Tag Archives: #future

The ecstasy and the agony of power (carousing with Baudrillard, pt. 1)

2. VI 2019

Without ever leaving, we are already no longer there (Nikolai Gogol)

More than two years have passed since the political septic shock of 2016, but its metastatic aftershocks continue with unrestrained intensity. I often wonder, if Jean Baudrillard were around to see the unfolding of his script, what would he think. And I can’t make up my mind whether he would be pleased, amused or just plain bored by how predictable everything turned out to be.

From collapse to prolapse: Capitalism in a coma

The past decade, falling somewhere between strange and outright bizarre, is best described as capitalism in a state of clinically induced coma (after its capitulation to the years of self-intoxication and the near-death experience in 2008). But instead of helping the system heal, this state of suspension only made things worse. The longer the protective coma remained in place, the bigger capitalism’s excesses grew and the more stress it put on its already compromised immune system. The most robust and, at the same time, the most troubling post-2008 realization has been the system’s inability to heal. Underneath this sobering conclusion resides the accumulation of profound social deficits of various kinds.

In the same way it creates conditions for its own demise, capitalism spontaneously creates demand for social change. This is a structural problem of capitalism, its second nature, best summarized by Robert Nisbet: Because of the easy convertibility of all qualitative values and status relationships into fluid relationships of contract, based on money, modern capitalism has had a leveling and fragmenting effect upon context of status and membership[1]. These erosive effects, while always present to a certain degree, have been pushed into overdrive over the last decades. Decay of established structures and persistent social stratification, when pushed too far, begin to distort social relations. When a population loses the sense of social and moral participation in society, and its disenfranchised segment reaches a critical size, these factors lead to spontaneous mutation of free capitalism into authoritarian rule. Democracy becomes a perversion of itself and this transformation so natural and seamless that it remains utterly unnoticed.

These are dynamics that had been identified as the stylized facts of capitalism more than a century ago. According to Hilaire Belloc, whose book Servile State appeared in 1912, Capitalism is either a system of social and moral allegiances, resting securely in institutions and voluntary associations, or it is a sand heap of disconnected particles of humanity. If it is, or is allowed to become, the latter, there is nothing that can prevent the rise of centralized omnicompetent political process. Lacking sense of participation in economic society, men will seek it. Today, the crisis of democracy and the search for authority is going strong in large part as a reaction to the vacuum of power that dominated last five decades.

The agony of power

Power itself is an embarrassment and there is no one to assume it truly. Power itself must be abolished and not solely because of a refusal to be dominated, but also in the refusal to dominate[2].

Neoliberalism appropriated democracy and denounced force as an inefficient way of governing. By outlining new ways of conducting individuals, which satisfies aspiration to freedom in every sphere of human activity, it introduced the idea of governing through, not against, freedom. While 1968 was a reaction to the acute crisis of dominant forms of power at the time, 2016 is the response to the second crisis of power, a quest for power in a powerless world — it is a return of the 1968 in reverse, its mirror image and its unwind.

In contrast to the neoliberal West, in the emerging post-socialist East, force has never been relinquished, its value and utility was recognized and cultivated instead. In the eyes of a large segment of the Western population, democracy was perceived as weak and flabby and the post-socialist (and generally authoritarian) East respected and admired for preserving the power. As neoliberalism is getting unwound, the omnipresent contempt for centrism’s all-out permissiveness has become synonymous with the embrace of power and (implicit) denouncement of freedom. The quick-sand landscape — “No one seems to be in charge”– is perceived to be at the root of the problem and the quest for the strong man, someone who will take the ownership of power, becomes an expression of the mode of change.

And that is exactly how it is being played out. We have now made the full circle and, as the saying goes, there is no circus without a circle: Half a century after 1968, the world is again fascinated with power. The announcement of social change has arrived, unsurprisingly, as the quest for authoritarian rule. 2016 — the big bang of the right wing populism — was a septic shock to the system with compromised immunity. And what started as a shock has quickly turned into a large-scale ritual where the order of things has been fully suspended.

