Category Archives: Politics

America at 400: 1619-2019

30. XII 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4Peculiar institutions

Four Peculiar Institutions

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

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

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

The wedding of ghetto and prison: Hyperghetto

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

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

2019: Exit through the wormhole

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wormhole

 

The 2016 wormhole

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

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

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

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

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

[14] Ian Hany López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Oxford University Press (2015), and Race and Economic Jeopardy for All: A Framing Paper for Defeating Dog Whistle Politics,
http://www.ianhaneylopez.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/race_and_economic_jeopardy_framing_paper.pdf

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

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

Recontextualization of crime

7. X 2019

Yves Klein

No act by itself is a transgression. Circumstances make it a transgression. War, for example, is a circumstance that makes a mass murder a heroic feat. Peace is a circumstance that transposes mass killing of a heroic battle into a crime. On that premise is formulated the Nürnberg judgment. Something that was at its own time considered as patriotism was, with the help of circumstances (the allies won the war), declared as genocide. (Borislav Pekic)

There are multiple ways of defending the crime. Usually, the defense is structured around denials, obfuscations, questioning causal connections of events, exploitation of loopholes and technicalities, witness tempering, different contingencies, or blaming others. However, when crimes are committed on a large scale and in plain sight, the focus of defense inevitably turns towards creating a new context that allows a transformation of the crime into a neutral or even a heroic act. If that part is successful and the new context takes root, instead of denying the deed, the defendant continues to repeat it and, thus, implicitly reinforce and legitimize the new context instead of deflecting the accusations. As a result, after a long career of crime and transgressions, the defendant can emerge as a righteous winner.

At the same time as the current administration has crossed multiple boundaries of acceptable, ethical, and lawful behavior, it has been continuously creating a new context before our eyes: The unabashed corruption and ethical violations are coupled with relentless efforts to normalize the most extreme autocrats (Kim Jong Un, Duterte, Putin, Erdogan, MSB) in order to define a new normative framework of justice and different metrics for the next “Nürnberg trial”, whereby Trump’s actions would no longer be considered as transgressions, crime, or even found objectionable.

Without diverging too far from the obvious fact that the subject in question is clearly an aberrant person, ill-suited for the occupancy of the Oval Office, there is some method, albeit a shallow one, to his apparent madness. By perpetualy proliferating a multitude of ever deepening and unlikely conspiracy theories, he is extending the contextual horizon – there is always a “bigger picture” that justifies the previous transgression.

As a special bonus, while the contextual horizon is being extended, the cohesion of his base increases and reinforces its reshaping from political supporters to a special community. After all, it is not so much identification with the set of Rules which defines a community, but rather a specific form of the transgression of these Rules.

Searching for truth in the age of serial reproduction of self-deception

Truth is the opinion that has survived (Oscar Wilde)

Although authoritarianism has replaced democracy in the US, disguised as pseudo-democracy with elaborate layers of deceit, the voting populace hasn’t been eliminated completely. Their role has only been redesigned into the audience before which the performance of political theatre has been staged. They are the jury that gives thumbs up or down to each performance – they reward it with either applause or with rotten tomatoes. Right wing populists have always been acutely aware of the importance of the “audience’s” judgment (they are Populists after all) and the appearance of their approval as an essential component in providing the legitimacy for the extended political context.

Trump’s handlers have been avid students of all things Hitler — not only Mein Kampf, but also his rise to power as well as the aftermath of WWII and the Nürnberg trials. The echo of the Nazi dilemma continues to resonate deeply with them and with the current administration alike: Did we lose the war because we advocated an unjust cause or because we were unable, with a combined action of propaganda, tanks and police baton, to make it into a just one. Their unwavering commitment not to repeat these mistakes defines the core of their political strategy.

One of the main lessons from that chapter of history was the chronology of Hitler’s first major political defeat. Ironically, the seeds of his rise to power in the 1930s were sewn by the spectacular failure of his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. His overnight celebrity status was achieved by his court defense where his gambit to structure his defense as an attack on the system and present himself as a patriotic idealist who selflessly cared for the interests of the German people garnered the standing ovations of the court audience (winning even the sympathy of the judge himself) and secured the transmission of that support to the public through the media which reported on the trial.

While the synchronization of the Beer Hall Putsch and Trump’s travails is not perfect, the strategy is not dissimilar. Trump is not waiting for the trial though, he is delivering bits and pieces of his speech as his “putsch” is still just developing. For him, the trial might as well have already begun (only in a bigger courtoom) and he is already preparing the terrain by defining the context for the acceptance of his narrative, heavily choreographed by Fox News, which has considerable stakes in Trump stock and is protecting their investment, but at the same time, not excluding the possibility of cutting their losses if he becomes an indefensible liability.

On the charismatic appeal of vulgarity: From fear of the state to the state of fear

We will never understand Trump’s victory until we grasp the charismatic appeal of his vulgarity. (Isaac Ariail Reed)

There have been many attempts to place Trump in context with other historical outliers, but only with partial success. The kernel of his political persona is made in the image of a fictional character, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi[1].

Paraphrasing Isaac Ariail Reed’s description of the sequence of events, the infamous play opened in Paris on December 10, 1896. That was its only showing following the audience riots. After a two-year hiatus, it was shown again, but as a marionette play. At the center of the plot was the main character, Père Ubu, an inveterate coward who stages a putsch to become King of Poland and, in his new position, he enriches himself by getting rid of all the nobles etc. What arose the anger of the 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie was both the vulgarity of the language, frequent references to gratuitous violence, unsavory sexual overtones, and incoherent plot (there are 19 different locations in a play that is quite short), all of it packaged in a low-level juvenile parody of Hamlet and Macbeth. (Indeed, the play had started in Jarry’s schoolboy years as a parody of his hated physics teacher)[2].

Like the world of Jarry’s King Ubu, Trump’s universe is the kingdom of speech acts — a creation of arbitrariness where the only rule is what he proclaims to be true. The multiverse of narratives, the barrage of conspiracy theories, of twists and turns, is creating a disorienting condition based on a confusion of the actual and the virtual on a larger scale. Once in that state, the audience becomes easy prey and it doesn’t take much to send them in any possible direction.

However, the key ingredient that eases the wider audience into the intractable maze of Trump’s low-brow paranoia and allows these otherwise meaningless and factually incorrect narratives to become operationally believable is his intrinsic and unabashed vulgarity.

