Tag Archives: #Oligarchy

The great redistribution and the biopolitical penetration of the American brain

13.V 2017

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

Rising inequality is not the result of economical rationality and neither is it only a function of erosion of empathy or moral fiber (although the latter is its sine qua non). It is rather a direct reflection of redistributive policies that have helped the richest get richer. On the other hand, poverty by itself neither motivates nor provides a core set of common interests for the poor the way wealth does for the rich. The presence of wealth focuses the political attention of the rich on wealth defense; its absence has no parallel effect on the poor[1].

Inequality has always been a topic in public discourse. However, after the 2008 financial crisis, the destruction of wealth on a massive scale awakened much larger segments of society to the reality that they were unable to finance the lifestyles they had previously enjoyed. Response to the crisis has been articulated through an unprecedented injection of “easy money”. But, this money was hoarded by capital and did not filter down to labor. Rather than serving the collective interest in financing general economic progress, “easy money” turned into the extraction of resources from increasingly impoverished societies. The case of airlines industry presents an illustrative example of this mechanism. Even as the price of fuel collapsed, little of that benefit was passed on to consumers or airlines’ employees: Air travel is as uncomfortable as ever, ticket prices have gone up and none of the profits resulted in higher wages of the airlines employees. Most of the “easy money” has been used to reinforce their monopolistic power.

Democracy requires commonality, inequality undermines it. The democratic process was originally conceived as a way to peacefully resolve economic disputes between people who share common values, either cultural, religious, or in terms of lifestyles or visions of the future. When inequality reaches the critical point, the bonding tissue that keeps society together begins to tear and democracy becomes compromised. In the absence of commonality disputes can no longer have peaceful resolve. Instead, the resolution occurs through negotiation or war. As electoral democracy alone can no longer safeguard the economic interests of the many people from American oligarchs, economic initiatives are no longer effective. A quest for social change takes center stage and a search for a new equilibrium is set in motion.

Social stability defines equilibrium. Social transformations, therefore, represent a change of equilibrium. They are always disruptive and have the appearance of discontinuous processes. Economic changes always take place against a particular social backdrop: When a social equilibrium is reached, society stabilizes allowing the economics to set in. The subsequent economic developments are typically linear – small departures always revert back to the equilibrium — restorative forces overpower those that destabilize the system.

2008 was a paradigm shift not only for economics but for the entire way of empirical approach to reality, which has laid the foundation of rationality and has dominated the Western thought. The crisis has set in motion a social change – the system has begun to search for a new equilibrium, announcing the end of 500 years of history. And, as history is getting unwound, the repositioning in the oligarchic space is taking the center stage. There is no left or right any more. The only meaningful distinction that reflect the type of oligarchic redistribution and its re-functioning is their emancipatory or regressive orientation.

The mindfuck

Where there is inequality of estates, there must be inequality of power. (James Harrington)

Oligarchy rests on the concentration of material power, democracy on the dispersion of non-material power. The American political economy is both an oligarchy and a democracy — a distinctive fusion of equality and inequality. Civil oligarchies represent the most significant political innovation, never seen in history before the creation of the modern state. As a characterization of the Western (predominantly American) political system, civil oligarchy is the result of a shotgun marriage of two contradictory concepts, brokered by an interesting play of numbers: The vast majority of citizens exert very little concerted material power in politics, but a small number of individuals each have at their disposal the resources it would take tens of thousands of their fellow citizens acting in sustained coordination to match[2]. The two groups stand in constant opposition — their conflict never disappears, but defines the driving force behind the underlying sociopolitical dynamics. It pushes all other themes out and becomes the main axiom of the political economy. This disparity of numbers forces a continuation of underlying antagonisms until one side declares victory. As a result, the political process loses its connection with democracy.

The reconciliation of oligarchy and democracy requires a Hegelian Aufhebung, a non-linear logical maneuver whereby the resolution of the inner contradiction is suspended until the concept is completed during synthesis — abolition of the Real to realize the Idea.

