Tag Archives: #Madness

America at 400: 1619-2019

30. XII 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4Peculiar institutions

Four Peculiar Institutions

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

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

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

The wedding of ghetto and prison: Hyperghetto

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

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

2019: Exit through the wormhole

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wormhole

 

The 2016 wormhole

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

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

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

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

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

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

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

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

Year of the moron: Making sense of 2017

31. XII 2017

Madness is the purest, most total form of misunderstanding; it takes the false for true. Madness needs no external element to reach true resolution. It is merely to carry its illusion to the point of truth. (Michel Foucault)

All other things aside, 2017 will be remembered as the year when madness gained acceptance in mainstream politics and everyday life. Last year raised one key question that begs for an answer: Why is there such a similarity between the mindset of right wing conservatives and the mentally ill? With the rise of new conservatism, madness has been embraced and promoted as a tool of political alchemy. The tide of madness has been rising, its secret intrusion spreading effortlessly, acquiring new substance and metric. Last year represents a giant leap in terms of general acceptance of madness – the beginning of its accelerated phase towards production of human bodies without human reason and a general abnormalization of the world. Since the extinction of leprosy in the middle ages, madness had been kept outside of the public life as a way of protecting the social body from its influences. We are witnessing a radical departure from a long tradition whose consequences are just beginning to be visible. This is a new chapter in the history of our civilization.

The alchemy and the substance of madness

Madness, like plague, is contagious, and everyone who gets close to a mad man seems to participate in his delirium. (Sylvère Lotringer)

Dutch masters had a thing about madness. According to a curious belief held by some in the middle ages the stone of madness represented the substance of madness and its primary cause. Bosch’s piece, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, is the earliest in a group of paintings addressing the topic of its extraction, a procedure believed to be the cure of mental illness. Later notable works by Jan van Hemessen, Pieter Huys, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder tackle the same theme in various contexts.

Stone of madness

Hieronymus Bosch (El Bosco): The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (Museo Nacional del Prado)

Stone of madness, a dialectical twin of the philosopher’s stone, was the child of alchemy, one of history’s blind alleys, which took root as an attempt to find what in medieval times was imagined to be the benchmark of perfection and purity in every aspect of human existence (not dissimilar to the quest current financial markets and politics are chasing in a modern setting).

The philosopher’s stone is a legendary alchemical substance, which epitomizes the quest for perfection. In contrast, the stone of madness represents a flawed dysfunctionality, an affliction on the opposite side of perfection, terminal imperfection, damage and dishonor, and fatal incompleteness. It is not necessarily something we look for, it finds us at the end of one of those blind alleys. The philosopher’s stone has the ability to transmute base metals into gold or silver, create perpetually burning lamps, transform common crystals into precious stones and diamonds, revive dead plants, and create flexible or malleable glass, heal all forms of illness and prolong the life of any person who consumes a small part of it. Anything touched by the stone of madness turns into shit.

Alchemy has always straddled the line between science, philosophy, and charlatanism, with the exact blend varying through history — the more science advanced, the closer alchemy moved towards charlatanism. With progress in science, alchemy was exhausted, but the underlying fantasy of alchemy did not disappear, it only got diverted into financial markets and politics. Modern alchemy sees science and reason as enemies. This is the most eloquent testimony of its charlatanism.

The medieval concept of madness has gotten a contemporary twist in light of recent political and economic developments. The contagious madness and charlatanism are alive and well, more vigorous than they have ever been. With very little imagination Bosch’s picture has a distinct contemporary vibe.

Political alchemy and the right wing agenda

The elite is not composed of ideologists; its members’ whole education is aimed at abolishing their capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction. Their superiority consists in their capacity immediately to resolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose. (Hannah Arendt)

This brings us to the present day and our original question: What is wrong with the right and why do they resemble the mentally ill so much? Although the two share a distinct antisocial backbone, one systematic, the other systemic, it is the same stone of madness that has touched both.

The most complete and elegant answer to this question was constructed by George Lakoff, one of the leading American cognitive linguist, best known for his thesis that peoples’ decision algorithms are shaped by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena. His starting point is the same logical question everyone is asking: How is it possible to convince the underprivileged class that their interests are aligned with those of the American billionaires so they voluntarily express that belief in the ballot box time and again? The key to the resolution of that puzzle is Lakoff’s realization that people, in fact, rarely vote in their self-interests. They vote their values and identity. And if their identity fits their self-interest, they will vote for that[1].

How does the whole thing work in practice? Social evolution is largely defined by the tension between the state and family, and the modern state is a result of years of gradual emancipation from the confines of patriarchal family structures. Through a strange reversal of things, the Western conservative politics has followed a regressive path of convergence towards the very same patriarchal family roots from which it took centuries to escape. In that respect, American conservative politics has been the most radical example.

