Tag Archives: Politics

Deresponsibilization and the Politics of Escape

31. V 2020

Making a decision under risk/uncertainty requires an understanding of possible outcomes (and having some idea about their probability assignment) in order to quantify the relative magnitude of cost/benefit, and assess its merits. The only decisions that make sense are those where the upside exceeds the downside (in a probabilistic sense), preferably by multiple times.

For example, jumping a turnstile in the NYC subway carries a $100 fine; the actual ticket price is $3.00. Opting to jump a turnstile instead of buying the ticket is clearly a stupid decision – the downside, $100 fine, is more than 30 times higher than the upside of saving $3.00 — you have to do it 34 times without getting caught in order to break even.

Imagine now that you are offered to participate in a game of coin toss with the following payout: Gain $10 if heads come up, and $0 in the case of tails. Clearly, a ticket to this gamble should be worth something, around $4 or $5, for example, so that net gains are just slightly higher than potential losses. However, for the sake of argument, assume that this gamble is grossly mispriced and is offered at a much lower cost, say $1 or less, so that its price is insignificant. For the buyer the exposure is: $10 upside and practically no downside.

This type of transaction/gamble/contract cannot exist, or if it for some reason shows up, it cannot persist, in a financial world or any other context where all participants are rational. Without a commensurate downside, the gamble violates basic axioms of (financial) decision-making. However, if this Impossible Game were to persist, it would inevitably end in the financial ruin of the underwriter.

Since the gamble is practically costless, the beneficiary could either flip the coin repeatedly as often as he wishes with impunity as the costs to enter are insignificant, or can raise the stakes and, instead of $10, change the upside to $10 million. This means that the costs to the underwriter could increase indefinitely and ultimately result in ruin. Knowing this, the buyer could use this as leverage – by dosing the frequency of his coin tosses, he could extort any kind of consent from the underwriter.

Severe mispricing and absence of meaningful downside is always harmful. It leads to far-reaching and catastrophic outcomes. Removal of the downside decouples decision making from its consequences and creates a dangerous world of irresponsible behavior with predictable long-term outcomes. Good judgment is based on experience and experience is based on past bad judgment — exposure to downside, i.e. suffering the consequences of our mistakes, is an essential part of learning. Denial of downside intercepts the corrective loop of knowledge acquisition and prevents the formation of experience as an essential part of our existence.

The existence of real and consequential downside is a friction that is necessary for the stability of any sociopolitical, financial, or biological system that involves risk, like social contacts, relationships, sexual encounters, family, economics, business, science, art, law, politics, crime or any other human activity.

You cannot innovate without creating some damage

So, why are we thinking of Impossible Games that have no right to exist? The 20th century was largely a century of innovations and new discoveries. However, every novelty introduces new risks and consequences. Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck; invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, nuclear power plant of nuclear meltdown. Progress and disaster are two sides of the same coin, and the more revolutionary and impactful the innovation, the more spectacular the disaster it creates[1]. We have been harvesting the benefits of those discoveries for decades. This is what the last century was about. However, the 21st century is shaping up to be the century of disasters.

The accident reveals the substance of innovation. Only now are we beginning to get a full taste of this causality. 9/11, global financial crisis, inequality, climate change, economic stagnation, structural unemployment, populism… they are all consequences of the 20th century innovation streak (scientific, political or socioeconomic).

While the innovation paradigm has become an irresistible profit-making machine, embraced by the capital, there is a persistent parallel effort to externalize the downside that comes with it by distancing decision makers from the consequences of their decisions. This has been the unmistakable trend of the first two decades of this century so far. However, in the last four years, this effort has entered an accelerated phase. The paradigm of Impossible Transaction has intruded into every pore of our activity and has become the template of current American politics.

Intersecting crises and the anatomy of the impossible

Capital has always externalized the adverse effects of its prosperity — its desire for deresponsibilization is understandable and in some perverse way natural. However, when such denial of responsibility comes from a person, it is a sign of deeper problems and pathologies. The inability to behave responsibly – pathological refusal to face the downside in a risky situation – is inextricably linked to incompetence, insecurity, and habitual lying. When such people are entrusted with positions of high responsibility, the totality of their flaws are activated simultaneously and begin to reinforce each other leading to dire consequences.

The third decade started with a bang by creating the conditions for the most dangerous configuration of risks: The intersection of social and economic crises. At the epicenter of this deadly configuration resides a compulsive escape from responsibility. Externalization of responsibility and its rapidly growing deficit have entered an acute phase in the last two months as attempts to untie the deadly knot and decouple the two crises are beginning to crumble, threatening to intoxicate the public sphere and bring the whole system down.

Reopening the economy during a pandemic is a high-risk decision. It is desirable by businesses and, if successful, the monetary and political upside could be substantial. However, the downside is difficult to own — the price can be many human lives. Forcing one or the other side – ignoring the risks or erring on the side of caution — requires expending unknown amounts of political capital, which inevitably deepens the downside.

The main difficulty with that decision is the irreconcilable character of the data – the upside and downside are measured in different units. While the upside reflects economic gains, the downside, in addition to economic losses, includes human lives. Any attempt at cost/benefits analysis would necessarily reveal the price tag policy makers put on human life, which as a rule has always been low. And while that has been no secret, the issue is especially troubling for the current president, who has a pathological skew in that context and reminding the public of its magnitude and extent could be politically costly. As a result, the criteria for reopening cannot be clearly specified, forcing the deployment of alternative articulations of the approach to the problem. And we know how it all unfolded.

Pathological refusal to face downside

It’s been more than two months since, during the press conference on March 13th, the 45th President uttered the historic words: “I don’t take responsibility at all”. This ludicrous denial of responsibility by a person in a position of the highest responsibility stands on its own as one of the most singular PR attempts ever seen in American political history. However, the nonsense did not stop there; it was followed by a barrage of falsehoods and a series of real “constitutional gems”[2] in the subsequent weeks. If Dante Alighieri were a contemporary poet some statements that came from the current occupant of the Oval Office in the last two months would occupy prominent spots in the New Divine Comedy of the 21st century. The emerging composite message of Trump’s laughable attempt to redefine his position in the current crisis can be summarized with two claims: “I can fix it alone” & “I bear no responsibility”.

In financial lingo, this is the Impossible Gamble: All the upside without any downside. The underwriter of this transaction, the American public and the state, would be exposed to a pure downside with no upside and would be subject to blackmail by the president who can use that contract as leverage to extort any subsequent concession.

This maneuver reveals a systematic and unambiguous pattern: Trump has no ability to take risk. Instead of managing risk, he runs for cover preemptively and buys protection ahead of time. If he were a market maker or portfolio manager, he wouldn’t last a week. At the root of this handicap resides an implicit deep-seeded lack of confidence in the merit of his decisions, an implicit awareness that they are worthless — there is a cloud of inevitability of their failure from inception. However, when he is forced to take a risk, he does so in the most cowardly (and dishonest) way. All this while he and his surrogates are trying to strike an alpha-male chord with the frustrated angry citizenry, who go to antigovernment protests armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers. Underneath that faux machismo resides an essential cowardice and ultimate beta-dog mindset of both the leader and his followers fundamentally unsure of themselves.

Truth deficits and Ponzi-scheme artists

In the same way small sporadic indebtedness — occasional borrowing to have ends meet — is different from massive dependence on debt to cover the costs of a gambling habit, there is a qualitative difference between isolated lies and habitual or perpetual lying. Lies are a debt to the truth; persistent lying is accumulation of debt without collateral.

Trump is not an occasional liar; he is addicted to lies. The fundamental axiom/algorithm of his life, and the main pillar of his business, is condensed in the simple realization: If I owe you $100, it is my problem; but if I owe you $1 million, then it is your problem. Trump’s entire business “acumen”, the only thing he really knows, is contained in this one sentence.

He is a one-trick pony, an avid Ponzi-scheme practitioner socializing his risks and neutralizing himself against his bad decisions and actions. Doubling down on every lie is a strategic debt management maneuver, not in a good or intelligent way, but in a way that reflects incapacity for anything else. It is a survival skill acquired during a lifetime of bad business decisions out of which it was impossible to escape by any other means except with the help of other bad decisions. Such a context requires an ever-expanding line of credit, which draws his creditors into the position of his accomplices. Once they are fully in, they become partners and co-owners of that debt – it becomes their problem[3].

