Big things

20. III 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29. X 2016

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

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

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

heroin-prices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideological mainlining: Biopolitical penetration of the American brain

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

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

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

heroin-and-gini

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

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

State as enabler of self-destruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

25. IX 2016

Adventures in heterotopia: The things we left behind

Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck, invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, and invention of nuclear energy is invention of a nuclear meltdown. (Paul Virilio)

Galileo’s real heresy was not so much his rediscovery that the Earth revolved around the sun, but his constitution of an infinitely open space. His findings dissolved the idea of the medieval concept of emplacement. The space suddenly opened and disrupted the existing order of things. Localization gave way to trajectory and emplacement to extension. A thing’s place was no longer anything but a point on its trajectory, the stability of a thing was only its movement indefinitely slowed down. There was no up & down anymore, no celestial hierarchy. Instead of the universe resting on the back of a giant turtle, suddenly, everything was moving and out of place. Nobody was in charge anymore, and that was OK. The heavens were in a state of celestial anarchy. This was the emancipatory core of Galileo’s revolution. To a medieval mind, this was a picture of utter chaos. The idea of creation and design was seriously undermined and with it what was believed to be the Big Guy’s mandate (and authority). The Church, as His shopkeeper and interpreter of His will, saw this as bad for business and a problem for the franchise. Understandably, they had an issue with it, pronounced Galileo an evildoer and threatened him with violence. Galileo recanted, but it didn’t matter – religion’s golden days were over.

Four centuries later our experience of space is undergoing the second revolution, this time far more disruptive. With information technology and infinite connectivity, time is contracting, distances are shrinking and space compactifying. The space of trajectories is giving way to networks & sites. Different geographies are becoming nodes on the global grid, equidistant from each other. The outside is gradually disappearing, absorbed by the expanding and elastic inside. The world has become smaller, but within that world, things no longer have a fixed place; they are displaced and delocalized. Permanently and irreversibly. The world is the Network.

The Network is a subversion of all terrestrial hierarchies. The concepts of center and periphery have lost their traditional meaning. All things are both equally important and irrelevant. Everything is now everywhere and nowhere — compactification and delocalization at the same time. An absolute rule of equivalence. The tyranny of transparency. The source of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia. The ultimate triumph of dialectics, simultaneously both oppressive and liberating.

Things are no longer constrained by physical separation, seasons of the year, time zone, weather, climate… Companies can relocate to countries with cheap labor and real estate, lower taxes and accommodative political climate. As long as the place is on the grid, and eventually all geographies will be, it doesn’t matter where one is. The Network is everywhere and so are the factories and companies and everything else. People are no longer bound to a particular locale; they don’t even have to leave their homes to perform work. Everyone is gradually losing their identity in the face of persistent deterritorialization and uprootedness.

Unprecedented wealth accumulation afforded by the Network gives rise to a new, ungovernable, global overclass which now makes all major political decisions. States are powerless to interfere and effectively become their extended arm. As a rising tide lifts all boats, crime becomes more prosperous, organized and powerful – increasing fraction of global wealth comes from and is destined to criminal sources. Gradually, everything becomes subordinated to the interests of global oligarchies and their prosperity comes at high social costs.

The pressure of equivalence is crushing everything in sight, histories, cultures, identities, futures, and symbolic meaning.

The same way Galileo wreaked havoc in outer space and disrupted celestial order, post-modern creation of the Network has been a disruption of terrestrial order with the dissolution of historically rigid social structures. New technology has revealed every segment of society as an instrument of production, a human resource to be arranged, rearranged and disposed of. It has created major economic advantages and unprecedented opportunities for profit making. But this embrace of convenience doesn’t come free of charge. Removal of market frictions, economic rigidities, and erasure of borders, resulted in physical and cultural displacement, loss of identity, corruption, omnipresence of crime, rise in violence, dismantling of the welfare state and a rise of carceral state, populism, regressive policies and political chaos.

The very same technology that has proven to create the main economic advantage has also reduced the system’s ability to change. The system has lost the ability to adapt and with it, its main advantage, its vitality. It has suffered an autoimmune failure and is no longer able to recover from crises. This is the shipwreck, the plain crash and the nuclear meltdown.