Oligarchs represent individuals endowed with enormous wealth which both empowers and exposes them to threats. In America, they constitute only a fraction of one percent of the population and have at their disposal material “voting” power that is hundreds, and in some cases tens of thousands, of times that of the average citizen. To understand the power multiplier, which reflects the underlying wealth differential, one should think of wealth as an instrument that enhances the persuasive power and influence of an individual. For example, being able to convince poor people to vote against their direct interests and in favor of the oligarchs, and to convert these things into laws and tax codes – the essence of the Republican Southern Strategy program as outlined by Lee Atwater — requires considerable resources and access to media, religious and secular institutions, lobbyist and a variety of political consultants that only money can bring. Mind-fuck is an essential ingredient for the functioning of civil oligarchies; without it, they could not persist.

The Material Power Index (MPI) is a way of quantifying the disparity of democratic participation. MPI assigns a base value of one to the average material power position of Americans across the bottom 90 percent of the population. The weakest American oligarchs have between 125 and 200 times the material power of an average citizen. Oligarchs at the very top of American society have an MPI just over 10,000, which happen to approximate the MPI of Roman senators relative to their society of slaves and farmers[3]. This has gone even more extreme after the 2010 Citizens United ruling. In this way oligarchs can legitimate their position with all of their power and influence, without resorting to force – which time and again has proven to be an expensive and fragile tool of stability.

It is not very difficult to see haw a handful of super rich oligarchs can tip the scales of any election. According to 2007 data, the 400 richest Americans have an MPI in excess of 10,000; these 400 top oligarchs have the “voting power” of four million people. Outside of this group, the average MPI of the 1/100th of a percent of the top earning taxpayers (who own about 2% of all American wealth), about 15,000 people, is around 1000. This means that 1/100th percent of the population had the “voting power” of 20 million. This is a significant fraction of the voting population (about 130 million in the 2016 US elections). Normally, elections are most often won within 1-2 million margin. Therefore, a victory can be achieved by attracting 100-200 top oligarchs.

Synthesis: Oligarchies as new cognitive coordinates

The essence of oligarchy within democracy rests on the near-veto power oligarchs retain on threats to concentrated wealth. The wealth protection instinct has been one of the strongest sociopolitical forces in human history. Although the attitude towards all kinds of inequality like slavery, racial and gender exclusions had been revised in the past, the same cannot be said for wealth inequality. The resistance against radical redistribution of wealth has been remarkably robust and resilient across a variety of political systems, from dictatorships, monarchies, peasant societies, to post-industrial formations and democracies[4].

As an approach to the problematics of comparative politics, oligarchy as the politics of wealth defense emerges as a better candidate for a unifying framework than the traditional framework based on assumptions that the dominant dimension of a country’s political actions is geographically conditioned. The oligarchic landscape defines new cognitive coordinates necessary for understanding current geopolitical developments. A variety of complex socio-political configurations and their transformations gain instant clarity and simple intuitive interpretation when seen from the point of view of oligarchic redistribution and repositioning.

The mechanism and logic behind this is relatively simple. Oligarchy should be understood as the politics of wealth defense. Outside of the context of wealth defense, different oligarchs can, and generally do, have vastly different agendas (e.g. democrats vs. republicans in the USA, pro-choice vs. pro-life, Tesla vs. Uber, or Bill Gates vs. the Koch brothers). However, they are all united in one common goal – their wealth preservation. This explains why one single common driver alone captures such a wide diversity of developments that sometimes, on the surface, appear to have no logical or rational connections.

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

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

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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.

Trump in wonderland

8.III 2017

In many areas of life, incompetent people cannot recognize just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack. What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge. (David Dunning)

Things got a little different in 2017. Within less than a month in the office, Trump’s cabinet managed to accumulate spectacular cognitive deficit never before seen in the White House. This deficit, accompanied with a commensurate loss of credibility, is threatening to become a permanent trademark of his troubled presidency.

