Category Archives: Commentaries

Weimar guitar gently weeps: Masochistic self-destruction of the right

10. IX 2017

Hitler plus power is gruesome, but Hitler minus power is a comedy. (Sedar Soumucu)

Despite its infamy and unprecedented negative press, almost one century after its first print, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf continues to play an important role in shaping the populist narrative (kind of like Uber’s influence on shared economy). Modern day right-wing populism just doesn’t seem to be able to distance itself from its main message. While most populist interpretations have been careful in staying clear of a direct endorsement or explicit references to the text, most of them have in this or that form emulated the three aspects of the mechanism behind Hitler’s rise to power outlined in Mein Kampf: Interplay between comedy, terror and power, Infiltration of ideological terrain, and Blending of speech acts, half-truths and conspiracy theories.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the post 1968, an actual birth of neoliberalism and governmentality, has been, what Jean Baudrillard has identified as The agony of power[1]: Power is a highly inefficient form of governing, not only because of its refusal to be dominated, but also in the refusal to dominate. Force is the most “expensive” way of maintaining power and conventional dictatorships have become unsustainable. This realization has defined a turn away from the oppressive rule and towards Groucho Marx authoritarianism — a depoliticization of politics — a mixing of “spontaneous” goofiness aimed at inspiring trust and anesthetizing the public, but with the most ruthless state manipulations. This started arguably with Ronald Reagan, continued with G. W. Bush, and became a template of governing in a wider context (Berlusconi, Ahmadinejad, and many others). This transformation coincided with escalation of conflicts between capitalism and democracy and in response to the challenges of implementing unpopular government programs in nominally democratic societies by using essentially autocratic methods. This is where comedy entered political scene.

Comedy, terror & power

Comedy and terror sit on the opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, but politics brings them close together into a symbiotic bond where they coexist in perfect (and logical) harmony as they serve the needs of power. Comedy and terror are the defining coordinates of power. That the two are closely related should not surprise anyone too much. Cruelty borders on comedy inasmuch as it, too, proves incomprehensible — how many times did we laugh at the sights of arbitrary acts of self-satisfied omnipotence (which refuses any explanation to their victims)[2]?

Comedy makes even the most ruthless tyrants palatable. Terror stabilizes their power, no matter how ridiculous they might appear – it is an antidote to their ridiculousness. Kim Jong Un’s chubby figure and his hairstyle have a completely different meaning with and without nuclear weapons; Donald Trump (any aspect of his persona, hair included) alone or in the context of the powers he commends. Terror provides a necessary means for aspiring or self-declared autocrats trying to compensate for their lack of legitimate power[3].

Infiltration of ideological terrain and the politics of speech acts

In the same way Hitler and his close followers appeared just as a small group of self-taught crackpots pushing their half-baked pseudo-intellectual ideas in the early 20th century, during the 2016 US Presidential elections, after years of hibernation, with the backing by serious money of selected oligarchs, similar character types crawled out straight onto the political center stage, while their like-minded individuals and institutions like Fox “News”, who in the meantime became part of the establishment, struggled to find their place on the newly defined political scene.

To the segment of the nation traumatized by failure, poverty, social degradation, and general hopelessness, today’s populism, like its early 20th century predecessor, promises to restore both honor (social and, to some who feel entitled to it, racial status) and the means to achieve greatness (again or for the first time, all the same). It gives to many of them a sense of direction; it turns ambivalence into clear-cut meaning to be worked out with unbridled hatred. All of this amounts to satisfying the wish for a coherent fictitious world, a straightforward extrapolation of the simple (predominantly male) fantasy of omnipotence and superheroes syndrome, which arises from accumulated frustration and general impotence.

In the same way this has played out in the 1930s Germany, populism nowadays communicates another desire (and pleasure) too, one that savors the power of empty words that make an impact – the fascination of power deriving strictly from its own ascent, which fashions itself out of nothing. This has been the major achievement of the grand populist demagogues, both then and now — to create the sensation of proximity of the void, the cognitive black hole effect, and arouse the wave of nihilism. Ultimately, power in this context, derives from a way of using language rather than from a system of ideas – a use of language that does not articulate form to anything preexisting, that takes joy by commanding being and nothingness, life and death[4].

Comparison with the 1930s Germany is interesting and relevant also because it defines a strategic choice of the present ideological terrain. Hitler’s program offered a synthesis supposed to lead to natural unity, a semantic solution whose double trademark of German and Worker connected the nationalism of the right with the internationalism of the left; thereby it stole the political contents of the other parties, in this case socialists. Rather than set the antagonist at the opposite end of the political spectrum, Hitler’s ideological maneuvering made his rival occupy the same terrain. The problem does not involve points of contradiction so much as areas of political overlap. The struggle to be the masses’ spokesman now amounts to combat at extremely close quarters. When rivalry is this close, demonization proves indispensable[5].

While in the early 20th century Germany, National socialists had to persuade people (despite absence of any evidence) that they offered a better alternative to Marxists, in the 21st century USA, people who would benefit from widespread state welfare programs and general wealth redistributive policies are being seduced into aligning their interests with the very people responsible for their social degradation and their existing condition. What in the 1930s was offered by phantasm of the Jewish world conspiracy (it helped that Karl Marx was a Jew) as a way of smoothing over any and all conceptual gaps in the populist narrative, in 2016 “universal blame” has been shared by the global oligarchy, Hollywood, liberal media, foreigners, and other disenfranchised people who see a different path to their social redemption. Both cases — demonization of Jews in 1930s and implication of global oligarchy today — represent examples of a class struggle in a displaced mode. These conspiracy theories possess a built-in mechanism that makes them resistant to disproof: anyone seeking to refute them may be accused of having already fallen for the ruse of the Jewish press, or liberal media and “fake news” today, thereby proving the theory’s accuracy. In this manner, the underlying conspiracy theory seals itself off from the outside and achieves inner coherence. For the movement followers, its attractiveness lies in precisely this closedness, which ensues a strong group identity internally and projects a figure of enemy externally[6].