However, unlike market crashes and economic downturns, social change itself doesn’t arrive with a bang. It is a gradual adaptation of the mind to persistence and normalization of systematic transgressions. Social change appears only when the results of such process are incorporated, however confusedly or reluctantly, in the life organizations of individuals and thus come to exert a demonstrable influence upon the purposive and meaningful nature of their consciousness[3].

While this process is well underway, it is not settling in without resistance; no victory has been declared yet. This is the most complicating aspect of the current political mutation. The autoimmune reaction is resisting its own correction – the attack of the immune system onto its host is rejecting the efforts to stop its own self-destruction, and the more it is resisting, the weaker the immune system is becoming.

The theatre of cruelty: The politics of social change

When the present and future are deep-frozen, all excrement rises from the past. As it functions now, history can only be an exercise in recycling and waste management. Failed ideologies, obsolescent utopias, out-moded concepts and fossilized ideas persist in our polluted mentality[4].

What kind of social change is ahead and what sets the template for change at the current political moment? Or, as Baudrillard would put it: Who will rid us of the sedimentation of centuries of stupidity? There are two distinct paths that lead to social change: emancipatory and regressive. The regressive road (currently very much in vogue) is the disappearance-by-proliferation approach – it consists in recycling of the historical waste and adding more stupidity until it becomes invisible. Thus, although the last decade is an utterly new chapter in our history, the political response is an all too familiar mish-mash of worn out, long ago tried and discarded ideas.

The society of the spectacle is turning into a soft version of the theatre of cruelty, a burlesque of death with the globe as its stage. The system acts as the exterminator, yet no one is paying attention[5].

At some point history stopped being real. Today, it plays against a very different backdrop than ever before. It appears too immediate — the events that should constitute history have no time to develop outside of the media[6]. What now accounts for history is a result of careful staging of a play, rather than a spontaneous play of events.

Organizing political movements has become like producing a theater play, but no longer as an imitation of the actual reality, but the creation of a new one, with political leaders as puppet masters in (kind of) a ritualistic puppet theatre. This also is taken from the repository of historical excrement. Any documentary about NSDAP gatherings in 1930s Germany would confirm the validity of this parallel. Despite its improv appearance, the staging has a rigid backbone and follows strict rules. To paraphrase the musings of the SS Standardführer, Heinrich Steinbrecher[7], the first principle in this play is to make theater out of everything. This was the standard practice of the SS and it comes straight out of Hitler’s playbook — things he used to do so successfully, his rise to power based primarily, if not exclusively, on the theatrics of his speeches. Second: carefully choose the genre in which each particular piece will be played. Critique, investigations, attempts at oversight, or accusations of the leadership produce as an antique tragedy. Disputes with political opponents, competitors or dismissal of appointees who you disagree with – i.e. political skirmishes and assassinations, in general — as a marionette farce. Third: Occupy the center stage — insert yourself into political discourse at each point of time and into every issue, no matter how mundane, trivial, and insignificant. Fourth: Plan and supervise everything carefully.

When this play is staged against the backdrop of capitalist hardship and social marginalization of the populist constituents, political events and gatherings turn into performance of the theater of cruelty. The main objective of this early 20th century theatrical form, pioneered by Antonin Artaud, is to unleash subconscious responses in audiences and performers that were normally inaccessible. Audiences find in it not an area for escape from the world, but the realization of their worst nightmares and deepest fears. The play aims to provoke conditions that would face the release of primitive instincts that are hidden beneath the civilized social veneer masking all human behavior. This is achieved by recreating strong and dark imagery and rejecting rational interpretations. Irrational impulses, stimulated by suffering and pain, are employed to increase a sense of danger, violence and disorientation in the audience. The concept of cruelty is not sadistic, but is an access to what is honest and true, and the cruelty required a rigor and determination that was necessary if performers and audiences were to confront and experience the dark terrifying corners that lay at the heart of each human being.

