rage and thymos in political history, the starting point is the mapping between political systems of dissidence and financial markets. He adopts the framework of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory[1], which allows a straightforward generalization, and extension of banking to the social and political context:

Economics defines a bank as a collection point for capital. The deposits of customers, which are fruitless monetary treasures when deposited, are transformed immediately into capital. They are invested in profit-oriented forms of business, which allows clients to partake in successful investments while protecting them whenever possible against disappointments. The banking system transforms the temporal profile of money through the transition from treasury (a mode of storage as a static configuration of accumulated presence aimed at the preservation of value) to its capital form (a dynamic mode of being, subject to constant externalization, constantly occupied with using itself, but never in full possession of itself)[2].

How rage becomes transactional

Political parties and movements define a non-monetary banking system where rage banks operate as collection points of affects; they facilitate transactions with the rage of others in the same way monetary banks operate with the money of their customers. They provide liaison between rage capacities and a desire for dignity. Their contract is based on a promise to their clients to disburse a return in the form of increased self-respect and a more powerful grasp of the future, provided the clients refrain from independent utilization of their rage. By doing this, they relieve their clients of the difficulty of having to take their own initiative, while nevertheless promising thymotic gains[3].

Rage banks

In the 20th century, such rage banks/political movements were (with one notable exception) invariably on the left. In the 21st century, however, rage has moved completely to the right or, more precisely, to the far right, which has taken upon itself the main rage-banking role. This has come about as a consequence of two factors: The left’s abdication of its traditional role and its compromised position after the collapse of the Soviet experiment, and the reign and subsequent decline of neoliberalism and its current legitimation crisis. These two processes have not been completely independent — their evolution has had a strong causal interplay after the new initial conditions had been set in 1968.

Neoliberalism and the disappearance of the Left

The migration of sponsorship of rage from the Left to the Right is a consequence of the spontaneous self-destruction of the neoliberal social system. Paraphrasing Zizek’s summary of this transition, the causality chain begins with neoliberalism as an ideology which disseminates market values to every segment of life. However, once one allows the market to impose its values and criteria, society has to be managed as an auxiliary to the market. The welfare state has to be dismantled and the economy deregulated. Identified with social statism, the Left finds itself without either a program, project or perspective. It is gradually absorbed (and dominated) by the center and is tolerated only when it can persuade labor movements to accept the need for liberalizing reforms. As a consequence, the main task of the Left is to convince lower classes to articulate their fury without disturbing the status quo and voting themselves into economic ruin. Hijacked by the center, the Left becomes an Uncle Tom of the labor movement. It is only the Left in name – a name that it merely continues to discredit[4].

Rage assets and rage economics

The American white underclass never forgave the Center/Left coalition, which in combination with the general trend of emancipation, allowed/enabled black people to climb the class ladder and disrupt what they (the white underclass) perceived as the “natural” hierarchy. This sowed the racist seed for what would become the culture war, in reality a class war in a displaced mode, tipping the scales from the Left to the Right, and outlining the contours of that transition.

After decades of labor’s disappointment with the faux Left and the Center, the Tea Party emerged as a genuine right-wing rage bank in the days following the peak of the global financial crisis in 2008. Conservative opinion outlets like Fox defined the cognitive coordinates of the right-wing narrative and became the epicenter of the outrage industry with Roger Ailes as the James Pierpont Morgan of rage banking.

Bundling grievances of the white underclass into rage assets has been the core of contemporary right-wing political alchemy – an analogue to the financialization of the economy. The first draft of this project was outlined in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. After the Republican party was pronounced clinically dead in the post-Nixon years, Lee Atwater drafted the blueprint of its comeback with the right-to-life issue, which mobilized emotions that united evangelicals, rural Christians and the general white underclass under the same umbrella with financial elites and the wealthy. The continued persistence and functionality of this counterintuitive ideological stunt, this unique American experience that goes against all odds of logic and economics, has never ceased to astonish.

American white underclass has deposited its grievances into rage banks which converted them into rage assets: Right-to-life and general misogyny (both representing an actual maneuver to reduce the social influence of women), 2nd amendment hysteria, small government fetish, tax affliction and the obsession with dismantling the welfare state, Deep State paranoia, Birtherism, and the production of  a wide spectrum of deniers (from Flatearthers and  anti-maskers to vaccine-, evolution-, holocaust-, climate change, and election-deniers).

