Category Archives: Big things

One hundred years of solitude (in hindsight): 1917 — 2017

7. XI 2017

In Andersen’s fairy-tale “The Red Shoes”, an orphan girl is given a pair of magical shoes by her rich adoptive mother. She wears them to church where she pays no attention to the service and, when her mother becomes ill, the girl deserts her, preferring to attend a party and dance in hear red shows. An angel appears to her and, to punish her vanity, condemns her to dance even after she dies. The shoes begin to move by themselves, but they can’t come off.  The girl finds an executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. He does so and the girl receives a pair of wooden feet and crutches. However, the shoes continue to dance even with her amputated feet inside them. The red shoes are embodiment of an undead partial object, a pure libido which goes beyond persistence, not an interpolation between the living and the dead, but more vigorously alive than ordinary mortals — it insists on repetitive movement of dancing irrespective of the well being of the host to which it is attached[1].

Communism had to die twice. The first, symbolic, death occurred after the fall of the Berlin wall. Its second, material, death was announced after the first Iraq war when the Soviet military machine was outclassed and rendered obsolete by the far superior western war technology. But, communism could not die yet. Symbolically dead while “biologically” alive, communism still inhabits the world of undead. Although it was eventually buried in the countries where, after their initial breakup, states got reconstituted — in many places the red shoes continue to dance on.

What went wrong with the communist idea and how did liberté, egalité, fraternité become a totalitarian nightmare? Communism’s biggest sin was its vanity — an obsessive conviction that it could take uncertainty out of life as such. To accomplish and maintain that task requires an extraordinary amount of violence. Both excessive determinism and excessive force compromise system’s robustness and deprives it of valuable information, which prevents formation of adaptive mechanisms necessary for its survival.

Nomenclature of the early communist state saw their ideas as having strong scientific legitimation and maintained their conviction that loss of political power even temporarily would have been a betrayal of their historical mission. Thus, any opposition had to be inhibited and gradually eradicated. The suppression of unofficial organizing, and information that such process generally provides, left the leadership essentially blind to whatever was happening in their back yard. The red shoes began to dance. While sciences, engineering and technology had to remain competitive in order to keep up militarily with the West, communism completely neglected social sciences. A vocabulary for describing social and political conditions and adequate description of social reality never properly developed. In the face of perpetual conflict with reality communism fostered a continued state of cognitive dissonance. It erected its own boundaries to protect itself from contamination from the outside and in extreme cases morphed into a cult following. The accumulation of its shortcomings, which remained undiagnosed for a very long time, was allowed to self-reinforce. Like most other totalitarian ideologies communism remained non-adaptive, not allowing any feedback to penetrate its boundaries. It lacked a corrective and when the end came, it was unable to transform or defend itself.

Eradication of uncertainty breads ignorance which leads to paranoia and escalates oppression. These inhibit risk taking and creativity and negatively impacts economic growth with a loss of competitive edge in global marketplace. In the long-run, the system becomes fragile. As it tries to adjust to such environment, change takes the form of positive feedback. Oppression mobilizes enormous resources to keep control of its allies and political subjects and effectively turns them into its hostages. Attempts to express growing discontent require a heavy hand rule which in turn reinforces the hostage syndrome and brings about further escalation of discontent and additional loss of competitive edge. At that point, legitimation becomes the system’s biggest problem and requires mobilization of all resources, primarily aimed at glorification of the system. But, by then the oppression is the only thing the system knows how to deliver. It is the only strategy, and very expensive one — only extremely resources-rich countries can truly afford them. When existing resources are fully exhausted, the system collapses.

Because of its shortcomings, communism in its mutated form was indefensible. It required enormous resources and force to keep it alive and that was in no one’s interest. At the end, it did not work for anyone and in most places it was dissolved practically overnight. Although most communist states, one by one, declared themselves as capitalist, the transition period, after the formal breakdown of communism, appeared as building of capitalism without capitalists, at least on the surface. In an essay that could be considered as a sociological version of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Immanuel Wallerstein[2] compared the communist states to factories seized by a labor union during a strike. If the workers try to operate the factory themselves, they inevitably have to follow the rules of capitalist markets. The narrow circle of those making managerial decisions would cut themselves off from the larger group and evolve into new ruling elite and it was only a matter of time when they would no longer feel compelled to disguise the reality. This is “the iron law of oligarchy”. The factory would then revert to being a normal capitalist enterprise.

The communist supernova exploded in the center of the global geopolitical landscape. In countries where it took place, collapse of communism unfolded according to four scenarios, not two, contrary to the still dominant one-dimensional, cold-war view, which divides contemporary political systems into totalitarian and democratic. The evolution of the Soviet Union, socialist north (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and DDR) and the Balkans went in four different directions. The four underlying trajectories that marked the transition period highlight the four attraction centers of the general political landscape and outline the corresponding oligarchic modes.

Comparative politics of social change and coordinates of wealth preservation

Traditional approach to problematic of geopolitical change relies on the assumptions that the dominant dimension of country’s political actions is geographically conditioned. However, recent contributions to this view are based on the observation that there is another, complementary determinant defined by different modes of wealth protection which has been the central force behind political changes throughout history. This is the orthogonal dimension of political change; it assumes the wealth concentration and its defense as the fundamental ingredients, often independent of geography. Thus, oligarchy as the politics of wealth defense emerges as a candidate for a unifying framework for describing different modes of political structures and geopolitical flows, especially during their formative stages. Different political systems and forms of social organization are efficiently summarizable in terms of simple oligarchic structures.

Two aspects define the building blocks of oligarchic landscape: Oligarchs & Oligarchies, wealth defense & their means. Oligarchs, in the generalized sense used here, are defined as individuals endowed by enormous wealth which both empowers and exposes them to threats. Because to that, wealth defense becomes their primary objective for which they can mobilize considerable resources. Oligarchy represents different modes of wealth defense. The interplay between oligarchic coercive power and their organization defines the four corners assigned to underlying political systems within which all political structures reside. In general, extreme concentration of power or material inequality result in political inequality and particular oligarchic structures describe different modes of wealth and power defense. Property claims and rights can never be separated from coercion and some kind of violence. Variations across oligarchies are two-dimensional with main axes defined by how oligarchs impose their will (e.g. are they armed or disarmed) and their mode of rule (e.g. individualitstic, collective or institutionalized). This results in four possible structures, the four oligarchic corners that represent cognitive coordinates of our framework (Figure). All historically known political structures reside within these four corners[3].