Incompetence and the art of escape

More than anything, Trump is an escape artist. His entire professional life he has been on the run, trying to escape the consequences of his ineptitude and incompetence. He’s been a fugitive from facts, truth, and evidence, always merely steps away from the fatal clinch of his collectors. This had created conditions of acute anxiety, short attention span, cognitive incapacity, persistent feel of persecution, and low-grade paranoia, where everyone is there to get him. Ironically, this is not incorrect because he owes to everyone in terms of money, truth, facts, favors, loyalty, and responsibility. He genuinely sees himself as a victim because of that.

Somewhere along the way in Trump’s troubled life his ignorance became robust and non-adaptive. He had gotten away with it so many times that he became incapable of understanding any other context than the one of his own mistakes and cover-ups. His corrective mechanisms atrophied, his bad decisions never converted into experience.

Disappearance by proliferation

Cancer implies an infinite proliferation of a basic cell in complete disregard of the laws governing the organism as a whole.

How could a person so flawed, inept and fundamentally incompetent like Trump continue to thrive for decades and rise in ranks in the nominally competitive meritocratic world of American business? And how did America get duped into signing a contract with this subliterate yawper? These are fundamental puzzles, which cannot be understood on their own, but require a broader context. His survival and rise are signs of deeper dynamics — a problem of contamination of the entire American value system — which have been brewing in the background for decades now.

Over the course of the last 50 years, contemporary Western political systems have become entirely self-referential. They have lost every external point of reference and, in that way, corrective mechanisms that align them with their social purpose. They could be either judged only on their own terms or not judged at all. Consequently, they have been allowed to continue to expand, increase in size and become more efficient, but in the direction that served no other purpose but their own. With time, they have become all encompassing – every sector of social activity gradually became like this and now all systems account for all of reality[4]. There is nothing that can be held against such a political system that is not revealed to be already part of it. The mode of ideological hegemonic functioning has become self-preserving: Nothing that comes from within the system can be resisted – no critique of it can be articulated and revolt and uprising are rendered meaningless.

To a large extent, Trump is a product of these conditions of socioeconomic functioning. His political position is supported not only by his base but also by a wide-ranging sector of capital. He was seen as a harbinger of the new paradigm, responding to both the need of capital for deresponsibilization and for the creation of simplified and self-serving narratives aimed at pacifying a growing number of excluded and managing their rage capital.

Capital loves him because he is doing their bidding by setting the stage for a general escape from consequences by opening the door for the legitimization and eventual normalization of widespread unaccountability. He is a catalyst whose task is to introduce it into the mainstream and make sure that the paradigm of the Impossible Game percolates into every pore of human activity and proliferates until it is everywhere and nowhere and, as such, becomes invisible.

With the consequences of risk-taking fully externalized, the accumulated downside becomes the dark matter of the social universe and its buildup the main uncertainty. However, it is just when all uncertainty disappears that it also reappears, because it is at the very moment when domination is total that, because there is nothing outside of it, that it cannot be realized, and has no objective effect. It is at this point that stakes re-enter the game and impossible exchange is shown to be necessary[5].

Beginning of the epilogue

Nazi plunder refers to art theft and organized looting of European countries during the Third Reich, between 1933 and 1945, carried out by military units known as the Kunstschutz on behalf of the ruling Nazi Party. In 1940, Der Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (The Reichs Leader Rosenberg Taskforce), or ERR, was formed, under Alfred Rosenberg’s and Herman Göring’s leadership. ERR was responsible for seizing more than 20 thousand art objects from German-occupied countries, out of which Göring alone selected about 600 pieces for his own collection. Items which Hitler and Göring did not want were made available to other Nazi leaders, while other, lesser valuable, objects were traded to fund Nazi activities.

While it started as a systematic and well organized project with great attention to detail and involvement of many top art experts and art dealers, guided by strictly defined aesthetic and market criteria, towards the end of the war, the effort became more hectic, non-discriminating and disorganized as the whiff of inevitable defeat began to sink in.

Trump has been doing his con job for over 40 years. But has it worked? Well, every project he undertook ended up in bankruptcy, a total six of them – roughly one every seven years. However, he got away without going to jail while at the same time raising the stakes, so he succeeded in that sense. The stakes are now as high as they can be, so there is no next level. Will he get away with it this time and who will be the rube that bails him out? Or has he come to an end from which there will be no escape? It looks like this time will be no different.

The Republican party and the ideological right, which several decades ago spearheaded the conservative agenda as fiscal hawks and mobilized an army of economists, historians, and legal experts to push implementation of the programmatic plunder of the public domain, entered the final phase of high entropy of the end days in 2016.

This year (2020) presents their attempt to breathe new life into the already bankrupt project of Trump’s presidency. All elements of their so-called “strategy” and doubling down have been on display. Nevertheless, despite all the efforts to find an escape route and stage another comeback, last week feels unmistakably different, as if we have passed through the point of no return and that from now on, things will start unwinding at an accelerated pace.

The four decades of plundering of the public domain in America by the GOP’s Kunstschutz and their oligarchic sponsors, a.k.a the project of reconfiguration of the state, has been interrupted in 2020 by the lethal mix created by the intersection of the social and economic crises. Trump’s pillage and cover-ups are the modern version of the Nazi Plunder. Its accelerated phase of the last three months, the disorganized looting akin to the last days of WWII, is an acknowledgment of the imminent end of the Trump era, its 1945.

[1] Paul Virilio, The Original Accident, Polity (2007)

[2]It’s my decision, not governors’, to reopen country. I have the ultimate Authority to Override States’ Virus Measures. When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total.” on 13-Apr, only few days apart from: “I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them, because from a constitutional standpoint, that’s the way it should be done. If I disagreed, I would overrule a governor, and I have that right to do it. But I’d rather have them make their decisions.”

[3] One does not have to go as far back as his real estate deals, casinos, products he tried to con people into buying, or his University and charity; not to mention the entire Birther Movement. We just need to remember what happened in the last 3½ years. His problems with Russia, impeachment, or corona pandemic… are now problems of Bill Bar, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Lindsey Graham, Fox News, and the entire GOP – apparently everybody’s except his own.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange, Verso (2012)

[5] ibid.

Adventures in integral reality: Amusement parks for angry citizens

31. VIII 2019

There is no longer anything on which there is nothing to say. (Jean Baudrillard)

Back in the day, long before flat screens, in the times of cathode tubes, watching news was a compulsory ritual, like a shower or shave, which took place once every day at 6:30 pm. The news was a basic reflection of reality — people watched them to get informed. From 6:30 to 7:00, a solemn cloud would descend on the households – during that time, activities would slow down and the kids had to get quiet while adults (mostly fathers) would tune in to hear what really happened on that day. The news were dry, boring, and unremarkable, delivered without embellishment; they had to be endured. Those 30 minutes felt different than any other 30 minutes of the day. As if the clocks slowed down, the flow of time changed, becaming thicker and slower. It felt like there was nothing that couldn’t fit inside that half hour.

The arrival of the 24/7 news cycle changed everything. By occupying the entire program, the news became both news and entertainment. Suddenly, there was always something going on somewhere, or so it seemed, something one was supposed to be afraid to miss. The news became less news and more opinions, and they provoked counter opinions and set the stage for the contest between different opinions. And the public started taking sides. There were winners and losers and everyone liked the winners, so the newscasters and political commentators became new inadvertent media stars. By then, people were watching news all the time, in the morning, during the day, before dinner, during dinner, and after dinner, between shows and during commercial breaks, before going to bed or if they couldn’t sleep at night. In order to fill the time, news channels had to expand beyond basic reflections of reality; they became a production of reality and the source of its excess. There was hardly anything left for us to imagine anymore. It spelled a slow death of the Real by suffocation of the imaginary.

Consider the following example of 1970s Italy from the perspective of modern media and 24/7 news. Those were the times when bombs were going off regularly in its cities as a result of the activity of the Brigade Rose and their likes.

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists; or of extreme right-wing provocation; or staged by centrists to bring every terrorist extreme into disrepute and to shore up its own failing power; or again, is it a police-inspired scenario in order to appeal to calls for public security? All this is equally true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts, does not check this vertigo of interpretation. We are in a logic of simulation which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason. Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models based on the merest fact — the models come first, and their orbital circulation constitutes the genuine “magnetic field” of events. The facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the intersection of the models; a single fact may even be engendered by all the models at once. This anticipation, this precession, this short-circuit, this confusion of the fact with its model (no more divergence of meaning, no more dialectical polarity) is what allows each time for all the possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – all are true, in the sense that their truth is exchangeable, in the image of the models from which they proceed, in a generalized cycle[1].

