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Populism as space travel

9. VI 2018

Populism consists of the simultaneous embrace and denial of shit.

The history of populism is a repository of failed missions — a true destination of the populist journey is really a problem of imagination. For the most part of his literary opus, post-modern Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin has been trying to imagine social settings which represent life consistent with alternative and unconventional rules. One such example is offered in his novel “The Norm”, where the Soviet style populism, packed as the vulgar materialistic interpretation of “pseudo-egalitarian” dystopia has settled in and been allowed to blossom to its final consequences. The book was written in the 1980s, when the system’s imminent end was not palpable, and the writer described its long-term trajectory, the very journey of the Soviet “deep space mission”.

“The Norm” is the name for a piece of food that every Soviet citizen considers important, even prestigious to possess, taste, chew, and eat, notwithstanding the fact that it smells bad, almost like excrement. The book is a series of vignettes linked by a moment in each when a character unwraps his or her ration of a substance called “the norm.” It stinks and tastes awful. Children especially hate it, but they, like everyone else, swallow their daily dose. It’s shit, of course, actual human excrement—a pungent symbol of the requisite humiliations of the Soviet system and, perhaps, of life in any oppressive collectivity. Ours included. [1]

There is no rule that says rules cannot be broken

It remains one of the great ironies of the post-1968 West that massive waves of liberation on all fronts ultimately only paved the way for hegemony. This resulted in a drastic reshaping of the possible modes of contestation of different forms of power. How does one rebel against the all-permissive system that shows absolute hegemonic dominance where saying no is meaningless and inconsequential and where resistance is futile? Oppression can be overturned by revolution, but hegemony cannot – it has to be toppled from within. For a rapidly growing majority of those pushed outside of the (shrinking) enclosure of prosperity whose future is collapsing under the crunch of status quo, there is no hope for change. For them, life on this “planet” is no longer possible. The only mode of resistance is rebellion against the established rules.

The world has already seen this type resistance on the global geopolitical scene as a total collective refusal to play by the rules of the neo-liberal world order. The regimes which have refused to follow the established conventions are not new, from Castro and Khomeini, to Iraq, North Africa, Afghanistan and North Korea. The novelty brought in by the rise of the right-wing populism in the West is that it comes from the part of the world that has been the staunchest defender of those rules and is now championing their dismantling.

The war on rules is a decision to exorcise oneself from the existing order of things – it is a declaration of war on oneself, a suicide mission of sorts. It is an exile to another “planet”. Any political or religious leader willing to undertake this mission on behalf of the excluded, is likely to forge a special pact between himself and his constituents. The implicit sacrificial obligation of this commitment, by its very nature, makes that person immune to any defection, or ideological or material corruption, and secures an unconditional, cult-like devotion and support from his following. Even if facts and reality point to his flaws, corruptibility or dishonesty, his commitment alone will ensure a practically unlimited political credit line.

Populism, like space travel, is sustained by the hope that life on another planet is possible. Populist leaders and their followers are faced with the same dilemmas as space travelers. They all carry the willingness to leave the world as we know it and embark on a potentially fatal journey, even if the probability of success is infinitesimal. And that willingness is the most radical act of rule breaking and an absolute weapon against the system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death.

As long as the leaders stick to their promises, people will cut them slack. Populism’s main agenda is continuous breaking of the rules. The more politically damning their actions, the stronger their commitment appears. The more blatant disrespect for the established conventions and rules they show, no matter how futile and meaningless those empty gestures might be, the firmer the bond between populist leaders and their followers. What is normally perceived as a political suicide becomes the main engine of popularity.

Shit as a universal reference frame

The integrity of our lives, as we know them, is sustained by an extraordinarily fine-tuned set of rules and parameters. Disturbing the rules even slightly leads to qualitative changes. If our body’s temperature changes by one degree, we get sick, if it rises by more than four degrees, we are very likely to die. Inventing new rules means inventing new forms of life[2].

This link between rules and life is the aspect populist leaders, predominantly the right-wing kind, and their followers show no capacity for understanding – their most distinguishing trademark is a deafening cognitive dissonance. But what kind of life can we expect on the populist planet? On Mars, for example, the gravitational constant is three times lower than on Earth and water there boils at 10 degrees Celsius, so no coffee, and no hardboiled eggs for starters. Everyone is at least eight feet tall, their bone density different, blood flow probably seriously compromised, and who knows how that affects the brain.

