Category Archives: #governmentality

Turmoil and Tinfoil

17. XI 2020

Woke up this morning, decided to kill my ego, it ain’t ever done me no good, no how. (Sturgill Simpson, opening verse of Just Let Go)

Triple negatives exist only in country music and in statistics. While their deployment in everyday language is considered excessive and, outside of the bible belt, rejected as stylistically undesirable, musical lyrics sometime require them for rhythm or rhyme. In statistics, on the other hand, triple negatives play a specific role and are encountered regularly. They are there to prevent us from overstating a statistically significant result as certainty.

Statistical inference is based on drawing probabilistic conclusions based on the analysis of a finite sample of data. The sample that we work with is our universe, but although it can be representative, it never contains all information. Because of that, there is always residual skepticism that we didn’t see it all and have not taken everything into account. As a consequence, based on statistical analysis, it is unacceptable to say that something is true, but instead we have to settle for a slightly weaker statement that something is not false. In statistics, one cannot simply accept, but can only fail to reject. And that can be done only with a certain confidence level without which the statistical results are incomplete.

When testing a hypothesis in a statistical context, statements like “This will happen with certainty” have no place; the strongest statement one can make is “This will happen almost surely”. For example, if all air in a room is evacuated and we release a small amount in one corner, after some time the air molecules will be evenly distributed throughout the entire room. Their distribution will stay uniform almost surely. This does not mean that the air molecules cannot find themselves all in one corner again – there is nothing in physical laws that prohibits that — it is just that probability of that happening is extraordinarily small.

Results of current Presidential elections, as they are an outcome of statistical measurements and inferences, thus, need to be expressed accurately. First the outcome needs to be framed properly. Although the bottom line is that after Jan-20-2021, there will be a new president in the White House, if one is to be precise, Democrats didn’t win – Trump failed in not losing.

And to be perfectly clear, despite all his maneuvers and PR stunts, Trump doesn’t really believe that he won – he just fails to reject that he didn’t lose. Of course, the subtlety of this difference completely eludes him. In his overdramatized “revolt”, which is really a money raising scam, he is being less delusional and more ignorant and confused.

While the claim of victory represents a statement of certainty and, as such, can be easily invalidated, the failure to reject is incomplete without giving the confidence interval about that statement and, in its incompleteness, it is deprived of its probabilistic context.  The official results of the Elections reject the fact that Trump did not lose with probability greater than 99.999%; Trump’s failure to accept the results is the complement of that – it has a probability, which is less than 1/1000th percent.

The consequence of the underlying incompleteness is that in the eyes of Trump’s innumerate followers, it opens an ill-conceived possibility of hope. The reality of the failure to reject is a very low confidence statement, one that has an infinitesimal probability of realization, at best less than a fraction of a 1/1000th of a percent[1].

While this is a probability that has no value for any practical purposes, when put in the context of the general Republican narrative of the last four years, the core of which had been based largely on conspiracy theories, with roughly the same order of magnitude probability of realization, it could have equal merit as everything else they have stood for. After all, more than 40% of Trump supporters are evangelical Christians who believe in the magic of thoughts and prayers and reality of miracles, which have even a lower probability of realization than Trump’s chance of successfully contesting the Election’s outcome.

[1] On Friday, 6-Nov, one day before the Elections would be called by the media, it was down to three states that remained to be counted: AZ, PA, and GA. Trump had to win all three in order to win. The probabilities of Trump’s victory in each state, which were at the time still called by different outlets were as follows: PA 8%, AZ 23%, and GA 12.4%. The probability of winning all three states (= product of the three probabilities) is 0.2%. Since then, with more votes counted, increased margins, dismissed disputes and further verification, the probabilities for Trump’s victory in each of the three states have declined precipitously and the joint probability of winning all three, which he would still need if his “arguments” are to hold, has dropped by several orders of magnitude.

Dark Enlightenment: Pregnant widow* gets the second sonogram

 8. III 2020

The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. The ability to create imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. Any large scale human cooperation hinges on the ability to create imagined reality out of words: A modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe, are all rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination (Noah Yuval Harari).

