Tag Archives: #populism

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.

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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