Tag Archives: #populism

The Most Fundamental Force

9. VIII 2020

Is it progress if a cannibal uses a fork? (Jerzy Lec)

In a competitive environment, violence against the other is the most effective survival strategy. Murder as a (predominantly male) strategy of attaining the status position of dominant power has been adaptive. It is installed in the human brain because it worked. Violent humans are descendants of those who succeeded in evolution. They are wired in the same way as their ancestors as the dominant factors of success propagated.

From the perspective of evolution, it appears as if the secret fate of every individual is to destroy the other, not necessarily through deliberate intent to do harm, but because of the fact of their own existence, driven by some cosmic necessity for the general demise of life. This destructive impulse extends across all living organisms and binds them together. Baudrillard saw this as a true ontological principle: Existence as such is already violence.

Bacteria, viruses, parasites of all kinds, and bacilli in general, invade a living organism and exploit its hospitality until they kill it and in this way destroy the source that feeds them. With the death of their host, bacilli die as well. Their destructive drive is not intentional — they just don’t “know” better. The destruction process takes place because their existence and survival degenerates into blind excessive growth. Bacilli are blind to the higher entity to which they owe their life and nourishment. Despite superior survival abilities, adaptability, and mutation, the immanence of the fatal end simply transcends their capability to incorporate that crucial aspect of their existence into their behavior. From the first moment of its creation, every invasive microbe is on a suicide mission and the entire purpose of its existence is to execute that task. This is the ultimate irony of existence in general.

The striking parallelism between behavior of humans and microbes led to Arthur Schnitzler’s brilliant meditation[1] in which he imagined the human race as an illness of some higher organism, completely inconceivable to us, within which humanity was to be found a purpose, necessity and meaning of its existence but which it also sought to destroy, and indeed would ultimately have to destroy, the more highly developed it became, in the same way bacilli strive to annihilate the ailing human organism. Even if this were right, this configuration would be ungraspable to us. It resides in the hyperplane that is out of our cognitive reach.

Stripped of higher purposes and social context, and reduced to bare survival, violent self-destructive drive is the essence of human existence: Violence is the most fundamental force. Because of this, human life and interactions need to be heavily regulated on every level. The true (unconditional) human nature should never be allowed to take its course, not even approximately or temporarily. It should be intercepted and redirected at all costs! The 20th century alone offers plenty of examples of what happens when human nature is let loose: Two world wars, Hiroshima, countless regional conflicts, Gulags, cultural revolutions, extermination camps, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and more than 120 million killed.

Topology of violence

The irony is that violence is unavoidable: Violence must be fought with violence. Subjective violence, inherent in human nature, should be controlled by the systematic violence of the collective. This is the regulatory and regulating force of the state. When human nature becomes unconstrained, we have death, wars, and extermination; there is blood everywhere. However, when we attempt to regulate our nature, when the state takes over, violence does not disappear, it merely changes the mode of its manifestation.

Human history is chronicle of the technology of violence. According to B. C. Han, social transformation across modernity represents its most dramatic structural transformation[2]. In premodernity, violence was ubiquitous and, above all, both mundane and visible. The staging of violence was an integral, even central component of societal communication. Rulers exhibited their power through deadly violence, through blood. The theatre of brutality that was staged in public spaces also demonstrated the ruler’s power and magnificence[3].

Emancipation and enlightenment announced a major departure in the use of violence. Modernity marks the onset of its internalization. Violence continues to be wielded but not publicly staged. The theater of bloody violence, which characterized the societies of sovereignty, yields to bloodless gas chambers withdrawn from public view. Rather than staging the magnificence of power, violence in modernity conceals itself in shame[4].

Without expressly drawing attention to itself, violence has withdrawn from the city center to its outskirts. Public executions were replaced with silent annihilations or by the hidden apparatus of institutional repression.

Han sees this as the essential and most sinister aspect of modernity: Violence in modernity takes place as a mute annihilation. It shifts from visible to invisible, from direct to discreet, from the physical to the psychic, from the frontal to the viral. Its mode of operation is no longer confrontation but contamination, not open assault, but concealed infection[5].

21st Century: The return of the magnificence of power

By elevating competition and individualism to the level of ultimate universal criterion, politics, in its regressive (neoliberal) spiral of the last 50 years, ultimately became the tool of the systematic removal of inhibitory mechanisms, which allowed us to come out as we are. As a consequence, the modalities of resulting social structures developed a deep resonance with our real nature. Leading inevitably to the rise of systematic violence. This has become the core problem of capitalism, the main reason why it has emerged as an anti-social project and why ultimately it either has to self-destruct or society as such has to disintegrate.