Appearance of legends, myths, gods and religions marks the beginning of the Cognitive Revolution — the point when history declared its independence from biology[2]. Out of this revolution emerged the ascent of man and the entire civilization. However, with every new stage of his rise, man’s arrogance grew bigger and so did his desire to free himself from the shackles of his own myths. This was the period of enlightenment and emancipation. Every new installment of emancipation pulled humanity closer towards reduced myths. As rationality became the main guiding principle, myths functioned more as pragmatic protocols and less as organizing principles, losing their magic spell to their pragmatic power and became increasingly aligned with advancing individualization and the underlying emancipatory momentum.

Capitalism in its last 50 years represents the accelerated phase of systematic symbolic annihilation. During this period, ceremonial demolition of old myths of togetherness has practically completed just in time as developed world is facing synchronized irruption of unsolvable problems: Disappearance of community, deterritorialization, loss of identity coordinates, global agoraphobia, criminalization of the globe, structural unemployment, rising poverty, endemic precarity, excess population, large-scale corruption, climate change, and general hopelessness. Their magnitude and nonlinearity have become a cause of growing collective anxieties registering through widespread desecularization, reaching out towards authoritarian figures and (over-) simplified, self-serving narratives aimed at providing a chance of relief, however transient and illusory it might be.

While this might not be an utterly new configuration of collective consciousness, never before has it gained such a systemic dimension and cataclysmic perspective. In the past, progress was synonymous with hope, opening new horizons and creating new frontiers that always delivered. Nowadays, with every new instalment of progress, the future looks dimmer and residual hope smaller. We have reached the limits of futurability. Individuality has run its course; disenchantment of the world has metastasized;. It has left everyone alone and abandoned, without a safety net and without hope. Hard work no longer leads to redemption — progress has become toxic and, suddenly, the old myths ring hollow and empty.

Society cannot function without myths

The tensions of the last decade are a consequence of the collapse of liberal democratic mythologies – they underscore the active quest for new myths in the midst of that crisis. Everything that used to mobilize the libidinal forces of the developed West is now dissolving in the light of devaluations of these myths. Myths are necessary for any collective action. Without them, large-scale social projects are not possible and societies cannot function. Disposing of the old myths while waiting for the new ones creates a troubling disequilibrium.

Today, the developed West stands divided facing the bankruptcy of the old narratives. This division is not only a consequence of diversity of life experiences, but a reflection of irreconcilable divergence of beliefs and imagination. As divesting from reality in the form of parody, mockery, or masquerade has taken its toll, the growing fraction of the disillusioned population is eager to be mobilized by new narratives. However, at the same time they are unable to receive them due to years of symbolic hollowing out, which has deprived them of the capacity to surrender to any collective cause that transcends individual interests. Religion is returning, but in a perverse form, as a parody of itself and without its magic spell, as a grotesque reflection of reality and without any of its original substance.

At the same time, we are now facing a novel type of revolt, in no way resembling anything we have seen before. While the past uprisings had always been, in one way or another, reactions to excessive exploitation, today, most of the things can be done without people. People are becoming increasingly more redundant — there is a growing number of those that are not needed and that are not counted for — the humanity can move ahead without them. Although they cannot be reintegrated into the normal process of social functioning, they also cannot be disposed of. Their size is growing unstoppably and is threatening to exceed the managerial capability of the planet. The excluded are now revolting not because they are being overly exploited, but because they are being denied the right to be exploited.

21st century populism is a hasty political response to the historical inflection point of coincident cultural, economic and cognitive paradigm shifts, which left a void created by decay of the traditional mythology. It is an attempt at repackaging the old myths in a radicalized form disguised as novelty. In its core, the new populism is a celebration of the shock doctrine applied at home, after trying it out abroad for decades, a cruel and unethical experiment that has produced, at best, mixed result elsewhere.

30 years of disequilibrium

Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people[3].