The politics of Simulacra

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. (Ecclesiastes)

These developments opened the door for alternative modes of reproduction of reality to enter the mainstream. According to Baudrillard, besides basic reflection of reality employed in traditional news casting, there are three additional stages of reproduction[2]: perversion of reality (e.g. William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report); pretense of reality (Larry Kudlow’s statemet: “President doesn’t make things up”); and simulacrum, which bears no relation to any reality whatsoever (e.g. Fox News).

Simulacrum is the map without a territory, a copy without an original, the avenue by which accepted ideals or privileged position could be challenged and overturned. Pinocchio is an example of simulacrum, and so is Frankenstein’s monster, and TV evangelists, hipsters, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Pygmalion, painting of a photograph, or Disney World.

Simulacrum contains a certain aspect of creation ex-nihilo. The intrinsic circularity between the real and imaginary is essential for its sustainability. For example, Disney World exists, it is permanent, undeniable; it constantly serves as a benchmark against which the Real is compared and measured. In contrast, Pretense and Perversion of reality are transient; they cannot take root and must be followed by another pretense or perversion in order to have any consequence.

However, the most important practical dimension of simulacrum, one which defines its appeal and longevity, is its intrusion into the value system. As Umberto Eco pointed out, when visiting Disney parks, we not only enjoy the perfect imitation, but the conviction that imitation has reached its apex, in comparison to which reality will always be inferior. This is the same motif found in Frankenstein (intention to produce a superior human from superior parts, Pygmalion, or Pinocchio. All these examples capture the desire to achieve perfection by design, improve reality by creating its copy, elevating it to the level of the real, and using it as a surrogate[3].

Very early on, the 24/7 news concept inevitably began to deviate from basic reflection of reality, although in varying degree, depending on the network. However, no one has gone further in that journey than the Fox News. Their accelerated departure from the rest of the news media coincides with the arrival of Roger Ailes who was the first to realize the endless financial potential of manufactured reality, long before anyone else, and adopted it as the network’s business model — We deceive, you believe — to create a simulacrum as a perfect surrogate, more appealing and in many ways superior and more desirable than actual reality itself.

Once reality gets passed through the cognitive sausage making processing plant of Fox News, it emerges transformed and utterly unrecognizable, immunized against facts. In that process, Fox has created a fictional world of arbitrariness that has no reality corrective, but one that resonates with a growing segment of the American society.

The real and the imaginary: From fusion to confusion

Integral reality has no imaginary. Everything becomes real, everything has a meaning, whereas it is in the nature of meaning that not everything has it. (Jean Baudrillard)

As much as the sociopolitical developments catalyzed the evolution of the media, changes in political climate and a general shift in sentiment were largely shaped by the media, so much so that in the last decade it has become impossible to see the beginning and the end of their causal connection.

At the core of this all reside the deep social changes of the post-industrial West. Technology, globalization, tighter environmental regulations, and decline in manufacturing have resulted in accelerated deplition in demand for unskilled white labor, a similar social configuration experienced by the black sub proletariat in the early postindustrial decades.

Such developments, whenever they take place, produce insecure, fear-driven masses that can be coopted by ethno-nationalist forces. While for a shrinking minority, money can buy security and act as a replacement for identity, for a growing majority without money, there is nothing left – neither identity nor security. They are forced into the imaginary. Fear for oneself unconsciously fosters a longing for the enemy. They invent an enemy for themselves. The enemy, even in imaginary form, is a fast supplier of identity[4].

For a significant (and rapidly growing) segment of the American population, reality has become a nightmare without an escape path. The surrogate offering of Fox presented itself as a far more attractive alternative than the one that governed their lives – a copy had becomes superior to the original. The underlying rage of the white underclass was abundant, it presented itself as the new political capital ready to be deployed and invested. Its emergence as a portal to power and influence defined the political inflection point, and was seized by Roger Ailes when he joined the Fox. His version of right wing populism became ventriloquism of the excluded, a well-tried and bankrupt political maneuver of the right, a regressive anti-globalist surrogate for the general identity loss.

This was a novel, ingenious shot at the old and probably the most acute problem faced by the developed world: the problem of excess population. The number of people that fall through the cracks and are unable to get reintegrated into the normal functioning of society has been growing unstoppably, their size exceeding the managerial capability of the planet. Their discontent has reached toxic levels and their presence inside the enclosure of prosperity has been making the “normal” segment of the population uncomfortable and nervous. So far, attempts at draining of the excess population have been centered on either their incarceration or outright physical elimination via opioids. The newest proposal, championed by the right-wing populist outlets, is to open amusement parks for angry citizens and keep the excess population sequestered inside those parks, not merely as spectators, but as interactive extras; create attractions and make them angrier so they never want to leave.

For the excess population, the reality created by Fox is the only thing to cling to. Rage is their political currency, an asset and investment, which Fox and the right-wing media promise to reinvest and manage. It is the source of dividends, their 401K, and bitcoin at the same time; their present and their future, and the last chance of reclaiming their social identity.

The arrival of Trump was an extension of Fox’s vision beyond media. His election was perceived as a rebellion against the Real. However, Trump was not a novelty here. The script had already been written well before he was even in the picture. Fox News is the theme park; Trump is just a character in it, the Fox’s Pinocchio, there merely to entertain the visitors.

And with the strange twist of fate, as one political idea gets recycled after a century of hibernation, and ideology undergoes a face lift from National Socialism to National Capitalism, the Nazi wet dream of harnessing the power of media for political gains comes to life again, only this time as a perversion of itself: It is not the media that are in the service of politics, but politics in the service of media.

Semiotic insolvency and the great flood of arbitrariness

Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth[5]. And as lies continue and become bigger, our deficit to the truth grows. And this debt will have to be paid one day – that day will inevitably come. By inventing new lies in order to diffuse the old ones, we finance the old (semiotic) debt by issuing a new one – we borrow more in order to pay old debts. This is a semiotic pyramid scheme.

Being allowed to lie without consequences is like having an unlimited credit line; it feels like free money. And when free money is readily available, we don’t need a rationale, we take it, although we know all too well how it will end. And despite all that wisdom of hindsight, we fall repeatedly into the trap of pyramid schemes because we always see ourselves not as victims but as perpetrators.

In the culture where money is elevated to a supreme metrics and profit to the highest principle, it is no wonder that non-financial liabilities, like deficit to the truth, have been perceived as secondary and allowed to grow without a bound as long as they continue to bring profits.

What we are facing, in the not so distant future, is the bursting of the semiotic subprime bubble, ignited and carried out by Fox News and accelerated and brought to unsustainable levels by the current administration. The conditionally insolvent are allowed to borrow until they become unconditionally illiquid: People with no credibility or qualifications are appointed to positions of high responsibility and are allowed to cover up the consequences of their incompetence with further lies and distractions until their lies are no longer transactable — when no one believes in them any longer. This is when the system will clear. However, when the criminal incompetence of the current administration can no longer be covered up, its toxic debris will have already affected a significant part of the planet. It will be the political equivalent of the 2008 crash, a global Chernobyl, a chain reaction of defaults with huge casualties and unforeseeable long-term effects. This will be a generalized meltdown of credibility of trust, a default of the magnitude never seen in human history, an analogue of the 2008 financial crisis extended beyond financial markets, a meltdown of all frames of reference. There won’t be a firm spot to put a foot on. This is the great flood of arbitrariness.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press; 14th Printing edition (1994)

[3] Simulacrum comes to life in three stages. In the initial stage, a faithful copy of the original emerges as an object is replicated, but the image is recognized as a counterfeit of the original. In the second stage, the distinction between the original and its replica begin to break down as a mass production of copies emerge. In the final stage, the replica precedes the original; there is no longer distinction between the reality and representation. Simulacrum anesthetizes the imagination numbing it against reality. It is ultimately a replacement of substance with symbols.