Oligarchy Simple

From: Jeffrey A Winters, Oligarchy

Starting with the origin (lower left corner), in warring oligarchies a connection between violence and property defense is most direct. The illustrative examples are African warlords or medieval Europe. Oligarchs are individually involved with unstable transient alliances. The mechanism between wealth and power is circular — coercive capacities exist for wealth defense and wealth is deployed to sustain coercive capacities.

In a ruling oligarchy (upper left corner), individual oligarchs surrender a major part of their power to a collectivity of oligarchs. Oligarchs as a group are more powerful than any single oligarchs (examples: mafia, ancient Rome, State cities).

In contrast, in a sultanic oligarchy (lower right corner), oligarchs surrender a major part of their power to a single individual. One oligarch is more powerful than the rest (e.g. Suhartos Indonesia or the Philippines under Marcos).

Civil oligarchies (upper right corner) represent the most significant political innovation, never seen in history before creation of the modern state. Here, oligarchs surrender a major part of their power to an impersonal and institutionalized government in which the rule of law is stronger than all individuals. While this protects property, wealth defense does not stop there; its focus merely shifts to income defense – the effort to deflect the potentially redistributive predations of an anonymous state – where all resources are now mobilized. Electoral democracies fall at the end of the oligarchic spectrum. While their activity remains heavily constrained by the law and by the democratic process — they do not control the law, but obey it — in most cases different sectors of income defense industry give access to various modes of oligarchic actions. There is, however, no necessity for a civil oligarchy to be electorally democratic (e.g. Singapore or Malaysia)[4].

Saying goodbye to all that: Anatomy of the perverse unwind

The partial downfall of communism has been both celebrated and mourned. The most puzzling aspect of this process was its largely peaceful character and swift resolution in the hardline centers and violent and protracted unwind in states where communism saw its most liberal and flexible implementations. In Europe alone its departure from the political scene caused tectonic changes that made all theoretically informed models crumble. Former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia are now 28 different countries (24 legitimate; 4 with limited international recognition) and a fluctuating number of statelets constantly changing number of territories seeking the status of sovereign state or trying to be attached to another already legitimate entity. Ten poorest countries and failed states all emerged from the former communist block. In Poland, Hungary and DDR state was not dissolved. These countries were absorbed by Europe and transformed along the lines of civil oligarchies. In USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, dissolution of the state caused variable outcomes and defined radically different trajectories.

Oligarchy Breakup

North: Civil oligarchies

To a large degree, each country of the north had something different going on, which made it interesting for the West and an easy candidate for integration into EU. Poland, with its large population, was a big labor force and consumer. Czechoslovakia, in its pre-communist days, was already a well developed country with considerable economic potential that could be relatively easily revived given their mentality and habits. The course of the last 50 years, a historical digression, could have been reversed. DDR was really never fully separated from the West Germany and in addition, it was ready to be absorbed and subsidized during the transition. Euro zone recognized strategic significance of the periphery and rushed to bring in Rumania and Bulgaria. In terms of nominal GDP per capita[5], north post-communist countries are ranked close to peripheral Europe together with Baltic States with Estonia, Czech Republic slightly below $19,000, and Poland near $13,500 defining the upper and lower bounds of the range. In the last ten years, north post communist and former Baltic states almost all have recorded a steady double digit annualized increase in GDP per capita, with Slovak Republic growing from $6,187 in 2003 to $17,706 in 2013 at an average annualized rate of 11%, Poland at 9%, Czech Republic at 7% and Hungary at 5%, while Baltics grew faster than 10%.

The main diagonal: Soviet Union between ruling & sultanic oligarchies

The rationale behind vastly different character of the breakup of different socialist regimes and the dissolution of the corresponding states can be understood by highlighting the difference between the underlying structures of those states. In empire different sectors of periphery do not interact with each other, only with the center. In a federation, they do. In confederation there is no center. The main characteristic of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was that the breakup was amicable. It was a consensual dissolution of the state, but relationship between the center and periphery was preserved. Prior to that, the state was preserved, but obsolete – couldn’t function under existing conditions but ethnically and historically was unambiguous. Gorbachev accelerated the process and to a large extend defined the direction of its change. Yeltsin settled for less state, but by shedding the periphery, gained more reform and more power. It was a compromise, the second best solution after the Soviet Union entering the capitalism as a big, unified player[6]. Yeltsin vs. Gorbachev clash was confined to the center, while periphery remained untouched. Unlike the Balkans where new states (with exception of Slovenia) didn’t have control of their territory – states fell apart while borders were unspecified. For a time Soviet internal borders swelled into sovereign state borders (structures of power) and it seemed they will remain untouched.

Officially never recognized structure of political power relations defined the rules of game when it came to the grabbing of reach resources (“privatization”). The net result was that an enormous state owned wealth had ended in the hands of a few who commended the decision making process. What happens with the secret police and ideological inquisition when the state falls apart? They have to become some form of organized crime force. The crime infiltrated in the vacuum. Army, whose primary mandate was external, defined through the Warsaw pact membership, remained on the sidelines. It was not a political force during the transition.

Majority of Asian Soviet states remained like satellite states with ties to Russia. While some still function like communist, pseudo-totalitarian systems or electoral dictatorships, resources rich states have shaped themselves along the lines of sultanic oligarchies with high number of Russians still there. The consensual breakup was orchestrated in such a way that formal sovereignty was respected in exchange for military and economic dependence on Russia and comfortable position of Russian minorities there. When after a while this dependence was questioned (Armenia, Ukraine) it automatically entailed revoking of recognition of sovereignty and Russian army more or less openly intervening in formally internal clashes.

At nominal GDP per capita of $14,591 and annualized growth rate of 17% in the last ten years, Russia sits above the rest of the southern European and post-Soviet states, but below the Baltics and post-communist north. Within the group of Asian former Soviet states, there has been a significant bifurcation between the resources rich states and the rest. Kazakhstan has been the best success story with GDP at $13,509 and the most aggressive growth of 21% in the last ten years, followed by Azerbaijan at $7,900 and 24%. Turkmenistan remains in the middle with $7,157 and 12%, while Uzbekistan at $1,878 and Tajikistan at $1,045 remain on the other side of the spectrum and below any of their European counterparts.