The main suppliers of rage remained the white underclass, excess population, and those, generally, left behind, while Libertarian think thanks, the NRA, evangelicals, special interest groups and right-wing liminal players acted as purveyors of discontent, rage asset managers, and strategic investors in rage markets.

Disinformation and conspiracy theory centers like Rush Limbaugh, Talk Radio, Breitbart, Info Wars, OAN, NewsMax, and Qanon became the centers of treasure against which rage assets have been printed and used as capital. They became the main innovators of structured rage finance and suppliers of rage volatility, rising as the shadow rage banking system while social media became platforms for day trading in rage transactions and a way to whip up emotions and create additional rage volatility. Fox and (on the local level) Sinclair remained the main nodes of this action, acting like credit unions or the Fannie Mae of rage.

Nationalism as the white collar crime of rage banking

The depth of Sloterdijk’s insight and the power of his framework become manifest when it comes to discussions of the emergence and effects of nationalism on the eve of WWI.  During the late 19th century and until the beginning of the war, capitalism as a source of economic misery and political repression was the primary origin of the supply of discontent and raw rage. In that configuration, political alliances and parties of the left became collection points of dissidence, which organized the thymos of the disadvantaged[5]

As capitalism spread through the developed world and internationalized, the anticapitalist impulse could maintain the level of its enemy only if it reached the same supranational level as the enemy in terms of organization and operation. This insight led to the internationalist pathos, which persisted for all authentic parties of the left uninterrupted until 1914[6].

All this came to a halt in August 1914 when it became clear that the collective grievances of the international proletariat had to be unwound and the underlying rage redirected toward national interests of individual warring countries. There were no longer any parties with any other mandate except for the national one. This sentiment and attitude was the obituary for transnational solidarity[7].

This was the major rage bank crisis. The rage deposits of the masses of internationally operating banking houses were now at the disposal of national political leaderships.

The emerging nationalism effectively represented a large-scale devaluation of rage assets and an embezzlement of rage banks. By withdrawing decades worth of accumulated quantities of rage and dissidence from the frontline against the capitalist order and making it available for the war between imperial nations, the leaders of the moderate workers movement committed a white-collar crime of unparalleled extent[8].

Arousing thymos of the abject: 21st century populism

Nationalism is the worship of the smell of our collective shit (Charles Simic)

In the 20th century, WWI was the catalyst of the large-scale devaluation of rage investments of the oppressed and excluded. Similarly, modern 21st century nationalism is, more than anything, an insurrection against the consolidation and internationalization of global aggregate rage. It is an ill-conceived, discoordinated struggle for the appropriation and misuse of the global underclass’s rage.

The core of the conflict of the Right Wing populism resides in the debasement and degeneration of American conservatism. The main idea behind the alignment of the two opposite ends of the social spectrum (the privileged and the excluded) with fundamentally incompatible interests under one umbrella consists of redirecting rage into cultural instead of class struggle.

As the world (and capitalism as the center of discontent production) has been getting increasingly more global, in an effort to cash in on the accumulation of global grievances and latent dissidence, populism, with largely nationalist platforms and pseudo-protectionist agenda, has felt the need to internationalize its movement.

However, while Right Wing populism was pacifying the growing white underclass and keeping the movement of the excluded small, it, at the same time, was laying the groundwork for the formation of the conditions that would unite and reaffirm the interests of the oligarchs of the world. This was its primary task. The Right Wing was simultaneously running both a revolution and a counterrevolution.

The ridiculous idea of internationalizing nationalism, which screams of self-contradiction, was meant to result in the incorporation of a world rage bank, like the International of the labor movement some 100 years ago.  

Subordinated to national interests, and as a partial compromise to their global oligarchies as ideological sponsors, anti-global grievances have been converted into nationalist rage directed against immigrants, porous borders, and disrupted class hierarchies.