His petulance and general child-like behavior frames his rhetoric and actions as naïve and harmless, and subliminally exonerates them ex-ante. It also identifies them as something that all humans are inclined to do[3]. The underlying disruptiveness gets a favorable response from the (growing mass of) victims of decades of centrism who, irritated by the perceived oppression of political correctness, tend to vote with their middle finger and the more his ability to scandalize grows, the more unwavering the support of his base will be.

And, as the saying goes, nothing is as vulgar as haste; the apparent GOP’s indifference (shrugging shoulders) to the latest news regarding the emergence of the second whistleblower is purely tactical. Their hasty self-delusion that in less then two weeks they have already managed to create the new context of deceit where the right and wrong are turned upside down and their transgressions a priori exonerated, is the most convincing confirmation of their intrinsic vulgarity.

[1] Isaac Ariail Reed, Trump as Ubu Roi, On the charismatic appeal of vulgarity, http://www.publicseminar.org/2017/06/trump-as-ubu-roi/

[2] ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Adventures in integral reality: Amusement parks for angry citizens

31. VIII 2019

There is no longer anything on which there is nothing to say. (Jean Baudrillard)

Back in the day, long before flat screens, in the times of cathode tubes, watching news was a compulsory ritual, like a shower or shave, which took place once every day at 6:30 pm. The news was a basic reflection of reality — people watched them to get informed. From 6:30 to 7:00, a solemn cloud would descend on the households – during that time, activities would slow down and the kids had to get quiet while adults (mostly fathers) would tune in to hear what really happened on that day. The news were dry, boring, and unremarkable, delivered without embellishment; they had to be endured. Those 30 minutes felt different than any other 30 minutes of the day. As if the clocks slowed down, the flow of time changed, becaming thicker and slower. It felt like there was nothing that couldn’t fit inside that half hour.

The arrival of the 24/7 news cycle changed everything. By occupying the entire program, the news became both news and entertainment. Suddenly, there was always something going on somewhere, or so it seemed, something one was supposed to be afraid to miss. The news became less news and more opinions, and they provoked counter opinions and set the stage for the contest between different opinions. And the public started taking sides. There were winners and losers and everyone liked the winners, so the newscasters and political commentators became new inadvertent media stars. By then, people were watching news all the time, in the morning, during the day, before dinner, during dinner, and after dinner, between shows and during commercial breaks, before going to bed or if they couldn’t sleep at night. In order to fill the time, news channels had to expand beyond basic reflections of reality; they became a production of reality and the source of its excess. There was hardly anything left for us to imagine anymore. It spelled a slow death of the Real by suffocation of the imaginary.

Consider the following example of 1970s Italy from the perspective of modern media and 24/7 news. Those were the times when bombs were going off regularly in its cities as a result of the activity of the Brigade Rose and their likes.

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists; or of extreme right-wing provocation; or staged by centrists to bring every terrorist extreme into disrepute and to shore up its own failing power; or again, is it a police-inspired scenario in order to appeal to calls for public security? All this is equally true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts, does not check this vertigo of interpretation. We are in a logic of simulation which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason. Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models based on the merest fact — the models come first, and their orbital circulation constitutes the genuine “magnetic field” of events. The facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the intersection of the models; a single fact may even be engendered by all the models at once. This anticipation, this precession, this short-circuit, this confusion of the fact with its model (no more divergence of meaning, no more dialectical polarity) is what allows each time for all the possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – all are true, in the sense that their truth is exchangeable, in the image of the models from which they proceed, in a generalized cycle[1].

The politics of Simulacra

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. (Ecclesiastes)

These developments opened the door for alternative modes of reproduction of reality to enter the mainstream. According to Baudrillard, besides basic reflection of reality employed in traditional news casting, there are three additional stages of reproduction[2]: perversion of reality (e.g. William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report); pretense of reality (Larry Kudlow’s statemet: “President doesn’t make things up”); and simulacrum, which bears no relation to any reality whatsoever (e.g. Fox News).

Simulacrum is the map without a territory, a copy without an original, the avenue by which accepted ideals or privileged position could be challenged and overturned. Pinocchio is an example of simulacrum, and so is Frankenstein’s monster, and TV evangelists, hipsters, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Pygmalion, painting of a photograph, or Disney World.

Simulacrum contains a certain aspect of creation ex-nihilo. The intrinsic circularity between the real and imaginary is essential for its sustainability. For example, Disney World exists, it is permanent, undeniable; it constantly serves as a benchmark against which the Real is compared and measured. In contrast, Pretense and Perversion of reality are transient; they cannot take root and must be followed by another pretense or perversion in order to have any consequence.

However, the most important practical dimension of simulacrum, one which defines its appeal and longevity, is its intrusion into the value system. As Umberto Eco pointed out, when visiting Disney parks, we not only enjoy the perfect imitation, but the conviction that imitation has reached its apex, in comparison to which reality will always be inferior. This is the same motif found in Frankenstein (intention to produce a superior human from superior parts, Pygmalion, or Pinocchio. All these examples capture the desire to achieve perfection by design, improve reality by creating its copy, elevating it to the level of the real, and using it as a surrogate[3].

Very early on, the 24/7 news concept inevitably began to deviate from basic reflection of reality, although in varying degree, depending on the network. However, no one has gone further in that journey than the Fox News. Their accelerated departure from the rest of the news media coincides with the arrival of Roger Ailes who was the first to realize the endless financial potential of manufactured reality, long before anyone else, and adopted it as the network’s business model — We deceive, you believe — to create a simulacrum as a perfect surrogate, more appealing and in many ways superior and more desirable than actual reality itself.

Once reality gets passed through the cognitive sausage making processing plant of Fox News, it emerges transformed and utterly unrecognizable, immunized against facts. In that process, Fox has created a fictional world of arbitrariness that has no reality corrective, but one that resonates with a growing segment of the American society.

The real and the imaginary: From fusion to confusion

Integral reality has no imaginary. Everything becomes real, everything has a meaning, whereas it is in the nature of meaning that not everything has it. (Jean Baudrillard)

As much as the sociopolitical developments catalyzed the evolution of the media, changes in political climate and a general shift in sentiment were largely shaped by the media, so much so that in the last decade it has become impossible to see the beginning and the end of their causal connection.

At the core of this all reside the deep social changes of the post-industrial West. Technology, globalization, tighter environmental regulations, and decline in manufacturing have resulted in accelerated deplition in demand for unskilled white labor, a similar social configuration experienced by the black sub proletariat in the early postindustrial decades.

