Tag Archives: #populism

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

30. III 2018

They turn our brothers and sisters into mercenaries

They are turning the planet into a cemetery

The Military and the Monetary, use the media as intermediaries

They are determined to keep the citizens secondary

They make so many decisions that are arbitrary

We’re marching behind a commander in chief

Who is standing under a spotlight shaking like a leaf

But the ship of state had landed on an economic reef

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

(Gil Scott Heron, Work for Peace)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sultanic

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

The fourth horseman and the (im)possibility of emancipation

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

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

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

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

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

 

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American corrida and the reconstitution of the state

24. III 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State and social insecurity: From welfare to penal pornography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The matador enters the rink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Zygmund Bauman, ibid.

 

Weimar guitar gently weeps: Masochistic self-destruction of the right

10. IX 2017

Hitler plus power is gruesome, but Hitler minus power is a comedy. (Sedar Soumucu)

Despite its infamy and unprecedented negative press, almost one century after its first print, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf continues to play an important role in shaping the populist narrative (kind of like Uber’s influence on shared economy). Modern day right-wing populism just doesn’t seem to be able to distance itself from its main message. While most populist interpretations have been careful in staying clear of a direct endorsement or explicit references to the text, most of them have in this or that form emulated the three aspects of the mechanism behind Hitler’s rise to power outlined in Mein Kampf: Interplay between comedy, terror and power, Infiltration of ideological terrain, and Blending of speech acts, half-truths and conspiracy theories.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the post 1968, an actual birth of neoliberalism and governmentality, has been, what Jean Baudrillard has identified as The agony of power[1]: Power is a highly inefficient form of governing, not only because of its refusal to be dominated, but also in the refusal to dominate. Force is the most “expensive” way of maintaining power and conventional dictatorships have become unsustainable. This realization has defined a turn away from the oppressive rule and towards Groucho Marx authoritarianism — a depoliticization of politics — a mixing of “spontaneous” goofiness aimed at inspiring trust and anesthetizing the public, but with the most ruthless state manipulations. This started arguably with Ronald Reagan, continued with G. W. Bush, and became a template of governing in a wider context (Berlusconi, Ahmadinejad, and many others). This transformation coincided with escalation of conflicts between capitalism and democracy and in response to the challenges of implementing unpopular government programs in nominally democratic societies by using essentially autocratic methods. This is where comedy entered political scene.

Comedy, terror & power

Comedy and terror sit on the opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, but politics brings them close together into a symbiotic bond where they coexist in perfect (and logical) harmony as they serve the needs of power. Comedy and terror are the defining coordinates of power. That the two are closely related should not surprise anyone too much. Cruelty borders on comedy inasmuch as it, too, proves incomprehensible — how many times did we laugh at the sights of arbitrary acts of self-satisfied omnipotence (which refuses any explanation to their victims)[2]?

Comedy makes even the most ruthless tyrants palatable. Terror stabilizes their power, no matter how ridiculous they might appear – it is an antidote to their ridiculousness. Kim Jong Un’s chubby figure and his hairstyle have a completely different meaning with and without nuclear weapons; Donald Trump (any aspect of his persona, hair included) alone or in the context of the powers he commends. Terror provides a necessary means for aspiring or self-declared autocrats trying to compensate for their lack of legitimate power[3].

Infiltration of ideological terrain and the politics of speech acts

In the same way Hitler and his close followers appeared just as a small group of self-taught crackpots pushing their half-baked pseudo-intellectual ideas in the early 20th century, during the 2016 US Presidential elections, after years of hibernation, with the backing by serious money of selected oligarchs, similar character types crawled out straight onto the political center stage, while their like-minded individuals and institutions like Fox “News”, who in the meantime became part of the establishment, struggled to find their place on the newly defined political scene.

To the segment of the nation traumatized by failure, poverty, social degradation, and general hopelessness, today’s populism, like its early 20th century predecessor, promises to restore both honor (social and, to some who feel entitled to it, racial status) and the means to achieve greatness (again or for the first time, all the same). It gives to many of them a sense of direction; it turns ambivalence into clear-cut meaning to be worked out with unbridled hatred. All of this amounts to satisfying the wish for a coherent fictitious world, a straightforward extrapolation of the simple (predominantly male) fantasy of omnipotence and superheroes syndrome, which arises from accumulated frustration and general impotence.