Fanaticism, half-truths, and rationality of irrational acts

This, naturally, creates a problem in the short run as reality does not support the entire narrative, but this has never been an obstacle for populism. The primary concern of the aspiring leader or dictator in power is to become the spokesman for what has been neglected until now or pursued only halfheartedly. Fanaticism does not necessarily arise from genuine conviction. Its beginnings lie in chance identification of the options afforded by the market of opinions[7].

For example, Breitbar guys, its founding members at least, were former employees of a liberal outlet, Huffington post, and departed in the opposite direction, not due to the change of heart and ideological flip, but in pursuit of superior opportunities elsewhere. Their position and rhetoric continue to escalate towards what appears to be irrational extremes. However, in the periods of sustained social tensions – this has been the lesson of the German experience — radicalization, no matter how unmotivated and self-destructive it might appear, can actually become strategic. In a calculated manner, the leader or his surrogates can even drift off into seeming absurdity insofar as the base puts a premium on flights of enthusiasm, which signal initiation to insiders and confirm that consensus of others does not matter (this sheds some light on the events of the last summer). This is where self-intoxication begins. By repeating and ritually solidifying lies, those who tell them and hear them may, after a while, embrace them as articles of faith – even though doing so is not necessary from inception[8].

Coda

No matter what color, shape or origin, modern-day right wing populism just cannot shake off its fascination with Mein Kampf. In their marvelous and persistent display of metaphysiological nonsense, they continue to show essential refusal to accept that Hitler’s rise to power was not unconditional. In that process, they create a man-made irrelaity – a construction of a human mind which becomes slave to its own fictions – a tactical manipulation aimed at deluding themselves and seducing the public into believing that literal transplant of political maneuvering, which transformed Weimar Germany, could define the path to and solidify their grip on power almost a century later in a completely different socioeconomic, political and technological context.

With appropriate reassignment of political variables, the three main political maneuvers — Comedy/terror/power, Infiltration of ideological terrain, and Reliance on half-trues and conspiracy theories — were taken and implemented literally by different populist fractions, perhaps most thoroughly in the US in the last year. However, in their infinite naïveté, dilettantism and political (and general) illiteracy, Trump’s handlers and self-proclaimed ideologues, in their sloppy plagiarism, they failed to grasp a very simple fact that Hitler’s populism struck resonance not because of his talents as a politician and orator, but because on the other side of his message was Weimar Germany ravished by poverty, unemployment, hyperinflation, humiliation after the lost war, and general hopelessness: The entire country spoke in one voice. The United States today has no resemblance to that in any of the outlined categories — although it could be many other things, the main point is that the country has never before been so divided: The polivocality in today’s America is deafening.

The dilemma is not whether Trump’s handlers and ideologues have read and emulated Mein Kampf and National Socialists’ message and the tricks of their rise to power, but whether they have read any other books on politics and history at all.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power, semiotext(e) 2010

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

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

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Summer of cognitive instability: From Hendrix to Trump

27. VIII 2017

For the last sixty years, the seventh summer of each decade has treated us with special types of excitement delivering events that would sometime put a stamp on the entire decade:

1967 — summer of love (Jimi Hendrix sets his guitar on fire)

1977 — summer of Sam, disco, and Studio 54

1987 — Alan Greenspan becomes the Fed chairman (it takes exactly twenty summers to experience the full impact of his nomination)

1997 — Asian crisis

2007 — summer of subprime (conditionally insolvent become unconditionally illiquid and all hell breaks loose)

2017 — summer of hate (Donald Trump sets his “guitar” on fire)

Summer of 2017 highlights an acute case of cognitive instability — a cumulative erosion of traditional frames of reference, changes in interpretive frameworks and proliferation of intersecting narratives. At the core of current political developments lie the structural changes, which after years of brewing in the background, have hit the center stage and became dominant drivers of everyday politics and market functioning. But, as dramatic as these developments have been, market reaction remained restrained throughout — markets still appear to be complacent, but that complacency feels less uncomfortable than before. The verdict is not yet in regarding significance of the summer of 2017. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that it announces deeper political changes. Still in their formative stage, these changes, while not having significant short-term impact, could affect the society in a profound way.

Although the current political landscape appears highly volatile and unpredictable, it is neither new nor extreme by historical standards. It is merely a phase of a well-defined pattern of developments during periods of transition between two paradigms. These patterns capture how political bodies are damaged by ideas, which are invented to perpetuate this damage.

As this transition process has clear path dependence, in order to fully understand its underlying dynamics, one has to start from its trigger event, the 2008 financial crisis – the true event in the sense that it changed both the reality itself and the way we perceive it. No matter how hard we tried, the aftertaste of 2008 is not only not going away, but its echoes only seem to be growing louder with time. Last ten years or so have been like a persistent pneumonia that, despite all the treatment, just wouldn’t go away indicating deeper problems suggestive of a failure of the immune system or even a terminal disease. Unlike previous crises, its depth has been so severe that it has triggered a social change. As the existing modes of social organization alone (such as electoral democracy) can no longer safeguard the economic interests of a growing fraction of the population, economic initiatives are no longer effective and a quest for social change takes center stage. Social stability defines equilibrium and social transformations represent a change of equilibrium. When international trade agreements are under possible revision, interplay between technology, labor and capital is poorly understood, the role of welfare state is being reexamined, borders being closed – when everything that defines a social system is on the table – this is the most challenging environment where explanatory power of traditional macroeconomics is the weakest. These transformations are always disruptive and have the appearance of discontinuous processes. Unlike economics, which provides effective description of reality around a well-defined social equilibrium, a social change corresponds to a change in equilibrium – a paradigm shift to which economics needs time to adjust.