[4] B. C. Han, Die Austreibung des Anderen, S. FISCHER; Auflage: 4. (2016)

[5] Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

Fourth World War and the rise of political infantilism (carousing with Baudrillard pt. 2)

30. VI 2019

WWI ended the supremacy of Europe and colonial era. WWII put an end to Nazism. Third world war took place in the form of cold war; it put an end to Communism. With each succeeding war, we have moved further towards a single world order. Today, that order, which has virtually reached its culmination, finds itself grappling with the antagonistic forces scattered throughout the very heartlands of the global. A fractal war of all cells, all singularities, revolting in the form of antibodies. A confrontation so impossible to pin down that the idea of war has to be rescued from time to time by spectacular pieces, such as Gulf War or the War in Afghanistan. But the Fourth World War is elsewhere. It is what haunts every world order all hegemonic dominations. It is the world, the globe itself, which resists globalization. (Jean Baudrillard)

It is a unique cultural experience to observe celebration of the Fourth of July in the heartland of the Bible belt. There are fireworks, shooting from combat weapons of all calibers — semiautomatic, automatic, bazookas, and even light cannons. To an outsider, or anyone who had experienced war personally, this fascination with weapons and general eroticization of war, must appear unmotivated and over the top, or just outright bizarre. However, one has to wonder how these cheerleaders of the 2nd amendment would react if it came to actual war. Most of them (like all other normal people) probably wouldn’t be that much into it. War is the most brutal realization of a survival game, where only the fittest make it. These war-loving bible-wielding self-proclaimed “patriots”, representatives of excess population, couldn’t find their way even in favorable and nurturing conditions. Despite all positive externalities that come with peace and prosperity, which could have worked in their favor, they fell through the cracks and stayed behind. How likely is it that they would fare better in conditions of extreme adversity? In all likelihood, war for them would be a defeating experience (as it is for most everyone else), with long lasting post-traumatic consequences, severe psychological conditions, and prolonged substance abuse. For most of them, war would be an extreme version of their current predicament.

Eros and Civilization, many years later

The concept of Eros, which in its original meaning represents the sum of all instincts for self-preservation and desire, underwent a significant transformation in the early works of Freud, who deliberately downplayed the importance of the rigid boundaries between Eros and sexuality. In his usage Eros signifies an aggrandizement of sexuality. This removal of the boundaries is one of the most important insights of the early psychoanalysis.

Fetishization of war in contemporary America is an illustration of this Freudian connection. It is a result of several factors. Above all, it is an astonishingly precise summary of the true male psychology – as Robin Williams put it: If you can’t fuck it, kill it. The portal opened by Freud frames the romantic attachment to war and weapons as an expression of social ineptitude, an infantile reaction of political voyeurs who know war only by observing it somewhere else without being able to grasp even its approximate meaning. War play is an emotional outlet of socially marginalized and politically impotent males expressed as a displaced sexualized fantasy.

As much as proximity of war is sobering, its prolonged absence, one that allows its abstraction, is intoxicating. Politically, engaging in a war (on your own territory) is like getting laid. Long stretches without war drive men crazy; during those times they lose their sense of purpose.

Absence of sexual experience leads to infantilism (and possibly other psychological problems) in an adult age. Those deprived of sexual experience (of any kind) do not develop properly, at least not in conventional social settings. Escaping personality erosion due to sexual deprivation generally requires creation of a rigorously defined and highly structured alternative life context. The causal connection between religion, in itself an infantile conceptualization of reality, and vow of celibacy, together with the sidetracks such deprivation creates, is probably the best example of this mechanism at work. A nation that has not experienced a war for several generations or ever cannot properly mature, or at least matures differently, in a political sense.

To be clear, civil wars do not count. They are the political equivalent of incest. Civil wars only complicate things and rarely offer any potential resolution in the long run. Conventional wars with foreign adversaries have much better prospects for healing than civil wars. The two warring parties in a civil war are forced to live together even after the war is over encouraging them to make numerous compromises that undermine their emotional recovery and reinforce resistance to healing. In the absence of physical separation, which sometimes, but not always, takes place after civil war, the ferment of latent animosities ultimately morphs into cold civil wars with culture generally losing its original mission as a consensus builder and becoming an instrument of permanent divide.

As a consequence of prolonged abstinence from war, American men have fallen prey to the tyranny of abstraction of war. The confused testosterone and libidinal entropy of the gun-loving constituents, which accumulated over many years of abstinence, gave birth to political voyeurism. War for them occupies a virtual sphere while at the same time retaining the symbolism of the past when wars had a different dose of reality. When it comes to war and armed conflicts elsewhere, they are spectators and cheerleaders who pleasure themselves while observing it at a distance. Nowadays, waging a war (elsewhere) is how one runs political campaigns; it is a sign of determination and leadership. However, when war becomes less abstract, when it intrudes on their turf, Americans do not differ from the rest. An eloquent example from the recent past is the transformation of the psyche of New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11. It was an outpour of solidarity, empathy, togetherness, and understanding — the most basic human emotions, just like everyone else.

War as a metaphor

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations: It jumbles together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with psychological, the like with the unlike. (James Geary)

War is an entirely male creation. Its birth predates the times of hunters and gatherers. The essence of war is condensed in the transfer of violence from animal hunt for the purpose of immediate subsistence to the hunt for man – it is the invention of an enemy beyond prey, a transformation from interspecies to intraspecies competition. As a confrontation with an enemy much more formidable than wild animals, war brings new qualities of risk and strategic thinking[1]. The obscenity of this competition transcends traditional reproductive alpha malehood and redirects the focus of Eros from women to men. As Paul Virilio put it, warfare with other men represents the ultimate narcissistic (male) homosexual act. Testosterone, its main fuel, is an extremely combustible substance. It makes large-scale male bonding manifestations intrinsically unstable, threatening to escalate at any given point into either a physical conflict or an orgy.

Shooting ranges and gun shows, paintball parks, recreation of historical battles, boy scouts, Catholic church, corporate boot camps — every place where men try to impress other men — or the annual festival of salami in Slovenian town of Sevnica, the birth place of Melania Knavs, which only men are allowed to attend, they all share this uncomfortable vibe of a fragile equilibrium. It is not difficult to imagine what goes on in all-male Taliban compounds during starry nights at high altitude and rarified oxygen levels of the Afghan mountain range, or the narrow gap between a Nazi rally and a (male) homosexual bacchanalia. Similar undercurrents permeate contemporary populist rallies. Despite token female presence, they are saturated with testosterone and latent male aggression with the same uncomfortable vibe of instability characteristic for manifestations of large-scale male bonding.

There is an amusing (probably not accidental) congruence between attitudes towards war and sex in a particular cultural context. National histories can be told through sexual stereotypes and sexual stereotypes described in military terms. Using sex as a metaphor often gives an eloquent summary of a given culture with amazing precision.

If war were sex, this is how different cultures could be described. French: always keen to get involved. Sex (and war) never stops occupying their minds. They surrender to love and engage in sex with passion, although occasionally it can be purely physical. Brits are somewhat like French, just with passion dialed down. They are obsessed with being caught in an embarrassing situation, and love and sex are embarrassing. They do not surrender, but approach the whole thing rationally and perform it as a duty. For Swiss, sex is too messy and unhygienic. They do not engage, but they are not averse to masturbation. They like to watch and sometime get paid to watch others. Italians: premature ejaculators, like to talk about it, but find it painful and messy.

When it comes to war, Russians are archetypal masochists. For them, it has to hurt. Always. It is performed as a heavy S&M play, a cathartic ritual to which they willingly submit, aware of subsequent long-term injuries which take years and decades to heal. For Germans, sex is a vigorous physical exercise that requires discipline, precision, and commitment. They have had a complicated history of struggle with it. Deep down, they are masochists like Russians, but had been duped into playing the top in the S&M orgy of the 20th century. A control loving culture, they failed to grasp the idea that in an S&M game, the masochist is always one who calls the shot and is in control. It was a betrayal of their character. It turned out bad for them and almost everyone else.

For Americans, war exists in virtual space, they engage only through action at a distance, prefer the virtual masturbatory routine to the real thing. Their imagination is captured by their numerous sexual toys – the larger, the better – and they indulge in their size and the fear it inspires.

To paraphrase Paul Virilio[2], copulation, which used to be a vital function, has now become optional, turning into the practice of remote-control masturbation. In the same way chemical psychotropic suppressants have been used to dampen down momentary madness, ideological anti-suppressants, with the help of technology, are whipping the madness up, driving it to a frenzy. And this frenzy is contagious and viral. With the technology shrinking the distances and compressing the time scale, war is everywhere and can be transmitted instantaneously, dialed in or out like a video game, and satiating infantile populist cravings for instant gratification. This is the dawning of the age of global teledildonics.

Happy 4th. Enjoy the fireworks.

 

[1] Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon, Continuum (2005)

[2] Paul Virilio, Open Sky, Verso (2008)

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.

