Category Archives: Economics

The poverty of technology and the technology of poverty

14. IV 2018

Charles-Avery two dogs

It was one of those rainy and damp days, I was finding my way out of the F-train subway on Bergen St. in Brooklyn. On the mezzanine level, in the corner of the stairwell, I noticed a young man, couldn’t have been much older than 30. Rain was slowly cascading into the subway, small puddles forming everywhere forcing him into an uncomfortable squat instead of a sitting position. His appearance was modest; he looked tired and lonely, but not destitute. There were none of the signs of physical neglect usually seen in homeless people – he looked like someone who had access to a bed and sanitary facilities. There was a money tray with a few coins in front of him indicating that he had been there for some time. The man seemed relaxed and disinterested in making eye contact with passersby. He appeared preoccupied with what was happening on his iPhone, most likely Instagram or the traffic on the social networks.

Panhandlers with smartphones are unusual sight – it is not just the price of the accessory that is at odds with their social status, but the entire protocol: the price of connectivity, how they pays their bills, which assumes a checking account; purchases of apps, which requires possession of a credit card suggesting some king of credit history… Things just don’t add up. However, as much as the two were an odd combination, it was difficult to dismiss the thought that, on some level, they shared the same causal connector, and they stand as two representations of the same underlying cause of social degradation. While poverty is a consequence of the system’s inherent urge to cannibalize itself, tech, on the other hand, has become the other face of resistance to change.

The panhandler and the smartphone together unify the worlds of thrift store shoppers and the high tech of Silicon Valley. The following chart brings us closer to the origin of this unstrange connection. It shows three price histories representing roughly three different social segments of the stock market. Dollar Tree is a chain of discount variety stores in the US. It sells an assortment of everyday general merchandise; it is a lower end version of Walmart, with most goods priced at or below $1. It is the place where poor folks buy their stuff. Since 2001 (the perception of) the value of Dollar Tree has increased by 11 times, while during the same time Apple, which needs no introduction, has had a 140-fold rise. For comparison, S&P or other benchmark stock indices have grown “only” 2 times.

The coordination between two histories is not a story of correlations in the sense normally used in statistics, but of a different type of commonality, the most interesting point being not their mutual causation, but the timing they share. Between 2008 and 2009, S&P index –the “social median” of the stock market– lost 50% of its value. It took four years for it to recover. In contrast, Dollar Tree, the poor man’s outlet, starts its big takeoff in 2008 with the stock price practically quadrupling during the subsequent four years. This timing and trend are in synch with all other measures of rise in poverty[1]. This is also the moment when Apple’s explosive rise begins.

DLT

The poverty of digital nations: Silicon Valley meets thrift shop

While the middle of the affluent sector of society (S&P world) advanced in “moderate” steps, the wings on both sides have outpaced it by a wide margin. Two seemingly different entities on opposite sides of the social spectrum – the beneficiaries of growing poverty and of the technological boom — register a common inflection point around the time of the deepest financial and social crises in modern history.

Dollar Tree’s success in the last ten years has been a function of demand created by an explosive supply of poverty; Apple’s rise has been an indirect beneficiary of its side effects. As social reality was disintegrating, the void it created was filled by its virtual surrogate with Apple acting as the main subcontractor in the process of digitalization of social relations. This ties the panhandler and the iPhone together as a result of centrifugal forces of social fragmentation and the disappearance of the middle into the extremes.

The poverty of technology: Rent economy cannibalizes itself

As the economy transitions from material to immaterial, innovations become its main focus. If one can come up with a technological innovation that enables him or her to manufacture a product for 10 cents and sell it for over $200 on a sustained basis, all subsequent profits will be reinvested in that direction. In markets with strict intellectual property laws prices are no longer commensurate with production costs, but contain a scarcity premium. In this way, innovation becomes a source of Rent.

Rent is the most irresistible source of income. At the same, time it is economically and socially intolerable. If someone somewhere is paid without doing any work, then someone somewhere works without getting paid. Rent economy is a voluntary slavery. Employment becomes the right to be exploited and unemployment is denial of that right. However, when there is no need for labor, and freedom is a constitutional right of every citizen, there are slaves without masters roaming around without anything to do. They become the excess of population.