Embracing new rules, like embarking on a deep space mission, requires a voluntary participation ritual. Sorokin’s book, The Norm, describes precisely such ritualized participation. However, as outlandish as it sounds, the book’s extrapolation is not far-removed from our reality. Rules that govern our lives also regulate the flow of shit, its path and direction, how it disappears and how it resurfaces in different forms[3]. We use shit to fertilize soil and grow plants; animals eat those plants and we eat both animals and plants. However, there is a clear protocol in these circular flows. They are important. Changing the rules even slightly profoundly affects our lives.

Like space travel[4], populism approaches shit rationally by throwing it (with everything else) into the big optimizer. The difference between Sorokin’s dystopia and our world is condensed in minor changes in the rules of shit-flow, by cutting the “middleman”. Such approach is hardly a surprise, given the decades of reign of the ideology where the requirement of economic optimization is elevated to a general political principle whereby the system of economic production is also a system of anthropological production[5] — an extension of market rationality to existence in its entirety. The recycling bin of this ideology is the actual birth place of the right-wing populism — a political maneuver championed by the mid-level segment of the oligarchic structure, posing as self-proclaimed defenders of the excluded and purveyors of ideological snake oil for the poor. Their platform is founded on the long ago rejected “free-market” dogmas, which nobody (including them) takes seriously anymore, alive only thanks to the life support provided by the new identity politics.

[1] Ben Ehrenreich, Vladimir Sorokin’s Absurdist Excess, The Nation (4-Feb-2016)

[2] Heterotopias are reminders of this link, as Michel Foucault outlined in his 1967 essay, Des espaces autres, Hétérotopies. They represent real sites that can be found within the culture where social rules and interactions are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted, e.g. boarding schools, in their nineteenth-century form, or military service for young men; heterotopias of deviation like rest homes, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons; brothels, puritan societies established by the English settlers in America, or Jesuit colonies founded in South America in which “human perfection” was effectively achieved. Life in these communities is significantly different from that on the outside, but the underlying rules governing them are only slight variations of ours.

[3] This is a deep ideological terrain – different cultures are distinguished by the way they dispose of their shit (the comparative architecture of German and French toilettes is probably the most eloquent summary of the differences between the two cultures).

[4] When it comes to manned deep space missions, bringing food supplies from Earth would take up valuable space aboard the spacecraft as well as increase fuel consumption, which is why scientists are searching for a more economical solution by growing or generating food en route. Astronauts on their way to Mars may be required to eat their own waste in the form of a recycled paste. The innovation is being touted as a possible nutritional solution for long-term manned space missions.

[5] P. Dardot and C. Laval, La nouvelle raison du monde, La Découverte (2010)

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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.

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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.

 

The original accident: On masculine displacement & the masochism of speed

25. XII 2017

When god created man, she was joking.

The union between man and woman has to be one of the most disruptive developments in human history. A Stone Age equivalent of seduction was effectively an act of abduction and enslavement of woman. By joining a man as his “wife”, a woman redefined the economy of time: a man no longer had to hunt one deer at a time; with a woman carrying the catch, hunting became less frequent, and if a man went alone, a woman could stay behind, guard the dwelling, defend it against predators, work in the field, bring water etc. Apart from serving the reproductive function, the most dramatic effect of the forced symbiosis of man and woman was to free man’s time and open the door for his mobility. According to Paul Virilio: This allowed man to engage in the obscenity of the narcissistic homosexual activity of duel with other men[1].

During the hunters and gatherers era, when hunting provided the main access to protein, overpopulation presented the most acute risk, synonymous with self-destruction. The math was simple: the number of mouths to be fed is determined by the number of women — a population consisting of one man and ten women could produce as many as ten babies in one year, while the natality of a one woman and ten men community could not exceed one baby per year. The conclusion was rather unambiguous: Femicide was the only way to control population growth and prevent starvation of the entire community through the depletion of resources.