The genesis of governmentality and the great flood of arbitrariness

(A homage to a great book)

28.XII 2018

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Hieronymus Bosch: Last Judgment Triptych

Human freedom is a hell of alternatives, dilemmas and choices. True freedom is having no choices. Hell is nothing other than absolute freedom and the devil has been its champion since his rebellion against God… Just look at what kind of image we have of heaven. Whenever some painter attempts to reveal the Powers and Glory of God, we feel like we’re attending an SS parade at the Luipold Arena in Nuremberg… Phalanxes of identical, expressionless and blond angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, surround the Throne as specified in most brutal visions of an authoritarian state… Take the Bosch’s Last Judgment as an example. Successive necessities, realizing paradisiacal freedom are transformed along the vertical axes of the composition into chaos and true freedom of hell. High up, in the golden nimbus, symmetry reigns as in the Wehrmacht barracks; there’s still a humble order and a system in the falling of the angels, but further down… my god! Further down an absolute oriental chaos reigns! Each abusing each as he pleases! Each does as he likes! Everything is in total confusion! An insane chaos attains the freedom and beauty of the ideal democratic state. (Borislav Pekic)

Collective free will is a paradoxical social configuration. It is a highly disruptive force that interrupts the normal run of things and creates conditions for its own demise — it shows up every once in a while, but it never stays. The last time free will made its brief appearance in 1968, it frightened everyone, sounding alarms and prompting the urgent response of governments across the entire western hemisphere. Ironically, it was in the West, the champion of freedom and emancipation, where panic registered the highest levels. The developments that led to 1968, and those that followed, represent the crossroads of political history at the moment of an acute crisis of governmentality. The tensions of 1968 are defined by two contradictory realizations: that force is an inefficient way of governing and that true freedom is not governable.

In a discursive ideological competition that followed as a consequence of the crisis, neoliberalism offered the most “successful” (not necessarily the best) resolution of the underlying contradictions. By outlining a new way of conducting individuals, which satisfies aspirations to freedom in every sphere of human activity, it set the new initial conditions of modern governmentality. Behind these abstract statements lies a simple and, at the same time profound, observation about our ambivalence regarding freedom. People are both attracted and frightened by it — they like to wear it as an ornament, but don’t know what to do with it. This was the major political and cognitive innovation shaped by the factual constraint of the times.

Begin from the middle: From free choice to free selection

However, there was a twist, a detail without which none of it would have worked out. It consisted in the displacement of free choice with free selection. As long as selection was abundant, this subtle, but profound, shift of perspective remained largely unnoticed and the essence of control consisted of dialing the selections. But, when free choice is replaced with free selection and when selection is reduced to only two options, things begin to get interesting. People are given an illusion that, at each point of their life, they stand at the crossroads where one path leads to destruction and the other to redemption, that their future depends on every decision they make along the way. The ideological core of this binary choice consists in packaging it as the principle of one’s own choice. One constantly has to choose. Left or Right. With time, this dilemma becomes an engine which drives a continuous cognitive process that never switches off; it dictates how people live, how they experience reality, and how their sub-consciousness functions. For something like this, people need to mobilize considerable intellectual energy — totally preoccupied with the fear of not making a mistake, they have no time to reflect on anything else. Surrender to this reality — the ubiquitous and perpetual dilemma, Left or Right, when it would be normal to resist either direction — is an expression of acceptance of one’s (inevitable) destiny, supported by the hope of redemption, although real redemption is not waiting for us in either direction.

Labor camps as the birthplace of modern governmentality

The principle of one’s own choice of destiny is not a neoliberal invention. So reassuring at first sight, it was a tried and perfected modus operandi in Jewish Ghettos during World War II. It was invented there with a particular purpose to squash any possibility of resistance. This is how SS Standardführer Heinrich Steinbrecher[1] described the logic of its functioning in the Vilna Ghetto (city of Vilnius, in the territory of Nazi-administered Reichskommissariat Ostland), where, within less than two years from its establishment in 1941, the Ghetto’s population was reduced from an estimated 40,000 to zero.

In the Ghetto, the principle of choice of your destiny was perfected by issuing various kinds of certificates. Those who worked for the German industry received them, the others did not. At first, raids would target only those without certificates, so everybody tried to get one. The thought was now exclusively occupied with this goal. There was no time for any kind of resistance. The main objective was to obtain a work certificate before the next raid. However, the raid did not happen. In the meantime, a change in the rules was announced. Now, there were two kinds of certificates being issued — with and without an identification photo. It was up to you to choose with which kind of certificate you would face the next “manhunt”. The principle Left or Right was active again. Raid now hits those with passport without a picture. Everyone tries to exchange them. Administration announces that it is introducing a third id: a blank card with a stamp mark from the labor bureau in Ponar. However, hardly anyone decides to get it. Miserable piece of paper does not present any reassurance in terms of security. Next night, they arrest many of those with old id’s, with or without photos, in proportion to those without any documents. Everyone rushes to get a blank id. In the meantime, administration arrives at a conclusion that this division/distinction is impractical. It replaces it with partition on qualified and non-qualified workers. They do not ask for any proof. Only personal statement/declaration. Right or Left? Majority decides for some qualification. They reason that one who is considered useful will be spared. In principle, that conclusion is correct. Soon, it is discovered that “qualified” documents were taken also by those who have no rights for that. As a punishment, raid hits everyone, without discrimination. Both, those with and without documents. Jews realize they can only blame themselves: “They (Germans) trusted us, and we deceived them”. When someone reaches this level of reasoning, you can do anything with them. Selections on the basis of identification papers were continued. Left of right was permanently in effect/play. And before the last Jew was liquidated, their i.d.’s changed all colors: from red to white. Thought was constantly occupied. One always had to choose. Left or right?

Do you understand the genius of this idea? It could come only from a speculative mind like German. Only people who gave the world Kant and Hegel. However, to be fair, one has to give credit to those Jews. Only their Talmudic intelligence could get fully and wholeheartedly immersed into this game. Primitive Anglo-Saxons, without imagination and intellectual combinatorics, as soon as they would notice that the rules of game are changing whenever they are on the way to winning, they would exit/abandon the game. Jews continued the play it. With ever growing passion, as the game selection would get more complicated, and their count continued to shrink[2].

In what must be one of the greatest moments of cultural introspection, Steinbrecher’s summary outlines the contours of future struggles of governmentality in a broader ideological context and, at the same time, reveals a disturbing natural link, a straight line, that connects the western cultural tradition with the Holocaust and the final solution. The logic of that strait path leads beyond mere physical; it penetrates deeply cognitive and intellectual horizons and ties them together. It identifies Evil as an intellectual need of the mind, which meditates about the good –a logical necessity of any effort that funds the idea about a better world[3].

Triumph of unfree will: New governmentality at work

The fundamental challenge of any capitalist ideology is how to convince people to voluntarily make stupid decisions, and how to do that systematically. This is a complicated problem of constrained optimization with multiple horizons to which neoliberalism offered the simplest solution. Instead of inventing a new ideology for the emerging socioeconomic system, neoliberalism concentrated on reshaping the political subjects and manufacturing docile bodies. It introduced a series of social apparatuses that gradually transformed society to conform to the old methods of control, using Ghettos as a blueprint.

For the labor camp model work outside of the context of extreme oppression, it was necessary to condition the modern political subjects and reduce their thinking process to that of the residents of the 1940s Ghettos. How? Neoliberalism adopted a simple approach. It disseminated market values into every sphere of human activity. Cooperation is replaced by competition, which is elevated to the level of a supreme principle and a criterion that trumps everything else. It inserts a war machine into each pore of human activity – a fascisization of everyday life. The continued cult of wage labor merely replaces Arbeit macht frei, and, as “fences” become narrower and the “voltage” approaches lethal levels, every mistake becomes potentially irreversible and the fatality of mistakes self-fulfilling.

To persuade the Westerners, and, in particular, Anglo-Saxons with their practical empiricism, to play this game, the rules have to be complicated to the point of becoming ungraspable. And, of course, to make sure people continue to make stupid decisions, efforts have to be made to keep them stupid: Critical (or any systematic) thinking is undermined and discouraged; ignorance is promoted and cultivating as a cultural virtue while access to education is continuously reduced.

As selection gets reduced to binary, the contours of the Ghetto gradually emerge. The Left or Right dilemma gets a cultural dimension. One path is more inclusive, it leads to more welfare, but less god and guns, while on the other end, one is lured by the promise of “greater coherence”, with all the regressive ornaments surrounding a neo-patriarchal, unenlightened society – a gay-free zone where everyone carries a bible and a gun. However, both paths lead to the same destination of social self-destruction defined by the systematic devastation of everything that doesn’t submit to the profit of the strongest.