Irresistible resistance to change

In the past, technology always generated new demand and forced people to reinvent their skills to accommodate for the new needs. This is no longer the case. Modern technology destroys more jobs than it creates. As such, it has become the main destabilizing force. Its basic commodity is immaterial – it costs nothing to produce an idea. If labor is the main cost of production, relocating the production centers to regions with the cheapest labor becomes the dominant mode of profit maximization. In this way, low production costs abroad create precariat at home.

Profit chasing leads to geographic displacement and social and cultural dislocations. Through their deterritorialization the elites lose their social footing. Their riches decouple from the well-being of society. The Keynesian bond, which used to tie the profits of the rich to the wages of the poor is severed, cutting the fate of economic elites loose from that of the masses. The possibility, provided by a global capital market, of rescuing themselves and their families by exiting together with their possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich not to be interested in the social impact of their actions[2].

This is not sustainable in the long run. Once the exploitation becomes global and all alternatives are exhausted, the system has to collapse. The main question is: Who can act as an agent of change? Who represents the new social archetype of post-capitalism — a descendent of the medieval knight in feudalism or bourgeoisie in industrial capitalism?

Paul Mason has argued that a composite picture of that type would correspond to a Universal Educated Person. Their skill set is a fusion of managerial and intellectual abilities. Such a person needs to be a bearer of the new social relations inside the old, interested in engaging in political discourse with the intention of triggering change on the social level, and appear in large numbers. Currently, the “T-shirted bourgeoisie”, although fitting the description of a universal educated person with the right skills, does not want to reconfigure the system – rather, they favor a monopolistic structure and extraction of Rent[3], without much regard for the long-term consequences. Instead of being guardians of the future and sustainability, Silicon Valley billionaires prefer to invest in doomsday bunkers and property in New Zealand.

The technology of poverty and society of tiredness

When production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production. This is the main difference with respect to industrial age when material production defined the tensions between capital and labor. In cognitive capitalism, we are talking about, what B. C. Han calls the Achievement society, where everyone is entrepreneur of themselves, the exploiter and the exploited, the master and the slave, at the same time. Everyone is trapped in the auto-exploitation out of which there is no escape through resistance or uprising, but through internalizing his or her discontent through withdrawal and depression[4]. Zygmunt Bauman sees this as a social death spiral: The uncertainty of the Achievement society is a powerful individualizing force. It divides instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who will wake up the next day in what division, the idea of ‘common interests’ grows ever more nebulous and loses all pragmatic value. Contemporary fears, anxieties and grievances are made to be suffered alone[5].

The society of achievement is generating tiredness and exhaustion. This is a solitary and divisive tiredness with separating effect[6]. Digitalization of social relations is a response to this state of affairs. It fills the vacuum created by achievement society by providing a virtual supplement that makes isolation bearable by satisfying our ontological resistance to isolation. Social digitalization creates contours of a community; it transposes, to use Peter Handke’s terminology, I-tiredness into We-tiredness[7] while, at the same time, reinforcing isolation by creating a phantasmatic layer and illusion of self-sufficiency. Infinite plasticity of the digital society – ability to be shaped at our will — is intrusive and invasive: One can be anything one desires by creating an avatar and digital persona of any shape, form, and ability. This is virtual doping: It makes possible to achieve without achieving[8].

Social digitalization makes it possible to conceive of a community that requires neither belonging nor relation. The existence of a community, albeit virtual, results in an immanent religion of tiredness, one that needs no kinship. This is where smartphones come in. Here is Frankfurt School and B. C. Han, one more time:

Every technology or technique of domination brings forth characteristic devotional objects that are employed in order to subjugate. Such objects naturalize and stabilize domination. Devotion means submission to obedience. Smartphones represent devotion – indeed, they are the devotional objects of the Digital. They work like a rosary, which, because of its ready availability, represents a handheld device too. Both (the smartphones and rosary) serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control. The smartphone is not just an effective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue of the Digital. “Like” is the digital “Amen”[9].

 

[1]Since 2008, the number of people on food stamps has almost doubled – there is currently around 50 million people on food stamps in the US. During the same period, the fraction of the population living below poverty level has increased from 12% to 15%. These are just continuation of the long term secular trends underscoring the social fragmentation of the late 20th century. For the bottom 90% of Americans, living standards have not changed since 1970s. In contrast, for the top 1% they have risen 5 times and for the top 0.01% by 10 times in the last 50 years.

