Tag Archives: #biopolitics

Degenerate Matter

10.XI 2019

When a star exhausts its nuclear fuel, the balance tips in favor of gravity, and the star starts to collapse. In its final stage, it expels most of its outer material leaving the core as its only remain. This core becomes a very hot white dwarf. Rules governing “life” on a white dwarf are quite different from those on a normal star[1]. Highly compressed mater exposes the quantum mechanical nature of its constituents, which, when stripped down to their irreducible selves, obey the exclusion principle: no two particles can occupy the same state. As the density of such matter increases, so does its energy, pressure and temperature. In the dense matter, particles cannot slow down completely all at the same time. Some of them can, but once they occupy the low energy levels, those levels become inaccessible to the rest, so they start populating the next lowest levels and when those are filled, there come the next higher etc. When all available energy levels are filled, this is referred to as degenerate matter – it is an overcrowded environment where everyone suffers from acute claustrophobia.

Economic progress is intrinsically coupled with exclusion and exclusion with the production of excess population – those who fall through the cracks and cannot be reintegrated into the normal functioning of society. They represent a surplus of humanity that is unwanted, inconvenient, and ultimately displaced and are earmarked for transport outside of the enclosure of prosperity. Their presence creates discomfort inside the enclosure and changes the underlying social dynamics. The longer the excess population rubs shoulders with “normal” folks, the more palpable precarity becomes everyone’s prospect and the less reassuringly safe anyone’s position seems[2].

The volume of excess population has come close to exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet. This is one of the biggest and most acute problems of the developed world today. Every political administration in the USA has had a different proposal for managing the latent anxiety associated with it. This issue has shaped the transformation of the neoliberal state in the last decades from the welfare to the penal modality of its functioning[3]. The neoliberal response to the problem of growing excess population has been centered on the proliferation of underclasses as a counterweight to the prolapse of the eroding middle class and reinforcement of their illusory comfort. As a consequence, poverty has become more granular. In the last 50 years three new classes have emerged at the bottom. In addition to the four existing classes, The elite plutocracy, The Salariat, Proficians, and Proletariat, there are the three new structures at the bottom[4]: The precariat, The unemployed, and The lumpen precariat.

While the standard of living of the working class remains underwritten by forms of income other than money wages (e.g. welfare, social security, unemployment insurance, Medicare…), for the precariat, those benefits have largely disappeared. The combination of employment instability and income vulnerability defines the economic precarity of the precariat.

Precariat position centers on the increasing marginalization of many people from the rights normally associated with citizenship (disenfranchised, homeless, former prisoners, illegal immigrants…). The intersection of economic precarity with political marginality is what distinguishes the precariat from the working class. The precariat lacks the seven forms of labor-related security: labor market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security, and representation security[5].

Mathematics of poverty

When it comes to wealth distribution, there is a general misconception about the role of randomness. Almost by default, randomness is misidentified as a sine qua non for fairness: If we let the chips fall where they may, randomness would guarantee equitable distributions — everyone will be happy. The false equivalence between randomness and fairness is incorrect and nowhere is it more forcefully invalidated than in the case of wealth accumulation and its distribution. In fact, the very opposite holds true: If it were up to the forces of randomness alone, unregulated and unattended, the outcome would be extreme wealth disparity – there would be very little in the middle of the distribution and most of it would be in the tails.

Extreme wealth goes hand in hand with extreme poverty and the depletion of the middle class. This is the mathematics of wealth accumulation alone, and holds true even if we do not account for the power, political influence, and intergenerational reinforcement it brings. The figure below shows the distribution of wealth determined by a repeated coin toss[6]: each participant gains or loses a unit of wealth if they get heads or tails respectively. This is repeated many times. The total wealth is displayed as a fraction of favorable tosses. For example, 0% means not a single heads outcome – the player is considered poor at the end; 50% reflects an equal number of favorable and unfavorable tosses – the wealth is unchanged; 100% is all favorable tosses – the wealth accumulation is maximal.

ArcSinDistribution

While new wealth (or its depletion) arrives in random installments, total individual wealth is mostly either steadily increasing or decreasing (with a relatively small fraction remaining stable). Most of the distribution is in the wings: 40% of the people are poor and 40% are rich, while only 20% are in the middle. Visually, this is a mirror image of the normal distribution where 2/3 of its mass resides in a two standard deviation band around the mean.