By now, we are about to close the circle of violence. Our initial conditions were clear: We are violent creatures whose civilization starts only when an exogenous entity (sovereign or state) begins to regulate our natural impulses. However, emancipation and enlightenment, for all the intended good doings, ultimately resulted in the grand sabotage of the entire civilization project by allowing individuality and freedom to create the seeds of ideology that gradually aligned itself with true human nature and ultimately created the path for the return of violence in its primordial form.

Designing a system of social organization, which is in harmony with human nature, is not something we should aspire to. It is generally a bad idea. A very bad one, in fact. Without a considerable amount of inhibition, human nature is socially toxic. In order to become social, we have to abandon our true nature. The entire process of growing up, of becoming socially integrated – what is referred to as civility – is all about inhibiting our true impulses (e.g. toilette training, selfishness, lack of empathy, aggression, ability to engage in a dialogue,…). These inhibitory skills define us as social beings. We are born without those skills and we spend a considerable portion of our lives learning how to acquire and use them. Without them there is no society.

So, we are the real problem. Violence is inscribed in our genetic code and, sooner or later, becomes the essential component of social organization. The question is then, how close or how far are we from the grand convergence with our real selves when all barriers are removed and ideology becomes a true representation of human nature.

This dilemma has finally caught up with us in the 21st century and we are beginning to get the first installments of the full answer. There is a clear trend of resurgence of violence in postmodernity. In this process, 2020 has played a singular role, not so much because it represents an eruption of violence per se, but because it is bringing it back to civic centers and confirming the sad, but unavoidable, truth that, no matter what we do and how much progress we make as a civilization, we can never fully emancipate ourselves from violence.

Rather than concealing itself in shame, violence is staging a return of magnificence of power through the regressive unwind of modernity. The new wave of fascination with power, with the emerging breed of populist autocrats seeing themselves as sovereigns of pre-modern times, are creating conditions for the recreation of the magnificence of sovereign power through a medieval fantasy of “law & order” by reviving the spectacle of violence and feeding the lower echelons of society, the modern day plebs, the regressive nostalgia by choreographing another reality show as a reenactment of the bloody violence of yesteryear in the contemporary centers of civility.

[1] Arthur Schnitzler, Aphorismen und Betrachtungen, S. Fischer Verlag (1967)

[2] B. C. Han, Topologie der Gewalt, Matthes & Seitz Berlin; Auflage: 1. (2011)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

Oklahoma

20. VI 2020

It has been three months since the beginning of the pandemic, more precisely, since the admission of its existence, and the beginning of the most spectacular collapse of a presidency in American history. After three and a half years of political theatre of the absurd, the 45th president is standing alone, fully exposed as the most colossal failure a high office has ever seen, guilty and crumbling under the growing burden of responsibility, which he is hopelessly trying to deflect.

So far the narratives he launched in his defense have been largely either stillborn lies — short lived, ridiculed and disputed even before they were completely uttered — or, at best, they got drowned at inception in the cross-media cacophony. He is addicted to lies, but his lies refuse to stick. He has been in a desperate need for their real-time audio-visual validation – a confirmation that someone, anyone, can still find them believable.

As poll numbers are in a nosedive, the imploding echo chamber of his sycophants has been getting quieter by the day. Nothing seems to be working for this infantile geriatric whiner.

At the same time, his transgressions were getting graver and their baggage heavier – it continues to reinforce itself requiring new transgressions to cover old ones up, drawing an ever-expanding circle of collaborators inside the event horizon.

The stakes are getting higher and risks more extreme. The prospect of finding himself unprotected by the shield of the presidential office is alarmingly realistic and overwhelmingly likely while his legal and political liabilities are reaching toxic levels, all this only five months before the elections.

And he can’t take risks — he has never been able to; his entire life has been about deflecting responsibility.

Serious withdrawal symptoms from his addiction to lies are beginning to erupt through their somatic manifestations. He needs a new fix – a more potent drug and a higher dose of it. His position requires a higher level of unconditional commitment – no longer a cheerleading choir, but a new installment of high-stakes articles of faith by his eroding base in order to satiate his habit and diffuse the anxiety of withdrawal. What is happening today in Oklahoma is the inauguration of nothing short of a political suicide cult. The spirit of Jim Jones is palpable.