Such developments, whenever they take place, produce insecure, fear-driven masses that can be coopted by ethno-nationalist forces. While for a shrinking minority, money can buy security and act as a replacement for identity, for a growing majority without money, there is nothing left – neither identity nor security. They are forced into the imaginary. Fear for oneself unconsciously fosters a longing for the enemy. They invent an enemy for themselves. The enemy, even in imaginary form, is a fast supplier of identity[4].

For a significant (and rapidly growing) segment of the American population, reality has become a nightmare without an escape path. The surrogate offering of Fox presented itself as a far more attractive alternative than the one that governed their lives – a copy had becomes superior to the original. The underlying rage of the white underclass was abundant, it presented itself as the new political capital ready to be deployed and invested. Its emergence as a portal to power and influence defined the political inflection point, and was seized by Roger Ailes when he joined the Fox. His version of right wing populism became ventriloquism of the excluded, a well-tried and bankrupt political maneuver of the right, a regressive anti-globalist surrogate for the general identity loss.

This was a novel, ingenious shot at the old and probably the most acute problem faced by the developed world: the problem of excess population. The number of people that fall through the cracks and are unable to get reintegrated into the normal functioning of society has been growing unstoppably, their size exceeding the managerial capability of the planet. Their discontent has reached toxic levels and their presence inside the enclosure of prosperity has been making the “normal” segment of the population uncomfortable and nervous. So far, attempts at draining of the excess population have been centered on either their incarceration or outright physical elimination via opioids. The newest proposal, championed by the right-wing populist outlets, is to open amusement parks for angry citizens and keep the excess population sequestered inside those parks, not merely as spectators, but as interactive extras; create attractions and make them angrier so they never want to leave.

For the excess population, the reality created by Fox is the only thing to cling to. Rage is their political currency, an asset and investment, which Fox and the right-wing media promise to reinvest and manage. It is the source of dividends, their 401K, and bitcoin at the same time; their present and their future, and the last chance of reclaiming their social identity.

The arrival of Trump was an extension of Fox’s vision beyond media. His election was perceived as a rebellion against the Real. However, Trump was not a novelty here. The script had already been written well before he was even in the picture. Fox News is the theme park; Trump is just a character in it, the Fox’s Pinocchio, there merely to entertain the visitors.

And with the strange twist of fate, as one political idea gets recycled after a century of hibernation, and ideology undergoes a face lift from National Socialism to National Capitalism, the Nazi wet dream of harnessing the power of media for political gains comes to life again, only this time as a perversion of itself: It is not the media that are in the service of politics, but politics in the service of media.

Semiotic insolvency and the great flood of arbitrariness

Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth[5]. And as lies continue and become bigger, our deficit to the truth grows. And this debt will have to be paid one day – that day will inevitably come. By inventing new lies in order to diffuse the old ones, we finance the old (semiotic) debt by issuing a new one – we borrow more in order to pay old debts. This is a semiotic pyramid scheme.

Being allowed to lie without consequences is like having an unlimited credit line; it feels like free money. And when free money is readily available, we don’t need a rationale, we take it, although we know all too well how it will end. And despite all that wisdom of hindsight, we fall repeatedly into the trap of pyramid schemes because we always see ourselves not as victims but as perpetrators.

In the culture where money is elevated to a supreme metrics and profit to the highest principle, it is no wonder that non-financial liabilities, like deficit to the truth, have been perceived as secondary and allowed to grow without a bound as long as they continue to bring profits.

What we are facing, in the not so distant future, is the bursting of the semiotic subprime bubble, ignited and carried out by Fox News and accelerated and brought to unsustainable levels by the current administration. The conditionally insolvent are allowed to borrow until they become unconditionally illiquid: People with no credibility or qualifications are appointed to positions of high responsibility and are allowed to cover up the consequences of their incompetence with further lies and distractions until their lies are no longer transactable — when no one believes in them any longer. This is when the system will clear. However, when the criminal incompetence of the current administration can no longer be covered up, its toxic debris will have already affected a significant part of the planet. It will be the political equivalent of the 2008 crash, a global Chernobyl, a chain reaction of defaults with huge casualties and unforeseeable long-term effects. This will be a generalized meltdown of credibility of trust, a default of the magnitude never seen in human history, an analogue of the 2008 financial crisis extended beyond financial markets, a meltdown of all frames of reference. There won’t be a firm spot to put a foot on. This is the great flood of arbitrariness.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press; 14th Printing edition (1994)

[3] Simulacrum comes to life in three stages. In the initial stage, a faithful copy of the original emerges as an object is replicated, but the image is recognized as a counterfeit of the original. In the second stage, the distinction between the original and its replica begin to break down as a mass production of copies emerge. In the final stage, the replica precedes the original; there is no longer distinction between the reality and representation. Simulacrum anesthetizes the imagination numbing it against reality. It is ultimately a replacement of substance with symbols.

[4] B. C. Han, Die Austreibung des Anderen, S. FISCHER; Auflage: 4. (2016)

[5] Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

Fourth World War and the rise of political infantilism (carousing with Baudrillard pt. 2)

30. VI 2019

WWI ended the supremacy of Europe and colonial era. WWII put an end to Nazism. Third world war took place in the form of cold war; it put an end to Communism. With each succeeding war, we have moved further towards a single world order. Today, that order, which has virtually reached its culmination, finds itself grappling with the antagonistic forces scattered throughout the very heartlands of the global. A fractal war of all cells, all singularities, revolting in the form of antibodies. A confrontation so impossible to pin down that the idea of war has to be rescued from time to time by spectacular pieces, such as Gulf War or the War in Afghanistan. But the Fourth World War is elsewhere. It is what haunts every world order all hegemonic dominations. It is the world, the globe itself, which resists globalization. (Jean Baudrillard)

It is a unique cultural experience to observe celebration of the Fourth of July in the heartland of the Bible belt. There are fireworks, shooting from combat weapons of all calibers — semiautomatic, automatic, bazookas, and even light cannons. To an outsider, or anyone who had experienced war personally, this fascination with weapons and general eroticization of war, must appear unmotivated and over the top, or just outright bizarre. However, one has to wonder how these cheerleaders of the 2nd amendment would react if it came to actual war. Most of them (like all other normal people) probably wouldn’t be that much into it. War is the most brutal realization of a survival game, where only the fittest make it. These war-loving bible-wielding self-proclaimed “patriots”, representatives of excess population, couldn’t find their way even in favorable and nurturing conditions. Despite all positive externalities that come with peace and prosperity, which could have worked in their favor, they fell through the cracks and stayed behind. How likely is it that they would fare better in conditions of extreme adversity? In all likelihood, war for them would be a defeating experience (as it is for most everyone else), with long lasting post-traumatic consequences, severe psychological conditions, and prolonged substance abuse. For most of them, war would be an extreme version of their current predicament.