In the same way this has played out in the 1930s Germany, populism nowadays communicates another desire (and pleasure) too, one that savors the power of empty words that make an impact – the fascination of power deriving strictly from its own ascent, which fashions itself out of nothing. This has been the major achievement of the grand populist demagogues, both then and now — to create the sensation of proximity of the void, the cognitive black hole effect, and arouse the wave of nihilism. Ultimately, power in this context, derives from a way of using language rather than from a system of ideas – a use of language that does not articulate form to anything preexisting, that takes joy by commanding being and nothingness, life and death[4].

Comparison with the 1930s Germany is interesting and relevant also because it defines a strategic choice of the present ideological terrain. Hitler’s program offered a synthesis supposed to lead to natural unity, a semantic solution whose double trademark of German and Worker connected the nationalism of the right with the internationalism of the left; thereby it stole the political contents of the other parties, in this case socialists. Rather than set the antagonist at the opposite end of the political spectrum, Hitler’s ideological maneuvering made his rival occupy the same terrain. The problem does not involve points of contradiction so much as areas of political overlap. The struggle to be the masses’ spokesman now amounts to combat at extremely close quarters. When rivalry is this close, demonization proves indispensable[5].

While in the early 20th century Germany, National socialists had to persuade people (despite absence of any evidence) that they offered a better alternative to Marxists, in the 21st century USA, people who would benefit from widespread state welfare programs and general wealth redistributive policies are being seduced into aligning their interests with the very people responsible for their social degradation and their existing condition. What in the 1930s was offered by phantasm of the Jewish world conspiracy (it helped that Karl Marx was a Jew) as a way of smoothing over any and all conceptual gaps in the populist narrative, in 2016 “universal blame” has been shared by the global oligarchy, Hollywood, liberal media, foreigners, and other disenfranchised people who see a different path to their social redemption. Both cases — demonization of Jews in 1930s and implication of global oligarchy today — represent examples of a class struggle in a displaced mode. These conspiracy theories possess a built-in mechanism that makes them resistant to disproof: anyone seeking to refute them may be accused of having already fallen for the ruse of the Jewish press, or liberal media and “fake news” today, thereby proving the theory’s accuracy. In this manner, the underlying conspiracy theory seals itself off from the outside and achieves inner coherence. For the movement followers, its attractiveness lies in precisely this closedness, which ensues a strong group identity internally and projects a figure of enemy externally[6].

Fanaticism, half-truths, and rationality of irrational acts

This, naturally, creates a problem in the short run as reality does not support the entire narrative, but this has never been an obstacle for populism. The primary concern of the aspiring leader or dictator in power is to become the spokesman for what has been neglected until now or pursued only halfheartedly. Fanaticism does not necessarily arise from genuine conviction. Its beginnings lie in chance identification of the options afforded by the market of opinions[7].

For example, Breitbar guys, its founding members at least, were former employees of a liberal outlet, Huffington post, and departed in the opposite direction, not due to the change of heart and ideological flip, but in pursuit of superior opportunities elsewhere. Their position and rhetoric continue to escalate towards what appears to be irrational extremes. However, in the periods of sustained social tensions – this has been the lesson of the German experience — radicalization, no matter how unmotivated and self-destructive it might appear, can actually become strategic. In a calculated manner, the leader or his surrogates can even drift off into seeming absurdity insofar as the base puts a premium on flights of enthusiasm, which signal initiation to insiders and confirm that consensus of others does not matter (this sheds some light on the events of the last summer). This is where self-intoxication begins. By repeating and ritually solidifying lies, those who tell them and hear them may, after a while, embrace them as articles of faith – even though doing so is not necessary from inception[8].

Coda

No matter what color, shape or origin, modern-day right wing populism just cannot shake off its fascination with Mein Kampf. In their marvelous and persistent display of metaphysiological nonsense, they continue to show essential refusal to accept that Hitler’s rise to power was not unconditional. In that process, they create a man-made irrelaity – a construction of a human mind which becomes slave to its own fictions – a tactical manipulation aimed at deluding themselves and seducing the public into believing that literal transplant of political maneuvering, which transformed Weimar Germany, could define the path to and solidify their grip on power almost a century later in a completely different socioeconomic, political and technological context.