During these transition periods, old values, beliefs, concepts, institutions, and authorities as well as traditional frames of reference lose their power. This creates a state of cognitive instability. Nothing functions according to established (or any known) rules. Cognitive instability spontaneously creates the urgency for stabilization. There is too much new information, and not enough understanding. This “agitates” society. There is an open contest for a narrative — not necessarily the most accurate, but one capable of providing the best fit — that would restore stability. The challenge consists of constructing from amorphous mass of unintelligible information, tendencies, and speculations an acceptable narrative that restores equilibrium.

These transition situations bring to the surface a wide range of characters and organizations, which become new participants in the political discourse. Not all of them are serious contenders, but history reminds us that there exists a greater proximity between laughable and dreadful than calmer times would admit. The underlying narratives play an important role in the ability of the governments to shape consensus, which breaks with the tradition, the past, and sometime reinvents it to self-aggrandizing end. The fragility of the local equilibrium makes especially alarming and uncomfortable the fact that abnormal and delusional are not cut from a different cloth than what counts as “normal” or mainstream. Under special circumstances some of the fringe narratives infiltrate affective realm and interests of broader social circles and create intellectual ferment for a perceived mode of change. In the end, the most successful narrative will be the one that offers a description of reality, which helps articulate otherwise inarticulate experience by translating diffusive emotional states like fear, identity or cultural belonging into slogans that admit strong affective charges. As such, it will stamp a mode of description that seeks recognition in ever-greater circles until it is accepted as the “official” social self-image[1].

The political developments of this summer are suggestive of a transition process between two paradigms with the old one not completely dead, but without clear contours of the new one. Effectively, what is currently on the political table is an alternative between two undead modes of social organization: the old one (centrist democracy) is still too alive to be dead, and the “new” one (a Turkmenistan-style electoral dictatorship proposed by the current administration) too dead to be alive.

In the bidding stage for the new narrative the goal is not so much to post immediate victories, as it is to re-center the dialogue in such a way that it creates advantages in the mid- and long-run. Small gains now could convert into larger gains later. Consequently, in the near term things could remain “boring”, relatively speaking — a continuation of the status quo mostly due to diminished ability to produce political consensus. However, beyond 2017, things could get quite a bit more exciting. Political leaders, who bear dual burden of imperative of stability on one side, and the urge to change, on the other, are themselves running an enormous risk. They are tempted to counter the confusion of the present with will for order and, in that process, often increase the very chaos which they pretend to oppose, often risking to fall themselves victims to spiraling disorder of their own creation[2].

The key to our future (or its absence) lies in the very definition of chaos — when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. Chaotic systems are hypersensitive to initial conditions – tiny disturbances have enormous consequences. We are not only heading in an unknown direction, but the path itself is unknown, and not only are these things not known, but they are also unknowable. Nothing what we know will be of use any more.

[1] A. Koschorke, The Poetics of National Socialism, MIT Press (2017)

[2] ibid.

Organs without bodies: Symbolic reattachment & hystericization of American politics

20.VI 2017

Phallus is not an organ that expresses the vital force of my being, but an insignia that I put on in the same way king puts on his crown. Phallus is an organ without body, which gets attached to my body, but never becomes its organic part, forever sticking out as its incoherent excessive prosthesis. [S. Žižek]

If a king holds a scepter in his hands (no matter how small they might be) and wears the crown, his words are taken as royal. Such insignia are external, not part of who he really is. He wears them to exercise power. As such, they define the gap between what he actually is and the function he exercises[1]. But, what remains of the real person if the symbolic title is taken away? This question becomes the center of the neurosis of power. Imagine a corrupt judge: I know very well that the person in front of me is a corrupted weakling, but I nonetheless treat him respectfully, since he wears the insignia of a judge — when he speaks, it is the law itself that speaks through him. However, when he takes off his toga and steps out of the courtroom, he is nobody.

Symbolic castration is the gap between a real/actual person and his symbolic title. The gap is irreducible — the symbolic persona always dominates the real one. This is the fundamental dichotomy of symbolic castration. It is synonymous with power as it gives power to the person who is castrated, but that transaction comes with castration as its price. The actual subject cannot ever fully identify with the symbolic mask or title (phallus never loses its autonomy) and his questioning of the symbolic title becomes the center of hysteria[2].

Donald Trump’s presidency is the hystericization of American politics. He represents a case of an attempted symbolic reattachment — a reverse of symbolic castration — a desire to reduce the irreducible, which gives his presidency an aura of a logical paradox. Trump’s determination to undermine his symbolic self has become especially clear in the last two months: The presidential tweets are screaming of self-sabotage, and the display of conflicts of interests is just too obvious and explicitly self-incriminating to be unintentional. The nonlinearity of his relationship with facts and his propensity to lie have reached alarming proportions; it is unlike anything we have seen in the public life of western democracies. The antagonism of the press and media, which seems to be continuing with unrestrained intensity, has created massive negative externalities for the entire administration. The absence of any foresight in his conduct is stunning: It does not take much thought to realize that this could have never produced any positive effects for his presidency. Same goes for his compulsive divisiveness of the populace, and deliberate undermining of his allies, his staff, and supporters, which has isolated him to the point that no one wants to work with or for him. There is no one who takes him seriously any more — he is the laughing stock of the entire world and a butt of every joke. He seems to take some pride in helping in the process of the collective ritual of public denigration of his presidency. One can sense something almost vindictive in his pursuit of the symbolic self.

Trump’s conduct is a suicide from the ambush. What in the one-dimensional space of his subjectivity appears as logically obscure suddenly becomes transparent once the real and the symbolic are identified and separated. His presidency represents a rebellion of the hysterical person against his symbolic persona, an attempt of Donald Trump the citizen to take out Donald Trump the president — an assassination of the symbolic self – a desire to re-attach phallus to the body.