The biggest change introduced by Trump’s arrival has been the reversal of information flows in the communications between the White House and the press. Until now, the White House had always been the center of political information and, through press briefings or other communication channels, shared a fraction of that information with the press. What the press knew was a subset of what was known to the White House. Because of this asymmetry (to avoid answering unpleasant questions or possible self-incrimination), the White House would engage in deception. There was a stable symbolic pact between the government and the press; the press got something to work with, while the White House was occasionally allowed to get out of an uncomfortable situation. No one’s intelligence was insulted.

All this underwent a 180 degree reversal with Trump. First of all, and this is the root of the problem, Trump’s administration seems to be reluctant to accept the fact that they won the election — as if that was never really a part of the plan. Instead of governing, they continue to behave like the opposition, always arguing from the position of the victims of establishment and raising objections and outrage at how the system functions. They have remained reactive instead of proactive, systematically behind the curve.

Trump’s White House is populated predominantly with political amateurs, dilettantes and professional yes-men who, themselves, do not produce any substantial informational content. They are by and large either misinformed and making things up or getting their facts from the low-tier media such as Fox News, Breitbar, tabloids or reality shows, who themselves are known to habitually make things up (their business model often based on fabricating “facts”). As a consequence, the mainstream press has been much better informed than the White House, both in terms of the area covered and the depth and quality of information. Trump’s White House operates with a subset of the information available to the press and the press can run circles around its staff. Because of that, current White House spokespersons have had a great difficulty engaging with the press. They are incapable of creating a deception when they need it – the conceptual difference between a deception and a lie seems to elude them — so they lie instead, and when they are called on a lie, they lie more and blame facts, which further undermines their credibility until there is none left. As a result, after less than a month in office, Trump had to declare war on facts and pronounce the press the enemy of the people.

Masochistic self-destruction

Power cannibalizes itself — it carries the seeds of its own destruction (Jean Baudrillard)

In their infinite political naïveté, Trump and his cabinet do not understand that by waging a war on facts, media and dissent in general, they are actually writing their own obituary.

The current administration is deluded by the idea that their rise to power and their program in general have a strong historical, messianic mission of correcting the years of imbalances caused by neoliberalism, globalization, and cultural displacement. In their minds, weakening of their power, even temporarily, would be a betrayal of that mission, and so, any voice of opposition has to be inhibited and ultimately subdued.

The fatal flaw of this position is that by suppressing the opposition, and the information its existence and voice provide, the leadership is left essentially blind to whatever is happening in their back yard. Within a very short time, they will have no vocabulary to discuss socio-political conditions and develop an approximate description of social reality.

In the face of perpetual conflict with reality, Trump’s political machine will foster a continued state of cognitive dissonance and with the help of spectacle possibly provide a temporary life support for their existence through the suspension of disbelief. However, Trump’s administration’s non-linear relationship with facts and truths will gradually turn whatever remains of their constituents into a cult following. Like most other authoritarian ideologies, both Trump and his followers will remain non-adaptive not allowing any feedback to penetrate the boundaries of their fortress of ignorance, and when the end becomes inevitable, they will be unable to transform or adjust. The autopsy of the communist experience and other totalitarian forms of political rule offer numerous illustrations of this trajectory.

Aside from this, there is a practical question regarding the sanity of Trump’s approach: How does one get away with a lie as a policy tool in the world of total information? This might be easier to implement in a society like the old Soviet Union, which had never been given a chance to properly embrace modernity and where the population had been subdued by chronic scarcity, where bare necessities had been a luxury for decades, and where people were ready to make any compromise that would restore their dignity and bring their lives closer to normal. In the era of relative affluence and absolute information such a project cannot take root, even in the short run — it would require an extraordinary force to maintain its stability.