2019 marks three decades of grand political disequilibrium. In the same way 1989 announced a dissolution of communism, 2019 marks the beginning of neoliberalism’s symbolic unwind. It outlines the contours of neoliberal transformation along the same lines as the fall of Berlin wall in 1989 did for the former Soviet Union.

2016 demonstrated unambiguously that a growing number of people are in desperate need for new fairy tales, new myths and representations of eternal kingdom and new authority figures, prepared to accept any surrogate that would fill the unbearable vacuum. People no longer believe in the old American myth of progress, competition, individuality, protestant ethics and the link between hard work and success.

Establishment of new social hierarchies is always accompanied with a display of latent violence, breaking of the social norms and civilized behavior. Peaceful social life in general is the sign that one class, the ruling one, has already won. Populism, as a superficial mode of revolt, has become synonymous with the middle finger to the entire system of values; this includes criminalization of politics and government institutions and normalization of large-scale corruption. As an integral part of the ritualistic power grab, vestiges of the old system become subordinated to the will of the autocrat who personifies raw power and who masquerades his personal interests as patriotism and selflessness for the nation. The two processes, which have been in full swing in the last decade, have accelerated in the last three years: 1) criminalization of the state and dissolution of its legal barriers in order to eliminate residual obstacles against release of the libidinal energy and unrealized potential of crime on state level; 2) consolidation of that power.

Nevertheless the emergence of an unaccountable autocrat is not a sign of barbarization of America. 2016 is not a relapse into fascism, just a search for new myths to replace the old ones, which no longer have mobilizing power. Trump won less than 25% of voting age population votes in 2016. This is in sharp contrast with the 1920s-30s Germany when Nazi party membership rose from roughly 2% at inception to above 32% between 1928 and 1932. This is what a real movement looks like (kept alive by the myths of master race and supremacy of the German state). Trump’s base is a relative minority. There is only a semblance of fascist aesthetics, but no movement[4].

The underlying causality chain behind the recent political developments in America starts with centrists and their compromised narratives. They refuse to bow out and exit the political scene creating in this way a configuration of unacceptable alternatives and massive abstinence from the ballot box as a consequence. For them, as representatives of the oligarchic capital, authoritarianism is preferred to other mode of social organization that imply more egalitarian distribution. Their presence, their sabotage of alternatives, and resistance to their return is likely to be the main cause for continued large-scale withdrawal from the democratic process and reinforcement of authoritarianism as plan-B.

In its targeting only a narrow segment of population, while permanently excluding the rest without any chance of reconciliation, populism is deriving its temporary strength from the division of political subjects. This divisiveness is leading effectively into a perpetual conflict that has gradually morphed into a cold civil war. However, while divisiveness can provide access to power, it cannot sustain it. This is the fatal flaw of the right-wing populism. As such, populism is not sustainable – its failure is inscribed in its basic premises.


We are always surprised by good and honest acts. They are unpredictable. Every honest act is committed impulsively; it is not natural and spontaneous. Evil, on the other hand, acts naturally. We never wonder about evil. We are surprised only if it is not realized. Myths act in the interstices between good and evil. They represent the denial of biology. In order to survive in the long run, myths have to be socially effective, they must be centered on narratives that are sustainable. Good is the essence of that sustainability – it unifies. Evil is transient – it divides. Good goes against human biology, which is concentrated on individual survival. Myths are there to protect humanity against itself and the self-destructive forces of individuality. It is this denial of biology that marks the beginning of history and the opening of the path of man’s ascent. History is on no one’s side, but it is also not completely neutral.

*Pregnant widow is the point at which the old order has given way, but the new one not yet born (Alexander Herzen)

[2] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, Harper (2015)

[3] ibid.

[4] Enzo Traverso, Trump’s Savage Capitalism: The Nightmare Is Real, World Policy Journal, vol. 34, no. 1 (2017).

America at 400: 1619-2019

30. XII 2019

Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain[1].