With time, the risk of overpopulation had been balanced with a possibility of territorial expansion where war played an essential part. Preference for raising (male) warriors further amplified the existing bias towards the neglect of females. Teaching women to use weapons or hunt large animals would have only complicated the “algorithm” and was therefore further inhibited. In the end, as Marvin King summarizes it, war and female infanticide are part of the price our Stone Age ancestors had to pay for regulating their populations in order to prevent lowering of standards to the bare subsistence level. However, warfare and infanticide did not cause each other. Both of them, together with a sexual hierarchy that developed along the way, were caused by the need to disperse population and control the risk its of growth[2]. As a residual of these dynamics, throughout the history, long after the control of population growth stopped being an issue, men continued to feel they had a natural right to control women. And so they did.

Travelers taken up by the violence of speed are displaced persons

Man is the passenger of woman. (Paul Virilio)

Woman is the first source of man’s transport and his mobility. She brings man to the world[3]. Where would human civilization be if women hadn’t tempered with man’s experience of time and space? If it were not for women, man would have never travelled. In all likelihood, he would have not strayed far away from his cave still hunting wild animals to survive.

The need to disperse the population shaped the quest for mobility and speed. This was the beginning of the mount – the man mounted horse and, as distances shrunk and the quest for speed intensified, he dismounted only to board ship, and follow up with train, car, and airplane. The acceleration of movement has been assimilated to progress as a curious blind alley in the history of movement[4]. As more speed bore more spectacular disasters, progress, as the articulation of the quest for acceleration of movement, became a flight from the inevitable, instead of the journey forward, with constant attempt not to be caught by the “end”.

Woman have shaped man’s destiny. But, as it happens with every innovation, there was a price to pay. The quest for mobility disturbed the initial harmony. To travel is to leave, and to leave is to leave behind, to abandon the comfort zone and one’s sense of calm[5]. Mobility is displacement, and displacement leads to loss of identity. The identity loss is an encounter with consequences of displacement – always after it is too late to do anything about it, a delayed reaction — articulated as the second stage of grief through anger and aggression. This is where misogyny enters the scene. Being the primary force behind man’s mobility, woman is causally connected with man’s identity loss, and misogyny intrinsically linked to man’s discontent with his displacement.

This has created institutions of discrimination and women’s repression through history and, as Eva Figes argued, solidified resistance to change. By questioning the external norms that relate to the position of men and women in society, man has and had nothing to gain and everything to lose: he would lose not only social and economic advantages, but something far more precious, a sense of his own superiority which bolsters his ego both in his public and private life. [6]

Modern day misogyny, as the ultimate male fantasy, is a nostalgia for the times of lower entropy, a return to the past as a site of coherence, and a relapse to the patriarchal setting when man held their “naturally deserved” upper hand and He (who is a male) ruled the world. Through misogyny man articulates the desire to reclaim what he considers his “natural right” to control women and, in that way, take control of his own destiny.

[1] Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, Bloomsbury Academic Continuum Impact Series (2008)

[2] Marvin King, Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures, Vintage (2011)

[3] Paul Virilio, ibid.

[4] Paul Virilio , ibid.

[5] Paul Virilio , ibid.

[6] Eva Figes, Patriarchal Attitudes, Persea Books (1986)

Quantity theory of sanity

3. VII 2017

What if there is a limited amount of sanity in the world and the real reason people go mad is because somebody has to? (Will Self)

If you think about it, sanity is a rather delicate and improbable mental configuration. It is an unstable (more precisely, metastable) state of the human psyche. It requires an extraordinary amount of fine-tuning to remain sane. An incredible number of things has to work out in a coordinated way for a person not to flip out at some point in his life. And if one experiences a severe shock during his life, chances are he or she will go insane and never come back.

Metastable sanity

Insanity as a stable equilibrium and conditional stability of sanity

Sanity is a one-way street. There has never been a case of an insane person suddenly becoming normal, spontaneously or as a result of a shock or trauma, or that one is born insane and then suddenly, when he/she enters puberty, becomes normal. You see! It is like entropy: systems evolve from less to more probable configurations. So sooner or later everything turns into shit (2nd law of thermodynamics): As we age, our sanity becomes questioned and at some point, if we live long enough, we start losing it. There ain’t no way around it.