[2] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System, Verso (2016)

[3] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2016)

[4] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft Burnoutgesellschaft Hoch-Zeit, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2016)

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

[6] Peter Handke, Versuch über die Müdigkeit (in Die drei Versuche), Suhrkamp (1998)

[7] Peter Handke, ibid.

[8] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, Fischer (2015)

[9] B. C. Han, ibid.

 

Advertisements

Lost in a dream of electoral dictatorship: America as a failed state

30. III 2018

They turn our brothers and sisters into mercenaries

They are turning the planet into a cemetery

The Military and the Monetary, use the media as intermediaries

They are determined to keep the citizens secondary

They make so many decisions that are arbitrary

We’re marching behind a commander in chief

Who is standing under a spotlight shaking like a leaf

But the ship of state had landed on an economic reef

So we knew he was going to bring us messages of grief

(Gil Scott Heron, Work for Peace)

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

The DNA of a typical Russian oligarch reveals a hybrid of a communist apparatchik, a government bureaucrat, and a strictly small-time criminal – a sub-mediocrity in every aspect. Yet, these people became an embodiment of the ultimate American Dream. People who lived all their lives in isolation, who had no exposure to business know-how and had no place or opportunities to learn about it; people who lived close to what in America would be considered the poverty level, emerged as super-rich. These passive and utterly unremarkable recipients of the political lottery jackpot were graced with unimaginable fortunes just by sitting on the wrong side of the political crossroads at the right time. This realization has had to inspire both rage and jealousy, and at the same time corrupt the mind of every honest western constituent brought up on the protestant ethics of hard work.

The main message of the post-communist transformation of the Soviet Union has been that political circumstances, rather than demographics, are the key explanatory variables behind the resulting outcomes. State sponsored corruption, the residual of the old communist system, was the secret sauce, which added a special flavor.  Failed states create conditions of unimaginable business opportunities. This realization added a new dimension to the already existing American Right’s fetish of a smaller state. With the recent rise of right-wing populism, the idea of the failed state as a new paradigm of economic and social restructuring gained wider acceptance and stronger footing.

For quite some time, supporting or explicitly engineering a failed-states project, and creating a global disequilibrium that would force or accelerate a change, has been a signature strategy of American global politics in its late neoliberal phase. This project got new wind in the 1990s, capturing not only the post-communist Soviet bloc, but spreading also to the Balkans, Iraq, Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, while in the West it manifested itself through tensions between the global oligarchy and populist implementations of the neo-feudal visions of the world.

Oligarchic tromboning: Pimps, sultans and banana republicans. The anatomy of a political mancrush

The failed-state project abroad has been a special inspiration at home. A source of superlative profits for the American Military Industrial Complex, in Russia, in terms of the rise of riches of their new elites, the results have been nothing short of a miracle. So, why not try it at home? After all, over the last three decades, we have had enough practice with a number of controlled experiments that this would be a no brainer.

Current political developments in the US reflect precisely this logic. There is a concerted effort to preserve the wealth of a very small group of people or powerful institutions, while at the same time, introducing corruption as an integral part of political dealing and diffusing the obstacles to its normalization. This is the ultimate form of oligarchic refunctioning, where everything else — culture, politics, social well-being — becomes subordinated to the interests of an absolute minority. Plutocracy becomes indistinguishable from Kakocracy – a Faustian pact where the elites form a coalition with a criminal element, and together they establish the government of the worst.

Based on everything we’ve seen so far, the dismembering of the USSR has emerged as a blueprint for the restructuring of the American state. The Soviet Union, which after its breakup started as an essentially criminal enterprise and subsequently made a sharp turn towards an electoral dictatorship and sultanic oligarchy.  When seen from the perspective of plutocratic interests, the post-Soviet style social transformation is rationalized as a more efficient form of social organization than any emancipatory alternative.