The Balkans: Warring oligarchies

Unlike the Soviet Union where the structure of the empire de facto remained preserved, in the Balkans there was no clear breakup scenario, especially in Yugolsavia which functioned as a confederation. Another dimension made the breakup problematic for it. For example, while in Czechoslovakia the primary target was socialism, in Yugoslavia it was the territory, which remained ambiguously defined. As a confederation of equal republics, without a clearly specified center, it lacked incentives to identify common ground. The state fell apart. Historical and demographic parameters were mixed and ambiguous except in the two westernmost republics. The breakaway states had only partial sovereignty with incomplete control of their territory and at the same time ambitions for territorial enlargement.

Conflicts over future borders escalated into the game of dismemberment followed by territorial disputes. Breakaway republics were more or less ethnically mixed and had not had full sovereignty of their territory after the breakup. As a counterweight to the army, whose main mandate was internal, basically around defending the constitution and, therefore, the integrity of the Federation, local militias were organized by the new republics. The stakes were high as state assets were offered on fire sale to a few privileged who had an access to power and information, which defined highly parcelized sovereignties and set terrain for formation of warring oligarchies with territorial claims as the main agenda together with all the side effects of that environment, instability, shifting alliances, extreme violence and ethnic purges. What followed was the mode of land-grabbing and property claims with multiple warlords and local militias going against each other, the landscape akin to warlords of medieval Europe.

Except for Slovenia with GDP per capita at $23,317, but slow growth of 4.6%, characteristic only for highly developed European countries, which has done slightly better than Czech Republic in this metric (and ahead of peripheral Europe), all other former Yugoslav republics are on the list of 10 poorest European countries with GDP per capita below $6,000. Their GDP ranges from $2,200 to $5,900 accompanied with persistently slow growth in the past ten years. In all of them the state still remains the “only business” – no new market venture is possible without consent and some form of the pay-off to the political elite.

What next?

Contemporary geopolitical discourse still views the world as us & them, free and totalitarian systems, a division largely a legacy of the cold war and everything that happens on that landscape is seen as a result of tensions between these two “extremes”. According to that narrative, dictatorship is the worst outcome of social evolution and all societies should strive towards democracy while progressive forces should be united in unconditionally supporting every effort to topple dictators. The post-communist experience, 25 years after its symbolic downfall, demonstrate that such a simplified framework is a poor approximation of reality. It shows rather unambiguously that there are far more extreme alternatives to dictatorships and that, in some cases, their dismantling could be a turn for worse or much worse.

Communism fell apart because it didn’t work for anyone and no one wanted to defend it. This is a qualitatively different situation from what late capitalism (and Western democracies) is currently facing. Extrapolation of the capitalist experience so far indicates that it is working for a progressively smaller segment of its population. At some point, its main problem will have to become its legitimation in the context of liberal democratic mode of social organization. The powerful minority, however, has the means to defend the system as long as it works for them and that will require a heavier hand as the discontent of the excluded rises. The only peaceful consensual transformation could happen if capitalism stops functioning for capitalists (e.g. inability to externalize the costs further).

The same way communism could have been a nominally well conceived idea that went wrong (in practice), democracy could be drifting away from its basic principles and gradually evolving into its antithesis. It has been largely recognized by the Western democracies that force is an inefficient form of rule. Power is an embarrassment – no one wants to claim it and it refuses to dominate. That is why advanced societies do not rely on force, but governmentality. Ideological innovations will be needed for their survival with a search for new forms of power.

In the meantime, as discontent of the excluded grows, capitalism could begin to move against democracy. This means that there could be a growing need for adjustment of either democracy or capitalism (or, most likely, both). What makes exact prediction regarding the new forms of social organizing especially difficult is that resilience towards redistribution of wealth remains firm in place with revolutions becoming obsolete as wealth is no longer only material.

There are several logical directions along which this transformation process can take place. The four corners define a rich set of possibilities; there is a vast territory that they inscribe. The four attraction centers are not necessarily the only stable configurations. In principle, civil oligarchies could begin to move looking for a new domicile in the field. It is reasonable to expect that some lessons from the breakdown of communism will be absorbed in that process. After all, capitalism owes its vitality to its adaptability. While the final destination is a long- or very-long-term project, the underlying direction and trajectory should have significant impact on the immediate future.

If there is one lesson to draw from a century of communist experience, it is that ignorance by design is the trap any hegemonic ideology faces. In its search for legitimacy, late-stage capitalism is committing the same mistakes that communism did in its early days. And every time history repeats itself, the price goes up. The spectacular display of systematic anti-scientific bias, war on facts and knowledge in general, together with eroticization of stupidity, which in the last decades has reached alarming proportions, have all created a Sachzwang – a factual constraint residing in the nature of things that leaves no choice but to perpetuate the existing conditions that are spreading throughout the neoliberal West. This desperate move to engineer legitimacy for an indefensible order of things, which consists of choosing to adjust reality to the underlying ideology, instead of the other way around, boils down to deliberately giving up adaptability of the system – its most valuable strength. That alone is bound to become the main source of positive feedback, which compromises the system’s robustness and undermines its long-term stability. This inherently suboptimal strategy is a one-way street, the same one that led to communism’s ultimate demise. After all, facts always matter, even if we don’t like them.

 

[1] S. Zizek, Less than Nothing, p.548, Verso (2013)

[2] Immanuel Wallerstein, (1973)“The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System” reprinted in the Essential Wallerstein (New York: New Press, 2000).

[3] Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy, Cambridge (2011)

[4] Ibid, Ch. 1

[5] All numbers refer to the 2013 IMF WEO data measured in units of 2013 USD

[6] Instead of rationally bargaining on superpower advantages for a more honorable collective inclusion in the world capitalist hierarchy, the nomenklatura squandered and cannibalized Soviet assets in a panicked rush to protect the individual oligarchic positions against Gorbachev’s purging and the prospect of popular rebellions. It was an embarrassing political failure of Soviet elites to act together in the pursuit of their best historical opportunity. G. Deruluigan, (2013), p.123. in Does Capitalism Have a Future?, Oxford University Press ( 2013)

 

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Criminalization of the globe and globalization of crime

18. X 2017

Four centuries after Galileo, our experience of space is undergoing the second revolution. With the help of information technology the space of trajectories has given way to the space of sites & networks. As time contracted and distances shrunk, different geographies became the nodes of the global Network. With delocalization and infinite connectivity the world has become smaller, but within that world things no longer have a fixed place; they are displaced and delocalized: Everything is now both everywhere and nowhere. All things are both equally important and irrelevant. Equivalence has become the source of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia.