Hallucinogenic drugs themselves do not carry any particular magic cocktail of chemicals that causes a state of controlled madness. No, that madness is always in us – there is a constant, albeit dormant, carnival in our heads; it is hibernating thanks to various inhibitors, which control that process. Hallucinogens merely deactivate the inhibitors and set the madness free. A similar effect can be observed without drugs when one is subjected to stress (e.g. hunger, sleep depravation, torture, or a marathon run), shock or some other factor that disturbs the existing order of things (e.g. fasting and a drop in blood sugar – this is how ascetics are getting their visions).

We are biologically wired through evolution to see the world the way “normal” people do. This maximizes our chances of survival. But, we were not meant to live this long and to endure these levels of persistent stress, or to be surrounded with so many people. So, the sanity dimple at the top of the hill is almost full and the shocks are continuous and even though they might not necessarily be always powerful, they are capable of causing persistent overflow.

Setting madness free: Social change as a mental disease

Superfluid information flows have transformed madness from idiosyncratic to systemic. Traditionally, elites and rulers (and people of influence, in general) used to define cultural parameters, set the trends and boundaries. But, their extreme idiosyncrasies remained always their own.

With the evolution of media and compression of timescales, their idiosyncrasies, no matter how odd and socially unpalatable, got a chance to catch up with the rest of the population. In particular, the democratic process has been gradually transformed into a referendum on the idiosyncrasies of the candidates. The madness is no longer individual, but collective and systemic. In a society where an increasing number of people feel like outsiders or outcasts, idiosyncrasies acquire special appeal and great mobilizing power. They cut through the mix and humanize politicians. Individual instabilities become destabilizing on a collective level and are used as leverage to erode the democratic process. The system becomes a center of production of social vulnerability.

Diathesisstressdualriskmodel

The Dual Risk Model distinguishes between types of response to environment. Resilience plays a large part in distinguishing between “normal” and vulnerable individuals. In a positive social environment all is good: When there is growth, there is enough for everyone. But when there is no growth, everything is a zero-sum game – there is not enough for everyone. This brings out the worst in people and this is when social change begins.

The pinnacle of human evolution, the ultimate manifestation of civility, is the human ability to engage in a dialogue, to listen to and respond to the others. The structuralist deconstruction of mental illness consists of an unwinding of the evolutionary process. For them, mental illness is evolution in reverse. During mental illness, unwinding starts from the top by shutting down the ability to engage in a dialogue — the cacophony caused by the “voices” takes over; one is in constant dissensus with oneself, which incapacitates the ability to listen and respond. The regressive unwind proceeds step by step by shutting down other social and biological skills. Different mental diseases differ by the terminal points at which the unwind stops. This is why social changes, which follow closely the pattern of a mental disease, look like madness and the social degradation that accompanies them is defined by the level of destruction of democratic institutions and devastation of traditional forms of civility.

Emotional shocks can also cause disorder. With extreme psychoses like schizophrenia, one is often born with a tendency towards them, but it is only when certain traumatic life events happen that the actual symptoms are triggered (this is the nature-nurture argument). With other factors combined, psychoses can develop faster or not at all in certain individuals. But you have to have both: a tendency towards it + the stressful life factors. These stress thresholds are very relative. They are both biologically and culturally conditioned – people in the pre-Homerian period had a considerably lower threshold of stress than modern man. In fact, the distinction between madness and “normalcy” is more quantitative than qualitative. Everyone has a different breaking point, but practically everyone has it. So, it is only a matter of generating an appropriate level of stress to reach an individual or collective breaking point and everyone will go crazy.

Individuals with higher intelligence, money, supportive families, and a generally positive environment can deal with personal problems better and will, therefore, come out with a better outcome in the end. But when (in the words of an anonymous depression sufferer) we sink to our lowest depths – when everything seems dark and the light is nowhere to be seen – that is when we are the most receptive to change. And we are ready to accept any change, even the one that would hurt us in the long run, as long as it is a change.

At this point, the system operates with a sanity deficit – there isn’t enough sanity for everyone. The madness is set free. Everybody is crazy and everybody has a gun. The greatest show on earth can begin. Enjoy the fireworks. Happy 4th.