Politics, economics, society, and collective reality are temporarily suspended as the public is caught in this spectacle of self-annihilation. No one knows how to react, because this play has never been played before. Such intrapersonal conflicts and battles normally take place in the privacy of the analyst’s office, away from the public eye. We are now watching its premier in real time.

As Immanuel Wallerstein remarked in his June commentary, Trump equates his presidential position with being the most powerful individual in the world. For him, the main priority is to stay in the office as long as possible (everything else is secondary). True. And, this will go on until real Donald Trump scores a victory by firing his symbolic self and when, at the end, there is only one of them standing — real Donald Trump.

Trump has converted our political and social reality into a reality show featuring his personal encounter with his symbolic persona as the main (and possibly the only) attraction. It is no wonder that people have felt violated from his first day in office. His presidency is a subversion of our experience of reality. His desire for self-annihilation will drag everyone into the vortex of the Vanishing Point. From there we will be able to imagine what the world looks like in our absence, and to see beyond the end and beyond the subject.

[1] S. Žižek, How to read Lacan, (2007) W. W. Norton & Co.

[2] ibid.

Event horizon and the physics of Donald Trump

8.VI 2017

Donald Trump is like a new celestial formation, a cognitive black hole, a strange attractor, and a quantum-mechanical paradox, all at the same time. He has a unique way of distorting the social space around him. Everyone who enters his event horizon begins to not make sense. There is something terminal about coming too close to Trump. The list of casualties who have crossed the point of no return, and became permanently trapped on the other side, is getting longer every day. Trump is a new phenomenon whose functioning falls into domains of exotic physical theories. Here are some theoretical requirements for understanding the strange cosmology of his universe.

Compared to classical physics which guides our intuition, the general theory of relativity is like playing billiards on a soft table (think: jello). Each stationary ball creates local distortions on the table’s surface (picture) – the area around each ball is curved due to the indentations it produces. When the white ball is kicked, it is the local curvature around each ball, which causes it to make a bend precisely when it wants to get directly at the stationary ball. From the point of view of the white ball, the curvature is primary and matter (stationary balls) serves only to herald its presence.

Paralax2

Nothing is where it appears to be: The curvature of the space is a source of an apparent displacement of objects; it causes moving bodies to make a bend precisely when they want to get directly at the object. caption

Imagine now that one of the stationary balls on the table becomes very heavy and shrinks in size. The dent around it becomes deeper and more pronounced, and the heavier and the more concentrated its mass, the deeper the dent. So, if the white ball passes slowly and comes closely, it will be “sucked” in. The fall into the singularity can be avoided only if the ball’s speed exceeds the escape velocity.

The presence of concentrated mass defines the event horizon. The event horizon of a black hole separates two permanently disconnected regions. It is the shell of “points of no return”, a boundary beyond which the gravitational pull becomes so great that it makes escape impossible. Nothing can escape the event horizon of the black hole – the escape velocity is greater than the speed of light – what happens inside cannot affect an outside observer.

black-hole-diagram

Once something is inside the event horizon, collapse into the black hole is inevitable

Donald Trump is a political black hole. He is a cognitive singularity, an intellectual triviality with complex consequences — a source of curvature of the social space that makes everything look displaced.

The strange matter of Trump’s universe

Information entering a black hole is lost forever

Whoever comes within Trump’s event horizon becomes afflicted with the same cognitive incapacity as Trump himself. There is a long list of transient (and a shorter list of persistent) surrogates, all of them disposable victims of cognitive asphyxiation: Kellyanne, both Steves, Giuliani, Christie, Newt, Ben Carson, Jeffrey Lord, and a long list of anonymous spokespersons. Not that these people were ever beacons of rationality, but they have broken new boundaries and set new records after entering the domain of Donald Trump. These creatures thrive in the space between real news and reality TV. They roam different mediascapes, mostly to boost the ratings of the mainstream networks — people tune in only to see the spectacle of public humiliation. And the list does not stop there. Now, even former bankers, Cohn and Mnuchin, who, one can argue, may be ethically challenged, but are nominally still highly rational, they are not making any sense either, even when it comes to counting money.

One-child-left-behind

But no one has experienced the gravitational crush of Trump’s black hole like Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, the Sisyphus of morons who performs the same futile task day after day, repeatedly trying (and failing) to convince the public that verifiable lies are truths and that palpable truths are lies. His press briefings have become a spectacle no one wants to miss, and a guilty pleasure of liberals and Trump haters. People tune in to be entertained, not to get informed. Over the course of time, the public has developed a certain emotional attachment to him, bordering on empathy, but not exactly; something along the lines you would feel about the bulldog your girlfriend gave you: He is fun to play with and you want to love him, but he makes a point of shitting in your living room, not occasionally, but every day. As it is becoming clear that under the existing criteria of this administration his gross incompetence will never be grounds for dismissal, there are active debates about the mode of his exit from the scene.

Divided subject is inconsistent with itself

Trump is the embodiment of the divided subject of American politics. On one side, he suspends the gravity of the Real and sets in motion the weightless state of a facts-free universe, while on the other, the singularity of his cognitive incapacity crushes everything that comes within his event horizon. He is the sugardaddy of alternative reality. He attracts people as a political novelty by offering a taste of the other side. He tempts them with fruit from the tree of ignorance. And the more fruit they eat, the more they need.

Trump’s base, which pretty much has been functioning as a doomsday cult, constitutes the core of the strange matter of his universe. These people have entered Trump’s event horizon from which escape is impossible. They are passengers on a boat approaching the waterfall – they notice nothing at the time when the boat crosses the boundary of no return, but the boat is doomed to go over the waterfall.

Coda

Trump is an event in a true sense of the word – he divides the time into before and after. It is difficult to remember our lives before Trump announced his candidacy. What did newspapers write about? What did news media report on? What was tweeting like? What kind of jokes did comedians tell? And what did people disagree about before they were unified in their hatred of Trump? Crowds and media hate him, but they cannot resist him. Life without him is becoming impossible to imagine. The whole nation will be depressed if he ever goes away.