In reality, wealth is even more concentrated than this. The disparity due to randomness is amplified with each generation as initial conditions reinforce it further. This is exactly our current predicament. 20th century capitalism is a spectacular confirmation of this mathematical result. As much as this most amazing period of human history had been about enlightenment, emancipation, science, progress, and wealth, it had generated a staggering amount of poverty along the way.

Poverty used to be a safe place

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

The presence of wealth focuses the political attention of the rich on wealth defense; its absence has no parallel effect on the poor. Poverty by itself neither motivates nor provides a core set of common interests for the poor the way wealth does for the rich.

Capitalism never recognized poverty as its own, its endogeneity always denied and rationalized by deploying exogenous factors or attributed to imperfections of implementation. As it grew bigger and deeper, poverty became self-reproducing and multiplying.

No one has captured the essence of poverty better than the French poet Charles Péguy in his 1913 essay[7]: Poverty was an unspoken contract between man and destiny, and before the outset of post-modern times destiny had never reneged on this contract. We had known the times when a man condemned to poverty was at least secure in poverty. It was understood that those who wished to escape poverty, those who gambled, risked everything. Those who gambled could lose, but those who didn’t gamble could not lose. They could not have suspected that a time would come, that it was already here – and this, precisely is modern times – when those who do not gamble lose all the time, even more assuredly than those who do.

In postmodernity, this only became more extreme with the 21st century delivering the complete transformation. Paradoxically, the metamorphosis of poverty has been most striking across electoral democracies in developed economies where poverty became not only risky, but shameful and, with time, its criminalization became one of the main neoliberal projects[8] resulting in systematic social precarization and large-scale loss of citizens’ rights contributing to the rise of new underclasses. This particular mode of permanent exclusion short-circuited the feedback loop between their discontent and the political process. And nowhere has this transformation been more extreme and thorough than in post-modern America where the gambling mindset became a new paradigm, and gamblers new folk heroes, and where society gradually transformed from that of workers to risk takers and lottery winners.

The physics of social downgrade

There are always too many of them. ‘Them’ are the fellows whom there should be fewer – or better still none at all. And there are never enough ou us. ‘Us’ are the floks of whom there should be more. (Zygmunt Bauman)

At the bottom of the social scale, the stakes are lower and risks higher. Migrants, the new underclass of precariat, who flee their homes out of desperation represent the highest level of risk taking. They trade the certainty of poverty at home for the risk of precarity abroad, in the developed world and agree to populate the lowest social strata in exchange for an objectively infinitesimal chance of a better future.

Exhaustion of social libidinal energy, the equivalent of the nuclear fuel of a star, is the beginning of the creation of social degenerate matter. The more society is shaped as the winner-takes-all, the more extreme risk taking is set off and the more dire the consequences and deeper the downfalls, resulting in more crowding at the bottom layers of social underclasses.

Nothing frightens people as much as the prospect of their social degradation, of losing their social status or facing a class downgrade. This fear is managed by the creation of social underclasses. The rise of new modes of xenophobia is a result of the underlying class struggles at the bottom.

In post-war Western Europe, immigration issues were rarely (if ever) an important part of a political platform. An influx of immigrants was driven by demand for labor; their social position as precariat was controlled both administratively and culturally. Immigrants practically never had a shot at citizenship and neither did their offspring. There was no mixing with local folks due to impenetrable cultural barriers which were practically never challenged.

Celebrated by the capital for removal of economic rigidities and as a catalyst of free capital flow, globalization was, at the same time, a major disruption of the social equilibrium. By its very constitution, globalization guarantees porous boundaries for capital, and the basic condition for restoration of equilibrium requires that the same holds for labor. Social precarization, thus, became the process of formation of a new equilibrium, a consequence of a tradeoff between poverty and precarity. However, lumpy, intermittent surges in supply of precarity, sometimes as much as one million people at a time, put enormous stress, both fiscal and social, on domestic middle and lower-middle classes and threaten their social standing, especially in times when the crushing forces of the economic zero-sum game have become inescapable due to the depletion of growth and general libidinal forces. This has only become more acute in post-2008 years as policy response aimed at covering the costs of capitalist excesses began to exaggerate already preexisting social imbalances.

The lower middle class and domestic excess population don’t really mind minorities or immigrants as such, they just don’t want to see them climbing the existing social ladder – they want them and their offspring segregated and permanently prevented from getting a shot at it. The lower echelons of society need assurances and a buffer (political, institutional, and physical) that separates them from the true underclass. This is their new political demand, which they are being promised by the new populist leaders.