One Day the Day Will come when the Day Won’t Come

26. IV 2020

Madness is the only way of forgetting – it is the hawthorn stick of history. (Borislav Pekic)

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Prologue: How modernity forgets

Civilizations are repositories of collective traumas. National sensibilities and neuroses have in common that they prefer to repeat their accidents, like the commemoration of defeats at cult sites, memorial pornography or reenactments of civil war battles[1].

According to Peter Sloterdijk, traumatized people are dislocated from the happy forgetful center to the margins of society from which there is no longer any simple return to normal life. For them, forgetting is an unaffordable luxury, and since consolation through forgetting is unreachable, it becomes unwanted and unacceptable. Incapable of digesting the poisons of memory, the traumatized subject embarks on conquering trauma through simulated grief, which begins when the victim decides to let him/herself fall into humiliation as if it were the product of choice. This condition awakens the emotion of self-pity which becomes a cause of resentment, and which in turn inspires rage. In order to deal with pain, victims exaggerate it to make it bearable: To transcend one’s depressed suffering, they extend the feeling of trauma or injustice to the size of the mountain in order to be able to stand on its peak full of bitter triumph[2].

The trauma of modernity

Modernity represents a large-scale civilizational coming of age – an awakening of reason and a shattering moment of self-realization driven by a collective expression of discontent with God and how he managed the affairs of the world. It is the most monumental transfer of power and responsibility in history, a tectonic cultural shock, an abandonment of millennia of old and tired narratives and organizing principles, and a collective trauma of epic proportions that continues to linger on.

With modernity, the blend of facts and fictions has changed. The whole world is upside down: Earth is no longer at the center of the universe; it has no beginning and no end; Man is no longer special, just an evolved monkey. However, contrary to initial expectations, enlightenment, rationality, and above all, emancipation from God, i.e. abandonment of the world of simplicity, determinism, coherence, and fairy tales, created their own problems.

In its essence, modernity is a process of disenchantment of the world — 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 is rendered transparent, demystified and, ultimately, hollowed and deprived of its richness. It became disenchanted and disenchanting, predictable and intellectualized[3].

But to what end? Emancipation, progress, and enlightenment have ultimately failed in almost every respect. They only led to more unequal distributions and further accumulation of discontent — the number of people left behind has been growing unstoppably and persistent encounters with, or the looming threat of, the reality of exile to the margins of society has made modern man eminently traumatized.

After centuries of reason, modern man finds himself isolated, deprived of his ontological need to communicate, emotionally exhausted and socially disoriented, without a sense of territory, belonging, and identity.

The collective trauma of modernity is registering through an eruption of various modes of simulated grief as the ritualistic annulment of consensus, a revolt against what has become the conventional interpretative framework of reality. This is an expression of capitulation before the side-effects of enlightenment.

The uprising: Communitas

The world used to be simple when God was around and in charge. Details of “how and why” were left to Him to sort out and manage; man was left to deal with simple problems within his reach. Now, God’s things became man’s job and responsibility – he had to take care of everything and bear responsibility for his acts.

That was too much for man. Humans are unable to cope with too many things and this inability creates a state of chronic anxiety and libidinal disinvestment. Cults and fringe groups form in response to social and emotional dislocations caused by complexity fatigue and anxieties these conditions engender. These groups have always existed as an escape from conventional reality and as a pursuit of alternative self-serving fictions that soothe man’s injured soul. However, with advanced modernity and emancipation, their number has not only not declined, but it continues to grow at an ever faster pace and intensity. Never have we seen such a proliferation of cults and fringe groups as in the post WWII West. By joining those groups, members escape their social isolation and resurrect as social beings in communitas[4] – the communes of like-minded traumatized subjects.

A case study of regressive healing: Flatearthers

The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe. (a tweet posted by The Flat Earth Society)

As the media space has become saturated with the ever more astonishing and ridiculous, and the audience, never tired of being shocked and entertained, was ready to absorb this new dose of reality entertainment, the Flat-Earth Movement, although not new, made its second entrance onto the scene, finding its place together with various denier groups, from holocaust to evolution and climate.

There is really not much about Flatearthers that is worth discussing in terms of their actual view of the world– their ideas are pure idiocy. The group is only interesting as a sociological phenomenon, as an expression of a saturated discontent with modernity, and a mode of simulated grief — a demand for a remix of facts and fictions. Their existence is the most resolute no-confidence vote on modernity.