Eros and Civilization, many years later

The concept of Eros, which in its original meaning represents the sum of all instincts for self-preservation and desire, underwent a significant transformation in the early works of Freud, who deliberately downplayed the importance of the rigid boundaries between Eros and sexuality. In his usage Eros signifies an aggrandizement of sexuality. This removal of the boundaries is one of the most important insights of the early psychoanalysis.

Fetishization of war in contemporary America is an illustration of this Freudian connection. It is a result of several factors. Above all, it is an astonishingly precise summary of the true male psychology – as Robin Williams put it: If you can’t fuck it, kill it. The portal opened by Freud frames the romantic attachment to war and weapons as an expression of social ineptitude, an infantile reaction of political voyeurs who know war only by observing it somewhere else without being able to grasp even its approximate meaning. War play is an emotional outlet of socially marginalized and politically impotent males expressed as a displaced sexualized fantasy.

As much as proximity of war is sobering, its prolonged absence, one that allows its abstraction, is intoxicating. Politically, engaging in a war (on your own territory) is like getting laid. Long stretches without war drive men crazy; during those times they lose their sense of purpose.

Absence of sexual experience leads to infantilism (and possibly other psychological problems) in an adult age. Those deprived of sexual experience (of any kind) do not develop properly, at least not in conventional social settings. Escaping personality erosion due to sexual deprivation generally requires creation of a rigorously defined and highly structured alternative life context. The causal connection between religion, in itself an infantile conceptualization of reality, and vow of celibacy, together with the sidetracks such deprivation creates, is probably the best example of this mechanism at work. A nation that has not experienced a war for several generations or ever cannot properly mature, or at least matures differently, in a political sense.

To be clear, civil wars do not count. They are the political equivalent of incest. Civil wars only complicate things and rarely offer any potential resolution in the long run. Conventional wars with foreign adversaries have much better prospects for healing than civil wars. The two warring parties in a civil war are forced to live together even after the war is over encouraging them to make numerous compromises that undermine their emotional recovery and reinforce resistance to healing. In the absence of physical separation, which sometimes, but not always, takes place after civil war, the ferment of latent animosities ultimately morphs into cold civil wars with culture generally losing its original mission as a consensus builder and becoming an instrument of permanent divide.

As a consequence of prolonged abstinence from war, American men have fallen prey to the tyranny of abstraction of war. The confused testosterone and libidinal entropy of the gun-loving constituents, which accumulated over many years of abstinence, gave birth to political voyeurism. War for them occupies a virtual sphere while at the same time retaining the symbolism of the past when wars had a different dose of reality. When it comes to war and armed conflicts elsewhere, they are spectators and cheerleaders who pleasure themselves while observing it at a distance. Nowadays, waging a war (elsewhere) is how one runs political campaigns; it is a sign of determination and leadership. However, when war becomes less abstract, when it intrudes on their turf, Americans do not differ from the rest. An eloquent example from the recent past is the transformation of the psyche of New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11. It was an outpour of solidarity, empathy, togetherness, and understanding — the most basic human emotions, just like everyone else.

War as a metaphor

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations: It jumbles together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with psychological, the like with the unlike. (James Geary)

War is an entirely male creation. Its birth predates the times of hunters and gatherers. The essence of war is condensed in the transfer of violence from animal hunt for the purpose of immediate subsistence to the hunt for man – it is the invention of an enemy beyond prey, a transformation from interspecies to intraspecies competition. As a confrontation with an enemy much more formidable than wild animals, war brings new qualities of risk and strategic thinking[1]. The obscenity of this competition transcends traditional reproductive alpha malehood and redirects the focus of Eros from women to men. As Paul Virilio put it, warfare with other men represents the ultimate narcissistic (male) homosexual act. Testosterone, its main fuel, is an extremely combustible substance. It makes large-scale male bonding manifestations intrinsically unstable, threatening to escalate at any given point into either a physical conflict or an orgy.

Shooting ranges and gun shows, paintball parks, recreation of historical battles, boy scouts, Catholic church, corporate boot camps — every place where men try to impress other men — or the annual festival of salami in Slovenian town of Sevnica, the birth place of Melania Knavs, which only men are allowed to attend, they all share this uncomfortable vibe of a fragile equilibrium. It is not difficult to imagine what goes on in all-male Taliban compounds during starry nights at high altitude and rarified oxygen levels of the Afghan mountain range, or the narrow gap between a Nazi rally and a (male) homosexual bacchanalia. Similar undercurrents permeate contemporary populist rallies. Despite token female presence, they are saturated with testosterone and latent male aggression with the same uncomfortable vibe of instability characteristic for manifestations of large-scale male bonding.

There is an amusing (probably not accidental) congruence between attitudes towards war and sex in a particular cultural context. National histories can be told through sexual stereotypes and sexual stereotypes described in military terms. Using sex as a metaphor often gives an eloquent summary of a given culture with amazing precision.

If war were sex, this is how different cultures could be described. French: always keen to get involved. Sex (and war) never stops occupying their minds. They surrender to love and engage in sex with passion, although occasionally it can be purely physical. Brits are somewhat like French, just with passion dialed down. They are obsessed with being caught in an embarrassing situation, and love and sex are embarrassing. They do not surrender, but approach the whole thing rationally and perform it as a duty. For Swiss, sex is too messy and unhygienic. They do not engage, but they are not averse to masturbation. They like to watch and sometime get paid to watch others. Italians: premature ejaculators, like to talk about it, but find it painful and messy.

When it comes to war, Russians are archetypal masochists. For them, it has to hurt. Always. It is performed as a heavy S&M play, a cathartic ritual to which they willingly submit, aware of subsequent long-term injuries which take years and decades to heal. For Germans, sex is a vigorous physical exercise that requires discipline, precision, and commitment. They have had a complicated history of struggle with it. Deep down, they are masochists like Russians, but had been duped into playing the top in the S&M orgy of the 20th century. A control loving culture, they failed to grasp the idea that in an S&M game, the masochist is always one who calls the shot and is in control. It was a betrayal of their character. It turned out bad for them and almost everyone else.