Given their inherent priorities, Right-Wing populist movements, in reality, have always harbored preparations for a betrayal of rage investments without a world war – they represent the beginning of a political pyramid scheme. The inner conflict of this dual mandate reached intolerable levels in the last decade creating a sociopolitical configuration, which demanded its resolution.

The internationalization of nationalism came out naturally as an inherently racist proposal. Considering simultaneously the heterogeneity and essential exclusivity of each individual nationalism that was awakened in developed (and some developing) economies, the only axis along which the project could take place is white racism. Ultimately, globalization has forced the resolution of the irreconcilable inner contradiction of bundling the underprivileged with the ultra-wealthy in a singular way – racism.

On a purely transactional level, the idea behind the meaningless (21st century) populist project has been the appropriation of rage capital betrayed by the left, which abandoned the real grievances of the white (male) precariat created by capitalist self-destruction and further reinforced by globalization, leading to structural job destruction due to the outsourcing and scaling down of manufacturing, the transition to more efficient energy sources, etc. This betrayed discontent was transposed into racist and misogynist rage assets leading to an establishment of new organs of collective grievance.

From the outset, the Right Wing platform of the capitalization of the rage of the oppressed, excluded, and forgotten has been loaded with self-sabotage. Bankrupt at inception, it could only be conceived as a part in a pyramid scheme of rage, not sustainable, able to last only as long as new members could be recruited.

Communism abhorred nationalism as the kryptonite of its cause, the toxic substance that paralyzed their defense abilities against capitalism. However, when the tables turned and communism imploded under its own weight and the baggage of its internal malfunctioning, the very same actors, those who remained in power and in leadership positions after the system’s rebranding from a pseudo-egalitarian dystopia to a state sponsored organized crime syndicate, became rabid nationalists. They quickly realized the mobilizing potential of identity politics and its essential role in the get-rich-quickly scheme.

This was yet another realization of the general rule: When the system exhausts itself, it turns to identity politics.

Some thirty years later, capitalism in the developed world is facing the same problems and challenges. Paraphrasing Sloterdijk’s account of the post-revolution era of Bolshevik’s reign and extrapolating it to the 21st century America, the paradox of freedom and equality for all had never been exaggerated more convincingly than during the accelerated phase of the attempted takeover by Right Wing populism: The alpha dogs of that deception achieved their plan to accumulate (almost) all of the power in their hands.

In the same way Soviet Communists had done so during the early post-revolution years a century ago, current turbo-capitalism continues to argue that in order to “save” the system of values and lifestyle of millions of Americans, one had to accept that a few thousand people would have to be sacrificed. Throughout 2020, we were continuously reminded how hundreds of thousands have been sacrificed so that a few hundreds, and ultimately a few dozen, could stay in power and enjoy or even extend their privilege.


[1] Dirk Baecker, Womit handeln Banken?: Eine Untersuchung zur Risikoverarbeitung in der Wirtschaft, Suhrkamp (1991)

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time, Columbia University Press (2010). Although the book was published in its original, German, edition in 2006, it was difficult to shake of the feeling that the author didn’t really know what was about to happen in the subsequent decade.

[3] ibid.

[4] Slavoj Zizek, A Permanent Economic Emergency, New Left Review, 64, July/Aug 2010

[5] P. Sloterdijk, ibid..

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

The Uprising Decomplexified & the Madness of William Barr

30. VIII 2020

Do not ask him to be content, ask him only to be calm, to believe that he has found his place. But only the madman is really calm. (Antonin Artaud).

Bill Barr- St George2

St. George Killing the Dragon

On a superficial level the Jul-28 Congressional testimony of Bill Barr was all it hadn’t promised to be. There were no scandalous new discoveries, no big confessions, no legal ambushes or breakthroughs, just routine obfuscations, deflections, pivots, denials and falsehoods – it was really a revelation about the new mode of functioning and condition of the American justice system and bewilderment with what had happened to it. However, when placed in a proper context, this event is an important chapter of a fascinating story and a peak into the darkest side of American politics, the sinister regressive forces of its Dark Star. But, more than anything, the event is a testimony of a mad man who has come out in full light of his lunacy and delusions. To set the terrain, consider this exchange between Swalwell and Barr during the Jul-28 hearing.