The images of detainment facilities and overall dehumanization of target groups (immigrants and minorities), tried and exploited so many times before, whose replay we have been seeing in the last years, are very powerful assurance tools in that context. Ritualistic denial of their humanity with gratuitous displays of cruelty, are essential parts of political strategy and communication tools between populist politicians and their base. Immigrants, in their view, need to be confined to the three lowest social groups and the walls – symbolic, administrative and (preferably) physical — between them and the rest of the population have to be permanent and impenetrable. As a cultural concept, these walls have an immeasurable symbolic value for the domestic underclass. This is the main reason why the issue of immigration has become a central part of every populist movement now (and not before), and why the idea of The Wall, as idiotic as it objectively is, cannot be abandoned by populist politicians if they want to have a chance of staying in power.

White dwarf capitalism

Ever since humanity bowed to the economy, all that is left is the freedom of hostility. The feeling of hate is the only thing that survived in people’s minds since the first days of the 20th century and the beginning of progress. It dominates today’s societies of abundance. (Paul Virilio)

Capitalism will not disappear, it will transform into managerial feudalism. In its final stages, capitalism functions very much like a collapsing star. When it exhausts its libidinal energy, it will turn into an economic and social white dwarf. The rules governing the behavior of such a social structure are very different from the laws describing traditional social organizations.

Degenerate matter, the fabric of white dwarfs, is not composed of atoms and molecules, but elementary particles. Stripped down to their irreducible selves and decontextualized, elementary particles no longer come together and form chemical bonds. There is no chemistry, no biology, and there is no life. Instead, there is a strict hierarchical order establish by particles’ intrinsic intolerance for each other. As basic social structures like family, clan, community, or congregation no longer function, when empathy is extinguished, and only individuals, stripped of their social context and governed exclusively by their own self-interests remain, society becomes a culture of elementary particles and turns into social degenerate matter.

White dwarfs are perfect undead objects. They are eternal[9] — it takes forever for them to cool and lose all their energy, longer than the life of the universe. Their constitution defines a perfect stasis: Everything is in its place inside a white dwarf; there is no room for anything to change. It is a perfect rigid order – a beautiful monstrosity without any attributes of life.

Civilizations rise and they collapse making way to new ones. White dwarfs do not have enough mass to collapse into neutron stars or black holes. They must endure a far harsher sentence than death: Eternity without the capacity to end their existence.

 

[1] As the density increases, so does the pressure, energy and the temperature (which is the average kinetic energy of the system). As a consequence, temperature of the white dwarfs exceeds 100,000 degrees. Density of white dwarfs is typically 200,000 times that of Earth and the gravity on their surface of is 350,000 times that of gravity on Earth. That means a 150-pound (68-kilogram) person on Earth would weigh 50 million pounds (22.7 million kg) on the surface of a white dwarf.

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity; 1 edition (2003)

[3] ibid.

[4] Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic; 1st edition (2011)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jamil Baz and George Chacko, Financial Derivatives: Pricing, Applications, and Mathematics, Cambridge University Press (2004)

[7] Charles Péguy, d’Argent, Des Equateurs (2008)

[8] 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”. 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.

[9] As the theory goes, white dwarfs should, in principle, gradually cool down and stop emitting light and eventually morph into black dwarfs. However, this is a very slow process – the period of the transformation would take in excess of 14 billion years – more than the age of the universe. Thus, the mortality of the white dwarfs is an entirely academic question. For all purposes, white dwarfs are universally eternal.

Liminality and Political Ritual

2. IV 2019

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

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

Two modes of betwixt and between

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

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

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

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

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

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

The initiates: Excess population

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

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

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

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

Social change as ritual: Between marginality & liminality

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

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

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

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

The roadmap to re-contextualization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to learn to speak again: Linguistification of society as foreplay to social change

18. II 2019

Tongue finger

One avoids a lie whenever one can get away with truth (Borislav Pekic)

Why does it appear impossible to dispute obvious lies and falsehoods with simple and self-evident truths? It’s been more than two years since lies were set free. They have flooded the public discourse, politics, media and everyday life. Lies and falsehoods are neither exonerated, nor are they getting flushed out. They continue to pile up on top of existing ones with no drainage mechanism in place. Their presence continues to agitate the public, but nothing seems to be on the horizon that would resolve the underlying tensions. The political entropy caused by this toxic ferment is gradually sucking out all the oxygen and beginning to intoxicate even its own creators.