So, at the end, it is down to a binary choice between two alternatives, neither one of which would have been found acceptable if they had been subjected to free (and/or intelligent) choice. This is the neoliberal parallax gap defined by the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives with no common ground. The free will has been taken out of the decision process altogether, ex ante! However, the cultural division, embedded in the two selections on offer, has an important stabilizing role: make the pain across different cultural divides mutually unintelligible and mutually exclusive. As the rules of the game become more complicated and the size of excess population grows, those who had been played – the game’s main victims – continue to play with ever growing passion. Everything looks perfect. But, reality refuses to be fooled by it.

2018: The great flood of arbitrariness

After decades of accumulated social deficit, neoliberalism came to a halt by the end of the first decade of the century. Although it became clear that the existing ideological framework had run its course, there was no alternative that could replace it. 2016 was a referendum on free will, the year when the West finally rejected freedom and the capital voiced an open quest for an authoritarian state. In many ways, 2016 was an anti-1968 — the triumph of unfree will — a directionless step forward and a stepping into political quicksand.

In the two subsequent years, the initial conditions of 2016 set the stage for the great flood of arbitrariness: A chaotic dissolution of all frames of reference, the established social structures, institutions and rules, and an all-out assault on truth. The new political narrative envisions the great deluge of arbitrariness as an act of “divine” retribution aimed at washing away the sins of the West: the sin of rationality, logic, restraint, mediocrity, and compromise — a systemic purge of the social body from the existing rules in preparation for its rebirth.

This is another round of discursive ideological competition where the modern-day transposition of the biblical narrative is served to the properly prepared segment of excess population, while the insane wing of the right populism is energizing their base – the unsuspected victims of their con jobs — and subcontracting their rage to build, on their behalf, the Ark on which they will secure the spot for a selected few.

The great flood of arbitrariness creates its own rules. It is an escalation of neoliberal maneuver of selection reduction extended to intellectual and cognitive horizons, beyond physical survival. Instead of the Left or Right dilemma, it is now between drowning in the flood of arbitrariness or getting on board of the Ark of fools. People subjected to this principle of choice resemble a person who considers an outstanding privilege and benefit a permission to choose whether he will jump through the window from the third floor or wait for the fifth[4].

2016 marks the beginning of the end of the Hegelian historical continuum where History is seen as the realization of freedom by means of a series of successive enslavements to different kinds of necessity. Free selection is now being reduced down to one option and we are free to embrace it or reject it. This is the highest act of freedom — freely assuming what is otherwise necessary. It is also the end of history. We have finally achieved true freedom because true freedom is having no choice. And so, history doesn’t end with a fairytale of global liberal democracy, but with an authoritarian state.

[1] Borislav Pekic, How to Quiet a Vampire, Northwestern University Press (2003)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

The Gods must be crazy: The rise of the primitive society of the future

10.XI 2018

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. (Steven Weinberg)

If God exists, then everything is allowed because every act committed by man is an expression of God’s will. This includes even the most extreme acts; especially them. For most people, hurting others is deeply traumatic. A sacred Cause serves to anesthetize their elementary sensitivity to another’s suffering. Without this Cause we would have to feel all the burden of what we did – the Cause transposes the burden of guilt[1]. So, if there is God, we do not have to reflect on the consequences of our actions. Whatever we do — and, we know, we are prepared to do terrible things if the situation requires — it is a priori legitimized.

If there is no God, however, everything is prohibited. Well, not exactly everything, but a lot of things. This is the Lacanian inversion of Dostoyevsky. In the absence of God, we are the judges of good and evil; we censor ourselves and restrict our actions. We become Kantian subjects: every man has a conscience and finds himself observed, threatened and, in general, kept at awe by an internal judge[2]. The moral subject is simultaneously defendant and judge, a doubled self or dual personality. A Kantian subject is answerable to a superego far more severe than that of the traditional morality.

Man’s discontent with God in general, and how he managed the affairs of the world in particular marks the beginning of Modernity. It is the moment in history when man puts himself in charge. This is the first point of transfer of power and responsibility in modern history. However, enlightenment, rationality, and above all, emancipation from God created their own problems. In the final stages of enlightenment, this process led naturally to the disenchantment of the world[3] as the ultimate triumph of rationality — a seminal break point in modern culture and a radical departure in the way we experience reality. It connotes the removal of a magic spell and reflects a belief that humanity can control everything by means of calculation. And so, through the advent of scientific methods and the use of enlightened reason the world was rendered transparent, demystified and, ultimately, hollowed and deprived of its richness. It became disenchanted and disenchanting, predictable and intellectualized.

God as a secular entity: Primitive society of the future makes its first appearance

Nothing vanishes; of everything that disappears there remain traces. God disappeared, but he left behind his judgment, like a Cheshire Cat’s smile. And God’s judgment is terrifying in itself, but the judgment of God without God is even more terrifying[4].

The disenchantment of the world proved to be the alienating and undesirable flip side of scientific progress. Life got more complicated and unmanageable, and became too much of a burden and responsibility. The more man tried to liberate himself, the more trapped and enslaved he felt. Unhappy again, he started plotting his escape from freedom, by looking for a worthy replacement for God. Despite centuries of enlightenment, emancipation, education, and overwhelming accumulation of empirical evidence and insight, dictators and autocrats, as God’s surrogates, never went out of vogue. In fact, their appeal only grew stronger with time. We just seem to be unable to resist their seductive powers. Modernity in its later phase reads like mankind’s love affair with authority. There has never been a comparable concentration of dictators, of the most extreme kind, in history as in the 20th century, the times marked with the most intense scientific progress and emancipation on all fronts.

Adorno and Horkheimer, and other Weber’s followers of Frankfurt School understood early on the dialectics of rationality and enlightenment and perceived the disenchantment as an altogether negative force. Science’s attempts to disenchant the world resulted only in a kind of return of the repressed: the irrationality that had been squelched by enlightened reason returned in the form of violence and barbarism[5]. Re-enchantment emerges as a response to an overdose of rationality, an attempt to establish new symbolism, or recycle the old one, and resurrect the supernatural qualities that were exorcised during centuries of symbolic asphyxiation.

In the mid-20th century, the market emerged as a surrogate, which temporarily filled the vacuum created by God’s disappearance. During the peak of the neoliberal post-industrial phase, it attained a status of a separate entity, worshiped like a pagan deity to which society sacrifices social prey in order to appease it. This defined the contours of a new social structure: Primitive society of the future.

However, unrestrained personal hedonism gradually intruded and ultimately invaded other peoples’ pleasure horizons. Its consequences were social fragmentation, eradication of empathy, and a general breakdown of social bonds. Fueled by the machine of competition, asymmetrical distribution of wealth and misery, together with unprecedented corruption, found widespread acceptance and endorsement as a consequence of “natural” free-market forces, and was eventually normalized. It didn’t take long for the free market orgy to take the course of a full-scale autoimmune reaction.

Nothing can be more oppressive than ethical hedonism (the right to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure) – we have been enslaved by it for centuries. Religion serves to legitimize the hedonistic trespassing; the absence of religion constrains it. We look at religious suspension of the ethical[6] as our salvation from enslavement. And this opens the doors for the return of God through the vulgar materialistic interpretation of his will and judgment by the born-again Evangelical fundamentalists.

This is the answer to disenchantment with disenchantment, a barbaric eruption of discontent with the oppression of rationality and growing desire for submission. If there is one aspect that post-modernity brings in this historical moment of introspection and self-reflection, it is the realization of bottomless human capacity for submission to institutions, ideologies, or to personalities, regardless of how grotesque and destructive they may be. These are the initial conditions of the 21st century.

Deresponsibilization and the second transfer of authority: Ideology of collective contempt of reason

The same logical framework provided by the religious suspension of the ethical in fundamentalist religious interpretations is also deeply embedded in the ideological foundations of neoliberalism — so long as we follow economic rationality, this ultimate metric of value, we are exonerated of any and all the consequences of (and free of responsibility for) what any of our actions may cause. The same mechanism sits at the core of both the fundamentalist call for crusade, religious exclusivity, and its propensity to annihilate infidels as in the economic Darwinism and hyper-libidinal capitalism of libertarian neoliberalism. This is where the religious and the free-market dogmas meet each other. Economic rationality and existence of God both maximize our freedom from responsibility. They are logical twins.

This is the second point of transfer of authority and responsibility in modern history. The need for authority comes from the same center of our mind and soul as the needs for freedom, order, and coherence. Reaching that destination goes hand in hand with unwind of responsibility; this is the gift of the authoritarian project. The singular attraction of the right-wing populism, the ideology of unreason, lies precisely in the fact that it represents a movement of deresponsibilization of epochal magnitude never seen in history, the main reason the world is making a sharp right turn at this point of history. This is the face of the new primitive society of the future.