Swalwell: At your confirmation hearing you were asked:Do you believe a president would lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient’s promise to not incriminate him?” And you responded with: “No that would be a crime”.

Barr: Yes, I said that.

Swalwell: … And you promised to the American people that if you saw that, you would do something about it. Is that right?

Barr: Yes, that’s right.

Swalwell: Now, Mr. Barr, are you investigating Donald Trump for commuting the prison sentence of his long-term friend and political advisor?

Barr: No.

Swalwell: Why not?

Barr: Why should I?

Here it is, right there, the logic of a madman, absence of metaphoric thinking, use of language solely in its literal meaning without its symbolic layers, the whole thinking process; the madness that distorts the space of logic and reason in full display: Parallel lines intersect multiple times, angles in a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees, circles never close, but become infinite spirals…

During the four hours of the hearing, despite being frequently interrupted, cut off or cornered into a blind alley of inconsistencies and outright lies, Barr kept his composure and remained strangely calm, never raising his voice or visibly contesting the interrogators’ aggressive questioning. For him, this looked like just another day in the office. This, one could argue, is probably the most disturbing aspect of the entire event. No one is as calm as the mad man. Throughout the hearings, his face and body language exuded peace and calm that can be found only in a truly mad man who is at peace with his visions — a man for whom any reality outside of his madness either does not exist or does not matter.

The display of the insane, warped logic is not a new element in Barr’s life. It has been with him for a long time as an essential part of his entire life. His 2019 commencement speech at Notre Dame[1] provides the necessary connective tissue between the recent Congressional testimony and his entire career. It has been transcribed into an 8-page document. It is a treasure trove of information both historical and legal, and is well worth a read. However, more than anything, the composite picture is a monument to Barr’s conflicting personality and career.

The first, coherent, part of the speech is an expose of American history with deconstruction of the constitution and the axioms used as its base. To be fair, this part is actually well presented and informative. Outside of a plain summary of facts, it has pockets of lucidity which, although initially there, begin to drift away as the speech progresses. The second, less coherent part is the “synthesis of a mad man”. There, the Constitution, and the ideas behind it, are placed in a contemporary context. Barr’s arguments during this part of the speech reveal a disturbed and delusional mind, at best, or a corrupt (and potentially criminally insane) fanatic, at worst. However, regardless of the intent, the speech retroactively sheds some light on Barr’s recent testimony and defines the context, which, despite twisted topology of his mental landscape does close the circle, and enables one to understand not only his Congressional testimony, but the entirety of his actions in the current and previous administrations as well.

America’s failed experiment

Law is a linguistic construction that changes as the common sense changes.

The central theme of Barr’s speech was the Framers’ belief that religion is indispensable to sustaining our system of free government. After all, he is talking to the graduates of Notre Dame. However, that aspect alone doesn’t explain what he is about to unload, not even approximately. So, let’s go back in time to November of last year, to the beginning of Barr’s speech[2]:

It has been over 230 years since that small group of colonial lawyers crafted a magnificent charter of freedom – the United States Constitution – which provides for limited government, while leaving “the People” broadly at liberty to pursue our lives both as individuals and through free associations.

According to Barr’s self-congratulatory appraisal, this quantum leap in liberty has been the mainspring of unprecedented human progress, not only for Americans, but for people around the world. This is the legacy of the 20th century when the ideas of the founding fathers paid off in spades.

But, Barr continues, in the 21st century, and in the long run, the question is whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.

Unsurprisingly, in his view, this dilemma is real and acute due to the increasing rate of secularization and general departure from core Christian values, which Barr sees as sine qua non of the American society and social organization.

By and large, Barr continues, the Founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesmen understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good, also had the capacity for great evil.

The dilemma of the founding fathers is the realization that no society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of how America has behaved since the end of WWII (or even longer) – all tenets of social cohesion have been thoroughly dismantled in a programmatic and astonishingly systematic way. Abandoning the mechanisms of individual restraint, any moral boundaries, and submitting them to the most vulgar-materialistic ideal of unconditional profit of the most powerful is the core of the American ideology and its modern culture. It is here where Barr begins to drift and lose touch with reality. With every attempt to make contact with contemporary America, the sparse islands of lucidity begin to drift apart and seeds of madness inhabit the space between them. But he was not yet done with the past:

If you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, Barr goes on, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny. So, unless there is some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.