There is something about the current political configuration that is conducive to this state of unresolved contradictions, which is embedded in our thinking and language. In capitalism, the significance of a concept is primarily measured in terms of its value in the marketplace. The market value system has penetrated all social relationships and governs our thinking and language as well. Under capitalist conditions, language functions as a commodity[1]. For example, we express an agreement by saying: I buy that, disagreement with: I don’t buy it. Winning an acceptance is articulated as selling (the President has to sell that idea to Congress).

As a consequence, any resistance to capitalist hegemony, either through critique or protest, is recognized as successful only it if sells well, and vice versa – fails if it sells poorly. In other words, language in capitalism is mute. Criticism of capitalism does not operate in the same medium as capitalism itself[2]. The two can never meet each other, and they cannot be allowed to. In that respect, capitalism is structured in a very Euclidean way. According to Boris Groys, society first must be altered by linguistification if it is to become subject to any meaningful critique[3] – before we contemplate any change, we need to learn how to speak; linguistification is a foreplay to any meaningful change.

Capitalism’s instinct for survival mobilizes any and all possible forces of defense, including its spontaneous mutation, in order to prevent its own transformation. The merger of politics and entertainment is one such mechanism at play. The logic behind this strange symbiosis is simple. Entertainment draws attention and boosts viewership and ratings — it takes attention away from the content and reinforces the message irrespective of its validity. This is the commodification of language at its purest.

How nonsense travels: Semantic excess and its transmission mechanisms

Current political protagonists have an unusual set of skills. They show up in various shapes and forms as a composite of entertainers, debate artists, and charismatic personalities with a penchant for scandal, something like a massively dumbed down version of sophists. They are, to paraphrase Boris Groys, entrepreneurs who offer the empty surfaces of coherently articulated speech to anyone who wishes to be concealed behind them. The real attraction of the linguistic commodities offered for sale by these characters is represented less by their logically valid surfaces than by the dark space behind those surfaces where customers can settle comfortably. The key transformation of political subjects into consumers has already taken place. Listeners are encouraged to appropriate the obscure core of populist speech in order to fill it with their own concerns[4]. In other words, speech that hides its paradoxical structure becomes a commodity that invites penetration into its paradoxical background or interior.

In the political environment where all social structures are suspended and things function like in professional wrestling, where only the loudest voices are heard, ratings are the ultimate metric. Everything is measured by its shock value. It doesn’t matter what kind of attention (good or bad) one gets, whatever cuts through the mix counts; the rest drowns out in the overall cacophony of semantic excess. And the more politics resemble a circus, the more people will tune in to see it. Everything else is of secondary importance. Viewers will dial in not to get a dose of sense or logic, but to be entertained, agitated or to activate any emotion that interrupts their boredom.

There is a concentrated effort to keep every public discourse trapped in the vortex of commodified language, where any new idea that could lead to a possibility of change receives a price tag and gets absorbed by the black background of the capitalist value system. The sole purpose of political talking heads, spokesmen and pundits – the political whirling dervishes – is to not allow this vortex of cognitive opacity to come to a halt and to stir each debate and discursive deviation towards its center. Media are caught in this play as unwitting accomplices. Like rats who carry the bubonic plague, they facilitate the transmission of the message; they cannot stop the dissemination of lies because they go wherever profits take them.

Disappearance by proliferation: Between logic and truth

Is truth necessary at all? Can’t logic replace it? Logic is something permanent, whereas truth changes. (Borislav Pekic)

There is nothing new in the political platform of the right wing populism — its still-born ideas are outdated, compromised, and were disqualified long ago — its only innovation is linguistic. The grand program is to exonerate lies and integrate them into the mainstream capitalist system. Flooding the public discourse with lies and falsehoods is multi-purpose.

Lies have had an uncomfortable and disadvantaged position in capitalism. Those who lie, steal — they are thieves. And although they respect property, thieves want to redistribute it, and redistribution is the biggest sin in capitalism. So, liars are assholes. However, this logic (unjustly) denies lies, and those who are good at using them, their chance at limitless profit making. And the new populist breed is here to correct this historical injustice (this is America!). Their mission is to show that lies, when set free, could take us to places we could only have dreamed of. Lies can become monetary forward contracts, a promise of revenue, and no longer a challenge to the interpretation of reality. By maintaining the capitalist paradigm, profit exonerates the encounter of lies with facts.

When seen in retrospect, 2016 was a cognitive coup d’état. The subsequent two years have been a process of transcription of society into the medium of language, a linguistic counterrevolution and not a political or social and economic movement – nothing has really been accomplished, nothing sustainable achieved, except an overall social and political destabilization.