The infantile refusal to accept responsibility together with the ontological need for (unconditional) absolution legitimizes all the regressive measures that come with the ideology of unreason, and defines the core of its malignancy. We no longer need to admit our mistakes or apologize for them; we disrespect the truth and refuse to step back in the face of facts and, in a collective display of contempt of reason, interpret our delusional ramblings as the voice of God’s will. After all, if God exists, everything is allowed.

[1] Slavoj Zizek, “God is Dead, but He Doesn’t Know It” (Lacan plays with Bobok), Lacanian Ink (04.04.2009)

[2] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Suhrkamp (1982)

[3] In its original usage, the term Entzauberung is attributed to Friedrich Schiller, crystallized through his poem The Gods of Greece, first published in 1788. The German word literally means de-magic-ation, but is meant to imply the breaking of a magic spell. Around 1913, Max Weber used it to describe the character of modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Why hasn’t everything already disappeared?, Seagull Books (2016)

[5]Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH (1989)

[6]Seren Kierkegard, Fear and Trembling, Cambridge Text in the History of Philosophy (2011)

Scandal and power: Pornographication of politics and social life

23. V 2018

There is a species of man who is always one step ahead of his own excrement (René Char)

Scandal is emerging as possibly the most significant technological innovation of the new century so far. It makes social barriers porous, it uncovers human flaws behind the sheltered Public, humanizes the dehumanized, and contaminates the sterilized Symbolic. Current political reality reveals itself through scandal. Scandal gives an illusion of political engagement – it is political activism in consumer mode.

Perfection is sterile – we are attracted to people’s weaknesses and imperfections and not to their strengths. If personal flaws and idiosyncrasies harmonize with repressed collective traumas, desires and nostalgia for the ancestral terrain, they can have a great mobilizing power capable of defining new identity politics and shaping entire political movements. A leader who is able to strike the ancestral chord of his people will make those people dance to his grooves and fall in love with him. For several decades now, the new breed of post-Reagan politicians has been doubling down on their flaws in a bid for deeper access to wider political audiences and a chance to reinvest considerable rage capital that has accumulated over time. Their idiosyncrasies make them human, and the more they err, the more human and appealing they become. They diffuse one scandal with another (always) bigger one — spectacle is addictive, it has to grow to satiate the boundless appetite of the publics. Since Reagan days, scandal has morphed from a free form to a precise game theoretical strategy.

The main problem with scandal as a public communication tool is its integration into political life. After all, scandal in public life has always been synonymous with professional suicide, the end of political career (Nixon was the last tragic victim of that equation). It took almost two decades after Reagan to figure out how to bypass this obstacle. The breakthrough came with a realization that the troubling equation, Scandal = Suicide, is intimately linked with the second one, Suicide = Power.

It wasn’t very long after 9/11 that the West managed to grasp the idea that suicide is a statement of power. A man on a suicide mission is not to be messed with: Irrespective of how much stronger you are, he will manage to hurt you, or at best, his guts will splatter all over you leaving the stains (physical and mental) you will never be able to remove. The impactfullness of suicide as the ultimate symbolic gesture can only be understood and argued after reconciling it with the symbolism of afterlife. The duality of suicide — physical and symbolic (the collateral and the reward) – defines the first layer of its rationalization within the existing cultural paradigm.

Suicide is the most private act. Its intent and execution are done without the consent of anyone but the self. The suicide through martyrdom is an externalization of that personal pact; it is a radical privatization of the public space – a violent erasure of the gap between private and public.

Physical suicide as subordination to a higher goal that transcends the value of human life represents a symbolic act that has no counterpart in the Western culture. For Westerners, this is potentially the most frightening confrontation. But, the West has emancipated itself from this nonsense of higher goals a long time ago: We no longer give our lives for higher goals; we take risks in exchange for adequate compensation.

With real (fundamentalist) martyrs loss of life is real and afterlife is symbolic. For pragmatic Westerners rationalization of suicide consists in transposing its coordinates: suicide becomes symbolic and afterlife real. This is the key step.

Over the last two decades, the public spectacle of symbolic suicide has become a ticket to a lucrative material “afterlife” for numerous public figures. Through scandal, current populist politics, (the concluding chapter of neoliberalism) has been transformed into a perpetual ritual of watered down acts of reversible self-annihilation — political suicide followed by subsequent symbolic resurrection. The ongoing parody of self-destruction comes with an embedded option on resurrection (political and/or commercial) or an implicit promise of a lucrative “afterlife” with “70 virgins” in the form of book deals, high-commission speech opportunities, TV appearances, Fox News correspondent, or consultant positions.

These rituals are repeated over and over again as an essential part of an ever-growing public spectacle. The high-stakes game, the ultimate gamble, where one puts his life on the line for his beliefs (what if my belief is wrong and my life was lost for nothing?) is transposed into its parody, a tactical low-stakes gambit consisting of making minor short-term concessions in return for a potentially large future upside. There is an emancipatory ring to this parody: While “traditional” martyrdom has been strictly a male thing, symbolic suicide has been very much a gender-neutral thing, which has only helped its acceptance and integration.

As potential upside grew, the spectacle of symbolic self-annihilation became more competitive and more elaborate. At the top of this theatre of cruelty sits Donald Trump, always (and without a single exception) on the wrong side of every argument, political, social, ethical, ecological or rational, with consistency that can only be deliberate or programmatic, definitely not accidental. And this is just an appetizer; his distaste for truth, deep in the territory of pathological, is an amuse-bouche (it comes free of charge) before the main course, his passion for scandal of any kind, political, sexual, financial, or legal, none too small or too trivial not to be embraced, defines his habitat. He insults war heroes, war heroes’ widows and parents, handicapped, women, homosexuals, transgender, minorities, judges, FBI, CIA, media, religions, domestic and foreign dignitaries, chiefs of states, anyone that exists on this planet and beyond. And when it looks like he has sunk as low as one can sink, he manages to define new lows. His ability to survive the consequences defies laws of probability, gravity and logic; it can be only compared to surviving a plane crash (something his buddy Nigel Farage actually experienced).

Trump’s administration appointees and surrogates are all symbolic martyrs, selected volunteers on a suicide mission, trying to keep up with their boss. This commitment has become all but an explicit prerequisite for any political office appointment — we continue to be reminded of Comey’s (or Tillerson’s) ritualized dismissal as a consequence of their reluctance to commit to the parody of martyrdom.

The list of Trump’s symbolic suicide volunteers has been growing at an exploding rate. Various transient surrogates and talking heads are too insignificant and numerous to mention. But, who can forget the tragicomic figure of Sean Spicer, a bona fide moron, who went too far too soon and, in that process, blew his chances for afterlife; or premature ejaculator Scaramucci who kamikazeed on runway before his “plane” could take off; the undead duo, Conway & HakaSan; Jeffrey Lord who just couldn’t take the pressure anymore and (for no good reason and out of the blue) blasted a Sieg Heil on twitter, and subsequently lost his CNN (and any other) gig; Garry Cohn, a rational man who did and said irrational things and ruined his reputation in a futile mission, but as a government employee, managed to cash in his vested Goldman Sachs stocks without paying capital gains tax; the list goes on and on.

But, when it comes to the spectacle of public self-annihilation, no one comes close to Sean Hannity, the whirling dervish, performance artist, and Swiss army knife of populist tricks. People of all persuasions and political leanings tune in every night to watch the greatest show on TV, where this postmodern-day Lazarus of the far right sets himself on fire and incinerates his symbolic body every business day of the week at precisely 9 p.m. and within the subsequent 60 minutes violates every professional, journalistic, legal, ethical, and esthetical boundary there is to violate, only to magically resurrect the next day and repeat the same ritual during the exact same time slot.

However, away from the spectacle, one faces sobering reality: Porous boundaries, atonal politics, and populist plan for its rescue reveal the troubling truth about the human condition of the depressive-narcissistic neoliberal subject. It is at the edge of depression where neoliberalism meets its fundamentalist twin. The inability to arrive at a decision or finish anything constitutes a symptom of depression[1]  — our spirit has become so compromised that even suicide cannot be accepted as a conclusive act, but just another chapter – what can be more narcissistic than that? This is the social Möbius strip where the real becomes symbolic and the symbolic turns into real. In this process of social pornografication, the paradigm of the reality show converts martyrdom into a precisely structured symbolic ritual, mythology of afterlife into business opportunities, and transforms America, and the West in general, into a culture of second acts. Everything is explicit and nothing is believable.