This has been embraced as a preferred transformational path of the American right wing. The contours of Trump’s economy indicate a process of transition from the invisible hand to the invisible fist, where economic justice completely eliminates the last vestiges of social justice and takes it to the realm where economic interests of a few are the only ones in existence. While Trump has displayed an open disdain for the world’s leading democratic leaders, a mancrush on Putin notwithstanding, he has gone out of his way to show unreserved support and admiration for autocratic outliers such as Duterte (invited to the WH), Nursultan Nazarbayev, Xi Jingpin (inspiring praise for his lifetime presidency), (“Smart cookie” and a worthy adversary) Kim Jong Un, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (the quiet general, aka The Pimp), and the Sultan himself, Recep Erdogan!

When viewed in the context of a general oligarchic framework, the two trajectories corresponding to the post-Soviet and current American political repositioning, outlined in the figure, both show convergence towards the same destination corresponding to a sultanic oligarchy.

Sultanic

Oligarchy represents different modes of wealth defense. The interplay between oligarchic coercive power and their organization defines the four corners assigned to underlying political systems within which all political structures reside. Variations across oligarchies are two-dimensional with main axes defined by how oligarchs impose their will (e.g. are they armed or disarmed) and their mode of rule (e.g. individualitstic, collective or institutionalized). This results in four possible structures. All historically known political structures reside within these four corners. Unlike electoral democracies which are characterized as civil oligarchies, in sultanic oligarchy (lower right corner), oligarchs surrender a major part of their power to a single individual. One oligarch is more powerful than the rest (e.g. Suharto’s Indonesia, the Philippines under Marcos, or post-Soviet Russia under Putin). This is an application of the framework defined in: J. A Winters, Oligarchy, Cambridge University Press (2011)

The fourth horseman and the (im)possibility of emancipation

Corruption, this fourth horseman of the apocalypse, which has long been in hiding, is now making itself fully visible. Together with the three main systemic disorders – Stagnation, Redistribution, and Plundering of the public domain – it outlines the contours of the terminal destination of the current social transformation in the developed world.

Trump’s ambition has never been to become just a president, but a sultan. The deliberate display of his own corruption with the intent to normalize it and pave the way for its widespread acceptance, together with an emphasis on being above the law as part of his privileged position are reflections of his sultanic aspirations.

Wolfgang Streeck gives the best summary of erosive effects of corruption on politics and society. Converting public trust into private cash has become routine. Greed is no longer magically converted into public virtue, depriving capitalism of its last consequentialist moral justification. Stylizing owners of capital as trustees of society is losing any remaining credibility. Corruption is considered a fact of life as well as the monopolization of political influence by the self-serving oligarchic minority. As a consequence, pervasive cynicism deeply ingrained in the collective common sense is changing the functioning of the system. A political career is seen as an institutionalized opportunity for the well-connected elites and it is irrational to say no to these opportunities. Populism no longer serves to recenter the center, but is becoming a major destabilizing force. The system is ultimately facing a looming legitimation crisis – the existing social order is being rendered morally defenseless in possible future contestation[1].

The silver lining, if one is to be found at all, is that chaos, if administered in the right way, instead of creating confusion, could serve as a political “eye-opener”. This could force a transformation of the political subjects’ psyche, triggering a transideological moment when the political body desires to transcend the political confines faced with absurdity and obsolescence of the existing ideological framework and embarks on a path of accidental emancipatory transformation.

[1] Wolfgang Streeck, How will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System, Verso (2017)

 

American corrida and the reconstitution of the state

24. III 2018

No one really ever liked the state, but the great majority permitted its powers to grow ever greater because they saw the state as the mediator of reform. But if it cannot play this function, then why suffer the state? But if we don’t have a strong state, who will provide daily security? (I. Wallerstein)

Social and economic cycles used to move together. This was many years ago. For over 40 years now, the two have fallen out of synch. After each recession, recovery had to be won by making social concessions — this was always considered acceptable expecting the economic advantages to feed back into society. With time, economic progress has decoupled from the well-being of society. Social deficits have grown so large that, unlike the economy, society can no longer recover. The last crisis has taken the form of an autoimmune reaction. We have reached the point of self-intoxication when inner contradictions of the system, which previously could be temporarily ignored, are taking over. The system has exhausted itself – it has collapsed under its own weight.

Overcoming the accumulated social deficit requires deeper social changes. At the root of this quest lies the breakdown of traditional social contract, which started more than four decades ago. In its original form it can no longer be used even as a rough outline.