America has always had a complicated relationship with its own history. The nation that was based on the ideas of enlightenment, and which gave us Declaration of Independence, The Emancipation Proclamation, May Day, International Women’s Day, Women’s Suffrage, Universal public K-12 education, The Marshall Plan, and Civil Rights Act, was also the birth place of some of the worst institutions of repression such as the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy, systemic segregation, McCarthyism, internment camps, and mass incarceration. But this is not what makes America special; after all, there is hardly any developed country that does not carry historical baggage of some sort. Rather, it is the deliberate effort to make sure that the underlying tensions remain unresolved, which makes its position unique. America has turned its back on some of its best achievements, and never showed the courage (or desire) to completely distance itself from some of the worst practices of its past. The very same rights and freedoms that it continues to champion abroad, the US has systematically denied to a large segment of its population at home[2].

The American political landscape has always reflected this ambivalence. To this day, the underlying ideology and its reality remain trapped in the multiverse of causal entanglement whereby ideology creates social adversity, which requires ideological adjustments, which in turn reinforces the very same social adversity it was meant to contain.

Race as strange attractor: The Centaur-state and the four peculiar institutions

No one has captured the inner contradictions of America’s parallel history better than Loïc Wacquant. He sees the current social and political developments as part of a particular continuum outlined by the Four Peculiar Institutions against the backdrop of a reshaping of the capitalist state[3]. The essence of the dialectics of neoliberalism is condensed in its obsession with a smaller state (always, except when it comes to the riot police). The consequence of that obsession, according to Wacquant, is the building of a Centaur-state, liberal at the top and paternalistic at the bottom[4]. The superficial maneuver of imposing the functioning of free markets to life as whole, with a hands-off approach to the corporate sector and the upper echelon of society, is complemented by a state that is fiercely interventionist and authoritarian when it comes to dealing with the destructive consequences of economic deregulation for those at the lower end of the class and status spectrum[5].

Wacquant’s deconstruction of the reconciliation of the inner contradictions of the Centaur-state puts the entire post-Reagan era of political carnivalization in perspective as the great neoliberal Aufhebung. The imposition of market discipline is not a smooth, self-propelling process: it meets with recalcitrance and triggers resistance; it translates into diffusing social instability and turbulence among the lower class; and it practically undermines the authority of the state. So it requires institutional contraptions that will anchor and support it, among them an enlarged and energetic penal institution[6]. Behind the clownish posturing of the new breed of political leaders resides a serious (and brutal) political reality and the more carnevalesque the politics becomes, the more repressive its penal system turns out to be.

This lays out the logic behind Americas intrinsic resistance to outgrowing its dark history and dealing with its legacy. This history begins in 1619, with the first slave ships docking the coast of Virginia. Its backbone is captured by the matrix of the Four Peculiar Institutions[7], which define the contours of the underlying carceral continuum. The most direct and intuitive perspective on the 400 years of America is offered by the second column of the Table: The root of it all is an insatiable demand for cheap labor; the history of America reflects this through the four transformational phases.

4Peculiar institutions

Four Peculiar Institutions

An unfree and fixed workforce was essential for the North American preindustrial economy. Slavery, as a relationship of domination, was used to fulfill a definite economic end: to appease the nearly insatiable appetite of the plantation for labor. The abolishment of slavery was more than anything a supply shock in labor. After slaves were formally free, a cheap and abundant workforce needed for the plantation economy had been eliminated. The true slaves deserted the South, attracted to looming opportunities in the North as the economy transitioned to its industrial phase, while the South experienced a decline (mechanization, urbanization …), which, when combined with cuts in immigration during WWI, resulted in an acute shortage of unskilled labor[8].

In response to these developments, capitalist industrialization and the plantation elite joined to demand political disenfranchisement and the systematic exclusion of former slaves from all major institutions. This was the period of Jim Crow rule. Backed by custom and elaborate legal structures, the economic opportunities were severely restricted (prohibited attendance of schools, churches, banished from the ballot box with a range of requirements, like residency, literacy tests, poll taxes or criminal offences).