This is exactly where we are now (especially in the last four years) for precisely those reasons. This realization somehow is completely missed or ignored by Barr. And, as if that was not happening here and now or in the country where he sits at the helm of the Justice Department, but in anther galaxy, Barr goes on by quoting Edmund Burke: “Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their appetites….”

Sensing that this perhaps might be to close to home and too much hypocrisy even for devout Catholics, he quickly teleports himself back to the safety of the 18th century and concludes with:

The Founders decided to take a gamble. They called it a great experiment. They would leave “the People” broad liberty, limit the coercive power of the government, and place their trust in self-discipline and the virtue of the American people. This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.

All this is pretty good and non-controversial when one talks about 18th century America, but is irrelevant and grossly inadequate for its 21st century.

Barr finally comes out and drives it home with the punch line: In Framers’ view, free government is only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.

In the grand conclusion, Barr engages in a little flattery to the audience, makes them feel a little special, in order to neutralize the aftertaste of all the BS with some more 18th century wisdom from John Adams (just in case some of them took a nap and missed his key point) which, despite being more than two centuries old, Barr sees as a foundation of the contemporary state and legal system: Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.

And for those who have missed the main point of his expose so far and where he is going with it, he flexes the argument further with yet another phrasing from Adams.

The American tenet was not that: Free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral order.

The Founding generation was Christians. In their 18th century, they believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man, which is not that odd for that time. However, for Barr, as if nothing had happened since then – in his head, it is still 1787. He believes in the same thing as his ancestors did 250 years ago. Literally! It goes without saying that “man” for him means a white male Catholic bigot of that epoch.

This is the same warped logic as the one revealed in Barr’s exchange with Eric Swallwel displayed in full swing. By now, the islands of lucidity have moved so far apart, that they can no longer be seen in the sea of madness. And this is when the really insane second part of his commencement speech goes in overdrive. In that part, roughly half of the text, Barr argues that all the misfortunes and social decay are a result of the secularization of society. Violence, poverty, moral degradation, drug use, all this Barr sees not as a consequence of poverty, exclusion, disenfranchisement and neoliberal policies, but the lack of moral backbone. In his view, it is a correlate of the fact that the people of this country stopped praying and no longer believe in Immaculate Conception or creationism, but in facts and science (this is probably where his affinity for Trump comes from).

Ironically, the reality of these developments is exactly the opposite of Barr’s account. Family decay, homelessness, divorce rate are not consequences of secularism, but exactly of removing any ethic barriers to turbo capitalism. These stylized facts and the statistics that support them are singular for America, its politics and its functioning.

At the same time as he was talking about moral personal conduct and its importance of social stability and the functioning of the Constitution, Barr was acting as the consigliere of the most unethical and criminally incompetent president in the entire American history, whose behavior and conduct he has been supporting and defending unconditionally, the president who exercises no restraint and emphatically denies accountability and responsibility for anything and everything that a president by definition is responsible for – the most radical departure from the self-governing individual stipulated by the founding fathers.

This comes hardly as a surprise to anyone who knows Barr’s history. In his book, The Imperial Presidency, which appeared in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Arthur Schlesinger enumerated the (bad) habits of potential autocrats: The all purpose invocation of national security, the insistence on executive secrecy, the withholding of information from Congress, the refusal to spend funds appropriated by Congress, the attempted intimidation of the press, the use of the White House as a base for espionage and sabotage directed against political opposition. While Schlesinger’s points were, in the context of that time, highlighted as pathologies, they in fact became defining axioms of both the current administration as well as Barr’s vision of how unlimited executive power should be implemented in the 21st century.

Matthew Miller, a former director of the justice department’s public affairs, said: Bill Barr has gone off the deep end like the entire Republican Party. Also he’s had his brain pickled by years of Fox News. He has all Trump’s bad intentions but with little of Trump’s incompetence.