In the excellent documentary, Behind the Curve, Daniel J. Clark takes his audience on a journey deep into the world of Flatearthers. Their community consists, practically without exception, of social misfits of some kind — people left behind socially, developmentally or both. Mark Sargent, their most prominent spokesman, an equivalent of a charismatic leader but completely devoid of any semblance of charisma, is a fifty-something guy who lives with his mother on Whidbey Island in Washington. He is a college dropout who sports an impressive resume with 20 years of video game activity as his most important achievement prior to becoming the Flatearthers’ main spokesman. Other members are not much different — they all live highly reduced social lives, most of them loners.

Their social demeanor is not aggressive or openly hostile. At first sight they are not anti-science. They engage with whoever wants to talk to them, including scientists. Physicists and astronomers, in whom they inspire missionary instincts, see Flatearthers as misguided, innocent, and ignorant victims worthy of redemption.

They come across as open-minded and willing, even inviting tests and scrutiny of their views by scientific method and reasoning, but fail when it comes to interpreting the results of those tests[5]. They invest considerable amounts of time and personal money to pseudo-scientific projects of their own design to expose what they call “the round earth hoax”. In that sense, they carry a certain dose of fanaticisms: They refuse to change their minds, but also don’t want to change the subject. As such, Flatearthers inspire both pity and ridicule.

The Flat-Earth Movement is not a religion and, having a rather egalitarian structure, they do not function as a cult in a traditional sense either. They believe that round earth is a result of the most incredible conspiracy — that is where the seed of their madness resides.

Flat-Earth delusion is the site where the traumatic symbolic annihilation of modern man resides: Their movement defines the journey of reverse pilgrimage to the place where the showdown with modernity takes place. Their existence represents a template for the regressive reaction of the growing traumatized population in the ritualistic healing mode.

Flatearthers represent traumatic subjects of modernity. They are simulated martyrs who carry public shame about their beliefs as a badge of honor and an article of faith, an essential element of the initiation ritual. Their emergence and functioning contains the core of rebellion against modernity. The unifying factor with other such movements is its ritualistic aspect – healing by climbing the mountain in order to conquer it in bitter triumph.

Returning to the site of “original defeat”, to the battlefield where the original dogma which maintained pre-modern coherence resides, the site where humanity’s innocence was lost, where the world was denied enchantment, religion and the God-centric world were dealt mortal blows, where God was dethroned and denounced and man put in his place and in charge.

When grief is ineffective: Rage transactions

In December, buttressed by his conviction and advances in homemade rocketry, “Mad” Mike Hughes flipped on a camera and fantasized about the moment when he shows mankind that it lives on a verdant disk. Hughes, a self-styled daredevil, Flat-Earth theorist and limousine-jumping stuntman, died Saturday when his crudely built contraption propelled him on a column of steam, spiraled through the air and cratered into the sagebrush outside Barstow, Calif. He was 64.[6]

For centuries, western civilization has been battling the trauma of enlightenment, progress and general intoxication with complexity. Flatearthers embody the essence of that battle. They transcend the oppression of reason by abandoning it altogether in a regressive mode of healing and collective grief. Their struggle underscores the power of madness as the only way to forget or erase traumatic experiences of the past.

The growing appeal of crackpots of various kind and magnitude has become so pervasive that these characters have infiltrated the American mainstream. They occupy positions of influence at universities, in media, think tanks, government, politics and the White House — especially there where, after more than three years of relentless adverse selection, they have become practically sole occupants. Their emergence and widespread acceptance are the result of a quest for simple certainty by people who find themselves lost and bewildered by the growing complexity of their life and the grim reality in general.

These crackpots have a special appeal to a growing population of what H. L. Mencken calls the inferior men. The inferior man hates knowledge because it is complex –it puts an unbearable burden upon his capacity for thinking. He has an insatiable need for trivial simplicity, always ready to trade probable truths for palpable falsehoods. The science of cosmology is complex; it’s understanding requires an immense stock of knowledge and a habit of thought. But cosmology of Genesis, although idiotic, is so simple that everyone can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers to an ignorant man the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical[7].

Abnormal and delusional are not cut from a different cloth than what counts as “normal” or mainstream. There is a fragile boundary between different shades of madness – between fringe groups and suicide clubs or doomsday cults. One thing is to deny the existence of gravity, and the other is to act on it. But, the gap that separates the two is very narrow. This is a different level of madness, a pure death drive and a desire for self-extinction. It is the point in depression when the traumatized subject finally hits the bottom.