For Americans, war exists in virtual space, they engage only through action at a distance, prefer the virtual masturbatory routine to the real thing. Their imagination is captured by their numerous sexual toys – the larger, the better – and they indulge in their size and the fear it inspires.

To paraphrase Paul Virilio[2], copulation, which used to be a vital function, has now become optional, turning into the practice of remote-control masturbation. In the same way chemical psychotropic suppressants have been used to dampen down momentary madness, ideological anti-suppressants, with the help of technology, are whipping the madness up, driving it to a frenzy. And this frenzy is contagious and viral. With the technology shrinking the distances and compressing the time scale, war is everywhere and can be transmitted instantaneously, dialed in or out like a video game, and satiating infantile populist cravings for instant gratification. This is the dawning of the age of global teledildonics.

Happy 4th. Enjoy the fireworks.

 

[1] Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon, Continuum (2005)

[2] Paul Virilio, Open Sky, Verso (2008)

Liminality and Political Ritual

2. IV 2019

Ritual is one of the basic social acts. It is a journey, symbolic or literal, at the end of which the traveler returns to its starting point, but as a transformed subject capable of seeing the context with different eyes and a new perspective afforded by the experience of the journey. It is a cleansing of the social palate before commencing the new stage of life. Rituals are mechanisms that convert the obligatory into the desirable. They take place at inflection points where status quo approaches dead end. Rites of passage like entrance into adulthood or marriage are meant to diffuse the anxiety before, and catalyze acceptance of, disruptions of stasis that generally tend to be rejected or (sometime indefinitely) postponed.

Ritual is a play between structure and anti-structure, which resides between thought and action. It is an affair of the tremendum rather than a quite ordinary mode of human social labor[1]. Despite their multitude and diversity, a wide class of rituals follows the same basic structure. The first stage consists of separation – this is when the subject is taken out of context. The second step is transitional or liminal stage. During this phase, the work of the ritual takes place: The order of things is (temporarily) suspended — participants are in a structureless zone ready to accept new rules. In the final, integration, phase the subject is re-contextualized. This is the von Gennep – Turner model of ritual structure[2].

Two modes of betwixt and between

When they turn 16, Amish kids undergo the ritual of rumspringa[3]. They are released into the outside, the Devil’s playground, where they get a taste of the English world and confront its temptations. During that time, which can last several years, the rules of the Amish are suspended. Young Amish living like English teenagers are not fully or properly either of the two things – they are betwixt and between.

Despite all the pacifist bullshit and declarative distancing from various modes of violence associated with the English culture, the Amish actually function as an oppressive cult. However, they have a very non-English way of imposing their rule and a very Zen approach to oppression. They use smart power, which has been the key to their longevity and resilience[4]. To an individual programmatically unprepared for survival in the outside world, options opened by rumspringa do not get exercised through free will – rather, they amount to a free selection among a reduced subset of possibilities. A large majority of Amish kids return to the Amish community. In lieu of basic survival skills, the security of predictable and boring Amish life outweighs the excitement and challenges of the precarious Devil’s playground.

The ritual of rumspringa is essential for the stability of the Amish community. The ultimate goal of the ritual is to foster docility, which comes as a consequence of confusing the free selection for free will and, as such, results in the ownership of the decision to remain in the cult.

Rumspringa outlines the basic structure of ritualistic rites of passage with all three of its stages (separation, transition, and integration). Various rituals, although having the same basic structure, generally differ by the underlying backbone and directionality of purpose.

Another example of the same formal ritualistic structure, with all three stages, but different purpose and backbone, is the American college experience. After a sheltered childhood, where access and exposure to major sources of risk, like excessive time mismanagement, night clubs, drinking, drugs, etc. is restricted either legally or through parental supervision, college kids ceremonially leave their parents’ homes and move into student dorms, the new communal centers where they cohabitate with their peers. Unsupervised and armed with newly acquired fake IDs, they step into the Devil’s playground with access to alcohol, drugs, sexual experimentation, and the host of new experiences, becoming exposed to the risks and temptations of the adult world. No longer kids and not yet adults, betwixt and between, they enter the liminal stage, in which all rules of either life seem to be suspended.

Although Amish rumspringa and the American college experience have the same formal structure, they differ by directionality of their integration and re-contextualization. Rumspringa is a regressive (centripetal) ritual with forces that pull the participant back to the original social structure after spending the liminal period in, what by Amish standard is considered as, structureless environment. In contrast, the American college experience is progressive (centrifugal) with the liminal period emerging as a source of potential alternative structures waiting to be embraced. The progressive backbone of the college ritual is further reinforced by the stigma of failure associated associated with returning to the safety of the parental home. And this emancipatory process goes both ways — most of parents, subsequent to their kids’ departure, declare themselves as empty nesters, repurpose their kids’ rooms and generally adjust to their future life without them. In terms of the integration score, the success rate of the college experience is roughly the same as that of the Amish rumspringa – most college kids succeed by not returning back to live with their parents.

The initiates: Excess population

Capitalism has to be the strangest creation in the history of human civilization. At its core, capitalism has the metabolism of a pathologically self-destructive organism, the self-sabotage emanating from its every action, relentlessly looking for new ways to hurt and undermine itself, always narrowly escaping its own demise, only to continue to search for a new and more potent poison. Whatever is perceived as beneficial in the short-run, becomes fatal in the long run. No other system, living or dead, behaves like this.

An inevitable side effect of capitalist progress and its self-destructiveness is a growing number of those who fall through the cracks. They are the marginalized excess population, pushed to the margins of the social, political, economic, ecological, and biopolitical system, which prevents them from access to resources, assets, services, and restrains freedom of choice and the development of capabilities. They are socially undead, earmarked for recycling or rehabilitation.

When the excess population swells to such an extent that its drainage is blocked, the resulting social configuration becomes unstable. The longer the marginalized segment of the population stays inside the enclosure of prosperity and rubs shoulders with the useful, legitimate, and self-entitled rest, the less the lines separating normality and abnormality appear reassuringly unambiguous[5] — precarity becomes everyone’s potential destiny. The tensions created by this configuration acquire new quality. The system faces a legitimation crisis. The existing social structure is seen as oppressive and society desires to transcend it. This can be achieved only during the liminal stage of ritual.

The underlying social imbalances need to be addressed either by force or other forms of violence. However, outright physical oppression is an inefficient and expensive way of governing. Instead, power needs to be smart– it has to convince people to voluntarily submit to it. Ritual enters the scene as a form of smart power. Social transformation, thus, takes a ritualistic form where liminality functions as Nay to all positive structural assertions[6]. When applied as a remedy to diffuse the existing social tension and descent, the essence of ritual is to create conditions for the separation phase as a prelude to liminal stage where the existing social rules and hierarchies are suspended.