The uprising decomplexified

All of man’s problems derive from the fact that we do not know what we are, and cannot agree on what to become. (E. O. Wilson)

The central theme in William Barr’s story, however, is not the reality of today’s America, but the historical moment of Barr’s introspection of his new awakening and how he envisions his place and role in the grand scheme of things. He sees himself as a medieval knight straddling the millennium with America at the crossroads of history, not so much as a US Attorney General or Trump’s enabler, but a Christian martyr, a timeless defender of the Christian value system, something like a modern-day Joan of Arc. He believes in the grand victory of his cause, if not physical, then at least “moral” (whichever way that concept is distorted in his head). In his mind, Barr is a tenure-track saint who will inevitably be canonized by the Church and his name permanently engraved in the Pantheon of Christianity.

In Barr’s view, the American Experiment has been failing. And, it is not the capitalist inner contradictions, wealth disparity, widespread poverty and disenfranchisement of an ever-growing segment of the population, but moral erosion inflicted by spreading of secularization as the main source of all contemporary evils.

When stripped of all the veneer of old-time verbiage and symbolism, here is where the core of the problem resides according to Barr’s vision of America. White American males have always been in charge. They made the rules and they called the shots in the workplace, in the home and at the ballot box. They’ve owned the world for so long and have been getting increasingly uncomfortable as their grip on power had been eroding. Now the unthinkable is happening: They are faced with becoming the minority. For the first time more minority babies were born than white babies; a black president had served two terms, his Secretary of State was a woman; the most educated segment of society are black women, and every other daytime talk show or news anchor is gay.

And all these folks now believe they are entitled to and moreover, demand, the same rights and opportunities as the white men. Suddenly this country is way off the main path; the whole system needs to be restored and some reset buttons need to be pushed. Restoring order means the resolute masculinization of society starting by arming men with weapons – the more lethal, the more masculine they are – establishing male supremacy values (this has worked since the Stone Age, and it should continue to work in the 21st century as well), and establishing a fear of god — this helps the male cause because god is a dude (white, of course). This is where he meets Trump and his base – where the parallel trajectories of the insanities of conservative privilege and white underclass intersect.

Pushing those reset buttons is the task Barr sees himself entrusted to accomplish. Sure, he will have to break some eggs along the way, make some concessions, commit series of illegal acts, perjuries, possibly get disbarred, impeached and almost certainly ostracized by the entire legal community, and permanently stain his entire career. But what is all that in comparison with enormity of the task he has endowed himself with? After all, his father, Donald Barr, small-time self-styled autocrat as the headmaster of Dalton School some forty years ago, who among other things, gave Jeffrey Epstein his first job, disgraced himself, in an almost identical way as his son is doing it now, by committing a series of petty, unethical, and professionally unacceptable acts in the name of a higher order only he envisioned at the time. William Barr today is just paying homage to his father, closing the gap between the two of them, by repeating, in a higher-stakes version of that game, the same mistakes in order to justify them.

Here is the major cognitive parallax and dichotomy of Barr’s worldview in the context of American political history. If we follow his line of thought, which is basically the same dogmatic and unconditional interpretation of the Constitution as is the fundamentalist Christian reading of the bible, we see the madness of his universe where circles never close and parallel lines inevitably intersect. First, in the 18th century, you draft the Constitution whereby oppression is internalized by giving people constrained freedom so you can reduce the power of the state. The constraint (religion, moral tropes,…) becomes the regulator and an instrument of self-governing. Then, in the 20th century, you design ideology, which obliterates all of these constraints, so you have a government of the people that are not held accountable to anything else but their personal interests. And things go predictably wrong. And when the toxicity of that maneuver, together with resulting social configuration, is in an advanced stage and, after decades of ideological program of systematic symbolic annihilation, you drag the idea of religion through the mud making mockery of its basic premises with TV evangelism, you decide to go back to the 18th century in order to restore its already outdated and bankrupt role. What can be a more ridiculous and ill-conceived project than this? Only a true lunatic could think that this could be a meaningful proposition.