4. VI 2016

Remains of the future

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 leafs 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 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: 60s were better than 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 client 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 stuff 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, umber 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. Price of education has grown so much that it makes little or no sense. There is 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 of debt per child (after tax), and for most of the college graduates 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 in 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 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 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 maintenance of this virtual layer. For almost two centuries, 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. Future has become a crowded place. There is not enough future for everyone. No one believes in it any more. But, without belief in 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

15. IV 2016

The tropic of Chaos    

Three years ago (in 2013), I came across an interesting book, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts. The original (The Summer of the Century) and its English version title (The Year before the Storm) give a complementary summary of its importance for the rest of the century. There has never been a year like 1913, a true big-bang for arts and culture. Vienna was the cultural capital of the world and Berlin was just emerging on the scene. Everybody was there, Freud, Schönberg, Witgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, Egon Schiele, and Alma Mahler, while young guns, Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and Tito made a brief appearance on the scene. Elsewhere in Europe, things were happening as well, although somewhat less concentrated. The first and second Balkan wars were over, the Ottoman Empire had been driven out of nearly all of Europe, King George I of Greece was assassinated. On the New Continent things were developing fast. The Mexican revolution started in February, and the US made its voice heard in the art world with the Armory show, while, at the same time, undergoing significant institutional and political transformation with an Amendment to the US Constitution authorizing the government to impose and collect income taxes and the creation of the Federal reserve System. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin had their first public appearances. The first assembly line as well as the Camel cigarette brand were introduced , stainless steel invented, MDMA (aka ecstasy) synthesized for the first time, and the all-purpose zipper patented. The world was buzzing. Creative forces were building up together with (positive) political tensions. Things could hardly look better. The world appeared to be in balance, only to fall apart a year later. The rest was silence.

While reading the book, a short paragraph caught my attention commenting on the only two mass killings that took place in that year. This is the factual summary of the two events:

  • The Bremen school shooting occurred on June 20, 1913 at St. Mary’s Catholic School. The gunman, 29-year-old unemployed teacher Heinz Schmidt, indiscriminately shot at students and teachers, causing the death of five girls and wounding more than 20 other people, before being subdued by school staff. He was never tried for the crime and sent directly to an asylum where he died in 1932.
  • On September 4, 1913 Ernst August Wagner, killed his wife and four children in Degerloch and subsequently drove to Mühlhausen an der Enz where he set several fires and shot 20 people, of whom at least 9 died, before he was beaten unconscious by furious villagers and left for dead. After several psychiatric assessments diagnosed him to suffer from paranoia, and thus becoming the first person in Wüttemberg to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, he was brought to an asylum in Winnenthal, where he died there of tuberculosis in 1938.

Mass murder has become so commonplace that having only two such occurrences within a year strike us as odd. For comparison, in 2013 there were close to 80 mass murders (they had to be alphabetized by the place of occurrence — on the average about three for each letter of the alphabet).

Intrigued by this comparison, I collected the data on mass killings in the last 100+ years looking for some clues about the trend. The data reveal a rather disturbing pattern. Since WWII, the number of mass killings (defined as an idiosyncratic, not state-sanctioned, killing spree with multiple victims) has been growing exponentially at a rate of 5% every year. This means that every 20 years or so, the number of mass killings triples (1.0520 = 3). For example, between the 1970s and 1990s, the average number went from 10 to 30, and between the 1990s and 2010s it went from 30 to 90. In 2013, when I looked at the numbers for the last time, we had around 80-90 mass killings, or one for every third business day. Allowing this trend to continue would take another 20 years for this number to triple, which meant that by the mid 2030s there would be one mass killing every business day.

The arrival of 2015 has announced something new! We have achieved this rate in less than two years: from 90 in 2013 to over 350 in the last year. The number of mass killings in 2015 exceeded the number of calendar days – every day somewhere someone’s fuse went off! This was not supposed to happen before the 2030s. This is how crazy the world has become. The future came too soon – we have already reached the point of self-intoxication when inner contradictions of the system, which previously could have been ignored, are taking over. The destabilizing forces are becoming stronger than those responsible for restoring the equilibrium.

Picture1

Mass murder has been growing exponentially at 5% annually

But, nothing surprises me any more after subjecting myself to the ordeal of watching the republican debate in the last weeks, something I had never attempted before (and am unlikely to repeat again). The obscene spectacle of this year’s presidential elections is a real game-changer, a true political big bang that will set the template for future public discourse everywhere. Its consequences will be studied for years to come. The political landscape will never be the same. Are these men really the best this country (of 350 million people) has to offer?

For several decades now, modernity has been operating between two fatal modes: Carnival and Cannibal – it has been transfixed by the spectacle of its own creation and self-annihilation [1]. The current republican campaign is a culmination of of this trend which has finally reached alarming proportions where the system can no longer bear it and which, by the force of its own absurdity, has made an illegible long-running process instantaneously legible by the sheer power of the event.