Rule without a ruler

Through the erasure of borders and deterritorialization, The Network, the site of global flows, has become extraterritorial and, since laws are inherently local, by definition extrajudicial, and therefore, unregulated. There is no global law that governs the operation of the Network. It operates in politics-free space. This means removal of market frictions and optimal capital allocation which made the Network immediately irresistible for global capital. This changed everything.

As the Network carves its way into the system, it transforms all layers of the socio-economic landscape creating in the process (new sources of positive feedback and) additional instability of an already shaky system.

Network

1st layer: Laws are local and so is politics — the Network is not governable and cannot be regulated

No one is watching the space in which global capital operates. No one even has capacity to do so or propose such an idea. Space of global capital flows, therefore, remains eminently extraterritorial and ex-judicial. The impossibility of Network regulation is a major novelty. It presents itself as an economic advantage and is embraced by the capital. This has created conditions for the removal of economic rigidities, erasure of borders, and delocalization of the labor force, guaranteeing optimal capital allocation, which has allowed for enhanced capital accumulation at a rate not seen before. However, the convenience introduced by deterritorialization creates new problems.

2nd layer (Problems): The Network is a politics-free space

Political Impotence: Economic interests are global while politics is local. Politics, the ability to decide, remains local and unable to operate effectively at the planetary level, while power to act is moving away to the politically uncontrollable global space[1]. There is no politics of the Network.

Rise of global capital: Global capital is gaining strength at the same time as political impotence becomes more acute. This defines the underlying power relations. Politics becomes the global oligarchy’s bitsch. Gradually, everything becomes subordinated to the interests of global oligarchy and their prosperity comes at social costs. The absence of Global law is transformed into A rule without a ruler and global oligarchy emerges as an anti-social class.

3rd layer (Consequences): Tyranny of the global

The global dominate the local: Local becomes either replication of the global (Glocal), or presents itself as Radical alterity which disrupts the system and becomes the object of an exercise of the right to interfere[2]. This means that the Network is all encompassing and cannot be avoided – everyone is on the grid.

4th layer (Mutation): State becomes eminently corruptible

As a result of creation of the Network, a new form of elite, global oligarchy, emerges which now makes all major economic decisions. The absence of global polity means that super-rich operate free.

Global oligarchies do what oligarchies normally do: They use their (substantial) wealth to protect their interests through whatever means are available, from lobbying activity, shaping of the public opinion, influence on the local legislative process and politics in general, to corruption, harassment, intimidation, or physical force. They are no longer interested only in profit but in every aspect of life. Their coercive power is transmitted through influence on legislation, art, media, culture, education etc. This is the rise to biopolitics and biopolitical economy.

The new global overclass is not governable: States are powerless to interfere and have to submit to the interests of global oligarchy and effectively become their extended arm. Politicians are vetted by oligarchies and only those who comply are admitted to the table. Institutional and social changes are aligned with interests of global capital. Society is treated as auxiliary. Welfare state is dismantled and its repressive apparatus strengthened.

Debt, fiscal policy, taxation and budget deficits are an important lever arm. They become the main instrument of biopolitics. For example, the US owes $16tr to global capital ($6tr to foreigners alone), about the entire GDP (other developed and undeveloped countries are not looking much better either). As a form of collateral/insurance creditors have been or will be granted access to domestic policy and guaranteed influence over decision making institutions in general. In this way, global oligarchy becomes a stake holder in the US government. This is where things become complicated further and problems deeper.

Rise of kakocracy

What most deeply holds a community together is not so much identification with the Rules that regulate its normal rhythms, but rather a specific form of transgression of the Rules. (S. Žižek)

“When the government becomes both referee and player, the game changes rather dramatically for every other participant. Rules that might be rigorously applied to private competitors will not necessarily be applied for the sovereign who makes the rules. Government should act as regulator but is increasingly an interested party”. [3]

If global oligarchy, or private sector in general, “owns” shares of the government – they have stakes in it and the ability to influence its decisions — then anyone who is not a “shareholder” in the government is at a huge disadvantage when it comes to competing with “insiders” — they are playing the game where referee is on the side of some players and, as such, is indirectly acting as interested party. In this setup, it is no longer competence, quality of products and services, but degree of influence one commends that plays a decisive role. Influence on public and government becomes the most valuable asset.

This is a source of a reinforcing (positive feedback) loop that destabilizes the system. Under the pressure of global capital and in the absence of political power to resist it, the functioning of the state reinforces both further removal of barriers to capital accumulation (economic rigidities) as well as political impotence through continued dismantling of the welfare state and general demand for smaller state, while at the same time conforming to demands of the Network to remain unregulated.

This reinforcing loop becomes the main driver of the rapid transformation of the state from the welfare to the penal modality of its functioning. Global capital demands a smaller state to ensure the status quo, i.e. that the state remains unable to interfere with the existing order of things and that the network stays unregulated. Its increasing wealth and influence accelerates the process. This is all happening between the 2nd and the 3rd layers. Politics and law adjust to accommodate global demands. Exclusions and surplus of population grow with more efficient production process and further access to cheap labor force. Because of that, demand for fiscally accommodative environment (primarily through lower taxes and shutdown of the state sponsored programs) exerts pressure on the state to transform further by shedding the vestiges of its welfare programs through relentless privatization, while at the same time strengthening its repressive apparatus in order to gain access to the play through its monopoly on violence. Carceral mode of the state is embraced and reinforced further by the global capital as a source of additional profit maximization, e.g. war on drugs, high incarceration rate, privatized prisons, and war on poverty in general. Rising inequality is but one of the consequences of this process. It correlates with (and exacerbates) other social maladies, but is not necessarily their only or even primary cause.

Corruption becomes an intrinsic part of how the system operates. The corrupt state becomes the source of dissemination of lawlessness. Through state’s repressive apparatus, violence propagates through all the pores of life. The end game? There is no global law to violate any more, no global law that could permit setting apart of criminal pursuits from “normal business activity”[4]. The gap between legal and criminal activities is closing rapidly as legal business converges to crime. This leads to gradual criminalization of the globe and globalization of crime. Crime is everywhere and nowhere.

Progressive criminalization of the globe and globalization of the crime is the most spectacular and potentially sinister consequence of the erratic globalization process. The mechanisms of democracy no longer function, they have been seized by corporate power. With time, corporations, which generally have no internal constraints, gradually lose external constraints as well. They exploit, because that is the only thing they know how to do, until exhaustion and collapse[5]. In Mao’s words. Everything under heaven is in utter chaos: the situation is excellent.