19edsall-ch-slide-4N1R-tmagArticle

As divergence between productivity and income has increased, so has the distributional asymmetry of profits resulting in growing inequality, which after decades have evolved into the main destabilizing force. The problem with inequality is not the skew in wealth distribution between those who have some and those who have more (or much more), but extreme fragmentation of society into a rapidly shrinking minority of those who have everything and an exploding majority of those who have nothing. A shrinking middle class in developed economies has grown increasingly vulnerable to poverty while, at the same time, poverty has become a risky and unstable state. This led to new forms of precarity, social marginality, and stratification at the expanding bottom.

As a consequence, the cultural divide has reached such high levels that disputes can no longer be resolved through democratic process. Western societies are at the juncture where they need to develop alternative modes of social organizing and define a new social contract.

Craig Calhoun gives possibly the best summary of the singularity of the present political configuration: Western societies are at the intersection of economic and political crises, which presents the most dangerous development that could emerge from this situation. Erosion of implicit bargain by which people accept damages to society or environment in the pursuit of progress results in recurrent political unrest. Faltering growth brings disappointment to those with rising expectation and elected leaders seek to diminish public freedoms and quash dissent.[1]

There is an urgent need to reconfigure the capitalist state in such a way that harmonizes with the needs of both the economy and the society. This is a painful and politically risky maneuver that requires undoing centuries of institutional baggage. Reconfiguration of the state is the main event of this political moment; everything else is just a distraction.

The main objective of current populist politics is to decouple the two crises by any means. In its current iteration the strategy consists of preventing the lethal mix to be realized, by creating a distraction (economic, social, media, political, as much controversy as necessary…), while the state is being rapidly dismantled. But this cannot be a stable solution, only a way of buying some time. It is just the beginning of a long process of social transformation likely to take center stage in the next decades.

State and social insecurity: From welfare to penal pornography

The transformation that the state has undergone in the last 40-50 years can be characterized at best as inadequate or incomplete, lagging behind, and not adapting to, much deeper technological and economic changes.

The substance of capitalism is the meeting of capital and labor. Capital must be able to buy labor and labor must be attractive enough to be saleable. In that context, the main task (and legitimation) of the capitalist state is to broker this exchange — to see that both of these conditions are met. It must subsidize capital and ensure that labor is worth purchasing (it is healthy, properly trained in the skills and behavioral habits, and is able to ensure the strains of the factory floor). Legitimation crisis of capitalist state lies in transition from society of producers to society of consumers – the prime source of capital accumulation has moved from industry to consumer markets. State subsidies now render capital able to sell commodities and consumers able to buy them. Credit was perceived as a magic contraption in that context. Capitalist state now must assure the continuous availability of credit and the continuous ability of consumers to obtain it. The welfare state is now underfunded because the principal source of capital accumulation has been relocated from exploitation of labor to exploitation of consumer[2].

As the state was withdrawing from the welfare arena, the existing forces were pushing it to the punitive mode of its functioning. The poverty of the social state against the backdrop of deregulation elicits and necessitates the grandeur of the penal state[3]. This is neoliberalism in action: Subordinate all human activities to the laws of the market.

The unwanted byproduct of economic Neo-Darwinism, unwind of the welfare state, and the rising precarity has been the excess population — the surplus of humanity that is unwanted, inconvenient, and ultimately displaced[4]. There are more people who fall through the cracks than those who succeed — a growing segment of the population that can no longer be reintegrated into a normal functioning of society. These people are neither producers nor consumers.

The response of the state has been to segregate the nonproductive, non-consuming, social element either through their permanent exclusion (e.g. opioids, or other forms of social marginalization) or turn them into profit centers through incarceration (e.g. private prisons). The state has effectively switched from its welfare to the punitive mode of functioning signaling the emergence of carceral state as one of the defining characteristics of the late-stage neoliberalism.

However, no solution has emerged from these, essentially ideological, maneuvers, which have only exacerbated the problem of excess population: The volume of humans made redundant by capitalism’s global triumph grows unstoppably and comes close now to exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet; there is a plausible prospect of capitalist modernity choking on its own waste products which it can neither reassimilate or annihilate, nor detoxify[5]. This has resurfaced as the main problem of neoliberalism that does not have a solution inside the existing paradigm.