Event horizon and the physics of Donald Trump

8.VI 2017

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

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

Paralax2

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

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

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

black-hole-diagram

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

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

The strange matter of Trump’s universe

Information entering a black hole is lost forever

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

One-child-left-behind

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

Divided subject is inconsistent with itself

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

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

Coda

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

The politics of time

9. VI 2016

We live in an era of subverted time flow. In the post-modern culture of the instant, the most important technological discoveries, although addressing efficiency of transportation and production, have been really about efficient usage of time. With unconditional resentment of anything that resembles idle time, procrastination has become like waiting, a universally denigrated mode of passage of time. Culture waging a war against procrastination has no room for taking distance, reflection, continuity, tradition -that Wiederholung (recapitulation) that according to Heidegger was the modality of Being as we know it. Abandonment of denial of immediacy is a novelty in modern history. It underscores doubts about the arrival of the future. Later means mañana — the future is denied a chance. The moment of no waiting never arrives and Godot takes the central stage.

Subjective time

Understanding the world requires one to take a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, we magnify. Things that are too large, we reduce. We bring everything within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it. When all distances have been fixed, we call it knowledge. Throughout our adolescence we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, learn, experience and make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been set in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening, we are 40,50, 60,… Meaning requires content, content requires time, thime requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy is meaning*.

* From: K. O. Knausgard, My stragle: Book 1

Work time

 It is not capitalist exploitation what makes work alienating, but reduction of life to work.

Work is a paid activity performed on behalf of a third person, to achieve goals we have not chosen for ourselves, according to the procedures and schedules laid down by the persons paying our wages. Labor time is unfree time, imposed upon the individual (originally even by force) to the benefit of alien (tautological) end.

Since the first days of industrial age, the compromise according to which workers allocate some of their time to work in order to enjoy their free time is perfectly rational. Seen by the capital, on the other hand, free time is empty and useless time. Economic rationality demands that any constraint which presents an obstacle to capital accumulation be removed. The end result is austerity of free time – free time should be minimized or austerely rationed. As a result of rationality of both sides, the employer and the employee (capital and labor) stand in direct opposition to each other when it comes to time and this defines their basic antagonism whose unfolding is seeing a new chapter in the tech era.

 The most powerful technological forces have established a new normative model in the culture of the entrepreneurship of the self, which has become standard in the western world, where there is pressure to be constantly present and engaged. Not being switched on means falling behind, being out of step and thus losing a competitive edge.

 The antagonism between labor and free time exposes the intrinsic contradiction of rationality and its transformation path in industrial age. Rationality, when set free and unchecked, demands removal of any obstacle to profit maximization. The end result? Workers no longer behave rationally: Instead of working for living, they live to work – their work no longer serves to subsidize the enjoyment of their free time, but they use their free time to become more productive workers.

Waiting

What will we wait for when we no longer need to wait to arrive? We wait for the coming of what abides. And what abides will be the unceasingly available instant that no longer has to be waited for (Paul Virilio).

Waiting has been the central idea of narrative from Homer to Hollywood, but has never been properly mapped. Waiting for Godot is the first play about waiting. H. Schweizer’s “On Waiting” is a modern analysis of the concept. Waiting is universally denigrated. It lacks the charm of boredom or desire. It is difficult to enjoy people for whom we have waited too long. Waiting is not simply a passage of time — waiting time must be endured rather than traversed. Time during waiting is slow and thick.

Money confuses time with itself — money culture recognizes no currency but its own. Waiting is assigned to the poor and powerless so as to ritualistically reinforce social and political demarcation.

Waiting always carries hierarchical overtones — long waiting lines are for the people with less dignity and self-pride, disenfranchised folks in general (e.g. long lines for visa applications, residency permits, asylum…).

Postmodernity is characterized by an ever accelerating contraction of duration. Blackberries and iPhones (general hyper-connectivity interfaces) deliver information without making us wait. (Our writing is facing an extinction of comma that once indicated a pause.) From the modern perspective, waiting means almost always never. The indignities of waiting in a culture of the instant are the discomfort of being out of sync with modernity and with the habit of velocity.

Procrastination

The central idea of modernity is procrastination. One procrastinates in order to be better prepared to grasp things that truly matter. Max Weber links this particular intent to delay (rather than haste and impatience) to such seminal modern innovations as accumulation of capital and the spread and entrenchment of the work ethic. The denial of immediacy and the principle of delay of gratification is what rendered the scene modern to begin with.