The great redistribution and the biopolitical penetration of the American brain

13.V 2017

Wealth is inherently empowering and motivating; poverty is neither [Jonathan A. Winters].

Rising inequality is not the result of economical rationality and neither is it only a function of erosion of empathy or moral fiber (although the latter is its sine qua non). It is rather a direct reflection of redistributive policies that have helped the richest get richer. On the other hand, poverty by itself neither motivates nor provides a core set of common interests for the poor the way wealth does for the rich. The presence of wealth focuses the political attention of the rich on wealth defense; its absence has no parallel effect on the poor[1].

Inequality has always been a topic in public discourse. However, after the 2008 financial crisis, the destruction of wealth on a massive scale awakened much larger segments of society to the reality that they were unable to finance the lifestyles they had previously enjoyed. Response to the crisis has been articulated through an unprecedented injection of “easy money”. But, this money was hoarded by capital and did not filter down to labor. Rather than serving the collective interest in financing general economic progress, “easy money” turned into the extraction of resources from increasingly impoverished societies. The case of airlines industry presents an illustrative example of this mechanism. Even as the price of fuel collapsed, little of that benefit was passed on to consumers or airlines’ employees: Air travel is as uncomfortable as ever, ticket prices have gone up and none of the profits resulted in higher wages of the airlines employees. Most of the “easy money” has been used to reinforce their monopolistic power.

Democracy requires commonality, inequality undermines it. The democratic process was originally conceived as a way to peacefully resolve economic disputes between people who share common values, either cultural, religious, or in terms of lifestyles or visions of the future. When inequality reaches the critical point, the bonding tissue that keeps society together begins to tear and democracy becomes compromised. In the absence of commonality disputes can no longer have peaceful resolve. Instead, the resolution occurs through negotiation or war. As electoral democracy alone can no longer safeguard the economic interests of the many people from American oligarchs, economic initiatives are no longer effective. A quest for social change takes center stage and a search for a new equilibrium is set in motion.

Social stability defines equilibrium. Social transformations, therefore, represent a change of equilibrium. They are always disruptive and have the appearance of discontinuous processes. Economic changes always take place against a particular social backdrop: When a social equilibrium is reached, society stabilizes allowing the economics to set in. The subsequent economic developments are typically linear – small departures always revert back to the equilibrium — restorative forces overpower those that destabilize the system.

2008 was a paradigm shift not only for economics but for the entire way of empirical approach to reality, which has laid the foundation of rationality and has dominated the Western thought. The crisis has set in motion a social change – the system has begun to search for a new equilibrium, announcing the end of 500 years of history. And, as history is getting unwound, the repositioning in the oligarchic space is taking the center stage. There is no left or right any more. The only meaningful distinction that reflect the type of oligarchic redistribution and its re-functioning is their emancipatory or regressive orientation.

The mindfuck

Where there is inequality of estates, there must be inequality of power. (James Harrington)

Oligarchy rests on the concentration of material power, democracy on the dispersion of non-material power. The American political economy is both an oligarchy and a democracy — a distinctive fusion of equality and inequality. Civil oligarchies represent the most significant political innovation, never seen in history before the creation of the modern state. As a characterization of the Western (predominantly American) political system, civil oligarchy is the result of a shotgun marriage of two contradictory concepts, brokered by an interesting play of numbers: The vast majority of citizens exert very little concerted material power in politics, but a small number of individuals each have at their disposal the resources it would take tens of thousands of their fellow citizens acting in sustained coordination to match[2]. The two groups stand in constant opposition — their conflict never disappears, but defines the driving force behind the underlying sociopolitical dynamics. It pushes all other themes out and becomes the main axiom of the political economy. This disparity of numbers forces a continuation of underlying antagonisms until one side declares victory. As a result, the political process loses its connection with democracy.

The reconciliation of oligarchy and democracy requires a Hegelian Aufhebung, a non-linear logical maneuver whereby the resolution of the inner contradiction is suspended until the concept is completed during synthesis — abolition of the Real to realize the Idea.

Oligarchs represent individuals endowed with enormous wealth which both empowers and exposes them to threats. In America, they constitute only a fraction of one percent of the population and have at their disposal material “voting” power that is hundreds, and in some cases tens of thousands, of times that of the average citizen. To understand the power multiplier, which reflects the underlying wealth differential, one should think of wealth as an instrument that enhances the persuasive power and influence of an individual. For example, being able to convince poor people to vote against their direct interests and in favor of the oligarchs, and to convert these things into laws and tax codes – the essence of the Republican Southern Strategy program as outlined by Lee Atwater — requires considerable resources and access to media, religious and secular institutions, lobbyist and a variety of political consultants that only money can bring. Mind-fuck is an essential ingredient for the functioning of civil oligarchies; without it, they could not persist.

The Material Power Index (MPI) is a way of quantifying the disparity of democratic participation. MPI assigns a base value of one to the average material power position of Americans across the bottom 90 percent of the population. The weakest American oligarchs have between 125 and 200 times the material power of an average citizen. Oligarchs at the very top of American society have an MPI just over 10,000, which happen to approximate the MPI of Roman senators relative to their society of slaves and farmers[3]. This has gone even more extreme after the 2010 Citizens United ruling. In this way oligarchs can legitimate their position with all of their power and influence, without resorting to force – which time and again has proven to be an expensive and fragile tool of stability.

It is not very difficult to see haw a handful of super rich oligarchs can tip the scales of any election. According to 2007 data, the 400 richest Americans have an MPI in excess of 10,000; these 400 top oligarchs have the “voting power” of four million people. Outside of this group, the average MPI of the 1/100th of a percent of the top earning taxpayers (who own about 2% of all American wealth), about 15,000 people, is around 1000. This means that 1/100th percent of the population had the “voting power” of 20 million. This is a significant fraction of the voting population (about 130 million in the 2016 US elections). Normally, elections are most often won within 1-2 million margin. Therefore, a victory can be achieved by attracting 100-200 top oligarchs.