So, in this age of reproduction of self-deception, are we approaching the end of history when nothing new happens any more outside of the recycling of the old narratives from the historical waste bin? In all likelihood, no. At least not in a conventional sense. However, as we seek to find absolution in the past and history reduces to waste management, its flow will change. Irreversibly. The narrowing down of history to current events transforms history into the real time of the news. The event, which is measured neither by its own causes nor its consequences but creates its own stage and its own dramatic effect no longer exists[8].

There will be no end to anything, all these things will continue to unfold slowly, tediously, recurrently, like nails and hair which continue to grow after death[9].

[1] Robert A. Nisbet, The Quest for Community, ICS Press (1990)

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power,

[3] Robert A. Nisbet, The Quest for Community, ICS Press (1990)

[4] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Stanford University Press (1994)

[5] Jean Baudrillard and Sylvère Lotringer (Editor), The conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e) (2005)

[6] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End

[7] Borislav Pekic, How to Quiet a Vampire: A Sotie, Northwestern University Press (2003)

[8] Jean Baudrillard, ibid.

[9] Jean Baudrillard, ibid.

Complexity curse: From low productivity to social fragmentation

3. IX 2018

Sooner or later, everything turns into shit (2nd law of thermodynamics)

Economic productivity is one of the most important indicator of the wellbeing of a society and a fundamental determinant of its standard of living. It determines how prosperity is metabolized and how quality of life improves with time. Productivity is defined as the quantity of output produced by one unit of an input within one unit of time. An increase in physical productivity causes a corresponding increase in the value of labor, which raises wages. This is why having an education or on-the-job training is sought after by employers; it increases the productivity of workers and makes them more valuable assets to the firm.

Here is an example of how it works in practice. An employer offers you $15 to dig a 25 square-foot hole in his backyard. Suppose that you have insufficient capital goods (your bare hands or a spoon), and it takes you three hours to dig a hole to his specifications. Your labor output is worth $5 per hour. If you had a shovel instead, it may have only taken you 30 minutes to dig the hole; your labor output just rose to $30 per hour. With a big enough crane, you may have been able to dig it in five minutes with a labor productivity of $180 per hour. It is clear how the quality of life of a crane owner, which is a direct consequence of his high productivity, differs from the rest of the crowd.

Economic productivity is the source of libidinal forces, the alpha and omega of economic potency, and the ability to better the human conditions. It regulates social entropy, defines the arrow of time, shapes our expectations of the future, and provides mechanisms that sustain our capacity to desire. Abundant productivity enables future generations to live better than the previous ones. Low productivity, in contrast, means both short- and long-term hardship and erosion of the quality of life.

For almost half a century, productivity growth in developed world has been showing a troubling secular trend. In the last decade, developed economies all have entered a stagnation trap from which they seem to be unable to find a way out. This is illustrated in the chart, which shows the history of productivity growth in the US. The bold red lines indicate long-term averages across different regimes. Except for a relatively short period of two successive transient bubbles (internet and housing), there is a clear decline of the average from 3%, in the post-war decades, to 1% in the last ten years.

Productivity Anotated

US productivity growth (5Y moving average)

The decline in productivity growth has profound social implications. A 3% productivity growth, as seen in the two post-war decades, means that the standard of living doubles for every new generation[1]. In contrast, a productivity growth of 1% requires three generations to double the standard of living. However, if we take into account the rise of living costs, in an economy with 1% productivity growth each subsequent generation will have less of everything than its predecessor. It is particularly interesting that productivity growth has been descending to a near all-time low in the last five years, to below 1%, just as it was declared that the economy was recovering from the post-2008 recession. This point in itself deserves special attention.

The death spiral of productivity growth is an example of Tainter’s law, a general pattern whereby investing in complexity inevitably generates decreasing marginal returns for the systems that uses it. Insisting on the same methods, even when they have ceased to work, sets a civilization on track for collapse[2].