[1] B. C. Han

Digital panopticon and the triumph of the unfree will

22. IV 2018

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

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

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

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

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

[2] ibid.

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)

 

American corrida and the reconstitution of the state

24. III 2018

No one really ever liked the state, but the great majority permitted its powers to grow ever greater because they saw the state as the mediator of reform. But if it cannot play this function, then why suffer the state? But if we don’t have a strong state, who will provide daily security? (I. Wallerstein)

Social and economic cycles used to move together. This was many years ago. For over 40 years now, the two have fallen out of synch. After each recession, recovery had to be won by making social concessions — this was always considered acceptable expecting the economic advantages to feed back into society. With time, economic progress has decoupled from the well-being of society. Social deficits have grown so large that, unlike the economy, society can no longer recover. The last crisis has taken the form of an autoimmune reaction. We have reached the point of self-intoxication when inner contradictions of the system, which previously could be temporarily ignored, are taking over. The system has exhausted itself – it has collapsed under its own weight.

Overcoming the accumulated social deficit requires deeper social changes. At the root of this quest lies the breakdown of traditional social contract, which started more than four decades ago. In its original form it can no longer be used even as a rough outline.

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As divergence between productivity and income has increased, so has the distributional asymmetry of profits resulting in growing inequality, which after decades have evolved into the main destabilizing force. The problem with inequality is not the skew in wealth distribution between those who have some and those who have more (or much more), but extreme fragmentation of society into a rapidly shrinking minority of those who have everything and an exploding majority of those who have nothing. A shrinking middle class in developed economies has grown increasingly vulnerable to poverty while, at the same time, poverty has become a risky and unstable state. This led to new forms of precarity, social marginality, and stratification at the expanding bottom.

As a consequence, the cultural divide has reached such high levels that disputes can no longer be resolved through democratic process. Western societies are at the juncture where they need to develop alternative modes of social organizing and define a new social contract.

Craig Calhoun gives possibly the best summary of the singularity of the present political configuration: Western societies are at the intersection of economic and political crises, which presents the most dangerous development that could emerge from this situation. Erosion of implicit bargain by which people accept damages to society or environment in the pursuit of progress results in recurrent political unrest. Faltering growth brings disappointment to those with rising expectation and elected leaders seek to diminish public freedoms and quash dissent.[1]

There is an urgent need to reconfigure the capitalist state in such a way that harmonizes with the needs of both the economy and the society. This is a painful and politically risky maneuver that requires undoing centuries of institutional baggage. Reconfiguration of the state is the main event of this political moment; everything else is just a distraction.

The main objective of current populist politics is to decouple the two crises by any means. In its current iteration the strategy consists of preventing the lethal mix to be realized, by creating a distraction (economic, social, media, political, as much controversy as necessary…), while the state is being rapidly dismantled. But this cannot be a stable solution, only a way of buying some time. It is just the beginning of a long process of social transformation likely to take center stage in the next decades.

State and social insecurity: From welfare to penal pornography

The transformation that the state has undergone in the last 40-50 years can be characterized at best as inadequate or incomplete, lagging behind, and not adapting to, much deeper technological and economic changes.

The substance of capitalism is the meeting of capital and labor. Capital must be able to buy labor and labor must be attractive enough to be saleable. In that context, the main task (and legitimation) of the capitalist state is to broker this exchange — to see that both of these conditions are met. It must subsidize capital and ensure that labor is worth purchasing (it is healthy, properly trained in the skills and behavioral habits, and is able to ensure the strains of the factory floor). Legitimation crisis of capitalist state lies in transition from society of producers to society of consumers – the prime source of capital accumulation has moved from industry to consumer markets. State subsidies now render capital able to sell commodities and consumers able to buy them. Credit was perceived as a magic contraption in that context. Capitalist state now must assure the continuous availability of credit and the continuous ability of consumers to obtain it. The welfare state is now underfunded because the principal source of capital accumulation has been relocated from exploitation of labor to exploitation of consumer[2].

As the state was withdrawing from the welfare arena, the existing forces were pushing it to the punitive mode of its functioning. The poverty of the social state against the backdrop of deregulation elicits and necessitates the grandeur of the penal state[3]. This is neoliberalism in action: Subordinate all human activities to the laws of the market.

The unwanted byproduct of economic Neo-Darwinism, unwind of the welfare state, and the rising precarity has been the excess population — the surplus of humanity that is unwanted, inconvenient, and ultimately displaced[4]. There are more people who fall through the cracks than those who succeed — a growing segment of the population that can no longer be reintegrated into a normal functioning of society. These people are neither producers nor consumers.

The response of the state has been to segregate the nonproductive, non-consuming, social element either through their permanent exclusion (e.g. opioids, or other forms of social marginalization) or turn them into profit centers through incarceration (e.g. private prisons). The state has effectively switched from its welfare to the punitive mode of functioning signaling the emergence of carceral state as one of the defining characteristics of the late-stage neoliberalism.

However, no solution has emerged from these, essentially ideological, maneuvers, which have only exacerbated the problem of excess population: The volume of humans made redundant by capitalism’s global triumph grows unstoppably and comes close now to exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet; there is a plausible prospect of capitalist modernity choking on its own waste products which it can neither reassimilate or annihilate, nor detoxify[5]. This has resurfaced as the main problem of neoliberalism that does not have a solution inside the existing paradigm.

The rising social antagonisms and tensions are rapidly becoming a cause of additional loss of social cohesion with precarity and hopelessness on one side against discomfort and entrenchment of the privileged on the other. Growing rage capital is being harvested by right wing populism. Growing discontent is used as the lever arm to reconfigure the sate to a more radical form of carceral, militarized entity with enhanced punitive mandate and further dismantle the vestiges of the welfare state. At the same time, under the pretext of economic and fiscal reform, there is a concerted effort to shake up the constitution and push the system towards a more efficient structure that fosters easier oligarchic repositioning.

The matador enters the rink

In the final stage of corrida, the tercio de muerte (part of death), the matador re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape (muleta) in one hand and a sword in the other. The faena (job) consists of the entire performance with the muleta, in which he uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes, both demonstrating his control over it and risking his life by getting especially close to it. Faena ends with a final series of passes in which the matador with a muleta attempts to maneuver the bull into a position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart (estocada).

Inside the existing neoliberal paradigm, we have already reached the dead end when there is nothing else that could be done. The only thing that remains is to reinvent the status quo through distraction. This brings us to the present moment. Like traditional Spanish corrida, dismantling of the state has assumed a highly ritualized process. In the words of Sylvère Lotringer, it is ritual without the sacred, the tragic without the tragedy. While populist campaigns have masked themselves as de-oligarchification movements centered on their anti-global sentiment, the American version has acquired a distinct flavor. The most recent attempt at transformation is nothing else but an oligarchic repositioning, an attempt to avoid a change by diversion. Trump’s right-wing populism, in fact, is a rearrangement of the oligarchic modes of economic and social functioning.

This is precisely the transformation that took place in the post-communist world in the 1990s. Trump’s cabinet nominations, selection of his advisors and his appointees reflect a desire to engineer a collapse of the state institutions — create new initial conditions resembling a failed state – and rebuild new structures on its rubble. As such, 2016 represents a regressive move towards a more primitive oligarchic structure.

This is the final stage of the American corrida — after wearing the bull down, the matador has entered the arena in 2016. Presidential tweets, the penchant for scandal, controversies, pathological lies, being consistently on the wrong side of every dispute and argument, flirting with constitutional crisis, everything…. All this is the red cape (the matador’s muleta). His job, (the faena), is at the same time to distract public attention, test the system’s resilience, wear down the public and bring state institutions to their breaking point before delivering the final blow (estocada) to the constitution, democracy and the American state.

Contrary to the naïve and misguided belief that Good always triumphs over Evil, history is on no one’s side. The outcome is ultimately binary. Who will be taken out on a stretcher, the matador or the bull? And whom will be the crowd cheering for?

[1] Craig Calhoun, in Does Capitalism Have a Future? Ed. I Wallerstein et al., Oxford University Press (2013)

[2] Zygmund Bauman, Liquid Times, Living in the Age of Uncertainty, Polity (2007)

[3] Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, Duke University Press (2009)

[4] Zygmund Bauman, Wasted Lives, Polity (2012)

[5] Zygmund Bauman, ibid.