Current political discourse no longer has a solid empirical backbone. Nothing is binding. Politics exists mostly in the kingdom of words. It creates parallel narratives and fragmented reality. As a consequence, society has become disoriented and confused due to the gradual loss of all frames of reference and distorted cognitive coordinates. It suffers from loss of shared reality and a chronic inability to form consensus, which becomes its main cultural dimension. The political body is afflicted with split personality — collective mental disorder in need of shock therapy. This collective “mental instability” becomes its intrinsic cultural determinant and enters the center stage of public life.

Watching this bizarre orgy, this unabashed display of vulgarity I am beginning to converge towards the realization that the biggest collateral damage of this century has been empathy — not really a natural emotion but a cultural concept and a psychological condition that is cultivated and refined and which, in the absence of cultivation or under ideological pressure, can disappear or be completely extinguished [2]. Most certainly, there can be no room for it in the winner-takes-all environments.

Early attempts at creating conditions for social atomization started in the 80s with sustained camping to turn material poverty and absence of luck in general into something shameful and repellent. The anti-war movement, pacifism and public empathy together with conditions nurturing these currents had to be eliminated and replaced in all areas with culture of aggression and violence. Through the appropriation of public spaces and resources into the logic of the marketplace, individuals were dispossessed of many collective forms of mutual support of sharing. A simple and pervasive cooperative practice like hitchhiking, for example, had to be transformed into a filled act with fearful, even lethal consequences [3].

The result of this state of affairs, and its purpose, if one wants to attribute it to a particular ideological design, is to prevent us from hearing each other, sharing our pain and expressing our underlying discontent through a single voice that can be heard. The net effect is anger, frustration and withdrawal of libidinal energy. Depression becomes the only adequate emotional response to this state of affairs, a privileged position of anyone capable of reflective thinking.

Since the beginning of the crisis I struggled to understand why in the times of epochal crisis, when change appeared inevitable, trillions of dollars have been spent on preventing change. The escalation of violence, which gained new momentum in the last years, is not due to reaction of the oppressed (e.g. revolution), but is the flip side of the resistance to change. When change is as necessary as it is politically impossible, rage capital becomes the new political currency and the systemic rise of violence becomes the price to pay for forcing the acceptance of the unacceptable. Mass killing becomes a suicide in displaced mode, a somatic response, a reaction of the physical body, to increasing precarity, hopelessness and fragmentation of the social body. A depressed and desensitized subject, no longer burdened by empathy, transforms personal lack of courage required to pull the trigger of the gun pointing at his own head into a high stakes video-game type spectacle with the practical certainty of being killed in the end.

It is not easy to kill another human being. It is a deeply traumatizing experience, for a killer, of course, especially if it is his first kill. 100 years ago, mass murders were result of an idiosyncratic mental disorder — killers always ended in an insane asylum. In contrast, 21st century mass killings have acquired strong systemic overtones with high degree of commonality across different occurrences and individuals, and have become an integral part of the spectacle. Contemporary mass murderers, when seen in hindsight, show a strikingly similar pattern. Depending on the vantage point, they can be seen both as heroes and as antiheroes. They are all ticking time bombs whose trigger could have been anticipated and possibly prevented were it not for the lack of resources. Unlike their early 20th century peers, contemporary mass murderers are largely rational individuals or people on a planned mission (murder or suicide), perfectly aware of what they are doing at the time of killing. For the most part, their behavior can be argued, reasoned or explained by underlying social factors.

102 years later, we are undoing the cultural big bang of 1913 with a cultural collapse and symbolic annihilation – a continuation of the general debasement that has dominated the political landscape of the last four decades. This is a full blown explosion of Carnival & Cannibal, a cultural mass murder and eventual cultural suicide. It is depression externalized through aggressiveness, a typical male reaction (we are yet to see the emergence of female mass killers on the scene). Collateral damage? A split on the political right, fascisization of the political body and the barbarization of the social landscape.

If some 20 years ago I saw a sci-fi movie with these images of the future, I would have walked out of the theatre. Today, I want to do exactly that, to walk out of the spectacle, only I wouldn’t know how to find my way home.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Carnival and Cannibal, Seagull Books 2010

[2] Franco Berrardi, Heroes, London, Verso 2015

[3] Jonathan Crary, 24/7 — Terminal Capitalism and the End of Sleep, London, Verso 2014

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13. II 2016

Modern times: The scandal of sleep    

Insomnia

Man has always sought to find new ways of time saving. The most important technological discoveries (horse, ships, cars, trains, plains, assembly line), although addressing efficiency of transportation and production, were really about efficient usage of time. The most recent technological innovations were the key to the question of how to fuse different times, productivity, leisure, consumption and family — Television, TV dinners, microwave, fast food, Las Vegas wedding, smart phones, the internet, and virtual reality all enhance possibilities of multitasking and, as such, affect directly the way we manage our time, so that one can both work and consume away from the workplace or the shopping mall. These inventions blurred the boundaries between work and private life and outlined a new age of biopolitics and bioderegulation with novel narrative frameworks.