With appropriate reassignment of political variables, the three main political maneuvers — Comedy/terror/power, Infiltration of ideological terrain, and Reliance on half-trues and conspiracy theories — were taken and implemented literally by different populist fractions, perhaps most thoroughly in the US in the last year. However, in their infinite naïveté, dilettantism and political (and general) illiteracy, Trump’s handlers and self-proclaimed ideologues, in their sloppy plagiarism, they failed to grasp a very simple fact that Hitler’s populism struck resonance not because of his talents as a politician and orator, but because on the other side of his message was Weimar Germany ravished by poverty, unemployment, hyperinflation, humiliation after the lost war, and general hopelessness: The entire country spoke in one voice. The United States today has no resemblance to that in any of the outlined categories — although it could be many other things, the main point is that the country has never before been so divided: The polivocality in today’s America is deafening.

The dilemma is not whether Trump’s handlers and ideologues have read and emulated Mein Kampf and National Socialists’ message and the tricks of their rise to power, but whether they have read any other books on politics and history at all.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power, semiotext(e) 2010

[2] Albrecht Koschorke, Adolf Hitlers “Mein Kampf”: Zur Poetik des Nationalsozialismus, Berlin (2016)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

Summer of cognitive instability: From Hendrix to Trump

27. VIII 2017

For the last sixty years, the seventh summer of each decade has treated us with special types of excitement delivering events that would sometime put a stamp on the entire decade:

1967 — summer of love (Jimi Hendrix sets his guitar on fire)

1977 — summer of Sam, disco, and Studio 54

1987 — Alan Greenspan becomes the Fed chairman (it takes exactly twenty summers to experience the full impact of his nomination)

1997 — Asian crisis

2007 — summer of subprime (conditionally insolvent become unconditionally illiquid and all hell breaks loose)

2017 — summer of hate (Donald Trump sets his “guitar” on fire)

Summer of 2017 highlights an acute case of cognitive instability — a cumulative erosion of traditional frames of reference, changes in interpretive frameworks and proliferation of intersecting narratives. At the core of current political developments lie the structural changes, which after years of brewing in the background, have hit the center stage and became dominant drivers of everyday politics and market functioning. But, as dramatic as these developments have been, market reaction remained restrained throughout — markets still appear to be complacent, but that complacency feels less uncomfortable than before. The verdict is not yet in regarding significance of the summer of 2017. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that it announces deeper political changes. Still in their formative stage, these changes, while not having significant short-term impact, could affect the society in a profound way.

Although the current political landscape appears highly volatile and unpredictable, it is neither new nor extreme by historical standards. It is merely a phase of a well-defined pattern of developments during periods of transition between two paradigms. These patterns capture how political bodies are damaged by ideas, which are invented to perpetuate this damage.

As this transition process has clear path dependence, in order to fully understand its underlying dynamics, one has to start from its trigger event, the 2008 financial crisis – the true event in the sense that it changed both the reality itself and the way we perceive it. No matter how hard we tried, the aftertaste of 2008 is not only not going away, but its echoes only seem to be growing louder with time. Last ten years or so have been like a persistent pneumonia that, despite all the treatment, just wouldn’t go away indicating deeper problems suggestive of a failure of the immune system or even a terminal disease. Unlike previous crises, its depth has been so severe that it has triggered a social change. As the existing modes of social organization alone (such as electoral democracy) can no longer safeguard the economic interests of a growing fraction of the population, economic initiatives are no longer effective and a quest for social change takes center stage. Social stability defines equilibrium and social transformations represent a change of equilibrium. When international trade agreements are under possible revision, interplay between technology, labor and capital is poorly understood, the role of welfare state is being reexamined, borders being closed – when everything that defines a social system is on the table – this is the most challenging environment where explanatory power of traditional macroeconomics is the weakest. These transformations are always disruptive and have the appearance of discontinuous processes. Unlike economics, which provides effective description of reality around a well-defined social equilibrium, a social change corresponds to a change in equilibrium – a paradigm shift to which economics needs time to adjust.