The latest installment of madness, to some extent already outlined by Flatearthers, is the formation of movement around a premature disruption of the lockdown during the corona virus pandemics, a sort of MAGA suicide fraternity. “Liberate TX, WV, MI, GA…” is less outlandish than reinventing cosmology and is not exactly the same as denial of gravity, but doesn’t fall very far from them. The communitas of MAGA-liberators has the same DNA and bottom line as any suicide club – they are all “Mad” Mike Hughes, ready to hop into their home-made rockets and take off. There is not much difference between injecting disinfectants into your body and drinking poisoned cool-aid in Guyana or eating cyanide-laced candy in a Berlin bunker. All these practices are a logical consequence of certain beliefs and the anesthetic comfort of the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. Like the Flat-Earth Movement, intravenous Clorox users and their ilk are ignorance and stupidity run amok, unleashed by conditions of simulated grief of the growing segment of the population traumatized by their systemic exclusion. Together with other deniers (evolution, holocaust, climate), anti-vaxxers, TV evangelists and the army of false prophets of doomsday, they are the loudest contributors to the great flood of arbitrariness.

This is a collective tragedy, staged as comedy. But the silver lining, if there is one, is that when we lose the reins on stupidity and let it run unrestrained, we allow evolution and natural selection to enter the scene and take its course.

[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (2012)

[2] ibid.

[3] Max Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf, Zenodot Verlagsgesellscha (2016)

[4] Communitas are social surrogate, reduced communities, defined by specific identity politics. They are essentially opposed to structure. They fill the vacuum created by destruction of social bonds due to modernity’s individualization against the need for community. Suspension of rules is a primary condition for the generation of the feelings of oneness and flow that characterize communitas. During some ritualistic episodes of liminality, like pilgrimage, participants become equal as they distance themselves from mundane structures and their social identities, leading to homogenization of states, and a strong sense of communitas.

[5] They derive their strength and composure by seeing themselves as privileged. Their delusion functions as doubt in a displaced mode. In the same way scientists and normal people in general are condescending towards them, Flatearthers look down on non-believers and skeptics as naïve and gullible victims of an elaborate deception visible only by the privileged few — them.

[6] ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes, who wanted to prove the Flat-Earth Theory, dies in homemade-rocket disaster (The Washington Post, 23-Feb-2020)

[7] H. L. Mencken, Homo Neanderthalensis, Baltimore Sun (29 June 1925)

Dark Enlightenment: Pregnant widow* gets the second sonogram

 8. III 2020

The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. The ability to create imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. Any large scale human cooperation hinges on the ability to create imagined reality out of words: A modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe, are all rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination (Noah Yuval Harari).

Appearance of legends, myths, gods and religions marks the beginning of the Cognitive Revolution — the point when history declared its independence from biology[2]. Out of this revolution emerged the ascent of man and the entire civilization. However, with every new stage of his rise, man’s arrogance grew bigger and so did his desire to free himself from the shackles of his own myths. This was the period of enlightenment and emancipation. Every new installment of emancipation pulled humanity closer towards reduced myths. As rationality became the main guiding principle, myths functioned more as pragmatic protocols and less as organizing principles, losing their magic spell to their pragmatic power and became increasingly aligned with advancing individualization and the underlying emancipatory momentum.

Capitalism in its last 50 years represents the accelerated phase of systematic symbolic annihilation. During this period, ceremonial demolition of old myths of togetherness has practically completed just in time as developed world is facing synchronized irruption of unsolvable problems: Disappearance of community, deterritorialization, loss of identity coordinates, global agoraphobia, criminalization of the globe, structural unemployment, rising poverty, endemic precarity, excess population, large-scale corruption, climate change, and general hopelessness. Their magnitude and nonlinearity have become a cause of growing collective anxieties registering through widespread desecularization, reaching out towards authoritarian figures and (over-) simplified, self-serving narratives aimed at providing a chance of relief, however transient and illusory it might be.

While this might not be an utterly new configuration of collective consciousness, never before has it gained such a systemic dimension and cataclysmic perspective. In the past, progress was synonymous with hope, opening new horizons and creating new frontiers that always delivered. Nowadays, with every new instalment of progress, the future looks dimmer and residual hope smaller. We have reached the limits of futurability. Individuality has run its course; disenchantment of the world has metastasized;. It has left everyone alone and abandoned, without a safety net and without hope. Hard work no longer leads to redemption — progress has become toxic and, suddenly, the old myths ring hollow and empty.