Social change as ritual: Between marginality & liminality

Liminality and marginality define coordinates of political action. They reside on the opposite sides of social structure. Marginality is an involuntary submission to the capitalist social structure. From the perspective of marginality, structure is oppressive, and ominous. Liminality, on the other hand, is liberation from structure. Even if it might be temporary, it is nevertheless a reprieve– in the liminal phase structure becomes invisible, and the underlying social rules suspended.

Right wing populism resides in the interstices between liminality and marginality. It offers to the excess population ritual instead of real solutions – a simulated Devil’s playground. The mindfuck of rebranding the social change necessary to escape marginalization with liminality — a permanent state with a temporary one — is a way of giving social transformation a regressive ritualistic spin, a political rumspringa of a sort. This is not specific for the current political moment — it has always been the case in history. For many people who have been marginalized, offering ritualistic rites of passage as a surrogate for their social redemption is the only hope of social redemption.

The spurious similarity between the populism of segregated and fractured post-2016 America and single-voice Germany of the 1930s — the two countries a century apart with no socioeconomic overlap — can be traced to the fact that their respective leaders have been engaged in the same ritual practices in different times. Their respective ideologies – unconditional subordination to either national or oligarchic interests — and representative parties, National Socialist German Workers’ Party and National Capitalist MAGA, run in parallel. In both political events, marginalization triggered and shaped rituals that followed. The 1930s was an uprising against the marginalization of Germany as a cultural, industrial and military power of the time. The rise of Nazism was a result of discontent due to loss of privileged position in the global context. As a consequence, the entire country spoke in a single voice. In 21st century prosperous America, which has not had a war on its territory for more than 150 years, it was marginalization of an entire social class and reaction to the loss of the white male privilege of the old days. The consequence was an unprecedented polyvocality as an expression of social divide along cultural, racial and ethnic lines — a class war in a displaced mode, with the entire marginalized class speaking in a single voice only they could understand.

Camouflaging liminality as an escape route from marginality in today’s America has the sole purpose of reconciling the interests of billionaires with those of the marginalized sector of its population. It is an effort to compactify an otherwise fractured political landscape and, by ignoring facts, laws of physics, economic, logic and common sense, connect the two opposite ends of the political spectrum and forge alliances along artificial cultural divides between victims and their executioners.

The roadmap to re-contextualization

Democracy itself has been functioning as a ritual for quite some time. Actual authoritarian power works much better. Authoritarianism has been in place, but disguised as pseudo-democracy with elaborate layers of deceit. (Slavoj Zizek)

The inner space between marginality and liminality defines the politics of change in post-2016 America. This is the territory where two different directions of purpose are drawn – rumspringa vs. college. In the current context of political ritual, post-liminal integration can evolve along three different paths.

1) American rumspringa: Idiocracy crashes and self-destructs reverting to pre-ritual centrism as a lesser of two evils. Suspension of rules masquerading as change serves as an anesthetic for a more extreme status quo. This is the role of the simulated Devil’s playground. The ongoing ritual is an exact replica of the Amish rumspringa. People are compelled to accept the flawed centrism as a less bad alternative to the corrupt kleptocratic configuration of the present. The problem created by social marginality is dissolved through its acceptance and its victims are permanently defeated – their condition appears as an act of their own will as a result of free selection which substitutes for the free will.

2) Emancipatory path: Transformational/progressive integration is directed towards opening a way into new structure as a resolution of underlying tensions. The ideas and practices that have become established during the liminal phase take the quality of structure. After the trance of (political) ritual subsides, return to pre-separation becomes impossible. While liminality is unstructured — a lack of fixed points in a given moment — it becomes an origin of structure. It is the state of “cosmic foam” awaiting a big bang — formless reality out of which forms emerge — the beginning of everything.

While regressive populist offering is liminality without destination, a voluntary submission to the pre-ritualistic phase, the progressive alternative provides a true destination (with minimum ritual), distinct from the pre-separation phase.

3) American twilight: Idiocracy becomes a new paradigm. This is what Victor Turner calls the state of institutionalized liminality or, in Max Weber’s terminology, everydayinization of the out-of-ordinary situations.

Politics turns into a ritualistic orgy and political leadership assumes a shamanic mode of functioning with permanent campaigning (before, during, and after the elections) as the only way of governing. Nothing is ordinary — everything is tremendous. Semiotic excess — lies, deceit, nonsense, and propaganda — has the main purpose of perpetuating the ritual, sustaining liminality, and suspending the rules, while palpable falsehoods become articles of faith. New social identity draws the boundary between us and them and becomes the main theme of political discourse. Acceptance includes tests of authenticity which require participants to go through initiation rites in which they burn bridges by committing deep out-of-the-money unethical acts and physical or intellectual atrocities (sometimes all three), most often led by the political shamans themselves. This ritual within a ritual consists of competitive symbolic self-immolation in the arena of public spectacle that irreversibly closes the doors for their return to pre-liminal life. This is a state of atonal pseudo-totalitarian operetta without a key or meter, the kingdom of arbitrariness where words have no fixed meaning and actions no consequences.

[1] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures (1966)

[2] This breakdown of the structure and the concept of liminality were first introduced by Arnold von Gennep in 1909, Rites of Passage, University of Chicago Press (1961) and later picked up and developed further by Victor Turner, ibid.

[3] Pennsylvania German version of herumspringen, to leap around

[4] Amish population in the US has almost tripled since 1990 and is likely to continue growing at the same rate, expecting to increase from 350K today to nearly 1 million by 2050. This is pretty amazing given the context of social Darwinism of modernity where any inefficiency becomes punitive and its cumulative effect ultimately lethal. The rationale for such growth is simple: Amish offer monotonous life with security against rapidly raising precarity on the outside. The ritual takes away the possibility of descent.