The Ghetto was intended to have a prophylactic function. It was conceptualized as a separate Lebensraum for a group viewed as “physically and mentally unfit, unsanitary, entirely irresponsible, and undesirable neighbors”, while allowing, at the same time, to exploit their labor power (cheaply). In terms of its social functioning, the Ghetto was a logical sequel to slavery and Jim Crow.

The wedding of ghetto and prison: Hyperghetto

When the ghetto was rendered inoperative in the 1960s with economic restructuring and riots, which won blacks votes, the carceral institution offered itself as a substitute apparatus for the black community devoid of economic utility and political pull[9]. This was a way to prevent formation of a unified voice of discontent and convert the non-consuming segment of society into a profit center. According to Wacquant, African-Americans now live in the first prison society of history. The ghetto and the prison are now causally entangled — the two look the same and have the same function; they support and reinforce each other. The life in the ghetto almost necessarily leads to more criminal behavior. And in the prisons, which function effectively as graduate schools of crime, a “black culture” of outsiders is being reinforced by “professional” inmates, which eventually gets exported back to the street[10].

The ghetto and the prison are for all practical purposes indistinguishable, reinforcing each other to ensure the exclusion of African-Americans from general society, with governmental blessings. The prison should be viewed as a judicial ghetto and the ghetto as an extrajudicial prison. Taken together, these constitute part of a ‘carceral continuum’[11].

2019: Exit through the wormhole

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but mainly to ourselves. (Julian Barnes)

Capitalism creates crises, which it cannot wrest from. Recoveries from those crises are funded by social deficits, which grow bigger with each crisis. This became particularly severe during the neoliberal phase of capitalism. The Carceral state has been essential for the survival and sustainability of the neoliberal project and has had a triple role in that context: As a shock absorber and an insurance policy of capitalism against itself, as an engine of growth, and as a mechanism that reinforces its own toxicity. On one side, it offsets the unwanted side-effects of capitalism, while on the other, it creates new problems that reinforce the original ones.

The story of the Four Peculiar Institutions is not a chapter in American history; it is a book whose writing continues. It very much defines the present day (and future) of American politics, society and culture in general. It resides at the core of American culture and is the backbone of its history and economy.

Today more than ever before, America stands conflicted between two parallel histories and two atonal narratives, one starting in 1619 and the other in 1776. This ambivalence is deeply rooted in its constitution and it starts with the establishment of “progressive” America in 1776. Even before the US Declaration of Independence became an official document, the well-known statement from its second paragraph, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, was at striking discord with the social and political realities of the time as it appeared while slavery was in full swing[12]. The dual desire to define a new beginning without resolving the residual baggage of 1619 outlines the intentions not only to have two parallel histories, but more than that, to afford additional flexibility of the new Union. It remains one of the most striking examples of historical irony that the desire to save slavery was in the background of the American push for a new beginning in 1776. While the rest of the world was beginning to phase it out, slavery was still going strong on the “new continent”. America may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue[13]. As a consequence, the issue of race and institutions that followed had become the foundation of the country, as two parallel flows of history unfolded.

The two orthogonal narratives have persisted largely as a result of the ideology America chose to embrace. Endemic exclusion, and the attempted modes of its management, which in the USA assumed a particular institutional systematization, has been a residuum of intrinsic incompleteness of these ideological choices. The two parallel histories have coexisted for centuries unphased by each other, pulling the country in two different directions resulting in an irreconcilable cultural rift, which rose to unsustainable levels in this century.

However, as capitalism ran its course and the 400 years of its reign are facing unwind, these two histories have suddenly become cognizant of each other. The ghost of America’s past resonates with the present-day neo-segregationism located at the intersection of the two parallel (historical) narratives. A Current snapshot of America reflects the peak of the tensions caused by this ambiguity — it is the moment when the two begin to collide and desire to either reconcile with or annihilate each other. As the two historical processes (1619 and 1776) are beginning to intersect, the underlying socio-economic configuration is opening a wormhole that short-circuits the distance between them. This is the coming out of Dark America and its encounter with its progressive twin. What had been the centuries-long illegible process is becoming instantaneously legible in light of the intensity of this encounter. It is the moment of enormous clarity – the reconciliation of the underlying contradictions, which has been suspended for centuries and is now being resolved during their synthesis into a single narrative.