This is the essence of Tainter’s argument[3]. A civilization forms when some benefit accrues from greater complexity[4]. Benefits of complexity are realized through cooperation – the proverbial “whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. However, in the initial stage, although benefits of increasing complexity rise, during their evolution, complex systems spontaneously generate endogenous mechanisms of self-sabotage.

Tainters Law

Tainter’s Law

The primary source of self-obstruction is the new protagonist that emerges on the scene: the coordinator[5]. He is the guardian of the new paradigm, which champions complexity as the main and, ultimately, only strategy. The marginal benefits of complexity eventually begin to decline. Beyond a certain point, their intensification produces less additional benefit, putting its beneficiaries to more and more stress. But, as the community/organization now only knows how to use a single strategy, a superstructure is in place that cannot be gracefully abandoned. In the last phase, as benefits of additional complexity taper off, vast resources need to be invested in entirely unproductive ways, such as desperate attempts at regime legitimization: The competitive monument building, or the lavish parades held for each new, short-lived emperor. Eventually, the burden of civilization becomes greater than any benefit it provides and the society collapses[6].

Destruction of cooperation and self-sabotage in corporate organizations

Yves Morieux, offers an illustration of how the last phase of complexity is realized in the current context of developed corporate structures[7]. Behind persistent declining trend in productivity are the three basic tenets of corporate management that act as the main pillars of self-sabotage: Performance, Transparency, and Accountability.

Transparency implies audits and compliance — where does my role start and end. Accountability creates conditions for failure (in a compliant way): Who is accountable? Instead of creating conditions to succeed, we obsess on knowing who is to blame in case of failure. Performance: People put energy and effort in what can be measured, i.e. their individual performance, but not in cooperation.

However, cooperation is how you allocate your effort. Cooperation means taking a risk by giving up the ultimate protection, your own performance, to enhance the performance of those to whom you are being compared, for the sake of cooperation, in order to achieve the optimal result[8]. People are continuously being discouraged and disincentivized to cooperate. If when they cooperate, people were worse off, why would they cooperate? The three basic tenets of corporate management are doing injustice to effectiveness. The more complex the system becomes, the more structures we add that emphasize the three tenets. They trigger a counterproductive multiplication of interfaces that not only add people (non-productive ones), but also create obstacles. The more complicated the system, the more difficult to see what is happening. So we need meetings, reports, conference calls, etc.: people spend 40-80% of time wasting their time[9]. This is the politics of deliberate sub-optimality.

MBA nation or cannibalization of the social landscape

The false premise, which has become the defining characteristics of American politics and, to some extent, the culture as well, has been that a society is essentially the same object as a corporation, just a bigger one, that skills you learn in an MBA program are the same skills you need to manage a society, and that successful corporate managers are, by default, also good national leaders. However, this is not the only social damage of this fallacy. When applying the lessons from corporate culture to society, one inevitably also imports the underlying mistakes of that culture. And so, in the same way a rising complexity creates its own mechanisms of self-sabotage, the essence of the neoliberal approach to social organization is inhibiting the mechanisms of social cooperation. Social atomization, the cult of individuality, the creation of homo economicus as a model citizen, competition as the only and ultimate criterion for everything, the obliteration of welfare, the destruction of empathy, and the entire conservative system of values, all of these structures are instruments of social fragmentation and annihilation of the tissue that makes society different from a collection of individuals. All this leads to barbarization of the social landscape with the degree of polarization that has reached the point where political consensus is no longer possible and democracy no longer works. Politics has become a problem instead of a solution. The net result? The quality of life is already deteriorating and this trend will be reinforced with each subsequent generation as the whole continues to shrink smaller than the sum of its parts.

Under the crush of social entropy, with its ever-increasing complexity as the only strategy, we are facing the same destiny as many civilizations have in the past. The future has already become impossible and without the clear picture of the future, the present cannot take off. Like the boy in Kafka’s story, A Country Doctor, our social and economic system already inhibits the world of undead. Rising complexity is the fatal wound depriving it from the capacity to die. Only when that wound heals, will the system be able to collapse.