Synthesis: Oligarchies as new cognitive coordinates

The essence of oligarchy within democracy rests on the near-veto power oligarchs retain on threats to concentrated wealth. The wealth protection instinct has been one of the strongest sociopolitical forces in human history. Although the attitude towards all kinds of inequality like slavery, racial and gender exclusions had been revised in the past, the same cannot be said for wealth inequality. The resistance against radical redistribution of wealth has been remarkably robust and resilient across a variety of political systems, from dictatorships, monarchies, peasant societies, to post-industrial formations and democracies[4].

As an approach to the problematics of comparative politics, oligarchy as the politics of wealth defense emerges as a better candidate for a unifying framework than the traditional framework based on assumptions that the dominant dimension of a country’s political actions is geographically conditioned. The oligarchic landscape defines new cognitive coordinates necessary for understanding current geopolitical developments. A variety of complex socio-political configurations and their transformations gain instant clarity and simple intuitive interpretation when seen from the point of view of oligarchic redistribution and repositioning.

The mechanism and logic behind this is relatively simple. Oligarchy should be understood as the politics of wealth defense. Outside of the context of wealth defense, different oligarchs can, and generally do, have vastly different agendas (e.g. democrats vs. republicans in the USA, pro-choice vs. pro-life, Tesla vs. Uber, or Bill Gates vs. the Koch brothers). However, they are all united in one common goal – their wealth preservation. This explains why one single common driver alone captures such a wide diversity of developments that sometimes, on the surface, appear to have no logical or rational connections.

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

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

Trump in wonderland

8.III 2017

In many areas of life, incompetent people cannot recognize just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack. What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge. (David Dunning)

Things got a little different in 2017. Within less than a month in the office, Trump’s cabinet managed to accumulate spectacular cognitive deficit never before seen in the White House. This deficit, accompanied with a commensurate loss of credibility, is threatening to become a permanent trademark of his troubled presidency.

The biggest change introduced by Trump’s arrival has been the reversal of information flows in the communications between the White House and the press. Until now, the White House had always been the center of political information and, through press briefings or other communication channels, shared a fraction of that information with the press. What the press knew was a subset of what was known to the White House. Because of this asymmetry (to avoid answering unpleasant questions or possible self-incrimination), the White House would engage in deception. There was a stable symbolic pact between the government and the press; the press got something to work with, while the White House was occasionally allowed to get out of an uncomfortable situation. No one’s intelligence was insulted.

All this underwent a 180 degree reversal with Trump. First of all, and this is the root of the problem, Trump’s administration seems to be reluctant to accept the fact that they won the election — as if that was never really a part of the plan. Instead of governing, they continue to behave like the opposition, always arguing from the position of the victims of establishment and raising objections and outrage at how the system functions. They have remained reactive instead of proactive, systematically behind the curve.

Trump’s White House is populated predominantly with political amateurs, dilettantes and professional yes-men who, themselves, do not produce any substantial informational content. They are by and large either misinformed and making things up or getting their facts from the low-tier media such as Fox News, Breitbar, tabloids or reality shows, who themselves are known to habitually make things up (their business model often based on fabricating “facts”). As a consequence, the mainstream press has been much better informed than the White House, both in terms of the area covered and the depth and quality of information. Trump’s White House operates with a subset of the information available to the press and the press can run circles around its staff. Because of that, current White House spokespersons have had a great difficulty engaging with the press. They are incapable of creating a deception when they need it – the conceptual difference between a deception and a lie seems to elude them — so they lie instead, and when they are called on a lie, they lie more and blame facts, which further undermines their credibility until there is none left. As a result, after less than a month in office, Trump had to declare war on facts and pronounce the press the enemy of the people.

Masochistic self-destruction

Power cannibalizes itself — it carries the seeds of its own destruction (Jean Baudrillard)

In their infinite political naïveté, Trump and his cabinet do not understand that by waging a war on facts, media and dissent in general, they are actually writing their own obituary.

The current administration is deluded by the idea that their rise to power and their program in general have a strong historical, messianic mission of correcting the years of imbalances caused by neoliberalism, globalization, and cultural displacement. In their minds, weakening of their power, even temporarily, would be a betrayal of that mission, and so, any voice of opposition has to be inhibited and ultimately subdued.

The fatal flaw of this position is that by suppressing the opposition, and the information its existence and voice provide, the leadership is left essentially blind to whatever is happening in their back yard. Within a very short time, they will have no vocabulary to discuss socio-political conditions and develop an approximate description of social reality.

In the face of perpetual conflict with reality, Trump’s political machine will foster a continued state of cognitive dissonance and with the help of spectacle possibly provide a temporary life support for their existence through the suspension of disbelief. However, Trump’s administration’s non-linear relationship with facts and truths will gradually turn whatever remains of their constituents into a cult following. Like most other authoritarian ideologies, both Trump and his followers will remain non-adaptive not allowing any feedback to penetrate the boundaries of their fortress of ignorance, and when the end becomes inevitable, they will be unable to transform or adjust. The autopsy of the communist experience and other totalitarian forms of political rule offer numerous illustrations of this trajectory.

Aside from this, there is a practical question regarding the sanity of Trump’s approach: How does one get away with a lie as a policy tool in the world of total information? This might be easier to implement in a society like the old Soviet Union, which had never been given a chance to properly embrace modernity and where the population had been subdued by chronic scarcity, where bare necessities had been a luxury for decades, and where people were ready to make any compromise that would restore their dignity and bring their lives closer to normal. In the era of relative affluence and absolute information such a project cannot take root, even in the short run — it would require an extraordinary force to maintain its stability.