Barr is not a principled constitutionalist, or a principled Catholic or, for that matter, anything else that adheres to principles. With his blatant hypocrisy and ethical bankruptcy, he never let consistency and principles stay in the way of conservative ideas of segmented social organization and elevation of their privilege. Use of warped logic at any time to betray the oath of office if the opportunity arises or whenever reality doesn’t fit his reduced vision of the world has been the signature of his modus operandi. This position of extreme “flexibility” has earned him millions in terms of consulting fees, position on the board of directors for Opus Dei operated Catholic Information Center in DC, and other lucrative corporate and political engagements. His support for unchecked executive power, which has been wavering depending on the party that controlled the White House, reflects something far more troubling: An opportunistic and unprincipled bigotry full of personal and ethical conflicts.

The apprentice of sainthood meets The Apprentice

Much like Catholic Church, Trump in its long career as a “businessman” (with seven bankruptcies under his belt) and later as politician has never been on the right side of any argument. The two are the leading competitors when it comes to the worst historical record in that respect. Church has been around longer and their negative track record is overwhelming, but they have had also some, albeit not many, good moments unlike Trump who has had none. This parallel had to be one of the strongest points of subliminal attraction for Barr as a Catholic. Trump, in this context, is seen by Barr as a pilot who will take him and us to that promised land of coherence, the place that does not exist outside of Barr’s head.

Barr volunteered for the AG job after recognizing in Trump a potential catalyst that would open the gate to his sainthood, something that was not there during his first mandate with Bush, the father. His current project of reinstalling the regressive medieval dystopia is such that no one in their right mind would ever, even half-jokingly, consider it. Barr recognized in Trump an epic fool (he got that part right), compromised so thoroughly that he would agree to any game, including Barr’s insane dream, in exchange for shallow flattery and his consigliere services — legal (or pseudo-legal) protection that would cover his misdeeds and keep him out of jail or international tribunal courts. Barr seized on that opportunity as his last chance to accomplish his otherworldly mission of putting this country back on its “right” course, according to the designs of 18th century minds, and earn himself sainthood.

When he talks about victory, the one where winners get to write the history, the history that will ex-post exonerate his actions, he is not thinking about Trump’s reelection, but of a moral victory of which he is certain of. And that certainty is what justifies all present action and instills his current calm.

The Lafayette Park photo-op, and the surge of violence that preceded it, was purely Barr’s creation and choreography; the whole thing has his fingerprints all over the place. In 1992, when rioting erupted following the acquittal of four policemen who were videotaped beating Rodney King, it was Barr, then the AG for Bush, the father, who deployed two thousand federal agents on military planes to stop the unrest. The “walk in the park” charade was a rehearsal for – a proxy reenactment of — the triumphant march of the righteous Christian martyr coming to the wreckage of a church, picking up the holy book from the rubble and raising it in a menacing way. Trump was only a puppet, Barr was the puppet master, observing from the outside, but feeling from the inside. As Trump raised the bible, Barr was already savoring the image of himself on large oil canvases hanging in the atriums of future government buildings on a white horse with a spear as St. George killing the Dragon.

What a tacky symbolism of a juvenile mind, and a sick wet dream of a disturbed and repressed former altar boy! Is this the best the American white privilege and elite education system could produce?

The figure of William Barr is a monument to the cultural debasement of America that will remain as a permanent stain in its history. Other societies have outgrown their medieval constraints and baggage. Why is America stubbornly clinging to outdated dogmas and bigotry that have been colliding daily with its contemporary realities? After all, as Slavoj ZIzek pointed out, Europe’s most precious legacy is atheism. This is what makes modern Europe unique. It is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post. This is the most emphatically a European legacy worth fighting for. For America, however, that option has expired, which could very well be the last developed country to modernize itself. At this historical point, America remains trapped in the vortex of its own unresolved past which continues to suffocate it, without offering any venue of escape.

The story of William Barr is a reminder of the irreconcilable contradiction between what America has always been and what it wants to be. This is a uniquely American problem that shows time and again how complicated and toxic the baggage of its own unresolved past has been and how difficult and painful it will be to deal with it in any constructive way.

Postscript: The younger brother

But we shouldn’t leave important things out. Bill’s younger brother, Stephen Barr, who looks and speaks like him, is a scientist. He has had a career in theoretical elementary particle physics with a long list of respectable papers in refereed journals that meet the highest standards of quality and rigor of research that would bring you a tenured academic position. And although his research has not produced earth-shattering results, and University of Delaware is not a Princeton or an MIT, by the standards of accuracy and intellectual integrity of the environment where his older brother operates, Stephen Barr has always been light years ahead.