[5] Zigmunt Baumman, Wasted Lives – Modernity and its Outcasts, Polity (2004)

[6] Victor Turner, Betwix and Between: The liminal Period in Rites de Passage in The Forrest of Symbols, Cornell University Press (1967)

Male trouble and the rise of the disillusioned perspective

22. X 2018

The disillusioned perspective distinguishes continually between life as we want it to be and life as it actually is. Conversion is a transparent attempt to lend meaning to the meaningless, possibly only through self-delusion, that is by allowing illusion to trump disillusion. (Karl Ove Knausgaard)

It is the eleventh hour for white American males. This, once dominant and privileged majority has become a collateral damage of capitalism’s global triumph, beaten in just about any game that matters, even the ones they invented, they are joining the ranks of excess population facing a threat of irreversible social displacement and marginalization. Tired of self-abuse, anesthetized by drugs and alcohol, angry and armed with guns, but feeling powerless, a growing number of American white men is taking permanent residence in the center of the disillusioned perspective, in desperate search for conversion, looking for a savior who will restore their lost dignity and self-respect, and reclaim, on their behalf, what they always considered rightfully theirs, the basic white male privilege.

In that quest they have fallen victims to predatory seduction of anarcho-capitalists and global kleptocrats. These merchants of regressive nostalgia and self-proclaimed guardians of traditional values, who celebrate the idea of privatized utopias of gated communities, do not really need the white male precariat as such, but are ready to offer them whatever leftovers they don’t need, in exchange for an exclusive right to manage their rage capital and for their voice in the ballot box. And white American males will take it and will fall under the spell of magical thinking of the Third-World-esque political pornographers just because, stripped of all other alternatives, the male precariat has found itself lost in the blind alley of the disillusioned perspective.

The stories we tell ourselves and the stories behind stores: The emergence of male precarity

American men have been the unintended victim of the policies and socio-economic changes of their own creation, which saw their culmination in the ultimate downfall ten years ago. Although the prophets of supply side economics continue to insist that we are deep into the recovery cycle, a minimal dose of common sense points in the opposite direction – the economy and, especially, society have never fully recover after 2008 — the crisis appears only to be deepening.

Here’s one way of slicing it. Conventional civilian unemployment rate represents a fraction of the labor force that is not employed. It is a superficial (and distorted) way of assessing the state of economic health, the official statistics reported and referenced in the media and public discourse. It is compared here with the fraction of the US male population of working-age without a job (not including the people that are currently in prisons, so that its rise does not get confused with the explosion of the incarceration rate).

Joblessness never stops for American men

UR M vs ConventionalThe histories of these two measures of unemployment share the same cyclicals: Their rise in recessions and decline during recoveries always takes place in a coordinated way. However, their structural parts are different. Although during each recession conventional unemployment peaks, it always returns to its “normal”, pre-recession level, somewhere in the 4-5% range. Male unemployment, on the other hand, follows a steady upward trend. For over a half a century, since 1960s, every six years the unemployment rate of American men has increased by an additional 1%. For them, there is no “normal” unemployment – every recession creates a new, higher, normal unemployment rate they are required to tolerate.

In every recession, the social costs of recovery have been financed by the rise of male precarity. And those social costs have accumulated to the point where they no longer can be ignored. The current male unemployment rate is around 14%, about 10% higher than in the 1960s. This is the unemployment gap that captures the level of male precarity. Nearly 10 million American men[1] are currently without a job (in the 1960s they accounted for about 1.5mn), and with them probably another 10+ million of their immediate family members and/or dependents who are affected by that condition.

When compared to the unemployment of women, which shows exactly the opposite trend, these numbers highlight the problem associated with the male condition. Starting with the 1960s only a small fraction of women worked and their unemployment rate was in the 60% range. It has since declined down to 25%, with a noticeable inflection in the 1980s, a consequence of significant socio-economic changes, shift of focus from manufacturing to service economy, women’s liberation, and a general emancipation trend.

Two opposing trends: Unemployment of American men and women

UR M vs F

As male unemployment tripled in size since the 1960s, female numbers declined to less than half of their initial value. All progressive forces, like general education, emancipation, or new technologies, which had been embraced initially as possibilities for improvements in the working conditions, leisure, and higher quality of life, eventually became new techniques of control and created the world of perpetual underemployment. These developments have inspired a massive wave of anti-progressive sentiment and emerged as the foundations of the disillusioned perspective, predominantly, of American white men.

Male precariat and the excess population

Over the course of six decades, American men have become the main constituents of what Zygmunt Bauman has identified as the excess population: The volume of humans that are made redundant by the global triumph of capitalism has grown so much that it exceeds the managerial capacity of the planet. They cannot be re-assimilated into the “normal” life pattern and reprocessed back into the category of “useful” members of society.[2] This has emerged as the most challenging test of the existing socioeconomic paradigm, with no hint of possible solution in sight.

There are several shades of excess population. At the extreme end of the spectrum reside criminals and chronic outsiders, for whom there is no place within the boundaries of the enclosure inside which an economic balance and social equilibrium are sought[3]. These people are transported outside of the enclosure, either sent to prisons, or confined to life in hyperghettos without access to traditional citizens’ rights.

The unemployed represent those who escaped transportation and remain inside enclosure; although temporarily redundant, they are earmarked for recycling and rehabilitation. However, all that changes once the drainage of the surplus of humans is blocked. The longer the redundant population stays inside and rubs shoulders with the useful and legitimate rest, the less the lines separating normality and abnormality appear reassuringly unambiguous. Assignment to waste becomes everybody’s potential prospect – one of the two poles between which everybody’s present and future social standing oscillates[4]. As unemployment becomes chronic, the ranks of those who permanently drop out of the labor force swell and they become a burden to the society. Their temporary status comes under review and they face potential permanent exclusion.

American males have been falling through the cracks for decades. Angry and growing in size, they epitomize the excess of population, a burden to the society for which there is no solution. And when under pressure of persistent hardship all the energy of young age wears down and body and soul capitulate, they become a part of the “dark statistics”. Mortality of white American males 45-54 — the age when the emotional and physical immune system gives up — is on the rise, while everyone else’s condition (including that of Hispanic Americans) is improving.

The three horsemen of the white male apocalypse

Mortality

What accounts for this dispersion is hardly surprising. While the biggest killers, such as lung cancer have been on a steady decline, death due to poisoning (read: “drug OD”) has more than tripled, suicide rate (i.e. depression) doubled, and death due to chronic liver diseases (alcoholism) increased by 50% since the beginning of the century. Together with prisons, as graduate schools of crime, drugs, depression, and alcoholism are the three main ideological tools for drainage of the excess of population.

Dark America: Nonsense with a purpose and political pornografication

Populism has become the ideological response to the disillusioned perspective, an attempt to lend meaning to the meaningless, to trump disillusion through self-delusion. When process of growth and change becomes chaotic and overwhelming, individuals experiencing such episodes feel that their sense of identity is breaking down, that their old values no longer hold true and that the very ground beneath their personal realities is radically shifting. This is the point at which the new identity politics inserts itself.