This is the starting point of Lakoff’s argument. Our intuition about the functioning of more complex social structures is most often based on family metaphors and different interpretations of the nation are linked to different understandings of family. In the United States, where politics is represented by two dominant parties, the two types of families corresponding to the underlying political worldviews define: a strict father family and a nurturant parent family.

The strict father model begins with a set of assumptions:

  • The world is a dangerous place and it will always be (because there is evil out there)
  • The world is also difficult because there is competition (there will always be winners and losers)
  • There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong
  • Children are born bad (or ignorant) and have to be made good.

What is needed in this kind of a world is a strong father who can:

  • Protect the family in the dangerous world
  • Support the family in the difficult world, and
  • Teach children what’s right from wrong[2].

In these “axioms”, not only is there no mention of the mother, but they also make no room for her. Outside of her reproductive role, the mother’s role and influence has been minimized.

This is where the conservative hoax starts. The internal discipline that is learned from an early age is required in the difficult, competitive world. In the first iteration, the strict father model establishes equivalence between moralities and prosperity, and prepares terrain to draw a link between the strict father worldview and free market capitalism. This is the key step that converts the whole story into an ideology and policy rules. If everyone pursues their interests (and profit), then the profit of all will be maximized (by the “invisible hand”), another masterful example of political mindfuck. The flipside of that is another beauty: those trying to help someone else (rather than themselves) screw up the system. This is another point of exclusion of the mother. Mothers are nurturing — they always give. And, to make things worse, they are forgiving. In a word, mothers are a bad influence for children[3].

The second step follows naturally: A good person – a moral person – is obedient to legitimate authority (identified with the father). Of course! A good child grows up to be prosperous and self-reliant. A bad child cannot care of him/herself and thus becomes dependent. At this point one has to be a real moron to buy it, but there has never been a shortage of morons. In fact, they have become the most precious commodity for conservatives, something that has to be cultivated and preserved[4].

The next mindfuck follows almost automatically. When good children are mature, they learn discipline and the strict father is no longer needed to meddle in their lives. Political extension is loud and clear: there is no need for government meddling in the affairs of those who didn’t make it. The corollary is unambiguous: It is moral to pursue your self-interests and it is immoral to give people things they have not earned[5].

This implies that welfare programs are synonymous to “wasteful spending” and it is, therefore, a moral duty of the society to enforce policies that shut these programs down and create further positive externalities for businesses and deserving members of society by cutting taxes. This is the core of the conservative antisocial backbone[6].

However – and this is where madness makes its presence visible — although the right wing narrative revolves around the idea of a smaller state, they are really not against the government, especially when it comes to riot police, military spending, or subsidies for corporations, tax cut loopholes or a conservative Supreme Court[7]. They are only against nurturance and care, anything that represents the feminine side in the state-family metaphor.

When seen through the prism of this narrative, many developments of the last 50 years (and 2017, as their pinnacle), begin to make sense: Staggering inequality, criminalization of poverty, gun ownership, mass killings, high incarceration rate, opioid epidemics, right to life bullshit, misogyny, anti-scientific sentiment, religion, creationism … Everything. Without boundless stupidity, none of this would be possible. That is why stupidity has become the most precious commodity, one that needs to be cultivated and nurtured. With it, it is easy to see how an access Hollywood tape became a winning ticket in presidential elections; how birtherism and dismantling everything-Obama became implicit reparations for having to suffer the “humiliations” of eight years under a black president, and how a revival of white supremacy and other still-born ideologies entered mainstream politics.

Dark enlightenment

If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. (Hannah Arendt)

It was believed in the middle ages that the stone of madness could be removed by surgery; many quack healers roamed Europe performing sham operations on the mentally ill, removing the “stone”. Getting the madness out requires drilling a hole in the head and extracting the stone of madness. Who’s to perform the operation? Let’s not forget the charlatans of 2017, the doctors with funnel hats more insane than the patient they are attempting to cure. Their false knowledge reveals the worst excesses of madness immediately apparent to all but the chief Madman himself.

Victory is neither God’s nor the Devil’s: it belongs to Madness[8]. Madness has to be countered by madness, but of a different kind; the two have to annihilate each other. For this to happen madness has to be made contagious and it has to spread. The stone of madness will touch and enlighten us all. Everyone will have to go crazy before they can get better. Madness will be everywhere; it will disappear through its proliferation, and charlatan doctors will be the kings.

[1] George Lakoff, Don’t think of an elephant, Chelsea Green Publishing; 2nd Revised ed. (2014)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, (p.23) Vintage (1973)