 

[1] If one generation is about 20 years, then (1.03)20 ≈ 2

[2] Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman: Smart Simplicity: Six règles pour gérer la complexité sans devenir compliqué, Manitoba (2016)

[3] Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press (1990)

[4] The term complexity is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways, culminating in a higher order of emergence greater than the sum of its parts.

[5] Akshay Ahuja in Dark Mountain Project (19, March 2012)

[6] Akshay Ahuja, ibid.

[7] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

[8] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

[9] Yves Moreieux, 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)

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

30. III 2018

They turn our brothers and sisters into mercenaries

They are turning the planet into a cemetery

The Military and the Monetary, use the media as intermediaries

They are determined to keep the citizens secondary

They make so many decisions that are arbitrary

We’re marching behind a commander in chief

Who is standing under a spotlight shaking like a leaf

But the ship of state had landed on an economic reef

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

(Gil Scott Heron, Work for Peace)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sultanic

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

The fourth horseman and the (im)possibility of emancipation

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

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

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

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

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

 

Perfect crimes & misdemeanors: The politics of inflated balloons

21. III 2018

If I throw a ball to someone at the other end of the room, that person will be able to catch it by anticipating its approximate path. The key aspect of the underlying heuristics is that a small error in the catchers’ judgment will have a small impact on the point at which the ball lands, to which they will be able to adjust as the ball approaches.

This would be impossible if I were to replace the ball with a balloon, blow it up, hold it out, and release it. As the balloon sputters and darts around the room in a chaotic path, its trajectory will be impossible to anticipate. Although both objects, the ball and the balloon, follow Newton’s laws of motion, their behaviors are quite different.

In chaotic systems (inflated balloons), as time goes forward, everything is moving away from everything else. This ever-widening divide means that if you are trying to predict the future behavior of a chaotic system, errors in initial measurements become overwhelming as time progresses — if there is any error at all in our initial measurements, our long-term predictions will be absurdly wrong.

When one puts an inflated balloon in a presidential seat, and his political strategy boils down to using chaos as a catalyst to push the existing political and ideological systems to their breaking point, consequences of that misguided approach cannot be foreseen and, as such, cannot amount to a socially positive outcome.

This seemingly strange idea of forcing a change by destruction is neither new nor original. It was first outlined in the works of the 19th century French thinkers — Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi offers a good example — 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.

Chaos is destruction of the future — only what is simultaneous counts. Political chaos cannibalizes itself — it reflects a disregard for the long-term effects of the present actions — last week’s developments become irrelevant and inconsequential in light of yesterday’s headlines. Society loses sight of its future and, without a clear vision of the future, the present cannot take off.

The future is based on responsibility and responsibility presupposes obligation. As such, it reflects an act of making a promise or showing trust. Such acts hold and stabilize the future. In contrast, chaos promotes non-bindingness, arbitrariness and the short term[1]. The absolute precedence and priority of the present is the hallmark of the current political landscape. It is scattering time into mere sequence of disposable presents. The future is degrading into an optimized present.

Chaos is simultaneity and irresponsibility at the same time. It is the perfect crime perpetuated on time[2].

 

[1] B. C. Han, Im Schwarm: Ansichten des Digitalen, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2013)

[2] Paul Virilio

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

7. XI 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparative politics of social change and coordinates of wealth preservation

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

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

Oligarchy Simple

From: Jeffrey A Winters, Oligarchy

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

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

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

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

Saying goodbye to all that: Anatomy of the perverse unwind

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

Oligarchy Breakup

North: Civil oligarchies

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

The main diagonal: Soviet Union between ruling & sultanic oligarchies

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

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

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

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

The Balkans: Warring oligarchies

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, Ch. 1

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

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

 

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

20. III 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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