The rising social antagonisms and tensions are rapidly becoming a cause of additional loss of social cohesion with precarity and hopelessness on one side against discomfort and entrenchment of the privileged on the other. Growing rage capital is being harvested by right wing populism. Growing discontent is used as the lever arm to reconfigure the sate to a more radical form of carceral, militarized entity with enhanced punitive mandate and further dismantle the vestiges of the welfare state. At the same time, under the pretext of economic and fiscal reform, there is a concerted effort to shake up the constitution and push the system towards a more efficient structure that fosters easier oligarchic repositioning.

The matador enters the rink

In the final stage of corrida, the tercio de muerte (part of death), the matador re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape (muleta) in one hand and a sword in the other. The faena (job) consists of the entire performance with the muleta, in which he uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes, both demonstrating his control over it and risking his life by getting especially close to it. Faena ends with a final series of passes in which the matador with a muleta attempts to maneuver the bull into a position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart (estocada).

Inside the existing neoliberal paradigm, we have already reached the dead end when there is nothing else that could be done. The only thing that remains is to reinvent the status quo through distraction. This brings us to the present moment. Like traditional Spanish corrida, dismantling of the state has assumed a highly ritualized process. In the words of Sylvère Lotringer, it is ritual without the sacred, the tragic without the tragedy. While populist campaigns have masked themselves as de-oligarchification movements centered on their anti-global sentiment, the American version has acquired a distinct flavor. The most recent attempt at transformation is nothing else but an oligarchic repositioning, an attempt to avoid a change by diversion. Trump’s right-wing populism, in fact, is a rearrangement of the oligarchic modes of economic and social functioning.

This is precisely the transformation that took place in the post-communist world in the 1990s. Trump’s cabinet nominations, selection of his advisors and his appointees reflect a desire to engineer a collapse of the state institutions — create new initial conditions resembling a failed state – and rebuild new structures on its rubble. As such, 2016 represents a regressive move towards a more primitive oligarchic structure.

This is the final stage of the American corrida — after wearing the bull down, the matador has entered the arena in 2016. Presidential tweets, the penchant for scandal, controversies, pathological lies, being consistently on the wrong side of every dispute and argument, flirting with constitutional crisis, everything…. All this is the red cape (the matador’s muleta). His job, (the faena), is at the same time to distract public attention, test the system’s resilience, wear down the public and bring state institutions to their breaking point before delivering the final blow (estocada) to the constitution, democracy and the American state.

Contrary to the naïve and misguided belief that Good always triumphs over Evil, history is on no one’s side. The outcome is ultimately binary. Who will be taken out on a stretcher, the matador or the bull? And whom will be the crowd cheering for?

[1] Craig Calhoun, in Does Capitalism Have a Future? Ed. I Wallerstein et al., Oxford University Press (2013)

[2] Zygmund Bauman, Liquid Times, Living in the Age of Uncertainty, Polity (2007)

[3] Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, Duke University Press (2009)

[4] Zygmund Bauman, Wasted Lives, Polity (2012)

[5] Zygmund Bauman, ibid.

 

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

7. XI 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparative politics of social change and coordinates of wealth preservation

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

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

Oligarchy Simple

From: Jeffrey A Winters, Oligarchy

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

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

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

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

Saying goodbye to all that: Anatomy of the perverse unwind

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

Oligarchy Breakup

North: Civil oligarchies

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

The main diagonal: Soviet Union between ruling & sultanic oligarchies

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

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

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

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

The Balkans: Warring oligarchies

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, Ch. 1

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

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

 

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

20. III 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29. X 2016

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

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

heroin-prices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideological mainlining: Biopolitical penetration of the American brain

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

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

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

heroin-and-gini

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

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

State as enabler of self-destruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is something wrong with the future

28.VIII 2016

Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
Give me Christ
Or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now
We don’t like children anyhow
I’ve seen the future, baby:
It is murder[1]

After getting accustomed to low crime rate since its peak in the 1990s, the world is once again entering a phase of accelerated crime growth. The rise of crime is palpable –- from rapes and robberies to homicides, from blue to white collar, from individual to mass murders, from random to organized and terrorist — although one cannot point to a single reason why. Crime is now at the inflection point. Its presence is felt everywhere, from info-sphere, media, entertainment and schools, to corporations, streets and politics. And the more efforts and resources are deployed to fight it, the more pervasive and out of control it gets. However, it would be a mistake to misidentify this trend as an aberration, an unwarranted side-effect of the post-industrial era. This state of affairs is an inevitable outcome of the neoliberal project at the core of which lies the idea of competition, a highly polarizing concept, which upsets the basic functioning of both society and the economy.