Stephen’s focus has been in the field of grand unified theories and cosmology, which tackles the foundations of the structure of our universe. However, recently he has taken the emeritus status and has been devoting his time to lecturing about the interplay between science and religion, the old theme about the long-standing conflict between the two.

In his post-physics role, he has emerged as a propagandist and apologist for Catholicism, his arguments relying on dubious interpretations and obscure “documents”. He has interpreted this well-understood and non-controversial topic not so much as historical tension between religion and science per se, but as a historical misunderstanding and, in his opinion, deliberate and malicious, misinterpretation by militant secularists and atheists.

Interestingly, and not coincidentally, Stephen is also on a mission — his deliberate falsification of history and reality runs in parallel with his older brother’s political actions.

According to Stephen’s narrative, science and the Catholic Church had never had material disagreements and were always on the same side. Rather, he sees what has been a well-documented and well-established record of destructive antagonism, and the war in which the Church had been dealt an unrecoverable defeat, as a kind of second-hand-smoking effect driven by predominantly radical Protestantism and scientific materialism, two rabid fringes of both sides, a distinction that probably alludes to the materialistic approach to physics as an aberrant approach to reality (with clear allusion to Marxism, intended to give it an ideological dimension and make it even more abhorrent to typical American conservatives). Stephen’s post-academic coming out demonstrates the same obsessive logic of messianic delusion his older brother reveals in his exchange with Swalwell.

The important distinction between the two Barr brothers, or their two professional careers, is that, unlike Bill, Stephen comes from the academic world where money is never an objective – there is simply no money to be made in theoretical physics and so it never becomes a metric of status and success. People strive for prestige, respect and influence using the currency of their intellectual integrity, rigor and consistency of thinking. Nothing else. In Bill’s universe, on the other hand, one balances between integrity and profit – higher payoffs justify ex-post intellectual and/or ethical compromises and provide the metric for making these concessions. Bill’s opportunistic maneuvering has earned him tens of millions of dollars as well as the nickname “cover-up general Barr”. With that metric in the background, Stephen’s activity presents a far more radical transgression and intellectual perjury than any violation of rules and legal precedent his older brother has committed or is about to commit.

However, when all is said and done and when politics are pushed aside, the whole saga of the Barr family, their male part, underscores one more time the importance of family as an irreducible social unit whose event horizon is so strong that it is capable of crushing any other force of nurture, no matter how superficially dominant they might appear. No matter where you go, which schools you attend, what your political affiliations are or what social status you acquire, the stuff you absorb in your formative age remains always with you. The family remains the most nurturing and the most violent, and potentially toxic, social unit. No one can fuck you up as thoroughly and as deeply as your own parents (what better example of this than the current First Family). The success of the fundamental objective of social emancipation of an individual is conditioned on one’s capacity to resist the crushing force of family influences — an ability to liberate oneself from its pastoral confines — and to carry those influences not as shackles, but merely as initial conditions and stand on his/her own as an autonomous social and political subject.

 

[1] https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-william-p-barr-delivers-remarks-law-school-and-de-nicola-center-ethics

[2] All italicized segments are quotes from the commencement speech

Violence & Power

19. VII 2020

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

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

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

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

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

The anatomy of violence and the masquerade of power

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

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

1) Culture as a lever arm

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

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

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

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

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

2) Economic factors

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

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

3) State as the center of dissemination of lawlessness

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

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

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

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

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

Production of political subjects or Banality of Evil

To be human remains a decision (Carl Schmitt)

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

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

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

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

Hannah Arendt

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

[5] ibid.

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

[7] ibid.

[8] B. C. Han, ibid.

Deresponsibilization and the Politics of Escape

31. V 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You cannot innovate without creating some damage

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

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

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

Intersecting crises and the anatomy of the impossible

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

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

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

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

Pathological refusal to face downside

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

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

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

Truth deficits and Ponzi-scheme artists

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

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

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

Incompetence and the art of escape

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

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

Disappearance by proliferation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning of the epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] ibid.