And this is where things begin to break down. Large-scale systemic oppression requires the mobilization of enormous resources to keep control of political subjects and effectively turns them into hostages. Attempts to oppress growing discontent require a heavy-handed rule which in turn reinforces the hostage syndrome and brings about further escalation of discontent with generally adverse economic side effects. At that point, legitimation becomes the system’s biggest problem and requires mobilization of all resources, primarily aimed at its glorification. But, by then the oppression is the only thing the system knows how to deliver. It is the only strategy, and a very expensive one. Finally, when existing resources are fully exhausted, the system has to collapse.

Send in the rubes: Technology and political snake oil

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth (Mike Tyson)

Although with the help of social media, artificial intelligence and technology in general, oppression can take on subtler forms, the standard of tolerance will change with it and oppression will always be recognized for what it is. The illusion that this battle can be won by “psychological operations”, a systematic form of mass propaganda that acts on peoples’ emotions — a half-baked idea of crowding out the info-highway with misinformation — is a reflection of both ultimate ignorance and arrogance that comes with it. It is an ill-conceived program initiated by data analytics companies and funded by the right wing plutocrats who specialize in election strategies, based on an erroneous assumption that, in the era of total information, the society outside the governing party’s sphere of influence and control will remain static and non-adaptive, and that the pattern-recognition models of their currently employed consulting companies, will remain only their (and nobody else’s) proprietary tool forever. The absurdity of such assumption is best illustrated by the fact that every major hedge fund has already caught up with this trend and either has a similar platform and capabilities or is in the process of getting one very soon. Words like artificial intelligence and machine learning are the most frequently used buzzwords during the incoming student orientations at all major American universities — these topics are the most rapidly developing areas of science and technology. It is not difficult to imagine what this landscape will look like in four years or beyond.

After all, when it comes to economics and social sciences, there is one thing we learned about our attempts to model their dynamics: All models are wrong; some of them are useful (at best). So, it is all about how we decide to use these models, what sample and assumptions we choose to calibrate them etc. And, sooner or later, we realize that all these models of social behavior do not offer any substantial new wisdom, but can make our tasks of data manipulation easier only if we give them correct instructions as an input. In other words, it is garbage-in-garbage-out at the end, no matter what (this is the best outcome). In that context, alternative facts, misinformation, alienation from reality, or other forms of self-indulgence (an emotional state Trump’s cabinet is particularly prone to) can only compromise effectiveness of any given technological platform.

Yes, these companies can help you win the elections, but they can never become an instrument that secures a smooth and peaceful governing — that erroneous extrapolation is the new political snake oil. People like Stephen Bannon are real rubes here. Their anti-elitist sentiment, combined with their messianic fantasy, which has been running in displaced mode as a war on facts and critical thinking in general, compromised their own resistance to nonsense – they start believing the nonsense they are peddling and ultimately become victims of the snake oil sale themselves.

The ultimate delusion, however, remains a belief that this battle can be won at all. Ignorance by design is the trap any hegemonic ideology faces. Monochromatic political systems are vulnerable to loss of robustness and long-term fragility. The authoritarian project is self-defeating — even a temporary victory on that front is a guarantee of a defeat in the long run. History offers countless examples, collapse of the communism being just the latest one. Diversity of opinions, multiparty systems, and what is generally referred to as freedom of speech (even when existing only pro forma) are always superior in this context. Tolerance for existence of alternative forms of interpretation of social reality as well as social organizing (from street gangs, organized crime, religious cults, and self-sustainable communes to fringe or mainstream political parties) carries enormous informational value. After all, wasn’t the spectacular defeat of the centrist ideology in 2016 (and the traction of the right wing populism in the West) a direct consequence of ignoring the voice of the people who were left behind by progress and globalization — the people whose existence had been systematically delegitimized by neoliberalism. The diversity of opinions of the socio-political landscape allows rule of force to be replaced by a more efficient rule through freedom or self-conduct, which, while not necessarily less oppressive than the totalitarian structures, could be an economically superior alternative resulting in more robust and stable systems.

Pregnant widow: A brief history of the next 30 years

5.I 2017

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming)

Capitalism is disintegrating, but it is not giving way to a better alternative, it is collapsing under its own weight[1]. In the last 40 years, economic progress has been financed largely by social deficits. At the end, we found ourselves trapped in the stalemate of status quo because we agreed to let the market set prices and all other values. Things and services were sold for less than it cost to make them. The actual costs were externalized, their burden not bore by the profit centers, but by the state and increasingly more by the citizens.  However, these are actual costs somebody had to pay. So, at the end, things could not add up. Everyone was running some kind of deficit, and the game had to come to an end. Occasional hiccups during the transfer of those deficits from one side to the other were interpreted as market failures. But, in reality, there were actually no market failures per se; the market itself is the failure[2]. Eventually, this had to be recognized, and we have now come to the point where this realization can no longer be ignored: Capitalism no longer works for capitalists.

From the current standpoint, future looks anything but unambiguous. No decision has been made about the direction the future is taking. This moment of history represents what Alexander Herzen had identified as the Pregnant Widow: The old system has given way and the new one hasn’t been born yet. Does the future bring a normal infant or a Rosemarie’s baby?

We are approaching the final stages of unwind of the 500 years of history. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, we had a glimpse of the future — the three main candidates represented three distinct economic, political and social paths: Status quo (Clinton), regressive populism (Trump), and emancipatory transformation (Sanders). In the past, we had rarely had an opportunity to see such radically different visions getting such a large-scale representation and response — elections had always been about two “infinitesimally” different interpretations of a single path.