So, before anything can change, the last two years have to be undone — we first need to learn how to speak again. Learning the right language is a foreplay that needs to come before any political action. The progressive agenda, if it is to be effective at this stage, has to be centered on the linguistic part.

To begin to learn how to speak again, and to grasp the inadequacy of the existing language (the only one we know at the moment), one has to start speaking about the unspeakable, about the topics where the commodified language of capitalism is mute. We need to escape into the blind alleys of capitalism where its systemic disorders, the five horsemen of the apocalypse, reside[5]: Stagnation, Redistribution, Plundering of the public domain, Technology and commodification of labor, and Corruption.

These are the topics that define the discourse of change. They address the central points of self-intoxication, the Achilles heels of capitalism. The five systemic disorders expose the inner contradictions, the paradoxicality of the system; they are the portals of change. Any political figure whose platform is defined by these topics deserves our attention. All others are impostors.

[1] Boris Groys, Das komunistische Postskriptum, Suhrkamp Verlag (2006)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?, Verso (2017)

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

15. IX 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] ibid.

The age of unreason

25. VII 2018

The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion

 people in these parts have of heaven. In these parts

 they have come to the conclusion that God

 requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to

 plan two establishments but

 just the one: heaven. It

 serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful

 as hell.

(Bertolt Brecht, Hollywood Elegies)

According to Foucault, the basis for civil society is the idea of a redistribution/recentering of the governmental reason. In pre-modernity, the idea of regulating, measuring, and so limiting the indefinite exercise of power was sought in the wisdom of the person who would govern. Wisdom implied governing in accordance with the order of things, with the knowledge of human and divine laws. But, as modernity entered the historical scene, roughly from XVI century on, exercise of power was no longer adjusted in accordance with wisdom, but according to calculation of force, relations, wealth and factors of strength. The modern forms of government technology could be described as control of government by pegging it to rationality.[1] Modernity, since the nineteenth century, is marked by the emergence of four modes of governmental rationalities, which in subsequent two centuries overlap, lean on each other, challenge each other, and struggle with each other. They represent art of government according to: 1) truth, 2) rationality of the sovereign state, 3) rationality of economic agents and 4) rationality of the governed[2].

It is the fourth mode — the rationality of the governed as the regulating principle of the rationality of the government – that was responsible for the rise of neoliberalism and Homo Oeconomicus as the new political subject and, with it, the emergence of economics as the ideological metalanguage in the second half of the twentieth century.

The trap of rationality and the search for unwisdom

Neoliberalism disseminates market values into every sphere of human activity. People are seen as specs of human capital which needs to appreciate and get reinvested by making proper choices (mate, education, job,…). It provides direction without meaning in directionless environment of postmodernity. (Wendy Brown)

Rationality is a wonderful thing. However, when coupled with competition and when the two are elevated to the highest principle of human existence – when everything in life is reduced to rational decisions in a competitive environment – it becomes a spectacularly efficient mechanism of exclusion. Sooner or later, the symbiosis of the two create a winner-takes-all environment where every failure to make a right decision has dire consequences.

With competition, the number of right paths is shrinking and the number of wrong ones proliferates. Every wrong turn is punitive and potentially fatal. In the kingdom of rationality, bad decisions become self-reinforcing. One wrong turn reduces subsequent maneuvering space and forces another suboptimal choice until there are only wrong choices, all the good and rational ones had been taken by competitors.

The number of those who have failed rationality test grows exponentially with time. They are the excess of population. They hate rationality passionately and resent reality they have been served. The real problem is the unforgiving aspect of progress, the persistent depletion of the safety net and the ultimate absence of cushion. Yet, the excluded are lured into an ideological trap that supports the narrative of systematic removal of that very safety net and, in that process, they continuously undermine themselves. They prefer anything, any alternative to what they have now, not matter how elusive, dubious, and unpalatable the reasoning behind it.

This self-sabotage is at the base of the frustration of a large segment of the population. From the political side this is perceived as an irresistible source of rage capital that is begging to be deployed and reinvested. For the excluded, refusal to yield to the forces of reason is the ultimate act of resistance, a sign of desire to liberate themselves from the tyranny of rationality.

The great U-turn and the politics of performative speech acts

Performative utterances are sentences which not only describe a given reality, but also change the social reality once they are pronounced, like “I pronounce you husband and wife”, or “The court finds the defendant guilty”.