During these transition periods, old values, beliefs, concepts, institutions, and authorities as well as traditional frames of reference lose their power. This creates a state of cognitive instability. Nothing functions according to established (or any known) rules. Cognitive instability spontaneously creates the urgency for stabilization. There is too much new information, and not enough understanding. This “agitates” society. There is an open contest for a narrative — not necessarily the most accurate, but one capable of providing the best fit — that would restore stability. The challenge consists of constructing from amorphous mass of unintelligible information, tendencies, and speculations an acceptable narrative that restores equilibrium.

These transition situations bring to the surface a wide range of characters and organizations, which become new participants in the political discourse. Not all of them are serious contenders, but history reminds us that there exists a greater proximity between laughable and dreadful than calmer times would admit. The underlying narratives play an important role in the ability of the governments to shape consensus, which breaks with the tradition, the past, and sometime reinvents it to self-aggrandizing end. The fragility of the local equilibrium makes especially alarming and uncomfortable the fact that abnormal and delusional are not cut from a different cloth than what counts as “normal” or mainstream. Under special circumstances some of the fringe narratives infiltrate affective realm and interests of broader social circles and create intellectual ferment for a perceived mode of change. In the end, the most successful narrative will be the one that offers a description of reality, which helps articulate otherwise inarticulate experience by translating diffusive emotional states like fear, identity or cultural belonging into slogans that admit strong affective charges. As such, it will stamp a mode of description that seeks recognition in ever-greater circles until it is accepted as the “official” social self-image[1].

The political developments of this summer are suggestive of a transition process between two paradigms with the old one not completely dead, but without clear contours of the new one. Effectively, what is currently on the political table is an alternative between two undead modes of social organization: the old one (centrist democracy) is still too alive to be dead, and the “new” one (a Turkmenistan-style electoral dictatorship proposed by the current administration) too dead to be alive.

In the bidding stage for the new narrative the goal is not so much to post immediate victories, as it is to re-center the dialogue in such a way that it creates advantages in the mid- and long-run. Small gains now could convert into larger gains later. Consequently, in the near term things could remain “boring”, relatively speaking — a continuation of the status quo mostly due to diminished ability to produce political consensus. However, beyond 2017, things could get quite a bit more exciting. Political leaders, who bear dual burden of imperative of stability on one side, and the urge to change, on the other, are themselves running an enormous risk. They are tempted to counter the confusion of the present with will for order and, in that process, often increase the very chaos which they pretend to oppose, often risking to fall themselves victims to spiraling disorder of their own creation[2].

The key to our future (or its absence) lies in the very definition of chaos — when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. Chaotic systems are hypersensitive to initial conditions – tiny disturbances have enormous consequences. We are not only heading in an unknown direction, but the path itself is unknown, and not only are these things not known, but they are also unknowable. Nothing what we know will be of use any more.

[1] A. Koschorke, The Poetics of National Socialism, MIT Press (2017)

[2] ibid.

American anotherhood: Innocence unprotected

19. XI 2016

Post-traumatic subject is a victim who has survived its own death. After the event of symbolic erasure, a new subject emerges and there is no continuity between new and old identity

For more than a year, we couldn’t stop laughing. We laughed until it hurt, knowing all well that nothing consequential could come out of it. On November 8th shortly before midnight the chuckle stopped, suddenly, not allowing our mouths to adjust, leaving behind a frozen smile. It felt like a hazing ritual gone wrong: someone got hurt badly. Shit got real!

Although presidential elections are political events, the election of Donald Trump was something else. November 8, 2016 was really a cultural and anthropological moment, the American cultural G-spot tornado. The long-standing illegible process became instantaneously legible by the sheer power of the event. This was the day of the encounter with the American traumatic Real, revelation of the knowledge that did not know itself. If the 2008 financial crisis was an economic response to the four decades of neoliberalism, this year’s elections, its social counterpart, was the second installment.