The 2016 wormhole


The divided self or the anti-psychiatry of the American experience

The resurrection of the 1619 timeline and the collision of two histories come hardly as a surprise in the light of the socio-political developments of the last five decades. The whole republican strategy since the 1970s has been a white supremacist dog whistle. And, since the population has been growing less white, their anxiety has grown accordingly and, with it, their susceptibility to right wing narratives, no matter how ridiculous they became or how much they played against material interest of their constituents. Ian Hany López offers the best summary of the last 50 years of that politics: Government coddles nonwhites with welfare and slap-on-the-wrist policing; meanwhile, government victimized whites by taxing their paychecks and refusing to protect them from marauding minorities[14]. It is no coincidence that since 1972, no Democratic candidate has ever won majority of the white vote. In turn, 90% of GOP supporters are white and so are 98% of its elected officials.

What continues to reinforce the antagonism of African Americans is not so much the fact that political discourse continues to be centered on blaming them for their social dislocation, but the absence of the Four Peculiar Institutions and parallel American history from that discussion — their role has been deliberately and intentionally downplayed or outright omitted from it. By blaming the victims, the existing political narratives, both centrist and right wing alike, are confusing cause and effect. Whatever blacks are being blamed for is not the cause of their precarity, it is a result of centuries of systematic adherence to particular politics and policies. The “missing” history, from 1619 to 1776, without which the last two-and-half centuries are illegible, provides the background for the synthesis of the four centuries of America.

The impossibility of a meaningful consensual discourse stems from the fact that we cannot experience other people’s experience — we can only experience their behavior, which might reveal something altogether different from what they are experiencing[15]. When observed from the outside certain behavioral patterns might appear as irrational and self-destructive with their rhetorical articulation being a valid expression of the inner distress and, therefore, meaningful only from within their own situational context.

When seen through the perspective of the longer (American) history, 1776 had been an attempt at a new beginning. Subsequent years and centuries represent normative period, the birth of new standards of normalcy as something that has come to hold the highest cultural value, what we teach our kids to become and what they pass along to their kids. But, what is the value of normalcy? During the 20th century alone, normal men had killed more than 120 million people and if left unchecked, they will kill more. After almost two and half centuries, we have come to realize that normalcy is overrated.

The only way to forget the traumas of history is to do away with normalcy and embrace madness in order to be healed and find salvation. According to R. D. Laing, one of the founders of anti-psychiatry, madness could become a transformative process — travelers could return from the journey with important insights, and may become wiser and more grounded persons as a result[16].

If the human race survives, future men will look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness. They will presumably be able to savor the irony of the situation with more amusement than we can extract from it. The laugh’s on us. They will see that what we call “schizophrenia” was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds[17].

[1] The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine, August 18 (2019), Ed. Jake Silverstein

[2] Loïc Wacquant, Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh, Punishment & Society 3, 95 (2001) & Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, Duke University Press Books (2009)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] The remainder of this section is, for the most part, the description of the functioning of the Four Peculiar Institutions entirely in Wacquant’s words and thoughts either as a direct quote (italicized text) or paraphrased (regular print).

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] The phrase “all men are created equal” has received criticism from elitists and traditional conservatives. Before final approval, Congress, having made a few alterations to some of the wording, also deleted nearly a fourth of the draft, including a passage criticizing the slave trade. At that time many members of Congress, including Jefferson, owned slaves, which clearly factored into their decision to delete the controversial “anti-slavery” passage. In 1776, abolitionist Thomas Day wrote: “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”

[13] By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy. (Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project)

[14] Ian Hany López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Oxford University Press (2015), and Race and Economic Jeopardy for All: A Framing Paper for Defeating Dog Whistle Politics,

[15] R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, Harmondsworth: Penguin (1967)

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

Digital panopticon and the triumph of the unfree will

22. IV 2018

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

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

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

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

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

[2] ibid.

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.


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)