When the number of those who have failed the rationality test is so large that there is no more place for them in the enclosure of prosperity and when they begin to present a significant political body whose voice can be heard in the ballot box, rationality, as a way of governing, has already exhausted itself – its toxic effects have taken over. At that point, the excluded will seek to abandon reason and, with a dash of nostalgia and a help of identity politics, elect a new prince. And this prince will be unlike any other before him. He will govern with unwisdom, and will have the courage to wear his unreason unabashedly as an ultimate virtue. He will create a new order of things, define new reality, and construct the world of unreason with rules that only he and his base will understand. The new fictions will become their articles of faith. Facts and truth will no longer have their old values and the wish for a coherent fictitious world will be satisfied.

In the kingdom of unreason, power will derive from a way of using language rather than from a system of ideas[3]. The first phase of the uprising will consist of a linguistic revolution. Performative speech acts — the pronouncements that change reality by their mere utterance — will enter the vernacular and shape political and social reality. This is where self-intoxication begins. By repeating and ritually solidifying lies, those who tell them and hear them may, after a while, embrace them as articles of faith. As soon as falsehood has become part of a group identity, it generates new obligations which can be neglected only at risk of showing weakness or, worse still, a treasonous attitude. [4]

Slide2

Unwind of enlightenment and the great U-turn

In a strange twist of fate, emancipation, which marks transition from wisdom to rationality and gives rise to enlightenment as the public use of reason, in the late stage of neoliberalism, it creates conditions for its own demise that lead to its forced unwind and a historical U-turn. With the rise of unreason, populism takes over and becomes neoliberalism’s counterpart in its afterlife.

Unreasonable people cannot be governed by reason. They require a leader who appeals to their irrational side and who, therefore, has to display unreason himself. A different principle is required for governing such masses, a mirror image of neoliberalism’s “governing through freedom”. Unreasonable people are governed through unfreedom.

But this, like any other, detachment from reality cannot be anything but short-lived. The question is not if, but when. The leader will sit in his big car, get on a highway and drive against the traffic. His car will have only one pedal: gas. Like his followers, he believes that everyone else is driving in the wrong direction. Many drivers will move to the shoulders to avoid the collision, but, as he continues to accelerate, there will be a slow-moving trailer trucks that will not be able to maneuver fast enough and, at the end, the fanaticism and the speed will consume their creator. There ain’t no way around it.

 

[1] Michele Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978—1979, Picador (2010)

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Ibid.

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)

Digital panopticon and the triumph of the unfree will

22. IV 2018

The smart phone is not just a surveillance apparatus, it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue of the Digital. “Like” is the digital “Amen” (B. C. Han)

Digital society is a big congregation, over two billion Facebook users worldwide, about a third of the planet’s population, and over 250 million in the US alone, the entire voting age and twice the 2016 turnout. Their digital soul, the complement of the real one, is there on display for anyone to mess with, if that can serve some purpose — commercial, political or otherwise. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Smartphones are digital windows into the innermost corners of the psyche of this enormous congregation. They provide access to their unfulfilled desires and frustrated egos, fears, tastes, and political leanings.

Smartphones have become a tool for governing — they enable one to shape opinions, diffuse dissent, streamline emotions, manufacture consensus, assassinate opponents, stage revolutions, and declare wars and victories, imaginary and real, all alike. In the configuration of total transparency and social pornographication everything is subject to influence and on disposal to anyone who has the attention or who wins the ratings war. Transparency is a curse. It suppresses deviation, abhors individual opinion, and extinguishes free will. Everyone is watching everyone else; invisible moderators smooth out communication and calibrate it to what is generally understood and accepted[1]. There is no room for and no language to express disagreement – there is only “Like”.

However, as B. C. Han points out, something is alive only to the extent that it contains contradiction within itself, its force consists in an ability to hold and endure contradictions within[2]. Whatever is merely positive is lifeless. In a society of outsiders idiosyncrasy has a great appeal and mobilizing power. But, superfluidity of the social media transforms idiosyncratic into collective. Individual instabilities become part of the collective Eros and destabilizing on a systemic level. The collective absorbs all libidinal forces through persistent self-reinforcement and, in that process, acquires enormous coercive potential, until there is only one opinion, one emotion and one voice. The digital panopticon becomes a communism of affects and democracy a polite dictatorship.

[1] B. C. Han, Fröhliche Wissenschaft: Agonie des Eros, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2012)

[2] ibid.