Society cannot function without myths

The tensions of the last decade are a consequence of the collapse of liberal democratic mythologies – they underscore the active quest for new myths in the midst of that crisis. Everything that used to mobilize the libidinal forces of the developed West is now dissolving in the light of devaluations of these myths. Myths are necessary for any collective action. Without them, large-scale social projects are not possible and societies cannot function. Disposing of the old myths while waiting for the new ones creates a troubling disequilibrium.

Today, the developed West stands divided facing the bankruptcy of the old narratives. This division is not only a consequence of diversity of life experiences, but a reflection of irreconcilable divergence of beliefs and imagination. As divesting from reality in the form of parody, mockery, or masquerade has taken its toll, the growing fraction of the disillusioned population is eager to be mobilized by new narratives. However, at the same time they are unable to receive them due to years of symbolic hollowing out, which has deprived them of the capacity to surrender to any collective cause that transcends individual interests. Religion is returning, but in a perverse form, as a parody of itself and without its magic spell, as a grotesque reflection of reality and without any of its original substance.

At the same time, we are now facing a novel type of revolt, in no way resembling anything we have seen before. While the past uprisings had always been, in one way or another, reactions to excessive exploitation, today, most of the things can be done without people. People are becoming increasingly more redundant — there is a growing number of those that are not needed and that are not counted for — the humanity can move ahead without them. Although they cannot be reintegrated into the normal process of social functioning, they also cannot be disposed of. Their size is growing unstoppably and is threatening to exceed the managerial capability of the planet. The excluded are now revolting not because they are being overly exploited, but because they are being denied the right to be exploited.

21st century populism is a hasty political response to the historical inflection point of coincident cultural, economic and cognitive paradigm shifts, which left a void created by decay of the traditional mythology. It is an attempt at repackaging the old myths in a radicalized form disguised as novelty. In its core, the new populism is a celebration of the shock doctrine applied at home, after trying it out abroad for decades, a cruel and unethical experiment that has produced, at best, mixed result elsewhere.

30 years of disequilibrium

Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people[3].

2019 marks three decades of grand political disequilibrium. In the same way 1989 announced a dissolution of communism, 2019 marks the beginning of neoliberalism’s symbolic unwind. It outlines the contours of neoliberal transformation along the same lines as the fall of Berlin wall in 1989 did for the former Soviet Union.

2016 demonstrated unambiguously that a growing number of people are in desperate need for new fairy tales, new myths and representations of eternal kingdom and new authority figures, prepared to accept any surrogate that would fill the unbearable vacuum. People no longer believe in the old American myth of progress, competition, individuality, protestant ethics and the link between hard work and success.

Establishment of new social hierarchies is always accompanied with a display of latent violence, breaking of the social norms and civilized behavior. Peaceful social life in general is the sign that one class, the ruling one, has already won. Populism, as a superficial mode of revolt, has become synonymous with the middle finger to the entire system of values; this includes criminalization of politics and government institutions and normalization of large-scale corruption. As an integral part of the ritualistic power grab, vestiges of the old system become subordinated to the will of the autocrat who personifies raw power and who masquerades his personal interests as patriotism and selflessness for the nation. The two processes, which have been in full swing in the last decade, have accelerated in the last three years: 1) criminalization of the state and dissolution of its legal barriers in order to eliminate residual obstacles against release of the libidinal energy and unrealized potential of crime on state level; 2) consolidation of that power.

Nevertheless the emergence of an unaccountable autocrat is not a sign of barbarization of America. 2016 is not a relapse into fascism, just a search for new myths to replace the old ones, which no longer have mobilizing power. Trump won less than 25% of voting age population votes in 2016. This is in sharp contrast with the 1920s-30s Germany when Nazi party membership rose from roughly 2% at inception to above 32% between 1928 and 1932. This is what a real movement looks like (kept alive by the myths of master race and supremacy of the German state). Trump’s base is a relative minority. There is only a semblance of fascist aesthetics, but no movement[4].

The underlying causality chain behind the recent political developments in America starts with centrists and their compromised narratives. They refuse to bow out and exit the political scene creating in this way a configuration of unacceptable alternatives and massive abstinence from the ballot box as a consequence. For them, as representatives of the oligarchic capital, authoritarianism is preferred to other mode of social organization that imply more egalitarian distribution. Their presence, their sabotage of alternatives, and resistance to their return is likely to be the main cause for continued large-scale withdrawal from the democratic process and reinforcement of authoritarianism as plan-B.