 

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

[2] ibid.

[3] Cristopher Cox: Address to Joint Meeting of the Exchecquer Club and Women in Housing and Finance (Dec. 4, 2008)

[4] Franco Berardi, After the Future, AK Press (2011)

[5] ibid.

 

 

Modern times: The scandal of sleep  

23. IX 2017

  

Insomnia
                                                                  Vertigo FlyWriter

Man has always sought to find new ways of time saving. The most important technological discoveries (horse, ships, cars, trains, plains, assembly line), although addressing efficiency of transportation and production, were really about efficient usage of time. The most recent technological innovations were the key to the question of how to fuse different times, productivity, leisure, consumption and family — Television, TV dinners, microwave, fast food, Las Vegas wedding, smart phones, the internet, and virtual reality all enhance possibilities of multitasking and, as such, affect directly the way we manage our time, so that one can both work and consume away from the workplace or the shopping mall. These inventions blurred the boundaries between work and private life and outlined a new age of biopolitics and bioderegulation with novel narrative frameworks.

From rational perspective life is simple. Work is a paid activity performed on behalf of a third person, to achieve goals we have not chosen for ourselves, according to the procedures and schedules laid down by the persons paying our wages*. Labor time is unfree time, imposed upon the individual (originally even by force) to the benefit of alien (tautological) end. Since the first days of industrial age, the compromise according to which workers allocate some of their time to work in order to enjoy their free time, is perfectly rational. Seen by the capital, on the other hand, free time is empty and useless time. Economic rationality demands that any constraint which presents an obstacle to capital accumulation be removed. The end result is austerity of free time – free time should be minimized or austerely rationed. As a result of rationality of both sides, the employer and the employee (capital and labor) stand in direct opposition to each other when it comes to time and this defines their basic antagonism whose unfolding is seeing a new chapter in the tech era.

The most powerful technological forces have profoundly changed our experience of time and transformed the way we spend it. They have established a new normative model in the culture of the entrepreneurship of the self, which has become standard in the western world, where there is pressure to be constantly present and engaged. Not being switched on means falling behind, being out of step and thus losing a competitive edge. “In that paradigm, sleeping is for losers.”

Bioderegulation and the scandal of sleep: The Brave New World recomposed

Unlike other irreducible activities, which have been successfully commoditized, sleep has stood as the last frontier resisting the colonization by engine of profitability. “The troubling reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it. Sleep sticks out as an irrational and intolerable affirmation that there might be limits to the compatibility of living beings with the allegedly irresistible forces of modernization, whose credo is that there are no unalterable givens of nature.’’ [1]

As Jonathan Crary points out, this discontent with sleep, and its resistance to colonization, is condensed in the concept of the sleep mode of electronic devices, which defines a state of low-power readiness implying really not sleep as an extended disengagement, but a deferred or diminished condition of operationality. It supersedes an off/on logic because nothing should ever be fundamentally off.

“Sleep cannot be eliminated, but it can be wrecked”, and efforts to accomplish this wreckage are fully in place. Scientific research on sleep is an unusually active playground, attracting considerable attention and funding. One example is the study of white crowned sparrows which during their migration along the West coast show unusual capacity for staying awake for as long as seven days[1]. This ability makes them a particularly interesting subject for the army — despite considerable technological progress, the need for human solders will never go away and a benefit of engineering a sleepless solder, who could engage in combat for unspecified duration of time while maintaining alertness, is obvious.

As with other inventions that spread from military to civilian life—for instance penicillin, microwaves, nylon—the next logical step would be to produce sleepless workers and sleepless consumers. And while this transformation from crown sparrow to sleepless soldiers to sleepless workers and consumers might not have immediate dystopian repercussions, it outlines a trend which enhances the idea of human disposability. After all upgrading someone to a more efficient version is an implicit recognition that their earlier version was less valuable. The images of a society where these trends are fully developed, however, are deeply unsettling.

We live surprise results of the old plans

This is just another illustration of general dialectics of progress — one cannot innovate without creating some damage – expressed most eloquently in the writings of Paul Virilio, theorist of accidents and the grand maître of cultural theory. In his own words: “Progress and disaster are the two sides of the same coin. Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck, invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, invention of nuclear energy is invention of a nuclear meltdown. And, the more powerful the invention, the more dramatic are its consequences. So, it is inevitable to reach a point when progress and knowledge become unbearable. ”[2]

It is difficult to find a flaw in Virilio’s concise explanation of causality. Its power lies in the fact that it can be applied to almost any context. When it comes to the tyranny of work, it exposes the ultimate dialectics of rationality and its logical transformation path (from sublime to excremental). Rationality, when set free and unchecked, demands removal of any obstacle to profit maximization. Coupled with efficiency, which is raised to the level of exact science, and pushed to the extremes, it mutates into systematic devastation of everything that does not submit to the profit of the strongest. In the final stage of transformation of the post-Fordist (attention) economy workers no longer behave rationally. Instead of working for living, they live for work – their work no longer serves to subsidize the enjoyment of their free time, but they use their free time to become more productive workers.

In other words — and this is the corollary Virilio draws — excess rationality leads to irrational outcomes and a culture that is based on rationality must experience a deep crisis when it becomes irrational.

Diachronic extension of the progress/disaster counterpoint places our present at an uncomfortable historical point: If the 20th century was the century of great inventions, then the 21st century has to be the century of disasters [2]. This is the predicament of the new century — we are living surprise results of the old plans.

This historical inflection point of the present reality is eloquently illustrated by the contrast between the futuristic dystopian fiction of the early 20th century and the current new wave of dystopian non-fiction. For 20th century futurists, dystopia was placed in a distant future (the shipwreck is the futurist invention of the ship [2]). In contrast, the new wave of dystopian literature is not a fiction. The topic is no longer the visions of a distant future, but rather a dystopian present without a future: We are shipwrecked in the endless deteriorating present.

And inability to produce a convincing image of the future causes an implosion of the present. So, behind the current economic crisis lies a crisis of time. Time no longer flows freely. It has come to a stop. If this trend continues, it is not difficult to imagine a future where sleep will have to be bought like bottled water.

 

* Andre Görz

[1] Jonathan Crary, 24/7 — Terminal Capitalism and the End of Sleep, London: Verso 2014, pp 10-11.

[2] Paul Virilio, The original accident, London: Polity 2007, pp 21-33.