The desire for improvement gave the effort its traction and momentum; but the caveat ‘not yet’, ‘not just now’, directed that effort towards its unanticipated consequence, as growth, development, acceleration and, for that matter, modern society*.

The need to wait magnified the seductive powers of the prize. Far from degrading the gratification of desires, the precept to postpone it made it into the supreme purpose of life. Owing to its ambivalence, procrastination fed two opposite developments: work ethic (in the society of producers, the ethical principle of delayed gratification used to secure the durability of the work effort) and aesthetic of consumption (in the society of consumers, the same principle may be still needed in practice to secure the durability of desire).

* Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity

Remains of the future

4. VI 2016

But thought is the slave of life, And life times fool, And time, that takes survey of all the world, Must have a stop[1]. 

I remember when growing up used to be fun. Youth was claustrophobic. We were looking forward to getting older and becoming adults, moving out of our parents homes, living alone, making decisions about life, owning our mistakes, moving in with our girlfriends, finding jobs, becoming financially independent, paying bills with the money we earned, partying, having kids, and generally getting engaged with the world. The future was full of promises. There was nothing we couldn’t do, no dream was too grand. The whole world was ours. We lived without restraint. The future was our collateral and there was no limit to how much it could deliver. Life was wonderful.

All of this has changed rather abruptly in the second decade of this century. For millennials, life became complicated, heavy, full of problems without solutions; financial independence illusory, rents unaffordable, moving in with parents rational. Insurmountable obstacles were everywhere. The future holds no promises, only threats. It has become a compromised collateral and growing up one of the most highly overrated experiences. Entering adulthood is now like entering a latrine: The first reaction is a shock, and then you get used to it. Life became a bitch.

The front page of the May 30 issue of the Newyorker gives an eloquent summary of this state of affairs.

Newyorker 05_30_16

Two consecutive generations of graduates from the same college

Every year around this time, graduation ceremonies remind us of what the future has become. Every new generation is facing an increasingly more precarious road ahead. Every year we wonder if the best days are behind us. And every year we ask the same wrong question: Are the gains of the last 150 years real, when, instead, the actual question should be: Are these gains permanent. 

Every year, young graduates have to revise down their expectations of life and adjust to new realities and accept whatever job they can get. And yet, everyone keeps going to college, although tuition has been skyrocketing and it has become increasingly clear that more education does not give one more prospects of getting a good job. However, education appears to be the ONLY chance of getting any job. But, what kinds of jobs are we talking about? Collecting leaves and mowing loans on campuses of the very same universities which granted students their degrees in the previous year? New York City is flooded with waiters and baristas with graduate degrees from elite private schools who work for a minimum wage and who owe over a quarter of a million through student loans on which they can never default.

Commencement speeches have become structured increasingly more along the lines of worn out clichés peppered with some forms of lightweight humor and anecdotes aimed at anesthetizing graduates against the bleakness of reality rather than attempting to invigorate their expectations and create hope. Several years ago, Bard College invited Ben Bernanke as a commencement speaker. The man who had been at the helm of the Federal Reserve in the times of epochal crisis, and who had access to considerable insights, had essentially nothing to say about the future in his message to new graduates. Not good, not bad… Nothing! Instead of using his privileged position to enlighten the audience with new visions, raise their expectations and send them thus prepared into the world, his entire speech revolved about how difficult life was 100 years ago, how then we were worse off than today. Really? Was he reluctant to tell them the truth because it was too depressing or was he just being cynical? Or he didn’t know better? Hard to believe.

 Is there any evidence, which is not faith based, that suggests the next 20 or 50 years will lead to a better quality of life as recent history suggests? The answer to this question has become very much sample dependent. If we take the first 15 years of the 21st century as a base, the first seven have been in no way indicative of how the subsequent eight would feel. This is in sharp contrast with the pattern the developed world has experienced in the second half of the 20th century: the 60s were better than the 50s, 70s better than 60s (maybe not culturally, but economically), 80s better than 70s, etc. The very same system that had denied nobody anything in the past, now denies everyone everything.