Neoliberalism was born at the intersection of the two crises, the crisis of governmentality and of dominant forms of power during the general contestation of the 60s. The emerging ideology outlined new forms of self-conduct, which satisfy aspiration to freedom in every sphere of existence, while the economic science was conceived as the newest technological invention through which new social reality revealed itself.

At the core of the neoliberal project lays the program of submission of human relationship to one single goal, competition, which has become a general political principle that governs reforms in all areas. This is an extension of market rationality to existence in its entirety. Its unprecedented systematization has profoundly shaped subsequent social reality, as a system of economic production became also a system of anthropological production[2].

So, how did we get here? What kind of reality has neoliberalism created and what is its future?

As the competent constituents of the past (e.g. bourgeoisie of industrial capitalism) gave way to the managerial class that turned competition into the only rule and virtue, the concept of competition gradually replaced that of competence. Only those who had become skilled in managerial functions could become wealthy through their labor. The decisions about production are more influenced by managers than experts as those decisions accounted for the reduction of costs and realization of profits. But, a managerial function detached from intellectual competence consists ultimately of fabrication, trickery, lies and fraudulent accounting, tax evasion and, if necessary, the physical removal of competitors[3].

Competition, once a guarantee of output’s quality, has undergone a major transformation. It has moved closer to the physical removal of competitors, ultimately leading to the systematic devastation of everything that does not submit to the profit of the strongest. Who competes better than those who eliminate their competitors? Mergers are just one form of physical elimination. Profit centers have used their considerable wealth to influence legislative process that removes all barriers for such activity. The state has become both an accomplice and a catalyst in this game. When was the last time government said no to a large merger?

Competition has become a reinforcing mechanism that provides a validation process for the legitimation of crime. Crime is no longer a hidden activity but the alpha & omega of every business, not just a marginal function, but the only way to stay in the game, and often the decisive winning factor in deregulated markets. Crime has disappeared thorough its proliferation. It cannot be eliminated, but it must be embraced. Its total and unconditional acceptance leads ultimately to its invisibility. Permissiveness has become the ultimate form of tyranny and capitalism has turned into a criminal system. Its survival in its present form is predicated on violence, because only violence is decisive.

Re-contextualization of murder: Society and human nature

Neoliberal government requires liberty as its condition of possibility: To govern is not to govern against liberty, or despite it; it is to govern through liberty to actively exploit the freedom allowed individuals so that they end up conforming to certain norms of their own accord[4].

Politics ultimately becomes the tool of social alignment with human nature and consists of the systematic removal of inhibitory mechanisms that allow us to come out as we actually are. Emergence of crime as a paradigm, its omnipresence, is the ultimate consequence of this political struggle. The modalities of resulting social structures have a deep resonance with who we really are.

This is the core problem of neoliberalism, the main reason why it is an anti-social project and why ultimately it either has to self-destruct or society as such has to disintegrate.

Designing a system of social organization which is in harmony with human nature is not something we should aspire to. It is generally a bad idea. A very bad one, actually. Without a considerable amount of inhibition, human nature is socially toxic. In fact, in order to become social, we have to abandon our true nature. The entire process of growing up, of becoming socially integrated – what is referred to as civility – is all about inhibiting our true impulses (e.g. toilette training, selfishness, lack of empathy, aggression, ability to engage in a dialogue,…). These inhibitory skills define us as social beings. Without them there is no society. We are born without those skills and we spend a considerable portion of our lives learning how to acquire and use them.