The divided subject of labor market

17. IX 2017

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

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

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

Work alone

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

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

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

Technology and labor in postindustrial age

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

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

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

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

Devalorization of labor and the new standard of subsistence

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

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

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

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

Work won’t be revolutionized, it will be auctioned

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

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

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

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

Coda

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

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

[2] ibid.

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

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

A hole in the head: The fetishism of a failed state

20. III 2017

The society of the spectacle is turning into a soft version of the theater of cruelty, a burlesque of death with the globe as its stage (Jean Baudrillard)

Trepanation is an ancient procedure, second oldest after circumcision, in which a hole is drilled into the skull. People have been doing it for thousands of years in order to relieve headaches, seizures and various mental disorders, or as a ritualistic practice in which the shamans, the kings and the priests were trepanned in order to access new levels of consciousness. There is no scientific evidence that trepanning has any tangible benefits. Its proponents believe in a natural equilibrium between the brain and the rest of the universe that can be described poetically in pre-modern terms as “letting light in” or “letting devils out”. [1]One of the most highly publicized examples of trepanation in modern times dates back to the early 1970s. After years of experimentation with a range of hallucinogenics (and guided by deeply seeded cranial claustrophobia), in search of a new/permanent high, 27-year old Amanda Feilding performed self-trepanation by drilling a hole in her forehead with an electrical drill with a flat bottom and a foot pedal, while her partner filmed the entire event with an 8mm camera. She described the effect of trepanation at the time as a radical change in her consciousness comparing it to the tide coming in.

Almost half a century later, another quest for a new equilibrium is being staged. For several decades now, with the help of neoliberalism and globalization, Western oligarchs have enjoyed unprecedented positive externalities for their wealth accumulation. However, those positive externalities came at considerable social costs. As oligarchic wealth swelled, so did the social deficits they created; their compounding grew until their cumulative effect became so substantial that it began to undermine the normal functioning of the system. With time, the system’s legitimation became the main problem and with it the issue of the excess population — the growing volume of the population made redundant by neoliberalism’s global triumph whose size is now exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet. This has gained new urgency in the last decade as it became clear that democratic process has become incompatible with the oligarchic program, while force, tried many times before, is found to be a highly inefficient and expensive way of maintaining stability.

In the same way a hole in the head was an organic, non-chemically induced high for the 60s generation, the quest for a new social equilibrium is a permanent oligarchic high. State and ideology were no longer sufficient to satiate the appetite for wealth accumulation (or a need for its preservation). A new natural order was needed and, for that to happen, one had to remove the remaining barriers, break some bones and spill some blood. As the ideologically driven oligarchic high began to taper off, after reaching its peak during the last decades of globalized neoliberalism, a quest to find new levels of social consciousness gained new urgency. Ironically, the breakdown of communism – the ultimate triumph of neoliberal ideology – offered clues for how to proceed and how to define a search for a new equilibrium.

American oligarchs have had an eye on post-Soviet Russia ever since the collapse of communism. Their fascination with its post-communist transformation process continues to this date. In less than two decades, the country where chronic and severe scarcity, grossly mismanaged by the state, was its trademark, where everyone had to stand in line in order to maintain an elementary standard of living, where western middle-class lifestyle was just a pipe dream, and where getting rich was a crime, this very country became an oligarchic paradise producing practically overnight a stunning number of obscenely rich and disturbingly powerful individuals, who rose directly from the rubble of the dismembered Soviet state.

To a western mind, brought up on protestant ethics of hard work, such a transformation was difficult to grasp. Russian oligarchs represent a hybrid of communist apparatchiks, government bureaucrats, and strictly small-time criminals, sub-mediocrity in every aspect of their existence – nothing remarkable about them. Yet, they became an embodiment of an ultimate America dream. People who lived all their lives in isolation, had no knowledge or even exposure to business know-how, had no place or opportunities to learn about it, and lived close to what in America would be considered poverty level, emerged as super-rich. With time, it became clear that this puzzling transformation was not about the people, but about the actual conditions created by the collapse. This realization resonated hard with the aspiring American oligarchs, temporarily embarrassed billionaires, nouveau riche, and those who are always ready to operate on the margins of law, now struggling to ride Donald Trump’s coattails. Very early on, it became apparent that failed states create conditions of unimaginable business opportunities, a realization which became the primary driving force behind the fetish of the smaller government perpetuated by the American right.

Engineering failed states everywhere, and thus creating a global disequilibrium that would create chaos and force or accelerate a change became a signature strategy of American global politics in its late neoliberal phase. It reflected the interests of global oligarchies, a political trajectory that, using Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology, could be described as democratic fascism — a 20% of the world keeps the remaining 80% in submission – an old wine in new bottles already tried out with different ratios and failing because of the flawed math. This project got new wind in the 1990s and continued to accelerate ever since capturing the post-communist Soviet block and spreading to the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa, while in the West it showed up domestically in waves manifesting itself through various forms of identity politics and irrupting tensions between the global oligarchy and the right-wing populist implementations of the neo-feudal vision of the world.

This seemingly strange idea of forcing a change by destruction was first outlined in the works of the 19th century French thinkers (e.g. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi), and developed further by the post-modernists and finally crystallized by Jean Baudrillard:

Total revolution is a strategy geared to escalate the system and push it to its breaking point. Then, giving up on every pretense of rationality, it starts revolving and achieves in the process a circularity of its own. The society of the spectacle is turning into a soft version of the theater of cruelty, a burlesque of death with the globe as its stage. Life is being exchanged for nothing, for a handful of glittering toys, work absorbs time like a sponge and leaves no traces. The system itself becomes the exterminator.

It is not difficult to recognize shades of this pattern in the political life of the developed world of the last year. The tide is coming in. For over two decades, the quest for a new order from chaos and dis-equilibrium – letting light in & devils out — has been operating full force away from home. Everybody has a hole in the head or is about to get one drilled, UK being the latest example, while France apparently eager to follow (Dutch got cold feet recently and decided not to rush with it). The time has come now for the next and possibly final step in an ongoing global transformation process for America to perform this bizarre experiment on itself. The unmistakable similarity between the mixture of the self-anesthetizing euphoria coupled with the cranial draft of the first two months of Trump’s presidency, and that experienced during a DIY trepanation seems to suggest that this process is well underway.

Even after all these years, Amanda Feilding, now Countess of Wemyss and March, wife of the landowning 13th Earl (he, too, has a hole in his head), and a friend of the Royal Family, has not abandoned her belief in the ancient practice of trepanning — drilling a hole in the skull — or her hope that it will one day gain the acceptance and legitimacy it deserves. She must be enjoying the spectacle.