From rational perspective life is simple. 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 profoundly changed our experience of time and transformed the way we spend it. They 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. “In that paradigm, sleeping is for losers.”

Bioderegulation and the scandal of sleep: The Brave New World recomposed

Unlike other irreducible activities, which have been successfully commoditized, sleep has stood as the last frontier resisting the colonization by engine of profitability. “The troubling reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it. Sleep sticks out as an irrational and intolerable affirmation that there might be limits to the compatibility of living beings with the allegedly irresistible forces of modernization, whose credo is that there are no unalterable givens of nature.’’ [1]

This discontent with sleep, and its resistance to colonization, is condensed in the concept of the sleep mode of electronic devices, which defines a state of low-power readiness implying really not sleep as an extended disengagement, but a deferred or diminished condition of operationality. It supersedes an off/on logic because nothing should ever be fundamentally off.

Sleep cannot be eliminated, but it can be wrecked, and efforts to accomplish this wreckage are fully in place. Scientific research on sleep is an unusually active playground, attracting considerable attention and funding. One example is the study of white crowned sparrows which during their migration along the West coast show unusual capacity for staying awake for as long as seven days. This ability makes them a particularly interesting subject for the army — despite considerable technological progress, the need for human solders will never go away and a benefit of engineering a sleepless solder, who could engage in combat for unspecified duration of time while maintaining alertness, is obvious.

As with other inventions that spread from military to civilian life—for instance penicillin, microwaves, nylon—the next logical step would be to produce sleepless workers and sleepless consumers. And while this transformation from crown sparrow to sleepless soldiers to sleepless workers and consumers might not have immediate dystopian repercussions, it outlines a trend which enhances the idea of human disposability. After all upgrading someone to a more efficient version is an implicit recognition that their earlier version was less valuable. The images of a society where these trends are fully developed, however, are deeply unsettling.

We live surprise results of the old plans

This is just another illustration of general dialectics of progress — one cannot innovate without creating some damage – expressed most eloquently in the writings of Paul Virilio, theorist of accidents and the grand maître of cultural theory. In his own words: “Progress and disaster are the two sides of the same coin. Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck, invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, invention of nuclear energy is invention of a nuclear meltdown. And, the more powerful the invention, the more dramatic are its consequences. So, it is inevitable to reach a point when progress and knowledge become unbearable. ”[2]

It is difficult to find a flaw in Virilio’s concise explanation of causality. Its power lies in the fact that it can be applied to almost any context. When it comes to the tyranny of work, it exposes the ultimate dialectics of rationality and its logical transformation path (from sublime to excremental). Rationality, when set free and unchecked, demands removal of any obstacle to profit maximization. Coupled with efficiency, which is raised to the level of exact science, and pushed to the extremes, it mutates into systematic devastation of everything that does not submit to the profit of the strongest. In the constellation of post-Fordist (attention) economy workers no longer behave rationally. Instead of working for living, they live for 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.

In other words, excess rationality (this permanent daylight of reason) leads to irrational outcomes and a culture that is based on rationality must experience a deep crisis when it becomes irrational.

Diachronic extension of the progress/disaster counterpoint places our present at an uncomfortable historical point: If the 20th century was the century of great inventions, then the 21st century has to be the century of disasters. This is the predicament of the new century — we are living surprise results of the old plans.

This historical inflection point of the present reality is eloquently illustrated by the contrast between the futuristic dystopian fiction of the early 20th century and the current new wave of dystopian non-fiction. For 20th century futurists, dystopia was placed in a distant future (the shipwreck is the futurist invention of the ship). In contrast, the new wave of dystopian literature is not a fiction. The topic is no longer the visions of a distant future, but rather a dystopian present without a future: We are shipwrecked in the endless deteriorating present.

And inability to produce a convincing image of the future causes an implosion of the present. So, behind the current economic crisis lies a crisis of time. Time no longer flows freely. It has come to a stop.

If this trend continues, it is not difficult to imagine a future where sleep will have to be bought like bottled water.

[1] Jonathan Crary, 24/7 — Terminal Capitalism and the End of Sleep, London: Verso 2014, pp 10-11.

[2] Paul Virilio, The original accident, London: Polity 2007, pp 21-33.