And this is where things begin to break down. Large-scale systemic oppression requires the mobilization of enormous resources to keep control of political subjects and effectively turns them into hostages. Attempts to oppress growing discontent require a heavy-handed rule which in turn reinforces the hostage syndrome and brings about further escalation of discontent with generally adverse economic side effects. At that point, legitimation becomes the system’s biggest problem and requires mobilization of all resources, primarily aimed at its glorification. But, by then the oppression is the only thing the system knows how to deliver. It is the only strategy, and a very expensive one. Finally, when existing resources are fully exhausted, the system has to collapse.

Send in the rubes: Technology and political snake oil

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth (Mike Tyson)

Although with the help of social media, artificial intelligence and technology in general, oppression can take on subtler forms, the standard of tolerance will change with it and oppression will always be recognized for what it is. The illusion that this battle can be won by “psychological operations”, a systematic form of mass propaganda that acts on peoples’ emotions — a half-baked idea of crowding out the info-highway with misinformation — is a reflection of both ultimate ignorance and arrogance that comes with it. It is an ill-conceived program initiated by data analytics companies and funded by the right wing plutocrats who specialize in election strategies, based on an erroneous assumption that, in the era of total information, the society outside the governing party’s sphere of influence and control will remain static and non-adaptive, and that the pattern-recognition models of their currently employed consulting companies, will remain only their (and nobody else’s) proprietary tool forever. The absurdity of such assumption is best illustrated by the fact that every major hedge fund has already caught up with this trend and either has a similar platform and capabilities or is in the process of getting one very soon. Words like artificial intelligence and machine learning are the most frequently used buzzwords during the incoming student orientations at all major American universities — these topics are the most rapidly developing areas of science and technology. It is not difficult to imagine what this landscape will look like in four years or beyond.

After all, when it comes to economics and social sciences, there is one thing we learned about our attempts to model their dynamics: All models are wrong; some of them are useful (at best). So, it is all about how we decide to use these models, what sample and assumptions we choose to calibrate them etc. And, sooner or later, we realize that all these models of social behavior do not offer any substantial new wisdom, but can make our tasks of data manipulation easier only if we give them correct instructions as an input. In other words, it is garbage-in-garbage-out at the end, no matter what (this is the best outcome). In that context, alternative facts, misinformation, alienation from reality, or other forms of self-indulgence (an emotional state Trump’s cabinet is particularly prone to) can only compromise effectiveness of any given technological platform.

Yes, these companies can help you win the elections, but they can never become an instrument that secures a smooth and peaceful governing — that erroneous extrapolation is the new political snake oil. People like Stephen Bannon are real rubes here. Their anti-elitist sentiment, combined with their messianic fantasy, which has been running in displaced mode as a war on facts and critical thinking in general, compromised their own resistance to nonsense – they start believing the nonsense they are peddling and ultimately become victims of the snake oil sale themselves.

The ultimate delusion, however, remains a belief that this battle can be won at all. Ignorance by design is the trap any hegemonic ideology faces. Monochromatic political systems are vulnerable to loss of robustness and long-term fragility. The authoritarian project is self-defeating — even a temporary victory on that front is a guarantee of a defeat in the long run. History offers countless examples, collapse of the communism being just the latest one. Diversity of opinions, multiparty systems, and what is generally referred to as freedom of speech (even when existing only pro forma) are always superior in this context. Tolerance for existence of alternative forms of interpretation of social reality as well as social organizing (from street gangs, organized crime, religious cults, and self-sustainable communes to fringe or mainstream political parties) carries enormous informational value. After all, wasn’t the spectacular defeat of the centrist ideology in 2016 (and the traction of the right wing populism in the West) a direct consequence of ignoring the voice of the people who were left behind by progress and globalization — the people whose existence had been systematically delegitimized by neoliberalism. The diversity of opinions of the socio-political landscape allows rule of force to be replaced by a more efficient rule through freedom or self-conduct, which, while not necessarily less oppressive than the totalitarian structures, could be an economically superior alternative resulting in more robust and stable systems.