I wish Jean Baudrillard were alive today to enjoy the spectacle he so eloquently foretold. He would have had a blast watching the bonfire of neoliberalism: Symbolic erasure in 2008 and its sequel — symbolic resurrection of America in 2016. Baudrillard’s observations on America, as primitive society of the future, are more relevant today than ever before and are the key to unlocking the gates of its collective subconscious:

Like primitive societies of the past, America has no “ancestral territory”—speaking not of land but of symbolic terrain—that has accumulated centuries of meaning and cultivated principles of truth. America lives primarily in the unconscious realm of myths and symbols. America is like a child. It has no roots except in the future and is, therefore, nothing but what it imagines.

Americans lack a robust tradition of the absurd. Their innocence about themselves is a precious cultural commodity by no means reserved only for the unenlightened. America has been carefully protecting this innocence for ages and this protected innocence became its unique cultural dimension. This innocence was lost On November 8th. On this day America came of age and joined the adult world.

Complex emotional response to the election’s outcome goes beyond negative aesthetics, disdain for vulgarity, cultural degradation, and outright physical repulsion of the candidate. It is aligned with a sobering self-realization and beginning of a new self-awareness. Our disappointment and anger are no longer directed at Donald Trump – he was just a catalyst; he won fair and square and against all odds — but is directed inwards. It comes from what we see through our introspection, at what we just discovered America really is. After years of anesthetizing the public discourse with neoliberal narrative and political correctness, we are shocked at what stands before us. We are staring in disbelief at our collective soul and are frightened with what we see, how deeply divided America is and how alarming its split personality has become. Suddenly, reality is heavy, dark and troubling.

The origins of divided America goes back to the crisis of governmentality and the transformation of its culture in the post-1968 world. Its initial conditions are defined by the realization that true democracy is ungovernable. This realization has shaped the constitution of the neoliberal state and its mode of governing in subsequent years. The core of that program has been centered on preventing a formation of a unified voice of discontent and consensus in general. Ideological response to that challenge has been to align people along emotional rather than economic interests, to streamline the emotions defined around various charged issues, making sure that there is a steady inflow of polarizing topics that never gets stale. For this program to work, it was important to nurture perception that we are in each other’s way on the road to happiness and prosperity — the essence of social atomization. The divide had to be permanent and irreconcilable, in other words, cultural. Only then could it be effective. As a consequence, culture no longer acted as an agent of change aimed at building consensus and enlightment, but has functioned as an instrument of seduction, to lure people into the trap in which they become eminently governable.

It is not American history per se or its lack — there is more than four centuries of it — that is so problematic. Rather, it is the way America has dealt with its history, the process that can be characterized as a systematic denial of shit. Most of the troubling past had been reframed and reshelved never allowing it to become a burden, making sure the focus remains on the future.

America has been quite effective in not speaking about its traumatic past: Collective sociopathia — grotesque aggression, an archetypal love of objecthood elevated by obsession of giving up nothing at all; genocide on Native Americans, slavery, Hiroshima, internment camps, misogyny, racism, wasted lives, mass incarceration, general mixophobia, and systemic exclusion. All of this had to be suppressed, its importance marginalized, absolved of any guilt, rationalized and legitimized by reframing it as a necessity of freedom and progress. And this baggage of the past was blended to perfection with the belief that this country is entitled to permanent and unconditional greatness — this is America’s destiny, mission and goal that should be achieved regardless of the consequences. The bizarre cocktail of the two, which resurfaced during the 2016 elections, is the most troubling aspect of the emerging American political landscape.

This is America’s ancestral territory. These are the true initial conditions that define the origin of American cognitive coordinates. This terrain represents everything America so desperately didn’t want to be, everything it refused to know about itself. It represents everything that it taught itself to considers shameful and for which it reproached other nations and cultures, and for whose wrongdoings it had picked up the pieces some many times in the past.

There is no self-reflexive, self-mirroring level, the civilizing level of unhappy consciousness, which comes with history and which places a distance between the symbolic and the real[1]. Accumulation of latent rage, that made itself visible during the presidential campaign, is a result of all those passions Americans were forced to be ashamed of for so long.

The future of post-traumatic America depends on its ability to acknowledge its ancestral territory and metabolize the traumatic realization of its lost innocence. America will have to find itself in the world of adult nations. But, before it could find itself, America first has to lose its way.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, America