Joblessness of men, predominantly whites, has been the cause of multiple side-effects and various forms of social vulnerability. With time, white men’s social dislocation created a fertile ground for a simmering resentment towards those superficially perceived to have been the causes of their job losses, and with it, their social status and, ultimately, self-respect. This made them receptive to the predatory politics of right wing populism. Instead of questioning capitalism’s responsibility for its crimes, their discontent was articulated in a displaced mode, as a cultural struggle.

The main culprits of their condition have been (mis)identified as women, minorities, immigrants, globalization and emancipation in general. Misogyny, resurgent racism, and xenophobia emerged as major mobilizing forces of the conservative right, championed by the NRA, right-to-lifers, and white supremacists, and fortified by the alliances with the vulgar materialism of Christian fundamentalism in the background. These became the voices of the disillusioned perspective that outline the contours of Dark America, which found its way to the ballot box in 2016. Such distribution of factors and their misidentified causes could struck resonance with the fundamentalist narratives and paved the way for a full blown relapse towards strict patriarchal order inspired by nostalgia for times when social coherence was firm and stable due to rigid family structure and racial segregation.

This is where Christian fundamentalism meets its lost Islamic twin and other monotheistic siblings. Nothing illustrates better this civilizational relapse than the words of Mark Harris, pastor turned Republican nominee for Congress in North Carolina’s 9th district. This otherwise marginal and utterly insignificant individual, has distinguished himself by repeatedly questioning the health of women’s pursuit to prioritize their careers and independence over their biblical “core calling”. His colorful sermons condense the core republican views in an unedited form:

Wives, please hear me this morning. You’re not to ever submit because your husband demands it, but you do it because the Lord ordained it. Now ladies, you can rebel against that command, but just please understand you’re not rebelling against your husband, but against the Lord … submission is not about inferiority in any way, any shape and any form. It simply reflects a God-ordained function of things.

When put in context, the message is clear: Emancipation is a sin, modern women are the offenders, getting ahead of men is a rebellion against God’s order of things. “So get over this inequality thing — because that’s not the point of submission,” he concludes.

By retreating to their households and assuming the subordinate role of housewives, women would exonerate themselves from sin and, at the same time, participate in an economic and social reform[5]. Youth crime would decline, as would unemployment when women, grateful for an opportunity to please God, begin to leave the workforce to care for their children. The problem of excess population and unemployment (together with budget deficit!) would be solved in one stroke – here is your conservative fiscal policy right there.

This is one of many techniques of submission of women, the main ideological pillar of right wing identity politics, populist and mainstream alike, which speaks directly to, and resonates strongly with, their sole constituency who are, at the same time, the main victims of its ideological predation – the white male precariat.

Unlike intellectuals, who experience the world with their brains, poor and uneducated arrive at their convictions through their empty stomachs. One cannot confuse them by opening new horizons or perspectives[6] (e.g. with the empty promises of centrists’ narratives). However, they remain blind to conversion. The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its driving force[7]. White men are at the end of the rope; they have fallen victims of their own creations. And that is the biggest irony of this otherwise unhappy and depressing story.

 

[1] There are currently around 60 million men and about 70 million women age 25-54 in the US

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

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] This reform would go along the same lines as described by Michel Houellebecq in Submission

[6] Reflections of the SS Standartenführer Heinrich Steinbrecher, in How to quiet a vampire, B. Pekic, Northwestern University Press (2003)

[7] Karl Ove Knausgaard, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, NYT (2-Nov-2015)

A decade of counterfactual reality or how to quiet a vampire of history (15 September 2008, ten years later)

15. IX 2018

If history doesn’t manage to exhaust the possibilities of the direction it’s taken, if it’s forcibly prevented from unleashing everything, even its most monstrous forces, sooner or later it’ll return to seek out its curtailed right, its insane continuation. Had Adolf Hitler been killed, had the natural course of history been upset and halted in July 1944, we would have yet another national socialism today, or we’d at least have to defend ourselves from it. Hitler wouldn’t have been defeated, rather his certain victory would have been thwarted[1].

On this day, ten years ago, we witnessed an event in the true sense of its meaning: the event that changed the order of things and divided the time into before and after. With government intervention and bailouts, we had interrupted the flow of history and interfered with its course. By throwing a lifeline to the system, which had been spontaneously self-destructing, we had created conditions for alternative counterfactual history. $7 trillion was the price that had to be paid for suspending the crushing force of gravity that would have otherwise caused the collapse of the entire capitalist system and which has resulted in a downgrade of present reality to counterfactual.

We thwarted the system’s self-annihilation. Instead of allowing this process to complete, Lehman’s ritualistic collapse laid the foundation for system’s resurrection and reinforced the imperative of its ultimate triumph. The rescue package laid the ground for the narrative according to which we needed more of the same — what caused the system’s “temporary” collapse was interpreted as our unwillingness to set it free to blossom fully. The systems imminent demise was, thus, magically converted into its thwarted victory. Ten years later, it resurrected and came back to claim its curtailed right. Today, in its afterlife, we have to defend ourselves against its ugliest and most monstrous incarnation.

And the vampire in us now has an alibi; the American national pride has invented its scapegoats: Immigrants, atheists, pacifists, homosexuals, international trade agreements, NAFTA, regulations, Chinese, Mexicans, teachers, football players, Planned Parenthood, alternative energy sources, progressives, education, science, climate change, facts and truth and other elitist concepts. And, like bad students, we will have to repeat the entire tragedy from the beginning. This is the new counterfactual reality.

In its infinite unwisdom, the high priests of ideology knew that what is imminent, cannot be prevented, it could only be postponed. If in 2006, during the peak of the housing bubble and only two years before its collapse, we knew what we know now, we would have done exactly the same. So, Lehman was not saved – it was allowed to collapse; this was the ritualized assignment and acceptance of guilt aimed at diverting the blame– and this fact, precisely, is what exonerated the system as such.

Here is Konrad Rutkowski, one more time: It is senseless to attempt to crush an order that is based on a consistent ideology. To disappear, it must completely exhaust the last bit of its historical energy. It must die like an old man whose sinful life has extinguished his reproductive energy and even his instinct for the survival of the species[2].

 

[1] Fourth letter of Konrad Rutkowski, in How to Quiet a Vampire, B. Pekic Northwestern University Press (2003)

[2] ibid.