In its targeting only a narrow segment of population, while permanently excluding the rest without any chance of reconciliation, populism is deriving its temporary strength from the division of political subjects. This divisiveness is leading effectively into a perpetual conflict that has gradually morphed into a cold civil war. However, while divisiveness can provide access to power, it cannot sustain it. This is the fatal flaw of the right-wing populism. As such, populism is not sustainable – its failure is inscribed in its basic premises.

Coda

We are always surprised by good and honest acts. They are unpredictable. Every honest act is committed impulsively; it is not natural and spontaneous. Evil, on the other hand, acts naturally. We never wonder about evil. We are surprised only if it is not realized. Myths act in the interstices between good and evil. They represent the denial of biology. In order to survive in the long run, myths have to be socially effective, they must be centered on narratives that are sustainable. Good is the essence of that sustainability – it unifies. Evil is transient – it divides. Good goes against human biology, which is concentrated on individual survival. Myths are there to protect humanity against itself and the self-destructive forces of individuality. It is this denial of biology that marks the beginning of history and the opening of the path of man’s ascent. History is on no one’s side, but it is also not completely neutral.

*Pregnant widow is the point at which the old order has given way, but the new one not yet born (Alexander Herzen)

[2] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, Harper (2015)

[3] ibid.

[4] Enzo Traverso, Trump’s Savage Capitalism: The Nightmare Is Real, World Policy Journal, vol. 34, no. 1 (2017).

Recontextualization of crime

7. X 2019

Yves Klein

No act by itself is a transgression. Circumstances make it a transgression. War, for example, is a circumstance that makes a mass murder a heroic feat. Peace is a circumstance that transposes mass killing of a heroic battle into a crime. On that premise is formulated the Nürnberg judgment. Something that was at its own time considered as patriotism was, with the help of circumstances (the allies won the war), declared as genocide. (Borislav Pekic)

There are multiple ways of defending the crime. Usually, the defense is structured around denials, obfuscations, questioning causal connections of events, exploitation of loopholes and technicalities, witness tempering, different contingencies, or blaming others. However, when crimes are committed on a large scale and in plain sight, the focus of defense inevitably turns towards creating a new context that allows a transformation of the crime into a neutral or even a heroic act. If that part is successful and the new context takes root, instead of denying the deed, the defendant continues to repeat it and, thus, implicitly reinforce and legitimize the new context instead of deflecting the accusations. As a result, after a long career of crime and transgressions, the defendant can emerge as a righteous winner.

At the same time as the current administration has crossed multiple boundaries of acceptable, ethical, and lawful behavior, it has been continuously creating a new context before our eyes: The unabashed corruption and ethical violations are coupled with relentless efforts to normalize the most extreme autocrats (Kim Jong Un, Duterte, Putin, Erdogan, MSB) in order to define a new normative framework of justice and different metrics for the next “Nürnberg trial”, whereby Trump’s actions would no longer be considered as transgressions, crime, or even found objectionable.

Without diverging too far from the obvious fact that the subject in question is clearly an aberrant person, ill-suited for the occupancy of the Oval Office, there is some method, albeit a shallow one, to his apparent madness. By perpetualy proliferating a multitude of ever deepening and unlikely conspiracy theories, he is extending the contextual horizon – there is always a “bigger picture” that justifies the previous transgression.

As a special bonus, while the contextual horizon is being extended, the cohesion of his base increases and reinforces its reshaping from political supporters to a special community. After all, it is not so much identification with the set of Rules which defines a community, but rather a specific form of the transgression of these Rules.

Searching for truth in the age of serial reproduction of self-deception

Truth is the opinion that has survived (Oscar Wilde)

Although authoritarianism has replaced democracy in the US, disguised as pseudo-democracy with elaborate layers of deceit, the voting populace hasn’t been eliminated completely. Their role has only been redesigned into the audience before which the performance of political theatre has been staged. They are the jury that gives thumbs up or down to each performance – they reward it with either applause or with rotten tomatoes. Right wing populists have always been acutely aware of the importance of the “audience’s” judgment (they are Populists after all) and the appearance of their approval as an essential component in providing the legitimacy for the extended political context.