So, we are the real problem. Violence is inscribed in our genetic code and, as such, it becomes the essential component of neoliberalism. Killing as a (predominantly male) strategy of attaining the status position of dominant power has been adaptive. It is installed in the human brain because it worked. Murder has been a remarkably effective method of achieving evolutionary success (at least in the game of reproductive competition). Modern humans are descendants of those who succeeded in evolution. They are wired in the same way as their ancestors as dominant factors of success propagated[5]. Murder is inscribed deep into our genetic code; it only needs to be set free. The question is then, how close are we to the grand convergence when all barriers are removed and ideology becomes a true representation of ourselves. How far are we from setting free the murder? Well, we may not be there yet, but it is in the cards.

Life in neoliberal utopia. Who has the right to kill whom?

If utopia represents the impossible (imaginary places where social relations are represented, contested, and inverted), and developed society has reached the point where (almost) everything is possible, than the problem of finding our way is no longer the problem of disappearing utopia, but the problem of vision and politics. So what is the neoliberal utopia really like? What is a logical extrapolation of the neoliberal experience and what could be the next frontier for its all-around permissiveness?

Of all the issues that have emerged in the last years, murder has been the most divisive. From police brutality, to vigilante killings, mass murders, shooting of cops and terror attacks. All these cases were really about who has the right to kill whom, and at what price. Black lives matter, terrorism, the OJ Simpson trial, … they have all been about the same theme: Is it ok for the whites to kill blacks, for Muslims to kill Christians, for rich to kill poor, or even for the rich blacks to kill poor whites etc.? There has always been some implicit hierarchy of rules in that space.

Issues that have played a similar divisive role in the past have been alcohol prohibition, abortion (right to life), legality of drugs, prostitution, gay marriage, speed limits, etc. In many countries where these issues have been put to rest, tensions and problems associated with the issue have disappeared.

It is common sense to assume that removing an aura of taboo reduces the appeal of the vice. By legalizing something, one eliminates the challenge and reduces the abuse. For example, incidence of teenage drinking, drunken driving etc. are much lower in countries which have no minimum drinking age, and similarly in the case of car accidents vs. speed limit. In the same manner, one can argue, that legalization of drugs could lead to lower incidence of drug abuse and reduction of crimes associated with illegal drug trafficking. Same holds for prostitution. The upside of legalizing these activities is that society becomes less polarized – people get along better with each other – and, once divisive aspects are removed, politics becomes more constructive.

By analogy with these well-know cases, it makes sense to ask the same question regarding the murder. First, there is an insane number of murders every year. Obviously, the fact that murder is a capital offense is no detractor for killers; the rate of killing (individual/random/mass) keeps increasing. We now have more than one mass murder for each day in the year. The legitimate question to ask then is would the number of murders increase if they become legal. Most likely, there would be an initial surge, but then the trend would gradually subside and new lower murder rate equilibrium reached.

Death by shooting would gradually be accepted as a consequence of our freedoms, in the same way as death caused by traffic accidents, plane crashes, fire, or natural disasters have.

The benefits are immediately visible. First, guns would get the status of a regular appliance, like car or TV — everyone would own (at least) one. This would be plain common sense. All debates about the second amendment would become obsolete and with them the polarizing effects would go away. There would be no justification for the existence of the gun lobby. The NRA would be rendered politically irrelevant and politics, free of its influences, would be able to focus on issues that matter. Without polarization around the second amendment, republicans and democrats could even merge into a single party.

Smart guns would become the new technological innovation. Apple would produce first iGun, synchronizable with iPhone and iWatch, and Teslas would come with special road rage software and appropriate smart guns usable in such situations.

Compulsive killing would be frowned upon. It would be deemed uncool, along the lines people treat obesity. There would be awareness groups that provide counseling and talk shows where compulsive killers would be subject to shaming.

The US would enter its post-political phase (given the current political developments, this could be a blessing). There would be less need for police; private protection would be the new area of economic expansion. There would be far fewer people in prisons, both private and state run. No debates about death penalty or life sentence? All these would free the federal budget for more constructive projects. People would be much more considerate and respectful of each other’s feelings. Conflicts would tend to be avoided. Everyone would be nice to each other (assholes would have a very low chance of survival). Generally, people would get along much better. Right?

This is the face of neoliberal utopia. At the end, it is every man for himself, or in the words of Margaret Thatcher: There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.

[1] Leonard Cohen, The Future

[2] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society

[3] Franco Berardi, After the Future

[4] Dardot & Laval

[5] David Buss, The Murderer Next Door