[1] The higher state of mind sought by trepanation is that of childhood: When a baby is born, the top of the skull is soft and flexible. As a baby ages, the skull bones close which inhibits the full pulsation of the heartbeat, believed to be responsible for a wide range of problems and anxieties that come with the adult life.

Heroin & non-consensual capitalism: As the rich get richer, the poor get higher

29. X 2016

Heroin consolidates all your problems into one big one. No more worrying about aggression, repression, poverty, futility, and frustration – just heroin and how to get a hold of it.

The street price of heroin has dropped below $100 per gram. A disturbing development. For a novice, about 10-20 mg provides a decent high. Simply put, one can get high on heroin for the price of a chocolate bar. The most addictive drug is now also the cheapest, cheaper than cigarettes. Its 20-fold price decline, from $2000 in the 1980s, is unlike any other commodity or product. This is not a result of a more efficient production process or technological advances, but a curious cooperation between the forces of geopolitical and ideological makeup. Three decades of heroin price history parallel the transformation of the neoliberal state and society. It tells an interesting story of business, politics, economics, globalization, and governmentality.

heroin-prices

Heroin price history as experienced by wholesale, small dealers, and drug users

  • Pull back. The blood rushes in. Slowly push the plunger. I want this to last. Pull it back out again, the blood swirls back in. Now, squeeze! It rushes up my arm in tingles. Then it hits. It is like a mini explosion of pure pleasure. Everything is blissful and beautiful. It is pure joy to be alive, to have a body. Depending on the quantity and quality this is there for hours. It is sensual. All your nerves are on fire and just having someone run their fingers along your skin feels delicious. It isn’t really sexual. It is simply that the intensity of the experience lends itself to being described that way. This is when you are “high” on heroin.

In 1980 a wholesale dealer (if he had $1 million) could buy 1kg of heroin from the supplier at $1000/g (red line) and sold it to hoppers (street dealers) at $1700/g (blue line). In this transaction, he would have made $700/g profit ($700K for a kilo). In comparison, a hopper buys at $1700/g and sells to the users at $2000. His profit is $300/g, i.e. $3000 for a 10g package.

Since then, the price continues to decline at an annual rate of 9% — it drops to 1/3 of its value every 12 years. In the 1990s the wholesale price of heroin was $300/g. Dealers had to work harder (sell more heroin) to earn the same money as before. However, risks associated with drug dealing were lower and the money was still good, especially on a risk adjusted basis and when compared to the available alternatives. The business was booming.

Another decade and a half later and another threefold drop in prices: Heroin in the new century is selling for near $100. No longer is just the first hit free, but all subsequent hits are practically free as well. This changes the business model completely. Post-90s is the period of major consolidation and systematization of drug business. The dealers are no longer interested in quick profit from one-time sales to occasional users. They are now after lifetime subscribers. And the system continues to deliver them in numbers like never before. Drug businesses began to think and operate like any legal profit center, which sets in motion the true market forces.

Globalization has played a key role in these developments. It has achieved this effect in two ways. 1) Efficiency of the distribution of drugs: Lower transport costs, the use of the new IT and the enhanced worldwide competition have dramatically improved the efficiency of drug business. At the same time, the greater efficiency of the distribution process, made it easier to conceal the transport and the stock management of drugs. 2) Risk premium effect: Globalization has opened the borders of many countries with a surplus of poor and low-skilled workers. Millions of havenots who have little to lose have been attracted by the fantastic intermediation margins provided by the drug market[1].

Inelasticity of demand has defined the background as one of the main economic drivers. For heroin addicts, nothing is more frightening than being without heroin. No one who has gone through heroin withdrawal wants to repeat this experience. So, no matter how high the price, they will find the way to pay for it.

The Breakdown of communism has created new markets and sustained demand. Post-socialist countries, which have largely been sheltered from the influence of hard drugs in the past, suddenly opened up as a new untapped market. Erosion of local state institutions, and general hopelessness that ensued after its fall, were directly responsible for the surge in drug users.

The war on drugs became its own antithesis from inception. It supported high margins, which guaranteed that drug business remains more attractive, and therefore more competitive, than any other business[2]. Wholesale dealers held the racket. They effectively lowered their own risk by transferring their exposure to street dealers and were happy to accept lower margins as this increased their business longevity. What was lost on tighter margins was made up by the volume of the business. Bigger volumes and increasing profit gave access to the benefits of the legal system, attorneys and corrupt government officials, which provided an additional protective layer and reduced risks further, while elaborate money laundering schemes opened the doors to legitimate investment opportunities and further wealth accumulation. So, although margins were lower, on a risk adjusted basis, drug business never looked better.

Ideological mainlining: Biopolitical penetration of the American brain

One of the most extensive by-products of globalization is a surplus of humanity that is unwanted, inconvenient, and ultimately displaced. The volume of humans made redundant by capitalism’s global triumph grows unstoppably and comes close now to exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet; there is a plausible prospect of capitalist modernity choking on its own waste products which it can neither reassimilate or annihilate, nor detoxify. (Z. Bauman)

This is one of the biggest and the most acute problems today. The need to address this issue has shaped the transformation of the neoliberal state in the last decades from the welfare to the penal modality of its functioning. While neoliberalism produces social and economic vulnerability, criminalization produces ways to capitalize on that vulnerability. The criminalization of illicit drugs accomplishes three things at once. First, it reinforces socioeconomic vulnerability through a steady flow of pre-trial detainees, prisoners, parolees and families disrupted by harshly punitive sanctions. Second, it makes the economic viability of hard drugs dependent on a willingness to assume risk, especially as entry-level narco-labor. This willingness is a condition clearly associated with the socioeconomically marginalized – those who have little to lose but their “freedom” [3]. Third, it guarantees accessibility of hard drugs to the disenfranchised segment of the population. In this way, the very victims of global capitalism are trapped in the spider web of the carceral state and the more they struggle to survive in it, the more precarious their position becomes.