Trump’s handlers have been avid students of all things Hitler — not only Mein Kampf, but also his rise to power as well as the aftermath of WWII and the Nürnberg trials. The echo of the Nazi dilemma continues to resonate deeply with them and with the current administration alike: Did we lose the war because we advocated an unjust cause or because we were unable, with a combined action of propaganda, tanks and police baton, to make it into a just one. Their unwavering commitment not to repeat these mistakes defines the core of their political strategy.

One of the main lessons from that chapter of history was the chronology of Hitler’s first major political defeat. Ironically, the seeds of his rise to power in the 1930s were sewn by the spectacular failure of his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. His overnight celebrity status was achieved by his court defense where his gambit to structure his defense as an attack on the system and present himself as a patriotic idealist who selflessly cared for the interests of the German people garnered the standing ovations of the court audience (winning even the sympathy of the judge himself) and secured the transmission of that support to the public through the media which reported on the trial.

While the synchronization of the Beer Hall Putsch and Trump’s travails is not perfect, the strategy is not dissimilar. Trump is not waiting for the trial though, he is delivering bits and pieces of his speech as his “putsch” is still just developing. For him, the trial might as well have already begun (only in a bigger courtoom) and he is already preparing the terrain by defining the context for the acceptance of his narrative, heavily choreographed by Fox News, which has considerable stakes in Trump stock and is protecting their investment, but at the same time, not excluding the possibility of cutting their losses if he becomes an indefensible liability.

On the charismatic appeal of vulgarity: From fear of the state to the state of fear

We will never understand Trump’s victory until we grasp the charismatic appeal of his vulgarity. (Isaac Ariail Reed)

There have been many attempts to place Trump in context with other historical outliers, but only with partial success. The kernel of his political persona is made in the image of a fictional character, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi[1].

Paraphrasing Isaac Ariail Reed’s description of the sequence of events, the infamous play opened in Paris on December 10, 1896. That was its only showing following the audience riots. After a two-year hiatus, it was shown again, but as a marionette play. At the center of the plot was the main character, Père Ubu, an inveterate coward who stages a putsch to become King of Poland and, in his new position, he enriches himself by getting rid of all the nobles etc. What arose the anger of the 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie was both the vulgarity of the language, frequent references to gratuitous violence, unsavory sexual overtones, and incoherent plot (there are 19 different locations in a play that is quite short), all of it packaged in a low-level juvenile parody of Hamlet and Macbeth. (Indeed, the play had started in Jarry’s schoolboy years as a parody of his hated physics teacher)[2].

Like the world of Jarry’s King Ubu, Trump’s universe is the kingdom of speech acts — a creation of arbitrariness where the only rule is what he proclaims to be true. The multiverse of narratives, the barrage of conspiracy theories, of twists and turns, is creating a disorienting condition based on a confusion of the actual and the virtual on a larger scale. Once in that state, the audience becomes easy prey and it doesn’t take much to send them in any possible direction.

However, the key ingredient that eases the wider audience into the intractable maze of Trump’s low-brow paranoia and allows these otherwise meaningless and factually incorrect narratives to become operationally believable is his intrinsic and unabashed vulgarity.

His petulance and general child-like behavior frames his rhetoric and actions as naïve and harmless, and subliminally exonerates them ex-ante. It also identifies them as something that all humans are inclined to do[3]. The underlying disruptiveness gets a favorable response from the (growing mass of) victims of decades of centrism who, irritated by the perceived oppression of political correctness, tend to vote with their middle finger and the more his ability to scandalize grows, the more unwavering the support of his base will be.

And, as the saying goes, nothing is as vulgar as haste; the apparent GOP’s indifference (shrugging shoulders) to the latest news regarding the emergence of the second whistleblower is purely tactical. Their hasty self-delusion that in less then two weeks they have already managed to create the new context of deceit where the right and wrong are turned upside down and their transgressions a priori exonerated, is the most convincing confirmation of their intrinsic vulgarity.

[1] Isaac Ariail Reed, Trump as Ubu Roi, On the charismatic appeal of vulgarity, http://www.publicseminar.org/2017/06/trump-as-ubu-roi/

[2] ibid.

[3] 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

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.

Liminality and Political Ritual

2. IV 2019

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

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

Two modes of betwixt and between

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

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

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

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

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

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

The initiates: Excess population

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

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

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

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

Social change as ritual: Between marginality & liminality

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

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

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

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

The roadmap to re-contextualization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18. II 2019

Tongue finger

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

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

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

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

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

How nonsense travels: Semantic excess and its transmission mechanisms

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

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

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

Disappearance by proliferation: Between logic and truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

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

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.