Credentials inflation

The way education is functioning these days has changed dramatically. More and more universities operate like businesses. The aim is to attract as much money as possible. Students are treated as clients and incentivized by grade inflation. Significant sums of money are spent on infrastructure aimed at attracting affluent foreign students, new buildings, studies abroad, networking… Many state schools have luxury condos built on campuses. Acceptance of foreign students has increased to the point that they are crowding out domestic applicants. An emphasis is shifted from academics to marketing and expansion in administration. Around 80% of new hires are in administration. This is financed by diluting the academic quality: About two thirds of academic staff consists of adjuncts and only one third permanent professors. Universities operate like Cartels. There is very little price variation between colleges of different ranking. Nevertheless, college attendance has never been higher. In the last 30 years, the number of Bachelor’s degrees per capita increased by 25%, masters by 90%, PhD by 40%.

What do new graduates face? Two things dominate the post-graduate landscape: precarious job market and enormous student debt. The price of education has grown so much that it makes little or no sense. There are a countless number of tenured professors who are still paying their student debt. Moreover, admittance to a good college requires, almost as a rule, networking that is assured only by going to a “proper” (and inevitably expensive) private school, admittance to which is conditioned on attending a special pre-K etc. By the time one graduates from college, families and individuals have accumulated over half a million dollars of debt per child (after tax), and for most of the college graduates the realistic prospect is a $40K starting salary. So, student debt becomes perpetuity and life reduces to serfdom.

Education is facing credentials inflation: more education buys less opportunity. In the last three decades tuition in the US has risen about three times faster than living costs. The figure shows the history of college tuition in units of 1978 costs. In order to put it in the right economic context, the costs of living and healthcare, which have changed since then, are shown on the same graph.

InflationTuitionMedicalGeneral1978to2008

Compared to 1978, costs of living have increased roughly 3.25-fold; medical costs inflated roughly 6-fold; but college tuition and fees inflation approached 10-fold. Thus, education costs have increased by about three times faster than the costs of living.

As much as this number looks extreme, it is a logical consequence of developments that took place in the last two decades[2].

Educational degrees are a currency of social respectability, traded for access to jobs. Like any currency, the prices inflate when increase in monetary supply (money printing) chases an ever more contested stock of goods. In our case, an increasing supply of talent/qualification/educational degrees is chasing an ever more contested pool of upper-middle-class jobs.

So, while there is an oversupply of degrees, people are willing to pay the high price because jobs are scarce. The availability of funding in terms of student loans, which has also gone into overdrive, is a mid-wife, but not a cause of this process.

At the root of this anomaly is, in fact, the ongoing process of dismantling of the welfare state. The idea of a welfare state in capitalism is to broker the meeting between capital and labor. Its role is to make sure that capital is funded and that labor is saleable, i.e. that it is healthy, trained and generally ready to endure the rhythms of the factory floor. Without externalizing those costs, capital would be unable to operate profitably, thus, public healthcare, housing and education. The reason for dismantling the welfare state is that it is no longer needed: there is increasingly less need for labor, and in order to keep taxes low, welfare costs need to be severely reduced or completely eliminated. Instead of public housing, we have mortgages, instead of healthcare, private insurance, instead of public education, student loans.

The ongoing transformation of education is a consequence of this transition from public to private deficit spending, which has been both a direct cause of the current crisis and a core reason behind the inability to recover from it.

Future as an existential impossibility

We are born, we die. Everything in between is subject to interpretation[3]. Our time between birth and death is structured by desires — not their fulfillment, but rather a desire to continue to desire. And, in order to sustain the capacity to desire, our lives need a virtual layer. A loss of that capacity results in an ultimate state of melancholia, libidinal disinvestment and spiritual coma. In modernity, the future has provided the interpretive grid responsible for the maintenance of this virtual layer. For almost two centuries, the future has been perceived as a better place. All political systems, from democracy to socialism, to dictatorship or anarchism, shared the belief that, irrespective of how dark the present might appear, the future is bright.

This has changed radically and abruptly in the last years. The future has become a crowded place. There is not enough future for everyone. No one believes in it any more. But, without belief in the future, the present cannot take off, and without the present there will be no future.

[1] Shakespeare

[2] Randall Collins, in Does Capitalism Have a Chance, Oxford University Press (2013)

[3] Nora Ephron