In the past, drug addiction existed as an expensive “luxury” for a small minority. Democratization of heavy drugs has been embraced by the ideological apparatus as a way of managing exclusion, poverty and discontent in general. Within the neoliberal project, the war on drugs has become synonymous to the war on poverty. And so, as poverty grew, so did the heroin usage.

heroin-and-gini

As the rich get richer, the poor get higher: Decline in heroin prices vs. inequality

  • Gini coefficients are often used as a measure of wealth inequality and, as such, they are an indirect measure of poverty. Developed/civilized societies, like the most advanced West European countries, have Gini’s typically in the mid 20s. Among developed countries, the United States has the highest levels of inequality, the only one in the western hemisphere with Gini above 40. In that metric, it is on par with China, the Dominican Republic, Nepal and Ecuador for income. The Figure shows the history of the (wholesale) heroin price against Gini coefficients (on inverted axis) since 1980. The two histories, both having exponential trend, show high degree of commonality. Declining price of heroin goes hand in hand with growth of poverty: As rich get richer, poor get higher.

State as enabler of self-destruction

I bought a gun and chose drugs instead (Kurt Cobain)

While global capitalism is the engine of production of socioeconomic vulnerability, the state is the main architect of subjects and spaces of exclusion, e.g. the black American male and the post-industrial ghetto, whose political and economic exclusion catalyzes participation in illicit economies as well as vulnerability to policing. The objective of criminal justice in the neoliberal state is no longer to correct behaviors that are socially harmful, but to identify the bodies that must be excluded from the population and justify this exclusion by labeling their behaviors as abnormal. In this context, heroin has been recognized (and embraced) as a powerful tool of self-destruction, capable of turning any resisting individual into a perfectly docile social subject, eminently manageable by its dependency.

The evolution of the heroin business reveals the inner logic of the massive consolidation of the state’s repressive apparatus in the post-1968 era. When viewed in this context, the war on drugs emerges as but one of many neoliberal strategies of governing, a technique for identifying populations that must be governed in other ways. The essence of these strategies is that they do not use force to destroy dissent, but push it to self-destruct. They stay as a constant reminder that power has been deemed as a highly ineffective tool of governing. Outside of its repressive apparatus, the state no longer represents the ability to engineer change, but has become an enabler. The war on drugs is an ideological answer to the problem of surplus population, and heroin an instrument of drainage of wasted lives.

[1] C. Costa Storti, P. De Grauwe, Int. J. Drug Policy, 20 (2009) 488

[2] In the 1990s, assuming a hopper sells 10g every day, he could make $2000 a day ($250 an hour or 50 times the minimum wage commensurate with qualifications of most of the drug dealers), which, translates into $500K a year (untaxed), equivalent to an $800K of taxable annual income. This is a full-blown Wall Street salary. In most cases, they pay “tax” to the wholesale distributors who “own” the territory hold the racket.

[3] D. Corva, Political Geography, 27 (2008) 176

Adventures in heterotopia: The things we left behind

25. IX 2016

Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck, invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, and invention of nuclear energy is invention of a nuclear meltdown. (Paul Virilio)

Galileo’s real heresy was not so much his rediscovery that the Earth revolved around the sun, but his constitution of an infinitely open space. His findings dissolved the idea of the medieval concept of emplacement*. The space suddenly opened and disrupted the existing order of things. Localization gave way to trajectory and emplacement to extension. A thing’s place was no longer anything but a point on its trajectory, the stability of a thing was only its movement indefinitely slowed down. There was no up & down anymore, no celestial hierarchy. Instead of the universe resting on the back of a giant turtle, suddenly, everything was moving and out of place. Nobody was in charge anymore, and that was OK. The heavens were in a state of celestial anarchy. This was the emancipatory core of Galileo’s revolution. To a medieval mind, this was a picture of utter chaos. The idea of creation and design was seriously undermined and with it what was believed to be the Big Guy’s mandate (and authority). The Church, as His shopkeeper and interpreter of His will, saw this as bad for business and a problem for the franchise. Understandably, they had an issue with it, pronounced Galileo an evildoer and threatened him with violence. Galileo recanted, but it didn’t matter – religion’s golden days were over.

Four centuries later our experience of space is undergoing the second revolution, this time far more disruptive. With information technology and infinite connectivity, time is contracting, distances are shrinking and space compactifying. The space of trajectories is giving way to networks & sites. Different geographies are becoming nodes on the global grid, equidistant from each other. The outside is gradually disappearing, absorbed by the expanding and elastic inside. The world has become smaller, but within that world, things no longer have a fixed place; they are displaced and delocalized. Permanently and irreversibly.

The Network is a subversion of all terrestrial hierarchies. The concepts of center and periphery have lost their traditional meaning. All things are both equally important and irrelevant. Everything is now everywhere and nowhere — compactification and delocalization at the same time. An absolute rule of equivalence. The tyranny of transparency. The source of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia. The ultimate triumph of dialectics, simultaneously both oppressive and liberating.

Things are no longer constrained by physical separation, seasons of the year, time zone, weather, climate… Companies can relocate to countries with cheap labor and real estate, lower taxes and accommodative political climate. As long as the place is on the grid, and eventually all geographies will be, it doesn’t matter where one is. The Network is everywhere and so are the factories and companies and everything else. People are no longer bound to a particular locale; they don’t even have to leave their homes to perform work. Everyone is gradually losing their identity in the face of persistent deterritorialization and uprootedness.

Unprecedented wealth accumulation afforded by the Network gives rise to a new, ungovernable, global overclass which now makes all major political decisions. States are powerless to interfere and effectively become their extended arm. As a rising tide lifts all boats, crime becomes more prosperous, organized and powerful – increasing fraction of global wealth comes from and is destined to criminal sources. Gradually, everything becomes subordinated to the interests of global oligarchies and their prosperity comes at high social costs.

The pressure of equivalence is crushing everything in sight, histories, cultures, identities, futures, and symbolic meaning.

The same way Galileo wreaked havoc in outer space and disrupted celestial order, post-modern creation of the Network has been a disruption of terrestrial order with the dissolution of historically rigid social structures. New technology has revealed every segment of society as an instrument of production, a human resource to be arranged, rearranged and disposed of. It has created major economic advantages and unprecedented opportunities for profit making. But this embrace of convenience doesn’t come free of charge. Removal of market frictions, economic rigidities, and erasure of borders, resulted in physical and cultural displacement, loss of identity, corruption, omnipresence of crime, rise in violence, dismantling of the welfare state and a rise of carceral state, populism, regressive policies and political chaos.

The very same technology that has proven to create the main economic advantage has also reduced the system’s ability to change. The system has lost the ability to adapt and with it, its main advantage, its vitality. It has suffered an autoimmune failure and is no longer able to recover from crises. This is the shipwreck, the plain crash and the nuclear meltdown.

*Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias (1967)