The preview of the three paths into the future might very well be a prelude to the most radical and, at the same time, the most significant transformation of capitalism after the industrial revolution. It is an announcement of the socioeconomic blowback, the arrival of times where social deficits will have to be reconciled and managed. The three paths should be seen as the three attraction centers which will define the dynamics of socio-economic developments in the next decades[3]: Democratic fascism, Decentralized egalitarian “utopia”, and Neo Feudalism. The figure shows the three futures in the context of social and political changes after 1968.

cascading-bifurcations

Democratic fascism

A semi-inclusive, cast-like division into two strata: Top 20% with highly egalitarian distribution & 80% of totally disarmed working “precariat”. The key is the balance in size (in the past, similar projects failed because the top was too small).

Legitimation: The dogma of progress & neo-liberal ideology.

Alliances: Military force, Think tanks, Semi-progressive corporate conglomerates, Educational institutions.

Means: Pseudo-progressive politics, Immigration policy, Advanced media and technology, Control of food and water, military technology. To the western mind this mode is the most palatable alternative for the existing system. Favored by Neo liberals.

Decentralized egalitarian “utopia”

Inclusive, achievable through political sophistication and technology; requires accepting certain real limitations in consumption expenditures. Does not mean merely a socialization of poverty. Needs to reconcile with adverse effects of progress, e.g. creation of wealth causes destruction of value.

Legitimation: Evidence that short-termism leads to undesirable long-term outcomes

Alliances: Think tanks, Influential individuals, Technological and networking wealth, New industrial sector based on the commons.

Means: Progressive emancipatory politics, Technological and political innovations and networking. Favored by Western intellectuals (and Hipsters).

Neo Feudalism

An exclusive, highly inegalitarian world of parcelized sovereignties (an equilibrated form of the current “times of trouble”). Consolidation of fractionalized structures into bigger entities with highly vertical structure, e.g. multinational corporations, global crime syndicates…, but without endless capital accumulation as the mainspring.

Legitimation: return to a belief in natural hierarchies.

Alliances: Right wing militias, religious and other fringe elements.

Means: Paramilitary Force, Populism, Regressive non-emancipatory politics, Drugs, Authoritarian propaganda. A glimpse of this mode is seen in post socialist oligarchic systems (China, Russia, Myanmar, Mexico). Favored by Western right wing political organizations. 

We are nowhere near the new equilibrium; the developments of the last decade present just an announcement of a lengthy transformation process ahead of us, expected to take the center stage in the next 30-40 years.

The next 30 years

2016: Baby has six toes

The enthusiastic support enjoyed so far by the non-centrist parties in the developed world outline the unconscious desire for destruction of the system that has imprisoned almost everyone. More than anything, populist victories reflect a defeat of the centrist politics, a departure from what has been looking more and more like the path of democratic fascism. Trump’s victory pointed out the lines of fracture in the centrist narrative and capitalized on its symbolic insolvency. About 17% of those who voted for Donald Trump believe that he is not qualified to perform the duty of the President of the United States. It is difficult to imagine a more eloquent expression of unconditional discontent with status quo than this. Trump’s movement is de-facto a rise of the neo- feudal America. The core of its platform represents the unbundling of the neoliberalism and rebranding it as an anti-global movement. It sees the future as highly inegalitarian world of parcelized sovereignties with highly vertical structure.

By no means does this represent the end of the transformation. It is just the beginning of a troubling unwind. Pregnant widow is only in the second trimester of her complicated pregnancy.

Beyond 2016: Times of Trouble

In the next 2-3 decades, social disorder could take new dimension as demographic transformations continue to weaken state structures further. This could be expressed through two different modes. Either the discontent of ethnically excluded spreads to absorb and articulate the sentiments of other exclusions or, alternatively, discontent of the permanently excluded provokes a reaction of the redundant natives and trigger their uprising and backlash. Civil warfare, initially misdiagnosed as increase in crime, would escalate[4].

The scramble for protection (which has already begun) assumes a new form as the states cannot provide it due to lack of funding and legitimation. The state’s monopoly on violence is breached and reorganized through the expansion of private protection armies and police structure. This process had already been accomplished in the post-socialist countries about 25 years ago and is likely to serve as a blueprint for a similar transformation in the western world.

Western democratic states where these transformations take place will gradually converge towards failed states. Contours of this program are already inscribed in the Trump’s cabinet nominations. Combined with the other side-effects of globalization and the underlying social fragmentation, these developments will lead to further criminalization of societies and polarization of distribution with escalation of corruption and dismantling of the institutions of the democratic state as a natural consequence, implying further instabilities. Organized crime will blossom and reinforce its legitimacy, while developed countries will converge closer towards criminal oligarchies or other authoritarian structures.

The fourth future: A lullaby for Rosemary’s baby

Symbolically dead (from an overdose of itself) while still very much physically alive, unable to either transform by replacing itself with something else or adapt and restore itself to equilibrium, capitalism is exiting the historical scene. However, before it disappears, capitalism will continue to inhabit the world of undead. It will remain inscribed into the system in the guise of a wound which makes the social subject undead, depriving it of the capacity to die — only when this wound is healed, can the capitalist society die in peace and transform itself into something else.

As an economic system, capitalism (at this point) is showing an advanced decline in capacity to underwrite a stable society. What follows after such a disintegration of a system is a prolonged period of social entropy and disorder. For a significant length of time, a society would slip into less than a society – a society-lite — until it may or may not recover and again become a society in the full meaning of the term[5].

Out of all possible paths, this is the most radical outcome, one that is without a historical precedent and one we seem to be least prepared for. It corresponds to what Wolfgang Streeck calls the Interregnum, disintegration of society as such, a perpetual anotherhood – pregnancy without childbirth — a trajectory where the times of trouble continue indefinitely.

Neoliberal narrative which identifies the absence of structure as an ultimate expression of freedom will find new legs in the post-social phase. This is the phase of undead capitalism, the times when the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity

[1] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?, Verso 2016

[2] Kim Stanley Robinson, in An American Utopia (S. Zizek ed.), Verso 2016

[3] I. Wallerstine, Historical Capitalism, Verso 2011

[4] I. Wallerstine, ibid.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?, Verso 2016